Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Saturday, May 31, 2008
 
Venetica Rumors
An action-RPG set in the 16th century? Where you play Death's daughter?

Venetica. Website under construction.

Sounds very cool to me. Color me excited! Muchos thanks to Rock Paper Shotgun for the scoop. Head on over there for what little information there is...

Venetica Screenshots & Info at RPS

UPDATE: Kotaku has a trailer video (thanks Rubes!)

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Friday, May 30, 2008
 
Frayed Knights - Going Deep
And here's the latest update on Frayed Knights, the indie comedy-based RPG from Rampant Games. The last couple of weeks this update has been erratic, happening on days other than Fridays, but I'm getting back on schedule.

It's amazing how fast a month can go by, isn't it? Well, this month didn't fly by quite so fast. I went from crunch-mode to get the Frayed Knights Pilot out the door, to crunch-mode at the day job. When all that was over, I was pretty exhausted and took a few days off with minimal work on Frayed Knights except to "putter" and read more of the flood of feedback results on the game. I'm now pushing 400 responses. That is a LOT to read. And I have read every single one. Some were quite extensive in their recommendations... others might have just been the default entries.

Overall - the reception has been pretty good. Not overwhelmingly positive, but I have been surprised by how few negative reactions I've received. Less than 5%. I assume people are just trying to be nice.

So, this last week I've been diving back into the thick of things. My brain is being pulled in two different directions, as I'm partly back in designer-mode, and partly in the thick of bug-fixing and coding up changes. Right now, the game needs more design work than coding, but I'm too much of a programming addict.

Okay, So It Was Broken and I Had To Fix It
For everyone who wanted the "Z" key to be a toggle for freelook, you've got it. It locks the cursor to the center of the screen when you do it, which means you'll be forced to hotkey everything rather than click on buttons... and you'll have to look directly at objects in the environment to click on them - but it works. Movement speed has also been significantly increased. It feels too fast for me, personally, so it may need to be adjusted further, but I also think there's a lot of speed-demon players out there for which this is not a problem.

Dynamic combat encounters have been somewhat overhauled. I'm still toying with having them appear in the environment (along with "static" encounters), but with that will be introduced bugs that will haunt me forever, so I'm holding off on that particular headache for a bit as a consideration but not a mandate. I have gotten rid of the old D&D style "wandering monster" system and replaced it by something that is more measured and predictable. In fact, right now the player can look and see approximately when to expect the next encounter. I would also like the "probable" nature of the upcoming encounter to be discovered early if your party succeeds in figuring out what is stalking them.

What's truly amusing here is that, the first time through an area, the "static" encounters will be more surprising than the "random" encounters.

Before release, I had implemented a system where the game tried to "remember" the last spellcaster, their last spell, and the last spell target. It didn't work as well as it should. I've not updated everything so that it remembers the last combat spell and the last non-combat spell for each caster, and defaults appropriately. This should speed up spell selection a bit, particularly if you are always casting Chloe's Hotfoot and Ben's Negligible Healing.

And then there's some miscellaneous clean-up I had to do, especially in combat. Which brings us to another subject.

Going Deep
From a mechanics perspective, people (including me) were not satisfied with combat. Part of this is because it was never implemented as fully as I'd intended, particularly with special feats and abilities for characters... and AI. The AI, in particular, was pretty stupid right in the pilot, firing off spells sorta randomly.

I've changed things around a bit. First of all, the AI is actually a little more predictable now - but with that predictability I'm also trying to make it smarter. AI may have a particular sequence they like to repeat over and over again in combat, depending upon situation, but they also won't heal companions that don't need healing, and other silliness. They will also be more aware of easier / harder / more dangerous enemies, and will attack accordingly based on their intelligence and creature type. This is a long-term change as the game progresses in development, and so I'll be taking a wrench to it on a frequent basis.

One thing that I had thought I had implemented - but apparently had not - was range issues. Attacking deep into the enemy lines is a lot harder (and more dangerous) than attacking something right in front of you. Weapons do have a reach / range factor, which was being ignored --- except to set a bunch of flags for whether feats that were not fully implemented would trigger or not. Except that wasn't happening either, as apparently I'd defaulted the distance to zero and completely forgotten about the little "TODO" there of calculating the correct distance. D'oh.

So now, if you are bare-fisted, you can only attack enemies that are right in front of you. Short weapons can attack creatures one rank beyond that, but at a penalty. Long weapons can attack either group equally well (though I'm tempted to put a smaller penalty for attacking the closer rank), and - at a penalty - attack THREE ranks removed. And finally, ranged weapons can attack any rank equally EXCEPT the ones immediately in front of you - where you get a high penalty AND may trigger enemy defensive feats.

For determining distance, it includes your own party. So Chloe and Benjamin are always at a distance of two from the front rank of enemies.

Plans In Motion
I will soon be evaluating the difficulty of merging the current code base with the latest version of the Torque Game Engine. I'm not particularly looking forward to that.

We've got a TON of content work we need to get done. And I'm not talking about that... at all... right now. :)

I am working on some missing functionality, like trading.

The spell casting interface... well, that's a big complaint, still. I still don't have a clean way of handling it. Many people are suggesting a simpler interface with the assumption that there will only be a handful of spells available. I originally planned dozens. So... the question is... do I shrink the number of spells down to make the interface easier for people, or do I keep the spell count up, realizing that - while streamlining may still be improved - it will leave spellcasting a cumbersome process? Or can I do some other tricks, like limit the number of spells a player has "memorized" for the sake of simplifying the interface?

Well, that's where I am. Whaddaya think?

UPDATE: Forum post on the subject available here (thanks Corwin!)

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Thursday, May 29, 2008
 
Examining ITT's Game Design Program
Yesterday I was invited to be on the program advisory committee for ITT Technical Institute's game design program here in Salt Lake. The goal was for us to evaluate their game design program's curriculum, and offer suggestions and feedback as professionals in the field that they are training their students to enter. Greg Squire (who runs the Utah Indie Game Night meetings), Lane Kiriyama of Wahoo / NinjaBee, and I represented something of the "indie contingent" of people on the committee. They didn't swear me to secrecy or anything, so I figured I'd share.

They fed us lunch, which consisted of sandwiches bigger than my head (plus salads, chips, drinks, and a dessert that almost nobody touched). Greg and I split a sandwich, and neither of us could finish our halves. I think those sandwiches were really for feeding a family of four. As we tried to work our way around the gravitational pull exerted by the significant mass of these things, they gave us a Power Point presentation of the curriculum, with a week-by-week breakdown of everything taught for each course, and asked for feedback for each class.

Game development degrees have been described by Chris Crawford as producing "foot soldiers for the video game industry." I've had something of that attitude for game development schools, too. And - to be fair - the curriculum at ITT is definitely geared more towards getting students jobs at mainstream studios. I don't really have a problem with that. I think "doing some time" at a professional, mainstream game studio is an invaluable experience for a serious would-be indie.

(Yes, I do note here that being an indie is often considered a possible milestone on the path to becoming a professional in the mainstream game business. Naturally, I look at it the other way around).

What was really cool is that - at least in Greg's case and my case - they were specifically seeking out indies. The local ITT here has been very good about offering its facilities and support for the indie game night, and told us that they have a few students who really want to go that route. That impressed me. I mean, the indies (except for NinjaBee) in the local area aren't prestigious, and aren't in a strong position to hire students coming out of the program (what I am sure was an additional motive behind having these review committees - to keep local companies informed of the quality of ITT's training and the strengths of their graduating students as potential job candidates).

Another thing I've noted - both in ITT's curriculum and from graduates of game development programs at other schools - is that they do tend to concentrate on completed game projects from their students. This is a huge deal. One of the hardest things in indie-dom is to finish a game. That last 20% of the game tends to take 80% of the time, and that's usually when inexperienced hobbyists quit. Hey, I have my share of incomplete projects, too. The experience of seeing a game to completion - of learning what that takes - is outstanding.

