Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Friday, September 29, 2006
 
Playing Pac-Man Against Crickets
Okay. I think we've got some grad students who really want to be game designers - or some media grad-students who actually want to be biologists. Either way... how about playing Pac-Man against real creatures?

Like crickets?

http://pong.hku.nl/~wim/bugman.htm


I don't really know what this really proves, other than the fact that grad students can come up with some really, really weird stuff, especially if they get to mix it with their videogaming hobby.

But I'd say this qualifies as a different form of "experimental gameplay!"

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Thursday, September 28, 2006
 
Pre-Teen Game Designer Poised To Conquer the World
So the 11-year-old daughter who pwns me at miniatures wargames (well, okay, it's wargame - singular - but the plural sounds like she's so much more 1337) was playing one of those cute web-based Neopets games at the computer next to me while I was hard at work doing game development (or playing Age of Empires III, can't remember which), and she made one of those comments that is designed to sound off-handed to disguise the fact that she's been thinking about it for a while.

"So, daddy... I heard you talk about this thing called 'RPG Maker' which lets you make RPGs without any programming."

Well, this drew me out of whatever I was doing at the time with conflicted paternal emotions. On the one hand, I envision my daughter, the star videogame designer of the world, receiving Shigeru Miyamoto-level acclaim for her brilliant game design and art skills before she's old enough to date. On the other hand, I see myself forking over $65 for a toy that she will tinker with for a few days, and then get tired of and never look at again. After a few seconds of deliberation, I decide that the latter scenario has a slightly higher probability than the former. So I decided to probe her logic a little bit deeper.

"It doesn't require programming experience, but I understand it does have a scripting language that you might need to learn how to program in order to do some things."

My eldest offspring considered this for a second, trying to divine from context what "a scripting language" is. "So is it hard to learn how to do?"

Ah-hah. This was a good sign. "A little," I say, but then add, "But I learned to program when I was only a little older than you."

"Okay, I guess I could do that," she responds. Because she knows anything daddy could do at her age, she can do better.

Okay. Zinger-time. "You realize it's not free," I say. "It costs $65."

That deflated her somewhat. "Oh," she said, quietly going back to playing the game. That's over three times as much as she's paid for anything in her life. She'd saved up for weeks to afford to buy a Guardianship in AdventureQuest a couple of years back. And yet, she still plays...

Some discussion with the wife was in order. Having just finished reading, "The Millionaire Next Door," I was feeling wary of simply gifting my daughter with something that would no doubt involve much more toil, frustration, and labor than she was expecting. But if she was willing to save up her money and fund over a third of the price, she might feel more inspired to stick with it. And, I recalled, the tool came with a 30-day free trial period. So we all agreed on the plan. I warned her in advance that I have ZERO experience with this software, and so I'd be unable to offer her much help to learn how to use it. She'd be on her own.

A couple of days into the plan, she was frantically creating adventures and delightedly showing me the fruits of her labor with the stock art that came with RPG Maker. She had an angelic PC walking around and into buildings and so forth.

"I don't know how to change your start position, yet," she told me. "Or how to place other characters." She called up the documentation in the help file to show me where she'd been looking for more information on the subject.

A half-hour later, she proudly informs my wife and I that she's discovered that spawning other characters is done via an EVENT, and she's now learning to use EVENTS.

The following day, yesterday, she had conversations running with other characters in the game. And was in danger of losing her computer priviledges for exceeding her time limit on the computer making her game. And when her aunt took her to the mall, she stubbornly refused to spend any money, because she was saving for something.

I still think there's a better-than-even chance that it may be forgotten in two weeks' time. Which might be good, because I know what kind of boys a star videogame designer would attract when she hits dating age. But if she does stick with it - Miyamoto, watch out. My daughter will be gunning for you!
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
 
Guess That Game!
Okay, I feel like having a little bit of fun.

I stumbled across an old game in my library that I think was at least somewhat obscure. Well, anything over 3 years old that hasn't spawned a couple of sequels is obscure in the videogames world, I guess. But here goes. First person to correctly identify this game AND the name of the developer in the comments section gets a free license for Void War. (If you already have one, you can give the license to a friend, and the two of you can go at it multiplayer).

Here's the screenshot:

Hints:
It's an RPG for the PC. Not that this would have been hard to figure out. I don't THINK it came out on any other platforms, but I could be wrong.

Remember - you need to identify the game AND it's developer. And you also need to spell the developer's name correctly...

Who's got it?

UPDATE: Congrats to Martin Richard for figuring it out: DUNGEON HACK, by Dreamforge Intertainment. The game was initially released in 1993.

You were close on the Eye of the Beholder / Lands of Lore guesses. As I understand it, this was created as something of a "Last Gasp" for the EoB game engine. The developers decided to borrow a bit from the Hack / Rogue genre of games and make it a randomly generated dungeon every time. This provided "nearly infinite replayability" with a couple billion possible dungeon / monster layouts. In practice, after you'd played it through three or four times with a couple of different character classes, you'd played through all the interesting bits.

What was also cool was that you received a "seed" number for your dungeon. If you shared your seed with friends (and vice versa), you could explore the same dungeon. I never heard of anyone actually DOING this, but I suppose it happened.

The game used the 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Since it was a solo adventure, this could be a little tricky - playing a 1st level magic-user wandering through a dungeon level filled with hobgoblins tended to be a challenge. And the monsters would wander through the dungeon on their own (though, as far as I recall, they'd never go up or down levels).

Anyway, I thought this was a fun little blast from the past.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006
 
An Abstract RPG
Thanks to TIGSource for the tip - I found the freeware RPG "RRRRPG," or the Really Really Random RPG, by Alan Gordon.

You can grab the free download HERE.

It's something of a spoof of RPG mechanics, though it's actually more of a real game than the notorious MMORPG spoof "ProgressQuest." You play three colored triangles - corresponding to the archetypical three combat classes of fantasy RPGs (fighter, mage, and cleric). They differ in their special abilities. You battle a bunch of ... colored shapes... representing enemies.

You encounter random encounters as you wander about outside your home town. The further you wander, the more dangerous the enemies become (and the further you have to walk back to down, increasing the risk of more dangerous random encounters.)

You gain levels, and can increase your character's stats, and you can upgrade your weapons and armor. Weapons and armor don't have names - they are just upgraded in level. Eventually, if you get powerful enough, it is rumored that you can take on the "Circle God."

The game is played with the cursor control keys, and the "Z" and "X" keys.

And that's pretty much it. The game is a fairly pure abstraction of the core game mechanics of Japanese console RPGs. This game cuts everything down to the barest essentials. And it's actually kind of fun - for a few minutes at least. It could be enlightening to see just how long something as generic and abstract as possible - with near-zero storyline and context - can remaining interesting and fun to the player. (And has anyone managed to take out the Circle-God)

As always, enjoy!

And in the shameless plug department - if you are wanting a deeper indie RPG, try out Cute Knight or Aveyond. If you are looking something more action-y, you can give Kid Mystic a try.

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Monday, September 25, 2006
 
Banned Book Week
Man - let's hear it for Freedom of Speech. Libraries are having a "banned book week" - a celebration and selected readings from books that have been banned in the U.S. over the years.
Banned Books Week
September 23-30

During the week, bookstores and libraries across the nation feature special displays and readings from books that have been banned or threatened throughout the years. Among the frequently challenged works are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the Bible, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the Harry Potter series. Open your mind to a banned book and celebrate your freedom to read – not only during Banned Books Week but every week.

This isn't directly videogames-related, and I don't expect to see "Grand Theft Auto" so celebrated 50 years from now. But it's nice to see a triumph of freedom of speech once in a while.

By comparison, I was listening to the Utah judiciary comittee broadcast last night (the MP3 version, courtesy of GamePolitics.com, since I have avoided installing Real Audio on any of my machines), and listened to one lady protest that we should spend "whatever it takes" to protect our children - citing A.G. Shurtleff's note that anti-videogame legislation has failed in every state and cost lots of taxpayer money.

While that's a great battle-cry - I mean, who WOULD disagree with protecting children regardless of cost? - one has to ask, "Protect them from what?" I mean, sure, maybe we should spend billions of dollars protecting them from the monster under the bed and in the closet, too. I think that threat is just as real as the "threat of violent videogames" - after all, once in a blue moon, the boogeyman is frighteningly real (and only barely classifiable as human). But I'd rather concentrate our efforts and money at targeting those real threats than wasting it tilting at windmills.

So the book-banning mentality is alive and well. Ah, well.

Anyway - enjoy a banned book this week! Maybe I'll read some of the Bible. Though it's pretty violent, full of rape and murder, undoubtably inappropriate for children according to this tidal wave of legislation.

And I wish J.K. Rowling would hurry up with the next Harry Potter book!

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Saturday, September 23, 2006
 
Overheard at the Office...
Overheard at the office yesterday:

"No, wait, that's not right. I only stole from you, I didn't kill anybody!"

I guess I really am working in the games industry again.

(I also guess I should specify - that's the VIDEOGAME games industry, not the GAMBLING games industry... though I think the comment would be even funnier in the latter).
Friday, September 22, 2006
 
You Can't Design Fun On Paper
Aside from violence and the role of storytelling in videogames, one of the most hotly debated subjects about game design is the role and format of the design document. I've written them, I've read them, I've had to program from them, I've attended lectures on them, and I've asked people about them. I still don't have any good answers.

Massively Detailed Design = Bad Game?
At one point, when I was attending GDC annually, I noticed with amusement that there was often an inverse relationship between the size of the design document and the success of the final game. That breaks down when you start hopping betweem genres, as naturally something like an RPG will require a much more extensive design that has to help communicate needs to a larger team than, say, a casual match-three game.

