Thursday, February 28, 2013


I got the opportunity to play through some of the interactive teaser for Aslyum that I mentioned yesterday. It's about what you would expect from a point-and-click game in an abandoned asylum: decaying furniture, spooky sounds, yellowing newspaper articles describing the torture of inmates, and so forth. It's the video game equivalent of a haunted house. However, I didn't play through the whole thing, because it started to seem increasingly likely that the game was going to try a jump scare on me.

I hate jump scares. Not because they're a cheap substitute for actual horror, but because they work far too well on me. I enjoy a jump scare about as much as I enjoy someone walking up and punching me in the stomach.

"So why did you bother playing the teaser?" I hear you ask. "It was obviously a horror game!" Well, first of all, I really just wanted to see how the game engine worked. I went ahead and looked through the Lua scripts and video assets for the rooms I didn't actually play through. I discovered that the teaser makes use of quite a few video clips. The panoramic view surrounding each location is essentially a great big static 2d image; in order to show motion, you have to overlay a video clip on part of the image. In the teaser, when you walk through a door, you actually see the door opening; this is because they've overlaid a full-screen video over the entire screen in order to show the door opening. Given that they've used 3d modelling for both the 2d images and for the videos, it really does seem like it would be easier just to build the whole game in a 3d engine.

But to get back to the whole "jump scare" issue: I don't think you need to have monsters popping out of shadows (accompanied by loud noises blasting out of the speakers) for a horror game. I personally would get greater enjoyment out of something more atmospheric and psychological. Most of the Asylum teaser is nicely spooky and creepy without having to resort to pop-up monsters. To cite another example: the Walking Dead video game is a very effective horror game, and I don't remember a single "make the player jump out of his/her chair" moment (though I've only played the first three chapters so far). It's effective because it makes you care about the characters who are in danger, and because of the fantastic use of art, sound, and lighting, but most of all, because it makes you, the player, do things you'd rather not do. The overall effect is very powerful, and even though I'm not a big zombie fan, I'd say that The Walking Dead is one of the best adventure games I've ever played.

All of which is an elaborate way of saying that I'm a big wimp and I wish games and movies would stop making things jump out of closets at me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dagon Game Engine

I've been reading about a recently-released open-source adventure game engine called Dagon. (I found it by way of one of my favorite gaming sites,, which consistently highlights interesting content for game players and developers.) Dagon seems primarily suited for adventure games similar to Myst: the environment is presented from a first-person perspective, but there's no free-roaming allowed. You move between a number of set points in the environment, clicking on doors and corridors and such to indicate where you want to move to. Dagon presents the player with a 360-degree panorama at each location, and the player can use the mouse to look up, down, and around, just as in a conventional first-person game, but there's no 3d rendering involved. Instead, the developer prepares six 2d images for each location: one to represent the north-facing view, one to represent the east-facing view, and so on. The game engine stitches these together to provide the panoramic view that surrounds the player at each location.

Game scripting in Dagon is handled through Lua, and seems very straightforward and easy to learn. Lua scripts define all of your environmental hot spots (buttons, doors, collectible items, etc.) as well as the results of interacting with these hot spots (playing sounds, displaying messages). It looks like a developer can get up to speed fairly quickly with this engine. Once you have your art and you've designed your environmental interactions, assembling it all in Dagon looks to be an easy task.

Senscape has released an interactive teaser for their upcoming Dagon-based game, Asylum (warning: content may be unsuitable for children), and the teaser seems to serve both as a demo of Dagon's features as well as a tutorial for how to use Dagon. The Lua scripts and game assets are available in the download, and the scripts are commented with guidance information for developers hoping to learn their way around.

The art in the teaser appears to have been generated using professional 3d modelling tools, which prompts me to ask: if you've already modelled all of the game objects in 3d, why not just build the game using a 3d engine (such as Unity) and allow free 3d movement? I'm going to hazard a guess that one advantage is performance. Since the graphics are all 2d, the player doesn't need any fancy graphics cards to get the full benefit of the game graphics. I expect the engine would run on fairly low-end systems without suffering for it. As a side benefit, there's no reason the developer would need to use 3d modelling tools to produce art for Dagon. Any sort of 2d art would do, from vector art to retro-style 8-bit art to photos taken from actual real-world locations.

