Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Utah Digital Entertainment Meeting – June 2015

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 11, 2015

StayTalkingAudienceLast night I went to the fourth meeting of the newly-renamed Utah Digital Entertainment Network. It was the first one I attended, mainly because they’ve been doing better at getting the word out and because my friend Steve Taylor of Wahoo / NinjaBee Games was the guest speaker, talking about “Building a Game Studio in Utah – Lessons Learned, and What’s Needed.”

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was really impressed. The meeting was on the top floor of the Zion’s Bank building in the heart (literally) of downtown Salt Lake City. While it remained a less formal meeting, it had a much, much different feel from Utah Indie Night. That’s actually a good thing for both. They serve different purposes.

The UDEN meeting was more professional and structured, and fit in with their goals: To be a point of connection between all these businesses, schools, organizations, government, and events happening in this combined field here in Utah, so that we can all stay coordinated and provide a more unified front to improving opportunities in our state for ourselves and others in our fields.

Or, in other words, to make Utah a mecca of digital entertainment – including filmmaking, animation, online publishing, and of course video games. The thing is – for years, it really has been pretty strong in this respect, it’s just that it’s sort of a well-hidden. That’s a big purpose for this group – to get the word out, both internally and externally, and help things grow. If we all know what resources are available, we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel on our own.

The meeting was therefore a hodgepodge of information, announcements, and suggestions. They announced everything from the annual softball tournament between local game development companies to opportunities at the local universities to the big conventions coming up. A section of the time was devoted to helping introduce people involved in the community to encourage networking.

The networking was supposed to only be the last half-hour of the meeting. But… yeah. It kept going. In fact, I owe emails to a couple of people at this point (sorry!). Tons of talent, entrepreneurial skill, ideas, and stuff happening for one meeting. It was a great experience, and I’m excited to go to the next one!

For more info, you can check out the official UDEN website, or their facebook site.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Frayed Knights at Salt Lake Gaming Con

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 10, 2015

SLGC2015The new Salt Lake Gaming Convention is going to be at the South Towne Expo Center August 6th – 8th, and Rampant Games will have a booth there showing the current build of Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. The playable demo will likely be the same dungeon as last time (it’s short — that’s the whole point), but with a whole bunch of new features, and more complete (and balanced!) gameplay and tutorials. I hope to have something of an “attract mode” that will show some other areas and aspects of the game.

I will be there in conjunction with the Utah Games Guild, their “Arcade,” with some awesome local developers. I’m really looking forward to this – for demoing the game, it’ll be a LOT better than Comic Con, I’m pretty sure. If you happen to be in the area and want to visit, please come visit! It’s gonna be a big party! Here’s the blurb from the site:

Another major convention is coming to Utah!

Over 25,000 gamers will be attending the Salt Lake Gaming Con (SLGC) when it visits the South Towne Expo Center during August 6th-8th. This three-day convention will focus on video games, tabletop games, and cosplay. The convention will feature top game developers from all over the country who will be demoing their games and running tournaments. We will be hosting tournaments for different skill levels so everyone has the chance to participate and have fun!

In addition to interacting with major game developers, fans will have the opportunity to meet some of the biggest celebrities in the gaming industry. We will also be hosting and promoting nightly parties and concerts as part of the SLGC weekend—access to these events will be free with purchase of a 3 day pass.

The main goals of SLGC are to provide as much fun as possible to convention goers and to eliminate the less pleasant aspects of a con. SLGC will provide constant entertainment throughout the weekend offering entertainment, attractions and activities for everyone and anyone interested in attending the con.

I’m really looking forward to this. This will be HUGE by pre-Comic Con standards, but with a totally different focus. It’ll be exhausting, I’m sure, but it will also be a blast. I’d say “I can’t wait,” but ho-lee crap we’ve got a lot to get done between then and now!

Salt Lake Gaming Con, August 6-8: http://www.saltlakegamingcon.com/



Filed Under: Dice & Paper, Frayed Knights, Game Announcements - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Learning to Fly… Among Other Things

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 9, 2015

Today, I want to talk about hardcore flight simulators. And Rocksmith 2014. Very different games, but I think the former could learn a little from the latter. And for today’s song, Rocksmith 2014‘s entry for Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly”

I love how Ellison pulls out the slide during that solo. That’s definitely not required by Rocksmith, but it works with or without. So aside from this song, what could this possibly have to do with flying?

Flying the Hard-Core Skies

dcs_a10_cockpitI used to fly the virtual skies a lot. My flight simming days probably culminated in a few titles that came out about sixteen years ago: Falcon 4.0, ATF Gold, and Longbow II. Yeah, I was always about the combat flight sims. I actually enjoy the civilian flight sims too – planning a flight, going by instruments or just enjoying the scenery in a really good simulator. But for me, the ultimate fun was yanking and banking in an airborne weapon. Maybe I was too influenced by the movie Top Gun, I dunno…

I preferred realism. The more realistic, the better. I wanted to believe that – except for the obvious physical issues (cockpit space, G-forces, monitor limitations, etc), I wasn’t “cheating” – I wasn’t doing anything a real pilot couldn’t do, and I was going through exactly the same process. I wanted to live out that particular fantasy, I guess. I studied books on the subject. And around that time frame, the games were starting to get pretty dang realistic – not only with graphics, but with their ability to simulate aircraft systems with reasonable fidelity. Not only that, but playing online with or against other players became not only possible, but relatively easy.

dcs_heli1The trick was – and is – this: It takes a long time to train a real fighter pilot. In an extremely realistic simulator, you could be expected to spend a similar amount in virtual “training.” You can’t just “kick the tires and light the fires.” Sure, the basics stay the same: Once you know where the throttle, pitch, roll, and yaw controls are (plus cyclic and collective on a helicopter), you can easily get a “feel” for any aircraft and tool around the sky enjoying the sights. Figure out the controls for the flaps, landing gear, taxi steering, and a way to look around the nose of the aircraft (and get a decent idea of the stall speed), and it’s not rocket science to get a plane on the ground in good visual conditions.

CliffsOfDover1It’s everything else that kills ya. Especially in a competitive environment. If you don’t really have your stuff down, you will be convinced the more experienced players are cheating. How can they fly so much faster, turn so much tighter, or keep evading your missiles? Or if you do something like trying to take down a bomber in a World War II simulation, and discover just why they positioned the guns where they did. You really need to know your own aircraft as well as your target in order to exploit its weaknesses without getting turned into scrap yourself.

