No Time To Play

Weekly Links #126

by on Jun.26, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Hard to believe it’s been only one week since I started work on a desktop port of Glittering Light, because it already looks like this:

Mind you, it’s not even an alpha right now, and there are compatibility issues that may yet kill the project; but even if it does, I’ll still recommend sdlBasic as a nice little tool for rapid prototyping and such — it’s a surprisingly well-designed dialect and implementation, with a tiny but friendly community.

In the mean time, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, after closing yesterday, reopened again for a few more hours. (If you’re reading this on Sunday, you might still catch it!) My list of favorites however remains unchanged: Total Oblivion, an experimental tabletop RPG with an intriguing subject matter that’s quite relevant these days; Kulhwch, a text-based room escape game made in Twine (and in verse, no less), which proves — in the small — that you don’t need hunt-the-pixel puzzles for the genre to work; and an interactive comic prototype by a veteran of the interactive fiction community. Other entries are worth a look as well; if you drop by, leave the authors a comment, because socialization has been scarce during this jam as well.

On to more conventional news. While my neighbor from the south Konstantinos Dimopoulos writes about implying size and complexity in game cities (goes for any kind of virtual environment, really), one of Defender‘s creators talks about the bright future of arcade games. Last but not least, in Le Monde of all places there’s an interview about what made Super Mario 64 so special. It’s all in French, but the short version is, that was the first console game to feature a vast, wide open 3D world with sandbox gameplay — something we nowadays take for granted on all platforms.

So, games to play, lessons to learn and a new toy to play with. It’s been a pretty good week after all. Have fun, and see you next time.

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Weekly Links #125

by on Jun.19, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Having at long last finished with a translation project that took me all spring and then some — way longer than expected — I finally had a few days to work on the desktop port for Tomb of the Snake more intensively. And it’s also taking longer than expected. Too much, in fact, for a project I won’t be able to monetize. At least it’s this far along:

It’s basically just an interactive mock-up at this point, but the framework is in place to add mouse support next, along with modal overlays like the help screen. I still don’t know what the cave levels will look like, or where to get all the icons for the game screen (it should be entirely playable with either mouse or keyboard). As for the inventory screen… more experienced game programmers dread coding them. But you can’t make a graphical RPG without knowing this stuff.

It will all have to wait, however. Got another game port in the works that’s both smaller and more likely to sell, then the book mentioned above. In the mean time, let’s see this week’s other news:

As announced three weeks ago, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam started yesterday, and as of this writing there are fifty entries, with nearly as many to come if the number of people subscribed is any indication, so I’ll wait until next week to highlight my favorites.

Until then, the same Emily Short just got herself an interactive fiction column in Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and her first article is about parser games with a reduced command set — a topic myself and others have also covered as of late. This is turning into a trend; hopefully something will come out of it.

Last but not least, it was great to learn that the issue of videogame preservation has now come to the attention of academia, and the article presents not just some issues I hadn’t thought about, but also some novel solutions. Tl;dr — Let’s Play videos may be more valuable than you think.

And speaking of game preservation, only yesterday I stumbled upon a site where you can play DOS games right in your web browser. Has it been two years already since DOSBox got an Emscripten port? My, how time flies…

Either way, sometimes living in the future is awesome. See you next time.

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Musings on pixel art in 2016

by on Jun.16, 2016, under Opinion

I remember playing with a ZX Spectrum on an 11″ black-and-white TV, and marveling at the way you could distinctly see each individual pixel — the resolution was that low. Yet if you put just 64 of them together, suddenly they looked like something: part of a brick wall, a ladder, a jewel…

Fast forward 20 years, when a friend (hi, fluffy!) praised me for the work I put into Escape From Cnossus to make it look like an 8-bit game. I had to explain it was an 8-bit game running in an emulator. Makes me wonder how many of the people playing it on itch.io realize the truth. The game looks just that good — my best-looking at the time in fact.

Most people nowadays seem to associate pixel art with classic NES games. I associate it with everything from the aforementioned Speccy, through Flashback and Street Fighter II Turbo on the SNES, to mid-1990s games like Master of Orion and SimCity 2000 on the PC. Not to mention 2.5D arcade games like Space Harrier and countless racers. So you’ll understand my annoyance at indies who keep churning out cutesy platformers and nothing else, but also at all the snobs who mock them. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #124

by on Jun.12, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Once again I have a newsletter with none of the links promised in the title (well, one — see below). At least I have a screenshot for you, after a little coding marathon yesterday:

tots-20160611

It’s all very early, of course, but the switch to graphical tiles already reveals multiple problems with the village level generator, that ASCII art was concealing. And it’s beginning to dawn on me that I won’t be able to sell this new version either, despite the fact that it will take a lot more work than expected. Not with all the free games out there looking much better. But hey, I’m learning things, and if it appeals to people other than UNIX beards for a change, it’s already a win.

