Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Horror: Slender: The Arrival

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 9, 2014

Slender_Arrival2The “Slender Man” folklore is a modern construct of the Internet age, although my wife (again, the scholar of spooky stories) has managed to dig up a few old tales that might have served as loose inspiration that fed into the as the meme/story has evolved.  I’m sure a folklorist might have (and probably have had) a field day researching how the mythology around the Slender Man (or Slenderman) caught on and grew over five years – even by people who know its fabricated origin.

While the particulars are of recent vintage, the basics of what the slender man represents are very, very old. He’s the spirit of the wild and abandoned places in the dark. If you have ever been wandering around in the woods at night, seeing unclear shapes and not sure if they are a person, a plant, or something else… you know the fear he represents. That’s probably why the mythology caught on – it speaks to a universal experience and fear far older than the modern experience.

Slenderman_Arrival1It was only a matter of time before this phantom of the wilds appeared in video games. He’s been in several. The first “big” (and “official” – in that it received the blessing from the creature’s original creator) commercial venture, by Canadian indie team Blue Isle Studios, was Slender: The Arrival.

Slender: The Arrival is a sequel of sorts to an experimental freeware game, Slender: The Eight Pages. The gameplay is pretty straightforward – achieve goals in a confusing area (woods / mines) like finding six generators or eight pages of notes scattered throughout the area, without getting caught by the Slender Man or his proxy / chaser (a possessed human). The big guy himself is a major cheater, as he can teleport. As in Penumbra, looking at him too closely or for too long has dire consequences. The proxy, on the other hand, pursues you by more traditional means, but can be temporarily blinded by the flashlight on high / narrow intensity. There are plenty of other creeps / scares in the game, and of course exploration – and the need to keep moving.  But that’s it.

With a major mod and reskinning, the game would probably feel silly. But that’s the point. Everything in the game is designed to maximize the effect of “jump scares.” It is supposed to build tension and scare the hell out of the player. They pull out every reasonable trick from film and other games, and pack it in to build tension and terror. It starts as something as creepy and “off” as hearing footsteps down the road when you have quit moving. Signs of other people who have been terrorized / killed before you. A strange electronic throbbing that begins imperceptibly but grows as you make progress in a scene. Lots of shadowy, creepy-looking but harmless things in the darkness that you can mistake for the predator. And of course, an ultra-creepy soundtrack and setting. Even before you ever see Slender for the first time, you are freaking out and just KNOW that you are the next thing on his menu, and that there’s no way back, and the way forward is almost certainly doomed, but you can’t stay where you are. You are screwed.

slender_arrival3Unless you chicken out and turn off the game, of course. That’s always an option. *

Except for a few brief respites that never feel in any way safe, the game is pretty unrelenting. I can only imagine what it might be like with VR technology, where the safety of the real world is more fully blocked out.

Heh, heh, heh…. >:-)

Other horror games might be more subtle and clever in creeping you out. Slender: The Arrival has some subtle tricks to build tension, but that’s about as far as it goes on the subtle scale. Otherwise, it is a sledgehammer of terror and jump scares. If that’s the kind of rush you crave, check it out. It’s available on PC and some consoles. And, like most indie games, it is relatively inexpensive. Cheap scares for the Halloween season.

For best results – play late at night with the lights off. With headphones. But not if you have a heart condition.

 

(* For some bizarre reason, I keep finding the critical need to go to the bathroom, have a midnight snack, or check email that someone important MIGHT be sending me at midnight  whenever I play, but I’m sure that’s coincidence…)


Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: 3 Comments to Read



Indie Horror: Eldritch

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 8, 2014

EldritchLibrary

My first encounter with H.P. Lovecraft’s horror was in the form of a magazine (I think) with illustrated versions of classic horror short stories. I think I was in sixth grade. The story was “The Outsider,” and it was the only story from the magazine that I remember reading.

My next real Lovecraft encounter was through gaming – playing The Call of Cthulhu RPG with friends one night. Having mostly played straight D&D style fantasy or space opera RPGs, playing Lovecraftian horror was a breath of fresh air. Having read several of Lovecraft’s works (mostly short stories) since then, I have to admire Sandy Petersen & company for showing how to adapt that literature – which at first glance doesn’t look like anything that could be adapted to an interactive medium – into a fun (if completely off-balanced) game world.

It’s to the point now that Lovecraft is permanently associated with games in my mind.

Eldritch by Minor Key Games, is a weird, wonderful mix of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror, Minecraft‘s block-based graphics, the design of Roguelikes, and the immersive gameplay of a first-person stealth game. Like any other stealth-based game, you will spend a lot of your time running and hiding from the monsters, and any good session of Eldritch will be kicking in your fight-or-flight instincts (usually, of necessity, flight – especially in the higher levels). But the simple, blocky graphics are more cute or humorous than truly terrifying, and in some ways it works to the game’s advantage. For a game that will kill you so quickly and so often, it certainly doesn’t appear all that threatening.

The original trailer certainly makes it look like it plays a lot more action-y than I play it. I spend a lot of my time hiding and creeping and trying not to walk into the deadly traps or a wandering monster. Because sometimes there just isn’t enough bullets in the revolver. But there’s definitely something to being able to kill a cultist with a thrown bottle (which I always envision as a beer bottle, but that’s just me).

 


The game is rooted heavily in the lore of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “father of modern horror.” His stories were full of things that drove the protagonists insane just to become aware of them. Once his stories started getting old enough to enter the public domain, the floodgates have opened on Lovecraft-inspired games. Thankfully, while other games tend to focus on Lovecraft’s most famous creation, the godlike slumbering cosmic entity Cthulhu, Eldritch also plumbs many of Lovecraft’s other creations for ideas.

And not just Lovecraft. My favorite, mentioned in this little trailer, is that you need to “Avoid statues that are similar to but legally distinct from Weeping Angels.” Borrow from the best, man….

