Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
 
Video Games Improve Vision?
Wow. Contrary to everything I ever believed:

Video Game Play Improves Eyesight

So my vision may be better (actually, the last time I had an eye test, it actually HAD improved slightly from my teenaged years... go figger!). But unfortunately, my shooting skills with real firearms have not improved in the least - in spite of years of playing first-person shooters.

I don't understand. Would Jack Thompson lie to me?
Monday, March 30, 2009
 
What Do Indies Have to Rant About?
GDC has had game developer rants in the past. This year, they had an "indie game maker rant." This has been reported on in a couple of different places, including Destructoid, The Escapist, and TIGSource. Scorpia's provided her own secondhand commentary, though I suspect her condemnation is probably more due to the journalistic bias of the report she referenced than what actually transpired. Apparently, some journalists find a woman talking about how games should teach girls to masturbate FAR more interesting to report on than ... you know... real issues 'n stuff.

Since I wasn't there, I can't really comment on the rant, either, but I will ask: What do indies REALLY have to rant about?

I mean, okay, people love a good rant. Me too. I've gone off on similar subjects - like what really qualifies a game as "indie," or whether or not games are "art." I think there's a time and place. And I figure an hour at GDC is probably an appropriate time and place.

But if I might venture a personal opinion (what? Me? On my blog? Perish the thought!) - it is this:

An indie is a living embodiment of a rant against the status quo.

It's best to shout this out loud in your best rock-and-roll, screw-you voice.

Let's face it, the reason there are indie games at all - being made or played - is because players and game makers alike are not being adequately served by the industry. The "establishment" has failed us. As the establishment grows bigger and more dominant, its failure becomes more epic - and the more indies must appear in response. As Princess Leia said, "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

Although I think indies probably have more in common with Firefly's "Browncoats" than Star Wars' rebels. It's not a case of the indies trying to bring down the system, so much as the indies wanting the system to either cooperate or get the hell out of their way so they can do their own thing.

And that's what indies do. Or are supposed to do, anyway, in my idealized worldview. Instead of just whining and complaining about how things suck, they roll up their sleeves and get to work doing something about it. Their work is the greatest rant they could make.

And while money and fame doesn't usually follow such a path, there's no better way to give the finger to the industry that sucks than to bypass it, do your own thing, and then be very successful at it. And that's been happening. It has happened enough times by now that the industry - which once shunned and mocked indies and talked about how it would no longer be possible to "Blair Witch" the business in an era of big-money-dominated game making - is now embracing the indies and trying to make nice.

And that is why the whole idea of an "indie game maker rant" sounds a little superfluous to me. Again - I do it myself, and I don't begrudge the chance for the indies to express themselves in front of an audience that included industry-types and journalists. It's a good venue. But by my thinking - and even though it's still unclear to me exactly what transpired during his presentation - Petri Purho's capstone "rant" was the best of them all. While it sounds like it may have been staged, his "rant" was to make an indie game in the five minutes allotted. Whether he intended it this way or not, I think it provided an excellent commentary on the entire event.

Sure, there's plenty of room for indies to rant. Occasionally. But really - the verbal rants are just for show. Mostly, it's a bunch of hifalutin BS. Making and releasing a game is the best rant an indie gamer can make.

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Friday, March 27, 2009
 
Shared Experiences and Swapping Game Stories
It has now officially been a decade since I last went to GDC, which is now wrapping up in San Francisco. I do miss it. I used to tell my coworker, Kirk, that I thought it was always more inspirational than educational, but I always had a good time.

The part I enjoyed most about GDC was rarely the lectures (though they were often informative and fun). The best part for me was just getting together with other game developers, talking shop and talking about the games we love. The roundtables were a good structured way of accomplishing that, but the parties, the showroom floor, and (when they had them) the hospitality night activities were by far the best.

Rip on the mainstream game developers all you want (I do!), but in general, they love games and they have a lot to say about 'em.

Having the Utah Indie Night has definitely helped. While much less intense, it's nice to be able to get together four times a year to do exactly the same thing - chatting over pizza or Mexican food, talking shop, talking games, sharing experiences, and doing a little bit of dreaming together.

Last night I got to get together over dinner at the Asian Buffet with Mike Rimer and Butch Istook. Mike's a developer in the "Deadly Rooms of Death" game series, and the principle guy behind DROD RPG: Tendry's Tale. Butch lives in Oregon and was in town for the week, and Mike made arrangements for us all to have dinner and shoot the breeze. I've chatted with Mike a few times at the Utah Indie night, but it was my first time meeting Butch.

We talked for nearly two-and-a-half hours. I think we could have gone for another two-and-a-half hours, but I had to get back to work (yes, late nights the last couple of weeks). The subjects varied, including our own projects and business topics, but most of the time we were talking about games. Games we had in common, and games we didn't. Final Fantasy, Baldur's Gate, Kingdom of Loathing, Angband, Wizardry (particularly the original - Mike plowed through it at age seven!), Ultima III, Ultima VII, Unreal, Aveyond, Master of Magic, Oblivion, The Bard's Tale, and several others were all topics of discussion. Not the games themselves, so much, as aspects of them.

Curiously, the shared experiences of these games formed a vocabulary of sorts for us to talk about things, but it was also a major topic of conversation itself. It left me inspired and pondering (as these kinds of conversations always do), and feeling like sharing some thoughts on... shared experiences.

Back in the day, when I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons and it was actually - well, not exactly "cool," but everyone was trying it - there were a handful of modules (pre-written adventures) out, and most people had played them, but under different Dungeon Masters. As a result, you had an interesting situation where people had this shared experience - the canned adventure - but the details were so different that there was plenty to talk about. The core was the same, but the hows and the whys were completely different.

You get much of that same experience now if you are talking about a popular MMORPG (What? There's more than one?). And for certain single-player games, you still get that. We swapped stories of comparison.

But too often, single-player video games have such a tightly scripted narrative now that those "moments" and points of discussion get lost. Our illustrative example was Final Fantasy VII. "Oh, and then Aeris died." That whole thing plays out the same for every player. Aside from maybe reactions to it, there's really nothing to discuss. There were no decisions to be made, no variations to explore. She got Aeris-kabobbed while praying (meditating) every time at exactly the same place, and there was nothing you could do about it.

By comparison, our lunchtime games at SingleTrac of ATF Gold and Rainbow Six were followed by almost as much time spent talking about our just-completed games as it took to play them. We were all in the same game, but the experiences were a little different for each of us. That was the part that brought us together socially.

That's kinda where I would like to see indie RPGs go. Well, RPGs in general, but hey - we indies may as well take charge, right? But I'd like to see more of that balance between having something that forces a common experience (so randomly generated content doesn't work so well), yet is flexible enough that everyone's version of that encounter is different and memorable. That would need to go beyond simply a different choice of tactics to defeat a boss. Or which of the three possible endings you saw.

Some games have it. We've talked about it here. Richard Garriott even went on record at one point with the Ultima series by saying that he tries to make sure there is one solution guaranteed to work for any challenge or puzzle in his game, but he didn't rule out other approaches for creative players. These kinds of games are pretty goal-driven. This can lead to a scary, "ends justify the means" type of behavior... but isn't that what role-playing is all about? You choose your path through the game, and you accomplish the goals your own way. If you do it by being an evil jerk and extorting the money fom all the villagers rather than doing favors for them, so be it. Ideally, those actions will also have consequences.

That's a big part of the "exploration" that makes RPGs so fun. As is the opportunity it provides for players to swap stories about these common experiences.

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IGF 2009 Winners Announced
Another Independent Games Festival has come and gone. Winners can be found here:

IGF Winners Announced

And you can catch the awards footage here:

IGF Awards Footage

All I can say is that I'm really glad that You Have To Burn the Rope did NOT win the prize for Innovation. Not that I have a problem with the game itself - I thought it was cute little joke in (marginally) game form. But - it was just a cute little joke. I'm annoyed that it bumped something else out of a finalist slot.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009
 
Political Minute
Sometimes I feel that if we put all our elected officials in a room together, the collective IQ of the room still wouldn't exceed that of a bowl of Cool Whip. But then I get reminded that yes, some of our leaders in my state and country actually pay attention and really do have detailed, intelligent discussions on all kinds of surrounding issues. And then they vote "wrong" anyway... :)

But I was very pleased to learn last night that the latest Utah anti-videogame bill, HB 353 (the "let's punish retailers who try and do the right thing" bill), was vetoed by Governor Huntsman. The linked site has his letter to Speaker Clark and President Waddoups explaining his rationale for the veto, which includes concerns about constitutionality and the "unintended consequences" of the bill.

On a totally unrelated front, I've become a fan of my district's congressional representative in Washington DC. As a freshman idealist in the minority party, his days may be numbered. But Rep. Chaffetz is tech-savvy, has leg-wrestled and played Rock Band (badly) with Stephen Colbert, and has "cot side chats" posted on You Tube weekly where he talks about what he's doing in Congress, how he's voting on certain issues, and why. Oh - and the cot: He is one of several members of Congress who live frugally and sleep in their office during the week rather than renting an apartment in town.

Chaffetz recently sent me an email detailing his opposition to a bill which was extremely straightforward and blunt. I liked that - and not just because I am unhappy with the bill. :) (It's totally non-game related: HR 1068, the so-called "Let Wall Street Pay For Wall Street's Bailout" act - which was really more of a "Let Wall Street's CUSTOMERS - and their customers' customers - pay for Wall Street's Bailout" Act).

Anyway - I'm thrilled the stupid bill got vetoed. But like popular-but-vapid first person shooters, I expect there to be a sequel coming out next year.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009
 
Torque 3D Announces New Indie Licensing
A while ago, while listening to a book on tape about running a business (yes, I actually listen to those kinds of things - scary, isn't it?), I read about one technique one business owner used to massively increase his business revenue.

He fired his customers.

