Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2014
I spent a little bit of time playing Doom this weekend. Yes, twenty-year old Doom. Updated a little bit with some new technology to take advantage of modern hardware and to make it nicely mouse-playable and everything, but it was still the same game. Running in Doomsday with a fan-made high-quality texture pack. There are some other add-ons which I haven’t installed, like higher-quality audio, 3D models for the enemies, etc. Pretty cool stuff for an old game.
Who needs a remake?
Oh, I guess we do:
Ah, well. I can’t say I’m not a little excited about what Bethesday might come up with.
I’d recently finished a somewhat more recent first-person shooter, Spec-Ops: The Line, which I thought was a pretty decent game. Okay the game part was pretty straightforward to the point of being generic. At times it felt like one of those old arcade shooters like Time Crisis. Shoot, duck, reload. Face bad guys with different weaponry appearing in surprise directions in a cover-based shooting gallery in a highly scripted combat. To distinguish the game from the pack of “modern combat shooters,” the developers incorporated a pretty decent storyline, which redeems things.
Going from that to playing the original Doom a little bit this weekend, I was struck by the purity of the game. After all, it was designed like a 2D game, with some tried-and-true mechanics transposed into a 3D (well, 2.5D) world. It felt a lot less scripted – partly because there wasn’t much by the way of scripting mechanics for the game.
But that wasn’t the only reason. I went and played a bit of Final Doom. I grabbed it from the Steam sale, since I’d never played it before. Final Doom – created by third parties and sold by id Software – feels a lot more like the modern shooters. In lieu of true scripting, there are environmental constraints and triggers everywhere to make the game more challenging – a twisted shooting gallery of pain without much margin for error. Maybe I just suck too much, but after a couple of levels I went back to the original (or Ultimate Doom). It was more fun and more interesting.
After Doom, everything changed. It was the Star Wars of the gaming biz. Even though the original shareware release didn’t post the kinds of numbers to compete with the best-selling mainstream games of the era, its popularity shook up the industry. After Doom, games industry attracted a lot of people from other sectors, including a non-insignificant infusion of people from television and the movie industry, who sadly sometimes saw games as movies with a little bit of troublesome player interaction. That trend didn’t go away with the death of “FMV games.” A few years ago this amusing comparison of FPS maps went viral:
The map on the left is from Doom, of course. To be fair, with the keys and switches limiting access, the actual progression through a level is a bit more linear than it appears. And the picture on the right only applies to single-player levels. But it’s still funny.
Going back and playing a somewhat souped-up Doom really did feel refreshing, though. Maybe it was nostalgia for the days when I was less jaded as a gamer, and it reconnected me to old memories when Doom was absolutely revolutionary and stunning. Maybe it reminded me of an era before the games industry had changed so much – changed in part due to this game. Back to an era where Doom conked the gaming industry on the head and made gamers and game developers alike believe that anything was possible.
But maybe it’s just that there’s something to be said for simple, visceral gameplay. You couldn’t just imitate Doom today, of course. That well has been drained pretty dry. But it was all about combining basic elements – the building blocks of the game – into lovingly elaborate, deadly self-contained challenges with plenty of leeway for the player to work things out his own way. The behaviors of the monsters weren’t necessarily realistic, but they were predictable, and could be used against them. Some of the best solutions involved getting monsters to fight each other in wild melees of infighting. Or clever use of exploding barrels. These were not complex, specially-scripted “solutions” – they were simply the tools at both the designers’ and the players’ disposal.
And seriously,within its own self-contained world, it ends up feeling far more realistic and believable than the carefully orchestrated, cinematic, advanced AI of the modern era. To me, that’s putting on a show for my benefit.
Sure, post-Doom, almost anything seems possible today. But sometimes its questionable as to whether or not all that is truly more fun and enjoyable than what’s been possible for 20+ years.
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 10 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2014
When I first started in the video game business (and I’m kind of afraid to mention when that was anymore), I was pretty sure of myself. I knew games. I knew what was fun. I was a frickin’ gaming genius.
That didn’t last long. I blame Dunning-Kruger. The more professional game designers I spoke with, the more I worked on games, the more I really began to study them professionally, the more I realized I didn’t have a clue. And now, with an indie world out there full of bizarre and creative ideas that actually sell (and twenty times more that don’t), the even less clueful I feel. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t understand.
Sure, I’ve got opinions. They’ve changed a bit over the years (releasing your own games and getting feedback from actual customers will do that), but I still hold them. Maybe not as securely as I once did. I still know what *I* like, though I’m no longer certain how similar my own tastes are to that of the general gaming public.
On the one hand, this is probably a good idea. I’m more open to new ideas and willing to “kill my darlings” – my pet ideas. I hope that I’m more able to swallow my pride to make a better game. On the other hand, this can also make me hesitant and indecisive, which is not a good trait in the fast-moving world of indie game development.
The thing is – we’re all born with an innate sense of fun. Real life tries to beat it out of us as we get older, but it is as natural – and as important – as breathing. The joy, the “fun,” is what helps us to discover the world around us, to learn new things, and develop skills. And we all find that fun in different things.
I look at something like Goat Simulator, and I think… that’s just a giant toy-box for grown-ups. For that matter, so is Grand Theft Auto.
The thing is, as kids – the fun comes first, the rules and structure later. Kicking a ball around is inherently fun. But with no goal, nobody to share it with, no way to determine who is better at kicking a ball around, no other skills with which to mix up the ball-kicking, we can lose interest pretty quickly. So we come up with some kind of structure, some rules, some goals, some ways to bring other people and challenges in to keep things interesting.
That’s not something you need a PhD to understand. There’s no special game design mojo. That’s probably why it all seems easy, at first. Making something fun is easy. But making something fun, easy to understand, playable on everyone’s hardware, appealing to your audience’s tastes, marketable, intuitive, polished, accessible, challenging without being frustrating, has staying power, and competitive in a crowded marketplace — that’s what takes all the hard work.