So what’s the game about? Well, you find yourself in an arcane, labyrinthine library, with books that hint as to your true nature and purpose there. The main door is sealed, with three empty pedestals. And there are three (well, more, now) books – two of which start out sealed – and touching them transports you to another dimension. You have to sneak, fight, out out-clever your way through to the other side – and to obtain the orb of a waking soul of a cosmic entity to return to the library.

EldritchKilledCultistsOne interesting twist is that dead enemies only respawn if you loot them. Sometimes it may be worthwhile when you really, really need to find a few more bullets, or are desperate for some extra artifact coins to use to cast a spell, but it comes at a cost of a returning enemy. Pick your threat.

While combat is (often) an option, you are not an overpowered fighter in this game. Not by a stretch. Likewise, there’s no “leveling up” from killing enemies, nor is there much by way of weapons or armor upgrades. Going in guns blazing will leave you dead. But unlike many games I’m discussing this month, you do have some opportunity to fight back – or take the first shot. Sneaking up to cultists and stabbing them in the back may not be the most heroic of actions, but as they are evil fanatics who will kill you in a heartbeat (often with magical spells) as soon as they see you, it feels justified. No matter how cute they look, the creatures in this game are deadly. And never really grow less deadly as you go…

The game has had two free expansions added since its first release – Mountains of Madness (inspired by a similarly-entitled story by Lovecraft) taking place in the Antarctic, and sort of a timed-run experience called Asylum. There are rumors to be other options that can be unlocked, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

 

While rooted in horror, the game isn’t particularly frightening. Sure, cultists, monsters, sneaking, hiding, running – it’s got thrills aplenty. But it’s horror-theming is used more for fun and adventure, rather than true Lovecraftian freak-out. If you prefer your scares a little more on the tame side, and would like to check out a game with plenty of replayability with just a touch of horror, Eldritch is worth checking out.


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Indie Horror: Penumbra Series

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 7, 2014

For the month of October, I’m sharing some horror-themed indie games. They may not all be very scary, but if you are looking for some good games to get you in the mood for Halloween, or just want to know what games might give you the chills, this is the place to be. I’m not offering reviews or recommendations – just showing off some of the fascinating breadth of games available from fellow indie developers. Some are excellent classics, some are just interesting recent experiments, but all have roots in horror or the supernatural. If you follow indie games, I’m sure several of these will be familiar to you, but I hope I’ll have managed to pick out a few that you’ve never heard of.

PenumbraFor the first pick of the month, I’m going to go back a little ways to pull up a game series that won’t tax even a somewhat aging system too much. They set the standard for indie first-person horror games. No, I’m not talking Amnesia, although if you guessed that, you’d be close. I’m talking about Amnesia‘s direct predecessors by the same developer: The Penumbra series, by Frictional Games.

Penumbra is a 3D, real-time, first-person perspective adventure game series of horror and isolation. The first game begins with your character, a physicist names Phillip, pursuing the notes of his long-lost father. His search takes him to northern Greenland, a wasteland of ice and snow, where he discovers an abandoned mine that – he eventually learns – was a lot more than just a mine. Combining the psychological horror of being completely alone and trapped in a frozen wilderness, and the threat of predators – four-legged, eight-legged, two-legged, and no-legged – that inhabit the underground complex, and it’s an intense situation.

Add to this the tendency for your character to panic. As stress builds, the visuals begin to swim, and eventually Phillip will panic – an almost certainly deadly situation. In a particularly clever twist (in my view), getting a good look at something terrifying will cause Phillip’s panic level. And he can’t fight very well – a situation made worse by an unintentionally clumsy combat interface in the first game (which caused the developers to just bag fighting altogether by the second game). Your best bet, when facing threats, is to flee or hide. Hide… and do not look too carefully at whatever is searching for you.

Most of the gameplay emphasizes problem-solving, puzzles, and exploration – good old adventure-game fare, in spite of a fully 3D environment. But with its inclusion of stealth-based mechanics, believable AI, good storytelling, and genuinely creepy effects in a stark, oppressive setting, they are truly noteworthy and pioneering games of terror… They not only set the stage for their own immediate successor in first-person horror, but for many others.

 


Filed Under: Indie Horror Games - Comments: 8 Comments to Read



The Challenge of Horror in Video Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 6, 2014

In the Barnson household, we celebrate Halloween all month long. It’s all about scary. We value scary. My wife, who tells ghost stories professionally (yes, that is a thing), has a whole verbal essay about the value of these kinds of tales.  From the purely cautionary roles, to catharsis, to simply exploring scary situations or emotions from a position of safety, there are many reasons these stories have flourished.

Are games any different?

Games take us “there” more than any other medium. They can theoretically combine the best of film and literature into an experience all of its own. And from my own perspective, games can be far scarier than any movie or book I’ve experienced. I knew this back in the early 90s, when I was hunting (and being hunted by) an invisible demon in the mazes of the original Doom, or when guiding my X-Com team through an abandoned farms, knowing that a move around a corner might bring instant death to a key team member, while the “music” throbbed and warbled in imitation of an accelerated heartbeat.

Games can do horror really, really well. However, there are problems. None of these are insurmountable – in recent years, we have had a ton of indie horror-themed games, some of which have been pretty outstanding. But the interactive medium of video games offer challenges not found in more linear, traditional mediums. And some of these cut straight into the nature of horror.

Control, interactivity, and powerlessness

OutlastOne of the major aspects of horror is a feeling of powerlessness – of loss of control (after a certain point), the horror of becoming a “victim.” Games are all about control. It’s called interactivity. When you have the ability to respond, react, and defeat the horror, it becomes more of an action game than a horror title. Sure, like any other action game, you may have scares and jumps, and you may be facing a foe (or combined foes) that you simply cannot permanently defeat. The zombies keep coming, the elder gods are only slowed down, whatever. But it doesn’t change the fact that we can eventually “win” – if only by escaping. But always – that’s under our control.