Dialing it Down a Notch 

Back in the day, even those of us who adored the complexity of Falcon 4.0 had a lot of fun playing ATF Gold. It was still a simulator in every sense – allowing you to fly dozens of modern(ish) military aircraft from several armed forces around the world – but the controls were far more simplified. Or, I guess you could say, automated. Whereas in Falcon 4.0 you had to go through a tricky manual process to get a lock on a ground target for your Maverick missiles, in ATF Gold it was as simple as hitting the “Next Ground Target” button, and deciding if that was the target you wanted or not.  However, the practical effect was that while a pilot in Falcon 4.0 (or in real life, I have heard…) might need to be lucky and skilled to get two Maverick shots off in a single pass, a pilot in ATF Gold could launch all six of his Mavericks in a single pass, and it wasn’t even interesting. However, within those generous parameters, it was still a simulator.

While flight-sim vets had no problem getting used to it, it could still be daunting to beginners. But the weapons and vehicles all more-or-less behaved according to their real-life parameters. We had some really tremendous online battles in this game. It was realistic enough, I guess. At least someone didn’t have to clock over 100 hours of cockpit time in a single aircraft to have a hope of having fun.

atfATF Gold is the kind of flight sim I don’t seem to see these days – the “mid-level” simulator. it seems that you’ve either ultra-hardcore-realistic (even to the point of blowing away the standard of what we thought was ultra-realistic back in the 1990s), or totally arcade-style with only some semblance of simulation.

Now, in theory, you’ve got a whole bunch of tools to “dial down” these ultra-realistic simulators with cheats to make them a lot simpler to fly, including an arcade-style flight model, simplified avionics and radar systems, unlimited ammunition (always my favorite), and other tools. These are great if the player even understands what they are and what they do. Even the simplified avionics might require some detailed explanations.

We Need More Than Simplicity

So here’s where I draw the parallels: Flying a realistic aircraft is a challenge in a simulation, particularly with modern instruments. Even flying a World War I era aircraft in a competitive or combat environment (like the excellent Rise of Flight) isn’t easy, but it’s quite within the realm of anybody’s capability, given some training and practice.

ROF1Kinda like the guitar.

And that’s where I’m getting to the parallels. We don’t have the “mid-tier” flight sims anymore, so anybody who might have fun playing Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters or Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and would like to try something more realistic doesn’t have a clear path. The next step up has a really steep, frustrating learning curve. It’s… like the difference between playing a plastic Guitar Hero controller and a real guitar.

The thing is, learning new skills and exhibiting mastery over skills are inherently fun. We just do a very good job of sucking the fun out of things in our schools. But learning by doing – particularly by playing – is hardwired in our brains’ operating system as fun. A lot of simpler games understand this, and their approach is pretty straightforward. Level 1: You learn and practice a new skill. Level 2: You learn and practice a different skill, built on top of the skill you learned in Level 1. Level 3: You test both of those skills with a twist, like against a boss. Level 4: Learn and practice a new skill. Repeat.

Rocksmith pulled this off to train people to play a real guitar. They made the learning process fun (and in the 2014 edition, made the learning process far more effective. No, it’s not perfect, nor is it (or anything) enough to motivate someone who doesn’t have a serious desire to be able to play competently. But it does a lot to help people get through the grind of the intermediate skill levels and have fun while doing it.

Why can’t these hard core flight sims do the same?

Okay, yeah. “Budget.” I totally get that. It is a tall order – especially since these flight sims aren’t quite the money-makers they once were, and the hardcore ultra-realism is freaking expensive to develop. But these games need to do a better job of making the learning curve more fun to climb. Like Ed GrNot just dry lessons, but giving the player games to play while they learn. Flying through imaginary rings in the sky, scoring strafing runs on stationary ground targets, little “turkey shoots” against airborne drones (or just more stationary targets), speed runs, stuff like that. Combine that with instruction and make an entire training path something that is fun to play for the dozens of hours necessary to get competent with the systems.

DCS_F15In addition, these simulators should start with the simplified “cheats” turned on by default, and more… the game should automate certain activities as an invisible co-pilot until the player is ready to manually take on that workload. Let the AI handle the electronic countermeasures and dropping the chaff and flares for a while, until the player disables that option. Maybe the AI could assist in handling the flaps, slats, landing gear, trim, and fuel mixture for a while (informing the player of what it is doing the whole time) so the player can focus on the critical mastery of the stick, rudder, and throttle. Oh, yeah, and the guns. Gotta use the guns!

In a properly (but optionally) structured approach, the whole process can be a lot of fun, and the player can be taken from an experience not a whole lot different from playing these “arcade simulators” all the way up to the full complexity of a modern combat aircraft in DCS World. That’s how to develop a new audience.

Not Just Flight Simulators

Now, everything I just said about these hardcore flight simulators apply to every single game genre out there, particularly those that tend towards being complex and harder to get into, like strategy games and role-playing games.

CliffsOfDover2“Beginner” shouldn’t just be easier opponents.

And we shouldn’t be stuck with dry tutorials. In fact, going through a “tutorial” level in an RPG is one of my least favorite activities, mainly because it is so rarely done right. A tutorial shouldn’t feel like a tutorial… it shouldn’t feel like something you have to “get through” to get to the fun part. While it may necessarily be staged to teach you skills, it should be fun all the way until the training wheels come off. Like the impatient Ed Gruberman wanting to trash bozos with Ti Kwan Leep right now, we don’t want to go through boring training for weeks before we get to the “fun part.” And we shouldn’t have to choose between “fun” and “depth.”

But if you take the theory of fun that “fun” is our brain’s reaction to learning and mastering new skills, then this is something that could be and should be supported throughout. These games should always be introducing new skills, new activities, new things to do. And many of them do (kinda), at least on the first play-through. For strategy games, this can come as part of a tech tree (a reason why it’s so common in popular strategy games…). For RPGs, this comes as the inclusion of new character abilities.

Perhaps they can do a better job of helping the player learn to use these skills. In many casual games, there are fewer options and the level design is structured around this process. But a “smart” virtual coach in these other games could certainly make suggestions and help out.

Yeah, as a game developer, I think, “Ugh, one more thing that’s gonna be costly and painful to add.” And yeah, maybe. But maybe it simply comes down to a better way to handle tutorials, something more player-driven and doesn’t try to teach the player everything up-front in training and expect them to remember it after they’ve not had a chance to play for a month.

If nothing else, if game designers start thinking of these things in terms of staged learning, of helping the player have fun from the moment they click “New Game” from the menu all the way through dozens of hours of gameplay, it’ll be better for the games and for gaming. We shouldn’t have to wait to have fun.

Filed Under: Design, Flight Sims - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Steam Refunds: Bad for (Some) Indies?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 8, 2015

BeyondGravityIt seems the one-size-fits-all approach to refunds (which in principle I’m totally on board with) is being used against indies.

Indie Developers Report Steam Refund Abuse From PC Gamers, Show Graphs To Back Their Claims

This goes hand in hand with this article from Polygon noting that the system has been optimized to minimize the impact on Steam itself (which, okay, I cannot really fault them for doing):

Steam Refunds: Does Valve Win Either Way?

