Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Roguelike Similarity Conundrum

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 1, 2014

Nethack_VEI’ve been playing through a few smaller, lesser-known roguelikes lately – primarily more modern, graphical roguelikes with simplified interfaces. It’s been fun, but while I might truthfully say I’ve “played them to death” (or two or three or eight deaths), I can’t say I’ve really played any of them to the point of truly grokking them.

Some are better than others, some are more complete than others, and many of them feel like they could have been built with a “Roguelike Maker” tool. Just mix in content, stir, and allow to cool before serving. Most have their own little unique quirks, which is good, and interesting to play. But there’s definitely a point when I’ve played several where I wonder in which roguelike I saw something or another. They kinda blur together.

Part of the problem is that these more streamlined, “lightweight” roguelikes are all variations of the common “roguelike” experience and gameplay loop. They don’t have the depth (or complexity) of games like Nethack (pictured above with a graphical front-end) or some of the other cult classics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they are streamlined and far easier to get started playing. But the downside when the gameplay all feels very similar and the dungeons have similar random-level generation algorithms is that they really need to do something cool to stand out. Just different monsters, items, and skills aren’t quite enough.

In this respect, traditional fantasy RPGs do have an advantage: Story. That’s not to say roguelikes cannot have a story – many do (at least one that goes beyond “kill the foozle” or “recover the unobtainium orb” – but it’s harder to tell one with procedural content.

To me, this just means that – like any other genre that’s getting kinda crowded (which is all of them) – roguelikes need to step up their game and work harder to stand out. Maybe not quite the extent that FTL did. Many argue as to whether or not it should count as a “roguelike” – which I consider a total non-problem.  But FTL, Diablo, ReceiverEldritch, Sword of the Stars: The Pit,  and other titles are good examples how far you can take the “procedural death labyrinth” idea. Variations on setting, mood, style, game mechanics, level creation, and even representation of your ‘character’ or group can totally change the flavor of the game. This is a good thing.

FTL-AE_iPad_SS1But it’s not just a “pick one from column A, and one from column B” thing, either. Perhaps more than games with hand-crafted content, procedural content games really need to have these elements – however they are represented – come together as a complete whole to unify the game. FTL really is the poster child for this concept for me – the way they took the core feeling of being in command of a crew on a small starship – and everything about the game feeds back into this idea. The story, the encounters, the mechanics, the “loot” all support this idea. But even though Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a far more conventional roguelike, the sci-fi setting and story elements also help it stand apart.

And now… moving to the superset of RPGs: Same advice. So many RPGs have roughly similar mechanics (especially if created with something like RPG Maker), the story, characters, mood, theme, setting, and everything else absolutely should be blended together into a tightly interwoven whole. Story shouldn’t just be ‘tacked on’ to an otherwise paint-by-numbers RPG (or worse, a procedurally generated roguelike… if a computer could do just as good a job as a human in making the content, yer doin’ it wrong…). It should have a strong sense of its own unique identity, and so should the player.


Filed Under: Roguelikes - Comments: Read the First Comment



Ludum Dare October Challenge returns: Sell a game! Turn pro!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 30, 2014

dollar-billThe Ludum Dare October Challenge, started 4 years ago, has kicked off again. Your mission, instead of making a game, is (deceptively) simple:

  • Sell a game.
  • Make at least $1  (Or equivalent in other currencies)
  • And thereby become a pro.

The cool thing about this one is that there are very few rules. You don’t have to start the game in October. You don’t have to even make money on it in October. You just need to finish the game and set things in motion.

More info can be found at the Ludum Dare October Challenge 2014 page.

There are some additional resources (including ways to “monetize”) that can be found at the Ludum Dare October 2014 Resources & Opportunities Page. There are lots of ways to earn at least $1, including advertising, contests, direct sales through many different marketplaces, sponsorships, etc.

Anyway – it’s a fun idea. Worth checking out. At least worth $1, amiright? The goal is not to get rich (though if it happens – awesome!). It’s to get the ball rolling. It’s not to turn it into a vocation, but to start to turn it into something more than a hobby for those who love ‘em. So, if you’ve got something you think you can finish, polish, and make ready for the marketplace in 31 days… well, why not do it now?


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



Cargo Cult Game Design

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 29, 2014

cargocultplaneWhile they were really only identified after World War II, Pacific “Cargo Cults” emerged when primitive people encountered what seemed like miraculous wealth arriving from American and European countries, particularly during wartime. They saw the airfields and ports with constant traffic of supplies from… well, some version of heaven, they believed. In some cases, the native people identified the pale-skinned visitors as coming from the land of the dead, so obviously they were gifts from the afterlife. In some cases, they believed the Europeans must have stolen the gifts intended for them.

Anyway – the notable aspect of these cargo cults was that they built these elaborate sets out of local materials in order to summon the bounties from the gods, in imitation of the operations they’d witnessed. They built mock airfields, including fake parked aircraft out of branches and twigs, and expected this to summon more cargo planes full of wonders.

It would be easy to mock, if I didn’t see the same mentality in modern life. I started making this connection when I discovered the “original” soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith to the movie Legend, starring Tom Cruise. For the U.S. release, the studio decided to replace the Goldsmith soundtrack with one by Tangerine Dream. Why? Well, Tom Cruise had a very successful movie a couple of years earlier called Risky Business, and Tangerine Dream had provided the soundtrack for that movie, so maybe there was something magical in that combination?

Who knows? Maybe they were right. It wouldn’t be the first time I falsely dismissed something as being irrelevant. But to me, it seems like people throwing stuff together to ape the the cosmetics of success without really understanding what they were doing.

