Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!


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Thursday, December 31, 2009
 
A Fearful Milestone
My darling daughter was born literally weeks after I started my first "real" job as a video game developer, only a handful of months after I graduated from college. She slept in her cradle in our tiny rented home behind me, as I played X-Com with the sound turned down. As a baby, her very first reaction to music was a delighted giggle to the sounds of the "Magic" pinball table in Epic Pinball. Her love of video game music continues to this day, though when I showed her the game three years ago, she shook her head at what she considered her horrible musical taste as an infant.

In second or third grade, her mother and I fretted because she was spending too much time playing video games... but I was horribly conflicted because it was one of MY video games she was spending too much time playing. As if my name in the credits made it okay! Well, okay, it kinda did. My paternal duty also involved explaining to her how the game kinda sucked, but she didn't care.

And yesterday, this darling daughter of mine obtained a Utah State learner's permit, making it legal for her to drive on the roads under direct parental or instructor supervision. The entire state should probably tremble in fear now. And, though the literal task of surrendering control of my vehicle to her hands as I sit helpless and screeching in the passenger seat fills my core with dread, another terror grips my heart as I wonder, "How did this happen? I'm not old enough to have a daughter who drives!"

Time sure flies when you are having fun.

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Torchlight: That's Some Tough Armor!
So my Vanquisher was in full leather ninja-style armor... and somehow this Daisy Duke outfit (with a metal top, I guess) was a major upgrade in armor rating?

Reminds me of the armored bikinis in Persona 3...

Maybe that little metal piece is REALLY, REALLY well-armored. It really drives up the average or something.

Ah, well. She's actually upgraded past this again, with an epic leather tunic that is kinda like this but with more cloth. And is another 50% higher armor protection. Go figger.

In spite of the general silliness of the armor visuals, Torchlight is proving to be a pretty kick-butt game. I'm probably predisposed to like it because of the pistols, though. Something about wielding a pistol in one hand and a battle-axe in the other is just plain cool.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
 
New Age of Decadence Combat Demo
The new Age of Decadence combat demo is up.

I didn't post the previous one because I was out of town, distracted, and heard that it had enough problems to warrant a new release. And - well, that's done now:

Age of Decadence Combat Demo

If you are looking forward to Age of Decadence, I don't blame you. It's pretty hotly anticipated here at the Casa del Coyote, too. It has serious potential for awesomeness, which I actually expect to be realized.

But at the moment, I have combat envy.

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Seven Things That Annoy Me About Modern CRPGs... Sometimes
So yesterday I tackled some old-school computer / console role-playing game features (I won't call them conventions... some were merely experiments that were seldom repeated) that bug me, but suggested games and situations where these otherwise annoying elements could actually be fun and interesting.

Sascha challenged me to do the same for modern "features" or trends in top-shelf RPGs that annoy me as well. This is a little bit more of a challenge, because modern RPGs typically have had the worst of the rough edges polished off. For me, the problem is more that they have some of the coolest, most innovative features polished off as well, so we end up with a product which, for me, is very nice and mildly enjoyable throughout, but really fails to inspire me.

A perfect case-in-point for me was Final Fantasy XII. The game was brilliantly executed in almost every category. With the exception of the confusing and extremely long intro / tutorial, I found very little to dislike about the game. But... I didn't find anything to like, either. I gave up about nine hours in out of sheer boredom. Like many modern RPGs, the game played it too safe, and thus became unremarkable.

In spite of this, I've come up with some modern trends / features / problems in certain styles of modern RPGs that definitely make me want to smack some designers around with a controller. Oh, I mean keyboard. Because I'm playing this game with a keyboard and mouse, when it was obviously written with a console game controller in mind... (but that's another rant...)

1. Leading me by the nose.
I hate getting lost and confused in games. And it's easy to do in these big 3D games. But is making me feel like I'm playing connect-the-dots on my ever-present automap really the answer? RPGs (even the eastern 'jRPGs') used to be more about exploration and... yeah, searching. But now we get more linear plotlines (but with well-defined scripted branches that can be completed in any order!) and step-by-step instructions.

Solutions / Exceptions: Yeah, sometimes I find myself getting frustrated looking for somebody in THE WRONG TOWN because I had a massive brain-fart. There are times like these that I really would like some explicit instructions to make up for my cerebral malfunction. But let me work it out a little on my own before solving the puzzle for me, please!

2. Stupid Choices
Ooh, hey, a dialog option or moral quandary! I have three choices: The goody two-shoes decision that is asking to be taken advantage of, the despicable jerkwad response, or the I-can't-be-bothered-to-give-a-crap option. All three suck. For bonus annoyance points, have the game judge me based on my initial response, not how I eventually resolve the problem.

Solutions / Exceptions: The idea here is a good one. But heavily scripted decision points or dialog options are only part of the answer. First of all Let's get away from the whole "good / neutral / evil" idea and look at some really new, experimental, and avant garde ideas like... I dunno... like stuff Lord British was doing TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO? And instead of relying almost exclusively on scripted, carefully contrived decisions, let the player "choose by doing" in a more dynamic, interactive world. Let them choose their own balance of self-interest, charity, and honor by their actions.

3. The Magical Mind-Controlling Monologue: Getting Suckered Into Boss Fights
Okay, I know I'm walking into a big boss fight. I used stealth to peek through the door, dang it. So I prepare my party. I buff up. I position my party carefully in formation. And then... I get a big ol' cut scene that I can't skip through fast enough, and by the time it's done my buffs have almost worn off. Oh, and to top it off, my entire party has now walked into the CENTER of the big bad boss's lair, allowing themselves to be flanked and surrounded. Apparently the villain's monologue had mind-controlling powers that made my whole party turn stupid.

Solutions / Exceptions: Okay, high drama and storytelling aren't well-served when the protagonists do the SMART thing and nuke the villain's lair from orbit (it's the only way to be sure...). But games should try to avoid nullifying all of the player's preparations for the sake of drama. Or at the very least, provide a rational explanation for why the player character allowed herself to be pulled from an excellent sniper position to the center of the evil overlord's throne room, surrounded by guards.

4. Butt-view and Retardo-Cam
So I guess at one point, designers decided that first-person shooters on the consoles sucked because players couldn't figure out where "their guy" was, so they invented the "third-person shooter." Probably inspired by Laura Croft. So you get this great view from behind your character's head by default, so that you can see the beautiful animation of your character's backside. Cool, except when you can see your own butt, but not an attacking enemy!

The awful camera controls make this problem even worse. The "smart" camera tries very hard to keep as much of your own character's anatomy in the picture as it slowly thinks about wheeling around to look at something that you might consider interesting, like the narrow bridge you want to walk across or that guy who has shot you three while you tried to convince the camera to look at him.

And somehow, this seemed like a good idea for RPGs, as well.

Solutions / Exceptions: Okay. I don't hate this viewpoint. And on a game controller, with an entire thumbstick devoted entirely to panning the camera around, it almost works. Kinda. Sometimes. Good thing nobody plays games on the PC anymore, or they'd really be screwed! Anyway - while developers tend to optimize the game for this viewpoint, most games provide options to allow you different camera views that are designed to actually play the game instead of admiring the artists' work on your avatar. So this is ultimately a very minor gripe.

5. Buy the Rest of This Game With DLC!
This one's just starting to rear it's ugly head. I have nothing against capitalism or premium DLC in principle. And I've enjoyed expansions for RPGs for decades, now. The advent of digitally distributed add-on content is certainly an awesome thing for gamers and game-makers. But there have been some suspicious hints of a trend towards cutting back on the core experience and then selling it back to players via premium DLC.

Solutions / Exceptions: Avoid the appearance of evil, publishers! Trust built up over years and many titles can be destroyed with a poor decision, here. Yeah, it's a double-edged sword... making the game feel "complete" without the DLC makes it harder to sell the DLC - but fighting the perception that you are only selling the players two-thirds of a game in hopes of making an extra buck or two on DLC could be far worse.

6. Level Scaling
No matter how much you progress, the bad guys seem to level up right with you. It pretty much invalidates the whole leveling up / character progression mechanic.

Solutions / Exceptions: This is a good idea with often poor implementation. This deserves three or four articles of its own.

7. Kill Ten Rats and Come Back For Your Reward!
Somehow, the awful, creatively bankrupt MMORPG "quest" that were nothing more than structured grinding made their way into single-player RPGs this last decade. And so we get these quests that encourage us to go out and battle randomly spawning monsters in hopes of collecting X trophies for some kind of quest-based reward.

