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.
Hello, everyone. Somehow, in-between working feverishly on the new mystery project mentioned last time (to be announced Really Soon Now), I managed to gather a good handful of links anyway, half of which are even about game design! Let’s start with Emily Short writing about small scale structures in CYOA — something that can seem obvious, but it’s worth thinking about explicitly. Then we have Jay Barnson linking to a couple of older articles about the perils of adapting tabletop RPGs to computers. A long read, but very much worth it. Then, on a more political note there’s Rock, Paper, Shotgun analyzing how we encode gender stereotypes in videogames — literally. Don’t be that game developer, mmm-kay?
(On a similar note, Carolyn VanEseltine has some notes from a conference speech on Arab representation in games post 9/11. It seems to be a recurring theme this year, and things aren’t likely to get better any time soon.)
Last but not least, in the way of digital nostalgia, The Atlantic revisits dial-up BBSes, while Rock, Paper, Shotgun (them again) takes a last, long look at Wurm Online. And while the passing of an online virtual world is natural and unavoidable, if sad, it’s good to hear that alternate means of digital communication are still alive, even in the small. Because humankind needs alternatives more than ever.
Until next time, don’t be a sheep. Thanks for reading.
Hello, everyone! Despite difficulties that nearly killed the event, Ludum Dare 36 took place last weekend. My friends Chip Caramel and Jimun were at it again, and came up with their best game yet. Check this out:
Around the same time, I was briefly involved in a Tumblr conversation about the point of videogames, and the consensus is what I’ve been pointing out for years now: that games express themselves through the way they interact with players, and unless a game mechanic is front and center, what you have isn’t a game. Read for details.
On a similar note, Alexis Kennedy of Fallen London and Sunless Sea fame explains why more content won’t save your game — a write-up that starts kind of abruptly, but has a lot to say by the end. And still in the game design department, here’s the first installment in a comparative history of videogames from the perspective of inventory systems. Knowing how tricky it is to make a good one, I say that’s as useful as it is unusual.
I’ll end with a little bit of history. Remember a while ago when Jason Scott recovered the source code for the original Prince of Persia? Turns out he’s been at it again, making available previously unknown alpha and beta builds of Karateka — Jordan Mechner’s other classic. Game designers can now see how the seminal beat’em up took shape, and that’s no less important than writers being able to read the early drafts of famous novels or poems from centuries past.
On that thought, I’ll leave you enjoy the Sunday. Have a great next week.
Hello, everyone. It turns out I missed a link last week, but it’s too good to pass up. Via Roguebase we get this interview with a co-author of Rogue, and it’s a wonderfully refreshing read. And via Vintage is the new old we learn of a new retrogaming zine, that provides a lot of content for a free publication. It’s clearly aimed at a North American audience, which kind of leaves me on the outside, but YMMV.
Last but not least, there are many books out there on how to get started with game development. I even wrote one myself. Not many of them are aimed at kids, though, and this is where Anna Anthropy’s new book comes in. (Hat tip to Emily Short for the link.) Which reminds me that back in the day, all those Basic programming books were squarely aimed at children, with colorful, whimsical covers depicting friendly computers as playmates, and full of references to whatever was popular in media at the time. When did game development turn all adult and serious?
Oh wait, I know: when the kids of the 1980s grew up. And that’s us. How did we manage to so thoroughly forget that programming was supposed to be a game?
You know, it’s funny. Usually when I’m working on something not related to games, the newsletter tends to be pretty thin, since my attention is directed elsewhere. This week is an exception, and a big one at that.
Let’s start with news from interactive fiction, where there’s a new authoring tool on the block. After years in development, Texture was just opened to the public, prompting Emily Short to interview co-author Jim Munroe. An interesting experiment, but I’d rather explore the interface from Infocom’s Journey, as detailed by Jimmy Maher
Moving from IF to retrocomputing, via Vintage Is the New Old we get an interview with a C64 developer from Sweden — an intriguing history lesson. And from the same source, Nintendo launches a NES clone with dozens of classic games built-in… more than ten years after cheap South Asian clones of the legendary console went out of fashion. Good morning, big N. Last but not least, the world’s first graphical MMORPG (it ran on the C64 nearly 30 years ago!) has been open sourced, and they’re trying to get it running again. Specifically, the server, which is a rather thorny problem, for reasons both technical and legal.
To end with a trio of random links, the annual Procjam conference and gamedev event just announced its upcoming zine (with a call for submissions), and for fans of tabletop roleplaying there’s a new web-based tool to make rule supplements that look just like official D&D books. And knowing the kind of work that goes into good-looking RPG books, I can only appreciate the effort. Last but not least, let me highlight ComboPool, a Pico-8 game that manages to blend billiards with 2048, of all things.
Goes to show that limitations really do spur creativity. So be creative.