No Time To Play

Gamedev

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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Weekly Links #147

by on Nov.20, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! The 22nd Interactive Fiction Competition ended earlier this week with a result that surprised no-one, despite being a major first: as the official announcement points out, Detectiveland is the very first parser-less game to actually win the event! As the IFComp is the oldest and largest of its kind, that’s especially meaningful. But don’t worry, parser games aren’t going anywhere — although many of them are likely to be of the restricted parser variety, going forward.

In related news, here’s a postmortem of two competition entrants. Note how hard it is even for an experienced author to customize a game engine. If you’re new to game development, not to mention programming, don’t try this at home. Don’t be that guy who fights his tools every step of the way, then blames the tools. Choose an engine that matches your vision on most points, then compromise on the rest. Tip: compromise means you have to yield some too, not just the other side.

To tune into the mainstream news channels for a moment, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about the importance of games in difficult times, while Kotaku extensively covers EVE Online going free to play. Last but not least, someone out there is making a 3D RPG that emulates a tabletop game, complete with rolling virtual dice among the miniatures. An intriguing take on things, to be sure.

Last but not least, my recent launch of Adventure Prompt garnered enthusiastic reactions, giving me a good reason to continue the project. To begin with, I added some missing features to the interpreter. An update to the editor, including more documentation, will follow soon.

Until next time, have fun, and thanks for reading.

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Announcing Adventure Prompt

by on Nov.17, 2016, under Gamedev

Seven years ago, I discovered MUSHes and MUCKs, also known as text-based virtual worlds. I stayed for the community, but what drew me to them in the first place was online building: the ability to build text adventure settings interactively, in the same environment and in the same way one navigates the same settings: by typing commands at a prompt.

Since then, I dreamed of bringing that unique quality to interactive fiction somehow, but could never think of a way to make the concept compelling enough, especially compared to the sophistication of modern authoring systems. So the idea stayed in a corner of my mind.

Fast forward to this spring, when I had an idea for a kind of text-based RPG with interactive fiction elements. As explained nearly a month ago, part of that failed concept found new life in a Twine game prototype. But then I got around to playing Robin Johnson’s Detectiveland, and something clicked. This! This is what I was looking for: interactive fiction with a proper world model, except with a button-based interface instead of a parser (which just isn’t friendly to touchscreens… or attention spans). And because this UI is equivalent to a two-word parser, the simplified world model of MU*s would be a good match instead of a letdown. Moreover, Detectiveland has been incredibly popular, revealing a demand for retro, stylized text adventures closer to classic Scott Adams titles than baroque Inform 7 epics.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #142

by on Oct.16, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. There was no Laser Sky update this week because, frankly, there’s not much to say. I did manage to add the high score table, then the promised menu system, including an option screen. Forgot to add one to limit continues, but those should remain infinite until the game is done, anyway. The bad news is, now I have no excuse: it’s time to add the remaining levels. And that will require potentially tricky code changes, in addition to yet more of that exhausting balancing work. At least now I have some experience…

Otherwise, lots of retrogaming news this week. From Gamasutra, we have the birth of Japanese RPGs — a story that’s usually both whitewashed and oversimplified, it turns out. And via Vintage Is the New Old we learn of a website called Games That Weren’t, dedicated to saving canceled or lost games from the dustbin of history. Last but not least, here’s a review of a quasi-roguelike born on the (in)famous Tandy TRS-80 in 1980 and carried into the Windows era by a fan. A terrible game, but a fascinating delve into history — not to mention a challenge. How can you make that format actually work?

Also in the way of game design, the people who made Dungeons of Dredmor are at it again, with a write-up on challenge in videogames, which touches on configurable difficulty among other things. Thought-provoking indeed. In unrelated news, Emily Short points at a blog post about teaching history with interactive fiction. Not much that’s new to me, but the links therein promptly sent me down a deep, branching rabbit hole. (How appropriate!) It’s remarkable what academics can come up with when they set out to study videogames. Too bad their work isn’t more widely known, even when it’s accessible to laypeople.

Until next time, consider what the past can teach us.

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Weekly Links #141

by on Oct.09, 2016, under Gamedev, News

What a week. First I spent three days working on a side project (that I’m not going to announce until next month). Then had to rest a little, because a three-day coding marathon is exhausting when you’re pushing 40. And then an ISP outage kept me offline for a day and a half. At least that gave me the time to put a high score table in Laser Sky, not to mention play and review a couple of games.

In news that aren’t about No Time To Play, two weeks ago Techdirt covered the case of a game developer suing Steam customers only to have their games removed from the platform. Turns out, now they are dropping the lawsuit, citing bankruptcy. Should we count the number of ways in which they had it coming?

