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My Favorite Job Interviews
Do you want to get a job in the videogame industry? Or some other "Information Technology" job somewhere else in the industry?
One of the most intimidating aspects of a programmer's career is the job interview. Unless you go the purely entrepreneurial route and never work for someone else (even as a contractor) , you are going to be in the situation where you are going to feel like you are being sized up like a slab of beef by a panel of judges, all the while trying to sell yourself without coming across as a conceited jerk.
The worst cases are the ones where you think the interview went very well, but you don't get the job. You second-guess yourself, trying to figure out what went wrong. You are never told that one of the other three finalists is actually an old college friend of the team lead - instead you sweat over what you must have done to blow the interview.
I've been on both sides of the interview process more often than I can remember - both within the videogame industry, and outside of it doing "applications" for businesses. Many of the job interviews were not very pleasant. Sitting at a table being grilled on nuances of the Java language isn't exactly a great way to spend a lunch hour. Some have been pretty fun. Two jobs (one for a videogame programming position, one for an Artificial Intelligence-related job) had me do some puzzle-solving so they could analyze my problem-solving strategy. Those are stressful but entertaining. Interviewing a person with ZERO social skills is also entertaining, but not in a good way.
Here are four of my favorite job interview experiences. All were with me in the interviewee position, and ended with me accepting the position, which is probably part of why they are my favorites. I thought these might be at least entertaining. I provide some helpful tips at the end, though I'm not a job interview expert or anything. There are many sites online with more valuable tips. But I thought these might be helpful, and demonstrate that not all job interviews are created equal.
#1 - A Minor Disaster
Fresh out of college in 1994, I found myself in two job interviews for videogame companies practically back-to-back. The first one I chronicled in "How Do You Create 'Fun'?" The next one was at a new start-up game company called "SingleTrac," located in downtown Salt Lake City.
I didn't know downtown Salt Lake very well, so I came VERY early for the interview. As I was pulling into the far right lane to get on the offramp, I realized I had forty-five minutes to kill before the interview. Then the car began to SHUDDER. Blow-out on the freeway. And as a poor, starving college student, I didn't have a spare. So I needed a tow (fortunately a tire company was very nearby), and I was nearly an hour late. (Note: The tow cost me nearly as much as a spare tire. There's a lesson...)
They gave me the interviews when I arrived, and made some jokes about me making up the story about the blown tire to cover for how late I was. I think I was less worried about the interview BECAUSE I figured I'd already blown it. That, and I may have already been offered the other job (I don't remember if it had come in yet or not). However, things went well, I got along great with the people I talked with, and I was offered a position there the next day. I spent about five-and-a-half years there, and we made some really awesome, best-selling games.
#2 - From Laid Off To Better Off
SingleTrac grew too rapidly, and was pretty much struggling from day one. Then one day (Valentine's Day, 2000, to be exact) the axe came down on about half the company. It was the second or third major layoff, and the company wasn't going to survive the year. I'd come in extra early (about 4 in the morning) to get a bunch of work done that day, and was not expecting anything like that. At noon, half of us found ourselves ushered into the break room with the H.R. manager, and dismissed without so much as a thank-you. Well, okay, I did get some severance. But this was the first time I'd ever actually lost a job, and I was panicked. What would I do? How would I feed my family? Would I be able to find something else?
Well, it turns out nearby Acclaim Studios was panicking as well, desperately trying to find experienced game programmers. When they heard about the layoffs, they snagged a bunch of us up, gave us a group interview, which mainly consisted of showing us around the company and telling us how awesome it was there, and then asking how much salary we wanted.
In fact, they told us they didn't need us for a couple of weeks, but they needed assurance to the point that they would PAY us from the day we said "yes." I answered in the affirmative the next day. It was a pretty significant salary increase (though I'd been earning so much in bonuses from SingleTrac that it felt like a step down). And they didn't need me for two weeks. AND I had severance. So effectively, I had two weeks off with more than double pay.
I knew that sort of thing was HIGHLY unlikely to ever happen again. So what did we do? We immediately headed out for a trip to Disneyland.
#3 - You Want Me To Program In What?
Unfortunately, the Acclaim thing was actually not so hot. They went from having a mandate to add a new team to having to downsize the entire studio - TWICE - within two months of my starting. I survived the layoffs that time, but I saw the writing on the wall. I decided to exit the games industry (and become an indie game developer, though I didn't know there was such a thing at the time). It seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, there were all these paper millionaires appearing during this whole "Dot Com" boom...
So in 2003 - in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst - I found myself out of work again. I was much less stressed about it this time around, even though there were lots of out-of-work programmers in my area.
I got an interview at Symantec, an office which was still largely staffed with members of the original company whom Symantec had bought out a few years earlier. I took a laid-back attitude towards this interview - the pay wasn't great, and the commute would be long.
But I went, not expecting much. I think it helped me relax. There were lots of people interviewing that day. One guy hadn't shaved that morning before donning his buisiness DRESS. Complete with white stockings. Considering that this office was in pretty conservative Utah Valley territory, I figured that at least my chances were better than his. After all, forgetting to shave can really give a bad first impression.
During one part of the interview - with the guy who would be my immediate supervisor - I struck up a pretty good conversation. Turned out he was a gamer, so he liked my background as a videogame developer. So then he asked me some hard questions. "How's your Java?"
I prefer to be honest with these things. I answered, "Well, my Java looks a lot like C++. I can work with it, but it's not my strong suit."
He asked me a few follow-up questions, and then he asked, "So, how are you at Python."
I continued the brutally-honest approach. "I've never programmed a line of Python code in my life."
We talked a little more about what programming experience I did have (almost exclusively C and C++), and then I asked, "So... what languages do you use here?"
He answered, "Oh, a little bit of everything... C++, Ruby, Perl... but mainly Java and Python."
Oh, JOY, I thought. So much for that job. Much to my surprise, a couple of days later, they offered me the position. It turns out that this particular manager realized that a good programmer with a Computer Science degree is actually capable of programming in MANY languages, and he assumed I could pick up Java and Python easily enough. And I did. And I fell in love with the Python language. Overall, it turned out to be a pretty good job (most of the time), and I learned a lot there.
#4 - A Unique Challenge
My current "day job" came about in a pretty unusual manner. I already knew the Wahoo Studios (aka NinjaBee) guys, and had met with them a few times before as an indie game developer. They were planning on releasing Outpost Kaloki as a downloadable title, and I knew a little bit more than they did about that space. They were impressed with my work on Void War, and we already got along pretty well.
My job interview in this case was --- different. There was no question of whether or not we wanted to work with each other. It was just a question of if we could figure out a way to structure the deal so that it would work out for both sides. We went in very open-minded, and promised each other that it would be no big deal if we couldn't make it work.
It's been a little over six months now (longer than I was at Acclaim), and while I'm making less money working in the games industry than I was "on the outside," and while the actual work is largely the same, I do have to admit it's a lot more enjoyable that what I had been doing the last couple of years. And they've been extremely supportive of my indie game development business which I have on the side.
And it's been over six months, and they haven't fired me yet, so I guess I'm doing okay. The worst part of the job has been that my motivation with Rampant Games has dropped somewhat. Part of it is because I'm doing game development work all day, which makes it harder to go back to doing it at night. Part of it is that I don't hate the day job, which I found was a pretty strong motivator.
Okay, so I skipped a whole bunch of other interviews I have had, most of which didn't pan out for one reason or another. One amusing incident was when - working under a fairly oppressive management regime - I ran into another coworker interviewing at the same place I was. We didn't tell on each other :)
And I skipped an equally innumerable interviews where I was the one conducting the interview. While it's somewhat less stressful (especially when the potential hire won't be a direct report to you), it's got its own set of frustrations. Especially when you are interviewing a candidate for someone who may be your own manager.
But if you happen to be starting out on your career and need some pointers, here's what I've learned. Bear in mind that as far as my videogame job experience, I've generally worked the back-roads, so these suggestions may or not apply if you are applying for Electronic Arts (think of it as an apprenticeship rather than surfdom...)
* Who you are is as important as what you can do. Be yourself (as best as you can under the circumstances). You are being hired into a social environment ... yes, even videogame programmers are social. We have to work together and communicate. We have to work together long hours. We have to work together long hours when stress level is high, we are tired, and our patience is exhausted and our nerves, frazzled. While it may be second to actually being... you know, competent... being someone with the right personality and "fit" for the team is critical. (In fact, one of the big questions I get asked whenever I have been one of the interviewers is, "Will this candidate fit into our culture here?")
* It's a two-way street - you aren't the only one under scrutiny. You are making a business agreement. YOU need to be asking them questions as well to make sure it's a reasonable match. Some potential employers may be annoyed by this, but those aren't the kind I'd want to be working for anyway. I know that for me (as an interviewer), being asked intelligent, reasonable questions is actually a plus. It shows me the candidate knows enough about what he'll be doing that he can ask the intelligent questions, shows he's not afraid to ask questions, and thinks highly enough of his own skills to want to make an informed decision. (I say "he," but "she" applies, of course, though it's a little less frequent in the IT industry).
* Don't ever be desperate. Anything I've ever read about negotiation notes that the first rule of negotiating is that you should always be prepared to leave with no deal. Not only should it be a reasonable proposition for you, but you should also go into any negotiation (or interview) with a good idea of where that threshold is where you'd be better off saying, "No, thank you." Yes, getting a job in the videogame industry sounds like a "dream job." And some days, it is. But it's not the only way to do it. Look at all of the indies out there.
* Always be honest. This doesn't mean volunteering your faults or anything. But I have found (through hard experience) that I really prefer working with people who are up-front and open, and people who expect the same in return.
* Use good social skills. Learn 'em if you don't got 'em. Look them in the eye, shake their hands firmly, call them by name.
* Don't trash your previous employers. Be honest, but this is not the time to vent your spleen. That just comes off as a bad attitude. And in fact, it very well may be, so you may want to do a little self-analysis. Also - at least in my area - the IT industry is fairly small. The games industry is even smaller. People talk, word gets around. Trashing on people CAN come back to haunt you.
* In the videogame industry, I DO feel it's important to actually LIKE GAMES. Some employers may not care, but I feel that people who like and are enthusiastic about what they do, who have a personal investment and pride in their work, will do a better job. If you are interviewing with a games company, be prepared to talk about your favorite game and why.
* Even for a videogame job, dress appropriately for a job interview. There may be exceptions (I came pretty casually to the Wahoo interview, but I talked to Steve about that first), but in general the suit & tie is in order. And a fresh haircut. Oh, and don't wear a shirt that you just barely bought, which still has the fold-wrinkles in it from the store. Or the cardboard collar support still in it (I won't talk about who made THAT mistake... though it wasn't in an interview)
* Though the emphasis is on you as a candidate, you should be focusing on their needs as a prospective employer. Look at it this way - they need help making money. They are shopping around for someone to help them make money. You need to provide them with a convincing argument as to why you'd be the best investment. Tailor your answers to their needs.
* Most job opportunities (and certainly the best ones) I've had came from contacts, not public ads. Once you get started in your career, you should always be networking. In fact, my first job interview - at SingleTrac - came about because of a couple of students in Artificial Intelligence class I was a Teaching Assistant for my senior year in college. One was the wife of one of the founders, and another was one of their first employees (when they still weren't sure they actually had funding to afford employees).
(Vaguely) related musings:
* How Do You Create "Fun?"
* No Excuse for IT Ignorance
* How Do You Start Making Games (getting started in the games industry)
* Working For the (Game) Man!
Combat Games Trigger "Fight Or Flight" Insticts. Media Shocked.
The study itself seems like it was performed in a lab built upon the slopes of Mount Obvious. The SPIN on it by the media is... predictable but annoying.
"Violent Video Game Effects Linger In Brain"
So these videogames trigger the "fight or flight" response. Ummmm.... well, mission accomplished, pat the designers on the back, as that was the intention. Just as thrill rides at the amusement park are designed to trigger these instinctive reactions. The most interesting and noteworthy part of the study quoted in the article is that other high-excitement games (like racing games) don't trigger the same emotional response. That's not exactly surprising, but I tend to think that adrenaline is adrenaline.
But of course, the spin hints that this primitive reflex which enabled our ancestors to survive being eaten by tigers is turning teenagers into violent, angry machines. I'm exaggerating the title and the opening sentence, but that's definitely where it's going. I mean, it "lingers in the brain," and increases "activity in areas of the brain linked to emotional arousal and decreased responses in regions that govern self-control."
Somehow this reminds me of the science fair project about the Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide, which was actually a little psychology experiment about how gullible people are. Forty-three out of fifty people surveyed favored banning water after hearing the shocking facts!
In other political news, Illinois has failed in its appeal of its anti-videogame law. The courts have once again demonstrated that just because the medium is new and popular with the younger generation doesn't make it an exception to Constitutional law. But the state of Illinois apparently doesn't have much respect for the court anyway, as they still haven't paid up the over half-million dollars they were ordered to pay BY said court to cover legal fees for the. According to this article, they haven't provided an official reason, but some of the excuses sound a little bit like, "Oh, I left my wallet in my other pants." (Hat tip to GamePolitics.com for that one)
(Vaguely) related junk
* Illinois Video Game Ban Ruled Unconstitutional
* Why Are There So Many Violent Videogames?
* Congressman Matheson Defends Anti-Videogame Bill
Smash My PS3!
So we have the most expensive game console launch since the 3DO, the usual new-gen console hype, coupled with a ludicrous manufacturing shortfall and shortage, stories of violence erupting in lines, and the most fanboy posturing since Nintendo tried to wrest its market share back from Sega.
So what do you do about it?
How about buying one of the hard-to-acquire PS3s, which are selling for as much as $10,000 on EBay, and you SMASH IT WITH A SLEDGEHAMMER in front of a line hopeful fanboys who have been waiting for hours in hopes of being one of the lucky ones who's pre-order was able to be fulfilled.
Warning: Some harsh language from observers in the video.
As I've NOT ordered a PS3 (Hey, I spent my gaming money on a new PC this year, life is good...), this video does not inspire much emotional reaction other than amusement. Though I think it's pretty obnoxious.
Labels: Mainstream Games
Remember how I talked about how you can't design fun on paper?
I'm in the middle of that right now.