This is a problem across the board with stories in video games – the needs of dramatic storytelling are at odds with the needs of gameplay. The player, ever aware that they are in a game, do not make the kind of decisions that a good protagonist “should” the purpose of building the drama. Or they may simply not play according to the script – what I sometimes refer to as the “shoe tying problem:” Referencing the movie Jurassic Park, I often note that in a game, the player may be busy tying his shoe when the T-Rex makes her big reveal. It’s a lesser version of the same thing.

Game developers have worked around this problem by limiting interactivity – or simply taking control away from the player completely in some areas or during cut-scenes. I suppose that to a point, this has become accepted, part of the language of games. But whenever and however it happens – whether the player notes that his or her path is constrained by obstructions that make their navigation excessively linear, or that they lose control and are forced to react in a way contrary to their gamer instincts, the player is reminded that they are only in a game, and lose an element of immersion. Is the sacrifice worth it? Sometimes, yes, if done sparingly and subtley. Other times… not so much.

Death is boring

Another twist in the medium is that while video games may trigger our instinctive survival instincts to scare us, when the games do carry out the threat of offing our in-game persona, it reduces the terror. We “die,” and enjoy a release of tension. The worst has already happened – there’s nothing more that the game can throw at us. We respawn at the last checkpoint, and try something different, but the game no longer has as much power to frighten us. At least not for a while. It’s the equivalent of a linear medium “cheating” and saying that the previous scene was all a fake – a dream or a fantasy or something.

In linear media, a frequent approach is to shift points of view, and have the story kill off other characters. In this way, the deaths really do count, and the audience is informed of all the behaviors that lead to death: Cowardice, hubris, immorality, stupidity, whatever. Games have traditionally not employed this shift in perspective between different characters very often. Maybe that’s something we should experiment more with.

Jump scares are easy and overused

Then there’s “jump scares.” These are the cheap trick of traditional media, the equivalent of suddenly shouting “BOO!” at the audience while they are absorbed with rising tension. These are no less lame in games than they are in any other medium, and should be employed sparingly. The occasional cheap jump scare can serve as a temporary tension release, allowing an increase in tension to follow. Sadly, too many “scary” games depend almost exclusively on these. I think The Meatly offers a pretty good commentary on the overuse of this device:

jumpscaresNumbers and Systems make the Unknowable Knowable

Ultimately, in a computer game, everything comes down to numbers – ones and zeros. Everything is quantified and run through a system. Even if the eldritch horrors of your game are unkillable and don’t have to worry about stats like hit points or armor, their behaviors and limitations have to be built into the game. Yes – limitations.  Something has to prevent the horrible monster from teleporting through the wall and devouring the player the moment he presses the “Begin New Game” button.

And since they must be quantified within the system, perceptive players may figure it out. And since fear of the unknown remains the greatest fear of all, once the enemy becomes known and in any way quantified, it loses its terror. In extreme cases, it may even be subject to a bug, predictable pattern, or some other anomaly that can be exploited by the player.

 ats_screen05The Unsettling doesn’t bear up under careful observation

One of the best ways to build up tension and a feeling of horror is to have the audience encounter unsettling elements that are not of themselves threatening, but are perhaps indicators that the character is not safe: An off-key music box suddenly playing without being activated, a fresh bloodstain on the ceiling that begins to drip, the gruesome remains of a dead animal, a cold spot in the room, a record that plays music that the character has never heard before except inside his recurring nightmare. That’s great stuff. But within the mechanical simulation of a world, the player may be free to scrutinize these elements to the point that their inherent creepiness gets lost. Once again, the mechanical systems, repetitiveness of the animations, and scripted trigger points may become apparent, and lose some of their ability to thrill.

 Tension fatigue

Games often offer a good deal more playing time than your average movie.  Maybe even an order of magnitude. The thing is – horror is something that works best with a growing sense of tension. But it can’t grow forever. If it takes to0 long to get to the payoff, the player is going to suffer fatigue, lose interest, or simply become numb to it. Or worse, begin mocking it. In good storytelling, there are several points where the tension is momentarily relieved, and the audience is given the opportunity to relax a little bit before the next big build-up. This is true in games as well. But there’s only so many times the cycle can be repeated before it, too, loses its power. Games have to manage that without (usually) having strict control over the pacing – which is often in the hands of the player.

But scary games abound…

In spite of these challenges, scary and horror-themed games abound nowadays, particularly among the indies. Indies have proven willing to experiment – often out of necessity of limited budgets as anything else. But perhaps unsurprisingly, being forced by constraints to leave a bit to the imagination is what has allowed these kinds of games to succeed, and in many cases, kick butt.

Or at least kick my butt. I know that they’ve helped me come to realize that I’m a chicken. It’s embarrassing to admit, but yeah – I get my stress / terror threshold exceeded, and I have to take a break. I can’t completely override my survival instinct, and so I have to flee into the real world, I guess. It doesn’t happen so much with movies or books, but the right game can push my buttons.

Yet I keep coming back…

Now we have a wonderful breadth of horror-themed games, from horror-comedies about mowing down zombies, to “survival horror” titles where brute force is a necessity but of limited utility, to spine-tingling adventure games, to downright terrifying first-person thrillers. So – for much of this month, I’m going to talk about horror-themed indie games. Many will be familiar to veterans of indie gaming, but hopefully some will be new. Not all will be scary, but some… well, some are all but guaranteed to freak you out.

Happy Halloween, folks… :)

 


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How Much Have I Been Scammed Out of My Game?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 2, 2014

I guess I should quit holding my breath for all those YouTube Let’s Play videos of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon now…

Turns out the majority of them were scammers, and my cursory investigations (especially for foreign language accounts) wouldn’t have exposed ‘em.

How to Get Every Game on STEAM for Free

Le Sigh.

That’s a big problem – trying to handle a game launch AND trying to not piss off the legitimate reviewers / youtubers while weeding out the scammers… it’s a lot of work.

 


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read



The Roguelike Similarity Conundrum

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 1, 2014

Nethack_VEI’ve been playing through a few smaller, lesser-known roguelikes lately – primarily more modern, graphical roguelikes with simplified interfaces. It’s been fun, but while I might truthfully say I’ve “played them to death” (or two or three or eight deaths), I can’t say I’ve really played any of them to the point of truly grokking them.

