Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Sunday, November 30, 2008
Free Texture Sites
For those game developers / artists among us:

List of Free Texture Sites

Hat tip to BlenderNation for the link.


Friday, November 28, 2008
Mama Kills Animals
In time for Thanksgiving, and in protest to Majesco's very popular Cooking Mama game series, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has released a parody game called "Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals."

In the game, you pluck, disembowel, and chop the head off a still-bleeding turkey, make stuffing with eggs that bleed and are filled with feathers, stuff the bird, and prepare a thoroughly unappetizing meal with dirty hands as the "Mean" Mama, getting points for being "meaner" than mama by beating the clock. After this, Mama apparently gets disgusted by her own actions, goes vegan, and runs through a similar exercise preparing a Tofu Turkey. Which, I must say, looks no more appetizing to me.

Judging by many responses, the game unfortunately miscalculated its audience. I guess gamers are used to entirely unrealistic gibs, beheadings, gore, and lots of blood from games, and found the turkey-cleaning segments quite entertaining. On the plus side, though, the game is well-made, does provide an alternative in the second half, and provides little videos and text links to explain their rationale.

I am very much a carnivore, and not a big fan of PETA. I've spent some time on a farm and have had to do the killing and cleaning myself the old-fashioned way. But while I'm not swayed by the message, I do have to hand it to them on the game front. The game is pretty well done.

And so - if you are ready for a gore-filled holiday culinary experience - enjoy!

Cooking Mama Kills Animals

EDIT: Replaced the embedded game with a link, since there is no volume control and the scream & music can get annoying.


Thursday, November 27, 2008
Original Zork Manual Sells for over $2300
We're talking the original PDP version here, with less than 100 copies sold:

Zork Infocom PDP-11 First Edition Manual

Wow! We have history! And it's worth something!


The Grateful Gamer
For those in the United States who read this: Happy Thanksgiving.

For everybody else: Happy ... uh, Thursday!

In the spirit of the day, here are just a few things I am thankful for as a gamer today -- in no particular order.

* Yngwie Malmsteen on Rock Band this week. I didn't know the songs, but that was okay - he basically recycles the same twelve pieces over and over again, so I was right at home.

* It's a tiny thread of silver lining in really horrible stormclouds, but at least politicians have been so concerned about far more important things the last few months that there hasn't been a lot of push to legislate videogames. I guess that's something they do when they are bored.

* The holiday weekend - our geeky tradition is to have friends over and sling twenty-siders around. And play Tetris Plus on the Playstation. Rock Band no doubt figures prominently this year. And LOTS of D&D.

* A stable job. When the economy is in the tank and several friends are out looking for a job (a lot of them have landed very nicely, something else I'm thankful for), I am glad to be where I'm not (currently) worried about it. Knock on wood.

* Indie Gaming! I love mainstream games, but it's so awesome to go out there and find weird, quirky, FUN stuff with all kinds of personality and charm and new ideas that doesn't have to pass through a committee of suits to be released.

* You guys! I don't know why you do it, but I appreciate you folks dropping by and contributing to the conversations here. Most of the time, the value isn't in the articles posted here, but in the conversation threads here and on the forums. Thank you!

* A wife and family that not only understands, but are gamers themselves.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008
We Hate Innovation
Keith Stuart, at The Guardian, holds the mirror up to journalists. You know how we complain about a never-ending supply of clones and sequels, and how we want innovation? Especially journalists?

We may be lying to ourselves. The catalyst in this case is the genre-breaking Mirror's Edge, a new release which I haven't played yet, either.

Do Game Reviewers Really Understand Innovation?

Stuart pleads, "What does it mean for games criticism, if we can't appreciate visionary moments, because of these weird little checklists of gameplay qualities, constructed and adhered to with near-autistic fervour?"

Leigh Alexander adds her own commentary (twice!) on this subject at Sexy VideoGameLand:

This Headline Will Not Pun On 'Faith'

Mon Petit Pont Faible Obscurci Dans Le Brouillard

Arguments raged about whether or not poor execution should be excused in the name of attempted innovation. She brings up several excellent points (at the risk of, she notes in the second article, obscuring the key ones). She suggests that as bad as underweighting innovation may be among many journalists, many are just as guilty of overweighting innovation in their reviews. She notes that while the industry has come to use the metacritic composite score as a key indicator of the quality of a release, that is not the point of reviews.

She writes:
"...The primary function of a review is not to educate its creator; it is not a report card, although the rise of Metacritic scores as a barometer of industry behavior creates that side-effect. Nor is a review a control mechanism by which a few writers can influence the trends of the industry by elevating some traits and diminishing others according to their personal taste. Perhaps obviously, the purpose of a review is to try and tell consumers whether or not they would enjoy a game."
Another interesting note she makes is the anecdotal evidence that it is the most hardcore gamers who seem most unhappy with Mirror's Edge, while she has received reports of "a raft of approval for the title that comes uniquely from people who rarely play video games. They think it's fun, they think it's different, and they feel it was worth their money."

I think it's a real issue. I also think that it's pointless to fight against human nature. People don't like to move too far out of their comfort zone. So it makes sense that only those who are already out of their comfort zone (playing a videogame when they aren't active gamers) embrace those kinds of differences more readily than core gamers.

I think about television series. If a TV series changes too much from season to season, former viewers leave. If a TV series doesn't change enough from season to season, it gets stale, and former viewers leave. There's a sweet spot in there somewhere. People want "familiar, but different."

Which is an enormous suck if you are trying to do something outside of the stupid little boxes that only exist because of the legacy lack of creativity in the industry. Our FPS games still use controls derived from Wolfenstein 3D - which was released in 1991 - and heaven help you if you try and stray from it as a designer. For a great case in point, one of my first favorite indie games was Orbz, published by Garage Games. It was - to me - incredibly fresh and innovative (yet simple!). But the controls were immediately familiar to me, due to their resemblance to first-person shooters. It's just that you shot... uh, yourself... as a ball. Now, I don't know that FPS fans were the target audience for the game, but in my case, it worked very well.

The trick is also to find that "Sweet Spot" in your game - make it fresh and interesting and a LITTLE outside the comfort zone of your true audience (the ones who will really buy your game, not the ones who make all the stink), but still comfortable and familiar enough to make them feel at home.

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More on the Brash Shutdown
This is probably of interest to nobody but me, but I was sent a link to this article this morning:

Report: Brash Entertainment Shutting Down

All I can say is The Tale of Despereaux game was / is pretty cool - for it's target audience. :)

That's right, kids - the videogame business is anything BUT a sure road to riches. Work 16+ hour days, and still not be sure when you'll be getting your next paycheck, or if it'll clear when you get it. Or, according to this report, you actually burn through 400 million dollars in a year and a half.

Crazy stuff. Being an indie with no budget and mom-and-pop level sales sounds downright sensible by comparison.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008
7-Eleven To Become Permanent Gaming Seller?
Apparently, 7-Eleven has been impressed enough by their sales of video games that they are planning on making game sales a permanent addition to the business. 1Up has the scoop:

7-Eleven Permanently Adding Videogames to Their Inventory.

Will I start buying games from 7-Eleven? I don't know. There is one within walking distance of my home. Wal*Mart, Best Buy, and GameStop are a little bit of a drive. So I'd be tempted... But I doubt they'd have much selection.

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Monday, November 24, 2008
This Is Where It All Began...
We were talking about Akalabeth: World of Doom over at Scorpia's Gaming Lair, and I couldn't resist downloading and trying to play the 1979 game from Richard "Lord British" Garriott.

And though I knew it was one of the very first commercial computer RPGs for home computers, I discovered that it was also the first of yet another - less wonderful - tradition:

That's right, the very first "Go Kill X Giant Rats" quest (In this case , X = 1) came from Lord British himself, back around 1979 / 1980.

Dang. There goes my opinion of him.

But that's not all!

I looked at this old box cover (or was it an ad?), which I remembered totally seeming cool when I first saw it back in 1981 or 1982 in a friend's computer magazine. Of course I understood at the time that the ad graphics probably had nothing to do with the game itself. But I still wanted the game just because of the cool picture. Unfortunately, it was only for the Apple at the time, and I was stuck with a Sinclair ZX80, which had trouble running Tic Tac Toe without running out of memory.

But while it wasn't a first, it was another example of video games using pretty graphics to disguise lack of content, a practice fully embraced by today's game publishers.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, Akalabeth was probably pretty cool for its time... Throw me a bone here...!)

And one more thing, while I'm at it. Note the price in the picture. $34.95. For a game that teenaged Garriott was able to whip up during a summer vacation in his bedroom closet. Visiting the handy-dandy inflation adjustment calculator, $34.95 in 1980 had the same buying power as $91.86 today.

