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Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Thursday, July 31, 2008
 
Controversial Indie Games Get Fair Coverage
Citizen Gamer has a refreshingly even-handed look at controversial indie games, such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and Operation Pedopriest. Columnist Winda Benedetti is pretty indie-game-savvy, having published several articles about them in the past.

These Games Really Push Our Buttons on MSNBC

The quote of the week goes to David Kociemba, an art professor at Emerson College, in the documentary movie "Playing Columbine," about Danny Ledonne and the making of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:
"The controversy should be that there aren’t more games like ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’ that are as demanding and as artistically innovative... Why is it permitted for Michael Moore in 2002, to make ‘Bowling For Columbine’ — a film essay on this subject — and to use far more graphic footage than Danny Ledonne does three years later in a primitive low-res video game? Are we really going to say that video game designers are the one set of artists that do not have the right to engage in contemporary political issues?"
Not that I personally feel that Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is worthy of such honors. But I'm not exactly a fan of Michael Moore, either. But I am glad to see people - including Ledonne - at least trying to tackle controversial issues using video games as the medium for discussion.

Tip o' the hat to GamePolitics for the heads-up.

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The Spirit Engine 2 Released
The Spirit Engine 2, a 2D "side view" indie RPG, has now been released. I haven't played it yet - only watched the videos. I'll give it a try this weekend, but let me know what you think! You can download the free demo or buy the full game for only $18 from their website, as well as purchase the soundtrack to the game.

The Spirit Engine 2

You can also download & play the first game in the series, which is Freeware.

The Spirit Engine 2 features an extensive plot spanning nine chapters, according to the developers. As they state on their website, "History is unravelling in the once peaceful state of Lereftain. Murderous cults are running unchecked through the streets, parliament is bickering, tension is building with old enemies in the west and the country's inhuman rulers seem to be losing control of the situation. Three citizens who find their paths crossing in an act of charity one dark night will find themselves burdened with the responsibility of not only defending the nation but deciding whether to save civilization as they know it. "

The game features parallax scrolling, a real-time combat system, and multiple difficulty levels. While the violence is pretty low-key and bloodless, the themes and dialog are not recommended for children, and contain mild swearing.

Alas, the game is currently Windows-only. Sorry Mac-fans. Maybe you can bug the developer, Mark Pay, and convince him that a native Mac version is worth his while.

I'm just excited that we've finally got another new indie RPG release! It's been a dry couple o' months!

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008
 
RPG Combat Option Opinions
You are facing a hungry ogre, wielding a club dotted with spikes rusted brown with blood. What do you do?

(A)ttack
(P)arry
(C)ast
(U)se Item
(F)lee

One thing I've been looking at of late is the number of practical options available to players in combat in RPGs. At a certain point, too many options lead to frustration - especially amongst less experienced players of the genre. Too few options can lead to boredom.

The above is not too unlike something you might see in a vintage 16-bit jRPG, or in a first-person western RPG in the 1980s. Wizardry, Final Fantasy, you name it.

Fast forwarding about a decade to Diablo II - your effective choices are constrained due to the pressure of real-time to move, attack, use a loaded special ability, and to use a potion (which we could break down to healing or mana regeneration). That's four (or five), at least of what I normally used. Swapping special abilities or swapping weapon sets is also an option, though less commonly used in the heat of battle (though I'd fumble through swapping special abilities a lot). Other options were certainly present, but less practical in real-time combat.

Oblivion? You had movement, two practical attacks using your currently equipped weapon, blocking, and using your currently equipped spell or special ability. That's five. Swapping spells or equipment was always possible, but more of a secondary option.

It seems like the practical "sweet spot" for choices is around 4 or 5 options, regardless of whether or not it is a turn-based or real-time. Some leeway is often given for players to go outside the box a little bit and attempt a secondary option.

Casual RPGs - and I'm thinking Aveyond, Cute Knight, and Empires & Dungeons - offer tend to come in on the lower end of the count. Is this a case of the games keeping things simple for a less experienced audience?

Spells are a special case, as in many games this opens up an entire sub-menu of options that break my entire theory here.

So I don't know if I've come to a definite conclusion over whether I'm looking at a sweet spot, historical legacy, or just making up pictures in clouds yet.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008
 
Game Design: Mixing Turn-Based and Real Time
Indies aren't always more open about their current projects in development than mainstream developers, who usually have a veil of secrecy enforced by publisher contracts and non-disclosure agreements. But sometimes, members of the indie game development community open up with current challenges facing development. Sometimes they solicit the opinion of other developers or their own customers for suggestions for dealing with the quandary-of-the-month.

This can be a little bit like offering tours around the sausage factory. In general, gamers really don't want to know how the products of their hobby are made. But a few of us do. Even before I was a game developer, I was fascinated with the nuts-and-bolts of how games get made. I loved looking behind the curtain.

Now that I am a developer, I have another reason for appreciating these looks into design and development. Often, I am dealing with similar problems. Even if the solution suggested isn't applicable to my particular issues, I just appreciate knowing that I'm not the only one struggling with these kinds of things.

Such is the case for me with Mike Rubin, in his latest chapter about the difficulties moving from the text-interface world of Interactive Fiction to the more fully-detailed "virtual" 3D world of Vespers 3D. In this installment, he deals with the issues of integrating a real-time interface and movement system into what is, at its heart, a turn-based game.

You Got Turn-Based Chocolate In My Real-Time Peanut Butter

Time in the text-based game was largely literary or turn-based. The world patiently awaited the player's next action via a text parser. Distances in text adventures are abstract - crossing a large garden might take exactly the same amount of time as crossing a tiny room. Text is inherently static - we would balk if words changed as we read them.

But you take a game designed around that paradigm, and translate it to a visual world where players expect real-time motion and action... and it gets weird. Rubin notes that even something simple like an idle animation can get weird when the AI does nothing but repeat their actions while waiting to react to player input.

I've run into exactly the same issues with Frayed Knights. I do not want time to progress while the player is just standing there, doing nothing. I'm deliberately trying to maintain a more leisurely pace with the game. But one of many 'resources' of the game is time - which I calculate in abstract "turns." How do you reconcile that with movement? My solution was simply to progress time by fractions of a turn for distance traveled. Not an optimum solution, but it worked.

Another noteworthy comment is how a design decision on one element of the game can impact so many others.

I recommend giving the article a gander!

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Monday, July 28, 2008
 
History of Western CRPGs
I've been watching an extensive article on the evolution of computer RPGs by Drunken Irishman at Moby Games grow over the last week or so. His initial attitude pissed me off, but I kept finding myself nodding along in agreement through most of the article. It looks like it has finally reached a conclusion, and I'm going to put it on a Must Read list for anyone serious about computer RPGs. Right, all three of us:

The World of Western RPGs at Moby Games


For the most part, the Drunken Irishman seems to gold the following features as the key elements that make a great RPG:

* Real-Time, Visceral Combat
* Choice and consequences
* High-quality writing / dialog / characters
* Appealing Content

Okay. Now, I do take some issue with the idea that real-time combat is superior to turn-based. Granted, most of my favorite RPGs do feature real-time combat. But I still regard that as a preference, not superiority. If perfection was dictated by majority, we'd pretty much stop at Mario and Halo. Which isn't too far removed from my view of gamer hell. Give Mario a broken controller and make all your Halo opponents 14-year-old boys compensating for an inferiority complex, and you are pretty much there for me.

Anyway, I could quibble the article to death if I felt like it. And maybe I will, someday. But truth be told, he holds the same RPGs I do in the highest regard, knows his RPG history. A couple of great quotes from his briefs on two of the many great games of the 90's:
'While with some RPGs you already knew to expect a satisfying story, none of these stories were really above your typical pulp fiction. Ultima 7 does not tell a story, instead it is about the people; living, breathing, realistic people'

'Fallout still is the apex of Western RPGs. So much that every game was compared to it and found lacking. While much of it is because of rose tinted spectacles, the truth is that we have not had a game as influential as Fallout in this post-Fallout world.'
He makes an interesting point that most of the RPGs of the modern era are either Diablo clones, or descendants in one way or another from Black Isle / Interplay, and show obvious signs of their ancestry in their game design. The one notable exception? Bethesda.

He has an entire section on the indies. Now, he doesn't have much to say on the subject, and doesn't hold many indie RPGs in high regard, but he does mention Cute Knight, Aveyond, Eschalon: Book 1, Spiderweb's extensive RPG library, Mount & Blade, and one indie RPG I'd never heard about called Teudogar and the Alliance with Rome. Of the indies, he says, "I feel that the indie scene has not yet reached its full potential for this genre." I'd say that's an understatement - we ain't seen nothin' yet - but I'm also familiar with a lot more indie RPGs that I'd consider worthy of mention that are really pushing the envelope. I feel that Depths of Peril continues to be woefully overlooked for all of the innovation it provides to the genre, for one thing.

