Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Sunday, December 31, 2006
2006 In Review
So what rocked and what sucked about 2006 in the world of a video games and indie games? At least from my narrow perspective as a game developer and RPG fan, here's what I saw:

Rocked: The Rise of the Casual RPG
Aveyond. Cute Knight. Will there be more? Man, I hope so. I hope that not EVERY indie RPG tries to become a "casual" RPG, but I am very pleased to see a branch of the genre push out in new directions. Neither Hanako Games nor Amaranth Games seemed to intend to start a sub-genre... they just wanted to create cool games. They succeeded. And not only did they prove that the right RPG could attract a wider audience than anyone expected, but they also showed that there was more to casual games than just match-three bubble poppers.

Sucked: Computer Gaming World Retired (in name, at least)
Yeah, so the magazine hadn't been as great as it's hayday in the early-mid 90's, but it was still sad to see it go. It still exists as the Official Games For Windows Magazine, but that still just underscored the fact that it hadn't been the same magazine for a long time.

Rocked: Downloadable Console Games
They have been almost TOO MUCH of a success, causing the big publishers who previously snubbed their nose at the idea to muscle in on the action. But it's a great thing for gamers!

Sucked: Abuse of Microtransactions
Hi! Here's the next-gen version of last year's title! It's largely unchanged, but we're charging you more because... you know, it's NEXT GEN. Oh, and to top it off we've disabled all the features you got used to in last year's version, but we'll sell them back to you piecemeal via microtransactions! And we'll pretend that we're doing it for YOU. Aren't we awesome?

Rocked: Torque Game Builder (formerly Torque 2D) Released
The sheer number of commercial games that have been released this year using TGB alone is testiment to its flexibility and ease-of-use. It obviously filled some kind of need. I just wish I had more opportunity to play with it (but I have had fun combining it with the core game engine).

Sucked: Apocalypse Cow Still Not Released
A bit of suckage that is entirely my own fault. Apocalypse Cow was supposed to be a quick-and-dirty project. Shame on me.

Rocked: Oblivion and Guitar Hero
Two awesome mainstream games. The triumphant return of the Elder Scrolls series helped reinvigorate the single-player RPG genre on PCs and consoles. While it was a little too "action / arcade" for my preferences, and I had great fun abusing its use-based skill system, the fact of the matter is that I had a blast playing it. And Guitar Hero --- a surprise hit (now a franchise) from a previously obscure little developer. While the first game was a 2005 release, it's popularity has continued to rocket this year, and GH2 is definitely one of the most fun games I have ever played. So while I lament the parade of regurgitated game concepts coming out of the publishers these days, I also respectfully acknowledge that there are still some awesome titles that make their way through the pipeline.

Sucked: Dungeon & Dragons Online's Launch
The game has cleaned up its act a bit since its rocky launch, though I worry how much damage has already been done. That, and the lack of soloing options for people who loathe PUGs (Pick-Up Groups). But I think this is just one more nail in the coffin of the "brick-and-mortar" physical media game distribution model as a primary means of distribution. Hopefully other MMO companies will take note, and offer completely digital downloads as a viable option in the future.

Sucked: Anti-Game Legislation
As this was an election year in the U.S., the sheer volume of anti-videogame legislation clearing state governments by elected officials seeking quick-and-easy "family values" points was staggering. Even more staggering was the obvious lack of concern about Bill Of Rights violations by the same officials we've entrusted with the protection of the Constitution. Of course, that's just the USA. Europe has been jumping into the act as well. Hopefully the madness will eventually come to an end.

Rocked: Courts Pimp-Slapping Anti-Game Legislation
As bad as the anti-videogame legislation has been, at least some federal judges still have a clue. So far, they've slammed every bit of game censorship as being a flagrant violation of the Constitution, with the exception of one: A bit of legislation that the ESA actually approved of, that simply included games as a medium in another, older law governing more traditional media. And it's been really funny seeing "Wacky Jacky" Thompson's apoplectic reactions every single time. Too bad THAT doesn't get much media coverage.

Sucked: The PS3's Launch
Ludicrously low numbers of units actually shipped, sticker shock, units selling for $10k on EBay, underwhelming launch titles, arrogant public relations, and a head-scratching ad campaign. It's definitely a candidate for the most screwed-up launch of a major game console in history (and that is saying a lot). As Sony was the one that dethroned Nintendo in 1995, they should be acutely aware that historical dominance isn't all it takes to be king of the consoles in the new generation. It's hardly a "VirtualBoy" level disaster, but it is going to be a challenge for Sony going forward. All I know is that I am VERY glad I wasn't overly anxious to get a PS3 on launch. I'll happily wait until the dust settles.

And to end on an optimistic note:

Rocked: The Continued Rise In Popularity of Indie Games
We're getting more media attention daily. Casual games have become big business. Well, bigger, at least. With XBLA and Steam providing connecting downloadable (some indie, some not-so-much) content with mainstream gamers, and the (fairly) high-profile launch of Manifesto Games, players are discovering of alternatives to traditional channels through which they've always found their games. And the sales numbers are proving that they are being delighted by finding smaller, lower-budget, but FUN little titles out there. This is a great thing for developers and players. Go indie!
Friday, December 29, 2006
It's A Nice Day For A White We.. er, Christmas?

My entire worldview has been shaken to its foundations. Shattered. The Matrix has had me, but I'm ready to take the red pill now. I can see that it's all a manufactured reality that doesn't make any sense.

My reality cannot accept what I saw today.

On the store shelf. At Best Buy. The discount music section. This.... this ... thing:

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. The Billy Idol Christmas Album.

We've gone from punk, to pop, to... crooning traditional holiday favorites in the style of Bing Crosby. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. I mean, Alice Cooper is running drives to support music education in public schools, and stuff. But MAN am I feeling old all of the sudden. How soon until Marilyn Manson is doing jingles for nutritional supplements?
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Trapped In a Blizzard
We're kinda stuck in a blizzard right now. And not the World of Warcraft / Diablo kind of blizzard... that would actually be kinda cool. We've been visiting my in-laws for Christmas, and wouldn't you know it... the night before we were supposed to leave, a fairly localized storm dumped ten inches of snow on us. Considering we've got one hairy mountain pass to cross that was smack in the middle of this storm, it's a little questionable as to whether or not we'll make it home today.

Fortunately, I've had my laptop with me during the holiday, and while I was far from a workaholic, I have managed to get some game dev work done, and I'll spend today happily coding away if we can't make it home. Well, okay, "Happily" is a little questionable.

Apocalypse Cow has been coming along. All the levels and bosses are coded up, and I'm currently working on some new features that I think will really enhance the overall game. Unfortunately, the game is in dire need of polish and content. But with luck, whether or not we make it home today, I should be able to call the game "Alpha" sometime this weekend. For my sanity's sake, I'm hoping to have it done before midnight Sunday, so it will have gone Alpha "this year."

I've also been working on the not-so-secret RPG project. It's a little weird to take a break from game programming to do some game programming (especially considering this is my vacation time from the job, where I do game programming), I admit. So far it's still been just design work and "tinkering" in code. Well, tinkering with a plan. The core design is mostly there, and the dialog is... in progress. The game will have a lot of dialog. And a lot of combat. Yes, for all my discussion on non-combat oriented RPGs, this one is going to be fairly traditional, but with (I hope) some very interesting twists. Watch this space for more information in upcoming months!

And with that, I'm back to coding (and checking on the local travel warnings... apparently they are recommending no travel right now unless we're transporting emergency supplies).

Have fun!
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Enjoy an Oldie But Goodie
Have I mentioned lately how much DOSBox rocks? If not, let me state for the record one more time. DOSBox is cool with whipped cream on top. It's basically a DOS emulator, allowing you to play some fairly antique games on modern hardware. What is truly amazing (to me) is how many games work with DOSBox. I mean, those of us from the bad ol' days of 386's remember how hard it was to get these games to run properly on the systems they were INTENDED for.

Now, if you don't have a back-library of old DOS games, DOSBox might not be of much value to you. If you are feeling gutsy, you can go out to The Home of the Underdogs and see what kind of abandonware you can pick up. Unfortunately, most of the games from back then were... well, just as crappy as most of the games out now. But with even worse graphics.

Having lived through that era (and having been an avid gamer and reader of Computer Gaming World), I do have a fairly sizeable collection of DOS games that are theoretically still playable. I kept them around for all these years, "Just in case." The trick is getting them to install. I've purposefully installed 3.5" floppy drives in all of my computers over the years for just that purpose (though it doesn't help for the handful of games that are on 5.25" floppies).

Oh, and the copy protection for those old games are disgusting. Okay, not StarForce "We will wreck your property to protect our clients' property" disgusting, but still pretty painful. Awful things like manual look-ups, or code wheels, or whatnot. Fortunately, in this day and age, most of those can be found on the Internet if you can't find all your original docs. Much to my wife's chagrin, I still have most of those old manuals, code-wheels, maps, and sundry other bits of junk needed to play these old games.

One of my favorite games from this era was Epic Pinball. Produced by Digital Extremes and published by Epic Megagames (now Epic Games) in 1993 - the guys that now bring us the very fun Unreal Tournament games - Epic Pinball was one of the last significant, commercial games written entirely in Assembly language. For those not familiar with assembly language, it's an extremely low-level programming language. The only significant differences between assembly language and actual machine code (we're talking 1's and 0's here) is that assembly language provided labels and variables (of a sort). The last time I had to do any assembly language programming professionally was in 2000, to do a very small bit of pipeline optimization on the Sega Dreamcast. Which was only something like 1/1000th of the size of the rest of the game. To write an entire game like this in assembly is impressive. Even back in 1993.

Technical feats aside, Epic Pinball was incredibly fun. In fact, it was my model for "fun" when I was first trying to get into the videogames industry. It trailed only behind the top first-person-shooters of the "golden age" of shareware for top-selling shareware game. It was simple, stylishly designed, and nearly flawlessly executed. And, in my opinion, it has aged very well. Other than the fact that it doesn't run well under Windows. The graphics aren't cutting edge, but they don't need to be.

Somehow, I managed to keep Epic Pinball on my hard drives over the years. I kept archiving it up as I upgraded, and moving it onto the new systems. While this saved me from a potentially tricky installation with the old 3.5" floppies (which may or may no longer be in readable state), it also preserved my high scores. High scores which are now approximately 12 years old. Possibly predating the birth of my eldest daughter.

So going back to play Epic Pinball with DOSBox, I was delighted to find that I still remembered some of the moves and timing. I remembered what moments to bump the table, or the timing of flips to nail certain targets repeatedly. Not bad! But even with my old, remembered skills, it wasn't quite enough to threaten my old high scores from 1994 or so. The ghost of my younger self is still dominating the 3-slot leaderboards for each table. Durn him. On a couple of tables I've been able to approach the third-place score, but not closely enough to threaten it.

But I really don't feel like clearing them off. I'm kinda proud of those old records, even though I know they weren't really THAT great. But just seeing them hits me with nostalgia. I may have earned them while taking a break during cramming for finals my senior year in college. Or maybe while I was trying to figure out how to make my game demo "fun." Quite possibly one of them was earned late at night as I was trying to take a break from the sweltering heat of the summer of '94, in our tiny house without air conditioning. One of those scores on the "Magic" table might have been earned in the winter of '95, when my teeny little daughter responded to music for the first time one day, happily making cooing and singing noises when she heard the music from that game on the computer. It didn't last very long, and she never did it again, but I played the game quite a bit after that to see if she'd do it again.

But that doesn't stop the competitive side of me from trying my hardest to beat 'em and blow them off the screen.

If you missed the old Epic Pinball game 13 years ago when it was first released, thanks to DOSBox you can enjoy it now. The screen resolution might be a little painful for those of us used to thinking of 640 x 480 as "low resolution." But it's definitely worth a try. As a shareware game, the "demo version" was a single table ("Android", later re-christened "Super Android") that offered free, unlimited play. While it's a little hard to find these days, I managed to track it down and put it up for download here.

You may be able to get it running without DOSBox, but I found that the sound didn't work and that it ran very, very slowly under Windows XP. I had to crank up the CPU rate on DOSBox, but after I did, it ran fine on my laptop. Unfortunately, as a child of the DOS era, the pinball demo isn't a snap to install (or uninstall). Neither is DOSbox. But neither are very hard to wrangle, and I personally think the results are well worth it if you aren't afraid of copying the contents of a ZIP file around.

Download the Super Android Pinball Game

Download DOSBox to run the pinball game.

Incidentally, if you are counting, my high score on Super Android is 441,475,000. Yeah, over 440 million! Yeesh!

Oh, well. Have Fun!

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006
The Rise and Fall of Troika
Continuing my trend this week(end) of being lazy and posting links to other people's articles (hey, it's Christmas):

The Escapist has an article by Joe Blancato about Troika, the RPG development studio created by the three principles behind Fallout. The major take-away from the story: Releasing buggy products will kill your company, no matter how cool the concept behind your games.

The Rise and Fall of Troika: How Interplay's Golden Boys Struck Out On Their Own


Monday, December 25, 2006
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part I
Armchair Arcade has the first of a multi-part series of articles on the history of Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs). It's more nuts-and-bolts than my article on the Evolution of Computer RPGs, going into a lot of detail on what came when up until about 1983 or so.

I found it particularly enjoyable because I've played many of the games discussed. But even if you haven't, it's a fun and interesting read:

The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part I


Merry Christmas
Whether you celebrate it or not, I hope the holiday finds you and yours well. Have a great one, everyone!

