Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Indie RPGs of 2014 – Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 7, 2015

Now that 2014 has officially come to a close, I thought I’d take a very brief look at many the indie role-playing games that were released this year for the PC. I’ve given up all hope of this being an exhaustive list, so please feel free to chime in with other titles that were released during 2014. As it is, we have more than 50, and that was without delving too deeply into the ranks of the most amateur releases.

Trying to list the indie role-playing games released in any year nowadays is a pretty complicated thing, and not only because trying to track down the games themselves can be exhausting and difficult. But pretty much every aspect of the subject raises more questions. What constitutes “indie?” What really counts as an RPG? What does “released” even mean anymore, in days of early access, multiple release dates across multiple distribution channels? I mean, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon just released in 2014 on Steam, whereas it was largely unheard of before then, so does that constitute a “new release?” I’m not counting it, really, but it was really just a straight line that moved very, very slowly. There were more than a few games that only enjoyed a “large” release in 2014 a year or two (or more) after their original public launch.

Because there were so many – and I wanted to include a few videos and pictures – I broke this into two articles. Part 2 can be found here: The Indie RPGs of 2014, Part 2.

Without further ado, here are (many of) the RPGs released for the PC in 2014…

500 Years: Act 1 (Poor Will Games) – Real-time 2D space exploration RPG

Atonement: Scourge of Time (Astronomic Games) – an RPG Maker title in a dark fantasy setting

TBS_introThe Banner Saga (Stoic Studio) – A Kickstarter’ed RPG done with Disney-style graphics based on Norse mythology which finally made its release. Turn-based, tactical combat, and a very different approach to the genre – but still quite satisfying. And a sequel is currently in development.

Bionic Dues (Arcen Games) – A tactical roguelike with Mech customization.

Boot Hill Heroes (Experimental Gamer) – In the style of a 16-bit console jRPG, but with a decidedly western twist – it’s a western, for one thing! The Wild West in the style of classic Square titles, and with the added potential of four-player cooperative multiplayer.

Coin Crypt (Dumb and Fat Games) – A “roguelite deckbuilding adventure game about *lootmancers* who can unlock the hidden power inside of coins and use them in magical duels.” Inspired by Spelunky, Nexus City, and the board game Dominion.

ColdFire 2Coldfire Keep (Steve Jarman) – A first-person, grid-based, party-based dungeon crawler in the style of Dungeon Keeper,

DarkEnd (Kodots Games) – an RPG Maker title from freshman Kodots Games, with an emphasis on dynamic (!)  dungeons and side-events, dungeon-crawling, and interesting tactical combat.

Data Hacker: Corruption (New Reality Games) – The second of the three-game series of RPG Maker titles involving virtual reality worlds.

Dead State (Doublebear Studios) – Finally released! A thinking-man’s zombie apocalypse RPG, which is more about building a community for survival against a hostile world and even more hostile humans. Turn-based, heavy on the hard human decisions and survival tasks.

Deity Quest (Fancy Fish Games) – A Pokemon-inspired light-hearted RPG where you play a minor deity in a quest to become the Overgod.

Divinity: Original Sin (Larian Studios) – My personal pick for RPG of the year, which is saying a LOT considering the incredible, wonderful RPGs released this year. It’s a single-player and co-op multiplayer (well,  dual-player) old-school style RPG in the vein of the old Ultima classics done with modern style and high production values. It’s also old-school hard, so be warned, but with a marvelously interactive world.

Dungeonmans (AdventurePro Games) – I’m not sure if there’s a relationship between this and the “joke” game in Homestar Runner, but this is a tongue-in-cheek graphical roguelike where you can actually build an academy for other heroes like yourself (and carry some of your experience & knowledge over to new characters when (perma-)death happens).

Dungeon of the Endless (Amplitude) – Dungeon crawling  Roguelike+ Tower Defense.

Edolie (Amaranth Games / Eridani Games) – Another higher-quality RPG Maker title. A dangerous threat is looming on the horizon, but the people of Edolie seem oblivious or unconcerned. Only Willow and her friends seem willing to brave peril to uncover the threat.

Eschalon: Book III (Basilisk Games) – The long-awaited conclusion to the isometric-view RPG with serious old-school, western sensibilities.

Fight the Dragon (3 Sprockets) – Community-created / expanded hack & slash RPG with single-player and multiplayer co-op capabilities.

Finding Hope (Falling Star Studios) – A light-hearted RPG Maker title.

Fragile Soul (Dragon Adventure Entertainment) – A graphical roguelike where you play the soul of a departed hero, who must now quest to save his own soul from damnation. To make things even trickier, it’s not just a clever title – a single hit will end your quest.

