Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Wednesday, February 28, 2007
 
What Kind of Entrepreneur Are You?
Wow, who'da thunk you'd see silly surveys on the Internet. I've never seen one of those before :) But this one was sorta fun. For those of you running your own business:

WHAT KIND OF ENTREPRENEUR ARE YOU?

I still don't really think of myself as an entrepreneur.... I'm more of a guys who makes and sells videogames. I'm not even sure I'm actually spelling "entrepreneur" correctly. But my result was:

Your Entrepreneur Type:

The Artisan

You are a practical, hard working, honest individual who believes anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Entrepreneurial strengths: Entrepreneurial weaknesses:
What's pretty interesting (to me) is that when I first started RampantGames.com, I think I'd have gotten a completely different type. Probably "The Geek." Not that this is all that accurate of a test or anything. But I've noticed - with some amusement and even astonishment - how my attitudes and focus has changed so much over the last three years. Topics that bored me to tears when I was in my 20s now fascinate me. Things like personal productivity, team management, marketing, and so forth.

But I still love making - and playing - games. And it's still all about making something cool. I don't expect that to change.

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Twenty Hours to Level Up
I am trying something new.

Based upon my success (such as it was) creating an RPG from scratch in 40 hours, I'm going to be working on 20 hour iterations on Apocalypse Cow. While the 20 hours aren't going to be necessarily consecutive, the idea is to focus my time the same way I was able to focus it on that micro-project.

Every 20 hours, Apocalypse Cow is going to level up.

The idea is this: I'm going to start working in 20 (working) hour iterations. That's (theoretically) a week for a part-time indie like me. I am going to shoot for having a "release" for Apocalypse Cow at the end of every iteration. Now, "release" doesn't mean a final release to public, but it should be releasable for those working with me on testing. But I am going to be treating it as if it was a release candidate. I'm going to focus and plan out my time and project for every single hour with that goal in mind.

After all, that's the goal of iterative prototyping - with each completed cycle, you have a product that could be labeled "finished."

I'm jumping into some less-familiar territory at this stage due to the amount of work I have to do with content. While I'm getting third-party help for content, I still have to do a bit of it myself. I'm not much of an artist. It's quite possible I'm going to blow 10+ hours at a shot on a single low-polygon model or polishing up an interior level. But that's just what it has to take --- things aren't gonna get any easier with the RPG looming on the horizon after AC is done.

I'm hoping this will really help me focus on actual meaningful deadlines, and encourage me to put in those hours that I need for this final stretch. After all, it's an addictive mechanic in RPGs, MMORPGs, The Sims, and so forth --- so why not real life, huh?

I'll let you know how this goes.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007
 
GameTap Launchies "Indies" Label
Yet more distribution opportunities for indie game developers. Turner Broadcasting has announced "GameTap Indies," designed to distribute indie games to its subscribers. It's a non-exclusive service, so it's a viable distribution opportunity.

Whether or not it'll be worthwhile or not remains to be seen. But it's nice to see more opportunities open up.

GamaSutra: GameTap Launches "Indies" Label, IGF Award.

On top of that, GameTap is sponsoring three new awards for the IGF - spotlighting the best independent games. To get the cash prizes, the recipient must sign a five-year distribution contract with GameTap. That little caveat might not be so cool, but I can understand GameTap not wanting to spotlight a game they don't actually offer.

This is one heck of an interesting time to be an indie. Maybe it's just my vantage point and indie tunnel vision, but it sure feels like the whole nature of the games industry is experiencing a fundamental shift, doesn't it?

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BYU Study Links Bible Passages To Aggression
Apparently, my alma mater, Brigham Young University, conducted a study very similar to one of the studies that linked violent videogames to aggression. In fact, one of the researchers was on the team that did the research most often cited linking real-world aggression with violent videogames. But instead of videogames, they used the Bible as their violent medium of choice.

The findings? Very similar to the videogame studies. Biblical passages about violence and, more specifically, justifying the violence were linked to an increase in aggression.

The story is in today's Deseret Morning News (the same paper that generally took a favorable attitude towards the anti-videogame legislation being promoted by local lawmakers). You can check out the full report here:

Research Links Scripture to Some Hostile Acts


As a religious university, BYU is obviously already feeling some concern about the political unpopularity of the results of this study. BYU takes scripture study very seriously, and requires 14 credit hours (basically a full semester) of religion classes to graduate --- including study of the Bible.

Professor Robert Ridge, explaining his findings, said, "We're not saying that just in and of itself violent media is uniformly bad but oftentimes there is no redeeming context to it. If one reads the scriptures with an understanding of context, both historical as well as with a (desire) to hear what God is trying to teach us, you can read it in a different way. But if a person dives into (a violent passage) without the context, you could probably get some increased aggression."

Well, I guess that just about explains the Crusades. We just can't have nice things, can we? People will twist any belief, philosophy, or ideal to justify their actions. I mean, I used to joke about militant Buddhists, but apparently that's no laughing matter, either. That Buddha was a meanie, huh?

But seriously, just like the videogame study, I take this study with a grain of salt small Siberian salt mine. Not that the results of the research are wrong - it's just that it can be something of a stretch to form a larger correlation about real-world aggression or violence based on the results of these studies. I guess it's a news flash that --- hello! - We're all influenced by the world around us. Be it media, scriptures, some guy cutting us off on the way to work, watching our favorite team win a basketball game, or having a coworker say, "Good job!"

Not exactly a news flash, but I think it helps put the previous study in perspective.

Hmm... think anyone's gonna try and push through legislation to criminalize selling the Bible to minors now?

Tip o' the visor goes to GamePolitics.com for the scoop.

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Monday, February 26, 2007
 
How to Make a Better RPG With Procedural Content
Dan C. recently posted an article about procedurally generated content entitled, "Content Is Bad," contending that as budgets increase, procedurally generated content becomes not only desireable, but critical. Jason Booth, formerly of Turbine Entertainment (makers of Asheron's Call, D&D Online, etc.) responded with another article entitled, "Procedural Content." Booth talks about using procedural content as a tool, but cautions that it cannot be expected to be some panacea that can generate infinite playability for little or no development effort. He notes "People are incredibly adept at seeing past the algorithm and sensing the underlying possibility space, and tiring of its parameters. As such, there is no such thing as infinite content."

He's not wrong. Ask anyone who played Daggerfall till the end... after a while the quests began to resemble re-used "Mad Libs." And while I adored Frontier, there was definitely a point at which the procedurally generated universe ceased to amaze and intrigue, and really did resemble just so much math. Sure, you can enhance the procedural generation to extend its value, but eventually you'll come up against the same wall. Procedural content may provide infinite content, but too much of it will be boring, "filler" content.

What's needed is a good mix of custom-created content with procedural variants, to reduce the boring repetition of the same (expensive) custom content. I'm thinking specifically of Jeff Vogel's recent complaint about having to kill the same wolf 200 times to gain a level. Why does it have to be the same wolf? Why couldn't each combat throw in some new and interesting challenges and variations?

Using Procedural Content For Enemy Variation
The latest incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons has some incredibly flexible mechanics for modifying monsters. First of all, there's advancement. If the monster is intelligent, you may be able to advance it in its chosen class(es), just like a player character. With literally hundreds of core and "prestige" classes amongst first- and third-party materials, there are a ton of interesting possibilities there. A medusa assassin, a minotaur monk, whatever. You can also use standard advancement on a monster with... uh, no class. As you advance a creature, it may get new feats and skills. So what may appear at first glance to be a garden-variety orc could actually be an acrobatic specialist in the use of the bo staff.

You can also apply templates to monsters to change their fundamental type. For example, you can apply the "fiendish" template to any monster to give them an origin from one of the "lower planes." This gives the creature some new special abilities, and may increase their difficulty a bit. The template is easy to apply, and doubles the potential monsters all by its lonesome. But there are many more templates. Like the half-dragon template, designating a creature that is the offspring of a dragon and some other creature, gaining some of the attributes of their draconic parent (The plethora of half-dragons found in official Dungeons & Dragons supplements indicate that in the universe of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, dragons are extremely horny and will mate with anything capable of reproduction).

The templates and advancement can even be mixed... you could have a half-green-dragon fiendish Orc with 6 Barbarian levels. Armed with a +1 Keen Great Axe, with weapon focus and Improved Critical feats with said axe. Which would be something at least a couple of orders of magnitude more dangerous than an average orc. Not something you'd probably want to tangle toe-to-toe.

And that's just one orc.

Procedural Content for AI Variety
With real-time combat against a single opponent, there probably isn't much the player can see in terms of AI variation. But against groups of enemies - especially in a turn-based system - even subtle differences might show through. Again, the acrobatic bo-staff wielding orc comes to mind. Or perhaps a spellcaster that emphasizes specific types of spells - not just different elemental types for "big booms," but more subtle or indirect spells.

Or maybe this very specialized half-ogre.

How the AI opponents interact with each other could be far more interesting and unique than how they interact with the player. Watching them apply their specializations (procedurally generated specializations?) with each other using tactics resembling actual teamwork would be the goal --- though that is often hard enough to implement without procedural variations.

Another area where this could get interesting is throwing around dialog in combat. In F.E.A.R., overhearing the enemy communication with each other really helped the AI come alive" for the player. While it may be impossible to pull off in this day and age of canned voice recording (text-to-speech synthesis still hasn't come along very far in the last 20 years), this could also accentuate the unique differences in style and abilities of the enemies as they team up against the player.

For comic-book geeks out there, imagine each enemy group of goblins barking out melodramatic commentaries and suggestions to each other in full supervillain-team style as they go up against the players. "Snotnose, hit them with your Moon-Ray!" Or, "Hey, guys, I'm taking a pounding! Can I get some healing over here?" How about, "Ah, lucky for me I am well-trained in dodging fireballs, such as those clumsily lobbed by your wizard!" Maybe even, "I spent the last several years developing an immunity to iocaine powder!" Cheesy? Definitely. But it would also help focus player attention on these actual variations, rather than chalking it all up to noise in the random-number generator.

Oh, and speaking of goblins named Snotnose... how about giving intelligent NPCs procedurally-generated names? Players are used to seeing a proper name as a sign for a special "boss monster," but I don't know that this kind of meta-gaming is really a good thing or not. And I don't know if players will actually care about groups of "Blugh the Orc," "Deathblade the Orc," "Sniggerbuckle the Orc," and "Trippy the Orc" when the names are all pulled out of a hat. But it's an idea.

Procedural Content for Visual Variety.
The next trick is that the 200 completely different wolves all look the same.

Once upon a time, games would use the trick of "palette swapping" to re-color the same sprite to designate variants of similar monster types. You'd battle blue ninjas, then red ninjas, then green ninjas, and finally black ninjas. Or something. The artists only had to create one ninja, and the software could color the rest. While it wasn't very exciting, it did the trick.

While this is sometimes used in the 3D game world, often it comes down to swapping textures. That's nice, but good hand-created textures can be just as time consuming as creating the model or animations. But can something be done procedurally to modify the models?

Some games have started swapping out anatomy and equipment. Oblivion did this for human opponents that the player encountered, so that while they all looked vaguely similar, they were at least distinguishable. Unfortunately, they didn't do the same thing with monsters, so that one minotaur looked very much like all the others.

Using shaders and geometry deformation, swapping pieces models around (like different heads in Neverwinter Nights), and random scaling you can add a great deal of variation that can make battles feel a little less like a stream of clone warriors. You could also have a texture overlay (decals) to give the enemy some interesting tatoos, hair color, facial scars, or what have you. Where appropriate, you could even use procedural particle systems to certain creatures.

Breaking the visual monotony can be just as important as breaking the gameplay monotony.

Procedural Crap
Perhaps this won't always be welcome by players. As demonstrated by attitudes in massively multiplayer games, players gravitate towards consistency and predictability. Even random variations in "hit points" (how much damage something can take before dying) are often unwelcome. And in all honesty, I don't think I'd want major variations in every fight - I like being able to learn the best way to take out that wolf, which might take me a few tries to figure out, plus a few tries to apply what I've learned.

Another concern with all procedural content is the likelihood of bugs - possibly game-killing bugs - appearing in certain rare combinations. It's impossible to check every possibility in testing with "near-infinite" procedural content, and it's always possible that some unforseen nasty combination will ruin the game for a player. Maybe the "fiendish" and "half-dragon" templates are fine by themselves, but the combination for certain monsters makes them vastly more powerful than anticipated. Or, worse, it ends up spawning in a peculiar spot that makes it impossible to attack, and it happens to carry the key necessary to get through the game. (Daggerfall had this sort of thing happen all the time, which they eventually resolved by simply publicising the debug codes to help players if they got stuck).

These concerns aside, I think that careful and clever use of procedural content as spice rather than meat could not only ease developer workload and help reduce the expense of creating RPGs, but also improve player enjoyment. It's a win-win scenario, but there's still a bit of experimentation that needs to be done.

Here's hopin'!

Well, actually, there's a bit more than just hoping taking place here at Rampant Games. But I can't talk about that right now. Especially since Apocalypse Cow isn't out the door yet.


(Vaguely) related words, vaguely associated with each other:
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" problem
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System
* Innovation in RPGs

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Sunday, February 25, 2007
 
Jeff Tunnell on the Great Games Experiment
Jeff Tunnell (founder of Dynamix and Garage Games) speaks up on the Great Games Experiment in an interview.

Excerpt:
"The industry is finally starting to recognize the Indie scene. GarageGames has been working for this since 1999, and as new people come in the market, they act like they are the first to recognize the market. But, everybody that comes into the market makes it stronger, and I think Indies have a bright future. However, not everyone will make it. In fact, it will be extremely difficult to make a living making games, but it is possible and will become even more possible for people that understand the huge amount of work involved in making a career of making games."

Check out the whole article:
Jeff Tunnell on the Great Games Experiment

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Saturday, February 24, 2007
 
Supreme Commander Quick Take
There's a long list of upcoming and recently-released games that are on my list to pick up when I can afford 'em (and afford the time). I'm afraid I'm going to have to put a moratorium on purchasing some of them until after Apocalypse Cow is done. (And dang it, I have been waiting for Dark Avatar to pick up Gal Civ II, also. And now it's out and apparently rocks. Too many games, too little time!)

But Supreme Commander is one I have been anxiously awaiting for a long time. In fact, one might say I've been waiting for it since 1998 or so. So I picked it up and have been trying it out for too many hours.

In a nutshell --- Supreme Commander is Total Annihilation 2. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. In fact, as I'm playing, I keep hearing the soundtrack to Total Annihilation playing in my head. Chris Taylor has pretty much borrowed good from his previous game, made it even cooler, and given it a new name. If and when the "official" TA2 ever arrives, it's probably going to discover that a new king has taken over it's long-abandoned kingdom.

For those who never played Total Annihilation, it was a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game that came out around the same time as StarCraft. It never gained quite the notoriety as StarCraft (I mean, sheesh, they made an OPERA about the latter game in Korea and made it practically a national pastime!), but it developed a rabid following. It was too big and popular to be called a "cult classic," but it's considered by most to be one of the best RTS games of all time.

However, it was also very different from most other RTS games in many ways. For one thing, the most important factor wasn't how many resources you currently possessed, but rather your rate-of-change - your production rate versus your expenditure rate. You were constantly producing tons of weaponry in that game, and all that production cost a ton of energy and minerals. In addition, your buildings cost energy to operate (though you could temporarily shut them down to save costs), and some of the gigantic static siege weapons required enormous amounts of energy to fire.

Another difference was that there was an avatar that essentially represented "you" on the battlefield, the Commander. In the default gameplay mode, destroying the commander eliminated that player. Even with that option turned off, destroying the commander resulted in an explosion equivalent to a nuclear bomb going off, wiping out everything within a wide radius. And as he was one of the most potent combat and production units on the battlefield, and irreplaceable, defeating the enemy Commander really hurt the other player.

