Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Saturday, January 31, 2009
 
Of Vomit And Modems...
As I was getting ready for work Wednesday morning, my wife told me, "The Internet is down. And the dog vomited on the floor."

I made an assumption that the latter point was simply a statement of no-longer-current events, and that she was simply informing me of this so that I would be aware of the dog's illness. So I ignored the stinkier matter of concern and asked my wife, "So did you reboot the modem?"

She fumed at me slightly. "Yes, I tried to reboot the modem." After a pause, she said, "OKAY! I'll clean up the vomit, you fix the Internet."

It sounded like a reasonable deal to me. Silly me. I wasn't sure why my wife was mad at me for not volunteering to take on both tasks.

I spent two-and-a-half hours getting bounced between my ISP and... QWEST. In, uh... India. No problem with India, or Indians (I am friends with many), but apparently this particular outsourcing shop is paid by how quickly they hang up on customers. I was volleyed like a tennis ball between both providers, as they used me to point the finger to each other. After a while, I learned that the first thing I needed to say to the "technical support" script-readers from QWEST in India that "I was just sent here from my ISP, please DO NOT TRANSFER ME to them until I've explained this to you!" Otherwise, after getting my information and the "nature of my call," I'd get a perfunctory, "This is a problem with yout Internet Service Provider - I can transfer you there directly. Thank you, call again!"

A long conference call between all three parties resulted in a questionable solution. "Something must be wrong with the modem. We'll send you a new one - you'll get it tomorrow. Thank you, call again."

So I got the new modem on Thursday. Thursday night, I tried to set everything up. Same problem. Two more hours were spent on calls to QWEST and my ISP resulted in very little progress, and I was told that the high-level tech people who could help me would not be in until the morning.

By this time, spending time with tech support started involving ten to fifteen minutes for the tech support person to read through the very long list of notes left on my support ticket, followed by fifteen minutes of repeating the exact same troubleshooting procedures I'd been through approximately sixty times earlier over the last two days.

So Friday, I ended taking the day off work. I guess if I had the flu, it would have been a worse day off. But otherwise, it sucked. Six more hours, taking my modem OUTSIDE to hook up to the exterior phone access, a zillion more experiments and and a visit to a friend (who also had DSL) to test both modems proved that:

* the modems weren't at fault
* my house wiring wasn't at fault, and ....
* woops, sorry, it's Friday evening, everybody's going home, call us tomorrow.

Tomorrow being Saturday (now today), several calls to tech support revealed that the problem was PROBABLY some obscure weird thing at my ISP. Unfortunately, nobody on the Saturday crew has high-level access to be able to fix the system.

So I have to wait until Monday (or until one of the chief tech people decide to answer the page and cancel their weekend plans to rush to work to fix some problem for an obscure, complaining user. And THEN find out whether or not the fix actually works.

I won't begin to list the number of high-priority issues that have occured this week for which we needed Internet access. Murphy's law was in full force. Maybe this wasn't the worst week possible to lose access, but it's close. My frustration level is through the roof.

And yeah, I'm typing this from a friend's house tonight.

Next time, I want to clean up the dog vomit!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009
 
Rampant Coyote Unplugged
Still no internet connection at my home, so I've only got a twitter-like posts I can throw onto the blog right now. Shame on me for not having a better backlog of posts. I'll learn.

Interesting note: My wife finally played some Fable 2 last night, which I'd gotten her for Christmas. The Internet is too big of a distraction, I guess... :) Anyway, she was going to play it for a half an hour before going to bed. About 90 minutes later, she came downstairs and said, "That game is REALLY good." And she proceeded to tell me all about the introductory storyline / tutorial. And the interesting choices that had to be made.

Sounds like there are some lessons to be learned from that game.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
 
Internet Outage
My home internet connection is kaput for now. The ISP and QWEST are pointing fingers at each other, and both favor the theory that my router must have gone bad in some subtle way in which everything works perfectly except for its sending an authentication string of any kind to the ISP.

So no post today - sorry. Talk amongst yourselves or something. :)
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
 
Monetizing "Free"
Oftentimes, the best way to obtain is to give.

I agree with Shamus in that this in no way justifies piracy, contrary to the suggestion of the original article. It has nothing to do with piracy. It has everything to do with being a good business.

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Dueling Publishers
It's old news that Hellgate: London kinda flopped, that developer Flagship Studios has disappeared in all but name, and that the game that was supposed to be kind of an "MMORPG Lite" thing has been scheduled to cease operations (shutting down Western servers) at the end of this month.

Enter the Korean publisher, Hanbitsoft, which has announced not only that the game will be "free to play" on their servers, but that they are coming out with a patch soon (developed by San Francisco - based developer Redbana U.S. Studio).

HanbitSoft maintains that it owns the IP rights to the game worldwide (including the engine and source code), and operational rights in Asia (excluding Japan). Namco Bandai & EA maintain U.S. and European publishing rights, and have been very quick to dismiss any rumors that there is a remote chance of U.S. servers becoming operational ever again. The game is dead and soon-to-be-buried as far as they are concerned.

Officially, HanbitSoft's updates and servers are for Asia only. Unofficially... well, they deliberately announced a press release about the new servers and updates during the final week of the U.S. and European servers... in English.

From the perspective of a casually interested outsider, it seems as though there's a bit of a war of words going on between the publishers. And I can't say I'm too surprised by HanbitSoft's position. They probably paid a good deal of money for this business opportunity. If I were them, I, too, would absolutely refuse to have my investment's success or failure dictated by a third party.

Why won't Namco Bandai and EA sell their rights to HanbitSoft, since they have obviously already declared things a loss and moved on? I would guess that this has been discussed, but for some reason no deal is pending. Maybe Hellgate: London was worth more to them as a tax writeoff than they'd get selling it to HanbitSoft.

Or maybe some kind of deal is pending. Or will be worked out once HanbitSoft has figured out a way to actually make money on their investment.

Or maybe HanbitSoft is taking advantage of the fact that it's a world economy, and that Western players WILL log into their Asian servers with the new, updated community services - which no doubt include additional ways of monetizing the free gaming experience. This could be a very tricky way to win some dollars, euros, and yen without having to pay for the publishing rights in those parts of the world.

Hey, if nobody ELSE is gonna be running a server next week...

I never bought or played Hellgate: London, as much as I am a fan of Bill Roper in principle. :) But I find this story to be pretty dang interesting from a games biz perspective. It'll be fascinating to see how things fall out.

Hellgate: London to Continue as Free-To-Play Title

Hellgate: London Official Update from HanbitSoft

More on Hellgate: London's EU / US / Asia complex worldwide rights issues

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Monday, January 26, 2009
 
Modern-Day Folklore and Fantasy
One of the dangers of staying up too late playing and writing games 'n stuff is that I get into this weird free-association mode that results in bizarre blog posts. Like this one.

Having recently finished Persona 3 (and I now have Fallout 3 in a box, taunting me), I have decided that I really want more modern-ish era cRPGs. Not that post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 is modern era. But escaping the fantasy world for stuff a bit closer to home. Of course, as a not-so-closet fan of the urban fantasy genre, I wouldn't mind seeing some modern-era fantasy RPGs, either.

This got me thinking (free association, remember?) about modern folklore - considering how ripe it is for the plucking in an RPG. I have a friend who took a class in folklore at college, and the grad student teaching the class was somehow of the belief that folklore was only a product of our quaint ancestors, and there was no such thing in the modern world. Apparently, we modern folks are just too smart to have superstitious beliefs in magical or make-believe crap, right?

Yeah. Just go to Snopes.com and tell me that. Or watch MythBusters. Or X-Files re-runs. Or Supernatural. Or read the National Enquirer. While we don't tend to immediately attribute magical effects and influences to things, we do live a life full of folklore and... yes, superstition. I'd love to see an RPG take advantage of this some day. Well, okay, MORE RPGs that take advantage of that.

Roswell. A conspiracy to assassinate JFK. A chain email that brings good or bad luck. Waking up in a tub of ice after hooking up with a stranger, with an explanation that your your kidneys were removed for black-market sale, and that you need to call 911 immediately. Computer viruses that do the impossible? Subliminal messages in websites. Bigfoot. Aliens. Secret oil cartel conspiracies. Government conspiracies to fake the moon landings and control our brains. A truck that followed that one girl home, using the high beams, to keep the murderer in her back seat down. Bloody Mary said three times in a bathroom mirror. Elvis faking his death. Psychic phenomena. Monstrous mutants created by pollution and / or nuclear waste. Cell-phone radiation popping popcorn.

I actually do have a design that I put a lot of effort into that does embrace some aspects of modern(esque) folklore and ghost stories - which I actually fiddled with prototyping some time ago, but it has alas been backburnered for now. Someday...

Alas, we did have one indie RPG that embraced modern folklore (specifically, the UFO Conspiracy stories) head-on - The Omega Syndrome - but alas, it has been pulled from sale. I would love to see more.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
 
The Former Day Job's Woes Become Public
I can't say I'm happy about this hitting a major game news site like this. It's a suck. But I guess the cat's out of the bag now.

Now my semi-cryptic announcement of my departure (again) from the mainstream games biz might make a little bit more sense. And no - I'm not mentioned in the suit. I pretty much left in the nick of time. I have a lot of friends who were not so lucky.

It's easy to point fingers at potential villains in this scenario. But it's never as simple as that. For all the talk of how the games biz is "recession proof," when your publishers won't pay their bills (and... uh... disappear overnight), and the banks aren't making any loans to cover the interruptions and delays in cashflow, you are screwed. Crap flows downhill.

This is a suck for all involved.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009
 
I Have Fallout 3, but I Did Not Inhale
We decided to take advantage of Circuit City's going out of business sale, and I found the PC version of Fallout 3 for 10% off. Not a huge discount, but better than nothing. So I snagged it.

