Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Friday, August 31, 2007
Game Design: Tough Choices
Is the most powerful tool for gamers' emotional involvement, the ability to make the touch choices for themselves , also what is holding us back from making emotionally compelling worlds?

I've become a fan of Leigh Alexander lately, and in several of her most recent articles she's been discussing the nature of choice in videogames. Here are two focused on the subject:

The Mechanics of Choice

The Aberrant Gamer: Choose Your Own Adventure

She brings up some very interesting points. In particular, she notes the difficulty of putting moral or emotion-laden choices in games. Not that the attempts to do so have been scarce --- it is just that they so often fail.
"...Thus far, what we’ve been offered in terms of "choices" from gaming often tend to amount to little more than what one reader called a “cost-benefit analysis”. In other words, since the impact of our choices is limited to a statistical benefit or penalty (with perhaps a different ending tacked on), any moral or emotional decision presented to us can be reduced to a technicality."
Does it all come down to math? When we get in the competitive mindset (and even in a single-player game, we get in that mindset, desiring to "beat" the system or the designer or whatever insubstantial challenger we can imagine as a competitive proxy), it's hard to just 'experience' a game, or even get into the mental state where more subtle emotions can take root. We instead mentally go through a mental calculation of "guess what the designer had in mind."

So is it possible for us to separate the dynamics of gameplay from the elements of story? Arguably, Alexander believes this worked - for her - in Bioshock.
"Cost-benefit regardless, the choices in this game are beyond the mechanics. The merit of choice in games may not be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels."
What makes it work for her? And does it work for other players? In Bioshock (which I still haven't played beyond the demo, though it's almost impossible to avoid reading plenty about it the last couple of weeks), you are presented with a choice to commit an atrocity --- but it is presented in such a context and with such great justification as it makes the reprehensible acceptable.

Several players - stuck in the "cost-benefit-analysis" mode, have complained about the lack of leniency in the multiple endings. Outspoken journalist Kieron Gillen eventually came up with a stock answer. "As I’ve said to everyone complaining about being treated as a shithead when they’ve “Just harvested a couple”… exactly how many little girls do you think the world thinks it’s acceptable to kill?"

Interestingly enough, even much-acclaimed Ultima IV, with its complex virtue system, really broke down into just a cost-benefit analysis of decisions. Your choice of whether to be honest or humble often came down to a matter of which virtue needed more points --- or which you felt was easier to "make up" later. What U4 did offer, at least, was a chance to check in and measure your virtue changes - a mirror to your avatar's soul. There weren't any surprises in the end when you discover the depth of the stain on the soul from a single murder - even one performed for the greater good.

The most powerful tool of the storyteller is to evoke an emotional response in the audience. And with interactive entertainment (read: Video Games), what is potentially our most powerful tool for evoking emotions is the ability to give the player the ability to make those key decisions himself. Yet that very potential is frustrated by the challenge of a game - it encourages the player to shut off the parts of his or her brain that get distracted by context, metaphor, and meaning, and instead concentrate on the purity of the elements of the challenge itself.

Maybe the ability to see the "big picture" and appreciate the overall context and metaphor capable of evoking emotions is really only possible when the audience is in a passive frame of mind? While giving the controller a rest during a cut-scene, or while contemplating the game after it has been completed? Or is it just a case of making the player "comfortable" enough in the game-world that they feel free to explore it on all levels, rather than narrowing their focus to pure survival mode.

Is there a better way to present pivotal moral decisions in games to players that are as emotionally laden as they'd be if the player had been merely an observer?

Or perhaps the best way to handle it is, as in Fallout, Bioshock, and other games - to simply have the big reveal at the end to shock (and sometimes delight) players with the realization of the consequences of their action within the context of the games' fiction. Though for too many players, as evidenced by the Bioshock ending complaints, might not be too satisfied with the results of their handiwork.

What do you think?

(Vaguely) related inconceivables...
* Game Moments #7 - Ultima 7
* Why Was Final Fantasy 7 So Successful?
* Fair Game or Drama?
* Game Moments #4 - Daggerfall

Read or Post Comments on the Forum!


Thursday, August 30, 2007
Frayed Knights: Taking Inventory
Building an indie Computer Role-Playing Game can make you crazy.

Maybe it's the milestones I've set for myself. Which are starting to slip. I've got two more days in August, and I've gotta finish the inventory system and the conversation system (which I haven't started beyond June's prototype). The pressure is on, even though these are self-mandated milestones. So I have Frayed Knights on the brain. This week has been particularly brutal. I work on the game at night. I put a few minutes into it before I go into work in the morning. This is turning me into a terrible conversationalist. I'm beginning to sound like the Rain Man.

I vaguely remember Void War getting this way during the latter stages of development. But it's been a while since I've gotten into this mode.

I think I underestimated the difficulty of implementing the inventory system. It was something I figured I could whip out in a two or three caffeinated nights. It's turning into a somewhat higher-hit-dice beast to slay.

There are two parts to it (as usual) - the internal mechanics, and the user interface. I've now re-written both twice. I'm not sure I'm ultra-happy with how things stand, but it's workable now.

I borrowed a little bit from old-school jRPG-style inventory systems in that you've got a party inventory (which is virtually infinite - maybe its some kind of magical bag of holding) and an individual character's equipment.

I know. The Tardis-style party inventory means the player won't have to leave the dungeon six times to go back to town and sell junk. Which will cut those total gameplay hours way down and make this game compare unfavorably with mainstream games that have all that make-work in them. I'll just have to deal. Let's just consider the party inventory thing to be an abstraction, shall we, representing LOTS of trips to and from the dungeon happening "behind the scenes." So we can get that "realism" protest out of the way.

The party inventory also means that - for now at least - I'm not going to worry about a special interface to transfer items between characters. You "unequip" an item and it goes in the party inventory. Then someone else can equip your hand-me-downs or something.

Oh, yeah, and I borrowed some of the graphics I used for Hackenslash for the inventory. Gotta love stand-in graphics! Man, those are terrible, aren't they?

Plundering Clichés!
While the main storyline and a chunk of the world back-story has already been designed, I've still got a lot to fill out. And I noticed that my brain has been in programming mode getting the systems all working lately, rather than the lovely "design mode" I was in many weeks ago. So it was time to jump-start my brain to focus a bit more on the "non-crunchy" stuff about the world and subplots.

I put out a call for some common "old-school" RPG traditions, common situations, and clichés on the local community and over at Necromancer Games. Shamus Young of Twenty Sided also added his voice to the call, and has so far received over 60 responses. And then there are links to sites which keep track of this kind of thing. I was familiar with the largest one (and I've been pushing to have Dirk bemoan the killing of a "Load Bearing Boss" at some point), but they are all handy.

Why am I asking for these old-school traditions and goofy stuff? I'm glad you asked! (Oh, wait, you didn't, I did. Well, I'll tell you anyway)? I have found I use them several different ways:

#1 - I turn them on their ear. I won't give any examples here as they might be spoilers. But ... I start with a cliché, and then add some major ---hopefully unforseen - twists to bring out the funny and keep it interesting.

#2 - I turn them into jokes. This can range from one-shot snarking in a static dialog, to a whole subplot or monster (like the pus golem).

#3 - I embrace the cliché! I take some of the weird, classic idiosyncrasies of old-school games and build them into the back-story or world history - sometimes mixing them with a little bit of anachronistic modern mentality. For example, the explanation as to why all these dungeons, caves, and underground fortresses are found everywhere (often filled with monsters and long-lost treasure) is a huge part of the background of the world.

The World of Frayed Knights: Pokmor-Xang
Pokmor-Xang is the god of boils, blisters, and pimples. And also, apparently, the god of donuts. Undoubtedly, this last sphere of influence was attributed to him more as a marketing effort on the part of his followers when proseletyzing. After all, potential followers might be put off by worship services where festering sores might be involved. As in modern-world departmental meeting, one finds oneself able to stomach all kinds of horror so long as someone says, "Hey, we brought donuts!"

Likewise, while ancient depictions of Pokmor-Xang tend to emphasize his bestial, plague-ridden forms, more enlightened priests of the "Zit God" (as only heathen nonbelievers sometimes refer to him) chose more human depictions like the idol to the right that are collectively referred to as "Happy Xangs."

In spite of their best attempts at public relations, and the occasional dabbling by teenagers wishing beauty-marring pustules on the faces of their rivals, the cults of Pokmor-Xang have never enjoyed much popularity amongst human civilization. Perhaps it is because love and appreciation of boils, blisters, and pimples comes alien to most human minds, but most of the clergy positions become filled by man-eating monsters with complexion problems.

Until Next Week...
Well, that's about it for this week. Tune in next week when I'll hopefully have the conversation system done. How hard can it be?

(Vaguely) related random bits and bytes:
* Frayed Knights: Getting Around in the World
* RPG Design: Feed Me, Seymour!
* What Makes a Good Casual RPG?
* Frayed Knights: Solving the Saved-Game Problem

Got Two Coppers To Add? Share Your Ideas on the Forum!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Vista-Exclusive DX-10 Bad For PC Gaming?
According to Gabe Newell of Valve Software in this Heise interview, Microsoft's attempt to force gamers to upgrade to the latest version of its operating system may not have been a good thing for PC gaming. It's fragmented the market, and adoption amongst gamers has been noticeably low.

It's quite possible that the adoption rate is so low because Microsoft and the other console manufacturers have succeeded so well in getting the most hardcore (and early-adopter) gamers converted over to consoles. And now Microsoft has a chicken-and-egg problem: Gamers will migrate to Vista when there's a "killer app" that they must have which will force them to make the costly upgrade for questionable benefits. But right now, unless Microsoft bribes them with actual cash or a major free marketing push, no developer or publisher (outside of Microsoft themselves) is willing to cut themselves off from the vast majority of their market for the sake of DirectX 10 support.

As one who has stubbornly held off on making the upgrade to Vista, I'm probably not one to disagree. Of course, it usually took a "killer app" (like support for new hardware) to make me migrate in the past... I think I've always held off until the first service patch fixes all the horrible nasty bugs and security holes first after Windows 95. My strategy has paid off --- I managed to avoid the Windows M.E. debacle altogether. But I do like the idea of the majority of Windows machines having .NET already installed...

In all likelihood, this problem will fade away within the next couple of years as the install base gradually increases. If adoption remains sluggish and Microsoft is very timely with Vista's successor, then we may just get to worry about a new set of problems.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Help! I Need Some Good RPG Clichés!
Hey folks...

One of the sources of humor in Frayed Knights is some good natured ribbing of old-school RPG conventions, classic situations, and clichés. As an example, while the pus-golem joke is pretty much stand-alone, it's also a little bit of a joke about 3rd edition D&D game books... every monster book seems to need to add some constructs, so they all include new golems made out of every substance imaginable.

So I'm looking for a few good jokes.

Rather, some silly elements from computer and "PnP" role-playing games to poke fun at. The weirdness in games that you just learned to ignore. Like... well, like this list here:

Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs

Do you have any others? If so, please post 'em. And then I'll see if the Frayed Knights can be made available for commentary... Smile

Gripe about favorite clichés, conventions, and weirdness here!

Thanks in advance, everyone!

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Indie RPG Updates, August 28th
Indie Computer RPGs - just like grandma used to make. If your grandma was named "Richard Garriott" or "Jon Van Caneghem" or "David Bradley," I guess. I've been a little slow in getting this one out, but things have seemed a little slow this month:

The Broken Hourglass
Planewalker Games has several bits of information on their website about their upcoming "Baldur's Gate" style indie RPG. First off, there's this artice on the game mechanics discussion Point-Buy Strategies. Find out how to level up! Then, for prospective modders, there's an in-depth article on area creation in The Broken Hourglass. Find out how to create your own dungeons! This is actually a pretty interesting article altogether for game developers working on any kind of isometric-style 2D game.

Aveyond II - Ean's Quest
Not to be outdone, Amaranth Games reports that the maps are largely done, and that mouse control - perhaps the most-requested feature for Aveyond I - is now in. Even better, Amanada claims that she'll be retrofitting it into the original Aveyond once it has been fully tested. So expect a new version of Aveyond coming soon! The projected release date of Aveyond II - Ean's Quest is currently in November. But as always, it's true release date will be "when its done."