(Here at the relatives, we are celebrating by much Guitar Hero 2 playing! Freebird FTW!!!)
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Horrible Holy Night
To get into the Christmas Spirit... I offer this opportunity to mock and jeer.

Apparently, this was not a joke. This was someone's audition tape. You may think it starts bad. And it does. But wait until the end. It gets... sooooo much worse.


Friday, December 22, 2006
You Were Searching For WHAT?
So what search terms are leading people to Rampant Games and this blog?

I'm cribbing from Lum the Mad here, and maybe directing some really weird traffic this way, but some of these were just too entertaining not to share.

So here are the fun search terms for the month of December:

Coyote Evolution - Well, I started as a single-cell amoeba.

Oblivion Adult Mod, Oblivion Adult, Adult Oblivion Mods, Etc. - I don't understand! Everyone in Oblivion is an adult already. There are no children! THAT is what is so creepy! Where the heck do all these adults come from? And nobody else seems to notice. Were their children abducted and all memory of them wiped from their parents' memories? It's a total horror story in the making. We need the "find the children!" mod!

Trogdor Song - YEAH, Baby! My money's on.... TROGDOR!

Oblivion Assassin - And, coincidentally, he also owns a flower shop.

Battlefield Sucks, bf2 sucks - That it does. Though I still enjoy playing it occasionally. When I have time to kill, because I rarely kill anything else.

hunting games for coyotes - Why do I suddenly feel nervous and exposed?

kill the coyote games - Uh, Yeah. Very nervous. Very Exposed.

Coyote Porn - Speaking of being exposed... Trust me, you REALLY don't want to see it.

falcon 4.0 bomb damage assessment - You can do it, but it's more fun causing the bomb damage.

indie game mistakes - And Rampant Games is the result...

fun alzheimer games - I knew of a few, but I forget what they are... But try this.

job interviews - what am i doing wrong - Your beard clashing with your white pantyhose, maybe?

ken boning barbie - I have it on good authority that this is not anatomically possible.

daggerfall azeroth land mass - Daggerfall FTW!

tamagotchi game sex - They hatch from a friggin' EGG, man! Don't get your hopes up.

"coyote" kidnapper - Okay, seriously, guys... should I be worried here?

best pirate story - Arr! It is, isn't it?

like bf2 but better - Hmmm..... Not Trespasser.

cow utter - Utter Destruction, you mean? Muhahahah!

porn passes - But only with a 2.0 GPA

Cute Knight Dream - Do I really want to know about this dream?

Vampire Bloodlines Nudity - Hot Bloodsucking Undead Monster Action!

free pirate stories - I've only got the one, but it's absolutely free.

you must face the gazebo alone - Alright! Another Munchkin player!!!

Coyote Skeletal System - Coyote Porn, Now With 100% Less Skin!

Elder Scrolls Oblivion Yellow Team Champion Sleeping Nude - Because sleeping in plate mail chafes.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
How to Turn Façade Into An RPG
Scorpia took me to task on my little CRPG definition from last week, but the discussions we've had here and on her site and here, I'm feeling a bit more confident about my breakdown. Though Gegi also offered a really good suggestion (an addition) that you need some level of choice over your character's attributes or development of their attributes over time for it to count.

The point of my breakdown is that while things like combat systems, storyline, inventory systems, and so forth are all very important, they are NOT the defining attributes of RPGs. For story --- well, it's too fuzzy of a line to draw. Almost every game has a story, even if its just a simple one-line setup. There's definitely a qualitative difference between the story of, say, Empires and Dungeons, and Final Fantasy VII.

So as a fun design experiment, I thought about what it would take to turn a non-RPG into an RPG. Specifically, let's take one without combat of any kind and see how it might be done. As an amusing example, let's take the experimental indie game, or "interactive story", Façade. I consider it to be an adventure game, personally. A very unusual one. But that kind of gameplay. ("Action-adventure?" Since timing is important...)

So, in playing Façade, you start out by choosing a name, and then knocking on the door of some old college friends, Grace and Trip. You use typed text to hold a conversation with them, and you can also manipulate certain objects in the apartment. The game can branch many ways, but in general you discover that Grace and Trip are having marital problems. As an interested third-party, you influence them in several directions, or simply leave the status quo the way it is. And you can get thrown out of the apartment for being too rude (been there, done that!)

So lets see how to turn this into an RPG. I'm not saying this would make a good GAME, necessarily (I don't actually think
Façade is that great of a game to begin with, but it's an interesting experiment).

Step 1: Identifying with the Avatar
We'll start with criterion #4 (and add Gegi's suggestion), and give you more customization of and identification with your avatar. You are already pretty much acting in the first-person perspective, wh
ich adds some identification, but the game really has you playing yourself. The person through who's eyes you see doesn't really have an identity. So let's fix that.

Lets say you have a choice of backgrounds and two attributes / characteristics. For backgrounds, maybe you can choose whether you were, at one point, closer friends with Grace, Trip, or neither. Perhaps you could also choose to be an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend of either one, depending on the gender you chose. Maybe we'll add a profession as well. So you could be John, the artist and old friend of Grace's, or Jane, a doctor and Trip's former girlfriend. Or lots of combinations in-between. You are now playing SOMEONE ELSE, not just yourself.

On top of that, let's give you a choice of traits. Let's stay away from numbers, necessarily. Let's say you get to pick one trait that descibes your character - or at least how you are perceived by others. Funny,
Sincere, Serious, Impulsive, Smart, Rich, Persuasive, and Argumentative.

Step 2: Your Avatar's Attributes
Now, we've got some interesting customizations for your character in the last step. Now we need to address criteria 1 and 2: You avatar's attributes need to influence the game, and there needs to be some randomness.

I'm not familiar with the AI or the nuts and bolts of the rules of Façade. But let's make things easy and say that rather than your responses always influencing the AI of Grace and Trip by a specific amount, instead it's fuzzy. So if a particular comment would normally irritate Grace by 5 points, it instead becomes a range. +/- 50%, so it can be anywhere from 3 to 7 points.

Now we've laid the foundation for your character's attributes to have an affect on the game. First off, your choice of backgrounds may influence the reactions of Trip and Grace. If you were a closer friend of Trip's, then maybe your actions will have a stronger influence on Trip, and your actions may be met with some suspicion by Grace. And so forth.

Your professional skill might give your actions a bit more credability when the conversation moves around to those topics. For example, if you are a professional artist, then any time the conversation moves around to art, you might get a bonus to your credability and the "weight" of your comments. So instead of 3-7 points, maybe you get 4-8 points for how much your words influence the AI of either character in ANY direction.

Your chosen trait also plays a roll. If you chose "Persuasive," you get a bonus to the chance to steer a conversation in a particular direction. If you choose "Funny," you have a bonus to any attempt to "lighten" the mood. Serious has the opposite effect. Impulsive reduces how much Grace or Trip get offended by your actions, since they are used to you being that way. If you are rich, there are some very definite bonuses that can occur in certain parts of the conversation. And so forth.

Step 3: Avatar Growth
Okay. We're now left with the third criterion --- your Avatar's attributes / traits must have a strong correlation with the progress in the game.

So now, we take
Façade 2 and Façade 3 --- the second and third acts of the story (maybe each act takes place in a future date) and combine them together into one giant game. Between each act, you get to "level up." You get to choose one additional trait. This isn't necessarily the acquisition of a new trait, so much as it is also the perception of this trait within you by the NPCs. If you choose the same trait a second or third time, then you get two or three times the bonuses. They shouldn't be contradictory. If you choose both serious and funny, for example, you might be able to influence the tone of the conversation in either direction.

I've Created A Monster!
So now, do we have
Façade, the RPG?

Well, we've now probably multiplied the content requirements by about 6x. Not only did we triple it by adding a second and third act, but we also increased the complexity by requiring that Trip and Grace respond to your chosen background information. The fact that you were Grace's ex-boyfriend could come up more than once in a conversation. And to take advantage of those professional skills, we need to make sure that the player who chose to be a doctor will have a few chances to throw their medical credentials around. That's a lot of additional conversation to create and record! Not to mention test.

We've also greatly increased the complexity of the game engine, and the AI. Adding a bit of randomization shouldn't be too hard, but figuring out all the bonuses that could apply could be a little tricky. And then there's game balance issues! Does choosing "rich" or an artist background give you undue power in the game? (Since the game really doesn't have an "objective," then arguably it doesn't.)

But I'd argue that, should we take upon ourselves this foolish task, what we've ended up with at the end is an RPG - the genuine article. There's no fantasy, no combat, no inventory system, and the storyline is extremely open-ended and untraditional.

But yes, I'd argue that at this point, we have an RPG.

(Vaguely) related steaming piles of insight:
* Non-Combat RPG: A Fool's Errand?
* The Rules of Role-Playing Games
* RPG Conversation Redesign

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Sherlock Holmes Investigates Cthulhu
Sherlock Holmes: I recently read "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and became a fan.

Cthulhu: I've been a fan for years.

Adventure Gaming: Decline, Shmeline. Looks like there are more than a few being produced, but they just aren't marketing with the big bucks anymore. I have loved 'em for many years.

Now, let's just COMBINE THEM ALL TOGETHER, now, shall we?!?!? By a company that apparently has a bit of clout, and has already done two other Sherlock Holmes games. Can't say I've played their other games, but now I may have to check 'em out.

Be sure and check out the trailer.

Apparently, it's already out in parts of Europe, and it is scheduled for UK and U.S. release around the end of February 2007. There's a German Demo (700 MB!) available already on Filefront. The gameplay is first-person perspective, but it switches to third person during cut-scenes. You alternate between playing Holmes and Watson.

Thanks to Raph for the tip!


The Worst Game Ever
So what was the worst video or computer game ever released? Man, the lists can be impressive. There's a lot of crap to choose from. I personally try to avoid games that I hear are truly bad, so I undoubtably have avoided some really spectacular failues. I have been rescued from pain by timely reviews or word-of-mouth.

So for me, it's going to have to be something personal. A game which, for whatever reason, spoke to me. By "speaking to me," I mean personally insulted me and all of my immediate kin, screaming profanity in my name. A game which not only sucked, but one which whispered promises of delights in my ear, but left me waking up in a bathtub of ice with my kidneys removed. A game with a name that inspires fear and anger as much as the name of a classic, beloved games fills me with nostalgic memories.

A game... like Trespasser. Yep, that's gotta be the one. For me, at least. Perhaps, this little venting of the spleen will allow me to let the healing start. Maybe.

The Hype
Trespasser was the "interactive sequel" to the second Jurassic Park movie. Which was pretty lame itself. It makes one wonder if Trespasser was Dreamwork's attempt to make the movie look good by showing how much worse it could have been. Oh, wait, they DID come out with Jurassic Park III, didn't they?

Okay. So the concept, design, and the previews made it sound awesome. You play a female character (oooh, progressive!) named Anne, voiced by none other than Minnie Driver. You crash-land on Isla Sorna, which is where the company InGen did it's primary Dinosaur R&D. Dinos have taken over the island, and you have to somehow survive and escape the island. And to make it more realistic, there was no HUD (Heads-up-display, gaming parlance taken from the miltary to refer to the stats and game information appearing on the screen that you shouldn't actually see). To see your health, you look down at your own cleavage, upon which is tatooed a heart which fades gradually as your health drops. Okay, so maybe the concept wasn't entirely without it's flaws.

The lead developer, Seamus Blackley, was an alumnus of Looking Glass Studio, and had previously worked on such System Shock, Flight Unlimited, and Terra Nova. His concept, as I understood it, was to combine realistic physics and AI to create a truly organic, open-ended adventure game. The dinosaurs would be driven by needs and primitive instincts, and the objects in the game would demonstrate real-world properties. So you could come up with your own clever solutions to manipulate the environment. This is a tall order, but considering his pedegree, I expected him to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but it should at least shake up the idea behind adventure gaming.

Oh, and while there would be firearms, it wouldn't be a shooter. Okay, good. It sounded like the ultimate action / adventure game to me. I was all ready to fall in love with it.

Now, I can be pretty forgiving of flaws or deficiencies in games. I mean, I'm a big fan of indie games, which do lack the production values and sheer sets of features of mainstream games. Not that those are really flaws, but I know many hardcore gamers have a tough time looking past things like a game with "only" 2D graphics, or, say, the lack of mouse support in Aveyond. I'm pretty lenient reviewer. I try to avoid judging a game by my expectations and comparisons to similar games (though that's impossible to do entirely), but instead focus on what it is, and what it is trying to achieve. This allows me to compare, say, Oblivion with the far-more-primitive Ultima IV. Maybe it's a flaw as a game designer. But I like to approach every game with as much of an open mind as I can.

I actually got Trespasser the day AFTER it appeared on the shelves. I was too busy at work on the day it was released, but some friends at the office (who actually had the luxury of being able to go HOME that night) picked it up with high expectations. The next day, they came to work with tales of woe, and how horrible the game was.

I protested, knowing that my coworkers were hardcore FPS fans. "You don't understand, it's a different kind of game," I insisted. "It's an adventure game, not a shooter."

"We know that," they insisted. "That's why we got it. You just have to play it. You'll see."

So I did. I bought Trespasser that afternoon, and took it home with optimism tempered by my coworkers' dire warnings. I reduced my expectations, realizing that the game was certainly going to have its flaws. But that was okay. The only thing that mattered was if the game was FUN.