But I think for all his bluster and emphasis on sex scenes in RPGs, we do see eye-to-eye on the future of computer RPGs. He writes, "The future of PC gaming is in the hands of small groups of individuals. Just like in the old days when there only 7-8 people working on a game. PC gaming itself will not die, it just loses the exclusivity on the mainstream games, but through the loss it discovers a whole new market."

While not necessarily the same as saying that the future belongs to the indies, I think I'm looking through a similar crystal ball. PC gaming doesn't have the corporate sponsorship of the consoles to push brands down our throat. While it is still possible to sell a single-player PC game that sells in excess of a half-million, the market that puts the "mass" in massive is owned by the consoles now. I think it is still possible to make a business case for a game that sells 50 thousand, 100 thousand, or 200 thousand copies that goes beyond a quick-and-dirty console port. If said games could get the visibility they need above said console ports to sell those kinds of numbers, particularly selling a significant fraction directly rather than dispersing the return through layers of middlemen, I think a team of less than 10 people could do pretty well. They wouldn't be driving fly-yellow Ferraris or Hummers at that rate, but they'd do okay.

I'm of the opinion that a team of 4-8 developers (true developers - including artists, designers, programmers, and others putting the actual game together) is actually optimal. I think they can make a better game - albeit not as flashy - than today's bloated teams of dozens.

Here's hoping.

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Friday, July 25, 2008
 
Study Reveals Casual / Core Gamers More Diverse Than Believed
A joint Big Fish / NPD research study was unveiled at Casual Connect 08 and in press releases earlier this week. Their findings reveal that commonly held wisdom about core and casual gamers are not necessarily supported by reality.

According to Paulette Trimmer of Big Fish Games, "The study is significant as it shows gamers can no longer be classified into the traditional archetypes of core and casual fans due to the rapid diversification of the demographics, game styles, business models and platforms in the U.S. games market." My personal opinion is that "can no longer" should be translated as, "never should have been." But that's me.

Further findings reveal a few interesting tidbits:

* The line between core and casual is blurry. There's more crossover than expected.

* Conventional wisdom previously held that gamers of either camp stuck with their favorite game genre. That doesn't hold either - while players definitely favor their preferred game style, there's a lot of crossover. Shockingly enough, core "action gamers" also demonstrated a preference for hidden object, word, and match-three games. This comes as a complete non-surprise to me, but I'm someone who has a broad range of gaming interests.

* The time commitments assumed by casual and core audiences have been miscalculated as well. Fans of certain casual game genres spend more time per week, on the average, than core action gamers. This also doesn't surprise me, as someone who has spent way too much time hooked on certain sim-style casual games.

You can check out more details of the study here.

The NPD Group will be publishing a report detailing the survey and its findings.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008
 
Classic RPG Design and the Art of Exploration
And now, I want to explore.

Writer Tyson McCann has an article at GameBanshee about design virtues of older computer RPGs, entitled What an Old RPG Can Teach Today's Designers. In it, he talks about how much fun he is having playing an old RPG (specifically, Might & Magic: World of Xeen) in DOSBox, and it's not for nostalgia's sake. He's enjoying the game fully, and finding a bunch of game design points that made these games the classics that they are - design elements that have been forgotten and neglected by modern RPG designers. As he went through the list, I felt I should staple this list to my forehead:
One point he repeats is how several of these elements encourage exploration of the game world. There are skills in the game (and in some other games, too, like Wizardry 7) that are there for no other reason than to allow exploration, like mountaineering and swimming. There are plenty of rewards for exploration. The lack of respawns encourage further exploration. The variability of encounter difficulty makes exploration more exciting. Scorpia has written about this before, as have many others.

This has made me ponder. Which helps me concentrate on something other than the pain of a staple in my forehead.

Exploration is a big deal - perhaps not a requirement of the genre but certainly a hallmark of the best games in its short history. But too often in modern RPGs it is extremely limited, or ... unsatisfying. What was the difference?

Worlds were somewhat easier to make back then, due to the predominantly tile-based approach to world construction. As a developer, the tiles - while boring and repetitive - really constrained the action so we didn't have to worry about physics bugs, getting stuck in the geometry, pathfinding problems (well, not as much), and so forth. The difficulty of getting all these things to work together in a freeform world is daunting - whether in 2D or 3D. 3D worlds are just exponentially more challenging.

A similar issue with exploration comes with the difficulty of creating content for modern RPGs. When a single dungeon takes so much time and effort to construct (as opposed to the tile-based days, where a designer could whip up a 10 x 10 grid with a handful of interesting encounters in a few hours), do you really want to spend so many man-months of effort and expense on optional content that only a handful of gamers will ever see? Theoretically, the old 2D RPG game designers could have built their worlds pixel by pixel. Come to think about it, I think Bioware actually did just that, with Baldur's Gate series. But it wasn't just a limitation of technology, I feel, that stopped the hand of most RPG designers from attempting this. It was also judicious application of available resources.

Both of these issues, in my opinion, could be resolved by adopting the idea of less granular building blocks for the 3D world. Yes, this means more repetitive pieces of content, arranged with tighter constraints, in a 3D world. However, the Elder Scrolls series, the Neverwinter Nights series, and I'm sure many other modern CRPGs - have had their own approaches to this very idea. But I think a lot more could be done here.

Another issue that comes up with modern game design is the worry about "game balance." If we give the player so many rewards for exploring the game, won't it make the end-game too easy? Won't it be harder to test and balance if some players finish the game at level 15 with only the standard magical gear, while other players finish the game at level 25 with assorted uber-weapons picked up through 20 hours of poking about the world?

McCann's answer would appear to be "so what?" I kinda like that answer. With all the talk about difficulty levels, and magical auto-scaling difficulty levels, and... well, wouldn't this - at least in part - put the difficulty level in the hands of the player where it belongs, and let him (or her) handle it organically? Boss monsters got you down? Try a little extra adventuring first!

And finally, there's the concern about players getting lost and frustrated in the face of too much open-ended gameplay. I have quite a few unfinished RPGs from that era that I lost interest in because I lost track of what I was doing, where I was going, or even what my next objective should be. But I don't think that is a problem with exploration-friendly worlds, exactly. Oblivion showed - perhaps too well - how an environment could be left open to exploration without letting the player get too lost or confused about his next step.

I think these are all legitimate concerns which face modern designers. And they go a long way to explain why so many games these days - RPGs and otherwise - are extremely linear in their construction. But I think they are not insurmountable challenges. I think there's plenty of room for inventive approaches to these problems that might help game developers combine modern design sensibilities with some of the classic - and successful - gameplay elements of classic CRPGs.

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Newly-Discovered Protein Named After Video Game Character
The Nintendo Generation has grown up. The world will never be the same.

Researchers in Japan have discovered a protein used in transmission of kinetic information from the eye to the brain, which can be used to help cure hereditary blindness.

They named the protein Pikachurin, after the Pokémon character Pikachu.

I am not making this up.

Maybe someone else did and this article is a hoax, but I think it's kinda cool.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, July 23 '08
Mainstream computer & console RPG fans have some exciting news to crow about. There's Final Fantasy XIII, newly announced to be released on the XBox 360 as well as the expected PS3. Fallout 3 has received an immense amount of hype, which I certainly hope will be warranted. Diablo 3 looks... tasty! There's Dragon Age, the spy-thriller RPG-esque Alpha Protocol, an expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 called Storm of the Zehir, Space Siege, an expanded edition of The Witcher, The Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3, Too Human for the PS3, and the upcoming MMORPG Champions Online, based on one of my all-time favorite pen-and-paper RPGs.

Those of us who don't mind prowling off the beaten path for some excellent and unique role-playing games are finding a bit to be excited about, too. While indie RPG releases and news don't revolve around the Christmas buying season, news has started to trickle out lately after being quiet for several weeks. So here's what I've been able to dig up lately:

Cute Knight Kingdom
The long-awaited sequel to the award winning casual sim-RPG Cute Knight is finally in development. Entitled Cute Knight Kingdom, its biggest addition is a larger world to explore, rather than a single town. According to developer Hanako Games (read: Georgina), "you'll now be walking around on a map and able to visit different locations within a kingdom instead of just sitting in one town all the time. Which also means that travel time can cut into your stat-raising plans, especially if you're wandering all over the place looking for the secret charm cards."

In addition, there is an option to be more active in how you are performing jobs, relying upon some skill rather than just luck & stats for your performance.