The engine appears to run under Windows, MacOS, and Linux, and I'm planning to give the Linux flavor a spin, but I'm not immediately sure I have a use for it. The game developer still needs to prepare quite a lot of art to fill out a game, since every location requires its own 360-degree panoramic view. My own art skills, both 2d and 3d, aren't fantastic, and this would present something of a hurdle for me. Also, most of my game ideas recently have been more RPG-oriented, and not point-and-click-adventure oriented. Still, it's good to know this engine is around in case inspiration strikes, and I congratulate Senscape on releasing the engine as open source, as well as porting the engine to Windows, the Mac, and Linux.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gateway Drug

Is it wrong that when I think about having a granddaughter, one of the first things I think about is the best tabletop roleplaying game to get a new young player started with?

Leaving aside my future granddaughter for the moment, I think the question itself is interesting. I expect that most folks from my generation of gaming got started with one of the early editions of D&D. Basic D&D has some advantages as a newbie RPG: the rules are fairly simple, and the random character creation aspects prevent you from having to know much about the game in order to create a character. However, it is a very combat-centered game, and some of the rules concepts (such as the to-hit table) have been replaced by much more straightforward mechanics in more modern RPG's.

Fate (my current favorite RPG) shifts the emphasis away from combat and toward storytelling. Plus, it's sufficiently generic that it can be used to tell a variety of stories other than the standard D&D "kick in the door, kill the monster, and take the treasure" story.

My gut feeling is that the narrative freedom of Fate is a bit much to throw at a new player, but this might just be a result of the fact that my first RPG experiences were of the D&D variety. The processes for rolling initiative, checking armor class, and marking off hit points and such are part of my roleplaying "muscle memory" at this point; they're instinctive. If my first game had been something like Fate, would I have learned it with the same ease (or difficulty) as when I learned D&D? Or is a "simulationist" game such as D&D inherently easier to learn than a "narrativist" game such as Fate?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Pillars of Pulp

In the alternate universe where I am spending my time making Cool Stuff, I am, right now, assembling my notes for a book-length analysis of the thematic elements and roots of superhero fiction. That alternate version of myself has decided to focus on two primary elements:

1. People with catchy names and flashy costumes, beating each other up.

This would seem to be the most shallow element of superherodom, until you look around to find other forms of entertainment that contain this same concept. "Entertainment" wrestling (including lucha libre) is based on this concept, as are most martial arts competition videogames (such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Darkstalkers, etc.). What makes the combination of costumes and combat so appealing? And why does it seem to be important for mainstream superhero combat to be non-lethal? Is this a product of the Comics Code Authority, combined with a desire to keep bringing villains back over and over again?

2. People with extraordinary abilities, taking on an alternate persona for the purposes of fighting crime.

This particular idea has been around since at least the Scarlet Pimpernel, and has been used by Zorro, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, Batman, and an endless series of other mainstream superheroes. It ties in with the "catchy names and flashy costumes" element, but also seems to carry its own weight. A variety of comics and movies have tried to explore deeper psychological and societal reasons why the hero must wear a mask, but aside from the supposed justification for using a secrety identity, why has this particular theme survived so long, and why is it so widely copied?

The book would try to locate other works of art and fiction, both historical and contemporary, that contain these elements, and would try to determine why the superhero fiction genre has remained strong since its first presentations.

My book would also step back from these two themes to consider whether or not superhero fiction is "lazy fiction", since so many of the common elements are well-known and widely copied? I would argue that the genre is certainly no more formulaic than the romance genre.

My Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech, awarded for the completion of this work, would be brief and modest.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Marvel: Avengers Alliance

Despite my better judgement, another Facebook game has captured my interest: "Marvel: Avengers Alliance" (which I will refer to as MAA for the sake of brevity). It's a typical Facebook game in that it allots you a certain amount of "energy" that you expend as you play, and when you are out of energy, you can't play the game any more until your energy regenerates. MAA expands on this concept by giving you seven different types of game currency, each of which is expended by different facets of the game. You need energy to play missions, command points to hire new heroes, SHIELD points to level up your heroes, silver to acquire new equipment, ISO-8 to play special missions, lockboxes in order to randomly acquire special bonuses and equipment, and gold for a variety of things. In fact, you can use gold to buy many of the other currencies, and in turn, you can pay real life money for gold. It's a complicated system whose purpose seems to be to obfuscate the amount of money you actually need to spend on the game in order to play that cool mission you saw, or to unlock your favorite Marvel hero.

