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Monday, March 31, 2008
 
The Food Court Musical
Abso-friggin'-lutely hysterical.

How would you like to be sitting in a mall food court, eating your hamburger or lo mein, when suddenly people around you spontaneously broke out into a musical number?

Thank goodness there are people like this in the world who will go through such pains to make the lives of others around them a little more surreal and amusing...

The Food Court Musical




(Spotted on the Rifftrax Blog... thanks to Rabid Paladin for the tip!)
 
Game Design: Is "Non-Linear" a Bad Thing?
"So what do you do?"

Running "Pen and Paper" roleplaying games, I've found this particular question asked by the game-master has a tendency to cause frustration and deer-in-the-headlights stares from many players. It could be used as a really great stalling technique on my part, because it has the tendency to bring the entire game to a screeching halt for anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours.

Folks generally have the feeling that being "on rails" is a bad thing. Shamus Young lampooned the whole "railroad" RPG campaign thing in DM of the Rings. After all, the fun of interactive games is in it being interactive - you can make choices and affect the outcome with your skills (or lack thereof). Computer and videogames often go this route. The developers can't possibly create all the content and assets necessary for players to literally go anywhere and do anything. So they constrain the breadth of the player's actions pretty tightly. Players balk at this, and claim they want "non-linear" or "open" gameplay.

Hey, I'm one of 'em. There's a reason the Elder Scrolls games are amongst my favorite RPGs, and why I get horrendously sucked into big 'ol sandbox games. I like charting my own course. Even in Pen & Paper RPGs, which sometimes causes the game master to start turning purple and ignoring me as I start wandering around talking to people I was never meant to talk to.

But I think there's a very solid case for having "too much of a good thing." To some players, the true open-world sandbox-ish games are a nightmare. Some players - and I may even go so far as to say that most players - want to know what they are "supposed" to do next, and the open environment just confuses them. Yes, they claim to want to be off the rails --- but what they really want is the option to depart the rails once in a while.

In general, I think it might be safe to say that too much open-endedness with too little feedback or guidance in a game is a Bad Thing. True "non-linear" gameplay shouldn't be a goal for most games... just the ones that have a design that revolves around that level of freedom (which I love and will continue to play, thank you very much). But for other games, just give us some wiggle room and interesting choices along the way - don't lock us onto the rails, but don't plan on us moving out of sight of it either.

Agree? Disagree? Figure out what it is I'm smoking on the Forum.


(Vaguely) related ascensions to the heights of Mount Obvious:
* Stop the Long-Winded Intros!
* RPG Design: Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
* Roleplaying and Computer Roleplaying Games
* Mistakes in Game Design

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Sunday, March 30, 2008
 
There Just Ain't No Justice...
I saw a forum post today where the owner of a warez site was trying to sell the site. He claims it has making $25 - $30 per day through ad-based revenue. While not a kingly sum by any stretch, I'll go on the record here and state that Rampant Games doesn't make that much (yet...). So much for trying to run an honest, legitimate business, huh?

You know, if there was a credible threat of serious fines and jail time, this sort of thing might not go away, but it would sure become harder to find.

Have I mentioned lately that the games business (and the legal system concerning digital rights) is seriously, seriously screwed up? I guess not - I've purposely avoided the topic for a couple of weeks. Here I go again, I guess: Piracy is a Really Bad problem for game developers today. And, on a side note which I will not justify here, DRM and ad-based revenue are not good solutions.

I'm sure there are far better solutions to be found. In fact, I know of a few that are already out there... but they aren't universally applicable.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008
 
Video Games Live Concert Report
Last night, my wife and I went to the Video Games Live concert in Salt Lake City. The event began on a great note, as we ran into a bunch of people I knew from previous jobs, including Kirk Baum, who is now working at Disney. My wife jokes that I couldn't even cross the lobby. It got even worse later...

To get to our seats, we had to go past an older couple on the end who were obviously season ticket holders for the Utah Symphony, and had no clue what they were in for. This was true of many couples in the orchestra seats. Once we were seated, we were treated to a little pre-show video of a Ms. Pac-Man skit performed by actors in costumes.

There was a technical glitch at the beginning of the concert, but after a couple of minutes it resolved, and the Symphony began with an extensive medley of music from older games, accompanied by a video. I say music "from" other games, but the medley began with some games for which there was no music. Like... Pong. They music was composed loosely guided by the sounds and themes from the game - from the irregular beep-boop-beep noises of Pong, to the more four-tone heartbeat rhythm of descending aliens in Space Invaders, to the heart-racing thrumming of Space Invaders, on through Missile Command (the next video shown in the medley). Then the medley switched to a variation on Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, an always-popular theme for video games in the 1980's. The video showed Defender, Tempest, Centipede, Robotron, Joust, and finally Satan's Hollow (which actually used Ride of the Valkyries as its theme music, for those few who might recall it from the arcades).

Then the medley shifted to actual theme music, and blew through segments from Commando, Donkey Kong (which got plenty of cheers), Frogger, Elevator Action, Dragon's Lair, Space Ace, Duck Hunt, Punch Out, Ghosts 'n Goblins, Gauntlet, Rastan (my favorite of the last half), Outrun, and finally Tetris. (UPDATE: You can watch & listen the medley here.)

After the extensive medley, Tommy Tallarico came out and introduced the director, Jack Wall, and the VGL concert. He explained that the goal of VGL was to prove how culturally significant and artistic games could be. He also told everyone that unlike most symphonies, we should feel free to clap, cheer, and yell out if we feel like it. Particularly later in the event, it was clear he was really trying to feel and act like a rock star, which was amusing, but we all had a good time.

The rest of the first half had the orchestra and choir doing themes from Metal Gear Solid, Medal of Honor (done with a montage of footage from World War II, rather than game footage), Civilization IV, a Final Fantasy medley performed by Martin Leung on piano, Advent Rising, and Zelda. The Advent Rising piece was particularly interesting because Tommy Tallarico was the composer, and had decided to create music reminiscent of Italian opera, but also because the game itself was created here in Utah.

During the Metal Gear sequence, they had someone come out in black special forces gear. He had a device on his back that had an exclamation mark pop up over his head and light up. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of that. Well, almost everyone. I saw one older couple leave during the first act. Apparently, they were season ticket holders who did not approve.

Directly after the Metal Gear sequence, they had a volunteer come up from the audience and play a "Live" game of Space Invaders, with the orchestra playing some music for the game as he played. He wore a T-shirt with a ship on the back, which I guess tracked his movements. And he had a button to press to shoot the gun. While the game would have been really tricky for ANYBODY to play like that, he had apparently never played Space Invaders and had no clue how to play. Tallarico gave him the suggestion to shoot the ships on the end first, but this guy didn't get it. So he lost the game, but everyone seemed to have fun with it.

During the intermission, I once again proved I couldn't cross the lobby. As my wife and I were hunting for bathrooms, I ran into a couple of friends from work, and also ran into Mike Nielsen, who's doing the music for Frayed Knights. We ended up having a short meeting there in the lobby to work out his next versions of the music, and for me to mention a couple of things happening on the Frayed Knights front. I got back to my seat just before the second half began, but got to ask the older couple on the end how they were enjoying the concert. The man didn't reply, and the woman wiggled her hand in a "so-so"

The second act started with another "Live action" game - a competitive game of Frogger with the Orchestra playing a very souped-up version of the music from the game. Two kids were chosen to compete against each other on the big screen - with more traditional controls this time - and the younger kid nearly cleared the board.

Besides that, the second act had music from Kingdom Hearts, Warcraft (I watched another older couple leave after the footage of the Night Elf running half-naked through the forest), and the Mario themes. Then Martin Leung performed some piano solos again - this time doing his famous blindfolded Mario performance, followed by high-speed Mario music. The second half "concluded" with Tommy Tallarico on electric guitar with the orchestra and choir performing the music from Halo and Halo 3.

Tallarico and Jack Wall left the stage at that point, but the choir and orchestra hadn't moved, which made it pretty obvious we were in for a rock concert style encore. The older couple on the end of the row either didn't know this, or didn't care, because they beat a hasty exit. I guess all the sci-fi combat footage wore them out.

Jack and Tommy came back out, and Tommy asked "How about some music from Final Fantasy?" Everyone shouted their approval. "Which one?" he asked. Everyone shouted their favorite. I was shouting "Seven!" along with - I think - the majority. He said "How about Final Fantasy Seven?" Then he had everyone shout together the name of the song - it was obvious to every gamer in the audience (at least those who know the names of the musical themes from Final Fantasy). The entire concert hall shouted "ONE WINGED ANGEL!" With Tommy strutting around like a rock star adding electric guitar to the piece (hey, that was used in the variant theme from Advent Children so I rolled with it).

After that, Tommy said that it would be just too easy to end with One Winged Angel, since everyone was expecting it, so they concluded with music from Castlevania.

Afterwards, they were holding a "meet and greet" with local video game developers. I thought it would be more of an introduction with the dozens of game developers here in Utah, but mostly it was a set of tables for autographs from certain local developers, Tommy, Jack, Martin Leung, soloists from the show, the producers of Advent Rising, and a few other local developers. I noted that there were more game developers hanging out just outside the line to the "meet and greet" than actually there at the tables, so I chatted with Steve Taylor and a few other guys. And I bought a T-shirt.

Overall, the concert was awesome. We had a blast. Sure, there was plenty of cheese and silliness - but this is the video game industry, after all! We enjoyed ourselves tremendously. I highly recommend going to the show if you find it playing nearby.

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Friday, March 28, 2008
 
Guitar Rising Q&A
This game has far more of my interest than the next Guitar Hero installment:

Guitar Rising Q&A on RPGVault


An excerpt:
Jake Parks: Guitar Hero brings the enjoyment of making music to the masses through the simplification of making music. Guitar Rising attempts to do the same thing, but with a real guitar. By breaking down the complexity of the guitar into a rhythm game, we want to appeal to guitar players and non-guitarists alike.

For the former, this could be possibly the fastest and most enjoyable way to learn a song that you don't already know. For the latter, it is simply playing a game, and by virtue of doing so, you are learning a little bit about how actually to play a guitar.
Nice to know I won't have to shell out for yet another controller... I happen to have two of 'em handy already...

