Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Witcher 3 Is Amazingly Written, and People Should Talk About It More.

The three best-known characters of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
(There are light spoilers ahead for The Witcher 3, starting about halfway through. Even if you haven't played the game, you should still read all of this article, as it is a good article.)

A large part of the purpose of this blog is to pick apart interesting video games, so it would be shameful for me to pass up one of this year's most exciting titles, the Polish hit RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I've been playing computer RPGs since they existed, so I'm sort of burned out on the genre. I play them for market research, but I rarely finish them and almost never enjoy them. Thus, I can give The Witcher 3 the highest praise I can give an RPG: When I stopped playing it to do something else, I wasn't happy about it. I found it to be, and yes, I can't believe I'm saying this, a ton of fun.

It's also full of fascinating design. It does some things in writing I've never seen in a game before, and parts of the game completely blew my jaded self away. I would have loved to see game writers and critics pick apart the machinery of this game and show what new things it did and why it did them so well.

Didn't happen, so I have to pick up the slack. Alas ...

Putting On My Critic Hat

There was some vigorous critical debate about The Witcher 3 when it came out, but it primarily centered around whether this Polish game, made by Poles and set in a fantasy Poland based on Polish books, had too many white people.

(Side note: Did you know that many Eastern Europeans, who occupy a large, diverse region with a long and rich history, severe poverty, and recent history of vicious oppression, find it intensely irritating to be thoughtlessly lumped into the huge, vague category of "white people"?)

The question of whether the Polish people deserve the right to make their own representations of themselves without getting permission from affluent North American academics is one I plan to leave entirely alone.

Instead, I'm going to say something about The Witcher 3 that will probably severely agitate some readers: It is a terrific, much-needed dose of diversity for the game industry.

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
There's a Lot of Sorts of Diversity.

My wife is a Hungarian immigrant, and her half of our family is Hungarian and Polish. I'm not going to pretend for a second to be an expert on their cultures, but I have had a few decades of close observation. Enough to say this:

The Witcher 3 feels like it was written by people who spent a lot of their childhoods at their parents' and grandparents' feet, hearing stories about the horrors of World War 2 and the following Soviet occupation. (Or like the game was written by people who suffered that misery directly.)

Eastern Europeans have always seemed to me to be a tough, serious people living in a historically dangerous part of the world. Appropriately, this is a tough, serious game, full of unfairness and arbitrary cruelty.

The Witcher 3 feels like it is written with a keen awareness of what it is like to have your country occupied by brutal outsiders. Coincidentally, it comes from Poland, a country whose experience of the 20th century was, let's say, traumatic. For them to use that experience to produce a work like this is something we should treasure. It is a valuable thing.

Video games tend to approach politics in a simplistic way. The Witcher 3 is obsessed with politics. It shows again and again how the decisions made by those in power filter down and affect (usually painfully) regular people. This is not a game that sugar coats anything. Anywhere. Ever.

So This Is Where We Lose the Game Critics

Much modern gaming criticism is based on this basic theory: Popular culture shapes how people think, which shapes the world. Therefore, art is inherently political. It should focus on showing the world in the lovely state we want it to be, as opposed to the unpleasant way it might actually be.

(To see an example of this viewpoint, consider the well-known Tropes vs. Women video series. Go here and read the last three paragraphs of the transcript.)

The Witcher 3, on the other hand, depicts a medieval, war-torn, highly patriarchal society. It is only rarely judgmental. The game sets up how its world is, and then it deals with the consequences, logically grinding from one inevitable event to the next.

This game doesn't lie to you, even if some want it to. It comes from a land that knows full well how cruel the world can be, and it knows that ignoring that cruelty is an insult to our ancestors, the ones who withstood it in order to make a world for us. This leads The Witcher 3 to a lot of really interesting places, and I’m genuinely surprised game writers haven’t dug into it more.

It is a game full of grim humor, some of which was a bit much for me. (For example, I absolutely would have cut the gwent card with the joke about "raping for Redania.")

It's also a game where horror sits side by side with silly humor and pop culture references. There's nothing unusual about this. Humans often use inappropriate humor to deal with difficult circumstances. (Example: Google "jewish nazi jokes". Or just watch any old Mel Brooks movie.)

Video games need more of this. Our industry tends to approach politics and other real world conflicts in a simplistic way, with black and white morality and good/evil choices that don’t line up with how things really work. For all its occasional whimsy, The Witcher 3 reflects real thought about humanity and how it bears up (or breaks) under oppression.

That is why I say The Witcher 3 is a great example of diversity in our industry. There are many sorts of diversity. It brings diversity of thought, perspective, history. It is infused with a different, harder way of thinking and regarding the world.

If you are an academic preparing to write the 1000000th article on Proteus or Gone Home or Spec Ops: The Line, might I direct you to a title that is under-examined and worthy of analysis?

(Mild spoilers start here. Keep reading anyway.)

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
Family Matters.

No discussion about storytelling in The Witcher 3 is complete without mentioning its already-infamous Family Matters questline. It's already been written about a bunch, so I won't talk about it too much, since I want to get into a cooler bit later on.

Basically, this is a quest where a local warlord asks you to find his lost wife and child. Which escalates into a local warlord who asks you to bring back the wife and child who fled his abuse. Which escalates into finding a wife and child who fled and became ensnared in powerful, dangerous local magic.

It's not far in. It's the first major chapter. If you care at all about storytelling in video games, YOU MUST PLAY THIS SECTION. Do it on the easiest difficulty setting if you need to. (The Witcher 3 has some balance issues. It's too hard early on and too easy later.)

This section takes a ton of weird plot threads that seem unconnected, ties them all together effortlessly, throws in some stunning set pieces along the way, and ramps up to an excruciating ending full of impossible choices. It’s really good.

