Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

From Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Demanded

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 11, 2013

The ideas people have come up with for completely useless psychic powers yesterday was a source of amusement all day long. Thank you! Three winners have been emailed with instructions for claiming their prizes. Thank you to everybody who has participated so far.  And a big thank-you to the game developers who have contributed copies of their games! I hope you guys will continue to support them with current and future projects, as well.

The sale on Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon ends Monday – ish, depending on your time zone, so be sure and check out the game.  It’s available at that link (sales handled via BMT Micro), and through Desura, if you prefer. Don’t miss out!

I was reading this editorial about Original Sin and the current state of RPGs, and it coincided with some experiences I’ve been having at The Day Job. As some of you know, my day job is making simulators. Crane simulators.  Back when I first started my career at SingleTrac, making games for the not-yet-released Sony Playstation, most of the guys there had come over from the simulator industry (Evans & Sutherland). They told me about their experience making simulators, and noted that as the graphics improved, their customers became more demanding. When everything seemed more cartoony and “plastic,” nobody complained about the runway lights being the wrong shade of a color. But as things started getting closer to photorealistic, things that had been more than adequate with their more abstract representation were suddenly deficient  when they’d been improved!

We’re experiencing a bit of that at the day job too, although not with the graphics so much as the overall fidelity of the simulators. As we’ve increased the realism, our customers have stepped up their expectations. Models and behaviors that have been fine for years are suddenly inadequate because they stand in contrast to other systems that are more realistically modeled.

We see this in games, too, and it goes beyond the “uncanny valley” problem (though it is related). Actually, one of the best explanations of this for me came from the book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud. I highly recommend the book for *ANYONE* doing game development. What really happens is this: As art (or the game) becomes more abstract, we tend to project our own details into it. It can stand in better for whatever the viewer (or player) wants or expects it to be. It’s more of an empty vessel. As it becomes more realistic and detailed, it becomes more literal. It begins to come with its own baggage, and is no longer as suited for projection.

ff4_shotIn a sense – and this is my interpretation – as it leaves less to the imagination, we are no longer encouraged to invest our own imagination into it. And thus the more abstract work can meet our expectations better because we literally fill in those expectations ourselves.

Which is more satisfying? More engaging? More compelling? And which offers the better gameplay experience?

It really depends. The screenshot to the left  can represent a pretty thrilling and enjoyable fight scene, especially when the player is fully focused and “into” the game. The graphics are largely representational, and the “real” action is probably taking place inside the player’s mind.

Compare that to… well… this:


As a gamer, which one would you rather play? Lacking any other data, my first instinct would be to go with the latter. That’s what I’d think that first screen was “supposed” to look like. But in the second screen, any failures to represent things perfectly is going to detract substantially from the experience. If the guy’s weapon animates through his body, or the collision gets a little wonky in the environment, or the bad guys don’t respond in what I think is “properly” from my hits, it’s going to pull me out of the experience. Will my imagination “fill in” for the insufficient or “wrong” details? Probably not. It’s not been engaged to that level. I guess the game is mostly being played on the screen, not in my head.

Consequently, as a developer, most of your time has to be spent preventing those distractions rather than implementing really cool new systems. Because a new system is going to usually come at an enormous cost to make sure it keeps the overall experience seamless. It’s not just graphics. Voice-overs are another sore point for many games (ESPECIALLY RPGs). They impose quite stringent limitations on dialog, story flexibility, and design flexibility during development.

This isn’t all “bad.” I gotta admit – fighting a dragon in Skyrim was one of those high points in gaming for me. And yeah, exploring the ruins of Washington DC (where I used to live) in full 3D glory in Fallout 3 was extremely cool. But I can also go back and have a blast playing Might & Magic I (once I figured out my way through the 1980s interface) or the original 2D Fallout. It’s tough to say which is “better.” But I think one of the side-effects of the indie revolution is that gamers are re-discovering some of the joys and advantages that can come from simpler representations of game worlds. A lot of that detail and effort can go to make more interesting things happen.  Like FTL – which would have been very difficult to make as a realistic space combat ‘simulator’.

