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Watch the Skies 3 megagame – the Wimpey Fergusson after-report

July 25th, 2015 Comments off
Watch the Skies 3 preparation

The masses gather!

Today I took part in a day-long 300+ person megagame in London, called Watch the Skies 3, with teams playing various nations, alien factions, whales and even the Vatican. It was bizarre and crazy and unforgettable! During the course of play aliens kidnapped many civilians, many countries reached the verge of nuclear war, the whales found out how to get to space, Israel tried to follow them and a mysterious group called The Others remained a complete mystery (to me, anyway).

I played as PR Director for Wimpey Fergusson, a weapons and technology company. Our remit was to make profit and I was determined to both sell and make our company well-known. Unfortunately I was not prepared in the least for how chaotic and fast-paced the game would be, and all of my pre-planning was for naught when the game got underway.

Margot, CEO of Wimpey Fergusson

Margot stepped up incredibly well into the CEO’s shoes, somehow keeping operations together through the darkness and chaos!

Out first crisis at Wimpey Fergusson was the lack of a CEO – the player booked in for the role was off ill, meaning we were down to just 3 people. The Deputy CEO rose to the task, but it meant we were immediately understaffed for the tasks before us. None of the three of us had played the game before, and we quickly discovered we hadn’t a clue what was going on.

We set about selling and building and trying to make deals, but the division of tasks wasn’t easy and we were seriously overwhelmed. By the end of turn 2 (of 10) I felt shattered, and could have sword half the day must have gone past. But we persevered, and Control (the rules people) gave us some tips on what we were doing wrong. Tips that we were in serious of need of!

Going forward we managed to set up more alliances, particularly with African nations. Rising corporation tax in South Africa made us look for a good place to relocate, and we nearly landed a great deal with the USA, but they didn’t like our exclusivity demands. Thankfully I managed to arrange with France to get a zero tax deal, with research sharing, an exclusivity arrangement and the rights to build a manufacturing plant there. The French President was most generous in this I must say, and looked very handsome in his beret!

But the real fun came later on when we realised our agents were sitting around unused and they could be put to much more use. I managed to convince various nations to buy our covert services, sometimes not bothering to actually send agents out as I realised I could just feed them false information. Yay! Turkey wanted to assassinate the Iranian Ayatollah, but Control told me we couldn’t kill a player. Which is strange, because a few turns later they let us do exactly that… Our CEO organised a coup in Venezuala, where the Venezualan President had been feeding his citizens and military to the aliens. Probably our greatest achievement in the game.

Watch the Skies 3 - crowds of players

The many nations! Including whales at the front and aliens staring ominously from the balcony above.

As the rounds went on the profit cycle continued. It became very hard for us to really compete with other corporations because we had no research arm, and our attempts at funding and sharing research from others brought in almost nothing. I spent a lot of time trying to butter up officials from every country, but with little effect. We snagged a little more money, I arranged for us to help with infrastructure building to unite Korea, and we did our best to sound good to our shareholders. Turkey paid for an agent to uncover the perpetrators of a dam explosion, but I just pocketed the money and made up an answer after speaking to a couple of nearby countries. Profit!

The game ended at some point, I’m not sure what really happened, but we came second-last in the corporation rankings. Overall I felt we did well to survive in a tough global market, especially being a player down and without a research division.

As PR Director I think I did a poor job. A Twitter account I put a lot of effort into making went almost untouched during the day (though I had an enjoyable spat with rivals LexCorp the previous evening). We never got into the news, and our shareholders criticised us for this. I think maybe this was down to the lack of people on the team – I had to spend so much time running around chasing deals that PR was at the back of my mind.

Wimpey Fergusson business card

I take some solace in the many remarks of “best business card”! I left a bunch in the men’s room as an attempt at bathroom diplomacy… Though no one asked me what my DPhil was in and I had a whole backstory planned for that :(

It’s hard not to feel a little negative about some aspects of the game. The game design bit of my head wants to deconstruct things and find ways to improve elements. As a corporation we felt very disconnected from the world, utterly unaware of the fish-people and kidnapping and all sorts that I found out about later. The Global News Network neglected to include us in their distribution, so we missed out on a lot of global happenings. In general the advance rules brief explained the background of the game well, but not the physicality of the mechanics like “get this from Control”. Control in particular were hard to get hold of, often with long queues to speak to them and rounds ending before ever getting a chance to arrange details. At the end of the game we were still completely in the dark about how to upgrade our aircraft, what science was needed, etc – I felt like what little time we had couldn’t be spent asking questions.