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Frayed Knights - Save Me!
More on the development of the indie RPG of high fantasy and low humor, Frayed Knights.

This week I came to the end of the day job's "crunch mode." I'm still in something of a recovery state. Unfortunately, the two weeks of crunch pretty much threw off FK's schedule by a similar amount. I'm still cranking away at getting alpha 3 out this weekend, but there won't be enough time to test it in order to make an April 1 public release.

Please, Save My Game!
But it was time to crank up the blues on iTunes (in this case, John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom,"), roll up the sleeves, and get back to work making up for lost time. My focus has been on certain top complaints from testers. The lack of saved games topped the list.

Saved Games are working - finally. And fully. I think. I've had to make some changes to properly allow for all the other zones the game is about to incorporate beyond the pilot. One thing that IS massing is map information right now. Gotta work on that.

Which leads to a whole new headache, actually. Multiple headaches. The automap needs serious fixing, and won't be working right in the next alpha. One more reason why it won't be ready on April 1st.

Some Other Changes
Two more top complaints from testers has been mouse inconsistency between dialogs, and the spell screen not retaining it's previous settings for casters and targets. I got that fixed. One thing testers may not be so pleased with is some of my changes to combat - specifically, armor and weapon restrictions and limitations. Yeah, before you could throw chain mail on Chloe without a problem. Now, she won't wear it without having a feat (hey, it's heavy, and chaffs!) to do so, and even if she does have the light armor feat (yeah, chainmail counts as "light armor" in Frayed Knights), it will penalize her spellcasting and increase the likelihood of a fizzle.

I'm making a few more changes to combat to make it behave a little more clearly (I hope). And for the alpha 3 release, I'm trying to balance out experience point and drama point awards a little better.

On the art front, James has been frantically coming up with improved visuals for the trap / lock screen, some concept-ish art, and some new skins for some of the NPCs. Kevin's been cranking away on a farmhouse-with-a-secret. And I've also been working on some miscellaneous dialogs and story text.

Interview, Attention, and Drama Stars
The big news this week was the Frayed Knights interview at RPGWatch. This has been picked up all over the place, and possibly brought even more attention on it than I'm fully comfortable with at this point. Sure, I want a nice cross-section of players trying out the pilot in April and providing me with feedback on issues. But I really don't want people playing it with a belief that it's a full demo for the final game. It's like... a prequel. Well, really, it's like a pilot. Hence the name.

A lot of focus from various sites has been on the drama star system. That is something I really AM comfortable with. Hopefully with the alpha 3 build, I'll get some more feedback on the drama stars based on some of the improved balance (hint: When you are fighting the BOSS ENCOUNTER, you should get more than a single drama point...). I've been playing with it a little myself, and while I am sure (by design!) it won't replace the use of reloading a saved game to recover from disaster, I think it works nicely enough to reduce trivial reloads.

One of the tougher questions that gets brought up is near and dear to my heart: What about those of us gamers who have a real life and can't devote enough time to a single session to really build up a fabulous collection of drama stars capable of "resurrecting" the entire party from the brink of a TPK (Total Party Kill)? Those of us who play in little twenty-minute increments and then must save and quit? Is that unfair?

Well, yes and no. Yes, you may not often get the full benefit of the drama star system. But - if you are going to quit and know it, you can go ahead and commit your drama stars before you exit - clear off a couple of curses or reduce the long-term fatigue on Benjamin before you exit. So you can use 'em before you lose 'em.

Alpha Testers - I'm gonna have EVERYBODY on the alpha test list added for alpha 3 this time around, so if you have already signed up, be sure and check out the forums.

Forum Discussion


(Vaguely) Related Stuff:
* Frayed Knights: When One Door Closes...
* Frayed Knights: Solving the Saved Game Problem
* Ye Olde Saved Game Debate

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Thursday, March 27, 2008
 
Avernum 5 Wrap Report
RPGVault has Jeff Vogel's "Wrap Report" (a better term, IMO, than "postmortem") for Avernum 5, the latest in Spiderweb Software's long-running indie RPG series.

Avernum 5 Wrap Report at RPGVault

An excerpt:
"I have become really impatient with RPGs, both single- and multiplayer, over the last few years, and I was determined to write one that had as few as possible of the elements that annoyed me. One example is repetitive cookie-cutter fights... trash, in other words. I hate battles that only serve to eat up time. I removed as many of those as I could."

He also set out to put more humor in the game (hey, I'm not at all opposed to humor in RPGs...).

And he notes that - so far - it's sold better than any game he's written in a long time. So maybe he did something right.

He also confirmed that there is only one chapter left in both the Geneforge and Avernum series, and that the new engines will be brought more up-to-date with improved engines that use OpenGL.

(Spotted on RPGWatch).

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008
 
RPG Design: The End Is Nigh!
Today's discussion is sort of a companion-piece with Monday's. It has to do with finishing games - or specifically, finishing RPGs.

I've unfortunately got quite a list of RPGs for which I've never reached the end. Some of them I hope / expect to get around to it "one day" (unlikely, as some of those games are over a decade old). Others I have completely given up on.

My reasons for quitting vary. Sometimes they never really hooked me - I felt myself going through the motions, but an hour or two in I was still far from invested in the characters, world, or story. I just didn't care before the tedium hit. Other times, the game just kinda blew from the get go. In a couple of cases, I was enjoying the game when a game-destroying bug put an end to my fun. I hate it when they do that.

And what compels me to play to the end? That's one of those questions I keep trying to answer with articles like "What Makes a Great RPG?"

What Kept Me Playing?
There are some games which had such a strong beginning that I felt compelled to play even through the weak ending. Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption comes to mind. I got hooked on the angsty (albeit purple and overwrought) love-story, the semi-authentic medieval setting with the overwhelming presence of the church, and of course the flavor of the license. I wouldn't say it's a great game, but it hooked me.

Oblivion - the story sucked. I mean, it really sucked. Your character was a fill-in-the-blanks person, and I didn't find most of the characters to be all that likable. But the world - wow. The world was compelling, and I don't just mean graphically. It felt explorable. There was interesting stuff to find all over the place, and the bajillion subquests were often very entertaining and had some nice twists. And since I felt like I could go for the final end-game stuff at any time (pretty much guaranteed with the lame auto-scaling factor), it never felt like it went too long, even at over 100 hours in.

Ultima VII - The story and characters hooked me from the get-go. That game probably has the single strongest intro (for me, at least) of any RPG - it opens with a murder mystery.

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest - I got hooked early on by the characters. The world was silly and cute, but by the time I rescued a major character, I was hooked on wanting to see them through the end of their story, even if it lost part of its compelling drama after that point.

Why I Forgot To Keep Playing
For where I lost it - Ultima VI kept losing me the pirate map quest. I guess I just get lost in the "what do I do now?" phase.

Final Fantasy XII may not have lost me forever, but somewhere in the grinding I kinda lost the thread of the story and lost interest.

I started Dungeon Siege 2, and didn't get far past the tutorial. I was just overwhelmed by a feeling of deja vu. Maybe it was because it was so action-heavy, and it began too much like a generic third-person shooter or something for me.

And for Neverwinter Nights 2, it was no direct fault of the game. My video cards were going bad (apparently, they didn't like my motherboard, and overheated), so I was getting spiky polygons all over the place. My infuriation with my expensive SLI-linked cards dying spilled over into the game that was the final straw. I need to get the expansion, roll up a Spirit Shaman, and try it again.

Your Input
And sometimes, the work / tedium involved in too many games exceeds the pleasure I get from them. Which was part of the reason for Monday's post. Some games feel much longer than they are. Others make 40+ hours disappear in a flash.

And say what you will about Oblivion's hand-holding to get you to your quests, but due to a grown-up schedule and occasional crunch-modes at work (not to mention Rampant Games stuff...), I find myself not playing for a couple of weeks. So a game that can re-engage my interest quickly and gently point me where I need to go next is welcome.

So here are some questions I put to you:

* What percentage of RPGs do YOU actually complete?
* If you don't complete every game, what has made you give up?
* What makes you play to the end, besides your obsessive-compulsive streak?

I've got a forum thread with a fancy poll and everything over in the community area, but feel free to answer here, too, if you really have an aversion to signing up for a really cool forum 'n stuff...


(Vaguely) related tilting at windmills:
* How Many Hours to an RPG?
* Big World, Small Dungeon: Does Size Matter in RPGs?
* How Quickly Does a Game Have to "Hook" You?
* RPG Design: Quest Abuse

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Frayed Knights Interview at RPGWatch
Well, now I've gone and done it!

There's an interview with Yours Truly, where I am as verbose as usual, up at RPGWatch. The focus of the article is on that roleplaying game that may be destined to prove I don't have a clue what I'm talking about when I talk RPGs.

Warning: Do not use while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Frayed Knights Interview at RPGWatch

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008
 
Top 5 Botched Launches
Three out of the top five botched game launches (according to 1Up) are RPGs:

Top 5 Botched PC Game Launches

Okay, two out of the three are MMORPGs, which should automatically put them in a class by themselves, but the article admits that this would be shooting fish in a barrel. But Ultima IX: Ascension takes the top slot.

I never did play Ultima IX, so I can't speak to its problems. But from what I have heard, they weren't close to the problems of Trespasser. And I heard horror stories about the initial release of the Pool of Radiance re-make that made Ultima IX sound like a near-perfect release. Yeah, reformat the hard drive style problems when you uninstall. *Shudder*. Oh, wait, that one is also an RPG.

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Monday, March 24, 2008
 
How Many Hours to an RPG?
So how many hours should an RPG take you to complete? Your ideal RPG?

I've played some very satisfying RPGs that took me less than 20 hours to complete. But a lot of my favorites were very long games which took more than 40, 60, or even 100 hours.

I think Ultima VII part I and Ultima IV - two of my favorites - were completed within 24 hours, all told. Maybe a little more for Ultima VII, and a little less for Ultima IV (I had a hint guide handy).