Minions of Mirth
Patch 1.25 is live with tons of new content and enhancements. A full list of the patch features can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/29hxsu.

Prairie Games also reports that they've got a new Minions of Mirth Website featuring community blogs, picture galleries, integrated game encyclopedia, server status, and more! They've also got a Halloween Raffle contest going on for MoM players, which includes the chance to win one of several game consoles.

Depths of Peril
Soldak has posted two new monster profiles for the Lich and the Stalker. There's also a new preview from TechDomain. And of course, if you haven't tried out the demo, here's a whole list of mirror sites to download it from.

I guess I set my expectations too low for this game, because the demo really surprised me - in a good way. I guess I was expecting just another Diablo clone with a strategy element tacked on. Instead, the hybrid elements seem really nicely integrated, if a little confusing at first. I look forward to playing the full version. Try the demo out and let me know if I'm wrong!

Avernum V
Spiderweb Software has a bunch of screenshots now available for their upcoming RPG, Avernum V.

And I gotta say... holy crap, how they crank out the games! I'm still not very far into Avernum IV! But I'm kinda playing a dozen games at once and actually trying to get my own games completed, so I guess I can't say I've really been working on it all that hard. Still, Jeff Vogel and company are prolific. They remind me of a time when we didn't have to wait five years between sequels for our favorite games.

Nethergate Resurrection
The PC version of Nethergate: Resurrection is now available!

Frayed Knights
Hey, I'm allowed a shameless plug or three, aren't I? If you are a regular here, you know all about this one. Another month of development is nearly at an end. Core game systems are currently scheduled to be completed in November, with lots of content work taking place after that. The latest update was on the Drama Star System, an attempt to provide a partial solution to the "Saved Game Problem." You know, the one where players brute-force their way to success by saving every step of the way and re-playing any segment that doesn't go perfectly for them?

Yeah, I know. Most games actually RELY upon that in order to squeeze out twelve hours of gameplay from a four-hour game. Ah, well...

Wow. I guess things weren't so slow after all. Guess it was just me...

(Vaguely) related items of possible non-interest:
* Indie RPG News, July 24th
* Indie RPG In Development: Scars of War
* Cute Knight Deluxe Now Available
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Creator of Aveyond

Forum Discussion on the Latest Indie RPG News

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Monday, August 27, 2007
A Better Way To Fight Piracy?
The latest flap over the "excessive" DRM restrictions of Bioshock has once again reminded me that in the battle between content-makers and digital pirates, the biggest loser is usually the honest consumer. Increasingly invasive or restrictive licensing may force them to find "cracks" just to allow them to play the game they paid for (been there, done that, and had friends have to do the same), which of course exposes them to the wild, wonderful world if pirate websites and executables --- with all the security risk that entails.

There has got to be a better way.

Now, as a game developer or publisher, what is your goal? Is it to stamp out piracy? Not in the least. You could get 100% effective in combating piracy by simply refusing to release your game, but that wouldn't exactly be sound business decision. Your goal, as a gaming business, is to maximize revenue on your game. There is anecdotal evidence that going from a weak incentive to buy to a stronger one can yield five times more sales.

It's not about pirates or "non-customers" versus real customers. It should be about customers versus potential customers. And it definitely shouldn't be about treating all customers as criminals until they've jumped through enough hoops to qualify for temporary upgraded status.

The First Stage Is Acceptance
I heard a story once about a software company which - like too many software companies - found that about half of their customer-support time was being spent supporting non-customers. In other words, people using pirated copies of their software.

Their approach to the problem was to get these "highly questionable" users who had lost their documentation and license keys to sign up for their mailing list. And then send them the same upgrade offer they sent their legitimate customers. From what I was told, a surprising number of these users accepted the chance to "go legit" with a discounted upgrade.

So in other words, their approach was to treat the criminals as customers, rather than to treat customers as criminals. And it worked.

Is It Time To Embrace Reality?
Could game developers and publishers adopt a similar approach? Instead of making it harder for legitimate users to enjoy their rights as consumers, could they instead add incentives for the so-called "casual pirates" to not only go legal, but also to buy other products?

Is it time to give up the fantasy that we can fight a winnable war of defense against piracy? Can we instead embrace reality, and try to turn it to our advantage?

Winning Customers Through Convenience
Stardock tried something along these lines with Galactic Civilization II. We may never know how it would have gone if they had decided on a more draconian DRM solution instead, but rumor has it that the game has sold quite well. Now, they do have some basic license restrictions with their software, provide a serial key that you need to install the game, and so forth. In a forum article, "Galactic Civilizations II, Copy Protection, and Piracy", they state, "Our primary weapon to fight piracy is through rewarding customers through convenient, frequent, free updates. If you make it easy for users to buy and make full use of your product or service legitimately then we believe that you'll gain more users from that convenience than you'll lose from piracy. "

Their approach was outlined in a JoeUser article, "CD Copy Protection Is Not The Way To Stop Piracy," their recipe includes provide a unique serial number for each game, tying those to personalized user accounts, providing frequent and meaningful updates to the game for customers, and providing other benefits for customers. All this adds up to make it far more convenient and beneficial to be a legitimate customer than to be a pirate. The only ones who will really prefer the inconvenience and danger of illegal downloads are those who really couldn't afford the game in the first place.

Winning Over The Kids Who "Wouldn't Buy It Anyway"
Amanda Fitch, of Amaranth Games, had a very clever way of recovering some of those other "lost souls" who would have turned to piracy out of economic necessity. She received emails from kids who couldn't afford her hit casual RPG, "Aveyond," and she offered them a free copy in exchange for their marketing efforts. This converted a non-sale into MANY sales, potentially, in addition to earning her some rabid goodwill.

While that solution doesn't scale very well, it does show that there are some ways of thinking outside of the box and turning economic realities into an advantage.

Any More Bright Ideas?
What other things could be done to combat piracy by encouraging pirates - particularly the "casual" pirates - to "go legit" rather than (only) erecting semi-effective barriers that are more painful to legitimate consumers than the pirates they were designed to foil?

If you have ever had less-than-legitimate software installed on your machine, what would it take for you to spend the money to make it official rather than buying something new?

Is there a better way to turn people's tendency to share with each other to an advantage (as was used back in the pre-web shareware days) rather than fighting against the tide?

(Vaguely) related stupidity, absolutely free:
* PC Game Publishers: Please Hurt Me Some More!
* A Pirate Story
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?



Sunday, August 26, 2007
RPG Design: Above All, Stand Out!
On a whim, I pulled out an old gaming mag the other night. It was Computer Games Strategy Plus, a great PC gaming magazine of yesteryear. Its the August 1994 issue, with an Earthsiege robot ("HERC") on the cover. I do this kind of thing from time to time. So I'm a little bit of a freak.

Anyway, I turned to the adventure / RPG section and reminded myself of what games were available at this point. Al Qadim - The Genie's Curse, a pre-Diablo click-style action / RPG gets a review. I actually played and enjoyed this one. Then there's a review for "Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard." I couldn't recall this one at all. Apparently it was a sequel to an Amiga game. I went to some online sites to see what they had to say about this one. Information was scant, but for the most part they echoed Steve Wartofsky's words from this review:

"What distinguishes Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, then? Nothing significant. I can't really see anything in the way of story, implementation, puzzle design or character creation to single this out from the scads of designs that have been developed over the years... Hexx seems conservatively unimaginitive and overly derivative, but within those constraints, it plays well."

In his summary paragraph, he states, "All in all, Hexx looks to be the kind of game that might fill some hours up for truly dedicated CRPG players who've run through all the other major CRPGs out there, while they wait for the next major CRPG release. Its conservative design approach means little in the way of new surprises for such gamers, in both a good and bad sense: it's a game we've all seen before, but unlike some more innovative recent designs --- it runs. That last bit alone would be a recommendation to many PC gamers."

Some other comments include phrases like, "pleasant to play," "pretty evenly balanced," "pretty effectively..."

Not words of high praise, but nothing really damning, either. All-in-all, this sounded like a pretty okay game. I've heard far, far worse reviews for games like, oh, Daikatana and Trespasser.

But I don't know if I've ever heard this game mentioned ever since 1994. It's forgotten. And I'm willing to bet that both Daikatana and Trespasser enjoyed both greater sales AND a larger fanbase. Sure, this could be chalked up to larger marketing efforts and timing. But I believe that a crucial element is simply that Hexx just never stood out in any way. It was like a single Dorito in a bag of Doritos - it was crunched down and forgotten.

While it is true of any crowded game genre, the key is to be a "purple cow" - to stand out amongst other games in the genre. Quality alone isn't enough. And it is also important to make your stand-out qualities obvious in your marketing and your initial gameplay experience. Sure, having a twist ending at the end that turns your game into something other than a generic "Kill the Foozle" experience is great... but you don't want players to wait that long.

Graphics. Mechanics. Story. Characters. Setting. Style. Pacing. Interface. Mood. Sound. All of these are areas ripe for doing something different in RPGs (and most other game categories) to make a game stand out and get noticed. It's important to be good. But it's just as important to be different.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007
PC Game Publishers: Please Hurt Me Some More!
When I first heard about the two installation limitation on the PC version Bioshock, my first thought was, "Screw that, I'll just buy the XBox 360 version."

I'm a die-hard PC gamer. And I do not even HAVE an X-Box 360 yet (rumor has it Santa might have it on order for Christmas). Given the choice between a console and PC version of a game, I always go with the PC version.

Yet my first thought upon hearing what sounded like a pretty onerous copy-protection scheme was to hand in my PC Gamer card, and wait four more months so I didn't have to deal with that kind of B.S.

Since then, it has been clarified in that as long as your computer is hooked up to the Internet... and there's no firewall issues... and no hiccups... IF you uninstall the game correctly, it will count as a "negative installation" and you don't have to call up the copy protection company and prove your innocence and beg for them for permission to play you bought from them.

And really, it shouldn't affect me one bit, should it? I am usually hooked up to the Internet, and I do know enough to uninstall my games properly --- usually. Assuming my hard drive hasn't crashed or become corrupted by spyware (or other copy protection software) or anything. And I play downloadable games all the time, and more than once I've had to email the developers / distributors and ask for my old key back. Assuming they are still around when I reinstall - as a retrogamer I am pretty used to playing games that are no longer being supported (and whose former publishers no longer even exist). But barring any of that, it shouldn't be a problem, should it?

So what's the big deal? Why should I object to being treated as a criminal by the game publisher, and putting my faith into an untrusted mechanical guardian that has power over whether or not I have the right to enjoy my investment? Why should I be concerned about having to jump through a bunch of hoops as a legitimate consumer, knowing that the dishonest pirates will soon be enjoying a superior product than what I have paid good money for?

And after the PC gamer has been filled with the spirit of generosity for having bolstered a company's sales projections by pre-ordering the game and paying for it in advance, why should they be annoyed that they are denied the opportunity to play their long-awaited purchase immediately because the registration servers that dole out permission are overloaded for a few hours or days?

And why should game publishers complain that the PC market has been weakening? You mean that pissing off all the PC gaming fans and turning this open platform into a desolate wasteland of gaming hasn't been their plan all along? Surely they could not have been constructing such an sophisticated bed to lie in purely by accident?

(Incidentally... is the Steam version free of this particular crap... albeit coming with it's own unique brand of crap? Somehow I have more faith in Steam than SecuROM... or maybe it's just my loyalty to a developer-turned-publisher...)

UPDATE: According to the PCGamer blog, uninstalling isn't guaranteed to count. And SecuRom is friggin' PSYCHOTIC and paranoid about re-authorizing the activation. And, according to this unlucky journalist, they aren't doing what they promised. So... uh... guess what? I'm gonna be giving this game a miss unless they pull a rabbit out of a hat and make things right. At this point, I won't even get the X-Box 360 version. I don't want to support a publisher that treats its customers like criminals. I've had enough. Thanks to Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided and Scorpia for the tip-off on this latest development!

