Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Monday, April 30, 2007
 
Disappointment In the Demonweb Pits
Aside from glimpses of classmates with arcane rulebooks tucked under their arms, my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons was at a local bookstore, and was principally in the form of a module (not that I knew what modules were at the time) called "Q1: The Queen of the Demonweb Pits." I had no idea what it was, but I was captivated by the cover, with art by Jim Roslof .

Well, okay. There was also a handful of original rulebooks from the "classic" edition of the game from several years earlier. Including one book I couldn't begin to comprehend which had an anatomically incorrect naked woman on the cover strapped to a stump. I made certain my dad never saw THAT book when I told him about this new game that I wanted to play. I'd already thumbed through the contents of that booklet, entitled "Eldritch Wizardry", and a booklet called the Greyhawk supplement, and neither gave me much clue how to play the game. There was stuff in them about lands and psionics and druids and stuff... nothing that I could get much clue about.

But the Demonweb Pits module... that was really the one that hooked me. It was shrink-wrapped, so I had no clue as to its contents (and, considering my lack of knowledge of the game, I'd have been just as clueless if I had). But the cover - and the painting on the back depicting a fighter in a web battling monstous red cat-sized spiders swarming him - filled me with promise of fantastic and thrilling adventures. Who were the intrepid heroes fighting - that spider-woman? Where were they? Could I be one of them?

The notes on the cover mentioned battling a demon queen on her own plane (whatever that meant), and notes on eight alternate worlds (Holy cow! They managed to stick eight different worlds to explore inside this little booklet? Amazing!). I would go home, after seeing that cover, and imagine what kind of thrilling possibilities lay within. In my minds eye, I juxtaposed the possibilities with another game I'd only seen but never played, the original text-game "Adventure" (AKA Original Adventure, or Colossal Cave Adventure). Yeah, the one with the dragon on the Persian rug. I was an impressionable pre-teen, what can I say?

On my twelth birthday, my parents got me the game, having no clue what an impact it would have on my life. As if my geekdom wasn't already secure with me reading books about space ships and how to construct your own transister radio. I finally got to play D&D with a couple of experienced players that very day, and find out what all the fuss was about. While it wasn't everything I'd dreamed and hoped for, it was pretty awesome stuff, and unlike any other game I had played.

Several months later, I was an experienced player, and had even tried my hand at running a game or two. One Saturday morning, one of my D&D-playing buddies called me up and said, "Hey, Jay, we're playing D&D today. Want to join us?" Well, of course. He continued. "We're playing this module... Queen of the Demonweb Pits. It says it is for characters level 10-14. You got any characters that level?"

"I have an 8th level thief."

"Well, make him 12th level, then, and bring him."

I'd gotten my thief to 8th level more-or-less legitimately (well, mainly "less," but it was valid by the loose standards of a bunch of junior-high-school kids), and I didn't feel like artificially inflating him to 50% higher than his current state of competence. So I countered, "How about I make a new character of 12th level. What do we need?"

My friend wasn't too sure. "How about I make a paladin," I offered. After all, paladins were holy warriors, sure to be of value against an evil demon queen!

I rolled up the character, and took my bike over to my friend's house. The rest of the group was already there. I didn't know two of the players, and they were dismayed to learn that I'd brought a paladin. Apparently, while the alignment on their character sheets was "good" (mainly - surprise - "Chaotic Good"), they were really worried about a goody-two-shoes Paladin coming in and messing up their fun and making them follow rules and stuff.

We played through a highly abbreviated version of the preceding module. The DM placed us in a drow city that was now in chaos, with fires burning and destruction everywhere. Presumably at least some of it had been caused by our little band of four adventurers. We found ourselves in possession of a strange silver egg, and received a message from some dignitaries who had sent us on this mission that the egg was the key to attack the demon goddess Lolth on her own plane of existence.

Cool!

We figured out how to make it work, and were transported to her demonic realm. We'd been playing for less than an hour, so I figured we were making good time.

The "Demonweb Pits" were this bizarre set of pathways set in an M.C. Escher-esque arrangement. The paths themselves were fashioned out of the souls of the damned, and if you looked hard enough, you could catch glimpses of faces in the walkway, silently screaming in eternal torment. The "walls" surrounding the pathway were simply thin curtains of fog, behind which the Maelstom shrieked, an endless storm of high winds around an infinitely large space of emptiness.

Not that I had a very good chance to see any of this. After an initial battle with demons, where my paladin with his holy avenger sword smote the evil opponents with glee and probably showed up the other adventurers a tiny bit, my companions decided to attack my poor paladin. They attacked him, bound him, castrated him, and tossed him into the Maelstrom. Mainly it was the work of the two players whom I had never met. My friend, fearing their wrath on his poor cleric, did nothing. The dungeon master (the "referee" who runs the game) simply shrugged and allowed it all to happen, his hands tied.

So my total time visiting this module I'd spent months dreaming about had been about 15 minutes, not including the hour preparation.

I said goodbye to my friend and the dungeon master, and decided to go back home. There wasn't much left for me to do.

Later, I called my friend to ask him how the rest of the adventure had gone. "We didn't last long after you'd left," he told me. "Those guys sucked. They kept arguing with each other, and our spells didn't work right. We got attacked by more demons, and we got our butts kicked."

Well, whadayaknow. I didn't remember seeing anything about "karma" on the packaging to the module, but apparently it was in there, too. But unfortunately, the promise of the module cover art was left - that day, at least - unfulfilled.

Fortunately the quality of gaming experience increased substantially as time went on and my fellow players matured. Though strangely I don't remember these two players ever invited to play with us again...


(Vaguely) related tripe-of-the-day:
* Spring and... D&D?
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
*
Teenagers and D&D


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Sunday, April 29, 2007
 
Now That's a Way To Say Thank You!
I wanted to point folks in the direction of this free game download from Battlezero.com: Trouble In CloudLand. I got an email from one of the developers saying that he was inspired to research Python and PyGame based upon my article in GameDev.net, "How To Build a Game In One Week From Scratch With No Budget."

Gotta say, they did a better job with it than I did :)

Anyway, this is a pretty simple but cure shooter with an interesting gameplay twist - you have to move towards the creature you are trying to shoot in order to shoot at it.

Congratulations on your game, Joshua and Jony! I hope this is the first of many!

Read or Post Comments In Our Forums

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Apocalypse Cow: Stranger Than Fiction - The Effect of Cow Farts
I'm not making this up!

Are Cow Farts Really That Bad For The Environment?

Apparently, cow farts are responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming - more than all emissions from all forms of transportation COMBINED. Okay, so a pregnant cow going on a rampage can be dismissed as a fluke. But this... this is a clear sign of global conspiracy.

The Apocalypse Is Coming! Don't say I didn't warn you!


Hat Tip to "the other Jay" over at The Hobbit Hole for the latest sign of the apocalypse.


(Vaguely) related warnings that The End Is Near:
* Cow Trivia
* Pregnant Cow Rages Across Hanover
* Apocalypse Cow Goes Alpha (and yes, it's still there, though much better now)
.


Read Or Post Comments On The Forum

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Saturday, April 28, 2007
 
Mike Rubin On In-Game Cinematics, Indie Style
For those with a somewhat more technical bent (and any of us working with the Torque Game Engine, and anyone interested in what indies are doing in the "Adventure Game" genre), Mike Rubin has an outstanding article on the trials and tribulations of working on in-game cinematic sequences for his upcoming 3D Interactive Fiction title, Vespers 3D.

Every time I read about the progress on this game, I get more and more excited for the final result.

Anyway, I've shamelessly swiped a screenshot to lure you over to the article to check it out.

Vespers 3D: Adventures In Cinematics

Enjoy!


(Vaguely) related evidence that I should take a vow of silence:
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin
* Vespers 3D Progress
* Utah Indie Developer Night Report: Winter 2007


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Friday, April 27, 2007
 
Eschalon Peek and Depths of Peril Tidbits
The indie RPG Eschalon: Book 1 has a sneak peek of the gameplay mechanics available at RPG Vault:

Eschalon: Book 1 Sneak Peek at RPG Vault

Principally, it describes a quest, and all the different ways the game will allow you to acquire entry into the quest location... unlike many games that require you to perform a very specific sequence of activities.

An excerpt:
Our main objective while developing Eschalon: Book I has been to create a world in which these kinds of options are always available to the player. We want the player to be an active participant of the game, and not just feel as though they are following a script from beginning to end, hoping that the random dice rolls are in their favor. The player should strategize how best to overcome a problem using the character they've created rather than just assume that an elite character is all it takes to be successful.
Also, Depths of Peril has a new page describing historic villains of their world.


(Vaguely) related semi-nonrandom bits:
* RPG Preview: Eschalon Book 1
* Indie RPG Roundtable
* Depths of Peril Preview
.

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More In-Game Maps Should Be Like This
Courtesy of JenaRey:

1. go to maps.google.com
2. click on "get directions"
3. type "New York, New York" in the first box (the "from" box)
4. type "London, England" in the second box (the "to" box) and hit the Get Directions button
5. scroll down to step #23-24
 
Utah Indie Night - Spring 2007
We had another awesome indie game developer night tonight at Wahoo Studios. Or at least I thought it was awesome. I was in my own little world most of the time. Again.

We had just under 30 people show up, lots of pizza and munchies, and several games making their showing. We had some guys (Mike and Victor) demonstrate their XNA game on the XBox. John Olsen demonstrated his completely revised, new-and-improved XNA version of Fish School. And one of our number did an emulator (I think?) in XNA (so you could play Nintendo games on the XBox, if you had their ROM image... how bizarre is that?) I cannot confirm or deny that one though... I could have heard wrong.

I got into a few good discussions with folks, got to grouse a bit about portals and Torque and stuff (yes, I grouse about it, even though I use it. The engine is crazy feature-rich for costing practically nothing, but it's still got its warts and frustration). And while I was at it, since I have just recently (like, this week) been assigned to working on the graphics pipeline on a Wii title we've got in late development, I was able to pick up some optimization tips from another full-time game programmer on Nintendo Wii graphics programming. How's that for the benefits of networking?

Mostly, I watched people play Apocalypse Cow. And took copious notes. Well, maybe not copious. But I was writing fervently while still trying to watch people play. There's something about watching someone play your game that just can't be reproduced any other way. Any time you have to explain something, or you have to answer a question, or you can see them doing something "wrong," (or at least something wrong that will lead them to having less fun), or see them get bored / frustrated, you've got an action item. AND you get some great verbal feedback on what they liked and didn't like that you wouldn't get if they had to take the time to write it out to you in a report.

So though I missed much of what was going on tonight, the night was a huge success for me!

Want to hear some of what I got on my list? Of course you don't! It reads like a grocery list. But in the spirit of my Frayed Knights discussions, I'm going to some of it with you anyway, because this is my blog and I can be dry if I want to.

* Upgrade Dialog: It's not clear to people that it allows you to buy stuff here. It looks more like a report of battle stats. Also, the cost for each upgrade should be labeled "cost"
* Upgrade Dialog: The upgrade buttons need to have a disabled state for things too expensive to upgrade, and need to appear brighter when highlighted.
* (Optional but cool) The artillery should have a speech bubble where they say something like, "Same Team, Same Team!" if you hit them
* Need to have a confirmation dialog appear when you quit the mission.
* Save / Load game information isn't updating after you save.
* Somehow the player is getting extra force fields or smart bombs out of nowhere.
* Typo in Tungsten's briefing for the Baron Cowfred Von Richthoofen mission
* The game needs to autosave every level.
* Upgrade Dialog: The reset button needs to be placed elsewhere, and not say "reset." People were accidentally hitting it instead of "Accept", or were afraid it would reset them to the previous MISSION.
*A notice should pop up when your helicopter is full
* The camera should center on the camera when it lands
* Better helicopter physics
* Scientists need to exit the secret labs more quickly
* The Old MacDonald's sign just teleports to the ground - it needs to have an animated fall.
* The briefing text should be a larger font (gee, it seems large enough to me on my 19" monitor... wonder why people were having problems on the little laptop).
* The game needs some good cow death screams
* The timer keeps counting down even after you die
* There shouldn't be a separate "Story" button and "New Game" button - a new game should always display the (skippable) story.
* Ran into a bug where the player suddenly had 2 forcefields, when they hadn't purchased any.
* Ran into a bug (using a cheat code) where Baron Cowfred Von Richthoofen became invulnerable.
* People laughed at the jokes, and the cow-balloons, and the cows on hang-gliders, and some of the briefing comments.
* The most important feedback of all - people kept playing. Eric Peterson came back and played it some more after checking out some of the other demos. This is a good thing!
* I also got some comments from other people who had seen my early-alpha last time about how much better it looks. And to a degree, I have you to thank for it! So, thanks!
* I had a key mapped to a special effect call, but I'd long gotten rid of the special effect and had left the call in. This was causing a crash when the key was hit accidentally.
* The bosses should generally escalate in power as they take more damage. I tend to keep their difficulty level pretty flat.

Man, I and I thought I was almost done with the programming tasks! There are more comments. I may not address all of these issues / problems. And some of the direct complaints and suggestions might not be at the root problem, but rather at other side effects or symptoms of the problem. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out Hanford Lemoore's recent article about this phenomenon, entitled "Don't Do What Your Users Say." But either way, this really tells me what people really noticed. In the first six levels. Great red-line analysis type stuff!

So there was my narrow view of the evening. Narrow, but completely worthwhile.


UPDATE: We got a picture! Thank you, Eric Hamilton. No, I'm not pictured.


(Vaguely) related Utah Indie Stuff
* Spring 2006 Utah Indie Night Report
* June 2005 Utah Indie Night Report
* Fall 2006 Utah Indie Night Report
* Summer 2006 Utah Indie Night Report
* Winter 2007 Utah Indie Night Report
.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007
 
Can CRPGs Age Gracefully?
Martin posted an interesting question in the RPG Forum. It's made me think a bit. I'll refer you to the thread itself for his words. But it's the old retrogaming question with an RPG twist.

Is it possible to enjoy an older (meaning... technologically obsolete) computer RPG? He's not talking about one you've already played in the past (Scorpia's already weighed in on the question of replaying old favorites) - but maybe those old games sitting on the shelf that you keep telling yourself you are going to finish "someday." Even though it's been ... well, even though those games now require DOSBox to run.

I think the question largely has to do with the player. I mean, I'm a retrogamer. And an indie gamer. Old-school graphics don't scare me much. I mean, Aveyond, Fallout, and Avernum 4 all have nowhere near state-of-the-art graphics, but I have enjoyed all of them recently / currently. But maybe some people have a tough time conceiving of an ogre as a deadly (and entertaining) opponent unless it appears in full Oblivion-esque majesty with full shader effects, dynamic lighting, and voice acting.

One thing that does drive me nuts nowadays, however, is poor UI and control design. We've really learned a lot in the past two decades about designing an interface that doesn't blow chunks. Remember the old days of Ultima, when every single key on the keyboard was mapped to a command, and you had to figure out if (L)ooking at an object was sufficient, or maybe you should (I)nspect it? Or that you couldn't just use a lock, you had to (J)immy it? Or how about the early Wizardry games, where (I guess as a copy-protection technique) you had to type in the exact name of these nonsense-word spells? I think we learned some positive lessons from the advent of the game consoles here.

While protoyping the controls for Frayed Knights several weeks ago, I had this "awesome" idea to try to use Ultima Underworld's mouse control system. I thought, "Wow, you could do everything in that game with the mouse, none of this WASD nonsense! I wonder why nobody has done that ever since? I should try that!"

I tried it. It was horrible. I found it almost unplayable. Obviously, I'd done something wrong. So I booted up DOSBox, and played Ultima Underworld again. In fact, as I'd never finished Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds, I wondered if I could get hooked all over again and finally finish the sequel, only 14 years after it's release. So off I went!

It was horrible.

Well, okay. After a little bit of effort I started to get used to it. Still bouncing into walls and falling off bridges and stuff, but I was at least generally going in the direction I intended to go. Apparently, once upon a time many years ago I managed to get proficient enough at it that I actually enjoyed it. But after twenty minutes, I wasn't finding it to be quite like riding a bicycle. I wasn't feeling particularly inspired to jump into UU2 and see what I'd been missing all these years.

I recall loading up Bloodstone: A Dwarven Tale - already an antique when I purchased it a massive discount in the early 90's- and being dismayed that character names were limited to five characters. Come on! Even the Apple and C-64 could do better than that, years earlier!

And there are similar gripes and irritations for many of these older games. Assuming I can even get them to run. Sure, graphics can be an issue - if they are BAD. Meaning, they do not perform their function of clearly presenting the player with the information about the state of the game he needs to play. But there are legions of players for whom NetHack is perfectly reasonable (if not particularly pretty) graphics.

There are some modern games with cool, semi-cutting-edge graphics that can't say that. Say, when you get attacked while your camera is stuck in some corner, so you can't actually look at and properly target your opponent.

