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Wednesday, January 31, 2007
 
Playing Video Games Improves Performance...
... If you are a surgeon. This is an old article, but cool:

Surgeons May Err Less By Playing Video Games

So, the next time you need surgery, be sure and ask your surgeon if he's a game fan. You'll have a 37% less chance of him zigging instead of zagging... at least, if it's labarascopic surgery.

Just out of curiosity, I was looking up a few of the other ways playing video games have proven (or are at least suspected of being) beneficial:

* Apparently, it's also good for pilots. Though flight-sim fans (many real-world pilots) believed that for years.

* And they've adapted game controllers for treatment of children with ADD, based on a NASA study in the 1990's.

* It's already well-known that active games like DDR (which in one case was a significant factor in a girl losing 95 pounds), or possibly the new Wii games, can be a very fun way to get exercise that we as a society are sorely lacking.

* Games are being used in health care to help treat certain physical conditions, and as a powerful distraction for children undergoing painful medical treatments.

* Researchers are demonstrating that games are, of course, a powerful training tool. Even plain ol' popular commercial games are

* And researchers at the University of Rochester have determined that action-gamers may be better drivers, due to better attunement to their surroundings. All that time spent trying to frag and avoid being fragged may be paying off, especially as you age. So kids, please get your grandpa hooked on some first-person shooters! For all our sakes!

* The Medical Virtual Reality Center is using the Unreal Tournament game engine to study (and hopefully treat) acrophobia and balance disorders.

* Dr. Scott Rigby and Dr. Richard Ryan believe that games fulfill certain deep psychological needs in players - specifically, the need for a feeling of competence, the need for autonomy and freedom, and the need for connectedness with other human beings (possible through online gaming). Besides just making the games "fun," in theory this might lead to greater self-confidence and even (gasp!) improved social skills in players. Of course, getting involved in a team sport would do the same thing... but hey, it's something.

None of this is exactly breaking news, but nice to see nonetheless, especially after enduring the last year or so of villification of videogames by politicians.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
 
NinjaBee's Next Indie Game: Band of Bugs
NinjaBee's new XBox 360 Game has FINALLY been announced officially. We ended up renaming the game to "Band of Bugs," but this is our IGF nominee formerly known as "Bugs of War"... finally revealed to the public.

I really, really wish I could say I was involved in this one, but I've been on different teams. I haven't even played anything resembling a recent build. But I've seen it in action, though, and it looks very, very awesome. If you have an XBox 360 and LiveArcade, you'll definitely want to try it out. Turn Based Single-Player and Multiplayer Tactical Combat...

With Bugs. The fun, playable kind, not the broken-game kind.

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Telengard - My First CRPG
It's no secret that I'm a little bit of a retrogamer. Having come from an era where state-of-the-art meant moving a giant pixel around a maze being chased by a golden duck-looking thing, I don't need photorealistic graphics to bolster my imagination. But going back and looking at the games of the past reminds me of the good, the bad, and the very very UGLY that have been with us ever since some MIT students decided to make their oscilliscope do something more than plot waveforms.

We complain about clones and mediocrity and lack of innovation today, but a quick visit down emulation lane will remind you of two things:

#1 - There were a TON of Galaxian and Space Invaders clones, and

#2 - There were a TON of innovative games that sucked.

My first computer, a Sinclair ZX80, had only 1K of RAM and a membrane keyboard. Since storing what was on the screen would have taken pretty much all of it's memory, it instead constantly recalculated what was supposed to appear when it was idle. This meant that as you ran a program, or even pressed a key (I use the term "key" loosely to describe pressing on the membrane in the location where a key would be), the screen would blank out. All of the computer's 3.25 megahertz processing power was too busy processing to bother drawing the screen at that point.

I wrote some extremely trivial games for that machine, but it wasn't until the release of the Commodore 64 that I had a machine capable of actually playing games. I got one hot off the assembly line (for $600!), and for a while had to content myself with writing my own games, as there was no software available for it. Then the games started appearing ... mostly ports from other machines at first. And originally they were only available on cassette. Finally, though, the disk-based games started appearing (though the C-64's disk drive was notoriously slow - only slightly faster than cassette). One night I finally got ahold of an honest-to-goodness "Roleplaying Game" for the computer. At last I could practice my mad D&D skillz!

The game was called "Telengard." I enjoyed it because it was the only RPG I had - and one of very few then available for the C64.

The game began, faithful to its D&D roots, by presenting you with randomly generated stats for your character. If you weren't already familiar with D&D (or hadn't read through the documentation), you found yourself facing some confusing abbreviations: STR, INT, WIS, CON, DEX, CHR. And the numbers were obviously generated by a 3d6 roll. The numbers were re-rolled every few seconds (or you could hit a key to re-roll them immediately), leaving you only a short time to decide whether or not to keep that "character." If you could get all double-digits with at least one 17 or 18, you were golden.

Once you chose your stats, you were able to pick a character name, and off you went to the dungeon, just below the staple of almost all Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, the tavern. Why they had a tavern sitting right above the dungeon, I'll never know. In this case, it was called, "The Worthy Meade Inn." There were something like a hundred different taverns sitting at every entrance to the dungeon, with algorithmically-generated names.

Does that sound like a lot? It was. Telengard was all about algorithmically generated everything. Yes, long before Spore. The dungeon was something like 50 levels deep with a total of about 2 million rooms. Far more than could be stored in the C-64's 48,000 bytes of usable memory. So they were all calculated. This way you had a 2-million room dungeon that never changed.

I don't remember if there was actually any kind of GOAL to the game other than to survive and get very powerful. Certainly being able to make it down to level 50 was a large enough goal that I doubt very many people achieved (without dying almost immediately because they were teleported there).

Mostly, the game was taking chances with randomness. There were random monsters, random treasures, thrones and boxes which would do random things to you if you touched them, and of course the occasional random teleport which could deposit you a dozen levels below with no idea of how to escape, which was effectively the same as killing you, but with a time delay. And when you died, it would erase your character.

Yeah, we liked a little PAIN in our games back then.

It took many, many character deaths to map out a playable section of the dungeon. I'd map things out meticulously (after my first few deaths) so that my next character might have the advantage of a safe route to the next stairway down. In case he lived long enough to use it. Eventually, I started pulling my disk halfway out of the drive after I saved the game at the Inn, so I wouldn't lose my character.

I think I got about as low as level 7 or 8. Then I got my hands on better games.

Now, if you really want to experience the joy and pain of Telengard, there's a free version out now that almost perfectly re-creates the original experience... except for character perma-death. If you remember the original, or are idly curious, or have a masochistic streak, you can try it out here:

Telengard Remake

Otherwise, there are better "roguelike" games out there (like THIS ONE!) that are superior in pretty much every way today. But it is kinda fun to go back and visit the past, and I have to admit that Telengard still has some mild entertainment value after all these years.

(Vaguely) related results of a printer explosion:
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* But Is It An RPG?
* An RPG In A Week
* A Couple of Classic RPGs
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Monday, January 29, 2007
 
Indie Games for the Wii? Oui!
I guess it's official:

"Nintendo has developed a programming system that will allow small independent developers to make games for Wii download service.

"We cannot confirm at this time in what format the new content will be delivered, but in the future there will be original games available for download through the Wii Shop."


Details are, of course, sketchy at this time. But it seems Microsoft's LiveArcade has changed the face of console gaming for the forseeable future.

Check out the small (but full) article here:
Nintendo to Offer Original Game Downloads For the Wii.
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Sunday, January 28, 2007
 
The Slamdance Aftermath
The New York Times has an outstanding article about the controversy surrounding this year's Slamdance and independent games. Entitled, "Video Game Tests the Limits. The Limits Win," it is full of some fascinating quotes by those involved.

Me? I'm optimistic. First off, this controversy has resulted in some of the most intense publicity independent games - specifically more serious or artistic games - has ever received. And probably some of the more significant publicity Slamdance has gained in recent years.

I mean... The New York Freaking Times! And many other mainstream, traditional press channels have also picked up the story.

Is this a good thing? I think so. It's making people stop, think, and consider.

Utah's HB 50, the resurrected bill to stick videogame violence in the anti-pornography "Materials Harmful to Minors" law, failed to pass committee on Friday. It was blocked by a vote of 7-2. This compares starkly with it's previous incarnation from last year, when it passed through committee and enjoyed nearly unanimous support in the Utah House of Representatives. While I've no doubt that the failure of similar laws in a couple more states since then were a more significant factor, the bill was reviews just as the press and even the sponsoring representative brought up the topic of Slamdance's indie game festival controversy.

The issue of games as a protected form of artistic expression is starting to be taken seriously. As are indie games. It's not something that's going to happen overnight, or without more pain and a lot more discussion. But it smells a little bit like progress to me.

I think it's safe to predict that 2007 is going to be a very interesting year for indie games.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007
 
Star Trek V Rocks!
I never thought I'd say this, but I just saw Star Trek V, and loved it. But there was a trick to it. Which didn't involve alcohol of any kind (at least, not that I know of).

I first saw it nearly twenty years ago, shortly after it's release (I avoided seeing it in the theater, thankfully), thinking, "How badly can they screw it up? It's Star Trek." Just like that American Godzilla movie, I was both amazed and appalled by the fact that yes, they COULD screw it up that bad.

When I discovered "Mystery Science Theater 3000," I always wanted them to "do" Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but I knew they could never afford the license to Paramount's baby. But years after the demise of both Star Trek (for now) and MST-3K (forever, probably), Mike Nelson created a new company called "RiffTrax," which basically continues the MST-3K joke of "riffing" on a movie. The riffs are sold as separate audio commentaries that you have to sync up to the movies. And play it on a separate MP3 - playing device.

Yeah, it's kind of a pain to set up. But once set up, it worked like a charm.

We invited a bunch of friends, called it a party, brought food, and figured that even if it sucked, we'd have a good time together, and play some multiplayer Guitar Hero afterwards. So it was a win / win. I downloaded the commentary onto the laptop, hooked it up to some speakers, and went through the synching-up process, and then let it rip to a living room of about fifteen adults.
It did not dissapoint.

I don't know if all the RiffTrax commentaries are this funny, but this one had some of us were falling out of our chairs by the end of the evening. While it didn't have the intermissions with the dumb skits or the "mads" or anything, it still felt a lot like good ol' MST-3K. The commentaries got a little bit edgier, but seemed more in the PG or PG-13 range. If you don't mind some jokes about Spock & Kirk's possible... relationship... you won't be offended.

The experiment was enough of a success that we unanimously decided to try it again, soon. I'd be hesitant to try a commentary with just Mike Nelson... so much of the humor worked because Mike & Kevin played off of each other so well.

Anyway, if you were ever an MST-3K fan, I recommend giving them a try, and let me know how it goes. I recommend a larger group of like-minded nuts, if you can swing it. If you hated MST-3K --- Well, this really is more of the same, so don't bother.

But now Star Trek V has been transformed in my memory as something associated with happy thoughts instead of pain. That, to me, is pretty dang impressive.

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Friday, January 26, 2007
 
Design: Picking Apart Flash Element TD
I haven't played the original Warcraft III mod on which Flash Element TD is based, but I have put way too much time into playing the flash game. Well, not so much now that I nearly broke 100K. But while the praise may belong more to the fans and developers who created and evolved the gameplay that the flash game was modeled after, I think David Scott's game is a model of simplicity and elegance in game design. And I'm really excited about his new project, "Flash Circle TD" (which he's shown a WIP video below).



So what has made Flash Element TD so popular? Besides the fact that it's free...

I don't think it's not the ripped-off Warcraft III graphics. I believe it's *gasp* pure gameplay. There are a few simple factors that interact together to form an elegance of decision-making. I don't consider myself a very good game designer by any means, but since I have been paid to do work in that capacity before, I'll pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

First of all, the game has a direct contention between long-term and short-term goals. Short term safety is only gained at the expense of long-term gains --- both in points, and in the capacity to provide further safety. The interest gained at the end of each turn - especially with the interest rate upgrades - is not only a huge factor in the final score, but is absolutely critical in surviving the later rounds. Spending all you have to fight off the critters will soon lead you to a point where you can no longer keep up.

To make the delicate balance even more interesting, being overly cautious in favor of the long-term view will not only bring you closer to losing the game, but will also impact your gold, depleting the very resource you were trying to save. Also, if you find that you erred on the side of being too conservative, rushing to remedy the situation later rather than sooner may end up costing more than if you'd done it correctly in the first place.

Each tower and its upgraded versions have three major, differing characteristics: Fire Rate, Damage, and range. They always seem to fire at the furthest-along creep that is within their fire range. With this standard behavior, on a linear track with no overlapping fire zones you could calculate exactly how much damage a tower could do to a line of creeps of given length. You could divide this damage by gold piece cost and probably figure an optimal cost / damage strategy based on that.

But there are some really fun wrinkles that give the game the "Emergent Complexity" Noah Falstein talks about. The biggest is placement. Because the path the AI takes twists and bends around, not all positions are created equal. So the equations to calculate the optimum cost-effectiveness of a tower is much more complex. For the arrow towers, which have increasing ranges as they are upgraded, it's even more complicated, as optimal positioning for a level 1 arrow tower isn't the same as a level 3.

Then there's the issue of two towers with overlapping firezones, and "spillover" when a unit is killed (the extra damage that would have been done just "goes away"), and gaps in the line as critters in the middle of the line get taken out. But wait, there's more!

A huge factor is the special abilities of certain weapons and levels where the critters are immune or resistant to those special abilities. "Splash damage" radius for several weapons acts as a multiplier to their damage when creatures are not spaced far apart. The water tower slows creatures down, allowing other weapons within range to do more damage to a line (especially with splash-damage weapons, as slowed creatures tend to bunch up), but certain levels have creatures immune to their effects. Cannons and air towers have restrictions on what creatures they can hit. And then there's the boss levels, where optimum placement for defeating lines of creatures might be less effective against a single, high-hit-point boss.

