Monday, October 29, 2012

What Makes a Choice Interesting?

Recently I was on a panel at Pax Prime, discussing indie role-playing games. During the Q&A, someone asked a really good question. Good enough to take up a little sacred space here in my blog.

The topic of discussion was about giving the player choices, and how those choices could affect the storyline. I've always tried to put in my games many points where the player is asked to make a decision or voice an opinion and where his or her choices can shift the plot. The question was:

What makes a choice a player has to make an interesting one?

What decision points lead to satisfying gameplay? I think a good decision point has three qualities ...

1. The options need to be clear.

The player needs to understand very clearly what is being decided. Suppose that the player is deciding whether some army stays behind to defend a city or goes off to attack the enemy. The player needs to know what is being decided, exactly how to choose each option, and what the possible consequences of each choice are.

2. The options need to be distinct.

The choices need to be clearly different from each other. Otherwise, the act of making a decision isn't satisfying. A good example of where this often wasn't done was in Mass Effect 3. Shepard, the player's main character, was often asked about attacking the enemy, and the choices often came down to, "Yes, we must destroy them!" and "Certainly, we must slay them now!" All I could think at these points was, "Shut up, Shepard."

3. All of the obvious options are available.

You can't cover all the options. We aren't trying to write an AI or simulate an entire world here. But we can't let the player feel frustrated because some obvious option was neglected. Suppose, for example, you catch a poacher out in the woods and are trying to decide what to do with him. Let Him Go, Turn Him In, Kill Him, and Talk To Him First To Find Out His Situation should all be expected choices.

Something I Left Out

There is one thing I have purposefully left off this list: It is not necessary for the decision to have a major impact (or any impact) on the game at all. Sure, if you're making the player make lots of decisions, you should try to make some of them eventually count. But it is legit to have a character ask the player's opinion about an issue and then have that answer not affect the game. Sometimes it's useful to have the player make decisions for role-playing and world-building purposes.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ten Awesome Comedians Most People Have Never Heard Of

I've long been a huge fan of stand-up comedy. The other night, after a really good Patton Oswalt live show, the friends I went with asked me if I could recommend anyone else to check out. My answer was a long, long list. They asked me to write it up as an e-mail. Then I remembered that I have a blog that needs filling with fresh content!

Man, but I love Content.

So. Stand-up comedy. It is a huge and varied field. If you're the sort of person that likes to split up a huge, varied field into two arbitrary chunks, and yes, I am that sort of person, stand-up comedy can be split in two arbitrary chunks.

The first chunk is big, mainstream comedy. Larry the Cable Guy. Bill Engvall. Jeff Dunham. Jeff Foxworthy. Dane Cook. Jay Leno. Mainstream comedy tends to be fairly unchallenging stuff, such as observations about the differences between the sexes (or the races, or the sexual orientations). I am a contemptible big-city latte-swilling elitist, so I don't know much about such things.

The second chunk is alternative comedy. A bunch of weedy little nerds, playing smaller halls full of people you'd probably want to beat up to take their lunch money. People like me. Comics in this arbitrary chunk tend to me more odd and experimental, with surreal or character-based humor, weird delivery, lots of unpredictability, and occasional jaunts into the dramatic, the disturbing, and the painfully offensive. They tend to be liberal, but not always. Odds are, you haven't heard of a lot of the comics on this page, which is why I’m writing this. I love recommending things.

Here's some funny stuff. Assume the links are not safe for work or children. I'll give a few intro pieces and then, if something really tickles you, a recommendation for where to go from there. This may involve spending money. Please spend money. A lot of these folks, talented as they are, don't make a lot.

Disclaimer For Touchy, Angry Internet People (If you are basically sane and sensible, ignore this section.)

Some of the things I link to here are really offensive to right-thinking peoples. I do not endorse the contents of the linked videos. Of course. I don't care for some comics I linked to, but I mentioned them because they belong in a survey of the field. If you don't like one of these people or I don't mention someone you love, you should get really REALLY angry at me. Finally, I've only mentioned comics who are alive and actively working, because this is a vibrant and active art form. (Sorry, Patrice O'Neal, Mitch Hedberg, and George Carlin fans.) All I wanted to do was post a bunch of funny YouTube links and waste your afternoon. Why are you so angry?

OK. Seatbelts on? Then here we go.

1. Patton Oswalt

The great gateway drug to alt-comedy, a tireless genius, one of the funniest people alive, and the voice of the Remy the rat in Ratatouille.   You want to know whether this brand of comedy is for you? Then listen to this, his famed steak house routine. If that goes down easy, his Sky Cake (his awesome deconstruction of religion) and KFC Famous Bowls routines are terrific.

Want More? - Oh, there's a lot of it. His Werewolves & Lollipops album is fantastic, and all of it is on YouTube. Or you could, you know, spend money.

2. Louis C.K.

I shouldn't be putting this guy at #2. Patton is #1 because he's my sentimental favorite, but Louis has been on fire for the last few years. His TV show on FX is mind-bending and terrific, and his last two comedy albums are as good as any ever created.

The big gateway for him is this viral video about how "everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy." Or this incredibly dirty and hilarious portrait from a crumbling marriage.

Want More? - Get his albums Chewed Up and Hilarious. They are as good as this stuff gets.

3. Paul F. Tompkins

It didn't get long to get to the obscure folks here. Paul F. Tompkins alternates between comedy and storytelling, and he's terrific. My personal favorite routine is his decisive answer to the eternal question: What's better ... Cake or Pie? And this hilarious routine about his mother's conversion to atheism before she died is a perfect example of the weird edginess of alt-comedy.

Want More? - His album Freak Wharf is a delight. On the free end, his HBO special Driven To Drink is on YouTube, and it's a great example of the storytelling end of his work.

4. Maria Bamford

Her specialty is playing different characters with wildly varied voices, and she is as good at is as they get. Patton Oswalt described her as an alien who came to Earth to tell racist jokes about humans. She is very good recorded but far better live, where you can see how she uses her face and body.

To get a good look, go to YouTube and watch the Maria Bamford Show, a 20 part series of short films showing off many of her best bits and characters.

Want More? - Her album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome is very good, but it loses something from not being able to see her. Go. Spend money!

5. Amy Schumer

Foul-mouthed, profane, and hilarious. She is coming up so fast that she should almost be considered mainstream at this point, and very good. She is not unlike Sarah Silverman, a comparison that is probably starting to annoy her greatly. She first gained a lot of attention for her routine on a Comedy Central roast, and her recent special is on teh YouTubez.

Want More? - Buy her album Cutting and play it for your grandmother.

6. Aziz Ansari

Reasonably well known for his roles on Funny People and Parks & Recreation. His bits on Craigslist and bedsheets are great examples of his awesome nerdy hostility.

Want More? - Intimate Moments From a Sensual Evening is a great album. You can get his newer special, Dangerously Delicious, on his site for five bucks. Worth it.

7. Eliza Skinner

You haven't heard of her. I just picked her as an example of the countless insanely talented people toiling in show business, producing awesome stuff in the hope of breaking big. It makes me angry that she isn't rich, but Hollywood is a merciless place. Her videos are fantastic.

