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Sunday, July 30, 2006
 
What is an indie game?
"What is an independent game?" This question gets asked a lot, but I've yet to see an answer that clearly defines an independent game. You'd think that as a maker and seller of indie games, I'd be able to whip out a definition really easily. But it's not so easy after all.

Borrowing From The Movies
A few months ago, curious about the "independents" of other industries, I looked up the definition of independent film. I saw this definition on wikipedia:

"An independent film (or indie film) is a film initially produced without financing or distribution from a major movie studio. "

I like this because it sounds fairly cut-and dried. I like to apply a similar definition to indie games:

"An independent game (indie game) is a game initially produced without financing or distribution from a major game publisher."

Sounds nice and simple, right? But it raises a lot of questions, too.

Define "Major". Or "Distribution."
After all, what constitutes a "major" game publisher? Sure, if it's Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Sony, or Microsoft, we can safely call them major. If it's someone like Rampant Games, well, it's clearly NOT in the major leagues. But what about all the guys in-between?

And distribution... does this mean that if your game gets out on a console, that it shouldn't be considered indie? Because the console manufacturers are certainly all major players in the industry, and they control the distribution. I can't agree with a definition that would exclude all the XBox LiveArcade titles, or Behemoth's Alien Hominid.

What About Budget?
There is also an argument (espoused by Russell Carroll, the editor-in-chief of GameTunnel.com, "the" indie game review site) that budgetary restrictions should be incorporated into the definition of indie-hood. This came to a head in 2004, when the game "Savage" walked away with not only multiple awards from the Independent Gaming Festival (IGF), but was also the talk of IGF. Russell referred to this as a "
very dark day for the future of Indie gaming." Savage was not financially backed by any major game publisher, but the developers still had a rumored 1.5 million dollars in external investment and funding. That wasn't far from the the average budget of a major retail game at the time. Was this uneven playing field fair to the "real" garage-building, self-funded independent games projects that year?

It's All About Control.
Dan MacDonald suggests another defining characteristic of independent games, that they be free of an external "controlling interest" during development. While Dan's arguments are a little more exclusionary than I'd agree with, I think this characteristic strikes pretty close to the mark.

There's a difference between influence and control. Sure, game development is going to be influenced by all kinds of external forces - the market, the investors, the prospective publishers. But to me, the deciding factor is in whoever has the final say and the right to take their ball and go home.

In traditional "mainstream" game development, that almost always goes to the publisher. They tend to demand most or all the rights to a title as part of their contract. They can cancel the game, and it will be DEAD. They might also decide to shop the game around to another developer. That's pretty much as non-indie as you can get.

In contrast, the essence of indie games is this: With indie games, it is the game / designer / developer that is IN CONTROL. All that other middleman crap that the industry seems to be about today become COMMODITIZED to serve the game, rather than the other way around.

The publishers, the investors / financers, the contractors, the marketing departments... From an indie perspective, those guys can either help or get out of the way.

So - here goes my final (for the next hour at least) distinction between an INDIE and NON-INDIE game:

If a game couldn't have been made or distributed without required APPROVAL (even if only a formality) from another party, then it's not an indie game. This includes approval from publishers, a board of directors, a committee, one's mother, whatever.

That's a fuzzy declaration, but it'll have to do, and that's pretty much what being an indie is all about. To me.
Friday, July 28, 2006
 
Utah Indie Game Dev Night - Summer 2006
Greg Squire beat me to the punch this time around on the report on the indie night. It was the biggest turnout yet - though fortunately not by as large of a margin as last time:

Greg Squire's Utah Indie Game Dev Night Report

In all honesty, I kinda gave up trying to see everything this time around - even though I didn't show a demo this time in order to see more. Frankly, it's starting to get to be too much to keep track of. That's not a bad thing - I think it's awesome that Utah is building up such a thriving indie community.

First of all - yes, there were some companies hiring / recruiting there. ITT Tech, of course, as well as Wahoo / NinjaBee and Head Gate. ITT Tech has a game design program here in Utah (!) as of 9 months ago, and it's a Bachelor's degree that kinda piggybacks off their multimedia arts Associates Degree program. Ray Rackiewicz was looking to reach out to the indie community here (WOW! We are a community now! Awesome!), possibly recruit students, possibly recruit instructors, keeping abreast of "real world" needs in the games industry, and I'm sure finding out what kind of employment opportunities might be available was on his to-do list as well. It was great having him and several of his students there.

A few things that really impressed me last night:

Vespers 3D
This has been blogged about over at GarageGames in the past, and I was impressed then. Seeing it in action was even more fascinating. The idea here is to take an old, classic "interactive fiction" game, and wrap that TYPE of gameplay in a 3D world. This isn't just doing a graphical adventure, and it's not just about adding pictures to a text adventure. Mike (it WAS Mike, right?) was explaining how they were trying to find a find balance between the hardcore Interactive Fiction crowd (many of whom are none to happy about corrupting the purity of the text adventure with pictures), and those who will be playing the game specifically because of it's beautiful graphics (and may not want to bother to read).

The interesting thing here for me, personally, is that the game here is just as tightly limited in scope as the original adventure, which occured largely in one (large) location - a monestary on a mountain above a village. There are six NPCs (other monks, I understand) to interact with. The pacing and action of the classic text adventure game is slow and methodical. It's about problem solving and logic. Think about this for a moment from the perspective of an indie:

We're talking a FRACTION of the content requirements of a mainstream first-person perspective game. Think about the beautiful architecture of those Unreal 3 videos and screenshots - and how players will largely just blow past it without sparing it a second glance in the middle of a team deathmatch. But in this sort of game, a handful of locations are your game. You could focus on quality instead of quantity. Granted, the slower pace might not appeal to all audiences. But it struck me as a brilliant idea.

Besides, wouldn't it be COOL to do Zork again in a 3D world? Well, maybe. I don't know if the graphics could ever match my own mental image of the Great Underground Empire. But I can dream...

I Got Balls 3
Victor apparently has a goal of having a new game every Indie Night. His Flat Red Ball technology is REALLY friggin' cool *AND* it's absolutely free, as are his games. He calls it his "anti-profit plan." While some may question his sanity, none can question his talent. If you are a new indie looking for technology to begind game development on an extremely limited budget, I'd recommend taking a look at what Flat Red Ball can do. I didn't see it in action, but I heard numerous reports about how awesome his tools were, especially his GUI creation tools.

I Got Balls 3 is a Snood-style game which is playable multiplayer. We used XBox controllers plugged into the USB ports on Victor's laptop and... well, we had a ball. It's a fun little game - and was completed in only about 3 months. That alone is extremely impressive.

Caster
Mike Smith's "Caster" has been a regular demo at about every Indie Night since we started. It's coming along very nicely now - it looks VERY different from the original version we saw a year ago. The graphics and special effects are really starting to look polished, and the gameplay has evolved quite a bit.

Mike and I had a little bit of a discussion about where he wants to go from here, though, and he's got ideas for a new game that will take MUCH better advantage of the technology he's created for Caster. It'll be a related project --- and frankly sounds like a winner. Now if we can just get him to FINISH Caster... 'cuz I wanna play the finished version!

Anyway, those are some of my observations this time around. Once again, I left the meeting feeling like an under-achiever. There is some great enthusiasm and great titles coming from the Utah indie community, and I'm just thrilled to be a small part of it.

 
Who Wants To Be A Superhero?
I came home tonight from the latest Utah Indie Game Developer's Meet (I'll post information on that in an upcoming post or two...), and my wife pulled me into the living room to show the video she'd taped earlier of the new "surreality show," Sci Fi's new, "Who Wants To be A Superhero."

Yes, I'd asked her to tape it. It had "train wreck" written all over it, but even train wrecks can be morbidly fascinating. I figured I'd watched the first episode, laugh at it, and then be done.

Surprisingly enough, it didn't suck. I mean, it was all about cheese, but it KNOWS that and doesn't take itself seriously. There's plenty of silliness and outrageous humor of people running around in costumes pretending to be superheroes. But Stan Lee has the presence to make it work. At one minute he's hamming it up, too, not exactly breaking character but still clearly showing he's in on the whole gag and understands how hillarious it all is. But then, suddenly, he gets serious and brings home the point that the contestants are being judged on basic human virtues, and that failure is something they really should be ashamed of. And he makes it stick.

It's an interesting twist to go from something outrageously comedic to a something serious and believable pretty quickly. It was bizarre but I enjoyed it. I guess I'm a sucker for all things superheroic - even the silly (hey, I liked the movie "Mystery Men" after all).

Anyway - if the future episodes are as enjoyable as the first one, I think I may have been sucked in. It might not be a train wreck after all.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
 
Why Cooperative Multiplayer Is Best
The first cooperative gameplay in a videogame that I remember experiencing was in an Atari 2600 game called "Starmaster." It was not a multiplayer game. Starmaster used all the toggles on the Atari's main console (normally reserved for switching between color and black & white, or selecting a game mode) as extra controls beyond the main controller (which was only a joystick and a single fire button). This meant you had to play the game sitting right next to the main console to switch between combat mode & navigation mode. Or you could do what my best friend, Kevin, and I would do. We organized play by switching off in Star Trek style between being the pilot and "navigation." One person manned the joystick controller, the other manned the console at the pilot's orders.

