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Game Moment #14- Wolfenstein 3D
The first videogame, that I can ever recall, that ever made me jump.
It wasn't Doom. Doom had jumps a-plenty, and I loved every minute of it. Well, almost every minute of it. At least a solid majority. But before Doom made the "First Person Shooter" a genre and introduced mainstream audiences to the concept, the geeky cognizati were loving another game of first-person carnage.
If you are old enough to remember playing it, you KNOW where that jump occured, and you know exactly what I'm talking about.
It takes place at the end of the shareware episode. A quiet level. You open a door and....
I know of one girl who literally fell out of her chair from that one. It's now overdone and almost trite, but at the time it was quite the shocker. It was the interactive equivalent of the final scene of The Great Train Robbery, which horrified and thrilled audience with a segment of the bandit shooting RIGHT AT the audience.
Unfortunately, it's a moment frozen in time. You can't go back and experience it today. Just like you can't be thrilled by the clip of the bandit shooting his gun anymore. It was the the combination of two fairly novel technologies (first-person perspective, and voice recording) in that first-time-ever situation.
I'm sorry if you missed out on that one. It was a riot.
(Vaguely) related drivel:
* Game Moments Index
* Rules of Combat According to FPS Games
* Game Moment #13 - DOOM!
Play Cute Knight on Halloween
Okay - I have pretty much no details on this, but I found this little rumor from the developer concerning Cute Knight - that playing it on certain days yields special in-game events:
"The world of Cute Knight (Kishi Kawaii) is full of hidden surprises. Certain days of the year trigger special events or hidden bonuses to various skills."
Halloween is one of those special days.
So if you are have Cute Knight, be sure and play it tomorrow! I'm kinda anxious to find it out myself.
If you don't... well, there's an easy fix to that: Download Cute Knight Here.
And Happy Halloween!
(Vaguely) related various & sundry:
* Tales from the Road: Cute Knight
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Are Hybrid RPGs just "Poor Man's" RPGs?
Kitchen Sink Game Design and Magic: The Gathering
I sometimes go off on "kitchen sink design."I still encounter it, and I still have to fight it in my own designs. But what is Kitchen Sink Game Design?
Kitchen Sink Game Design is the mentality that if something is good, then throwing yet more stuff into it would make it better. In other words, throwing in every idea but the kitchen sink. Or maybe including said sink. It's good marketing (as it adds to the perceived value), but horrible game design.
As an example: Would Unreal Tournament 2004 be any better with twice as many weapons? Many players and wannabe-game-designers might think so. But here's the trick: How would the player access all the different weapons? Would complicating the keyboard control make it better? And how would the weapons be differentiated yet balanced? If one weapon overbalances the others in the game (like the rocket launcher did in the original Quake), wouldn't it make the other weapons effectively useless and ignored? Suddenly the game becomes about the new Disintegrator Autorifle, so instead of having twenty weapons, you really have only one. And how do you balance ammunition pick-ups in the game?
In reality, by throwing more stuff that everyone wants into the game, you've actually made it less enjoyable.
As scope increases with added features, your needed time to develop to that scope may increase at a higher rate. To keep with the FPS example, let's say you double the weapon count. Obviously, this doubles the time it takes to design, model, texture, and code each weapon and its corresponding projectiles, effects, and pickups. But the time necessary to balance each weapon against all of the others (including tweaking all of its statistics, designing pick-up placement in all the levels, etc.) is an "Order n-squared" operation. In other words, for all n weapons, they need to be balanced against (n-1) others. Off the top of my head, I think the formula is actually (n x (n -1)) / 2... since once you've compared the chaingun against the rocket launcher, you don't need to compare the rocket launcher against the chaingun.
So what this means is that scope increase has the potential to geometrically increase your development time. Looking at the scope of modern, mainstream games, is it any wonder why the average cost of developing a game has increased by an order of magnitude in the last decade?
One lesson I learned about game design came from playing Magic: The Gathering. For those of you who haven't played this game (or other CCGs, or "Collectable Card Games), this is how the game works:
You have a collection of cards. The cards all have different effects on gameplay, of varying magnitudes. However, they also have costs in game resources - how difficult they are to bring into play from your hand. For example, a really powerful dragon might cost lots of very specific kinds of "mana" (the game resource in Magic), making it almost impossible to bring out into play until late in the game. However, once it is brought out, it has a high likelihood of winning the game for you.
The decks are shuffled and drawn into your hand at random. That means that you'll almost never have the card you really need when you want it.
A common mistake of many beginners (at least in the early days of the game - I don't know if even beginners do this anymore) is to throw in as many cool cards into their decks as they can. It's the "kitchen sink" design philosophy. They don't do this for very long - experienced players clobber them easily and repeatedly. The decks that win are designed around a much tighter focus and a narrow set of strategies.
One of the early guidebooks for the game gave great design advice for creating decks. When considering a card for inclusion in your deck, the book advised, don't just consider its added value to the deck. Also consider what card you might NOT be getting because you drew that card. Sure, that awesome legendary dragon might be really cool, but how are you going to feel if you draw two of those on your initial hand, when you have no chance whatsoever of playing them anytime soon, instead of cards that you could actually USE. They are simply wasted opportunities, and allow your opponent to get a good early start against you.
I think the same lesson applies to game designers. You should not only consider added features by their added value to the game and their cost in development time, but also consider their cost in the player's attention. Do you really want them paying attention to the kitchen sink you threw into the game instead of the core features? If said player is actually a reviewer, was your half-baked multiplayer mode really worth it if they spend most of their time reviewing it rather than your stellar single-player game?
It's a tough call. Sometimes the answer really is "yes." Sometimes the dreaded "feature creep" is actually a good thing, as you come up with ideas that actually enhance the whole package. Too little scope can result in a game that's shallow and uninteresting. But you can definitely have too much of a good thing in game design. Sometimes what a good game really needs to make it better is actually the removal of a couple of really good ideas.
(Vaguely) related bits of digital spewage:
* Keeping It Simple
* Rampant Games' Game Design Articles
Labels: Game Design
Game Moment #13 - Doom
I haven't done one of these for a while. Another Game Moment is long overdue. So for lucky number thirteen, what better game than... DOOM?
Doom was released while I was finishing up college. The Internet was still in its polonged infancy, mainly TELNET and FTP, +finger, IRC, USENET, and a few more obscure utilities. Lucky for me, I didn't have to download Doom on a crappy 9600 baud modem connection like much of the world on the eve of Doom's release. As a computer science student, I could simply go to the computer labs, and join the zillions of other students downloading the game on our high-speed university connection.
Actually, I didn't have to even do that - about every computer in the lab already had the Doom installer downloaded and residing on the hard drive. We just had to copy it onto a floppy and take it home The lab assistants even encouraged us to see if Doom was already on the machine before downloading it. They knew, they understood. They were among the first people to download the game. They were biding their time, watching the clock until the time they could go home and play it. Actually, with winter break coming, they were anxious to literally go home - without the pressure of job or school for two weeks - and just play Doom.
It is very difficult now, more than a decade later, to explain the phenomenon that was Doom to someone who missed it. In many ways, it was a watershed event:
* It was part of the transition of games to mainstream. It was a computer game, and the first episode was absolutely free. So everyone with even peripheral interest in the game had a copy and had played it. The graphics were so much better than anything before it that it was a "must-have" title. Eventually, it garnered mainstream attention, and was mentioned on TV shows, shown in movies, and often noted in mainstream press that normally wouldn't touch gaming with a ten foot pole.
* It was also shockingly "adult" in its content. Games were still considered children's toys, due in no small part to Nintendo's very focused ad campaign (Sega had gained some upper hand marketing itself as the game system for "big brother.") Unfortunately, the perception is still with us, which is why many over-the-hill politicians believe that we're trying to sell violent frag-fests to 9-year-olds. But for most GAMERS, at least, Doom was clearly an action-game oriented towards older teenagers and grown-ups.
* The phenominal graphics established the PC as a game platform of choice for many people. It was quite simply something that wasn't possible on consoles of the time (though that didn't take long to change).
* It established multiplayer gaming as where it was at. It was hardly the first multiplayer game to exist on the PC, but it was the first (and only) one to bring down entire networks at companies and universities across the world. Though that was partly because of Doom's horrible net code.
* It established the "modding" scene. Again, Doom wasn't the first, but it had the biggest modding punch. Players were able to become game designers with the download of some other user-created tools. Doom's creators, id Software, not only allowed it, but actively encouraged it, and had created a game that was flexible enough to accept new, custom content with astonishing ease.
Before most of this became a big deal, my own "moment" with Doom was a quiet one. Well, it was supposed to be quiet. Naturally, I was addicted to the game from the first moment, even playing it in a tiny window on my 386/40mhz machine. I forget which level I was on, but it was one with a tight, constructed maze in the shareware version.
My wife had already gone to bed. I was playing in the next room wearing headphones so she wouldn't get disturbed by the MIDI music and the sound of monsters going "Ruaarrrgh!" all the time. It was well after midnight in the real world.
But I was somewhere else. I was holding the shotgun, panicky, hearing growls of monsters in this twisty darkened maze, not sure where they were but expecting them around every corner. To me, this was what made Doom great - not the levels of endless demons ready to be mowed down, but the tension of being trapped in a twisty maze of halls with something that was actively hunting YOU.
I knew the demon was close. I could hear it growling nearby. My health and armor were low. I couldn't take much more, and fanged death could be just around that turn. I flew around a corner and... nothing. Nothing at all. Where else could it be?
The roar of the predator came from immediately behind me, loud and very close in my headphones. I yelped in surprise, spun around, and managed to blow it away with the shotgun before it took killed me. My health was in the low teens, the ar,mor gone, but I was still alive. I was relieved.
A few seconds later, a new presence came behind me. This time, it greeted me not with a demon's roard, but with a concerned, "What's going on?"
I took off the headphones, instinctively glancing at the clock before facing my wife, standing in her pajamas with a groggy expression on her face. It was a quarter to three in the morning.
"Huh? I was just playing Doom."
"What? Oh, that. I was attacked by a demon from behind. I guess I yelped or something. It surprised me. I'm sorry I woke you up."
"I woke up to hear you screaming."
"It was more of an 'mmnngaaaaah!' sound. But I'm sorry."
"It's almost three in the morning. Come to bed. RIGHT NOW."
"Yes, dear." I may have defeated the demon, but I knew when I had just lost the battle. I didn't even bother to save the game. (Besides, next time I'd get the drop on the demon!)
She still doesn't let me live that one down. But I DID NOT SCREAM. No matter what she might tell you.
(Vaguely) related things I've written:
* Game Moments Index
* Giving Me the Creeps! I Want More!
* Game Moment #14 - Wolfenstein 3D
* F.E.A.R. Mini-Review
Productivity Under Pressure
I learned a few years ago (and I think this is true of most people) that I work best under mild to moderate pressure. Too little stress, and I lose motivation. Too much stress is, of course, crippling.
Due to scheduling and milestones at work, the pressure and stress has gone up. My productivity has consequently gone up a few notches the last three weeks (my boss occasionally reads this, so now I'm gonna have to field questions as to why it wasn't there the whole time... :) ) I do think that I've been a little bit less nice to my coworkers as well, for which I apologize.
Having deadlines and milestones for which you feel accountable for is one way to add that pressure to yourself. If you work at a day job, you may have management breathing down your neck and helping you set those milestones and deadlines (and having meetings to check on progress), which may serve to increase that pressure quite nicely, thankyouverymuch. But it's got to be the right "kind" of pressure, and how much is "too much" depends upon the individual. Of course, a poor manager can turn be arbitrary and micromanaging and raise a whole bunch of the wrong kinds of pressure. You want the kinds that push you to hit your goals, not hit your manager's face.
When you are working on your own projects (I'm specifically talking about creating games here, but it applies equally to writing that novel, starting that side-business, or whatever), you don't have any external manager mandating deliverable dates and calling meetings to discuss progress. This is a good thing for most people. However, without some sort of internal milestone schedule, or without any accountability, it's easy to let things slip or drop.
Before you know it, that novel has never gotten past chapter 2. Or that really fun-sounding "quick-and-dirty" game about exploding cows that you thought would only take 4-6 months is about to enjoy its one-year anniversary of development without having gone alpha.
One solution to this "throwing your hat over the fence" to peers, something that Steve Taylor (said boss, now) suggested some time ago. The analogy is that if you throw your hat over the fence, then you are going to HAVE to climb over the fence to pick it up again. You are committed. To throw your hat over the fence, you announce what you are going to do and when you are going to do it (to interested parties who will actually pay some attention). Then you are emotionally invested in the commitment, as you'll have to embarass yourself by admitting that you failed to meet your goals when you next report on it.
I did this for Void War, with impressive results. So I proposed this at the Utah Indie Game Developer's Night last week. Mike Rubin wasn't too quick to bite, as he's sort of in hurry-up-and-wait mode for content for Vespers 3D. Mike Smith and Greg Squire seemed enthusiastic about the idea.
So Sunday night I threw my hat over the fence. In spite of the fact that I knew the upcoming week would be hellish with the day job (it hasn't been too bad, except for Monday), I set a schedule for myself for the week for my game. I set it fairly aggressively. Then I emailed Mike and Greg with the schedule, with the promise that I would follow up in one week with a report on how I did (how I met my milestones), and a new schedule for the following week.
Mike Smith reciprocated. We're committed. The hat is over the fence. Additionally, we've committed to showing substantial improvements in our games (I'm going to at least be in mid-alpha) by the next Utah Indie Game Dev night. But how you get there is by taking those small steps - hitting those milestones. So hopefully this peer-group effort will help us get there.
And Mike already knows how anxious I am to play the finished version of Caster.
