Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Wednesday, December 31, 2008
 
Learning to Make Games - What's Available?
This is a pretty off-beat question, I know, I wonder if aspiring indie game developers out there have found that there is sufficient tutorials, books, and examples out there to learn how to make small, indie games.

From my perspective, there seems to be tons out there. Most of it is oriented towards beginners (that's hardly unique to making games), but one question is whether or not they adequately handle the breadth of possibility out there. Just handling a single subject like sound can take an entire book (and has!).

Back in the day (way, way back then...) we had a handful of books devoted to game programming on our platform of choice (the Atari 400 / 800, the Apple II, Commodore 64, VIC-20, TRS-80 Color Computer - informally called the "Trash 80" or "CoCo", the TI-99/4A, the Sinclair / Timex, etc.) They pretty much covered the same topics, and there just wasn't that much area to cover. The C-64 has some special-purpose hardware sprites and a fairly unique (and powerful) sound chip called the SID chip, but otherwise making a game was making a game, and your language of choice was BASIC until you got ahold of a decent assembly compiler and took that step yourself.

Nowadays, just choosing your language and core engine / API can cause analysis paralysis. Or what modeling package you'll use. Or your target hardware requirements.

I've been curious because I've received several emails from people asking, "How do I get started?" I really don't know the best way to get started anymore. I'm a little bit past the "Game Programming for Dummies" stage, so I've not really investigated what's available, but I'd like to help. We always need new blood coming in and showing us how it can be done!

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
 
Great Games And Emotional Investment?
I was listening to an interview the other day with an internationally renown music critic. At least, I understood he was internationally renown. I'd never heard of the guy. Hey, I have a tough enough time keeping track of the handful of respectable game critics.

But he said something that made me ponder. He said that while certain technical aspects might differ in the quality of the recording, or whether or not the artists were using amplified instruments or acoustic, that was largely irrelevant to him. What really mattered in his analysis of music was how the music evoked emotion.

For me, that sounded awfully subjective. I mean, where's the technical breakdown we get for games with sound quality, graphics, interface, and so forth all broken down into a weighted value that designates how well the developers hit their marks? Apparently, to this respected music reviewer, all that stuff that game reviewers get caught up on - very similar to how consumer product reviewers rate things like toasters and automobiles - wasn't nearly as important as how he was moved by the music.

When I think about emotion in games, I typically think story. I think of the little shivers that the haunted hotel sequence in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and F.E.A.R. gave me. I think of discovering Alagnar's body in Ultima VII, or Aeris's death in Final Fantasy 7, or GLADoS's increasingly desperate monologue during the climax of Portal. I definitely felt something when I cleared my name in Wing Commander II. And I rescuing a childhood friend from the clutches of the ice queen in Aveyond 2: Ian's Quest.

But music doesn't require story (or even words). And there are other emotions games have evoked from me without any basis in storyline. I've played a few games where I've felt little but frustration at the game and an overwhelming desire to throttle the developers. I've been startled. I've been thrilled. I've felt some really weird primitive pleasure from matching stupid gems or blocks together. Some weird endorphinal rush or something. I've felt a desire to "get back" at my computer opponent.

Am I just strange? Are most players detached and unemotional about their gaming?

Is this a case where we "get out of it what we put into it?" Do we have to invest a little of our emotional selves in order to get an emotional payback? For gamers with zero emotional investment in their games - for whom the gameplay is purely a mechanical exercise - there may not be a perceptible return. That would explain how country music leaves me cold, too.

Maybe that's why its so fun to 'talk trash' when playing competitive games with friends. We raise the emotional stakes?

It would be nice if we could measure the "ROI" (return on investment) in numeric terms for emotional investment as some kind of measure of quality for a game, but alas - such things are going to be left in the world of subjectivity until such time as we can perform tests on brainwave patterns and chemical levels on the body in a laboratory. And I think I'd rather leave it in the realm of "magic" for now, anyway.

So what do you think? Is a measure of the greatness of the game in how it evokes emotion (and the intended ones)? Does that leave the more minimal, non-story-based games in a less powerful position? Am I just talking crap? Was the music critic on drugs, or is it something that just doesn't translate from music to games?

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Monday, December 29, 2008
 
New Steve Meretsky / Greg Costikyan Game Hits the Web
Greg Costikyan (Paranoia, Star Wars, and Toon RPGs, Evolution) AND Steve Meretsky (Planetfall, Superhero League of Hoboken, Spellcasting 101) have just released an online game. It's a social networking game called "Nightfall - Bloodlines." It involves vampires.

The trick? It's on MySpace (a Facebook version is forthcoming). I don't have a MySpace account, so I can't tell you about it, but the screenshot included actions like "Seduce and Tap a Goth." Points for amusement factor.

You can read Greg's commentary here:

Play This Thing: Nightfall - Bloodlines

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Wall Street Journal on Indie Games
Wow. Suddenly being an indie gamer feels... sorta mainstream.

Joysticks and Easy Riders: The indie game movement echoes the personal cinema of the 1970s

My biggest amusement came from the quote from EA VP Robert Nashak. He states, "As new platforms emerge, it'll be indie game teams that take advantage of them."

This stands in stark contrast with the comment by another EA VP, Jeff Brown, who stated in 2005 that the cost of developing for the then-upcoming consoles was such that "It is now impossible to 'Blair Witch' this business."

What a difference three-and-a-half years can make.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008
 
Why Online Activation Sucks
Today, Shamus Young offered a commentary on why EA's removal of third-party DRM for it's Steam-based games was hardly the gaming nirvana gamers should have been praying for. In a nutshell, the problem is that online activation offers hardships that gamers shouldn't have to deal with. It's a hassle, especially for gamers like me who are inclined to play games long after the publisher has written off their remaining inventory.

I don't disagree. However, there are some positive aspects to online activation that I would like to note:

#1 - No need to spend a few minutes digging through your old discs to find the game you want to play right now (maybe that's only a problem for me...)

#2 - No more worries about your copy-protected disc going bad

#3 - If you've lost your activation code, you can contact customer support and get it back. Uh - probably.

Do these advantages outweigh the fact that your games effectively have a self-destruct time-bomb on them? Maybe. Depends on how you roll, I guess.

Is piracy making it impossible to do it any other way? I don't know the answer to this one, either. My personal feeling is that consumer rights should and ultimately will have to trump those of the publishers - not from a legal standpoint, but from a business standpoint. The idea of paying $60+ to rent a new game, for an indefinite period until such time as the provider is unwilling or unable to grant explicit permission to install (or, worse, to play) still doesn't wash too well with me, either.

Games are a product, or they are a service.

We have expectations of products. My lawnmower is a product. If it expires after it's warranty period, I expect to be responsible for getting it fixed or replaced. The rights and responsibilities are my own. But I also do not have any obligations to the original manufacturer. I do not need to call Sears for permission each season to use it, or for permission to use it to mow my neighbor's lawn. If I want to loan it to my neighbor, that's my right. If I want to sell it at a yard sale, I also have that right. If my daughter wants to make money during the summer using it to mow other people's lawns, that's also our right. Likewise, beyond the product's suitability for its advertised purpose and some reasonable assurances of safety and quality (though what it "reasonable" has certainly been twisted in the U.S. under the manipulations of the legal profession), there are no obligations on the part of the manufacturer or seller. The implied consumer contract with products is both simple and natural.

