Game Design Case Study: Kaos War

At first I was going to subtitle this post “Follow your game-making dreams like a crack-crazed, howling, insensate lemming plunging from the peaks of Mt. Everest into the fiery pits of Hell itself.” So… should you?

What am I talking about? I’m talking about big talkers and bootstrappers in videogames. And I’m talking about how to build your dream game.

I’m specifically preaching about Kaos War, an old virtual team videogame project that had some dude in San Francisco – name of Damon Grow – betting the farm and bankrupting not only his wallet but also all of his personal relationship capital. I’m talking about an MMORPG dream that either Jesus or Satan engraved into this dude’s brain with a icy scalpel. Games.net posted a series of video minidocumentaries by Wendy Chan that are unfortunately no longer online (I checked Youtube as well). There are nine of them, all revealing and painful. I regret you can’t see them, because they are full of lessons. And lesions.

It’s old news, but I think you can still profit from some of Grow’s mistakes and successes. And stick around… later I’ll post an update on Kaos War and Grow so you can see what ended up happening in this drama.

If you don’t already know, a virtual team is an international group of dreamers who group together – often never having met in real life – and communicate via the internet to cooperate on a project. Of course, especially when they’re building a game, this fails pretty frequently. In Damon’s case, I have to give him props. He seems to have picked people who are dedicated and have some experience. The video clips gloss over that fact a bit. That’s one of the big keys to success, and Damon seems to know how to pick ’em and hook ’em.

In the documentary, they made a big deal out of the fact that he has no experience. Frankly, the suits don’t need to get their hands dirty, and in the world of Kaos War, Damon’s definitely a suit, and probably best doing suit things. Damon seems to have some of the necessary elements to become a gaming executive, truth to tell. He’s obsessed. He loves to talk. He believes 100% in his game. He inspires people and gets their juices flowing. He sacrifices. He’s abusing drugs (okay, caffeine and energy drinks). He’s insane. He makes bad decisions and has skewed priorities. If you can find the video, check it out. Let me know what you think.

p.s. Nice work, Wendy.

Damon’s did a lot RIGHT with Kaos War. He worked hard. He motivated people just by his presence and his words. He recruited talented people from around the world – people he’d never even met.

This guy has charisma, and he was getting stuff done.

For Chrissake, the guy actually managed to get real funding from a game company. He deposited a check. I’ve never deposited a check except as an employee. Many, many pros in the industry have never gotten Funding with a capital F. This boy is delivering.

But what’s he doing wrong, in hopes that someday, someway someone like Damon can follow in his footsteps but do it just a tad better, causing a degree or two less human suffering? What was Damon doing wrong? What not do to when starting your project?

5. Bitch about cosmetics to the guy who just paid your rent.

In one episode, Damon and his forgiving roomie Brian go over to the warehouse district to look at a possible development location. It’s a skunky warehouse and the place is doubtlessly riddled with crime. Surprise – it’s cheap real estate in San Francisco.

Damon immediately carps on the lack of paint and the fact that “it has birds*** all over it.”

Damon, your project has no funding and your team is eating ramen and sleeping in your bathtub. Embrace the birds***.

In fact, you’re not to the birds*** stage yet. You aspire to birds***. I admit that maybe you could skip this stage entirely if you get funded. But you’re not. Why’re you even shopping? Later, Damon and the boys go over to the Boardwalk of SF real estate, Lucas’ digs in the Presidio. Someone mentions that he could hire (and pay!) a programmer a year’s salary with the rent. Hmm. I wonder which one will win in a pinch? Employee salary or fancy-pants suite next to Lucasarts? Hopefully Damon will get this one right.

4. Assume that human suffering is a substitute for excellence.

Damon tells us that one of his teammembers has been homeless for two weeks. We’ve sacrificed so much! he avers.

