A Dilemma

Okay. I’m thinking about making some graphical improvements to Inaria. You might remember from when I was doing the iPhone version that it looked a bit…well, better.

Those improvements, which make the levels pop up and down, were written by my good, dear friend Ryan Clark.

So why didn’t I use them for the current version of Inaria? Well…because I thought they might clash with the retro mystique I was going for. It might also clash with the “black squares” result of the visibility algorithm.

But now I’m thinking seriously about putting them back in.

Thoughts? Yay, nay?

The Insanity of a Manatee

So. Have I been working on my prototypes?

Of course not, that might actually be productive.

Instead, I’ve been working on improving Inaria.

Why?

Well, ’cause I don’t think it’s currently worth the money I’m charging for it. It’s still selling, but I feel kind of guilty every time I see a sale.

I’m going to add some stuff to it and then I’m going to put it to bed. One of the things I’m going to add to it is a randomly-generated dungeon to give it more replayability. The rest of the stuff will be a surprise.

I’m anticipating having this update done by the end of this week. Beta testers, let’s go one more round, shall we?

ClanDestiny Prototype Update 0: 0 Hours

Okay! So, like I said, I can think about the game all I want.

So here’s what I’m thinking.

There are four bits to the game:

The MAP

Your UNITS

Your CITIES

Your TECHNOLOGIES

That’s it. You have one resource – production. You use production to do everything in the game,
from improving cities to buying technologies to making units.

BUT, you cannot save up a ton of production and then unleash hell in one turn because you can only do as many things as you have cities (you don’t have to do them all to/in one city, but that’s your limit). That’s the number of Actions you can take. An action is:

Buying a technology
Building a unit
Improving a city
Building a new city

When you build units, you can choose any of your cities for them to appear in. Thus, mopping up is easier because you can build all your units “on the front” instead of having to move them from the back.

Technologies are devided into three basic types – combat, civilization improvements and religious/cultural. Since this is the stone age, combat advantages amount of “oh, you discovered that leather makes your guys take a little more damage” and such, and your cultural improvements involve discovering that certain rocks sound nice when struck. But there’s only one tree and it’s not very big – in fact, it should fit on one screen without having to scroll. The tree is going to look very similar to a WoW talent tree.

So let’s see. Several tribes all starting at the edges of the map. Lots of settlement sites in the center that are either vacant (so you can easily build a city there) or have unaligned cities on them (which you must either conquer or culturally absorb). Once everything is claimed, the tribes will start trying to take territory away from the other tribes. Culture still works, but it’s much harder on aligned settlements, so the traditional way will be to attack them with armies.

Armies. We’re going to greatly simplify how units work by allowing the player to group them into armies. Armies are basically just a stack of units. BUT, once you put a group of units into an army, you can’t remove them (though you can add more units). So stacking units is actually a good thing, where it was a
terrible thing in the original Civilization. You can have an army guard a city, or move it around the map and attack with it.

So, the game progression is as follows:

You start with three settlements (thus, you can do three things a turn).
You build up your tech.
You make units so you can start taking unclaimed settlements.
You make combat units so you can start taking claimed settlements.
Everything eventually gets claimed and the infighting starts.
You try to attack or subvert your enemy’s settlements into joining your side.
Somebody gets all the settlements. They win.

The stack of doom. I think making it so that you can’t undo armies makes it so that you’ve got a Death Star: yeah, the town its currently attacking is doomed, but all the other towns are relatively undefended because you’ve spent so much production on this one thing. It also may not be using the best technologies.

So you’re wandering around with your stack of doom. You attack a city and are repulsed by the city’s defensive bonus plus the fact that while there are fewer units, they are better-equipped than you.

Meanwhile, several small, fast strike forces are taking the undefended cities in your backfield. Can you pull your SoD back in time to take them back? Either way, you’ve been put on the back foot.

So I don’t think the SoD will be that big a problem.

I think this design works, and even better, it’s not that difficult to program.

Multiplayer is also possible.

