Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Friday, November 30, 2007
It's All A Coincidence!
A reviewer writes a less-than-stellar review of the big Christmas release of a major publisher... and major advertiser of the game review site.

He's subsequently fired, and later many of the ads and branding for the game are pulled from the site.

An editor subsequently resigns. Maybe.

I'm sure it's all just a coincidence.

Or not, if Penny Arcade nails it.

Either way - perception is reality in these things. The product of game review sites is one who's value is based on trust. An erosion of that trust is a bad thing.

Thanks to Primotech, Destructoid, Kotaku, and Joystiq for the heads-up. And Brian H., who personally gave me the heads-up when I was too sleep deprived to notice anything happening beyond the odd voices in my head.

UPDATE: This "insider info" on Valleywag - if legit (and it has the appearance of being so) - is pretty damning evidence of not only what has happened, but that it is simply a symptom of the state of GameSpot and C|Net's journalist websites - if not the entire game review industry. A key excerpt:
"Our last executive editor, Greg Kasavin, left to go to EA, and he was replaced by a suit, Josh Larson, who had no editorial experience and was only involved on the business side of things. Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we've started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game's getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it'll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves."
Scary. Of course, it could be an editor from a rival gaming site who can easily make it sound authentic and is trying to cast even more doubt on GameSpot's already questionable journalistic integrity. We'll probably never know the truth. I doubt
Jeff Gerstmann even knew what hit him. (Discovered via HDRLying. )


Frayed Knights: Twisty Paths and Flickering Torchlight
Frayed Knights is an indie computer role-playing game (CRPG) in development in something of the style of old-school first-person-perspective dungeon-crawlers like Wizardry, the original Bard's Tale series, and the D&D "Gold Box" games. But then it totally throws the whole thing on its ear with a comedy twist and a refusal to take the genre seriously. Here is another of the weekly updates in the ongoing development saga. If bleeding out of the eyes persists after reading, consult your physician.

Dungeon Dressing - Ranch Style!
Back when I was 12 or so, I loved reading through all the appendices of the Dungeon Master's Guide for D&D. Yes, I was as much a geek then as I am now. In order to help DMs (Dungeon Masters) with their creativity, one appendix was filled with "Dungeon Dressing" (Appendix I, if anybody's counting...) A random table of all kinds of junk you might find in a dungeon. Nevermind that if you just threw those into any old dungeon room, it would make no sense whatsoever. An acrid oder, a broken arrow on the foor, a torch stub, scattered teeth, and a buzzing noise...

All that junk might work in the Temple of Pokmor Xang, though. As I was describing the level to Kevin a few weeks ago, I told him to imagine that the temple was the domain of some "trailer trash orcs." In fact, I want to give the high priest's bed a broken leg, so it can be propped up on a block or something. Unfortunately, that means content. Lots and lots of content.

So I spend a bit of time this week working on the "dungeon dressing." Not all the random bits I just described, but certain key elements like light sources, doors, gates, and other objects that need to be interactive, give off light, or respond to scripts.

Torching Things
You know what? A simple freakin' torch in a sconce can take a LOT of time. Maybe it's only because I'm still not a very fast modeler or something, but for some reason I chalked the whole idea of making a torch - something less than 100 polygons - to something I could whip out in oh, say, an hour or something. How hard can it be? (Yes, it is that very question that probably causes all insanity in game development.)

Well, not hard. But time-consuming. For those unfamiliar with the process, the steps include:

#1- Finding some pictures on the web to base my model on. Not that I actually used any of them directly, but it helped to know what different designs of torch sconces have in common

#2 - Building the geometry, which is actually pretty fast.

#3 - Texturig the model. UGH. This is probably the slowest, painful, and least-satisfactory portion of the process for me... at least for models that don't need to be rigged and animated. Fortunately I have Genetica, which is good for creating a base-layer texture for almost anything.

#4 - Repeating steps 2 and 3 for all levels of detail (LOD) of the model. Although at this stage, I'm not doing much with LOD. And to be honest, this stage usually comes after stage 5 and I know the high-LOD version is just right.

#5 - Exporting the model into Torque's DTS format. I've done this enough that setting it up for export in Blender is cake. But it takes a couple of iterations.

#6 - Creating a particle system for the torch flame. I use an example particle system as a base, but it needs tweaking. That means a lot of iteration.

#7 - Creating appropriate lighting information for the torches.

#8 - Going back and repeating steps 2 - 7 until it looks just right.

When all was said and done - the quick, stupid little torch sconce ended up taking me about three hours. And it still doesn't look perfect or anything. So there was one full night of development.

Pictures of Pimple Gods...
I repeated similar steps for a candle, a table, and a portrait of "Happy Pokmor Xang". You can see the end results in that top picture - though the candle is barely visible in the distance.

Besides this, and adding some smoke to the firepit in the altar room (the altar IS being turned into an actual 3D model even as I type this!), I have been adding scripted doors and a portcullis (still not fully textured or animated) to the level. Which brings up another interesting story...

Well, interesting if you are me. But I'm a programmer, Which means I get laughs out of stories that end in punchlines like, "Oh, and then I realized that I hadn't dereferenced the pointer before post-incrementing it, so I was stuck in an infinite loop!" Hah, hah, good times.... But I digress...

Dealing With Dungeon Speed-Runs
I was doing a "walk-through" on the dungeon, and I realized that, if you played it just right, you could actually bypass about 70% of the content as it is currently designed. Now, I'm all about the optional content and secret areas and stuff like that. In fact, my biggest concern is that with the game being so heavy on the story and dialog, that it might be too linear. So while the chapters occur in pretty linear fashion, I want the player to be able to chart his course through it pretty much as he pleases.

But, I also would like to not have players complain that the first dungeon is way too short, or that the Frayed Knights is only fifteen minutes long.

So I did a little bit of redesign, drawing upon my experience as a Pen & Paper RPG game-master. There are all kinds of ways of solving this problem, and I'm going to try and adopt a similar policy for all content in the full game:

Hard Barriers
First of all, you've got hard barriers - the traditional way to handle things that you see in almost every game. This comes down to designing the areas in a fashion where it's simply impossible to get to point E from point A without passing through points B, C, and D. This can be done with dungeon layout, as well as providing obstacles between A and E that can only be removed by visiting these other areas. I resolved this by adding some defensive portcullises to the dungeon that must be raised in some other area. Yeah, boringly traditional, that's me.

Soft Barriers
But I also wanted to introduce the concept of soft barriers. Which means more coding on my part. These are things that encourage the player to hit the other points without forcing the issue.

Example #1 - the key to a locked door is in another area. However, you can still pick the lock. It may just take more time and risk.

Example #2 - As they approach the big "boss encounter", the Frayed Knights note out loud that since they haven't cleared out the areas behind them yet, they could find themselves surrounded in an upcoming fight. Which happens, if the player refuses to take the hint --- the player will have to face one or two waves of reinforcements during the boss battle (depending upon how much of preceeding areas they've tackled). So they can brute-force it if they want.

I'm going to try and be more mindful of creating some more of the "soft barriers" to challenges in the future. Basically, the soft barriers provide the player with additional choices. I figure that's a good thing. The trick is to make sure the player knows he's got a choice. In example two, it comes from the characters making a mention of a possible threat. In the first example, how does the player know that the key to the door is available?

So that's what's been going on this week. Mostly between the hours of 11:00 PM and 2:30 AM. How's your week been?

(Vaguely) related examples of cruelty to pixels:
* Frayed Knights: Are You Experienced?
* RPG Design: The "Brute Force" Problem
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
* Big World, Small Dungeon: Does Size Matter in RPGs?

Wanna Talk About It? Here's the Forum Thread.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007
Penny Arcade Adventures Interview
You know, when I first heard about Penny Arcade Adventures (Subtitled, "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness"), I thought "Graphic Adventure Game." Like Sam & Max, or the old LucasArts / Sierra adventures. Especially when Ron "Monkey Island" Gilbert came on board to help with the design. But from the sounds of it, it's going to have a lot of RPG-style action going along with it.

It looks like we'll have yet another comedy-oriented indie RPG out there soon. I think there's room for two :)

The combat system is a "blend of turn-based and real-time," according to this interview. It's definitely off the beaten path. The setting is... well, all kinds of awesome to my ears. According to Jerry Holkins (AKA Tycho Brahe),
"Story-wise, it's meant to be a kind of ridiculous horror game. It's modeled in kind of a winking way after the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and it's designed from the ground up to be a kind of pulp serial. It takes place in what seems to be a slightly mystical, prohibition-era urban and suburban setting."
Sign me up. This sounds pretty dang awesome.

Check out the Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Interview at RPG Vault.

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A Look Back At Ultima IV
Gametap has a retrospective on one of the most important CRPGs of all time, Ultima IV.

Ultima IV isn't my favorite --- although I can count on one hand the number of CRPGs which occupy more choice real-estate in my heart. It had its flaws, even when it was released. I was one of the wusses who didn't like gathering reagents for my spells. And I was never happy with the monsters having the advantage in combat because of interface issues (diagonal shooting was introduced in Ultima V, I think).

While I played through part of Ultima IV when it was first released, it was years later before I tried it again and finally beat it. I had just finished Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and found myself in need of more Britannian adventures. So only two hours after beating what in my mind is the best of the series, I went retro and started Ultima IV again.

Let me tell you... the difference of seven years of technological advancement was far more obvious in 1992 than it is today. The first two or three hours were painful.

But then something happened, and the primitive interface and graphics partially melted away, and suddenly I was enjoying the game on its own terms - and having a blast. I was in gamer mindset for most of the ethical dilemmas - I did what was needed to max out my virtues. But it was fascinating in its context. When I finished the game a couple of weeks later, I just kinda sat there and pondered what a unique and different kind of adventure I'd been through. It hadn't changed my world-view or anything like that, but it had made me think.

Too many games seem to be terrified of asking the player to think.

And there I was, thinking, among other things, that I really wanted to play another Ultima RPG immediately.

Anyway, you can check out the retrospective here:

Ultima IV Retrospective at GameTap

(Tip o' the helm to GameSetWatch for the link!)

(Vaguely) related Ultimusings...
* What If Ultima IV Were Written Today?
* Innovation in RPGs?
* The 16 Essential RPGs
* Game Moments: Ultima 7

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Indie RPG News Roundup, November 28th
Indie games aren't traditionally as driven by the holiday season as mainstream titles. However, things have been busy this year with several RPG releases in October through December. Go indie!

Eschalon: Book 1
We had patch 1.02 fopr Eschalon: Book 1 come out this weekend, and now we're already on Patch 1.03 (a "release candidate" version). BasiliskWrangler has been busy. Most of patch 1.02 and 1.03 are bug-fixes for some unique situations. You can also visit the main page to go with the "safer" 1.02 patch for the next day or so.

Download Eschalon: Book 1 Patch 1.03

Age of Decadence
Iron Tower Studio, the studio responsible for the upcoming indie RPG "Age of Decadence" (another Torque-based RPG) inaugurated their new forums with some screenshots of towns and building interiors. Purty! And kinda brown. But purty.

Age of Decadence Town Districts

Birth of Shadows
This is a new indie RPG from Precision Games that should be releasing in December, after a minor graphics overhaul. It is an action-RPG, but it does offer some nifty elements like multiplayer and a map editor.

Birth of Shadows Website

RPGDX November 07 Contest Winners
There were two winners of RPGDX's November "48 hour RPG contest" - which was actually closer to 5 days, but who's counting. The winners were The Trials of Soscarides by Scrim, and The Amazing Adventures of Kassandra by Mattias Gustavsson. I haven't tried either one out, yet, unfortunately.

And that's the Indie RPG news roundup for this week. Have fun!

Got News or Updates? Let Us Know on the Forum!