I tend to view the monolithic, early-delivery design document as an artifact of the "waterfall "software development era. Which unfortunately is alive and well at too many game studios. The way waterfall works (or, in my experience, doesn't), for those of you unfamiliar with it, is by assuming that software development follows very distinct, orderly phases. First in the requirements gathering, then design, then coding, then testing, then delivery. If something goes wrong, you back up a step (or two or three or...) Great in theory, but unless you are creating software to run the guidance system for a satellite or the core code behind a life-support system, it really doesn't happen that way. Like ever. What really happens is that it starts that way, and then changes happen, and then everything short of (and sometimes including) delivery gets jumbled together. More modern development methodologies take advantage of this naturally occuring phenomenon, and try to parallelize them as much as possible to maximize speed of development.

But I think that's why I've never seen a design document stay up-to-date and get used more than halfway into any game project.

Well, It Sounded Like a Good Idea At the Time
At one point, I took the mantra, "You can't design fun on paper!" I still hold to it. I've seen a lot of elements that sounded great on paper, but once implemented in the game, they sucked. For example, during the development of Jet Moto, the design doc had the idea that riding off a cliff would end the game. We thought it would make players more careful in their driving when near a cliff. In reality, it only made players (*US* at the time) more frustrated. When you are in a race, you don't WANT to be careful - you want to be riding the bleeding edge, not being safe. Maybe more experienced designers would have recognized the problem on paper. But a lot of times, things just have to be tried. And a lot of times, things become apparent during development that should become a major part of the game, even though they were not part of the initial design.

The Design Document as a Spare Brain
I'm not saying that you shouldn't create a design document. Quite the opposite. You need to start somewhere. Even if you can't design fun on paper, you can certainly keep track of a bunch of ideas that might lead to something fun.

Even if you are a lone-wolf developer, having a concrete list of things to do, features to implement, and some vision to hold to right next to you can be invaluable. When I'm sitting in front of the computer to do development, I tend to shift into a frame of mind that's very goal-directed and not super creative. The creative part of my brain tends to shut down. I get tunnel vision. I can't just spontaneously come up with dialog while working on a level. At least not very good stuff. The creative stuff comes when I step away, possibly out taking a walk or mowing the lawn or some other endeavor where my brain is free to roam. SO I try and record that stuff in something that vaguely resembles a design document (mainly a collection of notes that occasionally get organized, plus a running task list).

My wife can usually tell when I'm working on design, as I'm usually up and pacing around the house as much as I'm in front of the computer.

That seems to work for me as a partly lone-wolf developer (lone-wolf plus contractors and some helping hands). As teams grow, so does the overhead required for team communication. A more formal design document may be required at that point. But excessive wordage is still to be avoided. I think a good design document should consist mostly of pictures, maps, tables, formulas, lists, and cross-reference links. Those are far easier to use than massive paragraphs of text - and the document's only purpose is to be used. The K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle always applies!

The Design Document Is Just Your First Prototype
Incidentally, "Design Document" is kind of a misnomer - it usually consists of lots of documents. If you have dialog in your game, then that may be in its own document. For indie development, my "design document" is often a collection of to-do lists and notes. Maybe with a kick-butt pitch statement. (Well, at least I thought it kicked butt when I wrote it)

I still believe that it is important to consider the design document a "paper prototype" that will become obsolete in stages. As elements of the game get implemented, those parts of the design document should be considered obsolete and that part of the game becomes the design. An actual, playable prototype is infinitely superior to a stack of paper (or a big ol' electronic file, as the case often is today).

So in a nutshell: Planning is your friend. Having a written plan and design before you begin hardcore development is a Good Thing. But don't overdo it, and don't fall into the trap of thinking it is a blueprint or complete recipe. It's just a foundation for you to start from, and your first prototype. Eventually, you should (and will) outgrow it.

And if you don't want to just take my advice on it:
* Amanda Fitch mentions in her audio interview that she created Ahriman's Prophecy by designing as she went. For Aveyond, she went ahead and designed it before ever getting into development - including writing over 250 pages of dialog. It's interesting how she's tried both ways... and it sounds like she's sticking with the more detailed design in the future. RPGs can be complex beasts. I have a tough time imagining how you'd tackle a real, commercial-quality RPG without having at least a moderately detailed plan first. Even if the plan changes a lot. I'd be really interested in hearing how much her design changed during the development of Aveyond. (So if you happen to catch this post, Amanda, please feel free to weigh in!)

* Quote from Phil Steinmeyer: "I do not do detailed design docs for my casual games. I just start coding and have a rolling to-do list." This makes sense to me. I think a design document for a casual game - one you aren't trying to pitch to a publisher before starting full development - would probably consist of a picture or two, and a list of potential features and game elements. Three pages, max.

* Quote from Joe Maruschak: "It pains me to see both large projects with no plan and to also see inexperienced developers making design docs that are not 'right' for the project. In the worse cases, too much planning can lead to a false sense of security that things are 'on track'. I don't see this as specific to indie projects or developers. I have seen first hand cases of where the design doc was being followed, milestones being hit, and everything looking great.. until it the game was nearing completion and was not particularly compelling. " So going forward with a big project and no plan is bad - but it's possibly even worse to be dogmatically adhering to a plan without paying attention to the evolving game itself.

* Quote from Chris Canfield: "Ironically, one of the worst things you can do to a design is to get too detailed too quickly. There is a flexibility of design that you really need to create an experience as parts of it come online... A lot of what goes into the game does so based on good ideas from across the length of the project."

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Thursday, September 21, 2006
 
A Pirate Story
So here's a pirate story. Unfortunately, it's not the kind with swashbuckling and buried treasure and men yelling "Arr, Matey!" It's the much more boring kind about digital media. But it's a personal story from my own life, and my career as a videogame developer.

In was October, 1996. We were just entering the 72-hour "burn-in" testing for our two new games, "Twisted Metal 2" and "Jet Moto." We were exhausted, as the last several weeks involved mainly 70+ hours of round-the-clock work finishing the games and fixing the bugs. The office was regularly at nearly full-staff at midnight most evenings, and weekends were things we fondly but vaguely recalled from earlier days.

I had a baby girl who I hadn't seen much of lately, and I was feeling guilty about it. Travis Hilton, who did the physics engine for Jet Moto, was in worse shape. He'd heard that his young sold (I think he was around 4) had started pretending that daddy was home. Daddy had become an imaginary playmate. He was freaked out, but the light was finally at the end of the tunnel. The games were about to go to gold master, and we'd be done. Back to 40-hour work-weeks (or possibly even less) for a little while, plus maybe some well-deserved comp time. Oh, there was still a lot of work to do - we had the PC versions of both games to finish up, and new games ready to go into full development.

But at least for a couple of months, we could get our lives back in order, and try to make up for the sacrifices we'd made for these two games.

I got home early one night during the final testing stages. Early meaning before midnight - it was about 10:30 when I came in through the door. I felt like a slacker. I loved it. But I got to actually talk to my wife before she went to bed. Then I decided to hit the Internet and see what the buzz was about our two upcoming games. We had been an unknown developer when our first two games, "Warhawk" and "Twisted Metal," had been released as near-launch titles for the brand-new Sony Playstation. But those games had become hits, and for our new games (especially Twisted Metal 2) we were actually getting some hype and media coverage.

I expected TM2 would be getting a lot more interest on the USENET forums than JM (yes, back in 1996, the World-Wide-Web was still in early childhood stages, and UseNet was where the action was). But I decided to check them out searching for posts about our games and see what people were saying.

About every third message was an offer to sell a pirated copy of Twisted Metal 2. They were being offered for about $15, on "HK" (Hong Kong) Discs - so named after the source of a lot of pirated games. The discs needed to be played on a modified console, or using a trick with early Playstation models to fool them into playing a game from a different region or without copy protection.

The messages advertised how you could get the game NOW before it was in the stores, and at a huge discount. The "HK Disc" warning, if it existed at all, was the only clue in most messages that you'd be buying a pirated version of the game. And not just a pirated version, but a pirated BETA, complete with nasty bugs and possibly even incomplete content. After all, even *I* hadn't played a "final" version yet (unless our candidate version actually passed). So quite possibly the person buying the pirated version might justify themselves by saying, "Well, this game sucks, good thing I didn't buy the real version." Of course it sucked, you bought a broken beta that we had distributed to our testing teams to help us fix it!

I was depressed. Yeah, I was excited to hear the good buzz the remaining messages were revealing about our impending releases, but I was infuriated by these jerks on the internet making $15 a copy off of OUR sacrifices. I wasn't missing part of my baby daughters life so some jackass in California could make thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than running a CD-burner, all the time joking with his clients how they were "sticking it to the man." *I* sure wouldn't mind seeing a bonus of a few thousand dollars!

As it stood, I did see a bonus that year - a total of a few hundred dollars. I did a calculation of my total time (including all the overtime I worked) that year, and realized that I was making a per-hour wage of something just barely north of minimum wage, if you assumed Mr. Minimum Wage got paid time-and-a-half for overtime. The pirates selling my game were undoubtably making much more money than I was for their time.

But what could you do about it? Not much. Sure, we informed Sony. I'm sure they got their legal departments in on it to do what they could. Who knows how much they accomplished? In an unrelated event, we found out after-the-fact about a sting operation done internally as part of GT Interactive to catch a QA person who was secretly pirating discs that were in late-beta stages, and selling them to a "ring-leader." They got the guy to rat out who he sold the games to. I expect that happens frequently, but it's kept quiet. A publisher doesn't want that information to destroy their reputation. (I feel safe mentioning GT Interactive, as they no longer exist). But that's a whole 'nother story. We didn't hear back from Sony one way or another.

