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Everything game development: news, lessons, discussion

Weekly Links #321: philosophy edition

24 May 2020 — No Time To Play

You know, it occurs to me that game designers don't understand artistic media in general, not even their own.

You see, in books you tell a story through words. In ballet, through dance. In comics or movies, through pictures. And neither words, dance or pictures have to tell a story; all can still be art just fine without a narrative attached.

It stands to reason that games should tell stories through gameplay, if they do at all. They shouldn't have to, however, to be considered art.

So why is it that 40 years after Pac-Man we still struggle with this simple idea? Part of it is of course that we only think it's Art with capital A if it's the kind of stuff aristocrats used to enjoy. We don't even apply that rule consistently, because opera was once popular, low-brow entertainment. So was Shakespeare's theatre. Then again if human beings were willing to remember their history, we wouldn't be in this big mess now.

But mostly, it's that even those game designers with a background in philosophy are probably trained to think philosophy means Thomas Aquinas or Wittgenstein. Anything invented this side of 1920 just sort of exists, right? It's nothing worth thinking about. And definitely not worthy of much respect since it's less than a century old.

That's why we never quite came to grips with phones, either.

You caught me: we're having another week with no news worth commenting on. Well, there's another history of the Minitel system, though it fails to mention any games, and more topically the fact that Microsoft open-sourced GW-Basic; naturally, not before it was reversed-engineered by others, thus making this moot but for the historical interest. Oh! There's also Emily Short pointing out that in game design, like in other arts, you must have something to say in order to get anywhere. Gee, you think this relates to what I wrote above?

Until next week, when we can hopefully spend some time being playful instead.

Tags: game-design, philosophy

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Games, progress and grognards

09 May 2020 — No Time To Play

This Friday, Gamasutra resurfaces an old reprint of an even older editorial by Chris Crawford, the game industry's tragic philosopher. And well, in some ways it's spot-on about the state of game development in 1997. The tech rat race never stopped, for one thing. But in other ways, it also suffers from his usual failure to look under the surface:

Yet Command & Conquer is little more than a remixing of design concepts that we've seen hundreds of times in previous games. Doom is just a souped-up version of Wolfenstein 3D, which in turn was based on an Apple II game called Castle Wolfenstein. Myst is an utterly conventional adventure game, in design terms no different from the original Adventure computer game, only souped up with '90s graphics.

Bwahahaha! Really?! C&C famously developed the concepts in Dune II, which in turn built on its predecessors; Doom massively improved upon Wolfenstein 3D, which wasn't Id Software first shooter of the sort, either. (By the way, the original Apple II game was 2D and stealth-oriented.) As for Myst being no improvement upon Adventure, which by the way hadn't been the state of the art in adventure games for fifteen years at that time... yeah.

Each of those games refined and grew the concepts introduced by its predecessors. Sometimes clumsily. In fits and starts. But that's how art moves forward. Engineering, too, not that anyone ever seemed to know in a culture that glorifies inventors and "original" thought to the detriment of those who toil for decades to turn the rough gem of an invention into a product everyone can use safely.

And speaking of decades: At the time, games like Nethack and Angband had already been around for ten years, give or take, continually built upon and improved along the way. So what Chris Crawford claimed he wanted to see already existed. By now both have been around for over thirty, having spawned impressive family trees too.

Maybe look outside "the industry" now and then. And lower your gaze. You can see a lot better without your nose getting in the way.

Tags: game-design, history, philosophy

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Weekly Links #307: roguelike edition

16 February 2020 — No Time To Play

When I released Glittering Light 2 last week, it was silent. That was a deliberate choice, to keep me from burning out at the last moment. Turned out to be a good decision, as adding audio took longer than expected... then longer still. But it worked in the end, and the game now sounds better than it has any right to. I was even able to reuse a few effects from the previous game, and just those it was missing the most, too. Too bad traffic on Itch.io petered out just before I uploaded the new version, but oh well. It's now one of my top viewed (and played) games.

Before that however, I took the time to write more words about how game genres evolve. Turns out I wasn't the only one, as you'll see below. A timely subject, because yes, it's 2020 and most people think roguelikes are normally real time. Feel free to shake your cane at kids today, some of us would rather try and keep up with the changing times.

And then at the other end of the work week I wrote a longer article that is and isn't related: What is an RPG to you? Because yes, the answer is often very personal.

As for my plans for the immediate future, there are several possibilities:

  • a Tkinter port of Glittering Light 2;
  • which in turn would pave the way for a long-planned Pygame port of Electric Rogue;
  • alternatively, some preproduction work on a sequel to the latter, for which I have a few ideas.

In the way of news, we have comments surrounding a long write-up about the definition of roguelikes as a genre. Yes, again. Details under the cut, along with the usual links without commentary.

