Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Friday, February 29, 2008
Frayed Knights: Going Alpha
More tales of the development of Frayed Knights, the comedy RPG. Or more specifically, the Frayed Knights Pilot - The Temple of Pokmor Xang!

This Week
I could tell you what I worked on this week. Which is to say, a little bit of everything. Just getting it so that the game could be completed from beginning to end without any major weirdness or bugs, up until the final "end game" menu (including stuff happening in town). I just got some new music AND a new tavern model, which required me to re-arrange everything in the tavern to suit. I really like the new tavern. A lot.

Last Minute Changes
I took Friday off, both for getting this alpha out, and for attending a wedding of two close friends of mine. This has turned out to be a good thing. Between the alpha and a bit of personal business, I ended up pulling an all-nighter, until past 6 AM. Most of the time was spent working on some major inventory screen bugs. I missed them back when there was only about a dozen things in your inventory, but with there being actual loot in the dungeon now, I discovered some problems.

I also devoted some effort to fixing odds and ends, and prepping the whole thing for alpha. I had to make some dialog changes (and I don't think all of the revisions actually made it into the alpha... oops!). There were way too many "known issues" that I just couldn't get to, but I needed to get people on the alpha. Some of the changes thrown in during the wee hours of the morning were pretty significant. I made some changes to how resting is handled that I still don't know the full impact of. And I know for sure the feedback mechanisms for some of the mechanics are woefully inadequate.

Getting the download size down from 120 megs to 71 megs was part of that effort. Writing something by way of instructions was another.

But the first alpha - and the invitations to the alpha test group - went out at the 5:00 hour. My apologies to the people who aren't in the first alpha group, but I really want to hold people in reserve as "Kleenex testers" for future alpha versions. Testers, check your private messages in the forum, and check to see when you get access to the Frayed Knights Testing and Feedback forum. Some people have it already.

The Road to Alpha 2!
Some things topping out my list for alpha 2 include such minor luxuries as actually having the item screen tell you what the item really DOES, so that you don't have to guess whether the iron mace or the broadsword does more damage. And having a visual display of how your maximum endurance drops over time would be kinda... I dunno... less confusing? And then there's the fact that players can get stuck inside of doors. That's not a happy thing. And some fixed combats end up taking place with the opposing forced practically across the room from each other but still swinging melee weapons. Yeah, that might be good to fix.

And actually implementing the weapon and armor proficiency restrictions might make the different character classes more interesting. Oh, and having the big bad evil boss guy actually USE the spells he's got in his arsenal... that might make a difference in combat. And the priests are actually supposed to drop loot once in a while. Now the operative word is only, "once."

This kind of torturous, bug-riddled gaming is what I subject my friends to. I am a bad man.

Development is going to continue at its previous pace for the next month, easily, so Alpha 4 should be pretty different from Alpha 1. My goal is to have each alpha released Friday-ish throughout March. Tuesday, April 1st, 2008 will be the public release date of the Pilot.

Placeholder Content FTW!
And just so all the testers know, Kevin wanted to make absolutely sure that they knew that the revised Tavern roof texture is only a stand-in.

Well, I managed to sneak in about three hours of sleep between 6:30 and 9:30. I have an appointment to meet someone in a couple of hours, and then I'm gonna try and get another nap in before getting ready for the wedding.

Have fun!

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Thursday, February 28, 2008
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Reviewed
Fer Real - a review of 4th edition, now that the NDA has been lifted. On Aint It Cool News:
"Let me just say this upfront. I. Love. 4E. And I didn’t want to. Much like many of you out there, the 3.5 partial reboot just five years ago pissed me off... Just 2 weeks into playing 4E, I boxed up every non-fluff heavy book (of 3.5E) I owned, drove down to Half Price Books and sold them for as much cash as I could get. I knew I would never, ever, touch them again. Yes. 4E really is that good."
Yes, it's very positive. Yes, I'm very skeptical, still. Read it yourself - though it's part one of a three parter that will have additional installments Friday and Saturday:

AICN: Massawyrm Has Played Dungeons And Dragons 4th Edition!!

I'm sure there are lots of details out there for interested parties. Me, I'll check it out in June. But... again... I'm skeptical. To me, it still sounds like they were trying to make the game a poor-man's MMORPG.

UPDATE: Here are the other two parts of his review:

D&D 4E Review Part 2

D&D 4E Review Part 3

Important note: "It is very dependant upon maps, terrain and miniatures. That’s great for guys like me with a closet full of toys. But for others, especially those who like to play much more esoteric games all through discussion rather than using maps and positioning – they’re going to find it a lot harder to covert over to that style of play than 3.5. Most abilities and classes are built around their existence on a map grid. And a lot of the abilities just don’t translate to the abstract. I’m not certain why percentage of players out there still play this way – but they’re going to have the strongest argument against converting to 4E."

So... umm.... I guess there you have it. The fairly-unsurprising (since 3.5 has been going that way) business plan of WotC... using D&D to sell a steady supply of collectible miniatures.


Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick
I found myself staring at an ad for a science fiction first-person shooter. In fact, that's all I'm gonna call it - a science fiction first-person shooter. The ad was colorful, with a cool battlefield scene. Explosions and machines of war from an obviously futuristic era. And I found myself thinking, "Wow, you know, in a world without Halo 1, 2, and 3, Unreal Tournaments, Gears of War, Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, Star Wars: Battlefront 1 and 2, F.E.A.R., Project Origin, and dozens of other science fiction first-person shooters, this might be really exciting to me."

I cast my mind back, and vaguely recalled the heyday of fantasy RPGs, and I remember feeling about the same way towards the RPG of the week. Ah, those youthful days of yesteryear, when RPGs were rolling out a-plenty, and we always thought we'd be swimming in abundance, and we got to pick and choose among a tremendous number of titles that would be released faster than anyone could possibly play them.

Mind you, many did suck back then, too. And as a poor, starving college student during that time period, my picking and choosing was more of necessity than out of snobbishness. But in a crowded field, in games as much as anything else, you gotta have something that makes you stand out. Or as the song from Gypsy goes - ya gotta have a gimmick.

Assuming 2007 was no fluke, the field is going to get a little crowded again for computer role-playing games. Maybe not late-80's, early-90's crowded, but it's still going to be interesting to say the least. While the titans of mainstream duke it out with dueling Diablo-clones, the indies are - thankfully - providing quite a bit more variety to the landscape. But indie games enjoy a longer shelf-life, too, which means last year's hits will still be competing head-to-head with this year's new offerings. You could spend a whole year just playing Spiderweb's Avernum and Geneforge series, and because they don't chase the mechanical technology rabbit, the difference in quality is more of that of the developer's improving skill.

While time may be a bit of a premium for me these days, I have no problem at least trying to play all of these awesome indie games! I just need a reason to believe that the game I'm going to play is in some way unique - that it's not something I've played before. Or, like the generic science-fiction first-person shooter, I may just kinda chalk it off to being something so similar to what I've already experienced that I can't even generate enough enthusiasm to download the demo.

So - how are these games going to distinguish themselves? What kind of gimmick will they adopt? Of the recent releases I've played, Eschalon: Book 1 suffers the most from feeling too generic. Fortunately, its strengths (so far) lie in being very polished, well-marketed, and an unapologetically turn-based western-style RPG. Fifteen years ago, that would have buried it in a sea of similar games, but today those are definitely stand-out qualities. It is the first game of a series. I expect that, over time, it will "find itself" and develop a stronger sense of style. After all, many of the "classic" RPGs of the golden era started the same way.

But as a player and fan of indie games, I'd strongly recommend that developers really focus in on what makes their games unique and stand-out. If you don't have one, come up with one! Give me a hook, a gimmick, something to help me notice you. Don't be like the aforementioned generic science fiction first-person shooter. YOU know your game is special. Tell me why!

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Nine Paths to Indie Game Greatness
David Marsh wrote a very poorly-titled, but otherwise excellent, article at Gamasutra called, "Nine Paths to Indie Game Greatness." The reason I feel it is poorly titled is because "paths" indicate separate, mutually exclusive options. These aren't. In fact, if you are serious about making an indie game, you would be well-served to follow most of these points of advice:

Gamasutra: Nine Paths to Indie Game Greatness

My inane commentary:

1. Efficiency In Design - More game for less cost. Making a single-player exploration-based game like an RPG is stupid. Oh, wait. Oops.

2. Utilizing Free, Cheap, or Open Technology - Don't save your nickels for the Unreal III engine. You won't be able to take advantage of it anyway, and your game will look and play no better than one created in Ogre3D, C4, or Torque which costs less than 1/1000th as much.

3. Distribute Digitally - a pet peeve of mine. Some newb indie developers refuse to look out of the box, and are still about the "box deal." Not that digital distribution need be your only solution - but as an indie, anything else is icing on the cake.

4. Develop On Open Platforms - boy, if I had a dime for every time a prospective indie declared that they wanted to make a game for the XBox 360 or the DS, and sneered at making a game for the PC or (gasp!) the Mac... They just don't seem to get it when I tell them, "if you haven't created a game yet, you aren't gonna get it on the consoles." While that's not strictly true, it's close enough.

5. Collaboration - Ka-CHING! Yes, that's supposed to be the sound of cash. This can take place on so many levels, from trading services (which can save both companies money in terms of taxes), to cooperating on marketing efforts, to running affiliate sales deals,to sharing resources, or simply exchanging ideas and techniques.

6. Consider Less Traditional Monetization Methods - And ad-based revenue is quickly becoming traditional.

7. Redefine Success - I think we are at the point now where the break-even points for mainstream games are mock-worthy, anyway.

8. Use Alternate Sources of Funding - What? Begging for Vulture Capitalists and Publishers to take all your real assets to help you make payroll isn't the be-all, end-all?

9. Get Personal - This is actually the Big Idea for big companies nowadays, too. Small companies have no excuses to NOT do this.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008
How Piracy Can Break An Industry - A Case Study
GameProducer.net puts things on the line about the impact of piracy in Brazil, in an article full of sobering anecdotes, statistics, and links. In a nutshell - it's gotten so bad most game companies have given up trying to sell anything there. The vicious cycle is mature there, where people are forced to pirate because they have no legal means to obtain products. It's ugly.

Local game developers, according to the article, "have only four options to survive as developers: subscription-based online games, mobile gaming, advergaming or exporting."

After the rest of the world follows in Brazil's footsteps, the fourth option will be unviable for everyone. Then what? That's the multi-billion-dollar question.

As a gamer, I personally do not relish the idea of having to either pay a monthly fee to play my favorite game (or having the game become unavailable after it gets "too old"), nor do I want to have to endure a bombardment of marketing messages in order to play a game.

There has got to be a better solution.

But as the article indicates, waiting for the government to jump in and help is useless. I think that applies as well to any other government as Brazil. Nobody's going to wave a magic wand to make the problem go away. This one is firmly gonna be in the hands of the game makers and the customers to solve.

GameProducer.net: How Piracy Can Break An Industry - The Brazilian Case

(Vaguely) related shallow thoughts:
* The Real Cost of Piracy?
* A Better Way to Fight Piracy?
* A Pirate Story
* PC Game Publishers: Please Hurt Me Some More!

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Game Announcement: Band of Bugs
I recently added another excellent NinjaBee game to the Rampant Games Strategy & Puzzle Games section.

Band of Bugs PC, by NinjaBee

Band of Bugs is a game of turn-based tactical combat, called a "tactics game" in the console gaming world. If you are unfamiliar with the term, but have played some "old school" RPGs with turn-based movement in combat (the old D&D "Gold Box" games like Pool of Radiance are a great example), or games like "X-Com," then you are familiar with the gameplay if not the genre name. Tactics games tend to be faster-playing, friendlier, and a bit easier to get into than the old warhorses like X-Com. Beyond that, Band of Bugs it is full of NinjaBee's trademark cartoon humor. It's an ideal game for newcomers to strategy games.

Band of Bugs goes even further with a rich storyline that develops as you play, not just in cut-scenes between battles. The campaign follows the young bug hero Maal as he joins the royal army of the Central Kingdom under the guidance of mantis warrior Tiernan. As Maal grows in understanding and ability, he commands more powerful heroes in larger groups on his way to saving his Queen and defeating the menace that threatens his kingdom. Strategy is everything to young Maal, for his every command will determine whether he succeeds and saves the kingdom, or he fails, taking the kingdom down with him.

As it was originally released for the XBox 360, you'd expect Band of Bugs to feature really gorgeous visuals, and it does. Besides being fast-playing, pretty, funny, and easy to get into, Band of Bugs really does have some deep strategic elements. Go figger! So there should be enough depth for you hard-core gamers who like min-maxing your D&D characters and plotting out every move with miniatures and stuff, but the game definitely takes the extra effort to help out the newbie to the genre and bring them up to speed quickly.

I did note that it was a little bit confusing to play with just a mouse, so be prepared to actually touch the keyboard on this one. I think this was an area where the translation from console controller to mouse came out a little weak, but as with Aveyond 2, I found I prefer keyboard controls anyway.