UPDATE #2: Buying it through Steam is the same raw deal. Joy. The registry entries are no big deal though... unless someone finds a non-deleteable process running after installing the demo, I wouldn't get too worked up about it and cry "rootkit." Yet. Again, thanks to Shamus Young for THIS little tidbit. You know, I'm suddenly feeling even more warm fuzzies towards Stardock... Incidentally, here is a post that tells you how to remove the SecuRom crap that was installed on your machine as part of playing the demo...

(Vaguely) related tirades:
* CD Key Frustration
* A Pirate Story
* Enjoy an Oldie But Goodie
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?


Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Frayed Knights: Solving the Saved-Game Problem?
More data-dumping on Frayed Knights, the humorous indie role-playing game in development here at Rampant Games. This week, I discuss two very experimental game mechanics. Both have the potential to ruin the game, and I won't know until late playtesting whether they work or not.


What Do Those Stars Mean?
A lot of people have asked what those stars at the top of the screen in the (VERY WORK-IN-PROGRESS) screenshots are supposed to do.

Some folks have put part of it together, based on comments I've made here. Since I worked on their implementation this week, I thought I'd pass along the deal with 'em. These are "drama stars", and they are my attempt to solve (at least partially) the "save game" problem.

How Drama Stars Work
Drama stars accumulate points over time as you do "dramatically interesting" things - in other words, taking risks. When you try a dangerous dialog choices, battle monsters, or engage strangers in conversation, those earn you drama points. In fact, when Bad Things happen --- like one of your party members is incapacitated in some way --- you get bonus drama points.

Those stars fill up over time. They start empty, and then fill up to become bronze stars. Once all three stars are bronze, continued points gradually changes them to silver. Once you have three silver stars, more points make them gold. Eventually, they cap out at three gold.

What Use Are They?
These drama stars can be spent to directly change the progress of the game. To modify the (melo-)drama! In some ways, the effects are kind of like spells, but they effect the way the story plays out. For example, you can use the "Only A Flesh Wound!" effect which immediately restores all incapacitated characters to action (read "resurrection"), and heals everyone to partial health.

Wow! Major ability, huh? And given to the player all the time. Well, whenever he can manage to accumulate enough drama points.

Isn't That Overpowered?
Here's the kicker - drama points are not saved with the saved game file. You can SAVE the game during normal "exploration" mode whenever and wherever you want. But whenever you load the game, you start at zero drama points. Drama points are per session only.

Huh? What? Why?

I'm treating them as an alternative to restoring a saved game. Let's say the Frayed Knights battle the Big Bad Evil Guy, and two of your characters are incapacitated (nope, not dead... only mostly dead) by the end of the fight. You COULD just load the saved game from before the battle started, and re-play it again... and again... and again... until you are satisfied with the results. This is how people play RPGs much of the time, after all.

OR - you could keep the results, and find that you have just enough drama points to determine that it was "Only a Flesh Wound" and said party members recover. In fact, with enough drama points, you could use this ability in the middle of combat, too (probably). Imagine the look on the Lich-King's face when two heroes he thought he'd dispatched manage to "pull through" and rejoin the combat!

Does This Solve The Save-Game Problem?
So those drama stars are there to motivate the player to stick it out through some bad decisions and bad luck in hopes of them experiencing a more interesting (and more dramatic?) story, rather than re-loading the game every time there's a setback. With luck, the player might even seek out some trouble and setbacks just to build up the drama point total.

Does it solve the save-game problem? Well, no, not completely. But I think it's preferable to some of the horrible solutions out there like only being able to save the game at specific save-points. The trick is presenting it as it is - an alternative to reloading a saved game. Otherwise, players will see it as an entitlement and the failure to restore the drama-point status as a "bug" that they will complain bitterly about.

What Happens When You Die With Drama Points?
There are, unfortunately, some corner cases I haven't fully resolved yet. Like dying with active drama points. Now we're treading into some waters where I really don't know my depth. And I don't know how well things will work in practice. I'll have to try things out and see how well they work.

Normally, if your party is all incapacitated, then your party is "dead." Ideally, I want the death menu to be kind of fun and funny, too. With the characters complaining of the unfairness of it all while waiting for the player to make her choice. Anyway, if you have enough drama points to resurrect your entire party, then that should be an option.

And what happens to your drama points if you re-load the game after a total party wipeout? Well, I haven't decided, entirely. But I might make an exception to the reload rule here. Getting at least partial stars back after something like that might take away some of the sting of death, doncha think? So long as that doesn't cause people to try and suicide the party prior to loading the game all the time.

We'll see how it all works.

Long-Term Fatigue
I don't like it in games when whatever juice that fuels spellcasting is a highly restricted resource, turning your spell-lobbing master of reality into a weakling in a bathrobe with a knife after only a few fireballs. Your fighter can swing his sword all day long. Why can't a magic user do the same?

So I decided that fighters and spellcasters will both use the same "power source" - endurance. Something which might be in scarce supply in long, drawn-out combats, but otherwise you won't find yourself entering combat with your casters completely unable to do anything useful.

One issue I found myself facing was that with endurance as an easily-renewable resource, which in turn can be used (by the party healer, Benjamin) to replenish health, this pretty much destroyed any concept of resource management between combats. There's no concept of holding back during an easier combat, because you always start with full resources at the beginning of every combat. This would mean, essentially, no easier "speed bump" battles.

I wasn't satisfied with this. I've played a dice-and-paper RPG with that mechanic (the Hero system... Champions, Fantasy Hero, etc.), and the result was that anything less than a full-on life-or-death battle was boring. But constantly getting into those kinds of fights can be really tiring. The pace never changes. And there resource-management challenges don't exist. It makes for much more one-dimensional gameplay.

Unfortunately, I found my preliminary design for Frayed Knights suffering from that same malady. So I created a new mechanic, called "Fatigue," a factor which slowly erodes the party's maximum endurance level from combat to combat. Spellcasting can erode it even more quickly. Certain feats slow it's accumulation. Certain spells or magic items may temporarily eliminate its effects, and a set of drama-star powers may reduce or eliminate fatigue.

Fatigue can have some additional effects as it increases, though it will cap at a certain point. So you'll never have the Frayed Knights utterly powerless in the face of fatigue. Just very reduced in strength.

Fatigue Downside
This introduces another problem: having to quit in the middle of the assault and go back to town to rest and buy mana potions is also lame, as is taking a nap in the middle of the dungeon. After all that talk about drama stars trying to increase the tension and drama of the game, do I really want to introduce a mechanic that encourages the player to halt the action?

Truth be told, I don't know. What I do know is that the resource management elements of most RPGs can be the source of a lot of challenge and fun gameplay (and, admittedly, some frustration).

What's On Deck?
I managed to complete most of the tasks from last week. The holdout is the inventory system. I guess I could say I've started on it, but I've not gotten too far yet.

So this week, my goal is to get inventory management and interfaces working. And maybe start a little bit of work on the conversation system.

So... Whadayathink? I mean, these aren't Peter Molyneaux "Scar Systems" or anything... but hopefully these will add an interesting element to the game.

(Vaguely) related going and going and going...
* Ye Olde Saved Game Debate
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
* Frayed Knights: The First Five Minutes Walkthrough
* Frayed Knights: Getting Around in the World

Inform Me Of My Impending Failure On the Forum!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Game Reviews - What Are They Good For?
Does anybody actually use game reviews to make informed purchase decisions anymore?

I used to. Back in the 80's and 90's when a release wasn't embarassingly "old-school" by the time the print review came out, I used to actually read the full text of game reviews, and even had some favorite reviewers. Fellow gamers didn't snicker behind their hands and say, "Dude, didn't you realize that game was released like EIGHT WEEKS ago? We're all playing something else, now!"

I guess everyone rents the game on Release Tuesday, and have it finished two weeks later. There's no purpose in discussing it further! The review is now the culmination of a discussion about a game, not the introduction.

I can only assume that they serve SOME kind of purpose in the grand scheme of things, because online gaming sites fall all over themselves trying to get positioning on search engines for the word "review" mixed with the title of a hotly anticipated game. In the print world, having the best reviews might have mattered, but no more. It's all about down-to-the-minute timeliness and keywords, not content. So we have sites that have stooped to posting a review of the pre-release DEMO of a hotly anticipated game (or even the trailer video!). All so that they'll be on page 1 of a search engine query by some poor consumer who might, you know, actually be looking for a real review of the game. Which will undoubtedly appear as well, quite often without the reviewer actually finishing the game for the sake of speed. Post now, edit later! (Kinda like how I create my blog articles...)

And then how do they get used? Maybe it's just the vocal minority of the denizens of Teh Internets, but it seems that the purpose of the reviews - at least for highly anticipated titles - is merely to confirm the pre-existing belief system of the audience. Maybe they are looking for justification of their purchase, or to belong to the "in" crowd of hardcore gamers (is that some kind of oxymoron?). But post a less-than-stellar review of a popular game - at least within the twenty-day attention span of today's gamer - and you will be burned in effigy by legions of fanboys... even those who haven't played the full game, yet.

Does anybody actually use game reviews to decide on what game to buy anymore? Or has the immediacy of Internet communities done away with this in favor of immediate "word of mouth" buzz? (Some of which, remember, is generated by shills... er, excuse me... "viral marketers")

Is the historic role of the game review - to educate the consumer - now being fulfilled by previews, which are almost by definition uniformly favorable and saturated with marketing propaganda?

Does anybody really care about game reviews anymore, beyond a simple numerical score that can be averaged together with similar scores on GameRankings.com?

If this is a problem, is it unique (or more acute) in the video game biz, or is it common across other media?

What are game reviews good for anymore?

(Vaguely) related rants:
* The Worst Game Ever
* R.I.P. Computer Gaming World
* Game Journalism and the Games Industry
* Fallout Over the Fallout 3 Trailer
* This Isn't Viral Marketing!

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A while ago, I talked about the first computer role-playing game I ever played - the notorious Telengard. We're probably talking the summer of 1983 here.

But I may have been fibbing. I don't really know for sure. At some point, around this time, I played another CRPG on the C-64. It may have come before Telengard, or afterwards. I can't say for sure. In fact, until last week, I couldn't even tell you the name of the game. I did some scouring of the Internet to find any record whatsoever of this obscure little entry point into the wild and wonderful world of computer RPGs.

Be advised, my memory of the details here are very vague. Though, through the miracle of emulation, I managed to relive the pain experience.

The Dungeons of Magdarr
The game was called The Dungeons of Magdarr. It wasn't available in stores - at least so far as I can recall. No, this little gem was a mail-ordered special from an outfit called "Aardvark Software" or something like that, which advertised text adventures and little arcade-style games in a quarter-page ad in the pages of Compute! magazine. The tiny screenshot vaguely resembled the Wizardry perspective. Since there was, at this point, no word of Wizardry actually getting ported to the C-64, this poor-man's equivalent sounded awesome. And the price was right --- I think the games in the ads only ran something like $15 to $25.

So here was a cheap Wizardry clone! Ka-ching! Color me there. I spent my lawn-mowing money and waited the 3-6 weeks for delivery.

As I can recall, the game arrived in packaging that resembled a Zip-Lock bag. The manual was photocopied page of instructions. This was kinda old-school even for 1983, but I didn't worry about it much. I was ready to dive in! I'd been waiting YEARS for the chance to play D&D on the computer. Well, two years, since I'd discovered D&D in 1981. But this was it!


The interface just to roll up a party was... clumsy at best. Sometimes it expected a full name to be typed in, and other times a first initial was preferred. You went through the usual CRPG conventions of the time - endlessly rolling the dice until you saw a set of statistics that looked good, and then you'd turn them into one of the characters for your party.

And yes, it was a party-based game.

The game would convert your character into a 30-character string, like "bolton@@aabeaba@e@@b@bb@@@@@ci". Yessir, all the details of your characters (including an 8-letter name) stuffed into 30 bytes. That's 1983 for ya! If you had trouble saving the characters to disk, you could just enter the strings manually again in future game sessions, with an added advantage that typos might really cheat up your character!

There were some cute little bits of personality during the character-creation stage that were interesting. Occasionally a god would bless your character with maximum hit-points or something along those lines. Most of the gods were taken from historical pantheons, but re-playing it I found that the god of sex, "Gonaddo," might intervene.