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Tags: roguelike, game-design, philosophy, politics, worldbuilding

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Myst, Doom and false dichotomies

22 February 2020 — No Time To Play

Much virtual ink has been spilled on comparisons between Myst and Doom, two of the three mega-hits of 1993, arguably the single best year in the history of computer games so far. The latest to chime in is Jimmy Maher, a.k.a. The Digital Antiquarian, in a write-up titled The Drawbacks to Success. In his usual manner, it's long, detailed, exquisitely documented... and trying way too hard to be neutral. But then, that's why Jimmy's a reputed scholar while I'm just a punk.

Here's the deal: for one thing, I am one of those crazy people who played both Doom and Myst and loved them both. The difference is, I can consistently finish Episode 1 of the former without dying, admittedly on a lower difficulty; whereas in the latter I only ever managed to visit (and complete) one of the other Ages, not nearly enough to win the game. Coming from a cerebral kind of guy with terrible reflexes, that should speak volumes.

Second, the widespread idea that Myst somehow failed to influence videogames is completely wrong: the game spawned not one, but two genres: the walking simulator, and the escape room game, which later spilled over into the real world. How's that for a success? That neither genre much resembles its original inspiration testifies of the creativity involved in both. Contrast with first person shooters, which are often indistinguishable from each other. And note how many of them tell their story through video or audio logs. Sounds familiar?

Speaking of genres: gee, you mean back at the time a lot of people would have been drawn to a game that looked different for a change? Most other adventures were the interactive cartoons of Sierra and LucasArts, that put you in the shoes of a loser solving nonsensical puzzles in an absurd world. Is it any wonder that most people would rather play a brave knight or space marine mowing down monsters?

And by the way: I'm sick and tired of snobs insisting that the faceless, nameless protagonist of early videogames is somehow inferior. All the people who remember Zork but none of the many text adventures that followed beg to disagree. So do the millions who bought Myst and, wait for it, Doom. Being able to imagine yourself as the protagonist is a huge part of what makes stories great. Weren't you doing that with each and every book you used to read as a kid?

Even games not usually considered first-person, such as Master of Orion, have plenty of moments where they are. And those are what you'll usually see in screenshots: the experience of actually being there. The game proper, who cares.

Tags: game-design, philosophy

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Genres evolve and so does language

09 February 2020 — No Time To Play

Yesterday afternoon I got caught between two people on Discord. One thought Diablo doesn't qualify as a roguelike. The other hadn't even heard of Diablo; their idea of a roguelike was The Binding of Isaac. And if you think that's strange, consider this hilarious tweet. Of course roguelikes are supposed to be real-time! Making them turn-based? The horror!

Welcome to 2020.

Having just released a roguelike of my own (right before this year's 7DRL), this matters to me. I have nine of them now, which is a lot by any measure. And while they try to be modern in ways that matter, they also try to preserve what's good about the genre, such as turn-based gameplay and ASCII art. Trust me, I care.

But things change, folks. We can't go on clinging to the past. And it's a lot easier to give an old word new meanings than to invent new combinations of sounds all the time. Especially as the former provides much-needed continuity.

Not a trick question: when was the last time anyone literally hung up a phone? Think back. No, further back. In the days of Laurel & Hardy, when the earpiece in its resting position dangled from the hook instead of being balanced on top of it.

When did phones last have a literal hook at all?

And since I mentioned Laurel & Hardy: did you know that when talkies first came out, purists made a big fuss? People insisted that movies were supposed to be silent, as an inherently visual medium. Yes, seriously.

No prize for guessing what audiences thought about that. There's a reason why even silent movies came with music and sound effects; they just had to be performed live on stage while the movie played. A dead art now. And it was an art.

You win some, you lose some. Either way, life goes on. And that's why my latest game has ASCII art except in 3D, and turn-based gameplay except at the pace of an action-adventure. It is still enough "like Rogue" to deserve the name?

Trick question: nobody cares anymore. Move on and let people enjoy their omnidirectional shooters with procedural generation and permadeath.

Tags: roguelike, philosophy

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Weekly Links #304: strategy game edition

26 January 2020 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! This week I changed speeds and worked on the game UI for a while to keep things fresh. Here's the main menu:

There's also an in-game control panel not unlike in a JRPG (if they have a specific name, please let me know). And of course cover art, that you can see on my DeviantArt.

I've also made some updates to my old tech demo Midnight Meadow, as part of the ongoing reorganization that I only mentioned briefly in the site-wide newsfeed. And then there are more plans for the Eightway Engine, to be announced later.

In the way of news, this week we philosophize about a seminal strategy game, then look briefly at some links about this and other game genres and how they relate. Details below the cut.

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Tags: game-design, philosophy, strategy, shooter, history

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No replacing the human touch

23 January 2020 — No Time To Play

It's Thursday, and you know what they say about Thursdays.

