Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Thursday, April 30, 2009
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, April 30 2009
So what's up in the world of indie computer RPGs? Heck if I know - I'm head-down in my own development these days. But somehow news of the cool has filtered down in the dungeon where I am laboring. This month, most of the news and rumors I'm hearing on the indie RPG front has a very definite "jRPG" / anime - style slant to them. Not that I don't love my jRPG / manga / anime style games. But I'd like some more the love from the more western-style RPG developers in indie-dom with projects that are nearing completion. I'll keep listening. Let me know if you hear anything!

Here's what I've been hearing lately.

Dark Souls
Dark Souls is the recently-released debut RPG from Warfare Studios. It tells the story about a mercenary haunted by the crimes of his past - and hunted FOR them as well. As one of the premier bad-ass mercenaries of the world, he receives a commission from the church - whom he's done business with many times before - to escort an innocent girl with great potential power and her idealistic-but-capable protector across the country.

Of course, the fact that he's hunted by soldiers makes him less-than-ideally suited to be the best guide for this young prodigy, a suggestion he makes and the church leader dismisses. Something's going on.

Dark Souls is the first in a planned 4-game series. It's a little rough around some edges, but it also has a very interesting world that seems - at this point at least - to be pretty well thought-out. It's worth checking out - the game offers the first hour as a free trial mode to see if you like it.

Download Dark Souls


Aveyond
The next game in the best-selling "casual" RPG series, Aveyond 3, is now officially in beta. In her blog, Amanda reports that the game remains on track for a release next month - which is to say, at some point in May, not TOMORROW, May 1st. In addition, details have been leaked that the next RPG in the series - Aveyond 4, will be more of a direct sequel. Up until now, the Aveyond games have taken place in the same world, but with (mostly) new characters and unrelated storylines.

Aveyond 3 Screenshots

Also, Walz Music is also releasing a soundtrack of extended versions of music from Aveyond and a few additional pieces. Entitled, "From Another Shore, Aveyond & Beyond," it should be available at Amazon and iTunes on May 25th.

Spirited Heart
If you (or someone else you know) liked Cute Knight and / or Princess Maker, you will want to check out Spirited Heart. It's a "life sim" style game. You choose your role as one of three girls - an (apparently) normal human, a cute elf, or a wicked demoness. That's the demoness working as a maid to the right. There are twenty different jobs and many events that take place during the game.

Download Spirited Heart (Mac, Linux, and PC)

Mars
Spiders Games is a new French game development studio, which includes several veteran game developers. They are going indie (so far) and self-funding their first title, a sci-fi action-RPG entitled Mars, intended for both the PC and the PS3. They are shopping for a publisher now, and so the "indie" status of the title might not last much longer. But for now, here it is:

Mars Website

Cute Knight Kingdom
Hanako is hard at work on Cute Knight Kingdom, the sequel to her best-selling Cute Knight. An early video and screenshot (left) shows that the game is now a bit less abstract in its environments. The Cute Knight can walk around outdoors and in the dungeon just as she can in the town environments. The first-person-esque dungeons of the original game are gone, replaced by top-down 2D dungeons with lighting effects and monsters that can be seen at a distance. Development is still early, so a lot can change, but it's shaping up and looking pretty sharp.

Kivi's Underworld
Last week, Soldak entertainment added pictures and descriptions of three more playable characters - all female - of the twenty available in Kivi's Underworld: Diador, the gladiator; Xtara the merchant, and Vara the Runemaster.

Age of Decadence
A "Combat Demo" for Age of Decadence is planned "soon." So we should soon get a feel for the turn-based combat system for this upcoming, Roman-era-esque hardcore indie RPG!

Eschalon: Book 2
Not too much to report here, but it seems the hoped-for Q2 release this year won't be happening. Right now, expectations are for a (late) Q3 release.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
 
Spell Name Idea...
Umm... I wouldn't want to post this here, but with tomorrow's deadline looming I wanted to call attention to it in a hurry. (Yes it can change after tomorrow, but I could use the ideas):

I need a good spell name


Any ideas?

UPDATE: Wow. Great response - and fast, too! You guys RAWK!!!!! I think we may have a winner, though I also have some awesome names that I probably need to invent spells to go with....

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The Wall Street Journal Discusses Indie Gaming
Wow.

When the whole indie games movement thing gets a full article about it in the Wall Street Journal, you know two things:

#1 - Indie gaming has arrived. Whatever that is supposed to mean.

#2 - Hell hath frozen over.

The Wall Street Journal: Boom or Bust? A New Business Model for Videogames?

Wow. Sherman, set the wayback machine to a mere four years ago, when dinosaurs thought they ruled earth:
The high cost of game development means that only the largest companies can afford to be in the business. While low-budget movies can occasionally become hits, "it is now impossible to 'Blair Witch' this business," said Jeff Brown, vice president for corporate communications at Electronic Arts, referring to the successful independent film.
Nifty.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009
 
A Tale of Tactics
It was just another Thursday-night battle practice for our local medievalist group. We were grouped up into two teams of around 18 fighters each. Both teams, in previous battles, had proven fairly evenly matched. But now we were mixing things up a little bit. Not by changing teams, but by changing commanders.

It was time for some of these young kids to learn a little bit about being a battlefield commander.

Really, there wasn't a whole lot to it. Live-action simulated combat is the very definition of "real-time." Just as in computer games, there is not much time for complicated tactics. But you do have to plan ahead, respond to the changing situation, respond to what the enemy is trying to do, and try and take advantage of weaknesses in the enemy's tactics or formation. The tactical depth of American football.

So the new commander was some sixteen-year-old kid, who had an immediate deer-in-the-headlights look, and we tossed him into the water to see if he could swim. I promised to keep my mouth shut until after the battle was over. The opposing team chose their new commander, and we let our guy choose our tactics. It was very straightforward approach with a single battle-line and an archer in the back, but he tried to make sure we had shield-men - myself included - evenly distributed across the the line. Just don't let the enemy through, he said.

I was on the far left end of the line. I don't remember being assigned there - I just took the position because being on the flank was a tougher position to hold, and called for a more experienced player.

Unfortunately, once the battle was joined, the right side of our line didn't do nearly as well to hold their positions. They began falling back, putting us in a diagonal line with myself in the front. Now two of us felt like we were facing half the enemy force by ourselves. I could see what was happening - it was a common tactic - and exactly how it would end. But that was just me. I bit my lip, trying hard not to issue any kind of warning or orders on my own, listening for our temporary commander to make some kind of call - any kind of call.

Nothing.

I was gimped by a sword-shot, which meant my mobility was now down to practically nothing. Our whole army wheeled around behind us. At this point, I really WAS facing half the army for myself. They'd used a small portion of their force to move the bulk of our own. They hadn't flanked us - they'd forced us to turn our flank to them. Now they had a half-dozen guys who could take us on practically one at a time.

I had some grim satisfaction in holding them off by myself far longer than anybody else did. I think I survived about fifteen seconds after that, and the battle was over less than thirty seconds after I was gone. They steamrollered lengthwise across our line.

Afterwards, I asked the team - and especially the commander - what had happened. Previously, we'd had pretty even battles, but this one had been a disaster - I think we had taken only about three of them with us. Except for a couple other veterans, nobody really had any clue what had happened. Just bad luck, they thought. It had all happened too fast. For me, it had seemed textbook and moved practically in slow-motion.

For some of the group, the light went on. They realized what had happened and - to our credit - we didn't let it happen again. For others - including the young commander who was grateful to be replaced by another inexperienced leader for the next battle - I don't think they ever quite figured it out. It remained a case of bad luck. Just fight harder next time, they figured.

When I first started playing live-action medievalist battle-games like Dagorhir, I don't think I appreciated the tactical side of things either. For me, it was just about fighting better and harder. My focus was more on how to get my foam-padded "blade" to hit its target while trying to prevent my opponent from doing the same. Ironically, it was when I was turned loose with some others as a "berserker" - where our only focus was on individually smashing through the enemy shield-wall and causing as much disruption as we could before dying - that I began to appreciate tactical issues. Specifically, I discovered how sacrificial "shock troops" could leave an enemy force extremely vulnerable to an organized follow-up attack. Once that dawned on me, I began to realize how even our simple formations and very loose discipline on the battlefield and embryonic forms of mutual support really made as much difference as player skill - if not more so - on the battlefield.

Back in the early days of the dice-and-paper hobby (and, indeed, now with the newer focus on the use of miniatures and tactics in Dungeons & Dragons), the derivation of the hobby from wargames resulted in a pretty tactical feel for the game. At the very least, you'd try to control choke points like doorways, protect your physically weaker party members (the "squishies," like magic-users), and center area-effect spells on the spots that would do the most damage. Oh, and nail that evil high priest or wizard quick, in spite of his protective bodyguard of trolls.

Our computer RPGs of the early era often tried to replicate some of that experience - noticeably in certain titles like the "gold box" SSI D&D games, or Realms of Arkania. While admittedly many of the battles became similar after a while (not to mention tedious) for the most part I really did enjoy this stuff.

It's a very fun aspect of the hobby - and one that I fear has been disappearing in modern computer and console RPGs, even as it is enjoying something of a resurgence in the pen-and-paper world. This is probably because - as in my own case in the early days of my participation in Dagorhir - it's something a little bit "meta" and out of grasp for beginning players. They don't get it, and don't appreciate it, and have enough problems switching their own powers on in the middle of a fight.

Some players may never get to that level, or never grow to enjoy it - and I'm glad there are still quite a few games out there that cater to their interests. Maybe not enough - the single-player western RPG still seems to be a little on the scarce side these days compared to other genres.

