No Time To Play

Case study

Markers and highlighters: a gamedev metaphor

by on Apr.10, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev

It’s common nowadays to see people complaining online that there are too many games out there (or books, or music, you name it). It’s not nearly as common to hear them complain about too many game development tools, but that’s mostly because fewer people are game developers; if you hang around in the right circles, you’re bound to come across that one sooner or later. Interactive fiction, in particular, seems to suffer from this; a big part of nurturing new authors is helping them pick an authoring system. Already in the 8-bit era multiple companies sold competing products, in addition to the proprietary tools of major studios. Nowadays, the Cloak of Darkness website alone compares no less than 20 of them, and that’s just for parser-based works! As for me, I created as many (toy) authoring systems as I did text adventures — one of which actually saw real-world usage, to my eternal surprise and gratitude.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

With so many authoring systems out there, some of them come so close in features and overall feel as to seem redundant. That’s inevitable. I will also argue this is a red herring. Funny, isn’t it? You never hear anyone complaining that markers and highlighters are redundant. Or crayons and colored pencils. Tempera and gouache. You get the idea. Arguably, software is different because it tends to proliferate in a way physical media do not, due to programmer hubris and the nature of computers, and I can’t fault people for feeling overwhelmed. But even subtle differences may matter more than you think.

In the rest of the article I’d like to compare three authoring systems for browser-based interactive fiction, with remarkably similar design, that nevertheless make for a far from trivial choice. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #105

by on Jan.31, 2016, under Case study, News, Opinion

Hello, everyone. I had yet another week of writing and editing, with more editing and art coming, not to mention other things. So yeah, still not much attention span to spare here. But the news are no less worth it.

The big one this week was that a computer had beaten a world-class GO champion. Which is incredibly meaningful, because it’s not the kind of problem you can solve with more processing power (unlike the time when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess). You have to build genuine intelligence into your code — and somebody did. It’s part of the same trend as self-driving cars; funny how fast AI has advanced once we gave up on trying to blithely imitate people, and just treated it like another tool in the box.

Anyway, in unrelated news, it turns out that procedural generation of text predates computers by centuries. Which makes perfect sense, because the concept of computation has been around for much longer than the idea of an universal computer, and indeed doesn’t depend on it. In fact, there is a staggering variety of natural processes that can perform computation — one of them, DNA self-duplication, gave birth to us. That people thought of it (in a very meta way it turns out) so long ago is a lesson worth learning.

In the way of actual game development, one of my favorite people in gaming interviews the creators of 80 Days, and while it’s not exactly new information, the way it’s put together makes it fresh again, so give it a read. Last but not least, another story that made waves this week: in a lengthy blog post, an indie game developer explains why they had to fire most of the crew after a successful game launch. And you know, I can understand just fine why someone would make the kind of mistakes described in the article, having seen very similar stories play out before (from the perspective of an employee who had to be laid out). But I wish people would figure out already that:

  • ambition is bad;
  • you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single basket;
  • ambition is bad;
  • Steam is not your friend;
  • ambition is bad.

No, seriously. I’m sick and tired of hearing how you’d supposedly never have started anything without ambition. I seem to start — and finish — a whole lot of different things, and while none of them has reached epic size or widespread success yet, I have a lot more to show for my efforts right now than my friends who rushed to build a dream castle before they had a solid foundation, and it all crumbled to rubble one day.

Until next week, consider the virtues of patient work.

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Weekly Links #103

by on Jan.17, 2016, under Case study, News

Oh well. That’s what happens when you have a ton of hobbies. After several weeks of game development, I went back to writing fiction for now. But that doesn’t mean news are passing me by. This week’s most powerful story is about the struggles of a Muslim game developer, ranging from the representation of Middle Eastern people mostly as enemies to be shot, to the simple fact that traveling to conferences can be difficult these days if your name is Muhammad. See my longer comment on Tumblr. Much food for thought, in any event.

On a more cheerful note, I have a couple of very sentimental articles. First is an homage to Tetris, with interesting remarks about the author’s unique genius. Then this write-up about what happens when MMOs close down. In short: people become invested in the virtual worlds they frequent. People begin to care. Because that’s what people do. There are memories you’re leaving behind. And friends. Who are as real as the game was virtual. But somehow we’re supposed to just move on because “this is capitalism”? There has to be a better way.

Last but not least, in actual game development news, it appears there are people out there porting indie games to arcade cabinets, and it’s a fascinating trip to take. The best postmortem I’ve read in a long time, really. Especially as many of my own games want to be arcades at their core, but I never quite went the whole way with them. Someday, perhaps.

For now, have a nice week.

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Measuring hardware performance

by on Jul.02, 2015, under Case study

I recently had to swap my refurbished computer for a hand-me-down, to get rid of an annoying hardware defect. Both have the same amount of RAM and storage: 2 gigs and 80 gigs, respectively. The difference is in the CPU and GPU, and that’s where the comparison becomes very interesting.

You see, the old one was an AMD Sempron 64 rated at 3000+ (real clock speed 1.8GHz), with an embedded nVidia 8800 for video. The new one is an Intel Atom 330 at 1.6GHz, dual-core and hyperthreaded, with an Intel GMA 950 accelerator. You’d think multiple cores would help a lot with performance, but each individual core is slow as molasses by modern standards (which is absurd and ridiculous, but there you have it), and most software isn’t multithreaded, so it can’t take advantage of the extra cores. The result? Overall, a more responsive system as one misbehaving process can’t hog the entire CPU anymore. But individual apps are now over 50% slower…

Good thing the next games I’m planning are all turn-based.

