Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Saturday, February 28, 2009
 
Special Deal For Eschalon: Book 1
Eschalon: Book 2 is now deep in development, and generating a tremendous amount of press for an indie game.

The era of the indie RPG is here, guys. :)

But the original, Eschalon: Book 1, is still getting plenty of love! First off, the developer just upgraded to version 1.05. All new downloads will be of this upgraded version - there's no stand-alone patch (yet).

Furthermore, Basilisk Games is having a sale on the original! If you haven't played the game yet, between now and March 15th, you can get it for 20% off with a special "online" coupon - a code from Rampant Games and Basilisk Games.

To get your copy at the special discount, go to the game webpage here:

Eschalon Book 1 at Rampant Games

Click "Buy Now" (or bypass the above steps by just go directly to the purchase page. You know you want to...)

Up near the top of the page, as you place your order, there is a box labeled "Coupon Code (Optional)" Fill it in with the following secret code: (SHHH! It's a secret! Don't tell anybody... at least don't tell anybody unworthy or anything...)

BOOK1RAMP
Got it? Cut and paste that into the space, and recalculate the price. Finish up your order, and you should get the confirmation email shortly with instructions and your registration key to enjoy the full version.

Anyway, enjoy! And thanks for supporting indie RPGS!

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Friday, February 27, 2009
 
Jack Thompson's Two-Part Utah Videogame Attack
So if you rob a man, steal his gun, try to shoot the man with his own gun, and it blows up in your hand, can you then sue him for your injury?

Apparently, Jack Thompson is trying to do that here in Utah.

His first step - which just passed committee - is to smack down any retailer that tries to do the right thing. You can still try and do the right thing, but you'd better not admit to it, as then you can be liable.

Assuming this passes, the camel's nose is in the tent in two ways:

Possible Step 2 A: Wacky Jacky's plan is to use the "fact" that the videogame industry us no longer "attempting" - or admitting to attempting - to police itself (for fear of massive fines if they ever fall short of perfection) to push for the government to take over that job.

Possible Step 2 B: Wacky Jacky now has a law which has not been Constitutionally challenged (or better, challenged and failed) as a tiny, tiny example of where the government can step in and make the game's industry's VOLUNTARY ratings system designed to assist parents in making decisions concerning their children's entertainment, and make it mandatory and enforceable by law. At that point, the sky's the limit.

And my idiotic legislature is probably gonna just let the thing through. Because, you know, who really gives a fig?

Which is why I'm not in favor of any kind of voluntary ratings system on downloadable / indie games - something that is discussed occasionally. No good deed goes unpunished. Selfish old lawyers and politicians will figure out a way to line their own pockets by turning it into a weapon against you.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009
 
Teaching Apocalyptic Survival Skills With Video Games
The experts debate:


Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Children For The Apocalypse?

I personally think that these experts are providing us with a disservice by not recommending a more well-rounded selection of games to educate the younger generation. The young gamer who confines himself to a single game genre may be cutting himself off from a broader understanding a multitude of valuable survival skills.

For example, let's talk about the acquisition of water for a moment. Gamers specializing in particular genres or categories of games will exhibit the preferences to the following solutions:

FPS Gamer: Kill everyone who might attack you. Storm their base. Take the water that they drop or that are found inside of crates which can be easily destroyed with a single crowbar hit.

Real-Time Strategy Gamer: Zerg rush the enemy compound and seize control of their moisture collection factory.

RPG Gamer: Kill all the mutants, take their gold or bottle-caps, and then use it to buy water at the conveniently located stores which have water in infinite supply and at a fixed price.

Turn-Based Strategy Gamer: Assign X survivors the task of collecting water. Sell the excess to neighboring camps for money with which you can buy weapons to eventually conquer them.

Casual Gamer: Find the hidden water bottles in rooms filled with cluttered junk and seahorses in the wallpaper.

Adventure Gamer: Find a human skull lying nearly hidden amongst some rubble. Find a cracked vase. Find a stopper. Find some ceramic bond. Use the bond on the vase to repair the crack. Leave the skull in a specific place at night to collect the morning dew. Pour the dew into the vase. Stopper the vase with the stopper. Drink it the next time you are thirsty. Adventure gamers fortunately only have to do this once, after which they will never feel thirsty again.

Rhythm Gamer: Dance and play air-guitar in the street until someone takes pity on you and gives you water.

The MMORPG Gamer: Spend two hours each day looking for a water-collection group, until you say, "Screw it" and grind it out solo.

The Sports Game Gamer:Manage a team of water collectors, but only one member of the team can really collect the water at a time.

The Third-Person Action Gamer: Just run around the wasteland jumping from ruin to ruin and occasionally performing timed sequences of simple actions to have water magically appear in your inventory.

Did I miss any?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009
 
Indie Games Business Suckage
Mike Rubin over at The Monk's Brew has a little bit of an analysis and commentary on the indie games business as viewed through the success (or lack thereof, depending upon what you are looking at) of Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble. The game was a critical success, but has failed to break even.

The details of the core issue can be found in this thread. They were depending upon portals to help sell their game, but due to a controversial scene in the game - which had passed their internal QA without comment - the game was quickly pulled from sale. BFG had received too many complaints, I assume.

My biggest complaint was the description of the girl kissing her smoking gun. I think, "OW! Burned lips!"

I expect this will have a chilling effect on any developers wanting to make a game with anything close to "grown up" content with hopes of getting on casual portals. The message here is that no, the casual-centric portals don't want anything even approaching controversial. Even though the median-member of their audience is old enough could be the mother of the median-aged hardcore gamer, anything inappropriate for a 12-year-old is verboten.

Although I believe Cute Knight did pretty well on the portals, and I don't know if anybody complained about the implied prostitution in that one. Hanako, do you want to weigh in, here? And to be fair, not all portals are created equal. Manifesto Games, in particular, seems to embrace controversial material - but as far as I can tell, they have yet to find their audience.

Anyway, bottom line - as Rubin notes - the game is having trouble recouping its relatively moderate development expense, in spite of its critical acclaim. Although I should mention that assuming $20 per game profit on the part of a developer is a bit off. Portals rarely offer even 50% of the retail price to the developer (and often play with the retail price), and even e-commerce providers like Plimus and BMT (which I use here at Rampant Games) demand anywhere from 10% - 20%. Then there's affiliate commissions. So really, you are probably closer figuring an average of $10 / copy.

Anyway, enough of my rambling - Rubes is more eloquent:

(Indie) Business Is Business at The Monk's Brew.

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Fallout 3: Waste of My Time and Money?
I bought Fallout 3 from Circuit City, which means it was non-refundable. Unfortunately, even with the patch, it crashed repeatedly on my system, and so far always in a particular spot during the introductory sequence - right after finishing the GOAT.

Even after the latest patch.

Thoughts:

#1 - This is a reason people flee to consoles.

#2 - I shoulda spent my money on an indie RPG, instead.

I'm gonna keep trying with it, maybe with some graphics options turned off (though it runs fine on my system... until the point where it crashes). But so far I'm very disappointed.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009
 
Wizardy 8 Part XVIII: Parting Shots
So my adventures in Wizardry 8, the "last of the (mainstream) old-school RPGs," has come to an end. It's a good thing that a game doesn't have to be new for me to enjoy it. Plus, I no longer need to kick myself for missing out on it.

One of the many reasons I love RPGs is because, at the end, I don't feel so much like I've won the game so much as I got to live it. At least if its good. Wizardry 8 was definitely one of those experiences. At some points - particularly late-game when the combats seemed interminable - I felt more like I was enduring it than living it. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think I can appreciate a lot more of what the game accomplished.

Now that I have a full play-through of the game behind me, I've been pondering some of the design successes and issues. This is mainly an exercise for myself as I'm attempting to improve my own indie game-designer chops. But for the three people who might be interested (and, more importantly, share their own thoughts on it), I thought I'd open up my ruminations to the public (scary!) and see where it takes me.

Introduction
The game starts with your party surviving a crash-landing out in the middle of the boonies next to an old monastery now overrun by monsters. RPGs tend to start one of two ways - you either have the big tutorial in your home village, or you are thrown immediately into the action as a full-fledged adventurer. I really prefer the latter, truth be told. While you do end up killing requisite vermin and some slimes right off the bat, which aren't exactly foes of heroic proportions, starting in a "bunny slope" dungeon is preferable to starting in school. It feels like you are accomplishing something instead of just churning away at the tutorial.

Combat
Combat is pretty central to most RPGs, and Wizardry 8 is no exception. Wizardry 8 uses turn-based combat, which I generally prefer over the more popular (nowadays) arcade-style combat.

On paper, Wizardy 8's combat sounds perfect for me. It is very tactical. Positioning, party formation, facing, and movement is critical. Ranged attacks, terrain, spell resistances along spell 'school' lines, buffs, enemy spellcasting, summoning spells, and mixed group of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses promise - and often deliver - a great "thinking man's" RPG combat experience.

There are, unfortunately, a couple of glaring issues that continued to bug be me with combat:

First of all, the differences between monsters were often not particularly noticeable. Instead of having strengths and weaknesses, at higher level monsters typically had strengths and bigger strengths. This was especially noticeable with upgraded "versions" of monsters, or different classes of monsters. The defense were relatively predictable, and there wasn't much of a feeling of "gotchas" or of the enemy working together to form a particularly interesting tactical puzzle most of the time. Boss encounters were an exception, and I felt the earlier stages of the game were better about monsters hitting the party with "signature attacks" than in later levels. It feels like they maybe ran out of ideas later in the game.

Maybe it was simply my own lack of creativity, but that seemed to be a problem for me.

Another issue was that the turn-based combat system did not scale very well for larger combats. Against a half-dozen opponents, the combat system worked great. I didn't even mind waiting for them to move into position prior to attacking. But when facing a dozen or more opponents (which seemed to be MOST OF THE TIME after leaving the first dungeon), there was simply too much time spent waiting on the enemies to begin their action (there was always a pause, probably to allow for the camera to pan over to them), move, launch their attack animation, and oftentimes wait for the projectile or spell particle effect to arrive. Maybe I spent too much time fighting at range, but 30+ minute long combats soon became the rule, not the exception. Using a cheat program to make the enemies move almost instantaneously into position helped somewhat, but it was still pretty slow. It was particularly bad when the combats lasted long enough that additional wandering monsters joined the fight.

Some possible solutions for this issue would have been:

#1 - Make combat more intense, so that they lasted fewer rounds. Cutting everyone's hit points in half would have helped.

#2 - Don't penalize movement so heavily - it encouraged players and AI to stand in position to launch spells and missiles rather than closing to more interesting range.

#3 - Rely less upon large swarms of monsters, instead emphasizing fewer, stronger monsters. This is a valuable thing to consider whenever doing a turn-based game.

#4 - Have enemies attack in "waves" of more manageable numbers rather rather than as a monolithic massed army.

