Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Dem Indie Game Dev Blues

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 24, 2014

When I was a kid, I thought making games for a living was a dream job. I mean, I loved games. And while I wasn’t good at it (except in my parent’s eyes, I guess), I taught myself to program well enough to make games. I loved doing that. I’d come home from the arcade and try to replicate (usually not too successfully) the games I’d played. With, of course, my own twists and weird ideas.

And the idea of getting paid to do this? Unreal! That would be awesome!

The dream came true. But after getting my first job as a professional, full-time game developer, I discovered the reality wasn’t quite what I imagined. It wasn’t all fun and games. It was crazy hours, sometimes testy nerves, office politics, and stress. It was a lot of very hard work. I still consider it a dream job, but the reality is that the word “job” has more emphasis. I was being paid to make someone else’s games.

I didn’t really have a concept for “indie” back then, but the idea of breaking free from the publisher-driven market, to make your own games the way you wanted to make them without anybody telling you “no,” sounded amazing. It was how making games ought to be.

Well, again, reality is something of a bear. Everything I’d imagined was technically true, but there have been a ton of rough edges and surprises in store. Again, it’s not all fun and games. It’s still hard work, disappointment, frustration, stress, etc.

Indies don’t have it easy. Sales aren’t what we’d expected / hoped for. We spend hours trying to hunt down bugs that testers encounter that we cannot replicate. Our servers go down on the day of release. We get rejected or ignored by the press. Or maybe a major site that actually gives us the time of day gives our game a poor review. We get hate mail. It all comes with the territory. If you are a full-time indie, it comes with the additional stress of your life – or at least livelihood – depending on it.

Sometimes it’s easy to get depressed or brood over it, trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong – why some guy with a crap game managed to get onto Steam and make as much as you make in a year in a single week.

Yeah, I don’t make a living as an indie. As much as I’d like to transition over to just making games, for now I consider it a good thing. I do have a good job (hopefully that remains true… we’re in a lean period right now) that pays pretty well, and that actually allows me to experiment on the indie front, and not have to wake up in a cold sweat at night wondering whether or not I’ll be able to make my mortgage payment next month because the game is delayed or not selling great.

Maybe that hinders me, because I’m not hungry enough. My games are profitable, as long as you are only counting my hard costs.I still aspire to make something approaching minimum wage on my time. It’s a business that makes me (a little bit of) money, as opposed to a hobby that costs me money. \

In that respect, I also consider myself lucky, though I do have those black evenings where I’m swearing at the walls and wondering what I’m doing wrong and cursing at myself, or my luck, my genre, or the ways the industry seems to be headed that I’m not happy with. I realize I’m doing better than most indies out there, although I am in a totally different league orders of magnitude down the scale from the more successful ones. I keep telling myself that the key is persistence, but there’s no guarantee in that. I know some very persistent indies who even had some lucky breaks (getting on Steam, getting in a Humble Bundle) who are still having trouble making rent.

There’s no shortcut or easy path. What worked for a successful company a year ago may not work for most of the host of imitators today. That’s just the way it goes.

Even the term “indie” has been stretched beyond comprehension. I admit it, and I’m still fond of the term. It’s like describing music as “not classical” now. There are tons of companies producing games now that might technically be “indie” but they do not embody the spirit of the term. Indie was originally a marginal end-run around the traditional publishing model that rules the industry with an iron fist. I won’t say that model has been marginalized, because it’s still the biggest game in town. But it’s no longer quite the 800-pound gorilla it once was. It’s now merely the biggest of many approaches. It’s never been easy to truly define “indie,” and it’s only grown more complicated.  Indie is an axis, like a primary color. While it can be difficult saying which of a shade of yellow versus violet is “more green,” it doesn’t invalidate the existence of green. There are lots of folks out there laboring away in exactly the same way we’ve called “indie” for years.

And for these people, working at it in the clearly “indie”-esque way, the pot of gold may seem eternally moving out of reach with the rainbow. But with so few guarantees and so many complications and frustrations, it really keeps coming down to the same thing that motivated their predecessors in the dark ages of the mainframes and 6502s:

The love of the games.

Yeah, it’s tough to be satisfied with this intrinsic motivation when you are spending a couple thousand dollars of hard-earned cash on artwork and tools and keeping a website up and running, and you end up with only a few dozen people actually playing your game. It’s brutal. But in my mind, ultimately, that’s where our passion has to be. We have to simply love what we’re doing enough to keep at it, improving our skills in both making and promoting our games, sticking with it in spite of only incremental (and not always consistent) improvements. There’s got to be enough passion to get through the drudgery and hard work and times where making the game isn’t all “fun and games.”

It’s how, in spite of everything, we’ll win in the end.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

IGF Winners for 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 21, 2014

I’m sad to say I haven’t played any of the IGF winners this year. I’ve definitely heard many of their names quite a bit – Risk of Rain, The Stanley Parable, and Papers, Please have kinda been everywhere over the last few months. I suddenly feel so out-of-touch.

Or maybe I’m just channeling my inner hipster, and avoiding those games that are already ‘cool’ or something…

Papers, Please takes the grand prize at 16th annual IGF Awards

Congratulations to all the winners (and finalists).

