Thursday, February 1, 2018

We Released Avernum 3: Ruined World.

Seasons come and go. Pages fall from the calendar. And Spiderweb Software releases another game.
In 1997, I wrote a hit game.

It was called Exile 3: Ruined World. It and its remasters are the most popular games I've ever written.

Bear in mind this game was a hit by 1997 shareware standards, not 2018 indie standards. It made enough to buy a modest 1997-priced house. It didn't make enough to buy a mega-mansion.  But I'm certainly not complaining.

In 2002, I remastered the game into Avernum 3. It sold a lot of copies. Then, this week, twenty years after its first release, we shipped Avernum 3: Ruined World, the second remaster of this title. If my email is to be believed, a lot of people want it.

This is a brief story of writing a game that did really well and figuring out how to deal with it.

Exile 3: Ruined World. 1997 shareware at its semi-finest.
The Science of Careful Theft

When I started Exile 3, I'd already put out Exile and Exile 2, and they'd sold well enough for me to go full-time. It was a modest living, but entirely adequate for a 26 year old in Seattle. (You didn't have to be an Amazon employee with a mega-salary to live in Seattle then.)

At that point, I'd been writing shareware for two years, was starting to feel a tiny bit confident and comfortable. I decided that I was really going to stretch my wings. I wanted my third game to be GOOD.

So I did what I usually do when I want to design something good.

I played every game that was popular at the time, stole the very best idea from each, and synthesized them all into one coherent title.

Here's the thing about stealing ideas: Everyone does it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. It's knowing which tools to not steal, which ones to steal, and how to assemble them together to makes a real craftsman.

Computer Gaming World called Exile 3 the best shareware game of the year. They even gave me a prize. The logo is 2 chubby guys with bad posture sensually hugging a floppy disk.
The Game Was Big

From the Elder Scrolls games, I was inspired to write a huge game with tons and tons of towns. This resulted in Exile 3 being the biggest game we've ever written, by far.

I've written it three times now, and each time I have despaired that I would ever finish it. It's sickeningly huge.

Since I had so much space to fill and I was still young and crazy enough to feel free to do things that were genuinely dumb, this game has a lot of weird, silly stuff in it. Towns named after old sitcom characters. A giant dungeon themed after old karate movies. A whole chapter where the enemies are giant cockroaches. (Actually, I still think this idea is terrific.)

There's a reasonable amount of it that I'm sure I wouldn't do if I wrote it now. I was a lot looser and sillier when I was young. However, when I do a remaster, I need to trust my younger self. I left almost everything alone.

Avernum 3. A big upgrade from Exile 3, but it doesn't work so good on 2018 computers.
Then Again, Maybe I Had Original Ideas

I suppose when I say that all of my ideas are stolen I'm partly joking. There is a lot of cool stuff in Avernum 3 that was quite innovative when it came out, and I can't remember any games doing those things back then.

You can be a merchant or buy a house. There was already games that had this.

The world crumbles as time goes on. If you don't fight the bad guys, towns will fall apart and characters will die. If you're slow enough, a gigantic disaster happens and you have to deal with it or the world ends. NOTE: No matter how slow you are, you can always win the game, but not without consequences.

I wanted to make sure you felt that the world was bigger than your perception and that there were things going on you would never know about.

This is really cool, and I don't remember any other games doing this.

Avernum 3: Ruined World in all its low-budget glory. It was made cheaply, but it's fun.
Working As a Curator

When you do a remaster, you are the curator of your own work. You have a responsibility to your fans to keep everything they love most about the title intact. If you don't, they will punish you lavishly.

People tend to dislike change. If you change one thing, even if it's an entirely reasonable or even unquestionable change, you will always get complaints. These complaints can get very angry.

This makes remasters really grinding, painstaking work. I tried to put in lots of new ideas and designs and stuff. I improved the interface greatly. However, as much as possible, I left the world and story and feel of the game alone.

(There is one change I regret: The artist who made the character art doesn't work for us anymore, so I couldn't get horse art that would match the old style. Sorry about no horses.)

Thank You For Your Support

This wouldn't be complete without a thank you to the many people who have supported and stuck with us over the years. Your kindness has enabled me to live my childhood dream. I promise to work hard to be worthy of it.

Back To Creativity

After 16 months on Avernum 3, I'm really itching to do something new again. I hope I never have to remaster it again. Check in with me in 2033.

We are starting a whole new series. New world, new game engine, new system, maybe even a Kickstarter.

I hope you like Avernum 3. If you aren't sure about it, we have a demo. If you loved it as a kid, I hope that I kept the things you love alive.

On to the next.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Cuphead, Cruelty, and Selling Unfairness to You.

Teacher, mother, secret lover.

When charming indie megahit Cuphead came out, I watched a ton of it on Twitch. How could I not? It's so pretty!

I wasn't planning to play it. I like to play one super-tough game a year, to show I can still game hard like the cool kidz. But I'd already played Bloodborne last year, and my aging heart won't take much more than that.

Then my wife got me a Black Friday sale XBox One so that we could play Gears of War 4 together, so I figured I might as well try Cuphead for real.

Because of what I do for a living, of course, all of the following analysis is being done to find ideas I can steal to make more money.

Yeah, Cuphead Is Really Good

It was a huge amount of fun. I played a lot by myself. A lot co-op with my teenage daughter. A reasonable amount with my 11-year old daughter. Turns out my kids can be serious hardcore "Die 50 times and keep at it!" gamers when the bad guys are saucy mermaid ladies.

What really struck me was how little watching the game on Twitch prepared me for actually playing it. This was because Cuphead constantly uses randomness (RNG, for short) better than just about any game I've ever played.

Ever notice how sometimes a character comes along and every fan artist must come up with their own take on it instantly? I think that's cool. (Link not entirely safe for work.)

The Deadly RNG

Just about every attempt against a boss in Cuphead plays out differently from every other try. It's not only the standard Dark Souls thing where each boss has a move set and it picks an attack at random and you have to react to it. (Though it has that, of course.)

