Thursday, September 30, 2010

Spiderweb Software's Fifteenth Birthday Sale!

(This is the official press release for our fifteenth birthday sale. I'm posting it here because it's funny. Also, shameless self-promotion and all that.)

Spiderweb Software's Fifteenth Birthday Sale!

It was fifteen years ago that fledgling Indie game developer Spiderweb Software released its first game out into the wild. This was, by game industry standards, a long time ago. Back then, small developers sold something called "shareware." The World Wide Web barely existed. People took photographs on "film." Cell phones were the size of loaves of bread. Also, dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Yes,  the past millennium was a dark and confusing time. And yet, we prevailed, making many fine Retro fantasy role-playing games for Windows and Macintosh. And now we invite you to celebrate our continued survival by offering hefty discounts on the fruits of our labors. For the whole month of October, all collections of our games are 25% off, and everything else we sell is 10% off. CDs containing three or five deep, full-length RPGs, already sold at a discount, are now even cheaper!

So, whether you need a big pile of distractions from the recession and the cold, dark of winter, or you need a nice CD to give as a gift to a gamer friend, or you just like collecting shiny discs, we are eager to help.

Not convinced? Try out one of our huge, free demos.

And here's hoping for another fifteen years. With any luck, our 30th birthday e-mail will be sent out from inside our Pleasure Pod and will celebrate flying cars and the Cure For Death.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Ugly Truth About Classic Games. They Are Terrible.

It's no secret that I love classic games. My games are all, in some way, tributes to classics. I have a huge personal collection of old Atari 2600/5200/7200/Intellivision/Colecovision/Vectrex/Astrocade/Odyssey 2 cartridges. (All in good working order, thank you.) That you can still buy old Atari games in stores and on XBox Live, among other places, warms my heart.

But let's not put too fine a point on it. They are not, for the most part, fun. One of my favorite things about my classic games collection is my ability to keep having this conversation with my friends:

"Oooh! Old games! I loved Pitfall! Do you have Pitfall?"
"Of course."
"Can I play it?"
(Five minutes pass.)
"This isn't any fun."
"No, it's not."

I have this huge collection of old games, but I spend all my gaming time with my XBox 360 or PS3. (Or, on increasingly rare occasions, my Wii.)

The reason I bring it up is because of this fascinating article about the unquestionable classic, that inspirational breakthrough, that great of greats, Ultima IV.

Basic summary: Professor teaches class on classic video games. Makes students play old games. Goes all right until they try Ultima IV. They find it to be opaque, dull, and completely unplayable.

Well, YEAH.

Look, nobody worships at the altar of Lord British more than me, and you can't put into words what a breakthrough Ultima IV was at the time. It set me on the path to writing games for a living. I played it again and again. It literally Changed My Life.

But it isn't playable now. The controls make no sense. The dialogue is bland. All of the little UI tricks that make RPGs accessible (tooltips, in-game maps, pathfinding) were not yet invented. And, and this is really important, everything that Ultima IV introduced everyone has done far better. Ultima IV had an epic quest and morality woven into the game, which was amazing at the time. But everyone does those things way better now.

So it's been years and years since I've recommended anyone play a game with Ultima in the title. Or, if they really want to try a game in the series, I recommend Ultima VI, which is awesome.

I like looking back to the past. Nostalgia. History. And there are some old designs that really should be modernized. (Archon. M.U.L.E.) But, hey, classic gaming back in the day? Pong? The Atari 2600? Man, I was there. It's better now. Wherez mah Halo?

Oh, and I will finally know that we have shaken off the dust of the past when it is no longer possible to play Joust. God, but I hate Joust.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Indie Games Should Be Too Cheap or Too Expensive.

I wrote a while ago how amazingly, crazily cheap Indie games have become. Big Fish Games sells every title for $6.99, tops. The most you can charge for a title on XBoxLive Indie games, ever, is $10. And, of course, if you try to sell a game in iTunes for more than 99 cents, you will get complaints about how expensive your game is, no exceptions.