And for that money, they got a game which had them die of starvation while trying to find the dungeon!

Nowadays, an indie can spend tens of thousands of dollars on top of a year of Herculean effort, paid for by a second mortgage on his house, and people complain about it costing anything more than free. And you no longer have to drive all the way into a neighboring town to buy it anymore, either.

Times change, don't they?


Saturday, November 22, 2008
Robot Guitar Hero Player
From here, it gains sentience, becomes SkyNet, and declares war on humanity.

But for now - I'm not sure what I'm more impressed with - the technology, or the fact that some people actually spent the time and money to build it.

(Hat tip to Chrysophrase for the link)

Update: Another video shows that Dragonforce will be our defenders in the coming war.

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Friday, November 21, 2008
Frayed Knights Pilot Critique and Delayed Consequences
Diego Doumecq has written up a third part of his critique of the Frayed Knights Pilot: The Temple of Pokmor Xang. I thought I'd link to it here, and talk about it (and Frayed Knights) a bit.

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique, Part III

Curiously enough, even in the pilot, there is something similar to the danger-o-meter he suggests. As you fight creatures in an area, the threat level (and chance of additional encounters) decreases. However, that aspect was never fully tested. I've since made some modifications and in the version that I am running, I've actually got something like that running in the UI. But not as pretty - it's just a number.

His speed-run through the dungeon made me grin. I wasn't sure anybody would actually try that, but I wanted to script it out appropriately. And yes, I wanted to make it a viable (if not the easiest) way to complete the dungeon. It needs to be cleaned up a bit, but that was the main idea. Or rather, a prototype for the idea. Was it worth the effort?

I'm going to give a cautious "yes." Yeah, I spent some extra time coding up an alternative that very few people will try, but the fact that it's there means something to me. Best-case would be to have some genuinely organic high-level AI deal with it as a more general solution. But then you wouldn't get the warning dialog.

Honestly, I never thought that I (or anybody else) would consider the lack of feedback to a player as being a virtue. But this brings up the topic for today: Delayed Consequences. Diego writes the following:

"Just imagine it, you made a bad choice but you don’t know that yet, so you go on and use another save just in case. Three hours later, the ramifications of your previous decisions surface and now you have a really strong urge to reload. But that would mean three hours down the toilet wouldn’t it? And you still don’t know the consequences for the other possibilities, so that could also mean even more hours down the toilet.

"Most likely, the player will just go on, preferring to live with a stain on their record than to waste various hours trying to do everything perfectly. He would be taking responsibility on his actions, and facing the consequences without all the metagaming that quickloading implies."

He's speaking of the encounter with Valeria inside the cell. There are basically four states that you can leave poor Valeria in (although one was broken in the pilot):

a) You never encountered her.
b) You encountered her, but refused to set her free
c) You encountered her, and set her free immediately (after an argument within the party).
d) You encountered her, don't set her free at first, but come back to let her go later.

From a design perspective, I really want all four options to be perfectly valid - there is no "correct" decision. But as to which might be considered the "preferred" set of consequences? I ain't sayin' yet. :)

If the consequences of the decision are not immediate, they MUST be non-fatal to a successful completion of the game. One of the cardinal sins of game design is allowing the player to save the game in an unwinnable state.

In theory, I could make sure that every decision is either wrong or right by changing Valeria's purpose based upon the player's decision. But that's not how I roll. I feel that robs the player of real consequences for their decisions. That, and I do like to provide some hints throughout the game with these kinds of decisions, so it's not a flip-the-coin type of issue.

The more fun kinds of decisions like this are when the player is choosing between all desirable or all undesirable options. Kinda like picking the cards in the character generation mini-game of the older Ultimas. Both options are "good," but they take you along different paths. It makes the answers non-trivial.

In the case of Valeria, that encounter was also something of an inside joke, and an attempt to twist a standard fantasy RPG trope. The "damsel in distress" thing is pretty much hackneyed. In some of the older Dungeons & Dragons modules, however, it was twisted so that said damsel, always needing rescue, was also almost always EVIL and a threat to the party. Other dungeon masters picked up on this, and routinely threw this kind of threat into their custom adventures. It kept working, too, because the adventuring parties were almost always played by teenaged boys with only one thing on their mind besides hacking & slashing.

It got to the point where finding a beautiful woman chained to a wall in a hostile dungeon automatically set off warnings. The more beautiful and scantily clad, the greater the likelihood that she was part of a trap. And yet, we kept falling for it, unless we were playing evil characters. Because you just CAN'T leave some woman chained to a wall in a hostile dungeon like that if there is the slimmest chance that she might be innocent.

Invariably, it would be a trap, and we'd get our butts handed to us one way or another. Sometimes it was immediate, sometimes not. And the DM would laugh at us for falling for it. And we'd fume, and vow never, ever to free some scantily clad beautiful girl from the torture chamber of the giants' fortress again.

But there are still yet more purposes for Valeria!

One of the things I have learned over the years is that in games, you really have to meet a character (NPC) a couple of times in different situations before you (meaning, the player) gain any amount of interest in them. Everyone else is a stage prop. I don't care if he's Lord Freaking British, if you only encounter him when he's got his butt planted on his throne, he becomes two-dimensional wallpaper.

Running into that NPC in other places seems (to me) to give them a life, a hint of a story that goes beyond them sitting in one place waiting for you, the PC, to chat with them. It provides the illusion of activity.

But I've got to do a better job with handling NPCs than I am now. This was a prototype, and I'm pleased it actually worked for Diego.

So what do you think? If you have faith that a decision with delayed consequences won't "wreck" your game (but may not make the game easier, either), are you okay with this in an RPG? Or do you really prefer to receive immediate feedback as to the consequences of your actions - the negatives and positives to faction, etc.?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Douchebaggery Running Wild!
Shamus Takes the Words Right Out of My Mouth.

And yes. As bad as I know piracy really is out there, the numbers still leave me stunned. While I'm a little less rabidly anti-DRM than Shamus, I do not think DRM is a viable solution. At best, it is a band-aid applied to a sucking chest wound. At worst, it's giving said patient electroshock therapy to try and fix the chest-wound problem.

When will people may wake up and realize that This Is A Problem?

Probably not until all publishers decide they just can't sell software anymore, so they either give up in disgust, or decide to make people rent it instead.


Morning's Wrath Now Available From Rampant Games
This one has been out for a while - but if you've never played Morning's Wrath, now's your chance! We've now (finally!) added it to the Rampant Games store.

Morning's Wrath is a great indie RPG that combines the best of Diablo's action-RPG style with an actual compelling storyline (woah!) and some great adventure-game style puzzles.

In Morning's Wrath, you get to play ... the princess, Morning. Yes, the beautiful, sweet, innocent princess of a shining kingdom with wonderful parents and a handsome prince as a suitor. Get over it, guys.

As usually happens in these kinds of stories, our heroine's perfect life is about to get utterly and completely shattered. Sorry if I'm entering spoiler territory here, but come on! You knew it was gonna happen, right? What I really love about Morning's Wrath is how well the storytelling takes things go from almost idyllic to desperate within the first fifteen minutes. They did a good job, here.

So Morning dons her ancestor's armor and sword, and starts hacking and slashing with the best of 'em on a desperate quest to save her kingdom. One can only assume that in her princess lessons for being a good hostess and snappy dresser, they slipped in some combat training. Her quest takes her to the ghosts of her ancestral family (both good and evil), an ancient pool of magic that must be restored from the taint of corruption, and a dozen different maps.

Morning's Wrath uses an isometric view. You don't see so many of those these day. As you walk behind walls, they become translucent. It's a presentation style that seems to be making a comeback with indie RPGs (see Eschalon: Book 1), as there's still plenty of life and possibility left in it. (I actually think that in a lot of ways, true 3D is actually easier to do than isometric viws these days, which might account for some of it's scarcity).

The spell system in Morning's Wrath uses a series of runes which can be combined in different combinations to create spells. There are 24 different runes in all which you can find over the course of your adventuring which you can use for spell construction.

The game isn't perfect, of course. But what game is? The controls need a bit more feedback so they don't feel as unresponsive sometimes (very bad in a game with action-based combat), and the animations could use at least twice as many frames. I could nitpick all day. But that's quibbling. I found Morning's Wrath to have polish in spades, and an outstanding storytelling quality. And the soundtrack is amazing. I think it's a fantastic example of the potential indie game makers can fulfill.

And it is also dirt-cheap at $9.95, which is very easy on the gaming budget - a welcome surprise these days. But hey, give it a try for free, first. It is well worth the download!