Environment
The world of Wizardy 8 may not be the most elaborate or well-thought-out world in the history of CRPGs, but it definitely has personality. Many of the locations were extremely distinctive, from the giant tree-city of Trynton to the underwater halls leading to the island of Bayjin, to the Umpani's mountain fortress and the maze-like castle of the Rapax. (Get it? Minotaurs? Mazes? It does make sense...)

The game starts with a hunt for a long-dead hero named Marten. This was a very clever way to get the player interested in the back-story of the planet. I compare this to the Elder Scrolls games, which bombarded me with backstory which I really tried to be interested in, but it didn't work. But because the history is tied in with the current quest in Wizardry 8, all that fluff became USEFUL to me - and therefore interesting. Whether accidental or deliberate, I think it was a stroke of game designer genius. And it helped make the world come alive for me.

Quests
The quests in Wizardy 8, like most RPGs, ran the full range from the pedestrian and downright boring, to the outstanding and memorable.

One thing I appreciated was how so many of the quests allowed alternative approaches. Even the alliance between the Umpani and T'Rang was completely optional - though extremely satisfying. And I managed to muscle through it without first completing the apparently pre-requisite Al-Sedexus quest. I came back and did it later, just 'cuz I could... but I liked that the game was flexible enough to allow this.

I also think it's sad that this is noteworthy. Not that this sort of thing is in notoriously short supply. I think it pretty much made Oblivion for me. But I think we've all played those games where objectives must be completed exactly as the designer intended - though sometime with one or two variants, sometimes... usually with lame "total jerk" and "neutral apathetic" options.

I liked the inclusion of a variety of different styles of puzzles and quests - from logic puzzles, to riddles, to adventure-game style inventory puzzles. Sometimes they were infuriating, and I was glad to be living in the age of the Internet to look up the solutions to the ones that stumped me. Like how to get into the retro dungeon.

And admittedly, having your own demonic daughter attack you near the end of the game was something of a first for any game I've ever played. Kudos to whomever came up with that optional plotline. And I hope said designer has since received psychiatric help.

Characters
Some of the characters in Wizardry 8 were better fleshed out than others. Vi Dominae, Z'Ant, Yamir, He'Li, Marten (now a ghost), Sparkle, and even the Dark Savant were pretty well done. The Dark Savant's voice acting sounded more like it was played for comedic effect than being an actual ultimate bad guy. Still, I thought it made him sound a bit more human, so I guess it worked for me.

Another thing I liked was how the party members often had something to say during particular events. One thing I always disliked about older RPGs of this style was that your party members were pretty static collections of stats. It wasn't much, but giving them some amusing or at least interesting things to say really helped bring them to life.

What worked for me, for the characters mentioned above, is that they all had some kind of "hook" that made them stand out and come alive for me. Probably because that stand-out feature encouraged my brain to attribute all kinds of stereotypical or archetypal features to them that weren't necessarily part of their script. This is more of an example of "engaging the player" and enlist their aid as a storyteller.

A Belated Farewell to Wizardry!
Wizardry 8 was, in effect, a swan song for an entire style or sub-genre of RPG - a style which Wizardry 1 was in many ways responsible for creating and popularizing. At least as far as mainstream games have gone. However, you don't have to look very far to see the influence the series (and it's descendants) have had on computer RPGs since then. And - yes, even console RPGs.

The features of this sub-genre that stand out for me include the turn-based combat, the requirement to use teamwork and complimentary skills between multiple party members, the first-person perspective, and the "old-school" emphasis on puzzles and problem-solving rather than just hitting the required marks to complete a quest. I don't know if it was all good - there were definitely some moments in the game when I got stumped and frustrated. In the days before the World Wide Web, that might have been enough to make me quit.

It was a more cerebral RPG than we usually get these days. And it definitely put the "hard" in "hardcore." The extendo-combats were definitely to its detriment from my perspective. Due to my schedule, I rarely had more than 20-30 minutes at a sitting to play games, which made me rule out a Wizardry 8 session on many occasions - especially over the holiday season.

But overall - it was a great game. It is disappointing that the evolution of that style ended with Wizardy 8. I think there was a lot of room to grow and evolve from there. I guess my attitude is unsurprising, since I'm working on a game that's kinda-sorta in that sub-genre myself as an indie project.

But I'm really I hunted this one down and played it. I think I paid more for it through E-Bay than I would have for a brand-new copy (with documentation!) when it was new. But you know what? It was totally worth it. Good and bad, it was a worthy and significant computer RPG.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XVII: Luke, I Am Your Daughter...
Wizardry 8 was the final episode in one of the longest-running computer RPG series of all time, spanning twenty years from 1981 to 2001. I missed the game when it was initially released, and recently got a chance to play through this classic of "old-school" style roleplaying gaming. This series has been a chronicle of my adventures.

Pee Wee
Scorpia, after reading my previous report and realizing I was about to hit Ascension Peak, emailed me with a cryptic warning: "Pay the Trynnie; life is easier that way. You'll know when you get there." It's nice to get some helpful hints from other players. I guess that's one advantage from playing a game that is several years old.

As it turns out, her warning was because said Trynnie had a pet: a level 30 giant-sized stone golem by the name of "Pee Wee." He extorted what amounted to highway robbery from my party, but I figure he's trying to recoup his investment --- and I don't imagine anybody travelling up Ascension Peak is going to be that short on cash. He even told me that Pee Wee would aid me in my battles.

Well, that wasn't quite the case. As it was, Pee Wee blocked my path, so I HAD to get him involved in a combat just so he'd move out of my way. His combat skills were largely useless - he'd hit maybe one turn in six. When he'd hit, he'd do a respectable amount of damage - but I was seriously considering just getting into a fight with him for bonus XP. He was a wimp.

We made it to some temple, where the robot Altheides appeared and asked us some questions. When we got the answer right, he let us through and we were able to go through a teleporter and place one of the artifacts (the Destinae Dominus) on its pedestal. The room shook, and we took a teleporter out - which took us back to a prior area with some statues.

Meet the Brat
We followed another road, fought some battles, and came to another temple where Altheides appeared again and asked some more questions. We went through the doorway, placed the second artifact (the Chaos Moliri), had another little earthquake, and teleported back to the statues.

On the third path, we met an army of Rapax, led by the Rapax Prince and some demon-gal who resembled the demon-goddess Al-Sedexus. Except this crazy demon-woman's name was Al-Shakka. I thought that was a pretty cool name. After all, my gadgeteer was named Shakka, kinda close. Yeah, the gadgeteer who ended up... uh... with Al-Sedexus....

Oh. Crap.

The prince denounced us, and introduced us to his "sister." Al-Shakka spoke up and removed all doubt that indeed she WAS the love-child of Al-Sedexus and my permanently psychologically scarred gadgeteer, and now she was going to kill us all and stop us from whatever it was that we were doing on Ascension Peak.

Ah, kids. They grow up so fast these days.

Al-Shakka, the prince, about 18 other Rapax (plus six more summoned later), and seven wandering monsters that happened to be in the neighborhood suddenly launched their attack.

This was the most vicious and lengthy battle I'd yet experienced in the game, which is saying something. But in the end, my group killed Shakka's brat daughter, the Rapax Prince, and everything else within about a half-mile radius, including another group of wandering monsters that jumped into the fight when it was almost over.

The Cosmic Forge
We went through a third temple, answered more of Altheides' questions, and placed the third artifact (the Astral Dominae) on its pedestal. Big earthquake, and we left --- now what?

After getting lost and wandering around a bit, we followed another path, encountered a bunch of giant monsters, and got to another structure where we found the Dark Savant. He was pissed off at us. He told us we could watch the entire world burn, while he made his way to the Cosmic Circle all by himself to have his revenge. With that, he tried to set off his world-destroying bomb in the tower in Arnika. Yeah, the one we'd disabled. Nothing happened. Now the dude was REALLY annoyed.

The Dark Savant jumped into a convenient teleporter, and a friendly gargoyle, Bela, whom we'd met before egged us on to chase him. We followed, and found ourselves in some mystical platform in outer space. Vi Dominae urged us forward, and we tried to pursue the Dark Savant.

In the meantime, the Savant got to the central circle and found the robot, Altheides, already there. The two argued for a while. The Dark Savant was really annoyed that the other gods - the Cosmic Lords - weren't there. He wanted his revenge on them. Altheides explained that their time was over, and that they had left. It was time for new gods to step in. Already in a bad mood, the Dark Savant killed Altheides.

By that point, we'd arrived at the scene, and found ourselves in front of the artifacts that control the universe - the Cosmic Forge. In front of us was the book of the entire universe. Whatever was written there - or erased - would come to pass. With it, we could destroy the Dark Savant, and even undo what was already done.

The Dark Savant - Revealed!
We frantically looked for where the Dark Savant's information was written, and discovered the page of his life...

And learned that he was none other than the kind, benevolent god worshipped by all the peaceful and good fuzzy-wuzzy beings in the universe - Phoonzang. For pulling a Prometheus and trying to share the secrets of the universe with mortals, he'd been cast out by his fellow Cosmic Lords and made a mere mortal. For a while, he was a contented old man doing good, but eventually succumbed to anger and frustration so that he "borged out" and became the Dark Savant.

And since Vi Dominae's family had been the guardians of the artifacts he'd created as Phoonzang, he needed her genetic code to use them to get back to the Cosmic Circle. All he needed was her eye, so he'd plucked it out. That explained her piratey-look in the last couple of games.

The Dark Savant appeared himself to help fill in some of the details. I really appreciate it when the Ultimate Bad Guys begin monologuing.

The Fate of the Universe
So now we had a choice: Join the Dark Savant, because he really deserved to have his revenge; Tear out the pages from the book of the universe where Phoonzang had become banished, became the Dark Savant, and all that; or try to write the Dark Savant out of existence.

I really wasn't much of a fan of the Dark Savant, so I wasn't about to join him. As a blogger, I realized that creative writing under so much time pressure (and someone trying to kill me) wasn't going to result in my best work. So I decided to rip out the pages from the book.

I succeeded. Mostly. The original Phoonzang appeared, before he'd developed anger management issues. But he wasn't truly there, and the Dark Savant wasn't totally gone. So we had another fight on our hands. Bella and Vi Dominae joined me in a big fight, and the Dark Savant summoned a bunch of henchman to even things up a bit.

The battle was nowhere near our most difficult. In the end, we kicked his cyborg butt.

So there we were - us, Vi Dominae, Bela, Phoonzang, and the Cosmic Forge. But we had a problem. Tearing out those pages about the Dark Savant also destroyed a good bit of the universe that we'd known.

Oops. Sorry about that.

No matter. Phoonzang said he'd help us out as we restored the universe by writing in the book. And so we got started, pouring out what we knew onto pages and watching them take on reality. We had become gods. That was cool.

Except for Phoonzang critiquing our writing style. An eternity of THAT could get a little annoying.

Design Notes
I'm going to have a bigger set of notes in another post, since this one is ginormous already.

The Al-Sedexus plotline ... with the child of one of my party-members... was a very fun little surprise. Sorry if I spoiled it for you here, but the game is like eight years' old already - the statute of limitations on spoilers has to have expired by now. But naming her after my character was a really cool and clever addition that really made things rock.

