Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Ye Olde Archives. Visit the new blog at http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/ - and use the following feed: http://rampantgames.com/blog/wp-rss2.php
Ye Olde Archives. Visit the new blog at http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/ - and use the following feed: http://rampantgames.com/blog/wp-rss2.php
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
On Reviews and Criticism
I've seen a lot of reviews for my games. I even saved some of the good ones. I wish I'd saved the bad ones, too, because I think they would be funny to read years later. My favorite was a scathing review of Jet Moto in one gaming magazine --- and then a year later the same magazine ran a review of the sequel and talked about it "recapturing the magic of the original classic." Was that the original classic you gave a 1.5 out of 5?!?!?
Ah, well. There are few things as sweet as proving the naysayers wrong. And over a million sales (or so I heard) of the first Jet Moto did that.
But Sometimes They Are Right...
Sometimes the bad reviews and criticisms can be painfully accurate. Sometimes when you are knee-deep in development, you can't see the forest for the trees, and some glaring problems go into production that you had learned to ignore. Sometimes I think the reasons we're so enamored of sequels in this business is so we can go back and fix all the mistakes we made in the originals. Mistakes that are sometimes pointed out in painful reviews.
My least favorite review of Void War spent most of the time mocking the story, and devoted all but one paragraph to making a parody of the storyline. The reviewer never realized that the story in Void War IS a parody of other space-combat game stories. I guess the alien quoting lines from Zero Wing was too oblique of a reference. But while I make light of the review, the fact of the matter is that the humor in Void War was too subtle, and was lost on too many people. His point may have been totally off-base, but there was a problem with the game that he addressed.
One of the things I discovered while working with focus group testing at Singletrac was that what people say bugged 'em isn't always their real concern. Getting to the heart of their concern is the real trick. But if you want to improve, you have to go beyond face value of criticism.
Some Examples of Digging For The Real Complaint:
* Testers were complaining that the action wasn't fast enough. We tried throwing more action into the game, but that made it too hard. The solution? Change the music. By switching to a faster-paced, more tense soundtrack, and changing NOTHING ELSE whatsoever, the players found the action level "just right."
* People were complaining that they were getting sick playing Twisted Metal. We did all kinds of things to smooth out the motion of the vehicles, but people were still complaining. The real culprit? The textures on the buildings. Without anti-aliasing on the Playstation 1, the stark contrast between the lit windows and the night-darkened walls caused a disturbing shimmering when in motion. This caused players' eyes, brain, and stomach to revolt. So we reduced the contrast on the building textures, and the complaints dropped dramatically.
*Another complaint was that the graphics in one level were "blurry." We tried to figure that one out. As it turns out, it was the opposite problem from the Twisted Metal nausea-inducing problem --- our art was too low-contrast and the colors had low saturation. This was causing an effect that seemed "muddy" or I guess "blurry" to some players. The answer was to add a bit more contrast and make the colors richer (at least in the places where the player was supposed to go).
Positive Reviews Are Just As Important
Of course, it's just as important to pull out the key features that people like in positive remarks and reviews as well. It is important to know just what you are doing right! People can have just as much problem communicating what they like and love as what they dislike and hate.
For example, look at people's response to why Final Fantasy VII was such a big hit! There was a magic in that game that made it outsell all of its kin - but people have a tough time putting their finger on it. The recent flood of "Final Fantasy VII"-branded products (not just Final Fantasy, but Final Fantasy VII!) shows that Square is anxious to figure out those magic ingredients as well.
And a BLOG Review!
And speaking of reviews and criticism...
Today I was informed that this blog was listed as a Small Business Blog of the Day over at Pajama market. I'm used to receiving reviews of my games, but for my blog?!?! Well, they have extremely nice things to say, so I'm not complaining.
The post can be found here:
Far be it for me to say they are wrong. :) Now I guess I should apply my logic I've been preaching here and deconstruct the review to try and figure out what I'm doing right..!
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Psycho Game Development Hours
So I've had a nice 3-day weekend, and I've been working 8 or 9 hour days for the last six weeks. It's been really pretty comfortable at the new job. This week, things are spiking a bit with the 10 to 11-hour days... but hopefully it's only a spike, and not an escalation.
So I'm faced with the issue: How do you keep motivation up for doing at home what you are pretty much doing at work all day? For long 11+ hour days?
I'm working on that myself. I've had some problems - I usually prefer writing games to playing them, but I've got a small Oblivion addiction. It's easy to take my short "attempt to unwind" that should only be a half hour or so and turn it into a big two, three, or four hour event.
This week will definitely be a big test.
Some things I'm trying:
#1 - Emphasis on goals - I've got some long term goals that I keep repeating to myself, trying to keep myself motivated.
#2 - Exercise - it's a great way to provide a break, unwind, and keep the brain sharp.
#3 - Varying activities. Programming is heavy at work, so I can focus a little more on non-programming tasks like web development, business stuff, and content development after hours.
#4 - Scheduling - I haven't done this yet, but I will be. I'm creating a schedule (subject to work flexibility), and I'm going to try and stick with it. I am scheduling in time with family and to "unwind" between work and other activities. And as a gamer, I'm definitely planning in some game time (it's important!)
I'll keep you posted on how it goes!
Gamer Gone Fishing
Well, actually, I'm back now. I spent much of the Memorial Day weekend down in Cedar City, and got to spend Memorial Day itself (well, the first half of it) fishing at Navajo Lake. I caught two trout personally - and you shoulda seen the one that got away! Actually, as far as I know, I caught the one that got away - it grabbed my bait immediately after my cast, before it had had time to settle. Fun stuff. I haven't been fishing in years, so it was a great time.
Of course, fresh trout was for dinner. Yum!
See, even we gamer-types can get out and get some fresh air and enjoy the great outdoors once in a while. And I didn't die of exposure to that big yellow ball of light in the sky (I think legends refer to it as the DAY-STAR or something).
Saturday, May 27, 2006
New Articles Section
I've just updated and organized the "articles" section of the Rampant Games Website. It's got references back to some of the older blog articles, as well as some stand-alone articles.
I just added a stand-alone article about game design entitled, "The 'First Few Minutes' Rule of Game Design." Check it out if you are so inclined.
I've also included a new article by John Olsen about Game Interface Design.
Check 'em out and let me know what you think!
Friday, May 26, 2006
I'm a superhero movie junkie. I was hooked on a few comics as a kid (X-Men, The New Mutants, Spider-Man, and a few mini-series. And I've also followed Straczinsky's Amazing Spider-Man series for the last couple of years, and Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for a bit (I'm a fan of their television shows - and their writing makes a good transition to comics).
So I'm a sucker for a good super-hero movie. My favorite, actually, has been The Incredibles. I even managed to sit through Electra - as sucky as it was, it was much better than Batman and Robin, from the mid-90's. And tonight, I watched the much-anticipated X-Men III: The Last Stand.
I enjoyed the movie. I had a good time. The special effects were great. The fight scenes were awesome. But ultimately, it was only an "okay" movie. It didn't live up the previous films. I left feeling like I'd witnessed an awesome spectacle, but my emotional investment in the characters was only what was left over from the previous films. And what sucked was that it included an event - a character - that had been eagerly awaited since the the very first movie. ALL the comic book geeks were waiting for the appearance of Dark Phoenix. And it happened. And it was kinda - well - blah.
The problem was that there was TOO MUCH STORY.
This latest installment pulled out all the stops, and brought in tons of eagerly anticipated characters. Hank McCoy - the Beast. Callisto. Angel. Juggernaut. Arclight. Kitty Pryde and Piotr Rasputen as full-fledged team members. Moira MacTaggert. Dark Phoenix. And the events..! Pyro and Iceman duke it out! The mutant "cure"! Major characters dying or being permanently changed! The Danger room! And even a cameo Sentinel appearance!
It suffered from the same problem as Batman and Robin - TOO MUCH STORY, not enough time to tell it. You ended up with about a dozen five-minute stories that you could barely follow, and got introduced to new characters in a whirlwind of introductions. But because they have to share screen time with so many others, they get maybe three lines in and they are done.
