Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Saturday, June 30, 2007
History of Zork
I guess everyone else in the known universe has already posted this by now, but it is too cool to let it go without mentioning it:

The History of Zork

This article is by Matt Barton, the same guy who did the very-very cool History of Computer Role-Playing Games earlier this year. Matt also has the full text of the interviews he conducted with various notable persons in the article, including Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Steve Meretzky.

History of Zork: Full Interviews

Dang this is cool. Matt, I'm a fan. :)

Rubes (Mike Rubin) brought up the discussion in this forum post, turning the discussion of "Why RPGs Suck Now" into a little bit of a remembrance of great adventure games of the past... :) (And people who committed the text to memory...)

What is interesting to me is just how this "History of Zork" (much like the History of CRPGs articles) has caught the attention of various sites in the last 48 hours. Maybe this was simply an effect of making the coveted Slashdot list... or maybe the causaility is reversed. I just think it's interesting that a nearly 30-year-old game in a "dead" genre is getting such attention. Matt's excellent writing doesn't hurt, of course. Is it purely nostalgia? A sense of loss of a cool bygone era? A morbid fascination with the birth and death of one the game industry's first legendary companies?

(Tip o' the hat to GameSetWatch for the update...)

(Vaguely) related less-adventurous text:
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin, Creator of Vespers 3D
* How Do I Get Past The Harpies?


Friday, June 29, 2007
Building a Virtual World on a Budget
To those low-budget, indie game developers busy making massively multi-player games (especially MMORPGs), I salute you!

As an old-school MUD / MUSH player and developer (though not NEARLY as old-school as these guys), I entertained the thought myself for a a few months after exiting the games biz back in 2000. In fact, the engine that became Void War was originally for a Massively Multi-player RPG - albeit for a much smaller-scale one that I envisioned as more of a super-MUD than a mini-EverQuest at the time.

A cooler head prevailed, and I backed off that project.

But there are several nutcases out there who are still chasing passion instead of reason, and I think the gaming world is richer for them.

Eric "Malevolent" Rhea has a great write-up on the challenges and pitfalls of indie MMORPG development based on his painfully current experiences developing Wraith: The Iron Horse, a 3D MMORPG (being developed in Torque, I note...), which has just hit their Beta milestone.

I wish 'em the best of luck!

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If Only My Math Teacher Could See Me Now
I don't remember what grade I was in when I first learned about things like points, lines, and rays. It might have been third grade. I remember seeing rays represented as arrows made out of pieces of yarn in the textbook. I remember anticipating the lesson because we were going to learn about RAYS.

Like... laser rays? Ray guns?

While those sci-fi weapons were named after behavior that approximated that of a mathematical ray, I was too young to have a clue. When we learned about rays, the word that came to my mind was:


Something which has an origin - a point - but no width, no length, only a direction? It goes out to infinity? What kind of useless made-up bull-hockey is this? Why are we learning this? What POSSIBLE use could this ever have in my life?

Little did I realize just how much use it would be. Even in ordinary business application programming, some of this stuff comes in handy (particularly if you are doing any GUI programming). But as a game programmer? I live in a world of rays, vectors, lines, line segments, normals, dot products, cross products, sines, cosines, arctangents, the Pythagorean theorem, matrix transformations, and quaternions.

Can the AI see the hero? Do a vector subtract of the AI's point to the hero's point. Measure its length using the Pythagorean theorum. Is it within visible range? If so, turn it into a ray using the AI's start location, and normalize that line segment by dividing it by its just-calculated length. Now use a ray test against the environment. If no collision occurs, or if the collision distance (calculated using good ol' Pythagoras's trick) is further away than the original range, then the AI can see the hero.

(Oh, yeah, and the old game programmer's trick... don't find the square root in the Pythagorean theorum if you are just comparing distances --- compare the squares. You don't need to perform the costly square root operation until you absolutely need to know the exact distance... such as when you are normalizing the vector).

You never know when this stuff could come in handy.

So there's something to tell your kids when they complain about their math class.

(Vaguely) related randomness:
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind
* On Game Engines and Swarm Missiles
* My Worst Bug Ever (that ray can bite you if you aren't careful...)
* Jet Moto Memories


Thursday, June 28, 2007
Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Beating Up Is Hard To Do
You know, if it weren't for the UI work and art content, this game would be done already.

But then what would be the point, right?

The last couple of weeks, I've been focusing on combat. I had the combat interface mocked up before (and let me tell you, what I got ain't gonna make it to final release! Funny how actually using it reveals useability issues), but now I've been pulling together all these little elements together into something resembling a cohesive whole.

Torque Fun
But the programming side hasn't been a snap, either. I can tell I've really gotten used to more structured languages like C++... using TorqueScript on a big project can be... interesting. I can't rely on IntelliSense or a .h file to help me out. When dealing with code I haven't recently worked on, I find myself having to hunt through comments and code across multiple files just to make certain I'm setting the RIGHT "hitpoint" field.

Incidentally, some of the fun I've been having getting Torque & TorqueScript to run "correctly" have been documented in this thread in the forums. I invite anyone else interested to post their own lessons learned - obscure is fine. I've found that the GG community is great for answering some of the basic, frustrating questions that you have as a newbie. The questions I tend to have these days involve doing stuff that nobody else knows off the top of their head, and nobody else is going to dig around in Torque's source code to find out for you.

Building the Rule System
As mentioned in a previous post, I've had a lot of basic foundation stuff to build in order to get some otherwise simple-looking things working. Black triangle stuff. For the last two weeks, it's been putting in the core character systems in order to get melee combat working.

For example - just from a rules perspective - to make a melee attack the game chooses a random number between 1 and your "attack" rating. It then picks a number between 1 and the defender's "defense" rating. Higher number wins, ties go to the attacker. If the attack roll is 5x higher than the defense roll, then the attack is a critical hit, and does 1.5x normal damage. Then damage gets applied.

Sounds like maybe ten minutes of coding, right?

Calculating Ratings
Well, except how do I get an attack rating? Oh, the base is calculated from the character's base stats, class, and level. Gotta implement all that. And then any item equipped may include a bonus or penalty. Gotta make sure the equipment system is working - at least on that level. Check through the player's equipped items for adjustments, see whether or not they apply. And then I have to check through spell or other effects that may currently be active on the character for further adjustments. So I have to write that system and make sure it works.

So now - in theory - the player characters can level up, equip and unequip items (with bonuses), and have spells cast on them with lasting effects.

For the defense rating, there's the special condition if they are using a shield --- in which case their block skill gives them an additional bonus to Defense.

For damage, I need to also check for armor. Armor subtracts a value between 1 and it's armor rating from the damage applied by the weapon. And then there's armor-piercing weapons, which subtract their armor-piercing rating directly from the armor rating BEFORE it is rolled against the weapon damage.

Other Considerations
With all that in place, it's now possible for one person to attack another person and do damage to them. Oh, but what if they are too far away? If Chloe, armed with a dagger in the back rank of the player's party, tries to attack a weed-goblin caster who's 2 ranks deep in a group of attacking monsters, it's not gonna happen. The front-line goblins aren't just going to let her walk past them to stab the dude in the face. So I put in checks for party rank (position) and weapon length / range. All that has to be reflected in the UI, too, so the player can see why Chloe can't stab the rear-rank goblin caster in the face.

And then there's endurance usage for making attacks. How much endurance should swinging a sword use? I've got a formula written down, based on your relative strength based upon the strength rating of the weapon, but will it work in practice?

And I need to check to see if the character has enough endurance to take the action BEFORE letting the player (or AI) choose it --- and all THAT has to be reflected in the UI. (Actually, I've skipped that part for now... but it needs to go in there).

Next, timing calculations. How much time does swinging a sword take, compared to swinging a dagger? While Frayed Knights is "turn-based," it's not a simple, straightforward I-Go-You-Go system. There's some nice, complex, crunchy timing calculations that take place in the background that determines in what order everybody goes. So all that has to go in there (fortunately, the core system was already in place with the prototype).

Then there's AI. Right now, the AI is really stupid. It's easy to program stupid. The AI chooses someone at random that they are allowed to attack, and they attack.

And then there's detecting the end-of-combat conditions. When everyone on one side is defeated or fled (not implemented yet), the combat has to end. Players get really annoyed otherwise.

Testing and Cursing - Some Internal Monolog
Crud, I need to define what the real character stats for the Frayed Knights at 3rd level (they skip 1st and 2nd)!
- I build those up. I create a "Newgame.cs" file and functions for handling a new game, creating the startup characters, putting them in the right location, etc.

Aw, man! They all have the same stats! What's going on here?
- Little "oops" inside of a double-loop, using the outer-loop variable instead of the inner-loop variable when assigning the stats from the "new game" data.

Great. Now I need to come up with the real stats for a pus golem. What should a pus golem's stats look like?
- No, I don't have all these creatures statted out on paper, yet. The design doc describes 'em but doesn't stat 'em. As I haven't playtested these rules yet, I don't really know what would make an appropriate challenge or anything yet. I make stuff up, based on some guidelines from the design document. The pus golem is a 1st level character of the "monster" class... so I'll start there. Eventually I'm going to have cool templates & stuff that can be applied to really mix things up... but the raw pus golem will probably be unchanged.

Now How am I supposed to know the stats for any other monster? I need a generic "monster database" system to pull in this information.
- Time to implement a more generic system of pulling up a pus golem's stats. Or any other monster. To be honest, this is only half-implemented, but the function calls are working. But this needs to be a nice, clean, data-driven, expandable system.

Okay, now I need to have monsters appear in groups. With their real visuals...
- Yes, when I stubbed out the prototype, I just threw in a skeleton visual to stand in for any number and any kind of monster. I'm still stuck with just a skeleton (and an elf, and Kork the Torque Orc) for monster visuals right now, but they need to be based on the type of monster being encountered, positioned CORRECTLY - and in formations based upon their number and "rank" (depth in the group) relative to the player...

Where did my monster visual go? He's under the floor? How'd he get THERE?!?!?
- The usual bugs abound. In this case, I was accidentally dropping the "Z" value in some calculated positions based on the player's offset (because I was comparing only the X,Y coordinates with that of the player), so "Z" was getting set to zero, which was below the surface of the ground. And the monster would just keep falling, every frame...

Why am I passing an empty string on the combat range? That's not right.
- Oops. Somehow the "rank" variable in the party wasn't always being set.

Crud. I forgot to arm my heroes and monsters. They are fighting with harsh language or something.
- I found that the attacks were being skipped every time because, although I'd given the player characters some "generic swords" to attack with, I hadn't actually equipped them with the weapons yet. And they had no default "unarmed" attack, yet. So it was aborting, without printing an error message. My bad...

Oh! The monster's dead! I should quit beating him, then.
- I forgot to actually note that at zero (or less) health, the monster should not only cease to fight, but cease to allow the player to keep attacking it. Not that I want to deny the player the joy of
beating a dead ... us, pus golem. But rather, I want to avoid confusing the player with useless options.

How come attacking a monster hurts ME instead of the monster?
- Uh, actually, I had the code for the endurance indicators and the health bar indicators mixed up. See, programmers have to deal with a lot more bugs than the players ever see!

My monster isn't attacking! What's wrong with that slacker?
- I forgot to arm him with an "unarmed" weapon, so he was skipping attacks just like the players had been.

Coming Up Next Week...
Well, there's my sharing of pain and frustration for the week. So what am I working on next week?

Well, we've got the Utah Indie Game Developer's Meet coming up on Thursday. I'm not actually planning on demonstrating the game there this time, but some people have asked to see it. So I'm going to screw up my schedule and spend some time cleaning stuff up and making it look slightly more presentable. Maybe add some particle effects. Yeah - particle effects. That'll take people's attention away from all the junk that doesn't look right...

I will also be adding some additional combat options, like resting. Spells are unlikely, but I'll try.

(Vaguely) related talking about stuff folks really don't wanna hear:
* Frayed Knights: Catching the Fly
* Frayed Knights: Characteristics and Task Resolution
* RPG Combat Design
* Hackenslash!
* A Day in the Life of a Game Programmer

Discuss! Because We Can!


Wednesday, June 27, 2007
This Game Too Crippled To Run On XP...
If only this kind of egg-on-the-face led to better behavior.

Microsoft has naturally been pushing Vista. I can't blame them. The operating system was way overdue in their billing cycle, and the big media middlemen have been feeling the pinch of needing stronger DRM protection at the O.S. level. We consumers were noticing it as well... our poor wallets were getting a little overweight from going an extra two years without paying for the obligatory Windows upgrade. It's almost as bad as when some of us skipped "upgrading" to Windows ME back in 2000.

Microsoft has pushed their "Games For Windows" initiative, which at first blush seemed to be a good thing. I'm still holding out some hope. After all, Microsoft appeared to be to be returning attention to the PC as a gaming platform! Huzzah! Not that I've not seen much of it yet. The third-party publishers (especially indies) are leery of things Microsoft is doing with their "Games Explorer," and are concerned that it was merely part of their marketing effort for Vista.

To make things worse for gamers, Vista has been experiencing the usual compatibility problems, which is annoying but not unanticipated. More importantly, game performance on Vista sucks compared to XP, depending upon the game, the drivers, and the video cards. While this may improve over time with improved drivers, no doubt Microsoft is banking on it just becoming a moot point over time, when comparisons will no longer occur.

Jeff Green even penned a possibly career-limiting editorial in the July issue of "The Official Games For Windows Magazine" (Formerly Computer Gaming World) calling Microsoft to the carpet over what's going on in the GFW initiative and the "Games for Windows Live" feature in Vista. As he states... "Because as the details are starting to come out now about Games for Windows Live, sir, (so polite) well-how do I put this nicely? Let's try this: It sucks ass."