The Return of the 40-Hour Game

So. Got two games. Which should I make? The answer, of course, is both, but the order and priority I give both games is important.

What both Star Kittens and ClanDestiny need are prototypes.

Well. I can make prototypes 🙂

So all hail the return of the 40-hour game! I’ll be writing a version of both Star Kittens and ClanDestiny and going from there based on your feedback from them. I won’t release the prototypes until they are both finished, so you can try them both out at once. And I’ll only have 40 hours to spend on each prototype.

Again, the standard rules apply:

1. Only actual coding/art/sound time counts. I can think about stuff as long as I want.

2. The forty-hour deadline is hard and fast. Once the clock runs out, pencils down and publish.

3. I can use anything I’ve already coded for free.

4. I must blog the entire process as much as possible; the constant feedback is a really good motivator.

I believe I’ll actually do ClanDestiny first, as I think I’ve got its design more fully-formed in my head than Star Kittens.

Name That Game! 79: The Operator

There are a whole lot of games that give you an “operator”. An operator doesn’t just give you objectives at the start of the mission – they’re constantly in communication with you. They hear everything you say, see everything you do (usually justified only vaguely in the game), update you on your progress, tell you when mission objectives have changed, give you useful information and if poorly implemented can really annoy the krep out of you. The odds of you actually meeting them in person are really low.

So, here’s a list of twenty operators…can you tell me what games they’re bossing the player around in?

1. Moya

2. Janice Polito

3. Irving Lambert

4. The Guildmaster

5. Otis

6. Rebecca Lansing

7. Atlas

8. EVA

9. Shinatama

10. Roy Campbell

11. Dan

12. Cortana

13. Mercury

14. Mike One Juliet

15. Anya

16. Zyzyx

17. Alex Jacobson

18. Major Zero

19. Augustus Sinclair

20. You

The Couple Ideas

Okay, here’s what’s kickin’ around the old noodle:

Star Kittens

This will basically be Dungeon Keeper in space, with cute kittens taking the place of the monsters and the evil, evil, Chaos Dogs playing the roles of the “heroes”.

(I’ve mentioned before that the heroes in DK are the real jerks, right? You’re minding your own business, mining your own gold, building a little city for the oppressed minorities to live in, and then these guys come in and wreck it all and try to steal your loot just ’cause you look evil. Jerks.)

The kawaii factor will be turned up as high as it can go, and there will be lots of visual customization options for both your Star Kittens and the bases they build.

Target platform: PC, with possible Mac version if I can ever scrape up enough money to buy a Mac.
Target audience: Six- to eight-year old girls (I can’t wait to get them saying things like “cryogenic suspension”, “FTL drive” and “hydroponics”) and anyone who likes to play games with little autonomous people running around. (For some reason, Europe seems to be a big market for this type of game.)

PROS:

A unique space – nobody’s ever made a proper remake/ripoff of Dungeon Keeper. (Why? WHY? WHYYYYYYYYYYY?)
Six- to eight-year-old girls play lots of games. I’ve got one to prove it.

CONS:

Art heavy, which means lots of money up front (art is way, way more expensive than music).
I would want the game to be in 3D if possible, which will lengthen the development time.
I already tried making a 3D game in the same style (Planitia) and failed pretty miserably – BUT Star Kittens would actually require a simpler 3D engine.

The other game…

Clan Destiny (Possible working title if whoever owns Trilobyte’s IPs objects.)

Think for a moment about the first turn of Civilization. It’s 4000 BC. You’ve got a “settler” unit. You click “build city”. You hit “end turn”. The game time jumps forward by 20 years, and the city is built.

Clan Destiny is about what happens during that first turn. It will be a turn-based 4X game set in the stone age, with several different clans vying for supremacy. It will be completely 2D and sprite-based. It will also play FAST – the biggest game of Clan Destiny (large map, max number of enemy clans) should take no more than two hours to play. While it will be full-featured, with tech trees, different units to build and territory expansion through various means, all of these systems will be simplified and mechanics will be put into play to curtail the late-game, “mopping up” portion.