Solutions / Exceptions: Okay, while I'm not personally opposed to a little bit of optional grinding, a game should never encourage the player to engage in a fundamentally repetitive, meaningless, un-fun activity. Now, if you happen to be out killing them anyway and the game offers a reward for the activity anyway - like paying you individually for collected kobold ears that you are acquiring ANYWAY - that's a little different story. It's a fine line.


I have probably missed some big ones here. What are some modern trends in RPGs that annoy you? How can they be fixed?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009
 
Seven Things About Old School CRPGs That Really Annoy Me - Except When They Don't
So here we go with another article wherein the Rampant Coyote bellyaches about stuff other players consider sacred!

I've spent a bit of time this year engaging in some glorious retro-gaming of older computer (and console) RPGs. We'll call it, uh, research. For Frayed Knights. Yeah, research, that's the ticket. Some of these games I've played before, but others are new to me (except for hearing and reading about them for years, now).

I don't know how hard it would be for someone who never grew up with and experienced these kinds of older-vintage games to appreciate them. As for me - I remember when these games were of sufficiently modern technology (very few RPGs actually pushed the ol' tech envelope) that they didn't seem in any way lacking. But even for me, going back takes a bit of getting used to. The first hour or two is always a little bit painful. And then, after growing comfortable with the rules and interface (almost always a challenge, especially with RPGs), my imagination starts filling in where the graphics and sound might be missing - as it always did. I then find myself transported to a fictional world, and actually having fun and enjoying myself.

I love these games. Still. There's a lot to like. And I've talked about what made 'em awesome in other articles.

But there are a few things about these old-school games that I never really appreciated back in the day, and absence has not made my heart grow fonder. I don't miss 'em. Usually. Except when I do.

1. Mandatory Food (or other daily maintenance costs)
Ah, food - the great money sink. While it might be somewhat challenging at lower level when money is scarce, it's merely an annoyance at higher levels. And it grows to be a big annoyance over time. Let's just assume that --- like having to excrete wastes as well --- eating is just something that happens "behind the scenes," okay? Unless it's something special - like having a feast with the king or eating an enchanted apple - I don't want to worry about it. I don't want to pay a tax on staying alive.

I shouldn't have to say this, but I will anyway - non-mandatory food (where, for example, an apple gives you a slight health boost) is fine.

Exceptions: If it's a "survival fantasy" kind of game - like Ultima Underworld or Arx Fatalis, where food is not something taken for granted by anyone - then the above doesn't apply. I actually enjoy the verisimilitude. It's no longer an annoyance, but a key part of the narrative. (Hah! I caught a fish!)

Strangely, the cost of staying at an inn (which is functionally equivalent) usually doesn't bug me - especially if there is a "free" alternative somewhere in the game that I can return to if I'm feeling particularly skinflint-y.

2. Time Limits to Failure
One can easily gripe (and I have, too, at times) about how unbelievable it is that the entire world - including the evil overlord's plans - are put on hold to match the player's schedule. But efforts to address this issue are, generally, way more annoying than the problem. The stress of worrying about the passage of time in my explorations, and second-guess when I might have taken too long, isn't much fun. And having characters age and grow weaker in their career? No, thanks - it always felt like an arbitrary rule to make another arbitrary rule more frustrating. Fortunately, games featuring this particular problem have always been rare.

Exceptions: Although I didn't actually enjoy it, Fallout handled the time limit for the main quest quite well, by putting it very much front-and-center throughout the game. So at least you never had to second-guess the problem. That made it considerably less annoying, and it seemed - well, okay. And different. So it gets a pass.

One place where I really liked the time limit problem was in Depths of Peril - but the entire quest system was pretty organic and you knew (at least after the first play-through) that the gameworld events and quests were going to evolve. It behaved predictably, and thus became enjoyable.

3. Mazes
I have already ranted about these. And no, I was never talking about old fake 3D tile-based games, which were inherently maze-like (though most games at least tried to minimize the maze-like feel where technology allowed - except in maze-like areas...).

Exceptions: While mazes are generally 20% cool to 80% suck, I believe that ratio is manageable - as I stated in the linked article. And I've played some games where the mazes weren't too bad. They just don't come to mind right now. Instead I feel this ancient hatred towards Final Fantasy X's temple / maze puzzles, particularly in the late game, though I barely remember them now...

4. Paying a Big Chunk of Cash To Level Up
This one annoyed me in pen-and-paper AD&D, and we always ignored that rule. It's just another one of those money-sink, paying-tax-on-staying alive things. I guess it's because I always felt like I was paying extra to obtain something I'd already earned. I didn't like seeing that rule carried over to my CRPGs (where I couldn't ignore it), either.

Exceptions: Paying money to gain new individual skills never really bugged me. And paying money to increase skills above and beyond the gains entitled to me by leveling up was never an issue. It's just the leveling-up maintenance fees that annoy me.

5. Running Into Level Caps Well Before Running Out of Game
I totally understand level caps. I don't have a problem with them - they are a necessary evil. In some of the older games, though, it was really easy to have a maxed-out character with more-or-less the best equipment available pretty early in the game. While there were undoubtedly good reasons for this, it makes the player feel penalized for taking the time out to explore and sub-quest and battle through every nook and cranny. Though it's not a competitive game, I still don't want the Harrison Bergeroned to the level of a guy who beelined it with a walkthrough in the final encounter.

Exceptions: This assumes "reasonable" play. If somebody chooses to spend most of the game grinding in random encounter areas to max out their level practically before concluding the tutorial, that's their own call.

6. Tiny Character Name Limits
Limiting a character name to four, six, or eight characters was pretty uncalled for even in the 8-bit days (particularly on the PC). Why did a character name have to be the same as a saved-game name, anyway? Sheesh.

Exceptions: There are no exceptions, says Ninglaetori the Mysterious.

7. Encumbrance
Okay, this never really bugged me a lot, but it was a minor irritation at times that I don't really miss. I mean, yeah, I know how much a suit of plate mail weighs (having worn some in real life), and I fully recognize that a normal human really isn't going anywhere with six suits of plate mail stuffed down his pack. Assuming it was even physically possible to stuff seven suits of plate mail into a pack, which boggles my imagination.

But in dice-and-paper games, the rules were really just there to prevent abuses or outright silliness (Gary Gygax himself admitted that he only used the encumbrance rules as a threat, not something they actually kept track of). It was also used as a challenge - such as trying to figure out how you are actually going to cart that dragon's horde out of its lair before dying of old age or having it all stolen before you were done. And where would you store it all?

But in the pen-and-paper games, you had a ton of options that didn't exist in CRPGs - such as obtaining a cart and / or mule, hirelings, burying or hiding some of the treasure, or even being able to drop said treasure without it instantly vanishing. Plus, the pen-and-paper games (particularly D&D) generally provided plentiful magical items aimed squarely at circumventing those restrictions (like Bags of Holding and Portable Holes) that didn't make their way into CRPGs. So you got some concrete limitations on something that felt like it was only an abstraction.

Plus, micro-managing weight-loads between party members was never that much fun.

So while it has never been a big deal, I'll generally chalk encumbrance in the negative (or at least neutral) column of features.

Exceptions: Again, survival-fantasy RPGs get a pass, here. Foraging, discarding, and generally making do is kind of the whole point. Similar games where you play a solo character, the "micromanagement" aspect can be part of the fun. If the game really does allow some reasonable level of non-abstract encumbrance mitigation and inventory management offered in a dice-and-paper RPG, then yeah - it can be interesting. But in general - hey, let's just assume I hire some porters, okay?

Summary

I think in all these cases, the exceptions are what is noteworthy. None of these elements are necessarily bad, or need to be annoying or grouse-worthy. Except the tiny name thing. Mmm-probably. But in many cases, these elements were dropped in for some reason ("to make it more realistic!", or "because that's how D&D does it" are the most likely reasons) other than really improving the game.

But it's not hard to envision a game where these same game elements are both important and fun. It's been done. They may still have a place in modern games. So game designers should be careful that they don't throw babies out with bathwater.

But when retro-gaming, I just have to learn to put up with 'em.

(UPDATE: Added "Summary" heading, elaborated a little bit on the Time-limit and encumbrance exceptions. I can't believe I missed my favorite indie RPG as a big ol' exception to the time-limit rant....)

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Monday, December 28, 2009
 
Indie™ Games - Just Like Homemade™!
Let's say you have one driven, talented seventeen-year-old laboring part-time on her laptop on a video game with a budget of almost nothing. Maybe she's using a copy of Game Maker Pro she purchased with money earned by asking if people wanted to super-size their orders. The game is weird and original. Our game developer then releases her game for free on the Internet.