He went over his numbers, and realized that 20% of his customers consumed 80% of his time. They were "high maintenance." They consumed the greatest amount of his resources while providing the lowest level of revenue. So he called them all up, and politely referred them to his competitors. His competitors, who were maybe not doing as well as he, were thrilled to receive the new customers. Meanwhile, he freed up most of his time, which he then used to try and find new, higher-quality customers.

Sometimes it works. If you are in a mature enough industry, and you are really good at what you do, you can actually pull this off.

It seems to me that this is the strategy that GarageGames is taking now.

GarageGames appeared on the scene when "indie" wasn't even in folks' vocabulary. Scarily enough, that wasn't very long ago. As the story goes, a bunch of former Dynamix folks got together to buy their old engine - the one used to make Tribes 2 - back from their former overlords. They had a big hairy audacious goal of taking this full-on, hardcore, commercial game engine and distributing it to the masses. What sort of amazing things could be done when this much power got into the hands of the hobbyists, the mod-makers, and dreamers of the world? They could sell it for so little that any 14-year-old could buy it for the price of a couple of weekends of mowing lawns. Plus GarageGames could turn around and publish these awesome homebrewed games.

From my own speculation, the reality fell a little short of their expectations. From their perspective, they were providing an extremely powerful, commercial game engine for peanuts. From the perspective of a 14-year-old with a lawn-mowing job and a dream of making the next Halo, they'd just spent a ton of money on a codebase that was buggy, confusing, and poorly documented. What were they supposed to do with THIS????

Having worked in the video game business for several years, I feel this pretty much describes every in-house engine ever created. In fact, it describes quite a few third-party engines too. There's a big difference between that kind of software and what the average consumer expects to install on their PC. GarageGames spent years trying to bridge this gulf. I think that did a pretty admirable job overall, particularly with their later products. Though mucking about under the hood of their flagship engine has always been a pain in the butt for me.

I'm sure that, like the aforementioned business, there was a segment of the customer base that represented a significant chunk of time for the GG crew. The inexperienced hobbyist, tinkerer, or student demands a great deal more time than the quietly laboring professional, I'd imagine.

And so perhaps GarageGames is hoping to "fire" those "lower quality" customers with the next generation 3D game engine. The new licensing and pricing came out last week, and the new Torque 3D engine is being sold for ten times what the old "TGE" (or, prior to that, "V12") engine used to run for. In my opinion, a thousand bucks is a bit pricey for anybody who is not committed to commercial products. With that kind of skin in the game, you'll want a return on investment, and enough experience to be confident about obtaining it.

That, or you are richer than I am.

There is a cheaper option for the hobbyists, tinkerers, and students - a feature-crippled version with no source code (and limited customer support) is available for $250. That's back within the realm of reason for newbies - though unless the base engine is a heck of a lot more flexible than TGE ever was, I do not feel that this offers much potential.

But to sweeten the pot a bit more, they are discounting it now for pre-orders and existing TGEA owners now for the full-fledged "indie" license:

Read the Licensing Announcement Here

My thoughts? I've been a fan of the company for years, but more for what they were trying to do than on the merits of their engine or development efforts. Their formerly flagship product, the Torque Game Engine, has been the bane of my existence sometimes. It provides a lot of really cool features as part of the package, but sometimes working with it can be a nightmare. Documentation was always spotty, though they really improved things with their 2D engine, the Torque Game Builder.

And the company isn't the same company as the one that released TGE. Another company has a significant investment stake in them now. The leadership is a different crew, and this is an all-new engine (built upon existing tech, I'm sure, but they are really trying to bill it as being different and new). So I can't use their former products as a yardstick to measure them by, or their former corporate culture.

So, as far as I'm concerned, they are back to square one - new company, upcoming engine. And they have to compete with a buttload of 3D game engines now available. I can't say I'm thrilled with the pricing decision - as a customer, I have a tough time seeing a steep increase in cost as a positive thing, particularly when the benefits are unproven. I'll be the last one to say that a thousand bucks is "overpriced" for a reasonably state-of-the-art 3D game engine, but they aren't the only game in town. And I'm still slogging along with older tech because it works. Kinda. And should work on the older systems of my customer base.

I HOPE - but I'm in no position to judge - that this focus on sort of an "upscale indie" pricing means that this new engine is going to reach unprecedented levels of both functionality and ease-of-use for the new engine. And if it achieves this, I may mow a few extra lawns myself to pick up an indie license for the new engine. As far as I know, I could be saving myself hundreds of hours of effort and frustration by upgrading to it right now (well, when the beta is released), instead of continuing along with their creaky older tech.

I wish them the best, and I'm still a nominal fan of their 2D engine, but I'm taking a "wait and see" attitude towards this new engine. I don't think GarageGames' track record - both good and bad - has much bearing on the new technology. But - if you have faith in their plans and promises - and you are serious about creating commercial-grade indie 3D games - the pre-order discount is pretty compelling.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009
 
Jeff Vogel: More On Indie RPG Sales
As promised, Jeff Vogel returns with more on making (and selling) his ever popular indie RPGs - specifically Geneforge 4.

An excerpt:
'And here's the sad truth. Suppose I spent a bunch of money, busted my hump, and wrote a game with graphics as good as, say, Eschalon. Then people who really care about graphics wouldn't look at my game and go, "Wow! He's really doing good now!" They'd go, "His graphics suck. They haven't improved at all." And then they'd go play Fallout 3.'
He follows up by saying, "And, once again, I make good money overall. So who knows? Maybe I'm onto something. After all, I'm more profitable than Electronic Arts right now."

He also talks about how he prices his games - why they cost $28 instead of $10. And the advantage of owning your own intellectual property (HUGE!!! New game developers, do not underestimate this!), and oodles of straight-talkin' goodness.

Now, I guess many gamers could not care less about what goes on to make these games. I'm kinda weird that way. Even before I became a professional game developer, I was hooked on "behind the scenes" views like this (often found in the pages of Computer Gaming World back in the early 90's). I guess not everyone likes to peek into the sausage factory to see how their food is made. But I'll keep sharing what I find for those weirdos like me who find the process almost as fascinating as the game itself.

Incidentally, I am also one of those strange people who actually listen to the DVD commentary track of my favorite movies, and Almost Famous is one of them... That might explain a lot.

Anyway, here you go:

The Bottom Feeder: How Many Games I Sell, Part Two

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Monday, March 23, 2009
 
Scorpia Reviews Geneforge 5
Just 'cuz, you know, she's Scorpia. And Geneforge 5 is indie. And an RPG. And... stuff.

See what she thinks about the final chapter of this long-running indie RPG sereis:

Scorpia's Review of Geneforge 5.

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3 Stars of Destiny Now Available from Rampant Games
3 Stars of Destiny is the latest RPG from veteran indie developer Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games. It's a prequel of sorts to the Laxius series (culminating - at least so far - with Aldorlea's previous game, Laxius Force). It takes place before Random, Sarah, and the other (massive) list of characters from the earlier games have met.

An evil god has discovered that three young mortal souls possess a divine energy which, if brought together, could provide him with sustenance. Gods have these appetites, you know? Unfortunately, there's something of a "no trespassing" sign around the mortal world, preventing the god from just swooping in, grabbing the three youths, and chowing down. Instead, he has to use subtle manipulation to bring them together to a place where they will be vulnerable.

3 Stars of Destiny is another jRPG-style game developed with the popular RPG Maker engine, invoking the look and feel of classic 16-bit console era RPGs. But with nicer graphics. It is the most polished of Aldorlea's games to date. As is typical for their games - and something of a departure from typical jRPGs (Japanese-style RPGs) - the world is large and more open-ended, and the dialog and storyline are comparatively more compact.

You'll spend a lot of your time exploring - which is a big part of design. There are plenty of secrets hidden throughout the game, awaiting discovery. The full version features ten playable characters that can join your party, and over 50 quests. Yes, it's a big game. You'll be busy playing it for a while.

Unfortunately, RPG Maker titles are only (currently) available for Windows systems (we won't talk about the console versions here...) - the Mac isn't currently supported. And there are some idiosynchracies of RPG Maker - based games that take some getting used to - such as lack of mouse support (unless the developer has taken pains to add that support, as with Aveyond 2).

I haven't finished playing this one yet. Be advised that the developer is not a native English speaker, so occasionally the translations come out... well, about like translations of many of the old 16-bit era console RPGs. Also, previous games in the Laxius series have had dialog that is inappropriate for younger players, so parents should be advised not to make assumptions based on cute graphics.

What's funny - for me - is that at heart I'm a western-style computer RPG fan. I pretty much missed the whole 16-bit console jRPG thing - my first exposure to that style of RPG was a Zelda game on a borrowed SNES and Suikoden on the 32-bit Sony Playstation. I'd been snobbish about them up until then. Sure, I heard people talking about the wonders of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, but I was all about the Ultimas and "Gold Box" D&D games, Eye of the Beholder 2, the Wizardry games (not that I ever finished 'em), and so forth. I was amazed to find I actually had a taste for both styles of RPGs. Not everyone does. So I had to go back and make up for lost time.

I'm pleased to see the tradition continuing with games like 3 Stars of Destiny. The style may be old-school, but the creators are new, many of the ideas are new, and they bring their own personality and style to the mix.

You can try it out yourself and see what you think with the free demo:

Download 3 Stars of Destiny at Rampant Games

As always - HAVE FUN!

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Friday, March 20, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Call Me Imbalanced
Here is the latest updates on the development of Frayed Knights, the comedic indie RPG in development at Rampant Games:

One of the frustrating-but-cool things about focusing on a later chapter of Frayed Knights right now is that it's forcing me to worry about the higher-level game. This means focusing on leveling up, higher-level powers, and spells.

And here's where I run into some issues.

Being Imbalanced and Breaking the Rules
The easiest handle spells and power balancing is to work on a sliding scale. Level 1 powers to 1 die of damage - level 2 powers do 2 dice of damage, level 3 powers do 3 dice of damage, etc. It works. It's safe. It's easy to balance. And it's boring.

More interesting is, say, a spell that causes another spellcaster to sneeze as he's casting his next spell, which has a chance of causing the spell to fail, backfire, or to randomly become some other spell as its cast.

