No Time To Play

Case study

Weekly Links #187

by on Sep.10, 2017, under Case study, News

Hello, everyone. I didn’t have any room left in the last newsletter, but the new Escape From Cnossus has been released! It took a while, but better late than never. Even more awesome is that the original Spectrum game, along with its older brother Spectral Dungeons, can now be preordered on tape from Bumfun Gaming. The latter is only for hardcore retrogamers, of course; any profits will go to charities and/or tool developers in the scene.

In other news, Introcomp 2017 has ended, and in an unrelated but historic decision, video game writers can now be nominated for a Nebula. Last but not least, game developers might like this little case study in optimization from fluffy, my friend and frequent commenter.

And now, about the future of No Time To Play. Last week’s incident shook me. We’re still not out of the woods, though I’m staying on top of things for a change. But the magic has been broken. It’s painfully obvious how much this site has stagnated, even as the name has spread to other places. We have all this wealth of articles, news and links, all relying for presentation on a lumbering app that’s getting harder to customize as time goes by, and can’t really be trusted anymore.

We need a complete revamp… and I can’t see it. Not yet, anyway. But something has to give.

Thanks for staying with us through rocky times, past and coming.

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Weekly Links #181

by on Jul.30, 2017, under Case study, News

Hello, everyone! The XYZZY Awards announced their winners early this week, for once without a ceremony. Oh well. In related news, Choice of Games interviewed Christopher Huang about his new commercial game for the platform, and Jason Dyer writes about yet another edition of Adventure.

Speaking of events, itch.io marks the Ludum Dare taking place this weekend with an article on development tools, which also expands on their treatment of fantasy consoles from a few days ago.

In the way of game design discussion, we have a treatment of distant backdrops in adventure games. Not much to comment there, unlike with this retrospective of SimCopter and Streets of SimCity. Which has a lot to say about the importance of making games with a soul, but the bit that hit me the hardest was — again — about graphics:

Empirically, the 3D graphics industry has homogenized since 1996 and stranded SimCopter outside the pale of rendering convention. Fewer development houses write their own renderers. Unreal, CryEngine, and Unity all offer similar features based on the same academic research. SIGGRAPH attendance has declined since New Orleans ‘96. These factors combine to give SimCopter a one-of-a-kind graphical style.

Which, you know, does much to explain why so many modern games blend into an amorphous mass the moment you take a couple of steps back from the monitor. Never mind the industry’s terminal risk aversion and lack of imagination. Dear indies, don’t make the same mistake. Emulating the looks of classic gaming systems is fun, but can only take you so far. Dare to innovate.

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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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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?

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Eamon: between CRPGs and interactive fiction

by on Apr.13, 2017, under Case study

It’s safe to say that I like interactive fiction a lot better than computer role-playing games. Just about the only CRPG that ever piqued my interest was Planescape: Torment. Which, sure enough, may well be the most adventure-like such game ever created, with much more of a focus on storytelling than combat, and with a setting that came alive (literally, within the game’s fiction) in a way few other games managed. You could say it’s a matter of patience, but I spent countless days, weeks at a time, playing strategy games, and also sank plenty of hours in roguelikes — the RPGs’ low-tech, mechanistic cousins. So this isn’t about preferring story over gameplay, either; in fact, some of my all-time favorite games are shooters.

May seem strange, then, that someone like me would be interested in trying out Eamon, an RPG as old-school as they get, and of a flavor that wasn’t all that popular even back in the day.

But inspiration can be found in unlikely places. For one thing, Eamon is a cult classic: released as public domain software in 1982, it was recreated more than once, and the Deluxe edition (easily playable forevermore thanks to DOSBox), was last updated in 2012 — no less than three decades since the original! Apart from the early Ultima games and Infocom’s library, I can’t think of many games the same age that people worked as hard to preserve.

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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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Rescuing the interactive fiction parser from oblivion

by on Dec.25, 2016, under Case study

It’s 2016, and for the first time (in over two decades) a game with no parser won the Interactive Fiction Competition. Not only that, but in spring a game made in Twine swept the XYZZY Awards for 2015. And two-thirds of the Spring Thing entrants, including one of two winners, were choice-based.

Why does it matter? Because no earlier than 2014 there was a huge dispute over parser-less games raising to prominence in the IFComp. And doubts about the future of the parser stretch all the way back to 2010 — not coincidentally, the year Twine started getting notice.