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Game Engines Plunge in Price

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 20, 2014

Remember what I said Monday about announcements coming this week about “ways to make / distribute games more cheaply and efficiently?”

Yeah. Well, two of the big game engines – Unreal and CryEngine – have dropped their licensing costs through the floor. Following suit with Unity’s subscription model, Unreal is now charging $19 / month + 5% royalties for full access and source code. CryEngine has likewise changed to a “subscription” model, for almost half that price ($9.90 / month) with no royalties for access to the commercial version of the engine. No word on source code for this one, however.

In the meantime, Unity hasn’t really changed its pricing (yet), but the latest feature demo shows that they are continuing to shoot for being a “AAA”- worthy engine:

We’re in a different world today. There’s more and more overlap, and in this case, the indies are benefiting. Yay!

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Exploring Might & Magic X Legacy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 19, 2014

MMXL_GiantSpiderSometimes when you say, “Old-school RPG,” I think of games like The Bard’s Tale I, where you would get clobbered by villagers as soon as you left the guild. Or more primitive games that really had simplistic rules and not much by way of gameplay or graphics. On the flip side, you get the endless tutorials, hand-holding, of way too many modern mainstream RPGs. Often it feels like the training wheels never really come off.

Fortunately, I haven’t played many games recently that put you on too much of a ‘bunny slope’ when you start out. That’s a good thing, although it may be simply my own selection as opposed to a change in trends. I just remember a few years ago – probably around the time I was playing Neverwinter Nights 2 and Final Fantasy XII and a couple of minor MMORPGs – that commercial RPGs had become a just another flavor of action-game that started out holding your hand and never quite let it go.

Playing Might & Magic X: Legacy over the last few days (in little morsels of time) has been pretty satisfying. It feels like they strike a good balance between old-school and modern. The earliest combats in MMXL (which is, what, 2040 in Roman numerals?) has you going up against poisonous spiders, forcing you to decide between taking a turn to attack or to consume the (fortunately plentiful) poison cure. My initial thought was, “Are you sure this is a good thing? Hitting the player with the complication of poison as they are first learning combat?” But for me, it was pretty fun.

While they have streamlined it a bit from the old days, it’s not bad. The first few levels gradually open things up, and there is a pop-up help message that warns you that its easy to wander off into places in the world that are out of your league. But it doesn’t stop you, and it doesn’t hold your hand (much) after the first couple of quests.

The tutorial is in the form of an optional guided tour of the starting city, and there’s no combat for the first little bit. I really appreciate this. To me, role-playing games are as much about exploring and interacting with the world as fighting, and it feels like too many AAA RPGs of the last fifteen years or so have been about interminable talky scenes followed by waves and waves of combat. Instead, you are dropped off in a city that’s nowhere near your original goal, with your party members probably as overwhelmed as you feel as a player at first. While there’s a suggestion from the tour guide that you’ll want to eventually visit the barracks, the first order of business is still to explore. See what the world has to offer.

MMX-LegacyNow, I admit that the backstory so far about betraying angels and dragons and the political background leaves me pretty cold. There’s a good chance I’ll eventually give a crap about it, when I personally become embroiled in the events, but for right now its background noise. I’m more interested in what kind of treasure might be hidden in the nearby dungeons.

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the grid-based movement, but I don’t dislike it, either. What it really does do is bring back the old habits and skills from the late 1980s and early 1990s – though with the kinds of games I’ve been playing lately, I can’t say those skills are all that old now, either.

I hope it does very well and that other games continue this trend. Like I keep saying – I think that the RPG genre abandoned some really promising ideas back in the 1990s to pursue some semi-homogenized paths, and it’s high time we went back and explored what could be done with a few of these old gaming concepts with new technology, new ideas, and new designers.

Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

GOG.com Embraces the Penguin

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2014

GOG.COM has announced it is working on Linux support for much of its expanding library.

For very old games running in DOSBox, this should be no problem. Newer games can be an issue, unless they already support Linux.

I can read this a couple of ways. First of all, like Mac support, it’s simply a way to capture a few more sales from platforms that have traditionally not enjoyed the most stellar of game support. All by itself, this is a good thing.

But – consider that Steam is going big on Linux, too, including (but not limited to) the “Steam Machine” specifications.

Microsoft has repeatedly telegraphed that they want to lock down their operating system, so they can control and take a piece of the revenue of every application released for Windows. They’ve had trouble going down this route without shooting themselves in the foot, but it is clearly a goal. They want their own app store.

My own conclusion from that was not that Windows would no longer be a viable platform for me, but that I cannot depend on it, and should go with an eye towards other platforms. It seems that was Gabe Newell’s take on things, too… only a bit more strongly. Could GOG.com also be looking at a seismic shift in the near future? Not so confident about Windows 9 being a full apology to PC users?

I’m a PC gamer, but that doesn’t mean I’m a Windows gamer. That’s just where I hang my hat. I was playing tons of games on the Commodore 64, in DOS, and done quite a few hours of gaming on the Amiga and Mac. Windows has been where the games are, so I’ve gone that direction. If that changes, I’ll change too.

But in the meantime, I’m still on Windows 7.

