Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quick Thoughts On Android

One of our games, Avadon: The Black Fortress, came out on Android recently. (It's also on the Amazon App Store.) The experience was very tiring and time-consuming, and it will great outside support (such as the Humble Bundle wanting to help with the port, as they did with Avadon) for us to go through it again. If you are a small development house without a hit big enough to get the attention of the big boys at Google and Amazon, it's really hard to summon up the resources to deal with the things that make Android so tough to develop for.

And what are those "things"? If people are interested in a developer's view of the Android situation, the Penny Arcade Report had a really good article on why one dev is avoiding the platform. It's only describes the beginning of the problems, but it's a very good start.

(If anything, the article sells short how many devices there are out there, each with their own weird quirks and bugs, and how much extra testing and debugging time you have to spend dealing with the mess. It's even harder when you write games for tablets, like we do.)

The comments on the post are very worth reading, as they provide a classic example of how evangelists for a platform can be capable of erecting a Reality-Dispersal-Field, through which not even the hardest facts can penetrate.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Boring Stuff On Why Video Games Are Art. Also, Ponies!

OK, I'm back, and I'm about to write about evil, art, and game design. To make it all go down easier, there will also be ponies. So read, on but remember ...

GameBanshee writer Eric Schwarz wrote a tough but fair review of our recent game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit. In the review, he made a comment about the game's story that I thought was really interesting:

"The game world's overall tone and morality is also a bit strange - slaughtering Slith (lizardmen) farmers in the name of the king might be uncomfortable, but the game world certainly doesn't care."

I actually liked this comment a lot, but he didn’t go near as far as he could have. There are places in Avernum where the morality gets even stranger.

For example, one of the main foes in the game is an army of savage lizard men, called slithzerikai, sliths for short. (The sliths are not all hostile. They have friendly settlements, and playing as a slith is an option in later games in the series.)

In one of the dungeons, you have the option to smash a huge clutch of slith eggs. If you do so, several of their guards attack you, but that is the only negative consequence for what most would consider a pretty evil act. I have been accused in my forums of encouraging baby-killing in my games. And, yes, I did allow the player to do a pretty horrible thing with no punishment. And I have written games in which the player can choose to do things that are even worse.

Why did I do this?

Because computer games are art.

Oh God, No, Shut Up!

Yeah, I know. The debate about whether video games are art is probably the boringest thing in the history of boring things. To liven this blog post up, here are more ponies. Hey ponies, what do you think of tedious navel-gazing blog posts?

Products Of My Own Weird Brain

Avernum: Escape From the Pit is a rewrite of Exile: Escape From the Pit, the very first game I released as shareware. It was the first Real Game (tm) I ever tried to write, and it was a pretty wild, uncontrolled process. Since I'd never done it before, I just went crazy, throwing encounters and plot bits and moral dilemmas in willy-nilly. It was a raw, unguarded process. I didn't second-guess anything. I just took how I thought and how I saw the world and put it down in the computer.

This is how storytelling works.

I've always been a huge news junkie. I still keep a close eye on what is happening in the world, as it fascinates me. (And is an endless source of fresh material.) Doing so, however, has given me a very cynical worldview. Our world has many, many principled people, struggling against enormous odds to increase the reserve of justice and kindness available on the planet.

However, these generally unsung heroes fight against an overwhelming amount of awfulness. Ours is a world where horrible things happen to undeserving people on a constant basis, and nobody who is not personally involved will ever know or care.

This is how I see the world. It's not right or wrong. It's just how I see things. When I write a story, any story, it will be colored, in ways obvious and subtle, by this perception.

This is why the morality in Avernum (and in all of my games, really) seems a bit "strange." Because it reflects my worldview, and being exposed to how another humans sees the world can be weird and unsettling. This is what makes art cool. It lets you see how other people think.