The final battle against the Dark Savant wasn't overly difficult, but it was very satisfying. Battles do not NEED to be overly long, drawn-out, or challenging in order to be fun and satisfying.

But the big win here for this game was this: How many RPGs end with your characters becoming GODS? Only two that I've played - this one, and Baldur's Gate II. As rewards for a job well done go, it is a little hard to top that.

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Friday, February 20, 2009
 
Weekend Indie Game Deal on Steam
The price-war on indie games has really heated up recently - particularly in the casual game arena. Valve has already been playing with prices on weekends for several games, but this week they are pretty much taking the cake on deep discounts for indie games. $9.99 for five indie games.

I'm actually a little bit conflicted about the pricing, myself. But hey, it's silly not to take advantage of a deal like this if you are interested in any of the games.

Steam's Weekend Indie Game Package Deal
 
We Need a Good Horror Tactical Shooter
I really enjoyed F.E.A.R. a few years back. It sounds like F.E.A.R. 2 is regrettably just more of the same. A very competent FPS with not much more going for it.

When I first heard about F.E.A.R. (the original), I was really excited because it sounded like a game I really wanted to make (mainly because I wanted to play it). The end product wasn't even close.

If I could whip out a game every single year, I'd totally do this one - but as it is, I'm pretty much overwhelmed with back-burnered project ideas as it is. So I thought I'd unload this one.

What I'd really like to see is a good (indie?) tactical shooter HORROR game. Think the early Rainbow Six series meets the first two X-COM games, and then they all get drunk and have a fling and a baby supernatural horror tactical shooter game is born nine months later.

Yes, I know, I never got over the movie Aliens. And tactical squad-based control is very hard to do with a first-person, real-time game. And horror - which often relies upon feelings of helplessness - is hard to sustain in interactive games which are all about TAKING ACTION. Look at how many games fail at sustaining it (though a big part of it is that you simply can't remain scared / horrified for as long as a game takes to complete - those kinds of emotions are notoriously short-term).

Which is why I may be waiting a long time for a game like this.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
 
The Most Influential RPG I Never Played
The original Wizardry (full title: "Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord") was published in 1981 for the Apple II, written by Andrew C. Greenberg and Robert Woodhead. It was definitely one of the most influential computer RPGs of all time, and it was certainly a big influence upon me. And yet, I never played it.

Okay, "never" isn't entirely true. But I didn't have a machine that would even run it for many years. I played it a little on friends' computers when I could - particularly the gimped IBM port on my buddy's IBM Peanut - but I never made it past the third level.

But I read about. Oh, did I read about it. It was the single game I wanted most to be ported to my platform of choice during the mid-80's (by the time it was finally ported to the Commodore 64 - in 1987 according to MobyGames- I had moved on). I read about it and its sequels in magazines. I talked to friends who played it.

In 1983 I bought a book entitled "The Survival Kit for Apple Computer Games," which I still somehow have in my library. Not that I had an Apple. But back then, books on computer games were still pretty rare. And there was almost nothing for the C-64 out yet, though I knew many developers were frantically attempting to port their libraries to this new system. So I picked up the book in anticipation of seeing some Apple II classics hitting my beloved machine. I was especially interested in the Adventure games and RPGs (which they called "fantasy games" in the book).

I read and re-read the chapter on Wizardry. This was the game. The Cadillac of RPGs. Later, it would be dethroned by Ultima III: Exodus, which enjoyed a much speedier port to the C-64 and would totally blow my mind.

The cool thing about the book is that authors Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser would not only include some hints and tips for playing the game, but would offer some prosaic paragraphs highlighting interesting or key locations in each game. In so doing, they would inject a little bit of their own imagination into what was otherwise pretty rudimentary, workmanlike in-game descriptions.

So in my mind, I envisioned Wizardry as a glorious masterpiece of programming and game design virtuosity. Sure, I understood its limitations as a self-taught programmer, and I expected nothing that was technically unfeasable or outside the obvious bounds of the design. But I did envision a narrative thread and event-handling that was far more detailed and complex than really existed. At least, I think it was more detailed and complex than really existed - having never completed the game, I can't be certain. But the Wizardry in my imagination was probably closer to what was eventually realized in SSI's "Gold Box" D&D games (with a touch of Zork) than what less hardware-disadvantaged players were enjoying.

But that imaginary Wizardry became my goal as I continued to improve my coding chops and trying to envision where computer RPGs would be in coming years. I was tilting at a pretty awesome windmill.

I ended up with one "playable" game that in a proud creator's blinded vision might vaguely resemble Wizardry. It was a party-based game. It allowed you to create characters,which meant accepting random stat rolls, picking a class, and giving the stat-block a name. You'd travel through a randomly generated maze in search of an "orb" - a very original goal I came up with all by myself. The upper-left corner would display basically one room's worth of walls and doors, and you could turn and move in pseudo-3D. I had maybe a dozen different monsters that would attack, with a little six-note musical fanfare that would play when combat began and ended. I started out by making the dungeon ten levels deep (with 10 x 10 rooms), but ran into memory issues and had to scale it back down to six. I don't believe the goal of the game - the "orb" - was ever actually possible to find, but some friends and I had some fun playing my little game together one weekend.

Later, I taught myself assembly language and wrote a routine to display a more complex bitmapped world several squares deep, similar to what you'd see in The Bard's Tale or the SSI Gold Box Games. It was a simple painter's algorithm thing that could display fountains and trees and stuff in addition to walls, floors, and doors. I failed to think far enough to realize I could render the whole scene in an off-screen buffer FIRST and then copy to the screen - so as you walked you could catch a split-second glimpse of whatever was behind the nearest walls. That project was never more than a tech demo, though. But hey - the visual display was cooler than that of Wizardry!

But it was the design possibilities that really got me thinking. As I mentioned last week, I'm all about exploration in RPGs. And I struggled not only with the technical issues involved in scripting a world big enough for my imagination, but also just coming up with a world as full and exploration-friendly as I wanted. I wanted a world with all kinds of meaning and story.

I'm still tilting at that particular windmill.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XVI: Return of the Demon Goddess
Continuing my adventures playing the final game of the classic series, Wizardry. Wizardry 8 was originally released in 2001, but I only acquired it recently via E-Bay. So far, I've found it has stood the test of time fairly well. I've been blogging my progress throughout the game (which took a pause during the holiday season), and discussing some notes I've made on the games' design, which many consider to be the last "old-school" style mainstream Western RPG. They just don't make 'em like this anymore... except for the indies.

Once again - I think I'm pretty close to the end of the game, but I'm not quite there yet. But on my way to Ascension Peak and my dark date with destiny, my party took some time to flirt with a topless demon-goddess. We're such a naughty group of adventurers!

When the Rapax Get Bored with Battle, You KNOW It's Gone On Too Long...
If you may remember from my last Wizardry 8 post, I'd just mowed through a hundred Rapax Templars to expose the secret plot of the Rapax King, who had allied with the Dark Savant. This was after killing hundreds more Rapax in the Rift and in their own castle. I'd used this information to get the Umpani and T'Rang to ally with each other, and used that combined intelligence and firepower to blow up the Dark Savant's ship.

Making my way to a previously-discovered path to Ascension Peak for the final showdown, I found that the Rapax had blocked it off with a massive landslide. A bunch of low-level Rapax were patrolling the area, and mocked me with their announcement of how they rocked, I sucked, only they can go to Ascension Peak, nyah-nyah-nyah. I sent them to the Ascension Peak in the sky, and decided to head back to Castle Rapax to see if I could find out how they were planning on making it to the peak after causing the landslide.

Once I got there, it was once again nearly non-stop combat. At one point, I had so many Rapax lined up to fight me (six groups averaging six or seven Rapax each) as they chased me into a dead end that THEY actually got bored with the fight and left.

I'd maneuvered myself around a corner to reduce my exposure to ranged attacks and spells, but the line to beat on me went all the way around yet another corner. As the saying goes, "Out of fight, out of mind..." - or something like that. Anyway, many of the Rapax at the tail end of the mob got bored and wandered off. They didn't go far - once the fight was over, I bumped back into them and the conflict resumed.

I decided I'd like a little more RPC (recruitable PC) help, so I teleported back to Arnika to see if Vi Dominae would like to join us. She said she'd love to, and she always enjoyed getting together with "us guys." That lasted for about ten seconds, until we teleported directly back into the castle. At that point, we discovered that Vi Dominae could really, really gripe and complain in a nearly constant stream. She complained about being there, about always hooking up with losers, etc.

But she was able to materially contribute to the slaughter. She may not have been fighting at her peak, but she proved she was still able to kick some Rapax butt. Eventually, we killed enough Rapax that we could wander about unmolested near the throne room and feast hall area for about three minutes.

Let's Not Bicker and Argue Over Who Killed Who...
As it turns out, while the Templars now hated me along with all the rest of the Rapax, the offer made to me by the demon goddess Al-Sedexus still stood. I wandered into a Rapax Guard above the throne room who did not attack me - instead, he demanded to know who sent me. He snorted at any answer I gave him. I found another door that he was not protecting, however, and wandered through. Eventually I came to a Rapax named Al-Adryian who asked me if I was ready to become initiates in the church of Al-Sedexus or something.

Yeah, sure, why not? I had nothing better to do, except to save the world 'n stuff, but that could wait.

The initiation was no worse than your average frat-hazing. We had to acquire three pieces of clothing, answer three riddles, and kill a bunch of elementals. Oh, and dress one of our party members - the gadgeteer - in said clothing.

And I'm not sure - but I think he had to have sex with the topless demon-goddess in an altar room when we summoned her. I don't know for sure - she slipped us something in our drinks or something, and we all fell asleep to ecstatic sounds from Al-Sedexus the Demon Goddess. Afterwards, we found our poor gadgeteer quivering in the corner in the fetal position, refusing to talk about what had happened while the rest of the group was passed out on the floor for hours.

What's more, he was now under a curse. He couldn't leave the castle and rift area without suffering constant, slow damage. No magic would undo the curse. On the plus side, all the Rapax in the castle decided to let bygones be bygons and no longer attacked me. Nevermind the entire castle was stinking with the smell of hundreds of dead Rapax that had fallen under our blades - now that we'd let the demon-goddess have her way with our poor gadgeteer, all was forgiven.

A little bit of exploration revealed a portal to Ascension Peak! Huzzah! We went through the portal and arrived on the mountain road. All was well.... except for the gadgeteer, who was now taking constant damage.

Payback Time
This wouldn't do. Our gadgeteer has finally gotten to the level (after a flirtation with multi-classing that I wish I'd never tried) where he could use some seriously powerful gadgets a couple of times before passing out from exhaustion. We didn't want to lose him. Besides that, he sucks up some hits in combat that would otherwise hurt our spellcasters. And apparently he makes good bait for demon goddesses. So he's a valued member of the team that we couldn't leave gimped like that.

So I set a teleport location there in Ascension Peak and decided to go back to Rapax Rift to have a talk with Al-Sedexus. Unfortunately, this required us to go back through the castle, and Vi Dominae left the party immediately. Since I didn't want to clear out my other two portal locations for my other two casters (one goes directly to the inn in Arnika, the other to the Umpani fort), I figured I was on my own for a while.

