Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Breaking the Chains – How the Game_Jam Fiasco Brought Out the Best of Indie Game Dev

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 1, 2014

I’m still not sure how to respond to the reports of the big “Game_Jam” fiasco. If you haven’t heard, here’s the original report by Jared Rosen at Indie Statik, and a follow-up by Polygon. If you don’t want to read it – here’s kind of my summary:

A company wanted to make a big-budget game jam to broadcast to audiences. They picked up some big sponsors. They recruited some well-known indies, YouTube “Let’s Play” personalities, and student game developers and tried to make it into a reality show. They completely misjudged what a game jam was about, what being “indie” is all about, and one producer / consultant tried too hard to make it good “reality TV” by trying to provoke conflict by some very vile means, including prompting indies with nasty, sexist comments.

To their credit, the indies were deeply offended, and – after sharing individual experiences – decided to walk away from the production as a group, abandoning the show that cost nearly a half-million dollars to put together after only a single day of shooting. They’re risking legal issues, but I imagine anyone leveling punitive legal action will be setting themselves up for an even bigger counter-suit. And the whole thing is a disaster that will probably chill any attempts to bring real game development to “mainstream” audiences by conventional means for a while.

But if telling the big money corporate jerks to f*** off isn’t indie, nothing is.

I guess I’m really a pretty sheltered guy. I’ve known some people who are major violators of Wil Wheaton’s prime directive in my life, but I guess I just project my own assumptions on people. If I were on an indie game development team and heard a producer ask us – on camera – if we felt we had an advantage because we had a “pretty girl” on the team, I’d immediately assume they were just making a joke in very poor taste, and get a little offended for my female teammate’s sake, but I’d never think about taking such a comment seriously. Because nobody actually thinks that way, do they?

I don’t know if this Matti Leshem douchebag really subscribed to such sexist principles, or if he read on the Internet that the gaming industry was sexist and decided to use that to try to pick a fight. He succeeded, but not in the way he intended. He picked a fight between the developers and the people running the event. As Adriel Wallick puts it in her blog post about the event:

“Do you think you’re at an advantage because you have a pretty girl on your team?”

All love to my teammates as they declined to engage. But, after pushing more – he got a rise out of me. He got me to, with an embarrassed and flushed red face launch into a statement about how his question is indicative of everything that is wrong in our industry in terms of sexism. That no, we weren’t at an advantage because we had a woman on our team – we were at an advantage because I’m a damn fine programmer and game developer. We were at an advantage because my skills allowed us to be at an advantage – not my “pretty face”.

He had the audacity to approach me later and explain that it wasn’t personal. This wasn’t a personal attack on me – he knew this was a sensitive topic in the industry and wanted to address it.

Well, you know what? It was personal. You sat there and overtly questioned my skills, my intelligence, my life. It was so personal, that I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that someone could even pretend to believe that it wasn’t a personal attack.

And, on top of that, it was a completely inexcusable way to address the issue of sexism in games. You address this by having a rational conversation about the nuances of how it feels to be an underrepresented part of an industry that you love. You address it by making a marginalized subset feel safe. You address it by allowing the minority to feel like they have a voice – a voice that is being listened to. You don’t address it by shoving cameras in a woman’s face and insinuating that the only reason she was brought onto a skill-based competition was because she was nice to look at.

I don’t think of myself as a very emotional guy, but as I read this, I was heartsick. Just imagining being put in a situation like that – it’s disgusting and humiliating.

Now, I prefer to hear multiple viewpoints – especially in such a litigious society where there are a large number of people who go around looking for excuses to be offended. I’ve known too many people like that, and I tend to view people who seem to perceive offense everywhere with a great deal of suspicion, and keep my distance. Part of it is my own cultural blindness, as I admitted above – I don’t see it, I don’t project it on others, and I haven’t been around people truly burned by it often enough to have those built-up defenses. There’s a chance the events of this story are being exaggerated. Jared Rosen is, after all, a long-time friend of some of these indies.

But at this point, it all sounds pretty inexcusable.  And I’m absolutely crushed by the perception that the gaming industry is full of rampant misogyny. I don’t want to believe it. I mean, sure – you have plenty of trolls, assholes, and douchebags at large outside of development, using the anonymity of the YouTube comments section to spew out the most vile and hateful insults and death threats that they can imagine, and sadly taking it beyond that. But within the development community, on a large scale? It didn’t used to be… or at least I never saw it. I’m sure it existed, but it was the exception, not the rule.

