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
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Dreams, News, Free Magazines
Yesterday, apparently, the ragweed count was the highest in Utah's history. Unable to take it anymore, last night I took some allergy medicine, while working on my game and listening to the podcast interview with Cliff Harris, and at the same time debating RPG design with a friend in chat.
This was apparently a dangerous combination for my delicate psyche.
So in my dream last night, I was visiting the new Aveyond area at Disneyland. Mostly it was a tour of a ship. Why a ship, I don't know... I think a dragon ride would be more appropriate. But I remember thinking, "Wow, Amanda's scored big time on this one." There was more to it, of course - I was anxious to see the gift shop, where they were selling the game on CD-ROM and of course the usual T-Shirts and weaponry from the game. But before I could check it out, there were legal matters to attend to.
See, Aveyond and an RPG written by OJ Simpson were being sued over I.P. violation for having a piece of terrain in the world map that resembled that of some major big-name RPG. Aveyond was dismissed from the lawsuit because the judge wisely decided that simply having a waterfall, mountains, and an ocean in your game did NOT constitute any kind of copyright violation with another game also having mountains, a waterfall, and the ocean. Simpson's game was not so lucky, as that one piece of terrain did bear more than a passing resemblance to the other game.
I was on the jury, which was meeting in my high school algebra classroom. Everyone else was arguing that OJ must be guilty of the copyright violation, because he was guilty of that OTHER crime and got off, so nobody wanted him to get away with anything again. Me, I was worried about the chilling effect it would have on other indie games, getting bullied by larger publishers, particularly when only that one piece of terrain bore any resemblance to the mainstream game. So it was Twelve Angry Men being played out in my high school classroom, but I woke up before the verdict could be reached.
Hmm.... did I just overshare, there? I probably revealed something very dangerous about myself that I shouldn't have. But mainly, I'm blaming Cliffski and the allergy medicine.
Okay, if that bizarre little dream sequence wasn't surreal enough, I discovered this morning that likely presidential candidate Mark Warner is hitting the MMO "Second Life" on his campaign trail. Gamepolitics.com is heralding this as a wonderful example of how mainstream Massively Multiplayer Online Games have become. Me? I'm just imagining how very, very WRONG this could go. I mean, really, unbelievably wrong. Way worse than Lord British being killed during the Ultima Online beta. Second Life allows player-created and controlled content to a degree unprecedented since the day of text-only Multi-User games, and has thus gained a reputation for having the most colorful, bizarre, and downright perverted population on the Internet - complete with full graphical accoutrements. Among other things, it's got the reputation for being the cybersex capital of the Internet (or at least of the MMO worlds). While I'm sure Mr. Warner will be pounding the stump in a "family safe" area, I'm unsure how many people might be happy to risk their accounts by turning the whole thing into an embarassing spectacle. I guess we'll find out.
I imagine it'll make my Aveyond / Disneyland / OJ Simpson dream look positively mundane by comparison.
In other news - how about a free indie gaming magazine? Okay, so it's a digital PDF download, but GameTunnel.com is now producing a quarterly downloadable magazine. After the incredibly bizarre content of this blog post today, I'm sure you are dying for something a little more sane. So HERE YOU GO. Enjoy.
Do not read under the influence of allergy medicine. You Have Been Warned.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Biting the Silver Bullet
Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend about the Silver Bullet Syndrome. Well, it's actually an ongoing discussion we have had for months. We've both been in companies that victim to this particular malady (it wasn't our fault, honest!), and we see it happen over and over again. We love grousing about it.
The Silver Bullet Syndrome is a name applied primarily to the IT industry for what basically amounts to a company falling for a Get Rich Quick Scheme. Some miracle technology or paradigm promises to solve all or most of an IT department's ills. It could be some tool that promises to improve productivity to ten times its current level. It could be the lure of offshore outsourcing, which promises to get the same job done by internal departments for a quarter (or less) of the costs. Or it could be some new programming language that's going to solve all the problems of the previous languages because it's so much easier to use.
Who wouldn't get weak in the knees at the prospect of becoming ten times more productive, or cutting their costs by 75%? Imagine me - a small business owner (very small, I'm afraid...) and game developer - if I could crank out a completed, polished game in two months instead of over a year... WOW! And as most of my expenses are living expenses... what if I could cut that to 1/4th of what it is now... I'll bet I could quit my day job and devote myself to making indie games! (Of course, I'm a weird case, in that my day job right now IS making games... so there's not a big difference.)
It is an incredible prospect. But like most things in life, if things sound too good to be true, they usually are. Why businesses keep falling for 'em is beyond me. I've been in a meeting where the IT Director (who had enough experience to know better) confidently promised that after only nine weeks of development on this new miracle platform, the consultants from the platform's company and select internal staff (both of whom were new to the company) had the new system that would replace our entire infrastructure 90% complete. Yep, we just needed five or six more weeks to integrate it with a few external systems and we'd be done.
About a year (and, depending on how you count, 2-5 million dollars) later, the entire project was scrapped, and said IT Director was replaced.
I've heard first-person horror stories of "offshore outsourcing" that ended with the company pulling everything back in-house after one to two years, and being forced to scrap nearly everything done in that time because it was simply unusable. Suddenly a 75% discount doesn't seem like such a bargain when you've wasted all that money AND two years of opportunity.
I'm still waiting for the CASE tools to revolutionize software development and make my job obsolete, as I was told in the late 80's. The promise of Object Oriented Development, which was preached to me at the same time in college, has largely been unrealized. But I continue to hear people loudly proclaim, "But this time it's different," for whatever the new system or technology has them excited.
Now here's the thing. I don't believe in silver bullets. I don't believe in any other kind of "get rich quick" scheme. Oh, I know it's technically possible, but it's usually non-repeatable or useful only in a very specific opportunity. However, I have found that if you haven't paid too much for that silver bullet, if you strip away the silver plating the marketers throw on it, you may find a high caliber hollowpoint round that is perfectly lethal for most of the more mundane monsters we face in this business. Just try to avoid any werewolves, and you should be fine.
In these cases, if you adopt the technology or methodology, you'll typically go through three phases:
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Phase - "This technology is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Looky-here, it used to take me a week to do this one thing, but now it only takes me an hour! I'm in heaven!"
Stage 2: The Welcome-To-Reality Phase - "Uhoh, this isn't doing what I thought it would do. And all of these other things I normally do are taking even longer to do. I've got to re-learn all this other stuff, too. Oh, crap, what did I pay for?"
Then, assuming you haven't been sold pure snake-oil:
Stage 3: The Acceptance Phase - "Okay. So maybe this isn't the be-all, end-all. Maybe it's got some real ugly limitations I have to work around. Still, I think the pros will outweigh the cons in the long run, and it'll be a net gain. I just have to learn how to do it."
Extreme Programming (XP). I'm a big proponent of agile methodologies after my experience in a shop that practiced XP. Were the results dramatic over other methodologies? Well, it depends on what you mean by dramatic, and which methodologies you used. If you are talking pure waterfall development, sure. Just about anything is dramatically better than waterfall in MOST real-world applications. XP seemed to dramatically increase the costs of some phases of development, but dramatically decrease others, and coupled with the secondary benefits of the methodology it seemed like a net win. I think other agile practices might yield better results, though.
Game Engines - Hey, this IS a gaming site after all, I should at least mention games or game development, right? Game engines are a mixed bag. You can get fairly dramatic results if you are willing to accept some extreme limitations with some game development "kits." Or you can accept the steeper learning curve and more work involved with a highly flexible engine that exposes its source code. With luck, it'll take less time and effort than creating your own engine from scratch, but it's still not a "slam dunk." Making a commercially viable game isn't easy no matter what tools you adopt.
Admittedly, I'm finding myself in a bit of a honeymoon period with the Torque Game Builder. I'm pretty impressed with its functionality and ease-of-use (though I'm irritated by a couple of glaring bugs, too). Fortunately, GarageGames hasn't been blatently billing this thing as a miracle machine or a silver bullet, and it's priced well below the point where it would need to be. People are having a lot of luck with it in developing casual games (specifically), but those typically have short development times to begin with. It is possible to follow the tutorials and create a pretty respectable tech demo in a matter of a couple of hours. Just don't make the mistake of assuming your new game is 90% complete at that point.
Just remember to keep your expectations realistic, especially when deciding what you are going to pay - in terms of actual cost and in terms of the time and effort it will take to adopt it. Some caution and good sense can keep you from turning a frustrating situation into a disaster.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The Evolution of Computer RPGs
So I've been scratching my head trying to figure out why some portals and marketers label certain computer games and videogames as "roleplaying games" (RPGs) or having "roleplaying elements" when they don't bear any resemblance to what I would consider a real RPG. That led to trying to define what an RPG is... and that led to musing over the history of computer roleplaying games. How did we get such a category in the first place?
Of course, you can't talk about that without going into the history of the pen-and-paper RPGs. Now, much of this stuff was before my time (I was five years old when Dungeons & Dragons was first published). But here's the story as I see it, and how I feel it guided game design.
Before there were RPGs, there were wargames.
I'm not gonna go into the history of wargames. Depending on whether you classify games such as Chess or Go as 'early wargames,' wargames could be a very ancient form of training and entertainment. But in a nutshell, wargames are simulations of battles, often played with miniatures on a map (or a full tabletop diarama which serves as a map --- see, we had escalation of graphics quality even back in the 1970s!)
One of the measures of the quality of a wargame was the fidelity of its results if a battle was played exactly as historically depicted. Wargamers effectively "roleplayed" these games, putting themselves in the shoes of actual generals commanding famous battles in history, pitting themselves not only against their opponents, but against the very leaders who commanded the real battles. Think you can do better than Rommel?
Sure, the ol' Desert Fox would probably whup your butt if it was real tanks in real northern Africa, but we're talking a type of fantasy here.
Of course, not all wargame scenarios had to be historically accurate. Players and designers enjoyed (and still enjoy) coming up with "what if" scenarios. What if this battle had occured two days later, when the losing side had received its promised reinforcements? What if the weather had not impeded the cavalry? Or what if a battle had actually occured between two forces that had never engaged each other in real life? Or how about a plausible battle in ancient history that we have no record (or few details) about?
And ... what if the germanic barbarian forces also had DRAGONS?
Or more interestingly, how would Rommel do if his tanks encountered your DRAGONS, huh? Yeah. Look who could whup who's butt NOW!
While it's likely that other wargaming groups introduced fantastic elements like the above using their own homebrewed rules, the first published wargame rules with a "fantasy supplement" was entitled Chainmail, published by Guidon Games, written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. He kept things pretty simple. The effects of the fireball spell for wizards was identical to those of a catapult, and the lightning bolt spell was lifted directly from the cannon effects. A Hero unit was simply treated as four normal soldiers. It didn't matter. Context was everything, and "Fantasy Wargaming" was born.
An Army Of One
With the precedent set for a "unit" in the wargaming to actually equal a single hero, it wasn't a huge step for the fans to move from controlling armies to controlling a single, powerful character. Dave Arneson inserted the Chainmail rules into his Blackmoor campaign, tweaking them here, replacing them there. Players found themselves running their individual miniatures through castles and dungeons fighting mythological beasts.
Those rules were then re-adopted by Gary Gygax, modified some more, and became Dungeons & Dragons: the first "roleplaying game" in 1974. However, it wasn't known by that term at the time. This strange hybrid hobby was called all sorts of things, like "Fantasy Gaming" and "Adventure Gaming." As new rules appeared to simulate other genres, it was clear that the word "Fantasy" was too limiting. Somewhere around 1980, the term "roleplaying" stuck.
Enter The Computer
The problem with roleplaying games is that they were a pretty group-oriented activity. Organizing a time when six or so players could get together for the several hours required to play a game is quite a challenge. Particularly when it's likely six nerdy folks who were probably scattered all across the state, and some of 'em had to rely on the bus or their parents for a ride!
Ah, but all was not lost! Since this time period also heralded the accessibility of computers (even *gasp* computers in the HOME), some enterprising (but lonely) geeks decided to try and simulate the experience of a Dungeons & Dragons game on the computer. A simulation of a simulation, kind of.
You had a lot of guys writing programs called "DND". Richard Garriott's "DND" high school project became a commercial release, "Akalabeth: World of Doom." Akalabeth later became Sosaria (which in turn become Britania) in the legendary RPG series "Ultima." You had Daniel Lawrence's "DND," which evolved into the commercial game "Telengard" published by Avalon Hill. Another game called "DND" was developed for the PLATO computer instruction system by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood. I'm sure there were dozens more.
And there were many more - some commercial projects, some done for gamer's individual amusement. Besides the ones mentioned above, some other landmark commercial RPGs from the early days included "Wizardry," and "The Temple of Apshai."
