Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why I Won't Get An IPad

As a big Mac-head since the early days of forever ago, I was really interested in the iPad, Apple's next Machine To Change Everything. I don't currently actually own a laptop. I wanted to get my own personal, shiny Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy, take it to coffee shops, and use it to do design work on my games while all the losers looked on in envy and awe.

Because, at that size and price, I expect a computer. And thus, I can't by it. Because of this little chain of logic.

If a computer doesn't have a fully functional web browser, it's not worth buying.

A fully functional web browser needs to support Flash.

The iPad does not support Flash.

Ergo, no.

Now, I don't care whether Flash is good or devilspawn and whether so much stuff (games, Hulu, etc) should be running on it. The fact is that Flash is a big thing, and I want the things it runs.

But I love my new iMac, and it's not even broken, so Apple is still OK by me. It's just that they seem to think bigger iPod Touches are the future of computing, and no, I don't think so. Versatility makes technology complicated, but it also makes it awesome.

What? Some Indie Games Made Money?

I think the XBox LIVE Indie Games project is really cool and exciting. For the first time, random losers like me can write a game and sell it on consoles. This really excites me, because my games are far too small and niche and low-budget to have a chance of getting on, say, XBox Live or WiiWare.

Sure, there are problems with the service. It has predictably taken a bit of time for the quality to come up. And I think you should be allowed to charge more than $10 for a game. But this is still a darn cool opportunity for small developers, and Microsoft should be applauded for it.

But that leaves a big question: Can any developers actually make money on the darn thing? Well, we now actually have some hard numbers for earnings of the top games. Take a look. They are very interesting.

1. Good stuff makes money!

The top two games for numbers of sales are I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES 1N IT!!!1 and Avatar Drop. And, coincidentally, they're the two games on the service I've actually bought. I MAED A GAM3 is the best dollar I've ever spent on gaming. (Just narrowly edging out CrushCrushCrush on Rock Band.)

Excellent party games, and you should buy them.

1b. I'm just sayin' ...

If someone makes I MAED AVATAR DR0P W1TH ZOMBIES 1N IT!!!1, I will buy it.

2. Don't undercharge for your work!

But look at the profits column. Two of the three most popular games had developers who wisely chose not to charge a paltry dollar for their labors. Though the amusingly named "ezmuze+ Hamst3r edition" is down at #18 in number of sales, its higher price helped it to make a pile. The $2.50 games are making more than the $1 games, because that price increase (from almost nothing to almost nothing) isn't causing sales to drop by 60%.

I MAED A GAM3, to make a lot of money at a dollar price, had to get a LOT of exposure. Most developers won't get that lucky. You can luck into a quick payout, but you can't build a lasting business (meaning making a living off of multiple titles over a period of years) making dollar games. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Don't race to the bottom! Figure out a fair price for your work, and stand by it.

3. The kids love the vibrators.

I hate it when people act like Indie developers have some obligation to be always super-creative and artsy and like Jesus or something. I know some people are miffed by the popularity of the "massage" games, two of which are on the top twenty. But freedom to do whatever you want will result in a lot of ... Well, try out The Drinking Game, and you'll see what I mean.

I personally think that the "massage" games are pretty innovative. They saw demand for something nobody else was doing, and they made it. That is what innovation is. Which teaches a valuable lesson. Even when you get the innovation you want, it will still probably suck.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why Bushwhacking Your Players Is a Bad Idea

When I started writing role-playing games for a living, I had a lot of ideas for how an RPG should be. Many of those ideas were good. And quite a few were stupid. This post (like a similar post a few weeks ago) is about one of the errors I've made in the past. And error I've made again and again, with increasing energy, until I finally went way too far in Avernum 6 and made a resolution to never, ever to do it again.

It's like this. I have long thought it was cool to, in any given area in a game, place one encounter that was far harder than the stuff around it. It would be some special named or boss with tougher abilities and better loot. These little nuggets of toughness were always optional and always had special text warning the player that there was a really nasty foe here.

The basic idea behind this was that it gave the player a challenge. A place to stretch his or her abilities. Something to come back and try later to test your strength and see how much power you have gained. Sure, it'll slaughter you the first couple of times you run across it, but it will give you the motivation to work harder and prevail! It's a hardcore gamer way of thinking. This sort of thing is something I think is neat and has a place, if you're very, very careful about it.

But in Avernum 6, I went way, WAY too far with this. There were way too many encounters that were rough and meant to be returned to later. I actually had one bandit dungeon where the boss was super-tough. "Ah," I thought, in a moment of exhaustion and idiocy. "This will be cool. The player will kill the early bandits, get some lewt, and then see that the final boss is an entirely different sort of character and back off and come back later."

How sadistic and stupid is that? To let the player fight through a dungeon and not give the satisfaction of finishing it off. To add one more item to an ever-increasing list of things to remember to return to. To doom most players to several attempts to kill the boss and getting slaughtered before they figure out that they have to return later, wasting their time and goodwill.

I just patched Avernum 6 and removed a bunch of those dumb encounters, but the structure of the game means there are a few that have to stay. That really aggravates me. But, at last, after fifteen years, I think I have finally learned the main lesson:

Difficulty In a Game Should Have a Curve With As Few Bumps As Possible

When you are supposed to enter an area, you should be able to handle all of the encounters and quests in that area. Want to put in something tough? Save it for the next area. Seriously.

There is no way around this. If you put in a little nugget of difficulty, most players will still try to take it on. And they will fail and be frustrated and hate you and not play your next game.