Tuesday, November 27, 2007
How To Enjoy Character Creation in a CRPG
Scorpia just wrote up her "first look" at the new indie RPG Eschalon: Book 1. I am amused. She didn't get past the character creation system. For most reviewers, would probably be a bad thing. I, myself, have ranted in the past about the frustration of dealing with character creation systems for games for which I don't yet understand the rules. Like many gamers, I'm too excited to jump right into the action.

Not Scorpia. She delighted in the character creation system, and ended up making three different characters. Admittedly, Eschalon does a pretty good job of providing you with explanations of what all the different options do, and gives you a lot of stuff to play around with. She ended up making three different characters.

And she reminded me how enjoyable that experience can be.

I usually enjoyed the experience in "dice and paper" RPGs, although that usually comes with my experience with the system. Imagining the path your character might take in life - choosing some unusual options and figuring out how to best take advantage of it. In CRPGs, there's always the fear that you are choosing something poorly. Will "Stealth" actually be of any use? Or "Medium Armor" (probably the worst armor specialization option in Morrowind)? Should I generalize or specialize?

I lost count of the number of characters I made for Neverwinter Nights - just because the D&D 3rd edition rules system was so fun. But I understood the system before I made my first character for the game. I have never heard anyone complain about how much time designing a costume in City of Heroes can take. And maybe RPGs could do a better job of making the character system part of the fun instead of an obstacle to "getting to the fun part."

Some things that work:

* It can teach you about the game system.
The character-creation process can be a tutorial - literally or figuratively. When you enter the adventuring portion of the game, you can already have a good basic understanding of how the magic system works, or what sort of opportunities you need to look out for to take advantage of your character's strengths.

* It can build up your anticipation for the rest of the game
Some fun visuals and text can introduce you to the game's back-story, and hint as to what may be in store. Are there any hidden clues here?

* It can be a game by itself
Eschalon: Book 1 uses the oh-so-old-school randomness as part of the process. While many players get frustrated by this, Las Vegas has proven that human beings are thrilled by gambling. Do you stand on a decent set of rolls, or do you try for something better, or something more specialized? Eschalon helps offset the negatives by giving you bonus points you can use to offset the randomness. And do I even need to mention the awesome Gypsy sequence of the middle Ultima titles?

While much of this depends upon the game's design, it's nice to remember that creating a character doesn't have to be a chore. It really should be part of the fun.

UPDATE: Added a screenshot of Eschalon's character generation screen, complete with the help dialogs turned on.

(Vaguely) related randomness:
* How To Get Me To Buy Your Indie RPG
* Scorpia's New Tale
* What If Ultima IV Were Written Today?


Monday, November 26, 2007
Game Design: Yahtzee On "The Keyring Syndrome"
Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw (author of the extremely funny Zero Punctuation series at The Escapist) is also an adventure game designer, and has a a series of blog articles about common adventure game flaws. Several are appropriate to adventure games and RPGs. This one in particular concerns what he calls the "Keyring Syndrome."

The problem comes from the simplified interfaces of graphic adventures as they "evolved" to the point where there were so few verb / object combinations available that you could brute force the solutions. In particular, the "Use on " combinations that allow you to unlock a part of the game simply by going through your inventory blindly.

But more than that just criticize the problem, he also suggests some solutions. It's a good read whether you are a designer or a fan of adventures or RPGs:

Ben Crowshaw: Use Key On Door

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Sunday, November 25, 2007
Sherlock Holmes 4 Now Available
The fourth "Sherlock Holmes" 3D graphic adventure game, "Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsène Lupin," is now available. The last one, "The Awakened," was a blending of Sherlock Holmes with H. P. Lovecraft's horror stories. This one continues the mash-up idea, this time pitting Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective against the legendary thief, Arsène Lupin, created by French author Maurice Leblanc.

And no, I haven't read anything by Leblanc, so I have no idea.

Based on my experience with the last Sherlock Holmes game, I'd be interested in playing this one if I wasn't quite so swamped with good games. Not that I'm complaining! Now, if I could play as this Arsène Lupin guy, and could try and defeat Holmes in the heist of the 19th century... well, then they'd have a sale in a heartbeat. I wouldn't care that I'm still only level 4 in Eschalon: Book 1.

Sherlock Holmes 4: Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin

(Vaguely) related ado about nothing:
* Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened First Impressions
* Watson Fails Spot Check, Spared 1d3 Sanity Loss
* Coming Soon: More Graphic Adventure Goodness?


Saturday, November 24, 2007
Free Game: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
This has been around for a couple of years, but I became re-acquainted with it yesterday.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams, was one of Infocom's most popular (and most difficult) text adventure games. Naturally, it was based on Douglas Adam's hit book series of the same name. The BBC has created an online version of the game - with illustrations. Your saved games go to a public registry, so you need to name your game carefully to avoid getting it stomped on by other players.

Play The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

For yet more entertainment value, the BBC has an interview with Steve Meretzky about his collaboration with Douglas Adams in the 1980's to produce The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams and his agent actually approached Infocom with the idea, as Adams was a fan of Infocom adventure games (particularly Suspended, by Mike Berlyn).

An excerpt from the interview: "At first I was a little shy to speak my mind, given Douglas' fame and brilliance and given that we were adapting his material. As a result, the early parts of the game (which are the parts we designed first) are structurally weakest, in terms of being too linear and relying too heavily on prior familiarity with the Hitchhiker's story. I'm referring to the Earth and Vogon Ship sections of the game. Later, as Douglas became more comfortable working in a non-linear medium, and as I became more comfortable making my opinions known, the game became much stronger. I think that once you arrive at the Heart of Gold, the structure of the game changes for the better, becoming less linear, more original, fairer to the player, and just plain more fun. Douglas always described the structure of the game as "pear shaped" - narrow toward the stem end, then suddenly ballooning wider, and finally coming together at the end. "

Another little tidbit from the interview that I didn't know: The "biscuit story" from So Long and Thanks For All the Fish really happened to Adams!

Interview with Steve Meretzky about his collaboration with Douglas Adams

Curiously enough, the babel fish puzzle is listed as one of the nastiest puzzles in adventure-game history, yet I was never stumped until I got on board the Heart of Gold. However, I do remember that puzzle with great fondness...

(Vaguely) related semi-random stringing together of verbs and nouns with the occasional article, adjective, and adverb:
* Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin
* Does Textfyre Have a Chance of Reviving the Commercial Text Adventure?
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different

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Friday, November 23, 2007
Frayed Knights: Are You Experienced?
And this week's progress report on the comedy / fantasy CRPG, Frayed Knights!

The Math of Monster Mashing
I did my whole spiel about experience points and character improvement in my last post. Naturally, that's been on my brain a lot, as this week I've been tackling those issues in Frayed Knights.

Level progression in a traditional RPG presents an interesting little bit of math fun. Generally speaking, most RPGs assume that each level will take a little longer to progress than the previous one. This makes for rapid early progression, but keeps a "soft boundary" on the upper levels. Dungeons & Dragons (the pre-2000 versions) had XP requirements for each level that were roughly double that of the previous level (up until level 12 or so). Since the monster XP (and gold - which was also worth XP) also increased, this didn't mean you had to double your adventuring time to gain a new level.

Progression Considerations
Working on the experience system in Frayed Knights has had me trying to figure out those numbers to make a leveling up system that just "feels right," and it's been hurting my brain. Probably because it's hard to plug in "feels right" on the one side of an equation. I want to have a system that emphasizes quest-based experience, but also rewards other dramatic, interesting, and especially risky actions --- like combat, or picking locks. The little problems going through my head included:

* Since a group of monsters is far more dangerous and difficult than encountering all of those monsters separately, should a group include a bonus over a single monster?

* How much more should a level 3 monster be worth over a level 2 monster?

* Approximately how many monster kills of around equal to one's level should it take to raise an entire level?

* How many monster kills should quests of different lengths be worth?

* How should disarming a trap or picking a lock compare in terms of experience points to these other rewards?

* If you defeat only half a group of enemy monsters before fleeing, should you get experience points on the ones that you defeated?

* Should a party member that ends an encounter incapacitated (Frayed Knights' kinder, gentler equivalent to "dead"), should they get experience for the encounter? What about if they started the encounter incapacitated? What if they both start and end incapacitated, but at some point in the middle of the fight was revived just long enough to get beaten down again?

Yeah, yeah, the easy answer is that these questions SHOULD have all been answered in the design doc before I got to this point. You know what? The flavor of combat in Frayed Knights has evolved quite a bit in the last five months or so, and so anything I'd have done back then would have already been thrown out.

Engineering Backwards
What I DO know is that the adventure in the dungeon of Pokmor Xang - plus a little bit of knocking about in the forest on the way back to town, and the mission completion - should allow the party to level up. Once. Though in theory even that can change. But that's kind of the weird backwards engineering that I'm doing right now. And I expect the player to finish the full game somewhere in the mid-teens, though I'm allowing progress up beyond level 20.

So whatever numbers I put in (and after running through a LOT of numbers and formulas, I did manage to lock down some numbers to put in for now), they'll be completely replaced once the whole game is humming along and has been play-tested a few times.

But for now, I have a workable system in place that seems reasonable enough for right now. It is fun seeing the little numbers increase on the screen, at least...

UI, UI... Woah, Baby, We Gotta Go
Besides working on experience point systems and fixing the usual assortment of bugs, I also worked on "UI Manager" that should hopefully clean up some of the transitions between, say, combat and dialog.

And as a quick-and-dirty modification, combat now rewards you with one or more drama stars upon conclusion.

So there's progress being made.

Foreseeing how development is going to be the next two weeks... expect little. We've got a major milestone at work that is going to demand some serious overtime for the next couple of weeks. But I'll continue work on monster scaling (YES, I used the "S" word), random encounters (MORE Evil!), keys for doors, and interactive object capabilities.

As always, have fun!

(Vaguely) related stuff I found stuck underneath my desk:
* The Rules Lawyer
* Disappointment in the Demonweb Pits
* RPG Design: Same Ol' Grind
* Can CRPGs Age Gracefully

Got Something To Say? Have At It On the Forum!

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RPG Design: The Same Ol' Grind
On the RPG.net forums the other day, I came across this discussion on how much time it would take to "honestly" get a character up to high level in 1st edition D&D. One player noted that based on the XP from killing monsters, players would have to kill 960 goblins (for a party of 4) to earn second level.

This brought up a fairly ancient argument about the rule from D&D where experience points were given out for treasure. In fact, the argument was old when Gary Gygax penned the defense of the practice in the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide. I always followed that rule, and my players went up to third level or so fairly quickly. But apparently not only was it not universal, I might have even been in the minority.

Effectively, the experience points (abbreviated "XP") for treasure thing was an early attempt at codifying quest-based XP. One participant in games with Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, Old Geezer, commented in the thread that not only was the XP for gold integral to the original "vision" of D&D, without it you were best off to just sit in the middle of the dungeon and ring cowbells for wandering monster encounters. Those unplanned, "grinding" types of encounters were intended to be obstacles and challenges, not "XP on the hoof," as he puts it.

Embracing The Grind
Yet computer RPGs, descended from Dungeons & Dragons, have traditionally emphasized the "grind" as not only the principle source of character progression, but in many cases the sole source of character-building experience. Killing monsters over and over again, "grinding" away on the body count until a new level was achieved. It is only recently that CRPGs have attempted to abandon grinding - in this case defined as experience through body count - behind. I'm thinking specifically of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and some Neverwinter Nights premium modules. There are certainly others, but those come to mind.

Curiously, even 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons departed significantly from the vision, suggesting quest-based XP as an option, and then generously announcing that experience points could be earned by merely defeating or bypassing an opponent. And D&D Online had to a grinding of a different sort - repeating the same adventure over and over again.

There was one nice thing about the "grind" mechanic in single-player RPGs. If you found yourself overpowered by a particular section of the game, you could back off, go fight some monsters, and get an extra level or two (not to mention gold and supplies) before trying again. As a player who often prefers often-underpowered rogue classes, I appreciate this. After all, I remember all too well my talking-and-sneaking character in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines being dropped into multiple boss-fights where talking and sneaking were rendered useless.