Some are better than others, some are more complete than others, and many of them feel like they could have been built with a “Roguelike Maker” tool. Just mix in content, stir, and allow to cool before serving. Most have their own little unique quirks, which is good, and interesting to play. But there’s definitely a point when I’ve played several where I wonder in which roguelike I saw something or another. They kinda blur together.

Part of the problem is that these more streamlined, “lightweight” roguelikes are all variations of the common “roguelike” experience and gameplay loop. They don’t have the depth (or complexity) of games like Nethack (pictured above with a graphical front-end) or some of the other cult classics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they are streamlined and far easier to get started playing. But the downside when the gameplay all feels very similar and the dungeons have similar random-level generation algorithms is that they really need to do something cool to stand out. Just different monsters, items, and skills aren’t quite enough.

In this respect, traditional fantasy RPGs do have an advantage: Story. That’s not to say roguelikes cannot have a story – many do (at least one that goes beyond “kill the foozle” or “recover the unobtainium orb” – but it’s harder to tell one with procedural content.

To me, this just means that – like any other genre that’s getting kinda crowded (which is all of them) – roguelikes need to step up their game and work harder to stand out. Maybe not quite the extent that FTL did. Many argue as to whether or not it should count as a “roguelike” – which I consider a total non-problem.  But FTL, Diablo, ReceiverEldritch, Sword of the Stars: The Pit,  and other titles are good examples how far you can take the “procedural death labyrinth” idea. Variations on setting, mood, style, game mechanics, level creation, and even representation of your ‘character’ or group can totally change the flavor of the game. This is a good thing.

FTL-AE_iPad_SS1But it’s not just a “pick one from column A, and one from column B” thing, either. Perhaps more than games with hand-crafted content, procedural content games really need to have these elements – however they are represented – come together as a complete whole to unify the game. FTL really is the poster child for this concept for me – the way they took the core feeling of being in command of a crew on a small starship – and everything about the game feeds back into this idea. The story, the encounters, the mechanics, the “loot” all support this idea. But even though Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a far more conventional roguelike, the sci-fi setting and story elements also help it stand apart.

And now… moving to the superset of RPGs: Same advice. So many RPGs have roughly similar mechanics (especially if created with something like RPG Maker), the story, characters, mood, theme, setting, and everything else absolutely should be blended together into a tightly interwoven whole. Story shouldn’t just be ‘tacked on’ to an otherwise paint-by-numbers RPG (or worse, a procedurally generated roguelike… if a computer could do just as good a job as a human in making the content, yer doin’ it wrong…). It should have a strong sense of its own unique identity, and so should the player.


Filed Under: Roguelikes - Comments: Read the First Comment



Ludum Dare October Challenge returns: Sell a game! Turn pro!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 30, 2014

dollar-billThe Ludum Dare October Challenge, started 4 years ago, has kicked off again. Your mission, instead of making a game, is (deceptively) simple:

  • Sell a game.
  • Make at least $1  (Or equivalent in other currencies)
  • And thereby become a pro.

The cool thing about this one is that there are very few rules. You don’t have to start the game in October. You don’t have to even make money on it in October. You just need to finish the game and set things in motion.

More info can be found at the Ludum Dare October Challenge 2014 page.

There are some additional resources (including ways to “monetize”) that can be found at the Ludum Dare October 2014 Resources & Opportunities Page. There are lots of ways to earn at least $1, including advertising, contests, direct sales through many different marketplaces, sponsorships, etc.

Anyway – it’s a fun idea. Worth checking out. At least worth $1, amiright? The goal is not to get rich (though if it happens – awesome!). It’s to get the ball rolling. It’s not to turn it into a vocation, but to start to turn it into something more than a hobby for those who love ‘em. So, if you’ve got something you think you can finish, polish, and make ready for the marketplace in 31 days… well, why not do it now?


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



Cargo Cult Game Design

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 29, 2014

cargocultplaneWhile they were really only identified after World War II, Pacific “Cargo Cults” emerged when primitive people encountered what seemed like miraculous wealth arriving from American and European countries, particularly during wartime. They saw the airfields and ports with constant traffic of supplies from… well, some version of heaven, they believed. In some cases, the native people identified the pale-skinned visitors as coming from the land of the dead, so obviously they were gifts from the afterlife. In some cases, they believed the Europeans must have stolen the gifts intended for them.

Anyway – the notable aspect of these cargo cults was that they built these elaborate sets out of local materials in order to summon the bounties from the gods, in imitation of the operations they’d witnessed. They built mock airfields, including fake parked aircraft out of branches and twigs, and expected this to summon more cargo planes full of wonders.

It would be easy to mock, if I didn’t see the same mentality in modern life. I started making this connection when I discovered the “original” soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith to the movie Legend, starring Tom Cruise. For the U.S. release, the studio decided to replace the Goldsmith soundtrack with one by Tangerine Dream. Why? Well, Tom Cruise had a very successful movie a couple of years earlier called Risky Business, and Tangerine Dream had provided the soundtrack for that movie, so maybe there was something magical in that combination?

Who knows? Maybe they were right. It wouldn’t be the first time I falsely dismissed something as being irrelevant. But to me, it seems like people throwing stuff together to ape the the cosmetics of success without really understanding what they were doing.

I see this all the time in game designs, particularly those that are clearly modeled after recent hits. Although maybe I’m giving them too much credit – there are some titles that are nothing more than cheap rip-offs intended to divert customers. But maybe the next stage up is what you could call “cargo cult designs” – games made that are clearly intended to appeal to fans of another title, with a collection of features that seem to be included for no other reason than that other games had them. And while these games may have some good ideas – and may even go on to become major AAA successes and thus become the next target of imitation – they don’t really seem to understand the heart of the game they are imitating. They just do a really good job of faking it.

