Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Rewarding Experiences

I've alluded to the problems with trying to set up an award for (niche especially) game narrative in longer, non-IGF-friendly games, but I thought I'd ramble about the topic a little to make the pitfalls more clear, and maybe some good ideas will come to light.

First off, if there were some sort of prestigious story game award, what sort of games would be eligible, and how would they be defined? I wouldn't really be happy about lumping every NaNoReNo entry into the same awards show as the latest Bioware RPG and the latest mainstream shooter, but I wouldn't want to start out with a VN-only show either. Too niche. So for starters:

- Only computer games in English with a primary or co-primary focus on narrative allowed.

-- This means VNs, digital gamebooks, some RPGs but not action ones, some adventure games but not pure puzzlefests, and some nebulous arty games that people argue about how to categorise in the first place

-- This would be trying to exclude AAA games in other genres, even though they obviously include narrative as a strong component. But how you actually judge that? Who would be making the decisions on whether Assassins Creed was 'narrative' enough to count? Do you try to cut them out by making the awards "indie only" instead, hoping that it's slightly easier to adjudicate? Or do you issue strict genre guidelines to include ONLY visual novels, RPGs, and adventures, and then fight over what games do and don't count as those?

-- Should freeware games be excluded, in order to keep the field size manageable, or just restricted to certain award categories?

-- What about games that aren't originally in English? What about freeware games that have been fan-translated, sometimes with or without permission?

-- Should games only be eligible if the original author actively submits them for consideration? That might limit the field, but it might limit it too much. An award's not very meaningful if it's only chosen between the games of the five people who were interested.

That's just some basic questions about the games themselves that would be up for awards. A much bigger problem is - who would judge it?

It is not practical to have a small panel of paid judges who are obligated to complete every game and compare them. Think how many hours some of these games take to complete! Think about paying a reasonable salary for 3-5 judges, at the very least, to play them exhaustively. Think how LONG it would take them, too. And, of course, a small group of judges, even esteemed judges, is obviously going to bring in their own set of biases that would make the award less representative of general opinion.

To get a wider range of opinion, you need a wider range of judges. But if it's pretty difficult to pay 3 people to play 20+ games, it's impossible to pay 200 or 2000 to do it. And, especially if all games released are eligible for awards, you just can't even begin to hope that everything will be played and evaluated. And of course, not only can you not afford to pay 200 judges, you might not even be able to get 200 free copies of every game to give out, especially not for a new contest.

So what does that leave you with? Calling out to the gamer populace to vote on the games they've personally played, and just sort of vaguely hoping you can get enough people to speak up and play fairly that you'll get a good spread of results? Well... it is sort of how the Hugos are supposed to work, after all.

If the judges are 'the gamers' rather than specially recruited judges or hand-vetted volunteers, then you need an organisation to make SOME attempt at verifying the identity of the judges and stopping people from signing up multiple times, as well as a barrier to entry to try and restrict this to people who are actually interested in the subject and not boredly clicking a webpage. This of course requires that you have created this central Gamers Association and someone is maintaining the membership and keeping track of the money (which will probably be used to pay out the awards), but one might find it a little hard to get thousands of people to sign up and pay money to get the chance to vote on their favorite video games. Or maybe it's easy, I don't know!

Now, once you've started making things into a popular vote based on nominations from this wide base, you run into the issue of campaigning. Should game developers and/or interest groups be barred from trying to push the voters to vote one way or another? And if so, how? Or is that totally fine, because that level of dedication should be rewarded? Are there other rules that can balance the possibility of one group trying to steamroll?

Of course, if this sort of awards thing were being organised there'd also be a lot of work that would have to be put into determining the categories, in order to reward different kinds of narrative instead of JUST having the 'best game' which will probably be swept by the popular thing. Categories might include things like
- Worldbuilding: setting, lore, consistency
- Player Agency: how much can the player shape the direction of the narrative?
- Multiple Endings: who does the most with the interactive ability to tell more than one story?
- Humor: obvious, but deserves its own category as its a writing thing often overlooked in awards
- Emotional Rollercoaster: not so much 'best drama' as 'most lasting impact'. what game's story most kicked you in the gut, or made you fall hopelessly in love with a sprite?
- Best Character: this is probably a more meaningful option than Best Dialog
- Best In Genre: to separate RPGs from VNs and so on (although there'd be an overall best as well)

And there'd probably need to be some rules restrictions limiting the number of categories a title could be up for final consideration in.