(And that’s why we copy so much from each other – we start with what we know, and what we know works, and hopefully try to improve on it or try something different with it. )
In the end, there’s probably no substitute for just making lots of games. That’s something I’m not doing so great at… I should probably do more game jams, but as a part-time developer, that’s a pretty big time sacrifice. Maybe people in similar situations – who can’t devote a large block of time to a game jam very often – could focus more on things like one game a month, or like my “40 hour” project many years ago. Or micro-jams, like the “game in 0 hours.”
Because if there anything I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always a lot more to learn.
Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 5 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2014
Schedule-wise, there’s no way I can do it. Not until after FK2 is released (and probably not until FK3 – I’d like to do a “rolling start” there), so we’re talking a ways out. But I can dream.
Is there even gonna be a market for these kinds of games? The Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 is going to go for $350, and I cannot imagine that the consumer version will be a whole lot cheaper. The AntVR Kickstarter just succeeded – we’ll see if that one flies – but the all-in-one controller looks cool.
Obviously, the answer is simply to do a game that is VR-compatible. With a console-controller-friendly interface, even Frayed Knights 2 could do that. But it wouldn’t be optimal for the VR experience. What would be optimal? What would be my dream VR-compatible / optimized experience? Either a “survival / simulation RPG” along the lines of Ultima Underworld (of course), or a really intense but subtle horror game.
But hey – not that I’m really gonna have an opportunity or anything, but I’m curious what other people here are thinking:
#1 – Are you interested in VR technologies like Oculus Rift or the seemingly dozens of new systems launching or coming soon? Would that be something you’d like to game with?
#2 – If so, what kind of games would you like to play on them?
#3 – If not, why not?
Filed Under: Tech - Comments: 12 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 25, 2014
Not only do empty promises get more attention than real, delivered games… but joke projects may trump serious development efforts. In theory, the $100 Greenlight fee was supposed to weed these out, which I’m sure it did. But not completely.
Of course, here I am talking about it instead of ignoring it, as I usually try to do. So I guess I’m not immune, either. They just proved their point.
I suppose it’s entirely possible that they could make a cool game out of this concept… I’ve played the totally awesome Rock of Ages, which involved some decently fun gameplay on top of some excellent and weird theming. But based upon what’s written on the Greenlight page, this ain’t that.
Ah, well. I feel bad for the game developer who gets passed up because of this thing, for sure. When people’s livelihoods are at stake… this isn’t quite as amusing. But on the flip side, this is frickin’ games. We should have fun with it. I just wish they’d picked a better venue. Or maybe they are pointing out the pointlessness of the current Greenlight system, in which case… another point well taken.
Can you tell I have mixed emotions here?
This is just the way life and the market works, as much as we wish it were otherwise. Gimmicks get the attention. Always.
One more time:
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 24, 2014
When I was a kid, I dreamed about a computer RPG that (in my dream) was completely awesome. Amusingly, although the end of the dream was more like a live-action adventure, the first half of the game in my dream was probably closer to something like the early Ultima games. Setting forth from the first castle, I bravely set forth into the tile-graphics world … in the wrong direction.
I found myself in the “high-level” area of the game very early, lost, and desperately trying to find my way back to where I was supposed to be.
It culminated with what felt more like a live-action adventure, with me in a vampire’s castle at the still-lowly level of 1, realizing I was still not back to where I wanted to be, but still able to make some progress so long as I avoided any combat. The encounter with the vampire resulted in yet another panicked flight, facilitated by his great weakness: predating the Doctor Who episode “Blink” by more than two decades, he would only be able to approach if I looked away.
While it was a very cool dream that I still remember parts of to this day, I think your average player would grow super-frustrated and quit (or at least restart) early on.
Maybe one source of inspiration for this little dream of mine back in the day was my misadventures in the game Telengard, a game which frequently dropped you down pits or teleported you to random locations in the dungeon – and, often, to areas where you had no business being. If you didn’t have a scroll of rescue, you’d be in for a really tough adventure (especially since, IIRC, you could only save the game up at the top of the dungeon, in one of the taverns).
However, one of the fun things to do in Telengard was to actually memorize a path down to a level well beyond your ability, “snarf up” some unprotected treasure, and then get back to safety and save the game (where the treasure was converted to experience points). Sometimes monsters would even be friendly and give you a powerful magic item. Other times, you had to be able to survive long enough to flee. Fleeing in Telengard basically meant getting a certain number of “moves” ahead of your pursuers. There was a little graphical character that marked how far behind you they were.
Lars Doucet posted some time ago about fleeing mechanics and design – adding the ability to “run away” from a bad encounter. You can click here and check out his excellent article, “Run Away!”
Back in 1999 or so, Gary Gygax wrote about how games like D&D had changed to be more like video games (and video games had themselves moved in that direction) so that a player was expected to “clear out” a level before proceeding further into an area. This wasn’t really how the old games worked. Back in the day, while easier monsters did tend to congregate in the nearer areas, there was no guarantee that everything in the first level of the dungeon was conveniently of level 1 difficulty. If you tried to go in with guns blazing (well, swords slicing) into every encounter, your party would wipe out early and often.
Things change, I suppose.
Now games tend to gate off the harder content. Or, in more open-world games, there’s some “auto-scaling” that takes place to make sure the content matches the character level. The latter may be somewhat analogous to a game master who makes sure the adventure is always tailored to the party level in a dice-and-paper game. But both approaches rob the game of a good chunk of the fun… the feeling that the world is big and scary and not revolving around the player(s). In either case, you rarely feel like you’ve truly gotten in “over your head.”
I was playing Might & Magic X: Legacy recently, and found that I’d managed to get myself turned around and going deeper and deeper into very difficult content. While that was kinda cool, you really cannot escape encounters, and if you stick to backtracking paths you’ve already taken, unless you’ve triggered some kind of event that has spawned new enemies, you don’t have to worry about unplanned encounters.