At the same time it’s hard to be critical of a game that offers such a unique experience. I don’t think a game of this scale can ever be done “perfectly”, and the overwhelming chaos is part of the game. Still, if anything were to be improved I’d hope the designers can look at getting more Control people on board and making the pre-instructions clearer as to how to interact with Control. Also the risk of people dropping out / falling ill can badly impact small teams, so some consideration should be made for how to mitigate this.

I’m definitely keen to play this sort of game again, though I’d probably prefer to be in a more centrally involved team – a nation rather than a profit-chaser that doesn’t care what’s going on in the plot. I’ve already signed up for Watch the Skies 4, and The Washington Conference (a WW2-themed megagame). I’ve also been in touch with designer Jim Wallman about arranging a megagame for my bachelor party next year :) If anyone hasn’t tried this sort of thing before I strongly encourage it! Nothing quite beats the brain-numbing overload that sets in as you realise you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing :P

Ooh, and as a bonus there was someone there who said they listened to Roguelike Radio! Awesome :D

Edit: Other after-action reports: Reddit thread, Megagame Facebook group, Whales report, Angolan report. The photos give a sense of the scale, the video a sense of the chaos, and the news some elements of the evolving narrative.

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All My Games, Finally Beaten

July 25th, 2015 Comments off

I recently bought a copy of Cogmind, a cool new roguelike about building a robot, without realising the developer had already given me a free key. So, deciding I should give my new spare key away I thought I should give it to someone dedicated to roguelikes – someone who cares enough to play a hard game and achieve something notable. And in thinking about this I realised… I have four games which have never been beaten! FireTail, DataQueen, UNSTOPPABLE and Toby the Trapper – and the latter two are five years old. So I issued a challenge on Reddit – whoever shall beat one of these games first shall earn the key! A true roguelike quest :)

What ensued was a mad and beautiful dash by many roguelike players to be first to beat one of these games. Quickly they stumbled as they came to realise that there was a reason these games were not yet completed. The reason being I can be really bad at balance sometimes, and being a roguelike expert and a particular expert at my own games I often design the “enjoyable difficulty” for me to be way beyond the average player. Now the roguelike challengers entering this fateful quest were to find out that the prize would be bought through blood… In truth I wasn’t sure they were all beatable at all.

But with surprising speed one /u/zxc223 completed DataQueen, and with it identified a few exploits and bugs. I was impressed! He won his key and I’ll put a reference to him in a future game.

After that I wanted the fun to continue, so I offered three more keys, one for each of the other games. The deaths continued :D After a day FireTail was beaten by /u/Othello, using some very fine tactics. Two days later /u/zazs did what I thought might be impossible – he beat UNSTOPPABLE. This was a 4DRL I wrote in 2010, and previously I hadn’t heard of anyone getting more than 20% through the game. His victory was incredibly well achieved! And after three more days Toby the Trapper was felled by the incredibly persistent /u/personman, fighting through many difficult fights, tedious levels, and some horrible bugs.

Thus, at last, were all my most difficult games laid to rest by four different roguelike masters. And furthermore they all identified new bugs, found exploits and gave great feedback on games I’d had little useful feedback on before! I guess and important lesson here is that if you make your game hard but give the players a real incentive then you’ll get people interested enough to go all the way. Especially in the roguelike community, where many of us are crazy persistent idiots :P

And here are all of their glorious victory screens:

DataQueen roguelike victory screen

FireTail roguelike victory screen

UNSTOPPABLE roguelike victory screen

Toby the Trapper victory screen

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Self-promotion

November 30th, 2013 4 comments

I don’t like doing blatant self-promotion much, but I guess I have to do it sometimes, and right now I have a few important things on.

Firstly, Tales of Maj’Eyal is about to be released on Steam! I’ve campaigned for this for a very long time, and it is such a joy for this to finally be happening. ToME, with all its modern features, fits on Steam perfectly. Of course it will still be free and open source, but having the donator’s version on Steam will hugely help in pulling more people into hardcore roguelikes. None of this twitchy light stuff – ToME will get people into properly fiendish turn-based tactical gameplay! And of course with about a novel worth of story in the game written by me :) If you want to help promote the game (and roguelikes in general) please vote for it as Indie of the Year!

