Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Game Jamming on a Bigger Game?
So after working with a few Game-In-A-Day / 48 Hour Game / Weekend Game Jams - and visiting the one in January - I had a thought. These come seldom to me, so I relish the ones I do get.

One of my excuses for non-participation (or limited participation) is that I've constantly got one main game project or another that I have very limited time to work on as it is. My family is very tolerant of my taking many hours a week to work on it, but I feel guilty taking so much time on something else.

But the results of these little exercises are impressive. They are awesome experiences, and it's staggering to see how much can be accomplished in a 24-hour or 48-hour time frame when you really, really focus on it. Just eating the miles. It's also a fantastic exercise for game developers to go through every step of the process at high-speed. I think any indie game developer (myself included) can benefit greatly from the experience. A 48-hour game jam is probably the equivalent of a semester-long college course in game production.

And Stuff Gets Done. Never to the level of completion to satisfy the participants, but a lot happens very quickly.

So here's an idea:

Suppose you were working on a full-on commercial indie game - much larger than what could normally be done in a weekend Game Jam. if you, as an indie, were to go balls-to-the-wall crazy on, say, getting a single area or chapter or set of levels 100% playable in a day or weekend, sloppy though it might be, would that be a good thing for the game? Give it the full-on Game Jam treatment. Would that be real progress, or would you end up with a lot of work that had to be re-done for beta?

Has anybody else tried this? Any experienced Ludlum Dare / Game Jam / Game-In-A-Day veterans feel like weighing in?

I guess there's only one way to find out fer sher. I'll have to schedule some time...

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Monday, February 15, 2010
Gareth on Skill Versus Talent
I equate "skill" to learned abilities, and talent to raw, natural affinity or ability.

Gareth Fouche, developer of indie RPG Scars of War, finds some pretty impressive evidence of the proper ratio:

Seriously, It's 99% Practice and 1% Talent. Maybe 0.5% Talent.

Five years from conscientious scribblings to being displayed in exhibits. Yeah, it takes a while. And a lot of effort. What worthwhile thing in life doesn't?

I read the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck a few years ago, and it convinced me that Gareth's ratio is pretty close to the mark. And I can't recommend the book highly enough. I guess raw talent can increase the rate at which one develops a skill and give you a "leg up" when starting out, but the book also showed how having a lot of talent in one area can really hold you back, too. Especially if one becomes more concerned about reputation than improvement.

Among many other stories, the book points out the story of Michael Jordan, who was cut from his varsity basketball team in high school in the 10th grade. It wasn't because the coach was a moron. Quite frankly, Jordan wasn't all that good. He didn't come out of his mother's womb knowing how to dribble a basketball. He later credited that failure in his life with his success in his career (I'd say being the best player the NBA has ever seen counts as success). He worked his butt off. And his work ethic continued throughout his career - he was considered one of the hardest-working players in the NBA.

Of course, that didn't translate to a stellar baseball career, and I'm sure Jordan had some gifts (not the least of which was his height) which helped take his success into the stratosphere. And I'm sure there are other players in who work just as hard, but haven't yet achieved his level of success. Once you get past a certain point, that 1% can be a pretty significant edge. And there are many people with real disabilities and disorders who can't even get that far. But oftentimes, they can astound the rest of us by what they can accomplish.

So - the bottom line: Don't make excuses by saying, "I'm no good at X." If you care about it enough to put time into it, you can fix that. It doesn't matter that you aren't "gifted" in a particular area.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Put In Other Details...
Hmmm.... my artists / modelers probably think my name is actually "Denis" from Australia, based on the quality of the specifications I give 'em....

"Put In Other Details"


Wednesday, September 02, 2009
IGDA and Indies
Wherein I stammer and say "uh..." a lot:

Podcast at Zakalro: IGDA and the Indie Dev

For those not in the know, the IGDA is the International Game Developer's Association, a professional organization of - you guessed it - game developers. This podcast is very much a group of with-it members / leaders of the IGDA and... uh, one ignorant semi-outsider... trying to figure out how the IGDA can better serve the indie game development community.

Even when I was a member, I wasn't exactly active. I'd been a professional game developer for years without IGDA membership. And until recently, an indie game makers and a so-called "AAA" (or wannabe AAA) mainstream game producer / developers didn't even sound like they spoke the same language.

But times change. The local chapter organizer here in Utah is very active in the indie community. So who knows?

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Monday, August 17, 2009
48 Hour RPG Contest Post-Mortemy Thing
My goal this weekend was to participate in the 48 hour RPG competition. Build a simple RPG in 48 hours. It wasn't a "good" weekend for most participants - allocating much time to devote to just cranking away at a game can be challenging. But the results were pretty amazing for such a limited amount of time - you can check them out here and here.

To end the suspense here, I was unable to finish my game on time. With meetings, company, church, and so forth, I think I got a solid twelve hours I was able to put into the game. About half of that time was devoted to creating really horrible programmer art, though my brother Brian did help up with some graphics he whipped out on short notice (alas, much of it is not visible in the current tech demo).

That doesn't mean I'm done with it. While it now has to take a back seat to Frayed Knights, I think it's worthy of continued tinkering. But right now it's more of a stair-climbing tech demo.

If you are really, really bored, the download is here:

The Manor v. 0.1

Left and right buttons control movement. You can use the up and down buttons to climb and descend stairs - but you have to be right above (or below) the stairs - being next to them doesn't currently work. Don't say I didn't warn you - there's really no point to it right now. I'm just including it for the sake of example here.

The concept is the old haunted house story. In the spirit of some Steven King novels I've enjoyed in recent years, the house itself is bad. Your uncle has died, leaving the estate to whomever of his relatives can recover an artifact of his hidden in the house. There's more to it than just a silly contest. He knew how evil the house was, and it was only his own strength of will that kept the evil at bay. The new owner must be strong enough to take possession of the house, lest it take possession of the person.

So there's bad things happening in the house. Over the course of a weekend (or so), you must fight past the disturbing obstacles the house puts in your way - from fairly simple but terror-inspiring manifestations of its evil will, to more powerful semi-corporial apparitions and fiends and animated corpses, to finally taking on "the heart of the house" once you have unlocked the way and have the house weakened enough to take it on. Over the course of the game, the house becomes weaker as you defeat its minions, and stronger as you rest or are defeated. (Oops, sounds like one of those "positive feedback loops," but it's not, really. The game doesn't get more or less difficult as the house gains or loses power - it's just a distance to goal).

Well, that's the theory, at least. In practice, none of the cool stuff got in, so I'm left with a little maze-like Winchester Mystery House wannabe. I figure at least another twelve hours would be needed to get all the dialogs, NPC behavior, combat, and inventory system in place.

So here's a hit-list of what went right, wrong, and how I could do better in the future:

#1 - Should have had a clearer view of the design (and content requirements) up-front: Apparently, some design and asset / engine "preparation" was allowed prior to the contest's start, but I didn't have time. I had a somewhat vague idea of what I wanted it to be and look like on Friday, but I didn't go into the contest having a clear idea of exactly how I intended things to look and play. Not that any design survives contact with actual development and playtesting anyway, but it might have made for speedier development if I had been flying a little less by the seat of my pants.

#2 - Needed more familiarity with the engine: Admittedly, a big part of my goal with this exercise was to experiment some more with Torque Game Builder. But I spent a lot of time looking stuff up and trying to figure out how to do things I had never done before with the engine, and trying experiments with certain features that turned out to be a dead-end. Which brings me to the next point:

#3 - Inadequate Technical Support from Engine Vendor: *Sigh*. Okay, I could totally rant about GarageGames' dropping of the ball on support of everything that isn't new, shiny, and in initial development. But those who would actually care (Torque users of legacy products) are already well aware of the problem in general, so I'd just be preaching to the choir. But the Torque Development Network - which was somewhat of a "community self-support" site in the first place - has been on the blink for weeks now, and this weekend it finally became completely impossible for me to access anything. Apparently I am not the only one. This made it very difficult to look up information on how to use my engine. Sure, the offline reference docs are actually pretty decent, but they don't capture the wealth of information, experience, sample code, and bug work-arounds that you get online.

#4 - I Underestimated art creation time. Again: I do this a lot. You'd think my terrible programmer art could be bashed together in seconds. And really - I think it could be if I allowed myself to get very sloppy, and the differences between that and what I did would probably be undetectable to the human eye.