Want More? - So do I! Will someone please give this woman a multi-million dollar development deal?

8 & 9. Garfunkle and Oates

A comedy music duo based in L.A. I've linked to their videos on this blog before. They are one of the best examples I can think of how YouTube can help someone get the fame and career they deserve. Their YouTube channel can murder an afternoon. These three are my personal favorites. They tour, and they're a lot of fun live.

Want More? - Their albums All Over Your Face and Slippery When Moist are on iTunes!

10. Kyle Kinane

Kyle Kinane is a bitter, angry misanthrope on stage, which is already funny. That he can be so angry while saying things that are perfectly reasonable and true makes him excellent. For example,here are his routines on Trader Joe's or insomnia.

Want More? - His album, Death of the Party, is super-solid.

And Others

There's so much good stuff out there. Some examples, in no particular order ...

Eddie Pepitone. Tig Notaro. Donald Glover. Brian Posehn. David Cross. Zach Galifanakis. (Now more of a movie star.) Dana Gould. (This routine is killer.) Nick Swardson. Sarah Silverman. Doug Benson, king of the stoner comics. And, of course, the legendary Margaret Cho.

It's a varied field. If you don't like one (Sarah Silverman can be incredibly polarizing, for example), you might like another. But if you put any of those names into YouTube, something will pop up that is worth your time. If I didn't mention someone awesome, tell me about them in the comments!

And go to live shows! They're great. They make money for people who deserve money. And it'll get you out of the house. Don't forget to tip your server.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Took the Bing It On Challenge ... AND LIVED!!!!

Since you are currently on the World Wide Internet, as it is called, you are probably able to use what is called a Searching Engine to find the things you want, be they My Little Pony jpgs, or Gangnam Style parodies, or ... well, I don't know. Erotica? Anyway, since you are using a Search Engine, I can say, with some confidence, that that engine is named Google.

However, you may not be aware that Google is not the only Searching Engine (or search engine, as the technocrats call it). There are actually several of them. For example, Microsoft spent more money than an unaided human brain can comprehend to create one called Bing. However, its market share is still only around 15%, as it is not Google.

To increase Bing's user base, Microsoft created the Bing It On Challenge. This 21st century techno-version of the Pepsi Challenge has you use a computer to enter five search terms. Then it shows you the Bing and Google search results, side by side, and rearranged slightly so you can't instantly tell which is which. You pick which of the search results is better. Then the thing tells you if you preferred Google or Bing. And, if you preferred Bing, WHY WERE YOU USING GOOGLE ALL THIS TIME, YOU DUMB IDIOT!?!?

Here is a commercial for the Bing It On Challenge. Watch it, if you dare.

(A quick aside about this commercial. I find it fascinating. I am amazed at how abrasive and arrogant the Bing guy is. I want to never, ever, ever use Bing, just to make that guy sad. In the very unlikely event that a Microsoft marketing person reads this, a little unsolicited advice: When you are trying to sell things to technical people, remember that this is a demographic that responds very poorly to bullies.)

Well, I can never resist a good challenge, so I took it myself, and Google won. Not by a huge amount, but by enough. And the reason why was pretty interesting, which is why I am writing this. It doesn't mean Bing is a worse search engine than Google, or bad in some Universal Sense, but I think it says a lot about how search engines work and why making a good one is so difficult.

The thing about a challenge like this is that when you buttonhole someone and say, "Search for five things! Now!" this on-the-spot person will probably just grab five well-known proper nouns. Justin Bieber. My Little Pony. Muffin recipes. Stuff that is easy work for search engines. Every single one is going to be able to handle that stuff. But that is not how I (and, I suspect, many others) use Google.

The reason Google became so popular in the first place is because of its almost supernatural ability to guess what the user is thinking. A search engine must take a random clump of nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and so on, and then tease from those words the specific thing the user's brain desires. In other words, it's an artificial intelligence problem, and a very deep one.

The reason Google took over the world is that it knew you were thinking of Justin Bieber even when you didn't type in Justin Bieber. If you put in "annoying teen singer", the words "Justin Bieber" will appear somewhere on the results page. (And it does, on both Google and Bing.) Google isn't as good as it used to be, but it's still pretty darn good.

(By the way, all search results described are as of 5:30 PM, Pacific Time, Sunday, September 15, 2012, Seattle, U.S.A., Third Planet From Sol.)

The search results below are for me using a search engine the way I, personally, use a search engine. Which engine, Google vs. Bing, is best written to match my aging, dumb brain?

Let's find out!

1. For a first test, I picked a real life thing. A friend once told me that I had to check out this Penny Arcade webcomic. Next time I was at a computer, I tried to, but I couldn't remember the strip's name. I went to Google and searched for something much like this:

the cartoon about video games

I think most people would reasonably agree that, if you put this term into a search engine, Penny Arcade should show up on the first page.

Google - First hit is the Wikipedia page "List of television programs based on video games". Fourth hit is Penny Arcade. Pretty good.

Bing - The first two hits are, oddly, general pages for the Cartoon Network. Lots of cartoons, but none specifically about video games. Penny Arcade doesn't show up in the first five pages.

The Winner - Google.

2. I'm still in a nerdy mood, so I pick something a geek might want to hunt for: Classic 80s SF movie Blade Runner. What would you look for if someone told you about its awesomeness but you could only remember the rough description:

the movie where the hguy hunts androids in the future

I mistyped "guy", but I left it that way. Let's see how well the engines handle that.

Google - Wikipedia page for Blade Runner is entry five. As a bonus, the sixth entry is the Wiki page for "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which is the story Blade Runner is based on. Nice work.

Bing - Blade Runner wasn't in the first five pages, but  "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is at least on page 3.

The Winner - Google.

3. No more nerdiness. Let's pick a factoid from history. Something juicy. I think we can all agree that there's only one particularly well-known answer for:

the girl who killed people with an axe

Google - Wow. There are a lot of female axe killers out there. The Wikipedia page for Lizzie Borden is down at hit 8.

Bing - First entry is a Yahoo Answers page where someone answers the question. The second hit is the Wikipedia page for Lizzie Borden.

The Winner - Bing, narrowly.

4. Now I'm going to pick something serious. Something real. Something I bet a million worried teenagers search for every day:

how do you get aids

Google - First hit is a basically accurate article titled "How do you get AIDS?" Second hit is a similar article from

Bing - Top three hits are the same as for Google.

The Winner - Tie. Thank goodness. It'd be worrying if either one messed this one up. If some shenanigans caused the first hit to be some bad information (such as that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, which some people actually believe), it could cost real, non-hypothetical lives.

5. For the fifth one, I decide to engage in a bit of whimsy. I wanted to know just how willing these search engines are to sacrifice their own interests in order to help me:

what is the best search engine

Google - First hit is an article called "The 10 Best Search Engines of 2012," that describes the pros and cons of ten search engines. Google and Bing are in there, of course.