All of the Final Fantasy games I've completed took over 50 hours. Oblivion clocked in at about 128 hours to completion. But I took my time with that one. I didn't want it to end - I was having a great time. But after I finished it, I almost immediately tried to replay it with a new character, and just couldn't. I'd pretty much sucked all the marrow from it the first time around, even though I think I explored less than 30% of the world.

The thing is - some of those with the longer (and sometimes shorter) time frames consisted of a LOT of "make-work." Oblivion was over 120 hours of play, and probably 20 of it was really awesome. In Final Fantasy VII and up you spend a third of your time watching cut-scenes or animations, and at least another third fighting useless random encounters (which I don't mind until the fourth or fifth time I get into the exact same fight - but by the tenth identical battle I'm ready to throw my controller through the screen).

Maybe it's simply memory fading and mentally editing the boring parts, but I seem to remember Baldur's Gate II and Ultima VII being pretty low on the filler scale, with BG2 definitely clocking in at a heavier level of content-per-minute and total-hours-played level than about any other RPG I recall.

I know there's a lot of disgust at how much shorter games are getting these days, but frankly, as a working-class joe with a family and free time at a premium, I'd rather play a really awesome 15-hour game than a 45+ hour game with lots of "filler." And so long as the RPGs are plentiful, I really don't mind finishing a game in only 20 hours or so and moving on to the next one. Of course, RPGs and "plentiful" haven't actually appeared in the same sentence all that often in recent years, but especially on the indie side of the fence that seems to be changing.

So what do you think? Is there an "optimum" amount of time you'd prefer an RPG to take? Is there such a thing as "too long?" And how short is "too short?"

(Vaguely) related grumblings:
* Quick Strategy Games
* What Makes a Great RPG - Mechanics
* The "Red Line" in Game Demos
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Sunday, March 23, 2008
 
Another Free Audiosurf Recommendation
I finally got around to playing Audiosurf to the Void War soundtrack. You'd think I would have tried that out first, huh? But it's very nice.

I highly recommend "Dogchild" from Void War for your Audiosurf-ing pleasure. But most of the music from the (*plug*really awesome award-winning*plug) game works well.

You can download the entire soundtrack (and some... weird remixes) for free from Matt Barnson's site here:

Void War Soundtrack

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Great AudioSurf Song: Sidology Episode 3
Okay, if you happen to be playing Audiosurf and would like a really killer (FREE!) musical piece for it, I recommend this hard-rock medley of old Commodore 64 game music by Machinae Supremacy (also known for making the soundtrack to the indie shooter Jets 'n Guns).

Sidology Episode 3 - Apex Ultima

7 Minutes of high-speed downhill racing. My score was terrible.

If you haven't played the IGF award-winning indie game Audiosurf yet - hey, the demo's free, and it's a CHEAP (and fun) indie game. Give it a whirl with your favorite music as tracks.

But definitely try it with Sidology Episode 3. It may not create the most psychotic track of all music out there (I've seen some wild ones - like this one using the song from the most evil Guitar Hero track of all time...), but it's fun.

And BTW, I normally play the mono pro racer... this level is practically impossible for me with the other racers. Yeesh!

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Friday, March 21, 2008
 
Frayed Knights - Be 'Fraid. Be Very 'Fraid...
It has been quiet on the Frayed Knights front this week, mainly because I've been coming home from work at 2 in the morning, crashing for six hours, waking up, throwing together a blog post and maybe 5 lines of code for the game, and going back to work.

All that being mangled, one of the nice things about actually having a team in place is that things have actually been getting done. Without me. Scary.

Kevin has been hard at work on one of the next areas beyond the pilot. Giant rats are involved. These aren't your regular giant rats. He's also touched up the texturing on the inn in Ardin. James has been cranking away at additional sound effects, so maybe now not EVERY container and door will sound alike.

Mike has provided me with the drafts of two new musical themes, one for a new main theme and one for a dungeon exploration theme. Now I just have to fix background music (AGAIN!) to make it behave.

For my part, I've cleaned up a couple of bugs, had one that I THOUGHT was clean come back and bite me on the butt (see above, re: background music), and been putting in a few minutes into the saved-game system. Yeah, still. If I could get a full 8-hour day to put into it, I could pull it off. Like - hey, today. Work, in their mercy, gave me the day off. Well, the part of the day AFTER 4:00 in the morning, when I stumbled in the door.

So - I'm off to get stuff done in Frayed Knights. Talk atcha later!

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Pathfinder: The New Dungeons & Dragons 3.5?
For those of us who aren't expecting Dungeons & Dragons 4.0 to knock our socks off, Paizo Publishing (the former publishers of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and THE biggest D20 publisher out there to my knowledge) is offering an alternative.

Entitled the "Pathfinder RPG," it seems to be Dungeons & Dragons 3.6. It is designed to be compatible with the existing 3.5 source material, yet fix a lot of the remaining problems with 3.5.

The lead designer explains his rationale:
"Back in October 2007, I began a small side project. Since 4th Edition had recently been announced, I began to wonder how many people would stick with the 3.5 rules set. Everyone could agree that 3.5 needed some work, but the system itself was mostly sound. I thought that those folks might want some updated rules, since support was beginning to wane. What started out as a simple side project soon turned into an obsession as the rules document got longer every day. When Paizo started looking for alternatives, my side project was a natural fit, leading us to where we are today.

When work first began on the Pathfinder RPG, I set down a number of principles to guide me. Since this game is based off the 3.5 rules set, I wanted to make sure that it stayed true to the original vision of the game."

Changes to 3.5
My brief exploration into the rules (I am still in crunch at work - it keeps going and going and going...) revealed a significant change to the skill system. Skills are now all-or-nothing... which generally reflects how they get purchased by players, anyway, with the exception of those rogues who ended up with a few half-maximum skills. Certain of the less-useful skills have had their names changed, been combined with other skills, and usage expanded in order to make them more valuable.

Only four classes were represented in the alpha documentation - the four "base" classes - but they did get some interesting updates and new abilities. And the rogues and wizards got extra hit dice. As a fan of rogues, I really like the new rogue abilities (and fewer restrictions on sneak attack... now rogues may be able to really put the hurt on vampires...) Fighters get even beefier per level. Clerics get Orisons, and their turn attempts act as mass cures or mass inflicts for all within the radius (friend and foe), which significantly boosts their abilities. The design notes say that this was in an attempt to let clerics actually, you know, CAST their non-healing spells once in a while. Wizards get bonus abilities from their specialist schools similar to cleric domains.

I do have a concern about how much this "beefing up" will affect other classes. Our Dice & Paper group consists of a spirit shaman, a druid, and a swashbuckler, a bard, and a non-human monk amongst the core four classes. Will these other classes need a similar "beefing up?" I get worried about escalation here, but I'm kinda cool with this in general.

There's a "Combat Maneuver Bonus" used to simplify everything where there used to be opposed rolls. And they have alternate level-up schedules for DMs who want progression slower than "normal" for D&D 3.5.

Available Now!
But most interesting of all, the game is FREE during alpha as a PDF download (and I suspect PDF versions of the beta and final will also be a little cheaper), and it offers the opportunity for everyone - not just special invitees - to participate in playtesting. There is expected to be a series of "alpha" releases, each expanding the rules and making changes based on playtesting feedback.

From a business perspective, it's an interesting move on Paizo's part. Obviously, they have been burned a little bit in their otherwise (I think) friendly relationship with Wizards of the Coast. This move addresses what might be a pretty substantial niche, and allows them to become independent of WotC's whims. If it catches on, of course. But I think Paizo is the one company in position to pull this off.

Hmmm... I'm suddenly imagining Pathfinder RPG licenses for computer RPGs... not that it'd necessarily be the best system for a CRPG... but it might be a cool opportunity at FAR LESS of a license cost than D&D.

Update: Added the link, since in my half-asleep, overworked stupor I neglected that little helpful item...

(Vaguely) related flotsam and jetsam:
* Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Announced
* Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Reviewed
* Original Dungeons & Dragons Trivia
* Adult Dungeons & Dragons

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Thursday, March 20, 2008
 
From Text to 3D Character
Over at The Monk's Brew, Rubes (Mike Rubin) has the third part of his ongoing saga to bring text IF (Interactive Fiction) characters to life as animated, 3D characters in Vespers 3D. In this case, it's the character of Brother Ignatious, who was described very simply in the original text adventure as follows:

"A fiery man, whose devotion to God is rivalled only by his devotion to protecting God's people, Brother Ignatius was a soldier before joining Saint Cuthbert's. After losing an eye against the Turks in Nicaea, he came back to Italy, and started fighting for God in the only way he could now: with prayer."

Mike goes through the process, including concept art, 3D modeling, animation, and finding the right actor to provide the voice-overs for Brother Ignatious.

Awesome stuff, if you are interested in taking a peek inside the sausage factory.

Adventures with NPCs IV: Ignatious at Monk's Brew

P.S. - He's also got a very awesome retrospective on Atari's Adventure worth taking a look at, too.

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The Last Starfighter - The Sequel
Apparently someone is creating a sequel to that seminal 80's classic movie of love, humanity, deception, courage, and alien-deposited videogames, The Last Starfighter.

The Last Starfighter Sequel - Rumor

The Last Starfighter Sequel - Possible Confirmations

Okay. So it's not exactly like they have much to live up to. Sure, I have a tender place in my heart for the movie from my youth that let us all believe that our mad gaming skillz could make us uniquely qualified to save the entire universe from destruction. But here's a handful of reasons that conceit just wouldn't work in 2008:

#1 - Space Combat Games? No longer popular. I Know This. Maybe if it was "The Last Space Marine," or "The Last Master Chief" it would work.

#2 - Arcade Machines? Sadly, ancient history. A new, high-tech arcade machine appearing ANYWHERE would certainly arouse suspicion.

#3 - The alien super-game-tech of 1984 wouldn't be half as impressive as a computer capable of running Crysis at full detail.

#4 - The other folks in the trailer park are too busy trying to 5-star Green Grass and High Tides in Rock Band to watch you hit a high score on some weird space game.

#5 - Piloting a star-fighter from inside a cockpit? Retro. These days its all remotely-piloted vehicles anyway.

