Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Friday, October 31, 2008
 
Federal Court Srikes Down Software Patents
This is kind of a big deal, as several games and game technologies have had patents issues on them over the years.

Federal Circuit Decides Software No Longer Patentable

To be completely honest - while my name has been on some patent applications in the past with some former businesses - I actually don't think this is a bad thing, and I hope this decision holds up. The system has been horribly abused in recent years. Rather than protecting a small inventor from predatory, better-financed companies who could beat him (or her) to market, it has become used by those predatory companies as an offensive, anti-competitive weapon.

Update: As pointed out in the comments, this may not be the sweeping end-of-the-world-to-the-software-patent-industry destruction that several patent lawyers on some sites are making it out to be. Bummer. It's a bit more limited in scope, but still a pretty interesting change in how patent law gets applied to software.

Case in point, a couple of years ago several indie software developers (and bigger firms) were told that their Solitaire games on the computer infringed on some soon-to-expire computer Solitaire patent --- never mind a mountain of prior art that existed previous to the patent's issuance --- and that they all had to pay some hefty licensing fee to the legal office that had bought the patent. Somehow I don't think Microsoft paid up... (though they are one of the biggest offenders in building up a colossal stockpile of questionable patents).

I'm a diehard defender of software copyrights - naturally, since it is what feeds my children - but software patents are a whole 'nother can of worms.

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Frayed Knights: Abandon All Hope...
More on the development of Frayed Knights, the comedic indie RPG in development from Rampant Games.

First of all, Diego has part 2 of what looks to be a 3-part installment critiquing the Frayed Knights pilot. Man, I can't wait to hear what he'll say with a full-sized game! Check out his constructive criticism at his site:

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique, Part 2

To be honest, much of my time the last two weeks in development of Frayed Knights has been devoted to building the roughed-out version of the Tower of Almost Certain Death. Up until the last couple of nights, it's been a nice excuse for not working. I mean, yeah, it's been work - on the game, even - but it's been a lot of fun too. Torque Constructor has been working like a charm (for a change), and this is something I'm still learning. It's like playing with Play-Doh.

Unfortunately, even fun parts get tedious after a while, and actually become work. And there's still a lot of work left.

One interesting aspect that I'm probably going to get ripped on as I'm developing these levels is the orientation of my spiral staircases. It seems most modern spiral staircases are made to ascend counterclockwise. In actual medieval fortresses, the staircases were usually constructed so that they ascended clockwise. Under the assumption that everybody fights right-handed (poor lefties - or those who favored the "sinister" hand - were pretty much beaten into learning to favor the right hand), this gave the advantage to the defenders above. The attackers had to expose more of their body when fighting this way, and had a rougher time bringing their weapons to bear.

However, in the world of Frayed Knights, a lot of fortresses are underground, where the defenders would be below the attackers. In these cases, you'd want to build staircases that ascended counter-clockwise. So I'm just gonna have to have a bunch of inconsistent staircases - they will be built clockwise for above-ground fortresses, and counter-clockwise for underground fortresses. Or both, if said fortress goes both ways.

Not that this makes one bit of difference in the game itself. It can't handle fights on spiral stairways as it is, so it only of academic interest, anyway.

Besides building a tower so that it can at least be playable (once I have the outdoor wilderness level completed), I've done some experimental coding. I spent a lot of time (and sacrificed some shortcuts) to merge the Torque 2D codebase (now called "TGB" or Torque Game Builder) into the base Torque Game Engine (plus yet more enhancements). Yet I haven't really taken advantage of the power of the 2D engine features. For one thing, I'm experimenting with making a modern inventory system - and modernizing much of the UI - by using T2D rather than Torque's default UI system.

This was always my intention, but it means a lot more custom code. It was much easier to slap something together using Torque's UI builder and call it good for the purpose of the pilot. The inventory system is getting the big overhaul right now, with a "merchant class" sitting half-finished waiting to be incorporated in the new, improved interface.

Speaking of interfaces - man. If there's a single loudest complaint for the game, it has been the control system. Customizable keyboard commands is one of those other aspects which I always intended to be in the full version, but I didn't think it was critical for people to just test things out and see how it played. Apparently, I was wrong. Live and learn. People want to make the controls familiar so they can ignore that part of it and get on with the playing. If they can't do the former, they may never get to the latter.

Another issue which I have finally conceded defeat on is the actual movement interface. I was trying to do some funky mouse-only control scheme for the benefit of less hardcore gamers who tend to navigate around their flash games by clicking on the edges of the screen and stuff. And to try and build off of some ancient foundations laid by old-timey Ultima Underworld games.

I have come to realize that (a) Those people won't be playing my game anyway, and (b) Ultima Underworld's control system really did suck. I mean, sure, you got used to it, and it was pretty nifty once you did because it was like being five years old again and showing off to your mom how you were able to ride your bike by holding onto the handlebars with only one hand. But that still didn't make it good.

So it's going back to more of an FPS-style control. Hopefully people won't play it like an FPS. Basically, if you've played a first-person MMO or RPG, then you will have no problem adapting to the control system.

Forward, backward, turn left, and turn right default to W and Up Arrow, S and Down Arrow, A and Left Arrow, and D and Right arrow, respectively. The Q and E keys are the default keyboard commands for walking left and right (no turning). By holding down on the right mouse button, you can also look around and turn using the mouse. Otherwise, moving the mouse around only moves the mouse cursor.

See? I can be taught.

Happy or unhappy with what was posted? Let others know on the forum thread!

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Thursday, October 30, 2008
 
EA Downsizing
Ouch:

EA's Q2 loss grows to $310M, will cut 6% of work force

And a little more:

Electronic Arts Short Circuits

Not happy news for my buddies in the mainstream games biz. Unless they are those in other companies who have had trouble finding people to hire. I dunno about you, but to me $310 million sounds like a lot of money to lose. Particularly in a single quarter. Maybe they expect to make it all up in Christmas sales, but yeesh.

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Life Lessons from Scary Movies
The reason we subscribed to Netflix over two years ago was out of a desire for scary movies. I found some lists online about the best horror / thriller movies - and I made a list on paper of the ones that sounded promising. My wife and I don't like the really gore-filled movies that try to turn your stomach rather than send shivers down your spine. Creep-Out trumps Gross-Out, and spooky trumps shocks where we're concerned. I have no desire to watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I've probably seen The Sixth Sense four times.

We always like to glean an important lesson from these movies too, like: "Don't hide behind an open window," or "Don't look up at the ceiling with your mouth open."

Unfortunately, this year we've been extraordinarily busy, so we haven't been able to watch as many old movies as we have in the past. Bummer. However, it seems we've exhausted many of the best candidates in previous years, so we may have spared ourselves some trouble. But we have seen a few scary horror movies (or just scarily horrible movies) this October, and pulled a few important life lessons from them:

The Mist
Storyline: This plot from the original novella was cribbed by Valve for Half-Life, so you know the basic premise: botched military experiment opens up gateway to a hell dimension, and the world gets annexed by horrible monsters.
Critique: I mentioned this one in a previous blog post. The ending was too dark for me, but up until that point it was really great.
Lesson for Life: Try to avoid being trapped with a frightened fanatic during an apocalypse.

House
Storyline:
Single writer stays in haunted house believing it holds the key to what happened to his young son who mysteriously vanished months earlier. Naturally what we'd all assume.
Critique: This one was better in my memory than revisiting it again 20 years later. It's sort of a horror-comedy which is most amusing due to bad acting (except for George Wendt as the nosy neighbor) and the protagonist's dogged refusal to be frightened away by the house's deadly attacks.
Lesson for Life: One more reason not to keep your shotgun loaded around the house: So that when the corpse-witch-monster gets to it first, she can only use it as a club.

The Howling
Storyline: Newswoman finds her remote country get-away disturbing to her nerves because of her werewolf neighbors party too loud.
Critique: I couldn't figure out if this one was supposed to be serious, or just a send-up of werewolf movies. It has the unfortunate hallmarks of too many horror movies of the era: It focuses on shocking special effects, gore, and nudity to "bring in the kids" to the box office. It was probably the basis for the RPG Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
Lesson for Life: According to my wife, it is that it's okay to kill your husband if he cheats on you, because he's probably been turned into a werewolf. According to me, it's ... uh... bring lots of silver bullets. LOTS.

Stir of Echoes
Storyline: Kevin Bacon (who is only a few degrees of separation from everybody in the world) plays an average Joe blue-collar guy who, in a moment of drunken misjudgment at a party, allows himself to be hypnotized by his sister-in-law. Said relative leaves him with a post-hypnotic suggestion that unleashes his latent clairvoyance. He then becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about the dead girl haunting his rented townhome.
Critique: The best of the movies we've seen this season. One of the best ghost story movies, period.
Lesson For Life: Your freaky new-age sister-in-law should never be permitted to hypnotize anyone.

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Beatles Coming to Rock Band?
Oh, please, please, please let this be fer real:

The Beatles and Rock Band 2 "Come Together"

Not that I'm the world's biggest Beatles fan or anything. I'd be more excited about another Rush album. Or getting Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing as downloadable content. But still, this just glows with coolness.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
 
The Uncanny Valley: Give It Up Already
Jeff Tunnell, co-founder of Dynamix and GarageGames, designer and producer of about a bajillion critically acclaimed and successful games, has made a powerful point about the trend towards photorealism in games. That point being that since even movies - with painstakingly non-realtime-rendered computer graphics - still can't do it right and cross the "uncanny valley," why do we persist in trying to make games do the same thing.

For those who don't know and haven't clicked the link, the uncanny valley is a coin termed from robotics, originating with Masahiro Mori in 1970, which notes that human response improves as a robot (or in our case, computer-generated characters) becomes more lifelike, but only up until a point - after which it drops substantially. The tiny inaccuracies, the failure of certain elements to blend together correctly in a way that we don't even comprehend, become a really big deal. Our minds reject the image as being a person, and there's an automatic response to recoil, like seeing a corpse (or, in the case of an animated character, a zombie).

It's "creepy."

This isn't just a problem with human characters. Years ago, when I was working at SingleTrac, several veterans of the simulation industry who worked there remarked that in their previous field, they ran into problems as their simulations became more realistic. Pilots started complaining about things that were never an issue before, such as the airfield lights being the incorrect shade of blue. The more like lifelike the graphics, the more your mind will set off alarms that something "just ain't right."

It's probably some kind of self-preservation instrinct. I mean, if some grasses are looking wrong on the savannah and not blowing properly in the wind, that could mean that you have only seconds to act before you take a trip down a tiger's digestive tract. Your brain is hardwired to scream those alarms at you, and suppressing those feelings takes effort.

The solution many games have adopted is to drop the player into alien scenes and covering humans with so much battle-armor that you can't tell they are people anyway. Or bashing zombies, which are supposed to be all "creepifying." There's a stiffness and strangeness to it which still works okay in a first-person shooter, but fails in a game that would require more human interaction.

Tunnell questions why the video game industry still keeps trying to brute-force its way across that valley when we have clearly reached a point where things are going to get worse before they get better. This applies double for indie developers, who don't have the budget or manpower to achieve even the results the mainstream industry struggles to maintain.

