My Friends Continue…

…To be more interesting than I. My old friend Eric Peterson, who ran Warthog/Fever Pitch back when I worked there on Hit & Myth, is now in the process of bringing the original Descent back from the dead. I think it looks damn spiffing.

Descent Underground is now playable on Steam Early Access, and while I know there are some quality issues with Early Access, I promise you will get more from DU than you did from Godus.

Um, Hi.

Hey.

Um.

Sorry about not updating for a while. Things have been slightly crazy.

Crazy AWESOME!

In our last episode, I mentioned that I had finally found a way home for myself and my family. ‘Twas a terrible thing to leave you guys hanging without the rest of the story, and I’m sorry. So here it is!

First, I was just amazed at how well the move worked out financially. Aspyr was willing to front us our move allowance, and a recent payment for my work on Fargoal 2 (still in development!) helped a lot too. (Thanks, Jeff!)

The move itself was straining, though. I’ve now moved cross-country three times and it’s been a harrowing experience each time. But there were no accidents or thefts or anything else untoward. Did get pulled over once but the cop let me off with a warning. (Thanks, cop!)

I’d been back to Austin twice, both times for job interviews. I could see that the city had changed a bit in the five years we’d been gone. Einstein’s Arcade on the Drag is gone for good. The Broken Spoke, a famous honky-tonk, is now sandwiched between two apartment buildings. Indeed, there’s been a lot of housing construction, most of it in the big-city “trendy apartments with storefronts on the bottom floor” type. Dunno how much I like that, but even before I left the city planners had announced that they wanted to turn Austin into a “24-hour city” so it’s not that surprising.

But I was still worried. Was it just a nostalgia filter? Or would living in Austin really be better than Florida?

Oh, yes.

triforcecar

In case you can’t make that out (because I Are Not A Photographer), it’s a car with a window decal of the Hyrule Royal Crest on it.

I saw this within the first two weeks back. I didn’t really want to get back to Austin because it’s a beautiful city (even though it is) or because it’s got wonderfully quirky shops (even though it does) or because it’s got excellent food (even though it does does does does).

It’s because I wanted to be back among like-minded people.

And now I am.

And it’s made me happy.

(does)

Game Archeology – Zarch

As you may know if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, I like Populous. I like Populous 1, I really like Populous 2 and have a love-hate relationship with Populous: The Beginning (though with mods that made it easier to play it’s swinging back towards love).

So I was browsing Wikipedia. You know how it be.

And I ended up at the entry for Populous (again). Only this time I noticed a little sentence I hadn’t earlier.

Peter Molyneux led development, inspired by Bullfrog’s artist Glenn Corpes having drawn isometric blocks after playing David Braben’s Virus.

Virus? What the heck was Virus? I knew a lot about David Braben (co-creator of Elite, creator of Frontier and founder of Frontier Productions, which, among other things, published Roller Coaster Tycoon 3.

But I had not heard of this game.

The game named as “Virus” was actually Zarch, a game for the Acorn Archimedes. (Virus was the name of the Atari ST version). In the game, you…well, just watch the damn video.

This game was released in 1987. Braben expanded on his groundbreaking work with Elite (which was the first game to use 3D polygonal objects with hidden line removal) to move up to a fully 3D, heightfield terrain using shaded squares to represent terrain types, altered the color of squares based on how far they were from the camera to simulate lighting, and had particle effects. As the game progresses, the terrain changes as it gets corrupted by the aliens – the colors go from green to brown and red and the trees become twisted and mutated. The game also had an incredible frame rate due to the fact that the Archimedes was quite a powerful machine for its time.

(It was also very difficult to play because of its mouse-only control scheme but that’s irrelevant to my point.)

Now that I’ve seen Zarch, I think it’s clear that it was an absolute inspiration – not for Peter Molyneux, but for Glenn Corpes.

Glenn was the landscape programmer for every Bullfrog game made, from Populous all the way through Dungeon Keeper. Populous actually got its start after Glenn played Zarch, got fascinated by the landscape generation, and came up with his own isometric version. But Glenn didn’t stop there.

Here’s a screenshot of Zarch:

Zarch_screen

Now compare it to Powermonger:

maxresdefault

It’s obvious that Zarch sparked Glenn’s interest in terrain generation in general. But now I think it’s clear that Powermonger was Glenn’s attempt to both replicate and improve on Zarch in every way he could. Powermonger even used a particle system almost identical to Zarch’s!

