No Time To Play

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.)

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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!

(continue reading…)

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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.

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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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Weekly Links #137

by on Sep.11, 2016, under News

Hey, folks. It’s a good feeling when I have enough links for a newsletter to actually discard some of them. Released at the end of last month as part of Ludum Dare 36, procedural 2D platformer No Mario’s Sky promptly got a cease-and-desist from Nintendo. Naturally, all they had to do was replace some sprites and rename the project to DMCA’s Sky. (Techdirt covers the story in more depth.) Enjoy the egg on your face, big N. How much fan goodwill do you still have left to squander?

Still in the copyright department comes the announcement that Interplay is selling its properties. And you know, on the one hand it’s one of those times when one regrets not being rich. But on the other hand, are we perhaps overvaluing a bunch of titles? A game is a lot more than that, as various creators have recently demonstrated.

In unrelated news, AAA blog is running a retrospective of Civilization, and Jay Barnson writes a brief tribute to Star Trek, occasioned by the series’ recent 50th anniversary that so few people noticed. More usefully, my friend Sera writes about her favorite topic: five depictions of the afterlife in video games.

Last but not least, in the way of game design, part 2 of the series on inventory systems is getting really interesting. And from a roguelike development blog I sort of follow, here’s a write-up on procedurally generating backstory for games. Which isn’t even exactly new anymore, though what the author describes sounds closer to Versu than Dwarf Fortress. But you know… I remember reading a brief history of Middle Earth in the appendix to the Romanian edition of LOTR, and it all boiled down to a long string of “king X ruled between years Y and Z” and “country X went to war against Y, but Z happened and doom befell them”. Which is… exactly how history is taught in schools, and just as meaningless. Unless you can show me how it’s in any way relevant to the story I’m reading now, unless you can give me a reason to care, it’s a waste of space. And you can only do that if your story has a point in the first place.

So why are you telling me your story at all? For that matter, why does it need to be interactive?

Because, you know, most stories simply don’t.

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Weekly Links #136

by on Sep.04, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! Despite difficulties that nearly killed the event, Ludum Dare 36 took place last weekend. My friends Chip Caramel and Jimun were at it again, and came up with their best game yet. Check this out:

Around the same time, I was briefly involved in a Tumblr conversation about the point of videogames, and the consensus is what I’ve been pointing out for years now: that games express themselves through the way they interact with players, and unless a game mechanic is front and center, what you have isn’t a game. Read for details.

On a similar note, Alexis Kennedy of Fallen London and Sunless Sea fame explains why more content won’t save your game — a write-up that starts kind of abruptly, but has a lot to say by the end. And still in the game design department, here’s the first installment in a comparative history of videogames from the perspective of inventory systems. Knowing how tricky it is to make a good one, I say that’s as useful as it is unusual.

I’ll end with a little bit of history. Remember a while ago when Jason Scott recovered the source code for the original Prince of Persia? Turns out he’s been at it again, making available previously unknown alpha and beta builds of Karateka — Jordan Mechner’s other classic. Game designers can now see how the seminal beat’em up took shape, and that’s no less important than writers being able to read the early drafts of famous novels or poems from centuries past.

On that thought, I’ll leave you enjoy the Sunday. Have a great next week.

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Weekly Links #135

by on Aug.28, 2016, under Miscellaneous, News

Hello, everyone. You might like to know that my new book Make Your Own Programming Language is now also on itch.io. This version isn’t as pretty, but it’s more printable, with fewer pages and no syntax highlighting. The content is otherwise identical, and you get the same file formats.

In actual news, Emily Short’s RPS column for this week is a presentation of Texture, the hot new authoring system for interactive fiction. And you know… it bothers me to no end that people sing the praise of Texture’s input system after bashing two-word parsers for decades. Because that’s what Texture did: it reinvented the two-word parser. Which of course is perfectly fine, but can we please acknowledge and address the issue?

On a rather different note, via Vintage Is the New Old here’s a story about someone remastering a ZX Spectrum game after a quarter century — a very instructive, if overly technical, look at history. More approachable is an article about the masters of Commodore 64 games, but the moral is the same: we’re truly blessed nowadays. Why did the hardware makers from decades ago have to make their systems so damn quirky? In retrospect, the quirkiness appears to go way beyond what was needed to squeeze more features out of that limited hardware…

I’ll end with Hardware Gaming 101’s brief overview of Thomas Was Alone, the strange indie platformer from a few years ago that proved there was a huge market for games not driven by technology, and opened the way for more recent successes in the same vein — a most welcome trend if you ask me.