Consequently, most winning strategies were focused on an early defeat of the enemy commander, or crippling his production.

Radar and stealth also played a pivotal role in the game. So a lot of sub-strategies involved blinding your opponent prior to an attack.

Two other noteworthy elements came into play. The game had 3D units (which was a new idea back in 1997), which allowed for some really believable motion and animation that was too cost prohibitive with 2D graphics. The aircraft banked as they darted and turned on their attack runs, and spun into the ground as they were destroyed. The artillery units rocked believably as they fired, and the tank turrets recoiled. As objects were destroyed, they flung pieces of themselves all over the map. And the production queues kept churning out more and more air, land, and sea units to make the conflicts huge and epic. When you were watching the battles in Total Annihilation play out, the chaos of the modern battlefield was visceral and believable. It was an incredible thing to see.

The other thing that 3D units brought to the table was that they were able to create a staggering number of units - they were cheaper to build and less memory-intensive than 2D units which had to have every frame of animation from every angle and action built and stored in memory. Now, purist veterans of other games didn't like this feature so much - it made battles confusing with so many different ways you could attack or react to an attack. The simple rock-scissors-paper equation of most RTS games was exponentially increased as you could combine land, sea, and air forces into really creative strategies. This led to battlefield tactics feeling very... organic. And creative.

And it had to be. Because resources were unlimited, a game could into a stalemate condition that could last indefinitely. Players could hole up in almost unassailable positions, with such strong defenses that brute force attacks would fail miserably. This could lead to very long games.

Now, it's too early for me to give a definitive answer. But as far as I can tell, everything I've just said about Total Annihilation applies equally to Supreme Commander.

Now, the specifics of some of the sneaky tactics that worked in TA have changed. There were a number of dirty tricks that were popular in TA that I don't know about in Supreme Commander, but I am already able to envision how some of the "organic" tactics will start to pan out with the game (and with whatever expansions come down the pipe).

A couple of examples of what I'm talking about in Total Annihilation: Your air transports were capable of picking up an enemy unit. I haven't tried this in Supreme Commander. It was hard to pull off, as the transports would usually be destroyed if they tried. But if you pulled it off, you could kidnap an enemy unit. They would be helpless as long as they were being held by the transport. If the transport was destroyed, they would be, too.

Remember what I said about what happens to the commander was destroyed?

One "cheap" way to victory (almost impossible to pull off unless your opponent was half-asleep) was to create an early fleet of air transports and scouts, and send them off to kidnap the enemy commander. You'd lose most of them in the attempt, but if you could kidnap him, you could fly him over a high-priority target (the center of his base), and either let enemy defenses destroy you or self-destruct your plane. The resulting explosion would cripple your opponent in the early game, even if the destruction of the commander wasn't set to an instant-win scenario.

Another, less cheap trick was to use crawling mines combined with air transports. Crawling mines were extremely slow vehicles that exploded with about half the force of a nuke. One mid-game strategy was to combine these with fast-moving air transports to create poor-man's nukes (or nukes not vulnerable to missile shields in the late game). You'd send a bunch of these through enemy defenses, either to self-destruct over the defenses, or to be destroyed by the defenses when they were close. The resulting explosions from the crawling mines would take the defenses out with them, which - if done right - could leave a gaping hole in their perimeter for you to rush in with your air units, followed up by ground support.

Now, most RTS games have little tricks like this you can pull. Experienced players have a whole bunch of them up their sleeves, backed up with very sound traditional strategies and very solid production priorities and unit control. But Total Annihilation seemed to have far more than its share, with new ones opening up that the designers had never intended with every new unit released online (one other innovation of the game) and with the expansions. And after some early game-balance problems were addressed, players found an effective defense against every tactic - conventional or unconventional.

So far, it seems like Supreme Commander may the heir to the legacy.
Friday, February 23, 2007
 
History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part II
Around Christmas last year, Matt Barton did an awesome article about the history of computer RPGs. GamaSutra bought the rights to parts II and III, which is perhaps why we didn't see the next installment last month.

But the new one is now up! Well worth reading, covering the "Golden Age" of RPGs between 1985 and 1993. Right before they "died." Only it turned out they weren't dead, only sleeping.

Ah, the memories.

In case you need to review, they've reprinted part I as well:

The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part I

The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part II


Here's hoping Part III will arrive very soon....

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Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
Jeff Vogel, Indie RPG developer, has been broken. He wrote a controversial rant a couple of weeks ago - part one of two actually - about why he hates RPGs. He states,
"During my recent intense bout of this market research (heh!), I finally came to terms with the fact that, after 23 years of playing them, I hate fantasy RPGs. I hate them, and I hate myself for making them."
I've been mulling this over for a couple of weeks now. Jeff has been personally been responsible for the design and development of more commercial RPGs than about anyone else in the industry --- and I'm including big names here like Richard Garriott. He's got something like 14 different commercial RPGs under his belt that he's personally created. So I figure that this guy knows of what he speaks.

That's a little scary. I mean, the guy has been doing indie RPGs for something like 13 years now, and he's one of the more successful completely indie game developers out there. I aspire to succeed as he has. And I love RPGs (well, I love many RPGs... I've played my share of crap). But I wonder if this is where that path leads?

Film Parallels
I used to marvel at how dissassociated movie critics were when they'd pan "crowd-pleasing" hit movies. I thought it was pure snobbery. As I've watched quite a few more movies in my life, and met a few movie critics (maybe I should call them "journalists" instead of "reviewers" or "critics"), and I now understand where they come from. After seeing the same formula repeated over and over in a thousand films that fortunately most of us never have to see, they become pretty jaded. My wife and I are familiar enough with the Hollywood formulas that we can recognize a formula movie and predict plot twists in a general fashion quite a bit in advance. We're okay with that. We still enjoy the film, even if its underlying skeleton is familiar to the point of being a cliche'.

But we haven't seen nearly the number of films as your average film-critic veteran.

In a similar vein, I don't think I've played nearly as many CRPGs as Jeff Vogel. Maybe that also explains Matt Pekham's sudden attack on the entire genre in his now-retracted Neverwinter Nights 2 review. After a while, that level of familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe. Go ask Scorpia. She certainly sounds frustrated with the mediocrity the genre has settled for, especially after having glimpsed the glorious possible evolutionary path it could have taken back in Ultima IV twenty years ago.

It sound an awful lot like those movie critics complaining about how the last great film to come out of Hollywood was The Godfather, and everything coming out of "The New Hollywood" (created by Star Wars) has been crap.

Mechanics and Story
Breaking down his arguments, though, it seems to come down to two separate complaints (with several examples of the complaints): Mechanics, and Story. Jeff explains, "Fantasy role-playing games are unique among computer games in one thing: they are fundamentally about starting out weak and learning to be strong. And that learning process generally involves a lot of tedium."

The whole point of the game mechanic is to upgrade your avatar (character) over time, to gain enough power to take on bigger challenges. In many Massively Multiplayer RPGs, this addictive mechanic has been exaggerated to accomodate months and years of play, to the point where it is almost a distorted parody of itself, lampooned in some "games" like ProgressQuest and Kingdom of Loathing. Players have come to refer to it as "the treadmill."

As far as story is concerned, the formula is ancient. Called the "Hero's Journey" or "Monomyth," it's a classic story skeleton common throughout literature, movies, folklore, and ancient mythology. It begins with the everyman hero - Joe Nobody, an insignificant person in a world of much bigger people and events that the audience can identify with. He (or she) is the Frodo Baggins, the Luke Skywalker, the Peter Parker, the Ripley of Aliens, and even the Peter Venkman of Ghostbusters orJason Nesmith of Galaxy Quest. This character finds himself propelled by dramatic events into the Hero's Journey.

It's worked thousands (millions?) of times, it'll continue to work long after we're all dead. The formula is branded into the psyche of the human race.

The story structure fits perfectly into the game mechanics of the RPG. In fact, it's arguable that the game mechanics of the RPG have proven so successful over the years because they so closely resemble the classic story structure that is so much a part of the human experience.

Is The Problem In Design Or Implementation?
My big question to Jeff Vogel (which I hope he'll answer in a future column) is if this is a problem with fundamental design, or with implementation?

Is it a fundamental problem with the gradual powering-up of the player avatar, the structure of the Hero's Journey, and the way RPGs have melded them together? If so, then he's basically screwed.

Even though he talks about the gradual powering-up of your avatar (in plot and mechanics) as being something singular to RPGs, the structure is found in many other games genres as well, particular in the most successful titles. In F.E.A.R., you start as the "new guy," someone the real soldiers joke about (right before they are melted to soup-and-bones by the game's principle antagonist). In Half-Life, you also begin as the "new guy," a lab assistant who is little more than an overeducated janitor, who begins his only partially successful save-the-world campaign armed with a flashlight and a crowbar. In Monkey Island, you play a young, naive pirate wannabe.

The increase in power or status may only be evidenced in the story (as in Monkey Island - your abilities stay the same, but you become the captain of a ship and the nemesis of the most feared villain in the game-world), by the aquisition of better equipment (most single-player FPS games), by the growth of other external resources (such as in most "Tycoon" games), within your characters internal capabilities (most RPGs), or a combination of all of the above. Start small - end big. Everyone's dream. Classic or cliche, it WORKS as it has for millenia, and designers deviate from it at their own risk.

Now, the flip side is the actual implementation. If this is more at the heart of Jeff's concern, I empathize. Too many games - especially RPGs, which nowadays have a requisite expectation from players of stretching gameplay out over at least 24 hours of play-time - wallow in the early stages far too long. This doesn't scale so well. From this, you get complaints from players who endure session over session of unheroic "make-work" to prove themselves worthy of getting to the good stuff. Make-work which is both uninteresting from a story perspective, and tedius from a game-mechanics point-of-view.

And this is perhaps the cardinal sin of RPGs - online or single-player. You don't ever want to be boring. Yet a multimillion dollar industry has emerged, called "RMT" or "Real Money Trading," where you effectively trade real-world money for someone else to play the game for you, to get you past the "boring parts" in massively multiplayer games. In the single-player's corner, the Final Fantasy series is perhaps one of the most notable offenders, forcing the player to wade through tons of irritatingly identical encounters between the "good parts." At least in the newest game (which I am still playing), the "filler" encounters aren't just thrust opon you at random anymore.

Jeff complains about having "to spend time wandering around and killing the same wolf 500 times so I could get experience and get stronger. " I think the complaint is right on the money. Tedium should be eliminated in ANY game. It'd be easier if all players got bored by exactly the same thing, so it's not easy to pinpoint.

But the usual suspects keep lurking about. There are millions of variations to the Hero's Journey, yet most RPGs (and too many fantasy novels) don't stray too far from Lord of the Rings. Can't we shake it up a little bit more than that? And we keep trying to entertain players for 30+ hours by giving them 10 hours of entertainment mixed with 20+ hours of filler. We need more meat, less fat.

It's not easy, but I think we can do better.


(Vaguely) related blithering idiocy:
* But Is It An RPG?
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* RPG Twists I'd Like To See
* RPG Design Seed Challenge
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I'm The New RPG Section Editor for GGE
The Great Games Experiment is going to be opening its doors to the general public in a couple of weeks. Recently, they asked me to be the section editor for RPGs.

Things are still kind of evolving here, and the Great Games Experiment staff has kinda left things open to me (so far) to define my own role as what being a section editor is supposed to be all about. Mainly, I'm to keep an eye on the RPG titles, make any changes that seem necessary if something is improperly represented, and spotlight really cool games. The emphasis for the spotlights seems to be on indie games --- after all, the famous games have plenty of spotlight already. The point is helping gamers find games that they might never have heard of which they will enjoy.

The key as to whether GGE will take off or not is its community. The community that greets new members will establish the feel and flavor of the site, and it's evolution to come. And the key to GGE's success will be whether or not there's an active, lively community with things happening when people arrive.

So - I've got a whole bunch of beta invites burning a hole in my pocket. Since there's a pretty lively bunch of gamers (and RPG fans!) here in this community, if you are interested in participating in the beta of GGE and helping with the last-minute preparations / bug-finding / shaping of things to come, please let me know and I'll send you an invite (until they run out). You can contact me at feedback --- AT --- rampantgames.com.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007
 
Guitar Hero for the Commodore 64!
Just all kinds of retroish-news goodness today. Old-school adventure games, the return of Wing Commander, and now...

Guitar Hero for the Commodore 64!

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The Return of Wing Commander?
Perhaps my all-time favorite series may be making a limited comeback - this time as an XBLA download:

Wing Commander Arena Announced

According to the press release, there will be single-player, multi-team, multi-player free-for-all, and multi-player duel game modes for up to sixteen players. It's going to be more of a multiplayer dogfight game, from the sounds of it, than a story-heavy campaign.

Hmmm.... sounds a bit like Void War :)

Creating an interesting dogfight in space can be quite challenging. If they include big objective-based battles with capital ships (as implied when they mention gravity bombs and torpedoes), that can keep things pretty interesting. And they'd BETTER use the real ships from the series, instead of making up their own.

In fact, I'd really love to see all the ships from the WC1 and WC2 era - now that they can resemble their curvy, raytraced-bitmap originals instead of the blocky WCIII + ships.

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Top 20 Freeware Adventure Games of 2006
Independent Gaming has a round-up of the Top 20 Freeware Adventure Games of 2006. For the puzzle-solving impaired, they have included a walkthrough for every game, as well.

Many of them look a fair sight better than many adventure games I played and enjoyed in the late 80's. I tried the Indiana Jones game briefly, and it seemed to retain the flavor of the old LucasArts SCUMM engine games, albeit a overly wordy in the intro. The Missing sounds really intriguing. Unfortunately, some of these games are just "works in progress" released as demos to the public. But free is a good price, and now I just have to find the time.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007
 
Console Indie: An Interview With Steve Taylor of NinjaBee
What does it take for an indie game developer to make downloadable games for the newest generation of consoles? I've heard a lot of indie and aspiring indie developers ask this question. Steve Taylor is the president of Wahoo Studios (AKA NinjaBee), which is on the cusp of releasing their third XBLA title for the XBox 360. So he ought to be the guy to ask!

Wahoo started out as a more traditional "gun-for-hire studio", but in late 2004 it set out on the path of the indie, releasing their self-funded (and award-winning) PC independent "tycoon" game, Outpost Kaloki, as a downloadable game. The next year, they followed up with Outpost Kaloki X, a new version for Live Arcade for the XBox 360.
Kaloki X became a solid hit for the fledgeling Live Arcade service, and really interesting things started to happen.

In 2006, NinjaBee released Cloning Clyde, a hit side-view platformer for the XBox 360. As Wahoo Studios, they have also announced the impending release of Saga, a massively multiplayer real-time-strategy game. The soon-to-be-released XBox 360 title, Band of Bugs, is an IGF nominee.

This is one of the strangest inte
rviews I've ever done, because I'm interviewing my own boss. He volunteered, and I was able to get a few questions from folks here to make sure I wasn't throwing too many softballs. This also gives me plausible deniability to try and avoid getting fired for asking some really ugly questions.

So, here we go!


--== Ancient Origins ==--

Rampant Coyote: Although you are a staunch supporter of the Xbox 360 and Microsoft’s leadership in downloadable console games, would you care to elaborate on the rumors that you are, in fact, a raving Nintendo Fanboi?

Steve Taylor: Haha, here's where you have an unfair advantage because you work with me during the day. I'm surprised you didn't ask me about the time I found the cardboard in my shirt collar! [Jay: Why ask? I already mentioned it in passing, though now everybody will know who it was!]