But all is not lost. Many jRPGs, at least, are still maintaining at least a rudimentary, abstract form of tactical play, at least in the form of "rock-paper-scissors" style puzzle-like encounters. Swapping in the right players or magical items for an encounter may be a semi-trivial decision, but at least it takes the gameplay beyond the brute-force "hack & slash," as we used to call it. And then we have the hybdrid "tactics RPGs" out there that are focused on this aspect of the genre almost to the exclusion of all else. Raids in MMORPGs all but require a measured use of tactics to succeed - though only a few players need to worry about such things while the rest simply follow orders and do their job.

And then, we've got the indies. Are there enough RPG fans out there who enjoy the simple tactical side of RPGs enough to be catered to by the indies? Though Jeff Vogel claims that he doesn't really consider "tactics" to be an aspect of his games, a lot of players feel otherwise. Sound, if simple, tactics can at the very least mean the difference between too frequent usage of healing magic.

I would like to believe there's more room to explore this aspect of RPGs for the indies.

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Monday, April 27, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Bumping Off the Cart-Man
Of all the updates on the development of Frayed Knights, the indie comedic fantasy computer RPG, this one is sure to prove, for a time, to be the latest.

This chapter is opening up with a murder mystery. Well, a death, under vaguely mysterious causes. "Okay," you might say, "I already know that is a vampire story. We've already read / seen / heard the Dracula story a zillion times in different forms. The vampire caused the mysterious deaths. Is this any different?"

Well, yes and no.

In this case, it's a wagon that went over a cliff. No visible bite marks on the victim. He's got a broken neck, crushed chest, but no bite marks.

And back in town, nobody seems to know the victim. So did he fall before arriving?

He was undoubtedly a hardy, competent fellow - nobody braves these roads unless they know how to handle the wolves. And animated skeletons of an invading army that was wiped out in a single night twenty years ago...

Based on the feedback I've received from people about Frayed Knights, the dialogs between the characters was - stunningly (for me) - very well received, with the biggest complaint being that there wasn't enough of it. Yes, this complaint greatly outweighed the complaints that the dialogs were dry, boring, and un-funny. I guess this is to be expected - anybody who volunteers to be a guinea pig for a pre-alpha test of a game probably has some kind of masochist streak running through them, so AFAIK both criticisms are probably perfectly valid.

Nevertheless, I'm trying to add Yet More Dialog to the game. This also works to help focus my design --- more dialog means packing the areas with More Interesting Things for the party to talk about, interact with, and to dilly-dally with instead of pursuing the primary plotline. Just like my dice & paper games...

The "Defend" option in combat is getting changed to be the "Special Ability" / Feat button. Defend is an ability that all characters will have, but the rest are based on their starting class and the abilities they choose when leveling up.

Polly, our new concept artist, has been working on sketches for Victor the Vampire's Significant Other, as well as the Burgomeister. The black & white sketches are looking pretty awesome.

Thursday night is Demo Night - I'm planning on showing off the game to the Utah Indie Night crowd at the NinjaBee offices. I've scheduled to take Thursday off of the Day Job to help make sure I've got everything as ready as I can get it. We're not anywhere near where I'd hoped we'd be (and for "we" I mostly mean "me"), so I'm a little disappointed and frustrated on that front. But we have some new monsters, new spells, a new environment, and part of the new chapter to show people, so at least it won't be a retread of the Temple of Pokmor Xang.

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Friday, April 24, 2009
 
Why Indie CRPGS?
My console (possibly) dying on me has probably helped my productivity a notch or two. But as an RPG addict, I find myself looking for something else to fill the need. I have a ton of unfinished (or in a couple of cases, practically unstarted) mainstream RPGs sitting around, but I'm finding what I am craving is to settle down for some nice indie RPG action in-between my own marathon development sessions.

Yes, the indie games are doing a better job of "scratching the RPG itch" than the mainstream games. This shouldn't be much of a surprise, coming from me. Don't get me wrong - I love my big-budget RPGs, too. But David frequently kicks Goliath's butt in the battle for my attention.

Let me explain.

Butt-Kicking for Indie RPG Goodness!

Lately, my drug of choice has been Blossomsoft's awesome Eternal Eden. It has a very different rhythm and feel to it. I'll stop short (this time) of calling it strictly unique - I'm sure you can dig around a bunch of old-school Japanese imports or whatnot to find the games that may or may not have helped inspire it. But it has a feel to it which stands in contrast to other games that use the same engine. It's almost like a puzzle game - not to the extent of DROD RPG: Tendry's Tale, but it definitely feels more structured. That might sound like a bad thing when you are talking about play, but it's not.

And is it weird that my anticipation is higher for Amaranth Games' upcoming Aveyond 3 than it is for the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XIII? I mean, okay, the last Final Fantasy installment didn't thrill me - so we could just blame it on my disappointment. But I had as much fun playing Aveyond and Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest as I have playing many a mainstream game. Mechanically, it's in a whole different country from Eternal Eden, in spite of having the same engine as a foundation. The storytelling is presented differently. These games have a different feel, a different flavor, and a unique, playful sense of humor.

And the list keeps getting larger. With even more cool stuff hopefully coming down the pipe. I have high expectations of Age of Decadence and The Broken Hourglass kicking copious amounts of butt when they finally arrive. (Ya hear me, Jason? I said 'when,' not 'if!'). Once upon a time, "indie RPG" was synonymous with "Spiderweb Software." But while Jeff Vogel & company continue to produce some quality indie titles at a blistering pace, the universe is expanding even faster.

I ain't complainin'.

Indie Evangelism

Now, I call myself an "indie evangelist," not really an "indie game reviewer" (unless I'm writing reviews for other sites). I don't really do reviews of indie games on this site for a couple of reasons.

First of all - there's the obvious conflict-of-interest issue. The purpose of reviews is to provide guidance for purchasing decisions. Ideally, you've got an unbiased, trusted source providing some kind of comparison and making a recommendation. Magazines and websites, which do have a vested interest in sales and / or advertising, get around that by paying said theoretically unbiased third-parties to provide said recommendations. While I'm happy to do guest posts here, that's not really the purpose of this site.

Secondly - and this is a biggie - I do have a bias, even if I have no vested interest in the sales of a particular game. There is so much to like in the indie scene - even going down to the specialized niche of RPGs and adventure games - that I really don't have time to bother ranting about all the crap that's out there. We all know (or should all know) that without external barriers to entry, pretty much ANYTHING can be released as an "indie game," and there's an awful lot of junk that gets put out there and foisted off in the name of "indie." Or something. Digging through it all is time consuming, and I'm not that good at it yet, either. I live on solicitations and recommendations by others, too. It's not a perfect system.

But the big ol' ultimate point to my rambling - assuming there really is one - is that there are a lot of really cool, awesome games that come through, too. Especially with RPGs. We're talking worlds born from the imaginations of people who might as well be your neighbors - the person down the street with a dream, a vision, and the gumption to take on the insanely difficult task (yes, even with a fully featured game engine as a foundation) to translate this world from their imagination to an interactive game.

That's what I like to talk about. That's what I like to share. In spite of imperfections, blemishes, and sometimes downright dull parts, there is a lot of gold to be panned from the indie river, and I want to crow about it. While I usually don't want to directly compare a mainstream game with a $20 million budget to an indie game with a budget of donated time and peanut butter sandwiches, but there are often aspects where the indie games would come out the winner. And I want to call attention to that fact.

Indie Also Means Individual

When I was in junior high, Dungeons & Dragons was all the rage. Non-geeky-types were even experimenting with it, because they'd heard all this scandalous, controversial rumors about it. You wouldn't have to do much to find yourself in a game run by a stranger. Different DMs (the people who ran the game) all held different ideas and approaches to the game. Some of them admittedly just plain sucked, and I still want a refund on those hours of my life I wasted. But many of them provided us with adventures that were just boatloads of fun. The worlds and adventures we shared are pretty much lost in another decade now; I don't know that their creators would accurately remember them now. But these amateur game designers / storytellers would run us through the paces in their imaginary landscapes made "real" by word and interaction, and we had a hell of a good time.

Indie computer RPGs capture this feeling for me. What they may lack in polish and production values, these games often more than make up for in enthusiasm and creativity. The rawness can be an asset, allowing them to explore areas that their more refined mainstream cousins just can't go. The personalities of their creators shine through, reflecting a level of individuality in imagination that often gets filtered out or only revealed in tiny pieces in larger games designed by committee and corporate decree.

Game journalists often wonder why there are so few "superstar" designers appearing today that we had in previous eras. Where are the new Richard Garriotts, Shigeru Miyamotos, Sid Meiers, Jon Van Caneghems, etc.? I suspect there are a lot of 'em out there, but we don't hear about them because they are buried in faceless design teams while their producer with an MBA handles the interviews. Or they are going to be found among the indies, producing consistently cool, interesting, and most importantly fun games that will more often than not be ignored by those very same journalists.

Partying in Places Angels Fear to Tread

I think we've come to realize that as budgets have increased on video games, so has risk aversion. While indies have smaller budgets, they still have to worry about gambling with the rent money when it comes to making games. Still, with fewer barriers to entry and nobody in the middle putting the breaks on ideas out of fear, indies do find themselves with more freedom to innovate and do something different than their mainstream counterparts. Many take advantage of this situation.

You may be sick of the praise I have heaped on Depths of Peril. But to me, this is a shining example of something else that makes indie games so freakin' cool. It boldly goes where no mainstream RPG would dare to go, and IMO kicked butt and took names. I don't believe this gutsy, risky, innovative design was rewarded with massive sales (unfortunately, this isn't unusual). But I love that Soldak Entertainment was able to leverage their low indie overhead into the ability to take these kinds of risks.

While not strictly an unheard of idea in the mainstream (if you consider Princess Maker anything remotely "mainstream"), I really loved how Hanako Games' Cute Knight also fused an old-school dungeon-crawling RPG concept with "sim"-like elements, and gave it a personality all of its own.

As a Matter of Fact, They Do Make 'Em Like They Used To....