The Truth Is In There
So the game started. Richard Attenborough's familiar voice explained the situation as a reading of his memoirs, and the initial setup was awesome. Washed up on a beach, an abandoned lab building or something up the hill, and all was quiet. Just like a good horror movie.

And just like a horror movie, the true horror gradually showed itself.

First off, there was the wonderful waldo-simulator that was the principle game interface. Apparenly, Anne of the Tattooed Cleavage was some kind of mutant with one very very funky arm. Controlling this arm was an exercise in frustration. Doing it successfully required the level of control necessary to consistently succeed at a claw vending machine. I saw two teenaged girls who could do that once. They pulled a plush animal out of the machine with every coin. After that, they took requests from my daughters for any plush toy near the top of the stack. I imagine they would have done pretty well at the interface to Trespasser. But they would have quit in disgust from all the other bugs.

For one thing, this mutant arm would get stuck on things. I would walk through a door, unaware that somehow my hand had gotten stuck on the door frame. I wouldn't notice this until I had walked about fifty feet, and find out I couldn't use the complicated waldo-controls to bring my arm in front of me to pick up an interesting stick. Then I'd turn around and discover that my arm had stretched out behind me the entire fifty feet. Yes, Reed Richards or Elastigirl would be proud of Anne. But unfortunately, too often I couldn't just jiggle the waldo-controls to free her hand. Instead, I'd have to WALK back to the other side of the door to retrieve my own hand.

Then there was the physics simulations. Physics in the world of Trespasser was pretty different from physics of the real world. For one thing, there was no friction in this world. Energy didn't get converted / absorbed on collisions. No. No, what would happen would be that you'd put your pistol down gently on a slight incline so you could try to stack boxes (since you had only one "inventory" slot). The pistol on this ten-degree slope would then proceed to ROLL down the slope. Not just slide, no. ROLL. End-over-end. In slow-motion. So you'd do a little stacking, trying to prevent the boxes from sliding off of each other, stop, grab your slowly rolling pistol so it didn't drop down to where the Velociraptors were hanging out, move it back up next to you, and go back to stacking boxes that refused to actually stack while keeping track of your pistol rolling at a speed of about six feet per minute.

The end result was that you were constantly juggling objects in the world that utterly refused to stand still.

Still, I persevered. I mean, this was a whole New Concept for a game, right? Surely there'd be a glitch or two. But like an uncut diamond, there was sure to be a gem of great value hidden within the ugly stone. I'd keep digging.

Unfortunately, the organic and open-ended gameplay promised by the game never really materialized. The advanced AI of the dinosaurs appeared no different from scripted AI of any other game. I mean, the velociraptors (as far as I got) were always out to kill you. Sure, there was one scene where a Tyranosaurus was preoccupied with fighting another dinosaur and you had to stay out from underfoot, but that was pretty much the extend of things. If the velociraptors were using some kind of clever pack behavior, I missed it as I saw them pacing blindly beneath me as I stood on a beam trying to prevent my pistol from slowly rolling over the frictionless edge.

And the physics puzzles? Pretty much box-stacking (with greased boxes) or stack-knocking-over. Pre-scripted. The physics was limited to very specific items only. Sure, if you ran out of bullets, you could actually CLUB the dinos with your rifle, or a fragment of a door that you smashed open earlier, which was admittedly pretty cool. But I was deliberately searching for clever solutions "outside the box," and I found very, very few. The dinosaurs weren't possible to simply fend off or outsmart. It pretty much came down to trying to shoot them with an impossibly weird aiming system (imagine trying to shoot a rifle one-handed while holding it as far away from you as your arm can reach. That's pretty much the "challenge" of the game), and then trying to club them over the head with an empty gun when you run out of bullets.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when I arrived at the town. Admittedly, my machine wasn't entirely bleeding edge, but it was more than powerful enough to handle all of the games of the era (including Unreal, I later discovered, which was lamented as a "pretty slideshow" by too many gamers with less powerful systems). But when I arrived in town, my framerate dropped to unplayable levels. Something like 3 frames per second. I took a few painful steps, and then a velociraptor teleported next to me. Though it looked like he had teleported in via the transporter on the Starship Enterprise during an episode in which they were having "transporter malfunctions." The dino appeared inside a fence, half on one side, half on the other. It shrieked and hissed (I know I would, too, so the AI felt very realistic at that point), unable to escape its merger with a wooden fence. I would have felt pity for it, if a minute later (which was how long it took me to take maybe a dozen steps) another raptor hadn't appeared out of nowhere and killed me instantly. I didn't even have time to look down at my breasts to see if my heart-shaped tatoo was fading.

I tried several times, trying to turn the detail levels down to "nothing." Nothing worked. Well, I mean that nothing that I tried worked to salvage the game... there wasn't a "nothing" detail setting that worked. Though that would have been strangely appropriate. The game was simply unplayable from that point on.

The next day, I returned, shame-faced, to my coworkers and admitted to them that they were both correct and very wise. I returned the game to the Software, Etc. store where I'd purchased it. They only allowed a trade, so I desperately searched for another game that I was interested in that I knew DIDN'T SUCK. Unfortunately, the only one of equivalent price was a copy of Unreal --- a game which I could buy from the company store (we'd been bought by GT Interactive, Unreal's publisher, by that point) for a third of its retail cost. It didn't matter. By this point, I was so disgusted by Trespasser that I just wanted to put some physical distance between me and the game, and I'd like to feel my money wasn't COMPLETELY wasted.

But apparently, the scars remain.

Incidentally, that same year, Blackley's former company released Thief: The Dark Project, and later Thief 2, which I thought captured the type of gameplay promised by Trespasser. And the budget "sci-fi hunting game" title Carnivores captured the whole man-against-dinosaur thrills almost present in Trespasser. So the actual concept - the idea behind Trespasser - was demonstrably sound. It's just that the design and execution were fumbled horribly.

Since then, a wonderful postmortem has explained just how such a wonderful idea crashed and burned. This is perhaps the single, salvageable good thing to emerge from the wreckage. And, in the tradition of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a group of honest-to-goodness fans have emerged to try to convert the sow's ear into a silk purse. And I do have to admit that the game did bring me some enjoyment for perhaps the first fifteen minutes or so. So perhaps it is not the objective worst game of all time, nor even the worst failure of all time. That last prize probably goes to E.T. the Extraterrestrial for the Atari 2600... he game that destroyed the system... but as I never owned a 2600 nor had to personally experience the horror of that game, except for a few minutes at a friend's house before swapping out the cartridge for Missile Command, it doesn't burn in my memory like Trespasser.

But for me, when we talk of how much a game sucks, Trespasser set the high bar for craptastic-ness that has yet to be exceeded. It is my Eye of Argon for computer games.

(Vaguely) related musings on the Nature of Suckage:
* Why Battlefield 2 Sucks
* Quality Ain't Easy
* Polish: Attention to Detail
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG


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Tuesday, December 19, 2006
How Many Game Developers Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb?
Very, very funny. Because it's so true! Courtesy of Greg Costikyan of Manifesto Games:

Game Developers Change Light Bulbs

The Warhawk Movie and Endings
Warhawk (the 1995 original, not the new remake) was one of the two first games Singletrac ever made. All told, we released something like 11 games. But for Warhawk and Twisted Metal, we had very little clue what we were doing, but we had a lot of fun doing it. The producers out at Sony helped us stay on target and make sure nothing fell between the cracks...

But nobody's perfect.

A great deal of money was spent on a really horrible movie that would tell the story of Warhawk (aka Warhawk: The Red Mercury Missions). It was definitely worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. In fact, one game, by Psygnosis I think, actually did that to their own movie once they realized how bad it was. After seeing the movie countless times, I'd just start making up my own lines to go with it. At the beginning of the video, Commander Jassic faces Hatch and Walker in front of them, and states their names. I'd always say something like, "We are gathered here today to witness the Holy Matrimony of Captain Hatch and Corporal Walker..." at that point in the video.

Man those videos were cheesey. But one thing that was missed was having actual ENDINGS. I think Sony expected us to do some cool CGI stuff and call it done. We weren't really paying much attention. I think there was a brief clip of Kreel doing a slow death-rattle, but it sucked even worse than the rest of the videos. So at last minute and at great expense came up with a solution:

Text. Plain ol' scrolling text.

Oh, we had CGI endings too, for the final level. But they were too brief to offer much explanation. So we included text. And as long as we were using text, we may as well use it for ALL endings. Including the failure endings. It was more fun than a generic "Game Over" anyway. We invited the entire company to submit endings. Some were funny. Some were bloody. Some were over-the-top dramatic.

For your entertainment, here are some sample endings from Warhawk. If I remember or suspect the original author, I'll mention it. No, I can't remember all of the ones that are mine. Some were just amalgams of ideas from two or three interesting concepts.

By way of explanation - the Icarus is the mothership that launches your fighter. Kreel is the bad guy who is using the powers of Red Mercury to warp reality. Commander Jassic is your really wenchy-acting commander. Captain Hatch is the pilot, and Corporal (?) Walker (first name rumored to be "Sky") is the co-pilot / weapons officer who is constantly getting yelled at by Jassic.

There was also a trick to "winning" the game against the final boss, Kreel. The obvious approach - just overpowering Kreel, would result in his being able to get off one final act of vengeance, launching the last cannister of Red Mercury up and into the mother ship, blowing up everyone on board. Since this included Commander Jassic, this could be considered the "best" ending.

Alternate win scenarios included suiciding by ramming your ship directly into the mouth of Kreel's skull-ship. Kreel would be destroyed, but so would your pilots. The "best" ending was the "intelligent sacrifice" - you eject just as you slammed your ship into the skull's mouth, thus gaining the advantage of the surprise attack AND living to tell about it.

So here are some of the ending variants:

Canyon Variant A (I think Mike Mason did this one)
Kreel's forces find your remains smoldering in the wreckage of the Warhawk. Your head is brought back to Kreel and mounted on a pole outside his command center as a reminder to others of the futility of opposing him. Within days his forces have conquered the planet, establishing Kreel's position as godhead and subjecting the world's population to a long and
malevolent rule.

Back in the Icarus, Jassic views your demise with doleful impotence. Her hope of stopping Kreel
has been smashed along with your body, and she ponders the wisdom of pinning her hopes on a
green pilot and a sarcastic weapons officer.

Airship Variant B
The Warhawk plunges into the cold, dark water and plummets like a rock.

One hundred meters: the sea around you grows darker as you tumble into the depths.

Two hundred meters: the cockpit groans and creaks under the building pressure.

Three hundred meters: the canopy shatters and you are crushed instantly under the abyssal pressure.

Your bones have long been scattered by the sharks when Kreel crowns himself emperor of the wasteland.

Airship Variant C
A rescue plane from the giant air transport retrieves Hatch just before he drowns. His copilot is not so lucky.

Hours later, Hatch is taken before Kreel. The madman uses the mysterious power of red mercury to twist Hatch's mind, turning him against those he once trusted and loved.

Hatch becomes Kreel's right-hand man. Flying an improved, red mercury-powered Warhawk fighter, he singlehandedly destroys the Icarus and the last remnants of the world's defensive forces.

Volcano Variant C (Mike Badger, lead programmer)
As Jassic watches the Warhawk sink into the water, she realizes that the situation has become hopeless. Although her reputation as a tenacious fighter is widespread, she knows that it is only a matter of time before she must surrender to Kreel's might. She ponders the treatment that she will receive at the hands of her captors, and is unable to face this prospect. She opens a secret compartment and removes a lone cyanide capsule. Taking a deep breath, she places it in
her mouth and performs her final duty. As death takes her, her final thoughts are of Hatch and Walker.

Three days later Hatch and Walker's bloated bodies slowly rise to the surface, their body armor no longer able to keep them in their watery grave. The sea birds feast upon their tenderized
flesh until the sharks move in to finish the job, crunching through their armor and ripping them to pieces. What little is left sinks to the bottom for a second time, never to rise again.

(Note: I think we all had some level of hostility towards these characters by the end of the game's development....)

Volcano variant B
In the end, kreel was defeated only after a costly nuclear war. Millions of innocents died, and much of the world lay in ruins from the devastating holocaust.

Rescue parties searched the water around the volcanic spires for days, looking for any remains of the Warhawk. What little was found left no doubt that the officers had died almost instantly.

Volcano variant D (I think this one was mine, too)
As the fiery magma in the
heart of the volcano is
the Red Mercury in my blood.
It maketh mine arm great,
that I might pluck thee from
the sky, and in my wrath
I do plunge thee into the
depths of the sea. Such
is my might and my glory.

-- Book of Kreel 11:17

Gauntlet Variant D (Mine)
kreel watches the demise of the two would-be heroes in his "Gauntlet of Pain." He laughs as the warhawk erupts into flame on his closed-circuit monitor in his dining room.

Then he realizes that he is choking to death on a chicken bone from the meal he was eating.

Kreel has died. You were indirectly responsible, but no, you have not won Warhawk. The best is yet to come.

Try again.

Overpowered Kreel Epilogue, variant B
"No!" Hatch cries impotently as he sees Kreel destroy the icarus with a dying gesture. The combat took too long, gave Kreel too much time to prepare. Hatch plays the episode
over and over in his mind, trying to learn what he could have done differently
to spare the lives of his comrades aboard the mother ship.

Walker shrugs. "Well, Hatch, i guess you won't be getting that promotion after all."