The most intense superhero movies tend to be much more focused, one-on-one battles, combined with the hero's internal struggle. You have Peter Parker trying to sort out his failure of a personal life and going up against the Green Goblin. In his sequel, his own dual-identity is his big struggle, resulting in a temporary loss of powers and false happiness - and he's got his big one-on-one with Doctor Octopus. In the original Batman (which was a box-office mega-hit), you had Batman squaring off against the guy who "made" him... the Joker. In Batman Returns, young Bruce Wayne is fighting his personal demons in a fruitless effort to undo his parents' deaths... and battling his own mentor (and a powerful minion - it's definitely possible to have multiple villains).
Even in a more ensemble movie, the good ones have a focus. The first X-Men was about Wolverine, and to a lesser degree about Rogue. It was about being different - Rogue was trying to find a place to belong in a world that rejected her, and Wolverine didn't care about fitting in at all - until he found a friend he cared about. Then there was the battle against Magneto and his forces --- but the real battle was for Wolverine to save Rogue from Magneto. In the Incredibles, the focus is entirely on Bob Par, as he tries to reconcile his meaningful glory days with his drab, ordinary existance as a family man and 9-to-5 worker. Oh, and his big battle is against Nemesis, who has evil big plans against the world but is more importantly killing off Bob's friends and is targeting his best friend and his wife.
I don't know what it is about these movie producers / directors / writers, but they seem to take the attitude that if one villain is great, then a dozen villains "raises the stakes" and is a dozen times better! If the dual-plotline rocks, then adding ten major plotlines must really improve things!
No, all it does is clutter things up and make it much harder for the audience to care.
X-Men three acted like it wanted to be about Dark Phoenix. Which woulda been GREAT. and about a quarter of the movie was about that. But then it got lost, and in the last half of the movie she doesn't have much to do but walk around looking ominous. There was a GREAT opportunity in place to tell a VERY appropriate story about the government's misuse of power - turning what was originally billed as a voluntary thing to save people into a weapon to control them. Shades of the anti-terrorism laws of recent years, maybe? But even that gets glossed over as the movie rushes to cover ALL the territory it is scoped to cover.
Batman & Robin did the same thing. You had THREE villains with almost equal billing (one was the minion of Poison Ivy, so not so much), plus the introduction of Bat-Girl, plus young Grayson's chafing under Bruce Wayne's restrictions, plus Alfred's illness, and I can't remember what else (I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing again). You could probably pull out any TWO elements and made a great movie out of it. But no - they ended up with a collossal mess. And because they realized it was sucking, they decided to go back later and film some new and improved action scenes - further robbing the exposition from what little time it had to help the audience figure out what was really happening.
I heard a rumor tonight that the next Spider-Man might be in the same boat, with possibly three villains, plus the introduction of Peter's ORIGINAL girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. I am dreading the possibility that it's going to become another cluttered, jumbled mess.
Keep It Simple! The most powerful plots are the focused ones! If you want to raise the stakes, you do it by increasing the threat of the main antagonist, not by watering him down by introducing lots of secondary antagonists that are only loosely under his direction. You deepen the protagonist's relationships with those who will be threatened - instead of weakening them by having him meet fifty new friends in passing.
And don't think for a second that there's not a game-design analogy hiding here, even without the direct correlation between storylines. A game that focuses on doing one or two things REALLY WELL is going to be far and away better than a game that tries to do it all but only does a mediocre job at best at each one.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Ultimate Utopia XXIII
A friend passed along this hillarious video that spoofs the Final Fantasy games (Final Fantasy VII in particular). It's a little long, just like most boss fights in the Final Fantasy games...
Monday, May 22, 2006
Dress Codes and Development
I've noticed with some curiosity that after having a positions at a few different companies in my career, the most productive software development teams were the ones at the companies with the least stringent dress codes. In one case, the same engineers worked at two different companies, and I noted their productivity was better at the place where they wore jeans and T-shirts to work.
I'm not saying there's necessarily a causal relationship here. Two companies with the most stringent dress codes also had some management / business issues that were hurting either the department or the business as a whole. So while the I.T. team couldn't get their job done, they at least LOOKED GOOD while they weren't doing anything.
My favorite "Dress Code" story comes from Singletrac (hey, over five years at a company that rose to stardom and fell almost as quickly is bound to result in a lot of stories!) Bernie Stolar was then the head of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, and they had taken a big gamble on this small company of mainly engineers who had never done games before. There was a lot of skepticism about our ability to turn knowledge of building tank and aircraft simulators for the military into entertaining videogames.
One day Bernie came to take a tour of our office, and to talk biz with Singletrac's president, Mike Ryder. So Bernie pokes his head into our offices where we're all dillegently plugging along on our games. A few of the guys on the team had problems "dressing down" for a videogame job, so they were somewhere in-between "business casual" and casual. A few had nice jeans and knit button-down shirts.
Bernie snorted and told Ryder, "They sure don't LOOK like gamers."
We had an all-hands meeting every Friday during lunch. During the following Friday meeting, Mike Ryder gave us his plea:
"At Singletrac, we've never really had anything like a dress code. But if you feel so inclined to wear jeans with holes in them to work, or to flip your baseball hat around backwards while working on the game... please feel free!"
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Why Are There So Many Violent Videogames?
I was reading the transcript of Brian Moriarty's "Entrainment" lecture which I had the pleasure of attending at the 1998 Game Developer's Conference. As weird as it reads in print, it was even weirder in person, let me assure you. But it was also effective and thought-provoking. I recommend giving it a read, but it is pretty long.
In the lecture, Moriarty pleads for game developers to be responsible and thoughtful in the placement of violence in our games. This was a noble call to action, but I don't think many people heeded it. I'd guess that more than half of the people or more that went to that lecture aren't even working professionally in the games industry anymore. 8 years is a long time in this business. For people, anyway. For our games - well, the people animate more realistically, and the blood is much more believable, but the top games that we're playing now are pretty much the same games that we were playing in 1998. I think the first Grand Theft Auto game hit the shelves in 1997.
Ignoring the explosive growth of the "casual games" industry (which emphasizes simple, non-violent games), why are the bulk of our games still centering around violence - blowing stuff up, killing things, and gaining new powers and pick-ups so that we can blow bigger stuff up and kill bigger things? There are three reasons: Violence is Easy, Violence is Powerful, and the derivative of the first two: Violence sells.
Violence is Easy
Violence is the simplest of human interactions to simulate on the computer. You play a death animation, trigger some bleeding, trigger some other event, and you are done.
That is orders of magniture less complex than trying to create a dynamic, interactive romance scene. For more comlex social interactions, you have to do one of the following:
#1 - Invent software capable of winning the Turing Test, which will play a fully realized, believable character capable of responding to the player in any weird way possible.
#2 - Borrow from the movies and books and have interactions with the NPC's occur in non-interactive "cut scenes" (Which are now no longer a real part of the game, but rather an interruption of the game).
#3 - The middle-ground between the two - script up some level of believability to the NPC and proper reactions to expected situations, and hope the player forgives you when he does something unusual - like try to talk to the same character twice, or after a certain game-shaking event has occured.
#1 is impossible, #2 is a dodge that players will get irritated with if you over-use it. The sole advantage of #3 is that while it sucks, players are used to it and fairly forgiving.
But simulating violence? Piece of cake. You don't need to have conversations with a guy and understand his hopes, dreams, and relationships to shoot him in the head with a sniper rifle.
Violence is Powerful
Violence is, unfortunately, pretty close to a universal human experience. Whether it's being involved in a scuffle on the playground in third grade, having a loved one sent off to war, or simply turning on the six o'clock news, we are exposed to it constantly. Our brains are hard-wired to react to it. We instinctively fear it and must assure our own survival if it occurs to or near us. Simulated violence in media can fire off an emotional fight-or-flight reaction with the player. In particular, in video games, it gives the player the illusion of competence in a deep, dark part of the brain that expects us to go hunting mastadons with our spears any time now.
Admittedly, after a bit of flying Falcon 4.0, a very silly, illogical part of my brain was telling me "Hey, if the balloon goes up and they are in desperate need of more pilots to fast-track through the fighter pilot program is READY, baby!" Well, not really, though the good flight sims really are apparently pretty good training for the real thing. After all, the Air Force ordered a special version of Falcon 4.0 for training. And the Marine Corps ordered a special version of Operation: Flashpoint for their training. And I remember reading that even Starcraft was used by Air Command & War College for combined-forces training.