The actions of the developers at this event give me hope. While they were a bit blindsided and didn’t realize what was going on until later, once it became clear they came to a consensus. Again, quoting Adriel:

Despite all of this, there was a wonderful thing that happened. That community that I hold so dear banded together. As individuals, we were insulted and hurt, but as a group we were able to stand up and support one another in a way that I truly appreciate.

Our night, once the production was officially deemed dead, consisted of hanging out, forming new friendships, and reinforcing existing friendships – exemplifying the environment that should have existed all day.

Some developers began to devise ideas on how to film a game jam that would properly capture the spirit of game development. Some developers discussed potential future game design ideas. Some developers simply played games.

No matter what everyone was doing, however, we were all in this together – sharing, collaborating, talking, and creating.

This is what this whole indie game development thing is supposed to be about. This is what I imagine, in my optimistic view of this awesome hobby / industry / medium / field that everyone reading this is involved with, at least peripherally. Sure, the openness of the “community” means it doesn’t automatically filter out the hate-filled jerks. But the openness, the decentralization, the self-selection, and the meritocracy helps limit their influence.

Over the the last couple of years, I’ve wondered about the usefulness of “indie evangelism,” the cheerleading I’ve been doing for the last ten years for the indie game development movement. After all, today in 2014, it seems pretty clear that the indies have won the game – or at least the match – for the time being. But the commendable actions of the devs here comes from the independence of the community. We work together and cooperate, but we do our own things. This is a different dynamic. It’s not about corporate structure, it’s about communities and alliances. And most of all, it’s about games.

Their reaction to pressure to portray themselves according to nasty stereotypes – well, that gives me hope. It reminds me of what is so awesome about indies, as a whole.

Go, indie!

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

Matt Chatt – Brenda Romero, Parts 1 & 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 31, 2014

Matt Barton interviewed Brenda Romero for Matt Chat! Parts 1 and 2 are up, covering mainly the Sir Tech era. It’s a fascinating look back into the early games industry.

And part 2:

Great quote: “I’d rather make games for half the money than pretty much anything else in this world.”

There’s a great little discussion about her “apprenticeship” to designer David Bradley, and some insights into the history of Jagged Alliance, Realms of Arkania, and of course Wizardry.

I’m looking forward to Part 3.

Matt Chat is supported via Patreon – go here to support these videos. I am still amazed that these aren’t better-known and better-supported, but it does seem that the majority of gamers have little knowledge or interest in the history of the medium, and even less interest in the people and events that created it. This saddens me, but I’m glad there are a few that keep the faith!


Filed Under: Interviews - Comments: Read the First Comment

Deep Game Sales: Awesome or Terrible or Both?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 28, 2014

stackofshameCliff “Cliffski” Harris contends that the deep game discounts and massive bundle sales are a horrible trick played on gamers that will be the downfall of the industry in the long run. In his rant, he does acknowledge that in spite of flaws (devaluing of games, emphasis on quantity rather than quality, nobody finishing games, etc.), it works, and there’s unlikely to be much we can do about it at this point.

Ben Kuchera at Polygon has a decidedly different take on having a huge gaming library including unplayed games (yeah, that would be me…). He suggests, “Your backlog isn’t a source of shame, but a matter of pride; it’s a well-stocked library from which you can take comfort, a pile of blankets waiting for a cold night.”

Gianfranco Berardi mostly sides with Kuchera at his  GB Games blog. Although he notes having 30 games across seven shelves from GOG.COM, and I have to say: Amateur! I have more than thirty shelves… I think the games I’ve gotten for free from GOG.COM could take up two shelves all by their lonesome. Obviously, my fellow blogger and indie game developer doesn’t quite understand just what a true stack of shame really means… :)

What’s my standpoint?

Obviously, as a game developer, I am very concerned about the “race to the bottom” on pricing. I disagree with Gianfranco, as I feel I have seen a change in game design approaches and the emphasis on fast, short, and cheap permeating the industry.  I do see the issues Cliffski is concerned about, and they aren’t trivial problems. Although – and I suspect Cliffski recognizes this as well – I do see this more as symptoms of an industry & hobby in transition. How things will eventually look (if they ever even approach stability) may be nothing like they look today.

And I’ve had my game in two bundles already (and a few sales). In the bundles… I don’t know who has actually played it. It’s great to see that all those copies have been distributed, but have any of the bundle players actually loaded it up and invested the time into really playing it?  I mean, I appreciate the small amount of money I got out of each bundle, but I really included the game not for the pittance, but to get the game out there and played.