RoTTI think the first article article makes a good point about very inexpensive games that really don’t represent more than a couple of hours of quality gameplay having a different system in place. The game cited most strongly in the article (Beyond Gravity) is a procedural platformer with pretty positive reviews and a decent video of gameplay, so it’s not just a bad or deceptive game. Probably. And I can personally vouch for Revenge of the Titans – another game cited (indirectly) which has also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. I love the game.

(Which counters some of the comment arguments that say something to the effect of, “Bah! Stupid indies! Make better games!”)

Now, I’m not a major consumer of extreme short-form games. I have played a few — and I have lots of games in my Steam library with less than an hour of play. But as a child of the arcade generation, I have a healthy respect for the kinds of games that you can enjoy in doses of just a few minutes at a time. So I can at least empathize, even if I’m not the primary customer here, and I would like to be able to see this style of game continue.

Now, I like to consider myself a realist who recognizes the market keeps changing – either organically by customer migration or by fiat from the major players – and that it is up to the content creators to adjust to market reality. But right now, smaller indies are facing a squeeze from extreme price pressure – which they’ve responded to by making shorter games – and now the refund pressure which encourages longer games.

Something’s gotta give somewhere.

UPDATE: More on the Pros and Cons in an article at Gamasutra: Developers Respond to Valve’s New Refund Policy

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

Well, %$#@! Desura Owner Bad Juju Files Bankruptcy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 5, 2015

1desura_headWell, that sucks.

I’ve been a fan of Desura for quite a while. I’ve used it to discover a lot of off-beat indie games, particularly when it was so difficult to get a game on Steam. I’ve recommended them to other developers. They’ve been a decent partner to work with in the past. And of course, I like rooting for the underdog. And when rumors surfaced about missing / late payments, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. Hiccups happen, but it later emerged that the payment problems had been happening for a while.

Of course, this happens just as a payment is supposed to go out to me, as a recent IndieRoyale bundle took me over the top.

So far, there’s not been an official announcement from Desura or Bad Juju. The last we heard Lisa Morrison, head of developer relations – about a week ago – was an apology and a promise that they weren’t going out of business, were fixing the payment problems, dropping the minimum payment from $500 to $250, and that they were exploring some exciting new opportunities.

But that was all before this morning’s events. It apparently came as a surprise to Lisa Morrison too, who discovered the rumor via Twitter this morning, according to Gamasutra.  Sucks all around, I guess.

I don’t know how bankruptcy law works, or if someone is going to be able to buy Desura from Bad Juju (meaning: assume that debt for…. what, in return?) and make things right with developers. It’s possible. But right now, I’m not feeling very hopeful. In fact, I’m downright grumpy.

If you purchased Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon from Desura or via Indie Royale, please make sure you’ve got it downloaded or have used keys via an alternative source (Steam, etc). While it’s still available for people for now (and could be for many months, I don’t know), at this point there are no guarantees.

UPDATE: This from Lisa Morrison. And yeah, totally nasty surprise for her (IMO, it sounds like she was truly working hard to make good on her promises up until this happened):


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Horror Games - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

The Bard’s Tale In-Engine Video

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 4, 2015

The InXile folks released the in-engine video today for The Bard’s Tale IV. Okay. It’s only an in-engine demo. Not actual gameplay. More of a stake in the ground for what they want the experience to be like. I keep telling myself that.

Dang. To have a budget and a bunch of brilliant artists able to realize something like this. This is what I’ve always envisioned a dungeon crawl to look like, even when staring at 320 x 200 x 16 color display with only the outlines of walls. Or when sitting around at the kitchen table slinging dice.

You can check out their Kickstarter page here, if you are interested. Or simply put it your list of games to watch out for in the not-too-distant future. It’s clear they are going to make their goal. And, as an important note, they’ve also made it clear they are matching the first 1.25 million with their own investment (meaning: The crowd-funded money will NOT represent their entire budget).

I hope they pull it off.

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

Why “Bad Old Games” Matter

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 3, 2015

Filipe Pepe has an outstanding rant at Gamasutra about the disappearance of games from history. There is a similar article to be found on the subject to be found from Ars Technica. Shamus Young takes an interesting approach towards more recent games – how Windows-era games may soon become impossible to play.

As a person who both lived through that era and is fond of retro-gaming today, this is a serious consideration. While on a business and legal standpoint I understand the other side… but I’m still not happy about it.

Trespasser-coverBut in these kinds of arguments, we inevitably bring up the classics of the industry. The critical successes that were at least cult classics, if now somewhat forgotten. Those have the traction, at least among old-school gamers. You can invoke Mario and get the cheers of millions. Or Kate Archer and get a few hundred or a few thousand. And while not many people know or care about dnd as Filipe mentions, it’s still got a few rabid fans out there who will rise to its defense.

But what about the “bad old games?” The ones that sucked and maybe only not forgotten because they were truly and completely bad. Last week I talked about some pretty dang obscure little games that almost no one remembers (and a couple that would have a tough time finding defenders). These titles are currently spiralling down the memory hole, and it won’t be too many years before they could be forgotten forever. Do they matter at all? Do ancient games that never really moved the needle like Dungeons of Magdarr matter in the grand scheme of things? Do colossal foul-ups like Trespasser deserve to be remembered and archived? Or just moderately lousy ones like Tegel’s Mercenaries? What about those relatively pedestrian arcade games that really only cloned (or “ripped off”) better designs like Meteors, or Sega’s Space Attack? Does anybody REALLY need to play these games again?

Not that I’d wish Trespasser on anyone, but… you know where I’m coming on this issue, right? Of course they matter. Here are four good reasons:

#1 – One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: Okay, so maybe Meteors doesn’t matter to almost anybody today. Almost. But for someone out there, yes, it matters a great deal. Are we really equipped and prepared to make a permanent judgment on the worthiness of a game? I mean, most of the contemporary literary critics didn’t think much of Shakespeare’s plays at the time. It’s a good thing we didn’t rely upon their discretion for what survived to be experienced by later generations. Save ’em all (if possible) and let future generations sort them out.

#2 – You can learn more from a bad game than a good game: I worry that the modern crop of game designers have limited experiences on two fronts: They lack historical depth, and they lack experience in playing lesser-quality games. Without the contrast, it’s hard to know what a good game really did right. A designer may love Super Mario Brothers, but if they’ve never played any of the contemporary and preceding platformers of the era, they’ll will have a tough time understanding what it was that Super Mario Brothers did so right. Consequently, a designer may not realize what it is that they are personally doing wrong as they reinvent the wheel and go back along previously discovered dead-ends.