A service, on the other hand, is a different animal, and is neither so simple or so natural. But we've made it work. Any "implied" contract is trumped by often confusing written ones, but there are some expectations there, too. We pay for ... well, a service. There are greater obligations for both parties, particularly on the part of the service provider - but in return they get greater control over whatever it is they are offering. For example, services are often non-transferrable. I can't just let my neighbor "borrow" my insurance policy for a trip to the emergency room.

The online activation thing feels to me a lot like a case of a publisher trying to have its cake and eat it too. (Not that I ever really understood that phrase - I guess after you eat it you no longer have it or something.) They want to restrict the consumer rights as if it was a service, but they don't want to take upon themselves the obligations of truly being a service provider.

The hybrid that favors one side is not completely without precedent. After all, we're all used to our videos having a warning at the beginning that the video is intended for home use only, not commercial viewing.

But in an industry where we are used to companies appearing and folding within the same decade (hey, anybody hear from Flagship Studios lately?), promises of long-term support for our games ring hollow.

But my tirade notwithstanding, I'm actually not completely against online activation / authorization. I just think the use of it as an absolute gatekeeper is stupid - and sucks. As Shamus notes, not only is it a pain in the patootey for legitimate consumers, too often it is no obstacle at all for the pirates. In other words, piracy provides a superior product than what can be provided by the publisher.

That's bad business, folks. If I am buying new shoes, and my choice is between a brand name and a cheaper no-name knockoff, my concern is usually weighing the difference between quality and price. I'm too old and too geeky to let the brand affect my self-image. But if the cheaper no-name knockoff is actually a far superior product, sure to last longer and provide me with better support - there IS no choice.

That is why I feel that online activation is ultimately doomed. It's not just a good / bad thing - it's bad business which cannot be sustained over the long haul.

Is there a better way? Again, I don't know. But as I've said before, I think there is some giving AND taking required. Carrots, not just sticks. Provide me with an incentive to ALLOW you to authorize my installation online. But don't just try and prevent me from playing. Give me a superior playing experience. Free updates. Additional content. A feeling of community. Additional service. Stuff that the pirates just aren't going to (easily) get. Hell, just give me twice as many hitpoints and let me do twice as much damage against unauthorized copies in online play! Sell me on the advantages of being "legit."

I think this is the direction the industry is going to have to take in the not-to-distant future. The companies willing to take the steps in that direction will be leading the pack and have the luxury of being able to define the terms to their advantage. And the guys that stubbornly demand online activation PLUS copy-protected DVD-ROMs in the drive are going to be left in the dust.

"EA On Steam" at Twenty Sided

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Thursday, December 25, 2008
 
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas...
I don't know why you are reading this blog today. Don't know why I'm writing it today. But whoever ordered the "White Christmas" here in Utah, I just have one thing to say...

Shut it off! Shut if off! For the love of all that's holy, SHUT IT OFF!

At least here in the southern part of the valley, we're getting buried. Plans to visit nearby relatives were just canceled on account of nobody being able to get in or out of the road leading to their house.

Anyway, hope your Christmas is merry and awesome!
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
 
Merry Christmas Eve
For a surprising change of pace, I've actually got Christmas Eve off work.

This means spending a full day to get the Christmas Spirit. Which to me, means...

GAMING BABY!

And spending time with the relatives. I guess that's important too.

I'm personally hoping for an extra 5 or 6 hours per day to be delivered by Santa tonight. Yeah, that may sound crazy, but it's more sane than what almost made my Christmas list: That mainstream PC games might actually be playable on a machine falling between the "minimum" and "recommended" system specs. Or that "quick-time events" in console games might magically go away.

Merry Christmas, folks!
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
 
First-Person Shooters Make Soldiers Safer
This could be either awesome or horrible, depending upon your perspective.

In real life, firing a gun is nothing like playing a videogame. Anybody who says differently has probably not done both, or has a political bone to pick. There is simply not enough realism you can pack onto a TV screen and control with a game controller.

That is, until they make military weaponry behave more like videogames. The weaponry has the same limitations as videogames - your world is limited to a screen and a game-like controller - but a new generation of soldiers, who spent their teenaged years playing games like Halo and Unreal Tournament, are very used to thriving under those restrictions. This allows them to fight with much less exposure to enemy fire, according to this article.

It's Alive!

Ender's Game suddenly feels a little less like science fiction.
Monday, December 22, 2008
 
Bummer. Another Legend Passes
I just learned that Majel Barrett Roddenberry died last week.

She was the wife of late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and in my opinion probably did more than her husband to promote science fiction television and cinema in general. She even had a guest role on "rival" SF show Babylon 5.

Word has it that she had already finished recording the voice of the computer for the upcoming Star Trek movie.

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The Summer of Gorf
My parents sent me out to San Diego for a week in 1982 to spend time with my relatives on my dad's side of the family. I was thirteen. I was an aspiring computer-geek-to-be, having learned the basics of BASIC programming on our Sinclair ZX80, and excited for the arrival of our Commodore 64, which had been on order since spring but had still not yet shipped.

While I did enjoy the sun and surf and the traditional pleasures of sunny southern California during summer vacation, my geeky tendencies combined with the self-centered worldview that seems to come with that age probably didn't endear my to my relatives much. Jogging with my aunt, a picnic, going to the beach, reading Brewster's Millions, and hitting the movies were all part of my regular activities that week, but it was the unplanned activities during the middle of the day that I think got on their nerves. See, there four arcades within walking distance of my relatives' house. This made San Diego some kind of nirvana (nerdvana?) in my book.

(Speaking of movies, while it was pretty old by that time, Raiders of the Lost Ark was still playing in at least one budget movie theater - and the San Diego newspaper steadfastly stuck with publishing the one-paragraph synopsis of their original review that called it a no-star "turkey.")

But my cousin, Denise, was also a videogame geek, and the girl knew not only how to get to the arcades, but also where the best games could be found in other locations along the way. Was it sad that we'd stop by a 7-Eleven on the way to an arcade to play a quick game of Gorf and Vanguard, or by the bakery to play Space Duel and Phoenix?

Yeah, probably.

Denise was very good at Ms. Pac Man. She's play through a couple dozen mazes on a quarter - repeating the cycle of maps at least twice. She couldn't understand me - I would rarely put more than a dollar in a single machine before moving on to the next one. For her, it was about mastering a single game. For me, it was about taking it all in. She encouraged me to pick one game to really focus on and become great at. I half-heartedly chose Gorf, which just demonstrated my ambivalence: Gorf was sort of a collection of around five different types of top-down shooters (variations on Galaxian and Space Invaders, two marginally original games, and a boss battle against a giant mothership).

I still played a lot of other games (there were simply too many to choose from - all within walking distance), including a LOT of Space Duel. But I fed Gorf plenty of quarters, obeying its voice-synthesized demands. One arcade had Wizard of Wor, a game I had only heard about but never actually played. I was thrilled with the discovery, and promptly sent several quarters into the slot before realizing that the game wasn't quite as fun as I'd expected it to be. That's just how it went, sometimes.

