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.
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.
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. With the launch of my latest project things have calmed down a bit, and as it happens we have a week with plenty of links as well.
Let’s start with some cool tools you can find on itch.io as of no more than a few days ago. For one thing, my own Stereo Imagination: a tool for generating 3D models with many repetitive elements by writing tiny scripts (15-20 lines can go a long way) in a clean, friendly language. Then we have a couple of legendary products, namely Adventure Game Studio and BlitzMax, that can also be acquired from the same place now.
But game developers also need to know their history. Via Konstantinos Dimopoulos comes the news of a Ms. Pac-Man retrospective occasioned by the game’s 35th anniversary, and an in-depth [review of Richard Gariott’s autobiography], that we also covered last time. What can I say, a living legend is going to generate interest.
Last but not least, while we’re on the subject of gaming history, Raphaël Lucas reminds people that the Internet Archive hosts, among other treasures, an extensive gamebook collection, that can be browsed online or downloaded in a variety of formats.
And that’s it for this week, largely because there’s not much to comment on any of this cool stuff. Enjoy!
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.
This spring, a friend of mine came up with an excellent gamebook made in Twine (now also on itch.io). At the time I appreciated not just the story itself, but also the way it worked around engine limitations to offer the player a character sheet at appropriate moments. And Kris isn’t the only one making RPGs in Twine, as I started to notice more recently. Which is a bit of a problem when using an authoring tool designed to display one passage at a time from a choose-your-own-adventure story, and not much else.
But what if I told you Twine has another face, one that allows you, with minimal effort, to make games with all the usual bells and whistles:
- a proper save dialog with multiple slots;
- more generally, a modal dialog system;
- graphical user interface elements;
- a fully customizable sidebar;
- toolbars and status lines.
It’s called SugarCube, and it’s as well-documented as it is powerful. Also heavyweight, which is why Twine 2 ships with the older, less capable branch in the package. For some reason, however, its capabilities aren’t well-known, even though plenty of Twine-using authors prefer it to the default Harlowe.
Having recently played a very nice text-based RPG made in Twine of all things, and tested a new (to me) authoring system in addition to resuming work on a text adventure, I was once more prompted to think about the similarities between different genres of text-based games. For example, nowadays we associate parser-based interfaces with brainy puzzlefests, or else sophisticated story games, but Adventure and Zork had RPG elements and a strong exploration component. And while works like Hunter, in Darkness or Kerkerkruip are generally seen as experimental, Eamon has always explicitly been an RPG engine, and proudly so (yes, I know people who still swear by it), despite looking for all the world like an interactive fiction authoring system. After all, is there really that much of a difference, mechanically speaking? It’s still a world model based on a graph of discrete locations, with objects that can be manipulated in the same basic ways: examine / take / drop. And the parser itself, as a mode of interaction, has inherent appeal to at least some players, orthogonally to the content. We shouldn’t mix up genre and medium here, like we do with videogames at large, where Heretic and Doom are seen as largely interchangeable simply because they’re based on the same engine and core verbs.
(I’d give newer examples, but I’m not aware of any fantasy first-person shooters this side of Hexen; all the famous titles appear to be sci-fi. Did the Daikatana debacle scare off everyone, or have games like the Elder Scrolls and Might&Magic series been covering the demand for first-person fantasy fans? Oh wait, there was Hellgate: London, another commercial flop. Fair enough, there’s a pattern.) (continue reading…)
It’s common nowadays to see people complaining online that there are too many games out there (or books, or music, you name it). It’s not nearly as common to hear them complain about too many game development tools, but that’s mostly because fewer people are game developers; if you hang around in the right circles, you’re bound to come across that one sooner or later. Interactive fiction, in particular, seems to suffer from this; a big part of nurturing new authors is helping them pick an authoring system. Already in the 8-bit era multiple companies sold competing products, in addition to the proprietary tools of major studios. Nowadays, the Cloak of Darkness website alone compares no less than 20 of them, and that’s just for parser-based works! As for me, I created as many (toy) authoring systems as I did text adventures — one of which actually saw real-world usage, to my eternal surprise and gratitude.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.
With so many authoring systems out there, some of them come so close in features and overall feel as to seem redundant. That’s inevitable. I will also argue this is a red herring. Funny, isn’t it? You never hear anyone complaining that markers and highlighters are redundant. Or crayons and colored pencils. Tempera and gouache. You get the idea. Arguably, software is different because it tends to proliferate in a way physical media do not, due to programmer hubris and the nature of computers, and I can’t fault people for feeling overwhelmed. But even subtle differences may matter more than you think.
In the rest of the article I’d like to compare three authoring systems for browser-based interactive fiction, with remarkably similar design, that nevertheless make for a far from trivial choice. (continue reading…)
Hello, everyone. As I’m writing these lines, No Time To Play is down, so I can only hope you’ll get to read them soon. One of my biggest finds this week has been a CRPG Directory listing an eclectic mix of mostly retro games in the genre, along with other resources such as blogs and forums. Interestingly, among them is listed Battle for Wesnoth, and I can’t even fault them considering how many RPG elements that game has. But most intriguing to me was the first entry:
The Adventure Creation Kit is a visual tool for making RPGs in the style of old Ultima games, running in DOS. And while that style of game ultimately lies outside my sphere of interest, I couldn’t resist taking a good look at ACK. Here’s what I discovered.
It seems appropriate that I’d have a week with few links again just as I have an announcement to make. I also have a game creation tool to review, and some ranting at the game industry, and that’s enough for now so let’s go.
The big news is that I’m returning to game development! I’ve been absent for a year, and I won’t be long most likely, but still. Here’s what I have so far:
Yep… that’s a first-person shoot’em up with voxel art — meaning the game is only rendered with voxels. I ran into difficulties right off the bat, which is why all I have now is scrolling scenery, but it’s coming along nicely. No, I won’t have a HTML5 version this time. Sorry.