Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 4, 2014
Here in the U.S., it’s the 4th of July – Independence Day. So to my friends in the U.S. or from the U.S., Happy Independence Day!
For everyone else out there, who didn’t have an Abraham Lincoln riding a bear into battle with an assault rifle, have an awesome Friday! Booyah!
(Okay, that may not be entirely historically correct, but that’s how it should have happened!)
Filed Under: General - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 3, 2014
After yesterday’s epic-sized post, today’s will be a small one – because Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software says a lot of good stuff that doesn’t need much additional commentary. He’s way better at this than me, anyway, and has been through a couple of market cycles since before “indie” was even a term (back then, it was called “shareware.”)
Great advice across the board.
I’m not so sure about people wanting to root for you. Sure – some do. Indies do enjoy a bit more goodwill, and they will often have a small group of people cheering them on. But I don’t know that being “indie” earns you automatic goodwill these days from the larger market. When things are glutted, people will tend to be more indifferent towards individual indies, even if they still want to root for the concept of the underdog. Attention becomes harder and harder to obtain – you are just another faceless soldier storming the beach. They’ll root for you and mourn your failure only in the abstract.
Maybe I’m wrong there, but that’s my feeling.
That doesn’t really change the advice. Try not to give people a reason to root against you, if you can help it. Sometimes the very things that get you the attention you and your game desperately need will also burn you in the long run (see Phil Fish).
Bottom line though – Jeff is right, even if the term “bubble” isn’t 100% correct. The market is glutted, and that’s hurting the *average* indie developer. But being an average indie developer has never, ever been a recipe for success.
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 5 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 2, 2014
I made a joke yesterday about partying like its 1992, as a PC gamer. It occurred to me that there’s a lot of truth to that. It seems that we’re seeing a lot of recent / new / upcoming remakes, spiritual sequels, and direct sequels of PC games that were pretty hot back in 1991 – 1993, but have been relatively fallow over the last decade or so. Then of course, we have a couple of series that are still going strong (like Civilization).
1991 – 1993 were very influential years for me. I was in college as a computer science major. I was married in the latter part of ’91, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was a PC gamer on a very limited budget, and there were a handful of games that exerted a strong influence on me, and convinced me to give game development a shot once I graduated. I even contacted the H.R. department at Origin to find out what kind of qualifications / experience they were looking for (and from what the lady told me, it sounded like a college degree wasn’t highest on their list…).
I’m guessing there are a lot of others who were similarly impressed in that era, who have now “grown up” and are now either influential in a mainstream studio, or have the skills and rep to go at it as an indie and do a credible job of revisiting this golden age of PC gaming. As for me, I’m feeling a strong sense of deja vu. Mostly in a good way. It was a very good time to be a PC gamer.
Here are a few of the games of then… and now:
Eye of the Beholder / Legend of Grimrock (2)
I really only played Eye of the Beholder II, which was released in late 1991 (but it was mid-to-late 1992 before I played it). Of course, it was inspired by the Amiga title Dungeon Master, but it did it with a loose interpretation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules. Eye of the Beholder offered sort of a “slow-mo action game,” marrying traditional first-person perspective, grid-based dungeons with real-time gameplay.
The Legend of Grimrock decided the ground had been left fallow long enough. While a grid-based world hadn’t been in vogue for years, they decided the gameplay could still be a lot of fun. They were right, and the EoB / Dungeon Master – inspired title proved to be a big hit.
They are currently working on a sequel, which recently hit the alpha stage. It promises to mix indoor and outdoor locations, better AI, an improved and more flexible skill system, and more of the insane puzzle-related gameplay from the first game. It sounds likely that we’ll see the game released before the end of the year.
Wing Commander / Eterium / Star Citizen
If there was any one game that I could say changed the direction of my life in any significant way, it was Wing Commander. I played that game, and had a vision of what games could be. The original Wing Commander dropped in 1990, but I didn’t play it until the summer of 1991… just before the release of Wing Commander 2: Vengeance of the Kilrathi.
Heading up the nostalgic spiritual sequels is the recently-released Eterium. I wrote about Eterium a couple of weeks ago. I really do like it. A lot. It is aimed squarely at the Wing Commander experience, and while it does offer a bit of new ideas to the mix, if you squint really hard you could swear you are playing Wing Commander 2 all over again.
Of course, there’s also Star Citizen. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series, managed to score a butt-load of funding to make a publisher-free space combat extravaganza that will probably dwarf the budget of everything but his ill-conceived movie. Intended as both a single-player and a scaleable multiplayer persistent universe, it has some pretty impressive looks and aspirations, but something like this is always in danger of collapsing under its own weight and then under-delivering something hastily salvaged from the wreckage. But hey… we can hope. I really want it to be awesome.
Ultima Underworld / Underworld Ascension
I played Ultima Underworld at about the same time as Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and for a while it was a toss-up as to which game was the most revolutionary, awesome, incredible, mind-blowing RPG experience for me. Eventually, I gave the nod to Ultima VII, but it is really tough to say which game was actually more fun.
Ultima Underworld and its sequel – I’ve said quite a bit about both games, and will doubtless spill more virtual ink talking about them. For their time, they were technologically amazing. Even today, although their graphics are dated and the interface very difficult to use, they are brilliant examples of old-school design principles mixed with a cool first-person perspective. The design was part-simulation, with factions, trading, cool 3D puzzles, traditional RPG puzzles, and even a requirement to learn something of the lizard-man language to communicate with some of the characters. It didn’t include the kitchen sink, but it dang near included everything it could.
Now, we hear that Paul Neurath has gotten some of the original band back together and has formed OtherSide Entertainment with the original aim of creating a modern sequel to Ultima Underworld. Whether or not it will be an actual part of the “Ultima” franchise remains to be seen. This one will probably not see the light of day this year nor next, but it’s exciting to imagine what they may be able to create.