I think the gaming world is big enough now that we can enjoy the wider scope of both approaches.


Okay, guys. Today’s game is an obscure recent title by Califer games, called March to the Moon.  As we were talking hybrid games the other day, this one came up – a top-down shooter blended with RPG concepts. Curtis, the guy behind this, is a friend, former coworker in the scary mainstream games industry, and a local here in Utah. March to the Moon is a simple, fun concept with full-on embrace of “programmer graphics” for maximum cheese factor.  You start out by clearing out a bar’s basement of rats – something that should make Matt Barton very happy – and progress onwards to a full scale invasion. By… uh… just about everything.

What, you ask, must you do to obtain this rare gem?

Why, leave a comment! If perchance you already own the game, or don’t want it (why not?!?!?!), you can add “N/G” (No Game) to your comment.

If you need something more specific to comment on, how’s this?

I frequently maintain that we have hit the “law of diminishing returns” on graphics a few years ago. This means that the amount of effort needed to provide a marginal increase in graphics quality exceeds its utility or value. The efforts to provide new control experiences (Kinect, the Wii’s controller, etc.) suggests the mainstream game companies sense this to.  So – if graphics are no longer the big mountain to climb anymore, what’s the next great frontier that should be or will be pushed in gaming? Audio? More work on controls? “True” 3D, Occulus Rift style? Direct neural interfaces? Smell-o-vision? AI-generated narrative? Greater frontiers in dynamic content (a good way to take advantage of all that 3D power of today’s machines)?

See ya in the comments section. And have fun!

Filed Under: Art, Deals, Rampant Games - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • McNutcase said,

    I’m hoping for much better AI in games. Graphics have definitely plateaued for me; I’m now preferring games that consciously aim away from photo-realism, simply because there’s less to pull me out of the game when it’s being obviously a game. AI, though, definitely needs significant work to match my hopes and dreams. It may not be a glamorous thing that can also be easily reduced to numbers the way graphical detail is, but it’s such a big part of the experience that it deserves the developers’ full attention.

  • Tesh said,

    Syl has a great article up that touches on this same phenomena (at least partially) when it comes to storytelling in MMOs. I see it in art, since I’m an artist, but it tends to apply in pretty much all creative endeavors where you can leverage the audience’s internal processing, which is *way* more powerful than a computer.


  • SusanTheCat said,

    Dynamic Story/Plot line. The Story evolves as the player interacts with it. If the player focuses on the “spy” parts of the story, the plot will expand on those points. If the player focuses instead on the “rescue kitten from tree”, then the spy parts will be simplified and more rescue the kitten parts will be added.


  • Deft said,


    Your reference in Scott McCloud’s book also seem’s applicable to the book-to-movie (or book-to-game, .. yes, even game-to-movie) media experience,

    How many times have the production or plot or characters in a movie let down a hard-core reader because they don’t even compare to what the reader’s imagination can produce?

  • Dan Barber said,


    I don’t know if you ever read the book Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes but it would actually posit that Smell-o-Vision, or at least an attempt to engage olfactory senses could be very interesting. It would also argue that the use of advanced holographic images could make for some interesting advances in game play. I think Star Trek’s use of a holodeck makes somewhat similar arguments (as well as advanced uses of energy fields).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Actually, I was talking with Curtis about Dream Park just the other day. We were talking about mash-ups, and he joked about mashing an RPG with an RPG, and I told him about the Dream Park dice-and-paper RPG (by Mike Pondsmith, author of the Cyberpunk system that CD Projekt Red is making into a game). You play people who play RPGs at the park. Wild stuff. 🙂 I need to go back and re-read the books. One thing I found amusing was that as the trilogy progressed, the technology actually seemed to revert to more realistic, lower-tech solutions.

  • McTeddy said,


    Should be done:

    Removing the designer from the players experience and allowing people to play their own game. Obviously, I don’t mean fire all designers, but I shouldn’t be limited to playing the way another person wants.