After that, there's a looong chapter in the city of Novigrad that is fun, but a bit overlong. It also occasionally throws in piles of dead women for cheap shock value, which is hacky. (This is a point where I agree with the Tropes vs Women videos.) It's my least favorite section, but it still has a lot of good stuff.

Then you're on the Isle of Megavikings (sorry, Skellige), which has some very cool, involved quests full of epic combat, punching-oriented politics, and painfully slow boats.

Then the main character, Geralt, is reunited with his basically-adopted-daughter, Ciri. This is where the coolest part (to me) starts. First, a few words about women in The Witcher.

Shut up, Newman. Nobody will ever love you.
Sorceresses and Goddesses.

The Witcher's most interesting characters are all women. The more recent books the game is based on focus on the women (Ciri and Yennefer, mainly). Even in The Witcher 3, there are multiple scenes where the women are doing the planning while Geralt shuffles around nervously nearby.

Gender politics arguments are not usually the morass I choose to get bogged down in. If you want to dig into these discussions, this Kotaku article is a reasonable breakdown.

All this brings me (finally) to the thing I loved most about the game: The relationship between the hero, Geralt, and his ward and surrogate daughter, Ciri.

My Favorite Thing About the Witcher 3.

Ciri is your standard fantasy Mysterious Power, Destined To Do Great Things. The first part of the game is Geralt trying to find her. The second part is him protecting her and helping her do the Big Fantasy Thing she needs to do.

Here's a key point. For all your running around and questing and gwent-playing, Geralt is not the main character in Witcher 3. He is a secondary character in Ciri's story.

Forget Fighting. How Good a Dad Are You?

So at the end, Ciri does a Big Thing. I think the game could have done a better job explaining what she was doing and why, but that would be adding more content to an already overstuffed game. The important thing is that this event is what the hours and hours of running around, confusion, and carnage has led to. Her thing. You aren't even present for it.

But you DO matter. Remember, you are Ciri's mentor. For the final stretch of the game, Ciri comes to you for support and guidance. The way you support her is vitally important. It determines whether she completes and survives doing the Big Thing.

All of the things you say and do that make a difference don't seem to be that important, but they are, in fact, vital. A few offhand words you don't think twice about can have an enormous effect on someone else, and it's not always fair. (You know. Like in real life.) All of the most important decisions in the game seem like False Choices.

False Choices?

Role-playing games, including my own, have a lot of what are sometimes called false choices. These are points when you make a decision or express your opinion, but your choices don't have a concrete effect on gameplay.

I don't believe false choices don't make a difference. In fact, they are hugely important. By asking the player to mentally engage and form an opinion about what is happening in the game, you are directly shaping the player's experience.

Remember, video games are just tools we use to affect our brains. The only important thing about a game is how our brain perceives it. Any choice, even a false choice, affects our perception of the game. All choices matter, even if they don't affect your stats.

The difference with The Witcher 3 is that all of the most important decisions are hidden in plain sight. They seem like false choices, but they directly change the ending. Your words have enormous importance to your child, but they seem irrelevant to you. It's exactly like ...

As a bonus, here is a lifetime's worth of nightmare fuel.
Being a Parent.

I have two kids. It has been endlessly frustrating to me how bad a job pop culture, especially video games, does depicting this fundamental human experience.

The Witcher 3 is the first game I've ever played that really engages my parent brain. When Ciri came to me for advice, my experience raising my own daughters had an affect on what I chose.

Yes, it can be unfair. You can think you're doing or saying the right thing, and it all falls apart. Welcome to parenthood.

I think this is cool and unique, and I wanted to make sure it didn't pass without comment. It's a shame it all happens so late in the game, because it's really well-crafted.

A Few Odds and Ends.

The Witcher 3 contains a card game called gwent, and yes, it is as addictive as you've heard. However, I don't think it would work out well in real life. The computer game has absolute control over the cards you can possibly own at any point. A real-life designer doesn’t have that ability.

The Witcher 3 is mostly an open world game, and it shares the sins so many open world games have: A needlessly fiddly crafting system. Lots of meaningless encounters and collectibles clogging up the world. Too much time spent looting giant piles of boxes, one at a time, each of which contains something useless. Honestly, stick to the main questline and side quests as much as you can.

I enjoyed the combat. Invest in the spell that lets you charm bad guys. It makes many fights easy and hilarious.

The speed at which this game can go from light-hearted whimsy to full-on Game of Thrones never failed to surprise me.

I want Keira Metz to be in every video game I ever play again ever. I want Tetris to be nothing but little falling Keira Metzes.

Apparently, rumor has it that The Witcher 3 also depicts a sex scene atop a stuffed unicorn. This is exactly the sort of needless immaturity that keeps video games from flourishing as an art form. The Witcher 3, your mother and I are very disappointed in you.

Finally, no discussion of this game would be complete without a link to Conan O'Brien's terrific Clueless Gamer segment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Early Access, Difficulty Fetishists, and Driving Yourself Insane

I am always amazed by how little I am able to predict the game industry. The success of Steam Early Access (where developers can put their unfinished games up for sale early) is still a bit of a shock.

When I started out writing shareware in the last century, shareware had a pretty bad reputation. It was often buggy, weird, and badly put-together. But at least, as rough as a shareware game might have been, at least when it was released it was DONE. We were so old-fashioned then.

Yet you can't argue with success. Early Access is a popular new way of developing, is here to stay, and requires new techniques and guidelines. One recent cautionary tale may, I think, be very instructive.

