Monday, May 31, 2010

Just Announced - Avadon: The Black Fortress.

We have finally, after six months of hard work, gotten our new fantasy RPG series to the point where we can announce it to the world. It will be Avadon: The Black Fortress.

You can now see the screenshots and first details of the story. In the nine months or so it will take to finish the game, we will also be putting monthly development diaries up. That will give nice little breaks from my ranting.

Hope it looks interesting, and we'll have a bunch more information soon.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

God of War 3: The Anti-Art.

I just finished God of War 3. Having absolutely loved God of War 1 and 2, there was no way I wasn't going to play the next (last?) game in the series. And, since I was playing it while the whole Roger-Ebert-Games-Aren't-Art thing was bouncing around teh Internetz, I couldn't help but view the game through that prism.

First, I have to say that the game is a lot of fun. Nothing beats the God of War series for providing an experience of non-stop, visceral ass-kicking. The game was cool throughout, all killer no filler, and the graphics and production values were predictably gorgeous and expensive.

But what really kept striking me as I was playing it was how it was the perfect example of what I call Anti-Art.

What do I mean by this? Well, I think that something is functioning as art if it connects with you and stimulates your thoughts and feelings in a complex way. And, by complex, I mean summons feeling more complicated than, "Ahhh! I'm scared!" or "Whee! I'm excited!" or "Arrr! I'm angry!" You'll have to meet me halfway on this definition. Better minds than I have been defining Capital-A "Art" for several thousand years. I think the above should give an idea of what I'm trying to get at.

Anyway. I call God of War 3 Anti-Art because not only does it not try to create any such feelings in the player, but it goes to great effort to prevent anyone from feeling anything when playing the game more complex than "Arrrr! Hit! Hit!" The story exists not to engage the player but to alienate him or her (Who am I kidding? Him.), so that nothing distracts from full appreciation for the carnage. If you are the sort of player who cares about story, God of War 3's story is designed to make you ignore it.

And this isn't an accident. I think it is, on some level, the purpose of the design from Step 1.

(Some spoilers for the game are ahead, I suppose, although God of War 3 really can't be spoiled.)

So What Is This Game About, Anyway?

The God of War games are Greek mythology on speed and shrooms. You play this guy named Kratos. He's a Spartan. He wants revenge on the Gods. In particular, he wants to kill Zeus, his father. He wants revenge because ...

OK, you got me. I played the first two God of War games a few years ago, and I can't remember what he wants revenge for. He killed his wife and child in a berserk rage, once, and I think he blames Zeus for it, or something.

The point is that God of War 3 never, in the game or the documentation, says exactly why the main character wants revenge. I think that this little detail is remarkably telling. (It doesn't matter if they made it clear in a game released five years ago. This stuff has to be repeated in The Now.) Revenge plots can be very emotionally compelling. They really connect. People tend to have an innate sense of justice, and a desire to see a wrong righted is a really easy way to suck someone in. But ONLY if we know the crime that is being avenged!

Without that, what the game gives us is a character who staggers around, bellowing his desire for revenge. I swear, every cutscene goes, "Hi, Kratos!" "I want revenge! Hack hack hack!" "Urgh. (Die.)" And, without purpose, we are only enacting the mind-boggling violence in the game purely for its own sake.

The Chopping. And the Sawing. And the Intestines.

And, oh Lord, the violence. You press in the joysticks to simulate gouging a character's eyes out with your thumbs. You saw a god's legs off (plenty of blood and bone shards jutting from stumps) for his boots. You rip out a titan's stomach and he holds his intestines in his hands. You snap Hera's neck for, as for as I can tell, no reason at all. The result of your destruction of the Gods is unbelievable death and destruction on the world's surface. These actions are interspersed with the hoarse gruntings of what must be one of the simplest and most unlikeable protagonists in gaming history.

So if you are, like me, a story-guy, what you have is someone doing unbelievably horrible things for entirely nebulous reasons. What, apart from the action, is there for my mind to grab hold of? The parts of the game, like story and character, that normally contain the "art parts" are so shriveled and gross that you can't get anything out of them. Leaving the cool hacky parts.

Kratos is a horrible person wreaking unbelievable havoc, and you are controlling him. You are the one doing all these things. This alone is enough to alienate anyone halfway sane. It certainly prevented me from lowering my psychic boundaries and ever identifying with any character in the story, even for a moment.

"How Dare You Say What I Do or Don't Relate To?"

Of course, just because I can't relate to the game doesn't mean other people won't. Fair enough. But I will express one unfounded opinion.

Kratos is nothing but a pure expression of self-hatred and mindless, sociopathic violence. I know there are people out there who can really relate to that. But if you are really into that and can go, "Yeah, that's totally me!" I might humbly suggest that spending a lot of hours feeding and reinforcing that might not be entirely healthy. Just sayin'.