Exploring the Dungeons
The game itself... what can I say? It could all be summed up in one word: Boring. Even when compared to... well... nothing. I could never finish the game.

Not to knock the efforts of the authors, Rodger Olsen and Bill Atkinson, who were probably a couple of high-school seniors or college students at the time. It was a paint-by-numbers D&D game written in BASIC that had dungeons that were scrawls of featureless hallways. Occasionally you'd stumble across a treasure chest (which might be trapped) that would ask who tries to open it. Or you'd encounter monsters, which went through the party one character at a time asking, "Does X fight the Y?" Answering with a "Y" keypress rewarded you with a question to choose which weapon you would use. "S" for sword (if you had one), "B" for bow (if you had one and weren't too close), "M" for mace, etc. Then you'd be invited to hit "any key" to strike to get the results of that character's attacks.

Monsters, stairs, treasures. And that would repeat infinitely until you made it to the end of the dungeon... which was, at least, only on the third level. I know this only because I looked through the source code --- I couldn't bring myself to actually play the game that far. You'd trigger a boss encounter and... something would happen. Who knows? Maybe I missed out on one of the best RPG endings of all time.

But I don't think so.

And bugs! Replaying the game last week, I found that I'd get stuck trying to buy more equipment in an infinitely looping menu. Brilliant stuff! Maybe there was a keyword or something that I'd missed, since the documentation was long-gone, but still - this was pretty horrible even in the early days. Being able to find and play the Dungeons of Magdarr again served to remind me that did not everything that came out in those days was classic material. In fact, just like today, 90% of everything was crap.

This just happened to be something from the forgotten 90%.

(Vaguely) related wanderings:
* Telengard - My First CRPG
* Can CRPGs Age Gracefully?

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Monday, August 20, 2007
Frayed Knights Poll: Chloe Versus Chloe
Okay, ignoring (if possible) the difference between a professional artist's coloring-and-shading versus my quick-and-dirty flat-color job, which color scheme works better for Chloe? The pink "Disney Princess" on the left, or the purple-and-blue "Cyndi Lauper" version on the right? Vote and tell me what you think...

Please vote on the forum!

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Sunday, August 19, 2007
Jamie Fristrom on Why Games Are Important
Jamie Fristrom of Torpex Games - a man who has had a long and illustrious career stretching back to the old Magic Candle series - has posted a substantial article on why games are important.

His conclusion? Games help you learn about learning. They rarely teach you anything about the subject matter they supposedly represent. A first person shooter will - if anything - teach you horrible habits with respect to using guns in combat, and Guitar Hero won't teach you much about being a rock star. But they will teach you lessons in what he calls "meta-learning." Learning how to learn.

His full article can be found here:

Why Are Games Important? One of Many Reasons


Saturday, August 18, 2007
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Announced
I guess it's official. My extensive library of 3rd edition and 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons crap is going to be obsolete next summer. Dungeons & Dragons, the great ol' granddaddy of all role-playing games, is apparently receiving another facelift.

For a scary amount of detail pulled out from GenCon and press releases, check out this thread at ENWorld.

This time around, the goals for the latest revision seem to be:

* Faster set-up time and game play
* Easier / More Accessible to new players
* Integration with digital distribution, and the online gaming community, including online "gaming tables" to bring people together to play across the Internet
* Trying to see if they can't buy into the whole MMORPG "monthly fee" thing.

All noble goals, to be sure. And there are rumblings and rumors that there will be a 4th edition equivalent to the "Open Gaming License" that helped make the original release of 3rd edition such a huge success.

Bill Slavicsek, the Dungeons & Dragons R&D director, drops some more hints about what's going on:
The future (only nine months away!) contains the same D&D we all play on a regular basis. It’s still going to be a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s still set in a medieval fantasy world of magic and monsters. It’s still the d20 Game System. But the rulebooks appear more vibrant, more visually stunning, and much easier to use. The game mechanics have been amped up to eliminate the game-stoppers, accentuate the fun factors, and make play faster and more exciting. In the future (now only eight months, 29 days, 23 hours, and 50 minutes from now!) D&D Insider provides its members with immediate access to Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine, to enhanced and expanded content tied to the newest physical book products, to an amazing suite of digital tools to make Dungeon Master preparation and campaign management easier to handle, to a Character Creator that provides not only an interactive character sheet but a visualizer that lets you determine the exact look of the characters you create—and, D&D Insider provides a digital D&D Game Table. that turns the Internet into your kitchen table. This amazing application, which we’ll talk more about as the weeks go on, allows you to supplement your face-to-face gaming 24/7, helps you find a group to game with if you don’t happen to have a face-to-face group, or lets you hook up with gaming buddies who long ago scattered to the four winds. Take a look at the prototype movie we showed at Gen Con to get a first taste of the D&D Game Table.
But will I be buying into it? That, I cannot say. I am sure I'll be picking up the 4th edition Player's Handbook, at the very least, because I am a Dice & Paper Role-Playing Game junkie and I read game books for games I never play just for the fun of it. Yes, I'm a sick guy who probably needs professional help.

But playing it? Probably not so much. Besides the problem of convincing our gaming group (which has now swelled to WAY TO FREAKING MANY PLAYERS for a Saturday night game - we have enough for 2 separate games now) to buy new rules, there is a really huge issue in that I am not seeing (at this point) a compelling reason to change.

First of all, the designers did too good of a job in 3.5. They fixed most of the "bugs" in 3rd edition (which was a fantastic re-envisioning of the game on its own). Unlike the previous editions, there isn't a whole lot that I'd consider "broken." Other than the fact that the game is a little on the complex / unwieldy side, but as a Hero system veteran I mock those who think it's "too complicated." I mean, you don't even have to do long division in the middle of combat!

Secondly - edition 3.5 finally feels "mature." This means something different to a consumer than to the publisher. To a publisher, "mature" equates with "stagnant." Sales have dropped off because people already have all the books they could possibly use - and then some additional ones besides. I can't blame them for wanting to press the "reset" button at this point to go back to the days where everything was fresh and new, and players were ready to buy every single piece of crap book you could throw out at them.

To the player - mature means something else entirely. To me, it means I've got a sagging bookshelf full of possibilities that will take me years - decades, really - to get close to exploring fully. It means our gaming group is finally comfortable with the rules and gaming sessions tend to go more smoothly. It means I'm heavily invested in one product, very satisfied with said product, and not particularly interested in making a switch to a competing product even by the same manufacturer, even under threat of dropping support for the old product.

Because it's been a pretty plentiful seven years.

A similar thing happened with White Wolf's World of Darkness system (of which "Vampire: The Masquerade" was the flagship). Second edition really cleaned up the problems with the first editions of all the books. Then the third editions came and broke almost as much as they fixed. And now they've completely modified the entire world in an effort to push that reset switch and get everyone buying brand-new sourcebooks all over again.

But meanwhile, a lot of people (our group included) are still playing 2nd edition. Or a hybrid of 2nd and 3rd.

Still, it'll be interesting to follow what happens. Even if you don't touch the dice & paper stuff, you know there'll be some licensed D&D 4th Edition CRPGs we'll be playing in a couple of years.

The first official 4th edition D&D book will be the Player's Handbook, to be released in May 2008, followed by the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master's Guide in June and July, respectively.

For more information, check out the new website, DNDInsider.com.

(Vaguely) related expositions of my geekiness:
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* Disappointment in the Demonweb Pits
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons
* Teenagers and D&D


Friday, August 17, 2007
Depths of Peril Demo And Quick Take
Soldak's long-awaited indie RPG, Depths of Peril, now has the demo version available for download. Just do yourself a favor...

Download an play the demo of Depths of Peril.

And now here's my quick take on the game:

I've gotta admit --- I wasn't extremely excited about this title. There were some cool-sounding elements, but I didn't see how they fit together as a whole. Having played the demo far too long tonight, I'm gonna admit... Steven Peeler has pulled it off. This is an indie RPG that shows what indie RPGs can be about. It's got all that "innovation" and stuff that the press and fans claim they really want, but they too often ignore even if it bites them on the face.

At first blush, the game appears to be something of a Diablo 2 clone / wannabe. Nice graphics, but nothing that would blow you away. And really, if that was all there was to it, it'd be just another ignorable effort by the indies to prove that they can follow the mainstream pack just like anyone else. But Depths of Peril takes it an important step further.

Many winters ago, Ultima IV took the traditional RPG formula and game system of Ultima III and made it something special by making it about something - driving the meta-game of the virtue system and the "Quest of the Avatar." Suddenly, the accumulation of power and beating up hordes of monsters became simply means rather than an end. The embodiment of the virtues was the focus of much of the game, requiring a broader set of decisions.

Soldak seems to be going after the similar goal, using a Diablo-esque game system as the engine. But it adds a whole 'nother level of gameplay - a campaign if you will - a replayable meta-game of battling factions and survival on the edge of civilized territory. The monster-bashing and level-building is just a vehicle for athe larger game. Depths of Peril never lets you forget that there's a larger campaign and issues at stake, and three other AI-run competitors gunning for you. Its very clear that simply making yourself the biggest, baddest guy in the game world isn't going to save you or your faction should you ignore the larger game.

That's not to say the game is without flaws. It has its share, but its nice to see a game like this shoot for the stars a little. I was pleasantly surprised.

(Vaguely) related word-stuff:
* Indie RPG Roundtable
* Depths of Peril Preview
* Where Is Indie Innovation?

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Thursday, August 16, 2007
Frayed Knights: The Door Is Ajar
Time for More Stuff You Didn't Want To Know about the indie RPG that refuses to take itself too seriously!

Put On An Unhappy Face!
Last week, I started receiving some more artwork for the game. This week, I continued to receive some more facial expressions for all the player characters. Each of the player characters has eight different facial expressions (that's right... a total of 32 portraits for the main characters alone) to use in static dialogs and other parts of the game. The eight expressions are neutral, upset, happy, enraged, disgusted, sly, shocked, and thoughtful.

Hitting Game Mechanics With a +2 Wrench
Another surprisingly large task was to create the character information screens. While dumping the data into various fields in the UI isn't rocket science, I found myself dealing with implementing more stuff and handling yet more repercussions of the redesign.

For example: I want characters to be able to "pinch hit" in each other's classes if the player wants to build them that way (or if I, as the designer, want to customize the monsters that way). But I don't want them to come close to overshadowing each other. Arianna might be able to pull off some "sorceressness" of her own, but she should never be able to match Chloe in potency... and she'll have to sacrifice her own skill as a warrior to do it. In general, it takes about four levels to "mostly" emulate another class by taking the appropriate feats.

So why the pseudo-multiclassing? Well, let's say Dirk is currently unconscious, and you need someone to pick the lock of the dungon door to escape. Or maybe in a pinch, when the enemy spell-slinger is focusing on counter-magicking poor Chloe, Arianna can pull out an almost-as-powerful fireball herself and put some area-effect hurt on the bad guys and annoy the rival sorcerer.

So you can have an entire party of wannabe-sorcerers if you want. Which is cool, until you encounter some highly magic-resistant monsters.

So after a bit of fiddling with implementation, I now have somewhere north of 30 feats in the game (not all functional, but there) so far --- with probably three times that many when I am done. They are being handled and listed properly. I fixed spells so that they can only be cast by characters with the appropriate feats. And I've tightened up the mechanics a bit. I hope.

But Which Side Are The Hinges Facing?
I'd made a commitment to try and get doors done this week, so I had some solid direction when I got done with the feats, spells, and character display logic. The cool thing about doors is I had no freaking clue how I was going to implement them. So it's been a fun ride.

Since I'm a "learn by doing" kinda guy, I started out by modeling a door. I already had a photograph with a cool wooden door obtained from Mayang's Free Textures a couple of years ago. So I cropped, transformed, and modified the photo into something resembling a texture, deformed a cube in Blender to be roughly door-sized and door-shaped, slapped the texture on it, added a collision volume, arranged it in a hierarchy the way the Torque exporter wants it, and boom! I had something horrible. But it took only a couple more passes to get sizes and orientations into the game. So now I had a door which was a static barrier against movement. Total time-to-door was only 30 minutes from start to finish.