To this day, I still have vivid memories of walking under the brilliant blue sky to yet another new arcade with my cousin, both of us wondering what new games we might discover there, telling each other tales of our favorites. With the absence of the Internet or even any quality magazines, and with new games appearing weekly - without warning - there was a constant thrill of discovery. Or just the hope of discovery, as in a treasure hunt. Even old games seemed new, if you hadn't played them yet.

It was an amazing time. It never even occurred to either of us that while videogames might not be a fad, the reign of the arcade we were thoroughly enjoying would soon be coming to an end. The newness was wearing off, and a gradual fading started the following year that is just shy of complete today. It was the first and last time I found arcades on practically every street corner.

It was the golden age of arcades, and the summer of Gorf for me. I'm glad I was there. And I'm glad my cousin's family has since forgiven me.

To a point, I think the replacement for the arcades is really downloadable games. The arcades are replaced by... well, Microsoft Live Arcade or gaming portals. But they lack the sense of community we had back then - the social aspect of gaming that was alive and thriving amongst the arcade geeks of the time. There's no sense of scarcity, so there's not quite the feeling of the treasure hunt to find rare, hard-to-locate games. We lack the novelty of a young industry. There's little of the buzz.

I miss those days, and really can't see them coming back. But I do wonder if it's possible to recapture any of that spirit from that era, somehow.

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Friday, December 19, 2008
 
Cut-Scenes: Not So Evil After All?
I finally understand. I thought I was just going crazy.

I have been pretty vocal in the past about my resentment towards cut-scenes - particularly those long, drawn-out introductory videos which provide you with a two-hundred years of back history before you get to play the game. Final Fantasy XII almost didn't get played at all after their long-winded opening, complete with most of the characters from the intro sequences dying or disappearing before you even start playing with the "real" main character.

I've even gone so far as to explain in great detail how the needs of good storytelling are contradictory to the needs of good gameplay. Cut-scenes, in particular, are the enemy of interactivity, and interactivity is the heart and soul of gaming, I protest!

Yet for all my complaints, I find many of my favorite games are pretty heavy with scenes of limited interactivity: cut-scenes.

Persona 3 FES, which has had me hooked the last couple of weeks, has me playing long stretches at times where the bulk of my interaction consists of choosing where to spend the next five-minute sequence and figuring out where I can actually save my game next in case it railroads me into the next full moon boss battle.

Final Fantasy VII, where most of the time that players spent NOT fighting weird random encounters was watching spiky-haired abstract big-headed characters emote by quivering with an outstretched fist.

Moving away from jRPGs, we had the Wing Commander series, where the movie from the fourth installment was far superior to the actual made-for-the-big-screen movie. But even in the first game, I found myself looking forward to returning to the bar to get into a conversation with fellow pilots and good ol' Shotglass. F.E.A.R., one of my favorite first person shooters, was constantly pulling me out of the game to watch little movies and flashbacks.

Some games have me loving the cut scenes. Others left me cold. Others, like Bioware's Mass Effect, bat around .500.

Apparently, there's a very specific difference between a good cut-scene and a bad cut-scene - and it's all about whether or not is about exposition or emotional connection, according to an analysis sponsored by GamaSutra and Game Developer Magazine.

Gamasutra: FPS Cutscenes Should 'Engage And Connect,' Not Deliver Info

The study was focused on first-person shooters, but I think this applies equally well to virtually any genre of game.

Sitting through a history lesson or pilot briefing is simply not much fun, even with cool animations 'n stuff. But throw in a member of the opposite sex, some romantic tension, the discovery that the arch-villain is actually the main character's father (or, in the case of F.E.A.R., his mother...) - whatever - and it actually compliments the gameplay very well and heightens the player's enjoyment.

Or as Leigh Alexander frequently opines, this time in her defense of Persona 4, which I have not played and am swearing NOT to play until I have finished playing the previous game, particularly because I know I'll love it, the game's storytelling invites the player to invest him or herself emotionally in the context of the game. Once you do that, the player is telling himself the story as much as the game is.

On the other hand, exposition - things that actually help the player understand what is happening in the game and what he is supposed to be doing - is best embedded within the interactivity. This is something educators already know - lecturing isn't half as effective for most students as actual hands-on learning by doing. Yet we are only just now waking up to it as game designers.

So maybe I'm not going to have to turn in my gamer membership card quite yet for daring to admit I enjoy some cut-scenes in games. I still feel that the needs of good storytelling run counter to the needs of good gameplay, but I also still feel there's an appropriate balance where the result may greater than the sum of the two parts. We just need to learn how to make non-interactive or limited-interactivity cut-scenes more compelling, engaging, and emotionally-connecting.

And while we're at it, not as long, too, especially during the intro? Thx!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008
 
Nethergate Quick Look
Scorpia's got a quick look at Spiderweb's revamped Nethergate: Resurrection.

Unfortunately, her take is not humongously favorable:

What makes Nethergate different is the semi-historical setting of Britain during the Roman occupation, along with the ability to play as either Romans or Celts. Of course, there’s still plenty of fantasy, with faerie folk and fomorians running around, plus magic.

I’ve been through the demo portion as each side a few times now, but really can’t get into the game to where I’d buy it. Maybe it’s because Romans/Celts aren’t all that different.

You can read the full article here:

Nethergate Quick Look at Scorpia's Gaming Lair

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008
 
The Evolution of the Adventure Game
While I wouldn't call it exactly mainstream, Strange Horizons is a weekly online magazine about speculative fiction - which apparently dabbles into video games.

Several weeks ago they published an article about Adventure Games - defining the genre, explaining its differences from virtually every other kind of video game, defining its constructs, verbs, and the evolution of adventure game interfaces. They hit many key games in passing (or in screenshots), including Colossal Cave, Myst, King's Quest, Maniac Mansion, and this year's Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, but the focus is definitely upon breaking down mechanics and abstractions of gameplay rather than discussing individual titles.

So if you have an academic or designer leaning, I'd recommend giving this article a read if you missed it (like I did) the first time around:

Searching Under the Rug: Interfaces, Puzzles, and the Evolution of Adventure Games

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008
 
Please Tell Me That's a Giant Jalapeño In This Game...
So I was playing the popular PS2 RPG Persona 3: FES this evening. I'm a sucker for JRPG-style storytelling, I guess. I just love how it can be silly one moment, overwrought the next, and poignant the next. My wife was watching somewhat distractedly, wanting to find out what happens with Chidori and Junpei next. She's a sucker for these stories, too.

I finished a run through Tartarus, and I decide to go see what new persona I can fuse with my existing social links. I find that I do have a new persona of "The Devil" arcana, and since I have been befriending the ruthless businessman, I have a mid-level social link. So I fuse this guy, not paying too much attention to its 2D portrait.

So I fuse "Incubus." It appears in full devilish 3D glory. Wings, tail, and .... something else. With tiger stripes.

My wife is speechless for a moment.

I blink and say, "Please tell me he's riding a giant jalapeño or something like that..."

She responds, "I don't think he's riding anything. You do know what an incubus is, don't you?"

"I know. I was just hoping it wasn't really what I thought it was."

"I want you to exchange that one for a different one," she says flatly. I can't tell if she is amused or not.