Is our theoretical game developer an indie? Is his game indie? Of course. This is just about the epitome of indie.

On the flip side, we have Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Funded by a major publisher, with a huge budget and team, and the biggest video game launch (so far) in history, selling nearly 5 million copies in the first 24 hours across two platforms in two continents.

Indie? Not at all. This is the anti-indie. This game was produced by the very system that "indie" evolved to bypass.

While there is simply no way in the world our hypothetical indie is going to match the production values of the mainstream game, when you strip away the glitz there may actually more similarities than differences. Both games were created by talented, skilled, and driven people. Both games may provide equal amounts of "fun." Assuming our heroine creates a "deluxe," premium version for which she charges money, and she inks a deal with a publisher / distributor, both games could end up on neighboring shelves at Wal*Mart. Even "scope" may not much of a difference - as many indie games have much larger scope than their mainstream counterparts (*cough*DwarfFortress*cough*).

It gets more complicated if we go somewhere between these two extremes. What about a small company that gets a sizable budget from non-traditional investors? What about tiny "indie" publishers? What about an independent ("indie") studio that has gotten wealthy enough that they can run things exactly like a mainstream development project but without any publisher oversight? Or a mainstream "guns for hire" studio that moonlights as an indie?

I worked on the MMO game, Saga (an "MMORTS"), a few years ago. From my perspective, as part of a small studio, it wasn't indie. We had a smaller team by modern standards, sure, and a budget that was way too small to be a AAA mainstream game (but still bigger than most indie titles). But the publisher was a tiny new startup that received investment funding from outside the games biz. These guys were total outsiders, which pretty much defines "indie." But from down in the trenches in my studio, except for a closer working relationship, it was no different from taking marching orders from a major publisher.

Later, I found myself working on a tiny team funded by EA's Pogo. Most of the time, it "felt" closer to an indie development process. We had a shoestring budget and were focused exclusively on online distribution. We would be competing directly with pure "indie" titles. But in spite of embracing much of the "indie ethos," it was definitely not an indie game - a fact brought home when the project was canceled by the publisher just shy of alpha. (And a major regret on my end, because we thought it was a lot of fun and coming along great... but the publisher decided it just wasn't going to sell in the numbers they needed).

I'm really talking about two issues here. First of all, indie is a process, not a product. It's an "outsider" approach to bypass the mainstream game development industry which dominates the hobby. And indie is a spectrum with obviously indie on one end, obviously mainstream on the other, and a very broad nebulous zone in-between without anything even close to a clear-cut boundary between the two... as hard as I try to find one.

It's a little like food being labeled "homemade." Some lady making fresh pies for her family from scratch using apples taken from the trees in her backyard is unquestionably making homemade pies. As she scales up her operation to makes the pies for friends and neighbors, it's still homemade. But then she continues to scale up her process, with only minor modifications, to sell her pies at local grocery stores, and then on an even larger process. At what point in the evolution of her pie business do her pies cease to be "homemade?" As I'm putting a frozen pie I just bought from the supermarket in the oven to heat it up and serve to my family, am I still providing a homemade pie? Does it matter to my family?

For us, the gamers, it can be difficult to just look at a game and say "indie" or "not indie." I ran into this problem recently trying to classify the action-RPG Torchlight. In my view, it's not indie. But I had to look it up to find out. If they'd hidden their process completely from public view, I'd have no way of knowing. And the game dwells deep enough in the nebulous spectrum between indie and mainstream that people could very easily argue with me, even knowing the details, and label it as a full fledged "indie" title.

So if it makes no difference to the gamer, is the distinction at all important? It is to me, definitely. I guess I do support a double (or triple, or spectrum-wide-multiple) standard. I don't think a high school basketball team should have to make any apologies for not being an NBA team. And I really don't know that a high school basketball game is any less entertaining than an NBA game (especially when your neighbor or nephew is one of the players). Likewise, I don't think The Three Musketeers should have to make any apologies for not being Dragon Age: Origins. For that matter, I don't think Torchlight suffers much from the comparison, either. While they may be in three separate leagues in terms of production values and intensity of experience (as they should be), for pure entertainment value the difference isn't nearly as extreme.

My reasoning (justification?) is that emphasizing "indie" encourages players to filters out the glitz, shader effects, modeling of individual hair follicles, ten-minute pre-rendered cut-scenes, and famous voice actors. Admittedly, that's a lot to look past, and video games have always been at least somewhat about spectacle and technological pizazz. But if we can do that, suddenly discussing Cute Knight Kingdom in the same sentence as Fallout 3 doesn't sound ridiculous at all. Nor is comparing a little indie game favorably to a big-budget blockbuster.

That's where I am, most of the time. And where the rest of the hobby / industry seems to be going, at long last. The spectrum is broadening daily. "Indie" is going to become increasingly more difficult to define, especially for the consumer who doesn't really care to peek into the sausage factory to know anything more about how his game was made.

But that's okay. What's more important is that as the domination of the biz by a few companies weakens and indie games gain more "mainstream" acceptance, the old rules dictated by those same "industry power players" lose their influence on players. This includes the old criteria for judging the worth of a game, usually measured in terms of what bigger budgets could buy. You've seen the TV and magazine ads, you know what I'm talking about. While still important, they are secondary concerns for what really matters.

And what really matters? For me, it's still about having fun.

So have fun!

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Thursday, December 24, 2009
 
Happy Star Wars Holidays
Just so you know, I don't really hate you. But I do like sharing the pain:



I originally saw this when it was aired on TV when I was a little kid. Even at the tender age of eight or whatever, I apparently realized that it sucked and I lost interest halfway through. Although there was a small part of me that wondered what happened after the Imperials got summoned back to their base (or something) by Lumpy or whoever modifying their computer. I figured I'd maybe catch it in a rerun.

That never happened. Strangely, they never aired this special ever again. Maybe because it sucked so badly that it made The Phantom Menace look like The Empire Strikes Back by comparison. And because the networks (and George Lucas) heard the sound of millions of young Star Wars geeks crying out in horror and suddenly silent (as they turned off their TVs).

Now this has been available for a few years online. But I still can't bring myself to watch the remainder of the video. So I still don't know how it ends. And somehow, I'm okay with that.

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Merry Christmas Eve
It's that time of year again! We are beginning the festivities by embarking on the four-hour trip to the in-laws, where we will be spending the next few days.

I've got about three half-written posts that may or may not be finished and go up sometime this weekend. So - in case I don't talk to ya between then and now, have a great weekend and a very Merry Christmas!
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
 
Jeff Vogel (Spiderweb Software) Interview at 1UP
Jeff Vogel is interviewed over at 1UP's RPG blog. He discusses making indie RPGs for a living, his influences, bringing an end to the Avernum and Geneforge series, and more.

Brief Q&A With Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel

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Merry Redneck Christmas

Ya'll have a good one, now, hear?
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
 
Brenda Brathwaite: Why I Blew Up The Universe in Wizardry 8
In a new blog article, Brenda Brathwaite writes about why she blew up the entire universe in Wizardry 8. And no, it wasn't because they knew it would be the last of the series. And she compares her mindset then to her perspective now, and talks up the evolution of the industry now and how it compares to things then, and back in 1982. And she dispenses some valuable game design advice in the process:

Blowing Everything Up: From AAA to Freedom

An excerpt: "You don’t make RPGs for money. You make them for love and to break even. They are the most time-intensive games to create with the largest confluence of systems. When I hear people brand new to game development saying that they want to start with an RPG, I want to simultaneously hug them and warn them."


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Monday, December 21, 2009
 
I Guess I Can Finally Uninstall Diablo II Now...
Okay. I took advantage of Steam's Torchlight sale this weekend. Between that, and Depths of Peril, I think I can finally uninstall Diablo II. The only thing those games are lacking is multiplayer, and I haven't played Diablo II with other players in years.

Well, come to think of it, I haven't actually played Diablo II since I discovered Depths of Peril anyway...

Bottom line - I'm very impressed with Torchlight. Unlike Depths of Peril, it doesn't stray too far from tried-and-true Fate + Diablo 2 mechanics. At least not from what I've seen. But what it does, it does very well.

And no, I don't think it qualifies as indie, in spite of embracing some very cool (and hopefully profitable) features of indie-dom. Including using an off-the-shelf open-source 3D engine (Ogre3D). They are a larger team that financed the game through traditional means (publisher funding). But I think this is yet another example of how the entire video game industry is changing, and there is no longer a single "one true path" to getting your game financed, out the door, and in the hands of gamers. I think it's a change for the good.