#3 – They may have nuggets of awesome: I don’t know of any game that is 100% terrible. Even the worst games may have sparks of creativity or brilliant ideas that were never adequately implemented. What might have been a throwaway, poorly-fitting feature in an old, lame title could be the seed of a whole new genre. Or at least inspirations for future titles. Which brings us to the next one:

#4 – These games may have inspired / informed the classics: Every game was built on ideas taken from elsewhere, especially other games. We all stand on the shoulders of giants… or really, really short, flawed giants. And the game developers you love may have been influenced by these same, crappy games. If nothing else, maybe they provided motivation in the form of the developer saying, “I can make something better than that!” That’s how Jeff Minter got his start, and I doubt the story is that unusual. Maybe they may not be the games that inspire a new generation of game dev heroes, but they have their place in the family tree.

If anything, I think it’s the crappy old games that need the protection and archiving the most. Mario, Pac Man, and Lara Croft are big enough to take care of themselves (for now). But the little games by little companies that might not even exist anymore – or worse, those by people who passed on and are no longer even available to comment on their creations – need to be preserved and playable. Maybe not for everybody. But for anybody.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

The Bard’s Tale IV Kickstarter Goes Live

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 2, 2015

inxile-reveals-the-bards-tale-4It’s up.

The Bard’s Tale IV Crowdfunding Campaign on Kickstarter

Those who pledge the first day get a free copy of one of three games … which, if you are like me, you already own. But oh, well. Maybe I can gift it. :)

While The Bard’s Tale isn’t the first game I reference when I talk about the great dungeon-crawlers of the past, it’s on a short list. I do love the idea of another party-based, turn-based (well, “phase-based”) dungeon crawler. Wasteland 2 gave me confidence in their abilities as a current developer, rather than relying solely upon the successes of the past.

So, yeah. I’m excited about this one. I figure if they can do as decent a job as Ubisoft did with Might & Magic X: Legacy, or as well as they did with Wasteland 2, then it’ll be well worth the cash. So here I am, promoting a game I’ll be directly competing against in the marketplace! Go,my competitor! May you set new standards of excellence!

It’s definitely an interesting time to be a fan of old-school western-style RPGs.


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

Sharing Simulated Skies

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 1, 2015

ROF1It’s been a while, but lately I’ve been feeling the itch to fly the virtual skies again. In part, I think it was because I’ve picked up some simulators during various sales that I hadn’t played enough to really get my money’s worth out of ’em. But mainly, I miss playing them. The problem is that realistic flight sims take a good deal of time even to learn how to play, so unless you are in the mood to take an hour to simply learn how to start your plane and taxi to the runway, it’s hard to invest that kind of time. And as a grown-up gamer with a part-time job of making games… yeah. Hard to make that happen until I’m in the aforementioned learning-to-start-the-plane mood.

My fist flight simulator was Flight Simulator 2 by subLOGIC, and … I don’t know if it was my second one or not, but soon after it was Jet by the same people. Though it had horribly slow frame rates (seriously, one frame per second!) and I couldn’t dogfight my friends to find out who really was the best fighter pilot, I loved it. One of the cool things about these simulators is that long before the era of ‘expansions’ (1990s) or “DLC” (2000s), there were these “scenery disks” for the game (of which I think I only owned one, maybe two). And they worked for both Flight Sim 2 and for Jet. And you could fly around the Flight Sim 2 areas in a wireframe F-16 or F-18.

I remained a flight sim fan, enjoying the gradually improving graphics and realism as technology improved. The next truly mind-blowing flight sim for me was Falcon 3.0, by Spectrum Holobyte. I still proudly possess the original box for this game, and the MiG-29 add-on. This game had it all… or rather, it promised it all, and delivered an amazingly large chunk of it. Multiplayer? Yes, it worked, although it was extremely slow and painful. Hardcore realism? The most hardcore realism ever seen at the time. The ability to create your own missions and actually record a play-through. And the dynamic campaign was nothing short of amazing (and remains pretty impressive even today…)

But one fascinating aspect of Falcon 3.0 was the promise of the “Electronic Battlefield System.” The idea – partially realized – was that you could link in all these expansions or games together and have a big multiplayer war taking place with everyone flying different, realistic aircraft. Or – potentially – not even aircraft. I vaguely remember talk of having players drive the M1A1 Abrams tank as part of the world. Expansion to games were still a new idea at the time, and having something like this that applied across all games and expansions – interchangeably! – was wild stuff, and a massive multiplier for the game as a whole.

Unfortunately, the only expansions to the Electronic Battlefield Series were the F/A-18 and MiG-29, both similar aircraft in capabilities and role to the F-16, and “Operation: Fighting Tiger,” a new theater of operations and campaign. Again, all these pieces could work together — buying one expansion could theoretically enhance all the rest. I had a lot of fun with these – including a few great multiplayer experiences. But the one I was most looking forward to – the A-10 – never materialized, in spite of being proudly advertised in their 1993 catalog.


Now, in fairness, this was not a brand-new idea. The IEEE has a standard protocol for doing wargaming across multiple simulator platforms for the “real world,” and it was only natural that the idea should come to “serious entertainment” too. Sort of an “operating system” for combat flight sims to all hook into. It’s quite likely that Spectrum Holobyte knew of it, and knew it would be killer idea for gaming, too. And it was, as far as it went with highly limited technology and a shortened product series.

After that came a period that introduced the “survey sim.” Instead of having a whole bunch of hardcore simulators that somehow linked together in a shared world, since flight sims were (surprisingly) a hot commodity at the time, developers and publishers adopted a “many for the price of one” model. One game, several aircraft. Unfortunately, this necessitated a streamlining and abstraction of the simulators to get them to fit something close to a “lowest common denominator” of control systems for all of the planes. But they were still usually reasonably well modeled in their flight characteristics and capabilities, and the player didn’t have to learn an entirely new control scheme for each vehicle. If you didn’t need to know exactly how to launch an AGM-65D missile from a Block 50/52 F-16, the games offered a great chance to “kick the tires and light the fires” and play in cooperative and competitive missions with other players… even online.

But for certain players, the hardcore flight sim that offered an optimized experience for a particular aircraft and role was something extra cool. Not that anyone who wasn’t already a military pilot expected the chance to use these unique skills in a real cockpit, but part of the fun came from learning real skills and experiencing (within the limitations of the technology) exactly what a real pilot must do.

IL-2 Sturmovik was a peculiar entry in the field because it began as a hard-core “study” sim – detailed for the hardcore pilot. But even though the IL-2 was the most-manufactured combat aircraft in history, it was relatively unknown in the west, which limited the appeal to a larger audience. So 1C Maddox broadened the appeal by broadening the number of aircraft, turning it into a more general sim. It ended up kinda falling into the shared world idea across multiple expansions and stand-alone titles, culminating in a full compilation IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946, which includes well over 200 flyable aircraft (albeit many of them variations of a particular model) and 300 total aircraft, across four different maps and campaigns, with multiplayer capability with up to 100 players. The 1946 compilation took things a step further by including a bunch of “what if” aircraft that were still in prototype stage or simply ideas on the drawing board which never saw combat by the time the war ended. While the modeling of all of the aircraft is incredibly ‘hardcore’ and detailed by mid-90s standards, the natural limitations of a one-size-fits-all “survey” product does bring about some limitations. However, the series continues, and as whole remains the go-to game series to this day for World War II era combat flight simulation.

