Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Saturday, March 31, 2007
 
Digital Distribution: Who Gets My Money?
In their own inimitable style, Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade have weighed in on the "used game" issue, but more specifically discuss digital distribution.

To them, it's a done deal. "Tycho" posts, "Going completely digital is a growing option for PC centered titles and its native developers - for example, I'm typing this post while Command & Conquer 3 drips down to me via EA's digital solution. I've also been a huge proponent of Steam. But even in the next round of consoles, you'll see those massive hard discs put to work storing full products. Marketplace, EDI, and the Shopping Channel are the first chapter of a story that ends poorly for Gamestop."

And as usual, their cartoon is funny and poignant. Although I have noted that GameStop has already jumped on the digitial distribution bandwagon.

But when you are planning on getting your next new game online, are you going to go to GameStop.com? Or will you go to the developer's / publisher's website? What does GameStop offer you, the customer, that warrents a portion of your cash when you are shopping online for digital downloads to your system? Is there any added value there?

Information about the game - faster downloads - free extras - community support - those would all be added values that would be worth it for me. Otherwise, I'd just as soon go directly through the publisher's or developer's site... or maybe an affiliate link through an online games site that has reviewed the game and helped me with my purchase decision.

To survive in the age of digital distribution, the brick-and-mortar media guys have to reinvent themselves. Their old service - slapping information into distributable package, and providing a moderately convenient place for consumers to get access to it - is losing its value. Its based on a foundation of technological limitation that is gradually fading away.

They've got a limited period of time to pull off the reinvention, or they will go the way of Tower Records (and I actually shopped at that very Rockville shop mentioned in Tycho's post). It'll be interesting to see what happens.


(Vaguely) related grumbles:
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?
* I Will Not Mourn Their Passing
* Indie Evolution or Revolution?
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Friday, March 30, 2007
 
Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters
There's a blog post on Game Crush called "Random Battles Equals Random Annoyance." Scorpia has followed up with her own commentary called "Random Encounters."

This has actually been a design issue I've been struggling with on my own, one which I still don't have a perfectly satisfactory answer for. But I thought I'd share my musings. And of course, I can't resist the opportunity to run off at the mouth (or the fingers) about one of my favorite subjects, RPG design.

Why Wandering Monsters
First off, the wayback machine. The whole concept of random encounters began in dice & paper games of old. The first edition Dungeon Masters Guide for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, printed in 1979, devoted several pages in Appendix C to "Random Monster Encounters." They served a great purpose in dice & paper games. They were a simulational abstraction, a tool for a DM who couldn't keep track of everything going on in his brain.

They were also referred to in modules by another term: "wandering monsters."

And that's what they were supposed to be. Not every monster sat contendedly in its room, guarding its treasure, oblivious to the sound of battle right outside its bedroom door. Players were not supposed to feel perfectly safe standing around in corridors or in rooms they'd already bathed in the blood of their opponents. The threat of the wandering monster was supposed to keep them pushing forward, and keep them from spending hours and hours cobalt testing the doors before opening them, and taking naps to restore spells in the middle of the troll's lair.

Even then, however, the modules and adventures usually indicated that the monsters came from SOMEWHERE. This was even illustrated in the sample adventure included in the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide, where the wandering monster table stated exactly where those monsters came from. If you killed the 3-12 goblins encountered as a wandering monster check out in the hall, they were explicitly on patrol from rooms 7 & 8 on the map, which means they WOULDN'T be there to do battle against you when you kicked open the door to room 7 an hour later.

From this perspective, random encounters / wandering monsters are a good thing. Battles shouldn't only occur on the player's terms and on the player's timetable. Otherwise, it gets boring (as it does in some PC CRPGs, when encounters occur almost exclusively when the player moves into a particular trigger area).

It can easily go too far in the other direction, too. Jessie Decker and David Noonan mention this in their excellent article, "Let's Get Small: Adventure Design Part I." I'll just borrow a quote:
"In real life, if you attack a site full of armed, dangerous people, the entirety of them will respond—probably overwhelmingly, and probably right at the entrance. But that rarely makes for a satisfying D&D game. First, PCs don’t feel a sense of progression when they’re fighting battle after battle in room A1, not exploring the entire adventure site. Second, the PCs don’t get to make interesting noncombat decisions—the “left door or right door” sorts of questions. Third, a dungeon that empties out in response to a PC attack starts to feel like a random monster generator."
Wandering monsters resolve two issues at once. They help meet the demands of "realism" - such as it is. And, if used conservatively, they add to the game balance and fun factor (players may whine, but that feeling of risk makes them enjoy it all the more). It's rare you can kill both of those birds with one stone.

Wandering Monsters To The Rescue!
When I started running Neverwinter Nights games online, I implemented a limitation on how often someone could rest - part of a whole "Table Top Variant" set of lightweight rules I created to make the online experience somewhat closer to that of live "dice and paper" gaming. Otherwise, players would enter every single encounter fully rested, and the concept of "resource management" (or even bothering to use scrolls, potions, or wands) never entered into the strategy - it was always a straight-out brawl with the best spells at max hitpoints. Not much strategy at all. And, I thought, boring.

So I implemented the delay between rest periods. That helped a little. But what it really did was slow down the games. The players were still "safe" and knew they were safe, and would simply delay fights until they had a chance to rest. They might skip a rest break if they didn't think the upcoming fight was going to be too challenging, so it helped a little. But mainly, it just made the game slower, which was even more boring.

I started manually adding random encounters. THIS shook things up. Then I added some code to automate this process. They tended to appear when someone took a rest break (hey, you are taking a nap in the middle of a hostile dungeon, what do you expect?). That shook things up even more.

Well, I don't think the players liked it very much. They complained. However, it seemed to me that while the wandering monster encounters were frustrating (as they tended to disrupt the best-laid plans, usually hatched while milling about just outside the door to the Big Bad's Throne Room), I think they made the overall adventures better and more fun for the players. The risk, the sense of urgency, the drive to push forward in spite of not being at full resources, and the sense of danger heightened the overall experience and made it better.

It's kinda like losing a game. Most people don't like to lose. That's not the fun part of playing a game. But it's no fun to win if there's significant risk of losing either. The random encounters weren't anybody's favorite part of the game. But the threat of random encounters - and the encounters themselves which threw a wrench into otherwise straightforward plans - really did heighten the interest of the whole game.

Well, so I believe, both as a player and a designer / game master. My players might have a whole 'nother story to tell you, but if they do, don't believe them! It was all for their own good! :)

A Series of Irritating Random Encounters
But I know of what ItalianBreadMan is talking about in his rant. Too much of this, and you get exactly what Noonan and Decker were talking about - the dungeon becoming a random monster generator (with some boss encounters at the end). Literally. Console CRPGs (and some older PC RPGs) are among the worst. The web-based Massively Multiplayer RPG, Kingdom of Loathing, even lampoons this mechanic in the "Penultimate Fantasy Airship" level with the "A Series of Irritating Random Encounters" monster.

Too much of a good thing? A little bit of salt adds to the flavor. A swig of pure salt will make you vomit. Some console RPGs, where save points may be separated by tunnels filled with little but random battle possibilities, might not make you vomit, but they sure can trigger the gag reflex.

And you can't help but wonder, when playing these games, "Where the heck are these monsters coming from?" You've gone through the whole dungeon three times, killing everything in sight, yet they still keep coming. It makes you wonder where the "Monster Generators" from the Gauntlet arcade games are hidden, so you can destroy them. In fact, wandering about aimlessly waiting for random encounters to happen even becomes a key activity in these games, as you attempt to level up a couple times before facing the end-quest boss.

It begins to feel like the "Really Really Random RPG".

Realistic, Goal-Driven, Simulated Aimless Random Wandering
Now, in modern CRPGs, this thole thing has been rendered a moot point by the computer's ability to do away with this abstraction. Instead of simulating monsters going on patrol and surprising the player, this can simulated explicitly. Done properly, the whole concept of random encounters can be done away with entirely, yet still retain the excitement that comes from the monsters taking the initiative.

In fact, we could have the AI keep schedules, behave believably throughout. The player could even do the whole rogue thing and wait for the monsters to go to dinner or hunting or something, and walk off with their treasure later. Or the monsters could mount a full defense, setting off all the alarms and coordinate attacks against the player, and...

Aw, crud. Now we're back to having gameplay ruined by too much realism, aren't we? The older console games did it with a single dice roll routine. We've had to devote months to dealing with pathfinding, animation, and general AI to do do the exact same thing. AND we had to worry about polygon counts with all the monsters ending up in the same room... (Ugh! Cue flashback of Permafrost pathing bugs in EverQuest causing my framerate to drop into the low-single-digits.... Those were some spectacular deaths....)

The trick is finding the happy medium. I think Oblivion managed to do that pretty well. It seemed like there was a good mix of roamers vs. static monsters. It's not a perfect solution, but I don't think there really is one. Game design is much more art than science. And so far, conceeding art to the computer's CPU has rarely resulted in a rich experience.

So what it all comes down to me is: Wandering Monsters Good, Truly Random Encounters Bad.

With shades of gray in-between.

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Interview With The Father of DirectX, Alex St. John
Alex St. John was the "Gaming Evangelist" at Microsoft when I started my career in the game development biz. He threw me a really awesome birthday party once, though he had no clue he was doing it at the time. He was the guy who really pushed through the DirectX initiative back in the day. And he's now involved in indie games, as the founder of Wild Tangent.

He's been interviewed at Shacknews, principally concerning his role in creating DirectX. This was awesome reading for me, as I was there in this era, on the periphery at least, viewing it from the angle to a game developer trying to figure out Microsoft's strategy (and being immediately suspicious, balking at the idea that a bigger, bulkier operating system could actually make games run BETTER). He also talks a lot about the politics at Microsoft, how he kept almost getting fired, and a little bit about Windows Vista and Gaming (which he isn't too happy about).

We were working with Rendermorphics when Microsoft (under Alex St. John's direction) bought them out. We were really irritated with them because we liked their API but needed some changes (or access to their code to make the changes), and they suddenly became very unresponsive. They were still friendly with us, and really were nice guys, but they suddenly wouldn't commit to anything. We were starting to look at alternative APIs when the announcement came out that they'd been bought, and that their new, improved API would be integrated into Microsoft's DirectX 2 for-friggin-free, and it all became clear.

And it took Microsoft another three years to fix the problem we'd been complaining to Rendermorphics about. DirectX 6 or 7, I think. That stupid execute buffer. It made perfect sense for things like 3D fighting games, or anywhere else where the polygon list was relatively static. But for a game like Warhawk (or any First Person Shooter), it was horrible. When Microsoft told us at a GDC that they were going to kill it dead, they acted like they were leading the charge to get rid of it, although they'd been ignoring the shouts of angry game developers for MONTHS.

Ah, the memories.

Originally, I was hired to be a PC guy at SingleTrac, so I was much more involved in what was going on for PC ports of our games. But very quickly I was pushed on to full Playstation development. I was still a PC game fan at heart, though, so I kinda forced myself into the periphery of things. So some of my coworkers got to go to the events mentioned in the interview, and I just got to hear about them later. My wife says she's very happy I missed the one with the eight-foot-tall vagina. Ah, the game industry in the mid-90's! It was a crazy time.

Alex says in the interview, "I actually attribute my reasons for being successful there to listening carefully to the game developers. My strategy was very simple--I go to them and ask, "What kind of crack would you get addicted to?" They'd tell me, and I'd go back to Microsoft and say, "If we make this crack, those developers will buy it." Very simple. DirectX was essentially the crack they asked me to make. That's the way you hook somebody--ask them what they'll pay money for, then go make it."

That's pretty much exactly what they did, and they made no secret about it. After years of being given total crap to work with on Windows, and told "Here it is, you'll use it and you'll like it!", this was a stunning new approach by Microsoft. Except we didn't even have to pay for it. The clincher for DirectX - more than anything else - was hardware / driver independence. Game developers for years had had to struggle with supporting all kinds of different hardware. The AdLib sound card versus the Covox versus the Gravis Ultrasound versus Sound Blaster versus Sound Blaster Pro versus the really nice MIDI sound cards. And all the different joysticks. And EGA versus VGA vs SVGA and the whole "Mode X" thing. And it wasn't just the game developers. If you load up DOSBox and try out some of the games from around 1990 to 1995, you will find yourself immediately faced with baffling configuration screens asking for IRQs, Ports, and so forth for every single game.

The big thing that DirectX offered was that independence. No more having to create your own configuration screen. No more confused tech support calls by customers trying to figure out why they couldn't hear sound out of their weird sound card that nobody had ever heard of. Then, with DirectX 2, they introduced a 3D API which was pretty fast (if cumbersome).

Like I said, the games industry (and PC gaming) in the mid-90's was crazy.

And as far as Vista? Well, Alex has already made his point known, but he elaborates: "Well, the PC--forget the operating system--is always a great platform. Modern PCs have superior graphics and memory and processing power to any next-gen console. I don't think Microsoft did anything to help the PC as a gaming platform with Vista, and that's a tremendous frustration because I take it very personally. If I would've been there, I would have made much more aggressive efforts to make sure Vista stayed out of the way of games. What you see with Microsoft is, without people at Microsoft who realize that the operating system does not add value to gaming, it gets in the way, they think they can add more value by adding in more sh** that only gets in the way of making a good game. Unfortunately, Vista does that. Microsoft added more sh** that impedes game development. It's certainly possible to make great games in Vista, it's just more of a pain in the ass than it needs to be. I think Vista is a missed opportunity for Microsoft to have done a better job in supporting PC gaming."

Anyway, as you can expect, Alex St. John is very ... outspoken. The interview is awesome, especially if you remember the heady Windows 95 days...

Interview With Alex St. John at Shacknews

I am dissapointed that he never mentions the toga party where the live lion got loose. Maybe he's trying to forget that one.

(Vaguely) related retro-views through infrared-tinted glasses:
* Dress Codes And Development
* The Wildest Birthday Party Ever
* Is Vista Going To Destroy Indie Gaming?
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Thursday, March 29, 2007
 
Indie RPG Roundtable
So what's happening in the world of indie CRPGs?

In case you missed everyone-and-his-cousin announcing this earlier this week, RPG Codex ran a great interview with three indie RPG developers - Jason Compton, producer of The Broken Hourglass; Thomas Riegsecker, lead developer of Eschelon Book 1; and Steven Peeler, lead designer / programmer of Depths of Peril.

Check out the interview here:
Interview With Indie RPG Developers

These are all (by my understanding) "big" RPGs. From a brief discussion I had with Jason Compton, it sounds like they is actively seeking a publisher / distribution partner. Interestingly enough, Steven Peeler is a six-year veteran of Ritual Entertainment, so he's also an experienced developer from the mainstream game industry.

All three games - by their screenshots - are looking pretty sharp. They don't have AAA-release $20million budget photo-realistic graphics, but the visuals are nice and professional, as you can see for yourself in the screenshots:


Eschelon: Book 1


Depths of Peril


The Broken Hourglass

What makes these games interesting, both from an RPG fan's point-of-view and from an indie point-of-view?

Eschelon: Book 1 is my favorite (so far) out of the batch. It's a turn-based RPG, for one thing --- a rarity these days. Thomas and his team have gone back to classic CRPGs for inspiration for this game, and it shows in both the screenshot and what has been written about this game in this interview and elsewhere. It looks like Basalisk Games may be poised to give Spiderweb a run for its money for this style of RPG. Who will win? My money is on RPG fans!!!

Soldak Entertainment's Depths of Peril looks like the most traditional (of modern RPGs) design - an action-RPG that looks like it may have Diablo-esque gameplay. The twist is a strong strategy / political element to the game --- something that at first blush sounds a little incongruous with more hack-and-slash action gameplay. But I'm anxious to see how Soldak pulls it off. The game also features a more open-ended, organic quest system - quests you can actually fail and have "believable consequences."

Jason has been very public with the development of some very unique, cool gameplay mechanics in a weekly series for The Broken Hourglass. I've been reading the series, and every week I find myself saying, "Gah! Why didn't I think of that?" One of the coolest innovations that has caught my eye is the "party skills" system. Since there are many activities that involve the entire party of adventurers, the game calculates a composite "group skill" level based upon the contributions of individual party members. I immediately think of rogue skills in relation to the whole group, and apparently they've got that covered.

I try to curb my enthusiasm somewhat when I read these things, realizing that a lot of things that sound awesome on paper often come out a little less spectacular in the final implementation. That's the way of things. But it looks like we RPG fans have interesting times ahead from the indie RPG sector, and I mean that in a good way.


(Vaguely) related prattling-on...
* RPG Preview: Eschalon Book 1
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* 2006 Indie RPGs of the Year Announced
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
 
Chicken Invaders III Now Available At Rampant Games
As part of the minor overhaul of the Rampant Games website, I've added Chicken Invaders III as an affiliate.

I discovered the game because, like Apocalypse Cow, it involves violence to barnyard animals. It's a pretty straight-up top-down shooter, with an obviously off-the-wall sense of humor.