Anyway, that experience left a scar. I'm a lot more hardcore about piracy than most of my peers, and I let them know I disapprove. If they don't understand, I share this story. Now I'm not a saint - when it comes to abandonware or other media where there's no longer a reasonable legitimate way to recompense the original authors (or even the publisher), I tend to treat it as a gray area.

To further prevent this article from becoming some kind of poster-child for some publishers (yeah, like THAT would happen), I'm going to say that I also disapprove of the draconian measures publishers are taking. The harsh DRM measures that effectively cripple a customer's machine or their ability to enjoy the media on other devices that THEY OWN or control is a horrible, horrible thing. The rights of the creator / publisher should end when there the rights of the consumer begin, and they've been taking it too far (and pushing for bills to get passed that take it further still). I think this is wrong. They are just as bad as the pirates.

I applaud the decision of Stardock to go away from the hardcore DRM that seems to be part of an ever-increasing arms race with the pirates over protection of the creator's rights. I think the people who claim that this is somehow an invitation to piracy are revealing an extreme level of dishonesty and immorality in their own psychology. Is it okay to rob someone's house just because they didn't lock the door on their way out this morning, too? Get real!

How did it effect me, personally? I don't know for sure - I was never privy to the full details of our deal with Sony. The way publishing deals are usually structured, the publisher gets pretty much all the front-end money, using it to pay off the "loan" they give a developer (called the advance) and many of their other costs before the back-end royalties kick in. The royalties are where the REAL money is --- the advance really only pays base salaries and keeps the lights turned on while you are in development. Both games went on to exceed that royalty threshold, by my understanding. So any extra sales that DIDN'T happen on account of piracy (and that's notoriously hard to measure - contrary to industry-touted stats, not every pirated game is a lost sale).

So if I assume that my studio, SingleTrac, made 20% of the wholesale cost (guessed to be about half of retail), That's about $5 per game. I *think* that's a conservative estimate - it might have been closer to $6 or $7. I don't know - again, I wasn't privy to the details of our deal. But let's say $5 per game. The pirate selling the HK-discs probably made a profit of $10 per game, so he was doing much better than we were per sale.

Now, both Jet Moto and Twisted Metal 2 went on to sell over a million copies (though many of these were at a reduced price as a "Greatest Hits" package, so our royalty rate was further reduced). I can only guess as to the number of pirated discs out there. But if I estimate that there were 100,000 sales that were not made for each game because of piracy... well, 200,000 times $5 is a million dollars. That can go a long way with a small studio of only about 30 employees (that's what we were at the time).

Considering the fact that SingleTrac had to accept a less-than-steller buyout deal in order to stay in business, which had further repercussions and arguably contributed to our going OUT of business about three years later, I'd say it had an effect. Maybe. At the very least, a significantly better bonus would have been nice. Especially when it came time for us to try and leave the apartment life behind and get into a "starter" home because the apartments across the street became the scene of a real-life shootout between a SWAT team and some crazy guy with a shotgun who was probably protecting his meth lab. It was a wonderful little neighborhood. But I digress...

It's even worse for indies. Most indies make somewhere between diddley and squat for their games. It is not a highly-profitable business for most of us. Even for the moderately successful indie games. Click those links to see what I'm talking about. And these guys are already bypassing the middlemen to some degree (publishers). They are serving a smaller, niche audience as it is, and usually offering a free demo (or even a free, if more limited, ad-supported web version) for play to anyone wanting to just check it out. And they get hit VERY hard by piracy. They feel every lost sale very directly, especially if it's a one-man (or woman) shop.

Even if you don't want to buy the game (a perfectly reasonable decision - I know as well as anyone how most indie games suck), please do not support piracy of the game. And if you feel so inclined, visit their sponsors or whatever they do to help support their tiny operation. Every little bit helps.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006
 
RPG Twists I'd Like To See
Okay, maybe these aren't such great ideas, but sometimes in an effort to get an "exciting storyline," computer RPGs fall into ruts. The following "twists" might actually be kinda fun if handled properly. At the very least, they'd shake the expectations of veteran RPGers a bit, especially if there are new twists that aren't so cliche to make up for the surprising anti-climaxes. These ideas are oriented towards "traditional" fantasy RPGs:

* The Boss Repents: The hero makes the traditional impassioned accusation to the final "big bad" before the final confrontation. The villain surprises everyone by considering the heroes words, and suffers an attack of conscience. He gives up without a fight and converts his considerable fortune and resources to rebuild what he has destroyed.

* Smaug Invests Wisely: So the great big dragon is defeated, and the players only find record of his extensive investment portfolio. How do you think he became so rich? Those peasants he liked to terrorize had nothing but dirt! He made his treasure horde WORK FOR HIM!

* A Well-adjusted Hero: The hero isn't an orphan who's parents died tragic deaths, nor a visitor from a strange world. His living, non-heroic parents care about him and are not secret villains nor carry with them some horrible secret of his past.

* The Canary Dies: Forget poison gas! All those torches that seem to burn FOREVER on the lowest level of the deepest dungeon have sucked most of the breathable oxygen out of the air, leaving it deadly for all but the shortest visits or under magical protection.

* The World Is Not In Danger: How about a storyline where the entire world isn't in peril from an ancient evil? Props to Fallout for already doing this - but it was a sci-fi RPG, and the world had already been destroyed.

* Shopkeepers Don't Want Your Junk: What's the village general store owner going to do with 64 used short-swords you picked up in the nearby dungeon? He doesn't even HAVE that kind of money!

* No Assembly Required: The Nine Artifact Pieces all happen to be in the same place, not scattered across nine continents! Just to shake things up a bit.

* Hit It With A Rock: The Artifact of Ultimate Evil the party must quest to both find and destroy can be destroyed by the simplest (and most anti-climactic) of means.

* It's Just A Rumor: The rumors of the return of a great and ancient evil turn out to just be just talk.

* The Big Bad Is Only The Big Sorta-Bad: The ultimate villain is actually a three-dimensional character, likeable in his own way, driven by his own goals that would be sympathetic if they weren't so ruthlessly executed and ran contrary to the hero's own.

Anybody got some better ones?

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006
 
Airport Security Parody Game
Why should games be a form of protected free speech?

Well, for one thing, you've got games like Airport Security. The description of the game, from the website:
"They say the front line of the War on Terror is the airport security line. See if you’ve got what it takes to keep airline travel safe in this hysterical game of airport security. Better not let that tube of toothpaste get through your checkpoint — it could be a terrorist’s weapon against freedom (or maybe it just fights gingivitis)!

FREEEEEDOM!!"



Sorry, this week PANTS are on the prohibited list, because in the hands (or on the lower body) of a terrorist, pants can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. And, as a current pop-culture reference, snakes may or may not be allowed on the (expletive deleted) plane.

So far I've managed (on the easiest skill level) to get about 20 passengers through before losing the game.

This game is frankly awesome. And it's actually kinda fun, too, besides driving home it's point.

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Monday, September 18, 2006
 
So much for that idea.
I knew it would happen, but I still held out some vain hope that maybe, just maybe, this time would be different. Maybe this time the media and anti-videogame folks would see that:

#1 - Gill, the shooter, was an ADULT, not a minor.
#2 - His writings showed deep-seated mental disturbance that went far, far beyond his attraction to violent media,
#3 - The videogame in question was one amature designer's indie effort intended to help increase dialog and understanding of the event, clearly not some slick product designed to generate millions by marketing it to minors (not that Gill was a minor),
#4 - The sensationalization of Columbine by the media was probably as big a factor as anything else in Gill's disturbed psychology (not that I blame the media coverage of columbine either - it's just that happened to be the seed that lodged in Gill's diseased brain).

But no... reading even the local news, it takes only three sentences before launching into a discussion of whether or not playing videogames is what caused Gill to go on a shooting spree. Although, to give some credit, it at least offers a balanced set of views. It's just bizarre that you'd get people in this day and age still blaming demons, and claiming (as Jack Thompson recently put it in response to a Business Week article) that we're "an industry with blood on its hands."

News Flash: It's the 21st century. Conventional media is blaming games for their drop in popularity - true or not, that is how pervasive videogames have become. At this point, I'd be far more surprised to find in a random, small sampling a male under the age of 30 who ISN'T at least an occasional game-player. It's like finding someone who "never" watches television.

Note to baby-boomers: You guys had Woodstock --- we have Mario. Get over it. It's a different world now. What IS the same is that there are screwed-up people all over the planet - always have been, and always will be barring some miracle.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006
 
Free RPG: Dungeons of Fargoal
Time to enjoy a free game!

I found this is a cute little freeware "roguelike" role-playing game called the Dungeons of Fargoal, inspired by an old game called "Sword of Fargoal." I never played the original, so I can't speak to it's pedegree:

Click Here For The Dungeons of Fargoal

The game is very simple. You control a little bobble-head guy with a roman helmet as he kills monsters through an infinite number of randomly-generated dungeon levels. You move about by using the cursor control keys.

Combat is initiated by touching a monster. If you are brought down to zero (or less) hit points, your character will automatically consume a potion to get restored to full health if he has one, otherwise he is killed and the game ends. Killing monsters nets you experience points, which increase your level so you can do yet more damage and take on more powerful foes in the levels below.

Your goal is to collect all the treasure on the level, which unlocks the stairs down to the next level. In addition to treasures and monsters, there are some special magical items available, which can do things such as reveal the full map of the level, make you invulnerable for a short period of time, eliminate all the monsters on the level, and more!

It's simple but fun. The "strategy" is very simple, mainly deciding when to engage the monsters and when to avoid them. I'd suggest that this kind of a game might make an awesome "Game In A Week" project for aspiring game developers. And it's a bit more entertaining for players than my own effort, IMO :)

(Thanks to Independent Gaming for the tip).

