Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 27, 2014

For readers in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving!

For everyone else, Happy Thursday!

This one will be a little weird, as it’s the first time in almost twenty years our eldest daughter won’t be with us. She’s serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in South Carolina. It’ll be weirder having Christmas without her.

We have a tradition with our group of friends to turn the 4-day weekend into a gaming holiday. When we were in college, far from home, and couldn’t afford plane tickets for just the weekend, we’d get together with other friends in the same boat and turned what was previously far from my favorite holiday into a total party. We’d be known to start a game after dinner on Thursday (when we’d all bring stuff for a great dinner),  go until midnight, then play from noon to midnight for the next two days. Believe it or not, we actually got sick of playing D&D by the end of the weekend, which is why we’re not quite so bold anymore. That, and we now have family close, and Thursday gets to be spent more with them.

But we’re still playing a bunch of Pathfinder this weekend. And we’re going to watch the Rifftraxed version of Hawk the Slayer tomorrow night. It’s a-gonna be awesome!


Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Unity 4.6

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 26, 2014

The long-awaited UI system is here for Unity!

I’m pretty used to using NGUI by now (and the creator of NGUI helped work on this new UI system), so I’m not sure how much I’ll want / need to mix ‘n match. But it’s nice to have that option, and worth investigating. I’m still in UI hell right now … of course, I say that having not touched code in three or four days because of story editing.

I’m pleased that the source code is available and modifiable for the UI system. That is sure to create some nice, interesting offshoots.

So now I have to ask myself if I want to dare upgrading this (extended) weekend. That’s always sure to bring joy…


Filed Under: Programming - Comments: Be the First to Comment

The arcade games of my dreams. Literally.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 25, 2014

I had another dream about a “lost” arcade game the other night.

I have these dreams periodically. I don’t know why, especially since the whole “age of the arcades” was a relatively brief chapter of my life by this point. Maybe they are repressed memories of my playing Polybius that are trying to break to the surface. Or maybe, as a designer, my quest to dig out the gems of gameplay out of classic games that may have been forgotten in the modern era appears in my subconscious. Perhaps it is the fact that we’re living in the indie era, and I’m feeling overwhelmed with more games than I have time to play, and I know that some of these unplayed titles – many of which are getting pretty old – will prove to be just fantastic fun.

Or maybe it’s something Freudian. Who knows?

Whatever the case, what usually happens in these dreams is that I discover a place that still has these old classic arcade games. Either they are an old traditional venue like an arcade or restaurant (yes, kids, the more low-brow restaurants of my choice and budget often had arcade machines running in a corner, right by the coin-op candy dispensers). Or maybe it’s some special event, like a convention display or a special museum showcase. Anyway, as I’m browsing some of my old favorites, I see a game that I’ve either never seen or heard of before, or a game that I  had completely forgotten about over the years, but on playing the game, I suddenly remember how amazing it was for its time, possibly even showing up more modern games in their scope. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen, but hey, my dreams force the issue.

In my dream the other night, it was a previously unknown sequel to the 1983 Star Wars arcade game. Borrowing from real life, it was called TIE Fighter. Hey, the PC game was pretty amazing, so why not its imaginary arcade precursor?

Sadly, I can’t remember a ton of details about this game, other than it was also vector-graphics based, and while it was certainly a richer, more detailed universe with a lot more interesting gameplay, it didn’t seem as polished as Star Wars. Was it a project that failed to hit a minimum quality and thus was canceled just before it went to manufacturing? Or was it an unlicensed title back back in the day when such things were kinda fast and loose, but its distribution was halted by the lawyers before it could reach mainstream distribution? Both ideas occurred to me in my dream, believe it or not.

Usually, in these dreams, I discover that these old games have incredibly full worlds to explore that were somehow hidden inside the old 16k memory chips. I know that was an old childhood fantasy / urban legend, but I have a tough time understanding how that still resonates inside my subconscious mind.

Weird, huh?

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A Brief History of (Video Game) Graphics

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 24, 2014

wc1screenshot1These are fun to watch as either a gamer or as a game developer, this is a five-part series of short videos explaining the major revolutions / trends / milestones in video game graphics over the years. From vector graphics to bloom effects, it’s a pretty entertaining little set of videos. For us old-school fans, it’s just awesome seeing classic games that we remember so well as being representative of the effects touted here.

A Brief History of Graphics

I had something of a belated self-discovery when watching these videos. There were a few arcade games that I remember friends gushing over that I just didn’t “get.” I tried playing them many times to see what everyone else thought was so awesome, but in at least one case (Turbo), the game left me cold. In another (Moon Patrol), I thought the game was reasonably well-executed and fun to play, but I didn’t get its popularity. Watching the videos, I note that both games were pioneering in graphical effects.

So it would seem that my being less impressed by graphics than by gameplay has been with me for a long time. That’s hardly 100% – I can get wowed by the shiny just like anybody else, and probably hold more nostalgia than I should for the original Unreal than I should for that very reason. And hey, I dug lens flares that overwhelmed 3D games in the 1990s (the “light bloom effect” of that era). But I was also one of the minority of people who thought Quake was something of a failure next to Duke Nukem 3D. While being less impressive technologically, I thought Duke had far more interesting weaponry and tools for the player (and certainly a more interesting, um, attitude). And I was never a big fan of bloom effects.

As a game developer, unfortunately, this means I’ve got a blind spot for graphics, and I need help in that department. I can get so focused on gameplay that I don’t always recognize the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” on the visual front. Even as an indies with retro-style graphics, there can be a huge difference in quality. If you actually play (or watch a video of) Thomas was Alone, you can see there is some real artistry in the animation and presentation of the game even in such minimalist graphics.


Filed Under: Art - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Creating Worlds

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 21, 2014

U4ScreenshotBack in its heyday, Origin’s motto was, “We create worlds.”