The real fun of these kinds of strategy games - even "light" strategy games like this one - is playing it with friends. While the AI is great, there's nothing that compares to playing with a real, live human, especially someone you know. Band of Bugs was built with a strong online multiplayer capability from the get-go. It includes several multiplayer game variants like "Escape," "Capture," "Elimination," and the more open-ended and relaxed "Spider Hunter" mode, which allows up to 8 players to come and go as they choose.

Band of Bugs rounds things out with a map editor so you can create and share your own custom battlefields.

As some of you know, I was working at NinjaBee while this game was in development, so I got to see its evolution first-hand. And I've mentioned it before. I wasn't on the development team, so I never got the chance to get sick of it. :) That DOES make me a little more biased towards that game, so feel free to take anything I say with a grain of salt. Good thing indie games come with free demos so you don't have to take my word for it, huh?

Oh, and Band of Bugs was an IGF 2007 finalist for technical excellence.

So who would I recommend this game to? If you enjoy turn-based strategy games or RPGs, this one is definitely a game you should look at. If you liked Outpost Kaloki, another awesome game by NinjaBee, then you probably already started downloading this game when you saw the top link, and it is probably done downloading by now. In fact, unless you REALLY have some kind of allergic reaction to turn-based games, or you already own the XBox 360 version, I can't think of why you shouldn't at least give this game a shot.

Band of Bugs PC

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Monday, February 25, 2008
The Acquisition Shuffle
So the big buzz these days is all about Microsoft trying to acquire Yahoo.

In the video game community, we were still reeling from EA buying Bioware and Activision merging with Vivendi (er, should we just call it "Blizzard?"), when EA announced that they are attempting to acquire Take Two.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, and the rumor of Microsoft Buying Epic. I guess Gears of War did very, very well for the 360. Thanks Anonymous for the reminder!

But that's not all! In the more casual / downloadable game space, the big shake-up is that RealNetworks is acquiring TryMedia.

In related but slightly less auspicious news, Rampant Games has acquired a stick of gum. The gum had no comment on the buyout at this time.

And in completely unrelated news except for the painful fact that it was peripherally responsible for the content of this post (and my distressed, obsessive frame of mind), never ever try to do taxes right before going to bed. I will not be making that mistake again.


Sunday, February 24, 2008
Frayed Knights - Alpha Candidate Close...
Wow. I just did a play-through of the Frayed Knights Pilot. It took a while. Granted, I had interruptions, but... it took longer than I expected.

And it was pretty dang cool.

There's a nice, long list of issues I've assembled - I guess you could call this an "alpha test," but I'm not releasing this one out to testers yet. I'd like to clear out as many of the issues that I *DO* know about so the testers can concentrate on the ones I do not know about.

But aside from that frustrating feeling of knowing there's way too much to get done and not enough time, it's - at least at this moment - overshadowed by the realization of how this whole dang thing is actually coming together. I'm astounded.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008
Free Game - Titans of Steel: Warring Suns
I just got this last night from local indie author Eric Peterson, letting me know that his mecha combat game (with RPG elements!) Titans of Steel: Warring Suns is now available as a free download.

He writes:
Titans of Steel: Warring Suns now a complete free download. If anyone wants to know what its like to sit and pull at your chin whiskers this is the game for you. Servers have had overload problems which in a small way has made me happy.

I dig giant mecha battles, as an old Battletech / Mechwarrior fan, and I dig turn-based, hex-grid combat just fine, so I'm grabbing myself a copy. You can also get it from other mirrors listed at the publisher's site, Matrix Games.

Grab it now, and rip off a mecha's (er, titan's) arm in full top-down, turn-based glory today! (Can you beat a titan with it's own torn-off arm in this game? I'm sure it's cool either way, but hey... you KNOW you were gonna ask...) It's a 300 meg download, so you'll need to give yourself a few minutes of head-start time.

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Friday, February 22, 2008
Frayed Knights - GUI Kablooey
The indie RPG of comedy and fantasy, Frayed Knights, continues development - here's the story!

GUI Re-Glued
A major overhaul of the UI is in progress. The former UI was something only its programmer could love. The new UI isn't done yet, but it looks at least ten times better. Here's a spell being cast in combat. The character portraits haven't been re-done yet, and the buttons on the scroll are just stand-ins for now.

I can't tell you how many iterations we went on the interface. We came up with ideas, metaphors, slick systems, and then discarded them. Besides the obvious cosmetic differences, the button panel and entire combat interface has been massively overhauled. The new system doesn't rely on nearly as many pop-up windows or as many mouse-clicks, which is a Really Big Deal. Really. Even as a programmer who has the UI sense of a medieval torturer could tell it was Bad Design, but I wasn't sure how to fix it.

What we've got now is a cool little pendant-looking thing that now acts as the button panel. It operates in two modes - combat and non-combat (yeah, I know, "Gee, whiz!"). The sections highlight when the mouse passes over them in a really slick low-tech awesomeness, and the icons on the right-hand side change in combat mode. I'm kinda proud of it because it is very non-Torque feeling.

Earlier, whenever you attacked or cast a spell, you then had a pop-up to determine what your target was. This, on the whole, sucked. Especially since you usually keep whittling away at the same enemy until he drops. Now an enemy target is always selected by default in combat, which you can change with the pendant. In the case of spells targeting friendlies, a default friendly target appears in the spell menu, which you can change.

While the switch-over isn't complete yet, it has already made things run much nicer. Not to mention look a ton more polished. The character displays are also in the process of being overhauled, but I'm not done with that yet. It should look a little bit like the mock-up James did down below (though I have since switched some of the icons around in the non-combat pendant). And I still have to finish up the combat interface. It's still not quite to the full level of functionality of the older version - I think I'm about two hours of development away from that.

One Week Until Alpha
SHEESH! We're gonna be handling the first wave of alpha testing uh... like... next week. In only days. I'm scared. Hold me.

We just got a rough draft of the "Frayed Knights Theme" music this week from Mike "I Am Ominous" Nielsen, which will be iterated on over the weekend. The rest of the pilot chapter will use stock music, and I expect to have plenty of stock music in the full release.

There are a couple of secondary systems that just aren't there yet. And may not be by the beginning of alpha. Like... uh... saving and loading the game. D'oh. Yeah, it's a suck. But right now we're surrounded by odds & ends that we're trying to get fixed up and cleaned up before real testing starts and we get 5,000 bug reports about the same dang broken features. Each.

As I've mentioned before, we're staggering alpha into groups. So even if you are in alpha, you may not be brought on until the end of alpha. Or the middle. This helps keep people from getting burned out on the first version and never playing the later ones.

The game really is a game now - albeit one that has a very rough ending and some severe balance problems. I haven't had time to give it a full play-through in a couple of weeks - I guess that'll be fun for me during the alpha, too. Maybe next week that's the format the update will take... my playthrough. Complete with bugs.

During alpha we're going to be frantically improving and fixing things, changing the Frayed Knights website a lot, putting together a questionnaire / survey for players, and so forth. I expect the game will change a LOT between each iteration (which should be weekly).

Don't forget to sign up for the alpha if you are interested. You'll get to play before everyone else - albeit a possibly buggy, broken version!

Looking Forward
The beginning of alpha is a huge deal. The release of the pilot chapter in less than six weeks is an even bigger one. Our focus is almost exclusive on this release - but we're starting to look ahead to the rest of the game.

In a way, the full release will be "Frayed Knights 2," but we're not thinking of it that way. I'm pretty much gonna keep right on rolling in April, May, and beyond. I've already invested some time and money into what's coming next, and we've discussed ideas as a team to cement the rest of the game. The story is set, the upcoming quests have at least a general outline, and we've even begun putting together assets. I PRAY that they'll be faster /easier to put together than the Temple of Pokmor Xang, as there won't be so much necessary on the coding / engine / system side to do.

While the pilot chapter is largely self-contained, there are going to be some hints here and there as to the larger mystery and storyline going on. Although one of my fears is that the players will figure out the whole story, the upcoming plot twist, and everything else right off the bat in just the pilot episode. Then I guess I would have telegraphed things too well.

Naturally, some of what we have planned will be changed. Your feedback is going to be key. It's hard to imagine, but I expect in four months I'll be looking back on this time and chuckling at how naive I was, and how much easier things were. But I really look forward to hearing what you have to say about the pilot!

(Vaguely) related drivel:
* Frayed Knights: Pilot Prep
* Frayed Knights: Prologue and High Concept
* Cartographic Incompetence and Dirk's Interview

Okay Heroes - Let's Chat On the Forum Thread!

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Thursday, February 21, 2008
2008 IGF Winners

IGF 2008 Winners Announced

Extra-special congratulations to Kloonigames with Crayon Physics Deluxe. The guy's been cranking out approximately a game every month for a while, now. I guess that goes to show how actually making and finishing games will make you better. One of his games proved to be really strong, and now he's been making a deluxe version of it which totally rocks... and he now has a little bit of extra funding and lots of extra press.

I finally played Audiosurf last night. Way cool game. Who woulda thought that "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" would make such a fun race-track? Sure, its a gimmick. But it's a clever and fun gimmick - and the best part is comparing your score with other people who apparently have the same musical tastes as you.

Desktop Tower Defense won the new "Gleemie" award. While it was definitely deserved, I was still disappointed that the awesome RPG Depths of Peril didn't place in the top three.


Indies On Consoles - For Real, This Time?
I am not at GDC, so I missed the announcement. Microsoft is finally opening up the flood gates for REAL indie developers to release content

But - for indies - this is potentially very, very big.

Announcing: XBox Live Community Games

XBox Live Community Games, the Most Important News In Gaming, Ever?

GDC Keynote: Microsoft Reveals Community Features for XBLA

XBox Live Community Games FAQ

The big question is about selling. How is this going to work? Apparently, that's not been entirely resolved yet. According to the FAQ: "We are still finalizing the business models and revenue sharing details of Xbox LIVE Community Games at this time. More information will be available closer to the retail consumer launch this holiday."

So all you guys who "wasted" your time playing with XNA... your efforts may just pay off after all!


Questions for Indies Part IV
This article is the conclusion of the "XFire Debate Club Annex" that Corvus Elrod and I have been doing for the last month. In this series, we took a bunch of questions that were asked in the audience participation chatroom that didn't make it to the actual debate, and we're giving our best answers. At least, trying to mask our stupid looks and ignorance.

This week, we've got four questions about the business of making indie games. These are fun, because ... while I have answers for them, I don't have "THE" answers for them. There probably is no "real" answer. But these are based on my own experience, and that of other successful indies that I have had contact with.

I should have a permalink from Corvus soonishly, but he should soon have his response to these same questions: XFire Debate Club Annex, Part IV

How do you start making indie games? What kind of education do you need?
I'll start out by answering the education. You don't need any kind of education, but you need to be educated. Does that make sense?

In other words, a formal education might help, but it's not required. However, I can't count the number of times I've been asked by someone, "How do I get started? I have a cool idea for a game! But I have no money, no team, no art skill, no marketing experience, and no interest in programming." My answer is: "No chance." It ain't happening.

If you are going to make an indie game, you are going to wear many hats. If you want to be in charge, make your own game, then it means you will need to know a little bit about a lot of things - and where you are lacking, you are going to need help, and you'd better know somebody who can chip in their expertise. But for the most part, you will need to educate yourself about all of these things. Indies don't have the luxury of being paper-pushing middle managers, or sitting in some ivory tower and being "an idea guy." Indies are low-budget, down-in-the-trenches, roll-up-the-sleeves and get it done people.

If you aren't willing to learn and become educated (through OJT), you shouldn't be trying indie games. I'm learning new stuff every week. That's a big reason why I love doing this stuff.

Now how do you start?

You start as simple as possible, IMO. Pick your technology, pick your game, but make it something you can start (and finish) quickly. People ask me "how do you estimate the time it will take to complete tasks," and my only answer is, "Past experience." A hotshot programmer may be able to get something done in a day that takes an inexperienced programmer two weeks. A skilled artist may get something right on the first try, and an inexperienced artist may go through a dozen iterations and end up with something that is merely adequate.

The only way you can learn is by doing. Grab yourself a copy of Game Maker and make yourself a breakout game. Learn Python, grab Python and PyGame and maybe the source code to Hackenslash and and make something out of it that doesn't suck (or sucks less than what I made...). Start building. Try to make something in a single day, if you can. Or a week. Or a month. Just make something you can finish.

Start by getting a screen up. Then get some player inputs working. Then bring in your own custom art, and learn what that takes. Bring in your own sound effects, and see what it takes. Then wire in your game logic. Then finish all the features, menus, UI, and the zillion other tasks that you will discover your need. Then make it FUN. Then polish.

There's no better training in the world than actually sitting down and making a game, start to finish, even if its nothing but a Space Invaders clone. The scale and budget changes, but the basic process remains the same.

