No Time To Play

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 #154

by on Jan.22, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone! Once again, I’ve been busy coding stuff that’s not related to games, so there won’t be many links today. Let’s start with the fact that as of last Sunday No Time To Play is on Game Jolt as well. Don’t expect much activity from that direction, but it’s one more way to connect with us if you’re so inclined.

In other news, my friends have been at it again, Kris with some thoughts about setting in videogames, and Sera with an article about who media representation is for. Needless to say, I recommend both, for different reasons.

Then there’s this article I’ve been pointed at, about the educational value of practicing game design, even if your game never ends up being published, or even played by many. Couldn’t agree more, even though I noticed that more often with programming language design, rather than games. Either way, nothing can beat hands-on experience when it comes to learning. All the theory in the world is useless until you see for yourself where it came from.

But that’s enough preachiness for a week. Until next time, roll up your sleeves and make something.

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Weekly Links #153

by on Jan.15, 2017, under News

You know, for a game development blog I don’t post about game design nearly often enough. This week is an exception. Let’s start with Gamasutra’s case study of good first levels — an important part of any game, if by no means the hardest. (Ultimately, the first level is also the easiest to make.) More specifically, we have an article about prefabricated sections in procedurally generated levels and another on powerful uses of color in game graphics. Plenty of things to learn from both!

Going on, Polygon is running a long-form feature about the making of Final Fantasy VII (warning: really long read!) And you know, it would be a much more interesting story if it didn’t sound exactly like most other such stories. Politics, money, technology, ambition, cockiness… stop me when you grow tired of the drinking game. Is the industry ever going to learn any better?

Last but not least, fans of interactive fiction will be happy to hear that textadventures.co.uk is saved! A new team stepped up to take over, and the transition is ongoing as of this writing. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Speaking of which, stay creative, and stay tuned. See you!

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A first look at the Go programming language

by on Jan.12, 2017, under Off-topic

It’s not easy to keep up with new developments in IT, especially when you work long hours, or for that matter when you no longer learn quite as easily as you used to when you were twenty. So far I was lucky to pick my technologies well: expertise in Python, HTML5 and even Java (for now) has only grown more marketable in recent years. It still felt like falling into a rut as of late, and moreover I kept stumbling across projects written in the Go programming language. After some hesitation, I decided to take the plunge, and it turns out I can still learn a new programming language in a couple of days. Go me!

And what a language it is.

Go is mostly targeted at server-side software, which makes it less relevant for games unless you’re doing multiplayer. Then again, it’s just as good for command-line apps (think tools), and there’s a healthy choice of libraries for text-based user interfaces that don’t require separate DLLs.

But what’s it like, exactly?

  • It compiles to native code like C++;
  • has garbage collection like Java;
  • the package system resembles Python modules;
  • the object system resembles the one in Haskell;
  • control structure syntax is like in Perl 6.

I’d say Go is an odd duck of a language, except it’s more of a platypus. Good to see programming language designers having some guts, after decades of slavishly imitating C.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #152

by on Jan.08, 2017, under News, Opinion

Hello, everyone! We’re having a slow week again, and most of it dedicated to interactive fiction as usual (sorry). For one thing, PC Gamer puts the recent IFComp in the spotlight, thus further cementing the genre’s return to the mainstream. And via K.D. we learn that Douglas Adams was working on a modern Hitchhiker’s Guide game right before his untimely death in 2001. It’s a bit of non-news, really, as the assets being lost means there’s no chance of reviving the project after all these years. Doubly so as those assets were likely made for VGA displays back in the day, which would make them unusable in the 4K era.

And that, of course, highlights yet again the folly of obsoleting perfectly good technology at the drop of a hat. Imagine if vinyl had been completely abandoned within the year from CDs hitting the market. No more support for turntables, nothing. Entire collections of old, rare music becoming completely useless unless people worked hard to maintain failing hardware until there were just no more dead units left to scavenge for parts. That’s what we’re doing with computer games, and before you ask why we should bother preserving some piece of shovelware, the answer is that you can only know a classic in retrospect. If you didn’t take care of it on time, sixteen years down the road — when you finally realize it wasn’t just another piece of shovelware after all — you can only weep for the loss. And that’s terrible.

Last but not least, my friend Kris is at it again with a batch of capsule reviews for tabletop RPGs and board games. Enjoy, and see you next time.

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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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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.

(continue reading…)

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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.

(continue 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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