Wolfenstein 3D / Wolfenstein: The New Order
1992 brought out an unexpected return to an old computer game series, Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein, in the form of the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D. While it wasn’t really the first FPS (Carmack had previously released Catacomb 3D), nor was it the phenomenon that Doom would prove to be, it shook things up in industry. My local computer store had the shareware version of Wolf 3D running on all of their systems to prove how game-capable they were. It didn’t quite touch mainstream consciousness, but it was a big hit among PC gamers, launched a mainstream publisher sequel (The Spear of Destiny), and console ports.
In a way, I guess you can say that the series has continued since 2001. It’s been five years since the last Wolfenstein game (which I hadn’t even heard of), but Wolfenstein: The New Order was just released. It takes place in an alternate history 1960, when the dieselpunk Nazi regime has taken over the entire world. I don’t see it having the kind of impact of the 1992 release, but hey… it’s fun still seeing a Wolfenstein among new and recent releases.
Ultima VII / Shroud of the Avatar / Divinity: Original Sin
It seems that most critics view Ultima VII (which included two games, plus expansions) as the pinnacle of the series, and I’d be one to agree. I could go on and on about the … ahem… virtues of Ultima VII. But now is not the time. Suffice to say – it was a vision of open-world design. I recently read a contemporary review of the game following its 1992 release, and the author complained about how bored he was of the Ultima series… but admitted that Ultima VII: The Black Gate was excellent and proved that maybe the series wasn’t quite dead yet.
Unfortunately, very few developers attempted to tackle that level of complexity, although I think the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout series gave it a solid try. More recently, Divinity: Original Sin attempts to incorporate a lot of that old-school love. It’s not a direct love-child of the Ultima series, or Ultima VII in particular, and probably can’t be directly compared to the 1992 classic, but publicly acknowledged inspiration is clear.
A somewhat closer comparison comparison could be made to the recent indie release, Driftmoon. Again – it goes its own way and marches to the beat of a different trombone. But the spiritual ancestry is pretty clear, especially with the unusual choice of the top-down camera.
The closest comparison of all should probably be made with the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series, has jumped in with a new company to create this single player / multiplayer world as a full-blown “spiritual sequel” to his earlier titles – particularly invoking Ultima VII and Ultima Online.
No, it still won’t be quite like playing Ultima VII again, but it’ll be as close as we’re likely to get to playing a “real” Ultima again for a while.
Frontier: Elite 2 / Elite Dangerous
Jumping to 1993, still a little while before I graduated, there was another space game that devoured my spare time and blew my mind – Frontier, AKA Elite 2. This amazing title fit an entire universe on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, procedural generating worlds, stations, enemies, and missions. It was amazingly ambitious, and while the space combat was nowhere near the quality of, say, the Wing Commander series, it delivered on its ambitious promises. Go out in a procedural universe and make a living by any means necessary… and there were tons of means available.
Thanks to crowdfunding success, a new Elite is currently in development. Elite: Dangerous is being made by the original Elite series co-creator, David Braben, and his team. It looks and sounds pretty awesome so far. It has recently entered beta testing, and it is due for release at the end of the year.
Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra / Might & Magic X: Legacy
Honestly, I’m a latecomer to the Might & Magic series. I played a little of Might & Magic 2 on a friend’s computer back in 1992, and of course read all about it in the pages of Computer Gaming World, but I’ve really only started playing the series about three or four years ago. But I finally get what people were talking about, and while the 1992 release of Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra was such a big deal. (And the two immediate sequels – which could link up and create an even bigger world when combined, was an even bigger one!).
I’m still playing the recently-released Might & Magic X: Legacy, the long-overdue return to the franchise. Interestingly, while the later Might & Magic games ditched the grid-based world, Legacy went back to the early 90s and embraced it, like Legend of Grimrock. While only being able to walk in four directions isn’t very realistic, I haven’t met anybody who has played the game who denied that it was fun. It’s a solid, very fun game that embraces its old-school roots – with a little bit of streamlining for modern audiences.
X-Com / XCom: Enemy Unknown / Xenonauts
Yeah, okay. We’re now well into 1993, with another title that consumed a good deal of my time – another of the most awesome games of all time. X-Com was the U.S. name for UFO: Enemy Unknown, and it was an instant classic. It was followed up by what amounted to little more than a re-skinning with X-Com 2: Terror From the Deep. Unfortunately, everything thereafter grew progressively worse and diluted the game’s good name.
The series was finally revived a little over a year ago with a fantastic offering called XCom: Enemy Unknown. While it differed substantially from the original, it nevertheless felt true to its roots, particularly with turn-based combat. It’s a hit, and deservedly so… and it still gave us turn-based combat!
But … that’s not all. X-Com spawned numerous spiritual descendents, and the strongest and most faithful of them has been in development for many years. Entitled Xenonauts, this is a faithful spiritual remake / re-envisioning that was finally released a few weeks ago. I picked up a copy when it hit the release version based on glowing recommendations by friends. I still haven’t played it yet, though I certainly intend to.
While I think it is kind of amusing that the “spiritual sequel” is more faithful to the original style and gameplay of the original than the “true” sequel, I’m pretty happy to find that there’s room for both.
Wasteland / Wasteland 2
Wasteland was actually a considerably earlier release (1988), but in 1992 there was still a thin, shriveled hope that a sequel would appear “any month now.” It didn’t happen. A few years later, we got Fallout, which was a worthy spiritual successor by any measure. But 2014 is finally delivering the long-anticipated true sequel that fans have been expecting for 25 years.
So yeah, I’m reaching a little bit on this one. But come on… Wasteland 2 deserves a mention in an article like this!
Wizardry 7 / Grimoire?!?!?
Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was another major, awesome RPG released in 1992. It was huge, popular, full of new features and ideas, and could keep a player busy for a long, long time. Hey, it’s been over twenty years and I still haven’t finished it! One day, I promise myself. One day. Considering its size and scope, however, that will be one day after many weeks of effort.