Until next time, consider the lessons of the past.

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Weekly Links #134

by on Aug.21, 2016, under Miscellaneous, News, Opinion

cover-thumbHello, everyone. For once, I only have my own bad mood to blame for the shortness of this newsletter. As promised three weeks ago, my latest book, Make Your Own Programming Language, is live on Leanpub. It’s only of interest to programmers, especially those with a taste for retrocomputing and retrogaming. But you know my opinion: piecing blocks together in GameMaker is still programming, whether you realize it or not. And game design works best when you have at least a trace of process, as opposed to banging things together until they stick. So give it a try.

In unrelated news, all everyone’s been talking about lately is No Man’s Sky. That’s also the case of Michael Cook, who brings it up as an example of the language we use to discuss procedural generation. And you know… I couldn’t help but notice the fatigue of many reviewers when they mention how many millions of billions of planets there are in that game, and how they’re never going to see the vast majority of them. Which fortunately doesn’t really matter…

I guess the creators of No Man’s Sky forgot that the original 8-bit Elite was originally planned to have 282 trillion galaxies, or 2 to the power of 48 (presumably another byte was going to be used for the planets in each galaxy). And never mind that it would have made the artificiality obvious, especially on a home computer from the 1980s. But visiting 2000 star systems is a plausible goal for the determined player — there are just enough of them to make for a huge playground, yet few enough that you can actually remember some of your visits afterwards… and care. While enough content to fill millions of galaxies (a sizable chunk of the observable universe) just sort of blends into an amorphous mass. A statistic, if you will.

As an aside, let me underscore again than an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s, with just 64 kilobytes of RAM, could easily have handled a procedural universe on a scale comparable with the one in No Man’s Sky (if a lot less detailed). What exactly are we doing with a million times more memory and computing speed?

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Weekly Links #133

by on Aug.14, 2016, under Miscellaneous, News

Hello, everyone. Not one week ago word got around the Web that old issues of their magazine were on the Internet Archive, and Nintendo promptly took them down. At least they have the decency to admit they’re just being control freaks, rather than pretending it’s somehow still about money. Oh well.

While on the topic of magazines, SPAG #64 is out is out — a very high-brow issue that’s about much more than just interactive fiction. So is Jason Dyer’s history of the original Adventure: an excellent illustration of why the public domain is as important in gaming as in any other artistic medium. Having recently reimplemented a public domain game myself (for my upcoming book), I can’t stress this enough.

Last but not least, over at Rock, Paper Shotgun Emily Short writes about the power of text as a medium. Knowing how little and poorly we make use of this power in most games (heck, most books), I welcome more discussion on this topic. Or preferably, more experimentation.

Thankfully, that’s happening aplenty. Stay tuned.

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Weekly Links #132

by on Aug.07, 2016, under News, Opinion

Hello, everyone. This week, Vintage Is the New Old notes that the Internet Archive just uploaded 13 years’ worth of Nintendo Power issues. Which reminded me of the times in 8th grade when all the boys would gather around a classmate whose parents were wealthy enough to get him issues of a similar magazine from France, along with Famicom games. It would be years before I got my own console, a Chinese clone, and by then everyone else had moved on to the SNES. But magazines still made people gather around in the classroom…

In unrelated news, we have a couple of rants, like this one about big game companies jumping into virtual reality feet first and messing things up, thus giving the medium a bad reputation. An interesting argument, but I predict that’s not what will kill VR again — rather it will be the realization that VR is still a gimmick with nothing new to say. And from a different source, here’s an opinion piece about what actually matters in procedurally-generated games. Gee, you mean some people play games for the (gasp) mechanics? As in, the one thing that’s unique to the medium? What a surprise… not.

I’ll end with an article on testing interactive fiction with automated gameplay, which contains some ideas easily applicable to other genres, like board games. It’s a kind of fuzzing, really, with comparable benefits and limitations. Also, the bit about repeating game states made me think about certain rules from the games of Chess and Go — it’s not just an issue for computers.

But you already know to take inspiration from the analog world, don’t you?

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