And here I thought I knew everything about the development of these games. That’ll learn me.

Pinball Arcade

(Note to Fargoalians waiting for a Fargoal update – you will be served. Yes, you will. You just wait.)

In the meantime, I ran across this thing called Pinball Arcade.

Now, I had never been a big fan of pinball. Every time I played a pinball game it was over within moments, the balls caroming randomly off everything. I felt like I had no control and that the ball was attracted to the outlanes like they were magnetized or something. I never got it.

Then, while YouTubeing, I ran across this video of a guy absolutely owning a pinball game called The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot.

It became clear as I watched this video that this game was complex and subtle, with many objectives to fulfill and many different ways to score. It also wasn’t nearly as random as I thought pinball games were and definitely rewarded skill.

It was also emulated, which appealed to me. Anyone reading this site should already know about emulators. Right? There’s tons of them. NES, SNES, Game Boy (Color) and Game Boy Advance, classic arcade games, the original PlayStation – all these platforms have been solved, with emulators providing experiences indistinguishable from the originals. If you’ve got a super-hot computer, you can even get near-perfect experiences with GameCube and PlayStation 2 emulators.

But unlike an electronic platform where you just emulate the CPU and memory and all the games suddenly start working, each pinball game must be emulated individually. The guys at Farsight Studios have to get a working machine (or a non-working machine and restore it to working order) and then spend months translating the machine’s internal workings, LED display and programming into their system. And of course they desire to be as accurate as possible.

This is more than emulation – it’s preservation. There are millions of working SNES machines in existence; you don’t need an emulator to play SNES games. By contrast, a very popular pinball machine would sell about five thousand units. And when all five thousand of those machines are gone – either sold for scrap or junked or just left to rust in a storage unit – then the game ceases to exist.

Unless it’s been emulated.

So I looked up Pinball Arcade and discovered that you can play it on practically any electronic device known to man. There’s a PC version (through Steam), PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, and versions for iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android devices. And they all play practically identically.

At this point, Farsight Studios has emulated almost thirty pinball machines through Pinball Arcade. They are living up to their name, doing the work of the gaming gods and making sure that these games do not die when the machines that contain them do.

You can download a version of Pinball Arcade on whatever you happen to have and it comes with a free boardTales of the Arabian Nights. You can then buy boards in two-packs or buy whole seasons of boards for a lower price.

Give it a try; it may just change your mind about pinball like it did mine.

Game Center CX

As I mentioned on my Twitter, I’ve been watching GameCenter CX (in the US it was retitled Retro Game Master). It’s a show where a Japanese comedian is tasked with beating old, hard, and/or terrible video games; it’s also interspersed with interviews with developers and trips to Japanese game centers.

Here’s a sample episode for your perusal. In it our hero, Shinya Arino, must complete the original NES version of Ninja Gaiden. He’s never heard of it before.

(Anyone who has actually played Ninja Gaiden is probably chuckling already.)

Now, I love me this show a lot. It’s got humor, game history and interviews with luminaries of the Japanese gaming scene.

But at the same time it makes me wistful. Why? Because the punchline of the show isn’t that a 35-year-old man is playing games. It’s his reaction to being locked in a room with a terrible (or terribly difficult) game and being told he can’t go home until he finishes it that’s funny. When Arino visits game centers there are just as many adult players as children.

As you watch the show it becomes clear that gaming in Japan is not stigmatized like it is here in the United States. Nobody cares that Arino plays games; hell, everybody does it! There isn’t a single person in Japan that is Arino’s age that didn’t play a Famicom at some point in their childhood, and continuing to play games into adulthood isn’t seen as a failing but as perfectly normal.

I just wish that were the case here.

I leave you with Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain’s take on the social stigma of playing games here in the West (warning: salty, hilarious language).

Deep Space Settlement

And now on to something else. I found another indie developer who also has a long-standing project she is obsessing over, and from what I’ve seen it looks like it could be really good.

The project is Deep Space Settlement. Your job? Turn a colony ship into…well, you get it, and then defend that settlement from anyone or anything that tries to harm it. The kicker is that the game uses RTS mechanics even though it’s more of a build/strategy type game.

The game manages to give off both Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire vibes, which resonate deeply with me. And despite the plurals on the home page, the entire game and its underlying engine have been written by one woman, Stéphanie Rancourt. So she’s working on a labor-of-love project that’s probably way too big for her and writing everything herself from scratch. I’ve found my French-Canadian distaff counterpart!