RPGWatch tweeted me yesterday with the idea that Grimoire was the new Wizardry 7, which certainly seems to be the intent of its creator. Okay. I’ll believe it when I see it. Grimoire has been living in the twilight zone of actual, playable product and vaporware for years, now. If and when it does release to the public, the hard-core, old-school PC RPG fandom will be stunned. But hopefully – hopefully – we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.
Doom / Doom
And we’ll finally revisit 1993. At the end of ’93, the big one dropped… Doom. It turned the industry on its head. PC gaming hit mainstream because of this game, though the game itself found its way to virtually every platform imaginable in time (particularly after the source code was released as open-source by id Software).
Doom 3 released ten years ago as something of a remake. It was technologically cool and very pretty, and had plenty of “jumps,’ but to many players it lacked the heart that really made Doom special.
There’s a remake that I believe has now or is very soon entering beta. Ditching the numbers and going back to the name, “Doom,” I don’t know much about it. But if it actually captures the feel of the original, I’ll be very happy.
UPDATE: I knew there were gonna be more. Spotkin is readying the 1.0 release of their new game, Contraption Maker – a spiritual successor to / remake of 1992′s awesome The Incredible Machine – by many of the team members who worked on the original series. It’s currently available via Steam Early Access, but the release version should be out very, very soon. Congrats to the team in Eugene!
Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 14 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 1, 2014
Yesterday, Larian’s highly anticipated RPG in their Divinity series, Divinity: Original Sin, was officially released. As a backer from their kickstarter, I had access to the early release, but I didn’t play it. No, I thought I’d wait and play the “final” release version.
Consequently, as last night was a very busy night (and not just with game development stuff), I don’t think I got to play a full hour. But… wow – between what I played, heard, and some of what the “hints” that came up while loading said, I’m seeing a whole lot to like. In fact, the only thing I have any grief about right now are the save times and some stability issues (it crashed on me once).
So here’s what I’m seeing that has me all super-excited, and that these guys really are making games just for me:
#1 – Turn-based combat that moves quickly.
#2 – Party-based. By default, the game has you play two characters, but you can “lone wolf” it if you prefer, or find other characters to join you for a party size of up to four.
#3 – Co-op multiplayer! I haven’t really played a “real” RPG like this in a long time, so I’m… intrigued. Especially since there’s a built in disagreement – resolution system. And a drop-in, drop-out system for making multiplayer as seamless as possible. There is some very interesting stuff going on there. Color me tempted.
#4 – I haven’t really experienced this yet, but a hint says that almost everyone is willing to trade with you, right down to the lowliest peasant. Shades of Fallout and Ultima Underworld! This is a rare, awesome feature.
#5 – You can chuck an empty barrel on a trap to set it off. I’m not sure how much this is going to be a thing, but it seems like being able to move things around is a big deal in the game. Or can be. Shades of Ultima VI!
#6 – The environmental aspects don’t end there. Electrical attacks on water zap everything in the water, while running into oil while on fire will set the oil on fire. Then there’s spell combos that work the same way – for example, using a water-based spell to make enemies wet before freezing them will make the freeze spell more effective.
#7 – There’s a large number of things that can be picked up. Lots of stuff to pick up. Even better, a lot of this stuff can be combined to make new items. Shades of Ultima VII. Baking bread is back!
#8 – The default tutorial is easily abandoned just by going a different direction. The game kindly warns you that you are leaving the tutorial, and lets you go back. It’s very responsible of the developers to make sure you don’t stumble into a choice you didn’t want.
#9 – Characters can “evolve” beyond their starting class organically. So while you may have a character that starts as a fighter, over time they may pick up some useful spells. I suspect one of my characters is going to start learning rogue skills.
#10 – There’s no level-scaling, and the game doesn’t prevent you from wandering off to a higher-level area and getting in way over your head.
It’s off to a great start. While I grouse about Kickstarter (alternating between grousing and becoming a backer), it really has allowed some very interesting projects to make it to release. This is one. It’s a game that’s too dang expensive to do without funding, and has too many features that would never have been allowed by a traditional publisher (like turn-based combat).
I’m kinda dreading the moment when the honeymoon is over, and I find myself disappointed with the game in some way. It always happens. Well, almost always. No game is perfect. But so far, what little I’ve seen (and what I’ve read and been able to confirm so far) is really, really, really cool.
I’m crossing my fingers here, folks. We’ve seen some really tremendous new RPGs see the light of day, lately – mainstream, indie, “big indie” (like this one), low-budget indie, and so forth. Dunno about you, but I’m partying like its 1992.
Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: 3 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2014
I spent a little bit of time playing Doom this weekend. Yes, twenty-year old Doom. Updated a little bit with some new technology to take advantage of modern hardware and to make it nicely mouse-playable and everything, but it was still the same game. Running in Doomsday with a fan-made high-quality texture pack. There are some other add-ons which I haven’t installed, like higher-quality audio, 3D models for the enemies, etc. Pretty cool stuff for an old game.
Who needs a remake?
Oh, I guess we do:
Ah, well. I can’t say I’m not a little excited about what Bethesday might come up with.
I’d recently finished a somewhat more recent first-person shooter, Spec-Ops: The Line, which I thought was a pretty decent game. Okay the game part was pretty straightforward to the point of being generic. At times it felt like one of those old arcade shooters like Time Crisis. Shoot, duck, reload. Face bad guys with different weaponry appearing in surprise directions in a cover-based shooting gallery in a highly scripted combat. To distinguish the game from the pack of “modern combat shooters,” the developers incorporated a pretty decent storyline, which redeems things.
Going from that to playing the original Doom a little bit this weekend, I was struck by the purity of the game. After all, it was designed like a 2D game, with some tried-and-true mechanics transposed into a 3D (well, 2.5D) world. It felt a lot less scripted – partly because there wasn’t much by the way of scripting mechanics for the game.
But that wasn’t the only reason. I went and played a bit of Final Doom. I grabbed it from the Steam sale, since I’d never played it before. Final Doom – created by third parties and sold by id Software – feels a lot more like the modern shooters. In lieu of true scripting, there are environmental constraints and triggers everywhere to make the game more challenging – a twisted shooting gallery of pain without much margin for error. Maybe I just suck too much, but after a couple of levels I went back to the original (or Ultimate Doom). It was more fun and more interesting.