More interesting? Definitely. More fun? Maybe. I'm not sure yet. But how do you balance something like that? How does it compare to a fireball which should do an average of 20% damage to any number of opponents of approximately the same level?

And does it really matter? In an MMORPG, of course, balance is everything. Players will complain bitterly at any perceived imbalance, as it directly effects the "fairness" of the game for them. Obviously this is true in PvP combat. But it is also an issue in the ostensibly cooperative, massively-multiplayer game worlds. It's an issue with pickup groups - a member of a less desirable class can find themselves reliving their most humiliating elementary school experiences as they watch everyone else get chosen for groups ahead of them. Players are concerned about the survivability of their characters in a harsh, unfriendly environment that was designed to be a challenge for someone more powerful than them. There element of competition may not be as direct as it is in PvP, but it is still there, under the surface, permeating every aspect of the design.

I've heard it argued that in smaller, cooperative roleplaying games - the type of environment Frayed Knights is attempting to emulate - balance is not only less important, but actually runs counter to what makes the game fun. What is important is not making sure that everybody is approximately equal in mathematical equation in points-per-second or points-per-round, but that every player has an equal opportunity to shine. You don't want a homogenized, approximately equal group of characters (or of powers) - you want a wildly varying group that somehow compliments each other.

After some consideration, I'm inclined to agree with that argument.

Granted, you don't want any one character class or power or spell to be so imbalanced that it hogs the spotlight, or becomes overused because it is clearly superior to all other choices. But within those broad guidelines, the design rule I'm trying to follow for Frayed Knights is this:

1. Balance is Boring! Imbalance (within reason) keeps things interesting and fun.

Then there's another aspect of the higher-level game that gives me a headache. Another design rule I'm trying to follow, as painful as it is:

2. Cool, fun abilities (be they from feats, powers, skills, magic items, or whatever) break the rules.

What sucks is, as a programmer, following the rules is easy. Breaking the rules means a lot of extra work. Giving a sword a +1 bonus to damage is freakin' trivial. Giving a sword a +100 bonus to damage is just as trivial. It follows the rules, and just adds a modifier to the math. No harm, no foul.

Creating a sword that can summon a genie after it is soaked with enough blood, or that can sing showtunes on demand, or can do any number of non-swordly effects... that's a pain.

But which sword is more interesting? Which is more fun? Maybe in an MMO, it's all about the Damage Per Second (for some players) - but outside of that competitive environment, it's more fun to have something that gives you new options, or something that's just cool and unique. Something that goes outside the boundaries and breaks the rules.

Fun for the player. Not so fun for me. That complicates code. Time for me to grow more imbalanced...

Progress Report
We are slowly cranking along here on the Mournhold stuff for the next Utah Indie Night, scheduled for April 30th.

Kevin's been furiously building the vampire's castle. It's still very early, and he'll probably be mad at me posting the image here, but here's what we've got so far.

Mike's been working on a theme for the village - it's just a guitar line right now, but he's expanding on it.

We've got the concept artist working on artwork for the vampire and his mistress. We'll see how those look soon.

As for me - my goal (before discovering how crazy this week would be with the day job and a family matters) was to get the first five minutes of this chapter working before Monday. I'm still working on that goal, but I'd say it's pretty high-risk right now. I mean, yeah, I could slap something together in a couple of hours with the existing code and everything... but at this point, we're pushing for stuff of final-product quality. I'd rather have it unfinished than throw-away.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009
 
Kivi's Underworld
I've been inundated with games lately.

As far as problems are concerned, this one ranks high on the list of the kinds of problems I like to have. Now if only I could have the "I have too much money," and the "I've lost so much weight I have to buy a whole new wardrobe" problems...

But it does mean I'm a little on the slow side, and I have been missing out.

One gem I played a bit of over the last... er, month.... has been Kivi's Underworld. This game is by Stephen Peeler of Soldak Entertainment, makers of the brilliantly cool (and quite hardcore) strategy-RPG Depths of Peril.

Kivi's Underworld uses a more polished version of the engine that powers Depths of Peril. Like Soldak's flagship title, Kivi's Underworld departs from the traditional even more than it's predecessor - but in a completely opposite direction. Whereas Depths of Peril took the straightforward action RPG and loaded it up with a bunch of extra-juicy additional depth (and, admittedly, complexity) for the benefit of hardcore niche gamers like me who really wanted something more out of a Diablo-esque game, Kivi's Underworld instead simplifies the experience down to its barest, most entertaining essentials.

I had a tough time assigning it a genre. Soldak refers to it as a "casual hack & slash game," only throwing the "RPG" term in with a bunch of additional descriptors. Actually, by my own personal taxonomy, I call it an RPG. Barely. Steven is a bit more of a traditionalist than I am, I guess.

Story-wise, Kivi's Underworld deals with a lumen warrior / miner named - coincidentally - Kivi. Kivi, the sole survivor of a mining accident, has learned of a pending dark-elf invasion into lumen lands. But in spite of the mounting evidence, his people don't believe him, claiming that dark elves and their monstrous allies are but a myth. So it is upon Kivi and his growing band of allies to prove the threat is real, and to find the forgotten city of Defiance, built long ago as a protection should the dark elves attack again.

Kivi's Underworld is fairly linear, broken up into a series of missions with a storyline between them. The missions take about ten to fifteen minutes each to complete, which makes it very easy to play this game in a short period of time. Missions have certain objectives (which can change) that must be fulfilled in order to exit. And, like Las Vegas, what happens in a mission pretty much stays in the mission. Aside from using bonus points gained in the mission to level up faster, all "pickups" (they don't really count as equipment) found during the mission are left behind.

There's very little in the way of inventory management - all you have to do is "use 'em or lose 'em" with your three pickup slots. There are also passive upgrades to your weapons and armor you can pick up. Leveling up characters is easy (but does allow some customization). Every character class has only one special power to worry about, and you can go back through previous missions with other characters as you recruit them.

The best way to describe the gameplay of Kivi's Underworld would be to say, "Kinda like Diablo, only simpler and more casual-friendly." The interface is simple. The game is simple - but that's not the same as "easy." There have been several times I've found my mad action-RPG gamer skillz being tested and bested. Usually because I was stupid, got overly-aggressive, and found myself with a swarm of monsters on one side of me, and a trap on the other, thinking, "I can take 'em."

So I'm actually more of a hardcore RPG fan. I appreciate the idea of having a much simpler, straightforward RPG for newcomers to our favorite game genre. A gateway drug, if I can be so crass. Kivi's Underworld fills the bill nicely - it's pretty, its fun, it's simple - a great little RPG that feels a little less "cutsey" than, say, Fate.

But what does Kivi's Underworld have for a guy like me, a hardcore RPG fan who, rather than doodling during geometry lectures in High School, created mathematically balanced Champions characters using memorized point-values for powers, limitations, and disadvantages? Am I the target audience for Kivi's Underworld? Well, the answer to the latter question is only "maybe," but the answer to the first one is, surprisingly, "plenty."

I enjoy a quick game of Gauntlet Legends or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on my consoles at home, or a few rounds of Kid Mystic. Kivi's Underworld falls somewhere in that same scope (though I think it is a bit more intellectually stimulating than Gauntlet...). It's pared down the RPG formula to its bare essentials, but the essentials are dang fun. For the faithful, it's a "Beer and Pretzels" kinda game. Brian candy. RPG Snack Food. Good fun when you need to scratch the itch.

For the less experienced in the genre, Kivi's Underworld is a solid, entertaining introduction. With some decisions required for leveling up between missions, choice of characters, secrets, trophies, tactical decisions, exploration, some resource management, and so forth, there's plenty of "meat" there to sink one's teeth into, but not so much that the player will get overwhelmed by the details their more experienced peers take for granted.

If you absolutely hate action-RPGs, this game might not be for you. Timing of movements and attacks is critical to success, especially when you've got a trap launching fireballs in a predictable pattern next to you and a swarm of zombies coming at you through the door on the opposite wall. Still, survival and success also depend on your character - taking advantage of his strengths, and managing the random range for chances of hitting and damage-dealing. It is not an arcade game, either.

Now, let's be honest. I really would have preferred a sequel to Depths of Peril, which remains one of my favorite indie RPGs. But that's me. That particular game intimidated the hell outta some people - which I understand (I feel overwhelmed by Dwarf Fortress, personally). But I can't argue with the results. Kivi's Underworld may be more lightweight fare, but I have to admit that I've had a lot of fun playing it. Soldak has once again proven that they can twist the concept of an RPG around and make something very cool out of it.

Just... maybe we can have a DoP sequel someday? Pretty-please?

Anyway - in the better late than never category, I've made Kivi's Underworld available from the Rampant Games main website. If you haven't tried it already, here's your chance. Hey, the downloadable demo is free, and it's my belief that it is worthy of your valuable time to try out.

Try Kivi's Underworld

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
 
Jeff Vogel Casts "Dispel Illusions" On Indie RPG Sales Numbers
I posted this earlier in the forums, but I figured I'd throw my commentary around. Spiderweb Software is perhaps the most well-known indie RPG developer out there, as Jeff Vogel has been at it since ... well, since people were still talking about Doom. That's a lot of experience, and a lot of market share. He's not the typical indie developer.

This week, he's gone out on a limb to post actual hard numbers about costs and sales for what he considers a pretty representative "average" game for his tiny company. He chose Geneforge 4, as it had numbers that were easily tracked, and represented a pretty average game for his company. Next week, he'll discuss it in more detail, but here's his report on the game:

"So Here's How Many Games I Sell" at The Bottom Feeder

I recommend reading it even if you have no intention of developing games. Unless you really, really don't want to peek inside the sausage factory for fear of losing your appetite.

I think if you have an image of indie game development as some kind of a miniature rock-star path - the equivalent of playing the club scene until you get "discovered" and start making millions - this might be a little damaging to your worldview.