(As a side note: Mike H. - been playing some of your alpha - it has much rockage potential. I tried to email you directly a couple of weeks ago in reply to your email, but it looks like your spam filters won't let me, and I was too lazy to go back to the form on your website. I promise to send you some feedback soon, though! There, I threw my hat over the fence again!)
(Vaguely) related bits of drivel:
* How to sleep less and get more done
* The Power of Vision
* Productivity Tip: The List!
* Embrace Code!
Re - Your Brains
Okay, one more bit of Halloween goodness. A song by Jonathan Coulton called, "Re - Your Brains." Imagine that annoying Bill Lumbergh-type coworker ... now turned into a zombie. And the difference isn't that noticeable...?
Jonathan Coulton does another song I really enjoy called "Code Monkey." The songs are cheap, so if you feel like supportinga very humorous indie musician, you have an opportunity ;)
Torque 1.5 And A Torque Wish-List
Over at GarageGames.com, Torque 1.5 is now available. It's $50 more than the original, but is available at a discount if you already own an older version of the Torque Game Engine.
I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, so I have to go by the changelist (which I think you need an account to see). But here are the key details:
* Torque Lighting Kit is now an integral part of the engine (it's about time!!)
* Torque ShowTool Pro is included (it's a valuable tool, and also past due for being included)
* Various improvements and optimization on the lighting (above and beyond TLK)
* New multithreaded profiler
* Updated the waterblock system to work with different terrain sizes (YAY!!!!) and they can now be moved in the editor again.
* Particles emitter fixes. I hope this prevents particles from dissapearing when their emitter is barely off-screen (sounds like their bounding boxes are now handled correctly, so you CAN prevent this from happening - FINALLY!)
* Engine and GUI Code brought up to current TGB level.
* An Elf character, new skyboxes, and some sample art from various content packs
* Alt-Tab fix for windows
* Fixes for client-only explosions (A YAY with contingencies... I really need to see how well they work now)
* Some long-overdue audio fixes
* Improved Axis Gizmo in the editor
* Bunch of work to bring Linux & Mac code up-to-snuff.
This is all well and good, and arguably worth the $50 price increase. (Actually, IMO, just adding the lighting pack and the ShowTool Pro was probably worth that). But here are some things I'd really like to see for a future release (hopefully not one with an increased price tag or an upgrade cost, but we'll see):
* MASSIVE improvement on the UI editor and UI elements. It's still a pain in the butt to use, and buggy when you try different resolutions. Ideally, the editor would see serious improvement to make it more of a WYSIWYG tool. Also, I'd like to see some more functionality in the actual UI elements, borrowed perhaps from TGB. I'd like to see animated screen elements - the ability to automatically cycle through texture animations, to automatically translate, rotate, and scale.
* Better documentation - to the level of what the Torque Game Builder currently offers, at least. A few "build your own game" tutorials would go really far.
* Full-on refactoring of the ShapeBase object & how it is subclassed. Making a custom subclass (in C++) of shapebase is a big ol' hairy pain in the neck!
* Good documentation of the C++ elements of Torque - especially working on things like ShapeBase subclasses, how you pass things from client to server cleanly (and optimally) over the network, synchronization issues (tick updates and interpolating between ticks), ghosting, camera control, etc.
* Release the Forest Pack! Or better yet, integrate it into Torque.
* Better handling of large interiors, and directly-linked interiors (with a portal between them).
* Vastly improved support for SINGLE-PLAYER games. Like better ways of bypassing the networking, or more automated ways of handling updates between client & server for games that take advantage of the fact that the client and server are on the same machine.
* Better / more intuitive / more powerful camera control, especially with respect to single-player games. Sort of what has been done with the advanced camera resource, but cleaned up, improved, and with true framerate independence instead of the "fudging" that's currently being done. Also with better support for animation & cutscenes, true zooming, etc.
* Support for localized fog (instead of just global fog settings) for area-based special effects.
* Built-in support for Python / LUA scripting. Just because I'm wishing. I guess I should wish for a million dollars, too, while I'm at it. It's not that I don't like TorqueScript... but it's not nearly as powerful (or as intuitive) as these languages.
Maybe some of these are already in 1.5, but it didn't seem so judging from the changelist. But hey, I can hope and dream, can't I?
Vaguely related rants and raves about Torque:
* Torque Game Engine Deal
* Torque News
* Torque Game Builder Quick-Take Review
* On Game Engines and Swarm Missiles
Trogdor Song in Guitar Hero 2
In the "No Freaking Way" department...
This is apparently legit. If not, I will cry. But the "Trogdor" song from the notorious Strongbad Email is going to be an unlockable song in Guitar Hero II.
This is even better than finding out they had a song by Spinal Tap.
This comes from the GuitarHeroGame.com forums, via a tip by Brian H. Thanks!
(Vaguely) related posts:
* Official Guitar Hero 2 Track List
* Guitar Hero 2 Wish List
* Happiness is... the Guitar Hero 2 Demo
* Misirlou Video from Guitar Hero 2
* Guitar Hero Mini-Review
Labels: Mainstream Games
Creepiest Halloween Movies
There's only a week left of the Halloween season, but if you are looking for a movie that may send some shivers up your spine for the weekend, here are some of my favorite. These aren't necessarily the scariest movies (I think the movie that scared me the most was Aliens, when I was sixteen, but it's not on this list.). And I'm not into gore-fests or pure "shock" horror. The operative word is "creepy" - movies that give you little ripple of disturbance in your mind, let you explore a fanciful questioning of the reality of the world around you, and maybe leave you a little more afraid of the dark. Spooky, creepy movies, preferably ghost stories.
In other words, perfect Halloween fodder!
This is on nearly EVERYONE'S list for a really scary movie. The Ring is a Western make of a Japanese film (Ringu) that is a very modern ghost story --- sort of a haunted videotape. Well, a haunted video. Anyone who watches it dies horrifically several days later. The story surrounds a single mother who discovers the truth only after witnessing the video, and is desperately seeking a way to stop the curse.
This is an early 80's flick that is a classic ghost story. After the death of his wife and daughter in a tragic accident, a writer gets a "change of scenery" and moves to a house which is of course haunted. At first, he's convinced that it's his wife or daughter trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave, but then discovers that it is something far older, and more vengeful.
This movie features Alice Krige (the Borg Queen in Star Trek - First Contact). Four older men have a little club where they meet regularly and try to frighten each other with ghost stories. The problem is that all of them actually share a very real haunted past, a secret which is coming back to take revenge on them and their families now.
Feels like a feature-length "Twilight Zone" episode. A young woman struggles to take care of her two ill children, who have a terrible allergic reaction to bright light. With her husband off fighting in World War II, and unable to leave her children unattended, she is forced to rely upon three strangers who appear one day volunteering to be servants. Unfortunately, the three new servants don't seem to be the only new additions to the household. An awesome, spooky ghost story!
The Sixth Sense
Who HASN'T seen this one yet. "I see dead people." A child psychiatrist struggles to help a child who has the power to see the dead... all the time.
The original John Carpenter movie. I haven't seen the remake. A hundred years ago, a small village drew a ship to wreck by setting a false lighthouse light to draw the ship into the rocks. Scavenging the gold from the wreck, the community grew into a prosperous seaside fishing town. Now, on the hundredth anniversary of the wreck, a mysterious fog rolls in, carrying the vengeful spirits of the murdered crew...
This is another John Carpenter horror flick, and a real classic. In a remote antarctic science base, an alien life form is discovered which can perfectly mimic any other living creature it encounters - and devours. Without hope of salvation from the outside, the base's crew must not only deal with a bloodthirsty monster, but their own paranoia and distrust of who is really human.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
Okay, here's a token slasher-style horror movie. But it was scary and supernatural, and Freddy Kruger has such an attitude! An evil child-murderer, put to death by vigilante justice many years ago, comes back to haunt the dreams of the children of his killers. But who he kills in their dreams also physically dies.
I just saw this one over the weekend. It's a 1962 (?) black-and-white film about ghosts, creepy children, and a governess who may or may not be going insane. It's based on the Henry James story, "Turn of the Screw."
The Bair Witch Project
Brilliant independent movie project. This movie got a lot of anti-hype backlash, much of which I suspect was instigated by the mainstream movie industry. But I really enjoyed it. Taking the conceit of being spliced-together footage of a documentary on a local ghost legend, the film uses the camcorder as a non-cheesey way to achieve a first-person perspective and put the audience in the eyes of three college students who go from being confident skeptics to terrified victims. The ending was particularly sharp and shocking. Warning: Do not watch if you are prone to motion sickness, or if you are greatly offended by an almost constant stream of the "F" word. As the kids become more terrified, this becomes about the only word in their vocabulary.
A television mini-series based on the Steven King novel. We watched it when it originally aired, and the ending of the first episode left my wife very freaked out. Fortunately, the ending provided great closure. While the point was (according to her) made much better in the book than in the movie, the idea is that the unknown is much more frightening than the known - once the protagonists actually confront the horror that has plagued them since childhood, its ability to scare them is drastically reduced. But Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown is absolutely awesome and may give you a healthy suspicion of clowns for the rest of your life. I had no idea he could BE scary.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush
Okay, this is just a television episode. So we're stretching. But this episode, occuring early-to-mid-way through the fourth season (easily available on DVD) is perhaps the best Buffy episode ever, and has probably converted more people to watching the show than any other episode. It's experimental, in that most of the episode (about 25 minutes) is without spoken dialog. Several cadaverous visitors come to town, and steal the voice of everyone - so that nobody can scream when they proceed to harvest seven hearts.
I won't go too far into TV show / episode territory here, as several episodes of The Twilight Zone, or the new Supernatural series could probably work just fine, too.
Two non-supernatural movies that really creeped me out were Face / Off and Silence of the Lambs. But I wouldn't consider those Halloween fare, necessarily. Face / Off was supposed to be an action movie, but I was just freaked out by the premise. Strange? Maybe. And I guess just about everything with Pauly Shore in it gives me the creeps... thank goodness his decade of fame is over.
Anyway, if you've missed any of the above movies, they are worth viewing! Many of them are hard to find at the local video store, but they are all available through Netflix. (In fact, I joined Netflix mainly out of frustration at not being able to find some of these films when they were recommended to me). Enjoy!
Scorpia's New Tale: An Interview With One of Gaming's Most Popular Columnists
Scorpia was one of the most influential women in computer gaming long before people starting paying attention to that sort of thing. For sixteen years, she wrote adventure and role-playing game reviews for Computer Gaming World. Her column, "Scorpia’s Tale," was one of, if not THE, longest-running regular column in the short history of electronic gaming journalism. It was also by far one of the most popular columns in the industry.
Scorpia had a reputation not only for hard-hitting RPG and adventure reviews and witty commentary, but also for being a treasure-trove of game hints and clues for desperate players. In an era before walkthroughs for any game were available almost before a game’s release on the Internet, Scorpia was the number-one savior of stumped adventurers and dungeon-delvers. If you couldn’t figure out where the secret door was on level six, or how to vanquish the dragon on the Persian rug, Scorpia would come to your rescue.
I was thrilled to find out that Scorpia is back at it again, with a new venue: Scorpia’s Gaming Lair. Since she remains a treasure trove of knowledge and insight (and a sting!) of all things adventure and RPG, I jumped at the chance to pick her brain a little bit about Role-Playing Game and Adventure Game design, as well as lay to rest some mysteries surrounding her long-running column. And while I was at it, I was anxious to learn more about what she’s up to now.
Curious? Want to know the sordid history, the rumors and innuendo, the scandals of the game industry in the 1990s, and all the dark secrets of videogame journalism? So would I! She wouldn’t tell me that. But, as always, she was happy to provide hints, tips, and witty commentary which I think you’ll enjoy!
Background: In Ye Olde Beginning
Rampant Coyote: We both started gaming in an era where text adventures were about as “in” as any other kind of computer gaming, and an entire game with “high resolution graphics” could fit in less memory than a screenshot does today. How did you get sucked into computer gaming as a hobby?
Scorpia: Well, among other things, I went to a combined Apple II/TRS-80 computer show, and came out lusting for my own machine. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the future. I planned on learning to program the Apple (my computer of choice). So of course the first thing I did was to go out and buy about $100 worth of games. The road to perdition was a short one ;)
Rampant Coyote: Your column was certainly one of the most popular features of Computer Gaming World back in the day (at least among the geeky crowd I hung out with). How did you end up becoming the guru of the adventure / RPG genre at CGW?
Scorpia: I wouldn't call myself "the guru", or even "a guru". As to how I started at CGW, it was simple. One late winter night in early '83, Russ Sipe (then owner of CGW) called me into a private chat on CompuServe. He asked if I'd like to write for his magazine. I said yes, then I asked what mag it was. He said "Computer Gaming World" and I hadn't heard of it before. But I tracked down a store later that carried it. So it was just like in the movies, I was sitting there minding my own business, and someone says, "Hey kid, how'd you like to be in pictures?" ;)
Rampant Coyote: Your columns in CGW were billed as being distinctive and “often controversial.” I always wondered: what sort of controversies did you stir up?
Scorpia: I'd love to know that, too. Of course, not everyone agreed with my opinions, so maybe we could call that controversy. Or perhaps the controversy came from the game companies if the review wasn't favorable. Basically, I gave forthright opinions and let the bodies fall where they may ;)
Rampant Coyote: Your final column was (I think) April 1999. I guess all good things have to come to an end, but what brought the Scorpion’s Tale to its conclusion? Did it have anything to do with Johnny Wilson’s departure and George Jones taking over as editor-in-chief? Or the commonly held opinion in the late 90’s that roleplaying games, like adventure games, were “dead?”