Target Platforms: The PC and Android phones, with a Mac version if I can yada yada yada.
Target Audience: Anyone who has ever looked at Civilization IV and/or Galactic Civilizations and said, “I’d love to, but I just don’t have the time…”

PROS:

If the game is even the slightest bit good, it’ll become an Android bestseller. Android users are dying for good games.
Much art-lighter than Star Kittens.
Possibly bigger market.

CONS:

Will almost certainly be harder to make “fun” than Star Kittens – lots of balancing will be required. And we all saw how “good” I was with that on Inaria…
A release of Civilization Revolution for the Android would kill this game. Star Kittens doesn’t have that problem.

So, which would you prefer to see first? And do you have any other ideas or suggestions?

Okay, This One’s For Everyone Who’s Telling Me To Keep Working On Inaria…

This is Dungeons of Dredmor.

Notice how the first feature of the game is that it’s a Roguelike but with a modern interface. Sound familiar?

Notice how awesome those screenshots look.

And now notice this announcement that it’ll be released for $4.99.

This just reinforces the idea that Inaria was wrong game, wrong time (not to mention all its other flaws). I need to do something completely different, and frankly, I need to release it now.

Fortunately, I do have a couple of ideas.

The Conferences

Okay, I’ve now watched all three of the major conferences (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo). What follows are, of course, my opinions.

First let’s declare the winner:

Nobody.

Everybody presented very solid stuff. Nobody had an announcement that pushed them over the top.

So let’s start with Microsoft.

Tomb Raider looks like Crystal Dynamics looked at Uncharted 2’s sales and said “Hey, that’s OUR money!” The look of the demo reminded me very much of Uncharted, plus they really, really like beating the crap out of Lara. Do not like. What I do like is the fact that this game will potentially tell the story of how Lara goes from a fit and attractive but otherwise unexceptional 21-year-old woman to…well, Lara Croft. I also love the idea of a hub world and that attaining new abilities will allow you to access new areas – in other words, it’s apparently going to be a 3D Metroidvania, and there are not enough 3D Metroidvanias in this world. A new one, well done, and featuring the grande dame of action-adventure gaming sounds like fun to me.

Modern Warfare 3. Did you like 1? Did you like 2? You’ll like this one. I actually like the fact that the gloves are off and it’s a global conflict – yes, several missions in MW2 were set in the continental United States, but at this point Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer have basically stated, “Screw it – everybody hates each other, which means we can set our missions anywhere in the world we want. Even in NOT_DESERT!”

Tim Schafer. Is doing. A Kinect game. About. The Muppets. A lot of other people think that this might be his time in hell after publishing two excellent but commercially unsuccessful games, but frankly I see this as a real opportunity – and I believe he does too. Plus, my son is going to go absolutely spare when he finds out; guess I’ll be buying a Kinect (and possibly a second Xbox for the living room) soon.

By the same token – a Kinect game where you tour a virtual Disneyland. It’s brilliant. Plus, son, spare, etc.

It’s nice to know that the dialog in Gears of War 3 will be just as horrendous as in 1 and 2.

Oddly enough, Microsoft was the only company not to unveil any new hardware at their conference; but then why should they? The 360 is working and selling well, and the Kinect doesn’t need a new version – it’s the software interpretation of what it sees and hears that is improving.

SONY:

Uncharted 3. Day 1 purchase, will play until my eyes won’t focus, but then we already knew that.

Okay, 27-inch PS3-branded 3D TV. Yaw – wait, you can use the same tech to allow two people to play a shooter on the same screen without needing splitscreen? Finally, a decent use for shutter-based 3D! Who cares about the actual 3D – let’s bump the refresh rate up to 240 so four people can play!

Sony is still committed to the Move, and Dead Man’s Quest actually looks pretty fun to play. It also has the honor of being a new game, rather than a franchise game with Move support smushed into it (like, say, I don’t know, NBA 2K12).