But this brings up another issue - which is the need for really brilliant art direction. Photorealistic isn't easy, but it is a lazy approach compared to producing quality, consistent stylized graphics. But that's a whole 'nother topic, and one I don't feel qualified to talk about right now.

Make It Big In Games: If Robert Zemeckis Can’t Cross the Uncanny Valley, What Makes Us Think We Can?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008
 
As Real As I Ever Wanted It To Get
So what would it be like to actually be on the walls of a castle in an all-out medieval battle? Would you survive? Would you be able to to fight off the attacking horde, save the beautiful maiden (well, if you are trying to be the macho male warrior), and protect the castle as you were charged? Or would you be numbered among the nameless dead after your enemy raises their own flag over your fortress?

Well, once upon a time, I discovered that I would probably be in the latter category. I probably wouldn't survive long enough to become an Aragorn or Conan.

At the age of sixteen, I joined a medievalist group and was able to experience an event that was as close as I ever wanted it to get to the real thing. I flirted with sexy women dressed in revealing fantasy costumes, bled on the battlefield (mostly from getting ripped up by thorns while foraging for materials to build our fortress), felt the physical exhaustion from battle, and inhaled a lot of dust and dirt as I lay 'dying' next to the fair maiden I'd failed inside the ruins of our fortress.

And it was incredibly freakin' cool. Well, by an uber-geek's definition of "cool."

Once again, I managed to con the editorial staff at The Escapist into letting me write for them. My rough draft - which lacked a ton of detail and skipped several major (to me) points, clocked in at over 5,000 words, and they limited me to only 1600. So I ended up with sort of a summary of a Reader's Digest version of the story I meant to write. But it's probably a lot more interesting than the meandering crap I would have written.

So go check it out. If ya got any questions about it, feel free to post it here or in the Rampant Games forums or The Escapist forums or something.

Weekend Warrior at The Escapist

Vaguely related meandering crap:
* Game Design: Do Not Want!
* Mainstream Devs Going Indie!
* Wizardry 8: Old School Goes Old School
.

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Monday, October 27, 2008
 
Level-Building: More Addicting Than Games?
I have posted before about a number of games that have caused me to lose track of time, and kept me up until the wee hours of the morning without realizing how much time has passed.

I have discovered over the last couple of weeks that building levels has the same effect on me. Instead of saying, "Just one more turn," I find myself saying, "Just one more detail!" or "One more test!" The next thing I know, another half-hour has passed. I wish I could say that's always how game development is for me, but in all honesty it is sometimes pretty sleep-inducing.

Unfortunately, progress isn't fast. It just makes time fly as if it was.

One issue I have found recently with Torque Constructor is that ramps sometimes get their collision hosed. This is true of ramps built as static meshes and imported into the level as well as ramps build directly via brushes. While lighting doesn't work quite right, if I bring a static mesh (with collision) directly into the level - the old-school-way - it works just fine. It just doesn't work if it is "baked into" the interior data. Alas - the lighting doesn't look as cool this way, so it's not without a cost. But cool lighting is

I have also learned some new texturing tricks in Blender that I was unaware of before. I'm actually a little embarrassed about not realizing I could do a UV unwrap with a cube projection - but it sure makes things simple when simply trying to tessellate a simple stone texture across a structure.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008
 
Frayed Knights Pilot Critiqued
It's not often that I link to a site that shreds my hard work to pieces. Fortunately, that's because the latter doesn't happen too often. Maybe because Scorpia hasn't reviewed one of my games yet... :) But more likely because I'm nowhere near as prolific as I'd like to be, and I'm still pretty much off-the-rader as an invisible indie.

In this case, Diego Doumecq has taken apart Frayed Knight Pilot: The Temple of Pokmor Xang from a game design perspective, and has been pretty respectful of both the material and his role. And he seems to have really enjoyed the game, which makes me happy. But he has a lot of constructive, well-thought-out criticisms that he brings up that are worthy of discussion and consideration.

The issues he brings up are similar to the ones I have received in feedback forms from people who have played the game (still not quite up to 1,000 emails, but getting closer...), but he has done a very good job of putting his finger on the some of the root causes. For example, there's the problem I was well aware of when I released the game that combat was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, and I was having problems seeing the forest for the trees. Many players have pointed out the issue, but only a few have been as clear at pointing out some of the exact problems as Diego has here (and there are definitely more problems than the one Diego has addressed).

In part 1 of the critique, Diego primarily tackles interface issues - which are definitely easy targets for the game. There should be a part 2 coming up shortly, and he's also got some other game design articles and critiques available on his blog that are well worth reading. Part 2 should be appearing shortly, and I'll update this post when it appears.

I have said it before - but the purpose of the pilot episode of Frayed Knights was to solicit this kind of feedback from players. While I've got a ton of opinions on CRPGs, simply having an opinion and being able to deconstruct a game does not immediately translate to being able to create a killer design of your own. I'm a learn-by-doing kind of guy, and so this has given me the opportunity to learn what I have done right and done wrong a little bit faster.

So I want to thank Diego and all the people who have emailed me with feedback, suggestions, compliments, support, and criticisms. You folks help me become a better game developer. This sort of direct communication is what I feel can make indie gaming great!

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique at Indigo Static

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Friday, October 24, 2008
 
Utah Indie Game Night - Fall 2008
Once again, the time came for another indie game night. And once again, our numbers were completely unpredictable. Last time, we had an excess of pizza when we were done, and this time we ran out. It's almost like you can gauge indie night by pizza consumption. Poor Lane, hosting the party on behalf of NinjaBee, never knows exactly how much pizza to order, but there are so many of us now that he has to order in advance.

Well, that's got nothing to do with indie games, really, though I imagine there are tons of indie games that could be made about pizza. I guess the point is we had a great turn-out. We had around 30 or more people show up, which I think exceeded our numbers from last time.

Once again, I felt like I viewed indie night through some sort of tunnel vision. We had a presentation on the Unity game engine, which was actually a lot more interesting than I'd expected. I'm not ready to move over to it for my own development or anything, but I like to keep up with what is happening on the inexpensive game engine front, yet I find myself continually pressed for time to try and keep up and evaluate. It was great to have somebody else provide an overview and answer questions.

He also showed us the steller Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, which anybody who has played it knows is full of oodles of indie goodness. It was built with the Unity engine.

Some students from ITT Tech who I have chatted with at earlier events were there showing their capstone project - an RPG using the new RPG Maker VX engine. I apologize to them here for not remembering the name of the RPG in development. What's cool about it is that the adventuring party you play is of... questionable morality. Not a nice bunch. People in town are all supposed to be capable of being pickpocketed, and being hounded by the law for getting caught in your misdeeds is all part of the game.

Where that takes the story, I don't know yet. But it sounds like an interesting start. The game - at least the "pilot" version of it (sound familiar?) is supposed to be done next month.

I also got the chance to see NInjaBee's new Wii game, Boingz. It looked extremely cool, and is very close to release.

Beyond that, the big chance for me was to chat with other indies and see how things were going - not to mention visit briefly with some friends at NinjaBee. One strange feeling I got from this meeting was that I don't feel quite as in tune with the "indie community" as I was, say, a year ago. No doubt my schedule and the growth of said "community" play a major role in this feeling.

One conversation we had last night involved the extreme growth in low-end Flash games. I was told that with the new built-in ability to provide cheap ad revenue in Flash games, there's been surge in low-quality flash games and applications as inexperienced developers attempt to "cash in." This means that quality games are harder to find through the crap. That's the double-edged sword of indie-dom, I guess.

I was also informed by Greg that Mike Smith's Caster was entered into the IGF competition. Mike is, unfortunately, no longer a local, but I wish him the best of luck with his game!

We also had a couple of 3D artists show up, who were immediately pounced upon by we "dime-a-dozen" programmers. Hopefully we'll be able to find some interesting collaboration opportunities there.

Anyway, as usual, it was a great night. Well, *I* had a great time. I don't know if anyone on the other side of my conversations can say the same, but I appreciate them humoring me.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008
 
Your Daddy Makes WHAT, now?
As many folks who follow this blog know, I got sucked back into mainstream video game development after walking away many years ago and assuming I'd never return. "Never say never." However, a couple of months ago, after dealing with some pretty serious issues with my previous employer (in spite of really liking the company, the people I worked with, and even my boss...), I had to call it quits and move on to a somewhat different profession... making professional simulators.

My family got to see one of the big sims I'm working on now - with a big projection dish, a motion-base platform, a chair with lots of buttons and joysticks and flashing lights. My youngest daughter, in particular, thought this was all amazingly cool. Maybe even cooler than when she got to play an early version of the Tale of Despereaux in the spring, before the game had even been announced.

So we were in church in Sunday, and our local church leader asked me my job situation, as he knew that I had been working some pretty insane hours before and had been pretty unhappy with things. He hadn't heard that I'd already switched jobs. I explained that I had a new position that was much more stable with far better hours (most of the time).

But at this point, my youngest daughter decides to add - with great exuberance and volume - "My daddy makes STIMULATORS!"

Some rapid words of correction and explanation followed.

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Important Safety Tip for Dimensional Gates: DON'T!
My wife and I watched (and mostly enjoyed, until the really dark ending) Stephen King's The Mist Tuesday night. I was so very pleased to see Half-Life get the big-screen treatment...

...oh, wait, that wasn't Half-Life? Ah, right, no headcrabs. They did have the Aliens thing going on in it, though instead of one big alien it was about a gazillion alien spiders. My wife, the arachnophobe, REALLY enjoyed that segment.

But having watched this movie, and played Doom, and Half-Life, and countless other games, I have come to an important realization.

If you, or anybody you love, is experiencing the desire to build a small portal into another dimension, through military or civilian technology, seek professional help immediately. Remember - friends don't let friends destroy the whole freaking world by opening up a gateway into a hell dimension. It inevitably turns out bad, and lots of people you care about become monster chow. Your friends will thank you for it later, when they realize their hometown is no longer in danger of becoming the next Ravenholm.

Nobody believes that they can destroy the entire human race with only one dimensional gateway. But as has been demonstrated in so many cases, it only takes one experiment to destroy the world. One little experiment, and the next thing you know you are trying to explain to your sister how it wasn't your fault, you were just a lab assistant on your first day on the job, but she's not listening because there's an alien crab-thingy where her head used to be that's merely using her spinal cord as a steering wheel to take her corpse on a joyride.

Just don't do it, folks! Think about the children!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008
 
Reflexive Acquired By Amazon
Hmmm.... Pick what you think to be the most appropriate song by Queen:

Another One Bites the Dust... or We Are the Champions.

Reflexive Entertainment, indie game developer and publisher / online portal of both casual and somewhat less casual indie titles, has been acquired by online sales giant Amazon.com.

Reflexive Announces Acquisition by Amazon

My personal take? I'm cautiously optimistic. First of all, they were not acquired by an existing game publishing giant, or another casual portal. Secondly, Amazon has been kind of a maverick themselves, thus increasing the chance that Reflexive is going to keep doing what they have been doing unchanged, and allowing them to remain "indie." Well, as indie as you get when you are owned by a giant like Amazon. And thirdly - Amazon leads the world in online sales. This is perhaps *the* distribution partner for Reflexive, as well as for the developers with whom they work.