I’m sorry, Damon. This is wrong in two ways. First, you’re kind of using this guy’s horrible situation to further your project, and in a way, YOU made it happen because he’s spending energy on your game instead of on finding a decent crackhouse to sleep in. This is a bad example for the troops. If you don’t mind bragging that a guy went homeless to work on the game, maybe you won’t mind bragging about having the whole art department on the street.

And second, there are a lot of homeless guys in the world who suffer every day. How many hit MMORPGs have they made?

3. Tell your team to shoot for Goliath.

Taking on World of Warcraft, geez, Damon. What kind of expectations are you trying to set? “Plan B” might be good to have. Good leaders prepare for all cases. Good leaders pick achievable goals that won’t crush the troops if they aren’t met.

A real MMORPG team is 30+ professionals working fulltime… and building ungodly amounts of art, script, story, characters, monsters, and code. These guys have done it before. They have all the tools and training. They can concentrate on their jobs without having to worry about spaghetti supplies or being pushed off the futon at 3 am by the kid they’re sharing it with. These are significant advantages.

Dreamers keep the gaming industry alive. But practical dreamers achieve their goals and start out with baby steps.

2. Shop for your Blofeld-style mountaintop headquarters.

It’s rough to see these game newbies picking their game dev “mansion” when the guy has no money and his rent is due. What the hell? Seriously, who’s supplying these boys with nose candy and uppers?

This is the equivalent of a high school baseball player shopping for bling at Shaq’s favorite jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Helloooooooooo in there! Earth to Skyler!

1. Force your CTO to pull up roots for a pitch meeting – or quit the project.

Lead programmers are gold. They make everything happen, and the whole game is built on their tech design. If your CTO is in Europe and living with his folks, you respect that and let the poor SOB telecommute.

It’s nice to have warm bodies in the boardroom with you when you meet with the publisher, but warm bodies can be hired at the local Walmart. Sure, you want the CTO there to talk tech with the brain trust, but if your publisher doesn’t have the ability to call a guy in Europe you don’t want them.

You don’t force your #1 guy to choose between leaving the country and leaving the project. Most of the time he’ll choose the latter.

Seriously, kids. I urge you. Be realistic. Do some research. Stay focused.

Well, I wanted to respond to Mike’s post from March 6th with some new angles. Hopefully you folks will find it interesting to see two designers honing and whacking on an idea a little – and hopefully Mike won’t mind. ;)

On the 6th, Mike brainstormed up a bold new idea that pivots on something very common yet also very evocative – the thumbtack. He proposed that the game involve a mystery that the player solves by arranging photos on a corkboard using the thumbtacks.

Here’s my feedback:

I like this idea – as well as the concept of building different game pitches here for people to ruminate on.

I do have some suggestions – I fear that the game as described in the main post would be technically challenging (for a developer, due to its nearly unlimited permutations) and could be hard for some gamers to get invested in (because the medium of a corkboard and flashbacks doesn’t give the game much room for interactivity and narrative).

Maybe we could make it a murder investigation where thumbtacks and pushpins are also used to plot travel paths or mark murder locations. These additional uses would introduce more scarcity and require the player to strategize their use. Each pin’s color or material (plastic, metal) could have different properties or affinities.

And for narrative/interactivity, the player could travel around the world and take photos and ask characters about the images shown in them, or combine photos of different suspects to trigger more focused flashbacks.

To explain the scarcity of such an inexpensive item as a tack or pin, we’d have to make the player’s tacks special. Perhaps she’s a psychic and can only use these tacks because they’re not her memories that she’s unlocking – they’re the victim’s, and the player/psychic found them drenched in the victim’s blood at the crime scene. Under duress, the player could even use the tacks to write notes in a desk, punch Braille messages to a blind friend, or let her own blood to trigger memories or distract a vicious dog.

Dang, I didn’t know I’d get so carried away. Thumbtacks! Who would’ve guessed. Fresh ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be powerful.

 

 

 

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The New Tomb Raider Movie Was Written By A Game Writer

How Come The Game Writer Who Rebirthed Tomb Raider Isn’t In the Credits?

