Friday, March 29, 2013

The Medium-Budget Game


A few years ago at GDC or MIGS there was a talk on using the concept of micro-lending to fund more games.  The basic principle (as applied to games) would be that a big studio, who would normally $10 million into one game, banking on that being a hit, would instead put $1 million into ten projects, some of which would bomb, but one of them would be a big hit.  The money made in the successful games would make up for the losses of the poor games.

In this way, big studios would make medium-budget games.  This is a less risky strategy in theory because you are no longer putting all your eggs in one basket.

Easter Basket of Eggs
Image: relevant!
A recent post on Destructoid revealed that big-budget gamesare becoming too big, and the latest Tomb Raider was a failure at 3.6 million copies sold.

How can 3.6 million be considered a failure?  At $70 a pop (a ridiculous price in the first place), you're looking at $252 million gross profit.  Just how much does a game cost to make?  I can't imagine the budget for Tomb Raider for the net to be in the red.

It's been a couple of years since I saw that talk, and I'm surprised the advice still hasn't been followed.  If big companies like THQ are going down, and even hugely popular games are considered failures, surely executives are seeing the warning signs.  If budgets aren't reigned in, they will find themselves in the same hole as THQ.

Gamers seem to support this concept as well, with their wallets.  Just look at the hardware for the obvious example:  the PS3 was technically proficient, and expensive, but the Wii, while lacking technologically, was cheaper, and the Wii is hands down a bigger success than the PS3.

Chart of Wii/360/PS3 Sales.  Wii wins.
Trend line not necessarily continuing into Wii U.
That is not to say that there is no market for big-budget games--after all, the PS3 did still sell; it's not like it was avoided like the plague.  But the amazing success of the Wii suggests perhaps the balance of big-budget and medium-budget games should shift.  Some companies should diversify their projects and split up the cash, giving themselves a greater shot at success, by offering more games at cheaper prices.  Then selling 3.6 million won't be considered a failure, and they'll be more likely to hit that mark anyway.

Some companies are great at big-budget games, and those successful ones have no need to change their strategy.  But Square Enix, the developer/publisher behind the latest Tomb Raider and Hitman games, for instance, seems to be failing at making the big-budget titles.

And to clarify: I am not saying these games are garbage or anything, just that Square Enix itself considers them failures for not making the profit they need.

So Square Enix ought to consider the move toward many medium-budget games.  They can take chances on new IPs, work on games of all genres, and discover which games become big hits through a less risky trail-and-error system.  Using that knowledge, they can then give sequels to the successes bigger budgets if they think they can make that kind of profit with them.

Tomb Raider 2012
Looks great, but not $100 Million great.
But let's talk about what a medium-budget game is.  A big-budget game, of course, would be the AAA variety we get from major studios.  A small-budget game comes off the likes of indie studios that don't have much financial support, or even casual games (it doesn't take a particularly high budget to make a Facebook game or a match-3 mobile game).

But what does a medium-budget game look like?  Well, essentially, they're a generation behind.  God of War 2, for the PS2, had a budget of only a million dollars.  God of War 3 had 44 times the budget.  God of War 3 was not 44 times better, and did not sell 44 times as many copies.

I would happily play a game that looks a few years old if I could get it for even half the price.  Yet a medium-budget game could sell for as low as $20 and only need to sell 100,000 copies for 100% profit.

I think the industry is shooting itself in the foot by raising their budgets and prices so high that only extreme hobbyists can afford their products.  By doing so, they're fighting over smaller and smaller markets.  They also seem to think that the solution to poor sales on the last game is to throw money at the next game.

But there is a wide open market for medium-budget games to bridge the gap between the AAAs and the casual/indie markets.  More potential gamers would be willing to try core games if they weren't so expensive, so they could get their feet wet and see if it's right for them.  Some gamers would find they enjoy them, and then be more willing to pay for the $70 games.  So medium-budget games would have a larger impact than just the sales of the medium-budget game--it might impact the sales of the big-budget game in a positive way.  Then games like Tomb Raider will hit their goal, and that ultra-high budget will be justified.

God of War 2
You know what?  Six years old and still looks good.

Friday, March 22, 2013

First Impression: TERA Rising


TERA Rising is an oddly mixed bag.  It's not just that the execution is great in some areas and lacking in others, but it's also rather shocking to see both the amount of creativity and cliché together in one game.