Okay, so I guess that's why a remake wouldn't work. I guess maybe with the sequel they can do something else related to video games. I could try and come up with a plot, but in my current state of mind, everything I think of that strikes me as remotely cool would be a total rip-off of Ender's Game. But hey, it would be kinda cool to have an army of kids in a tournament remotely saving the universe on their XBoxes without ever knowing it...

(Oh, and Hat Tip to TooMad for the link!)

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
 
The Essential 20 Japanese RPGs
GamaSutra has a large (21-page!) discussion of Japanese RPGs, including 20 of the most influential or stand-out examples of the genre. Interestingly enough, they mash three Final Fantasy games together to make a single entry.

A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

Fortunately, it includes a little bit of history and genesis of the subgenre:
"The gap between Western and Japanese RPGs is so huge that they sometimes don't even seem like they belong in the same genre. Western RPGs usually concentrate on open-ended gameplay, with a "go anywhere, do anything" mentality.

"Japanese RPGs concentrate on narrative and battle systems, being more eager to tell a story than let the gamer play a role. However, Japanese RPGs didn't just appear out of nowhere -- as their roots lie heavily in early American computer RPGs of the 80s.

"Two of the most popular games back in the day were Ultima and Wizardry. Although all had followings amongst hardcore Japanese gamers, they were a little bit too uninviting for your average console owners, whose ages skewed a bit younger. Yuji Horii, a developer at Enix, decided to take on an interesting experiment.

"By combing the overhead exploration aspects of Ultima (the third and fourth games, specifically) and the first person, menu-based battle system of Wizardry, a new game was born: Dragon Quest."
Enjoy!

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Indie RPG News Roundup, March 19th
Indie Computer Role-Playing Games. They aren't just for breakfast anymore! Somehow, in spite of putting in nearly 80 hours this last week for the harsh taskmasters of The Day Job, I've managed to dig up a little bit of dirt on the latest goings-on in the independent computer RPG scene.

Geneforge 5
Spiderweb Software has released some additional information on their latest RPG in development, Geneforge 5. They've confirmed that it is the final game in the series, and expect it to be available for the Mac in November.

Some details: The storyline will be closer to Geneforge 1 and 2; there will be five different factions to interact with; there will be three Shaper classes and six rebel classes; there will be "considerable" upgrades to the interface; and the spell system will remain similar but be reworked to solve some issues that have cropped up.

For more details, you can check out the Geneforge 5 March Update.

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is an upcoming Nintendo DS game from Studio Archcraft that retains the old-school, 2D RPG tradition of the old SNES games (and newer games like Aveyond, Aveyond II, and The Last Scenario). I am not used to hearing of indie games for the DS, but they have no publisher listed and it sure sounds like a self-funded project. Most impressive. And to make matters even more fascinating, they have employed Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided and DM of the Rings fame and elevated him to the lofty rank of script-monkey. Or something. So now we can tease Shamus for being a sellout game developer. You can check out Shamus's announcement here.

I wish I had a DS, now. But I guess now I have another good reason to get one. Hey, guys, any hope for a PC / Mac release? :)
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled Project Page

Project Rhapsody
You may remember me mentioning Project Rhapsody back in September, but progress seems to be happening on this ambitious project. The latest is a pretty cool-looking battle video, which makes me think this game is really pretty far along:



You can find more information on the Project Rhapsody Website.

Adventures of Cendah
Version 1.01 of Adventures of Cendah has been released by KingDiz entertainment. Updates include: More mana when leveling, fix to a character freeze issue when leveling up, more gold in the tutorial, collision fixes, changes to bats, and trees now blocking enemy arrows.

Adventures of Cendah

Krum
This hack-and-slasher looks to be getting made in Blender's game engine + Python. Hopefully that means multi-platform? It's a freshman effort currently two years into development. The website and the game are both under development, but its projected release date is late 2008. And here's a short gameplay video:



The website is still as much under construction as the game itself. Hopefully it will expand a bit soonishly:
Krum Website

Depths of Peril
Soldak Entertainment has a new short story up, taking place in the world of the (awesome!) Depths of Peril. It is entitled "Looking Red the Crystals Cry." Checking out the story, I felt a sudden desire to boot up the game again. It's been a few weeks, and like Diablo it's a pretty good game for some quick hack & slash action. It's just that there's so much to do in the game, with so many quests evolving as you play, that it gets tempting to just keep playing...

Monster's Den
Monster's Den is a quick-and-dirty dungeon crawl. It's not quite the level of quality of FastCrawl, but it's online and free to play. And frankly, I remember playing in some ol' Pen-and-Paper games back in the early days that weren't much different or any better. Enjoy! (Hat tip to TIGSource for this one.)

Monster's Den

Age of Decadence
I have already mentioned the Age of Decadence "playthrough" at RPG Watch, but I figured I'd mention it again, AND point out the staggeringly huge original thread discussing it over at the Iron Tower forums. 59 pages and counting as of right now!


And that's what I've got for this week. And, uh, last week. There is some pretty fun stuff here or on the horizon for computer RPG fans. But now I do have a few extra questions that come to mind when looking over this stuff:

#1 - With both the Geneforge and Avernum series coming to a close, what's next?

#2 - While there have been patches and story updates, things have been quiet from Soldak Entertainment. What is Steven & company up to? Depths of Peril II? Something else entirely?

#3 - What other project is Studio Archcraft working on? And will we see Shamus "McLaser" Young take a more active roll in game design & writing?

#4 - Planewalker Games has been a little quiet lately concerning their upcoming Baldur's Gate - inspired indie RPG, "The Broken Hourglass," but Jason has assured me they are still busy toiling away and trying to get it done. But I wonder how close they are to alpha at this point...

As usual, keep me posted!

(Vaguely) related fun stuff:
* Indie RPG News Roundup, March 2nd
* Indie RPG News Roundup, February 18th
* Indie RPG News Roundup, February 2nd

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
 
Attention Is Everything
Human awareness and attention is a funny thing. Can you count correctly? Be sure and listen to the instructions (and take this test before reading any further):

Do The Test


I was kinda floored at the end of this, and had to re-play it to make sure they hadn't pulling a fast one on me.

Bringing this around to games... Does this apply to games? You betcha. I have noted on several occasions how completely oblivious I have been to the band's cinematic when playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I'm so focused on the notes, it took me several play-throughs before I saw the lead singer hitting the cowbell at the beginning of Don't Fear the Reaper (which cracked me up so hard I nearly failed the song).

It's target fixation. I tend to suck at shooters because I become so focused on what I'm shooting that I lose track of the cardinal rule - which is "don't get shot." Maybe I really should play some Mushihimesama Futari to correct that habit.

This makes me wonder how much of a game I miss because I'm so focused on the apparent principle task that I miss other, critical details. I know sometimes in D&D games, I drop what I think are obvious hints, only to see them completely ignored as the players focus on something else which they somehow weigh as being more important.

As a game designer - do I do a good job of highlighting what the player should be paying attention to? And does this phenomenon differ between males and females?

Very interesting things to ponder.

Hat tip to Seth Godin for this one.


(Vaguely) related stuff of marginal value at best:
* How Focus Can Ruin Your Business
* I Should Give Up Making Shooters
* City of Heroes Jargon

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Tales of Crunch Survival...
It's almost 1:30 AM. I got home from work about forty minutes ago, after over fifteen hours straight. Around 9:30 tonight, the president of the company announced there was free ice cream and beer for everyone in the break room. And sodas, for those of us who don't drink.

Tomorrow is bound to be another repeat of today. I'm learning to hate certain game consoles I used to love. Bummer.

And here I am, at home, checking email, posting this blog, and ... working on my game. Trying to put at least an hour into it. I'll go in late tomorrow, anyway... my task-list is largely cleared out, mainly supporting the designers anyway.

I can't say it's unique to the games business. I've had weeks like this doing all kinds of software development in my career. And apparently, I'm so stupid that I impose it on myself by developing my own games until the wee hours of the night.

Ah, well. That's just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you just have to live life in the margins.

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Monday, March 17, 2008
 
Play-Through of Age of Decadence
RPGWatch has a play-through of the early part of the upcoming indie RPG, "Age of Decadence," complete with plenty of screenshots. It literally starts at the beginning, with character creation choices, up through the conclusion of the first quest (or "vignette") for an assassin character.

Age of Decadence is "an isometric, turn-based, single-player 3D role-playing game set in a low magic, post-apocalyptic fantasy world, inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire."

I'm looking forward to this one.

Let's Play Age of Decadence, at RPGWatch

(Vaguely) related low-calorie, great-tasting goodness:
* Indie RPG News Roundup, December 26th
* Why Indie RPGs? Indies of the Round Table #1
.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008
 
But I Can Pretend It's a Void War Wannabe, Right?
I recently played the demo for Battlestar Galactica on XBox Live Arcade.

My first thought was, "Oh, so this is a Void War clone!" Except with 2D gameplay. And I doubt that the developers ever even heard of Void War. Which means it's simply a descendant of the same kind of games Void War is a descendant of. Games like SpaceWar and it's descendants. Like the incredibly awesome Star Control series.

Maybe Void War would have been a more appealing game if I hadn't taken it the "true" 3D route, with all the baggage that entailed. Which would basically have made it just like Battlestar Galactica (and, from what little I played of it, Wing Commander Arena for XBLA) - 2D games with 3D graphics.

The sad part, though, is that I think Star Control II did it better. Strip away the pretty XBox 360 graphics, and you've got... what, exactly?

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. I mean, the time was due to introduce a new generation of gamers to gameplay that s about as classic as you can get. I mean, Computer Space was the coin-op version of Spacewar that predated Pong. That's cool and all. And much of the time, bigger + more features is not the same as better. That's cool too. And maybe far cooler stuff opens up if you play more of the game, which I did not see. Maybe. (Update - I managed to play a little bit of the campaign mode before it kicked me out, and that was admittedly a little more interesting).

But I still have a suspicion that a 15-year-old game was superior to today's offerings.

To know what I'm talking about, here's the freeware version of the game:

Ur-Qaan Masters

Am I just smokin' something here? Because it seems to me that this would be a better game to remake for the 360. Well, okay, I really think Void War would have been the best choice of all, but I must admit some bias there.


