Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Dungeon Crawlin'
Soldak is now working on a new RPG, one that will fall somewhere in-between the awesome hardcore Depths of Peril, and the much-more-casual "hack-and-slash" RPG-lite Kivi's Underworld (which I also enjoyed, but not nearly as much as Depths of Peril). Steven Peeler is soliciting feedback for the next game from players.

Shamus Young jumped at the opportunity to talk about Dungeon Crawls. What he loves about 'em and would like to see. He brings up the joy of loot, the impossibly crazy dungeons, the ability to choose your character improvements when leveling, and ... well, the lack of story (and possible ways to fix that without screwing up the gameplay).

My personal favorite of the "dungeon crawlers" was actually Ultima Underworld. But it broke heavily with tradition. Some of the brilliant ideas in that game included making all the non-hostile NPCs potential "shops" for trading. Ultima Underworld introduced the concept of what I consider a "survival fantasy" RPG - you were trapped in a dungeon and started out just trying to stay alive, scrounging for food and equipment, making alliances and fighting off threats. THEN you moved on to actually trying to accomplish something. But the game was claustraphobic, and while not plot-heavy (the plot kinda sucked), the setting itself was fascinating. (I note that Arx Fatalis - which I haven't had any chance to play in two weeks - has so far really followed a similar template, which thrills me).

But the take-away here - for me - is that there is exactly as Shamus states in his article: "the (dungeon crawler) genre fell out of favor long before the possibilities had been exhausted." There's much more that could be done with the idea. Jeff Vogel's Avernum series pretty much turned everything into a giant dungeon crawl. A more organic, procedurally-generated, simulationist dungeon crawler along the lines of Dwarf Fortress could be an incredible idea. We've talked about melding the ideas of the classic dungeon crawler and X-Com's combat and missions.

I believe the gaming world can use some more dungeon crawls.


Monday, June 29, 2009
Game Programming: Harder than Ever?
I learned computer programming when I was twelve years old, purely (at the time) to make games. I wanted to create my own clones of my favorite arcade games. And write adventure games and make games that emulated the D&D experience. Some dreams never die, I guess. But originally, it was all about the games. Software development (both gaming and non-gaming) has been putting food on my family's table for fifteeen years. So I guess as far as hobbies go, I did pretty good for myself.

As I mentioned in passing last week, I've been looking over some old books on game programming - including the ancient tomes that effectively taught me programming: Basic Computer Games and More Basic Computer Games, which are pretty beat-up but still in (mostly) one piece on my bookshelf.

It occurs to me that I kinda hit the 'sweet spot' in learning to program games. I started in an era where "home computers" had just become affordable, and many of them were built with the idea that the "users" would be programming. There just wasn't much of an industry out there at the time (especially within the first year of release) to support computer owners with software. Many systems had the BASIC programming language built in or shipped with the core package.

It was simple - relatively speaking. Other than saving and loading your single-file program, you wouldn't need to worry about files. Basic was an interpreted language, so you didn't need to worry about compiler settings, the executable, or anything like that. In fact, you could write a simple one-line program (like 10 PRINT "HELLO, WORLD!") and then type "RUN" and see your code in action right after the computer booted (or after you booted the BASIC disc).

You had very few options, tools were virtually non-existent unless you rolled your own, and the machines were dog-slow, barely capable of handling much more fancy than a Breakout clone in real-time unless you learned to write some machine code subroutines. You had - at best - sixteen colors to work with, very limited sound options, and a lot of the more advanced things you wanted to do required you to dig "down to the metal" and set hardware values via a memory map. You had to learn to avoid any unnecessary division or non-integer values (because they were very slow).

But, on the other hand, you usually didn't have to worry about upgrading drivers or tools, or having multiple programs running that interfered with your own, or sizing the window, or what weird hardware combination the user might be using, or how much memory they had, or whether or not their video card supported certain features, or whether or not you had something flagged wrong in your project settings for the compiler. It was a bare-bones experience, but the simplicity let you focus on the important things.

Contrast this with what an aspiring game developer has to do today. Sure - we no longer have to create spites on graph paper and manually convert that into byte values (well, okay, most of us wrote our own tools to do that back in the day anyway). But just learning how to use the tools available can be staggering. Take something like using PyGame to write a game (which I used for Hackenslash). A learner would need to do the following (for Windows):

* Make sure video and sound drivers are up-to-date
* Download and install the latest version of Python
* Download and install the latest version of the Windows Python extensions (1)
* Download and install the latest version of PyGame (1)
* Choose an editor for Python - learn how to use it. (I'm partial to PythonWin, but I haven't tried Eclipse with good Python plug-ins).
* Create a directory structure for their development area
* THEN - learn to program games in Python / PyGame
* ALSO learn the basics of your tools to create any content assets - though admittedly plugging in numbers for bit values for sprites is a WHOLE LOT harder in the long run than just learning to create .PNG files in The Gimp.

(1) - And make sure that the versions are compatible with each other - sometimes a problem shortly after a new major Python release.

Granted, maybe PyGame would not be necessarily for a purely text-based game of the kind found in Basic Computer Games. And, alternately - Microsoft Basic Express edition (or Visual C#) plus DirectX might make make a simpler installation - but IMO those aren't as easy or as straightforward to learn to use as Python.

Then there's another option, which is to use a game development toolkit like Game Maker or RPG Maker to construct a game. This is probably the easiest option that I can think of now - but it limits you to a very restricted universe. There's definitely a lot of valuable game development knowledge to learn going that route - especially in terms of game design - but I'd also worry that a lot of that knowledge wouldn't transfer very well to using more general tools.

So - since we have some development-folks who do hit this blog from time to time: What would be your suggestion for the easiest / smartest tool for someone learning to *program* (not just design) games?


Sunday, June 28, 2009
Bruce Does Me Wrong
So I guess I am kind of a fan of Bruce Campbell.

Of course, I enjoyed Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. I loved seeing Bruce Campbell in Xena and Hercules. I watched about half of Brisco County Junior. I was thrilled to see him in cameo roles in the Spider-Man movies. I loved his autobiography ("If Chins Could Kill"). I even enjoyed Bubba Ho-Tep and his Old Spice commercial.

Oh, yeah. Congo sucked. But even movies and shows that suck - if they have Bruce Campbell in them - suck a little less.


But I just watched The Man With the Screaming Brain. Written by, directed by, and starring Bruce Campbell.

Nobody should ever, Ever, EVER let him do that again.

(Oh, yeah, it was a Sci Fi original. Why do you ask?)


Friday, June 26, 2009
Frayed Knights - Meet Thrump
This is Thrump.

The name isn't actually short for anything. It's just his name. At least, the name he tells people. I personally think he's Conan's younger, better-looking brother. He doesn't say a whole lot. He's kinda the strong, silent type.

Thrump is sort of Arianna's counterpart (and opposite) for the rival group of adventurers active in the Ardin area, the Heroes of Bastionne. The ones who beat the Frayed Knights to the eyes in Pokmor Xang pilot, for those who have played it. At least on the surface, he seems to be the warrior stereotype that Arianna is constantly fighting against.

Thrump is a follower. Arianna is a leader.

Thrump is massive and musclebound. Arianna is ... not.

Thrump holds his tongue and his temper. Arianna's anger management issues are legendary.

Thrump is physically intimidating. Arianna makes up for volume what she lacks in presence.

Thrump is a respected up-and-comer in the adventurer community. Arianna still draws snickers from those who know of her first independent mercenary stint where she was hired to escort a manure cart... and failed.

Reconstructing Ardin

I'm still working on Ardin right now. The original version of Ardin from the pilot was more of a rough draft intended for future expansion. While the village itself isn't a hotbed of adventure and intrigue as the two other small towns in Frayed Knights, there are still a lot of things going on that weren't even hinted at in the pilot.

So I've been shuffling things around, adding / creating new buildings, like my half-finished three-story tudor-style house there in the screenshot. The village also needs a focal point, besides the river. And then there's the various people in the community, and on the outskirts, with rumors, quests, hints, shops, and stuff to do.

The idea is that Ardin is something of a boom-town. Adventurers have come here on rumors of excitement and treasure. And they bring money with them. The villagers - old and new - are cashing in. So they've got a brand new (and I should add, totally rockin') inn, and some other new construction going on (hmmm.... I should probably create one or two half-finished buildings under construction, shouldn't I?). Some of the long-term residents resent the sudden appearance of adventurers, but it's still new enough that many - particularly younger citizens - find it fresh and exciting.

As far as the shops (well, *a* shop right now) are concerned, they are kinda-sorta working, though I'm still dealing with some design issues. Like what happens to items after you sell them. But the new interface, like the rest of the inventory system, is drag-and-drop. As much effort as it took to get things functional (and prevent bugs, like items getting perma-stuck under your cursor), there's just not much sexy to talk about a merchant trade interface. I ended up going far more traditional than I thought I would, just for the sake of my own sanity.