One thing that has (traditionally) set RPGs apart from other types of games is their independence from graphics. They've typically lagged behind the cutting edge, substituting sheer scope and depth of the game worlds for the latest eye candy. At least, this was true up through and including Diablo 2 and Baldur's Gate 2. So many of the "retro" RPGs weren't even intended to be cutting edge for the era in which they were released. To some degree, I think this worked to their advantage - the artists were able to focus on simplicity, elegance, and functionality rather than making compromises to appease the technology gods of the latest bells and whistles (which have now long since become obsolete).

So what do you think? Have you tried playing an RPG recently that was more than 7 years old? Have you FINISHED an RPG that was more than 7 years old? Can you enjoy the a new, old game?

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Quality vs. Scope
Jamie Fristrom has just posted an article on GameDevBlog that ought to be required reading for anybody starting out on a game development project (indie or otherwise):

Manager In A Strange Land: Quality Vs. Scope

He makes some very interesting points:

* We're familiar with the triangle of cost, quality, and speed ("You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it be of good quality. The problem is you can only pick two of the three.") But when referring to games, there's also the scope dimension (arguably an aspect of quality). So you can have rapid development, inexpensive development, a high-quality game, or a big game. Pick two. He notes some "big" games that were dogs... and that the mega-hits that were both high quality and large scope *all* slipped schedule (impacting both time and cost).

* He suggests that one of the reasons we keep allowing scope-creep is that its much easier to estimate schedule for features rather than quality. We can easily estimate the time it would take to get feature X implemented (take your best guess, and then multiply by four, right?), but we're very poor at estimating the amount of time it will take to fix, polish, and perfect all those features. As a result, the features go in, the polish... not always.

* He stumbles across an interesting point: Scope can usually be worded as "more" of something, and quality can usually be worded as "less / fewer" of something (less crashes, fewer texture seams... basically fewer problems).

Anyway - it's a fascinating article. Worth checking out for developers!


NOTE: Comments / Discussion on this can be found on the forums:

COMMENTS ON QUALITY VS. SCOPE

Thanks, DGM, for getting that started!

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
 
The Apocalypse Begins: Pregnant Cow Rages across Hanover!
Go ahead.

Laugh about Apocalypse Cow. Laugh because it seems so very implausible. There's no way the cows would attack and take over the world, turning humans overnight into an endangered species, fighting for our very survival.

It's all just a game.

UNTIL IT ISN'T!

Watch the skies. And the pastures.

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Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Prologue - Background and High Concept
As promised last week, here we go with the start of a development diary where I will be, week by week, sharing my experiences as an indie game designer biting off quite likely more than I can chew. I hope this will be something of an interactive, two-way process. I hope it will be entertaining and educational. And mostly, I hope I don't embarass myself too badly.

This first article is more of an introduction: What I am doing, and why I am doing it. It is part of the result of months of poking around with ideas, generating reams of notes, and further defining and clarifying the project. Once I get out of the design stage of discussion, I'll be talking more about real-time, "What I Did This Week" type stuff. (Mostly, this week, I've been putting the notes into the design document and working on Apocalypse Cow.)

Starting Out: Why An RPG?
Most of my game development career has been action games. What gives? Why am I stepping outside my comfort zone?

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons the same year I got hooked on arcade games, and the same year I got my first computer and learned to program. I think this is why, to me, computers and RPGs seem inextricably linked. But my poor computer, a 1K (yes, that's a kilobyte, kids, about the size of a 32 x 32 .jpg ) Sinclair Zx80, wasn't really powerful enough to run any program of consequence. I read with jealousy about the games available on that really popular, powerful computer --- the Apple II. I read about games with names like Wizardry, Ultima, Alikabeth, and Zork. But I couldn't play them. I could only read about them, and teach myself how to program.

When we got one of the first Commodore 64's off the assembly line, I was in heaven. 64K of RAM seemed almost unlimited. There were almost no games the first few months (not that I had any money to buy them, anyway), so I once again had only my imagination of what those games for other computers were like. But now I could write my own! As a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, one of my favorite tasks was simulating the experience of playing D&D on the computer, for those times when I couldn't get the gang of friends over for a real dice & paper game.

I succeeded - kinda. The games I made couldn't compare to games I later played like Ultima III (which totally blew my mind at the time), but to me, those little adventures and RPGs I cobbled together were masterpieces. I was hooked on game development.

How I DIDN'T Make RPGs
A couple of decades later, after years as a professional game programmer, I decided to strike off on my own and make my own games - without a publisher or board of directors or a marketing guy with a hot license in his hand telling me what game to make. I didn't start very goal-directed, and I had no concept of things like the indie game development community, or affordable 3D engines already available. So I started by tinkering.

My first project, right out of the chute, was a 3D MUD. That's right, a massively multiplayer RPG. I started from scratch, making my own 3D engine. I've included an old screenshot I was able to dredge up of it. Later, realizing I'd gotten in a little over my head, I changed projects. This 3D engine morphed into an awesomely fun multiplayer 3D space combat game called Void War. But while space combat games were among my favorite, I really envisioned Rampant Games as an indie RPG development house. Someday... soon! Or... not as soon as I'd like.

While working on another game project that I eventually cancelled (because it sucked), I couldn't keep away from making RPGs. On a dare, I did what I could to whip up a Temple of Apshai-esque RPG in only 40 hours of development time - using all free tools, with no budget, and without a 3D engine. My experience was chronicled in an article published in GameDev.Net called "How To Build a Game In a Week From Scratch With No Budget." I can't say I'm extremely proud of the resulting game (and I use the term "game" loosely), Hackenslash, other than the fact that it even exists given the constraints I worked under. I learned a lot from focusing my attention on a deliverable with a ridiculously short schedule, and a lot of people have told me that the article was valuable to them. So I call it a win.

I had another RPG I started work on - a modern-era horror RPG - but I had to put it back on the shelf because it was too ambitious on far too many levels. There was too much experimentation, and I still had too little experience working with my engine of choice, the Torque Game Engine. That, and there was the simple fact that I still had no experience creating a "real" RPG yet. I needed more time, more practice, and a simpler, "back to basics" RPG to cut my teeth on first before coming back to this one. But come back to it I will. I'm in love with the concept - it'll just take some time.

So I started up Apocalypse Cow as a quick and dirty "filler" project (which, of course, ballooned into something much larger) while I went back to the drawing board.

Back to the Drawing Board
After a couple of false starts, I had come back to looking at a blank page of RPG design. What now?

I started with two criteria:

#1 - It had to be something exciting that I wanted to play, and something that distinguishes itself from what's already out there (no clones or purely "me-too" efforts)

#2 - It had to be able to be created and completed fairly quickly. It couldn't be some big, sprawling, epic game with zillions of features.

The next thing I had to decide was what sort of technology the game would be based on. I wasn't going to go back and revisit the Void War engine. I considered Python and PyGame, like I used for Hackenslash, though I was a little more impressed with the capabilities of the Torque Game Builder (TGB) for its 2D capabilities. I even considered using RPG Maker, though at first blush it felt a little too limiting. Eventually, I settled on the Torque Game Engine - TGE - the original 3D game engine by GarageGames.

Why Torque?
Why did I choose Torque as the underlying game technology?

The short answer is that I'd already invested the money and the time into learning it. Go with what you know and feel comfortable with.

The longer answer was that it provides some key pieces:
* A decent terrain system
* Good interior rendering of CSG-style levels, completely integrated with terrain handling.
* Cross-platform support
* A mature engine, meaning reasonably robust with plenty of "free" features
* A pretty active and helpful community, as well as content packs I might be able to leverage into my game.
* A pretty decent built-in scripting engine
* Built-in UI creation & scripting tools - because an RPG would undoubtably be pretty UI-intensive.

While it wasn't apparent at the time, once I found out that I could combine TGE with the 2D game engine - TGB - things became even more clear. TGB could be used for all kinds of easy, scripted-out-of-the-box UI animations and and controls.

One of the interesting things about limiting your options with a decision like this is that it can actually make other decisions easier. Bearing in mind the second criterion, I simply asked myself, "What would be the simplest type of RPG to make using Torque?"

The answer was fairly obvious. Out of the box, TGE is geared for first-person-perspective games. I have always enjoyed first-person dungeon crawlers like the Elder Scrolls series, and Ultima Underworld. But I couldn't create something to compete with Oblivion. I don't have the time or budget. I needed to create my own niche (or borrow and extend an older one that nobody's really using right now) where I could be the big fish in the small pond.

Yes, I was already thinking marketing. I've been corrupted.

Back to Basics
I'm an old-school gamer. So I drew upon it. I thought back to games like Wizardry 7, the Bard's Tale series, the Gold Box AD&D games, and Eye of the Beholder II. Party-based RPGs. You don't get many of those anymore, particularly not with the first-person perspective. So - a party-based game with a true 3D first-person perspective.

It's been done semi-recently (Wizardry 8, Minions of Mirth), but I thought there was plenty of room to grow. There are a lot of stories to be told and fresh ideas to try with that kind of game, even after all this time. I think it can provide a fundamentally different experience from some of the more modern, mainstream titles on the market. As an example, a party-based dynamic could mean some interesting tactical combat options. That's one thing I love about MMO's and pen & paper RPGs - getting different characters with completely different skill sets working together as sort of a "combined forces" against common challenges.

So far, we have a party-based fantasy RPG with a first-person perspective.

Controversial Decisions
The next design decisions cascaded from this one.

First off, it is very hard to control multiple characters in a real-time RPG. So... why not go back to turn-based combat rounds? You could still wonder about freely in real-time, but when combat is joined (or any other timing-critical event), the game would resolve it in turn-based sequence. I'm cribbing from jRPGs (eastern RPGs, like the Final Fantasy series) on this idea - but it has proven to work.

Another problem: Perspective. Party-based means that in combat, to position everyone I'd need to break out into a third-person perspective to move everyone around. That can get ugly - a whole new subsystem that I'd need to add to the game. In what is sure to be another decision not universally embraced by players, I once again drew upon some older games: How about going with simple, abstract positioning? First Rank / Second Rank, etc., a la the Wizardry and Bard's Tale games? The party is always assumed to be facing the enemy.

Now that was REALLY old school. But abstract positioning has been used as recently as 2003 with Final Fantasy X-2, wasn't it (albeit with the third-person perspective)? The trick here - for me at least - is that I like interesting tactics. I hate combat systems that are nothing but "attack / attack / attack / cast spell / defend." But I have a few of ideas for tackling this problem head-on and keeping combat interesting.

By this point, I'm not even ready to commit the idea to paper yet, and I already know I've begun to alienate my potential audience with some of these decisions. Turn-based combat? Abstract combat positioning? First person perspective? And I'm just getting started!

Giving It Some Personality...
There are two things that stuck in my craw over what I had so far.

The first was the lack of the "hook." Gamers have explored HUNDREDS of generic dungeons over the last many years. Nuking dozens of generic evil Foozles to save many, many worlds. At this point, I didn't have a game concept. What I have is some bastardized bits of nostalgia. Some ideas to convert stock TGE into an RPG engine.

The second problem was that in the old party-based first-person games, I always thought the characters in the party were sorta... lifeless. They were just portraits in the UI that mutely followed your orders, bashing monsters and leveling up as required. If they had any personality, it's because you brought it with you.

Here's where one idea kinda blossomed and solved both problems at once. For me, at any rate.

Going For Laughs
I'm a huge fan of the comics Order of the Stick and Knights of the Dinner Table, and more recently the comic "DM of the Rings." I enjoyed the anime series "Louie the Rune Soldier" (or just "Rune Soldier"). These are all comic portrayals of RPGs specifically, and Tolkienesque fantasy worlds in general. While we're at it, I could also cite the card game Munchkin (a gaming geek favorite), and the pen-and-paper RPG Hackmaster (by the creators of Knights of the Dinner Table), the semi-parody of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - but also a pretty fun game in its own right.

After all, the whole situation in most RPGs is pretty ridiculous once you think of it. There are all these DUNGEONS everywhere that serve no purpose but to be hotels for monsters. Said monsters tend to ignore the fact that life-and-death battles are occuring next door, content to hang out staring at each other until the adventurers come kicking their own door open. You've got entire towns of people who are too incompetent to live unless adventurers come to perform basic tasks for them.

In my opinion, there's plenty of comedy to be had with the hobby of RPGs. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I had some fun and entertaining things I could do with it.

However, it takes a lot more than just a bunch of corny little gags to pull something like this work. Good comedy has to be about something. The above comic examples began as simple jokes about genre and gaming, but they have all evolved into character-based stories. We keep reading not just because they poke good-natured fun at a hobby and genre we love, but because we've come to like the characters. We want to see how these specific characters deal with certain situations. We want to see what happens to them next, even if we (particularly in the case of DM of the Rings) have a really good idea of what will happen next in the overall storyline.

The Frayed Knights Are Born
So here's the part where a bunch of the old-school Western RPG fans will lose interest. In order to make it work, I felt that I needed to make the game about very specific characters, rather than trying to create a generic world, story, and comic elements that would somehow properly respond properly to whatever kind of character the player wanted to create.

This is especially tricky with a comedy, as many (most) players just "play themselves" in RPGs. I want to make jokes at the character's expense, but not at the player's expense. Really, that's why many humorous adventure games worked so well. Monkey Island wouldn't have been nearly as funny (in fact, might have been downright offensive) if it was about the player, and not about Guybrush Threepwood. And I'll let people who've played the recent Sam & Max adventure games (I've only played the old one from the early 90's) weigh in on how the "player characters" influence the humor of that game.

With this decision made, there were a lot of interesting options that opened up. First of all, if those little names and portraits in the UI had their own personalities, why not have them... well... chatter? Jokes, banter, commentaries, and asides while in the middle of combat? So long as it doesn't get too repetitive (the funniest joke doesn't usually get funnier in the retelling), it could work. What if these characters - while ultimately controlled and "played" by the player, can't resist adding in their own little bit of personality and flair into actions that they take?

The game's story is very specifically about THEM. As infuenced, directed, and portrayed by the man or woman behind the keyboard. Four (hopefully) likeable losers and misfits, who must somehow succeed where others far more competent than them have failed.

Now that I had much of my ungodly Frankenstein's Monster of a "high conce
pt" together, I needed a working title. I kicked around a lot of ideas with friends, and got them to vote on what they thought was the best title.

Then I rejected it favor of one I personally preferred. "Frayed Knights."

Yeah. A couple of different puns there. Like a frayed knot. Or frayed as in afraid, which knights should never be. Yeah, I know, I totally crack myself up. I just liked the multiple meanings of the title. So how does it figure into the game? As explained in the design document:

Our unlikely band of heroes originally called themselves the "Battlefield Quartet."
But everyone else calls them the “Frayed Knights” after an unfortunate incident with killer vampiric squirrels and a hemp golem, a tale which managed to circulate even after the four swore never to speak of the incident again. Unfortunately, it is the latter name that is doomed to stick.

So now you know the background and the key design decisions for Frayed Knights. Now I feel like I've thrown my hat over the fence, so I'm committed to making it happen. I guess we'll see if I've got the chops to pull this thing off.

All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time...



Think the idea sucks? Got suggestions? Questions? Something to say? Post a comment here... or in the brand-new forum! Yeah, I know, I'm really asking for trouble now....


(Vaguely) related tales of saner days:
* You Can't Design Fun On Paper
* But Is It An RPG?
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* The Dread Gazebo
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We Got Forums!
Okay, it is with great fear and trepidation that I mention this, but...

We've got forums.

A few folks have asked for it - particularly as some of the great discussions we've had here didn't deserve to fade after the blog articles moved off the front page.

Hopefully the sound of crickets chirping over there won't get too deafening.

Right now, I'm still considering them to be very, very "beta." The number and nature of forums may change if / as usage evolves.

Let me know what you think!
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
 
Arcades Making a Comeback?
According to Ryan Cravens of Betson Enterprises (a major coin-op distributor), the arcades are clawing their way back to their glory days of the early-to-mid 90s (which, in my opinion, weren't as impressive as their glory days of the early-to-mid 80's, but who am I to argue with legions of Street Fighter fans?)

GamaSutra interviewed him about the future of U.S. Arcades, and Cravens was pretty positive about the outlook of the arcade. Although he cautions that we probably shouldn't don our Jordache jeans and Members Only jackets quite yet:
"The arcade is making a resurgence (now), and the number of games that are currently being sold is getting back to those (1990s) levels. However, these games are not going to the neighborhood arcades anymore.

The stand-alone arcades are going away, and they’re being replaced by large FECs (Family Entertainment Centers like Incredible Pizza), bowling centers (like Brunswick Zone, much more than just bowling lanes), movie theaters, indoor water parks and other multi-use entertainment centers for families. The arcades that are inside these beasts are often the size of the neighborhood arcades that we used to frequent as youngsters."
You can read the whole interview here:
Ryan Cravens On the Future of U.S. Arcades

Well, that'd be cool. I won't hold my breath, though. I mean, that'd be like... I dunno. Like PC gaming becoming popular again. Or the return of Commodore computers. Just ain't gonna happen.