#5 - Enlisting my brother to help with art: Way too much of my time was spent making art assets, which is kind of embarassing because they aren't very good. My brother jumped in and offered to help. Even if some of his stuff didn't get into the game by the deadline, having that off-loaded helped free me up to work on actual coding. He also pointed me in the direction of a character maker for RPG Maker games which I used to make the main character. While he looks nothing like what I'd want in an actual release, it was very helpful for development.

#6 - Still Too Big of Scope: Um, yeah. I know something of my limits. Yet I continually try to violate them. I should have tried for something smaller. But - Meh. I'm still intrigued by this project.

Some bits of trickiness I discovered while working on the game and with TGB:

#1 - Mounting the camera to the player works, but is very limited in what it can do. I'd need to dig a lot deeper (possibly into the source code) to come up with a way to actually control the camera better.

#2 - Once I did that, I could find no way to set some images to be camera-relative as opposed to world-relative. So any UI-type elements or unmoving background images also had to be mounted to the player, which seemed really weird and convoluted. I hope there's an easier way that I just haven't discovered yet.

#3 - Trying to use physics and collisions for the player was an exercise in frustration. While I still use collisions to limit horizontal movement, it was far easier AND more robust to just to calculate where the floor "should" be algorithmically under the player based on where he was in the level. That solution doesn't scale well to a lot of varied levels, but it worked nicely for this project.

#4 - I could spend days playing with the particle editor. It's not as fully featured as I'd like, but it's definitely reasonable. Too bad there's only one place in the whole demo where I'm actually using them.

So there you go. Well, after not touching Frayed Knights all weekend, I'm ready to jump back into that one, but The Manor may see some future development!

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Friday, August 14, 2009
Reminder: Indie RPG Development Competition This Weekend
For indie game devs who might be interested:

Remember that this weekend is the RPGDX Side-Scrolling RPG competition thingie. I am certainly not putting 48 hours into it - I'll probably be lucky to get eight. But hey, let's see what can get done in a limited amount of time, shall we?

I personally think these kinds of things are a GREAT exercise for indie game developers. There's nothing like a really tight deadline to help you focus on priorities and getting the job done. I probably need the refresher course, myself, as I at one time harbored an idea that Frayed Knights might be done by this fall. And these little prototypes whipped out can provide seeds for future products. A "Game In A Day" exercise performed at one point by NinjaBee created a game that would eventually become their hit title, "A Kingdom for Keflings."

So ya never know.

Good luck, and have fun!

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Friday, May 22, 2009
That Feeling That You Are Inevitably Hosed...
Mike Rubin has a post today that will no doubt ring true to any developer - indie or not - who has ever struggled along with a project that has lasted beyond the initial "honeymoon period." There comes a time - several times in fact - when you take a step back, look at the project as a whole, and say to yourself:

"This game is utter crap! What the hell am I doing wasting my time with this?"

In fact, I've heard similar expressions of shock and horror by licensors or others who find themselves taking a peek inside the ol' sausage factory for the first time. I have heard many of the suit-types trying to explain to investors, license-holders, and others that games don't really begin to resemble games until just a couple of weeks before it goes into formal testing.

And sometimes, not even then. Yeah, I know that road...

Anyway, I don't know the answer to that one. There have been a couple of projects I've given up on too, as an indie (earlier in development, fortunately, as I recognized that they had issues with 'em). And there have been a couple of cases - even recently - with Frayed Knights where I've felt the same. Both a despondency that it will never be "good enough," and a feeling that there's just too freakin' much to do that I'll never finish it all.

All I can say is, Mike, I know at least one person who really wants to play the final, finished game. I dunno if that helps or not, but if not, here's something else to consider: You are local enough that if you give up, I can easily hunt you down and hurt you...

The Monk's Brew: One Thing He Forgot to Mention

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Eight Steps To Finding Your Creative Zone
I still have a notebook full of notes from a fictional world I created when I was around fifteen years old. I expected it to be a lot more cringe-worthy than it is. Granted, it's not something I'd put up for publication anywhere, but the mass of notes (and recognizing that I only have about half of it) is pretty impressive for its quantity and creativity. I compare that to the slogging I'm doing in my Frayed Knights design sometimes, and think, "Holy crap! Where's that fifteen-year-old when I need him?" That kid could generate a ton of content inside of two weeks.

Of course, that kid also got home from school at 3:00 and had few other responsibilities aside from a couple of daily chores and rushing through his homework at some nebulous time of the evening. He had focus. He didn't care about the quality of his work - he just wrote for himself, and then would decide later whether or not to share parts of it with close friends who wouldn't really care one way or another.

Rotten kid.

Much of the time, I struggle a lot more with the creative side than I ever did back then. I am not really a believer in "writer's block" per se... but creativity is something that's not often easy to summon up on demand. Whether it's writing articles for this blog, short stories, snarky dialog for the Frayed Knights and their friends, coming up with weekly D&D adventures, or whatever - there are sometimes where it takes some effort to make things flow. Sometimes it takes a while. And sometimes it just comes like a flood.

So I get jealous of my fifteen-year-old self. He was in the zone all the time, even when his mind was supposed to be on something else. That probably explains his grades....

So I talked to a couple of creative friends of mine, and we compared notes. What works? How do we get ourselves in the zone? There are a few common threads:

#1 - Lack of Interruptions or Distractions: Interruptions tend kill productivity no matter what you are doing. One trick is to find (or designate) a time, place, and situation relatively free of interruptions. Late at night, early in the morning, a closed door to the office...whatever. A friend of mine says she tried to have a full tummy and an empty bladder when she gets started to avoid interruptions of a biological nature. Web-surfing, You-Tubing, and instant messaging are probably worse crimes than garden-variety interruptions for killing creative time. Again - focus is critical.

#2 - Music: Music (optionally with a good pair of noise-reduction headphones) can also help cut out distractions. And it can also get you in the right "mood" or frame of mind. The music should be something familiar and comfortable that can play in the background without attracting your attention.

#3 - Habit: Your brain responds to habit and time schedules as much as any other part of he body. Establishing that same time, place, and collection of music every day for your creative endeavors can really help.

#4 - Warm Up: One trick I've found is that creative work doesn't usually flow until I've "primed the pump" a bit. I find myself writing crap until something clicks and I get in the zone. I remember creative writing classes often had an exercise or something to do for the first five or ten minutes to "get things started." In fact, the "interviews" I did with the characters for Frayed Knights originated from these exercises. (See interviews with Dirk, Arianna, Benjamin, and Chloe). It really does work - take some time to work until you feel like working!

#5 - Keep a Notebook Handy: Another thing I've found is that creativity can strike at any time, in any place. Keeping a notebook handy to write down ideas works two ways. First of all - obviously, it allows you to record your ideas before you forget them (and I do - all the time!). Then, when you have your time to work on them, you have a list of ideas you can dive into and expand upon. Secondly, and more subtly, it acts as a reminder to your subconscious that you are constantly seeking creative ideas. Your mind will strive to meet your expectations.

#6 - Recognize Your Creative Patterns: My best ideas come in the form of isolated scenes or vignettes. Or snippets of dialog. The "work" part of the creative process comes in trying to string these ideas together. Sometimes it feels like trying to rationalize and explain the plot of a half-remembered dream. But when I recognize that and try to work with this as a strength, rather than trying to force myself to only come up with fully-formed ideas, I find it's easier to get the ideas flowing.

#7 - Finding Good Sounding Boards: My wife and several friends of mine have proven to be excellent sounding boards for ideas. Oftentimes, my best ideas come when I'm bouncing some less-than-adequate ideas off them. They make suggestions, get my brain going in other directions, and the ideas just start flowing. This isn't so good for the "work" phase of getting into the creative zone, but it's very valuable for refining concepts during the "gestation period." Be careful - it's rarely clear who came up with what part of some idea when you are doing this, so make sure you are working with people you can trust.

#8 - Practice Makes Perfect: I've also found that creativity - like just about everything else in life - improves with practice and frequent exercise. Don't give up too early. And once you establish the habit, don't give it up once your immediate task is complete!