But I did not install it. Not yet. I vowed not to play it until certain other tasks (and games) have been taken off my plate. I need to find a good place to hide it so I don't think about it.

Anyway - there were quite a few copies of both the XBox 360 and PC version of the game at the local shop, if anybody was looking at getting a little bit of a discount on it. Circuit City's loss is your gain.
Friday, January 23, 2009
 
Psycho Game Developers To Make YOUR Game?
Speaking of the whole "Game In A Week" thing, some developers who I think are certifiable (but very cool) have taken on a very unusual challenge. From the Black Triangles website:
"The basic idea is that given a well fleshed out GDD (that's game design document) a programmer (or two or ten) are given 40 hours each to do as much of the game as possible. These are not contiguous hours, but 40 working hours ( a full work week ). Whenever they program, they run a timer, when all the programmers have used up all their time they release the game open source to the community.

"This is an exercise for everyone involved. It teaches designers how to scope their ideas, MMO designs are immediately discarded, as are anything with the phrase "Like Oblivion". Programmers are taught time management, how to solve problems quickly, it emulates a microcosm (fancy wordage ftw) of the actual gaming industry. And best of all everyone involved gets the chance to give back to the game development community that has helped them so much this far. It's a great exercise, it's a heckuva lot of fun, and best of all you see results quickly. So what are you waiting for?

"Send your design documents to: 40HourGame (at) BlackTriangles (dot) com"
Now, they don't say how they are gonna open source the resulting game. But if they open up the license so that anybody could take it and see if they can turn it into a commercial project, no (major) strings attached (though I'd consider credit, at the very least, to be obligatory whether or not they demand it), this would be an AWESOME way for an aspiring game developer / game designer / game producer to get a project jump-started. If nothing else, you could see what it takes to get a game idea from concept to playable prototype.

This will no doubt be an eye-opening experience for all involved.

But a big hint: Make sure your submitted GDD is both concise and original. If I were them, I probably wouldn't jump on a Mario clone idea with much alacrity. Give 'em something small but worthy of sinking their teeth into.

All submissions are due by the end of the weekend, so get cracking!!!!!

You can check out details at Black Triangles or at GameDev.net.

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Frayed Knights - UI, UI, Oh, No, Me Gotta Go...
Many of the suggestions I received for improving the Frayed Knights Pilot involved the UI. This wasn't too surprising.

Some of the changes were easy. Using the arrow keys to move around (in addition to the FPS-style WASD controls), changing the mouse-look system to be more traditional, etc. I haven't added the ability to customize keyboard commands, but that's a given for the final release (someday...).

Using What They Gave Me

In order to get the pilot playable and done on time, I did a lot of the UI work with Torque's default UI system. Torque has a pretty nice UI editor, with a fairly comprehensive set of workhorse UI elements. If you don't mind your game interface looking like standard web forms or an MFC application, it works really well. With a little bit of custom code and some good artwork, it can actually look pretty good. For between-game menus and stuff, it's awesome.

But I needed more. A big reason for creating this "Franken-Engine" of the Torque Game Engine and Torque Game Builder was to take advantage of the 2D capabilities of TGB to make cool, dynamic, polished UI elements. Unfortunately, except for the main screen and the character dialog sequences (which admittedly still need some work), this didn't happen much. Mainly this was due to lack of time. Almost as significant is my own cluelessness with respect to user interfaces.

So now I'm going back with the advantage of hindsight (though I probably need to impose tighter deadlines on myself... again) and trying to exploit the tools I now have available to make things look and function better.

It doesn't help that my programmer art still sucks, but hey - baby steps.

My Engine Sucks! (Warning - Technical)

My focus the last two weeks has been on something I intended to fix two months ago. The inventory. Granted, the inventory management screen isn't the piece I've gotten many complaints on - though several players have requested a more modern drag-and-drop style inventory screen. I personally want more animation, and a more intuitive system.

Unfortunately, one of the challenges I faced was that for some reason, my franken-engine isn't letting object-level mouse events through. There is functionality in TGB (I used version 113 - the last one with some semblance of compatibility with TGE) for objects to handle callbacks when the mouse moves over them or clicks on them, for example. I even tested it out in TGE 1.13 to make sure it works. But for some reason, when mixed with the Torque Game Engine and all the other crap I've got in there, something got lost, and it's not working. I tried a number of permutations for setUseObjectMouseEvents and everything, but no luck.

However, the window would still receive mouse events, so after a couple of days of frustration (and a couple of days where I didn't touch the game at all out of annoyance), I began implementing things "the hard way."

In retrospect, "the hard way" wasn't nearly as hard as I thought they'd be - particularly not after I uncovered some functions that made it easy to determine whether or not the mouse was "inside" an on-screen object. In fact, I think the current system - in the long term - is actually going to be a lot easier to manage, centralizing control over the inventory interface where there are a lot of complex interactions. Score!

This will also act as a template for the other new interfaces. The real problem children, which need help even more than inventory and trading, are combat, spell-casting, and the trap / lock screen. Combat in particular is gonna get a complete overhaul, based on feedback. The core idea will remain the same, but it needs some major TLC.

Inventory Design Follies (Not Nearly So Technical)

Something I'm doing differently with Frayed Knights from most other games is that not every equipped item has a hard-and-fast "slot."

I did get really complicated early in the design and have a whole system that would allow a character to wear, say, a head-scarf, an arming cap, a coif, and a helmet all at the same time (and maybe even a floppy hat on top of the helmet...), but I finally realized that the coolness of being able to do that did not justify the massive confusion and interface difficulties that this would present. Just because you can simulate something in code doesn't mean you should.

(Yes, I'm one of those wusses who shy away from the NetHack interface. How do I freaking DROP an item, again?)

Anyway, one aspect that I wanted to retain - and I think I have - is to have a lot of non-standard items. Goofy items. I always loved the "Hip Waders of Protection" from Hackmaster. Or things like the "Bad-Ass Bandanna" from Munchkin. There's no reason you can't wear both a "Headband of Pebble-Grabbing" and a "Helmet of Smackdown Protection" at the same time.

So some items have specific slots (like a helmet), and other items simply use a generic "accessory" slot. You are limited to the number of accessories you can wear at one time, though this limit can be increased as you level up. Yes, I realize how much of a girl I'm sounding like right now, but that's the way it works. Things like necklaces, rings, earrings, bracers, underwear, tights, nose-rings, armbands, socks, scarves, belts, eye patches, corsets, and other junk are labeled as "accessories." So yes, you can now wear two or three necklaces at a time.

Goals

My goal is to have a really new, improved Frayed Knights ready for show at the April Utah Indie Night event. New interfaces, new combat system, *possibly* a redone AI system, shopkeepers, new quests, new locations and monsters, better sound, etc. I'm still working on the details for that milestone. But I figure it'll help me stay motivated and make the big push over the next three months (our next Utah Indie night is next week - assuming I can make it, as my daughter has an awards ceremony the same night).

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Thursday, January 22, 2009
 
Age of Decadence Interview
Rock Paper Shotgun didn't learn their lesson last time. Or maybe they did. Vince Weller, the very indie dude in charge of making Age of Decadence, has another interview up where he talks about - of all things - actually roleplaying in a roleplaying game.

Now, his view of roleplaying might not quite jibe perfectly with that of some players, but I like it. Particularly as a fan of "rogue" type characters who are treated in most RPGs as a poor-man's fighter who can pick pockets. Woot.

Anyway, it's a short one, but packed.

Vince Weller Interview at RPS

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Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection
A lot of the developer folk in this community (who are a minority around here, but do hang around) may be familiar with GameDev.net. This quarter, GameDev.net is releasing four books about game development. The first one shipped on the 13th, entitled Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection. If you are interested, it's available at Amazon:

Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection

If it's sold out there, you can also get it from Course PTR.

I haven't read the book yet - though I'm expecting my copy any day now. But I do have an article in it. See, this book series consists of both new articles and some of the "best of" articles from GameDev.net.

A few summers ago, I wrote an article for GameDev.net entitled, "How to Write a Game in a Week from Scratch with No Budget." It was the saga of me creating a very stripped down RPGish game called "Hackenslash" in 40 hours of development time - a theoretical "work week."

The game is pretty horrible, probably amusing only for programmer-types. But the point was to really challenge myself and see what it would take starting with no engine, using a library that I was unfamiliar with, using all free resources. Part of my rationale for doing it was in answer to some concerns at GameDev.net and GarageGames.com forums about the cost of resources and game engines, and the people who were using that as an excuse to not even get started.

I don't know if Hackenslash is exactly a poster child for proving much of anything - but I have gotten a lot of emails from people who appreciated the article, and some of them have gone on to make (much better) games in Python & PyGame after reading it. So I guess some folks found some value in the thing.

And GameDev.net judged it worthy to be included in this book. Which thrilled me.

I am pleased that this book is seeing print. I think we need more books on this aspect of game development, especially with the rise of indie gaming. Back when I started, I had no friggin' clue what I was doing. Sure, I'd been a professional game programmer for six years, had some hit games with my name in the credits. But jumping the gap between being a proverbial cog in the wheel to actually selling my own game online was a lot harder than I thought. I'd heard professional indies explain that writing the game was only half of the work involved - and I thought they were exaggerating.

Nope, they were not. It's definitely not the most sexy part of game development (and believe me... very little of game development is all that sexy). But there's a lot to it. It's very time consuming. It can make or break your game. But if you are going to spend all that time, energy, and money doing it anyway, you may as well do it right. I know I still have plenty to learn.

Once I get my contributor's copy of the book, I'll post some kind of review here about it and let you know what other gems of wisdom are to be found on business and production in game development.

(In case you are wondering - no, I don't get royalties on the book. So I have no vested financial interest in its success. I just hope its cool, in spite of my article...)

