Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Adventures in Indie Gaming!

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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Top 10 RPGs of the Decade at RPGamers
RPGamer (which as a matter of policy does not touch indie games, alas...) has an article up announcing their picks for the best RPGs of the decade.

The Top RPGs of the Decade at RPGamer

While I don't know if their pick for #1 would be the same as mine (actually, I know it's not), it's definitely become one of my all-time favorite RPGs.

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Aldorlea Games Interview
Indinera Falls, prolific designer of an incredible number of RPG Maker-based commercial indie RPGs over the last two years, has been interviewed by RPG Fan. Enjoy!

RPGFan Interview with Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games

An excerpt:

RPGFan: Where do you see the future of indie gaming headed?

IF: It's hard to tell. Big portals tend to favor shorter games at lower prices, which is not a good thing for an RPG developer and true RPGs. There might eventually be a bigger separation between niche stuff (to which those real RPGs seem bound to belong) and casual indie gaming. But in both cases it should be more and more, both in quality and quantity.



Friday, February 26, 2010
Avernum 6 Released for Windows
The final chapter of the Avernum Series is now out for Windows.

Grab it while supplies last!

Avernum 6 for Windows. (Or for Mac if you haven't already.)


Thursday, February 25, 2010
Interview: Jeff Vogel's New Thing
Jeff Vogel is probably the most graybearded of the indie RPG creators. He's been making indie RPGs since before anybody even called them indie. He's created the Exile series, the Avernum series, the Geneforge series, and the one-off RPG Nethergate. The fact that he's been doing it for a decade and a half - and is still payin' the bills - says a lot. For years, indie RPGs were almost synonymous with Jeff's company, Spiderweb Software.

(By way of a totally unfair comparison of apples and oranges, the legendary RPG maker Origin Systems Inc., founded by Richard Garriott, was only an independent entity for nine years before getting sold off to EA - and was gradually dismantled before being scrapped entirely a decade later.)

Anyway - with Nethergate concluded and Avernum nearly so (just finishing up the PC port), Vogel talks about his Next Big Thing in this interview at The Gamer Studio. Rest assured, it sounds like it's not going to be straying far from what the fans are used to enjoying.

The Gamer Studio: Interview with Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software

Besides talking about the untitled new game, Vogel notes that he's planning on doing a ground-up remake of Avernum, using the latest graphics from Avernum 6.

An excerpt on the extent of the graphical upgrade:

"Spiderweb Software is a small company. We make low-budget rpgs. There are some people who require graphics quality of the level of, say, Dragon Age or Fallout 3. I will never sell a game to those people, and I wish them well. But our recent games have still had big improvements in the visuals. Avernum 6, in particular, looks better than any game we've ever done, and our new game will be better. Not 30 million dollar budget better, but, yes, the pool of people who find the graphics reach the minimum standard should increase.
Check out the whole interview!

Hat tip to RPGWatch for the link!


Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Facebook Ultima?
Maybe not by such a name...

But Richard "Lord British" Garriott hints that his venture into casual portal-based games may still have something to offer the ol' hardcore RPG faithful...
"Today we're talking about the Portalarium," Garriott said. "We have yet to announce quote-unquote my game.. what motivates me is to go back and make Ultima-esque, familiar Ultima-esque games. But I believe the right place is to do that on this platform."
Braced for the Skeptics, Richard Garriott Challenges Gamers and Teases What's Next...

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Bruce On Games: Why the AAA Games Business Model is Broken
I don't agree with Bruce Everiss on a lot of things (but then, I'm a game developer, and he's a games marketer, which means we're naturally at odds...), but he's been in the biz for a very long time and his observations are worth paying attention to.

Today, he reveals why he thinks the traditional "AAA" games business model is broken.

Maybe "broken" is too harsh of a term. "Unsustainable at current levels" is probably a more accurate description.


Stuck In An Airport After Hours? Party Time!
A massive snowstorm leaves you stuck in an airport for ten hours overnight. What are you going to do?

For one Ashley Klinger, the question was - what was she NOT going to do? And she recorded it on video for posterity.

I gotta respect that! Especially the creative use of the escalator handrails at the end. Highly awesome!

Found via Boing Boing.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Nobody Wants to Be an RPG!
First it was British game development's biggest mouth, Peter Molyneux, claiming that "Fable 3 isn't an RPG." After years of saying he was going to redefine the genre, he changed his tune to say he's going to abandon it. Kinda.

Now, the exemplar series of Japanese RPGs (jRPGs), Final Fantasy, is apparently abandoning the RPG genre as well. The RPG "template" was just too stifling, and the creators were aiming to go off in new directions without any preconceived expectations and requirements.

At least, that's what they are saying now.

Kat Bailey notes this recent trend in her article, "The Loneliest Genre." Mass Effect 2 (and Mass Effect 1) really look like hybrid FPS / RPGs to me (which, I stress, is cool and all...) While Dragon Age: Origins (which I still haven't played) sounds to be pretty much good ol' RPG on the inside, a lot of the marketing did try and make it feel like... something else.

Are RPGs once again for geeks only? Are mainstream game developers are trying to attract the "cool kids" by avoiding the stigma of the RPG label? Is this why nobody wants to be an RPG?

Or was it because you have doofuses like me who create RPG purity tests every every time some marketing goober decides to slap an RPG label on a game (back when it used to be cool, I guess) because it has elves or stats in it? And the RPG fan base goes nuts tearing apart games that don't adhere to the standards set by the faithful?

I don't really know what the root cause might be. I don't know if this is even a trend or a bump in the road or just plain old developer ennui at having made the same kinds of games for years and wanting to do something different.

From my own perspective, I prefer the idea of the genre expanding rather than contracting. And I especially don't like the idea of the definition of RPG contracting around some "evolution" in a direction that is not inclusive of the classics of the genre. I tend to think the latter is pure marketing hype / crap ("our new game redefines RPG! Everyone will follow the trail be blaze!" that suckers some naive journalists into buying it.

I personally think my own definition of an RPG - which still (mostly) holds years after I wrote it - is pretty dang inclusive. And I'm really pretty happy about game-makers pushing the comfort zone a bit on what constitutes an RPG. Just so long as the effort isn't accompanied by an effort to diminish what has come before. I have strong retrogamer tendencies - I do go back and play the old stuff, and I do recognize that those games are still fun, years later - maybe klunky and a little hard to figure out at first (probably not an insignificant contributor to RPGs' reputation for not being mass-market-friendly), but definitely still fun. Don't try and pretend that we were all under some mass delusion at the time, and that the gaming experiences we knew back then are better off dead and buried.

So where does the genre go from here? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't alarmed by the trend to abandon the label by big-ticket titles. It feels like a conscious marginalization of the genre ("This can't be an RPG, it's too fun!"). But by the same ticket - if it's really not an RPG, call it like it is. But I tend to think that the RPG tent is big enough to encompass an extremely broad subset of games, and I'd like to see it grow.


Monday, February 22, 2010
Eschalon: Book II Trailer
The trailer for Eschalon: Book II, the sequel for the best-selling indie RPG (wait for it...) Eschalon Book I, is now available:

Eschalon: Book 2 Trailer

The new game continues the storyline and setting of the original, but with an all-new adventure - and some new graphics - which includes:

* The ability to play as either a male or female character this time
* Higher-resolution graphics
* Weather effects - which have an impact on the game (not just for eye candy)
* More skills, and better skill balance from the first game
* Improved UI
* Equipment presets
* Multiple difficulty modes

Eschalon: Book 1 won high praise for managing to capture a lot of the "old school" flavor of the games many of us loved back in the 80s and 90s, but combined it with nicer graphics and the niceties of the modern user experience. I expect to see the sequel take that winning combination and push it even further.

I am looking forward to this one!

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Saturday, February 20, 2010
Worst DRM Scheme Ever Has Been Clarified...
Don't worry. It's only mostly as bad as you thought it was.

You know, I went on a business trip for two weeks last month where the Internet was $14 / day from my hotel. I skipped a couple of days (yes, it does happen!) of connectivity. After all, I had stuff to do, books to read, and ... hey, games to play on my laptop!