The ability to sell off towers - even in mid-level - is another very interesting mechanic that throws a wrench into the works of the best-laid strategies. Because levels contain uniform groups of creatures (something I once thought was a design flaw, but I've changed my mind on it for this very reason), sometimes towers might only be desired for a single level. Once the last critter has passed that tower's range (or possibly even before), it's possible to sell it off for a 75% refund. Interest is only calculated at the end of a level, so if you have your towers places so that you can sell unneeded towers before the last critter dies, you can still use that gold to earn more money.

As to deficiencies, the biggest is a lack of any sort of "save game" option. In order to go back and tinker with your strategy, you have to start over from the beginning. That's a big reason I haven't gone back and tried to break 100,000 points.

You can overlap tower positions, but it's a pain in the interface. Either that ability should have been removed entirely from the game, or made simple to do. Apparently, for the upcoming circle TD, that will no longer be possible.

The interest rate research item is such an overwhelmingly potent factor in final score that there is really no choice in the matter for your first researches. This is too bad, as the other tower types can be interesting choices earlier in the game. The uniform monster types are another factor that discourage selection of certain research items until late in the game (if ever). For example, the levels consisting entirely of "immune" creatures makes the selection of the water tower ineffective until after the last "immune" level. Since you are going to have to be able to take on several levels without them anyway (except for their damage - which is small but rapid and splashing), there's no point in incorporating them into your overall placement strategy.

While it's hardly a deficiency, I can't help wondering what interesting twists a different map layout would have. Though with the limited screen real-estate available for the map, I don't know how much layout variety would be available beyond what's already there.

Ultimately, the thing that fascinates me about Flash Element TD (and all Tower Defense style games, from the limited number I've played) is how the interaction of simple elements can combine to create such compelling gameplay. It gives me something to think about.


(Vaguely) related howlings at a digital moon:
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System
* How Do You Create "Fun?"
* Free Game: Flash Element Tower Defense
* Mistakes in Game Design

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007
 
Blame It On The Arcades
I 'discovered' videogames in the summer of 1981 - on a road trip with my dad (my "adopted" father though at that time he was still a fairly new stepfather). We were in Phoenix, Arizona for a three-day conference he was attending. While we were there, I learned (overhearing a phone conversation) of some severe marital problems my parents were going through. It didn't look like they were going to stay together much past this little trip.

Distracted and upset over the possible drastic changes in my family's lives, I found myself wandering around the hotel while my dad was away. It didn't take long to discover the game room.

The videogame "revolution" (fad, as many called it) was just beginning to hit the big time at that point. Arcades were sprouting up everwhere. And nearly every restaurant or other business with a throughput of walk-in customers had one or more of these arcade games set up in the corner, hoping to draw a few extra quarters from passers-by. It's probably a little hard to believe for anyone that missed that area, but arcade machines were uniquitous. Or at least, getting that way.

The game room of the hotel had three arcade machines, including "Asteroids", a game that I had played briefly before. But this time I played it (and the two others, Laser Blast and Star Hawk, I think) in earnest. Asteroids, in particular, was an escape and a twelve-year-old's geek fantasy. The thrumming heartbeat sound-effect helped raise the tension as rocks and saucers closed in. Even though the implied pilot of the rockets of Asteroids was ultimately doomed in every game, with no way to "win," the threats surrounding him were material and could be staved off indefinitely with skill and rapid taps of the fire button, and the player could feel the euphoria of beating back impossible odds - at least for the time being.

In Asteroids, even though your salvation was hard-coded to be forever beyond your reach and skill, your fate was nevertheless under your control. When you played the game, you were the most important person in that mini-universe, and you had POWER. Due to my circumstances, I think that was exactly what I craved those three days. In fact, that explains a lot of the draw videogames have over anyone.

Regardless of cause, I was hooked. I spent way too much money on that machine. And as I ran low on money, I watched other players. I wondered what other secrets lay in that virtual universe behind the glowing vector-graphics screen. Eventually, I learned that the answer was, "nothing," but I didn't know that at the time. Instead, I fantasized about what kinds of amazing possibilities there were for the game. I began to imagine the amazing possibilities of all of these games - the ones I'd played before, and ones I could only imagine now. I had no concept of their limitations, only their potential.

We continued our trip to Colorado, to drop off a car for my stepbrother. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to explore the Academy's game room, but I did get a peek at a game I didn't see again until last year. A cadet was battling fighters ripped off from Star Wars in a game called "Tunnel Hunt." I didn't have a chance to play it, but I felt its pull, and realized that I was hooked.

The next day, I flew to Illinois and spent the next eight weeks in a tiny town called Addieville, Illinois. A speck that only appears on some maps. I was spending the rest of the summer with my "real" father (I hesitate to use that adjective, but he's my father by blood and birth). He'd recently remarried, and my brothers and I would be spending time with our new relations in a small, 90-year-old house. I think the only real business in Addieville was a single tavern called "Bobby's Hi-Lo." Besides alcohol they also served sandwiches. And they had a juke box. And they had Pac-Man and Asteroids.

The most popular song in Addieville in the summer of 1981 was Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts," which actually set up a nice rhythm with the hearbeat thrumming of Asteroid's background. I found that the rhythm would actually help me keep pace with the game, and my scores actually improved when the song was playing in the background. Not that I'd ever spare a quarter for the jukebox if it DIDN'T happen to be playing. But to this day, the song and the sound effects for the game are indelibly intertwined in my brain. I can't play Asteroids without hearing that song. Which is funny, because other than that song, I really never liked Juice Newton.

My disease was also addictive. My new stepmother, Barbara, then got hooked. The two of us would compete for high scores. She preferred Pac-Man, but she loved getting on the high score table of Asteroids because her initials were "BAM." We loved seeing the high score list punctuated by what others might mistake for a mere onomatopoeia.

The coolest thing about this though, was what outsiders to the arcade scene never quite understood, was the social aspect. The quarters went all too quickly. But the shared fascination with these games gave us something more to talk about. While it wasn't universal, people who played these games also TALKED about them. We discussed strategies, compared scores, talked about what we liked about them, told each other about new ones that we'd discovered, and swapped stories of our victories.

My stepsister joined in the fun to a lesser extent. One day she mentioned to me that her uncle (I think) actually WROTE games like that for computers. That concept floored me. While I'd realized that SOMEONE had to have written these games, the idea that it might be a person that someone might actually know. A real person. I pressed her for answers to questions she didn't know --- such as exactly HOW he made those games. I couldn't get my brain around it. Communicating a game design to a computer --- how was it done?

How did you tell the computer how to draw the ship in Asteroids? How did you tell it how big to make it? How exactly did you make the computer produce the images and behavior that were in your head? (Sometimes I STILL wonder that...) We visited the library, and I checked out books on computer programming in an effort to find out. The books available at the time were dense tomes on opcodes and operands for assembly language for "minicomputers" like the PDP series. Nothing on how to make Asteroids. (Nowadays, the problem is too MANY books on he subject...)

Weeks later, I returned home, to find my parents were still together (for another seven years, at least), though Barbara shortly thereafter got a divorce. I spoke to her briefly over the phone in the fall, but never heard from her or her family again. I wonder if she still plays games.

For me, the obsession had only begun.



(Vaguely) related wastes of perfectly good pixels:
* Pac Man Fever!
* So How Do I Make a Game? Part I
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
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Vespers 3D Progress
Mike Rubin has written a great article on the current progress of Vespers 3D, the 3D Indie Interactive fiction game I interviewed him about last year. Even if you aren't a developer, you can get some insight into the challenges he's facing on the project with the parser, voice recording, and so forth.

Check out the article HERE.



(Vaguely) related blabbering:
* Mike Rubin interview part I
* Mike Rubin interview part II
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind
* How Do I Get Past The Harpies?

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A Belated Meme Thing
Apparently, I was tagged by Tachevert over at World IV to participate in the "Tell Five Things You Don't Know About Me" blogging meme a couple of weeks back, but I missed it. I'd just come back from vacation and had to dive head first into a new project with a looming milestone and.... *tries to think of more lame excuses*.

Better late than never, I guess. Besides, it's "massively multiplayer gaming" at it's best, without expensive servers or subscription costs! Incidentally, a partial lineage is: Susan Wu (who sent this into the gaming blogosphere)-> Raph Koster -> Broken Toys -> Mythical Blog -> MMODig -> Gaming Bitch -> World IV -> Li'l Ol Me.

So here goes: Five Things You Don't Know About Me. Unless you already do:

#1 - I'm a hillbilly. I was born in West Virginia, and lived in a place called Tick Ridge. I kid you not. My grandparents were just up from a place called Mud Suck. It used to be about two hours from Charleston, but a freeway made it closer to a half-hour. Talking to my aunt about a year ago, I learned that now Charleston has grown to the point where it's pretty much IN Charleston now. Oh, and developers have come in and, in an effort to make the area more sellable, have re-christened it "Cedar Hills" or something like that for the maps. But the locals still call it Tick Ridge.

We moved out when I was only five or so, during my mom's divorce. Flitted about to Florida, Maryland, Alabama, and then back to Maryland again (where I spent my teenaged years, and I guess that's where I lost my accent).

#2 - I'm adopted. Partially. When my mom remarried, my stepfather (who we soon just called "dad") offered to adopt her three boys, and we took him up on it. I think I was just starting junior high at the time. So I officially changed my name from "Murphy" to "Barnson". Irish to Icelandic. Go figger.

#3 - My first job was at a toy store. I missed the worst of the Teddy Ruxpin craze, but I was fully exposed to (the deliberate, I think) undersupply of Lazer Tag. I learned firsthand the horrors of the Christmas Rush. And I faced accusations by desperate customers of hording massive supplies of Cabbage Patch Kids in the back room. I got to participate in little "sting" operations to catch 14-year-old shoplifters. And I had to endure dressing up in a pink promotional costume. At least it was better than working at a fast-food place.

#4 - I'm an active Mormon. As I live in Utah, this shouldn't be too surprising, as that's about half the state (well, Mormon, if not active). And then I think I mentioned that I went to Brigham Young University, which is kind of a dead giveaway. I don't drink, don't smoke, was married in the temple, go to church on Sunday, served a mission, pay 10% of my income in tithing, and all that. But I do play D&D, have written some somewhat violent videogames, and have done my own minor bit of campaigning in support of freedom of speech over "protecting the children." All that and I teach Sunday School, too. I'm like a renaissance geek or something, huh? Okay, maybe not.

#5 - I've considered careers in acting and writing. I was a pretty decent actor in a high school somewhat famous (or notorious) for its theater program. But, that's high school, and I really wasn't sure I wanted to try that for a career. I also thought more than once about writing fiction professionally. But I enjoy programming too much for now, and as those who regularly read this blog can attest, my skills may be a little ... lacking. :)


Okay, it's traditional that I now, in true chain-letter fashion, pass this along to five other innocents whom I don't believe have done this yet. And assuming they are more on-the-ball than I am, they may or may not respond by listing five things we'll wish we'd never learned about them. Hey, it's a topic for a slow news day, at least.

So here we go --- tag, you are it! Let's go with Jacob Proffitt of The Rabid Paladin, Shamus Young of Twenty Sided Tale, Jana (~J) of Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes, Scorpia of Scorpia's Gaming Lair, and David Michael of JoeIndie.com. That should give us a cross-section of game journalists, game developers, and gamers.

(I would pick Weird Al, but I don't think he'd respond. And while it's not a requirement, I don't think he's a gamer. Though apparently he's a wiz at Minesweeper and can play for days, and once we see his sweet moves, we'll stay amazed at his fingers moving so fast it'll set the place ablaze....)
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
 
Nevermind Slamdance.... How About Sundance?
I haven't heard any details about Slamdance's panel Sunday to talk about their decision to remove a game from their "Guerilla Gamemakers" competition AFTER it had become a finalist. What was said, if it even made a difference, I have no idea.

While it certainly matters, there is the possibility of an even bigger opportunity for indie game developers, and a festival showcasing work based more upon true artistic merits than controversy (not that I'm denying the power of controversy to force attention to important topics). Apparently, a panel was held Saturday to consider the possibility of an Indie Games Festival in the future at Sundance. I have no idea if this panel was in any way officially affiliated with the world-famous independent film festival, but some of the attendees were in town for that reason.

This could be extremely exciting if it actually happens. If so, and if Slamdance gets its act together and commits to gaming as medium, Januaries in Utah will become much more exciting...


Tip o' the fedora to Jana (~J), of Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes, for finding this little tidbit of awesomeness.

(Vaguely) related yammerings:
* Super Columbine Massacre RPG too hot for Slamdance?
* IGF Finalists Announced - We're In!
* 2006 Indie RPGs of the Year Announced
* Do Games Matter?

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Cutting Out The Suck
You might remember an article I wrote some time ago on "Red Line Analysis" of games. This was based on a trick I heard a professional writers' group use - they drew a red line at the point in the manuscript where they expected a reader or editor to quit reading. They'd return the manuscript, and the original author would endeavor to move the red line back, a little further with each revision.

As noted last year, I think the same thing can be done with games. I can't count the number of times when I've asked someone how they liked a game, and they tell me at which point they gave up playing. Usually it's due to filler making the game too tedius, some really critically annoying bug, or "the straw that broke the camel's back" of minor points of suckage accumulating until the player no longer likes the game. Sometimes it is a point (like a boss monster) where the difficulty jumps to a frustrating level very suddenly.

My favorite was an explanation of why a friend never got very far in Final Fantasy 7. "I quit when the houses started attacking me." I agreed that it was lamest monster in the game, and a very tedious random-encounter sequence. Maybe that was cool in Japan, but it was really lame in

The Suck List For Apocalypse Cow
Apocalypse Cow went alpha last week, which is kind of a fuzzy definition. Traditionally (especially in the hardware world), alpha testing meant that unit and module testing could begin, but that all of it didn't yet work together as a unit. For games, I consider Alpha to be kind of like the "rough draft" of the entire game - the first point at which you can say, "Okay, test this game."

For Apocalypse Cow, I'm trying to figure out how to implement the "red line" analysis on the game. My answer was, instead of a bug list, to create a "suck list." It's not about fixing bugs (though that's part of it) - it's about getting rid of everything that sucks.

