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The website for the game I mentioned working on in my previous blog post, The Tavern, is now finally up and running. It has taken longer to get the page ready than I originally anticipated, but… meh, that’s life. Things happen, and not always in the optimal order. In any case, it’s up there now, at http://www.thetaverngame.com/. Check it out if you wish.

Just in case you don’t know what The Tavern is, and you’d rather not go through the trouble of clicking the link to find out, I’ll save you the trouble and post a descriptive blurb + some early screenshots right here:

The Tavern is a short-story oriented, event-driven “Socially Multiplayer Online Roguelike-like Roleplaying Game” (or a SMORRPG, for short), set in a pseudo-medieval sword and sorcery-like fantasy world. The game has a split focus between solo adventuring and socializing/interacting with other players in social hubs, aka taverns.

Taverns are gathering spots for adventurers and would-be heroes of all kinds, and serve as social hubs where the players can hang out, show off their characters, socialize and interact with other players in various ways. This is also where players can find Adventures.

An Adventure is a self-contained short-story where the player must choose a path through the world in order to finish the story and resolve the objective of the Adventure. Randomization, branching choices, unique events, rare monster encounters and special character class abilities all help making each adventure a unique experience for the player.

In other news, I still don’t know how to end blog posts, so I’ll just write out something random down here. It’s not very likely that anyone bothers to read all the way to the end, anyway. And in case you actually did read to the end, well… what do you want, a cookie? Sheesh.

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Well, bureaucracy has been overcome, and Way North Studios AS is at last an officially registered company in Norway. Huzzah!

To celebrate, we registered a domain name (http://www.thetaverngame.com) for the game we’re making (codename, and actual name: The Tavern) and put up a small prototype test/teaser thing. Be warned! It requires the Unity Webplayer plugin and it’s not super impressive. It doesn’t actually do anything except just sit there and play some ambient effects at you as the artificial wind blows through the trees surrounding the placeholder tavern building (it’s just a model!).

It does, however, give an indication of what we want the game’s graphics to look and feel like.

For the horribly interested, visit the Games-section of the Way North Studios webpage for a few early details concerning the game.

Disclaimer: Anything and everything we say about the game currently is subject to change in the coming weeks and months.

 

 

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…absolutely nothing!

Having been back in Norway for nearly three weeks already,  I can hardly sit still in anticipation of finally being able to get up in the mornings and go to work at a location actually intended for getting work done, using a computer that’s not more than a decade old and doesn’t try to oppose me at every click of the mouse, at the supermegaawesome office of the top-secret (shh!) and not-yet-officially-launched indie game development studio I’m co-founding – Way North Studios!

*gets up and dances a jig*

What’s the hold-up? Partly, waiting for the new computers, paperclips and/or dance-dance-revolution mats? we ordered to arrive (any day now – woho!). Partly, bureaucracy (meh!) we need to trudge through in order to finalize the registration of our dev studio as a proper company in Norway, as well as to get all our Internets, insurances, hidden cameras, circus-operating permits, alarms and lethal guard hamsters sorted out, amongst other crucial and critical things.

Meanwhile, I pour over design documents, make plans for art and asset pipelines, try to choose what version control scheme to go with (currently leaning towards Mercurial), figure out how to deal with data-storage and the safekeeping of said data and – whenever my current computer is being agreeable – explore and uncover all the secrets and forbidden techniques hidden away in Unity.

In other news, I managed to find my Collector’s Edition coin (a Septim) from Oblivion in an unopened, sealed plastic bag – just lying at the back of a shelf all innocent like. Naturally, I promptly opened it and declared it forever my lucky game development coin. For the curious – it’s made of solid fake gold, is about 36 mm in diameter and 2 mm thick, and this is what it looks like:

Oblivion Collector's Edition Septim Coin

Oblivion Collector’s Edition Septim Coin

 

 

We’ll get along just fine, my preciousssss Ssseptim. You’d better bring me luck, or I’ll melt you down! (Just kidding, I wouldn’t do that (I totally would, though))

 

 

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In these my last days and weeks in Montreal, I spend most of my spare time poring over documentation, tutorials and example-projects for Unity – and to some extent, Blender – soaking up as much knowledge about and experience with these tools as I possibly can. The goal: to become self-sufficient and able to create games and/or prototypes of games in Unity, entirely on my own. Not necessarily to go at it all on my own, but I figure it will be a good foundation for whatever comes next.