In recent years, I've found that taking a walk by the river or lake at lunch time, notebook in hand and iPod playing the right music, helps me both with generating new ideas and with getting some well-needed exercise. I've also found repeatedly that just sitting with the music playing "trying" to come up with ideas in a vacuum fails me. I tend to do far better when I'm actively working and writing, trying to put the temporarily non-existant ideas down on paper.

I've found these tips have really helped me when I needed help (which is most of the time). What works for you? How do you get into your "creative zone" with whatever it is you do?

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Friday, March 06, 2009
Frayed Knights: Demo Planning
"If it weren't for trade shows, we'd never get anything done." I once heard that from a computer industry veteran in the early 90's. The need to prepare for demonstrations tends to drive a lot of effort. Some of it is wasted effort - a bunch of stand-in elements to keep the demo from collapsing. But having a hard deadline like that, with very specific goals for something that has to be visible to an outsider, helps you focus on what's important.

I had planned to show the next iteration of Frayed Knights for the April '09 Utah Indie Night. Which will hopefully be more towards the end of the month (as it usually is) than the beginning of the month (Greg, are you paying attention! I need more time, cap'n!). But I didn't have a clear goal. And I hadn't been communicating much with my team. Horrible, horrible management gaffes. I know this. Letting communication lapse within the team is probably reason #1 for failure. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest is that the team motivates each other. It's not just the team lead or manager trying to do cheerleading.

As for my own progress, I've been muddled in some Really Boring Stuff. It's not particularly motivating, which means I've not been putting in all the time I've needed to put into it. Yes, I'm not the kind of superhuman go-getter I aspire to be. At least not all of the time. You know, I beat this problem every once in a while with some easy productivity tricks, and then I forget to use said methods a few months later. So I'd been struggling with some slow progress and some not particularly exciting upgrades to the game for weeks, and had no clue what I was going to show.

It was Kevin, the "dungeon master" (he's working on the signature interiors, like the Temple of Pokmor Xang), who helped shake things up. I've been giving him the signature dungeons throughout the game to work on, even though I'm not ready to support them yet. He's been struggling with Castle Mournhold, and had some questions and suggestions for me. There are some optimizations that some engines do that Torque just... doesn't. And a semi-realistic castle has all kinds of problems when rendered in a 3D world no matter what engine you use, especially with all the vantage points from which you can see - practically everything. It's hard to cull unused polygons that way.

Even after I explained the whole thing about how real-world castle design didn't work so well in Frayed Knight's fantasy world - with all the aerial warfare possibilities - there are a few "real world" style castles there. I guess I'm a sucker for tradition. Castle Mournhold is one of them. We've based it - loosely - on Bran Castle in Romania. As you can see from the picture, it does not have simple architecture.

After some discussion, we decided to try and make the Mournhold chapter the demo for the April Utah Indie Night (UPDATE: Sorry, this won't be a public release). We both finished the conversation VERY excited about what we could show. We have no illusions about having it completed - but we should be able to show the basics.

First off, it's a vampire story.

One of my wife's all-time favorite D&D modules is Ravenloft, by Tracy Hickman (co-author of the Dragonlance series, etc.). Well, it's one of my favorites, too. But thanks to her, I've played through it (and run it) more than once.

For those not up on old-school D&D - Ravenloft is one of the classic 1st edition modules, and also one of the deadliest. Not quite in the same league as Tomb of Horrors on the player-mortality scale, but up there. But it was also perhaps the first module that was very thick with plot and atmosphere. Later, they started making modules that were TOO plot-heavy, to the point where players weren't allowed to leave the rails. Some blame this departure on the success of Ravenloft. I don't know. All I know is that Ravenloft - which later inspired an entire campaign setting - was a pretty cool Dracula-esque story done the D&D way, worthy of playing through multiple timess.

One of my big inspirations for Frayed Knights was to explore how this group of characters would approach and abuse an otherwise "traditional" fantasy RPG adventure. Imagining how the Frayed Knights would plunge through something like Ravenloft just makes me giddy.

I do have the Hackmaster parody of Ravenloft, Robinloft, just to see what they did with it. It really isn't the direction I wanted to go, however. While memories of Ravenloft provide some inspiration for this chapter of the game, it's really not quite the direction I want to go, either.

For one thing, our vampire is more of a 70's era glam-rock star. Complete with platform boots, a short cape, and bright-colored clothing. With sequins and rhinestones.

That's right, our vampire glitters.

His castle is still in a horrible state of disrepair, but that's not his fault. The monsters ate the maintenance and cleaning crews, drat it all. And he's not quite the evil mastermind - he's got someone else pulling his strings. And, according to Chloe's sources, he's got information. Which means the Frayed Knights may have to take him alive - well, undead - and force him to talk. Can you imagine Arianna trying to interrogate Dracula?

We're going to have a lot of fun with this one.

We'd better, because we only have around six weeks to get the demo ready. Frantic development mode activated!

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Thursday, January 22, 2009
Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection
A lot of the developer folk in this community (who are a minority around here, but do hang around) may be familiar with GameDev.net. This quarter, GameDev.net is releasing four books about game development. The first one shipped on the 13th, entitled Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection. If you are interested, it's available at Amazon:

Business and Production: A GameDev.net Collection

If it's sold out there, you can also get it from Course PTR.

I haven't read the book yet - though I'm expecting my copy any day now. But I do have an article in it. See, this book series consists of both new articles and some of the "best of" articles from GameDev.net.

A few summers ago, I wrote an article for GameDev.net entitled, "How to Write a Game in a Week from Scratch with No Budget." It was the saga of me creating a very stripped down RPGish game called "Hackenslash" in 40 hours of development time - a theoretical "work week."

The game is pretty horrible, probably amusing only for programmer-types. But the point was to really challenge myself and see what it would take starting with no engine, using a library that I was unfamiliar with, using all free resources. Part of my rationale for doing it was in answer to some concerns at GameDev.net and GarageGames.com forums about the cost of resources and game engines, and the people who were using that as an excuse to not even get started.

I don't know if Hackenslash is exactly a poster child for proving much of anything - but I have gotten a lot of emails from people who appreciated the article, and some of them have gone on to make (much better) games in Python & PyGame after reading it. So I guess some folks found some value in the thing.

And GameDev.net judged it worthy to be included in this book. Which thrilled me.

I am pleased that this book is seeing print. I think we need more books on this aspect of game development, especially with the rise of indie gaming. Back when I started, I had no friggin' clue what I was doing. Sure, I'd been a professional game programmer for six years, had some hit games with my name in the credits. But jumping the gap between being a proverbial cog in the wheel to actually selling my own game online was a lot harder than I thought. I'd heard professional indies explain that writing the game was only half of the work involved - and I thought they were exaggerating.

Nope, they were not. It's definitely not the most sexy part of game development (and believe me... very little of game development is all that sexy). But there's a lot to it. It's very time consuming. It can make or break your game. But if you are going to spend all that time, energy, and money doing it anyway, you may as well do it right. I know I still have plenty to learn.

Once I get my contributor's copy of the book, I'll post some kind of review here about it and let you know what other gems of wisdom are to be found on business and production in game development.

(In case you are wondering - no, I don't get royalties on the book. So I have no vested financial interest in its success. I just hope its cool, in spite of my article...)

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Monday, September 29, 2008
What to do when you are overtasked
Once upon a time, I wanted to learn how to juggle. I had a book on juggling, and got to the point where I could juggle the usual three bean-bags in the air pretty well without any fancy stuff. I was working on four, but kinda got bored at that point, and quit.

But one part of the book on juggling stood out to me. They talked about entertaining people, and mentioned that people didn't really want to know how many objects you can juggle, but how many you can't. They want to see your point of failure. Their advice was not to give in to the pressure. And that it was better to let a single object drop than to let everything get out of control.

Sometimes, life is like that. And it's usually my own dang fault for letting myself get overloaded with things in life I have to juggle. The cool thing is that I've been there before, and it takes a bit more to overload me now than it used to. I'm getting better with practice.

What has worked for me in the past - and which I need to implement now - include some of these tools:

* Keep a written 'to do' list handy, to make sure things don't drop through the cracks.

* Remember that it is better to let a lower-priority task just drop from time to time rather than letting everything fall to pieces.