I can honestly say that it is not something I've seen in a console RPG before. We are SO not in Sosaria anymore.

But if anybody asks, it's a giant jalapeño. With, uh, tiger stripes.

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Monday, December 15, 2008
 
The Economy As An MMO
It seems you can't go ten waking minutes these days without hearing someone talking about the awful state of the economy. Alas, now my blog is no exception. But as a gamer, it can get a little confusing to hear all about subprime mortgages and credit default swaps and stuff. So I figured I'd create an extremely loose analogy in MMORPG terms.

This will probably only serve to add to the confusion and chaos - in which case, my job here has been done.

The Game
So let's say there's an MMORPG out there that has been all the rage. It has been praised for its incredibly complex (yet cool) economy, which includes the ability to loan money to other players with a built-in system for charging players monthly payments with interest. As cool as this is, there's an even more cool and powerful guild system. You can even have subguilds-within-guilds, which has allowed for major "uberguilds" to pretty much take over the world, fashioning themselves as nations and collecting regular dues from all their members.

Guilds in this game gain bonuses for specialization amongst its members, so you have specialist sub-guilds that organize along the lines of crafting guilds and financial guilds. The financial guilds have grown very powerful lately, and a few big ones effectively merged in a bunch of smaller ones simply because they were so successful and so powerful - everybody wants to be with the winners.

This game also has an extremely deep and far-reaching end-game that doesn't require constant raiding - if you have the best possible gear (and really cool - and expensive - mounts). This stuff requires constant maintenance in the form of monthly gold payments, but at really high levels it is no problem keeping up. When you are killing dragons instead of giant rats, gold comes easy.

Finally, like Ultima Online, the game lets you buy land and build on it. Not only is owning a headquarters required for all the guilds, but having a place to call "home" - whether rented from another player or owned outright - greatly increases your character's stats. The bigger the home, the more powerful your character. However, in-game houses and land also cost a regular monthly maintenance fee proportional to their benefits.

The Situation
In an effort to recruit more members (and make sure their members are more l33t with higher dues-paying potential), the uberguilds have been working in conjunction with the financial guilds to help members get their own houses, and to twink them in higher-level gear which they normally couldn't afford or pay the maintenance costs for. This helps power-level new characters so they progress quickly to higher levels where they can kill dragons instead of giant rats - and thus easily afford equipment and house maintenance AND the loan payments.

So even characters still in single-digit levels are getting offered gear suited for level 50s (no problem, since this game goes beyond level 200), and houses which were originally intended to be barely affordable by characters level 70 or above. The financial guilds work with the uberguilds to loan newbie characters the money and equipment that they need, since they both benefit. The uberguilds get more money from the dues that higher-level characters can pay from dragon-killing rather than rat-killing, and the financial guilds get constant loan payments - which they in turn use to finance the absolute BEST gear and houses they can get in the game.

For a while time, it works fabulously well. Characters are advancing quickly through levels, hitting level 100 in under a year (the designers intended it to take at least 3 years to hit level 100). Since land and houses are a limited resource, prices keep climbing through the roof with every rat-killing newbie expecting to get into a house. The supply of gold seems nearly infinite, as is high-level equipment. The uberguilds are getting fat, regular dues, and the financial guilds are making money hand-over-fist with their loan payments.

The Problem Arises
The amount of money and high-level gear in the game doesn't seem right. Some of the gear comes from pretty rare drops on extremely high-level mobs. There should only be a few dozen instances of these items on the entire server, yet there are thousands. The programmers and designers do some digging, and find that there has been an incredible wave of duping of gold AND items by players.

The programmers implement a retroactive fix. All duped items - AND all duped gold - will slowly begin to expire. Not all at once - it's a slow process, starting with the most recently duped items and gradually "unwinding."

The problem is that most players don't even know whether or not their items (or their gold) was duped, as the item may have gone through three or four owners from the original duper. So they begin hunting around for replacements very quickly, just in case. But they can't even be sure their replacements are non-duped.

The Collapse
For twinked newbie players, the disaster comes swiftly. As their high-level twinked gear starts disappearing, they find their uberguild sponsors aren't offering free replacements. Suddenly equipped with nothing more than a newbie loincloth and rusty knife, they find every copper piece they earn being taken up by loan payments to the financial guilds. "Screw this!" they say. And they quit the game.

Suddenly, there are a bunch of properties left vacant in the game. The drop in demand drops housing prices all over the server. Players get mad because they are stuck paying maintenance and loans to the financials based on the original cost of their properties - and funds are pretty tight because they are frantically trying to get replacement gear for their dupes.

So a lot of them either sell off their property at a loss (and have no money left over to pay the uberguild dues), or just quit the game entirely.

The financial guilds, for their part, are no longer loaning money to people. Which really sucks because people are getting a little desperate for funds to "tide them over" so they can get replacement equipment that lets them fight dragons again. Everyone assumes the tighter loans are due to all the people who are quitting the game and no longer paying back their loans. But secretly, the financial guilds have a much bigger problem.

See, the financial guilds were the worst of the money-dupers. A lot of what they loaned out was "duped" gold. They never overdid it, because they feared this day would happen, and that the exploit would be turned off and the duped gold might go away. They'd hoped that by that time there'd be enough of a stream of legitimate gold coming back to their guild that it would not be noticed. After all, every duped gold coin was returning four legitimate gold coins every few months in payments. But as time had gone on, they'd gotten more greedy, duping more and more gold to increase their earning potential. When the dupe-purge came, they found themselves deeply "in debt" to the game, and the money wasn't coming back fast enough to keep their guild from getting disbanded.

At first, they thought they'd be okay, because they'd hedged their bets by buying "insurance" from other financial guilds called Gold Default Swaps. The insurance would be enough to cover any duped-gold losses. The problem is that the insurance sold to them was by other financial guilds who had duped gold problems of their own, and can't pay up all the insurance they'd promised.

So suddenly, all this duped gold goes away, AND the income from loans goes away, AND the insurance that was supposed to cover the losses also goes away. The financial guilds are about ready to quit playing.

The uberguilds try to step in, though they are also in a world of hurt because their own dues-collecting potential is getting clobbered. They loan a ton of gold to the biggest financial guilds, planning to increase the dues of all their members at some point in the future to compensate. But they realize that if they don't do something fast, this whole game that they have been the masters of is going to turn into a ghost town.

Unfortunately, the loaned money doesn't often go for more loans to the player-base - the financial guilds instead use it to buy up some of smaller financial guilds who never participated in duping. This helps keep the financial guilds from collapsing, but doesn't help the player-base, which is rapidly becoming armed with newbie loincloths and rusty daggers. The dragons are no longer being killed, because very few people have the necessary gear anymore. And everybody is afraid to buy new gear until the slow dupe-purge is complete.

And they are all royally pissed at the uberguilds and the financial guilds for causing the problem in the first place - even though everybody enjoyed it when the gear and loot were plentiful.

The End?
And so the MMO collapses under its own weight.

The analogy is far from perfect. I kinda look at the duped money thing as leveraging. You can look at the duped items as a combination of jobs and investments. And the Gold Default Swaps are an incredibly simplified version of Credit Default Swaps. I left out the part about all the bad loans being re-packaged and sold as good, income-generating loans to unsuspecting investors.