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Friday, March 14, 2008
 
Frayed Knights - When One Door Closes...
For once, I'm going to try to be... well, less verbose in this week's design diary for Frayed Knights, the comedy-based indie RPG.

The big task this week was to get the dungeon re-entrant, and to get save games and load games working. That's right, we're in alpha, and saves and loads aren't working. I was actually considering leaving them out for the pilot (after all, it's relatively short), but the cry of horror from my alpha testers convinced me of the error of my ways.

I spent a lot of time fixing other bugs, and making sure things like armor penalties on spellcasting actually worked. But the re-entrant dungeon had me stymied for a while. What I didn't realize is that Torque is very good about cleaning up after itself between maps. Really good. So good that it will erase all of your in-game data objects for you unless you come up with a special way to prevent it from being destroyed. Woops! So things like inventory, state flags, loot lists, and the like were being completely erased when you left the dungeon. If you went to the village and then came back, almost everything was restored to its original values - you'd have to start over again.

The cool flip side of this exercise is that its also helping me track everything that needs to be stored in the saved game. I'd tried to keep some of that data separated out in the past, even creating some incomplete data-saving functions for things like the game state flags that track events in the game. So I hadn't been completely neglecting this area.

Unfortunately, just as progress was being made and the problem looked *barely* solvable by Friday (which I've set up as "alpha day" for the testing group), the ol' Day Job came through with a mandate for massive overtime this week... twelve hours a day, Saturday included. It's on a short time-frame, fortunately, but to say it impacted my Frayed Knights development schedule is an understatement.

With luck, I may be able to get Alpha 3 out (for those involved in alpha testing, especially those still waiting to get involved) on Wednesday or Thursday, and then Alpha 4 may go out on Monday or Tuesday of the following week. That will probably be the final alpha.

Due to requirements of the competition I'm participating in, the release date for the Frayed Knights Pilot is still going to be April 1st (if not the day before). It may still be a little "beta" (or a lot "beta"), but that's kind of the point. I have been getting a ton of great feedback from testers so far, and this has really helped me figure out some overall changes that may need to be made to the full release. The engine is getting made more solid every day, so hopefully the April release won't be too horrible.

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What a Real-Life Dungeon Crawl Might Be Like
Wired has an amusing article where the author takes his experiences with the deadly Gary Gygax-penned "Tomb of Horrors," with its instant-death-no-save traps, and ponders what a dungeon delve like this might be like in real life.

Let me tell you, I couldn't help but think of the Frayed Knights a little bit with this one:

What Real-Life Dungeon Exploration Might Look Like, Graduate Students in Tow

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Thursday, March 13, 2008
 
10 Ways to Amuse Yourself During Crunch Time
I've been slammed with mandatory 12+ hours overtime this week in the Day Job. So if I'm a little slow responding to people, that's why. Sorry.

But hey, that beats being unemployed and broke, I guess, but I'm really not sure how I'm supposed to get Alpha 3 of the Frayed Knights pilot out the door (or upgrade the website!). Or any of the other zillion things I need to get done. But hey, I'll muster through somehow - if Alpha 3 is a little late, it's a little late. Food must get put on the table.

Crazy work hours are not unique to the games business. I've done a couple of all-nighters at more staid, boring, business-application-type companies too. I guess somewhere in my brain it registers as "being a professional" or some silly thing like that. I don't know. However, I've been through this experience quite a few times, and so I've got something of a mental "survival kit" of things to do while working 12+ hour days. So, in case you find yourself in the same boat, here's what I've got:
  1. Pull out a list of really lame jokes. You can use them after eleven or twelve hours on the job - everything is funny then.
  2. Pull out holiday decorations for some holiday that is still six to nine months away, and start putting them up around your cubicle.
  3. Make a mental list of all the unpleasant tasks or obligations you can get out of because you aren't getting home at night until midnight. If you don't have any of said obligations, make them up. Bonus points for cackling to yourself as you do so.
  4. Plan our how you would save everyone in your office should it become subject to an organized, terrorist attack, like in Die Hard. Okay, so it wasn't terrorists in the original movie... so what?
  5. Start a betting pool with odds on which coworker will be the first to go postal. Hopefully nobody will, but the discussion of what the odds would be in which coworker will provide amusement for you and your coworkers throughout the day as stress levels rise.
  6. Find a good word of the day, and share it with selected coworkers, and try to use it at least once in every conversation. This works especially well when only some coworkers are in on the Word of the Day, and everyone else is confused by why they are hearing the word 'rodomontade' more times in a single day than their entire previous LIFE.
  7. Print out something you'd like to commit to memory - a poem, a scripture, the Gettysburg Address, last year's baseball averages, some vocabulary words in a foreign language... and tape it beside your monitor or put it next to your keyboard. Inevitably, you'll experience moments of downtime while waiting on other people or waiting for things to compile (in my career field). Spend those dull moments memorizing, preferably audibly. This is especially handy if they are cracking down on going on the web at work. Then, long after crunch mode has ended, you can amaze people with your knowledge.
  8. Make up new, sordid lyrics to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and mutter them out loud to yourself.
  9. Make imaginary phone calls on your cell within earshot of coworkers, and pretend you are talking to your broker. Use really big numbers and foreign currencies (particularly Swiss francs) and foreign-sounding companies or properties.
  10. Start throwing around business buzzwords in inappropriate sentences. "I had an adaptive, client-based lunch that I felt really achieved synergy with my core competency."
Some people will swear by nerf guns. I don't. I find that when you are really in crunch and stressed and desperately trying to make deadline, the stress of expecting to get shot in the back of the head while you are in the middle of stuff only compounds frustration.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008
 
The Future of Indie RPGs - Indies of the Round Table #2
Last month, we introduced the "Indies of the Round Table." This consists of a panel of indie computer Role-Playing Game (RPG) developers who emerge from their dungeons and secret laboratories where they are laboring on their latest projects so that they can discuss various 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.

Last month, they hammered away at the question, "Why Indie RPGs?" This month, they gazed into the future.

I remember too clearly the "golden age of shareware" in the early 90's, where companies like id Software, Apogee, Epic Megagames, and others transformed the face of gaming. And I have seen how casual games have risen from being just another niche indie game category to becoming practically an industry unto itself. I've seen web-based gaming grow, and broadband and torrents change the definition of a "small download." And as a gamer, I have seen some of my favorite game genres vanish, and then sometimes re-appear. And do I even need to mention how much better the graphics are today from fifteen years ago?

Things change. Rapidly. So this made me wonder - what does the future hold for indie games, and specifically for indie RPGs?

What Does the Future Hold?
Question: When asked about their expectations of future games, many mainstream developers reply with stock answers about ever more realistic graphics and rarely-realized promises of more believable AI. Indie RPG developers, on the other hand, have to make advances in different areas and small innovations. In the past, this has included capturing the attention of new audiences, creating wild hybrid games (such as found in Dwarf Fortress, or ... some titles by these panelists!), and revisiting older, classic ideas with modern technology and design sensibilities.

Assuming it won't expose any of your secrets for world domination, could you peek into the crystal ball that was issued to you with your license to make RPGs, and tell me what you think the future holds for indie RPGs in, say, five to eight years? What, if anything, might be different from the landscape today, both in the games themselves and how we obtain and play them?

The developers respond:

Thomas Riegsecker, Basilisk Games ("Eschalon: Book 1"):
I think the biggest challenge to indie developers is in expanding our customer base which has been shrinking for the past 20 years. A large portion of my customers are older- those who used to play Ultima on their parent's computer in the 80's. As an indie I can't afford a team of artists and a CryENGINE license for my games, so it is very hard to attract younger players who are looking for that type of experience. Along those lines, many younger players don't fully appreciate traditional role-playing because they've only been exposed to Action RPGs and MMOs. The good news is that I think indie RPGs have made great steps forward in terms of visual presentation and game play, and as our mainstream coverage expands we are likely to see our customer base grow. Here at Basilisk Games we are very excited about our plans for the next five years and despite the challenges, the future looks good for indie RPGs.

Jeff Vogel, Spiderweb Software ("Avernum V," "Geneforge 4," etc.):
It is beyond the capacity of an Indie to compete in the graphics area, and it is beyond the limits of our technology to create more than the barest improvements in AI. Where Indies can compete is in the area of storytelling and design.

For example, I am just starting the fifth and final part of our epic Geneforge series. I think that these are truly innovative games. They take place in a unique world ruled by a secretive sect of wizards (called Shapers) who create new forms of life to serve them.

They are completely wide open games. You can choose which side you fight for, even joining forces with the so-called "bad guys," and find interesting and satisfying endings. You can advance using combat, or never attack anything directly and instead use stealth, trickery, and diplomacy. You can play a solitary character or make a horde of fanatically loyal monsters to serve you. Fans of the series really appreciate the many meaningful choices available to them.

You can do this sort of thing on a low budget. I don't dream about a fancy graphics budget anymore. I look for the areas where I can excel, and I focus on those.

Steven Peeler, Soldak Entertainment ("Depths of Peril"):
Well much of the next few years will be the same as usual. The retail market will create games with better and better graphics with possibly some small innovations, but will essentially turn out clone after clone. Whereas indies on the other hand as a group will try out lots of new ideas. The past has shown that indies will explore the possibilities much more. We will blur the lines of the genres (Depths of Peril), create old school games that the retail market has abandoned (Eschalon/Avernum), create very unique heroes (Mr. Robot), create more casual RPGs (Fate), create games that you have many short play throughs instead of one long play through (Fast Crawl/Cute Knight), and on and on. These are just a few past examples. I see indies continuing like this and innovating in and exploring areas the retail market won’t go, well until an indie proves that it can make lots of money and then the retail market will gladly follow.

The big difference I see than in the past is that indies will start getting on more consoles through things like Xbox Live Arcade. This should be great for both indie companies and gamers. Indies will get a larger audience and more gamers will discover that there is a lot more out there than what sits on store shelves.