After Doom, everything changed. It was the Star Wars of the gaming biz. Even though the original shareware release didn’t post the kinds of numbers to compete with the best-selling mainstream games of the era, its popularity shook up the industry. After Doom, games industry attracted a lot of people from other sectors, including a non-insignificant infusion of people from television and the movie industry, who sadly sometimes saw games as movies with a little bit of troublesome player interaction. That trend didn’t go away with the death of “FMV games.” A few years ago this amusing comparison of FPS maps went viral:
The map on the left is from Doom, of course. To be fair, with the keys and switches limiting access, the actual progression through a level is a bit more linear than it appears. And the picture on the right only applies to single-player levels. But it’s still funny.
Going back and playing a somewhat souped-up Doom really did feel refreshing, though. Maybe it was nostalgia for the days when I was less jaded as a gamer, and it reconnected me to old memories when Doom was absolutely revolutionary and stunning. Maybe it reminded me of an era before the games industry had changed so much – changed in part due to this game. Back to an era where Doom conked the gaming industry on the head and made gamers and game developers alike believe that anything was possible.
But maybe it’s just that there’s something to be said for simple, visceral gameplay. You couldn’t just imitate Doom today, of course. That well has been drained pretty dry. But it was all about combining basic elements – the building blocks of the game – into lovingly elaborate, deadly self-contained challenges with plenty of leeway for the player to work things out his own way. The behaviors of the monsters weren’t necessarily realistic, but they were predictable, and could be used against them. Some of the best solutions involved getting monsters to fight each other in wild melees of infighting. Or clever use of exploding barrels. These were not complex, specially-scripted “solutions” – they were simply the tools at both the designers’ and the players’ disposal.
And seriously,within its own self-contained world, it ends up feeling far more realistic and believable than the carefully orchestrated, cinematic, advanced AI of the modern era. To me, that’s putting on a show for my benefit.
Sure, post-Doom, almost anything seems possible today. But sometimes its questionable as to whether or not all that is truly more fun and enjoyable than what’s been possible for 20+ years.
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 10 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2014
When I first started in the video game business (and I’m kind of afraid to mention when that was anymore), I was pretty sure of myself. I knew games. I knew what was fun. I was a frickin’ gaming genius.
That didn’t last long. I blame Dunning-Kruger. The more professional game designers I spoke with, the more I worked on games, the more I really began to study them professionally, the more I realized I didn’t have a clue. And now, with an indie world out there full of bizarre and creative ideas that actually sell (and twenty times more that don’t), the even less clueful I feel. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t understand.
Sure, I’ve got opinions. They’ve changed a bit over the years (releasing your own games and getting feedback from actual customers will do that), but I still hold them. Maybe not as securely as I once did. I still know what *I* like, though I’m no longer certain how similar my own tastes are to that of the general gaming public.
On the one hand, this is probably a good idea. I’m more open to new ideas and willing to “kill my darlings” – my pet ideas. I hope that I’m more able to swallow my pride to make a better game. On the other hand, this can also make me hesitant and indecisive, which is not a good trait in the fast-moving world of indie game development.
The thing is – we’re all born with an innate sense of fun. Real life tries to beat it out of us as we get older, but it is as natural – and as important – as breathing. The joy, the “fun,” is what helps us to discover the world around us, to learn new things, and develop skills. And we all find that fun in different things.
I look at something like Goat Simulator, and I think… that’s just a giant toy-box for grown-ups. For that matter, so is Grand Theft Auto.
The thing is, as kids – the fun comes first, the rules and structure later. Kicking a ball around is inherently fun. But with no goal, nobody to share it with, no way to determine who is better at kicking a ball around, no other skills with which to mix up the ball-kicking, we can lose interest pretty quickly. So we come up with some kind of structure, some rules, some goals, some ways to bring other people and challenges in to keep things interesting.
That’s not something you need a PhD to understand. There’s no special game design mojo. That’s probably why it all seems easy, at first. Making something fun is easy. But making something fun, easy to understand, playable on everyone’s hardware, appealing to your audience’s tastes, marketable, intuitive, polished, accessible, challenging without being frustrating, has staying power, and competitive in a crowded marketplace — that’s what takes all the hard work.
(And that’s why we copy so much from each other – we start with what we know, and what we know works, and hopefully try to improve on it or try something different with it. )
In the end, there’s probably no substitute for just making lots of games. That’s something I’m not doing so great at… I should probably do more game jams, but as a part-time developer, that’s a pretty big time sacrifice. Maybe people in similar situations – who can’t devote a large block of time to a game jam very often – could focus more on things like one game a month, or like my “40 hour” project many years ago. Or micro-jams, like the “game in 0 hours.”
Because if there anything I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always a lot more to learn.
Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 5 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2014
Schedule-wise, there’s no way I can do it. Not until after FK2 is released (and probably not until FK3 – I’d like to do a “rolling start” there), so we’re talking a ways out. But I can dream.
Is there even gonna be a market for these kinds of games? The Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 is going to go for $350, and I cannot imagine that the consumer version will be a whole lot cheaper. The AntVR Kickstarter just succeeded – we’ll see if that one flies – but the all-in-one controller looks cool.
Obviously, the answer is simply to do a game that is VR-compatible. With a console-controller-friendly interface, even Frayed Knights 2 could do that. But it wouldn’t be optimal for the VR experience. What would be optimal? What would be my dream VR-compatible / optimized experience? Either a “survival / simulation RPG” along the lines of Ultima Underworld (of course), or a really intense but subtle horror game.
But hey – not that I’m really gonna have an opportunity or anything, but I’m curious what other people here are thinking:
#1 – Are you interested in VR technologies like Oculus Rift or the seemingly dozens of new systems launching or coming soon? Would that be something you’d like to game with?
#2 – If so, what kind of games would you like to play on them?