Scorpia: Some people may have thought that adventures and RPGs were "dead", but I never thought so. Both genres did go into something of a decline, although the amazing success of Myst did revive the adventure segment for awhile. As to why I left, the mag didn't want my stuff any more. CGW had a new owner and new management, and presumably were going in a new direction.
Rampant Coyote: Well, I know for many of us, that was the first of many signs of the demise of the magazine. I personally felt like they were aggressively pursuing the lucrative market of 14-year-olds with Attention Deficit Disorder after that. So after that, then what? Have you been doing any game journalism between the end of your CGW column and the creation of your new website?
Scorpia: Yes and no. No, I haven't been writing for any other mags since leaving CGW. Yes, because I was writing for my site. See my answer below. [“What brought about Scorpia’s Gaming Lair?”]
Rampant Coyote: And to round out the background info… where did the moniker “Scorpia” come from?
Scorpia: Moniker? What a plebian term ;) From role-playing, naturally. After many years, I finally found a good use for my astrological sign. All I did was change the last letter to indicate female, although that did escape some people over the years. Heh.
On Adventures and Role-Playing Games
Rampant Coyote: There’s a commonly-held belief that adventure games as we knew them are now “dead,” at least as mainstream products. At one point it seemed that it was only text-adventures that had died, but now even the successor, the “point-and-click” adventures made famous by games like Monkey Island and Myst, seem to exist now only as part of gaming’s history and as lower-budget indie ventures. What led to the adventure game’s demise, and do you think any kind of comeback is possible (perhaps in a new form)?
Scorpia: Interest in adventures revived with Myst. Unfortunately, everyone wanted to do "another Myst", another biggie that would hook into the mainstream. That never happened.
Then the game markets turned more towards that infamous "young male demographic", featuring sports, strategy, shooters and driving games, which continues to this day. And, of course, there is the growth in various MP games online. Most game houses now belong to one or another corporate giant.
It's only the small, independent companies that can do what they want. If another adventure game should hit it big, we might see more adventure games, but likely in the Myst copy-cat mold.
Rampant Coyote: You’ve often said (with elaborate detail) that your favorite game was Ultima IV. Is this still true? Do you have any close runners-up?
Scorpia: Yep, Ultima IV is still numero uno. The runner-up position is held by the original Fallout, which surprised me by being so good as it was. However, I can't think of anything offhand for third place, which is sad.
Rampant Coyote: What makes a great adventure game?
Scorpia: First, a good story. One that draws you in and makes you want to know more about what's happening. But it has to be logically constructed, even if a horror type, such as Barrow Hill or Scratches.
Puzzles that make sense and aren't there just to pad out the game. They should fit in with the story, and each solution should advance you a little along the plotline. The player should be able to solve every puzzle without the need for trial and error; hints and clues ought to be available in-game for all of them. NO "hunt-the-pixel" stuff, where you have to scan your mouse all over the screen to find some critical object, and no “action / adventure" stuff, either.
And the game should come to a satisfactory conclusion, and not leave you wondering about anything.
Rampant Coyote: That makes perfect sense. So moving even nearer and dearer to my heart - what makes a great roleplaying game?
Scorpia: As it is for adventures, a good story. Preferably one that does not involve "killing off Ancient Evil Foozle to save the world" (you already know, Jay, how I feel about "Ancient Evil" ;).
NPCs that have some realism to them. In particular, aspects that make you care about at least some of them (not necessarily in a romantic way). Decent dialogue that doesn't look or sound like it was written by a 14-year-old with an attitude.
Balanced combat (this is much better now than it used to be in the old games). A good mix of combat and non-combat situations.
Multiple ways to resolve some of the quests. Different endings for good and evil, if the game allows evil PCs. Opportunities for true role-playing, outside the straightjacket of D&D alignment (I've never liked the alignment system).
A rewarding ending that provides a sense of accomplishment (see "The End" for more on that).
And bring back the player-created party system! See "It's My Party" for details.
Rampant Coyote: While it wasn’t extremely common even then, many of the old-school game developers were known by name to the press and to informed gamers. Names like Richard Garriott, Ron Gilbert, Tim Schaffer, David W. Bradley, Marc Blank, Jon Van Canaghem, and Bob Bates were known to many adventure / RP gamers, in spite of the fact that they also worked with larger teams to bring their visions to market. This doesn’t seem to happen much anymore. Was knowing the names and faces behind the creations a good thing? Why is this on the decline? Are players losing interest, does the press no longer care, the publishers trying to focus attention on brands rather than creators, or is it something else entirely?
Scorpia: Excellent question. I covered some of that in my "Nostalgia" piece. Anytime you create something you care about, you put something of yourself in it. In those earlier days, JVC and Lord British and the others were more in control. Others may have had a part in the product, but something from the main person came through. That doesn't happen much these days, simply because the design teams are so large; just look in any manual at the credits. In a true team effort, the contributions become diffused. So, for that reason, individual designers no longer come to the fore. The only one I can think of that still has public attention is Sid Meier.
And yes, I think it was good that designers had "name recognition", because those were all good names and people were eager for their products. Now, it does indeed go by brand.
Room With A Grue: Scorpia’s Gaming Lair
Rampant Coyote: What brought about the creation of Scorpia’s Gaming Lair (www.scorpia.com)?
Scorpia: Well, this is the third incarnation.
After I left GEnie, I started up Scorpia's Domain on the 'net. Alas, it didn't do too well, so after awhile I revamped it as Scorpzine. That wasn't very successful, either, but then both of those were subscription sites. So then I went into hibernation for awhile (a long while, actually), but I've been at this too long. So I'm back once more, this time with the Lair.
Rampant Coyote: I only heard about it myself a few weeks ago, from a comment here on Tales of the Rampant Coyote. But I’m happy to spread the word! You seem to be building up quite an enthusiastic community on the website. What are the differences between the community there now and the community in the CompuServe days?
Scorpia: Not very much. I found that my areas on CIS and GEnie attracted what you might call "hard core gamers", who were intelligent, literate, and cared about the quality of the games they played. As you probably noticed from the comments, many of the Lair members go back to the early days of gaming. At the same time, they also play some of the new ones. Overall, I'd say that the ones coming to the site now (whether they post or not) are the type of people I've always written for, and I just wish I had more of them.
Rampant Coyote: So what are your goals goals with the new website? How do you see it in, say, two years?
Scorpia: To write honest reviews and articles of interest, make money (I should have put that first ;), and keep busy. As for two years from now, thanks, but I'm taking it one day at time right now.
Parting Shots (With Crossbows)
Rampant Coyote: So if you had the chance to give some Adventure / Roleplaying game developers out there any advice for appealing to the “Scorpia Market,” what would it be?
Scorpia: Make games that have fun, wit, and charm. Forget the eye candy. A game doesn't need cutting-edge, must-have-a-desk-top-Cray graphics to be good. Pretty pictures are nice, but gameplay should not take a back seat to the visuals. Play some of the great older games, and analyze what makes them great. For the rest, see my answers above. [Ed: “What makes a great adventure game” and “What makes a great roleplaying game.”]
Rampant Coyote: What does the future of computer roleplaying games hold? Are we going to be stuck with Diablo clones from the mainstream market from here on out?
Scorpia: I certainly hope not! There will, of course, be some of those clones, which is not altogether a bad thing, if the games are done well. But such are not true RPGs. At the moment, it seems the D&D franchise, and Bethesda, are the only ones doing traditional RPGs (and Bethesda certainly messed up with the combat in Oblivion), though I hear Bioware has something in the works. However, it's not likely there will be as many in the future as there were in times past. Development takes much longer now, and there is an emphasis on allowing for online play.
Rampant Coyote: Anything you wished I would have asked? Or any other comments you’d like to make?
Scorpia: Nope, I've said (or typed) enough.
Thank you, Scorpia, not only for subjecting yourself to my nosy questions, but for not sending Fred the half-grue bouncer to break my kneecaps or anything else... unseemly. And I'm sharing this with everyone publicly now, so that if I mysteriously dissapear the next time I enter a dark area, well... people will know!
But seriously... thank you! And good luck with Scorpia's Gaming Lair! It's already become one of my favorite gaming sites, and I'd like to encourage folks to go check it out!
(Vaguely) related stories:
* R.I.P. Computer Gaming World
* Grown-Ups Like Videogames, Too
* Interview with Mike Rubin about Vespers 3D: An Experimentin 3D Interactive Fiction
* How to Get Me to Buy Your Indie RPG
* The Most Important CRPGs of All Time
* Great Game Moments
Are Hybrid RPGs Just Poor-Man's RPGs?
The core elements of a computer roleplaying game are pretty simple and straightforward. You basically have a task resolution system for an individual unit based on its statistics. Mix this with the ability to modify those stats through circumstances, equipment, spells, level increase or whatever.
Boom. There's your recipe for a game with "RPG Elements." You now have the right to add a " /RPG" to the end of your genre of choice of your game, and thousands of RPG afficianados, starved for the rare RPG release, will flock to your product in droves. Or so you hope.
Actually, in the old days, that was about all that there was to RPGs. I mean, take the original Wizardry. You had some triggered events and some funky tricks played on you by the map. But for the most part, you wandered about a map beating up on lesser challenges until you managed to make your way to Werdna and defeated him. That's about it for story. Enjoy!
Modern computer RPGs tend to be a bit more complex than this. By "a bit" I mean, "orders of insane magnitude." You've got dialog trees, quest systems, and an overall storyline to maintain. Not to mention the fact that most RPGs are exploratory in nature, which means TONS of content requirements for the player to chew through. And we won't go into the optional complexities of artificial intelligence, class balance, item upgrades, spell systems, and the like.
The hybrid RPG neatly sidesteps these issues. For examples, take a look at three hybrid RPGs available at Rampant Games: Styrateg (strategy / RPG ), Empires and Dungeons ( strategy / RPG, though I want to call it boardgame / RPG ), and Cute Knight (sort of an RPG / Sim ). Cute Knight is definitely closer to being a traditional RPG, but it's still vastly simplified from a storyline or quest perspective than, say, Aveyond - which is a full-blown traditional console-style RPG (with some rather untraditional design decisions).
Hybrid RPG can emphasize some other element of gameplay that are FAR less development-intensive than pure roleplaying games. Thus they are cheaper and easier to make.
Does this make them the "poor-man's RPG?" Meaning a poor / inexpensive substitution for the real thing?
I can make a couple of arguments both ways against this assertion:
* Early Roleplaying Games were closer to the hybrid designs than to modern CRPGs, anyway. This includes early CRPGs *AND* the original pen-and-paper games that were "like wargames, only better." I'd argue Styrateg probably has more in common with early pen-and-paper RPGs than more "pure" CRPGs out today.
* The press tends to praise mainstream CRPGs for having more "roleplaying" when they have three or four multiple endings and branching. Cute Knight has over 50 endings. That's more "roleplaying" opportunity than any ten mainstream games combined! Well, okay, not exactly, due to the relative brevity of the paths getting there, but still...
* A game like Empires & Dungeons is clearly more of a "beer & pretzels" game. If you are going for a deep, detailed roleplaying experience, it is clearly the wrong game. The roleplaying aspects of the game are fairly peripheral.
* While the deep NPC dialogs and quest systems and heavy story elements may have been more of a modern invention in CRPGs, players are used to it, and that's part of what they crave when they think "RPG."
The Verdict Is?
I really do like many hybrid RPGs, and many times they are quite capable of scratching the "RPG itch." I do not like the narrowing the definition of a roleplaying game to only include titles that include the full suite of very specific features. I'm all for stretching definitions and going outside the box. I don't want to imply that hybrid RPGs are in any way inferior - just different. And different can be a lot of fun.
But there is a pretty huge gulf between the depth that you get from a modern (even indie) RPG and most hybrids. There's a lot more to these games than a task resolution system and the ability to go up levels or upgrade equipment. There's a big difference in player experience, and I'm a little bit wary of putting them in the same category.
It's a tough call. What do you think?
Grown-Ups Like Video Games, Too!
FileFront now has an archive of many issues of Computer Gaming World in PDF Format. Going back over some of the older issues (some of which I never read), I am reminded of why I loved this magazine. And how much it deteriorated in the last decade (though, as I have said before, it had been improving somewhat under Jeff Green's management over the last couple of years).
Here's an excerpt from April, 1994 - a preview of the (never-released vaporware) computer game version of the pen-and-paper RPG "Champions" (one of my favorites):
Yet, the contrapuntal harmony to this bestowment of power is the sense of responsibility inherent in the superhero's creed and the awesome struggle with the misuse of power by the supervillain. In a real sense, the comic book mythos is an acculturating influence that teaches the young male that raw power is not a solution to the challenges of life. Rather, it is the creative use of that power that provides the real victories in life. In later life, the comic mythos is a reaffirmation of this lesson to those who, at least temporarily, may feel powerless and disenfranchised. It is a reassuring reminder that victory is possible to those who are creative and flexible upon facing the vicissitudes of life.
What this means is, "Superheroes are fun!"
So they mock their own pedanticism and use of ten-dollar-words, but that still didn't stop them from sprinkling their articles with quotes by philosophers and historians, or using language that was a bit above the 5th-grade level used by most modern gaming rags. Take, for example, the opening to the preview of Ultima VI:
The late 19th Century American lawyer-politician, Thomas B. Reed, is reputed to have said, "One, with God, is always a majority, but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted." Such an acerbic warning against the assumption that having a conception of Virtue and Right is equivalent to a mandate to search out and destroy other ideas seems to be a vital part of what the second Ultima trilogy is about.