It wasn't intended to be played that way, but we had a lot of fun. We jokingly nicknamed each other "Captain Quark" and "Captain Smirk" or something when we alternated acting as the pilot. We cracked jokes and made fun of the game and ourselves the whole night --- and played until about 2 in the morning. Our cooperative "metagame" made Starmaster much more fun.

Years later, during my freshman year of college. Some friends and I decided to go hit the Pie Pizzaria across the street from campus for some late night snacking and chatting. We saw the arcade game "Gauntlet" sitting in the corner, which I'd played a couple times on my own with only lukewarm interest. Three of us put in quarters and tried the simultaneous play. We had a DELERIOUSLY fun time helping each other out when we got in trouble, getting into brief arguments over who needed the food more, or coordinating who'd hold off the monsters while someone else went after the monster generator.

After a couple of dollars' worth of quarters, I became convinced that Gauntlet was one of the most brilliant game designs of all time.

My favorite boardgames for more than 2 players are those with a strong cooperative element. Supremacy. Cosmic Encounters. Arkham Horror. Arkham Horror is probably my favorite boardgame ever (now in a brand-new and expensive edition), and it's got such a strong cooperative element that we rarely ever keep score of who "won" the game - beating the doom of Arkham is enough of a victory for all.

Time and time again, my favorite multiplayer game experiences have been the ones when I've been working WITH other players instead of AGAINST them. Sure, there's a great thrill in the duels against friends, some of them memorable, but the cooperative (or at least team-based) always seem sweeter to me. You can take a look at the Game Moments Index - there are three stories (currently) about coop gameplay, and only one about player-versus-player - and that was against a close friend. And of course, most MMO players are aware of how much more popular the "PvE" (cooperative, more-or-less) games and servers are over their heavily "PvP" counterparts.

Yet for some reason, when I created Void War, I focused on player-versus-player. There were a lot of reasons, but the most powerful ones were simply the prejudices I carried with me from being a hard-core gamer and working in the mainstream game industry... PvP was where it was AT, baby! Cooperative modes were harder to develop, anyway, and not as sexy, so they were always an "optional" feature that tended to get dropped near the end of the schedule.

After Void War was released and I got a chance to talk and play with actual customers and interested players, I discovered that a lot (I'd say, the vast majority) of players were reluctant to try the game online. Why bother? Victory against total strangers is hollow, especially if you aren't sharing the experience with a friend. And as a newbie, who wants to be humiliated by said strangers with far more experience?

This isn't just the case with Void War, of course. This is true of many other games. My own shelves are full of multiplayer games, and I've only played a fraction of them online - and half of those have only been BY APPOINTMENT with friends. My own little community that transcends fandom of individual games. Shouldn't this be telling me something?

By comparison, with cooperative modes, players who don't feel a pressing need to prove their alpha-geekness are more encouraged to play multiplayer. They can have a mentor (a more experienced player - often the friend who encouraged them to play the game) covering their butt. Any "embarassment" of failure in a cooperative game will not be ridiculed by opposing players. An inexperienced player may expect some level of help from other players as they strive together for a common goal. A player who isn't inspired or encouraged by "smack-talk" is unlikely to have to endure it. They are more likely to be welcomed as an asset by a team battling computer-controlled opponents than as a liability in a team-vs-team game where they become one more target for the enemy to score against.

In short, it's a much friendlier, welcoming environment for new players. It's a way to ease people in, encourage more sociability, and build community.

My own feeling now is that, in the future, ASSUMING I am designing a multiplayer game, cooperative gameplay will be the top priority. PvP will be the optional feature to add if there's room in the schedule.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006
 
Omega Syndrome sale extended!
After a bit of virtual arm-wrestling (well, an email that asked nicely, "Please"), I managed to get the sale on The Omega Syndrome extended an extra day. So if you were meaning to grab it at the 50% off price, now's the time. I expect we've got about another 24 hours left.



The Omega Syndrome is a roleplaying game set in 1959, starting in the top-secret headquarters of The Majority Group, a secret government organization that, among other things, keeps the country's dealings with UFO's and aliens a secret. But something has gone horribly wrong, and the research base has gone silent.

The Omega Syndrome features real-time or turn-based combat (I'm a traditionalist - I prefer the turn-based). It's quirky, stylish, and fun. And proves that RPGs don't have to just be about wizards and elves!
 
Cloning Clyde Is Pop Culture Now
I guess our ("our" meaning NinjaBee, not Rampant Games) new XBox 360 title Cloning Clyde is making a few waves... Joseph Lieberman (the indie marketing guru, not the senator) found this comic today, and it had me about falling out of my chair:



Massive thanks to allgames.com for this hillarious little treat.

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Cybernetic Telepathy?
A friend pointed me to this little news story:

Surfing the Web With Nothing But Brainwaves.

Okay, now I'm as much a technophile as your next geek. And I was thrilled when I read about games that were controllable with nothing but your brain. But this is both exciting and, frankly, frightening. Anyone remember Pat Cadigan's book "Synners?" In it someone develops the first computer virus that infects humans plugged into the 'Net with their brain implants. Talk about network security concerns! Can I get my brain a spam filter?

But even sticking close to the here and now (well, the here and possibly not-too-distant future): The article mentions "Network-Enabled Telepathy". And using that for conference calls! Do you really want to expose yourself to the knowledge of how much your co-workers REALLY think about sex?

I shudder.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
 
The Omega Syndrome - Improved and On Sale
The Omega Syndrome, an independent computer role-playing game by the Australian Game Developers, is now available at Rampant Games. Not just available... I managed to sneak it in while it's still on a a half-price offer by the developer to celebrate this new-and-improved version.

It's supposed to be on sale through the 27th, but that's Australia time, which is nearly a day ahead of some of us, so I can only commit to the sale lasting through the 26th here. So you've got a few hours.

Even if you miss the sale, I recommend giving The Omega Syndrome a try. It's a bit more "hardcore" than some of the other RPG offerings at Rampant Games (such as Aveyond or Cute Knight), but it's definitely a unique and fun little game.

The Omega Syndrome draws inspiration from a lot of different sources. For gameplay, it seems reminiscent of the classic PC RPG, "Fallout." The setting and storyline seem like a mix of the X-Files TV series, dozens of B-grade sci-fi movies of the 50's and 60's, and a ton of UFO lore that came out of the last half-century.

Me? I personally geek out on the retro-style artwork, like the piece above. And I am really happy about seeing an RPG that's not just generic medieval fantasy. But I may be jaded in that respect :).

Anyway, check out the game today. That way if you like it, you can still sneak in on the sale price and save yourself a Hamilton. Or whatever your currency equivalent is. If you don't - hey, it's a free game demo! That's the beauty of try-before-you-buy, right?

So check it out!

As always, have fun!
Monday, July 24, 2006
 
Teenagers and D&D
Our kids are now getting together to play Dungeons and Dragons. And they excitedly recount their adventures to us, filled with stories of battling Mind Flayers with energy-swords. We parents (still playing tabletop RPGs together on Saturday nights, a tradition which has lasted years) are so proud of our little geeks. For one thing, we feel like we've done our duty as geek-parents, passing along the tradition to the next generation. But we are also thrilled for ulterior motives. None of the kids read this blog (I hope), so I will outline our cunning little plan (passed to us by OTHER geeky parents):

Dungeons and Dragons is EVIL and Makes Kids Insane
When I began playing tabletop "Dice and Paper" Role-Playing Games (RPGs) at age 12, the same kind of anti-videogame hysteria you see now was aimed primarily at Dungeons and Dragons. The arguments pretty much boiled down to one of two things:

#1 - The game contains spells and demons, so it's supernaturally EVIL

or

#2 - The game is so involving that damages the delicate psyche of impressionable young people and makes them believe it is real or act out the events of the game in real life.

The second argument is pretty much the same as the one leveled by our great local and federal leaders right now towards videogames, unfortunately. I don't think it has any more truth to it now than it did then, but it still strikes a believable chord with people. In the early 1980's, you also had the book and movie "Mazes and Monsters," a fictionalized account of James Dallas Egbert III's dissapearance down university steam tunnels, based primarily upon the sensationalized news accounts and theories.

Of course, all that conspiracy theory stuff and anti-Dungeons-and-Dragons hype only fueled sales of the game, helping it gain mainstream attention. That was probably how I ended up playing in the first place, but we had to contend with some issues and disapproval with our playing. At one point, when friends and I were playing D&D at lunch time in Junior High, the principle came over to ask us about the game. He mentioned not-so-casually how the game had been banned from schools in a nearby county, after one player had committed suicide "after having a curse cast on him."