The fights are also random in every other way they can be:

Timing of the Attack - A bull is about to lunge forward to attack. It rears back. Then the amount of time until it actually launches the attack varies. Sometimes it's instant. Sometimes it's a good long pause. And sometimes the wait is so long is throws off my timing entirely and I blunder right into the attack.

Timing of Attackers - Little fireballs run across the screen. Sometimes one jumps up at you. Sometimes the pause between leapers is so long that you think the game is broke and you get complacent and BAM. And then three go all at once. (which can be evaded, but it's a rare enough occurrence that the player won't have a canned response for it.)

Random Attack Sets - In a lavish display of developer effort, some bosses have entirely different skill sets every time you launch the fight.

Multiple Simultaneous Attack Sets - The mermaid has two sets of three attacks, one set from the air and one from the water. It picks one from each set and uses them simultaneously, for nine different attacks to react to.

Random Terrain - Two fights have you battle while leaping along moving, randomly arranged platforms. To avoid an attack, you need to very quickly evaluate the routes available to you and select the best one.

This boss made my daughter cry. I hugged her. Then I beat it quickly and she was mad at me. At least we're having family time.

The End Result

This is why watching the game doesn't convey the experience of playing it. You can't get through Cuphead with patterns. Well, some fights you can. But most of the time, you have to learn how the system works, practice with it, and perform within it, adapting fluidly to surprises as you go.

Sometimes the RNG hands you a really nasty situation, but the vast majority of the time the situation you get is fair and survivable. You just have to take in the situation, come up with a plan very fast, and execute it.

The brilliance of the design is in making a system with RNG that keeps the game unpredictable and tough but still fair. I think this sort of probability manipulation is underrated as a skill in game design.

Obvious Disclaimer For People Who Are Already Yelling At Me In the Comments Anyway

Obviously, a lot of gamers don't like high challenge games. A lot of gamers don't like missions they can fail. Nothing wrong with this.

Cuphead isn't aiming for the casual market. Most of the time, I don't either. I'm looking for ways to better sell to this market.

If you're trying to write a game that will appeal to every single person everywhere, you're probably already doomed.

Unfairness Is a Selling Point

In a game like this, the occasional unfair, unescapable death is a selling point. There are some gamers for whom such a situation doesn't induce a Ragequit. It inspires a determination to excel.

If I don't kill you occasionally, how will your accomplishments have meaning?

Playing the RNG In an RPG

Darkest Dungeon is another game with great use of randomness. When you take your party into a dungeon, you can get a run of savage bad luck. If things get bad, you can pull the ripcord at almost any moment, abandon your run, and save your group (with a penalty). The skill comes in constantly evaluating your situation and deciding when it's time to give up. If you can't do that, you will have a hard time.

I've always tried to have a lot of this in my indie RPGs. I write long games, and I want to make sure it's always interesting and unpredictable and there's a chance that things can go south quickly if you're not careful.

I give enemies large move sets and make sure that they can approach a fight differently each time. I use a critical hit system to make sure you can never get too complacent. Sometimes, enemies run for help, and it's random how long they'll hang around before they do.

(If you want to see this system in action, our new game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, is out at the end of January.)

Heck, the whole genre of Roguelikes depends on randomness of your adventure. You gamble your time and hope you get a situation you can survive.

Of course, video game accomplishments don't have meaning. My job is to create the illusion that they do.

What Is the Gain From this Randomness

Humans like to gamble, and we have loved gambling for all of our recorded history. Gambling doesn't have to be for money, and it doesn't need lootboxes.

The joy of gambling comes from the unpredictability, the increasingly rare life pleasure of being unsure what is about to happen. RNG in your game means bad luck might cause you to fail. Some people mistakenly think that this is a flaw, when it is in fact a great strength.

The ideal for my games is that, for battles of an appropriate level, there is always a tiny chance to fail. Similarly, for Cuphead, unless you're a completely superior player, there is a chance that an unexpected chain of events will outwit and defeat you.

When you lack a human opponent to provide unpredictability, randomness must serve this role and provide the surprises. This provides suspense and unpredictability. For a large portion of gamers, being surprised is a highly valued product that can be sold at a premium.

It's a leapy boi! Look at him go!


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with epic stories and tough, unpredictable fights, you can wishlist Avernum 3 on Steam. It's out January 31. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 2: What Is a Game?

According to the rigorous definition of Game that I will provide, creating "dank memes" IS a video game.

One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

No need to thank me. When I get the Nobel Prize, don't worry about sending the medal. I just want the money.

This time, I settle a question that has tormented academics and Mad On Twitter types alike: What is the definition of a game?

How This Tedious Discussion Started

When the Indie Boom hit, several games of the genre called Walking Simulators came out and achieved huge financial and critical success. I personally enjoyed many of them greatly. (Despite this, I still use the term "Walking Simulator" because I find it funny.)

When they first gained notice, a certain portion of the gamer community was angered by the acclaim for Walking Simulators, sniffing in response that they "Aren't games."

This is, of course, entirely the wrong way to phrase their complaint. What they should have said was, "These games, whatever their good qualities, strip away everything we value in gaming and don't give us enough hours of distraction for our limited dollars, and the fact they are being treated as the future and only thing of value in our medium fills us with resentment."

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not (and there's plenty to say on both sides), it is a statement you can actually debate on its merits.

But this debate, such as it was, was moot. Last I checked, Walking Sims (even really good new ones) are selling modest numbers and games where you shoot monsters in the face are still making billions.

So there was no reason to continue the argument ...

According to my rigorous definite of Game, this IS a video game.

But Then Academia Got Involved.

A lot of people go to college to study videogames, and some try to create advanced critical analysis of the form. Don't blame me. It's not my fault.

I studied theatre in college, which was a fantastic experience. When I was there, I observed that people new to an art form constantly try to attach firm definitions to everything in it.

