Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Saturday, September 29, 2007
I Rocked Out Too Hard...
And broke my Guitar Hero controller...

It is a day of much sadness. The wheel under the whammy bar made a snapping sound after I'd gone back to play some GH1 (Still haven't 4-starred Bark at the Moon on Hard yet) and then it stopped. Looks like I broke a spring inside of it - or the plastic that was attached to it.

I still have one controller (my oldest one) which functions, but Guitar Hero just ain't nearly as fun without two players. So a visit to the store today is probably in order.

I don't THINK I rock out as hard as some of these other players (I mean, I'm still playing on Hard, not Expert). Maybe playing the whammy down so close to its mount point overdoes it on the spring?


What Makes a Great RPG - The World
In my discussion on the "ideal" RPG yesterday, there's a reason I listed "A believable, compelling, and interactive world" first. Of all the factors that give me Ye Olde Thrill when playing an RPG, this is the area that excites me the most. Make me believe in the world a little bit, make me care for the setting and the imaginary people in it, and I'll forgive a multitude of sins in your game.

For the purpose of this article, "The World" means the physical environment of the game, all the characters inside it, and even the overall mood and "feel" of the game's setting.

So what makes it work? There are literally books devoted to establishing setting, mood, and character in fiction and film. Many of those techniques apply very well to the game world as well.

Besides traditional cinematic and literary approaches, there are probably an infinite number of possibilities for making a compelling game-world as well. One of the keys is interactivity, which I'll also bring up in an article on role-playing as a factor of great RPGs. There should not be large, empty areas with nothing to do - adventure and discovery should be lurking around every corner and in every other grid-square. The characters, monsters, traps, treasure, props, and locations should all feel like they belong.

However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Many players find themselves frustrated and overwhelmed with too much detail and too much going on in the game.

Rather than detail all of the zillions of ways games do manage to make the game world come alive (and the ways in which they undermine the goal), I'll just cite some examples, and let other players speak their mind:

Origin kept trying to escape Britannia with the Ultima series, but the fans - as much as they wanted something different and new - really liked being able to go back to the familiar (but upgraded) stomping grounds that contained Lord British, Minic, Skara Brae, Trinsic, and the old named dungeons. The world had become alive to them, and had a history. Even if the city (and dungeon) layouts bore little in common with their older versions than the name.

Ultime VI
and Ultima VII also offered an unprecedented - and largely unequaled, even today - level of interactivity with the world. These were the first games (to my knowledge) to offer crafting options to players. They also let you explore your homicidal tendencies to the fullest by offering a spell that would literally wipe out everyone on the planet in one fell stroke. This provided a depth of exploration that went beyond traversing geography. There was more to the world than what you could see as you were going from point A to point B.

Speaking of Skara Brae, the destroyed city with the ghostly inhabitants was one of the things that made Ultima VII my favorite RPG. The evening spent in Skara Brae was one of the best experiences I've had in the game. The plot and story behind it was a big part of it - a compelling world is inextricably linked to story and back-story - but the reason for town's destruction, the plight of the ghosts, and the mayor's sacrifice - all added together to make Skara Brae as close to a "real" place as I've enjoyed in a game.

Much more recently, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines had me hooked on the setting. The four cities (well, city blocks, almost) had the mood and feel down. Each setting had a distinctive rhythm and flavor, but they all felt like dark and seedy. The perfect urban jungles for modern-era predators to prowl - from the mundane psychos to the supernatural horrors. The characters, too, were distinctive and interesting. I found myself wondering during the opening sequence who all these characters were that appeared only briefly in the princes' court. They whispered to each other - they seemed to have agendas of their own. And they did. It worked.

And of course, there's Oblivion. The world itself - the physical geography - was absolutely amazing. Just setting off to explore the countryside frequently bore fruit - you couldn't go far before stumbling across some shrine or mysterious ruin. There were books, scrolls, passages, and conversations that hinted at some of these mysteries that helped build not only the believability of the world, but also built interest in its secrets. Unfortunately, where Oblivion - and all the Elder Scrolls games, I think - fell down is that all of this felt like ancient history. There was no feeling of things having happened days, weeks, months, or years before you arrived on the scene. Things are no longer in motion, except for a few connections via subquests. The non-player characters are likewise disassociated from each other except by deliberate plot threads. The random population of dungeons sure didn't help make them feel in any way integrated with the rest of the game-world, either.

Adamantyr in the forums pointed out another important feature: Exceptions to the rules and surprises. This is important in story and plot as well, but it is just as important in the characters and setting. Game worlds and mechanics are driven by fairly deterministic rules under the hood, which means everything tends to follow the same pattern. Having some great exceptions to the rules - weird things that don't follow the standard pattern - helps keep the player on his toes and thinking of the game world within its own context rather than as the underlying mechanics. Adamantyr explains that in Legends II for the TI-99, "When in a dungeon, you come across an imprisoned young woman who begs you to help her. If you do, you have her as a "quest item" until you leave the dungeon for the surface... At which point she backstabs your wizard instantly killing him, warns you to stay out of affairs that are not your concern, and disappears. Apparently she works for the bad guys, and they set up a little trap for you as a warning. " While perhaps cliche in pen-and-paper games, this isn't something often found in computer RPGs.

Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption had its faults. But I, for one, fell in love with medieval Prague as presented by the game. The "thees" and "thous" sounded awkward, and the dialog reached ultraviolet heights, but the whole culture of the medieval European city, ever dominated by the Catholic Church, juxtaposed with the very extensively detailed vampiric culture and backstory, made it easy to suspend disbelief.

And you need only look up the fanfic for various Final Fantasy games to discover just how those characters - as simple and and archetypical and laden with often poorly-translated brief dialog as they were - found a home in players' imaginations. The actual locations in the worlds themselves were sometimes disposable, filled with meaningless characters that endlessly parroted the same two sentences of dialog. But the primary characters captured the imaginations, and made players care about them.

Advice From Players
"For me, a good RPG offers an immersive, sandbox gameworld. Story and character development are secondary." - Maija, at TwentySided.

"I think a great RPG is immersing. Whatever the other qualities, if I get sucked in and feel like I’m there, a part of that world, that is a great RPG, whether it be computer or table-top." - Derek, at Twenty-Sided.

"I would say that the most important for me is that the characters are believable and sympathetic (both good and evil ones). But then that would count for any game with a story.... One example would be the characters of Hired Guns (not an RPG but a game with some RPG elements on top). All the characters in this game are brilliantly set up. From the broody portraits to the back story. They are believable and from the first moment on where you meet them you want to be their friend. I can't say that about too many other RPGs." - Lizardman, on the Rampant Games Forums.

Intuitiveness is key - both to enjoyment and to immersion... I find myself walking away from many potentially exciting stories because it’s too much of a bother to make those stories into actualities - I’d rather read them. Finally, I consider fine characters to be more important than fine story, especially if I must choose one or the other. A fine story might be something to remember, but good characters will take a player from moment to moment within the game." - Ben Finkel, at Twenty-Sided

"I’m starting to feel like dialogue in games eats immersion, because, barring hard AI, characters can’t act like people, and poor dialogue is worse than none. More NPC interaction, but with less dialogue, that would be sweet to see." - Matt, at Twenty-Sided

"Looking at which games I thought were great, and why. Might and Magic 1: Great because there was an entire world to explore, in (for the time) ridiculous detail." -- Jeff, at Twenty-Sided.

"There needs to be a moment that will make you just HAVE to tell someone about it. Preferably more then one, but you really need the 'I can't believe that just happened. That is so cool/disturbing/amazing/unbelievable/surprising/awful" - I don't think it matters what adjective it spawns, as long as the player remembers it and tells others about it, even if it screwed his character. (It can't screw the player - it can't put the player in a place that continuing on from isn't fun. The CHARACTER can be hosed, the PLAYER needs fun) " - RandomGamer at the Rampant Games Forums

"Randomization does nothing but detract from detail and realism, and hence leads to a less immersing game world. Look at Morrowind, Fallout or Baldur’s Gate. The worlds are static and all the better for it. Nothing looks out of place." - SumeSublime, at Twenty-Sided.

"One thing that always gets me is when you’re put into an environment where there’s too much to do. I want to be railroaded for the first hour or two. Then bring on the immersiveness. But I want my beginning to be simple, straightforward, with a minimum of lasting consequences." - JoL at Twenty-Sided.

"It is like music or art, it has to have a feel that truly draws a person into it... The music needs to fit, and make the player feel something relevent to the current game state... Exploration needs to be a part of it." - DrSlinky1500 at the Rampant Games forums

Interesting characters. Villains with no agenda outside of being evil jerks are tiresome and banal. Good characters without some quirks or flaws are usually pretty flat... I like large freeform worlds. I dislike when the “being on rails” metaphor extends to movement within the game world. If I can only go forward or back, then I’m going to get bored. Quickly." - Shamus Young at Twenty-Sided.

"Character interaction. Choice. Atmosphere." - DevNull at Twenty-Sided.

* What Makes a Great RPG?
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Answer?
* What Makes a Great RPG - Playing a Role
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Story
* What Makes a Great RPG - Mechanics
* What Makes a Great RPG - Everything Else
* What Makes a Great RPG (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part II (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part III (Twenty-Sided)

Got More To Say On This? You Can Post Your View on the Forum!

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Friday, September 28, 2007
What Makes A Great RPG - The Answer?
Two days ago I posted a question that I usually ask whenever I'm interviewing an RPG designer: "What Makes a Great RPG?" I've looked up answers by several veteran game designers on this subject over the course of the last couple of years. Shamus Young joined in on the quest for answers, bringing his scarily large number of readers to bear against the question. If only by sheer numbers, we overpowered the question and forced its surrender. He ended up beating me to the punch with not one, but two responses. The hysterical one and the legitimate one. Dang, the dude can write. And people wonder where I find the time.

The answers were staggering not only in their passion, but in their variety. Including some answers that appeared mutually exclusive. I think, in the end, the real answer, when you streamline and synthesize all this information, is trivially, head-smackingly simple. As in, "wait a minute, I knew this already."

But it's kind of like the secret of losing weight. The secret is, "Eat Less And Exercise More," in case you were really wondering. Sure, alternatives exist, like liposuction and getting a leg amputated, but that's really the conventional key. But it's easier said than done.

So this article just deals with the high-level view. How do you judge greatness? What are we striving for? The rest of the articles (at the bottom of this article) deal with specifics, much of it based on comments by readers here and at Twenty-Sided. Are we there yet? Well, let's find out...

The Ideal
The real question is "Why do we play RPGs?" Computer or otherwise. I guess the answers here vary as much as anywhere else, but I'd submit its about escapism. Escaping not only from the pressures and problems of the mundane world, but to escape our very selves - to become a fictional character in a world as compelling and exciting and visceral as is technologically possible. We want our every move to be woven into the grandest of stories. But we want to do it with the safety of being able to return to the "real world."

A Compelling, Believable, and Highly Interactive World
It's the compulsion to jump into the pages of the novel or into the screen of a movie and join in the action, taking it off the rails, becoming the new hero, and seeing and exploring what we want, going where we want, and doing what we want. We want a lucid-dream world full of magic, mystery, and drama. We want to have no boundaries to our exploration, and we want every nook and cranny stuffed with exciting things for us to discover.

And we want it to be populated by incredibly detailed, fascinating, and important characters who's lives eventually revolve around our actions, whether they know it or not. We'll still probably ignore them, but we want to believe that they would have had rich, fulfilling, fascinating lives before we showed up and ruined them.

Playing A Role... To The Fullest!
We want to explore not only a compelling, imaginary world, but we want to explore the possibilities of being someone else. Maybe someone very much like us, to see what we'd do in a similar situation.

But the real thrill - being a fictional character, even just a fictionalized version of ourselves - allows us to explore a range of possibilities our of our reach anywhere else. The fictional character is safe. We can explore the dark side without enduring the taint of sin on our real-world souls. We can endure impossible torments, both physical and technological, because we're voyaging outside of our own selves. We can switch between the character being "me" and the character being "someone else" at will. It's the ultimate freedom - freedom from consequences to ourselves for choices we make. Sure our character might suffer, but we won't.

Naturally, we want the fullest range of interactivity with the world, so that we can explore not only it, but our projected, fictionalized selves. We want to be able to do anything our twisted little minds can imagine, from the mundane to the fantastic to the downright shocking.

An Awesome Story of Me
We want story. Nobody wants to be bored in a fictional reality, either. We want context and meaning and goals and stuff. But we don't want to follow the story - we want the story to follow us! We want it to bend and reshape itself to our every action. Our every minor move should have the fullest attention of the gods - or the author - or the computer, whoever is running this show.

And the universe should respond as the ultimate improvisational performer. The world should literally - if unknowingly - revolve around us, and our every action should - after the big reveal, climax, and resolution - prove to have been critical and not just dramatically appropriate, but dramatically perfect. At the end of the game, we want to go back and see the whole thing laid out behind us like a masterwork of literature or cinema (or better), and realize that any different action we'd taken would have substantially altered the entire plot. But of course, we want the ending to be as satisfying as if it were the only one, and we'd magically beelined our way to the perfect conclusion.