Merchant snark is still 100% free, though.

Another issue with Ardin was the invisible walls from the pilot. Everybody - myself included - hates invisible walls. Even when I know there's absolutely nothing for me to see out there. So - if nothing else - I'm at least making the walls visible kinda visible. So long as there is some consistency in knowing that you can't go up or down steep cliffs (and I will need to mark said faces with a texture that makes it clear it's not passible) or across rivers or so forth, that should resolve most issues.

Beyond that, when you go far enough (or hit the right point on the road, or whatever), you get a quick-travel menu asking where you want to go. Any area you have either visited before or heard about (via a quest or whatever) is available on the menu for travel. This won't happen the first "day" (the timeframe seen in the pilot) - as you really only have two places to visit (if you are in the one, you will only travel to the other). But after that, things start opening up, and you shouldn't have to walk far before being able to travel quickly to anywhere else in the game.

And - hey - BONUS! This opens up chances for secret locations that have to be discovered via conversations, reading old texts, etc. I'm not sure I'll be able to exploit that capability very well with the limited time I have available, but that would make for easy expansion and downloadable content later, wouldn't it?

Edit: Thank you, Ian, for pointing out that the previous name was taken. I wanted a misspelled onomatopoeia that suggested a beefy warrior-type. :)


Thursday, June 25, 2009
Frayed Knights Pilot Download Link Fixed
Apparently, with the recent switch over of the servers, the Frayed Knights Pilot download link was broken. That has now been fixed. Probably. Seemed to work for me.

Not that I relish getting feedback on a year-old pilot now. It's kinda strange getting feedback on things that only there for a few weeks last year, and haven't worked that way in a while. In fact, it's a little awkward for me to go back and play it now, as the controls all seem weird to me now.

Ah, well. Maybe at some point I'll release a revised pilot. It's sure to give people many more things to hate. But that'll be off in the future a bit.
That Old JRPG Magic ...
Apparently Final Fantasy VII, that much game people either love or hate, has had over 100,000 downloads on the PSP since being released earlier this month. The linked article notes,
"Square Enix's seminal RPG -- now over a decade old -- has become something of a cultural icon to gamers, and it's generally associated with the era of more mainstream interest in Japanese RPGs in the U.S., as well as the rise of the PlayStation platform."
Having been there (and been a professional game developer at the time) back in the day, I remember what a shake-up it was when Square announced their next Final Fantasy game would be a Sony exclusive rather than for Nintendo. I had never played any jRPGs (Japanese RPGs) at that time - nor any console RPGs at all unless you count The Legend of Zelda (I kinda... don't). So the momentousness of the announcement was lost on me. I was a PC gamer, and I loved my PC RPGs. I really didn't get the geeky love for the obviously inferior console jRPGs with their poorly translated dialog, goofy deformed-looking characters and simplistic gameplay.

Then I played Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII. And I learned what those weird SNES fanboys had been talking about all that time. While my love of western PC RPGs of that era was unchanged, I found a newfound appreciation for these much more linear, angsty, story-heavy little melodramas.

And Final Fantasy VII was, for many, the turning point where the mainstream western gamers discovered the jRPG. I only beat the crowd by a couple of months.

But for me, while the two styles of games are generally pretty different (though they freely borrow from each other), I enjoy both. I don't know if that makes me weird, or puts me in a silent majority, for I more often hear from people who love one style and completely hate the other. For me - a good game is a good game.

On a side note, for those who might be curious or who missed out on playing Final Fantasy VII in the first place but don't really feel inclined to play through it now to see what you missed, there's a great retrospective on the game at gamespite entitled Final Fantasy VII: The Voice of the Planet which I really enjoyed. It endeavors to strip out over a decade of hype and hate, look past the technology of the era and peer instead more at the core of the game - the good and the bad. Particularly the good - as nobody goes ga-ga over the formerly lush background visuals anymore. The article contains an amusing analysis of the primary - and what made him stand out - which is worth quoting here:
"Cloud's journey of personal transformation -- from a badass loner mercenary to a babbling mental wreck, to the deconstruction of his entire self-fabricated persona, and eventually, to acceptance that it's not too bad just to be a regular guy who says things like `Let's mosey' -- is genuinely sympathetic. (Which makes it all the more a disgrace that the game's various sequels have thrown his development back to square one, for no reason but that badass loners sell.)"

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
id Software: Independent No More
I guess we can quit arguing over whether or not id Software is an "indie" studio or not.

Bethesda Parent ZeniMax Acquires id Software

I had to check the date to make sure it wasn't an April Fool's joke. But yeah - the house of Doom is now a sibling to Bethesda.


The Evolution of a Game Engine
Scarily enough, I've been at this game development thing for a pretty long time. I have a few pretty obsolete books on making games in my library. Even discounting the really ancient ones (like Basic Computer Games and a couple of books on Commodore 64 game programming), there are some pretty vintage books.

I've been thumbing through some of these old books recently, including one that I picked up as a professional in 1995 but had hardly ever read. It was Lary L. Myers "Amazing 3D Games Adventure Set." Mainly, the book explained the source code and use of his "Publicware" raycasting engine, ACK-3D, which was a little more sophisticated than Wolfenstein 3D's engine.

The ACK-3D engine was released in the post-Doom era, which made it slightly obsolete even when new. Of course, the engine is almost hopelessly useless in this day and age, fifteen years later, except possibly by some indie developers who embrace the retro ethic (while I believe it uses a different raycasting engine, Terry Cavenaugh and Stephen Levelle's recent narrative game Judith would be a recent example).

But out of curiosity, I went online to see what ever had become of that little engine. How far did it go, and were there any notable examples of its use?

To my surprise, I found out that it is the great-great grandfather of 3D GameStudio. I doubt there's a single line of code in common between the 1993 original source and their latest A7 Engine (which, I should add, seems to be priced appropriately for indies, though I've never worked with it).

I doubt anybody but a code-monkey like me with a passion for game development would also find that interesting, but I thought it was an intriguing bit of history and look at the evolution of a game engine over the years.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Manifesto Games Shuts Doors
Manifesto Games, which opened not quite four years ago as an alternative portal for non-casual indie games, announced today that they are shutting down operations.

Play This Thing: Shuttering Manifesto

Bummer. Greg Costikyan cites a number of reasons why Manifesto never achieved critical mass, including a reluctance to participate on the part of some developers; failed marketing, failure to get sufficient investment capital, and of course the recession.

He notes that things are looking brighter for indies now than they did when they started, especially with inroads in the consoles, but also cautions: "In short, if a viable business ecosystem for independent games is to be established, it needs to be established on the basis of open systems and open markets, not proprietary channels. And that, I think, is inevitable; the whole history of the Internet shows that open systems and open channels rule."

Farewell Manifesto!


Mmm... Floor Pie!
So you are walking around in some ancient ruins. You stumble across an old treasure chest lying forgotten in one filthy, crumbling corner. You open it with trembling hands, and inside you see...

... a loaf of bread! And maybe a hunk of meat!

MMMM! Yeah, raise your hand if you wanna eat that!

Okay, so now I'm specifically making fun of the Aveyond games - well, even more particularly, Aveyond: Lord of Twilight, since I've been playing that one this weekend. And I started making jokes about it to my wife, who was in the room as I played. I'd say things like, "Yum! I just found a hunk of meat sitting in some old box in the middle of a dark and dangerous forest! I think I'm gonna eat it!"

I don't know that it's any sillier than Persona 3 with treasure chests in an alternate dimension that contain Japanese Yen, let alone bathing suits with high armor value.

It's just one of those weird little quirks that we RPG fans - particularly CRPG fans - put up with. We do it because its a beneficial bit of meta-gaming. Why is there a treasure chest in some dead-end corner of the deadlands in some Final Fantasy game? Because the designers want to reward us for exploring, and want to cushion the blow of having taken the wrong turn in their maze.

It's kinda like how my daughters pretended to believe in Santa Clause for an extra couple of years. They were afraid that if they expressed their newfound skepticism, the presents would cease. I don't really question finding food - which provides much-needed healing - in the middle of ancient ruins. The designer-gods took mercy on me, and I really need the hitpoints after those last couple of fights, so... it's all good.

So I eat the micro-feasts; I drink down those potions that are conveniently labeled "health potions" or "mana potions" without looking at their expiration date or fear of mislabeling; and I don't question why the bad guy had the wand of fireballs sitting in his bedroom wardrobe instead of using it against me in the battle where we soundly defeated him. And we don't question where those gold pieces come from when a monster with no clothing or containers dies.

Well, not much, anyway. But I'll shut up now, before the designers take my treasure away.


