Let a billion videogames bloom

Everything game development: news, lessons, discussion

Weekly Links #288

22 September 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Between beta-reading a friend's novel and my ongoing adventures in computer migration, I've been unable to work on my new game. Ideas, of course, keep piling up. Might finally be able to rescue an old demo and turn it into the walking simulator it was shaping up into before I was forced to stop. Between this and the new plans for Deep Down in Darkness, we're talking enough work for many months, and a corresponding amount of writing.

(Speaking of which: September is at an end; hosting bills are coming tomorrow, and I'll have to pay them out of pocket for the second time this year. Not a problem this time; by December, or next spring, things might not look so good anymore. Please read to the end of this newsletter to find out how you can help for next time... while there's still a No Time To Play website to help out with.)

Meanwhile: continuing from two weeks ago, I've been looking at the current crop of laptops in stores, and came away disgusted. Never mind that the hardware is... slippery? Can't think of a better word to use. But mainly, everything on offer seems designed for housewives who just want to browse Facebook and little else. (What do you mean, I'm not supposed to set the time myself in the BIOS? I was programming computers before you were born!) When did every PC manufacturer turn into an Apple wannabe who can't even do imitation well? Maybe top tier machines would make for decent workstations, but those cost an ARM and a leg. It's a terrible, terrible time to get a new computer. Maybe next year.

How different it felt to finally revive my old Asus Eee PC 701. Yep, I have the original model, still in working condition. And it feels real, dammit! Hefty. Reliable. Terribly slow by modern standards (no way it's going to run a modern browser), but the SSD makes for decent boot times. And there are still Linux distributions small enough that you can fit two of them (two!) on a 4-gigabyte drive, with room to spare. So this diversion was the high point of the week.

As for the news, enjoy the technical breakdown of a modern NES game, a discussion of difficulty in games and related settings, then my own write-up about game genres. Details under the cut.

The week starts early. Leah Neukirchen alerts me of a very instructive write-up about What Remains. It's one of those games crazy people still make for the original NES / Famicom, except instead of being written in assembly as usual, this one uses a Scheme dialect made for the purpose. Note how readable the code is compared to most Lisps, a trait it shares with ZIL; this is a language made to be used, and not by hackers either. There's more to it, like details about the platform's quirks I didn't know. Mostly however I liked this bit from the conclusion:

The biggest lesson I got from this project was the benefits to be gained from data driven engines. Multiple times, I replaced some custom logic using a table and mini-interpreter, and it made code easier to manage and understand.

This is the same approach I was advocating years ago (not that it was new back then either), though my only uses so far remain experimental. Look carefully, however, and you'll see it in many places, such as Twine markup. Which, not coincidentally, is yet another way to get people programming without realizing they're doing it. And anything that can get more people making games is good in my book.

On Tuesday, Grid Sage Games writes about accessible difficulty settings in Cogmind, and there's a lot to unpack. No, players don't read. Some of them won't even read half a page worth of text, and I mean people who speak English just fine. Some of them even have good excuses. And why would they even think to look for an option menu when they don't get as much as a title screen to begin with? You... you realize those were invented for a reason?

But the big howler here is high difficulty being the default. Sure, rebranding "very easy" as "explorer mode" is helpful, for the reasons explained in there. So is presenting the various options as being more or less equal, at least visually. Not that giving them expressive names is anything new. Doom, anyone? "Can I play, daddy?" (Don't do that, by the way. Never act condescending towards your players!) All that however ignores the root of the problem: only kiddies care about the challenge, bragging rights or whatever excuse you give to exclude the vast majority of people who might want to play your game. Adults just want to relax and have a little fun. Most younger players, too.

Speaking of which, let's say hello to my old pet peeve: enforced permadeath being seen as ideal. Dear game designers, stop telling me how I'm supposed to enjoy myself. Doubly so when I'm playing by myself with nobody else watching! How exactly does it hurt you if I restore from a save? Let the kiddies who want a challenge scour through the options and turn permadeath on if they want it. Or is that too hard for them? Maybe they don't read?

A piece of commentary I was supposed to put here, about the evolution of game genres swelled up quickly enough to get a blog post of its own. Hadn't written about this subject in a long while it turns out; the first No Time To Play book has a whole section dedicated to game genres, and since then almost nothing. Hope you enjoy this one then, because these days I'm trying to advance a genre or two again, as it happens. Come along for the ride!

Last but not least, if you enjoy what No Time To Play has to offer, please consider sending some spare change my way (which is faster) or else buying a book (which gives you something in return). Thanks in advance for your support, and see you next Sunday!

Tags: hardware, retrogaming, accessibility, game-design, philosophy

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