Filed Under: General - Comments: Read the First Comment

GDC 2014 Begins Today…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 17, 2014

It’s been a long time since I last went to GDC (I can’t really afford it on my own right now), but I still miss it. I expect a great deal of game development news and announcements over the next three days.

How all this will effect us as gamers remains to be seen. Most of the time these announcements are more along the lines of “ways to make / distribute games more cheaply and efficiently” and “new ways to charge your customers.” It’s also a good way to get an idea of emerging and mature trends in the game dev community, which are upstream of the gamers and consumers.

My joke back when I was going regularly was that GDC was “30% educational and 70% inspirational” – while it there were plenty of opportunities to learn from seasoned veterans and pick up new ideas, a big part of it was simply feeling part of the community, seeing what other people were doing, and being reminded of what excited you about game development in the first place.

And of course, for a fanboy like me, it was always pretty awesome to walk down the halls and see the people I’d only seen pictures of in magazines before. I was fortunate to be able to go just as it was transitioning into the much bigger event that it is now – my first year, it still held some of the trappings of  the old, more intimate conference. They still published name and contact information for all of the attendees in the proceedings (a practice which annoyed a lot of their employers – and which was only possible back when there were not that many attendees).

Ah, well. Here’s to another year of experiencing the conference vicariously!

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Aldorlea Games’ Book of Legends – now on Steam and half-off

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 16, 2014

Long-time indie RPG developer Aldorlea Games has released – through a publisher (!) the game “Book of Legends” on Steam. It’s half-off until Friday, so if you are interested, I’d recommend snagging it soon.

thebookoflegends01The Book of Legends on Steam

Indinera Falls seems to suffer from a similar problem as I do – not knowing when to quit when it comes to packing RPGs full of stuff. The game is a stand-alone adventure advertising:

  • Up to 60 hours of gameplay
  • 125 different spells
  • 100 different enemies
  • The ability to split the party
  • 30 playable characters

And so on. So if you like the “16-bit JRPG” style (not that this is 16-bit or from Japan), check it out, and let us know what you think. I haven’t played it yet, myself, but I’ve played many of Aldorlea’s games and enjoyed them in the past.

Congrats to Aldorlea! While they went through a publisher on this one, it’s their first game on Steam!

Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: Be the First to Comment

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Interesting Decisions

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 14, 2014

This game design quote comes from Bruce Shelly, a designer of Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires fame, from the way-back machine of 2001… and, as it is the season, it’s from GDC.

“Presenting the player with interesting and well-paced decisions is the rocket science of game design. Players have fun when they are interested in the decisions they are making, when they are kept absorbed by the pacing of the required decisions, and when they feel a sense of reward and accomplishment as good decisions are made. When the required decisions are too often trivial or random, fun sags. You risk boring the player and driving him/her out of the game. The Age of Empires games demonstrated that our customers consider automating trivial activities (queues, waypoints) a positive improvement.

“Good pacing can heighten interest in decision making. Real-time games have an inherent advantage vs. turn-based games because the continual ticking of the game clock adds a sense of desperation. If the player has many reasonable decisions to deal with but time to make only a few, everything being considered becomes much more interesting.

“When considering a new feature for a game, apply the interesting decision test. Is this new element or twist going to add an interesting decision to what the player is doing? If the answer is not a strong ‘yes,’ leave it out.”

Notice that he said “inherent advantage,” not “inherent superiority.”

He’s definitely channeling Sid Meier here (naturally), but while it is a fundamentally simple concept in theory, it can be very challenging to implement in practice.

Filed Under: Design, Quote of the Week - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Why Indie Is Important…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 13, 2014

I’m not going to offer much commentary here, and it’s a big article. From my perspective, this is a story about exactly why there is such a thing as “indie” – bypassing the gatekeepers, the publishers and manufacturers, as much as possible. Because, simply put, if your business is beholden to another that doesn’t have a need to keep your best interest in mind, then that’s one more great big thing that can go wrong even if everything else is perfect. Game studios face enough trouble as it is. If you liked Defense Grid and are looking forward to Defense Grid 2, the glimpse inside the sausage factory might also be interesting to you:

When a Successful Game is a Failure

I think Russ Pitts nails it when he says, “And the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it’s not extraordinary at all. This story could be about almost any game you’ve ever played and several hundred you never will. It is a glimpse into the fickle world of business and politics that simmers underneath the buzz and excitement of making video games. It is the dark, very human and ultimately political underbelly of the business of making fun… This is game development.”

Sadly, yes. And the ugliest parts are from the traditional areas of game development – the part that indies have tried to bypass as much as possible. Things are a lot better than they used to be, from what I hear, just because everybody understands there is another viable route.

Another amusing excerpt (and this is, I think, far more common on the indie side of the fence (but maybe it’s just ‘cuz I’ve gotten lucky… or just been naive…): “Dengler and Pobst did what might seem like lunacy to business people, but for each of them, it just came naturally: They were honest with each other. Pobst outlined the deal he wanted to see and what he needed to make it happen. Dengler did the same. They agreed on almost everything. To say this never happens would be to dramatically understate the corrosive environment of traditional video game funding.”