#3 – If not, why not?
Filed Under: Tech - Comments: 12 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 25, 2014
Not only do empty promises get more attention than real, delivered games… but joke projects may trump serious development efforts. In theory, the $100 Greenlight fee was supposed to weed these out, which I’m sure it did. But not completely.
Of course, here I am talking about it instead of ignoring it, as I usually try to do. So I guess I’m not immune, either. They just proved their point.
I suppose it’s entirely possible that they could make a cool game out of this concept… I’ve played the totally awesome Rock of Ages, which involved some decently fun gameplay on top of some excellent and weird theming. But based upon what’s written on the Greenlight page, this ain’t that.
Ah, well. I feel bad for the game developer who gets passed up because of this thing, for sure. When people’s livelihoods are at stake… this isn’t quite as amusing. But on the flip side, this is frickin’ games. We should have fun with it. I just wish they’d picked a better venue. Or maybe they are pointing out the pointlessness of the current Greenlight system, in which case… another point well taken.
Can you tell I have mixed emotions here?
This is just the way life and the market works, as much as we wish it were otherwise. Gimmicks get the attention. Always.
One more time:
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 24, 2014
When I was a kid, I dreamed about a computer RPG that (in my dream) was completely awesome. Amusingly, although the end of the dream was more like a live-action adventure, the first half of the game in my dream was probably closer to something like the early Ultima games. Setting forth from the first castle, I bravely set forth into the tile-graphics world … in the wrong direction.
I found myself in the “high-level” area of the game very early, lost, and desperately trying to find my way back to where I was supposed to be.
It culminated with what felt more like a live-action adventure, with me in a vampire’s castle at the still-lowly level of 1, realizing I was still not back to where I wanted to be, but still able to make some progress so long as I avoided any combat. The encounter with the vampire resulted in yet another panicked flight, facilitated by his great weakness: predating the Doctor Who episode “Blink” by more than two decades, he would only be able to approach if I looked away.
While it was a very cool dream that I still remember parts of to this day, I think your average player would grow super-frustrated and quit (or at least restart) early on.
Maybe one source of inspiration for this little dream of mine back in the day was my misadventures in the game Telengard, a game which frequently dropped you down pits or teleported you to random locations in the dungeon – and, often, to areas where you had no business being. If you didn’t have a scroll of rescue, you’d be in for a really tough adventure (especially since, IIRC, you could only save the game up at the top of the dungeon, in one of the taverns).
However, one of the fun things to do in Telengard was to actually memorize a path down to a level well beyond your ability, “snarf up” some unprotected treasure, and then get back to safety and save the game (where the treasure was converted to experience points). Sometimes monsters would even be friendly and give you a powerful magic item. Other times, you had to be able to survive long enough to flee. Fleeing in Telengard basically meant getting a certain number of “moves” ahead of your pursuers. There was a little graphical character that marked how far behind you they were.
Lars Doucet posted some time ago about fleeing mechanics and design – adding the ability to “run away” from a bad encounter. You can click here and check out his excellent article, “Run Away!”
Back in 1999 or so, Gary Gygax wrote about how games like D&D had changed to be more like video games (and video games had themselves moved in that direction) so that a player was expected to “clear out” a level before proceeding further into an area. This wasn’t really how the old games worked. Back in the day, while easier monsters did tend to congregate in the nearer areas, there was no guarantee that everything in the first level of the dungeon was conveniently of level 1 difficulty. If you tried to go in with guns blazing (well, swords slicing) into every encounter, your party would wipe out early and often.
Things change, I suppose.
Now games tend to gate off the harder content. Or, in more open-world games, there’s some “auto-scaling” that takes place to make sure the content matches the character level. The latter may be somewhat analogous to a game master who makes sure the adventure is always tailored to the party level in a dice-and-paper game. But both approaches rob the game of a good chunk of the fun… the feeling that the world is big and scary and not revolving around the player(s). In either case, you rarely feel like you’ve truly gotten in “over your head.”
I was playing Might & Magic X: Legacy recently, and found that I’d managed to get myself turned around and going deeper and deeper into very difficult content. While that was kinda cool, you really cannot escape encounters, and if you stick to backtracking paths you’ve already taken, unless you’ve triggered some kind of event that has spawned new enemies, you don’t have to worry about unplanned encounters.
There’s even a warning sign in an early area about the ability for players to wander off into areas well beyond what the party is ready for. I like that, but it only takes me part-way there. For me, the real fun of of being able to wander off into far-too-difficult situations comes from:
#1 – Having a reasonable chance to recognize, avoid, and escape a combat that’s clearly out of your league.
#2 – A constant threat looming so long as you are in a dangerous area.
#3 – Not taking too much frustrating effort to make it to safety.
#4 – A chance of “getting lucky” and deriving a valuable benefit from your excursion.
This was something I always enjoyed about the Thief games. You were always in over your head, and you knew it. Too much of that, though, and the pressure lost its charm. But taken a mission at a time, it was awesome fun.
This is also a point where player skill really comes into play. When everything is tailored to your character level, the gameplay ends up being little more than repeating a regular set of straightforward tactics to get an “edge” over what is otherwise a pretty brute-force slugfest. But when faces with superior foes, where a brute-force battle would be completely overwhelming, that’s when the player really has to be resourceful. Maybe the correct application of some rarely used items and some really clever tactics might allow the to prevail in a fight, particularly if its not too overwhelming. Maybe diplomacy or stealth or out-and-out flight are better approaches. And maybe, just maybe, I might be able to snatch a victory or two – if only in the form of loot or a higher-level quest – out of the experience.
The worlds of CRPGs these days really are too “safe” and too well-structured. They can often feel more like amusement park rides than an adventure. I want to get into trouble.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2014
My favorite mode is one that comes with the Seafarers expansion called “Fog Islands.” It’s got all the fun stuff that comes with the expansion – ships (putting that wood to much more use!), and gold (which allows you to draw a resource of your choice), the pirate (which the AI never uses). It gives players a bit more “elbow room” to explore the map – and create truly lengthy “roads.”