This is how the computer RPG was born.
Console RPGs - the other CRPG
The success of Wizardry and the early Ultima games (particularly Ultima III) went overseas to Japan to inspire the first of the major Japanese console RPGs, "Dragon Quest" (Dragon Warrior in the U.S.) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This game inspired an entire genre, and became an entire evolutionary offshoot from Ultima and Wizardry.
The Eastern RPGs tend to differ from their western counterparts by being more focused on story exposition and character, often enforcing very linear gameplay and little character choice compared to western RPGs. Labeling these kinds of games as "Eastern" or "Western" is only useful insofar as describing the general inspirational origin of these games - they continue to mix, borrow ideas from each other, and western developers are happily plugging away with games derived from eastern "console" RPGS. (Aveyond is one example).
Meanwhile, the western games still tend to more closely resemble the "pen and paper" RPG experience - to the point that they still often borrow heavily from their pen-and-paper licenses such as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade. They often emphasize player customization of his or her avatar(s), and exploration of a more free-form, open-ended environment.
Personally I pity the angsty teenaged eastern RPG hero when he comes across my flower-picking-assassin from a western RPG. That'll teach him the meaning of the word, "Strife!" But seriously - I enjoy both kinds of RPGs. Many people just favor one or the other. Or a third...
The classic NES game "The Legend of Zelda" is often heralded as the beginning of the action-RPG genre, but in reality many other games tried to merge the flavor of the fantasy roleplaying game with the action of an arcade game. The earliest I remember was "Gateway To Apshai," which I played on the Commodore 64. A "prequel" to the older Temple of Apshai series, the game was played with a joystick and involved quick movement and action coupled with gathering better equipment and improving your characteristics.
Action-RPGs differ from "true" RPGs by emphasizing the player's timing and action-game skill as much as (or more than) the player's avatar's in-game characteristics. Besides the Zelda series, other popular action-RPGs include the Diablo and Elder Scrolls series. And I'll add the Ultima Underworld series (series meaning, uh, both), because I liked 'em.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It may be because of the wargame ancestry, but roleplaying games have typically had a heavy combat focus. Of course, a big part of it is just that combat is fun (taken in moderation). If RPGs evolved from the boardgame Monopoly, would we have a totally different situation today? (There's my "what if" scenario - forget dragons! I want greedy landlords!)
It's no big surprise, but traditional medieval fantasy games tend to do much better on the average than games with different settings. I think it's been demonstrated that a good RPG in a different setting CAN sell (Fallout being a prime example), but it appears much harder. Is this part of the Dungeons & Dragons "Fantasy Wargaming" legacy? Are people interested in RPGs naturally predisposed towards medieval fantasy, or is there something else at work here? Maybe something really simple --- like swords being more fun (and visceral) than guns?
One interesting twist that I wasn't expecting from my perspective in the early 1980's was the trend towards simplifying the game systems when they made the jump to computer and game console. Pen-and-paper game systems are often fairly complex systems, again perhaps hearkening back to their wargame ancestry. And the fact that players get mad when you tell them they can't do something because of some screwy rules limitation.
I assumed that with computers able to handle the number-crunching load exceeding that of humans, the game mechanics would become deeper and more complex. I guess, to a point, they have, but in ways outside of the core rules system. You now get some element of actual simulation being performed before you ever come down to calculating the attack roll. You can calculate the actual distance of your sword tip to determine whether or not a hit occured on a charge, rather than throwing in artificial modifiers. But it seems that, on the whole, the game systems have actually become extremely simple, doing away with a lot of the numbers we cherished. Or at least burying them beneath the surface where a player can't see.
Monday, August 28, 2006
I'm still playing Virtual Villagers, though once I managed to max out farming technology my village ceased to be in constant threat of annihilation, and so I am able to play it in little 2-5 minute snatches.
Tamagotchi villagers, indeed.
All my original villagers are now dead. Due to old age, injury, or misfortune (Ah, Chika, I guess eating those strange berries wasn't such a good idea after all. Sorry about that...)
My second-generation villagers are starting to die off now. It's morbidly fascinating to guess which villager, who used to run around as a little child and gather mushrooms, is going to kick the bucket next. There's a bit of gameplay for a Virtual Villagers II - you could place bets. Death by unnatural causes invalidates the bet, to prevent cheating.
It's silly. This really isn't my kind of game, as I stated before, but it has kept me amused for several days. I'm in "Play To Crush" mode right now, trying to figure out all the puzzles and max out my village's technology and population. With an apparently unlimited supply of fish for my village, now, I have been encouraging my population to breed like bunny rabbits.
Some tips I've picked up while playing this game:
* Don't have your villagers breed early in the game - wait until you have the first farming upgrade. A child consumes food at the same rate as an adult, so breeding not only drops the mother out of producing anything for the village for 2 years, but adds another consumer for 13 years who will contribute nothing unless you spend a lot of time hunting mushrooms (which gets old fast). If you don't have your food supply stabilized, you can end up starving the entire village.
* Villagers don't know how to get started with tasks, even if you have checkmarked a job as their preference. You'll need to train them manually at first to help them learn what to do. After that, they will figure things out on their own. So start them out by having them work on a hut for building, or working in the fields or on the berry bush for farming, and the table for research, etc. Keep 'em at the task until they have gained some points in that skill.
* When you've just upgraded technology (or solved a new puzzle), pick up an adult villager and move them around the island and see what kind of messages pop up. Sometimes new tasks might appear, which may suggest ways to solve other puzzles.
Besides guessing which villager is going to kick the bucket next, I've also been fiddling with the Torque Game Builder some more, and I have to say I'm fairly impressed. More on that later.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Innovation in RPGs?
We've had some incredible advances in graphics quality in computer roleplaying games over the last dozen years or so. Compare the quality of the first "real" 3D RPG - Ultima Underworld - with Oblivion, of course, and it's nothing short of stunning.
As far as storyline and setting are concerned, there has been some progress on that front as well, moving away from the overused (but still better-selling) faux Medieval European setting or a no-brainer license (like Star Wars) into a few other genres. It seems to be a dangerous action in terms of sales, unfortunately. Planescape: Torment (which I have yet to play - I'm on of the reasons it did poorly I guess) is reported to have a really astonishingly cool storyline and bizarre, unique setting. Jade Empire takes place in an Asian setting. Arcanum was a "steampunk" style game. And of course, there's the Fallout series. And I might as well note the indie effort, "The Omega Syndrome." Also on the indie front, Jeff Vogel recently wrote an article about his attempt to come up with an innovative setting - which didn't go so well (though I think Geneforge was pretty different, too). Daring to go beyond traditional dragons, orcs, knights, and wizards is happening --- if infrequently.
But how about good, solid innovation in gameplay? I'm not talking cute button-mashing tricks getting added to try and dress up combat. I'm talking changes to the game that help take the game beyond the "fight and loot to get more powerful so you can fight and loot bigger stuff" treadmill of play that characterizes RPGs today. While I'm narrowing focus, I'll also narrow it to just single-player RPGs. Massively Multiplayer RPGs are of course taking some strides to broaden the treadmill experience, but that's mainly because the treadmill is a hundred times worse in your average MMORPG.
I'm talking the kinds of things Scorpia was lamenting in her recent editorial, "Old Wine In New Bottles."
Here are some examples of the kind of "gameplay depth"-increasing innovations that we've seen in the past, but which we've rarely seen repeated in a genre which really seems ripe for it:
Ultima IV - The Quest of the Avatar: Okay. In this game, many of your actions had the usual immediate ramifications that you've seen in many games prior and since. However, besides simply questing to amass cash and power, the end-game also required you to master virtues. These virtues were often at odds with the quickest path to power (and at odds with each other). This was a relatively simple system: Steal, and you lost honesty - but of course, you gained wealth. Brag, and you lost humility. Lie, and you lost honesty. Ah, but what if avoiding bragging required you to lie? One of the virtues was sacrifice - which was very much at odds with the accumulation of greatness that most games rely upon.
Ultima VI - The False Prophet: This game (and Ultima 7) introduced the notorious "baking bread" mechanic, which have now evolved into gigantic crafting systems in massively multiplayer games. The idea was to allow the player to become involved in the economy of the game world through the creation of goods. Some players loved it, some (mostly) ignored it. I confess, I fell into the latter camp most of the time, though it was an interesting diversion.
Ultima Underworld: This game featured a barter system that was simple yet fascinating. Different characters at least seemed to value items differently. One of the puzzles involved a man who was afraid of the dark. His other items - including a key quest element - were of far less value than light sources. A little bit of wheeling and dealing could truly improve your lot in this dungeon, without combat. I've yet to see anything quite like this in 15 years.
Wizardry 7 - Crusaders of the Dark Savant: This game had several NPC
groups racing for the same ultimate prize as your own party. While it was somewhat clumsily realized, it was a fascinating element (and was even made a key marketing point). You might have to negotiate with these parties to trade prizes, acquire key information, etc. I don't think you could lose to these other parties (someone correct me if I'm wrong - I didn't finish the game), but IIRC you might find that a quest item at the end of a dungeon had already been looted by another party.
Suikoden: The most modern mainstream release I can think of, this game had a large component involving creating and improving your castle headquarters, and amassing an army to win the war that engulfed the game world. The thing that made it interesting was that few of these additions were really mandatory. I don't remember if any of your allies were mutually exclusive or not - those would certainly make the choices more interesting.
Cute Knight: An indie offering, combining "sim" style play and a limited adventuring career with an old-fashioned, "Wizardry"-style dungeon romp and lots of replayability.
Is there anything like this in more modern games? All of these examples are more than a decade old. The only one that springs to mind (and granted, I haven't played every release that's come out on console and PC in this time) is the Vampire: The Masquerade titles - the Humanity index, and the Masquerade index in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. But these were cribbed from the pen & paper license, so the innovation was from that side of the fence.
What else have we got? What am I missing? Anything within the last decade or so?
Thursday, August 24, 2006
A couple of years ago, I had a game idea that I thought would be really cool. One of several. I still have it written down, in short summary form, in a directory on my computer (See? I have proof!). After watching Castaway and catching tidbits of the TV show "Survivor" (my wife was still watching it at the time), I thought, "Hey, how about a game where you help a bunch of stranded survivors on a remote tropical island?"
The ideas flowed. You could help the different villagers learn skills and develop technology (in my game concept, they'd all come from a more civilized society - say, Victorian England - so they'd know about technology, just not how to build it immediately. So it'd be kind of a primitive, tropical-island SimCity starting with a village of clueless people.
Last week, a friend told me about a game a friend of hers was playing. It sounded very suspiciously like my game idea! Very suspiciously! A few days later I discovered Virtual Villagers, and sure enough, they'd built a game around a very similar concept.
Oh, there are some major differences. The villagers in Virtual Villagers come from another island, rather than being castaways from a more advanced civilization. And I was planning on having a little bit of politics in mine - say, a ship finally comes to rescue the survivors, and some want to stay while others leave. Or a disgruntled, charismatic leader in the tribe decides to leave with a bunch of followers to start a new, rival village. That kind of thing. As far as I know, there's no such thing going on in virtual villagers. Which may be for the better.
The very curious gameplay element which some people may love and others may hate is that the "village" deals with the passage of time when you aren't playing - sort of like an online game. What it really comes down to is that this is a game intended to be played over many short sessions. You'll load it up, play it for a few minutes, deal with any surprises (and there are a lot of surprise events that occur in the game), re-arrange some tasks, and then log out again. It's a little like Tamagotchi, I guess, except the villagers aren't as annoying and demanding.
The tasks are pretty easy to assign - you can go into the "Detail" view and set a particular villager's preference for activities. Or you can just pick up the villager, move them to a task, and they may (depending upon their preference or current state) attempt it and improve in it.
For example, if one villager is sick, you can drag another villager over on top of them to get that villager to try and heal the sick one. You can drag a villager over to the research table to start attempting research and creating technological advances. You can drag a healthy adult villager over a healthy adult villager of the opposite sex to see if they'll ... uh, get amorous and get busy making babies.
That's another major feature of this game - it occurs over many successive generations. Your villagers will have children, who will grow up to become productive members of the community (wow, so this is a FANTASY game...), have children of their own, grow old, and eventually die. I don't think the game tracks lineage - at least, I hope not, or by the fourth generation it is going to be a village of mutants. EVERYONE is going to be marrying siblings or cousins.
Well, the effects of that kind of inbreeding is possibly already rearing it's bald head. Male-pattern baldness seems to be something even the little boys get stuck with, running around with the retreated hairline that they'll have as grown-ups. Ah, well.