I see this all the time in game designs, particularly those that are clearly modeled after recent hits. Although maybe I’m giving them too much credit – there are some titles that are nothing more than cheap rip-offs intended to divert customers. But maybe the next stage up is what you could call “cargo cult designs” – games made that are clearly intended to appeal to fans of another title, with a collection of features that seem to be included for no other reason than that other games had them. And while these games may have some good ideas – and may even go on to become major AAA successes and thus become the next target of imitation – they don’t really seem to understand the heart of the game they are imitating. They just do a really good job of faking it.

I’d be lying if I said I’m completely immune to this myself. In some cases, it’s simply following in the footsteps of tradition. Maybe that’s a step up from cargo cults – which mimic the results without understanding the cause. In the case of tradition, it’s copying (if sometimes poorly) the causes without understanding why they have the results they do. But maybe I’m again being too charitable.

The truth is, there’s a lot to understand, and the more I learn, the more I discover I have yet to learn. But I guess I can make this one plea to indies – at least those true indies who are trying to make something original if “inspired by” another game. Don’t fall victim to “cargo cult” mentality where you just copy style or features because that’s what the other game did. Take the time to truly understand the core of your game, what makes it fun and awesome.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read



Game Dev Quote of the Week: Divinely Inspired Marketing Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 26, 2014

Divine_divinity_coverAs I’ve become a little bit of a Larian fanboy, I found myself looking up more information on the Divinity series. It was years before I tried the original game. Try as I might, the name “Divine Divinity” sounded absolutely ridiculous, and in a totally lame display of judging a book by its cover, I assumed that the stupid title revealed a foreign company that had poor grasp of English, and a poor grasp of what would make a good game.

Now, I should know better. I’ve worked with publishers before. I’d heard how the publishers had dictated many elements of the gameplay to Larian. Going back recently and doing a tiny bit of research, I discovered this story, from Larian itself:

“Long story short – contract had Divinity: The Sword of Lies in it. Publisher revised it to Divinity: The Sword of Lies (working title). The day the contract was signed, we were informed the new name was going to be Divine Divinity, courtesy of the CEO who just made tons of cash with Sudden Strike and now figured that any new title needed to have an alliteration in it, or so we were told.

“We told them that was a stupid idea. They didn’t like us telling them it was a stupid idea and they were also the ones checking our milestones so eventually we had to shut up, especially when inevitably we were late with a particular milestone. End of story, the person who came up with it indeed had poor taste in names and I agree that it probably cost us a lot of sales – most people thought it was a porn game.”

Divinity: Sword of Lies would have been a pretty cool title. Maybe not one that attracted me to the game, but certainly not one that would make me dismiss it. I can’t say the title cost them a sale, but I can’t say it didn’t.

But now you know the secrets of 80% of the game marketing gurus out there. I’ve known a handful of pretty sharp ones, but at least in the 90s when I was more closely involved in that side of things, this was exactly how things ran. One more reason to be happy about the indie revolution. Sometimes its nice, in the midst of the crap we have to deal with now, to remember just how much crap we left behind.

So now, I’m sorry, Larian, for assuming you were responsible for the crappy title. I knew you had to make compromises based on publisher demands and budgetary constraints in other areas, so I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.


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



Big Indie-an vs. Little Indie-an

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 25, 2014

“Indie” has been a purposefully inclusive title. It designated those games or game developers that worked outside the standard gatekeepers, the big game publishing industry that dominated the scene only a few years ago. It was really a catch-all to cover everybody excluded from that system. Even then, there wasn’t a great hard-and-fast rule to defining “indie.” Over the years, as the “indie revolution” has taken over, the flexible term has been stretched even further.

I always maintained that one of the purposes of the term was to reset expectations for gamers.  The big-publisher industry had spent many years and an incredible amount of of money convincing people that quality could be measured in expensive production values. Of course it would – that was the one thing they could guarantee. Their games might not be innovative, or deep, or tell a good story, or really any fun… but they could definitely spend millions of dollars making it look pretty!

Calling a game “indie” helped gamers give smaller games the benefit of the doubt, and allow them to push past the big-industry filters and look at a game on its own merits, allowing it to avoid direct comparison with the $50 million budget AAA games.

I still like the term “indie.” However, now that the indie revolution has happened, and at least in terms of number of titles released has eclipsed the mainstream biz, the inclusiveness of the term has really broadened things. You’ve got “indies” with millions of dollars of development budget (which back in the beginning of my career was AAA right there), and you’ve still got the hobbyist indie cobbling something in his bedroom. By many definitions of the term, Wasteland 2 – created with major crowdfunding effort and some in-house funding, but without any involvement by publishers – is an “indie” game.

Wasteland2_ss1

Then you have a very, very indie (and very fun) VVVVVV by Terry Cavanagh – sort of my poster-child for awesome low-budget games:

vvvvvv_flip1

Okay, now everything else being equal (price, etc.), I’ll admit that I’d grab Wasteland 2 before VVVVVV, and maybe not just because I’m a much bigger RPG fan than platformer fan. (But hey, as it is, I own both).  But things aren’t equal. And… as much as I love “indie,” it’s a big inclusive term that by itself doesn’t allow much distinction. And I don’t know how much distinction is required. On some level, VVVVVV competes with Wasteland 2. Not very directly, probably not very quantifiably, but at least in the same way that all entertainment competes for the same disposable income. It’s not infinite.

Is that fair? I don’t know. If I was a big platformer / action game fan, I might look at Wasteland 2 and think, “Turn-based? Boring!” A quick video of VVVVVV in action, and I’d be all over that. (FWIW, I happen to know that Terry is a big RPG fan, too…)

This isn’t a new problem, of course. I remember the first big flare-up with an early (6th) IGF where Savage: The Battle for Newearth won the “open” category, where its seven-digit development budget helped grab a ton of attention if nothing else. That was a decade ago. There was a lot of cries of unfairness back then, too. Now, the problem is only exacerbated by the presence of a LOT of indies, some of whom have famous names or the ability to throw big budgets at their projects. We’ve got a lot of stratification in the “indie space.”