And the Ending

So at the end of the game, you've killed most of the Gods. You have had to rescue Pandora from a labyrinth, so that she can open her magic box and give you a weapon to kill Zeus. Your desire to save Pandora to atone for killing your daughter is a plot point. This might have been a good fig leaf for the sociopathy, but then Kratos sacrifices her to kill Zeus and she dies. So, that.

Then, after a huge, epic (really fun, don't forget the gameplay is really fun) boss fight with Zeus, your foe almost dies but gets up again and you get sent into this gorgeous, super-trippy sequence where you explore this dark black outerworld and relive everything you've been through and then you meet the ghosts of your wife and child and they hug you and there's some tender words about forgiveness. Then you find Pandora's Box and open it yourself and learn that the weapon you need to kill Zeus is Hope. You had the power inside you all along. Also, Love is the Fifth Element.

So I'm playing this, and it's really cool, and I'm thinking, "Sure. It's a little late, but there's a little humanity here. Something I can sort of accept. Maybe this isn't going to be all horrible and ..."

Psych! Sucker! Then you leave the dream world and kill Zeus by smashing his face against a rock, bones cracking, blood spraying all over the camera, in a sequence as visceral and unpleasant a bit of violence as ...

OK. I think you get the point. (Video here. Go a minute in. NSFW.)

So What's Your Point?

I have to state again, I had a lot of fun playing God of War 3. It was really cool, once I figured out to, emotionally, hold it at a great distance. Nobody does this sort of gameplay better. And, while I wasn't thrilled with the violence, and I wouldn't let my daughter play the game until she was nine or so, I'm not immediately against it. I'm no anti-game zealot, and I never will be.

The fascinating thing about the experience, for me, was that the ugliness was so sustained, so pure and undiluted. A lot of people worked on God of War 3, smart people. They must have realized, at some point during the years working on the game, what they were making, and the effect it was likely to have on people.

When people consider games as an art form, they tend to ask three questions: Are They Art? How Should That Art Affect People? Will They Only Affect People in the Old Ways, or Are Their New Untapped Ways For People to Connect With Video Games?

They should also realize that not everyone welcomes the idea of a game as an artistic statement. It is, in fact, possible to purge art from your game, to attempt to intentionally repel players from everything but the sporting aspects. Maybe Art is stupid. It wasn't something I expected. In some cases, it might even be a good idea. But, I confess, I tend to hope for more.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Game Worth Noticing.

I feel bad for missing it, since it's been out a week, but Basilisk Games finally managed to get Eschalon: Book 2 out the door. I haven't played it yet, of course, but I will soon.

One of the worst things about what I do for a living is that hardly anyone else does it. You might think that not having competitors is a good thing. It is not. In the game industry, competitors help as well as hurt you. When EA spends millions of dollars advertising Dragon Age and Mass Effect, they aren't just pushing their games. They are also advertising the whole idea of playing RPGs. Dragon Age makes as many potential customers for me as it takes.

Also, I love writing Indie games, and I want others to have the same fun.

So I wish Basilisk Games a ton of luck. Releasing one game is a huge achievement. Releasing two games is, I don't know, what's bigger than huge? Huge-Prime?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Video Games Are Art. Kinda. Sorta. If You Squint.

I'm coming to the Roger-Ebert-Games-Are-Art-No-They-Aren't shoutfest a little late. But playing God of War 3 sort of got me thinking about it again.

I've gotten e-mails asking me for my opinion of Ebert's trolling, but, as much as I respect the guy, he makes it clear in his writings that he is totally uninformed about the art form/activity that he is writing about, and he has no intention of becoming otherwise. That he would call out computer games without, so far as I can tell, actually playing any is kind of stunning. I don't know what he's thinking. He never seemed like a flamebait kind of guy. But, unless he ever shows any interest in learning about the field, there's no point in engaging him in any way.

But this is another of those times when I think Tycho at Penny Arcade summed it up with uncharacteristic clarity, brevity, and conclusiveness.

"He cannot rob you, retroactively, of wholly valid experiences; he cannot transform them into worthless things."

I have occasionally obtained from computer games the mental and emotional stimulation that I get from quality works of art. Because of that, for me, there is no argument about whether video games are art. They have been art to me, and you can't tap two blue mana and counterspell my experiences.

I have had that engaged, moved, elated feeling when playing Shadow of the Colossus. And Planescape: Torment. And Dragon Age: Origins. And Portal. And Grand Theft Auto IV. (Don't laugh.) And Bioshock, a little.

But, while that is not an exhaustive list, it is pretty close to one. I've been playing computer games for over thirty years, and I can easily count on my fingers the number of successfully truly artistic moments I have seen in games. Have you noticed that rebuttals to Ebert always name the same handful of games? I mean, sure, most game have stories, but they're so flimsy and perfunctory and two-dimensional that even gamers can't seriously defend them as art. Even a bad story is art, I guess, so then all games are sort of art, I guess, but that's a pretty thin gruel. We should be shooting for a better argument then, "Yes. They are art. Crappy, terrible, crappy art, undeserving of the attention of thinking people."