Download Morning's Wrath here!

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Interview: Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games
Rampant Games recently (like, uh, yesterday) added Aldorlea Games' flagship commercial RPG, Laxius Force, to our line-up of great indie roleplaying games. It was a combination of a great indie title, and designer / producer Indinera Falls doing some great promotion work. I was surprised to find that while this was his first commercial-grade project, it was far from his first RPG. Indinera is a prolific and seasoned veteran from the trenches of freeware development using RPG Maker.

I managed to corner him (which was quite a challenge, since I'm in Utah and he's out in France) and ask him some questions about Laxius Force, previous and coming games, and his perspective as an indie game developer. I especially enjoyed his perspective as a hobbyist turned pro.

Rampant Coyote: Let's start at the top with an introduction! Who is Indinera Falls? What games have inspired you? If you had a fire-breathing monkey, what would you name it?

Indinera: Hi, I'm known as my nickname Indinera Falls and I am an indie developer of old-school RPG. My productions focus on detailed characters and great replay value along with strong storylines. As a result of many years of developing games I'm also the webmaster of two websites, LaxiusForce.com which is the official site for my latest trilogy (first part out now!) and aldorlea.com where I promote my own work and other games in the RPG and Adventure genre.

I have been particularly inspired by two distinct eras and style: the 16-bits console RPG (Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Breath of Fire etc.) and the mid' 90 era of PC RPG (Might & Magic 6, Daggerfall etc.). My own games are at the crossroads of those two styles. I take great inspiration from the "Golden Age" of gaming and I've never forgotten this period when games had fascination gameplay and enthralling stories. Now I am able to bring the essence and strength of those types of games to my new creations.

I never had a fire-breathing monkey but I remember, long ago, trying to catch the notorious three-headed monkey of Monkey Island.

Rampant Coyote: So what got you started making indie RPGs? What was the inspiration for the Laxius series? And what came first, Aldorlea Games, or Laxius Power?

Indinera: I'd always been interested in making RPGs. I used to create them on sheets of paper, drawing the characters and the battlefield in a tactical style like Shining Force. My family and friends would play them and drive my ambition even more, so this passion has been there a long time.

When I discovered what great tools there to make your own RPG, I immediately jumped on the chance. For me, it was such a fantastic find and with my drive and perseverance along with my love of storytelling it set me off on a journey I have thoroughly enjoyed.

The Laxius series is obviously inspired from my own tastes: I like games to be challenging, exciting, full of secrets and unexpected events. Games that flow too constantly tend to bore me.

As it happens, Laxius Power came way before Aldorlea Games having been created in 2001 while Aldorlea Games was set up in 2008 as the publishing house of Laxius Force, my latest game.

Rampant Coyote: Laxius Force is actually your sixth RPG. What have you learned from your previous Laxius games, and your non-Laxius title, Blades of Heaven?

Indinera: I've learned a lot of things. I always want to push my skill levels in making games, I'm driven to improve each time on what I believe are already great games. My many years experience now in game making are shown in the maps, stories, events and all other aspects. Game making isn't something that should stand still or stagnate and I have enjoyed the continual push to give the players a great game experience.

Rampant Coyote: How long did it take you to create Laxius Force, and how many people were involved in its development besides yourself?

Indinera: Laxius Force took about two years and involved the skilled Zeriab as a scripter and talented Vince as an artist. Both these people are very helpful, great at what they do and great members of a team to work with. Although Part 1 has been released two other parts are also going into production and much work during the 2 years was on building the basis and structure for the following episodes to come.

It is only fair to also mention Karks who is my sole, and outstanding, beta tester of the newly released game.

Rampant Coyote: So what can you tell us about the story in Laxius Force? And how do you make a story with something like 15 different characters work in an RPG?

Indinera: Laxius Force is a story of passion, danger and adventure. You are following the tale of a young couple, Random and Sarah. These characters are heroes of the past, resting now after after the trials and heartaches of past confrontations and dangers. The tale starts as you join them in their days of quiet happiness, but that does not last long - they decide to go back into civilization, little knowing how their paths and that of evil are once again about to meet and how they are heading towards become entangled with the acts of the most dangerous and dark secret cult organization around.

I believe you can introduce as many characters as you want as long as you actually take the time to properly introduce them and that they have their place in the story. Each character must have an history, a reason to join, and something that needs to be said. With a detailed story it's not really a problem of making them fit, it's more about making them all memorable and enabling the player to connect with them.

I believe Laxius Force develops unique characters that are far from the usual RPG clichés of how they should be.

Rampant Coyote: Do you plot out the story for several games in advance, or do you start fresh with each game and try to decide where to take the world and the characters next?

Indinera: For the Laxius saga the story was plotted out since the very start of creation in 2001. Originally it existed in a total of nine parts and with each game release the story unfolds and I am a step closer to sharing the extent of the tale with the player.

This story has been part of my life for many years now and so I am never slowed down wondering what to do next. I know what is to come and I know what I aim to achieve in each game release.

Rampant Coyote: What do you think makes Laxius Force stand out as a game?

Indinera: Laxius Force has many strengths - the unique characters, the detail of the plot and overall depth of the game. It's one of the longest games out there, and one of the richest as well - it is full of secret places, items, characters. Huge efforts were made to hide many things making exploration and detailed play so very rewarding.

Rampant Coyote: So what's next in the series? I understand you already working on the sequel, and have a third one planned. What should players who enjoyed Laxius Force expect from the next games?

Indinera: They should expect all that they liked, plus even more features, twists, secrets and A LOT of plot development. The war against the Order takes on a new dimension in part 2, and faces of evil never seen in the saga before will be introduced. Also Laxius Force Part 2 will be introducing Luciana and her party - Luci is one of the players' favorite characters of the past episodes so her introduction will bring anticipation and the game will be a lot of fun!

Rampant Coyote: Are there any secrets or "goodies" you'd like to reveal here for players to find in Laxius Force?

Indinera: Well...

Maybe you will get to play characters you hadn't expected to..I'm not going to tell you who! Old friends may be there to be found, new and interesting characters are there for you to see how they develop add that to over 500 Easter Eggs where only a hand full of people know all and you will see there is an entire game of secrets and goodies - just pay attentions and explore!

Rampant Coyote: What are the biggest challenges you've had to overcome developing indie role-playing games?

Indinera: The polishing and debugging of games are always the hardest parts. Both happen at the end of the development and you are usually exhausted yet keen to get the game out to the players - so you need to be thorough and keep going. Debugging isn't the most exciting of tasks and it is very repetitive but it is a very important stage to get the game ready for play.

Rampant Coyote: Do you have any pther wisdom would you impart to other prospective indie RPG designers?

Indinera: I think it's important to know your story from beginning to end, work on your game daily even if you don't feel like it and stay focused on it. I would recommend that you try and make a game that you personally like as that is the best way to transmit your passion to others who have the same.

Also, keep in mind the latest stages of development are the hardest, both mentally and physically, but should not be rushed.

Rampant Coyote: Any final thoughts?

Indinera: Just to thank you for this interview and giving me interesting questions to respond to. I hope people reading have enjoyed it and just to remind that as well as the games we have a fantastic community at LaxiusForce.org so please visit us, you will be made welcome!

Enjoyed the article? Be sure and download Laxius Force and give the free demo a try:

Download Laxius Force

Have fun!

(Vaguely) related interviews with other indie RPG developers:
* Amanda Fitch of Amaranth Games
* Georgina Bensley of Hanako Games
* Jason Compton of Planewalker Games
* Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment

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Torque Game Engine Prepares to Ride Into the Sunset
After many (too many?) years in service to indie game developers, it sounds like GarageGames is preparing to retire the Torque Game Engine from active duty, to be replaced by the "Torque Game Engine Advanced" as their flagship 3D product. Here's the scoop:

Torque's 2D and 3D Future, Volume 2

This probably won't mean the end of games made with TGE, or the end of its availability, simply the end of it being actively maintained by GarageGames. According to Brett Seylor, "you're not likely to see an update to TGE soon, or perhaps every again..." So while not put out to pasture yet, it sounds like it hasn't been an active concern for a while. He continues later, saying, "At some point, TGE will likely either go away, or be licensed in a different way... To be honest, we haven't decided and we won't be doing anything about it right away."

I sorta expected this sooner, truth be told. The problem has been the lack of maturity with the advanced engine. Until the tools could get up to snuff with TGE - and especially before they had OpenGL or Mac support - there was just no way TGEA could shoulder the burden of replacing TGE. But it looks like times are changing, and TGEA has advanced enough that pulling the plug on their 7-year-old product (built on top of an even older product) is only a matter of time.