I’d be lying if I said I’m completely immune to this myself. In some cases, it’s simply following in the footsteps of tradition. Maybe that’s a step up from cargo cults – which mimic the results without understanding the cause. In the case of tradition, it’s copying (if sometimes poorly) the causes without understanding why they have the results they do. But maybe I’m again being too charitable.

The truth is, there’s a lot to understand, and the more I learn, the more I discover I have yet to learn. But I guess I can make this one plea to indies – at least those true indies who are trying to make something original if “inspired by” another game. Don’t fall victim to “cargo cult” mentality where you just copy style or features because that’s what the other game did. Take the time to truly understand the core of your game, what makes it fun and awesome.


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Game Dev Quote of the Week: Divinely Inspired Marketing Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 26, 2014

Divine_divinity_coverAs I’ve become a little bit of a Larian fanboy, I found myself looking up more information on the Divinity series. It was years before I tried the original game. Try as I might, the name “Divine Divinity” sounded absolutely ridiculous, and in a totally lame display of judging a book by its cover, I assumed that the stupid title revealed a foreign company that had poor grasp of English, and a poor grasp of what would make a good game.

Now, I should know better. I’ve worked with publishers before. I’d heard how the publishers had dictated many elements of the gameplay to Larian. Going back recently and doing a tiny bit of research, I discovered this story, from Larian itself:

“Long story short – contract had Divinity: The Sword of Lies in it. Publisher revised it to Divinity: The Sword of Lies (working title). The day the contract was signed, we were informed the new name was going to be Divine Divinity, courtesy of the CEO who just made tons of cash with Sudden Strike and now figured that any new title needed to have an alliteration in it, or so we were told.

“We told them that was a stupid idea. They didn’t like us telling them it was a stupid idea and they were also the ones checking our milestones so eventually we had to shut up, especially when inevitably we were late with a particular milestone. End of story, the person who came up with it indeed had poor taste in names and I agree that it probably cost us a lot of sales – most people thought it was a porn game.”

Divinity: Sword of Lies would have been a pretty cool title. Maybe not one that attracted me to the game, but certainly not one that would make me dismiss it. I can’t say the title cost them a sale, but I can’t say it didn’t.

But now you know the secrets of 80% of the game marketing gurus out there. I’ve known a handful of pretty sharp ones, but at least in the 90s when I was more closely involved in that side of things, this was exactly how things ran. One more reason to be happy about the indie revolution. Sometimes its nice, in the midst of the crap we have to deal with now, to remember just how much crap we left behind.

So now, I’m sorry, Larian, for assuming you were responsible for the crappy title. I knew you had to make compromises based on publisher demands and budgetary constraints in other areas, so I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.


Filed Under: Quote of the Week - Comments: 7 Comments to Read



Big Indie-an vs. Little Indie-an

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 25, 2014

“Indie” has been a purposefully inclusive title. It designated those games or game developers that worked outside the standard gatekeepers, the big game publishing industry that dominated the scene only a few years ago. It was really a catch-all to cover everybody excluded from that system. Even then, there wasn’t a great hard-and-fast rule to defining “indie.” Over the years, as the “indie revolution” has taken over, the flexible term has been stretched even further.

I always maintained that one of the purposes of the term was to reset expectations for gamers.  The big-publisher industry had spent many years and an incredible amount of of money convincing people that quality could be measured in expensive production values. Of course it would – that was the one thing they could guarantee. Their games might not be innovative, or deep, or tell a good story, or really any fun… but they could definitely spend millions of dollars making it look pretty!

Calling a game “indie” helped gamers give smaller games the benefit of the doubt, and allow them to push past the big-industry filters and look at a game on its own merits, allowing it to avoid direct comparison with the $50 million budget AAA games.

I still like the term “indie.” However, now that the indie revolution has happened, and at least in terms of number of titles released has eclipsed the mainstream biz, the inclusiveness of the term has really broadened things. You’ve got “indies” with millions of dollars of development budget (which back in the beginning of my career was AAA right there), and you’ve still got the hobbyist indie cobbling something in his bedroom. By many definitions of the term, Wasteland 2 – created with major crowdfunding effort and some in-house funding, but without any involvement by publishers – is an “indie” game.

Wasteland2_ss1

Then you have a very, very indie (and very fun) VVVVVV by Terry Cavanagh – sort of my poster-child for awesome low-budget games:

vvvvvv_flip1

Okay, now everything else being equal (price, etc.), I’ll admit that I’d grab Wasteland 2 before VVVVVV, and maybe not just because I’m a much bigger RPG fan than platformer fan. (But hey, as it is, I own both).  But things aren’t equal. And… as much as I love “indie,” it’s a big inclusive term that by itself doesn’t allow much distinction. And I don’t know how much distinction is required. On some level, VVVVVV competes with Wasteland 2. Not very directly, probably not very quantifiably, but at least in the same way that all entertainment competes for the same disposable income. It’s not infinite.

Is that fair? I don’t know. If I was a big platformer / action game fan, I might look at Wasteland 2 and think, “Turn-based? Boring!” A quick video of VVVVVV in action, and I’d be all over that. (FWIW, I happen to know that Terry is a big RPG fan, too…)

This isn’t a new problem, of course. I remember the first big flare-up with an early (6th) IGF where Savage: The Battle for Newearth won the “open” category, where its seven-digit development budget helped grab a ton of attention if nothing else. That was a decade ago. There was a lot of cries of unfairness back then, too. Now, the problem is only exacerbated by the presence of a LOT of indies, some of whom have famous names or the ability to throw big budgets at their projects. We’ve got a lot of stratification in the “indie space.”

I don’t know if customers really care. Again, the indie revolution has won, and I think a lot of gamers are now ready to look past the surface. Graphics still have to be NICE, of course, but they don’t need to be anywhere near cutting-edge. And the screenshots still have to be compelling and stand out. That’s always true. But maybe we’ve finally broken free of the need to reset those expectations so players can take a game on its own terms, rather than comparing it to what it isn’t.

