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Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Thursday, January 31, 2008
 
Questions For Indies - Part I
Corvus Elrod and I decided to borrow some of the questions proposed in the XFire Debate Club last week that we didn't have time to answer, and offer some answers - in a lot more depth - in our blogs. Sort of a collaborative project, without actually having to collaborate. Since actually coming up with a topic is way harder for me than just spouting off about something I know nothing about, I loved this plan. And as a bonus, the ability to spout off about things I know nothing about makes me eligible to be used as an expert on Fox News!

Shamus "McLaser" Young fired five shots across the bow with stuff HE would have liked to know about how indie game developers work. Since his questions didn't suck, Corvus and I decided to start there. We figured we'd go in depth on two this week, three next week, and then tackle some of the others extracted from the logs as we go. And we are almost guaranteed NOT to agree with each other on all of these points. In fact, I really hope we don't, because he really hated The Witcher. And I ... uh, haven't had time to play it yet, but I intend to, I'm hoping it actually doesn't suck and that he was just smoking something. But he's also got a killer multipart retrospective going on about Ultima Underworld, so I can't dismiss his opinion lightly.

Incidentally, I also mentioned the questions to Amanda Fitch of Amaranth Games (you know, Aveyond and Aveyond 2 awesomeness) - she's actually made indie-dom her full-time job now, so she's more of an expert than either of us, so I will humbly refer you to her comments on the subject.

So Fire away, Mr. McLaser:

Question One: Why So Many Indie RPGs?
Shamus: RPGs seem really over-represented in indie games. (Or, you could say they are under-represented in mainstream games.) Why do you think indie developers favor RPGs so much?

This one took me by surprise. Because they... uh, aren't, unless you consider the dearth of mainstream RPGs these days to be "well represented." Short answer. Long answer:

Looking at The Great Games Experiment, as of a few minutes ago, there were a total of 936 games tagged "indie," and only 95 of these were tagged "RPG" (and some of those might be considered more, "games with RPG elements" and really stretch the definition of RPG. But we'll roll with it). So --- that's a hair over 10% of the indie games. Actually, if one out of 10 indie games were RPGs, I'd be a heck of a lot busier than I already am. But we'll look closer.

Subtract out all the titles that are tagged "in development", and we find that over 1 in 3 of those RPGs (36) are in that often never-ending vaporware state, as compared to under 1 in 4 of the other indie genres (224). So the number of completed indie games falls down to about 8%.

I think, however, that those numbers are a little skewed based on the community over at GGE, and that casual games (most of which are indie) don't have the indie flag like they should. There's over 1900 of 'em, and only 400 are tagged "indie." So if you assume only 2 / 3 of the remainder are actually indie games that just aren't tagged as such, the indie RPG count drops in half. Naturally, some RPGs (and other indie games) may also be missing the tag, so this is all just conjecture. But hey, you know what they say about statistics.

I personally would be thrilled to believe that 5% of completed indie games are RPGs. I personally think its closer to about 1%, but even at the above 8%, I wouldn't consider them overrepresented.

But Here's Why You'd Think That!
Indie RPGs had a banner year this year, and fans of RPGs can be pretty vociferous. This years crop got a lot of attention this year, partly because we had such excellent games released, and partly because there was really sharp, clever marketing going on (Thomas "Eschalon" Riegsecker, I am talking to you...)

I think a telling indicator - even if it's hardly exact - is the higher ratio of incomplete RPGs listed at GGE. I remember hanging out on the GameDev.net forums a few years back and hearing people constantly talk about how they wanted to tackle an RPG as their first project. These days, they've upped the ante and are usually talking about MMORPGs. More power to 'em... but even fewer of those will likely see the light of day.

But RPGs have a little deceptive quality to them. If you've played D&D, or a Final Fantasy game, you probably realize how the rule system (at least a scaled-down version of it) could easily be turned into a program. I mean, everybody computer geek and their cousin was doing it for their Apple IIs and Commodore 64's back when I was a kid. And RPGs are - as much as any other genre except maybe adventure / IF games - about story. Everybody has stories to tell. Just throw some graphics in there, and you got game! And hey, there are several RPG engines out there that could be used to just throw together a game! Why, you and some artist buddies could throw together something commercial with 'em by the end of the month, right?

So RPGs are tempting projects for indies to start with. So you may hear about a lot of indies making RPGs. Just far too few actually cross the finish line, unfortunately.

Question #2 - What Technology?
Shamus: Naturally indie games have to use older technology, which is less labor intensive and doesn’t require (as much) expensive software. But I don’t think that’s the only reason to do so. Certainly the older graphics - done right - can have a certain stylistic appeal as well. The other reason to aim low on the tech tree is so that you can hit the widest possible base of users instead of just the fanboys with $3,000 computers. If you could use any graphics technology you wanted - from Infocom to Crysis - where would you choose to go?

Ummm.... dang. Actually the technology I'm using now. Only I'd like it better, more stable, easier to use, and more feature rich, plzthx. It really depends on the type of game I'm making. Part of the design philosophy behind Frayed Knights was me deciding what kind of RPG would go really well with the engine I had on-hand.

I'd actually worry a bit about something like Crysis, because SOMEBODY has to make all those gorgeous models. And that somebody is probably gonna take a month per model, minimum. As an indie, I don't have time required to make it look good. And nobody but the really hardcore gamers - who really demand games that make their major video card investment look awesome - could run it.

Now, as someone who's been doing 3D graphics their entire game development career (starting with the Playstation 1!), I still gravitate towards 3D - just to leverage my strengths. But I shy away from the bleeding edge, and I'm constantly faced with the challenge of making 3D look good without trying to go down the photorealism route.

My Dream Engine
Now - my dream engine would be some modified version of the Exult engine (built to allow you to play the Ultima VII games on modern systems) with some 3D graphics for characters. And the scripting system from Neverwinter Nights. Something where I could leverage the best of 3D and 2D and have them mesh together nicely, works on low-end machines, is nicely mature and bug-free, and can pretty much have the entire game scripted out cleanly.

I think that style of game still has a ton of story-telling and gameplay value left in it. And it was simple enough for player to enjoy without having to constantly fiddle with the camera or any of that other crap they have to mess with in modern games. The 3D graphics would allow for some pretty cool special effects, particle systems, and a lot nicer character animation. The NWN-eque scripting system would allow far, far deeper levels of interaction in the game than Ultima VII originally supported.

And now, you can probably guess what my answer to Shamus McLaser's final question will be.

So... if I ever go back and turn my "Forrest Gump in Ultima VII" experiment into a full-fledged project, I may actually get part of that dream engine. Who knows? Once Frayed Knights has run its course, maybe I'll go back and try that out.

Well, I hope I've properly beaten Shamus's first two questions into the friggin' ground on my end. Whadaya think? And do you think the "McLaser" thing will stick? And for other developers reading this blog: Why are you reading this instead of developing your game? But as long as you are wasting time, what are YOUR answers to these questions?

Okay. Wanna hear what Corvus had to say on these same questions? Me too, I haven't read it yet. But I will now direct your attention to the link he just sent me:

Man Bytes Blog: XFire Debate Annex #1

And - Lookie Here! The Debate Continues In the Forum!

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Torque Game Builder 1.7 Released
GarageGames reports that their 2D game engine - Torque Game Builder - has just been upgraded to version 1.7. Lotsa changes here, though there's still no news on whether or not they fixed the stupid camera-jitter bug. But the short list of fixes and improvements is still very exciting.

But I am very, very NOT allowed to play with it right now. Sniffle.

TGB 1.7 Released

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008
 
Utah Indie Night - Winter 2008
Whew! I got in just ahead of the snow storm. That's the part that sucks about January in Utah. Actually, pretty much everything sucks about January in Utah. I guess the Wasatch Mountains are pretty, all covered with snow and stuff. On the days when you can see them. I don't ski, but I guess that's pretty awesome in January. So there are some things to look forward to.

The quarterly Utah Indie Game night is another thing to look forward to, which falls in January. This month it was once again at the Taylorsville ITT Institute. We had a pretty good turn-out, though a lot of the people - like last time - were ITT students of game design and development. They brought in some excellent Mexican food this time - a nice change of pace from pizza.

As to the night itself, it pretty much went the opposite of how Greg Squire, the founder, had planned. That was unfortunate. His initial plan was to have the formal presentations take only a half hour, and then have the rest of the time taken up by various discussions and little mini-presentations throughout the room.

This time, though, there were no other computers (I'd even neglected to bring my laptop this time), and the main presentation was stymied due to technical difficulties. The main presentation was LinkRealms, a great upcoming indie MMORPG. It seems they use the same ports as World of Warcraft, and ITT has all of those permanently blocked to prevent students from playing WoW on campus. D'oh! They made due - at the end of the evening - with some videos of gameplay. And Herb talked at great length about the game, their technology, their business plan, and what the indie MMO space looks like.

Prior to that, we had impromptu presentations by Greg Squire, who showed his "inner space" inside-the-blood-vessel shooter, and he also took several minutes to show a non-Utah-made game, the very-very cool Crayon Physics game by Kloonigames (which unfortunately looks to have exceeded its bandwidth for the month, so the link today no worky...) I also delivered an impromptu update on Frayed Knights. Since I hadn't actually prepared to give a demo, I wasn't entirely certain what to show, but I spend a bit of time wandering around, using a cheat code to clear out combats (one of the guys in the back would play the Final Fantasy victory fanfare music on his cell phone every time I did that), and clicking on various boxes and dialogs.

But I was pleased to be able to show the game to Mike Nielsen, who is going to be composing some custom music for the game. Steve Taylor was also there. And I got some feedback about the dialog system that I'm not entirely certain how to handle (yet). It needs some help. It can get confusing. Suggestions included getting rid of the comic-book style presentation altogether in favor of a different presentation (but I also had suggestions NOT to get get rid of it), to use face icons next to all the lines of dialog, and to color-code the boxes based on who is speaking.

Stuff to consider.

I also had some opportunity to talk to Herb about LinkRealms in a bit more detail, and had an awesome discussion with Mike Rubin about indie games in general, and Vespers 3D in particular.

My suggestions for the future:

* Limit all presentations to 10-15 minutes, max. And have somebody there to help the presenter keep track of time. I honestly have no idea how long I took. Though I think half the time was taken up by trying to get the game to work on the ITT machines (we'll call that an "alpha" bug...)

* Make sure there are computers (or desk space for laptops) in the room, and help people get stuff set up. Make sure everyone who needs to use laptops and an Internet connection has a WEP key or a network cable. I think there were a few games that would have been presented if they weren't done in front of EVERYBODY.

* Red Iguana food - definitely worth doing again.

* Instead of just presenting the whole game to a bunch of game developers, we may want to consider instead having presentations about certain aspects of game development. Like - for example - JUST the particle editor of LinkRealms, or JUST the dialog system in Frayed Knights. Short presentations on other subjects - like marketing, building communities, making deals with portals, the "state of the industry," console development for indies - stuff like that.

* We definitely need a better way to form the informal discussions. I noticed a few discussions ended up taking place in the hall outside the classroom we'd had allocated to us.

Next report in April. Hopefully with some new, fresh games to talk about!

UPDATE: Here's the poster advertising the event, done by one of the ITT students. Very cool. Now I wanna go... again...

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
 
Explaining Indie Games, Illustrated!
In the XFire Debate Club last week (transcript of the discussion now available), we went a little long (I thought) explaining exactly what indie gaming is. In retrospect, I think part of the problem isn't that indie games are hard to define, but that they are defined by what they are not. But if you don't understand what they aren't, then you are totally gonna be confused about what they are.

Okay. I just confused myself. Let me draw some pictures.

The System
What we've got now, over the course of 30+ years of commercial game development, is a System. The System is very close to what you have in other media (book publishing, the music biz, etc.) - in fact, it was modeled after that. Here's what the system looks like:

Okay. Here's how the System works:

The publisher is at the top of the chain. You'll note I have a crown over the publisher. That's because I'm obnoxious. The publisher wants a game made. The publisher either creates the game in-house, or contracts a developer to make the game for them. Let's talk about how the outside developer is handled.

Usually, the outside developer is pretty much told what to make. Something based on a cool movie or TV license, or a sequel / spin-off to a game another studio originally made (after the publisher has happily said to the original developer studio, "Go jump in a lake, we own the property, we don't need you, so NEENER!" or said studio has vowed "We'll never work with you again, you jerks! For definitions of 'never' that may only include this product cycle!"). Occasionally, the outside developer might have some cool proof-of-concept demo that the publisher is willing to go with, so long as the developer makes all these changes to it (usually converting it into something that is based on a cool movie or TV license, or a sequel / spin-off to a game another studio originally made... okay, you get the idea).

The publisher "funds" the development of said game. By "fund," we really mean, "loans money to the studio for." Because... really... funding is an interest-free advance against future royalties earned by the game. Which, according to modern accounting practice in the games biz, is actually just a myth and never really happens, so the loan almost never gets repaid, so the publishers can act all magnanimous about it. But hey - it's their investment money, and so they get to call the terms. If they want to make it their investment money back two different ways - both profit on the game and in recouping the cost from the developer's royalties - that's their call.

And because it's their money (the old "golden rule" - he that has the gold makes the rule - applies here as everywhere), they usually require that they own the game, the name, the trademarks and copyrights and all intellectual property rights. The developer is pretty much just a serf contracted to do the labor. See that crown? Which - in my opinion - feels backwards. You really don't want your creative people laboring in a system of serfdom, do you?

From the publisher, the game goes through distributors and to retailers in mass quantities. This is a bulky, impenetrable System that few developers could touch without a lot of money and clout. This way, the publishers make sure that any games that want to get to the customers have to go through THEM. The publishers don't have quite the lock on the media that they do on game distribution, but they definitely dominate that particular avenue as well.