I don’t know if customers really care. Again, the indie revolution has won, and I think a lot of gamers are now ready to look past the surface. Graphics still have to be NICE, of course, but they don’t need to be anywhere near cutting-edge. And the screenshots still have to be compelling and stand out. That’s always true. But maybe we’ve finally broken free of the need to reset those expectations so players can take a game on its own terms, rather than comparing it to what it isn’t.

So maybe any attempt to label the the different “tiers” of indie is pointless. Maybe it serves no purpose. But for me – maybe because I’m also a developer, or just because I have the mindset of one – I like to create categories and label them. For me, I kinda see four “tiers” of indies these days, ranging from little indies to big indies. (In computer science, we have terms “Little Endian” and “Big Endian,” which describes the byte order of how numbers are represented. So I can’t think of Big / Little Indie-dom without thinking of those terms, and call it, “Little Indie-an”. Maybe I’m too easily amused to be able to offer any sort of gaming criticism…)

But even discussing budgets can get weird. You can have ten people volunteer a year of their time for a game, or pay the same ten people to do the same work. You may get the same result at the end, but it’s kind of silly to say the first game had a zero budget.

Tier 1 – Amateur / Student / Hobbyist

To me, this is the “starting tier” for indie game development, but any or all of these tiers could be bypassed completely by anybody. But there’s a whole category of people who are making games without any sort of concrete professional intent. They may harbor vague ideas of making money from their games, and even succeed in doing so, but they are not going to invest much besides their time and sweat into a project. They may just be learning to make games, or they may do frequent game jams without really focusing on a commercial venture. In spite of the lack of significant investment out-of-pocket, the effort volunteered by talented individuals can really turn the game into something amazing. Maybe not completely polished – that part gets long and boring at the end – but pretty outstanding nonetheless. Even the smallest and lowest-budget of indies can come out with great games.

Tier 2 – Small Indie

The main difference to me between this and tier 1 is professional intent. The budgets are still small, and while there may be a commercial interest involved, nobody has turned it into their full-time job yet. Or if they have, it’s not purely based on game revenue, but they are burning through other sources of income or savings.

Tier 3 – Medium Indie

This is where you have one or more full-time developers cranking on a game, but no more than four, and rarely more than a year of full-time development on a single game. This is a developer who is making it work on the indie front, but hasn’t yet made it big. Budgets for games becomes meaningful at this point, and “real” budgets for things like marketing and business development become an issue. Games at this tier have “real” budgets that start somewhere around the mid-five digits (in USD) up to hundreds of thousands. While being able to focus on making games to make a living offers a lot of advantages, burn rate becomes a real issue that the hobbyists and small indies might be able to shrug off.

Tier 4 – Big Indie

This is a growing tier these days, especially with the advent of crowdfunding possibilities to get these things started.  At this level, you often have real offices, several full-time employees who may rotate between projects, and budgets starting around the mid six digits (depending on location… I guess studios out in the some countries could get along at a tenth of that) up to the low millions. (Beyond that, it’s questionable as to whether or not you really ought to be called “indie”). This is the level occupied by many AAA studios in the 1990s. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the business, they can’t survive for long without hit games – maybe not home runs, but some serious hits. They have to fight budget inflation to pay the expenses necessary to polish the game to the point where it is more likely to be a hit.

 

So at each tier, you have different environments under which a game is made, and possibly a different focus for the game. The hobbyist games – which may be created in spare hours by people at a AAA studio – can be a lot more about experimentation and showing off one’s talent than a polished product.  The “Big Indie” studio is really just a minor league of the same game as the big publishers, with exactly the same pressures but a (hopefully) slightly more sustainable burn rate, and their titles will represent that. They may take some big risks – especially with genre – but they usually won’t try and fight the innovation war on too many fronts at once.

Does any of this matter to the customer? I honestly don’t know. I can see the difference, and I tend to judge games a little differently accordingly. But that might just be my developer bias showing. It does mean that the differentiating aspect of “indie” vs. big-budget titles (note that even major publishers may release lower-budget titles) has lost a lot of meaning. But it still means that a big chunk of the money you pay for an indie game is going directly to the developers who made it, whether to a larger team or a lone wolf.


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



Steam’s New Curation / Discovery Thingy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 24, 2014

If you are on Steam, chances are you’ve learned about their new Discover interface and the new curation stuff. I’ve not had much time to touch it yet, but it’s high on my priority list.

The big question is… will it help people find the games they’d like to play. I’m not sure, and the jury is definitely still out. Some of my early experiments seemed to actually reinforce the existing bias – the popular games get more exposure, and everything else gets less. That’s for default settings, as far as I could see. This concerns me a little bit, as I expect 70%+ of Steam players will be going with the defaults. And there’s a likelihood that this effect won’t go away with the curated lists… again, the popular games may get more popular, and the forgotten games dropped further down the hole. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it concerns me.

This also burdens folks with discoverability of curators as much as anything else. So it moves the problem up a level.

But you’d expect some level of teething problems with this rollout. Hopefully it will bend the curve a little bit and result in the lesser-known games getting a little bit of a handicap. I’m very interested in this both as a developer and a gamer.

So have you played with it much yet? What are your thoughts?

 


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



Shocker: Unfinished Games to Remain Unfinished

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2014

I keep grumbling (I try to think positive and to avoid grumbling too much) about people being willing to pay more for a promise of a game than an actual, completed game. I’ve suspected that as we had some high-profile failures in Early Access and crowdfunding games, that this might be tempered somewhat.