Monday, June 22, 2009
Aveyond - Lord of Twilight
Amaranth Games recently released Aveyond: Lord of Twilight. I got to spend some time with it this weekend (and put it up on the Rampant Games Store). While there are many enjoyable RPGs that are build on the RPGMaker engine, the Aveyond series consistently demonstrates a higher level of polish, attention to detail, and masterful storytelling. The latest game - at least so far as I've played it, several hours in - continues the trend.

The game opens on a dark scene from two hundred years in the past - a prophecy seemingly foiled. It is pretty obvious that the self-sacrificing hero has neglected a pretty crucial little possibility. and at the last moment his wife opts to not clue him in.

Then we flash forward to Mel, an orphan living on the streets of Harburg who has enjoyed a pretty successful career of thievery in her young age. Mysterious cloaked characters have sought her out, specifically, for a heist at a ruined tower - the same tower that appeared in the introduction.

Yeah. What's the chance of this little job snowballing out of control?

Soon, the game alternates between Mel's story and that of the vampire Te'ijal - a not-so-nice vampire who nonetheless finds herself protecting Mel to thwart the machinations of her brother. Amusingly, the two "parties" share the same items and bank account in spite of being separated by geography and not being entirely synchronized in time.

While I've always been thrilled by the solid storytelling and polish of the Aveyond series, this latest title shows some definite improvement and refinement over even Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest, which I previously considered the high-water mark for games using the RPG Maker engine. Amanda Fitch and Amaranth Games are doing some interesting things with this one.

Aveyond: Lord of Twilight is the first of the "Orbs of Magic" series taking place in the Aveyond universe. These games are a bit smaller than the previous Aveyond installments, and are selling for half-price. This and the upcoming Aveyond: Gates of Night will make up what could be considered "Aveyond 3." I have my suspicions as to why Amaranth Games did that, but aside from some curiousity as to how the transitions will work between the two chapters, I don't have a problem with it. Lord of Twilight doesn't seem to be skimping in the hours-of-play department, so I hope I will be able to finish it before the next release.

As usual, the game provides you with an hour of free play to check it out before deciding whether or not it is your kind of game. The time flew by for me, but your mileage may vary. The download is 61 megs - but well worth your time to give it a try!

Download Aveyond: Lord of Twilight at Rampant Games

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Friday, June 19, 2009
Indie Game Prices - The Streets Run Red
Jeff Vogel once again weighs in on the price wars that are pretty much killing the casual game developers (which includes a lot of indies):

Indie Games: Still Too Cheap, and Getting Cheaper

There's a key term he uses there which I have to agree with: "Unsustainable."

I mean, it's a pretty good deal for the portals (including consoles and iPhone). While they do have SOME costs associated with adding a new game to the library, for the most part the developer is shouldering the burden of cost, and the portal is getting it for somethig close to free. So their profit is completely independent of the content. For the big game portals, now, it's even more extreme. They don't have to convince users to even buy the games - they just gotta sign them up for a subscription, and sit back and rake in that nice, regular revenue stream.

The price-fixing screws the hell outta developers, though. Even the formerly super-successful ones. It's actually a pretty old story. The middlemen take home the cash, while the producers take home their personal belongings after clearing out their desk.

It would be another story if the developers were actually seeing at least 3x the sales for taking home 1/3rd of returns. Maybe that's happening amongst the very best-selling games, but the grumbling I'm hearing from the rank-and-file indicate that's not even close to what's happening. After a brief surge in sales with the price drop, their volume is returning to not much above the previous levels.

Ultimately, the one-size-fits-all "lunch-money" price point is unsustainable for the broader indie market. Or, put another way - there is only a limited class of games which can be made to work at those prices. If you are forced to sell a game for the price of a ringtone, then you need to be able to make a game for the same cost as making a profitable ringtone.

Good luck with that.

I think what we're seeing on the casual-portal side, at least, is a consolidation of an industry that has expanded much faster than demand can sustain. This happens in every new industry. Once upon a time, we had a dozen American automobile companies, too. But eventually, the streets have to run red, and the armies of suppliers have to duke it out until only a few are left standing. The others must die out or be absorbed.

And then, once the dust clears, things stabilize. The market re-calibrates and finds some kind of equilibrium. And yeah, prices rise, now that the supply of competing producers is no longer near-infinite.

In the meantime, since it is largely a battle between the big portals, some indies are just avoiding the fight and hoping to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Others are making necessary adjustments to survive (like Amaranth Games, breaking their "casual" RPGs into smaller, bite-sized episodes that can be sold seperately by the portals). Unfortunately, a lot of developers - like Gamelab, which was heavily dependent on the portals - are going to disappear.

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Recklessly Disregarding Gravity
AaaAaaAaaa - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (and I know I didn't use the right number of 'A's there, nor do I care) is an upcoming title from Dejobaan games. There's a pre-release available now with a few demo levels.

Get This Game.

It is one of the coolest, weirdest, most innovative yet FUN indie titles I've seen this year. Full of attitude and goofiness and really colorful 3D graphics. It's a game about - umm... jumping. Or falling. For miles. Through cities in the sky. And flipping off protesters on your way down - my favorite part.

And trying not to die.

While it may be a few months out yet from final release, if you order now you get $10 off the eventual full price of $25, plus they'll send you a 30-level version to tide you over in the meantime.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009
Classic Games versus Indie Games?
A couple of weeks ago, I finally succumbed to the siren's call of GOG.COM (Good Old Games) and purchased some older RPGs - Gothic 1 and 2, and Arx Fatalis. Last weekend, I also found myself buying Phantasy Star II - an RPG originally released for the Sega Genesis - on XBLA.

Not that I really have time to PLAY these games in a serious, committed way. But I LOVE this growing trend of classic games getting re-released as downloads (or as remakes, though it makes me feel old). It's re-introducing games to gamers who might have missed them the first time around - whether due to age or attention. It's forcing publishers to re-evaluate their history and wealth of great properties ... an important thing when I'll betcha most of the suits making these decisions weren't there when these games were hot and might only be barely aware they exist.

I barely noticed Arx Fatalis when it was originally released. Its user interface is the sort of thing nightmares are made of (except for spellcasting, which is way cool), and its obviously nowhere near as pretty as Oblivion or Fallout 3. But so far, when I can look past all that, "she's got it where it counts, kid." I mean, for $6, it's a steal. Big-time. I pay more than that for lunch at Apollo Burger. Incidentally, thanks to you folks here and on the forums who clued me into this one.

But when I put on my businessman hat (it never fits very well, but I try and wear it from time to time), I get a little bit alarmed as an indie game business.

Here's why: One of the secrets of the console game market's success - the console makers wipe the slate clean whenever the market gets too crowded with games. That way the newer games don't have to compete so much with a large back-catalog of titles (many of which are now available used or at reduced prices).

The PC doesn't have that, and instead game-makers relied on the nature of the platform and kept our minimum specs creeping up year after year. And the fact that that in a brick-and-mortar world, those older titles don't usually stay on the shelf very long to crowd out your brand new game. But now, part of the challenge PC game publishers are facing now is that the ol' dog is having trouble keeping up now. We're hitting the law of diminishing returns on technology. Besides the fact that it is costing more and more to keep pushing that bar of visual quality higher, the kinds of gamers that at one time would annually drop a hundreds or thousands of dollars to maintain the ultimate gamer machine have defected to the console camp.

And then you have the indies. Like me. Particularly, those indies who are delving into familiar categories. The restoration of these classic games to the market means indie games have to jockey with some heavy-hitting old warhorses for position along the long tail. And it's only going to get longer. And the indies won't have the price advantage against these titles for which any residual profits are pure gravy.

But this means Frayed Knights is going to be going head-to-head against Gothic 2 Gold and Arx Fatalis. And do I really want a player to choose between my game or Fallout? Especially when Fallout costs less? Holy crap!

I guess I'm just gonna have to hope that people have already played Fallout. And ... *gasp* ... I'm gonna have to make sure that my game is something that's not just a clone of an older game.

Okay. So we indie RPG developers and adventure game developers may be facing a bit more competition since some of the artificial pruning of the marketplace may be getting undone. But really, I see this as a positive. A really big, wet, sloppy kiss positive. Here's why:

Do you think that Telltale Games is worried at all that LucasArts is going to be releasing a "remastered" version of The Secret of Monkey Island at approximately the same time they are releasing their new Tales of Monkey Island episodes? Of course not. If anything, the games are going to help sell each other.

Ditto for these older titles and the new indie games that they may have inspired. I think anything that grows interest in the kinds of games I want to make is a Good Thing.

So bring 'em on!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Competing for Indie-Hood
Brent Fox of NinjaBee has taken a stab at defining "indie." Well, more like ranting about the use and misuse of the term. I don't think it will ever have a final, agreed-upon definition which can really be misused because ... well, that's just the nature of indie.