Screenshot_GCI_1GhostControl Inc. (Bumblebee Software) – I covered this in some detail my October “Halloween Games” feature. Basically, build up a ghost elimination team and business in London.

Girlfriend Rescue (Aldorlea) – A departure from Aldorlea’s usual fare, Girlfriend Rescue is an adventure / RPG / beat-em-up in the modern world with bizarro elements.

Halfway (Robotality) – A science-fiction, turn-based tactics RPG. Take control of the survivors of a colony ship invaded by aliens.

Heroes of a Broken Land (Winged Pixel) – Combining city-building with dungeon-delving, this is a strategy-RPG with multiple adventuring parties and dynamic, procedurally generated worlds.

Heroes of Steel (Trese Brothers) – Tactics RPG for mobile and PC in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. The first chapter was released at the end of 2013, but the full game was released in 2014.

Heroine’s Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok (Crystal Shard) – A spiritual successor to the classic Quest for Glory series, but featuring a female protagonist (cool!), Norse Mythology (epic!), and a price tag of $Free (rock!).

Joe Denver’s Lone Wolf  (Forge Reply) – The PC and mobile game based on the classic game books of the 1980s (which I actually played!), featuring lots of text, mini-games, and something of a real-time / turn-based hybrid combat system.


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How 3D Racing Games Worked Before 3D

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 6, 2015

This may be for hard-core code geeks only, but I don’t care. It’s fascinating reading! It’s an article about how titles “faked” 3D race tracks in an era before there really was the hardware or processing power to do real 3D at racing-game speeds. I remember making some games of my own that faked it that *kinda* used these techniques, but nothing as sophisticated (or as tricky) as the things described here:

lotusLou’s Pseudo 3D Page

As a modern-era game developer, is there any reason to use these techniques? Maybe, but I think in a lot of ways it would only be for your own personal enjoyment of re-creating the look & style of a classic old-school racing game.Or if for some reason (it happens!) you are making software for an obsolete platform.

However, as a general thing to put in your thinking cap, it’s worth noting that “faking it” is not restricted to obsolete hardware. We may always run into situations where we are limited by the hardware in some way, and programmers and designers may have to come up with clever work-arounds. Whether it’s doing cool 3D worlds to work on somewhat sluggish mobile hardware, getting a ridiculous number of sprites running in a web-based game, trying to make a large number of AI behave believably inside a medieval town, or what have you… it’s always good to remember that it’s how it looks, feels, and play, not whether or not you did it “right.”

On these old platforms, the games had to be fast. Without the illusion of speed, the game would fail. So it was all about providing that illusion, and making it cool. That’s still what we do in games – create illusions.  We create illusions of a larger world outside the “walls” of the game. We create the illusion of real people inhabiting our worlds, of solidity to our physics, of a natural order and real people where all we really have is an extremely large number of on-off switches. So while these exact techniques may be of extremely limited value except as intellectual exercises, the approach remains valid.

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Favorite Rocksmith 2014 DLC Packs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 5, 2015

RS2_1024x768Yep, I’m still playing Rocksmith 2014. A lot – at least IMO, with around 300 hours of playtime (still an order of magnitude away from what I’d need to really get “good”, I know…). I recently hit something of a minor breakthrough – you know, the point where you finally escape the plateau you’ve been on for a while? I can’t tell you exactly what it was, although I suspect that some of it was simply that I am more cognizant of how hard I’m fretting (a bad habit from an old acoustic I started learning on when I was 16, I think) and simply greater familiarity with certain scales. It’s not like I’ve been practicing the scales as much as I should have, simply that I’ve been learning enough songs with similar keys that I have developed a feel and familiarity with where my fingers should naturally play. It’s a small victory, but it’s pushed my scores up a bit more, and my playing “unplugged” is … well, better. Not great, but better. Still nothing I’d really feel like showing off, but then it always sounds better when you are backed by a band.

As far as musical preference, I’m still pretty old-school. I listen to classic rock radio stations, and I tend to think of “new” music as being anything less than fifteen years old. So my preferences for music to learn from Rocksmith 2014 tends to be kind of biased. I want to learn to play my old favorites. Although sometimes I discover that old favorites aren’t always the most useful for learning new skills. But as someone still very much at an intermediate level, it’s nice having some easier songs where I can just focus on the basics.