And when someone says, "They don't make 'em like they used to," they obviously aren't thinking of indies like Basilisk Games, creators of the Eschalon series, or Spiderweb. Then again - while these games certainly resemble some of the classics we used to love in many ways, they also provide fresh takes on the possibilities there. This is something else the indies bring to the table. There are fields that have been left fallow too long, and mainstream publishers are loathe to come back and revisit them.

But I believe that there is not only a lot of life left in these older ideas, but that these can provide us with a jumping-off point for new evolutionary tracks in this area. We disgruntled old-school gamers aren't just complaining because we're stuck in 1992 (or 2000, for those new-school old-school types who were dazzled by the Baldur's Gate series and the like... ) But in my opinion, part of our grumbling stems from the glimpse we caught of what CRPGS could be back then. The industry made its march towards one horizon, and refused to look back. Bully for them, but now the indies are taking a step back, turning, and marching forward in new directions. Maybe not the most obviously profitable ones, but there is a lot of unexplored territory out there.

A Love Letter and a Plea

Indies have great things going for them. How can a mainstream games possibly compete with all this?

This is why I evangelize these games. There is a lot to love. RPGs, in particular, are considered to be among the most difficult kinds of games to create, and yet indies are jumping in with both feet and producing worlds for me to explore. They might not tell stories worthy of Shakespeare (or even Spielberg), and their worlds might not be as beautifully rendered as Fallout 3, but they provide solid entertainment, a great experience, and often push the envelope in different directions. They may not all rock. But my hat is off to them for doing what they do.

Now I'm going to close with a plea. As awesome as these games are, as much fun as they are, and as much as I evangelize their strengths, indie cRPGs could do better.

There is too often a tendency to stick too closely to the formula - to try and re-make old favorites from the SNES era or whatnot. Even within the bounds of the pretty plain-vanilla jRPG system found in stock RPG Maker, there is a lot of room not only for exploration of mechanics, or exploration of character, story, and theme. There have been several indie games that have done this, even within the confines of the RPG Maker engine, but just need to be teamed up with quality art, writing, and game design. Push the boundaries, experiment, and break out of the box a little more!

Designers, don't be afraid to put more of yourself in the game. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I'm not looking for something that resembles a big-studio production from yesteryear - I'm looking for something with a solid voice, a personality. That's what makes your game stand out. Don't hide it.

While I do advocate breaking away from the mainstream to chart your own course, don't ignore the lessons of game design learned by your cousins in the big business. They've collectively made more mistakes than you could make in a hundred lifetimes. You don't need to repeat them.

Finally - as a fan of indie games, I'm definitely very forgiving of lower production values, old-school technology, and cut corners. That's fine. But that's no excuse for a failure to polish and provide what level of professionalism you can put into your games. Get a group of friends together to help you find your spelling errors, your bugs, and all those weaker aspects of your game before you release it to the public. (Don't let the grammatical and spelling errors of this blog be your guide!) Even if it's a free release - put your best foot forward. If someone finds your game incomprehensible or unplayable in the first five minutes, they won't finish it.

When I first started playing computer games, the whole industry was, effectively, "indie." The games that inspired me and turned a niche hobby into a thriving industry were often created by tiny teams of developers - sometimes even a single person. While a lot of things have irrevocably changed - and much of it for the better - it's good to know that in some ways we're coming back full circle. And I'm thrilled to see my favorite genre - RPGs - getting so much attention and life poured into it from the indies.

For an RPG fan, times are looking good.

Now go have fun!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009
 
Coolest Game Trailer Movie of All Time?
The Secret World is an MMO, quite a ways off in the future, which probably means this trailer has near zilch to do with the actual gameplay.

But it's way cool.



Umm... yeah. Roll for surprise, please...

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009
 
Dungeon Keeper and Guardian
A couple of quick links:

#1 - A Flash-based RPG entitled, "The Guardian." I've only played a few minutes of it so far. Besides the fact that it's written in Flash, there's nothing too spectacular about it (that I have seen). But - hey, it's a free browser-playable RPG.

The Guardian

#2 - Retrospective on the making of Dungeon Keeper. I really enjoyed this game, though the multiplayer aspect was pretty much ludicrous. Plus, I loved possessing chickens and walking through my own dungeons in first-person perspective.

The Making of Dungeon Keeper

Enjoy!
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
 
My PS2, She May Be Dyin'...
It was bizarre. I'm on the trail of the (real?) killer in Persona 4, and we hit the ol' dungeon again. Well, the new dungeon. A fight begins, and Yosuke summons his persona...

... And nothing happens. He stays stuck in an animation with a magical tarot card spinning above him, wiggling a little bit. I can toggle "rush" mode on and off, but that's it for interactivity. The main game loop is waiting for an animation that will never arrive.

It seems to be the case (after I reset it and replay a dozen or so times) with any of the other characters, too. And not just this saved game, either, but also any past saved games. My own character can summon personas just fine (well, okay, I only tried with ONE, but it worked fine).

So - since things that were working in past saved games are now not working, it would seem to be that either my disc became damaged (while sitting safely inside the machine), or my seven-year-old 'fat model' PS2 is starting to die. A quick test revealed that though it seems to play some other games just fine, it refuses to acknowledge the existence of my Gran Turismo 4 disc.

Could be that the GT4 disc has gone bad, too, but it's smelling suspicious, ain't it?

Gah. What a bummer. More testing may be involved to make sure what's going on, but part of me thinks this might be a blessing in disguise. A forced vacation from Persona 4 for the next week or two might be a good thing.

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Monday, April 20, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Speedy Feats...
Some quick and dirty updating on Frayed Knights, the comedic indie RPG in development at Rampant Games...

I am sleep deprived. And frustrated.

This has been a really busy couple of weeks for me working on the game, but I'm afraid I have little to show for it. The needs of the higher-level game required me to (finally) overhaul the combat system, and it has been a doozy. From the player interface perspective, not a whole lot has changed yet (which is sure to annoy some). The core of the experience isn't too different, but everything behaves in a much more orderly fashion. Things progress more smoothly within the combat sequence from event to event, which makes it a lot easier to manage from a programming side. Things were just getting out of control - both from a programmer, and as a player trying to make sense of the action.

But that's the interface side. On the underlying mechanics side, the high-level game was also getting out of control. Balancing things was getting insane. So I chose the better part of valor and wussed out. Things are a lot more "level-based" in the game now than I originally intended, but frankly I didn't see a clear path out of this without a serious round of simplification. There were basically too many moving parts in the underlying rules system, and as I deduced from literally hundreds of feedback forms, nobody was really clear how things were working under the hood anyway. It didn't make a difference to anybody. So I replaced some of the more "simulation-esque" rules for simpler, more game-y rules.

As an example - weapon damage and hit points. Based on some misplaced desire for a more simulationist approach to combat, I had hit points scale very little based on level. It was a much more slow progression. Likewise, weapons didn't scale drastically with damage done based on level. After all - why would a bigger, more ornate axe really do more damage than a plain old sharp, workhorse battle-axe? No, I reasoned, instead it would be more of a case of character skills reducing the likelihood of getting hit, and reducing the seriousness of the wounds. That's more realistic, right?

And it's more boring. It's not as fun to see the damage numbers going DOWN as your character becomes higher level!

And I had this really complicated equation for weapon damage based on the minimum strength needed to wield the weapon effectively, the weapon's base damage, the strength of the wielder, and so forth. How much did it add to the game? Very little. I am still keeping the special damage effects of blunt versus piercing versus edged weaponry, but I have simplified weapon damage so that it is... may the gods of RPGs forgive me... more based on relative level and class.

So if you are a big fighter with a big level and a big sword and big strength, you will do Really Big Numbers against a low-level opponent. Just like those JRPGs. Except probably without three-digit and four-digit damage numbers.

Another thing I have had to do is add a bunch of higher-level feats for the party (and their enemies). While they aren't all fully implemented yet, here's a subset of a bunch of new special abilities characters can acquire as they level up. Right now, I have a "default" level-up list for the four main characters from this list to speed things up, but the player will have a choice of an attribute raise or a new "feat" every level:

Lunge: Character can make extended-reach attacks with fewer penalties
Rank Smack: Character can attack an entire rank at once with a melee weapon
Guard: Character can protect one other character. Sometimes.
Counter: Character has a chance of immediately counter-attacking on a missed melee attack against them.
Hangfire Reaction: Character has a better chance of dodging a trap on a failed disarm.
Spell Homing: Single-target spells more likely to hit.
Healer At Heart: Character's healing spells are more effective.
Spell Volley: Spells can be repeated in less time.
Counterspell: Character can attempt to cancel inbound enemy spells.
Improved Counterspell: Character is very impressive with countering enemy spells.
Spell Reflection: Character has a chance of reversing countered spells back upon the original caster.

I probably need to come up with more amusing names for all of 'em. I like "Rank Smack," but it's hard to figure out what it really does. Maybe "Multi-Smack" would work better. I also need more "active" feats. Getting a bonus under a certain circumstance is all well and good, but again - the fun factor comes from being able to do something new. And cool. Maybe I should just name the feats, "Do Something Cool 1" and "Do Something Cool 2" and so on...

And then I have been fixing a ton of bugs which have cropped up - often unnoticed - in the last few months of development. My MessageVector code is no longer working - for some reason, the friggin' dialog has mysteriously vanished. It's still there, and it thinks its visible --- it's just not displaying. How long has that been happening, I wonder? How much more time am I going to be spending fixing things that were once working? There are other special effects that are no longer firing --- animations that aren't running ---- and junk like that.

Three steps forward, two steps back.

The townspeople (since the new chapter just about STARTS in a town) are another struggle. I need a lot of them. I'd prefer them to not all look alike. What I need is something kinda like this or this - but less cartoony than the first one, more feature-rich and expandable than the second, and with female characters too. Preferably with Blender support (I've always had a problem importing animations into Blender) for expansion.

I really hope things come together quickly. This coming weekend is going to be the "big push" for indie game night. Hopefully, with all the bug fixes, it at least won't be LESS functional than the pilot version!