Hmm. I don’t want to throw a lot of shade and grump about how game writers get no love, but it is rather curious.

You see, if you’ve played Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, the trailer for the new Tomb Raider movie should look awfully familiarIn fact, IGN has a helpful video that matches the movie trailer shot-for-shot with game footage:

Obviously, the woman who wrote the game script did a hell of a job. The young Lara, the missing father, the ominous threat, the leap into the stormy sea, the pickaxe, the decaying WWII bomber… it’s all there. (We’ll see if the movie also includes some of the game’s more fantastical elements, like the Sun Queen and the demonic Oni.)

Who might this formidible writer be? Well, it’s veteran videogame writer Rhianna Pratchett, who not only worked on Mirror’s Edge, the Overlord games, and Prince of Persia, but is also nerd royalty as daughter of the incomparable Terry Pratchett. (If you haven’t read any TP, get thyself to a bookstore stat!)

And yep. Rhianna is NOT in the IMDB credits for the movie. The two credited are Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (which, by the way, are admittedly terrific names for someone writing a Tomb Raider movie), although they are credited as “screenplay by.”

Most tellingly, if you google the trio of Rhianna Pratchett, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Alastair Siddons together, you immediately plunge into the dark web like Lara Croft diving into the ocean. Ok, slight exaggeration. But the first hit is the Polish website filmweb.pl, mentioning Rhianna thanks to a comment from a savvy reader, and it gets slighter from there.

So What the Heck Happened?

I’m going to tweet this to Rhianna in hopes that she tells her side of the story. We’ll see. But my guess is that she didn’t have a whole lot of rights in the picture. She delivered a viable story for a game, and of course gave Crystal the ownership of the story for future projects. Like this movie. And fortunately the studio and director Roar Uthaug (another great name, by the way) thought highly of the game’s storyline and chose to keep it for the movie. Perhaps Crystal even required it to follow the game so that the two reboots would cover the same arc.

Typically when you see a movie credit a book or short story author, it’s because the movie’s producers had to approach the author to get the rights to develop their project. In this case, I rather doubt Rhianna had much say in the development of this property. It would’ve been a fine tip of the cap for Crystal Dynamics to ask that her name be in the credits, but maybe they weren’t able to. For all I know, her name will appear in the final credits and the omission is IMDB’s fault.

What Does This Mean For Game Writers?

Congrats to Rhianna, first. It’s a rare treat indeed for a videogame writer to see her work hit the silver screen in identifiable form.

At the same time, if I’m a design lead, I’m never going to mention this example to any of my writers! It’s hard enough trying to produce a cohesive story for a game. The last thing I’d want is my team getting distracted and starry-eyed, thinking that their scripts are going to get picked up by Hollywood.

Okay, Enough Trying To Make Game Writers Seem Important

Now… fight!

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This Is Why Marvel Is Better Than Star Wars

Marvel Is Beating the Pants Off Star Wars – Admit It

Marvel Comics and Star Wars have always been the polestars of my geekdom, but things have changed and now we have to admit that cinematically, Marvel is better than Star Wars, for some really obvious reasons.

marvel-is-better-than-star-wars

Star Wars came to greatness by taking chances. It had a cast of virtual unknowns, wacky creatures and locations, and a story based on Japanese archetype that blended fantasy and scifi elements.

Now, after a whole trilogy’s worth of cringe-rife agony brought on by George Lucas’ egotism and inability to innovate, Star Wars is trying to regain its mojo, but in the worst possible way. Star Wars: Force Awakens summarizes the dilemma in a nutshell. They hired a hotshot director and were so busy trying to please the fanboys that they remade Star Wars: A New Hope with a less-compelling protagonist with no weaknesses or interesting flaws. (Aptly named, Rey, which is “King” in Spanish, enters the franchise able to fix spaceships better than Chewie, fly and shoot better than Han, mind-control better than Obi Wan, and swordfight better than Luke, but is as interesting as a cardboard cutout.) The whole thing felt more like a salute to a dead franchise than a new chapter in a living one.