Early Access, Failing In Public, and How to Fill Your Brain With Madness

So now developers can release their game early. This has good points. Gamers get the game earlier. The developer can get possibly much needed cash. Most interestingly (to me), users get a chance to watch an unfinished game take shape before their eyes.

On the other hand, the game will be buggy and incomplete, and you can't be sure it will ever be finished. Also, and this is the part that really interests me, the developers have to finish a game in view of the full public. It's hard enough to write a game under the best of circumstances. Early access devs have to write a game while the entire world is shouting at them.

I fear the views of the unfiltered public. I've written about this before. If you let too many loud voices into your head, it can drive you mad. Outside feedback is necessary, but you have to filter it. For me, ten sensible people are far more useful than 10000 internet randos. You'll write a much better game if you don’t just throw the doors of your brain open to the world.

Which brings us to the recent fascinating case study: Darkest Dungeon.

This is how my game development process looks under the best of circumstances.
Darkest Dungeon: A Cautionary Tale

When Darkest Dungeon came out in Early Access a few months ago, I talked it up a lot. It's a really ingenious roguelike. You keep a stable of 20 or so adventurers and pick bands of 4 of them to send into really nasty dungeons.

The dungeons are (or were) moderately tough. You'll probably get through, but a run of bad luck can permanently kill some (or all) of your characters. Much of the game is judging how you are doing and deciding after each fight whether you should flee or not.

(There's also the unusual mechanic of a sanity meter. Upsetting events can drive your characters insane. In my experience, this basically just acts as a second health bar, so I'll leave it undiscussed.)

You could usually beat a dungeon without much fuss, but there was always a chance of disaster. This led to an experience that was pleasingly tense and exciting without being soul-crushing.

However, I have to refer all of this in the past tense. When the game was new, I visited their forums to see the feedback they were getting. When I saw it and how the devs were reacting to it, I thought, "Oh boy. This could be a problem." And it was. Sadly, the game I loved is kind of gone.

If you want a much more detailed view of the kerfuffle, go here for a good write-up. Official word from the shell-shocked developers is here.

In short, what happened is that this highly talented crew of game makers allowed the Difficulty Fetishists into their heads, and now they are trying to repair the damage.

The Most Dangerous Form of Feedback

There are lots of different ways you can get damaging feedback, but the Difficulty Fetishists are the ones you must fear the most. They are marked by three qualities:

1. They ALWAYS want the game to be harder, no matter how hard it already is.
2. They will be the loudest, most persistent givers of feedback. They will swarm forums, making them seem more numerous than they are.
3. They are mean and contemptuous to anyone who suggests, no matter how meekly, that the game is too hard to be fun. ("n00b!" "LRN 2 PLAY!" "GIT GUD!")

Now let us be very clear. Gamers who love really hard games ARE a valid audience. I have several such gamers as permanent members of my testing pool, and they are invaluable when I design the harder difficulty levels. However, they MUST be kept away from influencing the default difficulty level at all costs.

Since Darkest Dungeon only has one difficulty level and is intended to be a hard game, you can see the problem. The Difficulty Fetishists dominated the feedback. Now Darkest Dungeon is a brutal and unforgiving game in which, among other things, you have to hack away the bodies of monsters you already killed to get at the archers murdering you from the back.

The result was that the silent majority of content players became very disgruntled and non-silent, and now the developers are trying to find their way back out of the weeds. I'm sure they will manage, though it's a great example of how treacherous trying to please one faction of gamers can be.

This is, of course, only one form of bad feedback. There are as many ways to give bad advice as there are people. This is why using Early Access to give all of humanity a chance to poke at your game when it is still amorphous and unformed is risky.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this. First, though, I want to mention one other peril of Early Access.

I suggest planning a realistic schedule before going into Early Access. Writing tweets like these are not fun.
How One Rogue Developer Can Screw Us All

I know I repeat myself overmuch on this point, but the biggest thing going for indie gaming is that people like us and want us to succeed. When one of us is a jerk or con artist, it hurts all of us.

If you put your game on Early Access, you MUST do one of these two things: 1. Finish it roughly according to schedule, or 2. Humbly explain what is going on and apologize.

I know some online commentors put down gamers for being Entitled, but if I pay money for half a game and a promise of the second half, dammit, I AM entitled.

(Sadly, after my experience with the promising title Kentucky Route Zero, I've stopped buying Early Access games at all.) 

I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line for how long is too long when finishing an Early Access game. It’s an interesting question that bears discussion. How about this for a potential rule of thumb to argue over: If you can’t say with confidence your potential Early Access game will be done within a year, maybe it needs more time in the oven.

For early adopters, if you take too long to finish your game, you might as well not have finished it at all. Remember, every year the number of elderly gamers increases. Sorry for this extra pressure, but if you take too long, when your game is done, some of the people who bought it won't be alive anymore.

My Humble Advice For Those Who Take This Road

I'm not going to give advice to the Darkest Dungeon people. As I said, they're really talented folks, working on a game with huge potential. I could offer advice to them, but I'm often wrong, and the last thing they need is another loud voice in their heads.

Instead, I will make a humble suggestion or three to those who have yet to go down this road.

Advice One: Form An Elite Feedback Strike Force

Gamer feedback has diminishing returns. Adding more people doesn't help much. Read your feedback, find a good, diverse pool of 10-15 solid advisors, and take most of your advice from them.

Advice Two: It's OK To Stop Listening Sometimes

Trust yourself. If you start to feel confused and bereft, you have my permission to turn off the feedback hose. Take a breath. Enjoy silence and peace. Play your game yourself and see if you like it. You're the designer. If you're digging what you made, it's OK. Trust yourself.