Besides, those life-preserver-looking vests I used to wear back then really did look dorky. Hmm... I wonder if that's the real reason operators kept the arcades dimly lit...

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Monday, April 23, 2007
 
Indie RPG News
Some little tidbits from your friendly neighborhood garage game developers (note that's game developers figuratively running a studio out of their garage, not those working at / for GarageGames, not that there's anything wrong with that...)

* Planewalker Games has an article discussing the nuts and bolts of leveling up using their multiple-progression-path system described last week for The Broken Hourglass. In addition, Jason Compton wrote a Development Diary article for RPGWatch last week entitled, "The Dangers of What You Asked For." In it, he discusses the pitfalls of being an indie game producer.

* Soldak Entertainment has posted the first half of a new short story entitled, "Inheritance, Part I," taking place in the world of Depths of Peril. They've also added a section to the website describing the backgrounds of the "Historical Heroes" of the world.

* Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software has posted the long-awaited second part of his rant on why he now hates RPGs. It is entitled, coincidentally enough, "Why I Hate Fantasy RPGs - Part Two." Now, after reading the article, it really sounds to me that he's ranting against "filler" combat encounters. You will get those in any genre, not just RPGs. How many "filler" encounters have I waded through in First Person Shooters? Its just that they are so forgettable you don't think about them later when you are talking about the game, unless they were so common and repetitive they really ruined the game for you.

But talking specifically of RPGs, I've kinda weighed in on this subject before, and suggested one possible solution. And I'll probably make the exact same mistakes with the new game. What is interesting to me about this article is that it sounds like Jeff is making a commitment to stop the practice in his own games. He says, "speaking as a designer, this goes just as much for me, for all the times I've had failures of creativity in my designs. I've stopped putting up with it, and you should do the same."

* Crosscut Games has released a new version of the Runesword 2 Open-Source RPG and game engine. The game and engine are completely free, though I haven't looked at the licensing limitations for the RS2 engine yet. Crosscut is also developing a fast-playing RPG entitled, "Dungeon Delvers," which looks like it will be an interesting competitor for last year's Indie RPG of the Year, FastCrawl.

* Indie / Homebrew Games Coming to the PS3? Gamasutra is reporting on Phil Harrison's Q&A session on Slashdot, and notes his interest in allowing "homebrew" titles to be developed on Sony game consoles --- if they can still clamp down on piracy while doing this. Thus saith Harrison: “I fully support the notion of game development at home using powerful tools available to anyone. We were one of the first companies to recognize this in 1996 with Net Yaroze on PS one. It's a vital, crucial aspect of the future growth of our industry... If we can make certain aspects of PS3 open to the independent game development community, we will do our industry a service by providing opportunities for the next generation of creative and technical talent.” Of course, Microsoft has already gone there with XNA, so Sony may only be playing catch-up at this point. Now, this isn't news, just philosophical intention, but it is still interesting to hear. (And no, this isn't RPG-specific, but it was a fun bit of information).



(Vaguely) related randomness:
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance, Plans Nethergate Remake
* Beyond the Gate: Jason Compton on the Making of "The Broken Hourglass"
* Depths of Peril Preview

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Sunday, April 22, 2007
 
The RPG Commandments
This is an oldie but goodie from Warren Spector, written back in the day when computer RPGs were just "rising from the dead" in late '98 (the article is dated '99, but he talks about the hotly-anticipated Baldur's Gate not yet released, which came out at the end of '98).

Although he's talking about "recent" games that are now "classics" to us, many of the issues he cited still hold true today. Have we progressed so little in the last decade?

Remodeling RPGs for the New Millenium

In particular, Spector lists five "RPG Commandments." They are:

The RPG Commandments

  1. Each player's path through the story must be unique. This doesn't mean a branching-tree structure with winning and losing paths but, rather, that players will have the freedom to decide how they'll overcome game obstacles. A world simulation must be deep enough so that each game problem is open to a variety of solution strategies, from the most thoughtful and low-key to the most obvious and violent. And the solution you choose to any given problem must have clear consequences, both immediate (killing a guard sets off an alarm, attracting more guards) and long-term (killing a guard may result in "wanted" posters being posted, causing civilians to fear you and be less cooperative).

  2. Players must always have clear goals. Though free to stray from the storyline at will, players must know what they're supposed to be doing, minute to minute and, if appropriate, mission to mission. The fun of the game is in overcoming obstacles and solving problems; the fun is in how you solve a problem, not in guessing what problem you're supposed to solve.

  3. The level of interactivity must be high, with NPCs about whom you really care and with a densely populated, object-rich world that looks and behaves like the real world (or, at least, a believable, internally consistent world of your own creation). A big, empty world is boring. Players must be free to explore a cool and instantly understandable world.

  4. The central character must grow and change in ways that matter to players in an obvious and personal way. During the course of play, you'll become more powerful, acquire more items, and develop new skills, of course. However, you'll also make unique friends and enemies, accomplish tasks and missions differently, overhear different conversations, and see different events unfold. By game's end, each player must control an alter ego that is distinct from that of all other players.

  5. The game must be about something more than killing things, solving puzzles, and maxing out a character's statistics. Remember all those hours you spent in school analyzing the underlying meaning of novels, poems, and movies? Guess what: RPGs lend themselves to the same kind of analysis. Games can and must have an impact on players. That impact may be the simple adrenaline rush of DIABLO, fleeting and soon forgotten (nothing wrong with that), or it may be the never-to-be-forgotten (and, in some cases, life-changing) experience of becoming the Avatar in ULTIMA IV. If all you're doing is throwing wave after wave of monsters at players so that they can kill lots of stuff so that they can increase some arbitrary statistics so that they can feel powerful, you're doing yourself, your players and your medium a disservice.
So whaddayathink? Did Spector get it right? Do the RPG Commandments still apply? Is a purely item-based game (no internal stats progression) still an RPG? Was Deus Ex an RPG? If you can't name your own character, is it still an RPG?


(Vaguely) related stuff slightly more interesting than a remedial calculus lecture:
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* RPG Combat Design
* But Is It An RPG?
* Innovation in RPGs
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Saturday, April 21, 2007
 
Goodbye Dungeon and Dragon...
It was officially announced Thursday that Dragon magazine and Dungeon magazine - both of which have served the "Dice and Paper" RPG community (specifically Dungeons & Dragons players) for decades, were going to cease publication after their September issues - as soon as the license with Paizo Publishing is complete.

The first issue of "The Dragon" - before the name was abbreviated to "Dragon" - came out just over 30 years ago, in 1976. I have the first 250 issues on CD-ROM, though I rarely look at any of the issues beyond those from my "formative" geek years when I was new to the roleplaying.

From what I understand (reading the press release and talking to the owner of my FLGS - "Friendly Local Gaming Store" today), content that would previously have gone into these magazines will be appearing online. It is rumored that a quarterly journal may also be released which includes the content previously released online - but that may be only speculation or current plans. A lot may happen between now and August.

There's a bit of a retrospective at Wizards' site --- sort of an early wake for the magazines. The obvious reason for the retirement of these long-standing magazines is that online content has taken over. And it's probably a legitimate excuse. It's got to be hard to run a print periodical these days. But there are some elements of print that just don't translate well to digital. I still end up printing off some articles, just because it's easier for me to read. I'm such a luddite (he announces on his online blog).

Now, the last time I was a real fan of Dragon magazine was around six years ago, when third edition D&D was still pretty new and the issues were helping people come to grips with the new rules and use the flexibility of the system to make it their own. The issues reminded me a lot of the PREVIOUS time I had been a fan of the magazine, way back in the early 80's, where there were so many newcomers to the game and every issue was loaded with fresh ideas. More than anything else, the magazine helped remind me that there was a larger community of gamers out there beyond my own gaming group. Something "online" can do much better, admittedly. But online is much more ephemeral - print is a more tangible artifact (and a somewhat more durable record).

Dungeon, on the other hand, I was a more recent convert to. I've always been the kind of "game master" who likes to write his own adventures, but I've enjoyed building up a library of adventures that I could draw upon at a moment's notice. Not that it happens all that much anymore - but I have had weeks where I just did NOT have time to plan out an adventure, and pulling out a pre-fab module or Dungeon adventure and get it ready and customized in only 2-3 hours of prep time (or less) has been very handy in the past.

So it's not like it'll be a big change in my geeky grown-up-gamer lifestyle with these magazines gone. But it'll be weird not having them around on the shelf of my FLGS anymore.

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Frayed Knights Website Announcement
As a prelude to the game development diary announced Thursday, I'm officially announcing the name and website of the RPG-in-development.

The game's working (perhaps final) title is "Frayed Knights."

There's a tiny preliminary one-page website found here:

http://www.frayedknights.com

And... uh, yeah. I guess you can see that this is a hardcore dramatic RPG devoted to realism, with an unyielding commitment to serious exploration of theme, as well as a hard-hitting metaphor for the human condition. And stuff.

It feels a little strange (okay, a lot strange) to have these kinds of announcements so early. The website, I confess, is purely because I threw my hat into the ring on that game-in-a-year competition. The only real value of the web page right now is to provide a direct link to the dev diary. That'll change as things progress.

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Friday, April 20, 2007
 
The Sad Part Is, This Might Have Been Me...
I only know it wasn't because I never heard of the heating-pad idea...

http://www.overheardintheoffice.com/archives/003914.html
 
The Top Ten Graphic Adventures of All Time
According to IGN, in ascending order, these are the top ten graphic adventure games of all time.

#10: Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
#9: Myst
#8: Police Quest II: The Vengeance
#7: Shadowgate
#6: Sam & Max Hit the Road
#5: Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge
#4: King's Quest V: Absense Makes The Heart Go Yonder
#3: Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle
#2: The Longest Journey
#1: Grim Fandango

Aw, man. This makes me nostalgic for the early 90's. When Sierra was king of the hill, mainly for their adventure games, and LucasArts wasn't far behind.

Do I have a problem with this list? Hey, these lists are supposed to foster debate and discussion, right? And yeah. I do. Kinda. I can't believe the first Gabriel Knight game isn't on there somewhere. Since I never played Shadowgate, I don't care if that one gets bumped... :) I would also expect to see the first Alone in the Dark game to be on the list somewhere. Maybe it had too many action elements to be considered part of this august group for purists, but it was an adventure game. And it did have graphics!

And, I'm now sad to say, I never played the Longest Journey. I'm amazed it's in the second-place slot. In my heart, Monkey Island 2 is the second best graphic adventure game of all time.

Grim Fandango - I agree wholeheartedly with it being #1. This game just worked on so many levels. It was just amazing. For such weird characters (they were almost all skeletons), I sure found myself caring about them and their story. Alas, this game doesn't agree too well with modern operating systems, so few people can appreciate it now.

Check out the full article HERE.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007
 
$10K Game-In-A-Year Contest Judging Criteria Posted: Time to Level Up!
Today, Dave of MyDreamRPG.com posted the judging criteria for the game-in-a-year contest.

Points started accruing at the beginning of the month, so if you were dragging your feet (like me), it's time to get cracking right away.

According to Dave, the purpose of this contest is, in part:
"to get ...languishing projects to pull together and move it forward. There might be dozens of people who have projects laying around for a couple years of various states, experiments, etc. A project begins in the imagination, and in that case some people may have 20 year leads. There is virtually no such thing as a fresh start here.

Many people have designs, art, and a dream. That puts everyone in the same boat. Furthermore, a year is a mighty long time and levels the playing field. There's also the matter that the contest is not judged by end product alone, but by the completion of lots of requirements along the way. Design documents, rosters, scheduling, blogs, website, updating designs when features change, beta testing, etc. This means that theoretically a 1 man team could nail every point along the way and take the lead. So many factors go into this that it's a level playing field and a larger team is going to be in trouble if it's not managed well."
I think I may do very poorly in several categories. :) I'm already shy some points. But hey, it's all good fun - with a chance of a $10,000 prize at the end. That's quite a bit more money than I've made on Void War so far... so it's a very worthwhile goal. And I do think it's an intriguing approach. Based on these criteria, ANYBODY has a chance at the prize - whether you are a solo newbie or a veteran team-of-six. The contest is about hitting your deadlines, being accountable in your procedure, and GETTING THAT GAME DONE.

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Public Display of Game-Making? See Everything You Didn't Want To See!
Game development out in public? Where... PEOPLE... can... see *gasp*? Shamefulness!

One of the things I learned immediately upon getting a job in the videogame industry in *cough*1994*cough* was how very paranoid it was. There were NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) to sign at interviews, any time you brought guests in, and any time two companies met together to discuss business. There was lots of legal butt-covering going on to make sure that we couldn't be sued by some kid claiming we "stole his idea" of ... say, having cars with guns. There are tons of reasons for keeping game development hidden behind a curtain, including the following (some of which even apply to indies).

Reasons To Stay In The Closet (With Game Development, I Mean...)
Protection of Ideas:
Now, as the old joke goes, it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. And when you are talking major publishers and game companies, the level of mutual screwage going on even WITH the layers of protection really is astonishing. Oftentimes its in the "legal, but ethically ambiguous" territory - but it's there. In fact, I remember my team lead once reporting that the VP of marketing (I think) informed him that what we SHOULD be doing to make budget titles was to simply look at what Microsoft was doing, rip them off, and he'd package them in boxes that looked as close as he could legally get away with. Yessir, it took years for me to learn to give a marketer any amount of respect after that.

And companies at that level are in such a fierce state of competition that they are often pushing products that have to match their competition feature-by-feature. Getting a clue as to what new feature your competitor is throwing into next year's offering early enough to duplicate and add a new twist on it is huge.

Now, as an indie, there's not much reason for the paranoia. As Howard Aiken once put it, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If you your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." It's not like you are going to be launching a multimillion-dollar marketing effort that people could try and ride the coattails of. Sure, cloning will happen, but usually only after you have been proven successful.

Managing Expectations
One thing many developers have learned the hard way is that the merest hint of a particular feature in a hotly anticipated title can and will be given the full weight of a promise by the fans and press, and you will be held accountable for it by the fullest measure of punative actions your audience and journalists have the power to dish out.

As with most indies, a rabid pack of hardcore fans isn't exactly at the top of my list of problems.

Controlling The Hype
The PR and marketing people at big companies rely upon the careful doling out of information on your game as a way of building and controlling hype. With mainstream retail sales making most of their money during the first six to twelve weeks after release, it's all about making sure the hype peaks at the exact moment the game goes on sale. This means carefully measuring and controlling what information goes out about a game and when. If the hype peaks early, interest will have waned long before the game goes on sale.

Does this apply to an indie? Not so much. Sure, it's still a factor, but indies have a bigger problem getting ANYONE to pay attention to them. Ever. And indie games tend to have longer, slower lifecycles. Even if they do make it out onto the store shelves.

Embarassment
Game development is UGLY. I mean it. You have cancelled and back-burnered projects (I've had TWO since completing Void War). You have bad decisions that you later regret. You have really cool ideas that never make it into the game. You have even cooler ideas that get compromised down to a bastardized shell of their original concept. And you have long stretches of time during mid-development where progress just seems to slow down to a crawl and it's just... well.... BORING. Do you really want your customers and audience to see all the messy crap that goes on when making a game?

Are You Gonna Talk About It Or Do It?
Then there's the problem of spending so much time talking about your project that you never actually... you know, COMPLETE it. That's actually been a problem for me with this blog -I love talking about indie game development and the games industry and games in general, but it sure eats into the limited dev time I have at night. And there's the problem of falling victim to your own hype, and failing to see the reality that your project has become while you've been talking about how cool it is.

Newbie game developers fall into this trap ALL THE TIME. Without the motivating factor of, say, having a paycheck based on performance, its easy for talking about what you are going to be doing act as a psychological substitute for actually doing it. (Incidentally, I'm of a firm belief that this is a problem with people who keep pushing "business meetings" as well...)


Reasons To Let It All Come Out In The Open
The above are some very compelling reasons to follow the lead of our mainstream bretheren, to keep projects under wraps until it is time to do a Great Unveiling to the world and let them marvel at the finished product, and about how you make it look so easy. But could more be gained than risked by a small indie wanting to... er... expose themselves?

Sharing Is Good
I had a great experience many moons ago creating a "micro-project" and doing a write-up, documentary-style, called "How To Build a Game In a Week From Scratch With No Budget." I did it on a dare, and I've been pleased with the response. I've had a lot of people tell me that they learned a lot from it. Considering the failure rate with new game developers hitting the wall about 20% of the way into development, I think a lot of people could benefit from seeing how someone actually managed to plow through those difficult stages. Or maybe see how they floundered and be ready to avoid making the same mistakes.