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Something Old, Something New: New RPGs That Revisit Old Territory

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 12, 2014

My family happened to be in the neighborhood of Brigham Young University campus (where we met, actually) a few weeks ago, and we decided to show my daughter the school. I hadn’t visited the ol’ alma mater in over a decade, and wasn’t quite prepared for all the changes. I mean, it had changed a lot between my freshman year and when I graduated, so I knew a lot would be different.

One of the school mottoes was, “The world is our campus.” As students, we used to joke that the motto was really, “The campus is our world.” Especially as a freshman with not much money, I didn’t get out much. It’s the third largest private university in the United States, and has plenty to do. The school had heavily discounted movies, a game room, lots of activities going on all the time, and what remains the largest library I’ve ever visited (and it’s only gotten bigger). For many years, the campus and its environs were home.

If you’ve ever gone back to your old hometown or school after several years’ absence, you know what it’s like. It’s a somewhat unsettling but not unpleasant sensation. I think the brain goes into a mode where it is trying to reconcile the patterns it recognizes with the new data. It’s exciting, but also a little sad, as you realize the world you once knew no longer exists. But for me, it’s really kinda cool to see what they’ve done to the place – to revisit a flood of old memories and to explore new things.  We even took advantage of an awesome opportunity to visit the art museum that was still under construction when we left many years ago.

The nice thing about computer worlds is that unlike the real world, within the limits of media degradation and emulation, they never fade or go away. I replayed Ultima III a couple of years ago, and except for the differences between having played it on a Commodore 64 in the old days, and playing it in DOSBox now, it was the same world and the same game. Popping in these old games for another visit is a nice antidote for nostalgia, as well. It’s often good to revisit the old classics and remember that even in their era, they didn’t quite walk on water. There is always plenty of room for improvement.

grimrock1Some of the indie games (and not-so-indie games) coming out these days do provide something of that juxtaposition. The Legend of Grimrock was perhaps one of the biggest in my mind. I’d gone back and re-played a little bit of the first Eye of the Beholder game a few months before it was released. In some ways – and this is my concern about the sequel – it deviated too little from its predecessors (Eye of the Beholder series, Dungeon Master series). After a while, the lever / timing / pressure plate puzzles got to be a little wearying. I’ve been there, done that, and while I was pleased to see the experience delivered to a new generation of gamers, the new neighborhood started to feel a little like a weak (but much prettier) imitation of the old. I don’t want to come down too hard on the game – I really did love it (to a point) and it was a fantastic job by the developers. But in some ways, it felt like the only thing really “new” added to the mix was the graphics. Hopefully, the upcoming sequel will really broaden the RPG experience of the original.

MMX-LegacyI have not played it nearly as much as I would like, but Might & Magic X Legacy is a non-indie game that really wants to be a return to the old neighborhood to see what its like a few years later. It’s great to get back to that style of gameplay (although, for me, it’s … hardly old), although I think whatever nostalgia it is supposed to hold is a little lost on me. I was a latecomer to the Might & Magic series, as I didn’t play much of them in the old days, and then really began to play them (mainly 6 and 7) only a couple of years ago. It has that old-school feel in the combat and mapping (with the 4-way movement restriction) that definitely triggers the “old” habits I developed playing these games in the 80s and 90s. But again,  my gaming habits these days haven’t allowed too much nostalgic dust to settle on the old skills. I’m the kind of guy who might play World of Xeen after a session of Legacy.  With the limited character selection and other elements, the game doesn’t feel like much of a “throwback” to the old classics.

Driftmoon_SarahAs I still maintain the claim that Ultima 7 was my favorite RPG, it’s exciting to games like Instant Kingdom’s Driftmoon and Larian’s Divinity: Original Sin that are strongly influenced by that classic. I haven’t played Original Sin yet (I’m resisting the siren’s song of my early access…), but I have high hopes. Both games seem to be influenced in very different ways, and while neither really tries to emulate the experience of Ultima 7, they do carry pieces of it with them. Another title with a strong Ultima influence (mixed with Legend of Zelda), if you can handle the weird voxel-y graphics, is Kitty Lambda’s The Real Texas.

Subterranea is a title now knee-deep in a Kickstarter campaign that claims to draw some serious inspiration from old “gold box” D&D titles from SSI, particularly Pool of Radiance. It’s still way too early to tell, but I hope this one succeeds.

Another game in the “genuine sequel” category is inXile’s Wasteland 2, the long-awaited sequel to the late-80s classic.  I’ve also only played a little of this one, now resisting the early access until things are more complete (partly because the last time I played, it kept crashing on me when I left the first area). While I don’t have an excuse now, I never played the original Wasteland, but fans of the Fallout series – also spiritually descended from Wasteland – may find themselves in some familiar territory in the sequel. Some of the original developers of the Fallout series and the original Wasteland are on the team, so it’s got an awesome start.

aod4Fallout fans will also find themselves in a familiar play-style, if a completely unfamiliar world, in Iron Tower’s upcoming (kinda, soon, maybe?) Age of Decadence. A public beta is available now, and this is a really ambitiously-scoped indie RPG. I’ve played an early version, and it is definitely shooting for the moon. I don’t know if they’ll get there or not, but what they’ve accomplished even in early versions will make old-school PC RPG gamers smile. If you value having genuine choice in a game and lots of different approaches to dealing with “quests” (including avoiding combat altogether, much of the time…), then this is something to watch.