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An Alien 3 Script Penned By William "Neuromancer" Gibson...
William Gibson's "Alien 3" script. This sucker's been on the Internet for years, but I am late to the game, I guess. But for those who have been living in the same cave as me, this may be a treat.

Ripley's only got a cameo in this movie, though. Apparently this was done because Sigourney Weaver wasn't interested in participating in the movie beyond a cameo role, but the studio rejected the script because Ripley had been dutifully removed. So instead, Hicks becomes the main (reappearing) character.

History here. (Along with notes on all the other attempts at creating a script for a sequel to Cameron's Aliens).

William Gibson's Alien III Script here

Too bad they didn't go with this script (or a variation thereof). Maybe then Alien 3 wouldn't have sucked.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009
 
Torchlight 50% Off Until Monday
The downloadable and highly entertaining RPG Torchlight - by some of the creators of the Diablo series - is available for 50% off on Steam until Monday.

Go git it! If you are so inclined...

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Funniest Review / Commentary of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Yet
While I love RiffTrax, they totally missed the opportunity to dish out on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, IMO. I can probably blame it on them still trying to hit their stride, but the commentary seemed (to me) to be mostly mocking Jar-Jar Binks. Come on guys, that's shooting fish in a barrel. I can do that without buying your commentary!

Sensing, perhaps, a failure to properly riff on the failure that was The Phantom Menace, some guy out in the Internet world decided to do his own. He portrays himself as an ignorant trailer-trash homicidal maniac who can't pronounce "protagonist" correctly. But he savages the film's failures and plot-holes with accuracy and humor, and reveals that - underneath his role - he's actually well-versed in both cinema and the Star Wars universe. And has spent way too much time studying this movie.

So you don't have to!

Parts 1 and 2 cover some broad failures. I thought part 2 was the weakest of the bunch. But in part 3, things really start hopping as he begins dissecting the movie sequence by sequence and glaring inconsistency by glaring inconsisency. And it's hysterical.

I only intended to watch the first part, but I found myself watching all seven. It was that good. Warning - language is harsh here. There is some wonderfully low-key geek rage going on here.

Part 1:


Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7


Enjoy!

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Gamasutra's 10 Best Indie Games of 2009
For what it's worth:

Gamasutra's 10 Best Indie Games of 2009

It's not the list I would have made, though I didn't play all of the games there, either. I'd probably put AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard For Gravity in the #1 slot, for example.

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Friday, December 18, 2009
 
Genre-Blending - Good or Bad?
Mixing and matching game categories is something I'm generally in favor of attempting, but I'm not always the biggest fan.

Since adventure games and RPGs were once almost synonymous (a very, very long time ago), I really don't have a big problem with games that mix elements of both. In fact, RPG elements in any game seem to mix pretty well.

But other game elements - especially action sequences - in an RPG (or adventure game) often piss me off. I mean, I like action games. I earned my stripes in the arcades. I've recently come to discover the joy that is Left 4 Dead. And I can put up with some arcade elements in an action-RPG. I gave up on Chrono Trigger when I had to chase the rat on the pipes. I nearly gave up on a couple of old Sierra adventure games when it came to arcade sequences. While I wasn't one of them, I know several people who gave up on Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines because of the heavy FPS sequences. I wasn't particularly fond of the boss-battles (especially against the Chinatown boss) or the zombies-in-the-graveyard segment, myself.

I generally love playing a mix of strategy and action, but only if it's executed well. This is a weird exception for me, as it would seem that the more cerebral strategy aspect would clash with the more action segments. But somehow, those get a pass by my brain, and the two generally compliment each other - particularly if its possible to dial down the difficulty separately in a single-player game.

As to genres in the conventional sense - setting / style genre for other media - I'm more open to it now than I used to be. Science fiction and fantasy? Sure. Fantasy and western? Go for it. Horror and cutesy anime? I'm there! I don't know if there's a really bad mix anymore. But for a few years, I was very much opposed to mixing powered battle-armor and laser swords in my fantasy. Heresy! But while I'm more relaxed and inclusive now, that doesn't mean I do not want some unsullied straight-up traditional settings.

So I ask you: What genre / category mixes don't work for you? What do? When is it appropriate for a game to break the boundaries of "category?" Is it always appropriate, and have games just been placed in arbitrary boxes now by marketing? What do you think?

You can answer here, or in the forum thread.

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Classic Might & Magic Games 50% Off This Weekend - Plus Freebies!
Courtesy of classic gaming clearance house and generally cool guys GOG.COM:

Might & Magic Sale at GOG.COM

This includes the Heroes of Might & Magic strategy games and the massive RPG collection, the Might & Magic Six-Pack.

They are also offering the first two Tex Murphy adventure games, Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, for free until December 24th. I remember enjoying Martian Memorandum many summers ago. Um, way too many summers ago... It was kind of a humorous blend of Cyberpunk, Raymond Chandler noir, and Sierra-style adventure gaming, using photographed actors and sets (which was kinda cool by 1990 standards). I don't know if it will hold up, but at least the price is right!

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Thursday, December 17, 2009
 
Panic Attack!
A short video made - I *believe* by some indie filmmaker in Uruguay. Special effects like this would have cost a hundred million dollars for just the five minutes of footage here less than two decades ago. His rumored total capital cost to make the film? $300 to $500. The Hollywood deal he has since been offered, sponsored / produced by Sam Raimi? $30 million.

Awesome.

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Joy of Games: Going Beyond the Screen
Once upon a time, I often didn't just read game documentation. I studied it. I'm still very fond of Larry Holland's manual for Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain. Only about 10% of the spiral-bound book was devoted to playing the game. The rest was devoted to stories of the Battle of Britain, descriptions of the aircraft, and a primer on aviation and air combat. It's a fun read (if you are a military aviation buff) even if you've never played the game.

I remember studying to blueprints and documentation for the first Wing Commander. I think they were thrown in there principally as copy protection checks, but I took them literally and actually had memorized things like shield and armor strength in various ship quadrants, damage-dealing potential and ranges of various missiles, etc.

And pity the poor RPG player in the 80's and early 90's who didn't RTFM! Not only that, but it was a two-way street for RPGers and Adventure Gamers - they had to write some of the documentation themselves. Because unless you had an incredible memory, you absolutely had to make maps and take copious notes. The game as it appeared on screen was only half of the story - the rest resided on paper, some written by the player himself.

I believe that there is more to the joy of the map-making, manual-studying, note-taking aspects of old-school adventure & role-playing gaming than simple nostalgia at work. Those of us who could be bothered to employ such work-like efforts into our gaming were often rewarded with some really great gaming experiences that in many ways still surpass our much more beautifully rendered and professionally voice-acted games of today.

I think it simply came down to personal investment. We get out what we put in. A very simple game (board, card, you name it) - can be awesome when played by good friends. But it's a reflection of the friendship, not of the rules. Likewise, I believe a minimalist single-player game can be an amazing if the player find it worthy of investing their own imagination and logic into the experience.

The simple act of going beyond the screen, of taking notes and maps and referring to books in the real world, encouraged this. It helped make the experience more real to us. Other people might look at the dozens of loose papers on the computer desk filled with scrawls and line-drawings and wonder why in the world we were devoting ourselves to meaningless fiction. But, dang it, we understood. In a sense, we shared in the creation of the world, if only our own mental model of it. Our imaginations were engaged, and our efforts and studies were part of a positive feedback loop of commitment to an experience that we expected to enjoy for weeks at a time, if not months. Not discarded with the next new release in two weeks, as we expect today.

And when the final puzzle was solved, the wizard was slain, and the world saved, those papers remained as a testament of our achievements even when the computer was turned off. They helped make it real. Even years later, coming across those old scrawls and manuals can take us back to that time, and it can be hard to resist cracking into a smile at the memories. "Oh, yeah," we think. "I was there."

The article I referenced last week has kept me thinking about this. While I certainly do not want to return to the bad ol' days of purely do-it-yourself mapping and note-taking and lack of in-game documentation or tutorials, I do feel we've lost something since then. Something I'd like to see us recover, if we can somehow manage to keep the good aspects and ditch the more painful bits. I think we're seeing some of this happening in the MMO space, but it's been slow to filter to (or just not applicable for) single-player games.

How can single-player games encourage that personal investment without demanding it? How can the experience of the game grow beyond the screen (or at least beyond the borders of its window)? How can games better engage our imagination? Our participation?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009
 
Jordan ("Prince of Persia") Mechner's Tips for Game Designers
Jordan Mechner re-published his Tips for Game Designers, plus his older list of tips for Designing Story-Based Games.