The final entry of the Falcon series, Falcon 4.0, came out in 1998 and was famous both for it’s audacious ambition and its failure of implementation. At least meeting the top standards for hardcore simulation detail of the era, it included a dynamic campaign unmatched even today. Unfortunately, it was crippled by bugs and what was clearly a rush to ship the game before the studio went bankrupt. However, through some really weird licensing arrangements, a fan-made sequel was produced and published using heavily modified (and fixed) original source code and data. Falcon 4.0: Allied Force, which finally brought the simulator pretty close to its original promise, long after the original studio had shuttered. Amazingly, it still holds up reasonably well (albeit with no support for wide-screen monitors)… It still has the most incredible dynamic campaign ever attempted in a flight sim. But there were plenty of other flight sims in that same era that more than exceeded Falcon 3.0‘s promise of multiplayer capability, multiple playable aircraft in the same simulation, and hardcore realism. Sometimes even in the same package.

And as a curious repeat of history, the makers of Falcon 4.0: Allied Force planned a whole series of simulators that could be linked together in a series called “Battlefield Operations” – which again never materialized. But that was the promise started with the original Microprose release: a whole bunch of super-hardcore flight simulator packages that would all be interoperable together as one giant simulator package. Why couldn’t somebody actually pull this off? Like, Ever?

After about 2001, flight sims largely dropped off the radar (as did PC gaming in general, for a while).  They were still being made and played, but the quantity dropped off. In part, I think this was due to the genre splitting in two: On one hand, you had the super-simplified action games that borrowed some extremely simplified flight sim qualities, and on the other you had really hard-core realism. The area in-between appears to be a no-man’s land nowadays.

So now we get up to the now. The DCS World (Digital Combat Simulator) is the modern entry into the shared-simulator concept, exactly what the Electronic Battlefield Series and Battlefield Operations were supposed to be: that whole super-hardcore simulator system that other sims could be built on top of, all working together seamlessly. However, in this case, they’ve actually pulled it off, both with first-party and third-party support.

While they may have some similarities in interface, these are not “survey sims” with similar controls (with the exception of the Flaming Cliffs 3 aircraft, but even those “medium fidelity” aircraft would be more than a match for the hardest of the hardcore flight sims of the 1990s). Each aircraft is meticulously and uniquely modeled, including their controls, to be as close to an exact match of the real aircraft as possible. At least as far as combat flight sims for civilians using unclassified data, it’s about as detailed as you could ask for. Probably more so. Unfortunately, as a realization of the concept behind the Falcon series, it fails on two counts: First of all, the F-16 is not represented (yet), and there’s no provision for a dynamic campaign (although third parties have created some interesting add-ons to try and provide this).

Interestingly, although DCS World really focuses on modern aircraft, it has been a platform for some older aircraft as well, including the P-51 Mustang, FW-190 D9, and Bf-109 from World War II, the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre from (primarily) the Korean War, and the MiG-21 from the middle cold war (still in common use today). There are also three helicopters available (the Ka-50, the UH-1H Huey, and the MI-8MTV2 “Magnificent Eight”), and a slew of modern combat and trainer jets. And yes — you can even command and drive ground vehicles. They are all interoperable, though I’m not sure what kind of mission would mix Su-27s with P-51s.

In another cool move, DCS World ships for free and includes the SU-25T and a trainer (unarmed) version of the P-51. Considering I once bought an Su-25 simulator (SU-25 Soviet Attack Fighter by EA… EGA and VGA modes available!!!) at only slightly under full price, I think that’s pretty neat. Ever since that simulator, I’ve been a fan of the Su-25. If you are a fan of moving mud, it’s a pretty decent deal… if you don’t mind taking the time to learn how to fly a Russian attack jet.

One of the better deals available for it is Lock On: Flaming Cliffs 3, which no longer acts as an expansion to the 12-year-old “Lock On: Modern Air Combat” game, and offers a good mix of modern combat aircraft of “medium fidelity” to fly. Considering the level of detail exceeds even that of the original Falcon 4.0 release (Allied Force added a bunch of extra goodies) by a fair margin, I think I have a different definition for what constitutes a high level of detail and fidelity. It offers IMO the best bang for the buck for the series (especially if you find it on sale) if you don’t need to use the game as a training tool for your day job as a fighter pilot. It includes the A-10A, F-15, Su-27, Su-33, MiG-29S, MiG-29A, SU-25 and SU-25T as aircraft.

Is it the ideal of what was envisioned way back 25 years ago by Spectrum Holobyte developers for a ‘shared world’ between flight sims? No, not the ideal. At least not my ideal. Until you can have lots of players jumping in on either side of the conflict in a dynamic campaign on a giant digital battlefield, able to take on roles of any of the (significant, active) vehicles in the arena, not really. I don’t see it happening with this iteration of the engine, and the folks who attempted such a feat aren’t around anymore.

But in the meantime, at least we can share arguably the most realistic simulated skies with other players given current technology.


Filed Under: Flight Sims - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Dramatic Unrealism

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 29, 2015

sith_spacebattleMonsters in “dungeons” in RPGs don’t display “realistic” AI for the same reasons that enemy combatants in kung fu movies take turns getting clobbered by the hero / heroine. An organized defense (or offense) would… well, it wouldn’t be any fun.

But then, an organized attack against an actual entrenched forces dwelling underground in a “realistic” world would simply be plugging up the ventilation points and smoking them out (or to death). Or damming up a local stream and diverting the water to flood the place, and then literally mopping up afterwards. So long as you aren’t trying to rescue hostages or recover something that would be damaged by smoke or water, that would work nicely.

We accept these “ridiculous” tropes because they make the genre work. Same thing for big space battles. I’ve read one book series (The Lost Fleet, by John Campbell) and seen one anime TV series (Starship Operators) that focused on space combat in a somewhat more realistic manner and in such a way that it made things fun and interesting, but in general audiences want to see the Battle of Trafalgar in outer space. Close range, (relatively) slow speed, lots of guns blazing. Piecemeal damage to ships to raise the dramatic stakes rather than instant explosive decompression.

In Frayed Knights, I took some efforts to either give a pseudo-rational explanation or at least hang a lampshade over some of these tropes. But in the end — we do it because it’s fun, and as an audience, we accept it because it’s what we want to play. We’ll willingly suspend our disbelief so long as we’re not asked to go too far.

In playing any game or sport, the most interesting competition is against an opponent who is pretty close to your own skill level. This is true as an observer as well – we like to watch close games. Or in stories – we enjoy seeing the hero snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, that’s a leading reason IMO why it’s so difficult to have a great player-driven story in video games… players naturally tend to avoid such close calls as possible, and will try and secure a victory as early as possible.