* Assign tasks to specific times. I usually hate doing this, but at times it is psychologically helpful to be able to say, "This is my two-hour block I'm spending on Frayed Knights. I can ignore everything else."

* Learn to say, "No." I still suck at this. And when it's my wife doing the asking, saying "no" is really not an option.

One of the biggest tricks for being a part-time indie game developer is trying to manage an overload of tasks that inevitably arise when you are effectively working two jobs. For those who have no clue where to find the time to actually get your game done, I hope this has proven at least slightly valuable.


Monday, August 04, 2008
10 Quick-and-Dirty Indie Game Marketing Tips, Part 2
Here is the rest of my presentation on quick and dirty indie game marketing tips to help you sell your game. If you use these and are incredibly successful, it is still all your fault. Again, I'm not trying to be comprehensive here - just a quick brain-dump of ideas and reasons.

Tip #5: Be a part of the community
All things being equal, would you be more inclined to do business with a friend, or a stranger? Who are you more inclined to listen to? Who is more likely to get banned in a community if they ask community members to take a look at a game they just wrote?

Business is about relationships.

The point is that you should be active in whatever communities your audience might be before you start pushing your game. You need to provide real value and service - not just lip-service and demos. It's not just about getting people to buy your game. It's about becoming a part of the group that you intend to serve, finding out their wants and needs, and being able to serve them better.

Tip #6: Do SEO - Search Engine Optimization
There can be (and have been) books written on this subject. You want to be #1 on Google and other search engines for your chosen keywords. You want to be the first site on the list. Barring that, you want to be in the top three. Barring that, you want to be on first page at the very least.

How do you get there? Strategies and "tricks" change constantly - every time Google or the other Search Engine companies change their rules. But there are a few things that should get you consistently ranked more highly.

First of all, you want high-quality content, and lots of it. Someone with five hundred pages of unique, user-focused information about the subject at hand is going to get weighted more heavily than a site with only five pages on the subject, and three of those pages are copies of each other. You also want good keyword placement. Keywords at the start of the page get ranked more highly than keywords occuring later in the page.

High-quality, incoming links also rank pretty highly. The best links are from high-traffic sites with similar subject matter to your own, particularly with your keywords as part of the text of the link. The best way to get those links? There are all kinds of things you can do, but once again, having lots of high-quality content on your site that people will refer their readers to organically is a great bet.

Also, websites that have been around longer generally get a positive bias. Also, pages that are updated regularly tend to be weighted more than one that has been unchanged since 1998.

Tip #7: Have a Killer Demo
The Demo is your sales team. It should be a showcase for your game, not just the first five levels. Your goal is to get the player hooked and ready to whip out their credit card in the first five minutes of play. That's a tall order, but your demo is your point of contact with the customer. Make it rock, give them a great time, and promise much more with the full version.

Even if you are using a non-traditional way of getting revenue from your game, it needs to be set up to encourage purchases, donations, additional replays, or whatever it is that pays your computer's electric bill. This is not something you can save for an afterthought!

One last tip: Focus on the benefits of the premium version OVER the demo version. You may think you are selling the full version of your game, but what your customers are buying, in their minds, is the difference between the demo version and the full version. For example, if your demo only offers sixty minutes of gameplay, then your customer is buying the ability to play the game for more than sixty minutes. If they have had their fill after sixty minutes, then there's nothing more they want to buy.

Tip #8: Get Good Media Coverage
Getting coverage by online and other media can be pretty tricky. You will want to cultivate a contact list of everyone in the media that you make contact with. After a couple of years, people may move around. Someone at Joe's Blog today could be regular contributor to Kotaku or 1Up tomorrow.

Submit your news everywhere you can. News sites, magazines, and grandma. Even beyond your normal press releases. Here's a trick - journalists are a pretty overworked and underpaid lot. They don't have the time to hunt down well-hidden stories. If you can drop something interesting in their laps, something they can use that already does half their job for them, you may make their day and they'll be happy to post it. Also, remember that they are expecting you to be showing off. Don't be afraid to show off what's cool and toot your own horn a bit.

Also, let your personality show through when you get the chance to be interviewed or on a panel or something. Marketing drones are boring. People want to read (and interview) real, outspoken people with quirky personalities and sometimes controversial views.

Tip #9: Cooperate With Other Indies
What would you rather have, 50% of something, or 100% of nothing? The biggest problem indies have is exposure, not competition. So, as small indies, it's often more important to work together to grow the size of the pie than to squabble over the size of the pieces.

Talk with other indies. See what can be done to share resources. Work with affiliate programs, if they make sense. Exchange links. Comment on each other's blogs. Share info. Make allies.

Tip #10: Take Advantage of the Indie Game Lifecycle
You aren’t a big publisher. Don’t act like one. Take advantage of the fact that you are a tiny, nimble company. Don't try to sell your game like the big companies do. You don't HAVE to have your game sell out in the first 60 days or suffer returns from retailers. There are some indie games out there that have been selling consistently well for YEARS.

Updates and upgrades to your game are as much an opportunity as a duty to your customers. An upgrade gives you something newsworthy to send to the sites and remind people that your game exists. They build goodwill amongst existing customers. They let you repeat your message to potential buyers who, like me, usually need to hear about something three or four times before they consider it.

Plenty More Where That Came From
Well, there you go. Each of these tips could be further broken down into tons of detail and suggestions, and there are easily a hundred more tips that could work extremely well. Feel free to share, suggest, argue, contend, add, or expand upon anything I have here. A lot of these ideas were expanded on and discussed in slightly more detail at the Indie Dev Night,

In fact, here's a forum thread for just that:

Indie Game Marketing Forum Thread

Want to know more? I also recommend The Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games, by Joseph Lieberman.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008
10 Quick-and-Dirty Indie Game Marketing Tips, Part I
At the last Utah Indie Game Developer's meeting, I offered a short (but probably not short enough) presentation on marketing for indie game developers. It had a super-long (and silly) title: "Indie Game Marketing for Indie Game Developers Who Don’t Know Squat About Marketing: 10 Quick and Dirty Tips To Help You Make Money With Your Game!"

Since I am a lazy slob, I thought I'd re-use the presentation as blog-fodder. I'm breaking it up into two parts, for the sake of my own sanity, because I'm a little hurting for time (it's crunch mode time again, working the day job all weekend...)

When I first started out as an indie game developer, I had no clue about marketing. I still don't know much about it - I don't have a degree in marketing or a ton of experience and success to impart. But I've picked up a bit from what I've studied, from successful indie game developers, from hard experience, and from a marketing consultant, Joseph Lieberman, who worked with me in the past. He also wrote a great book I'd recommend called "The Indie Guide to Selling Games," which I cribbed from for a couple of these tips. My tip #0 for this list would be to go to that link and buy at least the PDF of this book. You'll be hard pressed to find a better place to put that $30 of your marketing budget!

What little I know on this subject, I thought I'd share with you, to help you get a leg up on it if you've never done it before. May you learn from my mistakes. I completely misunderstood what it would take when I started out. I heard successful indies saying things like how they spent a quarter to half of their time working on business and marketing issues, and I thought, "NAAAAH!" How could that possibly be as big a job as writing a fully-functional, complex game?

I was surprised. And now I agree with them.

What Is Marketing?
When you think about "marketing," what do you think of?

I think most people think "advertising." I know that's what I used to think. However, that's only one small part of marketing. And it's an optional part - many successful businesses do little or no advertising in the traditional sense.

I believe it was Cliff Harris of Positech Games who once described marketing as a state of mind - sort of a sum total of all his efforts to sell his games. That stuck with me. There's no checklist of what you can do to "get your marketing done." It's more of a quest.

Marketing textbooks might talk about the "4 Ps" – Product, Pricing, Place, and Promotion. The product is what you are selling - your game, and what it offers to the audience. Pricing is how it is priced in the market (often around $19.95 - or "free" - for indie games). Place is where it is being sold - often on websites, portals, or perhaps even on the shelf at Wal*Mart. Promotion is what is done to get the word out about your game. I'm mainly gonna talk about promotion, and a little on product.

Another misconception about marketing is that its something you do around the release of your game. Not at all! In fact, you should be doing some marketing work before you write your first line of code. It should be something mixed into the development process. Unless you are making the game for nobody but yourself, you will need to make a game that other people will want to play. Finding out what other people like and need and letting that act as a guide can help you make a better game.