Bing - The first official hit is the same. But it's right below an ad link for, you guessed it, the Bing It On challenge. Because of how the page is laid out, the ads look an awful lot like real links. It's kind of shifty, and Google does a much better job of making ads look distinct from results. But hey, if I'm just evaluating quality of search results ...

The Winner - Tie.

What Have We Learned?

Not too much, really. I know that Google AI’s approximation of human thought matches the way my brain works better than Bing's. But who cares? Someone else might use the exact same search terms to fish for entirely different answers. And maybe Bing is better at predicting those.

Microsoft isn't trying to prove that Bing is the be all and end all of search engines. They're trying to get people to give it a shot and they’re hoping that a portion of them will stick with it.

It's a tough job, though. If someone is used to using Google, Bing merely being as good or a little bit better won't get anyone to switch. To get people to actually break a habit requires a big improvement. Very difficult. If that's your goal then getting your targets to actually try the new thing is an absolutely necessary first step. Hey, I gave Bing a try. Didn't work for me, but at least I looked at it. So, victory!

Pity about that commercial, though. MAN, but that guy is a jerk.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Little Bit of Genius at PAX

There were things I saw at Penny Arcade Expo that I wanted to go on about. Something besides Microsoft trying to push us into our exciting Windows 8/Internet Explorer 9 future by providing the world middling adaptions of ancient Atari games for some reason.

There was one game at the Indie Megabooth that deserves special attention from all humans. Not only was it funny, but it has perhaps the best elevator pitch in the history of the human race:
OK. You're a guy living in the suburbs. You have a wife, two kids, and a secret: You're actually an octopus in disguise.
Obvious jokes aside, how can you not want to try that game? Especially when you know it's called Octodad: The Dadliest Catch.


This game is the purest epitome of the Indie spirit. (How's that for a pull quote?) It's unique, intriguing, utterly bananas, and no major publisher will ever do anything like it.

Sadly, the gameplay is focused on maneuvering the octopus, which means struggling to do normally simple tasks with an odd control scheme. I am a little skeptical about how much this particular style of gameplay can catch on. On the bright side, if it's priced cheaply enough, it can make a ton of sales based on the "Oh God. I have to try this out." factor.

My unsolicited advice for the developers: If the game turns out to not be that fun, sell it for five bucks. You'll move a lot of copies based on morbid curiosity alone.

Edit: Oh, yeah. You can support Octodad at Steam Greenlight here. I voted for it. KEEP INDIE GAMES WEIRD!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Indie Games Can Be Cheap and Awesome

I got to go to PAX over the weekend and be on a panel and see cool gaming stuff and meet lots of cool people and fans of my games. One of the things I learned is that a lot of people actually read my blog. This is very gratifying. Although it terrifies me that anyone thinks my opinion is in any way significant.

PAX is great, of course. Though it is in the unenviable position of being permanently unable to satisfy the massive demand for tickets.

(Sure, its success will probably invite others to copy it with their own gaming cons, but those dopplegangers won't be the same without the presence of all the big companies showing off their stuff. And big companies won't go to a lot of cons, as they need to set aside at least a little time to make games. So, from now on, if you manage to score a PAX badge, just cherish it, knowing that your attendance the following year is unlikely. Just think of PAX as a hot but extremely unstable boy/girlfriend.)

I had a lot of little epiphanies while looking at the many, many highly promising indie games on display at PAX. (The PAX 10 looked cool as always, but the much flashier Indie Megabooth next door seemed to be sucking up its oxygen.) And here is the biggest one:

16-bit graphics are an awesome thing, and more indies should use them.

If you don't know what 16-bit graphics are, think early Nintendo/Super Nintendo. If that still doesn't ring a bell, look here. Or here. Or here. Or especially here.

If you are a small game developer, you have a big problem. You want your game to look great. But graphics can be expensive. Or very expensive. 16-bit graphics solve the great mystery of writing a game with a small team and no budget: making decent production values cheaply in a short amount of time.

Here is what 16-bit Nintendo-style graphics have going for them:

1. They work. Heck, people wrote awesome games using them for years.

2. They look good. It's amazing how evocative an icon you can make with a few well-chosen pixels.

3. They're cheap and quick to make. One talented artist can produce a game's worth in an entirely reasonable amount of time.

4. You have the power of nostalgia working for you. To a whole generation of gamers, those icons are as warm and comforting as a Snuggie.

5. Because of #4, anyone who takes cheap shots at your graphics looks like a jerk.

6. Versatility. With care, they can blend with much more detailed and 3-D effects. Fez is a fantastic example of this. You don't have to be pure when you use this style.

Right now, this style of graphics is seen as a pure nostalgia play, a way of saying, "Look! We look like a Nintendo game! We're silly! Tee hee!" But I think 16-bit graphics are better than that. They've been used in a million great games, and they can be used in a million more. The more people use them, the more they will be seen as an entirely legitimate art style, which in turn will make them available to more generations of poor, promising designers.

Indie devs, don't be afraid to be cheap! It is your sacred right and responsibility as an Indie!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Watch Me Talk About Something!

Casual Connect is an annual convention in Seattle dedicated to the discussion of casual computer games, the design and marketing of same, and how to write games that milk every last penny from your aunt by getting her to bug you on Facebook for cow clicks or Smurfberries or whatever.

Anyway, they were kind enough to ask me to speak about storytelling in computer games for their Indie track. I gave my talk, and they filmed it. My talk is online here. Please enjoy my sultry voice, questionable game design principles, and unique posture. 

Or not. The talk is 20 minutes long. You could probably more profitably spend your time doing, say, ANYTHING ELSE.

(Technical note: My slides are a .pdf. I know. I suck and am unclassy. But my main life goal is to reach death without ever learning how to use Powerpoint, and I'm sticking with it.)

The most interesting thing about Casual Connect? How weird anyone who sells software in the old school way is made to feel. Here's what I do: I write a game. I give it to you in return for a set number of dollars. Then we part ways, and you never have to look at my pale, beardy face again.

This model is so incredibly retro now! Pay money for a game? Nonsense! Everyone real makes their money with microtransactions and advertising and nickle and diming you for packs of 100 Dragon Bux you can use to make your zombie ninja pirate dragon grow faster. And if you make money any other way, people in suits will act very nervous and not make eye contact with you anymore.

If you end up at Casual Connect and talking to actual grown-up business people, I suggest you do what I did: Have a firm, manly handshake. Make eye contact. Say "monetize" and "ARPU" as much as possible. And then pee yourself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Couple of Cheap Shots at Big Movies. Because I'm So Smart.

I just went to see the new Batman movie, which was so long that I am still watching it. It's about a guy named Bane with a weird accent and a bunch of issues, who is only defeated when the good guys finally manage to figure out his secret weakness. (Spoiler: It's bullets.)

Since it's a Big Hollywood Movie, it was preceded by trailers for all the other upcoming Big Hollywood Movies. Two of them attracted my notice ...

Jack Reacher (Trailer here. It is worth watching, as this movie will be genuinely terrible.)