So maybe any attempt to label the the different “tiers” of indie is pointless. Maybe it serves no purpose. But for me – maybe because I’m also a developer, or just because I have the mindset of one – I like to create categories and label them. For me, I kinda see four “tiers” of indies these days, ranging from little indies to big indies. (In computer science, we have terms “Little Endian” and “Big Endian,” which describes the byte order of how numbers are represented. So I can’t think of Big / Little Indie-dom without thinking of those terms, and call it, “Little Indie-an”. Maybe I’m too easily amused to be able to offer any sort of gaming criticism…)

But even discussing budgets can get weird. You can have ten people volunteer a year of their time for a game, or pay the same ten people to do the same work. You may get the same result at the end, but it’s kind of silly to say the first game had a zero budget.

Tier 1 – Amateur / Student / Hobbyist

To me, this is the “starting tier” for indie game development, but any or all of these tiers could be bypassed completely by anybody. But there’s a whole category of people who are making games without any sort of concrete professional intent. They may harbor vague ideas of making money from their games, and even succeed in doing so, but they are not going to invest much besides their time and sweat into a project. They may just be learning to make games, or they may do frequent game jams without really focusing on a commercial venture. In spite of the lack of significant investment out-of-pocket, the effort volunteered by talented individuals can really turn the game into something amazing. Maybe not completely polished – that part gets long and boring at the end – but pretty outstanding nonetheless. Even the smallest and lowest-budget of indies can come out with great games.

Tier 2 – Small Indie

The main difference to me between this and tier 1 is professional intent. The budgets are still small, and while there may be a commercial interest involved, nobody has turned it into their full-time job yet. Or if they have, it’s not purely based on game revenue, but they are burning through other sources of income or savings.

Tier 3 – Medium Indie

This is where you have one or more full-time developers cranking on a game, but no more than four, and rarely more than a year of full-time development on a single game. This is a developer who is making it work on the indie front, but hasn’t yet made it big. Budgets for games becomes meaningful at this point, and “real” budgets for things like marketing and business development become an issue. Games at this tier have “real” budgets that start somewhere around the mid-five digits (in USD) up to hundreds of thousands. While being able to focus on making games to make a living offers a lot of advantages, burn rate becomes a real issue that the hobbyists and small indies might be able to shrug off.

Tier 4 – Big Indie

This is a growing tier these days, especially with the advent of crowdfunding possibilities to get these things started.  At this level, you often have real offices, several full-time employees who may rotate between projects, and budgets starting around the mid six digits (depending on location… I guess studios out in the some countries could get along at a tenth of that) up to the low millions. (Beyond that, it’s questionable as to whether or not you really ought to be called “indie”). This is the level occupied by many AAA studios in the 1990s. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the business, they can’t survive for long without hit games – maybe not home runs, but some serious hits. They have to fight budget inflation to pay the expenses necessary to polish the game to the point where it is more likely to be a hit.

 

So at each tier, you have different environments under which a game is made, and possibly a different focus for the game. The hobbyist games – which may be created in spare hours by people at a AAA studio – can be a lot more about experimentation and showing off one’s talent than a polished product.  The “Big Indie” studio is really just a minor league of the same game as the big publishers, with exactly the same pressures but a (hopefully) slightly more sustainable burn rate, and their titles will represent that. They may take some big risks – especially with genre – but they usually won’t try and fight the innovation war on too many fronts at once.

Does any of this matter to the customer? I honestly don’t know. I can see the difference, and I tend to judge games a little differently accordingly. But that might just be my developer bias showing. It does mean that the differentiating aspect of “indie” vs. big-budget titles (note that even major publishers may release lower-budget titles) has lost a lot of meaning. But it still means that a big chunk of the money you pay for an indie game is going directly to the developers who made it, whether to a larger team or a lone wolf.


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



Steam’s New Curation / Discovery Thingy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 24, 2014

If you are on Steam, chances are you’ve learned about their new Discover interface and the new curation stuff. I’ve not had much time to touch it yet, but it’s high on my priority list.

The big question is… will it help people find the games they’d like to play. I’m not sure, and the jury is definitely still out. Some of my early experiments seemed to actually reinforce the existing bias – the popular games get more exposure, and everything else gets less. That’s for default settings, as far as I could see. This concerns me a little bit, as I expect 70%+ of Steam players will be going with the defaults. And there’s a likelihood that this effect won’t go away with the curated lists… again, the popular games may get more popular, and the forgotten games dropped further down the hole. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it concerns me.

This also burdens folks with discoverability of curators as much as anything else. So it moves the problem up a level.

But you’d expect some level of teething problems with this rollout. Hopefully it will bend the curve a little bit and result in the lesser-known games getting a little bit of a handicap. I’m very interested in this both as a developer and a gamer.

So have you played with it much yet? What are your thoughts?

 


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Shocker: Unfinished Games to Remain Unfinished

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2014

I keep grumbling (I try to think positive and to avoid grumbling too much) about people being willing to pay more for a promise of a game than an actual, completed game. I’ve suspected that as we had some high-profile failures in Early Access and crowdfunding games, that this might be tempered somewhat.

We’ve had a couple more major failures this week, but my desire to say, “I told you so!” is itself tempered by the fact that I’m a fan of both creators. This is the sort of thing that can ruin reputations and cause damage to careers.

clangFirst of all, as was somewhat expected, popular SF author (and, formerly, programmer) Neal Stephenson has canceled his sword fighting game Clang. This was a game that was funded to over a half-million dollars two years ago. Big name, big money on Kickstarter (especially in 2012), and a pretty big failure. He seems to be trying to handle things more cleanly than the other recent major Kickstarter game failure, the Yogventures … misadventure.

