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Weekly Links #167

by on Apr.23, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. This week’s big news is of course that the original Starcraft is now free, occasioned by the launch of a remastered edition (via Sébastien Delahaye‏). It’s just the last in a line of classic game revivals this spring, and while rediscovering the classics is good, I wonder what it says about the present of videogames.

Speaking of revivals, I spent a week or so bringing back — for the second time — my turn-based sprite scaling engine, and at long last it seems to be working out. Details to follow soon; for now, here’s a screenshot.

Next, two articles for game designers: a brief one on how to choose content for a roguelike, and the other (via Jay Barnson) on a better way to design dungeons. Short version: just as wordlbuilding in general should serve the purpose of the story you’re trying to tell, a dungeon should be all about its inhabitants. Past or present, I would add.

I’ll end with two write-ups about higher-level issues: one about that point when camp in a game goes from useful shortcut to offensive stereotype — and what that says about our understanding of history — the other (via Taleslinger) about the lack of cultural self-awareness in Duke Nukem 3D, with a diversion into the surreal, imaginative level design enabled by a pseudo-3D engine, and the way it contrasts with the hyper-realism of newer games.

And that’s about it for today, because people have been resting after Easter. See you!

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Weekly Links #165

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

Can’t believe it’s been a month since my article on the use of outliners in games. Between playing Master of Orion and working on a game design inspired by it, my initial idea took a backseat for a while, before coalescing into a specific product. I’m happy to announce Ramus 2, a new system for playing CYOA games written with general-purpose productivity software as opposed to dedicated tools — which, incidentally, allows for authoring on mobile devices without an always-on Internet connection. Much more work is needed, of course, from documentation to utilities for packaging stand-alone games, but the groundwork is laid, and the concept works surprisingly well.

Otherwise, I finally got around to getting a good look at Eamon, a text-based RPG engine from 1982, that was last updated in 2012 (an incredible 30-year run!) if not in the original form. Should probably get around to writing an article about it, because there are lessons to learn.

(Speaking of updates to old games, the original 8-bit Prince of Persia just got a modern level editor. How cool is that?)

In other news, this week Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an article on playing roguelikes when you can’t see, and another on the modders making games more gender-diverse. It’s great that inclusivity is becoming a hot topic in game development. More conventionally, Ars Technica has a history of open-world gaming, and PC Gamer a list of game design sins (both via K.D.). The latter two are actually old, but good enough to include.

We’re not done quite yet. For fans of adventure games, whether graphic or textual, there’s a long and entertaining interview with Tim Schafer, while Emily Short is answering to a letter about the state of Inform 7.

To cap an already long newsletter, I give you these musings on music in games. Something that tends to give me trouble, even more so than sound effects. Turns out, it is a genuinely delicate issue.

Oh well, see you next time.

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Weekly Links #164

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

Hello, everyone. It’s one of those weeks with lots of links, so I’m going to try and keep comments short in compensation. Not that I usually succeed.

For one thing, No Time To Play now has a proper presence on GitHub and on Imzy. There’s no set goal for either yet, but hey, it says “we exist”. Good thing can happen from casting a wider net.

On to gaming news. Tides of Numenera barely hit the market, and word surfaced that its spiritual parent Planescape: Torment is also getting an enhanced edition — officially, that is. (Which is bound to be better than fan-driven restoration efforts (in fact it likely incorporates some fan patches), and it’s a signal that game companies are starting to see the value in videogame preservation.) And another classic getting the same treatment is Starcraft. Still in the way of nostalgic comebacks, here’s an in-depth look at Thimbleweed Park.

But it’s not just players who get nostalgic for the old days. Game designers might enjoy reading the design document for Asteroids — a single hand-written page, as it turns out — while for interactive fiction authors there a long interview with the creator of 8-bit authoring system The Quill (both via K.D.).

Why is it important? Because we can learn from the past. We can also learn from tabletop games, as I did, and more designers are learning to as of late. Learning what? The importance of trains in games, for instance (via Michael Cook) — or rather, the importance of suggesting a wider world outside the software-imposed boundaries. A principle just as important in games as in fiction.

