Wednesday, December 15, 2010

December Odds, Ends, and Rock Band 3.

A few mixed things for the month ...

Hear Me Talk About ME!

There is a nice interview of me up in Inside Mac Games. I got to say a lot of things about the game industry, Macs, DRM, and our upcoming game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. I haven't gotten lots of e-mails yet about how wrong and dumb I am, so the interview was probably a failure. But you might find it interesting.

Die, Bunny! Die!

One thing I forgot to mention about Red Dead: Redemption. I spent a lot of time hunting animals, for money, for cheevos, and to break the monotony of long horsey rides.

At one point, I shot a rabbit but only grazed it. It started flailing around on the ground in tormented agony.

Animating characters is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And yet, someone at Rockstar took the time to animate a crippled bunny. This is the sort of excessive, terrifying craftsmanship that keeps me coming back to their games.

Pity that you don't have a radio, ala Grand Theft Auto. It wouldn't be historically accurate, but I would have loved to borrow 99 Luftballoons from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to keep my energy levels up during long rides across Mexico.

Last Thoughts About Red Dead: Redemption

I finished Red Dead: Redemption, and I enjoyed that game as much as any I've played in a long time. The last time I wrote about it, I heard from some people who were infuriated by the awkwardness going through doors. I suppose the doors could be better, but you really spend very little of the game in places that even have doors.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

One thing I really loved about the game: The storyline in the last ten missions or so. You see, in most games, after you kill the Head Bad Guy, that's it. You're done. Cutscene, credits, and out. But in this game, after the bad guy is gone, you then have a bunch of missions at your home. You meet your family, try to relate to your son, and work to rebuild your farm.

These missions are quiet, simple, and really quite affecting. It helps a lot that the relationships between John Marston and his wife and son are very nicely done. I really felt for them as characters and it made the last chunk of the game much more engaging. Which might make it a little bit relevant to that whole, tedious "Are games art?" argument that keeps resurfacing, no matter how much we might wish it'd stop.

Rock Band 3 Reviewish Thing

I've never hidden my huge love of Rock Band, and I've written about the series on several occasions. However, I can't work up the energy to write a Rock Band 3 review. It's got a lot of awesome songs, fantastic interface improvements, some nicely done Pro Modes that only 1% of the players will care about, and a keyboard.

But music games are a fad that is slowly choking on its own blood. Don't believe me? Look at it this way. When your development house releases its classic for the ages, and, a couple of weeks later, your owner puts you up for sale, well, not so good.

And, while the keyboard is a nice little bit of variety, it's just more of the same simple "Hit the green button. Now hit the yellow button." gameplay that most people have gotten totally tired of by now. It won't save the genre, and, considering that my half-assed efforts easily put me high up on the leaderboards, not many people are playing.

But hey, I'm a dead-ender. You'll have to pry my fakey drumsticks from my cold dead fingers. And I just dropped twenty bucks for the new Billy Joel pack. I will keep enjoying this niche genre for a while longer. But it will never again be anything but a niche genre.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Red Dead: Redemption and My Failures As a Parent

Before I take a weekend-long break from writing Avadon to spend a weekend with the family in my favorite place in the world, I wanted to talk about my latest gaming obsession.

Red Dead: Redemption

Since I'm an enormous fan of Rockstar's violent, objectionable sandbox games, and the only person you will ever meet who actually played Grand Theft Auto IV all the way to the end, I'm surprised it took me so long to get around to playing this. It's Grand Theft Auto, but in the old west. So instead of stealing cars, you steal stagecoaches! Instead of killing hundreds of Mexicans in fake L.A., you kill them in real Mexico!

What was more surprising, though in retrospect it should not have been, was how instantly attached my eight year old daughter became to the game the moment she caught an unlucky glimpse of me playing it. Of course, it makes perfect sense. This is a game where you own a horse, ride your horse, take your horse out into the brush, find wild horses, capture and tame wild horses, and make one of those horses your new horse.

So she wanted to play it. A lot. But it's a Rockstar game, with all of the obscenity, gruesome violence, and graphic sexuality that entails. (Along with an unusually high frequency of rape, which I don't consider an improvement.)

So I let her play the game, but only in sandbox mode. She got stuck early on in the missions, and I haven't helped her. Thus, the things she are exposed to while questing for horses are only damaging, not totally traumatizing.

Of course, when I walked into the living room yesterday, I saw her chasing down a pack of bandits and shooting them all in the back in an admirably businesslike fashion. Also, she is trying to hunt down every animal in the game. She'll say, "Daddy! I shot a snake! And an armadillo!" And she'll bounce up and down like the happiest little girl in the world.

So I either suck at parenting or am really fantastic at it.

Two Key Differences Between Red Dead: Redemption and Grand Theft Auto

In Grand Theft Auto, when I left my car to go on some dangerous mission and returned to it later with like eighty guys chasing me and a need to get away very quickly, I never found that my car was missing because it wandered off to eat a particularly tasty clump of grass a half a mile away.

In Grand Theft Auto, when I was peacefully driving somewhere, my car was never suddenly killed by a cougar, who then ate me.

I mean, sure, sometimes gang members would shoot at me, but this was never really a problem. Gangbangers with AK-47s are a walk in the park compared to cougars. Cougars are serious business.

Oh, and Some Shameless Self-Promotion

In October, we had our 15th anniversary sale, celebrating an alarmingly long time being in the business of writing Indie role-playing games. The sale was a huge success, one of the best sales we've ever had. As a result, and as a thank you to everyone who has been nice enough to keep us in business all these years, we are resuming the most popular part of the sale: the big discount on CD bundles. For the entire month of December, all of our Game Collections on CD are 25% off.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review - Super Meat Boy

I recently played Super Meat Boy on XBox Live. It is a really fun game, and it manages innovation in a genre that I would have thought had passed innovation by decades ago.  It's an impressive feat, and very much worth some attention.

Super Meat Boy is a 2-D platformer. Like all other successful indie games. Ninety percent of all indie games have to be 2-D platformers now, by federal law. Penalties for violation start at being forced to watch all of the Wandering Around In the Forest Being Emo scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and rapidly get worse from there.

The plot is simple, elemental, and timeless. You play Meat Boy, a small, sentient wad of bloody meat. Your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, has been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Fetus. You have to rescue her. You do so by moving left and right and jumping, hopefully evading all obstacles on your way to get to Bandage Girl. That's it. That's the game. It's a bloodier (MUCH bloodier) version of Donkey Kong, which itself came out about the time Napoleon was getting bogged down in Russia.

And yet, it is insanely fun and amazingly innovative. And the innovation comes from the developers' attempt to answer this simple question:

How do you make a computer game that is extremely hardcore and difficult but, at the same time, light and fun and not frustrating?

Tough problem. And they come up with a great solution. Super Meat Boy has two innovations that make it unique:

1. Short, short levels. No death penalty.

Super Meat Boy is a tough platformer, one of the toughest you will ever play. However, the levels are short. Very short. A lot of them can be completed in less than five seconds. Practically all of them can be done in less than thirty. For all regular gameplay, you don't have "lives". There is no long, annoying death animation. When you die, you are instantly back at the start of the level and able to play again. In other words, you come back to life so fast you will be playing again before you fully realize that you died.

Super Meat Boy requires amazingly difficult jumps, dodges, maneuvers, etc. It can easily take fifty tries to finish a level. And yet, you will often have all of those deaths less than five seconds into a level. So fifty deaths sounds like a lot, but they take place in less that 250 seconds (four minutes or so), which is an entirely reasonable amount of time to spend completing a level.