Yeah, we'd heard that story. The boy's mother was trying (and eventually failed) to sue TSR (the makers of Dungeons and Dragons) because D&D had caused her son's suicide. Nevermind that he'd had a long history of drug abuse and attempted suicide attempts that predated his gaming by a fair margin. The truth behind the story didn't much appeal to people though - they were more fascinated by the fantastic: a story that a mere game could drive normal teenagers insane.

Sorta like how folks like to blame the Columbine Massacre on Doom, eh? Same story, different characters. But I digress. Moving right along...

So Support Your Local Adventurers!
My wife's forays into tabletop Role-Playing-Games as a teenager went a bit more smoothly. She was a little more of a reluctant player at first, but her friend Sara's parents were both pretty canny and saw past the hysteria. They stocked their basement rec-room area with plenty of junk food for their daughter's gamer-friends. They'd only periodically pop their heads in to check on the crowd, making sure that everyone was doing fine, having fun, and had all the food they needed.

Well, Sara's friends just figured Sara had the coolest parents in the world. Many weekends had the "gang" there hanging out - boys & girls together, playing Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, or various board and card games. I got to experience this same hospitality first-hand while I was in college, working in California the summer before Julie & I got married. Julie was out of town at the time, but she directed her friends - when they were home briefly from school during the summer - to take me in and give me something to do (other than playing Wing Commander on the computer). Sara's parents still provided soda and gummi worms (which I put to use as props, since I was running a game of Call of Cthulhu).

The Method to the Madness?
Years later, my wife and I were talking about whether or not we'd encourage our kids to play roleplaying games. We talked about the support Sara's parents gave. A realization dawned on us from our perspective as new parents:

Julie's high school had the usual problems with kids and alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy, and so forth. Probably a little more so than average in the mid-80's. And here was a group of kids - mixed boys and girls - VOLUNTARILY remaining under nominal adult supervision, hanging out and interacting with each other by playing games. And the kids just thought Sara's parents were being so cool, supporting their kids engaging in such controversial activities.

Sara's parents were frickin' GENIUSES!

So we're carrying on the tradition - at least for those of our kids who are enjoying it. So far it hasn't dawned on them how uncool it is to play something their parents play. We'll relish it while it lasts. And we'll keep listening to their stories of battling mind-flayers with energy swords.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
 
Gremlins
Hmmm....

Ever do a System Restore and find that non-system files of some work that you've been doing suddenly dissapeared or reverted to a previous version (in the case of source code, bugs you recently fixed came back, etc)?

Neither had I. Until today.

It's an absolutely bizarre situation. I had source files completely dissapear, and when I switched to do a system restore on a more recent date, they came back. I don't know how these got marked as system files, but I'm absolutely astonished. Or I'm just losing my mind.

It must be gremlins.
Friday, July 21, 2006
 
Yes, Virginia, There Is Money In Indie Games
There are lots of questions that get asked by newcomers to indie games like, "How much money can I make making indie games?" or, "How much money does the average independent game make?", or "How much money should I expect to make with my first game?" These are always difficult questions to answer, because it's like asking, "What do animals eat?" There are way too many variables to account for.

Fortunately, Cliff Harris of Positech Games, in a show of company transparency and a willingness to share what he's learned with others, has provided a some great sales data for his games at GameProducer.net. I'd like to offer a big ol' tip o' the beanie to Cliff for providing this data, and to Juuso at GameProducer.Net for posting it:

Positech Games Sales Data

Note that this can also be taken in context with a previous report of sales from last year to get an more interesting picture.

Cliff Harris (AKA "Cliffski") has become something of a hero of the indie game development community of late because he's been relatively successful selling games that are not knock-off casual-game portal-fodder. He's making the games he wants to make - now full-time. He's a "lone wolf" game developer in a world that has told us over and over again that there ain't no such thing anymore. He does most of his sales on his own site, rather than relying on portals for his primary distribution means.

He's doing it his way. And based on the numbers he provided GameProducer.net, he's making a go of it. Going over this and some previous posts, I found that Cliff's story is one getting told my many other successful indies, though all have a few differences. For those new to indie games, here are some points I noticed that rang familiar. And my apologies to Cliff Harris for dissecting his business like a dead frog in science class here, but I thought the commentary might be useful to other new indies.

It Ain't Time To Buy That Private Island (Yet)
Many newcomers to the videogame industry come with the usual streets-are-paved-with-gold expectations, and soon confront the painful reality that the average indie game DOES NOT SELL. At this point, many disillusioned wannabe developers give up. Some continue down the road, and may still be surprised when their game sales still don't meet their (somewhat reduced) expectations.

The Democracy sales numbers shown in this report are certainly respectable. They may even be impressive to a young, single game fan with dreams and cheap rent. It should be noted that out of the numbers presented, Cliff also has to pay taxes, pay for his electronic payment provider, pay insurance or other "benefits" that many enjoy from full-time employment, and of course continue to invest in his company (advertising, content, tools, etc.).

But it's still a success story. Hopefully Kudos will do just as well or even better, and take Cliff from "surviving as a full-time indie game developer" to "getting rich as a full-time indie game developer."

It Takes A Lot of Time To Become An Overnight Success - Start Small
Another thing to note is that it took Cliff several years (and several tries) to achieve this level of success. I noticed that the sales numbers for Planetary Defense or Kombat Kars weren't listed. I'm going to assume it's because they have generated no income worth mentioning. I'm going to make another assumption that these older games never sold in Democracy-level numbers. Based on some old blog posts of Cliff's, it sounds like a pretty safe assumption. Another point of reference: This post states that the "sells loads" means "sold 46 copies so far this year. "

With those assumptions in place, then it seems Cliff has been gaining this momentum over the course of several years (it LOOKS like Asteroid Defense was released in 1999). He's been building momentum, and learning his chops as an indie (he was already an experienced mainstream game developer). Based on anecdotes from other indie game developers, this is a pretty common pattern.

Steve Pavlina wrote in his article, "Going Full Time":
"Be flexible. As soon as you realize your original plans aren't working, change your approach. You'll shift directions a lot in the beginning until you find what works for you. I can't recall any developers whose first release was a hit. I didn't see decent sales until my fifth release, and that seems about average among the successful shareware developers I know. Your first product will probably fail. And when it does, dump it and get started immediately on the next one."

It's about persistence and hard work. And staying alive in the meantime, I guess.

Multiple Streams of Income
Based on Cliff's notes (hey, I relied heavily on Cliff's Notes in high school!), the income that was a "trivial part of the total" each month, plus the sales of Starships Unlimited and Asteroid Miner, added up to almost 25% of his total income for April (note: I'm subtracting the 10% E-Commerce Provider Fee from the direct sales when calculating that). Obviously, the direct sales of a single game are making up a tremendous part of his income right now. Though I expect Kudos will be a big success, and may even eclipse Democracy as his primary source of income.

Those little streams of revenue may be trickles, but they add up. That's not an insignificant chunk!

Also, shortly after he quit his job as a game developer at Lionhead, Cliff did some contract work for Maxis. As related in yet another GameProducer.net article, that helped "fund" his full-time indie development foray. (Incidentally, that article also relates that part of the inspiration for Kudos came from playing the indie RPG "Cute Knight," available here at Rampant Games!)

A lot of time indie game developers pin their hopes and dreams on the single "home run" title. While I certainly wouldn't complain about having one of those, it seems the safest and smartest approach is to diversify, and rely upon a variety of not only game titles but other means of income. In Cliff's case, he had retail deals (some of which didn't work out as well as planned - beware those who pin their hopes on scoring a retail deal with a major publisher), contract work, and sales through portals.

Front-Loaded Sales Versus Legs
Another thing to note - Asteroid Miner was developed in 1998, 8 years ago, and is still generating a (tiny amount of) income. Based on both reports at GameProducer.net, Democracy's sales have stayed pretty consistent for the last year. I'd be willing to bet that while Starship Tycoon's sales may have dropped somewhat since the game's initial release, they've remained in the same ballpark.

This is just based on what I have seen and heard in the indie games community with other games. Indie, downloadable games tend to have long legs. This is the opposite of the retail "AAA" market, which pushes for extreme front-loading of their sales. Their ideal is to sell every copy of the game to 100% of their potential customers on Day 1, and clear the way for the next game.

And A Counter-Case
Compare this to the story of Pyrogon's demise, another indie company. The original article is now missing, but the archive remains! Note - I respect Brian Hook, and really admire his willingness to share that information as well.

While there are undoubtably a handful of "rags-to-riches" tales out there that grab a lot of press, it usually comes down to a combination of luck, persistence, talent, and tons of hard work. Let's not forget that "Doom" came about only after Wolfenstein 3D, Commander Keen, and a ton of games for a struggling subscription-based software company called "SoftDisk."

Thanks And Good Luck!
Once again, thanks to Cliff Harris of Positech and Juuso of GameProducer.Net for providing this data. And I hope my little commentary might be useful to new game developers and answer some of those questions about money in indie games.

And I'd like to wish Cliff Harris congratulations and good luck with his new game, Kudos!