It also provides some indication (to me) of the advances indie games are making. This is a Big Deal. So I wish the guys at Reflexive plenty of luck and profit from their new overlords at Amazon, and hope that this will work out really well for them. Congratulations, Reflexive!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008
 
Planning Obsolescence in Game Design
I taught my ten-year-old to play Magic: The Gathering this weekend. This was a little bit of a challenge, as I had to re-acquaint myself with the rules. I'd purchased her one of those pre-made decks the previous weekend, plus some booster packs just for grins. The booster packs were pretty much useless, and I kept trying to explain to her that she did NOT want to mix any of them into her pre-made deck. She also kept asking me which one was the best card. I explained that - at least in theory - there was no "best card." It was all in how you set up your combos.

Teaching her to play and having her play a couple of games was the best way to explain it. She psyched herself up, preparing herself for failure (after all, we'd been playing since before she was born), and I spent some time Sunday putting together what I felt was a fairly strong deck from my library of cards that mostly predate 1996.

I taught her as she played, going a little bit past her bedtime. Then I astonished her when I announced that she'd won. I had her down to one health, and I realized she could kill me on the next turn, with nothing I could do about it.

Naturally, she had a very competitive pre-built deck, but her particular edge came from having creatures that were unblockable by anything but creatures with a special attribute that didn't exist in earlier editions of the game. I had to look it up on the Internet during the middle of our game. Maybe I was just annoyed at my daughter kicking my butt without even knowing what she was doing, but I found myself frustrated. While I might be off in my estimation, it felt like this sort of rule was specifically designed to make older editions obsolete.

The businessman / entrepreneurial part of me said to the rest of me, "Well, DUH! They want you to keep buying cards, dummy!" After all, in most tournaments, older cards are not even allowed - you have to use more recent "blocks." The obsolescence plan has been institutionalized.
Either that, or they figure we old-schoolers have enough of an advantage with at least four Black Lotus cards and Moxes or something that it's not an issue. Ah, well. I'm not sure if its unfair or simply shrewd marketing and business decisions on the part of Wizards of the Coast.

So ... switching gears back to video game design, this made me ponder about a surprise topic you've never heard me mention here before... computer role-playing games! :)

One of the problems that has existed since around 1982 (when Wizardry 2 was released) has been the issue of dealing with sequels and character power. Wizardry 2 was the first commercial CRPG I can think of that allowed you to move characters over from a previous game, but it was far from the only one. The problem is that your characters at the end of one game are usually pretty freaking buff, with killer gear and stuff. So what does the sequel offer when your character is already level 1 billion, and wields the Awesome Sword of Awesomeness? Up the level cap to a trillion and provide an Even Awesomer Sword of Epic Awesomeness? Do you drop the player's characters level down to a capped point and strip them of their best gear? And then what do you do with game three?

The Eschalon: Book 1 folks are probably laboring with these issues even as I type this. Good luck, guys.

Taking a cue from the capitalist minds on the Magic: The Gathering design teams, there could be alternatives to nerfing the carried-over characters or taking the power level to ever more ludicrous levels.

One is introducing new abilities ('technologies") for which the player characters in the sequel have not yet developed a counter. You may be 20th level butt-kickers with insanely powerful equipment, but you are helpless before the arrival of new psionic monsters. You'll have to re-balance your equipment and learn some new anti-psionic abilities to compete. While you retain your same power level, things are somewhat balanced by the exposure of a new "achilles heel."

I remember facing something like this in one of my first games of the original Master of Orion. I had developed some practically invincible giant warships with the most powerful beam technology currently in the game. It would cut through the hulls of enemy battleships effortlessly. Then I encountered a new enemy who attacked me with literally HUNDREDS of tiny space ships. My big, ultra-powerful beam weapons would instantly vaporize these ships - but I could only destroy a few of them at a time, while the rest would annihilate my entire fleet with their sub-par weaponry. I found myself desperately trying to research entirely new technology paths, and building up my own "swarm" fleets to counter this new menace, while losing battle after battle.
"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless."
--- Conan, after becoming king of Aquilonia
Another is to introduce a completely new power track that exists parallel to the one in the previous game. Sure, you may be level 25 as a wizard, but the new game has an entirely new power structure and challenges that wizardry alone won't get you through. Like Conan in the above quote, your character must develop entirely new skills to navigate a different situation. While it is not quite starting over - your character still has the ol' Awesome Sword of Awesomeness - but the winning conditions have changed, and simply cutting through your enemies like butter isn't going to be enough.

Drawing parallels to other computer games, most of us who played it remember how we discovered in X-Com how our best soldiers were often woefully inadequate when it came to psychic potential. While a key value was (if I remember correctly) static once it was discovered, what if it, too, could be trained over time?

We have seen a little of that in some RPGs, via faction systems. As horribly implemented as it was, shooting for the goal of "grinding faction" in EverQuest might not have been exactly entertaining, but it did make you feel like you were making progress.

Now, I'm not saying that these ideas are either preferable to or exclusive of the other solutions. They are certainly different, particularly in a game category that seems to be driven (by mainstream publishers at least) to ever more simplistic models of gameplay resolution. But planning some form of obsolescence in from the get-go might be one way to preserve interesting gameplay in RPG series that use the same characters.

But in the meantime, I'm going to have to figure out how to defeat my ten-year-old the next time we play.

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Monday, October 20, 2008
 
Massively Multiplayer Online Games Turn 30 - Kinda
According to Richard Bartle in a somewhat grumpy post, today is the 30th birthday of MUD - the original Multi User Dungeon.

Yes, do the math... that's October 20th, 1978. I think I might have played Handball and Tennis on a Coleco Telstar home gaming system. I'd never heard of Dungeons & Dragons, and people were still buzzing about the hit movie of the previous year, Star Wars. Computers, in my mind, were huge devices with reel-to-reel tapes in air-conditioned rooms. Many of the esteemed readers of this blog weren't even alive then. And yet people were, on this day thirty years ago, playing the early prototype that would one day be World of Warcraft.

Mind-blowing, ain't it?

Well, at least it is to me.

Of course, as Bartle points out, MMOs have a pretty wide family tree, so it's hard to put a stake in the ground and say, "This is where it all started." after all, MUD apparently derived from Dungeon, the progenitor of Zork.

My own first experience was on a for-pay service that apparently ran off an IBM XT with sixteen modem ports, called (initially) Gambit Kri. It was a MUD-inspired game that charged by the minute. My low-charisma character, DangerMouse, was apparently so ugly that he immediately inspired attacks by commoners and laborers wherever he went in town.

Later, I played on several other MUDs and MUSHes, and even ran my own (briefly) with some friends, but that's as close as I got to the original.

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Another NinjaBee Interview
An interview with some friends of mine at NinjaBee about doing games for WiiWare and advergaming:

NinjaBee on XBLA vs. WiiWare, AdverGaming at GameSetWatch

What they don't mention is that neither doing Wii games (albeit not WiiWare) nor working with publishers for downloadable or online games is anything new to them. But - that's not what you've heard about them. Not that you hear much about them, period. They are a small, workhorse little company with a lot of talent and work ethic and not a lot of ego.

I really hope Kingdom for Keflings does really, really well. Besides just wanting the best for my friends out there, it is the last game I worked on while I was there (well, that and an unpublished Wii title). While I only had a small contribution (which may no longer actually be in the code), I'll be glad to see it released. As Steve mentions in the interview, this was based on a Game-In-A-Day prototype launched in the forums of GarageGames. See, you never know where these little indie exercises will get you!

(Edit: Fixed the spelling of Keflings, because I'm useless without the services of my spell-checker...)

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Friday, October 17, 2008
 
Game Design: Ultima VII Design Gold Mine
I love opportunities to look over an experienced (and successful) designer's shoulder in some way, or to look in under the hood of a major game and see how they did it. I think I had more fun picking through the engine and looking at the original campaign scripts in Neverwinter Nights than I actually did playing the game.

Whether or not you have warm fuzzies for Ultima VII as I do, if you are an aspiring RPG developer (or just very curious), there are a couple of resources that have been pointed out that may be of interest to you. These were brought up in the comments following my Reminiscing Ultima post earlier brought up some discussion about its design, and a link to some design documentation.

The first is Exult Studio - the toolkit for the open-source Ultima VII emulator. Actually, just reading through the documentation is a valuable look at just how they managed to make things work in that game. They used a surprisingly simple set of behaviors to create everything in the game.

Of particular note to me was their use of "eggs", or what is more conventionally known as triggers, and the NPC flags, settings, and behaviors.

The biggest trick with Exult was decompiling and understanding the USECODE - a C-style scripting language for the game - not unlike Neverwinter Nights' scripting language, or TorqueScript. They had only a partial understanding of it at first, and had to guess at the rest and see what broke.

With an understanding of how Exult Studio works, the surviving / discovered design documentation for Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle makes a lot more sense. Chevluh pointed out an archive on Bootstrike - but you can also view individual pages online here. This is a treasure trove of information for me about how they plotted out the second of the two games, and more importantly the design considerations they made and the reasons why they did things a particular way - such as what clues they were trying to provide the player.

It's also interesting to me how they have broken down things into subplots which are triggered by various flags. The idea here, interesting enough, is that these chapters of the game are not broken down into discrete subquests. There are several different subplots that run more-or-less in tandem throughout the chapter. Some NPCs, locations, and objects are pretty specific to a single subplot, but others get reused through several different subplots. They all kind of run together, whereas most modern RPGs actually feel much more compartmentalized.

Serpent Isle was, alas, a lot more linear than The Black Gate, and you can see how this was planned from the get-go in these documents. Unfortunately, bad usecode in the Moonshade scripts actually wrecked the game for me fifteen years ago, as one trigger failed to fire, and I was never invited to the banquet no matter what I did. I spent days poking around the island trying desperately to accomplish SOMETHING before I consulted a hint guide that explained what was supposed to happen. I called Origin tech support and was pretty much told, "Yeah, that's a very rare bug. Sorry about that." Alas, even restoring from a saved game and trying it again did the same thing. Just a word of warning to script-monkeys... :)

Exult Studio Documentation

Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle Uncut Plot Design Documentation for Mad Mage & Moonshade Chapters

Bootstrike's archive

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Thursday, October 16, 2008
 
Wizardry 8 Part XII: Desperately Seeking Marten
I originally thought that this Wizardry 8 play-through series would only take ten to twelve posts. This is number twelve, and I'm not there yet. Wizardry 8 is proving a bigger game than I anticipated. Not to mention time-consuming. Combats are often taking ten minutes or longer to resolve, as I often face twenty or more opponents at a time. Since I've been doing a lot of running back and forth to different areas, I regularly find myself taking a twenty minutes or more crossing a zone due to fights. The camouflage spell (Shadow Tincture) doesn't seem to help very much - if you are in tighter confines (such as many areas of the road, or the Mount Gigas water caves), there's just no dodging half the combat.

Flush with more experience points from some travelling around and my discovery of the location of the Dark Savant's ship, I figured I'd take a crack at the Bayjin Shallows around Nessie and another rescue operation in Bayjin. I didn't get too far. This time, the water caves below Mount Gigas were filled with "Death Rays" - Manta-Ray looking creatures that, true to their namesake, had insta-death attacks that would sometimes land even through my magical defenses. And, since they are virtually immune to water spells and mental attacks, and fire spells don't work underwater, my biggest area-effect attacks were largely useless against them.