"What IS a play? What is acting? What is a work of art? What is the explicit definition of joy? And beauty? Dude, my hands are HUGE! They can touch anything but themselves!"

Exercises like this are not useless. It's good, when you’re young, to spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of your art form. Then you stop, because you realize that the nature of art is a very slippery thing. Whatever rule you come up with, someone else will become awesome by breaking it.

Here's the deal with art: Your brain compels you to make a thing, then you make it, then people dig it or they don't. The end.

Despite this, otherwise sensible people still actually spend time trying to define a game. Google "What is a game" and marvel in wonder. It's really quite the thing. A whole bunch of definitions, none of them adequate, because they're all too broad or too narrow or too abstract.

So I'll settle the issue and save everyone a bunch of time. This is important to me because I'm working on a cool new indie role-playing thing now, and it'll be out soon, and I want to be sure I can call it a game so I don't get in trouble with the FDA or whatever.

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this is NOT a video game.

What Is a Game?

Consider the large, highly profitable genre called Hidden Object Games.

Here's how they work. The game says, "There's a squid on the screen." Then you find and click the squid. Then you do the same thing with a sandwich or a skull or whatever.

Is this a game? I mean, hell, I'm not 100% sure this counts as an ACTIVITY.

But it has to be a game. How do I know? Because "Hidden Object Game" has "Game" in the name.

So just clicking a few times makes it a game, and you have to click just to launch the game. Sooo ...

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

The Answer!

If you're asking, "Is this a game?" it's a game. Sure! Why not? Who cares? It might be a good game or a long game or a bad game or a word processor.

Semantics arguments are lame. Argue about the content. What is a game is trying to do, how does it attempt it, how well did it succeed, and why? That's all that matters.

Wait. You Didn't Actually Define a Game.

So if you're hangin' out and someone starts to discuss with you what the definition of a game (or gameplay, or play, or immersion, or ludonarrative dissonance) is, do what I do!

Step 1: Nod sagely and adopt an expression of extreme concentration.

Step 2: Point over the person's shoulder and shout, "Hey, what's that!?"

Step 3: Activate the ninja smoke bomb you have in your pocket. FWOOOOSH!

Step 4: Sneak into another room.

Step 5: Talk to literally anyone else about literally anything else.

Problem solved!

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

This Is Ridiculous. By Your Laughable Definition, Photoshop and Excel Are Games. That Is So Broad As To Be Meaningless! But What If You First Define Gameplay To Be ...

OK, you've broken through. My decades of experience have enabled me to have one simple, unquestionable test for how to peel apart interactivity for a productive purpose from interactivity for an entertainment purpose. First, you ... Hey, what's that!


As An Extra Multiball Reward For Making It All the Way to the End of This Mess, I Will Settle Once and For All the Question: "Are Video Games Art?"

No. Never. Don't be silly.


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next "game" on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 1: Game Reviews

There was a ridiculous controversy recently because a games journo was bad at this difficult game. All time spent debating it was time wasted. I am writing this so that such time-wastage never happens again. I live to serve.
"You can speak your mind but not on my time."
      - William Martin Joel
One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

Don't bother to thank me. Seeing my own face whenever I look into the mirror is reward enough.

First up, I will settle all debates regarding games reviewers: How good should a reviewer be at a game? What topics are a reviewer allowed to bring up when doing a review? Are review scores and review aggregators a good thing? Does anyone still care about game reviews?

So the next time someone gets Mad On the Internet about a game review or mega-butthurt because the newest installment of their fave series gets a 91% when they KNOW it should have gotten a 93%, you can send them to this page and get on with your life.

A thoughtful and useful review of Avernum. Hmm. Let me check if it's still, 17 years later, making me money? Yep!!!
Why Are You Authorized to Settle This Argument Forever?

Because I am old, and that makes me wise. Also, once PC Gamer gave one of my most popular and enduring games a 17% review, literally said it was worse than choking to death on your own vomit, and provided a helpful sidebar with a list of rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit.

Believe me, every possible opinion you can have about game reviews, I have had at one time or another.

(Also, we have a kick-ass new indie, retro role-playing game coming out in early 2018, and I want to make sure everyone's heads are on straight before they start reviewing it.)

The Most Important Fact About Reviews

Think about your friends. (For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume you have friends.) When they recommend games/movies/TV shows to you, you take their personalities into account, right?

For example, there are some people who I listen to when they say a movie is good, and there are others who I won't, because they only like cheesy romantic comedies and Shrek. Or some guy will say I have to play Face Obliterator 5000, and I like him and all, but I'm not a fan of the Face Obliterator genre. Or, while his wife is great, no, I don't want to see the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie. Under any circumstances.

They're good people. We just have different tastes. I don't make them watch the long, depressing foreign movies I like, and they restrict their evangelizing Rick & Morty to me to one hour per day. I only accept recommendations from people when I've found their tastes line up with mine. You're the same way, right?

Pick Reviewers The Same Way

Reviewers are just individual humans, with their own tastes, and no one human can be a perfect, impartial justice machine for evaluating a work of art. Any decent reviewer can say how buggy a game is and whether it runs OK on their PC. Beyond that, it's just, like, your opinion, man. 

If you want reviews, don't just sit there. Find a couple reviewers you like and read them. If a web site doesn't have regular reviewers and just uses a rotating stable of whatever recent college grad is most desperate that week, it's not going to be useful to you. It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life.

Fun bonus fact: All awards for art, from the Nobel prizes down to video game awards, are arbitrary and meaningless. If you want to obsess about the Oscars, hey, you do you, but don't pretend they have any value beyond distracting you for a minute.
Are Numerical Review Scores Dumb?

On the surface, yes, evaluating a complex work of art and boiling it down to a single number is dumb. I mean, it's not like critics have an Art Scale, and they can put the last Call of Duty on it and say, "This game weighs 8.3 Arts, and the last game only weighs 7.1 Arts, and that's 1.2 Arts more!!! So this game gets a 93%."