Advice Three: Ban the Evil

This is a big one. If you have a forum and some dude attacks or insults someone else giving feedback, you must ban him. DO IT. BAN HIM. BANHIMBANHIMBANHIM. If he gets mad, tell him how to get a Steam refund. If he can't get a refund, mail him a personal check. Just get rid of him.

This is not an overreaction. The worst thing a tester can do is try to shame and scare off other people giving honest feedback. Anyone who tries to drive away other testers is a direct threat to the health of your business. Terminate with extreme prejudice.

Also, banning jerks is fun and theraputic. It is an activity I recommend highly.

Early Access Is An Experiment

Then again, I feel everything in the game industry is an experiment now. This whole thing is new, and it's evolving faster than I can follow.

I won't try it out myself. I'm too old-fashioned, and I like doing most of my creating in a relatively calm, quiet environment. However, if you would prefer to do your delicate design work while on a flaming rocket, alarm klaxons blaring, flying at top speed into the heart of the sun, I think that Early Access might be just right for you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Indie Bubble Revisited (or, Are We All Totally-Doomed, or Just Regular-Doomed?)

I hate writing this, because the situation is ugly, and it feels like I'm just piling on. I'll try to add something new to the discussion.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Another stupid article about the Indie Bubble, or the #indiepocalypse, or whatever dumb thing they’re calling it today.

It’s starting to get a little old. I did my part kicking off this whole discussion with my Indie Bubble article about a year ago. It's probably the most widely read thing I've ever written. Luminaries of the game industry read it. Many articles referenced it. Some people hated it, though a lot of these seemed to do so not because it was wrong but because they wanted it to be wrong.

It’s been talked about a lot since then. I’ve read a million articles and tweets and critiques by established indie devs who are eager to let you know that if you don’t create an eternal classic and market it 27 hours every day you suck and deserve to fail. (I’m know ... I’m exaggerating. Some days, it doesn’t feel like it.)

But I’m not gunning for ten million dollars, and I doubt most young game devs are either. We just want to earn pizza and housing money making our happy toys. We know that a few people can make a killing. We just want to know if we can make a living.

Anyway, it’s been a year, and I’d like to check in. Try to inject some reality, maybe a solid prediction or two. It seems like half of the game industry is too optimistic and the other half too lost to despair. Instead, all we need to do is look around and see a bit of what the Game Industry is like. What it was like before the bubble, and what it is reverting to being like again.

By the way, I don't want to turn this into an ugly class thing, but ... If you already have a massive hit, OF COURSE everything looks great.

A Bit Of Truth, and Then You Can Ignore the Rest of This

Some have described me as some sort of weirdo Indie Dev Angel of Death, forecasting the apocalypse. This is not what I said in my article. All I said was that, after several exuberant years, the business of writing indie games was returning to normal.

And what is normal? Here's the big take-away! Writing games for cash is a harsh, unforgiving affair. Success is rare and failure common, instead of the other way around. If an indie game fails, it shouldn’t surprise you. Success should surprise you. All I said was that, in the future, this hard reality will (and must) reassert itself.

Please take a moment to reread the previous paragraph. Then don’t read the rest of this mess. All that us Doomsayers are saying is that the simple reality in the previous paragraph is reasserting itself. There’s is an #indiepocalypse, kind of. It’s a painful return to the simple harshness of the gaming biz, same as it always was.

But if you’re still reading, since we're all in the future now, I wanted to revisit my original piece and see if I was accurate.

So let us look, bravely, eyes open and clear, at the situation as it exists. Let's figure out where we're going, and let's see if we can all find a way to avoid flying shrapnel.

Time for a little cheering-up break. Thanks, Twilight Sparkle! Friendship IS magic!

Now I Prove I Was Right

How can I prove that I was right, that the happy days of easy money are gone, and that we indie devs are going to have to hustle and scrape and control our budgets like in the musty olde shareware days?

Once, I dreaded writing this article. I feared having to dig up tales of high profile indie flops. I planned to rely on imperfect measures, like the increasing number of games forced to rely on massive discounts and being in bundles a scant 3-5 months after release. I thought I'd need to scrape together what sales figures I could find to show that, yes, titles that once would have been massive hits out of the gate will struggle simply to break even.

Now I don't need to do any of that. I have been given manna from Blog Writer Heaven: SteamSpy.

Aren't you sick of seeing this chart? (Full size original here.) I know I am.
The Mysterious Miracle of SteamSpy

SteamSpy is a new web site that uses online data mining, secret algorithms, and Magic to come up with weirdly accurate estimates of how many titles games on Steam have sold. Based on my own sales and what I've heard from other indie devs, its numbers are surprisingly on the nose.

It's not as good for figuring out how much actual money a game has made. SteamSpy counts sales, not how much money a sale was actually for. The site  can't tell whether sales were at full price or from sales or bundles or whatever. However, if a game hasn't yet been in any bundles or big sales, it's good at estimating how much the game has earned. It's pretty damn cool.

That being said, please consult the chart above.

One heavily disputed claim in my original article was that most people have only a constant amount they will spend on video games. Thus, since so many more titles are coming out, earnings will go way down.

This struck me as a pretty uncontroversial statement, immediately understood by anyone who knows anything about economics or who has had to make a family budget. If you release 10x as many games, people won't start spending 10x as much on games, as they also need to buy food.

SteamSpy's chart says this is pretty much exactly what happened. Number of games shot up. Money earned per game went way down. Yes, there are still hits, and they generally earned it. It's the invisible majority of developers that are drifting into oblivion in silence.

So now I'm going to make some predictions, and I hope, in a year, that I have been proven wrong. I really do.

Another chart everyone is sick of: Steam releases per month. Ignore the dumb trend line and just look at the dots. The pretty, pretty dots.