I'm not an expert game designer. Mechner has probably forgotten more about game design than I have ever known. So I don't really feel qualified to comment on his tips beyond offering a hearty "Amen!" and noting that they jibe pretty well with my relatively limited experience.

Mechner indicates with several suggestions here that game design documents should be small, and that gameplay is more something that evolves from early prototypes and ruthless editing and iteration. I can't tell you how critical this advice should be towards indies (though it applies equally well to big-budget mainstream developers).

Interestingly, I feel his tips on "story-based" games are in many cases applicable to other kinds of games as well (where story is incidental, or even non-existent). Setting clear goals, a clear interface, and recognizing the difference between context ("The player sneaks into a castle, clobbers a guard, and puts on the guard's uniform") and the actual action ("The player watched a cut scene... of all that happening") - that is a valuable perspective for a game designer to have for any game.

Yeah, in some cases these tips are basic, but considering how often I botch the basics, I still need 'em.

And a tip o' the beanie to John Romero for the link.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009
 
Frayed Knights: 2:30 AM Ambushes
As usual, I started losing productivity after about 1:30 AM. And after 2:00 AM, I should have called it quits. But I didn't. Because I was ... almost done. I am just testing now, see?

Yeah, right. So now it's almost 2:30 and I find myself walking into an ambush, not remembering how I got here.

When I open my eyes (after just blinking for a moment... I'm sure), I find myself in the hobgoblin bunker. I realize I was in the middle of testing something, but for the life of me I cannot remember going through the entrance, fighting through two waves of attackers (I have a cheat key installed that auto-kills all enemies... it makes testing a bit faster) to get to the landing where I am now subjected to scripted arrow fire.

Vaguely I remember what I'm supposed to be doing. I've bypassed two guardrooms to get to the split-level chamber. At least I think I have. Since I've apparently been sleepwalking through the dungeon, I can't be certain. So what is supposed to happen is that two waves of reinforcements should arrive after this battle - not exactly an ambush, but a rough situation. Then, going back, I have to make sure that the rooms they vacated to reinforce / replace the archers are truly vacated.

I'm not entirely certain if this is going to play out to my liking. There is definitely an optimal path to try and ambush-the-ambushers, coming around from behind (after emptying out the guardrooms) to avoid the arrow fire and kill the archers. But aside from trial-and-error, I'm not sure how to telegraph this strategy to the player. It's not a make-or-break strategy - it's definitely a winnable combat regardless - but it does make things a bit easier.

Not that this occurs to me much at 2:30 - make that 2:35 - AM. This is about my sixth or seventh run-through tonight, and I'm more concerned about the fact that in the first guardroom - the one that rushes out to attack you instead of waiting for you to open their door - is still rushing to attack even though I killed them all in the previous room. not that a player would necessarily realize it's the same group... except I need to leave their door open. Yes. The guards need to open their doors when rushing out to reinforce the archers.

One more thing to put on the long, long list of Things To Do.

I make some changes to the script. Save. Run. Select start, which is currently hard-coded to load the Caverns of Anarchy. Wait through loading. You think load times suck as a player? Try being a developer and having to reload every single time you want to test a change. You folks who have scripted up Neverwinter Nights modules know exactly what I'm talking about.

Uh... where was I? I zoned out again. What time is it? 2:40 AM. Crap. I have to get up in less than five hours for work. Using the insta-victory cheat key I run through battle one, battle two, battle three with two sets of reinforcements... and then test the guardrooms (with doors still closed) - HAH! They are as dead as they should be. Nothing left to do but loot the empty rooms.

2:44 AM. Enough time to hopefully get four-and-a-half hours of sleep. Of course, when my head hits the pillow at 2:52, I still have visions of hobgoblin ambushes and gameplay concerns about the fairness of allowing hobgoblins to shoot at long range with impunity while the player must charge into melee range. Fortunately, sleep comes fast.

And the alarm clock goes off almost as fast, in subjective time. The day job beckons. Or, rather, demands. It's paying for this lifestyle, after all.

This is the life of a part-time indie game developer. Of this one, at least.

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Quick Soldak News
Steven Peeler has a blog post about the quest system in Din's Curse - about it being more like a "web" than a linear series of quests as found in most RPGs. This was true to a lesser degree with Depths of Peril as well. He's also added the Mage Class and sub-classes (Magician, Fire Mage, and Ice Mage) to the Din's Curse Classes Page.

Speaking of Depths of Peril (and Kivi's Underworld), Guttersnipe has a bit of a review / recommendation for these previous (but still awesome) games, stating "Depths Of Peril is one of the most satisfying games I’ve played in the RPG genre." You can check out the review here.

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Monday, December 14, 2009
 
Visions & Voices
Lovecraftian RPG using the RPG Maker system:

Visions & Voices

Hat tip to (and mini-review at) Play This Thing!

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Lessons Learned From Bejeweled Blitz
I thought it was strange that I own a copy of Bejeweled 2, yet I find myself more often playing the free Bejeweled Blitz (as have a lot of people). Apparently, there are some real gamer-psychology lessons to be pulled out from this game:

Veteran Game Designer Jamie Fristrom Talks About What Makes Bejeweled Blitz Work

Enjoy!

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Saturday, December 12, 2009
 
More on Sensory Sweep Collapse
Continuing the story of the collapse of the (arguably) largest independent video game studio in North America (at least for the brief time between Bioware's purchase by EA, and the time it collapsed)... Kotaku adds a bit more to the story.

Kotaku: Back Pay is Hell, and Utah Devs Still Aren't Getting Any

A correction / clarification: As I understand it, workers are not on the hook for our unpaid social security taxes. It was deducted from our pay, and was in the custody (and responsibility) of the company when it was... uh... "lost." Proving proof of that may be a little tricky if we find ourselves having to draw social security in the next year or two, but otherwise it is supposedly a non-issue for us.

But it's likely a much a bigger issue for the guy responsible for not paying the taxes.

Have I mentioned lately how lucky I feel to have gotten out when I did?

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More Old-School RPG Flavah!
Ah, an ode to old-school RPGing.

And yeah, it does kinda remind me of what I'm NOT doing in Frayed Knights. So my work is only a pale imitation of old-school gaming that I'm paying homage to (and sometimes parodying). But I don't know what kinda hell I'd catch if I tried to get rid of the in-game map...

But it does make me feel nostalgic for the old days. Man - the graph-paper I used going through the dungeons of the early-to-mid Ultimas, The Bard's Tale, Wizardry, Telengard (before I gave up on the futility of that task...), and the D&D "Gold Box" games...

And yeah, plenty of death and nasty surprises at every turn. But the level of personal investment you had to put into the game just to have a hope of succeeding may have also helped our enjoyment of it.

Hide the Map If You Dungeon Crawl

Hat tip to RPGWatch for the link!

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Friday, December 11, 2009
 
Realms of Arkania On Sale This Weekend
GOG.COM has the Realms of Arkania games on sale this weekend for 25% off. Like $9 for all three games. The offer expires Monday, so now's your chance.

GOG.COM Realms of Arkania Games Sale

So many games, so little time... But the awesome thing about GOG.COM - besides being an excellent spot for PC retrogaming - is that when you complete an order, it doesn't just say something stuffy about your transaction (*cough*Like I Do*cough*) - they say, "Kewl, your order is complete."

I've got an older laptop I'm taking with me to Cedar City for Christmas. Maybe I'll get some Arkania action in. Though I've once again got an indie game backlog, and I'll be working on Frayed Knights, so we'll see...

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Derek Yu: Pondering the Indie Spirit
Great little interview with Derek Yu on the indie game movement and "spirit." True to form, he says, "Yeah" a lot and sounds very very casual and inclusive. Topics include "selling out" with Microsoft as a partner in indie games, "sketch" games that are to full games as vignette is to a story, and "F*** You!" games developed for no audience beyond the developer (but get released to the world at large just 'cuz, you know?)

Derek Yu at Gamasutra: Pondering the Indie Spirit

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Frayed Knights - How I Build A Dungeon
It's been a little while since I have posted an honest-to-goodness update on Frayed Knights - the comedy-based indie RPG from Rampant Games. So I guess we're due.

Today, I'm going to talk about how I build a dungeon. I do not pretend that this is the correct - or even a competent - way to do it. It's just how I do it. Members of the development team who are also working on dungeons for the game (Kevin and Brian) may do stuff differently - and much better than me, I should add.

But it's still me who ends up populating and scripting them.

