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Archive for September, 2011

Kinda busy here, sorry, but I wanted to point out a few indie games that have caught my eye of late.

First up, Jay from Rampant Coyote has finished his Frayed Knights game!  I’ve been following his excellent developer articles on the game for a while now.  He used to work here at Wahoo/NinjaBee, but he left shortly after I started, and he’s been working on Frayed Knights for a while.  It’s great to see it in finished form, and I wish him much success with the game.  I’ve not played the demo yet, but I’m going to make time to do so.

Second, the Humble Bundle guys are at it again.  This time, there’s a new twist; you can get the core Frozen Synapse for any price (and it’s a fantastic game, one I highly recommend), but if you beat the average price, you get a handful of other games.  It’s a clever marketing ploy, and it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Third, Muckbeast and his Frogdice team have whipped up a curious game they call Coin ‘n Carry.  It looks a bit like Puzzle Pirates to me, and that’s a Good Thing.  I’ve not tried this one either, though I intend to when I can make the time, but Muckbeast is putting his time and money into an indie game he believes in, and that’s the heart and soul of the indie movement.  It’s worth checking out.

…and yes, I’m busy, at least partially working on my own games and illustrating a book for my mother.  The economy and politics aren’t very kind to startup businesses at the moment, so it’s a scary climate, but it’s very satisfying to work in and see others find success in.  if you get a minute, please check out the work these guys have been up to.

…and in the meantime, speaking of indies, I still have Storybricks to investigate some more.  So many cool things to do, so little time.

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Or, My Articles I Wish More People Had Read.  Y’know, just in case you’re not familiar with Ye Ol’ Archives. Since I feel like I’m repeating myself all too often, I may as well point to the old stuff. Oh, and please feel free to comment on them, too. I’ll pick up where they left off and keep the conversation going. In the meantime, I’ll just step aside and see whatever other lint I can find whilst I continue navel-gazing…

On choice and agency:

Freedom vs Control

Mongolian BBQ

My Way or the Right Way

Choose Your Own Adventure

On game design:

Apple Picking

Setting the Scene

Chekhov’s Curtains

4XMMO

EMMO (My favorite “proposal” article)

Death Unhinged

Broken or Brilliant

Autopilot Character Development

Channeled Chaos

A Secret of Mana

Vestigial Design

Making Mistakes

Balance Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Balance Part 4: Triangles, Trinity and Triage

Balance Part 5: Tick Talk Time

Replayability and Keeplayability

Keeplaying Through

Resolution, Restriction, Renaissance

Candyland, Choice, Complexity and Chaos

Game Design Experiment: 7DX

Full Spectrum Challenge

Abandoning Good Old Games

Teuber on Games

Mix and Match Magic

Always Designing, Always Asking

Perchance to Die

Enough is Enough

It’s My Party

Turning Back Time

Self Sufficiency and Sociality

Rogue Tauren

On specific games:

Professing Layton (if only there were more games like these)

How Minecraft Ruined World of Warcraft

Fun Flash

Good Old Gaming

Puzzle Quest Galactrix

Old School Review: Master of Magic

On the game industry:

I Can Afford It

Those Who Can’t

XYXX

On music:

Why Do Hummingbirds Hum?

On art:

Mini Portfolio

Artsy Fartsy

Falling Apart

On my own game design:

Alpha Hex Paper Beta

Zomblobs!

Oh, and I totally called the World of Warcraft Cataclysm. Sorta. In passing. Hypothetically speaking.

The Old World of Warcraft

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“Time spent” is not a measure of challenge.  It is not a measure of content.

“Risk” is not a measure of challenge.  It is not a measure of skill.

Too many games are built around time, not content or challenge.

Too many gamers want to be coddled instead of challenged.

Alas.

A few relevant links, thanks to some very eloquent bloggers:

The Lost Quadrant by Stubborn

The “Twit” Generation by Chris

Less Time Doesn’t Mean I Feed on Burgers by Syl

Redefinitions by Tim

edited to add:  What is Skill? by Gazimoff

…and an attendant point: I submit that it’s the desire to string along players and get their sub money that is the root of a lot of the changes in game design that veterans are fussing about.  If these MMO things were sold via “single sale” pricing, the design could easily be “take it or leave it” and pretty much left to be accepted on its own terms.

edited again to add:  Class Warfare by Azuriel

…and then there’s an old relevant article of mine, just in case you need some filler, Full Spectrum Challenge

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I’ve never been a fan of the subscription model.  I find it to be abusive and detrimental to game design, even though I can technically afford a sub these days.  What’s more baffling to me are those who reflexively defend the sub model as being the One True Path to gaming goodness in the MMO sphere.  It seems to me that these poor souls suffer from a sort of Stockholm Subscription Syndrome.

