No Time To Play

Posts by Felix

(A programmer and Web developer by trade, Felix has grown up with the Sinclair Spectrum and has played (and coded!) games on several generations of PCs starting with the XT, and lately on J2ME-enabled cellphones. He's fond of turn-based strategies, interactive fiction and MUDs, but has been playing and making mostly casual games as of late.)

Weekly Links #180

by on Jul.23, 2017, under News, Opinion

Hello, everyone. The big news this week is that after months of work the French interactive fiction community has a new home on the web, a modern website with a game database, tutorials and social networking features.

In the way of discussions about game design, we have an explanation of player-hating features of Dungeons&Dragons (via hyratel). Briefly put, it was originally a resource management game with — it turns out — some extra-hard play modes, that people later carried over without questioning the initial purpose. Moving to computer games, we have some words about user interface in adventure games, that echoes last year’s talk of narrow parsers. Last but not least, the inimitable Jonas Kyratzes talks about the texture of games, specifically how there’s a place for highly polished titles as well as rough gems.

Next we have a couple of interviews, one with Steve Cook about his 1000 Creators project, the other with David Braben, creator of Elite: Dangerous (via Gamasutra) — a disappointing, but remarkably insightful exchange.

Before concluding, I’d like to say a few words on game engine snobbery — a much-discussed topic in recent days. On the one hand, I have a good friend who won’t make her dream game in RPG Maker, otherwise an ideal match in every respect, for fear it won’t be taken seriously, and that’s a damn shame. I also routinely witness arguments on this subject in the visual novel community, and they’re as pointless as you might imagine. But this kind of snobbery can go the other way as well. Just look at the royal disdain with which the interactive fiction community has always treated not just homebrew games, but also less-known authoring tools that may not be quite as big and capable as Inform or TADS but still contain innovative features. Maybe that will change now that a homebrew game not just won the IFComp with high acclaim, but also single-handedly revolutionized IF interfaces.

But we’ve had enough negativity for one week, so I leave you in the company of videogame-inspired music.

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Weekly Links #179

by on Jul.16, 2017, under Case study, News

Hello, everyone. Only half a dozen links today, and relatively disjoint, too. Let’s go in reverse chronological order.

For one thing, Gamasutra reposts an old postmortem of KOTOR, with some interesting lessons to take home. On a related note, if about a newer game, Hardcore Gaming 101 runs an in-depth article on Tides of Numenera, covering what works and what doesn’t in this much awaited title. Without going into details, the former’s problems are still relevant, while the latter’s are sadly unsurprising.

But often the difficulties in this business aren’t technological but human in nature, and it was refreshing to hear about Unity’s new program to help developers from the Middle East make it to conferences in Europe. Not much to say about this either, except it’s about time to make the global discourse be about the whole world again.

To go off-topic for a moment, Peregrine Wade writes about why short movies matter, It’s a very good point, and once again, gaming is ahead of the film industry (not to mention the book industry) in recognizing the value of shorter works that don’t outstay their welcome. And interactive fiction was there first.

Speaking of which, Jason Dyer discusses moments that can only work in a parser-based game, in the context of an obscure old adventure, while on the intfiction.org forums the prolific reviewer known as Mathbrush started an overview of every year in the IFComp, that’s already at 2002 as of this writing.

But I’m already at the end. See you next week.

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Weekly Links #178: retrogaming edition

by on Jul.09, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another week with lots of links about gaming old-style. But I’ll start with something different: my friend fluffy is at it again, this time with a kind of super-Arkanoid focused on music and physics. Watch the latest video below:

Next, we have news for fans of adventure gaming. For one thing, as of this week Double Fine Productions has a presence on itch.io, with remastered editions of many classics. How appropriate then that PCGamer would run a new interview with Tim Schafer about the making of Full Throttle. Then there’s an article about the music of Sierra games, and I know all too well how music can bring a game to life. One more reason for me to value free culture.

On a related note, nominations for the XYZZY Awards are in, and you can now vote on round two. Then we have some more musings on CYOA books and the importance of bad endings in making choices meaningful. And while I agree in principle, most bad endings in CYOA books (or for that matter most text adventures) are 1) barely hinted if at all, and 2) completely unsatisfying non-conclusions that just cut the story short without giving anything like closure. And that’s not even counting the ability to lose on a single bad roll of the dice, through no fault of your own. So much for meaningful choice.

