Feb 20, 2015

An Update On Words And Games

Why, hello there precious reader! We haven't chatted in a while, have we? No, we haven't and the only one to blame is me. I have been incredibly busy lately and working on a most intriguing menagerie of things, you see. Things I have for the most part failed to inform you about.

Well, let's at least fix this. First of all, I'm still writing about games though mostly not on Gnome's Lair. I do instead maintain the daily Freeware Garden over at Rock Paper Shotgun and spend hours upon hours each week trying to find the very best and weirdest of PC gaming freebies, keep on covering indie games over at IndieGames.com, highlight retro stuff over at Retro Treasures and contribute the occasional post at Warp Door.

Other than that, I do edit DualNames' lovely DualMondays column for this very blog and have slowly started working on a series of feature articles requested by my wonderful and extremely generous (patient too) patrons. I'm also planning to write the odd article or too, keep updating my list of brilliant freeware games and making little edits to the site.

Moving on from my writing endeavors, let me first reassure you that freeware adventure game Earthling Priorities has not been abandoned. Chris Christodoulou has finished the soundtrack, Daniele Giardini is almost done with all the art and animation, I am close to completing the thing's design and simply need to find a few weeks to code and put everything together. Provided all goes well, this should happen sometime around April.

Why April? Simple, really. April is when I believe work on the first major milestone of the RPG I'm working on will be concluded and the first internal demo (following a pretty cool prototype we are already playing with) will be ready to do the things it's supposed to be doing. 

And, yes, I did say RPG and though I'm not at liberty to discuss details with anyone outside the development team right now, I can tell you that Kyttaro Games and my humble self have assembled a brilliant team of indie developers, artists and writers to create something unlike anything you've ever seen. A bold claim, I know, but if we manage to actually finish the project, which I believe we will, you'll be bound to agree with me.

That's all for now, reader. See you luv!

Jan 26, 2015

DualMondays: Motivation

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays. And some times fortnightly.

My main concern about this topic is that I'll fail to stay on it. Like, miserable fail.

I've grown to realize something god-awful when it comes to game developers as a collective of human beings who enjoy making games as much, if not more, as playing them. All of them start with this super-fancy excitement frenzy. Which, is normal. You've decided you wanna make games, and it freaks the living shit out of you; especially as you're growing so very ambitious so very fast. So, you spam forums and retweet people you're jealous of.

You are running on pure energy, being all revved up, but have no actual idea how to make a game. You're most likely lacking all the necessary skills as it is. Coding, artwork, game design, sound design. And that's okay, don't be hard on yourself. Ask any game developer that's successful and she/he 'll say, "I was never that immature", and you'll know that she/he 's lying. They've definitely been there, they hid it by lurking or showing their attempts to a selective few, or maybe nobody knew who they were anyway back then.

This flow of excitement is completely natural, and your improbability of making a good game is also equally high. It's like wanting to play the guitar. Υou like the instrument, you dream of playing solos, and then you buy one, and completely suck at it. At first. But honing your skills with practice and research and proper techniques will yield results, both in guitar playing and game making.

So, why do we as game developers start with such motivation and then proceed to lose it? Well, mainly due to letting people get into our heads. We get an honest comment about how awful something we spent hours upon hours on, is, and we get discouraged. We lose motivation. We tell ourselves "I'm bad at this." and it is then decided that we shouldn't bother with it anymore. I couldn't disagree more. Hear this then: Nobody gets good at something unless they try, and try, and try and try, and then some more. You may not get it, you may abandon a project, but you sure as heck need to keep moving.

Most importantly however, you need to stop being afraid of what other people will say about your creations. You need to anticipate all reactions and realize what reactions you really crave for. Then, you devise a plan on adjusting things to achieve/force these behaviors, from those who befall into the midst of your. From the peeps who play your games.The difference between you as a game designer now, and [insert name of game designer idol here], is only that she or he took risks by trying.

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Jan 12, 2015

DualMondays: Let me be your guide!

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays. And some times fortnightly.

Alright, first, let's get formalities out of the way.

Happy new year, fellas and gals!

I hope you had a good share of the holiday spirit and rest. Even if it wasn't full frontal partying but spending time with loved ones on a cozy and warm environment instead, everything counts in my book. Enough about holidays though. And to get the thing out of the way, I'm not gonna talk about New Year's resolutions, these are silly. If you're gonna do something, there's no need announcing it to everyone, unless you're looking for attention or confirmation. And these should never be the motive to accomplishing anything.