Alternatives to Experience Points
Of course, we also have some totally different systems like the Elder Scrolls games (Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion) which eschew the experience-point system altogether, and simply let highly exploitable (not to mention WEIRD) "practicing" take place.

Call of Cthulhu used a similar system for leveling up back in... what was it... 1980? It led to players frantically trying to use every single skill on their character sheet at least once during an adventure. But half the characters were dead or permanently insane at the end of each adventure, anyway, so it didn't really matter so much.

Call of Cthulhu D20
, by Monte Cook, just suggests the characters gain a level every two adventures. That makes bookkeeping simple, but again locks the players to a particular power level, and doesn't take into account the difficulty of any one adventure.

A Balanced Approach
I'm personally a fan of the experience point system. Seeing the points accumulate and measuring progress towards your next increase provides a good, positive feedback.

In my opinion, a good computer RPG should strike something of a balance. The principle source of experience points is best based on non-tedious, non-repeating criteria that helps measure progress through the game. Quest-based and story-based stuff. And points for taking unique risks (like disarming a trap, or dealing with a difficult radiation-filled environment).

But I'm fond of using repeatable risks as a source of experience points. Maybe this can be limited in some way (like not being able to earn more than N experience points this way per level or something... though that kind of rule can be confusing to players). But it needs to be there. This allows players some freedom and a feeling of non-linearity... they can abandon their quest and just go out monster-bashing ( *cough*grinding*cough* ) any time they want, for as long as they want (though it could have detrimental effects on their quest status... )

Though I kinda miss giving out XP for gold...

(Vaguely) related inane mutterings:
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Problem
* RPG Design: Scaling Encounters
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?

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Thursday, November 22, 2007
Indie RPG News Roundup, November 22
Here we go, the Thanksgiving edition of the Indie Role-Playing Game News Roundup! Happy Thanksgiving! Which only has any meaning for you guys who are in the United States. For the rest of you, Happy Thursday! Today is a day set aside to be thankful for our blessings, which we celebrate by mass consumption of food, usually with relatives we only marginally like, followed by something very passive like watching football (okay, "American football," sorry...). At some point, we have to wash all those dishes, which we're not NEARLY so thankful to get to do, but I digress.

We tend to spend much of the Thanksgiving weekend (which is usually four days) playing video games, board games, and role-playing games with friends. Which makes it one of my favorite holidays. In between visiting friends and family (or preparing for said visits), I'm personally planning on getting in some Frayed Knights development in, or playing some more Eschalon: Book 1. It's a happy thing.

So what's happened this week in the world of indie computer RPGs?

Eschalon: Book 1
As was previously announced, Eschalon: Book 1 was released. And initial reports seem to be pretty dang positive. I'm having a lot of fun playing it, that's for sure. It's very old-school, and doesn't exactly redefine the concept of the RPG (for which I'm actually thankful, for a change --- I've not been overjoyed with recent re-definitions), but it is competently done and a lot of fun.

Additionally, Basilisk Games has agreed to let Rampant Games offer Eschalon as an affiliate. Which pretty much means nothing to you unless you are me. It's just one more place to get the game. Since I'm all about getting the word out on the indie computer RPG scene, though, it sounds like a good thing.

Finally, patch 1.01 for Eschalon: Book 1 is now available. This is only for the full version of the game, NOT the demo. It addresses some annoying bugs, but also improves the gameplay based on player feedback. For example, the "x" key now opens up the inventory, equip item, and stats windows all at the same time, and vendors now sell more arrows for you ranger-types.

Download the Eschalon: Book 1 Patch 1.01

Read the Patch Notes

The Broken Hourglass
Planewalker Games notes, "On the PWG site, we have published a new article explaining the outlook and role of two of the Tolmiran gods--Arithaan, a cold and distant sort, and Uulix, the god of almost everything that isn't nailed down."

Read "Stagnation and Death: A Look At Tolmira's Pantheon"

And they get bonus points for using the word, "Pantheon."

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest
On Amaranthia.com, the date for Aveyond 2 is now listed as "December 5th." So we may be only two weeks away from release. So if you haven't finished the first Aveyond game, get cracking! (Okay, technically, the free RPG "Ahriman's Prophecy" was the first Aveyond game...)

Avernum 5
RPGVault has an interview with Jeff Vogel about his new (for Mac users, "upcoming" for us Windows abusers) indie RPG, "Avernum 5." An interesting thing to note is that he's only planning on six games in the series. Anyway, since Vogel has been at the whole indie RPG thing before anybody really dubbed it "indie" or anything, it's always worth reading.

A good quote: "Avernum 5 has nicer graphics and sound than Avernum 4. We redid a lot of it to add a nice bit of flash. However, we're still a small indie company. If you need nice 3D graphics and full stereo sound, you probably won't be happy with our games. We focus on what we can do - provide a huge game with a cool story and lots of variety."

Read the Jeff Vogel Interview at RPGVault

Once again, Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Gaming!


Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Gimp 2.4 Released
While this may be of particular interest to indie game developers (since we're notorious cheapskates), anybody who uses The Gimp as the low-cost (that is, FREE) alternative to Photoshop may be interested in this news:

The Gimp 2.4 Has Been Released.

You can read the Release Notes for more details.

Or you can just download the new version of Gimp.


GCG Tackles the "What Is An Indie Game?" Question
When talking about indie games, the question often comes up: "What is an indie game?" You ask n people, you'll probably get n+1 answers. I've tackled it twice, myself, and though I'm fairly satisfied with my own answer, I also admit it's hardly the final word on the subject.

Game Career Guide - a media partner of GamaSutra - has now tackled the "What is Indie?" question, in the article, "The Indie Ethos." And they emerge with no real answers, but lots of opinions. An excerpt:
"If it is the developers -- the people -- that make a game "indie," then one still must question what criteria those people should meet. Although it's straightforward to say a team of four developers working with a self-funded $1,500 budget is indeed making an independent game, what happens when the studio is 10 people strong and has a budget of tens of thousand of dollars, but the money comes from the individuals on the team refinancing their homes? What happens when the team is 15 people strong and is backed by several hundred thousand dollars in venture capital? How do both money and team size play into the picture? "
There's also an observation by Sam Roberts, director of the Indiecade festival (formally one of the guys responsible for the Slamdance Guerilla Game Developer competition) that I'd like to see verified:
"...there are more low-cost options for musicians and filmmakers nowadays than there are for game-makers. In the last 10 or 15 years, the barrier of entry for filmmakers and musicians has dropped dramatically, with more and more low-cost tools and digital equipment becoming available, and with more and more outlets for releasing finished products. For game developers, on the other hand, the barrier of entry is still quite high, seeing as even low-cost tools require the user to have some knowledge of programming."
The final word? There won't be one. The traditional way of making a modern computer or video game (find a publisher who funds development out of advances towards royalties) is still dominant, but more alternatives are being discovered every day for creating and distributing games. Which of those ways are part of the "indie" way may remain in an ever-changing gray area.

But for me, it still comes down to people making the games they want to make without oversight by a third party. If you need to get permission to do what you want to do, or are subject to binding oversight, you ain't indie. That encompasses everything from quick-and-dirty web games like Desktop Tower Defense (still one of my favorites) to pretty major, high-quality (and bigger-budget) offerings like PopCap's titles and Soldak's much more elaborate Depths of Peril. That works well enough for me.

(Vaguely) related rubbish masquerading as useful information:
* What Is an Indie Game?
* Dependent, Independent, and Indie
* Gimme That Old Time Indie Game Development
* Super Columbine Massacre RPG Too Hot For Slamdance?
* Is There Hope For Indie Computer RPGs?


Tuesday, November 20, 2007
2007 Interactive Fiction Winners Announced
Okay - so I'm a week behind in some stuff, like mentioning the conclusion of the 13th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. I just consider myself fortunate that I managed to post at all last week, as I was pulling out the 12+ hour days fixing... ahem... undocumented features in my code that the designers just kept discovering "on accident" with their incredibly creative scripts that did things to my code that are just unmentionable...

But I digress. We were talking Interactive Fiction, the new-and-improved name for "text adventures." Since much Interactive Fiction isn't really supposed to be an adventure at all, but they are all text, at least. Hmmm.... I wonder if the Infocom programmers had the same problem with so-called "implementers" totally breaking their Zork engine with weird text-based crap that just shouldn't work at all...

There I go, digressing again.

The winner of the 13th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition was Lost Pig by Admiral Jota (writing as "Grunk"), followed by An Act of Murder by Christopher Huang (writing as "Hugh Dunnett" - sound it out) in second, and by Lord Bellwater's Secret in third place by Sam Gordon. These - and all the other competitors - can be downloaded at the IF Competition game download page.

The full results of the voting can be found on the IF Competition Results Page. Congratulations to all the authors!


Gamers Play For 30 Minutes At a Stretch?
According to the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 stats collected by Valve, the average player is playing their latest game for an average of 27 minutes at a stretch, and prefers "medium" difficulty (with the fewest number of players attempting the game on "Hard").

Comparing this to the Episode 1 Stats, Episode 1 players played for an average of 34 minutes ( a 20% drop in playing time!). The ratio of players playing on easy, medium, and hard difficulty levels was not too different.

So what does that say about how games ought to be designed?

Tip o' the pith helmet to Kotaku for the link.


Monday, November 19, 2007
Initial Scouting Report: Eschalon Book 1
I spent about an hour or so playing Eschalon: Book 1 last night. It is way too early for me to render any kind of judgment on the game, but I will say so far, it's looking pretty good.

With indie games, I tend to ignore the fact that the graphics may be somewhat less than state-of-the-art. And Eschalon: Book 1's graphics would definitely have been much more at home in a mainstream RPG about a decade ago. That being said, they seem to be nicely polished, filled with neat special effects, and nicely animated. A step up from the "Spiderweb" standard.

The turn-based gameplay is handled very nicely. Each move takes up a turn, but the smooth animation and movement controls disguises the turn-based nature rather nicely until you find yourself in combat. Once combat starts, its a straightforward I-go / You-go affair. Unfortunately, this early into the game, I haven't found much to do by way of tactics beyond trying to maneuver yourself to get the first hit in, or choosing when to use potions. But that's hardly a surprise - most RPGs start you out with few combat choices in the beginning, and ramp up as you go.

There is no autosave as you move between zones that I have noticed, so you need to be pretty careful about maintaining your own saved games. I don't know if I relish this particular aspect of old-school gaming, but it's simply one of those things you need to remember... the game won't automatically bail you out when things go wrong.

The storyline involves the overused "amnesia" device, though it does reveal a nice twist early on that makes it more interesting.

Character creation involves dice-rolling! Talk about old-school! The game rolls values between 7 and 14 for all of your stats, but then it also gives you 15 points to spend on increasing these beyond their starting value. I chose to play a rogue, which should come as little surprise to regular readers here. The rogue skill list is fairly extensive, though the only real "rogue-like" activities I engaged in were moving silently, hiding in shadows (both taking place automatically), and lock-picking. Lock-picking uses the painfully old-school limitation of sometimes destroying your lockpicks when you fail.

While some people who fear numbers may not be so impressed, one thing I really like is that the game shows you the chance of success for all your actions. So before you even risk your lock-picks, you will know you have only a 29% chance of success. Oh, and you do get experience points for non-combat actions, such as picking locks.

Downsides - well, a lot is being said about it's 800 x 600 resolution. That seems to be a real issue, though the game handles quite well in windowed mode. Though it's pretty tiny in a window on my 19" monitor at the resolution I run my desktop. There are some help screens for various menus in the game, but really nothing by way of a tutorial other than initial instructions and an in-game letter you receive from a mysterious benefactor to get you pointed in the right direction. And there are times where your character (or enemies) may be hidden behind a wall and hard to see.