Feedback Is Good
I had a really positive experience soliticing opinions about my Apocalypse Cow screenshot last week. It's kinda nice to solicit opinions BEFORE the game is "final" and you are asking people to shell out real money for it. There are several experienced indie developers with better eyes towards production values (and a greater disgust of the Comic Sans MS font) who had some great bits of advice. Not all perfectly useful at face value, but a lot of suggestions for new ways to look at things.

And it's really useful to have people to act as a sounding board when you are kicking ideas around. You lose that a lot when you are working on your own.

Its A Good Way To Learn
I'm not a productivity expert, or even a game development expert. Sure, I've done my time in the mainstream game industry, I've been making and selling indie games for a couple of years, and I've spent a lot of time (virtually) rubbing elbows with some really smart indie game developers and learning quite a bit from them. And I'm happy to pass what I've learned around. But the more I learn, the more I realize I still don't know.

One thing I have discovered is that when you talk about and explain what you are doing to other people, or when you teach other people something, the person who often learns the most is you. Any professional programmer can tell you experiences of how they figured how to fix a really frustrating bug only after they tried to explain to a coworker the nature of the bug in hopes of hearing a simple solution. In the process of explaining what's going on, the solution just dawns on you. It's fun being the coworker in this situation too, seeing the dawn of realization occur on the programmers face as they suddenly figure out the answer, when you STILL have no clue what they are talking about, and then just grinning and saying "Glad to help."

It Enhances Commitment
Steve Taylor once called this "throwing your hat over the fence." When you say you are going to do something, you are committing to something and you know you are going to be embarassed about it if you don't follow through. If you throw your hat over the fence, then you are committed to climb over the fence to retrieve it. This can help motivate you on those days you really feel like surfing the web or playing Fastcrawl instead of working. (Argh, what am I saying? Play Fastcrawl anyway!!! It only takes like twenty minutes!)

And... Aw, Shucks, It Sounds Like Fun
I'm not doing indie game development as a principle means of income. Maybe someday (yes, it is a goal), but not now. If I was totally in it for the money, I'd be doing somethig else far more valuable with my time. But I'm in it because - well, I love doing it. I love talking about it. It excites me. So if there's an opportunity to do something even more fun with it... I'm game.

Coming Soon: A Weekly Diary of Indie Game Development
Well, as an indie, I'm gonna say the pros have it over the cons. So I'm going to maintain a development diary of the making a commercial indie game from start to finish. Updated weekly. It'll be as interactive as you like. Feel free to offer suggestions, ask questions, hoot, jeer, whatever. I may not reveal everything (there's gotta be some surprises in the game itself, after all - it IS an RPG), but for the most part it will be kind of an "Anti-NDA" event. Developing right out in the open, where anyone interested can see it and comment on it.

Right now, I am imagining a format similar to what I used for the Hackenslash "Game In A Week" article. But it'll be more of a game-in-a-year project (appropriate, as I'm still considering that contest at MyDreamRPG.com. Though they haven't followed through on releasing the judging criteria yet.) Each week, I'll update you on what I have done, what I am doing, and where I think I'm going with it, and invite your participation and feedback.

I won't pretend this is like a totally revolutionary idea. Mike Hommel already mentioned in a comment earlier this week that he's already doing something like this too. And the great Sid Meier did it once for a game that ended up being cancelled (probably why he doesn't do it anymore). And lotsa folks have maintained public project updates. But this will be an interesting experiment (for me, at least) in really opening up the process to scrutiny and discussion.

This will not be slick marketing hype disguised as a development diary. It'll be embarassing. It'll show you just what a crappy game developer I am. It'll be full of wasted time and effort, bad judgement calls, shattered dreams, stupid ideas, dissapointments, confusion, and compromises. It'll be written as it happens, without the advantage of a post-mortem's hindsight. It might ruin my already questionable reputation. It may totally ruin the chances of the game selling a single copy.

And, probably, nobody will really care or pay attention to it.

But it kinda sounds like fun, doesn't it? Well, fun for me, at least in a self-flagellating kinda way. I hope it'll prove at least mildly entertaining, and enlightening (if only to reveal what not to do). While it won't be a community effort, I would love for it to be something of a collaborative exercise, as I bounce ideas off of people and get feedback on what I'm doing. And hopefully I'll learn more from the process than "this was a really bad idea."

I hope you enjoy the ride in spite of the bumps. There's bound to be a lot of 'em.


(Vaguely) related writings of less career-limiting nature:
* How To Build a Game In A Week From Scratch With No Budget
* Productivity Tip: The List!
* The First Playable Level
* Fitting Game Development Into a Full-Time Schedule
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Blender and Gimp Together In a Tutorial
Courtesy of this BlenderNation post, I was directed to this detailed tutorial by "Oto the Cleaner" on texturing and unwrapping in Blender with the Gimp. The BlenderNation post has several additional links to more articles and tutorials - several apparently by Oto the Cleaner. I haven't begun to plow through them all, but I will.

We're talking two very powerful tools, both more than capable of doing professional, commercial-quality work, that don't cost a dime. Kinda cool if you are starting out as an indie game developer on a shoestring.

I'd also recommend visiting the Low Poly Cooperative - in particular, the Help Center which holds several tutorials. The whole site is awesome though, with lots of advice and free models. I'm particularly fond of their Daggerfall Art Remake section...

Worth Reading, if you are following that particular path...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
 
Depths of Peril Preview
RPGVault is running a fairly detailed preview of the upcoming indie action-RPG, "Depths of Peril." (Also dubbed an "Action RPG with Strategy Elements"). One of the things mentioned in a recent interview about this game was that your actions and quests have consequences. Steven Peeler goes into a deeper explanation of what exactly that means in this preview.

An excerpt:
Unlike many games, your actions when dealing with quests in Depths of Peril matter a lot. Technically, all of the quests are optional. You don't have to solve any of them to further the game, but almost all of them have some kind of consequence if you don't - sometimes minor and sometimes pretty major. There are many more in the game than the few I talk about here. You can fail quests. Unlike many games, when you get a quest to rescue someone, the NPC can actually die, so you really do have to rescue them, not just show up. Some quests have consequences if you take too long. For example, if a thief is in town stealing from the vendors, she doesn't wait around for you to deal with her. The longer it takes you to do something about it, the more items she'll steal from the town vendors, eventually fleeing town with all of her loot.
Check out the whole preview here:

RPGVault: Depths of Peril Peek #1

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Cute Knight Deluxe Now Available
Cute Knight Deluxe has just been released. This is a new, improved version of the award-winning RPG, Cute Knight, which I have written about more than once in the past.

This expanded edition includes a great deal of brand-new artwork, new items and equipment, an all-new Wizard's Challenge, and new secrets.

If you already have Cute Knight (whether purchased through Rampant Games, because we're so cool - *snicker* - or through Hanako games directly, or even another affiliate), you can get the deluxe edition for the difference in price - $5.

According to the instructions on the official Cute Knight Deluxe webpage, you just need to forward a copy of your order receipt to support at hanakogames.com in order to receive a custom purchase URL and upgrade your game for only $5.

If you remember not too far back in the past, I interviewed Georgina Bensley, the designer of Cute Knight. One of the issues brought up was the Wizard's Challenge - a mini-game involving the subtleties of the magic system that is available as an annual event in the 3-year course of Cute Knight. She admitted that she was never quite happy with how that one turned out. I'm glad to see that the expansion includes a new, improved Wizard's Challenge.

In case you've missed me talking about Cute Knight - well, I am not embarassed talking about how much I enjoy this game. Maybe I'm just comfortable with my feminine side, but I tend to think that even though this is a very "girl-friendly" game, it is just good fun, and has a significant ... "guy friendly?" ... good ol' fashioned dungeon-delving hack & slash component. Hit the dungeon, bash monsters, gather loot, upgrade your equipment with magical treasure... good classic stuff. Just do NOT forget to change out of that bloody, dented plate mail before attending the ball, because it is just SO unbecoming! Okay, so I didn't say it's pure old-school hack & slash... :) And it is extremely replayable - a full game only takes a couple of hours, but there are radically different paths to take, and over fifty different endings (and variations on each one).

And it's an easy game to just jump into, play for a few minutes, and call it good. In fact, it could make a pretty decent gift to introduce someone to computer RPGs, particlarly without all the gore of Diablo.

Incidentally, I should note the picture above... man, I hate those rock-men when I'm playing a melee-focused character. Magic-focused characters can blow them away easily enough, and I guess taming them works well... which I guess is a good reason to diversify your build. But when armed with only a longsword and starting out your dungeon-delving career, these things are tough for a swordswoman. Swords just don't cut solid stone very well, I guess.

Anyway, its worth checking out. Unfortunately, there is no demo yet of the deluxe version - you'll have to try out the original version without all the new goodies and see how you like it.

You can download the original Cute Knight demo for free HERE.


(Vaguely) related tales of my career as a pink-haired girl:
* Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
* Cute Knight Hints, Tips, and Spoilers
* What Makes a Good Casual RPG?
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
 
News Bits On Upcoming Indie RPGs!
Ya want more indie CRPG news? As if yesterday's interview wasn't pack with more information than you can shake a +2 quarterstaff at, here ya go...

I recently received word from Amanda Fitch of Amaranth Games that the sequel to her best-selling indie RPG, Aveyond, is progressing nicely and is still on track for a release later this year. Considering how fun and accessible the original game was, and seeing how much Amanda's skill as a designer and developer is improving from game to game, I really can't wait to play the new game! (And if you haven't played the original console-style RPG, click this link and try it! It's got a free trial period, so you can decide if its your kind of game or not. Be sure and download the free music pack too, as I think it really enhances the game).

Planewalker Games has also released some information on their leveling system for The Broken Hourglass. You know, this didn't come out in the interview as much as I would have liked, but the thing that has struck me as so intriguing about this game is the unique and "mechanically interesting" details of their game rules. If their world and storyline is half as detailed and interesting as the game system itself is shaping up to be, it should be a real winner.

Soldak Entertainment has released part 2 of their "Dragon Stone" fiction, taking place in the world of Depths of Peril.

And a smattering of monster pics from Eschelon: Book 1 have been announced over at Basilisk Games. I'd love some more information on 'em than just thumbnails, but I guess I'll have to wait for the game...

Okay - I've probably missed a few. Got any more good ones on indie RPGs in late development?

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Cashing In On Tragedy
Capitalism is a great thing, but it doesn't dictate morality. And you really have to question the morality of a scumbag like Jack Thompson who evidently hears the cash register ring as soon as hears of a tragedy like yesterday's Virginia Tech horror, and then immediately goes on the air explaining (indirectly, of course) why the deaths of dozens of people means he ought to be paid hundreds of millions in cash... angling once again for a class-action lawsuit on the most ludicrous of premises.

Just in case you thought ambulance-chasing couldn't get any lower.


(And yes, I do recognize the hypocrisy of mentioning this on a blog with commercial links, but dang it, I had to say something. Again.)

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Monday, April 16, 2007
 
Beyond the Gate: Jason Compton On the Making of "The Broken Hourglass"
The "Indie RPG" (Roleplaying Game) is a category of computer game that, by all rights, shouldn't exist. Mainstream developers and publishers tend to shy away from RPGs because they are - short of anything "massively multiplayer" - among the most costly and difficult of games to produce. Only a handful of development houses are capable of pulling it off, and satisfying the often conflicting tastes of very demanding fans. The idea that a handful of indie developers, volunteering part-time effort with a budget that wouldn't even cover a week's operating expenses at a mainstream studio, should tackle this genre, to march where mainstream publishers fear to tread, defies any kind of conventional wisdom in the industry.

Interestingly enough, our story today begins with Baldur's Gate, a mainstream RPG which also defied conventional wisdom. During the mid-90's, conventional wisdom in the videogame industry held that RPGs were dead, and that the market was no longer interested in what was once a staple genre. Baldur's Gate was produced by the fairly new developer Bioware, which had a single action game (Shattered Steel) to its credit. Following hot on the heels of Diablo, Fallout, and Might and Magic VI (not to mention console RPGs like Final Fantasy VII) which topped the game charts in 1997 and 1998, Baldur's Gate was the title that seemed to finally put to rest the cries of the naysayers.

One great feature of Baldur's Gate was that it was relatively friendly to external modifications (or mods), allowing fans to create their own content. This inspired a new generation of amateur game developers, who learned the ropes of CRPG (Computer RPG) design by changing, enhancing, and extending existing games with brand-new content. Several members of one of the more prolific and successful modding groups, the Pocket Plane Group, grew weary of simply extending someone else's game and finally took it upon themselves to produce a brand new RPG, "The Broken Hourglass."

Now, ordinarily I'm a little bit skeptical about a "new" indie developer talking about their yet-unfinished RPG in development. However, Planewalker Games has a track record of successful mods for several years, and their new, built-from-scratch "WeiNGINE" RPG engine is largely complete and functional. Last week I had the chance to enjoy a telephone interview with Jason Compton, the producer of The Broken Hourglass, and he was able to give me the skinny on what I feel confident will be a great indie RPG in the not-too-distant future.

This introduction has taken way too long already, so I'll let Jason do most of the talking from here. Enjoy!

- Rolling Up a Character: Background Information -

Rampant Coyote: First off, why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself. Your background, what got you into gaming, and … everything else.

Jason Compton: Okay. Well, I’m Jason Compton, the producer for The Broken Hourglass for Planewalker Games. My gaming background goes back quite a ways. I guess it would probably start with my dad. My dad wasa young father, and the arcade stuff of the late 70’s and the early 80’s grabbed his interest. So that was something that he was interested in, and he would take me to the arcade. I was born in ’77. So as I was old enough to start going to arcades – you know – five or six years old, that’s when you had that wave of the really great, early, big-time arcade games coming through. That was my first experience, that and being an Atari player at home.

My dad didn’t grow up with videogames, but caught that wave of arcade games coming through. So he got into it, so I got into it as well.



Rampant Coyote: I was growing up during that same era, so I know exactly what you are talking about. Any game in particular really catch your interest back in the day?

Jason: I had a really wide interest. I guess some of those that really stuck – Galaga, Xevious, some of those classic games. I guess I had a couple of favorites that were probably considered “B-Listers” as well. Elevator Action – that was a big one for me. Those are the ones I keep coming back to. I put a lot of quarters and tokens into a lot of different machines. Even ones I had no chance at, like Sinistar… things like that. Just can’t stay away from them.



Rampant Coyote: (My best Sinistar voice) “I Live”

Jason: Yup!



Rampant Coyote: Ok, fast forward a little... Were you ever into any roleplaying games on computer at the time? Did you have a computer at home, besides the Atari console?

Jason: Yeah! I had the Atari, and I got my first real computer – it was the Commodore 64 – in 1985. And I didn’t immediately start playing RPGs on there, but again, time-wise, that was when the first Bard’s Tale games were coming out, that would have been an early one for me. But some of my favorites again were kind of B-Listers, like SSI's Phantasie … I played quite a lot of Phantasie. And then as the "Gold Box" games came through I played them, and I was a D&D player as a kid as well.

The way I got into D&D was kind of funny. I guess it was around that same time, ’85 – ’86, I thought that I was interested in chess. The local public library had a chess club, and I went, and the young adult librarian ran the chess club. I wasn’t a terribly good chess player, and she must have seen that. She must have seen something else in me that suggested that I might be interested in roleplaying games, because she said, “Well, Jason, why don’t you come with me,” and in the room next to the room where the chess club was going on, were some kids – slightly older kids – who were playing a Dragonlance module. She introduced me to them, and that was my first “in” to the game.

So I never played chess again, and ended up playing D&D instead, which was kind of funny. I kind of accidentally got into D&D. That also crossed over into the computer.

But I actually didn’t play much in the way of RPGs throughout, really much of the 90’s, either pen and paper or computer based. There was this big, long gap. I’d go back and play old favorites – you know, I’d go back and play, like, Wasteland every six months, or a few other games. At the time I wasn’t into a lot of the games that were coming out. I think a big part of that, actually, was throughout a lot of the 90’s I was an Amiga user. So we didn’t get the latest and greatest games. We didn’t get the RPGs. So I sorta missed that wave as a primary customer, because I was busy using a different – dying - computer platform.



Rampant Coyote: That brings up one of the questions I was going to ask you was also about any dice & paper influences – did you any other RPGs other than D&D that you've played?

Jason: We primarily played D&D – we would experiment, every once in a while, play a one-off with some other system. We played a fair amount of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG as a break from D&D. I guess the one other game that I can think that I played more than one session of was, again a B-List, or even C-List – I’ve always been into a lot of obscure things- was a game called Cyberspace. It was an I.C.E. game. It wasn’t Cyberpunk 2020, it wasn’t Shadowrun, it was the C-grade version of the cyberpunk games, called Cyberspace.



Rampant Coyote: I have seen the books, but I never played it myself.

Jason: It wasn’t a great setup, but it was okay. I think we played maybe a half-dozen sessions. But we’d usually come back to D&D. Cyberspace was a percentile-based system, with traits and so forth. It didn’t hold together really well, but it was good enough for, you know, high school kids.