A lot of my favorite packs are actually from the original Rocksmith. I’ve not included them here, but for a while there (like, the first quarter of last year), it seemed like the focus had shifted to smaller, indie bands I’d never heard of. Good stuff (especially for learning some more unusual chords and techniques outside of the old radio-friendly basics), but lacking infinite time and money (and possessing even more limited skill), I’ve only picked up a couple of those.

So listing my favorite Rocksmith 2014 DLC packs is almost a case of saying “What’s my favorite music?” Even excluding the stuff I’m not too familiar with, I’ve probably spent as much on Rocksmith (including the old game) as I did on my new guitar. But comparing my skills to where I was a couple of years ago, I’d have to say it’s money well spent.

So I’ve tried to weight these as much as how much they have to teach me as how motivating they are simply because they are old favorites. Here are the ones that have been the biggest ‘wins’ for me, and if I were to recommend the game to someone with my same old-school tastes, these are the packs I’d suggest getting along with it:

1. Jimi Hendrix Pack

This is a mega-pack and feels like cheating. But so what? It can be purchased as a single pack or as four smaller packs, and all told includes a dozen classic rock tracks by one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time. This is as much a “must buy” for Rocksmith 2014 as any other pack. Unless you got the XBox One or PS4 versions, in which case you get it as a free incentive until the end of this month. The songs include “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),”Castles Made of Sand,” “Purple Haze,” “Foxey Lady,” “Little Wing,” “Red House,” “Fire,” “Bold as Love,” “If 6 was 9,” “Freedom,” and “Manic Depression.”

2. Bachsmith

This is an all-original arrangement of classical music by musicians on the Rocksmith team. The music has been arranged in a variety of styles and techniques to provide a good advanced learning tool, but it’s just awesome stuff. Fun, educational, and good to listen to. The songs include Bach’s “Little Fugue in G Minor,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Mozart’s “Ronda Alla Turca,” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

3. Arena Rock Singles

I’m a sucker for hair metal. And this is it. This is a collection of singles and can’t be bought as a pack at a discount, sadly, but they are all different bands & labels. These are songs that make you feel like you are a rock god when you play them, the good ol’ fashioned Guitar Hero feeling. Three of the five require you to down-tune your guitar a half-step down to E flat. But between this and a few other packs, there’s enough songs tuned to E flat that you can play a nice variety of pieces while you are down there these days. The songs include Autograph’s “Turn Up the Radio,” Dio’s “Holy Diver,” Billy Squire’s music industry send-up “The Stroke,” Winger’s “Seventeen,” and Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time.” There’s a big list of candidates – especially one-hit-wonders – who could have been included in this one, so I’m looking forward to a potential “Arena Rock Singles 2″ in 2015.

4. Surf Rock

I thought surf music was the one thing that was really missing from Rocksmith 2014. Not that I’m a big fan of surf music, but as my skills have developed, I’ve found myself appreciating it more. It’s older music from a simpler era, but still fun and catchy and immediately recognizable, and isn’t too hard to learn to play. The songs include Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (a must-have for anything calling itself a surf rock pack!), The Surfari’s “Wipeout” (the other must-have for a self-respecting surf pack!), and The Venture’s “Walk Don’t Run.” And hey, it’s a good chance to exercise that whammy bar!

5. Boston

Technically challenging and one of the best rock groups of all time. The only thing wrong with this pack is that it was only three songs, but that leaves plenty of room for a second pack. The songs include “Don’t Look Back,” “Foreplay / Long Time,” and “Hitch a Ride.” Fortunately, Rocksmith 2014 came with “Peace of Mind” as an included song, so we’ve got a pretty decent collection. IMO, the Boston songs often have more challenging rhythm guitar parts than the lead parts, so don’t get too hyper-focused on playing lead on these songs, as fun as they are.

6. The Who

Five songs by one of classic rock’s superbands. If you want a real rhythm part workout, try “Pinball Wizard.” There’s not a lot of guitar part in “Baba O’Reily,” but it’s fun to play along with. “Who Are You” is another “must-have” for this pack, and I’d have been sorely disappointed if “Behind Blue Eyes” hadn’t made it in. “The Seeker” rounds out this pack. The one downside of this pack is that two of the songs aren’t “true tuned,” so you have to retune your guitar a little to play along (to E447 for Behind Blue Eyes, and E454 for Baba O’Reily) . If you want to practice a single song over and over again, it’s not a big deal, but I find myself skipping them out of laziness.

7. No Doubt

I’m not a huge fan of No Doubt, but their music fuses rock with ska, which makes for some interesting chord progression and rhythms that are unusual in traditional blues-based rock. They are fun, sound great, and teach some new skills. Win! The songs include “Don’t Speak,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Ex-Girlfriend.”