But how to get it to work? That took a little longer. First of all, I had to stumble across the obvious way to make it open and shut - through animations. I hadn't animated anything in Blender for a while, so I had to spend some time online brushing up on my dusty skills. The next challenge was that you can only animate the visual object elements under Torque. This means collisions don't animate. Ouch. So while the door might animate opening, it still wouldn't let you pass through it because it's collision was still blocking the doorway.

I kept my solution entirely at the script level. I ripped out the collision information on the door itself, and added an invisible, separate collision object linked to the door by code. When the door gets opened or closed, the script modifies the collision's rotation to match the door's eventual orientation. The collision doesn't really rotate along with the door so much as snap into conformity, but I think it will work just fine.

Next... How does the player trigger the door opening and closing? I just made it a new type of interactive object, like the fountain and talkative NPCs'. Viola! Not only did this allow me to be lazy and write very little new code, but it will (hopefully) provide a more consistent experience for players.

And there we go! A door! This screenshot was taken in the middle of its opening animation. Oh, and I grew tired of the color orange, so I slapped some textures on the dungeon. Nothing too elaborate. Or final. But it makes a huge difference, don't you think?

Who'd have thought making a door would be such a pain in the butt? From 30 minutes on my first pass, the whole thing ended up taking over 3 hours. But at least I only had to solve this problem ONCE. Adding additional doors to a level will be a cinch.

More Concept Art

Here's a "Weed Goblin," probably my favorite of Shawn's concept pieces. You won't encounter any of these in the dungeon itself, but they can be found in the countryside between the temple of Pokmor Xang and the village of Ardin.

My Next Trick Will Be...
August is going by way too fast. The code to make the "First Five Minutes" work is all there, but I've got tons to try and get done between now and November. So for this week:

#1 - The characters aren't really getting sick when they drink from the fountain. I need to test the state code and add illnesses with debilitating effects --- and list those effects in the character information screens.

#2 - Drama Point Gain. So those stars at the top of the screen will actually look like they are doing something.

#3 - Design the Long-Term Fatigue system (more on why this is useful next week).

#4 - Update the design document.

#5 - Get started on inventory system

That's a tall order. It's gonna be a busy week. Again.

(Vaguely) related tiptoeing through weed-goblin infested tulips:
* Coloring!
* The Frayed Knights Get a Makeover
* Frayed Knights: Task Resolution Revisited
* Sucking Slightly Less
* How To Make a Better RPG With Procedural Content

Wanna Chat? The Cool Kids Are Hanging Out on the Forum!

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
The "Cool Cam"
You may recall the story I posted many moons ago about the "Cool Cam" in European Air War, and how that presentation saved the project. It's now gotten the "Worse Than Failure" treatment.

The Cool Cam

It's cool that the whole "presentation is reality" could be used for a force for good instead of evil once in a while. On the other hand... boy it gets annoying sometimes that it's all about the shiny.

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Even More Essential RPGs
The "Essential RPG" idea has fostered a ton of discussion - which was of course the whole idea.
Looking back, I don't know if I was entirely clear in my own mind of my objectives with such a list. A few days later, I think I recognize my subconscious purpose a little better. In talking about "vocabulary," what I was really looking for was perhaps the best / clearest / most definitive examples of the breadth of game design that makes up this incredible genre that we love.

Which is cool from the purpose of a game designer. Or a hobbyist with an interest in game design. Or someone who has a foot in both camps, like me. But folks keep pulling out more games that they'd put on their own lists for their own purposes.

Anne has her list of twelve essential RPGs from a writer's perspective on the Writer's Cabal Blog. In her mind, these are the best examples of different ways to tell story in an RPG. It's a great list. I've personally been burned too many times by games that promised awesomeness and delivered a pile of something stinky. She has several games that were also on my list, but for different reasons. She also includes some great additions: Starflight (I and II), Suikoden 2, City of Heroes / Villains, and... The Witcher. I'm sorry, Anne, but I'm gonna call foul on including an unreleased game on the list. We can hope it delivers on its promise, but... I've had my hopes dashed too many times before.

Scorpia included her commentary, which is as colorful as always. Her own additions would include Eye of the Beholder, and she seemed to agree with Adam V. and Pile_On from the comments here that Wasteland would make a good addition.

Gary, over at The Amazing Re-Titled Blog, has his take on the Top 10 Essential RPGs. Again, he's got different reasons (usually) for including certain games in his list. His additions include System Shock 2, Neverwinter Nights (which, in retrospect, I'm definitely going to have to agree with and add it as #17), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Arcanum, and Phantasy Star III.

And then we have some great suggestions for games from Tales of the Rampant Coyote and the forum. Beside's Pile_On's and Adam's Wasteland votes, you folks have contributed a number of nominees and made some very compelling cases for them, including:

Dragon Warrior (GB Games),
Wizardy: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (GB Games, seconded by RandomGamer),
Yendorian Tales: Tyrants of Thaine (Tom)
Ultima Underworld (Corvus, and also one of my top runners-up!)
Final Fantasy Tactics (DrSlinky),
Darklands (Pile_On, seconded by Clouviere - Pile_On also included a very DETAILED case for it!),
Arcanum (again, also Pile_On, seconded by Joshuasmyth),
The Legend of Zelda (Ezra - though I don't really think of that one as an RPG),
Star Wars: KOTOR again (Ezra),
Lands of Lore 1 (Ezra),
System Shock 2 also (Ezra),
Eye of the Beholder (Joshuasmyth, agreeing with Scorpia),
Quest for Glory (Joshuasmyth - again, I didn't really consider those to be RPGs, but they might count...),
Alternate Reality (Xenovore)...

If we're broadening the list (and adding indie / shareware games! Woo-hoo!), I'd probably stick Cute Knight up there, too. Not because it could go toe-to-toe against Baldur's Gate II or anything, but simply because it serves as an illustration of how you can hybridize RPGs with other genres to make something that is still very recognizeably an RPG with a very distinct flavor.

So What's The Point?
And I expect more to come. But already, that's nearly 40 RPGs (or near-RPGs) that people consider landmark, exceptional, or otherwise noteworthy and unique enough to be worthy of attention and discussion by anyone today who wants to understand this category of games.

I don't want to argue over which are the most distinct examples of the category. Though I'm sure we could --- for years! I think there's a much more interesting point to come from these discussions.

How many of us have seriously played (let alone completed ) 40 CRPGs? Maybe Scorpia, as being an RPG reviewer for decades can do that to a person (and wreak havok on their sanity, no doubt). I've probably "tried" that many RPGs (and more), but played up until even the half-way point? I think I come up a littl shy, and I've been at it a while. UPDATE: I did a quick double-check, and realized I actually come in a little over 40 if you don't include expansions and very small games. So much for my point. But I've actually completed less than 40 full-length CRPGs.

And even with that many noteworthy games that all reflect different facets of the possibility-space of Computer Role-Playing Games, I don't think we're even remotely close to exploring all the potential that's there. This is an phenominally broad style of game with enormous potential.

So why do we (meaning the audience at large) keep settling for more of the same with prettier graphics?

Join the Discussion Already in Progress on the Forum

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
RPG Design: Feed Me, Seymour!
I enjoy classic CRPGs. That's not much of a secret. Old-tech graphics? I use my imagination. Turn-based combat? I marginally prefer it. Lots of numerical stats? Hey, we Americans (at least of the male persuasion) can't watch sports without breaking it down into statistics and rankings. Primitive, complex interfaces? Well, okay, those really do suck, but at least you get used to them.

But there's a feature of certain "Old School" RPGs I really don't miss much...

Keeping track of food, and keeping your party fed.

The Ultima series was notorious for this. I recall very painfully hearing the explosions of static repeating for each of my characters every few steps as they starved to death in Ultima III. In Ultima VII, your party members were like baby birds, chirping every few minutes for more food, so you would (manually) shove a biscuit or something down their throats to get them to shut up for five minutes.

EverQuest also had this little "feature." You had to keep food in your inventory, or your character would start to weaken.

Keeping track of food is just not one of the fun elements of heroic fantasy. Sure, tracking the logistics might appeal to some people, but most people would rather play Aragorn than Samwise. Tracking that level of minutia just feels like a nuisance. And there's nothing heroic about your party starving to death while crossing the wilderness. If I was playing Oregon Trail or Everest or something like that, sure... that's part of the experience I'm expecting to simulate. But in adventure stories, fatigue and hunger is only good background prose. I don't want to have to live it and play accountant and quartermaster - I'd much rather concentrate on the butt-kicking aspects of my heroic career.

I haven't seen it crop up too recently, and its something I'm happy with which to say good riddance!

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Ultima Underworld springs immediately to my mind. This was a somewhat unique "Survival RPG" set in a closed environment. It ran at a slower pace, and trying to forage enough food to keep alive was part of the challenge and interest there. I enjoyed it, and found it to be one of the very few cases where maintaining a food supply was an enjoyable part of the game.

You know, nobody's really done a "survival RPG" before or since. And there is a major digression waiting to happen...

The Vampire the Masquerade games also required you to feed. But since you play a vampire, that really makes sense as being integral to the overall gameplay. Food - blood - was a scarce commodity, and balanced out how much you could use your powers (which typically burned off the blood points you needed to fill with more blood). Again - here, it was fun, and a vital part of the game mechanics. It was interesting. And, in the case of Bloodlines, could be its own mini-game!

So there is a time & place for worrying about food in a CRPG. But on the way to do battle with the ferocious ancient dragon is NOT it.

(Vaguely) related grumblings:
* RPG Design: Quest Abuse
* RPG Design: Ye Olde Saved Game Debate
* Fair Game or Drama?

Extra-Long-Lasting Comments for Future Embarrassment Found on the Forum!

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Monday, August 13, 2007
Make Your Own Dungeon With Dungeon Maker
You could probably call it the "Dungeon Master Construction Set," but a new, free 3D RPG engine is now available in an early, alpha state. Entitled Dungeon Maker, it includes a toolset and sample dungeons - including a remake of the landmark RPG, Dungeon Master.

While the game limits you to the four cardinal directions of facing and movement, the graphics are "real" 3D. Which means the turns are smooth, staircases don't necessitate a level-load, the player vantage point bobs about in a simulation of human movement (and breathing), and there are nifty lighting options, among other things.

The program (and editor) are still in alpha, so guesses are they aren't quite ready for prime time. Looking at the tools, I can see some limits to how much customization you have over the game rules and interface. And the current version uses some assets that are probably in violation of copyrights at this point. And there's the usual problems with stability and everything associated with an alpha stage toolset.

So I'm not quite ready to bag the development work I've done on Frayed Knights so far to jump over to this engine. But if the developer, Wishbone, continues development on it, I can see it perhaps becoming a viable engine for future indie RPGs. It looks like it has potential, at least.

The question in my mind is just how much customization it will allow when completed. While the ability to re-create the gaming experience of Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and other cRPGs of the late 80's / early 90's with more modern graphics is definitely cool, the important thing is whether or not indie developers will be able to exceed the design of these old games in key ways. After all, we DID get Bard's Tale Construction Set and Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures back then. I loved the games back then, but I'd like to see indies give us something more than just a retread of those classics.

Still, this looks like something worth keeping an eye on. You need look no further than the success of Aveyond, Cute Knight, or Spiderweb's games to see that some creativity and unique flavor can not only breathe new vigor into an "old school" RPG engine, but can also make it commercially viable. Maybe the next "hit" indie RPG will be made with Dungeon Maker.

You can download the current alpha version at the official Dungeon Maker website.

A hat tip goes out to Independent Gaming for the heads-up on this one.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007
I get to color!

I'm not much of an artist. There are jokes about "programmer art" that are very true. I think one reason I'm nostalgic for the early 8-bit days is because back then, the difference between programmer art and professional art wasn't nearly as pronounced. But since I'm all about maintaining a "growth mindset" and stuff these days, I'm trying to learn.

So I'm coloring some black & white sketches for the Frayed Knights characters. It's kinda like being back in second grade again. Except this time, I get to color with The Gimp, and use layers and things like undo commands to fix mistakes as I make them. Man, I only WISH I had had access to that kind of stuff in second grade!