It's doubtful a master fiction writer could retroactively chronicle our actions in such a way, but we want the computer or human game-master to do all this improvisationally... all on the fly.

Fun, Progress, and Challenge
And finally, we want to be entertained every step of the way. We want to see progress in a way that no "real" character would see it. And we want to overcome challenges. Notice it's about overcoming those challenges - the challenges should never permanently defeat us. Failure is always for the other guy. Our escapes should always be narrow, or defeats temporary and dramatic, our victories legendary. Those who doubted us will humble themselves, and those who opposed us - should they survive - will acknowledge our superiority in the end.

Exit The Matrix
Without the technology from The Matrix, and a team of extremely talented human game-masters and performers, we're just not gonna get the ideal. Even in the "Dream Park" series, the illusion was flawed for the participants.

And even if by some miraculous breakthrough of science and liberal arts we could achieve this, we'd have to re-adjust our scale because people would find more things to complain about. That's just human nature. But this is sufficiently far enough out to work for these purposes.

So if we just assume that perfection - the ideal - will never be achieved, we can look at the quality of RPG experiences as a spectrum. The ideal is at one end, and at the other end we have... uh... the Dead Alewives' Dungeons & Dragons, maybe. Then we can define the greatness of an RPG by how far it pushes us along towards that ideal.

Naturally, this is a subjective measure. The factors that make me geek out on an RPG aren't going to be exactly the same as anyone else. Apparently fancy graphics and real-time combat are enough for a couple of million players, but they don't turn my crank as much as deep combat systems and high interactivity with the world and non-player characters. And in our imperfect state, some of these factors do come into conflict. The AI system of Oblivion was rumored to be very sophisticated and complex, but was effectively neutered in order to prevent them from ruining the game and killing each other with garden hoes. Sad, but understandable.

Breaking It Down... And Down... And Down...
Unfortunately, its unlikely to be a case of finding one or two gimmicks and making them make the whole game work. It's more of a multiplicative relationship between all the parts. One near-zero value in the list of features will ruin everything else.

This article has already gone on too long, and I haven't even begun to touch on the feedback and suggestions people have made far in the forum and in reply to Shamus's posts. So this will have to be a multi-part article series. I mentioned above four of what I consider key (but broad) aspects of the "ideal" RPG, and I think I'm going to deal with each of these aspects in individual articles:

* A Compelling, Believable, and Highly Interactive World
* Playing a Role To The Fullest
* An Awesome Story of Me
* Fun, Progress, and Challenge
* And some odds and ends that might not make a great experience, but could break one.

Interestingly enough, three of these map to three of the "Bartle Four" in multiplayer RPGs... the game world for explorers, the challenge and progress for the achievers, and the role-playing for the socializers (even if they aren't socializing with "real people.") The guys left out are the "griefers," but they aren't having fun unless they are making real people unhappy, so single-player RPGs probably aren't their thing anyway. Unless they just like going through and decapitating every imaginary living thing in site, which falls under the interactive world and role-playing categories, but then they'll probably complain that it broke the story. You just can't win.

But What Do You Think?
The later articles will draw heavily from the comments here and at Shamus's site, so I hope you guys don't mind me quoting you. I didn't want to leave this one without some quotes, however, so I'm going to pull out some thoughts by folks interviewed by me here on this site that I ambushed with this very question. Here's what they had to say.

Scorpia (RPG / Adventure Columnist for Computer Gaming World for many years): A good story. Preferably one that does not involve "killing off Ancient Evil Foozle to save the world"... NPCs that have some realism to them. In particular, aspects that make you care about at least some of them (not necessarily in a romantic way). Decent dialog that doesn't look or sound like it was written by a 14-year-old with an attitude. Balanced combat (this is much better now than it used to be in the old games). A good mix of combat and non-combat situations. Multiple ways to resolve some of the quests. Different endings for good and evil, if the game allows evil PCs. Opportunities for true role-playing, outside the straight-jacket of D&D alignment... A rewarding ending that provides a sense of accomplishment. (Interview with Scorpia)

Amanda Fitch (Aveyond, Ahriman's Prophecy): For me, a good story, lots of quests, lots of villages, and loot! (Amanda Fitch Interview)

Jason Compton (The Broken Hourglass): The quality is the immersiveness of it. Not necessarily that I believe I’m in that world, but I really believe that I’m controlling that world, and interacting with it. And I don’t want to leave it alone, because only I can save it, or only I can manipulate it in the way it needs to be manipulated, or whatever... There’s the sense of putting you in a situation where you matter in some way. Different games do it in different ways, but yeah, you have to make the player feel like they matter in the world. (Jason Compton Interview)

* What Makes a Great RPG?
* What Makes a Great RPG - The World
* What Makes a Great RPG - Playing a Role
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Story
* What Makes a Great RPG - Mechanics
* What Makes a Great RPG - Everything Else
* What Makes a Great RPG (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part II (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part III (Twenty-Sided)

(Vaguely) related useless speculation:
* When Does A Game Cease Being Great?
* The 16 Essential RPGs
* What Makes a Game Great?
* Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs
* What Makes a Good Casual RPG?

The Forum Post full of very sage advice!

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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Does Textfyre Have a Chance of Reviving the Commercial Text Adventure?
In case you missed the several announcements, the ghost of Infocom has once again come a-haunting. Textfyre is a soon-to-be-launched text-adventure company that is attempting to bring back the commercial text adventure. They aren't the first ones to do this - the niche has remained active with free and commercial titles for many years now. But do they have a chance of breaking back out of the niche?

Doing a good job of it can be every bit as challenging as creating a good game of any kind. While the abstraction of text makes interactions far easier to simulate than that of an equivalent 3D video game, that can also raises the bar on what should be possible within the text adventure. The subtleties and massive scope of interactions possible by a single-author text adventure (dubbed "Interactive Fiction" or "IF" by modern fans) would boggle the mind of an XBox 360 game producer.

And the quality of the writing of the top FREE IF games would blow away that of any AAA game out there... though it is also written for a different audience. I doubt the short-attention-span console gamer would stand for the prose of the old Infocom or modern IF games. Just as movies must usually abbreviate and simplify the dialog and characters of the books they are based on.

David Cornelson's strategy is to avoid putting them in head-to-head competition with video games. That didn't go so well for Infocom back in the day, nor would it today. His strategy is based more on putting it on the shelves of bookstores - getting it in front of readers, particular young adult readers.

I think that's a critical approach. And maybe a good reason for calling the genre "Interactive Fiction" rather than "Adventure Games." I always thought the IF moniker was a bit pretentious, myself, but under these circumstances it makes perfect sense.

But there's a wealth of free IF out there today. So the flip side is that Textfyre's titles will have to compete with not only every other form of interactive and non-interactive media out there, but also with all the free IF out there.

While I personally consider it a long shot, I also admit the idea of a really well-written, official, highly-interactive Harry Potter "book" that lets me run hog-wild at Hogwarts is geeks me out to an embarrassing degree.

Can they make it work? Has that ship sailed, or is the time ripe for a resurgence? What do you think?

(Vaguely) related text references
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
* Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
* How Do I Get Past The Harpies?
* Galatea
* Losing Your Limits Without Losing Your Mind


Frayed Knights: Odds and Ends
More tales of developing Frayed Knights, a humorous indie Computer RPG!

It's all about the details. This is true in making computer games, as well as most things in life. You can usually do the rough stuff pretty quickly, but if you aren't careful you can get buried in details.

Take traps, for instance. I talked last week about how I got the trap-disarming interface "done." Part of me convinced myself that traps were "done-done." Or very close to it. Not hardly. All I really had was a hard-coded mini-game that popped up when I hit the "T" key. The "little" odds and ends to truly integrate it into the game were as time consuming (if not more so) than this aspect.

Some Of The Odds And Ends
* I had to actually set up the traps in the world to go off on the player when he walks into them (a trigger volume) or when he manipulates a trapped object (like a door or treasure chest).

* I had to set up ways in which the player can find the trap. I wanted the player to be able to manually search for a trap, but also have a smaller chance of detecting it BEFORE detonating it if he just walks into it.

* I had to set up persistent data for all traps, so that traps that were already set off didn't get set off every time the player passes by.

* I had to know who to have the trap go off against. If it didn't go off in a failed deactivation, I had to pick a character at random if the trap payloads only affected a single character.

* I had to make sure the UI updated to reflect the damage states of the characters after a trap went off.

* I had to put up message screens to let the player know what was going on.

* Oh, and I wanted a treasure chest to test traps on. Lacking a stock treasure chest, I had to make my own.

And Then There Were Bugs
* First of all, I mapped the "S" key to search, but unfortunately it's also mapped to the alternate WASD controls for walking around the dungeon. So I had to change it to "X" for "eXamine" as an alternate keyboard command. A very small deal, but annoying (and I have to create a new stand-in button before October 30).

* Traps weren't firing when you entered their trigger zone for some reason. That turned out to be a simple fix... the code was looking at the datablock's data rather than the instances data (you Torque coders will know what I'm talking about. Everyone else is probably nodding their heads and backing away SLOWLY).

* One issue I'm still fighting with is how I've only got one trap at a time loaded into memory, but there's the potential for the player discovering multiple traps within an area. I think I'm going to opt for the easy way out on this one, and just make sure the trap density is kept fairly low.

* For a while, the traps keep targeting poor Dirk, even if he never touched the trap. That was because the shared code kept "choosing" him to be the default person to disarm the trap. But when no disarming took place, he was still the turkey.

* Then the chest wasn't appearing in the game. But that was easy to find after a couple of iterations.

More Rumblings
Incidentally, I'm contributing this chest to the Low Poly Coop, so other indies can use the same chest. And maybe if they improve it before Frayed Knights releases, I'll be able to use the improvements! The texturing on it was slapped together in a hurry (and, aside from the lack of detail on the metal bands and the difference in sizes of the boards on the lid versus the sides, ended up looking halfway decent). And I don't have any levels-of-detail on it yet, which I need to do. But just what you see here, with the animated lid, represented around three hours of effort.

But you know what's REALLY cool? Walking through the dungeon, checking for traps, disarming or setting them off the way they'll actually work in the real game (albeit sans cool visuals and sound right now), clicking on chests and doors to open and close them, encountering monsters... it's all in there and working!!!! It's a fabulous feeling. As early-stage as it all is, as prototyped as it all is, I can see the vision of the complete game appearing in all its rough-edged glory now. Even though I've had the "first five minutes" demo working for a month now, I'm finally beginning to see the world come together - at least in an abstract, prototypical way.

And that is an incredibly motivating thing.

So What's Next?
My schedule is to have all principle systems done by the end of October. November is my "glue" month, where I finish yet more "odds and ends" and integration. It's also where I begin working on content. My big milestone coming up in a little over 30 days is the Utah Indie Game Developer's meeting, where I'll be showing off what I've got. It's still going to be very content-light, so only the other programmers may be at all interested in what I've got. I may violate my internal milestones a little to try and work on some content prematurely so I have a little more to show.

This week's goals: Making locks & traps work properly on doors and chests (they are there but not functional right now). Back to conversations. And putting inventory in the treasure chests that you can pick up. Drama star effects. And cheat codes (to facilitate testing of drama star effects, mainly).

THAT should keep me busy!

(Vaguely) related lame excuses:
* The First "Playable" Level
* The Black Triangle
* Frayed Knights: Trap Disarmed!
* Frayed Knights: Disarmament Treatise
* Frayed Knights: The Door Is Ajar

Discuss Here, Or On The Forum. Or Not! See If I Care! (*Sniff*)

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Indie RPG News, September 26th
It's been a little quiet on the indie RPG news front the last few days. But we've got some nice updates for the very-sweet Depths of Peril and a pair of articles about the upcoming game The Broken Hourglass.

Depths of Peril
The Depths of Peril has a pair of updates now available. The first "official" patch is 1.001, and there is a "beta" 1.002 patch also available. These are only for the full versions of the game, not the demo. To check them out, visit the patch page:

Depths of Peril Patch Page

The Broken Hourglass
The first of the two articles is inspired by Robert Jordan, and discusses the idea of the player's perspective shifting from character to character within an RPG. This isn't unheard of, but it is a lot more popular in jRPGs than western RPGs. The author questions why more RPGs haven't adopted this fantasy novel convention (though it drew some criticism against Jordan's later books in the Wheel of Time series).

Character Point-Of-View and CRPGs

The second is another of the "under the hood" articles about the game engine and its uses (and, specifically, potential abuses) by modders. In particular, the game engine developer, Westley Weimer, surprised the entire team with a match-three game using the engine's scripting abilities. The author (I suspect Jason Compton) mentions, "When we first started taking press inquiries about The Broken Hourglass, we were surprised at the amount of interest in the presence and prevalence of minigames-although in retrospect, we should not have been. Mixing up playstyles has been a staple of gaming for decades, whether as a stand-alone game concept (Lazy Jones, Wario Wares) or a break in the action in a bigger, focused game (the slot machine or lock-picking game in the RPG of your choice), and it shows no sign of fading."