For years, that's the way its been. The System totally serves the three primary groups who have invested into creating it: the publishers, the retailers, and the distributors (I believe in that order of precedence). And it gets the games to the customers, and it keeps developers in pizza and caffeine. It's got some flexibility built into it. So while it is sub-optimal, causing games to cost more, poorly rewarding developers, and limiting what the customer can buy, it more or less works.

The Indies - Bucking The System
The whole definition of "indie" that I think a few of us were getting at the other night is simply the developers who decide to sidestep the system. Ultimately, there are only two critical pieces to this whole arrangement - the producers of games (the developers), and the consumers of games (the customers). All those other guys - the guys who take up the lion's share of the money (and increase the cost of the games) - simply contribute to the process of getting the games from the developer to the customer.

So, ideally, the whole "indie" thing might look kinda like this:
Note that here, the word "developer" is singular and "publishers" is plural - the opposite of how The System works. Publishers may not be exclusive. And for "publishers" you can substitute the word, "portals," "distributors,"retailers," "hardware manufacturers," "your aunt Jane who meets ladies at Bingo on Thursday night," or any other point of distribution that can reach more customers. The indie developer may take advantage of any and all means they have available to get their game to the customer, and may bypass all those middlemen that make up "The System" completely.

And ultimately, that's what "indie" is. It's not a game genre, or a game budget, or a size of team, or anything else. It's really about developers who are trying to bypass barriers and middlemen that block them from getting their game to the customer. The System is a game stacked against the developer (and, I'd argue, not in the customer's favor, either).

The Pros and Cons
I don't believe in barriers blocking games from being released. Courtesy of broadband, the technological barrier is slipping away. Now we're left with ... well, traditions. Habits. How gamers go about finding games and buying games.

Now, to be honest, most video games probably aren't worth your time. But here's the trick: The ones that aren't worth YOUR time may not be the same ones that aren't worth MY time.

Under The System, publishers and retailers (and, to a lesser degree, the distributors) handled things in a centralized fashion. Oooh, should I draw a communism parallel here? Okay, we'll pretend I did, and that I got flamed for it. Anyway, unable to determine what kind of game you, specifically, really wanted to play, they instead focused on games that "a lot of people" (these days defined by major publishers as "at least a half a million") would pay full price to play. If so, it got greenlit, otherwise, it was never even made.

So The System is good at serving the lowest common denominator. But unless you are completely Joe Average in all of your gaming tastes, The System isn't particularly good at providing you with what you really want. Just stuff you won't mind.

The indie methodology is more like the open market, a bazaar of the bizarre. The games just get made, though often at a lower budget because they might not have a half-million people willing to pay full price. Imagine thousands of street vendors right outside your house all hawking their wares. Nobody sets artificial limits on what you can buy.

But while there's an initial euphoria that comes with the feeling of being able to find anything if you look hard enough, it soon turns into frustration when you realize that you may have to look very hard to find anything of worth to you. And while the indie game scene may be exploding, a lot of tools that customers need to find the games they want and filter out the ones they don't aren't quite there yet. The media still focuses on mainstream games produced by The System, though that's slowly changing, too.

Multiple Definitions
Now, even this is fuzzy. There's plenty of room for arguing over who is "more indie" than someone else, and who is so big and mainstream that they are actually part of The System now (is Valve part of the system, or are they indie?) And there may be questions of approach to getting your games to the customer (Is someone who produces games strictly for portals still indie?) Besides all this, "indie" is in part a marketing element ("indie is cool"), and in part it is an excuse for having graphics that are obviously not burning out your graphics cards.

And there's an attitude that frequently comes with indie - the attitude of "screw 'em, I'll do it myself!" Which is also kinda cool and rebellious. Part of the image thing. But again, that's more of the fuzzy marketing definition.

But the whole thing about indie is that there are no rules. That's kind of the point, and I'm happy about that. Applying a hard-and-fast definition is doomed to fail. But hopefully this little explanation helped clarify things.

(Vaguely) related accounts of me waxing pedantic:
* GCG Tackles the "What Is An Indie Game?" Question
* Gimme That Old Time Indie Development
* Dependent, Independent, and Indie
.

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Monday, January 28, 2008
 
Indie Gaming Comes of Age - And What That Means To You.
Indie Gaming is coming of age, according to some - a little faster than it happened in other media, but just as significantly. At Wired.Com, Clive Thompson discusses this explosion in indie gaming, and announces that this is the reason his "best of indie games" yearly feature has gone away. He states:
"Two years ago, I wrote my first column celebrating the best indie games: small, offbeat titles, programmed usually by a single auteur and given away for free. I figured I'd make it an annual affair. For 12 months, I'd scour the net for independent games that had a spark -- some innovative bit of design or gameplay -- and gather a list of the top 10.

"But I've decided it's impossible.

"This is not because I can't find any games to praise. It's because I can find too many. Two years ago, the number of people making genuinely polished indie games was pretty small, numbering in the dozens or scores. A single columnist could reasonably hope to sample the year's offerings and make some picks."

I noted in December that the number of indie RPGs alone was very impressive - particularly for a genre known for its difficulty in development. Granted, not every one of them were big 30+ hour epics of story and character and world-exploration, but they are still not easy feats of development.

However, I think some of this "explosion" may be as much a matter of discovery and attention as an actual increase in releases. And part of the explosion of indie games is just a subset of the substantial growth in video gaming in general - indie gaming is just shadowing what big brother is doing. Chris Dahlen writes today in "What Indie Games Can Learn From Little Miss Sunshine" at GameSetWatch that indie games may actually not be that far off from mainstream... and when that happens, they may then truly explode.

So what does this mean to you?

Gamers
As a computer gamer, this is almost completely a Good Thing. Especially if you are a fan of a genre that is ill-served by the big publishers. Indie games are getting more press coverage these days, which means you are more likely than you were before to hear about the best indie games. Note that "more likely" is only an improvement over a wretched state of obscurity before. The quality of the best indie games will improve.

Just look at how fans of traditional RPGs were served this year. We sometimes lamented the availability of good RPGs... and now... wow! There were more RPGs coming out of both indie and mainstream channels than I have time to play!

On the downside, you will also have to deal with brain-crippling choices without so much guidance (for a while) as to what's worth your time to even bother to download and play. And this means suffering through a bit more crap - and believe me, your definition of "crap" can reach new lows with indie game. I love them, but a friend put it this way the other day: "If you rate mainstream games an a scale of 6-10, then the ratings for indie games go all the way from 1 to 12."

So - you'll have to go through more work, and suffer through some more lousy game demos. The nice operative word there is "demo" - almost all indie games let you try them for free before you buy them, so you'll be more reasonably assured that your money is going someplace that will yield a decent entertainment value.

As a console gamer, you'll continue to enjoy the screening the big companies have given you. This means you'll have to deal with a lot fewer bad games, but you will also not see a bunch of the rough gems and brilliant-yet-flawed ideas that the computer gamers enjoy. But many of "the best" will make their way to the consoles where you can enjoy them at a budget price.

Game Publishers
If you are a game publisher - well, look no further than the success of Portal to see what kind of benefits indie gaming can bring. The indie gaming field is becoming Darwin's playground, and you can try to pillage the best ideas, perhaps hire / contract the best developers, and sign on the best games to add to your stable of releases. The best PC indie games have made the transition to console several times already, and I expect that trend to continue. There are lots of ways publishers can take advantage of the rise of indie games.

On the flip side, some publishers will try to fight the indies, because indie games are once again rising to challenge mainstream as serious competition. We saw this back in the glory days of Doom and Duke Nukem, and I think we're seeing it again. If indie games get the kind of visibility they need, they will raise the challenge to the big boys for the consumer dollar.

Not that mainstream publishers really need to fear the indies, but they would be best off to figure the indies in their plans, if they aren't already.

Game Developers
On the plus side for game developers, the surge in indie gaming means more media attention, and greater benefit for the top games. The pie grows. This much is a good thing. Tools, engines, content, and services will also target the "indie price range" more. In fact, I think this is part of the reason we're seeing the growth of indie games now (though it's insignificant compared to the rise of digital distribution).

This also means more competition, a lot more games fighting for attention, and a lot more... well, cruddy games choking up the limited attention of gamers. Whether ad-supported or traditionally sold to consumers, more indie games means things become ever more hit-driven and niche-driven. The bar for quality is going to go up, and the "average" indie game is going to be a commercial failure.

Portals of various kinds will continue to rise, some will fall. What we've seen happen in the "casual" arena will occur along other lines and business models - as we're seeing now with Manifesto Games, InstantAction, and Kongregate. Whether that's good or bad will depend upon how the developer plays their cards.

Indie developers - besides having to make either higher quality (read: more expensive) or more targeted games - will also have to become more business and media savvy, in order to help get their games noticed in the crowd. And yeah - we're gonna see more and more "indies" that more closely resemble their "non-indie" cousins. The line between "indie" and "non-indie", as fuzzy and ill-defined as it already is, will be further blurred.

We are facing some interesting times, to say say the least.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008
 
Cooper Lawrence Admits Mistake Over Mass Effect Sex Scene
According to an interview Friday with the New York Times (link likely to get archived in the near future), Cooper Lawrence - the "expert opinion" used by Fox News Live Desk to speak out against the console RPG Mass Effect, treating it as pornography, has admitted that she was mistaken and misinformed. She states:
"I recognize that I misspoke. I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke. Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had heard, and they had said it’s like pornography. But it’s not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit."
Score one for the truth.

And score one for Ms. Lawrence. My opinion of her just shot up several points. Yes, she was stupid to have not done her research on the subject before the show. She let herself be manipulated by Fox News. But at least she took two and a half hours of time to research the subject after the fact, and then made the effort to admit her mistake, publicize her apology, and to do what she could to correct it.

Okay, so she's not said anything yet about her misunderstanding about the game-playing demographic (where she stated her opinion as fact that parents don't play video games, only their children... another blatantly false bit of misinformation that she should have done her research on first). Or anything about her claims that some U of Maryland study proves boys can't tell the difference between video games and reality - what the heck was that about? And maybe her actions were motivated by legions of gamers trashing her book ratings on Amazon.com, in their own non-violent version of mob justice (which I think everyone understood would eventually blow over).

I still think it took both guts and class for her to come out with this apology and correction, and I commend her for it.

Fox News Live Desk, for its part, so far seems to be just waiting for things to blow over. Requests for correction have gone unanswered, though they have invited a representative from Electronic Arts to appear on the show. Considering that they have proven that they will just make up allegations out of the blue and hurl them at people, and then cut them off when they try to deny whatever line of garbage Fox News had invented, I can understand EA being a little bit hesitant to accept the invitation.

I gotta say, it's entertaining to speculate as to what might happen next. And I doubt sales of Mass Effect were noticeably damaged by the rumor of it having pornographic content.

So - why was Fox News so eager to trash one of the best-selling games of the season? Are games just such a convenient, politically powerless target for a random sensationalist piece? Or do they actually feel threatened by this rapidly maturing medium, and are actively looking for opportunities to manipulate public opinion against what they perceive as competition? Or a little of both?

And will gamers reciprocate and retract their attacks against her book?

UPDATE: For further hilarity - when it is obvious to Jack Thompson that the whole thing is a load of manure, saying "This contrived controversy is absolutely ridiculous," you know Fox News has really topped itself.


A tip o' the hat to GamePolitics.com and Kotaku for this update.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008
 
Game Vs. Game: Aveyond 2 versus Eschalon Book 1
Two well-anticipated indie RPGs were released at the end of last year - Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest and Eschalon: Book 1. Both are excellent role-playing games, both feature turn-based combat, but they are extremely different in style.

So I put up a poll on the forums - which one do you prefer? For whatever reason - quality, style, graphics - I'm kinda curious as to what sort of games YOU are into. Vote in the poll, discuss it in the thread, and let your opinion by known!

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest is a cute, funny, more "casual" RPG borrowing heavily from the old 16-bit console jRPGs of the Super Nintendo / Genesis / early Playstation era. It's highly story-driven, party-based, and has turn-based combat. Its inspiration is clearly drawn from games like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series, among many others.




Eschalon: Book 1 instead goes into the more hardcore western RPG, claiming influences from classics like Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry. It's a lot lighter on story, and heavier on open-ended exploration, game mechanics, and character customization.




Vote In the Poll: Aveyond Vs. Eschalon

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Friday, January 25, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: Please Don't Swim In Our Toilet
More words from the development diary of the fantasy/comedy indie RPG Frayed Knights - coming sooner than I'm comfortable with to a hard drive near you, if you are crazy enough to volunteer for the alpha test of Chapter 1.

A Deadline Approaches!
I realized earlier this week that I was down to "40 days and 40 nights" remaining before our contest entry - Chapter 1 of Frayed Knights - is due. Bearing that in mind, we've had to make some difficult scoping decisions. The wilderness land between the temple of Pokmor Xang is likely gone (for now). It's not that it's hard to throw in an extra zone into the game... we could whip out a big empty wilderness full of random encounters in a day. But --- that's not what we're going for.

I mean, we can't do state-of-the-art graphics, elaborate animation, or voice-overs by name actors. But we think we can approach the vicinity of "fun" and "interesting" and "exciting." A big empty wilderness area isn't any of the three, IMO. Our plan is to have the wilderness areas packed with a high density of "mini-adventures." Some will involve smaller interior locations of a handful of rooms (much smaller than Pokmor Xang's temple). Others may be location-based - a buried treasure you find from a map / clue somewhere else in the game, a little micro-story / mystery, or whatnot. Some will tie in to other parts of the game, others will be stand-alone.

We Don't Swim In Your Toilet, So Please Don't Pee In Our Pool
And so there I go talking about what's NOT gonna be in Chapter 1. Unless it gets added later due to feedback on the alpha demo. So let's talk about what we are currently working on...

I spent a little too much time this week ruining a perfectly good dungeon by creating the Pokmor Xang meditation-room pool. I include a render here. It still needs some tweaking - there's a texture anomaly on the metal decoration (based on the Pokmor Xang symbol James McEwan came up with, sans the full "biohazard" symbology). Yes, it is a pool! A strangely shaped pool. I know, my skillz as a 3D modeler are truly 133t. And you may say it resembles some other device known for holding liquid, but I assure you - it is NOT, and such devices did not exist in medieval society.