Meanwhile, In a Marvel Franchise Far, Far Away

Marvel has its own set of issues, as it introduces more and jankier heroes and muddies the waters of public consciousness as it tries to combine storylines and build team adventures while still maintaining a logical universe (not exactly its forte). Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’d be better off keeping each character’s arc as separate as possible, a.k.a., not digging into the Civil War storyline while the Avengers thread is still running.

And then Thor: Ragnarok comes out with a totally new approach. Folks, Marvel reached out to Taika Waititi, not the other way around. And this indie director, best known for the hilarious Flight of the Conchords vampire spoof What We Do In the Shadows, is destroying Thor in just the right way.

This is a movie where Thor and the Hulk have a fight and then the next scene is the two of them sitting on a bed, talking about their feelings. Would this scene ever have been pre-approved by committees and fanboy screenings? Hell no! But are the fans loving it? Hell yes! We don’t want crowdsourced entertainment. We want new ideas, and the two are antithetical.

It’s different and fresh and irreverent, but also attuned to character and Marvel’s rich history. Marvel has always been the anti-comic universe, the funny universe, the reality that counterpunched Superman’s sanctimoniousness with Spiderman’s sass and humanity. And Thor has been Marvel’s Superman in the previous movies, noble and distant and sterile.

That’s right: the Marvel handlers wanted a Cannonball Run-style wacky romp with Thor at the wheel. They knew that Thor was boring and stiff and needed a revamp. The MCU vision remains clear, echoing the blast of fresh creativity and fun that was Iron Man. Rather than strangling out new approaches and slavishly trying to recreate its past, it is charting a new and vibrant future.

This is the kind of vision that I admire as a game writer. This is why Marvel is better than Star Wars. All hail Marvel.

And what is Waititi doing next? Why, a stop-motion retelling of the Michael Jackson story from the point of view of Bubbles, his pet monkey. Depending on your point of view, it’s either trash or genius, but apparently it’s one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood.

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Try Our Free RPG Demo

Get the Free RPG Demo

Get the demo! You can now play five levels of our Steam JRPG, The Peloran Wars, on your PC by downloading the free demo here. For the best experience, maximize the window after launch.

Our sequel is already in production. While The Peloran Wars was an epic branching journey of international conflict and clashing armies, the sequel, The Tower of Brax, is more of a dungeon crawl, although our four heroes are going up instead of down. Tower of Brax focuses on the untold tale of the heroes who fought to recover the mythical crimson sword from the devious Braxian cultists.

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Okay, These Funny Facebook Game Thumbnails Aren’t Funny Anymore

funniest facebook game iconEver notice those little game thumbnails that appear in the top right of your browser when you’re browsing through your friends’ baby and half-eaten-meal pictures?

Yes, this is the tip of the once-mighty juggernaut that once powered the Candy Crush and Farmville empires. But the Facebook game ecosystem is pretty dead now as mobile dominates everything. And as a result, frustrated Facebook game marketers are getting more and more… seedy.

Above is my favorite (???) Facebook game thumbnail icon of recent weeks, beating even that poop-flinging game. When I noticed it, I had to do the classic double-take: What the heck is Facebook allowing on their site? Don’t they know kids and grandmothers are on here?

It looks like some kind of Kama Sutra madness, but no, it’s a stick-figure fighting game. I don’t know whether to salute their ingenuity or curse their lack of integrity.

And yes, Words with Friends and Lexulous are my games. What’d you expect from a game writer?

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JRPGs versus Western RPGs

I just posted on Quora in answer to an interesting question: what do I prefer, JRPGs or Western-style RPGs, and why?

Since David Nguyen and I just published the JRPG Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars on Steam, you’d think I’d prefer JRPGs, but you’d be wrong. I’m a Western guy, and David is the JRPG fan. But I see the appeal of JRPGs and I’ve played and enjoyed both flavors.

Why am I disenchanted (ha ha) with JRPGs?