To cut out the suck, I'm going through the game, and noting everything that sucks. As I'll be asking anyone testing it for me to do. Then, as with bug lists, there are priorities to be assigned. I'm used to bugs being prioritized "A," "B," "C," and / or "D," which typically mean something at beginning of testing, but in late testing everything gets almost arbitrarily assigned an "A' or "B" priority because everyone knows the C's and D's won't get fixed, or possibly even looked at. A bugs are typically disasterous crashing / game-destroying bugs, and B bugs are "critical."

Well, for the alpha-stage suck-list, this weekend I came up with a different priority scheme for Suckage. It seemed amusing and useful when I came up with it, so I'm sticking with it for now.

So here they are:

Blinding Suckage
Ther top priority is "Blindingly Sucking" problems. Anything issue that would be hard for a tester to see past to look for other areas of suckage is Blindingly Sucking and must be remedied before anyone else even looks at it. Crash bugs, major game-balance problems, and things that ruin saved games are obvious candidates for this category. But since I'm working with volunteer testers - including a lot of friends whom I wouldn't want to jeopardize relationships with by forcing them to sit through hours of annoyance, I also have to include anything that sucks too bad to be ignored by a sane human being. I don't want anybody to have to deal with Blinding Suckage but me.

Examples of Blinding Suckage: The Upgrade UI and the in-game HUD are absolutely horrible and provide little feedback to the player unless he knows what to look for. The player's helicopter jitters (badly on some machines). Missions aren't always ending when the timer runs out. The lighting is broken on some interior levels, rendering them almost unplayably dark (except you can fire your gun and use its dynamic lighting as a flashlight).

Embarassing Suckage
The next priority is "Embarassingly Suckage". These are things that suck so bad I'd be kind of embarassed for anyone else to see it until I get them fixed. They are things that kind-hearted testers might ignore as they push deeper into the game, but would probably leave a bad taste in their mouth to make them less likely to try out a future version. But I might let close friends hammer on a version with Embarassing Suckage without feeling like I am abusing their friendship too much.

Examples of Embarassing Suckage: The Zeppelins aren't dissapearing when they die. The tanks are shooting fireballs backwards and out of their treads. There is far too much stand-in content. There aren't instructions or feedback for some of the more complicated missions. The mid-game story screens need to be in with at least "placeholder art." So does the end-game story screens. Need to turn off dynamic lighting on most AI attacks - they are HAMMERING lower-end machines on the late-game interior levels.

Pre-Beta Suckage
Moving on down the priority list, there's the list of things that "Suck Too Much For Beta." Pretty much anything that noticeably sucks at this point that doesn't make the other two lists goes here. With the possible exception of some stand-in content and some known fine-tuning issues, anything with a known suck-factor must be removed before the game goes beta. Then in beta we'll find a bunch of Subtle Suckage. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Some examples of Pre-Beta Suckage: Dialogs are too wordy - need fewer words and a larger font. Need to fix sound effect priority. Guns far above / below the player in interior levels are still shooting. Player's guns should change visuals as they are upgraded. More powerful AI should differ in appearance from their earlier-game cousins (the ol' "different paint job means different danger!" trick). All sound effects need to be in and getting triggered (even if some sound effects are temp).

Indeterminant Suckage
I don't actually have this category yet (there's way too much obvious, high-priority suckage to deal with), but I thought this last category might be one for things which Might Not Suck. Maybe it's something that people have mixed opinion on, or maybe it's something that sucks a little, but enables something very cool, and you can't find a work-around to get rid of the suck but keep the cool. This would be a category for the sorts of things that need to be investigated further.


The Long Road To Beta
As the examples show, I've got a lot of suckiness to cut out before going beta.

The cool part about it is that during the first half of alpha, I get to clear out a whole bunch of low-hanging fruit. If the game is any good, it is during this stage that it goes from being a lamentable mess that kinda resembles a game to a pretty honest-to-goodness GAME.

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Monday, January 22, 2007
 
More Utah Indie Night Stuff
I shoulda posted this last week - but Greg Squire, organizer of the Utah Indie Game Dev meet, has posted on last week's meeting.

Check out his take here:
Utah Indie Games Night - January 2007
 
It's Official: Harmonix No Longer Making Guitar Hero
I was hoping it was just a rumor, but it seems that RedOctane has now stated quite plainly that the original creators of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, will no longer be involved in the Guitar Hero franchise, and that development is being transferred to Neversoft.

While this was something of a surprise, the fact that both companies (RedOctane and Neversoft) are now Activision subsidiaries makes the decision pretty obvious.

In the above link, Dusty Welch, head of publishing, explains the rationale and the future of the franchise. He goes into a lot of PR doublespeak to say very little, but basically it boils down to three arguments:

#1) Not having to pay out royalties to a third party is like free money!

#2) Doing a skateboarding game with music in it is almost like making like making music-and-rhythm game, so Neversoft will do just as well as Harmonix.

#3) Please don't bring up the subject of Gun.

Actually, I made up the third point. So it's really only about first two. And if the second point sounds really weak (he only repeats it in various ways about six times to make it sound stronger), see point #1. Again.

He does mention their intention to continue working with WaveGroup sound, who handled the song covers in the first two games. This is definitely good news, as they've done a stellar job. And to be completely honest, I'm actually not that concerned about Neversoft screwing it up. The blueprint is firmly in place, and I expect that the Neversoft dev team will be a competent and respectful of the series.

I'm sure Harmonix will also put a positive spin on the situation, and will publicly make nice with RedOctane and Activision and talk about the exciting new opportunities they are now exploring. But it sounds to me that when all is said and done --- they got shafted. Legally and legitimately. As much as RedOctane contributed to the development of the games (more than just the controller!), it was Harmonix that that made it into the ultra-valuable hit franchise. And now they are being told, "Thank you for making us rich, don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out!"

The moral of the story, kids, is this: He who owns the I.P. rights gets to take home ALL the marbles.

Remember that when signing on the bottom line.



If you decide to learn to play the electric guitar--the real one, not the wonderfully fun plastic guitar from Guitar Hero--then research different electric guitars before you buy one.

(Vaguely) related bits of fluff:
* The House the Mouse Built
* Original or Licensed IP?
* Guitar Hero Tidbits
* Guitar Hero Mini-Review

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Sunday, January 21, 2007
 
No Indies In The Indie Competition?
I guess The Behemoth has now withdrawn Castle Crashers from the Slamdance "Guerilla Game Developers" competition (which begins today) - right on the heels of DigiPen forcing its students to re-enter the competition.

The DigiPen thing is interesting to me. Based on my understanding, the school owns full rights to everything that its students create. As DigiPen is not a major publisher, I guess the game is still technically an independent game, just as Saga is technically independent (but from my standpoint, it was still contract work for my studio). But it really stretches and makes me reconsider my definition of "indie."

Undoubtably DigiPen provided valuable training and resources to its students. But why should the school, and not the game creators, own the result of the students' labors? We can see that the developers themselves are not in control of their end product. Is it still "indie?" It seems very strange to me, as unlike a traditional publisher / developer arrangement, it is the students themselves who are ultimately funding the product, through their tuition, "lab fees," and everything else. Maybe that's common in film schools and music academies, too, but it seems really screwed up to me.

I think it is interesting that two of their remaining seven competitors are "DigiPen Owned" games. Obviously, they are shooting for getting some awards for their school, and feel its more important than the desires of their students. With only half the original number of finalists, they have excellent odds this year.

As to the competition itself, the official statement from Slamdance concerning the pulling of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has changed in the last couple of days. Rather than citing moral grounds as they did previously, they are now stating their concerns about possible lawsuits that they couldn't afford to defend themselves against.

This is a legitimate excuse - the game has a bunch of copyright violations (unlicensed content grabbed from Doom, Marilyn Manson, and Nirvana) that could have possibly gotten the competition in legal trouble for supporting. It's a safer explanation than the alternatives. It doesn't paint the sponsors or Slamdance as the villains. But it sounds to me like rationalization after the fact.

Which is kind of how Danny Ledonne's explaination for the purpose behind SCMRPG's creation sounds to me, too. But once again, others differ strongly from my position. In fact, Wired Online just published a very good article about the game, critiquing it as a work of art. Once again, I don't deny that it's art... I just don't think it happens to be particularly good or worthy art. Regardless of its original purpose or stated purpose, one thing the game has managed to do is generate discussion about games as a medium of art and expression. And that is a good thing.

This whole controversy is certainly causing me to ask a lot of questions. Here are a few:

Will Slamdance organizers decide that games are more trouble than they are worth, and cancel the Guerrilla Gamemaker competition in the future?

Will they try to stay the course and act as if nothing happened, and rely upon people's short memories (and the willingness of schools like DigiPen to force submission of student projects to garner prestige for the school)?

Or will Slamdance renew their commitment to games as an art form and take advantage of the "controversy surrounding the controversy" (and the press it has generated) to make indie games a more significant aspect of the festival?

Will DigiPen actually lose more potential students than it gains by not only making it clear that they own all rights to their students' creations, but are willing to use said ownership against the wishes of the artists?

And should we start referring to game developers as "artists" (as I just did) in acknowledgement of the the validity of games as a medium of art and expression? We do that in other media (particularly music), why not games?

Should the term "indie" only apply to those games which remain in the control of their original creators (ahem, "artists")? That would disqualify a bunch of indie developers who are willing to sell their IP rights to publishers after self-funding a title.

What do you think?

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Friday, January 19, 2007
 
Why The PC Game Industry Figures Are Baloney
According to the NPD Group, PC games enjoyed a very modest but measurable growth last year, posting a 1% growth over 2005, to the tune of $960 million dollars. While it's small compared to the $12.5 billion enjoyed by console gaming, it still contributes a noticeable share to the gaming industry.

So the PC games industry isn't dying after all! It's small but growing, right?

I agree with the conclusion that the rumors of PC gaming's death have been greatly exaggerated. But I will be one of many who will be calling "Bull!" on those numbers.

Not that I think that the numbers themselves are wrong, but that using them to gauge the growth of the PC games market is... well, ludicrous. It's obvious to me that the NPD group is only counting boxes. Their press release details that this research is limited to "Retail, U.S. Sales." That still works for consoles - for a while.

But counting boxed retail sales for PC games? THAT is what is dying. Not PC games.

But surely the figure isn't too far off, is it? Counting boxes is still a pretty good indicator of the overall revenue by the PC games business, isn't it?

Subscription-Based Games
First off, let's look at World of Warcraft. As of March last year, it has had a total of SIX MILLION subscribers, and that number was reportedly up to eight million recently. Chinese subscribers (that make up a little less than half the subscriber base) are only paying $5 per month for the game, but the rest are paying between $13 and $15 per month.

Averaging it out, we'll assume $9.50 a month per subscriber. With 6 million subscribers shortly after the beginning of the year, and 8 million at the end, that averages to about 7 million subscribers for the year. We can be conservative and say 6.5. million times $9.50 a month

That comes out to $61,750,000 per month... or nearly $750 million for the entire year. IN SUBSCRIPTION REVENUE ALONE! That's not including boxed sales, which evidently accounted for another 2 million sales times the average retail price worldwide. What, 25 bucks, maybe? Another cool $50 million - which is probably all NPD counted when they say World of Warcraft was the #1 seller.

So World of Warcraft made almost as much as the NPD is reporting all by its own little lonesome. And that is a conservative guesstimate in my opinion. So maybe nobody bought anything else OTHER than World of Warcraft last year, except for me?

Like the TV sales pitchmen are fond of saying, "But that's not all!" Last count, World of Warcraft accounted for just something north of 50% of the MMO subscriber market. So let's take that $750 million, and let's multiply it by, say, 1.9, to represent all the MMO market out there. That brings us to 1.425 billion dollars.

Okay. No big deal. So the NPD Group is short by a half a billion dollars. Sure, that's an honest mistake.

Though we still haven't counted the boxed-sales of those games into the figures yet. And the ride gets rougher still.

Casual Games
In 2005, the "Casual Games" industry made $713 million in revenue, according to the DFC Intelligence joint market report. It is estimated to grow to $1.5 billion in 2008. Using the ol' rule of 72, that means a 24% growth rate per year. So if casual games continued to grow this year rather than making an unexpected downturn (and from what I could tell, nothing of the kind happened - it's been a great year!), that would mean $884 million in sales this year.

Yeah, once again - almost the entire NPD-reported PC games sales for the year, by Casual Games alone. Now, some of those (a third, maybe?) were boxed game sales sold at Wal*Mart or whatever, and thus included in the NPD report. But at this point, we're now talking $2.3 billion in sales.

So the NPD group is now short almost a billion-and-a-half dollars. Oops. And we're still not yet counting all those shiny shrink-wrapped packages of World of Warcraft, The Sims, and Oblivion that were greedily snatched by gamers everywhere off of the shelves of GameStop and Wal*Mart yet.

Incredible.

Hardware Sales
According to the GameDaily Biz article, the NPD report for console sales included "portable and console hardware, software and accessories." That's all well and good, and should be included. Except it also compares apples to oranges when you are comparing it to PC sales, where (I'm guessing) only the actual software is counted.

But in 2005, Alienware had $173 million in sales --- part of the reason it was gobbled up by Dell. Alienware specialized in - let's face it - game machines. And it was supposedly on track to sell $200 million worth of game machines in 2006. So to make things fair, we could toss that value onto count, for over $2.5 billion in PC gaming sales to include some hardware.

But Alienware is only a drop in the bucket. Logitech had $422 million in sales in 2005 (and probably a similar amount last year), much of which is going to feed the PC gaming appetite.

And let's not forget NVidia, which apparently had $2.5 billion in total sales in 2005! One company! And ATI, which made $2.2 billion. While much of that was going into consoles (and Alienware machines), there has got to be a metric buttload of that money coming from the PC-based business. And who needs NVidia or ATI hardware in their machines? Gamers!

