No Time To Play

Three faces of Twine

by on Oct.20, 2016, under Case study

This spring, a friend of mine came up with an excellent gamebook made in Twine (now also on At the time I appreciated not just the story itself, but also the way it worked around engine limitations to offer the player a character sheet at appropriate moments. And Kris isn’t the only one making RPGs in Twine, as I started to notice more recently. Which is a bit of a problem when using an authoring tool designed to display one passage at a time from a choose-your-own-adventure story, and not much else.

But what if I told you Twine has another face, one that allows you, with minimal effort, to make games with all the usual bells and whistles:


  • a proper save dialog with multiple slots;
  • more generally, a modal dialog system;
  • graphical user interface elements;
  • a fully customizable sidebar;
  • toolbars and status lines.

It’s called SugarCube, and it’s as well-documented as it is powerful. Also heavyweight, which is why Twine 2 ships with the older, less capable branch in the package. For some reason, however, its capabilities aren’t well-known, even though plenty of Twine-using authors prefer it to the default Harlowe.

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Weekly Links #142

by on Oct.16, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. There was no Laser Sky update this week because, frankly, there’s not much to say. I did manage to add the high score table, then the promised menu system, including an option screen. Forgot to add one to limit continues, but those should remain infinite until the game is done, anyway. The bad news is, now I have no excuse: it’s time to add the remaining levels. And that will require potentially tricky code changes, in addition to yet more of that exhausting balancing work. At least now I have some experience…

Otherwise, lots of retrogaming news this week. From Gamasutra, we have the birth of Japanese RPGs — a story that’s usually both whitewashed and oversimplified, it turns out. And via Vintage Is the New Old we learn of a website called Games That Weren’t, dedicated to saving canceled or lost games from the dustbin of history. Last but not least, here’s a review of a quasi-roguelike born on the (in)famous Tandy TRS-80 in 1980 and carried into the Windows era by a fan. A terrible game, but a fascinating delve into history — not to mention a challenge. How can you make that format actually work?

Also in the way of game design, the people who made Dungeons of Dredmor are at it again, with a write-up on challenge in videogames, which touches on configurable difficulty among other things. Thought-provoking indeed. In unrelated news, Emily Short points at a blog post about teaching history with interactive fiction. Not much that’s new to me, but the links therein promptly sent me down a deep, branching rabbit hole. (How appropriate!) It’s remarkable what academics can come up with when they set out to study videogames. Too bad their work isn’t more widely known, even when it’s accessible to laypeople.

Until next time, consider what the past can teach us.

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Weekly Links #141

by on Oct.09, 2016, under Gamedev, News

What a week. First I spent three days working on a side project (that I’m not going to announce until next month). Then had to rest a little, because a three-day coding marathon is exhausting when you’re pushing 40. And then an ISP outage kept me offline for a day and a half. At least that gave me the time to put a high score table in Laser Sky, not to mention play and review a couple of games.

In news that aren’t about No Time To Play, two weeks ago Techdirt covered the case of a game developer suing Steam customers only to have their games removed from the platform. Turns out, now they are dropping the lawsuit, citing bankruptcy. Should we count the number of ways in which they had it coming?

To move from business to game design, here’s an article about the balance between gameplay and realism. But while the overall argument is sound, the chosen example betrays painful ignorance of actual history. Um, guys, you do realize firearms — even small arms — were developed centuries before the industrial era, do you? Heck, they were commonly made of bronze (otherwise an obsolete material) before steel became good enough (which just so happened to also make it good enough for steam engines). And there was a time roughly two centuries ago when, demand for guns having outpaced the still nascent industry’s ability to provide, it was common to make gun barrels by hammering spiral strips of metal around a stick until they held together. Which gave you rifling for free, but tended to end in the barrel bursting, with that flowering effect you can see in old Loony Tunes cartoons.

Funny how animators from half a century ago, who were only trying to be funny, knew their history better than people making, you know, historical videogames. And there was no Wikipedia back in the day…

Last but not least, Hardcore Gaming 101 has a feature on 80 Days, the indie smash hit from a couple of years ago. Appropriate, given the IFComp is in full swing.

And that’s really all. See you next week.

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Two story games where you are the detective

by on Oct.07, 2016, under Review

I wanted to play Christopher Huang’s games from the Peterkin Investigates series ever since becoming acquainted with his short stories — a delightful trio that skillfully brings classic detective fiction of the Agatha Christie persuasion into the 21st century. My interest was compounded because, you see, these games are meant for beginners, and as such rely on a restricted command set (did I mention it’s interactive fiction?) — a topic I’ve given quite a bit of thought to, earlier this year. The author was even kind enough to provide me with my own copies: playing them in a web browser is rather too slow on this elderly computer. And yet it took me a shamefully long amount of time to actually play them. But I did, at last, and so should you.
(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #140

by on Oct.02, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone! As of this weekend, a demo level of Laser Sky can be played right here on No Time To Play, or else over on It’s an early release, so no music or menu system yet, but you can see what the gameplay is like. Please leave feedback!