Yeah, not exactly scathing criticism, but the game has put its best foot forward I guess. Again, it's far too early for me to tell, but so far nothing is making me regret my purchase.

But find out for yourself and download the game here (but be warned, it is pretty big...) Oh, and another warning - SLIMES CAN SPIT!!!!

Eschalon: Book 1 Demo

(Vaguely) related old-school pontificationingliness:
* Eschalon: Book 1 First Impressions
* RPG Preview - Eschalon: Book 1
* Indie RPG Roundtable

Played It Yet? What Did You Think? Let Us Know In The Forums!

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Sunday, November 18, 2007
Eschalon: Book 1 Released
Let's see if this promised "old-school goodness" is as good as we hope...

Eschalon: Book 1 Free Demo Download

It is rumored to be over 100 megs in size (Note: I don't know about the demo --- I bought the game right off the bat in a show of indie solidarity and faith in the creators... or something. But I can confirm the full version clocks in at just a hair over 100 megs).

Congratulations to Basilisk Games! Here's hoping for another quality indie RPG! It's gonna face some steep competition this year from Depths of Peril for "indie RPG of the year" (and Aveyond 2 hasn't yet weighed in...), but early reports indicate it might be a contender.

Forum Post - Eschalon Book 1 Thoughts. What Do You Think?

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Saturday, November 17, 2007
Eschalon: Book 1 First Impressions
RPG Watch has posted their first impressions on Eschalon: Book 1, the "old-school" indie RPG scheduled to be released on Monday. They go into a lot of detail on the game system in general, though the author hasn't gotten too far into the game yet.

Some nifty tidbits:

"Dungeons so far have been reasonably complex affairs with lots of switches, traps and locked doors. A particular feature of Eschalon dungeoneering is dealing with the dark – without a torch or other light source it’s literally pitch black... speaking of the dark, rogues and similar characters get a lot of love with skills such as pick locks, skulduggery (traps), find hidden, move silently, hide in shadows and dodge. Quests yield far more experience than combat, so using the shadows to slip past monsters is a valid approach or together with a Cat’s Eyes potion, the darkness can be used to great effect to attack enemies who suffer a big penalty with no light."

Ah, that warms my roguely heart!

And overall, the impression seems to be very favorable:

"Eschalon is a welcome return to classic stat-based CRPG gameplay, with crisp graphics reminiscent of Arcanum and a presentation quality that sets a new standard for indie roleplaying games. Despite some question marks over the combat, we can’t wait to delve further into the game for a full review but in the meantime, grab the demo when it is released on the 19th and prepare to be hooked."

Read Eschalon: Book 1 First Impressions at RPG Watch

Oh, and you can download the free demo here.

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Friday, November 16, 2007
RPGDX is running an informal 48-hour RPG creation competition, using whatever tools you want. It begins Saturday (which is tomorrow, here in Utah...)

From the post:

"This weekend we're going to have a 48 hour RPG making contest. It starts from whatever time you wake up on Saturday to whatever time you go to bed at on Sunday, and can be extended into next week if a majority of competitors wish. The theme of the contest is Completion - the idea being that the time limit is the real restriction of the contest and the challenge lies in actually finishing and releasing something."

There are no prizes (that I'm aware of), but it should be a lot of fun. Well, for those of you who aren't slaving away on Frayed Knights this weekend, like I will be... :)

If interested, check out the rules and further information:

RPGDX 48-Hour RPG Competition

UPDATE: The time has been extended until Wednesday. So now it's a... uh... (pulls out calculator) 120-Hour RPG Competition.

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Frayed Knights: On Weaponry and Spraying Blood
Once again, I go into my long, drawn-out diatribe on the development of the indie RPG "Frayed Knights," a comedy-based fantasy role-playing game.

What did I learn this week?

Spraying blood is good.

Lots of Squishy Goodness
Well, okay, no, it usually isn't for the person who is spraying blood. I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate it if I was the one doing it on some street corner. Not that I really contemplate such things.

But while I was trying to make combat more interesting in Frayed Knights, I found that simply providing more feedback than the rather arcane text descriptions REALLY helped the game immeasurably. Little slash marks across the player icons, or the word "Miss!" appearing when you miss (soon to be joined by the word "Blocked!"), spraying particles, little numbers appearing showing how lucky you got, and sound effects making a "clank" miss sound or a "cling-THUP!" noise on a hit... These little elements of feedback helped make combat come alive.

Other Changes
Besides that, I added some special effects like the tremendously-easy-to-do-in-Torque effect of making dead enemies fade to invisibility when they die. Oh, and fixing some silly bugs like... ummm... monsters continuing to attack the party while dead. While the monsters themselves were dead, I mean. Talk about an attack by undead! I fixed the doors so they can now be shut as well as opened, and the drama stars not activating properly.

Kevin has been working on the dungeon some more, and put in a visibility-blocking section to help out with some of the framerate issues we've been dealing with the meditation chamber (the one with the toilet-shaped fountain). James has been working on the weed goblins, which don't actually appear in this dungeon, but will appear in the section of wilderness immediately outside the dungeon. Thanks to the code I completed about three weeks ago, that actually makes a difference.

Weapon Types
While not a big change to the actual code itself, I spent some time this week re-designing how weapon damage is handled.

I have a small collection of medieval weapons in real life, and I have been spoiled by such detailed weapon system rules found in games like Twilight: 2000. And I've participated in pseudo-medieval live-action 'medievalist' combat with various weapons. And I've fenced. And I basically like having interesting choices in weaponry.

So in the interest of making the choice between a spear, a warhammer, and a broadsword a little more interesting, here is how weapon damage type is used in combat.

Edged Weapons
Edged weapons include swords, daggers, axes, halberds, etc. They concentrate their impact in a line along the edge to split resistance (resistance meaning the soft, fleshy enemies in the damage path). The advantage of edged weapons is that they tend to have a higher base damage than other weapons. They have no clear disadvantage, other than being the most vulnerable to armor.

Blunt Weapons
Blunt weapons tend to be much slower than the other weapon types, and require a higher Might to use without major endurance lost. However, most armor isn't as good at redistributing the blunt-trauma impact of these weapons. Unless the armor has a base armor rating higher than that of the weapon's total damage potential, the blunt weapon will always inflict some portion of its damage to the victim regardless of armor.

In other words, blunt weapons are really good for nickel - and - diming a heavily armored opponent.

Blunt weapons may have spikes or flanges on them to concentrate the impact force, but the key difference between edged weapons and the other types is that these impact areas aren't designed for deep penetration.

Piercing Weapons
Piercing weapons concentrate all of the impact force into a single point. The advantage of piercing weapons is that they are more 'all-or-nothing' with respect to armor. If the weapon penetrates armor at all, much more of its damage potential goes through.

This tends to cheese off the guys who have heavily invested in expensive, heavy armor.

Other Weapon Factors
There's a lot more to a weapon than just its type of damage and the amount of damage it does. Weapons have speed factors, which influence how often a character can attack with it. Then there's how much endurance it burns to attack with it, which depends upon the character's Might. And there's its reach, which how effectively the player can attack monsters closer or further away. While I haven't put it in code yet, I also want to add flexible weapon types (specifically flails) to the mix, which would have the advantage of being able to partially negate shield bonuses.

Too complicated? Maybe. But Frayed Knights, in spite of its comedic storyline, is still being built upon what I hope to be a strong rule system. I was tempted to do something really crazy and subdivide armor into different ratings for each type of weapon... but I figure what I've got is already going to be a little complicated and challenging to balance as it is. While these factors may not represent a physically "accurate" simulation, they should at least be believable and make the choices in the game interesting.

And that's it for this week. Tune in next week when I'll try to entertain you with fascinating stories of such interesting subjects as... uh... GUI stack management and memory deallocation and stuff. High Drama!

(Vaguely) related beating a dead unicorn with a +1 stick (damage class: blunt)
* Frayed Knights: Death and Arianna's Interview
* Frayed Knights: Ben Speaks, and Combat Tweaks
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System

Want to Talk About It? Argue Weapon Systems? Here's a Forum Thread!

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Thursday, November 15, 2007
Indie RPG News Roundup, November 15th
Indie RPGs. If the mainstream publishers ain't givin' ya what ya want, don't despair! Check out what's coming down the pipe from the small indie game studios. Here's what's happening this week:

Avernum 5
The Mac version of Avernum 5 is now available at Spiderweb Software. Hopefully this means the PC version isn't far off. Avernum 5 features include:
* An enormous world. Hundreds of quests, dozens of dungeons and enemy fortresses, and multitudes of characters.
* Epic storyline. Hunt the assassin Dorikas, while his agents try to trick and waylay you at every turn.
* Many unique encounters. Not just mindless hack and slash. Many unusual enemies that will require clever tactics to defeat.
* Rich game system with over 50 spells and battle disciplines, many character building options, and powerful secret skills to unlock.
* Unique game world. Not just the same old elves and hobbits.
* Experience with previous Avernum games is completely unnecessary to enjoy Avernum 5.

Avernum 5 (Mac Only) Now Available at Spiderweb Software

Parhedros: The Tunnels of Sethir
This 3D indie RPG was released last month. It describes itself as an "old-school, dungeon-crawling, fantasy role-playing adventure, packed full of action, magic and mayhem." It has random dungeons for replayability, 87 different kinds of monsters, several player races, puzzles (including cryptograms for obtaining spells), a somewhat "authentic" magic system (historically / traditionally based), and turn-based combat.

It also has mature content, as can probably be ascertained by the picture of the topless female centaur on the cover. The game is unapologetic about portraying classical-style art and fairies / fauns with historical authenticity, which means plenty of nakedness and near-nakedness. And sexually suggestive dialogs. There is a toggle in the game to tame things down, but it warns that it does not remove all the nudity. However, the FAQ states: "If certain fairy creatures are supposed to be naked, then let’s stay true to our calling as artists and render them naked … albeit tastefully naked. So yeah, a few of the characters in Parhedros appear naked or partially naked, and the menu art uses some nudes after the manner that Frazetta nudes graced the covers of sword-and-sorcery novels in the 1970s. And the satyr is ithyphallic. But none of this is gratuitous or salacious. It’s not even sexy."

Take that for what it's worth. Tip o' the beanie to RPGWatch for the heads-up on this one.

Parhedros: The Tunnels of Sethir (NSFW)

The Broken Hourglass
RPGCodex has a pretty awesome, "deep" interview with Jason Compton concerning The Broken Hourglass discussing, amongst other things, the urban environment that makes up the entire game. An excerpt:

'Being in an urban setting means something to the type and variety of people you expect to encounter--fewer wayward lumberjacks and nymphs, and more candle makers, weavers, and artists. More significant than the actual location, I think, is the fact that the PC is cast as a resident of Mal Nassrin. Many RPGs put the player in the role of the Eastwood-esque Stranger. That's all well and good, but rather than dropping the PC from 5000 feet into a strange environment and teaching them the local mores as a newcomer, we are able to join more activity "in progress." '

Broken Hourglass Interview at RPGCodex

Depths of Peril
Soldak Entertainment has three more monsters from Depths of Peril available on the website: The Kodiak, the Changeling, and the Totem Monster.

Soldak has also released the Beta 1.004 Patch for Depths of Peril. Besides fixing some bugs I have never really seen in the game (like a covenant thinking it was at war with itself?), it improves the rogue's combat ability, and adds a new "very hard" aggression level for enemy covenants. Just in case you thought the other factions in the game were a little too wussy before.

The Twenty
I just heard about this one today, entitled "The Twenty." It's way not ready for prime-time yet, but the author is a full-time mainstream publisher doing indie games on the side (what psycho person would do THAT?). Will it make it to final? Will it use the stick-figure programmer art? I dunno, but it's actually kinda cool. I ... just can't describe it. But you'll get an extra kick out of it if you are a fan of Order of the Stick. You can watch the video available at The Hobbit Hole:

Video of The Twenty at The Hobbit Hole

(Vaguely) related talkin' about other peoples' games:
* PC RPGs for the Holidays...
* Indie RPG News Roundup, November 7
* Indie RPG News Roundup, November 2

Got more indie RPG news, or a correction, or comments to make?
Post Away on the Forum Thread!

