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Weekly Links #201: authoring tool edition


Happy New Year 2018! If the holidays were dominated by retrospectives and shoot'em ups (and retrospectives of shoot'em ups), this week the theme appears to be authoring tools. A sign of things to come: in a few short years, apps like Unity, Godot, Construct 2... have ceased being seen as "easy mode" and became the default way of making games, while stubborn programmers like me, with our Python and Java, are seen as increasingly quaint.

And you know what? Good! It only makes sense for creators to leave the creation of tools to others once an art matures. Just like painters no longer mix their own paints and filmmakers no longer build their own cameras, game developers can now focus on what they do best, knowing other people have their backs.

So that's what I plan to focus on this year. Doubly so as I grow weary of coding. Much of the fun in making Electric Rogue was the artwork, and indeed that's what people notice and praise first. Besides, I got into making games for the love of bringing imaginary worlds to life. If anything, art and writing play a greater part in that than game systems (which is really a fancy term for rules).

Follow me, and let's see what results.

In the way of news, look what just crossed my Mastodon feed: an entire wiki dedicated to game-making tools, and relatively new by the looks of it. I barely looked, and already came across an intriguing one that had escaped me before, along with useful details about better known tools. Definitely a keeper.

On a similar note, this week The Digital Antiquarian treats us to an interview with Judith Pintar, educator and interactive fiction veteran. Of particular interest for us is learning that in the early 1990s (before the web, even!) there was already a community of hobbyist game developers making use of the tools that existed at the time, or failing that just plain old programming. And yes, they both point out that modern programming environments -- languages, libraries, tools -- are enormously more powerful than back then, but they're nowhere near as inviting.

Luckily, we have the likes of Twine and Ren'Py, with Bitsy coming along fast, and that's just scratching the surface. So go make games.

And now for the main course. Which isn't, despite appearances, a capsule review. Rather, it's about user interface in games. Yes, again.

All right, maybe it is a bit of a review as well. As of last Thursday or so, I've been playing a cute little JRPG called The Great Hero's Cat. This is very unusual for me. In fact, it's my first. I only bothered because of the low-key premise -- you're an average housecat whose human just went on yet another adventure, and life is getting lonely, not to mention boring -- and its reasonable size: at only three dungeons, it sounds like something I can actually complete before the end of the world (which seems especially close these days). It is grindy, but a little mindless fun is good now and then. Besides, each dungeon has its own unique design, and combat is more tactical than people usually describe it.

But more importantly, this is my first encounter with an RPG Maker game, and I love the way controls work.

Wait, what? You see, the (in)famous series of RPG authoring tools is made to emulate the games that were popular on Nintendo's portable consoles in the 1990s and early oughts. As such, they have to offer all the usual trappings -- character sheets, inventory management and whatnot -- while using only a D-pad and two action buttons for input. And they succeed! You do sometimes have to press the menu button too many times to resume playing, but it's better than having to repeatedly browse a handful of help screens to remember which key casts a spell this week. Contrast this with the first Ultima, or the original Rogue, both of which used the entire keyboard and still felt like they wanted more. I tried with both the cursor keys and a generic controller and it's comfy either way. The latter maps the controls to the analog stick and buttons 2/3 for some reason, but that's just a curiosity, not an issue.

This is hardly unique. Another well-known roguelike, POWDER, famously started life as a homebrew title for the Game Boy Advance, and as such supports this control scheme, while also adding mouse and keyboard support on the PC. And it's a lot more complex than The Great Hero's Cat. Clearly it can be done, and it helps players a lot while the coding can't be much harder.

Make your games a pleasant experience. Thank you.