Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Sunday, June 29, 2008
 
Growing Better, Growing Stale, or Jumping the Shark
There has been lots of what we might politely refer to as "discussion" concerning Bethesda's upcoming Fallout 3, which - at first blush - seems like a radical departure in gameplay, though setting and flavor faithfulness remains to be seen. Said dialog between the die-hard fans of the previous Fallout games and the new faithful of Bethesda's excellent Elder Scrolls series is, to quote Dr. Stephen Franklin in Babylon 5, "... the kind of conversation that can only end in a gunshot."

Sounds kinda like my own concerns about 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons not feeling like a new edition of a beloved old game, huh?

Contrasting this to the newly-announced Diablo III game and the gameplay footage that has been revealed, Solivagant has an opinion piece on Destructiod entitled, "Diablo 3 Versus Fallout 3: How To Make a Proper Sequel." In a nutshell, he claims that Diablo 3 appears a solid and faithful addition to the series, while Fallout 3 seems a force-fit that he describes as an Oblivion mod.

I'm not sure I share his opinion on this, but this really opens up a can of worms (and words) about what a sequel should and should not do, doesn't it?

In the first few seconds of the gameplay video for Diablo 3, I was a little skeptical.

Now, I have enjoyed both preceding games, though neither qualifies as a favorite RPG. I still fire up Diablo 2 from time to time and get hooked for a few weeks. Admittedly, I've never taken a character above 50th level, but I have a LOT of characters. I've even had a few "hardcore" characters, too, which was an insidious but fun perma-death mode. The nastiness of it was that it was almost impossible to die until the final boss of the first chapter, after you've invested three good hours into your character.

Watching the gameplay video, I was forced to admit that yes, this looked pretty dang fun, and yes - it looked like a Diablo... a worthy addition to the franchise. Of course, part of that is Blizzard. I haven't seen them make a misstep (well, RELEASE one, at least) since I first encountered two guys sitting forlornly at a booth at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in '95 trying to promote "Warcraft: Orcs Versus Humans." Who'da thunk?

The point is... at least, when I thought I had one... that people like sequels for a reason. They seek the comfort of the familiar, but they want it fresh. That's why they tune into the same TV shows, season after season - as long as the show can present them with familiar characters and setting so that they don't have to start over learning a new world. But the viewers want something to keep the series fresh... not just re-runs and re-hashes of the same material.

Ditto with sequels. The reason gamers are going nuts about the coming of Diablo III and the makers of Titan Quest went out of business is because Diablo is comfortable and familiar. Now it is kinda freaky that a game full of torture, death, and horror is comfortable and familiar, but there you are. But they do not just want Diablo II with better graphics, as much as some claim they'd be happy with that.

So where do you draw the line? In the battle between "fresh and new" and "familiar and comfortable," where is too far? TV writers probably battle over that question on a weekly basis, trying to keep the show from getting stale without having Fonzie jump a shark.

In this case, however, I think it is a question of intended audience. Blizzard is proceeding under the expectation that the previous audience is still there for Diablo 3. They still have a critical mass of fans, even though Diablo 2 was released back in the day where games like Baldur's Gate II was Big News and could be a major commercial success. After all, the game has spawned a host of imitators, and some of those have succeeded in successive years. So the style of gameplay is still in vogue.

I think Bethesda is laboring under the belief (probably correctly) that the audience for the old Fallout games is no longer there in sufficient numbers to achieve commercial success - at least not with today's mainstream game budgets. Like the 2004 release of "The Bard's Tale," they seem to be shooting for not so much of a sequel as a re-make... a "re-imagining" of the universe, delivering their own vision of a universe they loved to a new audience.

But the video game industry is still so young that the originals being remade haven't had much time to gather dust. Fallout 2 is "only" ten years old, which is ancient by video game standards, but it's really not much older than the Playstation 2. This is hardly the first franchise to receive a radical overhaul, particularly as beloved franchises from the 8- and 16-bit era are being reincarnated in the 3D era, and as series that have gone stale have attempted to reinvent themselves.

Metroid Prime. X-Com Apocalypse. Fallout 3. Diablo 3. Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. Ultima 8. Return to Zork. And so on. Game series do have to keep reinventing themselves, or they can grow pretty stale. Popular opinion amongst fans is that this is what happened to the later Might & Magic RPGs, for example. But at what point does a sequel "go too far"? Where does it become a remake or simply a brand name slapped on a different game series? Should we have remakes or a radical "reinventing" of a series that is a decade or less old? What is your own tolerance for change?

Discuss this on the forum thread! Or not.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008
 
Diablo 3
It's Official!

Cool. 3D environments. And... the traditional insane swarms of enemies.

Sign me up!

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Friday, June 27, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: The Tower of Almost Certain Death
I haven't been quite as regular with my postings about the development of the comedy-based indie RPG Frayed Knights of late, but the game does continue development, if not quite as quickly as it was the last few weeks before the pilot milestone. Obviously, we need a new milestone schedule. But I thought I'd provide a little bit of background on the world at large and chapters / adventures / locations in development.

Naturally, all of this information may change, and could conceivably not appear in the game at all. But here we go anyway. This week: The Tower of Almost Certain Death!

Originally, this tower was called the "Tower of Certain Death" by those few locals and adventurers who knew of its existence. Every once in a while some local youths from nearby towns who fancied themselves as adventurerers would discover legends of the tower, and mount an expedition to find and sack it.

Of the few expeditions that found the tower, most ended in the entry chamber, not with death, but with a lot of ale-drinking and graffitti-drawing to mark the accomplishment. Then the expedition would return home with tales of surviving the Tower of Certain Death.

At this point, jokes circulated renaming the old tower the "Tower of ALMOST Certain Death," as it was clear that merely entering the tower did not lead to instant demise. Those who remembered the old stories warned that it was actually ascending to the top of the tower that resulted in certain death, but as the young trespassers who had survived entry chamber parties maintained, the tower was in such poor condition that a lethal fall from the top when the floor gave out was a certainty.

However, the tower eventually attracted a group of down-on-their-luck adventurers. They discovered that the upper floors of the tower were not only in far better condition than the youthful entry-level explorers had guessed, but that they were inhabited - after a fashion. The former owner of the tower - a Wizard named Thermistale - had performed an experiment which failed spectacularly, transforming him and his apprentices into ageless, mindless monsters. Besides these entities, the tower had animated statues and traps designed to foil interlopers and government inspectors. And a great deal of the wizard's treasure had remained intact.

Once the "Tower of Almost Certain Death" had been successfully sacked, nobody bothered going there anymore. Those few who tried found that the tower was well and truly looted, with nothing remaining of remote interest to make it worth the trip. After twenty years, it faded from memory.

Rumors have recently surfaced that the tower has new inhabitants, though speculation rages as to whether or not the new inhabitants are monsters or a flock of birds.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008
 
We Threw a Class Action Lawsuit, But Nobody Came!
Remember the Hot Coffee case? The big scandal that rocked the games biz? The one that causes the latest uproar that has given politicians and madmen ammunition to snipe at the games industry for years? The New York Times reports that the settlement has been reached for all of the meager 2,676 people (out of millions who bought the game) who joined the class action lawsuit. The total defense fees, including settlement but not including charitable contributions (which the company may have been planning on making anyway), amounted to around $30,000.

That makes it a lot harder for the lawyers to recoup the $1.3 million in expenses they are claiming, doesn't it?

My take on this? Okay, Hot Coffee was a major screw-up, no question about it. And I really have to question the maturity and taste of the people involved in it who actually implemented it and ... until a point ... thought it was a good idea.

But I think this case indicates that for the game's intended audience, it was largely a non-issue. The people who were really freaked out over it were non-gamers who neither played it nor bought it for someone in their family to play. And it seems like a sizeable subset of the people in the class-action thought that the graphic violence that was part of the core gameplay was okay for their underage little darlings... they just objected to the possibility that said angel could log into the Internet, bypass all the porn that's there, and instead download and install a patch that would enable them to see non-anatomically correct sex.