And when, by some unholy combination of skill and luck, you reach that fifth minute and maneuver through a tough level, you feel like a gaming god.

2. The Awesome Replays

When you finish a level, you see a replay of your attempts. Sounds dull, yes? The difference here is that you see a replay of ALL your attempts, shown at once. You die fifty times before you win? Then the replay shows fifty-one Meat Boys running through the level simultaneously. Fifty of them die in explosions of gore, and one of them gets through. It looks really cool and funny, and you can save the replays and show them to your friends.

The really amazing thing about this feature is subtle but powerful. What the all-attempts replays mean is that every time you die you didn't just waste your time. You added one more Meat Boy to the final replay, making it look cooler. Die fifty times? Then the replay looks spectacular. You aren't just failing. You're creating a bit of video game art. This feature sometimes made me keep trying a level again and again even after my sore fingers begged me to stop, just because I knew that, when I won, the replay would be awesome.

Video game death as personal expression. How cool is that?

There's More

There's many levels in the game. Finish a level quickly enough and it unlocks a much more difficult "dark world" version of the level. Plus there are boss fights. Hidden characters. Secret bonus levels. It's one of the best examples I've ever seen of obsessed developers going the extra mile to add craftsmanship and polish to their labor of love. The controls are really tight. The cutscenes are hilarious. Seriously, play this game.

I am on the record as saying that indie game development is overrated from the perspective of innovation. There are plenty of indie developers making hackwork, genre pieces, and clones of more successful games, and EA has published plenty of innovative titles over the last few years. But this is definitely one game that argues for the specialness of indies, and it's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review - Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty

This is pretty late, but I've taken some time off from writing my games to produce a quick review of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. I'm only reviewing the single-player portion, as playing the game on multiplayer for more than 15 seconds makes me feel like I'm going to have a stroke. I'm still trying to remember which button makes me build a barracks, and when fifty laser ninjas are crashing through my perimeter. It makes me hate myself.

TL;DR Summary: Really fun game. Really dopey story, but it doesn't matter, because in games like this all the story has to be is a placeholder, a floppy useless thing that hangs off the side and is ignored by everyone. Also, computer games can be art, but, secretly, nobody really wants them to be.

So. The Starcraft 2 campaign. Very interesting stuff. There's really two parts of it. The story and the missions.

1. The Story

But, you might ask, why bother to review a story in a game like this? I mean, sure, games like this and Halo and Gears of War have goofy storylines. Everyone knows they're goofy. They will always be goofy. So why bother saying it?

Well, to answer your hypothetical question, imaginary reader, whenever a game makes you spend time experiencing something, it is fair to evaluate that experience. If you take my time up with something, it's worthwhile to ask whether said time was worth spending. Also, Blizzard spent a ton of money making that story, with the cutscenes and the voice acting and whatnot, so it's fun to ask whether they got their money's worth. A few comments are entirely justified.

The story to Starcraft 2 is what you would get if the stories of Firefly and Gears of War had a drunken hookup. I swear, the writers of Starcraft 2 wanted to be making a lost episode of Firefly so bad that it was almost poignant. The western theme, the mood, the accents, the train-robbery mission, even the dang music cues.

But the story itself is pretty painful. Cheesy dialogue. Bland characters. Aimless storytelling where very little interesting happens. And, considering that this is the story of how an endless horde of bug-creatures eats nine-tenths of humanity, making it kind of dull is a real achievement.

There are two things I would do to fix a storyline like this. If one real game writer working for a real company reads what I write and thinks, "Hmmm. He might have a point," I can die happily knowing I made the world a better place.

War Is Interesting. Don't Neglect the War.

The whole game is basically about a war between people and bug creatures. War is one of the most fascinating things you can tell a story about. The cunning generals. The terrified soldiers. The major battles. The tactics and turnabouts. There is limitless drama in the story of a war.

But, in the story of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the war itself is usually only seen in cutscenes or on the news show you can watch on the TV in the bar. Most of the stuff you do in the game has nothing to do with the war. You're learning about some Protoss prophecy. You're gathering parts of some crystal artifacts. You are gathering supplies for some crazy guy so he can do some thing. You don't engage the bug creatures in a big, meaningful way until like 90% of the way into the game.

It's like if I was telling the story of World War 2 and never mentioned anything about D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Instead, it's the story of how a bunch of guys went to Madagascar to find the three parts of a magic laser that would win the war by killing Hitler. I'm sorry, but this is not the best use of your dramatic material.

Make What You Do Have a Point

So this is what happened. In the story, some crazy guy has me spend two missions gathering materials for some super space gun or something. Then a pretty space girl with psychic space powers comes to me and tells me I need to kill him. I choose to believe her, so I spend a whole mission laboriously destroying the supplies I spend the earlier missions gathering.

So that was four whole missions (two to gather supplies, two potential missions for what happens to them), a whole seventh of the game, getting stuff and then destroying it, achieving exactly nothing. What a waste of precious storytelling space.

One of the best things to do with the story in a video game is to make the player feel all badass. Killing fifty space mans with your space gun is already awesome. Knowing you are doing this to save the space princess from the space bugs gives the power fantasy a nice little kick. Players like knowing that their actions are making a difference. Maybe completing the mission has a good effect. Maybe a bad effect. But you should make sure that the mission the player just spent time and effort completing makes a difference. Doing otherwise is unwise. Never invite the player to think his or her actions in the game are meaningless.

2. The Level Design

There was some angst online when it was announced that the storyline for Starcraft 2 was going to be split into three full games, of which Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty was the first. Understandably, there were complaints about having to pay for three games instead of one for the same story. Now that I've played the first game, I can say this. If the superb level design of the first game continues through the next two, splitting the thing into three games is great news. The story is a bit blah, but the game itself is a huge amount of fun.

First off, the designers saw that the core gameplay of Starcraft 2 is really fun. You build a base, make it stronger, make badass troops, and send them out to kill things. So that is the main structure of most of the missions, but with the added kindness of usually making sure the core elements of your base have been built, to save you the tedium of mining a bunch of unobtanium and building a barracks for the eighty thousandth time.

However, while the spine of the gameplay is the same, every mission is different, with the variety coming in what you fight or what your goals are. One mission requires you to blow up trains as they speed quickly across the level. Another mission takes place on a planet being scoured by fire, so you need to quickly leapfrog your base to the right, fighting foes as you go.

There are several defense missions and a handful of "Tiny number of units sneaking through a big fort" missions, enough to add variety but not enough to distract from the main mode gameplay. Also, there are a million different units you can build, most of which you will forget and never use again. However, each unit has one mission designed to use its particular strengths, so all of that work making new graphics models won't go to waste.

So, yeah, once I figured out that the Escape key would bump me past most of the plot, I had lots and lots of fun playing Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.

So What Does This Mean?

That all the time they spent making the story and all of the time I spent writing about it and all of the time you spent reading it was kind of a waste. The story didn't matter. The game was a lot of fun, and it would have been even if all of the cutscenes depicted my protagonist sitting on the couch or yelling at space elves.

Games in stories are usually a vestigial limb. Every once in a while, I play a game that is improved by its story. (Most of these titles are by Bioware.) A story can provide excellent context. On the other hand, who cares about context? Most of the time, people just want to melt faces. While it can be nice to know whose faces they are and for what reason said melting is occurring, it's not necessary.