8. Iron Maiden

Because… Maiden. One of the best and most influential metal groups of all time, and challenging without seeming completely out of my league. And it’s a five-pack! It includes “Run to the Hills,” “Aces High,” “2 Minutes to Midnight,” “Fear of the Dark,” and “The Number of the Beast.”

9. The Killers

They sound like the 80s, but … different. And IMO, kind of angsty, but in a personal way, unlike the generic disaffection of the grunge period. It’s mixed in with the synth and the 80s style, but it has accumulated a flavor of its own. For me, I found myself dealing with some unfamiliar chords / fingerings, which remains a fun challenge. All but one of the songs are down-tuned to E-flat, so it is another good pack to get if you want a variety of fun songs to play while you are down-tuned. The songs are mainly their “greatest hits” plus a new one: “Mr. Brightside,” “When We Were Young,” “Somebody Told Me,” “Runaways,” and “Spaceman.”

10. Tom Petty

This was a tough call, and the pack is something of a mix. Some song parts are downright boring to play, but if you are really trying to master some strum patterns with all the “voice” of the originals, they’ve got a lot to teach you. And as a bonus (for me), most sound pretty good on an acoustic guitar, although some of the bends wouldn’t work so well. The songs include “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee,” “American Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Coupled with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” that comes with Rocksmith 2014, and “Good Enough” from the original game (if you have the original game and paid the fee to migrate it over), that’s a lot of Tom Petty.

Honorable Mentions

Bon Jovi – because, hair band stuff again. Fun and not super-challenging. Duran Duran – because 80’s. Get used to some really funky bends and slides. Foreigner – because they rock, but to me it’s mainly isolated riffs without much to learn. Foo Fighters 2 – because more Foo Fighters is not a bad thing, and their songs feel like a decent stretch from the more conventional stuff. And Aerosmith. Gotta love Aerosmith.

So… which ones have I mastered yet? None of the above. Although I can do pretty well on a couple of the Surf Rock songs – I’d just need to focus on getting them down perfect. I’ve been working a bit on “Foxy Lady” but going from the simplified version I once kinda-learned to a note-perfect version is more of a challenge than I’d expected.  One of the problems with having so many songs to work with is that it’s very tempting to go for playing the variety rather than really focusing on getting one song note-perfect. Many of the songs I still find myself playing the most come from the first game and from its DLC… but that’s simply because they snagged some great ones for the first game.

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Analyzing Diablo

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 2, 2015

diablo_titleRadek Koncewicz of Incubator Games has done a retrospective of the original Diablo with an eye towards dissecting its design. He includes some commentary on its journey from a more conventional roguelike (Diablo actually started out as a turn-based game) to a best-selling PC action-RPG.

An excerpt:

“It’s immediately obvious that consumables made up the largest group of spawned items. A total of 175 dropped throughout the game, with an average of 9.2 per map. As usual, the smaller static maps skewed this to be a bit lower than the median.

“Consumables steadily declined throughout the game, and this is notable as it’s a fairly subtle way of adjusting difficulty. Early on in the game, health and mana potions are quite abundant in order to facilitate exploration and experimentation for newcomers. Later on, it’s expected that the player has a greater mastery of the game’s mechanics and needs to worker harder to maintain momentum.”

There are plenty of screenshots and charts for your nostalgia and edification. If you are a game designer or curious about the design concepts used to make Diablo such a compelling experience – it’s well worth reading.

“A Night with the Devil” at Significant-Bits.com

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A Bit of Navel Gazing for the New Year

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 1, 2015

I don’t feel like commenting much on 2014. Not that it was bad. Like all years, it was a mix. It had some pretty awesome milestones – from seeing a short story published in a book for the first time, to getting Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon on Steam, to running a kiosk at Comic Con, to seeing my daughter off on her mission for the church in South Carolina, to performing vintage dancing at a public event, to getting a new puppy, to going to Japan for the first (maybe only?) time.

Okay, you know, on the whole, I think it was a pretty awesome year.

My one big regret is an obvious one… Frayed Knights 2 didn’t ship. I knew it wouldn’t by last summer — it was nowhere close, although the big push for Comic Con really helped. Actually, it helped in a lot of surprising ways, not just in getting stuff done and back on track, if slower than expected. We’ve made a lot of changes (for the better, IMO), but the big push also revealed some things that have been really slowing us down and impacting the quality of the game. It caused some major redesign and clean-up … and watching strangers play the game triggered yet more improvements. And… compromises. I know that sounds like an ugly word, but I have had to make some hard decisions just in order to get the game back on track. And… to be honest, while they seemed hard at the time, in retrospect they still feel like the right decision.So, here’s hoping 2015 is an even better year for us all! Good times!