Secondly, the T-Engine modules contest has just opened. My own roguelike Mosaic is up there, and there are other fun roguelikes to try out and rate. I’d be awfully pleased if you could head over there and give some honest ratings on the games you’ve tried.

Thirdly, I’ve written a novella called The Comet’s Trail to fit in with the new release of Elite: Dangerous. It will be published in an anthology of stories alongside the game in March. Our publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing, is currently running a Kickstarter to make professional audiobook versions of several Elite books. For just £1 you get a random Elite novella, an anthology of 25 fantasy/sci-fi short stories, and some weird video updates that I’ll soon be starring in. If you’re feeling generous there are some greater rewards at higher pledge levels. £5 will guarantee you the collection I’m in, along with various extras!

In other news a cool new roguelike-focused contest has opened – the Trials of Oryx. Make a roguelike using Oryx’s excellent Ultimate Roguelike Tileset (now 50% off) and you could win a cash prize! Or just have the joy of making a cool game :)

The year is coming to an end, and it’s been quite a busy one for me, and 2014 promises many exciting new things! On the Roguelike Radio front expect a couple of treats for classic roguelikers within the next couple of weeks – episodes on ASCII and Nethack :D

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I Shouldn’t Enjoy Being This Busy

May 28th, 2013 2 comments

I should apologise to any Roguelike Radio fans that have been missing episodes of late. This is largely down to the fact that I’ve been tremendously busy lately! Also, we tried recording an episode a couple of weeks ago only to find out 80 minutes in that it was only recording my voice – I had over an hour of recording of me just rambling to myself, woo. Shame, since it was some great discussion, but we’ll repeat the episode at some point. In the meantime another episode has been recorded about the Hunger Clock in roguelikes, and once I find time to edit that I’ll get it online.

So what’s been keeping me busy I hear you not ask? Well, a few things:

  • 7DRL Reviewing. Actually, I’ve been quite poor on that front. We’re near the end of the review process, just a few more left to do, but it’s proving quite a struggle to get over this last hurdle. Volunteers are still welcome! There are way too many cool 7DRLs this year  :P
  • GameCamp. This was a games festival in London with a lot of cool talks, presentations and experimental games. As well as lending a hand in running the day I showed off Mosaic there to some interested folk – procedural music has so few people working on it that even my basic potterings gains some attention.
  • GaME13. A really cool conference held every year at Imperial College (which is where I have my day job, though in a completely unrelated field). I had the honour of presenting at the conference, and gave a speech on procedural generation. I built my own roguelike presentation for the talk – it was kinda cool.
  • Mosaic has had some further work on it so I could show it at the above events. The music in particular has been much improved over earlier versions. There’s still work to do to make it even better though. I’m in two minds over whether I should submit it to IndieCade or not.
  • Writing, but this time for a short story collection called Tales from the Frontier, an official tie-in novel with the in-development Elite: Dangerous game. I’ve also just been interviewed about this by Lave Radio, a fan-run podcast about the game.
  • Lots of social stuff, including a nice trip to Paris where I met up with DarkGod (ToME4 developer) for crepes and a weekend with an old school friend where I converted him to FTL and coached him to victory in it. My first successful conversion of someone to a roguelike! (for a certain definition of roguelike ;) ) We also discovered the really cool gaming-themed Loading Bar in Soho, with game-themed cocktails and lots of free games old and new to play. London is such a cool place to live :D

Alas the busyness is not letting up. Coming up in June are the following points of excitement:

  • Fishing Jam, which I’m tempted to take part in if I can think of a good game idea. I know of at least one person doing a roguelike fishing game for it.
  • London Game Jam, which I have a ticket for but may need to pull out from :-/
  • International Roguelike Development Conference in Poland 8-9 June! I’m very much excited for this :D I’ll be presenting on procedural music and sound, showing some of the lessons I’ve learned from Mosaic and discussing ideas for how this can be expanded.
  • Rezzed game event, which looks like it’ll have a lot of cool independent projects on show, including the procedurally generated 3D stealth game Sir, You Are Being Hunted.
  • Whatever Roguelike Radio episodes we have on
  • A bunch of other non-roguelikey stuff that’s still rather interesting and time-consuming.