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I Hear Wal-Mart is Still Hiring Greeters
Sucks to be out of a job in this economy, but it looks like Jack Thompson will remain "disbarred for life."

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear Jack Thompson's Appeal.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009
 
Teaching D&D
My youngest daughter wanted me to teach her Dungeons & Dragons last night. Unfortunately, by the time she asked, we only had about 30 minutes. Usually my approach is to get somebody into a game as fast as possible. Maybe next time.

The sad thing was that I had my miniatures out, and she started pulling them out. As we were talking characters, she pulled out a miniature she liked and said, "I want to be this one!" Gah! Sounds like she's a recruit for fourth edition already.

I think teaching someone to play D&D is easier nowadays, because many people are familiar with some kind of RPG-like game that's out there... from World of Warcraft to Pokemon. And of course, in my daughter's case, she's seen and heard the grown-ups play. She plays Wizard 101 online. So the concept - which used to be so difficult for people to get their head around a couple of decades ago - is pretty familiar now.

The trick is, of course, the rules. Which edition of D&D? My favorite edition - 3.5 E (though Pathfinder is starting to steal that crown) - is admittedly insanely complex for beginners. Not that 1st edition AD&D was trivial. Castles & Crusades is perhaps the most streamlined and easy-to-learn "D&D-like." Probably the best edition for learning is the old 1981-era Basic and Expert sets (which, while not my first exposure to D&D, was where I cut my teeth). Unfortunately, that edition is no longer available in a convenient PDF version...

Well, my youngest child now knows the meaning of dexterity and constitution (though she immediately laughed at the latter, since in her mind that word only had to do with the basis for our form of government).

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Friday, April 17, 2009
 
85% Piracy, Even For Consumer-Friendly Stardock
Demigod Piracy Running High

Hat tip to Jeff Vogel for the heads up.

So just slightly better than 1 in 7 players who are clobbering their servers actually, you know, PAID for the right to do that. And this is for the company that everyone praised as being consumer-friendly, the one that made a big deal about NOT putting onerous DRM in their games.

And as Vogel comments, this once again confirms that ratio that everybody seems to find so surprising and suspicious. How many times do we have to "discover" that piracy is absolutely insane and choking off the industry before people realize that yes, it really is a problem?

In semi-related news, The Pirate Bay's founders were found guilty, fined $3.6 million, and given a jail sentence. Of course, they are appealing, and this may do very little to stem the tide of piracy.

And no, I'm not saying that every single pirated copy is a lost sale, nor do I subscribe to the argument that piracy somehow helps sales or that piracy has no impact on sales. The truth is somewhere between the ludicrous extremes.

The sad thing - for me - is that this is hammering the little guys. The indies. Not that the big publishers in any way "deserve" to be ripped off, either. But this BS hits the guys who are having trouble putting food on their kids' tables. Guys who have to ask themselves every day, "Is this worth it?" Too many of them are answering "No," leaving the business, and we are deprived of enjoying the games they could have made forever.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
 
Eternal Eden
Indie is all about power to the people. Not in some kind of ranty Marxist way, but in a good ol' fashioned, free-market, homegrown kind of way. Indie is about lowering the barriers to entry so that anybody can get out there, do their thing, and try to find their audience, charge (or not charge) whatever they want. It means that anybody who believes they have an idea and talent can get out there and make it happen, rather than relying upon some middleman or bureaucrat gatekeeper to give them the go-ahead and dubious promises.

RPG Maker is one of several game creation toolsets that empower indie developers. It is hardly simple to use, nor does it unload the important creative burdens from a user's shoulders. But it's accessible for non-programmers and even non-artists (thanks to existing art, of sometimes questionable legality) to create full-fledged games, so long as they resemble 16-bit jRPGs. The advantage over other commercial products with similar capabilities (like Neverwinter Nights) is that game makers can distribute the complete game freely (without requiring other users to own the toolset), even commercially. And the toolset is cheap enough that even my daughter was able to buy a license with her allowance.

The consequence of this power and freedom is, unfortunately, a landscape littered with lame, incomplete, unoriginal, and ill-conceived games. When you get rid of the barriers, you also get rid of the filters. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

But the advantage is that there are some real rough diamonds out there, as well as some real gems of games to be found from very creative, talented people that we'd otherwise never have heard of, let alone enjoyed their creations.

Eternal Eden is definitely in the latter category - a polished indie gem. The custom artwork is exceptional (the creator also did some of the sprite work for the Aveyond games), and the gameplay and storytelling is very tight (at least from how far I have played, which is several hours in).

The basic storyline may ring somewhat familiar to folks who have attended Sunday School. The world of the principle characters, Noah and Downey, is a land of eternal youth, beauty, and plenty. A world without death. All their needs are provided for by the mysterious "Eden Tower." There is but one law that all the inhabitants must follow, left by their father who established this land: Do not eat the fruit of the tree at the top of the tower.

Can you guess what happens next?

You see, there's this friendly pie-making competition to win the favor of the Princess, who is about as old as Yoda but way prettier. And Downey really, really wants to win. And there's some fruit the Princess is sure to be surprised by...

Yeah. It doesn't end well.

But that's only the beginning. Now that disaster has struck, the princess is a monster, and the heroes find themselves in a parallel world to their own full of nastiness, it is up to them (and you) to fix things.

Eternal Eden is thick with storyline, as you can imagine. It also relies heavily upon puzzle and problem solving. These aren't Pathstorm-style brain-melters, but they do can prove pretty challenging. If you really hate games with lever puzzles and moving-objects-around puzzles, then you should probably stay away. But if you enjoy them, Eternal Eden has them in spades.

Another rare approach Eternal Eden adopts is to have a fixed set of encounters. While you can't be certain of exactly what you will encounter when you choose to enter combat, once you win an encounter, the enemy is gone. So far, I've not encountered any respawning. So the combats are fewer and further between, but usually pretty challenging.

You will want to explore every nook and cranny in the game world of Eternal Eden, because it is packed with hidden objects. I'm talking literally - almost every tucked-away corner or alcove has something hidden you can find and pick up. Usually it's a potion of some sort, which comes in very handy in the challenging combat encounters.

Unfortunately, there's no customization in leveling up, and the save-game points are scattered across the landscape, making you never quite sure of when and if you should push forward or retreat. Since monsters are finite and non-respawning, backtracking isn't very time-consuming or dangerous, but in some of the dungeons it can make it easy to forget where you were last.

The game is tightly balanced, very well polished, and very pretty. It exudes professionalism and attention to detail. And, most importantly, it is a lot of fun. If you are a fan of indie RPGs in the old 16-bit jRPG style, I must recommend downloading and at least giving it a go through the free trial period.

You can download it here at Rampant Games, if you feel so inclined. Or not, if you aren't.

Download Eternal Eden Free at Rampant Games

As usual - please post here if you've tried it and let us know what you thought. Just try not to post major spoilers (be vague if you have to). Or I may cry. And you really don't want to see a grown man cry, do you?

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009
 
How to Fix the JRPG
Nayan Ramachandran complains in "Waypoints and Questlogs - Moving the JRPG Forward" that - for all its improved beauty and innovations on combat systems - the Japanese RPG has remained stale on too many fronts, and makes some suggestions on how these games ought to evolve. Including (I say with some sense of fan-victory) adopting some of the conventions that have long been embraced by Western RPGs.

His suggestions include making more meaningful encounters (instead of the usual array of random "trash" monsters), better quest logs, the use of waypoints on maps for quests (within moderation - he acknowledges there are times they are inappropriate), giving characters more life, going beyond cutscenes for character interaction, and going outside the bounds of traditional fantasy settings.

The cut-scene suggestion struck home for me in particular, as two nights ago I found myself ... uh... watching... a LOOOOONG cut-scene in Persona 4 with very limited (and ultimately meaningless) player interaction. We're talking more than a half an hour of just pressing the 'X' button. If you've played the game, you probably know the one I'm talking about (although I fear there may be more long ones in store as I close in on the end-game) --- it's the one that ends with the party standing before the Pearly Gates. While the end result was completely expected - they'd telegraphed what would happen for months of game-time - it was still compelling to see how it played out, with all the drama of characters I've come to care about hitting a crucial point in the story.

I hate to add the "for a game" disclaimer, but... for a game... it was pretty good storytelling. Which is what jRPGs are known for. Except... it wasn't really a game for those thirty to fourty minutes. It was a show on my TV where I got to pick some inconsequential responses in dialog and press the X button to move things along. I guess I could have hit the X button faster to skip the talky parts, but I really was interested in seeing what was going on. I was invested.

It was representative of a lot of what is both the good and bad in jRPGs. On the one hand, you have compelling, angsty, melodramatic storytelling in spades. You have interesting (if too often cliché) characters. But on the other hand, you also get extremely linear gameplay, limited interactivity outside of combat, and Really Freaking Long Cut-Scenes. Choices are limited for no good reason other than the necessity to preserve the linear story or gameplay progression.

As a fan of both styles of RPGs, I'd like to see more done to obtain the best of both worlds. Western RPGs have traditionally been more rooted in the pen-and-paper RPG experience, and typically emphasize open-ended exploration, simulation, interactivity, and player choice - often to the detriment of storytelling (because, you know, the two goals do not get along very well).

But as Ramachandran states, nobody is asking for a revolution here. Just some incremental improvements. I'm pretty much in favor of all of his suggestions (with some reservations for things like quest waypoints that could trivialize exploration if applied universally). But I'd like to add a few minor suggestions of my own to add to the list.

Now, speaking as an indie, I understand that one of the problems we face is that the "jRPG style" games are often constructed using the RPGMaker engine, and that comes saddled with its own limitations. But as Amaranth games demonstrated with Aveyond 2, even such crucial limitations such as the lack of mouse support can often be surmounted.