I've got three levels left to "rough out" (gameplay finished, content and details needing polish), and while I'm "almost done" with one, it's feeling stale and un-fun. Oh, it's challenging, to be certain (probably too much so)... but it is feeling too much like "more of the same." I already planned it out too large. The map looked fine on paper, but in actual gameplay it felt too long and boring. I've cut maybe 25% from the size already, which is going to effect gameplay (some of that size was side-passages you had to take to pick up keys... yes, you gather keys in a helicopter. So sue me.)
So I'm struggling with ideas to make it fresh and interesting without adding six weeks to my development time. I've been lurking a little bit on SHMUP-DEV.COM and playing some late-80's shooters for ideas, but the problem is that Apocalypse Cow isn't that kind of game. Not really.
Right now, I'm considering moving on to the other two levels and coming back to this one (hey, it's an effective test-taking strategy, why not use it here?), and then just taking some time and trying to think outside of the box a little. Maybe going with some more weird puns and word-associations.
So, creative people - what do you do to get yourself out of the design doldrums?
(Vaguely) related teeth-gnashing:
* You Can't Design Fun On Paper
* Kicked In the Butt By A Metal Cow
Stop the Long-Winded Intros!
Ever get stuck in a conversation with someone who at first strikes you as interesting with fascinating things to say, but who then keeps talking and talking without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise... even to say, "That's interesting?" Before long, you start making up some lame reason to excuse yourself from the conversation, like, "Oh, hey, I just remembered my wife's hair is on fire, and I promised her I'd help her put it out." And you find yourself avoiding the formerly-interesting person after that, not because you are afraid they'll ask you about how your wife's hair turned out (because they probably won't), but because you expect you'll be wanting to jab a spork into each ear to make the pain of their talking.
Maybe they were just nervous about meeting you, and went on yammering out of a self-defeating effort to make a good impression. If you stick with it long enough, maybe they'll actually prove to be fun people to know. But in the meantime, you are stuck with impression of them being someone that just won't shut up.
Too many games are like that these days.
The latest offender is Kingdom Hearts 2. My girls love Disney (especially after the trip to Disneyland earlier this year), and my oldest loves the Final Fantasy games. So I thought this would be perfect. So I rented the game for the holiday weekend, and we all gathered around the television set in some parody of the Ward Cleaver household to enjoy this game.
Fifteen minutes later, I think I'd only pressed one button (on the main menu screen), and my daughters began asking me, "Is this a game, or a movie?"
I didn't know how to respond. "I really thought it was a game when I rented it," I responded.
I usually don't just skip past these things. After all, I love a good STORY in games. I worry about missing out on clues as to what I'm actually supposed to be doing. And on top of this, Square-Enix is known for its captivating 3D work and storylines. Of course, in many previous Final Fantasy games, I'd already be up to the first level-boss of the bunny-slope dungeon by now. But I stuck it out, growing more and more irritated by the minute.
A few minutes later, I was utterly startled by actually finding myself in a segment where I could actually.... well, PLAY. What a concept! I walked around and talked to people. And then found myself in my very first combat. Nifty!
But by this point, nearly a half-hour had gone by, and as an adult I had things to do. As a GAMER, I have no problem sinking a half-hour (or even more) into a game in a single session. I frequently do. But as a grown-up, I have to always deal with the nagging concern in the back of my mind that keeps asking, "Don't you have something else you should be doing right now?" By this point, I was growing bored with the game (just as it was getting to the "good part"), and I'd been hogging up the console for a half an hour.
So I handed the controls over to my daughter and said, "There you go."
The girls were actually kind of reluctant to play at this point. They'd been watching Daddy play for the last half hour (not that I'd actually been playing most of that time - I'd been a passive viewer most of that time, too.), and it wasn't particularly exciting.
But they stuck it out. And unlike their father, they DIDN'T have better things they needed to be doing. And they played the whole weekend. Loved it. And I enjoyed popping in on them for a few minutes and watching them play. It looks like the game gets pretty fun. And I nearly bust a gut laughing when I saw them get to the Tron and Nightmare Before Christmas worlds. I mean, watching Squall from Final Fantasy VIII watch in horror as the hero, Donald Duck, and Goofy get "digitized" by the Master Control Program was priceless.
But the introduction felt like having to sit through a class before being allowed to have fun.
These are games! Interactive entertainment! If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd have rented a movie! I'm ripping on Kingdom Hearts 2, but this is a problem I'm seeing too often --- even in indie games, which don't even have the budget for a well-made introduction like the one in Kingdom Hearts. The point of a game is to play - to interact with it. While I love a good introductory cut-scene or well-told explanation, it's gotta get me into the "action" (even if the action is a little slow-paced) quickly. Othewise, it's like that bore at the party who won't quit talking.
As I said, I LIKE deep storylines and clever dialog in my games. And I don't consider myself to be that impatient of a gamer. But they have to be games, dang it!
(Vaguely) related posts:
* How to Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* Why Battlefield 2 Sucks
* Rules of Combat According to FPS Games
Empires & Dungeons Strategy Tips Needed
So I'm playing Empires & Dungeons on EASY difficulty, and it's still taken me four tries to win the "Cauldrons of Blood" scenario. Four lords at once is pretty challenging. So far my best strategies (tactics) tend to rely heavily on luck:
#1 - Hit the closest town (the one to the south) immediately and capture it.
#2 - Hit dungeons early and often to build up levels & money for troops.
#3 - Burn the eastern city when possible to deny the eastern lord access to easy cash. That way I only have to worry about defending one city.
#4 - Avoid engaging the enemy lords until level 7 or 8, when money is very plentiful.
I don't really bother hiring the "cheap" troops in that scenario unless I happen to be a square away, or if I really want to deny an enemy lord access to it. If I can't find dungeons fast enough before the enemy lords get their keeps and can push into my territory, I'm pretty much screwed.
Anybody got any good strategy advice for this game?
(Vaguely) related somethingoranothers:
* New Game: Empires & Dungeons
* Are Hybrid RPGs Just a "Poor Man's RPG"?
* Game For the Weekend: Styrateg
Labels: Roleplaying Games
The Great Games Experiment
GarageGames recently opened The Great Games Experiment for beta testing. If you have logged into a GarageGames account in the last year, you are automatically signed up. Otherwise, you can either email a request to join the beta, or you can find an existing beta member who hasn't used up his two invitations yet.
What is it? Well, it looks to me to be sort of a MySpace for gamers. The intended purpose seems to be to bring game makers and game players together in a social community. Ideally - if the game PLAYERS can be motivated to join the community - it could be a great opportunity for less-well-known games to be discovered, and for communities of gamers to form around them. And retro-gaming, though there are already some specialized communities out there for those, too. They've not neglected mainstream games, either.
I guess that's going to be the big hinderance to see if www.greatgamesexperiment.com gets off the ground - will gamers be interested in joining a big general gaming community like this when there are already several specialized communities out there? About the only thing somewhat unique that it might offer is (at the moment) an emphasis on indie games... and there has not yet been a community that has really formed around PLAYING indie games (that I know of). Even so, the Great Games Experiment doesn't really enforce an indie slant - though it does seem to encourage it with demo / download / buy now links for every added game that are enabled by default.
I guess we'll see if it really takes off or not.
If you are interested (and have an account), I'm available there as the Rampant Coyote. If you don't have an account and need an invite, let me know. I only have the two, but I may as well use 'em.
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Games For Castaways
No, I'm not talking about Virtual Villagers - though it's a pretty awesome game about castaways. And I guess the Monkey Island games had you getting stranded on islands. But that's not what I'm talking about.
Let's say you were marooned on a desert island, but you somehow magically became stranded with an awesome computer and plenty of power to run it (maybe you are stranded on the island in the TV Show "Lost" or something). But NO INTERNET CONNECTION. (Suckage!)
Now, you get to choose THREE GAMES to take with you. These will be your entertainment to keep you sane for the indefinite period of time you are gonna be stranded on the island (we'll assume about 3 years), so you'll want games with replayability in spades.
Pick your games.
Me? Well, my top three would probably be:
#1 - Civilization
Any version, I assume, though I haven't played the latest. Still - a single game of Civilization can last many, many hours. And you can play through many sessions with MANY variations, difficulty levels, and different national abilities. This game was nicely methodical and turn-based, which would help keep my mind sharp in the otherwise mind-numbing, lonely day-to-day struggle for survival on my island.
#2 - Daggerfall
Yes, Daggerfall... Elder Scrolls 2. Simply because it's so much more friggin' huge than its sequels. Sure, the formulaic quests and random dungeons can wear on me during a single game. But compared to gathering coconuts, it shouldn't be too bad. A single game can last hundreds of hours... more if I keep exploring. There were rumors of all kinds of hidden, unique elements buried within the procedurally-generated Tamriel. Even a (gasp!) dragon! I never heard of it being found, which probably means it was a false rumor, but I could verify it by my thorough exploration of the world. And I could play through it as every character class - feats requiring hundreds of hours each - before experimenting with custom classes.
Yeah. Daggerfall would be a good option to take with me into my desert-island hell.
#3 - Falcon 4.0: Allied Force
I chose Allied Force because it includes a new compaign and more "stuff" than the original release. While it only offers a few starting conditions in two campaigns, the little virtual war quickly evolves into a unique situation with every game. Besides, this game's documentation is so hefty that I could chew through an entire week just studying up on all the functional systems of an F-16.
Also, the real-time action would be a nice counter-point to the turn-based gameplay of Civilization, or the somewhat less action-dependent Daggerfall. Now if only I could set up a wireless connection with the next island over to play the game AGAINST a fellow castaway in another bunker somewhere...
What I'd also have seriously considered taking with me on my date with destiny, but ultimately left to sink beneath the waves due to the arbitrary restriction of only bringing three with me...
Neverwinter Nights (Platinum Edition): This one might be a keeper if I was also allowed to bring the entire contents of Neverwinter Vault with me. Over 5,000 user-created modules would keep me pretty busy for a while.
Nethack (with a graphical front-end, like Falcon's Eye): Close, but I'd be cheating on this little excursion anyway and making sure my computer had programming languages installed. They aren't games! So I would just create my own version.
Unreal Tournament 2004: Three or four years stuck battling bots in this game, and I might FINALLY not suck at it. When I'm finally rescued, I might actually be able to play online without having my butt handed to me.
Master of Orion 2: A single game could last the whole time :) Seriously, if it weren't for Civilization covering the same general gameplay, this would be a top choice.
Age of Empires 2 (with the expansion): Perhaps the finest RTS of all time. With plenty of nations, randomly generated battlefields, and an almost obscene number of variations and difficulty levels, this one would keep me occupied for a while and feed my RTS hunger.
Okay, there's my shot at it. I'm sure you could do better. What games would you take with you?
Labels: Mainstream Games
Is $42,000 All You Can Make With Indie Games?
Phil Carlisle (Zoombapup) participated in a "So You Want To Be An Indie Developer" blog project this week. I wish I'd known about it, but I doubt I could have said anything that the participants already said. Many of the articles are well worth reading, but I liked Phil's in particular.
Many new aspiring indie game developers ask, "How much can I make on an indie game?" The frequent response is something along the lines of, "That's like asking `How long is a piece of string'." There are too many variables.
Not one to shy away from the tough questions, Phil broke it down to a science. Well, math. How much can you make from an indie game?
His answer (and link): $42,000.
Before sixteen-year-olds with dreams of buying a new car with an Aquanoid clone developed in Flash get too excited, I should interject that I ASPIRE to making that much on an indie game. I doubt it's gonna happen on Apocalypse Cow. It sure didn't happen with Void War. By my understanding, the majority of indie games don't do that well. In fact, most make close to nothing.
Now, one other note is that there are plenty of indie games doing better than that. Some are achieving that via portals, though if portals are a significant part of a game's strategy, it's average revenue per unit (to the developer) is going to be a lot less than $15.
To a point, he's pulling numbers out of the air, and the formula isn't perfect, but I think the basic premise is pretty solid, and based on discussions with other indies (and sales stats provided like the links above from GameProducer.net), it seems to be in the right ballpark for a reasonably successful indie PC games.
Is $42,000 that all you can make? Well, obviously not. Not that I have first-hand experience at this ("yet," i interject optimistically). But some possibilities:
* Make an extraordinary game that bucks the odds
* Release the game on multiple platforms (Mac, Linux, XBox 360, whatever)
* Make more than one game per year.
* Additional revenue streams (such as affiliate game sales, or advertising revenue)
* Alternative distribution methods (OEM, retail sales, unconventional channels)
* Contract work
* Licensing your IP
I wrote a whole article about this once upon a time. But the trick of it is that it all requires a ton of work. My total part-time efforts over the last couple of years haven't yet come close to earning me minimum wage yet. But I believe I've been learning a lot during that time, and in a way it has already paid off. It was my efforts as an indie that got me a new job that I'm much happier in now. And it's presented me with other great opportunities and experiences that I'd hate to have missed.
If you are doing what you love, then dollars and cents aren't the only measure of success.
(Vaguely) related blitherings:
* 20 Ways to Make Money Making Indie Games
* How to Avoid Making Money Making Games
* Profit or Passion?
* The Casual Game Industry Sucks Too
A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
> Kill Dragon
WITH WHAT, YOUR BARE HANDS?
I never had to answer that question myself. But that dragon was my first significant exposure to the world of computer games.
I didn't play the game myself. Instead, I was given a walkthrough by my buddy in fifth grade, Craig Bucher, who had played it over the weekend on some "minicomputer." I don't even know if the computer even had a monitor - the game was played on the printer, recording his explorations to be shared later. With the huge printout in hand, he took relish in showing me the most interesting parts. Through his printout, I was able to share in his adventure (which I didn't realize had the name, "Adventure," at the time). I witnessed him being attacked by nasty axe-throwing dwarves and giant snakes, saw him trying to deal with the "troll bridge," navigate the twisty little mazes of passages, and witnessed him face down a fierce green dragon sprawled out on a Persian rug.
I don't know why it was - but the fact that the dragon was on a Persian rug really stuck with me. For the rest of my life, my mental image of a dragon wasn't lounging Smaug-like on a bed of gold and silver, but rather sprawled out on a large, expensive Persian rug. My parents bought a Persian rug for our home, and I always thought it seemed a bit bare without a fierce green dragon on it.
I don't know if you could call my career and hobby of making videogames a "life's calling." But if you choose to, then you could say that I realized it on that winter morning. I was an avid reader, and here I was reading what looked like a book (or at least a short story) that had been written by the computer in reaction to my friend's voyages through an imaginary world. I was struck by the possibilities of it all.
