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.
Hello, everyone! As of this weekend, a demo level of Laser Sky can be played right here on No Time To Play, or else over on itch.io. It’s an early release, so no music or menu system yet, but you can see what the gameplay is like. Please leave feedback!
This week we also have not one, but two newspieces from Techdirt: one about a game developer connecting with pirates to turn them into paying customers, the other about DRM hurting paying customers. Again. And never mind that the game is already cracked and widely available for free (just search for it). This problem could have easily been noticed on time if developers had bothered to test on anything but their own high-end workstations.
Folks, once again. PCs from 7-8 years ago, with just 2 gigabytes of RAM and a single, slow CPU core are still very common. Optimize your software, or see your sales plummet. It’s a simple choice.
In more topical news, Polygon explains why the source code of classic games matters. I’ll add that it’s not just for the historical insights. But a lot of people who play games naturally want to make their own, and being able to study the classics is essential in any art. The difference is that in literature, or music, everything is out in the open by definition. Software, however, has source code. And without access to it, we all have to reinvent the wheel repeatedly. No wonder it never quite seems to end up round.
On a related note, here’s a write-up about voxels that echoes my old one, while being much longer and less technical. It’s worth a look, for the sake of comparison if nothing else. And as I’m nearing the end here, have this interview with the creators of Event, the new indie game everyone’s crazy about.
Last but not least, a reminder that the Interactive Fiction Competition 2016 just opened yesterday. So go play some games, and enjoy.
Hello, everyone. Today was supposed to be a brief newsletter, but things didn’t work out that way, so bear with me. Let’s start with a couple of videogames-in-the-mainstream news. First there’s The Guardian running a feature on walking simulators, and while it’s good to see the genre getting recognition, it’s equally dismaying to see how quickly people forget history. A lush, exotic island that the player can explore at their leisure, putting together a story from scattered pieces, and giving it their own interpretation? A meditative experience? Environment as narration? Where have we heard all that before?
Oh wait. The description perfectly fits Myst, that took the world by storm nearly a quarter of a century ago, and went on to sell six million copies (not counting the rest of the franchise) before being relegated to a cult classic status. But sure, let’s rewrite history and pretend walking simulators descend from first-person shooters instead. Never mind all the puzzle-less interactive fiction that showed the way for graphical adventure games even as the latter were dying a shameful death — and nobody paid attention; I don’t expect most game journalists to be aware of those. Myst, however, is a different matter. Learn your history, folks.
(Admittedly, it was the Bioshock games — a FPS franchise — that first took a hint from Myst and brought that particular storytelling technique back into the limelight. But, tellingly, the article fails to mention Bioshock, too.)
In unrelated news, Techdirt covers the story of a game developer that sued Steam customers over negative reviews (I’ll spare you another rant), only to have their games promptly dumped from the same Steam. Not out of any love for free speech, of course. Funny, though, how treating people well in fact goes hand in hand with good business, rather than the two being at odds. Too bad the Valves of the world are so few and far between.
In the game design department, Emily Short tackles the problem many developers have recently discovered to their dismay: namely, that procedural generation is inherently repetitive. And of course she’s right: making sure your level generator can create a variety of situations for players to deal with is a good idea. But even that is missing the point; nature, after all, can be repetitive too. A multi-hour train ride through certain parts of Europe will reveal an endless parade of forests, rivers, ponds, hillocks and forests again. What makes most places special isn’t some unique landscape feature, but all the time we spend there, and the memories we gather of the place.
What can players do in your game that’s actually meaningful to them?
Speaking of what players can do in games, just yesterday Konstantinos Dimopoulos spotted this pair of interviews with the creators of Mario 64, from the distant past of 1996. Note how the recurring theme is, you know a game is good when players have fun just stomping around doing random stuff. And on a similar note, Gamasutra is running a postmortem of the Sorcery games by Inkle Studios, detailing the challenges of adapting a beloved gamebook series to a digital medium.
But I already wrote way more than planned, so until next week, remember to value the past.
Hello, everyone. Not one week ago word got around the Web that old issues of their magazine were on the Internet Archive, and Nintendo promptly took them down. At least they have the decency to admit they’re just being control freaks, rather than pretending it’s somehow still about money. Oh well.
While on the topic of magazines, SPAG #64 is out is out — a very high-brow issue that’s about much more than just interactive fiction. So is Jason Dyer’s history of the original Adventure: an excellent illustration of why the public domain is as important in gaming as in any other artistic medium. Having recently reimplemented a public domain game myself (for my upcoming book), I can’t stress this enough.