These two have made enough headlines that I do hope that people get the message, but I do worry how these failures will hurt the creators beyond reasonable levels, and how much the spillover is going to hurt the innocent. I still like crowdfunding as an idea, I just don’t like how it was abused or misused. And face it – making games is a risky proposition no matter what. Games get canceled all the time. But it becomes a different story when the customer has effectively already paid for the product, even when they are theoretically aware of the risks.

spacebaseDF9Coming hot on the heels of this is a failure from a studio that I have in the past considered a “safe bet.” Double Fine has pulled the plug on their Early Access game, Spacebase DF-9. I’ll leave you to check out the link for more information on the hows and whys. But the bottom line is that it wasn’t generating as much income as it was costing to continue development. In one aspect, that’s a developer’s dream – to know exactly how much money you should put into a game, by knowing in real-time how much it is bringing in. However, it’s also a nightmare – in spite of what you warn, customers are still buying into a promised game, not the actual early version that is available.

Double Fine is actively trying to polish up the current version of the game so it is a viable, relatively clean product, and releasing the source code to public as open-source so new development can hopefully be picked up by others. But still, early access buyers are understandably grumpy about the final version of the game being substantially less than advertised. The money is spent and there is no more, so there’s not much more I would expect from Double Fine, but I suspect this will stain their reputation for a while.

I guess the lesson to learn here is that while it has been employed as such (Minecraft, Project Zomboid, etc.), early access should not be treated as a way to fund game development, at least not long-term. If you have a minimum viable product, a game that is already worth the price but perhaps not yet fully polished and you would like to keep improving on it, sure. In that case, there’s no difference between buying a game with a bunch of free future updates, and buying an early access game, with the possible marketing exception that you are less likely to draw heat for bugs and some lack of polish in a game that’s not yet been stamped “1.0”. It’s weird, and only a semantic difference, but words matter. The important thing here is not to make long-term promises as to what the game will eventually become.

In response to some of the more embarrassing flame-outs of the projects they’ve hosted, Kickstarter has updated its terms to use to include a requirement that the creator “must complete the project and fulfill each reward.” That’s a little — well, ridiculous, but they then include a whole bunch of exceptions and appropriate behaviors to deal with failure to avoid legal action by backers. In theory, they make sense, and I hope they had help from a lawyer in drafting them. They are the kind of behaviors I’d expect from a developer, and it’s the kind of thing I’d be doing if I was running a crowdfunded project. In theory, if this constitutes something of a contract between backers and projects, this may help reduce friction and fraud. In reality… I guess we’ll see.

As always, be cautious.


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Procedural Generation Jam 2014!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 22, 2014

Okay, I don’t know if there’s any way I can NOT participate in this one:

Procedural Generation Jam 2014

As I was told in one tweet, “We’re going to be a really laid-back jam – nine days, generous time limits, very casual and happy.” The theme is optional. I haven’t seen anything about prizes. It’s just… fun.

I’ve been a fan of procedural generation in games since I first played Telengard on my Commodore 64 thirty years ago. (Wow… that’s a long time!)  And Frontier: Elite II on my 486 twenty years ago. (Wow… that’s a long time!) And Daggerfall on my Pentium … just a little under twenty years ago (Wow… yeah, you know).

I’ve got some procedurally generated content in FK2. I’ve got ideas floating in my head for more. I think part of it stems from an underlying laziness – I want my computer to make games for me so I don’t have to. But of course, I want it to make games for me according to my exacting specifications.

Anyway, I’ve had a bunch of little ideas running through my head for a while. Should I take a week off of FK2 – or at least partly off – and spend some time making something weird but cool with procedurally generated content? Or just a content generator? I had some bare-bones 3D roguelike dungeon generation code I experimented with one weekend. Hmmmmm…..

Perhaps more important than the jam itself is the kick-off, with talks by a number of game developers on the first day. This, in my mind, is The Big Event, on November 8th. I don’t want to miss that one. Hopefully they’ll also be recorded and put up on YouTube as well.  ‘Cuz as much as I want to hear them, I don’t know if I want to skip sleeping at all on a Friday night to hear them in my time zone.

Anyway – November 8th. This looks like it will be fun and educational. My contribution may not represent a full nine days of effort, but if my schedule isn’t killing me, I may go for this one. It sounds just too cool to pass up.


Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



Wasteland 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 19, 2014

It’s out.

Or maybe I should have said, “Holy crap, it’s out!”

If I can cast my mind back that far, I remember this being the Kickstarter project I was most excited about. A known property. A known, experienced team. An RPG project that said all the right things: Turn-based, tactical, party-based. Even some of the original people working on it (or some of the people who had worked on the Fallout series, the spiritual successors to the original). Oh, yeah, and a cloth map (for the level I backed).

It was as close to a slam-dunk as one could hope for. I wanted to vote with my wallet. And I did. The only thing that could be better, I said, would be Richard Garriott Kickstarting a new Ultima.

Well, Garriott kinda sorta did (sans the Ultima name), and I still didn’t get as excited as I was for Wasteland 2.

And it has launched. Booyah. I had access to the beta, but except for a super-early access that kept crashing on me, I decided to wait until the game was complete, so I could enjoy the full experience. I guess that’s what I’ll be doing. Here’s hoping it lives up to expectations.

 

 


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Quick Take: Delver

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 18, 2014

delverOkay. Remember how I like to rant about early access, how awful it is, and how it’s possible to get screwed and all that?

Yeah. Well, Nethack has been “in development” for how many decades now? :) Of course, it’s had a number of “official” releases. It seems there are certain kinds of games, particularly highly replayable ones like roguelikes, that seem to be more “okay” with being in-development than others. The fact that they are constantly tinkered with makes things stay a little fresh.

But I’m still not going to offer a hearty recommendation or anything. But I will say I have been playing the 3D roguelike Delver lately. As far as I’ve gotten, it is complete and playable. There have been some bugs, including one spot where I got completely stuck and unable to move, thus becoming something of a game-killing problem. I haven’t gone back to that save slot again to see if an update has made it possible for me to escape yet from my current position.

So – what is Delver, and what is it like?