First of all - my design document (when I update it) doesn't have much by way of specific information about each dungeon (or "adventuring area", if it's an outdoor location). Really, I don't have much more than some basic themes and objectives for the location. Maybe some specific events that need to happen here (like, "a prisoner has a hint as to the identity of Moonshadow.") And then some key "signature" locations that serve those encounters.

For the guys working on levels for me, I have to provide a bit more up-front work. Or a lot more. But for myself, I start out without much more than just that. From there, I sketch up a very rough map. And start planning encounters / events. More on planning encounters later.

From there, I build a walkable floor plan. I've recently gotten to the point where I just build the floor plan first and export the entire area to the game engine - floating in the air in a test area. And I use it for a walk-through as the level evolves. This helps me get a sense of scale, what's working, and what doesn't. I like to use vertical elements in my levels, and helps to find out early that I don't have enough headroom in one part of the dungeon and I need to kick things out a bit. These days, I'm doing all my interior-building with Torque Constructor. It's ugly and old-school, but it works well for this engine.

After I'm satisfied with the floor plan, I build the rest of the location around it. This can be pretty time consuming, especially with making sure textures line up correctly, adding some detailing (I'm saving the really careful detailing and "prettyfication" for the end). Changes do take place at this stage (really, at any changes), and large swaths of my construction may be changed, deleted, or expanded. The floors may get shifted and broken into smaller pieces as I try to vary the geometry to make things look more interesting, etc. In fact, the whole process is very iterative - at any stage I may get new ideas that I want to try, I may go back and change something to make an encounter work better, or I may get a new idea for an encounter / event by working on a particular spot. It's not exactly free-form, but it's not a strict assembly line (or "waterfall model," for programmers) either.

Now, the big trick here is planning encounters / events. This is also very iterative. Some get planned out (in rough detail) before anything else starts. The dungeon design may center around them. Others don't get planned out until the very end. I find myself with a relatively boring area without anything else happening, and I think, "What would be cool to have happen here?"

I thought this would be a lot easier to create these encounters than it is, given the amount of time I've spent planning pen & paper adventures or making Neverwinter Nights modules, scripting MUDs, and so forth. But it gets very, very easy to run into a game designer's version of "writer's block." Maybe it's all the pressure of making something intended for a much wider audience than my usual circle of friends. I don't know.

What I do know is that I don't just want endless encounters of monsters that just hang out in their rooms waiting to fight adventurers who happen to kick the door open in a straightforward brute-force slugfest. Sure, we've got that too - but I don't want that to be the meat of the game. I want puzzles. Tactical challenges. Memorable encounters. Unfortunately, that requires me to "be creative" - not to mention spending a lot of time scripting / programming.

What I recently discovered was that one of the things causing the block was that I kept thinking in terms of the existing code and capabilities, and what I could do with it. My real breakthroughs came when I just thought through the dungeons in a lot more free-form fashion, and then later started figuring out how I might implement it with existing (or new) code. Sometimes, by attempting to frame the idea in terms of existing limitations, I find myself with an even better idea.

The problem is that these "out-of-the-box" ideas often require a lot more scripting, code, and / or content support. But I think the final results will be worthwhile.

Now, to answer a couple of questions I've been been asked. Answers subject to change without notice.

#1 - When's the next "alpha test" of Frayed Knights?
The pilot was an early experiment to help gauge where we were going with the game early on and make course corrections where things just weren't working out. Right now, we're going full-out to make the game fully playable, but not necessarily pretty or ready for human consumption. I don't want to take the time out (yet) to make a new playable demo. So probably not until we're literally alpha and switching gears from pure building.

The next one may not be quite as "open" the first one was. But I will desperately need testers.

#2 - When do you expect the game to ship?
I'm hoping 2010. But I was originally hoping 2009, so apparently my ability to estimate this project is for crap. I keep expecting to hit this magical zone where development accelerates speed because it all becomes "old hat" to us, but that's not happened.

#3 - How Big Is This Game?
Too Big.

In an interview at RPGWatch, I said I expected the full game to be "six to ten times larger than the pilot." As it turns out, that's just the first act. Of three. Feature Creep Strikes Again.

But dang it, I do love this game. Warts and all.

#4 - Have you considered breaking the full game into three parts and selling them individually?
Um... Considered, yeah. Made a decision? No, not yet. It wasn't in the original plan, so I haven't worked out how I'd try to break it up that way yet. But if we do go that route, I'd want to be a lot closer to completion, so there wouldn't be a long wait between installments.

If you have particular opinions on that subject, let me know.

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Din's Curse Progress Report
It looks like Din's Curse is making a lot of progress. Steven Peeler is reporting that alpha testing may begin within a couple of weeks, and the alpha testing may last two to four weeks - followed by beta and pre-orders.

It sounds to me that the release may be only two to three months away. Excellent.

Din's Curse Progress Report

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Thursday, December 10, 2009
 
Portrait of a Video Game Studio's Collapse
“I would love to visit him in prison,” former employee Paul Grimshaw said of Sensory Sweep president Dave Rushton, echoing the sentiments of other former employees...
This is the most accurate and most detailed account of the collapse of Sensory Sweep - my former "day job." My best guess is that I left in the nick of time - another three weeks or so, and I doubt I'd have ever gotten my final paychecks.

When I was there, the company had the distinction of probably being the largest independent game studio in North America, courtesy of Bioware being bought up by EA. I was one of something like 200 employees.

Now, some people who have heard about this story ask, "Why didn't people leave when the paychecks started bouncing / appearing late?" A few have even gone so far as to blame the employees for letting themselves get exploited and ripped off for sometimes more than $10,000. Here's my take on it.

I was lucky enough to get out while the getting was... well, not good, but not quite disastrous yet. I was able to do this because I was #1 - A programmer with a lot of non-games-industry experience who could actually find another job (and one I really enjoy!) in the midst of a nasty recession. Pity the poor game designers! And #2 - I'd been through something like this before in the 2001 recession, and knew the warning signs.

But here's why I believe people DID stay. It's why I stayed as long as I did:

#1 - You only collect unemployment if you are laid off, not if you quit. While you could argue that late paychecks constituted effective termination, this takes time, and is not be guaranteed. So there's really little to be gained by making a show of storming out the door when told, once again, that paychecks aren't ready on payday.

#2 - Throughout the latter half of 2008, paychecks WERE still arriving - late. While it's frustrating as hell, the management was making good on its promises (up until a point) that paychecks WERE coming. We were still getting paid. You get to a point where you get used to the uncertainty. But it also makes it difficult to tell when paychecks are just "late" or "never coming again."

#3 - We were in the middle of a recession (well, in retrospect, still in the beginning of a recession, it seems...). Jobs were already scarce, especially for people like game designers. A job that is currently theoretically paying you is preferable to no job guaranteed not to pay you.

#4 - When the company is in trouble and (supposedly) depending on your project to make everything good again, it's very hard to abandon your teammates and fellow employees. There's a certain level of tolerance for B.S. that you find yourself willing to take in order to make sure that if things fail and a whole bunch of people lose their jobs, it's not your fault.

#5 - It's easy to get addicted to smoking "hopium" in these situations - especially when you like what you are doing and you like the people you work with, and you hear promises from above about how awesome things will be once the group can "power through" this rough patch. There's always a chance it will be true.

And again, nobody realized at this point that their 401k contributions hadn't actually been "held up" but had instead been used to pay salaries (allegedly, I guess I should say...). And who really checks to verify that their FICA withholdings actually made it all the way to the Social Security office?

Anyway - while I would generally prefer working for a small, independent game studio over a big-budget publisher-owned studio, I kinda doubt you'd have seen anything like this happen at an EA studio. I think this should be required reading for anybody seriously considering a career in the videogames biz. And even more so for anybody contemplating starting a game studio. So here's your cautionary tale for the week:

Sensory Sweep Shortchange

Sobering stuff.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009
 
Are Class-Based CRPGs are Better Than Skill-Based?
In a class-based RPG, your character's abilities as they progress through the game follow a defined progression path. This contrasts with skill-based RPGs, where player has more direct control over the progression (or lack thereof) of their character's abilities. Then you have some hybrid systems, which try to merge the flexibility of the skill-based system with the structure of class-based.

Class-based examples would include Baldur's Gate, NetHack, Knights of the Chalice, and most jRPG-style games (Aveyond, Deadly Sin, Final Fantasy VI, etc). Hybrid games abound in modern RPGs, including the D20-based RPGs Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights (heavily class-based but incorporating the flexibility of skill-based options), the Elder Scrolls games (leaning very skill-based, incorporating the structure and ease-of-use of class & level system), Eschalon: Book 1, and many others.