Amanda Fitch, Amaranth Games ("Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest"):
I think we are going to see lots of innocent-looking games that are serious games in disguise. Maybe Brain Age meets Guitar Hero? Wii Fit is a good example of what I'm talking about. Okay, I'll be honest... I am dying to get Wii Fit, and it can't get to the USA fast enough. I hate working out in front of other people. Gyms are the worst. I love the idea that I can get a workout and play a game at the same time. I want to play a game that keeps track of my physical stats and lets me log on to the Internet so that I can compare my stats to others and compete for awards. Weird huh? I WANT IT!!!! :-)

As for what's coming for RPGs? At GDC two years ago, I got to put on some video glasses that actually put me into the game. I looked up, I saw the sky, I looked down, I saw boxes that were flawlessly 3D. The world was Real and it was amazing. If my dreams come true, these glasses and games will be affordable and main stream. I still love 2D RPGs, but I dream of the day when I can walk around in fantasy world, not view it on a TV screen.

Georgina Bensley, Hanako Games ("Cute Knight Deluxe"):
Hmm... I think 'community' is going to become a bigger thing.

A general survey of geeks will show that many of them really want to make an RPG, but don't have the time or resources or patience. And with Neverwinter Nights we saw outpourings of people releasing mods, given tools. So far indie RPGs haven't gone too much for community content, that I know of. I expect there to be more games that allow players to create their own monsters, quests, and dungeons, and share them through the official site, both to engage players and as an anti-piracy mechanism. With NWN, if you wanted to plug your great new module on the Bioware forums, you needed to be a registered game owner.

There may also be developments in small-scale multiplayer, the sort of thing that the big companies aren't interested in. They want massive, worldwide games. 'Host your own multiplayer dungeon for your friends' is something indies could offer.

Josh Engebretson, Prairie Games ("Minions of Mirth"):
I think product deployment and compatibility are major improvement areas for the future. The focus will be the web which is slowly becoming a viable deployment platform. There are a number of cross browser/cross platform tools such as Silverlight, Java, Flash, and the new Director 11 that will play a major part in allowing customers to easily stream games. This will avoid the download, install, and compatibility issues that especially plague indie game companies.

There are already some great examples of browser games. The line between "browser games" and "desktop games" will be completely blurred. This is already happening and we're seeing major investment from companies like EA into web deployment. As most indie game companies depend solely on web based sales, I think this is an important place for indies to be as well.

Mike Hommel, Hamumu Games ("Loonyland 2: Winter Woods"):
I think the biggest thing to see for indie RPGs in the future, as opposed to mainstream ones, is going to be the variety. Which is to say we'll see lots more of the same from indies - Spiderweb will release Geneforge 11 (Woops! Not according to Jeff, up above -- Jay ), there will still be a dozen new games that look like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy 2, a bunch more low-quality 3D ones, and a handful of ASCII things.

That's not to say there will be nothing new - there will be tons. And those above games will include innovations and unique features. It's just that, unlike in the mainstream, indies don't drop technology and style because it's "old". A Final Fantasy style can still be fun and engrossing and tell a story. In the mainstream, you won't find a single game that isn't a perfectly ordinary full 3D world, and that's a shame.

The other thing will be even more crossover. More things like Puzzle Quest, or games like Sorcerian (a very old game - a side-scrolling platformer that was also a full party RPG with all the trappings), or Depths Of Peril. Mixing RPG with every other type of game. Mmm, remember Autoduel? There's already enough argument over what constitutes an RPG, and that will only get more blurry. I mean, think of God Of War - pure action game, but the RPG elements are all there, with the different skills/weapons you level up, and very much focused on a storyline. About the only difference between that and a recent Final Fantasy game is the interface for smashing the enemies. Maybe every game will be an RPG in the future!

I'm not much of a business guy, so I will leave the Steam/iTunes discussions to others. I will say that downloads are the future in every field (I see nothing but pronouncements of doom for Bluray, saying downloads are going to supersede it in a few years), they just happen to already be the norm in gaming.

I just hope real broadband makes it out into the desert here by then.

Jason Compton, Planewalker Games ("The Broken Hourglass"):
I'm sure things will be different in some way, but I don't see any major breakthroughs on the horizon which would make things "easier" or "better". In my view, the amount of reach a true independent developer has into the increasingly preferred gaming platforms is tiny and shrinking. You may know friends whose faces are always glued to Final Fantasy or Golden Sun on their DS, but there's also never going to be an independent market on mainstream handhelds. (Yes, I said "never." I used to think that the industry was due for an early 80s-style crash which would flush out the excess and open things up again, but I think they've managed to dodge that.) Control over the downloadable content markets on consoles is only going to get tighter. And never mind the mobile phone market you'll never get a sniff of as an indie, either.

On the desktop, I expect library aggregators like GameTap to continue building loyalty and depressing prices with vast catalogs of paid-for content (the downside, from the perspective of contemporary creators, of the "long tail" phenomenon.) And even for hardcore desktop gamers, AAA titles on the high end and "hey, look at this funky Flash game I found today!" on the low end will continue to cover most of what's left.

So, no, I don't suggest banking your money now and waiting for the technology to change.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008
 
Wanted: Good PC Tactical Combat "Sim"
Hey, guys - I could use a hand.

Assuming I actually have time to ... you know... PLAY games again someday, I've found myself tempted to reinstall Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. Right, a six-year-old game. I understand the more recent R6 games didn't keep the same ol' "sim" / realism feel (and have crappy AI - unless that was fixed in a patch). I'm also a big fan of Operation: Flashpoint, and I understand that Armed Assault is OFP 2 in all but name. So it's a candidate, but I was looking for a little bit more of the "close quarters combat" feel.

I've even gone back to playing a little Battlefield 2 in my desperation. Not. Even. Close.

So - is there a newer game out there that has the stealth / close-quarters combat "realism" of the earlier Rainbow Six games for the PC that you'd recommend? I would appreciate suggestions immensely. Not that I'm opposed to re-installing Rogue Spear and the expansion, but I think I still have all those maps memorized...

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Gaming With Gygax
Mike Rubin sent me this lengthy, "think piece" article about Dungeons & Dragons. It's long, includes extensive research, talks about the history of the game and some of its mechanics. There's an interview with Lorraine Williams, who took over TSR (and the D&D brand) from Gary Gygax in the early 80's. And it culminates in a D&D game with Gary Gygax himself a couple of years ago.

Destroy All Monsters at The Believer

An excerpt:
Wayne and I took Gygax to lunch at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Lake Geneva: an expensive place, Gygax warned us. Our sandwiches cost six or seven dollars each. After lunch, we returned to his house to play some Dungeons & Dragons. Wayne and I felt curiously listless; it had already been a long day of talking; Wayne wasn’t sure he remembered how to play; I would have been happy to go back to our motel room and sleep. This happens to me often: I decide that I want something; I work and work at it; and just as the object of my quest comes into view, it suddenly comes to seem less valuable, not valuable at all. I can find no compelling reason to seize it and often I don’t. (This has never been the case, curiously, in role-playing games, where my excitement increases in a normal way as the end of the adventure approaches. Which is probably another reason why I like the games more than the life that goes on around them, and between them.) I wonder if we would have turned back, if Gygax hadn’t already gone into the house and come back with his purple velvet dice bag and a black binder, a module he wrote for a tournament in 1975. This was before the Tolkien estate threatened to sue TSR, and halflings were still called hobbits. So I got to play a hobbit thief and a magic-user and Wayne played a cleric and a fighter, and for four and a half hours we struggled through a wilderness adventure in a looking-glass world of carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on. All of which Gygax presented with a minimum of fuss. The author of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t much care for role-playing: “If I want to do that,” he said, “I’ll join an amateur theater group.” In fact, D&D, as DM’ed by E. Gary Gygax, is not unlike a miniatures combat game.
Enjoy!

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Monday, March 10, 2008
 
Games And Story - Revisited By Monk's Brew
Mike Rubin's "The Monk's Brew" takes on my attitude of how "great" stories and games don't mix, going into a lot of detail that I glossed over.

The Quest For Story In Games, Redux

I was expecting a rebuttal, but this was more of a defense of my position, written in Mike's incredibly eloquent fashion.

Simply put - you are going to have to sacrifice the principles of masterful linear storytelling on the altar of good gameplay. And if you do that, story - by traditional measurements - is going to be forever limited from reaching its full potential. If you aren't willing to accept that, you need to migrate to a different medium.

But I don't think this is a pessimistic attitude. I'm not saying storytelling - and even linear storytelling elements - do not belong in games. Quite to the contrary. But I am suggesting that once we get over trying to force video games to be something they aren't, we can focus on making them the best of what they are.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008
 
How Much Do I Spend On Rock Band?
Rock Band, Harmonix's newest game and possible successor to the Guitar Hero throne, cost me about $170 initially. Money well spent. While I think Guitar Hero III might be a better solo game if you prefer being an air-guitar star, Rock Band is probably the best party game videogame I've ever played. It's the perfect size for our family of four, everyone can play cooperatively on different skill levels, and when friends come by, Rock Band comes out.

I don't buy all of the downloadable songs that come out for it. Though I found myself buying a couple that I'd originally skipped after playing them at a friends' place. Last night, downloading the Grateful Dead pack, I realized that I've probably spent narly $40 on extra music for the game.

And you know what? It didn't bother me.

Rock Band shipped with a reasonable number of songs (most of the expense of the game is due to the guitar, drum set, and microphone controllers that shipped with it). True, when starting out in world tour mode, it seems like it takes forever to escape the first couple of batches of "beginner" songs, but eventually all 58 songs become available and it feels reasonable.

Now the number is around 78. It feels like a great game has just been made better, and it's becoming customized to my tastes. Sure, it would be better if there was an option to remove the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" completely from the list, and if the downloaded songs were swapped in as stand-alone songs on different venues rather than only appearing in random or custom set lists. But hey - I've got three songs by Rush, "Gimme Three Steps" by Lynard Skynard, and songs by Blink 182, the Pretenders, Weezer, and CCR with my game.

And I've been getting introduced to music that had always been under my radar. And some of the artists (and iTunes) have profited.

Nevermind the fact that Rock Band has sold something like 3 million of these downloadable songs by now. Or am I underestimating?

If I were a music studio executive right now, or an agent for an indie band, I'd be lining up with an attractive licensing deal for MTV / Harmonix - or Activision / RedOctane - or whoever else might be working on the next big music game (Hmmm.... a licensing deal for Steam's indie hit Audiosurf?) - right now. In fact, I am guessing they already are.