When I think about why I love games and why I love making games, that’s the key. As much as I do appreciate these “little” games with the single, focused game mechanic – as much as I used to love the arcade machines in the past – they aren’t the things I dream about.  Maybe it’s a hold-over from my childhood steeped in science fiction books about visiting other planets and cultures, but I want entire worlds to explore. Even back in the arcade days, I was the kid who always wanted to discover that there were entire, larger game-worlds hidden inside these simple shooters.

No, I never actually believed that you could drive your tank to the volcano and find a castle inside, as was rumored in Battlezone. Or that you could break out of the maze in the teleport tunnel to find a new maze in Pac-Man. Even then, I understood that while Easter Eggs might exist, nobody was gonna hide the bulk of their game away so that very few players would ever experience them.

But then, I soon had far bigger games. Ultima III, to me, was something of a revelation. I think it predated Origin’s “We create worlds” motto, but it was certainly the kind of thing they were thinking of when they coined it. It was the first game I ever played with that kind of scale, and it was incredibly satisfying. While not a “sandbox game” as we currently understand it, it was a big, open world, with tons to do and explore.

Frontier_elite2_screenshotFortunately, it was only the beginning. Games like Frontier (aka Elite II) were just as thrilling to me as a gamer.  Really big, procedural worlds – like Daggerfall – were awesome. The huge, heavily detailed, highly interactive world of Ultima 7? Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

But just being big and interactive isn’t enough. One of my all-time favorite games was Falcon 4.0. What really thrilled me about that game was that it was dynamic and interactive. There was a virtual wargame being played in the campaign mode. The AI had certain starting points and priorities, but after that, things (in theory at least) flowed organically. As the head of your squadron, your actions could be highly influential in the conflict – critical, by definition. But while you might be the queen of the chessboard, you were still just one of the pieces. But you could deviate from your “official” tasking to set your own missions. Were you suffering too many attacks from a nearby enemy airfield? Re-task a mission to level the airfield. You might not put it out of commission long, but you might get 24 hours of reduced airstrikes. In the most difficult campaign, the winning strategy was to ignore whatever tasking the AI gave you at first, and to set up strikes against bridges to slow the enemy advance until your reinforcements arrived.

FALCON4DemoOne of the coolest things was returning from an engagement and just passing by a pitched ground battle taking place. You could see it happening, especially at night, because of the smoke and explosions flashing all over the landscape. It felt great if you had some left over ordnance to “swing by” and held out your guys by shooting a maverick or two at enemy tanks.

The cool thing was that the game responded to you. “Dynamic” didn’t mean random – it meant that you were interacting with the world, and the world would respond accordingly. You weren’t going to “cheat” by taking an approach the predefined scenario hadn’t considered (a trick I sometimes used in many other flight sims). If you lingered overlong (I learned to my detriment) in an area, you’d find yourself fighting a pitched battle against enemy planes which had been vectored into your area.

While it had its bugs (lots and lots of bugs), that helped define in my mind what a true, “dynamic world” should be. Not just interactive, not just detailed, but responsive to your actions on a fully integrated level – not just a few “decision points” in the plot. And yeah, “simulation-esque.” I think about how that would be in a role-playing game, like a roguelike. I haven’t played one that has come close, yet, but Soldak Entertainment’s titles have made some very impressive strides in that direction.

So if someone asks me what game I’d be making if I had unlimited budget and time… something like that. A kingdom simulator RPG where there are wonderful and terrible plots and subplots, and the player character(s) grow from being nobodies with almost no impact on the events of the world to being powerful, key players in everything they touch. It’d be cool.

Fortunately, as an indie, there’s no requirement for these kinds of things having huge budgets or being big productions. Nothing says I can’t start on something like that today, and let it grow organically, a la Dwarf Fortress or something like that.  Well, nothing but the colossal, nagging feeling of guilt because Frayed Knights 2 is already late. But hey, if you ever wonder what kind of direction I’d like to wander as an indie – if I didn’t have any kind of concern about ever being able to afford to finance my little hobby – that’s the gist of it.

I’d just like to create worlds. Is that too much to ask?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

Elite: Dangerous Demonstrates Some Dangers of Crowdfunding

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 20, 2014

EliteDangerousAs “failures” go, it’s fairly minor. Elite: Dangerous is nearing completion, and will be shipping next month. YAY!

Or not.

It will be shipping without offline support. Which to many people (including me) is kinda head-scratching. It’s not an MMO – at least I never thought of it as an MMO and kinda missed the part where they said it was an MMO, but now suddenly they are saying, according to the latest newsletter, that they always considered it to be an MMO.

I actively avoid MMOs these days. Oh, I still take occasional excursions from time to time, but for me, MMOs have become synonymous with time-wasting (to slow the consumption of content by the most dedicated players) and getting annoyed by strangers (either because they are deliberate douchebags, way more skilled than you, or way less skilled than you and kinda clueless). So… calling a game “multiplayer only” causes me to immediately lose interest.

That’s not exactly what’s going on here, I don’t think. Which is why I haven’t canceled my pre-order yet. There’s still a single-player mode, apparently, but you still have to be online. It sounds like it is more of a case that the awesome dynamic procedurally-generated universe of the game needs an actual human staff at the helm to keep it working. Or something.

To me, that means that when the game quits making them money or they lose interest, the game disappears. Literally. Sure, they can make promises about releasing the server code to the public, and they probably will, but just like promises of an offline mode, those are not guarantees. I can go back and play the original game today, 30 years later. I have doubts I’ll be able to say the same about Elite: Dangerous even 10 years from now. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but considering how many games I am playing now that are several years old, it’s an issue I consider. And I also don’t like the idea of not being able to play when my Internet is down. That’s what I *do* when my connection is down.  I play games.

And I just don’t like having my ownership and use of a game being so totally dependent on a third party being there and willing / able to “approve” of my playing.

Of course, there’s a little bit of a crapstorm going on now from people who backed what they thought was a true sequel to the old games – an offline, single-player sandbox experience in a procedurally-generated universe. The Kickstarter money is already spent. Pre-orders are another story altogether. And the refund policy has been… hazy, and not necessarily fair.