- Becoming an Indie Game Developer -

Rampant Coyote: Okay. Moving on to … transitioning from being a gamer to a game developer. Now I take it that creating an indie RPG is not your full-time gig...

Jason: It’s a terrible idea, I’ll tell you that! (Laughs) No it, unfortunately it’s not a full-time gig. I guess I could set aside even more money, and try to convince myself that I’m paying myself a salary. But, why fool around?

So no, sadly, there’s not the money in the Planewalker coffers to do that at this point.



Rampant Coyote: Hopefully AFTER the game’s released, there’ll be plenty!

Jason: That’s the dream, you know, that this is the first game, not the last game.



Rampant Coyote: Right!

Jason: But no, I am a freelance writer, primarily business technology. In fact, I’ve got a story that’s due… which, while I’m not doing interviews, I’ll be working on.



Rampant Coyote: Okay – well, hopefully it won’t take too long!

Jason: No, I appreciate spending the time talking about the game. But yeah, I’ve been successfully doing that for about a decade now. But this was something else I wanted to try, and if it doesn’t work out, I will still have my writing. All things considered, sure, I’d love to be able to do the game design full-time, and have it pay comparably, and be able to pay some of the other people I’m counting on for their collaborations comparably, as well. But we’re not there yet, and I’m not the kind of person to sell all my possessions and mortgage the house in order to do it. That makes a good story in the Sunday paper, but that’s not what I see myself doing, going on quite that much of a limb.



Rampant Coyote: It’s a little bit of an experiment. Especially as it seems you are experimenting with a lot of new ideas. You mentioned the other people, also, who are working with you. I understand many of your team come from the Baldur’s Gate mod community.

Jason: Right. These were people that I was comfortable with, and I knew that they knew at least as much as I did about game design in this vein, and figured I could count on to help out with content, and help me understand the engine that we were putting together. Or, of course, in the case of the engine, actually put it into play.

Wes Weimer kinda wrote, or re-wrote, I guess, the book on Baldur’s Gate modding when he came along. And some of the technologies we’re using in The Broken Hourglass are pretty unique. Not so much the visual technologies, but the under-the-hood stuff is very different.

So yeah, a lot of modders are involved with it, simply because I knew we’ve done good work. We’ve done work that had kept people involved with a game five plus years after its release date! So we must have been doing something right.



Rampant Coyote: So why create a new engine? Why not go with one of the engines that are already out there?

Jason: There’s not a whole lot out there that’s really ready to go. I did look into it. When we sat down and said, “If we do this game, what will it take?” [Wes] said, well, I could design an engine, or I could do X, Y, or Z. And I did a little looking around, but it’s not as simple as just going out and picking up somebody’s re-work of the Quake engine, or just picking up CrystalSpace, or whatever. There’s a lot of logic that goes into doing an RPG that you can’t just pick up from anywhere .

There are really few licensable RPG engines out there. We looked into them, and two out of the three were tied to the D20 ruleset,. Which you can’t use unless you are being published by Atari. I know in the case of the people doing The Witcher, they chose to rip out D20 and put in their own ruleset – they licensed Aurora. Took out D20, put in their own thing.

I didn’t think that would be a good option for us. Especially because Wes said, well, look, if you want to work with somebody else’s code, you’ll need to find somebody else to do that. So it was go with the programmer that I knew and felt comfortable with, and would make a commitment to me to be my business partner here, or … just find somebody random off the street, probably pay them a lot of money, and not necessarily know what I was going to get back on the other side, if I went with one of these engines that had to have D20 rules taken out of them.

That and they weren’t cheap. Its not like there’s Torque for RPGs, and you pay $500 and off you go. These things are specialized and there’s a lot to them, and so it’s big money to get a ready-to-go RPG engine like that. And things like RPG Maker, that’s just not what we were trying to accomplish, we were looking for something that would let us aim a little higher than that.



Rampant Coyote: Or tie you to a particular type of gameplay.

Jason: Right. And we wanted to aim a little higher than that.



Rampant Coyote: Another question about the engine. How long did it take you –specifically Wes, but the bunch of you – to create the engine? It sounds like it came whole cloth, and it sounds like its pretty much done now.

Jason: Yeah, it is pretty much done. We had an early morning phone call about some performance issues today. So there’s still some things where it’s like, “Oh, that shouldn’t be happening like that!” And that’s because of XYZ, and then it gets fixed.

I guess… let me think about this now… The very first version of the engine is over two years old now. The bulk of it was done during a frantic summer, maybe a five month period where Wes was between jobs. He’d finished his doctoral defense, and then became a faculty member. So there was that lay-off in the middle there where he was able to put a lot of time into the engine. And then since then, it’s been things coming in dribs and drabs, feature requests, or, you know, now that we’re plugging in this content in, things aren’t working they way they looked were when it was first getting coded up.

There is that. That’s the main part now. Because this is the first game being put together with this engine, there are the things that worked in the design document, or worked in his head, or the compiler said worked when we did it the first time. But when we pesky content designers come along and actually start putting twenty creatures in an area all trying to do this, this, and this, or put a door in that behaves in a certain way. And then it’s like, “Oh!!! That doesn’t work quite right.”

So that’s where the additional work, the ongoing work that goes into the engine now, comes in. The parts where the rubber meets the road, and the theory and the reality don’t mix.



Rampant Coyote: And here’s a question with respect to the mod community: I’ve heard it said of the mod communities – I’ve not really been involved in that myself, other than the Neverwinter Nights community for a while. But I’ve heard it said that in many of the mod communities that less than 10% of the community accomplish 90% of the work. Did you find that was true, and if so how did you work around that?

Jason: More than 90% of the work is done by less than 10% of the people? Yeah, there’s certainly are a few people who were pretty prolific.

I guess the projects that I chose to get involved in had more defined scope. So I worked on a lot of projects with one other person – Jesse Meyers – and he definitely did his part and then some. We didn't run into that much, because we - the Pocket Plane Group, the name of our site - we never really set out to do the crazy… We said we’re not going to try and do a whole game, because of all the issues that you run into trying to do a whole game, which we’ve now decided to take on in a different way.

No, we kept our goals in mind, and manageable. The stuff I was involved in, there really weren’t people dropping out, or not pulling their weight, because we saw what people who set their sights too high would end up with. Yeah, you’d end up with twenty people who would argue about what the credits should look like. You’d see what not to do, and say, “Well, okay, let’s not do this. Let’s define the scope, and let’s go after it.”

So, no. I mean, I never had any disappointment like that. It is true that a lot of the output you see does come out of the same people, over and over again, because you see that they are the ones who worked it out. They kind of got the technique down, and they go ahead and do it. But even now, six-and-a-half, seven years after Baldur’s Gate II came out, there’s still people that come along and pick up where guys like me left off, and are doing new things.

So certainly not in a negative sense would I say that most of the work is done by the same people over and over. I don’t have any negative feelings in that regard.


- On RPG Design -

Rampant Coyote: In your opinion, what makes a great RPG?

Jason: It depends! I think of the games that I’ve really enjoyed, there’s a single quality about them, I guess, but not a universal way that they achieve that quality. The quality is the immersiveness of it. Not necessarily that I believe I’m in that world, but I really believe that I’m controlling that world, and interacting with it. And I don’t want to leave it alone, because only I can save it, or only I can manipulate it in the way it needs to be manipulated, or whatever.

Different RPGs have done that in different ways. I mentioned Wasteland, and certainly Wasteland did it in a different way than I think Baldur’s Gate did it. Wasteland didn’t have really engaging characters with lots of dialog that really made you feel a part of that world. You know, Wasteland had a book of paragraphs you looked up. And I loved Alternate Reality but the first game in particular had no plot OR dialog to hook on, yet the sights, the sounds, the songs all made you feel like you really were plodding around this city trying not to get killed by Champions and Brown Mold.

There’s the sense of putting you in a situation where you matter in some way. Different games do it in different ways, but yeah, you have to make the player feel like they matter in the world. Whether that’s with a lot of different mysteries that have to get unraveled that only you can get to the bottom of, or different characters who come to you with problems that only you can solve, or that feel a certain way about you, and they’ll only ever feel that way about you, or your player character or whatever you want to call it. Or, an Alternate Reality, where you are so busy worrying about survival that nothing else matters and you get fixated on that goal.

That’s the quality, immersion, but there’s no single strategy for getting there.



Rampant Coyote: Okay, well, speaking of specific strategies… What was your principle focus with The Broken Hourglass? What did you set out to achieve when you embarked on this insane journey of yours?

Jason: We set out to make a game that hardly anybody else wants to make anymore … another game in a style in which we had become accustomed, but the market wasn’t coming up with. This character-focused, party-based RPG / Adventure where you would define a character, meet other characters that had an interesting personality that could interact with the one that you created for your character. And together you would go off and find big, important stuff to do.

So if there is a vision, it would be that we can create an engaging world full of intriguing characters and welcome players into it, and give them excuses to keep coming back to that world to learn more about it, or solve more of its problems, or screw around with the minds of more of its inhabitants.

There is this game format, and we're trying to breathe some new life into it. It had a lot of people’s attention at one time. It got pushed to the side. We said, “Yes, there’s more room to tell stories with these kinds of pieces.” The strong player character. The strong supporting cast, that are more than just a portrait and stats. They have personalities. They interact with the player character and with each other. And to that end, with those people, you go out and you experience a story.

I guess the ultimate goal being that we would create a game world where story and the characters in it were both important. I think of it like I think of successful television or movie series—you load up a good RPG day after day, week after week, year after year both because you want to see what happens plot-wise, and because you want to see how the characters deal with the plots. Even though I know Charlie Chan will reveal the murderer, I still like to see how he arrives at his conclusions. An engaging gameworld is the same way.



Rampant Coyote: In a lot of games, it feels like you are railroaded through a story, regardless of what you want to do with your character. How were you able to achieve that balance between story and player freedom?

Jason: Well, uh... (laughs) we’ll just have to see, in part. I know how we think we’re doing it. I’ve always been up front about saying that we are not a sandbox game. We do have a finite and limited and non-random number of things to do in the game. We are not procedural content people. So there’s only so much you can do, and a certain number of things you’ll have to do.

We hope that by making a lot of the decisions about what order to do things in, and to a some extent which path you’ll take to reach those goals open-ended, players won't feel like they're in a box. Not everything has to be solved in a specific way. It’s not just “obtain the sort of blah from the Foozle over here, and give it to this guy, and doing that unlocks the gate.” There are some other … some different strategies to reach the end of some of the major quests, and alternative strategies for many sidequests as well. If anything, from a design standpoint I worry sometimes that we don't have enough plots which just consist of "You meet Party A. They hate you, and conflict ensues!"

We’ll have to see! What I have in my head as enough freedom may not be enough freedom for some players. But I can’t know what we do wrong until people play the game.



Rampant Coyote: Are you planning multiple endings?

Jason: Not … well… “We’re discussing it,” I guess is the thing to say there. I know what the second ending will be if we do it.



Rampant Coyote: (Laughs) Okay.

Jason: I know what the main ending is, and there will be some variations on what that main ending depending on choices made during the game, including how fast they got to the end, what they did or did not do about some of the other things going on in the city while they were getting there.

For example, the game does all take place in this city under siege. It might be tempting to say, well, look, we’re only going to focus on the things we can identify as major, critical quest goals. Because those support the main plot, those support the impending threat against the city. So solving those fastest would be the optimum strategy. But in so doing, you might have overlooked something that, although minor or unnecessary to completing the game, would have actually been really nice if you’d have solved. Because not solving it means something else bad is going to happen in the long run. Or whatever.

So there’ll be some variations on that. As far as a completely different ending, like I said, I know what it would be. I think it’s a question of “can we tell it in a compelling and believable way?” We’ll have to see.



Rampant Coyote: And still make it a satisfying ending.

Jason: Yeah. I know what it looks like, but we’ll have to see how it plays.



Rampant Coyote: There are a few games with multiple endings that, you know, there’s only one ending that I felt was really the “true” ending. The other two were… lame.

Jason: There’s a problem with that, too. Right. Again, would it be better to do one thing really well, or try and do three different things and none of them are terribly interesting? Of course, if you do three different things and all of them are wonderful, everybody gets candy!



Rampant Coyote: Right. So the game, the gameplay of The Broken Hourglass, hopefully the first of a series, takes place almost entirely within one city?

Jason: Yes



Rampant Coyote: It sounds will be a fairly focused, intense experience, without the big world and globe-trotting stuff. Tell me about the city in the The Broken Hourglass!

Jason: Okay. Well, the city is Mal Nassrin. I made a comparison about it once, and I won’t do that again, because people got touchy about it. But it’s a second-class city in the nation that the game takes place in, the Tolmiran Empire. Basically, Mal Nassrin, is a city with a lot of history, in that it was a fairly early human settlement, and it was a city-state in its own right. And then the capital of a small nation in its own right. But early on, as the Tolmiran Empire was being formed, it was absorbed into it.

So a lot of its unique culture has been lost. It’s not really a ‘hot spot.’ Most of the mineral resources of Mal Nassrin and surroundings have been exploited by now. So there’s no booming economy in that sense. People live there; they work there; it’s not a hell-hole, but it’s not posh. It’s not a vacation destination. It’s not a hot spot – it’s not where a lot of things happen. It’s where people live, and there are some old buildings … Occasionally someone who’s a big history buff might come by, but its not a happening place.

So it’s not where you’d expect the world to potentially come to an end. But that’s kind of where the game starts. It’s, “Oh, And of all the places for it to happen, it would have to happen here!!"



Rampant Coyote: Sounds like you already have a lot detail on this game world. Where did Tolmira come from? Was that your idea, or Jesse’s, or one of the other designers?

Jason: We had a couple of world designers who put this together, and they were a couple of old collaborators of mine. Jesse Meyers was one of them, and Raleigh Grigsby. They co-designed the Tolmiran Empire over the course of a couple years. Actually it was originally… Jesse had some notions of using it for a game of his own design that he had tried to get together an Infinity-based project around. But since doing new games in that engine was really, really hard it didn’t really go very far.

But when we sat down and decided that maybe we could do something with some money, with a brand-new engine, I turned to that immediately. I am not a world-designer. It’s not something that I personally have talent for. I went to a couple of people who I knew had been working on something, and I could trust to get whipped into shape for the game’s purposes. You know, fleshing traditional things out, and giving some direction in terms of play mechanics in the rule set that we needed. So that was how that came to be.



Rampant Coyote: Besides the fact that it is for “Baldur’s Gate Fans,” if you had one or two “hooks” … you know, big marketing plugs there to say, “This is what makes The Broken Hourglass so freaking cool,” what would they be?


Jason: I… Right now we’re at the point of just saying, “Oh, we’ve worked so hard on it, buy our game!” But I know that’s not a realistic expectation.

I guess the thing I’d say the “hook” is that we are making a story for you, the player. There’s been a lot of emphasis lately… and I’m not saying it’s bad or negative or hurts people or whatever … but there’s been a lot of emphasis on building multiplayer worlds where a lot of the story or engagement is based around you and some people that you managed to hook up with and collaborate with. And you build the story around the programmed events in the game. And that’s fine.

And then there are games where the exploration is the story. They give you kind of a loose plot thread, and the story comes together in your head as you buy houses and play dress-up. And that’s fine, too, but… the way we’re doing it is: We are building a story – what we hope is a rich and engaging story – for you the player, with you in mind, for you to play on your own, to enjoy, to immerse yourself in. Certainly to discuss it with your friends and collaborate with on strategies or mods or whatever. But it is built as a single-player experience.

And that’s something that not everyone can say that they do right now. I think that there is still a need for that. The same as there is a need for group events, and there is a need for being able to go home and read a book. We are more the reading-a-book side of it.


- Coming Soon: The Broken Hourglass -

Rampant Coyote: Yeah, I’m right there with you! I’d love to see more of the good, quality single-player games. Especially those coming out of indies like yourselves, and several others. So I’m really looking forward to seeing The Broken Hourglass, whether it appears on store shelves, or downloadable. Actually, that’s another question – have you been able to cement any plans yet for how you are going to be distributing the game?

Jason: No changes there yet. We have had some conversations with publishers which were promising, but no commitments from anybody yet. If we end up doing everything direct, I have no problem with that. So one way or another, there will be boxed product and a downloadable version available. It’s just a question of who will handle it, and on whose terms.

But I am committed – if we have to produce our own, then we’ll produce our own. If somebody else wants to handle that side of it, and deal with retail distribution, then for the right consideration I am very happy to let them do that as well.

There's a new breed of "heavy" indie RPGs coming: our game, Age of Decadence, Eschalon, maybe even Depths of Peril in that department, and I think one way or another we will each find our audiences, and hopefully get to share them as well.



Rampant Coyote: The Indie Way: It’s gonna happen one way or another! You just don't wait for someone else to give you permission to make your game.