Bundle-In-A-Box results and IT’S BEHIND YOU!

Well, the Bundle-In-A-Box is over and I was really surprised at the nice emails I got and exposure the bundle provided. Many thanks to Kyttaro Games for inviting me to be part of the bundle! And again, thanks to my long-suffering beta testers, whose efforts will not go to waste.

On another topic. did you guys know that I like reading about the history of video game development? What? You did, because I never stop talking about it?

Well then, I guess this won’t come as a surprise to you.

Once upon a time, there was a game for the venerable ZX Spectrum called R-Type. Based directly on the arcade game of the same name by Irem, R-Type is widely considered one of the best ZX Spectrum games ever made. Not only is it fun and incredibly faithful to the original arcade version, it used a clever system to prevent the color clash that plagued color ZX Spectrum games at the time. You’ll rarely find a “Top Spectrum Games List” without it.

And now, twenty-five years on, the developer has written an e-book about the game’s development. It’s Behind You, by Bob Pape, details the trials and tribulations of being a young, naive and brilliant programmer in the mid-80’s. Watch! As he makes every rookie mistake in the book during his first few years as a programmer! Wonder! As he lives like a homeless person during the game’s development! Gaze in awe! As he details the tricks he used to make the Spectrum do things it frankly shouldn’t have been capable of!

It’s Behind You is available for free in various e-book formats from Bob’s website. I highly recommend it.

Inaria in the Bundle-In-A-Box!

Got a LOT to talk about today, so let’s get it started!

First…I’m in my first bundle! I was contacted by the administrators of the the Bundle-In-A-Box, and they asked to include Inaria in their new RPG bundle. I said yes, and now you know why I needed beta testers for the new version of Inaria. I’m so excited!

This bundle features a whole bunch of RPGs, including the one from my good friend Jay Barnson, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon!

So I can check that off the list now.

Stardock and Star Control

When I initially wished that I could still be at Stardock so I could work on Star Control, I didn’t have all the facts. I didn’t know that Stardock only got the name, not any of the content, and because of this they say they’re going to “reboot” the franchise.

Um.

As every schoolchild knows, the name Star Control had been trademarked by Accolade, so when Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford left that company they couldn’t take the name with them. They did, however, retain rights to all the content of Star Control, which meant that nobody could make another game featuring the Syreen or the Melnorme or the Ur-Quan without their permission.

Which they gave to a ragtag group of programmers intent on re-creating the original game (which for a long time was available only second-hand or through nefarious means). This group of codiferous rebels produced a new version called The Ur-Quan Masters and it’s a really good version of the game – anyone who played the original will feel right at home. Except that the exploit that allowed you to sell more planetary landers than you actually had to get infinite money was removed. Bummer.

Now, Fred & Paul gave the permission to use their content because it wasn’t a commercial project. This is not the case with Stardock’s Star Control game. And Fred & Paul sold their company, Toys for Bob, to Actiblizzion back in 2005. Which means that they are still Blactivizzard employees.

So, I’m seeing a few options for Stardock here…and most of them aren’t that good.

1. License the Star Control 2 content and get Paul & Fred to consult on the project. This will give the highest chances of success but will be damn hard to pull off. Fred & Paul may not be in a position to actually license the content for commercial use (I don’t know the legalities there). And Fred & Paul almost certainly won’t be in a position to consult on the project since they work for, you know, a competing game company. But if the stars were to align in this manner I feel confident Stardock could pull off a good new game. The fact that the original developers were involved would also cause the fanbase to be more forgiving of any missteps.

2. License the content but go it alone on both gameplay and story. This would tie the game back to Star Control 2, but unless they do a great job themselves it could result in a poor game hurting the Star Control brand. This is exactly what happened with Star Control 3.

3. Do a complete reboot with completely new aliens, story and gameplay. This is the worst possible outcome; the lack of involvement of any of the previous developers and the complete break with the original Star Control storyline means that fans will judge the game as harshly as possible, so unless Stardock pulls off an XCOM, there will be significant internet backlash and they don’t need that after Elemental. Again, it would be very easy for Stardock to ruin the brand like this. Elemental was supposed to be a new version of Master of Magic, but Stardock couldn’t get the license. Imagine if they had, and the shipped version of Elemental had been called Master of Magic instead…

So, I’ve got some misgivings. But at least there’s a chance for a new good Star Control game, which is better than no chance.