While I do believe that games can sometimes be art, they really, really don't need to be. It gives me a lot of sympathy for the people who say they can't be art. The "artistic content" part usually has nothing to do with the "fun" part, and the "fun" part was really all I cared about. Zap! Zap! Pew! Pew!

It's like I've said for quite a while, "Players will forgive you for making a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it." It's a weird thing for someone like me to say, since the stories in my games are one of the main selling points. But, at some point, I can't ignore what people actually go out and play. Myself included.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #4 - The Character Classes

Avadon: The Black Fortress, our next game and the beginning of an all-new series, has been in beta-testing for a while. It's been a grueling process. Testing a new game with a new engine is a lot of work, because basically everything in the game is broken. Happily, we've worked through the worst of it, and Spiderweb Software is still on track to release the game for the Mac in February.

For this developer diary (the others are here, here, and here), I wanted to write about the four character classes in Avadon. What they are, what they are like, and why I made them the way I did. Since this is the very first time I've written a class-based system, I put an awful lot of thought into the classes. I wanted each to have a distinct feel, but I want you to be able to complete the game with any mix of them.

Since I don't want the game to have too much healing, all classes needed to be able to protect themselves in some way. Since any combination of them needed to be able to win, I wanted them all to be able to produce a bunch of damage when necessary. And since I wanted them to be distinct, each of them needed to be able to do something unique and, hopefully, interesting.

So here they are. I will give the name of each class, the official, in-game description, and what I was thinking when I put it in.

"A blademaster is a true warrior. He is most comfortable in a massive suit of plate armor, wielding a sword and shield or a huge halberd, striding boldly into a crowd of foes and sending them flying with mighty blows. Blademasters are not subtle."
I've tried to stay away from some elements of the standard RPG archetypal class roles: the healer, the crowd control guy, the DPS, etc. But I do like tanks. I like the feeling of having big beefy warriors who stand tall and bear the brunt of the enemy attacks while the other characters stay back and do awesome things. It's not necessary to have a tank in Avadon, but it is a cool option for those who want it.

Blademasters can also stun foes if you get overwhelmed, and they do have the ability to heal themselves. Though they are tanks, I gave them the ability to stun and fling around foes as well to give playing them some variety.

"The shadowwalkers are warriors of the shadows. They count on cunning and evasion, slipping through the guards of their enemies and delivering lethal blows. They can attack with blades, thrown razor disks, and pots of noxious and deadly alchemical substances. And then vanish into thin air."
OK, I'm not going to deny or hide the perfectly obvious. Shadowwalkers are suspiciously similar to ninjas. I wanted a character type that was fragile but could inflict a ton of damage in melee and had all sorts of cool tricks. That narrowed it down to ninjas and pirates, and I though ninjas fit better. This is, in come ways, a real pandering, fan-service sort of move, but it has its reasons.

This is my favorite class because of the cool tricks it can do. My favorite are the abilities that let you teleport and stun enemies with smoke or leave a decoy of yourself behind to trick foes. Introducing teleportation into my games has caused some tricky programming issues to deal with, but it's worth it.

And, to be honest, whenever I need to design something in one of my games, my first instinct is to do the thing I would most enjoy if I was playing. That is a compass that has almost never led me astray. And so, when I had the idea of fitting a ninja-type into the world, I was, like, "Yeah! Cool!" It's neat, and it adds a little bit of silliness to a world that sometimes threatened to be dark and serious.

Also, when I write a game, I try to include some elements that appeal to young, energetic fans. For example, the Geneforge series had a lot of in-depth politics and difficult, wrenching, role-playing choices. However, a lot of people bought the games because they liked the idea of having an army of fire-breathing dinosaurs. Avadon does not have fire-breathing dinosaurs, but it has elements of similar, simple fun.

"The shaman has dedicated her life to nature, and nature, in return, has rewarded her with great power. She can use her connection to the wilds to heal and bless her allies. And, when angered, she can call wind, lightning, and fire to devastate those who challenge her. A shaman is rarely alone. She can call wolves or, eventually, drakes to serve and protect her. Also, she has the unique ability to heal wounded allies."
I wanted a character who could summon pets, and I wanted a character who had a few healing spells. Those two abilities fit very naturally with the shaman idea, especially since I'd already decided that a large swath of the land of Lynaeus was still settled with fierce, tribal barbarians. The shaman is a class that can do a lot of useful things. Produce damage. Make a pet that can bite or hold off foes. Heal and bless allies. Curse foes. They definitely have the most unique flavor of the classes in the game.

It is worth pointing out, once again, that I am leavening the occasional grimness of the setting and seriousness of the drama with a lot of standard fantasy trappings. Ninjas AND barbarians? What? I've always enjoyed writing games that mix the high-minded and the silly.

"The sorceress has dedicated her life to the mastery of the arcane arts. Fragile in battle, she makes up for it with the ability to summon forth clouds of fire, lightning, or ice, obliterating her foes."
Nothing innovative here. It's not an RPG without a cannon, someone who can summon big ol' tornadoes of fire to wipe everyone out. Fragile, unarmored, but able to blast large areas of the battlefield with raw power. Plus, daze or charm foes, give powerful blessings, and so on. Just keep her a safe distance from the monsters.

I don't feel guilty about having some of the classes be very straightforward and what people are used to in RPGs. I want players to have the option to stay with what they are familiar and comfortable with. The fireball-flinging magic user became a fantasy archetype for a reason.

So Those Are the Classes

Your party will usually have three characters: Your main character, and two others selected from the four helpers available to you, one from each class. (And each with his or her own personality, opinions, and goals.) I've tried to make a good mix of familiar and unusual, combat and melee, with a bit of blatant (but fun) fan service thrown in. I still have months of balance work ahead of me to make sure each class is distinct, useful, and fun, but so far, in practice, the system seems to be working very well in practice.

One Final Note On Gender

I have already received complaints because the two melee fighters are male and the two spellcasters are female. Some want female warriors and some want male casters, and they are unhappy. I can understand their irritation.

The sad truth is that this came about due to limited time and resources. Making the art for the four sorts of PCs already consumed a huge amount of time, even just making one gender per class. When we start work on Avadon 2, one of the first things we hope to do is to make female blademasters and shadowwalkers and male shamans and sorceresses. Until then, certain sacrifices had to be made in the hope of a timely release.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Should Games Sell For Donations? Or, Is Setting a Fixed Price For Losers?

So here is a question for Indie developers. Suppose you didn't have to charge a fixed price for your game? Suppose instead you could just have it sell for a donation. Customers give any amount of money, and they get the game. Should you do it?

Of course, any credit card transaction involves a fixed fee, so we'd allow you to set a minimum price, say a dollar, so that you aren't losing money giving people your game. Some people will complain that it's not a donation if you set a minimum price. But only a true jerk would expect you to lose money for the privilege of bringing them entertainment, so these people can be safely ignored.

This question has been asked a lot since the success of the Humble Indie Bundle. I have been repeatedly asked what I thought of that, so that's a good place to start.

What Was the Humble Indie Bundle?

Basically, it was a bundle of five successful and high quality Indie games. They were not new, but they weren't so old either. They were sold for a donation. You could have all five, with DRM, for Windows, Mac, and Linux, for whatever you wanted to pay. And, even better, you could designate a percentage of your donation (from 0% to All) to go to charity!

It succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. It got huge amounts of attention, everyone involved made buckets of money, and a lot of statements were made about what the Humble Indie Bundle meant for the future of games distribution. In particular, since they all made so much money just asking for donations, shouldn't every developer consider this?