Now both of these uncredited articles might have been the product of Johnny Wilson, who's eduction included studies of English Literature, Drama, and the Old Testiment. But he set much of the tone for the whole magazine. As did Russell Sipe, before him. They didn't talk down to readers. They assumed readers were educated adults who were interested not just in what were the coolest, most overhyped games to buy, but also in the whole hobby of Computer Gaming.
In fact, Sipe attributed this attitude to the success of the magazine following the collapse of the videogame industry in the mid 1980's, in his retrospective in this month's issue (the very last issue of Computer Gaming World, before it changes it's name to Games For Windows):
"Then came the videogame crash of 1984. It took down the majority of the computer-game magazines with it. By the winter of 1984, only a few such magazines remained - and by summer 1985, CGW was the only four-color computer game magazine left.
"The manufacturers who survived the crash and prospered during that time were those companies that, for the most part, targeted an older age group (especially those who were interested in strategy and adventure games as opposed to arcade action games). Fortunately for CGW, our readership has always been dominated by the adult strategy/adventure gamer; an audience that was not only interested in the games themselves, but also in the personalities that designed the games and the companies that manufactured them."
Bingo. Now I don't think of myself as a snob, but I don't like reading reviews that seem oriented towards 14-year-olds, either. I don't think I enjoyed them at age 14, come to think of it. I like the idea of having discussions about games, like we might about books or movies. I like talking about experiences playing games, the "Great Game Moments." I like the idea that computer games can actually spur discussion of politics, or even philosophy.
And I don't think I'm alone. According to the ESA, the average game player is 33 years old. There are (precious few) websites that seem to have taken this to heart (GamerDad and The Escapist come to mind). But so much marketing, press, and of course political vitriole is being focused on this idea that the majority of game players are minors, or at least stuck in Mom's basement long after they should have been kicked out to join the real world.
Somehow we gamers grew up, but the perceptions of the mainstream media and marketers never did.
It seems like this is changing, gradually, the way change usually happens. Hurrah for casual games causing more and more women age 40+ to become gamers, and perhaps accelerating the acceptance of the concept. Every so often, I see an article or a bit of advertising that seems to be waking up to the idea that the average gamer is not only not a child, but is old enough to have children of his or her own. But they still treat it as a novel idea.
I think it's amusing that Computer Gaming World was making that assumption twenty years ago, when the "average" gamer was only 19 or so.
No Excuse for IT Ignorance
I've worked at more than one place now (never a game company) where a company executive told the I.T. department that they have no clue what I.T. does. But they always added that they knew it was important to the company. IT was a mystery to them - a magical black box - and while they spoke admiringly of the technical expertise of their employees, hinting that it was somehow BEYOND their comprehension - they still seemed happy to remain aloof from all this.
There's one company that shall remain nameless that was completely taken advantage of by an IT director that they hired who told them what they wanted to hear, right up until the point where he could not disguise the misdirection of the IT department any longer. What's worse, this IT director replaced another one who was (in my opinion, at least) very competent. I don't know all of the reasons for the sudden re-assignment of the first IT director, but I'm sure a major factor was the fact that he was a straight-shooter who would tell them "no." Or, "it can't be done." The executive officer's hated that. So they replaced him with a yes-man who effectively stalled all IT development for a year.
It's not a unique story - all it takes is a bit of browsing through the stories in The Daily WTF to hear a common refrain. A company executive trusts an IT director to manage things properly, and fail to recognize incompetence. Because IT is all some magical "black box" to them.
Bragging About Ignorance
What's very scary is that I hear that the executive leadership of the aforementioned company is still meeting with the I.T. department after subjecting them to insane hours to meet their demands and explaining, "I don't know anything at all about what you do..." Maybe they are just using it as an excuse, as a way of saying, "I had no idea it would be so hard for you to design, build, test, and launch a major new product with only a six-week deadline, in spite of the fact Marketing's known about this for months... We just didn't think it would be a big deal."
Now, this isn't unique to IT. Marketing is sometimes treated the same way, though most C-level company officers either come from at least a peripherally marketing background or have had some amount of marketing training as part of their education. But it does seem to me to be almost a matter of pride for some executives to claim an ignorance of all things Information Technology. Like they don't want to get their hands dirty. Or maybe it's some kind of caste-system thing they are subconsciously trying to reinforce.
Complete Ignorance Is Laziness
We live in a day and age where we have so much information available to us that the difficulty isn't in acquiring it so much as sorting through it all to find what we really want. There are "For Dummies" and "For Idiots" books out there on about every conceivable subject. There's even a "Dungeons and Dragons For Dummies" book out there! Personally, I have started listening to audio books during my commute each day, and about half of what I listen to now are non-fiction books about such things as marketing, investing, and business development. I've been reading up on art and drawing, and trying to get in some practice sketching when I can.
This is stuff I never thought I'd WANT to know about when I was starting my career as a videogame programmer! Stuff I was somewhat proud to be ignorant of! After all, all marketing people are weasels!
But the key difference was that I wasn't in a position of responsibility over people taking on these jobs, either.
Knowledge Is More Than Just Power
Now, I truly doubt that I'm ever going to excel in any of these skills. I am too focused on programming and game design. But I do have to deal with marketing people and artists in my self-appointed job as the founder of a small (Tiny? Insignificant? Microscopic?) videogame company. I have to deal with managing projects, and running a business. I don't feel I can afford to be totally ignorant of these topics anymore. I have to do some of these jobs myself to some degree or another, and I have to be able to communicate with people and understand what it is I'm asking them to do.
And, if someone who may be very good at their job tells me "no," or "it can't be done," I'd like to know enough about what it is that they do that I may be able to come up with alternatives - ask them the RIGHT questions - so I can take advantage of their skill and talent. I have no interest in surrounding myself with people who will only tell me what I want to hear, and then fail to deliver on promises.
One other thing that I have discovered is that my appreciation of the skills in people in these formerly-magical disciplines has actually INCREASED as I have learned more about what it is that they do. And I certainly hope that I'm learning enough to help me spot the bozos.
Ignorance Is Bliss?
Why can't a company executive take this same approach with IT? Is it fear? Are they afraid that they will no longer be allowed to ask for miracles when they begin to understand the true limitations of information systems technology? Is ignorance truly such bliss?
Only for the fearful. Yeah, there are a lot of tasks that are pretty daunting once you understand them. However, I'd have much more trust for a leader who knows the challenges and decides to tackle them anyway than a leader who simply throws around marching orders out of cluelessness.
Now, while this has mainly been a rant against managers who voluntarily remain ignorant of IT in spite of having a responsibility over it. But there are many other applications. How many times in your life are you required to work with or rely upon someone with specialized knowledge that you don't possess? Doctors, lawyers, building contractors, auto mechanics, whatever. What are the consequences if your reliance is misplaced? Is it worth it to remain in ignorance?
While there's no way you can approach their level of training without a similar investment in time, it's usually pretty easy to do some basic research on your own to double-check their advice. I've found that professionals - at least the good ones - really don't mind you doing that. In fact, they value it - it will often validate their opinion or at least ease communication.
It's usually only the incompetent ones who value your ignorance.
Utah Indie Developer Night, Fall 2006
The Utah Indie Game Developers met again on Thursday night, October 19th. It was more games, more pizza, and more PEOPLE than ever. Greg's last count was 39, but we may have missed a couple of folks. Alas, there were a lot of people from previous meetings who didn't make it this time, and I missed seeing them this time. But there were many new and familiar faces, and it was good to spend time chatting with as many of them as I could.
ITT Tech Students
Once again, we had a lot of students from ITT Tech who were in the multimedia or game design programs. One thing I have to admit that these "game development trade schools" are doing right is focusing on COMPLETED projects. Working on small or large game projects, I've found that game development often runs into the same hurdles every single time. The larger the scope and scale of the project, the larger the hurdles, but they are usually overcome by exactly the same methods. I think completing small games with 9-week dev schedules really does train people to tackle much larger games.
So it was awesome to see them and see some of the projects they were working on. I saw a couple of unnamed projects - one was an old-school style RPG which had only been in development for a couple of days, and the other was a side-scroller action game where you play a dragon burning (burninating?) peasants and trees. Good stuff!
Frogs and Furniture
Some of the Headgate guys had a game (using the Flat Red Ball game engine?) in early development about moving furniture. What's so fun about that? Well, you are supposed to be a very short-handed moving company, so you have to use wild, Rube-Goldbergesque tools to somehow transport the funiture from the moving truck to the front door of the house. For the most part, all they had was a giant rubber-band type thing that was flinging couches and chairs around in very amusing ways, so it looked like a good start.
Ken Grant had a game that people just called, "The Frog Game." I don't know if it has a real name, but it's about... frog racing. Across Lilly pads. In 3D. With lots of dangers and tricks and the ability to squish other frogs by jumping on them (or the chance to get squished yourself).
Casters, Monks, and Boss Demons
Mike Smith, of Elecorn.com, was once again showing Caster. The game is looking better each time he shows it. This time, we got to see how the player can move the terrain as part of gameplay, creating land-bridges to cross terrain, or escaping monsters by growing the terrain under your feet. We also got to see the giant scorpion boss monster. This is extremely cool. I told him he MUST finish this game soon, because I want to do more battling against giant boss-monsters.
Mike Rubin was there with Vespers 3D. I couldn't see how much had changed - the game still looks absolutely beautiful. The candle flame was flickering now, and the game has a cool cinematic introduction. It looked like more of the terrain surrounding the abbey was filled in. I REALLY can't wait for this game, either. Unfortunately, Mike is really hurting for art content right now. (Oh, and Mike - if you are reading ths, Cubix Studio might be able to handle the character stuff.... I don't know why I didn't think about this while talking to you).
The Flowers brothers were there (representing Mythyn Interactive) were there showing off LinkRealms. This is another game that's REALLY looking sharp and near-complete. I watched over Herb's shoulder as he took on a boss demon (was it a demon?) with other players in the game, and it was beautiful. Fire rained from the sky as deadly spells pelted the demon, and it looked like a lot of fun. Herb later said that most of the "hack and slash" type elements were in the game already, but they were really trying to add more content for non-combat gameplay.
As you can tell from the accompanying screenshots, these games are looking pretty dang good. I think they will represent the indies quite well when they are complete. Go Utah Indies!
Other Fun Stuff
This time we had a woman circulating amongst the ranks - which caused some to pause in their explaining of what engine was powering what game and so forth. But that wasn't nearly as big a deal as the discovery that she's actually a freelance GAME REVIEWER. That caused some jaws to drop and the occasional mad scramble to find out what kinds of games she liked.
Another tidbit I picked up was that the long standing demo-scene event, Pilgrimage, looks to be over. Some of those involved would like to fill it's void with a similar event dedicated to indie gaming and indie game development. Game-in-a-day competitions, LAN party gaming, etc. If this gets off the ground, it could be a lot of fun.
As always, this was an exciting event, and I got the chance to meet a lot of cool people with a passion for game development. I was really looking forward to this all month, and it didn't dissapoint. I am already excited about the next one, which should be in January.
And Steve Taylor told me I have to "throw my hat over the fence" and commit to showing Apocalypse Cow next time. So I'm committing now. I'm going to be "udderly" humiliated if I'm not showing my game then. (Actually, I was TRYING to get it ready to show for this week, honest.... just didn't quite get there.)
Name That Game #2
No prizes this time (except for bragging rights), just a challenge for you to NAME THAT GAME!
This one feels like a softball, but maybe I'll be surprised. You need to name the game AND the name of the company that developed it.
Hint: This is a PC game. And this screenshot is taken from a point pretty early in the game.
Let's see who is a gamer geek of truly historic proportions. If you don't know, the answer may surprise you.
UPDATE: Martin Richard Strikes again, and came up with the answer via Google-fu. I guess I really shoulda blurred out the proper names in the screenshot, huh?
The game is "Journey", subtitled "The Quest Begins," by none other than Infocom, previously known for doing text-only adventures (and having an ad campaign at one point bragging about how they stuck their graphics where the sun doesn't shine - meaning inside your head).
The game was by noted Infocom designer Marc Blank, and it really did resemble something of an "interactive novel" (or the popular term today, "Interactive Fiction"). The game's prose was in past-tense, a very rare and interesting approach.
And it was sorta-kinda RPGish, though I really felt it was more of an adventure game.
I've been INTENDING to get around to finishing it for over 15 years now.
In-Game Advertising: Trend or Fad?
Dave Perry (formerly of Shiny Entertainment) has announced a Massively-Multiplayer Online games where power-leveling is accomplished by exposing yourself to marketing messages. Battlefield: 2142 (which I will NOT be buying) will be filled with in-game advertising, so you can find out about Nike shoes while you are battling battle-war-mech-bots or whatever. Play a free flash game on Popcap.com, and you will have to see a short advertisement before being allowed to play the game.
We live in an age and society where advertising is practically everywhere. It has invaded almost every medium. Cable TV once billed itself as "ad-free television," but that didn't last too long. Are games merely the next notch on the side of the advertising juggernaut? Or is this simply an inevitable experiment doomed to failure because game-playing is a fundamentally different experience from that of more passive media, and gamers won't stand for it?
I'm not a foe of advertising. As a consumer, I do like knowing about what products are available. I have subscribed to gaming magazines which focus most of their non-advertising space to let me know what's coming, and what's worth buying. And I wasn't bugged by the fact that 50% of the magazine I paid for was filled with ads. My wife looks forward to seeing the previews when going to a movie (sometimes the previews are better than the movie we paid to see). And I enjoy getting "free" stuff (like playing free games at Popcap, or listening to the radio) realizing that it's advertising-sponsored. I'm okay with all that.