And in real life, you don't just get to quit when the game ceases to be fun.

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Friday, December 12, 2008
 
Tale of Despereaux Game In Stores
Rumor has it that the Tale of Despereaux videogame has been spotted in stores.

Alas, due to expenses and a tight budget this month (ah, Christmas...), I am not allowed to run out and pick it up a copy just now. Bummer.

What's doubly shameful is that the XBox 360 version may not ever be released - it was the best of all of the versions by far. But since the original publisher has gone belly-up without having paid their bills and nobody is left to work on it, I suppose if they found a bug in final acceptance there was simply no alternative than to pull it. But this is idle speculation on my part - I've got no clue what's been happening to the game since it entered beta.

I don't think I've actually played through the entire game yet. I've played some of the dozens of times (and certain parts of levels hundreds and hundreds of times). Hopefully the final version turned out well, in spite of the pretty horrible troubles that plagued the latter part of its development.

Anyway, I look forward to picking up a copy eventually. I don't have a Wii, so I will have to get the PS2 or PC version. Though it's geared for kids, it's a pretty fun little game. I'm also excited to see the movie which comes out next week. We saw clips of it during development (and I got to read one version of the script last summer), so I'm really interested in seeing how the final version turned out.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008
 
Game Publishers Getting Shredded: Two Perspectives
Jeff Tunnell has written a piece on Make It Big In Games explaining why he - once neck-deep in the "mainstream" game business - doesn't own stock in any of the public game publishers. His rationale is sound.

As a dude who has gotten seriously into stock and option investing over the last year (and I've actually managed to keep my head above water the last few months - unlike my professionally managed mutual funds), I have been asked by friends if I hold any positions in public game companies. After all, that's one of the big pieces of advice guys like Phil Town offers with his "Rule #1" system - you invest in companies that have meaning to you, and that you understand.

In spite of having worked in it for years, I can't pretend to understand the machinations of the video game industry as well as a guy like Tunnell, but I do understand it enough to stay far away. Those companies just don't meet my criteria (though I've been tempted to short a couple of them this year... but EA wasn't as clear-cut a shorting opportunity as Las Vegas Sands or Lehman Brothers...)

Jeff Tunnell: Why I Don't Own Stock In Game Publishers

Tunnell's prediction is that - long-term - the whole boxed-game / brick-and-mortar / pay to "buy" a game model is going to gradually go the way of the dodo. He predicts that within a few years, people will no longer be paying for games directly. Do I agree? I don't know. I buy boxed sets of DVDs of TV shows that once aired on television for free. I buy stuff directly that I could have enjoyed for free. What's wrong with that?

I think it means that you'd better not bank on the market evolving in a single direction. It's diversifying.

Leigh Alexander, one of my favorite "game journalists", has a completely different, disappointed look at EA's poor showing this year. You see, this was the year that EA tried to repent. It tried to focus on quality, on new (and risky) properties - on more innovation and all those things we gamers say we want. They brought us some strange titles, and took some creative risks.

And it bit them on the face.

Alexander comments, "A kinder, more creative EA does not make money." I think the overall economy may have a bit more to do with it than that, but it doesn't change the likelihood that they'd not have had to have so many layoffs if they'd concentrated on pumping out (quality) sequels and milking the same ol' cash cows.

On which they, no doubt, are already re-focusing.

Leigh Alexander: Stop Making Sense

So I guess you've got three areas to cast blame:

#1 - The core business model is broken and obsolete. Long live web-based games!

#2 - The games were simply not what gamers wanted to buy. As much as we claim to want innovation - it simply doesn't sell as well as the sequel / clone to last year's big hit.

#3 - The economy sucks, hurting everybody. The videogames business is not as "recession-proof" as it claims.

I think all three are contributing factors, but I don't know that they are all created equal. I think the economy was probably the biggest issue. It's taking too many publishers down too hard and too fast. Sure, they all tend to make the same mistakes, but there's simply a market reality to face. Beyond that, though, I don't have a clue as to ratios.

What I do know is I have a lot of friends in the games business (or should I say, formerly in the games business) who have lost (or been forced to quit) their jobs this year. As a friend of mine used to say, it's not all fun and games - sometimes its just games.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
 
The Accidental Nemesis
Many years ago, I started a pen-and-paper RPG with a quickly thrown-together villain who was not expected to survive one adventure. Somehow, he managed to escape, and by doing so he made an impression on the players. Karius was that jerk who got away.

Later, I decided to bring him back for another encounter. This time, I had him plan his exit. He was still likely to die, but this time I made a small effort to keep him alive. It was enough. He escaped a second time, and my group's most hated enemy was born. He made several reappearances, always with an out - usually an important reason for the players to keep him alive. He was defeated often, but never destroyed. He eventually became an important political figure - because he again made himself too valuable to eliminate. This gave my friends an incredible emotional hook into the campaign - they hated the guy, and hated him all the more because they has possessed the power to kill him several times, but it had always been too inconvenient to do so.

It was awesome. It was more awesome in that the guy was an accidental nemesis. It had happened organically.

Later, I found myself playing Daggerfall. In that game, characters and missions were randomly (or algorithmically) generated. I was talking to people on the street, assigned with random names, looking for someone in particular. I soon found out that anybody "in particular" would be a static character found inside buildings - you'd never bump into that person on the street.

And that made me wonder - why not? If so much of the game was randomly generated anyway, why couldn't it randomly make someone that I bumped into on the street "important?" Why did it have to create an all-new character to be my "arch-nemesis" in a random mission? Wouldn't it have been much cooler if the game played off of the history of my actions, storing off certain people and situations to be used later in the game?

Yes, players might get annoyed that the game is effectively rolling out the red carpet for them like this - having the game build revolve around the player rather than the player exploring a pre-created world. But it wouldn't be that the game would be forcing their choices, so much as turning the player's choices into core elements of the storyline.

It's an intriguing idea, if anybody ever really picks up on it. I'd love to play with the concept some day --- but my plate is piled high for a few years...

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008
 
Does Video Gaming Need a Lester Bangs?
This topic resurfaces every couple of years, but L. B. Jeffries at PopMatters.com has perhaps the best article that I've seen on the subject. Delving into the collected works of Lester Bangs, he dregs up the good and the bad, and the role Bangs carved out for himself in the music world.

The frustration Bangs had with music criticism at the time pretty much mirrors the state of what passes for videogame journalism today. Recent events, of which the Eidos attempt to delay negative reviews is the latest, have demonstrated that there is far too cozy of a relationship between review sites and magazines, and the game publishers. But independent voices are as hard to find as independent games. Not that they aren't out there (in droves!), but they are off the average gamer's radar.

But do we need a Lester Bangs, or do we have a sizable number of "Bangs-likes" beating on the gates like a small barbarian army?

Good question.

Does Video Game Criticism Need a Lester Bangs? at PopMatters

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Monday, December 08, 2008
 
Hooked on Persona 3
Between playing games and doing programming and further design on Frayed Knights, I feel like I need another weekend to recover from my weekend.

What's funny is that once upon a time, I remember complaining about there not being enough games released during the year. I'd rejoice each year at Christmas time, in expectation of some high-profile releases finally making their way into the store.Now - I'm probably still playing last year's games. Or a game from 2002.