Granted, not everyone who gets a "gaming-oriented" motherboard or 3D card is actually going to be using it to play games, which makes the actual calculation extremely fuzzy and impossible to difficult to quantify with exact numbers. So I won't fault marketing analysts for not wanting to touch this one. But I think it illustrates what a big difference it would make if you tried to make a fair comparison

The Long Tail
That doesn't bring into consideration the other sources of "long tail" revenue. Nobody asked ME how much Rampant Games made selling non-casual downloadable games last year. Not that it would have made a dent in their calculations. But there are a LOT of guys like me out there, selling their software, hardware, peripherals, and game-related services (like FileFront.com) over the Internet, mail order, or what have you.

While we may all fly under the radar of these intelligence-gathering firms, collectively we form a "long tail" of entertainment software sales that might actually be a significant number. I won't even hazard a guess at this point, other than to say, "several million." Whether several means $3 million or $30 million or even $300 million I have no clue.

But at least in having no clue, I don't seem to be alone.

You Can't Get Away With Counting Boxes Anymore
With consoles, game distribution is still based on traditional distribution channels. While it's expanding to downloadable game sales, it's still tightly regulated by the console manufacturers themselves. Sell-through numbers are still notoriously hard to come by, but these market analysts have been at it a long time, and I'm assuming they are pretty good at it.

But unless there are a lot of people grossly exaggerating numbers out there, my quick-and-dirty guesstimation seems to indicate that the NPD group (and they aren't the only ones) are grossly underestimating the PC game market. If you make the assumption that they really have been just counting boxes, and add that to my rough estimation above the PC games industry last year probably made around $3.5 billion in sales last year. And that's NOT including game-oriented PC hardware sales.

Unfortunately, that's not a direct comparison between consoles and the PC. The NPD numbers are for U.S. sales only, so you can probably double their numbers for worldwide sales. On top of that, their numbers include hardware sales, and gathering that number for PCs sounds extremely difficult. But I think it's clear that traditional retail sales is telling far less than half the story.

If you could then manage to exclude the console hardware sales so that we could make a more "apples-to-apples" comparison of game sales, I think you'd find that PC games are generating perhaps a quarter of the games revenue for the entire industry.

To me, that sounds like a very healthy gaming platform.

(Note: Tip o' the sombrero to Scorpia for the GameDaily link!)

(Vaguely) Related Tirades
* PC Gaming Is Far From Dead
* It's the Reseller's Fault!
* A Pirate Story
* How to FUBAR an MMO Launch

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Utah Indie Developer Night, Winter 2007
So what did I learn last night at the Utah Indie Game Developer Night?

We had, for the first-time, fewer people than the previous event at our Utah Indie Game Developer Night. The principle loss came from not having the ITT Technical Institute guys this time, and an extremely tiny contingent from the company formerly known as Headgate. Now that they have become EA Salt Lake and cracked down on indie game development, I don't expect to be seeing so much of them anymore. I expect that the fact that it was well below zero when I left last night didn't help any, either.

Still, it was well-attended, with 29 people showing from all kinds of different walks of life. We had our token game reviewer (Jana, AKA "~J" of Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes), the folks working full-time making games and part-time making indie games (like me), a couple of guys who've left mainstream game development on consoles to make casual PC games, some students, a writer, a couple of wives of game developers "just along for the ride," and some other "curious parties" who just wanted to see what it was all about.

Apocalypse Cow
I got to demo Apocalypse Cow, and received a bunch of feedback. People were throwing around cow jokes like crazy - I wished I'd been recording everything folks were saying. The big thing almost everyone told me was that the key selling point - to them - was the humor. Picking on poor cows (particularly when they shoot back) is just funny, and the more over-the-top silliness the better. People were extremely positive, though I also found several points (and key bugs) that need to be addressed before I get the first alphas in the hands of testers. I'll be working on those over the weekend.

CaveBug
Brad Edwards, an old co-worker of mine from the Warhawk / Twisted Metal / Jet Moto days has formed a new company called Cavebug. He and his partner, Josh, abandoned work on high-end console games to go make console games for the Mac and PC, using the Popcap framework as their core engine. It's been a bit of a shock for them switching gears like that, but their first game, Pathstorm, is now at the "RC2" stage (the second release candidate --- if it proves to be clean enough, it will be the final version). They are currently offering it for a discount price of only $12.95, to go up to $19.95 once it goes final.

EA Games and Indies
The three attendees from "EA Salt Lake" explained their situation now with EA Games. They are pretty much forbidden to work on making games for sale in their off time. One of the developers is - and always has been - working on a non-profit game engine (useful for hobbyists and students) called Flat Red Ball. So EA gave him their blessing. Another had EA re-classify what he's doing as "educational software" for children so he could continue work on it.

And Mike Smith - well, he's pretty much hosed with his work on Caster. It's a game, and it's for profit, so he had to cut off development on it. He showed us what he was able to get done do prior to Headgate's buyout. There are some new special effects, including a really cool motion blur when your caster races ahead along the battlefield. It looks good. Hopefully he'll find some way to continue development on it and get it released in the future.

Other Game Progress
Mike Rubin talked to me a little about Vespers 3D progress, though he didn't demo it this time. They ran auditions for voice actors, and got the principle NPC modeled, animated, and did his voice-over recording. They've still got a LOT of content to do, but dang this project sure sounds awesome. I can't wait to play it.

Mike commented that they were originally just planning on doing the first 'day' of the original text adventure (er, "Interactive Fiction") as more of a proof-of-concept thing. But they realized that people would really, really want to play through the whole adventure after the first day, so they changed their plan to include all three days. Unfortunately, the second day has twice as much stuff going on as the first, and the third is even larger. So it remains a big challenge.

Herb and Dan Flowers demoed Link Realms again. The big addition since last meeting was dungeons, though they were unfortunately buggy. One thing I note is that they really seem to enjoy playiung their own game. That's a good sign...

I also got a sneak peek at the upcoming third game in the Deadly Rooms of Death series. I think it can be summed up by: Improved Graphics, New Puzzles, Same Great Gameplay.

Portals
Wrangling a conversation about submitting a game to a portal, I was reminded of the following bits of advice:

* Many portals have different audiences. A game might sell great on one site, but horribly on another, just because they cater to a different audience.

* Some portals charge you to host your game. Some portals charge you a lot. If you have a game with one of these companies that is NOT a good match for their audience, you could end up losing most of your meager profits to hosting and bandwidth fees.

* Portals partner with each other , creating a chain of royalties that steadily decrease the trickle that goes back to the developer. While it's not a bad thing for you, the developer, to get your game out to as many sites as possible, it is best to do the legwork yourself and work directly with all the portals you can prior to allowing them to do this.

* Portals will do a minimum amount of work (initially) marketing your game. For the most part, they'll throw it up on the "new games" page and let it sink or swim. If it does well, THEN they may spend more time pushing it to maximize their profits. But it's not in that top ten percent or so, they're happy to let it fade away into obscurity while they are looking for their next hit. So it behooves you, as a developer, to really maximize your game's chances every way you can, and not rely on the portals to do your job for you.

Summing Up
Well, that's about all I can think of for now. There were lots of conversations going on, and I was able to chat with a lot of very cool folks. As usual, it was an awesome chance to network with people, see what cool stuff people were working on, and to get inspired. And in this case, I was also able to get some of the first "post-alpha" feedback on Apocalypse Cow, which I will be taking full advantage of this week :)

I hope to see some FINISHED games this spring at the next one! (Including my own!)

(Vaguely) related Ye Anciente Articles:
* Utah Indie Dev Meet, Fall 2006
* Utah Indie Dev Meet, Spring 2006
* Utah Indie Dev Meet, Winter 2006
* Utah Indie Dev Meet, Summer 2005

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Thursday, January 18, 2007
 
Wanna Learn To Be A Fighter Pilot?
Do you remember in the movie "Top Gun," when Charlie is going over the ACMI logs in the briefing room with all the pilots? She rips on Maverick's split S maneuver, and says, "The encounter was a victory, but I think we've shown it as an example of what not to do." Then she moves on to another pilot (presumably Iceman), and remarks, "Now this is a perfect example of a textbook maneuver."

I always wondered, "What textbook? Do these fighter pilots have a textbook that they use to learn how to kill the other pilot most effectively?" I imagined college textbooks for chemistry, calculus, and dogfighting. As a long-time fan of flight sims, aviation, and of course air combat games, I really wanted to know.

As it turns out, they do have a textbook. It is called "Fighter Combat - Tactics and Maneuvering," by Robert L. Shaw. And it was pretty much used as the textbook in the U.S. Navy, and probably most other armed forces with an air combat mission in the world. I don't know if it still is or not - it was originally published in 1985, and while some of the information may be somewhat dated, the book covers all aspects of fighter combat, and is equally useful for modern jet aircraft as World War I era biplanes. Most of it hasn't gone out of date. Not until we develop anti-gravity aircraft that don't rely on lift and thrust, or weapons that can fire from any angle of the plane with equal chances to hit.

I had to special-order a copy many years ago. But now I've learned that you can get it as a FREE DOWNLOAD E-Book.

If you are into combat flight sims, grab a free copy of it HERE.

It uses the .RAR format to compress the PDF file. If you don't already have a program to decompress .rar files, I recommend the free utility 7-Zip, available HERE. It's also a bit more powerful at creating .ZIP files than the compression that comes with stock Windows. :)

Reading it won't make you an expert fighter pilot. But as a guy who got pretty competitive in online dogfights, I can say that it really helped me take my skills to the next level and kick some online tail in games like Falcon 4.0. Unfortunately for me, most of the top-ranked pilots had read the book also.

But the book contains a lot of information that becomes more valuable as the flight sim becomes more realistic. In it, you'll find the different means of defeating Doppler versus Continuous Wave radar systems, when and how best to begin your turn in a one-on-one engagement, turn performance effects on nose-to-nose turns, and the basic fighter maneuvers and how best to use them such as the high and low yo-yo, flat and rolling scissors, etc.

If you aren't a flight sim fan, then none of what I just said made any sense at all. But if you are (and we seem to be decreasing in number these days), check it out!

(Vaguely) related mumble transcripts:
* Game Moments #2: Falcon 4.0
* Game Moment #11: Falcon 4.0 (again)
* Guest Game Moment #1: Falcon 4.0
* Why Presentation Is Important
* Do Games Matter?

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What I Did This Summer
Looks like the press release has gone out, and it's all official, so I can tell everyone what I did last summer. And last fall. And last spring. Pretty much up until a little over a month ago.

http://www.playsaga.com


Yes, it fits the definition of an "indie" game. No publishers were harmed during the creation of this game. I'm still kinda amazed it's all come together - the project was really pretty tremendous in scope, even though we developers kept arguing to get it scoped down further.

Working on an MMO has been an eye-opening experience. There were times when I wondered if we'd EVER get done. While it's still not technically done (and I got pulled off when we went alpha to head up programming on a new project, so I've been out of the loop on it for a little over a month), it's really amazing how far it has come in a relatively short time.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
 
Utah "Games As Porn" Bill Temporarily (?) Pulled
According to the Herald-Journal online, Representative Wyatt has pulled HB50, the newly reintroduced "Games Are Porn" bill, from the House Public Technology and Utilities agenda today. Citing Constitutional concerns, he says he intends to re-evaluate the bill to make sure it'll pass Constitutional muster. He's apparently meeting with Utah A.G. Mark Shurtleff to discuss options.

The original bill, introduced last year, categorizes violence in videogames as obscene and amends the "Materials Harmful to Minors" law such that videogame violence is treated the same as pornography in this state. Good ol' "Wacky Jacky" Thompson apparently helped pen the bill, and found a dupe in the form of former Representative Hogue to push the bill through. I It expired quietly in the state senate last year. A much cheaper way to go than the similar Luisiana bill, which went through a costly court battle before being ruled unconstitutional.

I feel hopeful that Rep. Wyatt, who is a lawyer, is taking Constitutional concerns seriously. And I am very happy that he is meeting with Mark Shurtleff, who has proven to be an ally of the ESRB system, and while he's personally opposed to extremely violent videogames, he has expressed the opinion that it is a matter for education, not legislation.

Although his final statement in the article DOES have me worried. Rep. Wyatt says, "Any bill that somebody brings forward with the support of their constituents is not a waste of time, because they raise issues and create awareness." Excuse me, but haphazardly making laws as a way to "send messages" sounds like VERY poor government. The whole point of Representative Democracy, as envisioned by the founding fathers, was to prevent that kind of "mob rule" so that cooler, wiser heads could prevail. If you are taking that attitude, we might as well go to a direct democracy system.

Well, okay. There's my naive political rant for the day. Maybe the week. If I'm lucky, the whole month.
Gee, I suddenly feel the urge to play some Democracy for some reason...

But I am pleased with this turn of events, and it sounds like Wyatt is behaving reasonably. This is a bit better than the horrible job they did last year, where they rubber-stamped "No Constitutional Impact Concerns" and "No Private Industry Impact Concerns" concerns on the bill right after hearing testimonies as to those very concerns that same day...

As always, a hat tip to GamePolitics.com which almost always has the latest dirt on ... well, games and politics!

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Democracy Now Available From Rampant Games
I get political often enough on this blog, so I guess it's about time I made a game about politics available on the website.

Democracy is the best-selling indie political game by Cliff Harris of Positech Games. In Democracy, you are the newly-elected leader of a major democratic country. You can choose from the United States, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Poland, Australia, Spain, and France, though the demo version restricts you to the U.K. You have a few years to make your mark AND prepare for re-election. Democracy doesn't impose term limits, so you can try your hand at being President or Prime Minister for Life.

It's not easy.

Democracy uses a very sophisticated AI system to model voters (under the hood, it implements a neural network), and even includes such factors as voters cynicism and grudges. In Democracy, it's all about policy decisions and implementation - not re-election campaigns. It's all about how good a job you do running the country (man, what would it be like in the real world?!?) But "good" is a very relative word with so many different voter groups all wanting different things. To make it even more tricky, you've got the same voters belonging to multiple groups. So while you might make the American economy just hum along towards a new era of plenty for all, you are undoubtably going to anger a lot of folks who see you destroying their way of life. You can cut taxes and raise benefits to generate some short-term goodwill, but when the long-term bill comes due you are going to have to figure out how to avoid bankrupting your country.

