Game Case Study Update: Kaos War and Damon Grow

So recently I wrote a long, rambling post talking about the Kaos War MMORPG and some of the mistakes that founder Damon Grow makes during their journey (as documented by a Games.net video series).

What ever happened with Damon and Kaos War?

Kaos War never came out. Not a big surprise, you say? Get this: Damon Grow has pivoted successfully and is now leading a small dev team at Superstar Games, which has investments from a number of notable groups, including lead backer and NFL legend Joe Montana.

Grow has clearly done well, even if he hasn’t blinded us with brilliance. I’m pleased to see that he’s managed to make the most of the unique attributes we saw on Kaos War: the passion, the communication skills, the chutzpah.

His big project when he launched Superstar was a VR football game, though. On the website, there’s not a hint of that project, although if you search around you can find video and news coverage. Instead, the site touts several modest casual VR games.

That, too, I think can be read two ways. Either you’ll think he never finishes his projects, or he’s learned to bite off something he can actually chew. Good luck, Damon. It’s a tough industry.

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Simple Gameplay In Banner Saga: A Mini Case Study

Finished Banner Saga awhile ago, but I captured this image when I was impressed by some of its simple but thought-provoking gameplay. Seems like a simple multiple-choice question, doesn’t it?

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So… let’s break this down a little bit.

This challenge (and similar others) comes up midgame and has consequences on the size of your cohort, although I’m guessing that failing or nailing all of these still wouldn’t make or break you.

Still, the challenge does raise some fun tactical questions that convey the sense of a larger campaign that you don’t really see in the central gameplay.

Five choices. If I remember rightly, my smaller army was bottlenecked at a bridge and trying to break through to green pastures. Tough spot. I’d say that 2 and 4 are largely the same, but certainly 2 has its appeal since it seems to imply an aggressive attack that might lead to a successful exit. 1 was interesting since the alien dredge seemed like they might try to win by force of main. 3 didn’t seem like a good fit to me for the situation; 5 seemed like a misfit for the tight quarters.

But five options, and a bit of a word puzzle as I tried to guess at the possible interpretations based on word choices and previous experience. I ended up choosing 1, which I fear wasn’t the best. It cost me some soldiers, but also wasn’t the end of the world.

However, I was impressed by this implementation of simple gameplay. Banner Saga never puts a lot of actual units on screen — battles are staged between heroes, not hordes — but these little multiple-choice challenges are thoughtfully crafted and fit perfectly in the fiction of a large, drawn-out campaign between entrenched forces. If your cohort is drawn down to skeleton numbers, it has a real effect on your success.

Five questions. Simple gameplay. In context, this is effective game design.

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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.

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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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PewDiePie Makes $15M/Year and Is a Racist

Sigh.

I haven’t watched much PewDiePie but occasionally I’ve enjoyed one of his playthroughs as a way to get a sense for a game. Now, after he’s been dropped by Disney and YouTube, I realize from the reports that he’s a dirty scumbag and a hero to neo-Nazi hate groups. (I also realize he was pulling in $15M per year for his goofball videos. WHAT?!?!)

This is yet another sign that the Internet is making it so we can’t have nice things. It used to be that you could watch baseball, play videogames, and pretend for a few isolated moments every day that we can all coexist without hating each other based on superficialities.

But no, that’s no longer the case. Baseball’s now political (I cite the congressional hearings where Democrats and Republicans lined up on party lines to support or criticize Roger Clemens for PED use). Choosing a home improvement store or a pizza delivery service is now political. And watching a freaking game playthrough is political.

I blame you, PewDiePie. Die, PewDiePie, die.

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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.

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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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