Win By Intelligent Sacrifice Epilogue (I think this one is mine)
The escape pod is tossed like a feather in a hurricane as the red mercury detonates inside kreel's battle-fortress. With repulsors screaming from battle damage and overload, the cockpit slams into the moist earth three miles from the site of Kreel's defeat.

Hours later Hatch regains consciousness. Hearing voices outside the canopy, he cries out to the rescue party, led by Commander Jassic herself.

Soon the two heroes are celebrated all over the world. Hatch is promoted to general. Walker re-
kindles his romance with Jassic. All is well.

Until something fouler and more devious than Kreel's tormented mind surfaces...

Win By Intelligent Sacrifice Epilogue, StormLand variant C
The mad overlord Kreel was destroyed by captain Hatch's brilliant tactical move. After ramming the warhawk directly into the red mercury containment chamber, Hatch and Walker ejected in time to be transported back to the Icarus, avoiding being engulfed by the firestorm that destroyed Kreel.

Hatch went on to become commander-in-chief of the world's defensive forces, and had a long and distinguished career.

Walker finally married Commander Jassic, and the two went into business selling tie-died t-shirts and "I survived the Red Mercury War and all I got was this lousy baseball cap" baseball caps.

(Vaguely) related posty-thingies:
* Easter Eggs
* Warhawk Flies Again!
* Warhawk Re-Imagined


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Monday, December 18, 2006
Virtual Villagers Wins 2006 Sim Game of the Year
In 2004, it was Outpost Kaloki.

This year, it is Virtual Villagers!

Congratulations to developer Last Day Of Work for winning the 2006 Sim Game of the Year award at GameTunnel!

Kudos and Armadillo Run won second and third place, respectively --- I have no doubt the competition for the Sim category was extremely tight this year.

Since I'm a fan, I'm pleased to have some kind of validation that my tastes aren't TOO out-of-whack... well, that, or the judges are just as weird as I am. Anyway, congratulations to Virtual Villagers.

(PSST.... yes, you can download the free demo HERE!)

(Vaguely) Related Fantasies Not Involving Ginger or Mary Ann (this time):
* Tamagotchi Villagers
* Dead Villagers
* Virtual Villagers II Developer's Diary
* We Won!


Indie Postmortem: Shelled!
At GarageGames, there's an indie postmortem of the game, "Shelled!" Interesting to take a look at, especially if you have been working with the Torque engine (though the postmortem only has a few Torque-specific sections).

One interesting mistake he mentions is a problem I deal with constantly: Coding what you need, not what you think you might need. My time at a company practicing eXtreme Programming (XP) helped break the habit somewhat, but I still find myself falling into the trap of taking five times as long to create something ten times as flexible, when I actually don't need any of that flexibility.

Many thanks to Gary Preston, the lead programmer of Shelled!, for providing this very candid postmortem.

Check out the postmortem here.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006
Fastcrawl - Quick Take on the 2006 Indie RPG Award Winner
Sometimes, you just feel like a good ol-fashioned dungeon crawl. So I gave FastCrawl (Download it HERE! ... or not), the winner of the 2006 Indie RPG of the Year award from GameTunnel, a try this evening. I didn't have much time to play around with it, but I was able to play through a couple of full games, and thought I'd share my discoveries.

Installation was a pain. The game requires .NET 1.1, which I thought I had on my machine, but it claimed it couldn't find it. I tried reinstalling .NET (without a reboot), and FastCrawl still complained about not being able to find it. I went ahead and installed and played it anyway, and it worked in spite of complaints.

When you start a game, you are immediately given a random party (with random names) and it is up to you to guide them through a dungeon. It creates a random story (more of mission objectives and setting), and drops you into the entrance of a randomly-generated dungeon. Some dungeon types include doors and locks. Others are more open caverns. A skilled rogue is handy in the former dungeon types. The dungeons are filled with various monsters, traps, randomized treasure of innumerable different types, and occasionally a character who will join you on your quest.

FastCrawl bills itself as an "action-RPG," but it's really turn-based. There's really no time-critical actions you ever need to perform. It's even less action-oriented than Empires and Dungeons. I actually prefer the turn-based gameplay, anyway, so other than a misleading category name, it doesn't bug me. Every step or action takes up a turn. Resting takes several turns (and uses supplies, a treasure type available in limited quantities).

You only "level up" when you find and take the stairs down to the next level of the dungeon. Each time your characters level up, you are offered one of several specializations that they can choose from. For example, a cleric may specialize in improving the strength of his healing spells, or in healing the entire party at once, or in becoming a "Wrath" priest that inflicts deadly spell damage on oppnents.

Combat is also handled in a turn-based fashion. You will need to select the starting formation of your party - which dictates who can attack and be attacked with what equipment and range. Once that is set, the game goes through the combatants one-by-one during the course of each combat turn. Though it's a somewhat abstract arrangement, long-time players of certain games with "ranks" of characters (like the old Wizardry / Bard's Tale games) will be right at home.

Eventually, assuming you survive long enough, you'll come up against the "final encounter" - the "boss monsters" of the dungeon mentioned in your initial quest story. Defeat them, and you win the game.

The graphics of FastCrawl are simple and static, but pretty. The music is likewise nice but doesn't overwhelm the game. No saved games slots are available, but your game is auto-saved when you exit so you can continue when you come back to it. You won't need to do that much, as the shortest games can take 30 minutes or less.

My take: According to my definition, FastCrawl is definitely an RPG, with some old-school sensibilities mixed with some newer indie production values and ease-of-play. It has enough replayability to remain entertaining (I think) after many play-throughs.

While the random party generation may frustrate some players, I think it's actually advantageous to maintaining the replayability of the game. It's much harder to settle on a single, optimized group. For example, in my first game, I had two clerics. It was easy to get used to having the two clerics on "heal duty," though I eventually specialized one in Wrath. My second run-through, I was given no clerics whatsoever initially (though I eventually found one who joined me on the second level of the dungeon). I had to come up with an entirely new strategy to take advantage of having a warrior, rogue, and mage.

Like Empires & Dungeons, FastCrawl has a little bit of a "board game" feel to it. It's a good quick-and-dirty dungeon crawl, and well worth checking out if that sort of thing floats your boat. If you are really looking for a more epic adventure and in-depth storylines, it will leave you unsatisfied (go check out Avernum 4 or Aveyond).

While I love big storylines and detailed characters, sometimes I'm just in the mood to grab a sword, hit the dungeon, and beat the crud out of some monsters for some ph4t l00ts. I got a kick out of this game, and I expect I'll keep playing it whenever the mood strikes me.

Want to check it out yourself and tell me how wrong I am?

Download the free FastCrawl demo!



Thursday, December 14, 2006
Black (and White) Is Beautiful: Does Gaming History Matter?
Maybe the measure of the maturity of a subculture or medium is how much of its history has been forgotten. If so, I'd say computer games and video games are well on their way to becoming a mature and established. It seems many game journalists are too young to have clear memories beyond a full generation of console hardware. Mention the 3DO to your average gamer, and you are likely to be met with either a blank stare or the vaguest of recognition. I'm probably included in that description... I think I only played three 3DO games ever, on a company system, and only one - Road Rash - was actually worth playing.

Maybe that's why our industry has thrived so long and selling the same old recycled, gussied-up games to the public year after year. Although it's changing slowly as the "average" gamer threatens to age beyond the "twenty-something" crowd, we've traditionally been young enough to be very forgetful of our past. I find myself frustrated when I read glowing reports of a "revolutionary" game "inventing" a new kind of gameplay that I remember enjoying fifteen years ago. Like more than one article stating that "open-ended gameplay" somehow began with Grand Theft Auto.

Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion must have stolen the idea from Grand Theft Auto. Riiiiiiiiight. What was the release date of Elder Scrolls 1: Arena, again? Or Elite?

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's not like it's unique to our medium. I mean, Elvis and the Beatles were always people that our parents liked. I never did understand the phenomina around those performers or the music.

And film! I don't know when I learned to despise black & white (or just "older films"). Maybe it was after years of watching Our Gang and The Li'l Rascals, when I suddenly realized to my horror that the cute girl Darla was actually pushing sixty in real life (and died in 1979). Or maybe it was my being influenced by marketing. Surely the fact that everybody was TALKING about the new shows meant that they were more interesting than the old, right? The technology was poor, the special effects were embarassing, the studios hired pretty boys and girls to be "stars" instead of people with actual acting talent, the humor was over-the-top for a more naive audience, and what they thought was edgy and tantalizing was actually laughably tame (except when they referred to things that are now politically incorrect).

But a friend forced me to watch "It Happened One Night," and I was delighted. It wasn't that there was anything in particular that was in any way spectacular. Nothing knocked my socks off or showed me anything I hadn't seen before. But the whole thing was just... just a great movie. Since then, I've been going back and catching up on some great shows from the past that I might have missed out on. (Some recent discoveries: "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" starring Errol Flynn, and "The Big Sleep" with Humphrey Bogart were a lot of fun!)

When you are talking about a commercial industry, from a short-term perspective it's not in a business's best interest to promote the past. I mean, if you are spending $75 million on a movie remake, you do not want it competing directly with the original that viewers can watch for free on television.

Games have suffered additional cultural amnesia in that they have traditionally marketed to a younger audience, and that the rapid evolution of technology that has rendered older games obsolete (and even impossible to play, due to the loss of the equipment necessary to play them).
But that part is changing. The gamer demographic is maturing, as is the technology. And with the advent of emulation - emulation that copyright-holders are discovering they can take advantage of on the new consoles with downloadable retro games - we are seeing a few old classics being introduced to new audiences.

But I'm not expecting a retro revolution here. It's like AMC or the Western Channel --- I think those channels are primarily catering to an existing niche and only incidentally growing their market.

So am I just railing against the inevitable here? Is it such a bad thing that players (and developers) have forgotten what made M.U.L.E., Ultima IV, Elite, Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy VII, Mario 64, Doom, The Secret of Monkey Island, or Galaga so special? Am I just being an old fart, complaining about how kids believe videogames began with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater?

(Vaguely) related workings of a fevered imagination:
* Innovation in RPGs?
* R.I.P. Computer Gaming World
* What Makes a Game Great?
* Open-Ended Gameplay Began with GTA?

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But is it an RPG?
I've decided to revise my musings about the nature of RPGs a little bit from my last stab at it. Coming of with taxonomic criteria is a tricky thing, as it often happens in reverse - you deliberately design them to exclude the games you don't want in a category, and to include the ones you do. And I'm going to admit that there's a little bit of subjectiveness in each of the criteria, and a lot in the new, fourth one.

Some of this was spurred on by some discussion going on concerning the 2006 Indie RPG awards. There are some folks (specifically the "controversial" but ever-so-fun-to-read Scorpia) who maintain that "hack-and-slash" style games no longer qualify as RPGs, especially if they are heavy on the action. Or at least they belong in their own category. And there are some who maintain that Diablo wasn't a "true" RPG, too.

Now, I'm not going to argue against RPGs being a broad enough category that it couldn't use some additional subdivision. If there were more indie RPGs coming out each year, I'm sure GameTunnel would be happy to break the category up a little more. After all, they had an entire category devoted to "Aquanoid Clones" a while back, because there were just so many of them. But I'm going to go for a more general, inclusive classification here. Here's my criteria for determining whether or not a game is worthy of the "RPG" label (even as a hybrid... a "slash-rpg?")

Note that when I say "Avatar" in the context of this discussion, this can actually mean a set of characters that fall under the player's control. So the Avatar may switch in mid-game (as in the Final Fantasy games), or it may be an entire party of characters (I'm thinking classic Eye of the Beholder / Wizardry / Bard's Tale stuff here, including the newer indie game Minions of Mirth).

Is This Game An RPG?

#1 - The success or failure of the player's actions are significantly influenced by (or modified by) the attributes of the player's avatar.

For example, even if the game makes you aim your bow manually (as in an action / RPG), whether or not you hit and / or the damage you do is based upon the avatar's attributes (a combination of inherent ability and the attributes of any active equipment or effects in use by the avatar).

Many games might pass this test, for very small values of the word "significantly." FPS games, for example, have attributes of your avatar - principally determined by power-ups and current health status. However, with such a small variety of changes to the attributes, and the fact that rocket launcher doesn't really vary from player to player (unless they have quad damage, but that's a small variant), I'd argue that it fails this rule.

#2 - Some non-determinism should influence the outcome of critical player actions.

This is something of an artifact of criterion #1. I have a tough time accepting a game as an RPG if attacking monster A with weapon B with a character with stats set C will ALWAYS hit for X points of damage. I'd start looking for Adventure or Strategy labels for the game.

I BELIEVE that the range of damage done by an attack in Oblivion was determined randomly (at least I couldn't perceive a deterministic pattern). There seemed to be some randomness in creatures detecting you when you were hidden too, but that might not be the case. And if you chose to let the game automatically handle lockpicking for you, it seemed to be a random determination of success or failure as well (depending upon your character's skill level). So Oblivion counts. Though it really walks near the edge between FPS and RPG.

This is one rule I could give some leeway on, as there are non-computer examples of RPGs with little randomness. The Amber "diceless" RPG comes to mind, as well as some Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games. But I'd be really, really suspicious in a computer / console game.

#3 - There is a strong correlation between the player's progress in the game, and the level of the player-avatar's attributes.

In other words, the longer you play, the better your avatar becomes. Generally. There can be exceptions here and there. For example, I can envision a Call of Cthulhu computer RPG where your character's sanity might drop during the course of the game, even though his other attributes improve.

