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Friday, May 29, 2009
 
Game Announcement: Science Girls!
Science Girls! (the explanation point is part of the title, I think) is a new RPG from Spikey Caterpiller and Hanako Games (the force behind Cute Knight Deluxe and Fatal Hearts).

This cute, anime-style RPG takes place in a girls' school, which has suddenly inexplicably come under attack by alien plant-monsters. Or rather, they LOOK like plants, but they really probably aren't, according to Jennifer - the biology fan of the team - pointing out that they probably do not have a cell wall, which means that they violate the definition of plant-hood.

Oh, yeah, the science thing.

You are a member of the school's science club, and it's up to the science club to save the school. And maybe the world. I haven't gotten that far yet. Because you are all scientifically-minded, you have some special powers that give you an edge in combat (and something to do besides punching your enemies). For example, the main character - a psychology buff - has an early power to hypnotize and confuse enemies. Jennifer the biology student has the ability to apply first aid, and later (as pictured) to provide a nerve pinch. Just like Mr. Spock.

Nobody said it was realistic. Silly, cute, and fun, sure.

Combat is turn-based, and uses a menu system popular with many jRPGs. I was a little thrown off by the demo for a bit. It took a little while for me to get it through my head that the way to regenerate "special points" to power your abilities was in combat. Every round you regenerate special power points, at a rate of one per round. Coincidentally, punching costs one point, so pummeling an enemy leaves your remaining special powers points unchanged.

I was pleased to find that the monsters very early on often have special powers that require some strategy to counter. Sure, battling the simpler enemies does take a little bit of thought to "optimize" the fighting, but early on you'll be facing enemies that will swallow party members whole (ick!), spawn minions, or create illusionary hologram decoys of themselves.

One of the more amusing aspects of the game is the "Defend" command. The character "hides behind her hands" in a very ... uh, girly way. But, amazingly, it works. The monsters hit less often and for less damage. This also increases the special point regeneration - especially when all three of the front-row members go defensive. This creates a phalanx formation, and gives the other two girls on the front row a bonus special point for each character that defends and contributes to the phalanx.

The strategy here seems reminiscent of Final Fantasy VIII's ability to pull magic out of enemies. I'd delay killing the last of a weaker group of monsters so I could take a couple of rounds pulling magic out of them. Here, I do the same thing - I usually end up fighting the monster down to a point where I think 1-3 hits might finish them off, and then spend some rounds defending and having Jennifer cast healing spells. Er, I mean, exercising First Aid ability.

A character who is knocked to zero hit points is only out of the game until healed, or until the next combat (where they will come back with a single hit point). However, a character who ends a fight knocked down will not get experience points for that combat.

Your party can consist of up to six members of the club, but only the front three can actively participate in a fight. The rest hang out on the back rank, and regenerate special points. They can only be hit by area effect attacks, but they can receive first aid from a front-rank ally. At any point, you can swap them in for someone on the front rank - very handy when one character is getting pummeled badly and is running low on special points.

While so far I am still confined to the school, I have it on good authority (and the screenshot to the side to prove it) that this isn't the limit of the game's environments.

After a certain experience point thresholds are reached, your characters gain a level and gain a bonus point you can spend enhanncing the characters attributes. There are no "classes," exactly, but each character gets her own set of unique special abilities as she gains experience. And, fortunately, the game allows you to save anywhere.

So far, I have not encountered any equipment (though I have had to run back up a few floors to pick up items to get a member of the club to join my party), and precious little by way of quests. There are some items which can be used in or out of combat, which have effects like healing a small number of hit points and recovering some special power points.

The game is pretty light (and lighthearted) fare. In spite of a cameo appearance by Nethack (which gave me a good chuckle), it may not provide much appeal for those seeking a hardcore, deep RPG experience. But those of us who tend to play games in 10-15 minute snatches and don't mind a solid dose of cute (or the other "c" word, "casual") should find much to enjoy here. I certainly have.

As usual for indie games, however, you can download a copy of the demo and give it a test run first. Conveniently, it is not time-limited, but only the top two floors of the school building are playable. The full game is only $9.95, and is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

And so, without further ado, here's the demo:

Download the Science Girls! demo here and check it out (Windows Version)

Science Girls! Demo (Mac version)

Science Girls! Demo (Linux version)

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Thursday, May 28, 2009
 
How To Fix Game Sequels
So the movie Iron Man 2 is scheduled to be released in May, 2010. The first movie was awesome. But if you missed it - hey, don't worry. Just watch the sequel. Once you watch Iron Man 2, there's no reason to go back and watch the original.

In fact, you could just watch Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith to get the whole Star Wars experience. You can skip the other books and just read The Return of the King, too. Ditto for the movies. And Led Zeppelin's final studio album was, arguably, In Through the Out Door. No sense dredging through that earlier stuff, right?

Wouldn't life be weird if we treated sequels or further volumes in a series in other media the same way we treat games? Unlike other media, with games we have the belief that newer is (almost) always vastly superior. Not just the, "If you liked Batman Begins, you'll love The Dark Knight" kind of superiority, but the kind of superiority where going back to play an earlier title is almost physically painful. There is a tendency for newcomers to a game series to assume that previous entries aren't worth revisiting.

Why Sequels and Series?

Our reaction to sequels was born of harsh experience. At least amonst the hard-core gamers who have been at it for a few years.

First of all, games are frequently built upon the foundations of their predecessors. Oftentimes, the sequel is effectively everything the developers wanted to put in the original game, but couldn't. But with the sequel, developers frequently have a solid code base, tools path, workflow, and pre-existing content to build and improve on. So the next game is everything the previous one was, and then some.

But even when that's not the case, the developers (or at least the publishers) also gain experience. Game development is still not a mature science, and the market seems to be constantly in flux. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a game, and the needs of the actual audience (the fans of the previous game), can really help developers make a better game. Each sequel allows them to refine the formula.

In addition, games have been so dependent upon technology that it's difficult to even go back and try to play older games. I spent part of last night trying to reinstall Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, with no success. You'd think a game that came out in the Windows era would be easier to run than an old DOS title, but that frequently isn't the case. I remember excitedly installing Strike Commander on a hot new Pentium once, wondering what the game would play like when finally playing on a machine capable of running it at more than 8 frames per second. Guess what? It sucked. Apparently it had never been tested beyond about 15 frames per second, and the horrible frame rate actually disguised some pretty ugly math issues.

Marketers in the game industry have also really pushed this expectation. It's been very easy for them to sell us on "newer is better," as they have all this inertia to work with. Particularly with games that you don't clearly "win," they have to convince us that while we're still playing and enjoying Madden NFL 08, we should put it on the shelf and shell out another $50 for the "new and improved" Madden NFL 09. And keep doing that, year after year. And so they keep telling us that everything that came before is - well, not exactly crap - but unworthy of our continued attention, and that we should only pay attention to the new and shiny that is coming down the pipe.

Finally, there's the flip side of this issue - as gamers, we have come to expect that sequels are too often little more than "new and improved" versions of their predecessors. An upgrade, not a different game. We have been entrained to view games like widgets instead of entertainment. The stories may be a little different, there may be a couple of new play modes or updated player rosters, but the "formula" that the developers keep refining often gets stale pretty quickly. The enhancements may give us a reason to go forward, but very little argument to go backwards.

Fixing the Perception Problem

Publishers in long-standing novel and movie series often drop any numerals from the title. The concern there is that their potential new audiences may shy away from the newest installment because they aren't familiar with the predecessors. They don't want to limit their potential audience to those who have already enjoyed the preceding works.

This has annoyed me a bit recently, as I've been reading the Harry Dresden novels, and after book six the publisher quit advertising each book's position in the chronology. Fortunately, it's not too hard to hunt down which one is the next book in the series (my friends and my wife have all read them, and have been trying to get me to read 'em for years - as they knew I'd love 'em). I really don't want to read them out of order, but I can see the publisher's intent here. Sequels and new installments in a series in other media frequently increase sales of previous installments.

Game developers and publishers have started shying away from enumerating the order of their games for an altogether different reason: They don't want to sabotage residual sales of previous games in the series. So they disguise their order so each game has to stand on its own. I do not know if this is a valid concern or not - but we gamers definitely come in with our preconceived notions in that regard.

(I should note: This wasn't always the case. The early Wizardry games, reportedly, suffered the same problem as traditional media - their audience was always a subset of the players of the preceding games. Back when the platform - the Apple II - was relatively static, and for full appreciation of the sequels you really needed to have played through the earlier games).

Is It Time For Change?

From my limited vantage point into the sales of things, it does look like a sequel results in a short burst of improved sales of the original, followed by an immediate decline (and then stability). On the indie game front, it's unclear as to whether sequels really cannibalize sales of the original over the long-term or not. But my vantage point is also restricted to a pretty small subset of the wider gaming universe.

On the mainstream front, it is unclear just how many residual sales of older games are actually generated, and at what price point. The bulk of game sales - or so we are told - have run their course within the first three months of the games' release. So why be concerned, as a publisher? Technology as a driver of game evolution also seems to be slowing down. Each successive console generation seems to last a little longer than the last, and four years makes far, far less difference in than it used to in terms of capability and apparent quality.

A lot of the issues with sequels do not apply equally across all genres. Sure, while there was little to prefer Guitar Hero III over Guitar Hero II other than new songs (and I didn't even bother with World Tour), there's not such a comparison between, say, Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy X. I actually preferred the earlier release. Or Monkey Island 2 versus Monkey Island. Sure, the latter was technologically very clearly superior to the first, but both games stand well on their own. RPGs and Adventure Games seem to leave a lot more room for real sequels rather than just a succession of upgrades.