I went home that night and wrote up something without the benefit of a computer on several pages of lined notebook paper. It was an adventure, and its format was vaguely reminiscent of a "choose your own adventure" book (I hadn't yet discovered Dungeons & Dragons). I worked on it for days, and filled several pages with text and options. Much was original, but it also had nasty little dwarves with axes, and the obligatory dragon sitting on a Persian rug.
When I felt all was ready, I ran my brothers through my adventure. I played the part of the computer, reading text according to their choices.
The entire adventure ran maybe five minutes, and that was including the time necessary to give them instructions. I'd apparently underestimated the content requirements by a hair. This is a problem I still struggle with today.
I taught myself to program on my first computer, a Sinclair ZX80, which lacked the capacity to actually run any of these games (one kilobyte of memory is apparently only enough for about a paragraph of text). Later, when we got the Commodore 64, I finally had enough memory (and storage space) to start making my dreams come true. First off, I was finally able to PLAY these adventure games myself, and finally follow in the footsteps of my friend. I finally encountered the fierce green dragon on the Persian rug, the axe-throwing dwarves, and the notorious TWISTY LITTLE MAZE OF PASSAGES for myself. And I was able to explore the Great Underground Empire, gathering the treasures I'd heard so much about. The experiences were satisfying and thrilling, but still a little short of what I'd felt a couple of years earlier.
But the best thing was that I was able to create these experiences. I started perhaps a dozen adventure games, most left incomplete in one form or another. I even collaborated with a schoolmate on one. I wouldn't go anywhere without my notebook full of maps and notes for my next awesome project. The two adventure games I actually finished, "The Dungeons of Doom" and "The Secret of Red Hill Pass" are long-gone now. And even at the time, I realized their weaknesses (though I thought they were a bit more sophisticated than the original Colossal Cave Adventure or Scott Adams' adventures). And of course, as I already knew the games intimately well, they weren't so much fun for me to play.
But it was during the development of these games that I felt the magic of the dragon on the Persian rug the strongest. I still get a taste of it in other games, some of which I record in my "Game Moments" articles. Part of my anticipation for Mike Rubin's Vespers 3D project is a hope to catch another taste of the magic, as I haven't really been able to get into pure text adventures again (though I've tried, and I don't fully understand why I haven't gotten very far). But those are enough to continue to drive me to play... and to create.
After all this time, that dragon is STILL there on that Persian rug. Oh, he's available in a free download, if anyone feels like challenging him - though I doubt the magic is still there. I don't think it ever was captured in the bits of data that made up the game. Where he really lived, for me, was in my mind. My imagination. The simplicity and abstraction of the text was what invited me to create him, to give him life, and to even give him some amount of power over me.
That was where the immersiveness came from. That's something that fantastic shaders and voice-overs cannot reproduce, and may even hinder (though I'm not quite willing to give them up and go back to text-only). It's all about capturing the imagination. Once that happens, the game - the medium - takes on a life of its own. The player is not just a consumer, an audience, but a participant, and the game becomes much more than the sum of its code and data.
And that's the power of the dragon.
In spite of all his power, the dragon was actually pathetically easy to slay. That was the whole trick. The key was to think outside of the box. It was to realize that in this new medium, the rules of the "real world" didn't necessarily apply. Adventurers were confounded, sometimes for weeks, sometimes forever, because they brought with them assumptions and baggage from the outside world with them into this new but familiar one. Because obviously, slaying a dragon is going to have to take something SPECTACULAR. Maybe something you haven't found yet. All the tricks that worked against the other monsters in the world failed utterly before the power of the dragon.
But the solution was both simple and outrageous. It was spectacular by being non-spectacular. It involved nothing that the adventurer didn't already have with him at the start of the game. For all his intimidating might, the dragon could be defeated by the simplest (but not the most obvious) means possible.
I lied when I said at the beginning of this article that I never had to answer that question myself. Sure, I knew the answer for the Colossal Cave Adventure. But as it set me on my path to making games, to trying to share that little bit of magic with others, particularly as an indie game developer with little resources. I haven't felt extremely successful at it. The dragon on his Persian rug keeps defeating me, as I find myself having to answer that question over and over again. But I keep trying.
I wonder if the answer is really any different?
> Kill Dragon
WITH WHAT, YOUR BARE HANDS?
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS (UNBELIEVABLE, ISN'T IT?)
(Vaguely) related rambles:
* How Do I Get Past the Harpies?
* Interview with Mike Rubin (developer of Vespers 3D)
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind
* Interview with Scorpia
* How Do You Create "Fun?"
Mistakes in Game Design
Mark Rosewater has written up a great article about the common mistakes made by aspiring game designers in Magic: The Gathering (tip o' the hat to Damion Schubert at Zen of Design for pointing this one out).
The principles Mark lays out are 100% applicable to computer and video games. Here's my effort to convert these to the digital gaming medium:
Mistake #1: Making the Player Do Something They Don't Want to Do
Gameplay is all about risk and reward, and balancing the good with the bad --- then allowing the player to make the choice between choices, hedging their bet and trying to stack the odds in their favor. They may have a prime sniper position that gives them an awesome vanatage point to gain some easy kills, but it also allows them to be easily taken from behind.
That's all good.
But making the players engage in un-fun activities in order to get bonuses to make the game more fun later? Not cool.
Perhaps the most un-fun activity of all is... waiting. Not pausing for the best moment to act (which was lots of fun in the Thief and Rainbow Six games), but actually sitting waiting for something to happen or actually being able to do something.
The worst example I can think of is EverQuest --- the whole sitting in front of the spellbook thing to meditate. Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs have it tough - they have to prevent people from racing through the content faster than they can generate it. So much of the balance has to be focused on progression over time. But did they have to make it so overt? And stuck looking at a little 2D picture for minutes at a time in the middle of what was (for the time) a really cool 3D virtual world?
Granted, they whittled away at that later, and most games nowadays have learned their lesson from that embarassing little gameplay mechanic.
Mistake #2: Making the Player Do Unnecessary Work
Because computers are capable of automating so many of the player's book-keeping tasks, this one kinda blurs into the first mistake. But the evil comes when there are tasks the computer really should automate (or allow the option to automate) micromanagement tasks.
An example: Well, these are rare nowadays, but RPGs without automapping. Yeah, automapping takes out some of the tricks that you could pull off on the poor player (like the old teleporting squares and reverse-direction squares of the old Wizardry days), but those tricks were more of an irritation than a fun element anyway.
Another example, also from RPGs: The need for food and drink for character maintenance. Sure, a constant flow of gold for character upkeep is a fairly interesting mechanic, especially for low-level characters. Gotta keep 'em hungry so they keep hunting for gold, right? But keeping track of food stores (and their associated inventory slots or whatever) is usually a pain in the butt. I give an exception to the Ultima Underworld games... where actually trying to survive and find food was a part of the game.
I also recall the painful experience of putting task forces together in Master of Orion 3. Shamefully, they put one of the most entertaining elements of the original game... building fleets - and made it painful and frustrating with all sorts of limitations on what ships could go together in what sort of task force mission.
Mistake #3: Putting Things The Player Cares About Out of His/Her Control
Fortunately, in single-player games, control is rarely more than a "Load Game" menu option away. But that is a meta-game element, not a game mechanic, and ideally shouldn't be a key part of the player experience.
An example of this is old-school (non-LucasArts) adventure games, where you could die by making an unfortunate choice. Later graphical adventures did a pretty good job of easing the player's transition from (usually amusing) death scenes to restoring from a previously saved game. Many RPGs borrowed this trick, having the player character instantly resurrected upon death.
Excessive randomness in a game is also a mistake. Some randomness is okay - even desireable - but when it gets to the point where it gets out of the player's ability to manage, it's a problem.
Another thing to watch out for is a condition where certain combinations of actions are undefendable against. The game that comes to mind is the original Command & Conquer. I don't remember all the details (it's been HOW MANY YEARS since I've played it), but I seem to remember that your starting building was not something that could ever be rebuilt. Two opposing players could team up on you with the Light of Nod (or something like that) and destroy that building INSTANTLY, effectively ending the game for the victim. This wasn't too big of a problem, as this particular weapon took a while to build... so while the victim might not be able to defend or recover from it, it was still at least preventable.
Mistake #4: Forcing the Player's Hand Too Much
This mistake comes into play where one style of play or one strategy has a clear advantage of any others, rendering the entire gameplay a one-dimensional exercise in optimization. Much of the fun in games comes from the player making decisions that appear equally attractive, but the player may be able to nudge some factors to be more in their favor.
Some of the early (and lower-quality) RTS games had this problem, where the entire game became exercises in who could make the most effective early-game rush.
Mistake #5: Making The Gameplay Match the Wrong Audience
This is a pretty common one, and probably merges with mistake #1 a lot. This is frustrating as a game designer, because you are at once trying to add variety to the gameplay to keep it fresh, AND deal with the expectations of the audience. It CAN be done, but it takes a light touch, a skilled hand, and the proper presentation. But you always have to aske youself what your target audience wants to play, and why they are playing your game instead of a different one.
Perhaps the most common example of this mistake is the practically obligatory jumping puzzles in first-person shooters. Many FPS players hate them. Others tolerate them. A few players at grudgingly appreciate the change of pace and variety. But I don't know if anybody actually looks forward to the jumping puzzles. If they did, they'd be playing a different game. Probably on a Nintendo.
(Vaguely) related comments on other fun mistakes!
* How to Avoid Making Money Making Indie Games
* Rules of Game Design Part 1
* A Counter-Manifesto
* More Bad Game Design Decisions
* What Kind of Gamer Are You?
* How Do You Create "Fun"
Labels: Game Design
Game Moment #15 - Neuromancer
Neuromancer, the novel by William Gibson, blew my mind when I read it in the late 1980's. I think it blew the minds of a lot of people. It created the (short-lived) Cyberpunk genre. It was heady stuff when it was published, theorizing virtual reality mingled with a world-wide computer network before the "Internet" was in anyone's vocabulary. It combined a uniquely 1980's era dystopia with a vision of computers and communications melding seamlessly with everyday life - and even within the human body itself. The line between computer programs and the human mind was blurred, and the result was both tantalizing and nightmarish.
Very cool stuff. And more plausible every day. Well, except for the idea of the Soviet Union still being a major player.
Around 1988, the computer game based on the book was created. Published by Interplay, it was a graphic adventure / RPG hybrid by Troy Miles. It even included part of a song (horribly rendered in MIDI glory on the PC) by Devo (How's that for 1980's?). The graphics on the PC version were standard 320 x 200 16-color EGA, and not nearly as attractive as other EGA adventure games of the era.
I didn't get around to playing it until 1991, shortly before I became hooked on Wing Commander. I hadn't even heard of the game before, but I found it discounted for $20 at a little computer shop in northern California early that summer. I wasn't yet plugged back into the gaming scene, so like most uninformed gamers I was as likely swayed by the license as anything else. Although I was saving money for my upcoming wedding and the next two semesters of college (yeah, it was quite the summer), I figured $20 wasn't a very big risk. I bought the game and tried it out that night.
Instead of playing the hero of the novel, you instead played another hacker of a user-supplied name on a somewhat parallel journey. For an adventure game, Neuromancer had a surprisingly small number of physical locations. Most of the game took place along three streets in Chiba City, with a trip near the end-game into orbital space stations. The game borrowed descriptions and characters from the novel, but also included some of its own own humor to the setting. Like the "Church of Pong."
The segment of the game taking place in "meat-space" was almost pure graphic adventure game, with the exception of the flow of cash. There was no combat - saying the wrong thing, going somewhere unprepared, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get you killed, or arrested and fined. Like most games of its kind, you learned to save early and often to avoid re-tracing your steps after a disasterous experiment.
The other side of the game was "Cyberspace," where you upgraded your "cyberdeck" and your software to hack into computers. The combat was in real-time, but it didn't exactly require fast arcade reflexes. It involved analyzing the opposing computer's strengths and weaknesses, and using the right combination of intrusion software to force your way in.
Success netted you access to bank accounts to raid, clues to your next move in cyberspace or in meat-space, upgraded intrusion software, passwords to be used in systems that were too hard to hack through brute force, access to security systems or other controls which affected the meat-space world, background information on the world itself, and some amusing little side-stories. It was perhaps more interesting "treasure" than any +2 sword of ogre decapitation.
In spite of its second-rate graphics (even for the time), the game had something to make it powerfully compelling. It drew me into the world and left me thinking about it when I wasn't playing --- planning my next move, musing over puzzles I hadn't yet solved. As this was still prior to the era of the World Wide Web, the solutions were not to be found in a quick Google search.
No, I had to figure this one out on my own. As any old-school adventure gamer is aware, this led to trying out sometimes irrational behavior in-game to either stumble across a solution, or maybe gain some other clue as to what really should be done, or reveal some previously overlooked option that could break apart several roadblocks at once. As always, I saved the game, experimented, and often found myself having to re-load after experiencing a minor setback or disaster.
My brain was so engaged in this tiny, fictional, 16-color universe that this game "moment" occured in the real-real-world. After playing the game for a couple of hours earlier in the evening, I found myself in a conversation with my in-laws-to-be. I don't remember what it was about, but they asked me a question, and I found myself trying to "save game" prior to answering them. Just in case my answer wasn't a good one.
When I realized what I'd been thinking, I figured I'd probably had enough Neuromancer for the day. I figured my brain had been at it too long, anyway. And that was another thing about old-school adventure games: the solutions often revealed themselves only after you took a break from the game and let your subconscious wrestle with it for a bit.
Incidentally, whatever answer I gave to my wife's folks was evidently the correct dialog tree option. I didn't find myself needing to re-load the game afterwards.
I just upgraded to the new version of Blogger (still beta). The two immediate advantages I've seen are labels (something I've envied for a while), and that email notification of comments actually includes the TITLE of the post now.
For the labels, you can click on the labels at the bottom of most blog posts (not this one... some just don't have a good category) and see the (possibly gigantic) list of past articles with that same label.
Not that I can really imagine why anybody would WANT to read all that crap, but hey... the option is available. I guess there are a few good ones in there.
As to the email notification thing - in the past, if you commented to a post, Blogger would let me know a comment has appeared so I could respond to it. Which is nice. Except it didn't tell me what POST it was in. Sometimes it was obvious (and usually it's a recent). But if you commented on a old post, I might have to spend a lot of time hunting it down.
It's also useful for me to weed out the occasional spam comment that appears in old blog posts. Man, I hate those. The word verification thing stops most spammers in their tracks, but a few determined weasels do get in.
