Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Gronda Gronda Rangdo!

If you are aged 35-42ish (rough guess) and from the UK, and a geek, you may well have just yelled Gronda Gronda Rangdo, or made a spluttering sound with your bottom lip and fingers, which of course is how the Grand Rangdo of arg would communicate.

For people who think I’m on drugs, I’m referring to The Adventure Game, a BBC2 TV series broadcast in the early 1980s. In theory, this was for kids, but it was a show you wouldn’t get for kids any more, because it made the kids think.

In simple form, TAG was a puzzle gameshow with celebrities, but unlike current fare, it wasn’t about making the celebs look stupid or them suffering, or about encouraging them to sleep with each other or shout abuse at each other. In TAG, the celebrities were given logic puzzles, and had to co-operate to solve them.

They were given logic puzzles and had to co-operate to solve them.

Imagine that now? It sounds very quaint doesn’t it? but the Adventure Game wasn’t the only TV show of my youth seemed designed to make me think. There was, of course stuff like Think Of A Number, all about science and maths and so-on. Then there was How! explaining how things work or get made. Then we had shows like The Great Egg Race and Now Get Out Of That.

The TV of my youth was great (it was doogy yrev!). It trained me to think logically, to embrace stuff like science and maths, and to be creative and critical. TV today seems to be designed to make you buy lip gloss and laugh at peoples suffering. I’m hazarding that the former is better for society than the latter.

What went wrong?

Or am I remembering it too fondly? Dismissing too easily stuff like Bang Goes the Theory, and forgetting mindless stuff from the same era, entertaining though it was.

Gratuitous Campaign

In amongst everything else, work continues on the campaign mode for a future expansion / game / whatever for GSB.

Here is what the map currently looks like (very work-in-progress).

Originally I had planned to just string together a bunch of scenarios (new ones) and have them play out like a very simple singleplayer campaign. The big difference, and what made this worth playing, was that you kept the same fleet, so for the first time you had to design fleets that were all-rounders, rather than tailored to a specific enemy. This would make the game more strategic, and elss trial-and-error, and would be l33t. I still like this, and I’m keeping it.

However, for whatever reason I started thinking bigger than that and I am increasingly linking in the online challenges with the campaign. Now the map is entirely online-integrated. What this means is as follows:

You grab your fleet and move it to planet X. The game tells the server that you have moved to planet X, and it sifts through a list of all possible enemy fleets it has stored that will provide a decent challenge for your current fleet, and one is selected for you. That fleet, together with its orders and deployment gets downloaded and becomes your enemy at planet X. That fleet *might* have been designed by me, or it may have been a fleet extracted from an existing online challenge. In other words, you are playing against someones challenge fleet. (If you dont have expansion pack races, they won’t show up, you will get vanilla enemies.)

That fleet might out-gun you, or maybe you just aren’t equipped to fight against it for whatever reason. If so, you can retreat, and choose a different path. Here is where it gets fun:

if you decide to go back and fight that planet X challenge again, the server remembers, and YOU get the same enemy again. there is no going-around them if you want to go to planet X. Not for 24 hours. Then, then server ‘forgets’ who was there, and you may get a different fleet if you try again. Thats 24 hours in the real world. As in, come back tomorrow.

Everyones fleets will be different, and people will be at different skill levels, so the fleets are not persistent across everyone. Every player has a unique view on the world, its just that the fleets they encounter are player designed.  I’m trying to design this to be ‘massively singeplayer online’, in that you are playing a changing, dynamic, partly player-populated world, but without the direct competition or griefing that can ruin most MMOs.

All of this stuff is in and working. It’s the other 99% I still need to code :D. I have grand plans for the ‘point’ of the campaign game. I want a freeform universe for you to explore and conquer with your fleet, and need to add some capabilities to different worlds to encourage you to move your fleet around. Plus achievements and so on. There is a ton to do, I want it to be l33t. In the meantime, there will be another new race coming to the game.

Yoru thoughts on how this stuff will work, are most welcome.

Election, lightning server issues…

Lots going on.