Inside the Engine: Abuses

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It's All Fun And Games Until The NINJAS Attack
You know, if you are going to knock over a convenience store, I can't think of a better way to do it than to dress and arm yourself as a ninja.

Apparently, neither could these ladies...

I love the police chief's quote: "Swords, daggers could be used to seriously harm victims, so this is a very serious crime." I can just imagine this poor guy has been dealing with police officers and reporters all day who are falling out of their chairs laughing to PLEASE take this thing seriously. Of course, he then undermines his own point by stating that lethal weapons used for centuries for killing might only "seriously harm" victims. So I guess even he is having trouble keeping a straight face over this whole deal.

Dang. As if things weren't bad enough, we now have ninjas prowling the streets at night. What's this country coming to?
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
What Makes a Great RPG?
Or, phrased differently, what makes an RPG great?

I've asked this question of most of the people I've interviewed on this site, and since we've got the community and forums here where people can argue this back and forth a bit, I thought I'd ask everyone on the forums:

What's the secret ingredient(s) of a "great" computer RPG?

What do the memorable, wonderful ones possess that the forgettable or frustrating ones lack?

If you can't think of anything general, was there anything in a particular RPG that just gave you the "moment" when the game just went from good to awesome?

Sound off on the forum! I am very curious as to what people will say.

UPDATE: Articles based on this post:

* What Makes a Great RPG - The Answer?
* What Makes a Great RPG - The World
* What Makes a Great RPG - Playing a Role
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Story
* What Makes a Great RPG - Mechanics
* What Makes a Great RPG - Everything Else
* What Makes a Great RPG (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part II (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part III (Twenty-Sided)

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"Perhaps illusion is not quite the right word. Many of his tricks involve a shift in perception: what you see is a spiritual truth to which the overly literal are blind. But there's considerable danger involved. If you don't treat the vision with respect, the result is not understanding, but insanity."

--- Galatea
In researching conversation systems in games, I stumbled across Galatea, the interactive fiction by Emily Short. It's several years old, but fascinating. The entire game takes place in a single room. You are a famous art critic who engages in dialog with a work of art - a statue from ancient Greece named Galatea.

The conversation is keyword-based, but not exclusively so. Galatea's emotional state (it looks like three dimensions) are tracked, and she may take the initiative with the conversation if you let her in some cases. She'll respond to questions or comments differently at different times and moods.

I haven't played it enough to compare it to, say, Façade. But getting all metaphysical with a statue is all kinds of weird and groovy that I get into, so I think I enjoy this game a little bit more. A single game takes only a few minutes, but it's highly replayable.

Hint: If you are really at a loss, you can use the command "topiclist" to get a list of potential topics and their associated verbs. But this is spoiler territory. It's more enjoyable just to go organically and ... well, often just follow along.

An online version of Galatea can be found here:


(Vaguely) related text with vague meaning:
* Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
* How to Turn Façade Into An RPG


Monday, September 24, 2007
Skill-Based or Class-Based?
In role-playing games (computer and pen-and-paper), there are two prevailing types of rule systems used to simulate actions within the game: Skill-Based systems, and class-based systems.

Class-Based RPG Systems
In class-based systems, your character's main abilities are governed by the character's membership within a category or group. Progression is often defined in terms of levels. Dungeons and Dragons, the original RPG, used this kind of system. Each stage of progression grants a number of improvements

The advantage of this kind of system is its simplicity. Again, hearkening back to very-old-school Dungeons & Dragons, the game was based on wargames. Individual units were too hard to track, and the mortality rate was high. Your character wasn't much more than six characteristics (rolled with 3d6), a class, a level, a name, and a hit-point total. The simplicity of the system makes it easier for newcomers to enjoy.

Besides its simplicity in playing, class-based systems are easier to balance for designers. They are especially useful for multi-player (or multi-character) games, as each class can be specialized for dealing with different aspects of the game. A common combat-based example is the tank / ranged / support combination. A "tank" class is designed to take the incoming fire and engage the enemy in close-quarters combat. The ranged classes function as "artillery," doing devastating damage at range, but are very weak and vulnerable in close combat. The support (or "healer") classes enhance the other two by somehow improving their performance and keeping them alive.

Of course, different roles can be added, and many games feature "hybrid" classes that may combine two or more roles in one class (though not as effectively as a specialist).

Class-based systems usually offer a increase in multiple abilities per step of progression. For example, gaining a level might grant you more hit points, a better chance to hit, better defense against attacks (or spells), and increased spellcasting ability or some new special ability all at the same time. This sudden jump in character capability can be a great psychological reward for players.

Examples of Class-Based Games
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st and 2nd editions), EverQuest, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Wizardry 7, Aveyond, Final Fantasy VII.

Playing Class-Based RPGs
If you are playing a class-based RPG, your decision of what class to play will be based upon your personal preference, and the needs of the group. Most class-based RPGs do give you some options for your character beyond class (if only in the selection of equipment), so make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the class when making those decisions.

For example, in older editions of D&D, intelligence isn't a very useful attribute for fighters, but strength is. Making intelligence your fighter's best stat isn't a great idea unless you really want to role-play a "smart fighter" - the rule system won't reward you much for doing that.

In a well-designed game, you usually won't have to worry too much about which class is "better" than any other (though message-board complainers will often protest otherwise in Massively-Multiplayer RPGs). Just pick the most appropriate class and run with it.

Skill-Based RPG Systems
Skill-based systems, on the other hand, give the player much more fine control over their character's progression. Many different aspects of the character may be improved independently of each other.

Based on forum polls, most experienced players prefer skill-based systems because of the flexability in creating and maintaining characters. Players tend to identify with their characters much more than was probably expected in the early days of role-playing games.

Skill-based systems are better for solo or small-group play, as the charactes can become generalists and not suffer from the lack of someone in a specialist role. Skill-based systems are also very good for regular playing groups that have a small amount of churn or variation in participants from session to session (which describes nearly every pen-and-paper group I've ever played with). Players can build in their own redundancies into their characters - so if Bob the Cleric can't show on a Friday night, another player may be able to substitute.

The biggest problems of skill-based systems are the flip-side of the advantages of class-based systems. They are hard to balance. It is often possible for a skilled player to exploit the rules system to come up with certain combinations of skills that, used together, are far more effective than any others (which soon means that EVERYBODY feels compelled to use that same combination, turning the game into the equivalent of a class-based game with only one class). Also, inexperienced players may find themselves creating a far-less "optimum" character build, which can become frustrating. The slow, more granular progression makes progress less visible to players.

Skill-based systems are also very frustrating in pick-up games, as it can be much harder to find a role or "niche" for your character. It's much easier to say (or understand), "I'm a 20th level tank" than, "I have high skills in martial arts, specializing in the katana, stealth, fluent in a dozen languages, and I'm a master in floral arrangement, plus I've got at least a 20 in defensive spellcasting, driving, and aircraft mechanics."

Examples of Skill-Based Systems:
Call of Cthulhu, Final Fantasy XII, Champions, Fallout, Cute Knight.

Playing Skill-Based RPGs
The challenge of playing a skill-based game is understanding all of the options available to you and how they interact with each other. This can be particularly challenging the first time you play, and have to commit to choices during character creation. It might not hurt to do your homework first, and ask other players for suggestions (live or on forums).

If you are playing in a group, avoid the temptation to make your character a "jack of all trades." You will be far happier if you specialize in one or two areas. This will give you an area in which to shine. On the other hand, if you are playing a solo computer game, you will probably want to generalize a bit more and make sure you have all the key bases covered. Your character will need to be self-sufficient... or pick up hirelings who can fill in for your character's weaknesses.

The flexibility (and granularity) of skill-based character progression system usually means that if you find yourself with a "weak build" character, you can easily recover from it in the process of normal play and some well-placed improvements to your character.

Hybrid RPG Systems
Hybrid systems have been around for a while, which try to capture the best of both worlds. The most famous is the third-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, which keeps the original class system but also adds a heavy layer of skill-based options that the player can take with every level, in the form of feats, skills, and certain class options. The downside of this is added complexity, and a little bit of the weaknesses of both philosophies.

Playing Hybrid RPGs
The advice of both class-based and skill-based RPGs still applies. However, the hybridization throws some assumptions out on their ears.

For example, in 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons, there are several useful feats and skills for fighters that are dependent upon intelligence. Suddenly, the option to create a "smart fighter" is far more mechanically interesting in addition to being a fun role to play.

One thing to watch out for with hybrid systems is that there is a greater danger of getting stuck with a "weak-build" character. Hybrid systems grant only some of the flexibility of skill-based systems, which means it could be harder to recover from a poor combination of class and skill choices. In a pen-and-paper RPG, this can simply mean some exciting role-playing opportunities, but in a computer game it could mean a much harder game.

Examples of Hybrid RPG Systems
Vampire: The Masquerade (it adopts the granular improvement of most skill-based systems, but the vampire's clan is a powerful influence over the character's progression and behavior), Dungeons & Dragons edition 3.0 and 3.5, D20 Modern, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Avernum 4.

(Vaguely) related links of doom:
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?


Sunday, September 23, 2007
A Pair of Spiderweb RPG Reviews
Spiderweb Software is one of the oldest and most prolific indie RPG developers out there, and there are a pair of reviews out there for two of their more recent releases, "Nethergate: Resurrection" and "Geneforge 4"

Nethergate: Resurrection is an update / remake of their 1990's indie RPG, Nethergate. It's claim to fame is a more historically-based setting (something that was probably a turn-off for some RPG fans, who probably equate history with very boring high school classes), and the fact that it was two games in one - you could re-play the game on the opposite side of the conflict between the Celts and the Romans. RPGWatch has the review:

Nethergate Resurrection Review

Not to be outdone, the incomparable Scorpia has a review of Spiderweb's science-fantasy thriller, Geneforge 4.

Scorpia's Geneforge 4 Review

One thing that makes both of these reviews unique (in my mind): They both heap praise on the turn-based combat of these games. RPGWatch lists the turn-based combat in the "Pro" column about the game, with no explanation or assumption that such a designation might even be controversial. Scorpia states, "Happy to relate, combat is turn-based, something not seen much these days."

Maybe it's just that both reviewers are old-schoolers like me. But I do get tired of RPG reviewers praising arcade-action mechanics in RPGs as the "new, superior" thing while turn-based is somehow hopelessly old-fashioned. News flash: We've been mixing RPGs and action / arcade games for about a quarter-century now, and the creaky "antique" turn-based RPGs appeared on mainframes only about eight years earlier. Sheesh, folks. That would have been only a vaguely interesting distinction in 1986.

I'm just glad to see there's some love left for both styles. And I really enjoyed reading these reviews.

(Vaguely) related tales of ... stuff
* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance, Plans Nethergate Remake
* Interview With Scorpia
* Where Is Indie Innovation?
* Geneforge 4 Interview

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Friday, September 21, 2007
How It Was:The Map of Zork I
A friend just sent this to me:

Detailed Map of Zork I, as Drawn By a Player

Okay, drawing the maps out by hand, I confess, wasn't my favorite activity back in the day. And I'm apparently not alone in this. But seeing a game so lovingly mapped out by a player like this - it brings a tear to my eye. It looks a lot better than my own Zork maps, which resembled a abstract Tinkertoy statue after getting attacked by an angry moose.

Go through walkthrough pages or fan art and see what kind of amazing things players will do for games they love. But this isn't a new phenomenon. Folks have been doing stuff like that since long before they had the Internet to share it with others.

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Good Marketing Means Speaking Up
I went for lunch today at the nearby mall food court, but I hadn't quite made up my mind. There was a chinese food place (a Panda Express wannabe) to my right, and I guess the girl minding the counter noted my indecisive glance over the contents, but she immediately spoke up, holding up a free sample.

While I tasted the sample, she was already asking what she could get for me. But her attitude wasn't pushy. It was like she was trying to be helpful. After all, I was hungry. She was providing me with food. For cheap. I accepted, thanked her, and congratulated her on doing such a good job roping me in. Now, I can't say the food was all that great. But I got a cheap lunch, and she got a sale, and so I can't say it was a bad thing.

I guess over the years I've gotten to the point where I think that "marketing" is a four-letter word. We're bombarded with advertising. On the web, on TV, on the radio, on T-shirts, on signs... it's very difficult to escape. And yes, I've grown disgusted by much of it.

But done right, it's a service. My wife and I love seeing movie previews when we go to see a movie - so long as they don't go too long. We get annoyed by Coke commercials in the movie theater, but we like seeing the movie previews. I've always enjoyed looking at the ads in gaming magazines so I can see what's coming. And hey, all else being equal - when I'm hungry but don't know what I want for lunch, a taste of free food and an offer in broken English wins out over vendors just standing there with vacant expressions on their faces.

