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Everything game development: news, lessons, discussion

Weekly Links #271

26 May 2019 — No Time To Play

So the big news this week is that yet another open console has been announced, and as usual techies are excited to no end. I say techies, not the general gameing public, because the public is just going to stick with the Switch, or at most the PS4 if they're loaded. Just the way it went with the Ouya. Remember that one? How much people insisted that no no, see, this one was going to succeed where all others had failed, because... er... um... one of them has to sooner or later?

Needless to say, it didn't, and the only reason I bother to mention it is that the other big news this week was the Ouya store finally closing down for good. Yep, turns out it was still alive, to everyone's genuine surprise. The timing of these two announcements seems too close to be a coincidence. Not that it matters.

What matters is: I love open consoles. I love the idea and very much wish for one to succeed at last. Heck, ten years ago I wrote an incendiary opinion piece explaining why they were the wave of the future.

Do you need a diagram to figure out how far off the mark that prediction was?

This phenomenon puzzled me for the longest time. In retrospect, however, the reason why this keeps happening is obvious: yes, it's the nerds who love the hardware itself. The techies. The tinkerers. Those who just want a shiny new piece of electronics to fool around with and push over the limit. Those to whom the Pi is already old hat.

And we're a minority. Everyone else just wants something to play games on. Which nowadays they can easily do on a smartphone. Why do you think Nintendo has been leery of allowing Pokemon titles on any device not manufactured by them? It's the only thing that keeps the DS going. That, and the traditional loss-leader model of game consoles makes them a good value proposition.

In other words, exactly what open consoles aren't. Hint: custom devices sold in small series, even at cost, are going to be expensive. And manufacturers want to make a profit. They're, you know, businesses. It'd help if an open console became wildly popular, allowing economies of scale to drive down costs.

But then it would just be called a PC.

In the way of news, this week we have:

  • a survey about the Interactive Fiction Competition;
  • thoughts about fictional books players can read inside videogames;
  • my newest teaching project, a shoot'em up in just 200 LOC.

Sadly I have to end with a new request for financial help. See below the cut.

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Tags: interactive-fiction, rpg, worldbuilding

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Weekly Links #270

19 May 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! It was another week with nothing to post until Saturday. In my defense, I've been working hard on a visual edition of my game, which in turn uncovered some omissions in the prototype, so I had to go back and fix those too. Despite that, it took essentially as much time to make: another two weeks. Not bad at all, seeing how I had to make a GUI and it all took twice as much code overall.

So I give you Space Cruiser Orion. It was a bit rushed, to be ready in time for the newsletter. Still got to add sound effects and another small feature. But it's fully playable, even winnable, and doesn't it look gloriously retro?

And because this editorial is too short, let me announce that a sequel was planned from the beginning. Should be a lot easier to do, now that many details are all figured out, including a bunch of support libraries. Hopefully a few more ports, too, if this game proves popular enough, but somehow they never seem to be. Maybe some day.

In the way of news, we have a technical article about implementing game saves, and a couple of books about the implementation of classic first-person shooters. Details after the cut.

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Tags: graphics, programming, history

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Weekly Links #269

12 May 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! With the command-line prototype out of the way, it was time to tackle the game as intended. And it's been coming along remarkably well:

(Screenshot of a retro strategy game drawn in primary colors, showing an abtract galactic map.)

This despite some firsts for me, such as having a proper mouse-driven GUI in a SDL-powered title, complete with text input. Which required some custom coding, but you know what? All games used to, back in the day, and they did just fine. It's been fun to work on, and not even hard for the basics. In fact, I often have to write more code than this to get a proper GUI toolkit do what I need. And damn if it doesn't look gloriously retro. The right font also helps a lot with that part.

So it happens that a week in, the game looks poised to take no longer than the prototype did (despite already being bigger), and yield some reusable code too. Feedback has been good as well, and there's even a player's guide now. Stay tuned.

In the way of news, this week we have a big rant about an equally big coverage of the Star Citizen debacle, and a whole bunch of links for retrogaming enthusiasts. Details below the cut.

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Tags: business, game-design, interaction, graphics, philosophy

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Weekly Links #268

05 May 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! As expected, my game prototype took another week to finish, or almost. I took a break before starting on a more presentable version; in the mean time, you can enjoy it in command-line glory, like the original mainframe game:

(I was going to embed the gist here, but it turns out to pull the whole damn thing, not just a nice little box with a "view more" link like any reasonable person would expect from, you know, an embed code. So hop over to GitHub to get Space Cruiser Orion. Bonus points if you get the reference. Classic sci-fi for the win!)