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Friday, September 15, 2006
 
CD-Key Frustration
The not-so-modern frustration of today's PC gamer. I have a game CD, the game manual, and even the original game BOX, but I cannot find the sleeve with the CD-Key after upgrading to a new computer and reinstalling all of my games.

At least this time around I'm being a little smarter and recording all my CD-Keys in a printable text file.

I wonder if I can export my CD-Key from the registry of my old system? Most likely not, but I think I'll have to poke around.

There's ONE clear advantage of consoles over retail. Well, actually, it's also potentially an advantage of (some) downloadable games over retail, as well. More than one copy of the activation code floating around.

In other (related) news, it looks like STEAM is becoming a haven for games that need a second chance. I refused to buy X3: Reunion because of the nasssty copy protection scheme. But via Steam (and at a cheaper cost), it's becoming more palatable. I also noted an announcement today that Tim Schaffer's Psychonauts is coming to STEAM. And of course, Popcap announced STEAM distribution some time ago. It looks like Valve is positioning itself as something of a second-string publisher for retail games.

As an indie game developer, it means both competition and opportunity. As a consumer, however, it means awesome. If only the games didn't take so friggin long to download. While broadband offers lots of opportunities, it still can't to compete with the bandwidth of a DVD-ROM going in your car from the store to your house in 15 minutes.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
 
Aveyond Sequel Announced!
In an interview with GameZebo, Amanda Fitch announced an upcoming sequel to the best-selling "casual RPG" Aveyond. Tentatively titled "Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest," it will follow a "a cute, casual simulation game that involves pets" which is apparently next in the pipeline.

Aveyond took 1.5 years in development. With the pet-sim game currently in the works, I wouldn't expect to see Aveyond 2 before 2008. But I know I'll be looking forward to it!

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Indie Game To Get Blamed For Shooting Spree
Well, it hasn't yet, but I expect it will. (Update: Yes, it did. See below.) The video game connection to another school killing spree is already getting highlighted in the press: Click for the CNN report.

Kimveer Gill, age 25, decided to do a shooting spree at a Montreal college, leaving one woman dead, six people in critical condition, and twelve others wounded. He was killed by police gunfire, apparently the way he claimed he wanted to go out of the world on a website, in a hail of bullets. And it also sounded like he had a fascination with the Columbine killings of seven years ago.

He posted on a forum that one of his favorte games was "Super Columbine Massacre," (I expect the website to dissapear within HOURS, but as of right now it's up). Super Columbine Massacre is a free indie game, an "RPG" based around the infamous 1999 event. Now, first off, I've never played it. I've read the review by Amber Night, who I must give kudos to for braving the game. She's apparently a bigger man than me.

The game was created with RPG Maker, the same engine that was used to build the wonderful, kid-friendly indie game, "Aveyond."

I expect to hear Jack Thompson say something within hours. I expect that some of the sympathy for poor struggling indies against this tide of anti-videogame legislation is going to evaporate. Or, it could be that because this was a game created for free by hobbyists and NOT some great big corporation with lots of lawsuit potential, it could simply dissapear. Only time will tell. I would love to believe that the media and politicians will simply understand that Gill's fascination with the game was a symptom of his mental illness, and not the cause. But I won't hold my breath.

In the "Artist's Statement," the developer of Super Columbine Massacre explains his purpose for creating the game :
"The question at the center of the storm was an elusive one: `why did they do it?'...

"The lingering question—that grand burning query so many have tried to answer—is one I believe this game allows us to at least access in a more honest way. Beyond the simple platitudes and panaceas of gun control, media ratings/censorship, bully prevention programs, and parental supervision remains a glaring possibility: that the society we have created is deeply moribund. This game asks more of its audience than rudimentary button-pushing and map navigation; it implores introspection. This is why the game’s forum is equally important to the SCMRPG project. Through it, people from six continents and all walks of life are discussing the game itself and the incident it is based on. Some of them confess childhood pain or share personal feelings on the shooting. Some of them sustain vulgar diatribes or accuse the creator of wrongdoing. Some of them discuss the game’s social implications in a broader context. At the end of the day, the understanding of the Columbine school shooting is deepened and redefined. That is the real object of the game."
As to the depiction of the events, the author claims:
"I knew I had to be true to the events of the Columbine school shooting—as true as I could be while maintaining respect for the tragically deceased; it was a more delicate balance of personal morality than many of my detractors imagine I took. Since 1999 so many mistruths have been spoken and political postures have been struck in the wake of the shooting that I didn’t want to fall into the speculative pitfalls of much of the media’s coverage. The game had to be told from the perspective of the shooting’s greatest enigmas of all: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They left behind many of their thoughts—some frightening, some deplorable, some comical, and some deeply enraged."
Amber Night's review indicates that in her opinion, the artist failed in his mission, but that the game poses some interesting questions of its own:
"And yet, while I believe the execution to have failed miserably, I cannot help but wonder if the attempt was at some level worthy... So I pose the Super Columbine Massacre RPG Paradox: Could it be that Super Columbine Massacre RPG had to be made, in order for us to understand that Super Columbine Massacre RPG shouldn’t have been made? A couple of weeks ago I thought I knew the answer. But as distasteful and poorly executed as I find the game, I just don’t know."
Me? I was in the videogame industry when Columbine happened. We'd done some games with some somewhat cartoony violence about cars with guns in a car-combat tournament - the Twisted Metal series. And of course, the media locked into the fact that one of the kids was a big fan of DOOM (shoot, what kid with a computer in the mid-90's WASN'T a fan of Doom?). Because so much about the kids, neighborhood, and the school seemed, on the surface, like the stereotypically perfect Cleaver kids that white middle-class America imagines as its ideal, the hunt for some reason behind the murder spree went turned into a frenzy. The videogame connection was the one "abnormality" (at least to press and politicians), and it included guns and violence.

Like everyone else in America, I was astonished and horrified. The anti-videogame sentiment hit a high swing, and we were hit like a ton of bricks. Our publisher for a current game in mid-development quickly came in with a demand that we completely revise the game, re-creating its design from scratch. On top of that, if I mentioned my profession to people at the time, I was frequently met with stares as they tried to fathom whether or not I was deliberately turning their children into psychopathic monsters. It was a hard time to be in the games industry.

At work, we quietly asked the question of each other (again, with no answers), "What if Twisted Metal had been those kids' favorite game?"

So now it's seven years later, and it's an indie game. An indie game very specifically depicting the violence of that day in 1999 - a game that puts you in the shoes of Harris and Klebold, inviting you to see the world from their perspective. A game that not only tells the story of the murder of innocent people, but invites you to participate in the telling.

Sorry, I can't take it. It's too much for me. The scars are still too fresh. That's a little bit to close to home. I can't bring myself to watch the new movie about the World Trade Center for the same reason.

But here's where I'm gonna go out on a limb and I'm going to probably get flamed for it. But I'm going to say it anyway. I have zero interest in playing Super Columbine Massacre. I had zero two months ago, and I still have zero today. But I personally cannot pass judgement on the game, having not played it. Maybe the artist's statement is genuine, and maybe it was just a smokescreen. Maybe it was in poor taste to release it, regardless of intent. I don't know.

Either way, I am vehement in my position that WE MUST LIVE IN A SOCIETY WHERE WE ARE FREE TO MAKE GAMES LIKE THIS.

We must live in a society where people can use the powerful medium of interactive simulation and storytelling to provide serious messages. Like this newly announced indie game about drunk driving. Or maybe the messages may be simple, kid-friendly themes like the value of friendship, and being brave in the face of adversity. Or it could question the nation's methods of fighting the war on terror (as did one web-game I played about a year or so ago). Or maybe they are religious messages inviting the player to discover Jesus or Allah or Buddah or The Great Green Arkleseizure.

Or maybe it simply invites the player to take a walk on the dark side and play a car-stealing hoodlum. Or whatever other purile garbage you can come up with. People can call painted toilet seats art, too.

You may not agree with the message. You may not think of it as art or worthwhile communication. You may certainly believe (and I *DO*!!!) that many of these games are not appropriate for children, for whatever reason. That's fine. You SHOULD take a stand and form an opinion, and pass judgement for your own sake (and feel free to communicate that judgement to others). I certainly disagree with a lot of the messages found in books in the library or movies in available at the DVD store, too. I dislike the easy availability of pornography and the trend towards gratuitous violence across the whole spectrum of media in this country.

But I believe strongly that people should be free to communicate these messages - even if they do it poorly and clumsily. And I believe that video games are a powerful medium for doing just that (Especially the poor and clumsy part). It's got at least as much potential for good as for evil.

And the indies, who have more artistic control over their products with their tiny (often one-man) teams, are perhaps better positioned to take advantage of this medium and use it to explore more difficult (and grown-up) topics.

Kimveer was obviously a man who was deeply disturbed. I am horrified by his actions, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. I wish there was some simple answer that we could uncover that would help us understand not only how something like this could happen, but also to prevent it from ever happening again. I have to trust the scary world and my children as I send my two daughters off to school every morning. Events like this scare the crud out of me. It boggles my imagination, and I don't even want to think about it, retreating instead to a false belief that, "Oh, it could never happen to me or my family."

It does scare me. But I also know that there are no easy answers. There hasn't been for all of human existence on this planet.

Scapegoats are not solutions. Just this once, can we avoid hunting for one?

UPDATE: Ah, well, can't say I'm surprised...

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
 
Getting That Thing Done!
I wanted to pass along some little motivational articles I stumbled across this week. I've got a game that's way behind schedule right now (Apocalypse Cow), so I need to take notes. If you find yourself in the same boat, these might be useful.