Anyway, this isn't the usual kind of game I offer at Rampant Games (I'm not much of the casual games kinda guy), but this particular game was amusing and addictive enough that I thought I'd share. Besides, Outpost Kaloki was all lonely and stuff as the only real strategy game there (unless you count Journey to Rooted Hold, which is more of a ... puzzle game, I guess, though it really defies description).
Click Here to download a free demo of Virtual Villagers. Or you can visit the website at http://www.rampantgames.com/villagers.html.
Or you can... not do either. That's cool too. Am I a hard-sell guy or what? Anyway, if you try it out, feel free to post here to tell me what you think of it.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Ten Commandments of Indie Game Developers
Okay, so maybe they are more like guidelines - or even wishes - rather than commandments. But they seem to work.
#1 - Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Big-Budget Game
Know what you are capable of. If you don't know what your limitations are, start small so you can find out. Two guys in their basement with a $1000 budget are NOT going to re-create the latest Halo or Final Fantasy game ("only better") inside of a decade. Indie games on a tight budget need to be scoped appropriately. A game doesn't need to be huge to be fun and successful.
#2 - Thou Shalt Complete Thy Game
That goes double for me. Too many indie games are never completed, especially first projects. Like a vast, vast majority. Usually because the developers are new and failed to obey commandment 1.
#3 - Thou Shalt Network With Thy Fellow Indies
The indie community is full of people who've been down the same road you are going. They are full of advice, ideas, and can cue you in on new opportunities that are opening up. And they may provide you with useful constructive criticism about your game, website, and whatever else. They can help you, and you can help them.
#4 - Thou Shalt Not Worship Publishers
Don't put your fate in the hands of a publisher. I'm not saying it's never a good idea, only that once you do that, you are no longer an indie.
#5 - Thou Shalt Not Clone
Come on, it's one thing to be inspired by a game and create one derived from those ideas. Everybody does that. But can't you innovate a LITTLE bit, combine a few ideas, instead of just doing a wholesale copy-and-reskin of a popular game? Sheesh.
#6 - Thou Shalt Not Bear Thyself as a Big Business
Look, you aren't EA. You shouldn't pretend to be EA. If you are the only person at your company, don't title yourself as the "CEO." Your strength is being small and personal. Don't play to your weakness instead.
#7 - Honor Thy Customer
Business is about relationships. Maintain a good one with the people who keep you in business. You have no idea what kind of crappy job they had to sacrifice an hour or so of their life to in order to buy your game. Respect that!
#8 - Thou Shalt Honor and Value Thy Intellectual Property
Publishers know the power of I.P. rights. Developers are typically not in a position to truly exploit those rights, so they tend to undervalue it. Publishers have been taking gleeful advantage of this for years. I'm not saying they shouldn't be for sale. But you should understand the value of your IP rights in the long term, and price them accordingly.
Forget about pie-in-the-sky things like movie or novelization rights. Even without getting into things like sequels. We can talk expansions. We can talk about ports to different systems, expansions, foreign distribution deals, etc. There are TONS of potential opportunities out there when you own you own IP. Think of it this way: Owning the IP rights means you own the right to let other people make you money.
#9 - Thou Shalt Be Wary In Thy Dealings
Always, always check up on the reputation of whomever you are signing a business deal with. The world is unfortunately filled with less reputably companies that will quite literally take the money and run. A lot of indies have been burned by this - and they are happy to talk about it. That is one more reason why networking is so important.
#10 - Thou Shalt Not Slack In Thy Keeping Of Backups
Another one that goes double for me. Just think about it - if your hard drive on your development box were to suddenly die a grinding, screeching, irrevocable death with no possible data recovery right this instant as you are reading this, just how screwed would you be?
Your answer should always be, "Not very."
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Take-Two Should Put Jack Thompson On Their Payroll
If they haven't already.
This is totally the kind of publicity they need: Protest March Against Take-Two?
This will probably increase Bully's sales by 25%. And a whole bunch of kids will want it, because it's so FORBIDDEN. Jack Thompson is the one marketing it to kids, fer cryin' out loud!
Oh, well. If he can be in charge of a self-fulfilling prophecy, then he can assure himself a position in the upcoming class-action lawsuit. Because you KNOW he can't wait to blame every bit of schoolyard violence from now until his own funeral on this one videogame. The sooner he raises the stink about it, the sooner he can get the lawsuits going.
But in the meantime, he's really boosting Take-Two's pre-sales. Well, as soon as Wal*Mart will offer it for pre-sale. Guess he wants them to have as much money as possible so he can sue them for it later.
What a weird world we live in!
There are a few interesting things happening of late on the GarageGames front that may be of interest to indie developers - even those who don't have anything to do with their engine or tools.
For those who use the Torque Game Builder (my quick take from a few months ago can be found here), it's now up to version 1.1.1. I've played with the new version a little bit since it's release several days ago. The first thing I encountered was that the animations of my 3D shapes no longer seemed to work. I don't know if that was an artifact of the code merging I did, or if it's a new bug.
I'm really pretty frustrated about the problems with the t2dShape3D class - the biggest being it doesn't work under DirectX. That was the key ingredient of the "special sauce" that made TGB interesting to me, and it's still not quite working as advertised.
In spite of my pet peeve, I do have to admit the engine is really looking quite sharp. There are two key changes (to me) with the new rev that really make it exciting. First of all, they've added a new sorting system for objects so that they can be sorted by Y values. Looking through the code, it looks like they've got similar sorting for X values, too, but it's not been documented and I've not tried it out. So I can't say if it works or not. But it would certainly make something like this far easier to do:
The other key feature is that tile maps are now integrated with the level editor. I have had a chance to play with this feature a little bit, and it really makes a huge difference, particularly in the early prototyping stages.
Hot on the heels of this release (enabled, one might say, by this release), is the new "Torque Game Builder Adventure Kit". I haven't looked at this one yet, but it looks very intriguing, as you can tell by the screenshot on the right. The new release of TGB + the Adventure Kit really seems to target the isometric RPG development community.
It's up against some heavy competition, so I'm not sure how well it will do. TGB plus the adventure kit is $140 - $240, which gives you a skeleton to create a pretty decent 2D RPG. However, there are far more complete tools already out there, such as RPG Maker, which also have a lower price point. The biggest difference is undoubtably in flexibility, but at a cost of more "do-it-yourself" work. It'll be fascinating to see what emerges.
Torque-X is probably GarageGames' biggest coup to date. An engine that lets you program games for the XBox 360? I can't think of a bigger PR move or a better way to make Torque the "engine of choice" for legions of wannabe game developers. Hordes of XBox 360 fans with visions of making their own "Halo 2, only better?" Yeah. Score for GarageGames. Not that I want to disparage said dreamers who will be signing up for Microsoft's "Creator's Club" developer program. I'm sure there are going to be some excellent games appearing in their network as part of this program (not "Halo 2 only better," but quality games nonetheless), and it will undoubtably be a key part of the genesis of many future professional game developers. And indies! And I will conceed that the Torque Game Builder tools for Torque-X will likely vastly improve the chances of these guys losing their "wannabe" status and actually creating and completing game for the console.
And finally, the big news last night was that the Indie Games Con for this year was cancelled. This sucks, as I was finally going this year (with my boss at Wahoo Studios). We had tickets and everything. I can imagine the reasoning behind this move. Torque-X is GarageGames' ticket to hit some excellent traction in the game development world (not just indie, but game development in general), and so I can understand how they'd want to focus their resources into that rather than into the conference. In addition, indie and "casual" game development conferences have been appearing all over the place of late, with the explosive growth in the casual games market - with apparently more financial backing. I can see why GarageGames might have trouble making the IGC stand out without just becoming an out-of-town "Torque User's Group" meeting.
That doesn't change me being annoyed. Oh, well. Those are extra days on my schedule that I can now devote to game development, I hope.
Monday, August 21, 2006
A 2-Person Raid
I recently got hooked once again on City of Heroes. The Crimson Osprey, who'd been forced into early retirement due to his player being way to freaking busy, has enjoyed a little bit of play time over the last week or so.
One of the nice things about City of Heroes is that the game is pretty friendly for more casual (I guess I should say, "less hardcore") play. You can jump in, do a mission in about 20-30 minutes, and call it a day. You can team up very quickly with other heroes (or villains, with City of Villains) with an easy interface, or you can solo (which may be more difficult for certain character builds than others at higher level).
Unfortunately, my infrequent, short play has prevented me from ever rising to high levels in City of Heroes. Well, that, and I'm a player who has a case of what my superheroic partner last night called, "Altaholism" - a fondness for playing way too many characters ("alts" or "alternate characters") instead of concentrating on just one.
Now, City of Heroes has it's own version of a "Raid," called a "Task Force." For those of you not familiar with what raiding is in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs), here's my take.
Once upon a time in MMORPGs (I tend to attribute the origin to EverQuest, though I'm sure it started sooner than that, possibly with text MUDs) folks realized they could take on enemies more powerful than normal simply by zerging it.
"Zerging" is another term that may need definition - it comes from the game StarCraft, an older, huge hit from the makers of "World of Warcraft," the 800 lb gorilla of the Massively Multiplayer world right now. In StarCraft, the Zerg race specialized in cheap, disposable units. One of the most successful tactics for new players was to do a "zergling rush" or "zerg rush" - a winning move in the first ten minutes of the game if the opposing players were unprepared. It was basically an attack by massive numbers of disposable units.
So if a powerful dragon is too tough for a party of six players, you might be able to zerg rush it with five parties of six. Of course, coordinating an assault of this magnitude takes a lot more time and effort (particularly since it only takes one stupid player to wipe out an entire raid at a crucial moment). These assaults became termed, "raids." Raids tend to be long, grueling affairs. And too often, fairly boring. But there's often the potential for good loot from the slain dragon and its minions or whatever.
City of Heroes doesn't have quite the emphasis on loot - which is both a pro and a con. But for those who do like to raid, the developers created "task forces," which are a series of linked missions with lots of boss monsters and some nice rewards at the end. They are also long and grueling, though not as boring as some EverQuest raids I'd been on. They also tend to scale to the size and power of the raiding force - which means once again, stupid players can be a liability.
Well, last night I got invited to help START a task force. The girl starting it needed at least three people to start the task force, but was planning on soloing the whole thing. (She paid us 100,000 influence each just for helping her out - influence is sort of a mock currency in City of Heroes). I offered to stick with it, as I was looking for something to do. It was supposed to be one of the smallest Task Forces in the game.
We ended up "raiding" for over four hours to complete the sequence, which was a bit longer than I anticipated putting into City of Heroes for an evening. But I do have to admit, I had a blast playing it. I'm a sucker for superheroics to begin with. I was a scrapper (A science-based martial artist with super reflexes), and my partner was a tanker with fire powers. No "healers," so we had to rely on inspirations or quick rest breaks to restore ourselves.
Highlights of the evening:
* Both of use had super-jump travel powers. So I had a lot of fun with us following each other from mission to mission bounding across rooftops, pausing to comment occasionally. I'd never really followed anyone with super-leap before. It's incredibly amusing.
* Two heroes trying to deal with 2 or 3 Vahzilok Embalmed Abominations at a time. The embalmed are basically walking bombs. Besides just smacking you around and puking poison on you, they like to get into an animation that looks like they are fighting constipation REALLY HARD, and then explode in a firey mess that only hurts their enemies. If you can keep hitting them and getting them on the ropes, you can prevent them from self-destructing. We were usually successful at keeping one or two pinned down (if we could keep track of them in a mess of 8 or so enemies). We found ourselves the unfortunate targets of 2 or 3 detonations at a time in a couple of confused melees.
* Getting 3 badges at almost the same time - I got the "Gravedigger" badge (for putting down way too many Embalmed Abominations in my career), the "Tourist" badge (for earning 10 badges), and the "Positron's Ally" badge (for completing the Task Force sequence) all in the last combat of the night.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Benefits of Buying Indie
As I have mentioned previously, the "Indie" gaming scene (from my standpoint at least) is actually pretty inclusive, as much as we might try and make it sound like it's an elite bastion of gaming purity.
This means its pretty hard to characterize indies as a whole. But if you stick with the top few percent - the ones that really stand out and DO get noticed- you can make some statements that tend to hold true. As both a member of the development community AND a customer of the same, here are some benefits I've found that really impressed me about buying indie games:
#1 - Outstanding Customer Support
I've received rapid response times to emails and queries, even on weekends or evenings (though for many indies, those are their prime working hours). I've had suggestions for games actually get implemented into the next rev of the game within weeks, or even DAYS. With indies, it seems that the tiny organizational overhead means you are either talking directly to the developer involved, or you are only one step away.