The Rapax were very gracious and nice to me as I walked through their castle into the rift. Once there, it was only a walk around the corner into Al-Sedexus's temple. The demon goddess was there. I clicked to talk on her, and she told us she'd heard we were planning on leaving her. Since we could only do that feet-first, she immediately attacked us. On her first round, she summoned a bunch of templars to aid her in the fight.

We focused our attacks on her. As tough as the Rapax generally are at over 500 hitpoints each, Al-Sedexus had about twice as many hitpoints. The gal was no pushover, in spite of being armored with nothing more than an occasionally writing snake. In the end, we triumphed and grabbed the bag of goodies she left in her wake. We hadn't yet killed any of the templars, and I decided to experiment by running away rather than fighting them to the bitter end.

Mysteriously, the castle is still quite friendly to us. Apparently killing their demon-goddess isn't all that important to them. So long as I let the templars live, I guess.

With that, I bought and sold some stuff with the blacksmith there at the castle, and teleported out to the Umpani stronghold and to Arnika to pick up supplies (ammunition, mainly) and two of my favorite RPCs - Vi Dominae, and Sparkle the Trynnie Ranger. Upon teleporting back to Ascension Peak, we found Vi Dominae has no problem being with us there. Sparkle, on the other hand, has begun whining. Incessantly. Asking when we could go home. It's like baby-sitting a whiney-but-cute eight-year old.

An eight-year-old who can insta-kill with arrows at a hundred paces.

Design Notes
Faction systems are an interesting thing in RPGs. Wizardry 8 is no exception. From what I can tell, if I'd have killed the six Rapax Templar guards summoned to aid Al-Sedexus in a remote cave temple with nobody watching, I'd have hurt my faction with the Rapax. But by leaving them ALIVE to tell their story of how I came in and killed their goddess and fought with them, my relationship with the Rapax is unharmed.

Does that make any kind of sense?

I'd really love to see an RPG where faction is handled in a realistic, organic fashion. I realize that this would be difficult to pull off, as most combats in RPGs are to the death, and bodies tend to magically vanish over time. And there seems to be an infinite supply of potential opponents in the world, so it's not like anybody might NOTICE that their factional population has dropped significantly since the player characters came to town.

I can see the simulated conversation between randomly generated NPCs now:
"Hey Bob, I've noticed a pretty high turnover in respawns since the group of adventurers started wandering our zone."

"Those guys coming towards us right now?"

"Yeah."

"Interesting observation. Maybe we ought to mention that to someb... ARGH! ICK! My torso! My precious torso!"
Well, okay. Maybe that's not just something you could drop into an existing game - you'd have to build the game around it. It'd be cool, though, huh?

The initiation quest for the Templars was, unfortunately, not the best. Though answering riddles was kinda fun and different (not for this game - there are a lot of riddles - but it's not something you see much of anymore). But otherwise it was pretty much just an ordinary run-the-gauntlet, kill-the-guardian-monsters thing.

The most amusing part of this experience is that I clearly did things out-of-order. Fortunately, it didn't break the game, though it's unclear to me if I could have found my way through the portal without going through the initiation process.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009
 
Dagorhir: Yes, Those Were My People
Frighteningly enough, I know at least one of the guys in Wreckreation Nation's episode on Dagorhir. Dominus (the bald guy who leads the Romans) was the sub-commander who fought Kaltor to the death in my story at The Escapist, "Weekend Warrior."

Part 1:


Part 2:


Yes, this is how I used to spend my weekends. And some weeknights. Ah, those were way fun. Though the group was a little smaller back then, and big multi-chapter events were just barely getting started. We'd only recently had two new chapters form in Ohio and ... I think Pennsylvania.... because people were tired of driving so far for weekend battles.

The show did an outstanding job of showing what the game is and how it plays. Granted, nothing quite compares to actually being there. But this thing was my LIFE through half of high-school. Jussincase there was ANY reason you had begun to doubt my geek cred or anything.

But this is also why I have to chuckle when people laud the "realism" of real-time combat in computer RPGs versus turn-based. Compared to something like Dagorhir - which is itself many levels removed from "the real thing" - real-time mouse-wiggling and clicking doesn't seem any more or less realistic than old-school turn-based combat. When you are fighting one-on-one, it sometimes feels a little like a turn-based game. You are thinking two or three moves ahead (once you know what you are doing) - figuring out how to get your opponent to open up his defense, and how to exploit it, before it happens. Of course, when it gets into a grand melee like the big battle at the end of the show, it's pretty chaotic and you really don't know what's happening half the time. You just know your tiny piece of the battlefield, and usually don't even have a clear picture of that.

Anyway - it's great watchin'.

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Monday, February 16, 2009
 
Flavor Versus Mechanics
1UP started an RPG-focused blog a couple of weeks ago entitled The Grind. In those two weeks, it has managed to instill in me a certain amount of Nintendo DS-envy. Not that I would have the TIME to play all those DS RPGs coming out... But just to show they aren't solely focused on console jRPGs, they do have a weekly tabletop-games post. Friday, they posted an argument in defense of D&D 4th edition, entitled "On the Roots of D&D's 4th Edition."

I'm not personally a fan of 4E. Maybe I'm waiting until edition 4.5 - which, at the rate they are going, Wizards may introduce by this time next year - nine months before switching to 5th edition... Yes, I go for the cheap snark, don't I? Anyway, though I haven't warmed up to the system yet, I do recommend checking out the article.

The major point of the article seems to be about flavor. 3rd edition (including 3.5) was a triumph of mechanics - though not an overwhelming one, based on the amount of complexity that remains in the rule system. (If you want a truly streamlined D20 approach to the old-school 1E-style game, I recommend checking out Castles and Crusades, from Troll Lord Games). But article author Shivan Bhatt makes the argument that it was basically soulless and "too clinical to be D&D. I mean, it was great and fun, but it was missing a lot of heart." In particular, the new system lacked an implicit setting and flavor. "D&D's First and Second Editions had an implicit story setting, and all of the core rules keyed off of that setting's mythos and characters. Third Edition got rid of that, in favor of allowing people to make their own."

He's not wrong, there. You need go no further than the racial reaction tables in 1st edition to get a glimpse as to this implied world. Dwarves and elves don't like each other. The books never made it clear exactly why there was this racial distrust between the two races - most likely this was simply lifted straight out of Tolkien's Middle Earth. It just was. And why was there a limit to how many rangers could be in the same party, or how many monks or druids of the highest levels that could exist in the entire world at one time?

Undoubtedly, this was not merely an oversight on the part of 3rd edition's design team. After twenty-five years of legacy, they were contending with a number of wildly differerent campaign settings, including Grayhawk (the official "default" setting which ended up being largely ignored by Wizards of the Coast after the first few months of the games' release) or Judges' Guild's Wilderlands, Dave Arneson's Blackmoore, the Planescape inter-planer universe (one largely designed by Monte Cook, one of the key members of 3E's design team), to the political Birthright setting, Dragonlance's Krynn, the space-faring Spelljammer campaign setting, the psionics-focused Dark Sun, the gothic horror world of Ravenloft, and of course the high-magic darling of the 2E era, Forgotten Realms.

As a do-it-yourselfer who always enjoyed creating his own worlds, I actually preferred the "cleaned up" of the rules to make them more generic. After all, I spend almost a decade ignoring 2nd edition in favor of the more generic Fantasy Hero system, which I could more easily adapt to my own worlds.

So yeah, third edition (and 3.5) probably suffered a bit from a "one-size fits all" approach to the game.

Perhaps Wizards of the Coast suffered from a bit of envy of companies like White Wolf, which prospered during the 90's by offering a game system (the "World of Darkness") which was pretty much mechanical garbage, but was secondary to an absolutely compelling and detailed universe which had people buying an incredible amount of often-contradictory source books which were almost 100% flavor.

One strength of 4E that the article mentions is how 4E weaves the flavor into the rules themselves, such as in enemy behaviors. This sort of thing is always going to be a strength of a system designed for a very specific world / setting / genre over a more generic system.

And I confess, while I'm a fan (so far) of the currently-beta Pathfinder RPG system - which I consider more of the next step along the 3rd edition evolutionary branch - it's showing signs of being geared more for a particular campaign setting as well. It's much easier to sell flavor and story than nuts & bolts. And as a DM who no longer has the kind of time I had when I was fifteen to create detailed worlds (especially when I channel that energy instead into making computer games), I can definitely appreciate getting help from a bunch of professional authors to help my game worlds come alive.

But I still lean in the direction of the more generic rules system. Call it ego, maybe. If you are a "dice & paper" RPG fan, which do you prefer? A generic system that is easy to adapt to a different setting (but pretty much requires that level of work), or one specific to a setting (licensed or original)?

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Friday, February 13, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Exploring Wilderlands and Looking Under Rocks
It's time for another update on the development of Frayed Knights. This article is actually a bit more generic and fuzzy, dealing with computer RPG design issues in general, and the challenges common to all of them that I am finding myself facing in Frayed Knights.

Detailing Hexes
Many years ago, pen-and-paper RPG company Necromancer Games acquired the license to update the classic Judges' Guild material to the then-current 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. For those unfamiliar with ol' D&D history, Judges' Guild was the first "official" third-party licensee to make support materials for Dungeons & Dragons, from the mid-70's until about the early 80's. TSR, the publisher of D&D, didn't believe there was a market for things like adventure modules and campaign settings at the time.

Naturally, that changed over time, but in the old days of D&D, many players were familiar with the Judges' Guild campaign setting, the Wilderlands.

In January 2003, I was invited to work on the update for The Wilderlands campaign setting for D20. The task was daunting (and unpaid, but I knew that going into it), but fun. The old Wilderlands material was barely useful. The original setting had some hex maps with numbered keys. Because there was so much there, detail was excruciatingly lacking - no better than the results of rolling random encounters. I'd have a hex that would say something like "24 Apes." Okay - so in this 20-mile hex, there are 24 apes here.

I was tasked with expanding dozens of these entries into something fairly interesting of one or two paragraphs in length (plus stat entries). So my expansion on the ape entry read:
Temple of the Ape God (EL 10)
A stone temple stands in a clearing beside a small stream. It is a simple platform, with stone beams supporting the framework for a missing roof. An altar rests before a statue of some huge ape. The statue is exquisitely carved, though time has worn down its features and it is covered with bird droppings and layers of dirt. Despite this, it is an imposing figure, dedicated to a forgotten ape god. Whether it was built by some intelligent race of apes, or by other beings worshipping these creatures, none can say. A tribe of twenty-three apes dwells in this part of the jungle and jealously protects the temple from any intruders. Their leader and alpha male is a ferocious beast that resembles the massive icon in the temple.
Plus the stat-block entry for the 22 normal apes, and the "advanced" leader. The final version was still a little on the vague side, but it was more of a "hook" for the Dungeon Master to build something out of. Is there more than a coincidental resemblance between the alpha male and the ape god statue? Maybe. I left that open to interpretation and expansion.