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Thursday, July 20, 2006
 
My Worst Bug Ever
I'm gonna tell you about a bug that destroyed a game.

Not destroyed as in, "ruined the player's experience so that the game was no fun." I mean as in "put a gun to its head and blew its codey bits so that it was never seen or heard from by mortals again."

The Setting: The Commodore 64
To explain how this worked, I'm first gonna have to talk a little bit about the memory architecture of the Commodore 64, the scene of this particular crime. I'll try not to be too technical here.

Everything that happens on your computer happens in memory (AKA "RAM"). You may store stuff out to your hard drive, but in order for the computer to actually do anything with it, it has to be read off of the hard drive (or CD-ROM, or USB memory stick, or whatever) and put into memory.

The C-64's memory was laid out so that information that was on the screen occured in an area from memory location 1024 to memory location 2024. Think of it as a big block on street. Technical note: This was actually where the character data was stored... the screen was 40 characters wide by 25 lines. 25 x 40 = 1000 characters. So area 1024 to 2024. The color data was stored elsewhere, and there were lots of other fiddley bits in other memory locations you could squirrel with. Like creating custom character sets so that the letter "A" actually looked like a sword. And so forth.

The program memory was the next block down. Starting at location 2048. The program memory was where the actual code for running the game resided. Where I was programming in BASIC. In-between the screen-character memory and the program memory was this little chunk of memory that the system used for other things, and I don't recall what it was used for. But it's not important to the story.

The important thing to remember is that the character memory and the program memory were next-door neighbors, with the program memory just "below" the graphics memory.

The Set-Up
Back in those days, we stored everything on 5 1/4" floppy disks. The Commodore 64's 1541 disk drive was notorious for being both slow and flakey. It was crapping out on us, so my Dad had to take it in to get it repaired. This was on a Thursday, I think. He was supposed to be bringing it on Friday.

Bored Thursday night, unable to play any games without my drive, I decided to work on a game. A cool fake-3D game slightly reminiscent of the maze arcade game in the movie TRON. I got some stuff hacked together, and left the computer on, since I couldn't save my work until the disk drive was back.

Friday came, and I worked on the game some more. I was starting to get a little antsy about having a power outage or something, because by this point I'd probably put 4-5 hours into developing this game. I'd hate to lose it. Finally, 6:00 rolled by, and my dad came home.

Without the Disk Drive. Turns out the shop wasn't able to fix it yet, and they weren't open on the weekend, so he'd have to pick it up on Monday.

That meant I was going to be the entire weekend without a disk drive. No saving my game... no loading anything else up. The computer was pretty much useless for the entire weekend. EXCEPT, I reminded myself, for continued development on my game.

The Final Stretch
So I got back to work on the game, and worked on it off-and-on through Saturday and Sunday. I got it so you could drive around the maze (in sort of a stepwise fashion as seen in the old Wizardry and Bard's Tale games). And I got the enemy ships (which also resembled Recognizers from Tron) to appear. They didn't really move yet - they were static targets. When I got home from school on Monday, I was almost afraid to TOUCH the computer, for fear that I'd accidentally type "new" or something and delete this game on which I now had over 10 hours of development invested.

Still, after the homework was done, I found myself a little bored. It was around 4:00 in the afternoon, my dad wasn't going to be home for a couple of hours, and where our house was located we had LOUSY TV reception. So I shuffled off down to the computer. I'd put a couple more hours into the game, then my dad would come home with the repaired disk drive, I'd save the game, and then life would be back to normal again. I could waste time that night playing Ultima III.

The Gun Shot
It happened with a gunshot. A laser-gun actually.

I had a gun at the bottom of the screen that would fire up, towards a targeting cursor. The algorithm to have the laser (or "bullet") fly to the target was mostly simple. You find the X,Y position of the target on the screen. You find the X,Y position of the bullet (which starts just above the launcher). You subtract the target's position from the bullet's position. That's called the offset, and from that you can figure the direction of the bullet. Move the bullet in that direction every frame.

Now, I was using integer math, so I had to do some funky stuff to get it to fly in something resembling a straight line. One trick I did was recalculate the offset every frame, so the bullet might fly in a slightly crooked path, but would always eventually get to the target.

And then I'd just repeat every frame until the bullet's position was the same as the targeting cursor's position. Then I'd see if the targeting cursor (or laser) was over a valid target, and if so... boom.

Okay, it's pretty primitive stuff. I was something like 13 years old when I did this, cut me some slack! :)

So I tested the game again with the gunshot, about an hour before my Dad was supposed to get home.

I saw the laser appear briefly over the top of the gun, and then that was it. Something was wrong. I waited to see if anything else would happen to help me understand the bug. After a few seconds, I hit the "break" key.

And got a garbled message.

I tried to list my program, and saw nothing but a bunch of garbage. It was impossible to execute, or to even fix, as the computer was not responding correctly.

WHAT HAD I DONE?

Solving the Crime
It took me only a minute to figure out what had happened.

I had made two mistakes:

#1 - I'd calculated the offset between the target and the bullet improperly. Instead of subtracting the bullet's position from the target's, I'd done it the other way around. So the bullet actually tried to fly in the OPPOSITE direction of where it was supposed to go.

#2 - I hadn't written any defensive code to make sure that the bullet was restricted to the screen's position. This isn't something you wanted in final code (as it would slow the game's processing down), but it would have been nice during development.

So my gun had actually fired BACKWARDS. Instead of flying up towards the targeting cursor, it had flown.... down. And since I was directly modifying memory to display the blast, it had fired down out of screen memory, into program memory. It had ripped through program memory, cutting a bloody (well, as bloody as bytes of code can get) swath through the entire thing. In fact, it might have been a double-barrelled hit, as I was also directly writing to color memory at the same time, and that one had gone out-of-bounds.

Eventually, either the image or the color had ripped through the area of RAM that held the actual operating system code that normally got loaded on boot. Thus the garbled error message.

There was nothing left worth saving. Four days of work. I knew the risks, I took the chance, and I still blew it.

An hour later, my dad came home with the newly fixed (or was it simply replaced) disk drive.

It's so nice to have learned these lessons at an early age.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006
 
Cloning Clyde!
Okay, I actually had NOTHING to do with this game. Except I am employed by the company that made it. But still, it's big news, and I'm pretty excited about it:

Cloning Clyde is now out for the XBox 360 Live Arcade!



Yup. So if you've got an XBox 360, download this game and try it out today! It rawks.

I've heard so many old-school gamers e complain about the dearth of side-scrolling platformers, that were a STAPLE of gaming back in the early 90's. Well, NinjaBee got right on that, and this was the result. Something really twisted. And fresh. And different.

Sorry, no PC version is available. It's an XBox 360 exclusive for now. But it's still an indie, downloadable game :)

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006
 
Paradox of Abundance... and Games
There's an interesting little article in the Wall Street Journal today talking about Netflix and how the unlimited choice and unlimited viewing time has caused subscribers to actually watch LESS movies.

For Some Netflix Users, Red Envelopes Gather Dust


Netflix or the Video Store?
Now, part of me reads this and thinks that this article has been sponsored by Hollywood Video - particularly as it corresponds to their latest anti-Netflix advertising campaign ("Well, they sounded good when I ordered them last week.") But there's a big element of truth to it, and it left me pondering.

Now, for my wife and I, we've had the opposite experience. At least so far. We subscribed to Netflix partly because of the selection. Around Halloween time last year, I looked online for lists of the scariest movies of all time. I found dozens. I kept track of many of them, and my wife and I drove to Blockbuster in hopes of bringing home some of these classics.

We found that the selection was... anemic. Now, if you want a "B" grade horror movie produced in the last five years, they probably have all of them. But actual classic horror movies that are more than a decade old? Not so much. We found one of the movies on our list, and called ourselves lucky. We subscribed to Netflix a few weeks later.

At first, we were worried it'd be a waste of money, because we didn't watch that many videos normally. Maybe a couple a month. But we decided to give it a shot - and found that we watch a LOT more videos now than we did before. We've watched a bunch of off-beat or "not-so-current" films that we've really enjoyed. And a few that we didn't. Besides just the availability of these weird titles, I always felt pressure at the video store that if I was going to plunk down $4 *AND* the trip to the video store on a film, it had better be a good one! So I found myself avoiding the "iffy" movies. Now that we're with Netflix, the weird ones don't cost any extra, so I feel a bit more willing to experiment. Sometimes we are delighted by these older, foreign, or offbeat films (almost everyone BUT me has started getting into Indian "Bollywood" movies). Sometimes, not so much (I really tried to enjoy "The City of Lost Children," but it was the one film that we have tried that we ended up not finishing because we just couldn't get into it).

But we haven't had these problems with letting videos sit around for weeks or months at a time. Maybe that only comes after you've been subscribed for a very long time. Maybe we're still riding the high of finally getting the chance to experiment without (significant) risk (and with far more opportunity).

Maybe we're weird.

It Must Be Human Nature
Is this article just overstating the "problem?"