What does that mean to prospective game developers? Well, it could mean that TGE might become cheaper in about a year... :) But if so, with the reduced cost will come limited (if any) support. It also means that TGEA is getting the level of tender loving care that it needs. But as Seylor makes clear, it's still up in the air, and there's no urgency in making any kind of decision. They may just leave TGE as a second-string, less-promoted, less-supported option on life support for years to come.

As for me, I'm not planning on switching engines until my current projects are completed, so I'm still in my TGE "Franken-engine" for the time being, no matter what GarageGames decides or when it pulls the trigger.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Laxius Force Now Available At Rampant Games
In my tireless efforts to pay for my videogame addiction provide more convenience to you, the customer, the indie RPG Laxius Force is now available at the Rampant Games store.

Laxius Force is the newest release in a long-running series of RPGs using the RPG Maker engine. The game engine uses a perspective and game system highly reminiscent of the old 16-bit era console RPGs from Japan. French indie game maker Indinera Falls has been a hobbyist developer for seven years, and has now turned pro with Aldorlea Games. Even though it is a sequel of sorts, and does reference some characters and situations from earlier games, no previous experience playing the previous titles is necessary to enjoy Laxius Force.

Now, I confess - I haven't (yet) finished playing this game myself. It is frickin' huge. Yeah, we're talking at least Aveyond 2 huge. One thing I noticed early on is that this game is a big difference from most jRPG-style games: You are less on rails, and the encounters are not all custom-designed to let you knock them down. Even in the "tutorial" section in the pyramid, I discovered areas that I couldn't get through because the enemies were just too tough. Saving the game as you go is important. Encounter difficulty isn't parceled out strictly by area for your progression convenience.

This is deliberate. And kinda old-school cool. In these kinds of games, getting your butt solidly handed to you like that means one of three things: You need to be more careful with your tactics and resources, you forgot something that would turn the tide in your favor, or you just aren't ready to go there yet. It's a little more challenging, but not overwhelmingly so. I'd still say this is a decent title for first-time players.

Non-linear or open-ended aren't the type of descriptions that normally get applied to this style of RPG, but it was a goal with Indinera - at least, once you get past the introductory segments. And it features a metric buttload of playable characters. Well, okay, 17 playable characters, which is more of an imperial buttload than a metric buttload. But still - that is a lot.

There are some interesting things going on here.

I will suggest that the introductory sequence (the pyramid) is probably not the strongest part of the game - it gets better further along. But at does provide you with a tutorial on how to play, and a taste for the flow of the game. It is just a prologue, and I'm not yet sure exactly how it ties in with the game other than introducing the evil organization that is promising to be the villain throughout the game. But the prologue comes to an end quickly, and you soon get to the "meat" of the story and get introduced to the main character(s), Random and Sarah.

Anyhow - you can find this all out yourself, for free. Give it a test-drive, and see what you think:

Download Laxius Force at Rampant Games



Monday, November 17, 2008
Sylar as Spock...
I am such a geek. But you knew that, right? And yes, I'm a Star Trek fan. I've been one since I was watching reruns at 10:00 at night (past my bedtime) on Friday nights back in the late 70's.

I suspected Zachary Quinto (who plays Sylar on the TV series Heroes) would look pretty good stepping into Leonard Nimoy's boots to portray Spock in the upcoming Star Trek movie. Based on the trailer that was just released to the Internet (no, I haven't seen Quantum of Solace yet... I was at a seminar all weekend).

And now it's pretty much confirmed. He looks like he'll be an outstanding Spock. Now, the jury is of course still out on the movie itself, but the trailer looks pretty awesome. As a friend of mine said, "It looks like they took the Dark Knight stick to the Star Trek franchise."

I don't think that's a bad thing.

I don't know about the Shatner-less Kirk, but I'm willing to let my geeky hopes rise on this one. A re-envisioning of the original series at this point sounds a lot more fresh than the last couple of Trek series on TV (though I really, really wanted Enterprise to rock). So here's hoping.

Official Star Trek Trailer

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RPG Design: D&D and Mudflation
In the MUD and MMO space, there is a term called "MUDflation." This is an inflation of the power of characters and equipment in a long-standing persistent role-playing game.

It makes sense when you think about it. After all, lets say you have a world where the most powerful magic item in existence is a +3 sword. You introduce a new expansion or some brand new content to make your long-standing players happy (the newer players are still fresh enough to enjoy the old stuff). A lot of these players already have +3 swords. Are they going to be happy with the introduction of a new +2.5 sword? Of course not. They are going to want some new, cooler, more awesome items and powers for their characters!

So the new content includes an uber +4 sword! Very awesome! The players cheer! They upgrade! But now there's a whole bunch of now-useless +3 swords that USED to be the awesome sword of the game. But now they are junk. So the high-level players sell / give these swords to all the lower-level players who are struggling to kill vorpal bunnies with rusty knives. So now the vorpal bunnies are no longer a challenge, which means players are able to level up through all these challenges that were never designed for "twinked" characters very quickly.

Repeat this a few times for a mature world, and you get an economy and a power-level that speed of progress that was unimaginable to the original players. Another element of MUDflation is that adjustments almost always favor the player characters... "nerfs" are dreaded by both designers and the players. This means that, over time, characters naturally gravitate towards becoming more powerful than originally intended.

A few months ago, Mike Hensley discovered that this was not limited to online computer games. Performing a simulation across multiple editions of Dungeons & Dragons, he compared the performance of a first level fighter against a series of goblins in one-on-one fights to see how they'd fare.

His discovery was - at least by one method of measurement - that the system has enjoyed a significant inflation of player character power since its inception in 1974. While not exactly the same as the the changes that occur in a persistent world, the pen-and-paper world has nevertheless experienced some similar forces from its fanbase. Additional options, higher level ranges, and a conscious effort to provide a gentler "introductory experience" has definitely changed the game across editions, building upon and increasing player expectations.

Goblins are pretty much the quintessential D&D low-level "grunt" for D&D. Sure, there are orcs and kobolds as well, but orcs were always pretty deadly for first level characters (especially in edition 3.0, where many first-level player characters got one-shotted by orcs with great axes), and kobolds were intended to be more of a "swarm" encounter, along with the ubiquitous giant rats. But goblins in D&D have always been dead-center in the "sweet spot" of first-level encounters, where a party could fight equal their number with a high likelihood of victory, but also a very real chance of a loss among their ranks.

Mike discovered that the first-level fighter has been subjected to an inflationary cycle as well. That, or they just don't make first-level encounters like they used to. In original D&D, a first level fighter could take out 2.7 goblins before it was time for the player to roll up a new character. In first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the body count rose to 4.3, owing primarily to improved hit points, damage, and stat bonuses (though the goblin received a slight boost as well). He includes the Moldvay Basic D&D game in his list, where the count was 4.1, but the Moldvay version came out after the core Advanced D&D books were released, making this a step down relative to time. In second edition AD&D, the first-level fighter's goblin-clobbering ability skyrocketed up to 7.3, attributed to weapon specialization bonuses and the fighter's ability to get multiple attacks every two rounds.

In third edition (3.0, which probably counts for 3.5 as well), the fighter enjoyed a more moderate boost in slayage potential, now averaging 10.1 goblins before becoming yet another DM victim. The fighter feats and improved bonuses accounted for the improvements this time around. The toughness feat probably gave the fighter an extra kill or two, yet I doubt any self-respecting player would take THAT particular feat. It's value is almost exclusive to surviving first level - except for wizards and sorcerers, I guess, who may find it useful for the first two or three levels.

Although this was not taken into consideration for the purpose of the simulation, THEORETICALLY on the 10th kill, the fighter could "ding" second level, gaining more hit points and better fighting ability as the goblin with his name on its blade took the field. That would really have made things way too complicated. We'll just assume the DM was a jerk like me and wouldn't allow level-up in the middle of a combat.

Then comes Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition - which many feel is pretty much a totally different game that just happens to bear the D&D brand. Even figuring out what monster constituted a "goblin" was a challenge, as there was simply no apples-to-apples equivalent. A rank-and-file "minion" was selected as being the best comparison. In the simulation, our first-level fighter was now able to down 23.4 goblins before meeting his demise.

For extra fun, Hensley made a chart of relative power levels as a summary to his series of articles:

The Evolution of the Fighter: Summary

Power inflation for a pen-and-paper game? Catering to munchkins? A bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing? To be honest, I don't know if this is truly significant in any way but a purely academic exercise, or if this trend is good or bad. There are two major parts of the "fun" factor in an RPG like Dungeons & Dragons at work here. Part is the thrill of victory over difficult challenges. The other part is the feeling of empowerment over the environment.