I've been able to be involved in the process on behalf of players of the third-party games I sell on my site, and I have to admit that I have been impressed. From game hints and questions to really nasty technical issues, the developers have been awesome and extremely responsive for me to help people out.
And I thought *I* didn't sleep much...
#2 - Instant Fun
Indie games are generally available as a download, and usually have a small enough footprint that you won't be waiting all night for a download to finish. You may even be able to play a scaled-down demo version directly via your web browser. You don't need a lot of patience or a trip to the local mall.
And if you find the free trial versions to be to your liking, buying the full version rarely takes more than a couple of minutes, either. In my experience, I usually haven't had enough time to go to the fridge and grab a soda before I had a registration key ready to unlock my new game.
#3 - Long-Term Support For Your Game
I touched on this a little while ago. Have you ever tried to even find a patch for a typical 3-year-old mainstream game? Maybe one you played and enjoyed but never finished, and want to try it out again? (Or am I the only one who does that?) It can be a nightmare. But for indie games, a 3-year-old game might just be hitting it's prime, and is still actively getting updated and improved. Indie games have much longer legs, and indie developers seem much more devoted to maintaining their games, than most mainstream developers and publishers.
#4 - Unique, Flavorful, and Niche Games
Some indie games are really innovative and sometimes just plain bizarre. Some may not necessarily blow all your beliefs about what videogames can do out the window, but they might have a unique angle or subject matter that you just don't find in mainstream games because they just aren't "economically viable" (meaning the publisher doesn't believe the concept has the potential to sell a half-million copies MINIMUM).
The whole "casual games" phenomenon originated becase some folks (mainly indies) decided to serve a niche category that mainstream was ignoring. Now it's the fastest-growing segment of the industry, and the mainstream publishers are frantically trying to figure out how to adjust their business model to get a piece of the action.
Genres considered dead by the mainstream industry, such as space combat games and adventure games, find new life among the indies. I was floored by how many indie space combat games were coming out around the same time I released Void War. Then you've got indie games in conventional genres injected with the personality and unique ideas of the creator, making fresh and unique (and arguably innovative in their subject matter), like with Aveyond, Kid Mystic, Outpost Kaloki, and Cute Knight. Or something completely off-the-wall DIFFERENT that defies categorization, like Deadly Rooms of Death: Journey to Rooted Hold.
#5 - Low Price, High Value
Most indie games are significantly cheaper than their first-run mainstream counterparts. Even more significantly now that EA and other large publishers are bragging about paying more for development and passing the increased cost on to their customers for new-gen console games. Sure, indie games typically don't have quite the whistles and bells of their mainstream counterparts. But many people find indie games that provide a much bigger bigger bang-for-the-buck in terms of sheer fun and raw entertainment value than the latest "AAA" releases.
#6 - Try Before You Buy
Almost all indie games have a demo version you can try out first. So you don't even have to commit the already low price of admission to the full version to make sure you are going to be happy with your purchase. Sure, it's hardly a new or unique thing to indie games, but it's nice to have a pretty substantial sample and know in advance you are going to be happy.
Now if only movies would let us watch the first half hour for free before deciding whether or not we wanted to pay for a ticket.
#7 - You Get To Feel All Avant-Garde 'n Stuff
You are the trendsetter, because you see past the pablum-pushing mainstream marketers and have been wired into the digital underground to pick up on the freshest and most innovative concepts that are just TOO hot and experimental for the rank-and-file gamer!
Okay, maybe not. But hey, your friends won't know the difference!
#8 - Insert Your Benefit Here
Okay, I'm out. I was already reaching on the last one.
What have you got?
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Dependent, Independent, and Indie.
I knew that attempting to define Indie Games would stir up some discussion. And it did - in comments, out-of-band discussion, and on other blogs. This is a good thing.
Before going any further, some background is in order. A lot of folks coming from different industries have different views on the meaning of "independent," for one thing. I didn't really recognize this until I read Sammy G's recent blog and had my brother explain to me how the "independent" music industry works - which isn't very different at all from the mainstream music industry, in spite of attempts to sensationalize it with marketing terms.
Independent comics and movies have also evolved their own way, different from games (or music). So perhaps one of the best ways to shed light on what indie games or indie game developers are is by explaining how the videogames industry generally works today, and contrasting that with the indies. So here we go:
But First, A Little History
Once Upon A Time... someone invented videogames. Which was the first videogame is subject tosome amount of debate. And that whole history - culminating with Nolan Bushnell's runaway success with his coin-operated arcade game "Pong" - is a fascinating saga. What matters here is that once videogames started making money - REAL money - a whole bunch of players started entering the field.
Some were old companies wanting to branch off into this new, unknown medium. The Connecticut Leather Company (Coleco), Sears, Texas Instruments, Williams, Parker Brothers, a playing card company from Japan called "Nintendo"... they entered the fray with some newcomers like Atari, the offshoot Activision, Intellivision, and later, Trip Hawkin's dream company, "Electronic Arts." None of them knew what they were doing, and they made up the rules as they went. Some survived, some dissapeared, some withdrew, and new ones entered in a battle for dominance that still continues today. Over time, the videogame business matured and became a multi-billion dollar industry.
The companies that had the money and tenacity to stick with it became the giants that pretty much run the entire show. These are the "major publishers." While it may just be their own hubris to say they rule the industry, a hefty lion's share of the money made by the industry passes through them.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Like any other media industry, you can break the jobs down into two categories (which mingle and intersect all the time, but we'll pretend it's a clean break here). You have the guys who actually CREATE stuff. And then you have the guys who take that creation and productize it so that it makes money.
Most of the time the guys who create the games really DO want money... it allows them to keep doing what they love for a living, rather than asking "Do you want fries with that?" while dreaming of making games. The obvious match-up here is that the creators get together with the convert-to-money guys, and a little symbiotic relationship emerges. I make the games, you sell them to people, we'll split the profits, and we'll both be happy, right?
In the games industry, the creators are often called "development studios." And the money guys are often called, "publishers," and they do duplication, marketing, and strategic relationships with distributors and, through them, sales channels, where the constomers finally part with their money in exchange for a few hours of fun and entertainment. Yes, it's kind of a long pipe, and everyone gets their piece of the action.
It seems to me that the guys furthest down the money stream tend to get the smallest share after an industry has matured in any medium. But that's a whole 'nother rant.
Dependent Vs. Independent
The relationship between the publishers and the studios can take many forms. In one case, you have a studio that is owned by a major publisher. We don't really call them "Dependent," but they really are part of their parent company, no matter how many promises they may be given about retaining creative control. The parent company still has final say over what games get created, or whether or not the entire studio will continue to exist.
If you aren't owned by one of those previously mentioned major publishers, then you are "independent." Unlike some other industries that may have evolved different ways, in the games business, it's pretty cut-and-dried as to whether or not you are independent.
Now if you are an independent studio, you have to figure out how to make money from making games. Most of the time, this involves getting into some kind of relationship with a big publisher. Nowadays, most independent studios are guns-for-hire. The publishers have games that need porting to different platforms, or expansions or sequels that need to be made, or licenses that they need to exploit. If they can't get it all done with their in-house studios, they'll farm it out to the independent studios on contract.
If an independent studio does a good job on its contracts, and consistently delivers quality product on schedule, then they may become attractive enough to a publisher to get bought out by the publisher and turned into an in-house studio. Brought into the mothership. For many independent studios, this is the goal (at least for the guys who stand to make a lot of money out of the deal).
That's independent. But when we talk about "indie" games (or, as Jer put it, "Big I" Indie), we're actually talking about something else.
Independent vs. Indie
While the above is the most common scenario, it's not the only way things CAN work. This is where things get fuzzy, and we enter into the realm of "Indie."
There are a ton of other ways for games to get made and convert into cash to allow a studio to keep making games. They are the roads less travelled. I've talked about some of these methods in the past. These ways don't involve a major publisher at all - or at least not up-front.
The problems? Well, the big one is that they don't involve a healthy advance from a publisher up-front. This means less operating capital to create a game (usually, unless you happen to find a ton of investment from other sources - which has its own risks). It means doing it yourself as far as marketing and, often, distribution. Or at least not having access to the tried-and-true, well-understood channels the big publishers have a lock on.
This is what we're talking about when we talk about "indie" games.
If "indie" pretty much covers such a wide variety of possibilities, why do we give it a label? Why do we want to draw a distinction between "indie" games and those that are "not-indie?"
Well, Mike K. and Sammy G. are pretty much correct here. It's marketing.
The indies are the underdogs - by a tremendous margin. We're talking about as much as two orders of magnitude (or more) in combined development and marketing budget. This is a fundamental difference from, say, the music industry (well, at least on the production side... marketing budget differences are still astronomical).
Now, if the value of the game to the audience was in direct proportion to its cost, that would be one thing. But it's not. Now, I will admit that the "average" indie game out there is even crappier than the average retail game. But I will submit that I've gotten a heck of a lot more enjoyment out of several free indie game demos than out of some top-shelf titles for my Playstation 2 over the last couple of years. Maybe it's just because I'm a jaded, old-school gamer and something reasonably fresh and amusing like Cute Knight, Deadly Rooms of Death: Journey to Rooted Hold, Orbz, or Steam Brigade are more exciting to me than yet another generic third-person shooter. Even if you can now see realistic sweat on the faces of the enemy soldiers!
But in order to compete, the indies can't possibly go toe-to-toe against these giant corporations.
So it's gotta be guerilla marketing. Commando style! (Not to be confused with going commando...) Something has to be done to make the indie games stand out from the incredible background noise generated by hundreds of millions of advertising dollars being thrown behind their big-budget cousins.
And part of that guerilla strategy is the label. "Indie."
What's In A Name?
The "indie" label has stuck. It's hard to define, and it is a term that comes with a bunch of excess baggage from other media and industries. But so far, nobody's come up with a better term that has stuck. Except for "casual games," but that's actually a very specific category of games that may or may not be indie (but more often than not, they are produced by indies).
The label is desireable to communicate the difference to the audience. It breaks indie games into a separate category, in a hope to help them get noticed in the marketing din of the modern videogame market. There are signs that this is starting to work - indie games are starting to get some attention in the industry. Though I expect your average Joe Playstation still has no clue what an indie game is or where to find one.
Because indie games are such a wide, inclusive category, Sturgeon's Law holds just as true amongst the indies as anywhere else. Most indie games probably deserve to languish in obscurity.
But then there are a lot of things indie games do have to offer a player that they might not be able to find from mainstream games. The indies can serve the niche needs of an audience underserved by the mainstream developers. That's where the entire "casual game" phenomenon originated. The indies have a lot to offer players, if they can only be noticed and tried.
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Simplicity and Subject Matter
There's article on Primotech, if you haven't seen it already...
Is the XBox 360 Really Mom Friendly?
This isn't a survey - it's one woman's attitude and opinion on several games for the XBox 360. But her personal account (and her son's commentary) provide a glimpse into reasons WHY (or why not) that a survey wouldn't reveal.
One of the most telling pieces of information came in the interview at the end of the article:
Alex: What about the Arcade Games, weren’t those easier?
Mrs. P: Hexic I liked a lot, but Marble Blast was pretty tough. I think when it comes to winning over this audience, the simpler the better. But I also think spending over $400 is absurd just to play a Mattel card game that goes for $5 in real life, for instance.
Alex: What may make you want to purchase the console or play other games?
Mrs. P: I think the biggest factor would be if I could find a game that I could relate to, containing subject matter that I enjoy. Again, that’s partially why I liked Condemned. I think too often though, the plot is quite insipid. I think strong dramatic elements, like story and visuals and music, would be a bigger draw to older generations than unique gameplay mechanics or what have you.
I think the biggest problem is a simple lack of experience. It seemed like, in a game such as Prey, you knew exactly where to go after looking at a puzzle or roadblock, whereas it’d take me an exorbitant amount of time to move onto the next task or area. And it took me a very long time to develop the ability to move freely in the game and feel comfortable with the controls, to some extent. I could see some people just getting too frustrated to continue, however.
Simplicity and Subject matter.
I'm a geek, and a guy, so I relate well to subject matter involving blowing the crap out of aliens in space ships. Or beating up goblins with a sword. And geek guys *used* to be the prime audience for games. But that's been changing for a while. Games are mainstream, and the fastest-growing audience right now is women aged 40+. And many adults would rather play casual games than watch television or movies, according to this recent survey:
Casual Gaming Taking Places of Daily Activities
So is gaming ready for more psychological thrillers? More detective stories with less combat and more detecting? More romances? I don't know. As I've commented before, games tend towards violence because violence is way, way easier to do than other forms of human interaction.