I can certainly understand the elements of human nature that are at work here. When I lived in the Washington DC area, we always joked about the fact that tourists saw more of the town than the natives ever did. The easy availability of the historic sites meant that we didn't feel any pressure to go see them. I had a few of my favorites, of course. I would have LIVED at the National Air and Space Museum if I'd had a chance. But when you live with the Washington Monument always sticking out on the horizon, going to see it up close doesn't seem like such a big treat.

The research project mentioned in the article rings true, with a choice between "low brow" and "high brow" entertainment differing between whether it was something to be viewed RIGHT NOW as opposed to later. This mirrors my own experience going to the video store. It wasn't so much low brow or high brow for me - it was the "safe bet."

Low brow is almost by definition a "safe bet." It's what caters to the tastes of the lowest common denominator.

What's This Have To Do With Games?
I first discovered "shareware" in 1991, while I was going to college. On one of the CD-ROM collections (CD-ROM was the "big thing" at the time) at the university library had a tremendous number of shareware & freeware games. Finding this abundance, I bought a bunch of floppy discs from the bookstore and began copying all these games to disc. Most of these games were small enough that they could fit on a single floppy - sometimes two or three to a floppy disk.

So I took all of these back to my apartment with glee. I had discovered a treasure trove of FREE GAMES! Well, free games and a lot of demos.

I only ended up playing about three-quarters of them. So maybe I'm not so weird after all.

A friend of mine told me that she'd downloaded Void War and Cute Knight, but never actually got around to playing them until days / weeks later.

It's the same kind of problem. With the Internet, there is certainly an abundance of... stuff. Games, information, videos, people spouting off about all kinds of subjects (like me)... it's all out there for cheap or for free. And most indie games (except for the purely casual stuff, though that used to qualify, too) are pretty much what you'd call "off beat" or niche.

So is the lack of perceived scarcity really hurting indie games? Is it resulting in people not even bothing to download or, if they've downloaded it, even play many of these games? If so, what can we do about it?

I dunno. I know I read at least one new review (announcement?) of a free web game every day over on Jay Is Games. You can't GET any more low-risk than that. But I still rarely check them out. It has to really grab my eye and convince me that it's worth spending two minutes of my time. But then I go and get these weird foreign movies and and movies starring people that died before I was born. What's the difference?

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Monday, July 17, 2006
 
The Power of Vision
Many years ago, I did gymnastics. I was never a competitive-level gymnast, or anything, but I did take several classes even up to my senior year in high school. I could do some basic moves on the pommel-horse, I completely sucked on the rings, but I really enjoyed tumbling. Maybe it was the impact of watching too many kung-fu movies or something, but I loved the floor-based acrobatics.

At one point, I was working on the back tuck. That's when you jump in the air (from a standing position when you are first learning it), flip backwards, and land on your feet. No hands. It looked cool. But I couldn't get it down. I spent a week on it, and I still couldn't quite get it. I'd get about three-quarters of the spin in, and come crashing down on my knees on the mat (much to the chagrin of my spotters, who got kinda tired of it).

I went over the move in great detail in my mind. Everything - tucking my knees in as I jumped, how I should move my arms to give me the angular momentum. I envisioned myself in exacting detail making the leap, the tuck, the spin, and then sticking it perfectly at the end. I played it over and over my head, in slow-motion, making sure that my brain had all those details burned into it so that I could execute a flawless back tuck.

And still I failed. Repeatedly. I couldn't figure it out what I did wrong. I asked my instructor, the other students. They all had minor notes and corrections about my form, which I added to my detailed vision to perfect it. I memorized those details in my minds eye, slowly going over every action. In my head, I envisioned pushing off even harder with my feet, and whipping my arms up even harder to give me more momentum. Maybe I just needed more height, and obviously more momentum to help me complete the flip.

I asked my instructor, Mrs. Treadeau, one more time to watch me to see what I was doing wrong. She watched. She told me my height was fine... in fact, I was probably jumping TOO high. The problem was simply that I was too slow on the spin.

So I thought about what I could do differently, checked my mental vision again, and thought of something. My little internal vision of myself doing the back tuck was pretty close to perfect in every detail EXCEPT ONE. You figure out what the problem was yet?

It was the key detail.

In my mind, the vision always played out in slow-motion. Every time. I was thinking about how to make my spin faster, but I wasn't actually envisioning myself doing the tuck at real speeds. I was mindful of the techniques, but not the actual end-result. My brain and body were trying to achieve my vision perfectly - and that included the slow-motion movement that I was enforcing every time I committed to the jump.

Could it be that simple? I didn't think so. But at that point I was willing to try anything. I told my spotters only that I was going to "try something different" this time. They were already used to trying to keep me from landing on my head, so they nodded, resigned.

In my mind, I ran my vision through at HIGH-SPEED. Double-normal time. I envisioned the flip taking place in a blur, and my feet hitting the mat an instant after they had left it. Let's see if THAT would increase my speed!

I made the jump. Once again, my spotters had to keep me from landing on my head. Only this time, it wasn't because I went too slow. No, this time I had actually nearly made a flip-and-a-half. I'd overshot my mark and kept spinning, this time with my new, faster vision.

My spotters were nearly panicked, having not expected anything like this. Mrs. Treadeau had seen me, and had run over to see if I was okay, and to ask what I had done.

It took me a moment to quit laughing long enough to tell them what I'd done. Mrs. Treadeau just shook her head and said, "I told you that you were jumping too high."

The lessons I learned that day are ones that I would like to apply more often in my life. When I do remember them, they serve me well. Based on this (and other) experiences, I extrapolated the following lessons which have proven useful to me in more than just gymnastics:

#1 - Make sure you have a clear and CORRECT vision of your goal. Your body, mind, and spirit will do all kinds of work underneath your consciousness to help you achieve those kinds of goals. But if your goals are vague or flawed, you will get a confused or flawed result.

#2 - A detailed goal is helpful, but not necessary (beyond helping you achieve that clarity). After all, envisioning all those details about the movement of my body and arms to improve my rotation only helped me incrementally. But when I got the final version of my goal right, my body and mind already KNEW subconsciously what to do. I suspect that if your vision is TOO overburdened with details, it will lose clarity. Better to focus on the important parts and critical details, and let the rest take care of themselves.

#3 - Regularly re-focus on your goal! In the example, I would envision the whole thing in my head each and every time before I made my attempt. When you run a real risk of breaking your neck on a critical failure, this kind of discipline comes easy. So I'd envision it dozens of times a day.

#4 - Measure, evaluate your progress, and make corrections to your goal / vision as necessary. I doubt I'd have succeeded on my first try even if I had the perfect vision to begin with. But at the end, I was actually much closer than I thought, and I only needed to make one minor amendment to my vision to succeed (and, in fact, go too far).

#5 - Don't be afraid to ask for outside help, observation, and guidance. Just remember that they can't / won't do it for you - success still has to originate from within yourself.

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We're BAA-ACK!
Didn't notice we were gone, did ya?

The server change went mostly smoothly, except for blogging. Those who posted comments over the weekend might have noticed that their comments never appeared. That has been resolved now, so we should be good to go.

Please let me know if there are any other problems with the game downloads or anything else. You can leave it in a comment, or email me. It's jayb at the expected destination of rampantgames.com.

Thanks!
Thursday, July 13, 2006
 
Wildest Birthday Party EVER
The 1996 Computer Game Developer's Conference had just ended. The big news was DirectX 2 - which now included "Direct3D," an API that promised to allow the poor PC game developers to not have to write custom code for every single piece of brand-new 3D hardware that was coming down the pipe. So immediately after the conference, Microsoft was holding another big party and one-day conference about DirectX.

Early History of Windows Gaming
They did this, because they needed to get game developers on their side. See, the gamers - normally the early adopters of bleeding-edge technology - were mistrustful of Windows 95. After all, initial attempts to get anything approaching a cutting-edge game running on Windows 3.1 had proved disasterous. It was adequate for games of chess and solitaire, but little else. The gamers largely ignored Windows 3.1 and stuck with DOS - Microsoft's original operating system. The one they didn't want to support anymore. The one that gamers wouldn't pay to upgrade anymore.

Only very late in Windows 3.1's lifecycle had Microsoft released WinG, a gaming library that actually made Windows 3.1 adequate for gaming. They managed to get some old arcade games running in a Window - an improvement, but gamers still weren't too impressed at seeing 15-year-old titles finally running under Windows. They were still skeptical.

In 1994, cutting edge was Doom. It was only after John Carmack managed to port Doom to WinG that gamers began to see a glimmer of hope, and think that abandoning DOS might not be a horrible thing for gaming after all. But they needed more convincing. And for that, they needed more games. They needed 3D games, running better than they had in the DOS days.

Alex St. John (now the head of WildTangent) was Microsoft's DirectX Evangelist. Yes, Evangelist is an official position at Microsoft. He managed to convince Microsoft's marketing department to approve a sum of around 1-2 million dollars for this big party and conference to get game developers (and, thus, the gamers) on the side of Windows 95 and DirectX. At least that was his claim when he initially pushed for the party. The truth of the matter was, Microsoft was winning the propoganda war, and game developers were already starting to align themselves with the new platform. So he would be unlikely to get this chance again.