Speaking of which. I’m using a Creative Commons tileset by David Gervais (via the downloads on Open Game Art). If it looks unimpressive, well, blame my relatively primitive level generation; those tiles are capable of much more. And while they look individually tiny, collectively they allow for a fairly generous game window — one that still fits on cheap laptop screens. But boy, was it tricky to think of a good window size and layout! What is it with pixel art being largely stuck in the NES era? The Super Nintendo already used tiles of 64×64 pixels a quarter of a century ago — not that tiles have to be square. But more about that in an upcoming article, if I manage to order my thoughts about it.

Until then, don’t dismiss retro graphics.

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Weekly Links #123

by on Jun.05, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. After a week lost to false starts and self-doubt, I’m ready to announce that my roguelike Tomb of the Snake will be getting a graphical port for Windows and Linux, more than a year after launch. The “graphical” part is central, because it will make the game appealing to more people, and also it will keep things fresh for me. Not that I’m looking forward to designing an inventory screen from scratch, but it beats being bored.

In other news, this week Shamus Young wrote about the mistakes Doom didn’t make (that would be the new one, not the 1993 original), and the quest designers of Witcher 3 wrote about their approach. But more interesting to me is an article Nightwrath sent about a new trend in retro game aesthetics. Remember two years ago when a blogger was complaining about the supposed ugliness of early 3D games? Turns out, people actually like that look enough to revive it on a wide scale these days, introducing a whole new generation of gamers to the pleasures of using their imagination.

Once again, it turns out style matters. Do you have a favorite game aesthetic?

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Weekly Links #122

by on May.29, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! After bringing the desktop port of RogueBot to a playable state, I went back and redid the original online edition as well, to make it look better and bring it more in line with the new version. And while the results aren’t perfect, it’s a good time to take a break and give another project some love.

In the mean time, we have an interview with two Greek game developers about adventure games, and a feature about the founders of Id Software now that they moved on. In the way of hands-on gamedev articles, you can read some musings on making failure fun, and some more on the subtle differences between user interfaces. And while the latter uses examples from interactive fiction, the lessons it teachers are widely applicable.

(Since I mentioned interactive fiction, it’s worth nothing that the XYZZY Awards ceremony was last night, and Birdland, a Twine game, basically took all. Haven’t played it yet, but it’s at the top of my wishlist.)

And from the same Emily Short, who is active as always, stay tuned for the upcoming Bring Out Your Dead game jam, an event where you can show off your works in progress that never went anywhere, but you think are worth seeing anyway. Amusingly enough, another very similar jam is running right now, and I already entered my visual novel intro Before the Faire, that I made two years ago but couldn’t finish, despite a good start.

Last but not least, lately I’ve been circling a nice little gamedev platform called sdlBasic, that I hope to use in an upcoming project. While lurking on their forums, I found a link to this list of art asset resources, unknown to me until now. One link in particular grabbed my attention: game-icons.net, a sizable repository of monochrome vector icons with a variety of possible uses.

But I have to look more closely into it first. Have a great week.

 

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Weekly Links #121

by on May.22, 2016, under Gamedev, News

codl-screenshotWhy does it always have to be a feast-or-famine sort of thing? After a year of working on anything but games, now I’m announcing two releases on the same week. First, my text adventure City of Dead Leaves, that I started last year, abandoned, then decided to finish anyway. It’s hardly epic — a slightly surreal mood piece with a bit of romance After The End — but I hope you’ll like it. Taught me a thing or two as well; stay tuned for a postmortem soon, if everything goes well.

Anyway, while the beta-testing process was taking place, I took the opportunity to bring one of my older games back to life. First released a year and a half ago for the first Procedural Generation Jam, RogueBot essentially lay forgotten while I dealt with various other projects. But many people don’t like playing games in the browser, and performance can be much better on the desktop as well. Besides, I’d been meaning to learn FreeBasic for a while now, and needed a reason. So in a ten-day coding marathon the original tech demo got a new life. See the official announcement on itch.io, and if you like the game please consider buying it.

roguebot-desktop

Last but not least, this week Sam Kabo Ashwell posted an article about narrow parsers, that connects surprisingly well with my recent write-up on verb-oriented game design. Which, considering the long list of examples he gives, is an idea that has troubled many developers along the years.

And on that note, I bid you a good week. Cheers!