Obviously, the power escalation favors the latter over the former. But is the former (challenge) an objective element, or simply a subjective measure of what kind of challenge a player perceives? If the players beat a monster so quickly that they never even realize that it had a really nasty instant-death breath attack, are they robbed of a challenge? If they know it, and come up with a very clever tactic that negates the threat with little exposure to risk, should they be rewarded just as fully as if they only used brute force? What about if they face said risk with far superior powers due to this inflationary force over time?

It's interesting (if esoteric) to think about. What do you think?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008
What Happens to my Last Mainstream Game?
Since I've been offline in seminar-land the last couple of days, I completely missed this:

Brash Officially Shutting Down

Ummm.... they are (er, were) the publishers for my last mainstream game, The Tale of Despereaux.

Color me officially bummed if this game doesn't see the light of day as a result. I mean, we were going into beta when I left - while it still had plenty of glitches that needed addressing, the game was basically done. It was supposed to be released in just over two weeks from now (according to web sites - I don't know if we developers were ever told exactly what the release date was).

Anyway - this spells bad news for the game. Hopefully it will get snatched up by a reputable publisher and released quickly - but who knows? I have less information on it than any other speculative consumer at this point. This is how the industry goes, of course, but I'll be very disappointed if it ends up in the purgatory of unreleased games for eternity.


Friday, November 14, 2008
How the Cow Jumped Over the Moon
Got home tonight just before midnight - not much time to post. The seminar went from 9 AM until almost 11 PM, and I just found that yesterday's post didn't automatically post when it was supposed to. Woops!

Anyway, on our way to the convention center in downtown Salt Lake City, we discovered this wonderful statue which I'd never (consciously) noticed or seen before. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Salt Lake City has several statues based upon the dominant religion of the pioneers who founded the city. I tried to figure out the religious significance of this one, but I am stumped.

I thought my own rocket-pack cows with hang-gliders for Apocalypse Cow could probably use with cooler rockets like this one, though.

My other thought was - how does this cow avoid getting its tail burned off? You know, you have to think about these kinds of things when you are animating a model 'n stuff.


Thursday, November 13, 2008
Another Nail In the Coffin For Brick & Mortar Game Distribution
Bruce On Games, often controversial in his approach to the games business, weighs in on reports in the UK trade press that retailers are ditching non-AAA titles in the economic downturn, depriving customers of choice in hopes of moving more quantities of fewer titles.

Game Retailers On a Suicide Mission

Now, I kinda disagree with him concerning used games. While it's definitely a short-term impact on the publishers, the ease of selling used games is of benefit to the consumers and helps give them some peace of mind (especially those pre-ordering folks who don't wait for reviews) and keeps the market moving. That's to the long-term health of the games business.

However, I do agree that major retailers making used game sales their preferred source of revenue sets them up as a competitor to the very industry they are dependent upon. That doesn't sound like a healthy way to run a business.

But as for dropping inventory to focus on AAA titles even more than they already are? Well, it probably makes sense in the short-term. But that sounds like eating your planting seed to me. I won't say the beginning of the end, as that's already started. But definitely an accelerator. And it's a bigger suck for the consumer. There's a reason you can't find anything but sequels and clones on store shelves, and it's not because game designers are lazy.

(Incidentally - I'm gonna be offline until late at night for the next three days, so I apologize if my emails 'n replies 'n stuff end up being a little slow.)


Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Game Design: Tiny Changes, Big Results
This week, in my fencing class, our instructor handed us sabers. Up until this point, we'd only been using foils. We spent a half hour or so going over some attacks and parries, and then he had us fencing and judging each other. Incidentally, I'm bad at both.

I vaguely remember fencing with sabers before, years ago, in a similar one-evening-only experience. The biggest difference between using foils and sabers are:

#1 - The saber can slash as well as thrust to hit. So edge hits count.

#2 - The saber has a wider target range - basically from the waistline up - including the arms and head (but not the hands).

Otherwise, for the most part, the rules are pretty similar to foil fencing. But what a difference these two rule changes make! I won't say it feels like a totally different sport, but it does make for a faster game that really favors the attack. In fact, that led to one of the other rule differences in saber fencing - the "fleche" maneuver is illegal. According to my instructor, in saber fencing, the best defense is simply a quick retreat - get out of the way just enough to launch your own attack. There's less of the fancy parry-riposte action that you see in the movies. And a lot of overhead strikes to try and rap the opponent on the head.

Which, to me, actually makes saber fencing a little more boring. But the key point is how different it is - and how those rule changes caused a cascade effect and the need to introduce yet more rules (like making the fleche illegal).

Back when I was participating in medievalist combat, a veteran of several different varieties of these games described how fighters from different sports fought each other. The SCA fighters, for example, typically fought very erect, with quick overhead blows (not unlike saber fencing in that regard). By contrast, they'd get irritated when fighting Dagorhir fighters, who tended to fight low to the ground, in a deeper stance, and who would typically aim for the legs. Dagorhir fighters tended to rely a lot more heavily on footwork and maneuvering. In practice, the contrast was sorta like watching Kendo versus Capoeira.

The reasons were twofold. First of all - in Dagorhir, headshots were illegal, so overhead swings were very rare. Fighting low and aiming for lower targets tended avoided potential head shots - plus it shrank the fighter's own potential target area, since they didn't need to protect their head. Secondly, in the SCA they focused on protecting the fighter rather than making the weapons safe, so full-contact SCA fighting required participants to wear heavy armor and to wear helmets which restricted visibility. Thus they tended to economize on body movements (which would tire them out more quickly) and to keep their opponents directly in front of them at all times where they could see them clearly through their helmet.

A more "LARP" oriented group in the local area would often get decimated by Dagorhir fighters, as they relied too heavily on artificial game rules favoring things like levels. The actual combat rules were extremely similar, but the supplemental rules to make the game more RPG-like had quite a bit of as psychological effect on the players. And being able to survive four times as many hits didn't serve them very well when they were being hit eight times more often by a "level one" Dagorhir veteran. But it worked great for their own gaming style, as the veteran players could multiply their own hard-won player skills with the benefits given their characters by the rules, thus making an experienced player much more godlike on the field than his newbie peers. By contrast, Dagorhir veterans were constantly being taken down by a lucky javelin-toss or attack from behind from newbies, which irritated them to no end in their own game.

As I suggested in yesterday's post, little differences like these can really change the feel and gameplay of computer and console games, too.

Back in ancient history when I was working on Void War, I was getting pretty frustrated with how combat had become little more than a slug-fest. My victims - er, players and helpers - kept suggesting ideas for "pick-ups," and I grew tired of explaining to them that Void War was NOT that kind of game. I was still approaching it from more of a space-combat purists perspective (in spite of all the unrealistic concessions I was making). Finally, in desperation, I let go of my resistance to the idea, and implemented pick-ups. The basic mechanism was done in only a day or two.

And the difference was amazing. Especially in multiplayer. Suddenly, the game became much more about zipping around the battlefields trying to gain an advantage via pick-ups than simply coasting through the sky (or just sitting there) pounding on each other until the player who shot first won. It made a huge difference in the game - and while not a trivial change (we added a lot of pickup types that had to be implemented), it was a single modification that completely transformed the game.

In the Rampant Games Forums, there have been a couple of threads dealing with alternatives to the typical "mana" or "energy" or "magic point" systems used in RPGs - particularly with how they tend to be used as a "hit point battery" for healers. It's pretty tricky trying to think outside the box on this one, and it's easy to see why RPG designers tend to fall back on minor variations on the tried-and-true system. But that's the kind of thing that can completely transform the "feel" of the game.

Of course, some players won't like anything mucking with the feel that they prefer, but this is the kind of thinking - the kinds of changes - that do need to be explored. Veteran MMO players, in particular, have grown ultra-sensitive to the impacts of even the most minor changes in their game. The more vocal players may be far more sensitive than is warranted, but they are not wrong - those small "tweaks" can have a big impact on their game, particularly as they've optimized their character accordingly.

There's been a lot of controversy about Diablo III's design decisions - from the lack of customizable stat increases, to getting more immediate "healing globes" or whatever in combat that heal immediately rather than storing away tons of potions for later use. Are these bad decisions? Probably not. But they do transform the feel of the game - for better or worse, depending upon your point of view as a player. But as a player, you will want to recognize these differences quickly and adjust your play style to adapt.