And as a maker and seller of games, I'm all for advertising. I have some ads placed on this blog to help pay for bandwidth (I can't say how much I make on them, but let's just say a 12-year-old could do better by babysitting...) The free game downloads are, of course, a form of advertising the full versions. And I do plug the products available at RampantGames.com from time to time. Although I also plug other games & tools, too... just because I'm that way. If I find something I like, I like to tell people about it in case they'll like it, too.
But being subjected to advertising while you are playing a game? Is it good or bad? Will it last? Will gamers stand for it? Will they have a choice?
I think most gamers are not opposed to in-game advertising if they can readily perceive the value they are getting from it. Especially if they are getting to play the game for free.
In our Jet Moto and Snowmobile Racing games, we actively sought out real-world sponsors not just for cross-promotional value, but also to give the games some credibility and ground them in the real-world. It was a weird situation - because advertising is so pervasive in our culture, the racing game felt like it was MISSING if there wasn't advertising for sponsors placed all over the tracks. I don't think money ever changed hands, though I did get a free Butterfinger candybar out of the deal. And Butterfinger candybars ran a little promotion on the side of the wrapper promoting our videogame. That was cool.
In the case of downloadable games, I don't get too annoyed seeing a splash-screen advertising the full version or other games available from the same site. I expect it. Just like I don't dislike previews of coming movies when I go to a movie theater. In fact, we often look forward to it. It's not been unheard of for some (weird) people to go to a movie just to see the new preview of a highly anticipated film (sometimes leaving after the previews, as happened with the previews of the second Star Wars trilogy).
I think consumer tolerance will only go so far, if given a choice in the matter. And one thing technology has provided us is PLENTY of choice.
For one thing, gamers MAY balk at being subjected to ads that detract from the immersive experience that makes many games so popular. If I'm walking down a dungeon corridor and encounter a troll carrying a bag of Doritos and wearing Adidas sneakers, I'm not going to be very pleased with the game (unless the game is SUPPOSED to be funny). But if I'm playing a sports game or a modern-day urban game (Like GTA), I won't bat an eyelash. Maybe on some level I'm going to be a little annoyed at being treated like a walking wallet, but it may not influence my purchase decision for the game.
It's all about whether the advertising comes with a perceived gain to the consumer, or a perceived loss. Maybe consumers were willing to put up with commercials on cable TV - because they were already used to it on network television. This probably won't be the case with games. Perry thinks he can get away with it in an MMO because the advertising DOES come with a consumer benefit, in the form of increased power in the game. And, if I understand it correctly, a game that can be played for free. There's a benefit. People may put up with it.
Battlefield 2042? It may sell because of the name. The ads may ONLY appear in loading screens. But I expect a bit of consumer lashback. Especially if they think it makes their game load EVEN SLOWER.
Now here's another thing. Company A specializes in medieval fantasy games, where in-game advertising just won't work. But Company B specializes in modern-day action titles where such things WILL work. Both games sell a million copies, but Company B ends up being 50% more profitable because of the in-game ads.
So will that influence developers to quit making medieval fantasy or sci-fi titles, and focus on games where they can get away with in-game advertising? I'm going to be pissed if my beloved fantasy RPGs become even more rare because publishers are trying to chase more money with advertising.
So - fad or trend? Are consumers going to rebel, quit playing games entirely? Not likely. So are they just going to roll over and pay for the privelege of being treated like a wallet with legs? Also unlikely.
I think that some form of advertising with games is going to always be with us. There'll be ad-supported free games with us for as long as cheapskates like me are playing games. There'll be advertising dumped in the box for as long as people are buying games in boxes (which I actually don't think will last many more years), and there'll be some advertising included with many game installs. There may be low-key advertising - even the in-game ads like we're starting to see now - for some time.
But I don't think ubiquitous in-game advertising is going to "catch on." Not as long as there are alternatives. Why not?
Television executives - cable and network - have been complaining that fewer people have been tuning in to watch TV the last couple of years. TV viewing has been dropping across the board in the U.S. Video games get some of the blame - and that's probably fair (that's one thing I'm proud to have games take the rap for!) There are probably many causes. But here's one more:
People are choosing to watch television without advertising. Choices are becoming available. The whole broadcast flag flap is about people choosing to watch broadcast TV while skipping the commercials using new technology. Me? I've taken to watching television shows a season or two LATE, getting them on DVD from Netflix. Sometimes purchasing the series outright. The delay and the price is worth it to me. I didn't mind seeing the first season of 24 only this last year... because I saved myself about 8 hours of advertising I'd have otherwise had to sit through by watching it on DVD.
Unless the advertising provides a clear advantage to the consumer, it won't matter how much the developer or publisher talks about how they could afford so much more quality only because of the advertising subsidy. The consumer won't feel that advantage - all they'll know is that they are being subjected to advertising in a game, and they'll know that THEY DON'T HAVE TO BE. If that detracts from the gaming experience at all, they'll vote with their wallets and walk.
Avoiding Target Fixation: How NinjaBee Got It Right
This is a follow-up to yesterday's post about watching companies flounder due to "too much focus" --- or turning focus into tunnel vision or "target fixation." They were so focused on maintaining a particular business or image or impression that they missed opportunities, or fell prey to unseen dangers and changes in the marketplace.
I'm not a negative guy, so I like ending on a positive note. So here's a counterpoint about someone who sidestepped those pitfalls. Again, I'm not a business guru - I just call 'em as I see 'em and try to guess at the causality.
As I have noted in the past, I'm currently working for NinjaBee as the day job. Rampant Games is my side business. We've got a good partnership going on, and have worked together in the past. There was a good reason I accepted the offer to come work for them this last spring. So you can expect some level of bias.
From Wahoo To NinjaBee
When I first met with Wahoo studios almost three years ago to talk with them about indie games, they were mainly a "guns for hire" independent studio, living from contract to contract from various publishers or other studios. Sometimes they did full games, sometimes they were subcontracted to do artwork or level design. They had years of experience doing console games, and a few PC titles. But none doing downloadable games.
They had an original title that they'd created at their own expense which they had tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for. This was the game that became Outpost Kaloki. It was nearly complete on the PC, but it was really designed for consoles. They had shown it to several publishers, but none had taken enough interest in the game to pick it up. It was too non-violent, maybe. By the time I was introduced to them, they had given up on finding a publisher for the game, and were just seeking some way to get some of their money back out of it. So they were considering the indie route. Because I knew MARGINALLY more than they did about the indie games industry and market, they asked me for some advice. I pretty much gave them a brain dump of what I knew.
One thing they were concerned about was dilluting their reputation as a studio by releasing this game as a downloadable title. Steve Taylor argued with me about how a game doesn't seem "real" until you can see it in a box at Wal*Mart or GameStop. (He has since changed his tune completely, a point I rib him about a bit). They had a good reputation with publishers, and he was concerned that "going indie" might hurt that somehow. So they created a new company name (more of a brand name) for their downloadable game business: NinjaBee. I argued it wasn't necessary, but I did love the name. And their totally awesome mascott / logo. (Getting a free NinjaBee shirt was probably the deal-maker for me...)
Outpost Kaloki Releases
A major casual games portal picked up their title, and they celebrated. Between that, and setting up their own website (and my own), they felt that they were done. Again, thinking of the traditional model, with the casual portal acting the part of the publisher. This portal was even working out the deals to get it onto other portals, sort of an affiliate relationship between all the major portals. They did have another version of the game re-branded for retail sale with a small, local distributer, which helped them further recoup their development costs. They waited for the checks to roll in.
The first royalty check from the portal was dissapointing. Not horrible from the perspective of a first-time indie developer - but for a company used to dealing with retail sales with a minimum of tens of thousands of sales, it was pretty sad. It was bad enough that Steve Taylor wrote an article at GarageGames expressing his frustration with the downloadable games market.
Things Pick Up
But that wasn't the end of the story.
Outpost Kaloki won "Sim Game of the Year" by the Indie-gaming review site, "Game Tunnel". This story was picked up by Slashdot, and led to a significant spike in downloads - and sales. Some targeted advertising helped extend this spike to a more regular flow of traffic.
Outpost Kaloki was also picked up by another, smaller (but popular) portal. This portal's owner took the time out to give them suggestions on how to improve their demo to increase sales. The updated version of Outpost Kaloki sold much better on this second portal - partly because of the improved demo, and partly because the portal's audience was less "casual" and therefore better targeted for a 3D "tycoon" game with a comic science-fiction theme.
This alone wasn't enough to make Outpost Kaloki a success. The PC game continues to sell, but depending upon how you calculate its development costs, it may take a long time to become "profitable."
But things continued to get interesting.
For one thing, the award won by Outpost Kaloki didn't go unnoticed by publishers. Wahoo Studios began getting contacted by publishers interested in working with them on new projects. Curiously enough, many of these contacts were for "NinjaBee" rather than "Wahoo." Apparently having an award-winning indie PC game didn't do much to sully their image with publishers. As a marketing / PR effort, it paid off in spades.
But it got even better.
The most exciting opportunity became apparent at GDC 2005, when Wahoo had a meeting with the XBox 360 LiveArcade folks. At this point, nobody - not even Microsoft - had any idea how successful LiveArcade would be, and Microsoft actually had to work to line up developers. Even so, they were being pretty selective. What NinjaBee had to offer, besides years of experience in console development, was a complete, award-winning downloadable game that was already selling in one market --- an intellectual property that they owned and controlled. They knew they could not only bring the title to the XBox 360, but update and customize the game to make it really take advantage of the platform - including free and premium content upgrades.
On top of that, they'd be a launch title for the XBox 360, and about the only strategy title on LiveArcade at launch.
Outpost Kaloki X was a big success on the XBox 360. The game had found its audience at last. NinjaBee was able to follow up with Cloning Clyde, which also sounds like it has been a major success.
Focus Shouldn't Be Target Fixation
In a conversation I had with Steve a few months ago (before Cloning Clyde was released), he admitted that he'd be perfectly happy doing small, downloadable games for the rest of his career. But the release of Outpost Kaloki has actually helped what he previously considered Wahoo's "core" business - contract work for publishers. The company recently had to move to a larger office to accomodate its growth, and has had to turn down contract offers to keep its workload and quality manageable.
But Wahoo studios remains committed to the lower-cost downloadable games market with their NinjaBee "brand." They've enjoyed far too much success with Outpost Kaloki and Cloning Clyde to turn back now. What could have been considered a mere distraction has turned into a thriving business.
Contrast this with my story from yesterday.
Which company do you think I'd rather be associated with?
Nintendo started out manufacturing Japanese playing cards,and had been doing that for decades before diverting their attention to electronic entertainment. I'm sure they had to do some hard thinking about whether or not it was a good way to broaden their focus at the time. But even though they are not quite as powerful as they were in the early 90's, I still expect they wouldn't have been nearly as successful (or even still in business) if they'd refused to budge from the Japanese playing card market.
Focus is important in anything you do. Distractions can be dangerous across the board. But there's a point in which focus can lead to target fixation - something that can be lethal when biking or in combat. It's the point in which the brain becomes so focused on a single thing that it ignores real threats (or opportunities) around it. From my experience, I feel it can be pretty dangerous in personal life or in business as well.
How Focus Can Ruin Your Business
I've had the dubious fortune of getting a ringside seat in a few failed businesses. I don't claim to be any kind of business guru - not by a longshot. But as the owner of a (very) small business right now, I'm trying to learn all I can, particularly from other people's mistakes. With luck, I can learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes. And of course, I've been reading books and websites with "how to" information.
But sometimes the right advice applied in the wrong circumstances can be devastating. Like having focus. Focus is usually a good thing, but only if you are focusing on the right thing - and only if your focus doesn't turn into blinders that hide opportunity from your view.
Sixty To Zero in Two Months
Now, this story is going to be told from a mouse-eyed view. Maybe I have some details wrong. I undoubtably don't understand "the big picture" at the time. Maybe it was all inevitable. But that doesn't stop me from trying to make sense of the fiasco.
I was hired a few years ago as a programmer specifically for a particular project that was nearly a "done deal." The contract was worth a million dollars to the company, which was still small enough that a million dollars was a pretty significant amount of money. We had a month to generate a proof of concept (which exceeded our own needs and expectations, though we were cautioned not to reveal how far we really were along to the client lest they think it was easy). We submitted patent applications (I know, I still feel the shame). We had to draw up a series of business proposals explaining to our executive officers and the board of directors how we could continue to profit from this line of business, and how it nicely fit into our "core" business and would continue to feed & grow that side.
In the meantime, our board of directors had hired a new company president, a Hahvard man with a pedigree and a long list of contacts. He wore a perpetual grin, had bright eyes, and wore cowboy boots with his three-piece suit. The IT department (and some others) called him "Face" and "Captain Charisma" behind his back. He was hired for his contacts and, as far as I could tell, how good he looked on the executive officers page of our website to prospective investors. Since our investors really, really wanted to sell us for big bucks.
The demos and meetings with the prospective client went really well. The contract and check for a million bucks were all but signed. Then the new president shot the deal in the head. "It's not our core competency," he explained. "It would dillute our image. It's bad money." He referenced a couple of books that backed up his position. The deal died. Our potential client took their million dollars and went somewhere else.
A few months later, I sat in the foyer of the county courthouse, watching as the remaining assets of this company were bought at auction to the only bidder for a grand total of something like $20,000. Alas, that sum didn't take care of the back-pay I was owed from trying and keep the company afloat during the last painful months. Captain Charisma had long since abandoned ship. I don't know if the million-dollar contract (and the potential business that would have brought in afterwards) would have staved off the wolf indefinitely, but apparently our "core competency" hadn't been enough to keep food on the table in the recession / depression of 2001.
In fact, it was only about two months from the killing of the deal until management (secretly) skipped a paycheck so that payroll could go through for the employees during the Christmas season. The first of the layoffs would occur in February. Man, a million dollars might have been kinda cool right about then.