Jason: (Laughs) Because that’s what it comes down to. Nobody’s going to do it for me. Nobody’s going to beg me to put out the game. So yeah – we will. We’re doing our best, putting our best foot forward, with some of the publishers. And some have been impressively receptive, and saying that, yeah, RPGs are a priority for them. But if they’re not interested in what we have, or its not on terms that we think will work for us, then we are still getting it to players! There’s no turning back from that now!



Rampant Coyote: Okay, this is the dangerous question, and do not have to feel obligated to answer it but… If you were to look into a crystal ball and see about how soon you might be able to get it out to players…

Jason: (Laughing) Woah!!!



Rampant Coyote: …when would we be able to expect it?

Jason: (Sighs) It’s tricky. I really, really want people to be playing it this year. I so badly want it, and there are days where it looks like that will certainly happen, and then there are days where it looks like, “Oh, man, what are we doing?” But that’s where my energies are focused --- our getting the game out this year. And if it doesn’t happen, then it’ll be early next year.

That’s what I’m asking of myself, and hopefully will be able to get from everyone else involved, is getting it out this year.



Rampant Coyote: Well, I can’t wait. I sure hope so!

Jason: Yeah, me too! (Laughs) It has to end sometime!



Rampant Coyote: Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself with my latest game, too. Hey, anything else you want to add about The Broken Hourglass, or Planewalker Games, or anything else?

Jason: No, we’re always grateful for the interest that those out there have shown in the game, consistently checking out what we’re doing, and covering the information that we have been metering out there. Every week, we put out something about the game, whether it’s something about the world, or about the engine itself, or a story in the game world, or whatever. The uptake on that has been pretty good. For coming from, kind of, nowhere, in some sense, its been reassuring, certainly, seeing that people are interested in what we’re putting together and how we’re putting it together.

We’re grateful for that, and grateful to you for taking the time with us! Certainly, I’ll keep an eye on the Rampant Games site. As people have additional questions or comments, I’ll do my best to answer anything else there.



Rampant Coyote: Well, hopefully we’ll be able to do a follow up with the game’s release some time this year and talk more about it! Hey, thank you very much for your time!

Jason: Thank you!


(Vaguely) Related Chats With Folks Who Know Their RPGs:
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
* Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
* Scorpia's New Tale: An Interview With One of Gaming's Most Popular Columnists
* Indie RPG Roundtable
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Sunday, April 15, 2007
 
Carnival of Game Production #3
Juuso has posted the third Carnival of Game Production over at GameProducer.net. If you are interested in game development, there is some helpful advice.

Somehow, I managed to get more articles up this month than I really intended. I'd sent him a blurb about the the $10,000 Dream-Game-In-A-Year contest, and he posted that one up as well. Alas, I mistakenly referred to it as an RPG-In-A-Year (after all, it's sponsored by MyDreamRPG.com), but it's actually not so limited.

Too bad - I'd really love to see more quality, FINISHED indie RPGs. But I'm still thrilled to see the indie scene becoming so active with these kinds of contests.

Anyway, there's a smattering of other articles and interesting announcements there - be sure to check it out if you are development-inclined.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007
 
Batman's Gonna Get Shot In the Face
Here's a video of what the Justic League REALLY thinks about Batman, in a mock documentary.

Warning: Harsh language, mainly on the part of The Flash

Batman's Gonna Get Shot In The Face

Nothing to do with game development. Just because I'm a superhero geek...
Friday, April 13, 2007
 
RPG Design: Quest Abuse
What was the first CRPG with an actual "quest system?" Was it Might & Magic?

I mean, sure, lots of games had quests prior to that... but they were principally the "main" quest, with maybe some mechanical stages in between that followed a natural order. Get the secret password to go past the silver snake, prove yourself worthy in some way, pay me this much money and I'll give you what you need to save the world (hey, just because the world is ending doesn't mean capitalism should preceed it in death, does it?), obtain the vehicle that allows you to go where you couldn't go before, etc.

But then came along quest systems, and - on the surface at least - they were awesome. The adventure could now be broken down into more easily digestible bite-sized chunks, and the player was less likely to become lost in the game wondering what to do ( a show stopper that caused me to lose interest in finishing more than one game ), and the player could be sent galavanting across the world on (multiple times) rather than hanging out near the starting city leveling up on killing giant rats and wolves.

Except they would anyway, but that's besides the point.

In fact, certain games ( Neverwinter Nights expansions, and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines) even did away with the time-honored, old-skool D&D tradition of awarding experience points for body counts altogether, rewarding you strictly by the completion of quests. Cool! Ya know, you do this right, and the poor player will never have to level up by killing tons of giant rats ever again!

And what kind of quests do we get?

Kill X giant rats please, brave sir hero. Go kill me twelve bandits and bring me their official Banditry Club membership buttons as proof. Please deliver this basket of goodies to the little ol' lady out in the woods, and bonus points for killing the Big Bad Wolf on your way. Hey, I'm too freaking LAZY to get up off my NPC butt and pick up some medicine to save my sick kid, would you mind picking it up for me sometime this century on your way to save the world from certain doom? Thankyou, Thankyouverymuch.

Okay. Aside from the nasty abuse of quest systems by developers for creating "filler" quests (hey, it didn't start with quest systems --- Ultima VI managed to create that whole pirate-map-filler crap without the benefit of a real quest system), there's something a little more insidious at work here. The thing is, your average quest presentation really doesn't make you feel very adventurous or heroic.

It makes you feel like an employee. Or a contract laborer. A gofer.

It's like becoming an adventurer means joining a temp agency or something. Suddenly everybody and their cousin knows that they can get cheap work out of the chump in chain mail.

This sort of thing has become a joke in "dice and paper" games. It was common enough to go beyond cliche. The DM would start, "Okay, so you are all sitting in a tavern, and this guy comes up to you..." It's still used, too often, but experienced players groan over it.

While it's not always something that happens in a tavern (although that's still a popular place -- Dungeons & Dragons Online in particular uses that convention, though I think it's intended more as an "in joke"), we're still using it (and overusing it, and abusing it) in CRPGs. Now, I admit, it's kinda nice getting an in-game journal filled with Hopefully Interesting Things To Do. I loved how, during the late-early stages of Baldur's Gate II, I was accumulating quests much faster than I was finishing them. I didn't have to worry about getting bored. And, to BG2's credit, most of them were pretty interesting and several had a nifty little twist (I think Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines goes to the head of the class for having twisted quests, though. Maybe it comes from having a twisted license to begin with). And once in a while, it's not such a big deal. I mean, the Seven Samurai is a classic movie for a reason. A little bit of "honest work" (or dishonest work)

But my vision of roleplaying games is that you are more-or-less a self-made hero. You don't wait for adventure to drop into your lap, you go out seeking it! You don't wait for an engraved invitation (with a promise of 250 gold pieces in payment) to go out exploring the Pits of Unending Peril --- they're gonna have to put an army between you and it to keep you away! And then only until you've gained a couple more levels! Right?

Right?

While quests systems have grown a little bit in complexity, they are still effectively the same. I think that's an area where RPGs need to evolve. And maybe, as I mentioned earlier, by going back just a little bit. Why do we have quest systems? What problems were they designed to solve? Are they still solving that problem? Have we gotten stuck in a rut and just handle things the way we do simply because that's how every game has been handling them for the last decade?

Sure, players - just like most heroes in any story - need a little nudge. A push in the right direction. Often more than once. But it can be handled very with much more subtlety. Even without changing the scripted-quest systems currently in use very much.

Rather than NPCs sending the players on quests, what if they constantly warn the player away? "Whatever you do," they tell you, "don't go near those castle ruins! Those are DANGEROUS!"

It wouldn't take much more than that to have me make a beeline towards the castle ruins in a game.

And rather than coming back to an NPC for payment for that cloak you took from the Big Bad Evil Guy inside the castle, you instead learn (and choose) that the cloak once belonged to Lady Elsie's Father, whom the BBEG murdered years ago. By returning it to her (not that she's expecting it, mind you), you win not 25 gold pieces, but her unending gratitude, and the admiration of the entire village?

Which might have more tangeable results than everyone calling you "The Hero of Kvatch" or whatnot, but why shouldn't fame and honor be as much a part of a roleplaying game as experience points and gold?

Maybe you don't even need to return it to the lady herself. Give it to anyone in the village, and they'll give it to her for you. And then you get a rep for being humble as well. Hey, shades of Ultima IV's virtue system here...

Or you could just keep the cloak, and sell it in some remote town that never heard of Lady Elsie's father or the BBEG, and nobody knows differently...

We've managed to arrange for some more open-ended content, so why not some more open-ended quest systems? Quests where the player is the instigator, the mover and the shaker, and the NPCs just kinda keep up as best as the programming can manage? Quests where the goals are actually general objectives rather than lockstepped processes? Quests where the player is given just enough "carrot and stick" to make sure they don't get bored or lost, but are otherwise given the freedom to forge their own destiny, to tread the jeweled thrones of the world beneath their sandaled feet?

Or am I alone in getting tired of being told to "go fetch" in my entertainment?


(Vaguely) related incomprehensibleness:
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Approach
* Ye Olde Save Game Debate
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
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Thursday, April 12, 2007
 
Indie RPG Update: The Broken Hourglass Fiction
Planewalker Games continues to trickle out information about its upcoming RPG, the Baldur's Gate-inspired "The Broken Hourglass". This week, chapter 2 of a short story taking place in the city of Mal Nassrin, the setting of the game:

Moonshine, Chapter 2

Check out the Planewalker Games site for more tidbits on this upcoming indie roleplaying game!

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Playing With Torque Constructor: A Quick Take on GarageGames' New Game Development Tool
Torque Constructor was launched to the public a few hours earlier than the previously announced April 9th release date. This tool is free to all licensees of the Torque Game Engine, or Torque Game Engine Advanced. (CORRECTION: It is apparently free to all those with a garagegames.com account, not just those with a Torque engine license). While it is intended as a tool for Torque, it can save models in the .map format common to many game engines.

Background
Now, my own experience with other Constuctive Solid Geometry (CSG) editors has been limited. I've used QuArK, a variant of WorldGen (I think that was the name) that shipped with Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, and UnrealEd. And now, I've gotten a couple of hours of playing around with Constructor under my belt. Hardly enough to render a verdict - especially as I am NOT what you'd call a "power user" of any of these tools. I'm still pretty much a beginner, but that never got me to shut up about a subject before, so why start now? So I thought I'd share my experiences.

I have REALLY been looking forward to Constructor. As I've said before my experience with QuArK (Quake Army Knife) has been troublesome. I feel like I've made some level of peace with the editor, but it's strictly a relationship of convenience. I'm not a power-user of that tool, so I've no doubt I've been missing some major conveniences in that package out of sheer ignorance. But I've put hours somewhere in the mid-double-digits into the tool and used it in practice to create real (though not particularly masterful or pretty) levels for Apocalypse Cow.

QuArK is really sharp and useful and capable in some areas, and annoyingly lacking and stupid in others. The interface has always been a little bit clumsy and ... klugey... to me. It might be my ignorance, but managing textures was always a pain in QuArK. And, finally, there was the little matter of setting it up for use with Torque whenever you upgraded to a new version, making sure all the export paths were set properly, and... ugh. And then there were the bugs. The really nasty, I-just-munged-whole-level-lets-restart-without-saving type bugs*. I was never sure if they were because I was doing something wrong, or if it was just one of those issues you just had to learn to avoid.

Torque Constructor: The Good
By comparison, Constructor feels like it has a much more polished interface (I hesitate to call it intuitive... there really is no such thing when dealing with this kind of tool). It is a little less bewildering to a beginner, I think. It's far easier to get into it and start making useful stuff, with a more gentle learning curve. With only about two or three hours of usage, I already felt competent enough to do everything I could do in QuArK (plus a bit more). Of course, it's already set up for Torque. Exporting a DIF file (Torque's proprietary format) is naturally a piece of cake. Constructor allows you to save files in both .MAP format (the text-format standard developed by id Software, used by many similar editors), as well as a new "CSX" format.


I really like the "Free Cam" mode that allows you to fly your camera around the model very freely. The UI layout is also very flexible and easy to configure. While I haven't played with it, Constructor also has the Torque Lighting System built into it, allowing you to see how your creation will look when fully and properly lit. Some really minor but appreciated elements include a grid size scaled more for Torque-sized objects (approximately 2.5 units for the default humanoid character), and the fact that upon loading a large map file, the camera automatically zooms out to encompass the entire level. Small conveniences, but nice. I've got some gargantuan interior levels in Apocalypse Cow, and when I brought them into Torque Constructor for the first time, except for some missing textures I had to correct, they acted as if they belonged there.

Another great option is the ability to bring in Torque models (DTS objects) as reference objects to compare scale.

Constructor also offers several very nice ways of manipulating, slicing, and dicing a brush. From standard CSG subtraction, and making hollow (easily enough done in QuArK as well), there's also the ability to rotate brushes with a fine level of control (down to actually inputting the exact positions and rotation values by hand). Then there's the knife tool, the slice tool, and a clipping tool. Since the knife is one of my most-used tools in Blender, I was pretty excited about this one. I expect these to be pretty handy when developing cave-like levels or levels with more organic topography.

Duplication of brushes is easily supported. Creating a spiral staircase is apparently a snap. You can change a particular brush from being a structural element to a detail brush, or collision volume, portal, trigger, or some other type of object by simply clicking a radio button in its properties. Basic Torque entities are supported, including lights, paths, and mirrored surfaces (though that's not entirely functional yet - see below). There are also things like custom workplanes, that allow you to work off-axis, and little convenient tools like automatically dropping the brush (or even a vertex) to the ground.

I haven't touched it yet, but Constructor - as a tool built using Torque - fully supports TorqueScript plug-ins. Adding to the prefab library is also practically trivial. I imagine that within a few weeks, there will be a ton of community-driven support for these features. I understand that there's built-in concavity detection as well, to make finding of bugs a lot easier.

Torque Constructor: The ... Different
Constructor has its own quirks. For example, creating a new brush is a two-step process. First there's "virtually" creating the brush, by "Activating" a primitive. In this state, much about its core geometry can be changed directly (such as, for a cylinder, how many sides it has, or the beveling on a cube). Once satisfied with the brush (or the cloning parameters), you "make" the brush, and it goes from being a virtual brush to a real, in-game brush. At that point, some features of editing it becomes a little less flexible, though you then have tighter control over, say, the actual vertices. . This can be done deliberately by pressing the "Make" or "Make and Continue" buttons, or it may happen if you accidentally click somewhere else in the scene.
Torque Constructor: The Not-So Good
The documentation on Constructor is fairly skeletal at this point, though that will only improve over time. In return, however, we're getting a lot of time from the developers during this first week directly in the forums.

Constructor has some problems with its initial release, which is unfortunate, though not unexpected.

First of all, portals, zones, and mirrors are not scheduled to be supported until version 1.0.1. If you are just doing small buildings, and don't care if (for now) the interiors are lit by sunlight and the outside ambient light, that may not be such a big deal. But if you are doing big larger, Quake-style interior levels mixed with outdoor terrain, this means you have to save your file as a .MAP file, and then bring it back into the CSG modeler you've already been using, and then export it to a DIF file from there. That's not a crippling step - I imagine I will be doing most of my principle modeling in Constructor for here on out, but it's a painful extra step I'd rather not have to deal with.

Another problem is that you cannot rename brushes, or put them in groups like you can in, say, QuArK. Now, you can group them into selection sets --- but that only gets saved out in the .CSX files, not .MAP files. Again, not a big deal, but since I'm having to save these things as .MAP files anyway to get QuArK to export them with portalling information, that's Yet Another Step.

Texture management is pretty straightforward, with a lot of great tools for manipulating the texture coordinates (including some automated UV grids), save one major one - the ability to use the mouse or keyboard to scroll around the texture coordinates directly on a face. This is a real time-saver when trying to line up textures on adjacent brush faces. Trying to fine-tune this by hand was a real pain. I tried using the texture unification, which supposedly makes this a lot easier, but it didn't work well for me. More experimentation will be required here.

There are a lot of other little conveniences that are common enough that they are missed in this package. The lack of automated "snap-to-grid" functionality on vertices, for example (though the ease of manually edit the coordinates directly makes up for it, for me). I also couldn't directly select occluded objects. In QuArK, repeated clicking in the same area would cycle through all brushes under the cursor. In Constructor, as far as I can tell, it involves either selecting it via the perspective view by moving the camera close to it (which is pretty convenient to do, really, thanks to the camera control capability), or hiding all the occluding brushes. Again, not a big deal, but it would be a time saver.

And as usual with a 1.0 release, there are a number of small bugs, performance issues, and the occasional crash that users are discovering. Trying use the area-select tool on the cathedral caused Constructor to hang on me on one system. The cathedral example provided with Constructor is one such example - it's a really big, resource-hoggy extreme, and people are finding a number of issues with it on various systems.