At least the leading time-sink this weekend was an expanded version of last year's award-winning RPG, Persona 3 FES. This expanded version came out in 2008 (in the United States, at least), so I feel ever-so-slightly less retro. For a change.

Persona 3 has a little bit of a weird effect on my brain when I play it too long. While "grinding" for money and experience points is still alive and well in this game, there is also a significant mechanic where you are effectively grinding for emotional relationships with people.

Since there are only so many opportunities to spend time with people, you have to narrow down your relationships in a weird give-and-take with the powers that you desire. In many cases, I favor a friend with time in an effort to improve my ratings with a particular arcana of persona. But I find the opposite to be true, too - I've found that I limit my development along certain lines because I favor certain characters in the game, and want to see how their storyline evolves.

The most interesting thing to me - as an indie - is how much game they've packed into relatively limited content. You revisit the same locations constantly, but under different circumstances. You repeat similar actions every day, but there are enough differences and new things to discover that it feels fun. You aren't exploring geography, as you do in most RPGs - instead, you are exploring time, context, character, and plot. Granted, the randomly generated dungeon isn't exactly thrilling, but otherwise it is a very clever way of making the most out of limited content resources.

I'm 30 hours into the game, and I doubt I'm halfway through the original campaign.

I also like the directions the plot is going. Just when things started getting a little boring, they thrown in a new wrinkle. In this case, your team isn't the only group of humans who are alert during the hidden "dark hour" of time at midnight. And the others have found ways to take advantage of this pocket of time to their own, less altruistic purposes...

And lest anybody get too concerned - I'm still playing Wizardry 8. I'm convincing myself that I'm in the home stretch...

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Atlus Takes Leaks In Stride
Wouldn't it be great if all publishers could handle these kinds of situations with such aplomb?

Atlus Has a Sense of Humor About ESRB Leaks

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Friday, December 05, 2008
 
Game Design: Can't I Be Just a Little Bit Evil?
A friend (Space Bumby) was complaining over the weekend about how her character in Fable 2 had been growing ever more pure because she wasn't eating meat. It annoyed her because not only does she not consider vegetarianism to be any kind of virtue, but her rationale was strictly aesthetic. She thought all that muscle was making her character look fat. Eating vegetarian foods - especially celery - lowered the bulk. Yet the game contributed arbitrary moral value to her actions.

What kind of moral or ethical decision is this? Scoring you because you were eating your vegetables?

Having recently finished Bioshock (with its notorious - yet overrated - option to harvest little girls for their power), I have been thinking about the efforts to tie ethics or "alignment" and choice into games and their endings over the years. Particularly RPGs, of course. Usually these endings are broken down into either you being some kind of a self-sacrificing Saint, or some really despicable monster, with perhaps one in-between ending for those who can't commit. From what I have been able to gather, most of the time the endings are achieved by comparing how many points you've gained for being "nice" versus being "mean" to people.

BORING!

We haven't done it right, yet. Or if we have, I've missed it. Naturally, I don't have the time to play even a reasonable subset of the "important" games which have come out over the years, so I expect folks here will have some examples to toss into the discussion shortly. :) But I want to go beyond choosing between being a jerk or a saint. I want real ethical dilemmas, not getting scored on whether or not I eat a hamburger or how many times I gave a gold piece to a beggar!

As you can expect, this kind of discussion about ethical decisions in games will probably involve me invoking the sacred title of Ultima IV. So, uh, indulge me if you will, please. Ultima IV had what we might consider today to be an over-simplified faction system among the core virtues. To win the game, you eventually had to be the good guy and become the embodiment of all of those virtues. So for all its pioneering, from a gameplay perspective it didn't go too far beyond the pale compared to modern titles.

(As a side-note, dying gave you sacrifice points in that game, making Ultime IV possibly the first games - and definitely one of the very few games - to actually reward you for what is traditionally a game-ending failure.)

The thing is - ethical decisions are among the most interesting types of decisions. I remember studying in high-school psychology about avoid - avoid decisions and attract - attract decisions being the most stressful and interesting. These are basically choosing the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods. And they are the kinds of decisions that make for really interesting, powerful, and personal stories.

And yet videogames usually neglect them. Instead you just get to choose between being a nasty jerk and being a goody-two-shoes. Granted, videogames aren't the ideal medium for subtlety, but we can do a lot better than that!

Actually, the character generation system from the middle Ultima games provided some of the best ethical decision-making found in games. A gypsy presented you with a moral quandary on tarot-like cards. Your answers determined which of the virtues you most favored, which then determined your character class. For example, one situation had you sworn to protect your lord at any cost, yet you've seen him commit a crime. You must choose between upholding your oath (honor), or reporting the crime to the authorities (justice). Another choice states that you see a soldier desert his post and attempt to flee, only to become attacked by multiple enemies. Do you risk your life to save him?

These are interesting, thought-provoking decisions. These are opportunities to explore game possibilities beyond how many inventive ways you can kill a zombie.

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines offered a smattering of similar situations presented as actual in-game decisions, with some options limited by your skill levels. Even better, by casting you as a monster in a world with a moral palette made only of shades of (dark) gray, it also managed to take some actions that would be reprehensible in other games (let alone real life) and present them as reasonable options.

Galactic Civilizations II actually makes it a little tough sometimes. There are sometimes tough consequences for taking the moral high ground, and the benefits from being "good" aren't clearly the fast-track to winning the game. But the consequences of the decisions do get abstracted out into little more than a few modifiers. There's no "memory" of specific deeds to follow you around.

But these are fun concepts. I would like to see more done in this area, especially in RPGs.
The world is full of tough decisions. Videogames offer a chance to explore some of these ideas in a "safer" environment, and to give us some powerful stories that we can have a personal stake in. While many (most?) games are not about this and shouldn't be about this, too many games could really benefit by going beyond the trivial "nice" versus "mean" options we're usually presented. I want fuzzier shades of gray. I want consequences that go beyond "good" and "bad."

We need this stuff, and not just for videogames to be considered a more "serious" medium. Am I the only one who thinks exploring these kinds of situations is fun and compelling?

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"Blender For Dummies" Available For Pre-Order
I guess the open-source modeling package Blender has finally "arrived." It now has (or very soon will have) a "...For Dummies" book.

Blender For Dummies Available For Pre-Order

Author Jason Van Gumster expresses his hope that the book was to dispel "the myth that Blender is difficult to understand."

I'd personally recommend Blender for any indie on a tight budget wanting to get involved in 3D modeling. Yeah, it's not the easiest package to use - though I found that, over time, it was easier for me to use than Milkshape (which is also a pretty cool modeling tool for indie game development - but not nearly as feature-rich). The only big problem I've found - and it may be because I've not searched too hard for the answer - is the lack of animation compatibility between Blender and other popular modeling tools.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008
 
Fourteen Indie 3D Space Combat Games - And More!
I was eight years old when Star Wars hit the theaters. It was a mind-blowing experience for an entire generation. It was perhaps no accident that space combat themed video games were all the rage for the next decade, letting us pretend to be Luke Skywalker for a quarter. The ones that I loved the most were the first-person perspective 3D games, often using vector-based graphics systems that hurtled wire-frame bad guys at players. From Star Fire to the Star Wars arcade games, I was hooked. On the computer, we got some incredible games like Elite, and Star Raiders.

