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 #162

by on Mar.19, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone! I’ve set aside development for a while to play again, thanks to a present from a friend. But that didn’t stop me from also collecting a bunch of useful links.

For starters, both Gamasutra and Emily Short write about a new interactive fiction platform called Episode, that seems to have stealthily risen to massive popularity as of late. In related news, PC Gamer has an article titled The Tricky Business of Making Modern Adventure Games. And to look back into the past, Tim Schafer shares his thoughts on digital archeology (via Patrick Hellio).

Speaking of the past, this has been a good week for fans of retrogaming. On the one hand, there’s the story of a classic game magazine from the 1980s, and it’s surprisingly relevant. Hint: when a publication takes advertising from the same companies whose products they cover… yeah, you can’t blame the writers for being very careful what they write. It’s either that, or be out of a job faster than they can press Enter.

Luckily, nowadays you can be a game journalist for free, and that’s exactly what The Retrogaming Times crew is doing. Issue 7 is the first one I did more than skim, with a big retrospective of Street Fighter II — covering the social angle — and a number of Famicom games that deserve being remembered despite not being classics, among other subjects. All features are in-depth, so dive in! (And thanks to Vintage is the New Old for the tip, as usual.)

Sadly, I have to finish this issue with politics, namely an article on the people you won’t meet. Yes, it’s about Muslim game developers again. And it’s sad having to even bring it up, as if human rights could possibly be conditional, but I had no idea so many famous AAA games only exist thanks to developers of Iranian origin.

Can we please learn humanity already?

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Weekly Links #161: the science of games

by on Mar.12, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone. I’ll start with an article left over from last week, that I couldn’t show you because the site was down. Namely, about ephemeral gaming, and not just in the sense of bit rot, but simply the ability to play (for instance) World of Warcraft as it was in 2010, to pick an arbitrary year. Never mind recreating the mindset of players at the time, the mood it brought and the kind of interactions it led to.

Which is all good and well, but, um, you do realize a theatrical play or live music concert is an equally ephemeral experience, and nobody sees it as a problem to be solved, right? We record the performance, write down our thoughts about the cultural context and move on. And as the article points out, people already do that for videogames as well. Not just in the sense of let’s plays — I’ve seen videos of grand battles in the aforementioned MMORPG, recorded by a designated player, complete with commentary about the who, what and why.

But yeah, the Ancient Egyptians never writing down the rules of Senet because “everyone knew how to play the game”… that was just silly of them.

Still in the realm of scientists tackling games, here’s a couple of papers on the communities around game-making tools (it’s in French, but one of the papers is in English). I’m still working my way through the first one, but the bit about making imaginary videogames before having the means or skills to do it for real brought back childhood memories. As for the idea that making games is a game in itself… that’s our motto here at No Time To Play, so, pretty much?

In related news, we have an article about games that cater to more than the flight-or-fight instinct that’s the typical male response to violence. Turns out, another instinct people have is to protect the innocent and make allies, and not nearly enough games address that, leaving much of the potential audience out in the cold. Gee, I wonder why.

Last but not least, Gamasutra tells us about Warren Spector tracing Deus Ex back to a game of D&D, while an acquaintance has been writing a series of articles about development on the ZX81. And I’ll leave it at that because I’m way over quota again. See you next week.

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The outline of a game

by on Mar.09, 2017, under Miscellaneous

Do you know what an outliner is? It’s a kind of text editor that emphasizes working with the structure of a document — like parts, chapters and sections in a book. You can still edit the content normally, but you can also move stuff around more easily, collapse some chunks so you can focus on others and so on. There’s a lot of them out there, likely because it’s not so hard to code a simple one. But few are well-known (or at all), for reasons that I’ll try to explore later.

And that’s too bad, because multi-level information of this kind abounds in games. We just call it dialog trees, tech trees, or skill trees, and we tend to handle it with improvised tools, if not give up and just write some XML by hand. Likely with ad-hoc tags, too, because formats such as OPML are just as obscure as the general-purpose apps that can read and write them.

I played with one of two such tools long ago, but didn’t see the point at the time. That they were mere toys using proprietary formats didn’t help either. But recently a friend (hi, Kantuck!) started using Org Mode, the most powerful and well-known tool of its kind, and sending me files in its native format. While they read just fine as plain text, not being able to see it in tree form felt like I was missing essential nuance. Luckily there’s a much smaller Android app called Orgzly that can import them. Not so many desktop apps, even though parsing the basic structure should be within reach of any programmer (think lists in wiki markup; no seriously, that’s it).

The whole thing got me thinking. Couldn’t game development benefit from a popular outline format and tools to work with it? As it turns out, two such tools exist: with either Ink or ChoiceScript you can write an entire text adventure in a form that eerily resembles Org Mode, once you get past the little details. Both, however, seem designed to be written by hand; maybe Inkle Studios has a visual editor for internal use, but one is not needed.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #160

by on Mar.05, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone! With the recently concluded Game Developers Conference keeping everyone busy, I don’t have as many links today as for the last two weeks. But hey, as Michael Cook points out, not everyone could make it, and what they have to say is no less interesting. Like this article about ahead-of-time versus runtime procedural generation. Or this essay on videogames and genre, which comes up with a novel angle: in games, because they’re interactive, genre has two axes, not just one like in static media. In other words, it’s a field, not a line. Which explains why everyone, myself included, have had such a hard time getting a grip on the concept for so long.