Again, this is all just the result of me thinking about it for a few minutes, and you can already see what a messy undertaking it could be, trying to manage it.

And even if I founded something like this and recruited 2000 people to judge it, people would probably complain I had an unfair advantage by virtue of being the founder, so I'd never be able to get awards, and what good is that? :)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Choose Your Own Space Marine

There's an LP going on the something awful forums of a recentish gamebook, for those who like their adventures to have grizzled space marines, ridiculous humor, and a lot of blood. SHOOT ALL THE THINGS. TRY NOT TO DIE. That may not sound like the best endorsement but it is actually an entertaining read!

To buy the thing and play it yourself -

Kindle version:

Heavy Metal Thunder

App Store / Google Play version:

Cubus Games

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Royal Trap - HD Release

There's a new version of The Royal Trap out with bigger graphics and better background art!

Sneak, spy, and stab your way through a maze of court intrigue to find the truth, protect your reputation, and find romance!

Also available on Steam:

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Black Closet trailer

(If that doesn't embed properly for you, you can also click through here to see it.)

Coming soon!

Also - we're giving away a free copy of Sword Daughter. See here for information!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


Several little things going on at the moment...

The Valentine's Weekly Bundle is still going on over at Humble, which covers a variety of visual novels as well as the option to upgrade for a love pillow... from Hatoful Boyfriend.

The lovely Deji created some fun art for the upcoming Black Closet:

The game is still in beta, but is very nearly complete. I'm really busy right now but I expect we can officially launch it sometime next month.

And, as mentioned, Sword Daughter is now on Steam (and some people are paying very odd prices for the emoticons, but who knows if that will last?)

Friday, 13 February 2015

Sword Daughter - Now on Steam

(Chibis by Simon Adventure)

Sword Daughter is now available on Steam!

The game includes all your typical steam-powered bells and whistles, like trading cards, collectible backgrounds, and achievements. (If you already own the game, you will need to play through it again to unlock most of the achievements, but this should be easy enough to do with the section map.)

Speaking of which, if you bought the game direct from my website and want a Steam key, please email me with your order information and I'll happily hand one over. Please do ask by email rather than by forums, it makes it so much easier to keep my key list organised.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sunless Sea - why I find it frustrating

Disclaimer - I have only put a few hours into this game and am not good at it. I may be missing things that would make the experience suck less. Also, this is a PLAYER opinion and NOT a business opinion, this blog is for whining about games after all.

This is a game all about atmosphere. There's a cool, weird, unique setting, and a mildly randomised map to sail around and uncover. There are stories and fragments of stories scattered everywhere, dripping with implication and promise. That's the good part.

The vast bulk of your time in the game is spent staring at the screen as your ship slowly inches along through the murk and gloom, sailing between islands. Again, this is an atmosphere thing, they want the game to be slow. It does mean that you're wasting an awful lot of time doing not very much and can put hours into the game without accomplishing anything, and that has negative consequences elsewhere. Chalk this up as a medium part. It's not good or bad but it's a thing.

Your sailing comes at a high cost. Many people hate hunger timers in games. This game has MULTIPLE constantly-dwindling resources. You have hunger. You have fuel. And you have sanity. Sailing around means you're losing all three of these. You can, of course, buy more... with your extremely limited money supply... which you may or may not be able to earn any more of in your next sailing trip. Sorry, sucks to be you!

Even reviews that LIKE the game grudgingly point out that you can get horribly stuck in the game due to a lack of resources and a lack of any reliable way to earn them.

There is a sort of black belt around to the sea’s loose centre, within which relatively few ports of import can be found. That this means scant opportunity to resupply is one thing (and, really, you should only be buying supplies from places where they are known to be cheap anyway), but that there is nowhere to check in and grab a port report which you can submit back in Fallen London for reasonable rewards is a greater one. I have hit the wall in Sunless Sea a few times because I simply cannot earn money to fund a trip further out, let alone buy upgrades.

Very slow attrition, hitting the same few ports over and over will gradually bring in enough money and chance rewards to buy enough fuel to reach further flung territories, but at times I have found this too onerous. With a starting ship, the speed of travel can be so slow, the waiting maddening. An accurate representation of the life Sunless Sea means to evoke, but it does mean some players may bounce right off it a couple of hours in.