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Happy New Year!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 31, 2014

Happy New Year, everybody! I hope 2015 brings you a good deal of real-world joy and success, and virtual-world fun.

Be excellent to each other, and party on dudes and dudettes!

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Dating Sim + Horror

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 30, 2014

I can’t say I’m a connoisseur of Dating Sims, but the ones I have played felt like a very interesting and different subspecies of RPG. If you haven’t played one – it’s a specially focused implementation of a “Life Sim.” If you haven’t played one of those … well, you know what “The Sims” is? Scale that down to indie size and provide more of a storyline. Long Live the Queen by Hanako Games is an excellent example. Also, pretty much any of the Visual Novels and RPGs by Winter Wolves games include some romance elements that borrow from dating sims.

While I really enjoyed some of the few dating sims I played, there was something that felt kind of creepy about many of them. Basically, you level up your protagonist and perform day-to-day activities earning skills / cash / gifts / whatever to keep going and to impress other characters in the game so that you can date them. Really popular in Japan, they’ve picked up a bit of a casual following in the west as well. But at least for many I have played, there’s something kind of creepy about the mechanical / strategic way in which you play the romance game. Fulfill the correct parameters, answer the questions correctly, and your standing moves up with the character. That’s nothing unusual for romance elements in an RPG, but where it’s the focus of the game…

Like I said, I enjoy it, but there’s something a tad creepy about it.

Mixing this with horror elements isn’t new. I’m not well-versed in the genre, but Winter Wolves’ Nicole is an example of a full-blown indie dating sim with a horror / thriller angle.

ButILoveYouThere’s a kickstarter campaign currently going on that takes it to a whole new level – as far as I can tell, really taking advantage of the absurdity of some of the plots and mechanics of many of the lower-end dating sims to turn what sounds like a young man’s dream scenario – getting stranded in a community of beautiful young women all interested in you – into a nightmare.

Kickstarter: “But I Love You” – a Horrific Take on Dating Sims

As described in the campaign, “Once you get in town, the occupants all flock to you, intrigued by the stranded newcomer. At first, they try to help in their own little ways, but as they grow attached, they try to convince you to stay with them. Forever. That’s when you notice things are very, very wrong in this town, from the datable characters to the setting. Once the player starts to notice a trend of the girls starting to be slightly, well, nuts, it becomes a puzzle horror game. The game still features multiple endings like a dating sim, some of them romantic, some where nothing happens, and a few where the player is…dead. You also have the option of ignoring all of the bad stuff and pretending everything is a-ok to keep scoring with the ladies.

This is not a recommendation. In fact, I have serious concerns about this game ever making it to release (which means I estimate its chances below 80%). It’s being made by an inexperienced developer, which flashes all kinds of warning signs in my head. But I’ve blown $15 in worse ways before, and I love the core idea. It sounds like a great way to make the creepiness work for the game. Perhaps this isn’t the first time this idea has been explored, but it’s new to me.

What I like most of all is the fact that indies are continuing to push genre boundaries – to do unlikely mixing-and-matching and subverting of tropes, and really play with audience expectations to make new experiences. These experiments aren’t always successful (IMO, they fail more often than they succeed), but it needs to happen.

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A New Addition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 29, 2014

A little over a year ago, our 15-year-old dog Maya died. She was a rescue – we got her when she was 4 years old, and she came with us through a move and had been there while our two daughters grew up. When she passed away, it was a lot harder on all of us than I’d expected. And that, we thought, was that. We didn’t plan to get a new dog.

But time heals all wounds, I s’pose. And I also s’pose we’re a dog family. We’d started discussing the possibility in the vague future two or three months ago. And then some puppies became available.

This weekend, after returning from a holiday trip to Cedar City, little three-month-old Clara joined our family.


Anyway, she’s half Border Collie, and half Australian Blue Heeler (AKA Australian Cattle Dog). Or, as I like to put it – half Lassie and half Mad Max’s “Dog.”

And yes, according to my wife, her full name is “Clara Oswin Oswald Barnson.” Although I’m beginning to question the wisdom of naming our puppy after the Doctor’s most willful companion to date (if you don’t count River).

Life around the Rampant Coyote household just got a lot busier / crazier. But she’s awesome.