The original artist who drew the sketches was able to color some of them, and so I'm using his examples (he did the one to the left). He makes it look so easy! I'm not sure if my end result is passable or not. It's still a work in progress. And I'm highly reliant on reducing them down to 128 x 128 to hide a bunch of flaws. I'll keep working on it.

But it's fun to color!

(Vaguely) related stuff:
* The Secret of Success? It's All In the Mind(set)!
* Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Frayed Knights Gets a Makeover
* Getting Better 1,198 Polygons At a Time

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Friday, August 10, 2007
The 16 Essential RPGs
A few days ago I shot my mouth off (or the digital, written-word equivalent) about the need for historical perspective for developers and journalists in the field of gaming.

So that made me think about computer and console RPGs. What are the titles that constantly get invoked when discussing the genre? What games form the "vocabulary" of RPGs nowadays? What are the "essential" RPGs? The ones that anyone serious about the subject (be they a designer, journalist, historian, or connesieur) should be familiar with? What are the RPGs that all other RPGs get compared against?

Here's my list, based on several discussions with other RPG fans and designers. This is my list of what I consider the most-often invoked references used to discuss RPG design:

#1 - Fallout
This game is spoken of in reverential tones. Not only was it among the few successful non-fantasy RPGs, but it was also one of the most open-ended and flexible. And it seems impossible to hold a discussion about computer RPGs without Fallout (and, often, its sequel) being invoked.

#2 - Ultima IV
This was everything its predecessors were, but included the oft talked-about system of virtues. It was an RPG where progression involved more than just the accumulation of virtues, but actually a pattern of behavior in the world and in interaction with the NPCs. This game provides a glimpse into an evolutionary path of RPGs that Might Have Been. Who knows? Maybe it still is where our future lay.

#3 - The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (alternately, any other game in the TES series)
Many consider Morrowind to be the better RPG. While I'm inclined to agree, I also have to admit I never "finished" Morrowind. I played it twice, though - but lost interest both times around 30 hours in. But the success of Oblivion can't be argued. It is, at this point, the ultimate evolution of the "Action RPG" started with Ultima Underworld. Oblivion is an FPS / RPG hybrid that only barely favors the RPG side of the equation, but it works incredibly well. And it has now set standard in the minds of many RPG fans, though many old-school fans hope that it only represents a subgenre of what will hopefully continue to be a very broad and varied genre.

#4 - Final Fantasy VII
When you talk about story and characters, Final Fantasy VII was the game that stands out in many gamer's minds. The gameplay was fairly standard fair, the plot was a sometimes-comprehensible eco-friendly-themed thing that would have only been "good" were it not for the violent death of a main character. I think many gamers were taken by surprise by the emotional attachment they felt to these highly stylized characters.

#5 - Diablo
Either I or II will do. It took the concept of the RPG and set it on its ear and made it paletable for the masses. It was hugely successful, and created a subgenre of its own.

#6 - Nethack
If Oblivion shows one way of stripping an RPG down to its essentials, Nethack shows the extreme alternative way to strip it down. Devoid of fancy graphics, voice-overs and quest engines, Nethack is pure mechanics. And it shows just how much awesome gameplay and deep, interesting challenge can be packed into the code if you don't worry so much about presentation.

#7 - Baldur's Gate II
Perhaps the pinnacle of modern "traditional" RPG design... which is kind of sad, as it's getting a little long in the tooth.

#8 - Pool of Radiance (Gold Box Series)
"Real" AD&D finally made its appearance here --- and the series stuck with a very traditional approach in order to focus on capturing the a lot of the breadth of the traditional "Pen & Paper" experience. Pool of Radiance was the first of the series, and was weakest in terms of interface and mechanics, but it also held very true to the source material. It was even simulataneously released with a pen-and-paper module.

#9 - Chrono Trigger
This was, according to many, the pinnacle of console-RPG storytelling in the 16-bit era. And I'm inclined to agree. Combined with FF7 and FF6, it represents a high point in Square's creative history, where they found a near-optimum balance of technology and storytelling. In spite of releasing at the beginning of the 32-bit revolution, it made a tremendous impression on gamers. Strong, memorable characters, a twisted time-travelling plot, and low-tech but high-quality graphics made for a game that is perhaps the best example of the "jRPG" subgenre to date - even twelve years later.

#10 - Planescape: Torment
Confession time - I haven't played this game yet. I have borrowed a friends copy that I have yet to play. It's placement here is based upon my guilt and feelings of inadequacy in the face of overwhelming opinion by others. Planescape: Torment is known for being a (very wordy) story / character heavy entry using the Baldur's Gate engine, dealing with more complex moral issues and an intriguing story of self-discovery. And a really, really weird setting with bizarre monsters (and companions).

#11 - Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Another hybrid FPS / RPG, like Oblivion, but with a far better plot, more focused gameplay, and a non-medieval-fantasy setting. In some ways, this could be considered a failed experiment. The developers made something that really was very different in many ways, but the end result seemed to feel like they didn't quite take it far enough. For example, there were a ton of great non-combat options throughout the game, but that only made the required combat sequences all the more annoying. As a bonus, this game had one of the coolest twist endings ever. The game totally nailed the feel and flavor of its license. If your evaluation of RPGs is based upon how well it immerses you into its world, then this game deserves to be in the top ten of anyone's list.

#12 - Ultima VII
My personal favorite. This was in my opinion the pinnacle of the Ultima series, and showed just how much story and immersion could be had in what almost amounted to a 2D "world simulator" without a robust quest engine or anything similar. The game was magic.

#13 - Wizardy (7 and 8)
Whether Wizardry 7 or Wizardry 8 represents the pinnacle of the Wizardry series depends upon who you ask. Wizardry 7 was ahead of its time with some ideas that unfortunately never
quite worked as expected. Some might argue that Wizardry 8 was behind the times,
adhering to gameplay mechanics that were getting dated a decade earlier, in spite of
being marvelously updated. Still, both games demonstrated that fun, story, and
immersion were still plentiful in a decidedly 'old-school' format.

#14 - Might & Magic IV / V - The World of Xeen
Another one I haven't played, and I feel like I have a big ol' gap in my expertise as a result. Again, I base my opinion here on how much people refer to it and make me feel inadequate in discussions about RPGs. One interesting point about these two games is that they combined to form a larger game when both were installed - something like 25% more game than either of them separately. I don't know of any games that have done this since.

#15 - Final Fantasy VI
Called Final Fantasy III in the original US release, this was another example of stellar craftsmanship and storytelling on a very limited platform. Somehow, in spite of the limited Super NES graphics, the game started with the feel of something truly epic in scope, and continued to deliver (when it wasn't bogged down in uninteresting combat encounters).

#16 - Deus Ex
If Oblivion was an RPG with heavy FPS influences, I consider Deus Ex as an FPS with heavy RPG influences. Many don't agree with me, including the producer, Warren Spector. It contains some brilliant design decisions and a flexible, more open-ended world than many FPS or RPG titles. And when discussing RPG design, this game inevitably pops up in discussions.

Update: Note - I don't know if there are many people out there who have played (let alone completed) every game on this list. I'd figure anybody who has even played half of the games on the list to be pretty well versed in the genre.

Conspicuously Missing Department:
Some of these might have been on the list a few years ago, but they've been superceded for some reason or another, their innovations absorbed into later games that improved upon them. They might have been monumentally important and influential and innovative in their time (that's a lot of "i's"!), but they just aren't referenced as much as examples.

Ultima Underworld: One of my all-time favorites. It was the first FPS / RPG
hybrid, coming out before FPS was even a genre --- it was released at approximately
the same time as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom's precursor. While it is historically very
significant, its not used quite so much to define elements of the genre (except by me).

The Bard's Tale: Landmark for its era mostly for advancing state-of-the-art
with the "Wizardry" RPG style and perspective.

The Dungeon Master: FTL's Amiga title made owners of other platforms very
jealous for a couple of years. It boosted the state-of-the-art in the pseudo-3D
dungeon crawler by a well-needed margin, and was an influence on many later games,
including some of them on the list above. The same goes for the Eye of the Beholder series.

Your Turn!
Okay, guys, what did I miss? I know everybody's got some favorites that they personally feel very strongly about and that have influenced their own tastes and design philosophies, but what games do you feel still get used frequently as examples or benchmarks to compare others against? What games do you feel that someone really should be familiar with to be considered an "expert" (or at least an "authority") on the subject of CRPGs?

(Vaguely) related RPG listy stuff:
* The Lack of Historical Perspective in Game Media
* The Most Important CRPGs of All Time
* Escaping the Dungeon: Can RPGs Get Out of the Fantasy Rut?
* Who Are the Best Game Villains?

Discuss (or don't) on the forum!

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Thursday, August 09, 2007
The Next Game-License Movie
You may have seen Doom: The Movie or Silent Hill: The Movie. Or Tomb Raider. Or Blood Rayne, Super Mario Brothers, Mortal Kombat, Alone in the Dark, or any number of (generally crappy) movies based on videogames.

You may have heard of upcoming movies based on Dungeon Siege and Halo.

But the ultimate movie based on a game license is coming soon to a desktop near you:



Frayed Knights Dev Diary: The Frayed Knights Get A Makeover
Did you ever wonder what a pus golem should look like? Shawn Boyles is the man to give form to the vision. He whipped out some concept art this last week that - as usual - blew me away. The man is talented. To the right is the very first monster to be encountered in Frayed Knights.

This is not to be confused with a "snot golem," which bears more of a greenish tinge. They are also generally more robust, though they become hard and brittle in drier climates. But I digress...

There's a bit more concept art that I'll share over the next couple of weeks. Shawn has also been working on facial expressions for each of the four main player characters. Whenever they get involved in static dialogs, things can get kind of ... intense. So their facial expressions will reflect - to some degree - what's going on in the dialog.

In addition to that, we got a bit of a coloring makeover going on, as you can see with the revised version of Dirk, here. I guess that's what he looks like in the hands of someone who actually knows how to do things like "shading" and "texturing" and "painting without numbers" and stuff.

The Fountain
As for my own lazy self, I continued working on Interactive Objects. Specifically, the fountain mentioned in the Five Minute Walk-Through. In retrospect, if I'd known what I was getting into, I'd have allocated more than a week to trying to get such a complex, data-driven, scripted game element done. Then again, if I knew what I was doing, I wouldn't have even attempted this project in the first place, so I should be used to it.

The fountain is really just a test case for the generic "Interactive Object" object class. These constructs were kinda-sorta modeled after the conversation dialogs in games like Neverwinter Nights. An Interactive Object consists (mainly) of flags, pages, and options. Options consist of conditionals, descriptions, and results. Conditionals are any kind of test to determine whether or not the option is available. Results are likewise large and varies --- any sort of game effect that takes place, including things like triggering static dialogs, damaging a character, changing flags, or causing a spell to go off. Pages consist of the text description at the top of the dialog, and a collection of options available.

It all combines to form a somewhat less exotic menu screen like the one you see to the right.

Step 1: Logic
My first step (not quite done by the time I wrote the dev diary last week) was to hard-code all the values for a sample interactive object (specifically, the fountain), and then to write the code to handle all the logic when the player pushes the buttons. Right now, certain things still don't work, because there are parts of the game that these should affect that aren't in yet (like inventory).

Here's a sample of the hard-coded interactive object script code (with the formatting all screwed up):

// ------------------ OPTION 0: Try to discover the depth ----------------------------------
$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].numConditions = 1;
$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].condition[0] = new ScriptObject() {
type = 0; // Check local flag

comparison = 0; // equal

param1 = 0; // flag 0

param2 = 0; // comparison value


$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].text = "Try to discover the depth of the fountain";
$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].numResults = 2;
$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].results[0] = new ScriptObject()
type = 7;
param1 = "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.";
// Set flag 0
$InteractiveObjectScript::Option[0].results[1] = new ScriptObject()
type = 8;
param1 = 0;

param2 = 1;

Yuck. And that's not even the code that runs the logic, decides what pages and options to display, and processes the results when the player hits a button. But it gave me a starting point, and I kept hammering on the game logic until the whole thing worked. And after much butt-in-chair work, it did. Even to the point of launching static dialogs or pop-up story windows. Fun stuff.