This is about a violent gun guy who goes on adventures and beats people up and "doesn't care about proof, doesn't care about the law. He only cares about what's right." Which all sounds great until you find out he's Tom Cruise.

I'm sorry, but is there one single person here on God's Green Earth (besides Tom Cruise) who thinks it's a good idea to give Tom Cruise arbitrary power over anything bigger than a Hot Dog On a Stick franchise?

"Remember, you wanted this."


The Hobbit (Trailer here. Watch it before they split it into three parts.)

I can't say much about the upcoming Hobbit movies, though I hear the the novelization of the film by J.R.R.R. Tolkineinin is above average. I know that the world created in the prequels by Peter Jackson is an interesting one, though overly dependent on tired fantasy tropes.

I do, however, have some qualms with the decision to split the book up into three (THREE!) movies. I'm sorry, but you cannot do this with any book whose big, dramatic high point is a RIDDLE CONTEST.

Seriously, when I was a kid, they could wrap this crap up in 77 minutes, and that version even found time to put in Tom Bombadil.

I was really looking forward to it until I saw this trailer, with its wacky dwarves, interminable pacing, and refreshing lack of action or incident. Three movies? Dear God. This adaption will be so long that I'm already watching it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


There was one more thing I wanted to say about Mass Effect (to accompany my earlier articles on the title). After heavy play of the second and third games in the series, I want to propose a rule to all game designers from now until forever ...

It is OK to make the player's character look ugly and twisted, as long as it is in a cute, cartoonish way. It is not OK to make the main character actively horrifying and painful to look at.

I think this is a reasonable rule of thumb. If you're going to expect someone to spend 40 hours in your fantasy world, you don't want them going "GAHHHH!!!" every time they look at the screen.

Why do I bring it up?

Well, in Mass Effect, the main spectrum for your character's moral choices is between Paragon (nice, lawful good, goody-two-shoes) and Renegade (harsh, Bad Cop, Patton-type). Note that this is not Good vs. Evil! You're always good. It's just whether you are nice-good or cranky-good.

But there is a key difference between the two paths. If you are a Paragon, you stick with the nice, normal face you made in character creation. However, if you choose the Renegade dialogue options, your face will look like this ...


That's right. When playing Mass Effect, you better be as polite to as many people as you can, if you don't want to look like a hideous mutant leperzombie whose face is peeling off in glowing sheets.

(Note that, in both Mass Effect 2 and 3, you can spend resources to remove the leperface effect. While BioWare likes to pretend it treats both moral choices equally, this sort of gives the game away. They are actively punishing you for being rude. If you doubt this, remember: A Paragon player can't spend resources to get the zombie look. It only works the other way 'round.)

Mass Effect is known for its in-game romances. Halfway through Mass Effect 3, for example, your hot, easy secretary comes to your quarters to use your shower and totally tries to bang you. (Warning: The previous sentence contained a spoiler!) Bioware, please please please, in future games make it so I don't feel sorry for anyone trying to sleep with my character. When she makes her move, I, as a player, don't want be saying:

"What are you DOING? Haven't you looked at me? Haven't you seen my FACE? Sure, I have a working shower! Now run! RUN! I'M A MONSTERRRRR!"

Look. These things are basically adolescent wish fulfillment. I don't need to have a really gross face in my fantasy world. I've had enough of that in my actual physical adolescent life, thanks.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review: The Ending, Before and After!

The ending of the Mass Effect series has been discussed a lot. A LOT. It's kind of an unprecedented situation. 

BioWare, a company known for awesome video game storytelling, creates a trilogy of games in one of the most well-realized imaginary worlds ever created in the medium. People love this world. Passionately. Then BioWare fails to stick the landing. Deafening rage and butthurt echo across the Internets, who have nothing more important to worry about. So BioWare, at what I'm sure was considerable expense, makes a free patch to expand the ending. It makes things kind of better. Life, somehow, continues.

(By the way, this whole sorry incident is excellent proof that their IS such a thing as bad publicity. BioWare's reputation for good storytelling is invaluable. They saw it threatened. They reacted appropriately. But I don't think anyone working there is happy this happened.)

What the ending screams to me is that the developers didn't have the time and budget to do the ending they wanted to do. ME3 is SO ambitious and covers SO much ground that they didn't have time to give the Reaper issue the attention it needed. But this isn't the end of the world. The Reapers were never very multi-dimensional. The Krogan and Geth and even Cerberus were far more interesting.

So, if this is the case, piling onto the ending seems a little mean. Making a video game requires doing much with limited resources. You can't afford to do everything.

But, then again, after three games of this size, we have an expectation that the writers will end it well. I want to talk about my two problems with the ending- one which the patch fixes, one it doesn't. I aim to discuss game storytelling in general and what does and doesn't work.

(Please be assured that the following has no spoilers for Mass Effect 3 whatsoever!!!! If, for some reason, you don't believe me, leave immediately!)

What Is NOT a Problem

Some criticized the ending for creating some plot inconsistencies with things learned in the DLC for Mass Effect 2. (Namely, that blowing up a mass relay destroyed the solar system before and now it doesn't.) The horrors.



I didn't think so.

Also, some put a lot of time into proving Shepherd was actually under Reaper control and the last game was a dream or something. (The famed Indoctrination Theory.) Of course this wasn't true. This was a AAA mega-million dollar game series that had always approached everything in a reasonably sane manner. They weren't going to end it with goofy Sixth Sense trickery.

And many thought that you didn't find out enough about what happened to your friends and to all the races you helped. I can buy this as a complaint, but it's a judgment call. I honestly felt I'd learned enough about what was going on and where things were heading to have closure. Bloody, unrelentingly gruesome closure.

So what are the problems?

Problem 1 - The Incredible Grimness

The unpatched ending of Mass Effect 3, unless you do a ton of side-quest farming and multiplayer, is awe-inspiringly grim. Everyone dies. Shepherd dies. The mass relays are destroyed. The Normandy is a wreck. The Earth is a cinder, surrounded by fleets of aliens stranded far from home. (Including the notoriously peaceful and easy-going krogan.) Space travel is over for, well, a very long time, if not forever.

Dude. And I thought the ending to The Sopranos was a poke in the eye.

But here's the thing. This aspect of the ending is legit. People don't generally like unhappy endings, but this is a subjective judgment. Unhappy endings are legal. They are allowed. It's not where I would go as the default ending for a series of this magnitude, and it is a HUGE change in tone from what came before it. But it is not technically wrong.

And, just between you, me, and these four walls? I admire their balls for going so dark. I wish more developers did it. Unless you believe things can go really wrong, there is no real sense of achievement or relief when they go right. One of the reasons Law & Order was such a compelling show is that the bad guys frequently won.

But the patch changed this. It's less bleak. Gives more hopeful details of the future. I can live with it either way.

But what really bugs me is the main element of the ending.

Problem 2 - The Star Child. Or Whatever.

My biggest disappointment in the ending of Mass Effect is this: It was a cheap deus ex machina. I didn't get to make the WIN for the team.