  1. There are always exceptions, but I feel JRPGs are more character-focused and dialog-focused, with the dialog word count often doubling or tripling equivalent Western RPGs. This wears on me, even if it’s a game with a storyline I enjoyed, like FF VII. I want to know about the major threads, but I don’t want to listen to a tertiary sidekick vent about how their ingrown toenail reminds them of some traumatic childhood incident (exaggeration, but only a slight exaggeration). Skyrim and Fable are more my style. Exception: I enjoyed Planescape Torment but the incessant dialog rivaled the talkiest JRPG, and they made no effort to distinguish between primary quest interactions and “color” interactions with inconsequential NPCs.
  2. JRPGs tend to be a little more colorful and fantastic. JRPGs are high fantasy where a team of plucky teens in fanciful costumes is fighting to save the world from the ultimate evil. Western RPGs lean toward low fantasy, a little grittier and more… um… adult. The characters are older, their stories a little less fanciful, and their experiences more equivalent to medieval history (although I don’t think anyone would confuse an RPG with history). I prefer the latter.
  3. Did I mention those fashions and costumes? Yeah. I can pass on the bright yellow rain slickers and the pompadours. They’re great for distinctive cosplay, which is also not my thing.
  4. Some JRPGs overdo it on the replayability and depth thing. I enjoy a minigame as much as the next guy, but I don’t want an RPG to force me into a 40-hour-long racing tournament with subpar gameplay. Nor do I want it to inundate me with dozens of half-baked minigames that should’ve been whittled down to one or two strong ones. I respect players who want their game to be a lifelong adventure, but that kind of immersion isn’t my style.

That said, I think there are some things that JRPGs do better than Western ones. Humor, color, distinctive locations, and gameplay innovations, for example. Western ones tend to be so traditional they’re almost remakes, and some are simply boring dungeon crawlers.

Honestly I feel like the Western RPG genre is a little fallow right now, with the last great game being Skyrim (although I hear Witcher 3 is a hoot). I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition and was quite disappointed in many ways. Their loot system was terrible, and made it very hard to see when you’d found a cool item. And the storyline was complicated and (although some of the companion romances were charming) sterile. No story, no loot ? no fun.

And so it comes back to story and the power of narrative. I’m a game writer at heart and strong writing always wins in my book. I’ve seen great JRPGs and great RPGs, and I believe you can’t do a great RPG without a great story. Even the hoary old RPGs like Wizardry had compelling stories, even if some of the narrative twists were simply delivered in the form of the arrival of some fantastical new weapon or bizarre new foe in the game interface.

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Our Steam Game on Sale! Launching in 6 Days

Our Steam Game Goes on Sale in a Few Days

I’m happy to announce that our Steam game goes on sale in less than a week! The project is the brainchild of my client, David Nguyen, and it’s titled Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars. Built in RPG Maker, it’s a “visual novel,” a role-playing game (RPG) in the style of Final Fantasy and Tactics Ogre.

There’s a lot of turn-based monster-smashing fun, but it’s also an epic story exploring the lives of a case of 57 characters over the span of 74 chapters. Building out these characters and giving them all human concerns, quirks, and dreams was a true privilege and I thank David for bringing me this project.

If you’re interested, check out The Peloran Wars on Steam! From the game page, you can add it to your Steam wishlist, visit the game website (where you can download the free five-chapter demo!), or… in a few days… buy the game!

Okay, here are some screenshots:

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Tom Clancy’s “The Division” Sequel Announce: Box Art Released

Ubisoft’s The Division console game has been a fairly strong success (with an 80/100 rating on Metacritic)… but it came out in March 2016 and time moves fast in the videogame industry. Thus it was no surprise that the sequel to Tom Clancy’s The Division was announced in July on Sweatypistol.

The new game, as many anticipated, will be called The Multiplication, with future games in the series bearing the names The Addition and The Subtraction also named in the press release. The game is cross-branded with edutainment heavyweight Sesame Street and features the Count character in the new press package. We expect that The Sine, The Cosine and The Blindly Solving for X on the Midterm in a Cold Sweat will be soon to follow.