In the “spiritual sequel” category, it’s hard to get much closer in spirit than having original developers working on a new “inspired” franchise. Two Kickstarter-funded success stories coming in the not-as-near-as-I’d-like future include Torment: Tides of Numenera – also by inXile – and Pillars of Eternity by RPG veterans Obsidian Entertainment. Torment is the spiritual sequel of the cult classic and critically acclaimed Planescape: Torment, with several of the original developers (including co-authors of the original pen-and-paper Planescape setting) on the team making it happen. They have really gone all-out to define what they feel made Planescape: Torment so special, and to recapture it with this game. Their plans, as for Wasteland I believe, is to turn this into a franchise. It’s heavy on the weird-and-funky vibe, and I have high hopes.

pillars_eternityNow, Planescape: Torment was something of a weirdo in the five D&D-licensed games that used Bioware’s Infinity Engine games. Pillars of Eternity is an attempt to emulate the experience of the all five, primarily the Baldur’s Gate series. Once again, we have some original team members of the era involved in the project, emphasizing spectacular 2D graphics. One of the nice bits about this title is that the game system is inspired by tabletop RPG systems. It’s really nice to see them get back to their roots a little more.  The emphasis here will be more on exploration and quest-solving. For those who do not demand the actual D&D game system or the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, it promises a strong return to familiar territory with an all-new game.

SotA_Kingsport-Docks-2And finally, you’ve got the original creator of the Ultima series himself, Richard “Lord British” Garriott, working on a spiritual sequel to the Ultima series and highly successful Ultima Online. Entitled Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, it makes a lot of exciting promises to fans of the older games, and they’ve brought on Origin veteran Starr Long to assist in the development. They have definitely been working the Ultima nostalgia factor, and I hope it succeeds. I’ve not participated in the early alphas, and even though I was a backer, I’m a little bit skeptical of this one. The multiplayer aspect is what makes me worried. It’s got the potential for great awesomeness and for great suckage. But even though it’s been a long time since what I consider “the last great Ultima,” I’m willing to give Garriott the benefit of the doubt. I want to see how it turns out, and maybe – just maybe – it’ll be awesome beyond my wildest dreams, and as close to a true return to the world of Ultima as we’re likely to see (as the holder of the license doesn’t seem capable of pulling it off right). Here’s hoping.

Anyway – if you were a PC RPG fan from the old days, there are a lot of RPGs out there now or coming soon that draw significant influence from particular classics, that may give you a solid nostalgic feel of beloved classics, but mix in a lot of fresh new stuff to keep things interesting.  And really – I’m just touching the surface, mentioning those that I can think of that have cited (or shown) a strong influence from particular classic RPGs. There’s plenty more where those came from.


Filed Under: Game Announcements, Retro - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Are the New-Gen Consoles Stumbling?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 11, 2014

I wasn’t sure what to make of things when, right after the launch of a new generation of consoles, EA and Disney Interactive started laying off game developers and claiming that they were enhancing their “focus on mobile.” I mean, hello? In my experience, the first couple of years after a console’s launch is the time to really cash in. Historically, that’s seemed to be the case.

And then there’s this little piece on Tech Crunch:

The Console Market Is In Crisis

I dunno how much I believe this or really want to read into it. I do take exception to the claim that this is the first time consoles have been outclassed by PCs. I think that the last time that they were NOT outclassed by high-end PCs was the around the time the Playstation 1 was released, circa 1995. And in regards to the “long tail” not sustaining itself as well, the last generation of hardware was also the longest, by my understanding – was that factored in?

If we assume that it is correct – or make a different assumption, that people just aren’t buying games for the consoles in similar launch quantities, regardless of how many consoles are actually out there in people’s homes – then there’s a lot to think about. In truth, there have been suggestions for the last few years that the console market is drying out, but it was easy to dismiss these data points and rumors on the assumption that everything would be back to hardware once the next generation of hardware hit. But now…?

I think more than comparison to the PC, the big issue is the comparison to the last generation of hardware. Historically, each hardware generation offered immediate, striking improvements over its predecessor. But each massive leap in technology offered slightly less of an incremental improvement in the overall gameplay experience of the previous one. The jump to 3D helped maintain the progression a little longer, but the law of diminishing returns wasn’t repealed. With the last two generations (Xbox 360 / PS 3 / Wii, and Xbone / PS4 / Wii-U), there has been a greater emphasis on things like online connectivity (awesome, but again catching up to where the PC had been for years), and new control gimmicks. From a raw gaming perspective, the jump to more memory and more triangles per frame with even cooler shaders doesn’t really add that much more to the experience.

But having the biggest bucket in the world doesn’t gain you anything if developers can’t fill it. That’s the flip side, and why some major publishers may not be entering a new golden age of prosperity. The costs of developing software to truly take advantage of the power of these machines has faster than the market, keeping pace with the technology rather than the end-user experience. As also suggested by the article, my suspicion is that while developers are finding ways of getting more bang for the buck, they are reaching the conclusion that they can’t keep up. Maybe not “throwing in the towel” as the article suggests, but not raising budgets as they have in days past.