How big is your team? How big do you wish it was?
For Frayed Knights, my team is three people right now. I'm the designer / manager / producer / programmer / buck-stops-here guy, and I also do a little bit of 3D modeling and 2D art (where it's simple), marketing, business development (signing contracts, purchasing stuff), and ... well, pretty much everything else. Kevin Rogers is our internal level guy, a very specific task which he is very good at. James McEwan, who also did a lot of the models in Void War, is handling a lot of the 3D modeling tasks, and has also been jumping in to help out on sound design and 2D art. Mike Nielsen is contributing his awesome musical skills, and we've contracted out for other elements like concept art, character portraits, and the title screen. And I've also been imposing on friends to help me with things like writing and editing.

And I've bought a lot of content off-the-shelf.

For a long time, though, it was a team of one. The way I do indie projects, so far, is it starts out as a one-man project, and the team kind of accrues organically.

Team Size: In my dream version of Rampant Games, we have four or five people working on a game in a small apartment-style office. Plus contractors off-site. And that's as big as it gets. Seriously. I don't want a huge team working on the games - that dilutes creativity and personality, and introduces a huge overhead in communication and process. it becomes more of a widget factory all about process than a creative endeavor. And it really increases the cost of a game. Forget that. Small, tight teams!

How do you get funding to make an indie game?
I have a day job. Seriously. Making indie games is a privilege I pay for. I also sell some games from Rampant Games, mostly by other indies. It helps me pay for contractors, buy tools, and license content. And buy the occasional indie game. So that helps pay for the actual cash costs of making the game, and the rest is ... uh, "sweat equity."

Eventually, one day I'd like to be selling enough from Rampant Games so that I could actually devote myself full-time to making and selling indie games. But for now, I work a 9-12 hour day at the day job, commute, spend a couple of hours with the family, sleep maybe five hours, and devote most of the remaining time to doing this. For free. Easy it ain't.

But I'd rather be doing that than sitting around waiting forever for my 'ship to come in' or whatever. But hey - tell everyone you know to buy games from me so I can make that transition faster. That'll help. :)

Do you make indie games to up-sell to publishers, or do you self publish?
I expect to self-publish. If I end up with a publisher at some point, and the deal makes sense to me, and I knew that the publisher was legitimate, competent, and paid their bills on time, then I'd be okay going through a publisher.

And bear in mind there are some small, indie-style publishers out there too. Not every developer is Bioware, and not every publisher is EA (oh, wait, Bioware IS EA now... well, nevermind).

The thing would have to come down to what the publisher is bringing to the table, and to realize what I'm giving up in return. For it to make sense to me, I'd assume a worst-case scenario: The game sells poorly, and that this is a one-time deal. I think too many inexperienced developers happily give away their most valuable assets on dreams of retiring as a one-hit wonder or something. If the publishing deal got me on store shelves, allowed me to retain IP rights and continue to sell directly from my own site (and portal partners), then I'd be willing to talk.

But I don't plan on it when developing a game. I expect to handle all of it myself.

(Vaguely) related visual droning:
* Questions for Indies, Part I
* Questions for Indies, Part II
* Questions for Indies, Part III

Got More To Add? To Ask? Here's a Forum Discussion!

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Can Playing RPGs Make You Rich?
I went to an "investors club" meeting of sorts tonight. It was founded in part by an old college buddy of mine - a fellow Dungeons & Dragons player and medievalist who got the bug up his butt about three years ago to get involved in real estate and other forms of investing, and has been doing that full time ever since. He has managed to do pretty well for himself and his family.

The event was... well, it was a whole 'nother world, folks. I was struggling to grasp the jargon at first, in spite of having some basic familiarity in other areas of investing (hey, I listen to some of these books-on-tape while commuting to The Day Job). They discusses strategies, taxes, threw around investment opportunities (many of which had minimum investment levels that were outside of my budget). They asked questions of each other I didn't know to ask, but by the end of the night I was getting a pretty good feel for things and understanding their answers.

In fact, I found it way more familiar than I expected. A weird realization hit me.

These guys are GAMERS.

Investing for Munchkins
No, maybe they didn't all spend their college or high-school years slinging dice next to miniatures like my friend and I did. Though apparently some of the people in the group, according to my friend, are avid video game players. But I found myself very familiar the tone of the discussion. I've been in enough game stores,RPG discussion forums, and on the periphery of World of Warcraft raid postmortems to recognize the familiar patterns in the discussions. The questions asked were new to me, the actual jargon was a learning experience, but if you change the words around these guys could have been powergamers (or, to use a less flattering term, munchkins) discussing their perfect character build or raid strategy.

In popular RPG terms, they were level 10 and I was a level 1. They slung around terms as carelessly as hardcore RPG players might sling around terms like "Armor Class," "DPS," "Drop Rate," and "Dex Bonus," which took me a little while to grasp.

They discussed opportunities. They argued risks, historical yields, comps, and the current state of the real estate market in Las Vegas (their term was "interesting," which I gathered was a euphemism for "don't touch it unless you know what you are doing.) They have figured out ways of making money regardless of what way the market goes - up, down, or sideways. Risky, but impressive. The opportunities were thrown around the room much like the stereotypical patron NPCs in stereotypical taverns would toss around quest and plot hooks for the next adventure.

And this made me think some more... could certain games - the stat-heavy RPGs and strategy games, in particular - be good training for the neural pathways, analytical skills, and behaviors necessary to succeed in the investment world? Are those annoying RPG munchkins actually best suited, with some education, to become real estate tycoons? Could those get-a-lifer raid leaders in World of Warcraft be suited to be get-a-lifer currency traders? Could the girl who just kicked your butt in Age of Empires also kick butt in the stock market for real-world stakes? Do those skills translate?

Gaming Skills = Getting Rich Skills?
Maybe. I asked my friend about this, and he agreed. He went over several things he learned from playing D&D (pen-and-paper) that he felt really helped prepare him for investing. He also said that this was the second time this week that someone asked him if Dungeons & Dragons has helped him in practical life.

"D&D is definitely where I gained my comfort with charts and calculations. I think from there I became a wiz at spreadsheets in corporate america. From there I used the same skill to create spreadsheets to evaluate properties once I had established my own Real Estate Strategy," he told me. He then went on how things like creating a character (we won't mention min/maxing here...oops, I just did) helped him both in investing, time management, and as a filmmaker in his previous career in terms of fitting things within budget, and reaching an optimum balance.

"At the same time I learned that absolute strict adherence to the rules could be too 'clinical' and while staying balanced with the rules of the game it was also possible to realize what didn't work for our particular situation and make appropriate adjustments as situations arise," he told me, possibly pulling from some "Dungeon Mastering" experience. "This obviously translated well to my investing techniques. I learned several different 'methods' of investing. Learned the balance of all of them. Then created my own 'techniques' talored to my situation while keeping in balance."

Leveling Up In the Real World
Obviously, it takes more than just playing video games and pen-and-paper RPGs or strategy games. It takes directing some of that passion into another focus. But hey, my friend still plays D&D - in fact, he has more time for it now than he did even back in college.

So, gamers: if you are one of those weirdos who like talking about your characters, game balance, build orders in popular RTS games, your best raid gear or character builds, optimum combat strategies for your party against a Pit Fiend, you may be primed to score the "phat l00t" for real. You may not only be trained to excel in these areas, but you may also find they match your particularly warped gamer sense of fun.

(Vaguely) related applications of my lack of l337 gaming skillz!
* The Secret of Success: It's All In Your Mind(set)!
* Playing to Crush With Life
* The Power of Vision

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The Monk's Brew
I haven't mentioned it directly on the blog here yet because I was waiting for him to get a few articles up first, but I think it's time I mention Mike Rubin's new blog, 'The Monk's Brew." We talked about this a little bit at the last Utah Indie meeting, and exchanged a few emails about the subject.

The Monk's Brew is very Adventure Game / Interactive Fiction - centric, and is sort of a look at that side of the indie gaming fence from the perspective of a developer (kinda like here). Mike Rubin lends his expertise and perspective as someone who loves classic text-based Interactive Fiction, but also sees new ways to bring the game style to new audiences. You'll find regular updates of his big "magnum opus," Vespers 3D, as well as discussions of other topics and stories from the adventure game side of things.

So... I'll pass it along... enjoy!

Visit The Monk's Brew! Add it to your RSS Feeds! And Have Fun!

(Vaguely) related adventures in topical chaos:
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin on Vespers 3D (Part 1)
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin on Vespers 3D (Part 2)
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
* How Do I Get Past the Harpies?
* Utah Indie Game Dev Night, Summer 2006

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Monday, February 18, 2008
Indie RPG News Roundup: February 18
Have you finished all of 2007's independent computer role-playing games already, and you are looking for more? Here's what I've heard:

Avernum 5
The PC version of the latest in Spiderweb Software's huge fantasy RPG series has now been released - a couple of weeks earlier than I expected! Congrats to Jeff Vogel and the Spiderweb team. You can check out the PC demo (or just buy the full game) at Spiderweb's Avernum 5 Webpage. Avernum 5, available for Mac and PC, includes:
Depths of Peril
Soldak Entertainment reports that Depths of Peril, the award-winning and (IMO) incredibly innovative and awesome action/strategy/RPG is one of 7 finalists for Wizards of the Coast's/Gleemax's Gleemie Awards. The finalists for “The Gleemie” were selected from a field of more than 170 game submissions (10th Annual Independent Games Festival) based on strategic and innovative game play. I'm definitely cheering this one on, though it's up against some pretty awesome competition (like the incredibly cool "Crayon Physics" game by Kloonigames, not to mention Desktop Tower Defense).

Ethereal Dreams
The 2.0 Demo for Ethereal Dreams was released on New Years' Day, featuring approximately 3 hours of gameplay. This one has been making some slow but steady progress (the 1.0 demo was released a year ago), but it looks promising. It looks to be (currently) a Windows-only release. (Spotted at JayIsGames)

Indies of the Round Table
In case you missed it last week, ten indie RPG developers weighed in on the subject of "Why Indie RPGs?" here at Rampant Games. Panelists included Jeff Vogel, Vince D. Weller, Amanda Fitch, Steven Peeler, Thomas Riegsecker, and many more. It's a huge article, but full of great insight. Check out Indies of the Round Table #1.

The Trials of Soscarides
The Trials of Soscarides, an entry in the November RPGDX "RPG in a weekend" competition, has been completed as a full "mini" (and FREE) RPG available for both Windows and Mac.

The Legacy of Flan: Flan Rising
This free RPG is available from Scott Games. The game is part of a charity fund-raiser for a playground in Afghanistan, and the site is requesting donations rather than charging for the games. (Spotted at JayIsGames.)

Frayed Knights
The Frayed Knights "pilot" is going into a phased alpha test starting next week. Testers will be added in groups throughout March to test weekly builds. If you are interested in exposing your computer to the perils associated with a very alpha build, you can add yourself to the Frayed Knights Alpha Tester list.

The Adventures of Cendah
Carl Carlsson of KingDiz Entertainment reports that his newest RPG, "The Adventures of Cendah," will be released on Wednesday (Feb. 20th). This game promises improved features and better graphics than his previous games. There's a playable demo already available, so you can check it out now!

Darkened Dreams 2
Darkened Dreams is a primarily text-based (with block-maps of color) RPG by Curtis Mirci - a co-worker of mine and member of this community. He's now gathered together some help from some artists who liked what they saw, and they have begun development of Darkened Dreams 2. I'm hoping for some cool sub-title like, "Darkened Dreams 2: The Wrath of Khan" or "Darkened Dreams 2: Electric Boogaloo" or something, but he's been all tight-lipped about it. But you can check out the production blog and see what updates he has to share.

Sonnheim - A Place In the Sun
Version 0.1.6 of Sonnheim: A Place in the Sun was released about three weeks ago, by Rampant Games community member Hajo. He's been doing some very different things with this game, attempting something of a "non-combat" multiplayer RPG. Sonnheim is described as, "a multi user environment consisting of landscape and city like maps. It tries to combine the ideas of socializing and role playing and provides an environment for this."

To the World Tree
While not making the finals in the IGF, To the World Tree continues development, and version 5 of this free RPG was recently released. Primary emphasis on this new version was on improving the user interface. You can check it out at the To the World Tree Website.

Got more news? Comments? You can post here, or for posterity on the Indie RPG News Roundup Forum Thread.

(Vaguely) related tales of attacking bunny rabbits and giant rats:
* Indie RPG News Roundup, February 2nd
* Indie RPG News Roundup, January 22nd
* Indie RPG News Roundup, January 16th

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Sunday, February 17, 2008
Fascinating Links on a Sunday Morning
There are just too many things I've found recently that I felt like sharing:

Psychochild on Designing Attribute Systems - Thoughts on designing attribute systems for RPGs.

Profit vs. Passion Photos from Casuality 2008 - Indie game developer Grey Alien Games posts a report on a "Profit vs. Passion" talk. The take-away from this summary seems to be that games manufactured purely to "cash in" tend to sell worse than games that are made out of enthusiasm for the game itself. Although the most telling example for Reflexive was their best-seller out of the list ... which was, in their view, equal parts profit and passion motive.