It's true, I'm a raving Nintendo Fanboi. Nintendo creates some unparalleled experiences. I've been hugely pro-Nintendo for a long time, and from a consumer point of view I don't feel like they've ever really let me down. I also had a great time working on N64 games as a developer. I look back fondly on that time in my life - working with the smart people at Nintendo was awesome.

One result of that was that I expected working on the Xbox 360 would kinda suck in comparison. Boy was I wrong. The system rocks, the dev setup rocks, and the Live Arcade team has been completely on the ball before anybody knew there was a ball to be on.

So I've learned to love cool things about Nintendo and love cool things about Microsoft at the same time.


Rampant Coyote: How’d you get involved in the videogame business?

Steve: I've been doing game projects ever since my brothers taught me to program when I was a kid, but I somehow got into writing educational software for a living. I left the educational software world in 1995, and worked on a game (Assassin) on my own that was released as Macintosh shareware. It was also released as a downloadable game for Outland, a way cool (but now long defunct) online game destination for the Macintosh. It wasn't until the end of 1995 that a friend (Kier) suggested I apply for a full-time game development job at Saffire. I was able to show the work I had done (Assassin and some tech demos) to Hal Rushton, who took a big chance and hired me.


Rampant Coyote: So what was the first game you ever worked on that actually made it onto store shelves?

Steve: Technically, a version of Assassin was released on a shareware collection CD in Japan, so that was on somebody's shelf somewhere. :)

My first traditional retail project was Legends '98 Football. I was a programmer on the PSX version, which got cancelled, but I think I had *some* positive impact on the PC version that finally shipped. Over the next half dozen years at Saffire I did some N64 games, a bit of management, a Dreamcast game, and I made what contributions I could to games on a bunch of different systems. I even worked on a tech demo for the Nuon for a few weeks.


Rampant Coyote: So what led you to strike out on your own and create Wahoo Studios?

Steve: In 2001 there was pain and sorrow and gnashing of teeth across the industry. Investors had been disappearing for a while, projects were scarce, companies were shutting down, and the games business felt like a wasteland. Naturally that seemed like a brilliant time to try to start a new company!

Basically, I had been planning to leave my previous employer for some time, and when a friend (remember "Kier" from earlier in this interview?) left for his own reasons, we had a few talks and decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take our own shot at doing things our way. We left together and started Wahoo Studios in a little basement office in Pleasant Grove, UT, with almost no cash and certainly no work lined up.


Rampant Coyote: What else has Wahoo done prior to Outpost Kaloki?

Steve: Prior to Outpost Kaloki we did a whole lot of begging, some writing contracts, some low-budget PS1 and PS2 games, some level contract work, some programming contract work, some concept art contract work, a few useless demos, and countless concept pitches. We also got to work on a GameCube game for 3DO, which was a good experience in a lot of ways, but ended up finishing right when 3DO declared bankruptcy. That was not good.


--== Current Projects ==--

Rampant Coyote: Okay - since people keep asking: What’s the difference between Wahoo Studios and NinjaBee? Aren’t they the same company?

Steve: Wahoo Studios is a traditional contract development studio that does work for publishers and other people with money and a project. The NinjaBee name was created around the time we decided to release Outpost Kaloki, as a unique brand with which to label our self-directed Indie efforts. Wahoo and NinjaBee are very much the same people - we don't make a distinction between who works on which projects, but we use the NinjaBee label only for projects we design and create ourselves.


Rampant Coyote: What can you tell us about Band of Bugs?

Steve: Band of Bugs is NinjaBee's new Tactics game for Live Arcade. The game features some new ideas designed to focus and accelerate the flow of turn-based strategy games. We also worked hard to make the game interesting for traditional Tactics game players while still making it appealing and accessible to more casual users. The game was designed from the start for Live Arcade and incorporates a bunch of unique Live Arcade features, including all the standard stuff (Leaderboards, achievements, rich presence, online play, etc.) as well as some neat new things (like a level editor and the ability to play custom levels over Live).


Rampant Coyote: What can you tell us about Saga? (Yes, I know, I’m feigning ignorance here, as I was one of the guys who spent much of 2006 working on it. But I’m not allowed to say anything. Maybe you can!)

Steve: Saga is fortunately more public than Band of Bugs, so we can talk about it a bit more. It's a persistent-world RTS supporting lots of players (hey, it's an LMOG!) with a cool collectible unit system. Dragons, elves, magic, machines, orcs... Cool stuff! People interested in the game can visit www.playsaga.com for more info or to sign up for beta testing...


Rampant Coyote: Why wasn’t Cloning Clyde submitted for the IGF this year?

Steve: Well, technically Cloning Clyde didn't qualify! Clyde was the achievement of an Indie vision from start to finish, and a true labor of love, especially for John Nielson, but we did get some significant help from Microsoft for that one.

Band of Bugs (which does qualify, since we paid for everything) almost didn't get submitted to the IGF - we were so swamped we barely got the submission in by the deadline.


--== Indie Game Development ==--

Rampant Coyote: In a game like Outpost Kaloki, how much of the gameplay is the design of a single person, and how much is a group effort? Is it a case of one person coming up with a design doc, to which everyone else adds, or is it a case where everyone brainstorms together until they have a common vision?

Steve: I feel it's fairly important to let everyone contribute to the design - everyone needs to have a sense of ownership so they're excited and committed to the project. At the same time, we always have a "buck stops here" kind of person who can define and document the final official design. In the early versions of Outpost Kaloki, that was me. For the Xbox 360 version, Jeremy Throckmorton ended up taking on a lot of that responsibility. But everyone working on the project (including artists and testers and programmers and management) had some influence on how it was built and balanced.

Band of Bugs is a bit more structured - Jeremy has been the lead designer from the start on that, but again everyone has had a chance to give feedback and make contributions along the way.

I'm also a big believer in the value of goal-directed design. It's easier to define high-level goals for a project and throw all the big design decisions against those goals to see what makes sense. For example, the goal of making Band of Bugs a game that could be played in short sittings strongly influenced a bunch of smaller design decisions that came up, such as how to handle turn order in multiplayer games.


Rampant Coyote: You've done several games now without the help of a publisher. Is this something you're looking to change, or is the money simply not worth the risk of giving a publisher leverage over your project?

Steve: Honestly, we intend to continue doing a mix of traditional contract work for publishers (as Wahoo Studios) and self-directed stuff (as NinjaBee). Working with a publisher has its downsides (including smaller royalties, less control, loss of IP, etc.) but also has tremendous upsides (more money, increased stability, additional resources such as research people and a marketing staff being contributed to the project, etc.) that we continue to appreciate. How will this balance change in the future? I'm not sure. So far, we swing both ways. ;)


Rampant Coyote: So here’s the biggie – let’s say I’m an indie game developer (I know, it’s a HUGE stretch…) How would I go about getting my game published and distributed through Live Arcade?

Steve: Yowza. This is a question I love to think about and talk about, but it would take me days and many pages to explore it fully. Let me try to brutally summarize:

1. Make an awesome game demo
2. Get an NDA with Microsoft
3. Show them the demo, and pitch the game
4. Make sure your design has great graphics, live arcade focused
gameplay, awesome multiplayer, and cool downloadable content
5. Convince them that:
5a: The game will rock and will take advantage of the Xbox and of Live
in brilliant ways
5b: That your team has the ability to pull it off
5c: That you're in it for the long haul - you're not just one guy in his
basement, you're a team of dedicated individuals with a history of
completing projects and the commitment and resources to finish this one.
6. Make a deal with Microsoft for distribution
7. Work hard and endure delays and hurdles and finish the game and hand
it off to certification
8. Hope the game passes certification! Spend a number of sleepless
nights worrying about this.
9. Relax and Enjoy. Or, start on the next one. :)

Note that you need the resources (talent, money, etc.) to make the game! It's a lot more expensive than you think. Consider testing, certification, localization, development hardware, etc...

For some more great insight, read this interview with Ross Erickson:
http://www.joystiq.com/2006/07/25/joystiq-interviews-xblas-ross-erickson/

[Jay: Note - by way of current events, Erickson just left XBLA this week to join Sierra. But the information is still valuable.]


Rampant Coyote: Outpost Kaloki was released to several portals for its PC release, but was only popular on a few of them. Yet it was a significant hit on the 360. Why is that? Aren’t “Tycoon” games traditionally PC-centric? How would you recommend indies approach deals with portals?


Steve: Hey! You're trying to sneak two questions into one bullet point!

How did a game from a traditionally PC genre do well on a console and not well on the PC? For starters, we put a LOT of effort into making the experience console-centric. In fact the original design for Outpost Kaloki was for console play, and it's really the PC version that was "adapted". For another thing, with the Xbox game we were a bigger fish in a much smaller pond. Finally, one key reason the game didn't do well on traditional portals is that it's not a puzzle game. It's not super casual. For a console game, it's relatively casual, but for a PC game released on sites like BigFishGames, it's a bit complicated!

How should indies approach deals with portals?
1. Don't make an "agent" deal with a portal - don't let them sell your game to other portals and give you a cut of the deal. You end up with almost no return while your game is spread all over by some portal 3 levels down the chain.

2. Get the low lying fruit (like high-traffic free-game download sites) yourself with your own version, and THEN make the deals with the portals. Otherwise, you'll finally get around to putting your game on a download site and find it's already there, but with somebody else
getting the money!

3. Don't listen to me - go read indiegamer.com and gamedev.net and other indie developer sites - those guys actually know what they're doing with PC indie games.


Rampant Coyote: After the initial success of Xbox Live Arcade, specifically with games like Geometry Wars and Outpost Kaloki, it sounded like everyone and his dog (including most major publishers) were proclaiming that they had plans for dozens of Live Arcade projectst. Greg Canessa claimed that they were swamped by large and small publishers wanting in on Arcade. For a while, looked like the indies might get squeezed out. However, it sounds like over the last year the biggest problem was that there weren’t enough XBLA games (from the consumer standpoint) hitting the pipeline. Do you have any insight as to what's been up with that?

Steve: I am not privy to Microsoft's release schedule or relationships with other developers, so I can't really say for sure what the situation is.

One possible issue is that making a game for Live Arcade is a lot harder than it seems. Sure, it's "small" stuff, but it's still console development, and the quality bar is still high, and the certification process is still tough, etc...

Regarding Indies getting pushed out: It sure seems like that's not going to happen! I've talked to 2 or 3 key people on the Live Arcade team who are quite committed to supporting indie efforts on Live Arcade. They can't approve every game they see, but there seem to be some great indie games coming down the pipe, and I think that will certainly continue, thanks to the approach Microsoft is taking. This is all my personal observation, of course, and I can't speak for their official policies in these areas.


Rampant Coyote: Hey, I’ve got this idea for a game, do you want to buy it from me and make it? I’ll only charge you 50% of the profits…!

Steve: Haha, My Favorite Question Ever! Can I *please* pay you cash up front for your awesome idea? We are all stupid and completely bereft of good ideas, and yours is surely going to Change The World!


Rampant Coyote: Once upon a time your advice for other indies on how to properly get involved in the downloadable games market was “Don’t.” Has your advice changed at all?

Steve: Hmm... I still think it's important to read articles (like this one: http://www.garagegames.com/blogs/3/10029 or this one: http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/2006/07/yes-virginia-there-is-money-in-indie.html) and face up to the fact that most Indie games lose money! But I believe in the increasing power of Indie game makers, and in the *potential* for talented, persistent people to put in some serious time and start making a profit after releasing several titles.

But you know who's a bad person to ask? ME! What do I know about making a hit PC indie game? The biggest return we got on the (significant) investment we made in Outpost Kaloki PC was that it opened the door for us to make Live Arcade games right when that door had a chance of being opened. As far as I'm concerned, if you count success in dollars, we're not a successful indie PC developer at all! From an indie point of view, we're a bunch of n00bs that suddenly had a lucky opportunity to apply their console expertise to an indie situation, so they grabbed on with both hands, both feet, and a few teeth just in case. And it paid off.


--== +1 Questions of Smiting ==--

Rampant Coyote: If you were offered the chance to do an online version of any board game, what would it be?

Steve: Well, my instant answer is Settlers of Catan, which I was playing way before it became everybody's favorite board game!. But hey, that's already been done. I'd strongly consider games like Robo Rally, Empire Builder (or EuroRails), and Cosmic Encounter. [Jay: Cosmic Encounter = Best boardgame EVAR! Though Cataan comes really close.]


Rampant Coyote: Let’s say you could go back in time and correct one mistake you’ve made in your business. Aside from hiring me, what would you change?

Steve: Maybe waiting so long to hire you? :) Seriously, though, that's a hard question. We started the company, which was pretty exciting. Then everything TOTALLY SUCKED for a really long time. And then some awesome opportunities came along and we worked hard to make them happen, and now we're pretty happy. How could we change anything in the last five years and still come out in the same place?


Rampant Coyote: What are you playing in your “spare time”? And I caught you playing NetHack the other day, so no using the “I’m too busy to play games” dodge!

Steve: Haha... Justin (the team lead on Saga) caught me playing NetHack in the middle of a Saga meeting. Of course, Justin is a NetHack addict as well, so I think he was more envious than annoyed. :)

Besides NetHack, I'm still occasionally playing Civ IV, which is a (most of the time) brilliant game. And I play every Live Arcade game when it comes out. I play Wii Sports and Zelda Twilight Princess when I have a chance. I'm looking forward to playing Supreme Commander.

As far as indie PC games go, the last thing I played with any decent level of attention was Virtual Villagers. That was a great game.

I really do have a hard time finding time to play games during the week. I started writing the answers to this interview at 2am on my birthday and finished about a week and a half later, so I think I should be able to claim I'm a little bit swamped. :)

Rampant Coyote: I just ask for insanely long interviews, I think. Okay - last official question: What is your high score in Ms. Pac Man?

Steve: We have a speed-up chip in our Ms. Pac Man standup, so it's not really a fair score. I'm at just over 200,000, but I'm pretty sure Justin's at 300,000+...


Rampant Coyote: Okay, I'm tapped out. Finally. Anything else you'd like to add?

Steve: Nope! Thanks very much for the chance to talk about NinjaBee and Band of Bugs and indie stuff in general!


(Vaguely) related signs of my impending mental collapse:
* Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
* Scorpia's New Tale: An Interview With One of Gaming's Most Popular Columnists
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin on 3D Interactive Fiction
* Avoiding Target Fixation: How NinjaBee Did It Right
* Jay Sells Out! Or Maybe The Opposite...
* How Do You Create "Fun?"

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Blender 2.43 Is Out
The newest stable version of Blender, version 2.43, was released over the weekend.

If you aren't familiar with it, Blender is an open-source (meaning 100% FREE) 3D modeling / animation / rendering package. I am consistently impressed with the quality and professionalism of the product. Yes, people complain that its interface is... well, less than intuitive, but I've gotten used to it. And some artists are doing some incredible work with it.

You can get the latest version of Blender HERE. And if you happen to be a Torque user, there's a new converter that supports it (I tried it tonight, it works!) available via multiple links in THIS THREAD.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
 
Future Play Competition
So let's say you are a beginning indie game developer, still in school and wondering how in the world you can compete against these experienced, professional game devs out there.

Well, one option that was just brought to my attention is FuturePlay. They have a competition in November in Toronto with the following stipulations:
So now you don't need to worry about the seasoned vets blowing you out of the water. Speaking as a seasoned vet who has been blown away by some student-created indie games out there, I don't think the competition is going to be that much easier. But if you are interested, the full submission details can be found here:

FuturePlay 2007 Competition Details

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How Much Difference Does Preparation Make?
I remember a story once about a father who was trying to help his daughter improve her falling High School grades. For a critical test, he worked with her and forced her to study much longer than usual. She grew frustrated, feeling she already KNEW all this stuff, and didn't see the point of further preparation.

The day of the test came, and that night she reported to her father that she'd told him so. All that time spent preparing was wasted, she announced, feeling vindicated. The test had been EASY.