The bottom line: The game cost $120,000 to make, including the cost of printing hint manuals, contractors for art, and a salary for three full-time employees (though not all three were working on this project specifically the whole time). That's pretty modest returns. Now, a year after the release of the PC port, the game has made about $117,000 back - including the sales of the hint book. So it's squeaking in at about $3000 short of breaking even.

It has sold less than 4,000 copies.

By comparison - a game selling less than 400,000 copies in the mainstream, triple-A game world is often considered a failure. But then, their budgets are often about 5x - 10x what Jeff has, and they probably make less profit per unit after considering the retailer's profit margin, the distribution costs, reproduction costs, etc.

Jeff notes that while he hasn't tracked piracy, he has plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is very high. Into the tens of thousands. Far more people play pirated versions of his games than pay for them. Which, unfortunately, seems to be pretty consistent across ALL games - indie or mainstream, DRMed or non-DRMed. Pirates are indiscriminate, and they outnumber honest people by a gigantic margin.

Dirtbags.

But in spite of all that - he's managed to make a sustainable business out of it. I'm sure he still makes a trickle of sales each month for the first three Avernum games. Building a sustainable business like this is a success all by itself.

And that's the really unsexy, non-rock-star thing about indie game development (well, mainstream development, too). It's a business. It's about building a business. It requires a lot of work and effort put into non-game-making stuff to make it a business. And oftentimes, it's a business that doesn't pay all that well.

I really appreciate Jeff's candor in presenting a solid data-point of reality to help people understand the industry and dispelling certain illusions. Here's hoping the indie RPG biz remains profitable enough that Jeff and the other folks at Spiderweb can keep making games for us to enjoy!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, March 17, 2009
Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

I haven't done one of these Indie RPG News roundups in too long, and it's not because there's been a lack of indie RPG news. I just suck. But here I am, trying to make up for lost time.

Aveyond 3: Lord of Twilight
The third episode of the very popular Aveyond series is now in late development, with an expected release in May. This one stars a thief (I love it already), and involves vampires. According to designer Amanda Fitch, this is the longest and the darkest game she's developed to date. The Aveyond games have never seemed particularly dark to me. I mean, okay - getting sold into slavery in the first game isn't exactly fluffy and cute material, though it was treated with a delicately light hand.

I can't tell you how excited I am to check this one out in a couple of months. Aveyond 2 was wonderful, a game I devoured inside of two weeks, and clearly a worthy sequel to the best-selling original. Hopefully Aveyond 3: Lord of Twilight will continue this trend.

Age of Decadence
Here's an interview with Vince D. Weller at Resolution Magazine.

As usual, he lays it on the line with his usual flair. An excerpt:
"Being an RPG junkie, I've experienced it all, loved it all at some point, but now I want something more than killing monsters and watching "awesome" cinematics. I want to be able to decide what to do, when to do, and why. I want to decide, not to be told, who my allies and enemies are... I'd compare it to child's development. A child starts reading kids' books, then teens' books, and then finally progresses to a more serious literature, even if it's sci-fi or fantasy. Well, the problem with the gaming industry is that it keeps producing games that are suitable for the 8-12 age group."
Eschalon: Book II
Here's Sneak Peak #2 of Eschalon: Book II at RPGVault.

Colony of Gamers has an interview which is even more revealing. The happy news for me is that the food and water requirements are now optional for your character. While it's very old-school, there have only been a couple of games where I thought it provided a good addition to the game.

Dire Desire
This one is an older, 3D RPG developed during a six-month period by a student team about two-and-a-half years ago. It was recently released as an open-source project. If you want to play it, or tear it apart and see how it was made, you can check it out on its sourceforge archive:
Download Dire Desire


3 Stars of Destiny
Ah, it's always nice to talk about indie RPGs that are actually out now and available for download!

By the prolific creator of Laxius Force, 3 Stars of Destiny is a new RPG that features dozens of hours of gameplay, 50 unique quests, and lots of secrets. The game concerns the machinations of an evil god to obtain the "3 stars" - three young people who, between them, possess an "unusual energy."

This is French RPG designer Indinera Falls' seventh RPG. You may recall the interview with him back in November after the release of Laxius Force. As usual for Aldorlea Games' latest releases, the world and cast are extensive. 3 Stars of Destiny also offers three difficulty levels and lets you select the monster encounter rate, so you can customize the experience to your skill and / or patience level.

Download 3 Stars of Destiny


Heritage
Heritage is the announced title of newly-formed Macguffin Games, formed by Scott Macmillan. According to Scott, "Heritage is a hybrid RPG / strategy game that jettisons inventory management and meaningless busy-work in order to focus on epic scale storytelling. In Heritage, you will be responsible for guiding the heroes of this noble house through several generations in their quest to finally bring an end to their foe and allow their return to the sea."

What??? No inventory management? But where will I put my potions of healing? :)

Sounds like an interesting project indeed. I'm looking forward to it!

Science Girls (Update)
This was announced in, among other places, the Rampant Games forums back in December. And I spaced it here - sorry! Spiky Caterpillar Games - in conjunction with Hanako Games by some cool indie relationship that I'm hoping will be explained to me soon - is working on this anime-style RPG entitled "Science Girls." The Caterpillar seems most knowledgeable on the theory of RPG design and classic jRPGs, so it sounds like a very cool labor of love.

Details will be forthcoming, but alpha testing has already begin. You can visit the preview page now at Hanako Games:

Science Girls Teaser Page at Hanako Games

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Monday, March 16, 2009
 
"Sci Fi" sounds too much like those geeks we can't stand...
Not specifically game-related, but this has me fuming:

Sci-Fi Channel Aims to Shed Geeky Image With New Name

How concerning is it when the executives of a company are embarrassed about the company's product, and resort to narrow, unflattering stereotyping to describe their core audience?

A quote from a "TV Historian": “The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular.” Uh-huh. Yeah. Dude, you are a freaking "TV Historian," and you are calling other people out for being geeks?

And yeah, only dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements play video games. Sheesh! That wasn't even close to true in the 1980s.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but it seems to me that the new name, "Syfy"could only be considered cool and hip by an aging executive or a desperate marketing consultant.

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Joseph Liberman Takes the Helm of GameTunnel.com
I was wondering what would happen to long-time indie review site GameTunnel.com when Reflexive Entertainment, the employers of site founder Russell Carroll, were bought out by online retailing powerhouse Amazon.com.

Apparently, it was sold to Joseph Lieberman. Not the game-hatin' senator, but the indie game marketing guy, author of The Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games. Joseph is a real smart guy with tons of passion for indie games. Oh, and he's a big RPG fan too --- indie, mainstream, and dice-and-paper. I chatted with him briefly about the change, and he's very excited about the potential for the site, and committed to offering much more regular content updates, reviews every week, and so forth.

Game Tunnel was one of the very first websites devoted to indie gaming. I am friends with Russell and appreciate the effort he put into the site and to promoting indie games. And I am friends with Joseph, who worked with me on Void War, and I have a great deal of respect for what he does and what he brings to the table.

I'm hopin' for the best for the new, improved GameTunnel.com. It may no longer be the only game in town as far as indie games are concerned, but I think we can use its voice again.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009
 
Playing Telengard - Again.
Strangely enough, with all these wonderful games that I need to finish, what am I finding myself playing? This thing:

It's a near-perfect remake of Telengard, an old C-64 game... one of the first CRPGs I ever played. The guy who did the remake went on to worth on the indie RPG Fate.

I've talked about this game before. It was the original "mega-dungeon" game, differing from "modern retro" titles like Nethack in that the dungeon layout is the same every game - all two million procedurally generated rooms of it. Everything ELSE about the game is as random as you could ask for. Most of the "skill" required in playing this game was relegated to having good risk-assessment skills. And mapping skills. At least, that was the case after about level 3 or 4. Up until then, a random encounter with a demon or dragon and a botched Evade would mean game-over.

For some bizarro reason, I felt like playing it again. And I found that you could save the game in the middle of the dungeon (at least in this remake - I don't remember about the original). Reloading a saved game takes seconds instead of minutes on a modern PC, which makes the game a LOT easier to plow through.

As you can tell if you look closely at the screenshot, you can see I tweaked my savegame file at level 1 to beef up some stats to 18... not that I know they do anything. Some of the other stats were increased via fountains, like Charisma - which does seem to have a minor effect on increasing the chance that monsters may like me and heal me or give me things. There were also some other slots for the bonus for swords & stuff, but I decided to play it straight. Apparently, high stats don't save you from a zillion bloody deaths in this game.

When I was a kid playing this game on my C-64, I never made it too far. One bad encounter with a teleporter room to whisk me down to level 30 or something, and I was toast. But I was always curious if there was anything different about level 50 than level 2. Besides no more stairs or pits leading down. I spent some time looking over the game's code (it was written in BASIC with some machine language subroutines), but never found anything. No big goal or anything.

Replaying it on the PC with the advantage of mid-game saving and easy, fast reloading, what took me weeks on my C-64 at age thirteen or fourteen could now be accomplished in just a few hours. Sitting on a throne has a chance of increasing or decreasing your level (about an equal chance of either, plus a chance of doing nothing, or teleporting you to a random location). So I'd save the game after a level-up, and restore after a level-down. A half hour of this saw my dude up to 22nd level. Another level-raise saw my experience points wrap around into negative number space, so I guess I'm about as high level as I'm gonna get.

So I proceeded to find a way down to the lower levels of the dungeon - and got my clock cleaned. Repeatedly. The key is to acquire the most powerful magic items. Otherwise, the critters down on the lower levels will do more damage than you have hit points in a single hit. I've had traps go off on treasure that killed me instantly!

The nice thing about this game is that without anything by way of a plot, story, or quests, it's something you can just play for ten or fifteen minutes and make some progress, without expending any more brain-cell energy than you would in a game of Solitaire. Which is exactly how I play it.

If you want to really cook your neurons a bit, here's a listing of the source code in BASIC for the entire game. I think the combat system alone in Frayed Knights is twice as big as this entire game. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing:

TelengardListing.txt

Warning: There isn't much by way of comments in this file. See, in the old days with interpreted languages like BASIC, comments consumed both precious processing cycles AND limited memory space.