For indie games, there's even less of a natural succession. There's even less technological change, as they are frequently created for compatability rather than taking advantage of the cutting edge. Now, I'd be the first to say that I felt Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest was a superior game to Aveyond: Rhen's Quest (note that Amaranth Games also seems to be deprecating the numbersl in the game titles), that superiority has nothing to do with technology. It's using the same engine. She clearly learned a lot from the first one, and had a bigger budget for the sequel. I'm sure the two chapters of the next game will also show improvement. But these are much more like books or movies. You really, really don't need to play the first game to enjoy the second. Aside from some cameo appearances and a couple of references to the events of the prior game, Aveyond 2 stands completely on its own (and I never played much of the freebie original "prequel" to the series, Ahriman's Prophecy, so I have no idea if I am missing anything... Gee, it sounds like I'm officially Part of the Problem, doesn't it?)

I believe things are already changing. While sometimes even the classics don't always age well, there has been a bit of a surge in interest over the last several years in older games and games that aren't riding the top of the technology curve. Both games and their audiences are maturing. I don't know if we'll get to the point where people frequently revisit an entire series of "evergreen" games like they do certain book or movie series, but I think there's a distinct gravitational pull in that direction.

How to Fix Game Sequels

Unfortunately, I believe attitudes will lag reality for a bit. But I also believe there are a few things that developers / publishers / marketers can do to speed things along - and that's by fixing some of the issues that caused our strange attitudes about game series and sequels in the first place.

#1 - Make an effort to make sequels different, not just an ugrade.
We enjoy a series or a sequel because we want, "familiar, but different." That's a tough tightrope to walk, granted. But half the reason game sequels have such a bad rep is they are too frequently little more than a retread of too-familiar territory.

#2 - Reward familiarity with past games.
While you do not want to even come close to alienating new audiences, it doesn't hurt to reward loyal audiences, or to throw in a little bit of veiled advertisement for older titles in the series.

#3 - Revisit the Older Stuff
Just because game #3 is out in the series with some new whistles and bells does not mean you couldn't or shouldn't go back and provide a little bit of the same TLC for the previous games. No, nobody expects you to support them as well as when they were new and leading your sales charts. But going back and letting them take advantage of some of the easier-to-import improvements you've since made in the newer titles could give them a nice bump. And if those older games are still worthy of your attention, that leads us to believe they may be worthy of ours.

Hopefully, one day, we won't have quite as much a problem with sequels being treated as simple upgrades - by developers OR consumers.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009
 
JT Vs. Utah
*SNICKER*

Okay, not that several people on my state legislature don't deserve prosecution - for failure to pull their heads out of their butts, if nothing else. But one would think that these kinds of antics showing the man's stripes would have a proper effect on his credibility.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009
 
Programmer Art
Curiously enough, today I planned to talk about my pathetic efforts to create art assets for my game. Interestingly enough, Gareth Fouche had the same plan. And some very pretty attractive art assets to show off. I'm jealous. If you are curious about the process, you can see it in action here:

Scars of War Blog: From Concept to Game Asset

I think Gareth and I have acquired licenses to much of the same texture and 3d model assets - there may be a bit of similarity in our content, in spite of radically different generations of game engine. But you know - that doesn't really bug me. TV shows and movies often re-use props, costume elements, set pieces, and especially sound effects (and the Wilhelm Scream). Indies cannot afford to keep reinventing the wheel.

But for people interested in creating art content for games, here are some tools I use and resources I have found useful:

Blender 3D
I am a convert to the cult of Blender. Now, to be honest, my experience in other 3D modeling packages has been limited. I've only tinkered with Multigen, Maya, and Wings 3D, and while I did a bit more work in Milkshape, I was never as proficient as I am in Blender. I still have a lot to learn across the board, but it's an extremely powerful 3D modeling package.

To get you started, here's Nygel Symes' video tutorials on Blender were really what got me over my hurdles of using Blender, coupled with some of the tutorials over at LowPolyCoop. Also, check out Psionic 3D Game Resources, especially the Zombie Tutorials for making a low-poly model. It uses Milkshape 3D, and some texture unwrapping packages that aren't even available anymore, but the information and process is incredibly useful regardless of what 3D modeling packages you are using.

GiMP
The Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is open-source (free!) 2D art software. It lacks some of the whistles and bells of its bigger (and expensive) siblings like Photoshop, but there are a bunch of downloadable plugins out there for it that help fill the gap nicely. It's a pretty dang sophisticated and powerful piece of software. And the price can't be beat!

Here are some Gimp tutorials to get you started.

Quark (Quake Army Knife) & Torque Constructor
These are getting a little bit old-school, now, as Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) levels are becoming a little passe for modern game engines. But not for me, right now. I have finally been weaned off Quark in favor of Constructor - which has become reasonably solid (finally). There are a few nifty video tutorials available for Torque Constructor now. QuArK has a lot more of a broad base of support, but in both cases there is no substitute for experience.

Genetica
Genetica is a seamless texture generator. In all honesty, the final results aren't anything you couldn't create in Gimp or Photoshop once you really know what you are doing and all the "tricks" of the trade. But Genetica streamlines and pipelines the whole process, making it pretty fast and easy. More importantly, it allows you to make a small change earlier in the process without having to repeat all the subsequent steps manually - you can see almost instantly the difference changing the noise function in step 3 would have down the line at around step 17.

The results are pretty impressive. And seamless, allowing them to be tiled and repeated / tessellated easily.

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Monday, May 25, 2009
 
Shareware and the Golden Age of PC Games
Eurogamer has an article about the "golden age" of shareware in the early-to-mid 90's. Very worth reading:

The Shareware Age

Hat tip to Scorpia for the link, and I happen to agree with the Stingered One that they do seem to overstate the influence of shareware on the PC gaming scene. Apparently, all gaming must be console-style action gaming, and the top shareware games of the day definitely helped turn the PC into ... uh... just another console.

But the article really doesn't give enough credit to mainstream developers. About the same time Wolfenstein 3D broke ground on the first-person shooter genre, an amazing 3D action-RPG was hitting store shelves, entitled Ultima Underworld. Wing Commander, also by Origin, is blamed by many designers of ruining PC game development in a similar fashion to how Star Wars "ruined" American cinema. It issued in the era of the blockbuster. Wing Commander, incidentally, predated Doom by about three years.

This "golden age" was also the era that brought us Eye of the Beholder, Falcon 3.0, The Elder Scrolls (influenced by Ultima Underworld, I'm certain), X-Com, Lemmings, Civilization, a whole slew of killer graphic adventure games from Sierra, Legend, and LucasArts (oh, yeah, and Cyan), X-Wing, TIE Fighter, the Star Control series, Stunts, Out of This World, Prince of Persia, SimCity, System Shock, Alone in the Dark (long before the consoles lay claim to the "survivor horror" genre), Ultima VI and Ultima VII (parts I and II), Wizardry 6, Darklands, The Incredible Machine, Syndicate, Red Baron, and a whole ton more that I am no doubt missing here.

I may also note that - unless I missed it - the article missed a major low-tech hits of the shareware scene - Scorched Earth. Gameplay still trumped technology, even then.

Frankly, it was a wonderful era to be a PC gamer, and shareware was just a small (but significant) part of it. Yes, at the time, action games typically played second fiddle to an outstanding array of role-playing games, adventure games, flight simulators, strategy games, and even golf and solitaire. I kinda miss that, actually. But it was far from being in any kind of ghetto. From 1990 - 1995, the PC gaming scene was as vibrant as one could imagine, both with shareware and mainstream gaming.

In my opinion, the "revolution" wasn't about shareware, but two other things: VGA, and the end of the computer wars. While the article suggests that VGA was adopted only slowly, by 1990 it was pretty much the standard even on business computers. At this point, it was in general graphically superior to any game consoles out there, and the DOS-based PC had finally emerged from the clash of competing systems as the clear victor and standard (as "standard" as PCs ever got, which wasn't very...) around which game publishers could build a business.

This isn't to say that Doom didn't pretty much put PC gaming on the map as far as mainstream consciousness is concerned. At the time, consoles had been geared for a more juvenile crowd, and video games were still viewed (even by the console manufacturers themselves) as a pre-adolescent pastime. Doom was starkly adult in nature, with graphic (if pixelated) violence and a darker theme. It was the wake-up call that grown-ups liked games too - and the PC was the only platform that really catered to their needs.

That's changed a bit now, of course. A lot has changed. Though it seems as though the PC has led the way again on the casual gaming front. History repeats itself, I guess.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009
 
Indie RPG News Roundup, May 2009
There have been a few interesting developments on the indie CRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) front. Most of them begin with the letter "A." Or at least a vowel. Depths of Peril, as always, remains a rebel. Here's what I've heard so far:

Aveyond 3
The newest release in the best-selling Aveyond series of RPGs is in beta, and its release date has been moved from May to June - hopefully in the first half of June. However, rumor has it that this isn't the only change happening to this game. Possibly due to constraints imposed by the casual portals (which are in the middle of a price war), Aveyond 3 is being broken into two chapters. The intention, going forward, is for Amaranth Games to produce smaller RPGs on a more rapid timetable.

She assures everyone that she is cutting the price in half as well, so there's no paying extra for the full game.

Aztaka
Aztaka is an action-RPG based on Aztec legends featuring very attractive graphics and 21 ... er, levels. You are Huitzilo, heir of the sun god, thrust into a war between the gods and mankind.

The demo was recently made available, so you can try it out by downloading it HERE.

Avernum 6
Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software has posted the details about his next indie RPG, Avernum 6. Sure enough, this will be the final episode in the Avernum series. Who knows what he'll be doing next? Anyway, you can read about the details in his forum post. The new game will feature improved graphics, with all-redone artwork, and the ability to run at different resolutions or in a window will be in. And some more goodies familiar to long-term fans of the series.