Games that were, in some cases, older and no longer supported by their creators.

Games that did not need to be connected to the Internet to play.

You know, I'm going to keep buying games like that. Not the handicapped crapware that Ubisoft will be selling from now on.

It's too bad. I have some fine games in my library that I bought back in the day published by Ubisoft.


Friday, February 19, 2010
Indie RPG News Round-up - February 19, 2010
It's time again for a round-up of what's happening in the world of indie computer role-playing games! Apparently, these crazy developers still haven't realized that it's impossible for a tiny, low-budget team to make a quality, entertaining RPG! Please, nobody tip them off.

I said I'd try to post these more frequently, to try and capture more of the smaller updates as they come through (and while they might still be arguably considered "news"). So here's what's up...

Doublebear's Zombie RPG
The latest design update on the "Zombie RPG" (working title - but who knows, it could be the final title) continues to deal with the subject of morale in the game. That's morale, not morals. This installment (and there will be another one on morale) deals with the effect of luxury items on the morale of the folks in the post-zombie-apocalypse future.

The Spirit Engine 2
It's gone freeware, folks. Mark Pay thanks everyone who has supported the game, and says he's going to avoid working on big, commercial projects in the future.

The Spirit Engine 2 - Now Freeware

Vastar is a new RPG from Exodus Studios is their first commercial RPG, and is nearing completion after a year of development. Look for a release this spring.

Scars of War
An update on Gareth's modular medieval building-making can be found in the latest Scars of War Development Update.

Din's Curse
Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment has an interview at GamersInfo.net about his upcoming action-RPG, Din's Curse, and about being a full-time indie game developer. Well worth reading!

GamersInfo.net Interview with Steven Peeler

The latest beta progress report is also available, and notes that with this pre-order, Din's Curse has become his fastest-selling game ever. Let's hope that trend continues.

Spiderweb Software
Jeff Vogel, author of the the Exile, Avernum, and Geneforge RPG series, shares Three Tips to Getting Started in the Indie Business. I don't entirely agree with all of his points - I am personally a fan of GIMP, but I also don't have a gajillion successful indie games to my credit, so what do I know?

Telepath RPG: Servants of God
Craig Stern has an interview about his work on this game series at GameDevHub:

Interview: Game Designer Craig Stern Of Sinister Design

Frayed Knights

The latest development update is up - this time the Rampant Coyote is whining about having to actually write some text and test some quests or something. The loser.

Frayed Knights: Talk Ain't Cheap, Apparently

Aveyond: The Lost Orb
Aveyond: The Lost Orb, part 3 of the Orbs of Magic series is out.

And I thought I was going to get work done this weekend...


Frayed Knights - Talk Ain't Cheap. Apparently.
So it's about time for another update on the development of Frayed Knights, the upcoming tongue-in-cheek indie RPG coming from Rampant Games.

I knew when I signed up for it that making an RPG would be a pretty significant undertaking. I had expectations of a lot of work. Even though I had elevated my expectations of the amount of work I had to do, there were a couple of areas where I woefully underestimated the amount of labor involved.

And dialog is one of those areas. I mean, it's just text, right? Sounds easy! I'm not even doing voice-overs for this game!

If my quests were just of the "bring me six rat tails" variety, and my dialogs were of the one-or-two-line variety, I wouldn't have so much work to do. Now I know why other games do that. I'd have three things for an NPC to say: "Hi there, get me six rat tails!", "Hi! Do you have my six rat tails yet?", and "I see you brought me six rat tails! Here's your reward!" No other NPC (Non-Player Character... anyone not controlled by the player) in the world would care or be involved in that quest in any way.

Easy. Simple. Straightforward. And of course, not what I chose to do.

Somehow I imagined my "slightly" more complicated questing would only be slightly more involved in developing. Hah! No, I have to had to make quests that involve multiple NPCs who respond contextually to the changing situations and are sometimes involved in multiple quest-lines. So I have to deal with how the event in one subplot might effect their responses to the other quest. Oh, and my dialogs aren't little two-line monologues, but complete conversation scripts with the party (which means I can't just mechanically string them together).

Just for an example (and I know I've done this before), here's a single set of quest-related dialogs that would need to be implemented for a single NPC involved in a single quest with three non-linear subgoals:

Introduction - first-time meeting
Not on quest
On quest, no objectives met
On quest, objective A but not B and C met
On quest, objective B but not A and C met
On quest, objective C but not A and B met
On quest, objectives A and B met
On quest, objectives A and C met
On quest, objectove B and C met
On quest, all objectives met (give reward & finish quest)

Oh, and while I'm at it, I should try and come up with something vaguely humorous with each variation. And I need to test these dialogs and quests - repeatedly - by doing things out of order, and testing the robustness of the scripting and just how many punctuation errors slipped through my dialogs.

Seriously, if I skipped the "testing" phase, this thing would go about 10x faster.

Now, I have chosen to take a slightly rougher path than your average indie RPG developer with respect to quests and NPC dialog. But I don't suspect Frayed Knights is totally unusual in this respect. I'm compensating by having fewer NPCs. I can't really imagine right now having the number of towns and NPCs of Aveyond 2. I just really, seriously underestimated the task.

So I'm just ... pushing on through, and trying to simplify where I can. And looking for ways of streamlining the process.

But mainly I'm just suggesting to other would-be RPG makers that if you expect character dialog to play a significant role in your game... be prepared for lots and lots of writing. My appreciation for how much writing goes into something like a Bioware game has gone up considerably.

In other news - content continues to be developed. We've got the lizardman lair from the Caverns of Anarchy just about wrapped up, and I've got the second village (Roark's Folly) about 80% built (sans NPCs and all that dialog-writing). Kevin had to re-do a lot of the Gloomspire Castle a few weeks ago from Act 3. It is quite the major construction, as you can see here:

So we've made some more excursions from Act 1, which felt pretty good. I think the later acts are going to be a bit "tighter" than the first one - mainly because each month I feel we have a better handle on what it takes and how we could do it "better."

But now I'm back to focusing on getting Act 1 100% playable. It's important. Many days, I'm not really sure what to make of all this. At times, it's simply stunning to stand back and take a look at all we've accomplished so far. And then, it's even more stunning to look at how much more needs to be done. I think getting the first act fully playable (if not "finished") from end-to-end will really help in that respect.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Win $100k to Develop Your Dream Indie Game!
Activision embraces indies.

Full rules and eligibility are still pending --- but you can find the general rules right here:

Activision Announces the 2010 Activision Independent Game Competition

Here's what it says:
This summer, one developer will win $100,000 to make their game development dreams a reality. The official entry form and eligibility requirements will be posted in a few weeks. In the meantime, this is what we’ll be looking for in submissions:

- A two-page summary of your proposed game. Please include three to five bullet-point elements or goals that you feel define your project (i.e. “open-world,” “puzzle-based,” “flying dragon combat”). Beyond that, you may structure these two pages as you see fit; creativity is encouraged.

- A video, no longer than five minutes, explaining and illustrating your game. Footage of your game in motion, character models, animatics – show your project and its elements however you feel would be most compelling.

- The official entry form, which will be posted here soon

- A non-disclosure agreement, which will be posted here soon

So get ready to send us your ideas either on your own or on a team.

Check back for more information in early March, and good luck!

Hmm... well, at first blush, it sounds pretty dang cool. Of course, there's a good chance you'd be surrendering all rights to the final game, etc. etc. etc. But that's no excuse for not checking it out when more details become known.

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IGDA Elections
For game devs interested in the IGDA, Scott McMillan of Macguffin Games now has write-ups on all 23 candidates for the ongoing election of board members.

IGDA Election - Candidate Scrutiny

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Six Reasons to Support Indie RPGs
Craig Stern of Sinister Design (maker of Telepath Psy Arena 2 and the in-development Telepath RPG: Servants of God) has six very good reasons to support indie RPGs.