The Aberrant Gamer: Getting To The Action - Leigh Alexander explores (as she often does) the topic of sexuality in games. But in this case she hits one of my personal soapbox issues, and takes games to task for dealing with mature topic - specifically sexuality, intimacy, and relationships - in a juvenile fashion. She makes some suggestions for making games that really do appeal to mature audiences beyond the "M" rating. She comments, "An inanimate cube, juveniles holding hands, and the nuances of a complicated adult relationship as seen through the eyes of a youth – the conclusion here seems to be that games are able to create that sense of intimacy by revealing less, not more ... games lose dignity the more decadent cleavage shots and full-body pans they show."

Gleemax Finalist - Depths of Peril was selected as one of the finalists for the new Gleemax "Gleemie" award at the IGF. Congrats Soldak Entertainment!

“Because, uh, but, uh, I wrote a book.” - Rock, Paper, Shotgun (specifically, John Walker) takes both Fox News Network and Jack Thompson to task for pulling the same ol' crap they keep pullin'. In this case, suggesting video games mind-controlled an adult who was nearly 30.

QoL Watch: Beware of Bioware - Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars posts rumors of bad quality-of-life problems at Bioware long before EA showed up. However, a more interesting rebuttal (of sorts) appears in the comments by someone who claims to be a Bioware employee. The rebuttal has a ring of truth to it. It's still not a glowing appraisal of life as a Bioware employee, but it does indicate that things aren't any worse than the rest of the industry. Which, in a word, still sucks, as "death march" is still sort of an industry standard practice. (But, pointing at the second link here, one man's "death march" is another man's "labor of love").

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Saturday, February 16, 2008
Utah Gives Disney Video Games the Red Carpet Treatment
It's so nice when my state actually shows that they have a clue:

Utah Wooing Disney Game Biz with Huge Tax Incentive

Though it's no wonder my Day Job has started making people sign a non-compete (though they granted me an exception for Rampant Games, a requirement for me signing on in the first place.)

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Play the IGF Finalist Games!
GDC is next week (no, I'm not going), which means the 10th annual Independent Games Festival is drawing to a close. The winners will be announced on February 20th, at the closing ceremonies. If you haven't played (or voted) yet, here are a couple of links. Many thanks to Scorpia for sending me the links!

If you have FilePlanet access, FilePlanet has hosted all of the downloadable games, and have convenient links to vote and to play the online titles:

IGF Finalists at FilePlanet

There is also the official site, which goes through FileShack, though there are also direct links to the games' websites:

IGF Official Audience Choice Award

I haven't played all of them, but I am particularly fond of Globulos and Battleships Forever (what can I say, I'm a sucker for space combat games...)


Friday, February 15, 2008
Frayed Knights - Pilot Prep
So, did you want to hear a weekly update on the development of Frayed Knights, the indie fantasy role-playing game of comedy and pointless in-jokes?



Well, I don't have anything else prepared, so I'm just gonna roll with it anyway.

The Pilot Demo Approaches
This week (this month, really) has all been about the Big Sprint to alpha for the "Pilot Demo." That's the latest name for what's getting released in April. I liked the term, "pilot," thinking of pilot programs and TV show pilots. That really kinda sums up what the April release is about.

Basically, its one big test screening. To see what flies, and what lands with a thud. The engine will be "done." Armed with the feedback from the pilot, we'll build out the rest of the game, fixing what seems broken in the engine or design and moving forward.

It's kind of a cheapski way of making two RPGs, so I can get all my mistakes with the first one out of the way.

The Game Development Life Is Very Glamorous
I spent way too much time this weekend looking at... fonts. Key game elements are still laying half-assembled on the virtual workbench, and I spent hours and hours looking at fonts. And emailing the guys that made the fonts, asking for terms. Because they don't want to give you the terms up-front, in case you are a WEALTHY company like Microsoft who they can charge thousands of dollars to. So I have to play my "poor indie" card.

Interesting point - on one site that had fonts that were "free for non-commercial use" and some other fonts that were "premium" but okay for commercial use - the charge for commercial use of the free fonts exceeded that of the premium fonts. Go figger. We're not talking about extreme price-gouging or anything, but it was definitely interesting.

And no, I still haven't settled on a font yet. The two more exotic ones I tried out were almost universally panned.

Ah, such is the glamorous life of a game developer. It's all action and adventure and excitement and whooping and hollering as the game comes together...

The Game Comes Together?
The frantic final stages are both thrilling and stressful. Remember that scene in "Ghostbusters" when they are talking in the elevator about how each of them is wearing an unlicensed proton accelerator on their back and that they've never actually had a successful test of the equipment? That's pretty much how I'm feeling each time I run the game. The changes are coming "fast and furious," building on a bunch of foundation code that is beginning to get old enough to gather dust, but I'm now calling functions and special behaviors that were never entirely tested.

And I am thrilled with how often they actually work more-or-less correctly. That almost makes up for the times I spend revamping or debugging months-old code that seems completely alient to me.

For example, I spent a half-hour tracking down the reason that a character can wear TWO suits of chain mail at the same time IF they equip the second suit directly from the party inventory, but not if they bring it to their own inventory first. The fault turned out to be a misspelled function name (ah, the joy of typeless scripting languages) that had been sitting around in the code FOREVER, unexercised.

I finally got Drama Star effects implemented. Well, partially. We're in the middle of a massive (and long overdue) re-design of the UI. I can now mix monster types in encounters - so we can have a boss encounter with his guards (a challenge that, for now, is a little on the "too hard" side). And there have been a lot of fiddley bits I've been working on - fixed dialogs, descriptions on spell effects, UI management bugs, and so forth.

Taking Inventory
Oh, and inventory is now working much better. You can actually use activated items now - like potions - both in and out of combat. I liberally sprinkled a few potions of negligable healing throughout the dungeon, which has made an ENORMOUS difference in combat balance during the game. I expected it would, but you never know about these things until the rubber meets the road.

I also disabled access to the party inventory during combat. This is a change that I think will stick with the final version. Previously, I'd designed it so that using things directly out of the party inventory simply incurred a much larger delay between a character's actions. But the delay factor is really abstract - while it doesn't need to be understood to play the game, really big delays would cause confusion and frustrations with players who haven't yet grokked it. Disabling access to party inventory simplified and streamlined things, and also - I felt - made for more interesting decisions. Who gets that potion of healing when supplies are running low?

(I usually give it to Benjamin, who can then heal other party members with spells.)

Almost all aspects of combat are now functional. The AI aren't casting spells yet, the "defensive" stance doesn't do anything yet (I gotta fix that - it's like a ten-minute job!). And no "active" feats have been implemented yet (nor are they usable by the AI). And I'm not entirely sure weapon ranges are functioning correctly - I gotta run some tests on that this weekend.

But with spells working (and easy to add!), inventory items (both equipped and activated) functional, drama star effects... I'm kinda giddy. Combat has become much more interesting. Not that every random encounter with pus golems is a thrilling X-Com battle level of awesome (if only!), but they are much more fun and interesting than the click-click-yawn-click gameplay of too many "action" games.

That makes me giddy on a level that I suppose only an old-school D&D geek can appreciate. I still have no clue if anybody ELSE will appreciate it - but hey, that's what the pilot is for, right?

Sign up!
If you haven't signed up to be an alpha victim --- er, I mean, TESTER, and you have an unusually high tolerance for pain, don't forget to sign up on the alpha testing thread in the forum.

(Vaguely) related dorkiness:
* Frayed Knights - Bad Text Gone Wild!
* Frayed Knights - The Stupid Stuff Takes Too Long
* Frayed Knights - Please Don't Swim In Our Toilet
* Frayed Knights - Exploding Locks and Other Stories

Got questions? comments? Arguments? Suggestions? Post About 'Em In The Forum!

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Thursday, February 14, 2008
PC Gaming Is In Disarray? Or Just Gaming?
Epic's Uber-Designer Cliff Bleszinski commented in an interview on MTV Multiplayer on Epic's priorities for future games:
“I think people would rather make a game that sells 4.5 million copies than a million and 'Gears (of War)' is at 4.5 million right now on the 360. I think the PC is just in disarray… what’s driving the PC right now is ‘Sims’-type games and ‘WoW‘ and a lot of stuff that’s in a web-based interface. You just click on it and play it. That’s the direction PC is evolving into. So for me, the PC is kind of the secondary part of what we’re doing. It’s important for us, but right now making AAA games on consoles is where we’re at.”
As a gamer, this disappoints me. The PC game developer in me, watching the competition march a slow retreat from the field, thinks, "Hey guys, don't let the door hit you on the butt on the way out!"

Okay. Sure. If someone were to offer me a choice between 1 million and 4.5 million dollars, what would I choose? Duh! But let's examine this for a moment. How, exactly, is the PC in such a "disarray?"
Did I miss anything significant here, or did this just about cover it?

Not that these aren't problems. They are pretty big problems. Problems that need to be solved, and that some guys who may end up owning everybody else in a few years are busy trying to solve. But that's another story.

Yes - you are gonna have a tough time spending a 2008 budget on a PC-exclusive that's still selling numbers that aren't far improved from 1998. But part of me wonders - is that really the PC's problem as a game platform, or is more the games industry's problem for getting into a money war for which there can only be one battlefield?

Ultima Underworld, according to this article, was made for a total budget of around $400,000. It became one of Origin's top-selling titles at half a million sales. Is it completely impossible to do the same today?

I found this old comic via Kloonigames today that speaks volumes... (click for a larger version).

It's not the PC as a games platform that is in disarray.

It's the video games business.


Questions For Indies, Part III
At the XFire Debate Club a couple of weeks ago, a lot of questions were suggested that weren't asked. Corvus Elrod and I decided to continue the Q&A sessions on our blogs. Just in case anybody from the debate was listening. Well, actually, it made for easy blog-fodder, and I'd rather deal with a topic someone somewhere was actually interested in. So... here we go. Three more questions from the XFire Debate Club about being an indie game developer.

You can check out Corvus's take on these questions in this post:
XFire Debate Annex Part III

Question: Do you create a game for yourself or for your audience?

Answer: Can't I do both?

As an indie, I am not going to make a game that I'm not excited about. I don't care of hidden-object games are the best-selling rage right now and are a license to print money, I'm not going to make one if it doesn't thrill me and I don't feel passionate about it. Life's too short, especially for something that I'm still doing as more of a hobby than a business.

But I also consider myself - to some degree - an entertainer, and a servant. I want to make things that make other people happy. The "other people" should include ME, too, but I'm okay with changing things and compromising my "vision" to make something other people will better enjoy. And frankly, I've been at this long enough to know that my "vision" isn't infallible, that other people might have brilliant ideas I've never thought of, and that my ego is way less important than making a really cool game. Screw the prima-donna "artiste" crap.

What's the difference between this and mainstream game publishers who create pablum for the widest possible audience? My choice of who I'm trying to please. My willingness to address a niche (which includes me!) of people who are hopefully as passionate about what I'm doing as I am. In fact, with Frayed Knights, I have been trying to make it a little bit of a group activity, incorporating feedback and suggestions from those who also want it to be good (and I fear disappointing them!)

Yes, I think games are an artistic endeavor. I just don't feel my games are all about me.

Question: Does becoming more "mainstream" to hit a wider audience defeat the purpose of being indie?

Answer: If you are talking about making a more mainstream-style game, then no. In my opinion, the purpose of being an indie is to take control of your own destiny; to make and sell games without groveling for permission to do so from your "mainstream" lords and masters. It's not so much about flipping off "the man" as it making "the man" an insignificant part of your universe.

So if you want to make Barbie-style games or first-person shooters or real-time strategy games that are totally based on "core" or mainstream or popular sensibilities, but you do it your own way without taking your marching orders from the Big Money Guys, you're indie. Indie games can be of any genre.

Now, if you are talking about becoming more "mainstream" by entering a publishing deal where you are then paid to make games for somebody else who can then use their Big Money Powers to hit a wider audience... then you aren't indie anymore.

Question: Where do you get your ideas / inspiration?

Answer: Desperation.

I find that when you need ideas and inspiration - you think about it, you work on it, you write it, you sweat over it - inspiration and ideas come. Most of the time they just come out of need. I usually need to sit down and actively try and write down some thoughts for the ideas to flow, but when I need a solution to a problem, and actively work to noodle around on it, the ideas come. Whether it's a sticky game problem, or the need for a blog topic for the day, or a piece of dialog that needs to come together.

And then I try and actively look at the world and ask questions like, "How would I make a game out of that?" or "What could I do to take some cool bit of this real-world experience and incorporate it into my current game?" or "How does this relate to games?" I get some blue-sky ideas that way.

I also talk to other people. There's nothing quite like bouncing ideas off of other people for things to gel and "cool ideas" to materialize as people force you to look at things a different way or suggest ideas which can then be merged with your own to make something better than either of them.

And yeah, I get ideas from other games - or movies or books. Oftentimes it comes out of frustration... I look at something and say, "Oh, sheesh, I could do SO MUCH BETTER than that!" Of course, it's never that easy, but it starts me down a path.