Review scores, in practice, are fine. However, remember, a high or low number is just a reviewer giving an opinion, and if you trust his or her opinions, you're fine. High number means they like it. If a reviewer I trust says, "Yeah, this game is a B-," I know what's goin' on.

Is It OK For a A Video Game Reviewer to Be Bad at Games?

Of course. A lot more game reviewers should be bad at games. Fact is, most people who play computer games are bad at them, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them and can say, "If you blow 20 bucks on this, you'll die 500 times on the first level and hate it. Don't waste your money."

Look, I love laughing at game professionals flailing at games as much as anyone. Remember when that unnamed Polygon writer tried Doom and showed no signs of ever having played it (or any video game) ever before? That was a hoot.

(My favorite bit is when the player unloads a full shotgun blast into a health pack resting on the ground, in what I can only assume is a post-modern deconstruction of late-stage capitalism.)

But some people watched that video and said, "Wow, I should never buy this game," and were right to say it. So the video was useful after all.

This is why I was a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer series, before it devolved into a series of tedious celebrity skits. Watching someone who isn't fully proficient in our art form and its weird conventions struggling to enjoy it can be painfully useful.

In the end of Ratatouille, a supposedly heroic writer gives a good review to a restaurant whose kitchen is infested with rats. GROSS! Never trust reviews.

But This Goes Both Ways, Right?

Yes. Some gamers have very little money and lots of time to fill. They don't want to spend twenty of their limited bucks on a one-hour art piece, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them as well.

Is It OK For a Video Game Reviewer to Have Strong Political Opinions?

Yeah, why not? A lot of people only want games that support their particular political opinions. They can use politics-fixated reviewers as canaries in a coal mine. The writers are exposed to bad opinions so that you don't have to be.

Again, you have to pick a reviewer compatible with you. If someone doesn't like a game because it's too politically whatever or has too much of the color blue, use that person or don't. You get to choose what reviewers you watch.

What If I Think a Reviewer Sucks?

Don't read their reviews. That'll show 'em!

(And leave it at that. Don't be an asshole to them because you don’t agree with them. Not reading them is really the only vote you get.)

Review aggregator sites would have you believe every Marvel movies is one of the Best Movies Ever Made. Which, I mean, Marvel is fine I guess, but nobody will remember any of these flicks in 3 years.
How About Game Aggregator Sites? Are They Cool?

So you can go to a place like MetaCritic, which averages 50 different game review scores to take all those accumulated opinions and blends them together to create one number which represents Objective Truth. (Interestingly, Objective Truth is, the vast majority of the time, between 70% and 90%).

Look, is this useful? Kind of. I suppose.

I mean, look. Suppose ten people you don’t like give you their scores for a game. That won't be very useful. But what if you take those ten dumb opinions, blend them together, and take the average? That won't be any more useful, will it? Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made? Does this work with political parties too?

But it's all subjective. If you get value out of MetaCritic, use it. It's no sweat off my nose.

But Aren't Game Developer Payments Sometimes Determined By Metacritic Scores? Isn't That Bad?

All Metacritic is doing is getting some numbers and averaging them together. Yes, taking this random number and paying developer bonuses based on it is kind of shady. But on the list of Ways the Game Industry Mistreats Its Employees, it's like 893 out of 1200.

And if you look at the list of Concrete Things That Can Be Done to Make Developers' Lives Better, "Being mad at MetaCritic" is not on it at all.

My kids don't even know video game reviews EXIST, but they will buy anything even mentioned by this guy. God. Why do I even pretend I know anything?
One Last, Horrifying Truth About Game Reviews

I'm ancient, and even I don't use them anymore. There's no review that can tell me anything I can't get by watching the game on for ten seconds and checking the Steam reviews to make sure it’s not too buggy.

In Conclusion

Take responsibility for yourself. Accept that the world is full of people different than you and there's space for all of us. As long as they're not punching you in the nose, people are allowed to have dumb opinions in their dumb heads. When choosing who you allow precious space inside your own head, choose someone you trust.

I will trust in the good people of the Internet to take this sensible advice and act with a bit of basic empathy in the future. I consider this entire discussion closed.

One Final Small Bit Of Whimsy

For a games web site, there's a huge advantage to having reviews written by inexperienced, eager people who try to stir up arguments instead of calming them. Those people work cheaper, and their work tends to stir up anger which gets more clicks. Sure, these poor writers/targets get screamed at, but that's what they were hired for. Their employers don't care as long as the clicks keep coming.

In the end, however, we’re talking about video game reviews. In the global scheme of things, game reviews are REALLY unimportant.

Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next game on Steam. Give it a terrible review if you want. We just need the attention. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Avernum 3, Remasters, and the Joy of Owning Your Work.

It's weird to see over four years of my life just sitting there in a lump.
I've been making my little indie games for a living for 23 years. Being a greybeard in such a weird and young industry comes with special privileges.

For example, while some of my peers are getting around to remastering their old games, I am remastering our most popular game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, for the SECOND time. It is only when you rewrite the same material twice that you really test your discipline and integrity.

Writing indie games has become miserably competitive lately. Most new games, even promising ones with a lot of work in them, are sinking without a trace. Yet, thanks to the grinding tedium of rewriting the same game again and again, I have a fighting chance of my business surviving enough to write cool new stuff.

So I'll tell the story or Exile 3: Ruined World/Avernum 3/Avernum 3: Ruined World. (Also on Steam.) There are things to learn here for any young person who thinks, "I wanna' make cool things (not just video games), and make a living doing it."

Don't laugh. It sold like crazy.
In A Previous Millenium, I Wrote A Hit

In 1997, I'd been making games full-time for a couple years. I wrote (and still write) retro, turn-based, low-budget indie RPGs with fun systems, interesting stories, and mediocre graphics.