It was a brilliant idea. It got several deserving developers a lot of money, it got deserving charities a lot of money, it got a lot of people some really good games, and it was just generally fantastic overall. If I was asked to include one of my games for a future Bundle, I would jump at the chance.

But Let's Not Overstate the Case

We should probably not leap to extreme conclusions too quickly. Because of the novelty and general virtue of the offer, it got a HUGE amount of publicity. And then it made a ton of money, which got more publicity, and they extended the sale, which got more publicity, and so on.

Look. If you gave me extensive free coverage on Slashdot, Kotaku, The Escapist, and every other online news outlet, I could make a fortune selling quarters for a dollar each. (Hey, it works in real life.) This is something people forget when they look at sales on, say, Steam making a lot of money and then say, "OK. All games should be cheap, always." Sales do so well because they get a ton of attention. If it becomes a regular, everyday thing, it won't get the attention. Will accepting donations generate acceptable income if many developers do it? I don't know, but it won't get the same glowing success it got when it was new.

But the fact remains. The Humble Indie Bundle was a brilliant idea that got a ton of well-earned success. They made a ton of money asking for donations for their games.

Should you?

When It Might Work

Not long ago, I wrote about how there is a spectrum in how games should be priced. On one end are the casual, disposable, impulse-buy games. These should be very cheap, painfully cheap. At the other end are are hardcore, involved, long playing-time, niche games for a small audience. These need to earn as much money from each member of their small player pools as possible to avoid developer bankruptcy. These games need to carefully choose an actual price that brings in adequate earnings.

So suppose you're writing a cheap, impulse buy, casual game and you had the chance to make it donation-ware. Should you? Quite probably! You need to charge a small amount anyway to work as an impulse buy. And, if you ask for donations, some people will give you more money. Maybe they love Indie developers, or they feel the higher price is fair, or they just hate having money. Either way, it's freely given, so grab it while you can!

I have several games that I bought on XBox Live Indie Games that I got for a dollar each. I like them a lot, and they made good money for their makers. But if instead of charging a fixed dollar they asked for a minimum dollar donation? I would bet just about anything these games would be making a LOT more money. I don't think Microsoft is going to add a Donate button to the Indie Games channel soon, but they should. It's a great option for developers, and it would make more money for Microsoft too.

When It Probably Won't Work

When you have a niche product with a small customer base.

The average donation for the Humble Indie Bundle was $9.18, and you got SIX games out of that. I am planning to charge my small but dedicated fanbase $25 for my next game. If my donation size was similar to what they got, to make the same amount of money, asking for donations would have to increase my sales by 250%. That is a LOT. To get that, I would have to get a huge amount of publicity and gather a lot of sales from people who would otherwise have pirated it. However, if this became a common business tactic, the publicity wouldn't be there, because donation-ware wouldn't be new and exciting anymore.

And if it didn't improve sales that much? At nine bucks per copy, I would be out of business inside of a year.

But I said earlier that I would jump at being in another Humble Bundle in a second. That is because the Bundle would get that sort of publicity. There's strength in numbers. But a lone small developer? It's a dangerous, dangerous tactic.

Who knows? It might work. Part of me would love to try it. However, Spiderweb Software is how I make my living and buy food for my kids. Someone will experiment more with this in the future, but it can't be me. The personal consequences of failure are too big. So feel free to pillory me in the comments for how much I suck and am a coward, but I'm sure some of you will understand.

It's An Exciting Time

The last few years have made all developers rethink everything they know about development, distribution, and pricing. It's an amazing world, full of exciting new options. Why just considering whether I should ask for donations instead of charge a fixed price totally blows my mind.

And, finally, one more thought about PC/Mac development. Since it is so easy to pirate games on personal computers, people will only buy your game in they are virtuous and don't hate you. Since you are only actually selling products to Good People anyway, going to them with open hands and saying, "Pay me what this is worth to you." might eventually be the only business tactic that makes sense.

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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yes, Buying Used Games Doesn't Make You a Bad Person.

The Big Gaming Argument of the Week is about whether is it's moral to buy used video games. It's legal. Nobody can deny that. But is it, you know, OK? Penny Arcade had a big spiel on it today. Normally I really respect their point of view on these issues, but their anti-rentals-and-used-games screed is way off base.

So here is the question. Creators depend on game disc sales to make a living. Bearing that in mind, is it ethical to buy and sell used games? And, along those lines, is it ethical to buy a used CD? Or buy from a used bookstore? Or check out a book from the library? In all of these cases, you are enjoying the works of creators without putting money in their pockets. So are libraries OK?

That I went straight to the library thing kind of telegraphs where I am going with this. Because, hey, let's look at books for a second. I love books. I really want authors to make a good living doing what they do. And, by the way, I had my
first book published not too long ago, so I actually have a stake in this. Buying new books (and thus putting money in the pockets of authors) is a Good Thing.

And yet, I often buy used books, AND I get books out of the library. And yet, at night, I sleep like a baby. And when someperson buys a used copy of one of my book, I'm cool with that. I'm not going to chase him or her down the street waving a stick or anything.

My games and book are sold used, so I have a personal stake in this, but I'm still for used sales. Because there are other, equally important principles in play here.

Information Is Not Free, But It Should Travel Freely

How can I reconcile these two seemingly contradictory viewpoints? It's not hard. See, there is a principle involved in wanting money to go to authors. But there are also principles involved in being able to give away and sell them.

, it is a long-established principle of law that books (like CDs and game disks) are objects. When you buy an object, you can then give it away or sell it or whatever. It's yours. This is a right you have, and you don't have to apologize for using it. (This right can be waived by explicitly agreeing to an EULA that prevents resale, but this doesn't apply to console games. If you're interested in the legal fiddly bits here, you should read about the First-Sale Doctrine.)

Second, books are works of art and media for transmitting ideas. Art and ideas are good things, and we as a society want them to move around freely. This helps us to have, you know, a culture. Not to mention the free flow of competing ideas that is necessary for a healthy republic. And, if you take video games seriously as works of art and human expression, as I know the Penny Arcade guys do, you should want a similar freedom to apply to them.

(By the way, when I wrote not long ago about
times when piracy is OK, many people told me that they pirated games when they were young because they had no money. In the world of books, this simple fact is understood. That is why libraries exist. As much as the publishing industry might not want them too.)

I often buy books new. I see it as part of my duty to support that industry. Someone has to do it, or there will be far fewer new books. But, at the same time, libraries and used bookstores are Good Things. I bet if you went to Gabe and Tycho and told them it was immoral to go to a library, they would think you were an idiot and throw poo on you. But here they are taking this exact point of view for video games. Which are also works of art and media for distributing ideas. Honestly not sure what they are thinking here.

Oh, and one quote from Tycho:

"I traded in games for a long time, there's probably comics somewhere in the archive about it - you can imagine how quickly my cohort and I consume these things. It was sort of like Free Money, and we should have understood from the outset that no such thing exists. You meet one person who creates games for a living, just one, and it becomes very difficult to maintain this virtuous fiction."

Um, no. It's not difficult at all. I will look anyone in the eye and tell them that the trade in used games is both legal and ethical. And then they, if they want, can look me in the eye and tell me that buying used copies of my book and used CDs of my games is OK too. Living in a country where people have rights and ideas freely circulate is a good thing.

There are more principles at stake here than just how many dollars goes to this or that guy.

On the Other Hand

Publishers have recently experimented in programs to give extra features to those who buy games new. This is totally cool and legal and, in come cases, a practical necessity.