    If I want to be a pacifist who hates guns… I shouldn’t be stopped by invisible walls until I kill every living thing. Why should I be forced to walk in the front door and fight a hundred men… when the game is already programmed to let me just sniping the leader from the window.

    Down with this scripted crap and up with LET ME PLAY MY GAME!

    What WILL be done:
    Enhanced realism of graphic violence. Limbs will be blown off and pieces of the body will realistically tear off in the most grotesque way possible.

    More developer commentary in games. You’ll be forced to torture and kill so that the developers can “subtly” spread the message that violence is bad with a NPC at the end saying “Violence is bad, you are a terrible person!” Combine this with more female elves and homosexual dwarves that will have quest lines to prove that everyone should be treated equal. (Note: I fully agree with the points, but for the love of god developers should TRY to be clever and subtle like a talented writer… but yeah… THATS not gonna happen)

    New Anti-Piracy Measures of course. You may only use your game on a specific machine that tests your DNA to make sure that you are in fact… you. Meanwhile, the EA execs will ask why people feel upset about it.

    And I wonder why people call me a pessimist…

  • Myrkrel said,

    “Understanding Comics” is indeed an awesome book – useful insight for anyone working in a visual medium.

    As for new advances to explore beyond graphical realism – I would love to see non-combat world / object interactivity pushed much further. This is one reason I’m excited about Divinity: Original Sin and Shroud of the Avatar – both of which will supposedly carry Ultima VII-level interactivity into modern engines.

    We have so much computing power now it would be great to see some interesting simulationism come out of it, beyond just blowing things up.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I’ll add to the chorus singing the praises of Understanding Comics is wonderful. My boss at one of my early jobs in software development gave it to me, and I was confused at first, but it made sense once I got into it.

    As for the future, I’m going to have to say that AI for obvious reasons. I think presenting characters with believable reactions will be an amazing advancement for game development and open up new forms of gameplay. Imagine Bioshock Infinite where every major character was a full-featured as Elizabeth was, and the answer to nearly every situation doesn’t necessarily have to come flying out of a gun.

    Excites me to think about it, which is why I’m spending my professional time trying to see that become a reality.

  • Maklak said,

    > So – if graphics are no longer the big mountain to climb anymore, what’s the next great frontier that should be or will be pushed in gaming?

    Hard to say, really. Graphics will definitely be pushed to the limits for a while longer.

    > Audio?
    Stereo is good enough for most people and for others there is surround. The quality of samples can be improved a bit, but there is law of diminishing returns at work here too.

    > More work on controls?
    Keyboard and mouse are the best controllers ever. I’ve seen a demonstration of running a business application with a Kinect controller and I don’t think this is the way.

    > “True” 3D, Occulus Rift style?
    I prefer a monitor, but this is possible. The “Doom” guy tried and hit some technical difficulties, but this is doable if big companies put their money to it.

    > Direct neural interfaces?
    I’d rather not. Too much potential for nightmarish thought control.

    > Smell-o-vision?
    I don’t want my computer to smell of blood and vomit. In fact I don’t want it to smell at all.

    > AI-generated narrative? Greater frontiers in dynamic content (a good way to take advantage of all that 3D power of today’s machines)?
    I’d welcome these, but they are hard to do. A big world with partially procedural content, that was then looked at by designers is better than a fully randomized approach ,like in Dwarf Fortress, because all players get a similar experience and there can be a wiki with all the locations for NPCs, items and the like.

    What I’d like for future games to focus on, is more simulation and AI and fewer scripting and artificial constraints. Also, interactivity and player freedom, like in Ultima Online. But this is hard and is probably not going to happen.

  • Maklak said,

    > Audio.
    Actually a good speech synthesizer would do wonders for the cost of voice-overs.

  • Olly said,

    In a perfect future world I’d like to see the actual original vision of the designers get fully translated into games without any corporate/boardroom interruptions. Alternatively I’d like to see games that, when released, fully match up to all of the pre-release media hype and promises.

  • Filling in the Gaps | Tish Tosh Tesh said,

    […] there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded.  The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd […]