Thursday, January 15, 2015

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls Is Out. Some Cranky Thoughts.

The II in this logo is hard to see, and it drives me nuts every time I look at it.
We have just released our newest game. It's Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It is a huge indie RPG for Windows and Mac (iPad coming soon), on Steam,, Humble Store, and our own website. You know. All the places the cool kids hang out. 

It came out yesterday and early sales are very strong. Thank you, kind customers!

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is, like half of what we do, a rewrite. This particular story is arguably the one loved most by our fans. (Avernum 3 is the other contender) The previous incarnation, Avernum 2, came out way, WAY back in 2000, so I am utterly unapologetic about releasing a rewrite.

My main goals when doing these rewrites is to respect and maintain what made people love them in the first place. This is made so much more important by the fact that I can't write new games like this anymore.

Cool Things About Avernum 2

The first two Avernum games have a story structure that is still unique in RPGs. There isn't one storyline. There's three, each of which has its own goal, missions, final boss, etc. You can play one of them and have a satisfying game experience, or you can be hardcore and do more.

It's a huge game, and I wanted people to be able to play a smaller chunk of it and still feel that they got somewhere. I think there's a good idea in there, and other developers should steal it.

Also, the game takes place in Avernum, a subterranean nation full of exiles, petty criminals, and weird, alien races. It's like Australia, but with even more monsters. Or like the proverbial parents' basement, but a country. It's a really cool setting, one that has resonated with players for over twenty years. I still love it.

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is a rewrite of Avernum 2, which came our in 2000 and looks like this. 
Nobody Wants an Aging Rock Star To Play the New Stuff
If you go see the Rolling Stones in concert, you don't want to hear their new stuff. Yuck. Boring! You want to hear the old hits, written when they were young and energetic and crazy and fresh.

My old games are kind of the same. As I rework them, I can't get over how weird and quirky and energetic and chaotic the stuff I did when I was young was. My games were full of rough edges, joyfully overpowered spells, and the sort of concentrated oddness I have a harder time generating as I get old and boring.

Rewriting them, I've tried to make it a bit more user-friendly with modern tweaks like quest lists and tooltips. Yet, I mostly spend my time being jealous of how silly and loose I could be when I was young. 

When I wrote the Avernum trilogy for the first time (when they were called Exile), I just threw everything in there I could think of, and, thanks to a weird alchemy of skill and dumb luck, it worked. People loved the games, and I got a career out of it.

Avernum 2 was a rewrite of Exile 2: Crystal Souls, which came out in 1996 and looks like this. Some people seriously tell me that my games haven't changed at all since I started. Oh, you silly internet! 
You Still Have To Make New Stuff, Or You Go Insane

Don't get me wrong. I am proud of my newer games. They don't sell as well, but they do have a following. I don't hallucinate the fan mail.

I still need to keep doing the rewrites. They make good money. People like them. The old games don't run well (or at all) anymore. I get tablet versions out of the deal. So I'm going to keep doing it. When people complain about rewrites, it just means they've failed to fully acknowledge how awesome I am.

And I still need to write new games, with new systems and interfaces and stories, or I will simply go insane. If you like my old stuff better, I won't take offense. Different people like different things.

But More About Avernum 2: Crystal Souls

It's a really big game. The story and setting are cool. It's retro and oldschool, but with a modern interface to keep it fun. There's a big demo on our website, if you aren't sure. Take a look!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Storytelling, Critical Nitpickery, and the Dragon Age

In every Dragon Age, I make a modestly dressed redhead mage, name her Wizbian, and spend the whole game hitting on every woman I meet. I am a man of simple pleasures.
I have long been vocal about my love for the Dragon Age series, so, of course, I can't let Dragon Age: Inquisition (DA:I) pass without going on about it a lot. I've only played through the main storyline once, but, since that's like 800 hours of play, I've been at it long enough to have some opinions.

I'm also writing this to try to draw eyeballs towards my new RPG, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. Pushing my own game by saying nice things about someone else's is probably a bad idea, but I've always been terrible at marketing.

I really do love the game. (Some people have accused me of trying to get a job at Bioware for saying things like that, which is not true and kind of weird. But whatever.) It does well all the things Dragon Age should do well. It does a lot better at things it's done poorly in the past. It's huge and a hoot.

I estimate that you, the reader, have a 50% chance of being angry at me now.

Why Look For Facts When We Have Metacritic?

A fun exercise for any video game is to go to Metacritic and compare what the critics think of a game to what the players think. There is usually a big difference, and DA:I is no exception. Critical response is ecstatic. Player response if 50/50 for and against.

Again, I love these games, but I this may put me in the minority. A lot of people are really hating DA:I, and, reading their comments, I see why. Many don't like the story. Others don't like the gameplay. I don't agree, but I can see why reasonable people feel the way they do.

I think the problem DA:I faces is a simple one: The more things you try to do, the higher the chance something you did will fail for someone. And, for many people, if a single element of a game fails them, they won't like it.

More on that in a second. First ...

A Catch-Up For People Who've Never Played the Series

The Dragon Age games take place in a huge, complex setting, full of tons of races, factions, political squabbles, and the other ingredients from which juicy dark fantasy is made. They also have combat, spells, skill trees, and other RPG junk, but their main feature is complex and epic branching stories you can really sink your teeth into.

To get an idea, Kotaku put up a fantastic background for the world. If you are interested in these games, it's a great (if daunting) read.

I can't believe the courage it takes to make a AAA game that makes so many demands on the attention of the player. It's meaty stuff, and the ethical quandaries the game gives you are frequent and tough.

This is not Diablo. The combat is pretty good, but the story is the main feature. If you don't have patience for a lot of talkin', there are better gaming options for you. If you do get-off on that epic fantasy storytelling, though, no series does it better. #shotsfired

If you're new to the series, I strongly recommend playing Dragon Age: Origins, which is one of my all-time favorite games. It strikes a great balance between carnage and diplomacy, and the section near the end where you negotiate with different parties to help select a new king is one of my favorite segments in any RPG.

Dragon Age 2 is a trickier case. It's a deeply flawed game that suffered greatly from a lack of budget and development time. However, the storytelling is very good, and the events of that game lead directly into DA:I's story. A lot of people hate DA2, but I enjoyed it a lot despite all its flaws.

Oh, Sera. The love between us was never to be. Because you are psychotically violent and crazy.

The Perils of Storytelling

I can see why so much of AAA game development has given up on intricate storytelling. You can't win. There are three ways you can fail putting a lot of story in a game.

First, a lot of players don't want story at all. TL;DR, dude!

Second, even if a player wants a story, that player might not care for that particular story. No matter how good a book is, some people just won't like it.

Third, even if your story is good and people like it, then critics will start to treat the actual gameplay as unworthy and unnecessary. The gameplay is just considered some ungainly tumor on the game, wasting everyone's time, no matter how fun it is. I've seen this happen a lot with discussions of The Last of Us, even though I think that game's actual gameplay is really tight and fun.

So yeah, storytelling in video games is a big risk. It's remarkable to see a AAA
game dig into it as much as DA:I. So, to make up for the risk, the budgets need to be lower. In other words ...


My guess was that DA:I had a limited budget to work with, and it shows in certain ways. The most common complaint I've heard is that the hair in DA:I doesn't look good, and, yeah, they're right. Hair in the Dragon Age always looks like a little plastic helmet. But programming hair is expensive, man. It takes a lot of time to get it right.

Games like DA:I (single-player, story-heavy) will always be kind of a niche product. I think that if you want games like it, you need to be a little forgiving. Games like Destiny have much wider appeal and can thus afford all the shiny polish. RPGs, on the other hand? These need a tiny break.
Beloved characters from the first game return. The ways they have been changed by the passing 10 years were, I thought, very well-written.
Fear the Hinterlands

The zones in DA:I are huge. The outdoors isn't as sprawling and insane as Skyrim, but there is that kind of feel. Every corner of the world is crammed with collectibles, tiny side quests, shards to collect, goblins to pester, and just general crap to do.

The Hinterlands is the first open zone you are given to roam through. And that is why, amusingly, pretty much every tip sheet on DA:I I've read has started with the advice, "Get out of the Hinterlands as soon as possible."

A lot of people interpret this to mean that the game is full of long, dry stretches, which is unfortunate. The Hinterlands are a lot of fun.

Instead, what this advice means is: "If you are the sort of obsessive who has to get every possible collectible, Dragon Age: Inquisition will take a hammer and crack your head right open."

The Hinterlands has more content and goodies than 95% of indie games, but, if you stay in it too long, you get less storytelling and world-building. And, as I said, storytelling and world-building is Dragon Age's #1 feature.

The zones are all full of stuff like, "Find these three pylons to locate 12 shards. Then peer through the 12 shards to locate 112 power grapes. Then eat the 112 power grapes to gain the Third Sight and be able to see the 853 energy pebbles. Then use the 853 energy pebbles to build a ..." And so on.