This isn’t me whining by the way. Being this busy is tiring, but also very rewarding! Wish I had more time for actual game development though – I seem to talk about it much more than I put it into practise  :-/

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Screw the Berlin Interpretation!

May 14th, 2013 15 comments

In the year 2008 several men and women came together in Berlin to create the last, best definition of a roguelike. It failed…

Or at least in my view it did. The Berlin Interpretation as it became known was a set of high and low value factors for what constitutes a roguelike. These were based largely on the major roguelikes of the day. They ranged from the obvious like random content to the downright nonsense, like being set in a dungeon or using ASCII.

Let me make this really clear – adding ASCII to your game does not in any way make it more roguelike. Taking ASCII away does not make it any less roguelike. It’s absurd to place value on this beyond an aesthetic choice. It’s like saying platformers have to have pixel graphics because all the old platformers had pixel graphics. This is just one of several utterly nonsense features that the Berlin Interpretation terms roguelike.

The Interpretation comes with a disclaimer stating “The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.” However prefacing a definition with this line is as futile as saying “I’m not racist, but…” Of course it puts constraints on developers and games! Devs want their games to fit in, and so tweak their works to score highly on this system. Gamers want to be exclusive about their community, and so rail against anything that doesn’t fit the letter of their newfound law. This has been happening for all the years since the Interpretation was made public, and has reared its ugly head again this week in a poorly written PA Report on “What the hell is a roguelike?” The comments on the post and the related reddit thread are at least polite by internet standards, but there are still many in them that stick dunderheadedly to the idea that the Berlin Interpretation is the golden rule of what is or is not roguelike.

The problem with the Berlin Interpretation is a problem with definitions in general. Firstly, a definition is only as good as its use in general conversation. The terms “decimate” and “role-playing game” no longer hold their literal meaning, and neither does “roguelike”. Meanings and context change over time, and in the five years since the Interpretation was written there have been many changes in the roguelike scene, with novel 7DRLs and indie roguelikes stretching the genre into new and unforeseen areas. It’s out of date and out of touch with modern roguelikes. All definitions are doomed to end up like this. Those who insist on sticking to the rules are like annoying grammar pedants who spend more time arguing about English than having real social conversations. By analogy those who argue over the Berlin Interpretation aren’t playing enough modern roguelikes.

Secondly, definitions are about excluding things. They ultimately draw a line in the sand and say “if you stray beyond, you are forgotten”. This is terrible from a design point of view, as it limits creative potential. It’s awful from a community point of view because it pushes people out. The Berlin Interpretation tried to be wishy-washy with its “you don’t need every rule” but people don’t read it like that. Descriptors like “turn-based” get used as clubs to beat other games out, even games that do innovative things with the time system like FTL.

Thirdly, definitions only look at the “what” behind things, not the “why”. I’ve railed against what vs why in a similar context before. There are reasons behind the features listed on the Berlin Interpretation, and understanding the why lets you understand how they can be changed and still keep the spirit of the game. There’s a certain feel to playing a roguelike, and a reason why several of the common features work well together. That roguelike feel can be described, but it can never be reduced to a pathetic ingredients list. Trying to define the features that make a roguelike so special is akin to describing a cake’s flavour as being flour, water, butter and sugar.

So why is a game a roguelike? How does it play? Well, in my view it’s inherently replayable, capable of surprising the player on many playthroughs. It rewards cleverness and tactical thinking. It cannot simply be learnt by rote, but it can be mastered with experience. It emphasises gameplay before aesthetics, concentrating on making that replayable experience fresh and engaging on each play. It’s unforgiving, but all the more rewarding when you perform it well, offering an honest sense of achievement and satisfaction. Much of this satisfaction comes from the internal knowledge of having done well at the game itself, rather than artificially constructed rewards. [Edit: Some people are taking this as a suggested definition – it is not! It’s just meant to be a more healthy way of reflecting on what makes roguelikes what they are.]