The Top Six Reasons to Support Indie RPGs

Now, we can't say for sure about any of 'em, including the last (but otherwise good) point. The whole point of being an indie is to do things your own way, and some indies may choose to follow the Path of Least Intelligence following in the missteps of some Big Publishers. But for the most part - that's not an indie thing, and Craig's piece is dead-on.

These games give you a solid bang for your entertainment buck (or pound, or euro, or whatever). While I still love my big-budget mainstream RPGs, some of the most entertaining RPGs I have played over the last three years or so have actually come from these tiny indie studios, or the tiny mainstream studios.

There's something awesome happening here. I encourage you to take the time out to check it out.


Keep Shooting Yourselves in the Foot, Publishers!
Hey, mainstream game publishers!

Please, keep shooting yourselves in the foot.

Like this.

We'll miss you when you are gone. A little. Oh, you'll blame the PC platform, you'll blame the spineless douchebag pirates with their endless justifications, and you'll eventually blame the consoles when things go the exact same way as the PC market in a hardware generation or two.

But the one who is really to blame are those knuckle-dragging suits who failed to recognize that those useless appendages to the wallets that you like to chase are actually PEOPLE, paying customers who really are smart enough to realize they are NOT playing World of Warcraft, and do NOT appreciate being screwed out of the $50 or $60 for the game that they didn't realize came with both an expiration date in the near future and a buttload of reasons you won't allow them to play after you've taken their money.

And what about all those experienced developers, the ones soon to be out-of-work after you sabotage the product of their underpaid, overworked labors by packaging it in a poison-coated turdshell? Well, many of them - and many of your disgruntled, screwed-over ex-customers, are going to wake up to the truth that we in the indie game community now know:

We don't actually need you.

Game over.

(Bonus Update Section - another warning from a highly successful indie developer and pirate-hunter. Yes, we hate piracy. Yes, we're technically competitors. No, we don't want you to actually self-destruct, but that seems to be your intention...)


Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Phantasmagoria Retrospective
GOG.COM has a retrospective on the classic Sierra "full motion video" adventure game, Phantasmagoria. Taken in part from multiple interviews with legendary adventure game designer Roberta Williams, this article explores the inspiration, development, and reception of one of Sierra's more famous (or is that infamous) releases. Plus some interesting bits of historical trivia about the word "phantasmagoria."

GOG Editorial: Smoke, Mirrors, and the Phantasmagoria.

And GOG.COM now has Phantasmagoria available in their store.

I remember enjoying the game (way back in 1997 or something, a couple of years after its original release), but I didn't think it was in the same league as some of the other greats of the time. Maybe it was just that the blue-screen dinner-theater-quality video in a postage-stamp-sized window really didn't thrill me by that time. And scenes of torture and death never really did. So - after two years - the novelty factor wasn't much of a factor anymore. I'm not sure how well the game stands the test of time now FIFTEEN years later.

But like I said, I do remember enjoying the game. And I really enjoyed the retrospective. And for more fun - here's the trailer from back in the day:


Tuesday, February 16, 2010
A Use For Microsoft Surface...
Somebody's finally come up with a legitimate use for Microsoft's "Big-A** Table."


Create Your Own Epic RPG Title
Game creators!

Can't come up with a title for your magnificent magnum opus RPG? Do not fear, we've got you covered! This process guarantees an epic-sounding name to go with your awesome RPG. And it has a 50% chance of sounding like something that was badly translated from Japanese, to boot!

Instructions: Roll a twenty-sided die for a word from Column A, and roll it again to generate a word from Column B. If you don't have a twenty-sided die laying around, you should hang your head in shame.

As a bonus, you can either swap the order of the words for maximum effect. "Symphony Accursed!" You can add the word "The" to the beginning of the title, but be warned that it sounds less Japanese that way. An additional variation in some cases may include pluralizing the noun.

Column A: The Adjective!

1. Eternal
2. Accursed
3. Darkened
4. Deadly
5. Blighted
6. Valiant
7. Blackened
8. Glorious
9. Ancient
10. Forever
11. Final
12. Victorious
13. Never-Ending
14. Spirited
15. Crimson
16. Epic
17. Dauntless
18. Malignant
19. Savage
20. Arduous

Column B - the noun

1. Symphony
2. Night
3. Darkness
4. Nightmare
5. Struggle
6. Twilight
7. Dawn
8. Despair
9. Onslaught
10. Anguish
11. Spirit
12. Revenge
13. Heart
14. Sword
15. Blade
16. Flame
17. Eternity
18. Lament
19. Conflict
20. Quest

Be warned, however, that this process only creates 20 x 20 x2 (for reversing the order) = 800 possible game titles, which means they'll probably all be used up by next week. So get them while they are hot!


Monday, February 15, 2010
Gareth on Skill Versus Talent
I equate "skill" to learned abilities, and talent to raw, natural affinity or ability.

Gareth Fouche, developer of indie RPG Scars of War, finds some pretty impressive evidence of the proper ratio:

Seriously, It's 99% Practice and 1% Talent. Maybe 0.5% Talent.

Five years from conscientious scribblings to being displayed in exhibits. Yeah, it takes a while. And a lot of effort. What worthwhile thing in life doesn't?

I read the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck a few years ago, and it convinced me that Gareth's ratio is pretty close to the mark. And I can't recommend the book highly enough. I guess raw talent can increase the rate at which one develops a skill and give you a "leg up" when starting out, but the book also showed how having a lot of talent in one area can really hold you back, too. Especially if one becomes more concerned about reputation than improvement.

Among many other stories, the book points out the story of Michael Jordan, who was cut from his varsity basketball team in high school in the 10th grade. It wasn't because the coach was a moron. Quite frankly, Jordan wasn't all that good. He didn't come out of his mother's womb knowing how to dribble a basketball. He later credited that failure in his life with his success in his career (I'd say being the best player the NBA has ever seen counts as success). He worked his butt off. And his work ethic continued throughout his career - he was considered one of the hardest-working players in the NBA.

Of course, that didn't translate to a stellar baseball career, and I'm sure Jordan had some gifts (not the least of which was his height) which helped take his success into the stratosphere. And I'm sure there are other players in who work just as hard, but haven't yet achieved his level of success. Once you get past a certain point, that 1% can be a pretty significant edge. And there are many people with real disabilities and disorders who can't even get that far. But oftentimes, they can astound the rest of us by what they can accomplish.

So - the bottom line: Don't make excuses by saying, "I'm no good at X." If you care about it enough to put time into it, you can fix that. It doesn't matter that you aren't "gifted" in a particular area.


Sunday, February 14, 2010
Command & Conquer - free!
The ol' classic Command & Conquer, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (+ Expansion), and C&C: Red Alert are now available for free, to help promote the release of Command & Conquer 4.

Command & Conquer - Classics

It took me a while to realize "Tiberian Dawn" was actually the original C&C. I am so old-school. Back then we knew it as, "The unofficial sequel to Dune 2." Yeah, they aren't harvesting spice on Arakis, you were harvesting tiberium or whatever-it-was-called on Earth... But yeah. It's perhaps not THE great-grandaddy of RTS's, but it's definitely one of the classics that spawned the genre.

(Tangent: my first RTS game was the much-forgotten MindCraft game, "Siege.")

I spent a few very late nights back in the day playing the first one, but never played the other two. Should be fun!

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Saturday, February 13, 2010
Misfit Monsters Redeemed...
I am SO getting this book the moment it comes out.

Pathfinder: Misfit Monsters Redeemed

"With the trepidation of an adventurer exploring a dungeon with a sweating forehead and a 10-foot pole, Paizo proudly presents Misfit Monsters Redeemed, an in-depth look at 10 of the lamest, most-hated, and flat out goofiest monsters ever to haunt a fantasy roleplaying campaign. People tell us we can improve any monster, so we’ve recruited the most misunderstood denizens of fantasy roleplaying to put that theory to the test.