Of course, today is the big release of a game (Titanfall) that Microsoft seems to be pinning hopes on being a console-seller. Sometimes all it takes is the “killer app” to make all the difference. So… I’d be more worried if I was working at a big AAA game studio right now, but I’m not ready to count the consoles out just yet.

Filed Under: Biz, General, Mainstream Games - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

Frayed Knights: Brains!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 10, 2014

fknoframeHere is a little-known fact about Frayed Knights 1: The Skull of S’makh-Daon: The more intelligent enemies are actually smarter with how they attack. Not by much – in fact, it’s so subtle it’s probably unnoticeable unless you were to really find comparable enemies and do a comparison.

If you don’t mind peeking behind the curtain – on every move, the AI takes into consideration a handful of (semi-randomly selected) potential actions, gives them a weight based on circumstances, and then chooses the most heavily weighted action (with an additional, small, random amount added to the weight). As the enemy’s Brains score goes up, they take more options into consideration – increasing the chance that the “best” option will get added to the pool of actions being considered.

At one point, I had the enemies pretty regularly choosing the “best” action all the time… and it was rough. I don’t think I subjected any of the testers to that kind of punishment. The AI would play a lot like the player does – ganging up on one party member at a time, and so forth – only with the added bonus that the AI need never hold anything in reserve for a future fight. There was no conserving endurance or items. While this helped me optimize how some actions are weighted, and it was certainly challenging, it was too brutal. The game is a lot more fun with some “artificial stupidity.”

Besides not even considering some actions at random, I changed the weights to make things more interesting. For example, attacking an unwounded character is given a heavier weight (and higher likelihood) than moderately injured one. This is because it makes for a more tense, dramatic fight, and because “spreading the damage around” gives the player a better chance of surviving the first round or so and responding to attrition.

I love working on AI (most of the time), but Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath presents some interesting challenges for me as a designer and programmer. The biggest change is that parties are now controlled by a group, rather than just individuals taking their turn. This means at some level, I need a “mastermind” that plans out the activations of the party members. How smart should this “mastermind” be? What should their approach be? Should the personality of the enemy “player” controlling the enemies change based on the composition of the enemy party?

In nature, packs of predators do use intelligent tactics.  Not the kinds of things that would translate really well into Frayed Knights, but things like position, distraction, flanking, surprise… even “unintelligent” animals master these tactics as a matter of survival. So it’s not like I should necessarily dumb down the “master AI” because the group is predominantly low-intelligence monsters.

One of the ideas I’m also fiddling around with is making enemy intelligence something of a factor for difficulty level. Rather than simply making enemies more powerful, players looking for a greater challenge can deal with enemies that really know how to go after the pain.

I’m pretty confident I’ll have it tuned and working pretty nicely in the end. But as I’m in the middle of it right now, you get to hear some of the thoughts I’ve had and choices I’ve been making lately.

Oh, and just a reminder – please vote to Greenlight Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon on Steam.


Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Swen Vincke on Pigeonholing Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 7, 2014

DOS_0006While I am going to provide a (sizable) excerpt here, this is really, really a case where I’d want to say, “Read the whole thing” – Swen Vincke: “Educating Players.”

The problem here is that previewers and players will make assumptions about how a game is played based upon how it looks. They will absolutely miss the “meat” of the game because they are trying to play a fundamentally different game.

“It reminded me strongly of something another journalist had told me. During a demo, I think at the German magazine Gamestar, I was told that we’d probably have to re-educate players because they’re not used to this type of gameplay anymore, conditioned as they seem to be by all the streamlining games go through nowadays.”

And a little later…

“For the first time in long I also started wondering if I’m too old for this business. It’s not unusual for me to see guys around me get all excited about games I personally consider to be too shallow. I think Ralph Koster in a theory of fun said that fun = learning and maybe I’m not having fun with these games anymore because I’ve mastered the patterns they’re based around, patterns which still feel new to those with less gaming experience. I guess that may be the price you pay for playing too much, but on the other hand, I still do want my fun too and I do feel underserved.

“A revealing moment for me was when I shocked our young PR manager. On our flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis I went through his entire collection of iPad games, spending at max 15 minutes on each of them. I gave my biased opinion on each of them, judging right there and then what was interesting, what was boring etc… He commented that I had an interesting style of playing ;)

“I realized then that I was doing the exact same thing those previewers were doing and together with them probably every gamer out there. We are offered so much entertainment content these days and sadly a lot of it isn’t very good. To survive we’ve adopted a strategy of judging rapidly at the risk of missing out on something.  We know that the alternative, to spend time on each and every offering of entertainment industry has, is bound to disillusion us.”

I’ve been wondering a bit about this myself. It seems like back in the old days – when I was lucky to be able to afford a new game every month or two – I’d eagerly focus on a single game and really explore its depths.  Nowadays, supply has greatly outpaced my personal demand, and I have a massive backlog of games to play. So I tend to “graze” – play a few minutes of a game, and move on to another one. If I really like it, I might go back to it. It’s how I used to play games in the arcade days – it seemed like such a waste to put all my quarters or tokens into just one or two machines.