In fact, one of Necromancer's plans at the time was to have a series of downloadable mini-modules based on these entries, showing how the entries could be expanded into a full-fledged adventure. I worked on three of these, too.

Unfortunately, with the early announcement and release of edition 3.5 and the change in the market, plans for the Judges' Guild releases were tossed into turmoil. The final campaign setting was delayed a couple of years, completely re-worked for 3.5, and neither my contributions, nor the contributions of others that I edited, were to be found in the final version. The mini-module plan was scrapped, as far as I can tell.

The released version of the campaign setting (out of print now, but available as a PDF) was pretty cool, though. If you are ever hunting for adventure seeds, it is an outstanding resource.

Wilderlands Everywhere!

While I was disappointed with my exclusion from the much-delayed final release (and I'd lost contact with the guys in charge in the intervening years, anyway), the experience was a valuable one for me. It helped me solidify some thoughts on RPG design - and exercised some creative neural pathways in my brain.

Most importantly, it reminded me of why I loved roleplaying games so much. While the whole "playing a virtual role" and challenging tactics were all part of the fun, the "big idea" that thrilled me back when I first discovered D&D at age twelve. For me, it was all about the exploration. The expectation that behind every tree, over every hill was an adventure, beneath every rock there was a treasure or mystery to be explained, and behind every closed door was something wonderful or terrible waiting to be discovered.

I'd love one of these Wilderlands-style encounters or discoveries to be around every corner. I want an open-ended game-world bursting at the seams with details, mysteries, mayhem, adventure, and wonder.

Horizons and Computer RPGs
That is how I want a computer RPG to be, as well. Unfortunately - especially with modern games - it is practically the opposite. Too many games in the past bragged about how large their game worlds were, yet most of the actual gameplay involved long, boring journeys with nothing to do except fight random, meaningless battles.

To be fair, one of the games that came closest to meeting this expectation (for me) was Oblivion (though I expect Fallout 3 will be similar, once I install it... after I'm done with Wizardry 8). Unfortunatly, so much of the stuff found off the beaten path in every direction felt likewise random and meaningless. My brain began rebelling as it tried to perceive some kind of plot-related patterns behind things, and eventually gave into disappointment. The world lost a lot of its life for me at that point.

But it provided a good baseline. In an RPG, you don't want the player to have to go moving around too long or too far without stumbling into something to do or a decision to make. Big, empty worlds are boring.

Likewise, the modern design school of blocking off all the "uninteresting" parts is also frustrating to my exploration-seeking mind. As someone who is always wondering what is behind the next door, it's frustrating to find that all but three doors in the town are merely backdrops, untouchable and unenterable, and those back alleys and side-streets are blocked off. As my brain is always seeking what's beyond the horizon, I'm always disappointed to have those horizons taken away from me.

Practicality
But there's the problem of practicality. I mean, if you let me go down one side-street, I'll want to go down the next... and the next. I want to keep opening doors and go over the next hill - and all of that has to be pre-generated (or at least randomly generated). It must be scripted. Artwork, animations, and sound has to be created. It has to be tested. Debugged. Tracked. States have to be maintained and saved. There are triggering conditions, and especially in 3D there's only so much detail and objects that you can show on the screen at once before the player's 4-year-old machine blows a gasket.

And that's where I get frustrated as a designer / developer / programmer on Frayed Knights. As you folks know (if you played the pilot), I've fallen victim to these same game-design shortcuts that irritate me as a player. There are doors in the village that are (currently) unusable, areas that block movement without good reason, and stretches of hallways and village road that just take too long to travel without anything interesting happening (I've corrected this somewhat by increasing movement speed by 50% over that in the pilot, but it's still just a crutch).

I populated the entry hall of the Temple of Pokmor Xang with a ton of objects to poke around with, but while they provide some small insights into the setting and storyline (and some token inventory additions), they still aren't quite what I'm looking for. I'm annoyed by my own (hopefully temporary) inability to fix what I consider broken in other RPGs.

I have some ideas for improving things, but they are still just... gestating. In fact, I wouldn't mind soliciting ideas here for how to improve things and make the world more "chock full of adventure" without introducing hundreds of tons of new content requirements and technological overhead.

So what are your thoughts? How does "exploration" rate in your list of preferred RPG activities? What are your expectations? How would you deal with the ape temple encounter? What kinds of details are extraneous to you in an RPG, and which are welcome?

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Thursday, February 12, 2009
 
Retro: Eldritch Wizardry
While trying to waste some time last night in-between UI development tasks, I got in a weird mood and spent some time browsing through the old supplement for the original Dungeons & Dragons game, "Eldritch Wizardry."

As you can tell from the cover of the Paizo link, this book was a contributing factor to the uproar and controversy about D&D in the late 1970s. Besides the cover, the book also contained information on psionics (an element despised by many players - though I loved the flavor it introduced, in spite of an awful rule system), introduced the druid class, artifacts, new monsters, and the ever-popular demons and devils. Including Orcus, the demon-lord of the undead, and the baboon-headed Demogorgon.

As an aside, in 2nd edition D&D, weary of attacks from some parents and religious groups, D&D publisher TSR removed all references to demons and devils. They later replaced them under different names, "Tanar'ri" and "Baatezu." These were expanded upon significantly in the Planescape setting. In 3rd edition, realizing that making the game friendlier to alarmist parents and religious groups hadn't actually improved sales in 2nd edition, the designers restored the beings to their proper names, reconciling them with 2nd edition by stating that the "Tanar'ri" and "Baatezu" were actually specific clans or sub-groups of demons. Go figger.

Scanning through the early versions of now-classic D&D fixtures was entertaining. But the part I enjoyed most was the introductory notes by Gary Gygax. In them, he explained the purpose of the supplement, and it paints a picture of the early state of the hobby. Dungeons & Dragons, for all its simplicity, was beginning to get stale. Players already had copies of the core rules, and new the stats of the monsters and magic items by heart. While much rested upon the creativity of the Dungeon Masters (the players who created the adventures and ran the games), it was clear that the players demanded more. More content, more options, something to shake up the world and make things fresh again.

The parallels to modern MMORPG expansions are as obvious as they are unsurprising.

The emphasis on ultra-powerful artifacts and monsters (including the aforementioned demons, devils, and demon-princes, as well as the now-classic Mind Flayer and other psionic monsters) make it clear they were also shooting to satisfy the needs of the more hardcore community in need of greater challenges for their high-level characters and campaigns. It's also clear that they realized that they had found themselves surfing a tidal wave, and they were frantically trying to meet the demands of an audience that had far surpassed their expectations. They were gluing on bits and pieces of content without any strong theme or plan, simply making canonical a lot of best ideas that had been kicking around for a while or had appeared in their newsletter.

They had no clue how psionics would fit in with the rest of their system (and it never really did - at least not until 3.5 edition), but they threw it in anyway as an interesting variation. Mainly, rumor has it, because Brian Blume insisted on it, and his family had a significant investment in the company.

I admit, my fascination with the weird history of roleplaying games goes beyond my desire to capture some of the feel of that in Frayed Knights. I really enjoy these glimpses back into the history of the hobby, even though these bits predate my own involvement. A lot of the legacy and weirdness we have today in computer and tabletop RPGs came out of these chaotic, ad-hoc designs and the peculiar 1970s gamer culture.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XV: Can't We All Just Get Along?
Wizardry 8 was originally published in 2001. It toom me several years to get around to it (and a great deal of effort to finally score a copy from EBay), but I'm now reporting on my adventures in the final game of the classic series. And with this fifteenth installment, I feel I'm getting close to the climax. Close measured in lots of combat.

If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em...

After some searching, I found an encampment in the wilderness where the Rapax Templars were staying. I was supposed to join these guys - well, the demon-goddess wanted me to do that. Why I'd want to follow the wishes of a bloodthirsty demon-goddess, I don't know. As I got to the encampment, however, the templars there warned me to leave. I'm apparently not yet a member of the club.

What do I do to join the club?

I don't know. And at this point, after fighting through tons of combat in the castle, and figuring that sooner or later I'd need to take these guys on anyway, I decided to see if I could break the game by taking these guys out now.

Unfortunately, the front area was swimming in Templars. Tons. A small army. However, since I'd been fighting those kinds of odds in the castle for days, I could take 'em. Plus, I was close to an exit out of the "zone." Using my l33t "dungeon break-in" skillz honed by years of playing Everquest, I whittled the Rapax down.

Summoned elementals came in very handy. Especially fire elementals, when they weren't distracted into hurling fireballs of their own. The Rapax are all but immune to fire, so fireballs were nearly useless, especially when they'd throw on an Element Shield spell. But the elemental could punch pretty hard, and would ignore the zillions of fireballs these guys would fling.

And yes, they'd fling the fireballs. That many Rapax meant that, at least at first, I could go on a bathroom break when the combat started, and when I returned there'd still be particle systems hurtling across the landscape towards me while my characters patiently waited their turn.

I gamed the system at this point. I'd go in, and MAYBE take down one or two of the Rapax before being forced to flee. Since most of my damage-causing spells would do next to nothing, once the defensive spells and the summon had been fired, I'd concentrate on insanity and Asphyxiation. Once in a blue moon, out of about two dozen Rapax and about six casts of Asphyxiation (a mass instant-death spell), ONE rapax would get unlucky and die outright. It was a terrible waste of spell points for that 0.5% chance of killing an enemy, but since nothing else was having much effect either, I gave it a shot. After all, they weren't exactly dying quickly on us as it was.

Once we'd score a kill or two, things would be looking hairy, and we'd be forced to flee. We'd rest up outside the zone, heal up, get spell points back, cast persistent buffs, and jump back in. The remaining Rapax would likewise be healed and have spell points back. Combat would begin almost instantly when we zoned in. By a strange twist of programming logic, if we'd been forced to abandon an elemental there in mid-combat, the elemental would still be there, saving us the casting of a summon spell at the beginning of the fight.

After spending pretty much an entire night doing this, we finally cleared the entryway enough to proceed further into the encampment. We found the King's tent in short order. Compared to everything else we had fought recently, the king and his two bodyguards were pushovers.

Strange Bedfellows

Several large guard patrols and one remotely-opened gate later, we found a couple of prisoners stuck in cages at the top of a bluff. One was an Umpani named Rodan, and the other was a T'Rang named Drazic. Strangely enough, we got both of them to join our party, and they told us their story. They began as mortal enemies trying to kill each other, even in captivity. But upon learning that the Rapax King was in league with the Dark Savant - making the Savant's allied forces stronger than anyone else on the planet - they realized that their own causes were doomed unless they could band together against a common enemy.

You see, the Umpani reportedly have a gun that is capable of taking out a starship - like the Dark Savant's ship. But the Dark Savant's black ship is cloaked and invisible to Umpani sensors, so they can't find his ship. The T'Rang have a tracking device which - with the help from my visit to the starport in Arnika and a black box recovered from a wreckage in Bayjin - can track the Dark Savant's ship. Rodan and Drazic asked us to take them to their respective leaders to make the case for an alliance between the Umpani and T'Rang. Curiously enough, since I'd been playing both sides, my party was in a prime position to give them aid.