There’s even a warning sign in an early area about the ability for players to wander off into areas well beyond what the party is ready for. I like that, but it only takes me part-way there. For me, the real fun of of being able to wander off into far-too-difficult situations comes from:
#1 – Having a reasonable chance to recognize, avoid, and escape a combat that’s clearly out of your league.
#2 – A constant threat looming so long as you are in a dangerous area.
#3 – Not taking too much frustrating effort to make it to safety.
#4 – A chance of “getting lucky” and deriving a valuable benefit from your excursion.
This was something I always enjoyed about the Thief games. You were always in over your head, and you knew it. Too much of that, though, and the pressure lost its charm. But taken a mission at a time, it was awesome fun.
This is also a point where player skill really comes into play. When everything is tailored to your character level, the gameplay ends up being little more than repeating a regular set of straightforward tactics to get an “edge” over what is otherwise a pretty brute-force slugfest. But when faces with superior foes, where a brute-force battle would be completely overwhelming, that’s when the player really has to be resourceful. Maybe the correct application of some rarely used items and some really clever tactics might allow the to prevail in a fight, particularly if its not too overwhelming. Maybe diplomacy or stealth or out-and-out flight are better approaches. And maybe, just maybe, I might be able to snatch a victory or two – if only in the form of loot or a higher-level quest – out of the experience.
The worlds of CRPGs these days really are too “safe” and too well-structured. They can often feel more like amusement park rides than an adventure. I want to get into trouble.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2014
My favorite mode is one that comes with the Seafarers expansion called “Fog Islands.” It’s got all the fun stuff that comes with the expansion – ships (putting that wood to much more use!), and gold (which allows you to draw a resource of your choice), the pirate (which the AI never uses). It gives players a bit more “elbow room” to explore the map – and create truly lengthy “roads.”
But the biggest factor for me is that something like a third of the map is “fog” – not filled out – and you have to explore to see what you get and find the best places to land. Maybe it’s the whole gambler’s high thing… the thrill of maybe scoring a jackpot this time and discovering a gold square with a high-frequency value. Or a high-frequency stone so you don’t have to rely on other players on paying at a 4:1 ratio to the bank for the stuff.
Against the AI, I’m usually one of the first players off to explore the fog islands. It’s definitely not the only way to win – depending upon initial placement, it may not even be the best way to win. Getting the “longest road” badge early turns you into the punching bag for all the other players for the whole game, but it’s sometimes worth it. But really, I do it for the thrill of exploration. The gamble. What’s nice is that the mode gives you a little of both – you can focus on the known (or what becomes known) for traditional Catan strategy, or try your luck in the islands. For a high-score-limit game, you may need to do a little of both.
There is a cost to explore. There is often a resource cost – extending your ship route, or risking the creation of a permanent road that may go nowhere interesting. There may be an opportunity cost as well. You may be bypassing a viable landing point or the chance to build up your position in known territory. But other than the “known” cost, there’s no risk involved in exploration. At worst, you encounter nothing interesting, but now have a better idea of the map layout, and better guesses as to what is left in the undiscovered tiles.
When I play a game that much, I overthink it. It’s how I roll. I compare the addictive exploration dynamic in Lost Islands to my own love of exploration in RPGs. I love diving into the unknown in hopes of profit. Catan abstracts the game mode down to its bare essentials, and while I don’t know if the implementation is perfect, it works well.
In RPGs, a big part of the fun is exploring – but sometimes the exploring is mandatory. Going off the beaten track is half the fun. As a designer, one issue is that there’s no cost to doing this – and those rewards on the side quest will provide your character(s) with advantages. The only cost is the player’s time. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but is it truly “optional” if it’s really the best path to the end of the game? Should the player who overcomes the greater adversity by making a beeline for the end-game get anything for their efforts other than bragging rights? Should some exploration cut off other avenues? Would that be even fair if the player doesn’t get to make an educated decision?
It’s easy to get caught up in the details, which is why I like looking at a very high-level, abstract game like Catan and ground myself.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 20, 2014
I’m somewhat emboldened by the fact that I haven’t yet purchased anything, but it hasn’t been a full day yet. And… before it’s over, I’m grabbing some Rocksmith 1 songs (which work for RS2014). But, as usual, I’ve not pulled the trigger yet, because I’m waiting to see if they get on a daily deal with a discount steeper than 25%. It’s happened before. Because apparently I really, really want to save an extra seven dollars or something.
Or, like most of the purchases I’m holding off on… if I really wanted it, I’d have gotten it already. The steep discount is a motivator for me to snag something I’d otherwise never get around to buying (and may still never get around to playing).
At some point during the GOG.COM sale, I visited the RPG and Strategy Games lists, and tried to see if there was anything there that I actually wanted and would buy if it went on sale. There really wasn’t. After five years of sales, I’ve bought out the frickin’ store. There are still some old classics and some new indie games I’d happily pick up if / when they get ‘em, but I’m pretty much set.
Steam has a somewhat larger – and more modern – library. So I’m not sure how long I’m going to hold out. But with my backlog as extensive as it is, I’m really not in a rush.
I assume I’m not the only one exhibiting this kind of behavior. I’m spending the same amount per year as I always have on games (at least, if you adjust for inflation…), but except for a very few titles I really want to support, I’m not buying them at release. I’m waiting for bundles and sales. I’m picking up a very few via Kickstarter pledges. I’m not even sure how “new” a game is anymore. You can’t tell it by the sales… you’ll get steep discounts on games that are only a couple months old, or on games that haven’t actually been officially released yet.
Is this terrible? Well, I do worry about the “race to the bottom” effect. If people are like me, nobody’s going to buy a game at full price anymore, and that could mean reduced revenue for all developers, etc. etc.
But as an interesting and possibly encouraging side effect – it means that “New” is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant factor of visibility. With bundles and sales on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis across multiple major / mid-tier distributors, old and new games can compete on slightly more equal footing. The “daily deals” and the “flash deals” are on a small enough list during Steam’s big sales that customers can actually click the link and see what each game is about.