I mean, Space Chickens! What's not to like?

Try the demo, and let me know if I'm just on drugs or something (well, I am ... I'm on cold medication, but I got hooked on the game BEFORE that...)

Chicken Invaders III

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How I Single-Handedly Lost the Pacific War
The big new game release that I had to direct order because local stores don't bother with PC games anymore was IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946. If the name is a little bit unwieldy, it is only because the game itself is pretty much a poster child for "Hardcore Gaming."

The IL-2 Sturmovik series (of which this latest edition is something of a "platinum pack") has been THE game for people who want to experience every nuance of being in the cockpit of a World War II military aircraft, short of feeling real G-forces or real bullets. Of Russian design, this game models over 300 aircraft with painstaking accuracy, including 229 player-flyable aircraft. With only a handful of exceptions (mainly because certain companies have decided that millions in taxpayer money wasn't enough - they want licensing fees for representation of 60-year-old aircraft), if it was a combat aircraft in World War II, it's in the game, and you can probably fly it.

Or try to.

Now, that's not necessarily 229 totally unique aircraft that you can fly. There's somewhere around 75 unique aircraft, plus tons of variants. Now, a variant might not seem like a big deal. But to WWII aviation enthusiasts (or an IL-2 Sturmovik player), there's a HUGE difference between a 1940-model Bf-109E/4 fighter, and a Bf-109G/14 that entered service four years later. It certainly seems huge when you are in a twisting, turning dogfight with a Spitfire, at least (to be exact... a Spitfire Mk VIII from 1943)...

Did I mention "Hardcore?" Things like engine temperature and fuel-oil mixtures, and whether or not your fuel is gravity-fed or has a fuel pump (so your engine doesn't conk out in a negative-G maneuver) are just as important as how much ammunition is left for your guns. Of course, you can simplify most of the realism settings in a menu down to arcade-game levels. But somehow I don't think the availability of simplified settings is really going to make this game appeal to a less-hardcore crowd.

A Method To The Madness?
As I understand it, the IL-2 series began life as a very detailed study of only one aircraft - the Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik. If you haven't heard of it, it's probably because you aren't a Russian military aviation buff. To its credit, it's the most heavily produced military aircraft in all of aviation history - and the second most-produced plane (civilian or military) of all time. Apparently, after the designers spent all this time making one of the most sophisticated combat flight simulators in history, they realized that:

(A) That it would be (relatively) easy to make other aircraft in the game flyable by players with just as much fidelity, and...

(B) They'd BETTER throw in some flyable planes that U.S. players had actually heard of if they wanted it to sell outside of eastern Europe.

The first game was a hit, and they followed up with two sequels (Forgotten Battles, and - catering to the American audience - Pacific Fighters), and two expansions (the Aces Expansion, and an online-distributed "single-plane" study of the PE-2... another plane we American flight sim buffs have often never heard of). Then they wrapped it all up with the new 1946 package, which includes everything heretofore released, plus an additional campaign in Asia (Sturmoviks Over Manchuria), and some aircraft that didn't make it into production before the end of hostilities (for a hypothetical continuation of the war into 1946).

Let's Play War!
And with stable network code that supports up to 64 players in a single dogfight... with virtually any aircraft in World War II (plus tanks, buildings, ships, AAA artillery, trucks, trains, and all those other good targets), I figured I was in for a real treat. You could jump online with 64 of your closest friends and simulate an entire battle! Well, kinda.

I'd dabbled in multiplayer many winters ago with Forgotten Battles, and thought I'd done okay. But I haven't played since, and I've only been playing the series off and on since then. I get hooked on it for a week or two, and then quit. But this weekend, after spending several weeks playing and learning how easy it is to get the P-39 Airacobra into a flat spin (which, apparently, was a problem it had in real life --- go figure!) and practicing with several planes against all kinds of AI (all set to "average" skill level), I thought I'd "kick the tires and light the fires" and see how hardcore World War II reenactment was going online.

There were around 200 players on several different servers, when I logged in to Hyperlobby to check things out. I found a server with a lot of players on it, and decided to see what World War II in the air was like. The battle was taking place somewhere over the Coral Sea. I was ready. I joined the "Red" team. I'd be facing the "Blue" team. You know, color coding is so much easier to keep track of than Axis vs. Allies. I spent some time reading over the rules of fair play. After all, this is simulated World War II, which should be much more fun than the real thing.

The battle was purely a case of attrition. Each side began with so many planes available for use. Every time a plane was destroyed, the total plane count would drop. Once you hit zero, your side lost, and the opposing team would win. And, I assume, it would start all over again. It seemed both sides had quite a few planes left, so the battle would last a while yet.

Or at least, it WOULD have lasted a while, had I not shown up!

Many aircraft were available to me to use to defend my beloved homeland of Red. There were planes of all kinds of nationalities, from an American B-25 bomber to a British Spitfire, to a Russian FW-190, some Russian aircraft, and... ah-hah! A late-model P-47 (one with the bubble canopy, for improved visibility). I chose it without a second thought. It's my favorite WWII fighter!

Soon I was up and flying! Well, no, that's not exactly right. Here's what really happened.

Losing The War In Eight Easy Steps
Plane #1: I was in the cockpit, and started my engine. I looked around to find out where the runway is. I catch a glimpse of several aircraft up in the sky. I should be safe - the official rule on the board was that you could not destroy a plane on the ground. Unless you were a bomber.

As my plane began moving, I saw the aircraft zoom overhead. Hey, was that a B-25 bomber? For the opposing team?

BOOM! I blow up, plus one other player unfortunate enough to get caught in the rain of explosives.

Plane #2: Okay. This time I'd move faster. I'd not wait around to take in the scenery. I immediately start the engine, throttle up, taxi around... right into the respawning aircraft of another player. BOOM! Both our aircraft have exploded. Okay, I've now hurt my beloved mother country of Red by THREE planes in only two tries.

Plane #3: This time, I turn and taxi to the LEFT instead of the right. Unfortunately, this time the other player respawns to my left. My wing hits his propeller and.... THWAP THWAP KAPOW *REND*. Another two planes wiped out and depleted from Red's score. I really suck.

Plane #4: I've had enough of this. These aircraft could take off on a level field if need be, so I try that. I'm gonna skip the runway entirely. I almost make it, too. Just before I reach a high enough speed to lift off, by wheels hit the edge of the lake. My plane sinks.

Plane #5: I make it to the runway this time. But seeing enemy planes back in the air above me, I'm a little too quick to throttle up. I overcompensate for the resulting torque, and I go off the runway and wreck. I should know better than this!

Plane #6: Coming onto the runway to take off, I accidentally clip some equipment on the side of the runway (why'd they put it so close to the runway anyway?) and the plane is unflyable. I don't know if it counted as a loss or not.

Plane #7: FINALLY! I got my crate up in the air. I'm low and slow, but slowly circling to gain altitude. Another player is doing the same. Out from the northwest come two racing enemy planes from Blue. I don't have much airspeed, but I manage to get a piece of one of the two attacking FW-190s. I don't do much damage to him, but it does force him to abandon his attack against a friendly plane (the same friendly plane I crashed into... twice... it looks like he managed to finally get off the ground, too). But then I'm engaged by the 190's wingman, who manages to take big chunks out of my aircraft. I lose much of my rudder, and one aileron. Still, the P-47 can take a pounding. I try to land my plane on only half my control surfaces. I don't quite make it. I cause a lot of wreckage to appear on the runway.

Plane #8: This time, the air is clear when I take off out of the runway. This time, if I'm gonna crash, I'm gonna crash on the ENEMY base! Off I go, into the wild blue yonder, getting some altitude advantage to mercilessly use to defeat my poor foes, low on altitude, airspeed, and ideas. I see the enemy airfield, and I spot two aircraft heading my way. Both FW-190s, by the looks of them. They are below me but climbing fast --- very fast. Did they put rockets on those things?

I roll my plane and begin a turning dive, turning altitude into airspeed. I barely see the tracers before one of my wings is shot off. I bail out of the spinning aircraft, and enjoy a very long look at the scenery as I parachute down from about 10,000 feet.

At this point, I've single-handedly dropped Red's score by ten points. Now, as an excuse, I think those guys in the FW-190s have been playing the game quite a bit for years. Maybe. And maybe that I REALLY need a lot more practice. Either way, I figure its time to quit the field in shame. I'll be back... and maybe then I'll play for Blue team and help them lose a few points!

Somehow, I don't think it was quite like this in 1944...

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007
 
Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG, Part III: Beyond Lockpicking
Monte Cook (co-author of the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules) wrote an essay once called "A Second Edition Joke." I recommend reading it now - it's short - because I'm gonna go and spoil the punchline in the next paragraph. Not that it's all that funny, but it's better to read it now. Go ahead. I'll wait.

At the end of the story, the former-thief laments, "When we were low level,I could open doors and occasionally -- very occasionally -- get in a backstab. They kept me around because I was sometimes useful. Toward the end I realized they were just keeping me around out of nostalgia."

How About Getting Rid of the Rogue?
While illustrating the weakness of the class in 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it also suggests an interesting question. Are we just keeping the rogues around out of nostalgia? Are we including it in fantasy RPGs (at least) out of blind adherence to tradition set by a tactical miniatures variant introduced in the 1970's? Have we evolved past needing it now?

For Cook and his team, the answer was "no." The answer was to fix the class - give it a more solid role in groups, lots of neat options, and some capability that wasn't made superfluous at higher levels.

For some kinds of CRPGs, such as the "jRPGs" or Japanese console-style RPGs, the answer may be "yes." And that's perfectly valid. Many jRPGs have simplified (some might say "optimized") the RPG experience down to a story-driven guided navigation through combat encounters. I'm fine with that. It doesn't fit everywhere. I can enjoy those games.

But I'm still going to prefer the games that allow me to play my own variation of Indiana Jones, the Stainless Steel Rat, James Bond, or Shadowspawn.

The Mechanics: Active, Passive, and Reactive
I tend to think of gameplay as "making interesting decisions." Decisions that have a cost (or opportunity cost), a risk, or require some strategy to pull off. For the purposes of dealing with rogue-centric abilities, I've been thinking about character abilities in terms of active, passive, and reactive skills, and how they interact with gameplay.

Passive abilities are those abilities that automatically take effect based upon something happening to the character. Defending against a fireball, or sensing an ambush, for example. These are great abilities to have in a computer RPG because they require very little in terms of interface work. They can differentiate races or classes, and at most you have to let the player know that his ability was USED for some reason. However, they aren't really actions that the player takes. They aren't verbs.

Passive abilities are special effects in a mechanical sense. They don't add too much to the actualy gameplay, other than changing some of the parameters upon which the player bases their decisions. For example, if a character has a high level of fire resistance, a fire-based threat is less of a risk than usual.

On the flip side, there are active (or "pro-active") abilities. These are abilities that the player must consciously decide to use, and can choose to use them at any time (or in very common circumstances, like in combat). In a well-designed game, these decisions are "interesting" as described above. For instance you may have to choose between drinking a healing potion right now, thus giving the monster an extra hit, or taking one last attack in hopes of finishing the beast off (and saving yourself an extra hit). It's simple, but it works (and makes up 90% of the decision process in the dungeon-crawl sequences of Empires & Dungeons).

Then there's what I call reactive abilities. These are abilities which are only useful in reaction to specific, unusual circumstances in the game. For example, a skill in a rarely-encountered language would be both passive and reactive (the worst of both worlds?) . Usually, when the opportunity is called for to exercise this ability, it's a no-brainer. You encounter a locked door in a dungeon. Do you use your lockpicking ability?

Duh.

So they aren't very interesting from a gameplay perspective. They aren't interesting decisions. And the player only gets to use these abilities when the game master (in a dice-and-paper game) or the game (for CRPGs) effectively lobs the ball directly at him. That's extra work (and expensive work, for CRPGs) for the designer / developer, especially for something that's only going to be worth a single a routine ability check. And while appreciated by the player, they still aren't very exciting.

And in too many RPGs, far too many of the "rogue-centric" abilities fall into the passive and "reactive" category. Detecting traps and secret doors. Disabling traps. Picking locks. And too often their active skills are like picking pockets - useless in the most common situations (you pick the pocket of a monster you are going to kill and loot, anyway), and of such a poor risk / reward ratio that they are virtually useless even when they should come in handy.

And that is where unhappy rogues come from.

Breaking the Rules the Thief Way
The Thief game series, originally by Looking Glass, were action games based around things that sounded fun about being a (pseudo-)medieval (well, steampunk) thief. They created the "first-person sneaker" genre, and were popular and enjoyed great critical acclaim. They put the player in a rogue's situation - hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, where attempting a direct assault was guaranteed failure. This wasn't just a storyline in the fiction of the game, but the real situation. Surviving direct combat with a single guard was chancy at best - but attempting to take on the entire level's worth of alert, warned guards was impossible. Stealth was your key to success.

Many people talk about the stealth mechanic of Thief, which was certainly the key gameplay element. You had to keep to shadows to stay hidden, and keep to areas of the floor that would muffle your footfalls whenever there were guards within earshot. But you also had to know when to break cover and race across lit areas. Timing was everything.

All by itself, the stealth-and-timing mechanic was a lot of fun. Hiding in a pitch-black hall, waiting for the guard to pass by close enough to steal his keys was incredibly tense and thrilling. But what took the game over-the-top was the additional options provided to you by the tools you could purchase to aid you in your task. Water arrows could be used to douse torches. Noisemaker arrows could cause distractions for the guards. Rope arrows could allow you access to otherwise unreachable portions of the map. Moss arrows would allow you to move silently over areas that would otherwise be too noisy to traverse.

In other words, these tools allowed the player to manipulate the environment and manipulate the AI. Fiddle with aspects of the game level traditionally denied to players. It allowed players a limited, selective way to break the rules.

Could similar mechanics be borrowed by RPGs to allow the same thing? I really don't see why not.

Simulation or Story?
They key is having a more open, organic rule system. This has been done in RPGs before - most notably the hit action-RPG Oblivion and the classic Fallout series. Unfortunately, it means relinquishing some control over the storyline and how the player progresses through the game. The game must focus on the player accomplishing objectives, rather than enforcing how those objectives are met. It means treating the game-world as more of a simulation that a story.

This has pros and cons that have been debated endlessly in blogs, forums, and articles for years. But if you are really trying to support a style of play that specializes in derailing, it is probably best to avoid rails. Striking a decent balance between the two extremes is one of the great challenges of any game designer.

Other Good Uses of the Rogue
Other games offer some fun, active abilities that make the rogue (or a rogue-like character) worthwhile.

Baldur's Gate 2 and Neverwinter Nights allow the rogue to construct traps, as well as disarm them. This was a great way to turn a reactive skill into an active one, and was potentially the rogue's most powerful offensive ability. But you had to be tricky to pull it off, and convinced the AI (rarely a problem) to stumble into your previously-trapped territory.

The Baldur's Gate games also had what was possibly the most powerful use of a rogue's stealth abilities I've seen in a CRPG. In conjunction with a magic-user, a rogue could act as a "forward observer" for powerful area-effect spells. By the time a magic-user moved within range to see his opponents, they would also see him (or her), and attack. But a rogue could sneak up on the enemies, opening up the visibility and allowing the mage to cast his spell at a safe range. Sometimes, the monsters wouldn't even move out of the threatened area after the first attack (where WERE those fireballs coming from?), allowing follow-up attacks.

In Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, a character with high stealth could clear levels of most opponents by sneaking up behind them and breaking their necks (or drinking their blood, if you were far enough away from other enemies). Oblivion and other games often rewarded high-stealth characters in a similar manner, allowing huge bonuses for attacking from hiding.

The D20 rule system (the core of the 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons rules) gave rogues access to the "Use Magic Device" skill - an extrapolation on the apparently little-used 1st edition rule that allowed a high-level thief access to magic-user and cleric scrolls. (I say "apparently" because I sure took advantage of the ability back in the day...) This allows the rogue to "fake" the requirements necessary to use certain magical items, opening up his options considerably at higher levels. Fortunately, this rule has made it into the computer games based on the dice-and-paper rule system.

In Fallout, one of the early missions allowed you a chance to infiltrate a gang of marauders (or, actually, join them). You could bluff your way through to see the boss, and then get into a fight with him.

Some Theoretical Rogueishness
I haven't seen anything like these examples in a CRPG, but I don't see why they wouldn't be possible:

Faction Fiction: A few games have set up faction systems (the Elder Scrolls series, many MMORPGs, Neverwinter Nights) . However, there's often some kind of zero-sum math involved: Improving your standing with faction A decreases your standing with their enemies, Faction B. (A noteworthy exception is Oblivion, which was criticized for not featuring many of these "interesting" faction decisions). Why couldn't a rogue use deceptive practices to frame others or conceal his involvement in the "faction wars," manipulating his faction levels artificially?