There's an annotated listing available from AtariHQ by Dan Boris which might be even more valuable for an aspiring game developer wondering how in the heck something like this could be fit in 32K of RAM (which is, I think, significantly smaller than the screenshot above uses).

Telengard Code Plus Comments and Tables

Hmmm... that's what the world needs more of today: Gigantic, web-based, multiplayer MEGA-DUNGEONS. I'm sure we've got a few of them out there, don't we?

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Friday, March 13, 2009
 
Utah Bill a Setback for Parents, Retailers
Utah HB 353 passed overwhelmingly last night - a bill which, as far as I can figure - is nothing more than a stimulus package for down-on-their-luck lawsuit attorneys. It punishes any store (or, with senate additions, internet site - potentially like this one) that tries to do the right thing. Which to me, means: "Don't expose yourself to liability by trying to do the right thing." Or if you try, don't commit to it in public in any way, shape, or form.

Sounds like it made for cheap "family values" points for politicians who are tilting at windmills trying to fix something that isn't broken. And it sounds like what it will really accomplish is the opposite of its stated intention.

The bill was penned in part by disbarred lawyer and general whack-job activist Jack Thompson, and apparently our brilliant politicians decided to regurgitate his self-serving, fact-deficient hyperbole as arguments during the proceedings.

While El Whack Job insists that companies can't "opt out" of even the vaguest commitments now that the underlying rules have changed beneath them. I guess they found that suspending the Constitution for this medium was too challenging, so we've now got this new backdoor for trial lawyers looking to make a buck, and when "open season" gets declared it's not about the facts - it's about dealing with the legal fees to defend yourself.

In all honesty, I don't know if, when this gets signed into law, anything will ever happen directly. It's stupid, useless, and weak, but it's really a set-up for future legislation. I actually suspect that it's real intent is to punish those who attempt to do the right thing as a set-up for future legislation in a few years that will take retailers to task for not doing the right thing. Sorta like stealing a knife, stabbing yourself with it, and then suing the person from whom you stole the knife for the injury.

Reminder: Rampant Games' official policy is... to not have a policy regarding age. Ambulance chasers and corrupt (or stupid) politicians have warped what should have been a valuable tool for parents into a disease-ridden bag of political poop, and I won't be party to it.

Nor will I be voting for my current state representatives when they run for re-election.

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Reminder: Eschalon Book 1 Sale Ending!
Just a reminder - the sale for Eschalon: Book 1 ends on the 15th - that's this Sunday.

If you haven't tried it, Basilisk Games' excellent "Eschalon: Book 1" is a wonderful return to "old school" role-playing for the PC. It's old-school, it's hard-core, and it's a lot of fun. And - for a few more days - it's available ON SALE for 20% off! But only until March 15, so you have to move quickly!
Here's what you do. First of all - download the free demo and make sure it works on your system and make sure you want to play it:
Download Eschalon: Book 1 (PC, Linux, or MacIntosh Versions)
From within the game, you can go directly to the order form. That's really how I'd recommend doing it. I want you to make sure the game runs properly on the system, and that it's a game you really want to play. It may be awesome, but Eschalon: Book 1 isn't for everybody.

However, if you really want to, you can go through these links to order it directly:
Eschalon: Book 1 (PC Version)
Eschalon: Book 1 (Mac Version)
Eschalon: Book 1 (Linux Version)
IMPORTANT: Underneath the quantity section of the order page, there's a space for an optional COUPON CODE. Enter the following code exactly (your best bet is just to copy and paste it in):
BOOK1RAMP
And click on the "Recalculate" button.
This should get you the 20% discount, but you only have until March 15th - so act quickly!

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Thursday, March 12, 2009
 
Now Playing: Persona 4
A couple of weeks ago, I started playing Persona 4. As you may remember, I was really impressed with Persona 3. In an era where the most recent Final Fantasy game felt awfully stale (yet expensively so), Persona 3 showed a surprising amount of innovation. Maybe it's just because I'm not fully caught up on jRPGs lately, but I was impressed.

Interestingly enough, Persona 4 doesn't seem to try to push the graphical bar much. Instead, it is focused on - *GASP* - improving the gameplay, and giving the player more interesting decisions. I'm stunned. Do developers still DO that? That is just so.... 1990's.

Story-wise, it's not quite as compelling as the previous game for me. But the dialog seems slightly better written - though still often erring on the side of cute & silly, when it's not head-scratchingly translated. The storyline isn't quite so dark as Persona 3, which is neither good nor bad. Just different.

Once again, you are a transferring high school student in a new town. Where Persona 3 thrust you into what felt like an existing, secret war that you only barely understood at first, Persona 4 starts with a murder mystery. A TV news anchor, the center of a scandal involving her affair with a political figure (and husband to a famous singer), has fled to the small country town of Inaba - coincidentally, at the same place and time as the player character - to get out of the media limelight. Whereupon, she mysteriously vanishes. On a foggy morning several days later, she turns up dead - hanging upside-down from a TV antenna. A few days later, a high school senior - the girl who discovered the body - disappears. Her body is found during the next big fog in the same way.

During this time, a rumor begins to spread among the youth of Inaba about the "midnight channel." If you stare into a turned-off television at midnight on a rainy night, they say, you will see the face of your soul-mate. An experiment among the player character and his newfound friends reveals that this is a partial truth - it is not the viewer's soul-mate that is found, but the image (initially fuzzy and distorted) of the next person to be kidnapped and murdered.

But more importantly - the player character discovers, quite by accident, that he has another power - to enter through the TV screeen into this alternate dimension where the "midnight channel" is airing. And to take others with him. The initial experiments are quite amusing, involving smaller TV screens, and an alarming discovery by a distressed friend that there are no bathrooms in this mysterious world. (Though, apparently, there can be bath HOUSES).

Naturally, the alternate world is filled with monstrous, deadly "shadows." Those who are kidnapped and thrown into this world come face-to-face with the darker side of their personality. As the weather changes in the "real world," their dark-side personality - which has the potential to become a magic-using Persona - will turn on their original counterpart and kill them.

Strangely, this alter-ego persona that first appears on the midnight channel - before their "original" disappears. Somebody else (apparently) - with the same power as the player character - is throwing these people into the TV world to kill them.

I'm personally just amused by having the intrepid adventurers meet in the food court of the new mall / department store prior to entering deadly dungeons and facing tons of horrible (or just plain WEIRD) monsters in mortal combat. (They do this because there's a big-screen TV on display in the electronics department that's easier to enter as a group). The adventurers also learn very quickly the importance of concealing their weaponry prior to entering the dungeon when the small-town police department is frantically searching for a serial killer.

Persona 4 is so far taking the "social link" mechanic of Persona 3 to a new level. In particular, you have the ability to improve social links with your fellow team-mates, which not only improves your ability to fuse more powerful Personas, but also gives them additional abilities in combat. In particular, an early improvement is that they may intercept an otherwise mortal blow intended for you. While I'd consider that something that would make more sense with a much higher social link level, it really helps even out the difficulty level - as the game is over when you are "killed," but the other team members are merely knocked unconscious and can be revived.

There also seems to be a lot more things to do outside of adventuring in the dungeons of the TV world. You have more characteristics to improve upon than in the previous game - which seem to have greater impact on what you can do and say. Actions you take - like attending club meetings - may affect your characteristics as well as improving social links (or providing you with extra cash, if you take on a part-time job). At least so far, the choices seem to abound, either regularly scheduled or randomly appearing. And it's never entirely certain where they will lead. One night, I just happened to find something iffy inside the refridgerator. Eating it raised my Courage, but also left me feeling unwell - requiring me to cancel any other evening plans and go straight to bed.

Players also no longer have to cope with long-term fatigue. There are enough other time-management elements to the game that I could see this being an unnecessary and unwanted aspect of the game to manage this time around.

Oh, and this time around, the characters no longer shoot themselves in the head with pistol-like evokers. It's still nowhere close to suitable for younger audiences, although the violence is fairly cartoony and lacking in blood. The language can get harsh, and it deals with adult situations, including (so far) issues of sex, murder, and homosexuality. In spite of being about high school students, it earns its "M" rating.

Again - it's not hooked me in like Persona 3 did, though the characters and story are really staring to grow on me. At least - for now - I'm still able to maintain the discipline to only play it for a few minutes to an hour. Usually.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
 
Old Jeff Vogel Had a Blog.... E I E I O....
Jeff Vogel, of Spiderweb Software, maker of retro indie RPGs, now has a blog. I hesitate to mention this, because it will probably prove to be far more entertaining than my own.

But in the interest of community service (the kind not ordered by the judge), here ya go:

The Bottom Feeder


(Hat tip to RPGWatch for the tip)

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Indie Paths To Fortune And Glory? Not So Easy.
Six Months.
$32,000.
Solid Reviews.
Innovation within a popular genre.
A coveted, positive review on Kotaku.
And of course, a relatively new platform - the iPhone, where the streets are paved with gold and you hear stories of developers turned millionaires overnight.

Total return on investment: $535.19

I'd call this an unsustainable business venture. Serious suckage. And as I Whine About Games points out, an excuse for pirates to rip off the software. Since pretty much anything is an excuse for them to rip off the software.

Granted, the story's not over yet. But since people like to ask, "How much does the average indie game make?" and "Can't you make a lot of money writing games for the iPhone?", I figured this is a useful data point.

And it's also a spectacularly unsurprising one, for anyone familiar with console development. The first "generation" of games for what proves to be successful console tends to do very well. The second generation often does just as well, or even better - due to an increased install base. Around the third generation of software, things start maturing, the venue gets crowded, and the streets seem less and less paved with gold. Near the end of the lifecycle of the platform, game sales begin to resemble...

Uh, they actually resemble PC game market. Shock! Horror!

Jeff Tunnell, an experienced vet in both indie and mainstream game development ranging all the way back to when the "platform wars" meant Atari vs. Apple vs. Commodore, has this to say about the challenges facing iPhone game development.