Last but not least, over at Rock, Paper Shotgun Emily Short writes about the power of text as a medium. Knowing how little and poorly we make use of this power in most games (heck, most books), I welcome more discussion on this topic. Or preferably, more experimentation.
Thankfully, that’s happening aplenty. Stay tuned.
Hello, everyone! Last weekend being Ludum Dare 35, my good friends Chip Caramel and Jimun couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And their new game looks especially fun, so you’ll forgive me for giving it a plug.
In unrelated news, a new mini-scandal swept up the industry in the past week. Yet another huge argument about working conditions, specifically crunch. Out of all the bloggers I follow, however, only one stood out. I give the stage to Emily Short.
I will add that you never actually need crunch. If you’re a decision maker and you have to drive your developers into crunch mode, you screwed up the release schedule. And the most likely reason is, you got overambitious. Probably against repeated warnings, too. And now they have to pay for your unchecked greed? With their well-being and personal lives?
No. Just no. Leave us alone.
To end on a more lighthearted note (ha ha… sob), it turns out that the average web page today is as large as the original Doom. And it’s not nearly as entertaining or revolutionary. Or, to turn the comparison on its head, that’s how much they could do 23 years ago with the amount of bytes a modern website requires just to show you a pretty picture, a few words and a “subscribe to our newsletter” popup. Seriously?
Luckily, public opinion is slowly but surely turning against this bloat. And if we can do better in web design, we can do better in games.
Hello, everyone. I’ll start by highlighting a couple of rants. Over at The Guardian, Michael Cook comments on public reactions to AlphaGO’s recent victory, and why our view of artificial intelligence may be skewed. In related news, Newsweek reports on a talk at the recently concluded Game Developer’s Conference about Muslim stereotypes in videogames. I wrote about it just two months ago, so I won’t insist. And on his blog, Jay Barnson comments on the old contract, recently unearthed, that nearly killed the Ultima series. Last but not least, an article over at Gamasutra explains in detail what makes award-winning game Her Story work so well.
If I were to draw any conclusion from this week’s news, it would be that mentalities are everything. But that apparently remains too hard to grasp by people who make a fetish of high technology. And one day this willful blindness will get us all in really hot water. Have a nice week.
Hello, everyone. I had yet another week of writing and editing, with more editing and art coming, not to mention other things. So yeah, still not much attention span to spare here. But the news are no less worth it.
The big one this week was that a computer had beaten a world-class GO champion. Which is incredibly meaningful, because it’s not the kind of problem you can solve with more processing power (unlike the time when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess). You have to build genuine intelligence into your code — and somebody did. It’s part of the same trend as self-driving cars; funny how fast AI has advanced once we gave up on trying to blithely imitate people, and just treated it like another tool in the box.
Anyway, in unrelated news, it turns out that procedural generation of text predates computers by centuries. Which makes perfect sense, because the concept of computation has been around for much longer than the idea of an universal computer, and indeed doesn’t depend on it. In fact, there is a staggering variety of natural processes that can perform computation — one of them, DNA self-duplication, gave birth to us. That people thought of it (in a very meta way it turns out) so long ago is a lesson worth learning.
In the way of actual game development, one of my favorite people in gaming interviews the creators of 80 Days, and while it’s not exactly new information, the way it’s put together makes it fresh again, so give it a read. Last but not least, another story that made waves this week: in a lengthy blog post, an indie game developer explains why they had to fire most of the crew after a successful game launch. And you know, I can understand just fine why someone would make the kind of mistakes described in the article, having seen very similar stories play out before (from the perspective of an employee who had to be laid out). But I wish people would figure out already that:
- ambition is bad;
- you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single basket;
- ambition is bad;
- Steam is not your friend;
- ambition is bad.
No, seriously. I’m sick and tired of hearing how you’d supposedly never have started anything without ambition. I seem to start — and finish — a whole lot of different things, and while none of them has reached epic size or widespread success yet, I have a lot more to show for my efforts right now than my friends who rushed to build a dream castle before they had a solid foundation, and it all crumbled to rubble one day.
Until next week, consider the virtues of patient work.
It’s an awkward moment to post this newsletter: the Interactive Fiction competition is set to end at midnight, and the Procedural Generation Jam two hours after that. But then, once they’re both done I’m going to need some time looking at the entries, so maybe it’s better to leave them for next week.