We’ve had a couple more major failures this week, but my desire to say, “I told you so!” is itself tempered by the fact that I’m a fan of both creators. This is the sort of thing that can ruin reputations and cause damage to careers.

clangFirst of all, as was somewhat expected, popular SF author (and, formerly, programmer) Neal Stephenson has canceled his sword fighting game Clang. This was a game that was funded to over a half-million dollars two years ago. Big name, big money on Kickstarter (especially in 2012), and a pretty big failure. He seems to be trying to handle things more cleanly than the other recent major Kickstarter game failure, the Yogventures … misadventure.

These two have made enough headlines that I do hope that people get the message, but I do worry how these failures will hurt the creators beyond reasonable levels, and how much the spillover is going to hurt the innocent. I still like crowdfunding as an idea, I just don’t like how it was abused or misused. And face it – making games is a risky proposition no matter what. Games get canceled all the time. But it becomes a different story when the customer has effectively already paid for the product, even when they are theoretically aware of the risks.

spacebaseDF9Coming hot on the heels of this is a failure from a studio that I have in the past considered a “safe bet.” Double Fine has pulled the plug on their Early Access game, Spacebase DF-9. I’ll leave you to check out the link for more information on the hows and whys. But the bottom line is that it wasn’t generating as much income as it was costing to continue development. In one aspect, that’s a developer’s dream – to know exactly how much money you should put into a game, by knowing in real-time how much it is bringing in. However, it’s also a nightmare – in spite of what you warn, customers are still buying into a promised game, not the actual early version that is available.

Double Fine is actively trying to polish up the current version of the game so it is a viable, relatively clean product, and releasing the source code to public as open-source so new development can hopefully be picked up by others. But still, early access buyers are understandably grumpy about the final version of the game being substantially less than advertised. The money is spent and there is no more, so there’s not much more I would expect from Double Fine, but I suspect this will stain their reputation for a while.

I guess the lesson to learn here is that while it has been employed as such (Minecraft, Project Zomboid, etc.), early access should not be treated as a way to fund game development, at least not long-term. If you have a minimum viable product, a game that is already worth the price but perhaps not yet fully polished and you would like to keep improving on it, sure. In that case, there’s no difference between buying a game with a bunch of free future updates, and buying an early access game, with the possible marketing exception that you are less likely to draw heat for bugs and some lack of polish in a game that’s not yet been stamped “1.0”. It’s weird, and only a semantic difference, but words matter. The important thing here is not to make long-term promises as to what the game will eventually become.

In response to some of the more embarrassing flame-outs of the projects they’ve hosted, Kickstarter has updated its terms to use to include a requirement that the creator “must complete the project and fulfill each reward.” That’s a little — well, ridiculous, but they then include a whole bunch of exceptions and appropriate behaviors to deal with failure to avoid legal action by backers. In theory, they make sense, and I hope they had help from a lawyer in drafting them. They are the kind of behaviors I’d expect from a developer, and it’s the kind of thing I’d be doing if I was running a crowdfunded project. In theory, if this constitutes something of a contract between backers and projects, this may help reduce friction and fraud. In reality… I guess we’ll see.

As always, be cautious.


Filed Under: Biz, News - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



Procedural Generation Jam 2014!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 22, 2014

Okay, I don’t know if there’s any way I can NOT participate in this one:

Procedural Generation Jam 2014

As I was told in one tweet, “We’re going to be a really laid-back jam – nine days, generous time limits, very casual and happy.” The theme is optional. I haven’t seen anything about prizes. It’s just… fun.

I’ve been a fan of procedural generation in games since I first played Telengard on my Commodore 64 thirty years ago. (Wow… that’s a long time!)  And Frontier: Elite II on my 486 twenty years ago. (Wow… that’s a long time!) And Daggerfall on my Pentium … just a little under twenty years ago (Wow… yeah, you know).

I’ve got some procedurally generated content in FK2. I’ve got ideas floating in my head for more. I think part of it stems from an underlying laziness – I want my computer to make games for me so I don’t have to. But of course, I want it to make games for me according to my exacting specifications.

Anyway, I’ve had a bunch of little ideas running through my head for a while. Should I take a week off of FK2 – or at least partly off – and spend some time making something weird but cool with procedurally generated content? Or just a content generator? I had some bare-bones 3D roguelike dungeon generation code I experimented with one weekend. Hmmmmm…..

Perhaps more important than the jam itself is the kick-off, with talks by a number of game developers on the first day. This, in my mind, is The Big Event, on November 8th. I don’t want to miss that one. Hopefully they’ll also be recorded and put up on YouTube as well.  ‘Cuz as much as I want to hear them, I don’t know if I want to skip sleeping at all on a Friday night to hear them in my time zone.

Anyway – November 8th. This looks like it will be fun and educational. My contribution may not represent a full nine days of effort, but if my schedule isn’t killing me, I may go for this one. It sounds just too cool to pass up.


Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



Wasteland 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 19, 2014

It’s out.

Or maybe I should have said, “Holy crap, it’s out!”

If I can cast my mind back that far, I remember this being the Kickstarter project I was most excited about. A known property. A known, experienced team. An RPG project that said all the right things: Turn-based, tactical, party-based. Even some of the original people working on it (or some of the people who had worked on the Fallout series, the spiritual successors to the original). Oh, yeah, and a cloth map (for the level I backed).

It was as close to a slam-dunk as one could hope for. I wanted to vote with my wallet. And I did. The only thing that could be better, I said, would be Richard Garriott Kickstarting a new Ultima.

Well, Garriott kinda sorta did (sans the Ultima name), and I still didn’t get as excited as I was for Wasteland 2.