As a gamer, I'm really not seeing anything to really convince me to fork over my cash for what might amount to a downgrade. Granted, I may have been deliberately keeping myself in the dark with respect to the other virtues that the operating system offers me as a gamer... but so far I haven't seen anything that would really convince me to move over to Vista. According to Valve's survey of Steam users, I'm not alone. So what would encourage me to move over to Vista? The killer app. Games I couldn't play under XP.

"Ah-hah!" says Microsoft. DirectX 10 is ONLY available under Vista, and they've got two games that run under DirectX 10 that are just too dang powerful for XP. There's no way to add DirectX 10 compatability under XP. So... gamers... you are just going to HAVE to upgrade to Vista now. (Of course, the two games are Microsoft-published, as third parties are really nervous about releasing a game for a currently limited userbase).

Then this happens. Hackers created a patch that allow the two "exclusive" Vista games to run just fine under XP. I'd be really interested in seeing timing tests take place to see if these two games, like most others, also run faster under XP than under Vista.

More importantly, they also exposed the truth that - at this point at least - "Vista Only" is little more than marketing hype, a factor of crippling software rather than taking advantage of greater power.

When they are clearly using DirectX and their PC games division as nothing more than physical labor to carry their Operating System division, it really makes me wonder about their commitment to Windows as a gaming platform.

(Vaguely) related grousing...
* Games For Windows: Empty Hype?
* Is Vista Going to Destroy Indie Gaming?
* R.I.P. Computer Gaming World

Feel Free to Chat About This in the Forum!


Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Indie RPG News: June 26
Remember the days when Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs) were created by very small teams passionate about the genre, rather than giant, detached team working for a publisher more concerned about "limiting risk?" When the RPG was more of the artistic vision of one passionate (if geeky) individual rather than directed by a marketing department? When it was all about the game and what was cool, rather than what would appeal to the widest possible audience?

You should! Because those days are back! Here's this week's round-up of indie RPGs, role-playing games built "the old fashioned way." This week contains the usual suspects (the Soldak and Planewalker Games guys are great about sending me updates), plus more goodness from the worlds of indie roleplaying games. If you hear more news from other games, please fill me in!

Eschalon: Book 1
As I mentioned in Sunday's article, there's an interview up at GameBanshee about Eschalon: Book 1. The interview focuses game mechanics - how spells are handled, inventory, the skill system, and so forth. Since things have been quiet about this game lately, I was pleased to hear that progress is still continuing.

And they are planning a Book 2 and Book 3 at some point. He's hoping the first game is awesome enough to make sequels a no-brainer!

Depths of Peril
The Saurian and the Naga are now profiled in the Depths of Peril monster page. Steven's blog also talks about the fickleness of influence in the late stages of one of his test games - how the combination of the actions of the other factions plus random events and rumors amongst the townspeople caused him to lose his commanding lead in a matter of minutes. He does advise that this is uncommon, and of course the game is still very much in development. But it sounds like the "strategy" action can be pretty fast and furious in this strategy / action RPG.

The Broken Hourglass
Jason Compton and company have provided us with a look at customized spell creation in The Broken Hourglass. I don't know many games (other than the Elder Scrolls games) that let you do anything like this in the game. Tinkered spells involve an elemental magic source (fire, earth, air, water, and "physical") and a spell effect.

They have also provided a tutorial for potential modders on creating a "joinable" NPC - a character who can join your party and assist you on your adventures. By default, Planewalker Games is providing nine joinable NPCs (with full dialogs & other fun stuff) in the game, but if you just can't find the perfect person to round out your party, you can create your own.

Age of Decadence
RPGWatch plumbed the depths of the Age of Decadence message boards to pull together several news threads containing evidence that the project was not dead --- in fact, they've been cranking away on the combat system and UI updates over the last six months.

Cute Knight Deluxe
As mentioned last week, Cute Knight Deluxe is now available from Rampant Games. This is less of a hardcore game than the above titles, but it's a fun combination of some very old-school dungeon hack & slash with a cute "sim" game in the style of Princess Maker. The Deluxe version includes new artwork, new equipment, new secrets, and (it is rumored) a new ending or two (out of the 50+ endings that were already there to begin with). Reminder: If you have already purchased the original game, Cute Knight, from Rampant Games, you can upgrade to the deluxe version for only $5 by following the instructions on this page.

Come on, you know you want to play a pink-haired 18-year-old girl! :)

Aveyond II: Ean's Quest
Not much news on the Aveyond II front, but apparently Amanda is filing paperwork to convert Amaranth Games into an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) in preparation for future expansion. It sounds like Aveyond has done very, very well for her.

(No, I'm not jealous. No. Not one bit... ;) )

Amanda also reports that the art and music is about 50% complete. She's still pushing for a September release date on Aveyond II: Ean's Quest.

That's about it for this week! Got anything else? Please post about it in the forums, or drop me an email!

(Vaguely) related Indie RPG Stuff:
* Fastcrawl: A Quick Take on the 2006 Indie RPG Award Winner
* Interview with Amanda Fitch, Creator of Aveyond
* Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
* Interview with Jason Compton, Producer for The Broken Hourglass
* Indie RPG News, June 15th

Check out the Forum Discussion on Indie RPG News!

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Monday, June 25, 2007
SPORPGs! You Heard It Here First!
So the buzzword for PC games for the last half-decade and change has been "MMOG" and "MMORPG" (for "Massively Multiplayer Onling Game" and "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game", respectively). Sometimes just abbreviated "MMO", because, you know, some of these online worlds aren't even GAMES. Like Second Life. But then why would it be called "massively multiPLAYER?" Maybe in the case of Second Life, it's "Massively Multiplayah" or something.

But I digress.

Now I do like my occasional online ... you know.... thing. With massively multiple people mostly unaware that I am co-located in their same virtual whereyoumacallit. But the MMO folks have the cool acronyms, now. Like "MMORPGs" (sometimes pronounced "MORE PIGs").

But I love my single-player games, too, dangit. And on behalf of my fellow single-player RPG fans, I'm coining a new acronym as a community service:

"SPORPG: Single-Player Offline RPG."

I'm sure it'll catch on any minute now. Oh, except for those folks who really like their SPORPGs because they don't have Internet access. Then they won't know it exists, huh? Man, talk about feeling left out. The guys at the office will be talking all about their favorite SPORE PIGS and those poor offline gamers won't even realize what they are talking about, and will be left out of a conversation tailor-made for them.

It's very sad, really. So do your part, and let everyone know about the acronym, so they can use it and feel all trendy and acronym-using. And then the Pen And Paper Role Playing Gamers (PNPRGers, or "Pin-Priggers") won't make so much fun of them.

(Vaguely) related nonsense:
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator!
* City of Heroes Jargon
* Why Cooperative Multiplayer Is Best


Top 14 MMORPG Icons of All Time
I'm not an expert on MMORPGs - I've played only about four major ones (and one of those only during Beta), and a handful of indie MMO's. I have to get all my World of Warcraft information vicariously. But I'm tuned in enough to get a good chuckle out of this list on Amber Night's site:

The Top 14 MMORPG Icons of All Time

The definition of "Icon" is a little bit on the fuzzy side. But hey, just smile, nod, and enjoy.

Would I add any to this list? I dunno, she's nailed them pretty well. Here's my candidate for #15:

Lady Vox, Dragon (EverQuest) - the first well-known "epic" raid-mob. Lord Nagafen shared her spotlight, but I think she was the first one raided - something like 3 months in, by a bunch of level 35's - 45's. They complained about her lame loot then, too. Much later, to prevent her from being soloed by level 60 necromancers, they put a limit on what levels were allowed to fight her.

I think I fought her twice. Got a nifty spear from on the very first try. Of course, by that time, I was so far behind the power curve that I was about the only person in the raid who actually WANTED the spear. But enh. It was fun.

(Vaguely) related reminiscing:
* Great Gaming Moments #8: EverQuest
* A 2-Person Raid
* Why I Gave Up On D&D Online
* City of Heroes Jargon


Sunday, June 24, 2007
Why Do RPGs Suck Now?
Adding their voices to Jeff Vogel's controversial, "Why I Hate Fantasy RPGs" article, we've got yet more discussion on the web this week as to why computer & console RPGs are broken - and what can be done to fix them. They could always stand to suck less, doncha think?

Why RPG Stories Suck
Game Journalist Leigh Alexander chimes in with the thought-provoking first of (hopefully) a series of columns entitled, "Building a Better RPG." She opens with a manifesto of sorts that will probably ring true to most RPG fans that have been enjoying CRPGs for more than four years:
"Nobody wants to play 60-hour console RPGs anymore. So we hear quite often these days, and many of us even say as much ourselves. Yet I don’t think that’s quite correct -- the truth is, nobody wants to play the same console RPG anymore.... It’s a genre that once inspired legions of gamers to near-thoughtless devotion—and now draws ire from its once solidly-ensconced core fanbase for its perpetual stagnation."
She goes on to explain the problem with story and character in modern games (hitting a couple of nails on the head, IMO):
"The characters have every lash, freckle and stray hair painted in stunning clarity. And similarly, their stories are fully drawn, too. With very little for the player to “do” in terms of filling in their own ideas, the standard ratchets up—and here’s one of the key areas RPGs fall short... Even though technology has fleshed out what was once a basic formula, adding lifelike details and the full cinema experience, it hasn’t advanced the formula in any way. There really is yet to be a modern role-playing game where the character is someone we can empathize with and care for in an enduring way. We’re still being asked to devote hours and hours to people who, despite how intricate they look, are little more than constructs -- making it even more ridiculous when they behave in their trademark histrionic, overemotional fashion. The emotional moment -- prime territory of RPGs -- is little more than a joke now."
And later summarizes:
"Gamers don’t want story. It’s the mantra we’ve gotten used to hearing recently. But I’m inclined to think all this anti-story backlash is rooted in the total absence of realistic, believable player characters and companions in RPGs. True, we play for the action, for the events -- but if that were all we wanted, we’d just play an action game. The fact is, story becomes nothing but an inconvenience when its characters are meaningless to us—and perhaps we hate it all the more for the disappointment."
Alexander's article references a recent review of Final Fantasy XII that has struck a chord with many players. The author's bottom line was that "Final Fantasy XII is perfect in form and function; otherwise, bad." The experience seemed, to him, hollow and empty, which puzzled him as he "... had never played a game with superior production values, nor with superior depth. I loved the characters, and the lush, expansive world they inhabited. But somehow, in this Final Fantasy, which had more substance than any of its ancestors, the core experience seemed to be absent. I had to wonder what secret spice was missing which would have recreated the elation I felt at the end of installments VII, VIII and X."

RPGs: Getting Dumbed Down?
This week also brought us an interview with Thomas Riegsecker of Basilisk Games, creators of the upcoming indie RPG "Eschalon: Book 1." The whole interview is fascinating (particularly from an old-school RPG fan's point of view), but he also brings up an interesting comment:
"I think the biggest problem with the current crop of RPGs is that publishers are continually looking to get bigger returns on their investments, and to do so developers must make a game that is going to attract the largest possible customer base. To achieve this, RPGs have become simpler and more action-oriented over the years. Today’s RPGs must compete for market share with first-person shooters and third-person adventure games, and they do this by eliminating most of the complexity inherent to the genre. Publishers don’t seem to care that the hard-core RPGers who gave birth to the role-playing genre are the very customers they are squeezing out of their sales. These RPG enthusiasts are looking for a true role-playing experience, not a medieval version of Halo. "
Eschalon: Book 1 is itself a turn-based RPG taking its cures from such classics as Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry - eschewing the "dumbing down" of the modern action-RPG for something a little more classic in flavor. Just so long as I don't have to do the mapping myself on graph paper --- that part sucked.

Console Versus PC
To some degree, Alexander and Riegsecker are disagreeing with each other. Alexander seems to be contending that we are simply dolling up the same old gameplay with new graphics... and finding that what worked ten years ago is failing because the gameplay is stale and the improved graphics are making the deficiencies more apparent (if not exacerbating the problem). Riegsecker is invoking the popular "they were better in the good ol' days" cry, and complaining that the game mechanics HAVE been changing --- for the worse.

Note that Alexander keeps talking about console RPGs, and Riegsecker invoked the names of PC game franchises. For the most part, the console games started fairly simple (though Ultima III was something of a hit on the consoles back in the day), and haven't changed much in complexity since Final Fantasy IV (II in the U.S.). PC RPGs, on the other hand, have run the gamut in complexity from simple point-and-click affairs to tactical wargames.

They are also discussing the two different aspects of RPGs: Story versus mechanics. Fluff versus crunch. Some RPG fans really want a game system they can sink their teeth into. Others want a world and story they can get lost in. Most of us want a nice blend of both --- though the contents of the optimum mix are a subject of endless Internet debates.

As to mechanics - I've got some thoughts on that, but I've enjoyed games on both ends of the spectrum. I tend to favor the "crunchier" systems like Fallout or the D20 licenses over the simpler systems (like Aveyond or Final Fantasy VII), but I can have fun either way.

On Engaging Emotion
On story - I ain't an expert. But I have some thoughts on the subject. In my mind, the game needs to allow the player to project themselves into the characters on some level. This might be easier with simpler graphics (read Scott McCloud's book, "Understanding Comics," for some commentary on this) or a more abstract definition of the hero. But I can project myself into the protagonist's role in a good book easily enough, so long as I can connect with the protagonist on some emotional level.

And maybe that's what's missing in too many games --- that emotional connection. Developers try so hard in many modern games with the cargo-cult mentality of emulating the forms of cinema, but fail to understand how to adapt the principles of storytelling to a medium that is different from cinema on a fundamental level.