Look. The galaxy was invaded by the horde of horrible bug creatures. I wanted to FIGHT them. I wanted to figure out their weaknesses. I wanted to use the cunning and resources of the peoples of the galaxy to figure out how to kill them, and DO THAT. I wanted the ending of the story to be a celebration of courage and general badassery.

What did I get? You take some weird spaceship and stick it into some other spaceship. And then baby SpaceJesus (tm) appears from somewhere and uses StarMagic (tm) in the way you tell him, and this makes everything different forever.

Now, let's set aside the ookyness of having the fate of the whole galaxy be decided on a whim by one bloodthirsty gun guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time. I think the ending was perfunctory, non-sensical, and a true wasted opportunity.

At the end, you push a button to choose the fate of the galaxy. It did not provide a fraction of the joy I would have felt at actually finding a way for humanity to take down those stupid Reaper ships ourselves. The ending, as written, was the space opera equivalent of giving the last place soccer team a trophy for Trying Very Hard.

Whew. I Should Take a Pill.

I generally love BioWare games and write nice things about them, so much so that I have been accused of sucking up to them to try to get a job. (I have a job, thanks. And, believe me, if BioWare wanted me, they'd have said something to me by now. They know I exist.)

It's a great series, full of fond memories. My wife and I spent an enormous amount of time in their world, and I don't regret it. I still recommend it, especially ME1 and ME2. And then ME3 with the patched ending.

So. Any news about Dragon Age 3 yet?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review: The Good Stuff

Since I write so much in this space about fantasy role-playing games in general and Bioware stuff in particular, I feel kind of lame for saying nothing of note so far about Mass Effect 3 (ME3). The Mass Effect series is one of the best series in the genre, written by one of the best development houses, and BioWare has long been a huge influence on my work.

(Note I picked female Shepherd for the image above. Because FemShep is just better.)

People really care about this series. Perhaps a bit overmuch. If we as a people could give to real problems the same focus and energy we expended on arguing about the ME3 ending, the world would be a better place.

I played Mass Effect 1 and 2 obsessively. All side quests, all everything. I played Mass Effect 3 front to back (skipping a lot of the side quests, which sort of telegraphs how I felt about the experience), experienced the ending, and then watched the recently patched new endings on YouTube. There's a lot of good stuff here for game geeks to argue about, though, before I get too cranky about it, I wanted to say what I liked.

The Setting

I think the Mass Effect setting is one of the best in computer games. BioWare has this stuff down to a science. It was only when I was playing ME3 and revisited all the great conflicts in the series: Salarian vs. Krogan. Geth vs. Quarian. Humans vs. Everybody, that I really started to realize how much stuff there is. How complex and nuanced the issues facing the characters are. How interesting the setting is and how that, in turn, leads to interesting stories.

Between Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I personally think that BioWare is the best maker of computer game settings. I hope they keep doing it.

The Gameplay

Tight as a drum. Except for occasional problems finding walls my character could hide behind, the game plays well. It's fast paced, fun, and full of exploding things.

I do wish that there was more variety in what you could do. I desperately miss the vehicle sections in Mass Effect, which were great for breaking up gameplay. They had their problems, but, honestly, I think the game would be much better if those sections had been improved instead of dropped entirely.

The Ambition

The world of Mass Effect is a huge epic full of intractable conflicts. There were a lot of them left at the end of Mass Effect 2. The developers decided that, in ME3, they would all be settled. This makes the story of ME3 one of the most ambitious and far-reaching of any game I've ever played. It's a very generous gesture to players, a bit of fan-service to make sure that no lingering issues, even ones that could easily support a whole full game on their own, remained.

This choice was a little problematic in the execution. The ways these plots were settled felt a bit perfunctory. By the end of the game, there was no problem so enduring and thorny that it couldn't be solved by one guy fighting his way down two long corridors littered with chest-high walls. Still, the game wanted people to leave the series content, and it did its best to give the fans what they desired.

It's a great series. I hope these dialogue and story-rich single-player experiences still have a place in the gaming industry. I truly enjoyed it (especially the first two). I'm grateful to Bioware for making it and hope they keep making games like these.

Now that this is done, I have another article to write about the ending. I hope I can come up with something fresh to add to the countless gallons of virtual ink that have been spilled on the issue.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quick Book Thought, Apropos Of Nothing

Have you ever noticed that there are some books that, when you carry them around, make people want to start conversations with you?

(The Stand was a big one for this. Also, The Man in the High Castle.) 

Why do I bring it up? 

Because I just started A Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quick Thoughts On Android

One of our games, Avadon: The Black Fortress, came out on Android recently. (It's also on the Amazon App Store.) The experience was very tiring and time-consuming, and it will great outside support (such as the Humble Bundle wanting to help with the port, as they did with Avadon) for us to go through it again. If you are a small development house without a hit big enough to get the attention of the big boys at Google and Amazon, it's really hard to summon up the resources to deal with the things that make Android so tough to develop for.

And what are those "things"? If people are interested in a developer's view of the Android situation, the Penny Arcade Report had a really good article on why one dev is avoiding the platform. It's only describes the beginning of the problems, but it's a very good start.

(If anything, the article sells short how many devices there are out there, each with their own weird quirks and bugs, and how much extra testing and debugging time you have to spend dealing with the mess. It's even harder when you write games for tablets, like we do.)

The comments on the post are very worth reading, as they provide a classic example of how evangelists for a platform can be capable of erecting a Reality-Dispersal-Field, through which not even the hardest facts can penetrate.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Boring Stuff On Why Video Games Are Art. Also, Ponies!

OK, I'm back, and I'm about to write about evil, art, and game design. To make it all go down easier, there will also be ponies. So read, on but remember ...

GameBanshee writer Eric Schwarz wrote a tough but fair review of our recent game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit. In the review, he made a comment about the game's story that I thought was really interesting:

"The game world's overall tone and morality is also a bit strange - slaughtering Slith (lizardmen) farmers in the name of the king might be uncomfortable, but the game world certainly doesn't care."

I actually liked this comment a lot, but he didn’t go near as far as he could have. There are places in Avernum where the morality gets even stranger.

For example, one of the main foes in the game is an army of savage lizard men, called slithzerikai, sliths for short. (The sliths are not all hostile. They have friendly settlements, and playing as a slith is an option in later games in the series.)

In one of the dungeons, you have the option to smash a huge clutch of slith eggs. If you do so, several of their guards attack you, but that is the only negative consequence for what most would consider a pretty evil act. I have been accused in my forums of encouraging baby-killing in my games. And, yes, I did allow the player to do a pretty horrible thing with no punishment. And I have written games in which the player can choose to do things that are even worse.

Why did I do this?

Because computer games are art.

Oh God, No, Shut Up!

Yeah, I know. The debate about whether video games are art is probably the boringest thing in the history of boring things. To liven this blog post up, here are more ponies. Hey ponies, what do you think of tedious navel-gazing blog posts?