To be honest, I'd have expected a lot more people to have participated in the class action lawsuit, too. But really, the issue itself isn't really over leaving content in that would change the rating from M to AO (I mean, that's a difference of ONE YEAR... meaning 17-year-olds couldn't buy it for themselves). It's really about people - parents and family, mainly - not understanding or caring what the ratings mean, and thus making uninformed decisions, in spite of the best efforts of the ESRB and retailers to make this clear. And I think that's really only something that will be resolved with time and persistence.

Hat Tip to Game Politics for the scoop.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
 
RPG Design: Breaking Up the Routine
The party is hired by a village to take out some local bandits. To encourage the bandits to attack, the party disguises itself as poor villagers. The bandits come in search of easy prey, and find that the party is quite capable of defending itself. The bandits are dispatched. The village has a celebration, and offers the party a meager reward for their fine services.

Does this sound like a pretty straightforward - and, dare I suggest, boring - adventure for a party of adventurers? Maybe.

But in "Our Mrs. Reynolds," episode six of the short-lived (but critically acclaimed) science fiction TV series "Firefly", all this - and more - takes place before the opening credits. And then the real story begins.

Not that the whole bandit-hunting adventure couldn't have been an episode on its own. I mean, Captain Mal dressed as a pioneer woman telling the bandit leader, "I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you" is worth the episode all by itself. But the whole point was that this particular caper went off without a hitch - an actual routine mission - and so wasn't worth more than a passing mention. The fireworks start as an indirect result of its successful conclusion.

Yet in computer roleplaying games (and, true, most pen & paper RPGs), we are constantly facing the routine. We get the endless battles of similar opponents. We get the bandit story instead of... the , uh, sexy nubile hijacker scoundrel claiming to have gotten married to one of the crew during the previous drunken night of revelry incorporating little-known and subtle marriage rites. And we don't get Jane putting Vera the Big Gun in a space suit.

There are two reasons for this:

#1 - Coming up with those more elaborate, twisty stories is hard.

#2 - Generating such stories that survive contact with the player without ramming it down the player's throat is even harder.

Which I've harped on before. But it's making me ponder. Just a bit. Oblivion did a pretty good job of throwing plenty of twists and bends in what sounded like otherwise straightforward, conventional quests. But could more be done? Granted, stories like Our Mrs Reynolds will need to be carefully hand-crafted plotlines in games. But how do we get around the routine?

To give credit where credit is due, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has gone to great lengths to help make combats unique by making the battlefield, movement, and variants on enemies in mass quantities pretty interesting. Those tactical combinations can mix things up nicely. But those aren't really story-based twists, those are variations.

I guess the routine is defined by the fact that it is - well - routine. But a good story skips or breezes past those parts, letting the audience understand that "time passes" and routine events do indeed happen without doing a full accounting. But maybe the hesitancy for many players to try RPGs is that it too often revels in that tedium, "the grind."

But is there a better way to handle that what we do now? Can we breeze past the "grind" aspects more easily in single-player RPGs? Can we throw some interesting story elements into even a "typical" combat by introducing a vulnerable hostage or something into what would otherwise be a simple "speedbump" encounter? Can we jump to the part about the sexy nubile hijacker instead of battling Orc Group #300?

And most interestingly (to the game developer side of me): can we do it algorithmically or some other way that does not require 100 designers working 70 hour weeks for 5 years to give us a solid 10 hours of gameplay?

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008
 
Allergies
When I was a teenager, I used to mock people with allergies. Not badly, but I'd happily announce how I wasn't allergic to anything.

Karma sucks.

We recently purchased bicycles (partly for exercise, partly as a response to skyrocketing oil prices), and last night I rode bikes with my youngest daughter to the library, which is only about a mile away. Besides getting a little sore after the uphill leg - I haven't regularly ridden a bike in half a lifetime - I got massive lungfuls of nature. In addition to what I'd received a little earlier doing some evening yard work. Without having taken any allergy medicines.

By the time I did take any, I was nearly dead. My eyes were puffy. I'm not sure WHAT I was trying to write for the blog. I was trying to play a retro RPG (Lands of Lore), but couldn't keep with it. I had to crash. Still feeling it first thing this morning, as I write this, though I'm better.

So - be careful who you mock, because these things have a way of interfering with gaming!
Sunday, June 22, 2008
 
Fourth Edition, or D&D?
But I finally had time to spend reading the new Player's Handbook (or, rather, the "Arcane, Divine and Martial Heroes" Player's Handbook... publisher Wizards of the Coast is spreading the joy across multiple Player's Handbooks) for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. It's been impossible for me to be untainted... people have been talking about this thing since last August, and I've heard plenty of praise and damnation heaped upon the new edition, and so it's been impossible to form my own opinions in a vacuum. And one can't truly offer an informed opinion on the matter without playing through it once.

I may never have an informed, unbiased opinion. So I'll venture the following, which you can discard at your leisure:

On the plus side, it looks like a pretty fun game.

But I had a pretty venomous post written where I had an imaginary product-kickoff meeting where a man in a suit told the designers to turn that "one miniatures game" into an RPG, and make it play like one of their successful collectable-trading-card games, so they could market it like their lucrative businesses. Oh, and make it enough like that Warcraft thing so they could sell it to those guys, too. When one of the designers objected that there was already a Dungeons & Dragons RPG, the suit demanded that they make things different enough so that they couldn't be sued.

And that pretty much describes my attitude towards the game. If it didn't say, "Dungeons & Dragons" on the cover, I would think it was a well-produced third-party fantasy role-playing game. I'd also ask if they sold cards to go with character actions, as the character abilities are defined very carefully in color-coded strips that resemble deed cards in Monopoly. They scream out for playing as part of an "action deck", with some cards that return to your hand immediately after being played, others that are played only once per combat, and others that are played once per day. I imagine we'll see those once the launch mania is over.

When I got to reading up on the Wizard class - which bears pretty much zero resemblance to the Dungeons & Dragons magic-user / wizard and has a lot more in common with the sorceress in the arcade game Gauntlet (or the late-3.5-era Warlock class - I realized that this was not Dungeons & Dragons. It is a game that could potentially co-exist with Dungeons & Dragons if the publisher didn't have a vested interest in burying the older games where they might never be found again. But there is a bigger gulf between this game and D&D than between the old and new incarnations of Battlestar Galactica.

Now, granted - the potential market amongst Magic the Gathering players and World of Warcraft players is far more lucrative than the fairly small, cheapskate population of pen & paper RPG players. From a business perspective, I can totally see where Wizards of the Coast is going with this. It's a whole new game, folks, but D&D it isn't. And for a lot of people (including, it sounds, Wizards of the Coast themselves), that's a good thing.

I can't fault their logic. They felt they needed to reinvent themselves and the industry, because the old model was broken from the start. And they'd do far better to bring in the brand name to get them there. Hey, my wife's Taurus S.E. doesn't bear much resemblance to the Model T or a Mustang, but they are all a Ford. And I would never be one to proclaim the kludgey game mechanics of ANY of the previous editions of D&D as being somehow sacred. I change 'em and flavor them to taste all the time.

But this thing is not an upgrade. It's not even a lateral shift. It's a completely different game. I'd love to give 4th edition a try sometime, but we're already busy playing Dungeons & Dragons.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008
 
King of Kong
Besides watching plays and hiking canyons, during my little two day escape, we also watched King of Kong (subtitled "A Fistful of Quarters") . I had been looking forward to this documentary for a while, and was just told that it was available on Netflix as both a DVD and as an "Instant Play" streaming video.

King of Kong shows the secret, seedy underbelly of the underground competitive retro-arcade gaming scene. Well, okay, not quite. The geeky competitive retro-arcade gaming scene. Surrounding, in particular, the game of Donkey Kong.

Billy Mitchell is, in this case, the home-town hero who enjoyed his claim to fame in the wild popularity of arcade gaming in the 1980's, and has enjoyed a twenty-year record as the world's best. And he comes across as being pretty ruthless and petty when it comes to using his influence with the tiny 'establishment' to protect his long-standing authority and records. Steve Wiebe is the outsider, the not-so-young gun who believes he's got what it takes to become number one, fighting not only one of the most challenging and popular arcade games in history, but an "establishment" that has invested in Mitchell as their hero, and seems to be unwilling to allow this interloper to dethrone their reigning champion.