If you hang out in certain gaming forums long enough, you'll find Brent's analysis to be a subject that is all too familiar. There is often a bit of grousing over who is more indie than whom, and whether or not some company that isn't indie enough is trying to 'cash in' on the term that more rightly belongs to someone else:

NinjaBee: Indie Game Developer Definition

Now, I used to work there, so I may be biased. But I first ran into these guys when they were a "guns for hire" studio that had barely survived the last recession. They were down to a skeleton crew looking to go indie more out of desperation than anything else. Outpost Kaloki had been developed on their own dime, originally shopped around to publishers without success before they decided to take it indie in hopes of recouping some of their losses. It was self-funded, and self-published.

Brent, Lane, and Steve put their livelihoods on the line to try and live the dream and chart their own course in the games biz. And they've been extremely generous and supportive of the indie community for years. When people talk about the indie gaming spirit, I think of these guys just as readily as some dude in his parent's basement making free games that would have looked at home on the Atari VCS. Any definition of indie, in my mind, has to include them.

But I think it goes beyond a self-esteem or insecurity thing, as Brent suggests. Indie games must compete with each other as much as they must compete with mainstream titles. They must compete for recognition, awards, and - yes - sales. The difference in production quality between high-end and low-end indie games can be even larger than that of mainstream triple-A titles and the top indie offerings.

When you've spent the entry fee to submit your game to the IGF for consideration, and find your game has been beaten by a game which obviously cost 100x as much to make, some issues of fairness are going to get called into question. It's unavoidable.

While I resent it being used in this way (by myself as much as by others), to some degree the "indie" label is used to reset the expectations on the audience. Slap an "indie" label on a game with lower production values that would otherwise be met with nothing by contempt by gamers, and at least some fraction of the audience might be willing to give the game a second look and try to see past the lack of gloss and current-gen graphics. But when "indie" can apply to a game that cost a half-million dollars to make (and looks it), it leaves the bulk of indies out in the cold. Nobody wants to compete in a category where they are hopelessly outclassed.

So arguments about who is and isn't indie really revolve around attempts to level the playing field. I doubt there is a good answer. Limiting games by budget would be a ridiculous exercise. What's the difference between paying a professional artist thousands of dollars to create content for my game, and getting him into donating all his time for free? From the player's perspective, not a thing.

Ultimately - for me - it's about the games, not the labels. I think the little guys suffer more from lack of attention than anything else, which is why I try to evangelize the best of the indie games. There are a lot of overlooked gems out there. And I like hearing the stories of these guys who bring games to their audiences outside of the conventional routes - who are able to bypass the old middlemen and gatekeepers to get their visions and creations more directly into the hands of the players.

Beyond that, I try to stay disinterested in who might be "more indie" than whom. It doesn't really matter.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Extreme Makeover Dungeon Edition!
I love dungeons. Big underground lairs (generically referred to as dungeons by legions of RPG players) have been a staple of fantasy RPGs since... well, since before they named an ad-hoc rule set "Dungeons and Dragons" and started distributing it in the 1970s.

You could argue that this was due to an influence of the Mines of Moria - because Tolkien was an overwhelming influence on that game. While I wouldn't disagree, I'd argue that the influence goes back much further than that. The stories of "the underworld" permeate mythology. And folk tales - for one project I still have on the back-burner I was spending a great deal of time reading through American and European folklore, and I was surprised to find a number of stories involving a secret world hidden in caves, holes in the ground, and old ruins.

Ghosts. Forty thieves. Dogs with eyes the size of dinner plates. Secret kingdoms of elves and trolls. Old gods. Witches. Giants. In folk tales, myth, classic literature, the land beneath the world is a place of magic and mystery. And, frequently, monsters.

So it's very natural that they'd be part of a game rooted in myths, legends, folklore, and fantasy literature. In fact, one student of RPG history has suggested that in the original rules for D&D, dungeons were much more like the mythic underworld, and in many ways the very nature of the dungeon itself was hostile towards intruders from the world above.

But there's a small problem with the underlying concept:

Dungeons are kinda stupid.

Stupidity #1 is enemy behavior. Unless you've got a locations that's truly ginormous in size, or contains no creatures smart enough to even come close to normal human intelligence (or they are all craven), there's no way they are just going to hang out in their rooms and wait for the adventurers to kick their door open and kill them.

As David Noonan and Jessie Decker put it in one article on adventure design for D&D:
"In real life, if you attack a site full of armed, dangerous people, the entirety of them will respond—probably overwhelmingly, and probably right at the entrance. But that rarely makes for a satisfying D&D game. First, PCs don’t feel a sense of progression when they’re fighting battle after battle in room A1, not exploring the entire adventure site. Second, the PCs don’t get to make interesting noncombat decisions—the “left door or right door” sorts of questions. Third, a dungeon that empties out in response to a PC attack starts to feel like a random monster generator."
So to make an interesting adventure, we have to cheat. Sorta like in how those kung fu movies the bad guys never attack the hero en masse - they always attack by ones and twos. It's unbelievable, but we put up with it because it is entertaining.

Stupidity #2 is the laws of physical science. Ask any civil engineer, and they can give you a reams of lists of issues and dangers of underground construction. Air contaminants, ventillation, structural integrity, the threat of fire, flooding, lighting, limited movement or escape - these are all huge issues in real life. Let alone the fact that there's probably not much in a dungeon for the monsters to eat.

So - in theory - a party could just lay siege on a smaller dungeon and smoke 'em out.

If there's a nearby water source (and we assume most monsters would need water, too), some dungeons might be vulnerable to flooding if you built a dam nearby.... or simply setting up a Decanter of Endless Water at the entrance...

Stupidity #3 is the rather silly arrangement of monsters. So why, exactly, are the weakest monsters at the front trying to protect the strongest "boss" monsters in the furthest and most inaccessible reaches of the dungeon? Maybe all strong monsters are cowards at heart, and all the brave ones die before they level up.

I remember the jokes by EverQuest players about how the monsters would send their children and weakest laborers to go play in hostile human territory while their most powerful warriors were kept safely deep in the back of the lair. Same deal.

I could go on, including more things like ridiculously convoluted architecture (I assume somehow magic is responsible and very cheap), similarly ridiculously convoluted and ineffectual traps, and more. But I'll stop now.

I'm not saying that anything should be done to correct these little bits of stupidity. Dungeons are a long-standing archetype in most human cultures, and we need to play into it. But like action movies, sometimes you have to put a little part of your brain on the shelf to enjoy them - simply because they'd not be any fun, otherwise.



I really like the approach Decker and Noonan took in their article - given that a truly realistic response is rarely fun, how could they design around it to give the feeling of realistic, intelligent response without making it boring for players and a nightmare for the game master. Sorta like how the Death Star's defenses are explained to the audience as being undermanned, and confused and unsure about where Luke and the gang are, or even if there there truly are intruders aboard during the middle of Star Wars.

In computer RPGs, designers have a little bit of an advantage in being able to design around some of the problems. While in a free-form dice & paper RPG players might think to do something crazy like re-route the river to flood the dungeon, in computer RPGs the designer has to explicitly provide that option. Though I'm still game to see a simulation-esque RPG along the lines of Dwarf Fortress where you could pull off stuff like that.

If you take the assumption that the plain vanilla dungeon acts as a symbolic surrogate for the underworld, the unknown, the alien, and the world of mystery --- we just HAVE to invade it in our games. It's something of a moral imperitive for adventurers.

But the dungeon doesn't have to be plain vanilla, nor has our exploration of it have to be the typical explore / hack / slash / loot experience of many RPGs, old and new. I mean, we want exploring, we want combat, and we want looting - but maybe there's more to it than we've been playing for decades.

I've talked a little about ways of improving on traditional level design in fantasy RPGs - but I'm wondering if there are some bigger improvements that could be made? What other approaches could RPGs take to shake up the ol' dungeon to make it more believable and/or - more importantly - more fun?

I'm curious what you think.

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Monday, June 15, 2009
Roleplaying Flashbacks
For me, it was a one-shot dice-and-paper adventure: I never got to play in the rest of the campaign. It's too bad, because the intro adventure was one of the cooler adventures I've ever played. But I was just a visitor, leaving after the summer, and this was a kick-off adventure for some students getting ready to start a new school year at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

We were instructed to generate our Fantasy Hero characters based on a certain number of points, assuming a fairly low-powered heroic campaign. I was pleased to find another gaming group that played my RPG of choice. Without so many points to spend, my character wasn't spectacularly powerful or original, but I had some ideas on how to make him fun to play during the adventure.

When we got there, we were given new instructions. We were to somehow subtract more points than we'd originally been given - to make our characters even weaker than normal adult characters, because we would be playing our younger selves. We were to give the game master our original sheets, because those interesting little backgrounds and directions for future play would be incorporated into this "flashback." We'd all be playing 10-12 year old characters.

The adventure wasn't overly threatening, and the violence was very understated. Our characters were traveling from our village to the big city for a festival - a three-day long trip. But on the second day, an attack by bandits and other accidents left us separated from our adult supervision.