When we talked about whether or not there is hope for indie RPGs, one of the key things that seems missing for indie games in general is marketing. Indies maybe learn the wrong lesson with their disgust over the tasteless, ruthless, tactless, truthless multimillion-dollar marketing screamfest that serves as mainstream marketing efforts for AAA games. I know I've actually been turned off to products based upon bad or annoying marketing (but I'm probably one of the exceptions). But it's not marketing itself that's a bad thing.

Indie game developers really need to figure out how to do it right. Done right, it serves both parties. And sometimes it can be as simple as knowing how, when, and where to speak up... and doing so.

(Vaguely) Related droning:
* Utah Indie Developer Night, Summer 2007
* Indie RPGs: Just Not Worth It?
* Is There Hope For Indie Computer RPGs?
* How to Avoid Making Money Making Indie Games
* How To Make $8000 / Month Making a Free Flash Game


Thursday, September 20, 2007
Frayed Knights: The Dungeon Takes Form

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine, Kevin, offered - due to a lapse in sanity as much as a feeling of pity for me, I'm sure - to build interior levels for Frayed Knights. I sent him a copy of the design document (See! They do come in handy!), and then promised to send him a 2D map for him to convert into the Temple of Pokmor-Xang.

I hadn't actually sketched out the complete map yet. I'd written up descriptions and notes on all major locations in the temple, and had something of a mental image of how the layout should work. But every time I'd tried to sketch the thing out, I'd get stymied. It didn't feel right or good enough. Having someone waiting for me pushed me to plow forward. I think my underlying problem was that I was just suffering a mental block due to lack of self-confidence or something. As it is where you start the game, I purposefully kept it on the simpler side, with a more linear path through the dungeon (plus plenty of optional rooms to visit).

But once the the pressure was on, I got it done. I can't say it was a masterpiece - my little graph-paper map looked a lot like the Dungeons & Dragons adventure maps I used to draw up in the seventh grade. I'm not sure my skills have changed at all since then. The rooms were even numbered to correspond with the location descriptions in the design document. High cheese factor. But it followed my mental image well enough, and I gave instructions to Kevin to feel free to embellish as he saw fit.

We ended up getting into some discussion as to who the cultists are that are currently residing in this temple. I explained that very few were human, and they were pretty much "redneck cultists." Poor personal hygene (they worship the god of boils, blisters, and pimples, after all). Beds propped up on cinder blocks and whatnot. Primer-colored paint on the walls or something. They'd keep the main thoroughfare clean and tidy out of respect for and fear of Pokmor-Xang. But the temple itself predated any of the current cultists - it was made back when Pokmor-Xang was... if not popular, at least a little more accepted in society. So at one point it might have been a little more evil and costly-looking.

Kevin took the crappy map and lame descriptions and added a healthy dose of awesome, with some great creative embellishments. He sent me the first draft of the dungeon, which I tried last night. Can I tell you how cool it is to (virtually) walk through something that was only a graph-paper sketch and some text descriptions the day before? I stood in the meditation chamber (sans toilet-looking fountain, currently) and looked around and maid a Neo-esque "Woah!" noise.

Now it's still early (too early for me to post screenshots, sorry) - this was just to test the layout, and there's not even a roof over much of the place (though he's done some great work with pillars and archways). The hardest part will be settling on the textures. I'm really trying to back off of the photorealistic effect and err on the side of cartoony. I'm spending some time trying to dig up reference images, but it's hard to zero in on the right "look."

Other Developments
I also spent some time revising the ol' design document and resubmitting it for the Dream Game contest. I'd like to stay in the running on that one.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I got the trap system working, and I think it's actually going to play out okay. I'm now focusing on making it all data-driven and stuff. My approach to doing this is to create a file first, and then write the function to read and parse the file, and use it to construct the object. It's all working now, except I discovered that I'd neglected to include linkage between components in the file format. Woops! That's an easy fix.

Besides that, there's trap discovery and more feedback to the player on what's going on. Simply having the trap screen disappear and one or more characters take damage isn't quite enough, for some reason. Go figger.

My goal is to have all the principle systems in place by November 1. November is going to be spent integrating them all together and making the game resemble a game. And fixing bugs. And trying to do all the little odds-and-ends stuff that I neglected up until that point.

(Vaguely) related babblings:
* RPG Design: Big World, Small Dungeon - Does Size Matter In RPGs?
* Frayed Knights: Disarmament Treatise
* Frayed Knights: First Five Minutes Walkthrough
* Frayed Knights: Orange
* RPG Design: Quest Abuse

* Frayed Knights: Trap Disarmed!
Read or Post Comments on the Forum! If You DARE!


Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Non-Combat RPG Help Needed
Hajo's posted a question on the forums that I just thought I'd publicize a little bit. He's working on a non-violent RPG, and is looking for suggestions on peaceful activities, and how to provide limits on the player activity (after all, if he can run amok with nobody to stop him with violence...)

Anyway, if you have any suggestions or are interested in discussing the topic, I wanted to point it out. I'm pretty interested in seeing a broader range of activities and challenges than combat in RPGs myself.

Rampant Games Forum: Letting the Player Alter But Not Ruin The Game World

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What If Ultima IV Were Written Today?
Just for kicks tonight, I played a little bit of Ultima IV. I don't think that there's a CRPG that is more legendary or revered than this one. It received rave reviews when it was released in 1985, and pretty much defies criticism today. It is a milestone for the genre and for gaming in general. And for many people, it represents a glimpse into what might have been - a step along an evolutionary branch of roleplaying games that was never fully explored.

Seeking a peek back into this crown jewel of computer role-playing games, I sunk some precious time into this game to remember what the fuss was all about. And as I played, I began to wonder what Ultima IV would have been like if it had been developed over twenty years later. We can look at the later sequels for some answers, but remember that they were predicated on the success of their prequel.

So let's play a what-if and pretend that Ultima IV was a brand new game in a new genre. What would a newly-release Ultima IV be like today?

Combat - Then
After wandering around Yew for a bit (which promptly disappeared after I left - actually a pretty cool Brigadoon-esque element), I found myself chased by monsters that were making beelines across the world to attack me. After engaging in a few rounds of fighting, they'd promptly flee, leaving me with no experience points to show for my troubles (but sometimes leaving a chest of gold).

At one point, frantically chasing a fleeing orc who couldn't decide which edge of the screen to run to, I apparently threw my only weapon - a dagger - at my foe. Well, actually, one square next to my foe, because I could only attack along one of the four cardinal directions. Thus unarmed, future fights would result in me chasing a fleeing monster hopelessly. At least they'd leave a chest behind - sometimes trapped - so at I could soon afford to upgrade equipment to ranged weapons that actually had a chance of dropping an opponent before it fled.

Combat - Now
The creatures don't beeline to you until you get close enough to them or attack them. And then they come at you en masse. Then you just mash a button until they die. You'll automatically chase them when they flee. Oh, and instead of leaving trapped chests behind, they leave bodies with gore. Digging through the gore for coins ought to be worse than acid sprays, but you get used to it.

Oh, and to prevent you from throwing away your dagger, your dagger can't be thrown. But you can get throwing daggers designed to be thrown away... you can buy 100 of them (enough to kill about eight monsters) for the price of a complete suit of plate mail and two swords. It's supposed to be for class balance or something like that.

Dialog - Then
Conversations with NPCs (non-player characters) consist of "guess the keyword." Many keywords that you'd think would work actually wouldn't. After all, with only 64k of RAM to work with, ya gotta cut some corners. A half-dozen keywords makes for a very talkative character. Take this one, for example:

You meet a charming jester. She says: I am Gweno.
Your Interest: Job
I dance and sing for the children.
Your Interest: sing
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: dance
Dance is good for the soul. Do you give to the needy?
You say: Yes
Beggars are thankful for small donations
Your Interest: children
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: beggars
To give to a beggar shows compassion.
Your Interest: compassion
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: give
She says: I do not need thy gold. Keep it!
Your Interest: gold
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: quest
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: avatar
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: join
She says: I cannot join thee.
Your Interest: goodbye
That I cannot help thee with.
Your Interest: bye

A fairly frustrating conversation, not to mention one that ends with a preposition far too frequently.

Dialog - Now
In a modern game, Gwenno's conversation tree would probably look like this:

Gweno: Hello. I am Gwenno. I sing and dance for children, because I'm a compassionate kind of person. I'll bet you'd like to know all about compassion. I could tell you how to be more compassionate.
1. Please, tell me how to be more compassionate.
2. Get away from me, you crazy wench!
3. Bye

See, isn't that better than keywords? Those are CHOICES. A player might agonize for microseconds before choosing option #1. At which point Gwenno says:

Gwenno: Go bring me the tails of ten rats, and I will tell you this secret, total stranger. You can find an infinite supply of rats down in the cellar.
1. Bye.

We sure have come a long way, haven't we?

Quests - Then
There is one quest in the game - though there are about a dozen sub-quests you must take in order to accomplish the primary task. Since the game has no quest system, they had to do it this way... all the steps act as "keys" to get you to the final quest. Oh, and you better have some pretty decent weapons, armor, and other magical items to have a prayer of surviving the whole thing.

For some reason, nearly everybody in the world knows that you are on the Quest of the Avatar. They all know more about it than you do, and give you advice in cryptic riddles and suggestions to visit people they know halfway around the world. And you have to manually compile all these notes until they begin to make sense. Which you'd better do quickly, because even after reading the manuals you still begin the game with really no clue what it is you are supposed to do. Unless you are already a dice-and-paper D&D player, and then you know... explore and kill things until the plot hooks begin to appear!

Quests - Now
Today, players would be explicitly told where to go and what to do. The starting quest would be Lord British himself telling you to use the look command on your own navel. When you do that, you get a bunch of experience points. Then he tells you to gather some belly-button lint from your navel. Once you do that, you are again congratulated and given experience points. This is how epic adventures must start.

Eventually, you'll go out into the world, and have about four quests to do, all of which involve inane tasks for people who haven't even explored their own back yards, let alone know people in the next town. But they will dole out less-cryptic quests that involve acting as their butt-monkey to deliver goods or recover their stolen sombrero from the goblins living twenty yards away until eventually you've paid your dues enough to be told how to get to the Shrine of Compassion.

Graphics - Then

Graphics - Now

Okay --- I got nothin'.

Resurrection - Then
When you die, you automatically resurrect in Lord British's throne room with some minor words of caution and a short delay. This is WAY cheaper than getting healed, so it's better just to let yourself die if poisoned or whatever.

Resurrection - Now
Lord British's chamber is too far away. You resurrect in the closest city or checkpoint with even more minor words of caution and less delay. And it's still cheaper than the extortion the healers demand.

Virtues - Then
There are eight virtues you must max out through actions in the game in order to become worthy of undertaking the final quest - which is to recover the Codex of Wisdom from the Abyss. In retrospect, that was all a pretty bad idea on Lord British's part, because it caused a genocidal war, created the evil mirror-universe anti-avatar split-personality whatever-the-freak-it-was called The Guardian, and pretty much screwed everything up for several sequels and spinoffs. But I digress.

Anyway, the virtues were Compassion, Sacrifice, Justice, Humility, Honesty, Justice, Spirituality, and Valor. You'd increase these by various actions throughout the game. Even dying gave you a point.

Virtues - Now
All those virtues are too complicated. The new designers decided to keep it simple by simply requiring you to be "good." But because of the need to have multiple endings, the new version includes an "evil" path. You get "good" points for being nice in conversations and not taking the "burn down the orphanage" quest. Being snarky in conversations and engaging in evil laughter - and burning down said orphanage (but without actually burning any orphans... we have to worry about ESRB ratings, mind you) gains you evil points.

Note that randomly walking into people's houses and taking anything not nailed down doesn't constitute an evil act... we need to encourage players to explore an interact with the world, you know!

The World - Then
Ultima IV features a big, expansive world. The game drops you near one of eight different towns anywhere in the world depending upon your starting class, and you have to figure out how to get to Lord British's castle to talk with him and find out what you are supposed to be doing in the first place. Or you just get killed on the way and get resurrected, which is kind of a shortcut.

Regardless, you are going to get lost. Early and often. Until you know the entire world like the back of your hand.

The World - Now
The world is still big and expansive. But forget about dropping you anywhere - that would totally screw up the tutorial and the bunny-slope quests! Nope, you start at Lord British's feet, and you have to earn the right to go out into the courtyard, then the sewer, then the town, and only then the larger world.

Then the game lets you get lost.

The User Interface - Then
Every single letter of the alphabet on the keyboard is mapped to a different command. See, there's "K" to "Klimb" a ladder up. Climbing down is a totally different command... "D" for down. The numbers choose a party member. And "J" for jimmying a lock. "I" to ignite a torch. And so forth. The cursor control keys indicate direction of travel, attack, or other actions.

The RPG player's fingers fly across the keyboard with this game. We could almost make an "Ultima Teaches Typing" spin-off product for this series!

The User Interface - Now
Keyboard? What is that? Get with the now... the newly released Ultima IV is a console game! It will be released for all major consoles immediately, and maybe a PS3 version is under consideration. The PC port will be in stores a week or two after the XBox 360, Wii, and DS release. Oh, and it'll be buggy and require a blood sample every time you play for copy protection.