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Weekly Links #120

by on May.15, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Another week, another delay. If you were waiting for my latest text adventure, I’m afraid it’s still in beta-testing, for reasons outside of my control, and I’d rather not lose patience and release an untested game. Maybe if the delays continue. In related news, I started porting RogueBot to the desktop, something I should have done long ago. Got plans for another port as well, to be announced when it’s certain enough.

In other news, Vice magazine has an article about the importance of Doom, and Gamasutra is running a piece on action RPGs. The former makes familiar arguments, but the latter came up with a new one (for me at least): namely, that computer RPGs letting one player control an entire party misses the entire point of tabletop games, namely to let each player identify with their one character. And why bother with a party at all, since you lose the social interaction aspect in the first place? Suddenly, I’m seeing roguelikes and games like Morrowind in a different light…

(That said, I just have to point out that the original Diablo totally failed to keep the novelty level high, its generated dungeons lacking both variety and especially color.)

But this week’s big story is Eurogamer’s feature on Lionhead, occasioned by the legendary studio’s closure at the end of April. (Warning, long read.) And you know what? This may be Peter Molyneux and Fable we’re talking about, but the story of their ultimate failure is drinking game material. Take a sip every time:

  • unchecked ambition;
  • mistaking chaos for creativity;
  • months-long death marches;
  • brodude culture;
  • massive overextension;
  • poor quality control;
  • flights of fancy;
  • greed-driven financial decisions;
  • tone-deaf marketing;
  • executive meddling.

We’ve all heard this exact same story so many times by now, studios and publishers alike really have no excuse anymore. And still they refuse to learn. So be it then. But consider how many amazing games — games out of reach for a small indie team — simply never get made because of it.

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Weekly Links #119

by on May.08, 2016, under Gamedev, News

You know the saying, in science no experiment is a failed experiment. So I’ll chalk up my little adventure in CYOA writing to a learning experience. You see, I had this story idea rattling around in my head for a while now, but it was too weak to work in static fiction. But I had this notion that games can get away with much weaker stories than books, and meant to try Squiffy anyway. I also had this plan of writing the story in a linear fashion at first, use Squiffy’s “continue links” to split it up at key moments, and only then start worrying about choices, flags, alternate text and what not.

How naive of me. Even before I started writing in earnest, I was already thinking in terms of passages and branches. How do people manage to use Twine and still come up with a linear story? A theme was even emerging where the game would offer daring/caution options early on, and that would open and close some alternate paths later, based on which score was higher.

Trouble is, the story didn’t work. At all. After three days of barely making any progress, I had to decide it couldn’t pull its own weight in any way, shape or form, and interactivity didn’t help either. So much for that. Oh well, I’ll know better next time.

In related news, as of this writing none of my beta-testers have given any signs of life for a week, so City of Dead Leaves will be a little late. Better than releasing a completely untested version out of impatience, I hope you’ll agree.

And now, for the links:

But that’s really just a nitpick. Until next time, have fun.

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Verb-oriented game design

by on May.05, 2016, under Gamedev

Born of technical limitations, parser-based interactive fiction has proven to have enduring qualities. Fans of the medium invoke the natural feeling that you’re simply having a conversation with the computer, as well as the impression of freedom — that for a while you can suspend your disbelief and pretend you can type anything at all at the prompt. Myself, I like how you can easily see what you did a moment ago, so there’s less to remember, and just as easily repeat a recent command, with or without changes, no matter how complex it is.

The downside to that, of course, is that the illusion of complete freedom shatters all too easily, and that presumes you were able to enter “the zone” in the first place. Which just isn’t for everyone. Commands have to be learned, you can’t just stumble upon them like in a graphical game, and despite many attempts at tutorials, both interactive and less so, beginners still struggle. Perhaps because tutorials can teach you the form, but not so much the mindset — the method behind the madness, that you need in order to intuit new commands by yourself. The latter is something you must figure out alone. And sooner or later, you will have to.

Because, you see, not only does interactive fiction partly rely on discovery — on making some possible actions non-obvious — but there are way too many commands to teach them all outright. If I’m not mistaken, top-tier authoring systems each provide about one hundred default verbs, of which three quarters will be completely irrelevant to any particular story. But you still have them at your fingertips, and unless the author takes great pains to steer you away from all that fluff (an undue burden, considering how many other details they need to take care of), you’ll be left to navigate a maze of fake options in search of whatever nuggets of meaningful interaction are sprinkled throughout.

It’s one thing to gently weave a consensual illusion, and another to actively mislead the player, then shrug and smile when they call out your lie. (continue reading…)

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