No Time To Play

Weekly Links #106

by on Feb.07, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. With all my attention these days going into efforts to self-publish a couple of new books, I ended up not just with few links, but also nothing much to say about them at all. Still, let me see if I can find a few words.*rifles through pockets*

For one thing, An Accidental Man’s retrospective of landmark computer games has reached Prince of Persia, and the article has much to say about storytelling via gameplay, something most game designers don’t even try to achieve, instead running scared right back to cutscenes. (Or worse, spin-offs in other media entirely.) Maybe it is because, as I wrote on other occasions, most creators don’t even like games, and keep trying to turn them into movies or books…

In unrelated news, Gamasutra is running a feature on the state of game development in Africa. Which is, sadly, pretty much what I was expecting. But hey, it’s a big continent, and people are trying. It’s the rest of us, elsewhere in the world, who need to pay attention.

Last but not least, a couple of friends alerted me to the tweet above, to the effect that UK publisher Usborne now offers free downloads of their old Basic programming books from the 1980s. I haven’t looked at them yet, but such books often have more than historical and nostalgic value: there was a lot of ingenuity involved in designing compelling games small enough to be typed in without excessive effort, not to mention able to run reasonably well on 8-bit machines despite being written in Basic. We’re truly spoiled nowadays… and we don’t seem to know what to do with our privilege.

And that’s really all I have this week. See you around.

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Weekly Links #105

by on Jan.31, 2016, under Case study, News, Opinion

Hello, everyone. I had yet another week of writing and editing, with more editing and art coming, not to mention other things. So yeah, still not much attention span to spare here. But the news are no less worth it.

The big one this week was that a computer had beaten a world-class GO champion. Which is incredibly meaningful, because it’s not the kind of problem you can solve with more processing power (unlike the time when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess). You have to build genuine intelligence into your code — and somebody did. It’s part of the same trend as self-driving cars; funny how fast AI has advanced once we gave up on trying to blithely imitate people, and just treated it like another tool in the box.

Anyway, in unrelated news, it turns out that procedural generation of text predates computers by centuries. Which makes perfect sense, because the concept of computation has been around for much longer than the idea of an universal computer, and indeed doesn’t depend on it. In fact, there is a staggering variety of natural processes that can perform computation — one of them, DNA self-duplication, gave birth to us. That people thought of it (in a very meta way it turns out) so long ago is a lesson worth learning.

In the way of actual game development, one of my favorite people in gaming interviews the creators of 80 Days, and while it’s not exactly new information, the way it’s put together makes it fresh again, so give it a read. Last but not least, another story that made waves this week: in a lengthy blog post, an indie game developer explains why they had to fire most of the crew after a successful game launch. And you know, I can understand just fine why someone would make the kind of mistakes described in the article, having seen very similar stories play out before (from the perspective of an employee who had to be laid out). But I wish people would figure out already that:

  • ambition is bad;
  • you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single basket;
  • ambition is bad;
  • Steam is not your friend;
  • ambition is bad.

No, seriously. I’m sick and tired of hearing how you’d supposedly never have started anything without ambition. I seem to start — and finish — a whole lot of different things, and while none of them has reached epic size or widespread success yet, I have a lot more to show for my efforts right now than my friends who rushed to build a dream castle before they had a solid foundation, and it all crumbled to rubble one day.

Until next week, consider the virtues of patient work.

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Weekly Links #104

by on Jan.24, 2016, under News

It feels so good when links worth sharing appear to seek me out on their own. I’ll start with a couple of retrospectives. For once, Hardcore Gaming 101 runs a feature on a modern game, that only seeks to emulate the classics: L’Abbaye des morts. I remember it being widely discussed on the World of Spectrum forums, and never realizing it first saw life as a PC game. Fun!

On a similar note, PC Games has a postmortem of Lemmings. It’s not the first one I mention here on No Time To Play, but there’s always something new to learn, so all is well.