Escape Artist: Players never seem to run away or get captured by bad guys in computer RPGs (except as an unavoidable scripted event). Probably because the "load" command makes it be victorious in every encounter. But assuming you can lick the one problem, having the rogue there to help the party make a run for it - or to overcome the deathtraps of the villain's lair.

AI Manipulation: Just borrowing directly from Thief, why wouldn't a rogue be able to no re-route the AI's movements and patrols via misdirection? On a more abstract level, the rogue could even reduce (if desired) the number of random encounters, or choose when such encounters take place (due to his enhanced stealth and perception)?

Art of Disguise: In Final Fantasy VI (III in the U.S.) - while it was a special, hard-coded sequence - there was a segment where you could disguise yourself as an enemy soldier to sneak around an enemy-occupied town. I can envision a game where this is made a more general skill - less powerful than magical shape-changing, but passing muster as an alternate form of stealth if interaction is avoided. While this could get you closer to the boss without fighting through all the other monsters, escaping after the fact might be a whole 'nother story. Could it be done without blowing game balance? Could it be made fun, and not so overpowering that it becomes a dominant strategy?

Interception!: While this certainly doesn't need to be limited to rogues, what about having AI attackers (or even player characters, in multiplayer PvP) telegraph their next move in ways that a player character can possibly identify and interrupt or at least prepare for? Maybe it's my brief fencing experience talking, but I can imagine a combat system built around feints and counters this way. I don't know if it would be any fun, but I can imagine it.

Gadgets: In many "rogue stories," the rogue is outfitted with a number of gadgets. James Bond has his high-tech equipment, the Stainless Steel Rat has a variety of miniature bombs - heck, even ninjas tend to have a lot of low-tech tools to accomplish their deadly business. Expendable tools of all varieties could certainly be used by non-rogues... but a specialist character might be most skilled in their employment. Aside from lockpicks (common in manyRPGs), how about other devices that allow the player to "break the rules" in a limited fashion? A smoke grenade to increase chances of escape. Sleeping or blinding powders. Ear plugs to defend against sonic / charm attacks. Caltrops. A shock buzzer to escape grabbing attacks. Sneeze powder to interrupt spells. A vial of vomit-inducing poison to pop open in case the unfortunate possessor gets swallowed whole. And ways to wire up many of these items as a booby trap. If all else fails, the rogue can almost act as a back-up mage in this way --- using gadgets, magical items, and tricks to pull off "magical" effects.

Rogues In the Group
Within an adventuring party, the rogue's skills (and methods) are going to transfer at least to some degree to the rest of the group. At the very least, they will benefit from the rogue's enhanced abilities. But the rogue should grant additional options for the rest of the party. Which may or may not be to the liking of the party's paladin.

For example, if the rogue has the rare skill (in CRPGs) of climbing walls in a game, why shouldn't he be able to lower a rope down and extend that skill to the rest of his party? Ditto for disguise and stealth - he can help the rest of the party hide.

And as long as we're at it, why can't the rest of the party help out in disarming traps? That aspect of the game would be much more interesting if it was a multi-step process, handled interactively like combat, and involved group participation. Maybe.

Let Me Explain. No, There's Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.
This concludes for now my diatribe on rogues in RPGs. At least for now. I've talked about why it is difficult to design a generalized RPG with rogue-like characters in mind. I've also talked about what sort of role a "rogue" might fulfill in an adventure, and what player expectations might be. And I've given some concrete examples of what has been done and what can be done to help a player with a preference for that type of adventure experience a game

Ultimately, I wrote this series for my own benefit, as I've been trying to wrap my head around some of these issues for my own benefit. I hope you haven't minded - I've appreciated your comments and insight as you've helped me think about things from different angles.

What it really comes down to is broadening the horizons of the Computer Roleplaying Game and incorporating more styles of play. I think that's something most players and designers would agree with, at least in principle.

I'm not saying every game should incorporate all styles of play! While that might be a goal for larger games (especially MMOs), it's not necessary. And I really do enjoy some good ol' school hack & slash fantasy. But computer RPGs tend to get stuck in a rut (as with every other game genre out there), and I think it behooves both game designers and players to demand a little bit more. We can use some games that let us - or even encourage us - to explore new styles and possibilities in the vast potential of the genre. Where's the RPG that really lets us be James Bond, or Indiana Jones, or the Stainless Steel Rat? I am waiting anxiously!


(Vaguely) related mutterings of a diseased mind:
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG Part I: Rogues Get No Respect
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG Part II: The Rogue's Role
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Roleplaying and Computer Roleplaying Games
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Monday, March 26, 2007
 
The Return of the Villagers: Virtual Villagers 2 The Lost Children
The Virtual Villagers are back, in a new game:

Virtual Villagers Chapter 2: The Lost Children

The new game picks up around the "end" of the original game, though you don't need to have played the first one to enjoy the sequel. Once the mysterious cave with the remnants of the original inhabitants were found, two of the villagers wandered deep into it and discovered a vine-covered opening on the other side. Pushing through, they fell down a steep, slippery rocks and a waterfall.

What they discovered on the other side was the remnants of another village - this time, with several dirty, hungry children in need of care.

Who are these lost children? What happened to their parents? You get to discover the answers yourself in this sequel to the hit casual sim / strategy game of last year.

I don't consider myself much of a casual gamer, but a few casual games have hooked me. Virtual Villagers was one. Maybe it was just the appeal of living on a tropical island paradise. Of course, I'm also a sucker for "sim" games, like Outpost Kaloki, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Sim City, and so forth. Virtual Villagers was a fresh take on the genre. One of the more interesting elements of the game was that it would continue to "run" in real-time while you weren't playing - unless you chose to pause it, say if you were actually taking off for a REAL trip to vacation on a tropical island paradise.... mmmmm....... oh, sorry. Where was I again?

Anyway, the result was a game that you could play for just a few minutes a day. You could spend fifteen minutes at a time checking up on your villagers, assigning tasks, helping those villagers newly grown into adulthood get started supporting the village, buy technologies, solve quests, and have the children find mushrooms to support the village food supply. A downside of the game was that once you got everything situated, there wasn't a whole lot of reason to actively play, other than to find more mushrooms for the children to retrieve.

The new game adds several more activities to the mix to make things more interesting than ever. There's just more to do. In addition to mushrooms, there are now collectables to be found on the island. The collectables are also retrieved by the children, and unlock new secrets or can be used to increase research towards new technologies. There are also the sixteen mysteries (or quests) to solve, emotional states, a new "sewing hut" you can build to customize your village and change their outfits, and more. The end result is that even during the more slow, stable parts of the games, there's more stuff to do and tweak to improve your village.

Fortunately, it doesn't seem like they've stomped on anything that made the first game so fun to play. The sequel is every bit as fun as the original, and more. While there are lots of differences (different technology, mysteries, special events, and so forth) between the two game, the sequel has lost none of the original's charm.

Anyway - if you liked the original (or never tried the original), I'd recommend checking out Virtual Villagers 2. The demo is available for free to try it out and see what you think at the following link:

Virtual Villagers Chapter 2: The Lost Children


(Vaguely) related things written while wishing I was on a tropical island paradise:
* Tamagotchi Villagers
* Dead Villagers
* Virtual Villagers II Developer's Diary
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Sunday, March 25, 2007
 
What To Do If You Lose Your Registration Number For a Downloadable Game?
I ran into a problem the other day with some downloadable software I'd purchased many months ago. The computer on which I'd installed it (my wife's old system) finally went to the great network closet in the sky, taking the hard drive with it. We'd previously pulled almost all information and licenses (and serial numbers, etc) from her old system, but we'd missed that one.

I hunted through my emails, and couldn't find one that had a registration number or license number.

I didn't feel like digging through my credit card bills, so I just emailed the company that had handled the transaction. "Look," I told them. "I don't have the license number, and I'm not entirely sure when I bought it --- I think it was around October." I explained about the dead computer, and I told them the name that was on the credit card I used. That was it.

The next day, they happily sent me the license number to use to install the software on the new machine. We got it installed on the new machine, no problem. Total turnaround time was less than 24 hours.

Yeah, there are some serious concerns about what happens if the company supporting the game (or software) goes out of business --- will your game be disabled and no longer playable? But by comparison... I couldn't find my CD-key for a retail game I'd purchased some months ago. Until I found it again, I was pretty much S.O.L. I prefer the way things worked with the downloadable software on the dead computer.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007
 
Roguelike Magazine
There's a new (free) online magazine for Rogue-like games, such as Rogue, NetHack, Larn, Angband, *cough*Diablo*cough*...

Entitled, mysteriously enough:

"Roguelike the Magazine"

I never thought I'd see such a detailed analysis of text-based game interface design after about 1990. But there ya go. Though they do talk about those games with actual --- you know, those new-fangled GRAPHICS and stuff, too. :)

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Friday, March 23, 2007
 
The Casual Games Industry Sucks, Two?
Same problems, different year.

GameZebo has a fun little rant entitled, "I'm Mad as H@#%, and I'm Not Gonna Take It Anymore." An excerpt:
"The industry needs to stop resting on its laurels and take casual games to the next level where it deserves to be, on the same level of traditional video games. That may sound bold, but in the past 5 years, we have grown an industry from $0 to $500 million a year, gotten millions of people who would never touch a gamepad to play games, and influenced the latest round of consoles (Nintendo Wii, Xbox Live Arcade).

According to the latest studies, as many people play casual games as go out to the watch the movies. But casual games are defined as games that can be played by everyone. We should not rest until every single person in the world is playing casual games."

Well, okay then!

Though I cannot let this go without a little bit of commentary. Those of us who are deeply involved in any particular industry (or hobby, or activity) tend to move and expect movement at a much more rapid pace than everyone else, and we tend to notice details ignored by others. It can be easy to get disillusioned or frustrated.

I used to wonder about this as a kid when film critics panning films that I loved. I'd see an enjoyable story with cool characters and great special effects, and they'd see a "tired formula with hackneyed characters, thinly disguised by distracting special effects." The difference was that I'd seen only a few dozen "grown-up" films in my life (this was in the days before VCRs had become as common as televisions), whereas they'd see that many in a month. So while the critics were frustrated with more of the same crap coming out of Hollywood, it was all novel and fresh to ME.

We kinda get the same way about games. We're coming off of this great "discovery" of casual games and an untapped audience and an explosion of old ideas becoming new again and... just wow! Those who have been observing it for several years may be seeing how innovation is slowing down, but there are still new players discovering these games every day (who don't even realize they are becoming "gamers") for whom it is ALL very fresh and new. They encounter some match-three Bejeweled clone without ever hearing about the original.

Not that it makes these kinds of rants any less true (or less entertaining). But a little perspective helps.

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Silverfall Available For Download
Will 2007 be the year of the downloadable game?

Looks like.

The brand-new Diablo-style mainstream RPG, Silverfall, published by Atari, has just been released... and its available via retail store OR direct "digital download". I imagine it's a big-honking download. It is interesting to me that they are offering to bypass the retail option entirely for a brand-new, major (I think) release.

Maybe Atari learned their lesson from the Dungeons & Dragons Online launch fiasco.

Shall we call it a trend? Are all the cool publishers selling first-run PC games direct downloads now? I don't think so, but I'm interested in seeing how it goes.

Dang. So many games, so little time. This sounds like a halfway decent Diablo-esque, too.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007
 
Getting Better 1,198 Polygons At a Time
I read in a book recently that the best way to increase your earning potential is to become the best in your field. And the way the author suggested doing that was to create a list of the main 5-9 skills needed in your profession, and then do a thoughtful self-analysis and rate those skills within yourself. Going by rule of thumb that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, address your weakest skill. It's probably the one thing you like doing the least. Work on it until it's no longer your weakest skill. And then move on to the next weakest.

How do you "address" a weakness? Education is part of it. Especially in high-tech industries, our knowledge is constantly acquiring gaps that need to be addressed. With as much knowledge as is available at the speed of Google these days, there's not much excuse for remaining in ignorance.

But what it usually comes down to is practice. Lots of practice. Scott Hsu-Storaker had a pretty interesting challenge for himself back in 2006 (which he is continuing this year). Given the idea that experience and practice is just as important as talent, and that after spending a thousand hours doing something, you ought to be able to start getting pretty good at it. GBGames has been doggedly posting his updates every Monday morning for the last year and change as he's been pushing to increase his game development skills by putting in 1,000 hours of development time over the course of a year.

I figure I'm pretty dang good at wasting time by now. Too bad that's not one of my skillsets for being the top in my professional field. Or for making the top-selling indie games on the market.

Unfortunately, as an indie game developer, that list of skills is extremely large. Even though I've been a professional programmer for *cough*overadecade*cough* now, I've still got some gaping holes in my skill sets. And since an indie needs to wear so many hats, that's only a drop in the bucket. (Hmm... maybe figuring out how to finance and deligate so I don't have to wear so many hats might be a good start, huh?)

So I have a lot of things I suck at that I've been working on to make them not suck.

Part of my objective with Apocalypse Cow was to spend some time learning the artistic side of game development a little better. Now, I'm nowhere near 1,000 hours modeling and texturing with Blender (and Gimp), but my latest undertaking is a helicopter, originally modeled by George McEwan and subsequently modified all to hades by myself. It currently has 1,198 polygon faces for me to texture - yes, two shy of an even 1,200 - that's taking me several hours (well into my second 20-hour "leveling up" process). While I'm not individually hand-painting all of those 1,198 faces, it sure feels that way.

I've gotten to the point where I can do a passable job (kind of) on pure geometric modeling. I can confidently say at this point that I suck much less at 3D modeling. I don't think it means I "don't suck" yet, but sucking less is progress. Texturing is still a bear for me. And animation is a giant mutant bear with cybernetic legs and adamantium claws. But I figure the best way to learn is to practice, right? And Apocalypse Cow is offering me a ton of practice.

It's just frustrating when I want to get the game out the door.

If anybody knows of any nice tutorials on good texturing techniques / methodologies, I'd like to hear about them. I think I've got many of the basics understood --- but it's still a nightmare of unwrapping, assembling together puzzle-pieces of polygons, exporting the mesh layout, trying to do SOMETHING resembling a non-heinous job of drawing the textures to match the polygon layout, then working with more puzzle pieces for the symmetrical opposite side, etc. I'm sure I'm doing some things... well, sub-optimally.

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I'm A Gamer?
I was in a discussion with my daughter's sixth-grade teacher a couple of weeks ago. It was parent-teacher conference, but we were shooting the breeze a little bit before getting down to details, which we are fortunately pretty familiar with. My wife is a former elementary school teacher herself, and tries her best to keep informed about how our kids are doing.

For some reason we got to talking about my job - making videogames, and the teacher made a few comments about not understanding these kids and their games.

I told her that actually, the fastest growing segment of the market was casual games, which tend to be geared more for adults.

She was astonished. "Really? I just don't see that," she said.

I nodded. "Yep. The growing market right now are women 40 and over." She looked at me in complete disbelief. I kept going. "They aren't playing bloody shooters for hours on end, though. They are playing little games like Solitaire or Minesweeper or gem-matching games for fifteen minutes at a shot - just to take a break and get some relaxation in between things they have to do."

I saw the light of realization appear in her eyes, but she quickly bowed her haid and shielded her eyes with her hands. "Oh, that's ME!" she admitted. "And thank you SO much for announcing my age to everyone!"

I considered mentioning that SHE was the one who fessed up to belonging to that demographic, but held my peace as we all chuckled before moving on to the business at hand.

Apparently, we've got a ways to go to fix the stereotypes of videogames and "gamers." I think we've got a lot of gamers out there who don't know that they are gamers.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
 
MMOs: Everyone's Doing It!
So why not you? Come on... all the cool kids are making their own MMO...

Antiques Roadshow Online. And the Cat MMO. And More!

Who wants to be a level 60 spreadsheet? I know I do!

Hey, is it really any weirder than the just-announced Legos Massively Multiplayer Online Game?
 
Crushing the Dreams of Would-Be Game Designers
After the stupidly naive wide-eyed dreams of the suckers Collins College tries to woo in their ads...



... Comes the soul-crushing despair of reality in the good ol' Triple-A Mainstream Videogame Industry:

What They Don't Tell You on the Game Design Job Description

Now, while the above article is a little whiney, bitter, and exaggerated (as it should be for proper entertainment effect), it's also more-or-less true. I read a couple of bits to the guys at work (one of whom is a designer), and they nearly fell out of their chairs laughing. And we're at a pretty good company which takes game design seriously.

If you want to work on your own game, your own masterpiece, and show the world your uncompromised and unadulterated Vision(tm), go indie. It'll be hard on your wallet, and even harder on your ego, but the channels are wide open in this day and age to get your vision out to the people. There's simply never been a better time. Unfortunately, you won't have many excuses other than "lack of budget" when it becomes clear that nobody else thinks you are Stanley Kubrick, either.