I don’t know if the pros outweigh the cons, or not. It’s certainly *different*. Since the status quo wasn’t that awesome to begin with, and as I’m certainly benefiting as a *gamer*, I’m just going to roll with it.
Filed Under: Biz, Deals - Comments: 12 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 19, 2014
At the Comic Con spin-off convention this spring, FanX, I attended a writing panel by a number of authors who were either well-known in the games industry (both video games and tabletop / dice-and-paper), or popular authors who were also avid gamers (particularly role-playing games). The panelists included Michael A. Stackpole, Larry Correia, Tracy Hickman, David Farland, Robert J. Defendi, and William Pace.
One of the panelists – and I forget which one now – mentioned how his editor (or agent?) told him that he could always tell which writers were RPG gamers … meaning dice-and-paper, generally game-masters. They were all surprisingly good at world-building and making logical plots, but really bad about developing characters. Naturally, that was because the individual players were supposed to be in charge of the important characters in a dice-and-paper game, while the game master has to make sure they have a very consistent world that’s predictable in all the right ways in which they can adventure.
In fact, one of the cardinal rules in writing for a game (tabletop or video game) is that you are not to impose a reaction on the player’s character / avatar. It’s usually okay to say something along the lines of an environment being oppressive, but you cannot write a line of text (or narration) that says, “You feel oppressed by…” The former hints at a reaction or describes a typical reaction, but the latter imposes a reaction.
One of my goals this last year was to put more effort into my writing. Frayed Knights – and a lot of future projects I have planned – are pretty story-heavy. Even though I’m one of those weirdos who claim that story and interactive games don’t play well together, I love story-heavy games. Apparently I delight in the balance between warring objectives. So naturally, I want to improve my writing chops to make the best games possible.
Not that writing for me is necessarily secondary to game development. Writing short stories this year, submitting for publication, and even doing the long hours of editing and being forced to participate in marketing drives has been fun for me, and I’ve learned a lot. Seeing my story published in Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology (which is currently climbing up the Amazon Kindle charts! Yaaaaay!) was definitely a high point. I intend to keep doing both. Because, I suppose, I subconsciously think five hours of sleep per night is way too much and I need to cut down…
But I digress. (That’s another weakness in my writing, I guess.)
Anyway – back to the point. Do I have a point? Ah, yes. Writing for both games and traditional media. A very cool part of this learning process for me was discovering where I have weak points and blind spots. Character development is one of them. Telling instead of showing is another. Trying to be too “objective” in my descriptions is another. Failing to applying appropriate subtle shades and symbolism is another. Pacing is another. Passive voice… gah! And on, and on, and on…
Not all of this is 100% applicable. For example, subtle doesn’t usually work too well in games. When you are dodging incoming fireballs across moving platforms over a sea of acid, you can’t pay much attention to nuance. Maybe some bit of it may hit you on the head later, but at the time, your brain is fully occupied on problem-solving.
This isn’t completely unique to games. In my short story “Dots, Dashes and Deceit,” my editors Terri Wagner and Penny Freeman made me rip out large chunks of my action sequence. The problem was pacing – I was providing the same kinds of detail for a fast-action scene as I had everywhere else. It was blindingly obvious once it was pointed out, but I had missed it through several revisions.
I think there’s a lot of cross-application between writing for traditional, linear media and writing for games. The problem is that while the two skills are related, they are not identical. That’s probably what trips up a lot of people. I’ve known traditional writers who really had a hard time “getting it” with games… they grow frustrated that they can’t force the player to make the right “dramatic” decisions. Or – as we see too often these days – they actually design the game to force that very thing, nullifying the most interesting choices the player could make via cut-scenes and purely linear game design. In my mind, that’s not writing for a game – that’s writing a traditional linear media but giving the player a child’s activity book to keep them busy through the boring parts.
So really, it comes to adapting to the medium. For linear storytelling, I have to change what I do, and build on skills that tend to atrophy when writing for games. And for games, there’s probably a lot of room to adapt linear storytelling techniques in such a way that they really improve the game rather than trying to smother it. There’s plenty of room for more character development in games — even if it’s ultimately the player’s decision of which direction it drives the character. There’s also plenty of room for subtlety (just not during intense action sequences), symbolism, nuance, etc. In a text-heavy game (as I tend to make), there’s even more room for authorial tricks and skill. But we must apply it differently.
We’ll see how well I do. I’m frantically working on a demo level (which may or may not be in the final version of Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath) and trying to combine what I learned from the first game with what I learned writing. The result will hopefully be a tighter, better, more entertaining game.
Filed Under: Writing - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 18, 2014
Not that they ever truly went away… but now, text adventures are on Steam. Hanging out with the mainstream games again. That’s novel.
I haven’t played it yet. In all honesty, I’ve played maybe five interactive fiction games in as many years. I used to love ‘em, but I guess time progressed. Anyway, I may have to pick these up in a show of support.
My first “complete” non-trivial game development projects, back in the C-64 days, were text adventures. I had a ball making them, and enjoyed playing them. Mine weren’t nearly as good as the Infocom titles, but from my vague, biased recollection I think they could have stood up to many of the other offerings of the day. Every once in a while I think about what it would take to try my hand at interactive fiction. It would be interesting, but I don’t know if I have the passion for it that I once did. What I loved about them was the world-building and storytelling — which I do with RPGs now. But while a picture may be worth a thousand words, there is still a ton that can be done with text that graphics can’t touch. They are truly different media.
Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2014
Man. I must be getting old. I remember when White Wolf Publishing was the hot new concept in the dice & paper gaming community. I had friends who playtested an early version of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Vampire: The Masquerade was the hot new trend in gaming. The rules were clever but imbalanced, the rulebook was so poorly organized you needed to memorize it to remember where everything was. But the text was full of flavory goodness. They sold a setting and a vibe. It was good.