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
 
Taking the Safety Off
Scott Jennings, the blogger formerly known as Lum the Mad, has posted an outstanding article that really hit home with me. It's about subject matter. The taboo subjects that games are apparently not allowed to contain:

Broken Toys: The Real Hitler Problem

This article refers to some equally well-thought out essays entitled "The Hitler Problem" and "Dealing With the Hitler Problem."

I feel unworthy and unqualified to comment on this, but that rarely stops me. But I'm afraid on this topic, I have more questions than answers.

I'm one of the people who wasn't particularly impressed with Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of its treatment (and what I felt was a disingenuous explanation by the author for his treatment of it).

But I am a supporter of games dealing with real-world issues. Including the uncomfortable ones. But we've got a medium that has a legacy of silly, over-the-top, juvenile power-trip fantasies where morality is usually painted in stark contrasting colors. We have journalists and politicians and grandparents who are being forced to notice video games only because of the sheer ubiquity of the hobby, and they are still expecting Pac-Man. Instead, they see Grand Theft Auto.

And granted - I don't necessarily want to deal with real-world ethical conundrums when I play games. When I'm slicing and dicing buttloads of enemies in Ninja Gaiden II, I don't want to think, "Oh, what about this guy's pregnant girlfriend sitting at home alone tonight wondering why he's late tonight? Should I really have dismembered him like I did?" I want the comic book fantasy. Not that comic books are all about black-and-white morality, either. But you know what I mean. I want to just be playing a game. No repercussions.

So do we sterilize history, and our stories, to help the player enjoy an evening of guilt-free, more kid-friendly pleasure? Or do we go ahead and have games that deal with the subject of slavery in the Age of Colonization, and the real horrors of war? Can games deal with real evil, instead of the Saturday morning cartoon evil?

Can we take the safety off?

Will it be commercial suicide to do so? Can only indie games (which are already taking the lead in this respect) really afford to ignore the dogmas of political correctness?

Can we, as in the original Star Trek series, deal with real-world issues more appropriately only by concealing them within metaphors? Are we doing ourselves an injustice by limiting ourselves to this?

Does the interactivity of games enhance our points, or dull them? By putting you in the shoes of a "bad guy" - a real bad guy - do we magnify the impact of the horror, or desensitize the player to it as he mechanically goes about his tasks? Do we promote understanding, or promote sympathy for the Devil?

And is whitewashing the issues of the past and present even worse?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009
 
RPG Design: Computer RPG Pattern Catalog
Ah, ya gotta love it when academia and computer games mix!

Here's a paper from 2005 where college students from the University of Alberta presented a catalog of higher-level CRPG "patterns" that could be used to replace the tedious, error-prone process of manual scripting. According to the abstract for their paper:
"The current state-of-the-art in computer games is to manually script individual game objects to provide desired interactions for each game adventure. Our research has shown that a small set of parameterized patterns (commonly occurring scenarios) characterize most of the interactions used in game adventures. They can be used to specify and even generate the necessary scripts. A game adventure can be created at a higher level of abstraction so that team communication and coding errors are reduced. The cost of creating a pattern can be amortized over all of the times the pattern is used, within a single adventure, across a series of game adventures and across games of the same genre. We use the computer role-playing game (CRPG) genre as an exemplar and present a pattern catalog that supports most scenarios that arise in this genre. This pattern catalog has been used to generate ALL of the scripts for three classes of objects (placeables, doors and triggers) in BioWare Corp.’s popular Neverwinter Nights CRPG campaign adventure."
I haven't delved too deeply into it yet. But the point is to add a higher level of abstraction to the scripting process - which would, in turn, make the process of creating content much easier. Granted, it works across a limited universe to accomplish things in a fairly "Neverwinter Nights"-centric way. They do mention similar patterns in Morrowind and Fable. But I think CRPG developers would do well to take note and at least browse the paper and the list of patterns.

I've been thinking about making similar abstractions in Frayed Knights to make it easier to create (and maintain) the quests and events, and this has helped solidify some of my thoughts.

Computer RPG Pattern Catalog

A Pattern Catalog for Computer Role Playing Games (paper explaining the catalog - PDF format)

On a side note, isn't it awesome that we live in an era where you can find academic papes on this kind of thing?

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Leadwerks 3D Engine Review
Okay, I really don't know why so many of my posts these days are about game DEVELOPMENT. I guess when you got your nose to the grindstone, you tend to think about the grindstone a lot. But that doesn't explain MY problem...

Anyway - GameProducer has a review of the Leadwerks 3D game engine, which also caught my curiosity a couple of weeks ago. VERY valuable reading, if you are an indie game developer.

Leadwerks 3D Engine Review


Tempting, tempting...

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Monday, January 19, 2009
 
Thoughts on Persona 3 FES: The Answer
This weekend, I finished the "expansion" campaign to Persona 3 FES, subtitled "The Answer."

It takes place on March 31st, a few days after the conclusion of the original campaign ("The Journey"). The original characters (well, those that survived from the original group) have been packing up the dormitory and are preparing to leave the next day, after having one last going-their-separate-ways party. Unfortunately, moving day never arrives, as the group finds themselves trapped in the dormitory in a magical time-loop that keeps repeating March 31st over and over again. Oh, and they get attacked by a robot, Metis, of a similar make and model as Aigis, but apparently manufactured with the "emotion upgrade" pre-installed and turned to "annoying kid sister" levels.

What they learn is that a place called "The Abyss of Time" - a counterpart to Tartarus - did not fade away when Tartarus did. And now it's stocked with a ton of shadows and a mysterious dark figure, and has connected (very deliberately) with a previously unknown basement in the dormitory building. Naturally, the secret to breaking out of the Groundhog Day style time loop will require them delving deep into the Abyss of Time, kicking a lot of shadow butt, and emoting in some anime-style cut-scenes.

Gameplay Commentary

This weird plot setup removes a lot of elements from the previous game:

#1 - Time ceases to be a factor in exploring. Nobody ever gets tired (that I could tell) in the dungeon explorations of the "Abyss of Time" (the counterpart to Tartarus that has opened up beneath the dorms - for a very particular reason). While it sounds liberating, I found that it really made the game less interesting. You are pretty much wandering through randomly-generated dungeons all the friggin' time, without the other activities of the day to break things up.

#2 - There are no social links - as you are stuck in the dorm rooms with your old companions (and Metis), so there's not really any new relationships to be had. Unsurprisingly, though, the theme of the expansion is on relationships - and friendship. And foreshadows in the beginning a bloody battle royale coming up between these stalwart companions...

#3 - There's really no place to GO other than the Abyss of Time, the Velvet Room (Aigis can now go there), and (eventually) certain shops in Paulownia mall in the past.

There are some other changes to make the game more challenging than the original. There is no longer the ability to register Personas, so a fusion or a discard removes the Persona forever (or until you find / fuse a new version). On the other hand, you are no longer restricted from the top-level personas (or beyond!) by social link. You no longer get nihil weapons that you can fuse with personas to create new weaponry.

In the dungeon, most of the shadows are similar to those found in the original campaign - the bizarrely abstract entities based upon the major arcana of the Tarot. But they do have some nasty additions, particularly with the bosses and red-level shadows. For one thing, many of the tougher shadows no longer have weaknesses, making it harder to get free attacks (or all-out attacks) in. They also combine shadows with complimentory abilities (and opposite weaknesses) - so half of the enemies may be weak to frost attacks, but the other half are actually healed (or reflect) frost attacks.

The bosses are frequently encountered in groups with nasty combos. For example, one boss encounter consisted of three enemies: One with powerful attacks that targeted the entire party, one with the power to put up an "attack mirror" style effect which reflected physical attack damage back on the attacker, and a third opponent who had the ability to cast "enrage" on the party to force them to make blind physical attacks (and kill themselves on the attack mirror effect).

Story Commentary

While it is a lot more challenging than the original, the gameplay changes make The Answer little more than a traditional dungeon crawl. With a linear story tacked on at certain stages.

At least the story is interesting - "The Answer" as suggested in the title is supposed to be about Aigis's quest for an answer in herself as to the meaning of life - particularly for her, as "life" in a man-made machine is questionable at best.

Aigis is sort of a Frankenstein's monster with a (potentially) happier ending - one who was accepted by members of humanity rather than rejected. She's less filled with homicidal tendencies and self-loathing, but she mounts cannons on her arms. Definitely an improvement over Frankenstein's creation. Her story is closer to Pinocchio territory. But she is still a very angsty construction, who at the beginning of the game wishes for a return to her original, emotionless, purely mechanical state. Her self-will has brought her grief, and she seeks to put an end to it. The crisis snaps her out of it, and she finds herself a new "guest" of the Velvet Room. Igor and Elizabeth challenge her to make the same discovery as their previous guest - to discover her own answer to the meaning of her unique existance.

But I suspect that part of the title came from the ending of the original campaign, "The Journey." After the final boss was destroyed and the game gave you a chance to explore a (potentially) lengthy denoument, the conclusion left me saying, "WTF?!?!?" If I was a character in the game, a big blue question-mark would have appeared over my head. In a way, this expansion was the answer to explain the ending of the original release.

And it takes its own sweet time getting around to it.

For people like me who are a little thick, it does this by hitting us over the head with the whole Christ allegory thing. But I like to think of it being more of a case of it being presented very weakly in the original campaign.

One thing I did appreciate was the focus at the beginning of the expansion on practical needs: Trapped in the dormitory, the day-old sushi from the party wouldn't last long. Part of the group immediately begins a search for supplies necessary for survival. Once the connection to the Paulownia Mall of the past is established, this minor subplot is resolved. I guess Mitsuru can grab cash from an off-screen ATM or something so they can live on Ding-Dongs (or weird Japanese junk food) from the drugstore.

The Paulownia Mall thing kinda annoyed me - there was so much that could have been explored with a doorway into a limited area in the past, but it was really just an matter of "convenience." I would have liked them to have left messages for their past selves or silly things like that. There was so much wasted potential for some really interesting time paradoxes. Could Mitsuru have contacted her father and warned him about a particular upcoming betrayal?