All that said, I'm going to cover ten tips (four here, six in the next article) for marketing your game, and improving your chances of having it get noticed ... and selling.

Tip #1 - Take Responsibility
First of all, you need to understand that nobody cares about your game but you. Portals - as a business - only care AFTER it makes them money, even if their tech guys love playing it in the back room. Your poor game is unloved, un-promoted, and is going to languish in obscurity unless YOU, personally, do something about it. It is not the field of dreams.

This can be hard. You probably became an indie because you love making games, to the exclusion of all that business-y stuff. But, if you want your company to succeed even as a part-time business, you are going to have to dive in and work the full system. The game might be the heart of what you do, but the heart cannot survive without the other organs.

Now, you may end up with a publisher who is handling your marketing. In fact, they may have language in their contract preventing you from promoting the game yourself. If so - keep an eye on what they are doing. And spend the time instead promoting your own company. Because you want to be something more than a one-hit wonder.

Be in it for the long haul. Just because the retail sales model has evolved to have shelf-lives measurable in double-digit days doesn't mean this is how you should operate. Indie games tend to have longer legs and slower burn.

Finally - in all that you do - MEASURE, TRACK, and KEEP RECORDS. How will you know whether an advertising campaign is working or not if you aren't tracking daily sales, website hits, and downloads. (As an aside - check out Google Analytics for helping monitor online traffic).

Tip #2: Define Your Target Market
Who is your target market? If you answered, “Everybody,” You LOSE!

You need to have your target market defined as specifically as you can manage even before development starts. In particular, you need to answer three questions:
In other words, who is going to be interested in your game, and where does this kind of person hang out. You'll need to know this in order to find out where you need to go to get them to know about your game. And finally - what is this sort of person looking for in a game? What can you do to make them happy?

You want love, not tolerance. In my opinion, it is far better (and more profitable) to make a game that a narrow niche of people will really love and be super-enthusiastic about than one which a much broader group of people are merely "okay" with.

Finally, don’t confuse market for genre. Just because you are making a game that appeals to RTS fans does not mean you need to adhere slavishly to conventions of the RTS genre. That is how uninspired corporate drone marketers think, and it leads to a world of easily packaged clones. You, on the other hand, need to be smarter and instead appeal to the common needs and wants of your target market. You could be writing an RPG-puzzle-hybrid for fans of RTS games, after all.

Tip #3: Have a USP (“Gimmick”)
USP stands for "Unique Selling Proposition." What this means is that your game must stand out from the competition. Whatever you do, do not be generic! You need to distinguish your game from the current AND past competition --- because you may be competing against older mainstream titles that are now in the bargain bin.

After all, who really needs another "fantasy adventure where you can play a bold warrior or clever wizard battling monsters in a magical world?" Sheesh, that described a million games!

Besides being important in its own right, you want to spell this out to the press so that they have something they can latch onto. Believe me - they are looking for something - anything - that stands out about your game. Give them something good and positive that they can use for this.

Tip #4: Create a Media Packet
Create a packet that contains screenshots, game logos, title screens, banner ad - style banners, lists of features, and lists of reviews / press comments / quotes. This can be in a zip file or something, easily accessible from your website.

This can be used by people reviewing / previewing your game, as well as affiliate sites, fan sites, or what have you. Making their job easier earns you some good will, makes it more likely that they are actually going to do it in the first place, and helps increase the quality and focus. After all, would you rather an affiliate site use some quick screen-grabs they made themselves from the first ten minutes of your game, or one of your top ten best-ever screenshots you've ever been able to make?

Click Here to go to "10 Quick-and-Dirty Indie Game Marketing Tips, Part II!"

In addition here is a forum thread for further discussion.

Please feel free to contribute even if you have no experience trying to market an indie game. As a player, how would you LIKE to find out about new indie games you might like?

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Monday, July 21, 2008
Making Game-Making Easier
Archimedes claimed, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."

I think Archimedes was a game developer, and the rest of his quote (translated from ancient greek) reads, "... because I really need to move the world 200 units in the positive Y direction so I can stick the new sewer passages in before next week's milestone."

Game development has changed a lot since I first got in the business. Once upon a time (before my time), it was more about programming wizardry. Now it's much more data driven. And while programming wizardry is still a significant part of things, the bottlenecks I keep seeing are found in the tools and the tools pipeline.

Well, the tools are the various editors, modeling packages, and so forth that you can use to make content for your game. One of the problems with tools over the years is that they have gotten significantly more powerful, but not easier to use. In Doom's heyday, a solid level could be cranked out in a single day. Maybe another day or two for polish. Nowadays, a level generating approximately equal amounts of gameplay might take an entire man-month to create.

Herb Flower, of LinkRealms, was talking to me last year about his days with ReWolf, doing a commercial half-life mod. He said that back in the late 90's, the mod scene was vibrant and alive for all of these games. But now - not so much. In part, it is because of the commercial viability of the mod scene - teams are very likely to fall apart over squabbles of who gets what potential share. But it's also in part due to the complexity of making mods. The requirements for what constitutes "acceptible" quality is much higher, and neither the tools nor the modmakers can keep up.

The tools pipeline is a whole 'nother story. This is the path that takes all the content generated by the tools, and imports it into the game. This has been the weakest link in the chain everywhere I have worked, including my own Rampant Games. The process is typically slow, tedious, and error prone. This makes it hard for the artists and designers to actually see and test their work.

Somehow, miraculously, old data finds its way creeping into the build, and things that were fixed days ago become broken again. Something silly like a missing texture won't be detected until twenty minutes into a 30-minute process, which forces you to start over from scratch. Annoyances like that, which compound upon each other, until what should have taken less than an hour ends up taking all day long.

Just think about it - what if making a game level were not much more difficult than sketching it out on graph paper? (And yes, before you say anything, I do know about SketchUp). Could we compress the amount of time it takes to do 90% of the work? Could we begin working on "meta-tools" - tools to make tools - for game development? I look at the (relative) simplicity of putting together Neverwinter Nights modules. Sure, there was some missing power there, but the thousands of user-created mods that came out is evidence of what that level of productivity you could get from designers and content creators when you make it simple, easy, and error-resistant.

(Yes, I have been fiddling around with level editors this weekend, how did you know?)

Frankly, if we want to talk about making better games, we should quit thinking about better pixel shaders or more realistic hair movement. The limiting factor is no longer in those technological elements, but in what I'd consider logistical ones. A skilled designer, animator, artist, or even programmer with a world-class set of tools and a painless, fast, error-free pipeline can be 100 times more productive. Which would mean better gameplay, better polish, and more innovation.

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Monday, June 09, 2008
How Do I Make An MMO?
Friend and fellow veteran mainstream & indie game developer John O. forwarded me an email he sent to a young aspiring game developer who asked him for a step-by-step process to create an MMO. I doubt the young man who asked the question realized that it was something akin to asking for a step-by-step process to building a space shuttle.

But John answered his question as best as he could, because he's just that much of a nice guy. And he shared his answer with me as something I might address here on the blog, because I'm lazy and love to borrow (with permission!) someone else's content. Although in this case, I'm gonna paraphrase most of his answers.

Step 1: Identify Your Rationale
Why do you want to create an MMO? Are you looking for fame & glory? Do you think you could do better by yourself than Blizzard and their hundreds of employees and budget of hundreds of millions? Are you interested in making tons of money? Are you just wanting to learn? Do you see some virgin territory within the genre that you'd like to explore? The last two answers are pretty good. The others - not so much. But the important thing is that you identify your reasons and choose a path that satisfies that rationale.

Oh, and if it's tons of money you are after... go into some other field, not games.

Step 2: Educate Yourself
Okay. Bottom line - if you have to ask how to make it, you aren't ready to make it. If you are looking at going into mainstream game development, you are going to need to specialize. If you are going the indie route - well, you've got even more to learn. If you want to be a programmer, you'll want to study up on math, geometry, physics, and of course programming languages. I don't care what language you start with. I started with BASIC, which is obsolete today. Python, C, C++, C#, Java, LISP, whatever... start with a language you have access to, where you can find lots of educational and game-development resources for (I'm partial to Python and C++ myself), and learn.