#1 - Let Grown-ups Be Player Characters, Too!
Why is it that anybody over the age of 21 is "over the hill" in jRPGs? Granted, characters on the cusp of adulthood are definitely in an interesting stage of life no matter the age of the player, and in the past this was closer to the target age of the target audience of these games. But seriously - we could use more grown-ups in grown-up situations.

#2 - More Meaningful Conversation Options
Even modern JRPG dialog with NPCs seems to be stuck in the Ultima III world, with NPCs standing around incapable of saying more than one or two canned responses to player interaction - unless you go to a rigidly scripted cut-scene style dialog sequence which generally features very limited player choice. On the plus side, you can get better dialog from a writer if they don't have to deal with weirdly branching dialog trees that circle back in on themselves. It's plain ol' linear storytelling. But all it is doing is taking the player for a ride. I'd like to see more meaningful choice and consequences. Meaningful meaning it changes the game in possibly subtle but long-term effects, but not clearly favorable versus unfavorable results.

I know, I'm always harping on RPG conversations and dialog. What can I say? It's a neglected aspect of games.

#3 - Better Reminders
Games (both Western and Japanese) are getting better at this, but its still a problem. It's one thing to be told during a dramatic cut-scene that you must seek out Doctor Foozcousin in North Geograville. And it's awfully helpful to be reminded by NPCs later that you really ought to seek out Doctor Foozcousin. But when you haven't been able to play in a week, the whole part about how you might find him in his studio apartment behind Al's Garage in North Geograville gets forgotten. And while perfect strangers in the jRPG mysteriously know that you need to seek out the good Doctor on your quest that they know nothing about, nobody sees fit to inform you of where the doctor can be found.

So you end up hunting all over the world for the doctor, twice. It's only on your second time in North Geograville that you spot the studio apartment behind Al's Garage and think, "Oh, wait, didn't the NPC in that cutscene two weeks ago mention a garage?"

Granted, this could also be resolved by having waypoints relating to your quest on the ol' map, or better quest journal entries. Or the ability to review cutscenes.

#4 - Change It Up
If the player is going to be revisiting old locations, change things up a bit between visits. This doesn't have to be anything radical like leveling or invading the city (though that's cool sometimes, too). But just things to illustrate the passing of time and events. Move the NPCs around, give them something else to say... whatever it takes.

#5 - Character Progression Choices
Give the player some choices when leveling up or otherwise improving their character. Admittedly, many modern high-end jRPGs have gotten better at that (to the somewhat baffling extremes of the last couple of Final Fantasy games). But the old-school tradition is for the progression to occur automatically with little or no player choice. One possibility explored in some games (especially Western RPGs) in the last decade is to allow the player to toggle "auto-leveling" if they really don't want to mess with the details.

#6 - Right-Sized Environments
Yes, I have to fight this problem myself. Sometimes environments get too big with too little to do but walk from point A to point B and deal with random encounters. Break things up. Vary the geography. Add interactive objects or hidden goodies. Or just shrink the environment.

#7 - Save (Almost) Anywhere
The limited save points are an artifact of the cartridge era, where a single kilobyte of persistent memory was a Big Deal. Somehow that got converted from a technical limitation to a game design feature. There are points - like in the middle of a cut-scene, or action sequence, or even combat - where I can understand turning off the ability to save the game for game design reasons. And to make it less of a pain in the butt for programmers to handle state preservation in the middle of a fight or whatnot. But when you are just bopping around the world? Puh-leeze!!!! Have mercy on those of us who can only play in 15-minute increments!

I should note that while Persona 4 still has those accursed save points, they at least made them far more plentiful than in the last game, and allow easy access back to the highest / lowest dungeon level you last visited. Now why certain indie RPGs persist in making you have to hunt around for some place to save your game is completely beyond me...

Finally, while indie RPGs rarely have the problem with overlong cut-scenes, I'd like to see that be a problem indie games continue to avoid.

(Update: I can't believe I forgot #7.)

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009
 
Adventure Games - The Genre That Would Not Die!
Veteran game designer, speaker, and author Ernest Adams takes a look today about the state of graphic adventure games - the genre which, contrary to rumors, is still alive and kicking. Just not on quite the "mainstream" front:

The Genre That Would Not Die

As he explains, "Game journalists often glibly announce that adventure games are on the point of extinction, but they're wrong. Adventure games will never again be the dominant genre they once were, but they have a well-established market niche and the overall number of people who play them is rising, thanks to the recent arrival of large numbers of female and casual players. "

He talks about what has changed, what has stayed the same, and offers some praise to the indie game movement that is allowing for these kinds of games (and many more) to hit the market outside of the controls of the mainstream publishing and distribution industry.

From my own perspective - I was one of those people who thought the graphic adventure game was dead, and was pleased to discover a few years back that I was very wrong. I've since bought several (and might actually finish them all one day...) So far, I haven't found any with quite the level of charm and awesomeness of Grim Fandango or Monkey Island - but those are classics among classics.

But we've got some developers with great potential out there, and I've been impressed with what I've played. I agree with Adams. While they've disappeared from the mainstream's radar for the most part, and sales of the top games are no longer tipping the scale on the level they used to in the late 80's and early 90's, the graphic adventure game - as a genre - seems as robust as ever.

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Monday, April 13, 2009
 
Judith
Judith, by Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle, is.... ah... I'm not sure. A semi-interactive, 3D storybook?

It uses an old 3D raycasting engine (some of us remember when that was Hot Stuff) and deliberately simplistic graphics to convey a fairly creepy story. Or, rather, two interwoven stories - one creepy one, and another made creepy by the other.

It's a little confusing and could use some polish (especially at the end), but it's a compelling experiment that can be played to completion in about fifteen minutes.

Gameplay-wise, it's sort of the world's easiest 3D graphic adventure game. There are several times where the game even takes control away from the player, forcing the action. But the real focus - and what works here (mostly) - is the use of simple dialog, very basic visual icons, and a series of flashbacks to provide the narrative.

Here, the battle between gameplay and story is definitely won by story. The story isn't big or complex. But it was enough to keep me playing. At the end of the game, I still had more questions than answers. I think there's more that could be done here. But at the same time, the minimalist storytelling was kinda the point --- too much exposition would have made it worse.

So how would you improve upon this?

Anyway, you can check it out yourself here, available for Windows and OS 10.5 (plus source code for aspiring game developers):

Download Judith

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Dollhouse
Maybe I'm jest a brainwashed Whedonite, but I'm really starting to warm up to the TV show Dollhouse.

Of course, that probably means that they're going to pull a Firefly on it, and cut it off after four more episodes.

It's weird, twisted science fiction about a company that can reprogram people - wiping or giving them memories, personalities, and skills for whatever their high-paying clientele desires. Eliza Dushku (who played Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is one of their "actives." Which means she plays a different person every week. Mostly.

But there are layers and layers of intrigue going on, and you are never really sure who the good guys and who the bad guys really are. And the technology isn't as perfect as the tech guy, the highly egotistical geek Topher, believes it is. Some things are not getting wiped. Memories are resurfacing, and the actives are, perhaps on a subconscious level, the actives seem to have some kind of conspiracy of their own going on.

And, as good science fiction always should, there are a lot of real-life questions raised about --- well, everything --- using the science fiction as a magnifying glass. Questions about morality and ethics and what makes a human a human. Fun, mind-twisty, Phillip K. Dick kinda stuff.

Unfortunately, that means that it probably isn't mass-market-y stuff, so we may never see how it plays out. But here's hopin'.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009
 
Of PDFs and Piracy
I received extremely short notice from Paizo that my old 1st edition D&D module PDFs that I purchased from them were no longer available, and could no longer be downloaded, nor (obviously) new ones purchased. This was a mandate from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) - they are no longer making PDF versions of their products available. Period.

This had nothing to do with Paizo, I later discovered (who are, for their part, EXTREMELY pro-PDF, and are offering a PDF sale this month). This was apparently a surprise decision from Wizards of the Coast. Talking to friends last night, I found they received similar notices from other venders. Some digging led to the discovery that piracy concerns are being cited as their reason to pull all PDFs from sale.

If this is truly Wizards' stance on the subject, then it is a complete smokescreen of ludicrous proportions. I mean, the genie long out of that bottle. There's no getting it back in. And as for the legacy products - like those for older editions of Dungeons & Dragons - let's get real, here. Those books haven't been for sale in print format in years. PDF sales generated some income or them where there was previously nothing. They may not exactly be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, but they are definitely shutting off a pipeline that was as close to getting "money for nothing" as you can ask for.

So instead, you've got a demand for these products and no legal supply other than some used book dealers. If you outlaw PDFs, then only outlaws will have PDFs... bah, that doesn't sound right. Anyway, moving right along. This lends itself to a lot of speculation. There are a couple of popular theories:

#1 - WotC is starting up a big ol' program of their own that keeps more of that money in-house. Or in amongst a select few that agrees to to newer, more favorable terms to WotC. This jives disturbingly well with their initial third-party license for 4th edition D&D, which mandated a bunch of nasty restrictions on any publisher that wanted to support 4th edition. Or - hey - maybe they'll even go so far as to have a subscription-based system that requires you to pay monthly to look at their older products or something.

#2 - WotC is trying to shut down the sale of older editions of D&D to bolster sales in 4th edition D&D. If their older products are seriously jeapardizing the sales of the newest game, this would indicate that 4E is a lot less healthy than anyone would believe.

Maybe there's some sort of super-secret, amazing trick that WotC has up its sleeve that will make its actions this month make some kind of sense. But at this point, it seems like knee-jerk reactions from a technologically illiterate VP.

I mean, I do feel for them. Really. Piracy Sucks. And while it's a losing battle, you still have to fight it. We'd all dearly love a magical button which would make bits behave in such a way that is fair to consumers and publishers. But ... we don't.