Overall Thoughts

While I felt the storyline was a satisfying conclusion to the two campaigns, the problem was that there (A) just wasn't enough of it, and (B) was little-to-no player choice in how it unfolds. While the dungeon crawls and evolution of your personas were well under your personal control, the story was simply a series of fixed cutscenes and some dialog options doled out at certain milestones. Most of it was cryptic and incomplete - an obvious case of story being spread too thin across the campaign.

The dungeon crawling had already gotten old in The Journey, and while they made it more challenging in this expansion, outside of the boss fights it still felt like a repeat of the same grinding done before. Same monsters, same cards, same items... only this time, without the daytime activities to break up the grind as soon as it becomes monotonous. Fortunately, the boss fights were far more interesting from a mechanics perspective. The arena fights near the end were challenging, and gave me the pleasure of beating the crap out of the other principle characters in the game.

I praised Persona 3 - the original campaign - for its bold outside-the-box expansions on gameplay and stryline. The expansion - while interesting and challenging - expands on the most boring and pedestrian aspects of the original. I can understand the desire for a "cheap and dirty" expansion - particularly when the "complete" FES edition only costs $30 new at retail. And parts of it were a lot of fun, and I did enjoy the new story and expansion on the events of the original. It just felt like I had to plow through an awful lot of filler to get there.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009
 
Blender Torque Exporter Update
With the redesign of the GarageGames website, the forums dedicated to particular tools have vanished - with apparently no intent to break them out into separate threads again.

To help preserve the community of Blender / Torque users (though it also separates the community a bit), Joseph Greenawalt, the guy who has been maintaining the exporter for Blender for many moons now, has effectively moved that forum & community to his own site, and is looking to find out who is still interested.

I'll just direct you to the shoutout thread here:

Post Here If You Are Using (Or Plan To Use) the Torque Exporter for Blender

I think this might be of interest to exactly TWO people here, but if you are a regular here you already know that I'm a big fan of Blender. It's an open-source, FREE, professional-quality 3D modeling package that is frankly about 100x more powerful than *I* really need. The inset art in the upper right here is called "Sign of the Juggernaut" by Derek Watts, created and rendered within Blender. It's a really powerful tool, but it is known for having an interface that deviates from that of the popular commercial competition. You can check it out at Blender.org. I think it's a great tool, and the price is more than right for indie game development.

I wish I had some kinda clue as to where GarageGames is going these days. I've been a fan of what they've been trying to do over the years, even if I've been frustrated from time to time with their engines. But it's a different crew now, and a different mandate. We'll just have to see what happens.

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Friday, January 16, 2009
 
RPG Special Discount
Good Old Games (GOG.COM) has an RPG special this weekend - a 15% off their RPGs.

GOG RPG Weekend

Thanks to RPGWatch and Scorpia for the heads-up!
 
Frayed Knights: Butt-In-Chair Work
When I was working on Jet Moto, 3D modeler Michael Makarczyk was commenting on how a certain change to the code was going to force him to go back and change how his models worked. When producer Danny Lunt asked if that was going to be difficult to do, Mike responded, "Nah, it won't be hard - it's just a lot of butt-in-chair work."

I've used that term a lot since then. It pretty much sums up about 80 - 90 percent of game development. It's not particularly exciting or sexy. It's tedious. It doesn't make great screenshots. But it has to get done.

Implementing new UI systems is like that, as I am right now in Frayed Knights. Fixing bugs in the new code is like that. I spend a lot of time stepping through code, checking variables in a watch list, and muttering "WTF?" to myself a lot.

Some bugs are easier to fix than others. Bugs where things are just happening wrong are easy. You trace back through the code, find out where the virtual wires are getting crossed, and fix them.

Bugs where memory gets corrupted are a real pain, as the bug often occurs long before you see something go wrong. The worst of these are the dreaded "Heisenbugs," which seem to never occur in exactly the same place or time, and the bug disappears in debug mode.

Not quite as bad, but also among the more annoying bugs to fix are the ones where nothing happens. Everything looks right. But events just are not firing for some reason.

It is especially tricky when you are working with a third-party codebase, and when you've got the layers of indirection between a scripting language and the actual code, as you have with Torquescript. Have I mentioned lately that I'm kinda disgusted by Torquescript? It's not BAD, but it sure can be frustrating on big projects. If something doesn't work, you have layers upon layers of possibilities to try and figure out which of many stages simply didn't do what they were supposed to. Was it the triggering condition? Some variable that's not been set that needs to be set before some process you don't know about will actually execute?

*Sigh*.

Well, back to getting my butt in the chair and getting work done. Later!

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A Tale of Two Pilots
The saga of Marcus Schrenker sounds like the plot from a James Bond spoof played by Jim Carrey. He decided to use his mad stunt piloting skillz to fake his own death. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for... uh, pretty much everything. Apparently trying to escape justice isn't as easy as it looks on TV.

At least he had the presence of mind, apparently, to ditch over a relatively unpopulated area, so that the risk of killing innocent people to cover his escape was reduced. Of course, that could simply be because he didn't want... you know... witnesses.

And then you've got the story of Chesley Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot, who used his own mad piloting skillz to save the lives of over 150 people in his charge. He was the last one off the plane, by reports, making sure that everybody was out and accounted for. As The Doctor would say, "Everybody lives!"

Evidence that truth can sometimes by just as entertaining as fiction.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
 
A ZORK MMO?!?!?!?
Ya gotta be freakin' kidding me:

Zork to be Revived as a Browser MMO.

Then again, now that I think of it, that could be pretty cool. Though I don't know how in the world the puzzle-based adventure gameplay of Zork would possibly work. I'm guessing by the description that they are leaning more in the direction of traditional MUD style text-based RPG-esque-ish-ness.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
 
How Much Money Can My Indie Game Make?
This question keeps coming up, and keeps getting answered the same way:

Not Much. Or Enough. Or Even Lots.


Really. Nobody Knows. Here's Why!

How much can your game possibly make? Roll on the Random D20 Treasure Table, but determine your game's level is determined by rolling 1d12 - 5, with values less than 1 resulting in a yield of nothing or incidental treasure because your mother had sympathy on you and bought a copy.

I've tacked the question myself. A couple of times, from my limited vantage point. And it really is one of those "how long is a piece of string?" questions.

Now, if it were really an absolute crap shoot, you wouldn't have any indie game companies still around. But the problem is that if you are asking this questions, there are so many variables that you don't understand (and many of them that I still don't understand, myself) that it might as well be random. Once you've blind-fired your artillery once, you can make an estimate of how far you missed your target and in what direction, and try to correct it for your second game.

When it comes to estimating sales, no amount of formulas and hand-waving can beat experience. But even experience can be misleading - for example, what makes a particular subgenre of casual games sell might be completely different for an RPG. Or - maybe not. But in general - ya don't know until you try, and it involves a tremendous number of variables involving competition, target audience, execution, polish, and marketing.

Ditto for estimating project schedules and budgets, by the way. One more reason to do a much better job than me at keeping good records on the amount of money and time spent across the board while developing your game.

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Gratitude
Okay, gonna take a somewhat serious tack (for a change) and make the kind of post that's usually reserved for Thanksgiving. Forgive me waxing all serious 'n stuff, on a blog that's normally about having fun, but it's important to me.

It's been a sobering and difficult year for pretty much everybody. When the economy sucks and there's a lot of uncertainty about jobs and the future, it impacts pretty much everything else. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who have lost their jobs. It's like 2001 all over again - only worse. And it's not likely to be a swift recovery.

I guess I should knock on wood here, but I feel very lucky to be where I am, doing what I'm doing, and to be in a home that we bought at the end of the LAST recession that isn't killing us with the mortgage and is still worth more than we paid for it. Things have gotten a little bit more tight (as it has with everyone), but so far we're weathering the storm okay. Times like these do remind me of how grateful I am for the important things in life - family, friends, and faith. A lot of things change and are uncertain these days, but those are not.

(Of course, as a gamer and someone who deplores boredom, I'm also pretty dang grateful for indie games, Netflix, GOG.com, Live Arcade, and an overflowing back-library of D&D 3.5 materials to help me keep my entertainment budget in check. :) But that's all of tertiary importance.)

Anyway, I apologize for the non-gaming-related public reflection here, but it's been on my mind.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
 
Torque 3D Pricing and Other Indie 3D Game Engines
This is old news for those who actually care, but GarageGames is currently discussing plans with the community to beef up not only the power of the upcoming "Torque 3D" over previous products, but also the price. This has many GarageGames fans concerned, but not necessarily alarmed. According to Brett Seylor of GG, most concerns were centered more on making sure the new engine was actually worth the upgrade.

As for me, this spawned off some curious browsing on the web to see what the current state of indie-friendly game engines was out there. I don't have a detailed report or anything to make here, as I haven't had time to make an exhaustive search or anything like that, let alone put the other engines through their paces, but I think the sea of possibility for indie developers will remain deep and wide even if GarageGames were to go insane and price Torque 3D out of the reach of non-professionals.

The Unity engine is a recent popular choice, especially if you do Mac-based development. It powers Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, which is good enough of a recommendation for me. :)

The Game Creators GDK is a non-commercial free game development kit that's included free-of-charge with Microsoft's Visual Studio 2008 Express. Upgrading to a commercial license costs a mere $30.

The C4 Engine is still going strong, having just released version 1.5. They've bumped their standard edition pricing up to about $350, which is still a great price for a serious indie, but not such a great 'entry-level' price for beginners.

As a fan of Python, I found that the new Python binding for Ogre 3D is now called Python-Ogre, and looks pretty dang cool. Temptingly so. And the latest release of the open-source graphics engine Ogre 3D, version 1.6, was recently released - built in C++, but with multiple bindings besides Python.