We got into one fight with a guy who we assumed would be a major bad guy in our character's future. But a lot of the adventure was just getting ourselves in the mindset of children - with an eye towards who they would eventually become.

I never even finished the full flashback encounter, because it was continued in another session. But some moments keep coming back to me - like camping the first night and having a discussion between each other about what we were going to do with our lives when we grew up.

Innovations in gaming doesn't have to come from technological advancements in graphics or sound, or even revolutionary game mechanics. Sometimes the most powerful innovations just come from looking at how to present the story or the game in a new way.


Friday, June 12, 2009
XBox Live Community Games Now Becoming Indie Games
With the release of XNA Game Studio 3.1 (Microsoft's SDK used to make "cross-platform" games for the XBox 360, Windows, and ... uh, Zune), there was a tiny announcement at the end that XBox Live is renaming Community Games "Indie Games."

The hope, according to the announcement, is that the name change plus new features (like user ratings) will "increase understanding and discoverability of (creator's) games," and that they "believe this name better represents the independent spirit of XNA Game Studio gaming and creations."

So - uh, does this mean XBox Live Arcade is now "Not Indie Games?" Okay, granted, most of the games there have not been made by indies, but they still had a toe-hold there.

But aside from that - I don't really have a big problem with it. Aside from some pretty stupid apps that don't qualify as games anyway, for the most part its calling it like they see it. I mean, sadly, 95% of indie games really are crap - I just like to focus on what I consider the top 5%, and on my little niche of specialty. But that's both the blessing and the curse of indie games - there are no gatekeepers, so it's not my place (or anybody else's) to decide what is worthy and what is not. We can advise to provide limited filtering, but there's no impedements for anybody getting their game out to the public.

So... overall... I say, "cool."

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Thursday, June 11, 2009
RPG Design: Telling The Monster's Story
A month ago I talked about some of the weird monsters in dice & paper and computer RPGs designed specifically to trip players up. Like the mimic, which is perhaps not the most ridiculous monster to ever appear in an RPG (many of the bizarre monsters in the Final Fantasy series could give it a run for its money), but certainly one of the more ubiquitous of the Goofy Monster society.

Shortly thereafter, I learned that Paizo was publishing a book in its Pathfinder Chronicles that specifically dealt with some of these classic "weird" monsters. Including the mimic. Each of the ten monster chapters is written by a different designer, throwing their often considerable expertise and vision into overhauling the concepts behind the monsters to make them ... well, valuable.

Dungeon Denizens Revisited is a collection of articles by different designers on about ten of the most common bizarre creatures in the history of D&D (now "open" via the Open Gaming License). Gelatinous Cubes, Cloakers, the *cough* bulette (aka "land shark", featured on the cover), the Roper (a killer stalagtite with strength-draining tentacles --- which reappeared in the Ultima games as a "Reaper," re-camoflaged as a killer tree stump), cloakers, shambling mounds (killer plant monster! Run!), dreaded rust monsters, and others are given treatment similar to the old Dragon Magazine "Ecology of..." articles.

Each chapter also includes some new items related to these monsters, and rules for several variants of these creatures. But it was the "fluff" articles I was most interested in. I mean, how do you make a creature that disguises itself as a door or a treasure chest sound remotely believable, yet alone cool?

While not knocking every ball out of the park, for the most part I have been pretty impressed. Strangely enough, the (justifiably) maligned mimic has become a far more interesting monster for me, with its twisted faith that - after much studying and consuming its human victims - it will one day evolve into a human, adopting that as its final, permanent form (although the few that try go insane with their horrible, twisted failures). Ditto for the roper, a creature which enjoys philosophical discourse with its paralyzed victims, enjoying their screams, pleadings, and attempts to bargain more than their flesh as it devours them slowly over the course of hours or days.

Granted - there's only so much that can be done about a monster that shreds credulity in a game where players accept ten-ton flying fire-breathing dragons and teleporting wizards. But the big take-away for me is how some halfway decent writing - the suggestion of story - can turn a pretty dumb monster into something really interesting. And while the book has some very interesting ideas on its own, it was more of the concept behind this series of books that made me pause and consider just how much a little bit more fleshing-out of an idea, a little bit more storyline and logic, can make an otherwise throw-away encounter come alive. And the game as a whole seems deeper and more textures.

This is just as true in computer RPGs as the dice-and-paper variety, if not more so. Oftentimes, especially in some kinds of action-RPGs that rely on a pretty constant flow of monster hordes to keep the player active, there's not much rhyme, reason, or rationale behind the appearance of enemies beyond trying to make them sound reasonable in the environment. If it's a volcanic cave with lava, we might find fire monsters. Wow. There's game-logic for you. Can't we do better?

Naturally, games that rely upon combat as a major aspect of gameplay - which includes pretty much every RPG I've ever played - aren't going to be able to devote this kind of attention to every single enemy. This is boss-monster level stuff... but too often even the "boss monsters" are merely an obstacle in the story, too, and don't have much of a story themselves. But maybe they should. Just because their purpose in the main plot and game mechanics is to be the main challenge in aquiring the fourth broken chunk of the Legendary Dutch Oven of Zog the Merciless doesn't mean there can't be more to the story than "They were hired by Zog's Ghost to protect the broken chunk."

As always, it is attention to detail that sets apart an RPG above the herd in my mind. And that detail doesn't just mean incredible polygon counts and awesome shader effects, nor does it mean wading through hours of expository dialog voiced by some D-list actor. I still maintain that the best storytelling in games comes from the stories the players tell themselves while they are playing.

The designer just needs to provide enough dots for the players to connect so that a picture can emerge. I've seen concept art and design documents - there's usually a whole ton of thought that goes into these things that never appears in any form in the game. Why not? It doesn't need to be front-and-center, nor does the player have to be forced to learn it all before cleaning its clock in ten turns or less.

And this isn't limited to monsters. What about that shopkeeper? Yeah, the one you only click on to convert your half-ton of rusty swords and armor into gold. Does he have a story? A dark secret? The rotting corpse of his wife under the floorboards, whom everybody believes left him for a cartwright in another village a year ago? And if you find out, do you turn him in, and lose your easy access to a junk-to-gold converter?

What about those quest-giving NPCs? The ones asking you to get their cats out of a trees for two gold pieces, or to kill a bunch of rats in their basement and bring back the tails? Maybe their sole gameplay purpose is to have you perform some dumb side-quest, but that doesn't mean that this is all there is to know about them.

It just takes a good twist to make 'em intriguing.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Dungeons & Dragons Online Goes Free
I still don't think I'll go back to play it...

Dungeons & Dragons Online Goes Free to Play

There are a lot of MMOs that have discovered that subscription-based models are difficult to pull off unless you are definitely in the top tier. The advantage is a consistent cash-flow, and probably a lower turnover of users (people are less likely to go inactive if they are paying.... which means they keep playing and paying...) But once people drop out, it's harder to get them back.

I played DDO for about a year, and had some good experiences playing it, but I became increasingly frustrated around level 6 or so. The way they balanced the game was... poor, I felt. We'd get penalized by having someone of a little higher level in our group, yet his extra level wasn't nearly enough to make up for the fact that we had five members in our group instead of six (but no, no bonus XP or treasure or anything for completing dungeons with a sub-optimal party size - nothing to offset the penalty). So over time we found ourselves "under-equipped" for being forced to go through "too easy" dungeons, which made us even less capable of handling the ones that were supposed to be appropriate for our level.

It felt like we were always behind the power-curve. At least it felt that way to me. This wasn't a horrible problem, since we really only played with a particular group of friends so there wasn't the feeling of competition. But it did feel like we ended up doing the same quests over and over again.

They made some changes that made it easier to solo (mainly solo-oriented quests), and continued to pump out some interesting content for the standard, optimal, power-gaming groups, but it seemed like the 'casual,' non-optimal group sized were a little left out. Or simply not planned for. But they did do a pretty good job of making the rogues feel welcome, I thought.

I'm sure the game has changed a ton since then (and now you can get up to level 20, which ought to be significant). And really, it's not a bad game.

We'll see what this means for Dungeons & Dragons Online (or now, "Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited"). This could be a last-ditch effort to make the game pay off, or it could be the move that allowed them to hit the jackpot.

What makes things even more convoluted and interesting is that Atari / Cryptic is rumored to be working on a Dungeons & Dragons based MMO of their own... based on Neverwinter Nights. The irony is that the original Neverwinter Nights was an MMO based on the old "Gold Box" D&D games from SSI. Then the title was appropriated for Bioware's excellent stand-alone multiplayer game series (which I devoted way too many hours to). And now it may come full circle as an MMO again.

As for me - I'm looking forward to Champions Online, but I failed to cancel my City of Heroes account before they billed me again, so I've been paying for a game I haven't even played in months. I love the game, but don't have the time to devote to an MMO.

(Hat tip to RPGWatch for being where I first heard about it...)


Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Frayed Knights: Heroes of Bastionne
It's time for another installment of the seemingly never-ending saga of the development of Frayed Knights, the indie RPG that refuses to take itself too seriously.

Cold Medicine and Dungeon Building Don't Mix

I only have a cold. I say "only" because, although it's the nastiest one I've endured in about three years, it's not the swine flu, which our neighbors down the road have. The ones with the son who is in the Junior High carpool with my daughter. Yeah, exposure potential there. Terrific. I'll count my blessings.

But a lot of building and testing (repeat, repeat...) of game levels for Frayed Knights while under the influence of both a cold and cold medication can have a strange effect. When followed by brief snatches of medication-encouraged slumber, things get... weird. Really weird.

I found myself walking (or floating) down the same corridors I'd been building (and testing, etc) in my dream. There was no escape. There was always something just not right about it, though I could never exactly put my finger on it. Over and over I'd pace the corridor in some kind of brain-loop.

So now I have a freakin' dungeon that haunts my nightmares. Great. It's not even that impressive of a corridor - there's nothing complicated about it. I may have to put some really weird encounter in there to commemorate the dream-loop I had about it.

Fear not, I will be raising the ambient levels a bit above what you see in the screen capture. I just turned everything down to see the other lights better.

Right before coming down with this happy little plague, I'd decided to completely overhaul the Tower of Almost Certain Death. I wasn't happy with what I'd done before, and it was getting hard to maintain. The tower itself was too dinky, for one thing. Adding the larger underground section helped, adding about twelve rooms to the total, but something had to be done about the tower itself. All told, the tower is a bit larger than the Temple of Pokmor Xang, clocking in at about double the number of rooms (depending upon your definition of "room").

In fitting with the Frayed Knights universe, the tower itself is only a small part of the actual structure. By room-count, it still dominates, but at least half the square-footage is underground. The wizard who built the tower wasn't quite so worried about its vulnerability to aerial attack as its convenience, but it has a traditional underground bolt-hole. Plus, the underground complex was a place to billet his guards and drudge-servants where they wouldn't stink up the place. And finally, the underground area housed one of his greatest - and most successful - experiments.

One which has now been found, and controlled by the forces of evil. Duh. You leave anything laying around like that, you just KNOW some dark overlord or something is going to take advantage of it.

The Heroes of Bastionne

Polly has been feverishly working on the rival group for the Frayed Knights - the Heroes of Bastionne. You met one of them (kinda) in the pilot - Florentine. She's getting a complete overhaul as well. New graphics, new everything. Except her attitude. That stays.

The artwork style doesn't quite match that of Shawn Boyle's drawings for the main characters, but nothing's gonna exactly match that - not even the game world itself. Though I will keep trying to make some changes to make things a little more compatible. But ultimately, the main characters are probably just gonna end up standing out a little bit from the rest of the world. That's true on several levels, so I think that's okay.

The Heroes of Bastionne are designed to be in many ways the opposites of the Frayed Knights. Florentine, their leader, is the cleric - Benjamin's counterpart. Where he's a tree-hugging nature priest who only reluctantly engages in the violence that is the adventurer's lot, Florentine is a priestess of the goddess of battle. Benjamin is the newbie on the team who isn't quite sure what's going on half the time. Florentine is the group leader, and has the most experience of them all. Benjamin is a little naive and bumbling, but Florentine at least projects the aura of being ultra-competent. Benjamin is kind-hearted, and will push to do what's right in spite of the potential for his own detriment (note that he's the one who lobbies to free the "prisoner" in the temple). Florentine is cold, calculating, and ruthless.

Oh, and Florentine is fiercely loyal to her team... and Benjamin (inadvertantly) betrays his own...

Yeah, but guess which team ends up saving the kingdom?


Monday, June 08, 2009
Science Girls Available at Rampant Games
If you haven't picked it up already (or at least tried the demo), Science Girls! is now available at the Rampant Games website.

Science Girls!

I'm still playing it. I'm currently lost in an alien dimension chased by monsters, with my party all around level 7 and 8. The game does throw a few puzzles at you to break up the fighting. So far, nothing has been too difficult or frustrating, but I do have to remember where I was going when I am only playing in short 10- or 20- minute segments.

(Yay for save-anywhere!)

Science Girls! features some cute, almost throw-away dialog which has endeared me to the game a bit. I was particularly amused by their little in-game discussion of how the media and others tend to confuse correlation and causation. Like the Nethack gag, you pretty much have to be a geek yourself to "get it," which makes me wonder a little bit about the actual intended audience. But hey, if one person playing this game suddenly decides to give Nethack a try, or begins to understand how the media twists the facts, it'll be awesome.

We recently had a server migration here at Rampant Games - if ya blinked, ya mighta missed it. This is the first addition to affiliate games I've made since the switch, and while there were a couple of bumps in the road, everything seems to have gone off without a hitch. Next up will be making some changes to existing titles. And making some fixes to the site, which apparently isn't displaying properly on Firefox under Linux (I use Firefox myself, but only on Windows). There's a lot of site maintenance to be done, and I've been putting it off until after the server move. Now that this is done, I don't have any excuse.

Dang it.

And then there's figuring out how to deal with the 17 hojillion RPGs and adventure games on the RPG / Adventure section. The current system - which randomly orders all the games within a category - worked great when I only had a dozen or so games there. But with the rate of Indie RPGs have been getting released lately, I'm going to have to figure something else out.

Which will, no doubt, cut into my limited playing-games time. *Sigh.*


Saturday, June 06, 2009
The Ultimate House
Some close friends of ours just bought a house in our neighborhood. We're thrilled, as we do enjoy their company, and it'll be nice having them closer. Unfortunately, all that seemed perfect at first hasn't panned out to be quite as wonderful as they had hoped. The dishwasher has been malfunctioning with a pretty massive leak, there is a snake nest in the backyard, the kitchen is smaller than they hoped, and they've had problems getting the Internet.

I feel for 'em. I hope they aren't feeling buyer's remorse.

I am kinda glad they don't have Internet right now, though, because then they might see the house they COULD have purchased, and then they'd really be upset:

The Coolest House in the Neighborhood (And Maybe the Galaxy) -- powered by Cracked.com


Friday, June 05, 2009
RPG Design: Legends & Levels & Low Fantasy
Indie RPG Maker Gareth Fouche has an article about yet another way in which RPGs typically diverge from their source material. In this case, he tells the story of Perseus and Medusa, as retold in an RPG.

Blog of War: Legendary

In the first part, Perseus just shrugs off Medusa's petrifying gaze - the very legendary ability she is known for. 'Cause he can make his saving throw.

This is hardly the sole example of this kind of problem. I remember reading an article by a doctor who also happened to be a gamer on the subject of poisons, and how - Rasputin nothwithstanding - the whole saving throw to avoid the effects was a pretty far out there from anything resembling realism. And we already had the discussion about hit points and leveling recently.

And really, the original concept of the saving throw (as I understand it) was an abstraction to incorporate all kinds of elements - including blind luck - to avoid an effect. I always imagined that Piers Anthonys story of Bink in A Spell for Chameleon was inspired by a game of D&D. In the book, Bink's magical power is actually a very subtle yet powerful counter-magic which prevented him from coming to true harm via magic. Magical effects didn't actually fail when targeting him - instead, he was the beneficiary of amazing coincidence.

Likewise, Perseus fighting Medusa in D&D would not and should not be able to gaze directly at her and shrug off her petrifying gaze effect - rather, the saving throw represents his ability to avoid her gaze, maybe catching a glimpse of her shadow or hearing her very quiet breath an instant before he'd otherwise look up and get caught in her stony stare. The saving throw represents a thousand other factors and precautions that a veteran hero would take into consideration in a deadly battle that a tyro would not. So maybe in Bullfinch's version of the story, Perseus really does end up making three saving throws in a row against Medusa's gaze attack... but what really happened isn't so dramatic. It's just that the hero didn't make a critical error, while those who came before him had.

But in actual gameplay, players treat it as an immunity. A randomly ocurring immunity. We interpret it much as Gareth does. It's simpler, more dramatic, feeds the player's ego better, and requires less creativity. The dragon breathes its fearsome fire, and the player character just stands there and sucks it up for half-damage. Or something.

So the answer would seem to be to decrease the level of abstraction. This can add a great deal of tedium to a pen-and-paper game, but the numbers can be crunched instantly in a computer game. The problem is providing the feedback to the player. Sure, you can take into consideration what the character had for breakfast that morning, a learning experience from their childhood, the prevailing winds, and a million other factors into calculating the precise result that... uh, the hero didn't get turned to stone this round.

Alternately, you can take none of those factors into effect, and make it a purely deterministic effect based on the player's actions - which is what Gareth seems to be suggesting here. Now, I typically associate deterministic pass / fail aspects as artifacts of adventure games and action games rather than RPGs. Though I also love mashing genres together and shattering their boundaries, so this isn't a huge deal to me.