I look back on Final Fantasy VII - one of my favorite RPGs of all time - and it occurs to me that I never really identified with the protagonist at all. Cloud Strife was one screwed-up kid. He was some lame wannabe uber-cool loner at the beginning of the game, and as it turns out was just mentally imbalanced and shouldering a bit too much angst for player who was no longer a teen to really tolerate. Watching some of the special features that came with the movie Advent Children, I realized how much of his story I'd forgotten. None of that was important to me.

Now, the character I did like was Aeris. The cute, perky little flower-selling girl with the destiny to save the world. Who was brutally murdered by the villain - Sephiroth - halfway through the game by means a a six-foot long katana. While she was defenseless and praying, durn it!

The game's whole eco-friendly theme, the Christian analogy, the love triangle with Tifa, the backstories of all the characters coming to the front for brief side-quests... all that was wonderful. It contributed to a feeling of satisfaction and epic awesomeness at the end of the game. But what the game REALLY was - to me - was a story about justice. Or - let's be honest here - revenge. Sephiroth murdered Aeris halfway into the game, and I made that S.O.B. PAY!!!!

The most basic human emotions are the easiest ones to engage.

Maybe we should be working harder to do that, instead of simulating every freckle and out-of-place strand of hair on the protagonist.

(Vaguely) related gibberish:
* Are Graphics Really Killing Gameplay?
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* The History of RPGs - Should We Go Back To Go Forward?
* Big World, Small Dungeon - Does Size Matter in RPGs?
* Action Versus Turn-Based RPGs: Evolution, Trend, or Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator?

Read or Post Comments on the Forum

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Saturday, June 23, 2007
New Desktop TD Version Is Out
Dang it!

There's a new and improved version of Desktop Tower Defense - version 1.5 - now available.

Evil, evil, evil.

The new version "fixes" a popular exploit of making the creeps switch directions constantly to keep running the gauntlet. It now increases the amount of time it takes to sell a tower a little bit for each tower sold. It also includes new tower type (an ink tower, plus snap and boost towers), new creep types (dark creeps and morphing creeps), an improved bash tower, and more game modes. And new graphics and sound.

Yet another very easy way to lose a couple of hours of your life with little to show for it but a smile on your face.

(Vaguely) related running roughshod over seriousness:
* David Scott's New Tower Defense Game
* How To Earn $8000 / Month By Making a Free Flash Game
* Picking Apart Flash Element TD


Friday, June 22, 2007
Cute Knight DELUXE Available from Rampant Games
Cute Knight Deluxe is now available from Rampant Games! And the free demo of Cute Knight Deluxe is now available as well.

This is the new and improved version of the best-selling "casual" indie RPG, Cute Knight. The new version includes new items and secrets, improved graphics (particularly the monster and end-game art), and an improved Wizard's Challenge mini-game. (Incidentally, the mini-game is actually something Georgina - the game's creator - mentioned in her interview here at Tales of the Rampant Coyote, as a part of the game she was unsatisfied with.)

If you haven't heard the spiel before, let me get my indie-game-evangelizing hat on for a minute. The original version of Cute Knight was the winner of 2005's Indie RPG of the Year from GameTunnel.com. It is kind of a blend of old-school pseudo-3D dungeon crawlers (think Wizardry, Bard's Tale, etc.) meeting the Princess Maker series - and done casual-friendly.
In Cute Knight, you play a young, 18-year old girl who has three years to decide what she's going to do with her life in a world of fantasy, monsters, and magic. Throughout town, there are several "sim" like opportunities for her to explore. She can take odd jobs to earn cash, attend school (assuming she has enough money to pay for the classes), participate in the various festivals and other events taking place in the town over the course of the year, unravel secrets and mysteries, find love, and of course gear up and explore the local dungeon.

The dungeon is an optional but significant part of the game. It is randomized, so the layout is a little different every game. The monsters can be defeated by magic or by combat (it is best to be prepared with both, as some monsters are more vulnerable to one than the other), or can actually be "tamed" by your charm and skill - defeated completely nonviolently.

Besides the usual challenges of "leveling up," and accumulating wealth and cool loot, there are two serious factors to contend with. The first is the looming end-of-game.

The game ends one of three ways. The first is by achieving some kind of end-game goal... one of the "winning" or "losing" criteria. There are over 50 different endings to the game (and not to mention several variants for most endings), so there are PLENTY of those to explore across multiple game sessions. The second is for your character to reach her 21st birthday - in which case she will adopt the profession most suited to her combination of skills. The third is by the loss of her "dream" - a measure of her happiness with life and feeling of growth, I guess. Too many failures and disappointing days of meaningless labor will sap her Dream rating in a hurry, and she'll end up choosing a life of a scullery maid. Give her some successes or nights out on the town (or in quiet meditation at the church, IIRC), and that rating will go back to non-threatening levels.

The second factor is "Sin." This is sort of the alignment system of the game. The town is protected from the nasties of the dungeon by a magical barrier that prevents evil creatures (those with too much sin) from entering. That includes people with too much of the stain of sin on their souls, as well. In fact, that can include you if you aren't careful. At that point, you'll be forced to stay in the outskirts of the city until you clean up your act, or reach a game conclusion. Note that there are several endings that require you to have been in this situation (at least briefly), so this is actually be part of the fun. I still want to get the "Queen of Thieves" ending that I've heard about!

Cute Knight is an awesome little non-traditional RPG. The deluxe edition adds some higher-quality art in several areas (particularly the end-game portraits and dungeon monsters),and several new toys to play with. And I have heard rumors of at least one additional ending. I haven't tried the revised Wizard's Challenge, yet. But the core gameplay is the unchanged - just as solid and as enjoyable as the original.

If you still haven't tried it out, I recommend downloading the free demo for Cute Knight Deluxe at the Rampant Games Cute Knight page.

If you have already purchased Cute Knight from Rampant Games, you can upgrade to the Deluxe edition for only $5, simply by following the instructions found on this page (and yes, I've been told that affiliates do count for this offer...)

(Vaguely) related Knight Cuteness:
* Cute Knight Hints, Tips, and Spoilers
* The Purple-Haired Women of Rampant Games!
* What Makes a Good Casual RPG?
* Interview with Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight

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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Characteristics and Task Resolution

Dirk: Aw, man. Jay totally bailed on us for this week's design diary for Frayed Knights! What a wuss!

Arianna: I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. He's been really busy with stuff. Including our game.

Benjamin: You mean that game where he tries to KILL US? Yeah, thanks, good luck with that. He can take his time. He should be spending his time making blog entries, not battles!

Chloe: So what do we do now? I mean, we're here, he's not, and there's supposed to be an update on the progress of the game, and I'm already bored.

Dirk: Do you guys want to play cards or something? Maybe some of the readers might want to join in...

Benjamin: Our cards were eaten by that horn-tailed slithering masticator we fought last week. And all the shopkeepers in Torville are prohibited by that ordinance from last year from selling playing cards to you or anybody known to associate with you.

Dirk: Oh, yeah. Hey, she never told me she was the mayor's daughter until after she'd lost the game. So it wasn't really my fault!

Arianna: Nobody wants to hear about how you beat the mayor's daughter at strip poker, Dirk.>

Benjamin: Hey, now that you mention it, I am a little curious about that story...

Arianna: No! We are not going there! Let's talk about the game instead. More specifically, characters. Like... uh, Dirk.

Dirk: Oh, hey, more about me is always a good thing.

Arianna: No, I mean the statistics and attributes that make up all characters in the game. Every character has five primary attributes: Might, Brains, Reflexes, Charm, and Luck. The normal human range of these attributes is a value from 1 to 10, five being average. Monsters can exceed a ten, as can higher-level characters.

Benjamin: Those are used directly as modifiers for any action. For example, any time you hit a creature with your sword, you get a bonus to damage based upon your Might score. Anything above a five gives you a bonus. Anything below a five gives you a penalty. There are also secondary attributes, which are based upon those primary scores, your level, and your class. The secondary scores include things like health, endurance, base attack score, base defense score. and so forth.

Dirk: But that's not the whole story. You've got classes and levels, too. Like me - lots of class. I'm a rogue, actually. There are rogues - the best class - warriors, sorcerers, and priests. Take a wild guess which of us is which. You've also got SKILLS. Especially for me people like me. It's all about the skills. Some examples of skills are "Social" - talking to people, and "Stealth" for sneaking around. Most of the time when there are checks being made in the game, it's a skill check. With attribute bonuses thrown in.

Arianna: And then there are feats.

Chloe: The game even tracks what kind of feet you have? That's a very detailed game! My feet are very cute.

Arianna: No, not your feet, feats, as in feats of strength. Those are special abilities characters possess to make their skills work in special ways. Or that give them bonuses under special conditions.

Chloe: Okay. That's a lot of numbers. You know I love numbers as much as the next girl - especially when counting sparklies and money and stuff. But how does that tell you how many people I blew up with my fireball?

Arianna: Ummm.... I'm not sure. Oh, hey, Jay left his design document lying around ... I'm sure he won't mind if I borrow some of it and post it publicly up on the Internet, will he?

Dirk: Well, if he does, it's his own fault for ditching on us. I say post away! Besides, the system is just elaborating on what he did in Hackenslash, and that game sucked anyway!

Arianna: I know I'm going to regret this, but here goes:

Task Resolution

Any non-automatic action in the game is determined by a random check of the character’s adjusted score versus a check against the defender’s adjusted score or the difficulty level of the task being attempted.

There are three forms of task resolution: Simple, Tiered, and Damage checks.

Simple Resolution

For simple task resolution, a random number is generated between one and the attackers / actor’s adjusted skill score. This is the “action” roll. The “defense” roll is also generated as a random number between one and the defender’s adjusted skill score, or the difficulty score for actions not actively opposed by another character. If the defense roll is higher than the action roll, then the action fails. Otherwise, it succeeds.

Tiered Resolution

Tiered task resolutions are exactly the same as simple task resolutions, except there’s a chance that the action may succeed or fail in an exceptional way. In the case of an exceptional success, the acting character may receive additional bonuses. For exceptional failures, Bad Things may happen to the acting character, or the defending character may receive a bonus. The actual results are dependent upon the type of action being taken.

Tentatively, for tiered results, if the defense roll is five or more times higher than the action roll, the attempted action results in exceptional failure. If the action roll is five or more times higher than the defense roll, the action is an exceptional success.

Damage Checks

For damage checks, a random roll is made from 1 to the maximum damage value. In addition, an armor roll is made from 1 to the total armor (minus the armor piercing value of the weapon). The armor roll is then subtracted from the damage roll, and the result is the total amount of damage done to the defender. If this value is zero or less, the defender takes no damage.

Group Skill Checks

Some skill checks (particularly skills like Perception, Stealth, Social, and Empathy) will be “group checks”. This skill is based upon the highest (adjusted) rating of any individual character in the group. Every character in the group that has an adjusted rating of at least half this ability will provide a +2 bonus to the effective rating when it is rolled.

Weapons and Armor

To attack with a weapon, the character’s attack roll has a maximum of their Attack Skill + Melee Skill (if it’s a hand-to-hand weapon, or with natural attacks like claws or fists) or Ranged Skill (if it’s a ranged weapon, like a bow), plus any other bonuses from equipment.

The defense roll has a maximum of the defender’s Defense skill plus their Dodge skill, plus any other bonuses due to equipment.

If the defender is using a shield, they get an additional bonus to their roll based on their Shield skill and their shield’s Maximum Shield Bonus, whichever is lower. If the character’s shield skill exceeds the shield’s Maximum Shield Bonus by 3 or more, then this excess is divided by three and added to the Defense skill roll maximum.

Assuming the hit lands, the max damage is calculated, and used to generate the damage roll (the action roll). The armor level is also calculated, but is handled a little differently. Rather than comparing the defense roll of the armor against the damage roll, the defense roll is actually subtracted from the action roll. The remainder is the damage done to the target, if positive. If zero or negative, the attack does no damage, as if it were a miss.

Benjamin: Zzzzzzzz......

Dirk: You know, we really should have talked about ME instead!

(Vaguely) related stuff by Jay that should have been more about US:
* Frayed Knights: First Five Minutes Walkthrough
* Frayed Knights: Prolog: Background and High Concept
* RPG Combat Design
* Frayed Knights: Stupid Is As Stupid Fights
* Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System

DISCUSS! Or, uh, not....

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Manhunt 2 Banned in the U.K., Receives AO Rating in the U.S.
Manhunt 2 - a game about violent murder - has been effectively banned in the U.K. - because the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) has refused to assign it a legally mandated rating. I guess it has joined such lofty ranks as the movie "A Clockwork Orange" and the song, "Relax", by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

It has also received the dreaded "AO" (Adults Only) rating from the ESRB here in the United States, which is the kiss of death for sales.

My personal opinion? Bravo ESRB, shame on the BBFC. Of course, the initials "BBFC" was originally for "British Board of Film Censors," so maybe they've gone back to their roots with videogames.

Take 2 Interactive and Rockstar Games continue to push the boundaries of taste (okay, in my opinion, they blow way past the boundaries) with respect to violent content. So they should expect to have to deal with the AO rating. In fact, I am sure they anticipated the likelihood. I don't think they are going to release under the "AO" rating for artistic reasons... I think they, like Running With Scissors, are all about controversy, not art. I expect they'll go back and change the game to make it better conform to "M" rating guidelines. Or try to appeal.

But the BBFC's refusal to rate it... I dunno. It smacks of a knee-jerk reaction to media hysteria. A UK murder case was blamed by the media on the first game, in spite of the murderer having never played it, and police claiming no connection in any way. Now, I personally wouldn't really want to play the game. But it's not my job to do so (well, at least I hope not to be assigned that particular task...)

Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the game will probably only serve to increase its sales and popularity.

How many more years do we have to endure the politicizing of games? Too many more, I'm afraid...

(Vaguely) related rumblings and grumblings:
*I Would Have Made Deathmatch Maps of My School, Too
* BYU Study Links Bible Passages to Aggression
* Why Are There So Many Violent Video Games?
* Australian Book-Burning (er, Game-Banning)

Oh, and a forum discussion on the subject (Thanks Brickman):

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Vampire Programmers
"Real" programmers - those who chose the profession out of love - tend to be night-owls.

I discovered this phenomena in college. The professor asked for a show of hands, saw that something like 90% of the class categorized themselves as night-owls rather than "morning people," and mentioned that this was typical. The professor himself was an exception, but he was a weird bird anyway.

I don't know why this is. Maybe its how our brains are wired. Whatever part of the brain is attracted to generating instructions to make a computer work is maybe also that part which rides the inertia of activity later in our cycle or something. Or maybe whatever attracted us to programming was also attracted to the romantic vision of the hacker toiling away into the wee hours, driven by adrenaline and caffeine (in which case, I expect this trend to be diminishing over time as the image of programmers becomes more that of a white-collar professional, like accountants).

This can cause a couple of problems.

First of all, there's the problem of programmers working with non-programmers. In many businesses, management is not pulled from the ranks of programmers, and it seems many managers are those "cheerful morning people" who can't seem to understand why EVERYONE isn't at their best productivity at 8:00 in the morning. This can cause a great deal of friction. Said management can get extremely frustrated with lazy programmers who often don't show until the exact moment they are required to by their employment contract. This sort of management is also often the type that goes home right at 5:00, oblivious to the fact that several of their programming team won't be leaving until hours later.

Then there's the opposite problem, found more commonly in the videogame industry, or any other software company managed more by programmers and who do not interact directly with non-night-owl customers on a day-to-day basis. We geeks have our own little hierarchy, and it tends to be based upon our own estimation of merit. One of those little geek indicators that tends to be used is, "Does this person work harder than me?"

Since it's hard to tell how much harder someone works, the rule-of-thumb that gets applied is, "Does this person work LATER than me?"

You end up with this whole peer-pressure thing going on where nobody wants to be seen as being one of the first people to go home for the night - at least not on a regular basis. People stay later and later. Since the folks in the trenches rarely have time to pay attention to what time their coworkers come into work in the morning, what often happens is that people end up slipping their work-shift (when allowed to do so) into later on in the day to improve that perception of their effort without having to unduly burden themselves with actually having to work all that much harder.

This is one reason why the game industry tends to be dominated by younger, less experienced developers. Those old farts over 30 (that would be me) often have wives and children --- assuming they managed to sneak in a social life earlier in their career --- which puts a damper on those kinds of cycles. When the kids have to get up for school, so do their geek parents. Its rough enduring the gentle-but-present pressure of being "that guy who goes home early" each day.

One of my favorite managers (yes, I've actually had many bosses that I've really liked - I've been fortunate in my career) was one of those weird early-morning people who tried to combat this simply by setting an example. He was in at around 6:00 in the morning every day. He was GONE almost every day before 4:00. He never expected anyone to keep his schedule. He quietly set a counter-example, and made it clear that he wasn't going to know who was leaving at 5:00 and who was staying until after 9:00.

Many companies have "core hours" - usually a 4- to 6- hour block of time - where employees are expected to be at work. This is pretty key, as programming is much more of a group effort these days that requires communication between team members. This helps the window from sliding too far in either direction.

(Vaguely) related pseudo-fluff:
* Seven New Classic Software Development Mistakes
* What Kind of Entrepreneur Are You?
* A Pirate Story

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Monday, June 18, 2007
Diablo: The Movie - Coming Soon To A Theater Near You!
Today BlizzPlanet confirmed (inasmuch as these things can be made "certain") that a Diablo movie is in the works.

Once upon a time, this idea would have delighted me. After all, the world of Diablo is a rich in background and a combination of fantasy and gothic horror flavor. There is so much that could be done here, the concept boggles the mind with geeky feelings of goodness.

But Hollywood's reputation for movie adaptations of videogames isn't exactly stellar. Meaning they actually make their opposites - videogame adaptations of movie licenses - actually look GOOD. And while Hollywood has proven that they can - occasionally - do horror with a deft touch, the combination of horror and videogames just doesn't inspire me with confidence.

I'm trying to think - what GOOD movies based on videogames have been made? The last one that made it to the theaters that I actually enjoyed was Mortal Kombat, and that was more than a decade ago. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was certainly pretty to look at, but it wasn't a great show. Now - direct to DVD - Final Fantasy: Advent Children was pretty awesome. But that was undoubtably because I'm a fanboy of the game... I had to struggle to keep track of the plot. I can't imagine a non-gamer watching it with any amount of comprehension, or enjoyment beyond looking at the pretty pictures. I hear some people really enjoyed Silent Hill --- I haven't seen it yet, but I'm going to put it on the ol' Netflix list and try it out. After enduring the horror that was the Wing Commander movie, how bad could it really be?


City of Heroes' New Money Sink
I talked a little while ago about the problem with getting more money than you know how to spend in RPGs. City of Heroes, my massively multiplayer drug of choice these days, was notorious for having this problem. In the high-level game, characters accumulated massive amounts of "influence" (since heroes, of course, didn't accept money for their heroism) with very little to spend it on.

With the latest free expansion, Issue 9, the designers have attempted to kill multiple birds with one stone. The "invention" system is crafting by another name, but crafting which requires rare salvage items and no special skills. Anybody with the right materials can successfully craft these new inventions, which run the gamut of new costume pieces to really potent enhancement "sets" that affect multiple aspects of the power in which they are "slotted" as well as increase your characters overall power when you use more than one of the same set together.

While I can't speak with authority, I suspect this will make the high-level game MUCH more interesting. Customizing and "maxing out" your character just became substantially more intricate of a process.

Naturally, inventions costs tons of influence - a very potent money sink on its own. But they've also implemented a blind-auction market system that allows people to freely trade with each other even when they are not online. The trick is that there's a 5% non-refundable "listing fee" for sellers, plus another 5% (effectively) when the item sells. The "listing fee" helps keep speculation in check. Sure, you can try to sell a piece of salvage on the market for 10 million influence... but you'll have to spend a half-million influence just to try and find a sucker for that price.

That seems to have helped keep prices "reasonable." Though the definition of reasonable may vary from player to player. But more importantly --- with all this money trading hands (my 25th level character was able to make 2 million on one rare piece of salvage... which is a respectable amount of influence at that level), a ton of virtual "cash" is being drained out of the economy on a regular basis. That 2 million influence sale I made pulled 200,000 influence permanently out of the economy.

And did I miss it? Oh, a little, but I had an extra 1.8 million influence I hadn't had earlier, so I wasn't much in the mood for complaining. What astonished me later was how quickly I spent much of it making new enhancements and making more trades.

We'll see how things progress, but on the surface of it, it seems like Cryptic has figured a pretty good medium-term solution to the money-sink problem. There is definitely a theoretical limit to the effectiveness of it, as it is possible for all existing characters to reach a fairly optimum state and no longer use the invention or trading system. But if an MMORPG ever reaches such a static state, it's got one foot in the grave already. One downside is the risk of mudflation, now that the floodgates are open on inventions.

(Vaguely) related silliness
* RPG Design: What Am I Going To Do With All This Money?
* RPG Design: Quest Abuse
* The Backwards MMORPG Experience
* Why I Gave Up On Dungeons & Dragons Online
* City of Heroes Jargon


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Sunday, June 17, 2007
Seven New Classic Software Development Mistakes
Steve McConnell, author of classic software development books Code Complete and Rapid Development, has a blog entitled "10X Softare Development." The latest post is entitled, "Classic Mistakes Updated," on a potential additions to the list of classic software development mistakes which continue to be made throughout the industry.

If you've never heard of these classic mistakes before (and way too many people in management NEVER HAVE), he's got the full content of that chapter from Rapid Development available in a link (which unfortunately requires registration). If you've worked as a software developer (or development manager) for any size of organization before - possibly even as a lone-wolf developer - you've probably run into / made these mistakes before. They include such gems as:

* Adding people to a late project
* "Silver Bullet" syndrome
* Contractor Failure
* Wasted time during the "fuzzy" front end
* Shortchanged quality assurance
* Push-me, pull-me negotiation (where management / the customer agrees to extend a schedule on a late project in exchange for the addition of new features which will, of course, make it even later...)

Perhaps a new edition of Rapid Development is in the making, but he's now proposed seven new more classic mistakes for the list:

* Confusing estimates with targets
* Excessive multi-tasking
* Assuming global development has a negligible impact on total effort
* Unclear project vision
* Trusting the map more than the terrain
* Outsourcing to reduce cost
* Letting a team go dark

For a better explanation of what these new mistakes entail, take the developer survey linked to by the article. I can say that at a recent job we were victim of at least five of these seven mistakes. And management was baffled as to why the developers predicted from the very beginning that the project was doomed!

As an interesting side-note: A lot has been said about how the videogame development is less mature in their software practices than most of the rest of software development industry. That may be true - I know at one game company I worked for (Acclaim) this was certainly the case. However, I can't say that the difference was that remarkable. A job I worked at not-too-long-ago was an amazingly fast-growth company on its way to making a billion-a-year (US$), which utterly and completely mismanaged its IT department and threw nearly every one of those classic mistakes our way. Repeatedly. A practice which originated from upper management that utterly refused to listen to their professional IT management team when told that their expectations were unreasonable. Their response was to sack the management team and put in others who were better capable of "managing up" and telling them what they wanted to hear.

However, I worked for a company that sold software as a business, and their practices - while far from perfect - were much more mature and productive. And they made fewer of those classic mistakes.

So while the videogame development business has a long way to go, from my (admittedly extremely limited) sampling of experience, I wouldn't say its that far off from its more "serious" bretheren.

(Vaguely) related pretenses that I know what I'm talking about.
* Hey, You Got Your QA In My Programming!
* Jet Moto Memories
* Programming Tip: Comment First
How Focus Can Ruin Your Business

Read or Post Comments on the Forum

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Saturday, June 16, 2007
Yes, the River Has Been Grounded
We spent much of yesterday hiking / touring Zion's Canyon as a family. My nine-year-old daughter wasn't paying much attention to the tour guide as we rode up in the shuttle to the hiking trail. Seeing the Virgin River clearly through the window, I pointed it out to her. The water level was very low - it didn't look like much of a river. Yet all around us, the cliffs of the canyon towered a couple thousand feet above us.

"Do you see the river?" I said to her. "That little river is responsible for this whole canyon."

She turned to me, and her eyes grew slightly wider as she asked, "Oh, Is it in trouble?"
Friday, June 15, 2007
Indie RPG News, June 15,
Ah, Indie RPGs. Apparently, nobody bothered informing these developers that its impossible to make computer role-playing games with tiny teams and tiny budgets anymore. It's a good thing for us that nobody did, because that means these rule-breakers are creating more RPG goodness for us. So here are some things going on in the world of indie RPGS:

Minions of Mirth
Prairie Games reports many new updates with the latest patch of their indie Massively Multiplayer Online RPG, including Dynamic Player vs Player/Guild vs Guild/Realm vs Realm gameplay, new quests, animal armor sets, graphics & GUI improvements, and crafting.

The Broken Hourglass
Planewalker Games has posted the fourth chapter of the "Moonshine" short story. There's also part I of an interview with Jason Compton up on iGame Radio, with part II scheduled to appear Monday.

Depths of Peril
Soldak Games has posted a new short story, entitled "Tribute." They also have posted three new monsters in their "Monsters" section for Depths of Peril - the giant spider, the dark elves, and the sentinels. Finally, there is a preview of the game up on GameBanshee.com.

Eschalon: Book 1
Basilisk Games has allowed a beta tester to post his views on this upcoming turn-based RPG, Eschalon: Book 1. An excerpt:

"NPC dialogue is extremely well done and detailed. This is not the two or three line sort of dialogue you see in most games, there's a fair bit of exposition (but not quite to the degree of Planescape:Torment!). You're given a fair bit of setting detail in their dialogue and descriptive text, much like how a DM in a PnP game might deliver it all. Also nice is that there isn't one All Knowing NPC who tells you everything about your quests and such, you pick up pieces of history and clues from everyone you talk to and so you as the PC put it together yourself. "

I'm really excited about this title, though it hasn't won me over quite yet. There were a lot of very lame RPGs in this style back in the day, too. But I want to see more good ones - like Eschalon: Book 1 will hopefully shape up to be.

Nethergate: Resurrection
Nethergate: Resurrection has been released... for the Mac. Our Mac-playing bretheren can rub it in and mock us about the shoe being on the other foot while we PC gamers patiently await the Windows version later this summer.

There's another Avencast interview over at RPGVault. It sounds like more of an action game with RPG elements to me, but hey - I'm a fan of several "hybrid RPGs" myself, like Empires & Dungeons and Kid Mystic (itself also a fun action-RPG).

Wow! And this is just the stuff that's been happening in the last week or so. I guess indie computer RPGs are alive and well...

Be sure and check out some of the indie RPGs available at Rampant Games, including Aveyond, Cute Knight, Fastcrawl, Styrateg, and others.

Oh - and side note: Does anybody read the short stories that get posted by the Soldak and Planewalker folks? I'm just kinda curious as to how well those get received by people.

(Vaguely) Related Indie RPG Goodness:
Indie RPG News, June 5th
Indie RPG News, May 28th
Beyond the Gate: Jason Compton on the Making of The Broken Hourglass
Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance, Plans Nethergate Remake
* Where Is Indie Innovation?