When making or playing a game think about how the design satisfies these feelings of play, and which features best contribute towards the spirit of roguelike. And screw the Berlin Interpretation, or any other list of yes and no features. These definitions are only used by pedants to silence conversation and stifle creativity and potential in the genre. We don’t need that crap! Roguelikes are an exciting genre with a huge range of still untapped potential – we need to be exploring new territories and looking for new boundaries, instead of trapping ourselves into a tight space of already knowns.

Viva la Roguelike Renaissance!

Rogues and Heroes

May 10th, 2013 5 comments

One thing I like about roguelikes is that they are not about heroes. Well, they can be, some are centred around a heroic quest, with the player eventually taking up the mantle of heroism. But whilst most may involve heroic deeds they are not in essence about the hero story that plagues so much of modern gaming.

Rogue Epyx box art - a thief seeks an amulet in a dark dungeon

The original Rogue box art from Epyx emphasises the depowered nature of the game’s protagonist.

The Hero is the chosen one, the powerful one, with some special abilities that give him (almost always a him) superiority to his foes. He goes through the game undefeated, conquering all trials before him, and eventually slays the evil dragon and rescues the princess. Or perhaps his loved one was killed and he seeks revenge against the evil sorcerer that also happens to be threatening the world. Or whatever other cheesy male power fantasy trope you want to choose. I personally hate these stories – they are boring and usually laden with misogyny.

The Rogue is different. He seeks to steal an item and escape with it. Instead of climbing a tower he descends into a dark dungeon. The creatures he defeats are not a threat to the world outside, they’re just obstacles to his end goal. Some of the creatures are too powerful to defeat and have to be evaded or run away from. The Rogue gets hungry, gets scared, gets debilitated, and most importantly gets killed. He or she is not the chosen one, oh no, for many men and women have died beforehand and more will die again.

At the heart of the roguelike story, going right back to the original Rogue, is a subversion of the typical power fantasy. Though the setting may be fantasy the player is not invited to live a fantasy lifestyle. They may have swords and sorcery, but those swords can break and that magic can fail. There is a gritty realism to how many roguelikes play, a simulation of just how a desperate thief in a monster-filled dungeon would feel. You can make mistakes and they are permanent. The game has no pity for you when you die.

Rogue C64 box art, with a muscley man wielding a homoerotic sword. In the background is a bikini-clad lady to rescue.

But Rogue’s C64 box art completely misses the point. Image NOT representative of game content!

And what’s wonderful is that communities accept this. YASDs are frequently far more interesting than YAVPs. Suggestions for game additions often come in the form of new enemies and obstacles rather than new player powers. People invent extra challenges and restrictions to play with that make the Rogue’s journey even more excruciating. Players complain when the game gets too easy.

There are some major exceptions – ADOM and Angband are all about being the hero and saving the world, and you can build supremely powerful characters in them. ToME sets the player up as a hero (albeit with uncomfortable moral quandaries), and even has a “save the girl” sidequest, complete with cheesy smooch of victory. But it’s interesting to note how often people do go back to the original “get an item and come back with it” quest of Rogue, such as in DCSS and Brogue. Or how games like Smart Kobold deliberately frame the hero as being someone motivated by greed rather than adventure. The one Roguelike I know of which specifically has a “save the royalty” main questline is PrincessRL, where you are the princess saving the prince – again a subversion of the popular fantasy tropes.

It may be part of what makes the roguelike experience alien to outside players. It’s not just the poor (or lack of) graphics, archaic interface and unforgiving difficulty. It’s also the way they strip the player of a feeling of power. They don’t pat you on the head and say you are special. This is not a simple escapist experience where you have fun being a cool wizard or warrior. In both the mechanics and the theme of the game this message is repeatedly reinforced. You are underequipped, always running out of resources, always facing enemies that are stronger than you, having to use your wits to survive. You are not a Hero – you are not here to save the day, and even your death may be pitiful and forgotten. You are a Rogue, and the dark places you walk in are fraught with danger.

So go play some Rogue!

