No Time To Play

Eamon: between CRPGs and interactive fiction

by on Apr.13, 2017, under Case study

It’s safe to say that I like interactive fiction a lot better than computer role-playing games. Just about the only CRPG that ever piqued my interest was Planescape: Torment. Which, sure enough, may well be the most adventure-like such game ever created, with much more of a focus on storytelling than combat, and with a setting that came alive (literally, within the game’s fiction) in a way few other games managed. You could say it’s a matter of patience, but I spent countless days, weeks at a time, playing strategy games, and also sank plenty of hours in roguelikes — the RPGs’ low-tech, mechanistic cousins. So this isn’t about preferring story over gameplay, either; in fact, some of my all-time favorite games are shooters.

May seem strange, then, that someone like me would be interested in trying out Eamon, an RPG as old-school as they get, and of a flavor that wasn’t all that popular even back in the day.

But inspiration can be found in unlikely places. For one thing, Eamon is a cult classic: released as public domain software in 1982, it was recreated more than once, and the Deluxe edition (easily playable forevermore thanks to DOSBox), was last updated in 2012 — no less than three decades since the original! Apart from the early Ultima games and Infocom’s library, I can’t think of many games the same age that people worked as hard to preserve.

(continue reading…)

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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 #162

by on Mar.19, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone! I’ve set aside development for a while to play again, thanks to a present from a friend. But that didn’t stop me from also collecting a bunch of useful links.

For starters, both Gamasutra and Emily Short write about a new interactive fiction platform called Episode, that seems to have stealthily risen to massive popularity as of late. In related news, PC Gamer has an article titled The Tricky Business of Making Modern Adventure Games. And to look back into the past, Tim Schafer shares his thoughts on digital archeology (via Patrick Hellio).

Speaking of the past, this has been a good week for fans of retrogaming. On the one hand, there’s the story of a classic game magazine from the 1980s, and it’s surprisingly relevant. Hint: when a publication takes advertising from the same companies whose products they cover… yeah, you can’t blame the writers for being very careful what they write. It’s either that, or be out of a job faster than they can press Enter.

Luckily, nowadays you can be a game journalist for free, and that’s exactly what The Retrogaming Times crew is doing. Issue 7 is the first one I did more than skim, with a big retrospective of Street Fighter II — covering the social angle — and a number of Famicom games that deserve being remembered despite not being classics, among other subjects. All features are in-depth, so dive in! (And thanks to Vintage is the New Old for the tip, as usual.)

Sadly, I have to finish this issue with politics, namely an article on the people you won’t meet. Yes, it’s about Muslim game developers again. And it’s sad having to even bring it up, as if human rights could possibly be conditional, but I had no idea so many famous AAA games only exist thanks to developers of Iranian origin.

Can we please learn humanity already?

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Weekly Links #161: the science of games

by on Mar.12, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone. I’ll start with an article left over from last week, that I couldn’t show you because the site was down. Namely, about ephemeral gaming, and not just in the sense of bit rot, but simply the ability to play (for instance) World of Warcraft as it was in 2010, to pick an arbitrary year. Never mind recreating the mindset of players at the time, the mood it brought and the kind of interactions it led to.

Which is all good and well, but, um, you do realize a theatrical play or live music concert is an equally ephemeral experience, and nobody sees it as a problem to be solved, right? We record the performance, write down our thoughts about the cultural context and move on. And as the article points out, people already do that for videogames as well. Not just in the sense of let’s plays — I’ve seen videos of grand battles in the aforementioned MMORPG, recorded by a designated player, complete with commentary about the who, what and why.

But yeah, the Ancient Egyptians never writing down the rules of Senet because “everyone knew how to play the game”… that was just silly of them.

Still in the realm of scientists tackling games, here’s a couple of papers on the communities around game-making tools (it’s in French, but one of the papers is in English). I’m still working my way through the first one, but the bit about making imaginary videogames before having the means or skills to do it for real brought back childhood memories. As for the idea that making games is a game in itself… that’s our motto here at No Time To Play, so, pretty much?

In related news, we have an article about games that cater to more than the flight-or-fight instinct that’s the typical male response to violence. Turns out, another instinct people have is to protect the innocent and make allies, and not nearly enough games address that, leaving much of the potential audience out in the cold. Gee, I wonder why.

Last but not least, Gamasutra tells us about Warren Spector tracing Deus Ex back to a game of D&D, while an acquaintance has been writing a series of articles about development on the ZX81. And I’ll leave it at that because I’m way over quota again. See you next week.