Even better, we had teleport locations set not too far from the Umpani fort and Marten's Bluff, the base for the T'Rang. We portaled out of the Rapax Templar encampment, made our way through the swamp to Marten's Bluff, and met with the T'Rang boss, Z'Ant. He was skeptical, but willing to listen. He gave us an alliance document for the Umpani to sign, and the tracking device.

The Umpani were just as skeptical, but after hearing Rodan and Drazic's story, they also agreed. And gave us access to their "Big Gun."

We made our way to the top of Mount Gigas, and found that the "Big Gun" was actually a missile launcher. With a single missile. While there might be spares in some storage room somewhere, it sure did look like we only had one shot at this. Too bad. It would be nice to aim that sucker at the Rapax Castle. I wonder how many experience points I'd net by blowing up the entire castle filled with infinite Rapax?

We placed the tracking device in the computer at the base of the missile. The missile launcher locked onto the black ship in orbit around the planet, moved into position, and fired.

That black ship, she shur blows up pretty! The distant explosion was clearly visible from the mountain top.

The party launched into a self-congratulatory round of discussion and back-patting, and began speculating whether or not the Dark Savant was actually on the ship when it exploded. The consensus seemed to be that no, life is rarely that kind, and we'd probably meet him when we got to the top of Ascension Peak. Which, everyone tells us, should be our next step.

The end is near! Maybe.

Design Lessons Learned

While combat remains tedious, the plot was really kicking into high gear at this point. I HOPE that I have not ruined my game by taking the brute-force approach to dealing with the Rapax Templar encampment. ideally - as is apparently the case in many parts of the game - both approaches should be equally valid.

This is good RPG design. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is how things SHOULD be, in all RPGs. Yes, I mean you, you delightfully linear plot-heavy Japanese-style console RPGs!

If I recall correctly, Richard "Lord British" Garriott once said that he'd make sure there was always at least one good way to achieve any goal in the Ultima series, but that he wouldn't go out of his way to prevent other approaches from working. If the players figured out a clever alternative, he was fine with that.

While a few more recent games have seemed to at least give nods to this idea (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines come to mind, and I suspect Fallout 3 falls into this category as well), it is too often missing in many modern RPGs. While I've not played it yet, Shamus Young has recently excoriated Fable 2's plot for gross negligence in this reguard, forcing the player into some really bizarre, idiotic, needlessly complicated and punishing paths to accomplish what appears to be otherwise straightforward goals.

And even Oblivion seemed ... well, oblivious... to the fact that I'd accomplished one Thieves' Guild quest without actually killing anyone as I was assumed to have done. Those blind monks never even knew I was there, dang it!

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the script-based approach to handling "quests" or missions. I'm struggling with the same issues in Frayed Knights. To make things interesting, the entire sub-story and path to accomplish the quest is scripted out in advance, and any alternative approaches have to be similarly designed, tested, debugged, re-written, polished, and perfected.

But is this really necessary? Couldn't the Lord British approach still be applied to modern games? So you've got the glittery orb quest item stuck in some room. Is it really necessary to dictate how the player obtains the orb? Must all events and approaches be deliberately scripted into the game, or is it possible to set up a more generic event system and let things proceed more as a simulation? Would it be just as exciting? Just as interesting?

Yet even as I say this, I loved the hand-scripted resolution to the subplot where I acquired an alliance between the Umpani and T'Rang, and nuked the Black Ship. I'm a junkie for hand-crafted, well-designed plot and story development.

I'm sure I chose the most tedious, least interesting path to freeing the two prisoners, so would I be wrong in criticizing the game for allowing such tedious gameplay? Wouldn't I have enjoyed the game more following the nicely-scripted path?

Is there a happy medium between these two extremes?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
 
The Fifteen Different Types of Indie Games
In his recent article, The Evolution of Indie, Andy Schatz presents a look back on the world of indie games from a developer's perspective, as we saw it progress over last several years. It's much easier to see now, with hindsight, the direction things were going back in 2004. But it's still hard to see exactly where we're going to be in a few years.

But where are we now?

Andy indicates that the indie audience (yes, we have an audience now!) is beginning to actually form expectations these days. The audience expects indie games to be cheap (under $30). And... well, cool.

Cool?

Uh-oh. We're doomed.

Indie games have progressed along several different evolutionary branches over the last several years. For those unfamiliar with indie games, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the different types of indie games out there. I won't attempt to categorize these by game genre. Indie games cover far too broad of a territory for that. Mainstream games try hard to fit in easily marketable boxes, while indie games as a whole are all over the board and frequently violate boundaries. That's why I love 'em.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't some broad categories that might cover most of indie's target audience or development style. Indie games are made for a lot of different reasons, for a lot of different (but usually underserved) audiences. For the beginner trying to make sense of the question, "What is an indie game?", here are fifteen of the many different faces of indie:

#1 - Casual games: These aren't necessarily "indie" anymore. Back in the 90's and the earlier part of this decade, this was once almost exclusively the domain of indies. It was an area where small-budget teams could still put together a game and make it profitable. Until the big boys smelled money. It's gotten a lot more competitive recently, and not every casual game developer is indie.

#2 - Online Web-Based Games: Yes, you know 'em, you love 'em, and you've probably spent WAY too many hours playing them. Usually created in Flash, with a healthy helping of tons of amateur productions, you could waste your whole life playing these games. It is a wonderful refuge for the hobbyist.

#3 - Really Weird, Experimental, and/or Retro ... Stuff: The stuff that TIGSource is really into. And, to be honest, I am too... sometimes... If there's a game released for free that looks like a SNES title where you control the main character's middle finger, or an insanely slick and devilishly difficult shoot-em-up done entirely in shades of blue, this would be the place.

#4 - Commercial Console Indie Games: Small, flashy, hardcore console games. Most of the XBLA games for the XBox 360 would fall under this category, although it's getting into really fuzzy territory now that publishers (and, of course, Microsoft) are getting involved. Games by The Behemoth or NinjaBee go here. These indies are generally larger, more professional, and better-funded than most. But many also put second mortgages on their homes, lived on beans, and begged family members for investment capital to turn their dreams into reality, which to me sounds as indie as anybody.

#5 - "Serious Games": Those games that educate, inform, influence, train, and ... well, spread propaganda. Again, many might not be strictly defined as "indie," other than the fact they were made without the approval or support (or, usually, knowledge) of any of the mainstream industry.

#6 - "Alternative Core" Games: This is my favorite category. These are the kinds of games that would appeal to the "core" gamer, but address niches that are no longer served by the mainstream industry. Like space combat games, turn-based stategy games, certain kinds of RPGs, and adventure games. Or these are really unique takes on conventional "mainstream" genres. Like Depths of Peril's gutsy move to mix strategy and a dynamic world into a conventional action-RPG.

#7 - Mobile Games: Smaller games for phones and other handheld devices. Not always indie, but of a small-enough budget that usually only indie-level developers can afford to give it a go.

#8 - Retro Hardware Games: Games for obsolete machines. Like one of our community here making a game for the TI-99/4A. And a lot of folks making games for the old Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, Gameboy, and obscure Japanese consoles. I really don't know what makes these developers tick, other than it being a pretty cool itch to scratch.

#9 - Indie MMOs: Low-budget "Massively Mutliplayer Online" games which seem to be everywhere these days. My daughters play some. These range from silly little HTML or Flash-based games (like Kingdom of Loathing - one of my favorites) all the way to major 3D clients and games developed by teams with an actual, you know.... budget.

#10 - Interactive Fiction: The text-based children of Zork. Nowadays, most of these are smaller titles created for competitions which focus more on... well, interactive storytelling... than the heavy puzzle-solving of the old days.

#11 - The Mods: The sometimes massive conversions of mainstream, commercial games to fit the needs and desires of talented fans. Fan mods can have a major transformative effect and bring new life to an old game, keeping it popular long past its usual lifecycle. What modded games may lose in terms of consistency and quality, they often make up for in scope and improved depth.

#12 - Advergaming: Small games (some of which would otherwise fit in category #2) designed specifically to push a product or service. I'm not positive these are classified as indie, but they are made without the support of any mainstream publisher or distributor, so I guess they count.

#13 - The Unfinished Hobbyist Projects: where there are all these alpha versions of games that show promise, but haven't been maintained or updated in years. I'd say more than 95% of "indie" projects fall into this category. Making games is HARD, and a lot of first-time game developers lose steam after the surge of awesome has worn off. Unfortunately, most of these aren't very playable, but there are some "perpetual alpha" projects out there which are very playable and very fun.

#14 - The Soul-To-Sell Offers: Indie games created primarily to land some kind of contract with a publisher or major studio. The developers may use it to showcase their talents to a prospective employer - as is often the case with game-school projects. Or the developers may be trying to get the game "picked up" by a studio. You don't hear much of these, because they aren't usually marketed (at least not well) to customers. They are more to showcase an idea to someone upstream. Believe it or not, that's how the hit game Outpost Kaloki came into being. The not-so-indie best-seller Portal got its start this way as the indie student project Narbacular Drop.

#15 - Retro Remakes: Re-envisioning of classic mainstream games using modern technology, or games that are clearly the "spiritual descendants" of a classic. Oftentimes these games start out as the former, and then after either a cease-and-desist order or a realization that they might actually like to make a few bucks for their hundreds of hours of labor. Then the project morphs into the latter.

#16 - Every Freakin' Other Thing: Hah, I snuck a sixteenth "non-category" in to my fifteen categories. While this is a lame catch-all category cop-out, indies are famous for breaking rules and molds. Many indies deliberately try to defy categorization. So this one is for them.

Of course, indies being who they are, they tend to resist being stuck conveniently in any one category. These categories overlap and curl into each other like a big ball of wibbley-wobbley, gamey-wamey... stuff. You could have a casual, serious, web-based game easily enough. In fact, I've played a few.

But the point is this: A lot of people concentrate on what indie gaming is. But really, indie gaming is really defined by the small subset of what it isn't. Indie is that "everything else" category of games created all kinds of ways, for all kinds of audiences, at all kinds of budgets. As Andy suggests - we've got categories of indie that are becoming their own thin, and may not even be considered "indie" anymore. They are growing up. The whole idea of what constitutes a "video game" is changing, and indie developers remain in the front of that revolution.

These are great times to be a gamer.

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Monday, February 09, 2009
 
Benefits of Videogames
Since some locals in my neighborhood have been freaked out by the recent BYU study that found that (my interpretation) excess solitary gaming can effect you as badly as any other excessive solitary activity, I figured I'd pass along this link from Edge:

The 15 Clearest Benefits of Gaming

Many of these benefits can also be obtained via *gasp* other, more conventional activities... just as the problems associated with gaming are associated with many other more conventional (and accepted) activities.

Go figger.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009
 
Screwed By My Bank
Maybe it has something to do with being Federalized and bought up by Chase late last year, but I just found out that a savings account I have with the bank-formerly-known-as Washington Mutual has dropped the interest rate on my savings account down from "pathetic" to "insulting." 0.01% APY interest.