If you want a steady paycheck in a 9-to-5 (or, too often, 10-to-10) job as a game designer for a major publisher, well, here's the deal (speaking in vague generalities, as every studio and publisher is different): As a "game designer" 80% of your job is that of a glorified tech writer. Most of the remaining 20% of your job is to attend meetings and to make hard decisions like, "What features do we cut to make milestone," and "How blue should this control be?" and "should there be a particle effect in the idle animation when the troll scratches his butt?" Oh, and repeat what you've already written in the game design document, because your lead programmer vaguely remembers seeing it somewhere but he is too lazy to go look it up now and knows a ton has changed since it was last updated and you are sitting RIGHT THERE (~~~ ahem --- guilty as charged, your honor...)

Because really - when you get hired by a game company to design games, you are being hired to MAKE THEM MONEY. And in all seriousness - they do want you to be creative and to have vision and all that. They really did hire you for your creativity. But it's like hiring someone to detail your car or landscape your yard. You want them to have vision, and to express themselves creatively and do something cool. You want to draw upon their experience and passion and come up with something that you both love. But they've got to do it within the bounds that you set, and meet the goal you hired them to achieve. They may really have a passion for drawing fat naked men eating grapes on the moon --- and hey, that's great for them. But I don't want to drive around town with that painted on the side of my car.

So maybe my soul has already been crushed, and I have become The Man. Maybe my mercenary attitude is the reason so many game designs seem stale and tired today. And maybe it's just the fact that I love giving the designer on my team a hard time.

Thanks to GameSetWatch for the link!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007
 
Making A Rogue-Friendly RPG Part 2: The Rogue's Role
One of my favorite strips in "Knights of the Dinner Table" (A comic about... believe it or not... RPG players) is entitled "It Takes a Thief." Bob, the player of the group's thief (rogue), is late for the game, and so the party is attempting to get some playing done without him.

The Game Master, B.A., sets the stage for a contest in town with a very valuable prize that their characters could participate in. He explains, "An ornate rug approximately fifty feet by fifty feet square covers the center of the flagstone pavement. Dead center in the middle of the rug is a fine golden goblet. It is encrusted with gems around its rim. And sitting in it is a marvelous ovate opal."

He goes on to explain the rules. "The nice lady explains to the group that the first person to take possession of the gem without bearing down on the rug may keep the opal and the goblet. But here are the rules! You can not walk on the carpet. You cannot suspend someone over the carpet. You cannot attempt to hit the goblet or stone with any kind of missile or thrown item. And you cannot use magic items or spells to accomplish the task." There are twelve other (non-player-character) travellers attempting the puzzle, and each participant is only allowed one attempt per day.

The players struggle for three hours (and several in-game days) trying to solve the puzzle, with no luck. Their attempts get disqualified because of the use of magic. One player attempts to disbelieve the rug as an illusion and just walk over it, to see if its all a trick. They attempt to pole vault across the rug (missing woefully). They try to send a trained monkey across to pick up the gem. They try stilts. They build a small catapult to fling a player across the room - resulting in no goblet and a lot of damage as he strikes the wall on the other side. They plan to build a suspension bridge across the courtyard, but are told that it is not allowed.

Finally, Bob shows up. The other players express their woes, and one player expresses the opinion, "Don't bother, Bob. It's a no-solver that B.A. threw at us to keep us occupied until you showed up."

After Bob hears the rules, he says, "Well, let me start with the most obvious solution. I kneel down on my knees at the edge of the rug and begin to roll it up. When I get to the middle, I'll reach over and pick up the goblet and the opal."

B.A. exclaims, "That's it! The opal and the goblet are yours!"

The other players stare at Bob in disbelief, and then in frustration. He says to them, "Sorry, dudes. Sometimes it just 'takes a thief!'" (Then he decides not to share his treasures, and dances a mocking jig on the table. The other players rip up his character sheet and pour soda down his pants. He got off easy.)

Rogue Is a State of Mind
Now, playing a rogue in an RPG isn't necessarily going to translate to clever outside-the-box thinking on the part of the player (at least for most players). But I think it illustrates a point that I promised to talk regarding some concrete ways to make a more rogue-friendly RPG.

Rogue is as much a state of mind as it is a set of rogue-like skills. The rogue, to me, is the outside-the-box thinker. They follow the fighter-pilot admonition "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." And they in some way embody the trickster achetype - Loki, Coyote, Raven, Brer Rabbit, Puck, and others.

When given the choice of the lady and the tiger, the rogue is the guy who tries to open both doors at the same time, and then make his escape while the tiger is busy eating the lady, and then trying to figure out how to run off with the princess later. The rogue is Captain Kirk reprogramming the simulation so that he could beat the Kobiyashi Maru scenario. The rogue gets around the rules, possibly even breaking the rules, often choosing higher risk for higher reward.

Which undoubtably annoys other players in a multiplayer game when the risks don't pan out.

Motivation many vary, but in general what a rogue player in an RPG wants to feel like he's contributing to the group's success (in a multiplayer game) in a meaningful way, has the chance to really shine with his unique abilities once in a while, and that he gets to do it all by being clever, tricky, and and cunning rather than just being mightier-than-all-opposition.

A Rogue By Any Other Name
Of course, this isn't limited to a rogue "class" (particularly if you are playing a non-class-based system). Any player or character can have a rogue mindset. An RPG might have several rogue-like classes that specialize in cleverness and non-traditional tactics under different names: Swashbuckler, smuggler, netrunner, thief, scoundrel, fixer, secret agent, scout, whatever. Or it might be a classless system.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the illusionist class (pre-3rd edition, when it became just a specialization) had plenty of roguelike potential. It was also very hard to play well, as the sheer flexibility and power of the spells tended to confuse players. I thought the Enchanter class in EverQuest had more of a roguish style of play than the rogue class itself. When they weren't being tapped as little more than a mana battery.

Mixing Rogues And Non-Rogues
Sun Tzu talks about the orthodox and the unorthodox giving rise to each other, and how the combination of unorthodox surprise attack and the orthodox direct attack, used in combination, lead to victory. In a party-based game, the rogue is (at least in theory) the unorthodox specialist. Even if orthodox combat, in the real world, scouting, espionage, and surveillance is a critical activity... all rogue-like specialties. Laying siege to a castle isn't necessary if you've got an "inside man" who can leave the back door open for you.

The roguely route might be offer the chance of the highest reward for the least resources, but it also often yields to the highest risk. Clever plans go south. That's where the rest of the group comes in to pull the rogue's butt out of the fire --- er, I mean, provide a backup contingency plan. When you finally get caught sneaking through the Imperial battle station trying to rescue the princess, it's time for a few straight-up fights while you make your escape.

Playing the Rogue
Playing a rogue well in a dice & paper RPG (and precious few CRPGs) means taking a pro-active rather than reactive stance in regards to using one's... unique talents. The rogue shouldn't be waiting around for the game (or game master) to throw her an opportunity to use her skills. This is why things like disarming traps, spotting secret doors, and unlocking doors - things which people automatically think of when you talk about rogues in a traditional medieval fantasy RPG - are really weak applications for rogues. Sure, it's nice to help them feel needed. And those kinds of activities can be a amusing... for the rogue, at least. Everyone else just sits around waiting for the rogue to make her rolls, though, idly wondering if she'll keel over dead from a botched trap-disarm check.

A Rogue-Friendly Game System
Consequently, a good rogue-friendly game system should include skills usable by the rogue at any time - or at least in common situations. Disarming traps is a special case situation (which requires additional work by the level designers). But what about setting traps? I can attest by experience that this was the single most powerful rogue skill in Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate II (In BG2, I think I killed Demogorgon this way... )

Another great addition to Dungeons & Dragons third edition was the "Use Magic Device" skill. This was actually based on an old first-edition, little-used high-level rogue trick of using magical scrolls. People get confused by the name of this skill... maybe it should be called "subvert magic device" or "hack magic device." This skill makes the rogue capable of cheating to make a magical item work that would otherwise require some kind of special criteria (or "security clearance") to operate. To its credit, Dungeons & Dragons Online does provide this skill, and I take full advantage of it... though I think the activation checks are set a little too high.

There are lots of really fun rogue-like verbs that can be implemented by a game system, though not all rogues will bother with all of them: lie, subvert, reveal, steal, cheat, conceal, spy, swindle, fast-talk, infiltrate, forge, entrap, seduce, escape, misdirect, outwit, sneak, disable, intimidate, disarm, mislead, lock, unlock, deceive, bypass, confuse, obfuscate, ensnare, scout, camouflage, trick, incapacitate, assassinate, discover, divert, outmaneuver...

Sorry, I fell asleep on the enumeration, there. Where was I?

Designing Adventures For Rogues
If putting the above into a computer RPG was easy, everyone would be doing it. We'd have RPGs out there now that would sound like the retelling of a classic adventure novel, rather than a play-by-play of a thousand rounds of whack-a-mole. There are some nasty problems:

#1 - The challenge and flow (and FUN) of the game is based upon the idea that the players will engage the obstacles in a traditional manner. Bypassing those challenges and skipping to the reward (a very roguely thing to do) would "ruin" the game. (As a side note, I sidestepped most of one of the more challenging end-game encounters in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines via a maxed-out stealth skill. I should note that while that segment of the game was much easier than it was probably supposed to be, it was also a lot of fun for me than most).

#2 - Too often rogue-oriented tasks are special-cased into the game. This ensures that they are expensive to create (and therefore rare), and will frustrate players whose characters don't have the necessary skills to succeed in the specially coded scenarios, as most players feel entitled to all of the game's content.

#3 - In a multiplayer game, you want to keep the party together doing the same activity in which everyone can participate and have fun. This means downplaying anything that the rogue would best do solo.

#4 - Many rogue-like activities are social. Computers don't do anything resembling human sociality very well. Most CRPGs have just given up on the concept and divided the world into two types of interactive creatures: Those that you fight, and those that stand around waiting to dispense canned prose like a human-shaped vending machine. And for the purpose of generating lots of combat, the players are usually led to spend most of their time in unfriendly territory where engaging in chit-chat with those you come across is just not expected.

#5 - With saved games and easy resurrections / respawning, the high risk / high reward options lack the element of "high risk." There becomes no reason for players NOT to pursue the riskier option.

#6 - Depending upon the game system you are using, many non-combat activities are resolved with a single random check (and maybe not even that --- with saved games, they might effectively be resolved automatically --- the player will just keep restoring until they get a favorable result for anything important). That's not interesting gameplay. Interesting gameplay involves decisions and interaction. Which means complicating things up and adding some kind of mini-game (like the combat mini-game) for specialized roguely (or non-roguely) actions. Note: I'm gonna praise Oblivion here again for doing just that - not that the mini-games were great, but they were a step in the right direction IMO.

#7 - Artificial Intelligence is stupid, and doesn't usually learn from its mistakes. So allowing a player to "outwit" her AI opponents is sorta like giving her a barrel of fish to shoot for the ENTIRE GAME. The same tricks will work over and over again (like the aforementioned traps in Bioware's games) until they become boring. And boring isn't a winning game design element.

In a future article, I will outline some examples I've encountered in previous RPGs (computer, massively multiplayer, and dice-and-paper) that have overcome these challenges (or, in roguely fashion, neatly bypassed them altogether), as well as some ideas that have been bouncing around in my brain for dealing with 'em. And my experience is limited - feel free to help me fill in the gaping, wide holes I've left here. I'm anxious to hear your thoughts and ideas on this!


(Vaguely) related meaningless ponderings:
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Problem
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
* Game Design: Fixing Interactive Storytelling
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* RPG Design Seed Challenge
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Monday, March 19, 2007
 
Bungling Burglars Break into Lord British's Building...
The early Ultima games allowed you to play a thief. They were also pretty free with giving you access to anachronistic devices like air-cars, space ships, and so forth. Ultima II even had you hopping between eras on planet Earth.

Ostensibly, the thief class was removed from Ultima IV because game designer Richard Garriott (AKA Lord British) felt that game was supposed to be about attaining a high level of virtue --- something a dishonest thief couldn't do.

But now the REAL reason for the dissapearance of thieves has come to light. Thieves discovered anachronistic cameras between Ultima III and Ultima IV, and then they all got caught because they were STUPID and left pictures of themselves at the crime scene. Just like these geniuses in real life...

"Digital Camera Left at Scene of Crime"

Apparently a group of teens decided to break into one of Richard Garriott's properties (which he uses for "special events"... um, company events, or LARPing...?), and consume about $5,000 worth of alcohol they found there in a party at the crime scene. In their inebriated state, they apparently didn't realize the stupidity of taking a bunch of digital pictures of themselves in the act. And then one of them left their camera AT THE CRIME SCENE. For all the world to see.

Saith Lord British, according to the news article: We we're joking to ourselves about tomorrow morning, when they wake up with a hangover, they're going to wonder where that camera is... This is one of those Darwin-style kind of awards, where people leave the self-incriminating evidence behind at the scene.

Oops.

Thou hast lost an eighth! And thou hast been docked an extra quarter for being an idiot!

Many thanks to Kotaku for the heads-up.

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Cow Trivia
* Gary Larson was right: For many species of cows, the females also have horns.

* Some species of cows can see color. Others are color-blind. In bullfights, they are usually annoyed by the fluttering of the cloth rather than the color. They are also annoyed by advanced technology helicopters bombing them.

* In the strategy game X-Com, certain models of alien spacecraft could be found with a cattle mutilation chamber.

* Boston's city layout was based on cow paths. (And in 2007, they'll take the city back... through violence).

* There are nearly 1000 different species of cattle in the world, with a population nearing 1.5 billion. That's less than a quarter of the population of humans before the cows decide to exterminate the human race.

* Cows really only have one stomach, but it has four compartments.

* Cows emit a great deal of methane gas every (about 200 pounds' worth for dairy cows) - most of it through belching. They can also smell oders up to five miles away. If cows become grumpy and decide to take over the world, smelling each other's methane like that might be part of the cause.

* The first cows were domesticated around 3,000 B.C.

* Cows have nearly 360 degree vision, making it very difficult to sneak up a cow guard armed with a machinegun.

* There were rumors that the original Diablo game had a secret "cow" level. Players tried for months to figure out how to get to the secret level, before it was eventually realized that it was a hoax. However, in tribute to the rumor, Blizzard added a secret (and very hard) "Cow" level in the sequel, Dialbo II. If you don't know how... Wirt's peg-leg and the transformation cube are the keys...

* Cows can weigh over 1,300 pounds. Which means they require rocket motors on their hang-gliders.

* Evans & Sutherland reportedly had a tank simulator that included bulls in the terrain. Once the generals discovered that they could open fire on the cows and blow them up, they became very excited about the project I guess "Shooting the bull" is an important part of business negotiations.

* Apocalypse Cow was in some ways inspired by an earlier project I started in 2005 called "LGM," in which you played a pair of aliens kidnapping cows and humans, flinging them about with a tractor beam, and doing battle against the military. Unfortunately, the game didn't work, and I had to abandon the concept. But for some reason, abusing cattle stuck in my brain, and Apocalypse Cow is the twisted result.


Who says videogames aren't educational?

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Sunday, March 18, 2007
 
Scorpia's Most Influential RPGs List
Since it's fun to enumerate and rank: Scorpia has her list of the ten most influential RPGs. It's a bit more freeform than some of the other lists that have been floating about.

Interesting reading, particularly her rationale for inclusion of each.

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Friday, March 16, 2007
 
We Are The Video Game Capital of America!
It's in the newspaper, so it must be true:

Salt Lake City Is Video Game Capital of America

Now that's a little cooler than being the Jell-O capital of the nation. Maybe not as cool as hosting the Winter Olympics in 2002 (pun not really intended), but still pretty nifty.
 
My ALMOST Most Important Games List
A couple of days ago, I decided to list my personal "Ten Most Important Games." Shaving it down to only ten was really painful, and excluded a lot of games that I thought belonged there... except for the ten that belonged there only slightly more.

What can I say? I've played a LOT of games.

So here are some of the alternates that didn't end up above the fold when I sorted them all out. Not all of them are more than a decade old... :)

Diablo: How many people played Rogue / Nethack / Moria / Larn / etc. and said, "Gee, this game would really rock if it had better graphics and a cleaner UI?" Well, almost everyone who played them and wasn't an ANSII purist. Also, game developers and armchair designers for YEARS were debating how to properly do a decentralized multiplayer RPG. So Blizzard finally decided that a good game now was better than a perfect game a decade later, quit debating and over-analyzing, and did it. And in the process, got credit for reviving the flagging PC RPG market (the whole "RPGs are dead" thing never happened on the consoles - people were too busy playing their RPGs to notice, I guess).

Rainbow Six: The "thinking man's FPS". Along with Thief, this proved that there was a lot more that could be done with an FPS-style game if you only bothered to think outside the box.

Galaga: I don't know if we've ever gotten closer to perfection with top-down shooters. We've got different, but I don't know if we've gotten better. Galaga was of the best arcade games ever developed, and still very playable and enjoyable today. (Ms. Pac Man is perhaps the other best arcade game of all time).