And on an almost unrelated front, we have GamePro - one of the few remaining (and thriving) print gaming magazines - getting into the publishing business. Dubbed GamePro Labs, they are taking on the role (theoretically) of marketing and publishing low-budget, indie titles for iPhone (there's my connection), PC, XBox 360, and even the Zune.

But the question has to be asked - and has been (see the comments) - what value-add will GamePro Labs really offer for indies? This is an important question for all "indie" publishers (and there are quite a few out there). The idea is that you can focus on what you love / enjoy best... cranking out the games... and let them worry about marketing and sales. You just collect the royalty checks.

Good in theory. IF they do a really good job of it. And IF their royalty offer is truly fair and worth giving up ownership and control of your IP. Those are extremely substantial "ifs." And there are a great number of unanswered questions. And by the time GamePro Labs answers those questions and resolves the "ifs" for their initial group of developers, they could be changing their terms.

So it's anything but a slam-dunk. It could be a golden opportunity for some indie game developers --- or not.

Contrary to the opinion of some, I do not believe that having a publisher makes you a "non-indie." The difference is really about who is in the driver's seat, in my opinion. If you are doing a game on contract for someone else, that's probably not indie. If you are shopping around to find the best way to sell a self-funded game, then that's probably indie.

The bottom line is that in spite of a handful of the stories of "getting rich quick" with indie games, there is no easy path to fortune and glory. Somehow, like everything else in life, it usually seems to involve hard work, skill in several disciplines, and a dose of good luck.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009
 
Eight Steps To Finding Your Creative Zone
I still have a notebook full of notes from a fictional world I created when I was around fifteen years old. I expected it to be a lot more cringe-worthy than it is. Granted, it's not something I'd put up for publication anywhere, but the mass of notes (and recognizing that I only have about half of it) is pretty impressive for its quantity and creativity. I compare that to the slogging I'm doing in my Frayed Knights design sometimes, and think, "Holy crap! Where's that fifteen-year-old when I need him?" That kid could generate a ton of content inside of two weeks.

Of course, that kid also got home from school at 3:00 and had few other responsibilities aside from a couple of daily chores and rushing through his homework at some nebulous time of the evening. He had focus. He didn't care about the quality of his work - he just wrote for himself, and then would decide later whether or not to share parts of it with close friends who wouldn't really care one way or another.

Rotten kid.

Much of the time, I struggle a lot more with the creative side than I ever did back then. I am not really a believer in "writer's block" per se... but creativity is something that's not often easy to summon up on demand. Whether it's writing articles for this blog, short stories, snarky dialog for the Frayed Knights and their friends, coming up with weekly D&D adventures, or whatever - there are sometimes where it takes some effort to make things flow. Sometimes it takes a while. And sometimes it just comes like a flood.

So I get jealous of my fifteen-year-old self. He was in the zone all the time, even when his mind was supposed to be on something else. That probably explains his grades....

So I talked to a couple of creative friends of mine, and we compared notes. What works? How do we get ourselves in the zone? There are a few common threads:

#1 - Lack of Interruptions or Distractions: Interruptions tend kill productivity no matter what you are doing. One trick is to find (or designate) a time, place, and situation relatively free of interruptions. Late at night, early in the morning, a closed door to the office...whatever. A friend of mine says she tried to have a full tummy and an empty bladder when she gets started to avoid interruptions of a biological nature. Web-surfing, You-Tubing, and instant messaging are probably worse crimes than garden-variety interruptions for killing creative time. Again - focus is critical.

#2 - Music: Music (optionally with a good pair of noise-reduction headphones) can also help cut out distractions. And it can also get you in the right "mood" or frame of mind. The music should be something familiar and comfortable that can play in the background without attracting your attention.

#3 - Habit: Your brain responds to habit and time schedules as much as any other part of he body. Establishing that same time, place, and collection of music every day for your creative endeavors can really help.

#4 - Warm Up: One trick I've found is that creative work doesn't usually flow until I've "primed the pump" a bit. I find myself writing crap until something clicks and I get in the zone. I remember creative writing classes often had an exercise or something to do for the first five or ten minutes to "get things started." In fact, the "interviews" I did with the characters for Frayed Knights originated from these exercises. (See interviews with Dirk, Arianna, Benjamin, and Chloe). It really does work - take some time to work until you feel like working!

#5 - Keep a Notebook Handy: Another thing I've found is that creativity can strike at any time, in any place. Keeping a notebook handy to write down ideas works two ways. First of all - obviously, it allows you to record your ideas before you forget them (and I do - all the time!). Then, when you have your time to work on them, you have a list of ideas you can dive into and expand upon. Secondly, and more subtly, it acts as a reminder to your subconscious that you are constantly seeking creative ideas. Your mind will strive to meet your expectations.

#6 - Recognize Your Creative Patterns: My best ideas come in the form of isolated scenes or vignettes. Or snippets of dialog. The "work" part of the creative process comes in trying to string these ideas together. Sometimes it feels like trying to rationalize and explain the plot of a half-remembered dream. But when I recognize that and try to work with this as a strength, rather than trying to force myself to only come up with fully-formed ideas, I find it's easier to get the ideas flowing.

#7 - Finding Good Sounding Boards: My wife and several friends of mine have proven to be excellent sounding boards for ideas. Oftentimes, my best ideas come when I'm bouncing some less-than-adequate ideas off them. They make suggestions, get my brain going in other directions, and the ideas just start flowing. This isn't so good for the "work" phase of getting into the creative zone, but it's very valuable for refining concepts during the "gestation period." Be careful - it's rarely clear who came up with what part of some idea when you are doing this, so make sure you are working with people you can trust.

#8 - Practice Makes Perfect: I've also found that creativity - like just about everything else in life - improves with practice and frequent exercise. Don't give up too early. And once you establish the habit, don't give it up once your immediate task is complete!

In recent years, I've found that taking a walk by the river or lake at lunch time, notebook in hand and iPod playing the right music, helps me both with generating new ideas and with getting some well-needed exercise. I've also found repeatedly that just sitting with the music playing "trying" to come up with ideas in a vacuum fails me. I tend to do far better when I'm actively working and writing, trying to put the temporarily non-existant ideas down on paper.

I've found these tips have really helped me when I needed help (which is most of the time). What works for you? How do you get into your "creative zone" with whatever it is you do?

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Monday, March 09, 2009
 
Should Game Ratings Be Enforced?
Sigh. Another week, another rant about game age ratings, I guess. I'm normally a fan of John Walker, but his latest essay left me cold:

Should Gaming Age Ratings Be Enforced?

Frankly, the very suggestion that parents should be imprisoned for allowing their child to play a game of an "inappropriate age rating" is abso-freaking-lutely ludicrous and disgusting to me.

Granted - there are some shamefully negligent parents out there who I feel shouldn't have been allowed to spawn progeny in any society. And I reluctantly agree that the state and community needs some level of authority to rescue children from parents who are abusive, negligent, or otherwise clearly screwed up. My reluctance comes from the feeling that I don't feel I could trust the government to hold a carton of eggs for five minutes these days, let alone trust them with these kinds of decisions.

But somehow holding a gun to parents' head over something as stupid as what really amounts to extremely broad and general age guidelines? Disgusting. At least the film industry was smart about how it named its ratings here in the U.S. - "PG" for "Parental Guidance." The government tends to get target fixation on the name and ignore the underlying meaning.

As a parent, if I feel my 10-year-old is capable of handling a PG-13 Harry Potter movie, then that's my call. I really don't think the government knows my ten-year-old better than I do. And I'm really glad my mom figured I was capable of handling PG-rated Star Wars when I was only eight years old. If dorks like Bill Hastings were in charge of things in 1977, that awesome experience would have been punctuated by her being arrested and me being sent to a foster home or something.

Walker does suggest that his favor of game ratings comes from a desire for grown-ups to be able to play their games. And since adult gamers outnumber the children by a substantial margin, that is significant. Being able to say, "This is a kid's game" versus "this is a grown-up's game" helps keep things a little clear in walnut-sized brains of government officials, who have the retention capability of Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. I used to agree with this attitude. Until I saw that categorization being used to hurt us, rather than help us.

Sorry, New Zealanders. I offer you sympathy. You guys have bad law on the books, and an idiot pushing for its enforcement. I fear my own country isn't too far behind.

On the other hand, I can't think of any better way to make video games seem cool than to make them an outlawed pastime. Booyah!

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Saturday, March 07, 2009
 
The Watchmen
We went with another couple to see The Watchmen last night. My wife had read the graphic novel just last month. I'd re-read a little bit of it while my wife had it checked out from the library, but otherwise hadn't read the thing in twenty years. Another friend had read it several times, the latest being about two years ago, while her husband had never read it.

We all left the theater appropriately blown away. Those of us who had read the graphic novel were impressed by how incredibly faithful they were (aside from nitpicks) to the source material. The friend who'd never read it told us it had hung together really well without requiring his familiarity with the original. It seemed incredibly well done.

When I left the theater, I felt ambivalent about whether I really liked it, or really hated it. Which was about how I remember feeling about the graphic novel, too.

It was also a bit too heavy on the sex & violence for our tastes. We'll not be owning it on DVD in the future - probably won't ever watch it again - but we were glad we went to see it once. It was - like the graphic novel - important. And far removed from the escapism of your average super-hero movie.

How's that for a wishy-washy review?

The laugh of the week is for those people on forums who are complaining about it ripping off core situation in The Incredibles. That's pretty much like complaining that the Lord of the Rings movies ripped off Dungeons & Dragons. (Though I honestly and truly LOVED The Incredibles, something I can't really say about The Watchmen).

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Friday, March 06, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Demo Planning
"If it weren't for trade shows, we'd never get anything done." I once heard that from a computer industry veteran in the early 90's. The need to prepare for demonstrations tends to drive a lot of effort. Some of it is wasted effort - a bunch of stand-in elements to keep the demo from collapsing. But having a hard deadline like that, with very specific goals for something that has to be visible to an outsider, helps you focus on what's important.