But for certain kinds of games – the ones I like the most, actually – that just doesn’t work. I love the games I can really sink my teeth into, but you can’t know if it’s actually going to be worth doing it until you invest the time and effort to do just that. I’m sure I am just as guilty as pigeonholing and dismissing some games as anybody else, and I wonder how much I’m out on because I do that.

Again – read the whole thing.

Filed Under: Quote of the Week - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Clogging the Crap-Filters

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 6, 2014

Clogged filterLong ago, I called myself an “indie evangelist.” I could see the awesome indie games coming out that nobody had ever heard of, and thought, “Wow! Look at what these indies are doing! If only people were to pay attention, and actually try these games and make them profitable, we could have more of these unique, innovative, clever little games!”

I guess I was naive. Okay, not totally. It’s a given that when you open the flood gates, you are going to be increasing the crap-to-gem ratio.  But you also get more gems. That much hasn’t changed.

What I perhaps didn’t anticipate was how a little bit of money would change things. Especially a little bit of money from a game made in just three days. Just like the mainstream world, the big money-makers just get cloned to hell and back by a bunch of paycheck-seeking, passionless, low-talent hacks. I mean, okay, it’s one thing to be a low-talent hack. Many of us suffer under this disadvantage. But at least try and be creative about it!

Instead, we have this fun little note, reported by Polygon -

Report: 60 Flappy Bird Clones Hit iTunes App Store Every Day

flappybirdThat’s right, ladies and gentlemen. We have an army of indies trying to cash in on the success of one cheap and dirty little game that got lucky. Many are not even departing from the bird-and-pipes theme. This is what we’ve become. The golden age of indie is built upon a dung heap.

I guess that makes indie games pretty much the same as everything else out there.

When the walls come down (the barriers to entry), filters are needed. Lots of filters. I still don’t quite see that for indie games. Maybe it’s because the supply has so exceeded demand that people can’t keep up.  Just trying to do a fair evaluation of indie PC RPGs would consume some serious time and effort on the part of several people. At this rate, it could be more than a full-time job just evaluate Flappy Bird clones. Sixty a day! At five minutes of evaluation per game (assuming they are all as tiny and easy to get the gist of as the original), plus ten minutes to write up the evaluation and post it to a site… that’d be 15 hours of work every day just to keep up with the new clones.

While I appreciate the individual player evaluations, there’s still something to be said for specific, clear, informed voices. We do get some of that… there are some “niche” gaming sites with reviewers with several well-written reviews (a track record), informed opinions, and decently voiced views on games that can really help with purchase decisions. One person whom you trust is worth ten anonymous reviews who give near-minimum or near-maximum scores and barely readable two-sentence reviews.

underrailBut they can’t keep up. No doubt there are a lot of worthy entries that get clogged up in the mess. And I’m not just talking about the gems either – I’m talking about the games that may be flawed but interesting, perhaps unpolished but having a few really cool creative ideas.

Kinda like making indie games – if you aren’t just cashing in on what’s popular, then it really has to be a labor of love. There’s not a whole long of reward to be found on the average. Even taking some kind of niche like indie PC RPGs – it’s hard enough just to keep track of what’s getting released, let alone provide a fully-played, thoroughly evaluated reviews. If only. It’s like we need a small army of CRPG Addicts focused on modern indie releases.

I wish I had an answer.

Filed Under: General, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Indies, Integrity, Reputation, and Crowdfunding

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 5, 2014

I’ve warned about Kickstarter before. I’m hesitant to throw any support behind crowdfunding campaigns here unless I know the creators, either personally or by reputation. And reputation is an interesting thing. It usually originates in personal character, but it also makes good business sense. A good reputation is something that’s very hard to build up, and easy to destroy.  I expect some of these folks would rather lose their house than ruin their reputation… the house is a lot easier to rebuild or replace.

Anyway, I’ve heard the failure rate of Kickstarter projects is somewhere around 50%. That’s bad. Although for game projects, a good portion of that is “late” projects, rather than actual failures. As a gamer (and game developer), I know all about lateness. It’s a scary problem, to be sure – late often means higher costs. But it’s common enough, and I’m somewhat familiar with the warning signs that a project really is in trouble. So far, I haven’t had any of the funded projects I’ve backed look like its seriously in trouble. Knock on wood.

I’m not talking about actual, deliberate scams on Kickstarter (and those do exist). I’m talking people who may not be reliable or who do not know what they are getting into. There’s managing the project. There’s managing the budget – especially with physical rewards. Even the final amount received from the pledges can be a surprise. It’s not like that lump sum that appears on the KS site is magically deposited into one’s account. Between taxes, Kickstarter’s cut, Amazon’s cut, and failed pledges, the final pool of money can be significantly less.

If someone happens to be very bad with money in the first place, problems can get compounded. Some folks – the ones with a good reputation and the character to back it up – will do everything they can to make good on their promises, at least as far as they can. The recent little saga with Double Fine is an example of that. Their reach didn’t quite exceed their grasp, but they did have to get creative with their fulfillment. I have no problem with that, really. Crap happens. People make mistakes. People can have moments of weakness or foolishness. It’s how life works.