For example, some games now come with a key that you need to enter to play in online multiplayer. Buy the game used and you have to pay a small fee to get multiplayer.

This is fair. Why? Because the publisher is paying the ongoing costs to maintain the servers. If I give my old copy of The Stand to a friend, it doesn't directly harm the publisher. The publisher doesn't know that I exist. But if I give a copy of Halo 3 to a friend and he goes online, his presence on the servers costs a (small) amount of money. In return for providing the online service, the publisher is allowed to ask for money. If you don't like that, you don't need to buy that game used.

Publishers can legally and ethically hobble used games. They're certainly heading in that direction. They can do it, but it's not wise. People get really smart when it comes to their money. When someone buys a car or house, they pay attention to resale value. It goes the same for video games. If resale is no longer an option, the $60 for that disk suddenly becomes a lot more expensive. If publishers think that crippling used sales is going to suddenly make angels drop piles of cash on their heads, I think they are due for a crushing disappointment.

But if I've learned anything in the last few years, it is to never underestimate the death-wish of either the music industry or gaming companies.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Nice Is Good Business.

One of the fundamental truths of writing single-player PC games now is that it's so easy to pirate anything that people will only buy your game if they want to. Which means that being honest and forthright and likable is a key business strategy.

For the fifteen years we've been selling games, we've had a suite of generous, customer-friendly policies. However, we haven't been clear and forthright about them. Some of them are only known to people who ask us for support privately. The others can only be found by hunting our web site. This is dumb. If you're going to the trouble to be nice, make sure everyone knows about it! So I wrote this little manifesto that will be prominently linked to on our site.

In you're an Indie developer and like one of our turns of phrase, please feel free to borrow it.

Our Spiderweb Software Promises To You

Spiderweb Software is a small company. We read all our e-mail, we love our customers, and if you are sad, we are sad. We're literally a Mom & Pop company, and we believe in the personal touch. So here are our three promises to you ...

1. No Obnoxious DRM!

Pirates exist. Sad, but true. But we won't let hatred of people who rip off our games drive us to annoy our paying customers.

When you order from us, you get a number you can enter into the demo to turn it into the full game. And that's it. No online authentication. No need to keep a disk in the drive.

If your computer dies and you need a new registration key? We're sorry to hear that, and your replacement is free. Register on the Mac and switch to Windows? A new key is free. Your child wants to play the game on his or her own machine? That's awesome, and an additional key is free.

2. Money-Back Guarantee!

If you don't like our game, we don't want your money.

We have a no-questions-asked One Year Money-back Guarantee. Game stops working? You wake up one morning and realize that it sucks? You decide that you hate us personally, and our adorable children too? Money back within one year.

You might think, "Hmmm. I wonder if people ever buy the game, play it through, and demand a refund." The answer is: No. This has never happened. You know why? Because our customers are awesome people.

3. Big, Free Demos!

Spiderweb Software has the biggest demos in the business. What's more, the demo is actually the full game. You just need to enter a key to unlock the whole story.

That means that you get a chance to play a bunch of game and make sure that 1. It works, 2. You are having fun, and 3. The retro graphics don't enrage you. If the demo works for you and is fun, you can buy the full game and be confident that it will still work and still be fun. And if it doesn't? Have we mentioned our Money-Back Guarantee?

We love that almost all of our customers played a demo first. It means we're earning our pay honestly. Because, again, If you don't like our game, we don't want your money.

Hopefully, we will come across and friendly and honest when this goes up on our web site. And the truth is, we at Spiderweb are pretty friendly, honest people. But make no mistake. At the heart of it, the reason we are putting this up is pure self-interest. Since being nice is a core part of our business plan, when we are nice, we will do it in a loud way.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #2 - What Sort Of Game Will This Be?

Here is another long overdue developer diary for our next game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. These articles are about the ongoing process of developing our new series of games. The first installment was about the source of the idea and the basic framework of the plot, which came together fairly quickly.

We recently gave a long interview about Avadon, with a lot of information about the storyline and game system. If you haven't seen it already and want some hard information about what the new game will be like, it's a good place to start.

So I Had the Basic Idea

Now I needed to decide what sort of game I was going to write. So the next step was to decide on the theme, the mood, and the choices. This process took weeks of thought and is worth attention. It might be a little bit technical and vague though, so if you aren't interested in the artsy parts of game design, you should probably wait until the next part, when I get into the game system and the cool number-based hacky-choppy stuff.

Once I had the skeleton of a plot and setting, I think about how the game will "feel". What will the player be doing? How will I get the player emotionally involved? What gripping choices will the player make? You see, I make small budget games. Fancy graphics and sounds aren't going to happen. My main weapon is the ability to tell a good story, so I focus on that. For Avadon to succeed, I have to make it interesting. How do I do that?

The Theme - You Have Power. How Do You Use It?

So first, I need a Theme. This is a set of vague questions and ideas that determine the choices and quests the player will face. When I am designing a new area or town or set of characters, these are the questions I go back to for ideas and inspiration.

So you are a citizen of the Pact, five nations that have banded together to keep the barbarians and monsters at bay. And you work for Avadon, a secretive and powerful force that hunts down and destroys those who would disrupt the safety and stability of the Pact. Avadon's word is law.

Role-playing games work best when they are, at some level, power fantasies. You are a hero (or villain). You have power, and you get to choose how to use it. This has appeal to a lot of gamers, myself included. So the first step is to place the player in a position of power and responsibility. You need to protect your people, and you are given a lot of leeway for how to do it.

But there are also hints that your power is too great. Your word is law, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Well, it's great for you, but not so hot for everyone else.

Maybe you want to play a thug or a bully. Or maybe you want to resist the temptation to misuse your power, which is satisfying in a different way. And the story of Avadon is about all of the same sorts of choices. Avadon can do what it wants. Will you guide it to do the right thing? And, for that matter, should a group with so much power exist?

That is the theme. Power. The option to misuse it. What will you do?

This is a theme I go back to a lot. I think it leads to interesting games, and a good theme makes coming up with ideas and writing dialogue a lot easier.

The Mood - How Does the Game Feel? Light or Dark?

The next thing to decide is how the game will "feel"? Will it be dark and grim? Bright and cheery? Will there be humor? Will there be detailed descriptions of horror and chaos? How many nice people die?

Based on the theme, Avadon could go very dark. Mass Effect 2 dark, easily. But I decided early on that I don't want that. I like writing humor, and I think games that are too unrelentingly grim aren't very fun.

I decided that Avadon will have a lot of humor and some areas that are fairly cheery. Some of the characters will actually be happy. Sometimes, you will be able to squish evil and make choices you actually feel good about. There will be more confused, cynical moments, of course, but a little of that goes a long way.

A lot of this will show up in Redbeard, the all-powerful master of Avadon. He has much responsibility and power, but I am making him a cheery character, with a lust for life, a macabre sense of humor, and someone who takes true delight in his reach and authority. This character will be the spine of the series, so I want him to be fun to write. And he is.

Of course, these are big games. That makes it easy to have some areas that are light and some areas that are grim. And I will. But, when you are laying down the whole plot, knowing what mood you want at the start helps you get the balance of Neat! and Yuck! right.

The Choices - How Does the Player Change the World?

Finally, choices. I think the most important quality of my games, the thing that adds interest and keeps me interested in writing them, is the ability to make choices that affect the ending. Of course, I'm not the only developer that does this. Bioware is better at it than I am. But it is still something very important to me.