Finally, I noted with glee that an entire course on game design mechanics emphasizes RPGs. Is there any other college course out there that has students perform a comparative analysis between three major pen & paper RPGs? And the class project is to create a class project using RPG Maker. I gotta say, that made me an automatic fan of the program, right there!

The concerns I voiced involved addressing the evolving needs of the industry... including expansion of the audience beyond males ages 14-24, and the much broader range of methods of delivery of games to their audiences today. Too many game designers have trouble understanding the needs of an audience that does not include them. And, in an era of downloadable content, constantly updated massively muliplayer online games, and alternative means of distribution that bypass traditional publishers completely, it is no longer just about giant, departmentalized teams delivering a gold master to the folks who commissioned their work.

Another thing that came to mind was how much there is to learn about the games business for a young 17 or 18 year-old today. I mean, it is scary to imagine that these people entering the program today are too young to remember the release of Twisted Metal and Warhawk, the first games I worked on when I entered the business in '94. I grew up with video games - becoming truly aware of them just as the industry was beginning to explode (and before its first implosion). So I've had nearly three decades to learn something of the "history" of video games, and to learn what works and what doesn't through years of watching them appear, playing them, talking to people about them, and reading about them. I had a ringside seat in the early console wars (Atari vs. Intellivision vs. Coleco vs. lots of others...) and the home computer wars. I remember when arcades - now almost extinct - were everywhere, and you could keep abreast of the industry for a pocketful of quarters. I was a participant in the 32-bit and 64-bit console wars. There was too much happening for me to see more than a fraction of it, but as much as possible I got to live it.

These new students don't have that history, and have to pack that information in during a very short time. It's mind-boggling. And from the sounds of it, the ITT program teaches a few things that I could stand to learn more about. I have to admit, it sounded pretty comprehensive.

And that sandwich might keep me fed for two more days.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
 
RPG Design: Letting the Player Drive
On Memorial Day, I played an unusual pen-and-paper (and indie!) RPG called "InSpectres." The game was kind of a cross between West End Games' old but hillarious "Ghostbusters" RPG, and some sort of reality TV simulation.

What was curious about the game was how player-driven the plot was. For many dice results, the players were invited to describe their own results. Then, once per game, a player could have a "confessional" in the style of reality TV, where the player sits in a chair and talks about an upcoming scene in the past tense - effectively writing part of the next scene.

For his part, the game master really doesn't have so much to do but plan the bare bones of an adventure, from what I could tell.

The conceit of traditional RPGs is that you are playing a character, and your ability to interact with the game world is limited to being done completely through your character. But many of the newer pen-and-paper RPGs offload some of the game master's traditional responsibility onto the players - giving them a hand in defining the world and story surrounding their characters.

Naturally, this made me think about how this effect could be translated to computer RPGs. Now, this is far most effective in a social setting with other creative players, of course... computers generally suck at making stuff up on the fly of any creative value. But - the potential is there.

We already do this, to a point, when we are given a difficulty slider. We control how dangerous and threatening and challenging the world would be. But why stop there?

Some of this thinking was part of the genesis of the "Drama Star" idea in Frayed Knights --- though it has since morphed into a much more straightforward spell-like effect. But originally I had ideas of the star powers including such effects as forcing the enemy to make a critical mistake, or getting rescued at the last moment from certain doom - stuff like that. Letting the player earn the ability to change the story.

Soldak's indie RPG, "Depths of Peril," showed us a glimmer of what can be done with a more dynamic world. While the player couldn't directly control events happening in the world, he or she had to make decisions that would impact the setting and their ability to interact with the world. Fail to address the "plague quest" immediately, and the player might have to contend with a lack of surviving NPCs to trade with. And so forth.

Dwarf Fortress garnered a lot of attention last year for being a very "simulation heavy" indie strategy / role-playing game. In a game with a highly detailed and simulated world, why couldn't we throw in a little bit of "god game" (a la Populous, the "Sim" games, and others) onto something like this? We could give the player the chance to move outside their on-screen avatar and change the world in big or small ways. Maybe the player could have the chance to say, "Rocks fall, everyone dies!"

I would dread coding up a user-friendly interface to give the player this level of control, but it could be done. It's already been done, in the form of editors and mod utilities. Just not usually in real-time. And not tied into game mechanics. But anybody who has spent time in the Dungeon Master's mode in the Neverwinter Nights games (or in the Storyteller mode in 2000's "Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption") would be familiar with the potential here.

While this idea wouldn't be appropriate for all (or even most) RPGs, particularly very story-driven ones, this could be a fascinating offshoot of the genre worthy of being explored.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
 
Innovation Overrated? Notes From the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
I finished the new Penny Arcade Adventures RPG, "On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1." While nothing has really changed from my "quick take" last week, I thought I might yap on a little bit about it for a while. Because that's just what I do....

The game was simultaneously unlike any RPG I'd ever played, and an awful lot like many RPGs I have played.
From a mechanics perspective, the game has nothing really innovative to recommend it. It's a conglomeration of tried and true game mechanics lifted from a dozen other games, it is linear to an extreme, and there's really not much there that hasn't been seen countless times before. We were talking about a minimalist RPG recently, and while On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness isn't it, from a mechanics perspective it doesn't go too far. The special abilities have been termed "limit breaks" among other things in certain game series before.

Even the exact timing of a defend button (or spacebar press, in my version) isn't particularly new. Though it does give twitch gamers quite an advantage over their more turn-preferring brethren. Too much so, I felt... the difference between an easy battle and a wipeout often came down to whether or not you could time your blocks well enough to take no damage and launch a free counterattack, rather than any kind of tactical decision making.

All that being said - I did play the episode to its end, and I enjoyed myself while playing it. Most of the time. Maybe it's because I'm an RPG junkie, or maybe it's because I'm just not quite jaded enough. But the unusual setting, the humor, the very bizarre puzzles that came off a little bit like a much courser and anti-kid-friendly version of Monkey Island, all somehow worked through what was otherwise kind of a paint-by-numbers RPG. I had a blast battling killer mimes, hobos, clowns, robots, and barbershop quartets.

And I'm a sucker for Lovecraft parody.

While the subject matter was dramatically different, the end result was similar to my play-throughs of Aveyond and Aveyond II. I was delighted by those games. And yet, mechanically, they offered little by way of innovation. Even the setting was - on the surface at least - pretty vanilla (something that On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness is decidedly NOT). But the style, humor, and personality of the game was what hooked me. It had a distinctive flavor.

A few years ago, after walking out of yet another summer blockbuster movie, my wife and I were commenting on how much we enjoyed the film in spite of its adhering almost religiously to formula. And we came to the conclusion that there's a formula for a reason. It works. It's the story people in our culture like to hear, in all its myriad variations. It's the variations - and the execution - that counts.

So maybe RPGs don't necessarily need to reinvent the wheel with every game. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness pushes the genre in terms of content, eschewing the traditional orcs, swords, and wizards for mimes, soul-imbued rakes, and a gadgeteering adolescent. It doesn't need to make people re-learn how to play RPGs, because it doesn't need to. The mechanics were entertaining and challenged me, but didn't attempt to redefine the genre. The story was extremely weird, but also entertaining and engaging enough to keep me playing to find out what happened next. It was like watching a movie, when you rip it to pieces, is clearly an adherent to formula, but is just different enough to keep you engaged and wondering if what happens next is what you expect.

Maybe I'm just getting old and stuck in my ways, but I find I'm okay with that.

Is innovation overrated? Yeah, sometimes. I'm not calling for a flood of paint-by-numbers RPGs, but I think being innovative is often less important than just being interesting.