What Did I Miss?
So there you have it. What I imagine Ultima IV would look like if it were released today. I'm sure I missed some important differences. Care to share your own snark thoughts?

(Vaguely) related snarkage with optional Ztats and Klimbing:
* The 16 Essential RPGs
* Scorpia's New Tale - An Interview With One of Gaming's Most Popular Columnists
* The Most Important CRPGs of All Time
* Innovation in RPGs?
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007
IAC/InterActive Corp Buys Majority Stake in GarageGames, Plans Action-Games Portal
IAC / InterActiveCorp has purchased a majority stake in GarageGames. Details are sketchy... but extremely interesting. This article in the Wall Street Journal Online has some fascinating bits of information. IAC (which already has experience in the online space with Ticketmaster, the Home Shopping Network, and Ask.com) is planning building a non-casual "Internet Action Game" portal called "InstantAction". And they are planning to announce a multimillion-dollar fund to develop said games.

The article states, "IAC, which has sought to enter the gaming market for years, is taking a different tack, trying to offer games with more realistic graphics than casual games that can be played without additional software or a console... Users will have access to an array of action-game titles within their browser and be able to chat with others through the service. InstantAction plans to experiment with a range of business models, including subscriptions, advertising and charging for virtual currency"

And another juicy little tidbit: "GarageGames's 27-year-old chief executive, Josh Williams, showed off its early-stage Web-based gaming platform to Ms. Fisher, who had been hunting for an opportunity beyond the already saturated market for online casual games. The deal, to be announced today, closed during the first half of the year."

A Web-based gaming platform? A non-casual action gaming portal? A multi-million-dollar fund to develop "Internet Action Games"? GarageGames' focus on indie game development and the Torque gaming engines?

Interesting. There's a ton more information available right now at GarageGames - Josh Williams has a whole bunch more information directed towards GG's customers and the indie development community in this article. He stresses that it means only good things for the community. In particular, he states, "We're getting more done on Torque than we ever have before. As you've seen, we recently pushed out updates to TGB, TGEA, and TGE, while shipping Torque X and more. But all of this work pales in comparison to what we have to announce in the coming weeks for Torque, and the community here at GG. We're pushing Torque forward in a huge way, re-vamping and overhauling the engine and tools in ways we couldn't have before. We can't wait to share the updates with everyone, and we have a bunch of cool stuff for the community up our sleeve." And they have recently been funding development of games, and acting as more of a publisher.

As to the web-based gaming platform, Josh explains, "Effectively, we are building a web-based console... and just like a console, we'll have a wide variety of games and will be working with lots of developers and eventually perhaps even other publishers to create games for it."

Wow. The game development world is definitely changing. All this smells like interesting opportunities to me.

Source: Wall Street Journal Online - "IAC/InterActiveCorp Takes Game Designer Stake"

Hat Tip to Jeff Tunnell (one of GarageGames' founders) for the info at Make It Big In Games.

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Trap Disarmed!

It is still butt-ugly, but the prototype trap system for Frayed Knights is now functional and playable. It's a little early to state with confidence that it is or is not fun, but playing with it for a few minutes revealed that the gameplay was exactly as I had envisioned in my head. And I'm becoming optimistic.

It's not really a puzzle, but plays out a little like combat. At least for the sample trap above, the best strategy is readily apparent. But tactics have to adapt based upon the luck of the roll. So far I've managed to blow poor Dirk up twice because I wasn't paying attention (once), or because I thought I'd risk "one more shot" that didn't pay off.

It's far from complete, but it is very, very satisfying. I'm also very pleased that it demands the same skills as is appropriate for a turn-based RPG like this. I always hated it when more cerebral games dropped arcade-style action sequences into the game, or vice versa. Now that it's functional, it should be easier to balance out some of the rules and items, and play with several of the suggestions you guys made to me last week. Thank you again for letting me bounce ideas off you and being such active participants in the discussion!

(Vaguely) related verbal tinkering:
* Frayed Knights: Disarmament Treatise
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG Part 1: Rogues Get No Respect!
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG Part 2: The Rogue's Role
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG Part 3: Beyond Lockpicking

Forum Discussion Already In Progress


Monday, September 17, 2007
Robert Jordan R.I.P.
Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan dies

I avoided getting into the Wheel of Time series until it was done. And with the exception of the first book, which my wife found for me on tape to listen to during my commute, I've stuck with that resolution.

Now I'm not sure if I'll ever read it. Though reportedly Jordan was nearly done with the twelfth (and final?) book, so maybe it will be concluded after all.
The Three Stages of Development Tool Acceptance
In my career, I have had to use several different game engines, software development tools, programming languages, and APIs. Sometimes they were forced upon me by someone up the chain who was convinced by some marketer that this tool would be a silver bullet that would shoot all our development woes in the head. More often than not, said development woes were replaced by even worse ones.

I've noticed that if the tool is any good at all, people go through three phases as they come to grips with the system. I've gone through this with Torque, with QuArK, with Blender, with Python, with .NET, with our in-house game engines with my employers, and I'm anticipating going through it with Microsoft's new Silverlight. If you find yourself working with a new tool, new programming language, or whatever, it may help you to recognize what phase you are in, to anticipate progression to the third stage, and to actively try to progress as quickly as possible to stage three.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon
The tool is wonderful. When you use it the way the tutorials or instruction recommends you use it, it is just freaking amazing. Everything comes together so quickly. It's like the angels themselves delivered the tool to your desktop. You marvel at the features, and you can easily imagine a new era of productivity. The tool just makes so many things so much easier.

Stage 2: Betrayal
Sooner or later, however, you discover the limitations of the package. Sure, it does all of these things wonderfully well... but when you start departing from the tried-and-true path of the step-by-step tutorials, you find that doing some things which you consider basic or even trivial in your previous way of doing things is difficult or downright impossible. A feeling of betrayal sets in, and you start wondering if its too late to get your money back. You wonder if its possible to function within these horrendous limitations.

Unfortunately, there are some tools I've worked with in the past where I was unable to ever get past this stage. Some of which cost my company a LOT of money, I might add.

Stage 3: Acceptance
Eventually, you learn work-arounds or how to fix the problems of the tool. Maybe there are alternate means of accomplishing the same objectives that aren't as bad as you thought. Maybe you find that you aren't so dependent upon a missing feature as you thought. Or maybe you end up bypassing the limitation of the tool entirely with a supplemental system of your own. Eventually, if the tool is a good one, you can adapt and change to take the best advantage of the tool. You come to accept its limitations and work around them, and become as productive as you can.


Saturday, September 15, 2007
Where Are We Going, And Why Are We In This Handbasket?
I'm looking into some ways of overhauling the main Rampant Games website. One thing I really need is an easier way to add new games, and other new content. Right now it's a handful of scripts and straightforward HTML.

Anyway, I thought I'd go ahead and poll you to find out what you'd like, to make the site more useful to you, personally. Here on this blog, and at the main website.

What are you looking for?

What kind of blog posts do you like the best?

Why do you visit?

What brought you here in the first place?

What sort of things could I provide on the main website to bring you back?

How could I improve things?

What frustrates you about how things are set up?

If you could change one thing about www.rampantgames.com, what would it be?

If you could change one thing about Tales of the Rampant Coyote, what would it be?

I know these kinds of questions can cause something of a deer-in-the-headlights effect in me, so I apologize. Hopefully I can use your answers to these questions to create some more specific, multiple-choice-ish questions in the future. I'd just really like to steer the site in a direction that would be more useful to people.

Also, I have a little poll for forum members to try and find out more about what you all are into. Unfortunately, you have to sign up onto the forums in order to post anything, which I admit sucks. That's one thing I'm looking into with the upgrade... trying to integrate all these elements together.

Anyway the poll is here. Don't be afraid to post more information in a reply! I know a one-choice poll is weak, but it's a start.

Thanks everyone!
Friday, September 14, 2007
Frayed Knights: Disarmament Treatise
Here's more long-winded discussion on the development of the comedy indie RPG, Frayed Knights. This week: Working With Traps For Fun And Dismemberment!

Wanted: Indiana Jones
Ah, booby-traps. What's a dungeon without a bunch of traps? A boring dungeon, I think! And what are traps that just require a single skill-check from the party's rogue to disarm? A boring booby-trap!

programming... for a crappy stand-in Because I'm all about giving the rogue class (and players who prefer rogues) some serious love, I'm basically turning the whole lock-picking / trap-disarming thing into a giant mini-game that is taking longer than I expected to program. Most of the time is being spent doing UIUI that will hopefully not resemble the final version in any way, shape, or form. Except maybe with that picture to the right of the Mark I Head-Whacker Trap. I kinda like that picture. Except if your squint, it looks like a six-legged cat is crawling under some dude's mustache. Please don't squint, I guess...

In order to test and balance things, I have to start somewhere. So I have this ugly-as-sin but (semi-) functional "Mechanical Device" screen to muck around with. Rather than show you more than just this one really ugly picture of what the screen looks like tonight, I'm just gonna tell you about it, and hope that my discussion makes you fall asleep and dream of something really cool that this MIGHT resemble someday.

Unlike the lock-picking mini-game in Oblivion, I wanted a mini-game that actually uses your characters abilities rather than requiring lightning reflexes and precognitive ability on the part of the player. It all meshes with the game system. But I wanted something that would test your own brain a little bit, too. (EDIT: Maybe mini-game is the wrong term, here... unless combat, too, is considered a mini-game. It's breaking up a task into a complete system with interesting decisions and tactics along the way.)

Ideally, you could try and max-out your character for dealing with mechanical devices as you level so you don't have to hurt your brain too much coming across mechanical puzzles that must be solved. You can brute-force it, to an extent. Or, you could neglect that entirely to make Dirk a combat-monster, and rely upon luck and your own cleverness (and expensive tools) to solve most of the puzzles (and suck up the damage on the rest).

The Game Mechanics For Mechanical Devices
The actual rules are a little complicated but concealed inside a "black box" system. But in a nutshell (well, a very large nutshell), here's the deal:

A trap is made up of components, broken up into three component categories: Triggers, Mechanisms, and Payloads. For locks, the locks replace the Triggers category. In order to disarm the trap, you have to disarm all the components in one of those three categories. You have two basic operations you can perform on any component - Disarm, and Delay. Disarm tries to render it non-operational, and Delay temporarily prevents it from activating (so you can keep trying to disarm it or work on other parts of the device). Both rely upon the usual game mechanics to determine success or failure.

There are two other basic options: "Take Cover" and "Abort." I'll leave it to your imagination what the first one is for. The latter one I'll discuss in a minute.

Do I Cut the Blue Wire or the Red Wire?
The trick is that the components are all linked in various ways. When you fiddle with one component, all the linked components become more dangerous - and may cause the entire trap to go off. Or, if it is an untrapped lock, locks reset and you have to deal with the chance of a monster wandering by while you are busy picking the locks.

Beyond the basic operations, there are expendable tools you can use to assist you in your disarming efforts. For example, there's a potion that is the alchemical equivalent of liquid nitrogen. Pour it on a triggering component, and it freezes. This may allow you to reset the trigger's delay factor without affecting any of its neighbors. How well the tool works depends upon the tool and the type of component you are working with. For example, a wedge works great on a pressure plate trigger (and would give you a hefty bonus to your disarm attempt), but doesn't do much against a tripwire trigger (maybe no bonus at all).

If you abort in mid-disarming / unlocking, the whole thing will reset back to starting values... unless it is a trap, and the overall "danger" level is greater than 50%. Then there's a chance it'll go off anyway. Once the danger level crosses the 50% threshold, you either need to finish the job, or figure out a way to lower the danger level quickly before you abort. Oh, and then there's the "Take Cover" option...

Oh, and whether a trap explodes in your face or you render it harmless, you still get a drama point.

In Theory, At Least...
Now, since I haven't actually been able to TEST any of this yet, it's all still kinda theoretical. On paper, it sounds totally awesome and amazing, and I'm already mentally preparing my acceptance speech for the awards I'm gonna get for it. But the reality of game development always falls very, very short of the idea, and I realize the whole thing may end up being a stinky useless mess by the time I'm done. I may end up resolving all traps with a boring automated skill check that the player doesn't even have to make - I can just pop up a window that says, "Oh, by the way, as you came down the hall you found and disabled three fiendishly cunning traps that left you in awe of the viciousness of their designers. Take 300 experience points."

Yeah. How's that for a Plan B? The utter lack of risk management on this project should reveal to you that I am, if not the worst game producer in the world, at least in the same league.

UPDATE: If you want to see an example of this system in action, in text with all the math and numbers showing, check out this post.

(Vaguely) Related Words. Occasionally With Pictures.
* RPG Design: The Brute-Force Problem
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG, Part I: Rogues Get No Respect!
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG, Part II: The Rogue's Role
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG, Part III: Beyond Lock-Picking
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System

Am I An Embarassment To RPG Fans Everywhere? Let Me Know On The Forums!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007
Indie RPG News, September 13th
It looks like several indie RPGs are finally releasing or entering the final stages of development. I'm going to have to assemble a whole new list of usual suspects! Please drop me a line on new developments I may have missed!