Eternal Eden 2
Breaking our streak of RPGs beginning with the letter "A" is the upcoming sequel to the hit jRPG-style Eternal Eden. It is planned for release before the end of the year. According to the developer, Eternal Eden 2 will focus on Japhee, a female protagonist who possess a mysterious clairvoyance gift. Thanks to her special ability, the player will be allowed to influence parts of the game by reading the future through special artifacts.

The original game was a very high-quality, professional production. And a lot of fun. I expect nothing less of the sequel.

Depths of Peril
Steven Peeler and Soldak Entertainment continue to update this Depths of Peril, a very dynamic hybrid action-RPG. Patch 1.014 is now available at the Official Patch Web Page, and the list of changes can be found here. This seems to principally be a bugfix patch - though users of dual monitors or those having trouble running at their screen resolution should be able to enjoy the game properly now.

Telepath Psy Arena 2
Since we're out of the vowels, let's keep on going, shall we? This is one I just heard about. Telepath Psy Arena 2, according to the developer, is a strategy RPG featuring relatively small, Shining Force-style battles and a marketplace where you recruit your force. There are currently 12 unique unit types to choose from with different strengths and weaknesses, and a roster of 40 unique enemy types to fight against.

You can download the free demo of this game that is still in production here:

Telepath Psy Arena 2

There's more I could tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya. Or something. Anyway - phat loot for all! The indie RPG scene keeps getting more interesting!

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Friday, May 22, 2009
 
That Feeling That You Are Inevitably Hosed...
Mike Rubin has a post today that will no doubt ring true to any developer - indie or not - who has ever struggled along with a project that has lasted beyond the initial "honeymoon period." There comes a time - several times in fact - when you take a step back, look at the project as a whole, and say to yourself:

"This game is utter crap! What the hell am I doing wasting my time with this?"

In fact, I've heard similar expressions of shock and horror by licensors or others who find themselves taking a peek inside the ol' sausage factory for the first time. I have heard many of the suit-types trying to explain to investors, license-holders, and others that games don't really begin to resemble games until just a couple of weeks before it goes into formal testing.

And sometimes, not even then. Yeah, I know that road...

Anyway, I don't know the answer to that one. There have been a couple of projects I've given up on too, as an indie (earlier in development, fortunately, as I recognized that they had issues with 'em). And there have been a couple of cases - even recently - with Frayed Knights where I've felt the same. Both a despondency that it will never be "good enough," and a feeling that there's just too freakin' much to do that I'll never finish it all.

All I can say is, Mike, I know at least one person who really wants to play the final, finished game. I dunno if that helps or not, but if not, here's something else to consider: You are local enough that if you give up, I can easily hunt you down and hurt you...

The Monk's Brew: One Thing He Forgot to Mention

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Frayed Knights - Not Giving You the Time of Day
Because you demanded it - well, okay, you didn't. But because someone somewhere might be remotely curious... Wait, that doesn't sound quite right either. Okay - because I said I would, in spite of the complaints and angry pitchfork-and-torch-wielding townspeople - here's another installment in the continuing saga of the development of Frayed Knights, the comedic indie role-playing game (RPG).

When Last We Left Our Intrepid Adventurers...

This week, I focused on "The next five minutes." Not minutes 6-10 of the game, because that's already been covered (if subject to some changes) in the pilot. No, I wanted to focus on what happens in the next five (to fifteen) minutes of the game after the pilot ends.

If you remember, the pilot ends with Benjamin leaving the Frayed Knights in shame (and under threat of bodily harm) after it was discovered that he'd revealed their quest information to the leader of a rival adventuring group - Florentine - while in bed with her a couple of nights earlier. As a result, her team - the Heroes of Bastionne - had beaten the Frayed Knights to the punch, taken the prize, and used it to get into the good graces of the local member of the Adventurer's Guild.

Loose lips sink ships. And sink chances of getting a coveted membership in the Adventurer's Guild.

The pilot episode (which is going to remain in the full game in pretty much the same piece - enhanced, updated, improved, but not fundamentally altered) is somewhat constrained and a little more linear than I'm generally trying to go for. The next morning things open up a bit more. Shops are open, more people are about, and opportunities open up for more exploration.

This means a lot of work for me.

(Not) Giving You the Time of Day

One thing which I wanted to experiment with was changing the time-of-day. Now, I'm using the Torque Game Engine, which has some pretty nice lighting, but it comes at a cost - it relies heavily upon "static lighting" which it can pre-calculate in a lighting pass in advance. This is time consuming, and it caches the results so that future lighting passes take less time.

I spent a bit of time this week working on a dynamic time-of-day system, which unfortunately has a lot of ugly side-effects. For one thing, it breaks the lighting cache, so that it means we always have to relight all the time to make sure we've got things lit properly for whatever time-of-day you are entering the world. And it is time-consuming. Annoyingly so. Especially as the scenes and towns get more complex (as Ardin is about to...) .

So I'm looking for an alternative. This probably means having duplicate versions of areas -- one for daytime, one for nighttime -- which is going to be quite problematic, especially for setting up triggers and events based on area geography and my existing flag / event record system. There may be other solutions as well that might not look as good. Or I may have to fall back on not having time-of-day - which would suck. Because I'd hate to lose this:

Ardin By Day

Ardin By Night

Kicking Ben Out of the Party

So Benjamin was kicked out of the party at the end of the pilot. I didn't actually boot him from the party roster at this point, because there were more important things to worry about at the time (like getting the save-game working).

However, because the party roster WILL change a little as the game progresses, and because the player could probably use the ability to change party order around as things change, I implemented that this week. So the next day begins with Sir Benjamin NOT appearing in this party - he shows up as an NPC (non-player character).

Once again, I was impressed with how much flexibility I'd placed in my system to allow this, as well as by how much additional work I still had to do to make this happen properly. I had to create a "reserve party" to compliment the "active party," and a mechanism to switch between the two. The reserve party must also be saved with the save game - you don't want to lose a character's stats and updates in-between sessions, if they may be rejoining the party later, right?

This isn't to say that the Frayed Knights are going to have a revolving door policy on membership. Or that the world will be filled with recruitable NPCs. Since Frayed Knights has an emphasis on character and dialog, I have to keep pretty close tabs on the party. (This is part of why characters are "incapacitated" rather than killed or unconscious - I want them still able to talk! As a side benefit, it makes torture much more convenient...)

In addition, I added some other tweaks - like having speaker-less text in dialogs. And flagging it as an "aside" - an aspect of dialog that I have never used and I may never use outside of speaker-less text. The idea was that if party members are talking to each other without the other characters hearing what they were saying, this would be noted by a different color of background. In practice, I'm not sure it matters. But I like having expository text for the player.

The Big Event!

One major advantage of using Torque is the scripting system. While it can be amazingly frustrating to work with sometimes, it's also amazingly powerful. I mean, you can stick a script anywhere and execute it. I would go so far as to say it's moderately more powerful than the system in Neverwinter Nights. A lot more powerful, if you consider the ability for me to go into the source code and add even more functionality to the engine that can be accessed by scripts.

But - it's not all "hugs and puppies." There is a lot of framework in place for triggering recurring, non-saved-state events based on what is assumed to be a pretty static environment . TGE was optimized for first-person shooters, after all. Heavily conditional triggers based on sequences of other events firing don't have a lot of built-in support. Keeping track of humongously complex RPG states across saved games has virtually nothing built-in to help. So any support for this sort of thing is a do-it-yourself opportunity, which makes it a little harder to make some of the cool, complex behaviors and events like I used to do in Neverwinter Nights (which had it's own problems, as well).

Nevermind my willingness to kill for access to the amount of customizeable content I had in Neverwinter Nights, too...

Besides creating that level of support for myself (a bunch of "black triangle" work, some of which has been thankfully bearing fruit now), I've been going through a bunch of old RPG walkthroughs analyzing their quest and event structure for research. These games had fairly simple quest / event structures as well, and the designers managed some pretty cool things with very simple tools. They also managed to create some pretty amazing bugs, too, which is not anything I am immune to. But it has pretty helpful both to organize my thoughts and come up with some neat ideas, while avoiding absurd levels of complexity that I might otherwise saddle myself with.

Well, that's it for now. Time for me to hit the ol' dungeon again... meaning I have to build it. The Tower of Almost Certain Death is getting a new basement level, because it was just too small as a tower.

Later!

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Thursday, May 21, 2009
 
Persona 4 and the Amazing Idiot Box
I have finally finished Persona 4. For realz, this time. :) The dang thing concluded with my total time spent barely touching the triple digits. While I can't say I enjoyed every minute of it, on the whole it was a very enjoyable hundred hours. In particular, I was struck by the primary themes of the game, and its use of the television as a metaphor. Warning - this post contains some spoilers. I can't talk about this stuff without some spoilers, but I'll try and keep the details minimal and vague.

Once again, the fusion of RPG with dating sim worked very well together. It has been further enhanced in Persona 4 with the other playable characters having their own abilities enhanced as their bonds of trust improve with the main character. In general, the other characters were much more fleshed-out and believable than in the previous game, and the game mechanics were more varied and interesting (and challenging). I compare how compelling this game (and its predecessor) were for me over the more hyped, much-bigger-budget Final Fantasy XII - which I completely lost interest in after about ten hours of play - and I have to suggest that this is one of the most significant console RPGs to be released in recent years.

The Persona series breaks with jRPG convention on some fronts, but it still clings to type in many ways. Persona 4 has long, barely-interactive cut scenes, limited save locations (but more plentiful than in the last game), lots of grinding, and excruciatingly linear narratives (but at least you can pick and choose between advancing many of those relationship-based stories as you go). Oh, and it cheats. So it's far from flawless.