TERA Rising Logo

The Awesome

I first discovered TERA Rising by searching for MMOs with great character customization.  This game does not disappoint in that area.  Beyond offering a variety of anatomically different races (from humans to demons to raccoons), there is a fantastic amount of intricate customization, with sliders for facial features like bone structure and even nostril flare.

TERA Rising seems to have an unwarranted reputation for (as one player put it) "busty women, busty women everywhere".  But compared to the bustiness of WoW's or DCUO's female models, TERA Rising is downright modest.  It's mostly in the revealing clothing that some races and classes are prone to (particularly the light-armored classes) that make your female character into a pinup.  This comes up much more rarely than you'd think.

Once you're past the exceptionally fine granular customization stage, you're treated to a beautiful cutscene that introduces most of the major races and their personalities.  You also see how spectacular the graphics are overall.  Well, after all, if you get to change the size of the bridge of your character's nose, you better be able to see it, right?

Character Customization
Seriously, those six sliders on the right are all for just the mouth.
TERA's combat system is wonderfully action-oriented.  Although it's not quite as fluid as some other games, it is thankfully much faster than turn-based and time-based MMOs.  Your enjoyment of the combat is really based on what class you pick.  I tried out three classes before finding a fourth that I was comfortable with.  But to each his own, and while some classes like Archer, Lancer, and Sorcerer aren't my cup of tea, I saw plenty of players enjoying those classes fully.

Some classes are traditional, with mana that refills automatically, while others require you to attack relentlessly to bring up your MP to fire even more devastating attacks.

Best of all, you are free to replace your mouse button attacks as if they were standard number keys.  And I applaud Tera Rising enormously for being the first MMO the puts all attacks close to the WASD keys, using 1-6 and F1-F6, rather than 1-0.  It takes some getting used to, but ultimately it makes far more sense.

UI Screenshot
That attack bar on the bottom is a logical keyboard configuration.  You heard me: logic!
When picking your class, don't rely on their own difficulty rating system; I found the ones that claim to be easiest were kind of hard to use, while the moderate ones weren't so bad.  I play my MMOs with a self-imposed permadeath, so I figured out quickly which class was best for me.

The Meh

Certain aspects of TERA Rising aren't bad in their own right, but it's the combinations of elements that make me question their design choices.

For instance, some of the classes feel like the butt heads thematically.  The Archer uses a bow that's large enough to see, but not so big it looks cartoonish.  But Lancers and swordfighters use monstrosities of weapons, looking like someone played too much FF7.  You practically drag the sword around like you're playing Silent Hill 2!

Giant lance for the Lancer
Everyone is TERA is a world-record weight lifter.
Another strangely disconcerting combination is the races.  There is a race of neko little girls, and a race of pudgy raccoon-like creatures, and then there's a race of devil creatures and a race of rock monsters, and all are working together.  While part of the plot is that seven disparate races must face some grander challenge, there very distinct styles make you feel like sometimes you're playing in a realistic high-fantasy setting, and other times you're in a cartoon.

The Awful

The quest structure is far too basic and flat to carry much weight.  Kill this many thats, collect this many doohickeys, talk to that guy over there.  That's about it.  Except for the escort missions, and one is far too many for that sort of thing.

Like other RPGs, the story primarily exists in mission briefing text boxes, which I don't bother to read.  As far as I'm concerned, I went to a new island to find some guy, and as far as I know I came back empty-handed and continued on my way to do other repetitive quests that have nothing to do with the island.

Don't bother playing the tutorial.  It's a waste of time, and it's more confusing to play it than to simply begin the game without it and learn to play as you go.  Sometimes during loading screens you get a graphic of keyboard controls, and that shows you just about everything.  It's basic MMO button controls; just press keys and see what happens.

Inventory screen
Guess how you open your Inventory.  If you said "press I", give yourself a cookie.
Speaking of loading screens, I think someone took some great concept art and threw a stupid Photoshop filter on them, ruining them.  If that was all you saw of the game, you'd think it was an amateur production, and it makes me wince every time the game loads.

Lastly, I previously mentioned that there are some combinations that throw me off.  Well, most of them just make me shrug, but the thing that really I feel is an awful choice is the combination of unique and cliché races.  If you're going to add original races like rock monsters and even raccoon critters, why the heck would you go so unoriginal as elves?  It seems like they had such a unique concept going, but then some exec who'd just seen Lord of the Rings said "This'll never sell without some elves.  No, wait, make them high elves."