Anyway, please let me know if you've found any problems with the new setup.
And if you are REALLY bored, here are some of the label categories:
Roleplaying Games (Why is it I talk more about RPGs than any other genre here?)
Interviews (Interviews here, and indie interviews on other sites)
Indie Evangelism (Why Indie Games are so freaking awesome)
Game Announcements (News about our games, our affiliate games, and the games we like!)
Retro (Nostalgia, old games, stories of game development from the 90's)
Biz (Business & the game industry)
Mainstream Games (Yes, there are other games out there besides indie...)
Attack of the Zombie Game Legislation!
Oh, boy. Here we go again. The "Videogames Are Porn" bill is back here in Utah. Swell.
Won't someone please shoot this horrible piece of attempted anti-game legislation in the head? Because, zombie-like, it keeps rising from the dead.
It died in committee. They changed some "ors" into "ands" and snuck it back through when nobody was looking.
It died on the Utah Senate floor. Hogue anticipated bringing it back.
Then Hogue lost his bid for state senate (THANKFULLY). So he got a buddy to introduce it for him, all the while spouting almost verbatim Jack Thompson hyperbole as if it were fact. And now it's passed committee again. In spite of warnings from the Attorney General and others that it would most likely, like the similar state bills before it, get overturned for being unconstitutional after an expensive court battle.
(Vaguely) related tales of battling this undead monster:
* Games As Porn Bill Quietly Fails
* Games As Porn Bill Passes House
* Fragged the Bad Bill
* Cool! I get to be a FELON now!
* My Rant Is Printed
Programming Tip: Comment First
Here's a little programming tip that helps me write better code... when I remember to do it. I don't have a really good name for it. I'll just call it the "Comment First" technique for now. I find this trick helps me focus on programming tasks better, helps me stay on target when I'm interrupted, and provides me with nicely commented code.
The technique is simple: When I create a function / method / whatever, I create a stub, and I write the details of the function implementation in plain English inside the stub. (I suppose if English isn't your primary language, another language of choice would suffice. I dunno, I haven't tried.) I format the description as comments, and I try to break them into steps with whitespace between them (blame my learning procedural programming back in the early 80's).
This is sort of like writing pseudocode, which is one of those almost-perfectly-useless things they taught me in college. I never really understood the purpose of using pseudocode outside the language-agnostic classroom. Unlike pseudocode, what I'm talking about is not writing anything that resembles machine-readable instructions. This is purely human-oriented instructions to yourself on how you are implementing the function.
For example, here's a simple function I was working on tonight. This is nothing more exciting than implementing queue behavior in TorqueScript:
// Is the list empty? If so, quit.
// Grab the top element in the queue.
// Does the first element have a successor? If so, point the Qeue to this second element.
// Otherwise, set the Queue it to NULL (0).
// Return the original top element
The first benefit I gain from doing it this way is that it forces me to analyze the problem from a higher level before I start coding. For example, this code (with some expansion to functionality) was being used in tonight's project to keep track of a scrolling, ordered selection of graphics objects. I was going to implement it with an array. As I thought through it, I realized that it was simple queue behavior. As soon as I think queues, I think "linked list." I'd never implemented a linked list in TorqueScript before, but as I thought about I imagined it would be very easy. And much cleaner than the array approach.
Once the instructions are written out this way, writing the code itself is almost trivial. At this point, I can put my brain on auto-pilot and code away. A side benefit is that if I'm interrupted, it's easier to eyeball what I was doing when I left off, and to pick it back up again.
Another advantage is that, when I am done, those little instructions to myself remain as comments for my code. When I come back to it six months and try to figure out what the heck I was thinking when I wrote the code, I'll take a look at the comments and realize I wasn't such an idiot after all. That does wonders for my self-esteem.
So there you go. Nothing rocket-science-y about it, but I thought I'd offer it here as a suggestion to any other code monkeys reading this.
(Vaguely) related items of questionable value
* Biting the Silver Bullet
* The Joy of Debugging
* Fitting Game Development Into a Full-Time Schedule
* Fighting Procrastination: The Local Maxima Problem
I'm not a real game developer. I'm a gamer who learned how to program
The title above is a quote by Brad Wardell in his interview at GamaSutra that's well worth reading.
Brad's company, Stardock, is a fairly unusual indie game developer. In order to finance making games (I think), they got into doing "serious" utilities for businesses. So there are two halves of the company, but they've managed to come up with some really great games.
I haven't played Galactic Civilizations 2 yet (I may wait for the expansion), but I loved the first game and the expansion. It felt more like the classic "Master of Orion" games than... well, more than Master of Orion 3, that's for sure! But by the same token, GalCiv had a feel all of its own. I did miss the tactical combat of MoO 1 and MoO 2, though. (MoO 3's combat.... well, the most powerful weapon was the mind-numbing BOREDOM combined with the complexity of micromanagement... I really should work harder at repressing).
Anyway, here are a couple of choice quotes from Brad's interview:
"...the game industry is so stratified right now that it takes a guy like Will Wright, who's been around for five thousand years, to come up with something like Spore. Everyone says "Oh wow, that's so cool!" In the old days, we had a game as innovative as Spore coming out every year. Nowadays, they're so few and far between that we're starving for innovation. Something like Xbox Live Arcade can open up the doors for the next generation of game developers who will come up with clever stuff."And concerning Microsoft's XNA initiative:
"I love it. I'm not a real game developer; I'm a gamer who learned how to program so that I could make the games that I wanted to play. I figure the more they open it up for more people to make games, the better off we all are."My kind of indie! You can read the entire interview at the link below, where Brad talks about MMORPGs, what happened with the Master of Magic license, how they'd like to do an RPG, and his views on copy protection.
Master of the Galaxy: Stardock's Brad Wardell
(Vaguely) related verbal doodling:
* Game Moment #1: Master of Orion
* A Pirate Story
* Game Design: Speed of Game
* Profit or Passion?
* Interview with Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
* The Five A.M. Hall of Fame
Roleplaying and Computer Roleplaying Games
Some interesting conversations have come up surrounding the topic of roleplaying in computer RPGs. Is it possible in single-player games? Is it even desireable or possible? Is an RPG really an RPG without the "R"?
The discussion frequently comes around to comparisons to multiplayer and "live" RPG sessions.
Me? My best roleplaying experience ever wasn't in an RPG at all. And it got me slapped.
The first article was over at GameWatch.com, an editotorial entitled, "Where Is the 'R' in RPG?"
Scorpia has since responded in a pair of articles, ROLE Playing? and ROLE Playing? Part 2. Bruce Nielson pointed out an article he'd written called Roleplaying Styles and Roleplaying Conflict, primarily referring to roleplaying in multiplayer Neverwinter Nights.
I think this is one of those arguments that will never be resolved. Like the chicken and the egg, or storytelling vs. gameplay (AKA narrativism vs. simulationism, in Bruce's article), or Democrats vs. Republicans. The value is in the discussion, not in any nebulous resolution.
What's In A Name?
First of all, RPGS were invented before they were even called "roleplaying games." So, to me, arguing about whether or not something is a "true" roleplaying game based upon the term that eventually stuck to the category rings artificial to me. In some ways, it can be counter-productive.
It reminds me a little of the (Indian?) parable of the blind men describing the elephant based upon the single feature they experienced. For me, a key part of the experience is using the attributes (stats) of my character(s) to accomplish a task, rather than my own personal abilities. To many game developers, that's no longer aspect of what they consider to be RPGs.
Naturally, I think my point of view is the right one. But we could all be arguing over parts of the elephant.
My Best Roleplaying Experience
I was to play a lecherous broadway producer. She was to play my former lover, a woman developing a good prima-donna complex. The situation: I was getting rid of the prima-donna in my new play, replacing her with the new hottie. With all the emotional baggage that entailed. Two other actors were playing the young hottie and one other role in our little improvisational drama, and some other situation that I forget.
Now, it just so happens that this girl and I were really good friends, admired each other, but had zero physical attraction to each other (as far as I know) in real life. We had a couple of classes together, often had lunch together with the same group of friends, etc. But we both really got into our assigned roles.
And it got heated. Very heated. It ended with the two of us screaming at each other, and she hauled off and slapped me. Ear-ringingly hard. I didn't even notice. Or rather, I noticed, but it didn't dawn on me that I'd been slapped by one of my good friends. No, she was a a total bitch-queen who I'd been supremely stupid to get involved with in the first place, and if I had my way she'd never work in this town again. And I proceded to tell her so at high-volume.
It finally dawned on us that our drama teacher was screaming "cut" or "stop" or something at all of us. Oh, right, we were in this improv. I became aware of a stinging sensation in my left cheek and a ringing in my ear. Suddenly, my partner's eyes widened in horror at what she'd done. She grabbed hold of my arm and apologized repeatedly, explaining that she hadn't even thought about what she was doing. I told her it was fine, I'd been right there with her, and it hadn't thought twice about it until the scene had ended.
Now THAT was roleplaying. And I am pretty sure we got an "A" in class that day.
And Best Experiences in Roleplaying Games
Have I had anything even approaching that sitting around the table with dice and a character sheet in my hand? Not in the same league as far as emotional intensity, no. But I have had some awesome moments that reminded me that THIS was what it was about.
Ducking behind an overturned table in Call of Cthulhu with the rest of my companions, as pistols and a tommy-gun were pulled out to deal with the horde of ghouls that had chased us into this dead-end, hearing them howling and gibbering in the darkened hall...
Getting caught in an ambush in a ruined town, trying to find cover as our supply truck with all our precious food, medicine, and ammunition took a direct mortar hit in Twilight: 2000...
Playing a poor blue-collar worker with a sleep disorder trying to maintain a romantic relationship with a wealthy industrialist, and dealing with the stress of shared friends, social pressures, her tendency to glow blue when excited, and of course horrible super-villains and invading aliens threatening to destroy us and civilization as we knew it in Champions....
And playing a local city councilman (and, secretly, a voodoo priest) in New Orleans, and having to choose between accepting campaign support from local organized crime, or allowing certain vampires to bolster their own political power in the city in an online World of Darkness game.
Can This Happen In A Single-Player CRPG?
I think, to a large degree, roleplaying is a social experience. It's about having reinforcement from other participants (even unwitting ones) and audience. Take away the other players, and it becomes a story rather than roleplaying. It may be an interactive story, but it's still "just" a story. At the time I was on the stage with my friend, or at the time the moments in the game were taking place, I was roleplaying. But now, telling about them, no matter how I might try to get back into the mindset of my character, I'm still just telling a story.
The computer can simulate an opponent or another player for some games, but they still suck horribly at simulating a true social experience. Maybe someday people might be able to roleplay with C3PO as a partner, but not now. Likewise, a book may be extremely well-written, but even though you might have been able to make some interesting choices based on "playing a character" in those Choose Your Own Adventure books in the early 1980's, that didn't constitute roleplaying either.
So in that respect, I'm going to have to say "no, you can't have roleplaying in a single-player roleplaying game."
But There's A But...
However, the fun of roleplaying - the "goal" if you will (which is why it is used as a tool by therapists, trainers, and others) is that it allows us to explore possibilities in a safe social environment. Well - relatively safe. Apparently, I could still get slapped.
But even in a fantasy roleplaying game like D&D, where we're fighting dragons and demons in full melodramatic and larger-than-life glory, there are points of verismilitude with our real lives that make it compelling, that give the experience power, and can actually teach us in some ways.
No, we're not going to be chucking fireballs at black dragons when we step out the door to go to work in the morning, and our memorization of the grappling rules isn't going to do us much good on that physics test tomorrow morning. However, everyone deals with facing apparently insurmountable odds as part of the basic human experience. It's nice to know what it feels like to be victorious once in a while.
We often have to choose the lesser of two evils. With my city councilman / voodoo priest, I was able to safely explore possible repercussions of doing so. We often face trials in relationships with others, particularly romantic ones - and in the Champions game, we could blow up those trials to fantastic and melodramatic proportions to explore how to deal with them without the dangers of harming a real-world relationship. In Twilight: 2000 and Call of Cthulhu, I got to explore my own emotional reactions to dire emergencies in a safe, slow-paced environment. Not that they resembled anything I expect to face in the real world (I certainly hope not), and I doubt I'd actually have such coolness under fire as my characters, but whether or not they have any actual value or application to the real world, the thrill was similar to the thrill of riding a roller coaster - the emotional reaction was invoked without an actual threat being involved.
And computer games can DO exploration. They can do it pretty well. They have some pretty hard limits to the exploration, but a single-player computer game with virtually unlimited save points is about as safe an environment as you can ask for.
And it is being done. The Sims was so astronomically successful, I think, for that very reason. While it was incredibly abstract as a social simulation, it allowed people to explore. I guess is shares the same resemblance with roleplaying as playing with dolls or action figures as a kid might. I wouldn't CALL it that, but it shares some resemblances.
The hit indie RPG Cute Knight has a lot of features in common with what some people are calling for to add more roleplaying in RPGs. TONS of choices, over 50 endings (plus several variants per ending) - from becoming the Queen of Thieves, to a maid, to a champion of the realm, to discovering your heritage as... um, I'll leave that one alone. Like other "sim" games, you have choices with lots of consequences - some of them simple (like losing effectiveness in one attribute in favor of others), and some more complicated and scripted, such as new opportunities opening up and new characters being met.
But is it roleplaying? I don't think so. To me, it's exploration. It's creating an interesting story. It's having fun. I even have an emotional attachment (for the brief duration of the game) to my character. And if you've read any of those Game Moments articles, you'll know I believe that games can be every bit as thrilling and emotion-evoking as any other medium - perhaps more so. All the thrill of getting your face slapped in an improv, but without the pain.
I just think pursuing "roleplaying" in single-player RPGs is false goal. It's a means, not an end. We still have a ton of uncharted territory left to explore.
(Vaguely) related incoherent rants:
* Game Moments #4: Daggerfall
* Cute Knight Hints, Tips, and Spoilers
* RPG Design Seed Challenge
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Where Is Indie Innovation?
* Game Moments #9: Ultima Underworld
Guitar Hero 2 and TROGDOR!!!
Okay, this will be my last mention of Guitar Hero 2 for a while. The game is out, other people are playing, but I am forbidden to purchase ANY games right now until after Christmas. Because if I happen to buy myself something that my wife already got for me as a Christmas present, my funeral will be over long enough beforehand for everyone to enjoy the holidays.