But in the final scene, as the main character boards the train and I endured some cheesy professions of enduring friendship from his fellow world-saving teenagers, I couldn't help but feel a level of satisfaction in the end I haven't felt with many RPGs, and a desire to return to this world and explore it a bit more. There are people there I care about. Even the annoying, living teddy bear who threatened to be a Jar-Jar Binks at the get-go.

The ("true") ending predictably concludes with the friendships you've forged pulling you back from the brink of doom and despair to become something like Neo from the Matrix, impossible to kill by your godlike arch-foe. In this case - as in the last game - your final showdown isn't against someone that you've grown to hate. Rather, you are fighting a god who feels they are actually acting according to the desires of humanity. You and your companions are standing against the passive tyranny of the majority.

In many ways, the "enemy" in this game is the television, the opiate of the masses. Yes, this is a video game that embraces its own hypocrisy and decries the boob tube. The idiot box serves as the portal into another dimension in this game - a bizarre conceit at first blush, which ends up making perfect sense in light of the theme. In Persona 4, it serves as the portal to the other world, and the proof of mankind's preference for dreams and illusion over harsh reality, and ultimately the instrument of this world's destruction,

On the supernatural "midnight channel," people find artificial connections to others. Their closet voyeurism is rewarded by what seems to be a peek into the soul of recent celebrities. But even this is only a shadow of the real thing - a sliver of their target's secret soul, a caricature portraying not what they truly are, but what the audience wants to see. Sorta like how reality shows are edited to portray participants in a very specific light, consistent with the character the producers want to sell to the audience.

The triumph of the protagonists comes from embracing truth over illusion. First, when in need of rescue and confronting their "shadow" selves, they immediately fail the test and deny that these less savory aspects of their soul are a part of them, a part that they keep hidden behind their public façade. The reinforced lie empowers the shadow to become an independent entity and kill its former host. But when they eventually embrace the truth, the victims become heroes, and their former tormentors - their shadows - become their allies in the form of personas.

Later, the party finds itself in a position to embrace the obvious solution to the mystery, goaded into action by the midnight channel itself and circumstantial evidence. Falling for this trap (which is easier than it sounds, as getting into an argument of right versus wrong can distract the player from the goal - to discover the truth) ends the game on a very unsatisfactory note. The protagonists must continue to dig deeper to learn not only the identity of the true murderer, but ultimately the being responsible.

It's only then that the loose ends start getting tied up. You learn why you (and two others) gained the ability to travel between worlds through the television prior to acquiring a Persona. You find out how the midnight channel came to be, a little more about the nature of the other world, and the goals of the entity that orchestrated the entire deal. And, in the end, you must strip away her own façade - matching that of the legend told to you by Mr. Edoki during the class trip.

(Unfortunately, that "stripping away of the façade" means the game fell into the all-too-common jRPG convention of making you fight a major boss multiple times. Because a single boss fight is too easy - you need to do multiple back-to-back boss battles! With the same dude! Yeah! Okay, I digress. )

Your ultimate victory comes down to choosing truth over illusion, and choosing your own destiny over that of a blanket solution determined by the majority (oooh, hey, insert "big government" rant here... Oh, wait, that's another major digression). The few triumph over the passive will of the many, the fog lifts in the other world revealing that what had been hidden in the hearts of men was actually something beautiful, not horrible.

All-in-all, it's a pretty powerful theme in a well-told story, in spite of the principal character having almost no voice (other than occasionally shouting out the names of his summoned personas).

I still maintain that traditional storytelling, as we've proven to have a difficult time escaping, has at best a shotgun marriage with gameplay. Japanese-style RPGs, in particular, tend to force the combination by simply alternating between the two. We get a half-hour of dramatic exposition, followed by two hours of barely related hacking and slashing, and a little bit of storytelling woven in at the end with the end-level boss exchanging angst-ridden dialog with the main characters as his health meter drops into the next quartile. If anything, the storytelling acts as a reward sequence, like those little cut-scenes every few levels in Pac-Man, writ large. Very large.

But sometimes those game developers can make it work, dang it. Especially when the payoff incorporates those choices that you made throughout the game (in this case, the relationships you maxed out). Persona 4 is rich in solid storytelling, in spite of the complications arising from the medium. The game's powerful theming takes it far beyond the cliché of it's otherwise traditional "Kill the Foozle" climax. You aren't battling an enemy, exactly, but the incarnation of a false belief.

After pleading, posturing, bragging, and declaring your doom, this final boss - the architect of all your troubles is finally brought down. The final words on her lips, before fading with the fog that has clouded a world created by the hearts and imaginations of mankind, are: "Children of men - well done!"

Well done, indeed.

Now if you'll excuse me. I feel a strange compulsion to step away from the television (and video games) and go accomplish something real for a while.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
 
The DMCA Eats Kittens. I Have Proof.
Well, okay, I lied. Maybe not kittens. YET. But maybe cars:

Right-To-Repair Act Proposed... for Cars

So apparently a non-dealer car shop breaking the encryption on your car engine's computer so they can repair it is a violation of the DMCA. Yeah. Encrypting the diagnostic chip in your car engine to lock out non-dealer service people. Brilliant. Ever get the feeling that in the war of the pirates and rip-off-artists versus the businesses, creators, and producers of the world, the consumers are the ones taking the most casualties?

You know, what's really needed here is consumer education. This is the first I have heard of this practice. Why is that? You'd think that the competition would have a field day making this known - unless they all do the same thing.

Hat tip to GamePolitics.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
 
RPG Design: In Defense of ... Hit Points
Hit points are stupid.

Hit points are the general term used in RPGs to measure a character's health or ability to absorb damage. Different games may use other terms, but often fall back to the standard name given by the granddaddy of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons.

Hit points originated as an abstract representation of the ability to absorb attacks by a military unit of organization. When pulled from the wargame world to Dave Arneson's Blackmoore campaign (the origin of Dungeons & Dragons), this arbitrary measure was retained. The value made little sense - while a certain number of damage points might work to measure a ship's seaworthiness or a platoon's ability to take casualties and continue fighting, it was a poor measurement of an individual's health. After all, people don't just keep functioning unhindered while absorbing loads of damage, and then suddenly conk out once an empirical threshold is reached.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, co-creator Gary Gygax tried to explain that hit points were only an abstraction. While an eight-point blow from a sword might be a lethal blow to a normal villager, for a skilled fighter (with dozens of hitpoints) this might only be a scratch - or even a lack of contact altogether, but more a representation of his stamina being "worn down" as he dodges what would have been a lethal blow. In other words, the abstraction of hit points included all kinds of other factors that would have been too tedious to model in the game.

A good argument, but it still falls a little flat when it becomes impossible to kill a fighter with a direct, maximum-damage hit from a CANNON.

And then other games went and modeled it anyway. I've played some of them. And yeah, they can get a little tedious. One of my favorite game series, the dice-and-paper World of Darkness game series, does this. They defend the tedium and complication by the intent that combat isn't all that much of a regular event in those games. Unless you are playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse, maybe...

However, the complexity of the simulation doesn't excuse computer RPGs. After all, an antique TI-99/4A can crunch numbers like nobody's business compared to a dice-and-paper tabletop game. We could get all the way down to simulating which tendon just got severed, the wound's impact on particular actions, track the risk of contracting tetanus, and exactly how much blood was lost before the wound was closed.

But is it fun?

That's the question. For some, it is. Some games - even dice-and-paper RPGs - actually get pretty detailed. Hackmaster even plays the level of detail for humor value (though it still uses hit points as a basic system). And I'm enough of a hardcore simulationist that I enjoy the more detailed combat systems that eschew the simplicity of hit points (by any other name) for more gritty wound levels or whatnot. But then, I'm also one of the players who thought that practically needing the equivalent of real-life pilot training to play Falcon 4.0 was part of the fun.

But even so - I really am not turned off by hit points. They may be stupid and unrealistic. They are an almost pointless abstraction in computer RPGs. They get friggin' silly as characters start unleashing triple- or quadruple-digit-damage - just a meaningless gamey element with no grounding in... anything.

But the dumb ol' D&D-style "hit point" mechanic has some compelling virtues that make it fun:

#1 - It's simple. Players can easily make decisions based on this mechanic, and don't need a big learning curve to understand it. Even beginners "get it" quickly.

#2 - Players can (usually) receive fair warning. Hit-point based combat comes down to a race to zero health. Simple hit-point based systems allow you to recognize you are losing the race and adapt accordingly - changing tactics or retreating. While the threat of instant death can be kinda exciting, when it actually happens to your character it's kind of lame.

#3 - It keeps combat balanced and exciting. While it is more realistic to have injuries debilitate a character long before they kill him, this leads to one-sided battles. The stronger (or luckier) side gets an early advantage that keeps widening. An early setback in the plain ol' D&D hit point system doesn't practically guarantee failure. You can still make a comeback. The playing field doesn't change balance much until individuals start dying on either side. And, thanks to #2, you get plenty of warning.

#4 - Increasing numbers are psychologically appealing. We like measuring growth. With simple hit points and damage - as incredibly unrealistic (to the point of ridiculousness) as it is - it's tremendously appealing to see your formerly 50-hit point loser who used to do damage 8 to 12 points at a time dishing out triple digits of damage with every hit and sitting at 9,999 hit points or something. Sure, this appeal can be emulated in other ways, but with the D&D style hit points and damage, it's pretty obvious and clear. When you go back to the old neighborhood to take on those old level 1 goblins that used to bully you, you aren't just killing them in one blow - it's clear just how much of an overkill your casual sword swipes really are.

Now, I'm not saying that hit points are "the best system" for games. There ain't no such thing - it really depends on the game. But as silly and unrealistic as the system is, it has some very appealing virtues as well, and shouldn't simply be dismissed as pointlessly old-school.