"This soon-to-be legendary 64-page full-color volume includes all-new backgrounds, expansions, and tips for monstrous lovable losers like the adherer, delver, dire corby, disenchanter, flail snail, flumph, lava child, lurker above, tojanida and, of course, the insidious wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. The gaming world will never be the same again!"

The flumph. Can they possibly make the flumph cool?


Friday, February 12, 2010
The Problem - Or Not - With Adventure Games in the Modern Era
Although I'm not positive it's really a problem... the comic is amusing:

Stolen Pixels: The Solution to All Puzzles

I think I encountered about one puzzle per episode of Tales of Monkey Island where I resorted to this. I pretty much futz over a problem up until the point where it is no longer fun, and then either quit for the day and try again, or futz for five more minutes before looking up the solution. And try hard to resist looking over any other solutions (though it's hard not to have some hints from skimmed-over-text imprint on my brain).

While this has made my adventure-gaming experiences shorter, I don't know that it has made them less fun. It's always way more fun to figure things out yourself (maybe there's some endorphin reaction or something... I dunno), but I'm glad these games don't have to push me past my tolerance level anymore.


Thursday, February 11, 2010
Mass Effect 2: The Future of RPGs?
I haven't played Mass Effect 2 yet. I haven't even finished Mass Effect 1 yet. It was kinda fun, but didn't really suck me in very much. But the hype surrounding Mass Effect 2 makes it sound like it's a whole new deal! Matthew Erazo of GamerNode writes an article putting Mass Effect 2 on a pretty high pedestal:

Why Mass Effect 2 Is the Future of RPGs

In it, he explains how Mass Effect 2 has corrected all of the mistakes of the RPG genre, which he explains, "is so riddled with cliches and rip-offs that it no longer knows what message or experience it wants to deliver. RPGs are supposed to deliver rich stories, interesting characters, and engaging worlds to explore, yet they are so bogged down by useless micromanagement, xeroxed stories, and boring characters."

Um, yeah. Bad games abound in every genre which have those problems. But I want to see how Mass Effect 2 does this all better than everyone else. This could be worth taking notes on! Let's see what makes Mass Effect 2 so awesome. It sounds like this is something I can't wait to play!

Let's roll and see what the future holds:

#1 - No More Stereotypical Characters!
"Each character in your crew, with the exception of two, are fleshed out and have histories, personalities, and demons. What begins as simple characterization leads to deep conversations about past lives and mistakes. Every time I spoke with a one of my crew, I learned something new or helped with their loyalty mission, which shed even more light on them.Most RPGs don't even approach this kind of character development. They are copies of previous roles, with personalities that are common to their profession."

I'm with ya here, Matthew! But I don't think this is a future / past issue - merely a quality issue which a lot of great RPGs of the past have shared.

Although most don't focus quite so deeply on talking with NPCs repeatedly over time to plumb the depths of their character history. That brings up some scary memories of me being cornered at a game store by some kid who hasn't had a bath in at least a week telling me all about his character. I kept saying, "That's nice," while pretending to be fascinated by those books that were a little closer to the door...

Still, while not unique to Mass Effect 2, it sounds like they did a good job here, to which I will offer a speculative "bravo" based on someone else's review. Awesome.

#2 - Player-Driven Story
"Yet in ME2, you can alter the story based on your choices. You're not bound to any strict storyline. You can choose to gain your crews' loyalty, or you can choose to not care about any of them, just the mission. Yes, there is a base plot here, but you can build your own story with it."

Awesome. Truly open-ended, dynamic player-driven stories! This is one of the goals from my old "What makes a great RPG?" article series. Of course, we've had a lot of games where you could run through basically the same storyline with a significantly different flavor based on choices (for example, the way of the Jedi or the way of the Sith?), and we've had games with big changes to the endings based on choices throughout the game (Fallout, for example). And games where you could really chart your path through the story very differently (Deus Ex). But where you could truly alter the entire story based on your choices? This is something of a holy grail, and I'm glad to hear ME2 finally pulled it off. I wasn't sure it would be done in my lifetime.

#3 - The End of Cutscene Dialogs and Evil Dialog Trees
In ME2,"the dialogue wheel allows for flowing conversation." As far as conventional dialog trees, he says "While this does work if the characters aren't backed by voice actors, when there are abrupt pauses in conversations, it takes you right out of the experience."

Okay - the problems I perceive with dialog trees really has nothing at all to do with whether or not voice actors are involved. Is this much improved over the dialog wheel in Mass Effect 1? While that was an interesting variation on the dialog-tree theme, it was still very much just a dialog tree.

But hey, maybe ME2 is different and they did something really cool with it, as he seems to be talking about something totally different here. Outstanding!

#4 - No More Inventory!
"You never have to keep track of your inventory, or gather tons of loot that will serve no purpose other than to be traded for currency later."

Um... okay. I kinda like loot. Hell, that was pretty much the entire gameplay of Diablo II, and I sank way too many hours into that game than I'd like to admit. It was.... what was that word again? Oh, yeah. "Fun."

But I agree that a game doesn't need to have an inventory system to be a great RPG. I mean, I was a hardcore fan of the dice-and-paper RPG "Champions" (before it became an MMO) way back in the early 80's, and there was really no inventory in that game either. And it rocked. But I more than just hesitate to state that it's anything that should be done away with or evolved away from.

#5 - No More Stats! They Are Bad, Too!
Other RPGs "...are so weighed down by confusing combat systems and the always-imposing thought that you can break your character at anytime. Trying playing through the original Fallout or Fallout 2 without some sort of character guide so you don't make a useless build. Or take a look at Arcanum's character screen. While the game's story, world, and character progression are excellent, there are about 20+ stats that you can build, all of them vague and confusing. You never know which one to really build or where to invest. It's overwhelming and is just not fun at times."

Hey, I didn't use a character guide...

But I agree that staring at a big complicated character creation page without a firm idea of what's in store in the game going forward can be intimidating. I mean, sure, if I was playing old-school D&D, I'd use Charisma as my dump stat, but I don't know about this game...

But hey, it sounds like I may be philosophically in the same ballpark here. You should not be able to "break" your character just because you didn't realize that Underwater Basket Weaving wasn't ever going to be used in the game. I think the stats and character building aspects of a game should be part of the fun! RPGs should help players get over the hump to where the prospect of leveling fills the player with excitement and a sense of empowerment over the plethora of options they have to make their character More Awesome and give them a totally unique approach to tackling the challenges of the game --- all of which should be viable. Neat!

So does Mass Effect 2 manage to accomplish this RPG Nirvana? Let's see:

"Instead of having countless stats which lead to countless ways to break your character, each crew member has around six powers to upgrade."


#6 - Fixed Progression!
"There is no loot, and money and experience are set, guaranteeing your steady progression through the game. You'll never encounter a boss that is a higher level than you, forcing you to go and grind to try to level up."

And here I was thinking that having the game auto-scale the encounters to your level was bad. Instead, we auto-scale your level to the encounters.

This is progress?

#7 - In the future, RPGs Will Be First-Person-Shooters!
"And by making combat a straight shooter, you don't have to worry about pumping stats into helping you aim or worrying about mana/energy to use powers. The combat is endemic to your skill, and powers are governed by a simple cooldown, allowing you to focus on the action."




My, look at the time! I just remembered I have some library books I have to return, or something.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Why Making RPGs is Hard...
The Amazing Spectacular World of Banov has an outstanding article up about the difficulties of making RPGs:

The Problem(s) With RPGs

As Banov states, "Basically what I'm getting at here is that making an RPG is hard and not to be attempted by the inexperienced. I'm not saying it's impossible, but in terms of game making RPGs pose way more obstacles than any other genre of video game I can think of."

I love that he notes that the problem is much more than the technical challenge of making an RPG - the first issue most people think of when discussing the challenges involved - but also very challenging artistically. If I can paraphrase his explanation - people expect to consume a LOT of unique content in an RPG. A lot more than they'd expect to consume in any other genres. And trying to keep it fresh and interesting the whole way through is not easy.