Last but not least, Vintage is the New Old covers and Eurogamer write-up about the reasons people still make NES games. And if you’ve been paying attention lately, you know it’s not just nostalgia.

But I’m over quota again. See you next week!

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Weekly Links #177

by on Jul.02, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. After its relative success in the recent game jam, I felt compelled to make an improved Lost in the Jungle (also on itch.io and on Game Jolt) in HTML5, that improves pretty much every aspect of the game. Many thanks to the friends who tested it and provided feedback! In related news, as of this week the book of the blog is two years old, and still half off for the month of July.

For the game developers out there, while Konstantinos Dimopoulos describes the labyrinthine realities of the medieval city, Mark Johnson muses about burnout and doing too much. Having suffered from that repeatedly, I can only agree.

It’s also been another good week for retrogaming, with a story on the renewed popularity of classic games and another on how the Magnetic Scrolls games were recovered from ancient backup tapes (via Vintage is the New Old and Gamasutra, respectively). Last but not least, while on the topic of text adventures, the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation just announced taking over the Interactive Fiction Archive.

Gee, who would have thought that just as we can still appreciate 80-years-old silent movies in grainy black and white, so can we still play and enjoy games from the 8-bit era, so it’s worth preserving them for the public?

Good news for the future, then. Enjoy the week.

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Weekly Links #176

by on Jun.25, 2017, under News, Off-topic

Hello, everyone, and welcome to a rather disjoint newsletter. No sooner does a game jam end, that another comes along. The traditional Open Game Art game jam has moved to itch.io, and is set to begin in less than a week. Also on itch.io you can now find Jonathan Cauldwell’s Arcade Game Designer, a popular tool in the retrogaming community, whose members keep pushing the limits of 8-bit machines. And while we’re partying like it’s 1987, here’s the story of Minitel, France’s original take on a public computer network.

Moving on, fans of interactive fiction might want to know that the XYZZY Awards are open for voting, while people who design adventure games (but not only) would do well to read about the urbanism of Thimbleweed Park. In more technical news, someone apparently made it possible to run Pygame games in the browser (via the Lemmasoft forums). I haven’t tried it, but the article also documents a game developer’s journey, so it’s worth a read for that alone.

Last but not least, it’s good to hear that Machinarium is getting a remaster. Which is awesome, because I bought this excellent adventure game years ago but could never run it on any of my boxes. Ironically, I should have better chances with a game built on DirectX than the original Flash format.

Which of course says a lot about the sorry state of multiplatform graphics APIs in 2017. Oh well, see you next week.

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Weekly Links #175

by on Jun.18, 2017, under News

Oh, wow, I got reviewed! Well, not me specifically. The awesome Jupiter Hadley made a YouTube feature on the ZX Spectrum Basic Jam, and Lost in the Jungle is at the top of the list. Watch part one below:

Dear game designers, pay attention because we have much to learn from this video and its second part. Slowness, poor graphics, little to no sound… none of that is a problem as long as the controls are responsive and the goals clear. Speaking of which: check out The Royal Game of Ur, a game that sadly didn’t make it on time for the event, but easily meets any standard of commercial quality for the ZX Spectrum.

From retrograming to interactive fiction, we have an article on the structure of Choose Your Own Adventure books — as in, the eponymous series — and another on what Twine can reveal about your game structure, whether you’re using it as intended or more imaginatively. The latter matches my experiences, too, in good and bad ways alike.

Last but not least, shortly on the heels of my article on encounter-based game design, Alexis Kennedy proposes resource narratives as a new term for games like Fallen London. The world of game design turns out to be a small one again.

That’s it for this week, but don’t worry, I have plenty in the works, especially now that things have calmed down a bit. See you!

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Encounter-based game design

by on Jun.15, 2017, under Case study, Gamedev

Perhaps the most infamous feature of roleplaying games, computer and tabletop alike, is the random encounter. Dreaded by players, panned by reviewers, it’s nevertheless been a constant presence in the genre, ever since its original appearance in Dungeons & Dragons. It made sense in the latter, which was always at least partly a resource management game, but few modern RPGs preserve that aspect (except for roguelikes). And in a game that tries to tell a story, random encounters are just an annoyance, regularly getting in the way for no good reason.