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RPG Doesn't Mean Slow - A Case For Action RPGs
Just wanted to pass along this article by Aaron Miller, where he makes a case for action RPGs.

RPG Doesn't Mean Slow

Now, making a case for action RPGs these days is sorta like explaining why you find MMO's entertaining, or explaining how this food called "Pizza" might catch on. That's not exactly going against the flow. Action-RPGs are where the RPG has gone, these days... which wouldn't bug me at all if it wasn't looking like it was becoming the only game in town.

After all, I'm a fan of vanilla, too. But I wouldn't want to have no other flavors of ice cream.

But this is worth discussing. Why do we enjoy RPGs? What about them really turns our crank? What's the essential "feel" of the RPG experience which - if it gets stripped away - makes the game become something other than an RPG for us?

UPDATE: Does the action vs. turn-based debate really only apply to combat? Does action-based combat, because it goes so much faster, encourage more combat?


Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Ultima: Escape From Mount Drash
Okay. Here's a little tidbit I just had to follow up on after hearing about it in an article about rare and expensive games on GameSetWatch.

The game was called "Ultima: Escape From Mount Drash."

It was NOT an official Ultima game. In fact, it was created and sold without Richard Garriott's permission, by his publisher, Sierra. We all remember Sierra (mostly fondly), don't we? I guess back in those days, the concept of Intellectual Property rights for games were poorly understood by developers and publishers. Apparently, Sierra decided to brand it "Ultima" in hopes of selling more copies. Such hopes were in vain, as it was so far under the radar that Garriott didn't even hear about it until long after the fact. For a while, Sierra even denied its existence.

It was a Vic-20 exclusive. According to the wikipedia entry, one retailer even dumped unsold copies of the game over a cliff, which is where some copies were eventually discovered.

If you have a desire to play this rare game on the PC (and I confess, I really can't generate enough morbid curiosity in myself...), some enterprising guys have ported it (well, more of a "remake", but it works...) which you can find at Dino's Ultima Page.

(Vaguely) related visits to the dark side of gaming:
* My OTHER First CRPG (The Dungeons of Magdarr)
* Telengard - My First CRPG
* The Worst Game Ever

(Vaguely) related forum post: What Is the Most Obscure RPG You Have Played?

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
PC RPGs for the Holidays...
While I do pwn, play, and even create console games (ah, the day job), I'm still a PC gamer at heart. PC gamers have been dealing with the doom & gloom of the "imminent death" of PC games for... oh, nearly a decade now. RPG fans, in particular, have been feeling the squeeze of somewhat limited offerings this year. We complain about the lack of RPGs, but this season's crop of recent and imminent releases sounds like tidings of comfort and joy to the PC RPG fan for the holiday season.

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer - By most reports, the expansion surpasses the original campaign. I never finished the original campaign, so maybe I could just start over with this expansion and play through as a spirit shaman.

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest - Currently in beta, the sequel to the hit "casual RPG" Aveyond may squeak in during the holiday season. It's currently boasting 60+ quests, over 100 areas, and tons of gameplay.

The Witcher - Wow. Old-school sensibilities in an action-RPG structure. Interesting moral decisions with lots of "gray areas",and a rich story... sounds pretty cool. One interesting bit is that it is unapologetically "mature" in its focus.

Eschalon: Book 1 - Due out in about a week, this is an old-school style RPG which, like the Witcher, relies upon an unfortunately trite amnesia plot. However, in spite of that, the game is looking to be pretty dang awesome. Turn-based combat (hey, some of us still like it!), non-linear storyline, plenty of skills and different directions you can take your character... I am excited about this one.

In case you missed the trailer video for Eschalon: Book 1, here it is. While the graphics won't blow away the likes of The Witcher or Oblivion, I think it looks pretty dang sharp:

Depths of Peril - This is the one I can report on from personal experience. This is an awesome game. Unfortunately, it may be flying too low under the radar for many RPG fans, or may appear confusing with it's mix of simple Diablo-style combat mixed with a rich, dynamic, interactive world and a strategic level of competing factions.

Avernum 5: This is the latest in the one of the best-known indie RPG series. Isometric graphics, deep storylines, interesting tactical turn-based combat, big worlds and lots to explore - these games have it all. Avernum 5 was just released for the Mac yesterday, which means the PC version shouldn't be too far away. Maybe not by the end of the year... but we can hope.

At a month per game (assuming I can actually play them that quickly), that should take me into the next batch of RPGs - both indie and mainstream - in mid-2008. If I somehow manage to finish them all and still have time left over (yeah, right), there are a couple of console RPGs I am also looking forward to - specifically, Mass Effect (I have faith in Bioware) and Persona 3 (which just sounds nicely weird and interesting).

Sorry - I can't generate much interest in Hellgate: London (I already play an MMO, and this one looks like it's got one foot squarely planted in MMO territory right now), or Two Worlds (which just landed on Steam) right now. But hey - tell me why these games are on YOUR wish list!

And what have I missed? What RPGs are you planning on enjoying over the next few weeks?

RELATED FORUM POST: What RPGs Are You Most Looking Forward To?


PnP RPG Free Giveaway
If you are a fan of "Pen & Paper" (PnP) Roleplaying Games, DriveThruRPG.com is offering free PDF downloads of certain materials this week for their "Thanksgiveaway."

You can check it out here: DriveThruRPG Thanksgiveaway.

Different items are being offered every day this week, so check back daily.

I have heard rumor that the Revised Tome of Horrors (for 3.5 edition "D20" rules) is going to be available on Wednesday. I already shelled out full price for it (and the 3.0 original version), but I thought it was well worth it.


Monday, November 12, 2007
The Host
I saw "The Host" the other night. It was the last movie on our annual "Scary Halloween Movie" list - which was a little abbreviated (and delayed in viewing) this year due to a family crisis followed by crunch time at work. Overall, I thought it was kinda goofy, very foreign, but also dang cool.

But if you want to catch five of the best seven or so minutes of the film, click here. Be warned: It's got scenes of people being eaten by a giant monster.

The Host Clip: The Monster Attacks.

While it goes into spoiler-iffic territory, it's also from pretty early in the film.

Unfortunately, the trailer contains at least one even more critical spoiler. But it's a little less gruesome:

The Host Movie Trailer

Enjoy. Or not.


Task Switching
One hindrance to my productivity that I've found is task-switching. When one task (usually programming, since that's both the day job and the side-job) is complete, I find myself either lingering overlong to "gold-plate" it, or seeking distractions, rather than moving on to the next job.

Am I spending too much time just patting myself on the back, or rewarding myself with distractions? Quite likely. I've noticed that with Frayed Knights, that between the Torque Game Engine / Torque Game Builder "Frankenengine" and the groundwork I've already laid in the game's architecture, a lot of the tasks I've set for myself actually take less time than I expect. When I get on a roll, I can cross off a lot of jobs off my list, and see enormous progress on the game.

Having that written list (which I've begun maintaining a lot more meticulously over the last week or so) is one of the keys to maintaining that productivity. I have found that I stall out a lot on "deciding what to do next." Being able to consult the list - particularly if it has already been prioritized - really helps remove this one mental block.

A trick I used during Void War's development - which I haven't yet implemented in Frayed Knights (though I may be fast approaching that stage) was to arrange the tasks in "triples" - a task I was really looking forward to doing, a task that really needed to be done to keep progress moving forward, and a major bug-fix that I really felt like putting off. The trick was that I couldn't do any other tasks (usually) until I finished all three of the "triplet." This meant I had to finish some annoying tasks before I could move back to a fun one.

Once I get going on a task, if I can get "in the zone," I do pretty well. It's just those naughty little transitions --- getting started on the next task --- that keeps tripping me up. Any ideas for how I could do to fix this?

(Vaguely) related yammering:
* Productivity Tip: The List
* Fighting Procrastination: The "Local Maxima" Problem


Sunday, November 11, 2007
Putting MORE Action into Action-RPG?
Taken from a recent Eurogamer interview of Chris Taylor's upcoming sci-fi "action-RPG" Space Siege (sorta-kinda a spin-off from the Dungeon Siege series):
Taylor dismisses the experience system as "old school"... In fact, he dismisses a lot of things as being old school
He's open and honest about his belief that the hardcore market for games is diminishing, and believes that what consumers want now is a fun "interactive entertainment" experience, rather than a traditional "videogame".
Indeed, there's a feeling that Taylor has had something of a Road to Damascus experience - and Space Siege is the result.
Part of Taylor's new approach, then, is putting more action into the action RPG. Players in Space Siege can mix and match tactics from traditional RPGs and tactics more familiar to players of action games - grenades bounce using real physics, which also applies to objects in the world, and enemies can be knocked off ledges and walkways with well-aimed attacks.
Okay, first off --- at what point does the "action-RPG" become "an action game that pays lip service to RPGs for marketing purposes?"

Joe Gamer probably doesn't care, so perhaps I shouldn't either. You could go ahead and label Halo 3 as an RPG if you want... whatever floats your boat. Yes, I will be snickering at you behind your back, but hey... knock yourself out. The videogame industry is hell-bent on robbing the term "role-playing game" of any meaning whatsoever, so why should I stand in the way of "progress"?

Point two: "old school" is being dismissed as a term of derision here. You know what? Why don't I dismiss the arcade-style gameplay of these games as "old-school?" Sheesh. Old-and-busted, man. It's all about hidden-object puzzles now! That, and ball bearings. It's all about ball bearings nowadays. Get with the now!

Seriously - there's a reason why classics remain classics, and why fads disappear after their fifteen minutes. I'm not gonna knock Gas Powered Games for going out on a limb and trying something different that they hope to be more accessible to the average gamer. That's cool. More power to you, Chris & Co. And I understand that for the purpose of marketing your upcoming game, you are pretty much required to define how your game stands apart from the pack as something akin to a major religious event (though the "road to Damascus" comment no doubt came from the interviewer, not Taylor). But man, ripping on the classics really makes you sound like a punk. Granted, you might not personally like Charles Dickens, but how much would you respect a writer who ripped on Dickens as being "old school" and claimed his upcoming book would just blow Dickens off the map?

Point the third, concerning interactive entertainment, rather than traditional hardcore videogame experiences: Okay. I'll concede this point. With a rather major caveat. People still like to be challenged. It's just that the average player, I think, has a lower tolerance for abusive difficulty than they used to have. This is probably because the average gamer is about 30 years old now instead of 13, with more disposable income for different games than time to actually play them.

So while I remain a fan of Chris Taylor (in spite of being bored to tears by Dungeon Siege), I have got to say this little preview / interview doesn't make me very excited about the direction Gas Powered Games is going. A Road to Damascus experience? Sounds to me more like a road to mediocrity.

But hey, depending upon the reviews, I may still be willing to give it a try. After all, I AM a fan of old-school arcade games, and Space Siege sounds right up that alley.

(Vaguely) related rants, absolutely free and worth every penny:
* Action vs. Turn-Based RPGs: Evolution, or Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator?
* But Is It An RPG?
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs

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Saturday, November 10, 2007
Guest Article: UFO:Extraterrestrials Do Over
Bryan Brown (of Tungsten Bathtub) wrote the very first "guest post" on Tales of the Rampant Coyote a couple of years ago. He took pity on me this week with my 12-hour workdays at the "day job," and wrote this article for me to save me some precious time to work on Frayed Knights. I really should thank him, except now I really, really want to play this game, and I know I don't have the time! In this article, Bryan describes some of the mods now available for the indie strategy game, the X-Com - inspired UFO: Extraterrestrials. In particular, he discusses several of the mods make the game even more like its classic inspiration.