Happily, I got started at a time when there were very few good RPGs out in the market. I got a nice computer, wanted to play a good RPG, and couldn't find one. So I wrote one. It sold, because no competition. This is a key example of my most important business strategy: Get Very Lucky.

My first games, Exile: Escape From the Pit and Exile 2: Crystal Souls, were designed on a simple principle: I would go back to all the RPGs I loved as a kid and steal the best idea from each one. I then carefully combined all my quality stolen ideas into a coherent whole. This is called being a game designer.

For our third game, I had a better idea. I spent months playing all the new RPGs that had come out over the previous 2-3 years. Then I stole the best idea from each one of those. Thus, I transitioned from stealing ideas from old games to stealing ideas from new games. This is how you evolve as a game designer.

I ended up with Exile 3: Ruined World, which has been our biggest success. It features a gigantic world, that is easy to get lost in. As time passed, the game world evolved. If you didn't fight the monsters off, they would ruin towns and kill the townsfolk. (Though, no matter how slow you play, you can always still win the game.) If you didn't want to follow the story, you could be a bounty hunter or merchant. You could buy a house.

(If you want to try it out, it's available as freeware here. Warning: It probably won't run on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

Exile 3 came out so long ago that most new computers then looked exactly like this.
It Was The Right Title At The Right Time

In 1997, it was what people wanted. It was a legit shareware hit. Now, having a hit indie game in 1997 (when the world wide web was basically nothing and most of my sales came from AOL) was different from having one in 2017.

These days, the sales of a hit indie game will buy you a mansion made of yachts. Back then, it bought me a modest house and made my parents slightly less ashamed to say what I did for a living.

I won awards, to the extent there were game awards back then. I got attention from the traditional games media, which was really worth something then. And it established me in the business for good.

But even then, I knew that the real prize was not the praise (which I don't care about) or the money (which is nice, but then you spend it and it's gone). What was really valuable was that I owned the game. It was mine. I could do with it whatever I wanted. Forever.

Five Years Later, I Rewrote It For the First Time

We rewrote Exile 3 as Avernum 3 in 2002. Five years is a really short time to wait before rewriting a game, but I have a good excuse. When I started Exile 3, I'd only been making games for money for two years, and I wasn't very good. There were a ton of ways in which the story, interface and graphics should have been improved, and I didn't know to do it.

I spent well over a year writing Exile 3, and my wife and I spent another year turning it into Avernum 3. We went over every single location, line of dialogue, and bit of code, improving and expanding it to the best of our improved abilities. The revised version didn't sell as well as the original, but it still made a lot of money. (Again, by early indie game standards. It was a lot of money for lone artists, but not big-shot money.)

(If you want to try it out, you can buy it super-cheap here. Warning: It probably won't run well on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

The new game. I am constantly accused by cranks of never improving my games. Look. I'm not saying this is super-fancy. But I don't think you can say there's been no improvement.
Now, Fifteen Years Later, We're Doing It Again

Fifteen years is a long time in the tech industry. Our most popular game is now woefully out of date in every way, largely forgotten, and doesn't even run on new Macs anymore. Now I can rewrite it so it actually works, and an iPad port will fall out of the process in the bargain.

Interfaces and game design have evolved in a million ways. I'm spending 18 months going over every tiny bit of the game again, redoing every single thing from scratch. I'll release it in January or so, and it will hopefully sell. I think it will. I've spent over 20 years building up a loyal fan base.

The Pros and Cons of a Remaster

The good side of remasters is that they can be less work that writing a game from scratch. You can, with luck, get a full new title for 2/3 of the work, and it's easy to market it because people already like it. (I'm assuming you're not remastering a game everyone hated.)

The bad side of remasters is that you become the curator for your own work. It can be grinding to go over old material day in and day out. The reason a remaster is successful is because your fans like the original game. You don't want to crap it up with too many new ideas, no matter how clever. People tend to not like change.

A Lesson For Young Creators

Never underestimate the value of owning your work. There hasn't been a day since 1997 that I haven't made money off of Exile 3. The reason is that I own it. It's mine, to alter, remaster, and distribute. All according to my whims, with all the earnings going to me.

It's a tough market out there. But suppose you release a new game and nobody ever even hears of it. Wait five years, remaster it and it really will be, as far an anyone is concerned, a new game. You can try selling it again!

And ten years from now, people will be using new consoles, new devices, new sorts of computers. Port your game to them! Each new port is an all new release. A new chance for your game to get noticed and catch on and become a hit!

Nature provides us with a perfect metaphor for any internet discussion.
"But Your Games Are All The Same And Look Like Crap"

I have a follow-up post about the reactions when I announced Avernum 3: Ruined World. It's pretty funny, but this is already long so I broke it out into its own post.

When Avernum 3: Ruined World comes out (hopefully in January for Windows/Mac and March for iPad), I'll have spent over four years of my life on it. It's not a game for everyone. It's mostly the product of one person, and it'll show.

Even if you don't like my work, I hope you take some satisfaction in this: Vidya games are still a place where one weirdo can make weird things for other weirdos and make a living at it. As long as this is possible, there's hope. Maybe the next weird thing for weirdos will be YOUR perfect game, the Best Game Ever, and it never would have existed in a purely big-budget world.


If you're intrigued by the retro-RPG goodness of Avernum 3, you can wishlist it on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Edit: Added the Pros and Cons section.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Life and Merciful Death of the Fad Controller

Sorry, grandma. This doesn't exist anymore. I guess you should have bought more than the launch title.
Over the years we have had console gaming, the perfect control mechanism for our entertainment has emerged.

Our thumbs, those nimble and durable pieces of flesh and bone, operate the joysticks and buttons. Our trigger fingers work the triggers. The rest of our fingers, stupid and useless, hold the controller stable. And our bodies are left to peacefully recline and decay on the couch. (Because if we wanted to actually use our bodies for anything, we wouldn't be playing video games.)