Coming up as a surprise from one of my favorite blogs about the history of tech is The Automated Dungeon Master: from Tolkien, through D&D, then gamebooks and finally CRPGs, concluding with AI Dungeon 2; a mind-blowing overview, long-form and peppered with thoughtful insights. I'm going to quote just one paragraph from the latter part:

All of this delight, unfortunately, cost the creators of these games a great deal of time and money. In a D&D campaign, all of the richness of the world and its denizens is conjured up gratis in the minds of the players by the spoken words of the DM. In Baldur’s Gate, however, every choice, every possibility offered to the player in the name of openness had to be put there by someone. The game is, in effect, a very elaborate, lovingly illustrated and sound-tracked, flowchart. Every temple, every dungeon, every line of dialogue, every character animation, every side quest, came from the toil of artists, writers, and programmers.

Yup! And while some text adventures famously tried to fix that by treating the world like a simulation, where stuff can happen through the emergent behaviors of various elements, that too has proven faulty. Ultimately, bringing an imaginary world to life remains a titanic effort, and there's no way around it. Not even AI.

And no, procedural generation as featured in roguelikes can't create new content, but only remix what the developers have added in. Procedurally generated worlds can be later enriched by the players, as EVE Online amply demonstrated; but it's not a feasible approach in single-player games like The Elder Scrolls series, leading to what the article highlights as a problem.

Because ultimately worlds are made of people, and you can never replace people.

Learn to love.

Tags: rpg, worldbuilding, philosophy

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Weekly Links #300: interactive fiction edition

15 December 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! The week had just started when Leaf Corcoran gave a heads-up that Chooseco was sending takedown notices to Itch.io over games labeling themselves as Choose Your Own Adventure. (The Verge has details.) Which, as Robin Johnson promtly pointed out, is incredibly hypocritical: but for hobbyists reviving the genre since ten years ago and change, they wouldn't have a business anymore, let alone a brand to defend.

"Intellectual property" in all its forms is an absurd notion to begin with. That trademarks live forever is Kafka-esque. To attack the very people who give you any brand recognition at all should be suicidal. It's time we start making it so.

Then again, earlier this autumn the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation trademarked the name Twine, more than ten years after the tool was created. And their first warning was also to fans, as opposed to any commercial interests you might argue they are defending against. Funny move from an organization supposedly founded to preserve and advance, you know, a cultural heritage.

Good thing I settled on making my gamebooks with Tweego instead. Hint, hint.

In the way of news, this week we have a discussion of choice in story games, and a technical issue with the aforementioned CYOA tool. Last but not least, three more links without any commentary, and what you can expect during the holiday break, which will be unusually long this year. Arguably appropriate for the end of the decade. Details below the cut.

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Tags: interactive-fiction, business, game-design, writing, philosophy

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Weekly Links #289

29 September 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Thanks to a generous donation by my friend WereWolf, the hosting costs for No Time To Play are covered until next summer. So I can stop pestering you for a while. Any extra funds received will still be appreciated, of course.

In other news, due to recent developments I'm finally in a position to offer 64-bit Linux builds for my games. Currently, Escape From Cnossus HD is available in the new edition, both on No Time To Play and on Itch. Where, it turns out, I had never uploaded the latest builds from this summer. Oh well, better late than never.

On the minus side, I'll be less able to support the 32-bit editions going forward, especially for Windows. No reason to take them down, of course, you'll just be on your own with them. Oh, and I took the game entirely off Game Jolt, along with most of my titles from this year. They're just not moving. I'm not sure what to even offer the kind of people who go there to play.

Oh, I do have new games planned, and improvements to existing games, and articles to write... so much to do, so little energy. Should be more able to work on them in October, but how fast is another question entirely. Especially as I'm forced to make some changes in my workflow, and the kinds of things I can work on. Will let you know.

Anyway, for news this week we have changes coming to the event known as PROCJAM, words about the future of Ren'Py, and some philosophical considerations about Doom 2. Details under the cut.

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Tags: community, tools, classics, shooter, game-design, philosophy

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Weekly Links #288

22 September 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, everyone! Between beta-reading a friend's novel and my ongoing adventures in computer migration, I've been unable to work on my new game. Ideas, of course, keep piling up. Might finally be able to rescue an old demo and turn it into the walking simulator it was shaping up into before I was forced to stop. Between this and the new plans for Deep Down in Darkness, we're talking enough work for many months, and a corresponding amount of writing.

(Speaking of which: September is at an end; hosting bills are coming tomorrow, and I'll have to pay them out of pocket for the second time this year. Not a problem this time; by December, or next spring, things might not look so good anymore. Please read to the end of this newsletter to find out how you can help for next time... while there's still a No Time To Play website to help out with.)