There's not a ton to report on this week, but I thought I'd share what I've got:

The Broken Hourglass

The latest serial story set in the world of The Broken Hourglass, entitled Fetish, comes to a conclusion this month. Anikka struggles with her past as well as with her conscience.

Aveyond II: Ean's Quest
Amanda is reporting that quest programming is 50% completed, and that she believes they are on track to begin beta testing next month.

Depths of Peril
It's out, it's for sale, and it's got me hooked. I spent too much time playing it this last week. I'll have to post something of a review on it in a few days. There's also a new short story entitled "Assassin," taking place in the game world.

Eschalon: Book 1
I've learned that Eschalon: Book 1 has gone into internal beta. Hopefully this means it won't be long now. (Hat tip to RPGWatch for this one).

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Pliers And Nuts Don't Mix (In An M-Rated Game)
So Rockstar made some changes to Manhunt 2 in order to make the game appropriate for 17-year-olds, and not just 18-year-olds. As reported by IGN: "When we first wrote about Manhunt 2, we referenced a particularly nasty death sequence, in which Danny could use a pair of pliers to literally rip the testicles off a hunter. That murder has been completed [sic] removed from the updated build of the game. Not a big deal for us, as it only amounts to one kill out of dozens."

You know, almost every time I play a game I think, "Wow, you know what would REALLY improve this game? If you could rip off some guy's nuts with a pair of pliers!"

. Zelda. Dance Dance Revolution. Tetris. These games could all use some graphic castration-with-blunt-tools sequences! It's a frickin' gold mine, here, and the ESRB is just being a bunch of meanies about it!

Seriously though: All of us game developers make jokes around the office of what sort of horrendous content we should put into whatever game we're working on. The more tired you are, the funnier the jokes become. And hey, I appreciate a little bit of morbid / black humor as much as the next guy. But at what point did the this thing go from being a bad joke to a "good idea" in the minds of Rockstar developers? Possibly the same point that doing soft-core sex mini-games in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas seemed like a good idea. After one too many beers, I'd guess. Or hits on the ol' crack pipe they undoubtedly pass around over there.

And the really sad thing is, it's probably going to sell at least an order of magnitude more copies than some far more deserving indie titles, like Depths of Peril (which has been a little like crack here at Rampant Games, I'm afraid...)

(Vaguely) related violence performed with fingernail clippers:
* Manhunt 2 Banned In U.K., Rated A.O. in U.S.
* Why Are There So Many Violent Videogames?
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator
* Free Adventure Game: Emily Enough

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Is There Hope For Indie Computer RPGs?
Yesterday's post prompted a ton of awesome discussion, and was mostly sans the flames I was half expecting.

Since I've been skewing Rampant Games and Tales of the Rampant Coyote towards the indie Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG) niche a little bit, if I really felt that indie RPGs were doomed I'd be packing it up and call it quits. I'm not doing that. Not by a longshot. I really do feel there is hope for indie RPGs yet. In fact, not just hope, but potential for an extremely bright future. Call me naive or whatnot, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

To start it off, I'm going to point at some previous articles as a starting point:

How to Avoid Making Money Making Indie Games

How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG

Is There A Magic Formula For Succes?
Now, I'm not on expert on the indie RPG market, though I've been trying to feel for its pulse a little bit lately. The good news is that there does seem to be one. I know three authors who HAVE had some success in this arena, and they are the ones who could really address the problem: Jeff Vogel, Amanda Fitch, and Georgina Bensley. They are currently the best "success stories" the indie RPG field has to offer. I'm sure they are probably tired of hearing their names invoked for this reason, but I'll go ahead and quote Georgina, author of Cute Knight, from a recent post on indiegamer.com:
"...If there's one thing I know, it's that there ain't one true way. :)

I'm not going to give them any sort of step-by-step because there are no (or few) strict steps and if I made some up they'd probably come back to haunt me when someone tried them and they didn't work. I can tell people what worked for me and I can suggest when I think they're pretty clearly going down a 'bad' path, but I can't tell them how to Make It Big.

If there is a 'typical' indie experience, I am not it. "
Everything I've read (by successful developers), everything I've experienced in over seven years of mainstream(ish) game development and four years of indie game development and sales indicates that Georgina is probably more typical than she knows. In any hit-driven business, success is like catching lighting in a bottle. There's no magic formula for success (though if there is one, Blizzard probably has it and guards it ferociously). But there are some classic mistakes that get made over and over again that screw up chances for success.

I don't want to criticize Dave Moffat, the creator of The Omega Syndrome. I dig what he's done, I share his pain, and I think he brings up some really good points. My hat is off to anyone and everyone who manages to complete an RPG (even if I hate the game). And I know he worked his butt off making The Omega Syndrome something that not only he himself is proud of, but something his customers could be satisfied with. It was a huge task.

But here are a few things to consider.

It Takes Years To Become An Overnight Success
Aveyond was Amaranth Games' third (I think) publicly-released title. Jeff Vogel has made HOW MANY RPGs now? Something like fifteen, with a sixteenth on the way? And Cute Knight was only one of many "girl-friendly" anime-style games created by Hanako Games - and not her first to incorporate RPG elements, either.

It's not just a case of trying, trying again until you succeed. The cost of getting a "new" customer (in terms of advertising and marketing effort) is several times higher than that of retaining an existing customer. While Aveyond really "broke out" through casual games channels, its initial success and sales surge came from - as I have understand it - sales to existing fans of Ahriman's Prophecy, her free "prequel" RPG. I don't know how many Geneforge 4 customers are playing Spiderweb RPGs for the first time, but I expect the majority have played the previous games in the series. These developers aren't just making a game. They are creating a brand, a flavor, a style that players enjoy and want to keep returning to. Just as readers may have favorite novelists.

I have heard a few musicians note that their "overnight success" came only after years of hard work. And I have yet to hear of a best-selling writer who couldn't wallpaper their house with rejection notices from earlier in their career. This sounds like an accurate depiction of indie RPG world, as well.

The Old School Is No Longer In Session
I remember what it was like in the late 80's and early 90's. We had so many kick-butt RPGs back then, and it seemed like a new "must-have" RPG was coming out every single month. And many gamers have fond memories of those awesome 16-bit console RPGs for the SNES and Sega. It's tempting to focus on that audience of yesteryear and say, "I am writing for these guys."

But "those guys" aren't around anymore as an audience. Oh, sure, we're still alive and kicking, posting on forums and blogs about the "good ol' days" when we had to hike uphill both ways in the snow and all that, and why they don't make games like they used to. And that niche is still there. But a lot of those fans have moved on. They are playing new, different games now like Final Fantasy XII and Oblivion and in a couple of months maybe Hellgate: London. Or maybe they got sucked into MMOs and are spending 50 hours a week raiding to get new gear for their third level 70 and increase their DPS by 0.1%. Or maybe they quit gaming altogether, using their computer mainly to watch YouTube videos.

But in the three "success" stories above, I think all three have reached out to new audiences. Cute Knight and Aveyond found their big success in the casual market, and I remember reading an interview with Jeff Vogel where he said many of his customers are new to RPGs with his games. It makes sense on many levels. Now where are we gonna get them from? That I don't know. That may differ from game to game. Maybe a game just for those guys who post inane comments on YouTube? Who knows.

Which brings me to a third point:

If You Build It, They Will NOT Come
This is true of all games. I try - with what limited time I can muster - to keep an ear to the ground on the developments in the indie RPG world. And I am still constantly uncovering games I have never even heard of. The indie RPG community seems to be masterful at hiding their work from the prying eyes of the public. Several people have commented about the Omega Syndrome's pull from sale that they had never even heard of the game before.

This is hardly a problem of just the indie RPG developers, of course. We indies in general need to get a lot smarter about how we handle marketing. It seems like we figure that if we can't beat the mainstream publishers' incredible marketing budgets, we just ought to not even try and just see what happens.

We can't find our audience if we don't spend as much effort trying to get the message to them as we do making these games. That's maybe not what people want to hear, but that seems to be a truth that cuts across all media and industries.

We Need To Change The Rules
Gareth Fouche commented in the forum on yesterday's topic:
"the industry is rife with 'working harder not smarter'. People are constantly recreating the wheel. I'm not surprised RPGs take so long to make. People seem to have forgotten the lesson learned with the Infinity engine. Ie that you can milk these suckers for a long time/many games. RPGers aren't as fussy as the mainstream crowd, despite Oblivion. Quite frankly I am dying for a new RPG right now. And I'm sure I'm not the only RPG fan that feels that way."
We have come to regard the "exploration" system of roleplaying as one of the defining elements of the genre, in which the player consumes content at a voracious rate - which means a ton of development work. Are there better ways of dealing with this problem? One thing we've learned from games like Nethack and other Roguelikes is that a really detailed, interesting rule-system can be just as engrossing (if not more so) than the most lifelike graphics. Warren Spector has mentioned his desire to someday create an RPG that takes place entirely within a city block. There are lots of places we can take the genre without getting into an arms-race with games like Oblivion - or even Neverwinter Nights.

We Need Personality, Style, and Brand
While there are many authors that may emulate or imitate Stephen King's style, there's only one Stephen King, and his readers know this. Ditto for Tolkien, Hemmingway, Grisham, Dickens, Clancy, Evanovich, Chandler, Card, and Jordan. They have their own style, personality, voice... and brand. That's something no amount of development budget can touch.

And that's something a very small team of developers can pull off in RPGs, perhaps better than a big-budget studio.

And More?
What's your take? Is there hope? Can indies pick up the torch? What can we do - not only as developers but as fans of the genre who'd like to see more quality RPGs land on our systems?

Note - Images taken from Cute Knight, Aveyond, Scars of War, and The Broken Hourglass.

(Vaguely) related indie RPG evangelizing:
* 20 Ways To Make Money Making Indie Games
* The Key To Small Business Success: Don't Die
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Developer
* Interview With Georgina Bensley, Creator of Cute Knight
* Beyond the Gate: Jason Compton on the Making of "The Broken Hourglass"

Read Or Post Comments On The Forum

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Indie RPGs: Just Not Worth It?
Now-former indie game developer David Moffat has just announced that he has shut down his studio, Australian Game Developers, and has removed his Fallout-inspired indie RPG of aliens and government conspiracy, The Omega Syndrome, from sale. As he states on his soon-to-disappear site:
"I don't know if I will have the high motivation that is required to make another computer RPG. Why? Fan expectations are high, the potential audience is small and fractured and the amount of work that is required to create even a low quality computer RPG, far exceeds that of any other type of game. So in short I no longer believe they can be successful financially or otherwise, unless they are properly funded and have the very best people working in each area."
Not exactly inspiring words for would-be indie RPG developers.

When you talk indie RPGs, it seems that those few enlightened souls who know might have an inkling of what you are talking about seem to conjure up thoughts of one of three things: Spiderweb Software's long (and successful) line of RPGs, the new-fiesty-surprise hit "casual" RPGs Aveyond and Cute Knight (plus maybe hybrids like Empires & Dungeons), or the freeware RPG scene (principally composed of demos and incomplete, abandoned projects, unfortunately) like the RPGMaker community.

As a fan of computer role-playing games from --- well, not the earliest days, but definitely a long time --- I am concerned about this on several levels.

RPGs used to be a staple of maintream gaming. From a gamers' perspective, I suppose they still are, but Moffat's statement could be applied to developing mainstream retail RPGs as well. It has become such an expensive genre to create that few developers or publishers are willing to tackle it. For the price of an RPG, you could create two FPS games of the same quality. The same rule applies to indie RPGs. Traditionally, the content requirements alone for an RPG - with a focus on exploration-based gameplay - put it far ahead of other genres in terms of development cost.

From a pure "return on investment" perspective, this would still be worthwhile if RPGs sold as much (or more) than their cheaper-to-produce counterparts. But while RPG fans are legion, I don't think this is the case. RPG development is a tough, hard slog, and a labor of love that I don't think gets much appreciation by its audience. The mainstream RPG player, at least, has expectations set very high for their favorite genre. Just look at the wish-lists and manifestos posted on forums and websites by fans for RPGs, and see what sort of "reasonable" demands players make of their beloved genre. For that matter, you don't need go much further than this blog. I go off as much as the next fan for how RPGs "ought" to be made.

I believe indie RPGs have a lot to offer. I think RPGs and adventure games lend themselves extremely well to storytelling - more so than most genres - and thus are fertile media for individual designers and small teams to offer something unique: Their own voice. I'm not talking voice-overs, I'm talking authorship and storytelling. Personality. Innovation.

But without an audience, it is nothing.

So where does this leave the newly-released Depths of Peril, a highly professional indie RPG with production values far beyond that of most indie fare? What about Minions of Mirth, an indie-developed "hardcore" fantasy MMORPG? What about several "major" indie RPGs deep in development, including Eschelon: Book 1, The Broken Hourglass, and Age of Decadence? What about the large number of RPGs in development in the "Dream Game Competition"?