So some part of our brain thinks it's practicing survival skills when we play these games, and it reacts in a primitive way that gives us pleasure as we do so. It's how we are wired. Learning to throw a ball and play catch does the same thing. I do not accept "Wacky Jackie" Thompson's assertations that these games train you to commit murder, any more than playing catch teaches you to kill people with rocks. But the primitive parts of the brain still think of these things as training survival skills, and reacts in a powerful fashion as a result.
And you know what? It's not wrong. Apparently playing first-person shooters DOES help your survival skills in the modern world... but not in the way our politicians would believe. Paul Kerney recently discovered in a recent study that players who frequently play First-Person-Shooters have much improved cognitive and multi-tasking skills over those who do not.
For the same reason the "summer action flicks" with cookie-cutter plots and rotating action-hero casts keep drawing the crowds, violent video games keep selling. Audiences react well to it. And because violence is once of the easiest things to simulate on a computer, this means the bang-for-the-buck value (pun unintentional, but it works!) is huge.
Short of a radical change in consumer habits with respect to violence (unlikely, considering it's been a constant throughout recorded history... what do you think they used the colliseum for in ancient Rome?) , video-game violence is here to stay.
What Do We Do About It?
While this may be a controversial thing to say - I don't think it's a bad thing. Yeah, I vote with my wallet and I choose not to support games with gratuitous violence and no real socially redeeming virtues. I won't let my children play games that I think are inappropriate for them.
But if you want a society that produces great art masterpieces, you have to have a society that allows any idiot to paint a toilet seat and present it as art.
Moriarty contended in 1998 that the power of the video game for a medium of expression, communication, and education was far more powerful than previous media. "We can not only describe the horrors of Auchweitz. We can put your hand on the lever of the gas chamber." Powerful, heady ideas - and stuff that thrilled me to speculate. Since then, we've had a video game that re-creates the David Koresh / Waco standoff, a game that puts you behind the scope of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle on that November day in 1968, and - the most stomach-turning of all to me - a game that lets you re-create the Columbine High School Massacre by Harris and Klebold in 1999.
Moriarty's message? "This new kind of authority is not for the careless." Maybe. I could never bring myself to play any of the above games. They had their stated, lofty goals - their higher purpose - which might have been genuine, or simply done to deflect criticism that these are nothing but sensationalist crap.
Which is it?
Which was Hugo's "Les Miserables," when it was published in 1862? Or, as Moriarty notes, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring?"
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Why was Final Fantasy 7 So Successful?
So why is Final Fantasy VII the best-selling console RPG of all time? It outsold the other games in the series by about at least 25%. Personally, I loved the game, though I never got into it's immediate sequel or Final Fantasy 8 very well. I appreciated the artwork in Final Fantasy X, and enjoyed it "well enough" to completion, but it didn't suck me in (or my wife in) like the original, in spite of it's technological wizardry.
Besides the financial success, it was a critical success as well. The old reviews gush over the graphics, the game play, the summoning spells, the cut scenes... but those are all things we have seen since. And we saw much of it done better on the PC before. What was the magic of Final Fantasy 7 that made it so successful? Was it the story? The graphics? The sacrifice of Aeris? The timely "eco-friendly" and spiritual theme? The gothic, beautiful bad-boy Sephiroth? The Mr. T. jokes that Barret inspired?
My WIFE even loved the game. That was about the only game where she actually asked me to play it every night, so she could watch. It was our entertainment. Few television shows were watched in the evenings in the Barnson household for those three magical weeks.
Squaresoft is still trying to rekindle that magic, years later. Over the last couple of years there have been several new games taking place in the Final Fantasy VII world, including a niche-but-rocking movie, "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children." So maybe they don't quite know the answer, either, as they haven't been able to repeat the success of the original game.
Was it just a combination of being the right game at the right time? There was a dearth of RPGs available when Final Fantasy VII was released. In fact, game critics and business executives alike were proclaiming the role-playing games "a dead genre." It took a long time (and several TRST reports) after the humongous success of Final Fantasy VII, Diablo, Baldur's Gate, and several other RPGs before they finally woke up and admitted that perhaps rumors of the RPG's death had been somewhat exaggerated. The market was probably hungry for it - and there's no question Squaresoft and Sony did a great marketing job!
So - what do you think made FF7 work so well? And hey, if you didn't play it (or - heresy - didn't LIKE it!), but you are a fan of other RPGs - why did they work so well for you?
If you don't feel like posting in public, go ahead and send me a message. I'm feedback at rampant games.com (drop the spaces, replace the 'at' sign, spam prevention, you know the drill...)
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
What Makes a Good Casual RPG?
Okay - the term "Casual RPG" is practically an oxymoron. Computer Role-Playing Games are normally pretty intense, hard-core affairs requiring a great deal of commitment, familiarity with the genre (generally sword & sorcery style fantasy), and a head for stats that matches that of a hardcore baseball enthusiast.
But I know Aveyond has had some definite success amongst non-core gamers... particularly women who have never really played Role-Playing Games before. And Cute Knight was also designed to appeal to a first-time audience. So I was curious what they did to meet the demands of a "first-timer" audience.
Cute Knight Casualness
For Cute Knight, there were some comments from Papillon, the game's designer, on the RPGDX.NET forums. Some of her efforts included:
* Trying to avoid giving "too much" information, for fear of intimidating her audience in a sea of stats
* Using more everyday words instead of gamer terms. For example, "Outfit" instead of "Equipment" or "Inventory," and "Skills" instead of "Statistics."
A Casual Gamer's Take on Aveyond
I have a friend, Kelly, who generally only plays "casual" games (Chuzzle is a fairly recent favorite). She became addicted to Aveyond and played it to completion (I still haven't finished it yet!). So I asked her about what she thought, liked, and disliked about the game. Apparently she ALMOST quit on the game early on, but once she got past a level of confusion she thoroughly enjoyed the game and played it constantly for a couple of weeks.
Some of her observations:
* She nearly quit at first because it seemed the game was following a script that didn't give her any options. I find this particularly interesting because common wisdom has it that new players are confused and intimidated by having too many options. At least in Kelly's case, that became a frustrating factor --- maybe because she felt she didn't have a copy of the script and didn't know her lines (or exactly what she was required to do next).
* She got annoyed killing the easier critters over and over again. If the fight would be trivial, the monsters shouldn't attack.
* Lack of mouse controls was frustrating at first, because she's very used to using a mouse in games.
* One frustration factor was "Wishing that my character would figure things out as soon as I do."
* Forgetting where she put her boat, and forgetting the details of certain quests was a frustration factor.
* She LOVED having lots and lots of choices as the game progressed.
* She also loved seeing all the different relationships between the characters play out.
* She enjoyed having the variety of experiences and ways she could interact with the world - like buying her own ship, buying a manor, getting PETS for the manor, flying around on a dragon, and getting optional characters to join her party (particularly a vampire).
* It didn't seem to challenging (which would be frustrating) or too easy (which would be boring),
The most interesting thing to me is that in general, her likes and dislikes match that of the hard-core gamers, too! We love having lots of options, but we hate getting confused about what we're supposed to do next. We (usually) like seeing the personal lives of our characters play out. We love having a variety of activities and ways of interacting with the world - even the useless, silly ones. And of course we like the challenge to be "just right".
Is A Pattern Emerging?
I don't know how successful the efforts were to make Cute Knight more accessible by beginners, but rumors have it that the game has sold fairly well. So I think the simplifications paid off.
And it sounds to me that there's not THAT big of a gulf between the hardcore and the casual with respect to what we enjoy and don't enjoy in RPGs. Our likes and dislikes are fairly universal.
Sounds like these principles could be wrapped into some kind of "Red-Line Analysis" for an indie RPG... "At what point did I get `lost' and unsure of what to do next?" "Were there any moments that made a particular NPC seem more 'real' to me?"
Fun stuff to ponder. Now if only there were more indie RPGs being made and finished!
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Spector warns indies to "Forget It!"