UFO: Extraterrestrials is turn-based squad-level tactics game very similar to the historic XCOM: UFO Defense or XCOM: Terror from the Deep games. It basically pits a small government funded group of scientists, technicians and soldiers against an onslaught of alien invaders.

The game consists of two phases a global strategic phase where you manage bases, research, production of specialized equipment and inventories, as well as a tactical phase where a squad of your soldiers attempts to achieve tactical victories like salvaging UFO technology, capturing aliens or saving civilians.

The game as released was fairly well done – and I liked it. Partially because it was one of the better XCOM-like games to come along in years and years and years and partially because they did a good job putting their own spin on it. They created a new world, Esperanza, and a whole new hierarchy of aliens to lead the attack. I resented some of their design choices that greatly simplified the strategic phase but overall the game is well done and it has remained on my hard drive ever since being released.

XCOM Memories
I remember playing XCOM to the point that I’d turn corners in real life and have a momentary flash of a little red number down in the corner of my eye and for just a moment I’d wonder where the alien was. The game play was well paced as they slowly introduced new aliens and technologies and each mission left you hungering for the next. There were many nights when I told myself at 10:00 PM that just one more mission and I’d quit and then next looked at the clock at 1:00 AM wondering where the time went.

With game play like that it’s no surprise that XCOM is one of those games that attracted a small but dedicated following. Over the years since the games release it has been discussed and considered and replayed by those that loved it. The game has become legend in the history of computer gaming and the original XCOM: UFO Defense is even available in the public domain now from sites like The Underdogs.

A UFO: ET Makeover
This core group of followers quickly discovered that UFO:ET was user modifiable and mods for the game were released within days of the game being released. Many of the mods were designed to introduce elements from the original XCOM that were missing in UFO:ET.

For example, UFO:ET released with no ability to hire and fire soldiers as needed. Instead they were parceled out to you one a month. Modders quickly changed the game to allow you to not only hire as many soldiers as you needed but to select which soldiers you wanted from a pool of 100 candidates. Other modders added line of sight indicators missing from the game to help determine more effective shots. Still more modified the game to have the games built in day night cycles have a greater effect on tactical combat just like the original XCOM did. One modder added hot keys for common movements which was later incorporated in an official patch released by Chaos Concept, the studio that released the game.

Over time the modders produced hundreds of mods and multiple versions of the same mods as they refined and tweaked the game. I no longer play the game as released and I have no desire to go back to that. I play with a super-mod collection called BMANS Ease of Use Patch. It includes all of the game mods that I really wanted to see in the original release as well as quite a few I had never thought of packaged into one easy to install add-on. This mod re-introduces classic aliens. It modifies the UFOpedia entries to explain the presence of these aliens and creates new technologies and strategies that are required to combat them. Almost every modification can be enabled or disabled or configured using menus that are modded right into the UFO:ET game making using the mods a breeze.

It’s an amazing feat of combining old with new and making new jump through different hoops to completely change the game experience. I find the increased complexities and challenges of playing to be a much more satisfying experience than the un-modified game was.

Modifying a released game is probably sticky ground to be on. We’ve seen games re-rated because of user created mods and the recent threat of Manhunt 2 being re-rated for the same reason. Fortunately, most companies tend to turn a blind eye to the user mod communities. I think that is wise since it becomes free advertising for the product – but I can see how an overzealous company may want to restrict user modding in an effort to protect their IP.

In the case of UFO:ET the user mods have taken a good game and significantly improved it. If you bypassed this game on its initial release it might be time to reconsider your decision.

(Vaguely) related wannabe geek lit:
* Game Moment #3: X-Com
* My ALMOST Most Important Games List
* Guest Gaming Moment: Falcon 4.0
* Quick Strategy Games


Friday, November 09, 2007
Frayed Knights: Death and Arianna's Interview
Ouch! You've just had your hitpoints smacked down to zero. What do you do now?

In most RPGs, that means its time to reload the game, or for the surviving party members to dig around for gold pieces under the couch for a resurrection. Or a potion of Phoenix Down. Or something.

In Frayed Knights, the Fat Lady doesn't sing unless the entire party goes down. A character who has been dropped down to zero hit points is considered "incapacitated," and is no longer capable of being healed via magic. They can't fight, can't cast spells, and can't even use magic items. Nor can they take further damage. But they are weakened and injured beyond the capacity to contribute to the party. However, they can still participate in conversations and perform other less strenuous activities.

From a design perspective, this is a cheap shortcut to sidestep issues of resurrection, or dealing with storyline issues when one of the key party members is dead. This isn't unlike the dodge the later Final Fantasy games took.

Now, when the entire party gets taken down, that's another story. Something very special happens. Exactly what is still TBD. We've had chats about making the "death menu" a little different - making death something a little cooler and different than other RPGs. Well, other RPGs not named Planescape. There's still no guarantee on that one - nor any guarantee that there'll be extra jokes thrown into various dialogs that only take place if one of the members of the conversation is currently resting on Death's Doormat. But that's certainly a goal.

How does a character recover from such dire circumstances? Well, a night's stay at an Inn will do the trick, as will certain "Drama Star" effects. Very expensive higher-level spells will also be available.

Progress Report
Due to crunch mode at the day job, work on Frayed Knights has been a little more limited than usual. But I'm still trying to get at least an hour's worth of development done each night. It's slow, but I'm still making progress.

Aside from dealing with incapacitated characters this week, I've also worked on getting the spell lists fixed. Benjamin was using Chloe's spell list all this time, and I was ignoring the bug. Now healing spells can actually be cast, which makes combat a bit more interesting. Since I implemented semi-random encounters a week or two ago, I've actually had to worry about dealing with two combats in a row. Without healing, at least one of my party members would be incapacitated by the end of the second battle if it was against a sizable force.

I improved the mouse-over-object handling, using actual ray-tests against the collision volumes now. It's not perfect, but it works. I also display the name of whatever the mouse is hovering over below the view port, so you can tell what you are about to click.

One thing I'd missed during the development of the "first five minutes" stage was the dialogs that are supposed to fire off the first time you encounter pus golems or brittlebone skeletons (or other new monster types). I agonized over the "best way" to handle these sorts of special-case events (which are also needed for handling the tutorial). After noodling on it for way too long and never being satisfied with the best way to design this system, and I just jumped in and did it. And it worked on the first try. While 'seat of the pants programming' receives a well-deserved bad reputation, the truth is that sometimes it is just best to jump in and rapidly create a prototype via 'seat of the pants programming,' and learn from the experience. When and if you need to, you can go back and expand on it and refactor as needed.

But in retrospect, I'm amused at how easy it was to implement with my existing system versus how much of a pain I expected it to be.

And finally, I added some cheat codes for testing, and fixed bugs where I found them. Well, okay --- I fixed SOME bugs. There are a lot right now.

Interview With Arianna
Concluding this series of interviews with the main characters of the Frayed Knights, we have the leader of the team - Arianna, the warrior.

Q: So, tell us who you are and a little bit about yourself.
A: I am Arianna Tenderleaf, and I lead a group of adventurers.

Q: So what brought you to where you are now?
A: Dirk told me this interview would be good publicity for our team.

Q: No, I mean, what brought you to this life of adventuring?
A: Oh! Well, I grew up in an elven village, but as I am half human, I matured much faster than the others of my age. So I left home and joined the military for a while. While in the military, I met a lot of other folk who were planning on becoming adventurers following their military service, and I did the same.

Q: So there wasn't enough adventure in the military?
A: The military experience consisted of extreme boredom and tedious physical labor punctuated by moments of mortal danger. But they make up for it with poor pay and horrible food.

Q: Okay, so when did you start the adventuring career?
A: A little over five years ago. We had a very successful band of treasure-hunters. We were well on our way to earning small fortunes. Oh, and we saved several villages from invasion by small evil humanoid monsters! Those were wonderful times.

Q: But you aren't with them now. What happened?
A: Well, it started going bad when our rogue, Black Leaf, was morted ... er, killed... by a poison trap. All of us were demoralized by that, but our cleric, Elfstar, took it especially hard, and went a little crazy. She joined some strange book-burning cult and renouncing adventuring altogether. After that, the rest of us went our separate ways. I tried retirement for a while.

Q: And it didn't suit you?
A: I ran out of money. And I'd lost my edge, and didn't like how that felt. So I found Chloe and Dirk several months ago, along with a priest named Ferdinand.

Q: What happened to Ferdinand?
A: We had a falling out over differences in the team's direction.

Q: Does this have anything to do with him needing to get his hand magically re-attached about four months ago?
A: He had been warned.

Q: Okay. So, tell me about the newest member of your team, Benjamin.
A: We rescued him from hobgoblins about three months ago, and he's been with us ever since. He was never an adventurer before - he was sort of an ivory-tower sort.

Q: Oh, he was an academic? Was he a professor at a college?
A: More of a student of the world.

Q: What was his specialization?
A: Medicinal herbs.

Q: I'm sure that can be an invaluable skill to your team, as you are exposed to injury and illness on a constant basis.
A: Uh.... right. Benjamin is ... a healer. Yes.

Q: How about Chloe?
A: Chloe has the makings of an ace sorceress. She specializes in magics of mass destruction.

Q: I can imagine that comes in very handy, as well.
A: Life is very exciting with Chloe around.

Q: And how about Dirk. Would you describe him as the "backbone" of the team?
A: Dirk is... er, the what?

Q: The "Backbone" of the team? That is how he described himself.
A: He's... a great asset to the team. He's our eyes and ears - a very talented rogue.

Q: But not the backbone?
A: Did I mention "mouth?"

Q: Okay. Well, thank you Arianna, for your time. I do hope for continued success for you and the rest of the Frayed Knights!

Q: Oh, I said... oh, well, thank you! And goodbye!

(Vaguely) related silliness:
* Cartographic Incompetence and Dirk's Interview
* Interview with Chloe
* Ben Speaks, and Combat Tweaks
* What Makes a Great RPG: Story

Oh, Look! A Forum Thread About... Death 'n Arianna 'n Stuff!

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Thursday, November 08, 2007
Portal --- and Really Good Bad Guys
I just finished Portal (downloaded directly from Steam, BTW). Dang, that was a sweet game.

I don't know what I could say about Portal that hasn't already been said, but I'll try. It started with a mod by a bunch of students (read: INDIES), who got hired on by Valve to make it an official game. And it turned out to be what will probably be remembered as the most innovative game of 2007.

Fun as all, too. The gameplay is wild and original, sometimes even mind-bending, requiring some eye-hand coordination but mostly just logic and problem-solving. It is a brilliant game that, like Thief and Rainbow Six before it (not to mention the excellent indie game Orbz), took the first-person-shooter mechanic and did something completely different with it. Additionally, the game was very careful to introduce you to tools / tricks very comfortably and on their own before you had to implement them in more stressful or time-dependent situations - or in think-out-side-the-box combinations. I never once felt (after I'd solved them) that the puzzles were in any way unfair, though there were a couple of them that I thought were impossible before I actually tried them.

I think about how the game could have been ruined by giving the player a traditional gun at any point, and thrown in just a few token traditional enemies. But the original team had been able to prove the concept via the freeware mod Narbacular Drop, so I doubt that was a temptation.

All that being said, I think that half the fun was the antagonist - your opponent, GLaDOS. She is just a WONDERFUL passive-aggressive foe. Well, passive-aggressive until the morality core chip is incinerated. Then more aggressive.

She begins the game as a traditional computer-voice instructor for the missions, and starts by making some statements so deadpan that I wasn't sure if they were serious or not. It was only later, as her frustration mounts, that her personality begins to shine through and she deadpans some seriously funny lines. My wife was hearing the game in bits and pieces, and began laughing herself after doing a double-take.

The thing that works so well is that - besides having an interesting personality and deadpan, passive-aggressive, homicidal humor - the villain of Portal is a constant presence. She's constantly there, instructing you, taunting you, nagging you, trying to murder you, and then laughing it off as a joke in a poor attempt to try manipulate you. She's unique.