Are we all pretty much doomed? Do the expectations and size of the RPG audience make it pretty much impossible for an "indie RPG" niche of the industry to survive, let alone thrive?

(Vaguely) related bellyaching:
* Where Is Indie Innovation?
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?
* Yes, Virginia, There Is Money In Indie Games
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* Interview With Amanda Fitch, Indie RPG and Casual Game Designer
* Indie RPG Roundtable

* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance

Feel Like Chatting About It In The Forums?

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Monday, September 10, 2007
When Does a Great Game Cease Being Great?
I got hooked on an old RPG this last week - Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. I dug up the old stuff weeks ago to try and look at it for research for Frayed Knights. And Let me tell you, it was a booger getting this 15-year-old title running even under DOSBox. The sound still isn't quite right. But now it's very playable.

And... strangely... very fun. In fact, possibly more fun today than when I first played it many winters ago, when I got irritated that the monsters didn't drop the weapons they were fighting with, and hated mixing science fiction with my fantasy. I guess I'm mellower now. And not as spoiled - I'm no longer expecting the next greatest RPG to come rolling out onto store shelves each month. That's a bygone era, I'm afraid. And today there are resources on the web to help me when I get stumped or lost (though even then there were files on FTP sites and magazine hint columns to help me through).

Now, many people consider Wizardry 7 to be one of the "greats." But would a modern gamer play Wizardry 7 for more than fifteen seconds before throwing their useless controller down in disgust? Probably not. I'm probably partially immune due to my experience with these ungainly beasts. I'm not blind to the graphical differences between Wizardry 7 and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but I think I'm in a position to forgive fifteen years of technological obsolescence.

But that still doesn't explain (I think) why I ended up spending way more time playing the game than I needed to for the purpose of research, and why I really ended up starting to get into it. Possibilities:

#1 - It's me. It's possibly going to be to my ultimate failure as a game designer, but I am not a typical gamer. Now, I've gone back and played some old favorites before and said, "Ugh!" so this isn't a typical response even for me. But maybe there's just something weird with me - now - that clicked.

#2 - I got myself into a mindset to appreciate the game. I went through all the trouble of trying to get the dumb thing to work in an emulator, read some comments by people who'd played the game and talked about how awesome it was (more awesome than I remembered), etc. So when I started up the game, I was just programmed to be more receptive to it.

#3 - There really is something pretty awesome about the game that makes it so compelling. If so, what was it, and what can I do to bottle that?

I suspect there's a little truth in all three possibilities. But it does make me wonder a little bit about what makes a "great" game (and "great" RPG). People still recognize Wizardry 7 as a "great" RPG. But is that something that only exists in a historical perspective? Is a "great" game only great for its time, relative to its social and technological setting? Or would a great game still be recognized as great by a modern game by a modern audience if you forced 'em to sit through long enough to get used to the graphics and interface?

I don't know. I gotta be honest here - I have watched Citizen Kane, and while I understand its historical relevance in legitimizing cinema as an art form, and its innovation in the form of certain camera techniques, and its social message in its time in relation to William Hearst... I really didn't enjoy the movie all that much. I thought it was "okay." But I'm a modern moviegoer. I see the parallels with gaming.

Does a great game cease to be great at some point? What's the deal?

(Vaguely) related diatribes:
* The Sixteen Essential RPGs
* Why Bother With Single-Player RPGs?
* The Most Important CRPGs of All Time

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Sunday, September 09, 2007
City of Brass
I just picked up the City of Brass for D20, newly released boxed-set Dice-and-Paper game supplement by Necromancer Games. A bunch of us have been expecting something like this since 1979, when the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide came out with the Efreet on the front and the view of the City of Brass on the back. Though I was late to the party, not discovering it until 1981. I always wondered what was going on, what the City of Brass might be like (beyond the story from 1001 Arabian Nights). Many of us expected TSR to come out with the City of Brass module or campaign setting back then... and it never really happened.

I guess in 1993 or so a module came out from TSR for the Al-Qadim setting called "The Secrets of the Lamp" which, from what I have heard, mapped out one author's take on the setting. I never saw it though. And then Rob Kuntz co-authored a Hackmaster version of the City of Brass a couple of years ago.

But this new one is something like 430+ pages of adventures (in a mini-campaign for higher-level characters) and sourcebook materials broken into three books, plus a 24-page map booklet. From what I have seen so far, it's really pretty nice. The one downside is that if you have Necromancer's three monster books, the "Tomes of Horrors," about half of the third book is redundant information.

Still, from what little I've been able to dig into so far, it's got the flavor I've been expecting. It's pretty "old school" feel, which is a specialty of Necromancer Games (and Goodman Games, I guess I should add), though the production values and mechanics are definitely modern.

Sorry, not much of value to CRPG fans here... thanks for putting up with me geeking out for a few minutes.


Friday, September 07, 2007
Depths of Peril Now Available!
Soldak Entertainment has announced that their new indie RPG, "Depths of Peril," is now available for Windows PCs. If you have played and enjoyed the demo (as I have), you can buy the full game here:

Depths of Peril Purchase Page

Depths of Peril is a single player action role-playing game (RPG) with strong strategy elements. You play as a faction leader protecting the barbarian city, Jorvik, by destroying threatening monsters and completing quests. At the same time, you compete with rival factions to see who will rule the city. Barbarians choose their leaders by fighting to the death!

As a faction leader, you must deal with rival factions through diplomacy, trade, and in time, war. Between battles and raids against other barbarian factions, you build the most powerful faction possible, to withstand your enemies. Building the power of a faction involves exploring a fantasy world, slaying dangerous monsters, solving quests for the city, avoiding deadly traps, and plundering loot to share within your faction.

But in this world, actions actually have consequences, so take care. Annoying the powerful and aggressive Legion of Fear faction will cause them to declare war and destroy you. Ignored orc uprisings in the Black Forest might lead to attacks on the town or even more trouble. Protect ally covenants that are being raided, because friends are hard to come by.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
Twenty Years of Twenty-Sided Dice
Today was a rather strange anniversary. 20 years ago today was Labor Day, 1987, when I got pulled into a particularly bizarre social circle, joined together by a mutual hobby of Dungeons & Dragons. The thing is - while the exact membership has changed over the years, this same group is still gaming together, twenty years later.

That group was mixed-gender, and we didn't just play D&D together. While we moved in other social circles, for many of us the gaming group was "the gang." We were always hanging around together, going to movies, dances, parties, and whatever. Some members dated each other. Folks moved away, graduated, or got married and disappeared, and new people would join the group. At one point we'd dwindled down to about four active players, and now we're up to about a dozen (and a couple more people have asked if we had any slots open... it's crazy). Several of us have kids that are old enough to play.

And the game keeps going...

Seven of us in the current group started playing together as college students (there's something like 15 of us, though some don't play as actively as others). And we're still much more than just a gaming group. We're all best friends. We're still always getting together for parties, camping, and other events. Some of us are hitting Spamalot tomorrow night together... it's like the geek mothership has come back as high culture. The excuse to get together weekly for a few hours of playing "let's pretend" with dice and rules is what keeps us close.

And hey, while its not responsible for my wife and I meeting each other, it was a topic of mutual interest that kept us talking with each other the night we met - and corresponding afterwards until we both ended up at the same college... and in that very gaming group together.

It's a happy thing.

So here's a public hats-off to Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax for warping my life in such a pleasant way. It's been an awesome couple of decades.

(Vaguely) related dabblings with a Wand of Fireballs...
* Spring And... D&D?
* PvP in PnP D&D
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons

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Frayed Knights: Talk Ain't Cheap
More on the continuing saga of the indie RPG Frayed Knights - the comedic role-playing game in development here in the dungeons of Rampant Games. "Dungeons" meaning my little basement office.

Many early RPGs had you killing every other creature in the game. Most modern ones try to add variety to the game by having you talk to some creatures instead of killing them. Tricksy designers, huh? As it turns out, its usually easier to just kill them.

I, too, have been working on conversations with NPCs (non-player characters). My goal has been to create something that's a little deeper and more interesting than the usual NPC conversations found in other RPGs - where they are little more than quest-and-information dispensers.

I started with the idea of bringing back some old-school Ultima-style (Ultima 7, to be specific) keyword-based conversations, to allow a more organic (if disjointed) flow of conversation. As you talk, keywords become available to trigger dialogs, and disappear once they are "used up." This has an advantage of allowing player-initiated topics of conversation. If the player is on a quest to find the Purple Velvet Jacket, it could be inserted into any conversation menu for any NPC that actually had something to say about the PVJ quest. So the player wouldn't have to go repeat through endless conversation loops and branches just to see if any NPC might mention the PVJ somewhere in their canned dialogs.

I also added a "knowledge / conversation inheritance" system. This way there could be a hierarchy of knowledge in, say, the village. Let's say we have a villager, Ol' Cletus. Now by default, Cletus would already have the conversation options of all villagers. And he's also a member of the Fraternal Order of the Moose. So he inherits all of their common conversation options as well. He's also a regular Bar Patron, and inherits the Bar Patron conversations. So if the Fraternal Order of the Moose is in any way involved with the PVJ quest, Ol' Cletus or any other FOM member may have something to say on the matter.

Then he's got his own, unique conversation options. Because he's Ol' Cletus.

Suddenly Ol' Cletus is a very talkative character. His conversation "tree" is very, very broad. Only a little bit of it is exposed immediately, but through chatting with Ol' Cletus, making him like you or trust you, or satisfying other conditions in the game, new keyword options can be exposed. And old ones disappear as the conversation moves on to new topics, though a skilled conversationalist can bring them back around again. Before Ol' Cletus gets impatient and decides he needs to quit talking and go about his business...

Where It's Going... Or Not...
That stuff is all working. Mostly. But the results were... less than satisfying. Which is my way of saying "it sucks," without damaging my own fragile ego.

Now, I'm not done yet with the additional stuff I intend to add to conversations to make them more interesting still... like borrowing some actions from people-sims (like... uh, The Sims) as actions to try and adjust the NPC's mood, patience, respect, trust, or relationship with the PC's.

Which - all combined - would probably makes it a slightly more elaborate cousin to the conversation system in Morrowind. Which I don't actually remember being all that exciting. It makes me wonder if I shouldn't have gone with the plain ol' boring conversation-tree system that everyone else uses.

After all, the game's supposed to be about silliness and comedy, right? Witty banter, sharp repartee, verbal sparring, amusing commentary, goofy misunderstandings, and comical asides. That stuff doesn't just HAPPEN. That has to be tightly scripted to make it work. Why am I shooting myself in the foot like that? While there is a lot of neat stuff to be done in this area, is it the right thing for Frayed Knights?

So I'm left a little in a quandry right now about what to do next. Part of me wants to keep plowing ahead with these really nifty ideas to see how it looks once its all put together. Maybe it'll get better. And another part of me is saying, "That's just putting lipstick on the pig?"

So I think to myself, "WWSD?". "What would Shigeru do?" And then I think, "Well, I don't have his finances, his experience, his talent, or his platform. So I can't do any of that. So what the freak will I do?" And with that, I beat a hasty retreat from the subject altogether, to come back and revisit it later.

Yeah. A bold visionary game designer, that's me.

Actually, I do have some ideas of how to get the best of both worlds. Well, maybe not the best, but hopefully less of the stuff that sucks from both worlds. I'm going to give it a rest for a week or two, while writing up some new "paper prototypes."

What's Next On Deck?
The task I'm really dreading working on (because it's also HARD, like the conversation system) is the trap / lock system. Because after I made that big ol' huge deal about making a rogue-friendly RPG, I need to put my money where my mouth is. Unfortunately, some of the details were a little sketchy on this BEFORE I did away with the skill system. Now they are downright fuzzy.

(Vaguely) Related Frustration
* RPG Conversation Redesign
* Making a Rogue-Friendly RPG
* The Non-Combat RPG: A Fool's Errand?
* Frayed Knights Dev Diary: Orange
* Frayed Knights: Emergency Redesign

Oh, look! A Forum Post Where You Can Mock Me!

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How Long Does It Take To Build 3D Models?
Scott Hsu-Storaker, the "Thousander Club" guy, runs the Low Poly Cooperative (a totally awesome "open source" content site with a focus on Blender and Torque --- check it out, enjoy, take advantage of the free content and tutorials, and by all means contribute if / when you can). Anyway, he has written a somewhat lengthy article breaking down the average amount of time it has taken him to create all the models in the "Gilman Street Project."

Now, GSP was - as I understand it at least - something of a learning experience for him. So maybe a more experienced modeler could cut these times down. But measuring his times, he came up with the following breakdown:

Average time to create a completed model: 7 Hours.
1.5 hours -- Modelling and unwrapping
3 hours -- Texturing
1 hour -- Exporting and file wrangling
1.5 hours -- Management (of project and other contributors), finding source materials, and miscellaneous.