Those fights sucked.

Eventually, after being clobbered in the same fight four times in a row, I gave up and teleported back to Arnika. There was, I remembered, another possible enterance to Bayjin, guarded by Rayjin, in the swamp. I have a teleport location back at Arnika, so I keep returning to the city. Most of the times I leave, I get met by a large group of Rattkin who issue me advice or dire warnings. This time, after teleporting back from the water caves, the Rattkin leader tipped his hand, and said there was a price on my head, and he would be coming to collect the next time we met.

Who put a price on my head? The only leader Rattkin I've found was the Don, who was still holding the Astral Dominae hostage for 100k gold. At least that was my excuse. We went to the tree, and got in a fight with the Don. It wasn't easy. But we won, killed the Don, and retrieved the Astral Dominae. It felt a little anti-climactic after spending all of Wizardry 7 seeking after the darn thing (which I still haven't actually finished), but I was glad to have two out of the three artifacts needed for the inevitable end-game.

We continued off to the swamp, defeated the Rayjin, and found the land-based entrance to Bayjin. Much combat ensued. Much combat. We killed some aquatic faeries and found a bunch of loot in the hills in the center of the island, and battled what appeared to be endless streams of crabs. Usually four to ten at a time. We'd kill two groups, rest, and immediately fight one or two more. We made our way into the Rayjin village, and slept inside their huts while the patrols and crabs marched in swarms outside the door. Good thing they don't actually go INTO these huts when they are occupied.

We found some prisoners, including Glumph, the Umpani prisoner we were supposed to rescue. We also found a Helazoid woman who died while telling us she came from Wizardry 7. Glumph complained most of the time we had him - which was far too long. Many more battles ensued as we tried to retreat from the island, taking the water way back. Yes, I was going to risk more Death Rays. And Nessie. I wanted to see what else was hidden behind Nessie.

We didn't actually kill her. We moved quickly around her, sucking up her attacks and floating on bubble-streams up to caves we hadn't visited yet. In one, we found a really kick-butt, but cursed, battle-axe. After my warrior had spent nineteen levels with her newbie axe, she was ready for an upgrade, curse or no curse.

One cave took us to a new zone - the Sea Caves. Exploring the island area, we came across a rope and a hook, and then a sledgehammer. We threw them into our inventory and forgot about 'em, continuing to explore. Well, explore and fight. On the plus side, we could use fireballs and fire storms again, and most of the creatures were subject to mental attacks.

In one cave, we found a loose man-made stone wall. Application of the sledgehammer opened it up into a room with a door that had been sealed from the other side. There was no way in that we could find. A little bit more exploration (and fighting - did I mention fighting? There was a lot of fighting) took us to an area with a pit. Getting bold, we jumped down into the pit - and found ourselves surrounded by hostile, man-eating insects the size of small ponies. Fortunately, they were big and the cave was small. They could only attack us two at a time, and they were nicely subject to being driven insane. For the most part, we let them kill each other.

But that fight was nothing compared to the next one. We found some light coming down through a hole in the ceiling. We used the rope and hook to pull ourselves up to a room - with the back-side of the sealed door we'd seen earlier. We were in.

And we were facing an army of undead. Something like about twenty, plus some giant undead dude called the Keeper of the Crypt. Our first attempt didn't go so well - we took out the keeper and most of the undead, but soon found half our party dead - especially when the undead siges summoned big ol' elementals to aid the fight. We were more careful on the second attempt, pulling the undead to a corner where we were protected on two sides. We managed to silence the undead siges early on, preventing them from summoning any elementals or casting other nasty spells against us. What spells the other ghosts hit us with were often reflected back with our too cool Eye For an Eye reflection spells we now possessed. See, I'd learned something from those awful little Leaf Faeries!

The Keeper of the Crypt was almost easy to defeat at the end of that battle.

Following that, we found some slippery slopes that would drop us down pits, forcing us to retrace our steps (and fight lots of battles) to come back to the tomb area. We found some spiked boots back in the tomb, which our robot companion NPC was able to wear. They magically helped the entire party keep from slipping down into the pits, but then we found another obstacle - an uncrossable chasm that needed some other object to cross. The boots could get us safely to the edge, but not across.

This time, we voluntarily dropped down a pit, and searched around the island until we came across the remains of a wrecked ship. Spinning to make itself obvious, there was a large wooden plank there which was remarkably both sturdy enough to carry us, and could shrink down to fit in our inventory. Perfect!

Unfortunately, on our way back, we were unable to avoid a fight with some multi-armed nasties on the beach. By the time we defeated them, five other groups of nasties had converged on our position, and we found ourselves fighting 9 more of the multi-armed nasties, 8 sand crabs, 4 curare crabs, and four death beetles. That's right, 25 monsters at once. This was a new record. The battle took over twenty minutes. And that's WITH firing off Asphyxiation spells to insta-kill about three at a pop for the first three out of four rounds.

When it was over, we made our way back to the tomb, which had become newly repopulated with undead. Twelve re-dead monsters later, we crawled back to the chasm, dropped the plank over it, walked across, used a key we'd found to unlock a door, and entered a tomb where a ghost lay resting on a vault. The ghost stood up, and we chatted. This was the ghost of Marten, the dude who stole the Destinae Dominus years ago. He told us that the thing had driven him insane, and he was just oh so happy to pass it on to us so we could go crazy. Which he did. Plus a 400,000 XP bonus. My entire party went insane, cackling violently as they leveled up.

I gave the artifact to the bard, who was wearing the Helm of Serenity we'd gotten from Trynton. Immediately everyone regained their composure, got their clothes back on, and tried desperately to pretend nothing had happened.

All three artifacts are mine. I should go to Disneyland. But instead, I'm probably going to the Rapax Castle and then Ascension Peak. But first, I have to finally take Glumph back to General Ymir and get credit for this mission. He grumbled the whole time, but he gained about four levels in the process, so he shouldn't complain too loudly.

Taking Design Notes
Finally meeting Marten, after chasing him all these weeks, felt like something of a climax. I was afraid that once I met him, I'd get a lame, "Thank you, Mario, but the Destinae Dominus is in another tomb" response, but everything came together well. I was also pleased that, once the mission was accomplished, he stuck around to talk and answer some questions. Since I'd heard "Marten this" and "Marten that" since level seven or so, and about the theft of the artifact since level one, it was great to hear the story from his perspective. There wasn't much to add, in all honesty, but it felt better to me somehow.

The path to reach him once I got to the Sea Caves was nicely tricky, but not too difficult, involving much more than combat (though the fighting definitely took the greatest amount of time). The puzzles remain standard adventure-game fare, and I'm not complaining. They have taken the rule to heart that - most of the time - the object needed to accomplish a task in area X can be found in area X, unless it is part of a larger quest.

While they are very rare, I do like that the characters in my party occasionally make specific commentary on major events. They had to create a unique commentary for every voice "type" in the game, which is impressive.

The battles are, as I mentioned before, getting tedious. I don't mind a decent battle taking three to five minutes, or a boss battle taking even a little longer, but these remain pretty annoying speed-bumps.


More Wizardry 8 Play-Through Entries:
Part I: So a Samuari, a Valkyrie, and a Bishop Walk Into a Bar...
Part II: Running the Gauntlet
Part III: Vi Domina Tricks
Part IV: Arnika Bank - No Safer Than Under the Mattress
Part V: In Fear of Little Naked Winged Women
Part VI: Old-School Goes Old-School
Part VII: Ratts!
Part VIII: Dances With Rhinos
Part IX: My Duplicity Has a Price
Part X: Missing Men and Mutant Frogs
Part XI: Swimming With the Psi-Sharks
Part XII: Desperately Seeking Marten
Part XIII: Lucky Thirteen, Unlucky Rapax
Part XIV: Storming the Castle

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
 
Reminiscing Ultima
Yesterday, we were talking on the forums about RPGs we love and how we'd like to see "more games like that." And that caused a question to come up about *what* specific elements made our favorite RPGs our favorite. I was considering asking the question of the original poster, Daringly, as he was looking for more games "like" Wizardry 8 and some of the Ultima games.

DGM put the question to me. What made Ultima VII - still my favorite RPG - so awesome for me. My answer sucked. I listed some of the features that really struck me then --- and still do now. But the features alone didn't make the magic that I'd love to recapture. Much of it is probably just in my head (and in my equipped +2 Rose-Tinted Glasses of Nostalgia), but the question really made me think.

I was blown away by Ultima VII's technology when it was first released in 1992 - much as I had been by Ultima Underworld, released at approximately the same time. It still took me a while to complete it - mostly because I'd gotten distracted by Ultima Underworld.

The last quarter of the game was completed in a single sitting, the day after I'd gotten my kneecap Knocked out of position at a... er... sporting event in the park the night before. I was on crutches, didn't go anywhere but to the doctor, and the only escape from the throbbing pain in my knee (and lack of mobility) was into Britannia. And while the game had been rivetting before, having the ability to dive in like that and spend about eight hours playing straight through was an incredible experience.

When it was over, I felt a sense of loss. Was that all the world offered? In desperation, I called a friend, who had recently purchased the Complete Ultima Collection (or something like that), and out of compassion he came by after dinner and dropped it off for me. I installed Ultima IV, hoping for more. I'd played it years earlier on my Commodore 64, but I'd never completed it. I knew he seven-year-old graphics had not aged well (and they certainly hadn't), and for the first couple of hours they were a distraction.

Then I forgot about the graphics and found myself immersed once more. Not quite as completely as I had in Ultima VII, but enough. Two weeks later, I had finally brought the Codex back from the Underworld, and completed the Quest of the Avatar. By then my knee was passibly healed and I only had a slight limp. I returned my friend his Ultima collection.

So now, trying to look back and figure what it was that made the game work for me. To be perfectly honest, being unable to walk for a day and do much other than play Ultima VII for an entire day to finish the game probably had a fair share to do with it. It left me with a good feeling - well, except for my knee. And that feeling is probably why it remains my favorite. That's a really tough thing to capture in a design document, let alone a game.

So where do we start?

Distilling all my ideas down, it really comes down to a compelling world - which includes everything from graphics and interactivity to plot and character. The elements in my mind which contributed to the success of Ultima VII for me included:

* Deep conversation trees that showed personality for the tons of characters, not just exposition
* NPC scripting and schedules to make them come alive
* About a gazillion items
* Interactivity with objects in the world rarely seen in a single-player RPG
* A ton of *stuff* going on no matter where you went
* A compelling plot
* A kick-butt opening (the murder mystery)
* Great attention to detail in graphics and design (I always think of the cloud shadows on the ground)
* Some outstanding sub-quests that were great stories in their own right

I don't think that's a checklist for a great RPG - I don't think you can make one with a checklist - and I think that even if you were to use Exult (the modern, open-source engine that lets you play Ultima VII on modern systems) as a base, the result would probably not live up to the original.

Even Oblivion, had most of these elements, but still came off (to me) a little flat. It may be, to some degree, a limitation of 3D graphics. The realities of depth complexity and the limitations for presenting a 3D interface on a 2D screen may make it impossible to match that level of interactivity. But I'll cut 'em some slack. After all - this has only been their fourth Elder Scrolls RPG. Maybe by the time they hit #7, they'll really hit their stride, too.