This still really bugs me, because not all games should sell for so little, and systems that force Indie games to always be cheap aren't good for developers. But I went too far when I said that all Indie games should cost more. The people who made Angry Birds and Doodle Jump are making gigantic fortunes selling games for such low prices, and it is foolish for me to say anything about their tactics should change. Hey, success speaks for itself.

But I have been thinking a lot about Indie game pricing, as my games are actually quite expensive by the standards of the day. For any young developer who is trying to figure out how to price his or her sparkling new product, this is a huge issue. So how should an Indie game be priced, anyway?

These days, I think that there is a spectrum that all of these games fall on, and where your game ends up on it pretty much determines how it should be priced. This is the spectrum of Casual & Disposable versus Hardcore & Deep.

1. Casual & Disposable?

What games fall into this category? Games that are relatively small in scope, simple, and easily to learn. Games without huge, complicated rules sets, so that a LOT of players can figure them out easily. Games that lend themselves to be short play sessions. Games that aren't too deep in any one niche (not too easily marked as an RPG or a shooter), to maximize the size of the customer base. And games that are meant to be disposable impulse buys. You buy it for a small amount of money, have a bit of fun, and move on.

These games are really cheap. They have to be. They have to be cheap enough that the amount of money you spend on it hardly feels like spending money at all. Probably a dollar, up to three for an experience that is particularly well-known, high quality, and sought after, like Peggle.

To make any money at all selling a game for a dollar, it really has to catch on. You have to write a game that scares away as few players as possible. And then you have to either market it well (which costs money) or hope that it gets noticed through word of mouth (which requires a lot of luck).

Writing these sorts of games is perfect for an Indie developer because they can be made in a small amount of time with a small team. Most games in this market fail, but the few that break through into the public consciousness do very well. It's a lot like what has been written of Broadway: "It's a place to make a killing, but not a living."

If you're making a game at this end of the spectrum, you'll probably have to swallow hard and make your price low enough to compete. It's a painfully small amount to get in return for your work, but you need to be an impulse buy to have a chance.

2. Hardcore & Deep?

What games fall into this category? Games that take a long time to experience and that have more complicated game systems to maintain interest during this increased play time. Games with longer individual play sessions. Games that are deeper in a niche and that were written to serve a small and perhaps neglected set of gamers. Games that have few competitors that are very similar, and that you buy because you will only be happy with that game. Games that you pay more for and that reward you with an experience that you live with for a while.

These games are more expensive. They have to be. When you write a game for a small, dedicated fan base, you need to extract more money from each customer as a condition of survival. Suppose the market for my retro RPGs is ten thousand people. If I charge each of them one or three dollars for a game, I go bankrupt in one year. So they have to pay more, but, in return, they get an experience that is deep, lasting, and rare. I can charge more because very few developers make what I make.

Writing these sorts of games is perfect for an Indie developer because you can "own your niche" and have very little competition. Blizzard can always make a bigger, shinier real-time strategy game, so you can't ever beat them. But if you write a super-detailed simulation of war in the Pacific, lack of competition will help your fans to forgive the flaws that come with a smaller budget. And, when you do build a fan base, they can give you a decent living. You won't get rich writing games for 10000 people, but you can have a nice life.

If you're making a game at this end of the spectrum, you'll probably have to swallow hard and make your price high enough to survive. You will get e-mails every day complaining that your game doesn't cost as much as Doodle Jump. Ignore them, and turn away any distributor who tries to get you to charge a pittance. You have to charge what it takes to survive.

Remember, This Is a Spectrum

Of course, few games are completely casual or completely hardcore. It is a spectrum. Plants vs. Zombies is a great example. It's casual enough to have broad appeal but enough in a genre (tower defense) and deep enough that it should sell for actual dollars. Ten bucks (twenty on some platforms) is a great price for it. Figuring out how to price a game is a matter of judging where your game is on the scale and pricing accordingly.

In the current environment, small developers really do need to make hard decisions about what their game has to sell for to survive, price accordingly, ignore the criticism, and stay away from markets where you can't charge what you need to. When XBox Live Indie games only allows you to charge $10 for a title, it makes games at the niche end of the spectrum far less viable.