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Monday, May 26, 2008
 
RPG Design Roundtable at Iron Tower Studios
A few weeks ago (during crunch week for me, unfortunately, which might explain the terseness of my answers...), Vince Weller of Iron Tower Studios asked some RPG design questions of several CRPG designers / writers - from esteemed industry veterans like Chris Avellone (Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights 2, and a great deal of et cetera), Jeff Vogel (Avernum, Geneforge, etc.), and Josh Sawyer (Icewind Dale 2, the upcoming Aliens RPG), to newbies who are still working on their first full-fledged commercial RPG release (like Gareth Fouche, Jason Compton, and Yours Truly).

The questions were about setting, characters, and our preference for "open" or "linear" stories.

I think all three posts ought to be bookmarked on any would-be RPG designer's browser for a wealth of information and opinion on the subject. One thing I keep discovering as I do this is that the more I learn, the more I discover there is to learn. I joke that I used to be an incredibly talented game designer, and that now I am struggling to become merely competent.

Iron Tower Roundtable Part I: RPG Setting

Iron Tower Roundtable Part II: RPG Story

Iron Tower Roundtable Part III: RPG Characters

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Saturday, May 24, 2008
 
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Not "Raiders" quality, but I liked it. It was different - I never, ever expected to hear Elvis in an Indiana Jones movie - but it worked out fine. Cheesy, over-the-top action, impossible stunts, plenty of fisticuffs and fights on moving vehicles. Pretty much standard fare for an Indiana Jones movie. And I think they did a great job NOT hiding the fact that Harrison Ford (and hence, the title character) is getting up there in years.

Worthy.

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Friday, May 23, 2008
 
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
I downloaded and played the demo of the new Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness tonight. I didn't play enough to get a real strong feel for it, but here are some first impressions of the game.

First of all - yes, it's an RPG, in the same way that the old 32-bit jRPGs are RPGs. Character creation is limited to choosing gender and alternatives for body type, face, clothing, and gloves. When you level up, there really aren't any choices to be made (well, at least for the all of two levels I made in the demo). It's very action - oriented.

And it's the humor can get pretty rude. If you like Penny Arcade's humor, this should be right up your alley. If you are offended by Penny Arcade's humor, you will be offended by the very first combat. The "F-Bomb" gets dropped regularly, you get a cat that attacks by licking itself, and the initial combats are against the notorious "fruit f***er" juicing machines of the comic strip (who make comments like, "I'd hit that," about anything they happen to see). The "M" rating is well-earned.

But I have to admit, I was laughing as I played it. From the opening scene, to the narration during the tutorial, to the animations to the dialog between Tycho and Gabriel, to just seeing a 20-sided die roll out in the "Roll For Initiative" screen, it is both funny and fun. I love how Tycho has a book he reads in one hand, and a Thompson submachinegun in the other.

And can I add here that I'm thrilled to see another RPG that isn't based on medieval fantasy?

Combat is similar to that of many jRPGs - it seems to be "timed turn" based, meaning you have to wait for the action timers to complete before taking an action, but the game will not wait for you to take said action. There are some button-mashing (or spacebar-mashing) action sequences to block at the right time or perform a special attack. You get combo attacks with other party members, and build up special attacks as you level.

All-in-all, it seems very much like a "modern" jRPG. The graphics are - in my view - perfect. Some players may take issue with the frequent transitions between 2D and 3D graphics, but the two are similar enough in style that it is not too jarring.

The camera angles got a little frustrating. I never found out if you could actually move the camera around, but the camera path felt pretty restrictive. I found myself wanting to turn the camera around and zoom in or out. But I expect the world may very well "end" just a little way behind the camera. Your path is pretty linear through the world, at least during the first "bunny slope" tutorial mission.

A little bit has been said about the copy protection on the PC version. You have to register online, and you are limited to installations on three different computers. (The End User License Agreement, incidentally, is quite fun to read, as they include an often humorous layman's description of every section before the obligatory legalese).

To some degree, I find this less of an issue than disc-based protection. It's going to become the norm in the future, I think (and the sooner we can get rid of disc-based protection, in my opinion, the better). But as an old-school retrogamer who is still periodically installing and playing games that are no longer supported by their creators (in many cases, their creators having long since gone out of business), I worry that I might not be able to play the game four or five years from now. This concerns me. Of course, by then, I can risk downloading a potentially malware-infested crack... but I really don't want to rely on the shady gray market to be able to enjoy a game I've legally purchased.

However, I'm still going to be picking this one up. And I'm gonna bug Hothead games for giving me more licenses whenever I upgrade / change machines for YEARS to come. Maybe the cost in customer support calls will help offset this trend in a few years, huh?

Another issue for me is the general issue with episodic gaming. I mean, in general, I'm a fan of the idea. I'd rather have my gaming in smaller doses these days. But I do wonder if this episode is long enough to justify the $20. Are six episodes worth $120? Do they provide more gameplay value than a single game costing $50 or $60? I hope so.

We shall see.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, May 22
It's been a while since we had a round-up of news of indie computer role-playing games. Then again, maybe I've just not had my ear to the ground enough lately, but there just hasn't been that much NEWS lately. But here's what I've gathered lately:

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One
This game possesses what is possibly the longest name for a commercial game EVAR, but it was released this week on the PC and XBox 360. There's no question of me picking up this one... and while I love my XBox 360, is there really any question which platform I'll be playing it on?

This game is from Hothead Games, based (loosely) on the very funny and irreverent Penny Arcade comics that have been running since... uh... since John Romero was still news.

You can join me in heading on over to Greenhouse to get the PC version. Or just the free demo version. Or to peruse prequel comic strips for your entertainment:

PAA: OtRSPoD:E1 on Greenhouse

Depths of Peril
My favorite RPG of 2007 has an official patch 1.010 now available. This one is mainly small fixes and improvements for modders.

Depths of Peril Patch Page

Darkened Dreams 2
The map-maker for Darkened Dreams 2 has been completed (for the developers - it's not publicly released). Since the first game was largely text based with some block-graphics in Java, it'll be interesting how it fares.

Darkened Dreams 2 Map-Maker Information

Avernum V
While I don't normally list every review that comes down the pipe of indie games, I'm a big fan of indie-friendly RPGWatch, and they don't do reviews very often. Their review of Avernum V is extensive. and very favorable.

Avernum V Review

Scars of War
For aspiring indie RPG developers out there (WE NEED YOU!), Gareth has posted an article about building a 3D building reminiscent of a Spanish villa from concept art to completion for his upcoming RPG, Scars of War.

Scars of War: The Gingerbread Villa

The Sewer Goblet: The Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang Baby
A roguelike from the obviously demented minds behind Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Words fail me. But at least they don't fail Derek Yu at TISource.

The Sewer Goblet: TWTCatWTB discussed at TIGSource


Enjoy!

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008
 
My Game Gets More Polish
Someone said in the feedback that Frayed Knights could use a little more polish.

Happy to oblige:

Frayed Knights Polish

(Yeah, I guess capitalization counts, doesn't it?)

I have no idea what it is saying. Possibly something unflattering about my ancestry. Which isn't necessarily untrue, mind you. But I just don't know.

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City of Heroes Issue 12 Now Live
I finally got the chance to play a little City of Heroes last night. With the back-to-back crunches of The Day Job and Frayed Knights the last... uh... six? Seven? weeks, I hadn't found much time to play. And whenever I do, I remember how much I like it, warts and all.

We didn't get to experiment much with the new features of Issue 12: Midnight Strikes, the new (free) expansion. They did give us some new additional slots we can now purchase (plus several freebies for veteran players) for all those alt-aholics like me. Since they've now unlocked most villain powersets for heroes, and most hero powersets for villains, there's a reason to start yet another newbie character and run them through the ranks.

Apparently, they've toned down the Hollows a bit, so you can now get your newbie past level 9, which is a nice change of pace. The Hollows wasn't too bad, oh, three or so years ago, when the game was new and the world was packed with low-level characters all wanting to team up in a zone flooded with enemies in super-sized quantities. But nowadays, the Hollows - while rarely deserted - gives me flashbacks of the early days of Everquest, spending an hour trying to find a group before logging out in disgust.