This is why I've pretty much given up on the game. I've had one or two really interesting sailing trips where I was getting to exciting new places and finding hints of stories... and then I've slammed into not being able to fuel up enough to go anywhere I haven't been before.

And then there's the combat.

Combat has been completely revamped from the earliest versions, so I won't talk too much about the old combat. It was kinda turn-based and, while playable, was not too exciting. Many people complained that it was even slower than the sailing, because you had to sit there staring at your timers and waiting for them to tick down, while doing nothing else.

A constant problem with, say, JRPGs, is that once you level up enough that the basic slime is not a threat, you are far more annoyed by the amount of time it takes to step on the random encounter square, sit through the transition, and then be required to set attacks for all your characters, before it will finally let you JUST SQUISH THE SLIME WHICH YOU CAN DO IN A FRACTION OF A SINGLE HIT AAAAAAARGH.

Basically, if your time isn't being spent making interesting decisions, you really resent your time being sucked away. So in that early combat mode, you queued up some actions and mostly sat and stared, waiting to intervene if anything went wrong. There wasn't any cool animation or anything FUN about the fight to watch, so yeah, it could get dull.

In the new version, combat takes place on the same sailing-around map as normal navigation does. This does add more possibility for doing things during the fight other than just waiting for your gun timer to tick down - you MIGHT be able to dodge certain kinds of trouble, or even make things worse by sailing your ship into a rock while you were paying attention to your guns, or sail into the range of more enemies, oops.

In some ways this works. Battling with pirate ships feels cool and nautical, both of you slowly wheeling around... Upgrading your ship has obvious benefits to everything, if you can ever afford it. And I assume that if you get good enough guns and stats you can eventually kill things pretty fast and not have the huge time sink. (Though I wouldn't know, since I've never been able to upgrade.)

What drives me nuts is the monsters. There aren't that many of them, at least, in the areas I've been to, and you can PROBABLY avoid most of them if you're careful. But once you have their attention, they can be tough to shake. You can use full engine power to try and speed up and dodge them (although the help doesn't mention this until several hours in) but that may make your ship randomly explode (so much for people claiming that the luck of the dice aren't critical here!). They can follow you a port and camp practically on your bow waiting for you to press 'launch' and take instant damage, which feels stupid to me and breaks immersion (I feel like getting a monster to follow you to port should trigger some sort of port event. Maybe they blame you for bringing trouble! Maybe they rush out and slaughter the crab that followed you home! Maybe they thank you for luring it in!) but even without story effects, RPGs generaly station guards around citypoints like this to avoid the stupidity of 'i will be immediately hit if I step outside and there's NOTHING I can do about it'

But the worst part is if you do engage with the monsters. There's no animation scripted for fighting them. So unlike pirate vessels, which will wheel around and fire guns at you like you're doing, monsters will just sort of drift nearby, then occasionally move in your direction and bounce off your hull with a little clink noise. It's stupid. It's not cool. It's not fun.

Look, this game put its effort into the writing, not the graphics. Fine! You don't want to animate a battle between a ship and a giant glowing crab, fine! But don't expect me to be having fun with 'clink'.

If closing with a monster shifted into an encounter, with words to read and choices to make, it might be more interesting. You could avoid the encounter by having good enough guns to shoot the monster before it gets that close. And if rabid zee-bats swarmed your vessel you could get descriptions of them swooping through and taking bites out of your rigging with the resulting damage, instead of 'clink'.

Other grumbles - the game really wants you to treat it as a roguelike and pressures you into accepting permadeath and starting over. But with a game that is this slow and this lacking in early-game differentiation, the prospect of starting over is massively annoying in a way that it isn't in something like Spelunky or Necrodancer, where I've sunk countless hours into delightful failure.

Also, from the RPS comments:

I did just make a catastrophic error caused, in part, by the chain-of-captains (though one could claim it’s inherent in any rogue-like game). I was trying to scrounge up enough cash to do something and sold what I thought was my old engine, having bought a new one. Oops. That new one I bought was with my _previous_ captain, just before he got killed. So I sold the only working engine for my boat and did not have the funds to buy a new one. Crap. I don’t think there’s an easy way to commit suicide in London, so I just started a new chain of captains.

Does that sound like fun to you?