And it has launched. Booyah. I had access to the beta, but except for a super-early access that kept crashing on me, I decided to wait until the game was complete, so I could enjoy the full experience. I guess that’s what I’ll be doing. Here’s hoping it lives up to expectations.

 

 


Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: 5 Comments to Read



Quick Take: Delver

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 18, 2014

delverOkay. Remember how I like to rant about early access, how awful it is, and how it’s possible to get screwed and all that?

Yeah. Well, Nethack has been “in development” for how many decades now? :) Of course, it’s had a number of “official” releases. It seems there are certain kinds of games, particularly highly replayable ones like roguelikes, that seem to be more “okay” with being in-development than others. The fact that they are constantly tinkered with makes things stay a little fresh.

But I’m still not going to offer a hearty recommendation or anything. But I will say I have been playing the 3D roguelike Delver lately. As far as I’ve gotten, it is complete and playable. There have been some bugs, including one spot where I got completely stuck and unable to move, thus becoming something of a game-killing problem. I haven’t gone back to that save slot again to see if an update has made it possible for me to escape yet from my current position.

So – what is Delver, and what is it like?

In short, it’s a first-person, 3D, action roguelike.  Yep, roguelike, with permadeath, procedural levels, gaining levels and new equipment, fantasy combat, and all that. If you play for a while, you’ll see the same rooms or arrangements over and over again (although the caves may be a bit more random than that). Maybe it doesn’t fit the Berlin Interpretation of a “roguelike,” but it works for me. Call it Roguelike, call it “Procedural Death Labyrinth,” call it whatever. It’s pretty fun.

The graphics are done in sort of a 16-bit style rendered in 3D. Enemies are sprites with very few frames of animation.  For me, it all works fine, and while it gives it a bit of retro charm, this doesn’t make or break the game for me. I can see what’s attacking me – it has character – and get a good idea of what they are doing. That’s key (and based on earlier, alpha screenshots, something missing in older versions).

The game is entirely skill-based. Each time you level up, you get to choose from a selection of stats to improve by one point. This selection is not complete – you may not be offered the opportunity to increase the stat you really want to improve this level. But there are no class limits, and as an adventurer you can be free to wear any armor or use any weapon, wand, or spell in the game.

This is important, as the selection of items in the game isn’t unlimited. As you delve deeper, found armor tends to improve along normal lines, from leather to mail to plate, of varying quality. There are just a few varieties of weapons, also of varying quality, but some are enhanced with bonuses like additional electrical damage. Potions vary in color, and are randomized each game so that you don’t know what a potion of a particular color does until you drink it. However, that color-coding of effects will remain consistent for that particular game until the end (as far as I’ve seen).

delver3Ranged combat occurs through bows and spells (often via wands). These use up charges and arrows, which are in limited supply, so you can’t just turn the game into a first-person shooter. On the receiving end, the spells can be the nastiest – especially from some casters. I die from a ranged blast more often than anything else. You can dodge ranged effects,  or hide behind an obstacle. You can also maneuver so that another enemy is shielding you from ranged attacks, and will take full damage. It does seem like you get experience points whenever an enemy dies, regardless of whether you were the direct cause of death, or they died from another enemy’s attacks or they fell victim to a trap.

Traps are of the pressure-plate variety that I have seen so far, and will reset a few seconds after they go off. Sometimes you have no choice but to step on a pressure plate, as it is perhaps filling the floor in a narrow corridor. In these cases, you have a few choices. If an enemy walks over the plate and takes the damage, you have a few seconds to rush forward and past it before it resets. Or you can throw an object onto it to trigger it, and either rush ahead before it resets, or – if the item landed directly on the plate – leave the item alone and let it keep the trigger pressed, so it never resets. Or, obviously, just run over it and suck up the hit.

Monsters do respawn, although it takes a while. So if you really don’t feel ready for the next level, you can wait a little bit and grind the respawns. The last time I checked, it did feel like the level maps didn’t always fill out completely. Either it doesn’t do that, or some rooms are inaccessible in the builds I’ve played, or there is a much more subtle style of secret door that I missed than usual.

It seems that there’s supposed to be some trading that can eventually be done (one the people outside the dungeon in the beginning of the game offers things for sale), and some overall goal that I haven’t payed attention to. I’ve never gotten to the end of the game, but I have picked up bits of storyline offered at random in journal pages, or by the adventurers that hang around outside the dungeon.

Like any *good* roguelike, death should not seem arbitrary, and it almost always feels like I can blame myself. I got too bold & cocky (often dying with healing spells / potions / food in my inventory), or simply got stupid and ran into a surprise I was not ready for.

Overall, this is a cute, straightforward little game that I’ve had a lot of fun with. I rarely play for more than 15 minutes in a session, but that’s part of what makes me a fan. It’s just the kind of quick-break type of experience I need, and for me, the 3D action / first-person perspective thing is an enhancement to the roguelike experience. I hope it keeps getting expanded on, and that the last bugs get fixed.  It’s worth keeping an eye on this one.

 


Filed Under: Impressions, Roguelikes - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Frayed Knights 2: Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 17, 2014

Frayed_cover_finalIn Frayed Knights 1: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I established the existence of alchemical grenades. They made the hobgoblins a lot more deadly, but they could also found and used by players, or manufactured by a certain alchemist.

A certain twisted, evil, black-hearted part of me really liked the idea. But then, I’m a guy who has my D&D characters stock up on Alchemist’s Fire all the way up to level 7 or so for fun and burning. It’s so useful for cleaning out those hard-to-reach monsters. So, in Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath, I kinda … expanded on the idea. Especially since spells have become so random.