Gareth also brings up the whole concept of the "bigger, badder" monster showing up after the legendary uber-monster has been defeated or fails to be a challenge anymore. This is a problem that has kinda-sorta been with us since Beowulf, and certainly since they first started making sequels to books and movies, and is even more acute in role-playing games. You always have to escalate the stakes and the challenge. Role-playing games are peculiar in that you may have to escalate before the fact.

Several of Gareth's articles and approaches to fantasy seem to boil down to one consistent factor that he seems to be going after with Scars of War: Low Fantasy. As one of my favorite fantasy series growing up was Conan, I'm quite happy with that, especially as most RPGs seem to be fighting over "high fantasy" turf.

What I find fascinating, as a designer and long-time afficianado of not only RPGs but the actual design mechanics at their core, is how all of Gareth's public discussions over his design consistently reinforce this theme. He has a particular story to tell and worldview he wishes to simulate. Rather than just choose genericized off-the-shelf systems to form the underlying mechanics of the world, he seems to be carefully customizing each part to best serve his vision of the game.

I guess when you are making an indie game, you can afford to think of other things than just how to wow your audience with your graphics and technical artistry. It's kind of funny imagining how this sort of design would go over with a major publisher. "What? You mean you want less cool special effects for spells and stuff and and you will only want these uber-cool monsters our artists spent weeks of time making, rigging, and animating to only appear rarely? Are you crazy? How are we gonna sell this thing?"

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Thursday, June 04, 2009
RPG Design: Somebody Call the Dungeon Architect!
You know, it was a lot easier back in the 80's when I was just making dungeons with pencil and graph paper.

Back in '88 or so, I was at a science fiction and fantasy symposium with Tracy Hickman, co-author of the Dragonlance novels (among many others), as well as the famed Ravenloft module for Dungeons & Dragons. He gave a few talks both on writing and publishing, and on role-playing games. Though he's nowhere close to being my favorite author, his comments were very valuable and enlightening.

Among his many topics, he talked about creating maps for the players. He said, "Have you ever tried to actually to envision or model one of the maps from the earlier modules in 3D? Like any of the castles? If you do, one thing you'll discover very quickly is that they are dumpy! Very squat and flat. That's not very realistic."

Apparently, that was part of his goal with Ravenloft, which includes a very tall castle with a lot of use of vertical space. "If you want to confuse your players," he explained, "give them a lot of vertical movement. They'll inevitably get mapping errors, and become convinced that they've run into some kind of teleport trap because nothing is lining up right."

That's mainly because the maps were done on plain ol' graph paper, encouraging a very flat, top-down design. In fact, the use of vertical movement was such a special case that in the early editions of dice & paper Dungeons & Dragons, difficulty (and treasure) was based almost entirely on how many stairs you had descended - your "dungeon level."

The CRPGs I fell in love with in the early days of the hobby often used a player-eye (or mouse-eye?) perspective of dungeon maps in sort of a fake 3D view. Not too unlike the perspective indie RPG Cute Knight Deluxe offers. But again, the dungeons were flat maps in 2D space. Stairways, ladders, pits, and so forth were simply objects that appeared that took you to different levels. The encounters generally became a little harder with each level you descended. Just like old-school D&D. Even the Ultima series, with it's top-down perspective through much of the world, used the mouse-eye view of the flat dungeon levels (of which, if I recall correctly, there were exactly 8 for each dungeon in Ultima III and IV).

Now we move to the modern era, where it almost as easy to render a dungeon in "true" 3D as it is to render those old 2D mouse-eye views. In fact, indie RPG Devil Whiskey limits movement and view to the four cardinal directions as these old-school games (it is heavily inspired by the original Bard's Tale games), but renders the view in true 3D. Ditto for the now-defunct Dungeon Maker engine. That's certainly an option. And there are some nifty things you can do with modern 3D rendering that faking it in the 2D world couldn't offer to make the world look better, including escaping the old 10' x 10' block and 90-degree turn restrictions of the older games.

But when you can really take advantage of the vertical element with 3D views and realistic architecture (and lighting, bump-mapping, or whatever else sounds good), it kinda feels like a waste to wander around a "dumpy", mostly flat world. Things that looked cool on graph paper may not translate to excitement on the game's screen.

Old-school RPG editors (Bard's Tale Construction Set, Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures, etc.) were pretty close to what you see with Dungeon Crafter. Fill in the floors, set the doors and walls, and away you go. Yeah, you didn't have many choices to deal with, but it was fast. But good luck figuring out a way to make these maps interesting. There's only so much you can do with flat levels of 10' x 10' squares.

So now we have all kinds of power to make virtually anything we can imagine within the constraints of the engine and the target computer's ability to render your ideas in real-time. But with this flexibility comes vastly increased complexity - by an exponential factor. Sure, you can impose some constraints on your design to speed creation time - I've got some "tiles" under construction right now which I'm going to be using to speed development of some areas. But disposing of the old, simple graph-paper grid can make things like just making sure floors and walls line up properly kinda tricky. Because, of course, sometimes you may not want them to line up. With all those options means lots of choices, and more complicated tools to accomodate those choices.

One issue I've run into in the development of Frayed Knights is lighting. Really cool lighting covers a multitude of sins, I've learned. But, with the engine I'm using, lighting can be really nice and really cheap, but it's also pretty finicky thing. The human brain relies heavily upon light, and so realistic lighting gives us all kinds of signals that help us make-believe that a picture on little flat-screen monitor is actually a window into another world. But squirrely lighting jars us out of that illusion just as easily, and causes frustration because things don't behave the way they look like they should. And then of course, there are problems with a level being too dark, too bright and washed out, or... both, as in the picture to the right. (That's all stand-in texturing, I should note... as are all the Frayed Knights pictures in this post. We're trying to crank along on geometry right now.)

Finding and fixing lighting bugs can also be a major chore. Texturing is another one. I'm not even gonna go there - entire books have been devoted to that subject.

Yet another challenge is more basic - how do you make a good 3D gaming environment? One book I own, "Beginning Game Level Design," suggests picking up some textbooks on architecture. Knowledge of architecture, set design, interior decoration, and 2D art composition skills are just as important here as game design, creativity, and technical competency with tools. In many ways, the design task is closer to that of a theatrical or cinematic set designer, as the builder not only has to satisfy the demands of style and function for the fictional creators of the environment, but also satisfy the aesthetics of the game and the demands of the mechanics.

Additionally, those really cool, visually appealing environments can play hell with the AI pathfinding and successful player navigation.

Regardless of technology, for the kind of RPG I'm interested in (and interested in making), these environments need to satisfy several requirements:

#1 - Exploration is a big deal in RPGs, so a good "level" should provide an interesting environment to explore. It should provide hints for interesting things to come. A good dungeon level should promise hidden secrets, give you glimpses of currently unattainable goals, and something new and different as you progress.

#2 - Since combat provides the meat of most RPG gameplay, the environment should provide some interesting tactical challenges - if that is a feature of the game.

#3 - A dungeon level should provide some interesting spatial/navigational puzzles. This is more appropriate for 3D environments with restricted vertical movement, but even the old dice-and-paper games had things like notorious chessboard floors and similar puzzles or "tricks" involving navigating the environment.

#4 - A good dungeon level should be visually appealing. Easier said than done, sometimes. This comes from a combination of interesting geometry, good texturing, and lighting. It should at least look plausible given the constraints of the world. Huge, flat ceilings without arches or supports look wrong. Stark transitions between material types can look bad. Bad color combinations look bad. Too much repetition of texture looks bad. Too much contrast looks bad. Too little contrast looks bad. There are probably a zillion other things that detract from the looks of things, and I won't even recognize them when I see them.

There may be a lot more science to it than I understand. There is a lot to it. So much, that it gets a little intimidating for a guy like me, for whom the term "programmer art" is something of a compliment. Nevertheless, there's something incredibly satisfying about learning to go from the old graph paper maps of my childhood to making 3D dungeons in my... um, later childhood.

(Images come from Frayed Knights, Might & Magic 1, and Wishbone's Dungeon Maker alpha version)

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Scorpia Signs Off?
Well, this sucks.

She'll be missed.
Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption - Only a Week to Install!
So last Wednesday, I tried to install my old copy of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption. I wanted to take a look at the modeling they did for the architecture in medieval Prague for some ideas. No dice. The installer would just disappear, never to return.

I forgot about it. It didn't work. I complained briefly about it in passing last week. Too bad - I always remembered the level design in Redemption looking pretty good in spite of its low polygon count (mainly because of the lighting and shadowing system that was used for the game, which was ahead of its time).

Then, a week later, I suddenly get a popup complaining that I needed to re-insert the Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption install disc. I hadn't shut my computer off in all that time, and I hadn't hunted down the installer through the task manager. In fact, I had three copies of the installer all playing the Redemption theme music at once.