That is, if we're trying to SIMULATE human interaction, like we simulate violence - simulating the full causality. But what about abstracting the interface a bit more? It's been done, especially in board games. Chess doesn't accurately simulate any real-world battle strategies, but it still represents (and, to a degree, teaches) battlefield tactics. Monopoly is a horrible simulation of real-world corporate strategy and economics, but it still conveys the feeling of portraying a ruthless real-estate tycoon.
What if you have to collect and play cards to get certain emotional responses from other characters, rather than directly simulating a conversation? Combine the (relative) simplicity of a game of Poker with the subject matter of mystery novel?
Labels: Game Design
Monday, August 14, 2006
The Flower Conspiracy
I think it's a conspiracy.
The flower-picking simulators are everywhere! This is what I ended up doing in Dungeons & Dragons Online tonight:
I've heard rumors that World of Warcraft has entire quests based around this dynamic! Aveyond - it's right in the first five minutes of the game! Blatently out there!
Something should be done. Think about this children! How can we protect our children from this exposure to flower violence in videogames! If we don't start arresting retailers now for peddling this flower-theft to children, pretty soon we're gonna see 16-year olds gathering entire basketfulls of daisies!
This can't just be an accident. The corrupt and corrupting games industy is behind it, I'm sure.
I am willing to help any state draft legislation to send a powerful and expensive message to retailers and the videogame industry that WE WILL NOT TOLERATE ANY MORE OF THIS PETAL-PEDDLING!
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Xbox 360 To Allow Hobbyist Developers
Coming Soon: For $99 / year, you can join a Microsoft "Creator's Club," with the tools to port games from your PC to the XBox 360.
The Gamasutra article is here:
This reminds me of the old "Net Yaroze" stuff for the original Sony Playstation. But it sounds to me that for $99 / year you get to turn your consumer-level XBox 360 into a dev kit. Not bad. You may only be able to directly create freeware for a limited market, but if you are really itching to mess with current-gen console development, this might be a pretty cool way to go.
Kudos to Microsoft for opening up the XBox 360 for hobbyists to tinker on!
Friday, August 11, 2006
Gaming News and Views 8-11-06
There's just too much interesting stuff going on in the gaming world! Enjoy!
Illinois Has To Cough Up A Half Million To Pay For Its Illegal Anti-Game Law
So Illinois passes a patently unconstitutional law. The ESA rigorously defends it. The federal judge throws the law out, ruling, "If controlling access to allegedly 'dangerous' speech is important in promoting the positive psychological development of children, in our society that role is properly accorded to parents and families, not the State."
And now the state of Illinois has to pay the ESA's legal expenses as well as its own. This is an incredible waste of taxpayer money, and shows great irresponsibility on the part of lawmakers, who knew dang well that similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional elsewhere.
Get more juicy tidbits at GamePolitics.com and VideoGameVoters.com
The Omega Syndrome Updated With Easier-To-Use Interface
Okay, a bit closer to home... The Omega Syndrome has been updated (again). All versions get an improved interface, with skill commands available right from the main screen this time (yes, yours truly got stuck for five minutes trying to figure out how to repair an elevator with the old version, so I'm interested in trying out this new change). Also, with the full version, more comic-book pages have been added to improve the storytelling. Enjoy!
You can read more about the interface change here, and you can download the update from The Omega Syndrome's page at Rampant Games. I do not know if you will have to re-install the add ons for the full version after this, however. I'm going to be offline tonight, so I may not be able to test it out until Sunday or so. If you try it out before then, please note what it takes in the comment section.
A Spirited Defense of Story In Games
I don't know if anyone else follows the endless rounds of the storytelling vs. gameplay debates that go around, especially in the academic circles. I praise the debators for doing this (and I'm blown away that videogames are a subject of academic study and debate). It's one of those chicken-and-the-egg type arguments that will NEVER be conclusively resolved, but I think that (up to a point) we learn a lot from the discussion.
Psychochild, a game development and MMORPG development veteran, has an excellent article offering his moderate opinion, and links to more interesting articles on the subject.
E3, Not Love, Is A Battlefield
Raph Koster has an excellent article entitled "E3, Retail, Dinosaurs, and Mammals," and suggests that the downsizing of E3 is a defensive measure on the part of major publishers that may backfire as they practice an older model of PR / Media Relations that may no longer succees in today's information-rich world. I thought it spoke nicely to some of the same issues I brought up in yesterday's article, and shows the continuation of the same mentality I discussed a year ago.
20 Minutes of Videogames Makes You Violent?
Thanks to Amber Night (and WomenGamer.com) for this juicy tidbit: 20 Minutes of Videogames Desensitizes You To Violence.
My contention is that 20 minutes of any sort of highly active or strenuous activity would produce the exact same effect. Like Tennis! Yeah, sure.... the score of zero is called "Love" in Tennis. So what's the winning score? It must be HATE AND WAR! Hah! I've broken the code. Why did violent games have a higher effect than the non-violent ones? Duh... the violent games deliberately invoke player's fight-or-flight instincts!
Seriously, I'd like to see someone test that out, but I'm not qualified. Not that this would stop me from making outrageous claims just like these researchers. Apparently mainstream media will buy just about anything that sounds sensational that Joe Public can't tell is an obvious line of Bull Hockey. Oh, well.
Truth In Videogames Ratings? Yeah, Right!
Gamasutra has published ESA President Doug Lowenstein's response to the Truth In Videogame Ratings Act, co-sponsored by one of my very own congressman from here in the State of Utah, Jim Matheson. The response is a good one - it basically sheds some light of The Real World upon an act certainly sounds well-intentioned, but in practice is incredibly unreasonable.
Games aren't movies or books, folks. They aren't static experiences that can be exhaustively evaluated. I put well over 100 hours into playing Oblivion, yet I doubt I saw even half of the content in the game. I spent too much of my time hopping through meadows picking flowers.
If I was hired by the ESA at great expense to evaluate Oblivion prior to its release, I still couldn't tell you from first-hand experience that the game allows you to murder innocents with little or no repurcussion. I couldn't tell you if there was a hack you could make to the code that would allow you to make some female characters topless. As far as I know, there could be some remote dungeon somewhere in the game called the Marquis de Sade's Pleasure Palace!
So how would my evaluation be any better (aside from being far more expensive, to the game industry AND the taxpayers for GAO supervision) than what we've already got?
It's just one more horribly ill-conceived bill that our politicians are wasting time and taxpayer dollars creating, defending, and ultimately losing.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Alternatives to Front-Loading Game Sales
I talked a little while ago about several of the differences between indie game sales and modern "AAA" retail sales.
One thing that I discovered when I first became involved with the indie community was about how indie sales tended to be more of a "slow-burn" proposition. I was struck hard by a comment by one indie developer who stated that he sold more copies of his game the third year after its release than the first two years COMBINED. Other indie developers echoed similar experiences.
This was a foreign concept to me. As a veteran of the retail, "AAA" game industry, I was used to game sales being "front-loaded" into the first few weeks following a games release. Thus a videogame has an effective shelf life of only about three months. After that, it drops off the radar, eventually lands in the bargain bin for impulse buys, and then is forgotten. A hit game might extend this cycle by about three to six months - more if it comes out with expansions to help keep it current. That's how the industry worked, darn it, how should anyone expect otherwise?
Well, apparently indies might. I had to go back and analyze my assumptions. The top- and mid-tier retail game industry spends an INCREDIBLE amount of money making it work this way. In a sense, it's not a natural state of things at all. Why do the big publishers do this? And do these same reasons apply to indies? SHOULD we be spending more of our resources trying to follow their model? Or is this simply the way of the dinosaurs, destined to become extinct?
So why DO the big retail publishers spend so much on front-loading their sales? Here are some reasons, not necessarily in order of importance.
#1 Physical Packages Have a Physical Cost
First of all, physical game packages take up physical space. There's the space at the warehouse, and there's the retail "brick and mortar" shelf-space that is always at a premium. A box that is sitting on the shelf or at the warehouse COSTS money. You have to pay rent for the building that houses the box, after all. It may only be some pocket change per month that a single box may cost a store-owner, but you multiply that by six unsold boxes over the course of a year, and costs can rise above what he'd earn by selling one of those games.
Ideally, the retailer and publisher and distributor would like to minimize that storage cost down to zero. If it were possible, they'd love to sell evey single copy they would ever possibly sell on day 0.
#2 - Shelf Space Has An Opportunity Cost
Because retailers and distributor warehouses do not have infinite shelf space, they have to concentrate their limited resources on what will make them the most money. Four boxes of "Caber Toss Championship 2003" sitting on the shelf for the last four years means four boxes of anything else that would have already sold and made money were NOT in that spot. If a game doesn't prove itself immediately to a retailer that it has the potential to move, it becomes a candidate for getting returned to the distributor to make way for something else.
So games with slower sales will have future sales cut off - arbitrarily clipped to zero - as they get cycled out for stronger sellers.
#3 - Publishers Don't Want To Compete With Themselves.
Thirdly, major publishers do not want a game that they released last year to steal sales from this year's game. Particularly these days, when publishers try to cut costs by slapping together minor improvements and roster changes to a franchise game and calling it a sequel. So they invest a lot of effort into convincing consumers that newer is ALWAYS better.
#4 - It's Easier To Start An Avalanche From The Top
Fourth, massive initial sales helps cause "hype." If your game is the one everyone is buying, playing, and talking about, that success becomes self-perpetuating. You'll get some of that with a slow-burn success, but he massive initial onslaught adds some urgency to it, and people tend to be motivated more by the urgency of the now.
After all, how much more likely are people to see a brand new film that they want to see, than an old classic that they've "always wanted" to see? In my experience, it's a significant difference. The lack of urgency increases the likelihood that someone will never get around to it.
Downloadable Games to the Rescue?
Well, most people reading my little rants (or who look at the pictures on the sidebar) know of a partial alternate solution. Downloadable games are the future, even though publishers are very cautious about admitting this. After all, they don't want to honk off their retail or distribution partners. And retail will still be a major factor in any major game's sales for the forseeable future.
But it may not be too long before it ceases to be the primary factor.
And as online distribution grows, the first two problems decline in significance. With downloadable games, you provide the product on-demand. The shipping and warehousing costs (which consists of bandwidth, storage space, and a little bit of maintenance for its spot on the web) become minimal. It becomes possible to take advantage of the "Long Tail" that could potentially double a seller's revenue.
Kinda like what indies are doing already, on a much smaller scale. But I digress. What about #3 and #4?
The third problem is only an issue if you have a rapid release rate of very similar games. But here's a novel idea: Maybe you should try to fill your release schedule with a bit more... I don't know... VARIETY, instead of the steady stream of World War II shooters and stuff?
How about making sequels that are not just more of the same only fancier? I didn't see the imminent release of "The Two Towers" or "Return of the King" to theaters screw up people's enjoyment of "The Fellowship of the Ring." I don't know of anybody jumping to read the latest book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series without reading the earlier ones. How about the videogame industry following suit? Wouldn't it be cool if we weren't threatened by earlier games, but instead used the marketing of the newer titles to maybe provide boost sales of older titles as well? Wow, more money for the same marketing buck!
This happens already to some degree with story-centric games. I have gone back to play "prequel" roleplaying games (and adventure games... you know, back when they HAD adventure games) after playing the newer, more technologically advanced games. Even in the realm of "first-person shooters," it is possible. I was introduced to the Thief series (only an FPS by loose interpretation) by Thief II, and went back to enjoy the original afterwards. It CAN happen.
Sure, the concern about competing with oneself is never going to go away, but I think a large part of the problem is of our own making. If we quit repeating ourselves, we'll be less likely to compete with ourselves.
Making the Long Tail Work
The fourth problem - taking advantage of the timeliness of a new release - is probably never going to go away. Every other industry deals with the same issue. But I think there are ways to rekindle the flame. Heck, George Lucas has been re-firing that pilot light for the last decade. And from a financial standpoint at least, he keeps succeeding. How much money has he continued to make, directly and indirectly, from something that he did THREE DECADES AGO?
The recording industry continues to sell decades-old music to us (and then throws a fit when we act like we have rights to listen to music we already bought on a different format). Books get reprinted, and sometimes enjoy new surges in sales (when an authoer gets popular with another book, for example, or when the book gets made into a movie - or sometimes when it just "catches on," as Lord of the Rings did a couple of decades after its original publication).
Compare this to the game industry, where after three months, a game goes into bargain-bin hell. It may reappear a few months later in a "gold" or "platinum" edition with added content from expansions, or it may occasionally resurface as a bundleware "collection." But for the most part, it's dead, Jim.