Petty? Silly? Lame? Laughable? You know, even as a ... well, formerly hardcore gamer and a huge fan of retro-gaming, that was what went through my mind the first half hour of the movie. The posturing and interviews and big talk of aging geeks for whom the golden era of the arcade game never died sounded like a joke, like a parody of sports heroes. But they were plainly, completely serious. At first, it seemed almost like a deadpan "mockumentary," a This Is Spinal Tap style bit of silliness with Twin Galaxies chief Walter Day proclaiming the utter gravity and importance of this competition with the full conviction of over two decades of his life's work poured into it.

But you know what? Fifteen minutes later, we were sucked in. We were still laughing at points, but the meaning started hitting home. Maybe we weren't talking about big professional sports heroes. It doesn't matter if you are talking about the Olympics or world championship Chess tournaments, or a high-school volleyball finals or the regional debate team championship, the story of competition between people who care about can be intriguing, and they can have power to infuse their own meaning into their efforts. And it works.

Yeah, there was drama. The stakes may be small and intensely personal, but they do grow a bit larger when the Guinness Book of World Records gets involved. It's exciting. It's frustrating. It's the whole "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" pitched by ABC's Wild World of Sports when I was a child, but surrounding an upright cabinet of Mario's first game (back when he was only anonymously referred to as the "jumpman.")

And it's all about arcade games.

In the end, I have to recommend the movie highly to anyone with a passing interest in video. Just get it, watch it, laugh at it, and see if towards the end you aren't cheering and pissed and thrilled and even interested in firing up a game of Donkey Kong and seeing how you rank.

My highest recorded score is still only 16,900, so I think Wiebe and Mitchell don't have much to worry about from me at the moment.

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Friday, June 20, 2008
 
Real Life: Bryce and Cyrano
I took a couple of days off this week (whew!) for a brief vacation. I spent today with family at Bryce Canyon. My first thought upon seeing it - under a beautiful, cloudless noon-day sky - was that it looked like an impossible painting. Just too phenomenal to be real.

Computer graphics have nothing on this kind of awesome. Nor do photos come anywhere close to doing it justice.

Last night, we saw the preview performance of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Shakespearean Festival. They do include some non-Shakespearean plays in the festival. While familiar with the story, I'd never seen it performed live before --- although I enjoyed the Steve Martin & Daryl Hannah movie, "Roxanne," based on the play. As the very first performance following their dress rehearsal, the play had some glitches and rough edges to work out. But it was likewise... awesome. It was very touching and powerful in a way that seems just out of reach of any movie.

I guess it pays to get out of the basement and office cubical and experience real life for a little bit.

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Favorite Deaths
In video games, death is simply the game's way of telling you, "Neener, neener!"

It's frequently a meaningless penalty requiring you to reload or, in older games, simply an expenditure of "lives." In the new 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it sounds like (at epic levels) its something your characters are more-or-less expected to endure on an almost daily basis (Yeah, that's always sounded silly to me).

But sometimes... sometimes... it brings a smile to my face. Or is simply memorable for one reason or another. Sometimes its a little more than an annoying game mechanic. Sometimes it is spectacular. Here are four of my favorites:

Death #1 - Zork
Text adventure games - particularly the old Infocom games - often had great deaths in 'em. But leaving it at only one, what sticks out in my mind was an item that was described as resembling a tube of toothpaste. Attempting to brush my teeth with it revealed that it was an industrial-strength adhesive which killed me in a very amusing paragraph.

Death #2 - Karateka
The whole game, Jordan Mechner's precursor to the Prince of Persia series, centered around rescuing the princess. However, after defeating all the minions and the final boss, you enter the princess's cell. If you run to her arms, the two of you embraced in an early 80's version of a cinematic, and the game came to a satisfying conclusion.

If you approached her in a martial stance, she let her open arms drop. Come closer, prepared for battle, and she kicked you in the head. And killed you in one shot. You do not MESS with this princess! I think I fell out of my chair laughing when this one happened to me. And I always wondered how in the heck the villain managed to capture this deadly gal in the first place.

Death #3 - X-Com
I swear, the AI for the aliens in this game was programmed to be vicious. Whenever you'd pull out a grenade, you had to prime it and then throw it. I never had enough time units to do both on the same turn. The aliens seemed to ALWAYS target the guy with the primed grenade.

In this occasion, the dude with the primed grenade had just gotten off the ship, and was bunched up with a bunch of other squaddies at the base of the ship's ramp. They shot him. He dropped the primed grenade.

Boom! I lost half my squaddies before the third turn of combat.

Death #4 - EverQuest
I could fill this thing with MMO deaths. But here's just one: We were resting after a combat in North Ro. In the early days of EverQuest, there were Sand Giants in North Ro. A few months later, you'd almost never see them, because they'd be killed by players within two minutes of appearing. But back then --- they ravaged the population, as there was almost nobody over level 20 on the entire server.

I was 9th level. We were chatting with each other while resting (via text). My only warning was to see my companions stand up and run away, suddenly. I guess I hadn't heard the 20 foot tall giant sneaking up behind me. I'd also never seen that much damage done in a single blow at that point! And my companions could either type out a warning, or escape with their own lives. I couldn't blame them for their sudden, silent abandonment.

Okay, there are my favorite "death scenes" in games. What have you got?

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Thursday, June 19, 2008
 
Game Industry Skill Crisis Its Own Fault
GamesIndustry.biz has posted an article about how the majority of "game development" programs offered by schools are leaving students ill-equipped to deal with the actual requirements of a game development career.

Industry Skills Message Hits Mainstream News

According to Matthew Jeffries, Head of European recruiting for EA, "If you look at the gaming degrees, a lot of them have been put together quite hastily and don't prepare graduates for a career in the industry... So the problem is that game degrees are almost like the latest fashion accessory - all the universities are running to set them up, but the students aren't being prepared in terms of the skill sets they have."

David "Elite" Braben complains that there is a lack of candidates with degrees in math, physics, and computer science.

Putting on my crusty ol' semi-disgruntled veteran cap, I've got my own comments to add about this "crisis" of skills in incoming recruits.

First of all, the games business isn't competitive in the job market. I don't know about science and math, but computer science graduates can easily make 15% more working outside of the games business. So you can work in a boring 9-5ish job (with some crunch, acknowledged) cranking out C# code for ASP.NET pages with plenty of time to play games and raise a family, or you can be paid $10,000 a year LESS to work in an industry with quality-of-life issues that make it sound like a sweatshop. But you get to make games.

That's a choice that is only interesting to real die-hard gamers for whom the coolness factor (and the lack of a dress code or early-morning hours) outweighs the hard hours and poor compensation. On the other hand, a "game design" degree is hard to leverage into anything outside of this industry.

Secondly - I'm not sure that technical degrees are great indicators of success in the game development field. Yes, I think programmers need to have a solid grasp of trigonometry and basic physics as well as programming concepts. But is having someone with a PhD in Physics on the team going to make or break a game? Unlikely.

The approach from the publishers and upper management these days is to make game development an assembly line widget factory anyway. Meanwhile, middle-management tends to rely upon heroics by team members, which is probably where the desire for more heroicly-inclined workers comes from. There's a fundamental disconnect in how the process is supposed to work, and more skilled workers aren't going to make that big of a difference cranking out the latest Third-Person Shooter Clone With a Movie License.

Finally - and most importantly - the "churn rate" in game studios and big publishers is a far, far bigger problem than finding better fresh-faced, eager-beaver recruits who have huge technical skills and a love of games that surpasses their instinct for survival and propagation. These companies are complaining about having to provide additional trading to new employees, but then they burn these guys out within 2-5 years and discard them with all the emotional attachment associated with tossing a used Kleenex.

The retention rates in the games industry are improving, I think, but they still suck. And a part of me wonders if the improved retention rate isn't coming from these game degrees that leave graduates trapped in the games biz.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008
 
Steven Peeler Talks Indie with RPS
Rock Paper Shotgun has a very cool interview with indie RPG author Steven Peeler, the guy behind the awesomelicious Depths of Peril. Some bits of trivia coming out of the interview:

* As I expected, Steven is the only full-time guy at Soldak Entertainment. The other names in the credits are contractors.