Study up on storytelling. Study literature and fine arts. Those will help you with design. And art, if you also take that route. And if you really do want to go the indie route, you should study up on marketing and business management, too.

Study up on the game industry. And play games! Play the games you don't like. Study the successful ones. Study the unsuccessful ones. Learn to identify the difference. And do not just look at mainstream games. Play those games your mother and your kid sister like.

Step 3: Keep Track of Your Ideas
John writes, "Keep notes on game ideas and designs. Organize them. Include maps, statistics, artificial intelligence, algorithms, look and feel, quantities and quality levels. This stack of notes will be what you draw from for future projects."

I say there are three things going on here:

Number one - almost all of your ideas will be lame. Probably. Deal.

Number two - Write them all down and keep track of them anyway. That's a killer habit to get into. The more you track your ideas, the better they will flow - both in terms of quantity and quality.

Number three - learning to organize those plans and determine all the little bits and pieces that are needed to support the design are critical skills. Skills I too often lack, and that bites me in the butt. Often.

Step 4: Start Small
Write games. Don't start trying to write World of Warcraft from scratch. It'll only end in tears and frustration. While it may be far from your dream game, take your baby steps. Old-fashioned arcade-style games are a great start.

Learn to mod bigger games. Neverwinter Nights is a great place to start, IMO, because it incorporates a lot of elements that are also present in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs. I also highly recommend you try to build a small world on some kind of MUD / MUSH / MU* codebase. That's a lot of where the MMORPGs came from. The folks who were working on those things a decade or two ago have in many cases forgotten a heck of a lot more about creating multiplayer worlds than many professionals making MMOs have ever learned.

John also recommends joining another game development team, perhaps on an open source game.

Step 5: Go To College
John writes: "Go to college. By the time you’re 18-19 you should have a good idea whether you really enjoy coding (computer science), electronics hardware (computer engineering), or would rather concentrate on team management (business) or model design (art). Getting an undergraduate degree will give you a safe backup plan. That way you can either land a job doing games, or get a job doing whatever your degree qualifies you for, and then work on games on your own time."

I may not agree 100% with this one, but lacking some compelling reason to do otherwise (like being a successful game or business tycoon at age 17), I'd say follow this advice. You really want a broad education when you go out in the world - in the games business or otherwise. And while it may sound impossible to imagine right now, there may come a time when you really want to something other than games in your life, and you don't want to be unqualified to do anything else.

Step 6: Start With a Kit or an Engine
Okay, once you are finally ready to make a "real" MMO, I'm going to say here - don't start from scratch. There are lots of engines and code-bases out there that will give you a leg up. Now, the downside is that Betty Crocker's EZ MMO Mix is going to result in a pretty generic MMO when you are done compiling that doesn't come close to matching your vision. That's okay. Remember back in step 4 when you were learning to mod games? This is where that skill comes in, but on a larger scale.

This is my own addition to John's list. While it's cool to have the skills to create a game from scratch, including the engine, you have to decide for yourself where your passion is. Remember step 1? Do you want to make a game, or create technology? There is no wrong answer here, but if you create your own technology, be prepared to never have time to move on to the game.

Step 7: Ignore the Steps
The order presented here doesn't really mean that they should be followed in any sequential order. You can do all of these at the same time, actually. There are a lot of indies who are doing it all while still going to college (though I don't want to imagine what their GPA looks like...) Yeah, it's going to be rough when you start out. Just remember that just about everyone who was ever awesome at something didn't emerge from their mother's womb as an expert in their chosen field. They had to struggle and learn and grow, just like you.
Good luck!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008
A Real-Life Spy's Tale
Last night I attended a talk by Mike Ramsdell, author of "A Train to Potevka," and former U.S. intelligence operative stationed in Russia during the height of the cold war. My wife has been reading his book and telling me about it. His talk last night focused less on his experiences as an intelligence agent and more on the experiences leading up to it, and his experiences following the publication of the book. And, considering the venue, it was also a discussion of faith.

He admitted that he decided to get into the intel business after seeing the James Bond movie, "From Russia With Love." He thought it sounded awfully exciting, especially for a small-town farm boy from Bear River, Utah. But he notes in the book, "In reality, intelligence work is extremely serious, tedious, and unglamorous; done by balding, pudgy, middle-aged men - and there are seldom any buxom women."

A couple of thoughts I had that might be applicable here:

First of all, his book was a big success, now in its eighth printing, and is now in the process of being made into a movie. As far as he's concerned, he's living the dream. But he quit working on the book for four months after being convinced by his brothers that nobody would be interested in reading his story. They convinced him it was a waste of time, and that he'd only embarrass himself. Fortunately, his wife forced him to get cracking on it some more, and get it done. His first printing was from a fly-by-night printer in Tennessee who was willing to print 100 copies for $1000. He figured they had 50 relatives and 50 friends they could send the book to as Christmas and birthday presents, so they finished it and got it done.

And the change it brought about in his life is nothing less than phenomenal. So maybe this is a lesson for frustrated indie game developers out there. No, the movie isn't being made by a major motion picture studio, and no, I don't think he's gotten rich off his book. But that wasn't the point. The guy was just thrilled at how his life turned out. He said if you'd shown him a crystal ball in his youth - as a Utah farm-boy - which showed how his life would turn out: from being a secret agent in Russia to a book author to scouting out locations in Eastern Europe with movie producers for film based on his life - he'd have bet anything against it.

Another point I considered, as the RPG fan: Why don't we have any "secret agent" computer RPGs? Not realistic ones, though there are some fun elements to be drawn from that, too. But we've got plenty of ripe territory for drama, action, and excitement in the post-cold-war era. For example, Alias is a hit show, in spite of its volatile quality, and even mixes some fantasy and science fiction elements with modern-era action and intrigue. The Bourne movie series have been big hits, and the most recent James Bond movie (Casino Royale) cleverly rebooted the entire series and ditched the lamer elements of the formula - to great success.

And in these shows, there is plenty of action and ... yes... combat! Apparently fighting terrorist cells and evil overlords-to-be allows agents the luxury to rack up a body count unthinkable in any other "modern era" genre outside of a straight-up war story. Which would allow less imaginative game designers plenty of combat to make players happy. And it's been addressed in pen & paper RPGs, from the elderly "Top Secret" RPG from TSR back in the glory days to the more recent Spycraft RPG.

Could this hit a nerve and be successful?

(UPDATE: Apparently, I missed Alpha Protocol's announcement last month. Last month was a blur of 80+ hour work-weeks anyway, I wasn't even sure what DAY it was half the time. But it sounds like I get my wish fulfilled this year. Sign me up! And for the PC version, thankyouverymuch, unless it's got that awful psychotic DRM issues...)

Vaguely related thinking too hard:
* Innovation in RPGs?
* RPG Design Seed Challenge
* The 16 Essential RPGs

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Tales of Crunch Survival...
It's almost 1:30 AM. I got home from work about forty minutes ago, after over fifteen hours straight. Around 9:30 tonight, the president of the company announced there was free ice cream and beer for everyone in the break room. And sodas, for those of us who don't drink.

Tomorrow is bound to be another repeat of today. I'm learning to hate certain game consoles I used to love. Bummer.

And here I am, at home, checking email, posting this blog, and ... working on my game. Trying to put at least an hour into it. I'll go in late tomorrow, anyway... my task-list is largely cleared out, mainly supporting the designers anyway.

I can't say it's unique to the games business. I've had weeks like this doing all kinds of software development in my career. And apparently, I'm so stupid that I impose it on myself by developing my own games until the wee hours of the night.

Ah, well. That's just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you just have to live life in the margins.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Can Playing RPGs Make You Rich?
I went to an "investors club" meeting of sorts tonight. It was founded in part by an old college buddy of mine - a fellow Dungeons & Dragons player and medievalist who got the bug up his butt about three years ago to get involved in real estate and other forms of investing, and has been doing that full time ever since. He has managed to do pretty well for himself and his family.

The event was... well, it was a whole 'nother world, folks. I was struggling to grasp the jargon at first, in spite of having some basic familiarity in other areas of investing (hey, I listen to some of these books-on-tape while commuting to The Day Job). They discusses strategies, taxes, threw around investment opportunities (many of which had minimum investment levels that were outside of my budget). They asked questions of each other I didn't know to ask, but by the end of the night I was getting a pretty good feel for things and understanding their answers.