I'd like to see more indies on that path, too.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008
 
Kivi's Underworld Open Beta
Soldak Entertainment (creator of the oh-so-awesome Depths of Peril) has released a beta test version of Kivi's Underworld for both Windows and Mac, and is requesting feedback.

Give it a try and let 'em know what you think.

Kivi's Underworld Open Beta Download

The site notes that this is NOT a demo... it's just a test version.

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Monday, October 13, 2008
 
The Most Dangerous Game
For about seven months now, I've been participating pretty directly in a very old massively multiplayer online game. It's insanely PvP, with gank-fests exceeding that of the early days of Ultima Online. It's unbelievably harsh to newbies, sporting a rule system that sounds easy but actually has a learning curve that resembles Mount Everest. It is also very addictive and has received more marketing budget than World of Warcraft has ever dreamed of.

Clients are offered by multiple vendors, and while many offer a free version of the game for you to play with at no risk, the "premium" version is where the action is at. Top players of the premium version actually make money at the game. Lots of money. I've spent more on it than I think I ever spent on EverQuest the whole five years I played it.

It's called "options trading."

It's been added to a long list of obsessive interests in my life. Like I needed more.

My mother actually got me hooked on it, as she's been trading options off-and-on for years. I was watching money I had in professionally managed mutual funds lose a ton of value in the course of a single month, and I said, "Gee, I could lose that much money in a month all by myself, without paying professionals to do it for me!"

I'm happy to note that while I've lost money at it (most of it in a disastrous, over-zealous third month - lately I've been holding my own pretty well), percentage-wise I'm actually doing a lot better than my professionally-managed IRA accounts. The best part of it has been being able to make serious money as the market tanks. Not as much as my IRAs have been losing, unfortunately, but it has been kinda fun to ride Lehman Brothers down for a couple of months in a "bearish" position and make 20% - 30% profit on it in only a couple of weeks.

Options are basically contracts with expiration dates against equities (stocks, funds, etc). For example, a call option on a stock gives you the right to buy 100 shares of stock from someone at a particular price within a certain time frame. If the market price of the stock never goes that high, the contract will expire worthless - after all, you wouldn't want to pay MORE than the going market price for something, would you? But if you have a contract to buy a stock at $50, and it goes up to $60, you could exercise the contract, buy 100 shares for a total of $5000, and then sell them immediately at market price for $6000, making $1000 in the process. Pretty nice, especially if that contract only cost you $300 to begin with. More often, you don't even "exercise" that option, you just sell it to somebody else. Hey, if it's already worth $1000, you should be able to get more than $1000 out of it. Plus a little more for however much time is left on the option (because, you know, it COULD go higher...)

It even goes in the opposite direction with "put options," which go up in value as the stock goes down in price. There are a tons of different strategies to play using combinations of buying or selling calls or puts (and stock) at different strike prices and dates, to make money whether the market (or underlying equity) is going up, down, or sideways.

If it sounds like a simple way to make scads of money - it's not. As it turns out, the old adages like "buy low, sell high" or "cut your losses and let your profits run" - while completely true - are about as useful as Charles' ski coaching to Lane in the movie Better Off Dead: "Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn!" It's a zero-sum game (well, less than zero-sum, actually, as you lose a small amount of money with every transaction due to transaction charges and what's called "slippage") where new players are immediately challenging some of the best players in the world who live, eat, drink, and sleep this stuff.

As a gamer, and a game designer, I have found the whole structure fascinating.

One of the points frequently made is that it seems to be human nature (or at least a western cultural tendency) to take profits early, and let their losses run. Pretty much the opposite of the correct trading strategy. We quit while we're ahead, and we stick it out to the bitter end. Maybe it's because we hate to admit failure, or hate to admit that we are wrong.

I don't know how applicable this is in a game, because a lot of this is rooted in emotional decisions that aren't usually present when playing a game. However, I do recall a few unsuccessful raids in EverQuest back in the day where we launched successively LESS organized attacks on a boss as the night grew late - throwing away more and more experience points in a desperate bid to make the night worthwhile and salvage some value for our efforts.

The other thing that was of great interest to me is how incredibly diverse the different strategies are. You've got a market that has significant random (or seemingly random) and psychological aspects, even some out-and-out manipulation, on top of extremely complex fundamentals (which matter less in day-to-day price changes than the other factors, IMO). And you've got an amazing diversity of strategies for playing it successfully. This wide variety of successful strategies (not to mention several orders of magnitude of varieties of unsuccessful ones) - some of which seem contradictory - comes from relatively simple game rules.

It's like an iterative Prisoner's Dilemma on steroids played with hundreds of thousands of players every day.

There are a few common elements. Unlike about every other game I've ever played, most of the successful strategies actually center around losing well. It's a combination of really boring money management and risk management techniques coupled with lots of discipline, but the central point is "you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." And some of the most successful players lose more often than they win. They just know how to lose small.

Since I've been overhauling the combat system a bit (well, on paper so far) for Frayed Knights, this has led me to thinking about parallels between this and repetitive, resource-based gameplay like RPG combat. Old-school RPGs had more of this element, as you were constantly considering how many resources you'd commit to any particular fight. Did you really want to blow all that mana on a fireball right now? How about shooting (and losing) those magic arrows that cost a platinum coin each in fight where the monster is unlikely to have more than a few silver coins of loot? They are cheaper than a resurrection spell...

This could really be expanded upon and given a lot more flexibility. But I'm not sure how to do this without making the user interface even more complex and arcane than it is now...

Trading options been a wild game. It is surprisingly easy to learn once I dug into it, but brutally difficult to master - especially trying to do so during one of the most crazy economic eras since the Great Depression (everybody loves saying that, so I guess I will, too). But it appeals to a part of my brain that used to obsess over programming AI to play the game of Go.

And as you can tell from me comparing the stock market to RPG combats, it has warped my brain something fierce. Pity me.


(Vaguely) related wastes of electrons:
* Can Playing RPGs Make You Rich?
* Is DRM Killing PC Gaming?
* The Backwards MMORPG Experience

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Saturday, October 11, 2008
 
Persona 3 FES - and Indie RPGs
I have done a bad thing.

I have purchased a new RPG before finishing my last one. I'm still playing Wizardry 8, but I snagged myself a copy of Persona 3 FES for the PS2 today... because it was THERE at Best Buy. I'd actually searched for the original version about a year ago, but didn't get around to buying it from Amazon. In retrospect, I'm glad I waited. The new, "special edition" was only $30.

I'm only three hours in, and I'm probably not allowed to play it any more until after I finish Wizardry 8, but I just wanted to make some comments. Mainly one comment:

This game is freaking weird, man.

It is almost the polar opposite of hardcore old-school western RPGs like Wizardry 8, and as much as I love the latter sub-genre, this is not a bad thing.

It's kind of a supernatural modern-era horror RPG, with a really weird anime / Twilight-Zone esque premise. At midnight every night, the entire world (the entire world consisting of Japan, I guess, since it's midnight Tokyo time) freezes into some kind of time-stop, except for certain people. And monsters named shadows. Normal people are frozen in crystaline coffin shapes, and are completely unaware of the passage of the extra hour a night.

Of the people aware of the passage of time, some have a special talent to produce a persona - a part of their soul empowered with magical powers and combat ability. Naturally - for anybody who watches much anime - the ones who have this power all seem to be high school students. The seasoned veterans - almost but not quite over the hill - are seniors.

The player character must navigate the perils of high school, building up a social network, passing class, and trying to save the world at night. Oh, and get a good night's sleep.

Oh, and did I mention that the ability to produce the Personas? It is invoked by the kids shooting themselves in the head with a pistol. It's actually called an "evoker" - but it's basically a creepy false-suicide ritual.

Oh, and the power of the Persona is partly based on your social network (the emotional bonds from relationships with others) - so a big part of the game is effectively a higher-budget dating sim.

The expansion included in this apparently has a whole Groundhog Day-esque time-loop plot.

Truly. Freaking. Weird.

But in a cool way. Oh, and it's got turn-based combat, too. Extra cool points.

You know, success or not, why don't we get more really off-the-wall crap like this? While the combat doesn't deviate much from the standard jRPG formula, the setting and premise and everything else is so different from your run-of-the-mill Final Fantasy clone that it's ... it's...

It's almost indie.

Actually, with the exception of the really crappy Super Columbine Massacre RPG and a couple of others, too many indie RPGs seem absolutely mundane and conventional in comparison. And this is a shame. Why don't we indies have more weird, bizarre, funkalitious games like this? Or do we, and I have just missed them?

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Friday, October 10, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: Dungeon Guidebook
Since we're back in the saddle again, I wanted to continue the more-or-less weekly discussion of the humorous indie RPG in development, Frayed Knights...

One of the more fun tasks I get to do when working on this game is the world design. When I'd take walks during lunch at the local park, jamming to really weird music and fantasy movie soundtracks on my iPod, I'd actually think of world design elements in the form of written travel guides. Yes, if you needed any more confirmation of my mental instability, this is it.

Anyway, I've written a couple of them up, and I expect them to find their way into Frayed Knights as actual in-game items (or as part of an instruction supplement). Here's the one on dungeons, which I have been promising for a while, and which has been guiding some of my thoughts the last two weeks.

These guidebooks were written by one of the most famous adventurers still living, Argus Stormhammer, the founder of the Adventurer's Guild. He wrote a whole series of pamphlet-sized guidebooks about a decade ago, and they are now considered essential reading for all adventurers.

Argus Stormhammer’s Guide to Adventuring in Kalderia
Pamphlet 3: Dungeons

“Dungeon” is a generic term for any underground adventuring location. As any veteran fortune-hunter knows, Kalderia – in fact, all of Zerion – is absolutely cluttered with these places. Where did they all come from? What beneficent god sprinkled these lovely caches of fortune and excitement ripe for our plucking all over the landscape of our fair kingdom?

Well, a good number – a majority, in fact – are simply naturally occurring caves or lairs of subterranean monsters. But to understand the rest – which are usually the most lucrative – one must understand history. History is the friend of the fortune-hunter, and it will serve us here.

About three hundred years ago as of this writing, the entire world was engulfed in the great Wizard War. Before that time, above-ground castles and towers were still in vogue – as they are returning to, now. But the wizards had air-power. Nepharides himself was rumored to lead an entire squadron of fire-breathing dragons. Traditional castles which seemed impregnable from the ground might as well roll out the red carpet when the hordes of winged monkeys, dragons, flying demons, and magic-carpet-riding wizards came to invade.

The solution was to burrow underground. The best dwarven engineers were enlisted to design and construct massive underground complexes to supplement or replace above-ground fortresses. Even after the war, a grand underground fortress was a status symbol amongst the wealthy and noble, and fantastic sums of money were paid for the design and construction of everything from small country cottages under forested hills, to entire underground cities.

While the dwarves were happy to oblige, they simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. Their fees were tremendous, and the waiting time began to stretch into generations. Eventually, more cost-conscious developers began hiring cut-rate help… including goblin engineers.