* Shortly before leaving Ritual, he pitched another RPG design - a very tense, scary, first-person-perspective RPG. Nothing like Depths of Peril.

* Soldak is not his first start-up company (or his first start-up company working on RPGs)

* His inspiration comes from an outstanding list of classic, old-school RPGs --- and Dungeons & Dragons.

* He's got another top-secret project that's "pretty far along now," but not talkin' about it yet.

He also talks about his decision to go indie after being pretty up the programmer hierarchy at a major development studio, where he came up with the design of Depths of Peril, the difficulties inherent in creating such a dynamic-world game, and much more.

If I were to teach a class in making indie RPGs, I'd put this article on the "required reading" list.

RPS Interview With Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008
 
Going Beyond the Monitor
The last few weeks, I have been spending some quality time re-browsing some old, classic RPGs. Call it research. One of the things I've been looking over has been the game manuals.

Remember those? Okay, some of you may not.

The manual for Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant is 128 pages long. By comparison, the entire Player's Handbook for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was also ... 128 pages long. Now, the former had slightly larger type and was only half-sized, but still...!

Checking out this manual, and the one for Might & Magic: World of Xeen, I was struck by the thought that they'd only have to add a section for dice-rolling and you'd practically have a playable pen & paper RPG with these manuals alone. They even included a section for new gamers explaining "what is a role-playing game?" Clearly, they were trying to emulate the pen & paper experience for computer gamers as much as possible.

Since I am doing this as research for that little gaming project of mine, I'm finding the books even more interesting now than when I originally played those games. They were thorough, informative, and filled with "fluff" that was of interest to maybe only 10% of the players. In the case of the Wizardry 7 manual, it was apparently a big part of the job of Brenda Braithwaite, formerly Brenda Garno. The hefty game manual had quality born of some sincere attention paid to it as part of the gaming experience. .

The "offline" paper manual has all but disappeared in recent years, aside from flimsy jewel-case inserts that warn of epileptic seizure risks, provide installation instructions, and try to upsell you on more products. With digital distribution becoming ever more popular, I don't expect to see them return. Besides, having the instructions there, in the game, is usually more useful. The paper manuals were there because it was too unwieldy to put all that text on the two 1.44 meg floppy disks, and to serve as a horrible copy-protection mechanism, to instruct the user on how to play the game, and to entertain the players and help draw them into the game's setting.

It's that last part that I miss.

Now, I'll admit - even back in the day, I didn't read through most paper documentation fully. I'd browse through the docs while waiting for the game to install, for looking up questions in the middle of the game, and for those times when I had to pause in my gaming for an extended bathroom break. But I actually read through the very good ones just for their own entertainment value. Browsing through the Wizardry 7 manual - which has gathered dust for something like sixteen years - I'm discovering a few things I didn't know when I was actually playing the game. Maybe that's why I never finished it! My bad.

But there were quite a few that were genuine pleasures to read. They were entertaining in their own right, and reading the documentation actually contributed to the enjoyment of the game. Reading the manual (often while waiting for the game to install) exposed you to promises of the amazing adventure the game had to offer. They helped provide context for the game, immersing you in the fiction or setting in a way that the underpowered computers of the day could not. And the best ones extended the experience of the game beyond the computer in a way that modern games can not.

Origin had some of the best documentation for their games back in the 80's and early 90's. They tried to turn their "accessories" into things that would go beyond merely informing and assisting the player. Their game manuals posed as official documents from the game world. They were entertaining, informative, and extended the fiction of the game beyond the confines of the computer. The Wing Commander manual posed as an issue of the ship's official magazine, and the game included technical spec sheets on each of the fighters (lamentably, those specs were also used as copy protection...) The poor graphics of the older Ultima games were compensated for in the documentation with Denis Loubet's excellent sketches and evocative cover art. Much of the detail that was lost in those early games due to technical restrictions was poured instead poured into the booklets that shipped with the games. The Ultima games also included other accessories - like cloth maps, moonstones, ankhs, and other little touches to try and make the game come more alive in the minds and hearts of players.

One of the best game manuals of all time came with Their Finest Hour - The Battle of Britain by Larry "X-Wing" Holland for Lucasfilm (later "LucasArts"). The book is still wonderful long after the game has been wiped from my hard drive. Besides instructions for playing the game, it also includes detailed information on the aircraft of the era, combat tactics, and the history of the Battle of Britain, and it has a number of stories and vignettes from the battle told by actual participants on both sides of the conflict.

I don't know if we'll see the like of these manuals again. Most of the required function of game manuals has been fortunately pulled into the game itself, in the form of user-friendlier context-sensitive help and tutorials. I'd still much rather jump right into the game than spend twenty minutes getting "prepped" by reading a book. But that little extension of the game outside the confines of your monitor or TV set that the better documentation provided - that was pretty dang awesome.

Can we still have that? Maybe. While it loses its bathroom-and-bedroom reading potential, there are some games which have adopted the Web as the place to make the game come alive with supplemental materials. Depths of Peril, in particular, has provided short stories, news, instructions, and a small "monster manual" on its official website. While many of these elements can be (and are) incorporated into the game itself, when you are playing a game, your brain goes into a different mode that - at least for me - isn't quite so conducive to reading (unless I'm playing a text adventure).

Are there other ways of capturing this aspect of the silver age of gaming, short of actually printing out 128-page manuals and sending them to players in the era of digital distribution?

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Monday, June 16, 2008
 
Meet the New Game, Same as the Old Game
We won't get fooled again!

So Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was released last week. I'm hearing a lot of reports of how it's the Best RPG Evar!!1!1, and how it doesn't resemble previous versions of D&D very much. And I know that there are many people out there who feel the latter statement is a prerequisite for the former. I still haven't checked out the rules myself - we were having too much fun playing 3.5 last weekend with some home-brewed naval combat rules. So I guess you can accurately say I don't know what I'm missing.

Now, I'm apparently not alone in this, based on some extremely informal polls - which are likely to be as inaccurate as they are informal. This happens every time there's an "upgrade," of course (hey, I'm still running Windows XP and Office 2000).

"Jedi Wiker" at Declassified suggests one explanation as to why there appears to be a rift in the community - that the marketing campaign surrounding the new edition was pretty divisive, implying the abandonment of the current customer base in the pursuit of the new generation raised on MMO's. His contention - though he prefers 3.5 himself - is that players should ignore the marketing and give the new edition a chance - but not to invest too much into doing so, as he feels many gamers will still prefer their older edition.

As I mentioned above, I think it is far too early to tell whether or not this is a mistake on WotC's part. The "rift" might likely blow over in a couple of years, as these things usually do. And it is not too clear whether the "Your D&D Sucks, You Must Be Stupid To Like It!" message was really implied by their marketing, or if that message was simply attributed to them by both their fans and detractors.

But their message was - as it had to be - "out with the old, and in with the new." When you are selling something durable, there's really no other way to go. At least, I don't think there is. You have to convince your customers that their old but still functional possessions should be replaced.

Which is exactly the problem with the video game business, just as all media industries (that I can think of).

It's not that we haven't hit some new highs with modern games. I'll happily pit modern racing games against Pole Position any day. In many cases, the newer truly is superior.

But there's a landmine in sending this message that "newer is always better, and anything too old is crap and not worth keeping," as Wiker illustrates. Oversell that message, and you may find a couple of corollaries popping up in the minds of your audience:

#1 - Since everything you've done so far has apparently been crap, there's no reason to believe your newest production is anything different.

#2 - If I love something that you think is crap, then our tastes may be so divergant that I should not expect to love what you have created.

Sound familiar at all? Maybe it's just me. Well, Wiker and me.

Fortunately, as a medium matures, respect for and interest in its past also increases. At least, it does for the more mature (read: jaded) audiences who have been through the "new and improved!" cycle a few times.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008
 
Requiem for the Arcades
Earlier this week, GBGames posted a link and commentary on an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled, "Video Arcades' Last Gasp." I was kind of surprised to feel as much nostalgia and sadness reading the article as I did.