In Frayed Knights 2, you have “shots” (as in “shot-put”) and “bombs.” Shots are single-target throwable items, and bombs affect a group. They can be used by anyone, although those with higher throwing skills will have an advantage. They serve a number of purposes:

  1. They provide access to baseline attacks of different types to attack enemy weaknesses. So if you encounter a fire-based enemy that is vulnerable to cold, even if you have no cold-based spells, you are likely (unless you’ve used them all up) to have at least a couple of cold-based bombs or shots in your inventory that you can use.
  2. They provide easy access to ranged attacks without the need to switch weapons. Positioning matters in Frayed Knights – and casters like to hang out in the back of groups where they are harder to hit with melee weapons.
  3. People other than sorcerers (which will usually, but not always, be Chloe) can have occasional access to some of the group-damage “minion clearing” attacks.
  4. When endurance runs dry, parties can fall back on throwing money at the bad guys. Yes, it’s a weird way to look at it, but when limited but “free” resources run dry in a fight, you can throw more expensive but effective weapons at them.

Bombs and shots have a range of attack types and levels. There are a couple that might not make the final cut for balance reasons, like sleep bombs. That may be a little bit too powerful no matter how much I raise the cost and lower the effectiveness. Then again, so are the sleep-based spells, so we may have a bit more work to do.

Of course, this being Frayed Knights, the bad guys are going to have access to these kinds of weapons, too. I want to be cautious about this, because if overdone, it makes the combats far too similar. You don’t want a battle against soldiers to feel like a battle against mages with better armor, with constant spells getting thrown in the form of bombs and shots. A little bit spices things up, a lot makes things tedious, boring, and unremarkable.

 


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Is Simplicity Overrated?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 16, 2014

canabaltI have a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that hangs above my desk. I use it as a reminder – because I constantly need reminding. It says, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I have a number of favorite quotes generally attributed to Albert Einstein. One of them goes, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

These serve to remind me that a reasonable level of simplicity is a virtue. As I have a tendency to make things more complicated just to hold my own interest (like the guy who invented, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock“). This tendency gets me in trouble sometimes. I rail against “kitchen sink design” (the kind of design where you throw in “everything but the kitchen sink” in terms of ideas and features) because it’s something I struggle with personally.

But – while there’s a very huge domain of possible games out there that can be made using very simple mechanics, it should be obvious that there are several orders of magnitude more game possibilities when you combine two or more of those simple mechanics together. But this increases complexity, especially as the number of potential interactions between the systems increase. This is a fascinating challenge of game design in itself – how do you limit or facilitate these interactions in a way that keeps complexity reasonable for your target audience?

Anyway, all this is really an introduction to a fascinating piece by Craig Stern, “Against the Cult of Simplicity.” He makes a ton of arguments (he’s a lawyer by day, so he’s good at this) that while simplicity may be a virtue, it is not the only virtue. It seems that the indie community is perhaps getting pushed too far in that direction. While it may be a good thing to correct some poor tendencies, what we’re really going for is a balance. Simplicity is not the end-goal for many (or even most) games.

suikoden2It’s something of a companion piece to his earlier article at indieRPGs.com, “Where are all the RPGs at IGF?” This article illustrated another bias against more complex games – simpler games are faster and easier to “get,” which makes them more likely to get a fair shake from harried judges at these shows. If a game even sounds like it’s going to take more than ten minutes to evaluate, many judges won’t bother even looking at it.

Much of the challenge and delight (I like using that word – it isn’t exactly the same thing as “fun,” but it can encapsulate fun, fascination, admiration, and many other factors) of RPGs is in the interaction of these systems. Even in relatively simple RPGs (think 16-bit-style JRPGs), these systems can get really complex, balancing combat, exploration, some skills, leveling, gear, and expendable items (which represent a cost in gold, replenished through combat and exploration). But this is something that can’t be fully introduced to a player in five or ten minutes. You can touch on it, but it’s still a lot for a player to absorb, let alone gain any kind of mastery.

I think I’m in complete agreement with Craig, here. I believe that the quote attributed to Einstein (whether or not he really said it, it’s a good one) should be applied on a per-game basis, not to games in general. Extremely simple games are awesome, and can be both critically and commercially successful (Flappy Bird, anyone?). But that’s not the be-all, end-all goal of game design.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read



The Indie World, Post-Minecraft

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 15, 2014

Unless we’re all victims of the most epic troll of gaming history – or the deal suddenly turns sour before the contracts are all signed (and it may be too late for that), it’s official – Minecraft and its studio Mojang are being sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Which – is mind boggling. Utterly mind-boggling.

You can read some general information from Mojang here – Yes, We’re Being Sold to Microsoft.

And from Notch himself – I’m Leaving Mojang

I think Notch’s personal comments struck me the hardest. Here’s a small indie guy who made games for the love of games, and making them. And he found a role thrust upon him. Of course, for millions of dollars, one can deal with a great deal of additional pressures. But after a point – no. I get it. At least as far as someone who has never been rich can get it. But I have been poor enough to know that how some days it feels like money will solve everything, and then comfortably middle-class (and friends with some relatively wealthy folks) for long enough to know that it won’t.

But here’s the biggie. After so much money, Minecraft really wasn’t an “indie” game anymore. After this sale, it definitely won’t be an indie game anymore. And we’re living in a world where a game started in some guy’s apartment as a solo effort for a few months managed to make a truly obscene amount of money, to the point where it was sold for $2.5 billion dollars to one of the biggest companies in the world. And let’s get real here – it’s Minecraft that’s being bought / sold here. With a support team. The rest of Mojang is an afterthought – or, to be more charitable, icing on the cake.

Nobody believes this sort of thing is typical, but the fact that it’s proven to be achievable may drive some very strange thought. I remember several years ago when new people would constantly ask (and I was one of them, at first…), “how much money can you make with an indie game?” The answer was never satisfying, because it was like answering, “How long is a piece of string?”