In other news, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about game endings (via K.D.). Pretty ironic for someone famous for creating a neverending text-based MMO. I don’t agree with his position, by the way: while Undertale’s habit of remembering past playthroughs blew everyone’s mind, it also frustrated a lot of players who found themselves locked out of the best ending because they played too violently at first, as they’ve been conditioned to do for two generations. And sure, that’s how real life works… but the whole point of games is that they’re not real life. He also seems to forget that MMORPGs (including his own) had to compensate for the players’ inability to save and reload by making death inconsequential, also in order to avoid frustration.

When what you do has permanent consequences, however virtual, it’s no longer fun and games. Not that games have to be fun. But consider what exactly you’re putting in front of an audience.

Last but not least, via Emily Short, here’s a Kotaku article about black people in videogames. Unsurprisingly, the gist of it is that we’re still limited to stereotypes and caricatures, and that’s a terrible state of things this far into the 21st century. Especially as Unesco just hailed videogames as a great way to foster empathy between human beings in a world plagued by violent bigotry.

But that takes us into really dark territory. See you next week.

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Weekly Links #159: tooling edition

by on Feb.26, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Oh, wow. The gaming world must have been really active this week, because I picked up a ton of links without even trying. Gonna keep commentary short, OK?

Let’s start with a number of retrospectives: a brief one of Street Fighter II (the arcade version; to me it was always a Super Famicom title), a longer one of the recently rediscovered Habitat, the world’s very first graphical MMO, that a team is now trying to revive; and an interview with John Romero about a long-lived tile editor.

Still on the topic of tools (it’s a recurring theme this week), Emily Short posts some general advice on making your own, which applies to a lot more than interactive fiction. Especially relevant considering the vast number of tools these days made for easy, visual creation of HTML5 games. Fans of retrogaming might be more interested in how to set up Arcade Game Designer on the ZX Spectrum, while for RPG developers there’s Uncharted Atlas, an unusually realistic generator of fantasy maps.

In more general game design news, we have an article about blending procedural generation with handcrafted content, and another about basing a game in real-world history. And for an announcement I can’t possibly pass on, Seltani is now on itch.io.

I’ll end with a bit of a rant. My friend and regular reader fluffy has returned to game development after a long absence, with a jam entry called Colorful Critter. And unfortunately I was completely unable to play the game on Linux. See, fluffy went with Love2D for this project, which is a very tempting choice (I considered it). Trouble is, Love2D games are nowhere near as portable and easy to distribute as its creators would have you believe. Let’s take it step by step:

  • Most Linux distributions carry an ancient version if at all.
  • Official binaries are only available for Ubuntu.
  • The Windows build doesn’t work under Wine.
  • Building from source is way too much trouble just to play a few games.

It should be noted that most of these issues are due to the use of SDL2, a notoriously finicky library with multiple components and dependencies that make it hard to build and ship with a game, an issue made worse by its creators’ insistence that people stick with dynamic linking. (Pro tip: no programmer is going to pluck a DLL straight out of another app and use it as such; they’ll look for the official website.) And yet it’s somehow become a de facto standard for 2D and even 3D game development. Go figure.

But I’m already way over my quota for the week. See you next time.

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Make software for people, not machines

by on Feb.23, 2017, under Off-topic, Opinion

This is somewhat off-topic here, pertaining as it does to software in general, not just games; though in my defense, the article that prompted it, called How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism, does turn out to be about games in the end. But games are software, and software development has been going through a massive crisis lately. Two, actually: one of burgeoning complexity, and one of relevance. And this ties into a bigger trend — pointed out by the aforementioned article — of people focusing more and more on the shiny toys while forgetting the who, the what and the why.

I ranted against techno-utopianism before: the childish belief that more shiny toys will somehow cure all the world’s ills by their mere presence, when it’s not the toys you have, but how you use them. (Look at the hubbub surrounding clean energy and self-driving cars when the Paris Metro has been automated and nuclear-powered for decades — and yes, nuclear is cleaner than coal.) Or that computer algorithms are somehow objective and unbiased, a notion recent case studies have thoroughly dismantled, but one technocrats love, for obvious reasons: it justifies the status quo in which they rule the world.