Overall, though, TERA Rising is worth a try, to see some of the new stuff they pulled off.  Some of the new ideas don't always work, but when they get it right, they get it really right.  What they get wrong, they get really wrong.  But it's free to play, so it's worth a shot.

TERA Rising can be found here.

Dracoliths Rising Art

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dev Log: The January Engine's Existential Crisis


When I began working on the January Engine, I had only a vague notion of what I wanted: some kind of RPG using cards as a battle system.  I was really doing it to keep up on my coding skills.

After seeing that it was possible in a rudimentary way, I set the January Engine aside for some time, moving on to other projects that I was more excited about and had more detailed designs for.

Doom Monthathon Level
Like this.  Or The Vortex.  Or HeroQuest.  Or...
When I picked it back up, I switched gears and tried designing a unique card-based battle system that didn't just take RPG staples and cardify them.  I considered a board game or RTS hybrid, and begin working on coding that, giving the January Engine a second life.

But even then, that kind of dropped quickly, partly due to other work, partly because I was having some trouble designing the system.  I came up with some interesting mechanics on paper, but I never solidified them beyond the primary stages of concept.

This, of course, meant that programming could go very few steps ahead without hitting a wall of I-don't-know-what-to-do-next.

January Engine hex screenshot
And then things get weird.
As I've discussed previously, the art in my head can't come out in my hands.  The problem that arises from this is that whenever I start a project with high artistic ambitions, it's a guaranteed failure, especially if the art is a necessary component of the game.

As I began working on my second iteration of the January Engine (with a hex-based RTS slant), I imagined something much different; something impossible as a solo project, so that iteration could not possibly work.

I'm taking a step back (or three) and reevaluating truly what I want from the January Engine.  Sure, it began as coding practice, but I am not satisfied with that.  If that was all I wanted, I could open any programming tutorial and follow it, making silly things like cash register programs to keep my programming skills sharp.

So with a new perspective on things, I'm going to give the January Engine another shot.  This time I'm designing a project that is somewhat code-heavy, but easy on the art.  I must force myself to keep the art needs as simple as possible, and any time I think about making anything more complex than EGA graphics (classic King's Quest), I need to stop and slap myself in the face.

Having the adage of "graphics so simple even I can make them" should reign in any wacky ideas of mine requiring beautiful art, and force the design to stand on its own.

Of course, even if you have the most amazing graphics in the world, game designers should pretend art doesn't exist, so they don't become over-reliant on it.  I have seen too many professional games with amazing graphics but lackluster gameplay, ending in a disappointing game.  Heck, that lesson should have been learned during the early 90's FMV detour.  Somehow every game designer has to relearn that concept (myself included).

But anyway, before I rant on about the industry, I'll go back to the January Engine:

I'll being hitting the reset button on it, and concentrate on coding something both challenging and interesting.  I've got some new ideas and I'm testing the waters in C++.  Right now things are frustrating, but that's more of the cold shock after jumping in, and once I get warmed up things ought to be smoother.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Lifelong Games


So I've been thinking a bit recently about Dwarf Fortress, and one unique quality (of many) of the game is that it is a lifelong endeavor for the Adams brothers, and therefore a lifelong endeavor for the fans.

Tarn Adams has stated that it'll be at least twenty years before it's finished, and it's already been released for six years--and was being worked on for four years before its first release, making it a thirty year run before it's even considered complete.

I don't think there is any videogame that has that kind of staying power.  Sure, we recognize the classics for their historical value, and maybe we still get a little fun out of them, but really, how often are you going to play Galaga, when you could play any number of modern shmups?

Yet Dwarf Fortress isn't intended to be overshadowed by newer, more evolved games in its genre, partly because it's in a genre of its own, and partly because it's a never ending game.

Even twenty years from now, assuming that there is still technology to play it, the popularity of Dwarf Fortress will reach its apex at its final release (and perhaps even then Tarn would technically call it the 1.0 release, and might continue working on it), and it's legacy will be more than a historical curiosity.  People won't play Dwarf Fortress for a quick thrill like you might dust off the old Pac-Man machine; I expect they'll be playing it as fervently as ever, spending months perfecting their fortress, only to have it destroyed by some night creature invasion they weren't prepared for.