But it makes it all the funnier when Dirk has to swim in it.

Not that he has to, actually. That's an optional part of the dungeon adventure. You may, in fact, save yourself some amount of grief if you don't. But with great grief comes some mediocre jokes and a little bit o' loot, so... your call.

Here's a screenshot looking upon it from the balcony above, so you can see what it looks like in-game. Yeah, not as cool as the Pokmor Xang statue, I guess. But that comes later. Maybe I should have some discarded magazines scattered about the benches.

Playing Through
I did a play-through of the Pokmor Xang dungeon, which is still lacking some content (and lacking some equipment, some spells, and all drama star effects, and the ability to drink healing potions). I skipped about half of the combat encounters with a cheat code, explored - VERY quickly - all of the rooms, clicked on everything that could be clicked (but didn't really read the descriptions). Total time for play-through: Approximately 40 minutes. This means, once everything is in place and someone doesn't cheat their way through half the fights, I think a first-time play through should actually be about an hour for the dungeon. This sounds about right for me.

I already talked earlier this week about the secret doors. There's only one in this dungeon, but I hope there will be plenty more in others. I'm pleased to have those in place - those were on the list for potentially being scrapped (at least for the contest).

I started work on the buying / selling interface this week as well. It doesn't actually work, yet, but the prototype UI is there, based heavily upon the inventory UI.

Random Yet Predictable
Frayed Knights is consuming my waking hours, and I've found it has turned me into a horrible conversationalists. What else do I tak about? People ask me how was my weekend, and I all I can do is tell them how many hours I spent in the Temple of Pokmor Xang balancing out combat encounter difficulty, affixing torches to the walls, and building locks.

It really makes dinners with relatives extremely entertaining - from my perspective, at least. I love seeing their deer-in-the-headlights expressions as I can practically hear them thinking, "how to I politely excuse myself from the crazy man?"

One thing I've noticed, while balancing combat, is the tug-of-war between randomness and predictability. (See, this is the sort of thing I bring up during dinner discussions. I can practically hear what you are thinking right now.)

Players want predictability. Predictability gives the player control. Randomness reduces that control. But it also keeps things interesting. My probability model follows (perhaps a bit too closely) standard dice-rolling loveliness of tabletop gaming, and while it yields fairly predictable results over the long term, in the short term it leads to very erratic fights. Nothing torques off a magic user in D&D (for example) more than having their awesome uber-spell completely negated due to spell resistance or a good saving throw. Likewise, players hate times when they have an 85% chance of completely ignoring a save-or-die effect, and they blow their save.

However, players (at least secretly or subconsciously) love the CHANCE of having the spectacular failures. The risk that the next die roll could be your last... well, until you get a resurrection. But they want to be on the "lucky" side of that risk. Every time. They want to be the person who takes the long shots - and pulls it off. The risk and randomness is all very exciting - but you want it to pay off more often than probability says it should.

So I'm re-looking at how combat works (again) in Frayed Knights. Should I normalize the results a bit more? Skew everything even more tightly towards the middle? Part of that would include making "hits" far more frequent than misses. The original rules called for a slightly better than 50% chance of hitting against an equally matched opponent - which is actually, IMO as a former fencer and medievalist, really too high (at least for the kinds of melee combat I'm familiar with). But missing is boring. And makes combats too random.

I've skewed attacks now so they occur a little more frequently, but now I'm trying to make decisions about damage. Should they be more normalized? It feels weird when, during a round of combat, Arianna lands a pathetic 2-point hit, followed by Chloe who - in spite of being much weaker than Arianna and a less skilled combatant - does five times that damage on her own hit. Granted, if you graph the hits over the long term, you'll find that Arianna hits far more often, and averages about 2 points of damage per hit more than Chloe in melee. But - that random spread makes things feel too random.

So I may be doing more tinkering.

"To Do: Slap Together a Game"
The "to do" list is truly staggering, even without the wilderness. I spent time this week making sure we'd have music and all the remaining artwork that will be required for the game. Characters / character models are the principle area we're struggling with right now. Aside from that, from a content perspective, I'm looking forward to (and working towards) the stuff we're going to be doing after the contest. But the contest is going to take precedence for the next two months.

Upcoming for this week - more of the same:
Man. I am getting tired just looking at that list. But I think we're down to about 36 days as of today, so... I'd best get cracking. But if I could actually manage to knock out the majority of what's on the list, we'll be in AWESOME shape.

'Till next week!


(Vaguely) related delves into metaphorical dungeons:
* Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters
* Disappointment In the Demonweb Pits
* Frayed Knights: Twisty Paths and Flickering Torchlight
* Waiter! Why Is My Dungeon Stale?
* What's the Difference Between Adventure, Puzzle, and Role-Playing Games?


Discuss Dungeon Plumbing On The Forum Thread!

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Reminder: XFire Debate Panel on Indie Games Today
Hey guys - just wanted to remind you about this coming up this afternoon:

The XFire Debate Club Presents: The State of Independent Games

Yours truly will be on the panel, as well as several other notables as you can see on the site. Here's a chance to throw some tough questions at your favorite indie game developers. Download XFire and attend if you can (it's during work hours here in Utah), or view the transcript later if you can't.

It'll be at 5:00 PM Eastern, which is 3:00 Mountain and 2:00 PM Pacific. And something else o'clock somewhere....

Notables include Amanda Fitch (Aveyond), Jenova Chen (flOw), Corvus Elrod (Man Bytes Blog), Josiah Pisiotta (Gish), Chris Pasley (kongregate.com), and Nils-Holger Henning (www.bigpoint.net). John Bardinelli (JayIsGames among other gaming sites) is moderating.

Be there! Or be somewhere else!

Oh, and I'm RampantCoyote, if you wanna add me to your list or anything :)

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Thursday, January 24, 2008
 
Guest Post: Fatal Hearts Review
Note: This isn't a review site, though I give my opinion often enough. However, in this case, game journalist, blogger, and good friend JanaLee Stocks (AKA JenaRey) had something a little more playful in mind in addition to her "official" review for the mainstream gaming sites. So - I'm turning over the microphone to her to talk a little bit about Fatal Hearts, the latest game from Hanako Games (of Cute Knight fame).

Fatal Hearts Review

I blame, Jay. No, seriously…it's all his fault. If it wasn't for him I likely never would have found Fatal Hearts, and thus my life would still be my own instead of feverishly clicking on the next dialogue because I simply MUST know what happens this time. My house is a mess but I can't take the time to clean it. Will I find out who is the mysterious stranger in my dreams? Will I join the Wolfriemen? Will I die in my sleep? *whimper*

It's all Jay's fault.

Okay, so maybe it's not Jay's fault, but it's definitely Georgina's who is the chief cook and bottlewasher when it comes to the game Fatal Hearts. It's a clever piece that's a cross between a typical adventure game and a wonderfully written choose your own adventure book. Like most adventure games there are sections where there's stuff to click on (though no pixel hunting, thankfully) and clues to find all combined with a variety of puzzles and plenty of NPC interaction.

The game tells the story of pretty fifteen and a half year old Christina who is having funky dreams (pretty boy mysterious strangers, hubba hubba!) and finds herself in the center of a supernatural drama and only four chapters to decide who will live and who will die, herself included. As Christina you have the opportunity to make choices all through out the game that will take the story in different directions. Do you get into the car with a strange boy? Do you tell the police what you saw in the forest? Do you lie to your mother? This one was strangely difficult to click on. I think I've been so thoroughly brainwashed by my own mother to never lie to her, so it was a hard choice even in a game. The dialogue and action trees are so perfect for a typical teenager that I found myself regressing about fifteen years. There was squealing even…I'm not proud, but there you have it. Even small things - like a discussion about what you want to be when you grow up - can have a significant impact on where you end the game (at any of its 14 end points).

The puzzles in the game are hugely fun and get more complex every time you come across them. I adore the number of different types of puzzles that are represented because they keep me from getting bored. Even better is the fact there's a strategy guide that comes with the game which features cheat codes. I love a good puzzle, but there are some that just don't have as much appeal for me. Like driving Jeremy's car, which connects with a spasmodic part of my brain and all I can do is run into buildings and die. Over and over and over… after about fifteen minutes of frustration it was nice to be able to use the code to skip over that puzzle. It was the only one I skipped without having finished it at least once. Some of the others I skipped on the fourth or fifth iteration because I'd already beaten them and knew they took forever and I wanted to get back to the story. Sue me.

Maybe the very best part of this game was the fact it sucked in my mother. I'm not revealing her age, but neither of us are fifteen anymore. She'd come for a visit to help me assemble wedding invitations and saw what looked like a Sudoku puzzle on the screen. And we have a conversation that goes like this:

Her: "What's that?"

Me: "Just this game I'm reviewing."

Her: "It looks like sudoku."

Me: "This puzzle is."

Her: "The bottom row is wrong."

Me: "No it's not."

Her: "Is so. If you do it that way then these other two boxes don't work."

Me: "…"

Her: "Can you start the puzzle over again?"

Me: "Yep."

Her: "Good…put the one that looks like a devil guy right there…"

So we work the puzzle together and she gets sucked into the story too. We finish that ending.

Her: "That was a stupid ending! I don't want to be the vampire bride. It says ending 04 of 14. Start the game again!"

On the second time through she makes the choices for Christina. Right up until she has to go visit my sister and the sick grandkids. Mom doesn't want to leave because she wants to know how it ends, but she must. So she calls me a couple of hours later, demanding to know in detail what happened.

I think Mom's getting an early mother's day present.

So there it is. Excellent game. Low learning curve. Romance, action, supernatural critters, death, sacrifice, malls… who could ask for more?

Now all of you nice people go away and buy your own copies. Christina has just made chocolate chip cookies for the seventh time and I'm hungry.

Obligatory Numeric Scores:
Puzzle variety: 9
Teenage girl regression: 10
Hunky mysterious strangers: 10
Dramatic Supernatural Story: 10
Stupid Jeremy's car: -2
Times I'm going to play this game: 14+


Fatal Hearts is available from RampantGames.com

Jana's gaming blog is Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes. Besides being fully in touch with her inner fifteen-year-old, she also seems to have a thing for the hyperkinetic rabbity-thing in the Sam & Max adventures, and pretending to be a rock diva in Rock Band and Guitar Hero.


(Vaguely) related... stuff
* Aveyond 2 and Fatal Hearts
* Cute Knight Deluxe Available From Rampant Games
* The Power of Text in Gaming

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GameTunnel to End Yearly Awards?
It looks like there may be no chance for Frayed Knights to win the 2008 Indie RPG of the Year award from GameTunnel.com (somehow managing to steal the cup from The Broken Hourglass, Age of Decadence, and Maybe even Cute-Knight-2-If-Hanako-Gets-To-It-This-Year...), because there may not be one.

In an interview at IndieGames.com, Russell Carroll, marketing director for Reflexive and owner of GameTunnel, he suggests that the extreme effort may no longer be worthwhile. "The awards each year are nothing short of a nightmare. I spend all my Saturdays on them, I work all night after coming from work on them and I take paid time off work to do them... Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the 2007 awards came off to the sound of crickets. Major websites, such as Slashdot, which in the past have given us front page coverage, didn't cover us at all, not even in their games section. Watching stories about rumors and cakes in the shape of a DS showing up on all the major game blog sites while the awards were not covered was initially devastating."

While there may be something like a top ten list in the future, his current opinion is that the event, as it has run in the past, is over. "When I see toast that is scraped off to look like Pac-Man making the news on Kotaku and the top indie games of the year not getting a mention it really gives you some perspective about what you are spending your time on, and for me, I think it's likely I spent too much time on my awards this year. This was the 6th year of awards, so I've got a fairly set path I follow. I made all the same steps, but we saw less than 1/10th of the visitors. It's unfortunate, but it's been a good run."

So the big question in my mind is: Is this indicative of the state of indie games, or the state of GameTunnel? Are people less interested in the indie gaming scene now, because "casual" has now split off into its own field and become mainstream, and people are getting their small, cheap game fix on the XBox 360, or are people just paying attention to other sites? I know I, for one, have been very pleased with the increase in coverage of indie games on the more major game sites, though I attribute that as much to the dearth of hardcore games on the PC as anything else.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008
 
Jeff Vogel Interview at GameBanshee
There's an interview on GameBanshee with Spiderweb Software founder Jeff Vogel. What's interesting about this interview is that it seems to have much more of a developer-centric focus. Would-be RPG developers (who, me?) should pay attention!

A fascinating couple of excerpts:
"I never really enjoyed (making RPGs). I thought I would. When I wrote the engine for our first game, all those years ago, I was really looking forward to making the world. That, I thought, would be the fun. Then, fifteen minutes into designing the first town, I thought, `Wow. This sucks.' And it hasn't improved much since then."

"Don't get me wrong. I love nice graphics as much as the next guy. I make our games as pretty as I can. I'm not ideologically attached to low-budget games. It's just all I can do. But if someone wants a pretty game, I will not be able to please that person. And if I spend a bunch of money and an extra year making a game as pretty as I possibly can, I still will not please that person... There is one thing I can do: Make a cool adventure in a cool world. So I do that."
Of course, he does talk about Avernum V, now available for the Mac and coming soon to the PC. If interested, go check it out!

Spiderweb Software Interview at GameBanshee

(Vaguely) related stuff I found the other day:
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance
* Is There Hope for Indie Computer RPGs?
.

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By Fox News Standards, Top Gun Was Porn
This was all over the web over the last day or so. On Monday, Fox News Live Desk effectively fell for what I'd consider a hoax. The ol' telephone game has taken place, and a short love scene from Mass Effect, regarded by everyone who's actually played the game as more tasteful than what you'd see in many rated "R" movies, has been trumped up by certain ill-informed non-gaming voices into being some gigantic porn simulator.