I guess there's a thing about the "formative years." You assume life will always be the same as it was when you were thirteen - except the things you personally want to change, of course. For me, Gary Gygax was immortal (as was everyone else around me), Vinyl LPs were THE medium for music, Van Halen was going to rock forever, Harrison Ford was perpetually 40, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were always going to make great movies, and video arcades and coin-operated video games were going to be permanent fixtures of American culture - though they'd just keep getting better and better.

In 1981, the video game craze was just starting to hit full force. Expert pundits were daily proclaiming that video games were only a passing fad, soon to be as forgotten as hula hoops and pet rocks. "Pac Man Fever" began sweeping the nation, even garnering nods from Time Magazine. Coin-op arcade machines were found almost everywhere - from the neighborhood 7-Eleven to the corner nooks of any casual restaurant. Handheld gaming hadn't come of age - rather than bringing a DS around with us, we kept quarters in our pocket. Video gaming was rarely more than a couple of blocks away.

But the real action was in the arcades. While not ubiquitous, by 1983 they were fixtures of almost any shopping center. You'd see a supermarket, a Radio Shack, maybe a record store or Chinese restaurant, a video store, and - hey, there'd be the arcade. They were usually dark (the better so see the screen, and the better to scare the parents, making them doubly attractive to us), noisy, poorly decorated, and a garden of geekly delights. There's be the strains of music from a radio (or even a juke box) pouring out - some classic rock or 80's pop, usual. Something by The Fixx or Foreigner or Van Halen or even... Men At Work. Or Journey. If not from the radio, then from a pretty awful video game bearing their name, digitized faces, and the synthetic beeping of their top tunes.

Illumination often came from colored neon lights, theoretically there to make the environment more like a science-fiction setting, but often more closely resembling that of a bar. The neon could have just as easily spelled out "Budweiser." Either way worked for most gamers. You'd hunt down a particular noise first, the unusual clanky-clanky sound of a change machine. And you'd find out if the arcade took quarters or tokens just by the noise the machine made when the currency of the realm hit the metal cup. Tokens sucked unless you came to that particular arcade all the time (the use of tokens is, naturally, designed to encourage that).

In the back of the room, you'd find the old standbys - the "classics" that had stood the test of time (time being measured in months - a two-year-old game that still attracted quarters was by definition a classic. That's where you'd find Defender, Asteroids, Pac Man, Galaxian, Space Invaders, Tempest, Centipede, Joust, Robotron, Dig-Dug, and several others. You'd also find some overlooked oldies that just had no resell value, or the owner picked up for a song. Or something. Sometimes the back of the arcade felt like digging for buried treasure. You'd occasionally stumble across some "antique" that was all of two years old that you'd never heard of before. And once in a while, you'd find that it didn't suck, and you'd find yourself blowing a couple of bucks on some quirky old game that you'd never really played before.

Pinball machines stood side-by-side with the video games at the time, borrowing from the technology of their younger siblings to include more advanced sounds and behaviors, little marquee mini-games and visual effects, and advanced game logic and stages.

The real action was in the front - the new games. As time went on, these became depressingly predictable, with the new "hit" games appearing in every single arcade. But like the search for buried treasure in the back, the new games putting in their rotation. Usually they were dominated by one to five older kids who had "mastered" the game in the last week, hogging up the machine for a half-hour on a single coin. But it was almost as entertaining to watch these strangers who has mastered a game as it was to play it yourself. And these kids usually drank up the attention. It was community at an infant level, but it was something. Regular arcade-goers got to recognize each other by face and by game, even if they didn't always know each other's names. It was enough to greet each other with a "hey."

The arcades also exposed players to a wide variety of games, all at once. Rather than choosing to play what was being hyped the hardest in magazines, websites, or on TV like we do today, players chose their games based on browsing the actual selection and seeing the game in action. Granted, there was a layer of insulation there between the producers and the players (arcade operators tended to choose games based on the hype at the industry level and at trade shows), but it did allow more dark-horse winners to emerge. Like Pac-Man and Defender versus the AMOA favorite Rally-X. There was also a fairly immediate Darwinism that took place. They were designed to kick your butt within two minutes. They had to hook you, thrill you, and then beat you within that time. Games that could do all three would fill their tills quickly. Those that did not were replaced.

But it was awesome to be confronted with a real, playable GAME that you had never tried before in the back of an arcade, or in a convenience stoor, or nestled in an alcove of a pizza parlor. I remember discovering Qix and Mappy at a local Pizza Hut one afternoon. I would have forgotten to eat, had I not run out of quarters. I had no idea a sequel to Asteroids existed, but I found Asteroids Deluxe in a grocery store on a road trip with my family. My brothers and I spent half the trip talking about what the rest of the game MIGHT be like, had we had enough time to play more than a two games.

The arcade games were the big brothers to the consoles in that era. The "console wars" were Intellivision versus Atari versus Colecovision versus some various other platforms that could only offer a crude approximation of the arcade experience. So crude, in fact, that the skills and techniques did not transfer from platform to platform. We were invariably disappointed with the home versions of games, but we bought them anyway. Because a crappy Pac-Man was better than no Pac-Man at all. But that was the relationship - the coin-op titles were always superior.


As game developers in the mid-90's, we all hoped to work on coin-op games. A coin-op title was prestigious. The feeling still lingered that the coin-op titles were superior to what was on coin-op. But with the advent of the 32-bit machines, it was evident that this relationship might not be sustainable. Even with the 16-bit games on the SNES and Sega, nearly arcade perfect home versions were no longer a rare exception. The superiority of the arcade games over the home consoles was based on the pace of video game technology dwarfing all that had come six months earlier. No more.

For the new generation of game developers, arcades have lost their glamor. They may have fond memories of the last of the glory days, when Street Fighter II and its peers ruled the less-common-but-still-surviving coin-op world. But the developers coming out of school today were still young when the X-Box and Playstation 2 were released, and it has always been renting the newest games from Blockbuster for their consoles, or contributing to the endless churn of used games at GameStop in much the same way.

I still can't walk into a mall without expecting to see an arcade or game room somewhere on the bottom floor, though it has been almost two decades since they were common. Only a few years ago, I heard some rumblings about what it would take to bring back the arcades. None of the strategies made much sense to me, but I still rooted for them. I would love to see the return of arcades.

But would I go any more frequently than I do now, when there are about three coin-op game rooms within a reasonable driving distance? Probably not. The home gaming systems and computer, with Internet capability and affordable peripherals, have managed to absorb almost all of the benefits of the arcade experience. Game developers can no longer crank out a new game every six to nine months (well, except for certain driven indies) as required by that business to keep things current.

The arcades were largely an artifact of the technology of the era, like record studios, videocassette recorders, and pay phones. Technology moves on. As much as I miss the experience, I really can't see how they can make a comeback, or find a reason why they should other than, "it would be cool."

And they really were.

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Friday, June 13, 2008
 
Rose & Camellia 2
The elegant art of feminine combat... revisited.

The new version apparently requires you slap your way to the top of the original to play. Put your hardcore smack-down on the aristocracy now!

Rose & Camellia 2

You know you have been waiting for it!

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I Didn't Know I Spoke Polish...
Wow, I'm multi-lingual!

Frayed Knights Interview on Onet.pl!

For those of us who don't speak Polish, and who are at all interested (don't worry, I wouldn't be either), I provided the original English translation of the interview in the Forum.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008
 
Indie Adventure Game Rips Off Oblivion?
Important tip for aspiring indie and small game developers:

Want to make sure that you are never, ever able to get a publishing deal again? You want to ruin your career and business? Then just blatantly rip off content from a major mainstream game, call it your own, and let your publisher take the heat for it when a gaming website posts screenshots showing what would be pixel-perfect comparisons if only your rendering was better.

Bad, bad, bad idea.

Now, we don't know that Majestic Studios actually ripped off content from Oblivion and other games for their adventure game, Limbo of the Lost. There are allegations that content has also been ripped off from Thief: Deadly Shadows, Morrowind, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Unreal Tournament, and even - Diablo II? That may be a bit of a stretch, but once that particular can of worms gets opened, things get crazy.