Now, while there are many skilled goblins at this sort of work, they weren’t always the most reputable. Many would turn around and double their money by selling the secrets of their designs to the enemies of their rich clients. Non-dwarves sometimes skimped on things like ventilation. That, or dungeon-owners would forget the population limits on their fortresses, and would host a few too many guests, or have a few too many babies. Then, before you could say, “Why is this canary dead?” entire dungeons became depopulated and forgotten.

Dungeon Delving
Now, most adventurers will brag in their tavern tales of fierce monsters and deadly traps faced in their underground forays. These threats are considerable, and I have lost many friends to these dangers over the years. I talk about them in other pamphlets. But there is another threat when deep underground, and that is bad air. There may be pockets of bad or toxic air in some of the poorer-quality mines, caves, or fortresses which may not be apparent to you until you start getting dizzy and passing out. There are magic items and spells (like one the wizards call “clean air”) to help you with that.

Water is a large threat as well. It’s usually very cold, which is bad enough, but it is also good at concealing dangerous drop-offs. And monsters. And traps. A potion of fish-breath is a handy item to keep around just in case the water surprises you with its depth.

Just because you have heard that such-and-such a dungeon has already been looted by other adventurers, don’t assume it is useless to you. It may still be a lucrative expedition for three reasons:

#1 – Many complexes that protect considerable wealth employ a false treasure room designed specifically to be more obvious of a target. The real treasure is often much harder to find. Many treasure-hunters find the false treasure, call the day a success, and leave a now-depopulated dungeon with far more wealth unprotected behind them.

#2 – Larger underground complexes were often home to a number of wealthy individuals who maintained (and hid) their own personal treasures in places other than the main treasure room. I once found a diamond necklace hidden in a cranny beneath a loose stone in complex that had been thoroughly explored by no less than three different adventuring parties.

#3 – Unless well hidden, shelters such as these seldom remain uninhabited for long. If more than a couple of years have passed since a dungeon was last explored, there’s always a chance it could have accumulated new residents – often of the lethal and hungry sort – and new treasures.

#4 – While some consider it unsavory, there is always the possibility of the types of finds euphemistically referred to as “secondhand” treasure. I know that if I were to meet my own demise in the bowels of a dungeon – a danger I have faced thousands of times – my spirit would rest easier should my array of expensive and magical gear find its way to serve another adventurer in need, even if only to provide extra coin to hoist a mug of ale to my memory in a nearby tavern.

Dungeon Classification
You may sometimes hear fellow adventurers talking about a “Bagger” or a “Lair” or a “Class C” when talking about dungeons. Fortune-hunters, over time, have evolved a classification system when speaking of their finds. Here is the most common usage of these terms:

Class A Dungeon: Also referred to as a “stronghold,” this an underground complex populated by intelligent, cooperative enemies capable of mounting an organized defense. These are among the most dangerous of dungeons, and are for experienced, combat-ready fortune-hunters only!

Class B Dungeon: Also referred to as a “lair,” this is an underground structure populated by threats incapable of mounting an organized defense together. For example, a dungeon inhabited only by unintelligent monsters, or by intelligent creatures that do not cooperate with each other to defend it might be a class B dungeon.

Class C Dungeon: A class C dungeon is one that lacks a living population, but is likely to contain automated defenses such as traps, automatons (including golems and certain sorts of undead), or incidental hazards (like hostile molds).

Class D Dungeon: Also referred to as a “bagger,” this is a dungeon with no known protection other than its obscurity or possible environmental hazards.

Now, bear in mind that this usage isn’t universal. Some adventuring groups combine the meaning of class C and D dungeons, for example, so you should always double-check your source to make sure you fully understand what they are referring to.

Until next time, keep your sword and mine sharp, and good hunting!

--- Argus Stormhammer, Veteran Explorer and Fortune-Hunter


Oh, hey! Forum Discussion!

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Thursday, October 09, 2008
 
RPG Design: Building a Better Dungeon
I spent a good deal of time last night going over visuals for dungeons - real-world dungeons, as well as artist renditions and video game dungeons. Of course modern, fantasy dungeons are very different in both form and function from their real-world counterparts. Real-world dungeons were not much more than white-washed stone pits with cells. Though as time goes by, the white-washing has gone away to be replaced by lime deposits and mold.

Which I guess is supposed to be the point of fantasy dungeons. They are generally old and no longer maintained. And they are huge complexes that serve as lairs more than a place to hold unwanteds.

Naturally, I was doing this because I was busy building content for Frayed Knights. Experimental content, but content. In some ways, this is a follow-up of last week's article, but getting down into the details. Yeah, I write about what is currently obsessing me.

The tricky thing about dungeons for fantasy adventures is that they have to ... uh... not be realistic. Realistic is boring. I mean, really - if there's only one entrance into the dungeon, all you need to do is lay siege to the entrance, ring an alarm bell, and sit in for a long siege. Or block off the ventilation. If there's an organized force of orcs or whatever in that dungeon, they should REALLY just attack as a unified swarm, overpowering the Player Characters by sheer mass of numbers.

Part of the fun of designing the world of Frayed Knights has been coming up with justification for some of the goofy logic we D&D players have to assume in order to suspend our disbelief. Like why the freak are there all these gigantic, underground complexes everywhere. Dungeons & Dragons has subtle explanations, in the form of dwarves & other creatures that were superhuman miners, and the availability of spells like "Dig" (which disappeared in 3rd edition), and "Stone Shape" and "Rock to Mud / Mud to Rock."

But what we lack in logic, we can at least make up for in consistency, and appealing to real-world conventions where they make sense (or even where they don't). Things like arched ceilings are a pain to model, but are architecturally more sound than squared-off flat ceilings we are used too. Lacking that, frequent support pillars and cross-beams to keep the tons of earth and dirt from collapsing the dungeon in on itself can help with visual appeal.

I was halfway through with this post when I discovered Shamus Young - by some bizarre act of serendipity - had addressed some of the same issues for making more "realistic" dungeons. Not realistic as in behaving realistically (in the aforementioned boring fashion), but to maintain enough verisimilitude that the details bring the world alive. Since I was just going to talk about how a certain Hackmaster module had a creature living in the kobold's latrine (and just enough kobolds would get drunk and forget to keep the monster fed), I'll simply refer to Shamus's article. He saved me about a thousand words.

GM Advice: Dungeons that Make Sense at Twenty Sided

Finally, another factor to consider is history and the effects of time. I'm not necessarily talking about ancient history (like the fact the Temple of Pokmor Xang was originally created for a much more terrible deity, a fact which might not ever even be useful in the game itself), but simply the problem that most fantasy adventure locations exist in some kind of stasis. Nothing beyond the basic routine ever seems to happen until the player gets there. The monsters just sit patiently in their little dungeon-apartments waiting for the day when the door will burst open and adventurers will appear, like the evil opposite of opportunity knocking, and kill everything in sight and take their stuff.

One aspect to consider is to consider the history of the location - from its original construction (it was originally built for a dragon, so everything is BIG) down to what happened yesterday. Barg the goblin and his mate got in a fight, and now Barg is sleeping out in the hall. That hanging bone decoration in the chieftain's sleeping chamber is actually the missing adventurer the people in town were talking about last week.

The problem with adding time details is that they risk becoming obsolete when the player comes back to the location a second time. In a pen-and-paper RPG, the GM can try and wing it (in fact, the old Against the Giants module series for AD&D made suggestions for how the giants would react to repeat forays by the players). But in a computer RPG, the static nature of those details makes it glaringly obvious its all a setup. Not that this surprises the player, but it still interferes with the suspension of disbelief. So these have to be added with care.

Dang. And I thought my job was done when I connected some 30' x 30' rooms together with short 10' wide hallways.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008
 
Frayed Knights Wins Game-In-A-Year Competition
I'm very pleased to announce that the Frayed Knights Pilot: The Temple of Pokmor Xang has won the Dream Games' "Game In a Year" competition that began in April 2007, and culminated in April of this year.

The competition may have ended in April, but judging between some very strong entries took a little bit longer.

The announcement was made on Dream Game's forums last night. Rampant Games was cited as being "consistent throughout development, had the best quality product which adhered to their design, provided excellent testing and feedback cycles through their community."

Oh, yeah, community! That's you guys. Thank you. We literally could not have done it without you.

We had a TON of people sign up for the alpha and beta testing of the game, and while the pilot version of the game is probably not the pinnacle of polish and freedom from bugs (or even solid gameplay), suffice to say that the alpha test team endured far, far worse. Certain people in particular worked their butts off with suggestions and detailed test reproduction steps with every single build, probably growing almost as tired of the same level as I was. I'm going to note Random Gamer, francotau, DGM, Cowgod, Samrobb, Ezin, NME, JenaRey, Space Bumby (or, more particularly, her kids --- who gave it quite a workout), Califer, Smackey, and probably others who were quite active the first month but their posts got reaped by accident.

RandomGamer, DGM, and Cowgod in particular were amazing with their constant feedback and suggestions. They would dig DEEP to help me uncover some hard-to-find bugs. And I sometimes ignored their suggestions to my own regret.

Even those who were not heavily involved in testing provided me with some great advice and suggestions in my weekly development diaries. I made some major changes during development based on the advice of clear-thinking readers who were able to point out some areas where I was completely overthinking the problem, or going down the wrong path.

Likewise - I have been deluged with feedback from people who played the pilot. I have received over 700 responses with useful feedback and comments that are helping me shape the full version of Frayed Knights. Some people sent me gigantic forms of information full of brilliant insights, and some suggestions I'm dang well trying to incorporate. Granted, it's kinda humbling to realize that just about everybody BUT me could spot some of the glaring problems with the design. But this is about you, and about the game.

Several other communities have been very supportive of this project. The folks at RPGWatch, RPG Codex, Iron Tower Studio (More indie RPG goodness - also done with Torque!), Scorpia's Gaming Lair, RPGDX, and Game Banshee have been way, way cool and have offered plenty by way of both crits and encouragement.

You. Guys. Rock.

So - what's next?

Obviously, the Frayed Knights Pilot was just the first step. It served its purpose, as a scouting mission to see where I was on the right track and where I was completely in a different timezone from the right track. It was a complete game, albeit not a perfect one. We were able to get a lot done in a single year, and I'm very proud of it - particularly as my first released RPG (if you don't count Hackenslash).

Now comes the hard part - to make twelve times the game in less than twelve times the development time. Neither you nor I have the patience to wait twelve more years for its release. So what's it going to take? I don't entirely know the answer to this question. I have ideas, but not answers.

But this first chapter of the saga is completed, and I'm thrilled with what we've been able to pull off. Again - much of the credit goes to this and "neighboring" communities.

Thank you.


Wanna talk about it some more? There's a forum thread, even!

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008
 
Learning to Love the Grind
This is probably not the revelation of the decade, but more and more games are adopting RPG-ish elements to enhance their own gameplay. On-screen avatars may be able to upgrade equipment through found coins, and may "level up" as they defeat enemies - making them more capable of defeating ... uh, bigger enemies. I even played a BREAKOUT game the other day with the ability to upgrade and customize your avatar in ways that would once relegate it to the "RPG Ghetto." Except that back then, it wasn't a ghetto, it was one of the hottest genres in computer gaming. But I digress...