I had planned to show the next iteration of Frayed Knights for the April '09 Utah Indie Night. Which will hopefully be more towards the end of the month (as it usually is) than the beginning of the month (Greg, are you paying attention! I need more time, cap'n!). But I didn't have a clear goal. And I hadn't been communicating much with my team. Horrible, horrible management gaffes. I know this. Letting communication lapse within the team is probably reason #1 for failure. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest is that the team motivates each other. It's not just the team lead or manager trying to do cheerleading.

As for my own progress, I've been muddled in some Really Boring Stuff. It's not particularly motivating, which means I've not been putting in all the time I've needed to put into it. Yes, I'm not the kind of superhuman go-getter I aspire to be. At least not all of the time. You know, I beat this problem every once in a while with some easy productivity tricks, and then I forget to use said methods a few months later. So I'd been struggling with some slow progress and some not particularly exciting upgrades to the game for weeks, and had no clue what I was going to show.

It was Kevin, the "dungeon master" (he's working on the signature interiors, like the Temple of Pokmor Xang), who helped shake things up. I've been giving him the signature dungeons throughout the game to work on, even though I'm not ready to support them yet. He's been struggling with Castle Mournhold, and had some questions and suggestions for me. There are some optimizations that some engines do that Torque just... doesn't. And a semi-realistic castle has all kinds of problems when rendered in a 3D world no matter what engine you use, especially with all the vantage points from which you can see - practically everything. It's hard to cull unused polygons that way.

Even after I explained the whole thing about how real-world castle design didn't work so well in Frayed Knight's fantasy world - with all the aerial warfare possibilities - there are a few "real world" style castles there. I guess I'm a sucker for tradition. Castle Mournhold is one of them. We've based it - loosely - on Bran Castle in Romania. As you can see from the picture, it does not have simple architecture.

After some discussion, we decided to try and make the Mournhold chapter the demo for the April Utah Indie Night (UPDATE: Sorry, this won't be a public release). We both finished the conversation VERY excited about what we could show. We have no illusions about having it completed - but we should be able to show the basics.

First off, it's a vampire story.

One of my wife's all-time favorite D&D modules is Ravenloft, by Tracy Hickman (co-author of the Dragonlance series, etc.). Well, it's one of my favorites, too. But thanks to her, I've played through it (and run it) more than once.

For those not up on old-school D&D - Ravenloft is one of the classic 1st edition modules, and also one of the deadliest. Not quite in the same league as Tomb of Horrors on the player-mortality scale, but up there. But it was also perhaps the first module that was very thick with plot and atmosphere. Later, they started making modules that were TOO plot-heavy, to the point where players weren't allowed to leave the rails. Some blame this departure on the success of Ravenloft. I don't know. All I know is that Ravenloft - which later inspired an entire campaign setting - was a pretty cool Dracula-esque story done the D&D way, worthy of playing through multiple timess.

One of my big inspirations for Frayed Knights was to explore how this group of characters would approach and abuse an otherwise "traditional" fantasy RPG adventure. Imagining how the Frayed Knights would plunge through something like Ravenloft just makes me giddy.

I do have the Hackmaster parody of Ravenloft, Robinloft, just to see what they did with it. It really isn't the direction I wanted to go, however. While memories of Ravenloft provide some inspiration for this chapter of the game, it's really not quite the direction I want to go, either.

For one thing, our vampire is more of a 70's era glam-rock star. Complete with platform boots, a short cape, and bright-colored clothing. With sequins and rhinestones.

That's right, our vampire glitters.

His castle is still in a horrible state of disrepair, but that's not his fault. The monsters ate the maintenance and cleaning crews, drat it all. And he's not quite the evil mastermind - he's got someone else pulling his strings. And, according to Chloe's sources, he's got information. Which means the Frayed Knights may have to take him alive - well, undead - and force him to talk. Can you imagine Arianna trying to interrogate Dracula?

We're going to have a lot of fun with this one.

We'd better, because we only have around six weeks to get the demo ready. Frantic development mode activated!

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An Objectivist On Bioshock
Okay, only a few people might find this interesting, but I was fascinated. Twenty Sided's Shamus Young managed to find an Objectivist who had played through Bioshock. As you may know, Objectivism is a philosophy based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. And Bioshock's world - the undersea city of Rapture - was pretty much an Objectivist paradise gone horribly, horribly wrong. The city's founder was even named "Andrew Ryan" - a deliberate reference to Ayn Rand.

I'll just link to it here. You can read it, and come back. Or not.

Bioshock: An Objectivist on the Objectivism

I only read Atlas Shrugged a couple of years ago. I resisted it for a long time because my parents loved the book, and so naturally I couldn't possibly enjoy it. Though when I found out that the drummer and principle lyricist for my favorite rock band - Neil Peart of Rush - was a fan (even a self-professed "Randroid" for a part of his life), I was a little more predisposed to read it.

I finally got around to it, and was impressed. Not that I subscribed to the philosophy. I felt that Rand's vision of society had the same fundamental flaw as Communism - even though it was, in many ways, the direct opposite of Communism. And it's the problem suggested by "The Inspector" in his discussion - it requires a societal change to the point of suppressing human nature in order for it to work.

Human beings may be self-interested by nature, but we also have an amazing tendency to engage in behaviors contrary to our long-term self-interest. I may recognize that it's in my best long-term self-interest to eat better and exercise more to live a happier life in the long-term, but that doesn't make it easier for me to turn down a cheeseburger or to take the time out to go to the gym.

Bioshock did point out some of those flaws with the faux-Objectivist utopia. Take Adam & Plasmids, for example. It is apparent that their long-term use has some nasty side-effects, but the corporate bordello of Rapture allowed them to be marketed and sold without any kind of supervision or regulation. They needed no testing. So by the time the game starts for you, almost all survivors have gone insane. As you can tell from the recordings, the final weeks and months of Rapture's civilized existance consisted of a war over "who controls the Adam."

(It doesn't take much to shift the 1960's alternate history story to the real world of the same time period, and hear the recordings talking about "who controls the atom.")

What would be really interesting would be to see another game's take on Atlas Shrugged from 2009's vantage point. In a lot of ways, we're living the early chapters right now. My feeling is that Rand extrapolated upon the events and government policies during the Great Depression, and extrapolated them to the nth degree for her story. Businesses not being allowed to fail, government intervention in the name of preserving the status quo which does more harm than good. That kinda thing. We haven't quite gotten to the point where the world's entrepreneurs and executives have decided to go on strike, yet.

Theoretically, there's a movie (trilogy?) planned for 2011 based on the book. And there's a Bioshock movie planned for next year. Now THAT could be an interesting contrast, particularly since both will probably be simplified a bit to appeal to the broader market's tastes.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009
 
Planewalker Games: Updates
Wow. Planewalker Games has been a little bit silent lately. I did get confirmation from Jason a few months ago that they were indeed cranking along on The Broken Hourglass, in spite of lack of updates on their website. Or probably BECAUSE of the lack of updates... they may be getting a lot more done than I have, with all my blog posting and Wizardry 8 playing.

Anyway, this week our patience has now been rewarded by not one but TWO updates to their website. The first is an in-character "letter" from the commander of the Market Precinct entitled, "Condition Report: Market Precinct." The second is a game design article about the revision to carrying capacity entitled, "Funny Things Happen (On the Way to a Videogame)."

Sometimes a little communication is all it takes. Actually, coincidentally, that's going to one of the topics discussed in tomorrow's Frayed Knights update. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009
 
Rampant Games Official Statement Regarding Age-Appropriate Game Sales
Just in case you didn't know, Rampant Games sells games.

I know a lot of you just come for the blog, and that's cool. But I sell games, too. I don't sell nearly as many as I'd like. I make way less than minimum wage doing this. But it's a labor of love.

I've got quite a few games on the website. Especially adventures & RPGs. If I ever find time again, I'll be adding more. And, of course, I'm spending much of what would have been "free time" writing new games that I hope you will enjoy.

I'm a Utah-based game seller. Yesterday, the state house passed an idiotic and counter-productive Utah bill penned in part by disbarred lawyer "Wacky" Jack Thompson. I figure there's a good chance it will become a law - even if a short-lived one - here in my state. Our house reps are apparently idiots, and I don't expect the state senate to be any better. Since it could theoretically affect me, I wanted to make an official statement of policy here. I want to advertise myself truthfully here, so that the local psychotic busy-bodies and ambulance chasers might not attack me on a technicality:

Rampant Games makes NO promises as to the age-appropriateness of these games for YOUR children. Nor will Rampant Games commit to enforcing its - or someone else's -opinions on age-appropriateness on customers.

I do not know your children. I do not know your standards. I've got my own standards for my own kids, and that's my responsibility. Your children are your own.

Games sold by Rampant Games are generally not rated by the ESRB. That system does not serve small independent game developers. And in truth - I prefer it that way. As we can see from this bill (and a whole bunch of failed bills before it...), the rating system has become corrupted and abused by people in power as a way to attack an industry they don't like or understand.

Now, I do try and add suggestions in many of the descriptions as to whether or not I, personally, consider the game to be "family-friendly." I really don't sell "kids' games." I sell the kinds of games that I like, and that I assume my visitors like. I do like - and sell - a lot of games that I feel are appropriate for my own children. But I also sell some that aren't.

Parents: I am not your babysitter. I am not your nanny. Nor do I think the government has any right to be.

Between stupid bills, technological limitations, and the nature of my business, I am not going to commit to policing my personal views on age appropriateness for the games I sell. Nor will I attempt to enforce some arbitrary politically-motivated "official" ratings system upon my customers, making it more difficult and confusing to purchase games online than it already is.

If your kid somehow has their own PayPal account or authorization to use your credit card, I would suggest that you keep an eye on how they use it. You really ought to make sure they aren't paying for porn access, funding terrorist groups, contributing to the Jack Thompson presidential campaign fund, or... oh, yeah.... buying inappropriate video games.

But I won't force my personal beliefs and opinions on you.