Once again, I think the indies are the ones that are seeing this first. Especially when they keep going back and updating and improving old titles so that they keep up with changing technology. Look at Pretty Good Solitaire. That game is something like a DOZEN YEARS OLD, but it keeps selling. And it keeps getting updated and improved. Maybe that can't last forever, but it does give us a glimpse into possibilities. Likewise, look at EverQuest (the original) and Ultima Online. Neither of these are as strong as they were in their hayday, but they are still making money and supporting their communities.
Sure, this might not beat having a big splash on the day you release, but there's something to be said for having legs.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
40% of TV Viewers Are Addicted
An in-depth study, performed by my offices over the last FIFTEEN years, have now found conclusive proof that 40% of all Television Watchers are actually ADDICTED to television.
As part of this study, we've also developed a therapy program that has cured over 90% of television addicts!
If you suspect that, or someone you love, MAY be addicted to television watching, please GIVE ME YOUR MONEY and we'll help! Our program will not only determine if you are an addict, but we will also be able to determine when you are cured. Do not trust anyone else to make this determination, we've spent FIFTEEN YEARS at this, we're the experts. We even bolded the number FIFTEEN. Sure we were doing all kinds of other things during those fifteen years, but we thought about it at least once or twice during that time.
I expect the media to pick up news of this moneymaking scheme.... er, I mean, this astounding discovery... any minute now and quote these statistics as FACT. Just like they did with this quack... er, I meaned, this esteemed researcher. Because I, too, am an expert. I have a college degree, and I've seen people watch TV my whole life.
I mean, isn't it brilliant to be both the one to diagnose an invisible illness AND be the one to provide treatment? If Doctor Maressa Orzack can do it, why can't I? I can pose for photos, too, with my hand under my chin in a "Thinker" pose.
Isn't this EXACTLY the same scam that unscrupulous "fortune teller" con artists perform on their believing customers? They keep predicting dark fates that can be prevented if you pay them money to perform cleansing rituals and crap?
Yeah. I expect to become rich and famous any moment now. Any moment....
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Still Playing Dungeon & Dragons Online
We've got a weird way of playing massively multiplayer online games. Probably weird. At least, I don't hear of anyone else playing it that way. Curiously enough, Dungeons & Dragons Online is well suited to our style of gameplay.
See, we actually ignore the "massively" part of the description. We play these games by appointment, just like our Saturday Night pen & paper gaming, or how we played Neverwinter Nights until recently. We get together at a usual time on a particular day of the week, kick around the world as a group of friends for a couple of hours, and then sign off until next time. Occasionally some of us will pop online at other times - usually to sell or trade stuff, or to play an alt (alternate character). But for the most part, we treat the games like our own private world, unless we need to recruit someone else to fill in a slot because someone is missing that evening.
In fact, we ended up replacing our "Neverwinter Nights" night with Dungeons & Dragons Online. One of our group commented, "We'll just let Turbine be the Dungeon Master for a while."
That's how we played EverQuest, too, towards the end.
Some things in Dungeons & Dragons Online really support this type of play. For one thing, there's no problem travelling to get together and meeting online. We can get all get together within 5 minutes or less of everyone showing up. The adventures are instanced, and don't have much in the way of "respawns," so if someone shows up late, they can usually rejoin the group with little problem.
Since none of us are "hardcore" players, once we got out of the Dock areas for adventures, most of the time nobody in our group has the quests memorized. So we all get to experience the adventures for the first time together.
It's also fascinating to me that D&D Online... based on the great-granddaddy of RPGs which started the whole concept of giving experience points for body counts... doesn't directly reward players for killing monsters. Not that it matters - you still pretty much have to clean out the dungeon regardless (unless you are skipping side content). It's a good system, but unfortunately flawed. You get bonus XP for accomplishing certain goals (like the trite destroy-all-crates-and-barrels element, or finding secret doors, or disarming traps), but many of these bonuses only apply BEFORE you complete the main quest. If you haven't smashed all the crates before stumbling into the final "boss" you are meant to confront, tough cookies. You may have missed out on an admittedly small portion of the XP bonus.
This is not to say that I think Dungeons & Dragons is a great or perfect MMORPG. One of our group can't resist the urge to put in some extra playtime on weekends with his primary character from time to time (and really, we can't blame him THAT much), so he's two levels higher than anyone else in the group. This means that with him in the group, we get an XP penalty... but we can't take on any adventures appropriate to HIS level or we get clobbered.
And we're too nice to just let him solo the content for us until he dies, to "slow down" his leveling... :)
The whole tiered level approach to power thing is one of the most obnoxious elements of most Massively Multiplayer RPGs out there. Sure, the unlocking of content and new abilities is the point and the "goal" of these games - it's a powerful draw that works. But it's frustrating how it stratifies players so that they can't play together. The best resolution to this problem so far has been City of Heroes, which allows players to partner up with each other as "sidekicks" or "mentors," to raise or lower their effective level so that they can team up together.
The party size limitations are also annoying. The dungeons and difficulty level are geared for a party of six (unlesss you choose solo difficulty, a new option). The experienced points for the quest are limited by the level of the highest member of the group. This means a party of three gets exactly the same experience as a party of six, even though the party of three is facing much greater danger. Undoubtably this is to encourage grouping and people taking a full party. But a more severe limitation is that - before members of our group dropped out of the game - we'd often have 7 to 10 people playing. This necessitated splitting our group up into totally different groups and adventures (and supplementing our numbers with pick-up-members, always a hit-or-miss proposition).
The quests also have that heavily-scripted, inorganic feel to them. Fortunately, the variety of quests (after 2nd level or so) means you don't often have to repeat the same quests over at the same difficulty level, thus finding just how little randomness there really is in the game. But the linearity and lack of interesting player choices outside of combat tactics or which order you take the wings of the dungeon does make the game feel a little too much like an amusement park ride at times. While I don't REALLY miss the respawn cycles of EverQuest, that element did add an extra dimension - a strategic element - to the goal-based dungeon run.
But overall, we're still having a good time. The quests are amusing enough to keep us interested. And the game DOES keep updating constantly with free, new content. Not that we've exhausted the old stuff yet. But ultimately, it's still about getting together with friends, not about the game itself for us.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Indie Interview: Mike Rubin pt 2
This is Part 2 of the interview posted yesterday with Mike Rubin. Mike was gracious enough to answer some questions about his "3D Interactive Fiction" project, Vespers 3D.
You can read part 1 by clicking HERE.
Rampant Coyote: When you move from a more abstract representation of a world to a more concrete one, those kinds of things are bound to come up. I've heard similar things from experienced "Pen and Paper" RPG designers moving to computer games. And even from doing conversions of board games to computer games.
I would imagine that you aren't the first one to think of pairing up Interactive Fiction with a 3D environment. Do you know of anyone else who has succeeded? If not, why do you think they failed? If so, what are you doing that's different (other than telling a different story)?
Mike Rubin: Well, I can't say I'm completely familiar with all of the different attempts that have been made in the recent past with respect to graphical adventure games. But I'm pretty sure that nobody else has taken the approach of incorporating this much text into the game. The text in traditional IF performs many functions; it is descriptive, narrative, informative, aesthetic; and of course it is used for interaction. Is there no role for that in a graphical adventure game? I think there certainly is. Perhaps not in the descriptive sense (that would probably be redundant), but certainly in its other roles. And I don't know of any real-time 3D games where a text parser is used for command entry. So in that sense I don't know of other games which have really tried to incorporate interactive fiction per se.
I think people will always point to the Myst series as the best-known implementation, and they did use real-time 3D in their later efforts. Some people really liked those, but I have not played them all. Our story is different, yes, but I also think we will differ in how we tell the story and how the player experiences it.
Rampant Coyote: How do you think the Interactive Fiction community will respond to a real-time 3D I.F. game? Do you worry they'll cry out for your blood for polluting their beloved text with something that looks like a First-Person Shooter? Or is this something that the community has already been asking for?
Mike Rubin: It's a fascinating discussion to me, and on one hand I'm eager to see the reaction and on the other I'm dreading it. I'm sure there are people in both camps, although I couldn't really tell you which outnumbers the other. I've spent some time lurking in groups like rec.arts.interactive.fiction and there have been dicsussions in the past about making 3D adaptations of IF, but most were met with strong skepticism. I think there are definitely some IF people who would like to see this, but there are probably a lot who will reject it. There are, after all, hard feelings still lingering towards people like Roberta Williams (of Sierra On-Line) for initiating the demise of the text adventure game when the first graphical adventures came along.
One thing that I think will lead to some indifference is that 3DIF is much less accessible to the individual developer than text IF. Most text games can be developed by a single person over a relatively short period of time, and with some of the new tools like Inform 7, very little programming skills or knowledge is needed. I think that's one of the things that binds the IF community together; it's not a commercial enterprise, it's a group of like-minded individuals working on their own projects and helping each other out and playing each other's games -- and they're all free. A 3DIF game takes a group of people with different sets of skills, some cash, and a lot of time. When the community gets their hands on this I'm sure one of the first reactions will be, "can I do this with my game, too?" The answer will probably turn many of them off because it's very different from traditional IF.
I think some parts of the community are really looking for something new to spice up the IF world, and I hope this fills that role. But it's hard to say if it will.
Rampant Coyote: Do you think that Vespers 3D will help expand Interactive Fiction to a new audience? What kind of market do you expect to find for a game like this?
Mike Rubin: The IF community always seems to be looking for ways to expand their audience, and if this project can do that, I would be happy about it. I don't suspect that will necessarily be the case, but you never know. What I would like to see is people trying Vespers3D, and then trying the original text version to see how they compare. If that happens, I'm sure there will be a number of people who find they like the text version better, and perhaps they will be inspired to try other text games as well. I'm considering distributing the text version and its IF interpreter with the game, along with some information to direct players to online repositories where they can try other IF games. I think that might be an interesting tact and something of an offering to the IF community, since I'm still really an IF enthusiast at heart.
I'm not sure what kind of market we will find, but I'm certain there is a market for it. I think Myst showed that you can be very successful with games that are slower paced and focus more on creative problem solving rather than fast-twitch reaction times. But Myst succeeded for a number of reasons that don't necessarily apply to our project, so it's hard to say. I think it will definitely be a niche product, but I also think people will appreciate it for what it offers.
Rampant Coyote: Do you have any projections for when Vespers 3D will be complete? Is Vespers 3D a commercial project? How will you be distributing it?
Mike Rubin: I would like to be able to project that, but I really don't know. We're still at a very early stage, and a lot will depend on finding additional help for some areas of development.
Whether or not Vespers3D will be a commercial product was and continues to be a topic of considerable debate amongst our team. Originally, we planned on producing only part of Vespers; the text game takes place over three days, and we considered producing only the first day as our proof-of-concept prototype. But I think we all agree now that it will have a much greater impact as a complete game. That said, it will require a significantly greater investment to do the whole thing, which complicates matters. I'd still like to do the whole thing and release it for free, but only if that's feasible and if we believe it will help us with a future (commerical) game.
As for distribution, we haven't really discussed that yet, and of course it will depend heavily upon the decision above.
Rampant Coyote: So what other games have inspired you? Any indie games?
Mike Rubin: All indie games inspire me. Any individual or small group who can start and finish a game deserves a great deal of credit, and that includes IF authors. But I'm more inspired by those games that try to do something new and different, which is really what the indie game dev community is all about...doing the things that the big game companies won't take risks on. I wasn't really part of the indie community until I got involved with the Torque Game Engine, and now I've met some pretty inspiring people. Two games that were recently completed using TGE are "Minions of Mirth" and "Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa", and it was pretty cool to watch them progress through to completion. WT:VA was a finalist at SlamDance last year, and now you can find it on store shelves at places like Best Buy, which is just amazing to think about. I can't imagine how it would feel to walk into a Best Buy and see Vespers3D sitting on a shelf.
Rampant Coyote: What are you most proud of in Vespers 3D?
Mike Rubin: I'm pretty darn proud of the text parser, which is a form of punishment I wouldn't wish on anyone. Text parsers in IF games may seem pretty simplistic, but there is an incredible amount of complexity to them. The funny thing is that they have evolved to handle some pretty complex commands -- but the reality is that the vast majority of commands they handle are still simple one or two word phrases. But the expectation now is that a good parser should be able to handle those difficult phrases, so the bar has been raised and people will expect your parser to live up to that standard. I think ours for the most part will.
But really the thing I'm most proud of is that we've made it this far. Indie game projects are kind of like fish eggs; thousands are laid but only a handful survive to adulthood. We're not anywhere near the end, but we've reached something of a milestone this month. There's a tangible sense that the concept will work and the team we have is good enough and committed enough to pull it off. It feels like we have passed the point of no return, so to speak.
Rampant Coyote: Incidentally, two of the few games I actually "finished" in the Commodore 64 days as a budding wannabe game programmer were text adventures, and I remember all the effort I put into the text parser, and how proud I was of it. They still weren't quite up to Infocom standards, but I felt I could take on the Scott Adams adventures pretty handily.
