Monday, November 30, 2009

I Released A New RPG For the Mac

Spiderweb Software just released our newest game for the Mac, Avernum 6. And when I say Just Released, I mean I made it available about ten days ago. I haven't blogged about it yet because I am really, really terrible at PR.

But this isn't the worst of it. I am sending press releases to web sites today too. Why didn't I send them a week ago, like a sensible business owner? I forgot.

I mean, it's sort of expected that programmers and designers aren't so great at PR, but sometimes I'm amazed that I remember to breathe.

Anyway, Avernum 6. Despite my efforts, it is doing very well. So far, it is selling better than Avernum 5. Which sold better than Avernum 4. Which itself sold fantastically well. So I am pleased about that.

And yet, I have a lot of angst, because it is the last Avernum game. Avernum games have always been our best sellers, so it pains me to drop it, but, if I don't start doing new things soon, I will go mad. So I have to step off the sequel-train for a while for my mental survival's sake.

(Though, actually, I have a really cool idea for Avernum Zero. Basically I one-off prequel set in the years before the first game. Maybe in four or five years, if I think I can come up with something actually good, I'll go back to the well one more time.)

My main source of stress for Avernum 6 is system performance. I recently switched to more elaborate graphics that require hardware acceleration. This means that older machines and machines with quirky or flawed video hardware are falling off the back of the train. These people tend to make sure they let me know just how much they hate me and feel betrayed by me before they go. This tends to be accompanied by cheap shots about how graphically undemanding my games should be. Yeah. Right. Because throwing pixels all over your 1900 x 1200 monitor 30 times a second stops taking processor power just because it's not in 3-D. Look, I am a Cool Indie Developer, but I still have to obey the laws of physics.

On the bright side, Avernum 6 looks so much nicer than any game I've ever released. I went back and rerendered all of the icons, added shadows, and moved to a different system for storing and drawing icons. It does require more power, though I think the results are worth it. I really do need to move forward sometimes to keep engaged in the process. And many of my beta testers used Mac G4s, so I know the game can run on old machines. Not super fast all the time, but it works.

Anyway. New game. Bad at PR. I suck at programming. That is a good summary of the process. If you like Indie RPGs and have a Mac, I hope you give it a try. If you like Indie RPGs and run Windows, I'll have something for you in March.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Make Your Game Easy. Then Make It Easier.

I started writing my first RPG for Spiderweb Software in 1994. Yes, this makes me old. When I started my cute, little shareware business, I had a lot of instincts for how to write a good role-playing game. Happily, about 85% of those instincts were good ones, so I was able to write solid games and make a living.

But 15% of my original instincts were not good. In fact, they were terrible, and it has taken many years for me to realize that. Even now, I have to fight those bad instincts with all of my heart, and I lose as often as I win.

My worst instinct has to do with game difficulty. I'm a hardcore nerd of the old school, and I'm not truly satisfied unless a game is really difficult. Other people, also known as "regular humans," do not, in fact, want this.

I used to succinctly describe my views about game difficulty thus:

People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy.

No. This is, in fact, completely, 100% opposite from the truth. A better summary of reality would be:

People will happily forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry, ragequit, hold a grudge, and never buy your games again.

Video games are leisure time expressions of adolescent power fantasies. They should only be hard if players specifically request that they be hard.

I tend to like hard games. I am perfectly happy if any given title has 3 or 4 fights that requires 3 or 4 tries each to beat. But I am increasingly recognizing that this makes me a bit of a mutant. I am also realizing that while I like (or at least don't mind) the occasional repeated failure, I don't require it. I blasted through Brutal Legend with ease and I still had a great time. Plants vs. Zombies is easy, and it is also terrific. On the other hand, a game like Ninja Gaiden 2, which would happily make me refight bosses ten times on the easiest difficulty level ... Well, that was just stupid. Never again.

After long reflection, here is my new rule for RPGs I write:

When a player is on the default difficult level, has built his or her characters poorly, and is playing straight through the main storyline with mediocre tactics, that player should almost never be killed.