Purely skill-based RPGs are a bit more of a rarity. The Elder Scrolls games really border on this realm. Ultima Online. Some pretty ancient cRPGs, Twilight: 2000 and the two MegaTraveller games from Paragon Software, were based on skill-based pen-and-paper systems. And then we had two games based on the Vampire: the Masquerade dice-and-paper system, Redemption and Bloodlines. (You could argue that one's clan in Bloodlines was analogous to a class, and it certainly altered the game experience - especially for Malkavians and Nosferatu. But clan choice imposed relatively few restrictions on character progression - really just the cost of vampiric disciplines). And then there's Cute Knight Kingdom - which does a lot of things very differently.

When I "graduated" from Dungeons & Dragons to other dice-and-paper RPGs back in my teens, I became a big fan of skill-based systems. It was The One True Way of RPGs. I dismissed class-based, level-based games as merely quaint but entertaining relics of a bygone era to me. It took a few years before I came back around in my thinking and learned to re-appreciate the strengths of class-based games. I like both styles pretty equally nowadays.

But with computer RPGs, I lean towards class-based systems. This isn't a matter of preference, but practicality. I would love to play some more, well-done skill-based CRPGs, and my hat is off to those developers bold enough to build them. But it's tough to do well. Very tough.

Here's why:

The problem is one of the design. In a class-based game, a designer can make some reasonable assumptions. If every character has some minimal fighting ability, and can be classified as a tinkerer, a talker, a sneaker, a fighter, or a hybrid of any two of those, and their ability in any of those specializations can be safely assumed to be within a particular range, then there's a well-defined space of challenges and choices that a designer needs to build to.

But in a skill-based game with some thirty skills, with a character who can be maxed out in one skill while having next to no ability in anything else, there really aren't many constraints to design around. This makes the task daunting, if not impossible for practical purposes. Instead, the burden is shifted to the player to not only create a balanced character, but also to play "guess the mind of the game designer in advance" to determine which abilities are going to be useful in the game.

Yeah. I've played those games where I loaded up on some cool-sounding skills that sounded really useful but almost never came into play. I guess I shoulda stuck with "longsword proficiency" or something...

In pen-and-paper games, this isn't such a big problem. The game master can design on-the-fly for known characters. And it's theoretically possible that programmers and designers might come up with some AI "Designer's Helper" that will customize a game on-the-fly around a player's choices and playstyle. In fact, that's such a cool idea that I might try to tackle it myself someday.

If I ever get these current projects finished... :)

Until then, the closest we get is automatically scaling difficulty for combat, which to me is translated, "However powerful you are, it won't make a lick of difference." Can't say I'm a big fan of that mechanic, either. Or you have Cute Knight Kingdom's approach, which has several storylines based on combinations of skills, but otherwise leaves the world pretty open-ended and sandbox-y. It's not so great for epic, traditional RPG quests, but it solves the problem.

So in general, for traditional RPGs, the problems involved in skill-based systems are the reason I think class-based or hybrid systems are preferable as both a designer and a player. (Given a choice, well, give me the hybrid!)

But I'd love to see more stabs at resolving these problems to make skill-based systems more practical in cRPGs.

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Din's Curse Monsters
Soldak has three new monsters on its website from the upcoming indie action RPG Din's Curse. The site warns, "For those of you that have played our previous games, Depths of Peril and Kivi's Underworld, you will recognize some of the monsters. However, don't let your guard down because you think you know them well. Many of them have had big changes."

The scavenger was a previous entry, but today we get the Changeling, Fire Thrower, and Death Knight

Din's Curse Monsters

On a side note, Steven has been tweeting periodically over the last two weeks about the effect of the scavenger on gameplay. Apparently running away from it through a previous battlefield full of corpses makes a bad situation much, much worse.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009
 
More Indie-Friendly Licensing
Havok Offers Indie Developer Program

Press Release

Not sure how truly indie-friendly it is. But are you seeing a trend? I sure am...

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Monday, December 07, 2009
 
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie Part X
The tenth installment of Ernest Adams' annual column on poor game design decisions:

Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie - Tenth Anniversary Edition

This years' hit list: Psychic AI, Bizarre morality in merchants, NPCs in two places at once when the player deviates from the script, Overuse (and under-use) of a game feature or player ability in level design, lazy design documents, failure to understand technical limitations, mocking the player, having essential items become unobtainable, grinding (I actually kinda disagree with this one, unless grinding is *mandatory*), and perfect cover.

Adams acknowledges that the newest Twinkie Denial Conditions aren't as funny as past installments. But I suppose that means all the low-hanging fruit has already been harvested.

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I Don't Care If You're Saving the World, You Still Have To Pay Me
Jeff Vogel explains why your own allies in RPGs still demand payment to train you in his games:

The Bottom Feeder: Why the People On Your Side Are Always Ripping You Off

This always kind of amused me in other games, too. Only a tiny bastion of humanity remains standing, but the weapon merchant still has to get his profit in. Sounds awful, but if you look at human history in times of disaster and war, the greatest historical inaccuracy is that he's not gouging you by insane levels. Those are the times that a loaf of bread may cost a diamond ring. Yeah, there are some great stories of people risking their lives to save each other. But those who risk their lives for profit usually charge a premium.

Anyway, it's an amusing article.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009
 
Planet M.U.L.E.
While dated in its interface, M.U.L.E. remains a classic of game design.

And now, it's available for free. Officially. With improved visuals and sounds. With Internet play. As kind of an MMO. Still the same ol' interface, though. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I think there is definitely some more depth and improvements in modern interface design that could be applied to make it a better game. But - it's pretty freakin' authentic as far as I can remember, so I'll forgive them not wanting to sully the original.

It IS cool that you can play M.U.L.E. with players all over through Internet play, now.

And did I mention free?

Planet M.U.L.E.

Tip o' the beanie to Brenda Brathwaite for the heads-up on this one!

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Friday, December 04, 2009
 
Game Design: Seven Ways to Make Mazes Suck Less
Maze (n): A confusing intricate network of passages.

The maze is a popular old-school gaming standard. It's a gameplay device that sounds awesome on paper, especially for adventures and RPGs. It's a navigational challenge, requiring problem-solving and memory skills. It's alternative gameplay to supplement existing mechanics, and most importantly it is EASY to implement! What's not to like?

The first maze appearance in a video game that I'm familiar with was in the original Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods. There were two mazes: the little twisty maze of passages all alike were created by Crowther, and Woods created the maze where all the passages were different. It was then, in the 1970s, that players first began experiencing the joy of mazes in computer games. And I believe it was then, in the 1970s, that players discovered the truth about mazes in computer games:

Mazes suck.

I don't know if I ever actually recall anybody talking about how FUN the maze was in a video game. On the other hand, I have heard several people trash mazes as their least favorite element of some games. Sure, they sound good on paper. But I think the key word in the definition above is "confusing." Being confused isn't all that fun, in general. Mazes - especially with a mouse-eye, first-person view - are confusing by nature and pretty dang un-fun.

However, emerging from temporary confusion is a lot of fun. Actually solving the maze, like solving any challenging puzzle, feels terrific. The threat of getting lost and confused is kinda fun too. Just as the threat of permadeath in many roguelikes is part of what makes them fun. But in both cases, it is a Sword of Damocles situation. It's the threat, not the event, that's fun. The tease of danger of becoming hopelessly lost adds a certain intellectual thrill. We're going in, and don't know how we're going to escape. That's fun.

But when the threat is fulfilled, and the player really does feel lost? Not so much fun.

Is it possible to capture the two "fun" aspects of mazes - the thrill of the risk of becoming lost, and the satisfaction of solving the intellectual puzzle offered by mazes - while mitigating the actual problems of becoming lost? And when you do that, does the maze lose it's "maze-ness?" Does it at that point become just a... map?

I've been pondering this working on Frayed Knights, as I was working on on the minotaur's lair a couple of weeks ago. Minotaurs, based on tradition as old as ancient Greece (back when there was just ONE Minotaur!), lair inside of mazes. But mazes... uh, suck. So what is a poor game designer to do?

While some of these ideas came too late for me to feed into my minotaur maze design, I had a few thoughts on how to at least improve things. If a game, for whatever reason, must include a maze-like sequence, here are some basic rules-of-thumb to make mazes and maze-like areas suck less:
1. The idea is to tease the player with the possibility of getting lost. Something that looks like a maze, acts like a maze, and threatens to be a maze will function just as well.