Fate Undiscovered Realms
This sequel / expansion / enhancement to the indie RPG Fate was released fairly quietly, in my opinion, by Wild Tangent. It is a Diablo-style RPG done "cute", but still offers a meaty action-RPG experience with lots of questing, dungeon-delving, and loot-accumulation. Fate Undiscovered Realms offers the ability to import your character from the previous game, a level cap of 199, and a new difficulty level called "hardcore" mode (which is not to be confused with Diablo II's perma-death hardcore mode). Fate: Undiscovered Realms is ad-supported for free play, or you can pay for the ad-free premium version.

Download Fate: Undiscovered Realms

Eschalon: Book 2
At the end of every week, Basilisk Games is answering a "question of the week" about their upcoming RPG, Eschalon: Book 2. The sequel to last year's much-lauded Eschalon: Book 1, the next game in the series features a number of new features, many of which have been requested by players of the original (like being able to play a character of either gender).

Questions covered so far include: We all saw the thirst and hunger bars on the screenshots, Could you elaborate on them? Features like these are usually tedious*, so how will you be implementing them? Will B2 be available in other languages, or will you offer fans the possibility to translate or create mods? Will we be able to ride horses to move faster and add a charge attack? Do you have an estimated gameplay hours for this one? The lack of a time penalty for switching between ranged and melee weapons seemed a bit like an exploit. Will that change for Book 2?

Check out Basilisk's answers to these questions and more about Eschalon: Book 2.

Aveyond 3
Aveyond 3 is the next in the Aveyond series, a jRPG-esque game series I am personally quite fond of. Amanda of Amaranth Games has announced that it will begin development next month, and is expected to be released in spring 2009. Details are sketchy, but as she announced on her blog, "Main roles belong to Mel, a thief girl who picks the wrong pocket, Te'ijal our wickedly funny vampress, Galahad, our reluctant knight in shining armor, and a really evil vampire mage who wants to enslave the 'weakling' sun walkers."

Depths of Peril
Steven Peeler has noted that Mac sales of Depths of Peril have been going strong - strong enough that he is going to make Mac versions of all future PC products a priority. There's also a new beta patch 1.012 for Depths of Peril, which should be made official in a few days.

DragonSpires
Okay - this is hardly a new title, but I'd never heard of it before. This is an isometric "massively" multiplayer online RPG written in Java, based on an old DOS game. One of its features includes the ability for players to upload custom maps for play. It's been around for several years, but has begun receiving some updates recently.

DragonSpires Home Page

Dwarf Fortress
Hoo-boy. The big mutha of a roguelike strategy / rpg/ world simulator Dwarf Fortress. Now, it is officially entitled Slaves to Amok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress --- who comes up with these names? Anyway, it has a new version out, v0.28.181.39d. Yeah, don't ask me, I didn't come up with the numbering system either! The big changes from previous versions (not including patches to fix patches) involve the already really humongous world-generation system. The new system includes massive world events, and the ability to customize the world-creation process. Kinda.

Download the latest version of Dwarf Fortress

What is remarkable to me is the incredible, unbelievable amount of detail and simulation packed into this ASCII-art game. I guess it goes to show how much you can do if graphics and ease-of-play (come on, admit it) are not a concern. However, if you are a gamer who really, really likes to see something prettier than alphanumerics on the screen, there is hope.

In addition, there's the first of a three-part interview with Tarn Adams of Bay 12 Games, developers of Dwarf Fortress, who admits (among other things) that Dwarf Fortress has become his full-time job. A job where he keeps rather unusual hours - explaining that "at around ten or eleven [at night], give or take, I can start by programming for the day. That usually runs until around seven AM, often later." Fascinating reading!

Wanderlust
This is a cooperative multiplayer RPG currently in beta, created with Game Maker. Interestingly enough, the game is only barely playable (currently) in single-player... it practically demands a partner (or up to three)! Rather than go into any detail about it here, I'll direct you to the straight scoop at TIGSource, which has a fairly extensive review / preview.

Or you can just visit the very musical homepage for Wanderlust and play the beta demo of Wanderlust it yourself.

Mount & Blade
Freddy Lim has posted a preview of the upcoming horse-heavy RPG Mount & Blade at Gametunnel.com. There's another preview at Jolt. This game is making its way to the finish line (though people who pre-ordered have already been playing it), as beta 0.96 was just released last month. This is the last beta version prior to final release. It's been a long road for these indies, and it looks like it is finally coming to a hopefully glorious end.


And that's it for now. My brain is full. That's a lot of games! Maybe I should do this more often or something. I hear rumor from Jason Compton that we should expect a minor setting update in the near future for The Broken Hourglass, and I hope to see more progress on that one soon. Aside from that, if you know of anything cooking on the indie RPG front, let me know here, or via email (jayb. at rampantgames dot com) or in the forums!

Check out Independent RPGs and Adventures at Rampant Games. Or not.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008
 
The Return of Apogee
Old-timers like myself who remember the heyday of "shareware" back in the early-to-mid 90's probably remember Apogee Software. Yes, in the short-lived games biz, being able to remember 15 years of history makes you something of an old-timer. Scary, isn't it?

Apogee was made famous by the publication - via the shareware model - of games by newcomer id Software, which went on to create that one game with the title that that rhymes with "Boom" - which completely adopted the "Apogee" release model. Apogee established marketing via episodes - the first episode of a game was free, and they hoped you'd get hooked and pay for the other two (or more) games. Their most famous games included Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem, Raptor, and Rise of the Triad. In 1994, they formed a DBA ("doing business as") label called 3D Realms to emphasize the new, "hot" genre of first-person shooters. Starting with Duke Nukem 3D. Since then, 3D Realms has pretty much taken over the focus, working on titles like Duke Nukem Forever (perhaps the most famous vaporware game in history), Prey, and Max Paine. Officially, it's still Apogee, but they weren't using that name anymore.

Apparently, with the rise of indie gaming, things have gone full circle. Apogee is back, starting with a publishing partnership with developer Deep Silver to produce Duke Nukem games for the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. But they are also looking to publish indie games again. The new Apogee is Apogee Software, LLC (as opposed to Apogee Software, Ltd., just so there's no confusion or anything).

Apogee's Website states, "After more than a decade out of the limelight, Apogee Software is back in action! Apogee, which, pioneered digital distribution back in the 1980’s will continue its proud tradition of bringing top quality PC games direct to the consumer via digital distribution while at the same time expanding its publication muscle into next generation consoles."

As a publisher of indie games (boy, that sounds like an oxymoron to me), they claim that they will "take care of the heavy lifting of publishing a game, including marketing & promotion, distribution, and fullfillment. Apogee offloads these critical tasks, allowing you to focus on developing the next award-winning title."

From what I can see, it still looks a little rough and preliminary. While the legacy of Apogee Software is certainly cool and everything, it will take a little more than a name and pedigree to kick butt and chew gum in a field where we've already got guys like Steam, Stardock, Manifesto Games, GameTap, WildTangent, Greenhouse Games, Reflexive, and that's not to mention the casual game portals or the niche indie publishers like Matrix Games and Shrapnel. But I'm not positive what Apogee will be bringing to the table. Experience and an established presence? Back in 1994, maybe. Today? I don't really know.

What is becoming abundantly clear, however, is that the business of video games in general - and computer games in particular - is changing. The genie isn't going back inside the bottle.

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Monday, July 21, 2008
 
Fate 2: Released But Half-Baked?
As reported by Hanako in the forums, Fate: Undiscovered Realms (AKA Fate 2- but don't call it that if you contact customer support!) is now released.

Unfortunately, its been having some problems. I had trouble downloading it, and after downloading it, I was unable to get it to install. It froze on me at the 16% point. Other people are reporting problems getting it to run.

Now, as a programmer, I'm sympathetic. I know it is hard for an indie (or at least, non-traditional) developer to test on a wide variety of configurations. Our sample set (three people?) is pretty tiny, also. But - it really does sound like it needs a little more time baking. I'm trying to re-download, in case it was just a corrupted download on my end. I'll keep you posted.

UPDATE: I re-downloaded, and it installed / ran properly. So either they updated it this weekend, or I just had a corrupted download. And apparently, they don't want it called Fate 2 - this is mostly the old game with new content.

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Making Game-Making Easier
Archimedes claimed, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."

I think Archimedes was a game developer, and the rest of his quote (translated from ancient greek) reads, "... because I really need to move the world 200 units in the positive Y direction so I can stick the new sewer passages in before next week's milestone."

Game development has changed a lot since I first got in the business. Once upon a time (before my time), it was more about programming wizardry. Now it's much more data driven. And while programming wizardry is still a significant part of things, the bottlenecks I keep seeing are found in the tools and the tools pipeline.