(Vaguely) related wastes of electricity:
* Questions For Indies, Part I
* Questions For Indies, Part II
* Why Indie? Indies of the Round Table #1


Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The Real Cost of Piracy?
Russell Carroll, of GameTunnel.com and marketing director for Reflexive, posted a fascinating article on Gamasutra yesterday that a lot of people in the biz won't be happy about. It's about piracy. And - while still far from an adequate measure of the effects of piracy, bore surprising results.

Casual Games and Piracy: The Truth

Some fascinating numbers that I'm having some trouble getting my head around and reconciling, as they are surprising and don't follow my expectations whatsoever.

Did Anybody Actually PAY For This Game?
First of all, they discovered that - of the people playing their game, Ricochet Infinity, 92% were pirated copies of the full game.


That means the pirated, illegal versions outnumbered the legal versions nearly 12 to 1. That doesn't include offline play - which might be similar numbers unless pirates are actually feeling less brazen as a whole. That is staggering and sobering. I've heard numbers like this before (in fact, I've heard numbers around 15:1), but I'm sure it's even more sobering when it's your own game - recognizing how many people out there have ripped you off.

While the entire article is fascinating, there are two more key percentages to pay attention to.

Better DRM = MUCH MUCH Better Sales. Unfortunately.
First of all - their best attempt at fighting piracy - fixing the DRM to close some pretty major loopholes (and developers who have sold games through Reflexive have been griping about those loopholes for years) - increased sales by as much as 70%.

This is pretty ginormous. Just think --- if there was one thing you could do at your job that would increase your salary by 70%, would it be worth it to you? Yeah, I probably would, too. If putting the correct TPS cover sheet on my reports would mean an instant 70% raise, I'd do it with a gusto.

This bugs me a lot, because - on the whole - I hate most forms of DRM / copy protection. And it's a shame that it works. This means it's gonna be harder to get away from either that, or from required online registration. I don't like that answer, either, because I'm one of those people who likes playing old games. Games that survived the company that originally created them. If those games required some kind of online registration with a server in order to play, I'd be S.O.L.

And that's just improving an existing DRM system, not a comparison of non-DRM versus DRM. You can make all kind of theoretical arguments you want here. 70% is a lot of lost sales due to piracy. I expect that when this article makes the rounds and discussions, this factor will get forgotten in light of the fact that this had a negligible impact on piracy.

So maybe DRM isn't the clear answer it seems to be.

Most Pirates Are Incorrigible
There are several ways of looking at that number, however, and none of them really follow anti-piracy FUD that equates every pirated copy as a lost sale, either. One way of looking at it is this: The pirates outnumbered the legitimate players in the above sampling at a ratio of 11.5:1. So if the DRM actually worked and every pirated game was a lost sale, then their sales SHOULD have increased over ten-fold!

Not even close. With a 70% increase in sales, that means that 0.7 out of 11.5 went legit with stronger DRM. That's less than 1 in 16 - or 6% - of pirates going legit when forced to.

Or, as Russell points out, you can also look at it as a conversion factor, which might be more telling. According to him, the ratio of decreased downloads to increased sales was 1000:1. There is a TON you can read into that one, too. Maybe the pirates all went to torrent the full game instead of brazenly using up Reflexive's bandwidth for a game they intended to crack. Who knows? But here's the kicker: the classic "goal" for downloadable games is a 1% conversion rate. Meaning 1 sale per 100 downloads. The DRM improvement kicked up that conversion rate by only 0.1%.

So in terms of conversion ratios, there are probably a lot better things you could do with your time and energy to improve conversion.

Conclusions... Still Murky
Now, there are a ton of "what if" scenarios that Software Industry scaremongers and pirates trying to justify their rip-off habits will use to throw these numbers into doubt and invoke apples-to-oranges comparisons. These are more casual games, for one thing, where piracy is a lot less mature. Who knows what the pirates were doing after the DRM was enhanced? Why didn't the other attempts to strengthen anti-piracy measures - like making existing keygens and cracks obsolete - have nearly as dramatic an effect? Would even better DRM have had a greater effect (Boy, you can get into a losing battle here...)? Did the pirates just move on to other games that were easier targets?

What are the long-term effects of piracy? Does the realization that I'm the only one who legitimately paid for something devalue what I paid for, or does it make me feel like a sucker or chump and resentful of the experience? Will we eventually run out of people willing to pay for games?

There's nothing conclusive here, but Russell has graciously provided the entire industry with some numbers that are really, really worth chewing on.

This says a number of things to me:

#1 - Piracy is amazingly widespread.

#2 - A tiny impact on piracy can yield a major increase in sales, but

#3 - DRM only makes a tiny impact in piracy, and is probably not a long-term solution, and

#4 - "Fighting Piracy" is only a part of the solution. If piracy could be entirely eliminated, software sellers would not be miraculously led to a land of milk and honey. While maybe more than the 1 in 1000 pirated versions mentioned in this report represent "lost sales" if all piracy avenues were eliminated, it's highly doubtful it would be anything close to 1:1. MAYBE it would be 1 in 100.

UPDATE: Russell has clarified that the four methods tried to curb piracy were consecutive, which explains why the second and third updates / changes had no effect on sales. He states, " The first fix with significantly increased sales was definitely worth the time put into doing it. It was a great growth for Reflexive that pushed us up to a new plateau. That moment is really clear in the growth of Reflexive over time, so it was worth it. It's possible that even the 4th fix was worth the time, it was recent enough that we're still looking at the long-term results." (On GameSetWatch )

(Vaguely) related stories of woe and desperation
* A Pirate Story
* A Better Way to Fight Piracy?
* PC Game Publishers: Hurt Me Some More!

What's Your Take? You Can Talk About It On the Forums, Too!


Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Fox News Launching Multi-Front War Against Games
So ... let's see... in the last month Fox News has claimed:

* Mass Effect is a fully interactive, customizeable orgy.

* Video games can trigger flashbacks in injured veterans and cause them to freak out

* Video games are destroying the environment. Yeah, there's been a decrease in outdoor activities while video games have increased in prominence. There must be a causal relationship. During the same time, there's also been a steep decrease in violent crimes. But no, no, there's certainly no correlation!

Lest we think it's only a problem with Fox News here in the U.S., we've got a pop-psychologist TV shrink in the UK effectively writing legislation to restrict video games. And a Times Online article calls the XBox "Crack For Kids."

You know, it's very, very hard to convince myself that this isn't just "old media" lashing out desperately to defend itself against competing new media.


Gamezebo Interviews Georgina Bensley
Gamezebo has just interviewed Georgina Bensley of Hanako Games (Fatal Hearts, Cute Knight). They focus a lot on the indie game creation process, asking questions about design, how she finds contractors, and so forth. That's fascinating stuff to ME, since I have this voyeuristic interest in seeing how other indies manage to get their job done. :)

A couple of excerpts:
How do you fund your projects?

The business grows organically - the sales from one game allow me to spend more money building the next.

If someone offered you a studio with a staff of 10 people, what would you do?

I can think of projects to assign if I had a bigger staff, but I'm not sure I really want one. I do always have more ideas than I have time for, but that may be a good thing. It forces me to focus. I think I'd be more likely to have people working with me than for me, people who were passionate about their own ideas.
Ah, bootstrapping...

Anyway, I thought I'd pass it along:

Gamezebo: Interview with Georgina Bensley, Hanako Games


Monday, February 11, 2008
Why Indie RPGs? Indies of the Round Table #1
Welcome to the premier edition of Indies of the Round Table! We've gathered together (virtually, at least) many indie computer role-playing game developers in a virtual summit meeting to discuss a variety of topics concerning their craft. They range from experienced vets with years of experience doing what they do, to new developers making a splash with their freshman projects; hardcore to casual; freeware to commercial; single-player to massively multiplayer game makers; and hardcore to casual.

In short, we've got a nice cross-section of indie CRPG makers here who offer a tremendous range of perspectives. Which they are going to share straight from the gut, without trying to be nicely political for the sake of their publishers and bosses - because they don't have 'em! So we'll be try to keep it real as each month they tackle one topic, question, issue, or controversy.

This month, I decided to hit them with the question of their own existence: Why bother?

Question: Why Indie RPGs? The last eighteen months or so have brought gamers plenty of role-playing games and expansions for computer and console from mainstream developers. And there are tons of Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs) that are 'scratching the itch' for RPG fans and formerly non-gamers alike. And then there are literally thousands of fan-made modules for the Neverwinter Nights games. In this kind of environment, what does a comparatively low-budget indie computer RPG have to offer the player?

Game developers, take it away:

Jeff Vogel, Spiderweb Software ("Avernum V"... amongst many others):
I would certainly dispute that "plenty" of quality single-player RPGs have been released lately. There haven't been many at all. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is almost two years old. Neverwinter Nights 2 is only a few months newer than that. Outside of Mass Effect (XBox 360 only) or the Witcher (PC only), it's really been thin pickings.

As for user-made scenarios, while some of them are of a quality comparable to stand-alone full length RPGs, it's not a large number, and they frequently run on older (and sometimes no longer available) engines.

Or, to put it another way, we are selling more copies of our Indie RPGs now than at any time in the fourteen years we've been in business. So offering quality games still counts for a lot.

Amanda Fitch, Amaranth Games ("Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest"):
In my opinion, in the end, it comes down to the story. A good story is worth more than a million dollars spent on graphics and art. At least, I've personally found this to be true.

Vince D. Weller, Iron Tower Studio ("Age of Decadence"):
I don't understand the question. Maybe if I rephrase it a bit....

Thank God that Mask of the Betrayer and The Witcher were released, because otherwise it would have been the worst eighteen months or so for the RPG community, unless you count all those shitty action games with stats like Dungeon Siege: Broken World and Titan Quest. In unrelated news, the industry is still obsessed with so-called MMORPGs that are scratching the itch to grind and LARP for people who don't have anything better to do. And then there are at least 10 fan-made NWN modules that are worth playing. How do you crazy indie developers deal with all that?

Well, first, I don't think that the market is over-saturated (or even saturated) with RPGs, second, being an RPG fan myself I don't think that there is a such a thing as too many good RPGs.

As for what the indies have to offer, we can offer players things they won't find anywhere else. Mainstream equivalents of games like Geneforge, Avernum, Mount & Blade, Eschalon or Broken Hourglass aren't in development, yet there are people who want to play such games.

Overall, indies offer originality and creativity. I'm not saying that mainstream developers aren't creative. Obsidian is loaded with top quality, mind blowing talent - Avellone, Sawyer, Mitsoda, Saunders, Ziets, and many others and Mask of the Betrayer proves that beyond any reasonable doubts. Unfortunately, the publishers control the industry and at the moment they want MOAR action, like totally next-generation RPGs. So, if you, dear reader, want something different, well, welcome to Club Indie. We hope you'll enjoy your stay.

Thomas Riegsecker, Basilisk Games ("Eschalon: Book 1"):
There are several things that an indie title can offer over these other options, actually. Indie games cater to a very specific niche market that many AAA developers just don't understand. I'm part of the 1% of the population that didn't like The Witcher despite desperately wanting to enjoy it. It just didn't feel like an RPG to me, as is the problem with many mainstream titles that call themselves role-playing games.

Secondly, an indie title can offer a fresh perspective (new setting, new rules) that you don't get with user-made mods. I've played many NWN mods, and after the twentieth module they get rather redundant. Sure, there are some nice total conversions that are fairly stimulating, but 95% of users mods are just more of the same. Add-ons and user mods are no substitute for a fresh, new game.

Lastly, I think that most indie titles represent a good value. While AAA tiles may cost $50-$60 dollars each, you can get a great indie RPG for half that- plus you tend to get better customer service. When someone has a problem with my game, they can speak to me about it. How many people were able to talk to Todd Howard when they were having trouble with Oblivion?

Josh Engebretson, Prairie Games ("Minions of Mirth"):
The recent offerings from mainstream developers all have one very frustrating thing in common: the system requirements verge on the ridiculous. These games simply run like crap on anything other than the absolute latest and greatest. Furthermore, these titles don't always get released for Mac OSX or if they do arrive late. The Mac platform accounted for 47% of our sales last year. Indies really need to cover as wide range of hardware and platforms as they possibly can. This is a far larger 'niche' than technophiles with the budget for SLI rigs and an unsatiable thirst for pixel shaders!

Jason Compton, Planewalker Games ("The Broken Hourglass"):
We keep working for the same reason novelists and musicians and TV/movie producers continue to work: even in a world full of media choice, we think the audience is still telling us, "No, no, I'm not satisfied. I still want to hear *your* story."

All things considered, we have it pretty good compared to those other crowded media spaces. If you're a television producer, you're competing for attention not only with your contemporary peers, but with about 60 years of published product, much of it available on DVD or for download or on 100+ cable stations. You're also competing with YouTube--even an amateur can turn up 22 minutes of distracting video chicanery online without too much effort.

If you're a filmmaker, you're competing with about 80 years of published product--more, if you include silent films. You also have the same problems the TV guys have.

If you're a novelist... forgive the pun, but on paper, you're totally screwed. You have to fight with literally more than a millennium of competition, from your basic Ancient Holy Books up through Harry Potter and John Grisham, plus all the fanfic and self-published works which have flooded the world over the past decade.