You'll have to deal with such "quality of life" factors as crime, average lifespan, poverty, Gross Domestic Product, unemployment, and equality. And as far as I can tell, it's not possible to max out all of these factors.

It's all up to you. You can try and be a political idealist and see if you can stay in office long enough to see your country achieve a golden age. Or you can try to avoid rocking the boat and do what you can to become the world's most popular leader. Or you can just experiment and see what could happen if you, say, try and convert the U.S. into a socialist state. However, even the best plans can get snarled as you will be forced to deal with events outside your control.

One story from the game comes from reviewer Mortitz Voss of GameTunnel.com: "In one game, I was the prime minister of Great Britain. I did away with all the silly traditionalist legacies and made it a country where there were only very few unemployed or homeless people, where health care was free and universally available, and whose universities were among the world's best. I carefully worked to reduce alcoholism and drug addiction among the general populace, and I downsized the military and spent that money on education and stem cell research. I cut the national debt in half and still experienced a great surplus of income ... despite massive tax cuts that everybody loved me for. Wait... everybody? Ultimately, two thirds through my second term of office, some patriot nutcase shot me in the chest for betraying our heritage and for not doing what's 'right' for England. Ouch! "

So maybe running a country isn't as easy as it sounds... :)

Oh, and if you are curious, I do not know if the ability to ban video games is currently implemented in the simulation. :)

Democracy was the winner of the "2005 Best Indie Sim Game of the Year" award from GameTunnel.com, and was also voted one of the top ten games of the year. If you haven't tried Democracy out yet, give it a try by checking out the free demo here:

DEMOCRACY

As always, have fun!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007
 
Warhawk PS3 Cancelled ?
There was only one game for the PS3 that I was excited about (and I haven't picked up a PS3 yet because, frankly, $660+ is too much to pay for just one game). That was a remake of one of the first games I ever developed - and the game I most enjoyed working ON. That game, of course, was Warhawk.

Now, I was a little concerned about it being "re-imagined" (After all, wasn't our own imagination good enough? ) But I was very anxious to hear about the new version, especially since some old friends of mine (many of whom I worked with on the original Warhawk team in 1994 / 1995) were working on it.

But now comes this tidbit of news, followed by these rumors. And this speculation. By the sounds of it, Sony is voting "no confidence" for the resurrected bird, and is possibly considering if there's any way of salvaging it (such as cutting it up and selling the finished pieces as downloadable content). Of course, the original article doesn't specify Warhawk by name, but apparently people have come to this conclusion.

I haven't heard squat other than these rumors (I don't keep in touch with the Incog guys like I should), and I am REALLY REALLY hoping they turn out to be false.

If they are true, however, it should be a lesson to all of us indies... even mainstream, publisher-owned, well-funded studios can blow their scope and focus. (But why'd it have to be Warhawk?!?!)

Oh - and something fun I found at one of these links. Here was a gameplay video we did for the "teaser" for Warhawk. It alternated with the CGI-rendered opening as kind of an "attract mode", specifically for kiosks. It says, "Air Assault" at the end... I don't remember if that was the name we gave it for Japan, or if that was one of the working titles it was under. As far as the graphics are concerned... just remember this was 1995, and everyone thought "3D" meant only Doom and StarFox for the SNES. This was LUSH in 1994 :)



(Vaguely) related digital ramblings:
* Warhawk Flies Again
* Warhawk Re-Imagined?
* Easter Eggs
* Hand Me My Walker Already!
* Warhawk Movie And Endings
* Twisted Metal Trivia


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Jet Moto Memories
I got a couple of emails over the weekend by someone asking me about Jet Moto. Principally, he was asking what happened in Jet Moto 2 to make it "less fun" than the first game. That, I couldn't answer. I wasn't involved in the sequel's development, and frankly I enjoyed JM2. But then he asked me for a few stories and technical details.

The scary thing is, it's been a dozen years since I was working on that game. It's amazing how time flies. For amazing, read "freaking scary!" But here are a few tidbits I remember.

The original concept behind Jet Moto was to do a game that felt like science-fiction motocross. That meant the chaos of having a lot of bikes on the track. Twenty, to be exact. And unlike most racing games of the era, we didn't want the AI to be merely mobile timers and obstacles. We wanted to see them really jockey for position, fight each other --- and of course, wreck.

Technical Issues
One decision we made was to go with wheel-less hoverbikes. This was due to a technological limitation: We wanted to have 20 bikes in the game, but we couldn't afford to model 40 nice, round-looking wheels in addition to the bikes, riders, and environment. By modeling the bikes with no wheels, and assuming we'd needed a minimum of about 32 triangles per wheel, that was 32 x 40 or 1280 polygons we got out of rendering. (Yes, there's Level-of-Detail, but the plan from the beginning was to make it very possible to have all 20 bikes on-screen in close proximity at once... that was the whole idea).

The physics system was the brainchild of Travis Hilton, the lead programmer on the game. He'd done some work on "particle physics" while getting his master's degree, and wanted to use them for a practical purpose - in this case, the game. There was one problem. When all was said and done, the physics system was extremely expensive. On the Playstation, it ended up taking something like 6.5 - 7 milliseconds to calculate all collisions, responses, and spring forces. That may not sound like a lot, but we were running 20 frames per second (with a full physics update every frame). 1000 milliseconds per second divided by 20 is 50 milliseconds in which we had to process everything - physics, AI, player controls, sound, and of course processing the entire game world and sending that data down the rendering pipeline. We really only had enough processing budget to handle maybe 4 physics bikes at that rate, not including AI processing time.

Since running 20 bikes was critical in our design (we really wanted the chaos of a motocross competition, with bikes everywhere), this meant we had to design a whole 'nother physics system for the other 18-19 bikes racing with you. That was my job. And I had to have them all run within just barely more time than a single fully-physics bike. The budget that they gave me to fit the AI within kept shrinking as development continued. I think at one point they asked me if I could make the AI for 18 bikes fit within 4.5 milliseconds, and I explained that our collision detection routines couldn't even run that fast just to make sure the bikes didn't hit anything. In the end, I think I had about 7.5 milliseconds to work with.

So my proud contribution to Jet Moto was the lame AI and physics for the AI bikes. If they didn't move exactly like the player, that was my fault. I did time tests and everything to try and get them resemble the behavior as best I could, but it was never satisfactory to me. I also did a bunch of the "gameplay" code - all the little odds and ends that need to be in place for there to actually be a game in place. The grappling hook code, calculating race positions and checkpoints, etc.

The Lost Track
One of the early prototype levels that was created for the game was completely thrown away (which definitely impacted our schedule). I think we had a series of tracks set in some kind of stadium planned. Unfortunately, the stadium track sections did not match the design emphasis of the game whatsoever. They were really laid out as more of a speed-bike track with a few bumps.

After much consideration, the entire theme was dumped, and all of the track sections (which made up almost all of a complete level) were archived and never seen again.

He Ainnagonna Finish!
One of the early design decisions for the more difficult levels was to have the infamous cliffs. It was always intended that a fall off a cliff would remove the rider from the race (after all, they'd be in the hospital or something). The idea was that there'd be fewer and fewer racers with each lap, and that the player would be encouraged to take things carefully near the cliffs to avoid a race-ending mistake. This was fully implemented about mid-way through development. During one discussion, the local producer (Danny) kept talking about how the bike "ain't a gonna" finish. We hashed out a bunch of details, and I implemented the "ainnagonna flag." That was literally the variable name, "ainnagonna."

Unfortunately, what sounds great on paper or in your head often doesn't pan out on the screen. The thing is, it's not actually all that fun to be forced to go slow or suffer an instant defeat. And losing the AI bikes on the cliffs was a fairly random occurance, which meant that the difficulty level was almost purely random. Sometimes you'd hit the third lap with almost all of the AI still fighting and attempting to knock YOU off the cliff.... othertimes you'd be down to only three or four opponents.

We tried to soften the blow by implementing the "three strikes and you're out" rule. After the third fall, the player (or AI) was out of the race. Suddenly the "ainnagonna" flag became a counter.

That wasn't any fun, either. That just delayed the annoyance. Finally, we ripped the code out entirely, and the player only suffered the temporary (though still punishing) setback of being restored at the last checkpoint on the track. Though the code was gone, I believe the "ainnagonna" flag (or counter) was still left in the bike data structure. In fact, I believe it remained through Jet Moto 2... completely useless and forgotten (though I'm pretty sure I included a comment so people knew what it was intended to do... or what it ainnagonna do).

The Best Jet Moto Player In The World
During the final days of testing prior to releasing the gold master to the publisher for THEIR testing and duplication, we had a Jet Moto tournament. The big challenge was between myself and Nate, our lead tester, as we were the two best players. Everyone participated, and we spent about three hours just playing it like crazy and watching each other play it. The final round of the tournament came down, unsurprisingly, to Nate and me.

My favorite --- and best --- level was "Nightmare," the final track that towers over a city. Unfortunately, I choked on that one this time. I think I still managed to squeak out a win, because I still maintained that I was "The Best Jet Moto Player In The World!" At least until the game landed in stores. I imagined that my title would be lost within two days of the game being available to the public.

Jet Moto Trivia
The name of the mountain level, "Willpower," was actually a bit of a joke and compliment for the lead artist / modeler, Will Dougherty, who designed the level.

Some of the Jet Moto characters were named after SingleTrac employees. Polly Harris was named after Polly Harris, a programmer (formerly testing manager) at SingleTrac. Like her picture, she was a skydiver. She used to be the camera-person who would wear a camcorder on her helmet and tape people on their first dive. We saw the recording around that time of then her parachute opened UNDERNEATH her as she was taping someone's jump. We were all very lucky to have her still with us on the team :) (And no, that didn't stop her from continuing to jump!)

One of the racers was named after Michael Makarczyk, one of the artists. The picture shows that racer swimming, and if I recall correctly, Mike was also an avid swimmer. And I believe he also raced motorcycles. But not motocross.

John Olsen, who did work on Void War, got to work on the PC port of Jet Moto as his very first task at SingleTrac. Though he had some help from various team members when he was working on their pieces, I think to a large degree he had to handle that port as a solo programmer. Talk about being thrown into the deep end!


(Vaguely) related verbal doodles:
* You Can't Design Fun On Paper
* A Pirate Story
* On Reviews and Criticism
* Easter Eggs

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Monday, January 15, 2007
 
New: Carnival of Game Production
Juuso has the inaugural "Carnival of Game Production" blog carnival up for this month. My entry this month was Georgina's interview. I haven't checked out all the articles yet, but they look pretty interesting...

Carnival of Game Production: First Edition!


Sunday, January 14, 2007
 
Styrateg Price Reduced!
One of the dubious joys of being on an affiliate program is that you don't always get notified when price changes occur. At least once, this has led to a somewhat unpleasant surprise for people.

But in this case, it's a happy surprise. I just found out that Rake In The Grass has reduced the price of Styrateg to only $12.95.

I used to spend nearly that much in the arcade in a single afternoon (which, adjusted for inflation, is probably closer to $20 in today's dollars... but talking about that too much WILL make my head spin, so I'm stopping now).

I haven't been told if this is a temporary sale or a permanent price reduction, but hey --- I'll take it! :) Now's your chance!

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Fastcrawl Now Available at Rampant Games
I talked a little about FastCrawl - the winner of the 2006 Indie RPG Award from Game Tunnel - a few weeks ago. In fact, it was (in part) what brought about my popular-yet-controversial "But Is It An RPG?" post. There were some arguments as to whether or not a good ol' fashioned dungeon crawl -- a hack-n-slash with old school sensibilities -- should still qualify as an RPG.

My answer is yes, though I admittedly have a tough time comparing a game like Aveyond to FastCrawl.

But if you are in the mood for some quick & dirty dungeon-delving, Fastcrawl is now available at Rampant Games:

http://www.rampantgames.com/fastcrawl.html

It ain't deep, and it's not going to stress out pixel shaders on your GeForce card, but it is a lot of fun. It's sort of an abbreviated version of Rogue, playable in a single hour.

With the shortest game setting, you may be able to fit two or three games into your lunch hour (and still have time to eat). Give it a try!



(Warning - you WILL have to install .NET 1.1 or higher from Microsoft if you don't have it already.)

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Friday, January 12, 2007
 
Free Game: Flash Element Tower Defense
Curse you, Damion, for providing me with this link late in the evening when I actually intended to get something done!

If you like Tower Defense missions in RTS games, well, here you go... in Flash. Simple, straightforward, and annoyingly addictive:

Flash Element Tower Defense

UPDATE: Woot! Finally beat the game, albeit with only 9,858 points. My upgrade path was fire -> Interest Rate -> Interest Rate -> Water. I didn't bother placing any water towers until the first of the bonus levels, and never did end up with any wood or combo towers. But going into the bonus levels I think I had just under 4,000 gold saved.

UPDATE #2: The game has been modified *again*. Now the air-only tower is more powerful, and there are three boss levels (making those high-damage, non-splashing attacks like the wood tower more potent). I won it with ease thanks to three extra levels of time to invest :) I made around 14,000 points this time in my first try, and then 17,799 on my third...

UPDATE #3: The game keeps changing. It now has an extra level beyond the previous "last" level. New score: 27045, and I survived until the end. Pretty much wall-to-wall fire towers.


UPDATE #4: Just shy of 100K. Ah, well. I could probably have cleared 100K if I was stingier with the towers during the last level - nothing survived past the bottom loop. This time I upgraded interest rate ONLY for the first three upgrades.

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Why Presentation Is Important
I was in a discusion with coworkers recently about milestones, and about relative importance of tasks. Some opinions were voiced that certain tasks that were "just for show" were less important than the most critical ones needed to get the game done. I was reminded of a story I'd hear, which I'll share here.

The story is nearly a decade old, but the truth is timeless. Courtesy of Brand Gamblin, who was a junior coder on the project.