Except for a bit of RPG snobbishness, at least. Which is kinda weird. I mean, seriously? We’re all RPG fans, but you are going to act like you are superior because you play a particularly trendy RPG? No thank you. (I kinda remember a story by Clark Peterson about how they were at GenCon one year playing a good ol’ fashioned D&D game, but it was so crowded they were in one of the halls. A bunch of people dressed goth-y walked by and made disparaging remarks about the kinds of gamers who were still playing Dungeons & Dragons. What said pretentious douches didn’t know is that the people playing D&D were largely White Wolf authors, the people who DESIGNED the game they were acting superior about).
I had high hopes for ‘em when CCP bought them out. The potential of a World of Darkness MMO just sounded so frickin’ cool. When it was canceled, and White Wolf Publishing has pretty much ceased to exist as a functioning entity within CCP. I was really disappointed by the news, and wondered what had happened.
We may never know all the details. Having been in that situation myself a few times, I’d guess that no one employee knows all the details. But at least some of the mystery has been revealed:
It sounds like… in spite of years (and many complete rewrites) and some actual playability in some builds… they really weren’t that far along. Ever. So we didn’t miss out on much.
I’ve also noticed two behaviors that game companies tend to exhibit when they’ve managed to knock one out of the park (especially when they do so on their first major “try”): Hubris, or impostor syndrome. In the former case, the company assumes that if they pulled it off and managed the impossible, they must be specially gifted (with more than luck). They believe they can do no wrong, entitled to success, and can get away with poor practices because it will certainly be worth it in the end. In the latter case, the company management is haunted by the realization that they got lucky once, and that it will be very hard to top their mega-hit, and get paralyzed into never completing anything. Both behaviors can be extremely self-destructive.
Hopefully I’ll stay level when I finally hit the big time. How’s that for optimism?
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 8 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 16, 2014
“Create as if nobody will ever see it; then polish as if millions will.”
I saw this advice for writing, and wondered how applicable it would be for games. The first part – creating as if nobody will see it – gives the writer two benefits. The first is a freedom to write whatever kind of story he or she wants to write, regardless of genre, market trends, and so forth. The second is speed. I’ve read (and found first-hand) that if you edit as you write, you will get bogged down to a snail’s pace. It is much faster to go back and revise once everything is down on paper than it is to edit as you go, and the results are usually better.
The main difference is that there’s a higher cost for revision in game development than there is for writing. Or is there?
That’s why prototyping is so important. This includes writing up the game design document, which I consider the “paper prototype” (and I don’t usually worry about it falling out of date). I’ve been obsessing lately about my (lack of) development speed, and how to improve that. I think improving my prototyping methodology is a great start, from paper to gray-box to final product.
It seems my best ideas come from very simple concepts that I iterate on. I keep having to re-learn this lesson. I know it works. I’ve seen it work many times, every time. Creativity seems to flow best while you are in the process of creating. It’s totally dumb, I know. It feels like jumping out of a plane and then trying to build a parachute on your way down, but that’s how it works.
It’s that same creative force that will work against you if you edit and revise *AS* you are creating. The process of creating causes a ton of creative ideas to flow, and allows you to see things far more clearly than when you were second-guessing yourself at the starting point. The trick is that instead of constantly revising as you go, you are able to get ideas onto the screen as quickly as possible, and then review, improve, and repeat. This means a rapid (and cheap!) iteration cycle.
As I said, I’m bad at it. I am one of those guys who tends to edit as he goes, get stuck in analysis paralysis, etc. When I *do* it, things go great. I have the same problem when I’m writing – I have to fight the urge to edit and revise as I’m creating. You’d think I’d learn…
I’ve even gone on record a few times against design documents – even though I sometimes use them myself. That’s mainly because I think that the industry has used them incorrectly. But done right, they can be an incredibly useful prototyping tool. You can’t design fun on paper, but sometimes putting it all on paper and drawing quick sketches can show you where the sucky parts are. And even if you know you are going to be chucking the blueprint at some point to go off in your own direction, it’s extremely useful to actually have that starting point. Again, it’s that creative process at work — the ideas tend to flow better while you are building on something that’s already there, rather than trying to summon them from the clear blue sky.
So – with all this aforementioned obsessing over development speed (which sucks) and my tendency to get mired down by analysis paralysis, and the likelihood of “feature creep” raising its ugly head after it’s too costly to make serious changes. I think it’s all about prototyping and getting that rapid iteration process down. Taking that same idea, it’s better to start with a flawed process that I can improve on than having no process at all, so I’m working out something semi-formal to use as a crutch or guide.
Note that this is for content, not code. While code is in no way ‘complete’ at this point, the key features for a playable game are all there, and I’m now transitioning to hardcore content development mode. It’s time to go from basic outlines to detailed gameplay. Some stages are merely on paper (write-ups), others are actual in-game prototypes.
Here’s what I’m currently trying – the stages of the process:
#0 – Brainstorm (write-up): Given the needs of the level / area / quest, I just write down ideas. A mess of them. Ideally, I should keep this is a standing, living document, because ideas that don’t make it into the current level can be used elsewhere. This doesn’t need to be done every time for every level. At least for me, I already had an outline and basics planned (for years) for the main areas. But it’s still a good place to go back to for ideas.
#1 – Simple Overview (write-up): This can be in paragraph or bullet-list form. Taking the ideas that best fit from the brainstorm stage. But this is describing the key concepts for the level / area / quest. I describe my key elements (location / backstory / story progression / quests / main challenges ) in a sentence or two, and come up with something that might be two or three paragraphs in length. Then I’m working with something concrete.
#2 – Detailed outline (write-up): This is where I draw up the map (at least mentally, if it’s a tiny area), and expand each of those one-or-two-sentence elements into one or two paragraphs. I also break out all of the key encounters and features. This isn’t every single detail. This is “everything important about this level.”