This week we also have not one, but two newspieces from Techdirt: one about a game developer connecting with pirates to turn them into paying customers, the other about DRM hurting paying customers. Again. And never mind that the game is already cracked and widely available for free (just search for it). This problem could have easily been noticed on time if developers had bothered to test on anything but their own high-end workstations.

Folks, once again. PCs from 7-8 years ago, with just 2 gigabytes of RAM and a single, slow CPU core are still very common. Optimize your software, or see your sales plummet. It’s a simple choice.

In more topical news, Polygon explains why the source code of classic games matters. I’ll add that it’s not just for the historical insights. But a lot of people who play games naturally want to make their own, and being able to study the classics is essential in any art. The difference is that in literature, or music, everything is out in the open by definition. Software, however, has source code. And without access to it, we all have to reinvent the wheel repeatedly. No wonder it never quite seems to end up round.

On a related note, here’s a write-up about voxels that echoes my old one, while being much longer and less technical. It’s worth a look, for the sake of comparison if nothing else. And as I’m nearing the end here, have this interview with the creators of Event[0], the new indie game everyone’s crazy about.

Last but not least, a reminder that the Interactive Fiction Competition 2016 just opened yesterday. So go play some games, and enjoy.

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Coming soon: Laser Sky

by on Sep.29, 2016, under Gamedev

Funny how much morale matters in game development. While this weekend I was in no condition to work on Laser Sky, the game was in a condition to be seen by a few early testers, and that gave me the energy to go on. Not that the feedback was so great: everyone’s first reaction was to call it sluggish and unresponsive. It didn’t feel that way to me, but when three people say you’re drunk…

So the first thing I did on Monday morning was to make the player’s ship accelerate just a little faster. Which, to my surprise, improved the game balance, and subsequent testers merely remarked the game is slow-paced. In other words, exactly as intended. Success! Most of them also praised the graphics, though one tester was put off by the same “paper airplane” enemies another loved. There’s no accounting for taste. And hey, both of them recognized the inspiration despite the abstract shape. Go me.


Anyway, as predicted last time, the rest of the day was spent adding sound effects. They’re from the same Creative Commons pack I used for Attack Vector, except a different selection (twice as wide, too), and with no additional sources. So the two games ended up sounding nothing the like. Couldn’t locate any suitable music, but a friend offered to help with that, and from what we discussed it seems we’re on the same wavelength. So this should be great.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #139

by on Sep.25, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. Today was supposed to be a brief newsletter, but things didn’t work out that way, so bear with me. Let’s start with a couple of videogames-in-the-mainstream news. First there’s The Guardian running a feature on walking simulators, and while it’s good to see the genre getting recognition, it’s equally dismaying to see how quickly people forget history. A lush, exotic island that the player can explore at their leisure, putting together a story from scattered pieces, and giving it their own interpretation? A meditative experience? Environment as narration? Where have we heard all that before?

Oh wait. The description perfectly fits Myst, that took the world by storm nearly a quarter of a century ago, and went on to sell six million copies (not counting the rest of the franchise) before being relegated to a cult classic status. But sure, let’s rewrite history and pretend walking simulators descend from first-person shooters instead. Never mind all the puzzle-less interactive fiction that showed the way for graphical adventure games even as the latter were dying a shameful death — and nobody paid attention; I don’t expect most game journalists to be aware of those. Myst, however, is a different matter. Learn your history, folks.

(Admittedly, it was the Bioshock games — a FPS franchise — that first took a hint from Myst and brought that particular storytelling technique back into the limelight. But, tellingly, the article fails to mention Bioshock, too.)

In unrelated news, Techdirt covers the story of a game developer that sued Steam customers over negative reviews (I’ll spare you another rant), only to have their games promptly dumped from the same Steam. Not out of any love for free speech, of course. Funny, though, how treating people well in fact goes hand in hand with good business, rather than the two being at odds. Too bad the Valves of the world are so few and far between.

In the game design department, Emily Short tackles the problem many developers have recently discovered to their dismay: namely, that procedural generation is inherently repetitive. And of course she’s right: making sure your level generator can create a variety of situations for players to deal with is a good idea. But even that is missing the point; nature, after all, can be repetitive too. A multi-hour train ride through certain parts of Europe will reveal an endless parade of forests, rivers, ponds, hillocks and forests again. What makes most places special isn’t some unique landscape feature, but all the time we spend there, and the memories we gather of the place.

What can players do in your game that’s actually meaningful to them?

Speaking of what players can do in games, just yesterday Konstantinos Dimopoulos spotted this pair of interviews with the creators of Mario 64, from the distant past of 1996. Note how the recurring theme is, you know a game is good when players have fun just stomping around doing random stuff. And on a similar note, Gamasutra is running a postmortem of the Sorcery games by Inkle Studios, detailing the challenges of adapting a beloved gamebook series to a digital medium.