Admittedly, this decision doesn't affect me greatly. While there were some WotC / TSR books I was looking to purchase in convenient PDF format, I'd either bought (and downloaded) the PDFs already, or I own the print copies. In one case, I'd accidentally left a module I was running at home (I'd converted a 1st edition module to 3.5 rules), and it was far more convenient to shell out $5 to buy a PDF copy and download it onto my laptop than to drive home and get it.

It was great having that option.

Hopefully, WotC will reconsider or work out whatever weirdness they've got going on, and be able to restore their rich legacy of RPG materials in digital format for sale and distribution soon.

But in the meantime, it's a suck, and it sure ain't earning them many brownie points.

It's also been an opportunity for other publishers, like Paizo and Dreamscarred Press, who are taking advantage of the controversy to offer a sale on their PDF products. More power to 'em.

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Friday, April 10, 2009
 
D&D Loses Its Creator - Dave Arneson, RIP
Dave Arneson passed away earlier this week from cancer.

Dungeons & Dragons Co-Creator Arneson Dead at 61

He was a gamer, educator, and creator of role-playing games as we know it. While he got into something of a battle over credit and royalties as later editions of the game were published without attribution, he was very much the creator of the game that would become known as Dungeons & Dragons, transforming wargaming into something different.

Something awesome.

He's also taught a new generation of game developers at Full Sail, imparting his hard-won knowledge gained across multiple branches of gaming to students. He also devoted efforts to explore the ability to educate through gaming.

Gaming has lost two of its pioneers in just a little over a year. Arneson will be missed, but he remains a giant upon whose shoulders many new game designers will stand. Rest in peace, and thank you.

(UPDATE: See an awesome tribute to Dave Arneson at Order of the Stick).

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Thursday, April 09, 2009
 
This Way, I Won't Lose It...
So we were getting ready to leave for a short trip to visit my in-laws. I'm taking my laptop, and working on Frayed Knights (among other things) while I'm down there. But I needed to transfer everything for development over between my desktop and the laptop. While wireless is okay for this, I'd prefer a USB drive.

I used to have one. It was a nice, 2 Gig drive that I'd purchased back when 2 gig drives were hot stuff. I got a steal on it for only a little over $60. I'd used it for just this purpose, back then. But then it vanished. I didn't know what happened to it. I'd searched for it for months. Since it's been over half a year, I figured it was finally time to give it up and replace it.

I got a new 8 gig thumb drive for about $30. A good deal, especially for something four times larger than my missing thumb drive.

After putting everything (I HOPE!) I need on the drive, it was time to pack it all up for the extended weekend. I was looking for a safe pocket in my laptop bag where it wouldn't get lost or fall out. I found one pocket that I had completely forgotten about with a zipper and everything. It would be perfect!

And it was... deep. Deeper than I imagined. I rummaged around in there, and thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was where my missing USB thumb drive went?"

You can imagine what happened next.

D'oh. But hey, now I have two.

Have fun!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009
 
Game Designers are Childish and Immature?
Man, I feel like Leigh Alexander is coming out swinging to help us poor game developers who got bullied at GDC last week.

Pixelvixen reported on Heather Chaplin's rant (which most of us are only now hearing secondhand), where she took game developers to task:
Like Wendy slapping around the lost boys, Chaplin patiently but firmly laid down the line. “It is you guys as game designers who are mired deeply in ‘guy culture,’” Chaplin said. The problem isn’t the medium: “You are a bunch of stunted adolescents.” Games avoid any of the things that separate men from boys: responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. And “when you’re talking about culture-makers, this is a problem.”
Leigh Alexander has responded eloquently to Chaplin's rant, and David Jaffe has a surprisingly low-key response as well.

In my opinion, Chaplin isn't wrong, but she isn't right either. (How's that for weaseling?) I think that in part, she's confusing cause for effect, and I think she's also suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision. I'll frame my own opinion / response in the form of an analogy:

This is about like Ms. Chaplin ranting at McDonalds for not offering fine French cuisine and a mature, classy dining experience. And then going further, and not just blaming the managers at McDonalds, but calling them a bunch of immature, provincial, ignorant, uneducated, butt-scratching American hicks. Nevermind that one of the local managers she's ranting about is using his McDonald's gig to pay his way through culinary school.

And all the while, three blocks away, there's a small French Restaurant that almost nobody - including Ms. Chaplin - visits or even knows about. But it offers - if not exactly what she is ranting about - then something pretty close. But no, that's unimportant - the important thing is trying to get McDonalds to change.

Sound silly?

Like it or not, an entire industry has evolved out of making the very kinds of games she doesn't like. Optimized to sell the most possible games, it offers the lowest common denominator in gaming - repeatedly - because that generates (as far as they know) the greatest return. Yeah, this usually means adolescent power fantasies.

It saddens me too, because some of my favorite kinds of games are no longer being produced by the industry that once served me much better. Sure, there are occasional successful diversions from the formula, with a few success stories (The Sims being an almost canonical example - though it's now been a decade since it made waves in the business). But usually an attempt to offer something outside the box in a direction that Ms. Chaplin suggests ends in commercial failure and a loss of jobs.

As far as the designers themselves: As varied as this industry is, painting them with such a broad brush is doomed from the start. I know there are several designers who match her description. Many of the companies that hire the designers pay crap wages and offer a work environment that would only appeal to the kinds of kids Ms. Chaplin seems to be describing.

But there are many others in the business who would be the choir for her preaching if she'd quit calling them names. But 99% of them aren't empowered to change anything. They aren't named Will Wright. They are being paid to do a job, and that job isn't to isn't to sit in an ivory tower and conjecture on how to provide a game that deals with issues of intimacy, intellectual discovery, introspection, and responsibility. No, their job is to very specifically to make level 8 as cool as hell, provide the player a shotgun, and introduce the player to the Battleoid Zombies. Unless said designer relishes a trip to the unemployment line with a depressingly specialized resume, he (or she) is going to do exactly what they are paid to do.

Unless the market for these games shifts (and I think, in many ways, it is starting to do just that - but it's a slow process), the industry that was built to support that market is just gonna keep going with small evolutionary changes. Right now, the mainstream games industry is simply incapable of serving the "broader spectrum of masculinity" (or femininity). It just how it rolls.

And the whole "indie thing" is one big end-run around an industry mired in it's own success.

Take a look at casual games, for example. A decade ago, these kinds of games occupied a tiny niche only being addressed by a few shareware developers and - every once in a while - the occasional bone thrown by the mainstream games industry. Nowadays? There's an entire industry that has built up around them, separate from the mainstream games business entirely but for a few points of intersection (mainly where the big mainstream publishers are trying to "cash in."). It's still not as big as its multi-billion-dollar cousin, but it's growing.

I'm kind of astonished that Ms. Chaplin would issue this kind of rant at the same convention that hosted the IGF awards literally hours earlier. The Independent Games Festival seems to have the tendency these days (from my perspective) on rewarding the weird wannabe arthouse games or the bigger-budget indie titles.

The mainstream games business is McDonalds. In time, it may evolve as the tastes of the general public drift. but if you want something it is incapable of providing, don't just rant against it, and please don't call its employees names. Instead, please take your business down the street to the little restaurant that WILL try and give you what you want. Don't get suckered into believing that McDonalds is the only restaurant in town.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009
 
Persona 4 - Playing Through the Intermission
Warning: The following contains some spoilers regarding Persona 3 and Persona 4, two role-playing games for the PS2 .

Persona 4 is an RPG of modern-era fantasy. Your character is a transfer student from the big city to a small, rural town in Japan - where a sudden string of bizarre murders rocks the small community. Your character discovers that he (it's always a he - you can change your name and customize your growth, but your character's place in society as a whole is fixed) has the ability to move himself and others between dimensions via - of all things - a television set. This isn't just a one-way effect: images from that world appear at midnight on rainy nights on televisions throughout the town in a phenomenon the kids refer to as the "midnight channel."

The midnight channel shows images of the people about to be murdered. Someone else shares the protagonist's power, and uses this dimension as a murder weapon. Townspeople are being kidnapped and thrown into this world, where they face a physical incarnation of a darker aspect of their personalities - a "shadow." Eventually, either by denying that dark side or over time when the fog leaves the TV world and enters our own, the shadow obtains independence and slays its alternate self, leaving the body shrouded in fog in the "real world."

Your character - and his friends (many of whom are rescued from this "TV world" over the course of the game) - undertake a mission to put an end to the murders, to rescue the kidnapped victims (who remember nothing of how they arrived in the alternate dimension), and bring the killer to justice.

The party of teen-aged world-hopping adventurers apparently succeed in their quest, wrapped up during summer break. They catch the suspect in the TV world, bring him out, call the police, and he offers a confession to all the murders. The case is - apparently - closed.

From a meta-gaming perspective, it's obvious that the game hasn't ended yet, and that you are simply playing through an intermission before things really heat up. The game provides plenty of hints that it's not so cut and dried - and the characters admit as much - but for now, the game is treating the story as done, but for a few loose threads and subplots.

This happened in Persona 3, too - the final full-moon boss had been destroyed, the threat to the world apparently destroyed, and the team of elite Persona-users had a party to celebrate their victory. But in that case, the Pyrrhic nature of their victory was revealed very quickly (like, that night), and the "real" threat came to light in a big scene of betrayal and... crucifixion. As if the parallels in this story to Christian theology weren't quite heavy enough...

Persona 4 handles it differently. You have days of normal gameplay, without any major plot development. Not only are you, the player, left a little aimless other than to pursue your own goals (suspicious that there is indeed something more to come), but the main character's companions must likewise adjust to life after a the climax of their great adventure, without having received a satisfactory denouement. The war ended yesterday, and these soldiers have just been sent home to try to adjust to "normal" life.

They complain. They are happy to have achieved their goals and that nobody else will die (although they cautiously note they intend to check the midnight channel just in case), but there's something missing from their lives. They lack purpose. Things like the upcoming class trip aren't just diversions during their quest to save lives, help people, and - yes, play heroes. It's all they have to look forward to.