#3 – Gray-box walkthrough (game): I finally get things on the screen. This is where I create a rough level capable of being walked through, with all the key features placed in non-interactive or semi-interactive form, but without the full gameplay. The levels at this point are “gray-boxed” – simple, ugly geometry with a stand-in texture. By walking through the level and seeing where everything will go, I can see what needs to be tweaked and added. This can also give me some cool ideas that may or may not fit.
#4 – Playable Gray-Box Level (game): Attempt to add at least a simplified version of most interactive elements. At this point, it may look ugly, nothing is properly balanced, but if you squint REALLY hard, you can see the final game from here.
#5 – Beta-level (game): This is the “final” version of the level. At this point, the changes are either going to be small and often bug-related, or they are likely to be costly to make.
One amusing note here is that, in a way, I’m actually embracing feature creep. At each stage, I’m actively inviting really cool ideas for new features and changes to the game. At each stage, the range of allowable changes grows a little smaller, but there’s plenty of room for big changes all the way up to the final stage. But if it’s an inevitable part of development, why not take advantage of it?
How much time should each of these take? Each stage does take a progressively longer period of time (not including the brainstorm session). Stages 1-3 can all be done in a single evening, with the first stage only taking a few minutes, the second stage taking a half-hour to an hour, and the third stage probably taking well over an hour. After that… it really depends on the size of the level.
Anyway, this is actually a new process for me, although it has evolved from what has worked for me in the past. I’m going to try and stick with it, to defeat some bad habits of mine, and see how things go. Things are starting to hit an acceleration phase, and we have a hard deadline of the first of September facing us for a fully playable, awesome, show-worthy level.
Filed Under: Books, Frayed Knights, Production - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 13, 2014
Like I don’t already have more games than I have time to play?
GOG.COM is having a game sale that includes steep discounts, daily bundles, and “flash sales” that are changing every hour.
I think they are fundamentally evil.
Filed Under: Biz, General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 12, 2014
At this point, it’s not such a major milestone in the grand scheme of things, and I’m not sure whether to cheer or just breathe a sigh of relief. It’s really more of the beginning of the process, but I feel it should not go unremarked. Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is greenlit for Steam.
I gotta admit, there were times where I had almost given up hope. Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon has turned into one of those “cult favorites,” I guess. A game that won some awards and some critical praise from the places that mattered, but has largely been off the radar of about everyone else. I still hear from people who discover it for the first time, who say things like, “Wow! Why isn’t this game on Steam already?”
There are a lot of reasons, and not all were factors outside of my control (although perhaps some were a little out of my depth).
Better late than never, I guess.
It’s funny – after spending pretty much my whole career involved in the video game business in one capacity or another, there’s still a ton I don’t know. I learn every day how much I don’t really know. It can be brutal on one’s self-esteem at times.
What I do know is I love being the guy who makes these little games. And I know that I’ve got people in the community who give me tons of support in all kinds of ways that I couldn’t have imagined. Even the “Frayed Knights” logo was done by a member of the community, Boro Milanovik, who took pity on my graphic design skills. You guys are super awesome, incredibly supportive, and really have your act together – better than I do. You guys rock.
I just wanted to take this time to thank all of you for offering your help, support, cheering, and votes. My voice doesn’t carry very far on its own – you guys added your own, and it has made a difference on every milestone we’ve achieved, including this one.
I hope this will lead to Frayed Knights finding a wider audience. These days Steam may no longer the “golden ticket” it once was, but it is still a valuable opportunity. I really hope the sequel will benefit, also. Now comes some additional work to get this game ready for Steam, in addition to getting the sequel ready for the big show in September. So I guess I need to finish writing this blog post and get back to work.
Ya’ll have fun!
Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 16 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 11, 2014
In light of Computer RPGS: The Wallflowers of the Steam Age Part 1, are computer role-playing games worse off in the age of cheap, plentiful games than other genres, and if so, why? What inhibits people from starting them, and once they start, what makes them give up long before the game is complete?
From the responses I’ve seen, the seriousness of the problems with RPGs is more acute than other genres for some gamers, but not others. While the responses were largely from RPG fans, and not from the gaming audience in general (many of whom may very well hate the very notion of the role-playing game), my feeling is that there’s nothing truly unique / specific to RPGs that might make players reluctant to start or complete the games.
That means, for my purposes, I can probably ignore anything that suggests that RPGs should be less RPG-like.
But there are a lot of things that do leave players feeling cold. Trying to combine lots of specific issues into some general problems, here are the top ten reasons, in no particular order:
1. RPGs take too long to complete
For many players, the ability to enjoy the same game for dozens of hours is a virtue, but it is daunting to some. If I only have time for maybe 5 hours of game-playing a week, and a game will require about 70 hours of gameplay to complete, that means I’m going to be “stuck” with that game for several months. While that can be wonderful and exciting, it can also be a bit daunting from the get-go. As plentiful as games are now, a lot of people really want experiences that are between 8-20 hours, rather than the dozens and dozens of hours demanded of RPGs in the “good old days” (which, in retrospect, weren’t always so good). In a lot of ways, the long playing time of the old games gave rise to some of the most time-wasting mechanics still present today.
2. RPGs take too long to get into
This is a bigger issue, and I don’t know anybody who would strongly disagree. While the style and mechanics of RPGs make it difficult for the player to really “get” the story and and mechanics in the first five or ten minutes, many games can do a lot better. The culprits are too numerous to name, but I’d say some of the bigger, mainstream titles are worse culprits. It’s like they are so afraid of exposing players to the complexity of the game that they never turn control over to the player. Likewise, the stories may be deep and interesting, but it takes forever to really offer the player a “hook.”
3. RPGs demand long gameplay sessions
Some players complain that – either because of save point limitations or simply the dearth of natural breaking points, RPGs often feel like they need long, solid stretches of gameplay. This limits the appeal, because adult players often find their time to game in much smaller segments – ten minutes here, a half-hour there. We may have twelve hours a week we can devote to gaming, but never in any block of time larger than an hour. If we feel we can’t enjoy and make progress in an RPG in that time, we’re not going to play it during our twenty-minute “breaks.”