Thief: Wow. The first (and best) "First Person Sneaker." The game made you FEEL like a medieval(ish) thief. Thief I and II were among the most tense and exciting games I've ever played. The missions were designed to have fairly open-ended solutions. The designers didn't seem to enforce any kind of expectations as to HOW you would complete the missions --- you could meet the goals by any means you could devise. We need more games like this one.

Super Mario Brothers: It signalled the world that videogames were not a fad, that it wasn't over after Atari went bust. And on top of that, it was awesome. With all due respect to wonderful previous games such as Atari's Adventure, Pitfall, Star Raiders, Breakout, and others... I think Super Mario Brothers was the first "great" ("masterpiece?") console game. And it was the best-selling game of all time, at over 40 million copies sold. I don't suppose it hurt that it was bundled with the NES... And no, I never finished it.

Civilization: The evolution of the old game, "Empire," taken to the extreme where it could qualify as a new entity altogether. It also paved the way for more great strategy games, including "Master of Orion."

Starfire: Terrible, terrible game. But it blew my mind in 1980. It was ... like... being in Star Wars! Wow! I played a sit-down version, with the speaker set right behind by back, so I felt every explosion. I couldn't stop talking about it for two days. Few people were familiar with arcade games back then (this was pre-Pac Man), so they had no clue what I was talking about

Warcraft: I missed Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans, but Warcraft II was awesome. I don't remember if it or Command and Conquer came first, but though C&C was spiritual successor to Dune 2, I'm giving the nod to Warcraft to popularizing the concept of the real-time strategy genre. And no, Dune 2 wasn't the first either - not by a long shot. Neither was Siege, by Mindcraft (the Magic Candle guys), which was an awesome game that most closely resembled the modern RTS.

Atari Adventure: The first known Easter Egg in a console game was hidden here. And it was kinda-sorta the first real-time, graphical adventure game. But a generation of us thrilled to being chased by a hollow yellow duck.

NetHack: It's almost like it's been one, unbroken development project stretching from around 1976 into the future...

Mechwarrior II: The game that got me into hardcore competitive Internet play. And it wasn't even Internet-capable!

Dance, Dance, Revolution: The game that combined physical fitness with videogaming fun. One of my favorite ways of getting exercise.

Guitar Hero: As Thief made you feel like a medieval thief, and Falcon 4.0 made you feel like a real fighter pilot, so did Guitar Hero make you feel like a rock 'n roll legend. This had so much potential to be a "nothing" game --- but the music selection, the tilt sensor for star power, and the "garage band" ambiance all combined to make this game more of a historical event.

Grim Fandango: I don't know how this one beat out The Secret of Monkey Island on my list, but somehow it did. It was graphical adventure gaming at its best --- and for a while, it seemed to be a swan song for the genre. Fortunately, rumors of the genre's death seem to have been exaggerated. Amusingly enough, this was a game about death - and life afterwards. One thing that struck me was how much heart the game could have, even in a comedy with such a bizarre premise.

X-Com: Do I really need to add to the chorus of fanatical ravings about this game? Okay - I will. A little. IMO, it wasn't the tactical combat (which was awesome) that made this game. It was the strategic "meta-game" and context underneath it. And the UFO mythology woven into it. These gave the tactical game context and meaning.

So, taken with the previous article, there's my 25 most important games, which I feel far more comfortable with. Though I'm betting I'm forgetting one. Your mileage SHOULD vary! (If anybody else has Starfire on their list, I may weep openly).

There are a lot of games conspicuously absent, but I've already pushed the line back once... I think I'm gonna keep it at 25.


(Vaguely) related text garbage:
* My Own Ten Most Important Games
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
* Overheard Near a Galaga Machine
* Who Are The Best Game Villains?
* Game Moments
.

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Level Design Tips
I nearly missed this article from a couple of days ago (Thanks, Scorpia, for pointing it out) in GamaSutra about level design. It is entitled, "Post-GDC: Rainbow Six's Upton Talks Landscaping Game Worlds," and is a summary of what sounds like an (unusually?) informative session. Upton takes real-world disciplines of theme park design, city planning, and landscaping and applies them to game level design.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007
 
Flash Circle TD Is Available
I've talked about Flash Element Tower Defense a couple of times. The sequel is now out, available at CandyStand.com. It's much prettier, has MUSIC (albeit kinda monotonous music), and a rather unique twist on Tower Defense rules - the creeps never exit or cycle around or have a specific goal... you just have to keep the creep count down to less than 100. Oh, and while there are waves with pauses between them, it's all in real-time. You can pause the game, but you can't place, sell, or upgrade towers while paused.

And it seems pretty dang fun.


I expect my productivity to be shot for the next couple of days.

Play it for free:
Flash Circle Tower Defense

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Making A Rogue-Friendly RPG Part 1: Rogues Get No Respect!
My favorite class type in RPGs is the Rogue. Call it what you will - the thief, the skill-monkey, the smuggler, whatever. While other players like bringing out characters with supreme martial skill or colossal arcane might to the table, I'm always drawn to the character that uses his wits, cunning, and obscure collection of unique skills to defeat his opposition.

I'm drawn to characters like the Stainless Steel Rat, Miles Vorkosigan, James Bond (in the older movies, or in the new Casino Royale), Robin Hood, Han Solo, Malcom Reynolds, Sherlock Holmes, d'Artagnan, and Indiana Jones. Or the principle characters of the BBC show "Hustle," or the old Mission: Impossible series.

Rogues, all of them. Or at least, they represent the kinds of story and action that a rogue-player would like to emulate in an RPG. Living by wits. Constantly trying to outsmart the opponent. Always thinking one step ahead. Avoiding the fair fight. Defeating the best-laid plans and traps, while entrapping your opponent in your own.

Why Game Designers Hate Rogues (Even If They Love Them)
Unfortunately, in RPGs (especially computer RPGs), designers don't seem to know what to do with the rogue. After all, they are all about designing and balancing rules... and rogues are typically all about breaking the rules (or at least eschewing the orthodox), which screws up a game designer's careful game balance, and often screwing up the best-laid GM plot railroads.

Rogues are troublesome by their very nature.

So most CRPGs that feature rogues just throw a few bones in the rogue's direction. Oh, here are a few traps to disable and some doors to unlock. Otherwise, the rogue is more of a lightweight fighter.

At least one game did it right. The "Thief" series (originally by Looking Glass) embraced the concept of "rogue-ness" (is that a word?). They dropped you into a series of missions where you were outnumbered, outgunned, incapable of sustaining a fair fight with the weakest of opponents, and where the smallest mistake would screw up the entire mission. And then they gave you access to skills and tools to navigate your own way through the game world on your own terms. It felt organic, unscripted. It felt like bring an actual rogue, making up your own rules to turn the odds in your favor. It was awesome.

I'm sure it's a little too much to expect for a more generalized RPG to capture the feel of being a rogue in the same way that a specialized game had done. I keep hoping. But it's so very much easier to deal with a straightforward "brute force" approach to handling the odds.

After all, with the brute-force approach, you can make sure that the player-characters have to be at least THIS TOUGH to defeat the dragon and take his treasure. But the rogue story is always different. It's always about the clever guy who bypasses the super-security systems, or sneaks past the dragon, and takes the treasure without engaging in the fair fight. No RPG scenario designer wants the player to bypass all the carefully laid storyline and chain of adventures, to just poison the "Big Bad" and win the game at level 1.

But that's what a rogue story is all about. It's about David defeating Goliath. Miles Vorkosigan is "just" a hyperactive handicapped washout, and ends up owning a major mercenary fleet and ending an interstellar war through a combination of happenstance and quick thinking. Bilbo Baggins, inexperienced hobbit, follows his instincts and folksy wisdom to save his dwarven companions (repeatedly), possess a major magical artifact and obtain the dragon's hoard. Even Star Wars is something of a rogue story, in which the planet-destroying Death Star is impervious to the strongest military force, but the rebels send tiny, insignificant fighters in through the shields to try and ... "defeat the giant."

You do that in literature and movies, and it's high adventure. You do that in a game, and its cheating or (in an MMO) a bannable exploit.

EverQuest Rogue?
When EverQuest launched in early 1999, I jumped aboard, quickly making a character in my favorite class. Unfortunately, through most of that year, the EverQuest rogue was about the most useless class ever devised. You could tell that the Sony team (them called Verant... formerly Red Eye or Red Orb or something like that) actually had - at some point in development - some kind of plan for the rogue. There were about five pickable locks in the entire world, which rogues would visit from far and wide in order to practice their skill. Just in case SOME DAY it might be useful. And traps! I think there were four detectable traps. They didn't DO anything, but they could be detected.

I think the dev team just ran out of time. Rogues couldn't hide and sneak around at the same time, they would frequently do backstabs for only 1 or 2 points of damage, and would immediately aggro any creature they backstabbed (even those little 1 or 2 hitpoint backstabs), resulting in no more backstabs, and usually an untimely death for the rogue. Oh, yeah --- and the pickpocket ability effectively stole from the final loot for the monster, thus stealing from your party. This basically made a rogue a detriment to any party, so we were the bottom-barrel-scrapings for pick-up groups.

Fortunately, the designers eventually got a clue, and rogues eventually became a pretty solid (if overly combat-heavy) class.

Dungeons & Dragons Online and the Nerf
Dungeons and Dragons online started out better. It has a pretty elaborate trap system in many dungeons. Just like you want a cleric along in an undead-heavy adventure (well, you want a cleric along with you at ANY time, really), you want a rogue along in a trap-heavy dungeon to eliminate the otherwise mandatory attrition caused by nasty blades slicing party members in two, or fountains spitting extra-caustic acid on everyone, or the spikes that suddenly thrust up from the floor to impale people. Nasty stuff. Which rogues live for. If you don't take a rogue with you, you may be able to dodge some of it, but you are just going to have to suck some of it up. Even better, having the rogue disarm traps often nets extra experience points - as does having him (or anyone else with a high Spot skill, but the rogue is most likely to have the highest) find secret doors --- which may also hide bonus treasure.

In general, it's a good game for rogues. Not "Thief" good, but still a fun game for rogues to do stuff nobody else can do. But then came our game Tuesday. Tuesday was a bad rogue night.

First off, there was an "upgrade" to the enhancement system. That is, it's an upgrade for most players. As a rogue who found himself completely incapable of replicating his previous effectiveness with the new system, it was A Nerf. The biggest offender was the skill enhancements. Apparently, when the designers decided that "human versitility" would be a worthy enhancement by giving bonuses to all of the player's skill rolls, they didn't have Human Rogues in mind. Apparently, a character with a LOT of skills who expects to use them all a LOT in combat gets a really huge benefit from that enhancement, whereas most classes might have only two or four skills that they use infrequently at best.

While I did get a little bit more of a range of abilities, it was a pretty clear downgrade. The party was over. Ah, well - I still had pretty maxed out Spot / Search / Disable skills, so I should still do okay. So I got used to being able to disable traps on any roll but a 1. I'd get over it.

No Rogues Allowed In This Dungeon!
Our first expedition of the night was an undead-heavy dungeon that we'd tried before, but cranked up to "Hard" difficulty. Now, I generally hate undead dungeons, because rogue sneak-attack skills are useless against undead. But it always gives the cleric a chance to shine. And sometimes there are traps I can disable.

This dungeon WAS full of traps. Tons. And I couldn't detect (let alone disable, in spite of repeated attempts to search for a control box) a single one. Even after it had gone off on me three times. Some of the traps were impossible to avoid, too. They'd shoot flame or poison or sonic blasts all over the person operating the lever to open the door, or opening up the chest --- every single time.

And either I was nerfed WAY more than I thought I had been, or the designer had seen fit to either make them undetectable and impossible to disarm (or cranked up the difficulty so high that no rogue of the appropriate level range could possibly detect the trap - which amounts to the same thing).

I can see the logic. Kind of. But I'll still call it lazy level design. In order to make this dungeon harder, the designer decided to use traps as a "wandering damage table." It's a simple way to force some attrition on the group to make the dungeon a little more challenging. The problem with this simple plan is, of course, the pesky rogue. The rogue can simply circumvent all that mandatory attrition at little or no risk. Practically automatically. So the dungeon which was of appropriate difficulty for a party with no rogues becomes MUCH easier with a rogue in the group.

The solution? Neutralize the rogue. Ignore his ability to find and disarm the traps. The designer pats himself on the back, checks off his task on the schedule, and moves on to his next job.

Cool. And while you are at it, while don't you make some dungeons where the clerics aren't allowed to heal, the wizards can't cast spells, and the fighters have to fight with both hands tied behind their back! That oughta be fun!

Well, okay, if that was the POINT of the dungeon, it might be fun. Or not - I remember that anti-magic level in Ultima Underworld. I think I quit the game for a month on that level. Ah, well. Anyway - if there's a really good reason for it, and sort of a special challenge situation, that's fine. But undetectable traps aren't unique to this dungeon - it was just more guilty than most. Like the Magical Monster Sensing Doors, it's just some arbitrary element because the dungeon is SUPPOSED to work this way to make it an appropriate challenge level to keep players from racing up to level 10 in a week. Which they can, anyway.

But they don't want rogues breaking the rules. They can't have unorthodox techniques used to bypass challenges!

And so rogues keep getting the short shrift in RPGs, particularly MMOs.

Making A More Rogue-Friendly Game
The complaint is not limited to CRPGs. I regularly see arguments in D20 threads about how useless or useful a rogue is in a game. It depends upon the game system, the game master (or scenario designer), and the player himself.

This entry is already too long (and I'm already half-asleep and not sure I'm making any sense), so I'll have to follow this up soon (tomorrow?) with some concrete advice on how exactly one might go about doing just this.

But the quick-and-dirty of it is the difference between being pro-active and reactive. Most CRPGs give the rogue a reactive role, almost exclusively. The rogues are dependent upon the designer to give them chances to use their special abilities. Effectively waiting for a ball to be deliberately hit their way. Which is why we get annoyed when, as in the example dungeon above, it LOOKS like we're getting some hit our way, but we're not allowed to catch them. It's frustrating.

Ideally, the rogue should be a pro-active role. The opportunities to use his skills should be constant --- but choosing exactly how to approach it and what skills to use should be the trick.

(Vaguely) related yammering:
* When Magic Becomes Mundane In RPGs
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past The Stupid Door?
* Roleplaying and Roleplaying Games
* Designing an RPG Rule System
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007
 
My Own Ten Most Important Games
There's an article in the New York Times about the 10 most important games of all time, for possible inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress. Their importance is based upon the fact that "Almost all of the games on the Lowood list represent the beginning of a genre still vital in the video game industry," thus making them "cultural artifacts."

That's a highly questionable assertion, certainly. I mean, Zork was based on Adventure, Doom evolved directly from Wolfenstein 3D (which itself evolved from Catacomb 3D), and (as Scorpia was quick to point out) there's not a single RPG on the list (which is still a very vital genre in the industry, thankfully).

But the fun thing about these kinds of lists is that they make us think, discuss, and come up with their own lists. Greg Costikyan created a list a few years ago about the games every game developer - and gamer - should know.

Now, I have some gigantic blind spots of my own. My game choices are very PC-centric, for one thing. And I think every gamer is influenced most heavily by their first gaming experiences, even if their first game was a total piece of crap. There may be some poor sap out there who's introduction to computer gaming was Trespasser, and they are forever tanited and have nostalgic feelings for it. That's probably me, too.

So here are the top 10 games that I feel were most important in MY life. It shouldn't match anyone else's list. To be fair, I cut it down to only ten - which is very hard to do! And these aren't my favorite games... merely the ones I thought were most influential on my life - whether they sucked up the most hours, or forced me to look at gaming differently and colored my perceptions of games (or even life) forever.

My Ten Most Important Games:

#1 - Wing Commander
I'm gonna cheat right off the bat by taking an entire series under one "game" heading. WC1 was probably my favorite, as it was a compelling diversion during a pretty boring summer in a strange town with no friends and a lot of stress. Because it was so blow-me-away cool, a childhood fantasy (Star Wars, anyone), and I was pushed into it by a need for an outlet, I was sucked into the Wing Commander universe and spent time not only playing the game, but studying the manual and reference documents. I knew the exact warhead yield of every missile, armor levels of every ship, and more.

It was also the game that made me decide to seriously look at becoming a game developer upon graduation. Because it wasn't enough to play the game - I wanted to make games like this! It was also influential in my decision to go indie and create Void War --- not that Void War's gameplay is very close to that of Wing Commander.


#2 - Ultima
I cheat again and use another series. Though really, what I'm talking about here is Ultima VII first and foremost, then Ultima IV, Ultima Underworld, and Ultima III - the last being my first introduction to really cool, sprawling, complete RPG worlds. You could go anywhere (though you might die if you tried), do all kinds of stuff, and get clues from talking to people. It was amazing.