My existing “foundation” has been slowly built over the past 13 years and includes (but is not limited to) exposure to and experience with C++, C JavaScript, AI scripting using visual tools as well as asset-handling/basic animation work in 3ds Max, gameplay design and gameplay-related worldbuilding efforts. I am by no measure close to being an expert in any of these matters individually, but I am hoping that the collective sum of experience and knowledge that I have obtained over these years – from both inside and outside of the industry itself – can serve as a springboard of sorts into the world of Unity and independent game development.

UnityScript vs C#

UnityScripting in action

UnityScripting in action

Speaking of Unity, and scripting; I’m finding obscure joy in converting various Unity tutorial scripts from C# to JavaScript. “JavaScript!? Why on earth would you do that?” you might ask. Well, firstly – it’s not regular JavaScript, which is why many users prefer the nickname instead: UnityScript. Assuming I’ve understood it correctly, UnityScript is an object/component-oriented, .NET-based (Mono) JavaScript implementation based on the Boo programming language. In practice, it seems to me that it is used very similarly to C# in Unity, albeit with slightly different syntax, certain peculiarities and some potential limitations (depending on what you’re using it for).

Secondly, while converting tutorials from one language to the other I’m learning how it’s done in both languages at the same time, and though I’ll sometimes run into stumbling blocks where language-specific implementation of code is required, it forces me to apply my braincells, dig deeper and really figure out what’s going on and why.

Of course, that would be true when converting the other way around as well, but since I happen to like Unity’s Javascript-syntax and C# not so much, that’s what I’m going for. Worst case scenario, if there’s something I’m unable to achieve in UnityScript I might be forced to also use C# scripts in the same project. I might see things differently if I end up collaborating with someone who prefers C#, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. *shrug*

Meanwhile, at work…

Example of shield-clipping in AoC

Example of shield-clipping in AoC

My final days at work mostly consist of tinkering with AI scripts for an (unreleased) dungeon that I have been working on, updating the documentation for said scripts in preparation to hand it off to whoever will work on it next, as well as diving into an issue that’s been a thorn in my side for quite some time, but which hasn’t had the highest of priorities: Shields.

More specifically, shields that clip through the heads of characters, stick through their hands/arms, are incorrectly positioned/rotated when equipped and/or are seen from the side in the inventory instead of the front (making it hard to actually see what they look like).

Having previously already gone through every single shield-asset in the game and documented what was wrong/needed fixing with each, I’ll now be trying to fix as many of those issues as I can before I pack my things and jump on a plane back to Norway.

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< rant >Microtransactions work, some game designers and publishers claim. Microtransactions would not become more and more popular (implemented in game after game) if they didn’t work, if they didn’t sell. As such, since they DO work and they DO sell, it can’t be a bad thing, because it’s clearly what people want, they say. If you don’t want it, you can vote with your wallet and not spend any money on it.

You know what else sells? Heroin and cocaine. You know what else works? One-armed bandits in casinos. People willingly spend (a lot of) money on these things, often to the point where they spend so much that it affects their own well-being, or that of their closest family, or creates a larger problem for society as a whole.

Just because it “works” and “sells” does not automatically mean that it can’t be evil. “Free market” is not a blanket excuse that takes away all moral responsibility of the supplier, whatever “teams of analysts” studying consumer behavior say.

The fact that microtransactions are a completely business-driven “feature” which corrupts the craft that is game design/development is a discussion on it’s own, but as game developers, suppliers of entertainment services and – heck, as human beings – we have an inherent, collective responsibility to not brutally shove phallic pleasuring devices with sharp spikes attached up the backsides of our players, consumers and fellow human beings – even if they ask for it. Because otherwise they might bleed to death, or on the couch where their children sit, or on public bus-seats. And no one wants that.