In fact, I found it way more familiar than I expected. A weird realization hit me.

These guys are GAMERS.

Investing for Munchkins
No, maybe they didn't all spend their college or high-school years slinging dice next to miniatures like my friend and I did. Though apparently some of the people in the group, according to my friend, are avid video game players. But I found myself very familiar the tone of the discussion. I've been in enough game stores,RPG discussion forums, and on the periphery of World of Warcraft raid postmortems to recognize the familiar patterns in the discussions. The questions asked were new to me, the actual jargon was a learning experience, but if you change the words around these guys could have been powergamers (or, to use a less flattering term, munchkins) discussing their perfect character build or raid strategy.

In popular RPG terms, they were level 10 and I was a level 1. They slung around terms as carelessly as hardcore RPG players might sling around terms like "Armor Class," "DPS," "Drop Rate," and "Dex Bonus," which took me a little while to grasp.

They discussed opportunities. They argued risks, historical yields, comps, and the current state of the real estate market in Las Vegas (their term was "interesting," which I gathered was a euphemism for "don't touch it unless you know what you are doing.) They have figured out ways of making money regardless of what way the market goes - up, down, or sideways. Risky, but impressive. The opportunities were thrown around the room much like the stereotypical patron NPCs in stereotypical taverns would toss around quest and plot hooks for the next adventure.

And this made me think some more... could certain games - the stat-heavy RPGs and strategy games, in particular - be good training for the neural pathways, analytical skills, and behaviors necessary to succeed in the investment world? Are those annoying RPG munchkins actually best suited, with some education, to become real estate tycoons? Could those get-a-lifer raid leaders in World of Warcraft be suited to be get-a-lifer currency traders? Could the girl who just kicked your butt in Age of Empires also kick butt in the stock market for real-world stakes? Do those skills translate?

Gaming Skills = Getting Rich Skills?
Maybe. I asked my friend about this, and he agreed. He went over several things he learned from playing D&D (pen-and-paper) that he felt really helped prepare him for investing. He also said that this was the second time this week that someone asked him if Dungeons & Dragons has helped him in practical life.

"D&D is definitely where I gained my comfort with charts and calculations. I think from there I became a wiz at spreadsheets in corporate america. From there I used the same skill to create spreadsheets to evaluate properties once I had established my own Real Estate Strategy," he told me. He then went on how things like creating a character (we won't mention min/maxing here...oops, I just did) helped him both in investing, time management, and as a filmmaker in his previous career in terms of fitting things within budget, and reaching an optimum balance.

"At the same time I learned that absolute strict adherence to the rules could be too 'clinical' and while staying balanced with the rules of the game it was also possible to realize what didn't work for our particular situation and make appropriate adjustments as situations arise," he told me, possibly pulling from some "Dungeon Mastering" experience. "This obviously translated well to my investing techniques. I learned several different 'methods' of investing. Learned the balance of all of them. Then created my own 'techniques' talored to my situation while keeping in balance."

Leveling Up In the Real World
Obviously, it takes more than just playing video games and pen-and-paper RPGs or strategy games. It takes directing some of that passion into another focus. But hey, my friend still plays D&D - in fact, he has more time for it now than he did even back in college.

So, gamers: if you are one of those weirdos who like talking about your characters, game balance, build orders in popular RTS games, your best raid gear or character builds, optimum combat strategies for your party against a Pit Fiend, you may be primed to score the "phat l00t" for real. You may not only be trained to excel in these areas, but you may also find they match your particularly warped gamer sense of fun.

(Vaguely) related applications of my lack of l337 gaming skillz!
* The Secret of Success: It's All In Your Mind(set)!
* Playing to Crush With Life
* The Power of Vision

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Frequent Demos Kill Software Development
Okay, today's post is gonna be a little more on the technical / development side o' the fence, and not even game-specific. Sorry.

A friend of mine, who had served several years in the military, once told me, "No battle-ready unit ever passed inspection, and no inspection-ready unit ever passed battle." I have no idea if that's remotely true or not, but the point was that the traits that get measured in an inspection were very different - and perhaps even contrary to - the traits required to succeed in actual combat.

I wrote some time ago about the root of some of my tendencies to procrastinate, the "local maxima problem." The problem comes from the fact that many times, in programming, you have to break things to fix them. The "agile programming" folks like to invoke a technique called "refactoring" - you basically throw out the old code and make a whole new version. No big deal - or at least it shouldn't be. In fact, it should be happening all the time.

The problem is that during the time that this is happening, apparent progress might halt or even appear to go backwards. From the perspective of an outsider, at the end of two days of frantic labor, you've got something that looks exactly the same as it did before. Oh, sure, as a developer you know that this new, improved version is ten times faster, much easier to maintain, and got rid of four bugs that were practically insurmountable in the old code.

Now, as a programmer, I should be in that mindset. Totally. But I'm not. And some things happened at Ye Olde Day Job that reminded me of why I'm usually not... and may be the source of some of my development hangups.

You go like crazy to hit a demo milestone. This is true both in the games biz and much of pro software development. And this, I believe is a good thing. There's another saying in software (and I think hardware, too) that "if it weren't for trade shows we'd never get anything done." It forces an integration pass, acts as a huge motivator, and can really help a team get the important things done.

But in doing that, you may throw in some crap code for the demo that's pure prototype to help the end-user see all what you've been working on. Maybe it's some slapped-together front-end menu, or whatever. You show it to the powers that be - your own upper management, or maybe your publisher. You decide on changes. And then - ideally - you go back to your desk, and proceed to rip certain aspects of it apart to refine and refactor and improve the project as a whole.

But lo and behold, after a certain point in the project, said Powers That Be become a lot more demanding and random. They suddenly want to see the latest and greatest version ten days AFTER a milestone. This is sorta like them coming by for you to take them on a test drive in your car while you've got the engine pulled out and on the garage floor Yet Again.

And this makes your publisher or upper management people grouchy. What the heck are you doing? The software was working just fine a week and a half ago, why is everything crashing and broken now?

So you become paranoid about yanking anything - which means real progress slows down because you are afraid to make any move unless you are sure you can get it back into a demo-able state within two hours' notice.

Sure, one might say - there's CVS - or whatever source-control system you are working on. Just make sure that everything is working perfectly before you check it back in. Great idea. But often impractical in a collaborative effort with a whole bunch of cross-dependencies. Never mind the treacherousness of trying to make a build and run it untested on some other computer besides a dev box in the middle of development, without having done a reasonable integration pass (and if you happen to do automated integration testing every time someone checks code into source control, give yourself a gold star... but you are probably still painfully aware of how dangerous it can be even doing that).

So - yeah. Bottom line - if you want to shoot development progress, fill it full of lead, and leave it bleeding at the side of the road in a toxic pool of virulent disease-ridden slime, perform frequent spot-inspections and impromptu demos.

That little bit of aversion therapy lives with me still, even as an indie answerable to nobody. I still find myself paranoid about retreating from the dead-end of local maxima.

(Vaguely) related bits of ranting
* Fighting Procrastination: The Local Maxima Problem
* Productivity Tip: The List
* Embrace Code!

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Friday, February 01, 2008
Frayed Knights - The Stupid Stuff Takes Too Long
Tales of Frayed Knights, the comedic independent fantasy RPG coming from Rampant Games in the not-too-distant future. I hope.

It's friggin' midnight. And I just realized why my weapons are not responding properly to the armor level of the characters. Inside the character class file, I have a function that gets their armor level.

It looks something like this:

function Character::GetArmor(%this)
// Gets the total armor level, including current magical effects on the character.
// To Do: Everything. This is a stub.

return 0;

Great. Oh, well, I'm already in the middle working on equipped effects (things that happen to you while an item is equipped), so this isn't such a big deal. But it does explain a few things.

Writing Dialog. This is my favorite part of working on the game, but it isn't easy. And it is surprisingly time-consuming. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, and every single bit of it needs a major editing pass to make sure all the plot points are being hit, and that the appropriate dialogs have at least a subtle shade of humor and are speaking with the correct "voice."

Then there's allowing a "freelook" mode, but I want it to snap back to a particular pitch you are done looking around at the environment. Unfortunately, Torque doesn't give you any control over this with the Player or ShapeBase class, so I have to make a minor engine change. No big... but it takes time.