Products Of My Own Weird Brain

Avernum: Escape From the Pit is a rewrite of Exile: Escape From the Pit, the very first game I released as shareware. It was the first Real Game (tm) I ever tried to write, and it was a pretty wild, uncontrolled process. Since I'd never done it before, I just went crazy, throwing encounters and plot bits and moral dilemmas in willy-nilly. It was a raw, unguarded process. I didn't second-guess anything. I just took how I thought and how I saw the world and put it down in the computer.

This is how storytelling works.

I've always been a huge news junkie. I still keep a close eye on what is happening in the world, as it fascinates me. (And is an endless source of fresh material.) Doing so, however, has given me a very cynical worldview. Our world has many, many principled people, struggling against enormous odds to increase the reserve of justice and kindness available on the planet.

However, these generally unsung heroes fight against an overwhelming amount of awfulness. Ours is a world where horrible things happen to undeserving people on a constant basis, and nobody who is not personally involved will ever know or care.

This is how I see the world. It's not right or wrong. It's just how I see things. When I write a story, any story, it will be colored, in ways obvious and subtle, by this perception.

This is why the morality in Avernum (and in all of my games, really) seems a bit "strange." Because it reflects my worldview, and being exposed to how another humans sees the world can be weird and unsettling. This is what makes art cool. It lets you see how other people think.

Important Disclaimer

My games reflect how I feel the world IS, NOT how I feel the world SHOULD BE. I do not personally endorse crushing the weak, hunting goblins for sport, or smashing slithzerikai eggs. Extrapolating an artist's personal experience and views from his or her work is very rarely accurate and is generally a waste of time.

Hmm. I'm getting Bored. So here is this.

So Why Leave Do I Leave the Horrible Bits In?

Because I write role-playing games.

The term "role-playing" has become hugely debased since it was created. Most RPGs don't give you the opportunity to actually decide what sort of person you want to play, even in the simplistic way computer games allow. That is why I always try to put moral choices in my games: to give the player more agency in what is going on and to help him or her feel more attached to the little computer person they control. And the better and more dramatic the choices you allow, the greater the effect.

Thus, I give the player a chance to be evil from time to time. If they choose to be good, it affirms their character as moral and admirable. If they choose to be evil, it's probably so they can get a vicarious thrill from engaging in craziness they would never consider in real life. Either way, the option to be evil gives the option to be good more meaning.

But I have to play fair. If someone is evil, I can only punish them if it makes sense. Sometimes, evil is not punished. Thus, I don't always punish it. Sometimes, but not always.

There's No Right or Wrong Ways To Design These Things

I wanted to pull out and discuss that review quote because it was, in the end, a perfectly subjective artistic judgment. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Reviews are nothing but subjective judgments. That is what makes reviews cool. My game made Eric Schwarz feel a little unsettled. That wasn't a right or wrong reaction. It was just his honest reaction, and I'm happy to get any reaction at all. I'd rather make someone feel something, even if it's not positive, than for my game to generate 30 hours of "Meh."

As computer games develop as an art form, I look forward to more discussion about what they mean and how they affect us. (Though, of course, I may be the only one.) People are more interesting than polygons.

In Conclusion

Thank you for your patience. I hope it went well. How did it go, Spike?

Thanks, Spike!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Future Is AWESOME!

Like everyone else on the planet, this is what I currently get when I try to get a little hot single-player Diablo 3 action in.

The reason that this bothers me so much is that this sort of thing is bad for PC/Mac gaming. It's not bad for Blizzard. They'll still make a mint. But this sort of thing tarnishes the entire platform. Every gamer who gets hit with this sort of thing has a chance of being pushed away from the PC (and with good reason!) and toward consoles and iOS, platforms that don't have these hassles.

My business will, in a small way, get tarred with this brush, and it hurts my bottom line. Which makes me sad.

Oh well. I guess I'll spend time with my family instead. Sigh. If I wanted to spend more time with my family, you think I would have bought Diablo III?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Legend of Grimrock and Design Space

There's been a lot of action in the little world of indie role-playing games. Dungeons of Dredmor. Zeboyd Games announcing the next Penny Arcade title. Hack, Slash, Loot. Torchlight 2 coming.  And, of course, two modest titles from my company.

Which makes sense. With few exceptions, major developers have left the genre behind. And whenever a beloved genre gets left behind by AAA titles, that is a great opportunity for small developers to duck in and eat all of those tasty, tasty scraps.

Which brings me to Legend of Grimrock, from Finnish developer Almost Human. This surprise hit came out on Steam about three weeks ago and proceeded to make the large moneys.

I played Legend of Grimrock from front to back. It's a pure nostalgia trip, extremely well done, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you like role-playing games of the retro school, I recommend it.

So there. That's the review portion out of the away, complete with a nice pull quote. Phew.

But what I find very interesting about the title is where it comes from, and how I suspect that its design doesn't have many more places to go from here.

Ancient History

Legend of Grimrock is a very faithful tribute to the 1987 classic dungeon crawler Dungeon Master. It has a first person view, takes place on a square graph paper grid (you can only move north, south, east, and west), and has lots of physics and timing puzzles involving teleporters and pressure plates on the floor.

In Grimrock, as in its inspiration, you can still only attack foes directly north, south, east, or west of you. This creates the peculiar situation where an enemy one space diagonal from you cannot affect you in any way. In Dungeon Master, you could exploit this to defeat even the strongest foes with ease. Grimrock has used a variety of tricks (like having foes turn left and right rapidly to try to outflank you) to mitigate this problem, and, by and large, combat is fast-paced and fun. It's a little surreal, but it plays.

Anyway. It was a huge hit and a lot of fun back in the day, and things that are fun don't stop being fun just because time moves on. There were four Dungeon Master games, the last coming out in 1993. The same basic design was used for three Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games from SSI. The last of which also came out in 1993.

And then, that's it. That style of game, which was so much fun and made so much money, disappeared from the face of the earth for twenty years until the Almost Human team picked it up, dusted it off, and turned it into gold.

I suspect that it will be used a bit more. Maybe Grimrock 2, or a similar tribute from another developer. At which point, I predict that the design will disappear again.

Why? Because of a really cool and nerdy game design concept: Design Space.

Design Space

So suppose you make a role-playing game. There are basically two steps. First, you make the engine. That is, the graphics, the game system, the character classes and spells, the stuff you can place in the world (walls, doors, traps, things that spit fire out of the walls, arrows and knees, etc.). Second, you take this toolkit you made and you design a world in it. You take the elements of the design and piece them together into a game.

When you have finished this first step, then you can look at all of the possible neat things you can do with them when making the material the player will actually experience. This finite list of possibilities is the design space.

Some engines have really big design spaces. There is still a lot of new adventures you could write in the world of Skyrim. They made a lot of games with the Infinity Engine. Some engines, on the other hand, have a small design space. There isn't a lot you can do with them without starting to repeat yourself. The original Penny Arcade games had this problem. The first one did OK and the second one flopped. I think a large part of the reason is that, once you'd played the first game, you had seen everything the engine had to offer.

This Is Why I Rewrite My Own Game Engines Every Few Years ...