As for the GPU? Suffice to say, Super Tux Kart — a lightweight game by any standard — used to run at roughly 70FPS on the 8800 with default settings (and original nVidia drivers), while on the GMA 950 it crawls at under 10FPS, with quality turned most of the way down. In fact, turning down the settings didn’t seem to make much of a difference at all.

Somehow, the game is still perfectly playable anyway. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #51: free-to-play edition

by on Jan.07, 2015, under Case study, News

All right folks, let’s kick off 2015. Surprisingly enough, there have been a couple of relevant news pieces over the otherwise dead New Year’s week, and as it happens both are related to game pricing. I’ll start with a Techdirt piece illustrating just how far micropayments can go. Short version: it’s UGLY. Not that saying so will change anything as long as people keep paying to be shat on, but it’s good to keep in mind that unless you’re as big as EA, you can’t really afford to treat your customers like that. This is not good business practice; it’s just something they can afford to do. You don’t.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fine folk at Failbetter Games took the time to explain why Fallen London is still free to play. Having played Fallen London since it was called Echo Bazaar, I can say it’s F2P done right. Or was — I gave up in the meantime, having grown tired of clicking cows.

Speaking of which.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #41

by on Oct.19, 2014, under Case study, News

Having recently worked on two projects that involve voxels, I couldn’t help but notice that for an obsolete rendering technology there seem to be quite a few game engines based on them. Most are quite different from the kind of thing I do (though many seem to rely on procedural generation… why am I not surprised). But a friend just pointed me at the current Humble Indie Bundle, and it includes one project that features remarkable similarities to my own work.

Note the pseudo-3D camera (with just two degrees of freedom!) and the very small scene size — 128x128x64, probably chosen because it’s near the psychological treshold of one million voxels. It also has physics — and I don’t understand why everyone sees “voxels” and thinks “destructible environments” — plus a manual editor of the sort I recently criticized, but which may work well enough if all you’re ever making with it is tiny “3D tiles”, as the case appears to be here.

Also, why is everyone so keen on releasing their engine and toolchain before they have a solid game made with them?

(continue reading…)

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The game that plays itself

by on Oct.08, 2013, under Case study, Opinion

I remember watching a friend play the default intro to Dragon Age years ago. He was systematically choosing the rudest dialogue options, yet the NPCs barely reacted. Their attitudes didn’t change, the same amount of information was revealed… It made me wonder why they even bothered to call that roleplaying… or make it interactive at all for that matter.

More recently, I noticed a disturbing trend in Match-3 games, a niche I normally appreciate. Namely, if you stop and think for a few seconds, the game will “helpfully” indicate you a likely move. Apparently, the developers never realized that it just makes the game play itself…
(continue reading…)

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The miraculous rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV

by on Sep.17, 2013, under Case study

ffxiv_09152013_183332Three years ago I wrote an article about Final Fantasy XIV, a game that should have changed the MMORPG scene. And it somehow did, but not in a way that anyone could have foreseen. The initial release of the game got some pretty bad reviews, both from the gamers and the critics, being considered a failure. It was rejected even by most of the Final Fantasy fans, which I guess it was a sign of a bigger problem here.

About the Final Fantasy franchise

The Final Fantasy franchise is an interesting case when it comes to MMORPGs, because fans of the single player games (FF I-X, FF XII-XIII) do not exactly overlap with the fans of the online ones (FF XI). Of course, back in 2003 most of the people who started to play FF XI were probably fans of the series, but I think in time that game attracted a more “MMO hardcore” audience, which kept growing and which usually would do some activities more specific to games of the genre (Everquest), like raiding. There is a large FF fanbase population who never even touched the MMO or they tried it and never liked it, or simply just moved out along after a few weeks/months. Some of them also probably never liked the idea of paying a monthly subscription anyway.
(continue reading…)

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8-bit dungeon crawling

by on Jul.07, 2013, under Case study

Ossuary

When I started working on Spectral Dungeons, there didn’t seem to be many roguelikes for the Spectrum. A search for “Rogue” on World of Spectrum yields only one title that might be a port of the eponymous game, and the screenshots don’t look especially promising.

It was only recently that I became aware of another. Ossuary is just the most recent release from UK developer Cyningstan, and it’s an incredibly colorful game that fits in only 16K of RAM and can be played with just a joystick. Otherwise, however, it’s interesting to see how many of the design decisions are similar to those I made.

(continue reading…)

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Good randomness, bad randomness

by on Nov.19, 2012, under Case study, Gamedev

The proper use of randomness in games is a serious problem. I’ve written about this before, so I was happy to see other game developers recently raising the same issues as I did, and mostly drawing the same conclusions. But while Craig Stern of Sinister Design writes about board games and what we can learn from them, Jay “Rampant Coyote” Barnson plays devil’s advocate a little — an important counterpoint, as it turns out.

What could I possibly add to this? As it turns out, one of my attempts at making a roguelike actually went far enough that I had to tackle this problem, and surprisingly enough I solved it pretty well. Except I never explained how, and this is a good time for it.

(continue reading…)

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