I've noticed in the last several weeks some dramatic differences in my productivity in my indie game dev. Some nights it's easy. Other nights, I get an awful lot of web-surfing done. Some of the difference is undoubtably associated with how fatigued I am from working on games all day long for the day job. Sometimes it's hard to jump right back into it. Other nights - I'm not so sure. I'm making an analysis of my personal productivity the last days makes me wonder if I couldn't take some tips from the girl's father in the story about preparation and planning.

I've been juggling three projects the last few nights (Apocalypse Cow, some website changes and blogging, and the Next Game). For two of them, I had a nice list made up of tasks. I'd broken the tasks down into small enough chunks that I could pick out the task, could easily figure out how to get started, knew what it would take to finish, and in spite of some major setbacks (including a lock-up when I hadn't saved in a LONG TIME, shame on me), I managed to get stuff done more quickly than anticipated. Go me. Which gave me time to work on the third project - the new game - an unexpected windfall.

I was thrilled! Since it's in such early stages - still being designed with some prototype work - it's a lot of fun. I don't usually have any time to work on it at all, so it felt like a reward.

And I got almost nothing done on it.

I kinda stared at the screen, zoned out, got distracted by other things that needed to get done that I had a better handle on, and of course Teh Interweb Shinies. I had no tasklist - but did I need that? I mean, there's TONS to do, I could just take my pick!

Apparently, I chose none of the above. The hour I dedicated to doing some work on it was almost completely wasted. Sure, I got stuff done - including some needed tasks. But nothing to make progress on the game.

Granted, it was late, and I was getting tired. It was a whole writer's block type of situation. But I think there was more to it than just that. I suspect that if I'd taken ten minutes out of the hour-plus I'd given myself and just focused on what I wanted to achieve, and then committed to it, I'd be further along on that project this morning than I was yesterday.

I'm not a big planner, and I have seen projects crippled by overplanning in the past. But underplanning can be even worse.

What I'm coming to realize is that my brain runs in two different modes. Mode One is the design / plan / architect / manage mode. Mode two, probably the stronger of the two, is the furious-getting-things-done mode. I have trouble recognizing that these are two discrete states that I have to deliberately transition between. I keep thinking that I should be able to plan and organize and figure out the steps to accomplish the task when I'm in mode two - as I go along - and my brain just doesn't seem to want to operate that way. Thus the "comment first" methodology works so well for me.

Obviously, I need to make some changes in my work flow habits to take advantage of this. Because I really, REALLY need to get Apocalypse Cow out the door and make some serious progress on the next game this summer.

For the idly curious as what I did manage to get done, I created some scripts to help automate changes to the main website, finally added a link page (contact me if you run a gaming site and want to swap links), modified navigation on the site a little bit, worked on an upcoming blog post, modeled, textured, and changed the behavior of the rescuees in Apocalypse Cow, and worked on a ... uh, let's just say Barking Cows.

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Monday, February 19, 2007
 
Action vs. Turn-Based RPGs: Evolution, Trend, Or Catering To The Lowest Common Denominator?
In the latest "Side Quest" column at RPG Watch, Corwin offers his two cents on the Great Debate: Turn Based or Real Time Combat?

Personally, I always thought the great debate was about "save anywhere", but maybe that's just me. It seems to me that, as far as mainstream is concerned at least, real-time combat has won. Game Over. I mean, when was the last mainstream turn-based combat RPG released (in the U.S., I'll stipulate... those wacky Japanese get all the cool stuff)? I'm not super-knowledgeable about recent console RPGs, but on the PC at least, the last one I can think of was the Temple of Elemental Evil. Which kinda bombed, from what I heard. I didn't play it on account of the stories of the awful bugs in the game, not because of the combat system. (UPDATE: I just got some reliable secondhand information that ToEE actually made Atari money. Just not as much as they'd have liked.)

Even the latest Final Fantasy game uses real-time combat, after a couple of decades of turn-based game systems (even if there were real-time components to the turns).

Help me out here if I'm missing one. Or a few dozen. I wish I was more "in the know" as to the goings-on in the CRPG world than I have time to be.

Todd Howard of Bethesda, which is creating Fallout 3, recently said in an interview, "Certainly turn-based combat limits your audience to a small number, but I do find that audiences will come if your game is good enough and the presentation is superb. Ultimately we'll do what we think will be the most fun."

"Certainly, turn-based limits your audience to a small number."
It does? It's being spouted off like a truism. And I don't doubt that a big part of Diablo's success was because it abandoned the original turn-based system in favor of the click-and-kill interface now aped by many mainstream PC RPGs nowadays. But I wonder what happened to all the fans of Final Fantasy VII, who made it the best-selling RPG of all time? Or all the fans of the original Fallout games. Or, much more recently, all the people that bought Final Fantasy X and X-2.

I wonder what Mr. Howard's definition of "a small number" is?

Now, I am going to assume for a moment that he's correct in that turn-based won't sell nearly as well as realtime. He states it as a given, and I'll take it at face value. So my next question is:

Why?

Possible answers:

#1 - The Market has Evolved
Back in the day, the old RPGs were designed to emulate an imperfect gaming system which had to be turn-based by virtue of human moderation. But with computer moderation and cleaner interfaces have arrived, it's natural to go towards more action-style play because it is inherently more fun (to most people) than the plodding, methodical turn-based system of the genre's roots.

We should move forward and not look back. Turn-based is dead.

#2 - It's A Trend
For a while, about a decade ago, RPGs seemed dead. They were revived by Diablo. Okay, that's an extremely Western point of view, as I don't think they ever fell out of favor in Japan, and I don't believe Diablo's success wasn't even half that of FF7. But that's a whole 'nother debate.

Anyway... things in the games business are cyclical. Success breeds more success, and the risk-averse publishers are simply following a well-blazed trail. Action-based RPGs are clearly selling now, and there's no clear indications that turn-based games will. If someone does take a risk and make a turn-based game that outsells the latest crop of action-RPGs, publishers and marketers will see it as a "change in the audience" (it's always the audience changing their tastes, not the fact that the game was actually good, for some reason) and will follow suit with a flood of turn-based RPGs again.

#3 - It's Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator
Turn-based fans will usually put up with action-based RPGs, but it the reverse does not apply. So if you want to sell a game to both audiences, you have to make your RPG more arcade-y. It's simple math, and Mr. Howard is simply trying to explain that when he says turn-based addresses a small audience. Relatively speaking, there's no question.


So... which is it? Or is it something else I haven't considered?

As for me... as a fan of turn-based I'd like to think it's #2, but I'm more inclined to believe #3. Though I think if they do decide to go turn-based for Fallout 3, and it turns out to be a hit of even half of Oblivion's proportions, we might expect to see a few more mainstream RPGs following suit. But I won't hold my breath.

Fortunately, there seems to be a bunch of indie developers willing to rush in where angels (and mainstream publishers) fear to tread. So turn-based RPGs remain alive and well for now, if not well-advertised.


(Vaguely) related brandishing of a +3 Keyboard of Charisma Loss:
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* RPG Combat Design
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Why Was Final Fantasy 7 So Successful?

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Sunday, February 18, 2007
 
My Term as President of the United States
Based upon my popular views concerning the investigation of bobblehead doll scandal (nicknamed "Bobblegate" by the press), and my outspoken support of the war against the Cylons, I have been elected President of the United States. It's time to give every chicken a pot or something like that. And most importantly, I get to decide who lives and who dies! I can hardly wait to start some scandals of my own!

All it took was booting up the game Democracy, the best-selling indie game from Cliff Harris of Positech Games. I mean, how hard could it be? I should at least be able to do better than my... ahem... recent predecessors.

Inauguration
I start out with my party (the ... hmmm... we'll call it the Frat Party) in charge of both the House and the Senate. Score! That, and I'm on my "honeymoon period" as the new electee. Time to kick some butt and take some names.

Cool.

The ol' state of the union isn't looking too hot right now. Pollution is rampant, and kids are suffering an asthma epidemic on account of it. The national debt is over 10 TRILLION dollars. The roads are clogged with congested traffic pretty much everywhere. Equality and air quality are extremely low, car usage is at extreme levels (I guess that's bad), and the people are complaining about how cheap imports are ruining the economy. Oh, and tax evasion is high.

On the plus side, unemployment is a low 6%, and the economy is doing pretty well overall.

The commuters and environmentalists despise me - but they represent a small portion of the population, right? Should I worry? The Socialists aren't too fond of me... but I'm not a socialist. Apparently they are 24% of the population, so I should worry. More importantly, the liberals (representing 27% of the population) are furiously opposed to me. Trade Unionists don't like me, either. And good ol' Middle Class America? 41% of the United States are Very Unhappy with me. Strangely, both the wealthy and the poor love me.

Okay. So this will be interesting. In theory, I just have to solve most of the problems in the country without causing more than I solve, and I should win the next election, right?

I guess one way to solve air quality is to get more motorists off the road and into public transportation. The problem with that is that public transportation sucks. I mean, I hate the busses here in Utah. I took the Provo - Salt Lake City "express" bus when I started my career at SingleTrac. "Express" meant they meandered through every little stop between Provo and Salt Lake, turning a 45 minute commute into an over 2 hour commute EACH WAY. At least I got some extra sleep that way, with a newborn at home and everything.

So --- how about I increase the investment in Bus Lanes on roads? That should encourage the use of busses, and make those nasty long commutes shorter, and therefore more acceptable to people who'd otherwise drive. And I'll pay for this with... hmm.... ah! An increase in gas taxes! Which should also make public transportation a more palatable option!

Since the increase in gas tax increased revenue more than the cost in bus lanes, I end up making a tidy profit and reduce the budget deficit. And it will reduce gridlock, reduce pollution, which will also deal with the asthma epidemic, all at once! Hey, am I a friggin' genius or what? This is easy!

Second Quarter
Unfortunately, it takes several months for the new policies to take effect. And the U.S. government is still hemoraging money, in spite of the fact that income grew about $160 billion / month more than costs. To top it all off, there was a sweatshop scandal that rocked my administration, only three months in. I increased the tobacco tax to try and reduce smoking and improve government income. The smokers won't be too fond of me... but I'm early into my campaign, so they'll just have to live with it for four years. I also implement trade tariffs.

Third Quarter
Government income drops, and spending increased. Commuters hate me, and motorists aren't too happy with me either. Car usage has dropped 13%, and my overall popularity has dropped 18%. The fax machine next to the Oval Office has been busy sending out resumes.

Yeah, this is going well.

I implement a new national monorail system. Sure, it'll take nearly a decade for it to complete, but I'm sending a message that I AM HERE TO STAY. I also implement a national minimum wage. Strangely, I guess the U.S. didn't have them until my administration. I correct that and implement the law, to the chagrin of business owners everywhere.

I also implement car emission limits at a national level. Maybe that will put a dent in pollution, huh?

Fourth Quarter
My first year as President is almost done! Things have finally changed with the budget - it is now in "good shape," but it'll take some time to get the debt down to more manageable levels. Still, it is the sweet taste of success, as income skyrockets.

The bus lanes have finally started to pay off, and the commuters are starting to warm up to me. This drivers are even happier, in spite of their more expensive vehicle ownership, because I've finally ended the gridlock situation across the nation.

Unfortunately I'm still dealing with an asthma epidemic, pollution, cheap imports, and tax evasion (which is probably because of the two primary means of taxes - income and corporate tax - are hard to enforce). Don't people realize I inherited all these problems? These things take TIME to fix, durn it!

Year Two
Going into my second year, I'm seeing a decrease in the government debt, but it's still slow. Security is warning of "green" terrorist attacks by the unhappy environmentalists. Didn't they hear about my national monorail system? Grrr.... My approval rate is dissapointing.

I chose a weak welfare "minister" (Should be cabinet member in the U.S., shouldn't it?) My approval rating amongst the poor is great, and the socialists seem to really be warming up to me, too. So I think this move will help appease the capitalists and wealthy. And that also offsets the fact that I've dropped their beloved tax shelters down to more moderate levels.

The pollution level is beginning to drop (as is the Asthma epidemic), though both are still at critical levels. The GDP has all the capitalists and self-employed folk dancing in the streets and singing my praise in spite of my reduction of their tax shelters. I make it up to them by dropping the corporate tax. Things might be bad, but they are improving.

I also lower the national sales tax (since when did the U.S. have a national sales tax, anyway?)

I get a strong budget surplus, the debt begins to fall rapidly, and the concern about cheap imports goes away.

Right before the end of year two, I decide to let a convicted terrorist starve to death rather than give into his hunger strike. I also do a headcount reduction on the CIA. This might appease the liberals a little bit, and it also saves me about $10 billion per month in savings. Why do we need those spies, anyway? We're not in the cold war anymore, right guys?

Year Three
Unfortunately, my dissapointing ratings resulted in my loss of the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Frat Party retained the Senate. This means the House will delay the implementation of all of my policies. Fortunately, my most important policies were already put in place, and many of those are just now starting to get results.

Parents and middle-income Americans have nothing good to say about me. I decide to add a child credit to taxes, to see if that'll get Moms and Dads off my back for letting their children having to use inhalers because they can't breathe outside. Besides, I can't afford a true cut to income tax yet, as I'm still getting the national debt down.

It's not quite enough, but my ratings overall have improved. I'm now having "confident" quarters. The economy is going like gangbusters. Pollution levels continue to drop. Environmentalists are no longer burning me in effigy, but they aren't exactly putting me on their Christmas Card lists, either. Speaking of which, my friends amongst the religious voters seem to be dropping a little bit, too. Since they represent about 44% of the voting public, this is a concern.

The liberals are fanatically opposed to me. The smokers are a little more neutral towards me... but they are diminishing. Smoking is on the decline - I guess it's too expensive of a habit. I figure this is a good thing. Either that, or my ignoring of health care is resulting in all of them dying off with lung cancer. I'm not sure which.

I compromise my principles once more, blocking the merger of two major retail chains into a major mega-store (Hmmm... I wonder if it would have been called "WAL*MART"). This earns me some more allies amongst the self-employed, as they weren't looking forward to the competition. But it really is an artificial restriction to free trade. I wouldn't have done it if the economy wasn't already rocking.

I oppose a book-banning, which drops me off a few more Christmas lists amongst religious America, and it's probably too late to win a popularity contest with the liberals. Ah, well, I'm sticking to my idealist guns for a change, I guess.

Year Four
Unemployment has reached historically low levels. The poor love me. The wealthy are indifferent. The patriots and conservatives celebrate me as the hero of the nation. I increase spending on prisons, which helps everyone. The conservatives and patriots would love me even more if they could go above 100%. Even the liberals are grudgingly giving me a little bit of credit for what I've done with the economy. I drop military spending a little bit, just to keep things going. I want to give everyone a big bonus this year of reduced income tax.

My ratings have climbed to nearly 60% in the polls. With the November election rapidly approaching, I'm already preparing my acceptance speech for my second term.

And Then, Disaster Strikes.
More specifically, terrorists stike. A car bomb goes off in the middle of Washington DC, killing three and wounding a dozen. Apparently my cuts to the CIA a while ago had something other than just political effect.

The patriots and the conservatives, who thought I could walk on water the previous quarter, have almost completely deserted me. My approval rating quickly sinks down into the low teens.

I hope it'll blow over quickly, as the GDP is amazing, pollution is almost down to non-crisis levels, air quality and life expectancy are up, and the country is - by almost all measurable levels - much better now than when I inherited it.

I drop income tax. By a tremendous amount. It'll cost me hundreds of billions, but I've been running at nearly an $800 billion surplus for several months now. Hopefully people will start feeling the additional weight in their wallets just as the elections begin.

The following quarter, some of the antagonism over the terrorist attack does blow over. The patriots and conservatives grudgingly give me back some of my approval, but it's nowhere close to my near 100% level they were giving me before. More like around 25%.

