Let a billion videogames bloom

Everything game development: news, lessons, discussion

When games grow and time passes

17 September 2019 — No Time To Play

This was supposed to go in the newsletter, but it quickly ballooned into its own thing. Via the Pygame Discord server, here's a post from last week about What Happened to the Real Time Strategy Genre. I've followed trends in the area even less than the author, so let's see what they have to say:

In any case this brings us to the first thing that happened to RTS games: They innovated like crazy, created several new genres and split up into many smaller genres.

This includes things like tower defense, tower offense, more hero focused games like League of Legends, (but also some games in the the Dawn of War series) the new genre of auto chess, the tug of war genre, (still not really popular outside of StarCraft 2 mods for some reason…) survival strategy like RimWorld, idle games, blends with 4X games, non-combat RTS, Pikmin–likes, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Which is good insight. MOBA games sprang from one Warcraft III mod. Tower defense started as an informal challenge for its direct predecessor. Idle games... maybe if you see them as offshoots of ultra-casual economic simulations like the infamous FarmVille. Either way, all these subgenres appeared because it was what people wanted to play. And as the author points out:

When you make the game that you should make, (“should” according to what’s hot right now) instead of the game that you actually would want to play, it usually doesn’t turn out that well.

Yep... I keep telling aspiring creators: write the stories you'd like to read. Make the games you'd like to play. The art you'd like to see. It's not even about setting versus following trends, but having something to say. Doesn't even have to be original. It does however need soul.

But there's one point the author misses entirely: ultimately, there's nothing wrong with gameing having some classics that remain great to play for a long time. Old books don't become automatically boring by virtue of being old. Shakespeare is still popular, too. And not always in the original form, either; we come up with updated versions all the time.

Which is exactly what people have been doing with games as of late. And just in time to rescue some of those old masterpieces from oblivion as bits rot away.

Tags: strategy, philosophy, game-design

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Weekly Links #287

15 September 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Just over a year ago, Discord opened its own game store. Yesterday, it closed down, as reported by much of the gaming press. I couldn't be bothered to look up the details. They deserved it. Anything else is fluff: that subscription services tanked in the e-book world, too, and for that matter it hasn't been easy with audio and video either. Or that the market was already crowded, which is a red herring in the first place. There's something to be said about a business branching out of its comfort zone: it seldom goes well. And all the MBA bullshit you might hear about the reasons why is bunk.

Maybe stop treating everything as a business first. Maybe stop trying to nickel-and-dime everyone all the time. We suffer from an excedent of capitalism and a deficit of humanity, and that's ruining the (global) economy instead of helping.

Itch.io started out as a labor of love, and look how far it got. It wasn't even a proper store yet when I joined. It probably still doesn't earn even its owners enough to live on (don't take my word for it, this is only a personal suspicion). Yet its mindshare is such that if the service ever failed to sustain itself, many people and organizations would be willing to help, and not for a profit, either.

In the way of news, this year marks a rather unusual anniversary: Spiderweb Software, the (in)famous developer of hardcore RPGs that did indie right years before the word existed, is 25! To mark the occasion, they've released an equally unusual strategy RPG, and they're even selling it on Itch, a first for them. Our curator-in-chief took the opportunity to interview Jeff Vogel, and it's definitely worth a read. Won't take much of your time. Note the remark on people being driven out of the industry by burnout before they can pass on their experience, thus leaving each new generation make all the same mistakes anew. Then we wonder why crunch persists and games are still buggy.

For something more cheerful, check out my recent article on interactivity in games. And while you're at it, maybe help keeping No Time To Play afloat. Thank you very much.

Tags: business, rpg, interview, game-design

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Weekly Links #283

18 August 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Those of my readers who also follow me on Mastodon already know this, but for everyone else I have a surprise: as of this week, ASCII Mapper has a desktop edition, as originally planned 20 months ago. There was no time for a proper write-up before the soft launch last evening, so for now let's just say it looks like this:

(Screenshot of a desktop application showing a network of pathways drawn in ASCII art, and assorted controls.)

and already has more features than the original web edition. More details coming soon; in the mean time, you can also get it on Itch.io and on GitHub. Development will continue as time allows.