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Game Dev Quote of the Week – Spit-and-Polish Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 26, 2014

This week’s quote comes from an older post at Gamasutra – “The Art of Polish: Developers Speak.” There’s plenty of good advice there. Including this:

“Polish is often adding things nobody will ever notice, comment on, or appreciate, but will notice, comment on and appreciate when they aren’t there.” – Frank Kowalkowski (of Interplay, Obsidian, and Blizzard).

Kinda like housework – it’s only noticed when it isn’t done (or done right).

The trick, of course, is that it’s never enough. As they say, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and there are always more rough edges, more things that could be fixed or improved, and things that could be overhauled to provide a better experience. This is touched on in the same article, with Duke Nukem Forever cited as an example of falling victim to this endless pursuit of “better.”

This is maybe the flip side of Kowalkowski’s comment. It’s all about what will get noticed if it’s not done. And noticed by whom? Sure, somebody looking for flaws will always be able to find one more. But that’s not the person you need to please.

I can’t say I’m an expert on it – I’m really not – but I think one approach is simply watching (really watching) someone else play your game. When you see the getting hung up on or confused by something, or you feel yourself needing to explain or especially apologize for something – there’s a spot that needs more polish.

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Merry Christmas!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas all!

I’m off spending time with family, so don’t expect to see me around much. But for a couple of cool Christmas-ish links:

John-RomeroGOG.COM – Free Release: Akalabeth: World of Doom

John Romero Gets His Own Head on a Stick for Christmas… kinda …

Anyway, I hope you have a very happy day. Be excellent to one another, and have fun!

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Updated Video Policy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 24, 2014

Since I had trouble finding a previous blog post where I granted permission to people to make “Let’s Play” videos, I decided to turn it into a separate, permanent page (which is part of the menu bar at top – “Video Policy”).

It’s not a long policy. The short version is – yes, go ahead and make videos. Feel free to even monetize the videos. I just ask that you please provide attribution and a link back to a legitimate sales page (for example, here, or one of our authorized distributors or affiliates, like Steam or Desura), but as long as you aren’t trying to represent the game content as your own (and what kind of jerk does that?), have fun.

Official Video Policy


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The Game Biz is the Same All Over

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 23, 2014

I am happily back from Japan. I had enough time to wash my clothes and turn in an expense report, and now I’m heading off to Cedar City, Utah to spend Christmas with the in-laws. It is in months like these when my laptop becomes my primary development platform. Le sigh…

But hey, this was my first time to Japan. I got to ride a bullet train past Mt. Fuji. Here’s a snapshot from my window as I rocketed past:


And a little pic of me from the ruins of Yoshida Castle in Toyohashi (I’d heard of neither the castle nor the city until I took this trip, but hey, cool…)


We were partnered up with another company on this project. As I sat inside a little break-room at the training facility eating lunch with the representative from this other company, we got chatting about our careers. And it turns out, he’d previously worked in the video games biz as well. In his case, he’d been a 3D modeler working for Nintendo during the Nintendo 64 years.

We compared notes, and man… tales from the trenches. Different country, different culture, but our stories were remarkably similar. Brutal hours, canceled projects, and the amazingly restrictive technical limitations of the platform, and the clever hacks they did to try and make the best of those limitations. I think he told me they were restricted to 32 x 32 texture sizes, but I think that was only with full-color textures… they had to get creative with two-color textures to help hide the limitations, which may have been able to be at a larger size.

But yeah – the industry had the same chew-em-up-and-spit-em-out mentality in Japan as in the U.S.  Are / were European game companies the same? Anyway, it seemed like we enjoyed a moment of camaraderie that came with swapping tales of working in the biz.

I would like to believe that the indie revolution has helped bring a little bit of sanity to the industry in that respect, but I don’t know. Much of that mentality originated back in the old days when things were… well, a lot more indie. When you had a tiny number of people with a serious personal investment in the games (and the chance for big personal rewards on success), they’d be fully motivated to move heaven and earth to build their masterpieces. What happened was that over time, as this mentality flourished, the big companies took over. The personal investment (and personal gain) went away, but the big studios did all they could to keep the mentality alive.

So people (usually “kids” in their 20s who didn’t know any better) were still killing themselves, but this time to make someone else rich.

At least in the indie world, the ownership is (usually) back where it belongs.

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

I Can’t Tell Great from Good

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 22, 2014

I’ve been playing video games for… um, a long time, okay? Seriously, when I was little we had one of those Telstar  game consoles with the built-in knobs that had three variations on Pong. So… yeah. Been a while.

And in that time, I have (occasionally) reviewed games, made games, had my games reviewed, and played a lot of games. I think critically about games. I like to believe that I think deeply on games. But I have a confession – perhaps not a new one, as it’s not exactly a new realization, but something I keep getting reminded of as time goes by:

I can’t tell a great game from a good game.