So - uh - for every hundred dollars I have in there, I will get a penny of interest. In a YEAR. Why didn't they just drop it down to zero and be done with it? Or are they going to start charging ME for keeping my money there next?

I know banks are desperately trying to de-leverage right now. But if you are doing that, wouldn't you want to ... like... KEEP your deposits when you are doing that?

I can only assume that the people in charge of making these kinds of decisions aren't gamers. At least not strategy gamers.

I mean, anybody who's played a big 4X space conquest game or something like Civilization knows that when you do something stupid like raise the taxes up to 99% or something crazy like that, you are gonna watch your empire crumble in very short order. As a very short, one- or two-turn measure it might work (and maybe this is the plan), but it is not a strategy for staying in the game.

Yeah, that's a pretty weak way to tie my rant into gaming, and it could be a lot worse, but I'm feeling a little insulted right now.
Friday, February 06, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Little Victories
I was about thirteen when I got a Commodore 64.

I'd learned to program in BASIC on a Sinclair ZX80 earlier that year. The Sinclair had 1K of memory. Programming games on that thing was nigh unto impossible. A random game of tic-tac-toe was about the extent of its capabilities. Going from that to a whopping 64K of RAM (48K actually usable) was like heaven. Why, with that much memory to play with, I could make ANYTHING!

But there's a difference between having the technical capabilities of making something, and actually knowing how to make it. Naturally, I wanted to make RPGs. Or adventure games. There really wasn't much of a delineation back in those days. But I had no clue how to do it. After searching for inspiration in David Ahl's Basic Computer Games and More Basic Computer Games, I had some idea of how to drive a semi-data-driven interface so I could have a webwork of connected rooms that I could walk through with a text interface of directions like "north," "e," and "up."

I got it working at about 11:00 one night. I was exultant, but I had to refrain from cranking my music up and dancing a victory dance to avoid waking up my parents. They wouldn't understand. It was a Black Triangle moment. Anybody else looking at it would say, "Huh? What's the big deal about that? People have been doing that in adventure games for years."

But for me, personally, it represented a big step. I was able to walk around a virtual 12-room text-based world. I had found "The Way," and it would later provide the foundation for a few adventure-like games I wrote in my spare time (no, none were ever released to the public). I was able to see that.

When programming, there is roughly 10,000+ different ways of doing something. The trick is trying to figure out "the right way." The way that won't disintegrate into an unmaintainable mess when you realize you missed a critical feature and have to shoehorn it in. The way that won't make your life harder as it goes from exercising test data to using real data. The way that will probably STILL get completely overhauled once you've finished it and realize how you could have done it better.

And yet the average person will not appreciate it in the least. For example, doing UI stuff. Which I am STILL working on. For the average player, the amount of work that has to go into making a working drag-and-drop inventory is probably going to be completely lost on them. They just know that it should work.

On the design and coding side, there are a lot of issues to take care of.

Like what happens to the object - logically - when it is picked up from one an inventory and dragged across the screen? Does it remain in the original inventory, but hidden in the interface? Or do I remove it from the original inventory the moment it is picked up, but before the player has chosen what he's going to do with it? What happens if he tries to shut down the inventory screen or bring up the option screen with a keypress while holding an item with the mouse? If I bring up a pop-up screen of the items stats when the player hovers the cursor over an item's icon, should I still do it if he's dragging another item around? Will that be confusing? And what if I don't WANT to move the item, but simply want to activate it?

For what seems like a simple behavior, there are a ton of questions that need answered, code that needs to be written to deal with exceptional cases, and bugs that need fixing. Or I end up walking around with a wand icon stuck on the screen and my fireball wand permanently missing from my inventory, as happened in the picture.

All these elements all have to work together consistently. Otherwise, it feels clumsy to the player. As the first iteration of many UI elements did for a lot of players who tried out the pilot. I can't guarantee this new stuff will be a huge improvement, but it will be an improvement.

It's all boring, black-triangle-y stuff, yet I find myself feeling all excited and exultant when it works. Just as I was when I completed the rudimentary system to walk around a 12-room text-based world when I was thirteen.

But really, I'm just looking forward to it all working perfectly so I can FORGET ABOUT IT and just have it work for me so I can move on to bigger things.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XIV: Storming the Castle
I've had a bit of a hiatus, and I apologize. More on that in the next installment. For those still interested, here's a bit of a summary of my continued explorations of the "old-school" RPG, Wizardry 8. It's a fairly hard-to-find title these days, as the publisher has long since ceased to exist as anything more than a legal entity. But their memory lives on... as do game CDs on a PC.

The Demon Goddess
I made a lot of progress since Part XIII - and somehow thought I'd blogged it all, but evidently I had failed to do so. My bad. And now I have to go from memory.

We used the beckoning stone to summon a gargoyle named El Dorado. He exploded nicely under our combined firepower. Following that, we made our way to the demon-goddess Al-Sedexus. She seemed to debate a bit about what to do with us, but then gave us a quest set our faction so that we would no longer be attacked by Rapax Templars. Go us.

A bit more hunting led us to the courtyard of Castle Rapax.

Storming the Castle
The courtyard started out okay. There were archers along the wall which rained arrows down on us and were hard to kill. That was annoying. Pushing forward a bit more resulted in us getting surrounded by Rapax and attacked by an ever-increasing throng of Rapax.

The main floor of the castle was largely the same story - infuriatingly long combats. Rapax are minotaur-looking beasts which have some of the most infuriatingly boring combat in the known universe. They are - tough. Very tough. Most magic barely touches them. They hit like a ton of bricks. They have hundreds of hit points. And I usually end up fighting them a couple dozen at a time. I blow through most of my magic in each combat. Usually the best spells are buffs, heals, and insanity spells - since if even one or two Rapax berserkers go nuts and begin wailing on their comrades for a couple of rounds, It can shave precious minutes off of an hour-long fight.

The only thing interesting the Rapax have going for them is that they have classes. Which means you have some spellcasters going at it. This usually means putting up an element shield in the first round, as I'll be sitting through about six to eight fireballs every round, plus the occasional Crush.

After literally hours of practically non-stop combat, I made my way to the upper floors. I embarrassed the prince, who I caught in his harem. He fled, and sicced his concubines on me.

Yes, his concubines.

Eventually, sheer tedium and frustration made me flee to the upper floors which were much more interesting - though I had left some halls of the main floor unexplored. The upper halls and the cellar had a lot of interesting things going on, and most of the Rapax were not hostile to me. I guess they were aligned with the templars.

An adventure-game-esque sequence followed. I found myself going through a zoo, hitting the cellar and jail areas, participating in a barroom brawl, discovering that the Rapax King and Queen seemed to be running counter to each others' purposes (in fact, it looks like the King was trying to arrange the death of his dear wife... I do not know whether or not he succeeded). After finding a lot of secret portals and bizarre items with strange uses, I managed to open up a teleporter near the King's chamber that opened up a portal to the inside of the Dark Savant's tower back in Arnika.

Dah Bomb
Among other things, the Dark Savant's tower houses a bomb capable of destroying the entire world. For such a big deal, the tower was kind of a let-down. There wasn't much there - just robots serving the Dark Savant, and a combination lock to deactivate the bomb.

At this point, I teleported back to the Rapax Castle, and fought a few gazillion more Rapax, before getting bored and leaving back the way I came.

Reflecting on Design
The castle sequence is a major set-piece to the game, but it is fatally flawed on the main floor by some really tedious combat - not unlike Rapax Rift and the Bayjin Shallows. The designers wisely set it up so that the upper levels (and cellar) were not nearly so bad - but it does make you wonder how you could slaughter something like 400 Rapax on the main floor (and how does the castle HOLD that many???) and almost nobody bats an eye about it one floor up.

But I really did enjoy myself a lot on the upper floor. The combats were few but a little more interesting (the zoo animals were largely creatures I'd fought before, but at least they broke up the monotony a bit). And the locations and notes gave a lot of clues as to what had been going on for the last few years. It helped make the world come alive.

The Savant Tower was something of a letdown. Here's a hint to game designers: When you introduce something early in the game that's clearly a major goal for later, you really ought to put some more effort into making it cool. Visually, it was cool, but from a gameplay perspective, there wasn't much to do there. Unless I totally overlooked something.

I have already whined enough about how boring the Rapax are to fight. But this illustrates something about enemy design at which I have personally failed many times in the past. It is EASY to make a bigger, tougher, harder opponent. Beef up their armor and hitpoints, throw in a solid claw / claw/ bite attack (an old-school D&D reference), crank the magic resistance up to 11, and viola! A super-challenging monster!

And a super-boring one, too. Oh, sure, if used sparingly, they can be fun, and even interesting in their own way. But ultimately, what makes enemies interesting to a player are the same things that make them nightmarish for a programmer - unique behaviors and abilities (or combinations of the same).

If you look at some of the most popular (and feared) monsters in Dungeons & Dragons, they usually fall into this category. Dragons are not only ultra-tough, but also have the classic breath weapon and flying ability (and, often, spells, an aura of fear, and other special abilities). Mind Flayers with their uber-nasty psionic blast and the whole brain-eating thing. Beholders with their ray-shooting eye stalks (and the anti-magic cone from their primary eye). Vampires and specters with the level-draining ability. Medusas (yes, in D&D, Medusa is an entire race, not just an entity) with the gaze that turns adventurers into stone. Mummies with their mummy-rot and fear aura. Dopplegangers who can assume the form and behavior of friends. Harpies with their charm powers. And various kinds of demons with their spell resistance and other special abilities.

Those special abilities are what makes them interesting. Wizardry 8 is no exception. The psionic abilities of the Rynjin were infuriating, but it made them stand out... except for the fact that practically everything in the Bayjin area was also psionic. Nessie - I still haven't taken HER down yet. But she was not boring. Creatures that swallow my party members whole are rare, scary, but definitely not boring.

Giving the Rapax some character classes and abilities in Wizardry 8 was definitely a step in the right direction. Frankly, after killing hundreds of these things in a row, they'd be getting pretty tiresome no matter how cool their design. Persona 3 did a great job of doling out strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities amongst opponents - and the expansion did an even better job of putting them together in interesting combinations that took some (minor) tactical planning to work through. And those still got pretty boring after a while.

So take my criticism with a grain of salt - or a small Siberian salt mine...


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

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009
 
Frayed Knights Critique, Part IV
I have been involved in the development of about a dozen commercially released games. Three were relatively big hits, and spawned sequels that also went on to become big hits. Twisted Metal, in particular, became not just a series but an entire franchise. There were many magazine pages and forum threads devoted to some of these games.

Still, I don't think I have ever seen any of my games critiqued as thoroughly in one place as Diego Doumecq has critiqued my little Frayed Knights pilot. I think the dude has played the game more than anybody else in the world who isn't me. I do not agree with everything he says, but I can't dismiss any of his points.