The reduction in income tax hits JUST before the elections. The Middle Class perks up, increasing my approval by 15% just in time for the elections. Is it enough?

Nope. Apparently not. Still blaming me for the terrorist attack, America decides its time for a new President.

I get one more quarter to sit through and see the final results of what I'd built over the last four years. I see parents, liberals, and socialists all increase their approval rating. Just as they boot me out the door.

Hmmm.... I wonder if Germany needs a new President. I've got experience...

--- Former President Rampant Coyote




Think you can do better? Check out the free demo of Democracy at Rampant Games! (And yes, I have done better on subsequent games... assuming I can avoid a terrorist attack in an election year).

Download DEMOCRACY

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Saturday, February 17, 2007
 
Gone Flying
This morning, I got to take a short plane ride up and around my neighborhood with my daughters. It's been years since I have flown in a light plane, and I had forgotten how much fun it is. George McEwan (modeler for Void War and Apocalypse Cow) flew the plane, and handed control over to me a couple of times.

Now, I'm not terrible at flight sims, but I knew it was gonna be a problem. Maybe I was too psyched out. I wasn't sure how much control to give it. He had my go into a 10 degree bank, showed me the landmark to stay to the left of to remain outside of controlled airspace, and while I wouldn't say I did a "good" job of it, I didn't break the plane or make anyone airsick. And I did manage to complete the turn. It doesn't exactly sound like an accomplishment after getting into numerous simulated online dogfights and sending many living and AI-controlled virtual pilots to an early grave, but ah, well.

One thing I did notice was how much more stable the real aircraft was than the simulated planes. Probably because George knew what he was doing when he trimmed it out. And... well, I tend to pilot fighters in my simulated flying, which of necessity are less stable creatures.

After a little bit, George decided to demonstrate what a "bumpy ride" would feel like for my daughters. My youngest (age 8) was squealing with delight, and didn't want him to stop the "roller coaster." It was like Disneyland all over again for her. I was just pleased that I was able to share with my daughters a little bit of my love for aviation. (My wife won't let me take flying lessons until we can both afford it AND I have better life insurance... which unfortunately needs to be taken out well in advance of taking private pilots lessons... many policies actually stipulate that on the application).

Now I feel a strange, sudden desire to crack open Microsoft Flight Simulator again and tool around the same airfield I flew out of this morning and practice some touch and goes... Why is that? :)
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Friday, February 16, 2007
 
Quick Strategy Games
I'm as much a fan of good strategy games as I am of RPGs (in fact, that may explain why I have a greater attraction to more cerebral or turn-based RPGs than other kinds). I have a weakness for Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games - as my wife can probably attest, during the last two weeks of crunch mode at the Day Job, I found it very hard to jump right back into working on game development at night, and found myself either playing a flight sim or an RTS (or watching a video) when I got home.

I'm already anticipating lost productivity when Supreme Commander comes out next week.

Sometimes all I need is a "quick fix" - a little dose of exercising decision-making skills (hunting down a human opponent can be too taxing when I'm in one of THOSE moods) and I can get back to what I need to do (like writing a blog entry, or finishing my darn game!). I need an entire game which can be completed in just a few minutes. What are the options?

I can suggest a few. Of course, being who I am, I'm gonna recommend some good indie games. There are a ton of them out there, and I've only played a few, but here's what comes to mind:

FastCrawl is actually more of a roguelike RPG, but it is designed (on the quickest settings) to be playable from start-to-finish in less than twenty minutes. Like many other RPGs, the strategies include party formation against opponents, target selection, and resource management.

Slay is one of the best, quick (well, for "very small" islands) strategy games I've ever played. It boils down the concept of a wargame to its barest essentials. The graphics are almost ludicrously simple (it was originally designed to run on PDA's, IIRC), the game rules are likewise few and easy to understand. There is no randomness except for the AI's moves. Yet the game is very addictive and involving.

Empires and Dungeons is a "Strategy RPG" that's more like a boardgame. The strategy elements aren't exactly Chess, but there's the usual risk- and resource-management common to most RPGs. Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. The larger scenarios against three opponent knights can sometimes take a little while, but against fewer opponents a game can take as little as fifteen minutes.

For traditional strategy board games, there's the popular Internet Go Server on PandaNet for playing the ancient strategy game of Go against live opponents. Go is notoriously hard for AI to handle, but if you download the OpenGL Client, you can hook it into GNU GO for a pretty tough opponent against a beginner. Choose a smaller board for a quicker strategy fix - a full 19 x 19 board can take a while. Go has relatively simple rules, but the complexity is in the implementation and understanding how they are coming into play. And the AI Go player kicks my butt, unless I go for the easiest setting AND crank my handicap up. Unfortunately, it also gets kind of predictable, which is how I can beat it even on the "lamer" settings.

Styrateg is more strategy-oriented than E&S, much more of a turn-based wargame (with levels, loot, and stores where you can buy things). Again, nothing resembling hardcore strategy. It's still at only $12.95, so it's cheap. The game itself might take a while to complete, but each scenario is pretty short.

Flash Element Turret Defense
is free, addictive, and a lot of fun. To be honest, I'm not really sure how long the full game takes to play... I THINK it can be fully played within about 20 minutes, but it's one of those games where you lose your perception of time while playing. That's just a LOT of creeps marching around the screen!

Outpost Kaloki offers some "Tycoon" management-style gameplay, and most of the scenarios are also pretty short. If you are done with the story mode, there are some stand-along scenarios to try out. And hey, it's only one of the Coolest Games Evar!

I've only played a little bit of Age of Castles - I wouldn't consider it to be an incredibly quick strategy game, but it is easily played in smaller increments. It's casual, non-intensive, and amusing (kinda like Empires & Dungeons, though I prefer the more direct approach of the latter game).

I haven't played Laser Squad Nemesis yet. I should be ashamed, but I haven't. It's primarily a multiplayer game, but apparently it has a single-player campaign. However, it's an indie game by the Gallop brothers --- the same guys who brought us X-Com (or UFO: Enemy Unknown in the UK). I keep telling myself that I've GOT to try this one out.

Master of Defense is another "Tower Defense" game, done indie-style with 3D graphics. This unfortunately suffers from scenarios which can get a little long with only very short breaks between waves of bad guys. However, unlike an RTS game, you'll never have to worry about the scenarios going into overtime in a stalemate situation. The monsters keep coming, and you either deal with them, or lose all your villagers. I don't think I've gotten good enough at this game yet to really appreciate it - it has very different strategies, from, say, Flash Element TD --- showing how different "tower defense" game really can be from each other.

The danger of these "quick" games is that since they are (somewhat) fast strategy games, it's very easy to play "one more game" - over and over again - and watch your entire evening dissapear.

Anyway, there's what I came up with. I'm sure I'm leaving a few out. What are some good ones that I'm missing? Any good "quick strategy games" out there that can be played to some level of completion (the end of a scenario or whatnot) in no more than 20 or 30 minutes?

(Vaguely) Related Junk
* New Game: Empires & Dungeons
* Design: Picking Apart Flash Element TD
* Game For the Weekend: Styrateg
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Thursday, February 15, 2007
 
Carnival of Game Production #2
Anyone who is or aspires to be a game developer, and would like some advice:

Juuso is once again hosting the Carnival of Game Production over at GameProducer.net. There wasn't anything that I thought was particularly mind-blowing, but there were some great perspectives on game development that were worth taking a look at. Enjoy!

The Carnival of Game Production is a regular monthly event, so if you are a game developer, run a blog, and would like to get involved, submit a link for the next one!

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Ye Olde Save Game Debate
Some topics just never die.

Like the one about saved games. The problem, specifically, that unlimited saves allows people to "brute force" their way through a game. This takes away much of the challenge and can actually rob the game of its most fascinating elements, encouraging players to take the "path of least resistance." And there are some designers (particularly on the consoles) who really depend upon players repeating content over and over again to give the game some stamina. It's a terrible low-down nasty reason for limiting saves, but it's a reason.

Marty O'Hale takes a look at ways to dodge the saved game problem (specifically in CRPGS) in his new article in The Escapist, "Killjoy: How Inconsequential Death Took the Fun Out of Virtual Life."

Scorpia followed up with her own commentary on the subject, taking Marty to task on several issues, while agreeing in principle that it's a problem, in "Death and the CRPG."

As for me? Man, I hate it when games are designed around the principle of unlimited saves, and are then made all the nastier to compensate. What I hate worse than that is limited saves, where I'm expected to play through the game for as much forty-five minutes in-between saves. Yeah - maybe when I was a single student with no life, that would have been okay. Sure, I fit in an hour-long session (or more) here or there, but I kinda like that to be my choice, not the game's.

So anyway... the problem: The most vital game skill becomes remembering to hit the quicksave button every thirty seconds. There are no CONSEQUENCES for a player's actions. Hey, I'm on board, here. I have restored saved games even when I won combat encounters, because I'd expended too many resources on them (in action games as well as RPGs). Try again, and see if I can take out the dragon WITHOUT using up the last five charges of the wand of Lightning Bolts, or take out Yet Another Not-So-Surprising Ambush without losing all my armor and having my health dropped down to 25 points.

The saved game means there's zero incentives to try to make the dramatic comeback from a bad situation, unless you really feel like toughing it out.

However, on the flip side, the extra and easy save points also give you the freedom to try to make that dramatic comeback, too. Knowing that if worse comes to worst, you can always revert to that previous point before you made that costly decision and decided to roll with it. So out of past experience, I'm inclined to go with Scorpia here.

We've had plenty of restricted saves in the past. They frustrate. We've had disincentives to saving (including, in at least one obnoxious example I can think of, a game where you had to pay in-game currency to save your game).

I'm thinking carrot, rather than stick, here. Can game designers incentivise NOT restoring a saved game? How about some kind of bonus that accumulates the longer you go without restoring? Sure, this might unfairly penalize players like me who have real lives and have trouble playing a game for long stretches... but if it feels like a bonus and not an entitlement, it might work okay.

O'Hale makes a couple of suggestions that I agree with - that death and a forced restore should not be the penalty for every (or even most) failures, and that failure should create new opportunities, thus encouraging the player to let it right. This could be hard to implement, and even harder to telegraph to an audience which has been long accustomed to going to the "Load Menu" even before death is certain.

We keep talking about innovation, and innovation in the realm of screwing around with the players ability to save and load a game is not one that has ever proven welcome except for some of the most hardcore gamers and journalists. But maybe some enterprising developers can figure out some ways outside the ol' saved game box, where it makes sense.

UPDATE: Hmm, I wrote this last night, and discovered this morning that there's a new, somewhat related article up at GamaSutra entitled, "Losing For the Win: Defeat and Failure In Gaming." Worth checking out!


(Vaguely) related proof that 98% of everything is crud:
* Mistakes In Game Design
* Game Moments #4: Daggerfall
* What Kind of Gamer Are You?
* A Counter-Manifesto?
* More Bad Game Design Decisions

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007
 
Are Graphics Really Killing Gameplay?
Stay (Steve Taylor) brought up an interesting point on his comment on the "How Do I get Past the Stupid Door" post. The feature set of the ancient, graphics-less game of NetHack (still very popular, but generally just amongst hardcore geeks) matches the wish-list of many frustrated RPG fans today.

And of course, I mentioned the older Ultimas, and Richard Garriott's design philosophy of making sure there was at least one solution to an obstacle, but usually (at least in Ultima V through Ultima VII) not enforcing it as the only solution. In fact, the Ultimas of the late 80's and early 90's seemed to have a bit of a richer level of interactivity than most of today's RPGs (including Oblivion, which is otherwise pretty freaking cool for a modern RPG for its open-ended interactivity).

So why is that a game with purely abstract "graphics" (such as they are) has much more depth than that a $20 million supergame? Why is it I can run around in Final Fantasy XII and be unable to do much more than kill things, talk with other things, and pick up "licenses" to be able to use items I've already acquired, but in a game like NetHack and others of the same family they allow everything but the kitchen sink as possible actions?

Granted, some of the limitations may simply be due the expediency of the marketplace. Even those who don't mind the ASCII graphics (or who will be happy with one of the many graphical front-ends) may get turned off by the sheer complexity of the game and its interface. NetHack violates the "First Few Minutes" rule in about every way possible - a player will have to invest several hours into the game to become remotely competent, and even then the game is brutally nasty. (No, in case you are interested, I have *never* recovered the Amulet of Yendor). After all, simplicity IS usually more of a virtue than complexity.

But is there more to it? Is there freedom in abstract representation not found in more graphically "lush" games? Do sophisticated graphics actually discourage innovation and interaction in game design? Do graphics really come at the expense of gameplay?

You can bet your portable hole they do!

Over at The Forge, Matt wrote about how they were reconsidering a knock-down action... which would be trivial in a text-based game... because of the budget requirements. He wrote, "Something like a knock-down ability that wouldn’t make you think twice in text becomes the subject of serious thought. If you have a knock-down ability, any creature that it can be used on needs an appropriate animation. That gets very expensive, and acts as a multiplier for all new content in terms of cost."

That's hardly the only story out there. I remember reading a designer interview for the original Neverwinter Nights where the designer lamented dropping the rogue's "Climb Walls" ability, but it just wasn't feasible in the game engine. Like the flimsy wooden barriers and low walls in first-person shooters that, in spite of your ability to fall dozens of feat and suffer only minor injury and your incredibly destructive and explosive arsenal, remain impossible to breach or scale.

Is it possible to mix a rich graphical representation with more abstract elements to get the best of both worlds? I don't know. It's been tried. The problem is that abstract representation looks even worse in contrast with the rich, immersive, believable environment. When the player's avatar goes into some generic "tinkering" animation, their hands and head passing blithely through a solid object, it tends to draw player complaints. As would a lame knock-down "animation" that simply flips the model onto its back. As does text pop-ups. But in my opinion, it's better than just cutting player interactions down to the bare bones of what can be richly represented given the graphics and animation budget of the game.

I know that the upcoming indie RPG Age of Decadence is attempting to do just that - mixing the ease-of-development of text with 3D graphics. In an interview at RPGVault, Lead Designer Vince Weller states, "You are playing a thief. You would like to be able to climb a wall, because that's what thieves often do. Only you can't because it requires extra animations and other stuff. So, you are forced to role-play a thief who has fear of heights and/or has broken legs, among many other handicaps. Solution? Text adventure! Attach a skill check and a message box 'You've managed to climb the wall successfully!' / 'You tried to lift your fat ass off the ground, but failed miserably' to a wall click and then teleport your character to the other side of the wall if you passed the skill check. Voila!"

Will that work as a generic solution? I don't know. I'm anxious to find out.

Don't get me wrong. I love shiny graphics. I love deep storylines. But maybe we should take a few more lessons from NetHack and remember that while those are very important, they must take a back seat to letting games do what games do best.

Which is to let the player PLAY.


(Vaguely) related drivel:
* Simplicity and Subject Matter?
* The Rules of Combat According to FPS Games
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past The Stupid Door?
* Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs
* The Best of All Worlds

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007
 
Why IP Rights Are Important: The Story of Platypus
I hadn't seen this before, but in case you are interested, here is a link to the story of the making of Platypus, a popular indie shoot-em-up. That story leaves out some of the jucier recent developments.

As a summary:

* Anthony Flack made a unique shooter with clay-modeled art called Platypus. Nearly broke and lacking any knowledge of the "indie community" (which was much smaller than it is now), he sold the rights - lock, stock, and barrel - to a publisher for about $3000. They did almost nothing with it, and the game quickly sank into obscurity.

* Mike Boeh of Retro64 purchased the online sales rights to the game. And, apparently, the right to modify it for online sales. He cleaned it up to make it more sellable, actually marketed the thing, and turned it into an online hit game.