Happily, now that I have the setting and theme, the choice comes naturally. Avadon has almost limitless power, and it can use that power however it wants. Sometimes it uses it for the good of the land, but sometimes corruption sinks in. Avadon has many enemies. The player's choice will be whether to serve Avadon or reject it. Whether to work for Redbeard, master of Avadon, or fight him. Or even plot to replace him.

Choices like this make writing a game much easier. Whenever I design an area and the conversations in it, it provides me a North Star to sail toward. I always skew the choices and conversations toward that final choice, the final destination.

And Then I Have To Write a Game

All of this is a little vague and metaphysical, I know. It is supposed to be. This is all stuff that has to get settled before I write a single line of code. It takes months of thought. But when I'm lost in the wilds, when I have a thousand bug reports and fifty dungeons to design and I'm going crazy, that is too late to figure out what I want the game to be like. I need to put firm clear principles in place so that, when I am exhausted and distracted and just trying to wrap the game up, I have as many questions already answered as I can.

The next diary will be about the next step, the game system, the actual nuts and bolts mechanics of what the game will be like.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sometimes It's OK To Steal My Games

This blog post is about the bright side of software piracy. It's about the times when not only is it OK to steal my games, but, in fact, I get something out of it. Perhaps an unusual topic for a blog post from a game developer.

I admit to being a little bit nervous about writing this. The sad truth is that, these days, it is so easy to pirate single-player PC games that most gamers only have to pay for them if they want to pay for them. And there is strong evidence (links below) to indicate that they usually don't want to pay for them. So giving people ammunition they can use to convince themselves that they shouldn't pay for my games seems perilous, especially since they are, after all, how I support my family. But I got into the blogging game to write about the reality of the game biz from the viewpoint of my shadowy little corner, and piracy is a huge part of it, so here we go.

Of Course, Piracy Is Almost Always Wrong

I think that the best way of evaluating the morality of an action is to ask, "What would happen if everyone who wanted to do it did it?" Littering and dumping toxic waste into rivers are wrong because, if everyone who wanted to do those things did them, our streets would be choked with refuse and our drinking water would be half benzene. And pirating PC games is wrong because, were it not for that minority of worthy souls who actually chip in, the industry that makes the games we love would descend into a shadow realm of tiny ad-supported Flash games and Farmville. Some people would be cool with that, but I'm looking forward to playing Starcraft 2, thanks.

And I've now set myself up for 50 comments of increasingly overwrought and implausible justifications for why pirating games is a good, noble thing to do. No. Sorry. You don't get everything you want in this world. You can get piles of cool stuff for free. Or you can be an honorable, ethical being. You don't get both.

Most of the time.

Because, when I'm being honest with myself, which happens sometimes, I have to admit that piracy is not an absolute evil. That I do get things out of it, even when I'm the one being ripped off.

Computers Exist In the Third World

Every so often, I get an e-mail in broken English from some kid in Russia or southeast Asia or India. He says how how he is playing my game in a cyber-cafe, for fun and perhaps to practice English. The disparity in the strength of the currency between our two countries makes it impossible it is for him to get the 25 or 28 hard US dollars to buy my game. (It's entirely possible in much of the world to not be dirt poor and yet to be entirely unable to scrape together a chunk of hard U.S. dollars.) The message ends with a sincere and heart-rending plea for a registration key.

Now, you're probably thinking, "Yeah, the kid is probably making it up." I doubt it. Remember, my games are easy to pirate. Anyone who wants to steal my games can grab them any time he or she wants. Maybe some of these pleas are fake, but I'm sure that most aren't.

When I get one of these message, what I want to respond is, "PIRATE MY STUPID GAME!!!" I mean, seriously, the time used drafting that e-mail would have been much more profitably spent figuring out how BitTorrent works.

But I don't say that. I delete the e-mail unanswered. Because, the truth is that these games are how I feed my family. Asking me for free keys is simply not a behavior I want to encourage.

But I really hope those kids pirated my game. And I am sure that, for every such e-mail I received, a horde of others in faraway lands pirated it on their own. Sometimes, thanks to the vagaries of the international monetary order, my games are just out of reach any other way. And, when people enjoy my work, it gives my life meaning, which bring me to ...

I Want My Life To Have Meaning

I consider myself a reasonably bright person, who works hard to make something people like. When I'm old and crumbling, I want to be able to feel that I had a successful life in which my work brought happiness to a lot of people.

I feel fully financially compensated for my time when one of my games (which usually takes a year or so to make) sells 5000 copies. However, from the game industry perspective, 5000 copies is nothing. Even the crappiest flop from a real publisher sells a ton more than that. So am I wasting my life? If I really care about the number of people I reach and the amount of happiness I bring, shouldn't I try to get a job somewhere where my work has a chance of reaching far more people?

But then I remember that for everyone who buys my game, dozens more just tried the demo. And a lot of those people will play the whole demo, have fun, decide they had enough, and move on. That counts as providing fun for people, sort of.

But, more importantly, the percentage of people who pirate PC games seems to be very high. It's possible that 90% of the copies of my games out there are pirated. There is definitely solid evidence that the piracy rate for PC games is that high, and believe me, there are a thousand ways to get my games for free. It happens a lot. And, if that figure holds, that brings the player base for each of my games to 50000. That is a number that can keep me from lying awake at night.

Of course, a lot of those people could have bought it but decided to pirate it instead. In other words, jerks. Which brings up a good question. Am I satisfied that my life's work went to make a jerk happy? Does that give me Life Value points? Is it a worthwhile thing to bring a jerk pleasure? This is generally the point where I force myself to think about something else.

But not everyone who steals a game has money. Some of them are legitimately poor. Which brings me to one final point.

The Recession Is a Thing That is Happening

These days, some people are legitimately poor. Many people, through a mix of poor fiscal choices and ill fortune, are in bad shape. Foreclosed on, or facing foreclosure. Trying to pay down a mountain of credit card debt. Unemployed for a long time. Lacking health insurance. Some people brush this growing population off, saying, "Oh, they brought it on themselves." And sometimes that is true. They made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I make mistakes. It's just that some people are unlucky enough to be savagely punished for their mistakes.

Someone who is facing long-term unemployment and bankruptcy probably should not pay for my game. And, in that case, if stealing my game gives them a temporary reprieve from their misery (and there's a lot of misery out there right now), I'm cool with that. I'm happy to help. These are my fellow citizens, and I want to help out how I can.

Now here is what I am NOT saying. If some kid has to actually save his allowance for a few weeks to buy the game, stealing it is instead of paying is not cool. I'm not OK with that. If you can pay, you should pay. But I understand that some people can't. It's reality. As for whether someone can truly pay or not, I have to trust them to be able to tell the difference. It's probably unwise to trust so many strangers so much with my livelihood on the line. But it's not like I have a choice.

How I Will Now Single-Handedly Solve the Problem of Piracy

I just have to add one thing, and then I can hopefully go without writing about this ugly topic for a good, long time. The way the economics of the business work right now, if you want good PC games, someone has to pay for them. You can't support a project like Starcraft 2 with ads. The money just isn't there.

If you like PC games but you usually pirate them, I want you to start actually paying for one game a year. Just one. Please. You should do it because you need to do it to help something you like to continue to exist. Sure, you might find that doing the virtuous thing feels surprisingly good. But, in the end, you should do it for the reason anyone ever really does anything: Because it is in your best interests to do so.

But what game should you pay for? It's tempting to say you should support some small Indie, like me, who is just working hard to support his family. But I don't believe that. The people who made Starcraft 2 have families to. No, buy the game that you feel most deserves to be rewarded. Who gave you the most fun, or carried the industry forward, or that you felt treated you fairly.