The title is a lot more inflammatory than the rest of the article, but I recommend giving it a read:
Indie Game Devs: ‘Forget It’
I know I immediately got annoyed just by the title, and by some other things Warren Spector has said in the last few years. He used to be one of my game development heroes (after all, he was in charge of Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld, and Thief). But lately he's been making a bunch of comments that sound like he's given up on the dream and gone to work at the factory.
Quoth Spector: "You have a zero percent chance of success. The barrier to entry in terms of cost, quality required, access to a market… forget it"
Yeah, yeah. We heard this last year from EA's Jeff Brown. It was wrong then, too. The most amusing proof was that the biggest "surprise hit" of the XBox 360's launch was Live Arcade, complete with a bunch of low-budget indie titles.
I won't fault Spector, Walston, and the rest of the panel for expressing the very real risks to new startups. The data isn't incorrect, their warnings are valid, and their suggestions are actually pretty good. But I believe their conclusions are wrong. Cliffski's Mumblings has a somewhat more strongly worded opinion of the conclusions, which amused me. Maybe there's an ulterior motive to what they are saying - maybe not.
The Old Ways Won't Work Anymore
Personally, I think what we're really witnessing now is the end of an era - the wheels of evolution are turning. The first ones to go are the smaller, less "fit" creatures - like the independent studios trying to follow the traditional road. Meanwhile, the big giants assume that they are already in a survival position and that it simply remains to be seen who will come out on top. But I think the entire conventional way of doing business in this industry is on the verge of becoming extinct (or if not exctint, highly diminished). If they aren't careful, the lumbering giants will find that they aren't too far behind their lesser cousins that are dying out left and right.
Things that are changing
* Brick & Mortar sales channels vs downloadable: At this point, most everyone is acknowledging the digital distribution of product is where the fture is. But what form that will take, how dominant it will be, and how it's going to effect the biz overall remains TBD.
* Political Pressure: Games are now mainstream, like it or not, and we're under more public scrutiny than ever. It's effecting how games are being made.
* The biggie - we're hitting the law of diminishing returns with chasing graphics technology. In the past, a game publisher could just put lipstick on the ol' pig, and sell it once again with fancier technology to wow the players. But we're running into the law of diminishing returns on that front. Not only does each successive generation of hardware provide less of an apparent improvement in quality of graphics (meaning it gets harder for the player to notice the difference), but the cost of providing content to take advantage of the hardware is increasing much faster than the video games market. Translation: It's costing more money each year to keep the same audience happy. Already it's gotten to the point where most mainstream games lose money (I'd submit most indie games do, too).
* The audience is changing: The video game audience today is far different from the audience of ten or twenty years ago. The mainstream video game business tends to lag these changes by a few years, but it actually isn't too bad at following the money. It's more mainstream, which means appealing to more than just the "geek" genres. Thus we have the big games today being World War II shooters, crime games in modern cities, etc. The audience is older - and the industry is targeting the older audience (the target demographic now is 18-28 year old males). And we've got more women playing games now than ever before. The mainstream industry hasn't quite figured this one out yet, but the casual games developers are cashing in.
Time To Adapt / Evolve?
All of this points to an "evolve or die" type situation in my mind. The old way of doing things is certainly fraught with peril, and anyone who doesn't have a lot of experience and money attempting that route runs a very high risk of joining the stacks of corpses to the side of that road. The games industry has changed too much - you have to adapt. But a "zero chance of success?" I don't think so. It's still happening. And some clever companies are embarking on new paths to reach the same destination, and meeting with real success, like Behemoth.
Spector & Company are right on the money about smaller developers going after areas the giants can't / won't go. They site the casual games market as the prime (exclusive?) example. You can read this as them trying to shoo the young kids off to making games for Mom, if you want. But I think it's blind and uncreative to think that's the only place the big guys aren't playing. Look at what Positech Games (by Cliff Harris, author of the above Cliffski's Mumblings), Reflexive, GarageGames, Wahoo / NinjaBee, and others are doing. Is there room in these areas to survive, and even thrive?
It sure looks like it.
Saturday, May 13, 2006
Apocalypse Cow Boss
I didn't get much work done on Apocalypse Cow this week - I blame Oblivion. :)
So I've gone on all these recent rants about being creative and innovative in game design... and here I am creating a game that is pretty derivative of some old arcade classics. Actually, I'm a little worried about some of the "innovations" I've been introducing to the game actually detracting from the experience. Remember back in the day when graphical adventure games included an obligatory action / arcade sequence? The end result is that it didn't win over any action-game enthusiasts... it only honked off the adventure gamers who had to interrupt their adventuring & puzzle solving for some test of eye-hand coordination.
That's the kind of concerns I'm facing. We'll see how it goes, and once things are truly to "alpha" stage I'm going to have to get some "kleenex testers" to give it a whirl and tell me what they think.
But I've got the first "boss", Baron Cowfred Von Richthoofen, flying. The bosses are tricky because they and their levels each require lots of custom coding. But they are bosses - they should be fairly unique.
I am kind of proud of my Fokker Triplane-esque model, though it is obviously not yet textured. His behavior needs a lot of TLC and polish, but he managed to shoot me down several times the first few times I engaged him.
Ultimately, the only excuse I can give for making this game is that I'm having a lot of fun making it. And maybe that's all that matters.
Labels: Apocalypse Cow
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Oblivion Rocks My World
I'd been holding off on installing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion until I managed to obtain the new computer. In essence I was spending $1600 on Oblivion - so I had really high expectations. Yes, I know I coulda gotten an XBox 360 for cheaper, but it was time for an upgrade anyway. This was the first time I bought a desktop from a vendor instead of cobbling it together myself. I went with a sweet system from iBuyPower.com. It's an AMD 4400+ Dual-Core with a gig of RAM, 300 gig HD, and twin SLI-linked NVidia 7900s. It'll be obsolete before the end of summer, but for now, it's pretty awesome, and it's mine.
It runs like a dream. I was able to crank up the graphics detail on Oblivion all the way up to maximum, complete with HDR Lighting and all that other goodness, and let her rip. So with max settings in place and running at a silky-smooth framerate. I was finally able to see what all the fuss was about.
And the game completely has kicked my hinderd and left me prone on the floor with awe and a grin on my face. It has, so far, surpassed my expectations. Which is actually a pretty rare thing, but I'd tried to keep myself aloof from the hype surrounding its release.
And no, I haven't found anything in the game yet to warrant its re-rating to "Mature." But I'm only a few hours in.
The Elder Scrolls Series
So much has been said about this game, I really can't add much. I've been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series since Daggerfall (I missed Arena - I don't remember why). The graphics have always been good, but first and foremost the game has been about open-ended play. The games try to immerse you in a huge, open-ended world with a loose storyline that you are free to follow or ignore, and then set you loose to just explore and do whatever.
To top it off, the games are also very replayable with vastly different classes. I only found out long after the fact that I'd finished Daggerfall with about the most difficult class possible - a skill-based rogue with no magical abilities to speak of. My wife played Daggerfall for months, mainly just going from town to town seeing what clothes she could buy to play "paper doll" with her character.
I never finished Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. It lacked the scope of Daggerfall, and the isle of Morrowind was just too bizarre and alien, so I guess I never got sucked in like I did with Daggerfall. Still, it was a very good game, still open-ended (but without the random quests and dungeons). By the time I played Morrowind, I'd been exposed to the plot-and-character-heavy Japanese console RPGs. Morrowind was sort of the opposite of these - but it proved that you didn't need to have a heavily story-based RPG with angsty teen characters to have a successful RPG.
Instead, like its predecessors, Morrowind was about IMMERSION. For the same reason I like to call Falcon 4.0 a Roleplaying Game - the Elder Scrolls games are about dropping you into a fantastic world and making it come alive for you.
Oblivion - from what I can tell - continues the tradition of immersion in spades. After making you get through the "bunny slope dungeon" and introducing you to the story line, the game boots you into a wild world where you can literally see for MILES. See AND go there. Distant mountains? Start walking. You'll get there after a day or two. But you'll encounter all kinds of additional adventures along the way, because (so far) they've packed it with lots of stuff to do along the way - including dungeons to explore, bandit camps to fight off, old ruins to examine, and wild herbs to harvest.