In unrelated news, it turns out that personal games (a topic I mention with increasing frequency) are becoming mainstream, as evidenced by this article in The Telegraph. Good news indeed. And while I stopped following the Don’t Die project some time ago, there’s the occasional interview I simply can’t miss. This one covers many of the ugly problems with the modern game industry, from the endless crunch mode that’s the normal way of life for developers, through burnout, abusive behavior online and back to the killing of creativity. Along the way, they even find the time for a jab at virtual reality, a piece of tech everybody always seems to want except for the buying public. But sure, this time it just has to catch on. Or else next time. Just like we’ve been saying for decades now.

Last but not least, I just found out about a 20-part tutorial on making your own roguelike in Java. I haven’t looked at it, but from the table of contents it looks pretty detailed. And then there’s an article about making games more accessible through visual cues and other forms of assistance. Which promptly reminded me of Cheetah’s old plead for configurable games. Because we don’t all have the same abilities, even if you don’t factor in the little issue of gamer aging.

Until next week, help combat snobbery in gaming.

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Weekly Links #103

by on Jan.17, 2016, under Case study, News

Oh well. That’s what happens when you have a ton of hobbies. After several weeks of game development, I went back to writing fiction for now. But that doesn’t mean news are passing me by. This week’s most powerful story is about the struggles of a Muslim game developer, ranging from the representation of Middle Eastern people mostly as enemies to be shot, to the simple fact that traveling to conferences can be difficult these days if your name is Muhammad. See my longer comment on Tumblr. Much food for thought, in any event.

On a more cheerful note, I have a couple of very sentimental articles. First is an homage to Tetris, with interesting remarks about the author’s unique genius. Then this write-up about what happens when MMOs close down. In short: people become invested in the virtual worlds they frequent. People begin to care. Because that’s what people do. There are memories you’re leaving behind. And friends. Who are as real as the game was virtual. But somehow we’re supposed to just move on because “this is capitalism”? There has to be a better way.

Last but not least, in actual game development news, it appears there are people out there porting indie games to arcade cabinets, and it’s a fascinating trip to take. The best postmortem I’ve read in a long time, really. Especially as many of my own games want to be arcades at their core, but I never quite went the whole way with them. Someday, perhaps.

For now, have a nice week.

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Weekly Links #102

by on Jan.10, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Sometimes experiments just don’t pan out the way we expect them to. But you know, that’s kind of the point. And sometimes the actual results are more interesting than those we were expecting.

I was going to write the article promised in the previous newsletter, but instead I found myself adapting the new mobile UI from the Deep Down prototype to an older game of mine: Glittering Light. Here’s the result after a few days:

So much for doing everything on a dumb drawing surface. Why should I reinvent the GUI wheel when the browser gives it to me for free? Just so it would be more like in other environments? Well, it’s not. It’s a browser game, might as well embrace that. It allows me to inline the credits and proper instructions, have a high score table, and as a bonus the buttons actually work in mobile browsers as well (unlike touch events, which should but don’t). Getting mouse events relative to the viewport was a bit of a problem, but now I can use a secret weapon: jQuery. As for that infamous delay when touchscreens simulate a click event, there’s a reason this game is entirely turn-based…

Experiment “write games using a standard GUI toolkit” is a success. Next, to embrace the paradigm more fully.

In completely unrelated news, my friend Sera alerts me to the fact that the Oculus Rift will cost nearly double the promised amount, and that’s on top of the already expensive gaming rig it needs to be at all useful. Dear Silicon Valley hipsters: some players make sacrifices to indulge in their hobby (and make you rich). Show a little respect. Oh, and you might want to look at a little competitor called Google Cardboard, which only costs a few dollars (by virtue of being make of literal cardboard), works with common smartphone models, and — check this out — is an open design, so buyers aren’t tied to a single manufacturer that might discontinue the product line or even go out of business at any time.

Sure, Cardboard is probably a toy in comparison. But it also has room to improve in leaps and bounds, with minimal investments that will be distributed across countless enthusiasts the world over. Good luck keeping pace.

Until next time, beware of overengineering.