Looking at it that way, I think I'll take my chances against the rest of the games industry any day. There's "only" about 30 years of titles in the gaming world to fight with, and really only a handful of those which tell stories using the devices we use.

Georgina Bensley, Hanako Games ("Cute Knight Deluxe"):
There are a lot of NWN modules. I used to play them. I used to write them. The "90% of everything is crap" rule applies here too. :) A lot of those free modules simply aren't any good. Poor grammar, terrible storyline, unbalanced challenges, sprawling level design... There's always room for another GOOD game.

And there's always room for something different. The bigger the game and the investment, the more tendency there is to lean towards the mainstream and trying to please everyone/offend no one. Which can make many games feel very same-y. Working with a smaller budget means you can target bizarre niches and take wild chances. You may not get WoW's subscriber count, but you don't NEED that many sales either.

How many games are there on the market at the moment where you can play a rabbit? There's a bunch of furry fans out there who might be interested if you make one.

Mike Hommel, Hamumu Games ("Loonyland 2: Winter Woods"):
I feel like, with RPGs more than any other type of game, it's really the individual work that you either want or you don't. The presence of Neverwinter Nights modules doesn't compel me in the slightest, though the presence of WoW does (compel me to not get any work done). I don't see anything about a low-budget game really being less compelling than a big-budget game in the RPG arena. You either are interested in the particular story, setting, mechanics, and style, or you aren't. I mean, a big-budget game can wow you with cut-scenes, but while that might get you to buy the game, it's not going to make you like it any more than the stick figure indie game once you play them both.

So, we certainly lose out in terms of exposure - we aren't going to sell what they are. But in terms of players actually enjoying themselves, the budget is no real disadvantage. It might be if big-budget games were made with the same tech as indie games - then they'd have a lot more content because of the extra man-hours available. But the way it's done now, the lower budget games usually give you more gameplay. Or at least more gameplay with merit. Final Fantasy can take a hundred hours, but 50 of those are watching movies and summoning creatures (oh it's so fun to make that unskippable!!), and 49 of the rest are spent clicking on "Attack" in mindless random battles. A big-budget action game might have amazing physics-driven kung fu, but an RPG of any budget is still going to be about clicking "Attack" and watching numbers pop up. Tech and money won't make you a good story and fun skills and abilities. A single person with great creativity and talent can definitely pull it off (and in a more intense, personal, and unfiltered way than a design-by-committee game).

Steven Peeler, Soldak Entertainment ("Depths of Peril"):
If you ask me ( and since you did :) ), the answer to your question is pretty much in the question itself. To quote you, “there are TONS of Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs”. That’s exactly how the retail market works, one great game comes out and then everyone copies that game until another great game comes out to copy. AAA games cost so much money to make these days that few publishers are willing to take the risk to try out new forms of gameplay, so they simply spend money on better graphics and copy the gameplay from a proven game. This is why we have seen so many Diablo clones that have much better graphics, but have the same gameplay. Actually the sad part is usually the clone doesn’t even have as good of gameplay as the original. So in reality what you end up with is a better looking game with sub-par gameplay. Now of course, World of Warcraft is the big thing, so everyone seems to be working on or releasing MMOs these days.

I will speak only for myself here, but I think many other indies are very similar. I’m a fairly passionate gamer myself. I play the same games that you guys and gals do and I’m tired of playing the same game over and over again. If I want to play Diablo or WoW, I’ll simply go play Diablo or WoW. I don’t need a prettier version that’s not as fun to play.

This is where I think indies fit in. Indie games offer something different. They tend to be much more innovative than their retail counterparts. We try new things, especially with gameplay. Just take our game Depths of Peril for an example. Depths of Peril is an action RPG with some major differences which I will get into in a minute. If you look at the retail market you will find tons of action RPGs, but truthfully how many of them have any new gameplay compared to Diablo 2? How many of them are just sub-par clones with better graphics?

Now back to Depths of Peril. Instead of having a static world that revolves around a character that plays through the storyline at his or her leisure like a typical action RPG, in Depths of Peril the world is very dynamic and doesn’t stand still waiting around for you. First you aren’t even alone. You aren’t the lone hero in the world. There are other factions (called covenants) living within the town walls with you, that would love to kill you off. You see, the barbarian town of Jorvik is currently leaderless and barbarians choose their leaders by fighting to the death. The last covenant alive becomes the new leaders. The dynamic world goes beyond the other covenants though. If certain quests aren’t solved quickly enough an NPC or another covenant might solve it first. Other quests that are ignored might lead to harder quests or real consequences. An ignored uprising of zombies might lead to an attack on the town where some of the town’s vendors or quest givers might die (they will eventually be resurrected). Or a thief might come into town and start stealing the vendors blind. Do you care that the vendors are losing real items that you might have wanted to purchase? Or two monster leaders might get together for a meeting somewhere out in the wilds. If you kill them without anyone finding out about it, you can cause their groups of monsters to go to war with each other. For that matter, some groups of monsters already hate each other and will attack each other on sight. These are just a few of the many dynamic things that can happen in Depths of Peril.

Depths of Peril is just one example of something different that indie games can provide. If you go looking around for just a few minutes, you are bound to find many other examples of indie games with cool new gameplay that the retail market has never tried out and won’t until someone else proves that it is fun and more importantly makes lots of money.

SCF ("The Last Scenario")
What can an indie developer offer nowadays? In two words: something different.

You won't see an indie developer creating successful MMORPGs or FPS games with bleeding edge graphical environments, but that's not all there is to making games. Take a look at the GBA Advance Wars series: there's nothing special about the graphics, and really nothing about the game is beyond the means of independent developers . What makes the series popular is the strong gameplay and nothing else. Sure it benefits from the portability of the GBA, but it still shows that there's an audience for games that are not technologically advanced.

The same goes for RPGs.

When it comes to story and characters, high-budget games can offer far more immersement than a 2D sprite-based game, but in the end, the story and characters have be written well first. Any game with a unique gameplay idea or a compelling plot can work, even on a smaller budget. Will it be a major hit? Probably not. But then again, most games aren't.

It seems there is a need for indie RPGs. Many RPG fans - and potential RPG fans - do not feel adequately served by the increasingly risk-averse mainstream games industry. They have had to make do with a trickle of titles, many of low quality and poor entertainment value, that have been made increasingly generic to be more palatable to a different - albeit larger - audience. But they want something more. Something different. Something playable in native mode on their platform of choice. Something that addresses their own tastes and needs better. Something flavorful they can sink their teeth into. Or - if nothing else - just MORE, to tide them over between the rare mainstream releases. On top of all that, RPGs are one of the best video game genres for storytelling, something which can be more personal and unique for creators and their audience alike.

And that's where the indies come in.

I want to thank all of the participants in this month's Indies of the Round Table. This was a lot of fun, and I'm already looking forward to doing it again in March. If you have suggestions, or simply want to let us know how much you enjoyed it (or didn't), feel free to post in the comments section or over at the forum. Or just email me (jayb) here at rampantgames.com. And if you did enjoyed this article, be sure and support the participants by clicking on the links by their names and giving their games a try.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008
Frayed Knights - Font Wars
Okay, okay, I get the hint. Comic Sans is not well-loved, even as a placeholder font for Frayed Knights. I guess I'm a complete font idiot. So... I've been trying to find more fonts that are playful and readable for the whole game. Probably. Here are two candidates, though I'm not sure one of them is even available for a (reasonable) commercial license. Click on 'em to get the bigger version (or just go immediately to the poll thread to see 'em both in full glory).

Font Candidate #1:

Font Candidate #2:

Even if you don't like either of them, please give me some suggestions on which ones I *SHOULD* check out. Just don't point me in the direction of a font that will cost me hundreds of dollars to license, because I'm on an indie budget.

Here's a poll so I can easily track the responses:


Thank you kindly in advance for your suggestions!

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Saturday, February 09, 2008
"Gabriel Knight" Creator Designing "Women's Murder Club" Games
In an interesting note for old-school adventure gamers, designer Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame has teamed up with mystery author James Patterson to create a series of games based on Patterson's "Women's Murder Club" book and TV series, according to the Hollywood Reporter. At least, it is expected to be a series - naturally, it depends upon the success of the first game, due out in May. featuring mysteries created by Jensen.

Jensen co-founded Oberon Media some time ago, which indies may recognize as one of the major players in the casual arena. So as you can probably guess, it's not going to be geared towards hardcore 20-year-old male action gamers. In all likelihood, they will be closest Oberon's "Agatha Christie" Hidden Object games, also designed by Jane Jensen. These combine "hunt the hidden image" gameplay with puzzles in-between segments, and dialogs / story segments.

"We are sort of baby-stepping our way towards a full adventure game while still keeping the elements that I believe are really good about casual games," she says, "meaning that it has to be immediately intuitive with no barriers for entry and it has to be immediately rewarding."

Jensen is personally heading up the this project full-time as writer, creative director, and game designer.

There is still no word yet on the completion of her more tradition adventure game Gray Matter, only that its schedule release date is still "Q1 2008." That would be... in the next seven weeks or so, wouldn't it?


Friday, February 08, 2008
Frayed Knights - Bad Text Gone Wild!
The ongoing saga of the development of Frayed Knights - the indie RPG full of fantasy and bad jokes - continues in article, all about massive progress and massive speed-bumps. And a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT at the end!

Boy. Ya get this euphoria from having accomplished a few major, intimidating tasks... and then you end up spending three days re-writing something that you THOUGHT was already working in order to fix a bug that just cropped up.

Dialog and Font
In my case, my 2D text rendering suddenly went to crap. And you know what? Nothing is sexy about font rendering. Here I was, planning on doing all kinds of uber-cool (to the geekly mind, I guess) AI stuff and some overdue game mechanics stuff, and I gotta work on text rendering.

I ended up replacing my code (which was based on a user-created module from TGB 1.1.2) with the not-so-new, improved, official code from a later version of the engine. This handled fonts completely differently. It worked fine, but everything about how it was positioned, sized, and called was different. This made my precious little dialog-balloon code, which I thought was done, require a rewrite pretty much from the ground up. And all the other TGB-based text calls, like the little floating numbers on hits, or that really groovy blue "MISS!" word that appears far too frequently.

But in addition to running to stay in place, I made a few improvements to the static dialogs. They have color-coded borders now, a suggestion I received at the Utah Indie meet a week ago. It actually works really well. I also increased the font size, so that players will be less likely to go blind from this game. Well, at least it won't be the text that makes them go blind. The graphics may still do that to 'em. Sorry 'bout that in advance.

Take That, You Fiend!
Besides the very boring font / dialog stuff, I also improved how monsters spawn, so they are less likely to end up stuck in walls or under the stairs. It's working pretty cleanly now. And that's about the extend of the path-finding for monsters. I also make them fight the player much closer (at least the random encounters do). Putting them right up in your grille like that did wonders for improving the "feel" of combat - it's visually more interesting and exciting. That's first-person perspective for you!

As I've mentioned before, I'm going old-school with monsters. Positioning is kind of on the abstract side. I actually have a table for every section of the dungeon or wilderness with what monsters appear, their frequency, and an abstract measure of quantity. As you fight the wandering monsters, their frequency of appearing drops. Eventually, this number will go back up - so if you leave the temple for a few adventures, and then come back, you may still find some priests, pus-golems, and brittlebones again. In fact, you'll never "run out" of monsters - you just may get to a very small chance of them appearing.

I also started working on music, sound effects, and spell visuals. You know, for the full version of this game, I may really go back and try once more to integrate TGE 1.5.2 and the ArcaneFX pack with TGB - this time, using an older version of TGB (1.1.3, probably), so future spell visuals can be much cooler. But for the April "Pilot Episode," I'm gonna have to keep it simple. Little particle sprays, and stuff like that. I have great plans for cool animations for spells like, "Power Word: Defenestrate." But that will come later.

Time To Go On A Diet!
One issue I discovered just prior to the Utah Indie Developer meeting was that the game's size. It has ballooned to something like 120 megabytes at maximum ZIP compression! And this is is (mostly) just assets for the pilot episode. This is too friggin' huge. Now, this might cause nobody to download it, which means the bandwidth for hosting it won't be such a big deal... but that's not really the problem I'd like to have. I really want the demo to fit in under 70 megs. Under 50, if I could swing it, but I have no idea how to pack it down that tightly.

So it's time to put the data on a diet. There were some easy savings to be had eliminating some obsolete objects from the directories, and compressing the sound effects from their monstrous .WAV format down to the much-tighter .OGG format. But that only gets us part of the way there. Then we have a few 1024 x 1024 textures hanging out that need to go down to (at least) 512 x 512, and some 512 x 512 that can probably (regretfully) be reduced to 256 x 256. And I can try and share texture usage more across multiple objects. Naturally, this is painful to do, leads to things looking pixellated and all alike, and hurts the visuals on levels that make babies cry. But - such compromises are reality.