In the way of news, this week we have a discussion of politics in games, a retrospective of Pac-Mania, and words from the world of interactive fiction. Details after the cut.

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Tags: tools, politics, retrogaming, game-design, interactive-fiction

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Weekly Links #282

11 August 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Today is a rare event: the 9th anniversary of No Time To Play falls on newsletter day. In fact, last time it was before I began the newsletter. Yep, we've been around for nearly a decade. How cool is that?

In the way of news, on Wednesday I released Attack Vector Zero: Cybersphere, in all the usual places:

Because I was otherwise busy, there are no other links this week, so see below for a few words about my new game.

Five years ago and change, when I first conceived of the Attack Vector series, it was supposed to have vector graphics, hence the name. It was also supposed to be a Space Harrier pastiche; somehow, it ended up using voxel graphics and an urban environment instead. That didn't work out very well at all, even after remaking that first attempt as Sunset Flight, which took me way too long; an irksome failure, in more than one way.

The idea for a prequel and/or demake arrived in the same roundabout fashion that defines all my creative process; it involved my previous experience making one for another game, Laser Sky, and some thoughts about the classic Star Raiders, whose obscure sequel is one of my all-time favorites. So this spring I started working on a bunch of visual effects that could help make a similar game while needing little code and little CPU. By modern standards, anyway; how far we've come!

It was so good to see how much people liked those early tech demos. We crave the simpler pleasures of decades past, that could entertain us without being exhausting. And somehow I managed to come up with visuals resembling an arcade game from the mid-1990s whose name escapes me now (something something Blaster); a fellow game developer had to point me at it. Add the core gameplay of the aforementioned Star Raiders II and stir well to get a literal blast from the past. Embracing technical limitations: what a concept!

The big surprise was this dead simple retro demake coming out noticeably larger than the previous game in the series with its fancy graphics engine, and that was with just the core gameplay added in! Worse, I can't and won't sustain the same work pace from even just a year ago anymore, so things now take longer. It just made sense to publish the game unfinished for now, and come back later with fresh eyes. Wouldn't even be the first time; just the first time I do it on purpose.

Hopefully you'll enjoy it even so. And hey, it's open source like all my games. You know, just in case.

With this, I'll let you enjoy the Sunday. See you next time!

Tags: meta, news, game-design, classics, technology

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Weekly Links #280

28 July 2019 — No Time To Play

So, my post from two weeks ago made the Dragonfly BSD Digest, a well-known and highly-respected linklog in the tech community. As of this writing, it had five times the usual number of readers, but no reactions. Maybe it's better that way, given its controversial nature.

In even better news, I started working on my game again. By now it looks like this:

Game screenshot depicting a dogfight against round spaceships from a first person perspective, in an abstract landscape suggested with neon-colored bars.

and people seem to like it, for various reasons. So even if the going is slow, I don't mind because the time taken will have been well used anyway.

As an amusing aside, the game was freezing randomly for short intervals after adding enemy missiles. As it turned out, trying to draw a filled circle in software when it was scaled too big took a lot of time. Dear fellow programmers: trust me, you're optimizing much too early and in the entirely wrong place.

Now for the news. We have quite a few this week:

  • how the myth of white, male Middle Ages came to be;
  • what being a game designer means;
  • the things game developers have to put up with from certain fans;
  • a sound critique of Steam's new automated curation features;
  • advice on making game enemies OK to kill.

Last but not least, a tribute to the late Rutger Hauer. Details below the cut.

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Tags: meta, history, game-design, community, curation

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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 #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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Weekly Links #260

10 March 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! My adventures in teaching continued this week. And, you know...

Back in my day, any programming manual started with a crash course on things like base-2 and boolean math, and computer architecture. Now tutorials start with, "copy-paste this code into a new file". Guess the immediate consequences.