So, getting even more technical for a moment here: What made you decide to use the Torque Game Engine for Vesper 3D? Is this your first project in Torque? What has been your experience with Torque so far?
Mike Rubin: I chose Torque because I wanted an engine that was inexpensive, cross-platform, simple to license, and came with full access to the code. I also wanted one with a simple scripting language. Torque fit those criteria well, although one or two others did as well. I looked for a long time at Unity, which was appealing because I'm predominantly a Mac user. I chose to go with Torque mostly because of the great community there, which seemed a bit more established than Unity's. People at GarageGames.com have been really helpful and there are just an incredible number of resources there to help make your game better. This is my first project in Torque, and it's amazing to think about how much I know now compared to when I started last fall. And it's just as amazing to think of all that I still don't know.
Working with Torque is one of those experiences that is hard to characterize. It's probably in some small way similar to raising a child; it's incredibly difficult and when you start out you have no idea what to do or how to do it, and you spend a lot of time struggling. But every now and then you stop and look at what you've accomplished, and you realize you've actually enjoyed it all and you're really proud of what you've been able to do.
But then again, I don't have kids, so I can't say. (At least that's what all my friends with kids tell me.)
Rampant Coyote: I'm still fussing with my first Torque project myself. I know I get a little embarassed by some of the earlier code I did --- it seems like after a point you quit kicking and screaming at the engine and things just start to "click."
So, is there anything else you'd like to mention here?
Mike Rubin: Just that any project like this is almost never attributable to just one person. I owe a lot to Jason, N.R., Jon Jorajuria (our sound designer) and a few others for all of their help and their skills, and for making this project both attainable and a lot of fun. And I should really be thanking my wife for not kicking me out when I spend far too much time coding on my spare time.
Once again, thank you, Mike, for this interview!
(Click Here For Part 1)
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Indie Interview: Mike Rubin pt 1
At the Utah Indie Game Developer's Meet last month, I had the chance to meet Mike Rubin (aka "Rubes"), who really impressed me with a demo of the upcoming game "Vespers 3D." Vespers 3D is actually a 3D Interactive Fiction (I.F.) project, based upon the award-winning text-only Interactive Fiction game called, coincidentally enough, "Vespers."
My discussion with Mike was split between discussion of his adaptation of Torque Technology to drive this project, and a conversation about the design issues he faced coupling the explorative, deliberate gameplay of Interactive Fiction (AKA "Adventure Games") with the visceral, immersive experience of first-person perspective, fully 3D graphics. Mike seemed very soft-spoken and unassuming, and kept praising the artists he'd worked with to create this demo.
While he was very open with the possibility that this experiment might fail, I was struck by his passion for the project, and how well he'd thought through the design issues. When the opportunity struck to interview him about his project, I was thrilled by the chance to pick his brain a little more. I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did!
The interview is pretty huge, so I broke it two parts. You can read part 2 by clicking HERE.
Rampant Coyote: So tell us a little about yourself. Who is Mike Rubin?
Mike Rubin: Best I can tell from Wikipedia, I'm a videographer with ties to Apple and Lucasfilm, a middle east scholar, and a musician whose best known work is on "Blue's Clues." I really don't recall anything like that in my past, but then again there's a lot of my life I don't remember well. Mostly what I know is a life predominantly in medical research, now as an assistant professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine. It's an interesting hobby while I pursue my life dream of getting my own personal entry in Wikipedia as the father of three-dimensional interactive fiction.
Rampant Coyote: Steve Taylor of NinjaBee told me to ask you about Missions of the Reliant. Was that you? Want to tell us about that one? Steve tells me he played it a TON, and wanted to know if you have another version planned.
Mike Rubin: Yeah, that was the game that was supposed to "get it out of my system." It was a shareware game I made for the Mac back in the early/mid-90's while I was in graduate school, mostly because I had always wanted to make a game and I had to give it a try. I based it on that old ASCII Star Trek game, where you moved around from sector to sector wiping out Klingons, only this time I made it with isometric 2D graphics and a different storyline. It was a lot of fun, and I learned an incredible amount -- particularly how bad I was at marketing and post-production crap. But it got some recognition in MacUser's annual shareware awards and it made enough money to buy a few more beers and brats in grad school. The fact that Steve remembered it is amazing, although I'm not sure he should really be admitting to playing a "ton" of it. I've thought about trying to go back and modify the code to release the full game for free, but I've got enough on my plate right now as it is.
Interesting, now that I think about it; in that game I took what was originally a "text"-based game and put a nifty graphics front end on it. Now I find myself doing the same thing with Vespers and text IF. I wonder what that means.
Rampant Coyote: It's gotta be destiny, man! Back when I was a kid, "Interactive Fiction" was just called "Adventure Games." The early Colossal Cave adventures, and the timeless Infocom games like Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, motivated me to learn to program myself so I could create these absolutely incredible experiences. I came across the term, "Interactive Fiction" about ten years ago. Is there a difference between "adventure games" and "interactive fiction?"
Mike Rubin: I think there are some differences, but the fundamental concept is pretty much the same. I would say that the term Interactive Fiction evolved as a way of reflecting the greater literary approach that is now being taken in the writing of these games. Many IF authors spend a great deal of effort on the quality of the writing and its contribution to the game experience, rather than focusing entirely on the puzzles. And there are some experimental IF games that have taken this approach to new and interesting places.
I really cut my teeth on some of those old games; I remember spending far too much time playing Original Adventure on my dad's hulking Northstar computer, followed later by Scott Adams's wonderful, albeit laconic, adventure games. Those early games, although certainly literary in their own style, concentrated more on relatively simple puzzle-solving; any semblance of story was thin and basically emergent from the puzzles. Then Infocom came about, and I would say that most people would identify that as the start of real IF. The games shifted focus from being centered around puzzles to being centered around stories. The puzzles were still there, of course, but it became more about the writing, and the quality thereof. I think those were probably the first games that you would begin to identify with the term "fiction".
The term "adventure game" can still apply in many cases, though. Lots of IF games are about exploration and adventure, but many also additionally have some of the components of true fiction, such as plot, characterization, dialogue, and so forth. IF has come a long way since the 80's, and there are some really sophisticated works out there.
Rampant Coyote: What technology was Vespers originally built with?
Mike Rubin: Vespers was written using Inform (version 6). A newer version has come out
since then (Inform 7), which is a real advance in writing text IF games
because it uses more natural language.
Rampant Coyote: So what made you decide to implement Interactive Fiction in 3D? What made you think it would be good match, and what do you hope to accomplish with this title?
Mike Rubin: I'm still not sure if it's a good match, to be honest; that's what we're looking to find out with this experiment. I guess there are two main reasons I thought it was worth trying. One reason is that I've always enjoyed the freedom of movement and exploration that first-person games (FPS) provide, particularly those with really compelling worlds. But typically, FPS games don't want you to spend a lot of time exploring and experimenting with things; usually you have a straightforward goal and the idea is to complete it and get to the next level. Well, text IF is all about exploring and experimenting, so this would be a way of incorporating those things into the 3D world.
The other reason is that I think there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with mainstream games, particularly FPS-style games. So much emphasis is placed on the graphics, and story is really just an afterthought used to loosely tie together the various levels. Half-Life got all this credit for having a great "story", but come on -- that was a fragfest, not a story. But again, text IF is all about developing story and characters and interactivity, so once again this would be a way of giving 3D games something they've been missing.
There are other reasons as well, like trying to bring a greater sense of interaction to 3D games by using a text parser and forcing the player to really think about what to do next -- not just click click click. Some of the recent graphical adventure games do this to some extent, but I like the increased options that a text parser can provide compared with mouse clicking.
Rampant Games: So why did you choose a 3D remake of "Vespers," rather than an original title?
Mike Rubin: Well, I decided if I was going to try this, I needed to start with a reasonable goal: create a small prototype game, like a proof-of-concept. I thought the best approach would be to base the prototype on an existing IF game -- and specifically a really good one, so people would hopefully enjoy it while they're trying it out. So I checked out the latest entries from the 2005 IFComp (the annual IF Competition, at www.ifcomp.org), which is open only to IF games that can be completed in two hours or less. The first one I looked at was Vespers, a game by Jason Devlin, which had just been voted the winner of the competition.
It was fantastic, and it had all the elements I was looking for: a compelling story, great characters, a perfect setting (small but well visualized) -- and it was short. It was easy to envision bringing the game to 3D life. So I e-mailed him after I finished playing it, presented him with the idea, and he was sold. He remains intimately involved in the project -- probably the way an author would be when his book is being made into a movie.
Rampant Coyote: I imagine that going from a text-only game to a full-blown 3D world came with a lot of challenges. What sort of challenges did you face, and were any of them unexpected?
Mike Rubin: It's probably safe to say that most things were unexpected, since I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Although many of the challenges are difficult and problematic, I'd probably also say that they are a source of great enjoyment. Jason, N.R. Bharathae (our modeler and artistic lead), and myself have had many great e-mail conversations about how to implement a particular feature of IF which is simple to do in text but horrendously complicated in 3D. (Well, *I* think they're great, those guys are probably sick of me e-mailing them all the time to complain about something else.)
One of the earliest issues that came up was the concept of "scope." In text IF, the game world is divided up into well-defined rooms or locations. So at any one point in time, you can easily determine which game objects are "in scope" (those objects the player can interact with). Usually that's whatever is in that room, plus whatever the player is carrying in inventory, and it's simple to calculate. But in 3D, rooms are more difficult to define. I tried defining scope as whichever objects fall within a particular radius of the player, but then you have to take into account walls (if an object is behind a wall, you can't really interact with it), field of view (if an object is behind the player, should he be able to interact with it?), and so on. You don't have to take these things into account in text.
Most of the other problems are similar in that they deal with the issues raised by introducing spatial relationships into the equation. How to drop objects when the player is standing right in front of a wall; how to deal with certain commands when the player is standing at funny, unexpected angles; how to handle placing objects inside or on top of other objects. The list goes on and on, and there are still lots of outstanding issues that we haven't worked out yet.
(Click HERE For Part 2)
Saturday, August 05, 2006
Monkey Woman Is My Hero
Okay, so I've been suckered into lowest-common denominator geek entertainment. But I really am enjoying Stan Lee's "Who Wants To Be A Superhero?" show. It's silly, it's over-the-top, and it knows it. As I've posted before. Somehow, it works for me.
And this recent episode (episode 2) was just as fun as the first.
But I just have to hand it to Mary Votava, AKA Monkey Woman. For those who didn't catch the episode, the heroes are asked to help a little old woman who is locked out of her house by getting in through the back yard. Of course, there are a pair of ATTACK DOGS back there. So the heroes are given protective clothing, and required to cross the yard and touch the back door to succeed in their mission. If at any time they want to give up, they can simply cry the safety word, "Uncle."
Less than half made it. Cell Phone Girl got knocked flat on her (admittedly dainty) posterior and cried uncle within four seconds.
Ty'Veculus made the honorable offer to go first, with the explanation that he might tire out the dogs to make it easier for everyone else. Maybe he was playing to the judge on that one - a trained fire-fighter in "real life", he made the run in the least amount of time as anyone, doing little to tire out the dogs.
The Iron Enforcer, a bouncer in real life, cried uncle about twenty-some-odd seconds in, after getting brought down by the dogs only a few inches from the door! Considering the ending of the episode, I wonder if that part wasn't somehow staged.
But the best performance of all was Monkey Woman. She claimed to be very upset about her failure in the test from the previous episode, and announced that she WOULD NOT QUIT, no matter what.
And she didn't. Everyone else made it to the door or quit in under 60 seconds. Monkey Woman was pretty much a doggie chew toy for nearly ten minutes, dragged all over the yard. She cried "Ouch!" a couple of times as the dogs yanked at her padded suit, but she never cried uncle. Eventually, the dogs must have been more exhausted than she was, because she made it to the door on hands and knees.
She succeeded simply by refusing to allow herself to fail. After all, as long as her suit held together, the dogs couldn't do her any serious harm. All she had to do was to outlast the dogs and consider them to be momentary setbacks. I can imagine it's pretty hard to call getting knocked down and turned into a human tug-of-war game by two snarling, trained attack dogs a "momentary setback." But it paid off - at least for this competition. She didn't end up being on the chopping block this week.
Ya just gotta admire someone who sticks with it like that.
I have yet to talk to anyone who has watched the show who hasn't enjoyed it. But most of my friends are as geeky as me. There are only four episodes of this show left, but based on these two episodes I am giving it a a hearty recommendation for the geek-at-heart.
Friday, August 04, 2006
Aveyond 2.0 Released!