As GLaDOS would say, "Huge Success."

UPDATE: Wow, can I call it or can I call it?

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Friday, March 07, 2008
 
Shamus Young Vs. The Pirates
Shamus Young, anti-DRM crusader as he is, has a now THREE part article about piracy. And fighting piracy. Without DRM that cripples the customer. Here it is:

The Publishers Vs. The Pirates, Part 1

Five Ways to Fight Piracy: The Publishers Vs. The Pirates, Part 2

The Publishers Vs. The Pirates, Part 3

What I particularly enjoyed from this series is that it comes from the customer perspective. One which I totally sympathize with, as I've been a customer for a lot longer than I've been a developer. And I remember with the day I downloaded a crack for Wing Commander, because I had decided to re-install it YET AGAIN - an exercise I performed about every six months - and I could not find my documentation.

I found the docs later that afternoon, but by that time, I was hooked on the crack. :) Because I suddenly amazed at the relief I felt NOT having to hunt through the documentation for the copy-protection question every time I started the game! And then I realized that the pirates had a superior version of the game.

I find it amusing to see the shock and disbelief people express when seeing anecdotal numbers as to how rampant piracy really is - mainly because I remember feeling exactly the same way.

It should be clear to anybody not in the throes of self-delusion and justification that piracy is a problem. The question is that of magnitude. On an immediate scale, Russell Carroll's recent analysis revealed that while casual piracy was clearly excessive, the direct relationship between piracy rates and actual lost sales is ... complicated. In a longer term - the societal effects on the de-valuation of intellectual property due to unchecked piracy - I think the consequences may be more dire, but we're definitely in the realm of speculation here.

Shamus's articles address the issue from the standpoint of a customer, offering his suggestions as one of the (increasingly scarce?) people who actually expects to pay for his games, and who expects to NOT be treated like a criminal for doing so.

In my opinion, most of his suggestions come down to publishers getting with the 21st century, which is where the pirates AND their customers are now.

Incidentally, GBGames has another very well thought-out post on piracy with plenty of links, though I do take issue with some of his opinions: Music, Video Games, and the Supposed Problem of Piracy.

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Frayed Knights - Alpha 2 Laundry List
Boy, this week's installment of the Frayed Knights development diary will have you on the edge of your seats!

Okay, I lie.

It's not particularly exciting. I haven't actually heard many people singing the praises of the first alpha, which always makes me assume the worst. "Aw, crap, the game's a dud. NOW what?" There WERE a lot of bugs - about half of which I was aware of (though I had failed to record them all). I actually have enough bugs to carry me through an entire second week of alpha... but the sooner I know about other bugs, the better. On top of this, there are a bunch of suggestions (especially with the interface) and other last-minute enhancements I'd like to make before this goes "final."

Game development is just SO thrilling and glamorous.

DGM did make the comment that for someone who has been reading this series from the beginning, there weren't a whole lot of surprises. I think that will be an additional focus over the next two weeks - throw in some surprises. :) There are a few plot-development elements that I left out of the pilot that I want to squeeze back in.

Anyway, if you were in the first alpha group, the new download is available. Check the alpha forum for instructions.

I'll be adding people to the second alpha group today. Check your emails and private messages on the forum. I expect the alpha 1 group is gonna be all burned out after playing through one or two alphas, so I need some fresh eyes on things. If possible - keep track of how much time you spent playing (I really should automate that). Even though it's not a great estimation due to the lack of save and load functionality right now, it helps.

Sorry for splitting up the alpha into groups like this again... but having done a bit of testing myself in the past, I know how hard it can be to aggressively hunt down bugs in the fourth or fifth build that you've seen.

Outstanding major issues remaining in Alpha 2
Fixes in Alpha 2 (at least all that I remember)
That's all I've got the brainpower for this week. It's been one of those weeks...

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Thursday, March 06, 2008
 
Why the Quest for Story in Video Games Will Fail
In April 1981, I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons. My thief got into a fight with a giant spider in a 2-room dungeon, and was losing badly. Another player had to come to my rescue. That wasn't quite an auspicious beginning. But it was magical to me. It was the emotional investment into an imaginary world and story created by three guys, a rulebook, and random chance. The story wasn't Shakespeare. But for me, hanging on every word of description and the results of every die roll, it was made out of awesome.

Later adventures in different systems have stuck with me for years. Just the little vignettes, situations, sub-plots, and characters. These little bits of story were what sucked me in. They have meaning to me, and to the other people I played with. Maybe they'll even pique your interest:
Moments of Great Story In Video Games
While many video games suck me in just through sheer awesome and addictive gameplay, when it comes to some genres (especially RPGs), it comes down to the story and the feeling of being part of the world. I ate and drank Wing Commander for a couple of years. I'd memorized ship stats, created additional back-story in my head, and became a fully participatory fanboy.

I've written about some of my other experiences with "game moments" - times when I got sucked into the game, when the fiction of the game became so involving, so compelling, that it drew me into the world and I became a willing participant. What's interesting to me is that almost all of the ones that I felt worth writing about were emergent stories - events that were not tightly scripted. I mean, sure, I could write about the death of Aeris, laying the ghosts to rest in the violently destroyed Scara Brae, or the confrontation against Malcom McDowell's brilliantly twisted Admiral Tolwyn, or getting slapped around by the Dread Pirate LeChuck, or the face-off with the even more twisted GLaDOS - and I will. Like I just did. But since anybody who really cares already knows the story and has been there, there's not a whole lot to say other than, 'that was pretty cool, huh?'

Your Story, or My Story?
But while I do often get sucked into interesting linear stories trying to figure out (or help decide) "what happens next?" the stories from video games that stick with me for years are a lot like the ones from the pen-and-paper RPGs I mentioned earlier: Emergent stories that invited ME to become a participant.

I remember bits and pieces of Ultima VII's storyline (like the aforementioned Skara Brae subplot), but what made it work for me was the opening sequence - from being taunted by the Guardian to investigating a ritual slaying in a barn. The "hook" pulled me in and invited me to invest myself emotionally and intellectually to the fictional world. Origin's motto of "We Create Worlds" became ever so true for me. As it did again with Ultima Underworld, a game with a laughably lame plot but - for me - an outstanding story. Because I was the guy who filled in the story.

Read the stories people write about that emerged from The Sims or Dwarf Fortress. These games seize players' imaginations, and invite them to fill in the numerous blanks in the game's cold logic with their own warm, human cause-and-effect explanations. They imbue the characters with personalities that don't really exist. In short, they become co-authors, and in their own minds these characters and stories come to life in a spectacular way. Story happens.

You'll Never Find a Game With a Great Story
I believe that this is a key reason that the quest for "better story" in video games is doomed for failure. The very criteria and tools we use to judge story is based on linear storytelling which is at odds with nature of our medium. But this dead-end warning sign seems to be lost on most designers and publishers. On the route the industry seems to be taking, I don't think we'll ever have our "Citizen Kane."

(Which I think is kind of a silly comparison, as I don't believe Citizen Kane was recognized as such a landmark in cinema when it was first released, and it certainly wasn't a commercial success. And I gotta ask... where's the NEXT Citizen Kane going to hit the theaters? Have things been all downhill since 1941?).

In some ways, I think game developers are trying too hard. They are over-applying the rules of linear storytelling to a degree that it distracts from the point of a game - to be interactive. The stories need to be interactive, too. Maybe not on the level that Chris Crawford is trying to achieve, but on the level where it invites the player's imagination to participate as a co-author. Instead, the player is too often forced to disengage their active participation so they can be force-fed a cut-scene. The result is a disjointed feeling where the player has two juxtaposed stories he's trying to reconcile - the one he or she is imagining as they play, and another one thrust upon them that may not jibe with how the game is playing out in their mind.

Changing the Rules
In a lot of ways, the focus on graphics and detail that we insist upon in modern games might actually distract the player from the story. It's like reading a book that insists on detailing a character's action between important events - brushing their teeth, tying their shoe, looking both ways before crossing the street, stopping to look at the newspaper, eating breakfast... If these aren't key to the story, they should be abstracted out. But in a game, well... done any grinding lately in an RPG? Or wandering around looking for an exit? Or, uh, having your Sims take bathe and use the bathroom?

This isn't saying good storytelling techniques aren't critical in making game stories. A killer "hook" at the beginning of the game, compelling characters, an intriguing storyline that keeps you playing, a believable and captivating setting - these are all key to inviting players to invest themselves emotionally and mentally into the fiction. For a good game, the player will get out of it what they put into it.

And that's where a great story in video games come from. Not from trying to compete with movies or books, and not from trying to enforce linear storytelling conventions on games, but by stepping aside and assisting the player in making their own "Citizen Kane."


(Vaguely) related navel-gazing:
* Fixing Interactive Storytelling
* What Makes a Great RPG: The Story
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008
 
Interview with Georgina Bensley
Gamezebo's got an interview with Fatal Hearts and Cute Knight creator Georgina Bensley.

An excerpt on where she gets her ideas:

"I can't stop coming up with ideas. Any sort of new concept I see or hear about, I'm likely to start thinking `How could I make that into a game? How could I make that fun?' Especially if someone says a particular concept can't be done. Someone mentioned in conversation that it would be impossible to make a racing game with drama and meaningful character development. So of course I had to come up with a design for one, where the drivers would have friendships and rivalries and this would affect the way they raced... if you stole someone's girlfriend then he might decide to sacrifice winning a race in order to make you crash out.

"I'm not making that game, though. I have far too many ideas to actually implement them all. Some ideas won't leave me alone. If I keep thinking about the same thing over and over, I probably have to make it. If I start prototyping an idea and lose interest, it probably wasn't that great an idea. I have some ideas that have been sitting in my list of 'maybe someday' for years now, because I keep coming up with better plans that I feel more urgent about creating."

Enjoy!

Interview with Georgina Bensley at Gamezebo

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2008: The Year the XBox Took Control of the RPG
Gameplayer - an Australian gaming site - has an article about RPGs on the XBox 360, including some back history and the different eastern vs. western RPGs that have made their way to the platform. And they've got that provocative little blurb at the beginning of the article, "2008: The Year the XBox Took Control of the RPG."