Now, overall… I’ll say it again, as “failures” go, this is pretty minor. We’ll see what the final product is like. If it’s a buggy unplayable mess (like I remember Frontier: First Encounters to be, way back in the day…), then that’s bad. But while the online requirement sucks, this would still be a pretty successful project. Game development is not an exact science, and things change. It’s more a PR disaster than a project disaster. They should have managed expectations better.

But as I have also often said – even as someone who might try to take advantage of crowd-funding in the future – beware! Seriously. There are no guarantees. It’s not just pre-ordering with extra bennies. Back it because you believe in the vision and the team behind it, and be willing to suck it up if the end result isn’t what you’d hoped for (or is nothing at all).

As for me – I’m gonna go dream of the game that I thought Elite: Dangerous might be, that I no longer hope Star Citizen could be, and that X: Rebirth was supposed to be. And I’ll go back to playing X3: Albion Prelude and maybe dust off my copy of Evochron Mercenary. And who knows? If I don’t cancel my pre-order, I may have a lot of fun with Elite: Dangerous until they turn the lights off on it.


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The Dog Ate My Homework

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 19, 2014

I had a gigantic post full of links and really timely, relevant material that was something of a stretch for me (and had me dealing with a very difficult topic).

Unfortunately, when WordPress logged me off in the second paragraph and re-logged me in, it didn’t *actually* re-log me on. It insisted that everything was normal and that my draft was being saved properly. It wasn’t until I ran into problems attempting to publish it that I discovered that nothing after that second paragraph had been saved. Since I’d spent about 2 or 3 hours on this post (it was a doozie!), I…

Well, I didn’t decide to give up posting altogether. Although that particular post may never, ever see the light of day. It was too painful to write the first time. (Yeah, I’m telling a fish story here, but honestly – it was a rough one to write).

It’s done that to me a couple of times in the past, and I’d gotten into the paranoid habit of copying-and-pasting everything offline if I even smelled anything out of the ordinary. It hadn’t happened in a long time, so I’d gotten out of that habit. My bad.

Anyway, my apologies for the lack of content today.

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RPG Design: Escape the Dungeon? Is That All?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 18, 2014

I’m a dungeon-crawler at heart. When I think of role-playing games, my brain immediately goes to the Mines of Moria or the goblin caves under the Misty Mountains. So I’m usually trying to find my way into dungeons. But that’s me, as a gamer. A lot of dungeon-crawling RPGs have a straightforward goal: You are trapped in a dungeon. Escape.

Wizardry IV, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis, and many more games begin with a variation on this simple premise. A lot of action games start this way, too. Escape to safety / home can be a powerful goal.

However, I was playing a game the other night with this premise, and grew almost immediately bored. Really bored. After one death in only a couple of minutes of play, I was ready to call it done. I didn’t, and I’m going to push forward in the hopes that it gets better, but it my initial impression was an overwhelming feeling of same ol’ same ol’.

What gives?

Well, if Star Wars (A New Hope) had started out with nothing but a text message that says, “Luke needs to rescue a princess locked away in a giant space fortress, so he needs to wander through the desert to find a way to get off-planet and find her” it would have been a pretty lame beginning, too.

Goal isn’t plot. It’s the seed of plot. Now, in games, that might be enough — if you have some other ways of getting the player invested in the character. Now, I’m a strategy guy, and I like stats. When I create a character, I’m already thinking in my head about backstory and possibilities. Who will this person be? What are they like? Why are they really fast but not really strong? Why do they prefer an axe over a sword?

So that works. Game mechanics can substitute for traditional storytelling for some players. An intriguing setting can do the job. But somehow, the player needs to get invested. And quickly.

Long exposition is not the way to do it. That’s boring too. But there needs to be enough that we’re not left in a vacuum. One of my favorite RPG intros was from Final Fantasy VII. This was before Square Enix decided to create intro videos that were feature-film length. Instead, we have an intro that hints as to the setting, and a mysterious girl. It opens with what we think is outer space (and, considering the plot, yeah, it is), with barely audible cries of a crowd in the distance. Then it it fades / resolves into greenish sparks from some kind of fire, and a mysterious girl standing in front of it. And then… she walks up the alleyway into an industrial city. The camera pans back, reveals the entire city (pouring smoke into the air… another plot point hinted at) in an establishing shot, and then zooms in on a train entering the station. Some people (good guys or bad guys) leap from the train and knock the guards unconscious. One motions to another member of the group – and by the way the camera follows him, you know he’s the protagonist, and tells him to follow.

But, as you (the player) move the character forward, he’s intercepted by more guards, and a fight begins. The fight text refers to your character as an “Ex-SOLDIER”, which you might originally take to be just a former military soldier. A little later, you discover that SOLDIER is actually an elite group of super-soldiers who serve the corporation that pretty much rules the city. But it still applies.



There’s not a whole lot of concrete information revealed to the player – in fact, there’s a ton of exposition that doesn’t get revealed until the game is half over. But there’s enough mystery (who is that girl?) and interesting tidbits to pique a player’s interest and keep them playing until the next reveal. Why is your character an ex-soldier? Why is he now fighting against what seems to be the lawful peacekeepers here?

The story in Ultima Underworld is relatively threadbare, but it still throws some meat on the bones. You are a famous hero from another world, but the baron, not recognizing you, falsely accuses you of kidnapping his daughter and banishes you into the giant dungeon where the girl was kidnapped. Only by rescuing her will they let you back out again. Again, it’s not much. You know about your own background. You have questions – like why were you brought here NOW? And who really did the kidnapping, and why?

Anyway, what I guess I’m saying is that you don’t want to overload the player with exposition at the beginning of the game ( a common problem in many RPGs, including AAA RPGs), but you also do need to give them something interesting to go on. It can be through storytelling or through game mechanics, but you have to engage their interest within the first few minutes or you won’t have them a few minutes later.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

The End of the “Casual Era?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 17, 2014

First things first: so-called “Casual Games?” Not going away. Ever. In fact, you could argue that thanks to mobile gaming, they are bigger than ever. WAY bigger.