But a lot of times, it doesn't take a major overhaul of the core system. Some simple but tiny changes can really have big results - and a big effect on how you play.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Back From Space, Lord British Ventures Into the Unknown...
Richard "Lord British" Garriott, best known as the creator of the Ultima game series, has announced that he is leaving his position at NCSoft to pursue some "new interests" sparked by his trip into space last month.

An Open Letter from General British

Somehow I doubt that this move was inspired quite as suddenly as this, and it's unclear whether or not those "other interests" might involve games.
Stolen Pixels on ... Brutal Legend
Shamus Young hits a rant near and dear to my heart, especially where Tim Schafer is concerned.

Stolen Pixels #37 at The Escapist: Part I of Infinity

I am so pissed off about this decision. This is why the mainstream games business is in the toilet, and it is also EXACTLY why these big publishers are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

Now, as a gamer who has had to turn into something of a biz guy as I've gone indie 'n stuff, I do understand the need for generating a herd of cash cows that you can just milk. And as a gamer, I admit that I'm a sucker for sequels. More adventures in the world of Britannia or the Wing Commander universe - if they didn't suck, at least - would be welcome on my hard drive.

But when you've got a company forgoing doing anything cool that had the chance of shaking up the industry and garnering new fans so that they can just keep churning out more of the same ol', same ol' with safe and predictable schedules and budgets?

Yeah. That's a wonderful plan. And tell me, just how is Acclaim doing these days?


The One True RPG...
I found myself playing three different RPGs tonight - Persona 3, Wizardry 8, and the indie RPG Laxius Force. Hmmm.... all sequels. I was sorely tempted to play a couple more, but my survival instinct took over. At some point, my head COULD explode. You never know. And I had a lot of work to do, including writing this blog entry. I did, at least, read over a couple of old reviews of Ultima VII, some new reviews of Fallout 3, and some preview information on Diablo III just to further twist my brain.

Laxius Force is a jRPG-style game that focuses on a really big world and a gigantic cast of characters. Wizardry 8 is an old-school, classic western RPG from seven years ago that emphasizes tactical combat and exploration of a pretty detailed world. And Persona 3 is sort of a dating-sim meets a twisted jRPG-style version of Rogue, with a fairly confined gaming world. I guess it might vaguely fit in the same category as Cute Knight.

Playing all three in the course of an evening was pretty intriguing experience. While I of course realized how starkly different they were from each other, playing them in such rapid succession presented a contrast of styles that was pretty impressive. They had some similarities - they all feature turn-based combat and let you control a party of characters in a more-or-less fantasy world (Persona 3's world resembles our modern world, mixed with the supernatural). But the differences were what got to me - flavor, style, mood, setting, strategy, level of polish, systems, open-endedness, plot, character, pacing, progression, and just overall feel.

These days, there's always some bitching and moaning going on in some RPG reviews about how stale RPGs are, how lame the "grind" and leveling treadmill can be. These are often accompanied by some pontification on how such-and-such a company is going to reinvigorate the genre with this new arcade-action game that looks like an RPG but without those boring stats and stuff which will totally cater to the mainstream instead of the geeks. Which I'm actually pretty cool with - I love a good action-RPG, too. Or even just an action-game with RPG trappings, like the Gauntlet series.

But the experience tonight just reminded me of just how much breadth there is to this genre / category / whatever that we try to pin the "Role-Playing Game" label to. There is no "one true RPG." It's a myth created by some marketing wonk. It wasn't Ultima IV or Final Fantasy VII. It isn't Fallout 3 or even World of Warcraft (which seems to own the entire world right now). It won't even be an indie RPG like Age of Decadence, Depths of Peril, or even our own Frayed Knights.

We've got a huge amount of territory to cover within the realm of computer and console RPGs, an area we've still only begun to explore. It seems silly to me that we should write off the vast range of possibilities and chalk it up to "evolution." Or that we should confine ourselves to one small field as players, unwilling to explore where those few brave (and often, twisted or weird) games dare to go - turning our preferences into cages. There's just too much awesome possibility and variety out there.

I can't wait to see what's next!


Monday, November 10, 2008
Nine Things To Know About Being Indie
Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games has just published a great article "What Every Indie Needs to Know," or "Nine Things I Wish I Knew (Before I Went Indie and Made Two Hit Games).”

What Every Indie Needs to Know

This is another one of those articles I'd put on a "must read" list for anybody who asks the question (and you know you are out there... :) ) "I'd love make indie games and sell them online, but how do I start?"

It has little to discuss concerning the craft of game-making (other than a few hints about making a good demo), but a nice bunch of suggestions concerning the business aspects of being an indie - from developing business contacts to marketing to statistics on sales to working with publishers and distributors.

While the scant paragraphs on this subject is hardly enough to fully prepare a beginning indie game developer for the challenges that lay ahead, it is useful to get some idea of what is out there and to get a general idea of where the roads will lead and what to expect.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008
EA Merging Sims and Casual Divisions
Casual Gamer Chick is reporting that Kathy Vrabeck, President of EA's Casual Games Division, is stepping down, and that EA has decided to merge their SIMS division with Casual Games.

Casual Gamer Chick: President of EA's Casual Games Division Steps Down

My thoughts: Interesting move on EA's part. This implies (to me) two things:

#1 - EA considers the target audience for The Sims to be very similar to the Casual Games audience. I don't think they are wrong here.

#2 - EA doesn't believe the traditional difference between casual games and their SIMS line - namely, budget - to be a significant factor. This is more interesting. It's true that casual games have become much more expensive over the last several years, but still the design / development process - by my understanding - has remained pretty distinct between "modern mainstream" development, and are profitable mainly for having a much smaller overhead.

However - the evolution (devolution?) of casual game development hasn't been all that different from mainstream video games if you go back to the late 70's / early 80's. Can it be that EA believes the profitability (and competition) of casual games warrants their assimilation into a more mainstream process?

This latter point is more interesting in that certain business units, like Pogo and their mobile casual games group, may go elsewhere.

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Friday, November 07, 2008
Wizardry 8 Part XIII - Lucky Thirteen, Unlucky Rapax
This is a continuation of my experiences delving for the first time into the now-classic computer RPG, Wizardry 8. I expected this series to go about nine or ten posts, but we're now on post thirteen. So here we go:

Fifty-five minutes, fourteen seconds.

That's how long this particular random patrol encounter took. I thought my complaining about the excessively long combats in Wizardry 8 might have been exaggerated. I wasn't really sure how long these fights were taking - I was more focused on winning than keeping time. So I timed this one.

The battle was an encounter with a patrol - consisting of, as you can see, twenty-nine enemy ... uh, Rapaxes. Rapaxi? I have no idea what the plural of Rapax is supposed to be. I started the stopwatch function on my watch when the battle began, paused it when I had to pick up my daughter from her play practice, and resumed it when I sat back down to finish the battle.

The battle took nearly an hour. That would be an unpardonably long boss battle. But for a run-of-the-mill fight against wandering monsters several levels below me? Ye gods! No wonder turn-based combat gets a bad rap.

I nearly lost the battle about forty minutes in. Having to replay that much of the game (since you can't save in mid-combat) would have probably made me quit for the night. That's happened before. Fortunately, the monsters decided to attack my water elemental at that point (or each other, succumbing to the effects of insanity I kept hitting them with) long enough for me to resurrect one dead party member and to "heal all."

Almost worse than the loss of health was the entire party running out of stamina very quickly during the battle - and both of my primary casters having to take a quick swig of Magic Nectar to restore magic points about two-thirds of the way through the battle (just to have enough mana to cast Rest All to keep everyone from taking a nap at the same time!)

The screenshot to the right is from about that point - right after the resurrection, when I managed to fear enough rapax (I think I'll use that for both singular and plural) to thin the crowd so I could actually stage a comeback.

So that's my excuse for not having enough progress to report this time, and I'm sticking to it. Too many combats like this one!

So I finally found the wilderness section and Rapax Rift. That was a feat unto itself, especially when facing fire-breathing flying snakes in groups of four that are several levels higher than me. 25th level flying serpents or some such nonsense. While they may have been the same level as Nessie, they weren't nearly as tough, though they were hard and exhausting to bring down. I could usually manage two fights in a row before needing to rest, but resting in the wilderness was nearly impossible.

Since I have three characters who can now cast spells to set and return to portals, I would have one character set a portal at my current location, and then have my other caster teleport us directly back to the tavern in Arnika - right in front of Vi Dominae, after she left us again when we approached Rapax Rift. I keep coming back and waving to her, just to prove to her that we're still alive and let her know what a chicken she is. Then we rest up, and teleport back to our previous location. It saves on long, nasty, brutal combats that end up with us dying because we don't have any magic left when enemies stumble across us in our sleep.