Dwarf Fortress
Then they'll start again, since Losing Is Fun!(TM)
And even though other games (Minecraft, for instance) claim Dwarf Fortress as a major inspiration, they won't achieve the longevity.  Console games die when a new console comes out, and usually far before that.  PC games die more slowly, since tools like DOSBOX and resources like GOG.com exist, but they, too, peaked in popularity when they came out, not fifteen years later.  Any resurgence in old games comes mostly from older players who want to relive the memories of their youth.  Today's twelve-year-olds aren't likely to pick up Zork.

And though Dwarf Fortress isn't going to sway any non-gamers to join the ranks, it will continue to gain popularity with the hardest of the hardcore Sim, RTS, RPG, and Adventure gamers--partly by design.

Part of the reason Dwarf Fortress will last is simply because Tarn won't stop coding anytime soon.  This is the first time (or one of the first times) that a developer lets us take the development journey with them.  Dwarf Fortress is not a complete game, and won't be for twenty years.  At least, that's what Tarn tells us.  People play it now and love it, and don't see anything missing, until the next release, when they jump right into the game to discover the latest improvements and additions.

With other games, when the game comes out, that's the end of the line.  At least, in the old days that was the idea.  Now we've got DLC and always-on MMOs, stretching the lifespan of games into years, rather than simply days, weeks, or (if they're lucky) months.

Yet at some point a newer, flashier game comes out that is similar to the old one, and starts stealing players.  MMOs are still evolving, so when a new one comes out, players migrate, especially if they don't have the cash for monthly subscriptions to multiple games.

Dwarf Fortress doesn't have this problem for two reasons.  First, of course, is that it's free; there's a donation button on their website (bay12games.com), but the game itself has no charge.  Secondly, it's in a class of its own, and there has been nothing that has even attempted to outdo what Dwarf Fortress has done.  There is simply no such thing as a flashier Dwarf Fortress, and their can't be, by definition.

Moar DF
Graphics?  We don't need no stinkin' graphics!
Tarn Adams threw out every principle of modern games when he started making Dwarf Fortress: he made the graphics nothing but ASCII art, and yet the programming behind the gameplay can actually slow down modern computers.  This is the sort of game that looks like it should have been made in the seventies, but couldn't have been.

In that way, it's actually kind of timeless.

Although I think the Adams brothers are geniuses, I am surprised there haven't been any clones.  Of course they would be inferior, but that's never stopped the game industry in the past.

While I think the particular gameplay of Dwarf Fortress won't be matched for some time, I wonder how viable the business end of it is.  Tarn makes a variable and modest living off donations, so it makes me wonder if others could do it too, or if Dwarf Fortress is a fluke.

What I mean is that I wonder if others might make a lifetime-long game, always releasing content, and see how far that gets them.  Even the longest running MMOs dwindle after a time, shut their doors, and lock up, especially when a challenger comes.  But since Dwarf Fortress has no challenger, it lives until Tarn Adams decides to kill it.  Could another game developer do that, and make a living off it?

I guess my main question in all this is:  do videogames have to die?

There are analog games that have had lives much, much longer than the longest running videogame, and I will even excuse outliers like Chess.  But who doesn't have a copy of Monopoly lying around?  It's issued to you when you're born.  Parker Brothers hasn't touched it pretty much since it came out (and I don't count various themed versions as really being any different).  It has no DLC, so to speak, yet even if you hate Monopoly, everyone's got a story about it.

On the other end, Magic: The Gathering is a game with content that comes out practically every day, and it's still a staple of geek culture.

Yet I suspect that Monopoly, Magic, and Dwarf Fortress will still be around twenty years from now, but World of Warcraft won't.  Even though WoW is still going strong, and content is still being released, at some point the payments will dry up, or at least enough to not be able to support the product anymore, and WoW will shut down.  Blizzard, in the meantime, may move on to other products, or even make WoW 2, which will bring WoW a swifter death.

But in any case, the corporate structure of big games seems to suggest that they can't follow the lifelong model of Bay 12 Games.  Despite Dwarf Fortress' small popularity, it is enough for the developer to live off.  A bigger developer wouldn't be able to consider that a success, but a two-man team can.

I wonder if the likes of Dwarf Fortress will bring a rise of ultra-small indies, and connected to it, the rise of lifelong games.

Might more developers take players on the development journey with them?

Is this a natural extension of how games are evolving, or is Dwarf Fortress a one-time fluke?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Art and the Imagination


In most forms of art, the artist has something in their head, and they want you to see it.  You communicate that imagination through your chosen form of media.  Visual artists, from painters to movie-makers, put their imagination into a physical medium.  Of course, if you're a musician, perhaps it's the music itself you're trying to express, not a visual to go with it, so musicians could be considered have an equally concrete medium. 