Torque Constructor: Preliminary Verdict
Three hours or so with the tool is hardly enough to say anything definitive about the tool. But I've enjoyed playing with it, and it seems to give me almost all the functionality I've come to depend on in other BSP-style level-building tools. Unfortunately it may be a couple of revisions before I blow QuArK off my system entirely, as there are still some things which it does better than Constructor (or does AT ALL that Constructor doesn't). And it's not a bad tool. But I am going to start moving all of my primary level-building development over to Constructor effective immediately - even in that short time, it's become clear that its easier to use.

At least for me, the non-power user who only pretends to know what he's doing.

But I will appeal to a more experienced authority on this. In the few days Constructor has been out, Adam Wilson managed to figure it out and posted this picture of a church he built with the tool:

He offered no word on how long that took him, and I understand the interior is unfinished. But I'm gonna call Constructor "Very Promising" at this point.

Now I just have to get back to coding instead of playing with it...


* UPDATE (7/1/2007) - I was contacted this morning by DanielPharos, currently on the QuArK development team. The latest version I worked with was 6.5 alpha (and much of my experience was with prior versions.) He told me that since QuArK 6.5.0 Beta, they have made great strides in fixing memory leaks and silent access violations. According to him, "I know the older versions of QuArK are really crashy, but in my opinion we've done a major improvement with this new version." Definitely good news!


(Vaguely) related stuff:
* Torque Modeling Tool Available Free Next Week
* Raising a Barn
* A Metric for Scoping Games?
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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
 
The History of CRPGs: Should We Go Back to Go Forward?
Matt Barton's extensive (but hardly exhaustive - that would take textbook-sized tome!) retrospective on computer roleplaying games concludes over at GamaSutra this morning:

The History of Computer Roleplaying Games, Part III


This retrospective covers two of my all-time favorites in detail: Ultima Underworld, and of course Ultima VII. And it chronicles the decline of this great series, starting with Ultima VII part 2: Serpent Isle (which was more linear and bug-riddled than the first one - including a nasty show-stopper that prevented me from completing it... though I enjoyed it up until that point), and then Ultima VIII which lost many fans of the series, and finally the mess that was Ultima IX. Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British, blamed EA's involvement, as they purchased Origin during the latter stages of development of Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

I'm sure that figured strongly into it. However, it's also possible that they just had problems scaling their production process with the complexity of the game engines. Barton notes that their aggressive creation of new engines was probably a leading contributor to their downfall, while the Might & Magic series suffered from a lack of ambition in updating their engine.

Barton also talks lovingly about the early entries of the still-popular Elder Scrolls series. I missed Arena (though you can download it for FREE now, so if you want to know what you missed, you can play it now via DOSBox), but Daggerfall hooked me but good. And it highlights the hallmark of the series - which made me love Oblivion even though it often felt more like an FPS than an RPG - the sheer, staggering open-endedness and non-linearity of the series. A source of bugs and balance problems, but also of great fun and enjoyment.

This is also where three more of my favorite RPG series were introduced: Baldur's Gate, Diablo, and Fallout. The controversy surrounding Diablo continues to this day, and Barton goes into some detail about it. I echo his sentiments when he says, "Diablo and Diablo II are truly CRPGs for the masses. At the risk of sounding like a jaded old curmudgeon, I can't help but feel a pang of regret about the overwhelming triumph of this series, since it seems to have come at the expense of the older, more sophisticated CRPGs of past eras." I love the games - don't get me wrong there. But like Oblivion, I really expected these to be more of exciting variations on a great and incredibly broad genre, rather than the shape of all things to come.

Is Our Future In Our History?
Mr Barton makes an interesting comment: "Indeed, although it's a commonplace in game history to blurt out things like, `We've sure have come a long way since Akalabeth!', at one level we really haven't taken more than a few timid steps. Sure, there have been enormous changes in graphics, sound, interface, and so on, but much of what we cherish in a modern CRPG was already present in (older games)... In short, rather than view the history of CRPGs as a neat time line that begins with total crap and just keeps getting less crappy all the time, I see it as a treasure-filled, monster-infested dungeon. While you can get from one point on that path to any other, you'll never travel in a straight line--and you never know what's waiting for you around the next corner."

Amen. In fact, in some ways I think we've lost a few things the quest for mainstream over time, and abandoned some great ideas that were never fully explored. Can we go back and check out those side passages, please? Those might have led to whole new worlds.

Barton isn't so sure it's going to happen. "The single-player, standalone CRPG reached its zenith during this period, and I've begun to doubt if Baldur's Gate II will ever be surpassed. Even in many of these games, though, the presence of online, multi-player options signaled the impending doom of the old CRPG we knew and loved. At the end of the platinum age, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or the MMORPG, dominated the scene, and, at least to this critic, the future of the CRPG is grimmer than anything ever dreamed up by Lord British." Though he amends this view at the end of the article by concluding, "Like Pool of Radiance, Baldur’s Gate, or Fallout, the next big CRPG won’t be so much about doing something new, but doing something right."

Possibly. Although each of those games did offer some innovations in their own way. But they really were more evolutionary than revolutionary, building in their own way on tried and true design principles. None were particularly mind-blowing graphically, but the graphics worked with the gameplay, the characters, and the background to meld into a whole new world where we could be transported.

I would hope that we're only at another dip in the road. With the amazing success of the Elder Scrolls series (and the somewhat more distant success of Diablo II still resonating years later), interest by publishers in RPGs remains high. But publishers, leery of the enormous expense of making RPGs compared to other games - seem to focus on cutting the wrong things to keep things on budget. Maybe not the wrong things from a short-term, "let's make this as profitable as possible" perspective. After all, we gamers are having fun - which is the whole point - and the games are making money. But I feel they are painting themselves into a corner in the long term.

I think in some ways, we DO need to go backwards. I think there were a lot of possibilities suggested out by some of the games discussed in this series of articles that were only partially explored. Maybe it was because of the lack of technology to pull it off, or maybe it was just a running out of steam. But I see lots of uncharted territory out there to be explored.

It's the same problem with the rest of the game industry - as budgets have increased, willingness to risk failure in experiments has correspondingly decreased. Games cost about ten times to make now as they did only a dozen years ago. At least in mainstream game development. For indie games, we're looking at budgets much more in line with what we had back in the mid-to-late 80's and early 90's. And while there's less chance of a breakaway hit due to the competition from out mainstream cousins, there's still enough profit potential (or so I convince myself, wondering why I'm spending hours and hours writing games instead of playing them as much as I'd like) to make it worthwhile. If for no other reason than that there's a portion of the audience out there that's being underserved.

And hopefully that will provide some room to experiment and explore.

So call me an optimist. I really appreciate Matt Barton taking the time to do this extensive look back at where we've been, what we've tried, what went wrong, what worked, and --- if we're lucky --- what we should go back and revisit. If the history of RPGs is more of a treasure-filled, monster-infested dungeon, I have a sneaking suspicion that we've bypassed or only partially explored way too many side passages that could have led us to entirely new, unexplored levels filled with even more gold and wonders.


(Vaguely) related pining for the fjords:
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* What Makes a Good Casual RPG?
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* How to Get Me to Buy Your Indie RPG

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007
 
Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
GamaSutra has a fascinating interview with Emily Short, author of the acclaimed adventure game... er, Interactive Fiction, Savoir-Faire, as well as MANY OTHER titles.

What's remarkable is that while the text-adventure may no longer be a (very) commercially viable option (according to the article, Ms. Short did get a commission to write the game, "City of Secrets" by a band), its really just as alive and kicking as ever. Maybe more so.

From a game development point of view, Ms. Short makes a very interesting comment about testing and debugging, and the improvement in practices and discipline as the IF community grows and matures:
"I also make heavier use of automated testing these days. The traditional attitude is that you should get a bunch of beta-testers to hammer on your game until it seems to be in good shape, then release it. You might keep one script around to play through your game and automatically make sure the winning end is reachable and produces a consistent transcript, but that's about all. This is changing -- recent development systems are designed more with debugging in mind, and lately there's more mention in the community of version control and regression testing. We haven't reached a point where there's any real sense of best practice about this kind of thing, but we're making progress on it, and the tools are improving."
Check out the interview here:
Inside Interactive Fiction: Interview With Emily Short

Besides the fact that this interview is appearing on a website geared towards mainstream game development, there's also the little issue of Sam & Max. GamaSutra also has the transcript of a recent podcast with Telltale Games co-founder Dan Conners. According to Conners,
"It's been a huge success for us. The team is happy on every level -- the level of quality of the product, the ability to deliver on the Sam & Max flavor has been great, and we're really happy with the response from the audience. We continue to have people get introduced to Sam & Max on a daily basis. There's always new fans coming over because the games are so accessible.

"GameTap's distribution has introduced us to a whole new level of people who are outside of the game world and might not have heard of Sam & Max before. We even saw a commercial for Sam & Max on The Colbert Report one night, so it's getting good exposure on that level. From a financial standpoint, it's definitely a profitable endeavor for us, and what more can you ask for than that, really?"
Fluke? A new golden age of graphic adventures following in the footsteps of Sam & Max? Something else entirely?

I don't know. I have been taken to task by Jana and other friends for not having downloaded and played all the available Sam & Max episodes yet. (It's on my list! Honest!!!!)

But I digress.

Check out the interview with Dan Conners here:
Q&A: Telltale's Connors On Episodic Gaming's Future

I don't know if it'll turn into a sustained trend or not (it sure seems to be the case with text-based IF). But it's nice to see that thanks to the indies, rumors of the death of entire game genres have been greatly exaggerated.

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Monday, April 09, 2007
 
I'm in PC Gamer
Neat! I'm in this month's (May 2007) PC Gamer magazine. Unfortunately, it's not a over-90%-scoring review of my latest game (though, of course, it should be). Just a brief couple of quotes by me about the Great Games Experiment on page 16.

Speaking completely without authorization from any higher ups. That's me, shooting from the hip. Maybe I should expect a termination notice from James Wiley any day now... Not that they actually pay me or anything. I'm just happy to be associated with the RPG section over there.

Hopefully the article will attract even more gamers! The more (and more active) the merrier over there! I'm already amazed at all the games in my section that I've never even HEARD of before. And I thought I knew RPGs!


(Vaguely) related witless announcements:
* The Great Games Experiment Public Beta Begins
* Jeff Tunnell on the Great Games Experiment
* The Great Games Experiment
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Clive Thompson on Being a Gamer Parent
This article strikes close to home, as the gamer geeks of the Atari and Nintendo generation have gamer geek kids of our own:

You Grew Up Playing Shoot'em-Up Games. Why Can't Your Kids?


The "Lego Rule" is interesting. As for me, I draw a fuzzy line at the realism of the violence and foul language. And, well, sex, but except for the much-hyped "Hot Coffee" scandal, there's not much of that to worry about in commercial games. At least not from the places where *I* go to find them. I just don't want my kids exposed to that any more than I suspect they already are at school and whatnot. Keeping the ember of innocence glowing as long as I can and all that.

Which is why there are certain games (and movies) that only get played after the kids go to bed in my house. Consequently, they don't get played - or even purchased - all that often. I get more value out of something like Guitar Hero, which I can play whenever, AND play with my kids, than Max Payne.

An additional wrinkle that I had to face was when my daughter was spending too much time playing a game that I had worked on (Animorphs: Shattered Reality, for the PS1, though she was playing it through backwards compatability on the PS2). Talk about mixed emotions! I mean, the game pretty much sucked --- do you tell her to quit playing your own game and play one that's actually worthwhile? Oh, or yeah... to do her homework!

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Sunday, April 08, 2007
 
Birthday Cake for Geeks
I love having such geeky friends.

Three of us in our Saturday night gaming group have birthdays around the same time. As is tradition, the rest of the group threw a minor birthday celebration for us prior to me dishing out the pain as Dungeon Master in a game of D&D. Apparently, three of the geek ladies in our lives planned to do something special with the birthday cake.

They made a flat cake and decorated it with frosting in a grid shape. And then they used Dungeons & Dragons and Mage Knight miniatures to decorate it further, with a battle scene. Apparently, while we were busy discussing politics or something, they were composing the battle scene, arguing over flanking positions, cover, and who has already gone this turn.

(Yes, the ladies in our gaming group KNOW HOW to handle flanking and attacks of opportunity, thankyouverymuch... hard-won knowledge, that).

The results were - frankly, awesome. Best birthday cake EVAR. Fortunately, Kelly Olsen (another of the gaming geeks of the female persuasion in our group) had a digital camera on hand, and we took some shots.

Here's a shot of the entire Battle of Birthday Cake Plain from the side. It's hard to see what's going on, but it's entertaining. I imagine they are fighting over that treasure room on the side - a plate of golden cookies!

Apparently, John Olsen was the guy who decided that the D20s have all rolled 1's. He's got a sick sense of humor.

This archer apparently decided to take the high ground on top of the table and use his Point Blank Shot & Precise Shot feats to avoid the -4 penalty for firing into the nearby melee. Nevermind the fact that the furniture is of a slightly larger scale...

Oh, and we got to divvy up the miniatures later. BONUS!


(Vaguely) related semi-randomly selected wordage:
* Spring and ... D&D?
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons
* Out-Gamed By My Daughter!
* Evolution of Computer RPGs
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Friday, April 06, 2007
 
Making Games In A Kinder, Gentler, Politically Sensitive World...
Many Winters Ago, Desslock interviewed Tim Cain (who was one of the founders of Troika, and one of the principle guys responsible for Fallout) about the release of The Temple of Elemental Evil, a turn-based RPG using the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules (and based on an ooooold classic module for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, penned by Gary Gygax himself).

The full text of the interview was never used - only snippets for a PCGamer article. It's now been released on Fallout 3: A Post-Nuclear Blog. It's an oldie, from back when ToEE was first released (four years ago?), but still interesting.

The focus of many of the comments was on the realities of releasing an RPG in a post-ESRB world - the political sensitivities of today, and how different (and how restrictive) they are now as opposed to even as little as a decade ago). I remember all too well where the Avatar (if a male) could get involved in a romantic interest, which could result in a glimpse of a flesh-toned sprite jumping into bed as the screen went dark. And I remember how there were topless females enabled by default in the second Elder Scrolls game (there was an option to turn them off), and while I'm sure it raised a few eyebrows, I don't remember it being a big deal. Nowadays, somebody comes up with a hack to remove the top, and it becomes a big political hooplah.

Once upon a time, Richard Garriott decided to experiment with twisting emotions by putting in monsters with the graphics of children in a room in a dungeon. Wolfenstein 3D was "voluntarily rated PC-13... PC for Profound Carnage!" as a joke about the amount of pixellated blood and guts in the game. Nowadays, its no laughing matter as certain ambulance chasers seek a legal foothold to wipe out the entire industry in a career-climaxing class-action lawsuit over game violence.

Apparently, Troika was dissapointed over removing content in ToEE, but was compelled to do so in order to avoid the "M" rating, which would restrict its audience and its sales.

This included removing children from the game. Because - in a truly interactive game that included violence - there's nothing preventing the player from doing violence to the children. He can do violence to anything else in the game, after all. And if the developers made the children completely invulnerable to damage, a mind-control spell would turn the children into unkillable battle-slaves for the players - an easy way to cheat through the game. They could make the children immune to EVERYTHING (including spells), but then an aggressive act could result in the children ATTACKING the player, and being an unbeatable game-ruining encounter. Or you simply turn the children into little more than props, and remove interactive options from the player entirely around them (as is done in most Japanese console games).

The very fact that a game is a game, and allows the player freedom to choose, and (theoretically) can be different for everyone who plays the game, kinda undermines the whole game rating system idea, doesn't it? Not that it invalidates game ratings... but I think it shows once again that it's merely a tool, a simplified gauge on a much more complicated issue than other media.

An excerpt from the interview:
Desslock: Since you have to account for concerns raised by Publishers; content licensors (WotC); ESRB rating concerns that may affect the availability of games in key distribution chains like WalMart; conversion/localization issues given the stringent requirements of some foreign markets such as Germany; and even civil litigation concerns given the tendency of some individuals and groups to blame criminal acts on violent games — how much do you feel those considerations compromise your creativity, or your ability to create open-ended RPGs?

TC: There’s no question that they do compromise our creativity and reduce our ability to create entirely, open-ended RPG’s. The issue with children is a perfect case in point: our games can either feature no children at all or children that are immune to harm. This means no kidnapped children, no imperiled orphanages, and no possibility for an evil player character to even threaten a child, much less harm one. Since we at Troika enjoy dealing with the gray areas of morality and player choice, such limitations can certainly feel stifling at times.

But, of course, there are a number of very valid reasons why those decisions do in fact need to be made and I think you cited several in your question. As a creative developer we want to ride the bleeding edge and in some cases go well beyond it, but we’re also very aware of the importance of reaching wider audiences with our products. So we understand that sometimes content must be changed.