Some stuff... man, I don't know. I have a dead skeleton which - coming through the Blender exporter - is at about 115K in size. Man, back in my day, we had entire RPGs that fit within that size, or not much more than that. I'm a little suspicious of that size, too, as the full skeleton exported from 3DS Max (which I do not have) - with rigging for animation - was a little smaller than this. But sometimes I just have to suck up the hit.

That, or put a white box on the floor, and ask the player to pretend it looks like a skeleton.

Dialog Jitters
Well, besides my font suddenly going all low-rez on me and having to be re-coded, I had one other concern about the dialogs. And that has nothing to do with coding.

What is terrifying me the most about this game is the writing. The humor. The game is gonna live or die based on that, and I'm worried it won't be up to snuff.

I can be okay the facts that the animations look like crap, that my textures are inconsistent in style, and that I'm forcing the game to run in 1024 x 768 resolution. I know this isn't gonna be Oblivion - or even Wizardry 8. But if the writing isn't good enough and entertaining enough - if the characters do not "click" with players - the whole game fails.

That's the easiest thing to correct (text is cheap), but it's surprisingly challenging to balance. Is there enough dialog? Is it too much? Are the jokes too low-key and dry? Am I finding the right "voice" for the characters in each dialog (especially tough when said character might only say two words in a dialog)? Since so much of what happens in the game is non-linear, is the player getting something resembling a "story," or is it going to be utterly confusing random-feeling jumble of vignettes?

I guess that's part of why I'm approaching the release this way - with a "pilot episode" in April. It'll be kinda like a big, public focus-group test. A chance for you to let me know just how badly I've screwed up on this thing, so I can hopefully make the corrections. Effectively, the April 1st release will be "My First RPG." People can savage it, I'll learn from it, and fix things for my "next" game... which will be "Frayed Knights - The Complete Story." Except not named as lamely as that. I hope.

Alpha Test Sign Up
I need alpha testers for the Frayed Knights pilot. Testing will begin March 1st (possibly sooner). If you are interested, please register on the community and Sign Up In This Thread! Now, I won't be dropping the first alpha on everyone all at once. I'm going to phase this into weekly releases, opening it wider and wider each time to different groups. This way, I will hopefully have people scrutinizing the fourth alpha just as carefully as the first alpha.

And that's all for this week.

I think.

Looky! Forum Discussion About This Week's Dev Diary! Cool!*

(* for very liberal definitions of "cool")

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Thursday, February 07, 2008
Questions for Indies - Part 2
Continuing the little semi-collaborative discussion from last week, Corvus Elrod and I decided we'd continue to tackle Shamus "McLaser" Young's questions for indies. Taking them in small groups allows us be more long-winded go into greater detail in a blog post.

You can check out Corvus's response here:
Man Bytes Blog: XFire Debate Annex Part 2

So here we go!

If you got a million bucks in no-strings-attached funding, how would you use it to make your game more successful?

I wouldn't. Next question?

Maybe I should elaborate. Cue the music by Barenaked Ladies.

What I'd REALLY wanna do is take the money and run. Well, invest it, live on the interest, and use that to remain an indie game developer for the rest of my life. But... the question was about using it to make a GAME successful.

The problem is that I still attach strings. The natural string being, "The game should at least break even." So I'd still feel obligated to make a game that would generate $1 million in sales, at the least, so I wouldn't have to lay anybody off and could continue to make games. And to be honest, at this stage of the game, I really don't know how to make a million bucks on an indie game, except to sell out, make the best-dang-casual game clone possible, and put it on every portal. Which wouldn't be my thing.

Now - putting a million into my company to make it successful over several games? Absolutely. I'd stretch that million out. Because it's a lot easier to sell five games for a million than one game for a million. The thing is, the five games - if they are related and similar - can help sell each other. Example: If you find out about Aveyond 2, and think it's really awesome, there's a good chance you'll also go back and buy the prequel, Aveyond 1. You win, and the game developer wins. Everybody's happy, and it's a lot less work.

That all being said - I'd probably allocate half to two-thirds of the money into keeping a very small business operating. I'd go full-time, and I'd probably bring on full-time help in the form of an art lead. Depending on what we're working on, I might also bring on a full-time programmer. We'd still operate out of the basement - though ultimately (more than a million dollars later), I'd aspire to having a little office with maybe 4-6 full-time staff, max. It'd be cool.

But for most jobs, I'd outsource. Contracting people is a pain in the butt, especially when trying to find people to contract, but especially in the content-creation field, under the watchful eye of an art lead who actually knows what the heck he's doing (unlike me), it would be the way I'd prefer to roll. That would also allow me to bring in specialists for limited windows of time - a GUI expert for two weeks, a writer for a couple of weeks, whatever.

Which is kinda what I'm doing now. Except instead of a million dollars, I'm financed by whatever I can find under the couch cushions.

For the remaining half or third of the money, I would put it all into marketing. Seriously. Run advertisements, bribe politicians, give away consoles, whatever. I'd advertise not only my game(s), but the company in general.

Amanda Fitch and Jay Barnson have both said in the past something along the lines of, “Making the game is one-third of the job.” Or words to that effect. The idea being that once you finish the game, you’re one-third of the way to having it where someone can buy and play the thing. What is the other 66% of effort required after you finish the game, and is this a challenge unique to indie developers?

I'd put it closer to 50/50, but Amanda's more successful than me (so far!), so maybe she's got a better handle on the ratio. And I'll answer the last half of the question first - no, I don't think it's unique, based upon experiences I have read and heard about. In fact, that was the biggest shock to me upon releasing my first game - even after years of experience in the industry. Running a dinky, niche indie games business is a heck of a lot like running any other business! And maybe that's what bites so many indies in the butt.

Once you decide to release a commercial game, there are tons of business-related things you now have to do. Besides getting a business license and all that legal junk, you have to handle questions like: How do players get your game? If they want to actually pay for it *gasp*, how can they give you their money? How do you fulfill their order? How do you deal with customer problems? What happens if there's a bug - how do you get the fix to people? Are you going to create a demo version to help sell your game? How will your demo help up-sell the full version? If the game really does make money, how do you handle paying the people on your team? How do you deal with taxes? Is everything on the up-and-up legally? Do you owe royalties to anyone as your game sells? How do you deal with the contracts that are required to sell your game through a third party, like a portal? What do you do when other people approach you with additional business opportunities (and more contracts to sign)? Do you have a website? Who maintains it? Who continues to pay the hosting bill? What do you do if the game takes off and consumes all your monthly bandwidth by the 8th day?

Managing that aspect of things can consume time. And annoyingly, it tends to consume time right at the tail end of development - when you need every second devoted to getting your game polished, bug-free, and ready to go out to the public. But that's nothing compared to the demands of marketing.

Without marketing, you spend month or even years - a thousand+ hours of time for you and your team, and hundreds or thousands of dollars of money out of your own pocket to make this really cool game. And then... what exactly? Maybe you upload it to a website, and listen to the sounds of crickets chirping as two people stumble across it and download it by mistake.

As an indie, it's not like you've got some built-in infrastructure and information channels that you are already plugged into to get the word out to the potential customers. And when you do, through Herculean effort, manage to make people aware, they simply shrug and say, "Okay, so, when's the next Halo game come out?" I sometimes think I'd generate better sales for the same effort by going door-to-door. Nobody knows about your game, and nobody cares. Nobody knows why they SHOULD care.

You've got your work cut out for you. Big time. And marketing isn't just "when the game is finished." Marketing is something you need to at least be noodling on the day you decide, "Gee, I'd like to make a game." It will affect your game design. It will impact the development schedule. You'll be wasting precious development hours responding to interviews, fielding questions, writing up press releases, and trying your hardest to get people to pay attention and care.

And they still won't. Well, not much. Maybe I'm just doing it wrong, but marketing - to me - feels like trying to dig the Panama Canal with a soup spoon. At least at first. Fortunately, success tends to build on itself over time. But it never ceases to be a lot of work.

What's funny is that I thought I understood this when I got close to releasing my first game. I'd heard people tell me this over and over, and yet I still didn't quite believe it. I figured it would take some effort, sure, but the magnitude never really became clear to me until - in late development - I discovered that I'd put in nearly twenty hours of work, and only about five of them had anything to do with actually finishing the game.

At the end of the XFire interview the mod asked everyone what their favorite game was. I’ll ask this: What game (any game, new, old, mainstream, whatever) do you wish you could have worked on and taken part in?

I hinted at this last time, but... probably Ultima VII. Not only because it's probably my favorite RPG of all time. But it (and Serpent Isle) were the last of the "good" / "real" / "true" Ultimas. Richard Garriott was still more-or-less directly involved, and it would have been awesome getting a better feel for how his mind worked. And then there was the awesomeness of the game engine, and it's potential (something the Exult guys have discovered through their reverse-engineering, no doubt). How quests are arranged, for example, in a "quest-less" game engine. I think I would have learned a lot from working on it.

Plus, I could have been there to blow the whistle and say, "Guys, let's NOT get into the business of making our own custom memory manager! There has got to be a better way!" And then everyone would have said, "Shush, peon," so I guess it wouldn't have made a difference.

Aside from that, another one that would have been a fascinating learning experience (and, naturally, is a favorite of mine) would have been Ultima Underworld. There are still some real brilliant things they did in that game which haven't been entirely equalled today. Technologically, the years have treated it poorly. But there are some very clever design decisions that I'm not sure they made consciously, but they did a good job.

More Questions?
And by NOW, I'm betting Shamus is cursing himself for asking these questions. This is what he has begotten. However, Corvus and I are not done yet. There are more questions that were asked that we figured we'd tackle. And we'll tackle more if we got 'em. I'll also direct you to the forum thread link below, where more indies have posted THEIR responses - which are probably better than mine...

The Discussion Continues In Furious Forum Form!


Wednesday, February 06, 2008
IGN Visits the State of the Adventure Game Genre
Wow - an Adventure Game discussion on IGN. Pilots, please try to avoid running into flocks of pigs at 35,000 feet...

State of the Genre: Adventure Games at IGN

Some interesting commentary here. They invoke Dreamfall, Undercover: Operation Wintersun, The Longest Journey, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, the upcoming Penumbra: Black Plague, and of course the new Sam & Max games. And lots of classics, as well as newer adventure games that have been largely flying under the radar in the mainstream games biz.

I personally got a little annoyed at them constantly talking about how cool these games would be on the Wii, to the point where Steve Butts even complains, "Too bad we're talking about PC games."


But they do bring up some of the problems facing adventure games now. Well, they are the same problems we had 17 years ago, but they are more acute with the broader audience than the computer-geeks of 1991. Adventure games still have a terrible problem with "hunt the pixel" puzzles.

Also, Steve Butts comments, "Well, one of the problems is that it's almost impossible to scale the types of puzzles that we're used to in adventure games. That would be like trying to create an IQ test where everyone got a different number of correct answers but still all got the same score. There's really no easy solution to that. I mean, either you can just toss the players into the deep end and hope to sell a lot of strategy guides, or you can toss out hints that are so obvious that they remove all of the challenge. It's not easy."

Hmmm.... wasn't this addressed back in the early 90's or so with difficulty levels for some adventure games? We need the same thing today for action games. But it's much harder to gauge puzzle difficulty.

Enjoy the article. They bring up some good points.


Read the Design / Marketing Docs for Centipede
Found via GameSetWatch, there are some great old documents from the golden age of Atari available online. Including memos, design documents, sales data, focus test results, and marketing data for Centipede. I was particularly interested in some memos discussing (arguing) why the game wasn't as much of a strong seller in Japan.

While it's a fascinating bunch of nostalgia and trivia in its own right, not to mention historically significant from one of the early hits of the industry, there's also some valuable insight game developers might glean from the documents about how they conducted design and marketing for the game, and the changes proposed (and later implemented) as a result of these tests.

You can check it out, as well as lots of other old documents, at the following link, though be warned: Some of the pages are hard to read, particularly the hand-written ones:

Atarigames.com Documentation - Including the Centipede Docs.

Maybe I'm the only person who geeks out over this kinda thing, but I thought it was cool....

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Weird Al Riffs Jurassic Park
RiffTrax managed to enlist "Weird Al" Yankovik to provide a commentary with Mike Nelson for Jurassic Park.

I've mentioned RiffTrax before - their riffing on Star Trek V remains, of the several I've seen so far, my favorite. I was a big fan of Mystery Science Theater: 3000 in the past, and it's nice to still be able to get together with friends for "MST-3K parties"... only these days, we're as likely to watch a Rifftrax commentary on a more popular movie as to put in a 15-year-old videotape.

And, like many geeks, I'm a Weird Al fan.

So... we've got the MST-3K style treatment of a Steven Spielberg film, featuring Weird Al... It sounds like it's got the makings of a geektastic winner here, so long as they don't screw it up! :)

We're already making plans for a get-together to watch this one. I only have Jurassic Park on videotape, though... we'll have to see if anyone in our group has it on DVD.

Anyway, you can pick up the Rifftrax recording here:

RiffTrax Riffs Jurassic Park - With Weird Al

Drat. Now I've got Weird Al's "Jurassic Park" song stuck in my head...