I think you, as a parent, should take an interest in the entertainment your child is exposed to. This can be difficult, especially when your ten-year-old ends up playing HALO or watching The Dark Knight at a friends' house. That's just life. You do what you can. I know it's challenging. I'm right there with ya. I think it is completely asinine that our politicians think they can hand-wave those issues away - especially by attacking a barely-related non-problem in the name of "doing something."

Ultimately, watching over your kids is your job as a parent for your children, just as it's my job with mine. As a seller of videogames, I am not going to attempt to second-guess you as a parent. If you think Fatal Hearts is appropriate for your eight-year-old, that's your call. If you don't think your fourteen-year-old is mature enough for Aveyond 2, that's also your call. You know your kids. I only know my own.

Now, if you have questions, please feel free to contact me and ask. Now, due to government regulation, I cannot commit to assisting you in any way, shape, or form. But I will say that in the past, I've either been in a position to answer said questions, or to contact the developer (many of whom I'm acquainted with via email, and some of whom frequent this blog and the Rampant Games community forums) and ask for assistance - whether it's been technical support, a gameplay question, or a question of content. I am happy to offer my own opinions and suggestions - so long as you, the customer, understand that is strictly my own opinion or suggestion and may be of no use to you.

I do this because I believe that this is the sort of thing that should be handled informally by parents and their chosen community and those they do business with - and not by grandstanding politicians, special interest groups, and jackass lawyers (disbarred for bad conduct or otherwise).

I hope that my customers feel the same.

On a side note, I don't feel that any of my games are appropriate for Jack Thompson, Utah Representative Mike Morely, or Utah Eagle Forum kingpin Gayle Ruzicka. I really don't think they are mature enough to handle them. But true to my non-pledge, I won't prevent them from purchasing games on my site, either.

Thanks for listening.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009
 
Web TV Series: The Guild ... and Gold
I don't play World of Warcraft, which is probably why I was the last person in gamer civilization to not have heard of this web-TV series written by and starring Felicia Day (also of Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It's about.... a guild of MMORPG Players. In an online game that sounds suspiciously like World of Warcraft, though you can probably substitute your online gaming addiction of choice.

The Guild


Umm... yeah. It's already in its second season. Am I with it, or what?!?!? Each episode is about five minutes long. I haven't watched them all yet, but so far they have proven both funny and cringe-worthy. For anyone who's ever met their online guild-members in a "real world" setting, it'll be particularly amusing.

And flipping it around to deal with a fictional world of professional dice & paper gamers, you have the monthly series:

Gold - an RPG Web Series

This one deals with a game suspiciously like Dungeons & Dragons called "Goblins & Gold." It's about two teams of roleplayers preparing for the big showdown in the next world championship. Ah, if only. Warning: This one doesn't bleep out the language like The Guild does.

So long as it feels like gamers making fun of themselves, it's all good fun.

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Monday, March 02, 2009
 
RPG Design: Charisma, the Dump Stat
Some dice & paper gaming and further (but unrelated) work on Frayed Knights has made me go back to one of my favorite topics - dealing with conversations in an RPG (computer or tabletop). Or more particularly, the player's role versus the character's role (and... uh, rolls) during dialog.

The old way of handling things was to... not. The player handled the conversations, and the character handled the combat rolls. Charisma was (and remains) a popular dump stat. Titus the Ugly might have a charisma of 5 and be unable to speak above a mumble, but when the non-combat heat was on he could negotiate with eloquence, passion, clear logic, and only the most polite hint of threat - because his player could do that in the comfort of the gaming room, or because that conversation option was available to him in the computer games' menu.

The Ultima series eventually just dumped those sorts of stats altogether to keep the conversation tree free of barriers.

Making Social Skills (Barely) Relevant
The new trend (if you can call it that) seems to be driven by Bioware, and that is simply to provide some dialog trees with options that can only be successfully exercised by successful social skill rolls. Bethesda tried to do something different by adding a social mini-game in Oblivion (evolved from a simpler menu-based system in Morrowind) which sometimes opened new conversation options (though in practice, it rarely useful for me beyond getting better prices from merchants). This was abandoned in Fallout 3 in favor of a more Bioware-style dialog option tree, though I guess we'll see what The Elder Scrolls V might bring us.

The problem with this system is that it's value is left purely in the hands of the designers. Nowhere was this made more clear than with Bioware's Neverwinter Nights series. Social skills were mildly useful through Bioware's campaigns, but their value became wildly variable (tending towards utter uselessness) with player-created modules. This is unfair and frustrating to players. It's like giving us a "drive tank" skill for us to spend precious points in, only to never provide us with an actual tank to drive except for a short mini-game sequence near the end of the game.

Even in dice-and-paper games, we run into problems. Quite simply, some results are going to be utterly impossible through conversation alone, which makes players feel slighted when their stellar social skill rolls fail to achieve the desired results. On top of this, the game master feels obligated to provide the players with all the information they'll need from NPCs regardless of their success or failure in social rolls, to prevent the planned adventure from going down the toilet.

This process is pretty well emulated by the standard conversation-tree system in CRPGs.

Lessons from Drama Class
Yes, I was in theater in high school. I enjoyed it, and I was considered pretty good at it. Not good enough to make it a career choice, but I had a lot of fun with it. There were a couple of interesting exercises we went through which have no doubt fully corrupted how I feel about roleplaying.

One was an exercise where we had to each say a very simple phrase, but shade it with completely different meanings. Something as simple as the word, "no," can have millions of meanings depending upon how it's said. Similarly, in some RPGs it can be very difficult to tell what kind of response you are choosing from the menu. The same sentence can be sincere or snarky depending upon how it is spoken and how well it is delivered. A snarky response intended to be friendly ribbing can easily sound nasty.

Another great series of exercises was improvisational acting ("improvs"). I could almost label these the "Negotiation 101" lessons, as they were usually set up so that character A and character B had conflicting needs, but character B could always "win" the scenario by refusing to take action. We weren't graded on our negotiation skill, but on the believability of the character interaction, but that didn't stop us from trying. The trick, as character A, was to find some kind of compromise - to satisfy the underlying goal of character B yet still get what you wanted.

While not usually as dramatic as we experienced in the class, this is a key part of life and working with others. Unfortunately, we don't get that in CRPGs very often. Instead, if we need something from an NPC, they immediately assign us a subquest.

It's not horrible, and at the very least it keeps things simple. But could we do better?

Some Ideas to be Considered
If we want to make non-combat, social encounters an integral part of a CRPG, we need to shake things up a bit. We probably need to make some fundamental changes to the very idea of how social interactions work. Social interactions need more feedback, twists, bends, and alternate resolution. As always, I think of the one thing that works reasonably well in CRPGs, and that is the combat system. So how could we make conversations reflect the kind of action we get in combat?

The conversation tree can probably stay in one form or another. It works so well because it is mirrors how conversations play out in real life. But most of the time, the conversation trees aren't used for much more than NPC exposition and ... uh, "quest requests."

But here are some thoughts on elements that could (but I won't go so far as to say, "Should") be incorporated into a new, hopefully improved paradigm (ack! I said the "p" word) in handling NPC dialog:

1. The attitude of the NPC towards the speaker, overall. And how "fixed" this attitude is. An NPC who has never met the player character before might be pretty flexible in their attitude. The widow of the villain whom the PCs just killed at the Sheriff's request might be a little less so.

2. The "mood" of the conversation. The NPC might like the player character speaker, but not be at all happy about how the conversation is going. Or the NPC may hate the player characters, but have no option other than to be concilliatory during the conversation to request their aid. Naturally, the mood of the conversation can carry over and affect the NPC's overall attitude over time.

3. The NPC's goals for the conversation - which might actually change during the conversation. Any good writer will consider this for every line of dialog - though the needs of the character may sometimes be sacrificed for the needs of the story. This could be calculated in real-time, or pre-determined based on the current branch of the conversation tree. But I swear that in many RPGs, the only goal of the NPC is to hear themselves talk! Or to please - for some reason - the complete stranger who just walked up to them and made the mistake of asking about the history of the city.

4. Why shouldn't every line of dialog involve a skill roll of some kind? Does a skill roll necessitate a branch in the dialog tree right then and there? Does every hit in combat necessitate the death of the guy on the receiving end? There should be more than just pass / fail branches in the dialog, anyway.

5. We need greater feedback on non-verbal cues from the NPC. This could be in the form of simple visual indicators on the HUD, the subtle nuances of voice actors combined complex facial mechanics on-screen guaranteed to give the wrong cues half the time, or - shock! - resorting to the same techniques that writers have been using for ages to describe the speaker. But as modern games prefer to eschew the written word entirely (it makes localization such a drag), we may have to look to the indies to do more with that.

6. What about the NPCs using THEIR social skills to manipulate the dialog, or even *gasp* the player characters? I'm not sure if that would be desirable, but it could be the subject of some very interesting experiments. I could see it now - you go to a merchant wanting to offload all your loot, and leave with LESS gold than you had before - but you now own a whole bunch of term life insurance policies, some real estate in Outer Moldovia, and a set of kitchen knives you just can't live without.

7. If all this sounds incredibly complicated for a dialog system, abstracting a lot of it is okay. While I wasn't thrilled with Oblivion's conversational "mini-game," but I think the principle was probably on the right track. Every word of small-talk doesn't need to be spoken or printed on the screen - just the important stuff.

I can't say any of these ideas are even in the same area code as "the right thing," but I would love to see more RPGs break from the stale pack and try something new in this area. We've been complaining about the same things for a decade or so, with very few attempts to improve to make this aspect of CRPGs more compelling.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009
 
LoFi RPG: The Linear RPG
This was one of the entries into RPGDX's "LoFi" Indie RPG Jam. Not only is it a brilliant deconstruction of the fundamentals of RPG gameplay, it's actually mildly fun and interesting to play through. Once or twice. If you boil most of the details out, this is what you get:

The Linear RPG (SophieHoulden)

Thanks to I Whine About Games for the heads up. And to RPGDX for organizing the Jam.

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