Just in time for a fun weekend of adventuring: the top-selling indie Roleplaying Game, Aveyond, has a new version.
Amanda sent me the latest built last night, and pretty much killed my productivity for the evening.
A lot has changed - many of the suggestions by players over the last six months have been added to this new version, as well as some bug fixes. Besides improved graphics with tighter art direction, there are new and modified maps, new items, new and expanded quests, in-game hints and tips to help new players get started, and enhanced functionality. One thing I noticed immediately (besides the new title graphics) is that in the lower left-hand corner you are now told what area you are in, and how much gold you have. Both are very handy little tools to have access to.
Unfortunately, the downside is that saved games and the "goodies" from the first version won't work. This is to be expected with all the quest changes. But if you aren't far along in the game yet, it may be worth your while to start a new game with version 2.0.
If you've already purchased the older version, this new one is a free upgrade.
I also HIGHLY recommend downloading the free music pack to go with the game. The higher-quality music just sounds MUCH better.
Thursday, August 03, 2006
Interview With Aveyond's Developer
The Indie Game Developer's Podcast has an interview with Amanda Fitch, creator of the awesome indie RPG Aveyond.
Interesting point: She started making an adventure game in college because she wanted to play a particular type of game (the King's Quest style), but nobody else was making those types of games anymore. So she did it herself, and made the type of game that she wanted to play.
That's the way it ought to be. Not that it's any guarantee of success - her first attempt was brutally panned, in spite of it being a free offering to the community. That oughta be a lesson about.... something...
Thanks to GBGames for the heads-up.
R.I.P. Computer Gaming World
According to this news article on Gamasutra, Ziff-Davis is shutting down Computer Gaming World magazine.
I'm reasonably sure that I am among the longest-term subscribers to the magazine. I think I can make that assumption because if there were lots of us, the magazine wouldn't be going away. I've been subscribed for at least a dozen years - you can take a look at that mail tab on this 1994 issue I scanned in... Yes, I was living in Provo at the time. I think at the time this issue came out, I had just started my brand-new career in the games industy. Kinda scary, that.
I've been reading it for quite a bit longer. I dug up another issue from 1993 in my collection (which is much smaller than it used to be). Browsing through the November 1993 issue (still in great condition, though the pages are starting to change color), I see ads and articles on Lands of Lore, Aces Over Europe, Wing Commander Privateer, the first Gabriel Knight, Betrayal at Krondor, Return to Zork, Wing Commander Academy, and "King's Quest VI on CD-ROM!" Yes, a special edition on CD-ROM. Oh - and check out the PRICE of the magazine back in '93!
One of the reasons I subscribed to CGW was its focus (at the time) on not just the games, but the games industry. Yes, even before I was part of it, I was fascinated by all the behind-the scenes stuff. You'd get 4-6 pages of information on what went on at the last Computer Game Developer's Conference. And they had a "Rumors" page talking about vaporware and mergers and things going on in the industry.
Throughout the 90's (and continuing through today), most gaming magazines adopt a puerile tone and a "let's pretend to be teenagers!" attitude. CGW (at the time) didn't do that. Neither did Strategy Plus, a great import mag from the U.K. that eventually moved to the U.S., and then died. Sad. Anyway, I enjoyed reading a magazine that didn't rely upon 20 empty overhyped adjectives with every sentence drawing upon imagery of loss of control of bodily functions to get its point across.
Unfortunately, in recent years, CGW's quality declined, and the guy who ran the magazine before Jeff Green took over seemed to try to address the 14-year-old audience again, and I nearly cancelled my subscription. The last few issues seemed to improve - including coverage of indie games - but I guess that should have been a signal that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel.
It's pretty hard for a print magazine about computer games to survive in this day and age, I guess. I mean, if you are getting such a rag, it means you HAVE a computer, and in all likelihood you are then connected to instant access to online news and reviews about nearly anything you'd like to know about the newest and hottest games.
But here's the interesting thing (to me, at least). While you can hunt down old news on the web via web archives, in general it's pretty ephemeral stuff. I've tried to hunt down things that were "big news" six years ago, and struggled to find any record of events and stories that you couldn't avoid stumbling over back then. I still have several of these old back-issues of CGW because they had articles that remain interesting to me now, over a decade later. There's an article in one interviewing several of the "great" RPG designers about... get this... RPG design! Things that they'd learned in 10+ years in the business at the time. And the old back-issues have some wonderful articles by "Scorpia" where she not only provides hints and tips through the old adventure games and RPGs of the era, but DISSECTS them and adds extremely colorful commentary on what made them fun and significant.
Some of the stuff she said in her columns are well worth reading by today's developers. Because we keep making the same mistakes they made a decade ago.
The last few years in CGW, they've had a column noting issues from 5, 10, and 15 years earlier - sort of a retrospective. They typically made fun of those old issues, mocking the articles and the games that were featured (and of course, the antiquated technology). Granted, there was much that was mock-worthy from back then... 98% of everything was crap back then, too. But I do feel it's a sign of the immaturity of our industry that we're so quick to ignore our short history.
Or maybe it's just that video games have been a major part of two-thirds of my life, now, and I'm just trying to find some meaning where there is none. But hey, leave me to my illusions. And some of Scorpia's old columns.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Guitar Hero 2 Official Track List
Many moons ago I posted my fantasy Guitar Hero 2 track list. And a lot of folks posted some GREAT ideas of their own. As of Monday, we now have 11 tracks that have been officially announced so far. I gotta admit, I don't know all of these:
YYZ - Rush (YAY! We've got a Rush song in the mix!)
You Really Got Me - Van Halen (Excellent!)
Shout At The Devil - Motley Crue
Psychobilly Freakout - Reverend Horton Heat
John the Fisherman - Primus (using the original master recordings!)
Who Was In My Room Last Night - Butthole Surfers
Strutter - KISS
War Pigs - Black Sabbath
Arterial Black- Drist (also an original master?)
Trippin' On A Hole In A Paper Heart - Stone Temple Pilots
Madhouse - Anthrax
Free Bird - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns 'n Roses
Beast and the Harlot - Avenged Sevenfold
Tattooed Love Boys - The Pretenders
Crazy On You - Heart (YAY!!!!!)
Hangar 18 - Megadeath
Jessica - Allman Brothers (cool!)
Laid To Rest - Lamb of God
Message In A Bottle - The Police
Misirlou - Dick Dale
Last Child - Aerosmith
Surrender - Cheap Trick (I haven't heard this one in years!)
Them Bones - Alice in Chains
Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight - Spinal Tap (HOLY COW! Spinal Tap?!? This oughta be fun...)
Mother - Danzig
Monkey Wrench - Foo Fighters
Woman - Wolfmother
Carry On Wayward Son - Kansas (EXCELLENT! One of my picks!)
Search And Destroy - Stooges
Cherry Pie - Warrant
Girlfriend - Darkness
Can't You Hear Me Knocking - Rolling Stones
Killing in the Name - Rage Against the Machine
Freya - Sword
Crazy On You - Heart (Not Barracuda, but just as good)
Rock This Town - Stray Cats (AWESOME!)
Last Child - Aerosmith
Stop - Jane's Addiction
I think it's interesting that - from what has been reported - they are doing a cover of a Van Halen cover of a song. Wasn't the original by the Kinks, from some time in the 1960's?
Ah, well. So far none of my fantasy picks have made it into the game, though a few of the artists I wanted to see featured are in there. Particularly Rush! And YYZ is a pretty distinct Rush song. And a Canadian song. So our neighbors up in Canada should be happy with the game too. And they'll also know the Morse Code for the Toronto Pearson International Airport. And, according to that Wikipedia entry I just linked to, the YYZ intro riff was used by Primus in their song John the Fisherman, which is ALSO in Guitar Hero II. However, it only appeared in the live recording, not the studio recording, so that little connection may be lost on players.
Heck, it was lost on me until I looked it up. But now I'm very amused by the coincidence.
If you are wanting to read more Guitar Hero fanboi rantings, there's an outstanding article in The Escapist from a few moons ago about just why this game rules all.
I'll try and keep this list updated as I hear more. I'm still holding out hope that some of my wish-list songs from artists not already on the official track list will make it in... like Rhiannon, Crazy Train, Carry On Wayward Son, and La Grange. If you hear more official announcements of tracks, please feel free to point 'em out to me at feedback (- at -) rampantgames dot com.
EDIT: Added a bunch more songs that appeared in EGM.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Overtime Rant - Kinda
Folks who know me know one of my pet peeves is overtime. Well, the mandatory or pseudo-mandatory kind. I've worked at places that had entire teams on mandatory 60-hour overtime for six months at a time. And I've heard horror stories of far worse. I've possibly blown interviews in the past because, when they ask if I have questions for them, one of the questions I almost always pull out is, "What do you do to prevent crunch times and limit overtime?"
I guess this makes interviewers nervous that I'm not willing to put in the time to make a project succeed. That's not the case, and I try to make that clear when I phrase my question. It's not like I'm afraid of overtime. I've done my share of 60, 70, 80, and even 90-hour work-weeks during my career (the last two still give me nightmares, though, and it's been years). I've done it voluntarily. But I still consider it to be a failure of management.
I just don't really want to work at a company that expects to play fast and loose with the hours that make up their employee's lives.
I got pissed at a former job when, the second day into a brand-new, multi-month project, our new manager did a seat-check at 8:00 in the morning, and loudly proclaimed that WE were screwing up, because there's no way we were going to get the project done on less than 50-hours a week.
My response (not given directly to her, I hadn't begun my new job hunt yet) was, "If we've just started this project and we're already behind by that much, then you (meaning management collectively) are the ones who screwed up. You are admit to deliberately miscalculating the manpower and / or effort needed to get this project done. You are showing disrespect to your employees by not giving them a task that can be reasonably completed using normal work-hours, and then showing further disrespect by chewing them out as if it is THEIR fault."
I still acted like the good little trooper and put in about 50 hours that week. And the next. And I think 55 the next. She still complained when people weren't there as early as SHE was there, yet she didn't see all the people who were working late, long after she'd gone home for the night.
Unsurprisingly, the project went way over schedule, and ultimately failed.
On another occasion, I was on a team of about 4 guys assigned with a task of getting a budget game out the door in --- well, really, we were told 90 days to get it into beta. We worked our butts off. That's where those 80 and 90 hour work-weeks in my career came from. As the third month hit and we realized "Holy crap, we may actually be able to pull this off!" We contacted the corporate guys to make sure they were in the loop and that they were getting the trademarking, title search, marketing, box art, distribution / duplication slot, and all that other stuff done.
After all, we were working on shell art and stuff at this point, and we kinda needed to have a title for our game for the menu screens, right?
The folks we talked to gave us a response that was akin to (but more polite than), "WTF?"
After some digging, we found that our schedule was a little different from their schedule. To some degree, our schedule was artificially imposed, and nobody expected us to actually make that ludicrous deadline we had been given. So the legal and marketing teams barely had the game on their radar, and figured they had another three months to worry about it.
That experience - and the revelation that came with it - probably burned me out harder than the entire previous four years working crazy hours in the games industry.
And Here Is How It Should Work.
So I just came off of a 12+ hour work-day. And I'm facing another one tomorrow. And probably the next day. This whole week is looking kinda psycho. But my complaints are minimal, and I'm NOT blaming management. Why not? Because:
#1 - I committed to a time schedule that I provided, and I was NOT under any significant duress to shave my figures.
#2 - Because of unforseen side-tasks, poor estimation, or just not working at peak efficiency (really a combination of all three), I found myself falling behind.
#3 - My management has also been working with me to find other solutions to scale back my tasks (or offload them), so other options have been pursued.
#4 - I'm the one who is making the decision to put in the extra hours to help put me back on schedule.
What it comes down to is that I was involved in the management of my tasks. I'm the guy that committed to it, and so if it was a management mistake, I was a part of it. And I'm working with my management to take the necessary steps to rectify the situation. I'm actually pretty embarassed about it, truth be told. It's not been a chronic problem here. So from my standpoint, working a few extra hours is a "last resort" that makes sense - the other options are being pursued, and the hours are something that I have direct control over.
This is how things are SUPPOSED to work. This is no big deal. I wish that this was understood throughout the software industry as a whole. It works when:
- Employees are invested in the project, and feel they have a stake in it
- Employees work WITH management in scheduling (and in the resolution of scheduling issues)
- Employees are not pressured to underestimate their projections to fit an already pre-defined schedule that management made without their input, or to meet an arbitrary deadline
- Management seeks alternative methods of adjusting workload before considering overtime
- Overtime isn't overused.
If you set up a work environment like this, and professionals will often voluntarily put in extra effort to get the job done.