Somehow, people have convinced themselves that having too many choices and things to do is a problem. (Of course, this is the same world in which some critics don't think we should use the word "fun" when talking about GAMES. Oh, the Internet.)

So Why Are We Mad At More Content Again?

I have seen actual serious critical complaints that DA:I lards on too many trinkets and side business and stuff to do. This just amazes me. I have a whole post worth of stuff to say on this, but this is already too long, so I'll cut to the chase:

It is RIDICULOUS to think that every section of every huge game has to appeal to every gamer. Think a quest is boring? Picking herbs if boring? Hunting shards is boring? DO. NOT. DO. IT.

DA:I is a really well balanced game difficulty-wise. You can skip all of that extra junk and still be strong enough to win at the end of the game. So relax. Just have fun, man.

Sixty hours played. Ten of them in the face-maker.
Yay! Another Social Justice Argument! Everyone Get Mad!

As anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to the gaming press knows, there's been a roiling debate about depictions in video games of gender, sexuality, race, and all assorted identity categories.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty much a shopping list of almost every social justice wish list item you could hope for. Female player option? Check. Gay characters and same-sex romances? Check. Trans character? Check. (!) Bechdel Test? Hell, if you roll a female character, you can easily be 20 minutes into the game before you hear a male character say a line. More if you spend a lot of time looking for Elfroot.

And yet, DAL:I as much of a hardcore gamery game as the gameriest gamer could want, and while applause is not unanimous, gamers are giving the thing a fair chance. Which has a message for both sides. For gamers: It is possible to have a big, fun gamer game with a more social justice viewpoint. For activists: Gamers are not evil, mindless orcs. We'll happily play games from all sorts of political points of view as long as they are fun.

I was actually really interested in what critics would say about the game. It has been hearteningly positive, including Game of the Year award from both Polygon and The Escapist. The romance options had something to anger all ends of the political spectrum (Sorry, India.), but people are always angry.

Whatevs. I thought the response to DA:I was pretty fair and even-handed overall. Calm even-handedness is pretty rare on the net these days, so I'll take what I can get when I can get it.

Extra Advice For Players

If you want to know a badass, broken skill tree in advance, I'll tell you now. Play a mage and go knight enchanter. They give you a light saber. A freakin' LIGHT SABER.

Accept everyone into the Inquisition you can. Talk to your characters frequently. There's a lot of really good writing in there.

Go into Settings and turn off drawing helmets. Makes conversations much more pleasant.

The best loot is dropped by bosses and mini-bosses. Closing rifts and collecting shards will generate power, but only the meatier quests will gear up your group.

A Few Dry Design Comments, Which Are Boring and Can Be Skipped

1. DA:I is still pretty buggy. It won't break your game, but it'll irritate you. Not as bad as Dragon Age 2 was, but still. Be warned.

2. There have been complaints that the number of romance options for heterosexual males is really limited. Let me go out on a limb and say this criticism has a point. There are two choices for straight men. That, in itself, isn't the problem. The problem is that these two characters (Cassandra and Josephine) are very controlled and responsible. There isn't enough difference between them.

To fully get into the adolescent wish-fulfillment of these games, everyone needs to have a wild, crazy romance option. My worthless, 20-20 hindsight opinion is that players would be happier if Josephine was a lesbian and Sera was bisexual, instead of the other way around.

3. For me, the most interesting section in the game was the Hissing Wastes. By most metrics, it's a terrible zone.

It's really late in the game, and a clear case of the "We're out of time and money!" had set in. It's huge, but barren. It's flat, where it's not full of confusing mountain paths. It's empty. It's dark. It's ugly. But the design doc said the creators still had a zone to fill, so they did it.

And they did something terrific. They took the limited resources they had and made something cool. The whole zone is one huge puzzle. Basically, you have to find six tombs. You have six extremely crude drawings you need to interpret to find them. There is a trick to it. It's subtle, but, if you interpret the drawings correctly, you will know exactly where to go in this giant wasteland to find what you need.

So I hated the zone, and yet I spent a ton of time there and had a lot of fun. Designers take note. This is one of the best cases of making a lot with limited materials I've ever seen.

4. The crafting system in this game is elaborate and, amazingly, sometimes useful. However, my gut tells me it'd work better if both the number of materials in the wilderness and the number of materials you needed to make items were both halved. You'd have to do the same amount of wandering but less time picking. This would do a lot to remove the busywork feeling people get from the game.

There. I think that's what I have to say about Dragon Age. I'll see y'all again when we argue about Dragon Age 4: Hair Helmets of the Tevinter.