This control mechanism easily allows two joysticks, four buttons, a d-pad, a touch pad/Back button, two triggers, and two bumpers. Enough inputs to easily handle even a very complex game.

(You can also push the joysticks in to provide two extra buttons, which is how controller engineers tempt game designers into making mistakes. If your game uses pushing down on a joystick as an input, please move that command to a real button. If you don't have a button free, just lose that feature. Your game has too much stuff in it as it is.)

Yes, the modern console controller is a marvel of design and functionality.  Yet, brave game designers are never satisfied with mere perfection. They are always coming up with new, weird fad controllers to tempt us. This article will describe the lifespan of this process.

Harmonix tried to teach players how to actually do something. It didn't work out. Moral: Never hope for anything to ever get better anywhere ever.
Why Make a Fad Controller?

Part of it is artistic exploration, I suppose. The desire to elevate our new art form to new and undreamt of heights.

The real reason is money. There's a lot of money in this biz, but there's also a ton of competition. A new sort of game that catches the consumer's fickle eye will result in a fortune. Guitar Hero and Rock Band both sold well over a billion dollars. The motion controllers of the Wii led to that console winning its generation (old people like fake bowling).

Employees of game companies need to keep coming up with ideas to justify their salaries, whether you want them or not. No executive wants to go to E3 to say, "We're treading water another year. We have the same old crap. YOLO!"

In the end, all we’re trying to do is reach an increasingly jaded, desensitized audience and present something new enough to raise their heart rates above rest level for five freakin’ seconds.

You ask: How on EARTH did they ever get anyone to buy the Wii Fit board? Answer: Pornography.
Phase One: The Shock and Joy of the New

So fad controllers are made. What is a fad? Something new and exciting, which hordes rush to buy to get a bit of newness and variety in their mundane, repetitive lives.

Maybe your fad is motion control, to get the pudgy masses off their couches. Like the Wiimote, or Playstation Move, or the Kinect, or the Wii Fit Board. ("No, THIS will be the peripheral that gets gamers to exercise while they game LOL!")

Or maybe it's the plastic version of a real life peripheral, to better simulate something in the real world. Like a guitar or drums. Or maracas. Or bongos. Or, for the suicidal, a skateboard.

Most attempted fads fail, of course. Some, however, caught on and made a bunch of money. Bloggers, ever hunting for the next Hot Take, gazed upon them and proclaimed a new exciting future for gaming! Then, a few months later, reality set in.

How will we get people to play Guitar Hero again? I know! We'll make the controller incomprehensible and beige!
Phase Two: The Bloom Comes Off the Rose.

The thing about fads: The newness wears off. Purchasers start to think, "Oh. Wait. This isn't holding up that well." And they move on in droves. A fad is a massive wave, and waves always recede.

I was a diehard Rock Band fanatic. I played it a ton. I went to many Rock Band parties. Enough of them to say with some authority: For the vast majority of humans, 3 songs is all it takes to get tired of Rock Band. (Some blame the music game crash on too many titles coming out per year. This is nonsense. If your genre can't handle 5-6 titles a year, it's a crappy genre.)

Phase Three: The Fatal Flaw Becomes Apparent.

Most fad controllers fail for one of a few simple reasons:

1. They just aren't precise enough to support more than a few crude, simple games. (e.g. Wiimote. Wii Fit Board. Kinect.)

2. The controls are precise, but the games you can play on them turn out to not be that interesting. (e.g. Any music game ever.)

3. Even if it's a decent controller and a cool idea, it's tied to one platform, so no major developer ever bothers with it. (e.g. Wii U Tablet. Also, did you know that big pad in the middle of a PS4 controller is a full touch pad and you can do little drawings on it and stuff? It's OK, nobody else did either. Why would any developer who supports more than one console ever use that feature?)

4. The controller requires getting up off the couch. I'm not doing that. (e.g. Almost every fad controller.)

If the controller is lucky, a few more games get written for it after the initial release. They made bank at first, but now they are tanking with increasing severity.

Now comes Phase Four, the endgame. The company who makes the fad controller has two choices: The path of the canny businessman. Or the path of the insane Viking.

I want Star Wars Kinect dancing videos to be the new Rickroll.
Phase Four, Option One: Give Up and Take the Money

Seriously, if your product becomes a fad, you can make a TON of money. When the big cash river stops coming in, accept that your product wasn't actually going to change everything forever. Cease production, count your winnings, buy another Tesla, and never speak of it again.

Phase Four, Option Two: Double Down!!!

There are some who are struck by Divine Madness. They are the true believers, who really believe they are changing gaming forever. Like remember when Harmonix convinced itself that Rock Band fans actually wanted to learn to play a real instrument?

The greatest such tale: When it became clear that the Kinect was only good for dancing games, Microsoft could have accepted its limitations, cashed their huge checks, and moved on.

But no, humility is not the Microsoft way. They were determined to explore the Kinect's maximum possible potential. So they not only kept it around, they built their entire next console generation around it. With disastrous results.

But it's all right. We'll always have the cautionary tale, and the wonderful memories.

It's OK, VR Beard Guy, YOU GOT THIS.
Phase Five: Regret and Garage Sales

The final destiny is the same. The story starts with a beautiful dream, moves on to cargo ships full of cheaply made plastic drum kits, and ends with piles of the things filling garage sales and thrift stores everywhere.

I mean, seriously, isn't it amazing? Factories in China made millions and millions of shoddy plastic drum sets. They were shipped across an entire ocean and delivered to households in America, where they were played for probably 2-3 songs and then thrown in a dumpster somewhere.

Think about how much effort went into this project! Someday, historians and economists will look back on that whole event and ... Well, I don't know what they'll think but we're going to come across pretty awesome.

How Does VR Enter Into This?

I should point out that this whole cycle has absolutely nothing to do with the VR craze. I mean, sure, VR goggles are really expensive, make lots of people sick, and have yet to come up with an actually compelling title. But it's fine. VR is the future. Bet your mom's bottom dollar on it.