The graphics and the open-endedness serve the premise of the series, which is IMMERSION. And I'm friggin' immersed! There's so much to do and explore, and the graphics are truly "next gen" beyond anything else I have played. Of course, the graphics come at the expense of really powerful new computer... or I guess you could only spring for an XBox 360. I'm not sure which one looks better at this point.
So How Do I Compete With THAT?!?
So as an indie game developer who sells (and is developing) lower-budget RPGs, I find myself playing this game and asking myself, "How in the world do I compete with THAT? There's just no way."
Jeff Vogel, of Spiderweb Software, has gone on record in the past expressing the same kind of confusion. When asked why someone would play his indie RPG, Geneforge, instead of the next Baldur's Gate, he responded, "I'm not sure. Baldur's Gate 2 was just too good."
My answer is similar. You cannot compete with that. Not without an experienced team and at least $10 million devoted strictly to development. Hang it up. Give up now. There's no going toe-to-toe against this game on an indie budget. Oblivion will pwn you.
Just like you wouldn't take your indie First-Person-Shooter toe-to-toe against the Battlefield or Unreal Tournament series. They will frag you.
So What Do You Do If You Want To Make RPGs?
But just because Oblivion rocks doesn't mean there's no room for other RPGs. There'll be plenty of room for the upcoming Final Fantasy game on the consoles (as long as it doesn't suck). There'll be plenty of room for Neverwinter Nights II. There'd be plenty of room for a Baldur's Gate III. And there's room for the Aveyonds and Cute Knights and Geneforges and other indie games of the world.
Even with the amazing amount of open-ended gameplay that Oblivion offers, there's many things it doesn't. Interesting characters, for one thing (an area where Final Fantasy games kick butt, albeit in a really weird, angsty, loses-something-in-the-translation way). The storylines in the Elder Scrolls games are typically pretty weak. And you don't get the challenge of fighting off the desire to settle for being a cleaning maid for the rest of your life in Oblivion!
In Oblivion you don't get the opportunity (as far as I know) to help repair or break up a marriage with your mad conversational skillz, like you do in Facade (how DO you type that French letter in that word, anyway?). Or find an ancient artifact in the post-apocalyptic word of Fallout. Or an infinite number of other things.
There are an infinite number of places an RPG can go where the Elder Scrolls, for all their variety and open-endedness, can't follow. Granted - some may be less commercially viable than others, or at least more difficult to market. Its hard to break with tradition and expectations. But even if the road-less-travelled that you choose doesn't go too far from the beaten path, there are a lot of new places to go and to take the 'genre,' if we're willing to risk it. And I certainly intend to do so.
But I'll also keep taking some time out to enjoy Oblivion.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
How To Sleep Less and Get More Done
Occasionally on the Game Development forums people will ask about sleep schedules - how much do you get per night, how much do people really need, etc. Some people get downright religious about it. Some get into the latest geek fad of polyphasic sleep. When I say I only sleep six hours per night (for a while it was five), I get someone lecturing me on how unhealthy it is. I don't FEEL unhealthy, but I do feel like I get about two extra hours in my day than they do. I actually feel it works really well for me - I'm a lot more alert during the day and I sleep VERY well at night.
And it's a big improvement over how I used to sleep.
Sleep - Too Much of a Good Thing?
When I was a teenager, I slept eight - sometimes ten hours a night. I was an extremely light, fitful sleeper, and I'd suffer frequent bouts of insomnia. I'd sometimes lay awake for an hour or two waiting for sleep to come, and when it would I would toss and turn so much that there were a few occasions when I'd wake up with my mattress slid halfway off the bed springs. On top of that, I'd STILL have trouble waking up when the alarm clock went off. Even once I woke up, I'd still have trouble nodding off in class for the next couple of hours.
My sleep sucked. In retrospect, I think I was actually getting too much sleep - and so it became inconsistent. And the body does NOT like inconsistent, even when it seems to be the culprit.
So What Changed?
The tail-end of college had me sleeping a lot less as I pulled the late-night study sessions, but the real change was forced by my first career job. As a young programmer for a start-up video-game company. The stories of psycho crunch-mode cycles in the game industry were very true at this company - not because anyone was really cracking the whip on us, but just because we had a stake in the company and we knew the first two games that we were working on for the brand-new "Playstation" game console would be critical not only to the company's success, but to whether or not we had a job the following year.
We also had our first child during this time, so even when I was home my sleep hours were tightly curtailed. Until we moved closer to the office, I think I got more sleep on the bus to and from work than I got at home.
With the psycho crunch-time hours, I was sleeping only a little more than four hours per night on the average. While it was uncomfortable, as things evened out into a rhythm I found it was working. But then on Friday night, I'd crash at 10:00 at night, and not wake up for twelve hours. Somehow, my body had gotten on a seven-day schedule and "knew" it was Friday. And it had adjusted.
Changing the Rhythm
After things relaxed a bit, I didn't go back to sleeping eight hours per night. I found I was really comfortable sleeping six hours a night (and if I needed to, I could do it on five hours per night).
What I noticed is that insomnia was no longer a problem. I rarely had problems falling asleep at night - we're talking minutes or even seconds of my head hitting the pillow, and I'm out like a light. I slept VERY soundly all night long. And I was waking up pretty refreshed, and remained even more alert during the day than I had with more sleep at night.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
My wife expressed concern about me getting sleep-deprived on only five or six hours per night (sometimes I go on only five a night for stretches, but I haven't felt the need to get comfortable with that yet). So at one point, I read a book on the subject and came away with some really interesting new views on the nature of sleep.
One of the questions the book asked was if we are all so different in every other way, why should it be expected that we all need the same eight hours of sleep a night as society dictates? The book suggested that the whole eight-hours-of-sleep thing came about as a result of the industrial revolution. Breaking the day into three pieces meant very regular shifts of eight hours - one to work, one to sleep, and one to get all the other parts of living done.
Previously - and in more agrarian cultures - the amount of sleep people got was often more dependent upon the time of the year. During summer months, they'd sleep as little as five or six hours a night, but during the winter they'd sleep twelve hours or so.
So even for individuals, the amount of sleep you "need" is somewhat variable.
Of course, none of this is gospel truth, and can be completely wrong. I acknowledge that. But it made sense to me. So it's my story and I'm sticking to it.
How It Works
So what I figured out for myself by accident was that bodies like nice, regular schedules. To some degree, you can compress how much sleep you need into a shorter time (within limits!) Your body will eventually figure out how much time it has allocated for sleep in a night, and will adjust appropriately.
The trick is keeping to the schedule and making it a habit. Going to bed at the same time every night, and waking up at the same time every morning. For me, switching to a new schedule (because of job or whatever) takes about 2-3 weeks. But eventually, I pick up the schedule, my body adjusts, and I'm doing just fine. Right now, I go to bed at 1:00 AM and wake up at 7:00 AM. The nice thing about this is that I get a couple of "free" hours every night to get things done. I do a lot of programming (and blogging) during those hours. Or sometimes I get in some video-game playing that I just can't fit in anywhere else in my schedule.
What can I say? I love games!
Is There a Downside?
Your body can get into the habit of and rhythm of a more "compressed" sleep schedule. But what I've found is that it will hold you to that agreement. When my usual bed-time rolls around, my body starts shutting down and going into sleep mode unless I'm REALLY involved in something.
I used to be able to push my bedtime out a couple of hours pretty easily for a day or two without suffering major effects. I can't get away with it now. If I push it an hour, I'll be feeling it all the next day. When your sleep schedule is already compressed, your body won't accept too much additional random compression.
A third, more minor, downside: I used to really enjoy sleeping in on the weekends. It's harder to come by now. As your body gets used to a rigid schedule, it obliges you by waking up at the appropriate time. I haven't QUITE gotten back into the seven-day rhythm I had a few years ago. Ah, well. If I was truly out to optimize my life, I'd do something with the extra couple of hours I get on Saturday morning.
But I'm not there yet.
What Does It Take?
1. A real motivation. For me - 2 extra hours of waking time per day amounts to fourteen hours a week... almost a FULL WAKING DAY for most people. An extra day out of every week? To use being productive or squander playing video-games? Count me in!
