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Weekly Links #172

by on May.28, 2017, under News

Coincidences are often funny. Just a week ago, I was musing over on Tumblr about the importance of geography in games, and here come Jimmy Maher and Emily Short pointing it out in their articles about game adaptations of Tolkien and high-agency narrative systems, respectively. The latter, by the way, is about interactive fiction structured in ways that are neither the room-and-compass model of parser-based text adventures, nor the node-and-choice model of gamebooks or Twines. Something to keep in mind.

In retrogaming news, according to Le Monde the videogame conservation movement has reached France (article in French), while across the pond The Atlantic notices the Internet Archive’s collection of emulated MacIntosh software. And still in the way of nostalgia, Polygon writes about more famous game designers who started out with BASIC, either on a school’s mainframe or else (like I did) on an 8-bit home computer.

(Not so retro is Engadget‘s article about writing for Fallen London. which meshes well with Emily Short’s own.)

Less fun was learning that the modern mobile ports of cult classic Lords of Midnight will soon be in limbo for lack of a licensed engine. And sadly it’s something I wrote about before, including a story very much like this one (scroll down for the link). Dear game developers: either buy a perpetual license to your engine, including source code (otherwise it’s useless), or else stick to open source. Failing that, roll your own. The initial convenience of off-the-shelf code is illusory anyway.

Last but not least, I just learned that game designer Tanya X. Short has launched a pledge against crunch that’s all the more important as influential voices in the industry are actually defending this abominable practice. Well, I signed, along with over 500 others so far, and hopefully it will make a difference down the road.

Until next time, take good care of yourselves.

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Weekly Links #171

by on May.21, 2017, under News

If I had a dollar from everyone who assured me that this time virtual reality will really take off, unlike the previous several occasions, because “now the technology is better”, I’d… probably have a few more games in my library, to be honest. Not the VR kind, though. According to Le Monde (article in French), all those tech companies that jumped enthusiastically on the bandwagon just a year or two ago are now quietly pulling out, despite decent hardware sales. Turns out, adoption isn’t use, as the stats from Steam seem to indicate. And while the article tries to shift the blame onto the nausea many people experience from those goggles, I still say the real reason is being a solution in search of a problem. Wish reality had proven me wrong; friends who play e.g. Elite: Dangerous in VR certainly seem to love it.

In other news, we have an article on RuneScape’s enduring appeal, another on how fighting games have evolved with the market (via Gamasutra), and also from Gamasutra a write-up on the Japanese approach to story in games. Note how much it talks about theme: it’s the same advice I give aspiring writers: figure out what your story is all about. This is so important it can’t be stressed enough. I disagree about building the world first, but then games have somewhat different requirements.

On a different note, it was enlightening to read about the challenges of running an abuse-free server for children with autism, and that it’s getting easier to make games for blind people. For a different kinds of accessibility, Mark Johnson writes about the basics of game literacy. And you know… while games can be obscure (Nightwrath just bought me a copy of Eador: Genesis and I can’t make heads or tails of it), I must give this one to the commenter who pointed out that gauges have been everywhere in the real world ever since the thermometer. The issue isn’t teaching new players to recognize a gauge for what it is, but to notice it in the first place. Situational awareness is a learned skill, and people who haven’t played games before, or at least driven a car, generally aren’t trained to direct their attention all around.

Last but not least, from a roguelike developer we have some thoughts on slow application development. I’ve written before about games that took over a decade to make, some hobbyist, others more professional, not to mention the still ongoing Ultima Ratio Regum (since I just mentioned Mark Johnson). My readers can probably think of more mainstream examples.

But for now, see you next week. Have fun in the mean time.

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Weekly Links #170

by on May.14, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. I have good news and bad news. The good news is, I’ve been working on a game based on my recently revived 2.5D engine. The bad news is, I’m running out of steam and might switch tracks for a while. So for now, have some screenshots:

Yeah, yeah, I went right back to first-person after explaining how it doesn’t really work, but the visible pathways should help. As for the limited draw distance, I already had to redo the backgrounds once as it is, and anything further away looks bad in the first place. The theme just requires first person here, it can’t be helped. As for the map generator, you might recognize the one from RogueBot, somewhat refined. It feels kind of cramped in a game with tile-by-tile motion, but enemies and limited moves should fix that. Whenever I get to it, that is.

On the plus side, hey, I got to practice my Inkscape some more, and people seem to like the look. Also, refactoring code can be very fun, not to mention good practice. So yay.

In the way of news, we have an interview with Sid Meyer, then a history of hit points, that turns out to be quite complex and unexpected. And while Konstantinos Dimopoulos kicks offa series on medieval urbanism that’s equally useful to fantasy writers and game developers, Bruno Dias shares some thoughts about replacing the interactive fiction parser, that complement my own from a while ago. Clearly these ideas — which have been floating around for a while — are coalescing into something solid. It was about time, too.

Last but not least, via Vintage Is the New Old comes the news that next month there will be a Sinclair Basic game jam, which is especially tempting to someone like me. I even know what game I’d like to try and make. But whether I’ll actually take part is another story entirely.

Until next week, stay motivated.

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Weekly Links #169

by on May.07, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone. Despite everything, this week also came with plenty of interesting events in gaming. So many in fact that I had to trim multiple links, and it’s still a lot. Shall we?