You'll need a Python interpreter (normally version 3, but 2 might just work), and some familiarity with the subgenre; there is extensive built-in help, but no tutorial. And it could use one, the game being quite a bit more involved than it appears at first. Which is what drew me to it in the first place, and what makes a modern port worth doing. Wish I had the energy for many of them. Speaking of which.

In the mean time, I also wrote a 700-word review of Space Trader, a now-classic mobile game that I somehow never heard of when my Palm was still new, so I'm catching up belatedly. One thing the review doesn't mention is how many other ports there are apart from the two Android versions: to iPhone, Windows and even Java. The latter works, too, so you can play pretty much anywhere.

As for the news, this week we have a chat with Julian Gollop of X-Com fame, and a piece about politics in videogames. Details after the cut.

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Tags: history, interview, game-design, politics, classics, review

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Weekly Links #267

28 April 2019 — No Time To Play

The muses are funny sometimes. Somehow over the course of last week I went from dungeon crawls, through fighting games, and all the way to space strategy games.

(Screenshot of a terminal emulator showing a game map and command line.)

Yep, that's a clone of Super Star Trek. Don't ask. Let's just say people love classic games, and there's a shortage of modern versions for this one. Even though, surprise surprise, it's a more complex game than it seems. Definitely not a toy as I expected initially. But then, that's all for the best. Instead of this being just practice for the game I really wanted to do (an older design), it will be the first part of a duology. To top it all, I seem to have come up with yet another fictional setting, this time retro sci-fi. And that in turn opens up all kinds of possibilities.

In the way of news, we have a chat about diversity and crunch with Tanya X. Short, and a bigger discussion of the line between hobbyist and indie. Both painful yet necessary these days. Details below the cut.

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Tags: indie, business, interview, retrogaming, philosophy

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Weekly Links #266: good business, bad business

21 April 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! I'll keep it short today. Even after release, Keep of the Mad Wizard keeps providing inspiration. This time in the form of an article about combat in videogames. Which in turns suggests what I should work on next. An early experiment has already fizzled out; got two more ideas to try in the coming week. Details once I have something more solid, even just a prototype.

In the mean time, let's see the news.

I had just published the previous newsletter when this crossed my Twitter feed: an in-depth explanation of how Telltale Games crashed and burned so suddenly, late last year. And damn if it doesn't sound familiar:

  1. young company does innovative work by a fresh formula;
  2. they take off slowly and do just fine for a while;
  3. one day they capture lightning in a bottle and become famous;
  4. they start dreaming big, and take investors on board;
  5. investors turn out to care about nothing except obscene profits;
  6. company burns itself down trying to satisfy them.

You know... just like every single business I ever worked for that actually meant something to me. Dear young entrepreneurs: are you ever going to learn? At all?

Go read the article for the grisly details. But gee, you mean treating your best people like shit until they leave you to become the competition is a bad idea?

In other news, someone has finally remade 8-bit classic The Sentinel, and (as reported by several sources) Jason Scott strikes again, putting up on GitHub the complete source code of Infocom text adventures. And oh, there's also Hardcore Gaming 101 covering Unreal.

Last but not least, we have the first interview with employees of ArenaNet, makers of Guild Wars, after the massive layoffs from a few months ago. Note how these were handled compared to other high-profile cases, and how the company continues to systematically reject crunch. Reads like sci-fi, doesn't it?

Until next time, be kind to yourself.

Tags: business, classics, interview

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Immature on the Internet

16 April 2019 — No Time To Play

It's scary to think back. Years have passed since I became a moderator on the Itch.io community forum (unpaid, mind you; people have been asking). It's a part of my life now, and that means a lot. It's also made it a lot harder for me to express personal opinions over there. Not because of any interdiction, but simply because everything I post sounds official when it comes with a moderator badge attached.

So any venting has to happen over here. Sorry about that.

There are people who think they are somehow entitled to a good spot in search results on the site. And not as in asking if we sell advertising spots (we don't, but people could ask if they had serious intentions). No, they seem to expect good placement for free. Somehow. Out of 160K projects. That's not a typo. As of this writing, there are one hundred and sixty thousand games hosted on Itch. No matter how you sort them, only a tiny fraction will ever fit in the first ten pages of results... or the first hundred pages.