For now, other news. After Prince of Persia, another gaming classic has its source code recovered and made public. Atari’s Star Raiders is now on the Internet Archive, in the form of a book full of 6502 assembly code. A few volunteers have started moving it to GitHub, but from here to being able to rebuild the game is a long way. Still, it’s one more bit of gaming history preserved for future generations.
Moving on. Nowadays it seems hard to believe, but there was a time when PCs didn’t come with built-in sound cards. Well, there’s a book out recounting how it all started, and it turns out the Sound Blaster won via business trickery, not technical excellence. Where did we hear that before? Oh yeah, it’s how Microsoft ended up utterly dominating the operating system market for decades. Still think capitalism has your best interests in mind?
Last but not least, I rant often enough against the dangers of always chasing the latest fad in computer graphics, so it warms my heart to see that artists from outside the digital realm understand the issue better than people who spent decades immersed in it. As the article points out,
The odd thing about games as opposed to more traditional mediums such as painting is how entire aesthetics are often considered obsolete as technology progresses. Imagine if cubism or impressionism were simply tossed aside with the invention of digital painting.
Oh, there is the occasional exception to that, such as pixel art, but we need many more such exceptions. And while my own experiment with low-poly art didn’t go anywhere, the potential is obvious. So consider it, maybe?
With my schedule messed up again by a death in the family and a fight with bureaucracy, I almost forgot it was time for another newsletter. The week’s highlights are a couple of articles about the so-called “indiepocalypse”, and how it’s way overblown: one relying on statistical analysis, the other on a look at history, and both drawing the same conclusion: good games still sell, bad games still tank. Nothing to see here, move along.
In other news, Techdirt alerts of even more game-breaking DRM changes on Windows. And for game developers, @gnomeslair points at a dialogue editor based on Twine. I wrote about alternate uses for Twine before; this is someone taking the same idea to its logical conclusion. And via the same source, here’s an article about the best games based on books — food for thought whether you’re a developer, writer or player.
Last but not least, I want to talk about a very personal writeup titled Video Games Versus Disability. Mind you, I’m able-bodied. But I’ve met blind people who play MUDs and interactive fiction because hardly any other kind of game works for them, and it pains me just to think of that. As for hearing… I remember playing Blade Runner back when my English wasn’t nearly this good (my spoken English still lags behind), and wishing for subtitles to help me along a little. Imagine being physically unable to hear the game at all. Come to think of it, try playing your own game with the speakers unplugged. Screen contrast turned way down. A metronome tick-tocking in front of the screen. The language changed to one you don’t speak well. These will give you just a taste of how some people experience not just games, but every waking moment of their lives. Can you make something they can enjoy anyway?
Until next week, think about those who Are Not Like You™. Thanks.
This will be a quick newsletter again, if not quite as short as last time. Let me start with a link I found on the last stretch, to a Rock, Paper, Shotgun roundtable discussing Kickstarter in 2015. Here’s the one paragraph that struck me:
Isn’t it fascinating though that, when it comes to less conventionally commercial games, people would rather be sold a dream than reality? You’d get more backers for a weird or cute kickstarter than you would chucking a few dollars at something existent on Itch.io, right?
And that’s funny, because I was just talking to a friend the other day (hi, Chip!) about Patreon, and how he often has to lie to himself that the less-than-epic rewards that artists sometimes come up with (and we don’t blame them, mind you) are actually worth the money he gives them. While on itch.io, most titles sell so badly that a single sale can noticeably buoy me in popularity listings. And I get that dreams look better in people’s minds than finished creations, which can’t help but have flaws. But has the absurdity of capitalism reached such heights that it’s time to fire the creators and just sell pure marketing to a public who doesn’t need the actual products anymore because they already have too much stuff?
In unrelated news, the highly successful launch of Super Mario Maker prompts Gamasutra to publish an article about the many ways hardware limitations defined the original classic, and how they can still inform its modern successors. And over at The Escapist, Shamus Young explains why your not-so-old computer suddenly can’t play the latest games anymore. A good reminder for game developers about the complexities of computer performance. No, your machine isn’t typical. There’s no such thing as a typical PC.
Last but not least, Hardcore Gaming 101 treats us to a retrospective of The Last Express, and Polygon explains how Dragon Age costumes are influenced by cosplayers. I’d heard before about creators going for cosplay-able costumes, so this is pretty cool.
But that’s all for this Sunday. See you next week.
P.S. A gentle reminder that No Time To Play is on itch.io if you want to show your support. Thank you.