As a gamer with a pretty colossal “stack of shame” (which I’m actually pretty proud of), I’m just as obviously taking plenty of advantage of sales and bundles. Back when I considered myself more of a “hardcore gamer,” I had more time than money, and if I was lucky I would be able to purchase maybe one game a month. And not always for full price… As an interesting side note, on those occasions I happened to acquire two games at once, I often only ended up playing one of them, while the other one was guiltily ignored. I have a lot more guilt these days. On a good month (say, with a couple of great bundle deals, or during major sales at GOG.COM or Steam), I may buy as many games in a month as I used to buy in a year. I perhaps purchase two new mainstream games at full price in a full year.

So in that respect, I am truly part of the problem. And when I finally have time to play a new game? I browse through my lengthy list, and typically go with something I already know how to play. An old standby. I really don’t pick up new games nearly as often as I pick them up… if that makes sense.

So what are your thoughts? Have the sales and bundles encouraged you to build a massive backlog? Do you actually play all the games you get? Has this changed your perception of the value of video games? Do you refuse to buy games that are discounted by less than 50%?

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

While I was Gone…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 27, 2014

Man, I’m out of it for a couple of days, and crazy stuff happens.

First of all, if you haven’t heard… Facebook is buying Oculus VR (best known for their still-in-prototype product, Oculus Rift), for a total price – if they hit their targets – that could be valued at around a cool $2 billion. And – while it’s older news (by a whole week) – Sony’s got their own VR device they announced during GDC.

This has a lot of people who backed Oculus during their Kickstarter a little up-in-arms. I don’t pretend to follow all the details, but there’s some natural concern about the tiny little startup that could suddenly becoming one with the Borg. Facebook’s reputation is hardly virtuous, and they don’t have the kind of focus on gaming as Oculus VR has had. So… I guess we’ll see how this shakes out.

Raph Koster has some pretty intriguing musings on what this signifies, and where the trends are going.

Secondly – the nasty little company that’s been snatching popular gaming terms and trademarking them to hell and back had its initial public offering. I will admit that I’ve got a bit of schadenfreude-y pleasure in seeing that their IPO was somewhat lackluster. As of this morning, it’s down even further, although it is bouncing slightly off of its lows, now at 18.70.

The games business remains busy.

UPDATE: Apparently everybody’s favorite (not!) anti-videogame state senator from California, Leland Yee – the same guy who sponsored the anti-videogame law that was later struck down as unconstitutional – famous crusader against guns and violent videogames – has gotten nailed for … get this… GUN RUNNING and corruption. Yeah. My schadenfreude is going off the charts here.  So according to this guy, law-abiding citizens owning guns or playing games with guns or violence in them is a terrible, terrible thing. But selling guns to known gangsters? Apparently he doesn’t think that’s such a big deal.

Hypocrisy much?

I guess we’ll have to see if he’s convicted, but it sounds like they’ve got some pretty overwhelming evidence.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Eleven Tips to Get the Most out of Rocksmith 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 26, 2014

Now that Rocksmith 2014 has been out almost six months (I’ll have a six-month report in early May), articles and reviews about it have dropped off significantly. This is unsurprising, but also unfortunate, as Rocksmith 2014 is a game / tool that is best evaluated over the long haul. Sadly, that’s not how this industry works. Learning to play a real guitar is not much like mastering the plastic controller – it’s a lot harder, and has a lot more room for error.

When I was a teenager, I learned to play well enough that I’d consider myself an “advanced beginner.” Over the years, I’d played off and on (usually off), but never quite getting over “the hump” into what I would consider the “intermediate” stage of playing. I got nice surges thanks to two games that let you play a real guitar – Rock Band 3 (Pro Mode) and the original Rocksmith – which got me part-way up the “wall,” but still hadn’t translated into regular practice or gotten me to the point where I would safely feel like I was of intermediate skill level. I re-committed with Rocksmith 2014, and I have been playing the guitar almost every day since, generally for 30-60 minutes a day. At this point, it’s habit, and I hope I’ll stick with it.

I’ve gradually but noticably improved over the last four months, without additional formal instruction, which is beyond awesome.  For people who haven’t played it (much or at all) but are considering it, here are a bunch of tips for getting the most out of the game to help you learn to play the guitar.  Now, your mileage may vary (of course), but these are the things that have seemed to work the best for me, through trial and error:

1. Go ahead and play your favorites, but…
I started out by playing some of my favorite songs. This is awesome, as the game does a pretty good job (after a couple of times through) of setting up the difficulty level to where you can handle it – it’ll be just above your comfort level.