What are casual games? They are games preferred by “casual gamers” – the ones who don’t have the depth of interest or time commitment of the hardcore fans. They are often the ‘coffee-break games’ – games you can play in just a few minutes, that have very simple and easy-to-grasp gameplay mechanics, and usually  bright, “cute” graphics that are non-threatening to players. And – until a few years ago – they were often web-based.

And that’s what I think of as the “casual era.” Around 2006 or so, casual games were “It.” Everybody was doing it. Popcap was the pioneer – particularly with Bejeweled but they had a stable of games that were serious moneymakers. And out of the battle royale of casual game websites, Big Fish Games emerged as the top dog. Or top fish. Whatever. Anyway, in what passes for the “indie community,” getting your game on Big Fish was the golden ticket, a lot like getting your game onto Steam is now. A large chunk of the indie community completely hitched their fate to that of Big Fish Games.

It was quite the thing for a while. As more and more “casual game developers” jumped on board, we saw a massive “race to the bottom” price war, clones galore, and new “categories” / genres of games emerge. And we saw a whole ton of indie game studios form, blossom, and collapse.

Well, PopCap is now a division of EA, and has been hurting, laying off employees, and closing down branches. And now Big Fish Games, which has had to close a couple of offices in the recent past, is now being sold to racetrack operator Churchill Downs. It’s for a little shy of $900 million, so it’s not like it’s at a bargain basement price or anything. Rumor has it that their real-money gambling business has been growing even as their casual game business has been shrinking, so the acquisition even makes some kind of sense.

But it’s the “casual games shrinking” thing that’s the issue. Really, what it means is that casual gaming has largely moved to mobile, and that’s not being controlled by these casual game portals. I don’t know the financials or the details. But if there was any doubt that the now-old-school “casual game era” has come to an end, this would be a big nail in the coffin.

What does it mean? Not much, really. In the very short term, it means very little. In the long term, Big Fish Games could disappear tomorrow and not make much of a footnote in the history of the industry – which feels weird to say, as it was such a giant gatekeeping god to indie studios six or so years ago. In the medium-term, however, it could mean a lot to “casual” indie studios that have come to rely on it. But mainly, it just serves as an illustration of the cyclical nature of the industry. There are always new technologies, new trends, and new bandwagons to jump on as a business. Nothing is permanent. But – nothing ever completely goes away, either. There are still studios out there making games for long-dead platforms (and … while maybe not making the big bucks, still finding an audience).

I think game developers would be well-served to diversify – stay agile on platform, but not to throw all their eggs into one trendy basket. And even more importantly – for anybody calling themselves “indie” – not to grow too dependent upon any one company or platform for your own company’s survival.

Filed Under: Biz, Casual Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Small Company, Big Ideas Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 14, 2014


“Try to be unique. The current main focus for indie developers seems to be to make concentrated experiences with a  challenging core gameplay, and staying away from that might be a good start in the drive to get notice. Keep it small and focused, not only in terms off the project, but also in terms of the whole group and organization.
“It’s crazy when you talk to people that plan to start a game company with maybe ten or more people. You have to earn a lot of cash to be able to pay the salaries for ten people every month. Even after running a company for many years, I have to remind myself that a sum of $100,000 USD, which is a lot for me as an individual, is not very much for a group of people who have to share it and also pay for taxes, fees, and whatnot.”

— Jens Nilsson, Frictional Games

The interesting thing here (for me) is he talks about the current trend in indie gaming (admittedly, this was three years ago), and then recommends steering clear of it in order to get noticed. The problem is that “concentrated experiences with a challenging core gameplay” is sort of a natural evolution of the “small and focused” methodology. I haven’t seen this trend really change, but “indie” has gotten so huge since then that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on anymore.

So what are the alternatives? A non-concentrated experience? That means… more content, which is difficult with an indie budget. Less challenging core gameplay? Like casual? Okay, that we can do… and arguably, both descriptions probably describe Frictional’s game Amnesia pretty well. It was a larger (in indie terms) experience, with gameplay that wasn’t designed to stop you from progressing.

But the best point, IMO, is the need to keep things small. If I ever go full-time, I dread hiring employees, just because things get really expensive really quickly. That means high risk, which would mean (for me) playing it safer. Maybe it’s not necessarily the case in an era of crowdfunding, but…. I dunno.

Filed Under: Quote of the Week - Comments: Be the First to Comment

Dungeon Crawling So Old It’s New Again

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 13, 2014

men-and-magicOne concept of early dice-and-paper role-playing games (and some of the old CRPG counterparts) that has been somewhat lost in the modern era is the idea of avoiding combat encounters. Old-school D&D has a not-entirely warranted reputation for being about killing everything in sight. After all, that was how you got XP (experience points), right? For killing things?

Well, actually, no. In the actual rules, you got far more XP for treasure than for killing things. Some dungeon masters chose to ignore this rule, which resulted in far slower-paced games where the only way to make progress was to kill everything in sight. You had to kill a LOT of enemies to get to level two, and in a “properly” run game, you were unlikely to survive that many encounters.

But in the game as designed, there was a huge emphasis in these early games on exploration, and really searching hard for treasure. This was one of the big tricks of the game – if you look in the very early modules for the game, the most interesting treasure (for intelligent monsters) was well-hidden and/or well-trapped. You’d have magic swords disguised as torches via illusion, or false bottoms on chests that were already hidden behind a trapped secret door. That kind of thing. If anything, killing the guardians was “bonus” XP.

Wandering monsters acted as a timer to force a balance between exploration and leaving no stone unturned versus resource depletion (and risk of death). In order to get the big experience points from the treasure hidden deep in the dungeon, it might be best to avoid some encounters even if they weren’t that risky. It was a constant decision-making process – do you keep poking around, or do you move forward? Sure, you would get some experience points from these encounters, but very little loot, making them extremely inefficient sources of progress.