I was pleased to find out that the good ol' open-source Irrlicht Engine is likewise alive and well. Version 1.5 was just released in December, and while the core engine capabilities haven't changed much since version 1.0, a lot of little things keep getting fixed - those annoying little bugs and missing features that you don't notice until you absolutely need it and then feel the pain setting in. Not to mention optimization.

3D Game Studio A7
remains a popular choice.

Truevision3D advertises itself as more of an API and "middleware," but is likewise indie-priced.

As a fan of Blender, I should know a lot more about the Blender Game Engine than I do. It's GPL (I think), which makes it pretty uninteresting to me.

The Cipher Game Engine looks to still be alive, but just barely.

Blitz3D - still an option for simple 3D game development, but I have no idea how scalable it is for larger projects.

Nebula 3 - This is a new open-source engine based on the Nebula 2 engine. Still a work in progress.

Leadwerks 2.0 - A new 3D engine (as opposed to a fully-featured game engine) with physics, great dynamic lighting (including volumetric light scattering in version 2.1), shader support, and an extremely indie-friendly price tag of $150.

Reactor 3D is an XNA-based 3D game engine in public beta right now, currently donation-supported. If you don't mind being limited to Microsoft platforms, it may be worth checking out for easy 3D programming.

You can take a look at the DevMaster Engine page for (somewhat) up-to-date entries and reviews on tons of engines of all different flavors.

And then of course, there are the current flavors of Torque, which I both love and hate, at their current pricing. Current TGEA owners have been promised a discount on Torque 3D when it ships, whatever its price.

So all-in-all, I think the potential out there for indie 3D game development remains more vibrant than ever, and looks to be getting better by the year. There are a lot of difficulties facing indie developers wanting to create 3D games, but it looks like the availability and pricing of reasonable technology isn't gonna be one of them.

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Monday, January 12, 2009
 
More Anti-Videogame Legislative Wrangling in Utah
Courtesy of GamePolitics.com:

Jack Thompson Working on New Game Legislation in Utah?

Yeah. Working with the ultra-freaky Utah Eagle Forum. Utah has its share of nutjobs, to be sure, but too often this ultra-right-wing group ends up portrayed as representing the entire state. They are largely irrelevant here, but they are frequently used for sound bites on local news programs simply because they are quick to have something extreme to say.

But it gives Thompson credibility, I guess, since most people outside of Utah (and most people IN Utah) have no clue who these people are. So I guess it makes him sound like he's working in some official capacity. And unfortunately, some local Utah lawmakers might go along. I've come to discover that many of them aren't exactly swimming in the deep end of the pool of intelligence and talent in this state.

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Amazon Videogame Gold Box Day
If you still have Christmas money to spend and are looking for videogames of the non-indie variety, today Amazon is doing its "Gold Box" deal with videogames. Each deal gets revealed one at a time throughout the day, for a limited time and quantity at a steep(ish) discount. They've got some hints ... there sounds like there's an RPG for the 360 getting discounted at 11:00 PST.

Worth taking a look, at least.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
 
Game Design: Improving Rock, Paper, Scissors...
My wife and I recently became fans of Big Bang Theory... and were delighted to discover that the writers have uncovered a geekly advancement to the game design. But it also suffers from a geekly flaw:



Besides the basic rules of RPS, the new variant includes a lizard and spock:

Lizard eats paper, is decapitated by the scissors, and crushed by the rock.

Spock vaporizes the rock, crushes the scissors, but is disproved by the paper.

Oh, and the lizard poisons Spock.

It's probably a better improvement than I'd come up with, which would probably incorporate terrain advantages and variations based on number of players involved. 'Cuz I suck.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009
 
Best Defense Against Piracy: Enforce Existing Laws
Rock, Paper, Shotgun writes about the state of Russia's thriving (and growing) videogame industry - once threatened by rampant, open piracy:
The pirates were making a lot of money and weren’t likely to be stopped easily. They were mass-producing packaged copies that looked like real games, and were competing directly with the actual, licensed publishers for commercial product. 1C went as high as they could: to President Vladimir Putin himself. The man from the KGB soon realised just what value this burgeoning industry would be to his vast, developing country. The punishment for commercial piracy is now up to seven years in prison. A Russian prison. As disincentives go, it’s a good one.

With 300 people a year now jailed for software theft, piracy is rapidly disappearing quickly in the major cities of Russia. The Russian government have even managed to close some of the major torrent sites, and have published an anti-piracy guide to help retailers avoid getting burned by illegal distributors. It is a tough regime, but the Russian government know that they can’t allow crime to dominate their development: in gaming as much as anywhere else.

You can read part 1 of the article here.

This is a little different from what we're facing in the U.S. (fortunately for American software developers). People who consciously rip off software developers' livelihood for their own profit are a particular kind of scum quite worthy of staring at cell walls for a couple of years. This is obviously not the same case asa middle-schooler who swaps MP3s with her friends.

But it does illustrate the problem - piracy is generally considered a "risk-free" crime. There's a much greater risk of disappointing your friends by not sharing.

I'm as nervous of the idiocy of crackdowns as the next person, particularly with technologically illiterate grandmothers and young girls getting caught in the "stings" of the past by the RIAA.

But I think we need better enforcement of our existing laws (though can we get rid of the horrible DMCA, please?) by the folks who are supposed to be enforcing the law. This obviously drove piracy further underground in parts of Russia, as the risk outweighed the reward. The better we can do this, the more we can leave software companies free to actually reward real customers, rather than wasting their time and money and pissing off their customers trying to enforce the laws themselves with draconian DRM measures.

I dunno about you, but I'd much rather they spent those hundreds of thousands of dollars adding more content or performing a little better testing before releasing a game rather than implementing stupid DRM schemes that are more likely to prevent legitimate customers from playing their legally purchased games than stop pirates.

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Friday, January 09, 2009
 
Persona 3 versus Wizardry 8
Harry asked in the comments a previous post if I would rate my experience with the console RPG Persona 3 FES as above or below that of the classic (but aging) computer RPG Wizardry 8 - which is still incomplete (though I did play it a little tonight).

The two games are only barely in the same genre. Apples and watermelons, here. But for the sake of argument (because I do so love a good argument), I thought I would offer a point-by-point comparison of the two, so you can draw your own conclusions. So here goes:

Style
Wizardry 8: Classic party-based Western RPG. They don't come any more classic.
Persona 3: Party-based "Japanese" style RPG, mixed with elements of dating sims, Pokemon, Japanese anime shows that even die-hard fans are too embarassed to dub for a U.S. release, and whatever else the designers could come up with during their week-long session around a bong.
Winner: Neither. Come on, uber-stalwart-old-school or freaky-weird-innovation... do you really think I'd pick one over the other?

Combat Duration
Wizardry 8: Bring a sack lunch to each one, especially later in the game.
Persona 3: Ranges from trivial speed-bumps to appropriate length. Boss battles reasonably long and dramatic. Final boss battle requires you to call in sick for the next week, and you may want to and make sure your console is hooked up to a UPS in case of a power outage.
Winner: I'm gonna go with Persona 3, here. I'd actually call the battles "too short" for the most part, but it's better to err on that side than on the side of "too long," which Wiz 8 does even with the monster speed-up patch.

Best Robot Companion Combat Quote Pop-Culture Reference
Wizardry 8: "Exterminate!"
Persona 3: "Hasta La Vista!"
Winner: As a Doctor Who fan, I'm gonna have to go with Wizardry on this one.

Epicly Cool Settings
Wizardry 8: While it's a more traditional sword & sorcery world, it mixes science fiction elements, some very well thought-out races, history, and an entire city set inside a giant tree.
Persona 3: The game is so heavily dominated by the Japanese setting and culture (from school schedules to New Years in Kimonos at the local shrine) that they didn't bother to hide it when they localized it - which is a treat for Western audiences. The weird Twilight Zone-esque circumstances with the flow of time is just out there.
Winner: I might feel differently if I lived in Japan, but I'm gonna give the point to Persona 3 on this one. Just barely.

Sheer Quantity of Controversial Material
Wizardry 8: Ummm..... you have some pretty chunky deaths, as enemies tend to explode on expiration. Some mild profanity, I think...
Persona 3: Profanity. A shower scene (suggestive, but reveals nothing). The summoning of demons and angels from Catholic / traditional Christian theology. Lots of occult references (especially the tarot). Children being crucified. Half-naked personas. Personas with extremely suggestive anatomical features. Multiple references to inappropriate teacher / student relationships. A rather phallic persona (in the expansion). Oh, yeah, and a whole game about kids shooting themelves in the head.
Winner: Duh! Whether that makes Persona 3 a winner or a loser is subject to personal taste and belief-systems.

Best Use of Sex As A Weapon During a Boss Battle
Wizardry 8: You douse a horrible-looking rapax mannequin with sexy rapax perfume, and use it as bait for a devious and deadly trap. When the assassin breaks cover in hopes for a romantic interlude in the middle of hostile territory, you squish him. Or I guess you could fight him directly.
Persona 3
: The "Lovers" Arcana boss teleports you and Yukari into a hotel room, with Yukari in the shower, both of you afflicted with a foggy memory while it tries to convince you to give in to your desire. Unfortunately, being noble and resisting temptation just gets you slapped anyway, with a warning from Yukari to never mention anything about it to anyone.
Winner
: As icky as the very thought of Rapax Love might be, Wizardy 8 wins handily due to its being a dynamic, truly interactive puzzle sequence rather than a cutscene with circular dialog choices.

Least Tedious Monster Grinding
Wizardry 8: The more powerful you get, the more powerful and numerous (and, generally, tediuous) the monsters get. So there's really no point in leveling up. Unfortunately, its hard to avoid, as there are fights whenever you are trying to get from point A to point B. Even in town in some places.
Persona 3: The bosses keep getting harder, and arrive on a schedule. It's up to YOU to keep up with them. But you can choose not to go to Tartarus if you feel ready to deal with the upcoming boss, and the non-boss fights are not too difficult to flee and avoid entirely.
Winner: Persona 3, hands-down.