Fox News took that at face value, swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, and produced a pretty embarrassingly bad pretense at journalism. And they roped poor Geoff Keighley into it.

Unfortunately, it looks like Geoff was suckered into the classic "Have Your Quit Beating Your Wife?" question. While he thought the question was about the love scene in question in a rated "M" game, the REAL question they were asking was, "Why do you think this interactive porn game is appropriate for 13-year-old boys?"

So he tried to play a defensive game, the sole person in the segment actually concerned with getting facts straight, while everyone else was laughing off his question as to whether or not they actually played the game and knew what the hell they were talking about.

I haven't played Mass Effect, so I probably don't know any better than the talking heads what I'm talking about. But I have seen the scene in question, which left almost everything to the imagination - quite to the contrary of MacCallum's allegation - and was less steamy and not much more graphic than the love scene in the movie Top Gun. Now unless there's some hidden Hot Coffee-esque secret version that I've missed (and, knowing gamers, if there was we would have heard about it by now in graphic detail...), Fox News was really just making crap up. At a certain point, people, what you call an "exaggeration" is indeed a lie.

And then Cooper Lawrence chimed in with some 1981-era demographic knowledge by claiming that even grown-ups were buying it, they certainly weren't playing it. Right. And before you know it, TV shows are going to show couples sleeping in the same bed and lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it.

Now, I'm not going to defend the appropriateness of the love scene in Mass Effect. As far as I know, it's a gratuitous bit thrown in to stir up exactly this kind of controversy (and to send sales through the roof). But the incredibly shoddy journalism and double standards shown by Fox News Live Desk is just begging to be mocked.

And my sympathy goes out to Geoff Keighley. The battle was unwinnable. Maybe he would have scored more points if he went on the offensive and said, "Are you both on DRUGS? What game are you talking about here? Where can I buy this porn simulator you guys are referring to, because I've played all through Mass Effect and all I got was one two-minute PG-13-ish love scene!" But he might not be invited back, and there are undoubtedly less stupid battles to be fought in the future.

I guess with the writer's strike still ongoing, people are desperate for fiction on TV.

UPDATE (7/24): EA (Now owner of Bioware) has sent a letter to Fox News requesting that they retract their blatant falsehoods, explaining very clearly exactly where they were ... shall we charitably say, "misinformed?"

Story At Kotaku

The silly thing about this is that the Live Desk segment, while increasing the bizarre (but, I hope, increasingly marginal and impotent) anti-videogame hysteria amongst similarly misinformed viewers, probably helped give Mass Effect's sales a nice boost. A public retraction would probably do the same. So EA, Bioware, and Microsoft are probably enjoying a win / win scenario.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, January 22
Just when you thought it was safe to visit Rampant Games again... here comes the Return of the Indie RPG News Roundups! I try to keep my ear to the ground, which at this particular moment in my neck of the woods is covered with a foot of snow - so it's a very cold, miserable job. But my pain is your gain! Here's what I've heard:


Depths of Peril
Not an HOUR after posting last week's update, Soldak sent me an email with more news about their award-winning action-RPG-with-depth (my label, not theirs), Depths of Peril. First of all, the 1.007 (that's right, double-oh-seven) is now official, and you can pick it up at the DoP Patch Page. Secondly, they have two new monster profiles up - for the Brute and the Wisp, which you can read about on the DoP Monster Profile Page.


The Adventures of Cendah
Swedish Indie Carl Karlsson of KingDiz Entertainment continues his retro-RPG efforts with a new indie RPG entitled, "The Adventures of Cendah." According to Carl, "The Demon Within was a project that went well, but the true purpose of it was to learn! I got a lot of feedback from it and since the engine I created wasn't even used to its limits. I decided to start a new project using that engine, but improved it according to the feedback I thought was useful. Some people were so impressed with the work I had started that they decided to help me out with some custom graphics and music!"

This may very well be the first "new" indie RPG release of 2008. The Adventures of Cendah includes three different towns with a unique quest for each, new spells and abilities, new items, new monsters, and new graphics. The demo is now available, and you can check it out at the KingDiz Website:

The Adventures of Cendah Playable Demo


Dungeon Crawl Tile Version

This is a graphical roguelike inspired by Linley's Dungeon Crawl. If you are familiar with roguelikes, you know what to expect. This game includes an insane number of races and classes, but I keep dying at an early level, so I can't really tell you the difference between them all with any kind of authority.

Download Dungeon Crawl Tile Version (Windows, and Linux)

(Source: JayIsGames)


Ultima VI Remake - The U6 Project
I normally do not cover game mods, but I'll make an exception this time. Fear and tremble, as it probably won't be the last time, either. RPGWatch has an interview with Jesse 'Zephyr' Strachman, who is heading up the U6 Project, a Dungeon Siege mod to re-create the classic Ultima VI. Maybe they'll fix it so that the pirate map segment of the game isn't so dang boring and annoying (I'm allowed to say that and still be considered an Ultima fan, right?). Those who are familiar with Ultima V Lazarus will be familiar with what they are trying to do.

Read the U6 Project Interview at RPGWatch


The Griffon Legend
"500 years after the Griffon-Dragon war, the Dragons have returned to reclaim their emipre. Cities are falling, everyone is dieing, and the lone Griffon Knight Fayne is caught up in the middle of it all."

The Griffon Legend is the first RPG completed using FreeBasic.

You can check out this indie Action-RPG here:
Download The Griffon Legend

(Source: JayIsGames)


Caverns of Underkeep
This is a free browser-based roguelike game currently in alpha - but playable and "mostly" complete, according to the developer, Joshua Smyth. Right now, it consists of only seven dungeon levels, but development is continuing on the project.

Play Caverns of Underkeep



UPDATE: Minions of Mirth - The Undead Wars Expansion Pack
A new expansion to the indie "hardcore" Massively Multiplayer RPG, Minions of Mirth (boasting 70,000 registered players... including yours truly), is due out in April. Titled "The Undead Wars," it is planned to include new monsters, zones, quests, items, and new / improved skills for mid-to-high level archetypes. More details will, I'm sure, be forthcoming. As always with Minions of Mirth, community members are very involved in the development of the expansion. Thanks, Prairie Games, for the reminder!

The Undead Wars Backstory

The Undead Wars Expansion Details


Aaaand - that's all I've got for now, folks. If you have tips on new indie computer RPGs (CRPGs) in late development, or recently released, gimme a holler either via email (jayb -- at, you know, rampantgames.com), or post it in this forum thread. Or you can post in the thread just to talk about these games, too - that's cool, too.


(Vaguely) related recent indie RPG news and foibles:
* Indie RPG News, January 16th
* Indie RPG News, December 26th
* Indie RPG News, December 12th
.

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Monday, January 21, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: Secret Doors
Just a little tidbit from the ongoing development of Frayed Knights:


That is not a graphics anomaly. That little area where it looks like the texture doesn't line up quite right is actually a secret door. There will be an automatic search that takes place near it to let you - the player - recognize that something is not quite right (assuming the search succeeds). Or you may recognize it visually.

It's minor, it's silly, but it gives me warm feelings inside. Some days, I look at how much work the game needs, and I think, "Oh, man, this thing will NEVER come together." Other days - like today - I get a minor little victory like this, and it's so cool that I think to myself, "This is gonna be the coolest game EVAR!!1!1!" It's nice to have one of those latter kinds of days once in a while.

I've had a couple of them this last week. This is a good thing. Maybe it's a sign. Or maybe its denial. I dunno which, but it makes me happy. And makes the crazy hours I'm putting in on this thing seem worthwhile.

I was just thinking back a little, and trying to recall how many non-indie RPGs (or indie RPGs, for that matter) of the last five or six years actually include secret doors like this. Not very many that I can think of. D&D Online is one of the few mainstream games to include them. I don't know if the concern is that the players will miss them entirely - and thus miss some of the laboriously-created content the developers have put in the game. Or if they were just too hard to implement in art (one reason NWN didn't have them until a later expansion).

And for your entertainment - another great use of secret doors.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
 
Game Credits - And Rock Band
I got Rock Band back from EA this week, and today I watched the credits. Before the "traditional" movie-style credits scrolled, they have everyone involved in the game at Harmonix pictured, in groups of two. The most fascinating thing was that it was done in alphabetical order, based on their first names. This way, interns and testers got billed ahead of producers or senior programmers. Actually, I think they had an office manager or two pictured, so maybe it was just everyone at their studio.

At SingleTrac we looked at some grandstanding being done by the producers at Sony (which was their job, of course - providing a human contact with the media), and decided to turn it - briefly - into a joke. While waiting for the official list of credits to come in, we included some stand-in text. As an internal joke, we had one Sony producer's name in for every job we could think of. Then we had a note tagged on at the bottom, "Oh, and some guys from SingleTrac helped." I don't remember if the Sony guys saw that version or not. If so, hopefully they took it good-naturedly.

When we were given the final credits list, we were amazed at the Sony credits. We had dozens of names of people we'd never even heard of, and we had no clue what they'd actually done on this game. It seemed like anybody who'd ever sat in a meeting once about this game had to go in the credits. Based upon sheer name count, our joke about "Some guys from SingleTrac helped" seemed quite appropriate in retrospect.

The issues of who gets credit and for what is a pretty big deal. Some have proposed standardization - as they do in movies. As I understand it, they have extremely rigorous rules for whose name goes where, and gets billed above someone else. I personally think that's an overkill, and I'd like to see studios free to attempt a more egalitarian approach like Rock Band's.

Of course, they still had more formal, standard credits appearing after the photo segment. That was possibly mandated by EA, so maybe including both was their way of getting around those restrictions.

But then how many people actually watch the credits in games? I like to see how they broke up different jobs on the team, and there's always a chance I will recognize somebody's name. But I expect that I'm in an eensy weensy minority of people that actually bother reading this stuff.

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Friday, January 18, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: Of Priests and Pus
Continuing the weekly report of the development of Frayed Knights, the comedy-based fantasy RPG...

A Ray of Sunshine
Every once in a while, the universe decides to quit kicking you when you are down, and give you a ray of hope. Maybe that's just so it'll hurt more when it kicks you again and dashes those hopes. But regardless of its purposes, it's great when it happens.

Earlier this week I bemoaned the state of content. Frayed Knights has been running behind, and I have been desperately trying to find ways to get it back on schedule. And I've been frantically trying to figure out how to get things done quickly -- and the "build or buy" decisions get complicated by the difficulties of adapting off-the-shelf content to match (insofar as possible on an indie budget).

Not 24 hours after I posted it, art resources from the other team members (who hadn't seen the blog post) began rolling in. Kevin delivered the Pokmor Xang dungeon "release candidate." And James had the pus golem rigged with some animations done, and was working on the Pokmor Xang priests.

Worshipping Pokmor Xang
We went the rounds on the priest, and while it's still a work-in-progress, I am very pleased with how it's shaping up. "Tickled" might be the operative word here. It took us a few iterations. The idea here was to make them at once comical but menacing. I mean, these guys worship a pus-god. The god of boils, blisters, and pimples. They are obviously very disturbed individuals. How do you explain that particular conversion to your friends and family. "Well, one morning I popped a zit, and the spray on the mirror was in the image of Happy Pokmor Xang. I knew at that moment it was a sign..."

In spite of the Happy P-X image, however, he's not a nice god. His clerics are not nice people. Maybe not quite as nasty as the goddess of disease, Neutoxis - these guys are kinda second-string nasty. Bush league evil. But they have aspirations and a need to overcompensate.

One idea I hit on was to give them wooden masks. Something between a big wooden tribal mask and a Michael Myers freaky psychotic killer look. For one thing, that allows us to keep using the same model over and over without there being a problem that the villains all look alike. And then, when I was actually having my daughter do some sketches for me, she asked, "Should they have pot-bellies?"

Perfect.

After a couple of failed attempts at modeling them on my own (I should stick with crates and doors), I handed them off to James, and he came up with something really pretty awesome. A few changes later, and we've got the awesome work-in-progress picture you can see here. At least, I think he's awesome. I especially like the holy symbol on the apron (which looks suspiciously like a bib - something else I love!) that James came up with. It's sort of a combination of a biohazard symbol (purely a coincidence, OF COURSE... just like the fountain that resembles a toilet), and a symbolic image of a bursting blister in a cup.

Yummy.

You can click on that picture to get more of an extreme close-up, if you can stomach the sight. He's not 100% complete, again, but except for his hands, most of his texturing is pretty close to complete. He mainly needs rigging and animation.

The Pus Golem
Speaking of yummy, we also have... the pus golem.

The pus golem isn't 100% complete either, but he's getting there. He's a shot of him outside his natural habitat, but since I was working on stuff in the town when I got him, it was just easier to put him there for his close-up. There's still some UV work that needs to be done before he's final, but we've got the rigging in and some of the animations.

Here's part of his idle animation, when he's silently roaring. Well, probably silently. He doesn't really breathe, but I guess he could possibly make some kind of slobbering, gurgling noise. Maybe we could record someone sucking the last of a milkshake out of a 32-ounce plastic cup or something. Or - since I have a cold right now - I could just record myself breathing. That might work...

I've already talked a bit about his creative process. Poor James had to spend too much time looking at pictures of pus while working on this guy.

The Dungeon Nears Completion
Kevin has done a pretty outstanding job on the Pokmor Xang dungeon. He's done a lot to break up the monotony of a couple dozen rooms. I have to say that - as much as I wanted Frayed Knights to shine - I wasn't really expecting it to look this good. So thank you, Kevin, for raising the bar and making us all have to do so much more work to make the rest of the game match...

In fact, it's so nice that I've had to make some storyline changes. See, the place wasn't originally created by the priests of Pokmor Xang. They are squatters. And there are some secrets to the dungeon that even THEY do not know about. And... if I have time to put it in... at least one secret that they do know about. And fear.