You combine these factors: An emphasis on the “loot” for your reward regardless of how it is obtained; a regular depletion of resources (especially when confronted with obstacles and conflict) which increased risk and made necessary the need to leave the dungeon and lose momentum; and a relatively smaller reward for defeating enemies (again, regardless of how they are defeated). Now mix in some low-risk / low-reward encounters, and some extremely high-risk (nigh-impossible) encounters, and now you have a cost / risk / reward structure that leads to all kinds of interesting experiences.

How about bribing a monster? It’s a small depletion of a plentiful resource (for adventurers) – money – in return for more efficient future encounters without depleting more important resources (potions, scrolls, wand charges, hit points, spells-per-day usage). Hiding from an encounter? Negotiation? Trickery? Fleeing?

What happened over time was that DMs ignored the rules to force the game to play the way they wanted it to play… and, in a sense, they “won” – later versions of the game (and their computer RPG cousins) followed this new style. XP was no longer given for treasure, as treasure was its own reward. Combat was exciting, so it became the only real source of XP. And there are a few articles and letters in old copies of Dragon Magazine suggesting that DMs would reduce the experience point reward if the players won too easily because they were clever about it. After all, what did the characters learn when all they did was drop a rockslide on a giant’s head instead of fighting it toe-to-toe?

(I’d submit they learned the most important lesson: It’s far easier and less risky to drop a rockslide on a giant’s head than fighting it toe-to-toe).

With the growth of computer role-playing games, things only accelerated in this direction. Now you look at the “mainstream” single-player RPG experience:

* Most XP is given as a combat award (there’s often quest awards too, but this is typically secondary)

* There’s little to no emphasis on resource management. Characters often have all their health and mana restored between encounters in many AAA CRPGs.

* There are few (if any) interactions outside of combat with “enemies”

* Few “optional” combats. You are expected to fight to the death all the way up to the end-boss.

* If you can flee an encounter at all, it only means you’ll have to face them later when they are fully restored as well. You’ve lost any resources you expended the first time (ammo, potions, whatever limited resource depletion occurs in the game), with no advantage conferred. You don’t get to bypass the encounter the second time around.

* Having enemies flee is rarer still. Getting any reward for defeated-but-escaping enemies is unheard of.

* There’s little variation in difficulty of enemies. Sure, you have plain ol’ mooks, tougher leaders, and an end-level boss. But you don’t often have a mix of Seriously Too Tough to Handle creatures with “speed bump” packs that present no risk but to your resources. You don’t have an Ancient Dragon mixed in with the level 1 kobolds. Or if you do, the game will treat it entirely like a non-combat encounter and won’t even give you the option of being stupid.

What we’ve ultimately lost is the emphasis on exploration rather than combat. From a CRPG perspective, there’s motivation for this: combat is generally a lot easier / cheaper to develop than exploration content. But if gamers are willing to accept that not every corridor is completely custom and unique (which was a big “if” maybe ten years ago, but a lot more common today), a tile-based approach with a few custom or unique alterations and locations seems adequate.

I keep talking about how we may need to take a few steps back in order to move forward into new and exciting directions. I feel that especially among the indies, that has been happening to a degree. We’ve got a lot of fascinating new RPGs that are rooted in design approaches from twenty years ago. But maybe there’s a lot more fertile ground to mine if we’re willing to take a few even larger steps back.



Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

RPG Design: The Role of Magic and RPG Balance

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 12, 2014

I’ve been doing some brooding over Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath since Comic Con (more on that in a future post), and it’s brought about a few changes. There’s one point I’m not sure on yet, because changes might mess with the flavor. I don’t want to mess with the flavor.

One problem – and it is a problem – is that things were a little too balanced. Yes, I know, in a world where people on the Internet are screaming about AAA games not being balanced well enough, I’m here to tell you that it is the imbalance that makes things interesting. If you’ve got things balanced so well that at a high level the differences between options are pretty subtle, then you have a problem. Subtle doesn’t play well in games, so you’ve ended up with a non-choice.

That’s how things were at Comic Con. It’s all well and good to prove on a spreadsheet that Arianna does more damage in melee than Chloe, but Chloe can do more damage with a spell (at a higher endurance cost) than Arianna, in practice the differences aren’t too noticeable – especially when randomization adds noise. If the sorceress only does 8 points of damage on the average in melee, the rogue 10, and the warrior 13, that’s all well and good. But if you are fighting a creature with 15 health, it makes no difference – they all kill it in 2 hits. If it has 40 health, they all kill it in either 5 hits or 4.

Big frickin’ deal.

Make Chloe’s spells do 18 points of damage? Again, big deal. Monster goes down in 3 hits instead of 4 or 5. Again, big deal, although it really depends on the situation. One-shotting the 15-health monster might be kinda cool.

Traditionally – courtesy of Dungeons & Dragons, mainly (which is the familiar flavor I’m trying to emulate) – the role of magic fits the trope of “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards.” Or, in the words of the song “Always the First to Die,” “It might suck at level one, but you’ll rip at level nine!” Even if the wizards don’t do excessively more damage than the other classes, they may play something of an “artillery” role, dishing out damage to a lot of targets at range. This works, but it doesn’t scale too well – eventually everyone else ends up playing a support role for the wizards.

Of course, there’s more to it than just doing damage.

Okay, not really. Not in most games I’ve played. Maybe you can make creatures lose morale and flee, or maybe use a spell to make the enemy switch sides temporarily, but 90+% of the time, it’s all about taking the enemy’s health bar to zero before he takes yours to zero. If it takes me 4 rounds to kill an enemy normally, but if I have a 50% chance of stunning him and then I’m able to kill him in 2 rounds… well, at a 50% stun chance, it’ll average 2 rounds to land the stun, and then 2 more rounds… again, 4 rounds. The spell has made no difference in combat. Maybe it’s made it riskier… you might NEVER be able to land the stun… or slightly easier (half the time  you stun the enemy on the first try, so he’s dead in 3).

But still, if you have enemies with some interesting combinations of powers, defenses, and weaknesses, then magic can add a rock-paper-scissors element to the damage-dealing. So you have a slightly different role for magic: Magic has flexibility in attacking to take advantage of weaknesses that are difficult to exploit with more mundane methods. That’s a nice variant – and a popular one. That way magic doesn’t have to be inherently much more powerful than melee.