The cynical side of me sees this additional "grind" as a lame means for designers to encourage players to replay old areas just to "grind" more levels so they can better deal with harder, higher levels. Re-kill monsters a few dozen times, gain an extra couple of levels for +4 hit points and +10% damage per hit, and then you'll finally get that edge over the end-boss --- at a cost of only one extra hour of repetitive gameplay!

And there's a frustrated old-schooler side of me who sees the very definition of "role-playing game" get dilluted as the every other genre jumps in and loots the genre of its identifying virtues, all the while decrying "role-playing games" as being a "boring" video game genre for nerds only. Of course, then developers keep trying to rush to the rescue of the genre by making it more like the action games the cool kids are playing.

But then, there's the gamer in me.

And as embarrassing as it is to admit it, to a point - I don't mind the grind. I even like it sometimes. I like the regular feedback, and the feeling of incremental progress. The artificial boost to my skill in the game is addictive. It is its own scaling difficulty modifier, in some ways. The bottom line is that it works. It's fun. I find that these stolen RPG elements improve most games. I find myself cheering on that stupid tower - four more enemies and it will level up, becoming an even more potent bastion of defence for my unspecified treasures.

But again - that's only up to a point. When the optional grinding starts dominating the gameplay, it becomes an issue. There's probably a fine line in there somewhere that is different for every player.

But there is something to that whole feeling of "leveling up" and upgrading on a regular basis that really is addictive and fun. Even if it leads to a little bit of grinding.

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Monday, October 06, 2008
 
What Makes a Good Game Designer
Game Set Watch has an article called, "How to Hire a Good Game Designer." Scott Jennings has a follow-up on Broken Toys entitled, "How to Interview (As) A Game Designer."

As I have said before, when I first entered the video games industry, I knew I was a brilliant game designer. As my experience has grown, I now feel I suck at it. What was responsible for this regression?

Naturally, a lot of it simply had to do with me learning how much more I had to learn. Like every hard-core game fan, I had a bunch of opinions and ideas when I started out. While I'd done some game development on my own, I'd never actually stood the test of releasing my creations to the public. But then there's the whole shattered confidence thing, and my soul getting sucked dry by too many years in the business, which no doubt contributed to a real plunge in my game design talent.

But I think these articles point out some of the ingredients essential to a good game designer. They are not exhaustive - you can have a terrible designer to demonstrates all of these abilities. But I think they outline some key requirements:

#1 - A good game designer is passionate (and opinionated) about games. 'Nuff said.

#2 - A good game designer is detail-oriented. Most human beings understand fun, and can come up with some big ideas for what might be fun in a game. But it is the tiny details that make or break a game. The subtle weighting of risk vs. reward, the delicate balance between abstraction and complexity, and the ability to turn all the zillions of little factors and ideas into numbers and logic are all part of this.

#3 - A good game designer is a strong communicator. They can explain to their team what they want. They can demonstrate and explain the gameplay to the player through the medium and make it fun. They can succinctly explain what makes an element "fun."

#4 - A good game designer is flexible and can adapt and change his (or her) design to meet the demands of the real world.

#5 - A good game designer has a breadth of gaming and non-gaming interests and experience. They can incorporate ideas from all over into their game, not being limited to just what they've seen in World of Warcraft.

#6 A good game designer understands fun. And understands how to translate this into a good gaming experience.

I've found that a lot of game designers are like a lot of marketing people in the games biz - they just play follow-the-leader, and copy what the front-runners are doing. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, assuming the designer understand WHY said design decisions were made in the first place.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008
 
Scrapped Princess
Okay, this may only be of interest to like... two people. But we just finished watching the anime series "Scrapped Princess." It had received good praise on Netflix, so we decided to give it a try.

After the first disc (four episodes), we weren't sure we wanted to finish watching the series. It wasn't bad, but the episodes were fairly pedestrian. Standard fantasy fare, with the perky, feisty young girl and her protective siblings making their way from town to town while being hunted. In this case, she's being hunted by almost everyone in the world - she is the subject of a religious prophecy that she will be the "poison that destroys the world." Those who meet her have a tough time reconciling the evil nature of this prophecy with this cute, friendly, utterly non-aggressive fifteen-year-old.

The plotline and characters were just interesting enough for us to stick with it in spite of the corniness and typical anime voice-acting. The story took some very interesting twists after the second disc or so. For one thing, it turned out to be science fiction instead of fantasy. Complete with mecha (of a sort). It ends up covering some themes such as the role of religion, and the role of free will versus destiny. Nothing particularly Shakespearean, but I was still very pleasantly surprised. By about the halfway point of the 24 episodes, we were hooked, although there were a couple of episodes where the exposition was thick enough to have been layered on with a shovel.

Anyway - I consider myself a fan of anime, but I haven't seen a ton of it. Frankly, there's enough really weird crap out there that I've been scared away from much of it unless I receive a personal recommendation from someone. We took a chance on this series, and it was a pleasant surprise. If you are in the same boat, this one may be worth taking a look at. It's currently available via Netflix, which made it easy and low-risk for us.

We felt the movie was pretty appropriate for our kids, but it has its share of animated blood, violence, and death - including the violent death of a fairly significant character. The latter upset my ten-year-old, mainly because she still subscribes to the "some characters are too pretty to die" philosophy of fiction. But I'd say this show is definitely in the "Parental Guidance" category. But worth checking out.

And here's the official trailer:

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Friday, October 03, 2008
 
Frayed Knights: Dungeons Scrawls
Here's an update on the progress of Frayed Knights, the comedy-based indie RPG in development by Rampant Games.

You know, it's much, much easier to draw a map out on graph paper than it is to actually develop it as a full-fledged game level. Especially when you are not very good at the latter. The programmer in me wants to create a tool that will let me just draw the walls of a level (or adapt one of several programs out there that already do that), and convert it to a .map file. There's just one problem: The end result will look just as bad as what I'm already creating. It's all about the details.

As much as I'm trying to draw upon old-school pen-and-paper D&D for inspiration, there are a few things that just won't work. And frankly, the very 2D, rectilinear dungeons of yesteryear make very poor 3D CRPG dungeons. I remember Tracy Hicman, co-author of the Ravenloft module and the Dragonlance series, bringing this up at one conference (which I mentioned in one of my Wizardry 8 walkthrough articles) - old-school D&D dungeon design is boring and flat. I don't want levels to just be populated by practically random monsters, where you just kick the door down and find out what monster is behind it. While that is very old-school dungeon crawl, even back in the late 70's / early 80's, the dungeon crawls had a lot more rhyme & reason to them and theming than even many of the CRPGs of the 90's.

But before I ever even sketch out the map on graph paper, and long before fire up my level editing tool (currently I'm taking another stab at Torque Constructor), I need to have a very clear idea for each major level. I want these settings to stand out, not to be just random geometry with random combat. Players can get plenty of exercise doing that playing Diablo or NetHack (and even those games have some theming in their levels).

I have been going through this exercise for a couple of the upcoming dungeons I'm working on. For each one, and the outdoor areas, I want to answer these questions on paper. Yeah, it's design-doc-ish stuff, but a good exercise even as the only guy working on the project. And if I manage to contract Kevin or other unlucky level designers to handle some of the actual construction, they'll need this same kinda information

I'm going to use the Temple of Pokmor Xang as the example here, since ya'll have already played it and stuff. Assuming you could stomach it. It's gonna get better, I promise! :)


#1 - What do I want the player experience to be?
In the case of the Temple of Pokmor Xang, this was to provide an introduction and tutorial to the principle game mechanics of the game. The dungeon should provide a simplified view of the breadth of gameplay, and provide a representative sample of the quality of the game to come. It should also provide a good example of the humor and parody elements.

#2 - What is the physical setting of this level? What should be unique about it?
For Pokmor Xang, this was an underground temple used by evil cultist long, ago.

In more recent years, it was reclaimed by a different cult - the cultists of Pokmor Xang, a loser of a god - and a loser of a cult. The primary "set-piece" of the dungeon is the altar room, where the ominous statue of a dark god would ordinarily appear pretty impressive and scary. In PX's case, it's should appear lame, and comical in contrast to what the apparent "desired effect" would be. The entire level should reflect this - it's a much bigger, more impressive and potentially threatening setting than it really deserves to be.

#3 - What is the history of this area? How can this history be incorporated into game elements to make it more interesting?
There should also be some old signs as to the previous ownership of the temple. This actually didn't come through very well, and would need to be enhanced. There should also be some indication of why the PX cultists are here now, explaining the storyline to those who want to follow it.

#4 - What are the principle encounter types? Why are they here? What makes them different in combat?
For Pokmor Xang, the two principle encounter types are cultists (magic-using and melee), and their disgusting creations - pus golems. Brittlebone skeletons provided a minor break in the action. Kraltic Barg is the "boss" bad guy.

The big contrast should be in the player encountering what should be a major, scary evil cult, but it is more of a fifth-string cult of bumpkins playing at being evil and nasty. The boss himself, Kraltic Barg, should actually be a little bit scary and competent, but he's content with being a big fish in a tiny pond.

Unfortunately, those encounters have failed to provide enough of a distinctive feel in combat - something I need to remedy:

* Ordinary Cultists should be a pretty straightforward melee encounter versus humans - moderately hard-hitting, moderately good at soaking damage. Pretty much the baseline for an encounter.

* Priests should make things interesting with their usage of priestly magic. The players should learn a bit about the threat from casters.

* Pus Golems should be a somewhat more unusual melee encounter, easier to take down (especially with fire), but with an unusual special attack.

* Brittlebone Skeletons should be the cannon fodder of the level. They should appear in larger numbers, present little threat, and be chomped down like Doritos.

#5 - What are some other unique features of this level? What are the non-combat encounters / events that take place (besides the usual locks & traps)? We're talking tricks, puzzles, riddles, and non-combat NPC encounters here.
The meditation room turned out to be a very visually impressive room, and I wanted an "old school" fountain puzzle to be a simple interactive object encounter - a puzzle.

The torture room was simply different by nature of its function. In this chamber, I wanted a non-combat NPC encounter with a prisoner. I wanted it to be something of a parody of an old-school "trick" - the beautiful women held captive who almost always turned out to be a villain. Her true nature is only revealed later in town (though not in the demo). This encounter isn't quite working right.

The entry hall was just sort of a subtle joke by itself - a grandiose hall for a less-than-grandiose deity. While not an encounter, it stands out.

There's a secret door next to the statue. In retrospect, I think I need to draw more attention to it so that players can learn about "secret doors."

The collapsed stairway was a bonus provided by Kevin. I need to do more with it.

#6 - How is the player expected to progress through the level? What are the non-linear level progression options? Why should the player visit this location more than once? As a final bit of functionality which is not 100% working yet (I'm probably going to have to completely revamp the AI / encounter system for this) - I also wanted to make it so that skipping earlier encounters made the boss encounter more difficult. This was something of a "soft linearity" added to the level. You could make a beeline straight for the boss chamber, but you'll have a difficult lock to bypass, and you'll have a really tough final encounter. I'm not sure how well that played out.

There's also supposed to be a special encounter behind the southern door in the statue room that can only be reached later in the game on a subsequent visit. That's not in the demo, and I won't talk about it here.

#7 - What are some of the secrets / bonuses in the level?
There's a secret door by the statue, behind which most of the best treasure in the level is found.

The torture chamber is optional and holds some extra loot, as well as an NPC encounter that should pay off a little bit later in the game.