Chie seems saddened that their table at the food court of the local shopping center is no longer their "special headquarters" where they would meet to prepare or debrief after missions. They reflect on how they cannot tell anybody about their incredible supernatural adventures, or their role in bringing the killer to justice. In spite of the fierce battle they fought and the things they have endured, they are left somehow unfulfilled.

And life must simply go on. Simply.

The game revels in it. The last day of August, the main character invites his friends to come over and enjoy a watermelon his uncle Dojima has brought home. Sitting on the back porch in the sunset, they laugh, they talk, they make plans. Later that evening, after they've left, Dojima reverses his former position on his nephew's companions, and praises him on finding such good friends.

And you keep playing. After this kind of idyllic moment, you know that that the next shoe to drop is going to be a size 20 steel-toed boot. But the game teases you with a little bit more peace and calm. Go your own way, it suggests: do your own thing, the story is over but the world and characters remain...

When I finished Oblivion and had that same sense of "what now?", I didn't feel nearly as compelled to finish sub-quests and keep exploring the world. I knew it was over. Persona 4 provides some clear hints (outside of the obvious meta-gaming knowledge that the game is supposed to take a year, and it hasn't yet been six months) that there's something more going on.

But it lets you explore what life might be like when things are truly over. You get to be normal with your friends - except for occasional excursions back to the TV realm for some practice. (During one such practice, I was very surprised to see Kanji and Teddie - two characters I'd left behind - in a room in the dungeon, apparently practicing on their own. Since the pressure was off, Kanji explained, they were just doing their own thing while the rest of us were busy.)

It's different. I'd probably go crazy if every RPG tried to pull this off. But somehow they pulled off the idea of playing through an intermission like this, and I'm enjoying it. A nice change of pace.

At least until that size 20 steel-toed boot drops.

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Monday, April 06, 2009
 
It's a Matter of (2D or 3D) Perspective!
Juuso posted this week some arguments about 2D versus 3D for indie games from a game developer's perspective. This argument was won by 3D several years ago in the mainstream side of the game development fence. Principally because 3D was cooler than 2D, and the hardcore gamers bought into it so they could wow their friends and folks on chat forums. Or something.

But since all of us are gamers here, I wondered ... what's your preference, as a player? Not just 2D versus 3D, but what sort of perspective? In an RPG?

One of the issues I consistently have with 3D is that objects often don't stand out as well. While everything is lit more "realistically" in a 3D world, they often blend together too nicely. the artists have more control over the look of an object (viewed from a very specific angle) in a 2D game.

I was always a fan of the first-person perspective as a kid, which has been an influence on me. I loved the "you are there" feeling of crawling through the dungeon. I can't say this is my favorite perspective or technology, but it was certainly an influence. It's probably why I loved Ultima Underworld so much. While other RPGs offered a simple first-person perspective (the Wizardry-style view), UU was the first game to offer a full 3D environment. Complete with underwater streams you could swim in. And the now-hated jumping puzzles. This was part of the influence for the perspective in Frayed Knights, but just as significant was the fact that it was extremely easy to do in the basic game engine I chose to use.

Nowadays, the 3D "third-person over-the-shoulder" perspective is popular, as seen in games like Mass Effect. It is a popular perspective for more action-oriented RPGs, as you can see your character and still (kinda) aim in this view. You know, I really don't like this view. Fortunately, most games that I have played with this view allow you to swap perspectives to first-person, so I've been happy enough avoiding this perspective where feasible. It just doesn't do much for me. Except for the inventory screens, I never saw what my character looked like in Oblivion.

The problem with both of these perspectives is the depth-of-field problem - usually resolved by fogging and "level of detail" and what looks like little "horizon gnomes" making stuff visible at urealistically close distances. This also becomes a constraint on the world. Game designers have to make sure not too many objects can appear within the field of view at once, which can impact gameplay.

Then you've got the top-down or "semi-top down" birds-eye-view (both 2D and 3D), even if the perspective is... skewed. 2D JRPGs kinda-sorta gave us this perspective, as you can see in most of the RPG Maker games out there (Aveyond 2, 3 Stars of Destiny, etc.). Ditto for roguelikes, Baldur's Gate, Ultima VI and Ultima VII (and most of the earlier Ultimas, except for the dungeon sequences). An advantage of this perspective is that you can easily see and navigate the environment - there isn't too much problem with objects or paths being hidden by other objects (though it still happens, due to the perspective being slightly shifted or higher objects blocking the ground). Unfortunately, the birds-eye view isnt very pretty. We're used to looking at our world from our own eye level, and from above it just doesn't look so familiar. Which is why most games with this view "cheat" to skew the view to the side even though it doesn't match the camera's perspective very well.

The more distant orthagonal / three-quarter view - replicated in 3D with a "distant" view often found in jRPGs. Eschalon: Book 1, Morning's Wrath, and Depths of Peril are indie RPGs that offer 2D and 3D versions of this view. The problem with this perspective is the occlusion issue. It looks good, but it's easy to have objects (including the player character) blocked behind an object, like a wall. So the game engines have to get creative about things like making objects become transparent or providing glowing outlines of hidden objects.

For 3D games today, there's a distant behind-the-character view, often used in modern 3D jRPGs. This perspective provides a good view of the world surrounding the player character, without the character blocking much of it with their body. But first person and behind-the-shoulder views in 3D, it also adds a bunch of problems for visual constraints - making sure not too many objects appear on-screen at once.

It also makes it difficult to see hidden objects, and camera movement can be an issue. This is usually solved by giving the player some measure of control of the camera, though the environment can also be constrained to prevent interactive objects from being blocked. Persona 4 (pictured) uses both options, depending upon location. In school and in dungeons, the player can move the camera freely. In the town (among other places), the camera follows a very strict track, thus preventing the player from seeing that the rest of the world doesn't exist beyong this one street.

The Spirit Engine 2 offers a rare 2D side-view perspective. Rare for RPGs, that is. Not so rare for side-scrolling action games.

And then there are some games where the viewpoint is somewhat abstract and not particularly consistent - particularly in web-based games.

My personal favorites are - as mentioned - the first-person perspective in 3D, and the top-down (ish) perspective in 2D or 3D. The former I prefer for the experience, and the latter I prefer for the ease of navigation and seeing what's going in the world. (And then there was the RTS game that resembled an RPG, Dungeon Keeper, which offered both...)

So as a player, what's your perspective on perspective in RPGs? And do you have a preference for 2D versus 3D?

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Friday, April 03, 2009
 
If You're Not Indie...
Hysterical video from this year's IGF awards. The punchline is at the end.

Um.... they bleep out the F word, but it ain't exactly kid-safe. Expect giggles from youngun's and raised eyebrows from coworkers if you watch this within earshot:



Yeah!
 
Frayed Knights: Nuke the Town?
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Ruber Eaglenest, AKA El Clérigo Urbatain, with a very interesting suggestion. In a nutshell - his suggestion was to get rid of the towns, and any of the other space "between missions." All the narrative could be done with non-interactive cutscenes, and shopping could likewise be handled between missions.

He admitted that the town in the demo was rough, but expressed concern that the town added very little to the gameplay, and instead sucked development resources that could be better put into the dungeon adventuring. He also noted - very rightfully - that the limitations of 3D require a level of sparseness in the town layout, which means a lot of empty, open space. Which is boring. "The town doesn't add anything to the narrative that you could accomplish with traditional approaches. And I, like a player, just want be from mission to mission without so much waste of time in town."

Rather than just email him back with my response, I thought I'd respond here. Because he brings up a very good point. Not that I necessarily agree with him, but I think he's spot on in that the decision to the contrary demands justification.

Kivi's Underworld kinda takes this approach. Leveling up and narrative take place in a simple interface in-between missions, which are the focus of the game. There are definitely trade-offs here. On the positive side, as Ruber suggests, it keeps the emphasis on the fun part of the game. But we lose one aspect of that makes a great RPG - the emotional attachment to the world. While characters standing around in a town spouting off canned dialog aren't great emotional hooks for an RPG, they do work better than a vague text narrative.

Many of the early RPGs also abstracted the "home base" town down to bare-bones menus. And when I was working on Hackenslash, and had only 40 hours to make an RPG (from scratch), I ended up not only nuking the town, but even nuking a lone merchant for buying and selling stuff.

Ruber is correct - those kinds of things really do consume resources. Mike Rubin has talked about the difficulty of translating experiences from a more text-based world (or, borrowing from the pen-and-paper RPG roots of Frayed Knights, a verbal-based world). In a text adventure or a verbal tabletop game, it is easy to abstract out all of the extraneous details. Going to town to rest or trade equipment can take only three sentences. Of course, if the players decide to do more while they are there, and if the game master is interested, that can expand into an entire mini-adventure, and those details can be fleshed out.

But when you are making the town an actual 3D place, you can't just ignore those details. This has been a problem since the early days of RPGs. For example, a realistic town might have tons of houses with doors - but why waste development resources on stocking each of these houses with people and stuff? You'd end up with dozens of doors in town that were either locked with plot-onium force-fields, or where you would simply get kicked back to the street immediately. And then you had city population sizes that that didn't even come close to that of a realistic hamlet, let alone a bustling town. And you can't just throw in a few details of the local tavern. In a text game, you don't have to describe the furniture. But in a 3D RPG, the lack of furniture, decorations, patrons, plates, mugs, a fire, beer-stains, and all that is very noticable!

So - to some degree - abstracting a town is going to have to occur at some level in an RPG. We have to simplify. But to the level Ruber suggests?

It really depends on what you intend to do with the town. In the Frayed Knights demo, I really ran out of time to complete 1/10th of what was supposed to happen in Ardin. The assumption here is that the gameplay is what occurs outside the town. However, if you played the Ultimas, or the last two Elder Scrolls games, the Baldur's Gate series, the last couple of Wizardry games, or even Depths of Peril, you'll recognize that the towns can be as busy and active of a place for adventuring and gameplay as any dungeon.