Join the Forum Discussion On Indie Game News Already In Progress...

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Thursday, June 14, 2007
Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Catching The Fly!
I knew an old lady who swallowed a Bird
How absurd, to swallow a bird
She swallowed a bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly
But I don't know why she swallowed the, fly
Perhaps she'll die

This week, I felt a lot like the old lady in the song. Last month, I finished the design document and worked to stub and rough out Frayed Knights, adding stand-in elements to all the code that needed to be done. An "outline" of the whole game if you will. A week ago, I talked about putting together a schedule and trying to implement the "First Five Minutes" of gameplay.

Side Note: I got TONS of great comments about the FFM document - both in the forum and via email. Thank you! That really helped crystalize some ideas in my head, and caused me to reconsider some elements. This is exactly what I needed. You guys rock.

This week, I've gone down the path of trying to implement that first five minutes. I started with a simple task, and watched it compound into multiple prerequisite tasks. Eating one in order to eat the other. As happens in all software projects... and many other projects in life too.

The Fly
The main menu of Frayed Knights is already more-or-less working, so I focused on what should happen the moment the player presses the "Begin New Game" button. The player finds himself just inside the threshold of a temple, and a static dialog fires. I'd even already implemented the core of the static dialog system. EASY! Except... uh...

Swallowing the Spider To Catch the Fly
Okay. First of all... the static dialog system code was just using a hardcoded dialog. Now that I'm going from quick-and-dirty visual prototypes to a less-quick-and-less-dirty functional code, though, I need to create functions to read in static dialog scripts and handle them. So what format do I use?

Well, the absolutely easiest thing to do was to cut and paste the dialogs I'd already written, and see if I could get the game to use them as-is. So I did. Oh, there's more to it than just that. The dialogs will have to have some additional commands in place to do things like change the characters facial expressions, force multiple lines of dialog to occur simultaneously, flag a line as an "aside" so that it gets a different-colored background, and so forth. But some of that can wait for later - it's not part of the first five minutes. I just had to leave things flexible.

The cool thing was that, after implementing this (which didn't take long at all... sometimes Torque really does work nicely), I suddenly had several dialogs "done" from work I'd done during design. Cool!

Swallowing the Bird to Catch the Spider
Now there was another problem. There are two ways (according to my design) to display static dialogs I'd just thrown together. The first - and the only one implemented - was actually the more complex of the two. It's the timed display of text, without user input. This only occurs in certain circumstances - such as in the middle of combat, where the dialogs are very short (maybe only one line), and the player is expected to be busy doing other things.

The other kind of static dialog is where the player is manually clicking "next" after every dialog, or "cancel" to prematurely shut it down. So I had to implement this second system, and hope it didn't break the original. No biggie... I just had to create a new UI overlay with the new buttons, and call the events via buttons instead of scheduling.

Except there were bugs. Like what happens when the player is moving or turning when the static dialog comes up... the player kept on moving forward, unable to stop his movement at all because he's currently in a "different" UI. Oops! Little things like this needed to be addressed.

Swallowing the Bird To Catch the Spider...
Next - this dialog (and the two proceeding directly afterwards --- the "Who Is Pokmor Xang" dialog and the "Brittlebone Skeleton" dialog) need to be fired off by events. So I needed to create a game event system. This is basically a somewhat generic approach to triggering game events, like dialogs, combat encounters, descriptive text, tutorial messages, or what have you.

Ideally, trigger conditions should include all kinds of different logical conditions, like random dice rolls, the health of the party, whether this trigger has fired before, etc. This is actually ultra-easy to do in a scripting language like TorqueScript, as I can have it evaluate an expression at run-time. So I can stick any amount of additional logic as simply part of the data for a trigger, and have the code check to see if it evaluates to true. To keep track of how many times the trigger has fired, I maintain a master trigger list which keeps track all the IDs of all triggers which have gone off, how many times they've gone off, and whether or not their state is supposed to be saved (nearly all triggers will have their state information saved when the player saves the game, but I left the option for triggers to be session-only).

I also created an EXTREMELY simple queueing mechanism, which consists of the current event and the next event. I don't predict ever dealing with a backlog of queued events, but I have it providing me with big red error messages if I do so I can decide whether or not to expand the queue or adjust the events.

I may do more complicated things with it later, but for now I left things simple. I put the details of the event on the aptly-named trigger volumes in Torque (well, a data-driven subclass of the trigger volume), which then call the event system with their event information. Other kinds of triggering activities (such as events themselves) will also have to be checked. As an immediate example (which I haven't implemented yet), monster encounters are also triggering events. The first time the player encounters certain monsters, for example, the game launches some expository (but hopefully humorous) dialog.

How Absurd, To Swallow a Bird
Right out of the starting gate, I ran into a bug with my dialog events. The first dialog wasn't firing. I tried using the timed-mode dialog instead, and it fired just fine... but it was skipping the first line of dialog (where Arianna says, "Okay, people, let's do this one by the numbers! I don't want a repeat of last time!")

The problem was that the dialog was firing BEFORE the UI had "awakened" and built the character portraits. My solution wasn't very elegant. If the UI wasn't available when a dialog event fired (which should only be a problem with the very first event - the one I was working with), it calls Torque's "schedule" function to reschedule itself for a quarter-second later.

More Flies!
The next type of event I needed to deal with is combat events. The first combat is triggered by the player approaching the first doorway. I was able to trigger my faked-up combat UI easily enough... that took only a few minutes to add a new event and a trigger.

But the point now is to make combat work "for real." For the immediate-term, I'm going to focus only on simple melee combat. No inventory-item usage, no feats, no spells. The player characters and monsters will be using default starting equipment only. The pus golem will be using its bare, pussy hands, with no special abilities.

Even with such a narrow goal, there is a ton of fun stuff to do to support it. This means the character system must be working. And the game rules system. And things like equipped armor and weapons. Some of this code has been written already, but only marginally tested. This is the heart of the game, and simple melee combat will not only exercise the code for bugs, but will also be a major playtest of the game system.

If it turns out not to work, I'm gonna have to go back to the drawing board in a big hurry.

(Vaguely) related thought-droppings:
* Dev Diary: The First Five Minutes
* Dev Diary: Stupid Is As Stupid Fights
* RPG Combat Design
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs

Join the Discussion on the Forum...

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Vector TD Updated
So Vector TD has already been updated - there are now 50 levels instead of 40, the maps have been arranged a little differently (there are now easy, medium, and hard levels), and the game has been made a little easier to handle at earlier levels (it seems you get more cash for the early creeps), and a bit HARDER as the game progresses.

Very very cool.

This game is already eating up my free time. And now the two web-TD game masters, David Scott and Paul Preese, have teamed up to create an uber-partnership making web-based games.

This is gonna be a very interesting thing, indeed.

(Vaguely) related stuff:
* How To Make $8000 / Month Making a Free Flash Game
* David Scott's New Tower Defense Game
* Design: Picking Apart Flash Element TD


Wednesday, June 13, 2007
More Guitar Hero 80's Encore Tracks
Joystiq's got the goods!!! More info on Guitar Hero Encore Rocks the 80's (and can I add that this is still a dumb name? Okay... I'm done now)

We got some .38 Special (Hold On Loosely - not my favorite track, but I'm still happy with it), we got Ballroom Blitz (I don't care if its based on the Krokus version and not the original Sweet version, in my mind it'll always be Tia Carrera singing it in Wayne's World), we got some Oingo Boingo (Only a Lad), Scorpions (No One Like You --- PERFECT!), Scandal's The Warrior, The Romantics (What I Like About You), and more.

Now, I also have a little bit of a concern about using White Lion's cover of Radar Love... that version was NEVER as famous as the original by Golden Earring. But I guess White Lion's version has more active guitar work. And the original song (like Ballroom Blitz) was a 70's tune, so the use of a cover band's version allows them to sneak it in under the 80's theme. But the real fun in that song is going to be on the bass in coop mode, no matter what they do with it.

I can't wait! Next month, if all goes well! More Guitar Hero Goodness!!!!


Challenge Versus Engagement
Over at Making Casual Games, Eric talks about the difference (which is getting fuzzier each month, IMO) between a "hardcore" and "casual" gamers. His first criterion is whether or not the player prefers to be challenged or engaged by a game.

That's a very interesting question. Honestly, I think I fall more on the "engaged" side of things... and I always have been, even in my truly hardcore gamer days. I like enough challenge to give me a real chance of failure, enough struggle to keep things interesting, but I have a pretty low tolerance for getting my butt kicked, or re-playing levels until I manage to finally "get through" them. I think I ended up leaving Return to Castle Wolfenstein (the 2001 one using the Quake 3 engine, not the pre-Doom one or the Apple II one) for about two years because one boss encounter was just too frustratingly hard. And I was too proud to switch the difficulty level back down to "easy."

I tend to up the difficulty level of RTS games only after my current difficulty level has proved TOO easy. If I'm winning every single game, I'll probably bump it up a bit. But if I'm losing even only half the time, I'll tend to back off. Something like 70-90% victory rate is the point where I feel that the game is "fun" without being too stressful. I enjoy playing City of Heroes these days, where the prospect of failure (and "XP debt") is more of a spice to keep the game exciting than a common (or punative) event. And I've long been fond of jRPGs (like the Final Fantasy series), where the average 2-hour gaming session only occasionally ends with a party wipe.

But I still rise to a hint of challenge. Like taking on "impossible" odds in Rise of Nations. Or sucking up a nasty game-threatening random surprise in an RPG (though that one is a bit older, from my more hardcore era).

So am I a casual gamer, or a hardcore player who's just backed off a little to get a real life?

(Vaguely) related meanderings through neural pathways best left unexplored...
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Problem
* Why I Gave Up On D&D Online
* What Makes a Good "Casual" RPG?


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Why Software Design Isn't Like Architecture
There's an article at GameProducer.net entitled, "New Level Graphics For Eidoki - And A Lesson Learned About Tiny Things" which hit on a subject that was all too familiar.

Their game was intended to take place entirely in 2D (but with 3D graphics). All the action was intended to take place in a flat environment. The modeler created some really cool building graphics that didn't respect the design constraint, and had small steps leading up to a slightly increased height. The graphics looked so good they didn't want to sacrifice their quality (or the steps), so they've decided to accept the increased complexity.

The modeler just didn't get why it was such a big deal. He said, "it is funny how I cant understand how hard it is to get it up the y axis."

I see that a lot from non-programmers. Not only in game development, but in all software applications. You get jokes about what would happen if computer programmers designed cars (it would quit running or crash randomly, and the solution would be to shut the car off and start it again... and the airbags would ask "Are You Sure?" before going off). In fact, many academics and consultants spend a great deal of time trying to improve software design methodology to make it more like architecture, or other forms of engineering, so that it might be far more predictable and controllable.

Except few other "controllable, predictable" disciplines are as subject to inadequate specifications and changing requirements as software engineering. I mean, can you imagine a civil engineer trying to build a bridge for an unknown location and environmental conditions, only being told that it should be made of steel, cross a body of water that is "less than 2000 feet" in width, and be capable of expanding to any kind of load they want to put on it (and in any distribution)?

I hear "game designs" that consist of no more than a paragraph or two, with the proud wannabe game designer waiting to see why nobody will suddenly take their idea and turn it into a best-selling console game (giving them half the royalties, of course). Yet the same individual would understand perfectly why they couldn't draw a pencil sketch of a cool car, send it to General Motors, and expect them to manufacture the car and give them half the profits.

Even though most people are not well versed in the engineering skills necessary to build a bridge or design a car, they have enough inherant understanding of the behaviors of physical objects to realize why you couldn't just swap the designs for the Golden Gate Bridge for the London Tower Bridge, or why you can't just stick a jet engine inside of their Malibu and expect it to work.

As with software, every little design issue may cause ripples throughout the system that have to be accounted and adjusted for. But non-programmers can't see it. You may not be able to just "drop in" an entirely new tax system for a different country. Not unless the system was designed with that kind of modularity in mind... which would have made for a much more expensive system. Keeping things so modular and flexible costs a lot more --- just like building a single model of bridge that is designed to expand to cover any body of water, anywhere, with any kind of load.

I'm not saying that programmers shouldn't write more flexible, modular code that is easier to maintain and change. That's certainly my goal, even when I'm coding up a project that I am SURE will never change beyond minor bug-fixes. Because that's only invoking Murphy's Law - the less flexible the code, the more likely it will be subject to change and expansion... and vice versa! How many times have I spend weeks making sure things were flexible and adaptable, only to find the code never gets used again?

But there is a huge gap in expectation and understanding between software engineers and those whom we serve (and if someone is paying you for your labor, you are serving them). One of our biggest problems is a lack of tools to help explain the impacts of certain design decisions or changes. Instead, we simply get blamed for the bugs that often result from the failure to take into consideration those changes.

Going back to the 3D artist mentioned in the above article... the game could end up with problems with the player being unable to "pick up" objects because they are on a different Y level. Pathing problems because now the Y axis must be taken into consideration. Monsters and players that can't hit each other because they are standing on different heights of terrain, even though the difference isn't that great (and how great of a difference in Y levels *should* be considered "too great?" What's the magic threshold where an inch below that is fine, but at that point there's no fighitng?). Are there bugs where the player ends up "wading into" a floor because the game failed to block movement into a higher Y-level?

Software engineers understand this. Experienced ones understand it and are halfway through coming up with an architecture in their head to robustly solve most of these problems. But it always comes with a cost. And that cost is really something that even software engineers have a tough time estimating sometimes.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Apocalypse Cow Title Theme
Yes, I know I've been talking a lot more about Frayed Knights lately, but Apocalypse Cow is still in development. I'm still working on both games.