Goofiest Ally
Wizardry 8: Hmmm.... Madras, the Trynnie gadgeteer?
Persona 3: Koromaru, the wonder-dog who wields a dagger in his fangs and summons Cerberus. At least he's less annoying than Ken.
Winner: Persona 3 loses here by winning.

Most Interesting Non-Combat Activities
Wizardry 8: A great amount of gathering, exploring, puzzle-solving, and conversing is possible. Building faction, questing for craft items, and
Persona 3: Plenty of fairly lame "quests" from Elizabeth, breeding and improving personas, building relationships, and making yourself more desirable to the opposite sex. Oh, and overstaying your welcome in a hot springs pool, and participating in "Operation Babe Hunt."
Winner: A tie, actually. Persona 3 has a broad scope of repetitive activities you perform regularly, plus some unique activities in certain parts of the game. Wizardry 8 has less of a scope of regular, repeatable non-combat activities, but ultimately has a lot more unique activities, quests, and things to discover - plus a lot more interesting adventure-game style puzzles.

Most Fun Boss Encounter
Wizardry 8: You have to defeat a mutant frog that swallows party members whole in order to rescue a kidnapped comrade.
Persona 3: Though I never played this part, I've seen the videos on YouTube of fighting Elizabeth, the "secret" Persona 3 boss. She is a butt-kicker of godlike power that puts Death to shame. So why didn't she save the world? Besides the fact that she's definitely twisted.
Winner: Brekek the mutant frog of Wizardry 8. Simply because the storyline leading up to him is immensely amusing. And he's a mutant frog.

Most Challenging Sub-Quest
Wizardry 8: So far, trying to rescue Glumph from Bayjin, by way of the Gigas Underwater Caves and the Bayjin Shallows. Rescuing him is easy, surviving the trip both ways is hard.
Persona 3: Trying to max out the social links for all three women (and a robot!) from the same dorm. I finished the game barely getting Fukka to talk to me again at school (at only social link level 5-ish), and then probably only because the world was supposed to end the that week.
Winner: Persona 3. Because there's no apparent option to "just be friends." Those sick designers.

Best Opportunity To Impersonate Deity
Wizardry 8: The party gets to become gods.
Persona 3: The main character gets to become a Christ allegory.
Winner: I want to get to decide who lives and who dies. Wizardry 8 ftw!

Most Unrealistic Inventory Item
Wizardry 8: A Port-O-Potty. Made from a porthole and a hinged pot with a lid, it casts a Noxious Fumes spell in the hands of a gadgeteer.
Persona 3: Bikinis and French maid uniforms which grant better armor protection than bulletproof vests.
Winner: Tie. A delicious, insane, wonderful tie.

Overall Winner:
Since a big part of the reason Wizardry 8 is incomplete is Persona 3, if you held a gun to my head and forced me to pick which game I enjoyed more, I'd probably have to go with Persona 3 - probably because of the characters and story. But if that gun was instead an evoker, I'd summon Chi-You and go all Vorpal Blade on you!

However, compared to the 'expansion' for Persona 3 FES ("The Answer"), Wizardry 8 is far and away the better game. The Answer, at least for me (so far), is pretty much the most boring mechanics of the game (the monster grinding) with most of the cool parts from the original campaign ("The Journey") ripped out. Its story isn't much on its own, but it's intriguing as a tie-in to the original.

I could also note here that I got Mass Effect at about the same time as Persona 3 FES, and it has hardly been touched. Technologically, it is vastly superior to either game, but so far it has not left me too thrilled.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009
 
It's My Party, Whom I'll Defy If I Want To: Intra-Party Conflict and Drama in CRPGs
Back in the golden age of computer games in the early 80s, there was frequently an option in party-based RPGs to attack your own party members. I tried to figure out why in the world that option even existed. Was it simply something to trip you up if you fell asleep at the keyboard on the seventh level of the dungeon? My assumption at the time was that they were desperately trying to simulate the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, and that intra-party fighting was simply part of D&D. Maybe if you were actually playing Wizardry with a friend, divied up the characters between the two of you, and he suddenly decided to start whacking on your characters in the middle of combat...?

Thus was the beginning of the potential for intra-party soap opera and conflict born in CRPGs.

(A better explanation might be that there were certain rare instances where a generally offensive spell or ability MIGHT be of benefit if cast on a party member. A character under the influence of a charm or mind-control spell is an example that has been brought to mind recently after having a charmed party member heal a final boss back to full health. But I'll ignore that simple explanation because it interferes with the point of this diatribe.)

The jRPGs were among the first RPGs that I'm aware of to have story take place among the party members in a party-based game, rather than simply happening to the party as a whole. I think Final Fantasy IV is credited with this particular innovation, but it was not without standing on the shoulders of giants itself. Ultima IV started with the party members as NPCs whom you had to recruit to join your party. Up until the moment you typed "join" in the dialog, they were independent characters. Unfortunately, after that, they became purely player-driven automatons.

Ultima VII finally upped the ante for Western RPGs and not only had specific party members play an integral role in the plot, carry on conversations with the player's "main" character (and amongst each other), but would also respond to the player's actions in a major way - they would leave the group if the player failed to behave in an Avatar-like fashion. This was different from the typical jRPG approach, where the intra-party drama was tightly scripted in advance, though only a minor dynamic point.

Baldur's Gate took the idea even further in Western CRPGs, going so far as to include intra-party romances in the sequel. Party members would get annoyed at you and leave for various reasons, including romantic rivalries in BG2. BG1 also introduced party members who came in pairs. This added an entirely new dimension to intra-party conflict --- players could deliberately try and get one particular party member killed to free up a slot without losing the paired NPC. This brought new meaning to the term "party management." Plus, it could get even seedier (and more like a soap-opera) if you arrange for Khalid's death in the first game (mainly because he was an annoying, cowardly whiner), and then became romantically involved with his widow, Jahiera, in the sequel. (Although canonically, Khalid is slain by Jon Irenicus at the beginning of the Baldur's Gate 2, which is a great way to cover up your murderous past... )

Based on anecdotal evidence, players generally LOVE this kind of stuff. Scripted party soap-opera-ness is certainly plenty awesome, but truly dynamic intra-party stories really adds what many players consider "role-playing." But this leads to some serious problems - key is the never-ending give-and-take between interactivity and storytelling. The needs of the one are too often directly opposite the needs of the other.

Computers remain notoriously uncreative and have yet to pull off a clear success in the Turing Test. Which means they remain poor storytellers and crappy at improv, and really horrible at just winging a portrayal of a believable NPC. This means that a good story is necessarily going to have to be human-generated with limited variations. A good story that actually involves the core characters that form the player's party is going to require both a foreknowledge of who they are, and an assumption of their presence and mindset at particular plot points.

This makes it more difficult to feed Khalid to the wood-chipper when nobody's looking. It messes up the story, dang it, so you can't just take him out!

In Persona 3, which is nice and fresh on my mind, the solution was something of a jarring multiple-personality between "social link" party members at the dorm (and in the dungeon) and elsewhere. This was sometimes explained by the characters expressing a desire to keep their relationships with you a secret from the others.

At one point in my play-through, Mitsuru broke off her arranged marriage with a really horrible little snob, expressing her desire to spend the rest of her life with my character instead. This little point was something she'd never actually gotten around to mentioning to my character - only showing vague hints of affection before then. She turned around, feeling exultant in her victory and standing up to the pressures of family and responsibility - and noticed my character was still there, and had heard the whole thing. Her newfound courage and resolve faltered, and she immediately turned and fled the scene.

A few minutes later, she was lounging in the lobby of the dorm as usual, all business, as if nothing had happened. Hey, her persona is a master of ice, a reflection of her own personality, so she had managed to regain her cool in a hurry. Good for her. Good for me, too, as it would have been irritating if she'd been unavailable for grinding (I mean LEVELING UP, of course! What were you thinking?) until I'd resolved the next stage of her story sequence. Or something.

But of course, this was simply the limitations of the program - the Mitsuru scripting in the dorm and in Tartarus has no references to the "social link" scripting. Those might as well be separate games, linked only by your ability to create personas for your character. The main storyline remains completely aloof from your relationships with Yukari, Fuuka, Mitsuru, and Aigis, and the expansion assumes that the (now un-named) main character had formed a close relationship with Yukari. Aigis's love for the main character remains largely unrequited regardless of whether or not the player completes her social link sequence in the updated version of the game.

While it made the game and story easier to resolve, it also robbed the interactive choices of some of their meaning.

Your party members form the "main cast," so naturally any story directly touching their lives (and their relationships with each other) is going to be far more compelling than one involving those NPCs you happen upon briefly in your journeys. But how do you do that when the player bases his party on the Marx Brothers, or if Aeris dies early and the player just decides not to use the ol' Phoenix Down on her?

That's an issue that game designers are going to continue to face as they push forward on the goal to improving story in games, particularly party-based RPGs.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009
 
Adios, EGM...
Not exactly surprising, particularly given the failure of Games For Windows magazine (formerly Computer Gaming World). Ziff-Davis declared bankruptcy nine months ago, and has sold 1UP (which has been apparently hemorrhaging money) to UGO, and is nuking long-standing magazine EGM. Details and updates at GamaSutra.

Jeff Green, former EIC of Computer Gaming World / GFW, left 1Up a few months ago to work on The Sims team. He has some nice things to say about his former coworkers, and some not-so-nice things to say about his former employers, which you can read here. His contention is that while 1UP may continue, it's definitely not going to be its old self ever again.

Hmmm.... kinda like when CGW transformed into GFW?

Okay - so... what does this mean?