I have been working on fixing up the doors in the dungeon, including some nice double-doors (with animations) for several areas. At least *I* think they are nice. Considering my artistic ability has mainly progressed from "sucks" to "sucks less" (which I'm very proud of, BTW), it might not be that spectacular, but it works. And I love simple animations. They look sharp, and they are pretty trivial to do.

And More In The Village
And as far as the village people - I've been writing dialog. I love writing dialog at this time of year. Why? Well, it's fun, it's different, and I can do it in a notebook. The notebook thing is important, because it can be done sitting by the fire on a snowy night in my family room, instead of in my cold basement office huddled next to the space heater.

Due to my dependence upon text in this game, the dialog is a special challenge, one I'm not sure I'm entirely up to. The trick is making it (usually) funny, but also informative and moving the plot / story along. And there are moments (not many, but they are there) where the game actually approaches seriousness. In fact, Chapter 1 ends on a pretty tense note.

So I keep editing and iterating, and hope that what I end up with falls in the same zip code as funny. We'll see.

Managing
During the development of Void War - about three quarters of the way through - I noticed that my role kinda shifted from "some guy programming a game" to more of a management position. I found I spent half of my time on the phone or in emails with people. It was frustrating at the time, but the game made a ton of progress while I was doing that. I've begun to feel that way now. I hope that's a good sign.

'Cuz as of right about now we have approximately 70 days to get the Chapter 1 done. Or at least demo-able.

What I HOPE I manage to do this week is to put some more quality time in on the dungeon of Pokmor Xang. In a perfect world, I'd finish both it and Ardin Village in two weeks. I don't think I'm gonna make it, but I'm seeing that ray of hope.


(Vaguely) related revealing of too much information:
* On Making 3D
* The "Red Line" in Game Demos
* Frayed Knights: The Exploding Lock and Other Stories
* The Secret of Success? It's All In Your Mind(set)!


A Forum Thread! All About Priests and Pus! You Know You Wanna Look!

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Thursday, January 17, 2008
 
Aveyond 2 and Fatal Hearts
Rampant Games has two new titles available in the Adventure & Roleplaying section of the site... Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest and Fatal Hearts. One is an RPG, and the other is an adventure game - of a non-traditional sort.

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest is the next latest epic in Amaranth Games' role-playing game series, which began with the freeware Ahriman's Prophecy (link temporarily unavailable) and continued with the best-selling indie RPG Aveyond. The series uses the RPG Maker engine, and is reminiscent of the classic 16-bit SNES / Sega console RPGs of the early 90's. It has cute characters, lots of dialog, turn-based combat (and LOTS OF IT), a BIG storyline, and a very playful sense of humor that doesn't stop it from getting serious at times.

In Aveyond 2, you control a party centered around the main character, an elf named Ean. Ean comes from an elven community in a place called the Vale that has been magically secluded from the rest of the world. But when your best friend, Iya, disappears without a trace, and everyone's memory of her but your own has been completely erased - as if she'd never existed - it is up to you to leave the safety of the Vale and rescue her from the clutches of the Snow Queen. And that's only the beginning! Your quest soon gets you embroiled in events that threaten the entire world.

Many moons ago, I had an interview with Amanda Fitch, the creator of this game. She's an awesome person to chat with, and is frankly an example to me of what an indie game developer ought to be. She's driven, professional, and yet devoted to her community and fans. If you missed the interview, I recommend checking it out here:

Interview with Amanda Fitch

The other game is Fatal Hearts, by Hanako Games, the studio behind the other hit "casual" RPG, Cute Knight. I would describe Fatal Hearts as being more on the "Adventure Game" side of the fence, but even that doesn't begin to describe the game. It could be described as a "visual interactive novel" done in anime style.

For me, I draw the parallel with the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series of the 1980s - stuff I kinda grew up with, back in the days where the "home computer" concept was still waiting to catch on. Well, okay, I could play Zorks and Ultimas on my computer, but I still read / played the books. In the books, you'd read a page or two of story, and then you'd be presented with a choice. Your choice would have a page number you'd be instructed to turn to in order to continue the story.

Fatal Hearts does the same thing, but with the advantage of memory of past actions. So your actions may not have a major impact on the story immediately, but may come back to haunt you later. In addition to this, there are several challenge sections - often puzzles are clue-hunting adventure sections - that you may need to solve. For example, you may come across what appears to be a journal, but it is locked with a concentric-ring combination-lock style puzzle.

Fatal Heart's story deals with a fifteen-year-old girl with mysterious dreams, the supernatural, and murder. Because of its subject matter, it is not recommended for young children. The developer has recommended it for teens and above. And older male gamers like me might find it a little trickier to get in touch with their inner teenaged girl mindset of the game. But hey, I can imagine myself a battle-hardened athletic super-soldier with supernatural speed and resistance to damage in dozens of games, so how much more of a stretch is it?

I've interviewed Georgina Bensley, the principle designer / developer of Fatal Hearts, in the past. She complained before the interview that she didn't think she actually had anything interesting to say about herself, but then immediately proved herself wrong. If you missed the interview, you can catch it here:

Interview With Georgina Bensley

If either of the above game descriptions tickle your fancy and you feel you'd like to try them out, you can download the demos and try them out right away. Let us know what you think!

Download Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest

Download Fatal Hearts

(Vaguely) related opinions offered absolutely free and worth every penny:
* Aveyond 2 First Look
* What Makes a Good "Casual" RPG?
* Guest Post: Survey of Top Indie Graphic Adventure Games
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs


You can post comments here, or in the forums.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, January 16th
Indie Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs) - great taste, fewer calories!

Things were a little quiet over the holidays - unsurprisingly - on the indie RPG front. But with the new year we're starting to get some exciting news, and hopefully some new releases in the not-too-distant future. Not that I'm done playing last year's flood of indie RPGs. But here are some tidbits from the usual (and some unusual) suspects:

Depths of Peril
As previously mentioned, Depths of Peril was the winner of GameTunnel's Indie RPG of the Year award, as well as earning a second-place victory in GameTunnel's Top 10 Indie Games of the Year.

Soldak continues to work furiously to make a great game even better, and has two new patches available for this innovative action-RPG. The latest official patch is 1.006, and a beta patch 1.007 is now available as well. The list of fixes is surprisingly extensive, as I never noticed many of these issues with the original release. You can download both the official and the beta patch at Soldak's Patch Page.

2D Indie MMORPGs Ahoy!
Jerrath Online is a free indie MMORPG has apparently been kicking around for a couple of years, but it was news to me. It's a 2D game using the XTremeWorlds gaming engine, and includes quests and PVP action (if that floats your boat).

Kingdom of Auspiex
is another 2D MMO currently in "late alpha" stages, and in its current incarnation boasts over 300 NPCs and fifteen quests.

Source: rpgdx.net forums

Eschalon News
Eschalon: Book 1 has done an impressive job of making waves and getting itself noticed even amongst the more mainstream RPG community. Kudos to Basilisk Games for making both a great RPG and seriously shaking things up. Apparently, things have gone well enough that they are not only beginning design for the second game of the series, but they are tossing around ideas for another game series as well, in the style of Eye of the Beholder and Wizardry 8. Maybe after Book 3? The current thought is that Eschalon: Book 2 will remain a single-character game, allow female avatars this time around, and use a modified version of the Book 1 engine.

Basilisk is also holding fast to its design philosophy, stating, "We are staying old-school. Book II is going to be even more stat-heavy than the first game... We are not going to change our design philosophy or style; there are too many game companies who have tried to give everything to everyone and they destroyed their game(s) in the process."

RPGWatch has the complete scoop.

Scars of War
Gareth has a post up on the 3D character customization available in Scars of War. It's a lot of programmer shop-talk with other programmers, but the end results are pretty exciting. The player (and modders) should have a lot of fun opportunities tweaking their character's looks. Maybe it won't be as extensive as what you find in Oblivion or some other games, but it's still pretty impressive. As you can see in the screenshot, you can give Geraldo Rivera facial scars, without even throwing a chair at him!

Check out the complete article post (with many more screenshots) :
SoW - Character Customization

Deathspank
Ron Gilbert is interviewed at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. There's not too much about this upcoming (and "sounds indie to me!") RPG / Adventure, but a lot about his journey getting there.

Frayed Knights
Hey, if nobody will give me any news, I'll make my own! More details will be forthcoming on Friday, but after all the grousing on Monday about the difficulty of creating / buying enough 3D content for an RPG, the alpha version of the Pus Golem was delivered, as well as the final (read: Release Candidate) version of the Temple of Pokmor Xang. Expect awe-inspiring (or at least "ewwww!"-inducing) screen shots. But in case you missed them, here are discussions on the village of Ardin, and how a bug in the code made locks explode harmlessly when discovered.

Indie RPG Developers Speak! Or At Least Type.
Also, as a reminder, Amanda Fitch and Yours Truly will be panelists on Friday, January 25th, in the XFire Debate Club discussion at 2PM. The topic is "The State of Independent Games." Amanda is the principle designer / developer of Aveyond, Aveyond 2, and Grimm's Hatchery. You will need to download and use XFire to participate in the live discussion, but transcripts will be made available afterwards.


Aaaaand... that all for now. Got News? Please send it to me and I'll be happy to post it. Unless it makes me unhappy. But I might post it even then, because misery loves company and stuff.


(Vaguely) related news you might have missed:
* Indie RPG News Roundup, December 26th
* Indie RPG News Roundup, December 12th
*
Indie RPG News Roundup, December 5th

Got News? Got Comments? You Can Post 'Em In This Thread, Too!

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008
 
Shamus on Eschalon: Part 3
Shamus Young continues his multi-part / multi-day review of the indie RPG, "Eschalon: Book 1". This time, he delves into the intricities and eccentricities of Eschalon's character progression system.

Shamus Young: Eschalon Book 1 - Character Progression


Most of the discussion / complaints about this aspect of the game derive solely from tying in the automapping system to the cartography skill. I gotta admit, I'm not a fan of this decision, either. But overall, it's a very positive review of this aspect of the game.

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Expectations for Computer RPGs in 2008
RPG Codex has an article by Elwro entitled 2008: On the Horizon, listing out the expected computer RPG releases of this year.

The interesting stuff is in the details, as he briefly discusses mainstream RPGs (a Two Worlds expansion, Fallout 3, Drakensang, Space Siege, and many more), and indie developments (The Broken Hourglass, Avernum 5, Scars of War, and others... but no Frayed Knights? What a rip-off!). But 2008 looks extremely promising this year. As Elwro sums up: "2007 sung the first timid notes of the cRPG Renaissance tune; if indies deliver what they promise and bigger companies don't fall far behind, in 2008 this tune might transform into a triumphant full-scale Mahlerian roar."

I guess we'll see. It's definitely showing promise so far. I'm not even close to having finished all of the major indie & mainstream CRPG releases of LAST year, yet!

2008: On the Horizon at RPGCodex

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Monday, January 14, 2008
 
Flash Element TD 2
Oh, dear.

As if I needed another distraction.

Flash Element Tower Defense 2 is out.

New maps, new sounds, new graphics, same addictive save-for-better-interest-rate mechanic. And while it's done up more cutsey than past games, the quotes from the game have a little bit of bite. Like the red groupers complaining, "Safety in numbers, my a**!" In this one, they can pick up your elements and move them back to the starting point. If you kill them on the way home, they'll drop the element where they stood, making it a shorter path for the next creep to grab your stuff.

Besides the tower upgrades found in the original game, there are improved versions of the basic towers like those found in Vector TD. There's a store where you can buy things (like improved interest, or resetting your elements back to their starting positions) in-between rounds with tokens (not cash), while towers can be bought and upgraded with cash. Towers can also improve with experience, giving you more incentive to keep 'em around for a while.

All-in-all... this seems to be a dangerous little game. Very dangerous. Do Not Play. You have been warned.

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On Making 3D
I have come to the realization that, after Gutenberg's little gizmo put them out of work copying and illuminating documents, the medieval European monks might have found 3D texture art to have been a perfect match for their skills. Assuming 3D modeling was in line with their religious beliefs. And assuming they had 21st century computers at their disposal in the 15th.

In elementary school, I learned about why the different projections of a 2D map of the world were flawed, and how Greenland really wasn't as big as all of North America. But aside from that, I thought it was largely an academic exercise. Then I tried to keep straight lines straight on a (simulated) curvy object. Suddenly that third-grade geography lesson takes on a whole new meaning.

Two things I have discovered (repeatedly) is that:

#1 - Creating 3D content (or good 2D art, for that matter) is not easy.

#2 - The stylistic differences in off-the-shelf content packs render them almost totally incompatible. In case you haven't seen what I meant from the Frayed Knights screen shots, here's what I mean:


These guys look great on their own, but just cannot dwell on the same screen together. Unless it's Roger Rabbit World. This yields the inevitable conclusion:

#3 - If you are making a 3D game with a lot of content requirements, you are pretty much hosed.

Which is where I sit. I keep spending time trying to massage content instead of coding, trying to tweak textures, lighting, and models enough to make things not quite so eye-searingly bad.

And I continue to bump into my own limitations as a game developer. Yes, I've got 'em. Not just in content creation, but in coding too. This weekend I spent several hours in a forced education about Torque's animation system. All this just to get a character to cross a room and say something to the player. I tell myself it's black triangle work. Even this far into the project, there are black triangles to be drawn.

The bottom line is that creating a game is hard work, and if anybody goes into it already knowing everything there is to know, for which it is all a piece of cake, I've not met them. I've been at this for years, now, and some days I still feel like I am fighting for every five minutes of gameplay.

Incidentally - getting any of the above models and then spending some time on them in the modeling package of your choice, learning how really skilled artists built it, laid out the textures, and rigged the thing is a fascinating and extremely educational exercise. I recommend it if you have the slightest interest.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008
 
XFire Debate January 24th
Looks like I'm on the indie games panel along with some other familiar names on January 24th. You can take a look here:

Xfire Debate Club Presents: The State of Independent Games

Considering some of the others on the panel, I expect to be the least valuable contributor of useful info of the bunch. But it sounds like it's going to be a very interesting time!