Prediction One: More People Need To Abandon Their Dreams.

As a bonus, there is another chart: Steam Releases per month. There's no guesswork here. To know the number of new releases, you just have to go to Steam and count them. The numbers are still shooting up, as hopeful, talented young devs chase the gold rush.

Expect earnings for most developers to keep going down for a while. I don't take any satisfaction in this. I love indie development, and, as I said in the previous article, I WANT to be proven wrong. (Remember, this is my day job too.) Yet, these numbers are pretty compelling, and they speak of a rough road ahead.

Yeah, yeah. You’re probably sick to DEATH of hearing that. LOTS of indie devs say it. What nobody talks about is exactly what that rough road will look like. Who will get hurt, and how? Here’s a guess:

Basically, solid, competently made games that would have made a modest profit 10 years ago or 10 years from now will just flop. Really ground-breaking titles will do fine, of course. It’s just that, in a normal environment, you shouldn’t need to be absolutely unique and invent a new genre or whatever to make money.

(Oh, by the way? If an otherwise solid product falls to huge competition, there's no need to pile on further by saying, "You just sucked. Indies are whiners. You just want a trophy for showing up. Loser. LRN2PLAYN00B!" It really aggravates me when profitable indie devs do this. Show some humility. You just write indie games, for God's sake. Just because your game sold well doesn't make you Jesus.)

This is REALLY important: After the hard times to come, yes, wages will be lower than they were. It will be harder to get rich, but it'll also be totally possible to scrape by a nice, middle-class existence writing competent games in underserved genres.

All it will take is enough companies dying to have a few genres be underserved again. This process will be HARD. This is the so-called #indiepocalypse, right here.

To make a living without a monster hit, however, will require some reality acceptance ...

Yeah, pretty much. I suggest writing your first game in your spare, non-job time. Yes, I know this sucks. I've been there, man.

Prediction Two: Ambitions Will Grow More Modest. Budgets Will Be Cut.

My blog is called the Bottom Feeder, because that is what I am. I am a small, fast, nimble developer, dashing in to grab the scraps the big boys leave behind. I write my games on tight schedules with modest budgets. When I can use cheap, licensed sound and graphics, I do so with enthusiasm.

As a result, our business has done well for over 20 years.

I've watched the ramping up of indie budgets and ambitions over the last few years with fascination. Having a real team and professional assets (graphics, sound, etc) can result in a very successful game. However, the more you spend, the greater the risk. Sometimes, I suspect my fellow developers have lost the ability to make hard choices about what luxuries are worth paying for and what aren't.

Indie developers tend to want nothing less than custom graphics and music of the highest quality, everything done completely fresh for each game. Sometimes, licensing a piece of music for cheap can do just as well, with far less overhead to earn back in sales.

If your game needs voicework (Does it? Does it, really?), there are a multitude of actors who can do well for reasonable rates. Instead, I've seen several developers hire big name actors. I sincerely doubt this generates enough extra sales to justify the expense and trouble.

Team sizes. Holy cripes, but teams are big! I never would have imagined that a 10+ person indie game team would seem like a viable option. Never forget that you can make remarkable stuff with two people (one coder, one artist, buy what assets you have to online for cheap).

And as for long development times, yes, I know. Art happens on its own schedule and shouldn't be rushed. Yet, discipline is still necessary. It's way easier to stay in business when you have a new game every two years than every four. If you're spending 5-7 years to make an indie game, I hope you were already rich when you started.

Amazingly, some indie devs hire actual consultants, the greatest of all cash sponges for confused businesses with too much money. The highest profile recent indie failure, Tale of Tales, hired an expensive consultancy team to help out.  I can guarantee that it wasn't worth it.

As things get tougher, the indie business will need to focus more on the 'Business' part. This is all to the good.

Look at the bright side. If you never get famous, nobody will notice when you have your nervous breakdown on Twitter.

Prediction Three: "PR Better" Will Stop Being the Answer To Everything.

Lower budgets mean you can sell fewer copies of your game and still stay in business. If you operate on a low enough budget, you don't need a huge PR breakthrough to succeed.

I believe a really good game, word of mouth marketing, and patience can still be enough to generate a profitable product. It’s a slow, hard road, but this is still a tough industry. It’s still was easier than it used to be, as the number of outlets for word-of-mouth and cheap marketing have gone way up since I started. If I’m wrong, we have an even more serious problem than we thought.

This is because the PR situation is becoming intolerable. I am so sick of indie devs who already made it saying, "You must spend huge resources on PR. If you don't, you deserve to fail." This is mean, lazy, and utterly neglectful of the reality now.

Look. As I write this, Pax Prime is going on. There are OVER ONE HUNDRED indie games showing at PAX. These are young, ambitious developers who are expending huge amounts of time, cash, and energy doing what their elders told them to do. For most of them, the effort will be wasted.

This isn't their fault. The gaming press only has so much bandwidth. It can and will only cover so many games, and most of those resources will go to AAA titles. They simply can't give exposure to over 100 games. Even if they could, gamers don't have the time or mental bandwidth to process so much input.

I've heard that the press will only cover you if you go directly to them in person (expensive, time-consuming). Simple email contacts (fast, inexpensive) won't do. I'm starting to believe it. The recent indie game N++ hardly got any coverage, and this is the sequel to the N series, one of the best-known, seminal series of the indie boom.

And yet, even if they had gone to cons and kissed the ring, I doubt it would have helped. Over 100 indie games on display. You can't fight that math.

(I’m assuming here that the gaming press is a pure, neutral meritocracy. If you believe that the press occasionally gives a huge amount of press to a mediocre title for unrelated reasons, well, the problem becomes even more dire.)