There are also some new zones for level 35+ (my Tuesday Night Group character leveled up to 31 last night, so we didn't hit those new levels), some new armor, a new organization, and a bunch of new tweaks to help organize things better. Nothing that REALLY thrilled me, but I do like seeing my favorite MMO get some love every few months. And we did get a kick out of the sudden, temporary "boost" of power when we leveled up (though we didn't realize what was happening at the time).

And now... to see if I can create a heroic version of my plant-controlling villain, Chlora-Kill!

City of Heroes Issue 12 Update Notes

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
 
Tragedy In Video Games
Ah, tragedy in videogames! Like when you just pay $60 for a disc better used as a coaster.

Well, not that kind tragedy. Brian "Psychochild" Green muses (and solicits comments) about incorporating elements of tragedy in video games.

While I'm cool with the idea in concept, I'm not positive how to execute it in a game. Tragedy - as I understand it as a dramatic element - is where the protagonist brings about their own downfall due to the possession of a tragic flaw: the human failing that we all possess to some degree, which can lead to failure if not bridled. MacBeth's blinding ambition, Romeo and Juliet's immature but overwhelming teenaged love and angst, and Hamlet's wishy-washiness. Oedipus

I love the idea, but I'm not sure how to implement it within a video game. Basically, you have two options:

#1 - You force the tragic flaw upon the player through backstory or non-interactive elements that force the player's avatar's hand.

#2 - You encourage the player to make the tragically flawed decision(s), and hope that they play along. In which case, you must plan a completely alternate story for those players who do not exercise that option.

Some games do have alternate endings to allow for option #2, but the rest of the story is unchanged - reducing the "tragedy" to little more than an unsatisfactory footnote. Players are rarely pleased to get the "bad" ending, and I believe this is in part because they don't see it coming in a generic narrative that shifts direction only just before the final credits.

However, if game designers would actually tackle this, I believe that interactive games would be an extremely powerful medium for the message. If you can keep the players from reloading or restarting (or quitting) once the ramifications of their actions become clear.


(Vaguely) related tragic failures of writing:
* Why the Quest For Storytelling In Video Games Is Doomed
* Game Design: Fixing Interactive Storytelling
* Games As Art: Media's Double Standard
.

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Monday, May 19, 2008
 
RPG Design: Sick Of Saving The World?
I'm tired of saving the world. Saving the world is for wusses.

Lessons From Pen and Paper
I remember my first attempt to run a pen-and-paper game of Vampire the Masquerade. After some really cool character origin sub-plots, we got to the meat of the campaign. I immediately reached for a generic, epic plot of earth-shattering proportions... and found that it was a total dud. It just didn't work. The players were these supernatural creatures of the night who were at the top of one food chain and the bottom of another. Their mortal lives were long gone... and the big, world-saving plots just didn't ring true.

I was stuck for a while, trying to figure out what to do with the campaign. And then, I recalled running and playing an earlier, post-apocalyptic RPG called "Twilight: 2000." It was a "realistic" game of post-nuclear holocaust. High radiation didn't turn you into a mutant - it made your hair fall out and caused you to puke and excrete blood. Your enemies were disease and power-hungry local warlords who'd gotten their hands on a functional tank or two.

Twilight: 2000 was another game where "saving the world" had no meaning. That particular quest had already failed, and the world had been destroyed. That game was about trying to put the pieces back together on a small level. And yet somehow, in our games, it worked. Saving a small community of families from the chaos of the complete breakdown of civilization often felt far more significant than saving the entire world.

To resolve the Vampire situation, I went back and creatively edited the campaign. The "big bad" villain that the players were trying to defeat ended up - with a little nudge from the players - as a victim of his own hubris. What began as an epic but lifeless campaign became a subquest that merely put the players on the radar of other powerful entities... and then things got personal. And petty. Amazingly enough, the little close-to-home petty squabbles and local political infighting were far more interesting - and fun - than the big epic cross-country plot.

What About Computer RPGs?
Having the stereotypical "epic plot" of saving-the-world proportions is pretty common in all computer and console games, and RPGs are no exception. I don't know if it just caters to adolescent power-trip fantasies, or that those generic epic plots have just proven to sell more copies. But they are definitely in abundance. (To be fair - I've not read a lot of fantasy novels in recent years, but back in the day, there was an overabundance of Lord of the Rings wannabe plots, too...)

Stalin said, "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." As creepy as that sounds, its generally true. The more epic the scope, the more watered-down the emotional impact of the story (assuming that's important to you), and the more it becomes about numbers. Saving Kvatch (or what was left of it) was a lot more interesting than saving the rest of the world in Oblivion. And saving the world from Meteor wasn't half as satisfying as getting a little revenge on Sephiroth.

Now I am not saying that I don't want any more big, epic, world-saving or kingdom-saving plots. Those are cool, too. But I think we can use a few more computer RPGs that bring the stories closer to home, with fewer but more detailed NPCs, and plots more about people than planets. Once we get away from trying to put nations in dire peril, we can probably start coming up with some more interesting and diverse plots. Things like... uh... becoming an Avatar of Virtue and recovering a codex from the underworld. Or settling a faction war between vampires over a McGuffin that may or may not be the rise of some ancient evil.

I mean, okay, I probably wouldn't be the first one to pre-order Sense and Sensibility: The RPG. But with all this talk of what makes an RPG a more compelling experience, I think one of the things designers need to consider is that it might be time to think a little smaller.

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Friday, May 16, 2008
 
Global Warming Caused By Obsesity
So it's not just cow farts.

Obesity Contributes to Global Warming: Study

Alright, everyone: On your treadmills and games of Dance, Dance, Revolution. Don't just do it for yourself. Do it for the environment!
 
Emotion And RPGs? Indies of the Round Table #3
Once a month (well, ideally) we bring together several of the top indie RPG developers to tackle questions about indie game development, RPGs, and game design. 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.

Previously, we've discussed "Why Indie RPGs?" and "What Does the Future Hold for Indies?"

This month, we get emotional.

QUESTION:
As one of the more powerful genres for storytelling and character, computer and console RPGs have demonstrated some potential to bring out emotional responses in players - from shock over Sephiroth's notorious murder of Aeris, to the overwhelming desire to smack the smirk off of Jon Irenicus's face, to the very disturbing decision of the war between "sister" vampires Jeanette and Therese, to some marvelous unscripted moments of panic or vengeance. RPGs may not have proven that they can pack an emotional wallop, but they have flirted with the territory.

So my question(s) to indie RPG developers this month is this: Is emotional impact something you try to achieve in your games? If so, what do you do to involve the player emotionally in your game, and what sort of emotions do you try to bring out in the player? If not, is this something you'd consider worth doing in an indie RPG? Why or why not?

And here are the responses:

Thomas Riegsecker, Basilisk Games ("Eschalon: Book 1"):
I don't know if emotion is a big factor in RPGs or not. Certainly here are some console RPGs (Final Fantasy comes to mind) that provide an emotionally charged storyline in lieu of a deep role-playing experience. Short of that, I'm not sure that an RPG is the most effective format for delivering an emotionally loaded story. To get a meaningful emotional response from a player requires a carefully delivered storyline, which is hard to accomplish with an RPG where the story is erratically paced and rarely linear.

Regardless, I do think it is important to give the player a sense of personal involvement in the story. In Eschalon: Book I the player has a meeting with his brother, which for as short of an encounter that it is, generated a surprising number of responses from players who were moved by it. So yes, I think emotion can work well in individual scripted situations where feelings of empathy, anger or fear can be an immediate factor to drive the player forward to his or her next goal.

Mike Hommel, Hamumu Games ("Loonyland 2: Winter Woods"):
You know, I haven't seen these purported emotional responses from RPGs. Whenever I see an RPG try for something like that, it just makes me laugh at how trite and self-important it seems. Honestly, to go from one second having my little chibi pixel man swing his gun-sword at air to make big numbers float up from an eyeball monster across the room to the next second proclaiming undying love for the poisoned princess... I'm not exactly choked up.