But for anyone who hasn't been paying attention (or doesn't have the game yet) - the best song EVAR is a bonus song not by Rush, or Kansas, or Black Sabbath.... but by STRONGBAD:
Also, this has been making its rounds since last week, but it seems that Guitar Hero is a hit among many actual rock stars. Apparently the illusion is better than the reality, sometimes. Though I guess they get a little annoyed when their kid sister beats them at their own song...
When Being a Fake Rock Star Is Better Than the Reality
Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
This month, I interviewed Amanda Fitch, the author of the hit indie RPG, Aveyond, and founder / owner of Amaranth Games.
Aveyond (now re-christened "Aveyond I: Rhen's Quest") appeared at the beginning of the year with little fanfare (at least from what I could tell), but found itself popular with both fans of “old-school” console role-playing games of the Super Nintendo era, but also with a brand new audience. In particular, female gamers of all ages have become involved in the story of Rhen, a young farm girl with a mysterious past and a fateful destiny. Because of its success amongst "casual" gamers, this fantasy RPG has managed to occupy top-ten positions for several weeks on major casual portals, something normally reserved for match-three style puzzle games like Bejewelled.
I asked Amanda to share some of her thoughts on indie game design and development, how she got involved in the business, and the two new games that are currently under development. In particular, I got some tidbits about the soon-to-be-released Grimm’s Hatchery, a casual game that may appeal to fans of Aveyond, and the upcoming sequel to Aveyond, entitled Aveyond II: Ean’s Quest.
---== The Past ==---
Rampant Coyote: So how did you end up becoming an indie game developer? And why Role-Playing Games (RPGs)?
Amanda: I wanted to play a game like Kings Quest VI, but I found out that game companies weren't making these sorts of games anymore. I rolled up my sleeves and decided to make the game that I wanted to play. After I finished my first game, Gaea Fallen, I wanted to play an RPG like Final Fantasy VI, but alas, I had the same problem. No one seemed to be making them anymore. So I made Ahriman's Prophecy. Both games were freeware and Ahriman's Prophecy was popular enough for me to consider making games for a living.
Rampant Coyote: Game development is a fairly male-dominated industry. Has that been an issue with you at all as an active member of the indie game development community? Or have you found it advantageous to bring a different perspective or stand out as one of the few female indie game developers? Or does it even matter?
Amanda: The guys have been really cool and very supportive. I do think that I tend to look at games at a different angle than most of them. I look at the story, art, and music first, and then worry about the underbelly of whatever I'm making. I don't care if the ground shakes when my characters jumps up or down; I'm much more interested in their social interactions with each other.
Rampant Coyote: What games have you played that you would consider your biggest influences, if any?
Amanda: Kings Quest and Final Fantasy are my hands-down favorites.
Rampant Coyote: Ahriman's Prophecy was your first role-playing game, to my knowledge. At least the first one you finished and released to the public. In many ways, it sounds like it was practice or a "dry run" for Aveyond. What sort of lessons did Ahriman's Prophecy teach you?
Amanda: I used Ahriman's Prophecy to learn how to present a game to the public and market. I practiced uploading it to sites, and learned a lot about software submission. I also created two versions. The second one was much better than the first.
Rampant Coyote: What did you change in the second version of Ahriman's Prophecy to make it better?
Amanada: I recreated the battle system, all of the menus, and made much better maps.
Rampant Coyote: How much time did it take to complete Ahriman's Prophecy? How about Aveyond?
Amanda: Ahriman's Prophecy took 1 year and Aveyond took 1 1/2 years.
Rampant Coyote: Aveyond was your first commercial game. I'm not privy to your sales numbers, but by most indicators you really hit one out of the park on your first try. Aveyond has not only made it onto several major portals, but has also spent some significant time on their top-ten lists - a place usually held by match-three style games. You have a large number of affiliates, and a healthy community at your site. To what do you attribute your success, and what is it going to take to maintain it?
Amanda: Lots of marketing, a good, long story, and a niche with no competition. I offered something different and it made a splash. Now, I need to figure out how to turn a splash into a tidal wave. :D
Rampant Coyote: Aveyond has been described as a "casual RPG." Was that your intention when you started working on it, or did it just evolve that way?
Amanda: When I started working on it, I didn't know that the indie game market had fragmented into casual and non-casual. Most of the casual games looked cute and light-hearted, so I figured Aveyond would fit right in.
Rampant Coyote: Now that Aveyond has been out for a year or so, what sort of lessons are you taking from it to apply to future games? Is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
Amanda: I wish I had marketed earlier and not made so many changes later on. I was constantly updating the game from January to July and some updates were drastic. In the future, I'm only going to make bug fixes to games that I've already released. If new features are added, they will be part of a goodie pack that players can download from my site. I also didn't have a professional logo for the game until April. I should have done that before the game ever went live.
Rampant Coyote: You've used some pretty high-end toolkits for creating your games - specifically RPG Maker for your two RPGs. Some people get a little funny about that. On the one hand, some people treat it as if it's somehow cheating - that it is both overly constricting and somehow "too easy." Yet there are very few finished games out there using these engines, let alone polished, commercial-quality games of the quality and scope of Aveyond. So what does it really take to create a polished, commercial-quality game using a higher-level engine? If it's much harder than it sounds, is a higher-level engine even useful?
Amanda: I knew that when I released Aveyond that I was stepping into the briar patch. I was very worried about how the development community would feel about my approach. I repeated to myself over and over again that my goal was not to please developers, but to please players.
I also wanted to break the ice and bring attention to Game Creation Systems. I don't think they are The wave of the future, but I think they are A wave in the future. If game creation systems continue to gain popularity, this could be a bit threatening to some developers who like to program everything from the ground up. It would be a bummer to find out that the artist next door made the same match-3 that you did in a fraction of the time with better art, eh?
Actually, there are loads of games that have been completed with Game Creation Systems! The problem is that most of these game makers only show off the games on freeware sites (Game Hippo) or in the communities devoted to the Game Creation Systems. For example, if you go to the Adventure Game Studio site, you will see that there is a huge list of finished games.
Many Game Creation Systems stink, and you will probably never see anything completed with them. The easiest way to find out if a Game Creation System is good is to check out its community. RPG Maker XP, Game Maker, Adventure Game Studio have huge active communities. It's a shame that most of the people who have created amazing games with these systems are afraid to sell what they make or step forward. This is changing, however. In fact, a commercial game was just finished with Adventure Game Studio, and the second indie shareware game is on the way. I also know that indie developers have made shareware games with Game Maker. Too cool!
My guestimate is that 97% of projects never make it to completion with the good Game Creation Systems. This may sound alarming, but it isn't since 97% of all indie game projects fail anyways.
Hey, here's a fun Q&A:
Q. What hugely popular commercial RPG series was build with a 3D game
A. Elder Scrolls!
Q. What is the name of this game creation system?
Q. How much is Gambryo?
A. More than most of use make in two years!
Rampant Coyote: Are there any little secrets in Aveyond that most people never discover that you'd like to share?
Amanda: The cash cow, secret portal stones, and lots of other hidden goodies that players probably won't find unless they go to Amaranth Games and find them in the section called “Goodies.”
---== The Present ==---
Rampant Coyote: So, tell us about your next game! Don't spare the gory details!
Amanda: The next game is called Grimm's Hatchery, and it involves caring, breeding, and selling of magical pets. This isn't an RPG, but the game takes place in Candar, a village in the Aveyond universe. I'm also working on Aveyond II: Ean's Quest, which I seriously think is going to blow Aveyond I: Rhen's Quest away.
Rampant Coyote: With the success of Aveyond, and players hungry for more, why did you decide to make a casual game before moving on to the next RPG of the series?
Amanda: I needed a break from RPGs, I wanted to work on a short 5-month project, and I wanted to draw more casual gamers into my world of Aveyond. The conversion rate for Aveyond is very high, and I think a lot of players haven't played this sort of game because it is completely new to them. I hope that Grimm's Hatchery will help me convert more of these players. I want them to fall in love with the characters in Grimm's Hatchery (a traditional casual game), and feel brave enough to try out Aveyond II so that they can experience their favorite characters again.
Rampant Coyote: Do you think the new game will appeal to fans of Aveyond?
Amanda: Oh yes! It's just a bit lighter than Aveyond. There are lots of quests around the village, so there's quite a bit to do besides raising pets and chasing off monsters. I think Adventure lovers are especially going to love this game. Like King's Quest and Monkey Island, each area has a beautifully rendered 2D background, and you can use your mouse to explore each area in the village, just like you would in your typical adventure game.
Rampant Coyote: When should we expect to be able to play the new game?
Amanda: Grimm's Hatchery will be released to the players on my site around December 15th and to the rest of the world on January 11th. Aveyond II: Ean's Quest will be released next September.
Rampant Coyote: It sounds like the original Aveyond is getting a name change. Sort of like how Raiders of the Lost Ark is now "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark." Do you have plans to re-release it with the name change?
Amanda: Yep, I've already re-released it on my site. I figured that I needed a way for people to distinguish between the two games. This is it for big game changes in the future. :)
Rampant Coyote: I understand Grimm's Hatchery is being made with the Torque Game Builder (TGB). How do you like working with TGB? How does it compare to working with RPG Maker XP?
Amanda: I like it! Both game creation systems have rich scripting systems, and both are great for the type of games they are intended to make.
RPG Maker XP has the best editor for making RPGs period. I've been seriously spoiled by it, and I've not yet found anything that compares. Torque Game Builder is great for the casual game that I'm making (Hatchery). I'm glad that I didn't try to use RPG Maker XP to make Grimm's Hatchery, and I'm crazy glad that I didn't try and use Torque to make Aveyond.
Rampant Coyote: So once Grimm’s Hatchery is released, you will be back to work on Aveyond II: Ean’s Quest. Can you talk about it at all at this point?
Amanda: Sure! Here's a quick overview:
Ean (m) and Iya (f) are two young elves who live in a far away place called the Vale. One day, Ean wakes up to find that Iya, his best friend is mysteriously missing and that no one remembers who she is. Not only that, but a very strange thing has occurred... snow has fallen in the Vale. Ean sets out on a quest to find his missing friend; a quest that will take him away from his beloved home to the mainland below. And on his quest, Ean will find that dear Iya has been swept away by the Snow Queen, and that her heart is slowly turning to ice. Ean must save his friend and Iya must learn to control her wild powers that the Snow Queen desires for herself. The fate of Ean and Iya are the key to defeating the Snow Queen's terrible plot to cover the world in ice.
Rampant Coyote: So how do you approach game design? What goes into a design document for an Amaranth game? Do you involve others in the design process?
Amanda: At this point, I'm the only one in the design process, but when I get suggestions from those I work with, I tend to implement them. To begin, I write the story, then I decide how many quests that the game needs to have, what areas need to be in the game, and then I fill the rest in as if I was writing a novel... layer by layer by layer.
Rampant Coyote: A lot of the older mainstream games, particularly RPGs and adventure games - were the work of very small teams, and were often designed by a single designer. In fact, the name of their designers were in some ways a brand for those games, and a lot of people felt that the tiny design and development team allowed the creators to inject a lot of their own personality into their games. Do you feel that is the case with your own games? Is there anything you could point to - or that has been pointed out to you by friends - that seems to be "signature Amanda Fitch?"
Amanda: Absolutely! I love being devious to my characters in a light-hearted way. For example, in Aveyond, militant squirrels are out to rule the world, and you can join them and follow the Way of the Nut. Of course, no matter what you do for the militant squirrel commander, he will always find a reason to whip you.
Rampant Coyote: What makes a great RPG?
Amanda: For me, a good story, lots of quests, lots of villages, and loot!
Rampant Coyote: What games are you playing right now (if any)?
Amanda: Drats! I've been caught... Er, none at the moment. I've cut myself off from everything until I finish Grimm's Hatchery.
Rampant Coyote: Are there any other indie games out there in the market right now that you are particularly interested in or admire?
Amanda: Cute Knight!
Rampant Coyote: Me too! I’m really hoping her fans will talk her into making a sequel! So, is there anything else you'd like to add?
Amanda: Thank you so much for this interview! If anyone wants to keep up-to-date on the progress of Grimm's Hatchery, my new super-secret Amaranthia Kingdom web project (sssshhh!), or Aveyond II: Ean's Quest, please check out my designer journal, which I update every week: http://www.amaranthia.com/journal
Rampant Coyote: Awesome. Thank you, Amanda, for taking the time out to do this interview. I hope this hasn’t impacted the release date of Grimm’s Hatchery! :)
(Vaguely) related Tales:
· Interview with Scorpia
· Interview with Mike Rubin (Vespers 3D, 3D Interactive Fiction)
· Aveyond 2.0 Released!
· Tales from the Road: Cute Knight
· Pre-Teen Game Designer Poised To Take Over the World
· The Evolution of Computer RPGs
· Torque News
We'll All Just Go Back To Level One Together...
Danc has a great article entitled, "Killing the Elder Game" at the Lost Garden. Specifically, it's a commentary on the indie Massively Multiplayer Online Game, "A Tale In the Desert."
The curious thing about ATITD is that every 18 months or so, the game ends, and restarts. I think right now they are on version #3, the third "telling." It's a break with tradition, but they are managing to pull it off AND make a profit. Anyway, hit the link above and check out discussion on the game design issues surrounding this game.
Kicked In The Butt By A Metal Cow
Arcade / Action Games are a pain in the butt to create.
Okay, ANY game is a pain in the butt to create. But some games you can balance pretty well with a mathematical analysis. In an action game, it's more about how loaded (or overloaded) the player is with action-choices in a given length of time, and how much leeway is given for errors in either action or timing of those actions. Given the number of variables present in most games, that's something that can usually only be roughly estimated.
Or designed by "gut feel." And then tested.
And there's my problem. As the designer and developer of my game, I am uniquely UNQUALIFIED to test it for playability. I'm not even sure if I'm good, bad, or "okay" at playing my own game.
When I design a level, I start out with an idea. In many cases, especially if it involves modeling interiors, I sketch it out on paper. Other times I just go with it from my head onto the computer. I play through it in "god mode" - an invincibility mode turned on with a single keypress. I desigh, I redesign, I tweak, I note (and usually fix) bugs, I implement new code as it needs coding, and basically get it to a rough level of playability. As the final step, I turn off god mode and play through the level and try to gauge if it's difficulty is about right.