One thing I found is that I hit a wall in my favorite songs – which are usually pretty complex pieces – is that I hit a wall. I just can’t play the riffs fast enough, or my chord changes are just too slow and sloppy. With over 20 play-throughs, I’m still stuck at something in the 80% – 95% mastery range. At this point, it’s usually best (for me) to give it a little bit of a rest. Sure, practice makes perfect, but …

2. … Check out the easier songs
In RS2014, you can sort the songs by difficulty.  When I got frustrated hitting the wall again on the more challenging songs, it is nice to choose an easier song – including one I’m unfamiliar with – and really get it down, cold. Some of these songs I found myself liking after a while (but some… I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate Rotten Apple).  But the simpler songs are there for a reason, and it’s awesome to be able to actually master a song. It’s a big confidence boost, and it allows me to focus less on the mechanics and more on making the song sound good.

In some cases, three months later, I’ve gone back and found almost immediate improvement in some songs where I’d hit a wall.  I feel like I’m building a bit more of a foundation.

3. Mess with the mixer
It’s hard to hear how well (or poorly) you are playing sometimes with the original music playing. Go into the mixer and increase the relative volume of your own guitar so you can hear how you really sound against the music. I discovered that some of the times I thought the game was mis-reading my inputs were actually because I was playing it wrong – missing some of the strings on a strum, having fingers too far back (or forward) from the fret, or – especially on the low E string – pressing down too hard and causing an inadvertent bend. Changing the mixer settings allowed me to hear my own playing above the music better, and hear what I was doing wrong. (In less extreme cases, I can just play with the volume knob on the guitar, but on my cheap guitar that can lead to some side effects).

4. The Riff Repeater Is Your Friend
Seriously. Trying to just keep up, Guitar Hero style, is going to result in repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Go to the riff repeater and practice the troublesome parts over and over until you get them perfect (or nearly perfect), and let them level up.  For the more difficult ones, I still get clobbered because my speed isn’t there yet – but I can slow them down and nail them pretty well. In many cases, once I get to 100% difficulty, I end up having to turn off the auto-acceleration and just manually adjust the speed at 1% increments.

5. Guitarcade – Technique Games
While I’m not sure about all of them, I think the guitarcade technique exercises can be very, very helpful in developing accuracy. My accuracy sucks, but it sucks a lot less now than it did five months ago. I don’t think Guitarcade is a complete replacement for some basic (and, admittedly, boring) exercises, like just practicing scales or  chord changes over and over.  If your basics are sloppy, then frantic Guitarcade practice is going to be just as sloppy.  But it is a fun supplement.

6. Use Score Attack to Identify Trouble Areas (and to feel awesome)
I started doing the “Score Attack” games just to pick up some extra achievements on Steam. One thing I found is that it was helpful is that when I’m playing on hard difficulty (the full song), I can see where I’m having the most trouble. In Learn a Song, after a point – especially once I start going into mastery mode and the notes start disappearing (which you can re-enable easily enough if you need to) – it can hard to tell where I keep stumbling. I just know my accuracy is at 94% or something and not really improving. Score attack, which plays like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, makes a loud announcement when I screw up, and color-codes the section based upon just how many notes I’ve missed. It’s handy to see exactly what I need to practice and revisit with the riff repeater.

It’s also handy to go back and review a song I haven’t played in a while and may have forgotten some parts.

It is a nice ego boost to play through a song and get a gold or platinum rating, even if it is on easy or medium.  It’s cool to feel like you can play along with a song, if only a simplified version of it, and see that you are nailing it. I don’t really know what value playing on these settings can be, other than being motivational, but I imagine if you are really struggling with the difficulty of a song – especially if you aren’t very familiar with it – it’s nice to go through and just get a “feel” for it at a skill level well within your grasp.

Additionally when trying to fail a song ten times on Hard to get a “secret” achievement (“Maybe you should try another song”) , I actually ended up figuring it out and playing it, clearing the song. I may have missed one chance at the achievement, but clearly it is entirely possible to learn to play a song this way.

7. Memorize Scales
This one I’m taking on faith, having too many people in my life who really do know music and music theory.  Scales are the building blocks of how you improvise, how you pick up new songs quickly, how you transcribe, and so forth. While games like Scale Racer and Scale Warriors are pretty cool in this regard, sometimes the best thing to do is just set up a scale in Session Mode and practice. The nice thing with Session Mode is you can reveal the larger scale in steps or all over the fretboard to practice the scales in more than just a single hand position. While it doesn’t teach you much about theory, it does help you learn to hear how all these things work together.