I think text adventures (and adventures in general) have a significant edge in this matter over RPGs. They control things much more and don't have you spending hours dealing with numbers and statistics. They are closer to movies and books, and both do elicit emotional reaction of all kinds. I suppose that's a slap in the face to the people who make such a big deal out of the interactivity of games, but there's no question to me that the very interactivity is what prevents you from making an emotional connection. At least the interactivity we can currently offer. I guess it also has to do with empathy - if I see a real person emoting, I automatically feel some measure of that. A cartoon emoting is just silly, unless it's extremely well done. And right now, games are cartoons.

Except Sega CD games - now those are an emotional thrill ride! And again, the interactivity stunts it. Even if there's a dramatic cry over the fallen princess, I'm not engaged because to get to that I was fighting an army of orcs. My mind is in number-crunching, orc-crushing mode, and I see the cry as the very technical outcome of that interaction, not as a real event, like I would perceive a movie scene (even if it's literally done as a filmed movie scene in the game). I just hit Retry and go again to see if I can save her. Not because I care about her, I just want to win the game.

But no, it's not something I even desire to try. The only emotions I am after are laughter, a sense of triumph, and as little frustration as I can manage. But that's just the style of what I want to do. I would be impressed with a non-ridiculous RPG story that felt emotional. But I sure won't be providing it!

Steven Peeler, Soldak Entertainment ("Depths of Peril"):
Of course we try to bring out emotional responses from our players with our storytelling. What’s the point of a story (in any medium) that doesn’t evoke some kind of emotional response from the player? Not much in my opinion.

However, games have a huge advantage compared to other mediums: games are interactive. Instead of just telling or showing the reader/viewer something scary, we set off a trap, make a group of monsters attack your town, or have another covenant raid your house. Since it is happening to you, it is much more emotional. I mean which is more emotional, the guy on the screen finds the item he has been searching for or you finally find that unique two-handed sword you have been searching for for the last 3 days? I would bet you finding the sword is much more emotional. There are tons of ways we try to evoke emotions from the player like this (and so do other games whether they realize it or not): spawning unique items, placing rare chests, town attacks, intense boss fights, leveling up, deadly traps, and many other things.

Georgina Bensley, Hanako Games ("Cute Knight Deluxe"):
I like big emotional scenes. I like them lots. I'm hesitant about using them in RPGs, though. Far too often, supposedly emotional interactions in RPGs fall prey to Stupid Cutscene disease - in which stuff happens that would absolutely not happen if you had control of the character during the cutscene like you do in the rest of the game. Sometimes that's bad writing or bad world design (you really can't have cheap bring-people-back-from-dead items without wreaking havoc on dramatic storylines) but often it's just a painful contrast between complete control and complete lack of control.

So currently, I prefer to keep emotional content fairly low-key in the RPG, and leave the Major Angst to the visual novel. For all the RPG projects I have secretly bubbling at the moment, the emotions I most want to inspire in the player are happiness and a sense of achievement. I want them to smile.

This certainly isn't a hard rule for me, it's just affected by the style and the scope of the projects I have going at the moment.

Vince D. Weller, Iron Tower Studio ("Age of Decadence"):
I think it goes without saying that emotions are very important in RPGs. These emotions should range from "Oh my god! Will you look at the graphics! They are breathtakingly amazing!" or "AHHH! I'm blind! Turn the fucking bloom off!"

How to achieve it, how to bring the player to this emotional state is the real question. There are different methods and professional techniques. While I hope you understand that I can't share professional secrets with you, here is a tip: get rid of most designers - they are a useless scum anyway - and replace them with graphics artists. Your game can become a huge success with one or less designers, but it simply won't do well if you have less 100 artists.

Jason Compton, Planewalker Games ("The Broken Hourglass"):
Yes, we're certainly looking to evoke emotional responses. There are a number of reasons to play a game through to completion (and then come back and play it again), including dogged determination, curiosity about "what's behind the next corner?", new rules exploits to try, and so forth... but one of the most enduring reasons are characters that players enjoy interacting with and responding to.

We're using a number of devices to that end. We put the PC in a situation where they have to make a crucial decision early on which should provoke an emotional response. We give joinable NPCs a range of motivations and priorities, ways to explore their own stories and in some cases romantic entanglements.

I'm not sure there's any particular emotion we're actively *avoiding*. The real trick is to avoid harping too much on emotional themes of despair and loss. Finding a way to pace humor, friendship, and romance in the midst of death and destruction is hard enough in linear media, considerably moreso when the pace and the sequence of the story are to some extent controlled by the player's whim. So we'll see how well it all works out.

Conclusion:
There is no conclusion. It seems like the panel is divided on this one. While emotional impact is a natural aspect of storytelling, and most RPGs aspire to tell some kind of story (even the very open-ended ones), the indie developers apparently favor a light touch here. None feel compelled to create an overwrought melodrama of Final Fantasy proportions, but instead prefer to focus on simpler fare.

Two creators emphasized other story-heavy genres - text adventures and "visual novels" - as more ripe territory for deeper storylines and emotional content. And Vince offered to share some of the emotions that come from developing games.

So... What say you? Do you prefer a game with lots of emotion-evoking situations, or do you prefer it to get out of your way and let you play?

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

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Thursday, May 15, 2008
 
It's 3:30 in the morning...
... and I just got home from work. Nice little 17-hour shift. I didn't even take time out for lunch - though I did take 7 minutes off at one point to walk on the treadmill. That doesn't exactly leave much time for anything else. Like working on other projects, blogging, etc.

Working in the games biz really kinda sucks sometimes. Unfortunately the whole indie gaming gig doesn't come close to paying the bills.

You know, for my next job, I just want to be independently wealthy. I'm sure it'd come with some serious pressure and stress, but I think I'm up to giving that one a shot.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
 
Fixing Cut-Scenes
As I've stated before, I believe the natural reactions of players is to move in the opposite direction of what makes a traditional "quality" story in linear media. Successful game-playing leads us to take optimized, least-resistance paths. Good stories, on the other hand, take us along escalating peaks and valleys of victories and catastrophes. Marrying the two concepts is tricky at best.

And so we have the non-interactive cut scene - the bane of games, according to some, but the staple of story-based games of the last ten years or so. Once mere reward sequences in games like Pac-Man, they are now mini-movies cut up into pieces to force players into situations they'd never allow themselves to be stuck in if the game had given them control over the situation. They impose story on the player, in spite of his best efforts to keep things straightforward and boring.

And I have to admit, I do enjoy them. I mean, I was a big Wing Commander fan, and that was arguably the series that raised the stakes on cut scenes and led us to our current condition.

Over on I Whine About Games, Whiner posts a couple of possible alternatives to the conventional cut-scene in what sounds suspiciously like an RPG or FPS game example. Effectively, she suggests something more along the lines of "interactive cut scenes." Or at least breaking up the non-interactive pieces into smaller chunks, and actually providing the player with some semi-meaningful options during the sequences.

This last part has been tried before - even in the aforementioned Wing Commander series - but I don't recall any that worked quite on this level. Wing Commander's mid-cutscene choices tended to go along the lines of "Torque off this person" or "Don't torque off this person," with a couple of more interesting, "Choose which person to torque off." With a semi-cool courtroom multiple-choice cutscene at the end of WC4.

We've made some progress since then, at least. And we do have some games, like Portal and the Half-Life series, which have eschewed mid-game cut-scenes altogether.

So what's your take on cut-scenes? A necessary evil, a benefit to games, or something that can be improved upon? And if the latter... how?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
Monte Cook Joins Pathfinder Team
Here's a little bit of a tidbit from the pen & paper world:

Monte Cook, an old-school D&D author and one of the core Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition designers, has joined forces with Paizo Publishing on their "Pathfinder" RPG as a "Rules Consultant."