Alright, back on topic, which is none other than tutorials in videogames. So, what is their purpose? Why do they even exist as a term and comprise such a big role in the medium? Well, videogames have evolved a lot those past 40 years and with them so have their respective controls. These aren't the 80s anymore; we don't use the Atari 2600 control schemes anymore - just a stick and one button rarely cut it. We've instead been transported to an era of rather complex and multi-level control over our videogames. And that can be accounted mostly to the traversal to an extra dimension.

Nowadays we can move a character regardless of perspective (the position of the camera is irrelevant, dear viewer) to a space that isn't pseudo-3D because of limitations - emulated through mode7 algorithms or the like - but rather is actually presented in front of our very eyes as genuinely three-dimensional. Also, as games swell in complexity, the number of available actions the player can perform to impact his surroundings increased as well. To explicitly explain and help the player realize and understand the game mechanics, tutorials slowly started popping in videogames. But, while the tutorial --on a theoretical level-- fixed a major upcoming problem of the medium, it also created a couple of issues with its presence.

You see, on a practical level, initially at least, nobody bothers making use of the tutorial a part of their story and world. Instead it is stuck between some part of the story usually on the first stages, to make sure the player has been shown everything there is to know about the videogame in question.

While this is useful, it also breaks immersion, reminding us constantly throughout its duration that this is a videogame we're playing after all. In their majority tutorials are uninspired and as such, there are several tropes they're falling into, some of them becoming some sort of inside joke among gamers, who are anxiously smashing buttons, hoping to go through the tutorial faster to get to the actual game. FarCry 3's tutorial even goes a long way joking about this entire situation.

However, games such as Half Life, Little Big Planet, Portal, Black & White, Beyond Good & Evil, Metal Gear Solid 4, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and Fallout 3 sport wonderful tutorial sequences, that don't feel intrusive and instead feel natural and part of the entire game. They exist because they actually work as a concept based on the principles and the rules which govern the universe they happen to be a part of.

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Dec 29, 2014

DualMondays: Gone Soft

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays. And some times fortnightly.

It's one of the last days of this year and I have to say that bothering with a retrospective for this article did cross my mind a couple of times. But, instead, I'm gonna talk about game difficulty and how we've gone soft and have been treating the player as a little baby. Keep in mind, that I grew up in the middle of the SNES vs Genesis era and that may make me a little biased - a lot probably.

After watching a Teens React video about teens playing Megaman, I couldn't help myself but facepalm. The players were kind of expecting everything to be explained and pointed out to them, no matter how obvious, but mostly they were into this delusion that the game was going to allow them to make mistakes and not punish them for it. Even if this involved the task of comprehending a pattern of an enemy's projectile or movement, to devise a strategy against it. My main concern however, stood in the fact that given a controller of 4 buttons and a directional pad, the players didn't even bother to press all the buttons to see what they do.

As far as I'm concerned, Megaman sports one of the most common and widely celebrated setups for the NES Controller, and it is so, because it's highly connected to the logic of any player that has grabbed that kind of a controller in his lifetime. It really baffled me that some didn't know they could shoot. Still, the general consensus was that the game was unfair, though the players were complimenting themselves saying they did good for getting that far, when actually only one of them reached the boss of the stage. Something I did agree with the crowd, however is that I also find myself setting videogames' difficulty level to hard, and still being able to beat them.

As a gamer, I have this feeling that we're de-evolving skill-wise converting certain aspects in game genres towards a less interactive, more forgiving experience. While the introduction of cinematic elements in videogames is something I'm a huge fan of, both as a gamer and a designer, I feel like, in an attempt to grasp a bigger demographic, game design has ripped us of challenges to portray a weaker aspect, but not for the sake of story driven gameplay.

And that explains the success of titles created within smaller studios. Even if diametrically different, Hotline Miami, for instance, compared to Call Of Duty, is stylistic and more interactive, even if in comparison it's quite more unforgiving. But that's the addictive part in it. It beckons the player from the very beginning to think - hone his/her skills and strategies and upgrade them, in order to overcome the hurdles placed in front of him/her. It doesn't mess around; from the very beginning. It sports a sort of realism - a truth that this is not one of those games that will be beaten without effort. I correct my previous statement, it doesn't beckon, it demands that you become a better player. It gives you the possibility with its arsenal of tidbits to cut through its logic core. At the same time though, it disallows you to master it completely by ever-introducing new elements and forcing you to adapt to them again and again.

And that's proper game design in my book. This whole rant of mine isn't about the difficulty of a videogame - god forbid, a game doesn't have to be difficult to be entertaining. But it always has to remain challenging, like a wild horse. Otherwise what's the point, where's the pleasure?

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Dec 17, 2014

Dual(Mondays)Wednesdays: Beta-love

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays.