Well, first of all, the economy sucks, and that hurts everybody in some way. It gets harder and harder to compete for dollars. This happens. A lot.

Secondly - while it will never go away completely, the era of the print magazine are definitely over. Especially when you are dealing with timely material as news and reviews. Print distribution could never keep up with the speed of news, but with the exception of television (which had its own limitations and was too expensive for niche topics) there was simply no competition. The web changed that.

But, as 1UP's sale and layoffs indicate, the web is no easy route to fortunes in advertising dollars, either. Anybody who's made a serious effort to monetize their website can tell you that much. Most of us just hope to make enough to pay our hosting bill.

So now I'm gonna wax a little nostalgic about gaming magazines. The early-to-mid 90's were completely awesome for gaming mags, which happened to coincide with the time I entered the games biz for the first time. They were everywhere. EGM was one of the big ones for consoles. I have a scrapbook at home which my wife got me to help collect all the articles about our first two games (Warhawk and Twisted Metal). I still have it. There are a ton of articles in there - partly because there was, quite frankly, a glut of gaming magazines. It was the dawn of gaming as a "big business," and everybody and their cousin was looking to get their foot in the door.

It was a grand time to be a gamer (or a game developer). Games had finally hit the "big time," and it was amazing to me that there were dozens of magazines catering to gamers. It was such a far cry from the early 80's (but I did love my monthly issues of Compute! and Compute! Gazette).

The coolest deal of all was when Twisted Metal 2 made the cover of EGM. I still have that one. That was something of a career high for me. Not that I was directly involved in the sequel, but it was the success of the original that convinced them to put the sequel on the cover.

Many of the magazines of that era didn't last more than two or three years. It was a short ride, but a fun one.

Ah, well. One era ends. Another one begins.

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Game Tunnel Indie Games of the Year
I guess I must have been pretty dang distracted last month, as I didn't mention this yet:

Game Tunnel completed its game of the year awards - and indie RPGs were indeed substantial enough to be worth a category this time. Not quite as plentiful as last year, but they still had a good showing.

First of all, we have the Indie RPG of the Year award. Solid showings from all five games mentioned - although Savage 2 kinda surprised me. Kivi's Underworld and Avernum 5 placed in the top five - which were not a surprise at all. Mount & Blade scored second place, and the top honor goes to The Spirit Engine 2. Actually, not too big of a surprise there, either, though I suspected their positions might be reversed.

Secondly, we have the Top Ten Indie Games of the Year. The biggest surprise here is that the media darling of indies (not that there's anything wrong with that - kudos to introversion for figuring out how to do indie marketing right), Multiwinia, only placed number ten. World of Goo took the top spot, but the number 2 and 3 slots were filled by indie RPGs The Spirit Engine 2 and Mount & Blade, respectively. Cool!

Anyway, please visit Game Tunnel and read what they have to say about some of the best indie games to come out last year.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009
 
RPG Design: Exploring New Dimensions
One of the things that makes RPGs so friggin' difficult to make for indies is the sheer quantity of content required for the traditional exploration-based gameplay that is one of the hallmarks (but, I note, not necessarily a requirement) of computer role-playing games. Indies have a constrained budget, almost by definition - and all that content can be really, really expensive to create.

Besides using higher-level building blocks to create content, another approach I've been fascinated by is to separate "exploration" from geography. Television shows re-use the same sets over and over again. It's usually when they decide to take a road trip to some exotic location that they jump the shark. While television shows aren't exactly a key example of "exploration," they do explore ideas, characters, and issues. While the locations change, the context changes each time. The bridge of the Enterprise may usually be the same (except when it's half-destroyed), but the people, time, and situations change. And those are things that could be equally fun to explore in an RPG.

I was delighted to find Persona 3 took this approach. Persona 3 does have plenty of content crammed into the game - particularly with something like 170 different "personas" that only sometimes share geometry and animation data, 40+ NPCs, and a like number of enemies (plus texture variations). But it's not geography. Most of the game takes place at the player character's dorm building, the high school, at a couple of strip malls, a shrine, and a train station. Oh, and "Tartarus" - an extra-dimensional tower that replaces the high school at midnight. And you'll frequently visit the "Velvet Room," another extradimensional space in the world of dreams.

There are a few extra locations thrown in for variety at certain stages of the game. At one point, the party goes on a trip to the beach for summer vacation, and there is a class fieldtrip to Kyoto in the fall. The other characters talk about "exploring" Tartarus, but it is really an uninteresting, randomly-generated series of some 256 dungeon levels. That's grinding, not exploring.

No, the real exploration takes place not in the alternate dimension of Tartarus, but along the dimensions of time, context, and characters. I visited the Paulownia Mall a great number of times during the course of nine months of in-game time. At times, it was simply where I went to buy items and buff up my character. Sometimes, I went there in search of the ruthless businessman or the strange monk who hung out at the night club. Once, I accompanied Elizabeth there on her rare forays outside of her dream-world elevator, and laughed out loud as she deduced that the wishing well must be some sort of an alter to a water-spirit, and proceeded to empty out millions of yen from an impossibly-full purse as an offering. Yukari invited me there on a Christmas Eve date. One night during the "Dark Hour," the transformed and disturbing center of the mall, the fountain spewing blood, was the location of a battle against a very powerful shadow - a battle complicated by the abduction of Junpei by another persona-user.

It was the same setting (with some occasional variations). But the context changed everything. It was story and character I explored here - finding out answers to "what happens next?" and "what happens if I...?" questions. The stupid little mall became a comfortable "set" for my adventures.

Later, in the expansion, your trapped party manages to open an interdimensional doorway to Paulownia Mall... in the past. I was amused with my own reaction when the doorway opened - it was a return to the familiar, kinda like seeing Indiana Jones on the big screen once more (minus the crushing realization of how much Ford has aged in the last movie), or watching the landing sequence opening of Serenity. I imagine if I finally re-upped my Everquest 1 account and stepped into Freeport, it would feel the same. It had become a place in my brain, with some familiarity and memories associated with it.

The storylines of various "social link" NPCs in the game was - to me, at least - a cheap addition that totally made the game for me. I've found that the expansion, which (so far) doesn't include this aspect of the game, is far worse off for it. The social link storylines were amusing in their own right, but from a gameplay perspective they also increased your potential power and capability when you fused personas, and (at maximum levels) gave you access to new, more powerful personas with unique abilities. The gameplay here was a balancing act between limited opportunity, and (sorta) mutually exclusive relationships. For example, if you find yourself dating one of the girls in the game, you'd better not let your social link with another datable character rise above a certain level, or you'll find yourself with an "inverted" link and a character upset with you. This can also happen if you say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or go back on promises of spending time with them.

So there is a whole network of story possibilities that you can navigate which, by design, is impossible to fully explore within a single play-through. I still want to find out how certain storylines end... and how their "epilogue" comes out. But I'm not quite ready to jump in and play through a complete game again to find out.

Another form of exploration that the game offers is an exploration of the game systems. When you hit another tier of Tartarus and the monsters change, some caution is required as you discover what forms the shadows take, and learn their strengths, weaknesses, and powers. Later, fighting them will almost be mechanical, as you sic party members on appropriate targets and switch personas to best deal with whatever mix you have encountered - but for the first level or two, there's always a bit of hesitation as you consider, "If I try and blow this thing up, is it going to backfire on me?"

The fusing of Personas is a whole sub-game system that I spent literally hours playing with. It's sort of an M-Rated Pokemon game here. I'll probably talk more on this some other time. But it was another way in which the game gives the player a ton of things to discover and play with. While I ended up with about ten maxed social links by the end of the game, I was only able to figure out how to obtain about half of the personas unlocked by those links. But it was enormously amusing trying to construct (fuse) certain personas with just the right combination of skills to balance out my "inventory."

I think part of the key to the feeling of discovery and exploration in Persona 3 was the very obvious knowledge that there were parts of the game that you were denied seeing simply because it is impossible to explore every one of the possibile paths in the game. But in spite of repetitive actions and a very limited group of locations, the world felt even bigger and more interesting to me than many RPGs which advertise entire worlds or continents to "explore."

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Monday, January 05, 2009
 
Persona 3: Battling Death. For a Long, Long Time
On Friday, a little after 5:00 in the morning, I defeated Death / Nyx in Persona 3. The battle with the "Avatar of Nyx" had begun nearly three hours earlier. Or, more specifically, it had been about three hours since I had last been able to save my game. I'm not positive of the timing, because I lose track of time easily when I'm absorbed in a game.

And to its credit, Persona 3 proved plenty absorbing for me. I think my final time clocked in was pushing 140 hours. I think that's a record for me for a single-player game - Oblivion clocked in at around 126 hours. Granted, some of that time was spent goofing around trying to make every persona I could in what amounted to an M-rated Pokemon game. Or just talking to people of no consequence. Or wandering around half-asleep through interminable dungeon sequences battling random monsters. But those were all amusing activities.

The overblown anime-style storyline was the clincher for me, though. Complete with soap-opera sub-dramas, teen angst, and the inevitable end-of-the-world looming disaster. It all culminated a little too late on Thursday night. Or, technically, Friday morning.

The two "sub-bosses" - the nihilistic remaining members of Strega ushering in the end of the world - were relative pushovers. Those fights were quick and not too difficult, and the cut-scene dialogs pretty much doubled their duration. I enjoyed it. But they perhaps lulled me into a false belief that I was much closer to the end than I really was.

I expected that the final battle would be a little longer than that of the Strega members. I remember the boss battles in Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VII taking over half an hour each, so I expected I'd go to bed a little later than usual. Maybe three or three-thirty. I'd taken the day off of work the next day, so I figured it would not be a problem. But adding in the cut-scenes and dialog, the whole thing ended up taking nearly three hours!

What is this, an MMO?