So he threw a really big party. A toga party.

And it just so happened that this party - which my company paid for me to attend - fell on my birthday.

TOGA! TOGA! TOGA!
My wife was very understanding of delaying our family celebration so I could stay on the road and attend this event which would be so critical to my work. (Well, okay, it never was, though I was supposed to be working on PC ports of our titles, they pretty much left me on Playstation stuff until DirectX 5 was the big thing).

Microsoft rented out the basketball stadium at San Jose State University for this event, and chartered busses to take us from the CGDC venue out to the party. As we checked in, they issued us a toga, two cans of Silly String, and a bunch of game tokens minted out with the DirectX logo to be used in the "colliseum" for "the games."

And oh, my, what a party. Donning our togas over our game-conference clothes (CGDC / GDC attire is pretty much jeans-and-T-shirt), we entered "Rome."

First, we got to walk past one of two LIVE LIONS, kept in check by its trainer. Ahead and below, in the center of the stadium, was the food and alcohol. The food was modern approximation of Roman party food - big turkey drumsticks, grapes (of course!), and various other items for over-indulgence by hungry game developers. I can't comment on the alcohol, as I didn't drink any, but it seemed that over-indulgence was planned there, too.

Around the perimeter of the stadium were The Games. Pretty much everything you'd expect to see at a local fair or carnival in an indoor venue. They had human bowling, where one person would get inside a cage-like ball and get rolled into a set of giant pins by a partner. They had tons of inflatable obstacle courses and race tracks, the big sumo-suit wrestling games, and so forth. They also had various "vendors" of game companies that had already signed up as partners to do Win-95 / DirectX games. They'd sell merchandise like T-shirts and hats for the coins that we were issued. The trick was, you were to gamble coins at the games at the games, and thus increase your spending power. In reality, that was really only an issue for the first hour --- once vendors started running out of goodies (and attendees started running out of sobriety), it got kinda sloppy and nobody really cared anymore.

I managed to score a Mechwarrior 2 hat and an ATI sweatshirt.

The Emperor Arrives
Rumors filled the air that some "royalty" or "The Emperor" from Microsoft (keeping vaguely with the Ancient Roman theme, I guess) would be appearing later in the evening. People hoped for Bill Gates himself. And so they stocked up on Silly String. Apparently, Microsoft had purchased 24,000 cans of Silly String for this event! They couldn't give enough cans away. When the trumpets began to blair, and the imperial procession came out, the game developers were ready - armed with multiple cans of silly string.

It was Alex St. John being borne on a litter, with several attendees dressed in roman attire. By the time they got to the stage at one corner of the stadium, Alex St. John was a MOUND of silly-string, and his attendants were cloaked in smelly multicolor robes of the stuff. St. John managed to dig himself out of the pile, though he was still draped in the residue sticking to his hair and clothes. He offered a few comments which I can't remember, and then aired a video of Bill Gates pretending to be the Doom Guy. This video was first shown at a party the previous year - and until it was leaked out onto the Internet last year, it hadn't been seen since.

(It's hard to imagining Bill or any other major corporate figure doing this in the post-Columbine world... ah, those were more innocent times).

Aftermath
The next day, Alex St. John appeared in front of the conference of hung-over game developers (he himself was looking a bit hung-over), and offered a few comments and some demo presentations of what was happening in the DirectX world.

He told us that during the festivities, one of the lions escaped. It didn't escape for long - it's handler managed to get it back on it's leash pretty quickly - but he said he was plagued all night with nightmare visions of newspaper headlines reading, "Drunken Game Developer Mauled By Silly-Stringy Lion."

In the future, he said he would remember that booze, gamers, silly string, and live lions should NEVER mix. Not that he could figure how he could convince Microsoft to part with that much money to let him throw a party like that again.

He also showed some impressive demos. The first was one of my favorite games (at the time, and still): Mechwarrior 2. Being played in right then and there OVER THE INTERNET against another player out in Redmond. Sure, that's old hat now, where you get dozens of players teaming up on a server of thousands on a raid against a dragon in a persistant world in full 3D real-time glory. But back then, this was pretty novel.

The other demo was a little "virtual reality" chatroom (yes, "Virtual Reality" and "Cyberspace" were terms still in use in 1996... it's only after they became commonplace and non-science-fictiony that they went out of favor). Chatting in real-time with voice over the Internet. Again - commonplace and the maker of businesses today. But pioneering stuff at the time. All done with the miracle of DirectX.

A scant few months later, I'd go on to play Mechwarrior 2 regularly over the Internet through a little program called KALI that convinced your computer than the Internet was just one big LAN. The game played horribly, ill-suited to deal with the lag issues of the Internet as opposed to a local LAN. But we still had a blast playing it.

But those were wild, pioneering-feeling times back in 1996. The games industry was a lot different from how it is now. PC games were hot, 3D and Internet play were going to usher in a new era of gaming, and a whole bunch of BIG MONEY were placing high-roller stakes on game developers to try to push the industry into maturity and fabulous levels of profitability.

I doubt we'll see times like that again - at least not in video games. But for a while, it was a party. And Microsoft threw me the wildest birthday party ever!

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Expected Server Downtime
RampantGames.com will be going down at some point in the next 48 hours or so for maintenance. We'll be switching servers - hopefully for the last time this time - and the DNS servers will have to take time to propogate to the new address.

We expect things to go really smoothly. But you know and I know that these things NEVER go as smoothly as you expect, so wish me luck!
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
 
Dragon's Lair Complete
Okay - this is pretty old-school. I remember when Dragon's Lair was THE hot quarter-eater in the arcades. It always kicked my butt - I could never hit the joystick at JUST the right time. But the whole thing was on a laserdisc, so you could always drop it into a laserdisc player and watch the whole thing.

Or now you can just click to watch it:

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The Purple-Haired Women of Rampant Games!

Hmmm....



I think it's a conspiracy.











The purple-haired women of Rampant Games conspiracy!

What could it mean?

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006
 
Pirates, Legends, and Torque
Okay, just some really brief reviews here:

Pirates of the Caribbean
It needed a fight scene near the beginning (like the wonderful fight in the smithy in the first movie), and needed some tighter editing - it felt like it was about 15-20 minutes too long. Beyond that, though, I loved it. Not quite as good as the first, but it's still edging out Cars as the best movie I've seen all summer. Dunno if this says great things about Pirates, or bad things about the other movie. Probably both. But ultimately, I had a great time watching this show. More Swashbuckling!

Rise of Legends
I've only had a chance to play a little of this game, but I was a huge fan of Rise of Nations. This game has a distinctly different feel, and it definitely feels like it's got some Warcraft III envy. However, I was afraid of a Total Annihilation: Kingdoms-style disaster, and so far it's not that. Don't you love how I'm referencing other games to provide me with a vocabulary to describe this thing?

So far, it's a lot of fun. I've only played one race so far, but I dig the "Steampunk" theme of that race. You can bring in heroes, something we've seen before in other games (I'm mainly thinking Age of Mythology here), and airlifting units is a potentially major role (a la Starcraft). One fairly fresh mechanic is (for the Vinci race, at least) are the building up of cities with multiple "districts" to increase your race's capabilities. I also like how you must capture OR purchase neutral cities and structures. The purchase option really gives a bit more oomph to players who favor economics. Not only do you gain possession of these buildings (and, in the case of barracks, possibly new units) without bloodshed, but the defending troops augment your own army. INTERESTING! I'm anxious to play it a bit more and see how that pans out.

Like Rise of Nations, the "Easy" difficulty is "ludicrously easy", and there are SEVERAL difficulty levels and single-player options to tailor your experience to your own skill level.

So it looks like a gem so far.

Torque Game Builder
I'm still fiddling around with Torque Game Builder, attempting to collect enough data to put together a somewhat more in-depth review. I've actually fiddled with three different types of games so far - an RPG engine, a casual-style matching game, and a shoot-em-up. No, I don't sleep much these days.

What I can say so far is that it's a lot more stable than it was for my RC1 "first-time-user" review. I'm still frustrated that what I consider to be the "killer feature" of TGB - the ability to render 3D objects (to make your 2D games look really cool) - is hobbled by lack of direct UI support (not a big deal) , lack of DirectX support (a VERY big deal!), and bugs.

If you are sticking with pure 2D bitmapped graphics, however, I'd call it a winner. I'm pretty dang impressed. I can't help but admire the functionality they've given the toolset. From a codebase perspective (I've had to get my hands dirty a few times with the underlying C++ source code), I have to admit that TGB layer is MUCH cleaner, better architected, and easier to follow than the Torque Game Engine. They've put some real thought into it, and it shows.

I'll have a more in-depth review at some point, after I've played around with a few more features. But the more I play with it, the more tickled I get with the tools and functionality it provides. I'm gonna say that's a good thing, and that the full source option is WELL worth the price as a serious indie game developer.