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Monday, May 18, 2009
 
Science Girls "Taster Video"
I'll just link to the I Whine About Games blog with a sped-up example of combat in the upcoming indie RPG, Science Girls:

Science Girls Taster Video

I still don't know much about this one. Hanako's only given little tidbits about it thus far.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009
 
Annual Trek to the Renaissance Festival!
I spent a good part of the day yesterday wandering around in costume at the local Renaissance / Medieval Festival ("And Fantasy Faire," the signs noted, making certain that those who prefer Gondor to Agincourt or Florence don't feel left out).

The local newspaper was there covering the story, too, which was cool. This was the first year they did, and this was a good year to do it. The festival has grown nicely over the last four years since it started. The first one, three years ago, it was kinda pathetic. Which is terrible to say, since my wife was performing at that one. But this year, the crowds were really turning out, and there was some plenty of fun stuff going on. Magic shows, stunt demonstration, musical performances, dancers, and of course the jousting.

I always love the jousting, though I have yet to see an unhorsing. I'm am always amazed at the size of the horses, and the amount of armor these guys wear. They hit each other with a respectable amount of combined speed and force. The lances take the brunt of the force, often shattering into several pieces that go flying across the field.

And there are plenty of ways to be parted with your money. Back in the 80's, if you were looking for a good morning star, you didn't have many other options besides the Ren Fest or a couple of mail-order places. Now in the Internet age, that's not a problem anymore, but it's still fun to browse the booths and see what's available. I was looking for a good battle-axe for my collection, but I didn't find one I really wanted. Maybe next year.

I did find myself cynically musing a little during the joust as what someone from the middle ages might really think of our modern, idealized, commercialized, edited-for-modern-tastes rendition of medieval life at these festivals. They'd probably find it unrecognizable.

But probably a lot more fun.

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Friday, May 15, 2009
 
I Am Going to Computer Maintenance Hell
So it started a couple of days ago with my computer suddenly shutting off suddenly and sporadically. Not a nice shut-down --- a shut off. Power suddenly going away.

A little bit of experimentation over the course of a day or two revealed that it was the cooling system. Or specificially, the fan on my really cool liquid-cooling system I bought three years ago to protect my then-awesome (and expensive) CPU.

Nowadays, the cooling system costs three times as much as the CPU to replace. Hmmm....

I'd configured the bios to automatically shut off the system if the CPU ever became too hot. Strangely enough, the cooling system worked okay without the fan as long as the system was just sitting idle or doing nothing more taxing than browsing web pages. But if I started playing a game or doing too much 3D editing or whatnot, it would shut off on me.

I have to either fix or replace the fan, but that might take a little bit of time. I have a bunch of old CPU fans from a graveyard of older PCs sitting in storage, so I began salvaging. Unfortunately, none of them fit. So I fit the fan in with one screw, and locked it into place with ... ummm.... a heavy-duty paperclip. I'm not sure if that is a step above or below spit and bailing wire.

However, it seemed to work great, and I was able to do some gaming without any CPU overheating. It's not a permanent solution, but it keep me going for a few days.

Speaking of hardware issues - you may have noticed that the website has been going up and down. We're working on a solution for that, and should be migrating the server to new hardware soon. So expect a little more down-time over the weekend, and then Rampant Games and Tales of the Rampant Coyote should be in a new home.

UPDATE: If you can see this, we should be migrated to the new server now. Seems the hard drive on the old system died, so we expedited a move to a new host. There are still some issues being resolved - game links not quite working right yet. But we're getting there. Slowly. Hey, Laxius Force is working, I think....

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Thursday, May 14, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Making Buttons Click Is Not Much Fun
And now - the continuing saga of Frayed Knights, an indie RPG in development here at Rampant Games.

Motivation is a tricky thing.

It's easy to get motivated when working on a game if there's a steady paycheck involved, or if you are working on some really cool parts, or if it's the beginning of a project and things are coming together quickly.

On the other hand, when it comes to working on user interface code in my so-called "spare time" to make a friendlier version of inventory management (something inherently boring in its own right), it can be a problem. Sometimes all you can do is just keep an eye on the goal, and power through it. I was working on this before, but I put it on the shelf for a bit for the sake of my own sanity. But I had to get back to it sooner or later.

But I now have a somewhat more functional and user-friendly inventory management screen. Inventory management is already a pretty boring subject in its own right, and layering a bunch of boring UI development over top of it is a recipe for curing insomnia. But now we've got the ability to drag 'n drop, nicely animated scrolling between pages of ... you know, stuff... and... gah. Man. I can't even talk about it anymore. Moving on...

The Vampire Village: Under New Management

Oh, Mournhold. Califer (Curtis) politely informed me that Mournhold was a major city in an expansion in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. An expansion I even own, though I don't think I ever went there. Since the cool name is taken, I have to come up with a different cool name. I have a notebook with some brainstorming I did to come up with the first name, but I'm not thrilled with any of the other ones. Anybody got cool suggestions? You guys kicked butt on coming up with spell names last time...

This town remains in development, though we're broadening things a bit to try and get as much of the game "finished" as possible. I've also been working on the silver mines. The silver mines will not be nearly as cool as the castle or the the Temple of Pokmor Xang. I'm experimenting with creating pre-fab "tiles" for the mines to generate a lot of geometry in a hurry and then "fill it in" with details to hide the repetativeness. I promised Verious that I'd post some technical details about the tools I'm using and my workflow (such as it is), so 'll post more about that next time.

Polly's been working on character concept art. This is Tema. She's Victor the Vampire's main squeeze in the township-formerly-known-as-Mournhold. She has a relatively small but critical role in the unfolding events of this chapter. We were looking for something like an undead Tina Turner look, with a harder edge, and I think it worked. She's not as sweet and friendly as Victor, I'm afraid. She's still a party animal, and enjoys the local night life, but there's an entire forest filled with the undead victims of her late-night escapades.

Victor is normally a calming influence on her, but she is no longer in residence at the above castle. Her current whereabouts are a mystery.

Aw, Rats!
Kevin and I are back to work on ... uh, a rat-farm. A farmhouse filled with rats. It's sorta what happens when there aren't any adventurers around to deal with the local farmers' rat problem. There's a reason why there are all these quests to kill ten rats and bring back their tails or whatnot. These things - if left unchecked - will eventually take over the world.

It's a setup for a Chapter 2 quest involving the temple of the rat god. Yeah, in this game, you get to raid a lot of temples. A pimple god, a rat god... I may have to throw in a god of hangnails or bedbugs or something while I'm at it.

Goals for the Week
My focus this week, now that the the improved interface screen is (mostly) working, is to avoid working on any user interface issues. How's that for a goal?

I'm going to be cranking along back on Chapter 1, starting with the events of "the next morning" after the big argument between Benjamin and the rest of the party. This is the point where the game opens up a bit more, and we get some good ol' non-linear gameplay action going. There's a ton of interior work and modeling - even to get to a lame white-box stage - that ought to keep me more than busy enough!

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
 
Persona 4: Don't Trust This Game!
Warning: This article contains spoilers about PS2 RPG Persona 4. It can't be helped. Don't read further if you with to be unspoiled. And yes - I am playing it again. It turns out that my Playstation 2 is okay, but somehow my disc became damaged. Bummer, but I was able to borrow a friend's copy. And now he's going to be torn over whether or not to read this article, as he loaned me the game before he'd finished the game himself...

And now, if it weren't for the Internet, I'd possibly believe that I was done with Persona 4 right now. Oh, I'd have suspicions - there are some tip-offs that all was not right in the world in spite of a fairly satisfying conclusion. There's a plot thread that was never picked up (why you and two others received your power to enter the other world prior to obtaining your Persona ability), and the suggestion that there may be a time in the future when you are all called once more to stop someone from starting the murders all over again. And there's the fact that you achieved max rank in the Judgment arcana - and unlocked a new Persona - after the "final" boss was defeated.

But I was in a hurry in the real world, and I didn't realize that the game itself was conspiring against me and trying to fake me out and prevent me from playing through the final act.

Earlier in the story, there was another option to take on a "bad" ending in the game, but at that time it was simply a confusing maze of dialog you had to navigate. It was actually a pretty dramatic scene - you had the "murderer" trapped, and you realize that except for a kidnapping charge, he's probably going to get off the hook. Nobody can prove anything, and he's probably going to get an insanity plea anyway. You and your friends have the opportunity to dispense justice, right then and there. One shove into the big-screen TV, and the shadows in the next world can finish him off.

At this point, it's clear there's something else going on, and that there's a game-changing decision to be made. Unfortunately, how to resolve it isn't clear, unless you recognize that the theme of the game is about the discovery of truth through the layers of deception. Talking your friend down from committing indirect murder isn't enough - and the game makes it fairly obvious when you've taken the wrong path and should try again.

On the other hand, the false "good" ending of the game doesn't make it clear that a decision is being made. The game itself pushes you to accept what appears to be a reasonable resolution. While I was suspicious there was more to the story than what I had seen, I thought I'd missed a decision earlier in the game - but for the life of me couldn't figure out where. And again - the ending was fairly satisfying and positive. These days, from a meta-gaming perspective, it was simply a set-up for a possible expansion or sequel.

But this was a trick. After a long sequence of hunting down your friends, and having the game "helpfully" reiterate your goal and not allowing you passage anywhere outside the goal, it announces you've achieved your goal and offers to take you to the ending sequence. In fact, it tries three times to conclude the game.

This bugs me, yet also fascinates me. The game is our vehicle into this world. We have to trust the game. We have never at any point established an adversarial relationship with the game itself. We really can't. The game world doesn't exist without it. We've had decades of experience learning to live within the frustrating constraints of games much like this, putting up with limitations and plot-hammering. Persona 4 is no exception. There are roads we can't take, and doors we can't open, which we accept because the game simply won't let us go there. We trust it out of necessity.