Well, the tools are the various editors, modeling packages, and so forth that you can use to make content for your game. One of the problems with tools over the years is that they have gotten significantly more powerful, but not easier to use. In Doom's heyday, a solid level could be cranked out in a single day. Maybe another day or two for polish. Nowadays, a level generating approximately equal amounts of gameplay might take an entire man-month to create.

Herb Flower, of LinkRealms, was talking to me last year about his days with ReWolf, doing a commercial half-life mod. He said that back in the late 90's, the mod scene was vibrant and alive for all of these games. But now - not so much. In part, it is because of the commercial viability of the mod scene - teams are very likely to fall apart over squabbles of who gets what potential share. But it's also in part due to the complexity of making mods. The requirements for what constitutes "acceptible" quality is much higher, and neither the tools nor the modmakers can keep up.

The tools pipeline is a whole 'nother story. This is the path that takes all the content generated by the tools, and imports it into the game. This has been the weakest link in the chain everywhere I have worked, including my own Rampant Games. The process is typically slow, tedious, and error prone. This makes it hard for the artists and designers to actually see and test their work.

Somehow, miraculously, old data finds its way creeping into the build, and things that were fixed days ago become broken again. Something silly like a missing texture won't be detected until twenty minutes into a 30-minute process, which forces you to start over from scratch. Annoyances like that, which compound upon each other, until what should have taken less than an hour ends up taking all day long.

Just think about it - what if making a game level were not much more difficult than sketching it out on graph paper? (And yes, before you say anything, I do know about SketchUp). Could we compress the amount of time it takes to do 90% of the work? Could we begin working on "meta-tools" - tools to make tools - for game development? I look at the (relative) simplicity of putting together Neverwinter Nights modules. Sure, there was some missing power there, but the thousands of user-created mods that came out is evidence of what that level of productivity you could get from designers and content creators when you make it simple, easy, and error-resistant.

(Yes, I have been fiddling around with level editors this weekend, how did you know?)

Frankly, if we want to talk about making better games, we should quit thinking about better pixel shaders or more realistic hair movement. The limiting factor is no longer in those technological elements, but in what I'd consider logistical ones. A skilled designer, animator, artist, or even programmer with a world-class set of tools and a painless, fast, error-free pipeline can be 100 times more productive. Which would mean better gameplay, better polish, and more innovation.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008
 
RIP Dungeon Maker?
About a year back, I talked about a promising CRPG construction kit called Dungeon Maker. Even then, the age of the alpha made me concerned. Checking back this weekend, I find that the website has been taken over by some greaseballs squeezing advertising dollars out of it.

While I certainly hope this project is either not yet dead or has the possibility of being revived, knowing how these things go, I'm not holding my breath. The indie games scene is littered with "mostly done" projects that showed plenty of promise once upon a time, but were abandoned by their creators for one reason or another.

Hey, I've got a couple of abandoned (or back-burnered) projects of my own, so mea culpa.

Still, I'm saddened to see this one apparently shuffle off to the digital boneyard. It looked very promising.

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Friday, July 18, 2008
 
Hey! You Got Your Science Fiction In My Fantasy!
Back at the birth of RPGs (generally acknowledged to be around 1974, the time of the first publication of the D&D rules), science fiction and fantasy were really not very distinct. I mean, Anne McCaffrey insisted that her Dragonriders of Pern series was science fiction, not fantasy. You had the covers of Heavy Metal magazine, which often consisted of a scantily-armored chick with a sword and a blaster. And even the movie Star Wars, possibly the greatest impact science fiction had on our culture, was really as much fantasy as science fiction.

And back in the 70's and early 80's, we seemed cool with that. Well, okay, I was only a kid, and wouldn't have understood the difference much otherwise. But it seemed that Dungeons & Dragons games often had a mix of powered armor, vibro-blades, and laser rifles muddying the waters of homebrewed Middle Earths. On the computer front, the early Ultima games mixed hover cars, space ships, evil computers, and time travel pretty freely.

Somewhere in the mid 80's (subjective time), the dividing line came down. Fantasy, as a genre, began standing on its own on the shelves of the bookstores, instead of being lumped into the anemic "science fiction" shelves. People started drawing a hard line between what constituted fantasy and what was required of science fiction. The term "speculative fiction" had been coined to include both genres, and began coming into vogue sometime after that to prevent the terms for the specific genres from getting misused with broader meanings.

And suddenly, even in RPGs, it was no longer cool to stick fusion-powered armor in your fantasy games. Well, most of them. We still had the genre-melding games like Shadowrun and stuff designed specifically around that concept. But there was mostly an assumption that anyone mixing the two genres was ignorant of the important distinction.

Because, you know, if that sword is electrified by a fusion battery or something in its hilt, it's SF! But if it is electrified by magic, it's F! Silly people!

And I also note that around that time, Ultima IV excised the last of the trappings of science fiction from the world.

I was among those purists, and I remember getting annoyed with Wizardry 7's mix of space ships and robots and hoverbikes and shock-rods with my good ol' sword and sorcery. Although I think part of my resentment came more from not getting access to said devices early in the game, when all my enemies had them. But I got over it. Somehow, I managed to swallow Final Fantasy VII's magic-and-mecha environment. And I, like millions of other fanboys across the globe, got really pissed when Lucas tried to throw that midi-chlorian crap into Star Wars to try and make it more like "real" SF.

It seems that in terms of popular fiction, we're starting to get a blend. I say this mainly as a person who stays ignorant of the trends in publishing and fandom, and mainly as some guy who sleepily notes some impact on the pop-culture he participates in - because if it wasn't for pop-culture, I'd probably have no culture at all.

But it seems like "modern fantasy" (AKA urban fantasy) is gaining steam as a subgenre. Think Harry Potter, Harry Dresden, Supernatural, Heroes, etc. We've got magic and high-speed personal computers mixing freely now - something which would have subjected authors in the early 1970s to the kinds of criticism reserved for the likes of McCaffrey. But high-speed personal computers are no longer science fiction.

But could some kind of limited family reunion be far behind? Might it no longer be taboo to have wizards on space ships? We had vampires wielding ultraviolet laser guns in a Blade movie a few years back... oh, wait. That movie sucked. Nevermind.

What about computer RPGs? Besides Final Fantasy's typical genre-blending, we do have some urban fantasy games on the market. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is one not-too-recent game that comes to mind, though the science fiction elements were pretty limited and standard for a first-person shooter. Oh, wait, it was an RPG. Fallout was ostensibly science fiction, though I think it fell into the Star Wars zone as "science fantasy." I expect more of the same with the upcoming Fallout 3, which I hope to enjoy down to it's last pseudo-science drop.

So what do you think? Do you draw a hard line between fantasy and science fiction, and do you get a bad taste in your mouth when one crosses over into your RPG or Adventure game preferences? Does it have to be a "golem" rather than a "robot" in your fantasy RPG? Or are you more of a mix-and-match type of person, who doesn't mind finding out that dragons came from a genetic engineering experiment on a crashed space ship millennia ago?

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Thursday, July 17, 2008
 
Camping
I'm heading camping out into the wilds of Mount Unpluggedfrominternet for a couple of days, where I will be exposed to the great day-star and all kinds of allergy-inciting substances. I'll be back Saturday night, but I won't be able to respond to messages or emails for a couple of days.

Nevertheless, some Frayed Knights work WILL be getting done while I'm away. It'll be a nice chance to recharge some batteries.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
 
RPG Design: What Does It Con?
Our pen-and-paper RPG playing group has an annoying tendency to try and fight impossible odds.

We left poor John dazed and confused when our group of 4th level characters managed to wipe out an elder werewolf. Improved Trip, plus some Enlarged wolves summoned with a wand in tight quarters managed to give us some pretty amazing advantages and pull off the impossible.

On the other hand, I've had the players try and go toe-to-toe against a giant ape demon that they've had no business trying to fight. By the time they realized they were way out of their league, it was too late to avoid casualties. I had to frantically figure out how to give them a plausible escape route to avoid a total wipeout.

This is hardly unique to us. I remember, as a kid, trying to take some non-verbal cues from the Dungeon Master to try and figure out if we were facing a combat encounter, or an "Oh, time to pretend to be blown away by epic coolness of our enemy" encounter. You really didn't want to guess wrong on those. Sometimes it would be obvious, if you knew the game. When you encountered a huge red dragon or a beholder at level three, you knew that it was time to negotiate, not fight.

Single-player computer RPGs kept it pretty simple. There were really four situations:

#1 - You could kill it. No guarantee that you WOULD, but it was designed to be smacked down.

#2 - You were over your head and would die, but you could re-load a saved game.

#3 - You were watching a cut scene or dialog sequence.

#4 - Said creature was unable to be targeted in an attack.