What Went Wrong
Dilluting an image (or a brand) is an important factor. You don't want to spread your image too thin. But that assumes you actually have a BRAND. From what I have heard, Bioware was originally formed to create software for medical systems. Now they are one of the strongest PC game brands out there, probably second only to Blizzard (and Blizzard is fast becoming little more than "The World of Warcraft Company."). In our case, we didn't have much of a brand to begin with - we were known to a few companies in our space, and I really don't think showing some expertise in a closely related space would have done anything but helped our brand / image.
Our core competency was a signficant factor. But it goes along with the "bad money" idea. As far as I understand it, "Bad Money" is income valued less than it's opportunity cost. In other words, if we could have been making 2 million dollars with the same staff required to complete this million-dollar project. But if we'd made anything even resembling that kind of money with that staff, I wouldn't have had to sit on the courthouse steps less than a year later.
What it really came down to, I think, was fear, and of management goals being focused on a different goal. Our board of directors was really only interested in up-selling us to a larger set of investors. Our executive officers were obsessed with demonstrating that we were generating "traction" in our core market - presenting an image to prospective buyers. In their minds, stooping to pursue any kind of "distraction" outside of our core (but weakening) market would perhaps have been a sign of weakness. Their top priority was selling us off to some other sucker, I guess, so we could become THEIR problem.
But it didn't work that way. While we weren't a dot-com, when the bubble burst, it took a lot of investors with it. Including the ones the board of directors were looking to sell us to. The ol' trick of putting lipstick on the pig wasn't going to work. The obsession with image didn't pay off.
Applied To Game Development
I do see some indie game developers out there who deliberately blind themselves to all the opportunities out there. I can't second-guess their motives, but I wonder if that same obsession with image is what holds them back.
In some cases, I see indie developers so desperate to appear as "real" game developers, and they restrict their efforts almost exclusively to traditional practices in the brick-and-mortar industry - trying to get that boxed deal. Maybe they are afraid that they will reduce the possibility of being taken seriously by a publisher if they do the "shareware" thing. Nevermind that two of the biggest "shareware" developers of the early 90's are now two of the top independent studios for producing mainstream first-person shooters.
I also see indie studios stuck in some kind of rut trying to repeat the success of indie developers in the late 90's, or focusing exclusively on cranking out casual games for the big portals. I don't know if this is an "image" problem, or just getting so focused on one goal that they wear blinders to everything else. I know it's easy for me to get into the same mode.
The box may stink, but it can get awfully comfortable to stay inside, sometimes.
Well, there's my latest bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Later (probably tomorrow), I'm gonna pimp my current employer a bit as a bit of a counterpoint to this article. And hopefully not get myself fired in the process. But while they originally took the same kind of attitude, they have since discovered enough opportunity to allow them more growth in the last two years than they'd ever experienced in their entire history. I'm gonna call that a good thing.
How To Freak Out A Tour Guide
Last night - which happened to be Friday the 13th - my wife and I went on a "ghost tour" of Salt Lake City. The bus took us to several of the haunted sites in the city, and the tour guide - a local storyteller - told accounts gathered from first- and second-hand reports of hauntings and "supernatural activity" from these sites they'd gathered during the years.
The tour guide told us in the beginning that if she actually spotted a ghost, she'd notify us by a very clear signal - and then did her best rendition of a bloodcurdling scream. Then she let us know what an incredible coward she was. At one point, she told the story of her own first-hand ghostly encounter, following her young son up to the kitchen of one of Utah's haunted locations. The creepy feeling she experienced was followed by the sound of footsteps approaching through the kitchen. In one of her least-proud moments, she turned and fled in terror, completely abandoning her son to whatever haunt had come to make its presence known. It was also clear as she was telling some of the stories that they gave her the willies as she told them.
Unfortunately, when we got off the bus at the Salt Lake Cemetary where "Emo's Ghost" reputedly haunts, we discovered what happens in the rare year when Friday the 13th hits in an October. The place was PACKED with teenagers all trying to summon Emo's Ghost, freaking each other out, and screaming. Not that I really blame 'em. I mean - it's Friday the 13th! Sounds like a good idea to me. I doubt the neighbors near the cemetary would have shared my view (especially as I imagine things got more active closer to midnight...), but ah, well.
The most entertainment of the night came when we stopped off the bus at Fort Douglas. Fort Douglas is supposed to be haunted by Clem the ghost. Nobody is really sure who Clem is supposed to be, but they say he wears a civil-war era uniform and is often found at his old post outside the main door to the museum. Or leaning on the tanks or helicopter on display in the back. The tour guide told us many, many stories about Clem.
We wandered around the museum front for a few minutes in the dark, experiencing no sign whatsoever of ghostly disturbance (well, at least I didn't). Then a man came up to a couple of us, with a young girl in tow, asking about the tour. Interestingly enough, he was wearing a civil-war era hat and a plain brown button-up shirt. We explained that it was a ghost tour, and he expressed interest, as he'd been on a similar one at Gettysburg. Evidently a civil war enthusiast. He asked for more information, so we took him over to the tour guide.
Well, the tour guide had been freaking herself out with her own stories the whole evening. And here everyone was looking to catch a glimpse of Clem, the civil war ghost. Then this stranger - not a member of the tour group - wearing a civil-war hat approaches her.
The look of shock and horror on her face was priceless as she performed one of the most dramatic double-takes I've ever seen. In fact, if it was actually a dramatic performance, I'm sure critics would have panned it as being "overacted" and "unbelievable." Her eyes widened, her mouth quivered as it seemed to alternate between deciding whether to whimper, scream, cry, or answer the man's "Excuse me?" Eventually, with our prompting, she settled within two or three seconds on the latter, and provided him with a flyer and the information he wanted.
As we got back on the bus and started driving away from the site, she sheepishly said, "Okay, I hope you all had a good laugh at my expense. I warned you I was a coward." Then she explained what happened to everyone. I imagine that story will find its way into her future tour sessions.
We ended the tour where we'd started, at the historical Rio Grande Depot. We'd started the tour with the story of the "Purple Lady" who, according to the story, went to meet her fiance as he returned from World War II. Apparently, their meeting wasn't joyous, and it ended in an argument. She returned the ring, and he threw it down onto the tracks. As the story goes, she jumped down to retrieve it, and was struck by a train and killed.
As we left the tour, the guide added a new twist. The Utah Ghost Organization, another Ghost Hunting Group, recorded an EVP during their investigation of the Depot a few years ago that sounded suspiciously like a woman saying, "My boyfriend pushed me."
Happy Halloween folks!
Jack Thompson: PWNED!
So Wacky Jacky Thompson had his "major coup" in court, when the judge ordered Take 2 to present the game to him and let him actually PLAY the videogame before deciding whether or not it should be banned in the state of Florida as a public nuisance. After only two hours of play, with some cheat codes provided by the publisher, he reached his verdict.
Quote from Niero over at Destructoid.com:
The quick-and-dirty rundown here:
The judge said “There’s nothing in the game that you wouldn’t see on TV every night,” and that he “wouldn’t want his kids to play the game, but that shouldn’t mean that the game won’t ship.”
A more complete version is being live-blogged at this very moment:
"Ship It, WalMart - Bully Is No Worse Than What You See on TV Every Night."
Many thanks to GamePolitics.com for keeping everyone up-to-date on this interesting event.
UPDATE: Jack Thompson Calls Judge's Actions "Childish" and "Spiteful"
Oh, man, oh, man, oh, man. THANK YOU JACK THOMPSON! Not only is this guy worth his weight in gold to Take-Two marketing, but I find it hard to believe that these antics do anything but harm his position. But they keep putting cameras and microphones in his face, so maybe they don't.
Also, this came in this morning from VideoGameVoters.com, who has asked this to get posted on various gaming blogs :
So I guess we're now 10-and-0, if you include this afternoon's victory against Jack Thompson's attempt to get Bully banned. Nice winning streak, though I fear what will happen if we can't keep a perfect score.In a ruling issued October 11, 2006, Judge Robin J. Cauthron, US District Judge,
Western District of Oklahoma, handed down a preliminary injunction halting the
implementation of Oklahoma's law which prohibits the sale of video games depicting
"inappropriate" violence to minors. In the decision, the Court stated that
plaintiffs presented strong arguments that the Act contains unconstitutional
content-based restrictions and that the Act's language is unconstitutionally vague.
"This marks the ninth Court decision in the past five years to enjoin restrictions
on video games," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the ESA, the trade group
representing U.S. computer and video game publishers. "We're grateful for the
preliminary injunction and look forward to prevailing in the effort to permanently
strike down the law."
Judge Robin J. Cauthron, US District Judge, Western District of Oklahoma also
stated, "It was apparent that Plaintiffs [video game advocates] are substantially
likely to prevail in this case even if the Act is subjected to a lower level of
You know what would be awesome? If the politicians wanting some election-year "family values" points and ambulance-chaser lawyers looking for a big class-action score would just shut up and let us play.
New Game: Empires And Dungeons
Wednesday night I discovered "Empires and Dungeons," a new game by Niels Bauer. I was curious about this game because, like Styrateg, it's a hybrid Roleplaying / Strategy Game.
While technically both are strategy / RPG hybrids, the two games are very, very different. Styrateg plays more like a wargame, and Empires & Dungeons plays more like a board game. If you've ever played board games with RPG elements, you'll know what I'm talking about. Talisman, Dungeon, Arkham Horror, Warlock on Firetop Mountain, The Chill Boardgame, and Munchkin - yeah so it's a card game - are ones that I have played that come to mind.
What I enjoyed about Empires and Dungeons is that a big part of the game is going dungeon-delving. You leave your army behind, and it's your hero alone in a randomly generated dungeon. Dungeons are the best source of treasure in the game, which you need to buy expansions to your castle and additional troops. In addition, it's the only way to gain experience levels. Your hero's experience levels give your entire army a combat bonus in battle. It's also important when taking on an enemy castle, as you will have to face your rival lord on top of the castle walls in single combat. The magic items you find in the dungeons will also help in this respect. Dungeons are also a great source of "honor," an extra resource that you'll need to recruit knights and do other actions in the game. Finally, quest items (such as the dragon eggs in the demo mission) may only be found in dungeons.
Outside of the dungeons, you may be chasing resources around the landscape, visiting special "event" sites (such as a wizard who will cast a curse on your enemies if you will provide him with lots of gold and a voodoo doll that you found in a dungeon - but it also comes with a major hit to your honor). There are merchants to deal with, cities to be conquered and taxed (or burned to the ground, if you are feeling particularly malicious), and quests to be completed.
The strategy element isn't particularly challenging - in true RPG fashion, you can always just level up and accumulate more STUFF to take on the bigger challenges. But your rivals lords are doing the same.
An entire campaign (the full game comes with twelve) can be played in well under an hour, once you know what you are doing. It's very replayable. The easiest difficulty level (the only one available in the demo) is perhaps a little bit more challenging than I'd expect, though it was still easy enough for me to win my first game. Barely.
Anyway, it's a fun little game. You can download the free demo here:
Empires and Dungeons
The Dread Gazebo
I think there are maybe two folks who haven't heard this already. It's supposed to be a true story. I choose to believe it is. And it's a big part of the folklore of "dice and paper" RPGs...
Eric and the Dread Gazebo
It's a classic tale of ignorance, misunderstanding, and of course complete humiliation.
As I've mentioned, I do have an RPG design in the works (once I finish that ^%$@^$ Cow Game!) In my tradition of including "in-jokes" in my games, I may have to include a dread gazebo. Perhaps not as a monster, but at least as a reference...
Aveyond Music Pack
I was checking my stats for the last couple of months, and I found that only about 1 in 8 people who download the fantasy RPG Aveyond also download the free music pack that goes with it.
The music pack works just fine with the demo. I promise! :)
Okay, there's an ulterior motive at work, here. The music to Aveyond is pretty high quality - especially the intro music during the opening credits. It's really sweeping and epic-sounding without being overblown or overly dramatic. Quite appropriate for a game that starts with a village farm-girl who is about to get sucked into world-shattering events. In fact, I've heard from some people who said that the opening credits with the soundtrack was what got them hooked on the game from the outset.
Since I know how addictive the game can be, I wish to encourage that all I can. More free music packs getting downloaded could equal more sales or something like that. After all, it's only bandwidth, and this insignificant little website doesn't come close to consuming all it can. And maybe more sales will help pay for that unused bandwidth or something. So if you've downloaded Aveyond but not the music pack, please feel free to do so.
You can download the music pack by clicking on this link.
If you haven't downloaded either, well, I really suck at marketing. But you guys already knew that. But you can check out the Aveyond page by clicking on the link below:
Aveyond: Almost Certainly 2006's Indie RPG of the Year
(Not only because it rocks, but because there were so few indie RPGs that came out this year. And I'm not helping that any! I'm such a slacker!)
Happiness is: The Guitar Hero 2 Demo
I don't normally get Playstation Magazine, but this evening on the way home from work I had to snag a copy, due to the featured Guitar Hero 2 demo.
YYZ, You Really Got Me (the Van Halen-sounding version), Shout At the Devil, and Strutter.
My hand is cramped right now from an hour of pretending I was Alex Lifeson, Mick Mars, and Eddie Van Halen. If I really wanted to pretend I was in KISS, I'd go for the late 80's / early 90's version, without all the glitter, platform shoes, and clown makeup. In fact, that goes the same for Motley Crue - those guys were pretty freaky-looking in the early 80's. (I wonder if they ever look back at their second album cover and say, "Dang, we looked freaky." Or maybe they look at it and say, "Dang, we were pretty girls." But I digress.)