Ultima IV (and, to a lesser degree, Ultima V through VII) gave us a glimpse of a possible future for RPGs and gaming in general. Where philosophy, morals, or ethics could be explored in an entertaining package. Unfortunately, that future has yet to present itself, and we're still chomping down popcorn and cotten candy most of the time.

Ultima VII - we may never see its like again, though I thought Baldur's Gate II came close. It was one of the most interactive worlds I've ever had the pleasure of exploring. That and a fascinating story of false religion, too! And Ultima Underworld was years before Doom or The Elder Scrolls, but let us explore a very interactive (with Physics!) underground world in the first "modern" action-RPG.

#3 - Doom
I didn't scream. But dang this game was awesome. Not only awesome 3D, but it included cooperative multiplayer as well as "deathmatches" (coining the term), AND it was extremely mod-friendly before "modding" was even a concept.

#4 - Adventure (Original, AKA "Colossal Cave Adventure")
The Colossal Cave. I've talked about this one in depth. The green dragon on the persian rug haunted my daydreams.

#5 - EverQuest
Anything that could consume that much of my life (most of which I still don't regret losing) HAS to be pretty darn significant.

#6 - Final Fantasy VII
I could just leave this one as the whole series, and I probably should. But FF7 was the mega-hit which sucked me in more than the rest. The game mechanics were mainly fairly pedestrian but with a few neat customization options. The story was weird but nevertheless highly compelling, the visuals (backgrounds - not so much the polygonal characters) were lush for the era. The combination was just magic. There's no other way to describe it.

#7 - Frontier (AKA Elite II)
Another game which sucked a good deal of my life from me for about three months straight. And I don't miss it. Open-ended gameplay and procedural content generation at its early 90's best. Frontier was as much a toy and a place to explore as it was a game. I mean, honestly, the space combat SUCKED in this game. But it didn't matter. It was just funto explore, upgrade, and try things out.

#8 - Falcon 3.0 / 4.0
Hardcore combat flight simming. Multiplayer. A virtual, interactive world that would change dynamically based upon your actions. Realism (particularly in 4.0) that has rarely been equaled and never exceeded. These games made you feel like you were THERE.

#9 - Neverwinter Nights
The original campaign that shipped with this game wasn't all that great. What was incredibly awesome was the incredibly powerful yet easy-to-use toolkit for content creation, so that anybody could make their own RPG with it. Now, that had been done before, with Bard's Tale Construction Set, Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures, and Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set. But this time, we had easy access to the Internet for distribution, and probably more power in the tools than ever before. And it was extremely easy for other users to run the custom module - a problem which plagued the slightly earlier game, "Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption".

AND Neverwinter Nights also had solid multiplayer support and a "Dungeon Master" mode, to exponentially increase the potential of the game. Again, it had been beaten to the punch by Vampire, but in NWN it was both more solid and more capable.

Many, many hours of my life were taken up running (and playing) multiplayer NWN games. And they were a blast. So to me, Neverwinter Nights wasn't so much a game as a tool to make and play games. And it was awesome at that.

#10 - The Sims
I liked it, but never loved it. But wow, did it ever innovate and show some really cool concepts of what COULD be done! Neat alternatives to UI, AI, interactions, perceptions in people of context when there was none... And it appealed to a huge segment of the market that had never been interested in games before. It's a game worth STUDYING by any serious game developer.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007
 
Geneforge 4 Interview
RPG Vault has an interview with indie RPG developer Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software about his newest RPG, "Geneforge 4: Rebellion."

A couple of excerpts:
"Thus, though it's a low-budget title, it still has a place in the marketplace (and early sales are very strong). Most people don't make single-player RPGs like this anymore, so there isn't a lot of competition. It may seem that MMORPGs have sort of taken over the world, but there are still lots of people who long for this sort of game."

And later...

"There is almost always a non-combat way to solve any given problem. Diplomacy. Stealth. Mechanics. Trickery. I love having multiple ways to solve every problem."

It's heavy on promotion (of course), but enjoyable:

GENEFORGE 4: REBELLION INTERVIEW


But what I'm really anxious for is his follow-up to his last - and perhaps most controversial - "View from the Bottom" article, about how he hates RPGs.

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The Rampant Games Rating System
Courtesy of GamePolitics.com --- apparently a proposed New York Bill will "Provides the Courts the power to confiscate any materials that do not bear a rating and/or label clearly displayed." (Materials referring to video games).

What label? What rating? Brick-and-mortar retailers in New York only, or online storefronts that do business with New York residents as well? I guess we'll wait and see what the actual bill's wording will provide. But most games don't have and can't afford an ESRB rating. There are certainly some FREE, self-proclaimed ratings systems out there. Would those suffice?

Hmmm... maybe we'll have the official "Rampant Games Ratings" (RGR, pronounced "Roger"):

There are only three rating levels in the RGR system:

Rated P: Parental Review Recommended!
It's probably okay for your kids, but sheesh --- do you really trust your kid's safety (and - ahem - education) to some strange media provider and their dumb rating system?

Rated W: We Really Mean It - Parental Review Recommended!
This game is probably okay for a teenager or mature pre-teen, but dang it, Mom and Dad, please freaking pay attention before you give it to your eight-year-old!

Rated Y: You Got Nobody To Blame But Yourself - Parental Review Rcommended!
It's your own business if you think your sixteen-year-old is mature enough to deal with it, but the game is really intended for people who are legally no longer their parent's responsibility.

So there you go. Feel free to use it, at no cost! And worth every penny!

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Games For Windows: Empty Hype?
Valve marketing manager Doug Lombardi expressed doubts about Microsoft's Games For Windows Initiative in a recent interview. "Right now (the Games for Windows Initiative) seems like it's part of the marketing push to help Vista. To really back a platform is a sustained effort over years and years, so we'll see if in two years Microsoft is still spending money to put Games for Windows sections in retail, and having PR people preach that message that we were just talking about, which is that the PC isn't dying, in fact it's actually bigger than all the consoles put together. You know, if it were to sign up for that, that's great. If it's going to use it to promote sales of Vista, that's really not good for the industry, it's good for Microsoft in the short term."

Apparently, he's not alone in this. Epic President Michael Capps stated his opinion at GDC that you have to "Drink the Kool-Aid for that to work."

Valve, at least, remains committed to the PC platform. Many other publishers are moving away from the PC to consoles (or at least to multiplatform). Id Software and Epic sited piracy as a leading factor in their migration from the PC as their platform of choice. More smokescreen, or fulfillment of a situation software developers have been warning us about for years? I suspect those people who don't actually pay for their games will assume the former, and game developers will point to the latter and say, "We told you so." I have already said my piece about piracy. Maybe not the final word, but after saying, "please don't, it really does hurt," what else is there?

As for me... console games are my day job. Well, a console game is currently my day job. Next project could be another PC game - unlikely, but possible. And I certainly enjoy many console games. But my passion is still PC games. Or I should say, "Computer Games," as I wouldn't want to rule out Mac. I see a bright future for PC games... and I'm not just talking casual games and MMO's, either.

So what do you think? GFW: Mere hype to promote Vista this year, or long-term marketing strategy that Microsoft will be willing to put sustained cash into?

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Monday, March 12, 2007
 
Game Design: Fixing Interactive Storytelling
My commute to the day job at Wahoo Studios (NinjaBee) isn't short. I end up spending about an hour and twenty minutes on the road each day - if I dodge the worst of the rush-hour traffic. To help put this otherwise wasted time to good use and to make the time pass more quickly, I've been listening to audio books in the car. About half of the books are non-fiction, ranging from personal wealth-building to Sun Tsu's Art of War. For fiction, I've recently been hooked on Alexander Kent's "Bolitho" novels (good ol' Age of Sail naval war stories), and Lois McMaster Bujold's absolutely outstanding Vorkosigan books.

But this last week I've been listening to Stephen King's "The Shining." I've seen the Jack Nicholson movie, and part of the miniseries that aired a few years back, and I'd read part of the novel in my early teens but had never finished it. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book now. Though I know all too well how it's going to end, I'm enjoying the story a lot. King is a master storyteller --- there's a reason he gets paid millions just to announce his intention to put pen to paper.

But I'm also struck by how much NOTHING happens through most of the book.

Seriously, the book is largely a character sketch of three people (four, if you include Hallorann), and consists largely of flashbacks into what made them what they are. Then when faced with major decisions, they often decide not to do anything, let things run their course, and hope that things will turn out okay in the end - which, obviously, doesn't happen.

The "point of no return" comes at one point when Wendy and Danny are heading down into town just as the news of the snowstorm is coming over the radio. Wendy asks Danny directly about his visions, and puts the decision in his hands as to whether to stay at the hotel during the winter with his father, or to wait it out at her mother's house until Spring. Danny's fear of leaving his father alone and spending months with his emotionally abusing grandmother outweigh the terror of his half-remembered premonitions.

The reader, invested in the characters, wants Wendy and Danny to flee to safety. Or for everything to come out ... well, looking like this very amusing "trailer" for the "Feel-Good Family Movie" version of the story. The storyteller knows better - for there to be conflict, these characters whom the reader (and, presumably, the storyteller) has come to care about will have to face conflict, be abused, and possibly killed or turned to perform despicable acts. That's where story comes from!

The Shining As A Computer Game?
And so we run into some fundamental problems with "Interactive Storytelling" in computer games and "dice and paper" RPGs. The gamer - even moreso than the reader - makes a horrible storyteller.

The gamer, playing "The Shining: The Video Game," isn't going to be satisfied until Hallorann-As-Yoda has taught Danny to use his powers to bring about world peace, the Overlook Hotel's evil soul has been utterly destroyed in a juicy boss-monster battle, and the whole family comes down from the mountain as a happy, non-disfunctional unit, sure to live happily-ever-after until The Shining II.

A game of romantic comedy would also result in the player making a beeline for the quick resolution, avoiding the stupid mistakes and misunderstandings that make an actual "romcom" story so entertaining in the first place.

But characters in interesting and dramatic stories make irrational decisions. It's the irrational decisions that make them so very dramatic. Without those, Ripley wouldn't bother going after Newt at the end of Aliens. The kids in every single horror movie would flee, never to return, at the first hint that something truly horrible might happen, and if prevented from fleeing they wouldn't choose the flashlight over the gun. Lotteries would be poorly participated in. And the TV show "Deal Or No Deal" would never, ever have worked.

The player, emotionally invested in a character (as they should be), is nevertheless emotionally divorced enough from the story to make rational decisions for that character. He knows it's just a game. He knows the other character's arent' real. While players are capable of extremely irrational decisions, they are more often the result of imperfect communication (like attacking the gazebo!), their own (rather than their avatar's) emotional state, or meta-game knowledge. Lacking that, the player can - and usually will - make the most rational decisions for the character that people won't always make in real life. The ability to reload a saved game gives the players virtual omniscience into the results of their actions, and grants them the potential to optimize their personal decision tree through a story with robotlike precision. And thus creating a boring story.

Just look at the optimization of behaviors in your usual MMORPG for proof of this. Players constantly defy designer expectations (which are in themselves irrational) by choosing the path of least resistance --- and most boring gameplay --- over and over again. Designers set out riskier-but-more-rewarding options before the players, who usually ignore it in favor of the far more predictable grind.

Most game designers - knowing how much investment into the game's story and characters improves the player experience - fall back into conventional, linear storytelling and force calamity upon the player. Sorry, but there's no way to save Aeris. Just like Jack Torrance, she's dead meat from the introduction.

But it works, dang it. Linear storytelling is the antithesis of gameplay, yet the unholy matrimony - disfunctional and annoying as it is - still manages to be successful enough. Enough that many won't even bother beyond the simplest of branches to try to make the story itself more interactive. Why bother, when the player is going to go for the shortest / easiest story path anyway?

Lessons From the Table
Long before people were mistakenly proclaiming Grand Theft Auto as the pioneer of open-ended gameplay, back "mini-computers" were hot news, clocking in at the price of a house and taking up only PART of a room... interactive storytelling was melded into a game via tabletop dice-and-paper roleplaying games. People have been playing RPGs for over thirty years now. So what have we learned?

Not enough. Even with a live referee (Game Master or "GM", as the generic term has evolved) who can creatively change the story to evolve with the player's actions, it's not easy.

Some players will allow themselves, in the name of roleplaying, to subject their characters to greater risk and self-sacrifice in the name of making a more interesting story. They have the heart of a storyteller, and are perhaps the kinds of players people think about when they talk about interactive storytelling. But they are a rare breed, and even they have their limits. So some other tricks have evolved.

Often players are called upon at the table to avoid acting upon "out-of-character (OOC) knowledge," information that the player possesses that the character does not. So just because as a player you might recognize the warning signs that the charming lady you just met might be a vampire, but the game referee (or "game master", GM) is asking you NOT to take a sudden interest in wearing garlic necklaces to bed because your character would have no reason to suspect her. Since this is in a "thou shalt not" category, the referee is capable of enforcing it. But many players are notorious for weaseling out of GM-imposed "ooc knowledge" restrictions. So where a stick might not suffice, you might have to employe a carrot.

The most common trick is to reward roleplaying (or more ideally, increasing the drama and fun for all other players, including the GM --- nobody likes a spotlight-hogging drama queen). With greater risk comes greater reward, and making irrational (but believable) decisions that increase the dramatic tension is a Good Thing. Authors get that feedback in the form of stories that sell. Players get the feedback in RPGs through increased loot and experience points. Other videogames already use this as a mechanism to encourage exploration. You can get a nice health pack or the megawatt laser a couple of levels early if you spend some time hunting the level.

Another trick has been to lessen the impact of dramatic failure, or the "dying well" bonus. If the character's death is due to a dramatic, roleplaying, or self-sacrificing decision, the player can get a leg up with his next character (or, in a game with resurrection, the bonus may apply immediately). The reward ends up transcending the single avatar, and is applied to the player instead. Unfortunately, in the tabletop RPG experience, this effectively translates to all players receiving this reward all the time, as anything else will be considered unfair.

In many more modern dice-and-paper RPGs, the rules systems have actually given the players some additional tools beyond the limitation of their characters to influence the game. For example, the players may be given "action points" or "willpower points" to counteract either the actions of the game master (thus giving themselves limited GM power), or to counteract the randomness of the dice (re-rolling a failure, for example).

Metagame Rewards For Making A Better Story
All of the above tricks from the "dice and paper" RPG world really come down to dealing with the "metagame"... the mechanics "above" or surrounding the actual content and context of the story. While the story may be its own reward, that's something that is usually only appreciated in retrospect. Just like real life, we tend to only appreciate struggles and challenges for what they were after-the-fact. While in the midst of them, they are nothing but a pain in the neck.

In a game, the player is going to need some other feedback structure to prevent the plain ol' path-of-least-resistance navigation through the storyline. Otherwise, your best attempts at interactive storytelling are doomed. Just like the "wasted" failure-path missions in the original Wing Commander. Purists might argue that the presence of these metagame elements acts as yet another barrier between the player and the story itself, and they'd not be wrong. But I believe that the game player's natural motivations are fundamentally at odds with good storytelling. The gambler wants to win, even if the psychological attraction (and even addiction) to gambling comes from the risk of loss.

I've seen this much more frequently in more abstract games (like certain storytelling card games), but not so often in modern videogames.

The Killer Game
One game idea I had many years ago (but will never have the nerve to build) was a concept called "The Killer Game." Basically, it was a multiplayer simulation of the slasher-horror flick genre. One player would be chosen randomly (and secretly) to be the psychotic, possibly supernatural killer, and the rest of the players would be victims.

Amongst the victims, the winner wasn't the person who survived to the end of the game. Rather, each player would accumulate points by doing stupid things common in horror movies (and spoofed in "Scary Movie"), like hiding in front of an open window. For both the killer and his/her victims, points weren't simply scored by destroying the predator / prey, but for HOW you did it. Shooting the killer with an assault rifle? No points, but it ends the game. Dropping a victim into a bubbling vat of chili? Lots of points, for both killer and victim.

Bonus points could be accrued by being the first or second victim to die (to offset the natural penalty of having less opportunity to score points for doing stupid killer-inviting stuff), and for merely driving off the killer or scaring a victim. The winner (who would get awarded a "B-Movie Best Actor Award" at the end) would be the player with the most points. Then the game would provide players an edited playback of the game, showing the point-scoring moves by the players with brief scenes of the killer's stalking - a silly "movie" to keep of the game.

Application In Other Games
Would it work? I don't know --- I'll never make this game (if you do, just list me somewhere in the credits please). And I still don't know how you could translate "The Shining" into the primarily visual and active medium of the computer game (without resorting to lots of metaphorical action sequences for what's happening in the character's minds, or going the text-based route).

But it's an interesting thought-exercise to me, and reminds me of additional tools I could have at my disposal in designing a CRPG.

As I mentioned in "Ye Olde Saved Game Debate," a designer could encourage the player to stick with what might seem a less-optimal performance or decision by rewarding the player with "drama points" or some other mechanic that provides a bonus to future performace, or even unlock the use of spell-like "metagame" effects that influence the game and computer-controlled characters.