The NGP is now called the Vita. It’s basically a super-PSP. It fixes almost all the PSP’s problems, is backwards-compatible with (downloadable) PSP games and starts at $250. And if you want, it can be your phone. Why didn’t the NGP win the conference? It’s still missing the L2, L3, R2 and R3 buttons, ensuring compatibility problems even with some PSX games – ‘sright folks, its controls aren’t as good as the original DualShock’s. How long do we have to wait until they fix this? Plus, I can’t wait to see how long you get on a single charge – I’d bet it won’t be more than 4 hours.

Ruin. What started out looking like a Diablo ripoff for the Vita got freakin’ awesome when they announced that you can a) build your own dungeons to prevent other players from looting your stuff and b) save your game on the Vita, load it on the PS3 and keep playing. More of that, please.

Whoa, a new Sly game? On the PS3? Did the Sly Collection sell that well? Not that I mind, I’m just surprised.

Nintendo:

Nintendo talked about new software for the DSi, 3DS and Wii U. Notice what system wasn’t on that list? That’s right, the Wii. That strongly suggests to me that the Wii is effectively dead – all Nintendo’s efforts from now on will be put into the 3DS and the Wii U.

Speaking of the Wii U…what the HELL is up with that controller? It’s way too big and bulky, and it’s not its own device; Nintendo tried hard to gloss over it but they were forced to admit that the controller isn’t a gaming platform. Why not? It’s got wi-fi, a nice screen and a processor; why can’t it operate separately from the Wii U? Plus, there’s no way that controller will sell for less than $100.

And Nintendo is again trying to grab a piece of the older market, but the games they’re doing so with are not console-exclusive

This brings up something I’ve been thinking about. Nintendo really, really doesn’t like controversial material on their consoles. Blood? Fighting? Bullets? Okay, they’ll let that slide. But when was the last time you heard about the “controversial new game for the Wii”? Can you imagine playing through a mission like Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” on a Nintendo console? Or seducing Liara T’Soni? This is why Nintendo is still the kiddie pool – they refuse to allow the deeper emotional experiences that these games provide on their console because they know somebody somewhere will get pissed off. And Nintendo can’t stand that.

Nintendo could have won, you know. They could have easily won this conference. All they would have had to do was say, “Okay, here’s the controller for the Wii U. It’s a traditional dual-analog controller. Why? Because the Wii U has motion control and voice recognition built in, and it’s as good or better than the Kinect. Its graphics are on par with the current systems, and to prove that we’re serious about catering to mature gamers, here’s a console-exclusive FPS based off of modern specops missions, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. We’re also beefing up our network to handle all the new multiplayer games that will be released for the system.” Sony and Microsoft would have thrown in the towel right then.

Okay! Going to close with my favorite trailer from E3 so far. Content warning. (In other words, it’s not a game for a Nintendo platform.)

Inaria Postmortem

To sum up, if it’s your first game, it’s going to be crap. So don’t expect a rapturous reception from anyone except your mum. And even then she’ll be lying. By the same token, second game: crap as well.”
– Graham Goring, The Arsecast

All right. Time to face the music.

I think I’m going to invert the usual Game Developer/Gamasutra format and do “What Went Wrong” first.

1. I should not have made this game.

Or at the very least, I shouldn’t have made it right now. This is the premier game for Viridian Games. The premier game should have been flashy, punchy, and most importantly, unique. From a business perspective, this is the worst game I could have made – a generic-looking game in a genre already well-covered by at least two other companies. But I really, really wanted to make it, and I felt I’d have a leg up because I was starting with the codebase from Inaria Original, but that ended up not helping me at all as I rewrote everything about the game. Which leads to…

2. Lack of middleware.

I’ve got this really, really, really bad habit of wanting to write every line of code that goes into my games. I don’t have to do that. Indeed, I shouldn’t do that. Using a middleware system like Gamemaker or Ogre3D would have shaved tons of dev time off, cost me absolutely nothing and almost certainly improved the game. I’ll be finding appropriate middleware for everything I make from now on.