But the biggest factor for me is that something like a third of the map is “fog” – not filled out – and you have to explore to see what you get and find the best places to land. Maybe it’s the whole gambler’s high thing… the thrill of maybe scoring a jackpot this time and discovering a gold square with a high-frequency value. Or a high-frequency stone so you don’t have to rely on other players on paying at a 4:1 ratio to the bank for the stuff.
Against the AI, I’m usually one of the first players off to explore the fog islands. It’s definitely not the only way to win – depending upon initial placement, it may not even be the best way to win. Getting the “longest road” badge early turns you into the punching bag for all the other players for the whole game, but it’s sometimes worth it. But really, I do it for the thrill of exploration. The gamble. What’s nice is that the mode gives you a little of both – you can focus on the known (or what becomes known) for traditional Catan strategy, or try your luck in the islands. For a high-score-limit game, you may need to do a little of both.
There is a cost to explore. There is often a resource cost – extending your ship route, or risking the creation of a permanent road that may go nowhere interesting. There may be an opportunity cost as well. You may be bypassing a viable landing point or the chance to build up your position in known territory. But other than the “known” cost, there’s no risk involved in exploration. At worst, you encounter nothing interesting, but now have a better idea of the map layout, and better guesses as to what is left in the undiscovered tiles.
When I play a game that much, I overthink it. It’s how I roll. I compare the addictive exploration dynamic in Lost Islands to my own love of exploration in RPGs. I love diving into the unknown in hopes of profit. Catan abstracts the game mode down to its bare essentials, and while I don’t know if the implementation is perfect, it works well.
In RPGs, a big part of the fun is exploring – but sometimes the exploring is mandatory. Going off the beaten track is half the fun. As a designer, one issue is that there’s no cost to doing this – and those rewards on the side quest will provide your character(s) with advantages. The only cost is the player’s time. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but is it truly “optional” if it’s really the best path to the end of the game? Should the player who overcomes the greater adversity by making a beeline for the end-game get anything for their efforts other than bragging rights? Should some exploration cut off other avenues? Would that be even fair if the player doesn’t get to make an educated decision?
It’s easy to get caught up in the details, which is why I like looking at a very high-level, abstract game like Catan and ground myself.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 20, 2014
I’m somewhat emboldened by the fact that I haven’t yet purchased anything, but it hasn’t been a full day yet. And… before it’s over, I’m grabbing some Rocksmith 1 songs (which work for RS2014). But, as usual, I’ve not pulled the trigger yet, because I’m waiting to see if they get on a daily deal with a discount steeper than 25%. It’s happened before. Because apparently I really, really want to save an extra seven dollars or something.
Or, like most of the purchases I’m holding off on… if I really wanted it, I’d have gotten it already. The steep discount is a motivator for me to snag something I’d otherwise never get around to buying (and may still never get around to playing).
At some point during the GOG.COM sale, I visited the RPG and Strategy Games lists, and tried to see if there was anything there that I actually wanted and would buy if it went on sale. There really wasn’t. After five years of sales, I’ve bought out the frickin’ store. There are still some old classics and some new indie games I’d happily pick up if / when they get ‘em, but I’m pretty much set.
Steam has a somewhat larger – and more modern – library. So I’m not sure how long I’m going to hold out. But with my backlog as extensive as it is, I’m really not in a rush.
I assume I’m not the only one exhibiting this kind of behavior. I’m spending the same amount per year as I always have on games (at least, if you adjust for inflation…), but except for a very few titles I really want to support, I’m not buying them at release. I’m waiting for bundles and sales. I’m picking up a very few via Kickstarter pledges. I’m not even sure how “new” a game is anymore. You can’t tell it by the sales… you’ll get steep discounts on games that are only a couple months old, or on games that haven’t actually been officially released yet.
Is this terrible? Well, I do worry about the “race to the bottom” effect. If people are like me, nobody’s going to buy a game at full price anymore, and that could mean reduced revenue for all developers, etc. etc.
But as an interesting and possibly encouraging side effect – it means that “New” is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant factor of visibility. With bundles and sales on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis across multiple major / mid-tier distributors, old and new games can compete on slightly more equal footing. The “daily deals” and the “flash deals” are on a small enough list during Steam’s big sales that customers can actually click the link and see what each game is about.
I don’t know if the pros outweigh the cons, or not. It’s certainly *different*. Since the status quo wasn’t that awesome to begin with, and as I’m certainly benefiting as a *gamer*, I’m just going to roll with it.
Filed Under: Biz, Deals - Comments: 12 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 19, 2014
At the Comic Con spin-off convention this spring, FanX, I attended a writing panel by a number of authors who were either well-known in the games industry (both video games and tabletop / dice-and-paper), or popular authors who were also avid gamers (particularly role-playing games). The panelists included Michael A. Stackpole, Larry Correia, Tracy Hickman, David Farland, Robert J. Defendi, and William Pace.
One of the panelists – and I forget which one now – mentioned how his editor (or agent?) told him that he could always tell which writers were RPG gamers … meaning dice-and-paper, generally game-masters. They were all surprisingly good at world-building and making logical plots, but really bad about developing characters. Naturally, that was because the individual players were supposed to be in charge of the important characters in a dice-and-paper game, while the game master has to make sure they have a very consistent world that’s predictable in all the right ways in which they can adventure.
In fact, one of the cardinal rules in writing for a game (tabletop or video game) is that you are not to impose a reaction on the player’s character / avatar. It’s usually okay to say something along the lines of an environment being oppressive, but you cannot write a line of text (or narration) that says, “You feel oppressed by…” The former hints at a reaction or describes a typical reaction, but the latter imposes a reaction.
One of my goals this last year was to put more effort into my writing. Frayed Knights – and a lot of future projects I have planned – are pretty story-heavy. Even though I’m one of those weirdos who claim that story and interactive games don’t play well together, I love story-heavy games. Apparently I delight in the balance between warring objectives. So naturally, I want to improve my writing chops to make the best games possible.