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Darren Grey, age 30, with 11 games

April 4th, 2013 6 comments

Happy Birthday to me! I’m a little high from too much chocolate, and marvelling at the tremendously out of season snowfall, but overall having a good day. And to celebrate my birthday I encourage you to play all of my games:

  • GruesomeIt is pitch black, you are likely to eat someone. Play as a grue lurking in dark places and eating adventurers.
  • Toby the Trapper – A quick gnome versus slow ogres, with the only way to damage them being to lay traps. The unique bosses lend a great puzzley challenge to the game.
  • UNSTOPPABLE – You are a robot with impenetrable armour and a weapon that fires unstoppable shots. Hunt rogue AIs on a looping map, but try not to destroy the universe by accidentally shooting yourself.
  • Broken Bottle – Play as an alcoholic trying to escape from a fallout shelter. Addiction plays a strong role in this short story-centric roguelike.
  • Run from the Shadow – You are stalked by a powerful shadow in a guilt-themed world.
  • Harrowed – A simple one vs many roguelike made in 1 hour.
  • sick peter – Play as a terminally ill 4-year old boy in Nazi-occupied Holland. Search for your missing mother whilst avoiding guards.
  • Rogue Rage – Roguelike with various stance-based superpowers. Still incomplete in areas, but lots of novel combat in it.
  • Broody Vole – You’re a female vole trying to have babies and protecting your brood from vicious weasels (made in 3 hours at TIGJam last year).
  • F*ck This Jam – Action RPG telling the dramatic tale of one man versus endless waves of demonically possessed jam. Beware the giant Jammie Dodgers!
  • Mosaic – Lay colourful mosaic tiles on a grid with your movements, trying to encase enemies in art to dispel them. Music is procedurally generated based on which parts of the map you have filled in.

Also go play Tales of Maj’Eyal, a fantastically epic RPG that contains close to a novel’s worth of lore that I’ve written. All of these games are creations I’m immensely proud of. I also want to go back and improve/update them – if you have particular favourites you’d like to see brought up to date than please let me know. But at the same time I have lots of new game ideas too…

Anyway, I’m 30 and I’m still alive, and making games. It’s rather fun :) If you’ve not made a game yourself yet then I implore you to go make something. There is very little in life that is more satisfying!

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Ancestor Worship

November 30th, 2012 3 comments

Last week Michael Brough made a great post about maturity in game design.  Go read it, it makes some important points and is a good thought-stirrer.

It touches on some things that have been going on in the independent gaming scene recently, in particular the great lauding (and financing) of old developers making games anew, often in the same mould as the venerable titles they are renowned for, some even direct remakes or sequels.  I’ve expressed reservations about these in the past, especially the ones promising just “old school” and appealing to nostalgia instead of talking about their new games.  But I’m a gamer, and I’m not immune to these assaults myself.  I understand the nostalgia appeal, and I’m disgusted with it even as I walk into its trap.

It’s not a new thing of course – Nintendo have strummed on the nostalgic heart-strings of gamers for years.  Independent developers, many of which are now crying out against the attention these old developers are now getting, have long exploited nostalgic techniques in game design for their hungry audiences.  Pixel art and platformers have abounded.  But in the last couple of years I had a genuine sense that we were moving forward, with indies stretching to wholly new territories, creating novel art styles and truly innovative mechanics.  Has all that progress been reversed?

At the International Roguelike Development Conference earlier this year I opened with a talk entitled “The Roguelike Renaissance”.  The premise of the talk was simple (though likely too over-simplified for art buffs) – that the current wave of new and innovative roguelikes is akin to the Renaissance era of art, full of new ideas and optimism, as opposed to the Dark Ages that came before.  The Dark Ages of roguelike design were characterised by ancestor worship; the belief that everything had to be Nethack++, that the old games and mechanics were best.  In the Renaissance period we have ditched that philosophy, with new games like DoomRL and Tales of Maj’Eyal showing that we can do better than all that has come before.  We no longer blindly copy designs and feature-sets, we openly question the traditions of the past, and we say “screw you” to those that would proscribe what is and isn’t a roguelike.  This is a fantastic atmosphere to design games in, and I think it’s one of the reasons why Roguelike Radio has proven popular – we are free to question and conjecture to our heart’s content, and after breaking through the shroud of the past the space for novel game ideas has proven huge.

How strange it seems then that our ASCII-centred community can feel more forward looking than our mainstream and indie cousins!  It is a question of audience perhaps, as Michael concludes in his blog.  We roguelike devs with our free and open source games don’t care too much about audience, at least not as far as finances go.  Having said that, roguelike audiences do still flock around the older titles and traditional mechanics.