So I'm working on the new game, "Apocalypse Cow." Well, not all that new to me, really. New as in "Newer than Void War", I guess. I'm working on the "Mecha-Robo-Cow" boss level, which occurs 4/5ths of the way through the game. Said boss is a giant metal cow walking on two legs. Her udder fires anti-aircraft shells that explode, saturating an area with lethal explosions. Her left foreleg is an autocannon. She has a missile launcher on her right shoulder. She's supposed to be hard, as the penultimate boss of the game. And she is totally kicking my butt.
Maybe "kicking" isn't the right term. More like "grinding it into a powder and scattering it into hurricane-class winds."
I've been worried that this gal would be too easy. She can be destroyed in about twelve seconds of sustained fire. The previous boss, from about five levels back, is too easy, and needs a minor overhaul. THAT one has a critical weakness that's embarassingly easy to exploit (hover directly over him, far enough that he's barely off-screen below you, and he can't touch you). A weakness is a good thing (in fact, it's practically REQUIRED in making a good boss battle), but not one that is too easy to exploit.
So I made the Mecha-Robo-Cow a bit tougher. She performs her attacks in deliberate, predictable cycles, with a very deliberate pause between the cycles. She changes her behavior when the player is directly above her, but she's also forced to halt her march towards a mission-failing finish line. Tested from the security of an invulnerable god-mode, the Mecha-Robo-Cow seemed to be perfect. Then I turned off invulnerability, and tested the level out "live."
The first dozen times I played, I couldn't even get close enough to scratch the Mecha-Robo-Cow's paint. In sixty tries, I've managed at best to take her down to about 80% health. A hair over two seconds of the twelve of sustained fire. Clearly, she's too tough, and needs to be made easier.
Sure. But how? And by how much?
Every time I find my helicopter doing catching fire, spinning, and crashing into the ground, it's very clear that I made some kind of error. I zigged when I should have zagged. I made this error in judgement at point A, which compounded to leave me stuck in this situation and point B, which I nevertheless could have escaped if I'd done C. It's kind of a high-speed puzzle. It has the desireable quality of feeling that success is just one more try away. This time, I can do it right, make no mistakes, and win. And so I go on to make another mistake - or the same one - fifteen seconds later. It feels like a fair challenge --- one that I keep losing over and over again.
There are probably a dozen ways or more to fix the problem. From reducing the rate of fire, to introducing a pronounced gap between its attacks, to giving the player access to some kind of "second chance" forcefield, to simply dropping the amount of damage the Mecha-Robo-Boss can take before dropping. Or a combination of several.
But which is best? And how much easier should I make it? I don't know. Again, I'm UNIQUELY UNQUALIFIED to answer just how over-the-top this level is. I'm hoping I can get it somewhere in the ballpark, so when I finally open this game up to external testers they can provide me with good feedback and let me know if I erred too far on one or the other extreme on the difficulty scale. If I get half the players saying "too easy" and the other half saying "too hard," then maybe it'll be just about right.
I don't really have a point to this, other than maybe sharing what's vexing me in this day in the life of a clumsy indie game developer.
Though I admit it is kinda funny having my butt kicked repeatedly by a metal cow.
(Vaguely) related pointless mutterings:
* You Can't Design Fun On Paper
* Ways to Be A Better Game Designer
* Elements That Make More Believable AI
* Apocalypse Cow Status
* Apocalypse Cow Boss
TGEPlus: Two Game Engines In One!
So what do you do if you have two game engines that nicely complement each other, but you don't have the capacity to use them both? Well, in my case, I smashed the two of them together to get the best of both worlds. It helped that the two engines were both variants of the same technology and were, in fact, originally designed to coexist peacefully.
I'd been lamenting the fact that as cool as the Torque Game Builder (GarageGames' relatively new 2D game engine) is, I really didn't have an upcoming project that would take advantage of it. Sure, I'd written a couple of small, non-commercial games with it that helped me understand the system, but realizing that it'd be 2008 before I could even THINK about putting it to use in a major project.
On the other hand, on my wish list of features for the Torque Game Engine has been an improved UI editor and UI tools. Torque's GUI tools, out-of-the-box, are fairly spartan. Sure, they get the job done, and allow the creation of some fairly powerful interfaces. In a straightforward, build-a-UI-with-MFC kinda way. But if you are going for flash - animated menus, elements fading in and out, controls that responded to changes in the game, or anything else really DYNAMIC --- well, it's time to crack open the ol' C++ engine again and extend a class. Or, at the very least, create a dozen artwork variations to deal with the fact that you can't rotate or mirror UI elements.
For an upcoming project (not Apocalypse Cow), this is something of a headache. It has a LOT of dynamic UI elements, which need to slide around, rotate, and fade in and out on the screen. If it weren't for the fact that the principle gameplay needs to take place in a 3D environment, I would have chosen to go with TGB as a solution, as it's perfect for that kind of thing.
The answer was to try and integrate the two. After all, TGB was built over the top of Torque, right? Searching through some posts on the forums, I found a comment by Josh Williams (link HERE if you are a TGB owner) which raised my hopes - though it was suspiciously 18 months old:
'Well, here's a mega-quick guide to putting T2D in TGE:
1) Copy the C++ source files in the engine/T2D directory over to your TGE
project (copy them into your directory, and add them to your compiler
2) CompileAnd there ya go. :)
We designed T2D specifically to be drop-in compatible with TGE like this.
Maintaining this constraint was quite painful, design-wise. There were many
times when either Melv or I said "man, forget Torque compatibility, this sucks."
Luckily though, when one of us said that, the other guy was like "come on...
this is important" and then we figured out a smooth way to keep the code clean
but still do what we wanted from T2D's p.o.v. So, we pulled it off, and it's
extremely easy to integrate these two projects now. Should always stay that
Well, sure, but that was back in Torque 1.3 & ancient early adapter "Torque 2 D" days. Could it be that easy?
Well, no. There were some minor compile issues. Still the project only took me about twenty minutes, including time to go get a drink from the fridge. When I tried out the resulting code, the results were hopeful but.... glitchy. Still, it looked like I had the capability to put in automated, animated UI elements in my code. It would need a bit more work, but I was optimistic.
Later, Gary Briggs popped on with suggestions from his own success combining TGB and Torque 1.4. The thread, if you have access to the forums, is HERE. There were a lot of little things that needed to be fixed.
I spent some time integrating in the new changes (total time: Maybe a little over a half hour to hunt everything down, copy them over, make the changes inside files, and add them to the project in Visual Studio.) The result?
Well, the resulting executable wouldn't run the TGB Editing tools. Okay, it would run it, but would pop open an error. I should probably go through the whole thing and do a DIFF to see what else needs to be done.
However, I also ran a couple of the games I'd created in TGB, substituting in my new executable (which was also being merged into the changes I've been making for Apocalypse Cow) instead of TGB. The result?
Granted, my games weren't exactly stress-tests of TGB. But my resulting project, which I have dubbed "TGEPlus," grants me all of the enhanced UI functionality I anticipate for next year's game. Plus, I intend to use it where I can for Apocalypse Cow. 2D particles in screen-space. Animated menus which slide in and out of the screen rather than just "popping" in and out of existance. Maybe little 2D cows that peek over the edge of the screen with signs that read, "EAT MOR PEEPLE."
Not bad for only one hour of effort. I'm not ashamed of taking advantage of other people's hard work. That's one of the many advantages of using a popular, third-party engine. Kudos to GarageGames for trying to keep them compatible.
Now, the cons:
* Buying a second Torque engine may be a bit too pricey for people who are only interested in enhancing TGE's UI functionality.
* As I mentioned, my merge is still not perfect - it doesn't work as a replacement for TGB with the tools suite. Some more work needs to be done - though I don't know if it's a priority for me, personally.
* My final executable clocked in at around 4.9 megs for the release version executable. It had some additional code from my current game, but a small enough amount to be in the noise. TGE comes in at a pretty hefty size to begin with, and so the addition of the TGB library may not entirely tip the scales - but it's a definite impact when considering file size for a downloadable game.
Again, many thanks to Gary Briggs and the GG team. The effort is appreciated!
Gamers Lost The Election
Game Life has a great rundown of just how horribly gamers (and taxpayers) lost Tuesday's election in the United States.
A quote: 'Did any significant number of American voters actually cast their ballot yesterday based on what the candidate thinks of video games? Likely not. But free-speech advocates still face an uphill battle in the months and years ahead as long as censorship in the guise of "protecting the children" remains a politically winning issue.'
It continues with a detailed run-down of the results.
It's dissapointing. Two more years of blowing through taxpayer money to defend laws that attack the Bill of Rights. Joy.
Gamers: Your Election Results
Apocalypse Cow Status
Well, Chris asked about it, so here I go, throwing my hat over the fence. All of this is tentative... the Day Job is in crunch-mode right now, so it's hard to fit in the time with family and working 10-12 hour days at the office. But here goes - status update on Apocalypse Cow.
I've already blown past a couple of internal milestones by now. It's my own fault. Originally, AC was going to be a very quick-and-dirty little project, whipped out in about six months of part-time effort. But I ended up getting excited about it, and feature creep set in. One of the objectives I set for the game (when it went beyond the quick-and-dirty stage) was to have some new gameplay element in every level to keep the player's interest. I didn't want to just keep scaling up the difficulty. The game is sitting at over 20 levels, so that's a tall order and a lot of custom code. And content. And bugs. And...
And so the game has been taking for-freaking ever, and I alternate between loving it and hating it. But I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. WHEW!
So what's left to do? In order to get to "Alpha" (a goal I have for mid-December)
* There are 4 levels left that haven't been started on, yet.
* I need to fix mission completion / failure criteria for some levels
* There is one early level that needs a drastic overhaul. I put a lot of time in on it back in April, but it's still just not working. I'm afraid it's going to be scrapped and replaced.
* Mid-game and end-game story screens
* Dialog for the later levels
* Save and Load Game
"Alpha" for this game is a rough draft of the full, completed game. At that point, there's a lot of iteration to clean up and polish the levels, tweak the AI and game balance, replace stand-in content with final content, and punch up the special effects and humor.
Last but not least, I need a finalized title. Maybe you guys can help out on this. The phrase "Apocalypse Cow" is unfortunately a fairly common joke. I'm keeping it in the title, because it's FUN, but it needs a subtitle of some kind. Here are our favorites so far:
Apocalypse Cow: The Revolution
Apocalypse Cow: The Chips Fall
Apocalypse Cow: Tipping The Balance
Apocalypse Cow: Fighting The Bull
Apocalypse Cow: When The Chips Are Down
Apocalypse Cow: Empire of Bull
Apocalypse Cow: Bull Smack
What's your favorite (or favorites)? Do you have suggestions? Please let me know!
( Vaguely) related bits of bovine-bashing:
* Humor and Apocalypse Cow
* Apocalypse Cow Progress
* An (old and untextured) Apocalypse Cow Boss
* Apocalypse Cow
Labels: Apocalypse Cow
How to Develop an MMORPG With No Team And Limited Budget
"I was programming games professionally when the first MMORPG titles hit the market. Within a few hours of playing, I knew I wanted to develop them. The trick was in figuring out how to as a sole programmer with very limited money."
Sound familiar? For a few years it seemed like everybody and their cousin wanted to make their own EverQuest. A lot of folks still do, but the name has changed to World of Warcraft. Now it seems that every few days a visitor appears on various game development forums with what they think is a great idea, but no idea of where to start.
Well, in this case it was an experienced game developer, who knew where to start. And where it ends is anybody's guess. But the above quote comes from Josh Ritter of Prairie Games, and he actually pulled it off. His game, Minions of Mirth, launched a little under a year ago, and has been gradually building up steam ever since. At this point, it sounds like the game is truly a success. I'm a bit of a fan of his, as I've exchanged a few emails and forum messages with him a few times, and I have found him to be one of the most energetic and driven individuals I've ever met.
In a community where a hundred MMO projects get proposed and then disappear every year, he had me convinced a year earlier that he was actually going to bring his to completion. It was because, as an experienced developer, he understood the scope of what he was attempting. He understood it, and had a realistic (if extremely aggressive) plan for achieving it.
Gamasutra recently ran an interview (from which I took the above quote) in which he explains a little bit of how he managed to accomplish what many consider an impossible dream:
Road To The IGF: Prairie Games' Minions of Mirth
Some things Josh Ritter and Prairie Games did that didn't necessarily make it into the interview:
* He moved to North Dakota (the middle of nowhere) to extend his budget.
* Josh used Python to code the actual game engine, which proved advantageous when he ported the game from a Quake-based engine to Torque (a process which only took two months as a result).
* They made use of third-party graphics engines (customized, of course)
* Josh created smart tools to assist in development. One I took particular note of was a tool that created a .MAP file out of a much simpler Doom-format map. He could then model a level very quickly using an old-fashioned DOOM map editor, transform it into a .MAP file, and then use the more advanced (but more cumbersome) .MAP editing tool to finish the job. I don't know if he used this in actual production, but it always sounded to me as a very clever idea.
* They made use of off-the-shelf content. If you wander through Minions of Mirth, you'll see a lot of locations and set pieces that can be purchased "off-the-shelf." I doubt most players are taken aback by the fact that the game is not 100% custom content.
* They arranged for some independent investment to help with finishing the game - mainly to help fund art content (by indie game artists and modelers, I should add!)
* Prairie Games got creative with monetizing the game: In addition to conventional sales of the game itself (Minions of Mirth is not subscription-based), they've released a free version of the game which uses in-game-advertising (as I understand - I bought the full version and never tried the free one).
* And, of course, they entered Minions of Mirth into the Independent Games Festival, which may be worth some prize money (though they are up against some really great titles this year!), but more importantly gives them a bit more attention.
So - can an EverQuest-style Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game be done by indies? You bet! Minions of Mirth isn't the only indie-created MMO out there of course - AdventureQuest, A Tale In The Desert, and many others come to mind. There are also some others in development that I think have a high likelihood of seeing the light of day (including LinkRealms, a game being developed locally which I've talked about before). But I think Prairie Games' story illustrates what it takes to make it happen.
My Daughter, The Game Designer Superstar ... to be
A little over a month ago, I mentioned how my daughter was getting into developing games.
Just a little update - saving her money, she managed to pay her portion of the fee to buy RPG Maker XP. She's now devoting most of her computer time (at least from what I have seen) to making her dream game.
She's caught the game development bug, and it's stuck with her for over a month. I'm calling it a good thing.