2. A commitment to develop a habit over three weeks. The first week adjusting to a new schedule ALWAYS sucks. The second week sucks less. If you can stick it out for three weeks, you are golden.
3. Sticking to the schedule. The only way your body will adjust is if your schedule is reliable. Go to bed within a few minutes of the allotted time, and WAKE UP when the alarm clock goes off WITHOUT hitting that snooze alarm!
And Then What?
So - if I were way more goal-directed than I am, I'd probably exercise more or do something more with all the extra time I have in the day. While I've been on this sleep schedule for YEARS now, it's still an ongoing project.
I think I could compress my sleep schedule down to five hours per night without too much trouble, but I don't have the motivation yet. Maybe if all that extra exercise started working really well for me :) Actually, it'll probably happen when I get closer to releasing my next indie game - Void War had me going down below five hours a night for a little while.
And with THAT - it's 12:49. That's eleven minutes to get ready for bed, before I fall asleep on the keyboard or something. So... Goodnight!
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Design: Transcend the Box from the Start!
"I want to make an RPG."
"I'm designing a first-person shooter."
"I've got this cool idea for an RTS..."
"So I'm working on this side-scrolling shooter..."
If you hang out in game development forums, you'll see postings like this. I've been guilty of saying things like this, too.
These are CATEGORIES of games. Neat little boxes invented by fans and marketing guys to put games in to add shorthand descriptors to make purchasing decisions easier. They aren't games. While it's definitely a good thing to borrow conventions from these categories, the danger you run into if you start your design process from inside that box, your thinking will never go far outside of it.
Sid Meier's approach (or at least the approach he used to take) was to make a game about a subject. He said he'd try to pull out all the elements of that subject (he used his original Pirates! game as the example) that sounded like fun, and see how many he could fit together. Getting them to fit together harmoniously could be a trick. In a speech he gave at GDC many summers ago, his talk was entitled (I think), "How I almost destroyed Civilization." I don't remember all the details (I didn't go... I've not been in the industry THAT long - I had to read about it in a magazine), but I remember he considered for a long time making Civilization real-time. That's a pretty defining characteristic to be undecided on.
What would the PC gaming landscape be if he'd only said, "I want to make an adventure game. I'll theme it based on human advancement through the centuries."? A lot less interesting, for one thing.
The popularity of game categories rise and fall pretty regularly. Once-dominant genres fade, new ones rise up, and sometimes old categories reappear and kick butt. In the mid-to-late 90's, the common wisdom was that RPGs didn't sell, and that it was a dead genre. Then we had Diablo and Baldur's Gate and Final Fantasy 7 happen, and pretty much knocked common wisdom on its butt. It wasn't about the categories - it was about the games! The categories grew stale because too many games that were all alike, and even the good ones were hard to recognize amongst the pile of derivative junk that were all alike. They all matched the boxes they were put in pretty well.
Twisted Metal was a game I worked on which actually created a (small) category. The "Vehicular shooter," I guess. Several people working on it had different ideas of what it would be. From my background, I immediately put it in the box I was most familiar with, the "sim" game. I was thinking of the Car Wars tabletop game and sci-fi "simulators." Some of the guys working on it were thinking first-person shooters in cars. Sony's producer on the project, Dave Jaffe, was thinking Fighting Games, of all things! Street Fighter in cars. The monstrosity we ended up with turned out to be none of these things, but it also turned out pretty cool, and was a signature series for the Playstation. It also spawned some pretty cool imitators, thus becoming a mini-category of its own.
Battlefront.com was formed by wargame developers who found themselves unable to work in the "mainstream" game industry anymore because the category was no longer a staple of PC games. The created a game called "Combat Mission" which transcended the traditional bounds of wargames on many levels. It still simulated a battle in a turn-based format, but comparing it to the traditional hex-grid-and-counter style wargames was difficult at best. They couldn't really get a publisher, so they sold the game mail-order. While the game didn't exactly take the world by storm, it was a major success. For the sequel, they apparently had no problem getting it onto store shelves. I don't know if they started with the idea of doing a wargame but abandoned all the traditional ideas of what a wargame should be later, or if they started by saying, "We want to fight a battle where you can really see the units duking it out cinematically and in 3D so it looks more like a war movie that you play in stages." However they did it, they created a revolutionary game that redefined the concept of a 'war game,' and they were apparently successful at it.
Don't start with a category and try to dress it up in a theme later. Don't limit your thinking by starting your design from inside an existing, well-established, well-explored category. Explore a theme from the start rather than simply dressing up an old idea in a new theme. You can always impose category restrictions on it later if and where you need to.
Transcend the box from the start!
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Guest Gaming Moment #1: Falcon 4.0
I have only half-jokingly referred to Falcon 4.0 as one of my favorite Roleplaying Games of all time. People look at me weird when I say that. Don't I know the difference between an RPG and a flight sim?
Not when it's done like Falcon. The goal with Falcon 4.0 was, according to Gilman Louie, the producer, to provide the player with the experience of being a real fighter pilot, minus the boring parts. So not only was the simulation of the aircraft extremely authentic, but the dynamic simulation of the world was also very complex and interactive. Take out a bridge today, and the enemy forces (and friendly forces) couldn't use it for a day or two until it was repaired. And they WOULD send forces to repair it. You could see the impact of your handiwork on the world. That's something that too many RPGs don't really offer.
And it had multiplayer. Buggy, often crashing multiplayer, but it had multiplayer. Sharing the experience with friends made it all the more real... so much so that talking about the mission afterwards often took more time than the mission itself. For today's Gaming Moment, this is a GUEST article by Bryan Brown, who has been mentioned in previous Gaming Moment articles as my steadfast wingman and wiley Rainbow Six opponent. Enjoy!
Sometime You Just Gotta Take the Chance!
This is my all time favorite moment playing Falcon 4.0, a game Jay and I played a lot. The game had many flaws but it left some of my strongest game playing memories. The way the world worked and the battle field changed was something to behold. It was also stunningly gorgeous to look at. Nothing, at the time, even came close to how great it looked. I recall the first time I looked out through the reflections of my cockpit at the world spread out below me. I gasped it was so stunning.
I love the simulation aspect of many games and the more “real” I can make it the better I enjoy the game so I always played from inside the cockpit with a view of the instrumentation and the canopy. While the game engine supported switching to outside views I always felt that if I couldn’t check my own six from inside the cockpit I shouldn’t be flying a Falcon.
The hardest thing to learn in this game was the landings. I don’t even recall how may sets of landing gear I ripped off learning how to feather that plane down onto a runway. It was a point of pride to learn how to do it right with me and I spent a long time learning how to approach, line up, glide in and finally flare just right to squeal onto the tarmac without ruining a multi-million dollar (simulated) plane.
My weakest part of the game was air to air combat. Jay was great at that – his understanding of air to air tactics and resource (height, speed, weapons) management was unparalleled. I learned a ton just getting smoked out of the sky by him. Jay was always great to fly with – he has a great blend of aggressiveness and common sense. I tend to be more careful and Jay always pushed me to play just a bit harder. He may have briefly regretted that during this particular mission.
Anyway, Jay and I started up a new campaign one day and signed ourselves up for a mud moving mission. This particular mission had us hitting one of the games favorite first day targets a ship yard. We were loaded down with 500 lb bombs and wing-tip sidewinder missiles for air to air defense. We took off, formed up and headed to our first nav point. I loved listening to the chatter in this game as different flights called their positions and reports in.
Shortly after we passed over the FLOT we were passing to the west of an enemy air base. We were trying to stay out of trouble since we were loaded down with bombs and besides we had a CAP to take care of us right? As we were nearly abreast of the field we got a radar warning lock from a MiG-21. Looking over it was in visual range and had apparently just taken off from the strip. He was low and slow and probably shouldn’t have announced his presence. Jay locked him up and fired. Splash one. We looked around briefly but seeing no more immediate threats turned back towards our target. No sooner had we done so that another MiG-21 jumped us. Some how, this bandit had snuck up behind us. We were heavy and slow to turn or climb – the MiG-21 picked Jay as his first target and quickly maneuvered into gun range. Jay pulled right into a high yo-yo hoping to bring him around in front of me to get a shot. I tried a snap shot as he crossed in front but missed him.