For the music, I convinced Mike Nielsen, a friend and coworker at Wahoo Studios, to lend his absolutely awesome skills to the task. And I must say, I am thrilled with the results. I asked for "Old McDonald Had a Farm" done in a minor key, and turned into a military march (or more specifically, the Imperial March from Star Wars). It took us a couple of iterations, but he nailed the "main theme," which he dubbed, "The Moosolini March."

And the rest of his music is just as awesome.

Anyway, I wanted to share the awesomeness with you. For your entertainment, here's a mid-quality MP3 of the Apocalypse Cow Main Theme Music:

The Moosolini March


(Vaguely) related COW-ering:
* Cow Trivia
* Stranger Than Fiction: The Effect of Cow Farts
* How Does Apocalypse Cow Look?


Monday, June 11, 2007
David Scott's New Tower Defense Game
David Scott is at it again with more "Tower Defense" addiction. The guy who addicted us to Flash Element TD (and the prettier but slightly less fun, IMO, Flash Circle TD) has now released the third - and probably best - game, Vector TD.

The new game brings back the ability to build up the interest rate between waves, which was by far the most compelling part of Flash Element TD. The new game also offers several different maps, from the easy "Switchback" map above (I "beat" it on the first try) to maps with far more challenging layouts and less obvious optimal placement locations. At least one map (I haven't tried them all) has a twist where path crosses over itself (making the corners where it crosses very obvious prime spots for towers).

As in most other popular TD games, the trick is tower placement, combinations, and upgrades. There are six colors of enemies (Blue, green, purple, red, yellow, and gray). All towers are the same size now, and there is no overlapping from Flash Element TD. There are 11 different kinds of towers, of four different colors. While each tower type offers unique behaviors, they are all strong versus one color of creep, and weak against one other color of creep. So while one red tower has the advantage of splash damage against all creeps, it works exceptionally well against red creeps but fares poorly against green.

As you can see, the graphics are clean and abstract. In the words of my daughter, when she saw me play, "That looks fun and the music's cool!" Curiously, there are no sound effects outside of the music.
At least in the switchback map I played, the creep paths are double-wide, and the creeps come in two columns. This makes ranges more interesting than the single-file line of Scott's earlier games. Though not quite as psycho as the random masses in Desktop TD.

One really nice "indie evangelism" bit I'd like to note here is that even though the game was funded / published / sponsored by Candystand.com, Scott gets his name placed prominently at the bottom of the game screen throughout. How many mainstream game designers dream about this kind of thing?

Anyway, this game looks quite likely to hammer my precious little spare time for the next while. Particularly with the multiple maps... Dang you, David! But congratulations!

(Vaguely) related vowels and consonants haphazardly grouped together:
* Design: Picking Apart Flash Element TD
* Rampant Coyote on Flash Element Tower Defense
* How To Earn $8000 Per Month Making a Free Flash Game

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Sunday, June 10, 2007
A Blender Journey
Igor Križanovskij has done with Blender what I did with my "Game In A Week" article (and the Frayed Knights articles) - he's made public his journey to learn Blender. He starts with 2.35, and with his second online notebook he moves on to version 2.43 and 2.44. It's not a tutorial so much as riding shotgun with him and seeing what he did to learn the tool (and a collection of notes, tricks, and hotkeys).

The links and summary can be found at BlenderNation.


The Backwards MMORPG Experience
My Tuesday night group recently went to playing City of Heroes from DDO, and it seems we've all been enjoying it a lot. This makes me happy, as I was probably the biggest instigator of making the switch. Now that I've been into the game a bit more, I've started studying up on it a little bit. In particular, I've been trying to find out more about the "end-game" - which, in many MMORPGs, might be just called "The Real Game," because everything before your characters hit maximum level is merely a prelude to the bulk of the gameplay. At least for hardcore players.

Many hardcore players, it seems, never stuck around in City of Heroes very long. Because there's not much the traditional extended end-game in City of Heroes. Many players hit the level cap, and then create new characters. Or flit around finding more stuff to do at level 50. Apparently there is quite a bit to do at level 50 ---- plenty of challenges and things to do to marginally improve your characters. But it lacks a plethora of the defining characteristic of most MMORPG end-game experiences hardcore players expect: Massive time-sinking raids that require dozens of players hours to complete for marginal gains for only a handful of the players at one time.

There are "raid" experiences in City of Heroes, don't get me wrong. In fact, the game lets you jump in on them at very low levels. There's a giant task-force sequence designed for "lowbies" of levels 10-16, the "Rule of Three." Which can be completed by a duo, I learned one night, or even solo, though it's really designed for multiple groups of lowbies. There are giant monsters, designed to be taken down by swarms of heroes ("raid mobs"), that periodically appear in the city. They are just as plentiful in low-level zones as the high-level ones. These are fun - in moderation - and just as fun for low-level characters as high-level ones.

In fact, that might be one of the defining differences between City of Heroes and other MMORPGs - an emphasis on making the experience similar across all level bands, and making the game feel worthwhile and exciting at all levels.

Now, there are plenty of high-level raids for the "end-game" too, the most famous (notorious) of which are the Hamidon battles (which yield very special enhancements... the "loot" for the raid). But the end-game isn't centered around raiding.

As I was thinking on this, I began to realize how backwards (or upside-down) the traditional MMORPG experience is --- based on the ones I've had experience (first- or second-hand) with:

* You start out at level 1, and can solo your way through all the challenges.
* As you gain levels, many classes / archetypes lose their ability to solo with respect to their enemies, and are encouraged to team up with other players to accomplish what you used to be able to do on your own.
* At the highest levels, even a small group of players are incapable of accomplishing much "worthwhile" in the game, and are encouraged to form multi-group raids to take on the game's greatest challenges for marginal gains.

Isn't this backwards? Shouldn't the player be feeling MORE powerful at higher levels instead of less? Why is it that you can handle challenges just fine on your own at level 1 or 2, but are incapable of doing anything without the safety of at least a couple dozen others at the highest level of the game? I mean, sure, you could go back to the lower-level challenges you used to take on and solo them all just to prove to yourself that your character HAS gained some relative power, but there's no point.

Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think the City of Heroes designers really are onto something, and the non-overabundance of high-level "raid" challenges was not an error on their part.

(Vaguely) related misadventures
* A 2-Person Raid
* City of Heroes Jargon
* Game Moments #8 - EverQuest
* DDO Flies Solo - Kinda
* How to Develop an MMORPG With No Team and Limited Budget


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Friday, June 08, 2007
Ernest Adams: Is It Time to Dump EA?
Long-time industry game designer Earnest Adams weighs in a little bit on the state of the industry in a Gamasutra article this week: Is It Time to Dump EA?

He talks about EA's history (he worked for EA for several years), the "EA Spouse" controversy and $20 million employee lawsuit, EA's ability to manage transitions and play hardball with developers. He talks about online distribution coming of age, and the perception that the quality of EA's products has been declining.

An interesting quote:
A few years ago I heard a fascinating lecture by Jim TerKeurst, a research and business development manager at the IC CAVE at the University of Abertay Dundee. He said that at the moment the video game value chain runs: developer, publisher, distributor, retailer, consumer.

That’s a lot of middlemen. In the future it’ll be: developer, provider, consumer. The providers will be the people who own the cable that runs between the developer’s computer and the customer’s computer – or in the case of mobile entertainment, the people who own the cell-phone networks. The only publishers that will survive will be those who have development capacity. Everybody else is out of the picture, and that’s something that EA had better be planning for.

Of course, there are middlemen right now jockeying for position to become the next EA. The big game portals are all trying to get a piece of that action. In fact, there are three prime middlemen positions to be filled. The first is the analog of the retailer, which is the portal. Consumers (as a whole) don't have the time or desire to hunt down all the individual developer websites to buy the game that they want. They'll visit their favorite developers, maybe, but for the most part they'll be hitting the online equivalent of the retail store. That's where the portals come into play. Fortunately, I think there's going to be a lot more wiggle-room with respect to portals than there are for retailers. The low barrer to entry and the lack of physical inventory costs make a huge difference.

The role of the publisher may be broken down into two different roles: The investor, and the marketer. Major games are still going to need funding to be made... dev studios usually don't have $10 - $20 million lying around the office to fund new projects. And while the marketing role may be played by the portals... I wouldn't count on it. Most portals, like retail stores, don't really give a fig about how well a specific third-party game sells... they just want their daily / monthly / annual sales to go up. Somebody's going to have to do the marketing for a particular game, and get the previews, reviews, and advertising in place.

The interesting part is that these two publisher roles may or may not be "middlemen." They may be working hand-in-hand with the developer as partners... in fact, the developer may simply outsource the marketing role to a third party on a contractual basis. Investors ALWAYS make things tricky.

Anyway, interesting stuff. Go on and check out the article, if you are so inclined:

Is It Time to Dump EA?


Thursday, June 07, 2007
Frayed Knights Dev Diary: First Five Minutes Walkthrough
This week - a class project! A walkthrough! And a plea for help!

Scheduling Woes
I started scheduling last week. Yes, I know, I'm over a month into this project, and I'm only now scheduling. But with the design doc done, and the prototyping (well, "stubbing") of the systems in place to help me see the big picture, I felt more confident in being able to enumerate all the main and secondary tasks that need to be completed to make Frayed Knights work.

I worked backwards from the final date of April 31, 2008 for the "free demo version" of Frayed Knights, which I have submitted for the MyDreamRPG contest (there's still time to enter if you haven't already, BTW). Aside from testing / slosh time, I split my remaining time almost down the middle. The first half of development is focused on getting the engine completed, and the second half on getting the demo-version content completed and working within the engine.

I have an advantage with the engine in that I'm adapting Torque, so some of the work is already done. My job is mostly it's creating all game-specific systems: Combat, conversations, interaction with objects, AI, zone transitions, saving / loading games, character leveling, the quest system, inventory, events and triggers, and so forth. All the stuff I've been designing, prototyping and "stubbing out" the last few weeks.

A Plea For Help
So I've set an aggressive schedule for myself. The game code / engine is supposed to be "alpha complete" on November 1, 2007. After that it will be all content-creation and refinement.

Just looking at my incredibly scaled-down content requirements, I also realized just how very screwed I am. I can't put off all content creation until December. I can't do it myself, either. I need help. And content packs / stock content. Anybody with some skill at 3D modeling (or 2D art) who thinks they'd like to help out - I can only offer game credit and pizza money, but please contact me at jayb (at) rampantgames dot com if you are interested. Send me a link to your portfolio page or some samples of your work. I have a music guy lined up, so I think I'm covered there.

Planning the Next Milestone
June, July, August, September, and October are slated for getting the engine done ("alpha complete"). While I am still trying to go for a more "iterative" evolutionary prototype process, it's going to have to happen in phases.

I continued to work backwards. Splitting the time almost in half again, I decided that August 1st will be my "First Five Minutes" milestone. In other words, the first five minutes of gameplay will be "complete," playable, and resemble the finished game from a code perspective (there'll still be tons of stand-in content).

The First Five Minutes
The First Few Minutes of game is important to me. That's where you hook the player, and set their expectations. One of the cardinal failures of RPGs is that the first few minutes of gameplay are boring, clumsy, confusing, or otherwise lame. I wonder how many would-be RPG players were turned off from ever trying the genre because their only experience has been fifteen minutes of exposition, background history, and confusion over having to build a character for an unfamiliar game system when they were really chomping at the bit to go out and explore the game world seen in the screen shots?

To try and prevent this --- and to create a "paper prototype" of the game to shoot for in programming (and generate something of a "user story" - in actual story form), I created a walkthrough of the First Five Minutes of gameplay in the design document. This is what I'll be shooting for as a deliverable (to myself) on August 1st. I'm pretty much copying-and-pasting directly from the design document.

Because I intend this dev diary series to be interactive, I'm going to submit my "first five minutes" walkthrough to the community here. I'd like your feedback. I'm including some screenshots from the current prototype to help visualization. Let me know what you think! Help me polish this, if you feel so inclined!

First Few Minutes Walkthrough
After installing and starting the game, the player finds himself at the main menu. He chooses “Begin New Game” from the list of options.

The four adventurers (the player's characters), Arianna, Benjamin, Dirk, and Chloe have entered the dank and forbidding Temple of Pokmor Xang, an underground temple to a vile god. The game begins with them standing just inside the threshold of the temple.

The Entry Hall is old, the paint long cracked and faded, but exudes a feel of traveling into the insides of some dead, decaying giant. The afternoon sun casts a reddish light the tinge of dried blood through the open doorway, the doors askew after breaking free of their top hinges, like long-rotted meat slewing off bone. The entry hall contains six pillars, all of which cast dark shadows against the side walls like towering sentinels. The light halts just short of the far wall, where an open doorway stands decorated with curious (and disgusting) decorations of pock-marks and infected blisters.

Before anything else occurs, the four characters begin the following STATIC DIALOG:

Arianna: Okay, people, let's do this one by the numbers! I don't want a repeat of last time!

Dirk: Why are you looking at me? That explosive trap wasn't my fault! We should have been a good three feet past the minimum safe distance!

Arianna: I'm not JUST talking about that, Dirk. Benjamin's heals could have been a little more punctual in the battle against the weed-goblins.

Benjamin: That's not fair! Nobody told me we were under attack.

Arianna: Just please pay more attention next time. And Chloe, please refrain from blowing up treasure rooms in the future.

Chloe: Hmmm? Oh, right. No exploding the treasure chests.

Arianna: Right

Chloe: That's Dirk's job, anyway.

Dirk: HEY!