Then I spend about an hour and a half working with James to get the mount point working on his models so that the weapons aren't growing out of the back of their knuckles. James lives about 850 miles away, so much of the delay involves sending files back and forth. But part of this is just nailing down a process for us both for future content.

A crash when traveling between the dungeon and the village has me baffled. I try and trace it down in the debugger, and find it's something to do with player movement - before the level is fully loaded? It stumps me for a day. Realize that for me, a day means spending nine hours at the day job, plus a slow, snow-covered, slippy-slidey commute each way, plus an evening scheduled with other stuff that comes with having a life, not to mention a blog post, so we're really only talking about two or three hours of actual time spend working on the problem - between 2:00 AM one morning when I call it quits for the night, and 9:30 PM the following night when I get cracking again. But after a day, I realize a (possible) solution, having worked with Torque a little too long. I schedule the level load rather than calling it directly. Bam! The bad crash goes bye-bye, and everything suddenly works.

There are buttons that don't work anymore because they are properly calling the new UI manager, but I'd neglected to upgrade the call their container dialog, so it's still manually being brought into existance. The UI manager doesn't know anything about it, so the buttons aren't working. And then there are inexplicable slow-downs when certain dialogs are up. But it's bad! I need to find the problem and fix 'em.


While the entire first chapter is, as of last night, playable from beginning to end, there are a couple of major issues still outstanding. Like, oh, saved games. And trading. A new and improved inn. But for the most part, we're down t0 "stupid stuff," which takes almost as long as the big tasks. All those little details that might fall through the cracks. And there's a LOT of it. It's those stupid, little things that take so much time, paralyze apparent progress, and drive me crazy.

I hate this part. And it's not even in the serious bug-fixing stages yet. This is the point in the project where keeping an updated "to do" list is critical, and where you have to take satisfaction from seeing lots of little, stupid things marked off as "complete." Because it doesn't make great screenshots, and the players won't notice it at all unless it's not done right.

Forum Discussion, Because Misery Loves Company

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Monday, January 14, 2008
On Making 3D
I have come to the realization that, after Gutenberg's little gizmo put them out of work copying and illuminating documents, the medieval European monks might have found 3D texture art to have been a perfect match for their skills. Assuming 3D modeling was in line with their religious beliefs. And assuming they had 21st century computers at their disposal in the 15th.

In elementary school, I learned about why the different projections of a 2D map of the world were flawed, and how Greenland really wasn't as big as all of North America. But aside from that, I thought it was largely an academic exercise. Then I tried to keep straight lines straight on a (simulated) curvy object. Suddenly that third-grade geography lesson takes on a whole new meaning.

Two things I have discovered (repeatedly) is that:

#1 - Creating 3D content (or good 2D art, for that matter) is not easy.

#2 - The stylistic differences in off-the-shelf content packs render them almost totally incompatible. In case you haven't seen what I meant from the Frayed Knights screen shots, here's what I mean:

These guys look great on their own, but just cannot dwell on the same screen together. Unless it's Roger Rabbit World. This yields the inevitable conclusion:

#3 - If you are making a 3D game with a lot of content requirements, you are pretty much hosed.

Which is where I sit. I keep spending time trying to massage content instead of coding, trying to tweak textures, lighting, and models enough to make things not quite so eye-searingly bad.

And I continue to bump into my own limitations as a game developer. Yes, I've got 'em. Not just in content creation, but in coding too. This weekend I spent several hours in a forced education about Torque's animation system. All this just to get a character to cross a room and say something to the player. I tell myself it's black triangle work. Even this far into the project, there are black triangles to be drawn.

The bottom line is that creating a game is hard work, and if anybody goes into it already knowing everything there is to know, for which it is all a piece of cake, I've not met them. I've been at this for years, now, and some days I still feel like I am fighting for every five minutes of gameplay.

Incidentally - getting any of the above models and then spending some time on them in the modeling package of your choice, learning how really skilled artists built it, laid out the textures, and rigged the thing is a fascinating and extremely educational exercise. I recommend it if you have the slightest interest.

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Monday, November 12, 2007
Task Switching
One hindrance to my productivity that I've found is task-switching. When one task (usually programming, since that's both the day job and the side-job) is complete, I find myself either lingering overlong to "gold-plate" it, or seeking distractions, rather than moving on to the next job.

Am I spending too much time just patting myself on the back, or rewarding myself with distractions? Quite likely. I've noticed that with Frayed Knights, that between the Torque Game Engine / Torque Game Builder "Frankenengine" and the groundwork I've already laid in the game's architecture, a lot of the tasks I've set for myself actually take less time than I expect. When I get on a roll, I can cross off a lot of jobs off my list, and see enormous progress on the game.

Having that written list (which I've begun maintaining a lot more meticulously over the last week or so) is one of the keys to maintaining that productivity. I have found that I stall out a lot on "deciding what to do next." Being able to consult the list - particularly if it has already been prioritized - really helps remove this one mental block.

A trick I used during Void War's development - which I haven't yet implemented in Frayed Knights (though I may be fast approaching that stage) was to arrange the tasks in "triples" - a task I was really looking forward to doing, a task that really needed to be done to keep progress moving forward, and a major bug-fix that I really felt like putting off. The trick was that I couldn't do any other tasks (usually) until I finished all three of the "triplet." This meant I had to finish some annoying tasks before I could move back to a fun one.

Once I get going on a task, if I can get "in the zone," I do pretty well. It's just those naughty little transitions --- getting started on the next task --- that keeps tripping me up. Any ideas for how I could do to fix this?

(Vaguely) related yammering:
* Productivity Tip: The List
* Fighting Procrastination: The "Local Maxima" Problem


Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Frayed Knights Squeaks Into the Lead!
Frayed Knights is a contestant in the MyDreamRPG Game-In-A-Year competition, and the mid-contest tallies were reported late Friday evening. The results..?

Frayed Knights is in first place. By only 50 out of over 10,000 points. Talk about a narrow lead - less that 0.5%! The four other games in the top five positions include Pelorea, Isles of Midgard, Arcanoria, and Fantasci. Thus far, the contest has been rewarding process and communication more than the games themselves... which has caused a small amount of drama by teams that feel that their projects are superior. And they may well be correct.

Pelorea, in particular, seems to be particularly well-run. Of course, it all comes down to the game's release and how it is received. THAT is pretty key. All five of the front-runners could miss the release (to be honest, I am worried about Frayed Knights, too), which would kinda turn the whole contest on its ear.

There are several games in the middle of the pack that are looking really good, and if the contestents don't give up on them, they may do really well. I've mentioned Aegist Road before, partly because our own DrSlinky - AKA Greg Tedder - is heading up that one. B.R.A.V.E. is looking better and better.

I hope that this contest encourages a lot of indies to actually finish their games and get them to market. There's much too high of a failure rate in first-time indie game development (and second-time, too).

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
How Long Does It Take To Build 3D Models?
Scott Hsu-Storaker, the "Thousander Club" guy, runs the Low Poly Cooperative (a totally awesome "open source" content site with a focus on Blender and Torque --- check it out, enjoy, take advantage of the free content and tutorials, and by all means contribute if / when you can). Anyway, he has written a somewhat lengthy article breaking down the average amount of time it has taken him to create all the models in the "Gilman Street Project."

Now, GSP was - as I understand it at least - something of a learning experience for him. So maybe a more experienced modeler could cut these times down. But measuring his times, he came up with the following breakdown:

Average time to create a completed model: 7 Hours.
1.5 hours -- Modelling and unwrapping
3 hours -- Texturing
1 hour -- Exporting and file wrangling
1.5 hours -- Management (of project and other contributors), finding source materials, and miscellaneous.

Note that Scott didn't have to work on rigging and animating at all with this project. THAT can be a time-sink. But we're talking nicely textured but simple everyday items. Like the pictured floodlight.

So for 3D game devs out there trying to estimate (guesstimate) budgets for creating all the 3D assets in your game... this may be some useful data to chew on.

Read Scott's full article here: "How Long Does It Take Anyways?"

(Vaguely) related tales of my own miserable failures:
* A Blender Journey
* Getting Better 1,198 Polygons At A Time
* The Joy of Tex(turing)

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