Which is why, in spite of the game engine doing so much of the technical work for them, RPG Maker users aren't quite flooding the world with commercial-quality content. It's still a ton of work to develop a fun, original, non-derivative creation regardless of genre. But for some of the reasons Banov suggests, RPGs tend to be among the most difficult.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Indie RPG News Round-Up, 9 Feb 2010
It's past time for another round-up of news, interviews, and updates from the world of indie computer role-playing games. Since I do these less frequently than I ought to, the list is... kinda long. You'd think I'd learn.

Critical Gamer has an interview with Cyclopean's creator. In it, they discuss the basics of the RPG, and then go into greater detail about adapting H.P. Lovecraft's horror into a computer RPG. UPDATE: Oh, and they also just provided this cool concept sketch to the right.

Zombie RPG
This week's update on Doublebear's Zombie RPG development includes details on the morale system. This is only part 1 of the discussion. Apparently, not freaking out while battling hordes of undead people might be kinda important.

Din's Curse
Din's Curse is currently available for a reduced-price pre-order and beta trial. Check it out here.

Scars of War
Gareth spends some time focusing on the "core concept" of Scars of War - what is the game really about? I would also like to note his article on the "mini-game" issue.

Aveyond: The Lost Orb
After the second Aveyond game, Amaranth Games decided to break each game into smaller chapters. This was done primarily because the games were being sold on casual game portals, which are in the midst of a price war, and are enforcing uniform - cheap! - pricing for all games, which are normally very simple. The complex RPGs just couldn't be made profitable at that price, so Amaranth made the call to break them into smaller segments.

But Amanda Fitch has decided that the next "chapter" of the Aveyond series is going to be much larger than the previous two - not quite the size of the first two Aveyond games, but approaching that territory.

Planet Stronghold Alpha
This upcoming science-fiction RPG by long-time indie game studio Winter Wolves Games. It's currently in early alpha, and is an anime / jRPG style title that goes for the high-tech space opera flavor. Here's a video of combat - but be advised, this is still from a pretty early build.

Millennium 2: Take Me Higher and Millennium 3
The second game of the Millennium series by Aldorlea Games has been out for a while now, with the third (and final?) game in the series anticipated in April.

OnRPG has an interview with the creator of the browser-based "sandbox" MMORPG Golemizer.

Wanderlust: Rebirth
I would poke fun at how long this multiplayer arcade-action RPG has been in development. But, as they say, he who lives in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks... Anyway, last fall they released a playable demo and a trailer video, so things are progressing towards a conclusion. Check them out at the Wanderlust: Rebirth official site.

Immortal Empire
Immortal Empire has launched. It is a browser-based multiplayer tactics RPG.

Ella's Hope
Ella's Hope is another RPG Maker based game from hyper-prolific studio Aldorlea Games, scheduled for a release this month. From Aldorlea's description:

"High in the mountains of Estis an ancient stone marks a portal between mortals and angels. Each year the most promising individuals from across the lands are invited to take part in the Trials - their prize is to become a Candidate for Guardianship, to train amongst the clouds for a chance to join the elite ones. Yet our story is not focused on those specially invited ones - instead meet Ella, a girl with a mysterious past having been found on the mountainside in a storm just under a year ago and now working as a maid in the local Inn."

Desktop Dungeon
Info courtesy of Indiegames.com - Desktop Dungeon is a graphical roguelike with an emphasis on exploration and resource management.


Siphon Spirit
This one's been mentioned a couple of times here. Siphon Spirit has a projected release of sometime this spring (currently the end of March). Try the free Siphon Spirit Demo in the meantime.


Monday, February 08, 2010
Game Design: Suspended in Groundhog Day!
I watched the movie Groundhog Day again... on, surprisingly, Groundhog Day. One of the Best Movies Ever, IMO.

I always thought the last line of the movie, "Let's live here! We'll rent to start." was kind of a weak punchline. But this time I got the "oh, DUH!" revelation. This guy has been living in this town for years. Possibly decades, by some of the implications in the film. Director Harold Ramis posits the opinion in the commentary that it was ten years, and later suggested it was probably more like 30 or 40 years. So how could he possibly go back to his old life?

Yeah, sometimes I'm kinda slow that way.

But anyway - I really brought it up to talk about time loops in games. It's apparently been used in games quite a bit. Some examples include the Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and of course indie game Braid, where manipulating the flow of time is really what the game was about (it was billed at one point as "Groundhog Day" meets "Memento"). There's the Persona 3: FES expansion episode The Answer which takes place inside a one-day time loop. I was kind of disappointed that the time loop didn't play a larger role in the story and gameplay than it did. But it did end up being the big Maguffin plot device that brought the characters into battle against each other, as they took sides over an opportunity to rewrite history - to bring back their fallen friend but risk losing what he sacrificed himself to obtain.

But the game I really think of when I think of the time loops in Groundhog Day was a science fiction text adventure by Michael Berlyn, published by Infocom, called Suspended. It was supremely difficult, IMO. Which is probably why I never beat it. In Suspended, you are a character in cryogenic suspension who's brain has been used as a "living computer" for a central system that keeps a terraformed planet running smoothly and safely. An earthquake has caused a catastrophic failure at the facility, and you awake to full consciousness in communication with several robots who you need to use to repair the facility before too many turns (and too many people die).

If you fail, the population assumes you have gone crazy and are deliberately destroying the world (as, apparently, your predecessor did). They come to the facility and remove you from your suspension - killing you in the process.

Now, the major trick to the game was that each robot was very quirky, having major limitations and a unique ability. One robot always communicated via bizarre poetry about the flow of the electrical systems. Only one robot had visual sensors. Only one had audio sensors. The time limit meant you could not simply move the robots around in one group to get all the information at once to get a clear picture of what was going on and to do everything that needed to be done.

In many ways, the game required you to play it through to failure, many times, to get a better understanding of what was happening and what had to be done. Eventually - well, in theory, as I never got that far - the game would come down to careful management of your robots in some optimal fashion to fix the facility before the angry mob came to kill you. And you could then optimize further to get a better score, or to play at a higher difficulty.

It was a novel concept, and not one often repeated - at least to my knowledge. Maybe because it was so friggin' hard that people got frustrated just getting a handle on what they were supposed to do that they quit. But I think there are ideas there - from the early days of the hobby - which have merit and should be re-explored in modern (indie?) games.

First off - the time loop. Suspended didn't really have one, but as a player you felt like you were in one. The game was very short - it was supposed to be played over and over again until you got it right. What about incorporating that concept right into the game, so that you didn't exactly "lose" the game so much as progress to the next restart.

The other idea was that - in repeating the same scenario - you didn't really control just one character. You controlled several completely independent characters --- the robot. The "you" in Suspended was really a non-entity. You really played the robots - up until the point your frozen meat-suit got sacked. So what about a game of time-loops where you play not just one character trying to "get it right," but several characters, with their interactions compounding on each other. This could be done simultaneously across blocks of turns (which might be confusing), or switched between by player control (as in Suspended), or could be done sequentially - with the formerly player-controlled character becoming an AI-controlled NPC attempting to mimic the player's sequence of actions.

I say attempting to mimic, because the player's currently controlled character could totally change things up - like killing the former player-controlled character and changing that whole timeline.

From a story perspective, this could be a very fun place to explore, too. Do any of the characters have in-game memories of the previous "run?" Do all of them remember the previous runs? Do they know that each other remembers?

And - like my little "duh" moment above - what happens the Next Day? How are they changed? And what happens if there are no "do overs" the next day, but the consequences are almost as dire?

The possibilities seem to be delicious. AND - extra-special bonus - because the game would only simulate one event (say, one day) and a limited number of locations - it could very easily be done by an indie.

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Friday, February 05, 2010
GameBanshee Game Of The Year Awards
RPG site GameBanshee.com has posted its game-of-the-year awards for 2009. They tapped a few folks to help out this year, as this was a REALLY good year for RPG fans.