Are all microtransactions inherently evil? Of course not. Just as not all phallic pleasuring devices (to take that analogy all the way) or even drugs are inherently evil. The point, however, is that the line between what’s evil and what’s not in the context of microtransactions is – little by little – being erased and/or pushed back. Sooner or later it will become impossible to see the line at all, and at that point it will be too late to do anything about it.< /rant >

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I have an upcoming jubilee of sorts in a few months, at which point I can celebrate having endured life in the game development industry for five (measly) years. This cause for celebration is somewhat diminished by the fact that Funcom announced earlier this month that they are restructuring and consolidating offices – which means that I, along with the majority of the other developers at Funcom’s Montreal office, are being let go. For my part this means that I have at most two and a half month left before my official last day at FC, and having started working for FC in late March 2008, this means I might just about pass the five-year mark (yay!) before I’m officially out of a job (nay!).

Throughout these last soon-to-be five years I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with a diverse bunch of awesome people (and I hope that I’ll be able to work with some of them again in the future!) on two different MMORPG projects, and I would not change that for the world, but what exactly have I learned after this time spent working in the game development industry? Which of the preconceived assumptions and expectations I brought with me have held up, and which have been thoroughly shattered? What knowledge have I acquired that I can bring with me where-ever I go next?

I’ve played with the idea of writing a post along these lines in the past year or so, but what I’ve found out is that it’s not easy to summarize several years worth of experience in a simple blog post. Instead, I will try to focus on some of the more obvious lessons I have learned, the ones I can point at and say “that might have been useful to know/realize the value of when I first started”. Some – or maybe all – of them are perhaps obvious enough that they’re hardly worth mentioning, but then again – everything is obvious is hindsight.
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Zubon posted over at Kill Ten Rats about resetting characters (examples given: Torchlight, Kingdom of Loathing) being preferable to resetting worlds (examples given: Torchlight II, Borderlands 1 and 2) when reaching the end of a game. The former entails resetting (or retiring+re-creating) a character to scratch and giving it some boost or other (stats, skill-points, items, gold) to give it a flying start, while for the latter you reset the game-world and increase difficulty to match the current status of the character.

While an interesting topic of discussion on it’s own, this got me thinking.

Resets in virtual worlds

Character resets in games like the ones mentioned above is nothing new – it has been done in MUDs and BBS door-games (like Legend of the Red Dragon) for decades already, after all. It would still be novel in a modern virtual world, however, and personally I would love to see a virtual world where the following mechanics are combined:

  1. Optional or forced retirement of characters that have reached a certain threshold (character lifespan, fame, fortune, epic achievements)
  2. Permanent death(!)
  3. Restarting after either of the above events as a heir of the original character with some form of inheritance/boost (stats, more powerful than usual heirloom item, title, etc)

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Syncaine put up an interesting post about content in MMOs, and how there’s too much focus on one-off (single-player) content as opposed to reusable (multi-player) content. He got that partially right; there is too much focus on one-off content, and on content being intended for single-players in a multi-player environment.

Developer-created content is expensive

The production costs are astronomical for content-driven development, both prior to actually launching the game (which then puts a huge pressure on the game becoming a “box office hit” immediately after launch to recoup as much of the development cost as possible, and after launch – when the developers must fight a never-ending battle to make enough content to keep the hordes of content-greedy players at bay. The players will always consume this content faster than the developers can develop it, and it becomes a battle of attrition to see who tires first – the developers of churning out more quality content or the players of waiting for the next batch for consumption.

However, the answer to the issue that Syncaine raised is not to modify this process to produce re-usable, generic content – or to make grouping “harder” or “less streamlined”. The solution lies in systems-driven design and systems-driven gameplay. Given the right type of systems, the right set of tools and the right amount of freedom, the players can themselves generate content that has the potential to be infinitely more interesting to them than playing through yet another story X created by developer Y. That is not to say that there is no room for developer-created content, but if the consumption of this content becomes the primary focus of the game, the battle has already been lost; the players will expect more of the same and be upset when they run out of such content to consume.