We desperately need to teach kids that game programming is 80% algebra, logic and analytic geometry. And that's a problem for two reasons: one, they've been conditioned to fear those in school, and two, language is a huge barrier.

Sure, about one third of the world's population speaks English these days, for better or worse. But how many of them are comfortable with English? Native speakers are a lot less numerous, and other people may lack the opportunity or inclination to practice much. On the other hand, translating books is a gigantic effort. The official Python tutorial is only available in four languages total, and the rest of the documentation is encyclopedic in size. I'm not sure what to do. Automatic translation doesn't really help. Crowdfunding concerted efforts, maybe?

Anyway, onward to the news.

On Monday, Konstantinos Dimoupoulos shares his Wireframe Magazine article on how to plan horror cities. Not much to say there, this is all excellent advice.

On Tuesday, I finally got around to preparing a download package for Ramus 2. It only took me two years! Since then, I've been slowly working on a command-line runner for the same, that I hope will open up new possibilities.

On Wednesday, things got interesting. Just last week, I was talking about the unfortunate implications of humans-as-default in fantasy roleplaying. Well, look what just crossed my Tumblr dashboard: a discussion of the "common" language trope. And I love the proposed solution. There! Was it hard to make your ISO Standard Fantasy Setting not be a repeat of the British Empire except with elves and dwarves for colonized people?

On Friday Rock, Paper, Shotgun has words about the way space trading games have evolved as the future proved a lot less glamorous than once thought, from the freewheeling optimism of Elite to the disheartening realism of games like the recent (and acclaimed) Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. A poingnant reminder of how my generation's dreams were shattered, to say the least.

Enjoy this Sunday. While times aren't too bad yet.

Tags: game-design, rpg, programming, philosophy

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Weekly Links #254: game accessibility edition

27 January 2019 — No Time To Play

Hey, everyone. I had little to do this week but throw myself into work, for what little it's worth. And the first thing on my plate was to finally redo the homepages for Adventure Prompt and Ramus 2. Which took some thinking, but came out damn well, and enjoyed a warm reception. Now all that's left is to make download packages for both of them. Got many more ideas, but first the basics. And then there's my latest pet project, that I'm going to announce soon, either later today or else tomorrow. Spoiler: it's yet another scripting language.

In the way of news, this week we have in-depth coverage of the French Interactive Fiction Competition (in English, natch), via fiction-interactive.fr. It's fun to try and spot the unique flavor of the French school in a very well written analysis. In unrelated news, Gamasutra has a collection of quotes on accessibility from 2018. See also the extended news below, but one in particular struck a chord with me:

"If games didn't have subtitles, I wouldn't know English today, so yeah."

Many more are good though, so be sure to skim it.

As for extended commentary, there's a detailed review of Hyper Light Drifter, new regulation regarding accessibility in games, and a now-forgotten Star Wars MMO that once meant something. Details after the cut.

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Tags: indie, game-design, accessibility, mmo, rpg, interactive-fiction

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Weekly Links #253

20 January 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone. This week I can't think of anything to write an editorial about. Might as well talk about plans instead. And those don't involve any new games until summer, unless something happens along the way. Plenty of other things to do for a while:

  • redo the user interface of ASCII Mapper and release version 2.0;
  • port Electric Rogue to Python and Pygame, not so much for its own sake but to make the NoTime engine reusable as promised so long ago;
  • make a couple more tech demos based on it;
  • maybe take another shot at Deep Down in Darkness, now that I know what was wrong the first time around;
  • maybe tinker some more with Adventure Prompt and/or Ramus 2; their respective websites in particular need work.

Plenty to pick and choose from, then. It remains to be seen how much I'll actually get done.

In the way of extended news, this week we have an interview with Mike Cook about his creation Angelina, another with three leaders of GOG.com about the way they got to where they are now, and a write-up about the way game jams contribute to queer representation. Details after the cut.

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Tags: game-jam, representation, retrogaming, publishing, interview, game-design, AI

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