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Friday, January 11, 2008
 
Shamus on Random Loot and Text Joy
Now, I know that Shamus Young and I do not have identical tastes. But his commentary today on text and random loot in Eschalon: Book 1 makes me wonder if we were really twins separated at birth. If so, he got the gift for writing (and webcomics) of the family, leaving me stuck with the sex appeal. Bummer.

A choice quote:
"Eschalon Book I reminded me of how useful the text window can be and how much we’ve been missing out with newer games. Words are powerful. Words are potent. Words are so powerful that you can run an entire tabletop game and relate a new, unfamiliar world using nothing but text which you read aloud (or make up on the spot) and convey everything the players need to know. Visuals complement text nicely, but visuals in lieu of text can deprive the player of tremendous depth and subtlety. That’s fine if you’re playing a quick game of “Kill the Monsters and Take Their Stuff“, but most games aspire to be something deeper. And nothing adds depth like well-written prose."
Preach On, Twin Brother Young!

Eschalon Book 1: Text, Economy, and Random Numbers

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Frayed Knights - To Raise a Village...
Another installment of the best-selling*, critically-acclaimed** weekly development series on the creation of the 3D comedy-based fantasy RPG, Frayed Knights. This week... it takes a dev team to raise a village. And a single dragon to raze a village, I guess, but we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we?

The Temple of Pokmor Xang isn't yet completed, as I mentioned last week. But the principle path through the dungeon is working. Events fire as they should, and you can complete the quest. But there's not a lot of loot, the combat is still way too hard and not very fun yet, and certain things aren't working yet (like using a potion in combat). Work is still progressing, but I've decided to make it a secondary priority.

January is the month to get the Village of Ardin completed. In an effort to kinda-sorta stick to the original schedule and not fall too far behind (or at least gauge how far behind we really are), I've been putting effort into that. Worst-case scenario, the wilderness area can be cut or abbreviated next month (which is a short month, anyway). If I can somehow manage to get both Pokmor Xang and Ardin done this month, I'm golden, right?

Yeah. And while I'm at it, maybe I can model some 3D monsters in my sleep, too. It could happen. I've managed to model some monstrosities while sleepy, which is close, right?

What I'm On The Hook For
For the purpose of the April public milestone ("Chapter 1"), I've got to get the following pieces done:
* The village itself - buildings, terrain, passage between zones, various props and vegetation
* Story-based events that occur when you arrive in the village
* Characters and certain plotlines that are supposed to be introduced in chapter 1, even though they don't really become part of the story until later.
* Trading / sales. For right now, there'll be a general store that may have some limits to what can be bought and sold (limiting my hypocrisy). I'm still up in the air about other trading options (like with the other adventurers in town).
* A certain change in party membership occurs.
* Miscellaneous interactives, like working doors and stuff like that.

You arrive in the town in the evening (yes, linear, on-rails crap... I'm a terrible, terrible game designer), so most of the shops are closed. Chapter 1 ends after a dramatic event happens (yes, more terrible on-rails stuff) and you return to your inn room to sleep off the horrors of your last adventure.


What I've Been Working On
This week, I've mostly felt like I've been spending money. I've been using a lot of off-the-shelf content packs - some free, some cheap-but-still-costing-me-hundreds-all-together - to at least get the gameplay in place. I'm hoping there'll be time to go through and replace or clean up the worst stand-in stuff later once we've got stuff nailed down.

I'm using content packs from GarageGames, DexSoft, Cubix Studio, 3DRT, FruitBatInShades, Adam DeGrandis, MMOWorkshop, and BlattSalat. Kudos to all of these vendors for their stuff. I'm also not entirely pleased with one vendor who is apparently still active (and reputable - I know of others who have used their stuff), but has a broken shopping cart that isn't properly integrated with PayPal and aren't responding on their support emails. I guess the next step is to escalate things through PayPal. Vendors - please be responsive, and check your email at least once every couple of days.

I had a nice chance to play with the terrain, construct a waterfall (which I'm still not happy with), get the sunset's reflection on the water (partly obscured by the mist rolling in), place buildings and walls, and otherwise do nifty level-designer things, which makes my programmer-brain happy, as it gets to take the night off when I do that.

One problem I did run into was misjudging the scale. Working with the camera and a bird's-eye view, I accidentally made the village too large. By about double. As you can partly see in the screenshot. So I'm working on tightening things up and putting more buildings on the east side of the river. While in real life I enjoy walking just for the exercise, my general rule of thumb is not to force the player to walk too far without having something interesting to do. A minute-long trip between buildings isn't my idea of fun, even if it would be more realistic.

About the Village of Ardin
The village of Ardin was - until recently - a sleepy little farming community on the river nestled in a comfortable dale. A few former adventurers and veterans of the military helped keep the village prepared for monster attacks, and kept the pesky weed-goblins from getting too aggressive. It was a quiet, comfortable land of mild seasons, good harvests, tasty fishing, and humble pleasures.

Then some adventurers found gold in one of the nearby dungeons, and everything went to pot.

Now the village has been transformed into the equivalent of an American 1800's "Gold Rush" community, with adventurers filling the hastily-expanded local inn. The villagers resented the intrusion and the drain on their resources at first, but adventurers bring good coin, so after inflating their prices they've reached some kind of equilibrium. They have also learned the disturbing truth not to get too attached to these visitors - too many never return from their expeditions.

And so it is for the Frayed Knights.


(Vaguely) related stories of dread and woe
* The Exploding Lock and Other Stories
* Cartographic Incompetence and Dirk's Interview
*
Save Me, You Jerks!

Hey! A Forum Thread On This!

* Hard to determine exactly, since division by zero (free) is technically not a legal mathematical operation.
** It's true. Somebody critical said something nice about us, I think.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008
 
Shamus Young Tackles Eschalon: Book 1
The always-readable Shamus Young (of DM of the Rings and Chainmail Bikini fame) is reviewing the indie RPG Eschalon: Book 1.

The first part of his review is here.

He tends to do reviews in several parts, so be sure and check in over the next few days for more updates. An excerpt from today's review:
"So Eschalon: Book I is a rare breed of game in this day and age. It revisits gameplay mechanics which have been slowly supplanted or abandoned over the last decade or so. If you’re nostalgic for the old days or want to see what you missed, this is a pretty good example of what RPG’s were like before polygons ruled the world."
So far, he seems to like the open-endedness of the game - a nice change of pace from the overwhelming "plot doors" he's railed about in the past.


(Vaguely) related transgressions against the blogosphere:
* Initial Scouting Report - Eschalon: Book 1
* Eschalon: Book 1 First Impressions
* Eschalon: Book 1 Released
.
*

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Leveling Up Without Killing
WOW Insider has an article about a guy who is attempting to level up two World of Warcraft characters to level 70 without intentionally killing anything. Which is not only hard to do - it's too easy to accidentally kill / engage something in combat.

I won't go into too many details, because it's pretty WoW-specific.

15 Minutes of Fame: Noor the Pacifist

This made me think - as I often do - about combat in RPGs. Combat has been the primary source of experience in RPGs forever (with possible exceptions in games like Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness games... though even those tended to get into slug-fests in many adventures. In Call of Cthulhu, said slugs may be ten feet tall with tentacles, too...).

The main reason is that combat is where the greatest risks are taken. Mortal Peril is exciting, even if the actual gameplay risk is only reloading the saved game or taking on some XP debt when you respawn. If most XP was made going to a university class or studying at the library, that would probably not lead to an exciting game. The greater risk should lead to the greater reward, right?

Probably. Except for ... well, the exceptions. You can look at Cute Knight or The Sims or several other games (most not RPGs) for some exceptions. Even so, building up my fighting skills in the classroom in Cute Knight isn't as much fun as diving down into the ol' dungeon beneath the city and putting them to the test.

In MMORPGs, it's an even trickier proposition. It's all about increasing character power, as opposed to any kind of overarching storyline (you can't complete the story, because that would ruin it for all the other players). And players have demonstrated - repeatedly - that they will choose the most boring way to play the game to achieve that end goal. It's all about the path of least resistance. So designers are constantly fighting to make sure that the best payoffs come with the riskiest actions (both to slow down advancement and to encourage players to actually do something exciting).

Still - it's clear this guy is engaging in risky PvP actions, and is having fun trying to level up a pair of pacifist characters. So fun and risk are both happening. Without him intentionally killing anything, or building up his rogue's combat skills.

It's something to think about. Not that I'd want to get rid of combat altogether in RPGs (perish the thought! In fact, shoot it again to make sure it's fully perished!). But what sort of things could be added to RPGs to make non-combat activities more exciting, risky on some levels (if not to life and limb, then to other game-critical elements), and worthy of nice upgrade / leveling-up potential?

Discuss This Topic In the Forum! It May Increase Your Sex Appeal!*



(Vaguely) related ponderous ponderings:
(Tip o' the hat to GamePolitics for the above link.)

* And then again, it may not...

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
 
Ron Gilbert's Next Thing
Ron Gilbert (creator of, among other things, the classic Monkey Island games... at least the two that started it all) has announced his next big thing:

DEATHSPANK

Episode 1 is entitled "Orphans of Justice" (as you can see from that website you just clicked on). In his words, it "can only be called the perfect melding of a Monkey Island style adventure game with the wicked RPG game play of Diablo." And it's episodic (in case the "Episode 1:" part threw you.)

He's partnered up with Hothead Games, the guys responsible for the upcoming Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Which, as you may recall, Gilbert consulted on. In fact, he's now moved up to Canada and is working as their creative director.

Wanna learn more? Of course you do. Here's the story in Ron's own words:

"Oh Crap!!!" at Grumpy Gamer

I dunno, man. This. And Tim Schaffer's upcoming "Brutal Legend?" I don't know if these old-school legends have enough sell-out-edness to make mega hits. But I'm betting they still have what it takes to make Awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing more of this.

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Russell Carroll on Understanding the Casual Gamer
Russell Carroll, marketing director for gaming portal and developer Reflexive, as well as the editor-in-chief of indie game review site GameTunnel.com, has an article up on Gamasutra on casual gaming:

Russell Carroll on Understanding the Casual Gamer

In it, he points out how the stereotypes and generalizations fail to hit their mark, and how casual gamers place different values (or benefits) on their games than your typical core gamer. And apparently, how being embarrassed about buying Wiis for themselves isn't stopping them from standing in line before a store opens to get their hands on one.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008
 
Gaming As Grown-Ups
Jana Stocks (AKA ~J / JenaRey) has an article on The Escapist today talking about living as a grown-up gamer --- or specifically, hanging out with a small community of grown-up gamers. And yes, if the link to Rampant Games wasn't a dead giveaway, the "Jay" she mentions in the article is yours truly.

It's not really a pointed article or anything - just a few semi-vignettes and slices of life from people who never got the memo that you are supposed to put away those "childish" things like RPGs and videogames when you grow up, get married, and have children. And we're pretty happy we didn't.

Like Calls to Like at The Escapist


Vaguely) related grown-up goofiness:
* Birthday Cake for Geeks (Boy, I wish they had a picture of that in the article!)
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons
* Out-Games By My Daughter
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RPG Design: Random Loot
When the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out, one of the things I loved to play with rolling up random loot. I enjoyed it even more when some enterprising folks like Jamis Buck and Aaron Sherman decided to turn it into a web-based automated process. Plug in the numbers, and see what kinds of nifty things came up.

You can try it yourself HERE.

I found it a source of amusement in Neverwinter Nights when I was designing modules for it, too. Maybe it's the whole gambling mentality. Pull the handle and see what you get. I loved being surprised.

And so it may surprise you that I'm not such a fan of random loot in single-player CRPGs. It may be because I have Charlie Brown's luck when I open chests. Assuming you live in some place where they never show "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," the kids go trick-or-treating on Halloween, and while all the other kids keep getting candy, he keeps getting a rock. That's pretty much me in the wild of a game with random loot.

When playing Eschalon: Book 1 (which has random loot mixed with fixed loot), I found myself surprised at just how many empty treasure chests there were in the game. Well, empty or near-empty. I think I found some used chewing gum and a six-month old issue of Newsweek or something in them. Or at least the medieval fantasy equivalents. But in my brain, it might as well have been a single kid-sized shoelace.

After a while of this, getting several empties in a row, I finally realized that I was getting unlucky draws with the random treasure generation. I finally took matters into my own hands, and began saving before opening a chest. I was AMAZED at just how much loot could be found in a chest that previously contained nothing but half-used Kleenexes and bits of string. On the third try or so, I'd find magical gear, potions, lockpicks (one can never have too many lockpicks, particularly since the town's Wal*Mart doesn't stock such things), and other nifty things that completely swayed the balance of power over to the dark side of the Force. Which was to say, me.

Since I play every game with the jaded, cynical mindset of a professional developer (and *gasp* designer), I immediately seized upon the "Save-Game" problem here, and figured out the true reason for having random loot: With this simple game mechanic, Basilisk Games encourages players to re-play the same chest-opening sequence dozens of times, thus extending the gameplay by HOURS!!!!!

Okay, that was probably not the reason they put it in. Actually, there are three reasons that I can think of for putting in random loot into a single-player RPG:

#1 - For the amusement of the developers. Because it's fun to have the game you've built actually do something you can't predict once in a while.

#2 - For replayability. Especially if everything else is randomized in your game (like Diablo)

#3 - For class-balance / customization sanity. Because you are going to hear from all the angry bard-players when all they ever loot is fighter / magic-user / cleric gear that you pre-stocked. The random smattering of loot (possibly biased towards the player's chosen class / focus) hopefully keeps people happy.

(UPDATE!) #4 - Because your loot lists are very incomplete in early content development, and the designers want to make sure of a semi-even distribution of stuff without having to go back and fix the loot in the earlier parts of the game.

(ANOTHER UPDATE) #5 - To keep walkthroughs and spoiler sites from giving away TOO much.