GameBanshee's 2009 Game of the Year Awards

If you have any bones to pick with the write-up on the indie RPG of the year, then take it out on me. They let me participate, as I don't have any skin in the game this year. But I think a lot of folks here will agree with the choice of the winner. It was the runner-up that was a real challenge. There were a TON of indie RPGs released last year, and many were very high quality. There were at least a half-dozen indie RPGs last year that might have won first or second place in previous years.

And it's only getting better! Or worse, if you are a developer eying the competition, as I am... Since 2007 or so, the "indie RPG" niche has really blossomed in terms of quantity AND quality of games. I wouldn't have believed it in 2004. But then, in 2004 "indie RPGs" largely meant "Roguelikes and Spiderweb Software." And now.... wow. Explosion.

I am thrilled to be involved with it in my tiny way.


My Computers Level Up!
It doesn't seem all that long ago that my old, now defunct, gaming computer was a brand-new, top-of-the-line model built in part to play the then-new RPG Oblivion at full graphical settings. It had two SLI-linked NVidia 7600s (these were, combined, well over a third of the cost of the entire system), liquid cooling, AMD Dual-Core CPU, a "massive" 300 gig HD, and a lot of awesome.

I bought its replacement from the same place I purchased the original, ibuypower.com. This is my third system I've bought from them, and I won't say for sure it'll be my last. They are a budget gaming system shop - not the only one - but they are kind of the "devil you know." My new system - as an emergency replacement - was a bargain-priced $700 system that came with a 1 gig NVidia 9800GT, a 750 gig HD, Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E8500 (2x 3.16 gHz cores), plus the usual odds & ends. Including a mouse, keyboard, speakers + subwoofer, flash media reader-writer (apparently they picked 'em up on clearance and were adding them for something like $1 to systems), DVD R/W, etc. It's nowhere near the bleeding edge, but it runs rings around my old system. I blame, principally, the intel cores running about 30% faster than my old AMD dual-core machine.

After my wife's system had enjoyed an accident during shipping that broke the HD off the mounting rails and bounced it around inside the bay (needless to say, it didn't work anymore when it arrived), I went ahead and sprung for an improved packing option for this budget beast. I didn't want to have to wait for a replacement to anything. This packing option, from what I could tell, was simply one of those insta-pack bags that fill with foam over the main bay area opposite the motherboard, holding the other cards (all one of them, in my case) in place and cushioned. So they had about a 4x markup on the cost of those bags and a minute of a shipper's time to put it in there. Ah, well.

It may have helped keep the loose screw that was rattling around inside the case from flying out and damaging anything during transit. I was far more disappointed in finding that in my case. I guess QC doesn't shake the system to see if it rattles (probably a good thing), and heaven knows I have done that before when building a system. But it didn't fill me with warm fuzzies when I pulled the system out of the box.

Beyond that, however, the new computer seems to work fine. The only other pains I experienced were self-inflicted. I opted to use my old hard drive as the main HD. Lacking any extra mounting rails, I had to use the ones from the old system - which are a little too big. So now I can't close the side-panel on the system until I get new rails (or I get creative with a cutting device). Because the system was so sparse on the inside of the mid-tower, it was easy for me to plug in the second hard drive, and swap cables around to make the old one the default master.

Man, I remember when I had to change pins and plug in much uglier ribbon cables with a twist for the slave system to do this stuff - computers are definitely easier to work with on the inside now!

With that all done, the new system booted and with some adjustments and loading in of new drivers, it looked like my old system. I had to reactivate Windows, Symantec Anti-Virus, and a couple other pieces of software that balked at me changing all my underlying hardware. Unfortunately, one of the programs refused to reactivate due to server issues - Torsion, by Sickhead Games. It's an editing tool for Torque-based development. However, it still let me use it - with only a nag screen at the beginning - so it wasn't a crushing problem. (Update: Sickhead very quickly let me know that they are aware of the problem and are working on resolving it.)

I also had to remember how to set up the secondary hard drive, format it, and give it a drive letter under Windows XP. Yes, I'm still using XP. But a quick Google search refreshed my memory, and it's working great now --- with 720 gigs of space still free!

The new system doesn't have wireless, either... so I was forced (!) to plug actual cables in through my old switch. For my pain, I was rewarded with much faster Internet access, making me wonder why I didn't give up on the wireless-ness on the old system a long time ago.

So - except for the mounting-rail issue and Torsion's activation glitch, I seem to be good to go with the new system. Of COURSE I had to test it out, and I was quite pleased. Everything seemed to run faster. While I didn't notice a much faster frame rate in Left 4 Dead (it already ran very well on the old system), it definitely loaded faster. I blame the CPU.

And - major bonus - Fallout 3 runs on the new system! I never got far past the exit from the vault before, as I was dealing with crashes and hangs that often required a system reboot every 5-10 minutes. I had zero problems with the new system. So it feels like I have a new game to go with my new machine.

The joys of hardware upgrades weren't done there, however. A friend of mine recently upgraded the memory on his antique Dell laptop of the same era as mine. He gave me his old memory cards - which doubled the RAM on my laptop. A quick test (I didn't want to pull myself away from the new desktop) made me feel like I had an all new laptop. Apparently Windows, the anti-virus software, and the various drivers really, really want to combine forces to eat a half-gig of RAM all by themselves. Since that's all the memory the computer had to begin with, it made for a painful experience. Now, however, it is ripping along contentedly. Frayed Knights ran *GREAT* with the full gig of RAM. Previously "problem" zones loaded & lit very quickly. We're talking about about more than an order of magnitude improvement in load times.

The machine even seemed to boot faster. This makes me very happy.

So now I have two zippier computers to work with. Neither are souped-up gaming powerhouses, but they are plenty appropriate for my needs. For now, at least, geek life is good.

(UPDATE: Corrected the specs. It was late at night when I typed those --- apparently my brain had already logged off for the night).


Thursday, February 04, 2010
Game Design - Pulp Fiction - and Games, Part 2
Let's continue on with Lester Dent's pulp fiction formula and gaming. I want to make a few notes before moving forward:

a) I'm not advocating adherence to formula, ESPECIALLY not a formula created for a completely different medium. I'm more interested in understanding why the formula worked, and how some elements might be applied to help make more interesting stories in video games.

b) Dent's formula is intended for pulp-action thrillers, which share many similarities to most game stories, but definitely not all. It's an even looser fit for a comedic game like The Secret of Monkey Island (or Frayed Knights) - but the comparisons are probably still appropriate.

c) A great game and a great story are two different things - and often the goals of story and gameplay are at odds with each other. IMO, the best we can do is find a nice sweet spot somewhere in the vast field between them. But Dent's little formula is far from the only way to tell a good story, and it's certainly not a limiting factor in making a great game. We're digging for ideas here, not criticisms.

What Should Happen First

Dent next talks about what should happen in the first 1500 words. That's about... uh, six pages of text, and about nine minutes of reading time. We'll say ten minutes. The first ten minutes of a game are pretty critical, too. While I give RPGs and adventure games a little more leeway than I do, say, a FPS, the fact remains that if a game hasn't hooked me in within the first ten to twenty minutes, I probably won't play it long enough to enjoy the other 1490 minutes of fabulous story and gameplay it promises.

This also represented the first quarter of a 6,000 word pulp adventure story. So some of these ideas might be more appropriate for something to happen in the first, say, quarter of a game than in the first ten or twenty minutes.

But regardless, there are some valuable nuggets of advice to be mined here. So what advice does Lester Dent give to writers for the first ten minutes of his pulp action story? And do they apply to game stories, especially adventures and RPGs?

Introduce the Hero and Swat Him with Trouble
"First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with."
I don't know if there's a more appropriate tidbit of advice for games to steal. Nevermind that Dent ends sentences with a preposition (I do, too).

While some modern games (I'm looking at YOU, Final Fantasy XII!) might get a little too excited to show off their cool CGI opening sequences to get around to introducing the hero, that's not usually much of a problem.

The part about the menace is a bit more interesting. I don't know if this is usually done in the name of a gentle introduction or what, but too often the real trouble or menace or some other form of compelling need is doled out a little slowly, especially in RPGs. Instead, you find out about rats in Matilda's basement that need to get cleared out if you find the time...