If victory conditions don’t require the enemies to be utterly destroyed, magic can take on a much more interesting role. Borrowing from strategy games – what if the enemies will flee if they can’t dislodge your party from your position within six turns? What if your goal is to stop the enemy from pushing their way past you? Suddenly magic can have a critical role in positioning and movement. Spells that increase or reduce movement would be far more powerful.

In a game with enemies or challenges with significant threat or protections, or if there’s a heavy “fog of war” on the battlefield,  magic that can reveal their risks or weaknesses can be the most powerful spells in the game (think of the sniper’s Battle Scanner ability in XCom). Or what about a “phase-based” RPG like Wizardry or Bard’s Tale where a spell can reveal exactly what the enemy has planned for the next turn, and allows you to go first? Suddenly those informational or “divination” spells become super-powerful.

And then there’s all kinds of non-combat uses for magic. The indie game Magical Diary: Horse Hall explores some of that potential.

Theoretically, a game like D&D could have had all of these situations, but it depended on a Game Master being very creative. That’s why there were so many different spells in the game. So most of these ideas don’t completely break us out of the old-school Western RPG paradigm.

The important part here is that there needs to be more than just the “Linear Warrior, Quadratic Wizard” balance between melee and magic (or any traditional combat and magic). Now that traditional role-playing games are no longer a rarity in computer games (YAAAAAAAY!), designers of fantasy RPGs should spend more time thinking about exactly what role magic should play in the game system rather than simply emulate what’s gone before. Magic is all about warping the laws of science, so let’s have some FUN with it!

Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

Man, I think that Mass Paralyze spell is imbalanced!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 11, 2014

FK2_Vault1_ss6Amusing bug story of the week. Actually, two bugs:

On Utah Indie Night, one of the group was playing the (updated) Comic Con demo for Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. As he gets into combat for the first time, I explain that the spells are randomly generated every time the game resets, and because I still haven’t fixed the detailed spell data pop-up with the new UI, I have to guess what the spell does based on its name.

After about one or two turns, he looks at one suspicious looking spell that’s like ‘Tokem’s Mass Movement Inhibitor” or something like that. I suggest it may be a paralysis spell, but I also warn that outside of the damage, damage over time, and a few other spell types, not all the effect types have been fully tested. He tries it anyway, because it sounds interesting.

BOOM! The entire player party is paralyzed. The player’s party. While it was designated as a combat spell, I’d somehow flagged that condition-infliction effect type as a “beneficial” effect, which means that it hit the friendly characters instead of the enemies, and there was no need to check for defense against the spell. So suddenly the entire party was paralyzed, and the attacking zombies went to town.

I was pleased to see that paralyze was functioning correctly, preventing the party from taking action, thus permitting the aforementioned zombies to continue in the said town-going behavior. But there was a small bug. Condition effects have durations that are supposed to decrement every turn. But for some reason (maybe because nobody was taking a turn in the player’s group?), this wasn’t happening, and the paralysis was not wearing off. Ever.

We made a couple of joke comments about how this mass paralyze spell was imbalanced and needed to be nerfed as the zombies.

At least I discovered that my code to detect that the entire party had been wiped out and end the game was working perfectly. That was nice.

Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Programming - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

Stories From a “Regular” Indie Game Developer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 10, 2014

I don’t know what a “regular” indie game developer means, really, but I suppose it’s probably about being one of the regular, working-class indies as opposed to one of the “rock stars.” We don’t get much press. We don’t get included in documentaries. At least not usually. We’re the little local bands hoping to make it big someday, in spite of knowing that we probably won’t. But we do it anyway because we love it.

One of those developers is Daniel Fedor of Blue Bottle Games. He’s a former AAA-industry game developer who’s gone indie, and making a very cool game that not enough people have heard about, NEO Scavenger.

Anyway, he keeps a dev blog, and talks about the challenges of being a ‘regular’ indie. I thought I’d share the link to some of the highlights of his posts over the course of development:

Stories from a regular indie game developer

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: Read the First Comment

Utah Indie Night – November 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 7, 2014

November’s Utah Indie Night was at the University of Utah, hosted by the EAE (Entertainment Arts & Engineering) department.

IndieNight_11_2014The formal presentation was by Paige Ashlynn and Becky Pennock of Tripleslash Studios (who, by the way, have their game – Magnetic by Naturelaunching on Steam next week!) As a company, they have been really getting out there taking their game on the convention / show circuit – GDC, PAX, Comic Con, Indiecade, and a host of others. Their talk was about the pros and cons of each show, how they were different from each other, and how to get the most out of them. They had a wealth of knowledge to share, from practical advice (where to go for food, how vertical banners are superior to horizontal ones), to overall “feels” for each of the venues, to good general advice.

Some of the general advice: It’s all about the parties, meeting people in person, and repeat acquaintances. It’s a lot easier to get someone’s attention and response when you meet them in person, especially on a repeat meeting. And parties are a great way to meet these people. It’s an awesome way to network, and there’s a “snowball effect” from that. Also, make appointments. And don’t neglect little, local opportunities. While they may not always make sense or be worth the time, your default option should be to go for it. Going forward even if it’s not entirely the right direction beats standing still. Even at those little presentations, if nothing else, you can get some feedback on your game, and you can work on your “sales pitch” and figure out what angle works to excite people or pique their curiosity.

I really found the discussion to be extremely valuable. It really does feel like in the last couple of years, the formal presentations at Utah Indie Night have really improved overall. The quality and density of valuable information is high. Maybe it’s just because the talks have drifted more and more into business-oriented territory, which is something that even after all these years I still feel like a complete n00b about. But in this particular case – I learned a ton by showing my game at Comic Con this year, and I can only imagine how much these guys picked up by taking their product on the road so much, and it was nice getting some pieces of that wisdom an easier way than doing it myself. :)  I just wonder how they actually got the game finished with so much traveling and conventions…

Anyway, awesome stuff. After that we broke into demos, and as I was showing Frayed Knights 2, I didn’t really see much of anyone else’s game. Taking the cue from Tripleslash’s talk, I tried to use the opportunity to solicit feedback, read body language, etc. It’s not optimal, as it’s tough to show  a long-form game in a venue where people have a short attention span, although indie night is better than others.