She's earned a spot in my personal list of the Best Game Villains. GLaDOS, it was a delight to defeat you! Thanks! And... hey! Cake!

And now I can't get that Jonathan Coulton song (sung by GLaDOS) from the end credits out of my head...

(Vaguely) related failures of lucidity
* Who Are the Best Game Villains
* RE: Your Brains
* Building the Perfect Villain
* Where Is Indie Innovation?
* Will 2007 Be the Year of the Downloadable Game?

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Indie RPG News Roundup, November 7
This week, we've got a couple of independent computer roleplaying games coming up quickly for release, which is always a good thing. Well, almost always. Unless they are actually secret robot-brain programs which, once release, will power up an army that will destroy civilization and harvest humans for food or batteries or something. But it's been years since that last happened, and I'm digressing. Here's the indie RPG news o' the week... and it's good stuff! I think... :)

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest
Amaranth is reporting that the sequel to the hit "casual" indie RPG Aveyond completed alpha Monday night, with the last of the alpha bugs cleared out. Beta begins... this morning. Due to delays, I'd not expect Aveyond 2 to make it out this month, but we could still see it before the end of the year.

The Broken Hourglass
Planewaker Games has a conversation with game music composer Rob Howard, who explains how he went about composing music for the world and how he was introduced to Turkish banjo. The interview includes an excerpt from one of the game's character themes.

Read the Interview with Rob Howard

Eschalon: Book 1
Eschalon: Book 1 is a tile-based, turn-based, "old-school" RPG that reportedly requires the good ol' fashioned RPG skills like tactics and resource management to survive, not rabid button-clicking talents. The first part of the planned very indie RPG trilogy now has a release date set for November 19th - twelve days from now. This initial release is only for Windows, however, Basilisk Games has announced a Mac version soon afterwards, and a Q1 2008 release for the Linux version.

Get More Information about Eschalon: Book 1 Here.

Final Vision
This is a small "platform RPG" that is very much a Final Fantasy fan-based project. The equivalent of Fanfic in the indie RPG Realm? Still, it could be worth checking out. Thanks to Terry at rpgdx for the heads-up.

UPDATE: There's a review for Final Vision by Patrick Dugan at Play This Thing. Thanks for the heads-up, Patrick!

Download Final Vision

The Demon Within
Version 1.01 of this small indie action-RPG has just been released, and the author (Carl Karlsson) has begun work on a new expansion for the game.

Check Out The Demon Within Here

Frayed Knights
As announced yesterday, Frayed Knights is currently leading the MyDreamRPG game-in-a-year competition.... by a nose-hair. It is also staffing up a little more, with James McEwan added as a 3D modeler, and a tentative arrangement with Mike Nielsen for music. The latter will mean that we can finally rip out that stand-in music borrowed from Commodore 64 game remixes.

Got a tip? Got a question? Let's help keep each other posted here!

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Jeff Vogel on Why Single-Player Games Are Here To Stay
Jeff Vogel, indie RPG developer, has penned his tenth "View From the Bottom" article, this one on the reason single-player games aren't going to go anywhere in the mad rush for multiplayer or massively-multiplayer goodness.

View From the Bottom #10 On RPGVault

Do I disagree? Not in the least.

In fact, I get pretty bored playing multiplayer games against or with strangers. Granted, once you get to know the "regulars" of a game or join a guild they may cease to be strangers. But unless I can find existing friends to play with, I'd rather play a single-player game.

Update: Here's a Forum Discussion on single-player vs. multi-player games, courtesy of Hajo.


Frayed Knights Squeaks Into the Lead!
Frayed Knights is a contestant in the MyDreamRPG Game-In-A-Year competition, and the mid-contest tallies were reported late Friday evening. The results..?

Frayed Knights is in first place. By only 50 out of over 10,000 points. Talk about a narrow lead - less that 0.5%! The four other games in the top five positions include Pelorea, Isles of Midgard, Arcanoria, and Fantasci. Thus far, the contest has been rewarding process and communication more than the games themselves... which has caused a small amount of drama by teams that feel that their projects are superior. And they may well be correct.

Pelorea, in particular, seems to be particularly well-run. Of course, it all comes down to the game's release and how it is received. THAT is pretty key. All five of the front-runners could miss the release (to be honest, I am worried about Frayed Knights, too), which would kinda turn the whole contest on its ear.

There are several games in the middle of the pack that are looking really good, and if the contestents don't give up on them, they may do really well. I've mentioned Aegist Road before, partly because our own DrSlinky - AKA Greg Tedder - is heading up that one. B.R.A.V.E. is looking better and better.

I hope that this contest encourages a lot of indies to actually finish their games and get them to market. There's much too high of a failure rate in first-time indie game development (and second-time, too).

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Monday, November 05, 2007
Interview With Ron Gilbert
If you remember the classic Monkey Island adventure games - or if you are looking forward to the upcoming Penny Arcade game - you may enjoy this new interview with Ron Gilbert, the designer responsible for spoiling us and preventing us from fully enjoying lesser-quality adventures of the era.

Since this interview is for the World of Monkey Island website, he naturally talks a lot about his work on Monkey Island --- with his usual humor. But he doesn't neglect his role on the upcoming Penny Arcade game.

My favorite quotes:

Q: Do you think you’ll ever create something again that gets such a huge fanbase like happened with the Monkey Island series?

A: The problem is, you can only do one deal with the Devil and I blew it on a 16-color EGA game.

Q: Now that the newness of 3D with super realistic graphics and such is beginning to wear off, do you think games will move into more interesting styles and concepts?

A: Dear god I hope so. I'm so bored with realistic graphics. I can go outside and see realistic graphics. I want something that really excites my imagination. While doing realism is technically very challenging, it's not very creatively challenging and we need some more creativity in this business. All these stupid space marine games all look the same. None of them make me care at all about the world. Sorry Halo.


Ron Gilbert Interview at World of Monkey Island

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Hackneyed RPG Plot Devices
Scorpia has an article entitled, "Spare Me," detailing some of the most overused plot devices in her experience as a long time RPG fan (of primarily western RPGs).

These include the case of amnesia, the multi-part Quest Object, the losing all your cool gear plot device (often found in sequels), and the Sword of Foozlebane.

There are a couple others that I can think of that have irritated me in the past, which weren't touched on (much) by Scorpia or the IGN RPG Cliche article.

The Ancient Prophecy
Apparently some holy guru from a thousand years ago knows all about the bad guy, and also knows all about who's gonna stop him (and how). He wrote it all down as an instruction manual for How To Kill The Inevitable Foozle, but after it has been translated a few dozen times, it doesn't make too much sense except to the game designers.

Kill The Exposition Guy!
If there's one guy who can explain everything and help you make sense of poorly-translated prophecies before the game's final act, he's guaranteed to have been killed only hours before you arrive - or maybe even after you arrive, but before you get to talk to him. Or maybe you even get to talk to him, but he only gives you half a message in some cryptic form that only makes sense if all of the blood is draining out of your brain and out through your gaping head-wound onto the floor. "Beware the... rice pudding... in green... !"

Scoring For The Other Team
At some point, you end up accepting quests or taking orders from someone who's goals run contrary to your own. By the time there's the big reveal that he's actually a bad guy, its no suprise to the player.

A Traitor In Office
If you happen to meet a king or other major authority figure who is actually helpful to you, his most trusted adviser will actually be a traitor who's nefarious scheme to depose said monarch / authority go into effect as soon as your back is turned. In the case of Ultima, it took a few sequels, but even that series wasn't immune...

So there's my plot devices. Although three of them probably count as "plot twists," they are common enough at this point (not just in RPGs, but in every other story-driven game) that they barely count as twists anymore.

Of course, for Frayed Knights, I'm actually touching on several of these hackneyed plot devices, but I'm usually adding an extra twist. The ones I'm using tend to be as much from Pen & Paper RPGs or fantasy literature as computer / console RPGs, though. But hey, if you have more ideas, throw 'em out there!

(Vaguely) related drivel:
* RPG Cliches That Need to Die
* Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs
* Rules of Combat According to FPS Games

Got Some More Hackneyed Plot Devices? Post 'Em Here!

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Saturday, November 03, 2007
Guest Post: Artistic Merit... And Manhunt 2
Manhunt 2 has been in the news quite a bit the last few months - which to me smacks suspiciously of very deliberate marketing, and manipulating the ESRB and other ratings bodies as unwitting pawns in their attempt to milk controversy for publicity. And of course, Rockstar (owned by Take Two) - the creators of Manhunt 2, and the equally controversial Grand Theft Auto series - are falling upon a First Amendment / Freedom of Artistic Expression defense. The latest controversy surrounds a player-created hack, vaguely reminiscent of the "Hot Coffee" scandal, which reveals material that had earned it a harsher "Adults Only" rating before it was edited. Today's guest blog comes from JenaRey, a game reviewer, member of the Rampant Games community here, and the author of the Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes gaming blog. She talks about Manhunt 2 specifically, but also more generally about games as art. So here's her lovely rant...

For the past several months there has been a lot of debate and concern over the rating of Manhunt 2, Take Two’s hyper violent horror game. Initial ratings put the game at an AO, which lead to pouting and editing to earn the M rating. The game was released on Halloween, appropriate for a horror flick, and immediately hacks were found that removed filters which had been put in place to create the afore mentioned editing. Now…I could go off on the rating process. Or I could tirade about Take Two’s policies, and the suspicion that they knew gamers were smart enough to hack such a simple edit. But I’m going with the subject of Artistic Merit and sticking to your guns.

Artistic Merit is defined as: an English language term that is used in relation to cultural products when referring to the judgment of their perceived quality or value as works of art. (Definition gleefully yoinked from Wikipedia and online dictionary.) So it’s the value put on something as a work of art. Long has the debate raged over whether video games could be considered works of art or only works of entertainment due to their interactive nature. I personally have no argument that video games are art. Many of them are beautiful in storyline and graphical execution and all represent a creative effort on the part of their creators. I think art can entertain, regardless of form, so it’s not a problem for games to also be entertainment. Argument solved…truth in the middle of the extremes.

From Plato the point of art is what he calls Theios phobos or sacred fear. Art should move something within both the viewer and the artist and it will not always be comfortable. This is why a vast number of artistic works through the centuries have been censored so that they were available to a small audience that was prepared for this sacred fear instead of visiting it on the uninitiated or uninterested. In video games this is done through ratings which provide guidance for consumers and parents as to the nature of the art involved and grounds by which to make informed decisions.

Whether the governing bodies should get involved as far as distribution is a subject that I’m still on the fence about because I understand the intention, but also believe that we should be trusted as people and parents as to the type of art that we bring into out homes and what sacred fear we choose to experience and to allow our children to experience. However, because of distribution restrictions that come with a given rating there is always grumbling in the ranks when a given artistic endeavor is given a rating of AO no matter whether it is an appropriate guideline or not. Well, guess what boys and girls… distribution restrictions aren’t anything new either. The nice thing about the current political climate is that artists that are seen as having gone beyond the ‘safe’ boundaries of social acceptance aren’t beheaded and all copies of their work aren’t put to the fire. They’re just stamped with a restriction and then companies are given the option whether to publish or not.

If you are taking a stance that your work should stand as art then let it stand and suck it up. Stick to your guns. If you’re going to choose to edit, then that is your new stance and the obligation is to create art at that level. It’s juvenile to only half do the job while sticking your tongue out at the establishment - like a child asked to clean his or her room that shoves everything under the bed with full intent of pulling it back out once the adult has left (Particularly when the same child has already done this once before).

So all in all…if Manhunt 2 is about art, then it should be unedited and appropriately rated. Those with interest will find their way through appropriate channels to experience their chosen sacred fear, and the stance of sticking to what you’ve imagined is much more respectable than grudgingly changing, leaving in hacks and whining. If you’re just in it for the cash…well…I hear casual games are doing well. Match three for Take Two?