The interesting thing here is that Dent seems to suggest that the hero and the conflict / menace / whatever be introduced almost simultaneously. This may not be the true menace of the overall storyline, but it should be a hint of it. In a variation I've found in some stories (and games), the hero may be completely unaware of the menace - but the audience (reader / player) is not. It's been made clear in an intro sequence or prologue or some sort of foreshadowing that Something Bad is on a collision course with the hero.

I think there are more good examples, at least among commercial CRPGs of the last decade or so, than bad ones. While the use of an amnesiac hero is unfortunately a bit trite on its own, Eschalon: Book 1 opens with a nice personal mystery of his own identity. In Fallout, the Vault Dweller is introduced pretty much simultaneously with the need to locate a replacement water chip. Aveyond starts with a battle between a demon warrior and a priestess, embroiling young Rhen in a rescue and world-shaking matters before she's even old enough to do much about it. Ultima VI starts with the protagonist - the Avatar - kidnapped by gargoyles and about to be made a sacrifice upon an altar before being rescued by old friends - pursued by gargoyles the whole time.

Jumping Into the Fray
"The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)"
It SHOULD go without saying here, but the player (or at least the character) should have a chance to deal directly (but perhaps unknowingly) with the Looming Threat as quickly as possible.

Instead of, say, grinding for XP to take out rats first.

Of course, the player character at this point is probably not quite ready to impact the forces of unpleasantness in any noticeable fashion, but that's besides the point. A token victory, or simply obtaining a clue that can set the player character(s) on the path may be all that is needed.

Character introductions
"Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action."
Okay. I agree with the actual suggestion here, but not necessarily the timing. A long story deals in the characters over time, but having most of the principles introduced in the first quarter of the story is important. This includes the Big Bad - the "Foozle" as Scorpia used to call him. While he may not necessarily need a full-on on-screen introduction, but his presence should be noted.

Persona 3 (which unfortunately overdid the non-interactive or limited interaction sequences at the beginning of the game) handled this pretty well. By the time you get into your first fight, the player has been introduced to the protagonist; future team-mates Yukari Takeba (who appears ready to pull a gun on the protagonist when they first meet - though appearances can be deceiving), Mitsuru Kurijo, and Akihiko Sanada; the "chairman" Shuji Ikutsuki; and the mysterious boy with the annoying voice Pharos - who has two other incarnations throughout the game.

Physical Conflict
"Hero's endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words."
Time for some combat. Or not. The point here is physical conflict... some action. It could be a chase scene, too. Or something action-y, even for a non-action medium like most adventure games. Something exciting.

In my opinion, the take-away here for computer games would be to kill the exposition early on and get to some good interactive action! Especially with fantasy and science-fiction RPGs, there's a tendency to ramble on and on with exposition in the early stages of the game. This comes with attempting to introduce the hero and plot in an unfamiliar world.

But while the exposition is necessary, it doesn't need to be in the form of a front-loaded data-dump. Star Wars opened with a battle with no explanation of who the good guys or bad guys were - the audience picked it up as they went along. Ditto with The Matrix - I had no clue what was going on in that opening Trinity sequence, but I loved what I saw and I was ready to learn more when Trinity made her escape through the telephone. Likewise, I was happy to run along battling guards and robots in Final Fantasy VII and only learn between quick fights who I was and why I was doing it.

A Plot Twist or Reversal
"Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development."
Should a 20+ hour story in a videogame have a plot twist this early into things?

I don't know. I will say that as a player, little surprises throughout the game that shake my expectations can help me retain interest. It doesn't always need to be some big M. Night Shyamalan shock like discovering what really happened to Darth Revan. But Dent provides a great example about the hero trying to rescue somebody named Eloise who can explain the secret behind the sinister events... only to find out that Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey.

This sounds much more satisfying and interesting twist than, "But our princess is in another castle!"

So - a twist in the first ten minutes? It might be early, but it may not always be too early... I'd suggest some good surprise or twist before the first hour mark is highly recommended. Hey - I was totally not expecting what happened to Rhen in Aveyond right after she rescued the princess... but that surprise was probably what hooked me on the game.

The First Few Minutes Checklist
"SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?"
I think Dent's questions here are appropriate as-is in any game story in the first ten (or at least twenty) minutes. Interestingly, the first question applies to the player - is there a mystery to intrigue or at least interest him or her? The second question applies to the player's character - are they in some kind of personal danger - from a life-threatening pursuit to the danger of being sent to military school? And the third question is simply checking the integrity of the plot.

So what's your take so far? Can you think of other examples or applications? Is this even an interesting exercise? Does it make you look at any of your favorite games differently?


Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Time to Cast "Transmute Blog"
As you may have deduced by the little toolbar on the top of the blog, Tales of the Rampant Coyote has been a blogger-based blog for the five-and-a-half years of its existence. And - may I add a tangent - HOLY CRAP how have I been doing this so long?

Anyway, I'm among the 0.5% of people using Blogger who used their FTP publishing system to publish the blog to my own website. It seemed like a clever idea at the time... they were part of Google and not going away anytime soon, I wouldn't have to worry about maintaining and updating my own software, they could worry about security issues, they maintain the database, backups, etc.

But - alas - Blogger has decided to cancel their support of FTP-based publishing. And to be honest --- at over 1700 posts, the blog has become a bit unruly for maintenance. After all, if I make a change to the page template, it has to update 1700 pages to make the changes. It's not a very scalable solution.

And so, not with a heavy heart but rather a heart stricken by minor panic, I have to decide what to do next.

Lest you fear, I have no intention of letting the blog go away. That's not even on the table. I have no idea why you folks subject yourselves to the torture of my endlessly verbose ruminations, but for some reason you do. It's not like I'm some kind of ivory-tower expert on my subjects... in general, you guys collectively know a lot more about what I'm writing about than I do. I learn from our discussions. This has been a great experience for me, and I selfishly want to continue it.

Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as web-savvy as I should be, nor am I up-to-speed on the latest blog solutions out there. Which is why I'm discussing this out loud here on the blog, in hopes that some of you who know much more about it than I might chime in with free advice.

Now, I could go ahead and create a new domain and go through Blogger's own web servers. I'm a little concerned about splitting up my domain like that. Originally, the whole point of the blog was to build up content and traffic for the "real" website, Rampant Games. Granted, over time, Tales of the Rampant Coyote has gained a life of its own. But still... I'm about the games.

Assuming I don't want to do a massive site relocation (although there's definitely the chance the URL might change), something like WordPress might fill the bill. I'm concerned about keeping that one updated, however - especially when the various widgets & so forth that I'd want to make / use might get in the way of easy updates.

I have looked at software like Drupal in the past, but I wasn't pleased with what I saw. It seemed like too much work, not enough flexibility.

It would be NICE to be able to tie the blog (and comments, and logins) directly with the Rampant Games Forums. That's PHP BB. There's usually an endless spam-battle going on there, but I'd love to see tighter integration.

As far as the current blog - I've got way too many links over the last five years to nuke the existing pages. So the current blog will stay, maybe with one last hurrah massive update to direct all the pages to the "new" blog. I may re-publish the "best of" pages with the new blog software over time (while leaving the old pages intact), although it'd be nice to magically migrate the whole thing over to the new system. And while I'm wishing, I'd also like a million dollars. And a pony.

Anyway- so while I'm in deep data-gathering mode, I thought I'd solicit opinions here. After all, you guys & gals are the people I'm writing for. Opinions / suggestions / bits of advice?
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
Game Design: Pulp Fiction - And Games, Part 1
A few weeks ago, I came across an old article by Lester Dent (aka "Kenneth Robeson"), creator of the pulp action hero Doc Savage. His article was about how to write a 6000 word pulp story that will sell. Or would sell, if the era of the pulp magazine wasn't a half-century dead-and-buried.

Dent made no bones about calling his method a formula. Maybe we can simply call it "highly structured." But within this tight structure, there is not only plenty of room for creativity and craftsmanship... it is absolutely required. If anything, Dent's formula was simply a pattern to present novelty in a gripping but standardized manner.