I'd like this picture but with grandparents in the goggles instead of pasty tech nerds. It could be the beginning of a really lousy episode of Black Mirror.
So What Have We Learned?


That's the wonderful thing about the game industry. Almost everyone burns out of it by the time they're 35, so whatever institutional memory they developed disappeared and a new generation of worker bees is brought in to make all the same mistakes again.

So when the next weirdly-numbered generation of XBox comes out in a few years (Working Name: "XBox Eleventy Five"), you can look forward to its new motion controllers about three years after that. They will sell ten million units, have two decent games, secretly send pictures of your clothes to Forever 21 for marketing purposes, and your kids will LOVE it. For three days.


You can buy our awesome, easy to control games here. We are also on Twitter.

Edit: Changed the Harmonix guitar caption to something a little less unkind.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persona 5, Cartoon Cats, Depthless Evil, and Dating Your Teacher.

Strap in. This might get a tiny bit weird.
I write long RPGs for a living. Yet, I am the most jaded RPG gamer in the world. I tend to hate playing them. Yet, I force myself to play a long RPGs, because if you become totally divorced from playing the sort of game you write, you are lost.

That is why I recently spent 92 (92!!!) hours completing Persona V, Altus's cool, quirky, cult-hit JRPG. I didn't play it. I sunk into it, like a warm bath. For 1-2 hours a night, for months, I led my band of oddball Japanese high school students through their routine of going to school, dating, capturing demons, crushing evil, and being the best darn flower salesmen and part-time curry cooks they could possibly be.

It's really weird. When I look back on the obscene amount of time I spent on this game, I remember so many flaws. Storylines that were dull and uninspired. Repetitive dungeons and combats. A flawed translation. A lot of padding. A lot of content that was genuinely disturbing.

Yet, let's be clear, this game took over my brain. It’s the best example I've seen in this medium of a work that is much stronger than the sum of its parts. If you love this genre, it’s really worth playing, at least through the end of the first chapter.

So please allow me to go on about it for a while, as I process the experience and try to figure out why it works. Because it kind of shouldn't.

I freely admit that I can be very juvenile in my video game selection standards.
So What Is This Thing About?

Persona 5 is part of the (deep breath, bear with me here) Shin Megami Tensei media franchise, a sprawling web of books, anime, video games, etc. that have been very popular in Japan for 30 years or so. The last video game in this world to gain traction on my continent was the cool and utterly bananas 2011 puzzle dating game Catherine, which I still believe does not actually exist as it was merely a fever dream I alone experienced.

I want to try to explain what Persona 5 is about in a way that will probably agitate Megami Tensei fans to no end but will actually have a chance of getting civilians to comprehend it.

So you play a teenager in high school. You spend your days deciding what to do. You can study, or work at odd jobs, or go on dates, or hang with friends, or go see movies with your intelligent talking cat.

But you are also a, I don't know, a soul wizard. You are able to travel with your friends to the "Metaverse," which is where everyone's souls hang out. There, you can summon demons called Persona and fight the souls of bad people. If you can beat up their souls enough, you can change them and make them be less evil (or just kill them).

However, these enemies are also able to summon their own Persona demons. But then you can capture and use them yourself, in a process that plays out like Pokemon on shrooms.

So it's a JRPG, combined with an anime dating sim, with heavy Pokmemon elements. I am now stepping out of the way of those of you stampeding toward the exit.

What really sucked me in to this game was the first chapter, where you do battle with that most sinister of foes, your school's volleyball coach.

Just don't forget who, in the end, your real enemy is.
The First Storyline

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was, by video game standards, fantastically written. This means that most of the writing was simply fine, but it has one storyline (the infamous "Bloody Baron") that was genuinely good. In game writing, one good story can go a long way.

In Persona 5, when you learn how to summon demons and punch the souls of your enemies, your first foe is the evil volleyball coach Kamoshida. As a famed Olympic athlete, when he retired from competition, your school eagerly snapped him up as a teacher. And then proceeded to look the other way as he repeatedly assaulted his students, the boys physically and the girls sexually. He's famous, so nobody does anything about it.

You discover that he drove one of his students to attempt suicide. You confront him. He then swears to use his position to get you expelled. Thus begins a race, with him trying to destroy you in the real life while you try to wear down his spirit and change his personality in the Metaverse. If you lose the race, the game ends. Badly.

Let's be clear. Persona 5 is a really dark game. Horrible things happen. Some of the enemies are truly evil. Not evil in an abstract Sauron/burning eye/save the world whatever way, but in a skin-crawly "Yes, this actually happens. All the time." way.

Kamoshida is one of the most loathsome characters I've ever seen in a video game. He is so horrifying because he is so believable. It happens in the real world to the point of being mundane. A game like Tyranny can play with evil all it wants, but it's in a world full of magic and elves and cat people, so who cares?

In Persona 5, the bad guy is, and let's not mince words here, a serial rapist. In a seemingly light dating sim RPG. This is what led me to write this blog post. Video games only rarely tackle this sort of extremely difficult material. So when they do try it's worth figuring out if it worked. If so, how?

Persona 5's graphic and interface design is relentlessly cool.
Video Games Have No Limits, But They Have Limits

Here is the quandary: Video games are art, and therefore no element of the human experience, no matter how horrible, is off limits. Yet, video games are mostly adolescent power fantasies, so some topics seem too serious for them to address. Much of human experience, therefore, must be walled off in weenie little indie art pieces that nobody plays.

Now look at Persona 5. It is full of horrifying abuse. And wacky JRPG battles and hijinx. With a rapist gym teacher. And a cartoon cat.

Persona 5 is a financial and critical hit. I have read criticism that there are flaws in the ways it addresses the issues it does, but I have not seen anyone, male or female, seriously say that the game is disrespectful or should not exist. If they did, I would not agree with them.