If a game gives you a "level" that governs your in-game capabilities as a reward as you make progress, it easily qualifies under this rule.

And now here's the new one:

#4 - The Game Encourages the Player to Identify With the Avatar

This one is very subjective. But it helps rule out certain games that would apply under the previous criteria. For example, X-Com is a game which would fit under the other criteria. While most people would say it has RPG elements, it's really not an RPG. The game encourages you to take an omniscient role as a commander over your squaddies. Likewise, while Falcon 3.0 had a squadron of pilots with different abilities that you could control (and their ability to hit their target certainly FELT random), when you jumped into the cockpit you 'took over' as the pilot. Ditto for wargames.

Some legitimate RPGs are weak in this area, particularly early ones. They made no attempt to integrate your character (or your party) into the fiction of the game. But they still took on the conceit that the character (or party) were "you" in the game. If the last party member died, the game was over. You saw the game from their perspective. You "play" those characters, rather than just playing the game.

Some False Criteria
So if all these tests come up positive, I'd be hard-pressed NOT to call the game an RPG. If you have an example of a false positive or false negative, I'd like to hear it. We can create a new rules or modify the old ones. In fact, I'd love to hear some arguments.

Okay, now here are some false criteria that I often see applied, and why I think they are false:

Roleplaying Games Are Fantasy Games
Nope, nope, nope. Twilight: 2000 is an old RPG that took on a gritty 'realistic' view of a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. In fact, there wasn't anything really "sci-fi" about it. It was a fun dice-and-paper RPG, too. Fallout has some really fantastic elements, but it's not what most people think of when they think "fantasy." And it's considered by many to be the best computer RPG of all time.

Literary genre has nothing to do with it. Fantasy RPGs are certainly among the best-selling computer and console RPGs, but in the tabletop realm there is a plethora of different genres. Pulp detective / adventure fiction, westerns, science fiction, martial arts, cyberpunk (also science fiction), even classic Saturday-morning cartoons... these have all been fodder for pen-and-paper.

An RPG Must Have a Story
Yes, RPGs are a form of cooperative storytelling. I think this is a false requirement because a story can be a simple one-sentence premise next to the controls of an arcade machine. It can even be implied. "These heroes are seeking fame and fortune by exploring a dangerous dungeon" is a story. Not a very compelling one, no, but then we're getting into qualitative measures.

This doesn't mean an RPG can't be judged by the quality of its story (or by its ability to let the player create his own story). I just don't think there is a binary answer to the question of whether or not a game has a story. Only the most abstract of games have no story whatsoever that the player can't infer from the action.

An RPG is Combat-Oriented
Oooh, oooh! I've got this one! My answer is "no, not necessarily" only because it shouldn't have to be. But I don't think anybody has taken on the challenge of making a non-combat RPG. I have fuzzy little desired to take on the challenge someday.

An RPG Must Have A Conversation / Equipment / Quest System
Nope! Like combat systems, these are common but not defining or necessary features of an RPG. I can imagine an RPG without them. I have a very tough time imagining a GOOD modern RPG without any of these systems, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Maybe you play a some mute kung-fu master who wanders from town to town without possessions, trying to avenge your master's death or something.

So.... there's my latest attempt at defining the genre. Please feel free to challenge this... I'm sure I'm leaving stuff out. Let me hear your own ideas! Especially if you have counter-examples.

(Vaguely) Related Cranial Seepage:
* The Rules of Roleplaying Games
* Are Hybrid RPGs Just The Poor Man's RPG?
* Non-Combat RPG: A Fool's Errand?
* RPG Design Seed Challenge

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006
This isn't viral marketing!
Yo, dawg!

I got this great marketing idea! See, I'm going to set up this fansite about Rampant Games. I'll pretend to be this small community of rabid fans of Rampant Games. And I'll try to write like I think a gansta rappa talks. Yeah! That way I'll appeal to the a market that I believe to be fiscally irresponsible, and easy to imprint with branding! And naive! That's really important, too. I don't want anyone to, say, do a whois and find out that the fan site was actually made by ME. But nobody ever does that, do they?

Then I'll wait for it to snowball into a real community of rabid fans, and enjoy tremendous word-of-mouth success! After all, it worked for Frank Sinatra, right?

What * could * possibly * go * wrong ?

Don't hate the playah, hate the game, yo!


Tuesday, December 12, 2006
2006 Indie RPGs of the Year Announced
GameTunnel has posted the winners for the 2006 Indie RPG of the Year.

The best news of all is that this year, we actually had indie RPGs as a full category. The last couple of years, we've had so few RPGs that were released during the year that the award was simply added to the "special awards" list. RPG fans, rejoice!

I can't let the awards go without my own brand of completely disposable commentary, so here goes.

Empires and Dungeons won fifth place, and I feel it deserves the honor. The game is simple, yet challenging and fun. You need to engage your brain to play it, but not to the point of agonizing over every move. It's more like the amount of consideration you need to put into a casual puzzle game. (Note: If you've only played the demo, the game gets MUCH more challenging in the full version, especially with multiple enemy lords). It's a great "quick" game.

Avernum 4 won fourth place. While very few people (relatively speaking) have even heard of "indie RPGs," most of those who have think exclusively of Spiderweb Software. Jeff Vogel has been doing the indie RPG thing for a long time, and he's gotten pretty good at it. I've not played very far in this game, so I can't really discuss it much detail.

Minions of Mirth took third place. Minions of Mirth is amazing to me, for reasons I have chronicled before. The game is frighteningly feature-rich, and comparable to the original release of EverQuest in 1999 - a task which required a large team of developers and much more time than Josh Ritter spent on it. If I were to offer a truly objective review of the game, I'd probably ding it a bit on the interface and the "first-time user experience." It unfortunately emulates the original EQ release a little too closely in that regard. But it's an amazingly rich, complex, and high-quality game, and massively multiplayer to boot. But that's only the beginning. It's extremely mod-able, and players are allowed to create their own servers for the game, customized to their hearts content. So not only is it an MMORPG, but it's an MMORPG construction set. The community seems to have taken off around the game, and unlike other MMORPGs out there, the developer not only listens to the community, but actively solicits their help in building up and improving the world. Much of the content that has been added over the year has been provided by players.

Absolutely phenominal. But we ain't done yet.

Much to my surprise, Aveyond won second place. I've talked Aveyond up a lot here, interviewed the developer, and turned a few of my friends into ravenous Aveyond fans. I think what is most impressive about this game (from a development point of view) is how the developer was able to combine an off-the-shelf tool with a unique vision, and create something of very high quality. Since playing Aveyond, I have tried other games made with the same tool, and I've found the difference in quality to be remarkable. It's not the tools that make a master in any profession.

I really expected Aveyond to be a shoo-in this year, with Minions of Mirth and Avernum 4 duking it out for second place. Instead, top honors went to FastCrawl. This is the one game in the list that I have not played yet, and it's my own fault. The developer, Glen Pawley, actually ASKED me to try out his game back in October. I found out I needed to upgrade to a newer version of .NET, and got lazy. I never followed through. So Glen, if you are reading this, I apologize. But I wish you a hearty congratulations! You snagged the award from some VERY tough competition, which speaks volumes about the quality of your game! Now I have to finally go back and try it out, and see what I have been missing!

But on to more awesomeness. Geneforge 4 is already out for the Mac, and should be out for Windows "very soon." Amanda is promising the next game in the Aveyond series, "Aveyond II: Ean's Quest", before the end of 2007. There's another promising indie RPG that's shaping up for (hopefully) a 2007 release that I know of, entitled Age of Decadence, using the Torque engine. And Eschalon: Book 1 was submitted this year for the IGF, which hopefully means it is also going to make a 2007 release as well. I don't know what else is in the pipeline, but 2007 is already shaping up to be an AWESOME year for RPG fans.

Man, I don't know how I'm supposed to get any work done this year...

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Monday, December 11, 2006
Game Moment #16 - Mechwarrior II


That was an somewhat obscure rule from the the tabletop version of the game "BattleTech." I'd only played it a couple of times. I was familiar with the rules, but the guys who played the game invested small fortunes into miniatures of giant robots. (Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron.) It seemed like an expensive hobby. Maybe not in comparison to, say, computer gaming... but I still didn't feel a strong desire to invest in the game beyond the basic rules system. Oh, and the adaptation of the wargame rules into an RPG, called "Mechwarrior."

BattleTech was a game inspired by anime, where warriors of the future drove gigantic, walking, metal war machines. The very concept defies all logic - why pilot a bipedal war machine when a tank would be far more efficient? No reason at all. Except a three-story-tall bipedal robot feels more like an extension of self, rather than piloting a vehicle. It's the supersoldier fantasy taken to excess - a lone warrior who can be an obscenely well-armed and armored walking GIANT on the battlefield.

The rule mentioned above was an attack by mechs with "jump jets," in which they could leap and come down directly on an enemy mech's "head" (which always housed the cockpit and vulnerable pilot, for some reason). It was a difficult and dangerous maneuver, with a less-than-stellar chance of success, but well worth it if you got lucky.

Early Mechwarrior Simulators
The wargame wasn't enough for me. I wanted to actually pilot one of those giant mecha (or "Mechs" in the Battletech universe). Or the closest thing to it. Around 1990 or so, I got my chance, with a delightful little game called "Mechwarrior," a title by Dynamix, published by Activision. This game was a little old when I played it, restricted to 16 colors at 320 x 200 resolution. Still, it was a lot of fun, and I played it into the ground.

An even better opportunity presented itself when I went to Walnut Creek, California, with my wife to visit her relatives. We paid a visit to the "Battletech Center" there, which had been redubbed "Virtual World" centers. For seven bucks, you'd be treated to an orientation movie (included here), then duke it out with seven other players in big "pods" - cockpits housed around a proprietary networked computer game. You'd also be given a printout of how you did, with your final score and ranking compared to the other players. The controls for the mechs at the BattleTech centers were impossibly complicated, but there were hardcore geeks who lived and breathed it. My first time visiting there, I met an experienced player in the cafe area. He was in-between sessions, and gave me some pointers before my first battle.

And for some good laughs, here's the orientation video, courtesy of YouTube:

Mechwarrior II
Fortunately for my starving-student bank account, the Virtual World centers were not local. The next best thing was the long-awaited (and long-delayed) sequel to Mechwarrior, produced by Activision. The final result was a classic. I played through the two campaigns (plus the expansion, Ghost Bear's Legacy), perhaps four times each. I thought I was pretty good.

The manual for the computer game mentioned the "Death From Above" attack from the old wargame. While it was theoretically supposed to be possible, I couldn't ever get it to work.

Mechwarrior II eventually supported LAN play. Very few games natively supported Internet play at the time, but with a program called Kali you could turn convince your computer that the Internet was your own private LAN, and play any network games with other Kali users. After wasting a couple of friends in actual LAN-based play (strangely, they didn't want to play with me after that), I tried my hand against an experienced player online.

Getting My Butt Kicked
I used my favorite Mech loadout from the single-player game. I'd honed the design to perfection. Twin Particle Projector Cannons (PPCs), plenty of heat sinks to handle the spike of firing two PPCs at once, plus an array of medium-range lasers. I had a small number of missiles, but I was so accurate with my other weapons I hated to use anything with limited ammunition.

So I faced my opponent, hoping I could handle him as I handled the AI. The instant he came within range, I fired my PPCs at him, and began backing up, trying to maintain my long-range advantage.

He stopped. I watched my slow PPC shots (which, I discovered later, were referred to by the online MW2 community as "Blue Pillows of Death") approach my foe. At the last second, he hit his jump-jets and easily dodged out of the way. He came closer. I fired at him a couple more times, and each time he expertly dodged.

I thought I was lucky when he shot out my mech's leg. I didn't realize he was deliberately trying to incapacitate me without killing me. After that, he just sat there for a little while, at long range. I kept firing my "death pillows at him," and he kept dodging. It dawned on me that he'd been toying with me this whole time. After exchanging some chat messages with him, he put me out of my misery.

You see, the guys who played Mechwarrior II online got hourly practice dodging guided missiles. Being fired upon with the slowest-moving, unguided projectiles in the game was almost an insult, and the use of PPCs was a clear mark of a newbie.

I was hooked.

Death From Above
I didn't stay a newbie for long. After a while, I became pretty good at the game. I was leading my targets almost precisely based on their ping. I was firing guided missiles AROUND obstacles, hitting targets on the other side that didn't have line-of-sight with me. I'd learned to master jump jets, and I was routinely dodging guided missiles myself. I had optimized mech designs for every weight category, taking advantage of not only things like heat and damage distribution but lag-tolerance in the online environment, collision detection limitations, and variations of different rules for online play (friendly versus tournament-rules adopted by the online community).

My online guild put me a leadership position, as I was active, supportive of new players, and while nowhere near "the best," I was probably in the top 25%. I went back and played the single-player game, at one point, and was amazed by how incredibly trivial it was. I'd take on overwhelming odds just to keep it interesting.

Then, one day, I was leading a team in a "friendly" (non-scoring") match against another online guild. I was holding my own with the team, and it was eventually down to just myself and one opponent. I had smashed his Mech up pretty bad, and he was "hiding" on top of a mesa above me. I'd expended my missile load taking "indirect fire" shots at his mech. I wasn't about to expose myself to attack trying to get up to his level, so I was hanging out below the mesa waiting for him to expose himself so I could get some shots in at him with my alsers. He didn't seem too willing to come down to my level, either.