Seriously. I mean, I can generally tell a bad game from a mediocre one. I can maybe tell the difference between mediocre and good. But it gets harder, especially when a game is not consistently bad or consistently competent. I mean, what if a game has poor graphics but good gameplay? Or vice versa? What if it has a lot of great ideas but execution doesn’t meet the ideas’ potential? That’s bad enough.

But aside from clear production value differences (which I feel are artificial and clearly designed to sway people like me who have the same problem), it’s difficult for me to put my finger on what really sets the “great” games apart from their merely “good” counterparts. I can identify some parts that seem brilliant, but whether or not that really sets a game above the others is something I can’t answer.

For me, Super Mario Brothers was a “good” game. It wasn’t really my thing, but I could see how it was well-executed. When my girlfriend introduced me to it and was singing its praises, she was mainly going on about the quality of the graphics. (Yes, how’s that for a switch?)  I thought, “cool,” and I enjoyed playing it, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered how well it had aged, and began to really understand what made it “great.” Likewise the original Legend of Zelda. I had a blast playing it, even though I would have preferred something that was more of a “real” RPG. Super Meat Boy is an indie example where I can recognize the skill that went into the game, and I have to admit that I end up playing way too much of it even though it’s a style of game I don’t usually prefer (which I should probably treat as a clue for future estimations). But I don’t love it.

Likewise, there were a few games I really thought of as impressive that haven’t strongly resonated among gamers the way I’d expect a “great” game to do. Like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which has kind of become more of a cult classic, although I recognized at the time that some of its flaws and bugs held it back from true greatness. I’m still a major fan of the indie RPGs Din’s Curse and Knights of the Chalice, which I consider absolutely great games that few people have ever played (and even fewer share my opinion of them).

Not that becoming a mainstream “hit” is required for a game to be considered “great,” but I do end up doubting my tastes sometimes. I know I’m not entirely lined up with the average joe gamer.

So…  I guess I’m not destined for a career in games journalism. Or something. Beyond certain clear thresholds of quality, my opinion of a game becomes highly dependent of my own biases and preferences.

But I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not entirely alone in this. Why is there such pressure among game reviewers (or from their editors) to make sure that their reviews don’t deviate too far from the norm established by GameRankings or whatever? Is it because they are not confident of their own ability to determine subtle shades of quality?

That’s why – if I were ever in charge of rating games – I’d like to limit it to three possible ratings: Bad, Okay, and Good.  Or, “Hated it”,”Liked it,” and “Loved it.” I just don’t know that I could really nail things down to a greater level of detail than that.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

RPG Design: An Imperfect Union

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 19, 2014

When this article posts, I should be in the air with most of the Pacific Ocean behind me, on my way back from Japan. Didja miss me? Didja even notice I was gone?

Persona4_1Spending a week and a half in the Land of the Rising Sun kinda made me want to play Persona 3 and Persona 4 again. Maybe it’s all the kids in school uniforms and being able to buy Octopus Jerky. Not that I have actually bought the stuff, mind you… it’s just available. The little Japanese culture references in those games – which probably aren’t even conscious references by the designers – make the games stand out a little in my mind. Dang those were good games.

I managed to do a little bit of RPG playing during this trip (though it’s been pretty busy…). I had a total party wipeout in Wizardry 6 (since I had only one, you can infer correctly I didn’t play a lot of it), re-explored more of the gigantic basement of Lord British’s castle in Ultima Underworld 2, got cracking with a deadly spoiled brat in Loren the Amazon Princess, and revisited my old standby Din’s Curse for some quick hacking and slashing. I expected to get really serious about Dead State once I get home.

As I’ve been dividing my productive time between fiction writing and game development, I’ve once again been mixing and matching lessons from each creative endeavor. As writing is a far older, more popular, and far more developed field, there is a greater quantity of useful (and useless) information available on the subject. I found myself reading about the development of first chapters of a novel, and immediately considered the applicability in computer role-playing games.

In principle: Lots. In implementation: Iffy.

In the early 90s, there was a pretty clean delineation between “Western” RPGs (wRPGs) and Japanese RPGs (jRPGs). The jRPGs really started taking advantage of solid storytelling technique, and their popularity soared. Meanwhile, for a while, the wRPGs kind of went into a popularity decline, as the storyline of “Hey, dungeon! Beat it!” didn’t compare too well, even though the dungeons were becoming really pretty dang cool and interactive.