I was aghast when I read about one particular narcissistic douchebag who decided to post a video of himself burning books that he owed backers and turn it into a protest rather than face up to his own mistakes and the personal embarrassment it would cause. In a final update to backers, he blames rich people, capitalism, his backers themselves, religion, his own sexual identity (?), classism, racism, and society as a whole for his actions. He might spare a little blame for himself – his past self, he explains. He finishes up by the announcement that he is seeking people who will subsidize his lifestyle with no thought of any kind of return or reward for him.

Honor. Honesty. Integrity.  Professionalism. Personal responsibility. Respect for others. Self-respect. These are the kinds of things I value. These are the sensibilities that were offended by his actions. But, he explains in his final rant, “If you have negative feelings about the actions I am taking, that is part of what I am protesting against. I am protesting the values you use to determine how you feel about and interact with the world.”

If anything, my values have been more solidly reinforced. I would not want to live in a society of people with this pathetic individual’s attitude. I don’t think many people would live very long at all in such a world.

Anyway, I don’t want to spend any more talking about this epic failure of humanity and Crowdfunding. There’ll be another scam-artist or foolishly optimistic individual tomorrow. Just be careful out there. If you want mode details, you can read  this commentary. Or read the guy’s final “Screw You” Kickstarter Update.

Know who you are getting involved with when you back someone. Although – to be fair – if I’d gotten this guy’s first book, I would have probably assumed he was a “safe bet” on the second.

Fortunately – at least in my own experience – this is noteworthy in that it is an aberration. The majority of my experience in my little subset of the “indie community” has been good to fantastic. Yeah, you can have problems with outsourcing content sometimes – but the other game dev types may not always be perfect at hitting schedules (I know I am not!), but they do have the integrity to follow through and make good on promises.

I had an experience once – and I am going to keep this deliberately vague (and please don’t speculate in the comments) that really struck things home for me, and serves as a huge counterpoint to the story above. Several years ago, someone who was involved in the indie world promised me a sum of money, but due to circumstances outside of his control, couldn’t deliver. He promised to make it up to me somehow, and I kind of dismissed it. It’s not like I didn’t believe his intentions, but I wasn’t holding my breath.  Crap happens. I chalked it up to a loss.

Years later, my wife and I were personally struggling with some unforeseen expenses. Crap happens, as usual. It wasn’t disastrous, but it wasn’t pretty. We were pretty much at the nadir of this crap, with the attendant stress that comes with it, when I get a letter in the mail from this guy. It includes a check for the full amount from so many years ago. My wife and I were literally in tears.

I contacted him, and thanked him. He’d been saving up for years to make good on his promise. I will never know what kind of personal sacrifice he had to make to do this. I did get a little bit of history of how things went bad initially.

I will say that I would unhesitating in recommending this guy if he were to run a Kickstarter or involved in some kind of business. I can’t necessarily vouch for his talents as a programmer or his skill in running a business. But I can vouch for his integrity, honor, and sense of responsibility. I won’t necessarily go into details, but I would say, “Give this guy a chance.” Every time.

If a society was full of people like that, that would be a place I really would like to live.

We can’t make guarantees that some previously stable guy will never go off the reservation. And it’s hard to know what people will be like when pressure exceeds their tolerance.  And crap always happens. I know I’ve personally taken some issue with how much more willing people are to buy into a promise than to buy a finished product. That still bugs me.

But, as developer Craig Stern told me about his upcoming Telepath Tactics game, “There is just absolutely no way Telepath Tactics would be getting made to its current standard of quality without the funding that that site allowed me to receive. Not a chance.” There’s a place for it. There are people that are safer bets. The folks with the proven track record, who have earned a reputation the hard way – that’s where I see crowdfunding as an amazing development. It allows things to happen. Cool, awesome things like Wasteland 2, Broken Age, and The Banner Saga, all the way down to the small projects like Telepath Tactics.

Maybe we just need a better “reputation system” in the real world. :)

Filed Under: Biz, Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Feel Like Making a Roguelike / Roguelike-like? Procedural Death Jam!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 4, 2014

procedural_death_jamThe Procedural Death Jam is upon us, starting this weekend…

That’s part of Lars Doucet’s proposed name for Roguelikes (and the increasingly dissimilar “Roguelike-likes”), “Procedural Death Labyrinths.” The emphasis is on procedural level generation and permadeath. The game jam goes on for seven days.

I’ll tell ya, if I wasn’t so behind on Frayed Knights 2, I’d be all over this one. It’s still hard to resist the urge, but I’m going to have to wait for the next one, assuming there is a next one. I really want to do a roguelike some day, and I’ve got about 2 or 3 ideas I’d want to experiment with.

But hey – now’s your chance. Feel like taking a stab at a “procedural death labyrinth?” Head on over to the official website:

Procedural Death Jam – March 8 through March 15th, 2014

There’s a little bit more commentary over at Gamasutra: Procedural Death Jam.

I can’t say I’m a super-fan of the term “Procedural Death Labyrinth” but I haven’t heard a better alternative.


Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

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