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Monday, July 10, 2006
 
The Joy of Debugging
I just read an incredibly amusing story about debugging (in this case, figuring out the problem in SendMail):

The Case of the 500-Mile Email

Wherein a young systems administrator in charge of email must figure out why the school email system is only sending email to a distance of 500 miles.

Way too much programming ends up being detective-work bug hunts like this, unfortunately, so it hits close to home. Though the more spectacularly bizarre ones do get a little more entertaining - the ones that you SWEAR are completely impossible.

One of the advantages to having been doing it for a while is that you learn to think like a computer. Or like another programmer. This might be why veteran programmers are so dang weird. But that sort of thinking allows you to take shortcuts and guess what might be going wrong, circumventing a lot of hunting and testing and stepping through code line-by-line waiting for something that's supposed to happen to not happen at all (one of the more painful bugs to track down).
Sunday, July 09, 2006
 
My First Dollar Earned On The Internet

Back in the summer of 1994, the "World Wide Web" was still in its infancy. There was no E-Bay, and no Amazon.com. At that time, the internet was mainly a set of tools called Telnet, FTP, Usenet, +finger, some email software, and precious little else. At some point this year a web-browsing tool called "Mosaic" appeared that had some techie-types really excited --- a big improvement over Gopher. Mosaic would eventually become Netscape Navigator, and would usher in the era of the Web as we know it.

But at this point, nobody was really talking about it. The Internet was still a friendly, reasonably safe place where mostly techie and academic sorts dwelled. I was in both categories, in my final semester at BYU, and had an Internet connection through school.

At this point, the big fad was Magic: The Gathering, the first Collectable Card Games (CCG's). This made a fortune for the company that created it, and it later went on to make even more money doing the same thing with Pokemon cards. But at the time, it was Magic: the Gathering (MtG) that was making the rounds. Wizards of the Coast, the company that created the game, was starting to release expansions for the game, with new collectable cards in limited quantities. Previous expansions had led to a tremendous feeding frenzy, with entire stocks dissapearing from store shelves within hours (or minutes) of going on sale.

An enterprising acquaintance of ours had picked up a full case of "booster packs" for the most recent expansion, "Legends." They'd just started becoming scarce, and he wanted to see if he could sell them and make a little extra money. He thought selling them online and hitting the "global" market might work, but he had only a vague notion of what the Internet really was, and no clue as to how to actually sell things online.

I didn't have much of a clue either, but he asked for help, and I accepted. I'd take a percentage for my efforts. After a bit of discussion, we decided that the way to make the most money would be to break open the packs and auction individual cards online. I reasoned that half the rare cards alone might sell for much more than a random booster pack.

The auction was done through USENET posts (before there were web forums, there was USENET), with interested parties using the "+finger" command to see the auction status for the cards. After about two weeks, I closed the auction, emailed the winners, and had to go through all the individual checks and money orders that came in. I decided to have my friend deal with actually SHIPPING the cards.

All told, my take on the entire experience was somewhere less than $100. I spent over 30 hours on the project, and I estimated I made just a hair over $2 per hour. Less than minimum wage working at the local McDonalds. My partner, who made the initial investment and had less work to do but had a higher percentage of the yield, was somewhat more satisfied with the return. Though I did end up with a heck of a lot of leftover cards at the very end - common cards that had either not been bid on, or we'd never received payment on, or from some missing boosters that my partner hadn't even opened.

I figured that was an absolutely horrible way to make money, not even close to worth my time, and never tried it again.

Alas, compared to making indie computer games, it was a gold mine. But the indie game thing is a lot more fun.

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Friday, July 07, 2006
 
Heading For The Hills!
One of the nice things about living in Utah is that you don't need to go far to go up into the mountains. Which is where I'm heading in a few minutes. Just a short overnight campout... some fresh mountain air, some time spent with friends and family...

... And I'm not even bringing my laptop! Though I am smuggling up an old Gameboy Color, so I don't have to turn in my Gaming Geek membership card QUITE yet.

We haven't been to a campout in the last six years where we haven't had lots of rain to make the experience less than satisfying. The rainstorms here were LAST night, so here's hoping!
Thursday, July 06, 2006
 
Gaming Company Breakups
There's a great article at Next Generation called, "Five That Fell," chronicling the rise and fall of five great gaming companies of yesteryear. They now exist in name only.

Atari. Origin. Interplay (well, Black Isle - the author betrays his RPG / Adventure fandom here). Looking Glass. All of these have a tender place in my heart.

I'm one of about a dozen people who actually played Looking Glass's "Terra Nova." I actually liked it, too. I enjoyed Fly!, and Ultima Underworld I and the Thief games are among my all-time favorites. I liked all of Looking Glass's games (except their golf game - because I never played it). Since very few of them were commercially successful, that probably means I'm doomed as a game designer.

And Origin! Not only did they co-create the Ultima Underworld games with Looking Glass, and the Ultima games, and the Wing Commander games (all among my favorite games of all time), they also brought the "Janes" flight simulations. They weren't branded "Origin," but Origin was the development shop that brought us Longbow, ATF Gold, US Navy Fighters, and other great flight sims. (I guess they dropped the "Origin" branding from the games because of the lamentable Strike Commander and Pacific Strike).

I thought I'd add to the list provided in the article (with a bit more brevity) with a few more giants of the industry that have since passed into legend:

Microprose
This one is a bigger loss to me than Interplay, though they had almost no console presence. This is the company that started as a bet by "Wild Bill" Stealy and Sid Meier over a game of Red Baron. They went on to produce / publish some great computer games: Sid Meier's Pirates, F-15 Strike Eagle, Gunship, Master of Orion, F19 Stealth Fighter, Falcon 4.0, X-Com (AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe), Rollercoaster Tycoon, and of course a little-known game called Civilization.

Acclaim
Okay, I don't know if anybody really mourns Acclaim's passing. I don't remember really loving any of their games - even the one I worked on. Their strategy, starting in the late 80's I think, was to simply acquire licenses, slap them into an existing engine, and boot them out the door. In the early 90's, it seemed to be a winning strategy, and they were one of the big game publishers. As it turns out, if you don't control the license that you help make famous and successful, the license owner has the freedom and tendency to jack up the price on you and take his even stronger brand to the highest bidder. Not a good long-term strategy, IMO.

Commodore
The Commodore PET - second only to the Apple II as the most ubiquitous computer in educational institutions. The VIC-20: A mass-marketed computer aimed as an "upgrade" from videogame consoles to videogame-capable computers - and had Bill Shatner as a spokesperson! The Commodore 64: The most popular computer and gaming platform of all time. The Commodore 128: Ummm.... it sounded like a good idea at the time. The Amiga: Ahead of its time, mourned by legions of geek fans. The company has been gone for years, and made very few games, but its impact on gaming remains.

Infocom
West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.
Ah, Zork. It's amazing how such vivid pictures can rise up in one's memory about a game which had no pictures whatsoever. Infocom's games totally rocked, though I think with the Internet's "walkthroughs" today these games could be played through in a single evening. I don't have the tolerance for frustration I once had, and these games caused plenty of that, but they were also beautiful games in their pure-text way. Some of their later games had pictures - I still have a copy of "Journey" enshrined in a manilla envelope in my collection, and they partnered up with Dynamix & Activision to create the first 3D Battletech game, "Crescent Hawk's Inception." And then they were gone.

Sir-Tech Software
Okay, so they really only came out with two game series (to my recollection): the Wizardry series, and Jagged Alliance. But hey, they rocked!

Westwood Associates
I first heard about these guys when they did the Eye of the Beholder D&D games. Though I guess I played their first game on the C-64: a port of Temple of Apshai (another classic RPG). At some point they did Dune II, which I never played but heard a lot about. Then they did the a little game called Command and Conquer, based on their Dune experience. After much success, they were eaten by EA, chewed up, and spit out.

SingleTrac Entertainment
Okay, so we only made a dozen titles, and we weren't a publisher. It's my list, dangit, and I can include whomever I want! Singletrac rocked the 32-bit gaming world for three wonderful years, and managed to persist for about three more after that. Complete Game List: Warhawk (PS), Twisted Metal (PS), Twisted Metal 2 (PS), Jet Moto (PS), Jet Moto 2 (PS), Outwars (PC), Critical Depth (PS), Streak (PS), Snowmobile Racing (PC), Snowmobile Championship 2000 (PC), Rogue Trip (PS), Animorphs: Shattered Reality (PS).

So there's seven more game industry giants that have faded into legend. Of course, many of the principles involved in these companies are still in the industry, so there's still good fun to be had.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006
 
Bad Game Endings
I *finally* finished Half-Life 2 after taking a multi-month break from the game (I didn't realize I was so close to the end). Man, the ending SUCKED. But fortunately, there were spoilers on the web about Half Life: Episode One, which sounded like it picked up the story in a reasonable manner. It made the ending of HL2 a bit more palatable.