The game was Microprose's "European Air War," the sequel to their hit flight sim (remember when the words "hit" and "flight sim" actually went together?) "1942 - Pacific Air War." The game was enormously over budget and schedule, and nowhere near ready to ship, with embarassing bugs that just would not die. According to Gamblin, "If you fired your wing guns, the wings would fall off. It was not possible to take off or land, and if you touched the ground, you would be bounced miles up into space. Planes occasionally flew backward, and the AI would periodically (and unexplainably) shoot down its own teammates."

Every week, the studio execs were meeting with hard questions, and weren't liking the answers. It became clear that th project's days were numbered. Several team members, seeing the writing on the wall, jumped ship. By several, I mean, "The entire programming team."

Well, the execs for some reason decided not to axe the project then and there. Maybe they believed (rightfully, in retrospect) that there was a chance of salvaging the investment they'd already made in the game. So they hired a new programming team, and a new lead programmer (who Gamblin calls, "Tom.")

The new lead, realizing what dire straits the game was in, spent a whole bunch of time not fixing the bugs or doing what he could to fight the innumerable fires surrounding the game. Instead he implemented a really cool cinematic camera object. The "Cool Cam" would jump to wherever the most exciting action was in the game. All it did was show off what *was* working in the game.

The other team members were befuddled. Gamblin reports, "The cool cam was cool, yes, but I had to bite my lip to keep from saying, `That doesn't help us! We've got real issues, and you're screwing around with the camera!'"

Turns out, the new lead programmer knew exactly what he was doing. As Gamblin explains:
"Then I went to one of the meetings with the execs. It was another one of those, `Give us one good reason why we shouldn't can your project' meetings. Tom started up the game, and started flying around, trying to avoid the obvious issues (like shooting your own wings off, or the planes flying backward).

"One of the execs threw out a tough question, designed to show how far over budget we were. Tom put down the joystick, and hit the `cool cam' button. Then he turned around to answer the question. While he was answering the question, every eye in the room was on the screen as one amazing scene showed after another. I looked at the execs, and I swear, some of them were gaping. No one was listening to Tom as he answered the question, and when he finished, he picked up the joystick, and jumped back into the game. Every time they asked a question, he would switch to cool cam, and they would completely forget why they had asked.

"I swear, that camera saved the project."
(Check out the whole story HERE.)

And it worked. I don't know if the sales numbers ever made EAW worth the money invested in it, but was a very popular flight sim when released, won critical acclaim, and is still being enjoyed by die-hard fans today.

The moral of the story is something that marketing guys understand implicitly, but we engineering types often overlook as we desperately try to dig through tons of details:

Oftentimes presentation is every bit as important as the actual product itself.

After all, no matter what product you are making, it's ultimately for the benefit of people. So it makes sense that no matter what is actually going on under the hood, part of the function of your product is to make the right people (your users, customers, players, clients, management, whomever) happy, give them warm fuzzies. What exactly that entails is dependent on the audience.

In the case of European Air War, what management wanted was a very cool game to sell that customers would love. What the lead programmer did was present it to them so that they could see, clearly, that this was exactly what they had on their hands already. They, too, were having trouble digging through all those details and seeing the big picture.

And while I don't play it anymore, as a customer and fan of European Air War, I want to thank that lead programmer for realizing the importance of presentation. Oh, and I had fun watching the Cool Cam, too!


(Vaguely) related bits of poorly-presented fluff:
* Polish: Attention To Detail
* The Red-Line In Game Demos
* Red-Line Analysis of Mainstream Games
* Quality Ain't Easy


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Thursday, January 11, 2007
 
Apocalypse Cow Goes Alpha
Wow. With all this talk about serious games, games as art, games as a protected form of freedom of expression and a powerful medium for communication, I guess I feel a little embarassed to talk about my little game about evil (and explosive) cows.

I guess I'm "Alpha." The game is playable (I think) from start to finish, I have at least stand-in content for every game element, I got saving and loading games working earlier this week, and I'm continuing to get content in place. I'm working on some dialog elements and "punching up" the visuals for the first few levels to get it ready to show on the 18th at the upcoming Utah Indie Game Developer's meeting. Go me!

I probably won't actually give the game to external testers until after the 18th. At this point, everything but the core gameplay is open for discussion, tweaking, scrapping, and overhauling. If the core concept and gameplay sucks, I'm basically screwed.

One of the late additions I put in the game is the ability to upgrade your helicopter between levels. This means spending some of those precious points you've spent rescuing people, defending bases, accomplishing mission objectives, and of course turning lots of cows into hamburger.

Part of the trick to this was adding upgrades without increasing the complexity of the controls. Two of the upgrades were completely new abilities - the "Smart Bomb" (for lack of a better term - it is an attack that damages everything within a certain radius), and a force field which, like the Tempest's special ability in Void War, renders the player completely invulnerable for a short period of time. I decided to make the forcefield fire off automatically if you have any left whenever you get hit. So it automatically protects you from taking at least one hit. They are a bit more expensive than just incrementing your armor levels, but they can be really useful in many of the later levels where you are flying through curtains of flak, gunshots, and guided missiles.

Hmmm... I guess I was probably inspired to do this by my irritation at getting my butt kicked too much by my own game.

Unfortunately, the day job has gotten to be in crunch mode (as I expected), so progress has been SLOW. On the plus side, I'm heading up programming on a new, non-indie console game at work, and having a blast! I wish I could say more, but I can neither say more nor even hint as to when I will be able to say more. Except that it'll rock!

Well, that's it for now. Have fun!

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007
 
Is Vista Going To Destroy Indie Gaming?
Alex St. John, one-time game evangelist for Microsoft and program director for DirectX, has written a scathing commentary on the new Windows Vista and how it may cripple independent games.

As a now indie game publisher himself, he's in a particularly interesting position. As he states,
"It’s perhaps ironic that I run my own online game publishing company now and have become a dependent customer of the platform and technologies I once worked to create. Some of you might call it `justice' -- if it is, I wish it for my successors working on Vista."
The problems he outlines with getting games to run in Vista include:

* Mandatory and inescapable "Limited User Accounts" (LUAs) make installing a piece of software from the Internet require jumping through many hoops, and clicking through several security warnings. This is likely to scare off (or at least annoy) many users who would otherwise become customers.

* The ontrusive security measures extend to the new, tightly integrated "Game Explorer," which users will come to expect (by design) to find their games. If your game doesn't register itself with the Game Explorer, it will be a second-class citizen, and may confuse users who won't be able to find it where it is "supposed" to be.

* If your indie game DOES register with the Game Explorer, your indie game may be in an even worse state. Without an ESRB rating, the game registering "properly" as a game will be blocked by the parental controls. To top it off, Vista will actually offer to DELETE the link to the game if you try to run it from anywhere on the system other than within the Game Explorer.

While they complained and submitted bug reports over the last two years about how these "features" would affect small game developers and publishers, Microsoft continued forward without changing stride. Alex St. John speculates that there may have been an ulterior motive, and Microsoft was preemptively making a move to crush the competition:
"Since the Game Explorer is also inexplicably hard coded into Vista and `secured' from any modification, nobody can presumably fix its problems or otherwise augment it other than Microsoft. Considering the effort Microsoft must have invested in making the Game Explorer this onerous and immutable, it seems plausible that it was intended as a place holder for a subsequent game service offering from Microsoft."
I guess we'll soon find out how badly this is going to torpedo indie game efforts. It definitely sounds like it's going to make our job that much harder, as we already have a difficult job of trying to educate users on how to navigate the fairly ugly process of downloading, installing, and running downloadable games. Microsoft has just made things easier for their "approved" partners and even more difficult for those of us not rich enough to be invited to the party, I guess.

Considering how supportive Microsoft has been for indies with the XBox 360, I think this further illustrates how Microsoft is less of a monolithic beast and more of a collection of very different business units.

Be sure and read the entire article HERE.


(Vaguely) related mumblings and grumblings:
* Dependent, Independent, and Indie
* Spector Warns Indies To "Forget It!"
* Wildest Birthday Party Ever!
* Indies Squeezed Out of XBLA?

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Games As Art: Media's Double Standard
In San Francisco last month, a student magazine was banned from circulation by an art institute, allegedly over a story involving videogames. In the story, three African-American men address each other in vulgar street slang and then go on a spree of rape and murder. At the story's end, the three men are revealed to be videogame characters played by three white middle-class boys. It's a statement against the use of racial stereotypes in videogames. Without having read the story, it sounds to me like something that needs to be addressed.

The student's teacher, Robert Ovetz, was fired when he protested the book's removal. According to him, the library wasn't even allowed a copy for its archives. (Note: The school has now, a month later, relented).

Curiously enough, California State Senator Leland Yee has jumped to the defense of the teacher and the publication. He sponsored legislation last year that criminalized censorship of college media last year. But in 2005, he also sponsored legislation that essentially censored videogames, which was struck down last year as a violation of Constitutional rights.

Then we've got the Slamdance flap. Now, my opinion of the game in question is not very high. And I'm apparently not alone in my opinion. But even those who dislike the game and feel it's a pretty poor representative of gaming OR art have taken exception to its removal. Initially, I thought that it was a result of pressure from sponsors, and it seemed like an act of survival for the festival. But with Slamdance's president claiming its removal was on moral grounds, and not a result of sponsor pressure (I still don't believe that), this is setting a dangerous precedent.

As expressed by N'Gai Croal:
'It's almost impossible to imagine that a festival bold enough to show movies like "Neo Ned" (a fictional romance between a neo-Nazi and a black woman who believes that she's Adolf Hitler reincarnated), or "Forgiving Dr. Mengele" (a documentary about a Auschwitz survivor's decision to forgive her former oppressors) would have knuckled under so easily if the object of its backers' ire was not a game, but rather a film like Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" or Gus Van Sant's "Elephant."...

'This is a recipe for the continued infantilizing of a young medium whose potential, for all of the compelling works already released, still remains largely untapped.'
In other words, the message from Slamdance is that games are not as deserving of serious artistic consideration as other media (specifically, film).

We now have a total of six games that have withdrawn themselves from the competition in protest (and one SPONSOR, which is even more interesting). Together with SCMRPG, this represents half the finalists originally chosen for the competition. This is a hard decision for many of them, as it's a chance for exposure, publicity, and critical acclaim that very few indie games ever receive. They aren't doing it because they think Super Columbine Massacre RPG is a good game - several have the same general opinion as I do, that the game is of poor quality.

They have sacrificed this opportunity on the principle that computer gaming is a an actual art form, a medium of expression and communication just as important and with as much potential as any other, and should be treated as such. The courts in the U.S. have recognized this so far in the last year. But it's slow being recognized as such by journalists, politicians, the general public... and the very people who are out there who are leading the fight to promote freedom of expression in other media.

Including Slamdance.

The double standard is no surprise, and it accompanies the creation or increasing popularity of any new medium. And I wouldn't really expect John Q. Public to start taking any new medium seriously until it has gotten around to proving itself in some way. However, I would expect the crusaders trying to protect or promote artistic expression and freedom of speech to be a few steps ahead of Mr. Public. Instead, Senator Yee and Mr. Baxter have reinforced the double standard, showing clearly greater respect towards older media.

In an interview at NextGeneration.com, Danny Ledonne (author of Super Columbine Massacre RPG) said, "Of course there is a double standard. This is all-too obvious. Michael Moore wins Oscars for his Columbine film. Gus Van Sant wins the Palm d'Orre at Cannes for his Columbine film. Danny Ledonne's videogame on the very same topic is kicked out of Slamdance. All three have critical content that looks at the possible causes for the shooting. One of them happens to have 16-bit graphics and a modicum of interactivity. One of them is called a 'videogame.' So there you go. "

John Brownlee of Wired.com today posted an interesting thought experiment, which he's wrapping his head around these issues in preparation for a more in-depth article. He asks a series of questions taking the negative view: IF games are not as valid a form of expression as other media, what makes it different? Since interactive entertainment includes all of the features of film, music, and the written word (after all, you can include movies, music, and text in games), then it MUST be the interactivity that sets it apart (a view espoused by famed movie reviewer Roger Ebert). This is also the feature that many politicians, lawyers, and journalists use to justify why games are more dangerous than other media.

Brownlee's next question is this: "If interactivity is what makes games less deserving of the right to be a medium of free artistic expression than other mediums, what are the repercussions for the future of art, which — with the evolution of cheap technology — continues to become more interactive in nearly all of its forms?"

Where do you draw the line? I've played a handful of videogames in the past which have had less interactivity than some major motion picture DVDs. Do movies on DVD lose their status as art, or do games with few interactive options magically become art?

I think the conclusion is obvious. If anything, the artistic potential of games is so broad that we have had a very difficult time harnessing it. The silver lining of all of this is that the debate may get some real attention. And maybe --- just maybe --- we may see this double standard start to dissapear.

In the meantime, I think Slamdance is going to have to consider carefully its position on games before deciding whether or not it will include the "Guerilla Game Developer" competition in future years.

Also, following indie games have withdrawn from the competition in protest, and I'd like to encourage folks to take a look at them and spread the word. They gave up a rare opportunity to take a stand. Not all are currently available, but at least some of the judges (many of whom are also indie developers) have found them worthy by way of their innovation or artistic merits:

* Braid
* flOw
* Everyday Shooter
* Toblo
* Once Upon a Time.
* Book And Volume


(Vaguely) related grousing:
* Do Games Matter?
* More Weigh-Ins On Super Columbine Massacre RPG
* Super Columbine Massacre RPG Too Hot For Slamdance
* Congressman Matheson Defends Anti-Videogame Bill


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Tuesday, January 09, 2007
 
Overheard Near A Galaga Machine...
A couple of weeks ago, my family went to go see "A Night At The Museum" at a movie theater. I was surprised to see a couple of classic arcade machines in the theater. One - currently being played - was a combination Ms. Pac Man / Galaga machine. A great combination, as I think those two were perhaps the best arcade games of all time.

A woman was playing Galaga, flanked by her husband and young daughter (I'm guessing the daughter was around eight years old). My own children decided (wisely, I think) to visit the restroom before settling in to watch the movie, so I ended up hovering a polite distance away from the arcade machine, watching as this woman racked up a pretty decent score.