And customers have every right to complain that games are too expensive. Customers are going to say whatever they can to have the chance to save money. That's their job. I just hope they will remember that some games are expensive not because developers are cruel and grasping but because that is what they have to charge to be able to serve a relatively small niche.

My next game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, will be $25. I hope that turns out to be the right spot. I'll know soon enough.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #3 - Character Classes and Kicking Butt

Time for another developer journal about the creation of the first game in an all-new series, Avadon: The Black Fortress. The first article was about the unusual way in which I first came up with the idea for the series, and the second article was about the long and dry process of choosing a mood and theme for the game.

Next came the fun part. The game system. The gritty details of the numbers and abilities and treasures and other things that help make role-playing games fun.

Designing a whole new game system is both fun and terrifying. It's a chance to do something new and exciting, but if you have too many changes your fan base will be angry. It's a chance to correct all the mistakes you made over the previous years, and then go and screw up in a whole new bunch of ways. And there are a lot of decisions to make. Lots and lots of decisions, and a lot of time spent balancing each one.

So, before I got too far, I had to make several big choices:

1. Class-based or skill-based system?

All of Spiderweb's games have had skill-based systems. All characters were able to train in the same pool of skills. Warriors could learn to cast spells. Wizards could learn to use a sword. It's worked very well.

And yet, Avadon will throw all that out the window. Avadon: The Black Fortress will have four character classes, each with entirely different pools of abilities. The classes are Blademaster, Shadowwalker, Shaman, and Sorceress, and each plays very differently.

Your party will have up to three characters. One will be your main character. The other two will be selected from characters in the game, each with their personalities and issues and each of which is one of the four classes.

Three party members. Four classes. Thus, you will always have to do without at least one of the classes. Also, sometimes the characters will be off doing their own business, so you will have to play someone else. Because of this, you will need to shift your tactics occasionally.

So why change? Why throw out a system that's been working great for fifteen years? The answer is: Because I thought it would be fun to write a class-based system.

That's pretty much it. After fifteen years, I need to occasionally try new things to stay interested and keep my brain fresh. Otherwise, burnout, writer's block, and disaster. I've played a lot of good games over the years with class-based systems, I had a lot of fun with them, and I wanted to write my own. And the classes match very well with the different cultures and nations of Lynaeus, so they will be an organic part of the world.

2. How much healing?

All of our games so far have followed a fairly standard computer RPG way of handling damage. Monsters do tons of damage. You have a tank to sop it up and a healer to heal, heal, heal. We've done this a lot. It's fine. But I think it could be more fun.

Instead, for combat, I've been a bit more inspired by the way Dungeons & Dragons and Dragon Age have handled healing. There is not much of it, and it's almost all from potions. Everyone in your party focuses on doing damage. You and the opponent wear each other down, and the first side to fall loses. There is some healing (from Shaman skills and consumable items) for long, tough fights, but combat is now more about being slowly worn down by many blows.

3. How Often Do You Need To Return To Town?

All of our games so far have required frequent trips back to town to rest. As you cast spells, you spell points fade away. Eventually you run out and need to either use precious potions or go back to rest. This system has its points, mainly because it requires you to conserve your power. But walking back to town to rest isn't that fun.

So in Avadon, you will need to return to town far less often. After battles, your health will return quickly. There are no "mana" or "spell points." Abilities will have cooldowns. When you use an ability, you won't be able to use it again for a certain number of turns.

However, as you use more demanding spells and abilities, your fatigue will slowly increase, and when it gets too high you can't use those abilities. However, fatigue really does increase slowly, and there are items that will revive you. The result: Far fewer trips back to town and more time having fun.

4. How Difficult Will the Game Be?

The opinions of my fans has been nearly unanimous on this point. Spiderweb games have gotten too hard. I am completely revamping game balance with this in mind.

The normal, default difficulty will not be tough. Unless you go picking fights with dragons, Avadon will be far less tough that previous games. At the same time, I will make sure that the higher difficulty levels push back at you.

There Are Some Basic Principles

These are the decisions I made early on, which informed everything that came after them. Next month I'll say more about the game system and the character classes.