Later, some multiplayer computer RPGs (AKA "MUDs" or other flavors of "Multi User..." something-or-another) instituted a command to gauge the danger of a monster called "Consider", or "Con" for short. It was made even more popular in EverQuest, but in modern MMORPGs, enemies are frequently color-coded automatically for your convenience.

Few things pissed off players more than seeing a "mob" under-conned. Meaning, they are much, much harder than their color-coding suggests. Except, maybe, in a single-player game, being forced into a whiny, sniveling dialog sequence or cut-scene with a bad guy they figure they are powerful enough to take down.

Assuming there is a point to be found here, it might be this:

I like the idea of having things beyond the characters' (current) capabilities to take down, which requires some other strategy than just "brute force." Like, oh, I don't know... avoidance. Or negotiation. Or treachery. Or... well, something other than a stand-up fight.

However, too often, such a thing really comes across as little more than smacking the player upside the head with the plot hammer. Like my young D&D playing, searching for clues from the DM that we were facing his pet NPC that he really didn't want us killing. The problem is that the players are supposed to be heroic, and dealing with "impossible" enemies is what heroes do. So simply having a peasant warn the player, "Oh, beware the dragon, who has killed a hundred men this year!" is more like an invitation.

I've talked about "brute force" problem before, in general. But specifically - assuming you are taking the approach that not everything the players encounter is designed to be easy enough to take down in due course. Assume, secondly, that you are trying to be all non-plot-hammer-esque, and you want to preserve the option for the player to TRY and take down said uber-foe. They can give it a shot, and maybe even come back later (after they've leveled up a bit) and take him down. But what you don't want to do is let the players think they are supposed to fight.

What's the best way to do it? And while I'm looking specifically at computer RPGs here, some suggestions for pen & paper to avoid future total party wipeouts that would be similarly applicable would be nice.

Should enemies be color-coded, to represent some practiced calculation on the part of wary characters? This is the simplest solution, but it also takes out a few elements of surprise. Like the bunny rabbit from Monty Python.

Should it be an active skill for the characters? Sort of like an "appraise" skill for item value, but for enemy difficulty?

Maybe a dramatic cut-scene the player sees when he or she gets close? The bad guy wiping out another group of adventurers? Okay, I hate this idea as a general rule, though done once in a while for dramatic effect, it's cool.

Or should we just stick with the tried-and-true "oops-reload-saved-game" system?

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Flagship: Still Afloat... For Now
Scoop courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun:

Flagship At Half-Mast But Still Afloat

So Bill Roper, and pretty much the same gang that started the company... what, three years ago?... is still there. For now. But the glorious pseudo-MMO Hellgate: London will no longer be functioning as a subscription service.

Okay. Assuming by some miracle they are able to keep the company an ongoing concern, I'd like to relate a story I heard from some guys who have worked on an indie MMOG, Puzzle Pirates. From what I have been told, once upon a time, Puzzle Pirates was also trying to be a subscription MMOG (That's Massively Multiplayer Online Game, for those not in the know). It wasn't doing so well. It seems that with roughly ninety-eight-trillion MMOG's out there, not a lot of people were willing to commit to shelling out a monthly fee. Enough to keep the company going, but not the kind of growth they wanted to achieve.

Well, then, apparently, the creators one day had an amazing epiphany of sorts. Instead of trying to get people to buy a subscription, why not sell them the privileges of a subscription account piecemeal? Primarily in access to cool new content and ... well... stuff. Without commitments.

Sales soared. Revenues increased substantially. This was, apparently, a stroke of genius. Sorta like hooking someone on a drug, right... the first one's free? (Oh, man, I did NOT just go there, did I? Crap.)

Anyway, it shows there's more than one way to skin a cat. Or to get people to pay you money and thank you for it, rather than resenting you for treating them like second-class citizens because they only paid an expensive retail cost for what they expected to be a full game. Oh, wait. Woops. I'm projecting here. We were talking about Puzzle Pirates, weren't we? Yeah, that. My bad.

Okay. Hellgate: London. Flagship Studios. Well, I wish 'em the best. Really, I do.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
 
Joss Whedon Goes Indie With a... Supervillain Musical
No, I am not making this crap up.

For Joss Whedon / Nathan Fillion / Neil Patrick Harris fans out there... uh... ya gotta see this. "Because the world's a mess, and I just need to... rule it!":



Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog

This is a limited-time, one week, Internet miniseries. Episode 1 is out now. Episodes 2 and 3 are going to be out later in the week. After Sunday night, though, they are going to disappear. To be released later as a for-pay download. And as a DVD. Which, Joss Whedon hopes, "people will embrace instead of getting all piratey. We have big dreams, people, and one of them is paying our crew. "

Joss Whedon explains what he's doing in this post.

Basically, this is Joss Whedon and friends getting together during last year's writer's strike and "going indie" in the television way, circumventing the system. As he explains, "I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few."

Tip o' the hat to Raph Koster for this link.

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Monday, July 14, 2008
 
Final Fantasy XIII 360!
Yay! Not that I was planning on getting a PS3 anyway, but this is wonderful news for me:

Final Fantasy XIII Coming to the XBox 360

This will not have the kind of impact that FF VII had when Square surprised everyone by shifting allegiance from Nintendo to Sony. The PS3 is still getting the game. But... this is great news altogether. Microsoft has needed more quality RPGs for its consoles, particularly jRPGs, and so this is a major score for the platform.

Sweet.

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RPG Dialog Systems - Revisited
"While I'm very fond of full dialogue trees, I believe that the keyword system is the foundation of any evolution of RPG dialogue systems. I would certainly be interested to pick up where Sir Tech left off and see what could be done with this concept. The 'tone interface could be easily tied to speech skills and an Arcanum-like disposition system."

So saith the Indie RPG Designers, Vince Weller and Gareth Fouche.

So say we all.

Well, okay, probably not all. But me. They have a very extensive look at RPG conversation systems, and I gotta admit, the conclusions sound pretty reasonable to me. But I'm one of those scary retro-gamers who actually likes dialog in games, even if I must *gasp* read it myself.

Wizardry 8 gets cited as an example of an unfortunately abandoned evolutionary path that showed a great deal of promise. I've played the demo, but I don't have the full version. I've asked it before, and I'll ask again - does anybody know where I can pick up a reasonably inexpensive copy of Wizardry 8? Checking on Amazon, it looks like I can find a used copy for approximately double its original price. I never thought of computer games as investment-quality collectibles, but hey. If I can find a good-quality used version (with full manuals) for $50 or less, I'd be thrilled.

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Friday, July 11, 2008
 
Go Big, Go Small, or Go Home?
According to an interview on GamesIndustry.biz with Christopher Kline, a technical director at 2K Boston, the market has pretty much split with big-name blockbusters or small, budget, casual games. There is no longer a market for "mid-budget" developers.

Now, this doesn't involve the "indies" so much, as we're dealing with shoestring budgets in the casual game range anyway, and he's talking specifically about games in the range of "3-4 million."

This saddens me, because historically, those have been the games I have enjoyed the most. The big, massive blockbusters have often been fun - but too often they gleam and glisten on the outside but are pablum on the inside. It's those middle-of-the-road games that make me all warm and fuzzy about video games.

Including Irrational Games' (2K Boston's previous incarnation) own Freedom Force games, which kicked all kinds of butt. But apparently, they didn't sell well. But looking back, a good deal of my favorite games were not the big-budget, massively-marketed blockbusters of the day. If he's right, and if that's the prevailing attitude of the industry, then ... well, from my perspective at least, we're pretty much screwed.

But I'm not sure about that.

By the sounds of it, some middle-budget games have been doing quite well. Like Galactic Civilizations II, Sins of a Solar Empire, Sam & Max, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the "X" series of open-ended Elite-style games. These games had a budget that I suspect was significantly above that of the average casual game, though I guess I could be wrong. And it certainly sounds as if they have been plenty profitable - though again, I could be wrong. And I expect there are others... After all, Guitar Hero started out, according to the post-mortem, as a cheap-and-dirty low-to-mid-budget game.

But the gutters of the games business is littered with the bodies of dead who tried to buck these odds and failed. Troika Games seemed like it would be the savior of hardcore and avant-garde RPGs, but couldn't sustain its business. I doubt we'll find another company from the mainstream industry trying to make "mid-budget" RPGs in the future. If it does happen, they'll be coming up from the ranks of the indies.

So is Kline right? Are we left with nothing but low-budget indie games and top-shelf, glitzy blockbusters? Or is there still a market for mid-budget games if the companies can figure out how to tap into the market, as apparently certain "big indies" have done?

Discussion on the Forum!