He has finally concluded his four-article critique that began in October of last year. He's been gentle, acknowledging that yes, the pilot was an experimental playtest release and not supposed to be a full, polished experience. But it was released in order to solicit feedback - a task which I can only call a stellar success - and Diego went way beyond the questionnaire I asked of players. Thanks, dude!

Anyway, part IV is up - bigger than any of the previous parts. Here are links to every part of the series.

Frayed Knights
Critique, Part I
Frayed Knights Critique, Part II
Frayed Knights Critique, Part III
Frayed Knights Critique, Part IV

I'm not really going to do an in-depth response here. He's devoted quite a bit of time and wordcount to each point, and most of them have gone into my churning bucket of redesign already. I'll probably be devoting full-fledged posts to some of them. But I can't resist some quick-and-dirty responses, because I am a weak-willed individual. So here goes.

World scale - part of the problem stems from having people be actual "human size" rather than "Kork-Sized" (the name of the Orc model that comes with Torque). Based on the recommended scale by GarageGames, Kork is somewhere between 7' and 8' tall. People tend to model around his proportions. But there's another factor: Play City of Heroes sometime and have your character sit on a bench or something. Compare sizes. Now, part of this is also because players like to make their characters as big as possible, and the world has to accomodate the largest-sized PCs. But you get this (to a degree) in every game - things appear too small on the screen in 3D when modeled exactly to scale. So they always get a little exaggerated.

That doesn't mean I don't need to wrestle scale issues more in Frayed Knights. That's still a given, and something I hope the learning experience with the Temple of Pokmor Xang has taught us to be more dilligent about. But some of it won't ever go away.

As far as random encounters and randomness in general: I've talked about the "wandering monster" issue in games before. I'm not satisfied with how encounters in Frayed Knights - and the entire combat system - are handled, either. It strayed too far on the "bad" side. It was one of those things that looked just fine on the page and in my head, but so far hasn't translated to the screen very well. Unlike Diego, I am a fan of a certain level of randomness in RPGs. I think the "skill" in playing RPGs comes down to managing the risk of the random. But there's a certain threshold in any game where it just becomes irritating, and not fun. And I think Frayed Knights combats and encounters strayed too far down that path.

But I also changed how the whole "wandering monster" / "random encounter" thing worked about seven months ago. So I've almost forgotten how the old system (which is still in the pilot) played. I'm not totally happy with the new system either, but it works much better and is a lot less random.

Drama Stars - You know, for all the focus this system received before the release, the system sure did end up landing with something of a "thunk" noise. They are hardly ever used - even by myself. This is an argument that they either need to be dropped altogether, or expanded upon and enhanced to be more integrated into the game experience, and given a broader mandate than simply being an encouragement to avoid optional reloading. Me being the kind of overeager optimist and nutcase that I am, you can probably guess in which direction I'm shooting now.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009
 
Jack Thompson Seeks Refuge Amongst Utah Extremists!
I can't tell if this is supposed to be horror or comedy, but I'm pretty sure I've seen this movie before. And it sucked then:

Jack Thompson Vents His Spleen in the Deseret News

Jack Thompson Finds Sucker to Sponsor His Bill in Utah

Not freakin' again. Jack Thompson was disbarred over - among other things - making false statements in tribunals and professional misconduct. In other words, the court system has determined that he is a liar and all-around douchebag.

I guess he's right at home hanging out with politians and nutcase extremists.

We'll see how far Rep. Mike Morley can carry this sack of toxic manure before the bottom falls out and covers him with stink.

Can I just say for the record, as a Utahn - most of us aren't that freaky. At least not in that way. Yeah, in general we're a pretty conservative state - but outliers like the Eagle Forum folks are out there even for Utah.

I personally have a lot of respect for our AG, Mark Shurtleff - who has himself picketed a local videogame company (where some friends of mine have worked) and protested violent videogames. He has expressed that he feels it is his right and responsibility as a citizen - but he also feels that what has come out so far in terms of legislation against videogames has been unconstitutional and unenforceable, and has indicated (at least to my ears) that he feels it is a responsibility that belongs in the hands of parents, not the government.

But of course, disbarred-lawyers and authors with political aspirations can't use THAT as a platform to further their careers and get rich.

Hat tip to GamePolitics for the heads-up.

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Utah Indie Night - Winter 2009 - and Indie Lessons
We had another Utah Indie Game Developer meet last week. Due to my (finally solved!) Internet problems, I wasn't able to comment on it the next day as I usually do.

Fortunately, some others did, so I'll link to them.

This time, the meeting was at ITT Tech. The meetings always have a very different flavor depending upon whether they are at ITT or Wahoo (NinjaBee) studios, just because of the space. The ITT meetings tend to lend themselves better for formal presentations (as they are usually in classrooms). This time we were in sort of the central hall / meeting room, which was less crowded, a little noiser, but more useful for giving informal game presentations. ITT is closer to my house, which is an added benefit for me. :) But because they are so busy right now (recessions tend to cause much higher school enrollment), it's been tougher to schedule rooms there in the evenings. But they are always outstanding hosts (as are the Wahoo / NinjaBee crew), and very supportive of the indie game development scene here in Utah.

The night opened up with Josh Jones presenting a post-mortem of his "mini-monthly" experiment. All last year, he worked on creating a new game every month, using Flash. This stemmed from a New Years' resolution to become a better game developer. The mini-monthly experiment honed his design skills, his production skills, and undoubtedly his Flash skills. He's posted his post-mortem notes (and his games) on his website:

The Mini-Monthly Experiment Post-Mortem

I took a bunch of notes, but the stuff on his website is better.

He had a lot of sub-lessons learned for each of his lessons, and some were repeated frequently. If I were to distill some of his best points down from all of his lessons of indie development into the key elements (and add my own spin on things), they'd be:

#1 - Time Management
Working within the constraints of month-long, part-time projects (often while in crunch mode at the Day Job - he worked at the same game company I did last year) really tests your ability to put the right amount of time into each aspect of the game - design, development, and testing / polishing. And leaving time for other activities - like actually playing games. Learning how to juggle these to produce a finished game of sufficient quality by the deadline is challenging. He didn't always succeed, but he learned a lot.

#2 - Design and Scoping
He noted several times that he fell victim to "over-design" - spending too much time in design and not having enough time for production (a problem with one project which prevented it from being completed). In addition, designing for the proper scope, deadline, and budget was challenging. It's easy to fall victim to "feature creep," and adding new ideas until you run out of time.

#3 - Motivation
Motivation is hard, especially for an indie when you really don't have much hope of finding a pot of gold at the end of your game production rainbow. While working on your own game and really cool ideas is fun and all (in principle), you will have to find your own ways of motivating yourself through the less-fun parts (which is pretty much everything after the initial surge of activity).

He also talked about why the mini-monthly projects were so useful as an indie project. More than anything else, they provided a hard deadline and forced him to treat them as real projects rather than interminable time-sinks for puttering and tinkering with.

After that, people got to show off the games. And talk about the problems facing mainstream studios in the local area (as many of the indies were former employees of a particular company that is being sued by the Department of Labor...) We also got the scuttlebutt from an employee of Disney about the two Disney studios having layoffs (which were both relatively small, and rather generous) and being merged together.

The games themselves - due to my tardiness, I'll just point you to Greg Squire's outstanding write-up:

Greg Squire's Write-Up On Utah Indie Night - Winter 2009

Of particular note to me was the OUTSTANDING look of the now-beta indie MMORPG Link Realms. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what indie can be:



Link Realms went beta on January 1, and shortly thereafter became FLOODED with beta testers. Great for stress-testing, not so great for general beta bugs they are trying to find and fix right now, so they've had to put new beta test applicants on a waiting list. This one has the potential to be HUGE. Maybe not World of Warcraft huge, but still huge by most other measures.

A 2D side-scrolling MMORPG was also being shown, entitled Smote. It's still in early development, but functional and playable.

Curtis Mirci showed off his game, Darkened Dreams 2 (which has been mentioned here in the past). Most of the effort so far has gone into the tools, which are REALLY freakin' sweet and will be shipping (by my understanding) with the game. These are fairly comprehensive, and even include scripting (via LUA). These were a little further along than when he showed them in these videos on his website:

Darkened Dreams 2 Video Blogs

The original version of the game (running under Java - not nearly as exciting) can be found here. The new one is running under XNA and looks a lot more interesting. It's still pretty rough and early, but with the tools up and running, things should hopefully progress quickly.

A student project 2D shooter entitled "Galactic Winds" looked like a lot of fun. Inspired by 80's-era side-scrolling space shooters, it included the ability to upgrade (and downgrade) your ship in mid-mission. Downgrading wouldn't get you back as many points as you spent to upgrade, but I could see that technique being used to customize your ship as you prepare to fight different bosses.

Zombie Town - or, as author Darius Ouderkirk described it, "Zombie Tower Defense," was running using TGB as the core engine. It was running into some technical / framerate issues, though that could probably be explained by it having something like a quadrillion zombies on-screen at one time with collision turned on all of them. This one has a lot of potential. I mean, tower defense against hordes of zombies! How perfect is that?

Tank Rage Arena was a game using a custom 3D engine built by creator Nick Terry using DirectX. It's principally a multiplayer tank-combat game. In.... maze-like arenas. I guess rage is involved somewhere. But it looks very nice, and like a lot of fun. He'd made some rapid changes over the last few weeks to add AI tanks so he could demo the game for indie night. The AI tanks weren't too smart, but they did help show what the game was about.

I had some awesome discussions with some very cool people on the sidelines - some of it even indie-game related - and I thank them for putting up with the loudmouth Coyote in their conversations. They provided me with plenty of scuttlebutt and food for thought. And probably blog topics.

I left the night, as usual, feeling pretty inspired and a little humbled. There are some DANG talented indie game developers here in Utah.

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Monday, February 02, 2009
 
DRM Blamed For Another PC Game Fiasco
So the latest mainstream PC game fiasco was immediately assumed to be the fault of the "strong" DRM DRM. In reality, it was the anti-cheating code that was at fault (at least, so they tell us), which used digital signatures. Signed code could be used for either.

I'm not sure why a certificate that was valid at the time of signing would be invalid now. Yes, I used to work in the PKI industry, but I always thought that this sounded more like an excuse to get people to keep paying money to certificate authorities (CAs).

But anyway - neither here nor there. The interesting thing to me was how quickly the gamer public pounced on DRM as the likely culprit.

Does DRM have an image problem? Yes, it definitely does. Is it deserved? That's subject to debate. But players do recognize that it is a major piece of the software that is:

(1) a burden to the consumer, and
(2) of no direct value to the consumer
(3) a potential source of additional bugs, and
(4) can prevent the consumer from enjoying any of the benefits of their purchase at any time for any (or no) reason.

Even if the DRM scheme really wasn't to blame this time, it illustrates that issues #3 and #4 are very present on the minds of consumers, and that they are ready and willing to assign blame and make it the bad guy.

What does this make the publisher that includes this system with their software?

Are PC Gamers switching to consoles simply to escape this nonsense?

What happens when the consoles get saddled with the same problems (as it seems they inevitably will)?

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