Blue Man Group playing drums with paint splashing everywhere
In some cases, of course, visuals are part of the musical experience.
But other artists have some level of abstraction, using a medium that doesn't directly use the sense, but rather the imagination of the viewer.  Of course, novelists are the primary example.  When you write, your task is to describe what's in your head so the reader forms the same image in theirs.

Of course, games cross the whole spectrum.  Realistic games with hi-def 3D graphics try to be like a movie, presenting you with the images, while older games, retro games, and abstract games have you use your imagination just as well as reading a book does.  In the case of older games, this was mandatory simply because the technology wasn't there.

But now that developers have a choice of going between realistic and abstract, there is a market to explore the abstract nature of games to their full potential.  This is usually in the realm of indie games, where a retro or abstract visual style is a plus.

There is nothing wrong with either style, and it is simply up to the developers to figure which is best for their game.  Dwarf Fortress is supposed to be ASCII art, while Modern Combat 4 tries its best to be as realistic as possible.  Those two games would not work if their graphical styles were reversed (although that would be a fun experiment).

Adams brothers in ASCII art
Such graphics could come out pretty impressive.  Now to get them at 60 fps.
So the artists of Modern Combat 4 took what was in their imagination and showed it to us.  Tarn Adams tells us that a letter "G" is a goblin, and it's up to us to see it.

When I think of the games in my head, I almost universally see them as the realistic kind--or at least the kind where the imagination of the player doesn't do so much, even if the graphics are cartoony or exaggerated.

Yet, while I can design and code, art has always been the weakest part of my game development skillset.  My head fills with gorgeous panoramas and cinematic set pieces, but I always feel there is no way to display what's in my head to the screen without devoting at minimum months to learning that skillset (and probably years).

But now I think: is that necessary?  Even if my head is filled with amazing pictures, do I need to show that to the player, or can I suggest it, and let them imagine it themselves?

After all, I was a writer before I was a game designer, learning how to get my imagination down on the page for others to replicate.  I never drew pictures and said "Look! This is what should be in your head!"

A child's drawing
And when I did, it took a lot of imagination to see what I meant anyway. (Note: not  actually my drawing.  My art skills are worse.)
So it should go with my own videogames, perhaps.  Why should I spoil the fun of imagining a beautiful scene, when that was the best part to me?

I think the trick is deciding which game idea needs to be represented realistically, and which don't.  As I try to design what the January Engine is for, my head is filled with beautiful scenes that will never be made.  But that's not what the JE is supposed to be about; it's meant to be simple graphics to get the gameplay there.

Art is something I can't control, and so it always seems to me that the thing I want the most is that which is beyond my reach.  The kind of art I want for some of my game ideas would take a team of artists months to create, even if the whole thing could be programmed by myself in half the time.  I get ahead of myself and want more than is warranted for a project.

And without a big team behind me, why should I want to make a huge, epic, graphically impressive game?  That's what the big budget game industry is for, and to be a part of that is what satisfies that itch.

So projects here at Scattergamed, and little things I do by myself, can be my playground, where I can tell you to pretend the pink block is a pig and the green block is a tree.  The games industry can make the movies, while the indies write the novels.

Dwarf Fortress fanart
Besides, fan art is half the fun!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Marching toward GDC


I should work for NASA, since I seem to be on a 24 1/2 hour schedule.  I guess I'm from Mars.

Anyway, it's still crunch time for my volunteer project, and we're pushing to go to GDC, so I've got a lot of work to do there.  To take a break from Monthathons, this month will be the usual assortment of posts: reviews, articles, dev logs, whatever.  Posts will stick to Tuesday/Friday for now, as long as I'm awake to post them!

Mars

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dominion Expansion: Good Will Part 8




The first PDF above contains the latest versions of all the cards I've described for my Good Will expansion.  It also has instructions on how to print properly to get the right number of cards.

The second PDF contains all the errata for the Good Will cards.  Most of the cards are self-explanatory, while others might need more in depth explanation, such as Borrow, which can get tricky.

Although the month is over, Good Will is not necessarily finished.  Anytime I make some major changes to Good Will, I will post them, along with updated PDFs.  However, right now the expansion is fully playable as it stands.  Enjoy!

Here they are, all ordered and prettied up for you.