The new versus old is an important debate.  And it is versus.  We can enjoy and be inspired by old games, but we shouldn’t think they are the future as well as the past.  New works are important, new ideas are necessary.  We absolutely cannot just copy the crafts of our predecessors.  We can do better than that!  This notion that the classic stuff is better is ignorant and narrow-minded.  There is always room for improvement, we are capable of being better than those that came before us, and if we are to stand on the shoulders of giants then we can reach to different areas than they did.  This is the spirit of the Renaissance that we must embrace.

I hope the more mainstream community can pull itself away from this recent ancestor worship.  A ray of hope may be that the only real Kickstarters Success Story so far has been the innovative and popular roguelike space sim FTL.  There is still excitement for new things out there, and new generations of developers coming up with ideas others cannot dream of.  Our own works may prove as inspiration for the youth of today, and if they grow up surrounded by the spirit of constant innovation and improvement then they in turn will surpass us greatly.

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Don’t Ask What, Ask Why

June 20th, 2012 11 comments

As geeky online people we tend to get caught up in definitions a lot. I’ve done it plenty in the past, and will likely get into pointless debates about it in future. But ultimately I do think definitions aren’t very useful, and trying to lay out your own definitions is futile. Definitions are made by communities and groups over time, not by individuals, and tend to mean different things to different people. And they change greatly over time. Arguing over definitions is usually about arguing what to exclude from a particular group, and is ultimately always a negative affair.

Keith Burgun recently made an article on Gamasutra about the need for a definition of “game”. It follows on from a previous article. Both are good thought pieces, but I don’t find them very useful overall. Because I’m not so interested in the Whats, I care more about the Whys.

Why do people play games? Lots of people have different motivations, and some like unique combinations, but there has been a significant amount of research done into this which shows there are some main groups. From my own previous readings and personal thoughts these are:

  • Ludism – The rulesets and logic behind game interactions. On a primitive level this is puzzles, but on a more complex level this is about ambiguous choices. This is what Keith is primarily interested in I feel, and me too – roguelikes are all about these base gameplay interactions, often cutting out all other elements entirely. But many games are very light on ludism, presenting only one choice or making the choice obvious – a problem made by real-time games which rely on reflex rather than choice. If videos games want to have ludic appeal then I think they should look more at board games, which have had tremendous focus on this area of interest for a long time. One of the most important elements of a ludic game is score, as this is a direct reward piece for ludic success. Many games will replace abstract score systems with gold, loot, experience points or other measures of success.
  • Aesthetic – What looks, feels and sounds good. As an entertainment medium games can give us fantastic interactive stimulus that can be engaging all on its own. Something like Proteus is a beautiful example of an almost pure aesthetic game. Note I still call it a game – it has choices and interactivity, but the “reward” for gameplay choices is an aesthetic one, not a ludic one. Aesthetic is a big reason why AAA games are so successful, but the indie games movement has helped push new aesthetic ideas into the foreground, especially in breaking away from the idea that more realistic is better.
  • Narrative – A story, or sense of a story, with progression and change over time. Many play the likes of JRPGs just for the stories, with the interactive nature of the medium helping them feel more immersed. But games needn’t have traditional linear or even character-based narratives. The space for game narratives is very open and unexplored, but there are many obstacles to doing it right. The domination of conflict-based games is one problem, as is the prevalence of linear, single-solution games which don’t push the idea of interactive narrative very well. Plus traditional narrative techniques like dialogue or textual exposition don’t work well in games. Narrative exposition should come from the gameplay itself, and this is where I hope future focus will be.
  • Exploration – The freedom to find new and interesting things is a big motivator for many people to play games, especially those with huge, open worlds like Skyrim. Geographic exploration is one part of this, but there are also things like SpaceChem which appeal to the experimental mind. And it needn’t be epic – check out Small Worlds as a lovely little exploration piece.
  • Creativity – The ability to make and modify to your own ideals. Minecraft is obviously the current king here, but it has been around for a long time in various simulation games. It can scale from small tinkering to mass creation. Creativity is often its own reward in a game, and one can marvel in the results of one’s own making. But in some the act of creation can produce ludic tools or can be tied in with exploration.
  • Social – A vastly expanding element of play, social interaction can be a big motivating reason to play games. Drawsome is almost purely a social game, for instance, and helps push the idea that social interaction needn’t be split into the just competitive or cooperative. Real interaction with real people has its own special appeal, and being able to play with others (especially friends) can change the nature of a game.  Sometimes an otherwise dull game can become much more engaging when you can play with others (see Diablo).