While #1 isn't a great rationale for having it (well, no better than the sneaky underhanded "extended gameplay" reason), the other two are probably valid. With #3 - even with the class-based bias to loot reputedly in Neverwinter Nights, I seemed to almost never get any rogue-specific gear in the original campaign. It's a good thing I kept "Use Magic Device" maxed, or I'd never have been able to use anything in the game. Still couldn't figure out what to do with all those rings of wizardry and suits of +5 Plate Mail of Uber-Awesome Two-Handed Sword Devastation the game kept handing me (when it wasn't handing me ... rocks). Except I was able to sell them to the store so I could purchase a +1 dagger and +2 leather armor. Go rogue leetness!

If the RPG isn't really intended to be replayed (but who is going to admit they game isn't very replayable, I wonder?), and has either pre-defined characters (such as a jRPG game, like Aveyond), or is more party-based (or both, like the upcoming Frayed Knights), then it's not such a big deal. In fact, it may be a hinderance to players like me with Charlie Brown's rock-acquisition ability.


(Vaguely) related Things Man Was Not Meant To Understand
* Ye Olde Saved Game Debate
* RPG Design: What Am I Going to Do With All This Money?
* RPG Design: Magic Entitlement and Price Tags
* Oblivion: The Flower-Picking Simulator
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Monday, January 07, 2008
 
Lessons Learned From the Failure of the Music Biz
Seth Godin has a list of lessons to be learned by other industries from the impending collapse of the music business:

Seth's Blog: Music Lessons

Some points that game developers and publishers ought to take note of:

2. Copy protection in a digital age is a pipe dream
This one has had "baking my noodle" ever since the Bioshock DRM stupidity happened. I still haven't come to a conclusion on this one, but there are two conflicting human responses battling it out on a battleground much bigger than DRM / Copy Protection:

#1 - Most people (westerners, at least) believe that creators of media content (a book, a movie, a song, a game, etc.) should be financially rewarded for their efforts. This is evidenced by the assumption that creators of the most popular content ought to be rich.

#2 - Most people also seem to feel that paying for something for which there is no scarcity is optional.

I'll hopefully have more to say on this one at a later date. I'm not prepared to give up on copy protection entirely, but I do believe it needs to be toned down so that it's near-zero impact on honest consumers, and that it needs to only part of a bigger solution.

3. Interactivity can’t be copied
Part of me wants to say, "Like Hell it can't!" But again - there are some germs of ideas here. Not just interactivity with the games, but interactivity with people. Like between the creators and the audience.

5. A frightened consumer is not a happy consumer.
The consumer in the information age has a lot to be frightened and worried about. Even when it comes down to a physical purchase. This weekend, my brother was complaining about the number of console games he owns that are effectively lost forever due to his kids damaging the discs.

The thing that stopped me from buying Bioshock was a concern that I won't be able to install it and play it when I want to do so. Considering that I am an occasional retrogamer, and that some of the games I've played this year came from companies that no longer exist, that's a real concern for me.

I think the games biz needs to think long and hard about how to make buying and "owning" games a better experience.

7. Remember the Bob Dylan rule: it’s not just a record, it’s a movement.
He's got an even better quote here: "People pay a premium for a story, every time." If you've ever felt that the gaming industry has turned into just something that churns out products instead of real experiences, this may be because they fell into this trap. They keep cranking out things they think I will buy instead of things that have meaning to me. The former follows the latter, not the other way around.

10. Don’t abandon the Long Tail
I think the videogame industry is finally waking up to discover this. They've been trying to bury all those obsolete games all these years, to prevent them from interfering with sales of The New Thing, which in reality is just The Old Thing with prettier graphics. And now, they are discovering that there's still money to be made there when the cost of distribution is dropped down to $cheap.

11. Understand the power of digital
And quit using my CD-ROM / DVD-ROM as a fragile dongle!

12. Celebrity is underrated
Especially in the games business. Publishers don't like to promote someone that might leave for the competition tomorrow. So rather than making sure said celebrity has no interest in leaving, they just try to hide the people responsible for the game behind a curtain, and pretend that these games are just magically produced by an unchanging corporation. And those few celebrities we do have are usually self-promoted, and too often predating the era of the game-publishing juggernauts, when videogames were still a niche business.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008
 
Depths of Peril Review
GameTunnel.com posted up my review of Depths of Peril - you can check it out here:

Jay's Depths of Peril Review

I wrote it a couple months ago, but due to the game-of-the-year stuff it didn't get posted until this weekend.

Although I once again protest the labels on the ratings at GT: "Try," "Buy," and "Pass." Admittedly, they are just labels and anyone can realize they are just levels of recommendation. But everything above a certain level of worthiness is still just a "try" to me. However, I do like that they keep it simple with only three ratings. Things still get fuzzy with only three, weighing in elements like price / value and everything, but I think that makes more sense than trying to weigh it to one or two decimal places on a pseudo-10 point scale.

Anyway, check out the review (if you feel like it), and then you can tell me what an idiot and terrible reviewer I am here on the forums. You probably won't be wrong...

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Friday, January 04, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: The Exploding Lock and Other Stories
And now, for an "super-sized" installment of the chronicles of the creation of the comedic computer RPG, "Frayed Knights." Alliteration at no extra charge.

We've Got Trouble
We've got three months left to complete the first chapter. We're officially behind schedule. The temple of Pokmor Xang was supposed to be completed by January 1st. It ain't gonna before the first week of January is over. This means we are officially in trouble, and the project... while not in jeopardy, exactly, is slipping. I'm not sure by how much, which is something I have to determine, fast.

James has been out of communication for the last few weeks. I assumed it was due to the holidays, but it was actually because a water main near his house burst and had caused flooding - and damaged his computer. On the plus side, the computer is now fixed and the city is paying for the damages, but he's not been able to do anything for several weeks. Ouch.

Kevin's been doing an awesome job on the temple. I've got some more pictures to show off his work. No, there's not supposed to be a troll up on the balcony, but it looked cool.

From the code side of things --- well, there's some amusing stories there. Want to hear 'em? No? Well, tough. I'm tellin' 'em anyway. I've been frantically trying to get the principle path through the dungeon complete, and it's just about done. But I keep running into new things I need the game to do which I hadn't anticipated - which means writing new code.

Phat Lewtz Part Two
To get to the upper level of the temple, there's a locked portcullis you need to unlock. There are two ways of doing this. The "hard way" is to pick the lock. It's a difficult lock, so it may take several tries and some wandering monster checks. However, if you don't want to do that, you can go down to the lower wing and get yourself a key. It just so happens that some priests down near the barracks have the key. So you should be able to mug them for their key.

What I should have done - what I intended to do - was just have you auto-loot monsters the moment they die, jRPG style. That would have been simple, and would have only taken an hour or so to code up, since most of it was re-using pieces of code I already have working.

But no. I decided to take several hours to have the dying monsters drop a bag of loot, which has to be persistent (with a saved-game state and everything), had to be modeled, had to be added to the interactive object handler, and all that crud. Because I thought it would be cooler.

Sometimes I'm stupid that way.

So I wasted a couple of hours modeling and trying to texture (in my best 10-year-old-crayon-drawing manner) a bag (resulting in a "sad sack" as you can see in the screen shot), and then a few more hours working on the code that has the AI know what kind of goodies to put into the bag, and then drop the bag before they fade away on death.

Yeah, I have the enemies fade away when they die, mainly so the player doesn't end up with 20,000 polygons' worth of dead enemies hammering their frame rate after a few battles in a busy room.

About the only advantage over auto-looting at this point is that the bag of loot can be trapped. Since I'm a vicious bastard of a game designer (and a tabletop DM, just ask my players), I'm probably gonna take advantage of this little feature.

Anyway, after most of a day spent modeling, texturing, coding, and swearing, I got the bad guys dropping loot when they die. And I did a nice 2D icon of a key, and added it to the item data. Go me. That was a lot of work. I hope it was worth it.

The Exploding Lock
Okay, so now you have the key --- or not. Time to deal with a locked gate. My lock code and UI shares the code with the trap mini-game. So I created a "lock" trap type, and tested things out. I found some bugs that had crept into handling locks that had been created from me fixing the bugs in traps, and then failing to check that locks still worked. Not that locks ever fully worked. But eventually, I found myself picking the lock on the portcullis just fine. So I tried again.

And then the lock exploded.

Not that I took any damage. But the game informed me that it had "gone off." Kablooey. And then the portcullis was unlocked.

You see, when you fail at a trap, it is supposed to DO something. Activate. When you fail at a lock, it's supposed to... not do anything. The lock was acting like a trap. However, since locks have no "payloads," there was nothing there to damage me. But then the lock no longer existed. So the best way to pick a lock was to be completely inept at lock-picking.

That wouldn't do. So I had to fix a bunch of issues to tell locks that when THEY fail, they are supposed to ONLY kick the player out, reset their state, and do a wandering monster check. Once that was working, I also had to tell them to respond to a key in the player's inventory - having the key automatically unlocks the lock.

More Events, Triggers, and Scripts
My primary means of triggering events (thus far) has been trigger volumes in Torque. This requires the player to walk into the volume. I have had some special-case things for doors, chests, and other "interactive objects", but I realized that I needed things to be way more general purpose than they have been. So I went through and started adding more general-purpose event triggers on things like opening doors. So now, not only might a door be locked or trapped, but opening it may trigger something else happening in the game. Torque's robust scripting language lets you execute code anywhere - even on a string attribute of an object. I'm taking advantage of that as much as possible.

I worry that it's gonna be a nightmare to maintain down the road, though.

PUS!
So I was talking to James last night, who - with his newly repaired computer - is trying hard to catch up on lost time. He's trying to learn to straddle the gulf between high-poly modeling and low-poly (real-time) modeling. He has some questions about lighting and texturing for me.

"By the way," he says, "I have been looking up pictures of pus on the web all night for research for how the golem should be textured. Let me tell you how fun that has been."

"I'll bet," I respond. "So how's that coming along."

He proceeds to send me a link to picture of a really nasty, infected, festering sore. One that's not oozing pus so much as slowly pouring pus out of it, molasses-like. The sore itself is a deep, diseased hole, a nasty shade of red around the outside, and dark in the cavity behind where the pus is vacating with its creeping flow. The pus itself is a nasty yellowish color, with a couple of thin veins of red where blood has mixed with the ooze. "So," James asks, "Is this about the color you want for the golem?"

I'm feeling my dinner starting to protest inside my stomach. "Yes. Yes, that's perfect," I tell him. "But.... EW!!!!!!!!"

Incidentally, James is looking for a full-time 3D modeling / animation job, having recently graduated from a program teaching him the ins and outs of all this. So if you are looking to hire him away (and leave me in a lurch, but hey, I'll deal), contact me and I'll get him in touch with you.

Dealing With Schedule
So - as I mentioned up at the top, we're now officially behind schedule. The scary thing is, I'm not sure exactly how far behind schedule we really are. I believe we're only about ten days behind - bad, but not insurmountable. James is maybe a bit further than that, especially since I dumped some more work on him related to the first dungeon. Kevin's probably further along than any of us, but he's still got work to do before moving on.

So - when this happens, there are several options available:
#1 - Get more help (which can result, in programming, in making a late project even later if you wait too long to do this).
#2 - Reduce scope - get rid of some of the remaining tasks, or at least simplify them.
#3 - Figure out a way to make the process more efficient to speed up development
#4 - Buy some solutions that either do the work for you (a cheap equivalent to #1), or improve your process (#3)
#5 - Get schedule relief and the milestone moved.
#6 - Get everyone to expend more effort to get caught up.

I'm exploring all of the above options right now. #1 won't work for programming, but it could help in the writing / art departments. Writing is my favorite part, so I loathe the thought of relinquishing any of that to anybody, but it's a possibility. I need some more interiors, too, but a lot of that is for post-April. My main obstacle to #1 is having concrete tasks for everyone, rather than simply trying to throw some warm bodies at the problem.

#2 is a great choice, usually, but I'm keeping options open here for later.

I'm executing on #4 already. I'm buying a bunch of off-the-shelf stuff, with an eye for some of it getting replaced or modified as time goes on. I always say that the day job is there to finance Rampant Games, so I guess I'm putting my money where my mouth is. One thing I may have to do is swap out some of the monsters in my previous design with monsters from content packs that are already "completed" (albeit in need of some customization to make them match the style of the rest of the game).

Since we're in the MyDreamRPG competition, I really can't do anything about #5. And as far as #6 is concerned. I'm trying to discipline myself to get more done each evening. I don't know how overworked my team-mates are, and though I can wave a little bit of a carrot, they are volunteers. I take what I can get. What I need to do better is to keep them all up-to-date on what's happening with the game. When you have people motivated by the game itself, the best motivation is to see everyone else working, making progress, and seeing the game take shape. That is EXCITING. When I talk with them and see what kinda awesome stuff they come up with, I get even more excited to dive back into the breach, guns a-blazing.

Immediate Goals
This weekend, my principle goal is to get the "primary path" through the dungeon complete - all scripts, rewards, etc. I'm actually very, very close. There's some complications at the end involving checks for reinforcements in the boss battle (if you haven't nailed the priests behind you, they will join the battle and make life much harder on you. And I need to make sure the player is adequately warned of this possibility before they charge into the now-even-cooler main temple room that Kevin has been laboring to make look uber-cool:


And then I'm going to work on the village or Ardin, since I need to get it completed by the end of January. I will be using a lot of off-the-shelf models and textures for Ardin, so I hope that it can be completed with little impact on the rest of my team, so they can continue to work on the dungeon and the wilderness content (which needs to be completed by the end of February).

Did I ever mention that game development isn't pretty? Times like this, it looks messy indeed. At least the dungeon is looking pretty sharp.


(Vaguely) related hoody-hoos:
* Frayed Knights: Frantic Dungeoneering
* Frayed Knights: Twisty Paths and Flickering Torchlight
* Frayed Knights: Learning the Lingo
* RPG Design: Big World, Small Dungeon - Does Size Matter in RPGs?


Wanna Talk About It? We've Got a Forum Thread and Everything!