First of all, I discovered Kloonigames' brand-new blog. He's attempting to follow the "experimental gameplay model," using it to *GASP* Learn To Make Good Games. He's trying to crank out a new game every 7 days. He's got the right idea - learn by doing. Get a bunch of quick and dirty games done and learn from each one. If you have aspirations for becoming an indie game developer, I'd recommend taking notes.

His postmortem for his first game, Jimmy Lost His Marbles, can be found here. My favorite part is lesson #1 from his "What Went Right" section:

1. I Pulled It Off!
I f***ing managed to do the damn game under 7 days. It actually took only 3 days... [N]ow I know I can do a complete prototype of the gameplay within a reasonable time. This means that I don’t just have to speculate if a gameplay is fun to play, I can test it. That’s the reason why I think any game developer should give this thing a shot.

Oh, yeah, there's a little bit of harsh language in the blog. Although I think that was all in the section I quoted. But the feeling of elation for having completed a project - set and met goals for something of this scale - is hard to describe. But I think he does a good job of capturing it here.

Another interesting point is that he used a Time Log to track his development effort. I've only rarely used this system, but I should use it more because I've been very successful whenever I have. Logging / tracking ANYTHING. I remember a quote, "In order to improve anything, you need to measure AND report it." Even if you are only reporting it to yourself.

John Carlton's Big Damn Blog posts the great big secret to self-discipline: Habit. He's a former baby-boomer slacker from the 60's turned super marketing guru, so he knows of what he speaks. He also talks about when to shake off those some habits and discipline.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
 
Torque Game Engine Deal
It looks like GarageGames is offering a pretty nice limited-time deal if you do not have their core product, the "Torque Game Engine," yet. Release 1.5 is coming out "soon", bundled with tools (including the Torque Lighting Kit, which I always maintained should have been part of the core engine a long time ago) and content to make it worth the $50 jump in base price.

I already have TGE 1.4 and the lighting kit, so it'll cost me only $25 to upgrade - which basically gets me Show Tool Pro for only $25. Not too bad.

The big winners are those who purchased the Torque Game Engine since August 1, 2006. That includes those who buy it RIGHT AWAY (before 1.5 is officially released), so you can score the whole kit and kaboodle for only $100.

Details can be found here.

Besides the integration of the lighting kit (which is, admittedly, awesome) and inclusion of ShowTool Pro and extra "starter" content, there's not much information as to what is changing with 1.5. I know at one point they were talking about 1.5 being vastly streamlined from previous versions, but I think they may have departed from that roadmap. Apparently they have FINALLY fixed the issues with waterblocks and re-scaled terrain sizes, which is nice.

My Take On the Torque Game Engine (1.4x):
I've had a love/hate relationship with the Torque Game Engine for about a year-and-a-half now. It's an incredibly powerful engine, but it should come with the equivalent of a "Some Assembly Required" warning sticker. I wish it was half as easy to use as their 2D product, the Torque Game Builder (TGB). And that it's internal code was as well-designed and easy to follow as TGB's (yes, I know the TGE code is at a layer underneath TGB, but I'm talking TGB-specific code). I also wish it was as well documented as TGB.

Maybe they'll get there. Maybe I'll be stunned and surprised with 1.5 and see that they are heading that way. I don't know.

The thing is, TGE is fabulous for putting together a prototype for a first-person-perspective game. The scripting language is... well, unique, but not too hard to get a grip on if you know C, C++, Java, Python, PHP, or similar programming / scripting languages. TGE can do a lot of amazing things.

But to do something really cool, you are going to need to get in under the hood, and the organization and documentation of the source code for TGE leaves a lot to be desired. It definitely shows its ad-hoc development methodology and evolution over many years. There are member variables that say they are supposed to do things that they don't do anymore (or never did). There are weird limitations that you won't know about until you trip over them and tear your hair out wondering why things won't work.

In other words, is about like every other game engine out there, only it bears a few extra years of kruft.

On the plus side, it's got a pretty decent terrain & water rendering system, both interior (BSP-style) and exterior rendering with a portaling system in-between, good multiplatform support (Linux & Mac), a decent built-in animation and partical system, a very robust (albeit proprietary) scripting system, good tool support, a pretty stellar networking system, built in GUI-building tools and a mission / terrain editor. It also remains fairly compatible with older hardware, which is important for indies who may not be catering to the same audience as mainstream.

And it has solid community behind it, and gives you access to source code. Which are requirements for me. And it comes many, many man-years worth of development and debugging. If you've ever worked on a game project through completion, and you understand the meaning of the 80/20 rule (80% of the work takes 20% of the time...), then you'll appreciate that last one a lot more.

With the Torque Lighting Kit, it also has some really, really impressive rendering. Including some nice detail-mapping for interiors.

So it's a great engine, and a bargain at the price (especially if you sneak in during the free-upgrade window), but at least past versions haven't been very newbie-friendly. Approach with your sleeves rolled up.

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Monday, September 11, 2006
 
Out-Gamed By My Daughter!
Many parents have succumbed to the despair that comes from receiving a butt-whuppin' from their kids at videogames. That's understandable, especially videogames have, in the past, been a little alien to the older generation and thus they are taking on the kids on the kids' own turf. No biggie. That's changing a bit now as the Nintendo generation is spawning off some hard-playing tykes of their own. But still, the children have lots of time to practice that we, their parents, have trouble keeping up with.

I myself have been dealt a few merciless defeats at the hand of my eldest daughter in Soul Caliber II a few times. A member of the Atari generation myself and professional videogame developer, I always come back from defeat and can usually manage a 2-out-of-3 or 3-out-of-4 winning ratio against her. I don't throw games for my children - when they beat me, they earn it. Or at least, they get lucky, I often mumble to myself to console my wounded pride.

But when it comes to a wargame, or a "tactical combat" game, I feel I rightfully hold a safe level of superiority over the next generation by merit of the sheer number of hours I have put into practice.

Now, I would not consider myself a wargamer. But in a game of tactical strategy, something I feel I do have at least some level of experience. After all, I've played my share of RTS games, X-Com, Master of Orion, Civilization, Combat Mission, Close Combat, Empire, Empire II (the "wargame builder"), and plenty of turn-based RPGs. I've played strategic board games like Diplomacy and Supremacy. I played lots of Magic: The Gathering, and dabbled with the miniatures combat of Warhammer 40K a couple of times. . I've even played some honest-to-goodness tabletop wargames like Sniper!, Air War, Team Yankee, and Starship Troopers. And don't get me started on the number of hours I've spent playing D&D!

Those are many hours of training, there, kids! You can't beat me with a few extra hours of practice hitting button combos on the controller. No, you have to out-think me. And until you've put in some reasonable fraction of the time I've put into thinking through tactical puzzles, you ain't gonna be a contender. But I welcome you to try, because you need the practice. And it'll be fun. When it's over, I'll throw away a comment about how lucky I got and how challenging the game was for me to make you feel better.

Well, my very first game of D&D Miniatures was with my daughter, age 11. It was fun, and I was impressed that she actually considered tactics. She was playing a Chaotic Evil warband, pretty much heavy-hitting infighters. I was playing Chaotic Good, mainly archers. She figured out her best bet was to hang out around a corner and force me to come to her, rather than exposing herself to fire. Nice elementary tactics! The game ended up being rather close, in the end, but victory was - predictably - mine.

Months passed. My collection of D&D miniatures increased, primarily for use in our roleplaying game sessions. But I was anxious to try out the wargame some more (yes, grognards may balk at the fantasy combat game being called a wargame, but deal!). So last night, I asked my daughter if she wanted to play either Magic or D&D Minis with me. She wanted to play the miniatures game again. So we broke out the collection, decided on a map, and started playing again. I had to bone up on the rules again, whilst she remained ignorant of most of the intricities, relying on Daddy to remind her of the finer points.

One thing I was pleased to note was that the rules had been revised slightly from our last game, mainly with the removal of the rule limiting movement speed of a unit to 2 outside of command. That simplified things and sped up the game a bit.

Initially, everything was going my way. I used my higher mobility to capture the closest victory area - the common victory area common to both players as a goal. My daughter took a bit of time at the marshalling point trying to organize her units and keep them in command range, remembering the frustrations of the previous game when units fell out of command. Once she grasped that the "Speed 2" mechanic was no longer a limiting factor, she became more flexible, but still kept her warband massed pretty tightly, making a move for either the central victory area or the next closest.

I got a little greedy, and decided to use my higher mobility and area-effect attacks to exploit her tight formation. I flew in a blue wyrmling in front of her forces, and let fly with a lightning bolt, which nailed five of her eight units. At that point, it looked like I was winning. I'd drawn a pretty hefty amount of first blood, and had acquired an early lead in points.

In retrospect, I should have considered this a sacrifice play, and tried to move the wyrmling out the next round, accepting attacks of opportunity might kill it. But instead, I moved my other forces in to support it. After all, it was pretty good in melee, with three attacks per round if it didn't move...

I managed to lock down a bunch of her forces with my mind flayer, but it fell in a single round to an attack by her Vrock demon which was on the front line. After dishing out what few ranged attacks I could against her commander, I tried to bring a hell hound around from the rear to take him out, using a double move. Unfortunately for me, she'd kept a huge minotaur in reserve to counter it. Her minotaur landed a critical hit with a single hit, instantly killing the hell hound. The hell-spawned puppy went down with nary a whimper nor a single attack.

At that point, all my strategy crumbled. I tried to focus attacks against her Vrock to force it to route, but it's extended reach tended to clobber my medium-sized melee creatures as they tried to come in to attack. In the end, a nasty critical hit against my Bone Devil forced it to route, and with my commander toasted, there was no chance for a rally. Final score was something like 200 to 87.