They also talk about working with Hasbro / Wizards of the Coast, and even with Gary Gygax himself on creating the game. Check it out here:

Desslock Interviews Tim Cain
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Thursday, April 05, 2007
 
How Does Apocalypse Cow Look?
I wanted to fix bugs in Apocalypse Cow last night (well, okay, "wanted" is perhaps too strong of a term), but I discovered that a single-use object in my "problem missions" (one of three that seem to always break or expose yet another flaw...) had somehow dissapeared from the directory. Nor could I find the original. I figured I could hunt it down on my laptop, but that finally pushed me over the edge to just go and completely revise mission 4.

Mission 4 was in some ways, "my baby." You'd build a bridge over a river, and then a missile truck (which always looked like crap) would come across, getting attacked by cows tied to helium balloons carrying bombs. Eventually it'd get to the other side, and launch a missile at the cow base, destroying it. It sounded like a good idea at the time. And it is one that made people say, "cool."

Building the bridge was... long and boring. And too tricky. The collision was always weird for placing the segments of the bridge. And it looked less-than-stellar. Protecting the truck was okay, but too haphazard. It just never played well, even though it had you do some interesting things in the game.

So now the missile truck has become mobile artillery, building the bridge has been changed to ferrying ammunition and replacement parts across the river, and I'm in the process of shortening the mission to about half the duration. It's going to take some additional work I wasn't planning on spending on the game, but it's one of those things that really needs to be done.

But about all I really got done last night was the mobile artillery. It still needs more work and detail. But here's an actual work-in-progress screenshot from Apocalypse Cow (though the artillery isn't in its correct position yet, and the target marker is pointing at something at the origin in this under-reconstruction mission):


So break it to me... how does it look? I'm not going for photo-realism here, nor cartoony, but something kinda in-between in a side-scrolling, silly action game.

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What a Game Portal Wants...
... besides your money or your eternal soul...

Joseph Lieberman (Indie game marketer turned head of business development for ArcadeTown - no relation to the politician by the same name) penned this article a few weeks ago, but I had forgotten about reading it until now. If you haven't had a clue, or if you do but want to know more (and I too often feel like I'm in the former camp), this is a pretty useful article, even if you aren't interested in selling your game on portals:

What Portals Want

A few notes:

Connecting to an external site, and in-game branding: These are frustrating requirements, although I understand the rationale from the portals' point-of-view. It's all about repeat business, and keeping customers. Still - to me, this is the principle reason why an indie game developer SHOULD NOT rely upon portals as their exclusive (or even principle) source of distribution for their games. Doing so risks commoditization. You are helping someone else gain and keep customers, while you are simply hoping to curry favor of the portals.

I should note that at this point, two portals that don't seem to do this (last I saw) was GarageGames and Manifesto Games. To my limited knowledge, neither of them are big (or even - though I'd love to be wrong) or even "upper middle-tier" portals. Yet. And maybe their lack of this requirement could be stunting their growth. I don't know. But those are two of the most "developer friendly" sites out there that I have encountered.

In my opinion, I agree with Joe - portals aren't evil. And I think they are a valuable part of any indie game developer's strategy. But my feeling is that even if they are your principle source of your game revenue, they shouldn't be the principle part of your strategy. Remember - even though the portals may commoditize your game, since most have non-exclusive distribution agreements, you can commoditize them as well. It goes both ways. The portals understand that, and are defining their own role to best take advantage of that. So should you.

"When a game goes on a major portal and does well it is almost always coupled with an increase in direct sales on the developer’s site as well." This has been borne out by game developers as well. I don't have first-hand experience with this, but I've heard it more than once. Its funny how success in one portal will cause something of a chain reaction across all distribution channels (including your own). This is a good thing. And one more reason why you shouldn't ignore portals as part of your overall strategy.

Professionalism, A Good Name, Polish --- whether you are going to be taking your game to the portals or not, these are big factors to consider. Joe mentions these because time and time again, these are factors in whether or not a game sells. Now while the deciding factor between a "cute" game and a "gory" game might be more audience-specific... remember that there are lots of mainstream AAA games out there serving the gamers who want lots of blood, gore, guts, and gibs in their games.

And less-than-stellar graphics and a somewhat arcane name aren't necessarily the kiss of death if the game is marketed correctly. Case in point: The Shivah has become one of Manifesto's top-selling titles (in fact, as I write this, it's still sitting in the #1 position). Partly because of the price, partly because of the marketing effort Manifesto put into the thing. Apparently it did squat before Costikyan & company decided to make it something of a mascot for the early days of Manifesto. Its premise and principle character (a rabbi in a crisis of faith solving a murder mystery) are just so offbeat yet interesting that they become the focus (and something of a rallying cry for the type of audience Manifesto is attempting to attract).

But it's an exception to the rule. From what I understand (Dave, if you are reading this, correct me if I'm wrong), it pretty much did squat before then. Manifesto had the right audience, and put it on the map. I still don't expect it will enjoy the kind of success of Virtual Villagers 2, which is currently at the top of ArcadeTown's chart. And though Manifesto might have a different audience than Big Fish or ArcadeTown, I think most of the rest of the points would still apply.

Anyway - it's good stuff to think about. Thanks, Joe, for the article.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007
 
Big World, Small Dungeon: Does Size Matter in RPGs?
Wizardy: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Eye of the Beholder. Ultima Underworld. Dungeon Master. These were computer fantasy role-playing games that used a single underground complex as the game area. Granted, the dungeon was many, many levels deep. And often pretty intensely detailed (compared to other RPGs of the same time, which had greater scope).

Even Diablo kinda-sorta had one dungeon, but it was randomly generated each time, and had four different entrances, so its harder to call it a "single-dungeon" experience.

Nowadays - with the exception of the best-selling indie RPGs "Cute Knight" and "Fastcrawl" (both with randomly generated dungeons and replayability - so I'm not sure they count), most commercial RPGs are sprawling affairs, taking place over a wide geographical area. There's lots of changes of scenery, lots of content, lots of people to see and talk to (once). This isn't a new, modern invention, by any stretch. Ultima started the trend, giving the player a whole world to explore. Console RPGs, inspired (at least indirectly) by Ultima III, tend to emphasize overland movement and exploration across many different towns. Each of which seems to have progressively better equipment for sale as you move further from your starting city.

I even remember back in the day a brief stage where games would brag about their world size. I saw ads that actually listed how many square miles the world included. Nevermind the fact that every tile was supposed to represent a square mile that you could traverse in a quarter-second, and a thousand miles of boring random battles doesn't exactly make for a good game.

The idea of an entire game taking place inside a single dungeon is almost alien to me now. But that never seemed to bother me when I was playing Ultima Underworld or Eye of the Beholder II in the early 90's. And I do not remember those games being particularly short. I mean, 8 levels of dungeon... I'd go through that much in about 2 hours in a game like Oblivion. It's been a long time since I fully played through those games, so I don't recall why those claustraphobic experiences still seemed to have plenty of playability to them. They weren't even turn-based... even EoB2 had timed-turns that lasted only about 4 seconds each.

In theory (based upon dim memories - we're talking over a decade here!), the experiences of those games made up for lack of scope with a wealth of detail. Lots of puzzles and interesting challenges. They packed in stuff to explore and do as well as fight. In some cases, you had to backtrack - like in an adventure game, a mystery in room 3 might only be solved by finding a clue in room 10 and a necessary tool in room 26. I don't remember it being excessive, but I do remember territory getting revisited.

From a development perspective, adding detail and variations to content seems to be a bit cheaper than creating all-new content. Packing a single town with more - and more interesting - people and making more buildings active and capable of being explored seems to me like it might be less expensive than creating a whole new town, unless you are simply cloning visuals and geometry.

But how would a major roleplaying game be received by today's audience if, like Ultima Underworld, it included only a single dungeon (maybe with a single Tristam-like town to visit between forays)? Would todays roleplaying gamer accept depth as an acceptable substitute for scope? Would they simply open up an Internet walkthrough in one window, the game in the other, and blitz through an Eye of the Beholder II in a matter of five hours, and then go and complain on forums about how short and easy it was?

Yes, there's a reason I'm curious. No, I'm not making a single-dungeon RPG, though I did scope the design down a couple of months ago to something I thought would be far easier to manage. Is that a concept that became extinct due to natural evolution of inferior games, or simply a lost tradition in the push of marketers who took the cry that more and bigger is always better?


(Vaguely) related wordstuffs:
* Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters
* Game Moment #9: Ultima Underworld
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* No Design Survives Contact With the Players!
* Kitchen Sink Game Design and Magic: The Gathering
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Tuesday, April 03, 2007
 
Guitar Hero to Rock Band
Well, I guess we now know why Harmonix wasn't too wrapped around the axle about no longer spearheading the Guitar Hero franchise. They are evolving to the next obvious thing.

Guitar Hero gave you the experience of the lead guitarist.

Guitar Hero II let two people play with an option to let the second player play rhythm or bass guitar.

Their next step - Rock Band - adds a vocalist and drummer to the mix. Too bad a keyboard controller might be too complicated of a pinout.

This has every possibility of being awesome. Too bad I don't (yet) own either of the consoles for which the game will be released. Gonna have to remedy that sooner or later, I guess... I don't think the office will let me take out the company XBox 360 on perma-loan.

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Monday, April 02, 2007
 
Torque Modeling Tool Available FREE Next Week
Jussincase you are all ready to take the plunge and create a prize-winning RPG... here's something to help.

GarageGames just announced that their long-awaited Torque Constructor will be available at the beginning of next week. Pricing will be something to everyone's liking... they will be offering the product as a free download.

Torque Constructor is a brush-based CSG (Constructive Solid Geometry) interior-level design tool, comparable (we believe) to tools like the Quake Army Knife (QuArK), Valve's Hammer, or 3D World Studio. The advantage for Torque developers is that it is written in Torque itself, giving more of a "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) experience, along with better support for many of Torque's unique features. In theory, it should be a lot easier to work with, should really improve the art pipeline for Torque, and has been developed to appeal to users conventional 3D modeling tools like 3D Studio Max.

And it works on the Mac.

Not that Torque Constructor is supposed to replace high-end modeling packages... it is exclusively (AFAICT) for doing CSG-based objects... read "interiors" for Torque. Quake-style levels. Dungeons. Taverns. Stuff like that, where complex collision detection and rendering management must be optimized.

Why free? Tools have been a shortcoming in the Torque Game Engine for years. They've been reliant upon third-party tools (and upon the community providing exporters for the third-party tools) for a very long time, and it hurts when they get compared to some of the other 3D game engines out there. GarageGames is pretty frank about the rationale on the product page: "Torque Constructor improves TGE and TGEA in an area which has been in need of improvement for some time: the art pipeline. We recognize that, and are making Constructor free not only to thank those of you who have supported GarageGames and the Torque Technologies for the past seven years, but also to increase the value of our 3D engines for new users. Hopefully, releasing Constructor for free will encourage more artists to consider Torque a viable and attractive engine to create art for."

Well, here's hoping it rocks. I've spent some time with QuArK --- not enough to come to love it, but enough to at least come to an uneasy truce where I agree not to swear at it too much and it agrees not to eat my maps very often. I think this might be a perfect time for an amicable departure.

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$10,000 Game-In-A-Year Contest
Well. The indie game world just keeps heating up. A new contest geared towards indie game developers (particularly RPG and MMO developers) has been announced - this one with a $10,000 grand prize!

MyDreamRPG.com is running an "Dream Game in a year" contest that started yesterday. In spite of the odd contest start date, it's apparently no April Fool's Joke. The idea is to create an RPG in one year (actually 13 months, according to the contest rules).

The rules seem a little fuzzy, but also very broad and inclusive (IMO, overly so) --- with one major, telling exception: The game you make must be based on one of the four Torque game engines (the original TGE, the TGB 2D game engine, the new "TGEA" advanced-technology engine, or the XNA-based Torque-X).

What's very curious about this contest is the judging criteria. Apparently, its going to be based more on the actual development process than on your final game quality. While the final criteria haven't yet been announced (those have been promised to be announced in 2 weeks) - but Dave Young has provided a post which gives some idea of what they are going for. According to him, "We are going with a point based system this time around, with points being awarded for the completion of various milestone tasks. The idea behind this is that the contest is covering the whole game making process, and not just the final result. In the end, the point totals will determine the winners."

This makes me a little leery, as in his post he mentions things like "backing up smacktalk" (so you have to smacktalk to get those points?), adherance to design (You'd better make sure your design is perfect when you start, I guess, or they'll dock you for changes), and update blogs on the GarageGames site.

As for me, I don't think the timing could have been more perfect. I had already planned on beginning full production of the RPG this month, regardless of the status of Apocalypse Cow. I might be doing double-duty a little bit halfway into the month, but I'm finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for Apocalypse Cow. If I enter the contest, I'll have to spend at least two weeks pulling my scattered notes together into an actual design document anyway. And apparently I have to do some things to increase my visibility.

I really don't know if I have a prayer of finishing the RPG by the end of April 2008. But I've got nothing to lose by trying, right? After all, I've created a (lame) RPG in only a week, before, without any game engine or commercial tools at all. A year, plus a budget, plus a game engine... that all sounds like LUXURY.

So - if you were mulling over whether or not to take the plunge -- if you've been talking for YEARS about how you would make an RPG that was so much better than anything else out there.... well, now is your chance. There's a $10G reward for doing it, and apparently handling the production in a professional manner and hitting your deadlines. And whether you win a prize or not - the prizes are only the beginning. You'll have a (hopefully) sellable product at the end of the process, not to mention a ton of experience, your own IP, and... well, something worth MAJOR bragging rights.

If you have NEVER created a commercial game before, I strongly recommend taking a look at Torque Game Builder. It's far easier to use and learn than the 3D technology. If you have any doubts as to whether a 2D-based RPG is commercially viable, I invite you to take a look at Aveyond and Cute Knight - both are based on 2D gaming technology, and from what I have heard, both of them made some pretty serious money last year --- and continue to do so. Or take a look at GameTunnel's 2006 RPG of the year, FastCrawl. Which is also apparently selling pretty well. And all three are a heck of a lot of fun, to boot. There's still a lot of games waiting to be made that aren't dependent on the latest graphics processors.

And hey, I think the time is right for an Ultima VII-esque indie 2D RPG! Somebody get to it! I'll buy it!

Opportunity is staring you in the face.
[F]ight, [R]un, [T]alk, or [C]ast Spell?


UPDATE: While the organizing website is MyDreamRPG, and the community is focused on RPGs, it should be noted here (something that I overlooked, shame on me) that they have very pointedly avoided restricting game entries to Roleplaying Games - even calling it a "Dream Game" contest. So if you are starting ANY kind of Torque game project between now and the end of June, and you expect to be completed by April 2008, you've probably got nothing to lose by entering the contest.

(Vaguely) related shooting the breeze:
* Torque 2D Game Builder Quick Review
* Give 2D a Chance!
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG Developer (Creator of Aveyond)
* Interview With Georgina Bensley, Creator of the Indie RPG Cute Knight
* Torque 1.5 and a Torque Wish-List
* Forrest Gump Meets the Avatar of Virtue
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
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Sunday, April 01, 2007
 
Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance, Plans Nethergate Remake
About a year ago, Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software (probably the most popular indie CRPG company around) told the sad story of Nethergate - his attempt at innovation, of trying something different, fresh, and new.

It didn't go so well. In fact, it went considerably worse than well. In his words, "And what happened when I released it? How were sales? Well, in gaming terms, I got pwned. It got good reviews for an indie game, and a lot of people really loved it. I didn't lose my shirt. But it sold much worse than the standard fantasy game that came before it."

He eventually got over his fear of innovation and created the Geneforge series, which "sells OK, but still not as good as the basic fantasy stuff." Nethergate was his case study to indies and RPG fans in general that most game developers would LOVE to innovate, but they tend to get ignored by their audience when they try.

So I was very surprised to hear, after the tale of failure and heartbreak that was Nethergate, that Jeff was planning a major revision of of the 1998 RPG, entitled "Nethergate Resurrection," scheduled for release this summer. What's the deal? Wasn't innovation bad, the first game a dismal flop, etc. etc. etc.? Why the change of heart?

So I asked him. He kindly responded (and gave me permission to post his response):
I went back and looked at our records and crunched the numbers and found out that Nethergate, while disappointing, was, over the loooong run, a profitable title. Easily successful enough to merit 3 months of work, especially since the alternative was it disappearing forever. (It won't run on Vista or Intel Macs).

Also, what can I say? We love the game. It's cool and innovative enough to continue to exist.
Is this a case of passion outweighing profit? Or an innovative, "labor of love" project truly generating enough over the long term to make it worthwhile (and worth more than spending three months on yet-another-standard-fantasy RPG)? It sounds to me like a little bit of both.

I don't know if this can be applied as any kind of general lesson for indies other than to note that sometimes even weaker titles still have value, particularly over the long term. And maybe even over the long term, innovation and going for the art / passion factor might not hurt as bad as we think.


(Vaguely) related snark:
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* Where Is Indie Innovation?
* 2006 Indie RPGs of the Year Announced
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