8. Hunt down additional instruction
You will hit the limits of Rocksmith 2014‘s instruction pretty quickly, even though the lessons are pretty good. Fortunately, in this day and age, you are no longer limited to buying a book or hiring an instructor. Tons of instruction are available on the Internet, often for free or the cost of a donation. More advanced instruction can be had for pretty cheaply too. A lot of people have done quite well by Justin Guitar (including myself), and it’s really, REALLY worth it to go through some of his lessons or look up topics online. The game doesn’t tell you much about strumming or picking patterns, theory, etc. It cannot offer much advice when your music just sounds wrong, either.  It’s hard to say which is the primary and which is the supplemental instruction, but I’d strongly suggest that you pick up what you can through other sources.

Seriously – Rocksmith 2014 is much, much better than its predecessor, but it still leaves a lot of gaps. Some pretty basic, free instruction found online can make a huge difference. If nothing else, it’s helpful to learn from two or three different sources and perspectives, as one might give you the “ah-hah!” insight the others don’t.

9. Memorize Songs
This one is a challenge for me, but it seems like this is the obvious goal — being able to pick up a guitar and play a tune that anyone can recognize, without having to pull out the sheet music. RS 2014 really helps push you towards this goal, and it’s really cool.  If you haven’t practiced a song in a while, you can always temporarily turn off “master mode” or play it with master mode turned off in the riff repeater – OR play it on “Hard” in Score Attack – to remind yourself how to play it.

10. Unplug
Once you have songs (or just riffs) memorized, play without the song backing you – maybe not even plugging into Rocksmith or any amp at all.  Just as with the suggestions to mess with the mixer levels, this allows you to hear exactly how you sound, without the original music convincing you that you are hearing what you want to hear.  RS2014 will ignore a lot of mistakes or let you get away with some sloppy playing – accidental strings, poor rhythm (it won’t always tell the difference between repeating a strummed chord / string or just sustaining a previous strum). Unplugging and listening to yourself – seeing how close you can get to making the right “sound” with your palm mutes and strums or whatever.

And then, finally, here’s a bonus tip, which isn’t really much of a tip at all:

11. Practice!

The single greatest value in a training tool like this is that it gives you a fun way to practice, and an excuse to commit to daily practice. It gives you a bunch of tangible goals to strive for, either through the game itself (through the missions and achievements), or simply by giving you a way to measure your progress and set goals for yourself. I expect that more than anything else, simply putting your hands on the guitar and regularly practicing.

I used it, personally, as a “trick” to commit to a goal I kept slacking on every year – to really improve on the guitar. By being able to measure my progress (if indirectly), it’s worked really well in that respect. I don’t harbor any desire to become a professional musician – I just want to be able to play guitar. It is great to finally hear improvement.

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

Midnight Plane to Georgia

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 25, 2014

Caught the Red-Eye and a connecting flight to Savannah, Georgia again. By the time you read this, I should already be there.

Please pardon me if I’m not too responsive. I’ve got a very, very long day in front of me at a customer site (going straight to the site from the airport), and so when I finally get in I’ll have only however long it takes for my latest caffeine dose to wear off before I crash. But I (hopefully) have some content scheduled to go, so, enjoy!

In the meantime, consider this rant from Greg Costikyan.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We’re now witnessing the last death throes of the AAA system, the viper that sucked game innovation dry. And my sincere regrets to every developer who has suffered in that transition, inevitable though it is.

“I called for a revolution; and to my astonishment, we’ve witnessed one, over the last ten years. Online distribution and developers ready to defy the system produced the indie revolution, a Cambrian explosion of creativity not seen since the early days of computer gaming. New platforms – social and mobile games – have opened up entirely new channels, and enabled entirely new game styles. The last 10 years have been the most exciting and most promising time to be a game developer in history, and I include the birth of the industry, and the rise of tabletop hobby games, both exciting times, in that judgment.

“But all good things come to an end. And so it is today. The walls are closing in once more. The coming years are going to be harsh. There will be a winnowing of developers unseen since the Atari crash. There will be less and less innovation. Ten years from now, we’re going to need another revolution. And as usual, greed and lack of taste will be to blame.”

Whatcha think?

Filed Under: General - Comments: Read the First Comment

Dem Indie Game Dev Blues

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The love of the games.

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

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

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

IGF Winners for 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 21, 2014

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

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

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

Congratulations to all the winners (and finalists).

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

Game Engines Plunge in Price

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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Exploring Might & Magic X Legacy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

GOG.com Embraces the Penguin

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed Under: General - Comments: Read the First Comment

GDC 2014 Begins Today…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

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

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 16, 2014

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

thebookoflegends01The Book of Legends on Steam

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

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

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

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

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

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Interesting Decisions

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Indie Is Important…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 13, 2014

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

When a Successful Game is a Failure

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

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

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

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

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

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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