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Weekly Links #101

by on Jan.03, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Happy New Year, everybody! The week after Christmas wasn’t very active, for obvious reasons, but things did happen. First among them is that I’ve been working on a new game! Deep Down in Darkness was supposed to become a first-person dungeon crawler, not unlike classics in the vein of Dungeon Master, except with eight directions instead of the usual four — as suggested in this old article.

Turns out, it’s not working out the way I want it, for various reasons I’ll outline in a full article soon. What I learned from the attempt is invaluable however, and the new style of mobile-friendly UI you see in the screenshots works like a charm. So it’s a win anyway.

In other game development news, a friend of mine who develops in PuzzleScript used it to make a match-3 game — a genre I like, and a relatively unusual use for the platform. (Though not as much as a run-and-gun game.) And just because it’s so quiet these days, maybe it’s worth mentioning that next week Sophie Houlden will be running a Myst Jam — something I’d love to enter if puzzles were in any way my thing. Wonder if there will be any entries based in Seltani.net?

Last but not least, on the last day of 2015 we got retrospectives of the year in interactive fiction are related topics: one from Emily Short, the other from Juhana Leinonen.

But that’s enough for now; the year is just starting. Have fun, and see you next week.

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Actually, players do want sequels

by on Dec.20, 2015, under Opinion

You know, as of late it’s become almost trite to criticize the gaming industry’s lack of creativity as they churn out sequel after sequel. So it was refreshing to see Shamus Young, in his column at The Escapist, tackle the problem from a novel angle. Namely, that sequels ruin the sense of wonder players have upon exploring a new and surprising setting. In his own words:

This works about as well as opening a present, and then re-wrapping it and opening it again. The thrill of anticipation is gone, and the fact that everyone expects you to still be surprised is actually kind of annoying.

This is a good point, especially as it has nothing to do with the quality of said sequels — as he points out, they’re often good games. It’s just that they’re too same-y, not even bothering to visit new corners of the same setting. And as a writer, I can only sympathize with him.

But there’s a big issue with the entire argument: it’s not publishers who want more of the same. It’s players — as evidenced by the way they keep buying each new sequel with the same amount of excitement as last time. Seriously, there are even people who buy essentially the same FIFA game year after year. Don’t you think they know?

It’s not just players either. If it was publishers pressuring studios to meet market demand, you’d expect at least indie developers to make novel games out of their own desire for expressing artistic freedom. So what kinds of games are the most popular on the indie market?

Platformers, puzzle platformers and metroidvanias. Unless it’s some variation on one of the Zelda games…

Look, people like familiarity. They like it so much, even when using fantasy to escape the monotony of day-to-day life they still go for the same fantasies they already know inside and out. That’s why they’d rather go see the 7th Star Wars movie than some new, unproven title. Or why they’ll go to see yet another Star Trek movie after the reboot already disappointed them twice. Oh, they’ll occasionally give a chance to a new franchise, like Halo or Mass Effect… then they’ll consume every little bit of related media: dozens of novels, countless fanfics, you name it.

And don’t even get me started about continuity. You just try writing a story that takes liberties with established events or setting rules. Look at all the fan efforts to determine a “canon” chronology for the aforementioned Zelda franchise, that likely wasn’t meant to have one. (In the end it was revealed to have a trident-shaped timeline. Fun!) Or the amount of energy spent trying to divine what’s really going on in Five Nights at Freddy’s — a game that wasn’t initially supposed to make much sense by itself, let alone be part of a series.

Last but not least, sometimes you really do have one more story to tell about the same characters. Why make it about someone new that readers must learn to care about all over again?

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Weekly Links #100

by on Dec.13, 2015, under News

How time flies. It feels like just a few months since I started this newsletter in order to keep the momentum going, but in fact it’s been two whole years. Well, guess it worked after all: I’m yet to miss a week, apart from the breaks I take before every Christmas, and readers actually seem to kinda like it. One new reader did complain about the new, shorter format, but the brevity makes it a lot easier for me to write all this stuff every week. Wish it wasn’t necessary.