I have been pwned. We need a rematch. Because, obviously, she got lucky, I mumble to myself.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
 
Congressman Matheson Defends Anti-Videogame Law
Time to wax political again!

Yesterday I received a snail-mail letter from Congressman Jim Matheson, who represents my state of Utah. I expect a lot of people from the state of Utah who have expressed concern about the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act received the same letter. I thought I'd share the bulk of it here, as well as my concerns which remain unaddressed by this letter. For the most part, it reiterates the same rhetoric being bandied about in defense of the laws that are being enacted (and, so far, universally shot down as being Unconstitutional) in states throughout the nation. It contains some major inaccuracies and rather offensive comparisons, but I'll include the text here for people to read on their own.

Bolded sections are my own emphasis.

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"Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding video games. I appreciate your interest in the issues facing our country and state, and I am glad for the opportunity to respond to your inquiry. By contacting me on issues important to you, you help me better represent Utah in Congress.

"I understand your concerns about the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act. Parents should be the first line of defense when it comes to children, but parents simply cannot be with their children at all times and I believe there is a reasonable place for the government and the industry to work together to help families.

"Today, video games are by far the most popular activity for kids, and most games are probably fine for anyone to play. However, given that 190 million video game units were sold in 2005 in the U.S., there's ample room for concern as to what young kids can actually buy in the store. As you know, most video games are labeled with a rating determined by an industry panel called the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Ratings range from "EC" for Early Childhood to "T" for Teen, while games rated "M" for Mature are not intended for those under age 17 and the "AO" or Adult-Only rating, is for those 18 and over. Yet, young children are still widely able to gain access to video games without parental consent.

"A 2004 Federal Trade Commission report found that 69% of unaccompanied 13-16 year-olds in the study were able to purchase "M" rated video games from retailers. The nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family recently published its tenth annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card. The report card included the results of a survey of more than 600 students ranging from 4th - 12th grade, conducted in classrooms. Almost half (45%) said they have bought M-rated games and 7 out of 10 children reported playing M-rated games.

"For my part, I have introduced bipartisan legislation with Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona called the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act. I think it presents a simple approach to ensuring that kids can no longer purchase adult-rated content. It also keeps th e government out of the business of assessing content by using the industry's own ratings system.

"The Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act, HR 5345, would require all retailers to check identification of any children trying to buy or rent Mature-rated or Adults Only-rated games. It also required that ratings system explanations be posted in stores. However, the Video Games Ratings Enforcment Act does not prevent a parent or any adult from buying any available game nor does it legislate which games can or should be stocked in retail outlets. It simply helps to ensure that children may only purchase age appropriate content without parental permission. You may also want to read a copy of the actual bill, which you can find at http://thomas.loc.gov/.

"Most Americans are very comfortable insisting that retailers verify the age of people who want to purchase alcohol or cigarettes because we have decided as a society that those products are only appropriate for adults. I know that as a parent, I am glad that retailers help me by performing this service. I do not doubt that at one point in time, many retailers objected to point of sale restrictions for alcohol or tabacco, but I believe that retailers would now readily acknowledge the value of this important service."

"In the case of video games, the entertainment software industry has itself acknowledged that some games - many of which are best sellers - are really only for adults. Therefore, it seems reasonable to insist that retailers only sell adult-rated games to adults. The industry and retailers have tried to develop voluntary policies to address some of these issues which is commendable, but I believe that Congress should do more to help families."

"Again, thank you for sharing your concerns with me. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact my office. "

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Okay. These bills have have been breeding like bunny-rabbits during this election year, because they are not yet considered politically damaging yet. After all, only kids play videogames (right?), and kids don't vote. Well, in the minds of our leaders, I suppose.

So I'm pretty much reiterating the same points I've brought up before, but here I go again:

"I believe that there is a reasonable place for the government and the industry to work together to help families"

There is, for the industry. And it's already there and doing it. As to the government coming in and mandating it - I'm sorry. I'd rather be allowed choose my own babysitters; the price the U.S. government charges is FAR too high.

"Most video games are labeled with a rating by... the Entertainment Software Ratings Board."

WRONG. Most video games are NOT SO LABELED. Most video game makers cannot afford it. The ESRB rates "over 1000 games per year." For one game, Neverwinter Nights, we exceeded that number in free, fan-created modules alone (some of which very well should have earned an AO rating, I might add!). There's at least an equal number of free FLASH videogames coming out in the United States alone. Even if you restrict it to just commercial games - I have no actual numbers, but Big Fish Games has been advertising a new game every day on their site, almost none of which are rated by the ESRB. Even modestly assuming that represents maybe a third of the non-retail-store games that are released each month (most of which are crap and will be lucky to sell a single copy), that would mean that half the games sold in the U.S. do not carry such a label, and many could not afford to do so. And that's not including the "free" video games that are being used for commercial or political advertisement.

The proposed bill states quite clearly:
"(a) Conduct Prohibited- It shall be unlawful for any person to ship or otherwise distribute in interstate commerce, or to sell or rent, a video game that does not contain a rating label, in a clear and conspicuous location on the outside packaging of the video game, containing an age-based content rating determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board."

In other words, anything that can be called a "Video Game" is ILLEGAL to be shared with another person in any way (well, across state boundaries, but the states are already trying to fix that loophole) unless it contains an ESRB rating, which costs a minimum of $5,000 (and you KNOW the price is going to go way up if this bill goes through, which I pray it does not).

This bill is obviously targeting what gets sold at Wal*Mart - but that represents only a slender fraction of what is becoming a MAJOR MEDIUM of not only expression and entertainment, but for communication of ideas, marketing, and yes - political commentary and campaigning. The bill is more than a chilling effect on an entertainment medium - it is the out-and-out destruction of a Constitutionally protected, increasingly popular and powerful medium of expression. Only those who can gain a significant buck out of it will be allowed to participate, thankyouverymuch.

Shall we apply these same standards to other media? How about we start with a written word?

"Video Games Ratings Enforcment Act does not prevent a parent or any adult from buying any available game nor does it legislate which games can or should be stocked in retail outlets. "

Directly? No. Indirectly? Big time! It's called "The Chilling Effect." Look it up.

"
Yet, young children are still widely able to gain access to video games ... 69% of unaccompanied 13-16 year-olds in the study were able to purchase "M" rated video games from retailers. "

Okay, I guess we're dealing with semantics here. When I think "young children," I'm not thinking of of those in the upper 25% of the age bracket that constitutes a "minor." I have trouble calling a 16-year-old a "child" unless I'm feeling particularly snarky, but whatever.

"Almost half (45%) said that they have bought M-rated games and 7 out of 10 children reported playing M-rated games."

In other words, nearly half (2.5 out of the 5.5, or about 45%) who didn't buy the games themselves still ended up playing them? So how did they get access to them? Borrowed from a friend? Wouldn't that make the friend a distributor, and subject that friend's family to a potential $5000 fine per violation under this bill? Well, okay, not unless the friend's family lives in another state, and maybe not if no money changed hands.

But still, this has so MANY levels of wrong. But there's more that's not being said...

The other thing these studies are also showing (and there have been SEVERAL of them) is that the industry is improving in its voluntary efforts at enforcement. So is the movie industry, which for many years allowed anyone who wasn't obviously a ten-year-old access to rated "R" movies. This is all VOLUNTARY - the movie industry is policing itself. And depending on who you believe, game sales are doing MUCH of a lot better than, say, DVD sales of inappropriately-rated material.

But that's why the polticians are striking now. The iron is hot but cooling rapidly, and they are most likely well-aware of the fact that the issue won't be nearly as full of political capital in 4 years.

"Most americans are very comfortable insisting that retailers verify the age of people who want to purchase alcohol or cigarettes because we have decided as a society that those products are only appropriate for adults."

HELLO!!!!! We're talking SUBSTANCES here which have been proven to be physically addictive AND can can cause damage to one's health, and judgement, which can cause death! And you are trying to compare these to Pac-Man?

We're not talking substances here. And we do not require that everyone who serves someone else a glass of water submit reams of paperwork and pay a $5000 fee to have that water labeled to prove it's okay to serve it to a minor when the neighborhood kids come to play with your children.

We're comparing apples to power-drills here. And I'm a little dismayed to see this hyperbolic comparison get made.

"The entertainment software industry has itself acknowledged that some games ... are really only for adults."

Right. And many writers will acknowledged that their books are only intended for adults, too. For that matter, this blog is not intended for young children, either, even though I do keep it relatively clean. This is NOT an invitation to have the government step in and regulate things at the expense of writers and publishers everywhere!

I am frankly astonished at this attempt at legislation, but I'm getting used to being astonished these days. I will attribute this more to ignorance than malice in many cases, but it is the job of our leaders to adequately research these issues AND to understand possible unintended consequences before drafting potential law that will shape our future. And it clearly hasn't been done with these instances of knee-jerk legislation.


(Many thanks to GamePolitics.com for the useful links!)

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Saturday, September 09, 2006
 
Now THAT is a paper jam!
From what I understand, this was an actual paper jam at John Deere Seeding. I received three pictures, but this was by far the best. The good news: The mouse lived and was freed to have adventures elsewhere.


I think I'm going to use the third one as wallpaper for my desktop as a reminder that no matter how bad of a jam I think I might be in, it could always be much worse.
Friday, September 08, 2006
 
City of Heroes Jargon
I've always been interested in how communities form their own language around their combined interest. This is loosely called "jargon," though people in the medical community like to claim they've got exclusivity on that term.

The massively multiplayer game communities are no different, and are IMO better than most for transmitting jargon and terms, as the game itself is a communications sub-medium. After all, MMOs have been referred to as "chatrooms with combat."