This is also assuming, of course, that conventional press even matters anymore. There are real doubts on that score. Reviews in old-school magazines and web sites don’t bump my sales near as much as they used to.

I believe that, of necessity, developers will rediscover building businesses the old-fashioned way. Not by getting a smash hit overnight, but slowly, game by game, building a genuine fan base that will carry them through good times and bad, counting on quality and word-of-mouth PR to get the word out there. As the saying goes, it takes ten years to make an overnight success.

It's slow and difficult. Really difficult. It may not even be possible. You’ll have to forgive me for thinking it’s possible, as it’s the only thing that enables me to get out of bed some mornings.

Pictured: The Game Industry in 2016. (Artist's conception.)

Prediction Four: Indie Gaming Will Survive.

Despite all this, I'm not a doomsayer. Indie gaming will survive. Gamers want us to survive, and the quality of our work is fantastic. I rarely have more fun than when I buy a Humble Bundle and try out 10 of the games these ambitious young people are making.

These new developers are driven, smart, and admirable. They are better than me, and I want them to get rich. Some of them even will.

Nobody knows what is going to happen. There are a ton of unsolved problems (like pricing and efficient marketing). It will be hard to succeed. Like it has almost always been, and will almost always be.

My advice for you personally? It's the same advice I'd give to anyone planning to go into a highly competitive artistic field: Don't start writing indie games unless you couldn't possibly be happy doing any other job.

I hope you're not a broken toy like me, driven by a mad compulsion to make these peculiar, garish, little works of art. But if you are, welcome aboard. I am rooting for you.

You're still reading this? What's WRONG with you? Why didn't you just read 200 words, make up some stupid opinion I didn't say, and attack me for it in a Gamasutra article? You know, like everyone else?

What I Am Going To Do

The same thing I've always done. Lay low. Work fast and cheap. I'll count on my awesome loyal fans to see me through, and I'll do my best to make work worthy of their loyalty.

My games are $20. To stay in business, I need to sell, say, a minimum of 6000 full price copies of each new game. Add on bundles, Steam sales, etc, and it's a good living. For me, now, it's an entirely attainable goal. If you care, you can follow how I'm doing on SteamSpy.

I know life is a bummer now, but indie games are just too cool to die. If you write them, as a pro or hobbyist, be proud.

Well, better get back to work. I have two weeks to write four weeks’ work of dialogue. Time to hop to it.


Please let me know how much I suck on my Twitter.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Indie Games, Refunds, Terror, and Taking “No” For an Answer

I, for one, welcome our new Washington overlords.
Two months ago, Steam, the imperial, dinosaur-sized seller of PC games online, announced that they would start offering refunds to unhappy customers. And about time, too.

We run Spiderweb Software, a small indie company who sells role-playing games to a tiny niche audience, and we could not be happier about this change. Our business has long had a policy of no-questions-asked refunds for people who bought games from us directly. Our policy is, simply, “If you aren’t happy with our game, we don’t want your money.”

So we were happy with Steam’s new policy even before we knew how much money we’d be losing. Running an ethical business means a lot to us. Of course, customers love it even more than we do.

Predictably, parts of the gaming press, ever eager to stoke controversy for easy clicks, used shaky evidence to make it seem like the refund policy was a big, objectionable thing for developers. Happily, the grumbling has died down, predictions of imminent indie destruction were groundless, and the policy looks like it’s here to stay.

On my end, our refund rate is about 5%. This is, from what I’ve heard, typical. Also, entirely acceptable. We can live with it. (Plus, refunds help to force swift, brutal justice on rushed, crappy PC ports.) 

But I don’t want to be blasé about it. For a small business, a loss of 5% of sales can sometimes be a catastrophe. Changes are scary, especially changes that cost you money.

I wanted to say a little bit about why generous refunds are not only a good idea, but a huge long-term benefit for small, fragile developers like me. And yet, at the same time, some indies are nervous about the change, and they should be.

Giving refunds does change how indies need to think about what we make and what we charge for it. I have a bunch of thoughts about that. Lucky you.

I was curious what the first Google Image Search hit for "indie game developer" would be. (Source article, which is worth reading.)
Why We Need Refunds

I can deal with this one pretty quickly. It’s something I’ve written about a lot in the past.

If you sell PC games, there are generally three ways people can get your game super-cheap: Piracy. Sales. Bundles. If your game is only acquired in these ways, you will go out of business.

To survive selling indie games, you need to convince a bunch of users to pay full price for it. You need to get them to pay more than they know they need to. This is difficult, as people like to keep their money.

The best way to get people to pay the full price is to get them to like you. To make your customers emotionally invested in your survival. This is the great weapon of the small indie: People like us. They think we’re cool. This must be preserved at all costs.

That is why, when I saw a few indies publicly complaining about this inevitable, hugely popular change, all I could think was, “What are you DOING!? Don’t you realize you’re hurting us all?”

Yet I understand. I really do see why they freaked out, and I sympathize. I’m in the same boat. Indie games are different from the big AAA product, and it’s worth asking how the change will affect us.

Indie developers tend to be afraid of two things: That customers will want refunds because the games are too short. Or, that customers will want refunds because the games are too artsy.

I totally want there to be a market for shorter works of art. Like this one, which is absolutely fantastic.
The Two Hour Barrier

Steam’s stated refund policy is that you can get one if you’ve played the game for less than two hours. This invites the question: What happens if your game is less than two hours? Games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, or Dear Esther. Won’t customers play the whole thing and then get a refund?

First, this fear shows a really dark and depressing attitude towards your customers. If you really think the people who buy your games are such monsters, why are you writing games for them in the first place?