Meanwhile: continuing from two weeks ago, I've been looking at the current crop of laptops in stores, and came away disgusted. Never mind that the hardware is... slippery? Can't think of a better word to use. But mainly, everything on offer seems designed for housewives who just want to browse Facebook and little else. (What do you mean, I'm not supposed to set the time myself in the BIOS? I was programming computers before you were born!) When did every PC manufacturer turn into an Apple wannabe who can't even do imitation well? Maybe top tier machines would make for decent workstations, but those cost an ARM and a leg. It's a terrible, terrible time to get a new computer. Maybe next year.

How different it felt to finally revive my old Asus Eee PC 701. Yep, I have the original model, still in working condition. And it feels real, dammit! Hefty. Reliable. Terribly slow by modern standards (no way it's going to run a modern browser), but the SSD makes for decent boot times. And there are still Linux distributions small enough that you can fit two of them (two!) on a 4-gigabyte drive, with room to spare. So this diversion was the high point of the week.

As for the news, enjoy the technical breakdown of a modern NES game, a discussion of difficulty in games and related settings, then my own write-up about game genres. Details under the cut.

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Tags: hardware, retrogaming, accessibility, game-design, philosophy

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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 #258: impatient learner edition

24 February 2019 — No Time To Play

Hello, and welcome to my weekly gamedev newsletter. This Sunday I'm a little short on news again. Between finishing up another interpreter, and writing a piece of flash fiction, not many news managed to hold my attention. Might as well take the time to write about an issue I've been noticing lately.

Look, we all have to start somewhere, and in the beginning it's normal to trip and stumble a lot. So when you know you're still learning? Maybe don't rush. Lately I see people trying to get started making games with Pygame who clearly haven't yet mastered, not just Python, but elementary programming concepts like loops and lists. And they don't seem to take the hint when gently pointed in that direction.

And you know what? I've been through the "gonna make the ultimate MMORPG" stage. It never went anywhere either, of course. But that was after 8-9 years of programming as a hobby, and another 3 or 4 profesionally. At least I had a reason to be overconfident. And a team of friends with similar or better skill level.

Kids are growing up so fast these days. With that however seems to come a degree of impatience. Which isn't helped by "easy" tools like Scratch, which do nothing but sweep complexity under the rug. At least Love2D won't let you forget there's a game loop behind the scenes, even if it's normally hidden from sight and not under your control. Even better, you can pop the hood open and fiddle with it if you know what you're doing.

Back in my day, the entire computer was like that. You wanted a loop? You'd use a GO TO. Keeping track of multiple sprites? Use an array of X and Y coordinates. It was damn hard. I wouldn't go back for anything but the simplest games. (There's a reason shoot'em ups were so popular in the 1980s.) But the moment when I got a friend's explanation that the complex clockwork movement of a game like Dizzy resulted from every single sprite being updated little by little in turn, while music played one note at a time?

That flash of revelation is going to stay with me until death. And this level of understanding makes all the difference.

In the way of extended news, we have a new tool for retrogaming enthusiasts, and advice for launching a career in games writing. Details after the cut.

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Tags: retrogaming, tools, personal, philosophy

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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 #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 #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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New beginnings

01 January 2019 — No Time To Play

Happy New Year, dear readers. If you can read this, the No Time To Play blog has come home at last. Even more, it's now future-proof. Well, not as much as I'd like. This format will have to be revisited again in five year's time. But you know what? By that point, this site will have been online for fifteen! If it's still around then, having to reboot the blog again will be the least of my worries.

As part of this renewal, I'll make a deliberate effort to talk about No Time To Play in the singular. It's been just me for years, after all, apart from Nightwrath's moral support (and occasional link to comment on), and Kelketek's contributed article from... yikes, 11 months ago already. Might as well make it more personal.

What to write about in 2019 is the thorny question. At the beginning of last year, I set myself game-making tools as the topic of choice. That worked, after a fashion, but for my failure to reach a satisfying conclusion. Gonna have to do that before moving on. And then... what?

Suggestions are welcome. It's just that we'll have to talk on social media somewhere. Sorry about that. Can't have them all.

Well, there is something. After a string of disappointing releases, I spent the past few months trying to rekindle my interest in making games. And you know what? That was the entirely wrong way to look at things. Some of my best work in recent years, as measured by audience interest, has been little interactive toys that are only tangentially game-related. A tabletop RPG sourcebook in Twine format. An unfinished walking simulator. A low-tech graphics engine and suite of tools.

Earlier in autumn I expressed the opinion that maybe we should stop thinking in terms of game design. Writers don't think in terms of "novella design". They think of what they have to say. Let's go one step further and stop thinking in terms of games. Interactivity itself is a medium; let's see what we can express with it that we can't in any other way.

It doesn't have to be a contest. It doesn't have to be a product. Or even art.

Let's make nice things that bring people joy. We can sort them out later.

Tags: meta, personal, tools, interaction, philosophy

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