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Tale of Despereaux Game Announced
Kotaku and Leigh Alexander have the news:

Brash Handling Tale of Despereaux Movie Extension

Er... yeah. Here's the trailer to the movie if you haven't seen it yet:

http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809420569/video/8528812/standardformat/

Why am I posting this here? Well, if you were wondering why updates on Frayed Knights have been a little slow the last couple of months... you can blame this game.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008
 
The First Sequel and User-Moddable Computer Game?
I don't know if we can find a definitive answer to questions about what was the first computer game sequel or user-moddable game. We can't even agree on what was the first video game (Spacewar is traditionally considered the first, but it was predated by Tennis for Two and a couple of other possibilities...)

Each revision of Spacewar could be counted as a sequel, I guess, and every programmer involved in its development was a user making their own mod, so in theory, that might count.

But the game I had in mind came out around 1972. The original game was called Hunt the Wumpus or just Wumpus, by Gregory Yob. He wrote that he had gotten annoyed by all the games that used a cartesian coordinate system (an X / Y grid), and wanted a game with a more interesting map. And so he created Hunt the Wumpus, which used a shape he called a "squashed dodecahedron", though without any specific spacial relationships between the rooms, the Wumpus caves could be in a dodecahedron of the non-squashed variety.

Anyway, the game rules were simple. You started in a room in the cave complex of twenty rooms, each room connected to three others. In two rooms, there were bottomless pits. If you moved into those rooms, you lost the game. In two rooms, there were "Superbats" that would pick you up and drop you in a random room if you moved into them. And then there was the Wumpus.

You were armed with a few arrows that could shoot through five rooms (changing course as they flew). If they went through your own room (since they could circle around, in theory), you shot yourself and the game was over. If they went into the Wumpus's room, they killed the wumpus and you won. Otherwise - if you missed the Wumpus OR walked into the Wumpus's room, he'd get up and move (or stay in the same room). If he ended up in the same room as you, he'd eat you and you lost the game. You could also lose the game if you ran out of arrows.

You could hear the bats if you were next to a superbat room. You could feel a draft if you were next to a bottomless pit room. And you could spell the Wumpus if you were in a room next to him. So the game was basically a randomly changing logic puzzle where you'd try and triangulate the positions of your goal and the threats.

Oh, yeah. And it had no graphics at all. You had to draw yourself trying to figure out the topography of the map.

A few months later, after a lot of people had played a lot of Wumpus (I never could stomach more than a few games, myself), Yob decided to create a new version. Called, astonishingly, "Hunt the Wumpus 2," it was exactly like the original game except for the maps. You could choose one of several maps, or create your own map.

The ability to input your own custom map made it the first user-moddable game, to my knowledge. At least the one to see "publication" - for whatever that was worth in 1976 (long after the game was written, but when the magazine saw print).

There is also mention of "Wumpus 3" in the issue of Creative Computing issue where the program saw print publication. The third game was written by a third party, but supported by Yob, which included random events that included earthquakes, bat migrations, and a "turnareo." So... Wumpus may also have been the the first trilogy. Again, those times were on the frontier of computer gaming, so even this "first" is debatable, but sticks (for me) because said event was published in a public record.

Now how's THAT for going back on the wayback machine?

Hmmm.... I wonder of Lady Ada Lovelace ever wrote a game for Babbage's Difference Engine? That could be "the first computer game canceled because the hardware never launched."

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008
 
Any Anti-Videogame News Is News
A friend pointed out this article to me:

Combat Simulation at Duluth Air Show Criticized

Apparently, "some" are calling for a boycott of the air show because there's an army recruiting videogame - specifically, America's Army - Virtual Army Experience - available for visitors age 17 and over.

While "some" are referred to in the article, only one person is sited. Maybe her husband agrees with her, making it plural. But I didn't see any confirmation of what is hinted at being an organized protest. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. But if I were to guess, I'd say this is simply an artifact of the fact that in any significant sampling size of a population, you are going to get some fringe element of nut-jobs. I mean, aren't there certain folks who ALWAYS protest air shows for various reasons (particularly military air-shows, which are major recruitment drives)?

The interesting thing to me is that the news media continues to manufacture controversy around video games. Now, to be fair, there have also been plenty of positive articles about games in the media too. But news media thrives on shocking and frightening its audience, which is right now only barely a generation ahead of the kids raised on Nintendo who would laugh at this kind of thing.

Mocking may be warranted.

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Gamasutra on Dialog Systems
When you ain't killin' em, you are talkin' to 'em.

Gamasutra has a fairly in-depth article on the design of dialog systems in games. pros and cons of various approaches, and historical notes on where they have been used and progressed.

As this is pretty near and dear to the hearts of most RPG and Adventure gamers, I thought I should pass this along:

Defining Dialog Systems

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008
 
Beer and Ice Cream
No, I don't mean making a float out of it. That's just what they tend to serve us here at work, late at night, when we've already put in a 12-hour day and have several hours to go before we can go home. For those of us who don't drink (we're in Utah, remember), they also provide sodas. So I guess I could make a pretty yummy float out of it. Maybe tonight, since it's looking likely that we'll have another week of 14 to 16 hour days this week.

This is just a brief comment on the state of my life right now. Back in the front lines of the mainstream game development business.

I vaguely remember being a little jealous and nostalgic about the video games biz when I had gotten out, but my buddy John was still in the thick of it. Now that circumstances are reversed, I doubt John feels the same.

Once upon a time, a little over a decade ago, it was a little different. A lot of people in the games biz had a stake in their companies. Stock options, or were actually founders / co-owners / whatever. It's a lot easier to pull out all the stops and work the crazy hours when you have a stake in the final results.

Not that those were ever worth much to ME (I think my options from the SingleTrac days netted me a whole $3500 when all was said and done and converted to Infogrammes stock). The beer and ice cream might be a better deal, truth be told.

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Monday, July 07, 2008
 
Eschalon Book 2 Interview
Quick and dirty:

RPGWatch has an interview with Thomas Riegsecker about Eschalon: Book II.

Yum!

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RPGs: Too Much Like Math?
I ran across John Scalzi's blog a few months ago, when I was researching (on a whim) the difficulty of marketing science fiction today. Fantasy, once buried in the science fiction section at the bookstore in the early 80's (when I started looking for it), is now the dominant sub-genre. In particular, the sub-sub-genre of Urban (or "modern") Fantasy - my favorite - seems to be ruling the charts these days. Blame Harry Potter if it makes you feel better.

Now, "true" science fiction isn't normally the first on my list of desired reading. I mean, sure, I was a big Babylon 5 and Firefly fan. I've read several books by Heinlein. And William Gibson - in fact, I was pretty much a Cyberpunk fan throughout the early 90's, devouring what I could of Bruce Sterling, Walter John Williams, even a couple by Pat Cadigan. And Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was bizarre yet awesome. And I recently came to discover Lois McMaster Bujold's novels - and I suspect The Warrior's Apprentice may be my favorite space opera story of all time (if not my favorite science fiction novel, period).

So I'm at least a remotely interested spectator to the sport. The tie-in with video games is, naturally, another aspect that leaves me curious. I can't see a very noticeable decline in science-fiction themes in video games, as we are still up to our neck in badass Space Marines these days.

Why has science fiction lost it's appeal and popularity? Scalzi, author of Old Man's War, blames accessibility. Today's SF is often written for existing (and jaded) fans of the genre, and is none-too-friendly for newbies. "It comes down to marketing and writing problems that science fiction literature has that fantasy does not; namely, that math is hard, and science fiction looks rather suspiciously like math," he writes.

That analogy could also be applied to computer role-playing games pretty easily, couldn't it? In fact, the more I read the article, the more applicable I thought the advice might be towards making RPGs more accessible. In particular, the "dying" single-player RPG. For the uninformed, the single-player computer role-playing game has been dying, on and off, since the mid-90's, stubbornly coming back into bloom with renewed vigor every time someone feels comfortable calling its effective demise. Granted, cRPGs are nowhere near their peak in the late 80's and early 90's, unless you count the MMO's, where World of Warcraft is practically a genre unto itself.

RPGs can be pretty intimidating. They do tend to carry the math-geek, chess-club stigma about them. They conjure up images of arcane formulae carried over from the early Dungeons & Dragons days - 1d8+2 Damage, THAC0 of 16, etc. I mean, D&D even had magical items described by their math. A +2 sword, for example. Yeesh! Naturally, being a geek myself, and a programmer to boot, I can get into this stuff without too much encouragement. But even I find myself a little intimidated when finding myself trying to understand what's going on when creating or leveling up a character in a new RPG.