Read Paizo's Press Release

Monte Cook has a wealth of knowledge from his experience both as a D20 & D&D designer / writer, and as one of the key people responsible for the massive overhaul to D&D that was 3rd edition, so he'll undoubtedly prove a useful resource. And this press release helps establish Pathfinder's cred as the heir to the 3.x edition rules.

But what does this really mean? According to Cook, not a whole lot. "The way it's been working for the last couple of weeks is, Jason emails me with the occasional question or bounces an idea off of me, and I tell him what I think," he states on his blog. "I also review the new material he comes up with and give my 2 cents. And that's really about it. Jason's not under any obligation to take any advice I might give. It's his baby." Plus, he'll be writing the introduction to the rules when they come out.

As for me... hmm... Pathfinder is interesting, but I'm wondering when and if and how they'll license the system for computer RPGs! It might not be possible, as they still have to work within the bounds of the Open Gaming License and I can't remember what restrictions it had for electronic media.


(Vaguely) related pen-and-paper fun:
* Pathfinder: The New Dungeons & Dragons 3.5?
* Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Announced
.

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Monday, May 12, 2008
 
RPG Design: Wipeout!
A friend of ours ran what was destined to be a very short-lived "pen and paper" RPG set in the American "West" of the mid-to-late 1800's. A cowboy RPG. In our first or second session, we had to take out some bandits that were holed up ins some tiny one-road town. We were facing slightly superior numbers, but we had the advantage of surprise and what would be termed "initiative" in the real world ... the battle started when we wanted it to start. We managed to take down a couple of their perimeter guards silently. Then we split up our team, had one group perform a diversionary attack to draw the bad guys out, while the second group attacked from behind. With dynamite as well as guns, if I recall correctly...

Yeah, as RPG players often do, we subscribed to the belief that there is no kill like overkill.

The game master felt that his game had been too easy. We won what he'd thought would have been a very difficult combat with nothing but a couple of minor wounds. So the next session, he had us come up against more bandits - a couple of survivors from the first fight, plus a whole bunch of brothers or cousins or something. Whatever the case, he felt that since the last fight had gone so easily, he obviously needed to have us face tougher opponents. Only this time, we didn't get the drop on them. It was a "fair fight." We managed to survive it, though I don't remember how. I think we had two player characters dead, and my own character had suffered a head-wound that would leave him permanently brain-damaged.

I was all ready to roll up a new character and keep going, but the game master had had enough. He felt terrible about how things had gone, and he never ran any RPG for us again.

In a similar fashion, in Dungeons & Dragons (particularly the latest editions), a battle against a dragon by a group able to make preparations and initiate the attack in favorable terrain can be ... well, in my experience, it can be easy, whereas the same dragon would devastate a party that hasn't had a chance to set up the appropriate defenses, prepare the propert spells, and is stuck out in open terrain where the dragon's mobility can come into play.

In dice & paper games, that sort of thing can devastate the game, as a major wipe-out (or worse, a "TPK" - "Total Party Kill") can pretty much end an entire campaign, and isn't much fun for players or the game master. And the largest difference was only the level of preparation of the party. This is realistic - this is exactly how things play out in the real world. But it isn't very dramatic or fun.

By contrast, death in computer RPGs is treated more as a gentle hint to the player that he's doing something wrong, as Scorpia points out. Which I admit is preferable to a weekend-ruining TPK in a pen-and-paper game. And as far as fun is concerned - it is satisfying to make a "virtual comeback" and trounce enemies that had clobbered you once or twice already. But doing it by re-playing the same combat three times robs it of some of the drama, adds a bit of frustration in return, and virtually eliminates the need to "be prepared" beyond saving the game frequently.

The player gains knowledge from the failed encounter which will help her in subsequent encounters. The knowledge that a fire-breathing dragon lay in wait down the strairs will allow her to make intelligent decisions the second time around and put up fire-protection buffs, and maybe replace those fire-based attacks to which the dragon may be resistant with other, more effective attacks.

Is there a happy medium that could be struck here? Would a more cinematic escape, regathering of strength, and a better-prepared return serve the player better than the reload option? Or are there better ways of preparing for an encounter (or realizing it is out of your league) than by stumbling blindly into it and reloading after a horrible defeat?

Mechanically, a game could encourage encourage non-reloading for otherwise disasterous encounters against an unprepared player a number of ways:

* Give the player more options to discover what they are about to encounter without forcing them to fight it first. This is the traditional role of rogues and divination spells in games like D&D.

* The game could make escapes possible and easy to recover from (at least not much worse than the penalty for reloading a recently saved game).

* The game could also augment the player's knowledge by giving the characters a bonus against a previously-faced foe, regardless of whether previous encounters were successes or escapes. This would make the second or third try against a boss a bit easier than just reloading the first fight until victory.

But the question remains - is this necessary? Or does reloading a saved game serve the same psychological function for a player?


(Vaguely) related sleep-deprived and logic-deprived musings:
* Ye Olde Saved Game Debate
* RPG Design: The Brute Force Problem
* Why Can't I Get Past the Stupid Door?
.

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Friday, May 09, 2008
 
Monkey Island and DRM
That one dude, Shamus Young, just can't leave DRM issues alone. Thankfully. His latest analogy:

In the original Monkey Island, at one point you are captured by natives who lock you in a simple bamboo hut. There is a trap door in the floor through which you may escape. If you’re dumb you can walk over to the natives once you’re out, and they will grab you and throw you back into the hut. The second time they throw you in, they add chains to the door. The next time the door is made of metal. This keeps going until eventually (if you keep going back) they have a bamboo shack with a massive steel vault door on the front, a timed lock with an alarm system on it. It looks like the front of Fort Knox.

How he keeps getting out is almost as mysterious as why he keeps coming back.

In a lot of ways these DRM schemes are a bamboo hut with a vault door on the front. The keep using a bigger and bigger lock and a more complex system of authentication, but it still has to run on a machine where you can edit the executable, and all the hacker has to do is go in and disable the part that says, “Do the security check.” It doesn’t matter how secure or complex or devious the security check is, if the machine’s not doing it, it’s not doing it.

Microsoft was going to "correct" this "problem" at the Operating System level with Vista, or so I had heard. I guess that got pushed back until the next version of Windows, or dropped when cooler heads realized that deliberately crippling your customer's systems might not be a wonderful business strategy.

But I really liked Shamus's analogy here. Okay, sure, ANY analogy involving Monkey Island is likely to gain my approval! But this was a well-known problem when I was working on the security side of the software fence. As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, copy protection and DRM is only as effective as the easiest work-around... and for as long as it takes until the very first pirate releases a crack.

To make matters worse - GBGames has an article discussing what happens to customers - or "victims" - when the reputable company they go through for DRM decides to drop the expense of supporting old DRM solutions. Basically, the customer gets screwed. The implication with DRM is that it will be supported forever, but its clear that this is not even the case with stable, long-lived companies.

This bugs me a lot. My family jumped on the BetaMax train back in the early days of videocassettes. When Sony finally bowed under pressure and Beta went away, it didn't make our library of Beta-format tapes disappear. We could still play them, so long as our old BetaMax player stayed in working condition. But that's not the case with this kind of DRM. what's the poor customer to do who bought music from Sony or Microsoft in good faith, and then finds that their purchases have been sabotaged by remote control like this?

I'm sure the companies in question would hope that said customer would throw good money after bad, and re-purchase their old product.

I think most consumers, faced with this lose-lose scenario shoved onto them by the company for which they were a formerly loyal customer, would feel perfectly justified in acquiring an unprotected version of their product from a less-than-reputable source. Oh, and as long as they are there, why not enjoy one of millions of other easy downloads, some of which might not have been legally obtain by other means on a previous occasion?

Especially when they are getting a superior product than the crap the legitimate customers are paying good money for? And how much worse is it going to get?

So I postulate the following:

#1 - Yes, piracy is killing (non-online) PC gaming. Not shooting-it-in-the-head, going-the-way-of-the-8-Track-Tape dead, and it's not solely responsible, but it's definitely a major contributor to PC gaming's marginalization over the last several years.