At this point we were in trouble, Jay had a bad guy on his six and I missed the shot and was trying with everything I had to roll my plane onto him. Jay continued to climb and turn right, I was loosing ground on them trying to pull the same maneuver – Jay was always better at energy management than I was. I couldn’t even roll over far enough to get my radar to lock on the bogie since it was in a vertical sweep mode. Guns were out as I was loosing ground on them my only hope was to get a sidewinder off at him. I called out over the “radio” that I was un-caging my seeker head. The seeker heads of the sidewinder missiles were usually slaved to the planes radar to achieve their initial lock on. This makes it easier to pick a bad guy from a friendly. But with the bad guy out of the plain of my radar sweep that wasn’t going to help. Un-caging the seeker allowed it to roam the sky in its own independent pattern looking for a heat source to lock onto.
Jay called back – “Wait, don’t”. I replied “It’s the only way.” I was pretty familiar with the pattern that the seeker head would follow as it looked for a target and I was almost positive that it would acquire the MiG-21 before it found Jay. As I un-caged the seeker I quickly heard the growling tone that indicated it had a target and it was a loud, certain tone. I called out “I’ve got tone!” and then “Fox 2”, as I sent the missile on its way. I remember holding my breath as I watched the missile streak away towards Jay and the MiG. Who would it go after? The MiG broke off of Jay to try and turn away from the incoming missile but it was to late, it turns out that I did have a good lock and he had bled off to much energy trying to get Jay. BOOM! Splash one for me!
I don’t remember what we did next – I think we might have aborted the mission at that point, but we did live through it to drop bombs another day.
May 4, 2006
Got any more Guest Gaming Moments you'd like to contribute? Email 'em to me! You can contact me via "feedback" at rampantgames.com.
Friday, May 05, 2006
Oblivion Re-Rating Translated Into English
So for those who don't quite get the whole "Oblivion" thing, or who haven't heard: The ESRB decided to re-rate The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion as rated "M" (for Mature - 17 or older) instead of rated "T" (For "Teens"). This move resulted from some prior events, such as the "Hot Coffee" scandal, which I won't go into here, and the ever louder cry from politicians that in the name of family values they want to take control of the multibillion-dollar industry.
Here's the highlights (sound bites) of "Obliviongate" translation into English:
Senator Hillary Clinton: “Today's report is yet further proof that we need to make sure parents have the tools and support they need to make informed decisions for their children.”Translation: Hmmm... can I help my career by legislating a new, thriving industry and exciting art form out of existence? Only if can do it before the people who really know and care about it learn that they are old enough to vote!
Senator Joe Lieberman: "We do want to ensure that these videos are not purchased by minors. Our bill will help accomplish this by imposing fines on those retailers that sell M-rated games to minors.”Translation: Let's make the ESRB a new federal legislative body so their rules become LAW, punishable by fines and imprisonment!
ESRB president Patricia Vance: "ESRB recognizes that parents must be made aware of the change as quickly as possible so they are certain to have the most current and accurate information."Translation: See? We are responsive! Better than most government legislative bodies!
ESRB: "The content causing the ESRB to change the rating involves more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as the presence of a locked-out art file or 'skin' that, if accessed through a third party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters."Translation: Parents are complaining that the game's got boobies. But let's cover our butts by noting the blood and gore, too.
ESRB (Patricia Vance, I assume): "It is increasingly important for parents to realize that PC games can be altered through the use of downloadable programs created by other players called 'mods' (short for modification), which are broadly available on the Internet and can change the content of a game. Since players create them, it is impossible for ESRB or any rating service to consider them in assigning a rating. However, some mods can alter a game in ways that may not be appropriate for younger players and may be inconsistent with the ESRB rating, so parents should be aware of their existence and, as always, do their best to monitor their child's gameplay."Translation: We are not the clueless n00bs. We know about mods. If you don't watch what your kids download, it's your own fault, not ours! And by the way, Senators, you couldn't do a better job at this either, 'k?
Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association: "As evidenced by the most recent FTC study, the nation's leading retailers now require identification for the purchase of Mature-rated games at approximately the same rate as the movie theatres do for R-rated film admission. When we were notified of the game's ratings change today, we alerted our member company representatives who communicated to their stores the change in the game's rating. The effective change in sales policy was immediate... Of note in this matter is the speed at which retailers reacted and parents were empowered..."Translation: We can take care of ourselves, Senators!!!! See how good we are? Please don't legislate us out of existence!
Bethesda Softworks (developers of Oblivion): "Bethesda, not its co-publisher, developed the game, handled the ratings application before the ESRB, and stands behind it."Translation: Please don't take your grudge against Take-Two out on us!!!
Bethesda Softworks:"We will not contest the ESRB's decision to re-rate the game as Mature, nor will we change the game's content to keep a Teen rating... No product recall is being directed."Translation: As long as Wal*Mart will still carry it, it's cheaper to leave it this way!
Multiple Oblivion Fans: "Props to Bethesda!"Translation: Mmmm... boobies!
Bethesda Softworks: "Bethesda didn't create a game with nudity and does not intend that nudity appear in Oblivion. There is no nude female character in a section of the game that can be `unlocked.' Bethesda can not control tampering with Oblivion by third parties. "Translation: Oh CRAP! I thought we removed that texture from the release build!
Bethesda Softworks: "We gave accurate answers and descriptions about the type and frequency of violence that appears in the game. We submitted a 60-page document listing the explicit language, acts, and scenes in the game. Oblivion packaging already contains warnings for 'Violence' and 'Blood and Gore.'"Translation: You said that the violence was okay, you just didn't want us to have any boobies!
Bethesda Softworks: "We value the role of the ESRB and believe the rating agency plays a valuable role in regulating our industry. As always, we will continue work in good faith to comply fully with the ESRB's standards and policies."Translation: We can take care of ourselves, Senators!!!! See how good we are? Please don't legislate us out of existence!
ESRB President Patricia Vance: "Though Bethesda may believe their submission was 'full, accurate and comprehensive,' our investigation proved otherwise, forcing us to correct what was found to be an inaccurate rating."Translation:It's not our fault!
California Assemblyman Leeland Yee (who's anti-videogame law was struck down on Constitutional grounds several months ago): "The ESRB again has failed our parents and clearly has shown they can not police themselves. Plain and simply, the current rating system is drastically flawed and here is yet another reason why we need legislation to assist parents and protect children."Translation: And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for that danged Bill of Rights!
Thursday, May 04, 2006
RPG Combat Design
So a few weeks ago I talked about interesting "non-combat" possibilities in computer roleplaying games (RPGs). And so now I'm gonna talk about combat.
I've played a few roleplaying games, both pen-and-paper and the computer (CRPG) variety. In particular, with CRPGs, combat boils down to this:
You have two stats - health and magic (or mana, or power, or whatever they want to call it - a battery that powers special abilities). Those are your primary resources you are trying to preserve between locations where they get restored to full. You may have access to some form of restoration items which can partially or fully restore your health or "magic battery". In combat, you can use boring, "Free" attacks, use powers that draw from your magic battery stat, or bring limited-use items to bear. The objective is to reduce the enemy's health stat to zero while minimizing the consumption of your own resources (health / magic / items), as you may need them in later combats.
In many Massively Multiplayer RPGs, the two primary stats restore over time rather than geography, though geography may play a role.
The virtues of this system is that it is simple to understand, flexible, and generic enough to get a new coat of paint slapped on it to appear different. It can also have a few extra systems layered on top of it to give it depth without much effort (Like Final Fantasy 8's "Guardian Force" system). Some games have spiced it up a little bit with a "stamina" stat or something, which is really just a secondary "magic" stat (once you run out of stamina, all your attacks weaken...)
But can't we have RPGs with a little more interesting systems? The great-granddaddy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, has a spell memorization system which was adopted mainly to simplify tabletop play and enforce variety. But that was dropped in Dungeons & Dragons Online, in favor of a more generic spell point system. This was partly due to the fact that adventures in DDO have about 5x the combat of the tabletop "Dice & Paper" game. Neverwinter Nights preserves the dice & paper system - and it's every bit as complex and cumbersome to use in real-time combat as one might imagine.