To that end, audiences will accept some level of unrealism (even if they may grouse about it) as long as it makes things more fun / interesting. I always take calls for “better AI” or “more realistic gameplay” to be more of a call for greater dramatic verisimilitude more than actual ‘realism.’ We want the enemies not to seem deliberately stupid when it’s being stupid in our favor. We want them to be smart enough to challenge us, but not smart enough to wipe the floor with us. We want to be able to do cool stuff in our virtual worlds that would seem reasonable in the real world (or in a cinematic world), but we don’t want to be hobbled with realistic human limitations.

Or again, maybe sometimes we do.

Tropes can be good, even if not very believable. They just need to be handled with care. Sometimes it’s good to reevaluate the conventions, and either reject them or embrace them with a little bit of a unique or interesting spin. The important thing for creators is that even if they embrace unrealistic conventions, they do so for the right reasons – to keep things interesting, fun, and dramatic.

Filed Under: Design, Writing - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Matt Chat Asks if Wizardry was a “Rip-Off” of Oubliette

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 28, 2015

Wiz1_Chars“Rip off” is a pretty strong term, as is “plagiarism” suggested by the Chester “the CRPG Addict” Bolingbroke based on his experiences playing Oubliette on a PLATO system.  Chester makes a pretty compelling argument and lays out evidence that Greenberg and Woodhead perhaps drew a bit more than just “inspiration” from the game. However, Oubliette remained under development even after Wizardry’s release, so it can be a little questionable as to which game borrowed more liberally from the other (especially when Oubliette made the conversion to home computers).

Matt Barton managed to contact one of Oubliette’s original creators, and got some straight talk on Oubliette‘s design and development and the comparisons with Wizardry. It’s worth reading, if you enjoy devouring this ancient history stuff as much as I do:

Matt Chat: Was Sir-Tech’s Wizardry A Rip-Off of Oubliette?

There’s no question that Wizardry added a great deal to the formula, making it very much its own game. The question is really more of how and how much they “borrowed” that foundation from Oubliette – and should they have given credit (or even royalties?) to the makers of that previous game. Of course, at this point, the question is long moot. And it was an era where everyone was borrowing liberally from Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings (and in Oubliette‘s case, Thomas Covenant).

What isn’t moot is the continuing question of how much is “too much” when we take inspiration in game development today. We all borrow from each other, and we are all inspired by each other, and we all learn from each other and try to build on what we’ve loved. That’s a good thing. But there’s a certain point where a “clone” is directly competing against its inspiration, or inspiration and out-and-out copying replace creativity, and that becomes a problem. It’s also a problem when customers get deluged with what is effectively the same game over and over. Customers getting bored and disillusioned is not a formula for the long-term success of the industry.

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A New Frayed Knights Review

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 27, 2015

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a new review for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon! But Steamfirst has one, here:

Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon Review at Steamfirst.com

It sounds like the reviewer “got it,” in particular recognizing the in-party banter for exactly what it is supposed to resemble. I’d at least hope that anybody who has ever slung polyhedral dice around the table would recognize it, but that’s subject to my limitations as a writer.


Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: Be the First to Comment

Making Games Instead of Talking About Making Games…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 26, 2015

I think I’ve finally given into the fact that my schedule is never not going to be crazy. Not until I’m six feet under, at least, and I have high hopes of that being a long, long time from now.

I’ve decided my number one time sink is probably social media… it’s a fantastic tool, but must be used in moderation. It can easily turn into a never-ending hole of lost time. A fifteen-minute break, after a few fascinating-sounding articles and videos, plus some carefully crafted and researched rebuttals when somebody is wrong on the Internet, and ninety minutes have flown by. BAD. Especially when I only get about 3 or 4 hours a day as a part-timer to work on game development.

This is kind of including the blog, though only to a degree. I’m going to be throttling the average article size down to a more readable, digestible size (like this one), which is how I started anyway. I don’t know how I found myself writing such frickin’ walls of text, other than a complete inability to know when to shut up. There’ll still be some more lengthy articles (like the one yesterday on obscure RPGs ), but those will probably be restricted to only once or twice a week.

I hope that this will actually improve the quality of the blog posts in general. But while I’ll still endeavor to post something every weekday, don’t get too alarmed if I miss a day here or there. It’ll happen. Also, the invitation is still open if anyone who is a regular reader / gamer to do a guest blog post.

In the meantime, game on, and have fun!


Filed Under: Rampant Games - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Ten Computer RPGs You’ve Never Heard Of*

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 25, 2015

I struggle with the obscurity of my own indie RPG, Frayed Knights, every day. That’s a common problem with indie games, in spite of our best efforts. But compared to the average indie release, Frayed Knights is doing pretty well. It’s been in some bundles, made it onto Steam, gotten some good reviews and even won some awards that I’m very proud of. But it’s hard to even judge the “average” indie game because… shock… you’ve never heard of it. And what about the games that even more unknown than “average?”

The indie revolution has brought a whole new meaning to the concept of “obscure.” I love reading the CRPG Addict’s blog, and he relishes in discovering these old, obscure computer RPGs. And admittedly, even as a guy who thought he knew his stuff, I am astonished by some of his finds. But he’s still working in the pre-World Wide Web days right now. Things kinda exploded a few years ago, and keep exploding. About twice as many CRPGs released last year than in any year he’s covered so far, and he’s now knee-deep in the “golden age” of the game genre, circa 1990. However, the closer we get to the present day, the more opportunities also arise for… I dunno, call it “micro-publicity” or something. There’s always a tiny website that might mention or review a game (like this one), or some kind of bundle which might include your game.

Even so, a lot of these indie games release with nary a splash, sell little or bupkis, abandon the field, leave the website to be devoured by Asian vultures when the registration lapses, and are remembered by almost none. And… admittedly, these games are not usually the diamonds in the rough their creators probably believed. But in many cases, they weren’t bad, and even if they were, sometimes they contained some interesting seeds of good ideas.

I know a little bit about the challenge of making an RPG**, so I wanted to offer some celebration of the effort that went into making these titles, if nothing else. I fully admit that even as I try to pretend I’ve got my ear to the ground here, I’m unfocused enough to realize that if I’ve heard of it (let alone played it), it’s probably not really that obscure. But in celebration of these nearly-forgotten titles, I wanted to share ten of the most obscure CRPGs I have ever played. If you can still find them, they may be worth checking out – in fact, some of them I heartily recommend. But here’s a word of warning: Because these games are little-known outside of certain circles, there’s not often a lot of help or walkthroughs available online. If you play them, prepare to solve them the old-fashioned way, with very little assistance.


scan-dungeons-of-death#1 – Dungeons of Death / Dungeons of Magdarr (1983, Commodore 64): This title was only available as a mail-order from a regular multi-game ad in magazines like Compute! I remember digging through the BASIC code and discovering the dungeon maps defined as character strings, and thinking that was a pretty clever way to store it. It was a 3D first-person perspective title… and not a very good one. The odd thing is that I ordered it from this ad to the right. But I understand this game (Dungeons of Death) was a 2D, top-down game on the VIC-20 and other systems. Yet the game I received was a 3D, three-level dungeon (I remember it had 3 levels because, again, I spent about as much time looking through the code as I did playing it.)