The State of the RPG at Gameplayer

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008
 
R.I.P. Gary
E. Gary Gygax passed away last night. He was one of the founding fathers of role-playing games. While he may not have been the principle creator of Dungeons & Dragons, he was certainly the one responsible for popularizing it, the genre, and the industry. If you play role-playing games, even if you sneer at the quaintness of the original systems, you still owe a debt to the guy. This was how it all started. Without it, there may not have been Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Ultima (which began life as a high school project entitled, "D&D"), Oblivion, or Fallout. At least not in a form we'd recognize.

I think I only exchanged a couple of forum posts with him, and shared a couple of "credits" blurbs with him that were probably beneath his notice. I never met him face-to-face. Hardly worth noting in a Kevin-Bacon-esque degree of separation game. I didn't agree with many of his views (hey, I LOVED 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, and computer RPGs... ).

But Gary Gygax was a powerful influence on my life. The day I discovered the game that turned imagination into a playing field, my life changed. Not all of it was positive, but here I am, twenty-seven years later, and I'm still playing RPGs, still using words I learned from his books like "dweomer" and "evocation" and "melee." Many of my closest friends I met - at least indirectly - because of RPGs. My industry owes a lot to what he did. While it wasn't responsible for my meeting the lady who'd later become my wife, it was a topic of conversation and an activity we shared in college.

So long Gary, and thanks for the good times!

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The Secret Life of NPCs
So I was playing a console RPG (I do that sometimes), and I found struggling through yet another pointless, canned dialog that is supposed to guide me to whatever I'm supposed to do next. And then something bizarre happened. Or maybe not. I might have been a combination of lack of sleep and a tainted microwave-able meal, but the conversation took a turn for the awesome. And it was highly informative. I learned a lot more about AI-controlled characters in CRPGs than I had ever imagined.

Phlatu Lance, the Shopkeeper: Ah, you must be the Chosen One. Hero, I have a problem. I have no time for my laundry. If you will take my laundry to Mayor Kreppinpanz, he will give you a great reward.

Me: You gotta be kidding me. But okay. Laundry?

Phlatu Lance: Sharing laundry is a very important tradition in our village. After all, have you ever seen villagers around here change their clothes?

Me: Oh. No, I haven't. I see your point. So where can I find the mayor?

Phlatu Lance: You have to wander around aimlessly through our village talking to everyone until you happen to run into him inside his house, which is only slightly bigger than any other house around here. Don't bother knocking, he won't mind you barging in. It's just how things are done.

Me: Can you give me any better directions?

Phlatu Lance: No. But I can't print you off a Google Map. With a streetview picture, if you want.

Me: Cool, I didn't know you could do that!

Phlatu Lance: I've got a printer hidden in that room behind the non-interactive door you can't open.

Me: I always wondered. Hey, speaking of which, where's the nearest save-game thingy?

Phlatu Lance: I'll print off a map to that one. Those are conveniently located just outside of most villages like this one, but often hidden off to the side so that if you miss them, you get killed and have to go through this whole village sequence with pointless fed-ex missions a second time.

Me: Really? You sound like that is a good thing!

Phlatu Lance: Few things give us greater joy than giving Chosen Ones the run-around. And taking their money twice instead of once. And you wouldn't believe the profit-margin on these lame magical trinkets we keep selling you.

Me: Wait! Chosen Ones? Plural?

Phlatu Lance: Based on our sales numbers, we get about a third of a million of you Chosen One types.

Me: Oh. I thought I was special.

Phlatu Lance: Think about it a minute. Laundry missions.

Me: Right. So... uh, about me killing your brother in cold blood right in front of you. You acted like you didn't notice...

Phlatu Lance: Unlike you, he knows where all the save game spots are. We're gonna have another laugh about it fifteen minutes after you are gone to get yourself killed in the woods where our children play safely when you aren't around.

Me: Wow, this really puts things in perspective.

Phlatu Lance: Can I interest you in my wares?

Me: So how do your kids manage to stay safe in goblin-infested woods.

Phlatu Lance: Can I interest you in my wares?

Me: And do you have Google maps of the rest of the w0rld? And when did Google come by to get street views of this village, anyway?

Phlatu Lance: Can I interest you in my wares?

At this point, I'd realized I'd dropped the controller and had that buzzy, confused feeling you get when you just realized that you aren't sure if the teacher had noticed you drooling on your desk while you were out. The on-screen character was calmly giving me his one-sentence sales pitch with no further elaborations on the secret life of NPCs. Maybe some other time...

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Monday, March 03, 2008
 
On the Future of the Music Business
Seth Godin has a PDF transcript of his talk about the future of the music business.

You can download the PDF here.

So why am I linking to it? This blog is about games, not music, right?

Yes, and no. The game biz as we have known it derived from the same historic business model as the music industry. In fact, early on, EA actually really tried to emulate the music business, releasing games in packaging and art resembling albums, and treating developers (who were at that point about the same size as rock bands) as rock stars. The videogame biz as we've known it - from the Nintendo era and even before - is changing, the same way the music business is changing, with exactly the same problems.

Godin doesn't have answers, but he firmly states that trying to force things to stay as they were back in the studio's heyday is not one. And he makes some interesting suggestions, drawing upon such examples as Jerry Seinfeld and - of course - the Grateful Dead.

I believe that in a lot of ways, the PC gaming scene isn't "dying" so much as it is "evolving." Due to proprietary technology, the consoles have a little bit more grace period left in them before their business model goes the way of the dinosaur. The PC hasn't had that luxury, and in many ways it has been blazing the painful trail. But the music biz has been even further in the front, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from watching that particular industry getting its butt kicked a few times.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, March 2nd
There has been a bit of news on the mainstream computer RPG front in the last couple of weeks, such as Titan Quest developers Iron Lore shutting down, and the entirely unsurprising announcement that a PC version of Mass Effect is coming in May.

But things haven't been silent on the indie RPG front, either. I hear about more and more independent computer role-playing games in development almost every week.

Scars of War
When he's not being bullied by a baboon (no joke!) for his lunch, Gareth Fouche is working on a Torque-based RPG entitled, Scars of War. In recent news, based on that linked article which includes the baboon attack, he's moved over to the higher-tech Torque Game Engine Advanced to use really cool shader effects and other advanced technology.

As if switching to a different game engine wasn't enough to slow down development and make him less productive (like me!), Gareth is also blogging about the development process and other subjects in "Blog of War." Check it out for some insight into the insanity of an indie RPG developer (IMO, insanity and "indie RPG developer" pretty much go hand-in-hand).

Blog of War

Depths of Peril
Official patch 1.009 of Depths of Peril is now available. This patch seems to address localization issues, but it also includes a new "loner challenge mode" and made the early part of the game a little easier, among other changes.

Download it at the Soldak Patch page.

Warrior Quest
NextGenBooks has a new, free flash-based RPG called "Warrior Quest." It's now public and technically playable, but still seems to be quite a bit on the buggy and incomplete side. As of right now there are no accounts and no way to save your character. Besides the usual attacks with magic and melee, the game system is based around the use of "battle cards" in combat. (Hat tip to Casual Gamer Chick)

WarriorQuest at NextGenBooks

Mount & Blade
While a publisher may have picked up the distribution rights, this is still a very indie RPG in my book. Mount & Blade has some new screenshots and information at WorthPlaying.com, with a comment about it being available in Q2 2008. The game is still available (last I checked) at a pre-release discount directly from the developer's site. (Hat tip to RPGWatch)

Mount & Blade Screenshots at Worthplaying

Dwarf Fortress
In case you missed it (hey, I mentioned it in the forums!), GamaSutra has a really awesome, extended interview with Tarn Adams on the development of the mega-roguelike strategy / RPG, Dwarf Fortress. It goes into a lot of technical, programmer-ish details about things like simulating water flow and the realistic generation of terrain, but if you aren't too allergic to occasional forays into geeky tech-speak, it's an awesome interview.

Interview: The Making of Dwarf Fortress

Frayed Knights
The Frayed Knights Pilot (subtitled The Temple of Pokmor Xang) has gone alpha. It is intended to be something of a free preview for the full release, as well as a test "pilot" episode to gauge reactions and put the engine through technical paces. The pilot should be released to the public on April 1st.

Frayed Knights Website

Caverns of Underkeep
Still in beta, there have been a number of improvements to this free web-based roguelike RPG, including an improved disarming interface, hotkeys for certain spells, faster potion usage, improved carrying capacity, and a major fix to ranged weapon attacks.

Play Caverns of Underkeep


That's what I've got for this week. Got more news, announcements, and other tidbits for me to pass along? Drop me an email or post something on the forum!

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Saturday, March 01, 2008
 
Framed!
Several few weeks ago, I was a "runner up" in a contest run by Corvus Elrod. He had a drawing to give away his review copy of The Witcher, which he'd not enjoyed at all (and said so in his controversial review at The Escapist).

I say "Runner up" because I didn't get the copy of the game. Instead, he gave me the option of choosing one of about four or five condolence prizes. One of these was the cloth map from Ultima V.

As much as I would have liked to play The Witcher for free, from my perspective - I won the contest. As geeky as I am, and as an indie RPG developer, this map represents a bit of my history and the reasons I'm doing what I am doing. Maybe it wasn't my favorite Ultima of them all, but it has meaning to me. So I had the thing professionally framed.

Go ahead, call me a geek.

The framing cost me nearly $100, but DANG it came out looking cool. Geek cool, I guess. It's funny, because I know the cloth map was made as cheaply as possible as a pack-in for a $60 game. It probably cost about $2. But hey, twenty years later, it may not be a collector's item or anything, but I doubt it is easy to find.. And here it is, in it's blurry, crappy cell-phone-snapshot glory. Trust me, it looks a heck of a lot better live. They did a great job on the framing and cleaning of it, and it has been stretched and pressed just enough to make the twenty-year old folds disappear.

It inspires me.

And if I feel like playing Ultima V again - hey, I only need to look to my left to follow the map!

(Vaguely) related stuff:
* Game Moments #6 - Ultima VII
* The Origin of Fun
* The 16 Essential RPGs
.

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