Step 2: Text Files
Since I want more things in the world than fountains, I needed a more data-driven way of handling interactive objects. I didn't relish the opportunity to create a hundred of these files all hard-coded in TorqueScript. Instead, I created a text file to be parsed into the game at the appropriate time.

The same thing above, in the text file format, looks like this:

;------- OPTION 1: Depth Check ----------
[Option 1]

[text]Try to discover the depth of the fountain
[numResults] 2

[condition 1]
[type] 0
[comparison] 0

[param 1]0

[param 2]0

[result 1]

[param 1]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.

[result 2]
[type] 8

[param 1] 0

[param 2] 1

So it is a little easier to read (and, more importantly, maintain). Of course, now I needed to write some code to read this file in and parse it. So I hammered away on more code, not stopping until tonight, when the functionality of the parsed-file version of the fountain matched that of the hard-coded version exactly.

Step 3: A Tool To Make Life Easier?
The natural third step would be to create a tool that would allow me to create these data files automatically, doing all the error checking for me. I'm all for it. But I don't have time right now. I see a C# program (since I need more practice with C#) with all kinds of cool UI widgets to choose comparison operators and result types. This would eliminate more human error from the process of scripting interactive objects.

It'd be cool. But not for this week.

And moving forward....
So what's up this week? Getting the character sheet fully operational (sans inventory and leveling up)! This oughta be a piece of cake after I've simplified the whole rules system, right? And if I have more time... doors!

(Vaguely) related fraying:
* Frayed Knights: First Five Minutes Walkthrough
* Rules of Game Design, Part 1
* Frayed Knights: Design Doc Fun!

Forum discussion at this link!

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007
RPG Design: Scaling Encounters
When I was a kid in the Commodore 64 era, I had a dream about an RPG. When the dream started, I was looking down upon tiled geography similar to what I'd expect in Ultima III or the soon-to-be-released Adventure Construction Set (which I later used to try and replicate my dream-game), albeit with far greater color and higher resolution than home computers of the time could provide. The way to the east of my avatar's starting position seemd open and inviting, but for some reason, I went west.

Not too far to the west, I found three castles, separated by a pixellated lake. I chose the furthest castle, and entered in the gate, wondering what I'd find.

At this point, the dream's perspective changed to something more traditional, though it alternated between first and third-person as I discovered I was in way over my head. Monsters popped out with the regularity of an amusement park haunted house ride, and I fled from encounter to encounter, soon becoming completely lost. Eventually, I found myself in a high tower room, witnessing a sunset through a huge window. And keeping an eye on a vampire in the shadows, who would creep towards me whenever I let my eyes wander away from him for even a brief moment. The dream ended as I frantically tried to figure a way out of this predicament.

Maybe this dream came to me after I had just discovered The Bard's Tale, and was reflecting the anxiety I felt towards the almost punitive difficulty level of that RPG. You might spend an hour creating the perfect adventuring party, only to have them slaughtered to the last man in a single combat two steps outside of the starting tavern. The success of The Bard's Tale notwithstanding, my little dream game was not an example of stellar RPG design. Most players are not inclined to endure repeated butt-stomping so early in the game.

Most games prevent this by limiting the player's access to the world in the early game. You just can't get to the harder areas of the game early on, until you have accumulated the appropriate keys, passwords, or flying vehicles to get there, or until you have slogged through more intermediate-difficulty locales to get there. You can't get to level 10 of the dungeon until you've successfully navigated levels 1 through 9.

But there's another solution: Scaling encounters to match the power level of the player's characters. As the player gets tougher, so do his challenges, all determined algorithmically.

This has been done for years. I think Ultima III or Ultima IV had the random monsters that hunted your party across the landscape increase in difficulty based upon the number of turns that had elapsed in the game. While not directly correlating to the strength of the player's characters, the end result was that you didn't have to end up fighting groups of enemy Balrons at level 6. Neverwinter Nights featured built-in scaled encounter support as well, both for its own campaigns and as a tool to module designers.

The use of scaling was perhaps most blatant in the recent best-selling RPG, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Quite frankly, there was no harder or easier parts to the game. I learned this when I first attempted to end the daedric siege on Kvatch at level seven. I found it a little difficult, so I decided, with typical brute-force strategy, to go away and come back in a few levels when I could better handle the enemies. Much to my surprise, when I came back, the bad guys had also leveled up. The previous residents of the dimension had vacated in favor of a meaner, nastier bunch.

In fact, I have heard of people deliberately avoiding the "leveling up" process so they can complete the entire game at a very low level (as low as level 2, I understand). Since the game takes such pains to scale the encounters to the player's level, the player never has to deal with anything too tough to beat. Leveling up is almost useless, as the challenge is always flat.

A lot of players really hated the scaled encounters in Oblivion. While it prevented a situation like the one in my dream from happening, part of the thrill of an RPG is the possibility of finding yourself in "over your head." The understanding that the game is throttling its encounters to match your capabilities ruins the illusion of exploring a fantasy world. that is populated whether or not your character decides to visit. The scaled encounters mean you never really felt like you are progressing... your power level relative to the monsters is always the same, and nothing is too difficult for you to overcome (given time and a few saved-game reloads). It denies the player the chance to set their own pace as far as intensity of the game. As a designer, it means creating fewer unique or signature encounters, and making sure that those that are in the game have appropriate variations to use for all power levels.

On the other hand, scaled encounters simulate what a human Game Master would do to prepare an adventure for you, as a player. They allow the world to be far more open-ended, allowing the player to go anywhere without fear of ending up either bored or frustrated from segments that outside of their "challenge window." You do not run the risk of dropping the players into an unwinnable section of the game because they were more aggressive and luckier through an earlier part of the game and didn't waste time "grinding."

So where do you stand on the issue? Are scaled encounters a good or bad thing? How far should they go, if they are not inherently wrong?

(Vaguely) related colorless commentary:
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator
* MMORPGs Broke Jeff Vogel
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia

Read or Post Comments on the Forum

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007
50 Really Good Indie Games
In response to the Game Tunnel Top 100 Indie Games list, Derek Yu and the community at TIGSource have put together their own "best of" list... except they don't intend it to be a "best of" list. Rather, it is intended to "aggregate a diverse collection of high quality independent games, and say a little about the significance of each one. "

50 Really Good Indie Games

As this list includes several of my favorites (including Outpost Kaloki and Aveyond), I gotta say I like it. Several games on the list are well on their way to achieving "cult classic" status, such as Kingdom of Loathing, Dwarf Fortress, The Shivah, and Cave Story. Then there's the "I can't believe it's indie" titles like Sam & Max and Alien Homenid (and, of course, Outpost Kaloki) - titles with high production values. And some expected favorites, like the Façade experimental game, Peacemaker, and Armadillo Run. One of Emily Short's "Interactive Fiction" titles, Galatea, even made the list.

Good stuff to check out!

(Vaguely) related linkages...
* The Top 100 Indie Games
* The 27 Best Indie "Art" Games
* Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
* Interview with Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
* Console Indie: An Interview with Steve Taylor of NinjaBee



Monday, August 06, 2007
Playing Frankenstein - 4 Tips for Designing Better Computer RPG Monsters
There is an interesting series over at Wizards of the Coasts site about the thought process that went into designing the monsters for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, more paticularly the new Monster Manual V (which I haven't picked up yet, but being a monster junkie, I know I will).

A third article is forthcoming, but you can read PART I and PART II.

Some of the information here is pretty tightly related to making a pen & paper game system, but many of David Noonan's points are just as valid (with modification) for creating a stable of computer RPG monsters. Here are some ideas adapted from his articles:

#1 - Make Every Monster an Exciting Encounter
This is a tough one in a computer RPG, because the level of automation of combat (even in a turn-based game) means there is going to be a LOT of repetition of monsters. So I guess the key here is to make sure that battles between different types of monsters is as different as possible. This can be done through their abilities, or even just through their AI and behaviors (remember how annoying those Fallen / Carvers / Devilkins / etc were when they'd run away in Diablo 2?)

The plan should be to give every type of monster a noticeable quirk or difference.

#2 Categorize the monsters, and use that to help guide you through the process
David Noonan opted for seven "categories" of monsters (well, six plus one) which he took pains to keep somewhat evenly represented. This helped keep the monsters roughly separated in terms of style.

For Monster Manual V, his categories were Brutes (monsters which relied on straightforward melee combat), Artillery (monsters which were most powerful attacking from range), Masterminds (monsters which served as the "big bad" for entire adventures, being both smart and social), Lurkers (monsters which used ambush tactics), Mooks (monsters which were most powerful grouped with each other), Decathlete (monsters that can perform several of these roles well), and "Special" (a catch-all category).

This at least helps keep monsters different on a rough level. Then you can go through the groups and make sure the monsters are well differentiated from each other. Most stand-alone single-player RPGs don't have a monster list of hundreds, so there shouldn't be too many monsters in each category to distinguish.

#3 Make it Easier on th DM (or, in this case, the AI) to Run
While computer RPGs don't have to worry about making the poor, overworked DM's job easier, his suggestions can apply almost as well to AI. Players complain endlessly about wanting better AI, even though they rarely understand what they are talking about, which developers fight constantly with making AI more interesting and believable.

But what many players really want isn't more accurate and intelligent AI, but rather interesting and clever AI that responds well to the player's actions. A few simple, memorable, and unique behaviors go a long way towards achieving this goal, where a huge suite of behaviors to be used in combination with all monsters does not. For example, an enemy NPC who spends every round healing party members if any of them is wounded will be far more memorable and interesting than true "AI" that might try and select more appropriate spells every round from their vast spell libraries.

#4 - Make the Most of a Few Simple Mechanics
Almost every RPG has, at its core, a very simple game mechanic in combat. It's a race to be the last to run out of health. But good RPGs have several mechanics (AKA "gameplay") that makes that particular journey more interesting.

Noonan here talks about a couple of new mechanics that they used variants of across multiple monsters in the Monster Manual V. One, for the lack of a better term, could be called an "exit strategy" mook - a creature which leaves the other surviving members of its party more powerful when it is destroyed. This is a major shift in the usual pattern of combat, where the enemy groups become weaker as their members are eliminated. Another one is the "tiered monster" approach - creatures that have their abilities change based on their current health levls. As he points out, these straightforward mechanics - with variations - led to a lot of new creature ideas.

This applies so strongly to CRPGs it should probably a given for most experienced designers. The point is to keep the number of truly unique, exceptional cases down, and really maximize the behaviors and capabilities you already have. It's up to the designer to figure out how he can create whole new gameplay out of minor variations to existing rules. Exploit the mechanics you've got to the fullest you can!

But yeah, don't be afraid to throw in a couple of zingers that have completely unique cases from time to time. Rules are made to be broken...

Yes, yes, I know. An RPG is about a world, story, and characters. But since its a game and not a novel, you need to spend as much energy making the game "mechanically interesting" (what people usually refer to as "gameplay") so that the player isn't just grinding through hours of meaningless boredom in order to enjoy snatches of story. Wouldn't it be awesome if every combat stood out in the mind of the player?

Your Turn!
Okay, now I know you guys have a lot of great ideas of your own, either as an RPG player or maybe even a designer yourself. What would you add to this list?

(Vaguely) related monstrosities:
* How to Make a Better RPG With Procedural Content
* RPG Combat Design
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs

Read or Post Comments on the Forum!

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Sunday, August 05, 2007
Indiecade: A New Independent Games Festival
We now have a new indie festival to celebrate the "indie spirit" in game making. The group is called "Indiecade," and they are sponsoring both the Indie Games Showcase at E3, and the Indiecade Festival to begin next year. One of the organizers is Sam Roberts, former Director of the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. After the whole controversy surrounding the competition earlier this year, this is an interesting bit of news on its own.

Indiecade's stated purpose is "to support, publicize, and cultivate innovation and artistry in interactive media, and to help create a public perception of games as rich, diverse, artistic, and culturally significant."