The big ones for me came out in the early 90's. Wing Commander was almost pure wish fulfillment, and was the game that made me seriously consider a career in game development. X-Wing (and later, Tie Fighter) once again brought back the Star Wars magic. Frontier, aka Elite 2, brought the space-trading game home with an incredible universe. Later, games like Wing Commander Privateer, Freespace, Freelancer, and the X series have kept the magic alive.

Sadly, the space combat or space trading game is something of a disappearing breed in mainstream games. Maybe George Lucas ruined it for us with his Star Wars prequel movies. Or maybe we're just not as inspired by space exploration as we were during the age of the space race and moon landings. And maybe it's just because graphics are good enough now that game developers don't need to stick us out in space to give us a believable first-person fighting experience anymore.

But the indies are keeping the dream alive. When I first released my own 3D space combat game, Void War, I was stunned by how much competition I was facing. And it has continued - both in commercial indie pursuits and freeware projects. When I get a hankering to enjoy a shoot-out in space, I do not have to depend upon my dusty collection of old favorites. There are plenty of great indie space combat games - new and old - worthy of attention.

While I still favor RPGs on this blog, I know many readers here have tastes as eclectic as my own --- so I'm going to share. Here are a dozen indie 3D indie space combat games for your womp-rat shooting pleasure.

Starshatter - The Gathering Storm
I remember Milo, the lead developer on this indie project, describing it to me as the "Falcon 4.0 of Space Combat games." There are a number of games here that would practically qualify as simulators but for their science fiction nature. Starshatter is definitely in the "simulator" category.

Starshatter provides you with the experience of flying both small fighters and big starships, and includes a dynamic campaign. And it includes more hardcore space physics as the default model, though it can be configured for the simpler arcade-style controls familiar to other Wing Commander vets. Both space-based and atmospheric-based flight is permitted. This is a hardcore space combat game for armchair pilots who loved X-Wing but craved something a bit deeper. Oh, and it has modding tools, too.

You can check out the free demo at the Starshatter Website.

Cellblock Squadrons
Super Furious Software's take on the space combat genre was to focus completely on the equivalent of boss battles - flying with a squadron of tiny fighters against big battleships.

Lots of big battleships.

There are five different fighter types to choose from, and a storyline based around the concept that you (and your squad-mates) are actually criminals, prisoners fighting against impossible odds to earn your freedom.

Venture the Void
A cartoony space-combat related single- and multi-player game (public games can have up to hundreds of players) that "refuses to take itself too seriously," it looks to have some monster-bashing and dynamic universe creation.

Evochron Renegades
This is a free-form, open-ended game by the makers of the Star Wraith series. It not only includes a vast universe with a huge number of activities that go far beyond fighting and trading, but also multiplayer modes. It also features a dynamic economy, exploration of planets in atmospheric flying and fighting, and a more realistic Newtonian physics model.

Arvoch Conflict
Another title from indie space combat veterans Star Wraith 3D Games, Arvoch Conflict is a "Squad Based" space combat title that includes a touch of real-time strategy and resource management into the more traditional space combat "simulator." Commanding the other ships in your squadron is as integral to success as your own piloting ability. And just like Evochron Renegades, it features multiplayer gameplay and atmospheric flight.

Universal Combat: Special Edition
Derek Smart, has had a much-storied history in the games biz since the early 90's as sort of an "angry indie." Universal Combat was intended to be a next-generation Battlecruiser 3000, somewhat streamlined, broadened, and more action-oriented for more mainstream audiences, but still sporting a level of detail that screams, "hardcore" (and "high learning curve.") And it has a scope that indies are just not supposed to be able to tackle - including multiplayer gameplay. The Special Edition includes the content from the original release, Universal Combat Gold, and the sequel, Universal Combat: A World Apart.

Dark Horizon
This is kind of a murky area as to whether Russian studio Quazar Interactive is actually 'indie' or not. But you'd be hard pressed to call Dark Horizon a mainstream title. And you'd be just as hard pressed to find out how you are supposed to download and buy the dang thing (hint: GamersGate). Key features include the ability to switch between two different combat modes, and the ability to create upgrades to your ship from salvaged resources.

Void War
Like I could delve into this subject without plugging my multiplayer space combat game! Blending arcade-style action with Newtonian physics, humor, and "special abilities" (and pick-ups) for each ship, Void War is more of an attempt to apply 3D, first-person action to old-school games like Spacewar!, Asteroids, and Star Control. It's less hardcore and more arcadey (particularly with pick-ups scattered across the space arenas) - though the Newtonian-esque physics still gives people fits.

It's now available at a reduced price, too.

FREE Games
All of these indie games are available at an attractive price that will let you stretch your gaming budget, and most of the ones listed here have demo versions you that can play for free. But there are a few games with full free versions available. These may be open-source projects (or using unlicensed content from popular film and TV shows or other games), "living" community projects in flux, or older / discontinued titles that have been made freeware.

Vega Strike
Vega Strike is kind of an open-source space-combat / trading engine, as well as pretty huge game in this genre. There are tons of mods for the it, including a remake of Wing Commander: Privateer called Privateer: Gemini Gold. Vega Strike is freaking huge, clocking in at nearly a half-gig download, and has the level of polish (or lack thereof) that reflects the non-final version of this community project. It may be years before it goes final, but it's playable now. And hey - it's free!

Star Wraith IV: Reviction
This is an older game in Star Wraith 3D Games' collection, which has since been released as freeware. You can definitely see the Wing Commander inspiration here, as well as note the evolutionary difference between this one and the later games.

Babylon 5: I've Found Her
Another quality freebie, taking place in one of the coolest science-fiction universes to grace television. I believe this game used the Freespace engine (which was released into Open Source many years ago) as a foundation, and built an entire story and multiple campaigns into it based on the Babylon 5 series. Perhaps its just the slick engine its built upon, but Babylon 5: I've Found Her contains a much higher level of polish than you'd expect from a freeware game.

Flight Commander
Flight Commander is described very simply as, "A space combat simulator in the style of Wing Commander." It also borrows a few assets from the Wing Commander games. It is designed to be very mod-friendly, so other Wing Commander fans could create their own continued sagas in that universe.

Coming Soon
Some of these games are older than others, but there are a couple here that are not yet out. They may never even see the light of day, but I sure hope so. If you needed any more proof that space combat is alive and well in

Naumachia: Space Warfare
Described as a fast-pace blend of RTS and space combat (with Newtonian Physics!), Naumachia promises to allow the player to build and fly fighters, dropships, and even capital ships. A popular choice. As you can see in the video, it also looks freaking awesome.



Blackstar
This is an upcoming anime-looking MMO featuring both space and ground-based combat. It definitely has a style all of its own, and should be worthy of keeping an eye on.

Bonus Games
These don't count, because they don't quite fit as being "indie 3D space combat games." But they are worthy of mention here for reason that it's my blog and I'll post whatever I want. :)

Flatspace 2
It's like any number of these deep, 3D space combat & trading games, able to match feature-for-feature with some of the others... except it's 2D, with a top-down perspective.