But – given those limitations, I do have to take away some thoughts on my own game, and what I have to do to make it better. At the climax of the demo, there’s a battle against a “vile necromancer” that has a very amusing twist that almost always excites people. But up until that point, there’s still kind of a “ho-hum, another RPG” type thing going on. And confusion about how to play, although that’s much more to be expected. But as with the first game, there’s an awful lot happening “behind the screen” in terms of number-crunching that’s neither visible nor interesting to (most) players.  Maybe it’s interesting when they get invested in the game and the system, but until then numbers and words on the screen are… just numbers and words. There’s definitely an element of selling people on the game that they are already playing (that ‘first five minutes” element) that I need to do better with.  And not just at the beginning, but throughout. And there’s something to be said when I have to spend too much time explaining what’s going on…

I’ve got a lot more I could say about this, but… maybe that’d be better for another post.

As always, it was great meeting again with old friends and fellow combatants from the craziness that was Comic Con. Once every two months (or three, this time) is far too infrequent to hang out with these folks, but it’s tough taking time out to do it more frequently.


Filed Under: Utah Indie Game Night - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Rocksmith 2014 – A One-Year Review (or “Can I Play Like Eddie Van Halen Yet?”)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 6, 2014


Do you ever fume about what you SHOULD have said to someone who made a stinging remark to you, long after the opportunity to make the perfect retort has long expired? I do. I come up with the perfect comeback minutes later, and then grouse about not having thought it up quickly enough to use it.

Rocksmith 2014 is kinda like that perfect comeback to the days when Guitar Hero was in its heyday, and smart-alecs would say things like, “Hey, if you put all that effort into really learning an instrument instead of playing that video game, you’d be able to play that rock music for real by now!”

Well, two things: First of all, years later, we finally can. Although to their credit the original creators of Guitar Hero tried to do just that in Rock Band 3. Secondly – although it might take months to realize this – it turns out that learning a real musical instrument like a guitar is a hell of a lot harder than mastering a plain old video game. The effort required to master Dragonforce’s Through Fire and Flames in GH3 is only a tiny fraction of the effort required to be able to play the song on a real guitar. But while that effort may not quite take you to the point where you can play blistering solos that amaze audiences, it will at least develop a skill that carries over outside of the confines of a video game.

Six months ago, I posted my ‘six month report’ on my progress in Rocksmith 2014. I remained very pleased with it, as a tool that pulled off the incredible trick of getting me off my butt and practicing the guitar. Well, actually, I still usually sit when I play, so I guess the “off my butt” part isn’t entirely accurate. While I had nitpicks, overall I found that my guitar skill had increased dramatically in six months, but acknowledged that six months of even semi-serious practice would have inevitably done that. Anyway, after six months of playing the game (nearly) daily, I did not expect my opinion to change very much in another six months. Would a full year of playing the game on a reasonably regular schedule change my opinion? Drum roll please…

Nope. I’m still happy with it.

Am I Still Playing?

Things have gotten a little busy over the last three months or so, which caused some lapses in my playing time, so on the average I think I’m playing six days a week for about an average of thirty minutes a day, so that part’s not so great. That probably explains why I haven’t made huge improvements in my skill since May. Still, it highlights one advantage of Rocksmith as a training / exercise tool – you can actually see your incremental gains when you feel like you’ve hit a plateau.

Another thing that I’ve done very differently over the last six months has been multiplayer. My daughter and I play the game together a lot – which forces me to play some songs I’d be less inclined to have tried. I bought the entire Fallout Boy pack (from the original Rocksmith) just for her. And… well, we play it a lot. We play a lot more drop-D tunings with her preferences, too. Not that I complain too much. Drop-D is easy to re-tune, and there are a lot of fun songs in the game with that tuning (especially w/ the DLC).

Welcome to the Black Parade,” by My Chemical Romance is a favorite. We’re still not awesome at it, as you can hear. Brenna has not even maxed out her difficulty yet – but it’s cool that we can play together even with different skill levels. In this video, I’m playing the top (rhythm), and she’s playing the lead part below me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I usually play rhythm parts. Rocksmith 2014 offers bass, and lead & rhythm parts for all songs that have the corresponding parts (and occasionally for those that don’t). For some songs, it has additional alternative parts as well. The breakdown is rarely strict, particularly in rock & roll. I’ve been playing a lot more lead guitar lately, which is certainly the most popular of the three ‘tracks’ offered, but I still spend about two thirds of the game in rhythm. And very rarely in bass (via the bass emulator).

What’s Changed in the Game?

As of yesterday, Rocksmith 2014 is now available on Xbox One and the Playstation 4. And for the last year, it’s been available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3. They have consistently been releasing music as DLC every single week, which has really expanded the library. While there may be some technical glitches doing so, but all DLC released for the original Rocksmith can be played in Rocksmith 2014, and most of the songs included in the first games’ release can be imported with an inexpensive tool (and they are a lot more fun to play in later game).

With this week’s pack, there’s a total of over 500 songs available for Rocksmith 2014 (if you include the songs imported from the first game). Earlier this week they announced a massive 12-pack of Jimi Hendrix songs, which is simply gonna be amazing. You can see a list of songs (and their tunings) here. I’ve also found this handy site for getting an idea of the difficulty level of the various songs, as well as other stats. Unfortunately, it’s gotten a little slow lately – too much data in the database? :) Some highlights of the DLC releases lately for me (besides the upcoming Jimi Hendrix release) have included a three-pack of surf music, a “Bachsmith” pack of classical music arranged for rock guitar, an “Arena Rock” collection of singles for getting your hair metal on, 70’s Rock Singles, “Classic Singles,” a “Yacht Rock” pack of easy-listening-ish classic rock / pop (well, some of them), plus packs of music from Foreigner, Creed, The Killers, Cake, No Doubt, and Duran Duran (awesome bass parts!). Some of the more recent releases have helped alleviate my frustration with the relative lack of 80’s rock. I’m not satisfied, but it’s a lot better. Now they desperately need more blues – they’ve got only a token handful between the two games – and rockabilly – which admittedly tends to emphasize the piano over the guitar.