Coming back to City of Heroes, the superheroic Massively Multiplayer RPG, I've been trying to pick up on the jargon. Here are some I've picked up. I've mostly skipped terms created by the designers (or abbreviations of the same), preferring terms created by the community itself to describe the action in their virtual world. I've also skipped a lot of words (though not all) that are common throughout many different games --- though I've kept some of the more amusing ones.

So here are some terms for your amusement, complete with definitions if you have never played the game.

Red / Blue / Purple / Yellow / etc:
1. Inspirations of the appropriate color. They are referred to by color, as the names change as the strength of the inspirations increase. Example: "Anybody need a blue?"
2. A mob (AI-controlled enemy) with a name of the appropriate color. The color-coded name informs the player of its difficulty.

Wakie: A recovery inspiration, which allows you to "wake up" after being knocked unconscious without respawning at the hospital

Scrapperlock: Target fixation, often experienced by those in the Scrapper archetype. Because they are focused on dishing out lots of damage, they may ignore their own health or the status of their teammates. I've experienced this more than once, suddenly noticing I'm fighting an entire group of enemies solo and that I'm nearly dead because half my team is now knocked out, and the rest are fleeing for the exit.

Squishy: A player character who cannot take much punishment before getting knocked out. Blasters and controllers are typically squishies.

TP / Travel Power: One of a secondary power set that allows much more rapid movement, though usually at the expense of combat capability (preventing it from being used in combat, so it is more exclusively used for "getting around fast"). Travel Powers become available at level 14, making it the magical "Travel Power!" level. Interestingly enough, TP is also the abbreviation for Teleport, which is one of the secondary power sets that include teleportation as a travel power.

Blapper: A blaster with a lot of melee powers (a combination of "Blaster" and "Scrapper" archetype names).

Hami Raid: A large-scale attack against the enemy "Hamidon." Hamidon is so powerful it requires a large number of attackers, well organized into a raid, to destroy it.

Hami Enh / HO: Hamidon Enhancement (HO = Hamidon Origin?)- the special enhancement (power improvements) acquired from a Hamidon Raid. Hami Enhs are very valuable and Hami Raids tend to end with lots of trading of these enhancements.

Bubbler: A Defender-class character with Force-Field powers. The force-fields appear as transparent bubbles.

Overburn: (Also used in other games) - to use up too much of your character's endurance in an attack. This not only leaves you vulnerable and in danger of being out of endurance to do anything else later in the fight, but it may also anger the mobs and draw an unnecessary amount of aggro. Which, if you are playing a squishy, could finish the fight for you in an unhappy way.

"Stay in the Bubble": a request to stay within range of the Area-of-effect (AOE) Heals and Buffs

Res: A term borrowed from other games. Res was short for "Resurrection," a spell used in fantasy games to bring player characters back to life. In the context of City of Heroes, no player character ever dies, so this is a misnomer. But the gameplay effect of being knocked out is basically the same thing, so borrowed terms from other games still applied.

End Break: A short rest between encounters where players can recover their Endurance

Lock: To prevent an NPC from taking actions (by causing them to be stunned, slept, whatever). This is also sometimes referred to as being "Mezzed," a term borrowed from another game for the same effect. Locking them with immobilization is sometimes called "Rooting" them - also a term taken from another game with the popular "Root" spell

Mish: A Mission

Toon: A Player Character. This term has struck me as being a little bit derogatory (?) (over the more conventional "character," or the more scholarly "avatar."). Maybe it's an attempt to separate the player from any emotional involvement with the game ("This isn't me, it's only one of my 'toons").

Bridge: In a party with a wide range of character levels, this is where someone in the middle of the level range sidekicks a lower-level character in order to maximize their experience point gain. It's a power-leveling technique.

ZZZ: Stunned / Held / Otherwise Temporarily Incapacitated. Usually used to alert one's team of one's status.

Big Bad: The "boss" of a level

GM: Giant Monster. A Godzilla-sized monster of some kind rampaging through a zone. This typically requires a number of heroes coordinating efforts to take down.

SK / Sidekick: This is a designer-created term, but I'm using it here to explain another term. One of the problems with level-based games is that players are prevented from effectively playing together when their characters' levels differ too greatly. City of Heroes resolved this by drawing upon a comic-book convention and allowing the lower-level character to act as the "sidekick" of the higher-level character. The lower-level character's effective level is raised to just below that of the character who sidekicked them (as long as they remain close), which allows them to contribute to the battle without extreme danger. The lack of enhancements or higher-level powers still reduces their effectiveness well below that of a legitimate hero of that level.

AT: Archetype. City of Heroe's version of a "class". Another "official" term, but useful.

Aggro: Used in many (all?) MMORPGs, this is a collective measure of how enthusiastically an AI-controlled character will attack a particular character. If you have "high aggro," the enemy or enemies are unlikely to move on and attack another character until you have been dropped.

Got any others I've missed?

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Thursday, September 07, 2006
 
Give 2D a Chance
I've been a 3D gaming geek since it meant "Battlezone" in black & white vector-graphics glory in the arcade. I loved flight simulators, even the primitive ones that ran on the Commodore 64 at two frames per second. I even liked the stepwise pseudo-3D game environments of Wizardry and Bard's Tale. The little mouse-eye-view maze games were fascinating to me. I guess it was the immersion factor, and that feeling that the game world was really (to borrow an overused, embarassing term from the 1990's) virtual reality.

Wing Commander thrilled me in particular because it was much like a game I had imagined creating back in the early 80's, complete with the blocky pixellated graphics. (Yes, back then my imagination was still boxed in by technological limitations, I guess.) The game was just that window into another world I'd been craving for years. I entered some kind of gaming Nirvana and never left. It just kept getting better, with releases like Ultima Underworld (Dungeon exploration with a total "You Are There" feeling! Awesome), Wolfenstein 3D, and of course Doom.

3D was where it was at, and First-Person Perspective was The Way Games Should Be Played.

So here it is, a dozen years since Doom. And I no longer feel that way.

Don't get me wrong. I still like a good 3D game, and I prefer first-person to the "third-person" games that always seem to get the camera hung up on walls or whatever so you can't aim or figure out which way your character is really facing. If you look at the "Game Moments" article list, you'll find that the majority of the most dramatic and wonderful game experiences I recall have been while playing these kinds of games. Falcon 4.0, Ultima Underworld, Rainbow Six, Operation: Flashpoint, Daggerfall... even Forbidden Forest was pseudo-3D.

Once the 3D revolution hit, suddenly 2D games became "only" 2D. Reviewers called the graphics "quaint" and "dated." Consumers refused to purchase such things because the hype said that 3D was newer, and therefore superior to, 2D. Publishers refused to sell 2D games. Console manufacturers (reportedly) started resisting allowing 2D games to be released for their machines. This, in my opinion, was a Bad Thing. When you go that way, you limit your options rather than broadening them.

And the honeymoon is over. The normal-mapped, high-resolution, pixel-shaded, High-Dynamic-Range-Lighted, reflective-surfaced realtime 3D universe has gotten... boring. It's filled with nondescript (if extraordinarily pretty) World War II shooters and sword-swinging hackfests and Grand Theft Auto wannabes. And we've got a bunch of games that would probably have worked really well as a 2D game choking on force-fed 3D design. Practically random camera angles make the real battle one against the controls, not the still-robotic AI. The demands of creating a 3D world have often imposed limitations on what can be done or what would be considered acceptable in a game that didn't exist in 2D.

There are an infinite number 2D game ideas out there that have yet to be discovered, explored, and exploited. Undoubtably, many of them won't suck. Today's technology can even enable some ideas that just couldn't have worked fifteen years ago. In many cases, we can add 3D graphics to 2D gameplay and get the advantages of both.

Fortunately, the rising popularity of casual and indie games - particularly on traditionally "hardcore" platforms like the XBox 360 Live Arcade (and I'm willing to bet they won't be alone in this with upcoming consoles), 2D may be making something of a comeback and regaining acceptance. I'll be cheering it along all the way. It doesn't have to be "retro." It shouldn't have to be about old vs. new. 2D vs. 3D shouldn't be considered a difference in quality at all. It should be about using the best tool for the job - the job in this case making something fun and entertaining for players.

(Oh, yeah, and feel free to click on some of those links on the right to check out a mix of 2D and 3D indie games. I can't guarantee you'll be blown away, but I can guarantee there isn't a World War II FPS among them!)

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006
 
More Tales of Indie Developers
In 2003 & 2004 I largely ignored GamaSutra.com, as I was no longer involved in mainstream game development and I the website had very little to offer to the indie game developer. This has changed, and it seems that every week GamaSutra has an article or two focused on indie game development.

Is this a sign of the times? It'd be nice. The wheel keeps turning, and while it undoubtable will turn again, it's nice to see an improved emphasis (and power) given to the small studios again.

I imagine many of the indie community have already seen these, but in case you haven't:

Introversion's Bedroom Programmer Survival Guide

How To Succeed At Indie Development (notes from the Toronto Independent Games Conference on Battlegoat's lecture)

Podcast Interview with John Baez (Alien Homenid) Part1 and Part 2

Democracy Now: Interview with Torque X Developer Garage Games

Will Casual Games Dominate the Future of the Industry? (Hint: The answer is "No." But they are no longer an insignificant player)

Event Wrapup: Casuality Seattle

And a few older Indie Game Postmortems:

Gibbage

Eets: Hunger. It's Emotional (I gotta say, I can't stand the name...)

Insignia (Interesting in that they obtained the D20 license from Wizards of the Coast for this game).

Rocketbowl

Oasis (which also won GameTunnel's and the IGF's Game of the Year award)

Wik & The Fable of Souls

Gish

Star Chamber

Enjoy!