We still end to use those distinctions, although the styles of games have probably had more in common for much longer than they were really separate. Unfortunately, some of the wrong lessons were learned (IMO) – both styles of games accrued insufferably long intro sequences before the player is allowed significant interaction (and as much as I praise the Persona games, yeah, they are like that, but hardly the worst offenders), and clicky-actiony interaction masquerading as gameplay (because keeping the player busy leaves them less time to think about how the gameplay sucks, I guess).

It sometimes feels like we kicked the happy medium to the roadside.

Of course, I’m exaggerating, especially when it comes to the slew of cool indie and “big indie” RPGs that have been released lately. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement, there’s at least a sense that they’ve learned the right lessons.

Narrative and gameplay form an imperfect union. Simply put – players play to win the game, not to make better dramatic choices, which spoils the narrative; but forcing those dramatic choices upon the player spoils the interactivity and gameplay. However, those competing forces can be carefully balanced to form something really cool. Maybe it cannot be the best story in the world or represent perfect gameplay, but it can be something greater than the sum of its parts. The two competing elements can enhance the flavor of their counterparts.

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

“Crap Happens” – Risk Management and Gaming

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 18, 2014

CivLogicWhen you play Chess, you never have to ask yourself, “If my Knight is unsuccessful in taking my opponent’s Bishop, what is my fallback plan?” Sure, you may have to come up with a plan B if your opponent chooses another (viable) move than the one you expect, but the outcome of a single move is never in doubt. There are no percentages, no tables, no dice rolls, no hit points, no chances.

For some players and game designers this represents a purity of gameplay – a perfection. I scratch my head at this view. I guess that’s why Chess isn’t my favorite game. Sure, it’s fine and enjoyable. I kinda prefer Go, myself, but that’s another game with no chance involved. It’s all move / countermove. Is this purity of gameplay – with perfect knowledge of the board and purely deterministic outcome for each move – an ideal? Sure. Is it *the* ideal for which all games should strive?

Not by a longshot.

I’m a simulationist at heart. While I’m cool with the occasional abstract game, I prefer games that represent something – a narrative, or a piece of reality. And one of the things about reality is that nothing ever goes as planned. Guns jam. Key players get injured. Matches get called on account of rain. Somebody forgets to carry the nine. Luke gets in a lucky shot that blows up the Death Star. An early snowfall causes ice to build up in the gaps between the tank treads, slowing the advance. Ewoks beat the Empire. The lead actor gets the flu. Brilliant tactics undermine a “perfect” strategy. A black swan event takes place. In short, crap happens.

For me, in strategy games (and RPGs), that’s part of the fun. No, I can’t say I enjoy it when I have a 90% head-shot chance and I miss. But that sort of thing is offset by the times I have only a 10% chance of a head-shot and I hit. Those are the moments I remember.

For me, I like the tough decisions when you can have a perfect understanding of the odds but still have a tough time making a choice. Do you take a guaranteed loss of 50% of your forces, or a 50% chance of a total victory with no losses but with failure meaning a total loss? While mathematically both options are equal (AFAIK, not being a mathematician), to me that’s an interesting decision. It’s the kind of thing riveting gameplay is made of.

Uncertain results means having to manage risk. It means contingencies. It means you may not want to expose your sniper for that “killer shot” because it might not pay off, and the enemy is going to be mighty pissed and see an easy target. It complicates things in a good way.  So while there’s always a place for “pure” strategy, I reject the notion that it’s somehow a superior game form. In the real world, crap happens.

But even in the game world, maybe what  a good strategy game needs to spice things up is a little bit of craps.

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

Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology Cover Reveal

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2014

It’s still a couple of months away, but my publisher has revealed the cover of the next Steampunk anthology, which includes the story “The Van Tassel Legacy” by yours truly:

MMII imageWe’re in the final stages of editing right now.

I haven’t read any of the other stories, but I know some of the authors and read their previous works, and I’m excited for what they have in store. The stories are all based on classic American literature this time around, with a steampunk twist. It sounds like one of the stories is based on / inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories (Princess of Mars, etc.), which would have put this book in the “must read” category in the first place.

My story is something of a sequel to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, taking place about fifty years after the events of the original story. I’m pretty sure that my own story is probably not anything like Irving had in mind when he wrote Sleepy Hollow, but I hope he’d be amused. As for me, well, I’m never going to read or hear the original story the same way ever again. Katrina van Tassel and Brom Bones, in particular, have been forever transformed for me.

Anyway, I thought the cover looked awesome, and wanted to share.  More information forthcoming in the next few weeks!

Filed Under: Books - Comments: Read the First Comment

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