We at Game Writer Central are elated to release exclusive box art for the new game, which bears the full title Sesame Street and Tom Clancy’s The Division: The Multiplication. Click to enlarge.

thedivisionmultiplication

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Unemployed men are wasting away playing videogames, says CSM

videogame-unemployed-menApparently the Japanese aren’t the only ones struggling with listless and purposeless young men. Who are these guys?

In Japan, as described in this aptly titled 2011 Kotaku article “The Depressing World of Unemployed Nerds,” there’s a growing problem of young males who have effectively dropped out of society and are relying on the positive feedback of videogames and paid chatgirls to satisfy their basic social needs.

And now a new academic study is being mentioned by the Christian Science Monitor as discovering a similar problem in the United States, with these slacker boys polling as generally happier and more content than their peers. I think it’s important to note here that their peers are guys with a high school diploma or less, so it’s not too surprising that they find their warehouse or Walmart jobs uninspiring.

I think you could argue this two different ways. One, it’s pretty sad that these guys are happy to game their way into total oblivion and irrelevance. This is definitely not the way you want to see people adapting to 21st Century challenges, especially when employers (many game companies among them) are seeing talent gaps in a lot of key fields. The counterpoint, two, is that perhaps these sad slackers are getting valuable therapy from their videogame exploits, keeping their minds sharp in virtual environments, like the kid from The Last Starfighter, until the right job or inspiration strikes them and they spring into action. Maybe these guys would be psychopaths or suicides without videogames.

Opposites? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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Scott Feldman’s Revival? And Bending the Rules in the Oldest Game

Normally this blog is about videogames, but today is about a different kind of game. The summer game! Baseball, of course!

Scott Feldman Reborn?

Here’s an insight for you baseball fans. The Astros’ Scott Feldman is one of those veteran pitchers who’s now vacillating between the bullpen and a starting role. He’s 31, has been pitching in the majors since 2004, and has been doing a pretty good job this season, 5-3 with a 2.76 ERA, down from last year’s 3.90. But he was bumped to the bullpen in late April and like all pitchers who signed on as starters and are now essentially filling in where needed, Feldman feels a little lost.

The interesting part is that, pushed out of his comfort zone, Feldman is now experiencing a renaissance of sorts as his fastball, typically in the high 80s, is now blazing in the mid 90s. That’s the kind of velocity difference that marks the gap between a control pitcher and a strikeout artist.

Yesterday, Feldman got his chance to show how his velocity holds up in a five-inning spot start against the Angels. He gave up a single unearned run, struck out two, and didn’t walk a man. The key data, though, is his average fastball velocity, which came in at 90.7 MPH. That’s pretty good, since it takes a lot of fastballs to get through five innings.

Although a far cry from his best average of the year, which was 94.3 MPH in a one-inning relief stint against the White Sox on May 19, he threw harder yesterday than in any of his other 2016 starts, where his FBv varied from 88.0 to 89.4 MPH. Is he better as a reliever than as a starter? Hard to say, and that depends on the needs of the team. But here’s to Feldman’s revival. It just goes to show that your comfort zone is often the last place you want to be. I think that’s true of life as well as games of all sorts.

Bending (the Rules) Like Beckham

Okay, you gotta check out this pitching delivery:

Baseball’s an old sport, and a conservative one. But as we all know there are some old rules that haven’t kept up with the times, like the “ghost tag” that umpires allow around second base and the various nuances of what gets called a strike at home plate.

That’s why this guy — Carter Capps of the Marlins — is such a shocker. But the fact is… if the rules don’t clearly indicate that you can’t leap off the mound and throw your pitch when you land… well, you can. And as a result you’re the best and most cheesy reliever in the game, circa 2016. I mean, that crap is just hilarious.

But come 2017, we’d better see a freakin’ rule change, because that crap is just cheating.

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