* Since they owned the rights to a "hit game", the publisher got the game ported to the PSP, where it's now selling (apparently) pretty well. And they've got a sequel in the works. However, they've since scrubbed out any and all reference to the original author, even though it's still his artwork (and possibly even his code... who knows?) in the game

* They have also announced a sequel, which is apparently using a lot of Anthony's original artwork, though some of it has been color swapped. It's unlikely his name will be on the sequel, either.

* To add insult to injury, according to this account, an affiliate even tried to sell Platypus listing Anthony Flack's company, Squashy Software, as the author. They received an email demanding that they remove the developer's name from the byline, and replace it with the name of the publisher. Now that they have a hot property, they want full credit and attention.

So I guess there are two schools of thought on this one.

One is, "Wow, great investment!" $3000 got them a hit property (eventually) that they had to do practically NOTHING on. One guy made the game. Another guy perfected it and did the marketing. All the publisher did, after the first CD run (which, to be fair here, sounds like it didn't really make them money), was to parcel out its rights and let other people make them money. AND they are able to position themselves as the creators of this hit game, which can help them leverage new titles.

Another is, "Wow, those greedy unethical jerks!" Not the fact that they aren't paying Anthony (or Mike) a dime from the profits of the title (other than what they make in commissions for selling it themselves). I'm sure it was well-understood by both parties that the $2000 flat fee plus $1000 completion bonus was in lieu of future profits of the game. But while it was certainly their right to remove his name from the credits, they were under no obligation to do so - and certainly not their obligation to police their affiliates to make sure his company is not mentioned as the developer.

The lack of giving credit where credit is due is the issue, though it's hardly unique. After all, a big element of Activision's early success was that they were willing to give credit to game developers, something that Atari eschewed. (Curiously enough, Activision is now in the position of being the IP owner now for Guitar Hero, and has also cut the original developer out of the loop...) And it's not even remotely unique to the games biz. Maybe the ethics of taking advantage of the young and naive they could sucker into a deal like that - but in all honesty, I don't know if they could have predicted seven years ago that they could have made a large profit on even that small of an investment. I'd be unsurprised to hear that there are some games that they have purchased the rights for in the same manner on which they still haven't recouped their initial investment.

Whatever your take on the issue, the message should be crystal clear: IP rights are totally where it's at. Although technically this goes beyond just IP rights, but the truth of the matter is that those rights are the rights for you to have other people make you money.

I'm not saying those rights are so valuable that you should never let them go. That'd silly. But I do think developers as a whole (both indie and mainstream) greatly undervalue them, to the point that they are pretty much a "given" in any mainstream publishing deal. The developer undervalues them because they lack the resources and expertise to exploit them. The publishers wisely acquire the rights for the value the developers place on them, not the value the publishers themselves place on the them.

Another thing I'd take away from this is how Platypus was an unrecognized gem in the rough on its initial release. He altered the presentation, polished it a bit, shrank the download size, added much-needed skill levels and mouse support, and --- oh, he left the original developer's name in the credits. That and a little bit of marketing push was "all" it needed to go from being an obscure game that nobody played or remembered to a hit download that spawned a portable console version and an upcoming sequel several years after its initial release. I jokingly say "all" because I'm sure it wasn't a trivial amount of work, and Mike applied a lot of expertise to polish the game to its modern state.

But those little things count. A LOT.


(Vaguely) related delusions of adequacy:
* Is $42,000 All You Can Make With Indie Games?
* Avoiding Target Fixation: How NinjaBee Got It Right
* How to Avoid Making Money Making Indie Games
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Monday, February 12, 2007
 
RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past The Stupid Door?
Shamus Young has an absolutely awesome post on Twenty Sided Tale entitled, "The Plot-Driven Door." Game designers take note. (Including me).

I haven't played NWN2 (yet, though I still intend to, in spite of Shamus's warnings... I am more interested in online play than the original campaign anyway), but his arguments hit home. The rogue fan in me in particular cheers at this comment: "For crying out loud, we’re talking about circumventing walls and doors. That’s half of D&D, right there. There is an entire character class dedicated to this sort of activity."

Amen. In particular, I love his illustration of all the things a group of players in a dice & paper version of the NWN 2 campaign would come up with. Forge entry papers? Climb the friggin' wall? Find out how food and information are being smuggled in and out, and use that route? It all smacks of lazy and poor game design.

Hopefully I won't have to eat my own words once my own CRPG is released (don't hold your breath... with Apocalypse Cow still clambering towards Beta, it's only in the design stages with some extremely early prototype proof-of-concept stuff). But if I screw up on this, please feel free to call me on it and embarass me. I'll have deserved it.

Here are some design principles I'm trying to follow to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Maybe if I post them here in public where I can be ridiculed if I screw 'em up, I won't forget them.

#1 - Don't Tease The Player With The Larger Goals
Your player knows what he wants to do, and wants to make progress towards it. So don't pile on lame sub-goals that are:
a) Excessive in number
b) Aren't clearly related to the larger goal
c) Don't measureably progress the player towards the larger goal.

If you violate these, the player will feel like he's spinning his wheels, and may grow frustrated.

#2 - Focus On Goals Being Accomplished, Not How They Were Achieved
This was was once espoused by Richard Garriott (AKA Lord British), when he was creating Ultima 5 or 6. Assuming I remember correctly, he explained that he felt it was his responsibility to come up with *one* solution to an obstacle, but beyond that it he didn't try too hard to eliminate other paths to achieve a goal. So you might use a key to open a door... or you might push a cannon in front of it and let 'er rip to blow the door down.

From a game design perspective, this simply borrows a page from many of the more simulation-oriented games. It doesn't matter what you did to accomplish the objective... all that matters is that you achieved it. That was part of what made Operation: Flashpoint and the first two Thief games so compelling. Even if you played through the scenario exactly as the designers expected, you still had the illusion that you were out-clevering the game, possibly even "cheating" somehow.

The problem with this more interactive and open-ended design methodology is that it conflicts with traditional linear storytelling. I mean, if you kill the traitor before the big reveal that removes all doubt to the entire country that he was the traitor, what happens? Doing truly interactive storylines are crazy-hard (Chris Crawford has been at it for nearly two decades now, and doesn't have a whole lot to show for it yet), so you can't just expect the game to "roll with it." At least not the big stuff. The evil traitor is going to have to be protected somehow until the game is ready to let the players bring him to justice.

It means you have to be flexible with storylines, and flexible with how the underlying game triggers on events. It's not easy, but it's possible.

#3 - Where Possible, Let The Player Choose His Own Sub-Goals or Side-Quests
Let the player pick how he's going to achieve the larger goal. This could simply be the order in which things get chosen, or in the best case, let them think they came up with the solution on their own.

For a couple of examples: In Ultima IV, people wouldn't entrust you with their secrets until you'd proven yourself. Sounds a bit like the problem with the NWN2 gate, huh? But rather than going on a bunch of peon quests, you had to choose for yourself how you'd earn enough of the required virtue to win them over. You made your own side quest. In Ultima Underworld, a key item was held by a man who was afraid of the dark. I don't remember why you couldn't just kill him to take the item (or even if it was an item, and not a clue), but he could be bargained with by offering light sources. It was up to you how you obtained the light sources.

#4 - Avoid Springing Suprise Sub-Goals On The Player
"Thank you, Mario, but the Princess is in another castle!"

Amusing once. Maybe twice. But it gets old fast. Plot twists are one thing - especially if you telegraph them in advance so the player is kicking himself afterwards for not seeing it coming. But arbitrarily (and repeatedly) snatching away victories to load the player with additional tasks is just irritating.

#5 - Come Up With A Plan To Integrate Content Into the Overall Story and World
What might have happened with NWN2 is that a bunch of level-designers all did their quests separately, and they were all pulled together with a flimsy storyline about earning the trust of the guards. I'm all in favor of having a mass of talented people cranking out quests for a game, but they have to be consistent in tone and flavor, and well-integrated into both the environment and the storyline. Otherwise, at best they should be optional side-quests (and that only if they can be made to fit nicely within the world).

#6 - When Unavoidable, Cover It With Good Writing.
If you are forcing the players into certain courses for the sake of the plot, then the plot had BETTER reciprocate, with dividends. If your story is so dang awesome that it is more important than allowing them the freedom to choose, don't wait until the end of the game to prove it.

The Final Fantasy games kept getting away with plot-railroad after plot-railroad, mainly because of the distraction of shiney cut scenes and expression of over-the-top angst. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying it works.


(Vaguely) related grumblings:
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Problem
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System
.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007
 
The Best of All Worlds...
Origin, the creators of Ultima and Wing Commander (two of my all-time favorite game series), used to have a motto: "We Create Worlds." That was one of the promises of gaming - virtual worlds so interesting and compelling that you'd happily suspend disbelief for several hours just to live there for a bit.

What does it take? Tons of detail that isn't spilled out in excruciating expository scenes. Good (but not necessarily realistic) graphics that evoke a mood. Quirky and interesting characters. A cohesion and consistency that makes everything seem like it belongs, even in the most bizarre of worlds (hint: If you have barrels full of extremely volitile explosives lying around in a hospital, you've probably blown it). Lots of secrets and optional material for the player to discover --- stuff that makes the player feel like the entire world actually exists even if the player wasn't there. And of course, a really interesting reason (or reasons) for a player to care.

Creating such a world isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all of a game (I don't really care what the world of Tetris is supposed to be like, and I really don't care for the world of Unreal Tournament, though I love playing the game). But a fascinating setting sure pushes a game beyond simple entertainment and more of an experience. Thinking back on them, I remember themas much as places as games.

Here are my favorites:

#1 - The Afterlife of Grim Fandango
Grim Fandango's world was an afterlife based very loosely on the Mexican "day of the dead" traditions. In gaming, it was absolutely unique, mixing the bizarre setting with a hefty dose of Noir and comedy. The characters were quirky, believable, and full of expression, in spite of the fact that almost all were skeletons. The world was crammed to the gills with detail, on which Manny Calavera commented on with dry wit. While the unique culture and mythology might have been a little strange at first, they quickly melted into the background, becoming almost a mundane assumption.

The game's ending was made all the more bittersweet by the realization that not only were you leaving this wonderful world and fascinating bunch of characters behind, but also that there wasn't much room for a sequel - at least not with the same characters.

#2 - The Isles of Monkey Island
I only played the first two and part of the third, as I wasn't sure the later games truly matched the vision of the original. Curse you, Ron Gilbert, for the ending of second adventure. I know you didn't intend to leave it to other people to try and explain it away, but still...

Even in the 16-color graphics of the original, the world of Monkey Island was beautifully illustrated, full of brilliant detail. The characters were offbeat, sometimes stereotypical but never boring. The music, plot, characters, visuals, dialog, and setting combined into something greater than the sum of the parts, and made the whole world come alive. We still make jokes about the used coffin dealer.

#3 - New Orleans of Gabriel Knight
The first Gabriel Knight was the only one I played - but it was fascinating. I even played the version where Tim Curry does his best impression of a Lousianna drawl as Gabriel, and it didn't detract one bit. In fact, his dialog with his grandmother won me over completely to the game. It ditched the cliches in favor of some very interesting characters and relationships. The game was packed with detail about New Orleans history, flavor, and of course, voodoo. Maybe it wasn't all accurate, but it worked for me in bringing the entire game to life.

#4 - The World of Darkness of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Maybe it's because they had such an incredibly rich license to work with, but in spite of the tight confinement of explorable area, the different cities of Bloodlines were rich, believable, and convincing. The whole world seemed worn and lived in, full of visual detail and suggestions of even more background hidden beyond the limits of the game. And of course, every bit of it was dark and angsty, and even the minor characters had their own stories and skeletons in their closet worthy of a Stephen King story. Nobody was completely innocent, and it was up to you to choose the least evil.

#5 - The Great Underground Empire of Zork
Of the old text adventures I played, the Zork series was the one that I remember with the most clarity. Room after room of ultraviolet prose designed to build pictures in your mind to challenge the best graphics the other games of the time had to offer, Zork's world was full of impossibly grand caverns, humorous detail, and of course lurking grues in the shadows.

#6 - Britannia of Ultima
Specifically, the Britannia of Ultima IV and VII, the two installments of the series that I most enjoyed and fulfilled Origin's motto for me. While the games lacked the modern mission-based "quests" of modern games, the worlds were so densely packed that you couldn't go too far before uncovering some new mystery or secret dungeon almost certain to guide you back to the main story line... but only after you'd had some fun with it.

The mysterious symbol of the silver serpent, the moongates, the city that vanished except for certain phases of the moon, the ghost-filled ruins of Skara Brae... and just Lord British's castle... these all invited you to take the world of Brittania as an actual place on its own terms, full of mystery with a life of its own.

#7 - Korea of Falcon 4.0
Hah! A flight sim! Falcon was almost completely devoid of anything resembling actual characters, though most Falcon 4.0 players will sound off on the female air traffic controller, who - due to a bug - would often criticise you for even perfect landings. In spite of the bugs that caused wacky things to happen, what worked with this game was the interactivity of the world - specifically, the enemy forces. Destroy a runway, and as time progressed you'd see it gradually getting repaired until it could launch enemy planes at you again. Pass an armored column on your way to a target, and on the way back you might see them engaged with friendlies in a pitched battle. Though your orders never called for it, the winning strategy for the most difficult Korean campaign was to blow up the bridges to stall the enemy advance until your own forces could build up their strength.

After playing through an entire campaign (or two), you became WAY too familiar with the geography of south Korea from the air. You knew the cities, the landmarks, the airbases --- and the all-important Chinese border. You learned it well enough to find your way home on a clear night with a busted navigation system (something I had to do more than once). What's even more fascinating is that you could use an actual aviation chart of Korea for navigation and radio frequencies.

#8 - Cyrodil of Oblivion
This is a beautiful world with some fairly interesting AI-driven characters. It's fun just to explore for several hours. And there's a lot of interesting historical background to be found if you poke around enough. The biggest problem is the same one that plagues nearly all games, that of the world feeling very static and unchanging (unless you go on a killing spree). Sure, the dungeons and countryside repopulate with new monsters - always around your own skill level - but especially near the end-game everything really feels like more of the same. Still, Oblivion has done a better job than most of making the world seem alive and interesting.

#9 - The Milky Way Galaxy of Frontier (Elite II)
Not many games have every tried to simulate the entire galaxy in a reasonably accurate spaceflight simulation. Frontier, AKA "Elite II," did just this. Frontier was procedural content generation on steroids - back in 1993. The planets were actually planet-sized, and the different objects in space all moved along actual simulated orbital paths. Trying to plot a course to a space station orbiting one of several moons orbiting a planet orbiting a star could get really tricky. While the game suffered from the usual blandness over time that accompany all games with heavy procedural content, the game (which shipped on, IIRC, a single floppy disk) was a two-month-long obsession for me. I swapped trade route information with my neighbor, who was just as hooked. There was a lot to do in this game. At one point I tried just making a living as a gas miner --- taking a ship with the hyperdrive removed but with large storage area, flying down around the upper atmosphere of a gas giant trying to scoop up gasses without getting sucked down the gravity well, and returning to the station to sell off the accumulated gasses for fuel.

I also suffered a misjump at one point and ended up hundreds (thousands?) of light years from civilized space. Lots of planets and stars, but no human settlements that I could find. I tried to make my way home, but my poor spacecraft broke down before I got a quarter of the way back.

Close But No Cigar Department
Some games that had fascinating worlds, but came up wanting (in my imagination):

Wing Commander
- The documentation, in particular, for the early Wing Commanders were full of background information that really helped make the universe come alive and be something more than yet-another-generic space shoot 'em up. Unfortunately, too much of this was only in the documentation. There were some tidbits in the dialog - pilot slang and references to past events. There was some stuff to make me feel like there was a real universe out there, but you couldn't actually visit it.