I wish I still had the original packaging with the (Tape? Floppy? I can’t remember) and the manual (was it a single page?) Anyway, it was my very first computer RPG, and while it wasn’t the greatest experience evar, it was a taste of things to come.



vampyre1#2 – Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation (1989, DOS): One day in 1991, on a library computer at my university, I discovered Shareware. I had no money, so this was a wonderful thing. On that day, I copied a whole bunch of these shareware / public domain games onto a couple of floppy drives and took them home. Among them was an Ultima III-like CRPG called Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation. It wasn’t that great of an Ultima clone, to be honest, but it was really impressive that just a couple of guys managed to put this thing together. That was perhaps my first glimpse at to what would one day become the exciting world of indie CRPGs.


#3 – The Devil Whiskey (2003, DOS): This one is hard to label as “obscure.” If hardcore CRPG fans were hipsters, this would be one of the hipster games out there, that the “in” crowd all know about, but nobody else does. It came out in an era where very few indie RPGs were being released, so it gained some momentum by being unique. It is very strongly influenced by The Bard’s Tale, to a fault in my opinion (including an extremely hard first area – a town that is as hard as an old-school dungeon). It’s a first-person dungeon crawler with 3D graphics and quality artwork, now (finally) available via Gamersgate.



Parhedros#4 – Parhedros: Tunnels of Sethir (2007, Windows): An “old-school, dungeon-crawling, fantasy role-playing adventure, packed full of action, magic and mayhem” which

only erred on the side of authenticity when it came to determining whether certain humanoid creatures wore clothes. The answer was, “No,” although the effort was not (at least not in the demo that I played) an attempt to titillate – not that the low-poly 3D graphics could really do much of that if that had been their actual intention. As far as I could see, there was nothing more provocative than the illustrations in the old 1st edition AD&D manuals. The site is still available, though, and is still NSFW: Parhedros


os_screen3#5 – The Omega Syndrome (2005?, Windows): Inspired by the original Fallout games, this RPG was set in something of an alternate-history 1950s involving alien conspiracies. Yep, a non-fantasy indie RPG! Complete with comic-book style narratives and isometric, turn-based combat and pretty decent graphics, this was a sadly overlooked title. Eventually, in frustration, the developer removed the game entirely from sale, although you can still find various versions of the free demo out on the web.



#6 – The Three Musketeers – The Game (2009, Windows and Mac): An unusual title by Dingo Games based on the classic novel, The Three Musketeers. Again, non-fantasy! And with some very unusual opportunities (like playing Tennis – the sport of kings). And… hey, I am actually an affiliate for this relatively unknown game, and you can get it here. Okay, shameless plug over. It’s hard for me to gauge its relative obscurity, but it seemed like it fell off every radar almost immediately after release.



SSU_blackdragon#7 – Swords & Sorcery: Underworld (2010/2012, Windows): This game has been released a couple of times in progressively better quality, with a new version coming “soon” that promises to be even better. This is another game that I have trouble thinking of as being “obscure” because I’m personal friends of the developer, and it has received rave reviews from the little places on the Internet that I follow. And of course, *I* have played it, so how obscure can it be? But as a game that’s not on any major distribution sites, and has never (to my knowledge) been in any bundle, and rarely mentioned outside of a small circle of diehard western RPG-fans, I guess it qualifies. Swords & Sorcery: Underworld is heavily influenced by the early Might & Magic series, and offers considerable depth and length of gameplay, and lots and lots of dungeons and monsters, and not a small number of interesting puzzles to resolve. What it does borrow from the classics is put to good use, offering the same addictive properties. As the author has kept refining it (even while laboring on the sequel), it speaks highly of his dedication to the game long after its initial release. You can grab yourself a copy at the Olderbytes official website.



inariascreenshot5#8 – Inaria (2011, Windows): Created by another friend of mine, Anthony Salter, Inaria has finally been part of a (modest) bundle, so it’s no longer quite as obscure as it once was. Inaria is an old-school-esque game of the Ultima III-V style that started as a “game in 40 hours” project that gradually blossomed into a full-fledged (if relatively short), playable, entertaining game. The author updated the game since its original release, adding a major randomized dungeon (called “The Infinite”) and other features. You can help make this game less obscure by getting it here.



dde2#9 – Darklight Dungeon / Darklight Dungeon Eternity (2010 / 2012, Windows): This was actually the game that inspired this post. The website is gone, the game is no longer supported (and I’m not sure if it can even be purchased anymore), but you know… it was actually a pretty cool title that I had a bit of fun playing. The sequel – Darklight Dungeon Eternity – included FIFTY LEVELS of hand-built dungeon. The graphics were pretty programmer-art-y built from stock tools, and after a certain point the combat emphasis could get wearying, but it did seem like the game regularly provided some surprises. And… I have to ask… has ANYBODY other than Jesse Zoeller (the creator) actually played this bad boy to completion? Holy cow.



AxeAndFateRebirth#10 – Axe and Fate Rebirth (2013, Windows & Android): While the game doesn’t advertise itself as an Android port, it’s pretty obvious when you play it. While that in itself would be a recommendation against it (and it is), the game sports some pretty interesting features: It is a 3D free-moving turn-based tactical RPG with first-person perspective and up to two characters in the party. You can play with a solo character (with double the starting points) if you want, but it’s much harder that way. It’s available on Desura.



Now, as I said before, I doubt I even come close to being having played the most obscure computer RPGs ever (although I think Dungeons of Magdarr is up there). There are several more I could have listed, but these are my favorite (at least in terms of being unusual, really obscure, or really fun) I’m sure the community here knows plenty more. What CRPGs have you played that were theoretically publicly released (and may still be), yet very few people have ever heard of?

* Unless you read this blog, in which case you’ve probably heard of half of ’em.
** At least without something like RPG Maker, which makes it pretty dang easy to throw together a crappy RPG, and I know many of them were “released” by way of some forum post lost in antiquity.  There’s no bottom to how obscure those theoretically “public” distributions can become, so I left RPG Maker games off this list. HOWEVER – Putting together a high-quality title is still insanely difficult, regardless of tools, and so I do not want anybody to take this as some kind of knock against RPG Maker titles. Many of my favorite indie RPGs were made with that tool, and I know dang well how much sweat and blood went into ’em!

Filed Under: General - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

RPG Leveling Mechanics – The Fairy Tale Secret Sauce

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 22, 2015

men-and-magicEvery once in a while I’ll hear somebody complain about the leveling mechanics in RPGs, usually about how you start as a nobody with a wooden sword and progress to becoming one of the world’s ultimate superheroes. In particular, the complaints seem to stem from the idea that you always start from such lowly beginnings.