I may wait a little while before getting Episode One. Too much to do, too little time.

I'm trying to think of what other endings out there really blew chunks. Half-Life 1 comes to mind :) Pretty much the same ending as HL2. I'm sorry, but defeating impossible odds only to get captured by the pencil-neck dude with the briefcase isn't all that fun. I know he's supposed to be a "cancer-man" style foil, but in order for that ending to work you need to get SOME kind of reveal. Think back to the X-Files episodes where Cancer Man ended up on top at the end: it was almost always accompanied by some kind of revelation as to the extent or methods of the conspiracy against truth. That way the audience doesn't feel cheated.

At least that's my opinion.

So - thinking of poor / lame game endings...

There were 3 possible endings to Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, and none of them were particularly satisfying. If you turned evil, you ended up killing your long lost love (you get two choices, and both end the same way). Otherwise, you turned her into a vampire like yourself. Lame, but not terrible.

The ending of Unreal 2 wasn't anything to write home about: It's a goodbye message from friends who let themselves be killed to save you. I think it was attempting to be dramatic. It came off as weak.

The Twilight: 2000 computer RPG crashed (on multiple computers) right before the final confrontation with Baron Czerny or whatever his name was. So you couldn't even GET to the ending on that one. I'd say that takes the cake in terms of suckiness. But that was poor implementation.

Wing Commander: Prophecy. Yeah. Ending on a cliffhanger when you are the last game of the series. I'm sure they didn't know that Prophecy was going to be the last Wing Commander game, but yeesh. What a lame way to end Christopher "Blue Hair" Blair's storyline. "And then he got abducted by aliens and was never seen or heard from again."

Most fighting games of the 90's had pretty poor, text (sometimes text-and-a-static-screen) endings. Our own Twisted Metal had that problem. Oh, and Warhawk. Nobody's perfect. It's just one of those things where a big grand finale wasn't planned out well enough in advance, and it's just never given a high priority... because I guess too many people (like me) never actually COMPLETE these games. (Actually, the first Twisted Metal game did have little videos that were done of each ending character --- but for some reason we rejected them. I think a couple of them were too offensive somehow, and we couldn't have videos for some but not all).

But there are some really great game endings that come to mind. The anarch ending of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines pretty much rocks all. I saw a couple of the others - they were okay, but not great. The one where you side with the prince had a predictably bad ending, but it was your own dang fault for siding with such a slimey weasel. And the ending of F.E.A.R. kicked some major butt. A perfect end to a horror-movie style game.

So... what are your favorite or LEAST favorite game endings?

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006
 
Content Independence: Happy Fourth of July
Yes, another content-free blog post here. But we've got festivities going on here in the good ol' U. S. of A., and that means legal pyromania here in the state of Utah. It even rained today, which means that we may buck a trend and NOT set the mountains on fire this year.

In gaming-related news, the Carnival of Games for July is up - this time hosted by "Mr. Monkey Island" himself, Ron Gilbert. Here's a chance to read the best blogs of the month of June! And also one of mine, too, which was only considered for inclusion because I submitted it.

http://grumpygamer.com/1623878

Incidentally, I had the chance to talk with Ron Gilbert and the Cavedog guys - as well as many others - quite a bit back in '99 (was it '99?) at a GT Interactive "Tech Summit" conference in Las Vegas. It was a great bunch of really smart people belonging to the same publisher sharing their projects, techniques, and contact information in hopes of bringing about a brave, new world of cooperation and sharing.

Shortly thereafter, most of the studios were shut down and the people at this tech summit were out of a job. Well, out of a job at Infogrammes (now Atari), anyway. Ah, well. It was a cool little conference. And all of the Cavedog guys were extremely cool to talk to and hang with.

But I digress. Check out the July Carnival of Gamers!
Monday, July 03, 2006
 
Indie Superstar
The indies continue to create their own infrastructure to support our habit... I mean our BUSINESS. Right. Business.

The first (and hopefully not last) installment "Indie Superstar," a web-based video news show and commentary about indie games is available here.

It's campy and tongue-in-cheek, which players of Void War should recognize as being a style that appeals to me (too many years of being an MST-3K fan, I guess). Followers of this blog might find the quotes section a little bit familiar, too...

Thanks to Dejobaan (Ichiro Lambe) for letting me know about this one.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006
 
Quality Ain't Easy
Indie RPGs are a rare breed of game. They typically require such a tremendous amount of content that they are not worth making. It's far easier to throw together a match-three type puzzle game with a hundred levels or so than a roleplaying game with five hours of quests.

So my hat is off to anybody attempting ... and succeeding... at doing just that.

I recently came across an indie RPG that is for sale out there that looked like it was made with the same engine as Aveyond. For a few minutes, I was excited. After all, those tools facilitated the construction of a really great, involving game with a fun plot, great characters, and tons of content. I realized that a not-insubstantial portion of the artwork in the game was "stock" content from the toolkit. So I was anxious to see what another game developer could do with the engine. Particularly since he evidently thought it was high enough quality to go for sale.

I won't mention the name of the game to protect the guilty. Let's just say I'm glad that downloadable games are "try before you buy." I was bored within seconds.

Now, props to this guy for actually completing a game - an RPG no less - and everything. That takes a lot of effort and guts, and I don't want to slight the developer in any way in that regard.

But the difference in quality between this game and, say, Aveyond, or Cute Knight, or one of Spiderweb's excellent RPG titles, was pretty stark. The game functioned pretty much as expected, but it was the attention to detail that was completely lacking.

For example: You had big ol' rooms with one NPC to talk to stuck up in the corner. What's with all the empty space? Did someone rob the place of all its furniture? If so, the single NPC in the corner wasn't talking. The space just looked... artificial.

Another example: The NPCs served no purpose but to hint you in the direction of a quest. There was nothing to tell you why you were there, or what the town was like, or anything else of any kind of flavor. In one spot, you have no idea that you've left the safety of the city into an area infested with monsters until you are either attacked or meet the NPC who says he's afraid to go out to where he's currently standing for fear of all the monsters that are around.

If you play Neverwinter Nights and have tried any of the THOUSANDS of fan-created modules, you are probably familiar with this phenomenon. Neverwinter Nights is a powerful game engine, with an amazing amount of functionality built into it. And the tools for creating content are nothing short of phenominal. The scripting engine is amazingly robust, and has been used to create little "mini-games" that have nothing to do with the core engine. There are new user-built models and tilesets appearing all the time, many of which are of high quality.

With something like 4,000 user-created modules to choose from and an extremely powerful and flexible game system that can be modded like CRAZY, why would you ever need to play anything else? There's enough content out there to keep you busy until your computer falls apart under its own weight and rust.

EXCEPT.... all but the top 5% of those user-created games are pure crap. And even of those, only a few dozen transcend mere adequacy and become a quality gaming experience actually worthy of one's precious and rare spare time to play.

Quality ain't easy to even recognize, sometimes, let alone implement. It' s what you get where the science of what you are doing meets with real craftsmanship, expertise, and a real desire to do something great. Having great tools and a great engine can certainly help you get there, but it's no substitute. Quality is a big part of the 20% of the job that ends up taking 80% of the time.

But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

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Saturday, July 01, 2006
 
Warhawk Re-Imagined
I got a surprise issue of Electronics Gaming Monthly in the mail this last week --- surprising because I don't subscribe (I subscribe to Computer Gaming World, which is published by the same company). This was an E3 round-up issue, and it includes a lengthy summary of Warhawk for the PS3.

I like talking about Warhawk because the original, PS1 version was probably my favorite game development experience. Part of it is no doubt because it was tied with Twisted Metal as my first professional game development experience. It was a wild concept and a tremendous amount of fun to work on. It garnered great reviews - the most negative things said about it were about the (admittedly) atrocious FMV cut-scenes and the length of the game (which was too short). It sold pretty well... not Twisted Metal numbers, but I understand it was over a million copies before the end of it's run (a lot of those were budget "Greatest Hits" releases).

At one point I was on a design team that created a design document for Warhawk II. I don't remember what all was in it, except that it was going to include some missions in space, multiplayer gaming options, and some wild reality-bending environments. I think we might have kept Kreel as the bad guy, even though we all felt a little bit of embarassment about him from the FMV. But hey, it was done, he was out there, the game was popular, we might as well stick with it. We sent the design to Sony, but the project was never green-lit for development.

I read in the preview in EGM that Warhawk PS3 is a "reimagining" of the original. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, that's a big "duh" - it's way too late for a sequel, or a prequel, and I'm sure it's amazing what can be done on modern hardware. I'd pretty much start with a brand new game bearing the Warhawk moniker and keeping the stuff from the original game that was cool. Like the big mechanical bosses, and the retro-sci-fi enemies. So I'd undoubtably do the same thing.

But there's still a part of me says, "Reimagining? What was wrong with the first imagining?" I'm still very proud of the original game and what we accomplished. But I'm sure it could be improved upon.

Really, it all just comes down to hoping they do a great job with it.

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