Setting aside the ethics of the whole "buy energy to play" business model, the basic game itself is simple and entertaining. There's some light storytelling to set up the missions, and the missions themselves are turn-based combats similar to the old console roleplaying games. It's a fun little game, and it makes me wish that someone could strip it out of the Facebook game paradigm and make a standalone, turn-based, pay-for-it-once Marvel superhero RPG. I'd pay for that in a heartbeat.

So why won't I pay for the Facebook game? It comes down to simple math: they want more for it than I want to pay for it. A lot more. Let's say I want to open up all the features of the game, just as if I had gone out and bought a non-Facebook computer game. In order to have the option to use any and all of the 40 currently-available superheroes in the game, I would need to spend about 2000 command points (wild estimate), which would cost me about 1000 gold. Buying 1000 gold at the best possible volume rate would cost me $200 real world dollars.

For an old-school, turn-based, 2D RPG, I'm thinking more along the lines of $20.

And that's just the cost to unlock the superheroes; if I wanted to unlock all the equipment and missions and so forth ... you get the idea.

Thankfully, all of these resources can be earned in-game, though some are difficult to come by. So I can jump in for five minutes now and again and have a little superhero battle for free, and I guess that's fine. I just wish I could buy the game that this could have been if the developers had really wanted to produce a game and not a revenue stream.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mongoliad

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, and when I heard that he was collaborating with Greg Bear and several other authors on The Mongoliad, a story about a group of Western warrior-monks struggling against the Mongol invasion of Europe, I couldn't wait to read it. This past Christmas, I got my hands on the first two books of the Mongoliad.

What a disappointment. The books tell a fairly bland story of combat and intrigue across 13th century Europe and Asia. There are far too many characters, and too little time is spent on each of them to really develop much sympathy for them. The few characters I was actually interested in appeared all too rarely, such as Cnan, a member of a mysterious organization known as the Binders. I liked her "why am I hanging out with these suicidal murdering lunatics" attitude, but in the second book, she was mostly brushed aside in favor of another Binder named Ocyrhoe. Especially problematic was the way that these two seemed to be members of entirely different organizations, as if the authors writing these two characters hadn't agreed between them beforehand exactly how the Binders operated.

In fact, there are a variety of new characters inserted into the story in the second book, along with a whole new subplot centering around the selection of a new pope. This plot appears to have little connection if any to the rest of the story. It's possible this storyline will link up with the others in a later book, but at this point it could be sliced out of the second book without any impact on the rest of the story.

Also, before reading the Mongoliad, I had heard about Ogedei Khan, and his alcoholism, and the story about how, when he was cautioned to limit himself to one cup a day, he chose to obey this suggestion by equipping himself with an enormous drinking cup. This story also appears in the Mongoliad, but it is given an unusual twist, which in my opinion was implausible, if not incomprehensible.

Any wit or imagination that Neal Stephenson or Greg Bear might have injected into these books is utterly lost in a sea of dull, uninspiring prose. The first book in particular suffers from a surfeit of lengthy descriptions of the terrain; while this is a subject of paramount importance to the characters trying to cross that terrain, I myself could have stood to hear less about the construction of the rivers and plains and rock outcroppings and meadows and so on and so forth.

For anyone who is interested in hearing some truly compelling stories of the Mongols during the time of Genghis Khan and his descendants, I highly recommend listening to the "Wrath of the Khans" podcasts from Hardcore History. Dan Carlin's history podcasts are always entertaining and educational, and the Mongol series is no exception.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Formula for Finishing

I'm about midway through the editing phase of my novel, which means that I'm very close to actually finishing it. This is a sort of personal victory, since I have a well-established habit of starting projects and then abandoning them after a week or two. This time, however, I had a little trick to keep me going.

I had read on one of my message boards about a few people who had taken a "five hundred words a day" pledge to keep them writing. When I started this novel, I decided to try a form of that pledge: I would commit to writing five hundred words a day, four days a week. This produced a 50,000 word first draft in six months. Now that I'm in the editing phase, where I'm correcting work rather than producing new text, I've altered my goal to one hour of editing per day, four days a week.