... as much as my fans hate when I do it. I wrote a five game series called Geneforge. Five games. By the time the fifth one was done, I think I'd done just about everything with that game engine and system that I could. All the juice was squeezed out of it. I had to write a new thing just so I could have fresh ideas again.

Back To Grimrock

Once again, Legend of Grimrock is a ton of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. However, it is a game on a square grid with monsters, pressure plates, secret door switches, and holes in the wall that shoot stuff out. There is only a limited number of ways that you can piece those elements together to make interesting dungeons for the player to explore. It's finite, and, by the time I was at the bottom of the dungeon, I was already noticing elements repeating themselves.

As I said, there might be a Grimrock 2. But, as we discovered twenty years ago, this earth will only stay fertile for so long before it needs to lie fallow again. Only then will it yield a fresh crop for a new generation of gamers. (Analogy!!!)

This is NOT a criticism of Legend of Grimrock, which is, for the third time, very good. This game doesn't have to be responsible for carrying future titles. It only has to be fun by itself, and it does so very well.

I just think it's a good example of the varying durability of different designs. Some can support many titles. Some only a few. This isn't a problem. It is simply important, when planning games beyond the first, not to heap onto a humble structure too many expectations.

Side Thought

The Grimrock devs plan to port the game to iOS. This game frequently requires a lot of very fast, precise movements to finish puzzles or to just survive. Controlling this sort of game on a touchpad is almost always neither fast nor precise. I will be very, very interested to see how they tackle this problem. I suspect encounter by encounter rebalancing will be necessary, which will suck for them, but I hope they prove me wrong.

Final, Unsolicited Advice

If any other indie developers are looking for an old design to pick up, dust off, and have great success, Ultima Underworld is just sitting there. This was the next step in the design progression started by Dungeon Master. It still takes place in one huge dungeon, but, instead of taking place on a grid, it is fully 3-D with 360 degree movement.

Huge hit. Ton of fun. Someone! Rip it off! Fast!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Avernum Out For Windows, For What It's Worth.

A few weeks ago, Spiderweb Software finally released our newest role-playing game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, for Windows. It's also out on Steam.

It's OK if you didn't notice, as a far higher profile indie RPG, Legend of Grimrock, came out the same day. It's a lot of fun and I'm almost done with it. I'll blog about it soon.

I've taken this long to blog about it (or anything) because work stress, increasing age, and family health issues have given me a persistent case of burnout. Burnout is an interesting issue. I'll blog about it soon.

Avernum: Escape From the Pit is doing well. It is old material. It's a rewrite of Avernum, which is itself a rewrite of Exile: Escape From the Pit. And yet, thanks to iTunes and Steam, it has already, in only a few months, earned as much as either of those titles earned in years and years. The revolutionary effect of Steam and iTunes on people trying to have my career simply cannot be understated. I'll blog about it soon.

Since it's a rewrite, it hasn't gotten as many reviews, which is fair. GameBanshee wrote a tough, fair, generally positive review which makes me want to write some interesting things about video games and art. No, I'm kidding. Writing about video games and art is never interesting. Still. I'll blog about it soon.

I've also been playing Mass Effect 3, when I can work up the energy. I'm not feeling it the way I felt Mass Effect 1 and 2, but I'm sure I can come up with some interesting things to say about it. I won't bother to write an actual review, as you've already finished it and made a YouTube video about how angry the ending made you. I'll blog about it soon.

Finally, Community has been having an amazing season. I won't blog about it, as Community fans are almost as tiresomely aggressive in their evangelism as The Wire fans and bronies. Still. If you watch it on Hulu before it gets cancelled (which should happen ... ... NOW), you can be ahead of the nerd-culture curve.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The iPad. Changing Fast and Faster.

I'll get the PR puffery out of the way early. We released our newest game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit HD, on the iPad last week. There are almost no old-school RPGs on the platform, and this is a good one.

OK. Done.

I wanted to talk a little about how much changed on the iPad (and the iPhone) in the mere eight months since we released our first game for it, Avadon: The Black Fortress HD, in June, 2011. It really fascinates me.

First, everything that was crazy before is more crazy. iPad sales have taken off even more than before, and competing tablets are being crushed by its awesomeness. (Yes, I think that the iPad is the superior tablet computer. Please feel free to pillory me in comments.) My previous game, Avadon HD, is selling far better than it did 4 or 5 months ago, just from increased popularity of the iPad.

Second, developers have noticed. The flood of new games for iPad and iPhone has not slowed at all. In fact, it feels like it's increased. I don't have figures to back this up, only my gut feeling. If you have a link to hard figures, please let me know in comments and I'll add it to the article. There are dozens of new games every day, and your blessed placement at the top of the New Releases list won't last long. At all.

Because of this, even though I think I've done a far better job marketing Avernum HD and creating its store page than Avadon HD, it is selling far worse. Avadon HD was the best-selling RPG for several days. Avernum HD got to #2 very briefly and then immediately plummeted to #18. It's not THAT worse a game, but the flood of competitors cannot be resisted by my cute, niche little product.

Do not feel sorry for me. It is still, by any reasonable human standard, makin' us good money. But it's really rough out there. I am strongly considering posting detailed sales figures in a week or three, just to let people see what the money end of iPad development is like.

Third, free-to-play is where the money is.

I just looked at the RPG section of iTunes. As of 3:56 PM, Pacific time, April 9, 2012, the #1, #2, and #3 games on the Paid Apps list are at #25, #27, and #6 on the Grossing list. (The #3 game is $6.99, which is why its grosses are so high.) The #18 sales rank for Avernum HD nets it #46 most grossing. Freemium games kick ass.

This is a relatively recent change. In June, when Avadon HD was #1 or #2 on Paid Apps, this resulted in #3-4 on Top Grossing. I never made #1 Grossing, but I came close. Now DragonVale rules the world.

This makes me feel obsolete. I should write a freemium RPG where you can pay real money to get a +5 Paladin Sword of Awesomeness or whatever. But I just can't bring myself to do it. It's ironic. When I started, I was one of the young turks challenging the old order with shareware by giving part of my game away for free. Now I am one of the old, cranky reptiles being pushed aside by an awesome marketing angle I'm just too old and inflexible to take advantage of.

I love developing for the iPad. I love the device. It is, to quote an imaginary guy in a story Mike Daisey made up, "a kind of magic." And, since I'm the only person writing my sort of game for the platform (which is weird), I foresee reasonable earnings from it for me for quite a while. Not everone with an iPad wants a game where you spend 99 cents to buy a hat for your dragon.

But it's the sexiest, moneyest, most cutthroat competitive market out there. I can scrape out some dollars because I have an established fanbase. If I was just starting out, I would be terrified of making my way in iTunes, and rightly so.

Monday, March 19, 2012

We're In the New Humble Bundle!

Today, the newest Humble Bundle went live, and my game was in it. The Humble Bundle For Android 2 is now up, enabling you to get Avadon: The Black Fortress and four other fine indie games for whatever you decide to donate, and a portion of your contribution goes to charity.