But whichever era I was rocking out it, it doesn't matter. The audience held the lighter up for me as I aced all the medium-difficulty songs with 5 stars on the second try (first try on Strutter, and I don't even know that song very well). Then I went up to "Hard" mode, and YYZ kept handing me my butt. But I managed to nail the 3-fret chords on You Really Got Me on my first try, so I felt pretty good about that. Well, most of me was feeling pretty good about it, except my cramped left hand. But that was okay.
As far as I can tell, Harmonix didn't screw with the formula. At least in single-player, quick-play mode, it may as well be Guitar Hero I, but with cooler special effects. And 3-fret chords. Which suits me just fine.
I am VERY anxious for this game, can you tell?
By the way, 1Up has published the "official" list of the 40 licensed songs for Guitar Hero 2 (40 out of "over 55"). I'm guessing the remaining 16+ songs are indie bands. Besides the ones appearing on this demo (I would have been thrilled with just YYZ), the songs I'm most looking forward to are "Carry On Wayward Son," "Message In A Bottle," "Misirlou" (after seeing the video of this song in action), "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Crazy On You," "Rock This Town," and "Hangar 18" (Just for the relentless solos!)
Labels: Mainstream Games
The Most Important CRPGs of All Time
Gamasutra has a new article for the "Quantum Leap" awards for RPGs. Sadly, the votes for the Ultima games were spread among so many titles (principally 4-7, Ultima Underworld 2, and Ultima Online) that the entire series became an "honorable mention" rather than one of the top 5.
According to the poll, the Console and Computer RPGs that most defined or advanced the genre are:
#1 - Fallout
#2 - Planescape: Torment
#3 - Oblivion
#4 - Deus Ex
#5 - Chrono Trigger
Honorable mentions included Dragon Warrior, the entire Ultima series, EverQuest, Baldur's Gate II, Final Fantasy IV (FF2 in the US), and Neverwinter Nights.
I don't have many arguments against that list. I tried to play Deus Ex about three times and it just couldn't hold my attention. I really wanted to love it. But I can't argue against it's innovation.
Baldur's Gate II is definitely one of my all-time favorite RPGs, but I would argue that certain games (like the Wizardry series, specifically the first and 7th) were more influential on the genre. If nothing else, Baldur's Gate I was proof to the computer games industry that the RPG genre was indeed alive and kicking, when the prevailing attitude was that RPGs were dead and that Diablo was a fluke.
Speaking of Diablo, I am surprised isn't on the list. While I loved Diablo and Diablo 2, I am fairly annoyed at how much influence they've had on the genre. Point and click battles are fine and all for some games, but I hate seeing so much of the genre reduced to that. But Diablo added multiplayer dungeon-deliving, persistant characters (not worlds, just characters), rogue-style gameplay with nearly infinite varieties of dungeons and equipment, and a shot-in-the-arm in the way of simple action to push the genre in new directions.
Here's hoping that in future years some indie computer RPGs will make the list...
DM of the Rings
The whole "DM of the Rings" series over at Shamus Young's Twenty-Sided is pretty funny --- it's sort of a juxtaposition of what the Lord of the Rings series would have been like as a D&D game. If you aren't a "Pen and Paper" gamer, you probably won't get it.
But this one is my favorite so far - what happens when your players start quoting "Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail" in the middle of a game:
Labels: Roleplaying Games
Guitar Hero 2 Video - Misirlou
Okay, so here's what playing the Dick Dale song, "Misirlou" in Guitar Hero II on "Hard" will be like:
Okay, so it may be a LONG time before I ever finish it on Hard. But dang, it looks like fun trying, huh? I can't wait for this game.
Ghost Hunting 101
The other night, my wife and I attended a "Ghost Hunting 101" seminar held at the public library by members of a ghost-hunting group called "Haunted Utah". I guess it was being held in the spirit of the month of Halloween. It was a class on techniques employed by ghost-hunters (at least the more scientifically minded ones) to explore paranormal phenomena associated with "hauntings."
It seemed most of the people there had some little ghost story from their own life or from a friend / family member, and they were interested in consulting with experts. My wife and I were there mainly to pick up some background information. My wife is a professional storyteller with a fondness for ghost stories, and I've actually had a horror game concept on the back-burner for a couple of years and felt I could also use some additional background information. Plus it just sounded like a fun date.
It didn't dissapoint.
How To Hunt Ghosts
The session was informative, though it didn't provide much more information than you could pick up by watching a couple of hours of "Ghost Hunters" on SciFi. But the two ladies, Tiffany and Marie, were extremely candid and shared a lot of their opinions and observations. They explained EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena, in great detail, as well as ghost photography. They shared a few of their experiences. Tiffany is a self-admitted scaredy-cat who gets frightened half-to-death on nearly every investigation (though she claims she isn't bothered at all by horror movies).
Really, their techniques aren't much different from that of the guys on "Ghost Hunters," but they did provide some interesting tidbits I put into my notes. They explained how most of ghost-hunting is tedious work and meticulous attention to detail (especially taking notes on what's happening, so you avoid false positives). They talked a bit about identifying "real" orbs from things like dust or rain particles in photographs. Likewise, they talked about how easy it is to misclassify mist or vortex phenomena (the latter is most frequently a hair close to the camera lens).
They detailed the kinds of equipment you should bring to go ghost-hunting. Apparently, they've not noticed a significant difference between using higher-end and cheaper tape recorders or cameras. They prefer analog equipment over digital purely for the sake of providing evidence. Digital may be of higher quality, but digital originals can be easily faked.
They shared their own war stories of all the things that can go wrong in an investigation. Tiffany had some scars from trying to find a remote graveyard and getting lost in the woods after dark. Marie nearly fell through a floor on one occasion. They've both accidentally left the tape recorder on "pause" for an extended period of time trying to collect EVPs.
Some tidbits we picked up:
* They get EVP's on only about 20% of their investigations. "Orb Phenomena" in photographs is fairly common, occuring on about 80% of their investigations - to the point where Tiffany said, "You get bored with orbs." But the other photographic phenomena is extremely rare.
* Results tend to be better during certain times of the year. Fall is the best season. Marie blamed this on the cyclical nature of the Earth's magnetic field. Time of day is less important, though they tend to do their investigations between 9 and midnight.
* Batteries tend to lose power on investigations. In fact, they'll often go dead during the investigation, but will work fine afterwards. They advise bringing far more batteries than you think you'll need. Marie speculated that "ghosts" draw energy from the environment - also explaining the existance of things like "cold spots" (though I think I remember them saying they'd never experienced one themselves).
* Hauntings aren't limited to areas where tragic deaths occured, but rather any place where strong emotions were experienced. Theaters and public schools are apparently ripe places for hauntings.
* One of the "most haunted" places in Utah is the Capitol Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. I've been there a couple of times to see shows. Anyway, it was the site of their "best" ghost story - as they were conducting an investigation, asking questions of whatever entity was there, they clearly heard a voice in an EPV shout, "GET OUT!" They didn't hear the voice during the investigation, however.
* And no, they don't get paid for investigations - in fact, a few places want to charge them by the hour to be there. So it's not exactly a lucrative career.
* They are also not "House Cleaners," which is the term used for the more "Ghostbuster" types that get rid of ghosts. These are often clergy / shaman / psychic types.
Anyway, it was quite the interesting night! Very fun and informative.
Do I believe in it? I don't know. I'm a religious guy, and I've seen way too much in my life to summarily dismiss anything. And some of the EVPs on the Net, if they are legit, are pretty compelling. The orbs - not so much, they look too much like non-orb dust particles to me.
I don't know if any of what we learned will be of any use to me as part of an upcoming game design, but an awful lot of research that goes into game design never actually makes it into the final game.
The Rabid Paladin just posted an article entitled "Arrogant Software," about software (well, software DEVELOPERS, really) who assume that because you are installing their software, they have the right to treat your computer as their bitch. Crude analogy, but too apropos.
Real Networks is one such software developer. I used to be a big fan (back in the 90's), but I have refused to install their software on any of my new machines because of the problems mentioned in RP's article. After one incident where I lost an entire day trying to recover my machine after two pieces of spyware / adware decided to use my machine as a battlefield (catching me in the crossfire), I became really paranoid about any processes running that I didn't recognize. I remember having to check on Realsched.exe a couple of times AFTER I thought I had disabled Real from running on startup. If I'm not running the program, why should it have a process always checking for updates? Can't it wait until I try to start the program, like MOST good software?
I was even more amused (but not in a good way) when I took a job in the digital security business. How much was this behavior similar to that of a Trojan? A theoretically benevolent Trojan, but still - it was running stuff without my knowledge or approval. And since automatic updates CAN be vectors for worms, there always exists the possibility of it turning malignant.
(No, this thought doesn't keep me up at night - the one thing I really carried with me from my work in that industry was just how impossible security really was, and that the only way to truly eliminate risk was to unplug your computer from the Internet completely, and write your own software. Otherwise, you just learn how to minimize risk and live with it).
Anyway, it's a good rant. And I always like a good rant.
Game For the Weekend: Styrateg
Looking for something fun to do over the weekend? Styrateg is a fantasy strategy / roleplaying game hybrid game from Rake In The Grass, and a winner of a Silver Award for last month at GameTunnel.com. As I've recently gotten into the D&D Miniatures game, I found the gameplay familiar and enjoyable (though it uses its own, simplified rule system). Styrateg is a game of amassing a force of fantasy characters and completing quests through many different areas.
You begin by choosing one of several heroes. They differ in terms of starting statistics, special abilities, and movement speed. As you progress through the game, you gain treasure and experience through completing quests and slaying monsters in true RPG fashion. You can use the treasure to buy extra supplies, like potions. As you progress through the game, you will add more heroes and forces to your team as you take on bigger challenges to stop an invasion of monsters into the kingdom.
One of the tricks is that there's a limit to the number of turns allowed to "complete" a map. Within that allotment, you must complete your primary mission as well as any sub-quests you can. Since the sub-quests can net you more experience (and higher levels) for your heroes, you have to balance how far you'll go to accomplish all the side-quests. Take too long, and you may fail your real objective.
The rule system is pretty straightforward and easy to learn. The text shows that English wasn't the principle language of the developers, but it's still easy to understand and fairly forgiveable.
As a side note, to any game developers interested in the Torque Game Builder 2D engine, that was the engine used for this title. You can see that the developers took advantage of certain features such as the particle effects (which look really nice throughout).
Go ahead and download the free trial version HERE.
Enjoy some turn-based butt-kicking!
Carnival of Gamers Up
The Carnival of Gamers is up at Man Bytes Blog. It has a fun theme of a religious revival this month, and wouldn't you know it... I happened to submit a blog article with the word "Evolution" in the title!
I'm enjoying the entries. I've not read them all yet, but so far my favorite is "The Indie Advantage" at King Lud IC. But several of the articles are interesting and thought-provoking. I recommend giving them a look!
Zelda String Medley
I don't think this is exactly what Earnest Adams was talking about when he was asking for the highbrow videogame entertainment.
But hey, I LIKE it.
(Tip o' the beanie to Re:Retro for the link)
How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
I think of myself as a "golden" customer for indie computer roleplaying games. RPGs are one of my favorite game genres. I'm an "old-school" player who values story, character, and gameplay over flashy graphics. And I'm already at least somewhat "tuned into" the alternative, "indie" games scene. (Hey, I try!) I've written articles evangelizing what is good about indie games, particularly indie RPGs, and about the benefits of buying indie.
I've been a professional game developer for the mainstream industry for a few years, an indie developer for a short but interesting time. I offer a few of the best indie games for sale on the Rampant Games website. I can't say, "I sell a lot," though hope springs eternal.
But besides making and occasionally selling indie games, I'm very importantly a customer! About half my game purchases this year have been indie games. I play them, and I talk about them.
So now that I've hopefully established some level of cred, I'm gonna rant. See, I've actually INTENDED to buy several indie RPGs lately. But I haven't. Because I got so bored and annoyed long before I completed the demo. A couple of these demos have been fairly high-profile (well, as high-profile as you get from being an indie). I imagine if I toughed it out a little while longer, I might actually get to the part where the games are actually ... uh... fun.
I shouldn't have to do that.
How Not To Do It
This is done wrong in far too many games, especially indie games, and the RPGs are among the most heinous offenders. Let me share a hypothetical example fused by several game demos I've played recently, particularly the aforementioned roleplaying games.
I start the game. I face a pretty cool title screen and menu. Thrilled and anxious for hours of fun in store for me, I click the "New Game" button.
In some cases, I'm then faced with character generation. Now, I'm kind of a power-gamer with my RPGs, so I actually LIKE making characters. But here, I'm faced with an unfamiliar rule system an unfamiliar setting, and absolutely no understanding of how my choices might affect the game. Is it okay for me to make a character that looks like a lizard? Am I going to be shunned at all human cities if I do that? What about the "basketweaving" skill... is that going to be important? Am I going to be barred from the end-game because all of the later bosses can only be defeated in epic basket-weaving contests? And chosing the "default" characters - well, they are obviously less-than-optimal, otherwise they wouldn't offer the customized character option, right? And doesn't that defeat the whole point of making your own character?
Once I know what I'm doing, I may be happy to play with the stats and numbers and even play through the whole game a couple of different times using different characters. But when I first start out, this is a daunting and frustrating experience.
Now, whether I had to create a character (or four, or six...) or not, I now move on to the real game! Here we go! I face... text. Screen after screen of explanations about the world and how to play. My eyes glaze over at about the third page in, and I worry that I'm going to be missing key information that I won't be able to figure out later. Maybe the game relinquishes control to me at some point, so I perform my first actions, and .... there's more text. Explaining what to do next. Stuff I'm probably going to forget five minutes from now.