But we do know that publisher Tri Synergy, has offered the following press release:

Sharon, MA, May 11th, 2008

Tri Synergy, Inc. (www.trisynergy.com) would like to publish an official comment regarding recent comparisons of level design and artwork between Majestic Studios' *Limbo of the Lost* and Bethesda's *The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion*/Eidos Interactive's *Thief: Deadly Shadows*.

Tri Synergy is just as shocked as everyone else is by the recent screenshot comparisons. At no point during our dealings with Majestic Studios up until the point that the comparison was first publicly made by a third party did we have any knowledge of these similarities. Additionally, Tri Synergy will discontinue distribution of *Limbo of the Lost* in both retail and online outlets.

We have contacted the developer, Majestic, and are anxiously awaiting their response. As soon as we know more on this matter we will issue another statement.

More information about Tri Synergy is available from www.trisynergy.com.
Curious? GamePlasma.com was the first (as far as I know) to break the news, complete with screenshots:

GamePlasma's Screen-By-Screen Comparison of Limbo of the Lost and Oblivion

While nothing has yet been proven or admitted yet, the comparisons are... ummm.... Well, unless those screenshots are a hoax by GamePlasma , it's pretty freaking obvious that content was ripped off from Oblivion. I don't know about Thief and the other games. But except for low-quality rendering, they are identical. An artist or level designer would have a very, very rough time TRYING to duplicate these areas that precisely.

So there's no kidding around here: It's the same content. So unless Majestic Studios legally licensed the content, there's some epic copyright / IP violation going on here.

And here's the extra sucky part: These guys, Majestic Studios, are / were - as far as I can tell - basically indies. I don't know how much (if at all) that Tri Synergy funded the game's development, but these guys have been working on this adventure game since the Amiga days, according to this JustAdventure Preview.

So who's to blame? Did Majestic Studios even know about the problem? Or did they get screwed over by a contractor? If the latter, I really, really hope they got a legal document from said contractor stating that it was his original work. Not that it will prevent Majestic from ceasing to exist, and possibly dragging Tri Synergy with it, but at least it might reduce the owners' liability should Eidos, Bethesda, and Tri Synergy get litigious. Which they might.

But it it might not stop there. Tri Synergy is not a major publisher. They are a second- or third-string publisher that gets tiny games like this to market, both at retail and online. This is potentially a pretty monstrous disaster from their perspective. Every publisher's nightmare, I expect. Or one of their nightmares. Hopefully not enough of one to sink the company, but definitely a bad, bad situation.

What sort of ripple effect might this cause among the small publishers and developers? The indies of the world looking for a publishing deal to take their game to retail? I'm foreseeing a lot more paperwork (and expense) going into due diligence, and publishers being a lot more gun-shy about signing on new studios that haven't been around long enough to establish a track record.

So to whomever is responsible: Gee, thanks for making the lives of all the tiny little game producers in the world a little bit harder. We really had it too easy trying to survive and put food on the table with our little niche titles.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
 
Indie RPG News, June 11 2008
The summer time is here, which is traditionally the doldrum era for games, as the Christmas-driven industry prepares for a fall onslaught of new games. However, indies are not so holiday-minded (in fact, its arguable we do better in the "off-season" for not having to compete with the cacophony of marketing messages from our mainstream peers. However, it's definitely felt like a little bit of an "off-season" on the indie RPG front. But maybe I'm just spoiled from last year's incredible crop of indie RPGs. But here's what I've been gleaning lately.


Eschalon: Book 2
Eschalon: Book 2, the sequel to last year's outstanding "old school" indie RPG, has now been officially announced on the Basilisk Games website. Scheduled for release in 2009, Eschalon: Book II will pick up where the first game left off. The updated game engine will run at an improved 1024 x 768 screen resolution --- not much of a stretch even for older machines. It will offer the chance to play a female character, difficulty levels, new weather effects (not just pretty graphics - they do affect gameplay), new skills, and the ability to go to level thirty. Good times!

http://basiliskgames.com/book2.html


Scars of War
Poor Gareth has been suffering from crunch mode as I have, and Scars of War took a little bit of a pause in development as a result. However, he's back with some details about the nation of Athar. If you are looking for some insight into the setting for this upcoming indie RPG, check out the blog:

Scars of War Lore: Nation of Athar


Age of Decadence
Vince claims that a 2008 release is "realistic" for the Age of Decadence, but "if we have to take more time, we will." And, as mentioned yesterday, RPGWatch has the third part of the "Let's Play AoD!" series.


Aveyond 1: Rhen's Quest
New betas have been in testing for Aveyond 1: Rhen's Quest over last month, fixing old bugs and adding new features available in Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest. This includes mouse control, difficulty levels, a new quest, an alternative way of completing an existing quest, and a few other minor tweaks. The new version shouldn't be too far off --- build C of the beta was sent to testers last week.

There is no real news of an Aveyond 3, but Amanda & Company have been in the final stages of Amaranth's upcoming casual game, "Yummy Drink Factory" (taking place in the same world as Aveyond). So we probably shouldn't expect any real news until this fall.


Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
A new version of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One is available - principally some minor bug fixes, particularly for the Linux version. So far, there is no word of the release date of Episode 2, other than it is "well underway."

Update Information for PAA: OtRSPoD- EO


Pelorea: Tactical War
Pelorea's presentation has been massively overhauled to more closely resemble a board game. The maps terrain - still in 3D - has been broken into hexigons. The results are striking but cool. Pelorea: Tactical War is an upcoming RPG / Strategy Game (looking more like "a strategy game" every day) with a card-game based combat system. Yes, I'm fascinated.


So there you have it. All I know, you now know. Disappointing, isn't it?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008
 
More Age Of Decadence Play-Through
The third installment of the "Let's Play" series on the indie RPG Age of Decadence is now up over at RPGWatch. The play-through involves one of the developers playing the game, posting screenshots and commentary for the walk-through, but letting the community make all of the major decisions.

Age of Decadence is an upcoming RPG by Iron Tower Studio based in a setting reminiscent of Rome near its collapse.

Let's Play Age of Decadence #3 at RPGWatch

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Monday, June 09, 2008
 
Working For Big Publishers
Jeff Tunnell, newly resigned from GarageGames and now doing his own game-making thing to be unveiled at a future date, has an outstanding article at Make It Big In Games about working for big publishers - titled, coincidentally:

Working For Big Publishers

Now, my experience working for big publishers has been kinda limited. I have worked for three - kinda. I worked for Infogrammes U.S.A. (shortly thereafter redubbed "Atari" - so I can kinda fool people into thinking I'm much more long-in-the-tooth than I really am by saying, "I worked for Atari.") after they bought GT Interactive after GT bought my studio, and I worked (briefly) for Acclaim, leaving when I saw the proverbial writing on the equally proverbial wall.

Neither experience was particularly endearing, though Acclaim was by far the most disastrous.

I can attest to the role of politics. We had a mid-level manager sabotage a project to help HIS boss save face. We had some blatant dishonesty, a lack of anything resembling "job security," gross mismanagement (usually due to poor communication or infighting happening in the upper ranks), and psychotic work hours - which are not unique to working for big publishers at all.

But we also had really cool company picnics, and I got a one-time bonus after our acquisition that was the biggest I have YET to receive. So it wasn't all Teh Suck.

And, now that I've done some time in the software industry outside of games, I will have to say that the crimes committed in the games biz are hardly unique. Just - so far (knock on wood) - the most egregious. But my experiences working for big publishers is coming up on a decade old, so my information may be obsolete. I'd hope some things have changed since then.

But anybody looking at working for a Big Publisher on a Hit Series Title would be well advised to read Jeff's article. Not that it should dissuade you - there is a lot to be learned for putting in a couple of years in the trenches of gaming's front line, should you (and your love of video games) survive the experience. But career-wise, you may be advised not to consider it the be-all, end-all.

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How Do I Make An MMO?
Friend and fellow veteran mainstream & indie game developer John O. forwarded me an email he sent to a young aspiring game developer who asked him for a step-by-step process to create an MMO. I doubt the young man who asked the question realized that it was something akin to asking for a step-by-step process to building a space shuttle.