I can almost hear the heads of hardcore gamers imploding with impotent nerdrage. But seriously. If you have a problem with this, I think you're getting a lot of your fun from making other people have less fun.

Of course, a game should have harder difficulty levels. And, if a player chooses to opt-in on higher difficulty, they should be seriously nasty. But, when played on the default difficulty, the game should be accessible to your mom or average eight-year old.

I'm about to release my next game, Avernum 6. And it doesn't live up to what I have learned. In fact, in parts, it gets downright tricky. But then I'm going to write an all-new game series, and I promise that it will be pretty easy on Normal difficulty.

And if you turn the difficulty up to Torment, well, I'll be gunning for you.

Oh, and one parting thought.

If your game is actually fun, killing the player won't make it more fun. But nothing sucks all of the fun out of a good game faster than repeated failure.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Brutal Legend

I just finished playing Brutal Legend, and I wanted to hold forth on it. (The 'u' in Brutal is supposed to have an umlaut, but I'm too lazy to figure out how to type that. Sue me.) I was pretty much destined to play the game once I found out that Tim Schafer designed it. He did Psychonauts, which is one of the best video games ever. So he's earned some trust.

I really, really enjoyed the game. It's one of the very few games I've ever played where, at the end, I wished it had gone on longer. (Though, admittedly, this might mean it's too short). The main storyline is a mix of mindless battle, driving, and strategy game, and they all totally worked for me. It was also balanced to be, on Normal difficulty, pretty easy, which I appreciated. The storyline is pleasant, the writing is truly funny, and the voice acting is top notch.

And yet, the game has been lambasted by some sources I really thought would appreciate it, like Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation. For exactly the reasons I liked it. Which bothers me in several ways.

(Well, Yahtzee, the guy who does Zero Punctuation, should be expected to hate it. That's just what he does. I have actually seen people consider Zero Punctuation to provide a serious and worthwhile critical judgment. Do Not Do This. Yahtzee makes his living saying bad things about games. That's his right. That also means he has a strong financial motive to not like games. Yahtzee is either a person who pretends to hate games to provide material for his videos or a guy who really does hate all games but still feels compelled to play them. Let us all hope, for his sake, that it is the former.)

The main source of contention is the strategy missions of the game. In these, you are still a warrior on the ground, doing battle and kicking ass. But the game then sucks in elements of real-time strategy games so that you can summon units to fight alongside you. What's more, you can combine with the units you make to use special badass attacks. For example, you can make tanks to fight beside you, but you can also jump in those tanks, drive them around, and shoot stuff. Or summon your armored car and screech around the battlefield and run people over. Or dive into the middle of attacking hordes and lay waste. Or just fly high up in the sky and pretend you're playing Starcraft. It's very open-ended.

I love this, because it means that the boss fights aren't all just tedious hackfests where you have to find out the enemy's oh-so-clever weak point. They are epic battles, and they should be. And it feels unique to me and (well, here comes the word) innovative.

But that's the problem.

People say they want innovation. But actually give them something different that they have to adjust to and they get all angry and full of nerdrage.

And, since he made something that plays in a new and different way and this threw some people off, Tim Schafer wrote a public letter giving some strategy advice. He received some mockery for this, but he is in the right. If unfamiliar gameplay makes some people freak out, some gentle tips for how to get back on the right track are all to the good. And he isn't at fault here, because the game has excellent tutorials and tips for how to play. And the thing really is balanced to be easy. And there is a huge amount of freedom in how you play the boss battles. You can try a lot of different things and win. You just have to, you know, try.

Now, the game isn't perfect. I think that the main quest is still a bit underfed to justify a full $60 price tag. I rented it. Though I've heard the online multiplayer is pretty good, which would goose the value a bit. But, in terms of fun, Brutal Legend is aces with me.

Now back to Dragon Age and Torchlight. My world is full of stat-building, horrifying brutality, and trying to unlock the lesbian sex scene.