EverQuest - I wanted to include Norrath, but I figured I'd exclude the MMO's, as they enjoy something of an unfair advantage. Unfortunately, as cool as the worlds may be, with extensive backstory, playing in them feels a bit too much like wandering through the rides at Disneyland rather than cutting a bloody swatch Conan-style through a fantasy world.

Daggerfall - While not "Frontier" huge, the world was huge and very, very procedural. Unfortunately, it became bland a bit faster than Frontier for my taste.

Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption - The medieval towns (especially Prague) really hooked me. The ever-present church influencing all elements of culture, the spookiness of the streets of Prague and Vienna at night (especially considering that you were one of the spookiest boogiemen to be found there) - it was all awesome, if constricted. Unfortunately, the modern-day cities lacked the same magic.

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Friday, February 09, 2007
 
I Should Give Up Making Shooters
Apparently, I know nothing about making - or playing - shooters. Not that Apocalypse Cow is really a "shooter." I get my butt kicked by my own game, but apparently folks in Japan are somehow supposed to be able to tackle this without hitting "Continue" 50 times (though it looks like the player here had to do it a few times, himself...)



Yeah, I only make you dodge guided missiles in my games. Not predict miniscule safe areas in moving, overlapping, changing geometric patterns. YEESH!

Apparently, on these kinds of shooters, the collision area on the player's vehicle is restricted to a smaller area - such as the cockpit - which is the only way the player is capable of threading the needle like this.

Hat tip to Brian H. for sending me this link! Incidentally, the game is called Mushihimesama Futari, and this is version 1.5 Ultra. I don't speak Japanese, so I have no idea what "Mushihimesama Futari" means, though I might guess, "Get your butt handed to you."

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Thursday, February 08, 2007
 
When Magic Becomes Mundane In RPGs
I was playing Dungeons & Dragons Online the other night, through a particular adventure narrated by "Guest DM" Gary Gygax. Having never met Gygax in person, all I could think of when hearing his voice was his guest appearance in Futurama: "I am ... "(throws dice) "... pleased to meet you."

One of the central features of part one of this sequence of adventures was... well, lots of undead, which irritates me as a rogue (rogues can't do sneak attack damage against undead). But another was a slew trapped rooms which would seal off the moment someone crossed the threshold of the room, splitting the party. Monsters would magically appear (apparently digging out of the ground) and attack the members trapped inside the room. The doors wouldn't reopen again - no matter what anybody did - until the last monster was killed OR until after a pre-determined time limit. It was certainly challenging and entertaining, especially when I, the poor useless rogue, made the mistake of stepping over the threshold of a room I thought we'd already cleared. I spent the next thirty or sixty seconds tumbling like mad to avoid being hit by two wraiths and a half-dozen arcane skeletons, until the doors would reopen.

Dancing around the room like my hair was on fire, chased by a bunch of deadly monsters which could reduce my poor rogue to a dessicated husk in seconds, I got to pondering.

How the heck do these doors know when the last monster has been killed? What bit of ancient technology is at work here? Doubtless it is based on the same technology that allowed the ancient native Central American savages to detect when Indiana Jones had broken a beam of light. Stone weapons and photoelectric sensors, baby! (Nevermind the question of how the trap managed to reset itself when nobody was looking...)

Of course, the default answer is simply, "It's magic."

Tracy Hickman, best-known as the coauthor of the original Dragonlance novels, once spoke about his fantasy writing at a symposium I attended, and stated how he thought the whole "It's magic" explanation was a cop-out in fantasy. I tend to agree. Sure, magic may be the enabling power, but still, one expects the world to follow something vaguely resembling natural, physical laws. Better still magic itself seems to follow some consistent pattern and internal logic.

Hickman's example was a particular series that had islands floating in the sky. He had to determine just how they managed to float. Of course, the ultimate answer was, "It's magic." But he wanted to rationalize things a bit further before forcing magic to step in and take over. His initial answer was, "They are light." To make them light, he made them highly porous. At that point, he also realized that they had another problem.... they leaked. They wouldn't hold water. That drove some more unique characteristics of the floating islands and the people living on them that would help drive the verisimilitude (if not exactly "realism"), to make the world more believable. I never read the book (sorry, Tracy), but the hope was that while magic was there, it wasn't so uniquitous that it became a catch-all for everything. It (hopefully) kept magic from becoming too mundane.

Dungeons & Dragons is a little notorious when it comes to trivializing magic. How many times have you discarded a +1 sword in favor of an upgrade? While D&D was loosely based on Lord of the Rings (originally), can you imagine Gandalf going into Ye Olde Magic Shoppe and trading in Glamdring for a more advanced model? Frodo telling his companions, "Guys, I've been stuck with this Mithril Shirt for something like four levels now... I've got dibs on the next suit of halfling-sized magic plate mail we run into!"

(Gah, I hope Shamus hasn't already tackled that in DM of the Rings... I've missed a few strips and I'm gonna feel like such a copycat if he did...)

The Eberron setting (which Dungeons & Dragons Online is based in) takes it even further. While I'm not extremely familiar with the setting, as I understand it kind of takes up the idea that magic is the technology of the world. They've got locomotives powered by summoned elementals, sentient robots that were mass-produced for some ancient war, and so forth. Now, to some degree I'm alright with that. How do the trains work? Oh, by enslaved elementals. Cool. I don't need to break down the internal logic of "what is the physiology of a creature that is living air?" The magic can break down to a few component parts that I accept at face value, and I'm cool with that.

Now maybe it's the rogue-fan in me, or the software engineer in me, but when you get to the really "gamey" aspects like the automatic doors which "just work" with some monolothic and inviolate force, it starts to bug me. How is it supposed to work? Are the doors sentient? In a world where wizards are supposed to be able to detect magic, and rogues are supposed to be able to detect and disable even magical devices, why can't we find some way to spoof or tamper with or work around the magical-door-with-buried-monster trick? I mean, we KNOW it's going to happen, so why can't we just jam an extra sword (maybe one of those useless +1 swords we're just gonna sell because we already own better) into the door's mechanism to keep it from closing.

Alas, the answers are:
#1 - Because the designers WANT to force you to brute-force your way through it.
#2 - Because it's easier to program this way
#3 - Because it's an MMO and so the first time ANYBODY figures out how to get around this trick, it will no longer be effective against anybody but a party of newbies for the rest of the game's existance, and the developers just don't feel like throwing away that much effort.

And perhaps most importantly:

#4 - Because players don't really care about things being believable, they just want it to be interesting.

That reason #4 is why we have such weird Laws of FPS Worlds. And yes, devotion to realism can get boring. But come on, guys. It was one thing back when games had to abstract so many details --- it didn't bother me. But in the new games, you tease me with interactivity and realism, but then don't let me take advantage of it when it matters? (I never played Doom III, but I hear that it was notorious for this).

But okay, even if that's not an option... there's this whole "attention to detail" thing. Rather than just forcing the player to accept "Oh, all these dungeons are FULL of magic and that's why everything does stuff you can't detect or prevent," could we at least have some explanation as to the why's and the how's of things? A little more rationale for WHY there are monsters hiding in an unassailable position under the floor? Sorta like the book they found in The Fellowship of the Ring explaining briefly why the dwarven city was overrun with goblins, orcs, trolls, and a Balrog?

Sure, 90% of the players would just skip it. But to me, a world in which everything just magically "happens" actually feels far less magical. The magic has become mundane, and I feel like I'm just being manhandled by a lazy game designer.

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Viacom Shotguns YouTube - Indie Gets Caught In Crossfire
A couple of days ago, a training video for the indie 3D game engine Irrlicht was removed from YouTube after a complaint by Viacom that ... uh... they own the rights to the video, and it was in violation of the DMCA.

And exactly HOW does Viacom own a homemade tutorial video for working with the UI of some indie developer's own software, where all the art and resources were created by him or his user community? I can't wait to hear the explanation for this one...

In all likelihood, this was just a mistake. Somebody goofed. It had nothing to do with him being an indie game (engine) developer (but as a developer interested in Irrlicht from a few years back, this caught my notice).

This is apparently one of 100,000 complaints Viacom just filed demanding take-downs of DMCA-protected videos, so how can anyone expect them to make sure that this tactical nuke isn't causing some "collateral damage?" What, they should actually double-check all 100,000 of their computer-generated search results for accuracy to make sure no innocent people get accused of copyright violation?

In the grand scheme of things, I do not believe that this is a Big Deal. I'm sure there were many other innocent YouTube customers who were caught in the blast of 100 tons of spaghetti (man, am I full of metaphors tonight or WHAT?) that Viacom chucked at YouTube. This is simply a case of a major media company flexing it's muscles a bit, and simultaneously getting in a press release about how they were the victim of 100,000 counts of piracy. I doubt they'll reduce that number to account for after all the victims of THEIR neglegance - even the ones willing to jump through the several hoops YouTube forces you to go through when your video gets a copyright complaint. They'll just round up to the nearest 100,000.

Now, I'm pretty anti-piracy myself, and I believe Viacom has every legal right to order the take-down of media that belongs to them. But I'm also pro-consumer rights, and this indiscriminant attack strikes me as being pretty dang bad, especially if there are a bunch of stories just like Niko's. It seems to me that Viacom ought to be subject to some sort of liability over false accusations like this.

Otherwise, what's to stop some goofball like me claiming that I own the copyrights to EVERYTHING on YouTube, and get the entire site shut down?

Oh, wait, I don't have Viacom's money. Question answered. Nevermind.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007
 
Is Anti-Game Legislation Becoming Politically Dangerous?
Last year, the bill to tack videogame violence onto the anti-pornography law in Utah slipped through committee, passed almost unanimously on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives, and only failed because the state senate ran out of time to consider it (perhaps deliberately). It was a relatively quiet bill, only earning one article of praise from one of our newspapers (the Deseret Morning News), an editorial by me blasting it (in the same paper), and one letter to the editor of complaint.

That bill was one of a rash of anti-videogame legislation that came out in several states last year, and all but one that passed were struck down in the courts as unconstitutional. The one that passed was actually supported by the ESRB, as it simply subjected video games to the same restrictions as other media, including movies - hardly an "anti-videogame" law.

Since then, court costs have mounted for states passing these laws. People have started asking why the states keep paying hundreds of thousands in legal fees for bills they've already been warned won't pass Constitutional muster. The media has started listening to someone other than Jack Thompson (who, at this point, is now facing a disciplinary hearing concerning his antics). Lieberman and Clinton have apparently backed off a bit from their previous anti-videogame stances.

Locally, our state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff - an opponent of violence in video games, has gone on record stating he believes that these anti-gaming bills will continue to fail on Constitutional grounds in court, and he has put public support behind the existing ESRB system. The court decisions - with a little help from the publicity surrounding this year's Slamdance debacle - the question has been raised even in "mainstream" media: Should games be considered a protected form of free expression?

The Utah bill returned this year as House Bill 50, and now it came to light that the bill was drafted by everyone's favorite grand-stander, Jack Thompson. But this year, things have gone differently. And this time, the lawmakers backed off. And they are getting criticized by the newspapers (in particular, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Provo Daily Herald) for considering it in the first place.

Is the tide turning? Are politicians feeling a real backlash against their "nanny state" bills targeting video games? Is anti-videogame legislation no longer a "freebie" when trying to earn family values points for the next election? Is the public finally becoming aware of games being a medium of communication (and even an art form) that should be protected? Will 2008 not be a repeat of 2006 with respect to anti-videogame bills? Will video games not suffer the same fate as comics several decades ago?

Maybe. I'm not getting my hopes up too high. But it seems that there may at last be a light at the end of the tunnel. It's encouraging to see the difference in the political climate surrounding what was effectively the same bill in Utah between this year and last.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007
 
Got any questions for NinjaBee?
Steve Taylor volunteered to be my next interview victim. Not that I usually throw many hardballs at my interviewees, but since he's the source of my paychecks and everything, I thought I'd open things up a little this time and see if there are any questions you guys would like answered about NinjaBee. That way you can keep me honest, and if any of the questions make him mad, I can blame it someone else.

By way of background, NinjaBee now has two games currently available for XBox Live Arcade, and another one (Band of Bugs) which has been announced for the 360 and is an Independent Games Festival award nominee. They are the creators of the absolutely awesome (and funny) space station tycoon game, Outpost Kaloki, for the PC, as well as the best-selling XBox 360 version, Outpost Kaloki X. After that, they followed up with this year's popular Cloning Clyde, and we were also contracted to develop the newly announced Massively Multiplayer Real-Time Strategy game, "Saga" (now with an HTML version of the website for those of you who didn't want to wait for Flash to load). Outpost Kaloki, Kaloki X, and Band of Bugs were fully indie projects, paid for internally and by investors. No publishers were harmed in the creation of these games. Saga is technically independent too, but we were contracted as the development house on that one.

We've got more games in development right now, too, but I already know I can't talk about THEM yet.

I'll be asking Steve about the origins of the company, and a lot of questions about what it takes to get indie games released on the consoles.

So --- what would YOU like to ask him about? Fire away! I'm going to try to get him the questions by Wednesday. Assuming I can actually get out of the office between then and now.

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Monday, February 05, 2007
 
Adventure Game Revival on the Nintendo Wii?
Gamasutra has an interesting article by Scott Nixon about the possibility of reviving the Adventure Game genre by moving over to the consoles - specifically, the Nintendo Wii.

Would this work? Do gamers just need "more interaction" from the WiiMote controller to make adventure games exciting again?

I don't know. But the idea is at least intriguing. Check out the article and judge for yourself:

Bring Out Your Dead! Can Nintendo Breathe New Life Into Adventure Games?

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Three Ways a Small Online Business Can Deal With an International Marketplace
When you put your business on the web, to a degree you become an international company. Outside of language preference, many web-fronts give me little clue as to whether they are physically located in California, New York, London, Berlin, Taiwan, or Siberia. And until I get ready to whip out the credit card and have to worry about security and shipping costs, I won't even care. With digital distribution, shipping is immediate and (practically) free. And I have noticed that about one-third to one-half of my sales are from outside the United States. This has been true since my first week of selling games.

Wow. Insta-global company. I didn't even internationalized (or "globalized") my site for visitors from other parts of the world, beyond some of the basics handled by my e-commerce providers. How cool is that?

But... and you knew there was a "but," right?... there are some problems.

Customer Support
For example, I recently got a customer support problem in email. Those are (fortunately) pretty rare, but I try to bend over backwards when I get them (that's what happens when I'm dealing with such low volume, I guess). The problem was that this one was in Spanish. I took a couple of years of Spanish in junior high too many years ago to remember, so I couldn't immediately understand the email. In fact, I almost deleted it as spam --- I get a whole bunch of foreign spam for some reason (at least, I did, until the sysadmin installed a new filtering system that is HOPEFULLY not blocking anything legitimate!). However, I took a second look, tried to decode it's meaning, and figured out the problem (he'd apparently not received downloading / licensing information from Plimus).

I was able to check my records, find his information, and send him all the information I think he needed. Unfortunately, my response was in English, and I imagine that if he spoke English, he'd have emailed me in English in the first place. As luck would, I have a friend who has her masters in Spanish, and she was willing to translate my instructions for me (I owe her cookies in exchange). At least, I hope translated it all. I might have ended up sending him a cake recipe as far as I know, except I know that it contained the correct web URL and license key.

I haven't heard back from him, so I certainly hope that resolved the issue for him. The solution doesn't scale very well, but I know a lot of people fluent in foreign languages, so if I can bribe them with cookies or free product, I may hopefully be able to keep up with the occasional foreign-language customer support issue.