She had over 100,000 points, and was still on her first ship. When she finally lost a life, it was her daughter's turn to start playing in a two-player game. Her mother bent over to explain the controls, and suggested the strategy to "keep shooting, always keep shooting," to the young girl.

I just thought that was exceptionally cool. First off, it was awesome to see an arcade game from my youth cross generations like that (sorta like seeing my daughter actually enjoying "Adventure" on the Atari 2600). And secondly, this little girl's MOM was a heck of a lot better than me at Galaga. I'm usually lucky to break 80,000 before losing my last ship. You didn't see many girls in the arcade back in the day, but I imagine she was one of them.

Her husband just kinda watched with barely disguised disinterest. Probably not a gamer. Ah, well.

Just keep shooting. Always keep shooting.

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Monday, January 08, 2007
 
Another Game For The "Try To Avoid" List
The Rabid Paladin, rarely one to shy away from experimenting with lesser-known games OR heaping criticism upon the deserving, has an amusing post about a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game I hadn't heard of that apparently he wishes he'd never heard of, either. He calls it the buggiest piece of software ever, but I wonder how it compares to, say, Trespasser. Well, there's no way I'm gonna waste time trying to find out, so perhaps we'll never know.

(Vaguely) related venting:
* Worst Game Ever
* Why Battlefield 2 Sucks
* How to FUBAR an MMO Launch

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Sunday, January 07, 2007
 
More Weigh-Ins On Super Columbine Massacre RPG:
More Super Columbine Massacre RPG fallout:

Greg Costikyan offers a rather different opinion from mine on the game. I disagree with him on a few points, but I respect his opinion. His contention is that SCMRPG is art, and I can agree with him there... just as I'd say the drawings of my 12-year-old daughter are art. Maybe not (yet) good art, but art. I feel that a lot of the value that he attributes to the game are elements that he brought with him, and are not inherent with the game itself.

Of course, that's the value of any kind of art --- it can act as a mirror to reflect one's own soul. But I'm also reminded of an old "Doctor Who" episode in which the TARDIS was left in an art gallery (thanks to Milieu.Zero for the YouTube link). In a cameo, John Cleese and a woman are commenting on the incredible artistic expression of the old police box, when the Doctor (and party) rushes into it and it vanishes. Cleese and the woman are unphased, and after a few moments the woman states, "Exquisite! Absolutely exquisite!"

It's kind of an old joke about art, that sometimes what we see and value are really just things we ourselves attribute to the work. Authors interviewed and confronted with such things often just shrug and admit they didn't consciously put this in there, but they also admit that such things may have been subconsciously part of their story. Author Stephen King only realized after his book was published that it was really his own cry for help, a metaphor for his drug addiction.

But where Costikyan sees the fantasy elements as something of a critique on game conventions, I see it as a lack of focus that weakens the proclaimed message of the game. And the Hell levels pretty much kick the legs out of any credability the game had. Even Costikyan agrees that if there are criticisms to be leveled at the game, this portion is the most worthy. My contention is simply that the game is a poor representative of how a "serious" game dealing with a controversial issue such as this should be done.

I'm not saying that Danny Ledonne shouldn't have tried (again, assuming his professed goal was truly his intent from the beginning). Again, I try and be supportive of indie gamemakers, especially those attempting to tackle more "grown up" subjects. But I think it was too tricky of a beast to handle for a first-time effort. It was just poorly done. It's really not the game I'd like to see put on a pedestal and granted the spotlight as a demonstration of how "serious" games can address sensitive topics.

Some other interesting developments and opinions have come up in the last 48 hours or so:

Ian Bogost and N'gai Croal (who hasn't played the game) have weighed in with opinion that the Slamdance opinion was cowardice, and the unwillingness of president Peter Baxter to accept games as a medium for anything more than "kid's stuff." In Bogost's opinion,
"In short, Baxter pulled the game because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't. He pulled the game because he didn't want difficult, yet groundbreaking videogame-based expression to get in the way of his film festival. Baxter's actions reveal that videogames, in his mind, simply do not deserve the experimental, independent venue he provides for film."
This may be true. Bogost is a founding partner of Pursuasive Games, the guys that brought us the "serious parody" game, Airport Security. He's been a defender of Super Columbine Massacre RPG for a while, and a fierce contender that "interactive entertainment" can be a powerful medium of not just entertainment, but also of the communication of ideas.

I feel the same way.

I just feel that Slamdance backed the wrong horse in their exuberance to stir up some controversy. I'm not very comfortable with it being the poster child for how games can deal with important social issues.

UPDATE:
The game Braid was removed in protest to Slamdance's decision to drop SCMRPG. The creator, Jonathan Blow, admitted that while he personally did not like SCMRPG either, and while he supports the sponsor's decisions to not fund something they find morally reprehensible, he is protesting out of principle. As he writes:
"If left unchallenged, the expulsion of the Columbine game sets a precedent in the wrong direction. Dropping Braid out of the competition, while not a huge act, is the strongest protest I have the power to make."
Way to go, Jonathan!


(Vaguely) Related Weeping, Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth:
* Super Columbine Massacre RPG Too Hot For Slamdance
* Do Games Matter?
* Indie Game To Get Blamed For Shooting Spree
* Why Are There So Many Violent Videogames?

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Saturday, January 06, 2007
 
Super Columbine Massacre RPG Too Hot For Slamdance
Kotaku is reporting that for the first time in its thirteen-year history, SlamDance (the controversial, irreverant counterpoint to the Sundance Indie Film Festival) is actually PULLING a finalist from its competition because it is too controversial. (The follow-up article is here.)

The culprit? Super Columbine Massacre RPG. The reported favorite game of gunman Kimveer Gill, who went on a shooting spree in Montreal last year. Reportedly, the game's designer didn't pursue the Slamdance competition - it was Slamdance coordinators themselves who requested that he submit his game. It sounds like the game's removal was a purely financial decision. Two of the festival's financial backers had pulled support because of the inclusion of this indie game among the finalists. Removing the game sounds like an obvious move to win back their support. Of course, the official claim is that it was on moral grounds. Slamdance president Peter Baxter claims, "There are moral obligations to consider here with this particular game in addition to the impact it could have on the Slamdance organization and its community"

So where do I stand on this?

I don't blame Slamdance for removing the game. You gotta do what you gotta do, sometimes, to survive. But I *will* say the blame is squarely on their shoulders for other reasons. Read more and I'll explain why.

About The Game
As far as Super Columbine Massacre RPG --- well. A few months ago I said I had no interest in playing it (which was true), and had no intentions to do so. But I was being asked by people about my opinion on the game, and I didn't want to offer one until I tried it for myself. So I downloaded it and tried it out for myself.

Danny Ledonne states that he intended the game to provoke thought and discussion, and to improve understanding of the event and what led Harris and Klebold to do the unthinkable. "The question at the center of the storm was an elusive one: `why did they do it?'... The lingering question—that grand burning query so many have tried to answer—is one I believe this game allows us to at least access in a more honest way," he states. "At the end of the day, the understanding of the Columbine school shooting is deepened and redefined. That is the real object of the game."

Great goals, and I applaud them if that was his true intention. Execution-wise... well. Lessee:

The students and teachers fight back, often with magical spells. Damage taken by the killers in these "fights" can be healed with hamburgers and hot dogs that are "dropped" by enemy students, which act as healing potions. Oh, and they gain levels through rapid succession of endless slaughter through the classrooms (potentially racking up a body count far in excess of the real event, as the police never show up until you are ready to end that phase of the game, and everyone in the school just waits around to fight you). I finally quit the game after the "aftermath montage" of photos and quotes from the real world... when the two boys are transported to HELL, where they get to fight a bunch of demons and zombies, with graphics and music lifted right out of the game "Doom." The boys even make a comment about how cool it is, and that it is just like their favorite videogame.

Uh-huh. Yeah. And this is supposed to be a thought-provoking and "honest" exploration into the minds of Klebold and Harris HOW, exactly? Maybe if I'd kept playing, I might have actually found a real answer to THAT question, but by that time I was bored and disgusted. Perhaps Ledonne was attempting to show that the boys lived in a fantasy world, and this was how they saw things and imagined what their demise would be like. But it really just comes off as a very amateurish mishmash of history, fantasy, and stuff pulled out of the air or thrown in because it was an RPG convention (you gotta face magic-users who can heal the enemies, right?). Playing it was about like sitting through a first-time writer's "soul-baring" reading of their Star Trek fanfic. You pray you can come up with a plausible imaginary emergency as an excuse to leave the room before too many others beat you to the door.

So as a game, it's crap. As an accurate depiction of the events at Columbine High School that day, it's pretty far from its mark. If I was to play the game without knowing anything about it, I'd assume it was a product of a high-school student's dark fantasy to relive the massacre as the killers. And as such, I'd say that while it was horrible, it was probably a healthier outlet than some other means of living out those fantasies. But I wouldn't recognize it as a tool for promoting discussion and understanding.

Ledonne claims that it has promoted a good deal of discussion on his website, so maybe the game actually succeeded at its stated goal. Maybe you don't need to hit very close for it to be "good enough." And to Ledonne's credit, he actually finished the game, and it's better than what I've seen from many first-time game developers. And, hey, it was even better than Trespasser!

So How Did It Become A Finalist?
I don't think Super Columbine Massacre was made a finalist on the merits of the game itself. I think it was pursued by Slamdance organizers, and selected as a finalist, purely for the sake of sensationalism and controversy. I don't know what games were submitted, but there were a lot of GREAT (and even thought-provoking) indie games that came out this year that would have been far worthier of the spotlight.

What I think happened was it was made a finalist not because it was good, but for the sheer sake of the fact that it was "edgy" and "controversial." It was a gratuitous bit of "naughtiness" to generate a stir. It would make publicity. It'd give them more of a "bad boy" image.

And it turned out to be too much for them.

Unfortunately, now we have a precedent set. If someone actually creates a GOOD game dealing with a uncomfortable / difficult theme, it will probably not be accepted because of the threat to pulled funding. And this may end up applying to film, as well.

Is it time to get an alternative-alternative indie festival? Probably not. But it's definitely a time for Slamdance to hunker down and figure out exactly what they are offering and why, and make sure their sponsors (and the public) understand this.

(Vaguely) related thought-jumbles for your descrambling:
* Indie Game to Get Blamed for Shooting Spree
* Airport Security Parody Game
* Why Are There So Many Violent Videogames?
* Do Games Matter?


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Friday, January 05, 2007
 
Who Are The Best Game Villains?
After a discussion at work about how cool a villain Bestor was in the Babylon 5 series, and why, I got to thinking: Who are the best villains in video / computer games? I've written about what I feel makes a "good" villain... not necessarily a recipe for making one, but a few elements that seem common in the "best" villains in movies and literature.

Too often in games the villain is just a vaguely-referred-to "Foozle" (was it Scorpia who came up with that term?) who appears as an uber-powerful level boss at the end of the game. How many games actually give the "big bad" a real presence and character? How many game villains really help define who the hero is? Do any actually come close? I'm talking original IP here... sure, Darth Vader, The Joker, and Doc Oc may be cool in videogames, but their coolness may just be reflected light.

Here are the ones that come to mind from games I've played:

The Guardian (Ultima Series, particularly Ultima 7)
You come back to Britannia to discover a new religion sweeping the world: The Fellowship, a somewhat humanist religion that has somehow "improved" upon the virtues of Avatarhood. At the highest levels, however, they claim the presence of a "guardian" who will come and directly guide and influence them. This is actually one being, The Guardian, an extradimensional being who has used his minions to form this church to assist him in entering and enslaving the world. Aside from dominating worlds, his second greatest goal seems to be to taunt, demean, and prove himself superior to the hero, the Avatar.

Some of his nastiest machinations include manipulating the hero to get at his own enemies and threats. Well before the first game featuring the Guardian was complete, I was really hating this guy.

Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)
He was the main antagonist of what was (I believe) the best-selling RPG of all time, so it's not surprising he'd make the list. A mysterious silver-haired pretty-boy driven insane by his discovery of the alien genes fused into his own before his birth, he has the power to destroy the world. More importantly, he has the power to mind-control the hero (Cloud) to make him do his bidding, and of course, stabbed romantic-interest and last-hope-for-the-world Aeris (Aerith) through the heart with his sword while she was meditating / praying. What's not to love and hate?

And he had really dang cool theme music.

More importantly, though, the game was nearly as much about Sephiroth as it was about the heroes and their story. Throughout Final Fantasy 7, you find yourself learning Sephiroth's history and goals as your pursue him. You encounter him several times, including a lengthy playable flashback sequence. You confront him directly several times, and even manage to defeat him at least once prior to the final battle. But, like the heroes, he keeps leveling up and becoming more powerful. And - at least at the beginning of the game - he represents the hero's own personal ideal for himself. As much as he hates Sephiroth, he also wants to be (and, until the truth is laid bare, pretends to be) just as cool, competent, confident, and in-control as his soon-to-be nemesis.

Admiral Tolwyn (Wing Commander IV)
Played by Malcom McDowell in Wing Commander III and IV, Admiral Tolwyn was many times a thorn in the hero's side. But in previous games, he had been only a foil, not really an enemy. A superior officer with a distrust of the brash young fighter pilot (later named "Christopher Blair", after the codename "Blue Hair" in the first two Wing Commander games, and played by Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill). Though his personal pride sometimes cripples his own efforts, he's a staunch defender of the human race.

In Wing Commander IV, however, he finds himself lost without a war to fight. He sees the human race sink into the chaos of transition following a decades-long war, and believes that it is becoming incapable of defending itself should another alien enemy present itself. He takes matters into his own hands by launching a two-pronged secret agenda to whip the human race into shape.

First, he provokes a civil war while pretending to be a diplomat attempting to secure the peace. Secondly, he has developed a genetically-engineered bioweapon designed to give evolution a hand - the plague which kills only those deemed "genetically deficient", culling the weak from humanity's herd.

The game starts with the hero working with the Admiral to "defend" the Confederation from attacking Border World forces, unwittingly (in some cases) helping provoke a full-fledged war. As bits of the truth begin coming to light, members of the Confederacy forces begin defecting to the Border Worlds, and the hero has two chances to join them. The game ends with Christopher Blair, now branded an Outlaw at home, must sneak into an assembly meeting and expose the Admiral by providing appropriate evidence in a courtoom-drama-like scene.