Maybe that game is Starcraft 2. Maybe it's Avernum 6 or Aveyond or Eschalon 2 or World of Goo or one of a million tiny games. It might even be Assassin's Creed 2. Could happen.

And, before you post flaming me because Piracy-Is-Always-Good or Always-Bad, remember that all I'm trying to do is pay a little visit to reality-land. And while I do get something out of piracy, all things being equal, it's better to pay for the thing you use. Again, with PC games, you can get cool free stuff, or you can be honorable. You don't get both. Once in a while, be part of the solution.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 3.

(One more vacation journal, and then I'll go back to writing about games for a while. When I'm not making games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is the third article about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive or misguided should be blamed on the dysfunctional American educational system.)

General Notes on Britain, Set the Third

Despite the island's reputation, we have eaten a lot of really delicious food here. That's not to say there isn't a lot of terrible food here. I'm sure there is, but that's true everywhere. I've eaten a lot of totally crap food in France and Italy.

But if you keep your eyes open and choose carefully, there is a lot of deliciousness, even in pubs. And it makes sense. Britain has excellent meat (most of it grass-fed), great fruits and vegetables, fantastic cheese, and really tasty candy bars. My advice if looking for good food? Look for a place that brags that its ingredients are "locally sourced." That means that at least its heart is in the right place.

Also, we have started each days with the legendary, much feared English Breakfasts. It's pretty much the default tourist chow at any B&B you care to name. It's an egg, a sausage link, a piece of bacon, a roasted tomato, tinned beans, toast, OJ, and the caffeine of your choice. And black pudding, if the place is awesome.

It sounds scary, but it's really not. Laid out on the plate, it is, by American standards, a pretty modest meal. Hell, I've picked less food than that out of my teeth and belly folds before I go to bed. But it's a jolt of protein and energy that's perfect for powering you through 12 hours of high-octane touristing. The one day I went without it, I was headachy and miserable by the end of the afternoon. So I am addicted.

Also, speaking of giant jolts of fat. I am very pleased to say that, after vacations being intimidated by the delicate and gazelle-like French, I have to say that the English are of a body build I am ... let's say, more familiar with. As a picked-last-for-sports tubbenheimer from back in the day, I feel very at home here.

Stop 3 - York

York is, even by British standards, old. It was a major Roman fort and local capitol. They built big walls around it. Then the Normans took it over and made the walls bigger. Then the English came along and made the walls bigger. Most of those walls are still there, albeit with big holes in them. But I met a Scot who knows a guy who knows a guy who can fix those holes for thirty quid.

When you're in York, everywhere you go, you can turn and see ancient walls and parapets and arrowslits and murder holes. So, for a Dungeons & Dragons goober like me from back in the day, being there was like a 36 hour orgasm.

York is very generously laid out for the sore-footed tourist, as just about everything an outsider would want to see is inside the city walls, in one small, easily traversed clump. There is the expected street after street of gorgeous old architecture. Wood buildings that somehow survived from the middle ages. Rows of Victorian townhouses. A working portcullis by the east gate. (Squeee!)

Visiting towns like this, it's easy to imagine that all of the British live like this, in gorgeous, architecturally interesting five story houses. They don't. Actually, a huge chunk of them live in cruddy flats, like we do, sitting on the couch, watching boobies on the lookybox (again, the British word for a "telly") and eating pie.

But then again, looking out the window of the train, I have seen countless developments of row after row of brick houses with heavy tile roofs, each of them built like a brick shithouse, if that brick shithouse was then expanded into a full house. Even their suburbs have great age-envy. Their 20th century houses haven't been around for 500 years, but they look pretty good for lasting the next 500.

Anyway. York. Like Bath, much of the fun was just walking around and gawking. Seeing a six hundred year old building slumping lazily toward the street is always amusing. But the two name-attractions for us were York Minster and the Castle Museum.

York Minster is a gothic cathedral, the largest of its kind in northern Europe. Apparently, there are people out there who get super-excited about cathedrals, but I'm not an aficionado.

York Minster was started in the 13th century and only finished 250 years later (isn't that just like contractors?), full of cool art and medieval stained glass. It's also full of history. For example, it's where Edward the First ("Longshanks" to you, because nicknames were awesome back then) convened parliament to figure out how to kill Mel Gibson before he could impregnate his daughter, or something. I don't know. All the kings and wars and sieges are starting to get a little bit tangled for me. At this point, whenever a tour guide shows me a wall or alley or something, I just say, "Did dudes get killed here?" and he's, like, "Totally!", and I nod and take a picture and we move on. There's a gorgeous shard of ruined abbey wall sticking out of the ground, from when Henry the 18th destroyed it to save Catholocism from the Huns, or something. I'm sure that's what my guide said, but I think the English breakfasts are giving me ham-hallucinations.

If you're going to England, you should know that at no point in the last thousand years has a week gone by without a civil war or beheaded queen or pope-stabbing or Celtic insurrection. Do not, under any circumstances, try to keep any of it straight. If you try to figure out the difference between Henry the Third and Richard the Twelfth and Edward the Umpty-Tumpth, you will go mad, and anyway all that intrigue was made up to sound good for the tourists. Mary, Queen of Scots actually has as much historical reality as the Loch Ness Monster. In reality, from 1000 AD to 1900 AD, Britain was ruled in constant peace and tranquility by a secret circle of elves. So, now that you know that, you can let all the stabbings and dethronings wash over you without letting them worry you too much.

Anyway. York Minster. Almost every day, they have a free Evensong service (a lot of cathedrals do this, by the way), where you can sit in the grandeur and listen to a gorgeous sung service. Now, it's officially church, so you have to be respectful and stand and sit when they tell you to and pretend to pray, but it's very cool and it'll make you feel in touch with the centuries of violent crazy people that came before you, and I highly recommend it.

Oh, and it's free. They don't charge admission for church, which kind of makes sense.

The other stop we truly enjoyed was the Castle Museum. It's in a castle, not about castles. It is a museum dedicated to displaying every detail of life in Victorian and 20th century times. There are displays about housework, and mourning, and the home front in WW2, and the sixties, and so on, complete with antiques and highly detailed recreations of rooms from the times. This sort of thing can be horrible, but the place was completely fascinating.

I also found it very helpful. Most of my fun comes from sitting around and listening to adorable accents. After listening to adults for a while, I felt that listening to small children talking in their cheery little pip pip tally-ho voices would be the living end. So I considered hanging out outside a school when it lets out, but then it occured to me that any plan that begins with "Hang out near the school when it lets out" might be ill-considered.

But the Castle Museum was full of flocks of British schoolchildren, walking in lines in their uniforms and being educated and bored. It was adorable. So that was covered.

One of the big reliefs on the trip has been that, even in very touristy cities, unless you are actually in a museum or other attraction, the vast majority of the people on the street are locals. People live here! I went to a great deal of effort and expense to go somewhere and be a foreigner. I see Americans' fat, slack-jawed faces all the time, thank you very much. When I travel, I want to see the dull, pallid faces of unappealing strangers from all around the globe.

Fun British Fact #3

The U.K. currently has a huge problem with alcoholism. This is an actual true fact. However, this does have the happy side-effect that the drunken idiots who paraded shouting past your hotel room at 3 in the morning were probably locals, not ugly Americans. So don't be ashamed!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 2.