"Off-Shore" Competition
Another issue is competition. Though I have high aspirations, the amount I make from Rampant Games each month is ... well, it's enough to buy a few indie games (yes, I even have to pay for some of the ones I sell!) or some tools for my game development, but it's not exactly what someone might call an "income." At least, not in this country. Or most other countries. I still aspire to make minimum wage one day doing this. However, it's not hard to see how an indie shop out in some parts of Asia or Eastern Europe might be able to afford an entire STAFF on revenue that we'd only consider minimum wage here. And they do. And in a global marketplace, they can be your competitors. They can do everything you can do faster and more cheaply.

Solution? Well, in the games biz, the nice thing is that you aren't in direct competition. Void War was released around the same time as many other 3D space combat games, but I don't think they really robbed sales from each other. Fans are happy playing several games in the same genre. Likewise, many people who like the indie RPG Aveyond will also enjoy Cute Knight, and vice versa, though they might prefer one or the other.

And through affiliate programs, competitors can also be a source of revenue. In fact, there is a TON of room for cooperation and mutual benefit in the games biz (as, I suspect, most industries). From affiliate programs to cross-promotion, there are lots of ways to grow the pie.

Foreign Pricing
On the flip side, there's the problem of pricing. $20 is right around the "impulse purchase price" in much of the United States (I think it's a little above impulse point, but I'm a cheapskate Utahn who has to live on a game developer's salary). But in other countries, it's a pretty steep price - too steep for many would-be customers. What do you do? Many companies offer goods at discounted pricing in other parts of the world, but that's very hard to restrict in the online world.

Amanda Fitch, creator of Aveyond, once mentioned an interesting approach she took with that problem. Dealing with it on a case-by-case basis, she went back to the barter system to get a fair exchange. For those would-be-customers who absolutely could not afford the price of the game, she offered to trade a copy in exchange for services... in the form of marketing efforts. Because there's one thing we indies can't get enough of (and can't afford enough of), and that's MARKETING!

Your Turn
Okay, I know there are some folks here who've been at this a lot longer (and more successfully) than I have. What kind of problems have you run into, and what are your suggestions? Are there any other problems you've run into? Or better solutions?

Thanks!


(Vaguely) related brain-dumps:
* 20 Ways To Make Money Making Indie Games
* Yes, Virginia, There Is Money In Indie Games
* What Do Indies Have In Common With Avis
* Should I Become An Indie Game Developer?
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Sunday, February 04, 2007
 
Will 2007 Be The Year of the Downloadable Game?
Several years ago I predicted - quite boldly, even to my own ears - that by 2010 digital, broadband distribution of games would replace retail as the dominant means of distribution of games. I claimed (and still claim) that retail, brick-and-mortar sales of games at places like Wal*Mart, Best Buy, and GameStop would still be around, but they'd diminish in importance to direct downloads.

As far as PC games are concerned, I think I may have been a bit too conservative.

Now Available - As Downloads
I recently discovered that many of my most eagerly-anticipated games are not likely to be available at the local Best Buy. If I really want to have the game in a professionally packaged backup disc, I may have to order it online and have it shipped to me. Or, in most cases, a downloadable option will also be available. I can burn it on my own discs.

While looking to find the release date for a DVD-ROM version of the upcoming IL-2: 1946 flight sim (upcoming for us here in the U.S. - most of the world already has the game), I discovered that the older versions of the game are still available from GameStop... as downloads. We're talking a seven-year-old game, in the case of the first game. It's one big download, but it's possible to make it available now. This is something that was effectively unavailable in retail stores several years back. Could it be possible that the life cycles of games can be extended indefinitely this way?

Steam Cleaning
There's a lot of talk amongst mainstream press about Valve's Steam. In spite of its troubled beginning, it's achieved enough penetration due to its high-profile offerings that it's now a significant distribution channel for games. In fact, there's at least one game I avoided due to it's nasty copy protection (X3: Reunion) which I am far more interested in as a direct download. As of tonight, there are 111 games available for purchase via Steam - from fairly current, full-retail price offerings (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Civilization IV, Prey, Medieval II: Total War), to games that did poorly in retail that are enjoying a second lease on life as "long tail" downloads (Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Psychonauts), to older games (Gun, X2 - The Threat), to completely indie offerings (Eets: The Hunger, Rag Doll Kung-Fu, Defcon).

In fact, one of the game category tabs in Steam is labeled, "Indie." Completely separate from the "Casual" category. How cool is that?

Casual and Mainstream
And since I mentioned casual games... an estimated $713 in revenue two years ago, and that figure is continuing to climb. And the primary means of distibution for casual games is direct downloads (I *think*, though I know the sales of boxed versions at Wal*Mart remains pretty significant).

Mainstream PC gaming magazines are beginning to devote more and more of their (unfortunately slender) page counts to casual and "indie" games available via downloads. It's the fastest-growing segment of the industry, and they can see the writing on the wall.

Many massively-multiplayer games don't require players to purchase a boxed version of the client. In fact, some don't even have a boxed copy available --- you sign up online, download your client online, and pay for it all online. Even if you do buy the client in a box at GameStop, within a year the bulk of your client's code and content will have been downloaded over the web.

The Long Road To Overnight Success
The revolution started years ago, but continues to gather speed. Based upon my guesstimations last month, we may have already come to the point where the less than half of the PC gaming industry's revenues are being generated from traditional brick-and-mortar distribution.

Part of the problem is explained by Greg Costikyan in his recent article, "Are Retailers Actually Screwed?" What it comes down to is that retailers - like many web sites - make the bulk of their profits not by selling games, but rather by selling advertising. They've got deals in place that mitigate the risk of unsold merchandise, too, so they actually have little to gain or lose from the actual game sales themselves. In fact, they have so little to gain or lose that many stores have turned to used-game sales as a major source of revenue --- actually competing against the manufacturers that make their products!

In my opinion, that's a busted model. When an industry is dependent upon a piece that is not rewarded by behaviors that benefit the health of the industry, either the industry will die, or it will have to replace that "broken" piece. With online distribution finally becoming a viable channel, the replacement is inevitable.

My guess is that my 2010 prediction will have been off by about three years, as far as PC games are concerned. With the number of PC games dissapearing (to the point where many stores I've seen only offer a single, forlorn shelf in the back corner for PC gaming fans), and with the increased awareness of online distribution in the minds of the consumer, it seems like evolution at work.

And To Further Console You...
And consoles have gotten into the act, too. All three of the major consoles this round seem to have some kind of downloadable content system in place. LiveArcade has become a huge success story for Microsoft, and Nintendo and Sony seem to have followed suit. The opportunity to buy older "emulated" games for earlier consoles has many old-school Nintendo fans salivating.

The limited storage space on the consoles will prohibit downloads from becoming a dominant form of distribution with the current generation. We'll have to see about the next generation of consoles, which we should expect somewhere around 2013. So I'll miss my projection by at least three years in the opposite direction for console games.

But I think change is coming, like it or not. But with GameStop now offering downloadable games as well, it looks to me like they are planning to evolve with it.

These are interesting days to be a gamer. But haven't they always been?

(Vaguely) related ruminations:
* Why the PC Game Industry Figures Are Baloney
* PC Gaming Is Far From Dead
* Videogaming On The Decline (Again?)
* Alternatives to Front-Loading Games Sales
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Friday, February 02, 2007
 
What Are The Best Multiplayer Games of All Time?
GamaSutra asked the question, "What are the most important multiplayer games of all time (excluding MMOs)?" Unfortunately, there was apparently no good answer, so instead they simply posted some of the highlights from the reader survey. Most were predictable. The highlights include Bomberman, Quake III Arena, Quake I, Battlefield: 1942, Tribes, Wii Sports (I wonder how much of that is hype and newness... though having played it I agree it's a lot of fun), Goldeneye 007, Double Dragon II, Ikari Warriors (yay for the old school arcade games!), and Pokemon.

I would question some of the choices (I always thought Quake III Arena was eclipsed by both Unreal Tournament and Team Fortress), but that's a pretty solid list.

Now, as for *me*, what games would I put on the list? Well, I don't know if I'd call them the most important, but as to my favorite (and most significant in my life) non-MMO Multiplayer Games of all time, I'd say:

* Joust - This was perhaps the most brilliantly-designed multiplayer arcade game of its time. Some waves rewarded you for cooperating - some encouraged you to battle each other. The game is still amazingly fun, over two decades later.

* Gauntlet - This was the first real cooperative multiplayer videogame I ever played, and I remember the experience fondly. We dumped so many quarters into the machine one night at the pizzaria... and didn't regret one cent.

* Doom - The game that launched a thousand LAN parties. And it allowed cooperative play, which was even cooler. Ah, back in the day where you could get away with locking the framerate to the network update speed, and ignore standards to use port 666...

* Mechwarrior II - It was never intended to be played over the Internet, but we used Kali to do it. The game had a great following, and people invented meta-games to layer on top of it to keep it fresh. Such was the love the fans had for the game.

* Twisted Metal - Is it vain to me to say this? One of the coolest things working on Twisted Metal is that its creators were also its biggest fans. We had an awesome time playing this game, even if we were paid to do it (though sometimes I think we ended up playing it far beyond what we needed to in order to test changes...) It was Street Fighter in cars and 3D environments, and we just had a blast with it. Jet Moto was almost as much fun to play as we built it, too, but I'll leave it at only one SingleTrac game :)

* ATF Gold: Playable over the Internet, this game had a pretty large following for a while. A hack allowed people to fly every one of the 80 or so aircraft in the game. The game wasn't the most realistic sim of all time, but it captured the essence well enough, and unlike most other flight sims of the era, it was very stable online. We played it a ton at work. And, like Mechwarrior II, the fans were legion and created meta-games around it.

* Rainbow Six / Rogue Spear - The "Thinking Man's First-Person Shooter." We mostly played it as a LAN game... the first game had some real lag problems over the Internet. But both coop and competitive, we'd have an awesome time, every time. We'd rarely use hostages in our coop games - it was all us versus insta-death potential. Especially when George would use his SAW to shoot out all the windows on our approach... he says he just couldn't help it.

* Void War - More vanity. Like Twisted Metal, it's my baby. I suspect there have been very few online matches of 6 or more players at a time, but it is just phenominally fun. Asteroids in 3D multiplayer. My favorite trick (which works against the AI, too) is to fly the Nighthawk directly at an obstacle while my opponent is chasing me, and then hyperspace out at the last second. If I'm lucky, my opponent is still alive after crashing, but with depleted shields and armor so I can easily pick him off when I get back.

* Unreal Tournament 2004 - I'm not a big First-Person-Shooter fan. But UT2004 took everything that was awesome about the original and UT2003, fixed whatever it was they screwed up it UT2003, made it more awesome, and added more game types. And they brought back assault mode!

* Starcraft - I wasn't quite so fond of the game in single-player, but the fact of the matter is it's phenominal in multiplayer. And I mean "phenominal" - the thing is still selling nearly 10 years later, and it was a legitimate phenomina in Korea. That's not just a good game, there.

* The IL-2 Series - This includes IL-2 Sturmovik, Forgotten Battles, Pacific Fighters, and several expansions (I'm anxiously awaiting IL-2: 1946, which is supposedly going to be out in the U.S. any day now, but I think I may have to order an import from Canada or the UK). While ATF: Gold was impressive for having over 80 flyable aircraft with a hack, the IL-2 series (with all of the products joined together into one mega-pack) features over 220 flyable aircraft, and over 300 total aircraft, all modeled with painstaking realism. It's simply the ultimate World War II flight sim. And it's rock-solid in multiplayer. Granted, many of the flyable aircraft are variants of each other, but the game is so well modeled that the difference of a bubble canopy, more horsepower, and slightly bigger cannons makes a huge difference. If you are a hardcore flight sim enthusiast, you probably already have these games.

* Neverwinter Nights - We spent about 4 hours a week playing this game multiplayer for a couple of YEARS. That's the most time I've spent in a non-MMO multiplayer game EVER. While far from perfect, the ease in which you could create new modules, and the increadible "DM Mode" resulted in a game that allowed people to literally create the type of game they wanted to play. You had persistent worlds, role-playing oriented games, hack-and-slash action, and more. I haven't tried NWN2 out yet (I'm waiting for the patch situation to work itself out, and for people to give the thumbs-up on multiplayer), but I'm hoping it will offer even better.

* Guitar Hero II - particularly cooperative multiplayer. At the end of a difficult song, you can't help but want to high-five your partner for the both of you helping each other out to pull it off.

Okay, I *know* I've missed a few good ones. And while I loved Diablo and Diablo II, the multiplayer experience for me usually sucked unless I was playing ONLY with friends. So... what are the multiplayer games (non-MMO)


(Vaguely) Related Cheap Thoughts...
* Game Moments #16: Mechwarrior II
* Why Cooperative Multiplayer Is The Best
* Ah, a LAN Party
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Thursday, February 01, 2007
 
Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Dance Dance Revolution
If you want to succeed in school, you'd better not neglect your video-game playing, young man!

I've heard about this before, but couldn't find a link for my post the other day. Apparently, West Virginia (the state of my birth, as you now know) has now (?) set up Konami's Dance Dance Revolution game in every one of their public schools. This is hot on the heels of a study of children that stopped an average weight gain of 1/2 pound every week (!!!) prior to playing (in the control group), and no weight gain afterwards.

Now, first off, I'm going to say right now that I heartily approve. Gaming for your health - what's not to love? And as an officially public-school sponsored program... cool.

But man... an average of 1/2 of a pound per week in the study? DANG. No kidding the state is the worst in the nation for childhood obesity. I think what they REALLY need is an education program for the parents on how to feed their kids. I know what the problem is... lotsa kids, no money. Result? The really cheap low-nutrition, high-calorie processed food available in mass quantities at the supermarket. Microwaveable stuff, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, buttered grits (as an aside - YUM) and lots of hot dogs.

Ah, well. At least some kids will be getting some good exercise...

(Vaguely) related insane mutterings:
* Viva La Revolucion!
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Apocalypse Cow - What Do I Do Now?
One of the things I discovered watching a new player try out Apocalypse Cow recently was that the suspected need of some kind of an arrow pointing the way to the next (or nearest) goal was going to be required.

While the project began with some of the same gameplay as the classic arcade game Choplifter, I quickly expanded on it to include a number of different mission types and sub-goals to be achieved during the course of a mission. Much of the time they aren't strictly linear, and the interior maps usually have some minor branches in them.

The end result? In spite of the text dialog explaining what the player needs to do, it's easy to ignore or forget, and get completely lost or confused as to what you are supposed to do. So --- I'm adding the goal arrow to lead the way. It won't be there for every mission, and in some maps you may still have to hunt down the routes to get to wherre the arrow is pointing, but for the most part it should help you know what you can do next.

My concern is that it might encourage some linearity where it isn't strictly required. But I guess a player who doesn't like the linearity will figure out that they can ignore the arrow and do their own thing anyway, so long as they achieve the mission's objectives (which are usually pretty simple --- like protect an outhouse in the middle of the arctic for five minutes, which is for some reason the target of a massive bovine onslaught).

The other thing I discovered by taking a step back and looking at the "complete" alpha was a deficiency in the humor department. There's a zillion shooters and arcade action games out there (even some humorous ones), and many of them look very nice. What Apocalypse Cow has going for it is its style (such as it is) and humor. I've been pretty head-down worrying about gameplay for many moons now, trying to keep the gameplay fresh and interesting across all of nearly two-dozen levels, so I've been neglecting the goofiness that's going to make shooting down the evil Bovino Moosolini so fun.

So once I get those last "blinding suck" elements crossed off the list, I'm going to be having some REAL fun with the game. The kind of fun that made me excited to do it in the first place. Bizarre, off-the-wall, good-ol'-fashioned stupid fun with more puns, juvenile humor, fun exploding cow particles, and some visual jokes.

I can't wait! How's THAT for motivation to fix bugs?

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