Frequent Demos Kill Software Development
Okay, today's post is gonna be a little more on the technical / development side o' the fence, and not even game-specific. Sorry.

A friend of mine, who had served several years in the military, once told me, "No battle-ready unit ever passed inspection, and no inspection-ready unit ever passed battle." I have no idea if that's remotely true or not, but the point was that the traits that get measured in an inspection were very different - and perhaps even contrary to - the traits required to succeed in actual combat.

I wrote some time ago about the root of some of my tendencies to procrastinate, the "local maxima problem." The problem comes from the fact that many times, in programming, you have to break things to fix them. The "agile programming" folks like to invoke a technique called "refactoring" - you basically throw out the old code and make a whole new version. No big deal - or at least it shouldn't be. In fact, it should be happening all the time.

The problem is that during the time that this is happening, apparent progress might halt or even appear to go backwards. From the perspective of an outsider, at the end of two days of frantic labor, you've got something that looks exactly the same as it did before. Oh, sure, as a developer you know that this new, improved version is ten times faster, much easier to maintain, and got rid of four bugs that were practically insurmountable in the old code.

Now, as a programmer, I should be in that mindset. Totally. But I'm not. And some things happened at Ye Olde Day Job that reminded me of why I'm usually not... and may be the source of some of my development hangups.

You go like crazy to hit a demo milestone. This is true both in the games biz and much of pro software development. And this, I believe is a good thing. There's another saying in software (and I think hardware, too) that "if it weren't for trade shows we'd never get anything done." It forces an integration pass, acts as a huge motivator, and can really help a team get the important things done.

But in doing that, you may throw in some crap code for the demo that's pure prototype to help the end-user see all what you've been working on. Maybe it's some slapped-together front-end menu, or whatever. You show it to the powers that be - your own upper management, or maybe your publisher. You decide on changes. And then - ideally - you go back to your desk, and proceed to rip certain aspects of it apart to refine and refactor and improve the project as a whole.

But lo and behold, after a certain point in the project, said Powers That Be become a lot more demanding and random. They suddenly want to see the latest and greatest version ten days AFTER a milestone. This is sorta like them coming by for you to take them on a test drive in your car while you've got the engine pulled out and on the garage floor Yet Again.

And this makes your publisher or upper management people grouchy. What the heck are you doing? The software was working just fine a week and a half ago, why is everything crashing and broken now?

So you become paranoid about yanking anything - which means real progress slows down because you are afraid to make any move unless you are sure you can get it back into a demo-able state within two hours' notice.

Sure, one might say - there's CVS - or whatever source-control system you are working on. Just make sure that everything is working perfectly before you check it back in. Great idea. But often impractical in a collaborative effort with a whole bunch of cross-dependencies. Never mind the treacherousness of trying to make a build and run it untested on some other computer besides a dev box in the middle of development, without having done a reasonable integration pass (and if you happen to do automated integration testing every time someone checks code into source control, give yourself a gold star... but you are probably still painfully aware of how dangerous it can be even doing that).

So - yeah. Bottom line - if you want to shoot development progress, fill it full of lead, and leave it bleeding at the side of the road in a toxic pool of virulent disease-ridden slime, perform frequent spot-inspections and impromptu demos.

That little bit of aversion therapy lives with me still, even as an indie answerable to nobody. I still find myself paranoid about retreating from the dead-end of local maxima.

(Vaguely) related bits of ranting
* Fighting Procrastination: The Local Maxima Problem
* Productivity Tip: The List
* Embrace Code!

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Monday, February 04, 2008
Are Downloadable Console Games Too Cheap?
GameSetWatch makes what is sure to be a popular suggestion (not!) that downloadable console games - all the rage now - are priced too low.

I actually agree, though I don't mind taking advantage of the price point. The price and ease of spending "points" on XBLA makes the cost a non-issue when it comes to me buying games for the 360. For me, it really just comes down to time. But I guess if I had all the time I needed to play all the games I'd like, I'd probably also have no money to spend on 'em. Catch-22.

I don't know that there is a "best" price for downloadable games. I mean, certainly, the lack of physical media and the removal of certain "middle-men" in the distribution / duplication retail point-of-sale chain is worth having the savings passed down to the customer (ME!).

Unfortunately, for games that also have a boxed-version retail component, that doesn't usually happen. Undercutting Wal*Mart and GameStop with your direct-sales version does not lead to happy sales numbers. But for games that are primarily or exclusively downloadable, this shouldn't be an issue. I'd expect that to shave a good 25% off the price of the game right there.

Right now, indie computer games have a "magic" price point of about $20, or a little more for deeper games (like RPGs), which actually works pretty well for me - though it is just barely enough that price does become a decision factor. Sure, I pay more than that to take my family out to dinner or to the movies on a Friday night (and we go to cheap movie theaters). But for a game, it's enough to cause me to hesitate in a way that $10 usually doesn't. It is no longer an impulse buy.

But should games be impulse-buy items? Again, the reason that I haven't bought more downloadable games on XBLA is simply because the time investment required outweighs money considerations. Something that is going to take even just 5-12 hours out of your life is not an impulse-buy item, no matter what the price.

GameSetWatch Opinion: Console Downloadable Games: Too Cheap


Saturday, February 02, 2008
Indie RPG News Roundup, February 2nd
The Indie RPG - no limit, no budget, no problem. Here's what's the rumor mill has been churning out in the world of independent computer role-playing games. As you can see this week, it can be a weird, weird place.

Age of Decadence
Wow. Vince D. Weller fires both barrels at Kieron Gillen at Rock Paper Shotgun in this interview, which is ostensibly about the upcoming turn-based RPG Age of Decadence. But a lot of it is about indie development in general, and a defense of turn-based RPGs - in the spirit of the saying, "the best defense is a good offense." Here's a little teaser (and I share this as a big fan of RPS, I must add...):
Vince: ...When you have time, Kieron, how about writing an article explaining the difference between RPGs and shooters to your audience? Or maybe an article mentioning that the first computer games were real-time, not turn-based, and disputing the popular opinion that RT is more advanced than TB? I mean, it’s nice that your site tries to attract morons and makes them feel at home, but shouldn’t you be educating them too? It wouldn’t take much to double their IQs, so if you want, I can give you a hand there.
So he offends pretty much everybody except maybe the RPG Codex folks. Even me. But I enjoyed it completely, found it hysterical, and was rooting for both sides.

Vince D. Weller Interview at Rock, Paper, Shotgun

The Spirit Engine 2
"The Spirit Engine 2 is the follow up to the freeware game 'The Spirit Engine', originally released in November 2003. Set in a new world, with new characters, new graphics and a rewritten game engine, TSE-2 sets out to improve upon the game experience of the original in every possible way."

The game is currently scheduled for "late 2008," and based upon this video, it looks like it may be pretty dang cool:

Depths of Peril
Soldak has posted two more "Myths of Origins" short stories. The new myths are about the Teratai and the Wood Elves.

Mount & Blade
The Turkish(?) Indie Action-RPG Mount & Blade now has a publisher - Paradox Interactive. The game should be released sometime this spring / summer. It has been in beta for... uh... a long time. However, you can buy it now directly from the developer and play it now - with a free upgrade to the full version - for only $25, whereas it will retail for $39.

Anyway, congrats to developer TaleWorlds!

Barkley - Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden
'The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041, a day so painful to some that it is referred to only as the "B-Ballnacht". Thousands upon thousands of the world's greatest ballers were massacred in a swath of violence and sports bigotry as the game was outlawed worldwide. The reason: the Chaos Dunk, a jam so powerful its mere existence threatens the balance of chaos and order. Among the few ballers and fans that survived the basketball genocide was Charles Barkley, the man capable of performing the "Verboten Jam"...'

You know, I ordinarily wouldn't post about this. Because it's only a short demo, the full version is unlikely to ever be seen (I first saw this posted a YEAR ago on the Great Games Experiment, so it's taken a full year just to get this far). But - you know - it gets massive points for being completely, bugged-out CRAZY different. Absolutely bizarre. It was built using RPG Maker 2003. Unfortunately, with my joystick plugged in the way it is, it's pretty impossible for me to play. YMMV. But... man. Gotta give points to the weird.

Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden

The Broken Hourglass
GameBanshee continues to demonstrate a decent level of indie-friendliness, so I gotta hand them props. This week, they give us a great, 3-page interview with Jason Compton about the upcoming Baldur's Gate-inspired indie RPG The Broken Hourglass. Jason keeps mum about the release date, but talks in depth about the character creation system and other fun tidbits. Kick back and enjoy:

The Broken Hourglass Interview at GameBanshee

IndieGames.com Best Freeware RPGs and Roguelikes
The IndieGames.com weblog released their top ten list of indie RPGs and roguelikes of last year. Now, here's a funky thought. Many of the games they list are either still unfinished, or --- I THINK --- initially released in some state prior to 2007. This makes assigning the "best game of the year" award a little tricky, as you could end up with perennial winners that keep taking home the prize year after year as they crawl up to that "1.0 Final" version... and beyond.

But that's the nature of indie games. I mean, Pretty Good Solitaire has been constantly updated for like, a decade. And MMOs that don't get at least two significant updates per year are going to die of a bored player base. So... maybe these guys have the right idea.

Regardless, it's a fascinating list:
The 10 Best Freeware RPGs and Roguelikes of 2007

And --- there we have it, for this week. Send me any updates of anything I missed. As always, HAVE FUN!

For Your Hot Tips and Arguments: The Official Rampant Games Indie RPG News Round-Up Thread! Accept No Substitutes!


Friday, February 01, 2008
Out of the Mouth of Babes: A Thirteen-Year Old On Games and Violence
Well, in this case, a very well-spoken thirteen-year-old girl, writing a very articulate post about video games and violence and how it affects her:

Violent Video Games and Kids

I've known the author since she was a newborn, and she's one of my daughter's best friends, so I really enjoyed reading her perspective on the issue. It also amazes me that these kids (who I still have a mental image of which is about six years out of date) can form rational opinions.

And maybe that's the problem too many of our legislators have.


Frayed Knights - The Stupid Stuff Takes Too Long
Tales of Frayed Knights, the comedic independent fantasy RPG coming from Rampant Games in the not-too-distant future. I hope.

It's friggin' midnight. And I just realized why my weapons are not responding properly to the armor level of the characters. Inside the character class file, I have a function that gets their armor level.

It looks something like this:

function Character::GetArmor(%this)
// Gets the total armor level, including current magical effects on the character.
// To Do: Everything. This is a stub.

return 0;

Great. Oh, well, I'm already in the middle working on equipped effects (things that happen to you while an item is equipped), so this isn't such a big deal. But it does explain a few things.

Writing Dialog. This is my favorite part of working on the game, but it isn't easy. And it is surprisingly time-consuming. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, and every single bit of it needs a major editing pass to make sure all the plot points are being hit, and that the appropriate dialogs have at least a subtle shade of humor and are speaking with the correct "voice."

Then there's allowing a "freelook" mode, but I want it to snap back to a particular pitch you are done looking around at the environment. Unfortunately, Torque doesn't give you any control over this with the Player or ShapeBase class, so I have to make a minor engine change. No big... but it takes time.

Then I spend about an hour and a half working with James to get the mount point working on his models so that the weapons aren't growing out of the back of their knuckles. James lives about 850 miles away, so much of the delay involves sending files back and forth. But part of this is just nailing down a process for us both for future content.

A crash when traveling between the dungeon and the village has me baffled. I try and trace it down in the debugger, and find it's something to do with player movement - before the level is fully loaded? It stumps me for a day. Realize that for me, a day means spending nine hours at the day job, plus a slow, snow-covered, slippy-slidey commute each way, plus an evening scheduled with other stuff that comes with having a life, not to mention a blog post, so we're really only talking about two or three hours of actual time spend working on the problem - between 2:00 AM one morning when I call it quits for the night, and 9:30 PM the following night when I get cracking again. But after a day, I realize a (possible) solution, having worked with Torque a little too long. I schedule the level load rather than calling it directly. Bam! The bad crash goes bye-bye, and everything suddenly works.

There are buttons that don't work anymore because they are properly calling the new UI manager, but I'd neglected to upgrade the call their container dialog, so it's still manually being brought into existance. The UI manager doesn't know anything about it, so the buttons aren't working. And then there are inexplicable slow-downs when certain dialogs are up. But it's bad! I need to find the problem and fix 'em.


While the entire first chapter is, as of last night, playable from beginning to end, there are a couple of major issues still outstanding. Like, oh, saved games. And trading. A new and improved inn. But for the most part, we're down t0 "stupid stuff," which takes almost as long as the big tasks. All those little details that might fall through the cracks. And there's a LOT of it. It's those stupid, little things that take so much time, paralyze apparent progress, and drive me crazy.

I hate this part. And it's not even in the serious bug-fixing stages yet. This is the point in the project where keeping an updated "to do" list is critical, and where you have to take satisfaction from seeing lots of little, stupid things marked off as "complete." Because it doesn't make great screenshots, and the players won't notice it at all unless it's not done right.

Forum Discussion, Because Misery Loves Company

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