Finally, wading through tons of explanatory material, I'm now kinda-sorta on my own (with some actually helpful hint messages appearing from time-to-time), and I'm supposed to... navigate my character's bedroom or something. Maybe talk to people. Get some clues that there may be something going on that I can't do anything about right now. Or maybe I hear of something going on that might not involve me at all.
Fifteen minutes into the game, and I exit. Maybe I remember to save my game, so I can skip the boring part and hopefully move on to something interesting. Assuming I play it again. And even if I do, it might be so long that I've forgotten all those game-halting tutorial instructions on how to play or what's going on. Which means I'll be utterly lost and probably not having a good time.
That game has lost a sale. To ME, a guy who really wanted to like the game from the get-go. I was a sympathetic, potential customer with money to burn. What went wrong?
Start With A Bang
David Siegel presented something called his "Nine Act Story Structure" theory at CGDC ten years ago, based on his analysis of the top-grossing films of all time, and how they might be applied to games. According to his theory, the story really begins at Act 2, "Something Bad Happens." After the establishing shot to ground the audience in the setting, and possibly a hint of backstory to illustrate the brewing conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, you move on immediately to the BANG! In his words, "If it doesn't happen in the first four minutes, you've started the story too soon."
There's a literary technique called, "In Medias Res." I don't speak Latin, so this term could mean, "Caeser Augustus Sucks!" as far as I know. But I'm told it means, "Into the middle of things." It's a popular and effective technique often used in literature, comic books, movies, TV shows, plays, and *GASP* videogames. It basically means you don't start at the beginning of the story, but rather somewhere in the middle, when things are really getting exciting, and let the audience catch up. While I'm not advocating always starting when the story is halfway complete, the technique is simply another way to start with a bang and get things rolling as quickly as possible.
Players are playing a game rather than reading a book or watching a movie because they want to actually ... you know... play. So why not give them what they want? Start out with a bang! Get them in, get them playing! Give them only enough hook to pique their interest and enough setting / background to get some basic grounding, and enough instructions only to get them started. It doesn't matter if they don't know what they are doing - pitch them some easy, slow balls and tell them how to hit it as they are swinging. The point is to get them interested in and actually playing the game in the first five minutes.
I've seen several games do this successfully, and they usually follow these steps:
#1 - Give an EXTREMELY brief introduction to setting and their character
Keep it short, sweet, and to-the-point. Remember Star Wars? Lucas knew what he was doing back then. He didn't explain what the Clone Wars were, or explain the entire political landscape of the Empire. He didn't need to. He just mentioned them briefly, in passing, and our imagination filled in the rest. Arguably, our own imagination was far better than his ultimate realization of them in the latter films.
The player isn't interested in your world, yet. Giving them tons of background information right off the bat is only going to make them less interested. Tell them as little as they need to know in order to get some kind of context when they start out. Maybe give them a hint as to bigger things looming on the horizon. You can fill in details later as they play.
When I say brief, I mean BRIEF. I sat through an introduction to a game last night that was so long I literally started falling asleep during the middle of it. I didn't want to skip it, because I was afraid I might miss something important. Not that I'd be likely to remember much nodding off as I was. Now, it was late and I was on cold medication - but THAT SHOULD JUST NOT HAPPEN.
#2 - Give the player an objective
Give the player some interesting task right off the bat to get them interested and keep them focus. Sticking their character(s) in mortal peril right off the bat is a good way to do this, and comes right out of the "In Media Res" handbook. Getting them embroiled in a mystery that directly involves them is a good one, as well.
#3 - Ask questions that the player might find interesting
A good RPG opens with one or more questions related to the plot, setting, and/or the player's character. This can get them interested in more information about the world and what's going on. It also helps propel them into action to find out more.
#4 - Start the action!
The player now starts DOING STUFF. Important, interesting stuff, related to #2. Wandering around something that feels like a tutorial level isn't it.
#5 - Explain As You Go
Ideally, the player should be able to advance the game with only minimal instructions and a subset of commands. The game should let them do something cool and useful with something as basic as just moving around to begin with. Hitting the player with instructions and background information every two steps is no better than giving them a data-dump before they begin to play.
As far as character creation, there are several tricks that get used to delay the binding on the detailed character customization until later in the game, when the player is more familiar with it. And there have been tricks that made character creation part of the game itself. The important part is not to stick the player with some decision he may not be happy with before he knows what he's doing.
Games That Did It Right
Hey, an INDIE game! No wonder it was a surprise hit into the casual market, going where few RPGs had gone before.
#1 - Intro: A priestess falls to an enemy that should no longer be around. She summons the player's avatar, a plain ol' ordinary farmgirl (yeah, right) to her aid.
#2 - Objective: Help the priestess. Find out information from her. Oh, and very shortly, the "escape from slavery" objective comes up.
#3 - Questions: Why did the priestess summon Rhen of all people to her aid? What is Rhen's father hiding? Who attacked the priestess?
#4 - Action: The princess needs help! Find the healer and bring her back!
#5 - Exposition: The player is told what they need to do as it comes up in gameplay. Ditto for learning about the world. The player only gets character customization choices as they gain levels.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
#1 - Intro: The Guardian appears in the introductory cutscene. Mocks the player. Upon starting the game, the player finds themselves tasked to investigate the scene of a grisley murder.
#2 - Objective: Investigate a murder. Find out whodunnit and why.
#3 - Questions: Who is the guardian, and what's his connection to the Avatar (the player's character)?
#4 - Action: Investigate a murder. Find out what people know. Follow a trail of bloody footprints.
#5 - Exposition: Name? Job? Ultima VII was pretty old school, and expected you to RTFM to play. However, it also gently eased you into gameplay. And... ummm... this game technically had character advancement, but I think it was minimal.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
#1 - Intro: Monolog from the Emperor, giving (perhaps too much) exposition and hinting of darkness coming. The player appears as an unknown prisoner, getting mocked by a fellow prisoner. He / she soon finds that they are a person with a hint of potential (from the emperor's recognition), and basically the right person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
#2 - Objective: Escape. Save the Emperor if possible.
#3 - Questions: Who is trying to kill the emperor, and why?
#4 - Action: The dungeon escape
#5 - Exposition: The "tutorial level" is the prison escape sequence, and it gradually introduces the game in fun and interesting stages. Character generation is largely organic, and a class is suggested to you. You can take the defaults, or customize it if you feel like it. Designing your character's look is actually a bit of a game-halting experience, unfortunately.
Final Fantasy VII
#1 - Intro: A mysterious girl, a city that looks fairly modern but quirky, a train, some dudes jumping out of it and... guys with guns trying to kill you.
#2 - Objective: Guys with guns trying to kill you. Oh, and you are a mercenary working for some militant environmentalist group. Blow up the reactor and don't get killed.
#3 - Questions: Who are you, really? That question takes up much of the game. And who's the mysterious flower-girl. And what is Shinra really up to?
#4 - Action: Guys. Guns. That's action, in the first 30 seconds.
#5 - Exposition: The game tells you how to defeat the guys with guns as they are shooting. Again, the "tutorial" level is actually a pretty fun, full-fledged game level that is an integral part of the plot. It just happens to be laid out in such a way that it only requires a gradually increasing subset of the commands to get through as you play. Character advancement was largely automated.
So Whatcha Gonna Do About It?
All I can do is rant a little bit about how I'd like to see things. I'm a developer and have an RPG design "in the works," so you can bet I'm going to try to apply these steps to it where I can. I'm not perfect, and maybe someday I'll be reading someone else's rant about where I screwed up. But hey - ya gotta learn somehow!
Otherwise - as players - we can send feedback to developers! We can let them know what we like and don't like about their games! One of the cool things about the indie games world is that the developers tend to listen to their customers. And they implement those suggestions - not only in future titles, but also going back and updating games that have already been "done." After all, indie games tend to have shelf-lives measured in YEARS rather than weeks (like the mainstream, brick-and-mortar industry). Who wouldn't like to make a few changes to an existing title and double their sales?
And hey - if you think I'm up in the night (I'm still on cold medication, after all), feel free to tell me so. Maybe you like reading pages of instructions for ten minutes before playing! Whatever floats your boat. But personally, I think there's a better way.
Labels: Roleplaying Games
Couldn't say it better myself...
Tycho and Gabe over at PennyArcade have an excellent political comic and commentary on the proposed "Truth in Video Game Ratings Act." It's entitled, "Censorship Made Easy."
Good ol' Lum the Mad expressed his opinion in an even more concise post which unfortunately only makes sense to the choir he's preaching to. But it's dead-on.
I don't know if I can add much to what is being said. While I don't necessarily agree with Tycho's conspiracy theory, he's very right in that controlling the media to a large degree controls (or at least powerfully influences) public opinion. I don't give Congress that much credit for being so forward-thinking. But there are already several games out there that lampoon or criticise U.S. politics and policy --- that's what Free Speech was REALLY supposed to be about in the Bill of Rights, anyway.
Sure, the ESRB system could be improved. We can find better / cheaper ways to do it. Like most of the videogame bills coming out of the national and state legislatures this year, this one is a ham-handed piece of political grandstanding that misses its intended mark. We're getting them because they are considered to be "low political risk" because of the belief that gamers don't vote.
Get out there and let your elected officials and political candidates KNOW how you feel about this.
Humor and Apocalypse Cow
One of the lessons I learned from Void War (too late, unfortunately), is that video game humor needs to be pretty broad. Subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor has its place, but the designer needs to assume that the average player won't "get it." It's hard to convey that in a game, when the player is more concerned about their own interactions. And maybe I just wasn't as funny as I thought. As a comedian, I'm a pretty good programmer, I guess.
But I keep trying. Because I'm stupid that way. Apocalypse Cow is definitely more broad in its humor. I mean, come on, it's got EXPLODING COWS! And groan-inducing puns! What's not to like? Well, a lot, potentially, depending upon how horribly I screw it up.
Fortunately, the artist I'm working with is absolutely brilliant and has packed tons of humor into even his concept sketches, really capturing the flavor of the game that I'm hoping to achieve. I thought I'd share a couple of these here, because I think they rock. Now, these are very rough sketches - so in fairness to him, I'll also post a link to his finished 2D art for the game that I posted up during the summer.
Progress on the game is slow, though I hope to have all the levels "feature complete" within about three more weeks. They are still filled with awful stand-in programmer art which I'll be gradually swapping out as content gets complete. At this point, I can't offer an ETA, as I've blown my own deadlines already and I'm re-calculating schedule right now. Originally, this was going to be a "quick and dirty" game, but I found myself loving the project too much, and found myself really expanding the interactions and challenges. That means a lot more custom code (and new content). And lots more opportunities to totally ruin the game!
But I'm having a lot of fun with it. Which I may use to console myself when the game bombs and I'm mocked by indie developers and gamers alike across the entire world. But I've been there, and done that. But at least it'll have some awesome art.
Labels: Apocalypse Cow
Game Design: Speed of Game
I'm a fan of slower-paced, more methodical games. I'm one of the (apparently rare) breed that values a good turn-based strategy or role-playing game. Games like X-Com, Civilization, and Master of Orion are among my all-time favorites, and I think part of the reason I enjoy many of the console RPGs is the option (in many of them) to play in purely turn-based mode, as the game pauses as you give commands to your characters.
Yet on the flip side, I've been frustrated with some real-time action games being "too slow." Not often with professional games, but it happens - more often in spots and segments. What's the difference?
To me, the "Speed of the Game" is in the availability of meaningful player interactions - or, barring that, even player decisions - at each point of the game. At any point where, as a player, I don't have anything to do and I'm waiting on the game, I get bored.
This happens most often in the early stages of some RTS games, where I'm waiting for things to get built. Fortunately, most RTS games usually have things to check up on and tweak while 'waiting,' and the pace often transitions to frantic quickly enough that the anticipation of the potential early rush is enough to keep it exciting. Many of the more modern RTS games also give you an explorer / scout type unit that can play with while you are waiting for city management to become interesting.
Certain RPGs with lots of empty geography to travel through can also feel very slow. Sure, there's the threat of random encounters from point A to point B, but that too frequently becomes more frustrating and annoying than exciting. While there may be some twists and turns around obstacles to keep the player from falling asleep while otherwise holding down on the controller in a single direction, it's not enough.
Extensive and lengthy cut-scenes - particularly those that commit the near-cardinal sin of being non-interruptable - can also severely detract from the feeling of game speed.
Turn-based games - at least those where the player isn't waiting for the computer or other player to finish their turn - don't usually have this problem because the player can always make the fairly significant decision of moving on to the next turn without making any major decision. In effect, he's manually "skipping ahead to the interesting parts." I found myself doing this in games like Civilization, Master of Orion, and Galactic Civilizations. The trick is making sure that this isn't something the player should feel obligated to do often. The player should usually have things to tweak and play with to optimize his progress.
In games like the Thief series, Rainbow Six, or Deus Ex, the decision to "do nothing" could also be very significant. While hiding in the shadows, timing the moment of action could be difference between flawless success and game-ending defeat. So long as the player doesn't find himself stuck waiting too long for the right moment (and different players have different tolerances for this kind of thing), it can be even more exciting than the full-bore shoot-em-up. The difference here is that the player is constantly evaluating the relative merit of taking certain actions RIGHT NOW versus the a few seconds from now - and is allowed to take significant action at any time. This is unlike the early-stage RTS game where the player may technically be free to take action, but any action other than holding the current course is trivially stupid.
While this seems like a pretty elementary rule, one easily discovered with minimal playtesting, I do see it violated from time-to-time, particularly in some indie games (often by first- or second-time game developers). The pace can rise and fall, but the player should never feel like he's just waiting for something to happen.
Labels: Game Design