When you suddenly make the game's difficulty jump without warning, you aren't playing fair with the player. And if you give a warning, most players will ignore it. I swear, I put in "OMG this room ahead is megahard guys srsly!!!" warnings all the time, and nobody ever listens to them. Nor should they. Characters in games tell them how lethal the territory ahead is all the time, and then they enter it and prevail. No reason to think things should be different here.

If there's an unexplored area, people will enter it. And, if they get killed, they won't remember that they were warned. They'll just hate you.

Also, making players go back to already-explored areas is bad form. People have enough to worry about in their lives as it is without remembering where they left behind some giant they need to go back and kill. Some games pad out their length by making you paw over old dungeons looking for secret goodies (and Batman: Arkham Asylum and Shadow Complex do manage to make this fun), but, unless you handle it really well, most of the time it's best to just let the player go on to cool new stuff.

Of Course, There Are Exceptions

There's no need to be absolute about it. Putting one or two badasses in your game can be all right, if they're cool. A perfect example is in Dragon Age: Origins. There's this valley with a dragon in it. When you enter, you see the dragon sleeping there. Then you find a gong. And, if you ring the gong, the dragon wakes up, flies over, and hands out the pwnage. You can beat it, but it's really tough.

This is a perfect example of how to handle a difficulty spike. Totally optional. Very clear that it's there. And, if you get yourself killed, you totally know you deserved it. And it's the ONLY encounter like that. So that's OK.

But outside that? Players hate to lose. You're in the Adolescent Power Fantasy business, after all. If the player has every reason to expect that they should be winning, you should let them win. Or, at least, have a very good chance of not dying.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Nerd Sounds Off About Avatar!

(This article contains some spoilers about Avatar. And, since you've already seen it, it doesn't matter.)

A week after everyone else on the planet, I finally managed to take some time off from writing games to see Avatar (original name: Jake Sully Versus the Hippies From Space). I saw it projected on a flat surface, as opposed to in 3-D, because I am very old.

I agree with the conventional wisdom: The movie is super pretty. The plot and writing are a bit dopey, and the characters are cardboard. But, ooh! Shiny! It's fun enough to be worth seeing.

But whenever anything is seen by that many people and worms its way into the culture, it's fun and worthwhile to get all nitpicky and start digging into it ...

1. This io9 article, about how movies like Avatar are big First Worlder White Guy Wish-Fulfillment Fantasies, it perfectly designed to make the Internets explode with rage. The article is also kind of on target.

Look. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that surviving in a jungle wilderness, full of hostile creatures and food you have to hunt down yourself, is tricky. This is true whether you're in the Amazon or on Pandora. And I don't think I or anyone reading this could master the environment and learn everything you need to know AND learn the language AND master a whole new BODY in 30 days. Or 30 years. The life of a tribesman is hard, yo. Saying otherwise is clueless and condescending.

I, personally, would be too busy being eaten by a snake.

You can call me politically correct for saying this if you want. I will comfort myself with the fact that I am completely and obviously right.

But that's not to say that I think Avatar is all right-wing. Exactly the opposite ...

2. The Onion AV Club had an awesome article about how, no matter what you think of the plot or CGI, the movie Avatar pulls its weight by being so awesomely politically subversive.

Make no mistake. Those bloodthirsty marines (well, ex-marine corporate mercenaries, not that any of those exist in real life) and soulless corporate drones we're rooting against are there to represent us. They're out there shooting the natives and doing anything it takes to bring back the Whateverium, and the people back home couldn't give less of a crap. The movie gets us to cheer while they (we) are killed or kicked off in chains. It gets us to see ourselves as the bad guys. It's amazing what you can get away with when you're James Cameron.

I think the most fascinating thing about Avatar is the way it gets us to realize, in our bones, that the Na'vi will never, ever want to be us. They will never buy all that we're selling. I mean, they'd like some schools, and yeah, the medicine is nice, but we will never remake them in our own image. No price is high enough for them to let us have their Plotpointium.

It's a subtle point, and I doubt it will register much with many people. (Ooh! Shiny!) But it did make me think. I love our country, and our culture, and the Constitution and the principles we try to live by, even if we sometimes do our best to ignore them. And yes, it's OK for us to try to sell our ideas to other people. The whole story of human progress is the story of competing ideas.

But pick a country, say, Afghanistan. They have their own cultures and traditions and ideas, millenia old. And a lot of people there would rather die (or kill) than give up their idea set, no matter how tempting elements of ours might be. Avatar provides a nice reminder that some (probably most) people will never want to be us, no matter how much we offer in return. Of course, the movie really stacks the deck by making Pandora this hippie paradise with floating mountains and glowy flowers and crap like that, instead of an endless expanse of desert or rocky, inhospitable crags, but this actually kind of doesn't change anything. Living in a cruddy place doesn't make you any less attached to your fundamental worldview.

Not that the other cultures wouldn't like our goods and services, I'm sure. Medicine would be nice, thanks.

3. So the hot blue CGI boy and the hot blue CGI girl went and did it under the big, magical soul tree. OK, fine. But where were the other couples who went there to make out? Was that a privilege reserved for the chief's daughter? That's a pity, because that scene would have been a thousand times better for me if we were also hearing dozens of blue couples having rough, wild, noisy, awesome jungle sex in the background.

4. Actually, rooting against the marines did creep me out a little bit. I just finished watching the truly awesome Iraq war miniseries Generation Kill. I didn't always like the marines in that, but I sure was rooting for all of them to live.

5. I'm not sure what will happen in the years after the movie ends, but I strongly suspect that the words "orbital bombardment" will be involved.

6. Science fiction wanker note. If you want to see how similar storytelling ground was covered in a superior way over thirty years ago, track down a copy of The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin. Damn fine book.

There. More words written about Avatar. Obama saw it, so it must be worth the effort.