Let’s start with an interview with the director of Wolfenstein 3D, occasioned by the game’s 25th anniversary. And there’s a ton of good advice in there, some of which I follow (embrace limitations, and don’t burn out), some I unfortunately fail at (use the best tools available, and if there aren’t any, make your own). And still on the topic of classic games, we have the first article in a series about the history of Sierra, which in turn quotes from a recent interview with two of Sierra’s creators — both valuable bits of history.

Now for something completely different. Over at PC Gamer, there’s an article about the portrayal of mimics in videogames (the D&D monster). I had high hopes for the article, too, because one of my favorite webcomics, Rusty and Co., features a mimic turned adventurer — and a talkative, witty one at that. But there was no mention of it. There was, however, a mention of Luggage from Discworld… but not a single word about Luggage’s origins as a character in a novel written to parody fantasy cliches.

Dear people in gaming, do you ever read anything outside of reviews and strategy guides?

In the way of game design, Jason Dyer illustrates the biggest problem with random number generation, while the creator of Cogmind writes about clever uses of RNG seeds. And you know, I considered doing just that, but in my one game that could have used the trick, Spectral Dungeons, generating each level is so slow it would be especially annoying to do it all over every time. I am, however, careful to use a separate RNG for world generation versus enemy behavior when at all possible.

Also on the Grid Sage Games blog there was a discussion of various versioning schemes, which are as thorny as they are arbitrary, as we know from Windows, the Linux kernel, or the race between Firefox and Chrome. My advice? Don’t fuss too much over it unless you develop software according to a strict plan; just pick a scheme, and use release code names to make things more clear.

To end with a couple of items from the world of interactive fiction, Emily Short writes about the place of parser-based games in 2017, while over on the intfiction.org forum there’s a discussion about compass-based navigation, with some surprising conclusions.

I should probably write a come-back with my own extensive thoughts on mapping and virtual places, but for now this newsletter is way over quota, so see you!

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Weekly Links #168: diversity edition

by on May.02, 2017, under News

Sometimes outages have the worst timing. As of this writing, I’ve had no Internet for over 24 hours, and it could be another day or more until it’s fixed, due to May Day falling on a Monday. But the show must go on.

I’ll start with an article that’s not about games at all — in fact it’s about diversity in superhero comics. But the following quote applies all too well to games, and in fact any other medium:

“Diversity” as a concept is a useful tool, but it can’t be the goal or the final product. It assumes whiteness (and/or maleness and/or heteronormitivity [sic]) as the default and everything else as a deviation from that. This is why diversity initiatives so often end up being quantitative—focused on the number of “diverse” individuals—rather than qualitative, committed to positive representation and active inclusion in all levels of creation and production. This kind of in-name-only diversity thinking is why Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism got cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi while actual Japanese person Rila Fukushima was used as nothing but a face mold for robot geishas.

On a related note, the analysis of visual novels I mentioned two weeks ago continues with a look at VN protagonists, and the conclusion is inescapable: (Note: EVN is short for English-language Visual Novel, as in original as opposed to a translation from Japanese.)

Despite VNs being portrayed as escapist literature with generic self-insert protagonists, our analysis seems to suggest the reverse. Fans far prefer protagonists with strong identities, and EVNs are leading the way in exploring stories with more diverse characters. The videogame industry could learn something from our little medium.

To top it all, Jimmy Maher writing about the history of Wing Commander points out the way a cheesy action game from 1990 did better than many modern titles at diversity and inclusion, despite its reliance on ethnic stereotypes, simply because it tried in earnest.

Moving on, straight from the horse’s mouth we get a look at Blizzard’s past with the making of Starcraft, and at their future with an interview about how World of Warcraft might evolve. In unrelated news, Warren Spector talks to Gamasutra about doing your own thing as a game designer (and asking bigger questions).

And speaking of game design, as the only piece of news this week that’s actually on topic we have Emily Short with a collection of links about spatial storytelling, that as usual apply to much more than just interactive fiction.

Enjoy, and see you next time.

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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 #166

by on Apr.16, 2017, under News

Happy Easter, everyone! I’ll start by reminding you that we’re one week into the Spring Thing interactive fiction festival, and it’s the largest edition ever. Still three weeks to go, too, if you want to vote or something.

The other big news this week is about The CRPG Book Project which, as announced by Indie Retro News is near completion: a free history of computer role-playing games by a largely European team, told in a couple hundred capsule reviews and a thousand colorful screenshots, that gives equal space to famous classics and obscure titles (some never translated into English) that nevertheless had a massive influence on the genre. A labor of love, put together over several years, and amazingly enough released for free.

Still on the subject of videogame genres, the first part in a series of articles on visual novels was just announced on the Lemma Soft forums, and it starts out strong with an analysis of current trends.

Next for a bit of nostalgia: Slashdot points to a look back at 8-bit computing, and it’s pretty damn thoughtful as listicles go. On a slightly different note, someone just came up with a graphic adventure engine for the Pico-8 inspired by LucasArts’ SCUMM, and coming surprisingly close.

To end on a less cheerful note, Play the Past has a feature on death in online virtual worlds. Being part of such a community that was hit repeatedly by the deaths of prominent members, the whole thing struck a chord with me.

But I have more to read and think about, not to mention today to deal with. See you around.

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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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