Note that, though it's called the Android bundle, all games in it are also available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Pay once, get it DRM-free for all four platforms.

We are hugely excited to be part of the Humble Bundle, a project that has managed a unique combination of ethics, business sense, and just general excitement. It was a great idea when it came out, and it's still a great idea.

Also, this is the first time that we've had a game out for Android and the first time in well over a decade that we had a game out for Linux. Ports of these games were done by other developers, and they did a great job. After the Humble Bundle concludes, we will make sure that the ports will continue to be for sale.

Any hypothetical questions, imagined reader?

Q: So the Linux and Android version won't disappear from the Earth after the bundle is gone?

A: Nope. Deals to distribute these versions are already in place.

Q: You didn't do the ports yourself?

A: No, they were ported by skilled third-party developers in close consultation with us. My increasingly old brain doesn't have the space to learn to develop for any new platforms. It doesn't even have space to hold everything I need to know now. The number of things I need to do for my job that I need to relearn from scratch every time I do them is already really high.

Q: Will future Spiderweb titles come out for Linux and Android?

A: Good question! I don't know!

Being able to sell something for Android and Linux is extra-exciting to me, because, after years of reading e-mails about how awesome it'll be for me when I develop for those platforms, I will get to actually see how good it is. So if you are one of the multitude that promised me up and down that you would buy anything I release on Linux/Android, I have a great opportunity for you ...

Q: What charities does this support?

A: The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child's Play, both highly worthy endeavors.

(Added 3/19/2012.)

Q: Avadon for Android is for tablets. What does this mean?

A: That the device's screen needs to be at least 1024x600.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Life's Tour Through Dungeons & Dragons, Part 2.

(This is the second part of my tour through all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons I have played. The first part can be found here.)

After many years of playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the unthinkable happened. A whole new version came out. Everything was different. Our minds were truly blow. "Remake all of D&D? Is that even possible?"

Turns out, it was.

Second Edition (1989)

Second Edition took fifteen years of hard-earned design experience with RPGs and used it to round off all of the rough edges in the system. It still basically played like First Edition, but with less insanity. A wimpy giant spider could no longer instantly kill you with poison. Undead didn't drain levels permanently. Freshly minted wizards could now cast an amazing TWO spells per day. That's twice as many as before!!!

However, the combat system was still very vague. If you had someone in your group who had never played before, you could give them a Fighter to play. All they had to do in combat was pick up their figurine, plop it down next to a monster, and roll a die to attack. If the dungeon master said they hit, they picked up a different die, rolled it, and said the amount of damage. And that was it.

It is this potential simplicity (playing other classes was more complicated) that I miss most about the old game. There was a simple way to play. There isn't one anymore. Considering D&D was mainly played by groups of friends getting together for a relaxing evening, perhaps with a drink or two, this is an enormous loss.

I'm going to make an Official Proclamation now:

If a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have an option which enables it to be easily played by a moderately inebriated person who isn't good at math, it is a failure.

Second Edition was, while still flawed, my favorite version. Then Designers got their hands on it and started, you know, Designing. God help us.

Third Edition (2000)

Never played it. Too busy with babies.

Version 3.5 (2003)

Never played it. Also, Point Five? It's enough of a change to buy new books, but not enough to be a full upgrade? Isn't that a little fishy?

Fourth Edition (aka 4E, 2008)

And then, after an absence of over a decade, I returned to D&D, only to find that the universe has completely changed. People say that Fourth Edition is trying to copy World of Warcraft, but, to be honest, I don't see it. I really don't. Instead, it feels like the hardcore wargames I played way back when I started gaming. With all the good and bad that comes with it.

It's very detailed and tactical. Everything has been formalized. Nothing is left to chance. Every movement, every action, even the act of role-playing, has been codified and given its own rule-set. It's Dungeons and Dragons and Control Freaks.

Old gamers have a reputation for only loving the version of D&D they grew up with and hating everything else, but I went into 4E determined to enjoy it. I played in a single campaign of it for over a year and had really quite a lot of fun. Dense rules? Piles of cards and abilities to keep track of? Tons of algebra? My brain was made to handle this stuff. It was great. For a while.

But if I had to come up with one word to describe the rules of 4E, it would be "undisciplined." Sure, it's a solid system, and every little thing is covered in the rules. However, there is too much going on for people to actually keep track of what is going on. The longer you play, the more cards pile up. The more abilities accumulate. The more things you have to keep track of with every single attack and damage roll.

Every single action seems to result in an effect like, "Everyone gets +1 to hit to attack the target next round, if they attack with a missile weapon, and the target is bloodied, and it is Tuesday." It gets maddening.

The last night of the campaign I played in, we were seventh level. At that point, we had three people keeping track of the state of play. The dungeon master took care of the monster actions. I kept track of initiative and effects on players. Another player kept track of effects on monsters. And even with three adult, lifelong gamers riding herd on the game, we STILL forgot stuff. All the time. Then we quit.

And teaching regular humans to play this stuff? Forget it!

I know there are many who will virulently disagree with this analysis, for whom 4E is the One True D&D. And, before you tear me apart in the comments, I will only say this. 4E has only been out a little over three years, and they have already announced another complete redesign. Don't say it's just for money ... They could make a mint releasing expansions, dungeons, campaign settings, etc. I think that already tearing everything up and starting over is a de facto admission that the design just wasn't working.

A Brief Aside and Unwanted Design Advice

A friend of mine was applying for a marketing job as Wizards of the Coast. To help her prepare, I ran a one night 4E game for her and her friends. I DM'ed a game for six women, as my daughters watched and wished they could play. It was the dream of a lifetime, come true.

However, these women were, while bright, social, and eager, not lifelong gamer nerds. Trying to teach them D&D was a fascinating experience. Based on what we went through, here is my one piece of unasked-for advice for the team designing Fifth Edition:

Whenever you write a new rule, picture a young man trying to explain it to his willing but non-gamer girlfriend, whom he has finally convinced to try out his hobby. Hell, try to explain the rule to one of your parents. If the most likely result is a confused look and glazed-over stare, just make the damn thing simpler already.

I can't say it's possible to make D&D a more mainstream hobby again. It may not be. But, if it is possible, this is the path.

What I Want, For Anyone Who Cares

For me, D&D is a chance to sit around with friends, toss back some Maker's Mark, shoot the breeze, and occasionally bounce dice and kill some bad guys. It's a social game. The more time you spend re-explaining rules and poring through huge books to try to figure out if you can charge on a triggered action, the less time you spend just relaxing with your friends.

So, kids, if you ever wonder why old folks get all nostalgic for the old rule sets, it's because, as crude and poorly designed as they were (and don't get me started on the art), they were aiming at a specific sort of play experience (loose, fast, casual), and they delivered it.

I want to teach my kids how to play D&D. I could teach them how to play Second Edition. 4E, not a chance. That makes me genuinely sad.

In ten years, when I actually have time to play again, I'm really looking forward to seeing what Eighth Edition looks like. It'll be fascinating. And, if it doesn't work for me, I still have all my old books in the basement, waiting for the End Times.