Today, the answer to the question of what you can theoretically make with a single indie game is roughly $2.5 billion. Plus the millions made up to this point.

The thing is – and new game developers often don’t get this – it’s not a linear scale. You can’t make a game that’s half as good as Minecraft and expect half that kind of return. At this stage in the game, you can’t make a game that’s ten times as good as Minecraft and expect half that kind of return.  You can’t make a business plan out of these kinds of stories, any more than you can “invest” in a metal detector expecting to find millions in buried gold coins in your backyard. Sure, it’s been known to happen. But the odds are against you, and it’s not like there’s a prize for being a runner-up.

My feeling is that this is the climax of the so-called “indie bubble.” Maybe there’ll be a lot of johnny-come-latelies who finally figured out that there was a gold rush going on, and cluelessly believe they can achieve Minecraft success levels if only they spend enough money marketing.

But what it really does for me is put the final period on this chapter of game development history. Towards the end of the last decade, I would ask, “Is this the ‘Year of the Indie’?” – Whatever that meant. I couldn’t really tell until the year was over. I think around 2007 or 2008 marked when I thought indie gaming finally gained some real traction, beyond the “casual game” space.  And of course, with mobile – particularly the early success of the iPhone – things just exploded. But that’s died out now, and anybody piling on because of this Minecraft peak is probably going to experience disappointment.

I guess my new question is, “What now?” Of course, if I could answer that question, I’d probably be rich. Maybe we’ll get one more surge of Minecraft wannabes. Maybe – after this last surge, we’ll get something approaching maturity and sanity. I dunno.


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



Game Dev Quote(s) of the Week: So Much For Common Wisdom Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 12, 2014

DOS_0006For today, here’s a super-fresh quote from Swen Vincke or Larian Studios, which strikes near and dear to my heart. After hitting a home run, selling more than a half-million units, paying all the debts and investors and being able to fund the next game with the proceeds, Vincke snarks:

“So much for turn-based fantasy RPGs not selling, crowdfunding not working and a developer like us not being capable of bringing a game to market without the help of seasoned publishers.”

This is from today’s post, “Thoughts after releasing Divinity: Original Sin and what comes next.” I recommend reading the whole thing, if you are either a fan of Divinity: Original Sin, or a game dev, or just interested in game development. The whole article is awesome, combining some temporary business-related thoughts as well as nuggets of wisdom about building games in the modern era. Here is one nugget of wisdom I couldn’t help but quote:

“If content is the king, polish is the queen. The best content in the world will get low ratings if you have a poor UI and no gloss, or if players don’t understand your systems. These are easy things to say, but they are very hard to put in practice and sometimes you find that you may have to backtrack a lot. Don’t hesitate about this, just do it.”

I could comment on both, but as usual, I feel like I’m only a poor follow-up to an expert. But I do remember being told by one the executives at Infogrammes (now Atari) after they acquired us around early 1999 that they did not believe there was a market any longer for role-playing games. He told me this when I could look at the chart of the best-selling games of the previous year, and I remember seeing something like six of the top 20 games being RPGs. Or maybe I’m combining console and PC game sales in my mind. But I remember Diablo was getting long in the tooth and cloned, that Baldur’s Gate had been a big hit, and Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation had rocked the world pretty thoroughly. His information was about five years out-of-date, and hadn’t really been true even then. Of course, when they finally realized RPGs really were selling, it was because “the market changed.” No, they were never wrong, the market simply changed around them.

Pesky market.

There’s a lot of factors involved in what sells or doesn’t. Content and polish, as Vincke says. The marketplace. The competition. The mass appeal. Sheer luck. Who would have thought that a game with giant block environments and characters that looked like 8-bit game characters rendered in 3D blocks would become a mega-hit? Nobody. Not even Notch.

And as for polish – well, as he says, easier said than done. It can be hard to see when you are really close to it, and it’s hard to know when enough is enough. Great companies have fallen because they couldn’t settle for “good enough.” Many more have fallen because what they thought was good enough… wasn’t.

Either way, though, I’m thrilled by the success of Divinity: Original Sin. Not only is it a great game (from as much as I’ve played, which isn’t nearly enough), but it “sticks it to the man” (and to “common wisdom”) in all the right ways.


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Voice Acting: Am I on the Fringe, Here?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 11, 2014

I tend to agree with Ken Rolston on the use of voice acting in RPGs. And Shamus Young. I’ll just excerpt the salient bit from Ken’s interview a few years back:

“[L]et’s talk in the abstract about the worst thing that ever happened to role-playing games is recorded audio for dialogue. I happen to believe that was the death of my joy. Because that limits… that causes production things… the content has to be nailed down at a certain point.

“So [voiced] text is not easily revisable. As I play, text is easily revisable; audio isn’t. As I play, I want to make tiny little changes to the tone, to the feel of things, but you can’t do that when you have all this audio — oh my god, all the audio that we have to record! So what I’m going to say is: for what the audience wants, we are forced to create these things that are very brittle, that cannot be revised.

“Whereas in the happy old days of Baldurs Gate and things like that, I thought you had the best of both worlds. You could have a little snippet of dialogue that would give character, but then you would get in text trees which you could easily scan and click through. For page, that’s the important thing; dialogue pace. In a good old-fashioned role-playing game, the user controls the pace, where unfortunately in both video and recorded audio, you can’t scan it and you can’t backtrack in it.”

Now – I love good voice acting in games. Everybody does. And I cringe as much as everybody else at the bad stuff…  Few things can make a little animated character on the screen come to life as well as expertly done human voice. We hear the nuance. We hear the emotion. We hear character.

