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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Hello, everyone! It’s yet another good week, despite my interests still lying well outside gaming for now. Let’s start with a couple of game retrospectives from Hardcore Gaming 101, first the long-lost and recently unearthed Warcraft Adventures, then of a much newer title: Tim Schafer’s big comeback Broken Age. Which, if anything, illustrated both the potential and the danger crowdfunding holds even for a veteran game designer with countless fans. And still in the way of game retrospectives, Emily Short’s latest RPS column is about games that involve dressing up and going to a party, preferably with a good dose of swashbuckling. Much like her own creation Pytho’s Mask, that’s still among my all-time favorites.
In more technical news, we have another RPS article, this time on tools for RPG writing (think branching conversations and quests), and via Juhanna Leinonen, the announcement of a tool for translating interactive fiction. Not much to say there, except that tools are as hard to make as they are increasingly needed for good games, so it’s worth paying attention.
I’ll end with a story that’s more about art, culture and people than games, but still relevant in my opinion: Vanishing Point, or How the Light Grid Defined 1980s Futurism. On this note I bid you a good week. Until next time.
Hello, everyone! While still working insanely fast on a project only tangentially related to games (and getting overly tired in the process), this week I somehow managed to gather a nice collection of links on the side.
In the way of legendary game designers, there are good news and bad news. The bad news is, Pac-Man’s creator just died. No comment, except that he’ll be remembered. On the other hand, Richard Gariott isn’t only alive and well, but he was just interviewed by Polygon over his new autobiography. And I dunno about the book, but the write-up makes for pretty good reading.
For the game designers among us, Jay Barnson has a few thoughts on character generation in RPGs. And, well, show me someone who made the acquaintance of D&D and didn’t immediately try to roll a character or ten, even before they had any way to actually play them. Sure, organic development has its place — I went with that approach in my own roguelikes — but the fix for unfamiliar options isn’t removing them, or for that matter forcing the player to read a huge-ass manual upfront. Rather, make sure that:
- The process itself is fun and lets players express themselves, and
- no single choice is wrong once the game starts.
As for we writers, of games or anything else, Alexis Kennedy just published an excellent article about worldbuilding. And it’s a lesson I had to learn myself the hard way, after my first few attempts at imaginary universes fell flat. In his words:
This does not mean that invented worlds don’t need to feel consistent. Let me say that again, without the double negative, because it’s important: invented worlds should feel consistent! But an invented world can be consistent and detailed and very very dull.
Which is exactly what happens when you build your world first, i.e. before the story. Which is very much putting the cart before the horses. Because you see, what he doesn’t say is that for an audience to care they need something to empathize with. And people don’t empathize with rocks. Give me some characters first; make me care about them, and then I’ll care about their world by extension, even if their world is a tepid medieval village.
But I could write a lot more about that. Let’s finish by pointing out the recent release of Twine 2.1. Which is a bigger upgrade than it sounds, so be sure to check the forums for issues ahead of time.
Have a very nice week.
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.
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.
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.