Even those RPGs that don't wear their mechanics on their sleeves have that simulation / wargame stigma that I think might frighten off potential newcomers. Even the subject matter can get a little arcane. I mean, how many non-RPG players know what chain mail or plate mail is? There's a lot of lore there with which many RPGs assume the player has some passing familiarity. To top it all off, RPGs are notorious for being dense on exposition. As much as I love fantasy RPGs, I have come to dread the amount of backstory I'm forced to devour to figure out who I am, why I'm here, and what I'm supposed to be doing... only because it has been done so poorly in too many games.

Scalzi comments in his article on making SF more accessible, the solution is NOT to dumb it down. Likewise, I don't feel that the modern trend to dumb games down, hide the RPG-ness. and make the bad stats go away is the answer, either. For counterpoints, I look at World of Warcraft and Diablo - both extremely successful games, which wear their numbers proudly. But somehow, the numbers seem to be provided more for guidance than as something that players feel must be mastered. Once players get to a certain point, they enjoy manipulating those numbers. The trick is not to bewilder the player with all that mana, hit points, armor selection, strength-versus-dexterity crap right from the get-go.

Scalzi writes, "Make it fun, make it exciting, make it about people as much as ideas and give them a fulfilling reading experience that makes them realize that hey, this science fiction stuff really isn't so bad after all. And then beg beg beg your publisher to give it a cover that a normal 30-something human wouldn't die of embarrassment to be seen with in public. If we can do all that, then maybe, just maybe, science fiction as a literary genre would be back on its way to cultural relevance." He also cautions that not every SF author should do this - they need their hardcore SF as much as ever - but they do need to form more of an outreach to bring new fans into the fold.

This makes me pause and think for a bit.

Can we draw some parallels between bitter hardcore SF fans, annoyed to see Harry Potter taking the honors and making uncountable amounts of money, and hardcore old-school RPG fans who see their category dominated by action games "with RPG elements?"

Can we use more of our own outreach program?

Frankly, I don't see the big publishers doing it. They have no choice but to follow the money. Which means this is a job for the indies.

And they already are, to an extent. I look at Aveyond, Aveyond II: Ean's Quest, and Cute Knight as possible examples here. These titles have managed to rope in a non-traditional audience for RPGs (and Cute Knight has more numbers and math floating around than many mainstream RPGs!) In these games, which have most of the traditional trappings of a hardcore RPG, also have accessibility in spades, from the subject matter through the marketing and the actual mechanics. Players are attracted not by the "crunch" promised by these games, but by the promise of story and interesting characters. A simple story, one that doesn't overtly invoke a lot of overwrought fantasy tropes or demand too much familiarity with the genre.

Am I talking "casual RPGs?" Well, yeah. Maybe I am. Maybe not casual as in the currently defined "casual game market" (which emphasizes adult women), but casual as in not "hardcore gamers" (let the mainstream publishers worry about that group) and "not familiar with RPGs." Maybe getting away from the Tolkien-esque medieval fantasy settings a little bit and starting closer to home. Think of marketing an experience - the fun and excitement - rather than the category - for people who wouldn't know what an RPG is if it bit them on the mithril-armored keister.

I think there's opportunity here.

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Friday, July 04, 2008
 
EA and Blizzard Square Off On PC Gaming's Health
EA's Peter Moore wrote a short blog essay the other day explaining why, in his eyes (and, we can assume, by the party line at EA for everyone who is not Wil Wright), PC gaming is pretty much dead. He brings up market decline, piracy, the change of the business model to online or downloadable games (and doesn't seem to commit to wanting to change EA's business model to suit), and just overall Return-On-Investment concerns. Ultimately, it all comes down to business - PC games don't make EA (much) money - not as much as they can make on the consoles.

And on the flip side, in a Eurogamer interview, Blizzard's chief exec Mike Morhaime explains why PC Gaming is alive, vibrant, and growing. He sites an incredible install base, extremely high margins (because you don't need to pay your tithe to the console manufacturer), growing revenue (!), and growth in every category except the traditional retail channels dominated by companies like EA. And he notes that Blizzard's primary forcus remains the PC.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun offers its usual witty commentary on Peter Moore's allegations in an article called, "Peter Moore Hates Your PC," and on Mike Morhaime's comments in "PC 'Far From Declining' Says Blizzard Boss." But I can pretty much sum it all up here:

Okay. So maybe Moore is right. I mean, it's been how long since Blizzard created a non-MMO PC game? Six years? So maybe Blizzard is going to release Diablo III and Starcraft II on the PC to the sound of chirping crickets. They'll sell maybe 100 copies of each, and see millions of copies pirated, and learn their lesson. They'll abandon PC gaming forever except to milk massively multiplayer strategies.

It could happen.

Or, they may discover that if you actually make a quality PC game focused on the PC gaming experience, rather than some half-hearted port from the console with the belief that mindless button-mashing can simply be mapped to the keyboard with no shame, that the game will actually, you know, SELL.

Or something.

I mean, yeah. They've got a problem. Diablo III has to compete with Diablo I and II. Starcraft II has to compete with the original. That's an ugly secret of why console development is more lucrative than the PC. It's been noted that, as the console becomes "mature," its sales begin to strongly resemble that of the PC market. A generational change in consoles effectively hits the ol' reset button for game developers, and the first 3 or 4 years make it easy to make money. You don't have to compete with the back-catalog.

And Moore didn't admit to some other facts of game development life. Like the fact that it's something like twice as hard to make a PC game than a console game. And it usually requires about 10x the customer support. On consoles, you don't have to worry about tons of different screen resolutions, hardware compatability, what O.S. version the player is running, what security settings are turned on, what other programs are running in the background, how much adware and other crap is tanking the machine's performance, alt-tabbing to another window, whether or not they've got a mouse-wheel, how much RAM they have, how much VRAM their video card has and whether it was made before 2004, whether they are running on a laptop or desktop, whether they are using a QWERTY keyboard or something else, and so forth, and so on.

And Moore is discussing this subject in the context of pumping out crappy PC ports of their console sports franchises. Now, I'm going to assume that he "gets it." He even talks about "lean forward" versus "lean back" gaming between the platforms. PC gaming is a fundamentally different experience than the consoles, and the PC gamer is in a different audience. This means that you can't just make the PC one of the "platforms" for a game and expect it make buttloads of money. You might do better than break even, but it is not a winning strategy.

I mean, I bought Guitar Hero III for the XBox 360, not the PC. I don't think I'd like it for the PC. I'm in a different mindset in front of a console than in front of the PC.

I applaud Blizzard and Valve for their efforts to make top-quality PC games, first and foremost. Even if it makes us indies have to work for it a little harder.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008
 
Rock Guitar Band Hero
I got today "off" of work - well, half of it off, at least. The half after 4:00 AM. I spent most of the rest of the morning sleeping. Sorry for the delay in posting today.

With the hours I've been keeping this week, I never got around to picking up Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. And... I probably won't be. This'll be the first Guitar Hero game I won't be buying. Maybe I'll rent it at some point. And I don't think I'll be getting Guitar Hero World Tour this winter.

It's not that I'm uninterested in the songs or anything. But the boss-battles were a big turn-off for me with Guitar Hero III, I've got plenty to keep me occupied with Rock Band and the previous GH games (hey, I'm still nowhere near finishing any of the games on Expert). And then Rock Band II was announced for this fall with the magical words, "Backwards Compatability for Downloadable Content." Since I'll probably be near $100 spent on downloadable music for Rock Band, it'll be nice not to have to swap discs. And Guitar Hero World Tour sounds like... dare I say it... a Rock Band Wannabe. I might bite if the Rock Band controllers were compatible with GHWT, but I suspect this will not be the case. The compatibility issues right now are bad enough amongst the guitars without the space-consuming drum sets.

And if that wasn't enough to sate my musician poseur thirst and hunger for opportunity to crank up the hard rock, there's the upcoming "Guitar Rising" game from independent game development studio Game Tank, for which I already have a decent controller. I have high hopes for this one.

So... I guess this means "the king is dead, long live the king." The Guitar Hero franchise was absolutely amazing for a couple of years. But I guess the time has come to part ways. It's been fun!

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008
 
Favorite Abusively Difficult Games
After our discussion yesterday, numerous (but not all) folk suggested that people who preferred more challenging "do it yourself"-ness in games were in the minority. I admitted that I, too, get frustrated in games, and while I usually do not want to be led by the nose, I often find myself saying, "Okay, I give, what am I supposed to do now?" For me - figuring it out for myself and conquering the tough challenges on my own is a big part of the fun. But there's a fine line between "fun" and "frustration" when it comes to difficulty or confusion level, often related to the quality of the game.

This got me thinking about really hard games. I'm talking the practically abusive games that we love. The ones where you think the designer(s) had some kind of passive-aggressive hatred of players, and wanted to punish them. The kinds of games that seemed to want to bend you over, spank you with a pledge paddle, and make you say, "Thank you sir! May I have another?"