Given that there are some subgenres of music that are better represented than others, still, unless you are totally uninterested in the whole spectrum of rock music (which is the name of the game, c’mon!), or have extremely narrow tastes, you should be able to find plenty of music to fill out your “digital songbook” of music to learn to play.

PROGRESS – Does it still work?

As far as how well it works… here’s 8-year-old Audrey, from Japan, playing on the original Rocksmith after a few weeks / months of practice:



And here she is two-and-a-half years later, at age 10. Note her work (not perfect, but better than me by far!) on the solo at 2:00 in…


As far as I know, she’s not really had any training outside of the Rocksmith games. She could probably use some at this point, and maybe she’s got some bad habits to overcome, but there’s no question that she’s picked up some mad skills from this game!

Anyway, that’s a bit more dramatic than where I was a year ago to where I am now, but the results are unquestionable. Not as rapidly as the first three months, or even the first six months, but it’s still very exciting. It’s also exciting seeing my daughter’s progress. All she did was folksong music (with big open chords) before, and now she’s cranking out some rock solos. Neither of us are ready for prime time, but it’s awesome being able to nail a section (if inconsistently) that three weeks earlier seemed totally impossible. And playing together with someone is great. Not how you’d want to spend 100% of your practice, but it’s a lot of fun. Especially when we both nail our parts, improve our scores, and as the last note dies off we just know we kicked butt and high-five each other.

Another indicator for me is how quickly I can pick up new music – even outside of the game. A year ago, I was trying some online lessons to learn a couple of songs, and I seriously had problems trying to keep the notes / chords straight. Once you got past a sequence of about three chords, I couldn’t keep it in my head. I couldn’t see how anybody could actually memorize a full song, let alone play it accurately. The other day, I hit the same instructor, different song, to see if things were more within my difficulty range. While the song wasn’t complicated at all (Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix), it was a piece of cake for me to memorize the whole piece. It’s a small victory, but one other indicator that stuff is “sticking” beyond the game.

And while my playing is still pretty rough and I’m not quite ready to rip out any Satriani-esque solos any time soon, or ready for any public performances or anything, I can play along with many songs now and hit 97%+ accuracy. So long as that remaining 3% isn’t a horrendous botch (and yes, some times it still is…), I’m playing stuff that anybody else could listen to and immediately recognize and sing along with (assuming they know the song). Here’s me with my now go-to warmup song, in the “Score Attack” mode. I didn’t come too close to my high score this time, sadly, and you can usually hear my guitar over the rest of the music best when I screw up. But oh, well:

90% of my practice / instruction time is still inside Rocksmith 2014. I don’t think it’s a bad thing as far as the actual time is concerned, but over time the limitations have become more noticeable. This isn’t an indictment against the game, nor does it diminish my enjoyment in playing at all. But it’s a lot like my reasons for getting a new guitar six months ago – I’d actually improved enough that the limitations had become an issue.


While Rocksmith 2014 is good at identifying some problems. It’s not 100%, and sometimes that leads me to distrust the game when it says I missed a chord. However, 90% of the time, if I’ve recorded myself or really looked at what I did, I find that the problem was indeed my own. Like I missed hitting the root string when playing a chord. That happens a lot, and it’s hit-or-miss as to whether or not the game will count it anyway.

Speaking of recording, I really wish I could do that in-game. You could in the first game, as I recall, although it was only a record of your last run, not something you could save (or if you could, I never did). Now I have to use an external tool. When you are playing, you can’t hear your own screw-ups that easily. Listening to it later, some stuff you thought you nailed (and the game gave you credit for) really does sound off, and you can hear what needs more work. To make it even more useful, you should be able to dynamically speed up / slow down the recording on playback, as well as change the volume on the background music and each player’s guitar (or voice!).

I’d like to be able to directly set my mastery of a whole song without having to go into the riff repeater. This is especially true if I’ve left the song alone for a few  months and I’m trying to refresh my memory. Right now, I go into Score Attack (Hard) mode so I can practice the whole thing without having notes go invisible. Invisible notes are no fun if it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten. It’s a minor issue, but it’s something that is noticeable after you’ve played for a while.

It would also be nice to have an option to have the game ding you for stray notes, somehow. When playing with music, it’s hard to tell if you are hitting a string that you aren’t supposed to, or if you’ve failed to mute a string that’s still ringing.  It might be an unnecessary complication when you are learning a song, but once you have maxed out your difficulty, it’d be nice to have that extra check on your accuracy. (Rock Band 3 Pro Mode did this, but then it was using a special digital guitar).


The game, just like playing the guitar, isn’t about sudden surprises or instant breakthroughs. A year of playing is… a year of playing. It’s about slow, steady progress. Cliffs of Dover isn’t a final boss that anyone is going to encounter and beat after two or three tries. But it works, and it’s fun.

I’m still playing. I’m still practicing. After twenty years of NOT doing that, I have to give Rocksmith 2014 some credit there for helping me stay motivated. I’ve got a ton of songs to play, and lots of tools at my disposal from within the game, but because I’m playing guitar regularly, I don’t feel restricted to those. I’m still playing “unplugged” a lot, and hitting other resources. Rocksmith is still not a “one stop shop” for mastering guitar, and I don’t think it would ever be, even if all those limitations above were addressed. But it doesn’t need to be.  It’s still a powerful and fun tool / toy to play with, and even a year later, it still makes learning the guitar fun.

To answer the question:  Of course I can’t play like Eddie Van Halen. But I can play. Not great, but I play. That’s something I was hesitant to say a year ago.

Filed Under: Guitar Games - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

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