#2 - DRM / Copy Protection is only a short-term solution that will ultimately fail in the long term

#3 - Onerous and untrustworthy DRM solutions, like the one proposed for Spore and Mass Effect (and lest we forget, Bioshock), may actually do a lot more long-term harm and encourage piracy.

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Frayed Knights - Feedback Frenzy
And here's another weekly update in the development of Frayed Knights - the (arguably) humorous indie RPG coming from Rampant Games.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of articles about a "red line" test for games. The idea was borrowed from a professional fantasy writer who spoke at a science fiction symposium I attended in college. In her writing group, when they'd peer-review each other's work, they'd draw a red line in the text where they - as a normal reader or editor - would have stopped reading for whatever reason. The idea, during revisions, was to keep pushing that line down, further into the story, until it disappeared altogether. Then it might be ready for reading by a real editor or audience.

I thought this could be applied to games, and that's a lot of what the pilot episode of Frayed Knights was all about. It was a rough draft of the first 'chapter,' if you will, and the feedback I've gotten back has been invaluable. I'm nearing 250 feedback responses so far, and I've read every one. Even had to have one translated from German for me (I only took two years of German in high school, and hardly remember a thing....)

As far as the red line goes, a vast majority went on to finish the episode, even though I felt - from their feedback - that there were a lot of issues that might have dissuaded them from playing all the way through. There's been some really clear responses - some with very long suggestions - as to what people would like to see changed. In some cases, I can't act on the suggestions, because it's just not that kind of game, or it would be cost-prohibitive. But the most common suggestions are

But where fixes can be made, I'm making 'em. Slowly. Not so much this week - between recovering from burnout from last week's mad rush to get the pilot out, to this week's crunch-time for the ol' Day Job, I've mostly been focusing my efforts on paper and planning. And I'm going back and playing some of the "old school" games I'm trying to emulate, seeing what sort of things they did so well (even if they'd not appeal to today's gamer).

The best news so far has been - as far as I can ascertain from the feedback - that the core idea behind Frayed Knights is solid and is appealing to a lot of people. There are lots of rough edges in design, interface, and mechanics that need to be fixed and polished, but overall, I feel pretty good about it.

Watch this space for new updates.

Oh, and while I'm at it - any other Torque developers out there - is DirectX support for TGE just as crappy as it seems to be in Frayed Knights, or did I somehow break something? OpenGL runs great, but DirectX is causing flashing polygons, bad lighting on some objects, and nasty terrain anomalies.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008
 
This Is Not A Complaint
I went to a seminar a few weeks ago where they encouraged everyone - as a homework exercise - to not complain. At all. For a week. I guess it worked, because I've noticed I've had a much better attitude and things have been going better for me since then. Maybe it's all in my head, but it's worked so far.

So let me just say that getting back into crunch for a few days of 12+ hour days is not a complaint. It's - a particular challenge that leaves me with little time to do much else. I'm not too pleased about missing my daughter's band concert tonight, which is definitely losing me some daddy points. But - I'm in the critical path right now on a key deadline, I have to be all professional and stuff. That's important too. I'd say it's just the life of a game programmer, but I've worked non-game programming jobs that required the ol' crunch time slog, too.

Just not as much.

However, on the benefit side, they replaced the controls on our arcade console in the break room, so I can no longer blame the buttons for my dismal performance in Street Fighter II. Oh, wait, is that an upside?

And this should hopefully be a pretty short crunch, lasting less than a week. The Rampant Coyote's Rule of Crunch sez: The longer the crunch goes, the longer it's GONNA go, because performance drops SIGNIFICANTLY after a few days of serious overtime to the point where you might as well be working 40 hour weeks, and the more time people end up putting in just to break even.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008
 
Trash or Treasure
Something that irritated me back when playing Wizardry 7 was how - as low-level characters, we'd fight enemies armed with advanced-technology shock rods and blunderbusses (is that a word? The plural of blunderbuss?), but there'd be no such weapons as loot when we finished them off. What a rip-off! I could USE a rod that would stun an opponent for several rounds, dang it! Instead I have only a few gold coins which I could use to buy... uh... one-half of another sword.

On the flip side, how many of us left common items litter the countryside in Diablo 2 or other games where monsters dropped common loot inadequate for our level? I remember ... was it the old D&D "Gold Box" games? ... making multiple trips to sell stacks of longswords and chain mail to build up the ol' party coffers. Not exactly exciting stuff, but that same equipment was perfect for me at low level, when my characters desperately needed those upgrades.

In some games, the loot value has been abstracted out to the point where animals just drop gold. Sure, it's horribly unrealistic, but isn't it more convenient than skinning the beast, selling its meat and hide on the open market, and then having that same amount of gold?

Well, maybe. But again - as a group of characters starting out, that actually can be part of the fun. Just as riding the boat in EverQuest once or twice was really kind of fun. Once or twice, it adds realism to the game. A few dozen times, it only adds tedium.

At a certain point in most CRPGs, treasure becomes trash.

So what's an RPG to do? Should loot be confined to level-appropriate items only? Should common monster gear be abstracted away into just a gold piece value? Should all loot remain realistic, requiring the player to perform all kinds of activities to convert them to something of actual value? Should a game use some kind of sliding scale based on player progress to determine what loot should remain and what should be abstracted?

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
 
Kieron Reviews Depths of Peril
My favorite RPG of last year, Depths of Peril, gets some pen-time with Kieron Gillen at Games Radar. The introduction sums up many of my own feelings about the game:
"At the time of writing, Iron Lore, makers of Titan Quest, have just gone bust. A THQ Creative Director put the blame pretty firmly at the feet of software piracy. While it’s easy to sympathise - there’s nothing funny in hundreds of thousands of people playing a game for free while its makers run into financial difficulties - you can’t help but think if Iron Lore had actually displayed even a fraction of the imagination this indie action-RPG does, they’d still be here today. With Depths of Peril, the only element in the game that doesn’t display vision and quiet confidence is its somewhat underwhelming name."
What I like about the review is what I like about the game - while it's certainly flawed, its attempts to innovate the genre and provide an exciting "living world" covers a multitude of sins for me.

He goes on to further comment on the mechanics of the game in an editorial at Rock, Paper, Shotgun - without the word-limit demanded by the magazine that the review was originally intended for (and a big "d'oh!" for an indie RPG review getting bumped out of print... CORRECTION: My misunderstanding, it did run in PCG UK Magazine):
"It’s an enormously dense game in terms of strategic decisions - which is the thing which would alienate some RPGers - quests exist to be solved or destroy you rather than just existing as a means to get XP, as in most games."
The note about it alienating some RPGers is an interesting one. And unfortunately, it hits right on the mark. That living, dynamic world, where your actions (or lack thereof) have a real meaning and impact on what's happening - is one of the most-requested features by RPG fans. At least, based on my very informal polls, it is. Unfortunately, as implemented in Depths of Peril - indeed, as far as I see it being implemented in any game - this means WORK and a lot of decision-making. And work is sort of the opposite of fun for many gamers.

Is there a happier medium in there somewhere that could be achieved? I don't doubt it. But I'm pretty thrilled with Depths of Peril for putting a stake in the ground and exploring what could be done.

Depths of Peril review at Games Radar

Rock, Paper, Shotgun commentary on the Depths of Peril Review

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The Return of X-Com?
Well, this is news to me: X-Comeback at Rock, Paper, Shotgun

So... what do you think a 2K Games version of X-Com will be like?

I personally predict a first-person shooter. Hopefully a squad-based first-person shooter. Real-time action, of course. And you know what? I don't think it will suck.

I remember when I got really hooked on Rainbow Six, and at one point came to the realization that the tension and "feel" of the game - my emotional state - wasn't so far removed from X-Com. The chance of getting drilled instantly as you turn a corner - never being entirely certain where a very deadly enemy may be positioned - planning your assault as you go trying to get the drop on your enemy... Man, it was plenty of fun.