To move from business to game design, here’s an article about the balance between gameplay and realism. But while the overall argument is sound, the chosen example betrays painful ignorance of actual history. Um, guys, you do realize firearms — even small arms — were developed centuries before the industrial era, do you? Heck, they were commonly made of bronze (otherwise an obsolete material) before steel became good enough (which just so happened to also make it good enough for steam engines). And there was a time roughly two centuries ago when, demand for guns having outpaced the still nascent industry’s ability to provide, it was common to make gun barrels by hammering spiral strips of metal around a stick until they held together. Which gave you rifling for free, but tended to end in the barrel bursting, with that flowering effect you can see in old Loony Tunes cartoons.

Funny how animators from half a century ago, who were only trying to be funny, knew their history better than people making, you know, historical videogames. And there was no Wikipedia back in the day…

Last but not least, Hardcore Gaming 101 has a feature on 80 Days, the indie smash hit from a couple of years ago. Appropriate, given the IFComp is in full swing.

And that’s really all. See you next week.

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Coming soon: Laser Sky

by on Sep.29, 2016, under Gamedev

Funny how much morale matters in game development. While this weekend I was in no condition to work on Laser Sky, the game was in a condition to be seen by a few early testers, and that gave me the energy to go on. Not that the feedback was so great: everyone’s first reaction was to call it sluggish and unresponsive. It didn’t feel that way to me, but when three people say you’re drunk…

So the first thing I did on Monday morning was to make the player’s ship accelerate just a little faster. Which, to my surprise, improved the game balance, and subsequent testers merely remarked the game is slow-paced. In other words, exactly as intended. Success! Most of them also praised the graphics, though one tester was put off by the same “paper airplane” enemies another loved. There’s no accounting for taste. And hey, both of them recognized the inspiration despite the abstract shape. Go me.

laser-sky-art

Anyway, as predicted last time, the rest of the day was spent adding sound effects. They’re from the same Creative Commons pack I used for Attack Vector, except a different selection (twice as wide, too), and with no additional sources. So the two games ended up sounding nothing the like. Couldn’t locate any suitable music, but a friend offered to help with that, and from what we discussed it seems we’re on the same wavelength. So this should be great.

(continue reading…)

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Laser Sky progress report

by on Sep.22, 2016, under Gamedev

I wasn’t planning on posting updates today, since real life problems and bad weather conspired to keep me down, but in retrospect the game has progressed noticeably anyway, even if it didn’t feel like that at first.

So, a week ago I announced my new game, a good old shoot’em up called Laser Sky simply because the name was available — as opposed to pretty much anything involving the word “neon”. (Do you know how hard it is to come up with original titles these days? RogueBot for instance is used by a whole bunch of other projects, from a variety of fields. Hopefully nobody sues.)

screenshot-20160922

Anyway, at the time Laser Sky was just beginning to feel like a game, but still lacked variety. So one of the first things to add was power-ups. The first one restores lost energy, or else gives points if you’re topped up — power-ups should never become useless! The second gives you an extra gun (then a third in the tail, which was sorely needed), and after that it erases the heat build-up, that gets significant even though with two guns you fire more slowly. The whole thing took some balancing work, because more guns should be more powerful overall, but still come at a cost. With a bit of special-casing, and otherwise fewer changes than expected, that too worked out great. It requires a change in strategy that just makes sense, and feels satisfying. Not bad for just one addition!

(continue reading…)

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Birth of a shoot’em up

by on Sep.15, 2016, under Gamedev

I don’t remember whether I played They Started It before or after coming up with the concept for Laser Sky. I had been toying with the Pyglet game library, pondering what sort of game it might be suitable for, and a shoot’em up was the most obvious choice. Not that the world needs yet another game about blowing stuff up. But making a sequel to Attack Vector and getting it right for a change is an old dream of mine, and any excuse to learn a promising new technology is a good one. The big problem was choosing a theme. And like the first time around, nothing I came up with seemed to have legs. Even a briefly considered idea for a cute’em up fizzled out (though that’s definitely worth revisiting). Moreover, it began to dawn on me that coding a sprite-scaling engine on top of a 2D library backed by OpenGL was kind of ridiculous. The new game had to be a good old-fashioned scroller… but then it couldn’t be a sequel to Attack Vector.

screenshot-20160914

In the end, the concept for Laser Sky came to me almost fully-formed during a walk in the park. Trouble is, it involved vector graphics, and that precluded the use of an engine optimized for sprites. So, back to HTML5 it was. The first order of business was dusting off the game microframework I developed two years ago for the original RogueBot. (Which of course revealed a bug, duly fixed.) Making a ship move around the screen, and some basic enemies come at it, was easy enough. Then it was time for them to interact.

(continue reading…)

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