But now if you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to help a friend get started roleplaying on a MUCK. See you next week.

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Weekly Links #163

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

Hello, everyone! After a gaming break, and working on a game design inspired by it (which will be revealed in due time), a sudden revelation means that my research into outliners becomes immediately relevant, with much less work required on my part. So I hope to have a surprise for you soon.

Until then, let’s see what happened this week. For one, Jason Scott just launched a campaign to archive all Apple II software, especially originals that couldn’t be touched before due to copy protection. In related news, Techdirt mentions yet another case of games preserved thanks to piracy and emulation. You know my opinion of this, so I won’t insist.

In other news, we have a couple of articles discussing game design issues. Like this one about the importance of choice, even in historical games. Which reminded me of the time when I played a historical gamebook, and choosing what seemed like the fair, stay-the-course choice led to an untimely death, because it wasn’t what the historical character had done in that situation. And I can understand if you’re trying to test a student’s knowledge of real-world history, or simply if you don’t want to deal with the complications of imagining plausible counterfactuals, but it was such a disappointment at the time. So I was glad to read about a better approach.

Similarly, Jimmy Maher’s latest article discusses the problem with procedural generation that many games have. But I’ll say once again that PCG itself isn’t the problem. We can make generated worlds more diverse, detailed and believable. It takes work, but it can be done. What we can’t do automatically is make them matter. Because, you see, people don’t tell stories — or listen to stories — for the sake of it, but in order to share meaningful experiences that soothe, teach, amuse… whatever. And meaning can only come from personal experience.

As I pointed out before, it happens all too often that a fictional setting will be lovingly handcrafted, all coherent and plausible, yet utterly bland. Conversely, playing a roguelike can become very personal very quickly. So I’ll state it once again: the method of creation isn’t to blame. Forgetting the “why” is the usual culprit.

Last but not least, here’s an interview about the development process of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. And the key to it all is this passage:

The number one most important qualification that the developers discuss when deciding if they should add someone to the official dev team isn’t their design, art, or coding prowess. It’s their social skills.

It goes for all software development, really, or for that matter any human endeavor. But for too long now, we lived with the illusion that technical excellence somehow trumps being a decent person. Well, look around you. Enjoying the results?

Until next time, remember to care about people.

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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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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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Weekly Links #151: new beginnings edition

by on Jan.01, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Happy New Year 2017! Things picked up noticeably the week after Christmas, so we can begin anew with aplomb. For one, a very good friend bought me a Pico-8 license, and of course I couldn’t resist playing with it. It’s an incredibly polished experience for such a restricted platform, one that immediately inspired me to start remaking one of my early games. I’m not sure quite what makes it feel so good, but it’s one of those systems that feel designed, not just thrown together, and that’s rare today.

Given that, it’s especially appropriate that Rock, Paper, Shotgun just published a series of articles about working with the Pico-8. I do have one quibble: ideas, my friend, are a dime a dozen. If you have to go around hunting for ideas, maybe you don’t have anything to say right now. Go out and live some more.

On a similar note, Kotaku is running the story of a game journalist turned developer. And it sounds not so much like someone who learned just how hard it is to actually make those games they used to criticize, as someone who grew up and learned to assume good faith. A win, either way. Can’t even blame them: I used to have my troll-ish moments as a delayed teenager. Haven’t we all? So it’s all good.

To end with a couple of actual releases, here’s Roguelike One, a quick, simple game that could be played with a NES controller (in the sense that it only uses arrow keys and two action buttons). No prize for guessing what it’s a fan game of. 😛 And in the retro department, Prime Mover is a Construct 2 title carefully made to resemble a ZX Spectrum game, down to the way controls are responding. Which, of course, is a lot more work than making it for the Speccy like my own two attempts. Nice!

On that note, I wish you the best until next time. Thanks for reading.