As I was mulling over some of my favorite RPGs and adventure games, and distinguishing what made them become my favorites while others never quite pulled me in, I realized that they often shared a few traits in common with Dent's formulaic yarns. I doubt any game designer ever used Dent's formula and tried to adapt it to their games, but I think they had a similar handle on what makes a gripping story, and how to present it to the player quickly so that they are sucked into the game world quickly and feel compelled to see it through to the conclusion.

I wonder how one might apply something like Dent's pulp story formula to stories in computer games. Specifically RPGs and adventure games, as those are kinda house specialties here at Tales of the Rampant Coyote. Not that I'm advocating any kind of assembly-line approach to story-making for games. But - frankly - a lot of games (including many, many indie games) are weak in the story department. Or, rather, they may have good stories, but their presentation is weak. Speaking for myself here - I know I can use any crutch or cheat-sheet that I can find, so I'm really just thinking aloud here.

There's no good way to map a linear storytelling methodology to what should be a non-linear medium, but maybe some cool ideas could be borrowed here and applied to make a better game. Or at least a better game story. I'm going to break this out into a multi-part series simply because there's a lot to chew on.

On Making an Interesting Premise

I think that one of the cardinal sins of an RPG is to be generic. Once upon a time, the scarcity of similar games let them get away with it. But so many games - including indie games - serve up a big ol' rambling dish of backstory without anything to really set them apart. You are introduced as generic hero (or heroes) to play - perhaps of your own making - and then face some simple, generic quests to start out your experience and familiarize yourself with the game.

And all this time I, as a player, wonder why I should care. Why is this? Why can't games kick us in the pants right off the bat? It's not like it hasn't been done several times before in RPGs.

First of all - a good story needs an interesting foundation. The basic plot and setting on which everything else hangs.

Dent suggests four unique elements to form the foundation of the story. I doubt he intended these to be the only four, but they were what he worked with. Dent suggests 1) A unique murder method for the villain, 2) A unique item the villain is seeking, 3) A unique locale, and 4) Some kind of menace to hang over the hero like a cloud. Dent says having one of these elements is nice, two is better, and having three would be "swell."

Okay - so it's gimmicky. So what?

A Different Locale

In fantasy games and space opera, coming up with something truly 'different' can be challenging. Different is sort of the standard in this genre. And so we end up with a lot of games in meaningless variants of some fantasy world, with some war going on in the background between good and evil. Ho-hum.

But there are some good examples out there. In Knights of the Old Republic,you wake up in a space ship in the middle of a battle, set in the Star Wars universe in an era long before the movies! And how about Planescape: Torment? You don't get much more unique than that. Sure, it was a licensed setting (like Star Wars), but it wasn't something the average computer RPG player had experienced before. And in a genre where high fantasy and incredible magic is the rule, going more down-to-earth and realistic may actually be unique. I actually really enjoyed the medieval towns of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption because of their verisimilitude. I've never studied what medieval Prague was like, but the heavy Catholic influence and realistic, historical touches made the fantastic elements really pop.

And I guess it should be mentioned that with RPGs in particular (Adventure Games typically don't seem to have this problem), simply breaking from a Tolkienesque fantasy world can be pretty unique in its own right. A game set in Tsarist Russia or steampunk Victorian England or some other alternate-historical location might not need much more to make it feel unique. Making it marketable is another question.

A Different Murder Method or Different Villain Objective

How about the murder thing, or the villain's sought-after item? This is surprisingly more challenging in a fantasy or SF world where anything is possible with little explanation. A wizard did it. Wizards can do anything! Well, a wizard, or an engineer remodulating the phase-coupling on the sensor dish array and routing it through the phaser banks. But if a game story writer resists the urge to hand-wave it away, it's still possible.

Take Ultima VII - The Black Gate. You start out with a strange, ritualistic killing to solve. The murder isn't really the focus of the story, but it (and murders like it) help drive the hunt for the killers, and the larger plot surrounding them. Adventure games, again, tend to do better here, as the solving of mysteries (in the form of puzzles) forms a stronger basis for the genre. And they aren't afraid to get a little more silly.

In fantastic or high-SF environments, the theft or pursuit of something moderately mundane can be exceptional. The gold, jewels, and magical Sword of Universal Annihilation get left behind, but poor Simple Simon was turned into a duck and his apple pie was stolen. The first of a rash of pie-thefts. That's interesting! Weird, but interesting.

A Menace Which is to Hang Over the Hero Like a Cloud

Dent doesn't elaborate on this, but I take this to mean some kind of looming, direct and personal threat to the hero. Not just a generic threat to the kingdom or world at large, but a personal danger to the hero himself or those with whom he (or she) is closest. Something that compels action.

There are plenty of decent examples of this. The Vault needs a replacement water chip in 150 days or it will fail. Sephiroth slays Aeris. Bastila is kidnapped and tortured to serve the Sith. Gabriel Knight suspects the recent apparently voodoo-related murders are linked to the nightmares that have plagued him all his life. The Avatar is used by the Guardian to find (and destroy) a threat to his evil plan. The Dark Savant personally begins hunting down the party. LeChuck is going to marry Elaine unless Guybrush does something!

This is so much more satisfying to me than a story with a threat that might as well be addressed, "to whom it may concern." If my custom party of adventurers don't make it to the end, anybody else could come in behind me and finish the job.

So there are some concrete examples of how a game's story might be made to help it stand out among the competition. And believe me, with so many indie RPGs coming out these days, there's plenty of competition. Next time I will talk a little more about Dent's story structure, and how more pieces of his "formula" might be applied by designers and story writers.

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Monday, February 01, 2010
Global Game Jam - Utah - Pics From the Creative Crucible
They had 48 hours to change the world...

This weekend was the 2010 Global Game Jam. All around the world, video game heroes - the real ones, not the ones made of pixels - holed themselves up for 48 hours to create video games - start to finish. The tight time constraints meant the games would necessarily be small, focused, and likely experimental to take advantage of a very limited array of mechanics and content.

I did not participate. But I did drop by to distract the participants and get some pictures at about the 24-hour point. The teams were often surrounded by half-empty containers of food and energy drinks. They had that wild all-nighter look to them. They were, in some cases, looking a little bit on the stressed and harried side. As they were at the halfway mark, they were generally at a very irritating part in game development: Nothing was fully WORKING yet, the wild dreams of the early hours were getting battered in the realities of schedule, and everyone seemed to be chewing on their own difficulties and challenges while acutely aware of the ticking of the clock.

But they were all working their butts off to try and do something --- cool. To be part of something awesome. And to create something great. Many of the game jammers were professionals, but they all embodied the indie spirit, and were making games for the love of games. They had no funding, no expectation of reward - but they sacrificed an entire weekend to make a game.

Here are snapshots of a tiny moment from some (most? all?) of the teams in their efforts this weekend at the Salt Lake location.

The Dust Bunnies team was having to make some major changes to their design when I showed up. They were hashing out some hard choices of what to salvage and how.

Maid In Russia is an adventure-style game of cold-war era espionage. And here it is in development:

The two-man (well, it was supposed to be 3-man) team of Silent Raid - a top-down - uh, space-sneaker game. You are infiltrating space pirates. Which means you are like a space ninja disguised as a space pirate. Or something.

The team behind Treausure Raiders included familiar faces from both Utah Indie Night and my former employer. These guys were making the gutsy move of making their game for the XBox 360 via XNA.

The Maid Man (later renamed "Free Towels," I understand) team - including many NinjaBee folks - divvy up the sandwiches for the closest thing that would count for a lunch break. No real "break" involved.

Mike Nielsen (who also does music for Frayed Knights and Apocalypse Cow) works on designing a level for Maid Man / Free Towels.

The team of Ant Thieves. It's a game about being a thief. And an ant. I think.

Some folks - like the organizers - played games in a support role rather than making games. I was glad to see Magic: The Gathering remains popular.


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