The Undead Pirate LeChuck (Monkey Island)
Before there was the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies, there was Monkey Island. And the undead pirate, LeChuck, who's thirst for pillage and violence was matched only by his love (lust) for the beautiful Elaine Morley --- uncoincidentally, also the Guybrush Threepwood's (the hero, of course) romantic interest. After being hosed down and destroyed once with magical root beer in the first game, LeChuck's greatest goal becomes revenge on Threepwood.

LeChuck appears regularly throughout all of the games (at least the ones I played), regularly ruining Guybrush's day. The second game, in fact, ends with his victory over Guybrush, as he casts a spell on Guybrush making him believe that they are both children and that LeChuck is actually Guybrush's long-lost brother, Chucky. LeChuck is evil and destructive, but also a funny character who is enjoyable to watch in his antics. He's Guybrush's opposite in most ways - he's evil and supremely competent, whereas Guybrush is bumbling but occasionally clever and often very lucky. LeChuck is constantly fuming over how he, the scourge of the seas, can keep getting defeated by such a loser.

Oh, yeah. And he also had really cool theme music.

* * *

So there are my picks for the best "bad guys" in gaming. How about some more? What are YOUR picks for best bad guys in videogames?


(Vaguely) Related Legible Mumblings:
* Game Moments #4: Daggerfall
* Game Moments #6: Ultima 7
* Building the Perfect Villain
* Superhero Movies
* Bad Game Endings


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Thursday, January 04, 2007
 
You Don't Know Jack Online
I was a big fan of the "You Don't Know Jack" series in the late 90's. I hadn't really heard of it until one GDC (in 1998?) where it was up for (and won) a game-of-the-year award. I remember the acceptance speech one of the Jellyvision guys gave when receiving the award. It went something like, "Let's hear it for MORE non-violent games full of sexual innuendo!"

He got cheers and laughs.

I got the game.

Anyway, they've apparently taken the game online with a new quiz regularly (daily?). It's still in beta, and while it's not quite as fun as the original multiplayer party game, it's still clever, funny, and fun. The daily "Dis or Dat" gives you seven questions (on a time limit) - basically to determine whether a strange-sounding pop-culture name belongs in one category or another. For example, a quiz last month had you listen to a bunch of names and determine if they were a basketball team, or a food made with animal testicles. Yeah, it's that weird.

Try it out here: You Don't Know Jack Online.


Hat tip to JayIsGames for alerting me to what will no doubt be a regular visit.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
 
Should I Become An Indie Game Developer?
"Should I Become an indie game developer?" I see this question a lot, posted on forums, sent to me in emails, and so forth. This is one of those questions for which the only answer can be found within the asker's own head, like, "Should I start my own business?", "Should I finish my degree?", or "Should I ask ______ to marry me?"

I think most people who ask this question (or one like it) are really asking, "Will I be successful at it, and how painful will it be?"

Well... going by historical precedent, the answers are, "No, and as painful as you want to make it."

Or as Steve Taylor of Ninjabee (developers of Outpost Kaloki, and now my day-job) once put it after getting his first royalty check from a major casual games portal:
"I now have an opinion on how to properly get involved in the downloadable games market:

Don't."
What?!? Why Won't I Succeed?
The forums of game development sites like GarageGames.com, rpgdx.net, and gamedev.net are filled with excited posters filled with great ideas and desires, enthusiastically reciting the reasons their upcoming game will be the best thing since sliced bread. Something like 95% of these posters dissapear after a few more excited posts about their progress (and often, some calls for help).

Of the remainder, many of these end up doing poorly as a commercial release. Small hobbyist games often end up selling less than 100 copies during their entire lifetime (many sell fewer than a dozen). More professional "casual" games will often cost around $20k - $50k to produce these days (figure 3 guys working 2-4 months). Yet Brian Fisher of ArcadeTown.com estimates that around 70% of these professionally-produced casual games end up making less than $10,000 across all of their distribution options (multiple portals, perhaps the developer's own website, and retail store releases) and the entire lifetime of the game. It doesn't take a math genius to realize that's a losing proposition. Of the 30% or so that do better than that, the majority are making somewhere around break-even.

Phil Steinmeyer posted a similar view a few months ago. A long-time "core" game developer now gone indie doing casual games, Phil has earned his understanding of the biz through personal experience.

What Is Your Threshold of Pain?
I've known many aspiring indie game developers who decided to "burn their ships," quit their day job and jump into full-time indie status. Many don't make it, and exhaust themselves and their savings trying. They invest whole-heartedly in the classes provided by the School of Hard Knocks.

Even among the more cautious developers, the amount of effort that has to go into even a small, simple game is usually pretty significant. It is not a trivial medium to work with. Even a very simple game is going to require an investment of hundreds of hours to make it remotely commercial-quality.

It's a crapload of work. And it's not all fun. In fact, much of it isn't. It's hours spent debugging code, making proposals that never pan out, figuring out why X doesn't have Y done yet when someone else is depending on it, creating code or content that gets cut from the final game, dealing with playtest comments that make you feel like the entire game is broken and something horribly less than fun, polishing, fixing, polishing, signing contracts, polishing, trying to make a candidate release at 4:00 in the morning and finding out that one asset was left out, and polishing.

So In Summary...
Take a look at some of the sales numbers over at GameProducer.net. Not just the top-selling ones, but also the ones that sell only a few dozen or a few hundred copies.

Indie or mainstream, computer and video games are a saturated enough market now that it's a stupidly hard way to make money. It's a lot of work, and lousy odds. It's not worth it. It's like the lottery - a tax on the mathematically challenged. You'll work very hard and waste a big chunk of your life creating something that is going to only lose you money.

Come to think of it, I'd have made more money working as a fry chef at Burger King than the hours I put into Void War.

That's it, the pure mathematical simplicity of it.

And that's all I have to say about that.



There's nothing more to see here.





The question is all answered. I'm just hanging out, here. See ya!





The Real Answer
Are you still with me? Okay. Now that we've scared away the wusses, here's the real answer. If you are still reading this, you already have your answer. You've probably already made up your mind, but you are looking for justification.

In college, a friend of mine started up a Game Development club. This was shortly before I graduated, so I was only able to attend a few sessions before I found myself not only out of school, but working in the game industry. But at the club, we talked about game programming, had little mini-lectures on the latest and greatest graphics or AI trick, and shared what little tidbits we had about the games business. There were about three of us who were pretty hardcore (and we were all working on demos in our spare time), but everyone there seemed excited and talked about the possibility of getting a job in the videogame industry on graduation.

A couple of years later, SingleTrac was hiring, and they tapped me to try and hunt down some of my college contacts to bring in for interviews. I went through my old phone directory and called a bunch of the guys who were in that game development club. Here was their chance for the dream job!

Much to my surprise, most weren't interested. Sure, they all would love to be involved in game development, get their name in credits, and talk game design. But the money wasn't so great, and it was a lot of really hard work, and so it just wasn't worth it to them. Except the three hardcore members - and mysteriously, we were already working in the videogame industry.

It felt to me that those who really wanted it were already making it happen, and those who were content to wait for Opportunity to knock just let it knock until it went away. Not that they were wrong or lazy to do so --- I know several of them were hard workers in jobs they really enjoyed. It's just that they had their priorities elsewhere. Creating games for a living was cool and something they wouldn't MIND doing, but it wasn't a passion.

And that made all the difference.

It's Not About Beating The Odds
Steve Pavlina recently wrote an article entitled, "What Are the Odds of Becoming a Black Belt?" In fact, he even mentions the sample question, "What are my odds of succeeding as an indie game developer?" During his years as a successful indie, I've no doubt he was asked that many times. The article goes into great length, but the upshot is that success at these kinds of things is a matter of personal choice and commitment, not luck.

Jeff Tunnell, founder of Dynamix and GarageGames, is fond of providing the advice to aspiring indie developers: "Don't quit your day job." Last year he expounded on this a little bit in his article on "Five Foundational Steps to Surviving As A Game Developer." His final step is persistance... to keep working at it. He says, "Every game brings you more opportunity, your company brand grows, your niche audience grows. Then, suddenly, you are making enough money that you are doing this full time. It IS your day job, and nobody can take it away from you."

Steve Taylor, the guy who said the best way to get involved in the downloadable games market was "don't," talked to me about his emphasis on downloadable games when he interviewed me to come work for him at NinjaBee. He told me he'd be perfectly happy spending the rest of his career creating small, downloadable games. Why the change in heart from late 2004? Well, in spite of his frustrations, he stuck with it. New opportunities arose, and he took advantage of them... principally related to the opportunity to do downloadable console games for the XBox 360.

And stories abound of more "exceptions." Cliff Harris (Positech Games), Amanda Fitch (Amaranth), Andy Shatz (Pocketwatch Games), and a host of successful casual game developers. In a few cases, like Andy's, they had reasonable win right off the bat (enough for Andy to be looking for full-time employees now, though he also had previous industry experience). But in many of the cases, it took time and multiple titles.

Desire, Commitment, and Persistence
The common thread with all these stories is that they have desire to do it anyway in spire of the odds, a real commitment to making it work, and the persistence to keep hacking away at it. To them, the absence of immediate success isn't failure. And except for Steve Pavlina (who is now entirely out of the games business), they are still at it. Even what other people might call "success" is just part of the process. It's just one more milestone. Last I heard, Amanda's still working the day job and making games in her spare time.

In spite of my cautions to the contrary, I'm constantly encouraging people to go indie. If you are passionate about games, and have the creative bug to make them, there's nothing to stop you. Take it up as a hobby to begin with. Expect to take some time to learn the ropes. Don't expect to turn out the next "Doom" in your basement in four months. Sure, it could happen, but don't pin your hopes on it.

Like they say, it's the journey, not the destination.

Now, my indie game company isn't really a major success by most standards. It's a side business, and it is making extremely modest profits: not enough to live on, but enough to allow me to buy some tools, content packs, and ... yeah - GAMES! - on a regular basis. I've seen it grow substantially in the last year, which has been a major thrill ride (up from "losing money each month" last January). So in some ways, I guess I'm still paying my dues, but in others I feel pretty successful (and climbing!)

Starting a business, creating something of value to others (even if it's "only" entertainment), having players call you up asking you how they get past the harpies - it's addictive. It's awesome. I can't say I love every minute of it, and some days I wonder if I have the ability to stick with it with all of the other priorities in my life. But I can't imagine giving it up! I can't even imagine "retiring" one day. I imagine I'll still be cranking out games on my home computer (with the USB holodeck or something).


If THAT is the sort of thing that would make it worthwhile to you, and if are willing and able to weather the really horribly boring / painful parts, then the answer to the question is: Absolutely. What are you waiting for?


(Vaguely) related mindless wordage:
* How Do I Get Past The Harpies?
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind
* How To Avoid Making Money Making Indie Games
* Is $42,000 All You Can Make With Indie Games?
* Living the Dream

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007
 
RPG Preview: Eschalon Book 1
There's a very interesting interview over at WithinGames with Thomas Riegsecker, the lead developer for the indie RPG, Eschalon: Book 1.

A few of the things he says really warms my heart, and gets me excited for this upcoming indie CRPG. Particularly these comments about how Eschalon will be "Old School":
" 'Old school' means focusing more on gameplay and less on graphics. It means focusing more on the story and less on power leveling. It means letting the player figure things out for themselves instead of altering the game to fit their play style. And in some ways, it actually means a simpler form of gameplay. That my sound contractive to what I was just talking about, but for those of you who have actually played these older games, you know what I mean."
Although he almost contradicts himself at one point. Speaking on the health of the "independent gaming scene", he states:
"I think the scene is stronger than ever. With digital distribution via the internet, more studios are putting out some very unique products that would never be picked up for retail distribution... But overall the indie scene is where real innovation is coming from; it`s definitely not coming from the big studios."
But then he states that with Eschalon: Book 1:
"Rather than reinvent the genre, we are attempting to replicate the feel of a classic RPG. Essentially, what we are trying to do is the equivalent of restoring a vintage car rather than design a shiny new vehicle from the ground up. This effort may not appeal to every gamer, the same way that vintage cars don`t appeal to all automobile enthusiasts."
So... I guess the indie scene is where innovation is taking place, but they aren't participating?

Anyway - Eschalon: Book I is looking to be an old-school, turn-based, story-heavy RPG that will hopefully find its way to release sometime this year. And as the name implies, they are already planning the sequel(s). While I loved older RPGs, I am a little bit wary. After all, they often weren't the easiest to get into and enjoy. But this really does sound interesting. I'm always afraid of getting my hopes up, but this is definitely a game I'm going to be keeping my eye on.

Go check out the interview here:
Interview about Eschalon: Book 1

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Monday, January 01, 2007
 
Goals for 2007
Alrighty, after yesterday's look back, it's time to look forward.

Last year (around the end of January), there wasn't much happening on the blog, and I set a goal to post more frequently - at least once every other day. I exceeded that by March, and while I wish I would be magically gifted with the talent to create more posts of actual ... you know, USEFUL, QUALITY information, at least I have the quantity part down.

So I'm setting some goals for this site (both the blog and RampantGames.com), and I could use some help / feedback.

Right now, the big goals that I have in mind are:

* Revamp of RampantGames.com to make it easier to categorize and add new games, as well as (hopefully) easier to navigate.

* As suggested above, add some new games. RampantGames.com will stay focused on some of the top games, especially RPG / Adventure / Strategy titles. But there will probably be a couple of killer action games finding their way onto the site very soon (including Apocalypse Cow).

* Finish Apocalypse Cow. Top Priority.

* Get the RPG up to alpha before the end of the year. I intend to be ready to announce something more specific this summer.

* Add more content that you care about. The trick is... I need to know what that content really is. What are your favorite kinds of articles here? What would you like to see that I have not done? Is there anything you really don't like? Let me know!


So, do you have any suggestions for Rampant Games to make the website better and a more useful resource?

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