To emphasize this, here’s Arkiruthis‘ prototype of Powermonger, “lots of dots” version, from March 19:

Then he installed Ogre3D. And here’s the April 17 version:

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll know that I worked on Planitia for years…and here’s the best it ever looked:

To sum up, I think the quality of my future games will be in direct inverse proportion to the percentage of my own code in them.

3. Lack. Of. Content.

This killed me. I am a programmer/designer, but on Inaria I spent way too much time programming and not nearly enough designing. I had legacy maps from Original Inaria and the (now defunct) iPhone version and I thought I could just punch them up and be done with them…but in the end, my entire game design caused the maps to play a lot faster than I expected. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d had twenty or so of them, but I only ended up with nine…making Inaria a really fast game to blow through. I also didn’t use the traps and secret doors I made nearly enough – because I coded them so late in the project!

Exacerbating this, players are hitting their stat caps and getting all skills in the game really fast; I should probably have made the abilities things you had to buy with points instead of things that automagically unlocked as your stats went up. That one change, plus at least five more maps that properly used the engine’s abilities, would have made Inaria so much better.

4. HOW DO I MARKET GAME

I couldn’t have released this game any worse. I thought once I uploaded the completed game to Files Forever that I could start talking about it; this proved disastrous when people tried to link to the Viridian Games website…only to discover it unfinished, without even a link to buy the game. After getting a very nice trailer for Inaria, I uploaded it to YouTube three times…and made the video public all three times, requiring me to delete the previous video and its associated comments when I uploaded a new, better version. Basically, I undermined any attempt anyone else made to help me get the word out about this game.

I also didn’t realize that you need to participate in the various indie communities in order to get a build-up going for your game before release so that people will be anticipating it. Being an indie developer requires a lot more than just making games.

Whew. Enough of that. Let’s talk about the good stuff.

What Went Right:

1. 8BitFunding

Inaria would never have been finished if I hadn’t put the game up on 8BitFunding.com. For two reason: First, people actually donated money, suggesting that they might be interested in this game. Second, I felt it was much more important to get the game out once money became involved. Lesson learned – money is an excellent motivator, even if you’ve already got it. I could have taken the contributor’s money and ran; the site makes clear that you’re donating money and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment so I had no obligation whatsoever…except that I’m not a jackass. I felt that the people who had helped me out deserved something in return, prompting me to spend a lot of spare time completing this game.

(8BitFunding still needs to fix about a hundred different things on their site, but their hearts are in the right place. Hopefully they’ll get their stuff together soon.)

2. Best. Testers. EVAR.

Once the beta started, I discovered that I had some of the best testers I’d ever seen. They quickly found problems I never would have, tried crazy things that broke the game in interesting ways, and made suggestions that made the game so much better. Frankly, my game was not worthy of their attentions, but I hope they all come back for the next one!

3. H. Arnold Jones.

With the money I got from 8BitFunding I was able to look around for a musician. I found the perfect one in the person of H. Arnold Jones. I’ve lauded superlatives upon him before, but I’ll do it again – the music is actually the best part of the game, and frankly you may just want to cut out the middleman and buy the soundtrack from his store

4. A chance to start building a rep for good service.

So far I’ve had exactly two people have a problem with Inaria. But I took both problems very seriously and was able to resolve the problems quickly. This is important because all indie game developers need to build a reputation for having good service; it’s one of our few advantages over big studios.

5. I actually did it.

This is weak sauce, but the truth is…you wouldn’t think there’s a big difference between the moment before you publish your first game and the moment after. But there is. Publishing Inaria was a huge learning experience from me, and I hope I’ll be able to use that information in the future.

In summation, Inaria didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. It’s sad that I had to make so many learning mistakes on Inaria, since I love it so much…but again, I felt like I needed to make that game. It wasn’t a business-oriented decision, it was (forgive me) an artistic decision.

And speaking of artistry…it’s said that every creative person has ten thousand bad projects in them that they have to get through before they can actually start doing good work. I hope that number isn’t literal, because if it is…frankly, I don’t have the strength.