But John answered his question as best as he could, because he's just that much of a nice guy. And he shared his answer with me as something I might address here on the blog, because I'm lazy and love to borrow (with permission!) someone else's content. Although in this case, I'm gonna paraphrase most of his answers.

Step 1: Identify Your Rationale
Why do you want to create an MMO? Are you looking for fame & glory? Do you think you could do better by yourself than Blizzard and their hundreds of employees and budget of hundreds of millions? Are you interested in making tons of money? Are you just wanting to learn? Do you see some virgin territory within the genre that you'd like to explore? The last two answers are pretty good. The others - not so much. But the important thing is that you identify your reasons and choose a path that satisfies that rationale.

Oh, and if it's tons of money you are after... go into some other field, not games.

Step 2: Educate Yourself
Okay. Bottom line - if you have to ask how to make it, you aren't ready to make it. If you are looking at going into mainstream game development, you are going to need to specialize. If you are going the indie route - well, you've got even more to learn. If you want to be a programmer, you'll want to study up on math, geometry, physics, and of course programming languages. I don't care what language you start with. I started with BASIC, which is obsolete today. Python, C, C++, C#, Java, LISP, whatever... start with a language you have access to, where you can find lots of educational and game-development resources for (I'm partial to Python and C++ myself), and learn.

Study up on storytelling. Study literature and fine arts. Those will help you with design. And art, if you also take that route. And if you really do want to go the indie route, you should study up on marketing and business management, too.

Study up on the game industry. And play games! Play the games you don't like. Study the successful ones. Study the unsuccessful ones. Learn to identify the difference. And do not just look at mainstream games. Play those games your mother and your kid sister like.

Step 3: Keep Track of Your Ideas
John writes, "Keep notes on game ideas and designs. Organize them. Include maps, statistics, artificial intelligence, algorithms, look and feel, quantities and quality levels. This stack of notes will be what you draw from for future projects."

I say there are three things going on here:

Number one - almost all of your ideas will be lame. Probably. Deal.

Number two - Write them all down and keep track of them anyway. That's a killer habit to get into. The more you track your ideas, the better they will flow - both in terms of quantity and quality.

Number three - learning to organize those plans and determine all the little bits and pieces that are needed to support the design are critical skills. Skills I too often lack, and that bites me in the butt. Often.

Step 4: Start Small
Write games. Don't start trying to write World of Warcraft from scratch. It'll only end in tears and frustration. While it may be far from your dream game, take your baby steps. Old-fashioned arcade-style games are a great start.

Learn to mod bigger games. Neverwinter Nights is a great place to start, IMO, because it incorporates a lot of elements that are also present in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs. I also highly recommend you try to build a small world on some kind of MUD / MUSH / MU* codebase. That's a lot of where the MMORPGs came from. The folks who were working on those things a decade or two ago have in many cases forgotten a heck of a lot more about creating multiplayer worlds than many professionals making MMOs have ever learned.

John also recommends joining another game development team, perhaps on an open source game.

Step 5: Go To College
John writes: "Go to college. By the time you’re 18-19 you should have a good idea whether you really enjoy coding (computer science), electronics hardware (computer engineering), or would rather concentrate on team management (business) or model design (art). Getting an undergraduate degree will give you a safe backup plan. That way you can either land a job doing games, or get a job doing whatever your degree qualifies you for, and then work on games on your own time."

I may not agree 100% with this one, but lacking some compelling reason to do otherwise (like being a successful game or business tycoon at age 17), I'd say follow this advice. You really want a broad education when you go out in the world - in the games business or otherwise. And while it may sound impossible to imagine right now, there may come a time when you really want to something other than games in your life, and you don't want to be unqualified to do anything else.

Step 6: Start With a Kit or an Engine
Okay, once you are finally ready to make a "real" MMO, I'm going to say here - don't start from scratch. There are lots of engines and code-bases out there that will give you a leg up. Now, the downside is that Betty Crocker's EZ MMO Mix is going to result in a pretty generic MMO when you are done compiling that doesn't come close to matching your vision. That's okay. Remember back in step 4 when you were learning to mod games? This is where that skill comes in, but on a larger scale.

This is my own addition to John's list. While it's cool to have the skills to create a game from scratch, including the engine, you have to decide for yourself where your passion is. Remember step 1? Do you want to make a game, or create technology? There is no wrong answer here, but if you create your own technology, be prepared to never have time to move on to the game.

Step 7: Ignore the Steps
The order presented here doesn't really mean that they should be followed in any sequential order. You can do all of these at the same time, actually. There are a lot of indies who are doing it all while still going to college (though I don't want to imagine what their GPA looks like...) Yeah, it's going to be rough when you start out. Just remember that just about everyone who was ever awesome at something didn't emerge from their mother's womb as an expert in their chosen field. They had to struggle and learn and grow, just like you.
Good luck!

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Saturday, June 07, 2008
 
Where Have the Flight Sims Gone?
Last night, I watched the movie, "Flyboys," on DVD. It was a pretty typical war-movie, with a few twists on the otherwise usual formula. The air-combat scenes were pretty spectacular, taking advantage of modern CGI to create some pretty incredible fight scenes. And lots of them. I heartily recommend it to flight sim buffs.

The film centered around a group of pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille, a French air squadron composed of mainly American volunteers. The movie itself takes incredible liberties with history, having the characters fly planes (and fly against planes) that were not in combat at the time, and perform maneuvers those early fighters simply could not perform. But hey - it was very fun, and I enjoyed it (though my wife laughed at me as I groused audibly during the first combat scene about how the Fokker triplanes they were fighting didn't even EXIST at that time...)

Naturally, after seeing a movie like that, it made me want to hop into the virtual cockpit of a flight sim. And I immediately thought about how really dang scarce they are these days. Almost as rare as Fokker triplanes in 1916...

A few days ago, I re-discovered a more-than-a-decade-old copy of an issue of Computer Gaming World magazine, which had a dedicated flight simulation section, and a commentary on how Apache helicopter sims were popping up all over from various publishers at the time. My thought was, "Dang, I only wish that was still the case."

I miss flight sims. They were once a staple of computer gaming, and even drove hardware sales. They pushed the graphical and realism bar to new levels. Falcon 3 probably helped sell CPU's with math-coprocessors, as they allowed an even more realistic flight model based on a declassified version of an actual military sim project to be used. There was a thriving (but competitive) business for controllers that provided a more "realistic" throttle / stick / rudder experience for the flight sim crowd.

The hype surrounding the "stealth fighter" - once dubbed the F-19 by toymakers and later revealed as the Air Force's F-117 - translated to tremendous sales for a Microprose game of the same subject matter. Editors jokingly betted on how many flight sims covering a specific aircraft or subgenre would be published in a year. The next release of a particular flight sim franchise was an event.

And then, like the California Gold Rush, it all disappeared. Not quite overnight, but certainly quickly. By about 2002 or so, one of the most popular genres in computer gaming had almost entirely disappeared, fading from view alongside graphic adventure games and wargames and those really atrocious "FMV Games." Nowadays, aside from Microsoft Flight Simulator - a civilian aircraft simulator - what sims that to get released are more often of a trickle of releases from Eastern Europe that are as likely to be sold as direct downloads rather than ever appearing on store shelves.

Unfortunately, this is a genre where I really don't expect the indies to step in and fill the void like they have with adventure games and wargames. For one thing, there are technical and content requirements for a flight sim to even be competitive with anything done in the last decade which would be daunting for an "indie" team. But even more challenging is my personal viewpoint that there really isn't a whole lot further to take the genre.

I mean, really --- aside from improving the multiplayer experience and just getting better graphics --- where does the genre have left to go? I mean, even if I were given some incredible budget with a mandate to make the build the next World War II uber-sim that leaves IL2 Strmovik: 1946 in the dust, I'm really not sure what I could do with it.

Did flight sims hit their peak because they have have hit an evolutionary brick wall already? Would a lateral shift of some kind be enough to bring them off the back-burner of gaming?

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Friday, June 06, 2008
 
Depths of Peril Now On Sale For the Mac
The Mac version of Depths of Peril, which has been out in a demo version for a week, is now for sale.