Which is a shame, because encounters have been the basic unit of storytelling since ancient times. What else is a fairy tale than a string of encounters the protagonist runs into along a linear road?

(And the protagonist’s journey in a fairy tale is linear. Plotted on a map, it may well meander all over, but it must still be followed strictly from end to end. Straying from the path always leads into trouble, and turning back is the worst sort of failure.)

Having recognized this basic truth, about a year ago (as of June 2017) I started thinking how to take advantage of it in game design, because unless open-ended exploration is part of a game’s appeal, the map can turn into a dead weight. Players can easily tell when they’re being presented with false choice. Making good maps is hard; can you afford to waste time and effort only to have the results rejected for being pointless?

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #174: public announcement edition

by on Jun.11, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, dear readers. Despite the doubts I was expressing last time, not only I got another entry into the soon-to-end game jam, but also made a game design breakthrough on the same occasion, as detailed on Tumblr. Exciting times ahead!

Speaking of last time, I forgot to announce that for two months, June and July, the book of the blog is half-off to mark its second anniversary. In a similar vein, RogueBot is now free — I should probably mirror the desktop edition here — and another price cut is coming.

I’ll conclude early today with a couple of retrograming news. While Jimmy Maher just posted the first article in a new series on Soviet computing, I very belatedly discovered a modern magazine dedicated to the ZX Spectrum, that’s both free and high-quality. Issue #17 just came out, so don’t let the backlog grow too long!

For now, however, I have a couple of older projects to revive, and a new one to massively expand. See you around.

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A glance at the Nim programming language

by on Jun.08, 2017, under Off-topic

I love learning new things. That’s helped me stay on top of this ever-changing business we call IT. And part of the fun is how random it can be. Take the past two days: I was reading about the new zipapp module in Python; from that I moved to the setuptools suite, which in turn mentioned the reStructuredText file format. Curious to know what other tools support it, the next day I looked over a suitable list… which in turn mentioned the Nim programming language.

That made for a really busy evening.

Nim belongs to the new crop of application programming languages, like Go and Swift, that embrace garbage collection, type inference and high-level data structures to ease the burden of overworked software developers, while still providing the performance and simplified distribution that come with native code compilation. Unlike the others, however, Nim doesn’t have a powerful corporation behind it, instead being a community project.

First impression: for Unix-like platforms, Nim comes in a source package with few dependencies apart from a C compiler. It builds without a hitch, in a little more time than Python 3 (not that I measured), and runs out of the box without being installed. Setting up cross-compilation for Windows was as easy as installing MingW and adding a couple of lines to a configuration file; for other operating systems I’d need a virtual machine, but oh well. The generated executables aren’t too large despite the static linking, either.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #173

by on Jun.04, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! The ZX Spectrum BASIC game jam that I announced three weeks ago started on itch.io on Thursday. As my own entry was ready much earlier than expected (and there’s a blog post already lined up), getting another one in is very tempting. But deciding what to make that would work well in slow, line-number Basic yet still be compelling isn’t so easy. Stay tuned.

In unrelated news, open source strategy game FreeCiv has had a HTML5 client for a while. But now they’ve been working on a WebGL-based version (via the Dragonfly BSD Digest). And you know what? Never mind all the problems they’ve been running into, that simply wouldn’t exist in 2D. Never mind that they’re doing everything with shaders — presumably because “it’s easier” — so a lot of players stuck with on-board graphics adapters won’t be able to play it. Notice how this new, “improved” version is a muddled mess compared to the cartoony, pixelated art of the past. Like modern 3D almost always is.

If this is progress, I want a Nintendo 64.

Moving on to the game design department, from the IGN we learn why the world needs more trash games, while itch.io points out what every developer can learn from short games. More specific is Bruno Dias’ search for an ideal quality-based narrative system, that complements Emily Short’s from last week. I’ve been forming my own ideas about it, but that’s a story for another time.

Until next week, embrace imperfection.

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