You don't see many of them these days. At least, you don't see many of them where there isn't some kind of difficulty level setting so you can dial it down to taste. I have been playing a couple of old Nintendo games from the 8- and 16-bit era, and noted that designers of the era still had that coin-op arcade-game mentality, killing the player within two minutes as if the NES needed a constant diet of quarters.

But some games are worse than others. Even some arcade games just seemed to reach out and almost physically pimp-slap the player. At least, they did to me. Maybe it was just because I sucked. But, for some reason, a few of them I still loved, in spite of our abusive relationship. The games turned my crank as they beat me to a pulp. I never really grew to be their master, but in some cases I played long enough and hard enough that I could at least hold my own for a while.

Here are the most abusively difficult games that I still loved in spite of - or because of - the punishment they doled out on me:

Sinistar
I heard in an interview with one of the developers that this arcade game was originally a lot easier, but the manufacturer was worried that it would not suck down the quarters fast enough. So they cranked up the difficulty to a level for release, and now simply beating the first level is something of an accomplishment. I think I've made it to level three once or twice. Once Sinistar becomes "live," you'd better pray you've created enough Sinibombs, because that giant space station with a face will hunt you through the entire map, knocking asteroids out of his way, and then EATING YOU. In space. The game is sheer evil, and is one of my favorites from the arcade.

"Beware, I live!"

The Bard's Tale
Okay, I'd forgotten about how horribly difficult this one was just to get started on. If you decided to create your own party - one without the bard's starting gear of a magic horn (am I remembering this correctly? Help me out here, guys... it's been a while), you ended up facing some kind of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" thing where the survivors of a dozen failed attempts to get through the first two hours of the game would end up getting together into some kind of "super-party" which actually had a prayer of making it through fifth level or something. Again, the details are sketchy, and I don't remember how easy it was to save or load games. But I imagine the overpowered default starting party came about as a result of playtesting, when the QA guys screamed bloody murder about how they would NEVER see the end of the game.

Falcon 4.0
The game had a manual with lessons in it that mirrored actual flight school for F-16 "drivers," co-written by an actual F-16 instructor. And you needed to go through them, because the game was hopelessly complicated. Just getting your missiles armed and ready to fire and in a radar mode where they could actually hit something took some serious effort. In real life, this all makes sense, because you don't want pilots accidentally thumbing the "A" button and sending a missile off to blow up whatever little passenger plane happens to be within 20 miles in front of them.

The first time I got into a particular type of stall, I swore the game was bugged, because it didn't behave anything like a real aircraft. I later discovered a whole chapter in the manual devoted to this condition, which arises because the F-16's on-board computer gets confused by the fact the plane is going "backwards" (it's dropping tail-first). You have to first hit the "manual override" button to disable the fly-by-wire interpretations of your control inputs. So, I guess you could say it's a bug, but it's actually an accurate simulation of a real-world bug and standard operating procedure of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Add to this some enemy missiles that were practically impossible to dodge, bombs that would blow YOU up if you dropped them too low, insanely complex operating procedures for locking and firing a maverick missile at a tank, landing gear that felt like it was made out of glass and required HOURS of practice just to learn how to land properly, and a dynamic campaign that felt like drinking from a firehose with sheer task overload, and you had a torture device masquerading as entertainment. Amazingly, I thought this was incredible fun. I still do. Blowing up a tank in a video game is no big deal. Blowing one up in Falcon 4.0 was an accomplishment that almost made you believe the Air Force could set you in a cockpit of the real thing tomorrow.

(Incidentally, Lock-On: Modern Air Combat is just as psychotic in its adherence to realism, though I haven't really gotten into it like I got into Falcon 4.0 back in the day.

Streak
This was a game created by my old company, Singletrac. I wasn't on the development team, but I loved the game. Streak was Singletrac's poorly-marketed attempt to go with a new publisher (our new owners) and IP with what we'd learned from Jet Moto. The game was about hoverboard racing, and your maximum speed was based on "confidence" that you built up by doing ridiculously tricky and risky stunts in the middle of a race. And yeah, there were other games that came later and stole our thunder (and got accolades for their innovation), but we were there first. But the game was also pretty vicious in its difficulty level. It was designed, tested, and produced by veterans of the Jet Moto series, and they made a game which was moderately challenging for them. Which meant practically impossible to unlock the last levels for anybody else. But I loved the game. Maybe because I was a Jet Moto development veteran who thought the game was only somewhat too difficult.

Suspended
Sheer evil in a text adventure, by Infocom. You played some dude in suspended animation, who is supposed to be the "brains" of a facility that controls a terra-formed planet. However, you are stuck inside your chamber, unable to physically interract with the world. Instead, you control a handful of robots, each with dramatically unique capabilities and temperments. For example, only one robot has visual sensors and can actually "see" a room. Only one other can hear what's going on. One can perform diagnostics on the machinery, but it always recites its findings in the form of abstract-sounding poetry.

You wake up with the planet in a state of crisis because the machinery falling apart. There are a whole bunch of colonists who are trying to break into the facility to kill you and replace you with another controller. So you have a limited number of turns to use these robots to repair the damage and make things right again. If it sounds nuts, that's because it is. I can't recall how many times I played this game before giving up, unsure if I'd really made any progress.

Okay. There's my list. There are plenty of harder games I've played that I considered (anybody else play one of the first graphic adventure games, "The Wizard and the Princess," by Sierra? Nasty ultra-lethal maze in practically the first room! Well, first location in the desert), but they weren't games I really liked as much as these.

So - your turn. What are your favorite, abusively difficult games? Do you have any?

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008
 
Game Design: Is Freedom Not Fun?
Randy Smith, lead designer at EA, has an article on Next Generation about how choice and consequences are out of vogue in today's game designs. He cites Ultima V as his example - a game that freely let you shoot yourself in the foot, go off the beaten path, make bad choices, and get clobbered by them.

Smith states, "Today, this sort of thing is considered bad and wrong, and we’ve developed some of our most sophisticated design around preventing it... Why do we do all this? Because games are supposed to be fun, and fun only happens when you are pointed directly towards it, when it’s neither too easy nor too hard to get, and when you’re told ‘good job’ upon acquiring it. We’ve brilliantly succeeded in eliminating the interstitials, stripping away everything but fun."

Is this a good thing? Is this the right thing? Randy brings up the "games as art" argument, and suggests that being led around onto exactly the right path, rendering our choices irrelevent, might not be the evolutionary Utopia of gaming that we really want. Smith continues, "I worry that in the course of evolution we created a philosophical divide with exploration, choice, and consequence on one side and goals, scores, and balance on the other. I’m not sure the two sides are equally vital for producing unique, relevant works. Are we so hooked on the escapist fantasy of an uncomplicated life, of reverting to the safety of childhood, that no other games should be made? Have we explored alternatives?"

In her commentary article "Hold My Hand," Scorpia contends that stripping away choice and marking the path for the player every step of the way doesn't necessarily refine the "fun," either. "is so much direction really a good thing? Does having to think about the game and what we’re doing somehow take away from the 'fun'? I certainly enjoyed playing Ultima IV. But it wouldn’t have been as much of a pleasure had Hawkwind (or anyone else) been directing me through the game. "

Later, in comments, she notes "Funny, when I first started gaming - and with some pretty tough adventure games - I never felt intimidated. And back then, I wasn’t doing it professionally, either."

Going back to the discussion yesterday, is this just a matter of audience? The games of yesteryear certainly had technical limits as to how much they could "guide" the player - they even had to pack crucial data into manuals for lack of RAM on the system. But in the 1980's (the era of Ultima IV and V and many text adventures), the gamer was a niche audience. Today, games are mainstream.

Perhaps only a small niche of players like figuring this stuff out for themselves?

I don't know. I'm sort of a middle-of-the-road gamer. My gaming history is littered with titles that I never completed because I got stuck at some point --- stuck, frustrated, and the game ceased to be fun. However, some of the most fun I've had in games has come from puzzling my way through challenges. I absolutely loved solving the Babel-Fish puzzle in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I have a threshold of pain and confusion where I really do want some hand-holding and some good guidance. But I'm much happier - and having more fun - when I am able to tackle those challenges on my own.

I had way more fun white water rafting as a kid than riding roller coasters, too. Am I just an exception? A niche?

Or should this be the next evolutionary change games take a "helping hand" rather than hand-holding*. I think I'd really prefer that. Maybe I would have finished Ultima V if that were the case...



* Of course, this assumes that the game is actually made in such a way that it allows players to chart their own course. Due to development costs for content, designers are loathe to create any aspect of the game world that the player isn't required to see.

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