Chloe: *Giggle*

The player gets a modal popup window at this point informing him how to turn, walk, and move forward. A little bit of experimentation ensues, where the player figures out how to perform this basic operation of gameplay. Once he’s got this under his belt, he walks to the end of the hall.

This triggers another STATIC DIALOG:

Dirk: So this is the temple of the goddess of disease?

Ben: Nope, that's Neutoxis. This was the temple of Pokmor-Xang, the god of boils, blisters, and pimples.

Chloe: Ew! I don't feel bad about raiding his temple, then. He owes me for my teenaged years!

Dirk: So, what if you get a disease that gives you boils? Which god is responsible?

Ben: I think they both are.

Chloe: Okay, I'm really not fond of this god.

Arianna: Shhh! I don't think we're alone, here. This temple may not be abandoned after all.

The player goes through the doorway into the Meditation Chamber. This room is lit by torchlight, and the walls are decorated with tapestries. There are cushions on the floor, and a fountain at the far side of the room. At this point, the player engages in his first combat. Four vaguely humanoid, legless blob-like creatures rush (well, slither) at the party. Before fighting commences, another STATIC DIALOG is triggered:

Chloe: EWW! Pus! I hate these things.

Arianna: Waitaminute! That’s PUS covering these monsters?

Chloe: Worse. I think these are pus-golems, creatures magically built out of pus.

Arianna: Someone deliberately manufactured these things?

Dirk: How would someone do that?

Benjamin: Why would someone do that?

Chloe: You think these are bad? Pray we never run into a snot-golem!

With that, the game goes into combat mode.

Dirk is the first one to react. Unsure of what options are available to Dirk, the player chooses to attack the nearest pus golem – the one to the right. Dirk attacks, and hits. Some numbers appear over the golem, showing the damage that was dealt. Dirk’s endurance – the blue marker – drops a few points.

Next up is Chloe. The player clicks on a golem, and sees the “cast spell” option appear. He chooses it, and finds a spell that sounds interesting… “Prickling Spray.” Chloe fires off the spell, which results in a quick particle animation. The effect kills the golem already injured by Dirk, and damages two others. Chloe’s blue endurance meter drops by quite a bit.

Two golems go next. One attacks Dirk, doing 3 points of damage, and the other attacks and misses Arianna.

It is Arianna’s turn next. She attacks the foremost (remaining) golem, killing it immediately. The other two golems in the rear automatically “advance.”

The last golem gets to act, attacking Arianna and missing.

It’s the player’s action again, this time acting on behalf on Benjamin. The player also chooses to cast a spell against one of the golems, choosing “Weeds of Anklebiting.” A quick animation shows the golem entangled by weeds, taking damage.

Dirk’s turn is again next. The player chooses to have him attack the golem under the influence of the “Weeds of Anklebiting” spell. Because the victim is bound by the spell, Dirk’s attack not only lands but does exceptional damage! The golem is killed.

Because the combat goes based on action delays, it doesn’t follow strictly the same order every time. This time, it is Arianna’s attack. Unfortunately, her attack against the sole remaining golem fails.

The pus golem acts next, attacking Dirk and missing.

Now it Chloe’s turn. The player again has her cast a spell at the golem, this time choosing “Pernicious Perforation.” More cool particle effects fire off, and in the combat results window it notes that the last golem is filled full of holes and has now expired. The player is advised that the party has received some experience points and a drama star point. The combat is over.

The player ignores the two exits, and pushes further to the fountain at the far side of the room. As he approaches the fountain, the cursor hovering over the fountain transforms into the action cursor.

The player clicks on the fountain, and a pop-up appears with a description and a menu of possible actions:


This isn’t so much a fountain as a churning, bubbling pool of murky, watery fluid. Bubbles form on the surface with an oily sheen, and try as they might the party can’t see through the murk to the bottom of the fountain. What do you do?

Try to discover the depth of the fountain

Toss a coin into the fountain and make a wish

Drink from the Fountain


The player attempts the first option. The pop-up window text is replaced by the following:


The party members take turns sticking various items in their inventory into the fountain (except Chloe, who stubbornly refuses to let anything in her possession touch the “icky water”. Eventually they determine that the water is at least eight feet deep, but they are unable to establish exactly how deep it is. What do you do?

Dive into the fountain and swim to the bottom

Toss a coin into the fountain and make a wish

Drink from the Fountain


Feeling a little perverse, the player chooses “Drink from the fountain.” The player is then prompted to choose who drinks from the fountain. He chooses Arianna. The pop-ups close, and the following STATIC DIALOG takes place:

Dirk: Drink it! I dare you!

Arianna: What possible purpose would that serve?

Dirk: Well, it’s obviously not a normal fountain. Tasting it might give us some clue as to its function.

Benjamin: I could probably heal you if it makes you ill.

Chloe: If I have to watch her drinking it then I will be ill!

Arianna: I know I’m going to regret this.

Chloe: I can’t watch!

Benjamin: She did it! I can’t believe she did it.

Dirk: Ew! Hey, Arianna, I was only kidding.

Arianna: I think I’m going to be sick.

Arianna is immediately afflicted with a temporary nausea effect which will last several turns, and the player is given a drama star point.

Still curious, the player clicks on the fountain again. The original menu and description pops up, but the “Drink from the fountain” menu option no longer appears, and the Try to discover the depth of the fountain” option has been replaced with the option to “Dive into the fountain and swim to the bottom” (as it was earlier).

The player chooses the option to dive into the fountain. A narrative dialog pop-up appears:

Dirk excitedly volunteers to leap into the unknown fluid. Before the rest of the party can protest, he leaps headfirst into the murky liquid. Twelve feet down, he discovers the bottom of the pool, and a metal lever mounted there. Heedless of the possible consequences, Dirk throws the lever. Everyone hears the brief but distinct rumbling of machinery, followed by Dirk’s sputtering as he emerges from the pool.

“Wow,” he announces. “That was pretty disgusting!”

Dirk is now afflicted with the temporary nausea effect as well, and the player is given a drama star point.

Further attempts to click on the fountain bring up the message, “There is nothing further that the party is willing to do with the fountain.”

So, How Am I Doing?
Your turn. Comments / Evaluations / Snarkiness? If you were this player, at this point, what would your reaction be?

(a) Deleting the game from your hard drive,

(b) Unsure, but willing to play further to see if the game is a keeper or not, or

(c) Cheering and preparing to send The Rampant Coyote money for the full version of the game, but unwilling to be torn away from it for even a moment.

Or somewhere in-between? If your answer isn't (a) or (b) (and I'm really not expecting anyone to say "c", don't try to spare my feelings), are there any changes that would improve your reaction? More dialog? Less dialog? It's not as funny as you'd hoped? Problems with the combat? Pissed that you didn't get to spend the first five minutes making your characters?

Please post away on for forum. If you don't want to say anything in public, email me at the email address I listed above (or feedback at rampantgames dot com).

(Vaguely) related failed attempts to appear smarter than I am:
* The Rules of Game Design, Part I
* How to Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* Frayed Knights: Background and High Concept
* Frayed Knights: Design Doc Fun!
* RPG Combat Design
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System

COMMENTS! (And snark at no additional cost!)

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Fallout over the Fallout 3 Trailer
Okay.... number one: It's a trailer. A well-done trailer for a well-loved RPG series, Fallout. But it's... a trailer.

And it deserves an entire article of commentaries from 1Up? Right. (And yes, since I'm commenting on the commentaries, I'm officially Part of the Problem).

"Hmm... looks good. Seems to nail the spirit of the original Fallout games." What more can be said?

Apparently quite a bit more can be said. My problem? The attitude seems to be, "We loved the idea of Fallout, but we don't want to play it anymore --- please just give us more Oblivion plzthx - that game sold like crazy, and we want more of that. Please make Fallout 3 a first-person shooter with RPG elements." Yes, every freaking RPG from here on out needs to be Oblivion, apparently. This was the point-of-view espoused by Matt Peckham in his later-retracted Neverwinter Nights 2 review. Methinks he wasn't in any way discouraged from turning his review into a rant against the genre by the editorial staff of 1Up / Games For Windows.

(Incidentally, Matt wrote a stellar review of IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946 in the last issue, which greatly redeemed him in my eyes. Just don't do RPG reviews anymore, ok Matt?)

Ok. Now, we flip around to my favorite source of daily RPG-related snark, RPG Codex. Reaction to the reaction. Which basically amounts to, "Oblivion sucked, we want turn-based isometric like the old Fallout games! The GFW crew is on crack."

The little war is brewing that has nothing to do with the trailer. Or Oblivion, really. And Fallout 3 is only a pawn. I feel for Bethesda, the poor developer stuck in the crossfire, but they knew what they were taking on when they bought the rights to the franchise.

The reason for the religious war on the part of the RPG Codex community is that Fallout 3 could represent a last hope for turn-based RPGs. Publishers these days combine the long-term memory of a hyperactive 4-year-old off his Ritalin with the risk-acceptance of a brittle-boned octogenerian couch-potato. They green-light projects based almost exclusively on their resemblance to hit games from the previous two years.

Fallout 3 has the potential to be the first major turn-based RPG success on the PC since... well, since the last Fallout. If that happened... watch out! Like a pack of hungry dogs, publishers would suddenly be green-lighting more games "like Fallout 3" in hopes of imitating its success, and people like Darren Gladstone would suddenly quit trying to play to the crowd with comments like, "I can deal with no more turn-based gameplay."

At least, that's the dream. What'll really happen is that Bethesda - which has both the engine and the know-how to do more games like The Elder Scrolls - will make an FPS-like "action-RPG" out of the franchise which will still sell like crazy and ensure a future where 1Up editors can continue to mock the "quaint tastes" of their backwards predecessors... and the minority of gamers who still remember that PC games can be more than just secondhand scraps from the consoles and MMO's.

(Vaguely) related hysterics of post-apocalyptic proportions:
* Action vs. Turn-Based RPGs: Evolution, Trend, or Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator?
* The Most Important CRPGs of All Time
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator
* Oblivion Rocks My World

Read or Post Comments on the Forum

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Pathstorm Storms Rampant Games!
New Game! New Game! New Game!

Pathstorm is the first release by local (to me) indie game studio Cavebug Games. If you've ever enjoyed Sudoku or Minesweeper, you know how very addictive and fun logic-puzzle games can be.

The core of the game (and there are TONS of variations, so this doesn't hold true for every level) is fairly straightforward. You fire a ball from one point into an obscured playfield. It may run into obstacles in its path which alter its course. Sounds and blinking backgrounds indicate what the ball has hit and how many obstacles it hit. Then the ball exits at another point. Your challenge? Figure out what and where the obstacles are in as few shots as possible.

These aren't just simple obstacles the balls bounce against, either. There are twirlers, splitters (which split the ball into multiple balls that fire in all directions), shifters, bouncers, and more. It starts out fairly easily, and I haven't come CLOSE to completing something like the 200+ levels in the game, but I can say the challenge ramps up gently and has remained fun and challenging without getting frustrating.

The game includes a campaign mode called the "journey" which has you travelling across a map tackling different types of challenges and earning trophies. One variations reverses the gameplay, and involves you placing the obstacles to make the balls land in particular locations. If you like doing that, the game also includes a full level editor.

About the Developers
The Cavebug guys have been coming to the local Utah Indie Game Developer's meetings. I'd never met Josh Jensen, but Brad Edwards is a fellow Singletrac veteran from the beginning. We've done quite a few lunchtime deathmatches together, and have the same stories of working on Warhawk, Twisted Metal, and Outwars. He went on to Microsoft games from there, doing some titles for the XBox 360.

These two mainstream industry vets decided last year that it was time to make a break from the publisher treadmill and go indie. They are very excited about their first title, which definitely shows their attention to detail and quality in graphics, animation, and gameplay. It sparkles (literally, at times!). I can't wait to see what will come from them next!


(Vaguely) related plugging:
* Chicken Invaders III (Awesome and silly shoot-'em-up)
* Virtual Villagers II: The Lost Children (Build a culture on a Pacific island)
* Fastcrawl ( An RPG Playable in under an hour)
* Democracy (Strategy game where you run a real-world country)

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Indie RPG News - June 5, 2007
The Last Scenario
TIGSource is reporting on the release a new, free RPG entitled "The Last Scenario." It's made with RPGMaker. I haven't played it yet, so someone will have to report on it. I don't expect it to be another Aveyond, but it looks like it has some really clever gameplay mechanics built on top of the engine.

Check it out HERE. Note that in addition to the game itself, there's a link to the MS Gothic font, which you will need to play the game (its playable - but ugly - without it under XP, but apparently Vista users will only get blank text unless they install the font).

The Broken Hourglass
Halima Phaenon, one of the nine NPCs that can join you in Mal Nassrin, is profiled in detail in this week's update. That's her pic on the left. Check out Halima's profile at Planewalker Games' site.

Depths of Peril
There's a new short story up on the web entitled, "Necromancer," further expanding on the the setting and back-stories of Depths of Peril.

Austrian indie dev shop Clockstone Software has an interview at RPG Vault about their upcoming.... uh, RPG, "Avencast: Rise of the Mage." At least they call it an RPG. In the interview, Michael Schiestl refers to it as "a yet unseen mixture of genres. The core of the game is action / role-playing, but it will have a strong adventure style and challenging gameplay adopting beat 'em up elements." Minh Tri Do Dinh further explains that it "draw(s) heavy inspiration from beat 'em ups, shooters and the like, rather than classical RPGs." I'll reserve judgement here. We're always crying out for fresh ideas and innovation.

(Vaguely) related Indie RPG Geekiness
* Indie RPG News, May 28, 2007
* Indie RPG News, May 18, 2007
* Frayed Knights: Stupid Is As Stupid Fights
* Aveyond Version 2.0 Released
* Innovation in RPGs?