This is a game full of horrors. It shouldn't work. People should recoil from it. But people don't recoil, and it does work. This is a good spot for some meaty game criticism. How do they pull off this magic trick?

To show how it can work, I'll point out one tiny, vital part of the game: how these traumatized kids get their magical powers.

How Can a Game Have Such Horrible Things and Silly Things Next To Each Other and Not Be a Mess

You might be thinking, "How can an RPG contain material like that and still be bearable and not super-gross and offensive?" Part of it is that, when dealing with sexual assault (and it comes up a lot), Persona 5 never jokes. It treats the topic seriously.

More importantly, they use a bit of a narrative trick, which I want to highlight because I think it works extremely well.

OK, so you play a band of teenagers who gain the ability to summon demons to attack the souls of evil people. Fine. How does this happen?

It's not like Harry Potter. A fat guy with a beard doesn't show up and say "You're a wizard!" and you go off to boarding school.

Here's how it works. You have to be betrayed. Someone has to be truly cruel to you, completely take advantage of your trust and weakness (and you've been weak and trusting in a way only a child can be). And then you have to realize it. You have to enter the Soul World to fully comprehend the magnitude of what has been done to you, and you have to completely lose yourself to rage. When this happens, a mask will appear on your face, the visible form of your still belonging to and believing in society. And you have to rip it off. It's AGONIZING. There is blood. And when it's finally off, you're free.

Here is what it looks like. (The one at 9:17 is pretty good.)

It's intense and bizarre and glorious and totally silly and utterly sincere, in a way that the Japanese do really, really well. It’s full of crazy animations and cartoon cats, but it's SERIOUS. I think it's the secret to what makes the game work.

He never saw it coming.
I Love Tonal Inconsistency

Now I know I am doing a super-crappy job of selling this game. I mean, I promised you a totally bananas adventure where you travel through surreal magic lands summoning demons, and then you return to the real world to be a seventeen year old tending bar before going on a date with your high school teacher.

This is a game with a really inconsistent tone. It can switch from weird and silly to dark and heavy in a moment.

I love that. I think tonal inconsistency is one of the necessary traits of a really good story.

It's not just that, if you never allow your tone to vary, your work is monotonous and grueling. It's that, if you want your work to in any way mirror life (and Persona 5, above everything else, wants to be a life simulator), well, life itself has an inconsistent tone.

Persona 5 is about damaged people trying to recover and build happy lives for themselves. It's about having been exploited and having your trust betrayed, and healing and rising above it and building a life. So when the characters recover from the latest outrage by going out for fried octopus balls, it's not a flaw but the whole point.

Window Into a Foreign Land

Persona 5 is a work of Japanese cultural and societal criticism, focusing on the ways in which old people exploit young people (and young women and girls especially). It can get really rough.

So if this doesn't sound like a place where you want to spend 90 hours of leisure time, I'd certainly understand.

I valued it greatly, though, as a window into another culture. This game is thoroughly and unapologetically Japanese, with Japanese characters commenting on Japanese society, in a very, very cynical way.

Politics in the U.S. in the last year has been a bit, shall we say, unsettling. As a big politics and civics nerd, I really liked stepping out of it for a time to be reminded that other societies have arguments and their own problems. They are the main characters in their own stories.

I love works of art that give a view into foreign mindsets and problems, like how The Witcher comes from a very Eastern European point of view.

Of course, selecting any character as "Best Girl" is offensive and problematic on so many levels, and I apologize for any inference that I ever engage with a sincere work of Interactive Art in such a childish way. Video games, as a true art form, deserve better, and so does humanity.
"Enough of This Serious Nonsense. Get to the Important Part."


"Who is Best Girl?"

Makoto. #shotsfired

As for good optional storylines/people to date, a lot of the side storylines are kind of bland. It's kind of a problem, alas. I found the most interesting characters to be Kawakami (teacher) and Tae Takemi (doctor). There's a lot of room for disagreement here. Feel free to point out other good bits of writing in the comments. (Also, be sure to never miss a chance to be mean to Mishima.)

Oh, and as one more aside, I have never liked music in video games. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I really, really liked the music. I still love the main battle theme after hearing bits of it 10000 times.

The Fun of Transgression

One of the coolest things about video games is that they give you the freedom to misbehave. This is one of the unique things about vidya as a storytelling medium. It's one thing to read about someone misbehaving, and another thing entirely to control someone being bad. Even if we know it's not real, when you choose for your avatar to do something crazy or bad, for a moment, it FEELS real.

You play a highly rebellious high school student, and Persona 5 lets you be transgressive in a way a western game could never allow. You can be responsible and do homework and get a job, sure. Or you can get a job as a bartender, or hang out with your alcoholic reporter friend, or, yes, date one of your teachers. (In a storyline that ends up being weirdly sad and touching and is one of the better bits of writing.)

This is just a first bid in picking apart Persona 5.

Be warned. While Persona 5 will allow you to two-time (or 9-time) your girlfriend, there may be consequences.
There's Plenty of Flaws

It's a 90+ hour game, how can it not? It's about 10 hours too long. There's a lot of bland writing and weird translations (in English). The writers had kind of a weird obsession with modeling. The combination of utter weirdness and total sincerity really requires some getting used to. The depictions of gay people are pretty offensive. The character of Akechi (Boy Detective!!!) seems to have been parachuted in from a different, worse game.

But if you care about the art form and the genre, this game is INTERESTING. It swings for the fences. Its reach exceeds its grasp. I haven't even begun to sort out all of the fascinating choices and ideas in this crazy, overstuffed game.

If nothing else, the next time I hear someone gassing on about how, "Video games can't do this," or "Video games can't cover that topic," I can now just say, "Persona 5, fam," and walk off to a more interesting conversation. Persona 5 got me thinking about all the things we can still explore in this young, weird medium, and I'm grateful for that.


Our very non-JRPG games are always available here, and I am on Twitter.