 

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Weekly Links #150

by on Dec.11, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my last newsletter for 2016; after this one, I’m taking a holiday break. It occurs to me that I’ve been posting this thing for three years now — half the time that No Time To Play has been around — and I’m yet to miss an update, though many have been late or else not very interesting.

Speaking of which, after failing to sell for a year, even after a fire sale, this autumn I made Tales of Space and Magic free. And it still failed to attract any views, let alone money. So for the past few days I’ve been trying something new, namely to turn the original PDF into a Twine. Which works quite well, if far from perfect, courtesy of all the implicit cross-references (now made explicit). Let’s see if this new edition will fare any better.

In the way of community updates, Vintage Is the New Old has a new face, that makes it look a lot more readable and modern, if a bit same-y. Not as good is the news that textadventures.co.uk will close down unless a new owner can be found before March 1st. We’re talking an order of magnitude more people than there are on IFDB, many of them students using interactive fiction as a learning tool. To ask what famous games have been made with Quest misses the point. This will be a loss no matter how you look at it, and I know from experience that once broken apart, a community can’t simply reform elsewhere: it’s gone for good.

Moving on to game design, Mark Johnson of Ultima Ratio Regum fame posted an article on the private lives of NPCs, while Jimmy Maher concludes his series on Wings (the classic flight simulator) with an excellent lesson for game designers:

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. (…) Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude.

In other words: dear developers, games are for people. Get a life first.

Happy new year and see you in 2017.

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Weekly Links #149

by on Dec.04, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Aah, that’s better. I actually have a few links for you this week. But first, let me announce that Adventure Prompt now comes with a proper demo you can play. It’s not much, but it highlights all the important features of the engine. Not so much the feel of the authoring system, but that would be hard with an inherently interactive app. Special thanks to Kevin C. Redden for all the research on backpacking that I didn’t have room to mention in the game, and to everyone else for the interest.

In other news, my friend Sera is at it again with an article titled The Woman On The Cover: Becoming A Woman In A Man’s World. It may not sound like it’s about videogames at first, but believe me, it is — though it’s an issue that impacts all of society. As the owner of StoryDevs was writing just recently:

It’s fundamentally immoral to pretend our communities are apolitical. Silence is always a vote for the status quo, one that continues to be cruel and divorced from humanity’s best interests. If we’re to fix the issues at hand we need to be talking about them in all communities, not denying they exist or redirecting people to other places because “we don’t do politics here”.

Politics is always on topic in art spaces because the arts have always been affected by politics. And the times in history that the arts have been most endangered has often coincided with injustices against marginalised groups and political upheaval.

Amen to that. But for now, let’s move on.

Earlier this autumn, I mentioned a PICO-8 clone in development. In the mean time the project went through a name change, and now people are actually using it to make games. Which makes me feel a lot less guilty for not getting around to it myself.

Last but not least, I was just wondering how NaNoGenMo went this year, when this overview of one particular participant group crossed my Twitter timeline. And there’s quite a bit to see in there.

Until next time, keep an eye on new game-making tools.

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Weekly Links #148

by on Nov.27, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Today, for only the second or third time in three years, this newsletter contains no actual links. Apologies. In my defense, I did keep working on Adventure Prompt, after coming up with a game idea that can properly showcase the engine’s specific features. A big selling point of the system is the ability for authors to employ many text adventure tropes just by setting some properties on objects. And it’s surprising how much can be done that way. Scenery/portal objects (they can double as doors that lead elsewhere) were trivial — just another application of exits. Vehicles took only 100 lines of extra code in the interpreter (though that was a 20-25% increase), and the only recent addition to the editor, apart from more documentation. I could have crammed a minimal scripting language in that much space… but that would have shifted the burden on authors. Which is the opposite of what an authoring system is for.

Easy stuff will be easy no matter what. The trick is making the hard stuff easier as well.

Next: to do some more refactoring before adding what little is left (reading material and hidden object reveal, mainly), and then to see about fleshing out that demo game, because while the map and puzzle structure came easily, I had a hard time thinking of descriptions. And that’s supposed to be my specialty.

See you next time, hopefully with more exciting news. Be well!

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