(When I'm not writing games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is the second of five articles about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive should be blamed on a hormonal imbalance caused by too much haggis.)

General Notes on Britain, Set the Second

People in Britain have an accent. And, by that, I mean that they have about 400 accents. While watching the telly (or, as they call it, the "Looky Box"), I saw a comedian do a bit about how everything sounds more reassuring in a Manchester accent. So there is a Manchester accent, and that means something. Societies that develop on islands can get a little bit odd.

Still, just listening to people talk is one of the funnest things about coming here. I simply can't get tired of it. My main attraction is going to a pub (which is not difficult, as every building is a pub) and listening. I also try to talk to people, but I have to be careful and not say any of my opinions about the ridiculousness of soccer or how cute it is that they have, get this, a queen. Otherwise I might say the wrong thing, and someone might hear me and be feeling all drinky-punchy, and I'll hear someone behind me shout, "Oi!" Which is British for, "Pardon me, but I am about to give your ass a truly extensive kicking."

The language on this island is an intriguing dialect of English. They have lots of funny words for things. For example, the primary currency is the "pound", but they will often refer to it as a "squid." A sample conversation might go: "Can you give me change for this squid?" "Sure, luv. Here are one guinea, three farthings, two bob, a crown, six ha'pennies, a half crown, a mega-crown, a mecha crown, and a pennywhistle." "That's not enough! There should be another farthing. You have cheated me, m'lord." "Oi!" "(Sound of face being punched.)"

Also, the British, like most of the rest of the world, love a sport called soccer. I got to watch them watch a World Cup match where their team fought Algeria to a scorching, hard-fought 0-0 tie.

I know. I know. While I'm there, I'm supposed to call it "Football." But, if you live in the U.S. and are in the U.S., calling soccer "football" is truly affected.

Also, football sounds like it should be the name of a cool, kick-ass, exciting sport. Any sport where a 0-0 outcome is not only plausible but, in fact, common isn't sweet enough to have an awesome name like Football. Soccer isn't even cool enough to be called Soccer. I think it should have a more appropriate name, like "Fancy-pants grass-prancing."

I also got to be there when Germany beat England 4-1 in what was, based on the media reaction, the worst thing to ever happen to anyone anywhere. Apparently, England scored an unquestionable goal that would have tied up the game, but it was disallowed because the referee wasn't close enough to get a good look at it and there is no goal referee and no instant replay review. Hey, just because it's the most popular sport in the world doesn't mean they should drop a few extra bucks to actually get the thing officiated properly. After a couple weeks of exposure both to the alleged entertainment of World Cup soccer and to the people who love it, I've come to the conclusion that I could like soccer, except that I don't hate myself enough.

Stop 2 - Edinburgh

Before I start, I have to send a quick message out to the Scottish people.

I can't understand a goddamn word any of you are saying.

This is not to be taken as a criticism. I love ya', baby. Don't ever change. I am instead saying it as a way of fostering greater understanding between our peoples. I would only point out that the Scottish crime thriller Sweet Sixteen, which came out in 2002, had to have subtitles, and it was entirely in English.

I may be exaggerating here slightly. Most of the time, I could kind of understand what Scottish people were saying. But there is something about that accent that just lends itself to being dialed up to 11.

But I still completely love listening to it. I could listen to Scottish people talk all day, and since all of them that I met seemed inclined to talk all day, we were a good fit. For example, when my wife and I were sitting in the park, a crazy old woman just in from her tiny village in western Scotland, sat down next to us and started telling us all of her racist terrorism conspiracy theories, I just sat, back, relaxed, and let her brogue wash over me. Sure, her thick accent made it impossible for me to tell exactly what she was saying about the Jews. (My guess? Not a fan.) But it was still lovely until she started explaining how Barack Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist. Then we lied about our urgent dinner reservations and ran off. Sorry, crazy Scottish lady. We get enough of that particular shit at home.

Also, I have pretty much fallen in love with Scottish women. Bear in mind I am only writing based on my own personal observations, but they are all completely punk and scary and thoroughly tattoed and hot and ready to cut you at a moment's notice. I'm not saying I want to be 20 and single again but, if in some horrible Twilight Zone future I was, I would save up my pennies and hop a flight to Edinburgh. Then, in a bar somewhere, I'd catch the eye of some pierced lass and we'd talk and I'd swoon and the next three days would be a blur and I'd wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a broken heart and no kidneys.

Yes, the northern half of this island is pretty scrappy. Their women all look ready to get to it and breed the next generation of Scottish warriors. And yet, Scotland's birth rate is very low. Perhaps, inspired by the arachnid, they eat the livers of those they love in moments of unguarded coital enthusiasm. The theory sounds crazy until you see these women. They're pretty awesome.

And believe me, the Scottish don't mess about. Edinburgh Castle isn't just some frou frou toy castle where nobles ponce about at each other. That's one of those ancient occasionally-razed-to-the-ground spires where the shit gets real for real. And the National Museum of Scotland is a glorious and unapologetic monument to all things Scottish. Not just Roman artifacts but plants and stuffed animals and the curling stone they used to win a gold medal but also plenty of swords and thumbscrews and The Maiden, a big alarming pre-guillotine contraption used to behead people for several productive centuries. See, if you're going to build a big shiny expensive history museum, by God it's going to be full of the remains of Pictish human sacrifice and machinery used to kill hundreds of dudes. Scotland is a serious place.

Fortunately, I passed three days without referring to anyone as English. The Scots and the English have a ... complicated relationship. I'll put it this way. One display in the National Musuem mentions that Scotland's largest immigrant group is the English. Think about that one. Look at it this way. When someone moves from California to Seattle, they're not considered an

(I might want to call them that, but that doesn't make it true.)

The guy who ran our B&B was a loud, boisterous, opinionated Scotsman straight out of central casting. We were the only people staying there, so, based on the odor in the hallway, our innkeeper divided his time evenly between looking after us and smoking joints the size of my forearm.

Scotland's primary scary local delicacy is, of course, haggis. Based on what I could tell from those I talk to, it does get eaten. Not a lot, and often with other things (chicken stuffed with haggis is a common dish). I mean, they're not dumb, and they know Pizza Hut exists, so they aren't eating it every day. But it does get eaten, and the canned haggis I saw in the supermarket proudly proclaims that it is 45% lung.

We ate at one truly superb modern fine British cuisine type restaurant, where I had Scottish venison with venison haggis. I asked our loyely young waitress what parts they use in the haggis. She looked at me like I'd just asked her what the color blue smells like. "So what is in the haggis?" "It's ... haggis." "I mean, what organs go into the haggis?" "It contains haggis." She then braced herself for me to ask what the ingredients of the salt were. I guess, when you mince all of an animal's internal organs and boil them in spices for long enough, they are transmuted into a new, indivisible base element.

(And, in case you were wondering, haggis tastes like boiled, heavily spiced meat with that unmistakable tinge of organ meat flavor. Whether you would like it depends entirely on your opinion of organ meat. But, considering that they have no shortage of McDonalds, their willingness to tolerate lung meat in any form should be taken as an inspiration to us all.)

Also, you can walk into any pub and get a shot of 16 year aged single cask whiskey that will blow your face off with its awesome for four bucks. That alone would be enough to make me completely fall in love with this city.

It's gorgeous and the food is good and the people-watching is great and the accents are gorgeous. Pretty much took dynamite to blow me out of that place. But I had to go back to England, the only place on this island where you can say anything nice about England without getting beaten up.

Fun British Fact #2

The British words for 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are the same. And that word is "cripeitunity."