On with the news, which aren’t nearly as many as a major anniversary edition deserves. The big one this week is that Nethack had its first new release in 10 years. Which means the world’s most famous roguelike has now been in active development for 28 years and a half! How many other games can boast comparable longevity… and for that matter enduring popularity? Thanks for the tip, @irinarempt.

Another nice thing this week is a list of resources about personal games (see my comments on Tumblr). It’s a topic you won’t see mentioned on this blog very often, mostly because our focus is on the “how” of making games, not the “why”. But the same tools that enable people from any background to make games without becoming programmers can be used by those who are programmers to make their work easier. And considering how hard it is to make games that can compete on the market in 2015 (even Undertale wasn’t as easy to make as it may seem), every little bit of help matters. So it’s definitely worth looking that way.

Let me end with yet another classic game retrospective: Lords of Midnight as seen by Hardcore Gaming 101. As usual for them, each game in the series is discussed in depth, along with ports and spiritual successors. Even if you’re a fanboy of the series (as I am), the articles might contain a surprise or two, so give them a read.

And with this, I leave you to enjoy the holidays. See you next year!

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Weekly Links #99

by on Dec.06, 2015, under News

I’m almost done with the newsletters for the year, but things are somehow just heating up. Let’s start with a couple of highly unusual games: Chris Meadows noticed this guy who made an XCOM game in Excel — an impressive effort by any standard. And from the recent additions feed at itch.io, here’s a murder mystery game in the form of a PC virtual machine (you need VirtualBox to run it). Hardly unprecedented in the analog world, but still a challenge to common notions of what can be a videogame. And while we’re talking unusual games, take a look at this article about Soviet arcades. Which was news for me as well — in Romania we had imported second-hand machines instead, making for quite a different landscape.

In actual game development news, Jay Barnson makes an interesting point: not only computer hardware has plateaued, we couldn’t make good use of more computing power in games even if we had it: the law of diminishing returns is even more unforgiving than Moore’s Law. Maybe this time people are ready to listen.

Last but not least, a couple of game design articles. Via @gnomeslair, the easiest game design exercise is a brief foray into the simplest type of board game there is. Having beta-tested just such a game (to say nothing of the many I played as a kid), I can attest it’s not as straightforward as it seems. And Shamus Young continues presenting his work in progress with a discussion of how to teach the game to your players. It just happens that the issue of too many enemy types and no single path through the game is familiar to me from roguelikes. And the solution is… not keeping every new enemy type until the end. You introduce them, let them become the main enemy for a few areas (levels or whatever), then you phase them out. And if the players encounter bits of your game in the “wrong” order, big deal, they’ll see at most a handful of different enemy types at once, a few of which will be familiar from before. Not enough to be overwhelmed.

Roguelikes achieve that by having templates of theme and difficulty for each level — a good idea even if you’re designing your entire map by hand. Divide et impera? Call it what you want. And have fun until next week.

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Weekly Links #98: nostalgia edition

by on Nov.29, 2015, under News

It wasn’t three weeks ago that I was linking to a very nice retrospective of the Gabriel Knight games. Well, here’s an even more detailed five-part postmortem of the famous trilogy. Apart from the wealth of technical information in the articles, I can’t help but notice two factors that I think were very important to the success and enduring fame of the franchise: the story came first — and it was a story the writer cared very much about, not just something written on order. Consider that when setting out to make a game.

Speaking of retrospectives, here’s one of Fantasy World Dizzy, my favorite in the series. And while on the topic of adventure games, the incredible Jason Scott just made public a treasure trove of Infocom documents (see here and here). Beyond their value for historians and game designers, it’s worth noting that they did write down all that stuff, and then someone went through the trouble of preserving it. Hooray for thinking of the future.

Last but not least, a moving story about somebody reviving an old Atari 800 and TV set from the same era for a gaming night in the family. Note that both antiques are still working perfectly, over 35 years later, and they’re no less fun than a modern console. A pretty good return on investment, wouldn’t you say?

In unrelated news, from a blogger I haven’t quoted lately comes an article about the importance of software specifications. Which is most welcome seeing how the complexity of modern software is all too often underestimated — and games are some of the most complex apps out there.

Have a nice week.

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