In short form, Stockholm Syndrome is where prisoners start to sympathize with their captors, usually because said captors aren’t worse than they presently are, no matter how bad that is.  It’s a weird bit of cognitive dissonance that involves a lot of rationalization and psychological trauma, even abuse.  Maybe the huge time sinks and grinds in modern MMO design aren’t technically abuse, but they sure skirt the edge of psychological manipulation sometimes.  (I think there’s an argument that games embrace it fully sometimes, too, but interestingly, even designers might not notice that, positioned as they are, deep in the bowels of the game industry, suffering their own psychological maladies and warped frame of reference.)

To be sure, each MMO business model has pros and cons.  Subs are good for some things, Free 2 Play is good for others, and Single Sale (the Old School model of buying a game once and playing it forever, like Guild Wars… sometimes with expansion packs also sold in single sale chunks) is good for others.  Each has good effects on players and game design, each has bad effects.  Honest commentators see the differences.

It’s those who blindly suggest that subs are the only way to go that I’m talking about here.  (It should be noted that F2P and Single Sale doctrines have their blind acolytes, too, but they seem far fewer in number, and they function differently as they argue for different priorities.)  Sub devotees seem to love their grind.  There’s also a bit of that old “Sunk Cost” thinking going on as well:  players who have sunk time and money into something want to keep up with it to mentally validate what they have done already.  When you pay for time to play, you’ve already acquiesced to the premise that you’re paying for access, not content.  That’s a significant mental shift that changes the value calculations in game purchasing… and once you’re hooked, it’s hard to make the mental shift back.

Businesscritters naturally exploit this tendency, though they tend to be careful not to draw too much attention to the persistent blood loss, lest they draw too much attention and trigger a response.  It’s up to the players to pay attention, but far too many just cruise on and get used to things, then turn to defend the status quo.  (This happens in design, too, to both players and designers.  Don’t do something just because “That’s Just the Way It’s Done”, pay attention to the “why” underlying design choices.  The collapse of the MMO genre’s design potential into DIKU clones is one example of this blinkered thinking… thankfully, one that’s changing, if ever so slowly.)

The simple reality is that more and more people are playing games as time goes on.  The bulk of the audience is shifting to those who have grown up a bit (incidentally, not the same as aging), and have different priorities in life, as Chris eloquently notes thisaway (edited to add: or as Syp notes thisaway, with changing priorities leading to different notions of sociality, which is one of the pillars of a good MMO).  Games and businesses that rely on a captive audience to defend their unchanging ways will naturally be left with that part of the audience that won’t move on.  That’s neither good nor bad, really, just a reality that game devs and businessmen need to be aware of.

Players, for their part, need to watch out for their own needs and pocketbooks.  The businesscritters certainly aren’t interested in our welfare.  Smart parasites don’t kill their hosts, but if there’s an endless stream of new hosts, that changes the dynamic a bit.  We can’t let ourselves get used to the little costs (in time or money) and annoyances that shift our perception.  That “Overton Window” paradigm shift almost never works to our benefit as the consumer.

Edited to add:  More food for thought from Scott Jennings over at Broken Toys… SOE’s John Smedley: Subscription Model Dead

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As noted before, Zomblobs! has three breeds of blobs vying over global control:  The Aspirants, the Ferals and the Zomblobs.  One of the high level design rules I’ve made for myself is that I want each breed to play differently, but still be as balanced as possible.  Call it the StarCraft influence, perhaps.  Balance between three factions is inherently more interesting to me than two faction balance.  As such, one of the big things I want to change between the factions is the finer details of controlling units in tactical combat.

Some time ago, I purchased the Privateer Press Hordes: Primal book so that I could learn about the game.  I have a passing interest in tabletop miniature wargaming, and I really like what I’ve seen of WarMachine, so when I found a great deal on the Hordes sourcebook, it seemed like a good purchase.  It’s actually an older version, but that’s fine.  All my WarHammer and WarMachine books are older versions, too; that’s how I get ‘em cheap.  Since I’m not on the cutting edge, itching to play in tournaments, older sourcebooks work just fine.  (Aside to Hordes fans… if I mangle some of this, it’s inadvertently.  I’m still digging into the system.  I welcome corrections.)

Hordes has a curious mechanic they call Fury.  Commander/spellcaster units they call Warlocks command a group of Warbeasts who can in turn generate Fury points as they are prodded into combat actions.  The Warlocks then can leach those Fury points from the Warbeasts, using them to fuel spells and special actions.  At first blush, this is all upside, which is a bit odd considering that WarMachine, the sister game, is one of resource management like the typical mana point system we see in RPGs.  Fury-generating actions are useful in combat, and spells the Warlocks cast are similarly useful.  Generation and use of fury points provide combat benefits.  So where’s the resource management?  Warlocks and Warbeasts have Fury limits, true, so there’s an upper limit to what can be done in any given turn, but an upper limit is a different thing from a pool that depletes.  It’s also important to note that Warlocks don’t generate Fury on their own.