Bizarre. I don't know if this was an artifact of copy protection, a crappy installer, or what... but nearly a week later, I was finally able to install the game. I spent about an hour playing it - mostly wandering around Prague and the mines and seeing how they made repetitive textures not look so bad. But the game played just fine. It definitely looks dated, but aside from the installer problems, the game works.

So what do you do when an installer goes bad like that? Waiting around a week for an install isn't generally a reasonable solution to play a retro game.

For what it's worth, I always loved Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption. Mechanically, it was only so-so... excessively linear, but the game system was good. As it predated Neverwinter Nights, its storyteller multiplayer stuff was way ahead of its time. Buggy and crashy, but a heck of a lot of fun when it worked. The dialog was purple prose bordering on ultraviolet. But for sheer atmosphere, the game still ranks among the best.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009
RPG Design: Cursed Items
Back in the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons days, the magic items list in the Dungeon Master's Guide included a ton of really horrible, nasty items that resembled their powerful, beneficial counterparts to every normal test, until they were actually used in earnest. In fact, the description even included the "head fake" description - a sword would perform perfectly until used in a life-or-death battle, at which point its sinister curse was discovered, which usually meant an opposite effect from the one intended.

A magical sword might give penalties in battle. A spear would actually loop around when thrust to stab its own wielder in the back. A Bag of Holding would actually devour and destroy its contents. To make sure player characters didn't just throw said cursed item away the moment its true colors were shown, the game rules stipulated that no amount of effort could remove or get rid of the item short of a spell. Which was pretty much the only reason for the cleric's "remove curse" spell back then. Once you had it, you were stuck with it until you got medical (well, clerical) help. Oops.

Most of these cursed items were designed, I believe, as a penalty for greedy players who had memorized the magic item lists of the earlier version of the game. This added to some element of risk to the equation - which makes the game more fun when the risk pays off. But, like the risk of death, it's only fun if the risk is avoided. Or when the annoying player in the group who calls dibs on almost every magic item suddenly falls prey to Boots of Dancing or a -2 cursed longsword.

But for the most part, cursed items sucked. Early attempts to recreate D&D for the computer sometimes included cursed items, but the fact that most games ignore this aspect of old-school role playing games is probably telling. But the concept isn't completely without merit. There are two ways that I can think of that make cursed items an interesting and even enjoyable part of the RPG experience.

Taking the Good With the Bad
If you are trying to make 'cursed' items that don't just suck, one approach is to combine the curse with something desirable.

While not technically cursed, the ring of vampiric regeneration (if I recall correctly) was a very powerful item in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons that allowed the wearer to heal damage by wounding others. For every two points of damage the wearer inflicted, they recovered a point of their own health. The practical result was that most players (and their characters) became far more bloodthirsty once they acquired this ring. Other players were already ridiculously bloodthirsty to begin with, so this had no impact on their behavior.

In Wizardry 8, several useful (and in some cases, freakin' powerful) magical items were cursed. The powerful sword Bloodlust comes to mind - available early in the game, it is very powerful and useful through most of the game. But - Just like D&D, you needed a spell to remove the item, and a character equipped with the weapon could not switch weapons - and the sword was useless against opponents at range. But for many players, that was worth it. I didn't use it for long - but it is one of the items in the game that I remember the best.

In EverQuest, several of the more powerful melee weapons for their level range were saddled with a small damage effect that would wound every other creature within a small radius. This sounds like a great bonus, until you recall that one of the principle combat strategies in EverQuest was to perform crowd control by temporarily stunning or mesmerizing ("mez") opponents. Any damage effect, no matter how weak, would wake them up and allow them to rejoin the combat, usually killing the enchanters that mezzed them in the first place. Another risk was that the damage effect might hit a creature outside the current room (the radius ignored walls and floors), and it would come and join the combat, usually bringing along a few friends.

This is a far more interesting to cursed items. It also has the virtue of being very appropriate for a computer RPG. It becomes no longer a simple mechanical issue of getting a curse removed, but a conscious decision of weighing the curse against the benefits. This is the kind of decision-making that is at the heart of good gameplay.

Story Items
The Girdle of Masculinity to Femininity was every juvenile male D&D player's worst nightmare. Rather than granting the strength of a giant that most items of its kind provided, this one would instead change the gender of the wearer. Once. As a thirteen-year-old boy playing the super-macho, super-cool idealized version of himself, this was a fate worse than death. For adult players, more in touch and confident of their sexual identities, it becomes more of an amusing plot twist, and might even potentially serve a useful purpose. Maybe.

In fantasy and supernatural stories, a curses are great, if often hackneyed, plot devices. I just watched Drag Me To Hell over the weekend - a pretty excellent Sam Raimi horror / comedy that can probably best be described as The Evil Dead's kid sister. The storyline revolves around - you guessed it - a curse. Or specifically, trying to break a gypsy curse centered on a stolen button.

I haven't seen this kind of storyline so much in computer RPGs. The Elder Scrolls games have had vampire / werewolf sub-quests related to being cursed with becoming one of these creatures. But that is not centered on an item.

The key here, for a game, is to encourage the player to willingly accept a curse that comes along with an item. If the acquisition of the item is central to the storyline and continued progression, the player may not have much of a choice. If it is an optional aspect to the game, the player will need to be convinced that it is (a) a worthwhile option that will be fun to explore, and (b) that the curse is recoverable should it cease to be "fun" at some point down the line.

Using the ol' gender-change belt as an example, if the characters in the game really did make a fuss about your character switching teams, rather than simply switching visuals and forgetting about it, it could be a lot of fun. The reaction from parents, friends, and one's romantic partner could be a lot of fun to play through. A significant NPC exclaiming early on that "We've got to find a way to break this curse!" would signal to the player a promise of a resolution to the state. Better still if the item is either a cool solution to a quest, or yields really potent abilities (mixing the bad with the good, as above) to help make it worthwhile and provide some dramatic motivation.

Unfortunately, the reason we probably haven't seen much of this in games is that it obviously involves a good deal of additional scripting and design to accomodate a story-based curse. But it is a cool possibility that I'd like to see explored more often in the future.

Keeping Items Interesting
Items in RPGs - especially CRPGs - tend to be treated as little more than a collection of statistic bonuses for a character - sometimes with a cool visual. Mechanically, that really is all they are. But in a fantasy-based RPG, throwing a few curses around is one way to help give items and equipment some interesting character that goes beyond their stats.

It just has to be done right.

(Vaguely) related stupidity:
* RPG Design: Magic Entitlement
* RPG Design: Items and Economy
* Trash or Treasure?

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Monday, June 01, 2009
Monkey Island Makes a Comeback

Telltale games - the not-so-li'l indie game company that could - is releasing a bunch of games based on the abso-friggin-awesome-ly wonderful Monkey Island series. Entitled Tales of Monkey Island, this is a five-episode adventure. Hopefully they come close to recapturing the magic of the original games by Ron Gilbert & Crew. Amusingly, Ron Gilbert is now working at an indie game company that could be considered a direct competitor, with their episodic RPG / adventures. However, he was apparently consulted on this game over a period of several days, which bodes well. And Telltale includes some other team members that worked on previous Monkey Island games, which is also a plus.

Tales of Monkey Island Announced

On top of that, LucasArts is releasing an enhanced edition of the game that started it all, The Secret of Monkey Island. According to the press release, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition "faithfully re-imagines the internationally-acclaimed classic game (originally released in 1990) for original and new audiences alike. The development team at LucasArts is bringing the game into the modern era with all-new HD graphics, a re-mastered musical score, full voiceover, and an in-depth hint system has been added to help players through the game’s side-splitting puzzles. Purists will also delight in the ability to seamlessly switch between the updated HD graphics and the original’s classic look. "

It will be available for the XBox 360 (via Live Arcade) and Windows.

The video on the website includes snippets from the enhanced version, and commentaries by Ron Gilbert and the enhanced edition team.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

There's another tidbit to be found in the press release that may cause old-school adventure game fans to salivate. It claims that "these efforts are just the start of LucasArts' new mission to revitalize its deep portfolio of beloved gaming franchises." The original Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is an unlockable bonus in the upcoming Wii title, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. It may not stop there - the press release hints that more announcements will be forthcoming.

Hey, there are a few LucasArts graphic adventure games I missed the first time around - I'd be happy to give 'em a go the second time around.

And that's not all...

Ron Gilbert, the original designer of the first two Monkey Island games, reveals that he's known about these projects for a while, and was apparently consulted (it's not clear) by the Telltale crew for his thoughts on their new project. In the course of designing his upcoming Deathspank, he replayed The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time in 15 years. He offers a bit of a retrospective on the design, little memories and stories from its development, and some lessons he learned from it.

Grumpy Gamer: Stuff and Things and Monkey Island



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