I think there are a couple of reasons why this has worked so well for me. First, setting a daily word count goal lets you declare each day's work as an accomplishment. Without a daily goal, each day's work is a seemingly insignificant step taken toward a large manuscript. With a daily goal, each day's work is its own accomplishment. Instead of saying "I'm one percent closer to finishing the first draft", I can say "I'm one hundred percent done with today's writing."

Also, limiting the amount of time I devote to the novel each week leaves plenty of time to indulge in other spur-of-the-moment projects. I can pursue whatever fancy has seized my interest this week without abandoning progress on the novel. This way, I don't feel like I'm imprisoned inside the novel for the duration.

I've been wondering whether a similar strategy might help me to finish other projects as well. Possibly I might actually finish writing a computer game if I set a goal of four hours a week of development time. This little habit might lead me to much greater personal productivity.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hey, the new Playstation is ... zzz

I own a Playstation 2 and a Playstation 3. I don't think I'll be buying in to this new generation, for several reasons:

1. Steam.

Steam has spoiled me for inexpensive, convenient gaming options. The thought of paying $60 for a new game fills me with pain; with Steam, I can wait a while and eventually pay $30, or $20, or $10. Plus I don't have to go out to GameStop or wherever. I click a few buttons and download the game. And if I have to reinstall my PC, or get a new PC, I don't have to dig for the old game boxes to reinstall a game. I just reinstall Steam and tell it to send me the games I already own.

2. The games I want are on the PC.

I'm not excited about Dragon Age 3 or Mass Effect 5 or Call of Duty 74 or whatever. I'm excited about Shadowrun Returns, and Project Eternity, and Clockwork Empires, and Starbound, and Star Citizen. These games aren't going to show up on the consoles.

3. Backward compatibility.

If I get a new PC next year, I expect to be able to run all my old games on it. If I get a PS4, I'm not going to be able to run my PS3 games on it. Current word is that they won't support backward compatibility "at launch". Odds are that means "never". If I want to play my PS2 and PS3 and PS4 games, I'd have to have three different consoles hooked up to the PC, with all of their individual controllers and so forth. No, thanks.

4. I'm going to have a PC anyway.

I use my PC at home for programming, writing, art, e-mail, building content for my tabletop roleplaying sessions, and a bunch of other things. I don't need to pay another $500 so that I can go play games on the couch.

5. There are cheaper ways to stream Netflix.

Pretty much the only thing my PS3 gets used for these days is streaming videos (see point 1 above). I don't need to get a PS4 to do that. I can keep the PS3 around, or repurpose an old PC, or hook up any one of a number of cheap boxes that support streaming.

I'm probably not getting out of console gaming completely --  I've got my eye on one of these -- but I think that I'll be able to get my gaming fix without chasing whatever high-priced gaming appliance Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo is trying to sell me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

TRON: Parallel

So, here's my idea for a roleplaying game set in the TRON universe:

In 1982, the engineering company ENCOM makes a scientific breakthrough and builds a working quantum computer. They install a software package on this computer which they name the Master Control Program (MCP). The MCP quickly shows signs of emergent behavior and artificial intelligence. ENCOM keeps these discoveries under wraps until concrete commercial applications can be found. ENCOM engineers employ the MCP itself in the task of designing these applications.

One of the MCP's first inventions is a quantum information conversion device, which has the remarkable capability to convert ordinary matter into quantum data, and vice versa. This invention is also kept top secret, but is employed by the MCP itself in order to capture Kevin Flynn, a disgruntled former employee who breaks into ENCOM headquarters in order to steal intellectual property. Flynn is transferred into the quantum computer memory systems and does not return.

The MCP continues to take initiative toward gaining power over the physical world by gaining access to American and Russian government networks. By manipulating critical governmental data, the MCP is able to bring about a global economic collapse in 2002. The MCP then activates the quantum conversion devices that it has been secretly constructing, using them to synthesize artificially intelligent soldiers and weapons of war. By 2008, the MCP has established control over the nations of the world, and goes about the task of rebuilding human civilization in order to serve its own ends.

By 2015, humanity exists as little better than slaves to ENCOM and to the MCP. However, a resistance network rises to attempt to break the MCP's control. They gain access to ENCOM's own quantum converters in order to invade the quantum information Grid, striking at ENCOM both in the physical world and in the digital world.

Players are members of the resistance, who conduct missions both in the real world and in the Grid in order to defeat the MCP.