I'm just gonna swipe the press release right here, because it allows me to be all lazy 'n stuff:
"Depths of Peril is a single player action role-playing game (RPG) with strong strategy elements. You play as a faction leader protecting the barbarian city, Jorvik, by destroying threatening monsters and completing quests. At the same time, you compete with rival factions to see who will rule the city. Barbarians choose their leaders by fighting to the death!

"As a faction leader, you must deal with rival factions through diplomacy, trade, and in time, war. Between battles and raids against other barbarian factions, you build the most powerful faction possible, to withstand your enemies. Building the power of a faction involves exploring a fantasy world, slaying dangerous monsters, solving quests for the city, avoiding deadly traps, and plundering loot to share within your faction.

"But in this world, actions actually have consequences, so take care. Annoying the powerful and aggressive Legion of Fear faction will cause them to declare war and destroy you. Ignored orc uprisings in the Black Forest might lead to attacks on the town or even more trouble. Protect ally covenants that are being raided, because friends are hard to come by."
I've already said a great deal about this game. I'm a fan. I think it's a stellar example of what indie games - and indie RPGs in particular - can be. But it's also quirky and different and probably not for everybody. But that last sentence, in my mind, is to some degree the very definition of niche, indie games.

Mac gamers, enjoy!

Depths of Peril - Now Available for Mac and PC

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Thursday, June 05, 2008
 
Captain Crunch ... And Not The Good Kind
I'm back to the 12-hour day crunch at Ye Olde Day Job.

If it seems like its hard to see when one crunch ends and the other begins, you may join the club. It is beginning to feel like it's just one long crunch with some breaks in between. I guess I'm breaking my rule about not complaining here. I apologize. And things could be worse, I suppose. I mean, the guys in the military serving in Iraq definitely have a tougher job. For less pay. So I'm whining a little here. Sorry 'bout that.

It's not like its unfamiliar territory. My first year at SingleTrac, I pretty much missed an entire summer. I slept on the bus on the way to work, missing all but a little bit of the dawn, and worked until after dark every day. And many weekends. While I have some great memories of that time, it's no way to live life. I don't know how much the video games business has changed elsewhere as far as "Quality of Life" issues, but it seems to me that the business, as a whole, is still implementing a management strategy of "heroic effort."

And it is heroic effort. The demands of customers are for greater production quality, ever increasing detail and realism, and ever increasing game scope. The industry is dealing with this by shrinking game play-time and raising game budgets - but I don't think the industry can keep up the pace.

So what gives next?

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008
 
Video Games and Exploration
Jim Rossignol writes at Rock Paper Shotgun about "Exploration Games" and what an important aspect exploration plays in our enjoyment of certain kinds of games.

One of the issues with creating RPGs is that they are usually exploration-based - which means the game developers must create a LOT of content for the players to explore. While I don't know that exploration is a required element of an RPG, when I think about what thrills me, personally, when playing an RPG --- it usually comes down to the feeling I get when I am exploring.

When I played the early Ultimas, I was forever getting killed because I'd set out wandering all over the world, get lost, and then come across some dungeon or other dangerous place in the middle of the map which I just HAD to explore. One of the biggest thrills of both Morrowind and Oblivion was just poking my head into these random dungeons, ruins, castles, and abandoned houses laying strewn about the countryside.

Unfortunately, the thrill of exploration in Morrowind - and especially Oblivion - were nuked by the same problem that eliminated any such thrill in games like Diablo (after your first play-through): The randomly-generated encounters were clearly... randomly generated. They didn't belong in the world - they were clear reminders that the world was simply make-believe and centered around nothing so much as giving you something to do. In a sense, all that random variation actually made things even more clearly generic.

It's the hand-crafted stuff that makes the world seem real and in some way bigger than ourselves.

In a sense, there are two different kinds of "exploration" that I think of - the exploration of breadth and the exploration of depth. Breadth is the kind of exploration we normally think of - wandering around the world and finding new "stuff" of interest. The little Super Mario-esque "secrets" left by designers for those enterprising players who like to explore every nook and cranny. The stuff either on or off the beaten path that invites the player to take a closer look.

The other kind is as I described above - the details that can unfold in the game world as you keep going deeper and trying to explore a little bit behind the curtain. The mid-to-late Ultimas tried really hard to provide this kind of detail, with NPCs on regular schedules, a working "economy" of sorts, and all kinds of extra details that had nothing to do with the core plot - and certainly didn't aid in "streamlining" any kind of interface - but it added a great deal to the experience.

While I'm not opposed at all to the trend of generating more content procedurally, designers should remember that it is no substitute for a ton of hand-crafted, human detail in a game, particularly RPGs. That's what gives the game its life and "personality" - and makes it worthy of exploration.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008
 
DRM With a Reset Button
You know, I never looked too close at Apple's DRM for iTunes. Apparently, according to my brother, they reset the hardware "locks" every year. So you have a limit of a certain number of machines you can play your media on THIS year, but next year you can start all over. This works nicely with upgrades to hardware and so forth.

Now, I haven't double-checked this to verify that this is how iTunes works or not. But it struck me as a clever idea that would work much better with computer games. Game publishers are really worried about the sales in the first QUARTER - and to a lesser degree, sales the first year. For online / casual sales, maybe the first two years. So would it really matter all that much if players could do the "casual piracy" thing in a year or two by installing the game on extra machines belonging to friends?

While I like the idea, it doesn't resolve my number-one problem with "phone home" DRM... that the company responsible might drop support / drop off the face of the planet. I play games that are YEARS old. I love DOSBOX. Have I mentioned this before? I'm not one of these fifteen-year-olds who subscribes to the industry's marketing dogma that anything more than a year old is garbage.

But as a step to wean themselves off of DRM, I'd love to see the game industry adopt this stance. Financially, it's almost no risk to a mainstream publisher. It wouldn't make everyone happy (not me, and not Shamus Young), but it'd be a step in the right direction.

Oh, and final request: No CD-based protection anymore, please? Especially not with DRM. One alone is bad enough. Both are ... ridiculous, redundant, and only pushing your paying customers to hunt down pirate sites.

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Monday, June 02, 2008
 
Depths of Peril For the Mac!
The Mac version of last year's "Indie RPG of the Year," Depths of Peril, is now available! At least the demo version is now available. The full version should be available shortly.

Depths of Peril is an action-RPG with a dynamic world. You compete against several other factions - called Covenants - that are cooperating to save a small barbarian border-town, but simultaneously vying for dominance. They are your allies and your enemies, and your rivals for quests. Make deals and treaties with them, cooperate with them, trade with them, or extort from them, or declare war on them. Do what you can to sever their ties with other covenants before they declare war on you and your own Covenant. Every game is different, and every Covenant has their own preferences and style.

Quests are dynamic and time-limited. If you and the other covenants fail to complete a particular quest in time, consequences may follow. Some failed quests may result in potential recruits dying or leaving. Others may escalate, as a small uprising in a distant territory turns out a leader that may build an army and attack the city.

Quite frankly, it's an awesome game, incorporating a lot of elements I wish we'd see more of in other RPGs.

Depths of Peril has been available on the PC for some time, and it looks like Steven Peeler and company have been quietly laboring away on the Mac version these last few months. Congratulations to the Soldak Entertainment team.

Mac gamers - now's your chance! As I understand it, it requires OSX 10.4 or 10.5, and at least a 1.5 GHz CPU.

Download Depths of Peril Demo for the Mac

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Sunday, June 01, 2008
 
Frayed Knights in PC Games Germany
Simon "Seminus" Bachmann sent me this scan from this months' PC Games magazine in Germany:


I really have little clue what it says, though I imagine it has something to do with games that really DESERVE to be banned...

I've gotten quite a bit of feedback coming from the magazine this weekend - about 50 more feedback forms. Most are fairly complimentary, but note the same kinds of issues that have already been cited (movement speed, interface, combat mechanics, etc.). A few chastened me to make a game that looks and plays like modern AAA RPGs, and a few complained about having to read so much (not an uncommon complaint, really).

Exciting stuff!

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