Allegiance
Touted by one reviewer as "The Best Game Nobody Played" (Hey, I bought and played it! What does that make me?), Allegiance has since been released by Microsoft as open source software, and is supported by its community. Not exactly indie to begin with, but I guess it's an adopted indie title.

Discovery Mod for Freelancer
I don't really want to get started on mods - we could be here all month! But I've been playing this one for Freelancer. While there are a couple of issues, it really turns an already awesome game into an awesome game with much longer legs, adding over 150 new or upgraded models of ships, 68 new systems (I think that's like... double the original count... or more), lots of new equipment, "roleplaying" options for roleplaying multiplayer servers, battleship-killing missions, and a lot more. The downside (if you consider it a downside) is that the enemy AI now know how to use their shield batteries and nanobots to repair themselves in mid-combat. This makes battles a lot longer and a lot harder.

Whew! Well, there you go. That's a lot of games. And - I must confess - I haven't played them all. And some I haven't played in a while. And this doesn't represent close to all the indie space combat sims out there - especially not the ones still in development. Or mods. But hopefully this provides a smattering to get you started if you crave for the "good ol' days" of the "Wing Commander Era."

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008
 
Geneforge 5: Released for the Mac
Mac gamer, rejoice. At least once a year you get to lord it over your PC gamer brethren, getting a quality old-school indie RPG months before we do. Enjoy.

This year, it's the final chapter in the Geneforge saga, the indie science fiction RPG series from Spiderweb Software.

Geneforge 5: Overthrow Now Available for Mac

Some of the key features that caught my eye are that it includes several different "paths to victory," including the use of stealth and diplomacy rather than straight-up combat.

It also features "dozens" of different endings. Wow. These days, mainstream game makers like to tout how three whole endings makes them some kind of messiah of open-endedness and replayability. This sounds like Geneforge 5 is trying to give Cute Knight a run for its money.

The PC version of Geneforge 5 is scheduled for a March release.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008
 
Indie Gaming and the Mainstream Press
One of the biggest problems with getting attention as an indie (or as any new product, really) is very simply that nobody seems to care. Many journalists are thrilled to talk indie. But their readers, often... not so much.

An article last week at Crispy Gamer discusses the current relationship between indie gaming and the mainstream gaming press:

Crispy Gamer - Press Pass: Going Indie
Monday, December 01, 2008
 
Games Within Games, Games Within Stories
So I finally finished Bioshock. Yes, nearly a year-and-a-half late. Since the publisher's DRM limitations seemed to enforce the idea that the customer was only renting the game, I declined to purchase Bioshock last year when it was released and instead only rented it. I'd planned to buy it for the PC, but instead rented it for the XBox 360.

Hey, they made the rules! I'm just working with what they gave us.

Anyway, I didn't finish it last year, and it had literally been a year since I last played it - over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday. Not realizing that I'd have little time to play between the Thanksgiving festivities, pen-and-paper RPGs, and my daughters wanting to play Kameo, I went ahead and rented it a second time, managing to finish it in spite of limited playing time.

I was treated to a Lord of the Flies-esque climax, and received the good-guy "Savior" ending (which I felt was satisfying, if abrupt). Go me for not murdering any of them to harvest their "Adam."

I was a little disappointed with the number of "Get X of object Y" missions (quests). When you boil it down from a gameplay perspective, these are functionally equivalent to the colored keys from 1992's Wolfenstein 3D. These are simply a way to force the player to explore most of the level in order to progress, and impose some level of linearity on the level progression. It's preferable to having a strictly linear level, but they still felt tedious.

I was impressed by what they did with the Little Sisters. I understand that at one point, they were supposed to be slug-like creatures. I expect the change to making them little girls forced a complete change-of-direction for the plot during development. By mid-game, it became clear that the story was as much about those creepy Little Sisters as the player's own quest. This is probably a good thing, as it's hard to identify with a first-person-perspective character. What you gain in immersion you lose in character identification. Hey, 2K Boston, you want to borrow my talking-portraits idea from Frayed Knights for Bioshock 2?

The game's level design is, of course, phenomenal. The nightmarish vision of Rapture after all hell has broken loose is the showpiece of the game, and in many ways Rapture is another character in the bizarre story. It's very videogamey in its layout to keep it interesting. I mean, single-use weapon upgrade stations? Being able to bribe video cameras? Whatevah! But called it "Flapperpunk" or whatever, it's got an incredible sense of style.

I was going to complain about the stupidity of characters in the game leaving tape recordings of their diaries and personal secrets all over the game world. How unbelievable is that? Then I remembered that we live in a world of YouTube and Twitter. Objection withdrawn, your honor.

I think ultimately, the game shows that a few clever gameplay twists, a strong story, and a powerful sense of style in the setting can cover a multitude of sins - or even just a single glaring one. In this case, the sin is that first person shooters are kinda boring. It's been played out a thousand times since Wolfenstein 3D. But somehow, while half of my brain was screaming, "Played It! Got the T-Shirt!", the other half remained dominant, saying, "Quiet! I'm having fun!" I wasn't focusing much on the individual battles and periodic hacking and jumping puzzles. I was focusing on the bigger picture - trying to untangle what was really going on in Rapture.

That "meta-game," on it's own, isn't exactly killer gameplay either. We're talking not far beyond a game of Candyland, here. But the artistic aspect of it was strong enough to hook me emotionally and intellectually into solving it. Something as simple as Wolfenstein 3D wouldn't do it for me anymore, but Bioshock did. There was stuff to discover, dang it.

I feel the same way about RPGs. The basic gameplay is pretty straightforward, though there are hundreds of interesting variants. But when you get a game like D&D - and there are people still playing first edition (and the original version) now, thirty years later - the little atomic action and risk/reward elements that people like me tend to think of as "gameplay" are pretty heavily played out. Those aren't even important to players anymore at that point - they have been fully internalized by veteran players. Just as the whole aiming, dodging, "straffing, pick-up keys and ammo thing is no longer skills to be "developed" for the target audience of a mainstream FPS game. Instead, those mechanics become simply building-blocks for the "real" game. The bigger game, involving setting and characters and plot.

An example that occurs to me during this stream-of-consciousness late-night brain dump is X-Com. The strategic and building portion of the game, if taken on its own, was lame. It was sparse and uninteresting - nothing compared to similar strategy games of its time. The tactical combats were of course the meat of the game, but if taken on their own they were meaningless and empty. You combine the two into a game-within-a-game, however, and they worked extremely well, the result better than the sum of the parts. Mix with a very cool atmosphere and setting, and you've got a game made of awesome.

Depths of Peril has an RPG-within-a-strategy-game approach, with an overarching (albeit thin) storyline on top of that. I remember loving Archon, even though the arcade-action combat sequences were a poor match for the methodical chess-style meta-game.

No, this isn't Einsteinian revelation here, but it's an interesting way to think about game mechanics. I am probably guilty of spending too much time focusing on the individual building blocks, and not enough on the overall structure. That sounds a little like focusing on individual notes while ignoring the composition.

So it was for me with Bioshock, and with many RPGs. The core mechanics may not be anything incredibly innovative, but the drive to uncover and assemble the puzzle-pieces of a well-crafted storyline made it cool enough for me to push forward to the ending.

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