More importantly, if your games are not providing enough entertainment for the price you are charging, do you really think denying refunds will save you? It will delay the demise of your business, sure. But if people feel ripped off buying one indie game, best of luck trying to get them to ever buy a second one.

I don’t want to entirely dismiss this problem. Suppose you really want to write 30 minute games. I think a game this short can be really cool, and, if it’s good, people will want to support you and won’t ask for refunds. I really think this will be the case, and I have not heard news of huge refund rates from authors of short games. I can be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be.

Suppose refunds do become a problem for small games. Keeping the money of unhappy customers is still not the answer. Maybe the games need to be sold in bundles. Or maybe they need to be better. Or maybe, in the end, there won’t be much room in the market for smaller games, and they will just need to be longer.

I don’t currently see a big market for 3 minute games, no matter how clever. Similarly, the markets for short films and short stories are very small. Still, there is a market, and it might get bigger.

Let me be clear. I LOVE short, artistic stories, films, and games. I WANT them to have a market and be successful. Reality being otherwise frustrates me greatly, and I wish I could change it. Alas, I only get one vote.

In the long run, whether these markets develop will be up to the customer, refunds or not. No, calling gamers scummy or bigoted or entitled will not help.

Getting angry at capitalism won’t help either. I don’t know what alternate system you want to set up, but if it’s goal is to force people to buy things they don’t want, I’m not sure many will be on board.

If you can’t summon up enough trust or affection toward game buyers to convince them to surrender cash for your product, well, hobbyist game development is an old, beloved institution. Better people than you have fallen to the brutality of the free market.

Microsoft Stress Simulator 2013
Forcing Gamers To Eat Broccoli

I feel some indie devs have this attitude: Our job is to get people to play the artistic games we think they should, instead of the fun stuff they tend to prefer. Gamers shouldn’t be allowed to fill up on cake. They should be forced to buy our broccoli.

Consider one of the most discussed and successful games of the Great Indie Peak of 2013: Papers, Please! This is a game I loved, recommended, and wrote about. It combines story and gameplay in a truly unique and fascinating way. It’s cool beans.

However, Papers, Please! is also viscerally unpleasant to play. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. It is a game about quickly and perfectly doing mindless, repetitive tasks, with swift, merciless retaliation if you fail. It’s stressful, and it’s a bummer. That’s the whole point of the game. (Which, again, I loved.)

Papers, Please! takes about 5-6 hours for a playthrough, so it’s not too short for the 2 hour refund cutoff. To get a refund, players will have to give up on experiencing the whole story. So will they?

I hope they don’t get refunds. I hope Papers, Please! continues to make lots of money, so that more games like it are written. However, I don’t think most people want their limited video game relaxation time to be stressful and unpleasant. If someone buys this game and says, “This game is making me less happy, not more. I want my money back,” I don’t see how we can reasonably refuse.

A terrific sci-fi movie, AND it stars Scarlett Johansson? Who wouldn't go see that? (Answer: Everybody.)
Err In the Direction of Respect

I love indie games, and I love obscure foreign art films. I really wish I could share underwatched classics like Mr. Turner or Under the Skin with you. I just can’t force you.

Music, films, books, all have indie presses that sell obscure products for niche tastes. This is awesome. They are just smaller. They make less money. Someday, it might (will) be impossible to get rich writing artsy indie games. Following your dreams and making fulfilling work will have to be a large part of the reward. I’m in the same boat.

I say all this as someone who has skin in this game too. I write super-low-budget, old-school, turn-based, text-heavy RPGs. My product is more niche than any of the games listed above. I know every new game I release might be the one where gamers finally tire of what I sell.

It terrifies me, but I can take comfort in the way my fans want me to stay in business. They know they will be treated fairly when they buy my games, which makes them like me more.

And that, in the end, is how refunds help me to stay in business. Refunds are right ethically, and they’re good business. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Age, Pleasing Apple, and Trying To Climb Out of the Hole.

I still think these are pretty funny.
I haven't done much blogging for a long time. Part of it is that I don't feel I have much advice to give. The business has changed an awful lot in a last few years, and I'm still mired in the old ways. I'll let the elder statesman mantle pass to those who actually know things about our amazing modern cyberworld.

But there is another reason I haven't been writing. I have been suffering from a massive period of exhaustion, triggered by an ugly combination of age and medication. That, perhaps, is something I can write about usefully.

For a variety of reasons, game industry workers tend to be young. Little gets said about the grim business of growing old in this industry.

(Younger people have now tuned me out. Don't worry. It's fine. You will live forever.)

This is a tale about my age and health, how they helped me make the biggest screw-up in my career, and how I am trying to climb out of the hole.

A Few Practical Comments About Middle-Age

Young people have a notorious disinterest in hearing what things are like when you grow older. Old people are smug and boring and smell weird. Since this is meant to be a practical guide for a long haul in game development, I will be as brief as possible.

I am 45, and my health is getting worse.

Generally, when I tell younger people that, I get a reaction like, "Oh God, no, HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE LEFT!?" But it's not like that. I'm not dying. At least, not imminently.

But middle age is usually when the long, inevitable decay of your body starts to make itself known. It's when you think, "My chest hurts. I might be having a heart attack," and then immediately think, "Oh, crap. I’m old. It really MIGHT be a heart attack."

(Of course, some young people have poor health, and some lucky people stay healthy into old age. I include this disclaimer for the tiresome folks who get most of their fun from being angry and pedantic in the comments.)

When you reach middle age, your body starts to grumble and slowly break down.  A combination of lost dreams and dying loved ones tends to make your mind a bit of a mess too.

Annoying people always say, "You're only as old as you feel." Well, I feel old.

Do you know him in real life? Then you don't know anything about him.
"Dude, You Are a Whiny Bummer."