And then, as it turns out, the game is in cahoots with the true "bad guy." Er, girl. Well, more of an archetypal trickster. The one who orchestrated both the potential for the world's destruction as well as the hope of its salvation. Whatevah. The game is in league with her, and actively tries to conceal the final chapter of the game from the player.

This isn't the first time. A far more egregious example of this was in the Infocom text adventure, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Each time you'd try to go to the engine room aboard the Heart of Gold, it would stop you, telling you it was too dangerous. The only clue that anything was up was that the messages were different every time. Since adventure gamers love to keep poking around with things to see what the game will tell us, eventually the solution was revealed: you simply had to be persistent. No keys, no big inventory puzzles. You just had to ignore the game's warnings and threats and keep repeating your action until the game relented. This was metagaming at its weirdest. The game lied to you, and broke conventions without warning.

At least in Persona 4, it's easy enough to simply chalk up this final chapter as a "secret" or "bonus" section of the game - a new dungeon, epilogue, and boss battle. After all, I have put 90 hours into this freakin' game and received a hero's ending. This is gravy. And at least the game doesn't explicitly lie to you. It just encourages you to believe that there's nothing further to see here, and that you should move along.

But - it breaks the tools you are used to relying upon, without telling you. It breaks its own rules that you, as a player, have no choice but to live by. After all, I *DID* try and return to the food court before visiting the last of my friends, and found it impossible only five minutes earlier. Why should things change now?

But was there a better way to hide this "true" final ending? A way that doesn't rely upon the player suddenly developing a paranoia about his tools? A non-metagaming solution?

Probably. Probably a thousand other ways. Given the limitations of this sequence, the designer's hand hand was forced at the end - anything else would have been a tip-off. The game has never, until this point, forced you to manually make your way back home to the Dojima residence once you've concluded a quest or action like this. Leaving you in a lurch and even suggestion that you walk home manually would have been big flashing neon light that something else was going on. And suddenly the hidden choice would have been turned into a non-choice.

So what really needed to happen, in my mind, was an additional sequence. An additional choice. One that existed within the context of the game world, not within the metagame. A final confrontation with Adachi, or a serious conversation with Dojima or Teddie which can potentially lead to the revelation of one more path.

We shouldn't ever be required to distrust our tools. That's just playin' dirty.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
 
The "DM's Special"
So you enter a 20-foot by 20-foot room in one corner of an underground complex that is home to the requisite number of monsters. You've been hacking and slashing with glee, but in this room, behind the door, you see a large treasure chest against the far wall amidst some dilapidated furnishings. "Score!" you think to yourself. Somehow nobody checked and looted this room before...

Ah! But it's probably booby-trapped, you realize. So you carefully - gingerly - begin to check for traps.

Suddenly - shock and horror! - the chest itself attacks. It is a mimic - a creature which has disguised itself to appear as a treasure chest to lure unsuspecting adventurers to their doom!

Nothing says "Old School RPG" like these kinds of monsters. Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons & Dragons) once used the term "DM's Special" to describe these creatures that seemed designed purely to trip experienced players up. While most monsters in fantasy RPGs require you to not think too hard about their ecology or how they might have possibly evolved, these kinds of creatures went beyond the pale in this respect. These things were predators optimized for a world full of dungeons and a steady supply of treasure-hunting adventurers to eat.

I encountered a mimic last week, playing the flash-based indie hack-and-slash fest aptly entitled, "Ginormo Sword" (referred to me a long time back by one of our community members in the forums). Because it had been a while since I'd encountered these kinds of monsters in a game, I'd let my guard drop, and I actually moved in to pick up the treasure lying on the floor, only to get zapped. The mimic had claimed another victim! Not bad for being a nearly 35-year-old joke!

I don't know whether I love 'em or hate 'em, to be honest. Used sparingly, they can be kinda fun - if completely ridiculous.

In D&D, several of the "DM's Specials" were designed to disguise themselves as ordinary objects in the prototypical dungeon. The Trapper resembled a dungeon floor. Its counterpart was the Lurker Above, which resembled the ceiling of a stone room, and could magically (and silently) hover just below the real ceiling. Piercers resembled plain ol' stalagtites which would drop and impale unwary adventurers below. The Cloaker --- resembled a cloak. Go ahead, put it on!

The problem with these kinds of monsters - moreso in dice-and-paper RPGs than in computer RPGs - is that they can be misused to the point that the game slows to a crawl from player paranoia. But is it paranoia if the Game Master really is out to get them? If there are no clues or indicators of threats being near, and these types of monsters are in any way common, the players will be taking hours between moves to verify their safety. While fun for a little while, it gets old very, very quickly.

Then you had the monsters that resembled other monsters, but which would surprise adventurers attacking them with conventional tactics. There was the Adherer, which looked like a mummy but was immune to a cleric's "undead turning" ability and seemed to be made of superglue, sticking all weapons to itself. The Gas Spore was a creature which mysteriously resembled the dreaded Beholder, but which immediately exploded on impact when attacked. Topping the stupidity scale was a monster I fortunately never remember appearing in any game I ever played - the Nilbog (that's goblin spelled backwards). This annoying creature resembled a goblin, but was healed by attacks and damaged by healing spells.

We see some of these kinds of creatures making their way to computer and console RPGs as well.

Wizardry had "Creeping Coins" which weren't really a DM's special - though they could have been. Coins that attacked you? Take THAT you greedy treasure-hunting adventurer! In Wizardry, though, they just attacked.

Nethack has both mimics and piercers. So you can never feel safe.

Ultima III's grand finale had a bunch of monsters that resembled ground tiles that would attack you. So you might have thought the path was clear to destroy the machine Exodus, but no... no, you were fighting grass and brick road chunks for a while getting to it. And then designer Richard Garriott included monsters that resembled children in later Ultima games. Just to be especially nasty.

These are just the ones off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are numerous examples I forget or from games I haven't played. Do you have favorites / most hated examples of "DM's Special" monsters in games? What were they, and in what games?

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Why Bother With DRM?
It sounds like DRM continues to lose favor. This week at GamaSutra there's an insightful article about the alternatives:

PC Game Piracy: Why Bother with DRM?

I think that Stardock's "Goo" solution still counts as DRM as far as the original meaning of the term. But what gamers have grown weary of is the draconian restrictions imposed by the more recent flavors of DRM which - more than anything else - impose a very real risk of loss of their purchase, particularly over the long term. A risk not shared by pirates who simply use a "cracked" copy. When the pirates have a superior product to the paying customers, something's wrong.

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Monday, May 11, 2009
 
Germans to Ban Paintball?
Ye gods.

This reminds me of a story I heard about a family friend who wanted to make sure her children grew up in a household free of suggestions of weaponry and violence. Then she discovered that her children were trying to shoot each other with the foam letter "L" - held like a pistol.

Paintball is not a sport for young, impressionable children, anyway. But neither is Counterstrike. I wonder --- after everything is banned, what will they blame the next shooting on?

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Sunday, May 10, 2009
 
Interview with Richard "Lord British" Garriott
Crispy Gamer has interviewed Richard "Lord British" Garriott of Ultima and Tabula Rasa fame. Part I of the interview was last week, and this week we've got the full installment.

Interview with Richard Garriott, Part I

Interview with Richard Garriott, Part II

Interview with Richard Garriott - Bonus Material

As you probably know, the Ultima series was not only my favorite (well, up to Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld), but was also a big influence on me as I chose a career. Working for Origin sounded like a dream job - I even called and talked to their HR folks a couple of years before graduating with a Computer Science degree to find out what kind of qualifications they looked for in candidates.

Ultima VII remains my favorite RPG, and this interview focuses a lot on it and the "third trilogy." This interview spends a lot of time reminiscing about the development of Ultima VII, about rooms of "killing children," and discussing all the ways people found of killing the "unkillable" in-game version of Lord British.

An excerpt:
"Well, the game’s called The Black Gate, so there’s no question that it was intended to be dark. Very much so. In fact, Ultima IV, V and VI were all quite the opposite. I mean, Ultima IV didn’t even have a bad guy. Ultima V only had a misguided bad guy. Ultima VI, with the gargoyles, you were sort of the bad guy in a sense. Ultimas IV, V and VI were the lighthearted goody-two-shoes games, while Ultima VII was very purposely dark. I may not articulate it the same way you did — in that “you, the player, could kill anything and everything,” but I would say that it is dark in that the world had become dark. We now had truly prescient evil, and we had a pantheon of characters you were interacting with that were absolutely trying to take advantage of the time of darkness for their own personal gain. So you’re constantly being befriended by people who were in fact not your friends. So, yeah, it was purposely a very dark game."
Good stuff. Dang, I miss the ol' glory days of Origin in that era...

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Friday, May 08, 2009
 
Star Trek...
... kicked butt.

'Nuff said.

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Best Letter of Resignation of All Time?
Found via GBGames:

A Message From a Game Developer to His Employer


"My princess is in another castle..." Hysterical, awesome, and yet just classy enough and topical for the audience that it's not likely to burn bridges. I love it.

Good luck, Farbs, on your indie journey!

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Thursday, May 07, 2009
 
3DRealms Shuts Down?
Aw, man.

Sounds like 3DRealms has just hit the zapper. Okay, granted, taking 12 years to complete a game might have something to do with it. It looks like Duke Nukem Forever might truly remain the vaporware legend it has been for about a decade...