So we stayed in a stalemate position for a couple of minutes, when finally he jumped. I took some free shots on him as he fell. The battle was almost won.

Then my mech exploded. The cockpit was shattered. He'd come down... directly on top of my mech. I stared at the little "death cam" mode in disbelief.

Death From Above!

What do you know, it really COULD be done! I'd just been on the receiving end of a "Death From Above" attack.

(Vaguely) related expressions of n00bieness...
* Why Cooperative Multiplayer Is Best
* Guest Game Moment #1: Falcon 4.0
* Game Moment #12: Rainbow Six

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Saturday, December 09, 2006
IGF Finalists Announced! We're In!
The list of IGF finalists is out today, and NinjaBee's Bugs of War was nominated for Technical Excellence. (For those just tuning in, NinjaBee is the day job. That's right. I work for a game company during the day, and at night I... make games. Living a balanced life is for cranes.)

Not that I am on the Bugs of War team or anything. I am simply basking in reflected glory, here.

So here is the complete list of the finalists:

Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Aquaria - Bit Blot
Armadillo Run - Peter Stock
Bang! Howdy - Three Rings Design
RoboBlitz - Naked Sky Entertainment
Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games

Best Web Browser Game
Bubble Islands - dot-invasion
Gamma Bros - Pixeljam
Samorost 2 - Amanita Design

Design Innovation Award
Armadillo Run - Peter Stock
Aquaria - Bit Blot
Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games
Toblo - Digipen Institute of Technology
Toribash - NABI Software

Excellence In Visual Art
Castle Crashers - The Behemoth
Golf? - Luke Hetherington Company
Aquaria - Bit Blot
RoboBlitz - Naked Sky Entertainment;
Samorost 2 - Amanita Design

Excellence In Audio
Bone: The Great Cow Race - Telltale Games
Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games
FizzBall - Grubby Games
Aquaria - Bit Blot
Racing Pitch - Skinflake

Technical Excellence
Arcane Legions: The Rising Shadow - Slitherine Software
Armada Online - EvStream
Bang! Howdy - Three Rings Design
Blast Miner - Cryptic Sea
Bugs Of War - NinjaBee

Okay - I must admit I'm a little bit dissapointed that Bugs didn't get nominated in other categories, and that Minions of Mirth and Aveyond didn't get nominated. Or Eschelon, Book I. There's just no independent RPG love this year, I guess. But them's the breaks, and there was a SLEW of entries this year (141), so the competition was absolutely fierce.

(Vaguely) Related Junk from the Attic:
* How to Develop an MMORPG With No Team and a Limited Budget
* Interview with Amanda Fitch, Creator of the Indie RPG Aveyond
* Avoiding Target Fixation: How NinjaBee Got It Right
* Jay Sells Out! Or Maybe the Opposite...


Another Interview with Amanda Fitch
Casual Review has a short interview with Amanda Fitch, creator of the indie RPG Aveyond and the upcoming casual game, Grimm's Hatchery.

An excerpt:
CR: Why, in your opinion, aren’t there more casual or independent studios making fantasy adventure games out there? Compared to the number of match three games, it seems like RPG fans are left out in the cold.

Amanda: I think this is because role-playing games and adventure games are resource-intensive. It's easy to crank out a match three game in a couple of months because you don't need that many backgrounds, sprites (the little guys that run around on screen), and writing. Most of the work comes from coding. On the other hand, role-playing and adventure games can require hundreds of graphics and hundreds of pages of writing. Coding is a much smaller portion of the project.

Check out the interview HERE.

And if you haven't tried the indie RPG Aveyond yet, you can try it for free HERE.

After all, the holidays are coming up, and you can play Aveyond on your laptop while simply nodding and saying "uh-huh" to your visiting Aunt Gertrude as she tells of her latest medical stories. Download Aveyond. It could save your sanity!

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Friday, December 08, 2006
Learning to Draw
Thursday night, my company provided employees with a very unusual but cool perk...

Company-sponsored drawing sessions. Not classes, but they hired a model to pose for us. Principally, it was for the artists in the company to get some more practice drawing the human figure. But everyone was invited, and the invitation was also extended to friends and family members. There were a couple of us programmer-types taking a stab at it, as well as a designer and a 3D modeler. Naturally, the actual 2D artists in the company blew the rest of us away.

It wasn't nude drawing - the model was wearing a bathing suit. More of a "Brigham Young University" standard (as our company is located just "up the road" a few miles from BYU). This was advantageous, as this time the model was a coworker - one of the designers. At first, I thought we'd all be self-conscious about it. And at first, I think some of us were. I mean, this is a woman we have to work with every day, and we were going to be spending three hours studying and drawing her body!

Those who have done this sort of thing before in art class can now chuckle to yourselves. The truth is, within minutes we were all focused on what we were doing, and it was no big deal at all. As one might expect, my own efforts were about the worst of the group, but you have to start somewhere. I can keep it as one of my "before" sketches to show how much progress I have made one day. My sketch's face (if you can call it that) was far more masculine in appearance than the model's. I apologized to her when she got a peek at it later, and said it must be because I consider her to be "just one o' the guys."

However, I do have to admit my results were much better than they'd have been a year ago. I can see some definite progress, although I really haven't put as much practice time into drawing as I should have. But it is comforting to know that there is some real progress, and at the very least my "programmer art" may one day progress to a less eye-searing level.

(Vaguely) related barge-garb:
* An Amateur Artist Is Me
* Sucking Slightly Less

Thursday, December 07, 2006
RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
I remember reading an article by Gary Gygax (the co-inventor of roleplaying games...) where, at a gaming convention in 1999 or so, he ran one of his classic modules, and was aghast at how horribly and quickly parties were wiping out. Some veteran players (who had even played through the module before) came up to him later and asked what they had done wrong.

His response (as I recall) basically came down to the fact that they were trying to "brute force" the dungeon. He then launched into something of a gentle tirade against modern adventure design (and the influence of computer games on them). "Old school" adventures didn't expect the party to "clear out the level." That didn't really start until the late 80's or so.

That kinda stuck with me.

Let's face it - the actual game rules for old-school D&D were pretty simplistic. The fighter was the "beginner" class for the game, and the hard decisions of the combat system for fighters consisted of "Who do I try to hit this round?" You could pretty much predict the mathematical probabilities of an all-fighter combat (for higher-level characters, at least, where lucky / unlucky rolls weren't a make-or-break situation) with a pretty high degree of accuracy. All those combined dice rolls resulted in one heck of a bell curve. You could break down combats into pretty much a damage-per-turn calculation on both sides, a race to zero hitpoints, and the conclusion could be determined before the first blow struck.

Hmmm.... sorta how most MMORPGs work these days. What's the DPS of that sword, again?

Now, apologists for the "old-school" RPG systems (specifically Dungeons & Dragons) maintain that the lack of rules for doing anything else aside from swinging at your opponent are a virtue. The intention was for players to be creative with their characters actions, and the human game master ("Dungeon Master") would then make a ruling on the results. Anything goes.

To a point, I think they are correct. One of the differentiating factors between skilled and unskilled players was how creatively they delt with the challenges of the games. The old "tournament modules" would outfit groups of players with exactly the same characters, and they'd score points based on how effectively they played those characters and used the weaknesses and strengths of those characters, as well as the features and limitations of the environment, to "win" the adventure. You couldn't just leave a tough encounter for after you'd gained a level or two and could crush it with ease. You couldn't get some edge in gameplay mechanics over other tournament players. You had to think your way around the challenge.

That, to me, is the essence of RPG gameplay. Well, okay, that and melodrama (spiky-haired angsty teenagers optional).

The melodrama is well-handled in many RPGs. But avoid brute-force solutions and requiring a lot of thought and player skill going into potential combat encounters? Not so much. Especially now that "action RPGs" have started dominating the genre on PC... player skill is too often limited to rapid mouse clicking, being fast on the healing potion selection, and practicing your circle-straffing and aim techniques from FPS games.

Some of this is the limitation of the medium. Without human moderation, it's very difficult to enable a player to "think outside the box" - both from an interface perspective, and by allowing the game to properly react to a unique situation. Note that while I say, "difficult," I don't mean impossible. While I'm not a cheerleader for "realistic physics" in games, the biggest value it can add is enabling the player to use the complexity of the physics systems to, say, build a booby-trap for a monster. Or work out some other advantages.

Some of it is player expectations. Such as in Gary Gygax's tabletop game. Especially in computer RPGs, where the game lets the player proceed at his own pace, even though it may taunt him (or her) with promises of impending doom and warnings that time is running out. Players are encouraged to simply leave off the difficult encounters until they've gained more power and can effectively "brute force" the solution and clear the dungeon. I'm terrible at this, myself. I let Kvatch burn and the survivors hide inside the church in the ruins for WEEKS of game-time while I leveled up from 7 to 18 or so in Oblivion. Not that it helped me, much... Oblivion leveled up the opposition for me. Though by that time, thanks to all my hopping and skipping through meadows picking flowers, my assassin skills were actually useful, and I was able to close the gate.

How do you solve these dilemmas?

* I mentioned physics systems. But it takes more than just physics - it takes an entire organic game system designed to react to unusual developments in the game. I think one of the best examples of this is the non-RPG "Thief" games. Cons: This is hard, and the decision to do this WILL drive your entire design. It can't be bolted on later and have an effect, like the nearly useless physics systems in Oblivion and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

* You could level up the challenges so they always match the player level, like they did in Oblvion. But that sucks, and it actually encourages a brute-force approach (though discourages saving tough encounters for later)

* You can award the player based on solving "missions" rather than body count. This eliminates the XP penalty for avoiding direct combat (one of the big points of encouragement for pursuing the "brute force" solution). I am only familiar with a couple of games that did this: Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and some first-party modules by Bioware for Neverwinter Nights. And due to player expectations, this can irritate players. Some games, like the Elder Scrolls series, don't directly award you for killing monsters, but that's still a principle source of loot and battle practice.

* You could actually follow through on your time-limit threats. In practice, though, this sucks, and players will probably hate your game for it. Not a great trade-off.

So... are there better solutions to this problem? Is it even a problem? RPG fans, sound off and let me know what you think!
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Are Microtransactions Getting Abused By Game Publishers?
You see? This is why we can't have nice things!

I am a big fan of the idea of microtransactions in video games, as well as episodic content. Or at least I was. I've got an episodic RPG design on the back-burner right now that I am building up to. Ninjabee's Outpost Kaloki X for the XBox 360 had great success releasing expansions (both free and paid for via microtransactions) that were actually, completely, 100% honest-to-goodness bonus materials. Brand new campaigns. Stuff like that.

I had visions of new dungeons or mini-adventures half the size of Bioware's "Premium Modules" for Neverwinter Nights being made available for two or three bucks. Spend $2 and get a brand new track for a racing game. That kind of thing. Cheap bonus content! More game for less money! Great benefit to the gamer! Right?

Now that companies are actually USING microtransactions now, the reality is... not so golden. Techdirt has an article entitled, "If EA Made a Shooter, Would They Charge You $1 Per Bullet?" It is, unfortunately, ringing too true.

Horses, Guns, and Paying More For What You Used To Get For Free
Too many publishers (you know who they are) are treating it as scam to make people pay more for a game than the already hefty price tag. Releasing a game for MORE MONEY, packed with.... um, LESS content than earlier games in the series, and then making the players pay yet more money to acquire a full game piecemeal?

And with new games (where players cannot look at previous editions or similar games to see how much they are being screwed), there are some similarly questionable decisions that feel like more of a money grab than actual added value.

Take paying a buck and a quarter for an extra gun. Like the horse-armor thing for Oblivion, that sounds a little pricey for something that doesn't actually extend one's enjoyment of the game. Sure, that's being done in MMORPGs, and maybe they are jealous about how the MMO's are getting all the action. The difference is that MMOs are social games, and those items serve more of a social function than an actual gameplay function. But that's besides the point.

But it feels like it's something that should be integral to the core game. I mean, is the core game balanced WITHOUT the presence of the gun (or horse armor)? If so, does the gun screw up the balance? Ah, but not... you are not actually paying for the gun with your buck-twenty-five. You are paying for the OPPORTUNITY to acquire the gun in-game... to actually USE the gun you have paid for with REAL MONEY, you have to get to an advanced stage of the game (gee, the gun WOULD have been handy to getcha there, wouldn't it?).

Or - get this - you could actually pay real money for in-game currency to acquire the gun earlier. Effectively, a cheat code to get more cash. The real clincher is that you could get the extra in-game currency via a cheat code in the PC version of the game, which was disabled on the XBox 360 version. Think about that for a second...

They are charging you extra to access a cheat code.

(Sorry, my friends up at the-company-formerly-known-as-Headgate. I'm ripping on your game, I think. But you gotta admit, it's cheesey.)

Giving Microtransactions a Bad Name
What's worse - since microtransactions are a such a new thing, the consumer ill-will they are garnering with these dirty tricks are poisoning the whole concept. Microtransactions are getting a bad name. It's going to get to the point where ANYTHING that has to be paid for with microtransactions - even true bonus content - is going to gain the suspicious smell of something that should have been in the original game all along.

The other thing about microtransactions is that they can be tied to an individual customer, rather than a disc which can be pirated or *gasp* sold used when you are no longer interested in the game. This drops the value of resale, but increases the perception that what we're buying off the shelf is only half a game.