Yeah, the game can be a little brutal.

Rapax Rift is a land of deadly lava floes. Besides patrols of high-level Rapax berserkers, warlocks, initiates, priestesses, and archers, there is a temple complex and some occasional groups of "fire ants." Which aren't like real world fire ants at all. These fire ants are literally on fire, walk through lava, and are the size of dogs.

The other scary monster here is the Lava Lord, who is (or should I say, was) sort of an unholy enforcer-sort summoned by the priestesses to take human - or, rather, Rapax - sacrifices on behalf of some priestess / demoness / goddess named Al-Sedexus. We found several prisoners who were pretty much past usefulness, dreading the moment when they would be made the sacrifices to this Lava Lord guy.

We found another prisoner, long on information and short on spirit, who was in the process of becoming the next sacrifice. He'd had a mark placed upon him by the Staff of Ash by Al-Sedexus, which would allow the Lava Lord to eventually just burn him from the inside out. The only way to remove that mark was to use that staff to erase it. We unlocked his door, but he refused to budge without having the mark removed, as it would only hasten the inevitable. On our way out, the Lava Lord materialized from a river of lava, walked over to the prison / sacrificial area - walking right past us - roared a bit, and then returned from whence he came.

Much blundering about and re-fighting patrols led us to a spot where the supports of a cave next to a lava-puddle were weak and sagging. Knocking out a brace let the roof tumble in, which covered the lava-puddle and providing us with a step up to the other side, taking us inside a nicely-carpeted temple area. We battled rapax patrols and priestesses to the top with some teleporters. And a key.

One of the teleporters us to the central island with force-fielded area which was unlocked by a wand which looked mysteriously like a key on the end (as noted in the description!). However, unlocking the barrier field also summoned the Lava Lord, who in turn summoned a trio of fire sprites (which looked like fire elementals to me), and the whole group then began playing whack-a-mole with our heads. However, liberal use of Banish and Dehydration (I didn't know you could dehydrate fire and lava...) saw us to a pretty easy victory. Honestly, while tough, this boss wasn't as tough as some of the random patrols. Then we went back to the formerly-force-fielded spot, and retrieved the staff of ash and a rift key that this guy had been protecting.

Next, we took another route to a trapped lava trap. Fortunately, I saved first. While I avoided dying to the trap, I found myself well-and-truly trapped with no exit, walking around the edge of a depression which had filled with lava. I restored, found the secret mechanism to deactivate the trap (which was itself trapped!), and mad the area navigable. Proceeding forward, I ran into the high priestess, a delightful Rapax who kept us entertained by casting instant-death spells on us while her minions kept healing her (and each other) and hexing us. We killed her, and found something called a beckoning stone.

We returned to the guy who was going to be sacrificed, who took the staff to remove the mark, let us know to go north to Rapax castle, and let us know how to use the beckoning stone (I think) to summon a beast that would let us into Al-Sedexus's lair.

That should be fun!

Taking Design Notes
The puzzles and fixed encounters in this area were actually pretty neat and well-designed. The non-interactive sequence when the Lava Lord first appeared was perhaps a little heavy-handed, but it served to make him seem impressive and scary. There's a lot to like.

But really, there's only one story here, and that is the length of combats. Now, I happen to be someone who likes a good, meaty, turn-based encounter. And I'm a fan of games with big tactical combat components, like the X-Com series, where a battle (which is the focus of the entire game) can take a couple of hours. But this is way, way too much in an RPG, and an achilles heel to what was otherwise a pretty awesome game. It reminded me of the final fight with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, where he'd invoke a spell with minute-long non-interruptable cinematic every other round. Kinda cool once, kinda making you want to throw your controller through the TV screen the twentieth time.

If I find myself opening a door and finding four groups of 99 berserkers in this game, I'm going to be really, really disappointed.

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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Thursday, November 06, 2008
RPG Design: Learning the Scales
I was going to make another post on Wizardry 8 today. I took about a week off from playing it, and jumped back in, only to find the "random" encounters were once again consuming a good deal of my time. I've been running around Rapax Rift for a while now, and found an interesting situation - the random encounters seem to be much harder (and longer) than the "fixed" encounters at my level (pushing level 20).

When I open a door, I'm often faced with four to six monsters at or below my character level. The patrols, on the other hand, consist of eight to sixteen creatures around my level, and I'm frequently running out of spell points by the time the battle is over. So - resting and returning, I'm facing the same encounters again immediately. Wash, rinse, repeat. It's a relief to hit some rooms, because I can fight four or five of these semi-fixed encounters in a row.

Maybe I'm doing something wrong, but it feels like gaining higher levels is actually penalized... things get harder, instead of easier, as you improve.

You know, EverQuest was pretty popular when this game was released. Maybe the developers were taking design notes from that MMORPG? In EverQuest, monsters of your level were easy to solo by any class at low levels, but at higher levels it would take an entire group to bring down an equal-leveled monster for many classes.

Too Weak To Be Interesting
For many years, our pen-and-paper gaming group played the Hero system as our gaming system of choice --- primarily Fantasy Hero. Some folks here might recognize the gaming system as the core of the Champions RPG (now being made into an MMO by the original creators of City of Heroes - recently joined by Bill Roper). It was a great, ultra-flexible system that was adapted to several genres.

One of the problems with the Hero system - which was the compelling reason for me embracing D20 in 2000 - was that there was only a fairly small "window" of interesting number space within the rules. Combat was only interesting if your attack and defense values were within about 3 or 4 points of your opponent's. Beyond that, and the bell curve for 3d6 was so huge that hitting or missing was almost automatic. This wasn't a problem at low level, where those values were all within a nice, comfortable range. But as characters (and their opponents) gained power, you'd end up with balance problems. For example, a magic user in the party might be at risk of being taken out in a single hit by a high-level monster, but if they could bring their mental attacks to bear right off the bat, they were indominatable.

Another issue with the system was that - for the most part - you'd fully heal up between battles. There was very little resource management necessary between battles. So if an encounter wasn't dangerous enough to provide a significant lethal threat to the party, it would make no difference in the game. (There were SOME poorly-written, optional rules for Long-Term Endurance, but I don't know anybody who actually used them).

So, during one Fantasy Hero campaign, we joked about how much things had scaled with us. Orcs and ogres, which once dotted the landscape everywhere, were nowhere to be found. Like we'd exterminated the entire race. For some reason, we just encountered higher-level monsters everywhere we went. (Not too unlike 3rd edition D&D campaigns. Or Oblivion. ) But we also felt like we were running in place. No matter how much power we gained, the combats pretty much fell within a certain range of us, went the same number of turns, and had similar outcomes. Sure, we had to battle different kinds of powers to keep things interesting, but there wasn't much feeling of progress.

Sorta like I how I felt about Wizardry 8 and Oblivion. And most MMORPGs.

He tried to throw a large group of ogres against us once late in the campaign. We didn't bother finishing the battle, because it wasn't even fun, except to measure how much we'd improved. The dice were almost superfluous, and it was just a waste of time. Since there was no need for conserving resources, these encounters weren't even valuable as "speed bumps" on our way to a climactic final encounter. If an encounter didn't have a very real chance of defeating the party - which is to say, its numbers didn't fall within that narrow window of range - there was simply no point in playing it out. In the future, the GM would sometimes just mention in passing, "Oh, and you defeat some groups of orcs" or something if anything at all.

And so the monsters scaled with us.

As a side note, we also had the economy scale on us, too. The game master also had started with the world's economy on some kind of iron standard - where a copper piece was actually quite valuable, silver was a small fortune, and a single gold piece was a princely sum that the average commoners was unlikely to even see in his lifetimes. By the time the campaign ended, stays at an average inn were costing us a couple of gold pieces a night. I guess all our treasure hunting had caused inflation. Once again, keeping track of those smaller denominations were no longer interesting to us at our level.

Weak But Dangerous
A lot of what constitutes scaling depends on the system. In the earlier editions of D&D, damage output and armor class didn't increase much as players and monsters increased in power. A group of bugbears might hit less often and not survive as many rounds against your 14th level party as against your 4th level party, but would otherwise do the same damage. The biggest difference - besides their shortened survival window - is that the level of attrition represented by that numerical value would be significantly less at higher level. The magic-user might survive three rounds instead of just one. And the second-level spell he casts to thin out the bugbear ranks represents a much smaller consumption of his resources.

Consequently, you had high-level modules in D&D that were still flooded by low-level monsters. Lolth, in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, was in an alternate demon dimension but still surrounded herself with the same orcs, hobgoblins, and bugbears that the party had been fighting since level 1. Fortunately, these were supplemented by nasty telekinetic demons and and stuff, but it was still an amusing mix.