Duke Nukem Developer 3D Realms Shuts Down.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
 
Hey! You Got Your Adventure Game in My RPG!
Once upon a time, we didn't really have the term, "Role-Playing Games" (RPGs) - for either the dice-and-paper variety or the computer gaming equivalent. And typically, what soon became called "Adventure Games" (based on the seminal game entitled, "Adventure") ended up lumped into the same category when you were talking computer games. That's right, Ultima, Wizardry, The Wizard and the Princess, Apventure to Atlantis (an Apple II game, can't you tell?), Zork, and the old Scott Adams adventures were often kinda jumbled together into a big mix sometimes called "Adventure Games" or "Fantasy Games."

I still like a dose of adventure game in my RPGs. Maybe because there's still some old programming in my head that still mixes 'em all together like they did in 1981, but a little bit of the old adventure game puzzle-solving makes the grind go down easier. So long as it's not too much of a head-thumping experience, that is - and with the ease of obtaining hints on the Internet, that's not too much of a problem anymore.

The problem is that the adventure game puzzles can run counter to what I consider good RPG design principles, and that creates a jarring experience.

For example - in an adventure game, you've generally got one - usually convoluted and amusing - solution to a problem. A good RPG, on the other hand, should make that puzzle a goal condition and leave other options to achieve that goal available. Failure to do that leads to frustration, as in the "plot-driven door" problem (or as a friend of mine calls it, "objects made of the indestructable material plotonium"). In an adventure game, you expect it - but even then, it gets frustrating when you see what appears to be an obvious solution which doesn't work.

Then there's the expectations of the genre. If an RPG player encounters a dragon on a Persian rug, she is not going to attempt the bare-handed dragon-vanquishing technique. (Then again, that eluded many Adventure players back in the day, too...). Nope. If at first she doesn't succeed with her axe, she's going to go off and level up for a bit and come back - maybe with a bigger axe. Eventually, she figures, that dragon's gotta go down.

So it's a little tricky. In the pilot experiment for Frayed Knights, I made a gate which is locked and capable of being picked by the party rogue.... but extremely difficult. The hard way is to brute force the way through the door, which will probably result in a lot of random encounters. (Ideally, the party will get spotted and face an organized defense as they hang out in front of the locked gate, but that was just way more effort than I felt like putting into it.) Or you can just go find the key in a nearby room. The concern here is - like the dragon problem - that without providing a lot of hints and nudges, players will fixate on the brute-force answer rather than searching for alternatives. (Shades of myself pummeling locked doors into submission in Ultima Underworld...)

Ultimately, the solution is to set the expectations in the game. Hints and nudges in the exposition can help. There's a puzzle in the early stages of Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest that hints right up front that there's a monster in a cave that's beyond your ability to take on. I don't know if it's possible to level up and defeat the beast at any point (I never tried), but when I entered the cave my goal was already framed as a puzzle I had to solve, not a monster I had to vanquish.

Unfortunately, the other problems of adventure game design begin rearing their heads. Most RPGs with adventure game puzzles often commit the kinds of design mistakes that adventure game developers have since learned to avoid. The kinds of sins Ron Gilbert harped about ages ago.

Still, I don't think these problems are insurmountable. But now - will we see more graphic adventure games with RPG elements, too?

Hopefully.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009
 
The History of Rogue
Gamasutra has an article up by Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice entitled, "History of Rogue: Have @ You, You Deadly Zs."

Of particular amusement to me was the following excerpt regarding the development of graphical front-ends for the modern derivatives of the original Rogue:
"The task of creating custom graphics for each object and creature in these games is a considerable undertaking that may very well distract developers from what most Rogue fans consider essential: the gameplay.

"At least some fans of Rogue may also be resistant to advanced audiovisuals on principle. Malthaner, for instance, felt his project failed because of "acceptance. Not technical issues; these were solvable -- but acceptance was low."

Of course, I'm one of the chorus of folks who complain about the dominance of graphics over gameplay in modern games. In particular, I bemoan how gameplay will be sacrificed to accomodate graphics (or UI issues). Designers will say things like, "Oh, we can't do animations for every creature in the game being knocked down, so we'll just get rid of the knock down ability..."

But my personal feelings are more of a desire to strike a balance. I have enjoyed playing Vulture's Eye Nethack, if for no other reason than having a lower learning curve identifying objects visually and having a menu to help me figure out commands. And it's not like character-set graphics don't come with their own sets of limitations.

But more than anything else - the history of Rogue is a subset of the history of computer RPGs. It was one of those early efforts to bring the fledgling new gaming experience to the computer screen, and its influence is still being felt.

History of Rogue: Have @ You, You Deadly Zs
 
RPG Design: That Which Is Not Forbidden...
At Something Awful, they have an amusing discussion of the old-school party-killing D&D module, Tomb of Horrors (warning: harsh language). I think I played only briefly through this one once. I showed up in mid-adventure, and the rest of the players were too terrified to take any actions, and the DM was being extra kind and not playing it to its full ruthless potential. Still, I didn't see much. I have the module, and I've read through it a couple of times (to get myself in the proper "old school" frame of mind for Frayed Knights design), but I haven't subjected my players to that particular nightmare yet.

A few years ago, however, I ran my players through part of Gary Gygax's Necropolis, updated for 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. It was billed by the publisher (Necromancer Games) as "Tomb of Horrors on steroids." (Yes, that's the one for which I wrote the 'prequel' module, "Set's Daughters.") Oh, it was plenty nasty - full of insta-death traps, powerful bad guys, and puzzles with obscure clues. A brutal adventure that would no doubt prove a meat-grinder for many groups of players.

But both Tomb of Horrors and Necropolis left a lot up to interpretation by the Dungeon Master (the person who "runs" the game). And I try and run my games by a guiding rule which, lamentably, tends to be ignored in more recent editions of the game, and ignored by players who are used to computer games: That which is not expressly forbidden is fair game to try.

The result? The most powerful spells in that adventure were not the fireballs and lightning bolts and insect plague spells. In fact, Tomb of Horrors virtually gave away the trick by having very few monster encounters in the entire adventure. No, the "trick" to both of these adventures (well, Necropolis was actually a collection of about eight adventures) was the use of utility spells. And creatively thinking outside the box. And connecting patterns together. Oh, and - if possible - interrogating prisoners (or even interrogating the dead with spells like Speak With Dead).

Things like Divination spells were the chief weapons in a caster's arsenal. The Disintegrate spell, when I ran the adventure, was not used against enemy forces, but was rather used to bypass a really deadly-looking trap. That's right - Disintegrate CAN be used to obliterate stone, wood, and steel too - not just enemies. Or did you forget?

Deadly situations were also resolved by experimentation. That green devil-face trap with the sphere of annihilation in it in Tomb of Horrors is often used as an example of how nasty the dungeon was. I always thought the poison gas was worse. I never knew any of my friends who lost characters to the sphere. When you are in a dungeon that deadly, you don't just stick your head inside dangerous-looking black holes. You test it out first with that handy 10-foot pole you are always dragging around. Then you test with a fingertip.

Let's pretend I have a point for a second. Or maybe even two points.

One issue is just how much this kind of play slides into a game of "Mother May I." If every move can be lethal and game-ending, how fun is it to cast a spell with each step to make sure the next one is safe? The lack of infinite spells (in a game where you can't exploit saving and reloading to make virtually infinite information-providing spells) requires pen-and-paper players to me judicious with the use of spells to tease out solutions, forcing them to make decisions about risk, and to come up with clever and inventive tests to pick their way through the minefields of these kinds of adventures.

Can this kind of gameplay be interesting and decision risk? I tend to think so, based on past experience, with pen-and-paper games. But in a computer game? Idealistically, I'd like to think so, but the constraints of the medium would definitely make it a challenge to keep it fun. But one need look not much further than classic adventure games - often with "insta-death" endings for wrong decisions - for a possible model.

More importantly, it has been argued that while players had a tough time with this module back in 1978 or whatever, they would have an even tougher time with it now. They don't make 'em like they used to, and players tend to rely on "Brute Force" tactics to get through the dungeons nowadays. This has been blamed on the "dumbing down" of adventures by the Pen & Paper RPG publishers, and on computer games. Especially MMORPGs - thinking outside of the box in those games is called "exploiting" and can get you banned!

The problem is that - for the most part - RPGs aren't made as anything resembling simulations. That's too difficult, and it is too hard to put the player on the kinds of rails that many designers prefer. So spells have very particular, extremely limited uses, and tend to be more of the "blow crap up" variety. Spells that provide knowledge, hints, or "intelligence" are subject to exploit in single-player games, as the information they provide to the player is persistent, even when the player reloads the game immediately to 'restore' the expended spell.

Our worlds are just too restrictive to allow this kind of play. But do they have to be?

(Oh, and a hat tip to Whiner for the SA link).

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Monday, May 04, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: Breaking Windows
And here's the latest update on the development of Frayed Knights, an indie computer role-playing game with a significantly tongue-in-cheek approach.

24 Hours of Crunch

I took Thursday off from The Day Job to get Frayed Knights ready to show for the Indie Game night that night. While it wasn't exactly a marathon 24-hour stretch of game development, it came pretty close. And it was, surprisingly, awesome.

I'm not sure which was more impressive: How much I got done in that 24 hours compared to the average *two weeks* of development time, or how little I got done compared to my expectations. So I guess on the whole, it was "satisfactory." But it was awesome to be "in the zone" so much on the game, focused on development. I noticed something strange when I got home that night, too. You'd think I'd be totally sick of working on it by then, but all I really wanted to do was to jump back into development. I then realized something important that I'd kinda forgotten over the last few months:

This game is fun.

Not just playing it, but I really enjoy working on it. In spite of beating my head against the wall trying to make stuff work that used to work and then quit for apparently no good reason. In spite of the pain, the frustration, and the realization that it's NEVER going to be as good or as polished or as epic or as mind-blowing or as successful as I hope. It's okay. I love doing this stuff. It's fun. It's exciting. It's challenging in a good way. Maybe the 24-hour code-a-thon or showing it to people again did something to warp my brain, but things started clicking again.