This complaint even affects the hardcore. One of the comments in the (sadly, canceled – for now) Seven Dragon Saga Kickstarter video was that (I’m paraphrasing here) your characters wouldn’t begin as lowly farmers pressed into adventure – they’d be already super-powered “chaos touched.” For many of us, that was actually more of a turn-off than a selling point, if that was what they intended.

But there are a lot of virtues built into the traditional start-as-a-nobody leveling mechanic that make it ideal for video games (and pretty awesome for tabletop games, too).


First of all – the great-grandpappy of roleplaying games (before we get into the neanderthal wargaming / sports gaming evolutionary origins) – Dungeons & Dragons. The original. Quite literally, your starting character was something of a nobody. If you played a spell-caster of some sort rather then maybe had the chance to cast a Cure Light Wounds a couple of times, or Magic Missile and Light (at a cost of some survivability). But based on the wargaming roots, your character began as a nothing grunt. A footsoldier. You may have rolled some pathetic stats, making your characters life expectancy even shorter.

Eventually, around level 6 or so, your character would be the equivalent of a small army (or at least a squad) of soldiers on the battlefield or in the dungeon. But until such time, characters had a pretty high mortality rate (and even at level 6 or above, a far higher mortality rate than expected in modern role-playing games). Achieving such lofty levels of heroism was something of an accomplishment, often with a trail of dead characters marking the path. (Although it didn’t hurt that it took less than five minutes to roll up a replacement character back then.)

Tradition gives this style of gameplay some feeling of legacy that inspired old-school players. But that alone isn’t enough to recommend sticking with it.


I once heard an explanation of the difference between fairy-tale heroes (and heroines, as is often the case), and mythological ones was that the mythological heroes were born into greatness, propelled by destiny, while fairy tale heroes were ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. This is perhaps too sweeping of a generalization, but the explanation was used to suggest why modern, western audiences gravitated more towards the fairy-tale heroes than the mythological ones.

Now, fantasy stories often draw upon mythological roots, so you get a lot of “chosen one” storylines, but even then the subject of such portents comes from extremely humble beginnings – even if they were born under special conditions (like they are secretly the King’s son), they’ve been toiling away in obscurity.

But audiences can identify better with the everyman of the fairy-tale hero. In mythology, if you weren’t of divine birth, you’d better not dare mess with the gods or the supernatural, because mythological stories rarely end well for the poor normal mortal with delusions of grandeur. They are very authoritarian that way. But the fairy tale hero might at best be of noble or royal birth, but still just a plain ol’ person who finds himself or herself in extraordinary circumstances. And, depending upon the nature of the fairy tale, has about a 50/50 chance of coming out on top, especially if they are clever, respectful, bold without being foolhardy, and avoid being a greedy douchebag to strangers.

Anyway, this is a much more powerful character for audience identification, which gives it some benefits as to being a stronger tale. Both approaches work, and variety is the spice of life. Maybe it’s more of an American culture thing, but starting from nothing and then achieving greatness is the quintessential success story and has a strong vibe.

Gameplay Mechanics

Games with the strongest mass appeal gradually unlock (or allow the player to discover) skills for the player to develop and master as they play. In the standard platformer, you may start out by learning to move left and right. Then on top of that, you learn jumping, maybe shooting. Then climbing. Then running / dashing. Then the double-jump. Then on top of this list of basic moves, you begin to learn all kinds of special moves or ways in which these moves can interact with the environment or with each other. Mastery is developed as the player learns to combine these skills with precision and cleverness.

Interestingly, Dungeons & Dragons worked exactly this way. Yes, potentially, a player’s choice of actions were nearly infinite. But on a practical level, especially when every move counted (in combat), things started out a lot like that. You learned to move, and to attack. As a player gained in skill, he learned how to move and attack wisely, maximizing the chance of success. Perhaps she learned to take advantage of the environment, doing things like tipping over a table to provide herself with cover from the hobgoblin crossbowmen, stuff like that.

But as the characters gained levels and gear, new options became “unlocked.” Casters had access to new spells. Everyone had more access to magic items, which allowed them to break the rules in big and small ways. New (useful) actions unlocked, and kept unlocking. Even something as simple as a healing potion made a big difference – do you make another attack, hoping to end the combat in this round but risking death if you fail?

This is good, structured “learning” the game mechanics as you play. I suspect this is why RPGs have been (with ups and downs) a pretty consistently popular genre in the field. The growth of a character’s abilities mirrors the growth of the player’s own skill. But this suggests a few things:

#1 – Character growth absolutely should provide additional abilities, not just passive improvements

#2 – For replayability, a player should be able to choose a radically different growth path with new skills for the player to master

#3 – Character skills should require active player participation and skill to deploy effectively (or efficiently). A great example of this in turn-based tactical RPGs is the area-effect spell – knowing when, how, and where to cast it for maximum efficiency.

As a side note, I suspect that this is the reason that so many games in other genres have appropriated “RPG elements” to improve on their designs. Those elements are a perfect fit for the medium!


So in the end… yeah, I don’t want my characters all souped up with tons of abilities when I start out. I don’t want them to be superhumans beyond the mundane pale before the first adventure begins. I want my characters to be tyros in the great big world, as endangered by a vengeful low-level threats like goblins as anybody else. And from those humble beginnings, THEN I want them to grow into the dragon-slaying badasses by the end of the game. That’s good story, and good gaming.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment

Steamfest Presentation: Steampunk Video Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 21, 2015

WNTGDeeper1Nick Lives of Deli Interactive and I will be giving a presentation at Salt City Steamfest in July on steampunk video games. And… well, steampunk-adjacent (dieselpunk, etc.) We’ll be showing a few trailers, will have some video clips from game developers, and will be discussing mostly what’s out there and how they embrace the steampunk tropes, and a little tiny bit on how to get started making video games. And making sure folks leave with a nice, fat list of games they can check out if they want to get their steampunk on for the rest of the year… :)

So if you are going to be near Salt Lake City on the weekend of July 17th and wanna come hang out, contribute your $0.02, chat with Nick and myself, or whatever, come see us!

If you are a game developer working on a steampunk video game (or, even better, a game that will have been released by mid-July), PLEASE contact me and let me know so I can include it in the presentation. We’re trying to include as many as we can, and want to make sure people will leave the panel with a nice potential grocery list of steampunk games they can enjoy. Also, if you are a steampunk game dev who would be willing to do a really super-brief video talking about your game and steampunk (like a couple of sound-bite sized bits), also let us know.

I’ll also be participating in the Xchyler Booth and probably a panel or two on writing, a subject on which I know considerably less about than video games, but I’m having fun learning, and will be with a bunch of more knowledgeable people than myself.

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