And then there's the southern door in the statue room.

#8 - What is the player's purpose for visiting this level? What is their ultimate goal?
The player is dumped here as the starting point in the game - starting with a bang. The player finds out, through character conversation and the journal, that they are here on a good ol' fashioned mercenary expedition to loot some item for a benefactor.

#9 - How does this level advance the main story arc? How does it advance any sub-story quests?
Sub-story: The players get introduced to their rivals by discovering that they are the SECOND adventuring party to hit this temple. The first group was far more efficient.

Main Story: Kraltic Barg has a benefactor who gave him the valuable jewels that are the object of this quest in the first place. And - this may be too subtle, I don't know - the player may note a room that WOULD have been a very explosive experience given Chloe's known preference for fire-based spells.


My actual answers are a little longer in the original design document, but not in this format. I didn't want to bore you too much by just printing them here. But nevermind the answers - how would you expand on these questions?

Wanna chat in more detail? Check out the forum!

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Urban Fantasy Author Interviews
Friend and sometimes guest-poster here at Tales, Jana (aka JenaRey) and her colleague Kris McAlear have interviewed several authors of the "Urban Fantasy" genre. If you are unfamiliar with that genre, think Harry Potter, Harry Dresden, the Twilight series, and pretty much everything else that combines the modern world with fantasy that wouldn't be classified as "horror."

They will be publishing a new interview every Monday and Friday for the next several weeks - until Halloween. Their first interview is up today, with Anton Strout, author of "Dead To Me." As a side note - he is a gamer (like a growing percentage of people in Western civilization), though he's finally managed to escape the tractor beam of certain MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest 2. He also invokes the sacred name of Joss Whedon in somewhat reverential tones, which also makes him okay in my book.

Reality Bypass Blog

Interview with Anton Strout

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Thursday, October 02, 2008
 
Wizardry 8 Part XI: Swimming With the Psi-Sharks
I'm continuing the saga of my first-time play-through of Wizardry 8, the final game of the classic RPG series that spanned 20 years.

After all the excitement with the T'Rang, I reported back to Mount Gigas for my next orders from their mortal enemies, the Umpani. I was to report for scuba training, and then rescue (or find out what happened to) an expedition that swam through the Water Caves to Bayjin.

I lost both Sparkle and Vi. Vi was afraid of a sea monster. Man, I'm so disappointed in her. We've faced death in the guise of a thousand horrible monsters, and she's scared of some critter in the water?

I went ahead and let them go. It's too bad - we could have really used both of them. The sea caves were HELL. Mostly because of the Psi-Sharks - and the fact we were underwater.

The underwater part was annoying because our best area-effect damage-dealing spells (fireballs and firestorms) were useless. On top of that, nearly everything we encountered was immune to water-based spells, which nearly eliminated some of our OTHER top spells. When you are blowing most of your spell points for the category just doing an average of 5 points of damage to a group of monsters with 250 hit points, its just not worth it.

And then there were the psi-sharks themselves. They were also pretty much immune to mind spells. Basically, they are pretty friggin' immune to everything down there. And we encountered tons of them. Even with Soul Shield and magic screens up, they were regularly getting powers through that would paralyze or turn our own party members against us. Since our magical effects were severely limited against them, they'd have a huge advantage against us at range, and rushing forward to attack would expose us to an extra round or two of uncontested mind-warping, party-killing effects.

I was not amused.

Once we got through the psi-sharks, the ghost pirates, and a few other monsters, we emerged in the Bayjin Shallows. This was really fun, because this was the realm of that little sea-monster. Named Nessie, after that quaint little legend from Scottland, I guess. Except the Nessie near Bayjin is a level 25 sea-dragon that is pretty much impervious to everything and can kill party members in a single round. She doesn't move, however, so we were able to make our way around her by dodging from rock outcropping to rock outcropping. There was one section where we simply couldn't make it behind cover in a single round, however, so we just had to suck it up and hope she didn't hit us with anything too lethal.

We found some caves around her, with some monsters and treasures of various kinds. One of the caves went to Bayjin. There were also some skeletons and IUF ID tags that I thought might be the remains of the missing Umpani I was supposed to find (they weren't...)

We didn't completely explore Bayjin, mainly because we were getting our collective butts kicked. Even some of the dumb crabs here were just nasty, and made the Rayjin seem like pushovers by comparison. However, I did find a wrecked space ship with a nonfunctioning blaster pistol and a working black-box recorder.

I left Bayjin with the mission incomplete - and found the trip back to Mt. Gigas to be, if anything, worse than the trip there in the first place. Long, long, nasty, horrible battles. Mostly with Psi-sharks. Through tunnels with very little chance to avoid the suckers.

Returning, and finding the IUF ID tags were insufficient, I decided to run a few more quests and gain a few more levels to see if they'd help. Though, typically, I've found that most levels continue to throw harder and harder challenges at you as you level, so it's impossible to get ahead unless you get REALLY far ahead. I can teleport back to Arnika now, but I still end up getting into a lot of fights along the road. These fights aren't challenging anymore, just time consuming. Every once in a while I'll manage to dodge all enemies along the road, which makes my day. I've tried drinking Tincture of Shadows potions to be less visible, but they make very little difference. I wonder if they'd work better against psi-sharks?

I went back to Trynton, and managed to pay a visit to the shaman again - armed with more knowledge. He decided that, like Neo, I was the chosen one (well, "we" - it's a group effort with my party and all), and gave me the key to obtain the Helm of Serenity. Most amusingly, the key didn't unlock the big barred door to get to the helm. Instead, it got me to the hut above the one with the helm, where I was able to drop down through a hole in the floor into the locked room with the Helm of Serenity. I was able to unlock the barred door from the inside and walk out. I guess if you are trying to defeat Ratkin thieves, you need to make the obvious route impossible like that. I liked it.

After that, I returned to the T'Rang again. I was nervous about handing over the Chaos Moliri, but after saving my game, I let them borrow it. The dude was very impressed, and gave it back to me. He then told me that they wanted to attack the Dark Savant's ship (though he's a secondary target to the Umpani, I guess), and needed to get the coordinates of his ship in space.

Hmmm.... I just got a black box from a ship that had been shot down by the Dark Savant's ship, right?

Teleporting back to Arnika, and facing some new, improved models of the Savant's androids --- VERY nasty pieces of work, let me tell you --- I was able to fight through to the spaceport, and inserted the black box into the reader.

Unfortunately, I was missing a scanner, so it was almost useless.

Actually, I had the scanner on me all the time. I just didn't know it. It was a mysterious little orb that was located at the bottom of a Hogarr pen in Trynton back when I was getting the living crap kicked out of me by those tiny naked winged women. I'd forgotten all about it! Once I installed it into the computer, I was able to get the actual coordinates of "the black ship." I returned with that information to the T'Rang, who rewarded me with lots of money and 300,000 experience points. Once upon a time, that would have been a lot. But my party is around 18th level now, and those levels are coming very, very slowly.

Now I'm supposed to locate someone named Drazic for the T'Rang, but they aren't giving me any clues where to find him. I've probably MET the dude before, and just don't remember who he is.

Taking Design Notes
Okay. I'm still loving Wizardry 8, but I got some real serious bones to pick with it at this point.

Number one - long, thin zones with lots of patrolling monsters. Like the water caves. And the road. And some other areas. There are monsters here EVERY time. Kill a zillion bandits, and a zillion more return on your return trip. The combats feel like just a way to stretch out the game - by a significant margin. When I'm spending an hour just "getting through" to someplace interesting, there's a problem.

Number two - scaling encounters. I'm actually not opposed to scaling encounters in principle, but it really robs the game of a feeling of progress. When every encounter is roughly the same difficulty level, it also robs the game of a lot of its texture. It robs the player of a chance to simply "come back later" to a too-difficult section, because said section of the game will simply be increased to an even greater difficulty level later. Wizardry 8 isn't quite as bad as Oblivion in this respect, but I'm still not thrilled with the approach. Psi-sharks are wicked-hard, and would be fine as major encounters. But spending forty-five minutes out of every hour fighting them gets really, really tedious.

Number three - weapons. My fighter is still equipped with her newbie battle axe. There have been all kinds of swords, spears, and bows I've found in the game... but not axes. Maybe I've just gotten unlucky, but I wanted my dwarf to wield an axe, dang it. And now she's doing less melee damage than the little faerie with a stick! If you have a weapon skill in the game, make sure it is supported by, like, you know... actual weapons that use that skill.

And as a word of praise - Nessie. A big ol' honkin' uber-monster in the center of a level, taunting you. Awesome. I loved it. There was simply no way to take her on at this point, but we didn't have to. Key point. Hopefully she will not scale up in difficulty level when we meet her again. I totally want to turn her hide into a few pairs of boots.


More Wizardry 8 Play-Through Entries:
Part I: So a Samuari, a Valkyrie, and a Bishop Walk Into a Bar...
Part II: Running the Gauntlet
Part III: Vi Domina Tricks
Part IV: Arnika Bank - No Safer Than Under the Mattress
Part V: In Fear of Little Naked Winged Women
Part VI: Old-School Goes Old-School
Part VII: Ratts!
Part VIII: Dances With Rhinos
Part IX: My Duplicity Has a Price
Part X: Missing Men and Mutant Frogs
Part XI: Swimming With the Psi-Sharks
Part XII: Desperately Seeking Marten
Part XIII: Lucky Thirteen, Unlucky Rapax
Part XIV: Storming the Castle

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008
 
Foils and Fitness
Great googley-moogley, what have I done?

My personal exercise regimen, designed to put off the pounds I gained while working 14-hour days and feasting on catered dinners at the previous day job since last November, has been failing. Mostly because I haven't been doing it.

Knowing what a goal-driven guy I am, I decided to take advantage of an adult fencing class - with the goal of not embarrassing myself.

Now, I've done this before. The fencing, I mean. I'm not sure about avoiding embarrassment. I even have all the equipment - glove, mask, two foils, the white pants, jacket, even the lame and wires for electronic scoring. Unfortunately, the fencing club closed six years ago, and I wasn't sure if I'd ever have the opportunity to use that equipment again. My favorite foil (the blade used for the most common form of fencing - sort of the sporting evolution of the rapier) has started to gather a little bit of rust. I guess that's only fair, as I have, too.

My wife pointed the class out to me in an adult education catalog. I signed up, remembering that I had lost about ten pounds in two months the last time I did it. It was only after I paid my tuition that I remembered the other thing about the class... pain. Yes, that was it. Lots and lots of pain. Discovering muscles that I hadn't known existed. I sorta remembered that it got better after the first three weeks or so, but ... yeah. There had been pain. And fatigue so bad that I had to rest in my car for ten minutes before driving home because my arms were shaking.

Great.

And, with that in mind, I'm at it again. Last night was my first session. My legs actually more-or-less moved the way they'd been taught years earlier --- I was actually proud of them. Advance-advance-advance-retreat-retreat-advance-LUNGE! Then they went all rebellious on me, losing most of my respect, and simply refused to accept orders from upstairs and just turned into rubber. This would have been worse if my upper body hadn't been pretty lazy about following commands, too. I can't believe how out-of-shape I am.

But at least I get to stab at people. That always makes it worthwhile.

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