And that is why criticisms about games not being art have such sting. The simple truth is that, for the most part, the people who make them have absolutely no interest in engaging the players in more than a very limited number of ways? The game industry is great at making adrenaline surges and not much else, and the incredible potential the medium has is pretty much entirely wasted.

I try really hard in my games to create stories and characters that really grab the imagination, as much as my limited budgets allow. For some people, I succeed. Enough to keep me in business, anyway. But it's lonely work, and I am grateful that people like Roger Ebert are jabbing at us and suggesting that maybe we could do more.

I'll write more on this topic and God of War 3 once I've played it a bit more. There are still a few Gods left that I haven't brutally slaughtered.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three More Tips For Getting Started In the Indie Gaming Biz

In February, I wrote my first three tips for getting started in the Indie gaming biz. I am starting to feel old and outdated in this business, so I feel like I'd probably be better off not trying to act wise. Sometimes I get e-mails from successful Indie developers, telling me what an inspiration I was to them when they were young. And then my skin starts to peel off in sheets and my hip spontaneously breaks.

And yet, there are still several more bits of advice that I think are genuinely helpful.

4. All Relevant Laws Apply To You

If you are trying to run an Indie game business, you are, first and foremost, running a business. All local, state, and federal laws apply.

You need a business license. Or licenses. I, for example, need one license for Washington state and another for Seattle. Go to your local bookstore and get a book on starting a small business wherever you are. Read it carefully, take it seriously, and get all your paperwork in order.

Every business should have a lawyer and an accountant. I personally have done without having a dedicated lawyer on tap (an unwise course), but every business should have a skilled accountant. This is very important. You have to fill out your tax forms, and an accountant will help you to do so in the safest, most beneficial way possible. Do not neglect this! If you screw up on your taxes, no matter how innocent your intentions, the best you can hope for is that your auditor will give you a sympathetic shake of his head before he destroys you.

You should try to get liability insurance. People sue each other for crazy reasons. It's good to have protection. Sadly, I have found that, as a game designer, liability insurance is hard to get and expensive. This should be taken as a measure of how high your legal risk in this business is.

5. Respect the 90/10 Rule.

Ten percent of the work takes ninety percent of the effort.

When you are designing your first game, putting things together in your spare time, you will probably have a lot of ambition. When you are actually writing it, it will be a thrill. Things are moving. Creation is coming together. I'm doing it! I'm really doing it!

Then, at some point, you hit a wall. You start testing, and there are a million bugs, and fixing them is not fun. Your first spurt of energy is starting to flag, and there are still a ton of levels to design. And, perhaps, the trickiest game systems still need to be done.

So be wary. So many promising projects die at the 90% mark. When designing your game, try to estimate how long each step will take. But, as you do so, also pencil in months of time chasing bugs, fixing broken systems, and doing the grinding polish work that will make your game stand out. How long everything will take to do should be a key factor to take into account when deciding what will be in your game. If this process makes you realize that your initial design concept was too difficult or ambitious, start losing some of the unnecessary elements earlier rather than later.

6. Find Good, Cheap Online Resources, But Make Sure You Have the Rights

Oh, how much time I would have saved if, when I first started out, I had the awesome resources that are available online now. For someone whose games are as retro as mine, it may seem odd that I am suggesting you get graphics and sound effects where I do. And yet, you will need all sorts of assets, and I can recommend a lot of good places to start looking.

When you find resources online, be sure that you have the rights to use them in a game. This can save you a lot of hassle. When I was writing Exile 2: Crystal Souls in 1998, a friend gave me some awesome sword effects he found online. They were great, so I used them. Then I got the Cease & Desist letter from Blizzard. Turns out, they were from some obscure title called WarCraft 2. Ouch. Learn from my errors.

Sound Effects - When I need sounds, I always go to SoundDogs and Shockwave Sound first. Quality stuff, very reasonable prices. Everyone uses these sound libraries. I often hear sound effects from my games on TV. Don't worry about this. Nobody will hold it against you. I often get e-mails saying that some TV series stole my sound effects. That's right. The Cartoon Network totally needs to steal from me.

Textures - When I need a quick stone texture, I go to CG Textures. Very handy site, and free.

Stock Art - If I need some sort of quick art, say some button icons or a nice picture of a cave, I go to iStockPhoto. Their prices are extremely reasonable. Don't rip them off.

Creature and Terrain Icons - We render all of our creature and terrain icons using Poser and Bryce. The big shots would look down our their noses at us, but, with some care, we can make pretty nice icons for very reasonable prices. If you are doing 2-D art, you can get some really nice object and creature models from Daz 3D for very reasonable prices.

And that is this set of tips. Perhaps I will have more in the future, when I figure out what those crazy kids are doing with the iPads and their iPod and their iPoods, with the hip hip music and the pants down around their ankles.