2. Mazes should be small. A big maze could be made up of some easy-to-recognize landmark areas connecting smaller mazes and still feel like a big maze.

3. The maze itself - traveling from point A to point B - should almost never be used as the principle gameplay element in any part of the game. Trying to challenge the player by a maze alone leads to hopelessly convoluted mazes. Instead, designers should use simpler mazes to supplement some other game mechanic.

4. If possible, it should be easier to escape the maze than to solve it. Having an easy exit / reset button is a Good Thing (found in a Tales of Monkey Island episode).

5. Adding a vertical element to a maze can make it feel FAR more confusing and complex than it really is. If used carefully, it can add to the fun and challenging puzzle-solving aspect without adding to the bad "I'm totally lost, this game sucks!" aspect very much.

6. A first-person perspective makes any maze ten harder (statistic pulled out of thin air). Any other form of limited visibility preventing the player from seeing the entire maze at once will also make it more difficult.

7. Once the player has solved the maze, avoid requiring her to "re-solve" or backtrack through the maze again. Have shortcuts or bypasses unlock for key locations once they have been discovered.
And here's a bonus eighth tip:
* Any map can become a "maze" in the worst way very easily if not carefully designed. A good map should contain plenty of landmarks, avoid excessive repetition of similar geometry, and never let the player stray too far from "focal points" to guide progress. In other words, they should be kept tight, clear, and distinctive. (RPG Maker users, take note!)
And yes, I keep learning that last one the hard way. But I keep finding other indie game designers doing the same thing.

Bottom Line: Mazes, in general, still suck. But I believe that, used carefully, maze-like game mechanics can still be salvaged to make fun games.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009
 
Making Culturally Meaningful Games
DanC writes about three false constraints which are holding the industry back from making "culturally meaningful games."

Lost Garden: Three False Constraints

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David Bowie: My Real Name is David Jones
This is cool.

Twenty-Year-Old David Bowie, in 1967, received his first fan letter from an American, and was so excited he immediately jumped on a typewriter to write a response. Oh, if he'd only known....! It's a very personal, human peek at a guy who would soon become a rock 'n roll superstar.

Letter from David Bowie: My Real Name is David Jones

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009
 
Indie RPG News Round-Up, 2 Dec 2009
More indie RPG news than you can... uh.... well, just more indie RPG news... We've got some free games to talk about this time, the end of one series, the beginning of another, and a nice mix of some western (or really unique) RPGs with some ever-popular jRPG-style indie games.

Avernum 6
It's now out, for the Mac. Windows gamers will have to wait until March. The graphics have been greatly improved from previous games (no doubt Jeff Vogel has been receiving pressure from the Eschalon: Book 1 fans...). While we Windows gamers are waiting, Vogel has some thoughts on the final game of his long-running series here.

Din's Curse
Steven Peeler has an update on the Ranger class for this upcoming RPG. Each class in Din's Curse has a number of specialties within the class - three for the core classes, and two for the hybrids. The ranger class has three specialties: Druid, Archer, and Hunter. You can read more about them here: Din's Curse Classes. There's also a fun blog post on earthquakes in the game.

Telepath RPG: Servants of God
The maker of Telepath Psy Arena 2 is working on a full-bore RPG set in the same world, using the same style of tactics-heavy combat. Those who crave something other than plain ol' Medieval European Fantasy, take note. You can play the constantly-in-development demo version here. And here's the trailer:



PARG: A Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying Game
PARG is just what it stands for - a Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying Game. It's a single-player only RPG using an isometric 2D perspective, and using turn-based tactical combat. Man - have I ever heard of a game like this before? It is also intended as a non-profit, open-source (Python / FIFE) project. Normally I wouldn't give something like this a high chance of completion, but they are targeting their first tech-demo release in a few weeks. So hopefully this one will be a pleasant surprise.

Scars of War
Gareth has an article up about Banes. Banes are not typical monsters in RPGs. Actually, a lot about Scars of War sounds non-typical. But these entities cannot be defeated directly through any kind of combat. It sounds like banes are kind of like hauntings - you can't just deal with the physical(ish) manifestation, but actually hunt down and resolve the root cause of the bane's existence. It looks interesting, and I'll be fascinated to see how it resolves in actual gameplay.

Cyclopean
It has an engine! And an update! With less than a year from the last update! It might actually become weekly! While it's still much, much earlier in development than I usually pay attention to, I'm putting some faith into Iron Tower Studios to crack the whip here. And I'm just thrilled to see an indie game (someday!) appear embracing the old Call of Cthulhu feel. I hope.

Asguaard
The most prolific indie jRPG studio around has released their latest title, Asguaard. I've not played it yet, but it seems to be a stand-alone title as opposed to a part of a series. From the website:
Welcome to the magical world of Asguaard where Fairies, Dwarves and legendary creatures live together in relative peace.

Yet their future is about to be torn apart.

Somewhere, somehow, the Pandora Box has been opened. A series of devestating plagues each worse than the previous are on their way tearing apart the lands and creatures before them. The magical inhabitants are powerless to prevent the tragedy yet there is just one chance.

A committee of Fairies gather at Asguaard's highest village - their immense task is to summon a creature able to achieve miracles, a creature read about in the oldest of books, a creature that is in posession of something that the Asguaard kind can only dream of and hold in awe. The possession is a soul and the creature - a human.

Come join the fight for Asguaard, a tale of friendship, passion and heroism.

* 100+ hours of gameplay
* 100+ skills to learn
* 500+ locations to explore
* 150+ secret rooms to find
Yeesh, that's a big game!

Download Asguaard

Awakening and Myth Xaran
Awakening and Myth Xaran are RPG Maker / jRPG-style games from Florida-based Exodus Studio. Started by Rebecca Long in 2007, Exodus Studio focuses on faith-based and family-friendly games set in fantasy settings.

Awakening is an RPG Maker / jRPG style "faith-based RPG with a compelling story that draws upon the themes and concepts of the book of Galatians in the Holy Bible." It's a free game, and promises to be first of a series entitled, "The Guardian's Wing Chronicles."

According to the website, Myth Xaran is set within the world of Exodus, which is "a place of mystery and intrigue. Similarly, the will of the gods hold no limits beyond a mortal's understanding. Within a darkened sect of the world, a new light shines upon an effigy of paradise through the eyes of an unknowing tortured soul. With this promised new creation given to him, life also begins -- and a chapter is ready to be written." It is also free, which is

Both games, using RPG Maker, are unfortunately Windows-only. But they are both free, so there's no complaining about the price. I haven't played either one yet, so feel free to chime in.

Cute Knight / Cute Knight Kingdom
Cute Knight Kingdom is out. It's good. I'm once again getting in touch with my inner independently-minded eighteen-year-old girl. Or something. And managing sin, dream, and my massively awesome fighting skills. Being able to spook enemies instead of killing (or taming) them is awesome, and saves on sin. It's basically everything that was cool about the original game, writ larger.

Speaking of the original game, Cute Knight Deluxe is now available for a reduced price. Which is likewise awesome.

Cute Knight Deluxe is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Cute Knight Kingdom is currently Windows-only (I believe this is only a temporary limitation).


Aaand - that's all I have for now. I'm sure RPG fans and creators will be quick to let me know what I've missed... so have at it!

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009
 
Playing From Memory
I used to be the best Jet Moto player in the world.

This isn't idle speculation or boasting. Literally, demonstrably, empirically, and usually uncontestedly (at least until Nate Pendleton, our lead tester, started gunning for my crown), I was the best. Granted, only a few dozen people in the world had played the full game at that point, as it hadn't yet been released. But that's immaterial, don't you think?

Anyway, over the holiday weekend my youngest daughter broke out the game and began playing it on the PS2. So I joined her. Much to my chagrin, she nearly beat me on one level. Then we played my favorite (and, back in the day, my best) level, Nightmare. It's the one at the end of this trailer:



I definitely didn't have what it takes anymore. I guess a dozen years of almost no practice can do that to you. But while I ran into some troublesome parts of the track where I repeatedly screwed up, I was rather astonished by what I didn't screw up. Some kind of muscle-memory took over along many parts of the track, and I found myself repeating long-forgotten but long-ingrained movements to navigate trickier spots in the track. I didn't even remember what it was I was doing - if I thought about it, I'd screw up.

It's not the only time that's happened. While I now suck horribly at the old arcade game Shinobi (a game I used to beat on a single quarter), I do find myself making a lot of old moves and following old patterns I've consciously forgotten. It's a weird feeling.

Has that ever happened to you?

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