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The outline of a game

by on Mar.09, 2017, under Miscellaneous

Do you know what an outliner is? It’s a kind of text editor that emphasizes working with the structure of a document — like parts, chapters and sections in a book. You can still edit the content normally, but you can also move stuff around more easily, collapse some chunks so you can focus on others and so on. There’s a lot of them out there, likely because it’s not so hard to code a simple one. But few are well-known (or at all), for reasons that I’ll try to explore later.

And that’s too bad, because multi-level information of this kind abounds in games. We just call it dialog trees, tech trees, or skill trees, and we tend to handle it with improvised tools, if not give up and just write some XML by hand. Likely with ad-hoc tags, too, because formats such as OPML are just as obscure as the general-purpose apps that can read and write them.

I played with one of two such tools long ago, but didn’t see the point at the time. That they were mere toys using proprietary formats didn’t help either. But recently a friend (hi, Kantuck!) started using Org Mode, the most powerful and well-known tool of its kind, and sending me files in its native format. While they read just fine as plain text, not being able to see it in tree form felt like I was missing essential nuance. Luckily there’s a much smaller Android app called Orgzly that can import them. Not so many desktop apps, even though parsing the basic structure should be within reach of any programmer (think lists in wiki markup; no seriously, that’s it).

The whole thing got me thinking. Couldn’t game development benefit from a popular outline format and tools to work with it? As it turns out, two such tools exist: with either Ink or ChoiceScript you can write an entire text adventure in a form that eerily resembles Org Mode, once you get past the little details. Both, however, seem designed to be written by hand; maybe Inkle Studios has a visual editor for internal use, but one is not needed.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #160

by on Mar.05, 2017, under News

Hello, everyone! With the recently concluded Game Developers Conference keeping everyone busy, I don’t have as many links today as for the last two weeks. But hey, as Michael Cook points out, not everyone could make it, and what they have to say is no less interesting. Like this article about ahead-of-time versus runtime procedural generation. Or this essay on videogames and genre, which comes up with a novel angle: in games, because they’re interactive, genre has two axes, not just one like in static media. In other words, it’s a field, not a line. Which explains why everyone, myself included, have had such a hard time getting a grip on the concept for so long.

In other news, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about game endings (via K.D.). Pretty ironic for someone famous for creating a neverending text-based MMO. I don’t agree with his position, by the way: while Undertale’s habit of remembering past playthroughs blew everyone’s mind, it also frustrated a lot of players who found themselves locked out of the best ending because they played too violently at first, as they’ve been conditioned to do for two generations. And sure, that’s how real life works… but the whole point of games is that they’re not real life. He also seems to forget that MMORPGs (including his own) had to compensate for the players’ inability to save and reload by making death inconsequential, also in order to avoid frustration.

When what you do has permanent consequences, however virtual, it’s no longer fun and games. Not that games have to be fun. But consider what exactly you’re putting in front of an audience.

Last but not least, via Emily Short, here’s a Kotaku article about black people in videogames. Unsurprisingly, the gist of it is that we’re still limited to stereotypes and caricatures, and that’s a terrible state of things this far into the 21st century. Especially as Unesco just hailed videogames as a great way to foster empathy between human beings in a world plagued by violent bigotry.

But that takes us into really dark territory. See you next week.

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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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Make software for people, not machines

by on Feb.23, 2017, under Off-topic, Opinion

This is somewhat off-topic here, pertaining as it does to software in general, not just games; though in my defense, the article that prompted it, called How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism, does turn out to be about games in the end. But games are software, and software development has been going through a massive crisis lately. Two, actually: one of burgeoning complexity, and one of relevance. And this ties into a bigger trend — pointed out by the aforementioned article — of people focusing more and more on the shiny toys while forgetting the who, the what and the why.

I ranted against techno-utopianism before: the childish belief that more shiny toys will somehow cure all the world’s ills by their mere presence, when it’s not the toys you have, but how you use them. (Look at the hubbub surrounding clean energy and self-driving cars when the Paris Metro has been automated and nuclear-powered for decades — and yes, nuclear is cleaner than coal.) Or that computer algorithms are somehow objective and unbiased, a notion recent case studies have thoroughly dismantled, but one technocrats love, for obvious reasons: it justifies the status quo in which they rule the world.

In the software industry, this attitude took the form of successive technologies being touted as panacea. In turn, we were sold structured programming, logic and functional programming, OOP, UML, XML. More recently it was frameworks, and now everything is package managers and deployment systems.

(continue reading…)

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