Additions and Changes...

Another thing I was reminded about this week was why I chose Torque in the first place. One spell I've been very excited to implement was "Power Word: Defenestrate." If you know what Defenestrate means, well, you know what the spell is about. For the visual, I decided to have a window magically appear, and then the enemy would be thrown through it, shattering it, and taking damage. Then the window frame would disappear.

Anyway - while it didn't turn out quite as well on the screen as it did in my head (mainly because I really didn't want to animate dozens of pieces of glass, so I faked it with a particle system), it was incredibly easy to implement, thanks to the engine. I just had to create the model, animate it, and give it a mount point. Then, for casting the spell, I mount the victim to the window's mount point, and let the animation run. I still have to trigger the explosion of glass manually (it's a little bit premature, as you can see in the screenshot), and then I have to unmount the victim before deleting the spell's visual - but it was all handled nicely through the animation system. No fuss, no muss.

Now if I had a really good animator working for me, this would be a great time-saver. But even for just lil' old me, it's helpful and makes things easier to work with.

For the demo, we added Castle Mournhold and part of the surrounding area, three monsters, several new spells, faked the leveling-up of the party to 12th level, some new dialogs and encounters, and some overall code-cleanup and fixing of bugs that have managed to embed themselves over the last several months.

What Mournhold Taught Me

Working on a latter part of the game, in "new territory" that wasn't an extension of the Pokmor Xang pilot, was a great experience for me. It really helped make me aware of several issues that I need to address for the game as a whole.

One of the unfortunately discoveries I made, once we managed to get the level playable, was that I'd really made the area too big. There was too much walking around with nothing to do - especially getting to the vampire's castle. Not good. So I'm left with a choice to try and pack more stuff into the area, or shrink the map. I'm opting - right now - to shrink the map, but I'll pack more stuff in where I can.

Mike Rubin noted at Indie Night that while I definitely favor more open-ended RPGs, the direction of what he saw in Frayed Knights was more linear. This was not an unfair assessment, and it's something I'm working on. My constraints as far as storytelling and limited content really work against me in this respect. It didn't bug me too much with Pokmor Xang, as the "bunny slope" dungeon is supposed to provide a bit more guidance as players learn the system. But the game is supposed to open up more beyond this point, and I'm recognizing that I really need to put some more effort into making this work.

Balance issues at the higher-end of the game also prompted me to revise the combat system (again), which now needs to be tested across all levels of play. Of course, we don't have all levels of play yet in, which is another issue. There are a lot of new feats and spells and powers and items at higher level that I'm not positive will work quite right. These all need to be put in the game, tested across multiple levels, and balanced ASAP.

I'm also running into things that looked great on paper, but once I have translated them onto the screen and made them interactive, I'm discovering big gaping holes in my plans.

Because of this, I'm going to be putting a bit more emphasis on rapidly prototyping the remainder of the game, rather than concentrating on specific parts as much as I have been. This will mean a lot of ugly, unfinished-looking white-boxed dungeons and stand-in monsters with generic special effects for a while. I won't be doing this exclusively - I'll still take some time out to bring parts of the game to a more alpha-ready state - but I think this will help take the game "over the hump."

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Sunday, May 03, 2009
 
Arcengine / Dungeon Eye - Version 0.1 release
Remember the "pseudo 3D" dungeon-delving RPGs like The Bard's Tale, Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master, Wizardry, and others?

Well, someone out there is laboring on an engine capable of making those kinds of games. While not as focused (or as cool) as the now-apparently-dead "Dungeon Maker" project, they developers have been making a remake of the Eye of the Beholder games within the engine. Entitled "Dungeon Eye," it's open source, and the source code is freely available. The documentation is practically non-existent currently, so it'll only be valuable to the technically savvy.

Now, I'm not 100% sure why you'd want to use this engine instead of something more mature like GameMaker (which would probably be quite up to this kind of task as well), but I'd be interested in seeing if anybody picks up the ol' torch on this one and does something cool and original with it.

Arcengine / Dungeon Eye

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Saturday, May 02, 2009
 
Twilight - Made Awesome
I have not read the book Twilight. Nor had I, until last night, seen the movie.

Since I am not a thirteen-year-old girl, I wasn't all that excited to see it. My wife and oldest daughter read the book and didn't like it. I've been a little overwhelmed on my reading list to add it to the queue. (But the idea of glittery vampires was just too hysterical for me to leave alone...)

I still have no reason to read it. But - when I saw Rifftrax had done one of their MST-3K style commentaries for it, I figured it was time. I'd finally know what people were raving about.

While nothing has quite compared to their awesome riffing of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, this one came close. They DO make riffs of good movies, too (Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, etc), so the fact that this riffing exists shouldn't be considered a necessarily scathing indictment of the film.

That being said, the film offered Mike Nelson and friends a WEALTH of opportunities to tear it to shreds. When they started humming "Yakety Sax" (popularized by the Benny Hill show) while Edward goes running up the hill with Bella on his back, I just about fell out of my chair from laughing. We had a good group together to watch it (the best way to watch MST-3K or Rifftrax videos), and it had us in stiches.

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Friday, May 01, 2009
 
Utah Indie Night - Spring 2009
Wow. Time flies. Doesn't seem like that long ago we had the last Utah Indie Night. Seriously. Has it been an entire quarter year already?

This time, the meeting was at NinjaBee again. Fortunately, Steve Taylor had let the restraining order against me lapse, so it was fun being at my old stomping grounds. Plus, Steve got to rib me repeatedly about having NOT finished and released Frayed Knights yet, which is not an unfair criticism. Why haven't I, anyway? Dang. I should quit writing this and get back to work...

But instead, I keep writing...

Anyway, the night began sans introductions with a pretty sizable group with Darius Ouderkirk offering a formal presentation on choosing an indie game project. As simple as it sounds, this was an awesome talk that would make a great chapter in a new book on the business of indie games. Simple yet profound. He discussed how to choose and scope an indie game project so that you will be more likely to FINISH and release your game. If only one in ten indie game developers followed this this advice, we'd probably have three times as many indie games out there today.

He tried to convince him to put the notes on his website. He promised he would, but then he ran away when I released him from the headlock, and I didn't see him again during the evening. I hear he showed his tower defense game, which I'd have liked to see, but since I was showing Frayed Knights I didn't get to see everything. But in his talk, he focused on three main points: Know yourself (your skills, limitations, and passions), know your audience, and finally know your project.

Funny, the kind of project you SHOULDN'T take on is a game like Frayed Knights. D'oh. I am so boned...

While several games were being demoed on the main floor, I only got a good look at Darkened Dreams 2 and Vespers 3D. Darkened Dreams 2 has morphed somewhat - rather than being an RPG with a really kick-but toolset, the focus is now on it being more of an awesome RPG construction kit with an RPG included. Curtis showed off the editors (now looking much cooler with Peter's finished art), and they are getting pretty sophisticated.

It also crashed a couple of times tonight - so it's not QUITE ready for prime time yet. But it's looking much nicer.

Vespers 3D... wow. First of all, I'm beginning to think Mike Rubin is at least borderline OCD, because this game he's making has a level of attention to detail that puts all of us to shame. How does he do that? I'll tell ya, when this game comes out, you'll want to play it just to wander around the lavishly detailed, beautiful world. The monks' abbey is ... freakin' unbelievable. And just when I think that the game can't get any better, he shows new stuff that makes it look even better. I'm pretty stunned.

And it's being done in plain ol' TGE.

An amusing conversation concerning this - and our own lack of releases - went along these lines:

Someone asked about the game, and Mike said it was based on an old, award-winning IF game. I said, "Well, it's old NOW; it wasn't old when you started."

Mike laughed and agreed. Then Steve said that Mike and I should have a contest to see who releases their game first. Steve said the loser should give the winner something readily available and cheap by that time, like an air-car or the cure to cancer.

A couple of minutes later, I asked about the games engine, and Mike noted that, like me, he's still using plain ol' (customized) TGE. "So we're both using pretty old, creaky tech," I commented to people glued to Mike's monitor looking at the amazing visuals. I wondered what I could do to make my visuals look half as good.

"Well, it's old now. It wasn't old and creaky when we STARTED!" Mike announced with a grin.

Touché.

Steve Taylor also showed a bit of their awesome and popular XBox 360 game, "A Kingdom for Keflings." I am totally his worst friend ever for not having bought this game yet. (I have hardly touched my XBox 360, but to play a song or three of Rock Band with friends, in three months!) It looks awesome. I said it looked like what Black & White wishes it had been - if only they'd gotten over what had sounded like a good idea after a couple of pints at the pub one night, and focused on what would have really been fun.

As for me, I demoed what I had of Mournhold for Frayed Knights. This proved somewhat challenging, because there's a lot of dialog in the first few minutes, and I felt really awkward demoing... well, stuff you read. It would have been more awkward if we'd had voice-overs, because the room was noisy and you could barely hear the game. So for the most part, I skipped through it, saying stuff like, "imagine funny dialog here..." and moving on. I got repeat chuckles every time I had Chloe cast "Power Word: Defenestrate," so I guess that one turned out okay. I need more spells like that.

Besides, it gave me the chance to conference with Xenovore over his work in progress, Mournhold Castle. While it needs texture work, and a lot of it is unfinished, it is coming along very impressively. This gave us a good excuse to get together face-to-face, go over some details, and make sure we had the same expectations. So we got work done at the indie night. Yet another valuable purpose for the evening.

As always, it was an awesome and inspirational time.

UPDATE: Greg Squire has a write-up on the event you can read here. And here's the first part of Darius's articles about choosing projects.

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