There are probably other reasons people play games, and new areas will be invented in future, and of course in each there are a wealth of different styles that variant groups will prefer. But when designing a game you should know which of these elements you want to appeal to, and to what extent, and how you want to reward these impulses. It’s also important in advertising your game to show where the appeal lies. These are the reasons people will be attracted to your game, and why they’ll keep playing.

Roguelikes, as I said, tend to be about the ludic appeal, with interesting choices dominating the gameplay. Some have elements of narrative, exploration or creativity too, and a few even have nice aesthetics (and I don’t just mean graphics). I’ve not seen a good social roguelike yet, but I’m sure that’ll come in time.

Finally, on the “What vs Why” consideration, I must also rail against the persistent questioning of “What is a Roguelike?” Far more important is “Why is a Roguelike” – why do we play them, and why are they fun? I’ll maybe write about that another time.

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Self-reflection on artistic messages in my games

May 26th, 2012 5 comments

I’m preparing a talk for the Indie Games Expo in London 4th June on “Art in the @: Lessons from Roguelikes on Pure Artistic Gameplay”. It’s related to something I’ve discussed on rgrd in the past, and something I’m hoping to speak with Jeff Lait about on Roguelike Radio in the future. How does the pure gameplay deliver an artistic message? I’ve consciously put work into this in Broken Bottle and some other games, with the specific thought of conveying emotions like guilt and despair, but without wanting to give a direct message. However in preparing the presentation for next week and reflecting on my own works I’ve come to some startling realisations about common threads in all of my games, even ones I thought I had designed as pure games.

In every work I’ve made power has a cost, and is labelled as dangerous or outright evil. Most of them do not have simple bump to attack, the traditional “easy power” in roguelikes that you can use for free. In most of them you are weak and fragile, able to die very easily. And in most there is zero or minimal progression, though the world becomes harder. A breakdown:

  • In Gruesome you are easily killed at any moment, and you can’t assault enemies directly.
  • Toby the Trapper is about an exceptionally weak character, who again cannot attack directly. There are more powerful abilities later in the game, but they are hard to use and dangerous to yourself. The ultimate power found in the game is outright deadly, and if used will produce negative endings. A high kill count also tends to give more negative ending text.
  • Unstoppable gives you ultimate power from the start, but with the caveat that this power will come back and destroy you.
  • Broken Bottle gives a cost to melee attacks, with stronger weapons demanding more stamina to attack. Alcohol is empowering in the game, restoring stamina and a little health and letting you attack children, but the theme of the game makes it clear that this is a very negative thing indeed. Part of the mechanics of the game is to test whether the player will become “addicted” to this power cycle or will wilfully shun the alcohol.
  • Run from the Shadow has you constantly on the run from an initially unassailable foe. All powers in the game are represented by negative icons (lies, denial, passing blame, etc) and the ending for achieving victory through power is meant to disturb.
  • Harrowed makes you more powerful than the enemies, but with their superior numbers death is inevitable. There is no winning in the game. The idea was to give a feeling of a lion being brought down by wolves.
  • sick peter makes you unable to attack and has you weaken as the game progresses. Even moving costs a resource, meaning there’s nothing powerful you can do. The game deliberately goes against the usual feel of WW2 games glorifying war, instead giving the real experience many people had at the time.
  • Rogue Rage gives immense powers, but in short bursts, and the theme of the game portrays them negatively. The basic bump attack costs a resource.

Now it could just be that I like to make challenging games, and these features all fit with that, but it does so happen that I have strong feelings about power and its misuse. I’m very anti-war and anti nuclear weapons. I also believe that the gratification in violence in many games is a very negative thing. But I never realised until I sat back and reflected on my games that these feelings have made their way into the mechanics of all my games. With games like Toby the Trapper I never intended to have any artistic message, but I’ve ended up incorporating these reflections of myself without even realising it.

I wonder if other developers have this? When we make mechanics, are there subconscious parts of ourselves we put into our games? It’s an interesting thought…