But I already wrote way more than planned, so until next week, remember to value the past.

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Laser Sky progress report

by on Sep.22, 2016, under Gamedev

I wasn’t planning on posting updates today, since real life problems and bad weather conspired to keep me down, but in retrospect the game has progressed noticeably anyway, even if it didn’t feel like that at first.

So, a week ago I announced my new game, a good old shoot’em up called Laser Sky simply because the name was available — as opposed to pretty much anything involving the word “neon”. (Do you know how hard it is to come up with original titles these days? RogueBot for instance is used by a whole bunch of other projects, from a variety of fields. Hopefully nobody sues.)


Anyway, at the time Laser Sky was just beginning to feel like a game, but still lacked variety. So one of the first things to add was power-ups. The first one restores lost energy, or else gives points if you’re topped up — power-ups should never become useless! The second gives you an extra gun (then a third in the tail, which was sorely needed), and after that it erases the heat build-up, that gets significant even though with two guns you fire more slowly. The whole thing took some balancing work, because more guns should be more powerful overall, but still come at a cost. With a bit of special-casing, and otherwise fewer changes than expected, that too worked out great. It requires a change in strategy that just makes sense, and feels satisfying. Not bad for just one addition!

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Weekly Links #138

by on Sep.18, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. I failed to write more than a couple of lines on Laser Sky since Thursday, because real life, but there are plenty of links this week as well. For one thing we have a trio of classic games retrospectives: if you wanted to know what happened to Cyan after making Myst, or what it was like to work on Bioshock, or yet again what makes Call of Cthulhu special, you’ll be well-served.

In other news, my friend fluffy has a very nice write-up about what Undertale meant to them. Not much to say about that except “go read it”. Got a few more comments on this longer interview from the Don’t Die project, that touches on personal games, crunch and more. See, it starts by pointing out how people in the game industry take themselves much too seriously, and while that’s obviously true, I disagree with the provided explanation. No, it’s not mostly 15-year-olds. When are we going to accept that most gamers are pushing 40 these days? They’re pushing 40… and they’re still insecure, abusive brodudes. Of course they are. Masculinity is hollow.

Who do you think the younger gamers and developers are learning from?

And now for the I-told-you-so segment. From MIT Technology Review we learn that most people use VR not to explore 3D worlds, but to simulate watching good old 2D movies — not even the kind that pop out of the screen — on a virtual home theater setup, even while squeezed into a cramped airplane seat. Which begs the question, why not simply use those little LCDs strapped to your eyeballs to fill your field of view directly with the 2D movie you wanted to see in the first place?

Ah, but then you couldn’t brag about the size of your GPU, am I right?

(Speaking of which, it’s been a while since I last heard of a 3D movie being advertised in theaters. Looks like that, too, proved to be a short-lived fad… AGAIN. Just like last time. And yes, there was a last time. But no worries, people will make yet another futile attempt in 30-40 years or so, after mostly everyone will have forgotten the last pathetic failure.)

Last but not least, I didn’t even get around to buying a PICO-8 license, and there’s already a freeware clone in development. Such a blatant clone, in fact, it’s downright suspect. Might be worth playing with anyway. And in the game design department, here’s an article arguing for achievements in roguelike games as a way to offset the frustration of undeserved permadeath. And idea to keep in mind for my next attempt at one, whenever it happens.

In the mean time, have a nice week, and thanks for reading.

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Birth of a shoot’em up

by on Sep.15, 2016, under Gamedev

I don’t remember whether I played They Started It before or after coming up with the concept for Laser Sky. I had been toying with the Pyglet game library, pondering what sort of game it might be suitable for, and a shoot’em up was the most obvious choice. Not that the world needs yet another game about blowing stuff up. But making a sequel to Attack Vector and getting it right for a change is an old dream of mine, and any excuse to learn a promising new technology is a good one. The big problem was choosing a theme. And like the first time around, nothing I came up with seemed to have legs. Even a briefly considered idea for a cute’em up fizzled out (though that’s definitely worth revisiting). Moreover, it began to dawn on me that coding a sprite-scaling engine on top of a 2D library backed by OpenGL was kind of ridiculous. The new game had to be a good old-fashioned scroller… but then it couldn’t be a sequel to Attack Vector.


In the end, the concept for Laser Sky came to me almost fully-formed during a walk in the park. Trouble is, it involved vector graphics, and that precluded the use of an engine optimized for sprites. So, back to HTML5 it was. The first order of business was dusting off the game microframework I developed two years ago for the original RogueBot. (Which of course revealed a bug, duly fixed.) Making a ship move around the screen, and some basic enemies come at it, was easy enough. Then it was time for them to interact.

(continue reading…)

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