If the players feel like they are just grinding – not gaining any truly new toys or powers to play with – and facing very similar challenges hour after hour, they are going to get bored and quit. There’s nothing exciting about gaining five levels only to learn you are fighting a level 28 orc instead of a level 23 orc, using exactly the same strategies.
Worse – and I have heard this from a lot of people – is when the game mechanics really require very little strategy, and are really dependent on character attributes / levels more than anything else. This leads to grinding, as the only way to get past parts of the game is to make your character stronger, rather than trying to be more clever about it.
5. Storyline grows stale after several hours (or never gets going in the first place!)
I personally feel that a good story can make up for (or at least temporarily fill in for) mediocre mechanics in an RPG. I’m also of the opinion that you can have a great game with little or no story (see most roguelikes…). But in a story-heavy RPG, if players are still having a tough time wondering why they should care what’s going on, it’s going to be hard for them to care about double-clicking the game icon when there are promises of more entertaining games out there.
6. Generic Settings and Storylines
I only remember seeing a couple of comments about this, but I immediately agreed. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been turned off by a game by the introduction, because it sounds like the same kind of crap I’ve already played a dozen times before.
The thing is – not only does this not necessarily require a major effort in world-building, but that’s actually probably counter-productive. People are comfortable with popular fantasy tropes in a way that they wouldn’t be if everything is bizarre, weird, and new. What’s often needed is attention and detail paid at the micro scale, not at the macro scale. Even if the world as a whole is a Tolkien-inspired D&D-style FauxEuropeanMedievalWorld, if there are some unique ideas and strange occurrences a-brewing in my character’s alchemist’s guild when the game opens, I can be intrigued. Just as I can be intrigued by a million stories taking place somewhere in “the modern world.” There’s no excuse for not having something to make the setting and story “fresh.”
7. Hard to continue after an absence
This includes both forgetting how to play, and simply being unable to remember where you were and what you were doing after an extended time away from the game. It happens – especially when games are pretty long. Maybe a new, shiny game “interrupted” our RPG, but we fully intended to come back to it. But when we try, we are immediately lost. So we don’t have much fun, and by the time we quit we’ve only barely gotten back on track, but we’re no longer motivated to play again.
This is possibly the number one complaint I heard from people. Some of the problem may stem from most RPGs not being easily playable in bite-sized sessions. But the key point is the assumption that a player will play the RPG from start to finish without major interruption, so they should have kept everything in their head. Not so, especially not in the modern gaming era. “Binge-playing” is now the exception, not the rule.
This is one area where the virtue of a genre (for example, non-linear gameplay) can become a liability if designers aren’t careful.
8. Lost in Creation
Some players get confused / lost during character creation. Too much to control, and even with instructions its hard to know how the abilities will play out in the game itself.
9. Random, “Filler” Combat
Yeah, some people don’t like surprises, and always want to be the ones to initiate combat. But the problem is made so much worse when the combat doesn’t really have a point, have any real challenge, and serves no purpose other than to slow down progress in the game. People who prefer the exploration aspect (like me) may be willing to accept risk that comes with it, but don’t want to feel penalized for doing so with tedious fights.
10. Frustration Tolerance Exceeded
I didn’t see this one too often, but combined with point 7, this is an issue. After being stymied by a tough boss (especially when it’s clear that going back and grinding more levels is all but required), or a tough puzzle, or simply getting lost in a “what do I do now?” situation, it’s easy to drop the game for a few days. If the game is no less frustrating the next session – or worse, it is more frustrating due to difficulties getting “back into” the game, then it may become indefinitely / permanently shelved.
So there are ten of the reasons players may shy away from or discontinue an RPG. Are there others? Certainly. But it sounds like those are some of the more common reasons cited.
I’d like to work on a part 3 of this series, but it may not be tomorrow. I’d like to talk about some of the solutions to these perceived problems. These can range from well-established practices by modern developers, to wild and experimental concepts that might not work at all, but await some brave indie to give it a try.
Please add your own ideas here. What are some problems I missed, and what are some ways to fix any of these that you’d like to see become common?
Filed Under: Biz, Design, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 10, 2014
I’ve been a fan of computer role-playing games since the days when they were not known by that name, and weren’t much more than a mid-week substitute for a weekend Dungeons & Dragons game with friends. Some of my fondest gaming memories involve me sinking my teeth into a massive, meaty RPG, getting lost for hours at a time in a world of massive underworld complexes, fearsome monsters, dastardly puzzles, twisted plots (sometimes), and lots of loot.
Yeah, not every moment was great. Some of the fights in Pool of Radiance were tedious beyond belief, especially when you didn’t have a large area effect spell like Stinking Cloud or Fireball handy. But I was young and had time on my hands – more time than money, at least. I could only afford a new game every month or two, so patience came easy. As a student, games were expensive, but time was plentiful.
Flash forward to today. Between Steam, Desura, GOG, direct-purchases, and a handful from Gamer’s Gate and Gamestop, I don’t want to think about how many games I have in my “backlog.” That’s becoming true for a lot of PC gamers – we’re deluged with cheap less-recent and indie titles, constant sales and bundle deals. It’s even worse (in some ways) for the less mature but even more saturated mobile market.
Although perhaps things haven’t changed that much. When I was a kid, I’d go to the arcade and rarely put more than two or three quarters into the same machine at a visit. There were too many games, and too little time (or quarters)! I was something of a game browser, rather than specializing in one or two favorites and mastering them. I find myself falling into the same patterns today. It takes discipline and a good game for me to stick with it for more than an hour or two. There are too many games for me to try!
If I do stick with it, and it’s quick and replayable, it may become a “go-to” game for those moments I’m seeking a short distraction.