Note that Scott didn't have to work on rigging and animating at all with this project. THAT can be a time-sink. But we're talking nicely textured but simple everyday items. Like the pictured floodlight.

So for 3D game devs out there trying to estimate (guesstimate) budgets for creating all the 3D assets in your game... this may be some useful data to chew on.

Read Scott's full article here: "How Long Does It Take Anyways?"

(Vaguely) related tales of my own miserable failures:
* A Blender Journey
* Getting Better 1,198 Polygons At A Time
* The Joy of Tex(turing)

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Indie RPG News, September 5th
Indie Computer RPGs - old-school or avante-garde, professional or amateur, there's a lot happening in the indie RPG world. Here's a little sampling of what I'm seeing in my neck o' the woods. As always - if you have news of upcoming indie RPGs, drop me a line and let me know about it!

Project Rhapsody
According to the developers, "Rhapsody (tentative title) is a indie RPG similar to the Japanese style RPGs for the SNES and early Playstation titles. I would say it plays the most like Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire 4 We've all worked long and hard on the game already, and we hope the game will feel very professional and give that same feeling as the previously mentioned games." Pictured to the right, Project Rhapsody has just reached the "code complete" stage, although content is still well under development. Check out the Project Rhapsody Website.

Kudos to Indygamer for the heads-up on this one.

The Broken Hourglass
Planewalker Games gives us another update on the upcoming RPG in the style of Baldur's Gate. This week they bring us new insights from the fantasy world of Tolmira--specifically, a look at the Imperial Senate and the uneasy alliance they have with the executive Primarch they appoint, as well as with each other. Nuggets of Imperial history abound. Learn about the Imperial Senate and the new Primarch at "The Senate and the Emperor" on Planewalker's site.

Legend: Forge Your Destiny
Spotted at RPG Codex, this is a single-player and multiplayer action-RPG being put together by some former Oblivion modders, using Trinigy's Vision game engine. Its features include a bartering system, non-linear plotlines, mounts and transports, and episodic releases. The feature list, actually, is something of a dream-sheet. If they manage to pull the bulk of this off, it'll be one very impressive game. Naturally, at this stage, there's no official release date scheduled. But I do hope they pull this one off. Check out the website for Legend: Forge Your Destiny.

(Vaguely) related indie RPG news bits:
* Indie RPG Updates, August 28th
* Indie RPG news, July 24th
* Cute Knight Deluxe Available From Rampant Games
* Indie RPG News, June 26th

Check Out Ye Olde Indie RPG News Forum Thread!

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Shodan Has Seized Control of Wal*Mart
Look at you, sh-sh-sh-shopper, a pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you shop through my aisles. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?

While you were asleep in your cryo-tube, Shodan apparently took over Wal*Mart. We have the scoop from DGM in the forums:
I've just returned from a quick shopping foray to Wal-Mart, where I had a rather bizarre experience at the self-checkout line. After paying for my groceries the recorded female voice began skipping and distorting in an oddly familiar way: "p-p-please remember to take your change and your receit, and th-th-tha-a-a-ank you for shopping at Wa-a-a-a-a-al-Mart."

Being the polite gamer that I am, I replied "thank you, SHODAN" before moving on.
Life imitating art?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie #8
Ernest Adam's annual round-up of bad game design decisions returns! This time he addresses...

Mandatory Wildly Atypical Levels, Failure to Provide Clear Short-Term Goals (one of my pet peeves), Dominant Strategies, Amnesia, Incorrect Victory Checks, Illogical Victory Checks, and Seizing Control of the Camera At Bad Times.

Check it out on GamaSutra: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie VIII


Are We Headed Towards a Casual Games Crash?
It depends on how you define "crash." As a total bottom-falling-out type deal, maybe not. But the casual gaming boom can't go on forever, and there are signs that its coming to an end.

Casual gaming has been the big subject in the video game industry for the last three years or so. That was the point where a few whitepapers came out and revealed that one of the largest areas of growth in the market was in the "casual games" area, neglected by the big publishers, and populated by a neglected audience --- principally women over age 40.

The growth has been nothing short of explosive over the last few years. The major players have emerged (though there's still plenty of jockeying for position to be had). The big publishers have started paying attention, and have created casual games divisions. The market is being saturated with product, with portals like Big Fish Games advertising "A new game every day." And the mainstream media has picked up on things, "suddenly" discovering that the gaming landscape has expanded.

Portals have started slashing prices to compete with each other, offering "memberships" which result in steeply discounted prices. And they have become more and more dependent upon ad-based revenue - which may or may not trickle down to the developer. And sites like Kongregate which are entirely ad-revenue based, offering free games to consumers which, like it or not, do compete with the pay-to-purchase games. Many of the established portals now have internal development teams - and they naturally promote their own stuff ahead of that of third-party developers. All of this spells weaker returns to the developers - though what else is new? Add to this the fact that the cost of development of "competitive" games has been increasing substantially in this space, and there's clear signs of danger ahead.

While these could all just be growing pains of this exciting new segment of the market, they may also warning signs that the music is about to stop in the not-too-distant future, and everybody involved had better make sure they've got a seat. The "explosive growth" phase may be at an end, and we may be entering the "maturity" phase of casual games. At this point, things will level off. That's not quite the same as a crash, though if you have built a business plan around the belief that growth is going to continue as it has over the last three years, it'll probably feel like one to you.

It's inevitable, really. The casual games market grew by 20% last year. Even if it grows at the same rate this year (and there's plenty of growth opportunity left, don't get me wrong), it seems to me - from my admittedly mouse-eye-view - that the supply side of casual games, casual game sites, and casual game developers have increased quite a bit more than 20% over the last three years or so. When supply gets to the point that it exceeds demand, the market corrects itself, and its not too pretty if you are on the provider side of things.

We indie developers who don't specialize in casual games ought not feel secure, either. We're probably going to catch our share of the "leveling out" fallout, too.

So - am I just paranoid and talking gloom-n-doom? Or are we going to look back on 2008 or 2009 and say, "Ouch, that one kinda hurt?"

(Vaguely) related paranoia:
* Downloadable, Casual Games Gain Momentum
* The Casual Game Industry Sucks, Two?
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?
* The Casual Game Industry Sucks, Too!

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Monday, September 03, 2007
Gimme That Old Time Indie Development...
It's good enough for me...

Juuso Hietalahti takes a stab at describing a typical indie game developer in his article, "The Difficult Definition of Indie Game Developer." It is a dark, dark place he goes, where I have travelled more than once and still feel the scars. Just a few comments, because I am just that kind of petty, bitter geek:

Budget: I don't know if "tight budget" is a good descriptor of indie-dom. I guess it's safer to say, "Indie games have no lower bounds on budget." There are plenty of indie games out there (and many that have done very well, I should add...) that have been done on a budget of pretty close to nothing but volunteered time. And there are indie budgets pushing (or exceeding) $100k now, especially for consoles. Really, the point is that indie games are just not funded by publishers... which often (but not necessarily) means they are on the lower end of the budget scale.

Innovation: Indies aren't blessed with more creativity than anyone else in the games biz. I mean, you need go no further than to type the URL of your favorite major online game portal to see we come out with some of the most derivative and lame clones in the biz, too. It's just we're empowered to see our wild, weird, hairy, scary ideas get released into the wild... even with all the critical and commercial failure they deserve. It's just us and Darwin, baby!

Indies and Publishers & Portals: You won't find a more bitterly discussed relationship amongst the old-school indies. For many, it's a case of meeting the new boss, the same as the old boss. And the very rebelliousness and refusal to play with the herd that made the indies reject the old publishing / distribution model makes them reject being told that they have to cater to the portals now if they want to be successful. But the savvy indies out there take advantage of whatever options are available - from portals to box deals to stuff the shelves of Wal*Mart - but refuse to be ruled by them.

What makes indies so hard to define or describe is that you are really talking about something that is not something else. It's like describing "everything that isn't colored blue." It's not a unified culture or community or anything else. It's just those nutcases out there who figure they can make (and, sometimes, sell) their own games without relying upon someone else with bags of money to tell them what to do.

So with all that being said... go indie!

(Vaguely) related indieishnessocity:
* Dependent, Independent, and Indie
* What Is an Indie Game?

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Sunday, September 02, 2007
The Key To Small Business Success: Don't Die
While this isn't directly game-related, for those who are currently making indie games commercially, or those to aspire to do so, this may be of value. Paul Graham, a VC who funds several startups, makes an interesting suggestion for how to get rich and successful with a startup business: Just don't die.

How Not To Die

He states, "If you can just avoid dying, you get rich. That sounds like a joke, but it's actually a pretty good description of what happens in a typical startup. It certainly describes what happened in Viaweb. We avoided dying till we got rich."

He points out several of the symptoms of a company that's about to flounder and die. And then makes the radical suggestion of treating those symptoms directly to keep the company alive.

For example, a major symptom of an ailing, soon-to-be-dead company is that they cease communicating (he focuses on communicating with their funding partners, but I think this applies across the board). His suggestion? Keep communicating. A lot. He suggests, "That may not be so naive as it sounds. You've probably noticed that having dinners every Tuesday with us and the other founders causes you to get more done than you would otherwise, because every dinner is a mini Demo Day. Every dinner is a kind of a deadline. So the mere constraint of staying in regular contact with us will push you to make things happen, because otherwise you'll be embarrassed to tell us that you haven't done anything new since the last time we talked... If this works, it would be an amazing hack. It would be pretty cool if merely by staying in regular contact with us you could get rich. It sounds crazy, but there's a good chance that would work."

Gee, maybe the whole idea of blogging weekly about my game-in-progress isn't such a dumb idea after all..!

Anyway, there's a bunch of information in there that might be adaptable to a small, indie game business. Take a look and see what you think!


Free Adventure Game: Emily Enough
I guess I do have a closet fascination with the macabre, after all. Via TIGSource this morning, I learned about this adventure game called Emily Enough: Imprisoned, a graphic adventure game which is entirely sick and wrong in a darkly humorous way.

You play Emily Enough, a cute, extremely precocious and unrepentant 11-year-old girl who has been committed to a mental institution for murdering her parents and servants with a knife. Your job, naturally enough, is to escape the institution, which is now being run by a nearly bankrupt, amoral pharmaceutical company.

The game is plainly sick, twisted, and wrong. Yet also funny in a very black-humor kind of way. To keep the tone light and humorous, the violence is kept off-camera for the most part.

It can be argued that the humor and entertainment value of the game is dependent upon it dealing with such an incredibly uncomfortable, disturbing subject. The characters and situations are deliberately over-the-top in order to divorce the game's subject matter from anything resembling reality. It's like the schoolyard songs about doing violence to teachers. Taken completely out of context of real-world shootings, they are funny hyperbole.

Likewise, the unreality of the context is what makes it possible to consider grisly murder as a possible solution to puzzles. The game's "safe" environment makes the unthinkable sound reasonable. But try and describe it outside of the context of the game, and it sounds like a poster-child candidate for anti-game legislation.

And maybe that's why Emily Enough succeeds, from my perspective, where "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" failed. SCMRPG tried to straddle both sides of the line, ambivalently alternating between being an over-the-top parody and a serious exploration of a brutal, emotionally-charged real event.

Emily also doesn't limit itself to its principle subject matter, nor at any time tries to take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at everything from the media, to the Bush administration, to the conventions of the graphic adventure game genre. As an example of the latter, at one point she refuses to pick up an object as directed by the player, stating, "Why would I want that cord? Do you think I just go around picking up odd objects in order to use them at some point in the future to complete some inane task?"

As a game, it suffers from some of the problems of other games of this type. Some puzzles are introduced before they are solvable. Not only does this make the solutions feel forced and arbitrary (and thus, frustrating) in their sequencing, but it also requires the player to go back and revisit the entire game world in search of inexplicable, mysterious changes that have happened just because you happened to talk to someone about something peripherally related. In addition, the game has its share of "hunt-the-pixel" puzzles.

But it's a quick, funny game. Oh, and it's free.

With strong language, morbid subject matter, and twisted humor, this game is most definitely not for everyone. It's also a game that would never be a major commercial release for several very good reasons. Download at your own risk if you think it might be your cup of arsenic-laced tea:

Emily Enough: Imprisoned

(Vaguely) related stupidity:
* Super Columbine Massacre RPG Too Hot For Slamdance
* Coming Soon: More Graphic Adventure Game Goodness?
* Game Design: Tough Choices


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Saturday, September 01, 2007
Time to Freely Command & Conquer
The original Command & Conquer (gold edition) is now available for free from EA, to celebrate its 12th anniversary of its release. You need to burn the ISO images onto CD-ROMs in order to play the game, but hey.... free classic game!

Man, has it been that long? Freaky. Still, it was a very good game... though I preferred Warcraft II at the time. While its origins have been obscured over time and multiple sequels and prequels, Command & Conquer was originally something of a sequel to Westwood's earlier Dune II - but without the encumbering license. They just substituted Tiberium for Spice, and ... voila!

So if you are in the mood for some old-school RTS actions, give it a try!

C&C 12th Anniversary - Download C&C Gold Free!

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