How ironic that just a few months before that it was hard to find an interactive fiction piece made with anything except Inform 7.

No wonder that fans of the parser can get defensive. Not that parser-based games are going anywhere, but, you know. Down from the top of their game, and all that. (Pun not intended.) Worse, there’s a simmering dread that the parser failed to keep up with the times and appeal to new players even as interactive fiction slowly became mainstream again. And not for lack of trying.

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User interfaces in text-based games

by on Dec.18, 2016, under Case study

Maybe I write too much about text-based games, but in my defense the written word is awesome. It’s the closest you get to a digital medium without actual computers (what, with letters and words being discrete symbols by definition), and one of the most flexible as well. Communication doesn’t get more pure than a stream of symbols flowing back and forth; you can write them down on paper, ticker tape, or walls, going left or right, up or down, and even lay them out in three dimensions, as the Ancient Egyptians amply demonstrated. You do have to pick one path when reading, but hey, that’s what we call hypertext nowadays.

Early computer games, from Hamurabi (Doug Dyment, 1968) to Adventure (Will Crowther, 1976) were limited to a linear stream of text, simply because they had to run on teletypes. For the same reason, input was also limited to typing words on a keyboard. But that limitation also meant you exchanged words with the computer from equal footing — what people in the real world call a chat.

And so, a command line remained the defining way to interact with text adventures, helpers like a clickable compass rose notwithstanding. Oh, there were always a few games that tried to emulate the pick-a-choice interface popularized by gamebooks in the 1980s. But those were hardly on anyone’s radar until 2009, when Twine swooped in. At which point it became impossible to ignore all the people shouting that the emperor is naked.

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Three faces of Twine

by on Oct.20, 2016, under Case study

This spring, a friend of mine came up with an excellent gamebook made in Twine (now also on itch.io). At the time I appreciated not just the story itself, but also the way it worked around engine limitations to offer the player a character sheet at appropriate moments. And Kris isn’t the only one making RPGs in Twine, as I started to notice more recently. Which is a bit of a problem when using an authoring tool designed to display one passage at a time from a choose-your-own-adventure story, and not much else.

But what if I told you Twine has another face, one that allows you, with minimal effort, to make games with all the usual bells and whistles:

unwanted-hero

  • a proper save dialog with multiple slots;
  • more generally, a modal dialog system;
  • graphical user interface elements;
  • a fully customizable sidebar;
  • toolbars and status lines.

It’s called SugarCube, and it’s as well-documented as it is powerful. Also heavyweight, which is why Twine 2 ships with the older, less capable branch in the package. For some reason, however, its capabilities aren’t well-known, even though plenty of Twine-using authors prefer it to the default Harlowe.

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Weekly Links #126

by on Jun.26, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Hard to believe it’s been only one week since I started work on a desktop port of Glittering Light, because it already looks like this:

Mind you, it’s not even an alpha right now, and there are compatibility issues that may yet kill the project; but even if it does, I’ll still recommend sdlBasic as a nice little tool for rapid prototyping and such — it’s a surprisingly well-designed dialect and implementation, with a tiny but friendly community.

In the mean time, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, after closing yesterday, reopened again for a few more hours. (If you’re reading this on Sunday, you might still catch it!) My list of favorites however remains unchanged: Total Oblivion, an experimental tabletop RPG with an intriguing subject matter that’s quite relevant these days; Kulhwch, a text-based room escape game made in Twine (and in verse, no less), which proves — in the small — that you don’t need hunt-the-pixel puzzles for the genre to work; and an interactive comic prototype by a veteran of the interactive fiction community. Other entries are worth a look as well; if you drop by, leave the authors a comment, because socialization has been scarce during this jam as well.

On to more conventional news. While my neighbor from the south Konstantinos Dimopoulos writes about implying size and complexity in game cities (goes for any kind of virtual environment, really), one of Defender‘s creators talks about the bright future of arcade games. Last but not least, in Le Monde of all places there’s an interview about what made Super Mario 64 so special. It’s all in French, but the short version is, that was the first console game to feature a vast, wide open 3D world with sandbox gameplay — something we nowadays take for granted on all platforms.

So, games to play, lessons to learn and a new toy to play with. It’s been a pretty good week after all. Have fun, and see you next time.

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