The thing is – RPGs, by and large, require a commitment. They are a favorite genre and I love it when I am fully immersed in these worlds and can play for hours without realizing how much time has passed. But getting to that point can take some effort, and when I’m tired and cranky and seeking a quick distraction, it can be daunting. It’s hard to see how much fun you will be having seven or eight hours down the road.
RPGs should not be the wallflower genre of the PC in this day and age. In theory, it should be a wonderful, golden age of awesomeness for RPG fans. After being declared dead at least twice, the genre is back with a vengeance, from high-budget AAA spectacles to spartan indie experiments. We’ve got Bioware and Bethesda blockbusters, middle-tier love-letters to genre fans like Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Legend of Grimrock, so many games in the style of 16-bit console JRPGs that people complain about it, experiments in the genre like Defender’s Quest and Heroes of a Broken Land, and an incredible variety of new, indie takes on classic RPG styles. Seriously, it’s better than I could have dreamed of ten years ago.
But a lot of these games are languishing undiscovered – or, shockingly, purchased unplayed (or even uninstalled). I have a few of ‘em myself. Genre fans are becoming collectors – hoarders. This is true of all game types to a degree, but RPGs seem to suffer more than most. (As an aside… I think I have more untried strategy games in my backlog than RPGs. They have some of the same problems, including a perceived large up-front learning curve).
I did some informal polling of friends, twitter folks, forums, and a little bit of a self-assessment. While there are definitely some things that game developers can do in general, my question was more of why computer role-playing games, in this era of plenty (or “glut” if we’re feeling less charitable) end up unfinished… or even untried. The results were unsurprising, but worth discussion. That will be tomorrow’s post.
One of the problems for me is that I wouldn’t want to mess up the core nature of the role-playing game to make it easier-to-consume. There’s a reason, when I finally allow myself to get drawn into a good RPG, that the hours fly. I am vehemently against the AAA trend to make RPGs more like action games because action games are more accessible (not to mention a lot easier to make). But I do think there are some modifications to the core structure that can make RPGs more inviting, easier to get into, and easier to stick with to the end.
More next time. But in the meantime, I’ll keep asking the same questions. CRPG fans: Do you have a glut of unfinished (or unplayed / uninstalled) role-playing games? Is it any better / worse than other game genres? What held you back from trying / completing the game? Have your gaming habits changed, and have RPGs failed to keep up?
Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 12 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 9, 2014
In particular, I tend to have one game – sometimes two – that becomes my brain’s release valve. I gravitate to it when I don’t have anything in particular in mind other than just going into idle mode for a little while. These games will serve as my “go-to” games for months at a time. When I’m feeling the need for a distraction (sadly, something that happens way too often), they’ll be the games of habit that I’ll naturally crave.
In order for a game to become my “go-to” time-waster of choice, I have to be fairly familiar with it. It’s not something where I’m actively learning how to play – though I’ll of course be improving my skills as I play. It should be repetitive and a self-contained experience so I don’t have to worry about making long-term decisions while I’m in semi-autopilot. It should be something with plenty of variation, either provided automatically, or giving plenty of options to toggle to vary the set-up a bit to keep things from getting boring when I will play it almost every day. It must be a game that is not too challenging – I want to play it to escape frustration, not to cause it. It’s usually a PC game, because it’s something that I can take a break on without leaving the room and starting up a console.
In the past, these “go to games” have included Supreme Commander I and II and Rise of Nations. Lately, Catan on my tablet has been a good one. Tower defense games have fulfilled that role. The problem with those kinds of games is that they can get pretty time consuming. I’m not a “rush” style player, so a single game can often go 30, 45, or even more than 60 minutes. While I’m playing these games to waste time, I’d rather not waste that much time all at once…
Combat flight sims have served, too, where I can whip together an “instant” mission. The IL-2 Sturmovik series (especially IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946) was especially handy in this respect. The World War II era warplanes are a bit easier to handle than a fully-featured modern jet, but all that really matters is how comfortable and familiar I am with the simulator. Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 were also great “go-to” games, as they were straightforward and always a little different. And hey, shooting up zombies is always fun.
There were some dark days a few years ago when some casual games served in that role. Like Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. I’m not proud of that era…
(Actually, that’s not at all true. It was a good game, and I enjoyed it a great deal. But for a quick game – it was what, two minutes long? – I kept playing way too many times in a row in a single sitting…)
About three years ago, I shelled out the cash for Many Faces of Go. That still occasionally serves. I felt good about this one, because my Go game has improved as a result, which can be played outside the confines of the computer program. Unfortunately, I haven’t played a lot of human partners in that time, and I fear a lot of my improvements may be based on weaknesses in the computer’s game. Still, the computer plays much, much better than me (I’m playing pretty close to the lowest difficulty setting), so hopefully I can play another human without embarrassing myself too badly.
Lately, I’ve sought to take advantage of my laziness, and made a habit out of Rocksmith 2014. I keep my guitar next to my desk, so that it takes almost no effort to plug in and play the game (an important trick, I suspect). I had to force myself for a few weeks, but now it’s a habit. Sometimes I’ll even just fiddle with the guitar for ten minutes or so without even running the game, which is good, too. I’ve managed to deliberately turn my inherent lazy tendencies to something productive, which is nice. It’s worked well.
It’s also one of the few games in my Steam list where I’m proud to have the “hours played” field in the triple digits. If skill in playing the guitar is heavily dependent on the time invested in practice, I consider that value to be almost as useful as a measure of skill as my scores in the game.
There have been a couple of times that I put dumbbells next to my desk in a belief that I could do some quick curls or something during my time-wasting sessions. That has never panned out. Maybe I need to turn that into a game, too…
Anyway – that’s how I roll. It’s also how some games on my Steam list have embarrassingly high numbers of hours played, while the bulk of the games in my account have less than an hour played (often never even installed).
So how about you? Do you have favorite games that you go back to on a regular basis, even daily, for a “quick fix”?
Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 8 Comments to Read