Oh, we've done things to mitigate that. Our ranking algorithm is designed to make projects bob up and down in listings all the time, so that more of them get a moment in the limelight. But "more of them" can only be relative when there's so many.

There are people who take an invitation to show off their own work and keep beating a drum, much too loudly, until a staff member has to come and ask them nicely to tone it down because they're disturbing the other guests. At which point they start screaming censorship. And never mind what that word means. We have a report link on every game and every forum post. When someone uses it, we pay attention.

And when we make it clear to those people that their childish tantrums don't fly, they suddendly turn very very nice and try to butter me up. Funny how they always start by approaching someone they perceive as being lower on the totem pole. Do they think me some timid, naive intern just out of college? Because I'm over 40. I've worked in all kinds of jobs, with all kinds of people. Think again.

Sure, every place online has to deal with this sort of crap. There's an ongoing incident over on the Open Game Art forums. Boy, am I glad not to be involved in that one. Ours are seldom so bad. And we still have to ban someone roughly twice a year on average, if memory serves. Which we only do at length, after much hesitation. That's an unwritten policy we have. We think it's better than the alternative, even though it sometimes means letting abusive behavior slide, to the detriment of marginalized creators who found a home with us after long wanderings.

Some people still call us dictatorial for even raising the prospect.

Some people clearly aren't used to being told "no".

I see you. I know your tricks. And I have a duty to everyone else. So be good.

Tags: personal, meta

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Weekly Links #265

14 April 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! This week's big news is that I released Keep of the Mad Wizard, after exactly one month of working on it. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. It remains to be seen if this will also translate into popularity. In any event, I just had my largest simultaneous release yet, with the game available in four places:

And that's not all, either. I also spent Friday preparing and releasing a second edition of Battles&Balances, the RPG rule system used in the game. It now has a proper magic system and proper support for wizards or other characters with special abilities, such as martial artists, along with other small improvements.

Now to give it cover art at last, and then a short break before the next project.

In the way of news, we have a postmortem of Das Geisterschiff, a game I last mentioned in early January. Not much to say there, it's a very enlightening read overall. Just note the bits about cutting features that don't carry their own weight, and about doing your own thing, not what you imagine a mass audience would like.

Not much else today, I'm afraid. It was one of those weeks. I'll end with this blog post about photorealism in art, which applies just as well to games as it does to animation. No, it's not just nostalgia that drives people to make them with pixel art or low-poly models.

But sure, real-time raytracing is finally here. Ask yourself what happens when even that gets old.

Tags: tabletop, rpg, postmortem, game-design, graphics

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Weekly Links #264

07 April 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! As of right now, Keep of the Mad Wizard is on the home stretch.

(Screenshot of a computer role-playing game showing a character sheet.)

Since last time, I implemented potions, added more content, and figured out what to do for the endgame. Even added a good chunk of it, apart from the ability to solve it with spells. Also a prologue and epilogue, that give the game at least the pretense of a story. The game is coming out shorter and easier than expected, but it's not automatic, and feels balanced enough. It even requires different play styles for the three classes!

And because working on a game is great for inspiration, I wrote yet another article about CRPGs, more exactly scope versus accessibility, for player and developer alike.

In the way of news, we have the long-awaited release of Pygame 1.9.5, Itch.io's new job board, a write-up about licensed games and a retrospective of the King's Quest series. Details after the cut.

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Tags: rpg, game-design, programming, business, classics

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Weekly Links #263

31 March 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! I made considerable progress with the game for the past week.

(Screenshot of a computerized gamebook presenting a combat encounter.)

Among many small changes, the game flow is considerably improved in places, combat now works, and generally most rules are implemented. In fact, only potions are left to add. And of course lots and lots of content, though I've started working on that, too. Only the endgame still needs more thinking. It would be nice to have more than a simple cutscene. Not sure what though.

No less important is the article I wrote about this iteration of the game design, which reopens an avenue of research I thought abandoned. And then there are various refinements and additions that will go into the second edition of Battles&Balances, the magic system in particular.

In the way of news, we have business shenanigans in the game industry, a discussion of colonialism in games, and the Spring Game Jam organized by Open Game Art. Details below the cut.

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Tags: rpg, game-design, business, representation, game-jam

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