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Thursday, January 03, 2008
 
In Defense of Game Patch
Every once in a while ("a while" being defined as "about five minutes") someone complains about the excessive patches required in modern PC games. I get as infuriated as anyone else, especially for those really nasty cases where the patch invalidates my saved games and makes me start over. Nobody likes seeing their game wrecked by a bug. Why didn't they bother testing before they released the game, anyway? And we're seeing day 1 patches (meaning, patches released at the same time the game hits store shelves) with huge lists of bugs fixed between the time the game went to the duplicators and the time it hits the shelf.

Something has got to be wrong here, right?

And it's no longer just PC games, either. Consoles games, now that they have downloadable content, are beginning to show signs of patch fever. Is this a sign that developers are just lazy, and use the fact that there's now means of distributing a patch as a crutch to release games in a buggier state?

Now, I'm probably an official "part of the problem," because I sympathize with the need for patches. And I'm a developer. And I've released patches for my games. So I'm gonna go on a limb here and actually defend this horrible practice of releasing buggy, broken code.

Well, not really. I can't condone that. But I do want to talk about why your favorite game is on its third patch in nearly as many weeks. It's probably not as bad as it sounds, and the publisher probably didn't just get bored and try to foist off a horrible mess on an unsuspecting public in hopes of getting a quick buck.

Probably. At least not most of the time. I think.

When people talk about how buggy games are, they often compare it to the old days, when you rarely heard about patches or lists of bugs as long as your arm.

Things Haven't Gotten Worse. Well, Not Much
But it wasn't that the games of yesteryear weren't buggy - it's just that there was no reasonable way to distribute a patch. I do remember getting a patch back in 1991 that was "by request only" - they'd fixed the bug post-release, but didn't really advertise the patch, because it cost them money every time they had to send out a floppy disc with the fixed executable. So if you called customer support and asked specifically about a problem addressed in the patch, then they'd send you the updated diskette.

Right, I said diskette. This was back in the day when the entire code and data could fit on a couple of 1.4 meg floppies.

Nowadays, many games are about three orders of magnitude larger than that. And we haven't suffered through an increase in bugs of similar magnitude, which says a good thing. But you can't compare Pong to Oblivion and say, "Oh, look, they are so sloppy these days... look at how many bugs Oblivion has compared to Pong."

I mean - it's Pong. You can test the whole game in about five minutes. And you STILL had bugs in some games in that era with scores that would wrap around from 255 to 0. Or that bug in the arcade game "Sinistar" (yes, in the arcade) where a player could - on demand - get himself shot simultaneously with getting himself eaten by Sinistar when down to only one ship... which resulted in 2 kills at the same time, taking his number of lives UP to 255. I don't know if they ever patched that one. It still has that bug in an emulated version of the game (complete with a video where one of the developers talks about the bug).

In the past, they simply tried to keep the issues secret to keep their happy customers from knowing that there were problems. Nowadays, there's more open communication, so the happy customers discover that all might not be well in their games. Personally, I'm for better communication, even if it might alarm customers.

Hey, I've been on the disaffected customer side of things, too. It happened to me with no less than Ultima VII part 2: Serpent Isle. To this day I have never completed it. I'll bet most of you old-timers who played Serpent Isle had no idea there was a game-killing bug that only seemed to affect players running the game on a Cyrix 386/40 CPU (according to the tech support guy who could only offer apologies to me at the time).

What Gets Fixed?
When you look at the list of bug-fixes to the game in the latest patch, if you are being completely honest, how many of those bugs were you actually aware of in advance if you don't frequent the message board forums to hear people grouse about them? If you were playing the game in a vacuum, oftentimes you may be completely oblivious to every single bug in the list. There may be some issues that you only recognize after-the-fact as being bugs that you may have only chalked up to some design quirk ("Oh, so that's why those healing potions didn't seem to work so well...").

Then there's the gameplay tweaks that get updated with patches. Little irritations in the game that weren't really bugs, but things that the larger player base recognized as being a detriment to fun. While I wish that all developers and QA people could see the forest for the trees all the time when developing and testing a game, the truth is that more eyes are always going to see more things. When you are working with an evolving game for a long time, you get used to things that you don't realize that you are being forced to get used to. Some recent indie game examples include the arrow patch for Eschalon: Book 1 (to increase the quantity of arrows available in shops), or the rogue enhancements in a recent patch to Depths of Peril.

Then there's the brand-new gameplay features and major enhancements that get thrown in. Things to make a (hopefully) good game even better. You might complain, "why didn't they do that in the first place?" If it's a good idea now, it was a good idea before the release, right?

Well, that brings us to another subject. Why modify a game after it's been released, anyway? They didn't do it back in the pre-Web days, so why should we do it now?

Motives For Patches
First of all, developers and publishers don't want people to be unhappy with their game. Back in the pre-web days, there wasn't much that could be done about it if you found out that 1% of your customers couldn't finish the game due to a game-killing bug. But today, patches provide developers with the means of solving that problem, at least for those customers who are online and pay attention to such things. It makes developers happy (usually) to solve problems, and it makes the customers happy, so it's a win.

Then there's also the very sad truth that games are never, ever finished. At least not these days. They are simply released. If the developer had to make sure it was perfect, the game would never be released. That's reality. Considering the number of "director's cuts" and "special editions" of movie DVDs that are out there, I suspect it's not unique to games. If a game goes out in it's "good enough" state, but then an opportunity (and motivation) comes along to make it that much better, it is another win / win scenario for both developers and players.

Then there's the fact that the players know what they want better than the developers do. When the players identify some "low-hanging fruit" improvements that the developers were unaware of, this becomes a great chance to make a game better with little effort.

Finally, there's a significant ulterior motive for releasing patches. Quite simply, it's a way to keep a game current and newsworthy. Public attention in the gaming hobby is both fleeting and fickle. As soon as a game become yesterday's news, its sales begin dry up. The release of a patch gives everyone an excuse to mention the game again, which in turn may rekindle excitement about it and - hopefully - generate more sales. Or maybe just remind people of how great the game was to keep them interested in an upcoming expansion or sequel. Patches may be more about marketing than anything else.

So if you get bitten by a game-interfering bug, feel free to grouse. But don't take the prevalence of patches as an indicator that code quality has gone to pot across the industry. I mean, okay, I've written some of that code, and I know how bad it really is, but I really do believe modern practices has made it better rather than worse.

(Vaguely) related bugliness:
* On Game Engines and Swarm Missiles
* My Worst Bug Ever
* Twisted Metal Trivia
* Why Software Design Isn't Like Architecture
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Wednesday, January 02, 2008
 
My Favorite Games of 2007
Okay. 2007 is all wrapped up now. I considered doing a best of / worst of thing, but the truth is that I don't have the time to play crappy games. I get to be selective 'n stuff. And I miss a lot of great games, too. But here are the ones that I played in 2007 that made an impression on me.

"What Rocked" Department
These were not necessarily games that were released in 2007, but that I played in 2007, which really made me happy to be a gamer. I started in on Guitar Hero 2 just before the close of '06, otherwise it might top the list.

Portal - Portal gets my vote for game of the year. Period. It was short, sweet, to the point, very fun, didn't overstay its welcome, and had a totally kick-butt villain. And it was amazingly innovative.

IL-2: 1946 - Wow. A "platinum edition" of what might arguably be the best combat flight-sim of the last decade. Excellent multi-player support, excruciatingly detailed aircraft, literally hundreds of flyable aircraft (and hundreds more as AI vehicles), and realism in spades (easily dialed down for new players or those who don't want to fuss with feathering their prop or messing with the fuel / oil mixture). Plus a "what if" campaign taking place in a 1946 where the Axis never surrendered, but instead both sides put some drawing-board or prototyped aircraft into production... What an amazing package!

Depths of Peril - I've sounded off about Depths of Peril many times in the past. It's probably not for everyone. But dang - if you are an RPG fan, you owe it to yourself to at least try out the free demo. It's like Diablo for gamers who wanted something meatier to sink their teeth into.

Desktop Tower Defense - I still find myself playing this one, usually with one of the "Fun" scenarios. I still don't always win on the random enemy game.

Aveyond 2 - I could make a list of all the things wrong with this one that bug me. So why am I still addicted to it? My characters are hitting mid-60's levels now, and I'm pretty sure I'm more than halfway through the game. I haven't been so involved with an RPG since... uh... Depths of Peril. Dang it. The story sucked me in, and it's a lot of fun to play. And that's what it's all about, right?

Eschalon: Book 1 - A return to old-school RPGing, kinda. Though a lot of folks never left it in the first place. While it's got quite a few warts of its own, and won't please everyone, it's another resounding indie RPG success. Stats, rolls, turn-based combat, a limited economy, and a fairly difficult early game (at least for guys like me who insist on playing a solo rogue). Yep, sounds old school. But with better graphics.

Galactic Civilizations II + Expansions - I avoided Gal Civ 2 when it was initially released, knowing what kind of impact it would have on my time. And I tried to avoid the siren's call of the Dark Avatar expansion for as long as I could. When I finally installed it and tried it out, sure enough, it caused sleep deprivation. I haven't dared to download the latest expansion yet.

Rock Band - Okay, I've not had too much time to play this one yet, thanks to a disc going bad on me. But after spending all New Year's Eve playing this one with friends, I have to say that this is just about the ultimate party game. For solo play, I don't know if it's much of an improvement over Guitar Hero 2, except that the character customization stuff is way cooler than I thought it would be. And you get to be a drummer. I do not sing. I tried it once, and I think the results were about like Vogon poetry reading.


The "Close But No Cigar" Department
These were the games that were definitely "okay," but I expected much more of them. None of them sucked, IMO, but they kinda made an impression by not making an impression.

Final Fantasy XII - I didn't start playing this game until January 2007... and never got too far. My daughter's really loving it, though... except now she's been derailed by Okami. It's another example of a game that's really good, really pretty, hits all its marks... but still falls kinda flat. Or maybe it's just me. I dunno. Maybe if I get past the 8 hour mark it'll get better, but one really should have to play a game that long for it to hook you.

Flash Circle Tower Defense - After getting hooked on David Scott's Flash Element TD, I really expected this one to be way more fun. It sure looked and sounded awesome. The game itself was a little flat, unfortunately, though it's still fun to play. But compared to his Vector Tower Defense a few months later, or the outstanding Desktop Tower Defense, it's just not one I'd go back to.

Neverwinter Nights 2 - I suffered through some video card woes at the time I started playing this one, which unfortunately probably tainted by experience. Unfortunately, it wasn't exciting enough for me to pick it back up again when the woes went away. Now that I've heard great things about the Mask of the Betrayer expansion, I may give this one another go. When I've cleared off other things from my plate.

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80's - To start out, the name pretty much sucks. The game itself would have been a great expansion... except it wasn't priced as an expansion. It's priced as a "B" grade full game. Which is what it became, as a result. Ah, well. As a child of the 80's, I still got a kick out of it, and enjoy playing it.

And The Rest
Well, that's it. Those aren't all the games I played this year, just the ones that impressed me one way or the other. There were a couple of games I played the demo of before deciding they suffered from suck. There were some games, like Guitar Hero 3 and Supreme Commander which neither exceeded nor disappointed my expectations. And too many games I haven't played, or haven't played enough yet (I finally got around to playing Lego Star Wars, and it looks to rock, but I'm only a half-hour or so into it).

But ya know what? Overall, it was a pretty good year for games.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
 
Biased Mario Reviews: Good or Bad?
Okay - I don't have a Wii (I don't even have one at work anymore --- well, not on my desk, at least), and I haven't played Super Mario Galaxy. But I was highly amused by DanC's little "Dear John" letter to the game. Apparently, the experience for him was far less fun than you'd expect from a game with a GameRankings score of over 97%. I mean, that's a sure win if ever there was one, right?

Apparently not.

Since I have had a bone to pick with the current game review system in general, I appreciated his comments here:
"The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on gamerankings.com is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
"That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years."
Now, "real" gamers sneer at game reviews found in mainstream press. But do non-hardcore gamers have a reason to distrust enthusiast press reviews? Maybe.

But the real issue is this - who is the audience for these games? I get really tired of reading damning comments by hardcore gaming reviewers for games that were really never intended for them. In the case of Super Mario Galaxy, it's quite likely that it's a big sloppy wet kiss for the Nintendo generation. And if that's the case, maybe it deserves its 97%+ score.

However, if that's valid, then that same bias should be permitted to games that don't address the hardcore male gamer demographic. A game like Eschalon: Book 1 should be reviewed based upon how well it appeals to "old school RPG fans." And Cute Knight Deluxe should have a bias towards its appeal to young-adult female anime fans. Not that these games might not appeal to a broader audience than their target niche (I'm an unashamed Cute Knight fan, myself...)

But with that bias in place, I'd probably rank Eschalon: Book 1 at about the same score as Final Fantasy X. A hardcore console gamer who loved Final Fantasy X might be astonished - and not in a good way - when they tried out Eschalon after seeing identical review ratings. Then again, they might be pleasantly surprised and have a great time with something very different from their standard, depressingly similar gaming diet. Who knows? And is that any different from what we have now? I mean, Galactic Civilizations II and Halo 3 both have about the same GameRankings score, yet it's pretty obvious that they are intended for different audiences.

And can a 26-year-old male hardcore gamer actually review a game intended for 6-12 year olds? Or a casual game aimed more for women? I'd hope so, but I've seen evidence that it's a rare skill. I know I have a tough time with that. And and the games themselves will always pretend to be "for everyone" out of fear of limiting their audience. They won't advertise themselves as being a "kid's game," for example... because then they'll be shunned even by the kids themselves (who always want to play what big brother is playing, as a general rule.)

But can the bias be used for good as well as evil?
Or is the whole ratings aggregation thing pretty useless when it comes to games?


(Vaguely) related blathering:
* It's All a Coincidence!
* Game Reviews: What Are They Good For?
* Game Journalism and the Games Industry
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