Where Does It End?
The excuse is, of course, that the next-generation games are more expensive to develop, so they trying to "figure out some way to defer and recoup those costs." This is eighteen months after bragging about how expensive the new games would be and how that would be a barrier to entry for anyone without their deep pockets. This kinda smacks of having your cake and eating it too, anticipating the consumers to foot the bill.

Now, unless we gamers suddenly get new jobs that double our game budget, the practical result is that we spend more money on fewer games. This means that the gulf between the blockbuster games and the games that LOSE money becomes ever wider and deeper.

And what does that mean, to a developer and publisher? It means you'd better spend even MORE money on your game to make sure it's one of the winners. The ante keeps going up.

Thus development budgets continue to skyrocket, and that cost gets passed along to the consumer. Since the gaming market isn't growing at nearly the rate of the development costs, this means we're going to have to pay more and more for each game. Microtransactions allow publishers to put us on a hidden installment plan.

I'm not feeling like much of a fan, now.

(Vaguely) Related Ranting
* How to FUBAR an MMO Launch
* Alternatives to Front-Loading Game Sales
* Indies Squeezed Out of XBLA?
* No E3 For Me!

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Will I Be Taxed On My Holy Avenger Sword?
The big to-do this week is an article on C/Net News entitled, "IRS Taxation of Online Game Virtual Assets Inevitable." It quotes Dan Miller, a senior economist with the U.S. Congress' Joint Economic Committee. He said, "The question is when, not if, Congress and the IRS start paying attention to these issues (of the real-world monetary value of in-game items)." In other words, sooner or later, governments are going to start figuring out how to tax you for your entertainment. Well, beyond how much they already tax you.

Do Items In A Computer Game Have Real-World Value? Part 1.
Courtesy of "RMT" or Real Money Trading, it's very possible to calculate the value of virtual property in online, persistent games (specifically Massively Multiplayer Online games). I think companies engaging in RMT are the ones that are at greatest risk of becoming extinct.

I did an exercise about a year ago with a FREE, web-based game, "Kingdom of Loathing." While it was free, you could get a unique item (limited-edition, only available for one month only) by donating $10. In Kingdom of Loathing, the currency of the realm is meat. (Yes, it's a very silly game). These "Items-of-the-month" routinely sold in auction for about 6 million meat at the time. So you could figure an exchange rate of 600,000 KoL meat to the US Dollar. Though I don't know how many people actually "cashed out" and sold items for real-world money to make the exchange two-way. But still, it was a neat idea.

And freaky.

Do Items In A Computer Game Have Real-World Value? Part 2.
But that's largely academic to me. And, I suspect, to the majority of players out there.

The only money that I exchange in these games is my monthly subscription bill, which has already been taxed when I earned it, thankyouverymuch, and I'm sure it gets taxed on the other side. While certain virtual worlds might be the exceptions to the rule (I'm thinking Second Life and Entropia, specifically), I think the vast majority of players are like me. We're playing for entertainment, not to earn cash. The idea that I would get taxed by the IRS for defeating a dragon and getting my new magic sword of uberness would be more than enough to make me quit Massively Multiplayer Online games altogether. I doubt I'd be alone.

While my Sword of Uberness may theoretically have some monetary value at some auction site, I'm only dimly aware of it. For me, the grand total of the value of the sword to me is how much it helps me lay the smack down on some virtual monsters.

What's A Poor, Downtrodden Tax Agency To Do?
Technically, if you are in the U.S.A., you already have a tax liability if you sell your Boots of Butt-Kicking for cash. In practice, I doubt many people actually report it on their income taxes each year. Although as the article points out, according to a 1913 provision in the U.S. tax code, even bartering goods or services which have inequal worth on the open market is technically a taxable event. Difficult and expensive to enforce, of course, which is why they don't bother unless it's a very large exchange. But they brought up the case of the guy who exchanged the paperclip for a house.

I expect that if Miller is actually a fan of virtual worlds, as the article claims, then his comments shouldn't be interpreted as a cry to invite the IRS to set up office in Azeroth, so much as an announcement to the community to make preparations so that we can frame it in a way that's favorable to us. More likely, he's looking to limit what could be considered "taxable events" to actual cashing-out. So we non-gold farmers don't have much to worry about. He's simply stating something that we already know: Hoping the U.S. government doesn't notice is not the answer, and trusting the U.S. government to "do the right thing" when it does get around to it is about like trusting your average five-year-old to guard a plate of cookies all day.

Why I Am Not Worried
The problem is in enforcement. I mean, if I'm a Chinese "player" (or run a sweatshop in China employing "players" to farm gold for me at pennies an hour), playing a game based in the U.S., and sell a power-leveled character to some guy in Germany for Euros... who do I owe the tax to? And even if the U.S. government decides it is owed a piece of the pie, how will it collect?

It's the answer to THOSE tricky questions that makes people worry abut intrusive measures being instituted in online, virtual worlds by tax agencies. Could every gold piece (or unit of meat) you acquire get reported to Uncle Sam (or, likely, multiple tax agencies). Could a Swedish player in an American game getting twinked by a Brazillian guildmate could theoretically be surprised by three different countries (not to mention local tax agencies) claiming he's liable for taxes?

I doubt it, at least without LOTS of additional legislation happening in my country. For two reasons:

Number one - the costs of setting up enforcement in this wild, unfamiliar territory are prohibitively high for tax egencies. Unless they expect the revenue to exceed all the effort they have to take dealing with multiple countries, currencies, tracking tons of data and values of items, it's not going to be worth it. It's far easier and cheaper to try and capture what they can on "cash out" events, even though it suffers from decentralization. A couple of high-profile audits should do the trick.

More importantly, if I was running an MMO and found myself having to face the cost of complying to government tax regulations for in-game items, I'd realize that it would kill my business two different ways (cost of implementation, and 90% of my player base leaving for the greener pastures of non-persistant gaming). So I'd quickly make RMT against my terms of service, slap "Intended fo Entertainment Purposes Only" on the box and splash screen, claim that NOTHING in the game has real-world value, and let the IRS worry about hunting down the violators.

Problem solved for the game, and problem solved for most players. The only ones who are now out-of-luck are the guys profiting from RMT, and the tax agencies. From the perspective of the tax agencies, that would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Either way, the players win.

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Monday, December 04, 2006
Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
Hanako Games is an indie game studio known for their anime-style, "Girl-Friendly" adventure and RPG titles. The latest game, Cute Knight, is an entertaining blend of a Sim and an RPG, borrowing heavily from the Japanese title, "Princess Maker." Cute Knight features a randomly-generated dungeon, a crafting system, a unique magic system, over fifty different endings (with variations on each!), and scores of special in-game events. It won the GameTunnel.com "indie RPG of the year" award, and just in the last few months has achieved a prominant position on several major portals, possibly ushering in the era of the "Casual RPG."

After a great deal of arm-twisting and negotiation, I managed to secure this interview with the enigmatic Georgina Bensley (well, okay, she's actually pretty accessible, and all I had to do was ask). Georgina is the ow ner of Hanako Games, and the creator (with help) of Cute Knight. She was able to give me a lot of dirt on some of the inner workings of Cute Knight (especially its unusual magic system), with plenty of hints and strategies. We also talk about the state of adventure gaming, her upcoming project (a replayable adventure game!), her game design philosophy, and more fun stuff.


Getting Started

Rampant Coyote: First off, how about a little about yourself? Who are you, and what made you take the plunge as an indie game developer?

Georgina: My name is Georgina Bensley and I make computer games!

[audience applause]

Thank you, thank you.

As for how I got here - Ever since I was very young, I've been - not an entrepreneur exactly, but open to opportunity. In grade school, I used to make little arts and crafts trinkets to sell for cash and the desserts from other people's lunchboxes. Later it was websites and ebay. It seemed natural to me that if I could make something, I ought to at least see if people were willing to pay for it.

So there wasn't a plunge, exactly. I've always been making/trying to make games. When I made something that I thought was good enough that someone else might be interested, I put it on sale.

Rampant Coyote: I dug around on your "About" page, and found out about the ColecoVision. It sounds like you were a fan of the underdog games or gaming systems from the early days. Do you have any favorite games on that platform?

Georgina: What comes to mind as my personal favorite from that time period would be the ColecoVision port of Mr. Do!. I really loved that game, I can't even explain why.

The other thing that was noteworthy about the ColecoVision was that, at least for my family, it really was a family system. Everybody used it. My mother was really into Lady Bug. As the video game industry developed, it somehow moved more and more away from that. It wasn't until several years ago when I started to find games like Text Twist online that I could once again say "I bet my mother would like this."

Rampant Coyote: Besides the ColecoVision titles, are there any other games out there that are favorites or that you think were influential to you as a game developer?

Georgina: I was a big fan of the 'Quest' games from Sierra - King's Quest, Space Quest, and so on, as well as RPG classics like Fallout and Planescape Torment.

Rampant Coyote: Are there any particular indie games out there right now that you particular enjoy or admire?

Georgina: Aveyond is an obvious choice. I'm also really fond of Eets. I don't usually buy puzzle games because I'm afraid that once I've solved all the levels, there will be nothing left to do and no reason to ever play again. With that game's wacky physics, completing a level doesn't mean that you've found the ONLY solution - you might be able to go back and score trophies by solving it in a completely unexpected and bizarre way. And then there's the level editor and the community-made puzzles... and did I mention the animations are adorable?

Cute Knight

Rampant Coyote: Okay, let's talk about your latest game, Cute Knight, Besides drawing the obvious inspiration to the "Princess Maker" series (which I still haven't played), did you draw inspiration for the game from any other games or other media?

The "stepwise 3D" dungeons of course reminded me of Wizardry, the Bard's Tale, the old "Gold Box" AD&D games, Dungeon Master, and many similar games from the 80's and early 90's.

Georgina: I looked at a lot of those games when I was designing the dungeon section. The game from that genre that I most remember playing during that time period was something called Alternate Reality: The City. The game included a huge list of potions, and while you could guess what a potion was from its color and flavor (sweet, salty, so on) you couldn't be entirely sure whether you'd found fruit juice or deadly poison until you drank it.

This inspired some of Cute Knight's potion choices, especially the visually-identical Rainbow Potions. Most potions, once you've learned what they all look like, you can use safely even if your character doesn't have the brewing skill to identify them. With a Rainbow potion, if your skill isn't high enough to tell, it could do just about anything.

Rampant Coyote: The magic system in Cute Knight is quite unusual and seems fairly subtle. My usual strategy is just to load up on 3-element charms (when I get them) for fighting the monsters in the dungeons and cover as wide a spread of elements as possible. Sort of a shotgun approach to spellcasting. Probably not the most effective. Can you explain the inner workings of the magic system a little?

Georgina: I wanted to make magic a little more involved than just "cast a Generic Spell and do damage based on your magic skill". I remember playing Dragon Warrior on the Nintendo and having spells like HURT and HURTMORE. That definitely wasn't the feeling I wanted - that makes magic seem boring.

A lot of the RPG features in the game are slightly simplified and might not appeal to the sort of player who writes strategy guides about which spells can be cast a fraction of a second faster in order to do more damage in Diablo. I wanted the magic system to be able to be incredibly complicated in order for that sort of player to explore it, but also to work fairly well even for a player who didn't want to think about it. You can just pick three copies of the very first charm unlocked and you'll still be able to fight most monsters with magic. You may not do as much dam age as you would if you had the best charms equipped, but you'll get by.

There are nine elements - Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Light, Dark, Holy, Nature, and Emotion. If you want to blast down a door, the best elements to use are Earth and Fire. If you want to fight a vampire, the best elements to use are Holy and Light. Plant monsters will be weak against Nature. Only creatures with feelings are weak against Emotion, and those are the ones you get Sin for killing. A Fire elemental will be weak to Water but may take no damage at all if you attack with pure Fire. If you have a good Luck score, you can encounter a monster, figure out what it's weak against, then run away and change your charms to be appropriate for that monster before coming back to fight.

For the number-crunchers, here's the details - your base magical damage is about 1/10 of your Magic skill. Half of that is considered 'pure' magic damage, and the other half is 'elemental' damage. The elemental damage is broken up into chunks depending on how many magical elements you're using. If your elements were half Fire, then half the elemental damage will be fire damage. That amount is then compared to the monster's resistance to Fire and raised or lowered accordingly before it's added to the total damage. And so on for the other elements you 're using. If you've got certain magical items equipped you can get bonus elemental damage. If your charm cards are pure Water but you have a Fire magic item equipped, you do all your elemental damage as water damage plus some extra as fire damage. And if you don't have all three card slots filled, your elemental damage is lowered.

Rampant Coyote: How about the Wizard's challenge? It seems to be one of the most detailed of the sub-games in Cute Knight. Sparky and Mortimer are pretty easy to beat, though it seems like Sparky emphasizes fire-based spells and Mortimer emphasizes emotion and dark magics, so I've found a few charms that appear to be relatively 'safe bets' when dueling them. But they are also weak enough to overpower by brute force at later stages of the game.

The higher-level wizards seem to have a much wider selection of charms, and defeating them f eels more random.

Georgina: The Wizard's challenge takes the magic system's complication and goes even further, giving each of the nine elements a rating against the other eight. It's like rock-scissors-paper but with nine symbols and the ability to play up to three of them at a time. This was fun to make, but it came out being TOO complicated. It's not really a fair game, and it may be revamped in a later version...