Thanks to the tools she gets to use, her first games are a lot better than my first attempts. My first games were little text-adventures that had to fit in 1K of RAM. How much text-adventure can fit inside of 1K? Oh, let's see. About as much as this blog up to this paragraph. And a parser that could only read one-letter commands. Things got better when I upgraded to the Commodore 64, but even then I could only dream of making a game of the quality that she can create without a line of code.
She's got NPCs conversing with each other (and, of course, with the player), lots of combat and questing, and some kind of story arc that I'm only partially aware of, in full 640x480 graphical splendor. If it's not exactly a polished product with award-winning potential, it's at least a great experience for her.
And frankly, it looks better than my current game (the one with the exploding cows!) at this point. Bleah!
The ultimate high of game development is to have someone else play and enjoy your game. While right now she's getting a kick out of creation (which is a powerful rush in and of itself), I'd like to help her get to that higher stage. She does have a couple of friends she's coordinating with (one of whom has also jumped aboard the RPG Maker bandwagon), so at least she has a peer-group that can provide some support now.
But now I am debating how much parental guidance to I provide her at this point? Do I leave her mostly alone and in free-exploration mode, just letting her show off her creation with me from time to time, and offering her encouraging comments? Or do I take a more active role, offering suggestions and hints, and encouraging her to structure her efforts? I'm inclined to go with the former, to leave it as "play" instead of "work." But I don't know.
I guess I should probably ask her how much she wants me involved, huh? Assuming she knows, herself. I expect that in a few months, she may be able to teach ME a thing or two about game design.
(Vaguely) Related Mental Wanderings:
* Pre-Teen Game Designer Poised To Take Over The World
* How Do I Get Past The Harpies?
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind
* Do Games Matter?
* How Do You Create "Fun"?
Don't Forget To Vote.
If you are a U.S. citizen and registered to vote... tomorrow's your big chance.
The average gamer is around 30 years old. Maybe not a very politically active age, but old enough to vote and make a difference. Tired of having games and the freedom of speech attacked by political leaders seeking a quick grab on "family values" points? Make your voice heard!
For a couple of guides as to who may be the most and least friendly towards technology and gaming, here's some useful info:
Alas, in my state, the "digital Joe McCarthy," Orrin Hatch, looks to be ahead in the polls against democratic challenger Pete Ashdown, a technologically savvy business owner (AND A GAMER!). Too bad. I don't expect an upset... but it would be cool.
As always, have fun!
As another resource, here's today's column at GamePolitics.com,
"Election Day Special Coverage - Races We’ll Be Watching”
How The Neverwinter Nights 2 Review Happened
So how does a bad review get through the editorial process, leading to it's very public retraction? I'm not talking about a review of a bad game, but a review of very poor quality?
"Neverwinter Nights 2: What Happened" - Jeff Green, editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World (Now "Games For Windows"), explains the sequence of events leading to their editorial blunder, and why they decided to pull the review.
Personally - well, I discussed it a little bit last week. And Tycho has a great post about it today at Penny-Arcade (the comic is funny as well...) As a rant - hey, I love a good rant. Even if I disagree with it - which I did. Rants promote discussion. But in this case, it was a rant masquerading as a review of a cover-story game, which had little to do with the game itself and was more a rant against the genre in general. Of which there are a legion of fans. A legion that wanted to know more about - you know - the game they were considering buying, rather than a diatribe about why they are so stupid for liking those kinds of games in the first place.
It's fun to read Jeff Green's take on it, since it sounds like it was ultimately his call, both to run it and to pull it.
MY biggest concern on the whole thing is the fact that the same reviews will be appearing both in print and on the website. If Games For Windows is simply going to be recycled content previously available on the web, why bother buying the magazine? Well, besides being more convenient for bathroom reading...
So, Jeff Green.... sell-out, or showing integrity?
The new Games For Windows: Will it be worthy of bathroom reading, or not worthy of being used as toilet paper?
HERE is a really well-thought-out review by Kieron Gillen that expresses the same feeling - that the design is feeling kind of tired - without turning the entire review into one big rant. That's how it should be done.
Labels: Mainstream Games
Designing A Computer RPG Rule System
Shamus Young has posted his thoughts (twice) on why the D20 (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 / 3.5 ) system is bad for computer roleplaying games. You can read his very insightful articles here and here. And I actually do not disagree with him at all. I argue in favor of having the game rules being part of the player interaction in "The Rules of Roleplaying Games", but I also agree that the D20 system isn't optimal for computer games.
Whether or not it's optimal for tabletop gaming is subject a matter that is constantly debated.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect RPG system. At least, I don't think there is. RPG rule systems are abstractions that allow us to simulate... well, storytelling. The stories may be stupid, simple, and full of action and combat, but that's still the goal. The players play to get the thrill of seeing the story unfold with their characters, under their control, participating and influencing the development.
As with all abstractions, they have to be simplified and optimized to their purpose. "Pen & Paper" RPG systems are generally designed for human moderation and turn-based action. Naturally, taking that to computerized, real-time action system isn't exactly playing to the strengths of the medium.
For example: When running a Dice & Paper game, I expect combats to be few and to dominate game time. Roleplaying opportunities with non-player characters will take very little time at all. But when running a game through Neverwinter Nights, conversations took FOREVER due to the weaknesses of the text chat system. Even pre-created dialogs took a huge chunk out of development time. Combat, on the other hand, usually only took a few seconds, even for an epic boss-encounter. So I learned that an RP encounter could really "pad out" an encounter, but I couldn't plan to many.
Some things to consider when designing an RPG system - well, any game system, but I'm keeping it focused on RPGs for now:
Computers can crunch numbers and complex formulae with ease. Humans - not so much. Things that are such a big deal in a turn-based system (like who gets to go first) are almost unnoticeable in a real-time system. A primarily 3D, first-person view will have very different demands than an omniscient top-down view, particularly when it comes to controlling other members of the party.
Another thing that figures in here is the platform. While theoretically an interface can be considered an abstract layer that should be independent of mechanics, the reality is that whether or not the user is using a controller or a mouse is often an influence.
Who is your primary audience for this game? Not that they will be the only ones playing your game, but if you try to please everyone all of the time, you'll end up with something that nobody hates, but nobody really likes, either.
The nice thing about computer games is to some degree you can allow the player to tailor the system to their own preferences. But you can only go so far in this direction before you hit the law of diminishing returns, and it becomes more trouble than it is worth.
3. Genre / Style
So you've got Indiana Jones, who battles tons of machinegun-toting Nazis before breakfast while seeking artifacts of clearly supernatural nature. Then you've got Phillip Marlowe, tough-as-nails private eye from "The Big Sleep" (AWESOME movie, BTW). Marlowe has a healthy respect for guns, if not for the person holding them. ("Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.")
Both characters hail from a vaguely similar historical era, but vastly different worlds. Could the same game system accomodate both? Possibly, but not likely. The mechanics of the game dictate the flow, flavor, and style of the game. A swashbuckling-style game demands a game system that rewards risk-taking, while a gritty "realistic" genre would require a very different set of game mechanics. We've tried to run gritty, realistic games using the "Hero" (Champions) rule system for pen-and-paper, and it just doesn't work.
4. Scope And Scale
I think of scope and scale as breadth and depth to the game - though in game development, when you talk about scope, you are talking about everything that makes the game "bigger" in terms of development cost. But in an RPG context, I think of scale as how much content becomes available later in the game and how much the game changes from the early game. Scope is how much variety there is in game from the get-go.
This has an enormous impact on your game mechanics. For a higher-scale game, you need to keep unlocking aspects of the game as the player progresses. For a higher-scope game, you need a higher variety of player options (and content) from the get-go.
For example, Oblivion had a very large scope, but a much more limited scale. You could finish the entire storyline by level 2 or so, and the monster variety "topped out" at around level 20 or so. Most of the world was available to you after the initial dungeon, and the game even scaled the challenge everywhere based on your level.
The Final Fantasy games have a huge scale, but much more limited scope. The first half of the games are extremely linear, and there isn't much to do beyond combats and pursuing the storyline. But the character powers - and their opponents - change radically during the course of the game. By the end, your characters are ludicrously powerful compared to how they started, but there's still not much more they can do other than fighting and pursuing the main storyline (and a few optional side-quests).
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 is unbelievably high-scope and medium-scale, even without the zillions of supplements provided by first- and third-parties.
Putting It All Together
The thing that complicates matters even further is that these four factors do not get along harmoniously with each other. Even a single factor, like audience, might be a little conflicted. For example, you may be creating a game for a more casual audience that cannot abide a complex, detailed system - but they find themselves bored by too much simplicity after several hours of gameplay.
That's why game design is more art than science.
(Vaguely) related musings...
* The Rules of Roleplaying Games
* You Can't Design Fun On Paper
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* Prototyping Means Sucking Less Sooner
Battlestar Galactica and The Apollo Diet
I'm really digging the new season of Battlestar Galactica. It's got some sincerely impressive special-effects moments. Like the much-discussed atmospheric drop / jump scene...
Good science fiction (and fantasy) is about people, and real-world human problems. It blows it up to larger-than-life proportions so we can see it without the need of a magnifying glass. By taking uncomfortable topics and couching them in a fantastic setting, they can be explored more "safely," stripped of their entangling real-world baggage.
Battlestar Galactica has been doing this. Sure, the special-effects-heavy episodes have been awesome, but at it's heart it's about people and the human condition.
But I do have some beefs with the show. With this weekend's episode - I have to ask - what kind of diet / exercise regime has Apollo been on? He's lost 50 pounds in about two weeks? They make such a big deal about him porking out earlier in the season, mentions that he's got to start jumping rope, and then this episode just has him weighing in and saying the equivalent of, "Whew, I'm glad that's over with!" That was a lot of jumping rope! Cop out!
I was also bugged by some of the previous episodes introducing problems that have supposed to have been existing all along (like the black market thing), which haven't really been hinted at before. I guess I've been spoiled by shows like Babylon 5, which tended to telegraph major plot events entire SEASONS ahead of time.
In spite of my nitpicks, it's a good show. Well Worth Watching.
But as I could stand to lose a few pounds, I gotta learn more about the Apollo Diet. Jumping rope, huh?
More New Games
A couple of new games have been brought to my attention that may be worthy of your interest.
First off is a freeware game entitled GameBiz 2. It's a complex little business simulation of running a game company from 1980 up through... whenever. The interface is clumsy, the spelling is... creative, and I have no idea how accurate the simulation is. It's definitely complicated, but I had a lot of fun running Rampant Games into the ground in only 4 years starting with a $6 million investment. Apparently, my "Penultima" RPG series for the TRS-80, Vic-20, Apple II, and Commodore 64 wasn't such a big hit. They cost more money just sitting on store shelves than they made. Ah, well. At least I know I wasn't the only videogame company that went down following the crash of 1983...
Hey, it's a free game.
Also, MMagio wanted to recommend the new 3D Space Combat game, "The Arvoch Conflict." Now, I do have a soft place in my heart for 3D space combat games, and this one apparently adds a bit of real-time strategy and resource management to the mix. If I find the time, I want to try it out. Star Wraith Games comes out with a new 3D space combat game about every six months, so they are probably getting pretty good at it by now.
(And yes, I'm highlighting the competition, here. Who said I was a smart businessman? I just love indie games...)
Virtual Villagers II Developer's Diary
If you liked Virtual Villagers (and by all reports, a whole bunch of people did... including yours truly!) , you'll be happy to know a sequel is in the works.
There's a developer's diary over at Gamezebo explaining what they are doing for on the sequel to the best-selling indie game.
According to the article, the top 5 "wish list" items for the original game were the the following:
1) A more satisfying ending
2) Ancestry info (who begot who)
3) Some mechanism to change the villagers' clothes
4) More things to do during the slow moments
5) Dynamic/moving water, and other graphics improvements
Apparently, they've addressed all of these elements, and much more. In particular, they are focusing on providing more information on the "lost civilization" that you discover in the original game, and the source of magic on the island.
In addition, the article also talks a little bit about the indie game developer lifestyle, how they create their games, and their design philosophy behind their games.
It's good reading!
(Vaguely) related daydreaming about being on a tropical island:
* Tamagochi Villagers
* Dead Villagers
The Rules of Role-Playing Games
So what role (if you'll pardon the double-meaning) should numbers & stats play in a computer roleplaying game (CRPG)? For that matter, can you take them out of a computer RPG and still have it be an RPG when you are done?
This rant was inspired principally by an old Developer Roundtable by RPGVault. It was just made more current by the recent review of Neverwinter Nights 2 in 1Up, where the reviewer seemed to be slamming the game for its use of the Dungeons & Dragons license.
In the NWN2 reviewer's his opinion, computer RPGs have evolved, and should leave the dice-and-paper world behind in favor of transparent simulations of entire fantasy worlds. Many game developers - including Chris Avellone, who's studio CREATED Neverwinter Nights 2 - seem to agree according to their opinions in the roundtable.
To quote from the review:
"As if the pencil and paper "module" approach were a virtue that computers -- by now demonstrably capable of simulating entire worlds with considerably more depth -- should emulate. It's like we're supposed to park half our brain in fea-ture mania and the rest in nostalgic slush, and somehow call bingo... Call me crazy -- I guess I'm just finally weary of being led around on a pencil-and-paper leash and batting numbers around a glorified three-dimensional spreadsheet in a computer translation that should have synthesized, not forklifted."
Is This The Inevitable Course of Evolution?
Now, nevermind for a minute the silliness of slamming a game for being true to the license it's based on. (Apparently, if you happen to LIKE Dungeons & Dragons, it's worth an 8 or a 9, according to the review). Roleplaying games have a heritage based on wargames and statistical "simulations." But is it time to move past it?
This isn't exclusive to RPGs. In the 90's, the advent of more roleplaying and 'storytelling'- oriented tabletop games led to what some might consider a bit of snobbery and cliqueishness in what is already a niche hobby. Clark Peterson of Necromancer Games once told (if memory serves) of an experience he had at Gen-Con (probably the biggest RPG-oriented convention in the world). Because the gaming rooms were full at the convention, they were forced to play at a table in the hall. Passers-by who were obviously players of a specific, popular "modern" roleplaying game made mocking comments about people playing such a "primitive" game. What they didn't realize was that some of the other people at the table playing D&D were the very creators of their more "sophisticated" game.
Just because these guys wanted to make something new and different doesn't mean they didn't enjoy and love the original. In fact, it was their love of the original that compelled them. It's just that now they had more choices. Novelty may not age well, but "fun" has never become obsolete.
Better Gaming Through Automation!