Join the Discussion Already In Progress in the Forum!

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The Geek Gene Gets Passed On...
Some of my relatives seemed to be shocked that I had the temerity to breed. My geeky hobbies seemed to them a phase I should have outgrown at puberty. We named our daughters some traditional Irish names, which didn't pass muster for at least one relative ("Maybe when she gets older she'll choose to go by her middle name"). And my career making videogames! Though only one grandmother-in-law (who was never altogether "there" in the time I've known her) said something aloud and to my face ("Is that all you do, Jay, is play games?"), I had heard some mutterings at one family gathering that amounted to the hope that I'd get over it and get a REAL job.

(Well, as it turns out, many years later I did, but now I'm back in the games biz after having learned that the more business-y "real job" IT world is just as screwed in the head as the games business --- though it usually pays a little better. But I digress.)

My wife insisted that our children have piano lessons. She demanded that they have X years of piano lessons, after which they could decide whether or not they wanted to continue with the instrument. She was never specific on the value of "X," but the assumption was it was some time period after which they'd be at least relatively competent.

After years of fighting with her over piano lessons, my oldest daughter has reached the point of X, I think, though I don't think we've yet informed her that piano lessons are in any way optional yet. However, she has now learned that she can find sheet music for music that she likes, and that she is now skilled enough to tackle just about anything. So while the relatives might still shake their heads at the fact that she plays so many videogames, they can at least rest easy knowing that her two other major hobbies are drawing, and playing the piano.

Nice and traditional. My relatives can breathe easy. I somehow managed to raise a somewhat normal daughter. Maybe the whole family scandal thing about me having offspring can finally be put to rest, right?

Oh, and what she plays on the piano? Yesterday I got out of the shower listening to the unmistakeable strains of "One Winged Angel" - Sephiroth's theme music. Followed up by the main theme from Final Fantasy X. My daughter loves videogame music even more than I do. And at a family music recital, she played a wonderful piece on the piano that none of the relatives recognized. As it was also from a videogame. Nobody knew.

And the subjects of her drawing are often videogame characters. And dragons.

You know, maybe I just won't tell 'em that the geek gene has been passed on to another generation. After all, it could be just a phase. I just haven't grown out of mine yet.

(Vaguely) related cackling:
* Out-Games By My Daughter!
* My Daughter, the Game Designer Superstar... to be
* Zelda String Medley
* Teenagers and D&D


Monday, June 04, 2007
Why I Gave Up On D&D Online
We played Dungeons & Dragons Online for a little more than a year. Our gaming group had some fun playing it. But a couple of weeks ago, we cancelled our accounts and switched to a new Massively Multiplayer Online RPG. Why did we quit?

Arguably, it was because Dungeons & Dragons Online was too well balanced. Okay, it was too well balanced for a particular mode of play that we found frustrating. What I find somewhat ironic is that the game was balanced in a way that I probably would have designed about five years ago, when I was pondering such things in my love / hate relationship with EverQuest.

How It's (Im)Balanced
So here's the deal, for those who haven't played D&D Online: The game is all about instanced quests. There are a few "danger zones" that you can wander through for "random encounter" fun, but mostly the game is about undertaking quests. So far so good. The quests are easy to get to, with very little travelling involved. Even better. The quests are conveniently labeled for challenge level, which you can compare to your party's level. Very nice. And they are repeatable, albeit for less experience points (and less loot if you repeat the same quest too often during a particular time period).

Okay. Not too bad. But here's the rub: Except for solo quests, the quests are all balanced for a FULL GROUP of characters of exactly the appropriate level. The quests are balanced for a full group that has "appropriate equipment" for their level. If you have a single character in your party above the challenge rating of the quest, the entire group gets penalized in total experience points. Oh, and the loot given out in the quest is all based upon the challenge rating of the adventure.

Reading Between The Lines
On the surface, none of that seems too bad. Though it does stink a little bit about paranoid MMO designers trying desperately to put the kibosh on power-leveling techniques. So if you bring a very low-level character in your party, not only will they not get any more experience than anybody else in the party (though they will level faster), they will also end up being something of a burden to the party, as without all six party members really contributing, the game is going to lay the smack down on everyone. And bringing someone four levels higher than the rest of the party to make things easy on everyone would just slow everyone's progression down.

But in practice, there are some real problems:

* Extremely narrow level ranges for players. You get to the point where you RESENT the player who hit the next level above the rest of the group. As he is only one level higher than everyone else (though for a while we had a 2-level difference), he'd have near zero impact on the difficulty of the quest, but would cause something like a 10% impact on overall experience.

* For a while, we had too many players - but not enough to fill two full groups of six. This means we were forced to fill out the ranks with pick-up players. Which isn't too bad - I don't mind doing it on occasion - but though we tried to split things up evenly, what inevitably happened was that latecomers ended up playing in pick-up groups while the first people online were on a quest. Eventually, people gave up and quit, as they really wanted to play with their friends.

* There were some nights where not everyone could play. The way the game was balanced, and the way roles are set up, this would mean that we either had to spend time finding some pick-up players to join us, or we'd have to cancel the game. I mean, if we didn't have a cleric, we were pretty screwed - unless we took some really easy dungeons.

* We had a group of six who stuck with it, but then one of us dropped out. At only five players, this made quests of our own challenge level about 16.666% more challenging. Challenging enough that we were having some trouble beating quests of our own level. Doing an 'easier' quest was a possibility, but that would mean significantly reduced experience points AND reduced loot, which caused another problem...

* Weaker loot from weaker quests ended up causing a "positive feedback loop" which made the more challenging quests even more difficult because we were ill-equipped to handle them after a level or so. Of course, with all the cash we were getting from taking on, say, 20% - 30% more quests than an "optimum, balanced" party should have to take in order to gain a level, we could BUY ourselves some decent equipment at auction. Which we were doing. Because it's so much more fun to buy the really cool swords than to earn them.

Greener Pastures
We were seeing which way our path was leading after a level or so of this, and to be honest nobody in our group really loved the game. We were playing because other people in our group was playing, and we all like playing games together.

We ended up going with a much more "casual-friendly" MMO. The choice came down to City of Heroes and World of Warcraft - both of which are very friendly for more "casual play" and smaller groups (I understand WoW is pretty solo-able all the way up to max level). There were people in our extended group of players (including those who'd quit the Tuesday Night group) who really loved both games.

The winning combination for City of Heroes (besides the fact that I was actively lobbying for it...) was this:

* Up to 8 players in a group
* Instanced missions scale up and down with the size of the group - so even if only two people show up on a given night, you've got game.
* Instanced missions are scaled by number of enemies, not by their quality (or their "loot" - in terms of enhancements, salvage, and special gadget powers)
* EXTREMELY flexible grouping --- due to the sidekick / exemplar system, you can have people of extreme level differences still group up together and have fun together.

And overall, one thing I've always liked about City of Heroes is the less hardcore attitude of the designers - probably to the chagrin of the most hardcore players. They seem far less concerned about players "maxing out" their characters and "beating the game." There are lots of freebies thrown at the players - double XP weekends, special holiday events, veterans awards, and so forth. The attitude just seems (to me) to be more casual, and more focused on making all the levels fun than just daring the players to face the grind to end-game content.

Considering the number of players =who have several different characters they actively play, I would say that attitude is working --- though CoH has never enjoyed the subscriber numbers of the top MMORPGs.

One Play Style to Rule Them All?
Maybe it's just a play 'style' or something. But I for a long time I thought our play style was perfect for Dungeons & Dragons Online... we had a stable bunch of players who adventured together week after week through the DDO quests. It seemed like a cool idea at the time. But ultimately, it just seemed too rigid and inflexible, and it became frustrating. Even that wouldn't have been insurmountable, but it was just evident that nobody really loved anything in the game enough to bother.

I've seen members of our play group getting some additional play-time in between Tuesday nights. Maybe it's just because of the novelty, but hopefully the game's proving more fun for all of us that just being something for us to play on a Tuesday night.

(Vaguely) related dissapointments:
* How to FUBAR an MMO Launch
* When Magic Becomes Mundane in RPGs
* Still Playing Dungeons & Dragons Online
* DDO Flies Solo --- Kinda

Read or Post Comments on the Forum

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Saturday, June 02, 2007
Why Indies Can't Thrive On Consoles
There's an interesting opinion piece on GamaSutra entitled, "Why Indies Can't Thrive On Consoles." It goes into a lot more detail, but basically it comes down to the fact that the segregation of the market into so many platforms - which are very incompatable and require great pains to customize the game for each platform (and take advantage of its strengths) - exacerbate the marginal sales the indies get.

It sounds like its calling for some kind of standardized virtual machine on these high-end platform where indie games could be... uh... written once, played everywhere. Where have I heard that before?

That would be awesome. The chance of it actually happening amongst all three major console / handheld manufacturers? Somewhere very close to zero.

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Friday, June 01, 2007
Silverlight For Game Development?
So what is Silverlight, and what does it mean to you?

Microsoft recently unveiled Silverlight, which many have chalked up to being their answer to Flash. Microsoft states that " Microsoft® Silverlight™ is a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web."

Version 1.0 of Silverlight is in Beta now. The 1.0 version is effectively a VM for JavaScript with some nice media-streaming capabilities. Anybody who has tried to get JS working identically across multiple browsers knows how useful that could be. But that isn't what really excites me. Version 1.1 is currently in alpha, and this is the one that could be really fascinating for indie game developers --- and for players.

You can take a look at the roadmap and see what interesting things are in store --- and are already in the alpha. Or you can just download the runtime and alpha SDK yourself. I have, but I haven't gotten too deep into the documentation yet. Or you can just play the game "Digger," created with the 1.1 Alpha, to get a glimpse at a quick-and-dirty "Boulder Dash" clone created in Silverlight. Or a game of Chess. (You can see other samples - and download the source code - HERE.)

Silverlight 1.1 offers some core .NET functionality across multiple platforms (Windows and Mac, initially, though the Mono project has committed to getting it working on Linux as well), multiple browsers (IE, Firefox, Safari, and Opera). So it's basically another VM --- like Flash and Java. It's the "right once, run everywhere" idea... which was never completely realized with Java (the joke, "Write once, debug everywhere" is painfully accurate sometimes).

So why bother? When I first heard about this, I thought, "Okay, but so what? We've already got Flash. And Java applets may be losing ground, but they are still around. What does this offer? Why should I care?"

I'm not certain I have a definitive answer yet. But here are some reasons I'm intrigued:

Microsoft Will Be Pushing Its Adoption
While not everything the juggernaut supports becomes ubiquitous, but I expect there's a pretty reasonable chance of Silverlight becoming as common as Flash within the next two to three years. I have never felt this to be the case with Java. The runtime is fairly compact so far - around 4 megs right now for Silverlight 1.1 Alpha.

Multiple Language Support
Silverlight 1.1 supports C#, VisualBasic, JavaScript, and Python (specifically IronPython). Again... PYTHON! I love Python! In addition, MS has committed to IronRuby and VBx support in 1.1 as well. No offense to ActionScript fans, but it'll be nice using a real programming language to make web apps & games. (I don't really know ActionScript myself, other than looking through syntax and tutorials - but I've heard a few tales about trying to get game animations working and timed properly that sound... annoying.)

Porting to Web Made Easy?
This is an offshoot of the Multiple Language Support idea, but here's a theory. Particularly in casual games, it has proven very useful to have a scaled-down web version of a game. It can act as advertising for the full version, serve up ads for ad-based revenue for freeloaders (like me) who might never buy the full version, and pull traffic to your site. That can be worthwhile.

Unfortunately, with Flash this meant re-writing your game using ActionScript. While porting a downloadable game to the web will undoubtably require rewriting some portions of it, if you write it in one of the supported languages, in theory a good portion of your game code will work as-is. Maybe not graphics, but game logic, AI, and so forth might simply work.

Digital Rights Management?
I know, I think of DRM as a four-letter word, too. Fundamentally it isn't a bad thing, but it's too often being used abusively (IMO) to trash consumer rights. However, I have heard numerous complaints from Flash game developers about their games being "lifted" from their sites and put on other unscrupulous sites out there. I don't know how well it will work with games, but Microsoft states in the Silverlight FAQ:
"For content providers, Silverlight will support digital rights management (DRM) built on the recently announced Microsoft PlayReady content access technology on Windows-based computers and Macintosh computers."
Can this be used to protect your game? I don't know enough about it to say. But maybe.

It Provides Competition for Flash
Even if you have no interest in using Silverlight, some competition for Flash will be a good thing for everyone. Well, except Adobe, I guess. But for Flash developers and for customers who use Flash applications (which is, like, EVERYONE who goes online these days), it may help push things for the better.

There are plenty of arguments going both ways as to what's going to happen in the upcoming Flash vs. Silverlight war. Flash definitely holds the home field advantage at this point - its been around for years and is on nearly every PC that connects to the web.

But from a customer perspective, do they really care if a game is running under Silverlight or Flash? Probably not. The biggest problem will be achieving enough of a widespread distribution of applications (and some "killer apps") - like Flash did - so that almost everyone already has it installed and won't even realize what technology is running under the surface when they watch a streaming video or play a web-based game.

Having not spent much time with it yet, I don't have enough information to make a judgement yet. Especially since version 1.1 is still only in alpha. But one prediction I don feel confident in making is that things are gonna be getting interesting for web-based game developers.

(Vaguely) related bits of ascii data masquerading as coherant thoughts:
* How to Earn $8000 a Month By Making a Free Flash Game
* 20 Ways To Make Money Making Indie Games
* Picking Apart Flash Element TD

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