In the software industry, this attitude took the form of successive technologies being touted as panacea. In turn, we were sold structured programming, logic and functional programming, OOP, UML, XML. More recently it was frameworks, and now everything is package managers and deployment systems.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #158

by on Feb.19, 2017, under Case study, News, Off-topic

Hello, everyone! It’s yet another good week, despite my interests still lying well outside gaming for now. Let’s start with a couple of game retrospectives from Hardcore Gaming 101, first the long-lost and recently unearthed Warcraft Adventures, then of a much newer title: Tim Schafer’s big comeback Broken Age. Which, if anything, illustrated both the potential and the danger crowdfunding holds even for a veteran game designer with countless fans. And still in the way of game retrospectives, Emily Short’s latest RPS column is about games that involve dressing up and going to a party, preferably with a good dose of swashbuckling. Much like her own creation Pytho’s Mask, that’s still among my all-time favorites.

In more technical news, we have another RPS article, this time on tools for RPG writing (think branching conversations and quests), and via Juhanna Leinonen, the announcement of a tool for translating interactive fiction. Not much to say there, except that tools are as hard to make as they are increasingly needed for good games, so it’s worth paying attention.

I’ll end with a story that’s more about art, culture and people than games, but still relevant in my opinion: Vanishing Point, or How the Light Grid Defined 1980s Futurism. On this note I bid you a good week. Until next time.

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Weekly Links #157

by on Feb.12, 2017, under Miscellaneous, News

Hello, everyone. With the launch of my latest project things have calmed down a bit, and as it happens we have a week with plenty of links as well.

Let’s start with some cool tools you can find on itch.io as of no more than a few days ago. For one thing, my own Stereo Imagination: a tool for generating 3D models with many repetitive elements by writing tiny scripts (15-20 lines can go a long way) in a clean, friendly language. Then we have a couple of legendary products, namely Adventure Game Studio and BlitzMax, that can also be acquired from the same place now.

But game developers also need to know their history. Via Konstantinos Dimopoulos comes the news of a Ms. Pac-Man retrospective occasioned by the game’s 35th anniversary, and an in-depth [review of Richard Gariott’s autobiography], that we also covered last time. What can I say, a living legend is going to generate interest.

Last but not least, while we’re on the subject of gaming history, Raphaël Lucas reminds people that the Internet Archive hosts, among other treasures, an extensive gamebook collection, that can be browsed online or downloaded in a variety of formats.

And that’s it for this week, largely because there’s not much to comment on any of this cool stuff. Enjoy!

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Weekly Links #156

by on Feb.05, 2017, under News, Opinion

Hello, everyone! While still working insanely fast on a project only tangentially related to games (and getting overly tired in the process), this week I somehow managed to gather a nice collection of links on the side.

In the way of legendary game designers, there are good news and bad news. The bad news is, Pac-Man’s creator just died. No comment, except that he’ll be remembered. On the other hand, Richard Gariott isn’t only alive and well, but he was just interviewed by Polygon over his new autobiography. And I dunno about the book, but the write-up makes for pretty good reading.

For the game designers among us, Jay Barnson has a few thoughts on character generation in RPGs. And, well, show me someone who made the acquaintance of D&D and didn’t immediately try to roll a character or ten, even before they had any way to actually play them. Sure, organic development has its place — I went with that approach in my own roguelikes — but the fix for unfamiliar options isn’t removing them, or for that matter forcing the player to read a huge-ass manual upfront. Rather, make sure that:

  1. The process itself is fun and lets players express themselves, and
  2. no single choice is wrong once the game starts.

As for we writers, of games or anything else, Alexis Kennedy just published an excellent article about worldbuilding. And it’s a lesson I had to learn myself the hard way, after my first few attempts at imaginary universes fell flat. In his words:

This does not mean that invented worlds don’t need to feel consistent. Let me say that again, without the double negative, because it’s important: invented worlds should feel consistent! But an invented world can be consistent and detailed and very very dull.

Which is exactly what happens when you build your world first, i.e. before the story. Which is very much putting the cart before the horses. Because you see, what he doesn’t say is that for an audience to care they need something to empathize with. And people don’t empathize with rocks. Give me some characters first; make me care about them, and then I’ll care about their world by extension, even if their world is a tepid medieval village.

But I could write a lot more about that. Let’s finish by pointing out the recent release of Twine 2.1. Which is a bigger upgrade than it sounds, so be sure to check the forums for issues ahead of time.

Have a very nice week.

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Weekly Links #155

by on Jan.29, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! Looks like another brief newsletter, not least due to my social media feeds being swamped by political turmoil these days. But we all do what we can. Let’s start with a couple of classic game retrospectives, namely Deus Ex and Alpha Centauri. In somewhat related news, a fan demake of Civilization 2 for the Commodore 64.

By way of game design articles, here’s the third article in the series about color in games I mentioned two weeks ago. (Turns out I missed the second one.) Which reminds me that the overuse of orange-blue palettes in games has been soundly criticized in recent years. The trick? It’s not the limited palette — those are a powerful tool in the arsenal of an artist — but how you make use of that palette. And nowadays game art is necessarily rushed, what with games of exploding complexity expected to be made in the same amount of time as their modest predecessors from last century. A recipe for trouble if there ever was one.

I’ll end with some musings on game pricing from someone who plays in a whole different league from me, so I can’t comment. Hopefully you’ll find it useful.

Until next time, don’t lose your humanity. Cheers.

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