Important Disclaimer

My games reflect how I feel the world IS, NOT how I feel the world SHOULD BE. I do not personally endorse crushing the weak, hunting goblins for sport, or smashing slithzerikai eggs. Extrapolating an artist's personal experience and views from his or her work is very rarely accurate and is generally a waste of time.

Hmm. I'm getting Bored. So here is this.

So Why Leave Do I Leave the Horrible Bits In?

Because I write role-playing games.

The term "role-playing" has become hugely debased since it was created. Most RPGs don't give you the opportunity to actually decide what sort of person you want to play, even in the simplistic way computer games allow. That is why I always try to put moral choices in my games: to give the player more agency in what is going on and to help him or her feel more attached to the little computer person they control. And the better and more dramatic the choices you allow, the greater the effect.

Thus, I give the player a chance to be evil from time to time. If they choose to be good, it affirms their character as moral and admirable. If they choose to be evil, it's probably so they can get a vicarious thrill from engaging in craziness they would never consider in real life. Either way, the option to be evil gives the option to be good more meaning.

But I have to play fair. If someone is evil, I can only punish them if it makes sense. Sometimes, evil is not punished. Thus, I don't always punish it. Sometimes, but not always.

There's No Right or Wrong Ways To Design These Things

I wanted to pull out and discuss that review quote because it was, in the end, a perfectly subjective artistic judgment. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Reviews are nothing but subjective judgments. That is what makes reviews cool. My game made Eric Schwarz feel a little unsettled. That wasn't a right or wrong reaction. It was just his honest reaction, and I'm happy to get any reaction at all. I'd rather make someone feel something, even if it's not positive, than for my game to generate 30 hours of "Meh."

As computer games develop as an art form, I look forward to more discussion about what they mean and how they affect us. (Though, of course, I may be the only one.) People are more interesting than polygons.

In Conclusion

Thank you for your patience. I hope it went well. How did it go, Spike?

Thanks, Spike!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Future Is AWESOME!

Like everyone else on the planet, this is what I currently get when I try to get a little hot single-player Diablo 3 action in.

The reason that this bothers me so much is that this sort of thing is bad for PC/Mac gaming. It's not bad for Blizzard. They'll still make a mint. But this sort of thing tarnishes the entire platform. Every gamer who gets hit with this sort of thing has a chance of being pushed away from the PC (and with good reason!) and toward consoles and iOS, platforms that don't have these hassles.

My business will, in a small way, get tarred with this brush, and it hurts my bottom line. Which makes me sad.

Oh well. I guess I'll spend time with my family instead. Sigh. If I wanted to spend more time with my family, you think I would have bought Diablo III?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Legend of Grimrock and Design Space

There's been a lot of action in the little world of indie role-playing games. Dungeons of Dredmor. Zeboyd Games announcing the next Penny Arcade title. Hack, Slash, Loot. Torchlight 2 coming.  And, of course, two modest titles from my company.

Which makes sense. With few exceptions, major developers have left the genre behind. And whenever a beloved genre gets left behind by AAA titles, that is a great opportunity for small developers to duck in and eat all of those tasty, tasty scraps.

Which brings me to Legend of Grimrock, from Finnish developer Almost Human. This surprise hit came out on Steam about three weeks ago and proceeded to make the large moneys.

I played Legend of Grimrock from front to back. It's a pure nostalgia trip, extremely well done, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you like role-playing games of the retro school, I recommend it.

So there. That's the review portion out of the away, complete with a nice pull quote. Phew.

But what I find very interesting about the title is where it comes from, and how I suspect that its design doesn't have many more places to go from here.

Ancient History

Legend of Grimrock is a very faithful tribute to the 1987 classic dungeon crawler Dungeon Master. It has a first person view, takes place on a square graph paper grid (you can only move north, south, east, and west), and has lots of physics and timing puzzles involving teleporters and pressure plates on the floor.