But… like much of story, it comes at a cost. It conflicts with gameplay. It limits, as Young and Rolston explain. If you want your game to be more like a movie, so that the gameplay is a linear affair that acts as an interactive separation between talky bits, fine. But I like my RPGs to be a bit more open-ended than that.

Speaking as a developer… I had text and dialog changes constantly in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Right up until release (and afterwards, actually), I was tweaking the story as much as the gameplay. The two had to work together, and in spite of my best efforts I’d find dialog that had to be adjusted (or branched) to account for the different ways in which the player might navigate the story and the world.  That’s hard enough to write when it’s just text. What if those had to be revised with yet another trip to the recording studio? What if the original voice-actor wasn’t available? Does the cost and inflexibility of voice-over work encourage developers to skimp on potential dialog? (If so, I haven’t noticed, but it would certainly impact me, the shoestring budget guy).

Talking to someone at Comic Con last weekend, they recommended fully voiced dialog for my game because they hate to read when playing a game, but they will listen to somebody talk to them “all day.” I mentioned that for me, I’m kind of the opposite. Maybe for the first couple of lines – especially if it’s a major bit of character-revelation or a significant plot development – I’ll listen all the way through. But most of the time, I’ll read through the line of dialog, and then interrupt the voice-over in mid-sentence to jump to the next part. Voice is just too slow.

I love the idea of bringing the Baldur’s Gate style back into vogue – where the first line or paragraph was voiced in any particular scene, so you get the flavor of the character. But in talking to some modern players, they aren’t so keen on that. In short – players don’t want to read when they are playing a game. (I suspect some of them don’t like to read, period, but that’s another story.)  I do get that. I find myself in the same boat. When playing a game, certain parts of your brain are active, and get into a rhythm. Going into text-reading mode completely breaks that flow, and engages different parts of your brain. At least, that’s how it feels. It breaks the flow of things. And while gaming is primarily visual, we can be interpret audio information and communication in a way that’s less disruptive then stuff we have to process visually.

So I dunno. Maybe I’m out there on the fringe, wanting a return to the Baldur’s Gate style “samples” in hopes of getting the best of both worlds. Maybe I’m really out to lunch on this. Maybe I’m too far from the “mainstream.” I dunno.


Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 18 Comments to Read



Notch – Cashing Out of Indie-dom (for a while)?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 10, 2014

markus_perssonMarkus “Notch” Persson is an incredibly lucky person. And with that, I don’t mean that at all as a slight against his skills. The guy paid his dues. He made craploads of games for previous employers. He co-created an MMO. He participated in Ludum Dare competitions. He’s got mad skills. He’s easily in the top 20% of indie programmers – probably in the top 10%, and he’s got a good head for design. He’s better than me. He was destined for success, sooner or later. But now he is a rock star. That’s not an inevitability no matter how good you are. His stardom came through a combination of skill, hard work, and an unbelievable amount of good luck. Things just clicked and went viral, and he was good enough and positioned well enough to take advantage of it.

And now, the rumors are circulating that Microsoft is offering just under $2 billion (with a “b”) for his company. And, of course, Minecraft.

Me? I’d take it. You can fund a lot of startup game studios and new game projects for a couple of BILLION dollars. Of course, we’re not talking about a lump sum of a couple billion dollars of cash here, either. It’s probably staged and a combination of cash, stock, and other assets released in a staged fashion. But I’d be for taking the money and using it to change the world. After all, at a certain point, that’s all that kind of money is good for – it’s exceeded your capacity to use it as a plain ol’ consumer. You gotta hire up people to do awesome things.

minecraftlogoAnd for that, good on him! The only thing bad about it is that it’s given a lot of people some very strange perceptions of what indie gaming is like. There may be another story like his in the future – I sure hope so – but it’s not like anybody of half his ability and half his diligence (or even an equal amount of both) is just going to go out there, make a game, and expect half or quarter or even 1/100th of the success he’s achieved. Especially not with just one or two games. Sometimes – like Rovio with Angry Birds, or Terry Cavanagh with VVVVVV, it’s a last-ditch effort after innumerable failures that brings success. And sometimes the “big hit” never happens.

Now, if I were Microsoft (or rather, if I was in Microsoft’s shoes… I can’t possibly envision what goes on in the corporate mind that causes them to be so disdainful of their customers), here’s what I’d put on the table:

#1 – The total distribution would be tied to Notch being directly involved in the release of Minecraft 2. Microsoft has it’s eye on a franchise, and it needs to be launched by The Man himself. The guy managed to make himself a rock star – the very thing the publisher / studio system has repressed for the last couple of decades – so you want him to the the front man.

#2 – I wouldn’t mess around with current distribution of Minecraft 1. In fact, I’d allow it to continue being ported to other platforms. The more the merrier. I’d want EVERYONE to have the opportunity to play Minecraft 1. And get addicted.

#3 – Minecraft 2, I’d be a schmuck about and limit it (probably) to Microsoft platforms. So all those people who loved the game on every system under the sun would find their way to own the new one on a PC, console, tablet, etc.

#4 – And yes, I’d milk the name and franchise as much as possible. I’d want new games to come from “the creators of Minecraft!”

Assuming these rumors are for real and it really does go down:

Yeah, there may be some people out there hating on him for even considering this deal. Many of them would probably take that deal themselves in a heartbeat if the situation were reversed. Assuming it goes through, nobody really knows what this means to the game that indie legends are made of. Hopefully, as gamers, we won’t notice a difference.

But you know what? It’s his game, and it’s his call. I hope that, in the end, he’s satisfied with his decisions. I’m pretty happy for him. He didn’t set out with this kind of expectation, and I honestly believe that he did what he did in order to make the coolest game possible. I’m happy to know that occasionally, that still pays off.


Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 12 Comments to Read



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