As another example, in a "real-world" first-person shooter, maybe enough drama points could give you access to a "good luck" effect which slows down the enemy's reaction to your appearance, simulating getting the drop on your opponents. Sure, it's a metagame effect, but it could be presented in such a way that it's more believable and better at preserving the setting than the semi-magical "health packs" which instantly cure multiple bullet-wounds. Deliberately removed from the game's context, it can be interactively awarded based upon the player's actual actions and situation, rather than the designer's guesstimate of how the game will be played (like providing piles of ammunition and health-packs right before a boss encounter).

The whole point of interactivity - specifically interactive storytelling - is that it goes both ways. It shouldn't just be the player reacting to what the game throws at him or her. The game should react and respond as well, and provide the player with both the motivation and the tools to share in the roll of storyteller, as more than just a single character's brain.

(Vaguely) related stuff I made up:
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past The Stupid Door?
* Are Graphics Really Killing Gameplay?
* Innovation in RPGs
* What Makes a Good "Casual" RPG?
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Sunday, March 11, 2007
 
Viva Piñata
I got to borrow the company XBox 360 over the weekend, since I don't yet have one of my own. I also brought home a goodly stock of company games for the machine, to try out for research. And it really is research. I got the chance to fiddle around with a bunch of XBox Live Arcade titles as well.

King Kong and Gears of War looked pretty cool, but I couldn't play them for very long without thinking, "Man, this game would play so much better with a mouse and keyboard on the PC." The 360 version of Bejewelled 2 was great, though it was still Bejewelled 2. Cloning Clyde is, of course, awesome. :) And Project Gotham Racing is great, though I kinda prefer Gran Turismo 4. Maybe it's just a familiarity thing. And the fact I don't have an HDTV.

But once the family got a chance to check out Viva Piñata, I pretty much found myself kicked off the system for the rest of the weekend. My kids and my wife are all hooked. It's a very cute "Sim" game about growing a garden, breeding animals (um, Piñata animals), fighting off invaders, and managing the whole food chain (aka "Donut of Life").

Innovative and outstanding. Kudos to Microsoft and Rare on a great game.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007
 
Watch the IGF & GDC Awards Show
Gamespot has a streaming video of the entire IGF and GDC awards show for 2007.

I only intended to watch the IGF portion of the awards show from GDC this year, but I found myself sucked in and watching the full hour-and-forty-some-odd-minutes of it (while puttering around in Gimp and Blender trying to actually --- you know, MAKE a game).

In particular, I really enjoyed the two marriage proposals, Sam & Max doing the indie commentary, the Mega 64 skits (particularly the "I love you" skit), Richard "Lord British" Garriott's tribute to Shigeru Miyamoto, and Miyamoto's Lifetime Achievement speech.

You know, if the Academy Awards were this entertaining (after the introduction), I might actually bother watching them. Maybe the Oscar nominees should start wearing jeans, T-shirts, and funky scarves. And restrict their acceptance speeches to war whoops, marriage proposals, and/or colorful four-letter expressions.

I almost felt embarassed for the Capcom guy accepting the awards on behalf of the Okami team. As probably everyone in the room knew that Capcom had shut down the development team, Clover Studio, last fall, he understandably kept his comments extremely short.

The awards show also educated me on how many very cool games there are out there - both indie and mainstream - that I have not played yet.

Maybe this is something only of entertainment value to game developers. But I really enjoyed it, and if you are interested, you check it out HERE.

Have fun.

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Friday, March 09, 2007
 
Introduction to Japanese Indie Shoot-Em-Ups
Postman has written an article at TigSource entitled, "Doujin Shmups: An Introduction." Doujin is a Japanese term for "small publisher," analogous to "indie." And a "shmup" is an abbreviation of "Shoot-Em-Up."

The article is informative, and also goes through his top 10 list of the best doujin shmups. He does mention the "curtain fire" style of game in the style of Mushihimesama Futari. Which still boggles my mind.

I'd only heard of three of his top ten games, which goes to show how woefully out-of-touch I am with the shmup scene. Though at least I knew all the developers and games mentioned in William Swaney's addendum on Western Games (and a few more besides).

Times have changed a bit since the era of Xevious, Galaga, Gyruss, 1942, and R-Type, haven't they?



 
DOSBox 7.0 Released
DOSBox 7.0 has now been released, with improved compatability and improved speed.

You can check out the latest and greatest HERE.

Those of us really old-school gamers who still have a plentiful supply of old DOS games (which, after a dozen years, I *still* lie and tell myself "I'm gonna finish this game someday") can rejoice.

I tried to get Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (my version is the floppy diskette version) to run under the previous version of DOSBox with no success, but I understand people have been fine with the CD-ROM version. Maybe 7.0 will fix my woes. I want to finish that one some day :)

I still don't think Origin's custom-memory management system for Ultima VII works in DOSBox ( EDIT: According to Grtz, it's worked since at least since 0.65, so I guess my info is out of date! ), but the last time I checked, Exult was pretty solid. Not perfect, but you can play the games (and expansions) to their conclusion through it. It seems like most of the work going into it is related to creating your own games using that engine.

And, as I have said before, Epic Pinball is perhaps the "killer app" for DOSBox.
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Thursday, March 08, 2007
 
Future RPG Evolution
Okay, anybody who was actually at this presentation... could you please enlighten me as to what was really discussed? I'm speaking of the presentation on "The Evolution of RPG Design" panel discussion reported in Next Generation. Unfortunately, they've broken it down into single-sentence statements, which ... on their own... leave me a little unenthusiastic.

Hironobu Sakaguchi said, “The biggest evolution comes from improved graphics. The more powerful expressions become, the easier it is to create a game that users can sympathize with, or relate to."

Ummm... you know, before I read Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," I might have agreed that, if not the biggest evolution, it would be a significant factor. And maybe ten or fifteen years ago, that was really the case. I sure don't mind prettier graphics. I mean, Oblivion did an awesome job of making me feel like I was But as Scott McCloud, Stephen King, and many of the best movie directors understand, sometimes what is NOT shown is best.

While I loved what they did with Alyx in Half-Life 2, I thought some of the best emoting came from those earlier Final Fantasy games, where the lack of graphic detail actually encouraged the player to project their own emotional detail onto the melodramatically posing figures. The imagination filled in a ton of the infinitely small details the game would otherwise need to display, allowing the designers to focus on the larger issues.

I mean... sheesh... we have tons of movies coming out each year where real, live, TRAINED actors have trouble expressing believable emotion. We somehow imagine that computers will do a better job because our graphics are getting closer to photorealistic? I don't think so.

Maybe something got lost in the translation there, and obviously whatever he had to say was shortened into a one-liner in the magazine. So hopefully I'm misundersanding Mr. Sakaguchi's point.

Next was the notorious and outspoken Peter Molyneux, who noted that while the graphics have changed, the gameplay is largely the same. "The actual structure of RPGs hasn’t really changed that much. I think there’s some opportunities there.

Amen to that. We've been saying that for years. I've added my voice to those calling for innovation in RPGs, too. Especially when the dice & paper world continues to innovate, yet we sometimes find outselves still trying to emulate the how the games were played in 1974. However, I'm gonna state a caveat here:

The actual structure of the novel hasn't changed that much in a couple of centuries, either. However, there have been many great novels --- and I expect, many more to come --- that work within that structure. I only dimly recall a couple of experiments to really play with the medium and do something weird with that structure.

I mean - face it, there's something like 7,000 fan-made Neverwinter Nights modules out there. And a few of them are actually pretty good. Some really broke a few boundaries, while staying within the D&D game mechanic and the NWN interface. The innovative modules didn't have a large intersection with the "pretty good" group, but many showed promise and had a very different feel to them. There's a lot that could still be done within that structure, and no doubt WILL be done within that stucture with Neverwinter Nights 2 and any other sequels.

So while I'm on board with the general concept of playing around with the structure and evolving it... I'm also cautious. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater just in the name of being different.

Ray Muzyka's comment was about other games incorporating more RPG elements. Which is definitely cool and all, though I don't know what it has to do with RPGs, other than perhaps helping to bring in more fans of the genre.

I'd really like to hear more about what was said. As it is, the article left me scratching my head a little.

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I Will Not Mourn Their Passing...
I don't visit my Friendly Local Videogame Store often enough. Or rather, my Friendly Local Branch of a National Chain, I guess. But their website (I'll let you guess who it is) advertised a game I've been anxiously awaiting, finally available in the U.S., to ship in just a few days. I thought I'd follow the suggestion of the website and "reserve my copy today" at my local store. I get to avoid shipping costs, get the game as soon as it's available, and the local manager could happily include my purchase in his monthly stats (a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts, right?). A win-win scenario!

But alas, it was not to be. Even though the company website encouraged making a reservation, and even helpfully provided the list of stores closest to my home with the phone number and the admonition to "Reserve Your Copy Today!", the local branch didn't even have the game in their system. Probably a limited release, the salesperson told me.

But what he didn't say was that more importantly, it was a PC game, and they just don't like to stock those anymore. Where once upon a time PC games dominated the shelves of game stores just like this one, they have now been relegated to a tiny fragment of the back wall. Maybe that will change with Microsoft's big "Games For Windows" initiative, or maybe not. Whatever the case, they just didn't want to be bothered. The unspoken message: For PC games, try your luck at Wal*Mart or Best Buy. Or Amazon. Or... anywhere but here. Please take your business elsewhere.

My brother tried to pre-order from his local store. Same story.

Now, there has been an option for several weeks now to directly download the game. But it's a big ol' multi-gigabyte "platinum pack," and part of the reason I wanted to pick it up from the store was so that I could actually have a physical, archived copy. Though I was seriously tempted several times. But I held off for the DVD release.

This time.

So I had to pay for shipping to have it delivered directly to my house. Bummer. Next time, I'll download. I've got broadband and lots of storage space on my hard drive, and a DVD burner that I've never actually used to burn a DVD before.

Now, I don't begrudge this retail chain for stocking what sells. Console games are where its at, and more importantly (for them), there are fewer legal questions about selling used console games --- which makes up a major portion of their revenue. It's their bread and butter, and the sad state of running a brick-and-mortar retail shop is that you have to stock inventory. Inventory which takes too long to sell just costs you more in rent.

But they still, ostensibly, sell PC games. While the salesperson I spoke to was polite enough, he wasn't going to make a big effort to help me out. Instead, he wanted me to pre-order the next big XBox 360 release, of which there will likely be PLENTY this non-Christmas season. Let's face it, unless it's a total surprise hit, there's going to be TONS of copies of these console games floating around, and the only people pre-orders help are the stores themselves. But the more obscure PC game release, where they really COULD help out? Nah, too much effort.

With the emphasis on downloaded content for the consoles now, and for the PCs for the last several years, I think the day of the retail game shops is coming to a close. Right now a big part of their bottom line is reselling used games, something else which may fade away as digital distribution becomes more commonplace.

Not gonna happen? Maybe it's just Utah, but lately I haven't seen many of the retail music stores that used to be found in every mall and shopping center for decades. I hadn't noticed at first, actually, because I was too busy enjoying the selection from Amazon and the convenience of buying (yes, I *BUY* them, much to the RIAA's surprise, I'm sure) digital music downloads.

I expect the next generation of consoles will offer a STEAM-like content delivery system that may get equal billing with traditional media distribution. And the generation after that?

I think the fact that this very same major retail chain is offering to sell certain PC games (especially older ones) as direct downloads may be evidence that they are already planning for the future.


(Vaguely) related gibberish:
* Alternatives to Front-Loading Game Sales
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?
* Are Microtransactions Getting Abused By Game Publishers?
* How To FUBAR an MMO Launch
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Wednesday, March 07, 2007
 
The GDC Trip, Or "Do You Have A Bomb With You?"
Ah, GDC. This will be my eighth year of NOT attending GDC. I do kinda miss it. Though I'm not sure I'd even recognize it now.

Back in the day, Kirk Baum (now at Incognito, part of Sony) and I were part of the regular "delegation" from SingleTrac to GDC. Which was, until 1998 or so, called CGDC, or "Computer Game Developer's Conference." name changed to let those console game developers - like us - feel more at home. Then the console devs took over. But that's another story.

The first GDC was definitely the best, in 1995. It was still transitioning from being a small grass-roots affair to a Big Deal. It was the second-from-the-last year they had truly open hospitality suites and suite-hopping. It was room after room of parties, getting swag, seeing what other companies were up to, receiving recruitment offers, and being encouraged to support new hardware or use certain tools in game development. There was TONS of food.

The following year the suites were still there, but the swag and free food had diminished. By 1997, the hospitality suite night had all but dissapeared. There were just too many attendees. And I became more and more jaded, and found the conference to be less educational but still just as inspirational.

I think it was on the 1996 or 1997 GDC trip when I had an incident at an airport that would probably have led me (and an airport employee) being detained for suspected terrorism for half the trip if it had occured after 2001.

Kirk and I had received airline tickets through some sort of promotional discount that required two parties to fly together. Our office manager made the arrangements; I never knew the details. Maybe it was a buy one, get another for 1/2 price deal, but it required that Kirk and I fly together. I was unaware of all this, as the office manager had only told us that we'd be flying together. Ummm... yeah, sure.

Kirk arrived a bit later than me to the airport. I figured I'd just go ahead and try to check in, not realizing that they really wanted us to check in as a pair. A couple. Oh, how cute...

So the desk attendent is going over my stuff, trying to check me in, and then he stops, looking at my ticket, and then looks at me. Like he's considering something. And then he asks:

"Do you have a 'bomb' with you?"

I did a double-take. Was this there clever new security system? Yeah, never mind the metal detectors and the explosive-smelling dogs. They were just gonna screen everyone by asking them point-blank if they were a terrorist.

I answered, glibly, "Uhhhh..... what?!?!?!?"

The attendant looked even more sheepish, and tried to explain. "B-A-U-M. A Mr. Kirk Baum?"

"Oh, Kirk! Yes, he should be here any minute."

"I'm sorry," the attendant said. "I wasn't sure if that was how you pronounced his name."

"I was not ABOUT to answer `yes' to your first question!" I informed him. He nodded and chuckled. I chuckled. Ah, the 1990's. You could joke about crap like that back then.

I do miss going to GDC. Though I think I'd be a little more interested nowadays in one of these smaller, grass-roots type indie / casual developers conferences. Which are probably closer to what GDC used to be back in the day.

Ah, the innocent 1990's (*cough cough*).

(Vaguely) related diatribes:
* The Wildest Birthday Party Ever
* Ways to Fake More Believable AI
* Do Games Matter?
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007
 
The Joy of Tex (turing)
As a do-it-yourselfer game developer, about half of my 20-hour venture (sadly, it WILL take more than a week to get to 20 hours) is devoted to generating content. I do have help for some some of the more visible elements and 2D art, but a lot of my effort is still put into making my own visuals look good. Which is no small trick - I'm not very good.

I've been getting the hang of Blender over many moons of off-and-on effort. I'm still no expert at it, but I can get some halfway useable geometry out of it much of the time. But my crucial challenge is texturing. My respect for artists skilled at 3D modeling has gone up significantly since my first attempt to slap some photographed texture onto the side of a cube and call it an apartment building. There is a lot of art and science in the process, and while it might not be quite as technical as programming, it's still a technically intensive process as well as an artistic one.

And I've learned that UV Unwrapping is your friend.

Since neither touched-up photographs nor my poor attempts at hand-drawn textures (read: Stick Figures with scribbles) are completely adequate for what I'll be working on, I've had to get some help.

The first was a very awesome book called "The Dark Side of Game Texturing," by David Franson. The emphasis in this book is on using photographic references and procedural texturing techniques in Photoship to construct game textures. Lots of layering images, using beveling and burning tools. and so forth. He doesn't go into too much detail about the actual process of applying the textures to models - mainly the creation of the textures themselves. If you are a rank beginner (like me), this book will be a very helpful resource.

Unfortunately, I use "Poor Man's Photoshop," The Gimp. Almost everything that Franson talks about in his book is doable in Gimp, but I had to spend a lot of time translating his Photoshop instructions into Gimp-ese. I still don't know if its possible to do an "inner bevel" in Gimp (probably through an external plug-in), but I've been able to do about everything else in the book, though I had to guess at the equivalent settings in Gimp.

Another little tool I've been delighted with is Genetica, a seamless texture generator that is in the indie price range (the standard license is only $130). It was particularly interesting to me in that it takes most of the steps and tricks in The Dark Side of Game Texturing and automates them into a node-based operation. It's almost like the high-tech, digital equivalent of spray paint art, but it works very well.

For example, I needed something that looked a little like textured siding where the paint had gradually eroded. I found a preset that sorta resembled the right texture I wanted (with the noise generation and so forth), which I played with to give it the right kind of "feel". Then I found a node that resembled the overlayed siding, and played with beveling and depth levels to get me something that vaguely related what I had in mind. Not bad for ten minutes' work with a tool I am just barely learning to use!