Well, I've pondered about this a whole lot. This is a bit of a weird topic, but let's have at it. Let's talk about everything regarding properly testing your videogame. It may not be rocket science, in fact, I've checked, it's not, however that doesn't mean it's a walk in the park either.

As a developer, going through the testing phase of your project, you must not hasten to its completion by reducing it into a simple bug squatting pit. It should be the first step to shaping up the community that will surround your videogame.

Clarifying that to your head is vital in order to help you alter the focus from bug-finding to feedback. And specifically asking for constructive and detailed feedback from the beta testing team is one of the ways to go, and as a developer, if you respect yourself, you should make it so. After all, the beta-phase should always be about showing people your game and re-shaping it by going through as much feedback as possible. The lack of such, is and should be devastating for the progress of the game.

While the alpha version is about constructing the game based on self-feedback and testing, beta is about a private smaller group/demographic determining your efforts and helping you reshape them (if you're willing to accept the views of said group), before releasing it to the public. From this wonderful experience, which personally, as a developer, I adore the most out of the entire game-making process, you must learn to accept every opinion and be as open-minded as possible.

Despite the fact that certain points being voiced will not be ones to keep, every other point that you cannot logically or game-wise argue against can be considered as valid and actions towards its suggestions can be taken. In simpler words, it's up to you to bother with and filter every single remark and comment about your creation. Don't be afraid or disheartened, but rather see everything as an opportunity to get better. The mistakes you've made so far have no impact on the end product, for this is the juncture to alter the result, kind of like having a time machine. Don't distance yourself from the testers, they're not a bunch of freeloaders, they're people who are willing to devote their time and energy to playtest your game and send you back a report containing various findings - wonderful things, that you've been accommodated to their presence, managing to ignore them in the same way you ignore the fact that you're breathing.

The testers don't bash your game when they speak of it, but rather, they judge it and criticize and hope, unlike reviewers, that you improve upon their findings. And exactly that, you should do.

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Dec 8, 2014

DualMondays: Point And Click Jam - Aftermath

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things.

Well, normally this would have been another philosophical rambling about some topic, but today, I felt the need to bother you with the very recent and wonderfully successful Point and Click Jam. Of all the jams I watched closely or participated in this year, this one seemed to out-polish them all. There were absolutely no amateur entries here. It felt like a bunch of veterans were against each other, fighting for the first spot. This may be a correct first impression, however, upon closer inspection, that is not exactly the case. 

The majority of the contestants, hadn't even done an adventure game before (some I believe haven't even made a game!), so why does this not feel as amateur hour (pointing at the Pewdiepie VS Indie Jam)?

Because, there's no way to pull off certain genres with half-arsed efforts, which explains the duration of this game-making competition and any other adventure game competition. Think about it! Even OROW (abbreviation stands for One Room One Week), that is about making an adventure game in one room/screen, lasts a week. For it is quite known and obvious to all developers, that you could make a platform game in a matter of hours, but as a genre, adventure games are focused on the story and atmosphere, and it's rather hard to set up pacing, flow, story arc, character design, interface, puzzles within the span of a day, let alone in a less time than that.

It's a genre that begs for lots of hours of work, but also for quality. Arguably and regardless of the design of your game, polishing it is a vital element. For adventure games in particular, it works on every little part they consist of, making it something you simply have to do with. And here I am two paragraphs in and I'm already transforming back into Plato.

Anyhow - about the Point And Click Jam.

It was organized by the good people down at GameJolt, and the rules were quite simple (and a bit on the annoying side too). In 15 days you had to make an adventure game of the point and click kind, whereas the interface was left open for developers to either make one that had already been famous from games of the era or construct a brand new one. The resolution was forced to 320x200 so that you could get that "1991 feel" and you could work on your story before the jam begun (but just the story!). The ultra annoying bit for me, was the palette restriction. To make things more challenging and closer to the Lucas Arts / Sierra Era we all loved when we were growing up, the rules stated that you had to use a certain palette (a number of colors) to make your entry.

That was of course set to maintain a retro feel, along with the rule that also made clear that you're not allowed to make use of a technology further developed after 1992 or so (contemporary technologies in making the assets of your game had to be used). While this did help create quality entries in a weird masochistic way, I found it rather unappealing. The jam should have at least broadened the restrictions by allowing the use of transparency, if not alpha channels on sprites.

Regardless I consider the jam to be highly succesful, as, through it, wonderful games such as "A Fragment of Her", "Max Greene", "The Exciting Space Adventures of Greg And Linda", "Void And Meddler", "There Ain't No Sunshine", "A Cosmic Song" and others, spawned. I highly suggest checking all the entries, but the ones mentioned are worth an extra bit of attention. Wait, aren't adventure games dead? :P

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