This is not the content you are looking for

I want to make what I feel is an important distinction here, which I don’t see a lot of other people making. I see a clear distinction between player-created content and player-generated content. The former I see as being about giving the players the tools to create their own dungeons, missions, quest NPCs etcetera – which can then be experienced by other players. Since the players are, collectively, more creative and prone to experimentation than a small group of developers will necessarily have to be (due to budget/milestone-constraints), chances are good that somewhere among the flood of content that will be produced by the players (a good chunk of which will be related to giant, flying penises), there will be some real gems, perhaps even some unforgettable master-pieces.

However this is treating the symptom of the problem and not the cause. Outsourcing the work of content-creation from the developers to the players in this manner is not the solution.

Player-generated content

Instead of outsourcing content-creation through player-created content, I wish to see more developers embracing the promotion of player-generated content. I don’t mean content in the traditional MMO sense here, but instead the gameplay that emerges as players utilize the tools built into systems-driven virtual worlds to drive both their characters and said worlds forward. Or sideways. Wherever. I realize that this sounds a bit vague, but bear with me and I will continue on to say that the next logical step we need to take in MMORPG development is to embrace the concept of virtual worlds more closely.

The potential for player-generated content in virtual worlds is… out of this world. To unlock this potential, those virtual worlds require systems.  Not just systems that drive combat, but systems for crafting, systems for exploring, systems for inventing stuff, systems for politicking, systems that promote socializing, systems that promote creativity, systems that provide options, choices – systems that make alternative lives possible. The more of these systems that are in place and the more of them that are interconnected in some way or other with other systems, the more opportunities there will be for emergent gameplay to occur. Sometimes this gameplay will go down paths that the developers might not want it to, but this fact should be embraced, not shunned. Instead of restrictions, freedom. Freedom to make the choices that matter to the player – the choices that makes the journey their character is on their own journey.

This reinforces the bond they have with their character and increases their feeling of ownership, not just of said character, but also of the world the character lives in, promoting a pattern of thought that goes… “This is my character. This is my story. This is my world. This is my home.”

You can’t get a better retention device than that.

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Whelp. I just finished The Walking Dead.

I… cried. Realized that this is the first game to make me do that, for real. Turns out that “fun” isn’t the only tool in the box that games can make good use of. I thought I knew that already, but I was never really sure until now. Wish more developers would take risks like this, and not just stick with the same old over and over.

I highly recommended this game – it definitely gets my stamp of approval, for whatever that’s worth. If you want to play just one more game this year, do yourself a favor and play The Walking Dead.

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(First in what might potentially turn into a series of posts concerning observations made about games I play.)

When I’m not busy ranting about the good old days, I sometimes like to partake in seasonal rituals known to gamers world-wide as “Steam-sales”.

Yesterday, during the (currently ongoing) Steam Autumn Sale, I bought all five episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, having heard much good about the game, but having never really made the time to actually get hold of it and play it. Today, I feel bad for not having bought the game earlier, preferably at full price directly from Telltale Games. I have played through the first three episodes, and so far the game has been worth its weight in virtual gold. Worth every penny. I mean, cent.

What I mean to say is, this game knocked me flat on my back in one swift punch. It doesn’t hold back, at all. From the beginning of the first episode to the end of the third, the game has taken me on an emotional roller coaster-ride alongside a tribe of diverse characters with depth and soul (backed up by superb voice-acting, I should add!). I went from complacency via shocked silence to outrage and/or relief as events took unexpected turns. My spirits were lifted up to the sky before plummeting back down into the tragic depths of despair, before gradually climbing back up to normalcy and restoring a false sense of security in me, which I’m sure will be exploited to the maximum in the next two episodes.

I submit to the Internet at large that Telltale Games have, with this episodic The Walking Dead series, created a game which contains a perfect blend of Dragon’s Lair, classical point’n-click adventure and the mystical X-factor that turn games into art.

 

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