The significant catch is that Warbeasts can “frenzy” if they fail to pass a “check” performed with a dice roll.  Warbeasts who have Fury points on them are more likely to fail this check; the more Fury points, the more likely they are to fail.  When a Warbeast “frenzies”, the Warlock (and therefore the player) loses control of the Warbeast.  They will tend to still try to attack enemies, but they do so in a blind fury.  They can even turn on allies or even their “controlling” Warlock.  As such, as the designers note, Hordes is a game of risk management rather than resource management, though there is still resource management on the battle level, as usual (losing units makes your team less effective, losing your Warlock means you lose the battle).  Warlocks need Fury to fuel their powerful abilities, but pushing their Warbeasts too far flirts with losing control of their most significant assets.  You will want those powerful abilities that come only with the use of Fury, but the more you use them, the more likely the Warbeast frenzy system is to blow up in your face.

So… what of Zomblobs?

Thematically, I really like the notion of losing control.

Aspirants are the most intelligent of blobs, and strive to always be in control.  They know that they could slip into the natural, instinctive mayhem the Feral blobs embrace if they lose control, and they aren’t sure they can get back… or if they would want to.  And Zomblobs, well… zombies have long represented the loss of control that most humans fear, a primal, deep rooted concern, as the loss of control wouldn’t be a surrender, but a corruption.  Aspirants are deathly afraid of losing control, either to become a Feral blob or a Zomblob.  They fight not because they want to rule, but because they do not want to be ruled… or corrupted.  They know passion, they know fear, but they do not lose control.  (Think Spock, not Data, and Trekkies know the trouble an uncontrolled Vulcan can get into.)

Feral blobs love being reckless and dancing on the edge of being out of control.  They draw strength from that savage adrenaline rush.  They don’t want to buckle down and bow to the sort of control an Aspirant cherishes.  They glory in acting, not thinking, the faster the better.  They love the hunt, and they cherish the kill.  Life is simple for a Feral blob, though they don’t follow directions well, especially once they get rolling.

Zomblobs are corrupted monsters, some were once Ferals, most were once Aspirants.  They no longer have full control of their faculties, though they are stronger in some ways for it.  They don’t follow detailed orders well, but their single-minded drive to consume and corrupt means they are utterly implacable and totally committed to their course of action.  Nothing short of complete defeat will keep a Zomblob from its destination, though they can occasionally be confused once they accomplish their orders.

Mechanically, I’m torn on this.  I believe that players tend to like to keep the reins and control their units.  Hordes does show that some fun can occur when that control is loosened a bit, and the WarHammer Greenskin army of Ork and Goblin fame thrives on a bit of chaos.  It still seems like an acquired taste, though, and I’m not sure how many players want to trade power for a more unwieldy toolset.

I’m thinking of two major design approaches to this.

On the one hand, I’d play it safe and go with a Fury-like system, where each unit has a threshold where they lose control and do their own thing in combat (though just for a turn in all cases; control can be reasserted pretty quickly once the fury is expended).    Ferals would have less control than Aspirants, and Zomblobs would be even less controlled.  The “frenzy” equivalent would balance this loss of control out, and indeed, it can be a calculated risk to intentionally drive units to go crazy.  I like the choices that might prompt.

On the other hand, I’d really like to make playing each breed a distinct experience, really embracing the flavor of the factions.  Aspirants would play like normal ‘Tactics games, with full control.  Feral units would pick a target at the beginning of a skirmish and begin hunting.  Players could nudge them with interim commands, but for the most part, Feral blobs would just go for the kill and then wait for new targets.  Zomblobs would just be given a direction and/or a location, then be left pretty much alone.  Players wouldn’t have much control at all.  It’s almost like the difference between commanding a group of snipers, a nest of rabid trench fighters, or a wind-up flamethrower automaton with C4 nailed to the tanks.

Now, in all this, players can play any of the three blob breeds, so they can always find one that fits their taste, and they would probably still have full control over the RNA layout, so they can prepare loose cannons before a fight.  Still, I’m not sure that diverging too much between playstyles, as I’m thinking of in the latter option, is a good idea.  I really want to make it work, and I think it could be a lot of fun, but how many players will bother with the Ferals or the Zomblobs then?  Might the game be poorer when players don’t like two thirds of the potential units?

Any thoughts?

…perhaps it’s telling that I’m leaning to the latter design, with elements of the first, though it could be more risky.  It seems like it could be more fun.

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