The virtue of a system like this is that encounters on the lower end of the scale - even those with little chance of defeating the party - remain interesting. Players can enjoy making short work of a monster that gave them so much grief at lower level, but they still can't take it for granted or sleep through the encounter. Blowing it away with a Finger of Death spell might feel good, but it might make the upcoming encounter with the witch-queen and her minions a bit harder without another use of that spell.

And then you also get possibilities like Roger E. Moore's notorious editorial about "Tucker's Kobolds" - intelligent, crafty, cunning, but otherwise weak monsters making life way too interesting for high-level parties.

Too Much, Not Enough
So we've got two extremes here - too much scaling, and perhaps not enough scaling. A lot depends upon the game system, and the kind of results the designers were trying to achieve.

Flirtations with "auto-scaling" in several CRPG titles over the last decade (or more) have had some pretty unsatisfactory results in the minds of several gamers. But - lacking that - many of us have encountered side quests in games that we hit late or early and found them to be pretty frustrating (or boring) experiences.

I think we're still trying to discover a happy medium in the world of computer RPGs.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Game Design: The Devil is in the Details
I discovered while fencing last night that my knee doesn't like my trying to bend it the opposite direction. As I came down badly on a failed lunge, I dropped my foil and collapsed to the floor, but fortunately the damage was minimal and I was able to leave under my own steam. I'm limping around a bit, and I'll no doubt be feeling it in the morning, but it looks like a minor injury.

I guess you could say I made a critical fumble on my attack check.

My opponent was quick to come to my aid and make sure I was okay (a question I didn't know the answer to myself for a couple of minutes). I thought (afterwards) that if this had been a REAL combat, with deadly rapiers instead of sporting foils, my blunder would probably have been lethal. Called shot to the head as I collapsed. Not very dramatic, or fun, but that's just how reality works sometimes.

When I was a kid, totally consumed by all things RPG, my definition of "fun" was more-or-less synonymous with "realism" and "details"... with allowances for the needs of heroic sword & sorcery genre conventions. I would get into heated arguments about how armor should be represented, because armor class in D&D just wasn't adequate. Or I'd dive into tables with elaborate results for critical hits. And admittedly, I had some fun playing a lot of games with those kinds of detailed results - whether it was for an arrows entry and exit from a troll, or an RPG-16's damage path through a soviet troop carrier (or a 2 1/2 ton truck, as the case often was in Twilight: 2000).

Unfortunately, that kind of detailed realism took a lot of time to calculate out by hand. But hey - on computer, that problem goes away! As I learned programming, I was thrilled by the number-crunching capability of the computer to do all that detailed, realistic stuff! My first (never completed) multiplayer RPG project involved two linked Commodore 64's via null-modem of 300 baud modems in a world with simple (custom) character graphics where I painstakingly tried to describe every single game object in the world via statistics. I bragged to friends that every single object in the game that could be picked up could be used as a weapon - from a wine bottle to a coil of rope. They weren't very effective weapons, but they would work.

I'm still kind of a geek for that level of detail, I confess. I've always been something of a sim-head. I loved the middle Ultimas, with all the detail given to objects in the game (and the ability to do what would later be termed "crafting" and participate in the economy). I drooled over articles about the design of Ultima Online, where the (eventually scrapped) systems were being designed for a living, breathing ecosystem and economy and... wow. All that stuff playing together - those realistic details - make for an intriguing, living, organic, fascinating, and potentially fun world to play with.

The problem is that realism and detail can be cumbersome, annoying, and undramatic. Too often, that sort of thing actually gets in the way of having a good time. Instead of playing with the world, the world plays with you, and the barrier of details seems opaque and frustrating. Much as a botched execution of the numerous factors involving a proper lunge pretty much ended my fun last night - sometimes it's just better to abstract that sort of thing out of the system.

Hit points, for example, are a horribly unrealistic system - yet they provide for a gradual measure of attrition and an early warning (kind of) of exceptional danger in an encounter. And while it's great to have a game where every object could be used as a weapon - will players really tromp around the dungeon wielding wine bottles and partially-full change-purses as weapons? Would it be worth the added complexity?

The trick of design (one which I have not mastered yet) is knowing what to abstract out, and what of those fun, realistic details to keep.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Indie RPG News, Nov 4 2008
Indie Computer Roleplaying Games - All the fun, little of the hype. Unfortunately, I've let the news build up quite a bit in the last few weeks, and now I know I'm letting stuff slip through. My bad. If you have any extra news to pass along, please let me know.

Laxius Force
Okay, I am way late in announcing this one - Indinera Falls contacted me about this game about three weeks ago. If you are a fan of Aveyond or Aveyond 2 (you already know I am), this game is something you should check out. It's an RPG Maker style title, complete with manga-like characters and a story-heavy gameplay. The website advertises over 100 quests and 80 hours of gameplay.

You can download and try Laxius Force here. As far as I understand, it is PC only.

Laxius Force Website

And as long as we're on the subject of more "casual" RPGs...

Kivi's Underworld
Soldak's next game, Kivi's Underworld, is now out and available! Described as a "Casual, hack-and-slash game," Soldak Entertainment has taken a different tack from their way-awesome hardcore "Depths of Peril", but their attention to quality and detail continues to show.

While more of a casual "action adventure" game than its predecessor, Kivi's Underworld sitll possesses a lot of trappings of an RPG, and shares the same world as Depths of Peril. You can check it out yourself at Soldak's site:

Kivi's Underworld at Soldak Entertainment

Cyclopean is the working title for a new indie RPG in early development, by Iron Tower Studios (who are also currently at work on indie RPG Age of Decadence). It is a turn-based indie RPG inspired heavily by H. P. Lovecraft, and takes place in Western Massachusetts in 1923. However, it is NOT based on Chaosium's pen-and-paper RPG, Call of Cthulhu.

While this is still a very early stage of development, they have created a very cool web-based character generator as a design experiment, which people are already having fun playing with. You can check it out here: Cyclopean Experimental Character Generator.

The Cyclopean Introduction Thread

Mount & Blade
The latest patch for Mount & Blade, the indie RPG with an emphasis on mounted combat, is now available.

Mount & Blade version 1.011 Patch

DROD RPG: Tendry's Tale
I wrote about the DROD (Deadly Rooms of Death) RPG over a year ago, when I played an alpha version at the Utah Indie night. Well, the game released a few weeks ago, bringing much joy to those who love both RPGs and tactical problem-solving. If you enjoy the other DROD games, this new one should be both fresh and familiar at the same time.

DROD RPG: Tendry's Tale

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 2
I really enjoyed the first episode of this series far more than I expected to. Sometimes Penny Arcade's humor leaves me cold. But in this case - the game cracked me up, and I had a lot of fun playing it for the five hours or whatever that it provided me. Beating up on mimes was never so fun. The second episode is now out - and it's about time. I'd almost given up hope.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 2

And - that's what I have for now. Things are heating up again on the indie RPG front, and I know I'm letting some newsworthy items slip through the crack, but it's late at night and the switch for Daylight Savings Time is wiping me out (why do we still do this?). So I'll leave it at this for now. Enjoy!


Monday, November 03, 2008
Vespers 3D Development Update
Maybe it's just a case of misery liking company - but I really enjoy Mike Rubin's updates on Vepers 3D development. His October post is up now:

The End of October Vespers Thing

One of the issues he's dealing with in this article is the less-than-perfect handling of interiors and culling of objects / polygons by the engine - in this case, the Torque Game Engine, which I am also using. His headaches sound amazingly familiar. We made some assumptions when working on the Frayed Knights pilot that the engine would handle culling a lot like the Quake engine. We were wrong. We had to make some of the same kinds of manual optimizations with LOD, and we'll be making more in the future. We've got a big "Dracula's Castle" thing coming up (I still have to get pen & paper maps finished and sent off to Kevin, dang it!) which is going to make the Temple of Pokmor Xang and the monestary in Vespers look puny by comparison - I don't see any way of doing it besides breaking it up into multiple pieces with different LODs the way Mike has done.

The portal thing is another big headache that I've never quite gotten my brain entirely around - at least not how to use it correctly. This post helps.

I should also note here that these kinds of "work-arounds" are the sorts of things we've done as professionals in every game company I've worked - even with our own custom, homebrewed engine. Developing games usually involves a heck of a lot of problem-solving that usually involves an incredible amount of contortionism on the part of both code and content. And for every two problems you fix, you create one new one.

I don't know of anybody who'd do this if they didn't love it.

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