Rampant Coyote: Since I'm asking you about hints - Cute Knight is full of little special in-game events. Some of these seem very rare, and will rarely be encountered by players. This definitely encourages exploration of the game. Do you care to give any hints about seldom-discovered secrets or easter-eggs in the game?

Georgina: Some things not everyone knows about -

When prompted to name your character, if you just click OK without typing anything, your character ends up being named Michiko. This is the name I use for the character when talking to artists or testers. Saves having to say "the pink-haired PC" all the time!

You get a small Charm bonus on May Day in honor of romance.

If you diligently work as a maid for the first six months or so of the game, you receive the Magic Mop, which can turn a maid into a great hero. People have gone on to defeat the dragon using that mop. :)

Rampant Coyote: I think I found a magic mop for sale during one of the festivals. I wasn't quite sure how it worked. But my cleaning skill wasn't so high. Anyway - the big question: Should we expect a Cute Knight 2 2 ?

Georgina: Yes, but not for a long time. I am currently involved in another project, which is taking quite a while to complete. So look for a sequel in a couple of years...

The Game Biz

Rampant Coyote: The game business is pretty male-dominated, but you come in as a female game developer who is also producing "girl-friendly" games. Has this been advantageous or more challenging to you? Or both? And has the community been supportive?

Georgina: Once we get past the initial "Really? I've never met a female game developer before!" I don't think it really matters that much to anyone in the business. I'm just a person like anyone else. And since the casual/downloadable market has a high percentage of female customers, there isn't the same sort of push to make everything appeal to the mythical 18-year-old male football fan that some advertisers are supposedly so fond of.

It's in freeware game development communities that I'm more likely to have problems, not the indie community. A lot of freeware kids are just that - kids, teenage boys who don't understand why anyone would want to make games that aren't Zombie Splatterfest XX.

Rampant Coyote: A lot of the attitude in the business (particularly mainstream publishers) is that "girl-friendly" games means dress-up, shopping, and ... pink. What do you think it means to make "girl-friendly" games? And should I be embarrassed about liking Cute Knight (who does have pink hair, I note...) myself?

Georgina: One reason that I prefer "girl-friendly" over just "girl games" is that I don't think I know precisely what girls like either. I know what I like. I know some things that supposedly are more popular with female players than other things. But people like different things. Some girls play Quake. Not me, thanks. And I wouldn't be any more interested in Quake if you dyed it pink and made it about roaming the mall attacking passersby with make-up kits. (What a dreadful idea!)

Girl-friendly, to me, means that a female player shouldn't feel excluded by the game. There are lots of subtle ways that mainstream game developers can show that they don't really expect girls to play. Default high-score lists filled with male names. Selection between male-only character options. Claiming to have equal options for male and female characters, but actually having twice as much content available for male PCs as female ones. Always showing female characters within the story as weak and helpless. Things like that. I don't think anyone, male or female, should feel ashamed to play a game that's girl *friendly*. :)

You could say that Cute Knight includes dress-up (choosing what equipment to wear), shopping (buying/selling items) and pink (the hair!). But except for the pink hair, you'd find those things in any RPG.

Rampant Coyote: What tools do you use to make your games? Do you use a particular game engine, toolkit, or SDK (Software Development Kit) for the game itself? How about for the art?

Georgina: I primarily build games with Game Maker. While it bills itself as being able to make simple games without a single line of code, it also has its own scripting language, and that's what I'm using. Once you know the tool, there's a huge amount that can be done with it. Any sort of 2D game is possible.

I'm interested in checking out some other systems like the Torque Game Builder in order to be able to port beyond Windows, but so busy, so much to do...

For art, I have a very old version of Paint Shop Pro and a scanner.

Rampant Coyote: When designing a game, what do you come up with first - the story, or the game mechanics? Do you start with a detailed design document? How do you approach game design?

Georgina: It's hard to say exactly because I usually have a lot of half-baked ideas mulling around in my head. Eventually the pieces fit together and I see an overall gameplay concept that includes both the basic mechanics and at least the seed of a story. After that they tend to develop together. The game's needs can influence the story.

For Cute Knight I did write down a lot of design details early on. I knew it would be difficult to shoehorn a new skill in later, so I wanted to be sure I'd thought out the possibilities as far as skills and jobs before I started putting code together.

Rampant Coyote: I played your free adventure, "Sweet Dreams" (but I never could figure out how to wake the girl up), and you also bill "Summer Schoolgirls" as a sim / adventure. Are you a fan of adventure games / "interactive fiction?" If so, what do you think it might take for this kind of game to make a comeback?

Georgina: I'm a fan of both graphical and text adventures, and the graphical adventure genre really isn't as dead as some reviewers make it out to be. :) It's funny, because I'm constantly reading reviews for adventure games in which the reviewer takes a few paragraphs to expound upon how nobody plays or makes these games anymore. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they're writing those paragraphs pretty often for a genre that's supposedly dead.

It's a niche, that's all.

I wouldn't really want them to "come back" and replace first-person shooters as the big mainstream game genre. Then they'd end up being more expensive and requiring the latest-greatest graphics cards to play!

Both graphical and text adventures also have large fan communities making games, some of which are very good, and some of which go commercial.

Rampant Coyote: If budget wasn't a concern (yeah, right!), what game would you be creating right now?

Georgina: If you gave me a pile of money for development right now, I'd keep working on the same game I'm working on. I'd just hire actors to get the whole thing fully voiced. :) Dreadful voice acting is a common complaint in small-studio games and I would rather have none at all than acting that makes everyone wince. If I could afford a top-rate cast, that'd be different.

But once that's finished, if I had so much budget that I could found a studio to work with me AND not have to worry about sales figures, I have this great idea for a game in the style of Fallout. :)

Various and Sundry

Rampant Coyote:
Okay - cage match. Rhen (from Aveyond) versus the Cute Knight. How would it end?

Georgina: Well, the person challenged gets the choice of weapons, right?

Michiko chooses a bake-off.

Rampant Coyote: Any hints as to what might be next from Hanako Games?

Georgina: My current project is an adventure game (see, they're not dead!) called Fatal Hearts. It has a teenage female protagonist and a terrible mystery with hints of murder, occultism, and things that should not be.... Which, for an adventure game, is not that unusual. What is different is that there's not just one ending, or even one best ending. Different characters and factions will be trying to win the player over to their side, and you can get an entirely different story with different puzzles depending on who
you choose to trust.

Most adventure games, once you finally get through them, that's it. You're done, there's no reason to play again. Or if there are multiple endings, you have to start over and play almost exactly the same game again in order to unlock the alternate end. This is different. If you reach one ending, you still have many hours of STORY that you haven't read, and puzzles you've never seen.

Also - gorgeous vampires.


If I'm lucky it'll be done sometime next year...

Rampant Coyote: An adventure game with honest-to-goodness replayability? This I'll have to see! I'm looking forward to checking it out.

Georgina, thank you for taking the time out of your development schedule for this interview! This was delightful!

If you are interested in some of the other games Georgina has worked on, be sure and visit http://www.hanakogames.com

(Vaguely) related Stories:
· Interview with Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
· Interview with Scorpia
· Interview with Mike Rubin (Vespers 3D, 3D Interactive Fiction)
· Aveyond!
· Tales from the Road: Cute Knight

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Sunday, December 03, 2006
Playing the Game of Real Life
Steve Pavlina has a really interesting post about basic strategies to winning the "Ultimate Game" - Real Life. His comparisons to life as a massively multiplayer game are particularly amusing.

Can't say it's something I've not thought about myself a few times. If you set aside the notion that life is somehow supposed to be fair (it's a game with a high degree of variance), and put on your hardcore gamer hat, is it possible to game the rules of Real Life to achieve maximum success? Maybe. But Steve brings up a really good point: It's not just the achieving that is important... games are supposed to be about having fun, and life should be no exception. Though the comparison to MMOs is particularly apt... I know many, many people who seem to have no fun playing those games, either, but simply grind to the end game for some reason.

When I played the Sims, I thought nothing of them doing bench-presses for hours at a time to increase their strength score. It makes perfect sense that after eight straight hours of bench-presses, you'd get be well on your way to increasing your strength an extra notch. But whenever I try that at home I can't keep it going for more than a few minutes - and then with big breaks in-between. Maybe I should reduce the weight... ;)

I guess this is an interface problem with the game of life. It's noted in the expression, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." You set out to do something at the mental level. "I'm going to write that novel," you tell yourself. Or start that business. Or learn to play that musical instrument. Or write that indie computer game. But you sit down to do it, and you experience a breakdown in translating intent into action, and action into accomplishment. We're saddled with all kinds of limitations -- emotional state, fatigue, confusion on where to begin, etc.

So maybe life is more like an RPG? As a player, mentally, you are driving the play, but your poor avatar doesn't quite have the stats to wield that uber-sword or cast that spell yet. Or write that novel. Maybe there are some levels you need to gain in "focus," "concentration," "overcoming procrastination," and various task-specific skills.

Pavlina has an ability to focus and concentrate effort that I admire. I don't think he could rip out bench presses for eight hours straight, either, but he does have the kind of focus that if he made that a goal, I believe he'd get there. The guy set a goal to graduate college with a four-year degree in only three semesters, and pulled it off.

Stuff to think about...


Friday, December 01, 2006
EA Crushes Indie Game Development
The big bit of game industry news this week is that Headgate Studios was just acquired (assimilated) by EA. Yep, it's been borged. Now, on most counts, this is probably a pretty good thing for the employees. I have heard people talking very highly of Vance Cook, the former owner of Headgate, and for the most part this was probably done in the best interest of the employees.

With a big exception. There was a big indie contingent from Headgate. They frequently came to the Utah Indie Game Developers meetings. I don't think Headgate had any official policy concerning these guys working on games in their spare time. For the most part, it sounded like a case where if it didn't interfere with work, they didn't care.

Well, now that EA has is the new owner, that policy has changed. Dramatically, and suddenly. From what I understand, it comes down to one of four choices for indies:

#1 - You can release what you are working on for free. At least they are granting those kinds of exceptions now. So apparently, the Flat Red Ball stuff can continue development. For now.

#2 - You can terminate all further development on your indie game, so it is no longer being worked on during your employment tenure at EA.

#3 - If you choose not to do #2, your work will become the property of EA. Attempting to sell it could get your employment terminated, could get you sued, could get you a C&D, or could actually result in EA coming in, taking ownership, and selling it themselves.

#4 - You can quit. Even though you have enjoyed working there for several years - it's new management, therefore a new company.

So - any of the guys there who were getting close to completion on their indie games have hit a really major roadblock. Caster, which has been in development for at least a year and a half prior to EA taking over, is a prime example. Basically, if you were attempting to run or form an indie game business on the side, you have been effectively shut down. (Rumor has it that Vance Cook tried to go to bat for them as well, getting exceptions for everyone, but ... well, EA is EA).

This isn't an uncommon practice amongst the big publishers. Six years ago, I wouldn't have batted an eye. I mean, it's a world of non-compete agreements, NDAs, conflicts of interest, etc. Many of the companies with the most heavy-handed protective measures were founded by guys who took their best ideas (and customer lists) and jumped ship from a company themselves, and they want to make sure nobody does to THEM what they did to their previous employer. They make sure that when their lawyers draw up the employee contracts, they close whatever loophole they themeselves used to win their lawsuit.

It's all par for the course. Business in America. A kinder, gentler serfdom.

But since I got out of the games industry, and I started actually hanging out with and reading stuff by entrepreneurs, small businesspeople, and self-employed folks, the whole concept is repugnant to me now. Why should a company own your mind, or what you do in your off-hours? I've known many people at other software companies (even major, international companies) who FREQUENTLY have little IT-related businesses or software projects on the side.

As long as they aren't using company time or resources, it's No Big Deal.

Yeah. I "get it." I understand in principle. These big companies feel they are participants in EVERYTHING relating to their business. So anything you do in that field is, in their view, competing against them. I've sat in the other seat before. I've been at companies where we've been screwed over by a principal employee that went behind our backs to our client and attempted to out-bid us privately. We've sent one of our key people as a consultant to a client, who then decided to jump ship to join the client.

It sucks, it feels like a betrayal. If that happens too often, your company is going to get tanked. Since it's more efficient to govern and maintain loyalty by fear than by love, companies big enough to throw their legal weight around can make sure their employees have a fear of getting their shirt sued off their backs.

That's just the way it is.

But does that make it right? Is this the way it should be?

How hard would it be, instead of trying to strangle outside projects from your employees, to instead support them? Instead of using draconian clauses that claim that their idle thoughts ("inventions") that they come up with while mowing their lawns on a weekend belong to you, instead why not put in a "first right of refusal" clause that would still give you the option of getting a piece of the action if you think it's worthy. And if it's NOT something you are interested in, your employee is still a happy camper, because you are allowing them to pursue their own dreams. A win-win scenario. Mainly. If they get so successful that you can't afford to keep them from forming their own business... well, that's life. In this country, we eliminated slavery in 1863, so that's just how it works.

But then you've got a former employee who has nice things to say about your company, and may refer business your way.

Cooperation instead of competition? Trying to grow the pie instead of squabbling over the pieces?

Nah. What's good in life is to crush your enemies (your employees?), to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!

(Vaguely) related rants:
* No E3 For Me
* Mainstream Games Get Even Narrower
* Dependent, Independent, and Indie
* Utah Indie Game Developer Meet, Fall 2006
* Utah Indie Game Developer Meet, Spring 2006

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