One of the most interesting system I've played from the Dice & Paper world was the game, "Mage: The Ascension." As one might expect from the title, magic played a big role in the game. But there were no spell points. In fact, there weren't really SPELLS, exactly. You had nine 'spheres' of mastery which covered pretty much everything in the universe: Time, Matter, Forces, Distance ("Correspondance"), Spirit, Life, etc. So long as the combination of sphere mastery could allow you to do something, you could give it a shot to cast a 'spell' to do anything you can imagine.
So what was the limit, without spell points? Instead of being limited to a finite quantity of castings, the characters had basically a meter of 'risk', called Paradox, which accumulated over time. The more major the effect you were trying to produce, the greater the chance of failure and gaining Paradox. Or in the case of truly blatant spells, Paradox would just happen to some degree anyway. As Paradox grew - either from cumulative spell-casting or from a really tremendous screw-up with a really big spell - it increased the chance of Bad Things happening to the caster (and anyone else close to Ground Zero when it finally blew).
So while it might be theoretically possible for a mage to summon a fire-breathing dragon in the middle of Madison Avenue during rush hour, mages who survived long enough to be able to do such a thing knew better than to try. It just wasn't worth the risk.
This played well into a game system and universe where music was supposed to be secret and subtle. Not the best video-game (or movie) fodder, but it made for high drama. But it was also danged confusing and off-putting for many players. It was too open-ended for many. And players as a rule don't like being subject to awful misfortune by sheer chance. They love it when their OWN weapons score a critical hit against the bad guys --- but anything negatively effecting them has to be highly predictable and controllable or they get annoyed.
Which is why things like Spell Fizzles and monsters making their saves on high-powered spells REALLY piss off players and make them moan and groan to no end on Massively Multiplayer bulletin boards. It's one thing to know that a spell has a 5% chance of failure... but to actually have it fail when it really COUNTS is something else!
One other thing that Mage (and its predecessor of a similar system, "Vampire the Masquerade") did was to partially get rid of the abstract "health" measurement as well. Depending upon your character's constitution, powers, and the type of damage inflicted, you had the chance of reducing the impact of damage even to the point of nothing. The remainder afflicted you in a cumulative fashion, reducing your character's abilities and eventually killing him (or her).
Curiously, the computer game adaptations of Vampire the Masquerade eschewed this novel idea for a more straightforward and "safe" health stat, straight out of D&D, Ultima, Final Fantasy, and about every other CRPG ever seen.
So there ARE alternatives to the traditional (overused?) two-stat "race to be last to zero hitpoints" combat systems out there. It doesn't seem like you'd need too much to innovate in this area.
I guess my questions are:
* What alternatives have been tried before in computer or console RPGs?
* Why haven't they caught on? Or is the hitpoint / magic point system a "perfect" system that can only be embellished and not improved upon (it ain't broke, so no sense fixing it...) ?
* Am I really just rambling incoherently because I need more sleep?
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
At the Utah Indie Game Dev Meet last week, Dreamer asked me to explain my reasoning behind moving from Milkshape to Blender for 3D modeling. Tonight I'm coming off of a bit of a high for getting an animation done in Blender that worked flawlessly in Torque on the first try, so I figured --- why not now?
First off - I love Milkshape. My previous modeling experience was in SoftImage version that was circa 1997. I never quite figured it out. Milkshape was a piece of cake to model with. So for ease of learning, it absolutely rules. It also supports a bazillion model formats for importing and exporting, which makes it continue to be useful to me as an intermediate tool. Just translating between file formats (especially as I work with modelers who use Lightwave and 3DSMax) is worth the price of the package.
But there are two CRITICAL areas in which Milkshape sucks (or at least it did, I am a couple of versions behind now). Animation, and texturing. In fact, most recommendations I see for handling texturing and animation in Milkshape rely upon using external tools (such as CharacterFX for the animation and I think Ultimate Unwrap for the texturing).
Blender3D was a bit of a beast to get over the learning curve. Ah, who am I kidding... I'm still in the middle of the learning curve. But I'm enjoying myself and producing stuff now. Nothing to write home about, but things that look vaguely like they are supposed to at a distance. But it was free (always a plus), and included (supposedly) solid animation and texturing capabilities - including neat-sounding features like Inverse Kinematics (something I understand in theory but haven't used), and LSCM unwrapping (which is NEAT!!!).
Now, most of the complaints I have heard about Blender stem from the fact that it has an interface that is counter-intuitive to users of other modeling packages (namely Maya, Lightwave, and 3DSMax). Since I am not a user of those software packages, I really have nothing to compare it to - except Milkshape. My brain doesn't go so far back as to remember the SoftImage stuff.
I've pretty much been learning Blender one tool or trick at a time. I discovered the knife tool after watching one of Nigel Syme's OUTSTANDING tutorial videos, and suddenly I found myself using it everywhere. Oh, and merging vertices. Then I learned a few more tricks. And hotkey combinations. I still think I'm only tapping about 10% of Blender's power right now, but that's enough to get things done. And I can do texturing and animation right there from within the tool, and the capabilities seem pretty solid.
The only thing missing right now is some exporter issues - which Joseph Greenawalt has been addressing with near superhuman powers. I've got a bug right now in sorting polygons in the exporter with transparencies. Apparently the Milkshape exporter WORKS with sorting transparencies, so I may have to fire up the ol' Milkshape editor to get things working right, after all. (Then see if I can remember how to use it...)
Of course, bear in mind I am a PROGRAMMER, not a 3D modeler or artist. So my version of "productivity" may be skewed somewhat by my programmer bias, and I may find some things intuitive to me that a 'real' artist would find completely and utterly non-intuitive to the point of being painful. But I've seen some amazing 3D renderings coming out of the Blender community - so I guess some artist-types are finding it useful.
Oh, and one more thing: If you are trying to learn Blender, I can't recommend Nigel Symes' tutorial videos highly enough. They are mostly Torque-oriented, but most of the tutorials should be valuable to you no matter what engine you are using. You can find them here:
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Pachelbel's Canon on Electric Guitar
They should sign up this JerryC guy for one of the bonus tracks on Guitar Hero II:
The backup arrangement is kinda so-so, but DANG I wish I could play like this.
EDIT: The guy in the video is only doing a cover of the original - not that it makes his awesome guitarist skillz any less l337. To give credit where credit is due, here's JerryC's website:
He has videos of himself (also playing in his bedroom, apparently) doing Canon and other musical pieces, all of which are pretty dang good. Check it out!
Those of you who read my article about creating a computer role-playing game in one week will be unsurprised that I'm a fan of Python. It's an incredibly powerful little language, completely open and easy to distribute in a compact package (unlike Java). The PyGame SDK is likewise pretty handy for getting simple, 2D games up and running with little fuss.
I got back into fiddling with Python and PyGame a bit over the weekend. I was rapidly prototyping a game idea I'd had last week - something extremely weird and I *HOPE* might be considered wildly innovative. The problem with this is that there's no well-defined "models" for this sort of thing that I can fall back on to use as a foundation for the gameplay. This means its going to have to spend a lot of time in "incubation." This means talking it out with friends and brainstorming; getting ideas on paper; and for ME, it means getting some ideas down into code to I can play with it.
One of the things PyGame is missing horribly is a set of UI widgets like buttons, text-entry boxes, and so forth. I found a handful of them at pygame.org, but most of them failed to run 'out of the box.' Since I was concerned about rapidly prototyping the idea and didn't want to learn the ins and outs of properly installing these utilities, I skipped them and kept going. Eventually I stumbled across Phil's PyGame Utilities (PGU), and it didn't take too long before I figured them out and using them in the game prototype. They are still not very "mature", complete, or bug-free, but they work pretty well and have so far proven very flexible.
PGU's layout system is kind of weird, following the model for HTML tables - but if you are used to doing HTML table layouts, it will be familiar. It also includes some 2D level editing tools. I got past most of the learning curve now (it only took a few hours) I think, so hopefully I can start being productive and throwing some ideas together in the near future. I don't know how well any of this would work in an actual production-quality application, but for learning game development or rapid prototyping this looks to be a winner.
It's also a lot of fun to work with Python and PyGame again, if only for a little while.
Labels: Game Design