Not that writing for me is necessarily secondary to game development. Writing short stories this year, submitting for publication, and even doing the long hours of editing and being forced to participate in marketing drives has been fun for me, and I’ve learned a lot. Seeing my story published in Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology (which is currently climbing up the Amazon Kindle charts! Yaaaaay!) was definitely a high point. I intend to keep doing both. Because, I suppose, I subconsciously think five hours of sleep per night is way too much and I need to cut down…
But I digress. (That’s another weakness in my writing, I guess.)
Anyway – back to the point. Do I have a point? Ah, yes. Writing for both games and traditional media. A very cool part of this learning process for me was discovering where I have weak points and blind spots. Character development is one of them. Telling instead of showing is another. Trying to be too “objective” in my descriptions is another. Failing to applying appropriate subtle shades and symbolism is another. Pacing is another. Passive voice… gah! And on, and on, and on…
Not all of this is 100% applicable. For example, subtle doesn’t usually work too well in games. When you are dodging incoming fireballs across moving platforms over a sea of acid, you can’t pay much attention to nuance. Maybe some bit of it may hit you on the head later, but at the time, your brain is fully occupied on problem-solving.
This isn’t completely unique to games. In my short story “Dots, Dashes and Deceit,” my editors Terri Wagner and Penny Freeman made me rip out large chunks of my action sequence. The problem was pacing – I was providing the same kinds of detail for a fast-action scene as I had everywhere else. It was blindingly obvious once it was pointed out, but I had missed it through several revisions.
I think there’s a lot of cross-application between writing for traditional, linear media and writing for games. The problem is that while the two skills are related, they are not identical. That’s probably what trips up a lot of people. I’ve known traditional writers who really had a hard time “getting it” with games… they grow frustrated that they can’t force the player to make the right “dramatic” decisions. Or – as we see too often these days – they actually design the game to force that very thing, nullifying the most interesting choices the player could make via cut-scenes and purely linear game design. In my mind, that’s not writing for a game – that’s writing a traditional linear media but giving the player a child’s activity book to keep them busy through the boring parts.
So really, it comes to adapting to the medium. For linear storytelling, I have to change what I do, and build on skills that tend to atrophy when writing for games. And for games, there’s probably a lot of room to adapt linear storytelling techniques in such a way that they really improve the game rather than trying to smother it. There’s plenty of room for more character development in games — even if it’s ultimately the player’s decision of which direction it drives the character. There’s also plenty of room for subtlety (just not during intense action sequences), symbolism, nuance, etc. In a text-heavy game (as I tend to make), there’s even more room for authorial tricks and skill. But we must apply it differently.
We’ll see how well I do. I’m frantically working on a demo level (which may or may not be in the final version of Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath) and trying to combine what I learned from the first game with what I learned writing. The result will hopefully be a tighter, better, more entertaining game.
Filed Under: Writing - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 18, 2014
Not that they ever truly went away… but now, text adventures are on Steam. Hanging out with the mainstream games again. That’s novel.
I haven’t played it yet. In all honesty, I’ve played maybe five interactive fiction games in as many years. I used to love ‘em, but I guess time progressed. Anyway, I may have to pick these up in a show of support.
My first “complete” non-trivial game development projects, back in the C-64 days, were text adventures. I had a ball making them, and enjoyed playing them. Mine weren’t nearly as good as the Infocom titles, but from my vague, biased recollection I think they could have stood up to many of the other offerings of the day. Every once in a while I think about what it would take to try my hand at interactive fiction. It would be interesting, but I don’t know if I have the passion for it that I once did. What I loved about them was the world-building and storytelling — which I do with RPGs now. But while a picture may be worth a thousand words, there is still a ton that can be done with text that graphics can’t touch. They are truly different media.
Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2014
Man. I must be getting old. I remember when White Wolf Publishing was the hot new concept in the dice & paper gaming community. I had friends who playtested an early version of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Vampire: The Masquerade was the hot new trend in gaming. The rules were clever but imbalanced, the rulebook was so poorly organized you needed to memorize it to remember where everything was. But the text was full of flavory goodness. They sold a setting and a vibe. It was good.
Except for a bit of RPG snobbishness, at least. Which is kinda weird. I mean, seriously? We’re all RPG fans, but you are going to act like you are superior because you play a particularly trendy RPG? No thank you. (I kinda remember a story by Clark Peterson about how they were at GenCon one year playing a good ol’ fashioned D&D game, but it was so crowded they were in one of the halls. A bunch of people dressed goth-y walked by and made disparaging remarks about the kinds of gamers who were still playing Dungeons & Dragons. What said pretentious douches didn’t know is that the people playing D&D were largely White Wolf authors, the people who DESIGNED the game they were acting superior about).
I had high hopes for ‘em when CCP bought them out. The potential of a World of Darkness MMO just sounded so frickin’ cool. When it was canceled, and White Wolf Publishing has pretty much ceased to exist as a functioning entity within CCP. I was really disappointed by the news, and wondered what had happened.
We may never know all the details. Having been in that situation myself a few times, I’d guess that no one employee knows all the details. But at least some of the mystery has been revealed:
It sounds like… in spite of years (and many complete rewrites) and some actual playability in some builds… they really weren’t that far along. Ever. So we didn’t miss out on much.
I’ve also noticed two behaviors that game companies tend to exhibit when they’ve managed to knock one out of the park (especially when they do so on their first major “try”): Hubris, or impostor syndrome. In the former case, the company assumes that if they pulled it off and managed the impossible, they must be specially gifted (with more than luck). They believe they can do no wrong, entitled to success, and can get away with poor practices because it will certainly be worth it in the end. In the latter case, the company management is haunted by the realization that they got lucky once, and that it will be very hard to top their mega-hit, and get paralyzed into never completing anything. Both behaviors can be extremely self-destructive.
Hopefully I’ll stay level when I finally hit the big time. How’s that for optimism?