And I could totally see that as an X-Com game.

I hope that they'll try to get away from the kitschy retro 50's feel that they adopted in X-Com: Apocalypse and that horrible space combat game I have almost forgotten, and embracing the feel of the first two games - which, I felt, was more X-Files, Aliens, and Project Blue Book than Plan 9 From Outer Space.

But yeah, I can see it. It could be very cool.

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Monday, May 05, 2008
 
Buy GTA IV For Your Kid - Go To Jail
At least in New Zealand, if you buy Grand Theft Auto IV for your kid because you personally don't feel it's any worse than what they are exposed to at school or on TV, you could potentially face three months in jail.

New Zealand: Illegal for Parents to Buy GTA IV for Kids

At least here in the U.S., no similar law has come close to passing Constitutional muster. And even in New Zealand, the law under which the Office of Film and Literature Classification has couched its opinion has never been enforced.

Ah, unenforced / unenforceable laws.

I find that, over the last couple of years, I've grown to realize that this kind of political backlash is inevitable against anything that becomes mainstream in the younger generation and threatens cultural change. What control the older generation has, it uses to lash out to preserve the status quo. Yes, even the same "baby boomer" generation that was so anti-establishment and revolutionary in the 60's and early 70's. My generation is starting to do the same, and the kids after us will probably have the same knee-jerk reactions against whatever comes next that changes THEIR children's and grand-children's world.

Well, gamers and game makers: Keep fighting the good fight. Time is on our side... the longer we can hold out and keep games free in the face of mounting opposition and stupid regulation determined to marginalize games as nothing but children's entertainment, the closer we get to victory.

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Friday, May 02, 2008
 
Steamworks SDK Now Available
Released yesterday... the Steamworks SDK.

While it's absolutely free for developers, I suspect that in the long run it's going to make Valve a hell of a lot of money. The whole "Windows Live" gaming thing ... the Windows equivalent of XBox Live... is pretty much stillborn. It looks like Steam is going to be the XBox Live for the PC. I give it less than five years before Valve becomes the "evil overlord" people complain about.

Anyway, the API includes calls to handle Stats & Achievements, Multiplayer authentication, matchmaking, anti-cheat, networking, community calls (to pull up things like the other player's clan, avatar, and so forth), integrated in-game voice communication, and everybody's favorite... DRM.

Steamworks SDK

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Thursday, May 01, 2008
 
Frayed Knights Pilot Release Aftermath
I wasn't really trying to make a huge deal of the pilot - this was an experimental release to help gauge how we're doing while there's still time to make major corrections. Releasing anything like this to the public, and soliciting criticism, is not something I'd recommend for anyone who fears damage to their ego. Even when the really negative comments are in the minority, one sting wipes out ten praises. At least it does for me. But the purpose of the pilot and the survey is not to make the development team feel warm and fuzzy, but rather to give us an accurate picture of where we are and where we need to go. Like checking for directions at a gas station before committing to another 200 miles. It was to help us know what major and minor changes need to be made while there's still time to make them.

And the response in the last 24 hours to the release of the Frayed Knights Pilot has been incredible. I'm sitting with 80 survey responses so far, and climbing. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive - better than I really expected, to be honest, as much as I daydream about making a game that absolutely everybody loves.

Better yet, almost everyone - especially those who offered strong approval of the game and it's overall style and flavor - has offered criticism of aspects that they feel need to be changed. Often extremely constructive criticism, with several paragraphs of recommendations and clear explanations of what they had trouble with and what they'd recommend to fix it. We're talking details worth their weight in gold.

I am - in a word - floored. But in a good way.

Hmm, I guess that was six words. My bad.

Thank you to everyone who has participated and continues to participate in the pilot and the survey.

We're gonna push forward with the full release stuff, but I suspect a "revised pilot" will be making its way out. Hey, FK testing crew, if you feel like signing on for another tour, I'll have need of your services again sooner than expected! For those who haven't received enough punishment...

I plan to continue the regular blogging on development as it continues. I started this thing as kind of an open-development thing, and I'm going to continue in that vein. While I have my own criticisms of game design failures and so forth, the neat thing about being a critic is that you can tear down the things you see without having to build anything of your own for other people to tear down. Doing this has exposed quite a few holes and issues of my own.

Moving forward, the most commonly mentioned issues with the game are these:

* UI - in a nutshell, there are too many button presses required to do something, especially in combat. As I kind of expected, spellcasting is still too cumbersome (I can say that it is FAR better than it used to be, for all the good that does...) People have more modern expectations for the UI, and I have to respond to it. A lot of the suggestions seem to mirror World of Warcraft's design, for some reason... go figger. Unfortunately, I don't know if the built-in Torque UI tools are up to the task, so I've got a lot of work on my hands...

* Movement Speed - this is a sensitive issue. People expect first-person-shooter speeds in first-person games. The "walking speed" in Frayed Knights is far faster than realistic - it's more like a real-world run speed. But people like to zip. Especially in the village or another safe place. I'd deliberately tried to slow things down to closer to Ultima Underworld speeds for Frayed Knights - a more deliberate "dungeon crawl" / exploration pace (at a good run speed, but still...) But it frustrates people. So I'm gonna have to come up with a happy medium.

* Randomness - there's too much randomness in the game, between the random encounters and the wildly varying difficulty of combat. People might mow down four groups of two cultists four times in a row, but then get clobbered by the fifth while at full health and endurance. And the random encounters - while usually paced reasonably, approached ridiculous "Final Fantasy" levels in some cases.

* Combat - not exciting enough. And not clear enough. The melee characters don't have enough options, and the effect of some of the spells is too subtle (due to randomness and lack of clear feedback) to really tell what makes a difference. And some of the balance is off, like endurance / resting. Some things we need to focus on include better / clearer options for the characters, easier target selection, feedback on the upcoming combat order (who is going to go next), and easier spellcasting.

* Feedback - just overall, there needs to be clearer feedback on what's going on in the game that the player can either control or react to. I knew this was a problem before releasing the pilot, but we lacked the time and resources to take care of it. But there needs to be better visual display of what's going on with all the little details in the game. There are a TON of details happening in the back-end number crunching, so much that even *I* don't know what's going on sometimes. That needs to be exposed, if it is important. And if it's not important - I should consider dropping it.

* The Music (And Sound)- I actually deliberately limited the music, partly because I thought the looping stuff was annoying, and partly because Torque was having some major bugs with streaming audio. People wanted more of it - the game is too quiet with this release. And in general, more sound effects are required.

* Movement Control Awkwardness - I tried (HARD) to make a game that was completely controllable with only a mouse. Either I botched it (and yeah, I probably did - even I don't play that way), or its simply not what most of my prospective audience wants. Straight WASD and mouselook (basic first-person-shooter controls) is high on the list of requirements, though it's going to make things weird for clicking on all the things on the screen when the mouse moves your vantage point instead. I'm probably going to settle on holding down the right mouse button to turn / look (or the "A" and "D" keys...) . Maybe I'll keep the old system around (with some refinements) as an option or something.

* Key Remapping - yeah, I know. I know. Everybody's got their favorite way of playing a game, and they want all games to conform. I'm the same way. This isn't a hard task, just a tedious and annoying one... but that's about 75% of making a game. It just kept getting bumped in priority.

* Character Creation / Customization - Character creation just isn't for this kind of game. It's a game about these four characters (and some NPCs). The customization comes with leveling, and I didn't have leveling included with the game. I'm not too worried about this, but I wanted to mention it here because it's clearly pretty key.

There are also lots of suggestions / issues that aren't as common, but they jibe strongly with my own feelings towards the game - or they just make sense - and I'll be addressing those as well. The above were just the most common issues.

Again - thank you to everyone who is participating in the pilot. While pleasing everyone isn't going to be possible for any game, the suggestions will help me to make a more enjoyable game. Assuming I'm up to the task...

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