In short, it’s a first-person, 3D, action roguelike.  Yep, roguelike, with permadeath, procedural levels, gaining levels and new equipment, fantasy combat, and all that. If you play for a while, you’ll see the same rooms or arrangements over and over again (although the caves may be a bit more random than that). Maybe it doesn’t fit the Berlin Interpretation of a “roguelike,” but it works for me. Call it Roguelike, call it “Procedural Death Labyrinth,” call it whatever. It’s pretty fun.

The graphics are done in sort of a 16-bit style rendered in 3D. Enemies are sprites with very few frames of animation.  For me, it all works fine, and while it gives it a bit of retro charm, this doesn’t make or break the game for me. I can see what’s attacking me – it has character – and get a good idea of what they are doing. That’s key (and based on earlier, alpha screenshots, something missing in older versions).

The game is entirely skill-based. Each time you level up, you get to choose from a selection of stats to improve by one point. This selection is not complete – you may not be offered the opportunity to increase the stat you really want to improve this level. But there are no class limits, and as an adventurer you can be free to wear any armor or use any weapon, wand, or spell in the game.

This is important, as the selection of items in the game isn’t unlimited. As you delve deeper, found armor tends to improve along normal lines, from leather to mail to plate, of varying quality. There are just a few varieties of weapons, also of varying quality, but some are enhanced with bonuses like additional electrical damage. Potions vary in color, and are randomized each game so that you don’t know what a potion of a particular color does until you drink it. However, that color-coding of effects will remain consistent for that particular game until the end (as far as I’ve seen).

delver3Ranged combat occurs through bows and spells (often via wands). These use up charges and arrows, which are in limited supply, so you can’t just turn the game into a first-person shooter. On the receiving end, the spells can be the nastiest – especially from some casters. I die from a ranged blast more often than anything else. You can dodge ranged effects,  or hide behind an obstacle. You can also maneuver so that another enemy is shielding you from ranged attacks, and will take full damage. It does seem like you get experience points whenever an enemy dies, regardless of whether you were the direct cause of death, or they died from another enemy’s attacks or they fell victim to a trap.

Traps are of the pressure-plate variety that I have seen so far, and will reset a few seconds after they go off. Sometimes you have no choice but to step on a pressure plate, as it is perhaps filling the floor in a narrow corridor. In these cases, you have a few choices. If an enemy walks over the plate and takes the damage, you have a few seconds to rush forward and past it before it resets. Or you can throw an object onto it to trigger it, and either rush ahead before it resets, or – if the item landed directly on the plate – leave the item alone and let it keep the trigger pressed, so it never resets. Or, obviously, just run over it and suck up the hit.

Monsters do respawn, although it takes a while. So if you really don’t feel ready for the next level, you can wait a little bit and grind the respawns. The last time I checked, it did feel like the level maps didn’t always fill out completely. Either it doesn’t do that, or some rooms are inaccessible in the builds I’ve played, or there is a much more subtle style of secret door that I missed than usual.

It seems that there’s supposed to be some trading that can eventually be done (one the people outside the dungeon in the beginning of the game offers things for sale), and some overall goal that I haven’t payed attention to. I’ve never gotten to the end of the game, but I have picked up bits of storyline offered at random in journal pages, or by the adventurers that hang around outside the dungeon.

Like any *good* roguelike, death should not seem arbitrary, and it almost always feels like I can blame myself. I got too bold & cocky (often dying with healing spells / potions / food in my inventory), or simply got stupid and ran into a surprise I was not ready for.

Overall, this is a cute, straightforward little game that I’ve had a lot of fun with. I rarely play for more than 15 minutes in a session, but that’s part of what makes me a fan. It’s just the kind of quick-break type of experience I need, and for me, the 3D action / first-person perspective thing is an enhancement to the roguelike experience. I hope it keeps getting expanded on, and that the last bugs get fixed.  It’s worth keeping an eye on this one.

 


Filed Under: Impressions, Roguelikes - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Frayed Knights 2: Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 17, 2014

Frayed_cover_finalIn Frayed Knights 1: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I established the existence of alchemical grenades. They made the hobgoblins a lot more deadly, but they could also found and used by players, or manufactured by a certain alchemist.

A certain twisted, evil, black-hearted part of me really liked the idea. But then, I’m a guy who has my D&D characters stock up on Alchemist’s Fire all the way up to level 7 or so for fun and burning. It’s so useful for cleaning out those hard-to-reach monsters. So, in Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath, I kinda … expanded on the idea. Especially since spells have become so random.

In Frayed Knights 2, you have “shots” (as in “shot-put”) and “bombs.” Shots are single-target throwable items, and bombs affect a group. They can be used by anyone, although those with higher throwing skills will have an advantage. They serve a number of purposes:

  1. They provide access to baseline attacks of different types to attack enemy weaknesses. So if you encounter a fire-based enemy that is vulnerable to cold, even if you have no cold-based spells, you are likely (unless you’ve used them all up) to have at least a couple of cold-based bombs or shots in your inventory that you can use.
  2. They provide easy access to ranged attacks without the need to switch weapons. Positioning matters in Frayed Knights – and casters like to hang out in the back of groups where they are harder to hit with melee weapons.
  3. People other than sorcerers (which will usually, but not always, be Chloe) can have occasional access to some of the group-damage “minion clearing” attacks.
  4. When endurance runs dry, parties can fall back on throwing money at the bad guys. Yes, it’s a weird way to look at it, but when limited but “free” resources run dry in a fight, you can throw more expensive but effective weapons at them.

Bombs and shots have a range of attack types and levels. There are a couple that might not make the final cut for balance reasons, like sleep bombs. That may be a little bit too powerful no matter how much I raise the cost and lower the effectiveness. Then again, so are the sleep-based spells, so we may have a bit more work to do.

Of course, this being Frayed Knights, the bad guys are going to have access to these kinds of weapons, too. I want to be cautious about this, because if overdone, it makes the combats far too similar. You don’t want a battle against soldiers to feel like a battle against mages with better armor, with constant spells getting thrown in the form of bombs and shots. A little bit spices things up, a lot makes things tedious, boring, and unremarkable.

 


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