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006
 
Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
Well, after going off on the origin of computer & console role-playing games, I dug out some old PDFs I had of the original D&D rules, circa 1974. The books tend to reference the wargame rules from Chainmail, but it provides an alternate system for combat if you didn't have the wargames rules. (I don't, though Chainmail is available for only $4.00 as a PDF download from Paizo... yes, I'm a little tempted. When I have more time...)

Since I was ripping a little bit on the simplification of the rules in many modern computer RPGs, I figured I should look once again at how the rules were structured in the three 34-page rulebooks where it all began. The rules, from what I can tell, are a roughly organized brain-dump of whatever Dave Arneson had in his notebook and in his head about the game. The books didn't really explain how to play - they assumed a working knowledge of wargames in general, and Chainmail specifically.

Some little bits of trivia for RPG players and game designers that might be a little interesting:

* The "level" of a monster was determined purely by its hit dice. Anything betweed 6 dice +2 and 7 dice + 1 was a 7th level monster.

* Experience Points were based on treasure gained multiplied by a factor of either the monster's level or the dungeon's level divided by your character level. So a 5th level adventurer looting 1000 gold pieces from a 4 Hit Dice monster (or if he found it on the 4th level of the dungeon, if it had no particular guardian) would get 1000 x 4 / 5, or 800, experience points.

* All attacks by players did 1d6 damage, regardless of weapon.

* There were no thieves / rogues: It was fighting-man, magic-user, and cleric. The only real purpose of Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom were to increase or decrease the advancement rates of the class that depended upon it as a "prime requisite" stat.

* Monsters really only had six basic stats: Number appearing, armor class, movement, hit dice, % in lair, and treasure. Several had special rules in their descriptions (The wyvern had a poisonous stinger that it would use on a roll of 1-4 on a six-sided die... I guess if you were hit by it, you had to roll a saving throw vs. poison or die). The usage of the "% in lair" stat doesn't seem to be explained. With so few stats,

* NPCs cheated just like they do in computer games. From the rules: "Any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except for the player characters." (italics mine)

* There are lots of key rules that were included in this edition that were dropped in later versions - like rules for building a stronghold, naval combat, taxation, etc. It also seemed like players were pretty much expected to build their own strongholds at a certain level. Why they were expected to do this, I don't know, as all the action seemed to be down in the dungeons. But it did bring a nice taxation income...

Anyway, those were just some interesting tidbits from a guy who thinks about these kinds of things WAY too much.

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Monday, September 04, 2006
 
Why Buy?
I just read Joe Maruschak's article, "The Value of a Thing," and as usual it made me think. In particular, it made me think of Cliff Harris's Podcast Interview (the one that can cause really strange dreams) and something he said about Planetary Defense.

I don't have time to look up the exact quote, but he said that it's the kind of game that people really enjoy playing, but they just don't buy.

My immediate thought to that was, "Oh, crap, is Apocalypse Cow one of those games?"

Joe's article addresses some of the why or why not. In particular, he says:
"Much of what you might pay for can be gotten online, often for free on the gaming portals. If an hour of an experience is enough for you, for any one game, you can go from demo, to demo, to demo without ever buying it. You have to provide something that the person wants, and is willing to pay for.

And what are people willing to pay for?

...This seems like a no brainer, but a lot of good games I have played did little or nothing to let me know what I was missing out on when the demo expired. I left the game thinking.. well, that was satisfying, next."

Anybody who plays enough downloadable games should be familiar with this. I've been there plenty of times, as a player. Too often the only incentive is to enjoy "more of the same." With new games appearing literally every day, that may not be a big incentive. In fact, there are plenty of downloadable games I've never even bothered to get to the end of the demo period with.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006
 
Free Game Development Tools
For those checking the blog over the weekend - want some free game development tools? Here are a couple of offers that are good for just a couple of days:

Free Poser 5.0
Poser is a very detailed 3D character design tool. Offer ends September 4th.

Free Bryce 5.0

Bryce is a popular 3D landscape-creation tool.

Of course, they're going to try to upsell you on the upgrades to the current version (5.5 for Bryce, 6.0 for Poser), and all the add-ons and plug-ins. But that's okay. In the case of Poser, I might just take them up on it.

Warning: The free Poser download is very heavy right now, but ContentParadise will let you "order" your free copy now, but download it with your account later - even after the give-away ends. It's an unsurprisingly popular offer.

Tip o' the hat to Juuso of Gameproducer.net and to NeuronScream for the tips on the free give-aways. Thanks!
Friday, September 01, 2006
 
RPG Design Seed Challenge
We've had two very lively discussions on RPG design and theory this last week in comments about Innovation in RPGs and the Evolution of the Computer RPGs articles. I'd say the comments are a whole lot more interesting than the original posts, but that's not saying much. :)

However, I thought I'd take some of those ideas and run with them, and present some "relatively" innovative RPG design seeds based on some of the ideas we discussed, and see what other people can come up with.

Some basic thoughts (not restrictions, just ideas for playing with):

* Might Doesn't Make Right: One of the problems is that most RPGs can be won by maximizing your combat capability. The world can always be saved by someone with a strong enough sword-arm, apparently. Though he might need to do some fed-ex style missions to get to that point... which often coincidentally also require a good sword arm. Borrowing from Ultima IV, why not require something separate from combat skill required to win the game?

* Conflicted Development: Continuing to borrow from Ultima IV, why not have the different elements required to win the game be indirectly in conflict with each other? This prevents the player from simply maxing out each element - they all interact with each other.

* NPCs matter: RPGs (particularly the MMOs) have started to evolve to the point where all NPCs are either enemies, or quest / information dispensors or vending machines for trading gold and equipment. While making a believable simulation of a human is impossibly difficult, it's definitely possible to make characters a bit more interesting and serve more of a gameplay purpose... such as the foils in Wizardry 7, or even at the very least giving them the more interesting trading options of Ultima Underworld.

So here are three proposed game design "seeds" to start things out.

Gang Boss
You start out as a low-level solo criminal in a world of low-level gangs and several competing high-level crime organizations. Your goal is to rise to the top, and unite them all into a single organization under your absolute authority. You can commit your own heists to improve your own skill and amass a personal fortune, but real power comes from gaining authority over others. This comes from amassing fear and love from those you come into contact with. People may owe you favors; others might be blackmailed; still others may be bought or won over through your personal charisma (or gang of thugs). But beware - a quick, overt rise to power will gain you jealousy and hatred by others who will stop at nothing to take you down before you become too powerful. And there are always a few law enforcement officers and politicians who just refuse to be controlled, and are too dangerous to "remove."

As an added bonus, if you create this game, you can also pretend to have enough money to be lawsuit-worthy and send a copy of it to Jack Thompson. That'll guarantee you enough free press coverage to make a small fortune.


Aggressive Negotiations
Five small nations stand at the brink of war, a situation masterminded by a powerful (but unknown) nobleman and his sorcerous allies who intend to take advantage of the situation and seize control of the entire land in the ensuing chaos. You begin as a simple hero questing for adventure, but as your fame and power amass you find yourself being used as a pawn by these variouys forces in their preparations for war. You can either throw your weight behind one nation and help make certain that they emerge victorious (and foil the shadowy mastermind's plan for personal domination), or you can try and use your influence to back all five nations down from escalating hostilities, exposing the mastermind and returning the land to a state of peace.

There are no simple, straightforward "quests" to do this. You have only limited influence over several factors effecting each nation - their readiness for battle, their strength, their threats, their relationships with each other and smaller factions (including yourself), and even sub-factions within the nation with different agendas. Many of these factors run counter to each other - what might endear you to one king might anger another and bring him closer to attempting a "first strike" against the nation you are favoring. Slaying a feared dragon might win you the love and gratitude of the nation it threatened, but it might also free up their army to finally attack their neighbor.

Obviously, some sort of interface to help the player make sense of the current climate and choose their next action would be critical.

And of course, you'd still have to have the big, final, climactic battle with the shadowy mastermind and his sorcerous minions at the end. It's only fair to let the player to lay the smack down on the guy at the end.


Beyond The Pale
Borrowing a little bit this time from the Call of Cthulhu "dice and paper" RPG. There are evil, horrible, frightening creatures threatening humanity - and you are one of the few who can find them and face them. Unfortunately, facing them often costs you part of your soul or your sanity. And some of the evils horrors are far, far too powerful to be faced directly, no matter what your skills, spells, and equipment. You can only defeat them indirectly, and sometimes only for a while. And there's something truly monstrous on the horizon. You have to prevent its coming, before succumbing to madness, death, or despair.

This last design seed could be really tricky to pull off - but the main point is that the player can NEVER be powerful enough to face certain threats directly, and may often be in "over his head" where fleeing or avoiding combat might be the only reasonable option - he'll have to use indirect means to destroy the foes. In addition to this, greater power against the bad guys might come at some cost to his ability to resist them in some ways - some additional weakness (sanity, soul, humanity, whatever) that runs indirect counterpoint to his improved offensive capability. Or maybe a series of these indirectly-coupled capabilities. Maybe by making an arrangement with a vampire, he regains some measure of sanity by defeating a greater menace, but is now indebted to a powerful and not-too-friendly being. Constantly indebting yourself to other beings is not a long-term road to success.

Your Turn!
Okay, none of these would be "simple" RPGs to implement, I admit. But the mechanics I described here could be abstracted to some degree to keep things simple. After all, the virtues in Ultima IV were just simple numbers that you could check with one NPC (Hawkwind?) to see how you were doing on them.

And yes, I know how funny it is to talk about "innovation" and then talk about borrowing elements from other games in the same light. But in my opinion, all innovation is derived from someplace. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. As the saying goes, the secret to creativity is to hide your sources.

So ... anyone else want to take a stab at it?

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