I can't argue with that. Their first event took place at E3 a few weeks ago, the "Indie Games Showcase." 20 different games were shown ... and not all of them were video games, either. In the FAQ, they suggest that the games they showcase or have at the festival should have a "digital component," but they welcome and actively encourage hybrid games.

The Indiecade Games Festival is planned for three days in Spring, 2008 (actual dates TBD) in Santa Monica.

The website is "Are You Indie," and is worth checking out for any indie out there working on something... different. Or people observing the industry. Or guys like Roger Ebert.

So... do we NEED a new indie games festival? We have the IGF and Slamdance (though the latter has lost some credability)... and maybe even Sundance? Does this dillute attention rather than increase visibility for different games from the indie community? Whadayathink? Let us know in the comments or the Rampant Games General Discussion Forum!

Oh, and tip o' the tophat to Mike Rubin, AKA Rubes, for this little tidbit!

(Vaguely) related stuff for packaging for digital fishes:
* No Indies in the Indie Competition?
* The Slamdance Aftermath
* Game Tunnel's Top 100 Indie Games
* Watch the IGF and GDC Awards Show
* Ebert vs. Barker on "Are Games Art?"

The forum, yo!


Saturday, August 04, 2007
The 27 Best Indie "Art" Games
Mentisworks has an article listing his take on the best "art" games:

Art Games: Best Indy Titles

He makes a comment in the first paragraph of his introduction which I really like, though I don't agree with it 100%:
"When I think of art that has influenced me most, it is generally work done by individuals. I can't recall the last time a corporation created a brilliant painting. I find that this also tends to be true in the emerging area of art games. Individuals are not generally driven to create purely for profit, and have more leeway to experiment and create according to their own artistic vision."
There's a quote on several pages at Rampant Games that state, "Games With Personality." - a motto I'm slowly phasing in to replace "Kicking Tail And Making Games" (though that latter one might not be retired entirely, just 'cuz I like it). This was the thing that keeps striking me about indie games.

They may be rough. Very rough, in some cases. The creators might not be all that skilled - yet. You can compare them to a "garage band" very easily - even in the rawness, there's some vigor and emotion and personality that escapes the more processed fare most gamers are used to. I don't think it's limited to individual creators, any more than collaborations amongst individuals can't be great art in music or performing art. But the smaller the team sizes, the more the individual personalities and messages of the creators shine through.

Tip o' the derby to GameSetWatch for the link!

(Vaguely) related artsy-fartsy talk
* Game Tunnels Top 100 Indie Games
* Games As Art: Media's Double Standard
* Affordable Innovation


Thursday, August 02, 2007
Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Orange
There are several people who are following the progress of Frayed Knights with interest - or so they tell me. I thought I'd let them chime in with some commentary on how things are progressing.

My goal this week was to finish the code to allow the "first five minutes" walkthrough to happen. Sadly, I'm not quite there. Taking a week to re-do the game mechanics took its toll, I guess. But here's what did happen.

Constructing the Dungeon
First of all, I needed to get rid of the first prototype dungeon, and replace it with... well, another prototype dungeon, but one closer in shape and form to the final version. This meant some good, quality time with Torque Constructor (version 1.02), a tool I'd not spent too much time with in the past. It was a learning experience.

After an hour, I was singing its praises. Constructor has some really nice, powerful features to work with. The knife, slice, and clip tools are especially awesome. The direct vertex manipulation is awesome, but it is also one of those tools that will let you shoot yourself in the foot. Repeatedly.

Three hours later, after my level had become so horribly corrupted and screwed up that I had no choice but to start over from scratch, I was ready to delete the program from my hard drive and salt the sectors on which it had once resided. Some of it was my own fault, but others were clearly bugs in the software. Things like faces of otherwise well-formed brushes not appearing in the exported file.

I nearly gave up after that. But, armed with better knowledge and some ideas of how to avoid certain pitfalls (or at least follow a careful procedure I could recover from disaster), I gave it another try. Three more hours in, and I was starting to get used ot it, and had learned to take certain procedures to avoid some of the more irritating idiosynchracies of the tool. I can't say I've mastered it in only seven hours or so, and I am still running into "gotchas" where collision suddenly fails to work and so forth. But I have a better handle on it, and I'm cautiously optimistic for the next release (1.03 actually released *TODAY* so I'm excited to try it out).

And now, I have the gameplay area for the first five minutes of the game roughed out. And I'm armed with greater skill!

Dirk: Ummm.... it's.... orange.

Benjamin: It's very orange.

Chloe: What kind of monsters paint their dungeon orange?

Benjamin: Very vile, dangerous beasts, I'm sure.

Chloe: Or very color-blind beasts.

Arianna: I'm sure it's only a temporary color. Jay said it's all prototype art.

Dirk: It had better be. I'm going to go blind in this dungeon.

Arianna: That probably won't be the only reason you go blind...

Dirk: What was that?

Chloe: Oh! He's going deaf, too!

The Fountain
I also had to create the fountain. Again, I'm focusing on stand-in geometry just to exercise the code. I spent probably fifteen minutes total on the visual. Much less time than I spent on the room that holds it --- but I've got a greater familiarity with Blender.

The code, on the other hand, was where I got stuck. I knew the scripting to handle interactive objects was going to be a bear. But as I started delving into it, I realized just what a task it was going to be. We're talking a mini-scripting language on its own... far more structured that TorqueScript, fortunately, but we're still talking conditionals and an elaborate set of results, from changes to the descriptive text to making a character sick. Before the end of the week, I was probably only about a third of the way there.

Arianna: It looks like...

Benjamin: ...a giant... uh.... half-buried...

Chloe: ...toilet!

Dirk: Exactly! Buried in orange!

Arianna: I don't care what the player chooses, there is NO WAY I'm going to drink anything from there. I'll just fake it.

Chloe: I'm getting sick just thinking about it.

Dirk: Please, please, please tell me that it's going to change form before this game is released! I can't dive into that! You aren't paying me enough!

Additional Changes
Besides this, I got the ability to cast spells on your own party working, and so now you can heal party members.

Dirk: Hear that, Ben? You aren't useless anymore.

Benjamin: True. And I was worried that toilet-boy was going to hog all the glory.

I fixed some more legacy issues with the combat system --- it was still calling for skill adjustments which naturally no longer exist. There was just a lot to clean up from the old system and replace it with new, improved game mechanics. And I implemented version 2.0 of the movement system. The right mouse button now causes your party to move and turn according to the position of the cursor in the window. It will undoubtably require some more tweaking before its done, but it seems to work okay.

Chloe: Yay! Now we can get lost twice as easily!

Benjamin: In orange-ness!

Plans For This Week
This week, I'm going to continue to work on interactive objects, and get the toilet... er, I mean fountain... fully functional.

Arianna: That's it. I quit.

Dirk: Hey, wait for me! I wonder if those Fallout 3 guys need an extra NPC. I could do post-apocalypse, I think.

(Vaguely) related silliness:
* Frayed Knights: Emergency Redesign
* Frayed Knights: First Five Minutes Walkthrough
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG, Part I

All The Cool Kids Are Talking About This On The Forum!

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You Wanna Talk About Games? Why the Historical Perspective is Important
After writing my post on the Historical Perspective, I was reading an article about rock guitar, and was noting that, as usual, it was throwing around the usual references to past and modern guitarists and styles. You find the same thing when reading about books or movies in an article intended for a knowledgeable audience. Fiction might be described in terms of Poe, Faulkner, Chandler, Tolkien, Dickenson, or King.

Movies get compared and contrasted with each other. In fact, the movie "The Player" even lampooned this mentality as the studio executive, Griffin Mill, gets bombarded with pitches that all follow the same formula: "movie 1" meets "movie 2." It was like some kind of alchemy that turns fifty words or less into gold.

I don't think these journalists, invoking examples from across the decades, are just being pretentious (most of the time). When invoking names of jazz and blues guitarists in reference to modern rock styles, they aren't just showing off the breadth of their musical knowledge. What happens is that the medium's history forms a vocabulary to describe itself.

Outsiders or newcomers to the medium might find this hard to follow at best, utterly incestuous at worst. Which is why the average three-paragraph newspaper review doesn't delve into such pedegrees - their audience isn't expected to get it. However, if you open up a magazine for cinema fans, you should be prepared to be bombarded with references to past work. If you recognize even half of the references, you'll have far clearer picture of the subject matter.

Video and computer games are no different. We talk about "Diablo-Style" RPGs. For a while we spoke of "Doom Clones," before the category became so crowded we renamed it "First-Person Shooters." From Pac-Man and Space Invaders to World of Warcraft, Civilization, and Resident Evil, we invoke these names to conjure up imagery and ideas that would take paragraphs to describe far less accurately otherwise.

Therein lies my strongest argument for why we need to maintain a historical perspective for the medium of video games. As developers, journalists, and even just gamers - cutting ourselves off from the past cuts out many of the best words in our vocabulary. Not only does it hurt our ability to describe a medium we love to each other, but it may also cut off our ability to understand or even conceive of these concepts in the first place.

(Vaguely) related yammerings:
* The Lack of Historical Perspective in Gaming Media
* Innovation in RPGs?
* Games As Art: Media's Double Standard
* Do Games Matter?

Discussion on the Forums Already in Progress

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Review of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales - Voices In The Dark
I vaguely remember hearing that J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, was a fan of the original Twilight Zone series. He even chose Ed Wasser for the role of Mr. Morden because he resembled Rod Serling.

In Babylon 5: The Lost Tales – Voices in the Dark, Straczynski has two stories that have the style and feel of two vintage Twilight Zone episodes, set in the popular Babylon 5 universe. Part of it is because of the very obvious low budget. There is no C & C, no Zocalo, and precious few extras. Except for a few special effects and CGI which is far superior to that of the original show, these episodes could have been part of a stage performance.

The subject matter of the stories feel ripped directly out of Rod Serling’s playbook. The first of the two loosely-linked segments features Colonel Elizabeth Lockley (Tracy Scoggins) dealing with Christian theology in the edge of space. In particular, it is a story of possession by devils and the role of religion in an era where mankind has already ventured into the heavens and found it devoid of angels, but instead sees wonders far surpassing a burning bush. I’ve always respected how Straczynski – a proclaimed atheist – deals very sensitively with religion and theology. This episode is no exception. The “Exorcist In Space” overdoes it on the voice modulation effects and weird camera angles, but otherwise tells a thought-provoking story

The second segment deals with a popular moral quandary. If you had the chance to save millions (or, in this case, billions) of lives by going back in time and killing a child who would eventually grow up to become an epic villain (like Adolf Hitler), would you? President Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) of the Interstellar Alliance finds himself facing this very decision, courtesy of technomage Galen (Peter Woodward). But he also takes the time to abuse an INS reporter and to vent at Galen about his methods and the technomages in general.

The lack of many extras, other characters, secondary plots, and general “bustle” of the show was surprisingly disconcerting to me, as a long-time fan of Babylon 5. They deliberately set the stories in places where you wouldn’t expect many people to be, but it still felt “off.” These are smaller, more intimate, and definitely lower-budget stories. Once again, they invoke the memories of old Twilight Zone episodes, where the entire episode might only consist of two sets and three actors, a single plotline, and lots of dialog.

For me – it worked. It was a pleasant return to the Babylon 5 - superior to most of the TV movies made after the original five-season run. I think some fans might be put off by minimalist presentation and quieter, more introspective tales. But Babylon 5 was always much more of a cerebral, character-based show than one of spectacle. More than one episode in the original series devoted much of the time to very few characters locked in a metaphorical box together. I think many fans of the series will enjoy In Babylon 5: The Lost Tales – Voices in the Dark if they aren’t expecting a full-blown return to season 3.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, I don’t think these stories would provide a great introduction to the show. Rent the movie “Babylon 5: In the Beginning” on DVD if you want a low-commitment introduction to the series. Just don’t come crying to me when you get hooked!

There are future installments of “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales” planned, the next one focusing on Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle). Whether or not we’ll see them depends on the success of this first DVD. Call me a fanboy, but I’m really hoping to see more. Voices in the Dark wasn’t what I expected, but it is a worthy addition to the Babylon 5 series.


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