All textures are created to be fully seamless - meaning they tile effortlessly. And unlike photographic base textures, they tend not to have blemishes or noticeable patterns that can draw the eye to the repetition in the scene (there's another tool I bought some time back called the "Seamless Texture Generator" which helps with making seamless textures from photo references).

When you create a texture or pattern, you can also add it to the list of presets to use it as a base for another texture - again with full control on down the pipeline. The program keeps track of the primitives elements used to create the texture, not the texture itself, so if some point down the line you want, say, the base color to be black instead of steel-gray, or you want to add some little bit of green weeds poking up through the cracked cement between the tiles, you can change it.

Here's kind of an example of it in action for one of the pre-sets that has a round air vent with warning stripes on either side.

Here's the primitives to create the basic vent:

And this is then layered into with another texture and masks to create the tile:


Which is now close to the finished product on the left of the "lab," ready to be rendered out at any resolution.

Anyway, I don't know if it's a huge boost to my productivity, but its fun to play with. But it really does seem like an easy way to produce a TON of nice-looking base textures, useable as-is, or dirtied up by hand in Photoshop or The Gimp to give it a bit more character.

While the examples I used here are man-made, it also makes good rock, alien skin, lava, and even fur.

(Vaguely) related whazzis:
* Sucking Slightly less
* Raising a Barn
* Learning to Draw!

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Monday, March 05, 2007
 
Eight Meters of Documentation
It seems that the only thing keeping the modern combat flight-sim market alive these days is the possibility of military subsidy. Pilots love games, too, and the modern flight sims are so incredibly detailed they make excellent practice for the real thing.

But there is one problem a game company might not predict. And that is the staggering bureaucracy and extremely strange requirements of governments. Especially the government of a formerly communist country, which I guess was used to quotas on quantity rather than quality.

So you get a situation where you just have to produce:

Eight Meters of Documentation


(Hmm... I'm guessing the game company in question was Eagle Dynamics, the makers of Lock-On: Modern Air Combat. Maybe that's too obvious of a choice, but I believe they are in former Eastern Bloc territory and have one of the two most high-fidelity modern air combat sims out there.)

Man. I'm a fan of having good documentation, but YEESH!

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Game Journalism and The Games Indiustry
The latest incident with Kotaku being bullied by Sony, which fortunately Sony soon realized was a big mistake, underscores another one of those old questions that may never be answered: What should the relationship be between the gaming press and the games industry?

Game journalists and the games industry enjoy a symbiotic relationship that doesn't seem to be unlike that of any medium or industry. I mean, I hear about the junkets to big Hollywood releases. And ... uh... I have seen Almost Famous about three or four times. :) I suppose Car & Driver magazine gets pressure from automobile manufacturers to tweak their reviews from time to time.

The videogame industry depends on the press to build hype and recognition of upcoming products. The game press relies upon the game industry to not only provide it with newsworthy items to report on, but for the majority of their income (in the form of advertising, etc). And of course, free product to review is a perk, too.

As his final address as ESA head, Doug Lowenstein recently said, “I think there’s a lot of maturity that needs to happen in the gaming press. It’s not just because there’s a cozy relationship between the press and the industry they cover. That I find a little uncomfortable. But I think the games industry press needs a higher level of maturity and seriousness.”

It's not just Sony and Kotaku. It happens with smaller press, and even indie publishers. I am not gonna name any names, but I do know of at least one small but up-and-coming gaming news site that has been under tremendous pressure to change a "good" review score into a "great" one for a flagship product line from a smaller publisher.

I'm not immune, here, either. I talk about what's happening in the industy, occasionally reporting on interesting newsworthy bits I discover and feel like sharing, and I talk about other people's games and tools - even if by the strictest interpretation they are in competition with my own. That makes me anything but an unbiased journalist. I appreciate you guys putting up with my shameless plugs to buy stuff from Rampant Games, though I'm really not sure I understand what motivates you to endure the incoherent rants and ramblings I post...

But I digress. The question at hand is what the relationship should be between the industry and the journalist?

It's not a two-party race. Ostensibly, in good ol' Capitalist society, both are supposed to be serving the consumer. While I have a foot in the industry camp and a toe in the journalist camp, I think of myself as a consumer ... a gamer ... first and foremost. I want to be informed. I want to hear inside stories. And I don't mind being marketed to --- I want good new games to enjoy.

But it's not like the press is some holy angel descending with knowledge in its wings. They screw up and get things wrong. They have biases - sometimes pretty extreme ones that prevent them from providing anything resembling an objective review. They pull revisionist stunts like slamming a game one year, and then praising it and its sequel after it has gone on to sell over a million copies. They also make really weird policies for reviews sometimes, in an effort to maintain objectivity, which ends up making things worse... like rating games based upon what they are not and otherwise making unfair comparisons ( "Game X had jumping whirleygig beetles, and Game Y does not, so therefore Game Y deserves a lower rating" ).

As much as the industry needs and deserves to be called onto the carpet by the press and the consumers, I think the same applies to the press from time to time as well. I think both need to understand that while they are expected to cooperate with each other, their charter is to serve the consumers, not each other.

So what do you think? I guess even Sony has now admitted that it stepped out of bounds, but where exactly is that line? What about pushing to get a review changed (particularly if you, the developer or a fan of the game, think the reviewer was unfair or had an axe to grind)? What about threatening to withdraw advertising (after all, it's the publisher's money, they have a right to spend it wherever they want)?

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Sunday, March 04, 2007
 
Battlestar Galactica
Holy frak.

Not sure how interested I am in continuing to watch the series at this point. I can't say I've been thrilled with season 3 - there's a point where the angst threshold gets exceeded. And Battlestar Galactica has been past that for a while now. But it has interesting characters and a fascinating premise / setting, so I've been sticking it out.

I'm kinda holding out hope that the thing-that-was-part-of-the-character's-imagination wasn't only in said character's imagination, thus making a return possible. I guess it depends on how contract negotiations for fourth season pan out.
 
Great Games Experiment Public Beta Begins
The social gaming site, The Great Games Experiment, is now open to the public. It's still in beta and under development, but it's quite useable. So if you haven't joined yet, go ahead and join, and add me to your friends list and stuff! :)

And if you are fond of an indie RPG that you want spotlighted, let me know and send me your reasons for it being spotlighted. Since I may not have played it myself (as much as I try...) I'll try and change those aroud about once every month or so... there's plenty of older indie RPGs to feature while we're waiting on new ones. I will generally only feature completed, released RPGs... something that people can already go out and play. (Freeware RPGs are awesome!)

Oh, and here's my Great Games Badge:
Great Games Experiment

Have fun!

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Friday, March 02, 2007
 
The Trick to Earning 9.9 Times More Selling Indie Games...
Okay, I'm sure this is applicable outside of game development, but there's an interesting discussion over at IndieGamer about the "Long Tail of Indie Games." If you have no interest in the nuts and bolts and dollars and cents of the indie game business, this article might bore you to tears. Sorry. There are lotsa numbers get strewn around, approximately half of which are grounded in firm data.

Blame it on my latent power-gamer-ism. I like looking at the numbers and figuring out how to max 'em out. Reflexive Arcade provided some very interesting numbers to chew on this week. Thorbrian took sales across all their games for the last four years, first- and third-party, and normalized the data to the average sales per week for each game's second week of sales. So whether a game sold 100 copies per week, or 0.25 copies per week, that was given a value of 1.0. That allowed all the games to be averaged together to get an interesting picture of the sales cycle at a mid-tier gaming portal. Thorbrian kindly gave me permission to use these charts for this article. The guys at Reflexive (and, I should add, ArcadeTown) are really cool about helping developers reach their full potential, and this kind of knowledge helps.

Nearly 10 Times Normal Sales the Second Week
First off, here's the "average" sales cycle for indie games in a four year period across all games. Again, don't read too much to the numbers on the left - that's simply a relative value that could mean any number of sales. Click on the picture for a larger link, but it's the shape of the curve that's important. The numbers at the far right are more erratic because they don't have many games that have been on the market for four years. The most remarkable thing about this graph is how well things stabilize at about the 15 month point. Sure, the game sells MUCH more the first nine weeks its out at the portal, but eventually it settles down to a pretty steady rate of sales.

Now, for more information, click this link for a breakdown by game category. What's interesting here is how similar these curves are. Though it's clear the top performers after 4 years are actually the less popular titles --- they tend to maintain even more constant sales performance. Of course, after you get to a certain point, it's hard to go much lower :) Again, the meaning of "1.0" might vary wildly. Also, I would like to stress here that this is a portal that thrives on a constant influx of games. Once a game drops out of the "new" and "top ten" categories, it dissapears from the front page, which undoubtably magnifies its drop in sales.

Man, that 9.5x at the second week of sales sure looks nice, huh? The reason it takes a week for sales to ramp up to that level isn't obvious at first, but it's the nature of portals. They don't have the big advertising push to generate the frontloaded sales of mainstream games, first off. People tend to check it out when they get a newsletter, or on a weekly basis. Secondly, the almost universal model for downloaded games is "try before you buy" - playing a demo version for an hour or so. So it might take a day or two (or a week or two) for someone to get around to buying it. In fact, it might be on their second weekly visit, where they still see the game they enjoyed proudly listed, and think to themselves, "Hey, that was fun, I think I'd like some more of that."

But 9.5x normal sales. Wouldn't it be nice to earn that EVERY week?

I'll bet ya you can! But there's a trick to it. And I believe there are developers out there (primarily casual game devs, emphasizing portal sales) doing exactly this.

Cumulative Sales - WARNING! MATH!
Okay, moving right along. Given all that, here's a graph of the cumulative sales of a game during a four-year sales cycle. Notice something interesting? That sudden rise during the first few weeks sure is steep, but relatively speaking the lion's share of its earnings take place after the sales curve has turned into a steady line.

And that's the one that's most interesting to me. Now let's say you manage to crank out games at a rate of one new game every 8 months (36 weeks). 8 months after the release of Game 1, you've sold 100 times your weekly income from that game during it's second year (which we'll call "x"). So if a game, on the average, earns x dollars per week in its second year, then during the first eight months it generates 100/36 = 2.78x.

Now lets say you crank out a second game during that time period. You are just that good. Now, during the second 8 month period (months 8-16), Game 2 is earning 2.78x. But Game 1 is still selling. From that cumulative chart, it's cranked out 145x in sales. 100 of that was during it's first 8 months, which means its generated 45x. So 100x for the new game, 45x for the last one, means you've earned 145x / 36 or 4.03x per week. We'll round it down to 4x.

Now, for each game thereafter, your most recent and second most recent games are bringing in a combined 4.0x. Your third most recent, and other titles thereafter, seem to be generating a pretty consistent 1X flat rate of sales at this point. So combined revenues for Game 3 will be 5x for 8 months, 6x for Game 4, and so on.

After you have 7 games under your belt, that's 9x. Very close to peak performance. Now, after that, sales may dwindle a bit further, so we'll cap it at that point. Maybe by that point you've already hit the law of diminishing returns, and are only earning 8.5x. Some of the top games on the list show a clear drop during the last six months or so in the category breakdown list. So we'll conservatively say 8.5x.

Now, if you are going exclusively through portals, you can now solve for x and figure out how much your games are going to have to pull in as an average, flat sales level. If $8500k would feed your team and keep a roof over their heads, then you'll have to shoot for a game that can average of $1k per week in sales across all the portals (assuming they all have similar sales curves). That's fairly aggressive, but I'm sure the top games are achieving that. In fact, based upon the curve provided, if you sell through Reflexive you can guess how well they'll do just by plugging in your first month's worth of sales.

Nevermind the fact that there are several "evergreen" games out there that are still generating sales after more than ten years (Snood, Pretty Good Solitaire, I'm looking at YOU, fellas!) --- but that's a special case condition.

In fact, lets' talk about special case conditions.

Do It Yourself Mulah
Now here's the deal... different portals tend to sell different games. A game that walks on water on one portal may be only a "good" performer on one. And a "good" performer on one may languish on others. They all have a different audience. And all their curves look a little different. Brian Fisher of ArcadeTown says, "the top 5% of games continue doing very nicely for a long time, top 25% stabilize around 25 - 50% of launch sales, and rest tend to drop off pretty quickly."

So Brian's chart might have a little smoother peak and more gradual drop-off. So your mileage may vary. But here's trick #2:

Sell it yourself.

Most portals have non-exclusive deals allowing you to sell it through your own site, though that's not universal (and may become less common over time --- even GarageGames offers a higher royalty rate for exclusives).

I never had a CLUE how hard it would be to sell games on my own site when I first started. There's a ton of work involved. Work I usually don't have time for. Work that sucks time away from game development, which is still my first love. Just putting a game on your own website and waiting for a world to beat a path to your door just won't happen (by "won't," I mean 99.99% statistically unlikely).

But for the sake of an argument, let's say you manage to work your butt off on your own site (or pay someone to put it together and market it). Let's say you manage to sell 1/10th as many of the games on your own site as the portals sell. And that's only after a lot of work. That number's not unfounded. I don't know about top-10 portal games, but there are many games out there that do much better on their developer's site than on the portals. I know in my own case, Void War (a very non-casual game which was not a top-10 performer on those portals it went to), I sold as many at Rampant Games as all of my portals and affiliates combined. So I did much better than 1X.

The other trick with doing it yourself is that your sales curve is probably very, very different. Sure, Reflexive's own games resemble the curve - but for many other indies, the curve is much more gradual. Many indies report sales actually peaking (sustained peak) two or three YEARS after release, though most established indies spike at initial release. They don't have the churn, or games dropping off the front page quite as quickly. The two games I mentioned above that are still selling well 10 years later never really did the portal thing.

So ... going back to the example. Lets say you manage to get your site so that you are selling a sustained rate of 0.1x. That sucks, right? Okay. Now across all 7 games... that becomes 0.7x, on top of the 8.5x we conservatively estimated above. Suddenly, you are now making 9.2X in sales... even closer to the 9.5x of the game's peak it's second week of sales!

But there's more! Since you are bypassing the middleman, you actually making two or maybe as much as three times as much per sale. Let's say twice as much... going from 45% to 90% of the retail price (you are still going to take a 10% hit on credit-card fees, possibly more for chargebacks and all that other crap). So your 0.7x is actually 1.4x... which brings us to a total of 9.9x, nearly ten times the sustained sales rate of a single game alone.

I'm making up numbers here - mileage varies greatly from game to game and portal to portal. But that's a plausible scenario.

X Is Not A Constant and Other Sobering Tales
Okay. Like Phil's $42,000 cap on how much you can make on an indie game, the above is more or less so much bull, but plausible bull. There are a lot of broad assumptions being thrown about there. I mean, eight-month turnarounds... assuming you can survive the four years necessary... x being a constant (a hit game will outsell ten other games COMBINED, let's be serious here). And there's always more to the story, and ways to hedge the bet. There's always additional revenue streams, especially when you own your own IP and if you can develop a busy site. Advertising, contract work, physical "bundleware" deals, etc. Actual numbers and relative values are "How Long Is a Piece of String?" type questions.

So in the end, all that math above isn't some magical formula that you can just plug in and watch your games business take off. It's just one of many models that help give a clearer picture of how things work. The biggest take-away (in my mind) is simply persistence. Multiple streams of revenue across multiple games. A successful indie game developer is in it for the long haul, and has to figure out how to juggle short-term survival with long-term success in whatever way works best for them.

And now I REALLY have to work on my 8-month turnaround!

(Vaguely) Related Insane Ramblings:
* Console Indie: Interview With Steve Taylor of NinjaBee
* Why IP Rights Are Important: The Story of Platypus
* Should I Become An Indie Game Developer?
* Is $42,000 All You Can Make With Indie Games?
* Alternatives to Front-Loading Game Sales
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Thursday, March 01, 2007
 
Wahoo's / NinjaBee's Next Big Thing
Steve couldn't talk about it for his interview a few days ago, but now the cat's out of the bag. In addition to Saga and Band of Bugs, we've got a Nintendo Wii game in the pipeline, called "Space Station Tycoon". This is one of the "non-indie" projects that that indie / non-indie mix Steve talked about in his interview.

There's some information on it here at IGN and also here at GamaSutra.

The GamaSutra article makes an interesting point that I hadn't really considered: "The annoucement marks the first time a developer has moved a similar concept from Xbox Live Arcade to a retail product on another home console."

So - those of you who were at the last Utah Indie Night and might have wondered what a producer from Namco was doing here --- well, now you know. He was here for Space Station Tycoon. Though, after talking with him, he expressed how much he enjoyed hanging out with the indies that evening.

And no, I am not on that project, either. I'm on yet another project that has not been announced. Yes, the office here is REALLY busy. Incidentally, I didn't even know the official name of the game until after the IGN article came out. We always refer to the games by their code names here. A friend of mine messaged me with the query, "Space Station Tycoon, huh?" I thought, "Huh? What's that?"

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