Friday, November 02, 2007
Indie RPG News Roundup, November 2nd
More Indie Computer RPG Madness! This week we have a game without graphics (except colored ASCII characters), a persistent-world game invoking the memories of Car Wars, a little Swedish sequel to two RPGs *I* had never heard of until this week, an old-school turn-based isometric game that brings tears of joyful nostalgia to my eyes just mentioning it, and a game that looks like a Diablo clone but plays like Diablo only wishes it played.

Dwarf Fortress
The mondo-roguelike "Dwarf Fortress" has been updated to the very impressive-looking release number v0.27.169.33a. You can snag the latest version of this ASCII extravaganza (and no, I am NOT being sarcastic, here) at the official website:

Dwarf Fortress

Knight Man 3: The Demon Within
This is an action-RPG by Swedish indie game-maker Carl Karlsson, of Kingdiz Entertainment. In The Demon Within, darkness has arisen in the Far North, threatening the peace of the land of Edearozth. You play the role of Cendah, a demonic warrior captured in the first war between Humans and Demonics. Now, 30 years later, an unknown force sets you free again...

This game includes both the original game and the expansion.

Knight Man 3: The Demon Within

Depths of Peril
There are is an interview with Steven Peeler now available at RPG Codex, and another one at RPG Vault. Really good reading! RPG Codex has more of a developer slant, but both should be of interest to players and developers. And finally, they have also posted 2 new monster profiles (Dimensional Gate & Horror).

RPGVault Depths of Peril "Wrap Report"

RPG Codex Q&A with Steven Peeler

Depths of Peril Monsters

[plug]Oh, and just in case you missed it... Depths of Peril is now available from Rampant Games! [/plug]

Eschalon: Book 1
BasiliskWrangler has announced on the official forums: "An official release date announcement will be coming probably next week. If all goes well on the final beta test, we will probably be ready to release the game sometime in the second half of November."

Man, I can't wait... This game looks awesome, like the answer to the question we old-schoolers like to ask: "Why don't they make games like that anymore?" "They" may not, but the indies apparently do. They are crazy that way. Here's hoping it is as good as it looks and sounds.

Darkwind: War On Wheels
This game is described as more of a turn-based, persistent-world "wargame," though it has some RPG elements. It was brought to my attention concerning this indie RPG roundup, and since I have a soft spot in my heart for Car Wars and the old Mad Max movies, I thought I'd give it a mention. It's a post-apocalyptic MMO that features PvP as well as PvE races and battles between heavily armed vehicles (though the weapons are disabled for pure racing). They are currently working on several updates, including things for your characters to do outside of their vehicles.

Darkwind: War On Wheels Website.

And there we go for this week! I can always use more news, tips, and updates, so feel free to give me a holler here, or on the forums, or via email if you have some juicy scuttlebutt to share. Or opinions, reviews, or little bits of pocket lint.

(Vaguely) related minutia:
* Let's Talk About Depths of Peril
* Indie RPG News Roundup, October 25th
* Indie RPG news Roundup, October 10th

Oooh! Pretty New Forum Thread So You Can Talk About The Latest Indie RPGs....

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Thursday, November 01, 2007
Frayed Knights: Ben Speaks, and Combat Tweaks
So here's my little weekly update of stuff from the development of Frayed Knights, the comedic indie computer RPG...

Continuing the weekly Frayed Knights interviews, here's an interview with Benjamin, the "Holy Man" of the Frayed Knights. This one was a little tricky, because I was still trying to "find" his voice. I still am. I imagine him kind of as a grad student in Berkeley circa 1969. Not that this narrows it down much.

Q: So do you go by "Benjamin" or "Ben?"
A: Either one is fine. I mean, I figure names are just labels, you know? We label each other, but what does the label really mean? Are we limiting each other by our names or stuff? If you call me, "Allen," does that change our relationship or your expectations?

Q: So, "Ben" works?
A: Uh, yeah, sure.

Q: So how did you come to join the Frayed Knights?
A: Oh, hey, don't call us that! Arianna gets really mad. We're supposed to be called... oh, uh... something else. I forget.

Q: So how did you come to join Arianna, Chloe, and Dirk?
A: They rescued me from a group of hobgoblins that had slaughtered the rest of my experimental arboriculture study group one night, but kept me around for my healing skills and my knowledge of recreational herbology. My soon-to-be companions would have killed me, too, but I explained to them that my loyalty to the hobgoblins was ... you know... strictly out of self-preservation. I think it was Chloe who convinced the rest of the group that I was alphabetically compatible, so they let me join them.

Q: And how long have you been with them?
A: Just a few weeks now. But man --- it's been a totally wild few weeks!

Q: So as the newcomer, what can you tell me about them?
A: Oh, they are really pretty cool to hang with, you know? Not at all like I expected. Except for the violence. Things do get pretty violent around them, which kinda freaks me out. But you grow up hearing all these stories about "adventurers" - and now here I am, one of them! And they aren't so bad once you get to know them. I mean, okay, there's the violence. And the mercenary attitude. And the danger. And it's not fun getting stabbed. Or poisoned. Or shot. Or cursed. But ... there's travel!

Q: What can you tell us about Chloe?
A: Chloe! Man, that girl is really out there. She's like... you know... always working on another plane of existence or something. Though that can be a problem, too, you know?

Q: What do you mean?
A: Okay, so there was this one time, like just a couple of days after I'd joined up. And we got in this fight with a hemp golem. Chloe's got this thing for really destructive spells. "Big booms," she calls them. And so we're in a fight with this thing, and Chloe just goes for a fire spell. Which I guess sounded like a good idea at the time... I mean, it worked. Turns out those things are really flammable. But then... oh, wait. I forgot - we all promised never to talk about that. Can you just pretend I didn't mention that?

Q: I have no problem with you pretending you didn't mention that. What can you tell us about Dirk?
A: Dirk... what can I say? He's... very skilled at what he does. Were it not for his ... uh... apparently diminished self-preservation instinct on an alarming level...

Q: What do you mean by 'diminished self-preservation instinct?'
A: He's crazy! Death-wish crazy. I mean, some people crack under pressure. Others seem to thrive it. Some might even crave it. Dirk... well, he seems to have developed an advanced addiction to it, you know?

Q: So you think he's attracted to risk?
A: Attracted? More like in a hot and sweaty love affair with. I just can't explain it, man. And he's supposed to be the cautious one! But if there is something dangerous to be done, he'll volunteer. He's very courageous. Which is fine and all... but I'm really not. But since he and the rest saved me from the hobgoblins, I guess I kinda owe him.

Q: Wow. Okay, how about Arianna? What can you tell us about her?
A: Do not get her mad.
Q: She's dangerous?
A: My first encounter with her, I witnessed her disembowel two hobgoblins.

Q: I see your point. Thank you, Ben, for your time.
A: Oh, hey, time is just time!

Frayed Knights Developments
The big event this last week was the demo at the Utah Indie Night. But with Halloween, a funeral, and the demo, I've not had as much time to work on the game as I'd like.

A couple of things I did get into the game was a "turn counter" and random encounters.

Taking Turns
Frayed Knights is a turn-based game. This was a deliberate decision by me to make a game that could be played without time pressure. There's no need to hit a pause key or anything if you are like me and have to deal with short, highly-interrupted game-playing times.

Except there was a little bit of a problem. Movement was kinda happening in real-time. It's smooth 3D. So I had to come up with a way to rectify that with the more turn-based nature of the rest of the game.

My solution was simply to accumulate movement and convert that to time passage. So if you stand around doing nothing, no time passes. Time only counts while you are in motion.

A Limited Supply of Unlimited Monsters
Once I had that in place, I added the dreaded "random encounter" checks. Every turn, there is a chance of a random encounter based upon your "subzone." A subzone is simply a section of the map. For example, the temple of Pokmor Xang is currently divided into three subzones - and may be divided into more by the time I'm done.

Now, I think there are perfectly valid reasons for random encounters. In fact, they are kind of critical to balancing out things like lockpicking attempts. But I have done something a little different. The chance of a random encounter is not static (or won't be, once I finish the code). As you slaughter creatures in an area / subzone, the chance of an encounter happening there decreases. You'll never entirely "clear out" the area, but you can drop the chance of it happening very low. As time (counted in turns) passes, the chance will slowly start to rise again back to its original value. So if you leave a dungeon alone long enough, the randomly-occurring bad guys will return.

But not the static, one-shot encounters. When those are done, they are done.

So now, as I wander through the dungeon, I get attacked by Brittlebone Skeletons and Pus Golems every once in a while.

Combat Tweaks
Running into wandering monsters would be all well and good *if* combat wasn't quite as tedious as it currently is. I spent a bunch of time working on a mathematical model for combat this week. I calculated a typical 4-on-4 encounter, the amount of time the player was expected to spend on each turn, the amount of time the AI would spend on their turns running their animations, the average amount of damage done per attack attempt (including miss percentage), the number of party members expected to attack each turn (defined as ten 'action segments' ... and one party member each turn is likely to be healing, buffing, de-buffing, or making some kind of special combat maneuver), and all that.

Armed with that knowledge and my extensive calculations, I decided to wing it.

Combat is still not quite there, but with some modifications last night, I think its getting better. One problem that I'm facing is that I "front-load" a lot of a characters' abilities and survivability into their starting attributes, and then increase these abilities marginally after that. This means a 3rd level character isn't automatically three times superior to a level 1 character. The Frayed Knights (who begin the game at level 3) going up against four level 1 Pus Golems are very likely to win with no losses, but it's not a trivial encounter.

So there's more tweaking necessary. And the combat UI is still garbage.

Cool Main Screen
This week, I also received the finished version of the title screen I commissioned. What do you think?

Anyway, that's it for this week! As always, have fun, and please let me know what you think. Your feedback has been VERY valuable and has helped me a ton.

(Vaguely) related dungeon deconstructionism:
* Frayed Knights: Interview With Chloe
* Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters
* Designing a Computer RPG Rule System
* Playing Frankenstein - 4 Tips For Designing Better Computer RPG Monsters

The Forum Thread - 50% Longer Lasting Than Regular Thread

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RPS Takes On The "What Is An RPG?" Question
The far-too-clever PC gaming blog "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" has a take on a Eurogamer review of The Witcher, and takes up once again the question of what makes a computer RPG an RPG in the article, "What Sort of RPG Is The Witcher?"

Not that this isn't ripe territory for discussion. Hey, I've done it... twice! At best, my attempts managed to include just about every game commonly considered an RPG, and to exclude almost all others. But it's fuzzy territory to say the least.

The two criteria Gillen brings up are the following:

#1 - You must have control over your character's progression or creation. The bone he has to pick with the Eurogamer review (by Dan Whitehead) seems to be over whether or not you must be able to create and customize your character from the very beginning in order for it to qualify as an RPG (a requirement that would exclude nearly every jRPG ever created since the advent of the SNES).

#2 - RPGs must be an indirect test of skill - the avatar's final success or failure include the result of some statistical abstraction.

So - is it still an RPG if you are handed the character to play? Or is Dan Whitehead correct in his implication that you need to have that customization from the get-go?

Well, my own useless opinion is this: Even before I rolled my first set of dice in a "Pen And Paper" D&D Game in 1981, there was a tradition of playing "pre-gens" for quick games, particularly in tournaments. I never once heard of anybody contending that because they were being handed the character sheet for Zinethar the Cleric for the Ghost Tower of Inverness that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game they were about to play was now magically NOT an RPG.

Of course, I don't know if people were even calling D&D and similar games "role-playing games" when this practice first started. The game came first, and the name came later. For a while it was called "Fantasy Wargaming," "Fantasy Gaming," and even "Adventure Gaming" before "Role-Playing Game" stuck.

(Vaguely) related musings in roleplaying territory:
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Answer?
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?
* But Is It An RPG?
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs
* The Rules of Role-Playing Games

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