That's where I'm going on Frayed Knights. While the bulk of adventuring is going to take place outside of civilization, the goal (assuming I'm competent enough to achieve it, which is quite an assumption) is to have the towns be interesting places to explore, and where (usually non-combat) adventuring will happen. In Mournhold Village, which I'm currently working on (another "town"), most of the key plot developments will require a bit of exploring - and even combat - within the confines of the village.

Secondarily - while the Temple of Pokmor Xang is an exception to the rule (as something of a tutorial adventure), I do not intend to keep a "mission" structure in Frayed Knights. Locations may be revisited at later dates. In fact, there is a room in the Temple of Pokmor Xang (the room to the south of the altar room) which is actually reserved for a later visit. Leaving a dungeon, going back to town, and coming back later are expected actions. Stumbling across optional content is expected. While the game will have a greater amount of linearity than I'd prefer, I'm trying to keep things as open ... and as interesting to explore... as possible.

And that includes towns.

So that's my justification, for what it is worth.

At least, it's my story and I'm sticking with it.

Progress
We've got the first high-level (but boring) monsters in the game... the Crag Wolf. The default camera positioning (and the wolf positioning, and color) are horrible. But they are in there, and managed to slaughter my party (which is still at 3rd level) within 3 rounds. My first attempt at putting the wolves in had their formations together so tightly that the rear wolves had their heads shoved completely inside the front rank wolves' butts. While this made for amusing visuals, it wasn't really what I had in mind.

The higher-level rebalancing has gone... slowly, but it's coming along. Spells haven't been coming along at all, in spite of my ranting and raving last time about them. The big thing right now has been working on feats. At every level, players can choose a new feat for the characters. Some are kinda boring, like adding +1 to Brains. Most are a little more interesting, but still still passive. Some are passive from the player's perspective, but require a bunch of coding on my end... like a feat that allows you to immediately counter-attack when an enemy attempts to attack the back rank with a short weapon (thus allowing Arianna to lay the smack down on a goblin that tries to attack Chloe with a sword). And then there are a few active feats that need to be accessed from the interface in combat.

It takes a lot of code.

We've also got concept art for Victor the Vampire. He's - kinda non-traditional. We decided he couldn't really wear black (too cliche), but white would just not work with his death-like complexion. So we settled on... baby blue.

We think the best way to attack him and flush him out of the protection of his castle is to disrupt his supply of hair gel.

And no, I have no idea how we're going to model his hair, yet. How'd they do Sonic the Hedgehog in 3D?

Mike has the first draft of the music for Mournhold Village. It's walkin' around, background-y music. Here's an excerpt, in case you are interested:

Mournhold Village Music Excerpt - First Draft

We've still got a lot of work to get done in the next four weeks, so it's gonna be busy. And I still - technically - don't have the "first five minutes" of gameplay fully functional. D'oh! Even worse - with the inventory changes - inventory activation isn't working anymore. So potions and Chloe's wand are useless. Double D'oh!

So that's where we are for now. More later. I hope.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009
 
Dragon Tavern
Thomas Rice wrote me yesterday to note that there's another RPG-esque web game out that the new Legends of Zork more closely resembles than Kingdom of Loathing. It is entitled Dragon Tavern, and has been around for about a year. You can check it out here:

Dragon Tavern

Yes, that's me. Shamelessly promoting other people's games. If you've tried it out and feel like reporting on it (or Legends of Zork), please post here in the comments or on the handy-dandy forums.

Update: LazerFX also notes the style of game was popularized by the Legend of the Red Dragon BBS Door game - man, I actually remember those - which now lives on in various incarnations, including the Legend of the Green Dragon.

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Thirteen Years...
So it's my youngest daughter's birthday today.

It's also, coincidentally, my own, but since my daughter and I share a birthday and I'm no longer keen on having that bigger number follow my age, I prefer to focus on the fact that it is HER birthday. For me - being alive (barely) when man first walked on the moon is beginning to show its downside.

But it does afford me the opportunity to look back. And forward.

Thirteen years ago, Alex St. John and Microsoft threw me a hugely awesome birthday party. And they didn't even know they were doing it. There were freaking LIONS there, man. And togas. I started my career at what was probably the "big boom" in the video game industry, and I won't lie to you - it was pretty awesome. It was a time of massive transition - the entire industry and the face of video gaming was changing before our eyes, and it was exciting to be there in the middle of it.

I think that morning Michael Abrash had given a talk explaining what he and John Carmack had done to build the new Quake engine. On the bus on the way to the big party, heard some guys talking with a designer from the Atari 2600 days. And they were all talking about how amazing the world of videogames had changed in just a little over thirteen years (since the release of the original Pitfall! cartridge). I remember thinking how it didn't seem like that long ago, and reflecting on how amazed I was at how much video games - and the industry - had changed since then.

The next day, in Microsoft's post-CGDC DirectX conference, I saw some things that blew my mind. A vision of the future that made me think William Gibson's and Neal Stephenson's technology were now old hat. A glimpse into the amazing future of gaming. A future that now appears relatively quaint. Voice over the internet! Real-time Internet gaming! Massively multiplayer games with hundreds - maybe even thousands - of players playing together in real-time? Wow - that was amazingly cool. The technology - which I had tinkered with a little in the past - was finally becoming mature.

And here we are today:

* Graphics technology is - well, amazing. Not as amazing as it could be. But compared to what Michael Abrash was remarking about in his talk this morning thirteen years ago, it's pretty incredible.

* Online gaming. We can play some pretty impressive multiplayer 3D games in a web browser today. Things I wouldn't have thought would be possible back in the mid 90's. And of course, World of Warcraft has taken over the world of gaming. We'll see if the newly announced OnLive thing actually works.

* Online Distribution and the rise of Casual / Indie / Niche Gaming: In the early to mid 90's, we saw the rise of "shareware" as an alternative to what was otherwise the Only Game In Town. You found yourself a publisher willing to put your game in a box and distribute it to the stores. But shareware was still very much a "back door" that didn't work very well. Today - wow. One thing it has done is allowed game makers to reach "niche" markets that the publishers no longer wanted to serve. Thus we have had the rise of casual games, and we have several "dead" genres make modest comebacks - such as graphic adventure games and wargames.

* Indie Games on Consoles - I really didn't think I'd see this happen. At best, I thought some publisher might go slumming and produce some kind of "indie games pack" shovelware on disc, but not the ability to have downloadable "indie" games on the major consoles like we do now.

* Gaming Goes Mainstream: It was already getting there in 1996, but it's pretty well established now. Maybe some old fogies in public office don't realize it yet, but pretty much everybody plays video games now. Maybe not Gears of War, but they are gamers - a round of Solitaire on the computer, a couple of hours a night in World of Warcraft, online Poker, Wii Fit, Rock Band, Virtual Villagers, or good ol' traditional hardcore gamer fare with blood, guts, and busty women... games are everywhere and part of our culture now.

* The diminishing of non-online hardcore PC games: I've always been a computer gamer at heart, from the time we had to type in the code ourselves (and hey, I guess I still do). The immediacy, the flexibility, the... keyboard and the mouse! There are certain kinds of games that just work better on the PC than they do on the console, and those are the kinds I love the most. But the consoles have an overwhelming marketing force working for them, and they've managed to woo the older hardcore audience - once the domain of the PC - to their camp.

* The staggering increase in piracy: Those technological advancements have also made it trivial for people to steal other people's hard work - remotely and anonymously. Piracy has always been a problem, but it has definitely grown to staggering proportions. I believe that there is a causal relationship between this growth and the diminishing of non-online PC games.

* The rise (and hopefully fall) of "Strong" DRM: The attempt by mainstream publishers to not only clamp down on piracy, but also to further restrict the rights of customers has hit some rocks. If the latest moves by EA are any indication, this may be an idea that is going to give way to a "kinder, gentler" approach in future years.

So having pretty much grown up with videogames and seen so much of the technology and culture change, I ask myself, "What are things gonna look like in another thirteen years?"

Considering how much I didn't really anticipate back then, I'm not sure I can really guess. I expect online distribution and online gaming to continue their current trends - actually replacing brick-and-mortar as the primary means of game distribution within two console cycles (as it is already doing for PC games). I think the way we purchase games may shift a bit more, but I don't know what that will look like. I think something is gonna give on the piracy front, but I'm not sure how that will work out yet, either.

I think the advances in graphics - while still on-going - will be less dramatic. I think the Wii has proven to the industry that the fanciest, most realistic graphics are not the guarantee of success that they once were.

Gaming communities will be a bigger and bigger deal. Gaming is increasingly becoming a social exercise - even in single-player games. Again, what form that will take in thirteen years, I can't predict.

Oh, yeah. And the indies. Indie gaming is growing. The barriers to entry are down. The big publishers aren't even making a pretense of maintaining a stranglehold on distribution anymore. Instead, they are trying to embrace it and cash in. I see the growth - and the problems - continuing.

Beyond that - I just hope its a lot of fun.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009
 
Released: Legends of Zork
The "casual online adventure game," Legends of Zork, is now out.

It looks clever and cool, though there are not many options for character portraits yet. But the overall gameplay seems reminiscent of Kingdom of Loathing - with a more Zork-like sense of humor. But from what little I have played, it's really not... well... adventure-game-y. It's more RPG-esque. Like KoL, it's primarily text-based with some artwork to illustrate what's happening. But not stick-figure artwork. The game is free, but of course there are all kinds of opportunities to pay real money to give your character bonuses and more action points per day.

If it sounds interesting, give it a try and tell us what you think:

Legends of Zork

Hat tip to Sam Graber for the heads-up!

UPDATE: Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a none-to-kind first look at the game, with suggestions on how it can be improved. There are many comparisons as to why this game - at least for now - fails where Kingdom of Loathing succeeds. Whether or not this opinion holds water is up to you to decide.

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