We can have computer model the world for us. According to the NWN2 reviewer, and many of the game developers interviewed for the RPG roundtable, all those stats were simply there for the convenience of human players. But with the computer handling those game rules, we don't need those stats anymore, do we?
Well, Doom (including all sequels) has stats. Only a few of them are visible to player - ammo counts, health, armor, and what weapons are currently being carried. There are a bunch more hidden beneath the surface. Like how many points of damage does a rocket-launcher do? What's the Armor and Health level of an imp? What's his movement speed relative to the player's? What's the range in which a zombie can detect the player?
If the rule system of Doom was put into a book and marketed as a tabletop game, it could very easily be an RPG. But that doesn't mean Doom the Computer Game was an RPG. But if you take the suggestions of some of these designers to their ideal point, what is the difference between Doom and their vision of "what an RPG should be?"
So What Is An RPG and Why?
The goal of "pen-and-paper" RPGs (as I see it) is to provide a framework for players to participate in an interactive story from the perspective of one (or sometimes more than one) of the characters. Dungeons & Dragons was a rule system to allow players to jump into a distant-enough-not-to-be-sued facsimile of the worlds of Tolkien, Vance, Howard, and others and to be their own variation of one of those characters and have a chance to show how THEY would have handled being chased by nine Ringwraiths. It was fantasy fulfillment for literate, imaginative geeks.
The thing is, many computer games have similar goals. The stories may be trite and minimal, made interesting only by the player's participation. Whether it's slaying dragons, managing a goofy space station, participating in an underground blood-sport martial-arts competition, or acting as a commander-in-chief of an army in an interplanetary war, computer games combine that same objective of putting the player into an interesting fantasy context (even if it's "realistic" fantasy, such as The Sims) and combining it with interesting game-play mechanics --- ways in which they can affect the outcome.
Just because two activities have the same goal doesn't mean they are the same activity. I agree that the Thief games probably achieved the goal of making you feel like a medieval thief better than any roleplaying game I've ever played. But it doesn't make it an RPG.
The Rules of Role-Playing Games
I think it's the mechanics that make a game an RPG. And in my opinion, the mechanics of an RPG are characterized by the following:
1. In A Roleplaying Game, the level of success of a player's intended actions are determined by the attributes of his character(s).
This isn't an iron-clad definition of an RPG. Again - pretty much any computer game where you control some kind of avatar has attributes that limit the player. After all, your avatar in Doom has a limited run speed. His abilities were somewhat dynamic, modified temporarily by pick-ups.
But it's the emphasis on this that makes the difference. In Doom, the emphasis is on the player's personal ability. The avatar's characteristics are simply there to make it a challenge.
2. In A Roleplaying Game, some unpredictability should influence the outcome of critical actions.
There have been some great articles about why randomness (AKA "variance" or non-determinism) is a good thing in games. Me, I'll just leave it as a characteristic. If the outcome is perfectly predictable by the player, then it's not an RPG. Exceptions exist in the pen & paper world (and in the "Live Action Role-Playing" world), so I won't say it's an absolute characteristic. But if I click on a monster and always hit under certain circumstances, doing a constant amount of damage given the monster type and my avatar's current state, then I'm suspicious that I'm not playing an RPG.
It may be a very fun game with some fun timing challenges, but it's not an RPG.
3. In A Roleplaying Game, the player's character's attributes should (generally) improve over the course of the game.
I'll defer to Jeff Vogel, Indie RPG designer, for a response to this one (from the RPG Roundtable): "The great joy of playing RPGs is the sense of building something, of starting with something small and weak and, though time and skill, making it bigger. When you get up from the computer, you have the illusion of having made something better, and this satisfying feeling is a huge part of the appeal... Whether this is silly and lame or not is beside the point. This is why statless systems have never really caught on. They shift the focus entirely away from where it should be."
Be it from accomplishing goals, killing monsters, acquiring items, or just putting in your time, that's a fairly central characteristic of RPGs. Remove it, and I argue it's your game is no longer an RPG
But Do The Stats And Rules Detract From The Experience?
"Computer RPGs have inherited mechanics coming from the old paper RPGs, when random and statistics were needed to simulate actions that could not be simulated in a paper game. For instance, the Search statistic would define how good a player was at finding hidden objects in a room. Obviously that is necessary in a game that doesn't provide any images, while I find it awkward and totally anti-immersive in a virtual environment where you can simply hide the object and see if the player finds it as he explores the area." -- Raphael Colantonio, Arkane Studios
I loved the fact that you could find secret doors in Ultima Underworld by discovering what appeared to be texture glitches on the walls. That was very cool. But if the other elements of the game played that way, it wouldn't have been an RPG. As it was, Ultima Underworld was an "action RPG" hybrid. Raphael's contention may make for a very fun, cool game that accomplishes the same objective as an RPG - and perhaps be even more immersive - but it's not an RPG.
Do the characteristics of an RPG get in the way of it being immersive? Maybe. But as the Final Fantasy games and action-RPGs such as Diablo and Oblivion have shown, they can be tucked out of the way and forgotten about much of the time. I'm vaguely aware of stats in Aveyond - I mostly use the stat modifiers as a way to compare equipment.
While statistics and quantified damage numbers may not appear in glowing characters over objects in nature, the human mind is hard-wired to build statistical models of real-world events, if not necessarily to mathematical precision. Just listen to a commentary during a professional sports game. Or listen to people discussing options about a serious decision. And what does the weatherman say about whether or not it will rain today? Will you make money if you invest in such-and-such a mutual fund? Just how powerful is that new pickup truck? Who is stronger, Flash Gordon or Tarzan?
Our brains like to compare and quantify. We may not do it with exact precision, but we all do it. It helps us cope with an otherwise random world. Particularly in competitive computer games, players will often go through great pains to analyze game-data and determine hidden stats and game rules.
So maybe the stats and rules options presented in computer RPGs are simply saving players the trouble? While they may not appear as real life appears in nature, they may be acting as a something of a short-hand to help players deal with an extremely limited interface into a virtual world. After all, no matter HOW awesome your graphics get, there's still only so much realism that will fit on even a high-definition screen.
So please, don't take my stats away.
UPDATE: The Neverwinter Nights 2 Review has been PULLED from 1Up, and will not be appearing in the January issue of Computer Gaming World.... er, I mean, "Games For Windows Magazine." It came after a "long meeting between 1UP and GFW" because of issues of "tone/fairness" according to Jeff Green. He claims to stand by the reviewer, but admits that there were "valid issues with the review," and blames the editorial staff (specifically himself) for letting the review through.
The complete retraction can be found HERE.
Once again, thanks to Lum of BrokenToys.org for monitoring the quarter-to-three boards and breaking this news.
(Vaguely) related products of an infinite number of monkeys masquerading as me:
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* Are Hybrid RPGs Just The Poor Man's RPG?
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* Scorpia's New Tale: An Interview
* RPG Design Seed Challenge
* No Design Survives Contact With The Players
* RPG Combat Design
* Non-Combat RPG: A Fool's Errand?
* The ORIGIN of Fun
November Carnival of Gamers is up!
Is it the November Carnival, or a carnival of October's blogs?
Well, either way, it is full of entertaining commentary on our industry - particularly with the console wars heating up for the next round:
Carnival of Gamers #19
My submission this month was my interview with Scorpia, mainly because I think the stuff she writes is more interesting tham the stuff I write.
Labels: Mainstream Games
What Do Indies Have In Common With Avis?
Since you guys were kind enough to buy some games from me recently (YOU ROCK!), I was recently able to afford a couple of content packs for game development. One was for prototyping a project that is currently in design phase - the Skeleton Pack from DrewFX. I'm going to go mention them by name to let them take responsibility. Well, actually to let HIM take responsibility, as it's mainly a one-man show of Andy Hawkins, plus some help from the GarageGames guys.
Now, I talked a while ago about why you should buy indie. Now, the indies are not the first companies that comes to mind when you think games (or, in this case, content packs). They are a little like Avis car rental - a company perpetually in second place in their business (though the indies typically trail the leader by a lot more than that). Avis decided to turn that disadvantage into a strength, with their motto, "We Try Harder."
With smaller businesses - at least the good ones - that's much more than a motto. It's a matter of survival. They can't afford gigantic marketing budgets, and they don't have a disposable customer base. They depend heavily on word-of-mouth --- which means they DO have to work harder to make sure every customer has a positive experience. Especially since one disgruntled customer is far more likely to express his displeasure than a happy customer is to express praise.
Late Saturday night, I took a break from working on Apocalypse Cow to play around with the skeleton pack. I discovered that something was just not quite right. It had a pretty cool reflection-map effect, but it wasn't a convincing skeleton. This was a problem solely with one model included with the pack - the other (a skeleton with attachment points for a gun rather than a sword) was just fine.
The source files were included with the pack, so I could have gone in and imported them into blender and spent a little bit of time figuring out the problem and trying to fix it. Assuming all the UV information came through the importer okay, it wouldn't have been too hard or even too time consuming. But since it wasn't a priority, and I didn't feel like messing with it, I just jotted off an email to DrewFX alerting them to the bug, and went to bed. It was 2:00 in the morning, after all.
I was very surprised to see an email in my mailbox a few hours later when I woke up. And another one that afternoon, after I'd sent a reply. I think Andy is on Australia time, which explains the early-morning response. But I was still very impressed with how quickly he got back to me. We exchanged emails for a couple of days as he worked to find and fix the bug for me. Finally, he discovered that the problem was not in his source files - it was only in the exported torque-compatible .dts file. He'd already fixed the problem, but the content pack had just had an old file in it.
He sent the fix to me (which worked perfectly), and told me a little about the upcoming enhancements he's been working on with the pack as a free upgrade. Including hints as to the 'surprise' freebie he's throwing in there, which sounds to me as being very much on the side of awesome. No, I'm not gonna spoil it. But if it works as good as it sounds, it's awesome.
Now, bear in mind that after GG took out it's take, Andy probably only made something around or slightly north of $20 from my purchase of his skeleton pack. That was NOT worth the time he invested in helping me out. Apparently this bug isn't not a big deal, as he received no other complaints --- though I'm sure he was embarassed about having that bug in his content pack. And it was certainly nothing that even I - a novice at 3D modeling - couldn't have created my own work-around for in probably less time than it took for him to find and fix the bug.
But, like Avis, he tries harder.
I compare that to a recent experience I had with ComCast trying to explain to their "guilty until proven innocent" customer "service" department that I didn't owe them a modem I'd never rented from them. That particular argument took FOUR MONTHS to resolve. And now I'm reluctant to ever go cable again. That story ended okay, at least, after I informed them that I'd be happy to produce the modem AFTER they produced a copy of the rental agreement signed by me with the make and serial number of the modem they claimed I owed.
So, yeah. I prefer working with the smaller shops. The indies. With a few exceptions, they really do seem to try harder.
(Vaguely) related Deep Thoughts:
* Benefits of Buying Indie
* Ten Commandments of Indie Game Developers
* The Indie Games Industry Is Growing
* Alternatives To Front-Loading Game Sales
* Paying the Bills Takes Priority
* Profit or Passion?
Cute Knight Hints, Tips, and Spoilers
This is, I understand, a complete list of endings to the hit indie RPG, Cute Knight.
This is more than just hints and tips - this is out-and-out spoiler territory. Be warned! I recommend not checking this out until you've managed to discover many of these endings for yourself, but that's up to you.
For informational purposes, there are 54 general endings... but most of them have several variants, resulting in some a number of possible endings than can only be measured with triple digits!
And mainstream game reviewers tend to praise RPGs that have, say, THREE alternate endings. The gal with the pink hair can walk all over 'em!
Anyway, no, I haven't come close to getting them all, yet. I've earned about a dozen. Including "Oops," "The False Princess," "Royal Knight," "Hero," "Fighter," "Street Dancer," and several career endings.
I think my favorite was "Oops." I won't spoil what it's about, but it was quite a surprise. Cute Knight is a roleplaying game with lots of surprises.
If you still want to take advantage of these spoilers, here you go:
Cute Knight Hints and Tips
(Vaguely) related articles about my pink-haired alter-ego:
* Cute Knight Download Page: Download and play the free game demo!
* Tales from the Road: Cute Knight
* Play Cute Knight On Halloween!
* Innovation in RPGs
Indie Gaming Evolves: So-Long, Dexterity!
Dexterity.com is no more, according to Steve Pavlina. The site has been shut down, and traffic is being redirected to an announcement at his self-help site. (Tip o' the hat to GBGames for catching the news first... well, first for me, at least).
Many indie / shareware game developers who got their start prior to 2005 were aided by Steve's articles, and his developer forums. Since his forums shut down, indiegamer.com has become the spiritual successor, and is probably more popular than the Dexterity forums ever were. With all the attendant reduction in signal-to-noise ratio that implies. (Even so, anyone serious about developing indie games would be well served to spend some time lurking and reading over the archives there. It's invaluable).
Steve's articles were full of nuggest of great information. Hopefully they will re-appear outside of Internet archives. Though many people have pointed out that they had become pretty outdated. The fact that they were addressing "shareware" game development attested to that.
The concept of shareware came about before the Internet became as pervasive as it is. Prior to the late 1990's, very few people had Internet access, and "shareware" was a distribution method that literally relied upon people sharing the software with each other - via floppy disc, or on bulletin board systems. While the theory hasn't changed, and the old practice still exists, things have evolved and changed.
Examples: An ever-increasing penetration of the Internet into the home. Increasing penetration of broadband (the ol' 4-6 megabyte limit is becoming less and less critical). The role of portals. Affiliate deals. Downloadable games for the XBox LiveArcade (and, potentially, other consoles). The Internet becoming increasingly crowded and harder to stand out in. And so forth.
What worked for Dexterity.com and other indies in 1999 is highly unlikely to work today. But lest we forget, what they had to do in 1999 was very different from what successful shareware companies did in 1992. The details change - sometimes drastically. But the basic principles remain the same.
I think Steve's articles contained plenty of solid principles, and remain worth reading (check them out HERE).
The key thing I pulled out of these articles was to follow a deliberate methodology, based on planning, executing, measuring, identifying problem areas, revising the plan, and continuing to iterate.
I also learned that while finishing a commercial-quality game is of course a major accomplishment, it's only the beginning. The true magnitude and scope of the rest of it is... well, I'm still learning. But it was awfully nice to have Dexterity.com's articles and forums to at least give me the heads-up.
But I think Steve Pavlina is right - the time had come. He's moved on, and so has indie gaming.
Labels: Indie Evangelism