One thing that was very cool (and different) is that the "final" boss, Death (the "Avatar of Nyx") is not simply a stereotypical world-destroying monster. He's got a role to play, and he actually seems a little regretful that he has to do it. The "harbinger" side of him was once in human form, and formed bonds of friendship with the player-controled characters he now has to fight. He's also got a much closer relationship with the main character due to circumstances I won't spoil here (though I'm spoiling everything else... I don't know why I am drawing a line here).

Out of genuine sympathy, he's offered them a chance to "go quietly" and painlessly in a way that would actually delay the inevitable end-of-the-world for a short season. He's hesitant to do his duty, and even expresses regret that more people aren't like the PCs - for if they were, perhaps there would be a real chance to stop the Fall that he's ushering in.

It was definitely a great, dramatic, and climactic battle. As these things should be. But three freakin' hours?

Developer-dudes, please search your code base for a function called "SaveGame()" or something like that. I'm sure it's in there somewhere. Would it kill you to add some extra calls to it once in a while? Sheesh. Not that three hours isn't too long no matter what. I mean, Luke's final battle with Darth Vader was only something like ten minutes of screen time.

For those unfamiliar with Persona 3, the entire game is themed around the tarot. The demonic "shadows" you face are all patterned after major arcana in the tarot deck, as are the "personas" that you summon to create magical effects. So naturally, when it came time to face the destroyer of all life on planet Earth, there was going to be a tarot theme.

After a lengthy introductory cut-scene, the battle was joined. The boss battle was actually something like a dozen battles, as the avatar takes upon himself different aspects - each a different major arcana of the tarot, with different powers. Some of the battles only took about four "rounds" - one or two to figure out what his strengths and weaknesses were, and then two more to press home the advantage and take him down. Figure about one minute per round, times four rounds, times something like a dozen different forms. Plus dialog as he transitioned. And a bathroom break.

That was only phase one.

Phase one-point-five was completely unique to me. It included a super-boss appearing in the family room at a little after four in the morning, bearing the aspect of Annoyed Wife Wondering Why Her Husband Was Playing a Videogame at Four In The Morning. This threat was greater than any I'd faced before in a game, but fortunately I won by playing the "sympathy" card --- by that time, it had been about an hour and a half since I had been able to save my game, and I was in the final battle which was surely ALMOST OVER by now!

Since she had been interested in the story in the game anyway, she grumpily sat down and watched. She wanted to see the end, too, and so if she was up anyway, she wasn't gonna let me finish it without her.

I'm so happy I married a gamer.

So she watched me play phase 2. In the aspect of Death, the boss had a special power called "moonless gown" that made him reflect all attacks back on the originator. While the party AI is actually pretty good through most of the game, my party members (Yukari, Mitsuru, and Aigis) were apparently completely incapable of recognizing that the gown effect had been put up or taken down. Or they were just too stupid to react propertly. So they'd usually try to hurt themselves right after he put up the power, until I told them to wait - and then after he'd drop the power they would STILL stand around waiting and skipping their chances to go until after I gave the all-clear signal.

This was particularly dangerous with Aigis, the shadow-killing robot. While Mitsuru and Yukari were usually immune to their own effects (until good ol' Nyx-Avatar-boy broke their immunity with one of his own powers), Aigis's main attack was a physical strike which would knock herself unconscious in a single hit. After wasting time and resources restoring her when the moonless gown went up, I finally decided I'd have to do without her very potent attacks. I permanently switched her to heal / support mode for the rest of the battle.

Aigis had some nice buffs, but even more important she had the power to heal a character back to full health. So I figured she'd still be helpful even though I was effectively battling the boss with one mechanical arm tied behind my back.

But this cunning plan backfired near the end of the combat. After about twenty minutes or so of nuking the crap out of Death's true form, he was only a sliver away from dying. One solid hit would have nailed him. And then he cast a spell which charmed Aigis and my main character.

Aigis, now charmed and allied with the Harbinger of the Fall, currently set to "heal / support" mode, helpfully used her power to heal the boss. To FULL health. Something like 6,000 hit points. So we were right back to square one again. Only this time, we were starting with two charmed characters - including my own - which prevented me from issuing new orders are trying to dispel the charm effect.

ARGH!!!!!

The second time around, things went a little more smoothly. I knew what I was doing now, and while it was still slow, we lucked out and were not charmed at the end. Death went down.

Briefly. Because as always happens in these games, the end is never quite the end. At this point, it was cut-scene and dialog-time, followed by a pseudo-interactive sequence where I got to battle the "real" boss, the true form of Nyx, and ... blah blah blah.

It was all over shortly after five, but then we had the epilogue to go through. After battling bosses all night long, I wasn't about to go to bed without finding out what happens in the end. The game skips ahead to graduation week several weeks later, and you get to find out what happens to many of the lives you've touched over the course of the year. Well, all the relationships you maxed out, at least. Which was extremely cool (and also very funny in the case of the "Maya" epilogue).

The ending was sweet, but also sad. Satisfying in a way. I managed to find my way to bed before dawn. Mainly because dawn comes late this time of year.

So, my take-aways from this experience:

#1- JRPG final boss battles are, in general, way too freaking long. When a battle takes longer than a feature-length movie, something is wrong.

#2 - In spite of that, I thought this was one of the more satisfying and awesome climax-battles I've enjoyed in a videogame. The tight continuation of the theming, the storyline and actual character of Death (he IS someone you kinda know, after all), and the need to pull upon all of your knowledge gained throughout the game to deal with shifting challenges was pretty dang cool.

#3 - Designers - healing spells should ALWAYS be capped to a certain level. Please. Think about the children. And charmed robots.

#4 - I can understand not having a save game feature in the middle of a normal combat. But when combats go into extended overtime and goes for more than ten minutes, that's just abusive.

#5 - Optional epilogues based on your actions and relationships developed during the game - I'm a huge fan. It's a great way to personalize a game - pretty critical in JRPGs, which are typically rabidly linear.

I'll have a lot more to say about this game in coming posts. Suffice to say Persona 3 has joined my list of favorites.

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Friday, January 02, 2009
 
Lookin' Back on 2008
2008 is history.

For many folks, they are probably not upset to see it go. It brought us the biggest drop in the stock market since 1931, a lot of lost jobs, mortgage failures, company closures, and the embarassing socialization of major parts of our entire financial industry.

For my part, I found myself forced to evacuate the mainstream videogames business yet again - this time, apparently, in the nick of time. Last time I had a year to stew over the wisdom of my departure before discovering I'd made the right decision. I could say, "Never again," but I have also learned never to say never.

This year, we won a game-in-a-year competition with a "pilot" version of Frayed Knights. Alas, winning the contest turned out to be a lot less rewarding than anticipated. A sign o' the times, I guess. But the best thing about the contest was that it forced me onto a pretty hard schedule and really pushed me in some good directions. It also provided me with a ton of feedback which compelled me to make some major changes to the game (but also confirmed some of my more core design instincts were not too far off track).

I had several other personal goals that were met, including writing paid articles and taking the plunge to really learn about investing and trading on the equities market. As far as taking the plunge into the world of investing (trying to see if any of my gamer instincts will serve me there...), I really don't know if I could have picked a better year to learn.

This year saw the release of a fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons game. The jury is still out on it, but the word so far seems to be that it has been a mild success. Maybe that was as good as could have been hoped for in the economic downturn (I certainly haven't been their bestest customer evar following the switch), but it certainly does provide a new chapter in a saga that began in 1974 (or, arguably, earlier) and was the grandfather of the passtime I love and am so involved in today.

2008 saw an explosion of new Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs, particularly amongst the lower-budget tier - yet it also saw some pretty spectacular failures that continued to demonstrate that merely making a game "Massively Multiplayer" is not a license to print money. Flagship Studios' big release, Hellgate: London, was a thud heard round the world. Richard "Lord British" Garriott's magnum opus, Tabula Rasa, was around only a little over a year before making a December announcement of its upcoming closure. Age of Conan launched with a bang, but now seems to be on life support. And while not an RPG, Fury was another highly publicized MMO which closed down this year after less than a year in operation.

On the hardware front, pundits continued to declare the death of the PC as a gaming platform. PC gaming, on the other hand, stubbornly ignored rumors of its own demise and continued to grow in sales - particularly when online gaming and online sales are factored in. On the console front, the Nintendo Wii seemed to be the big winner, the XBox 360 enjoyed a steady growth, and the PS3 suffered a difficult year in spite of Blu-Ray's victory over the HD DVD format. Did Sony win the battle only to lose the war? I wouldn't go that far, as I think there are several battles still to come. But I imagine executives at Sony have had to take second helpings of humble pie this year.

Single-player RPG Fans were treated to several great titles this year across multiple platforms, from the U.S. and European release of the "expanded edition" Persona 3: FES (a "cult hit") and Persona 4 for the aging PS2, Fable 2, Tales of Vesperia, and of course the much-anticipated Fallout 3. Xbox fans were also treated to the surprise announcement that Final Fantasy XIII would be released on the 360 as well as the PS3. Avernum 5 (for the PC), Geneforge 5 (for the Mac), Kivi's Undeworld, The Spirit Engine 2, Mount & Blade, and Laxius Force were some significant new additions this year.

Indie games in general saw a steady growth in attention, if not in profitability. 2008 was the year of several high-profile "indie" releases, including Castle Crashers and Braid on the 360, Multiwinia, the aforementioned Mount & Blade, and World of Goo.

And bringing it all back to home again, 2008 was the year that I rediscovered that my time really is a terribly finite resource and I don't have nearly the time to play / make / write as much as I'd like. There is a lot I'd like to do with my various projects and with this site that I haven't managed to pull off yet, so those goals are getting moved from 2008 to 2009. My intent is still to make this blog (and the forums) a top source of information and commentary on indie RPGs, to a lesser degree indie "adventure games," and anything peripherally related (including RPGs and indie games in general).

If there are ways I can make this site more valuable to you for that purpose, let me know!

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