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 8 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 16, 2014
“Create as if nobody will ever see it; then polish as if millions will.”
I saw this advice for writing, and wondered how applicable it would be for games. The first part – creating as if nobody will see it – gives the writer two benefits. The first is a freedom to write whatever kind of story he or she wants to write, regardless of genre, market trends, and so forth. The second is speed. I’ve read (and found first-hand) that if you edit as you write, you will get bogged down to a snail’s pace. It is much faster to go back and revise once everything is down on paper than it is to edit as you go, and the results are usually better.
The main difference is that there’s a higher cost for revision in game development than there is for writing. Or is there?
That’s why prototyping is so important. This includes writing up the game design document, which I consider the “paper prototype” (and I don’t usually worry about it falling out of date). I’ve been obsessing lately about my (lack of) development speed, and how to improve that. I think improving my prototyping methodology is a great start, from paper to gray-box to final product.
It seems my best ideas come from very simple concepts that I iterate on. I keep having to re-learn this lesson. I know it works. I’ve seen it work many times, every time. Creativity seems to flow best while you are in the process of creating. It’s totally dumb, I know. It feels like jumping out of a plane and then trying to build a parachute on your way down, but that’s how it works.
It’s that same creative force that will work against you if you edit and revise *AS* you are creating. The process of creating causes a ton of creative ideas to flow, and allows you to see things far more clearly than when you were second-guessing yourself at the starting point. The trick is that instead of constantly revising as you go, you are able to get ideas onto the screen as quickly as possible, and then review, improve, and repeat. This means a rapid (and cheap!) iteration cycle.
As I said, I’m bad at it. I am one of those guys who tends to edit as he goes, get stuck in analysis paralysis, etc. When I *do* it, things go great. I have the same problem when I’m writing – I have to fight the urge to edit and revise as I’m creating. You’d think I’d learn…
I’ve even gone on record a few times against design documents – even though I sometimes use them myself. That’s mainly because I think that the industry has used them incorrectly. But done right, they can be an incredibly useful prototyping tool. You can’t design fun on paper, but sometimes putting it all on paper and drawing quick sketches can show you where the sucky parts are. And even if you know you are going to be chucking the blueprint at some point to go off in your own direction, it’s extremely useful to actually have that starting point. Again, it’s that creative process at work — the ideas tend to flow better while you are building on something that’s already there, rather than trying to summon them from the clear blue sky.
So – with all this aforementioned obsessing over development speed (which sucks) and my tendency to get mired down by analysis paralysis, and the likelihood of “feature creep” raising its ugly head after it’s too costly to make serious changes. I think it’s all about prototyping and getting that rapid iteration process down. Taking that same idea, it’s better to start with a flawed process that I can improve on than having no process at all, so I’m working out something semi-formal to use as a crutch or guide.
Note that this is for content, not code. While code is in no way ‘complete’ at this point, the key features for a playable game are all there, and I’m now transitioning to hardcore content development mode. It’s time to go from basic outlines to detailed gameplay. Some stages are merely on paper (write-ups), others are actual in-game prototypes.
Here’s what I’m currently trying – the stages of the process:
#0 – Brainstorm (write-up): Given the needs of the level / area / quest, I just write down ideas. A mess of them. Ideally, I should keep this is a standing, living document, because ideas that don’t make it into the current level can be used elsewhere. This doesn’t need to be done every time for every level. At least for me, I already had an outline and basics planned (for years) for the main areas. But it’s still a good place to go back to for ideas.
#1 – Simple Overview (write-up): This can be in paragraph or bullet-list form. Taking the ideas that best fit from the brainstorm stage. But this is describing the key concepts for the level / area / quest. I describe my key elements (location / backstory / story progression / quests / main challenges ) in a sentence or two, and come up with something that might be two or three paragraphs in length. Then I’m working with something concrete.
#2 – Detailed outline (write-up): This is where I draw up the map (at least mentally, if it’s a tiny area), and expand each of those one-or-two-sentence elements into one or two paragraphs. I also break out all of the key encounters and features. This isn’t every single detail. This is “everything important about this level.”
#3 – Gray-box walkthrough (game): I finally get things on the screen. This is where I create a rough level capable of being walked through, with all the key features placed in non-interactive or semi-interactive form, but without the full gameplay. The levels at this point are “gray-boxed” – simple, ugly geometry with a stand-in texture. By walking through the level and seeing where everything will go, I can see what needs to be tweaked and added. This can also give me some cool ideas that may or may not fit.
#4 – Playable Gray-Box Level (game): Attempt to add at least a simplified version of most interactive elements. At this point, it may look ugly, nothing is properly balanced, but if you squint REALLY hard, you can see the final game from here.
#5 – Beta-level (game): This is the “final” version of the level. At this point, the changes are either going to be small and often bug-related, or they are likely to be costly to make.
One amusing note here is that, in a way, I’m actually embracing feature creep. At each stage, I’m actively inviting really cool ideas for new features and changes to the game. At each stage, the range of allowable changes grows a little smaller, but there’s plenty of room for big changes all the way up to the final stage. But if it’s an inevitable part of development, why not take advantage of it?
How much time should each of these take? Each stage does take a progressively longer period of time (not including the brainstorm session). Stages 1-3 can all be done in a single evening, with the first stage only taking a few minutes, the second stage taking a half-hour to an hour, and the third stage probably taking well over an hour. After that… it really depends on the size of the level.
Anyway, this is actually a new process for me, although it has evolved from what has worked for me in the past. I’m going to try and stick with it, to defeat some bad habits of mine, and see how things go. Things are starting to hit an acceleration phase, and we have a hard deadline of the first of September facing us for a fully playable, awesome, show-worthy level.
Filed Under: Books, Frayed Knights, Production - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 13, 2014
Like I don’t already have more games than I have time to play?
GOG.COM is having a game sale that includes steep discounts, daily bundles, and “flash sales” that are changing every hour.
I think they are fundamentally evil.
Filed Under: Biz, General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read