I really don't mean to be. Just laying out the facts. It's not all bad. There are good things about growing older, too. I‘m not whining about it. It happens to everyone.

What I am saying, and this is important when understanding creative types, is that something always goes wrong with your health (mental and/or physical) at some point. When this happens, the fractures will deform your work.

Almost everyone makes fun of George R.R. Martin for not making good time on the Game of Thrones books. But, dude, the guy is 66 years old. I'm not going to pretend I know what's going on in his life, but I can think of 10000 things that could be keeping him from writing. I'm not happy that the Game of Thrones books come out so slowly, but I know that these things happen.

I'm 20 years younger than he is, and yet, I recently had a long stretch of problems. I won't bore you with the blah blah details, but they left me on a collection of medicines that left me completely exhausted for long stretches of time.

This led me directly to the biggest professional screw-up of my career.

Falling Into a Hole

I release my games for the iPad. I think tablets are really cool and fun to play with, and I love putting out games for the platform. However, it's not a big moneymaker for us. The market is so super-competitive that we can't compete.

So, early this year, we ported our newest game, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, to the iPad. It went through testing and we were ready to ship it. It was good to go.

Three days before release, Apple put out a new version of iOS, the iPad operating system. If I was a responsible, together developer, who was fully focused on selling his customers quality products, I would have tested the game on the new OS. But I was too tired.

Had I done so, I would have found that the new OS completely broke the game.

There are more details of the story in an interview I gave here. Basically, the engine I used was old and did things in some outdated ways. The new iOS update was the one that finally broke the engine.

Instead of canceling the release and fixing the problems, I thoughtlessly shipped the game. Then, finding it was broken, I canceled the release, removed the game from sale, and handed out refunds.

Then I tried to fix the problem, but this involved learning a lot about programming iPads. At that point, my fatigue was so bad that my limbs hurt. I didn't have the energy for a real burst of research and programming. So I gave up.

My advice: If you're going to make yourself look like an idiot, do it LOUDLY.
I Do Not Want Pity

Don't feel sorry for me. My point is, at some point, EVERYONE gets sick. You will, too. When it happens, all of your careful plans fall apart, and you need to put them back together in a new (probably smaller) shape.

After I canceled all of our iPad stuff, I lost several days to depression and self-pity. It was the first time, in a long, solid career, I'd said, "I have to stop doing stuff I was doing because I just suck now." Declining ability is something everyone faces at some point, but it is still hard to face.

I decided to go to the doctor. As much as I needed the medicines I was taking for my health whatevers, I needed work and self-respect more.

I spent time playing with my medication and dealing with various complications. And, eventually, my energy came back. That was two weeks ago.

Climbing Out of the Hole

The first thing I did when I could do things again is begin a massive assault on the design of our next game, Avadon 3, to finally fix the problems that have been in the Avadon games from the start. (I wanted to fix them for Avadon 2, but I was tired. Exhaustion forced me to spend over two years writing that game even in its flawed state.)

Once I convinced myself I could do things again, I went back to fighting with the iPad. I had to. Not for money or PR, but for simple pride and self-confidence. I don't want to have to run in fear from challenges yet.

I needed to rewrite my old engine (happily, it came with source code), which means that I had to learn how to program iPads. Keeping from having to learn iPad programming is why I licensed an engine in the first place.

This is the sort of challenge where being old and having lots of experience helps. Getting older is not all bad news.

In the 30+ years I've been programming, I long ago lost track of the number of foreign languages and systems I've learned to develop for. You get better at it. You learn to avoid the easy mistakes and not create the tricky bugs. You get better at finding answers to tough problems. When I am capable of doing what I do, I'm better at it than I've ever been.

And I did it. It took days of basically constant, family-neglecting work, but I have a working engine and a working game again. I still need to do some planning and testing, and it's pretty humiliating to go back on my word. But being an indie developer means that you get to look stupid to the world occasionally.

Game developer ages, as of 2014. Thank God that, when you turn 50, you don't need to eat anymore.
A Few More Words About Age

Writing a public article about one's bad health is a really good way to make it harder to get jobs in the future. Who wants to hire a sickie?

But ha ha! The joke's on you! I'm already unemployable in games!

Take a look at this chart. Game devs in their forties? 16% In their fifties? 1%

One. Percent. What the hell. Video games are a young art form, but they're not THAT young.

This is a topic I want to write more about, but no discussion about age and writing games would be complete without at least mentioning it.

Want to talk about lack of diversity in the games industry? I'm with you. However, if you don't mention the total lack of old people, that's how I know you're not serious.

If you struggle to get more women, non-whites, etc. into the industry, only to find they all fall back out when they start turning 40, I promise that your victory will turn to ashes in your mouth.

So It's Kind of a Happy Ending.

I thought I couldn't do a thing anymore. I announced it. Then I found I could do it again. Then I announced it, making me look stupid. Now I think I'll be able to ship the game after all, and be proud of it. It should be a happy ending.

Sort of. It has forced me to really think about how my business, my life's work, will end. A series of contractions and abandoned projects, each step accompanied by a cloud of apologies and refunds. Unfortunate and inevitable, but it can be handled ethically and with grace.

If nothing else, this failed release has made me a lot more forgiving of older creators when they fail. Of course, if someone is actively ripping their customers off, that's a problem. But a late Kickstarter? A slow book? I can show some patience and empathy. Qualities the internet could use a lot more of.

If there is anything hopeful I can come up with, it's this: The people who make the games you love? They are human too. They will age. They will falter. Be tolerant. Be supportive. Forgive them.

You will get old too, and you will understand. When that happens, don't have to look back and think, "Wow. I was a jerk."

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.