In Grimrock, as in its inspiration, you can still only attack foes directly north, south, east, or west of you. This creates the peculiar situation where an enemy one space diagonal from you cannot affect you in any way. In Dungeon Master, you could exploit this to defeat even the strongest foes with ease. Grimrock has used a variety of tricks (like having foes turn left and right rapidly to try to outflank you) to mitigate this problem, and, by and large, combat is fast-paced and fun. It's a little surreal, but it plays.

Anyway. It was a huge hit and a lot of fun back in the day, and things that are fun don't stop being fun just because time moves on. There were four Dungeon Master games, the last coming out in 1993. The same basic design was used for three Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games from SSI. The last of which also came out in 1993.

And then, that's it. That style of game, which was so much fun and made so much money, disappeared from the face of the earth for twenty years until the Almost Human team picked it up, dusted it off, and turned it into gold.

I suspect that it will be used a bit more. Maybe Grimrock 2, or a similar tribute from another developer. At which point, I predict that the design will disappear again.

Why? Because of a really cool and nerdy game design concept: Design Space.

Design Space

So suppose you make a role-playing game. There are basically two steps. First, you make the engine. That is, the graphics, the game system, the character classes and spells, the stuff you can place in the world (walls, doors, traps, things that spit fire out of the walls, arrows and knees, etc.). Second, you take this toolkit you made and you design a world in it. You take the elements of the design and piece them together into a game.

When you have finished this first step, then you can look at all of the possible neat things you can do with them when making the material the player will actually experience. This finite list of possibilities is the design space.

Some engines have really big design spaces. There is still a lot of new adventures you could write in the world of Skyrim. They made a lot of games with the Infinity Engine. Some engines, on the other hand, have a small design space. There isn't a lot you can do with them without starting to repeat yourself. The original Penny Arcade games had this problem. The first one did OK and the second one flopped. I think a large part of the reason is that, once you'd played the first game, you had seen everything the engine had to offer.

This Is Why I Rewrite My Own Game Engines Every Few Years ...

... as much as my fans hate when I do it. I wrote a five game series called Geneforge. Five games. By the time the fifth one was done, I think I'd done just about everything with that game engine and system that I could. All the juice was squeezed out of it. I had to write a new thing just so I could have fresh ideas again.

Back To Grimrock

Once again, Legend of Grimrock is a ton of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. However, it is a game on a square grid with monsters, pressure plates, secret door switches, and holes in the wall that shoot stuff out. There is only a limited number of ways that you can piece those elements together to make interesting dungeons for the player to explore. It's finite, and, by the time I was at the bottom of the dungeon, I was already noticing elements repeating themselves.

As I said, there might be a Grimrock 2. But, as we discovered twenty years ago, this earth will only stay fertile for so long before it needs to lie fallow again. Only then will it yield a fresh crop for a new generation of gamers. (Analogy!!!)

This is NOT a criticism of Legend of Grimrock, which is, for the third time, very good. This game doesn't have to be responsible for carrying future titles. It only has to be fun by itself, and it does so very well.

I just think it's a good example of the varying durability of different designs. Some can support many titles. Some only a few. This isn't a problem. It is simply important, when planning games beyond the first, not to heap onto a humble structure too many expectations.

Side Thought

The Grimrock devs plan to port the game to iOS. This game frequently requires a lot of very fast, precise movements to finish puzzles or to just survive. Controlling this sort of game on a touchpad is almost always neither fast nor precise. I will be very, very interested to see how they tackle this problem. I suspect encounter by encounter rebalancing will be necessary, which will suck for them, but I hope they prove me wrong.

Final, Unsolicited Advice

If any other indie developers are looking for an old design to pick up, dust off, and have great success, Ultima Underworld is just sitting there. This was the next step in the design progression started by Dungeon Master. It still takes place in one huge dungeon, but, instead of taking place on a grid, it is fully 3-D with 360 degree movement.

Huge hit. Ton of fun. Someone! Rip it off! Fast!