Firstly there is going to be an ELECTION in the UK. At last. I was so surprised… Anyway, to celebrate this, you can get Democracy 2 for half price. ONLY TODAY. So get clicking! As I live in a safe seat, my vote is practically pointless. Hurrah for our crappy electoral system. But I digress…

Yesterday I was doing various bits like adding support for fixed terrain items to GSB for modders, which means you can do this, and in theory do a naval or ground combat mod. That then led me onwards to add in this, which is an attempt at that flickery lightning effect from Star trek: The Wrath Of Khan. Its configurable on a per-mission basis. I like it.

Also, not related to lightning, my server was down for a while, maybe 25 mins yesterday. Huge apologies. Nothing would have worked, but you should have been able to play GSB, if not upload or download any challenges. It’s fine now.

Back to campaign stuff now… Patch 1.37 will come soon, once I’ve added some stuff the campaign will need.

Turning The Interview Tables : Jim Rossignol

Who is Jim Rossignol? You probably know him as one of the talented scribes behind PC gaming blog ‘Rock Paper Shotgun‘. In addition to writing for RPS, Jim has also written for PC Gamer UK, Eurogamer and the Escapist, as well as Wired magazine and the BBC. He is also colossally famous for writing the book ‘This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities’. As I recently moved house millions of miles closer to where the legendary rossignol dwells, I thought it would be fair game to turn the tables and have the games journalist interviewed by a humble games developer such as myself. So I did exactly that, at an extremely old pub. And here is what he had to say:

ch: How did you actually go about becoming a games journalist?

jr: Well it was completely by accident. Basically I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I went and did finance journalism, and was completely shit at it. I just played Quake all the time and was getting tireder and tireder and tireder, because I was playing Quake all night. Prior to that I’d gone to university and done philosophy and just assumed that I was a writer at that point. I’d been trying to write a science fiction novel that was kind of philosophical, which was absolutely awful obviously, and I could barely string a sentence together in real terms. So they just sacked me. And I thought I’ll become a programmer’, it can’t be that hard!

Eventually my friend found a staff writer advert in PC Gamer and said ‘Jim, you know everything about games, why don’t you apply for it?’. At that point few journalists at Future Publishing really had a grasp of online gaming. When I got to pc gamer they didn’t even have a games machine. Literally they went home to play games. They didn’t have a decent games machine in their office, it was that bad, it was just crazy. So I was brought in to do hardware and online gaming. Anyway, it was Kieron bullying me really that made me actually become a games journalist. He just kept on pushing me, saying ‘write better’. Having arrived there I realised I wasn’t a writer at all, and got my ass kicked by people who were. I’d been reading pretentious novels and thinking I was a writer on the basis of that.

ch: So it terms of someone getting into the industry now, is it more organised?

jr: No, not at all. I think its harder now in that the industry is struggling, the key magazines are collapsing.

ch: It does sound a lot like being a games developer. Nobody my age whose a games programmer did a course in games programming. Everyone stumbled into it through some crazy route.

jr: Only Alec, out of everyone I’ve ever met in game journalism, actually did a journalism degree.

ch: Do you think those courses are actually worth doing?

jr: I absolutely think it’s worth doing something or other, I’m sure someone who studied journalism is going to be better than me at not being libellous and can probably spell, which I’ve never been able to do.

ch: Regarding print journalism for games, we are only talking a few years until it dies out aren’t we?

jr: I dunno, it’s really hard to say. Some of the mags that are around at the minute are the best mags there have ever been. But the economics of it is that they are screwed. I think we probably have another few years of transformation. Print mags will survive as a luxury item, I should think.

ch: What was the reaction to RPS from print gaming, because you are obviously competition for them…

jr: Yes, well we would be if we had any proper kind of business model. The difference between the internet and magazines is there is no proper competition for traffic on the internet. People can always click onto another site, they can’t always buy another magazine, because they run out of money. So essentially there is enough space for everyone. Where the money runs out is in advertising, and we don’t really compete with anyone for advertising because we have such a terrible sales and business model.

ch: So nobody has given you any grief about it?

jr: No, not least because there isn’t really another PC site. Certainly not in the same space.

ch: What do people in journalism think of games journalists? Say I’m a financial journalist, would I think you are just immature boys playing games?

jr : Oh yeah. absolutely. This weekend the observer did a round table and invited Alec and John that’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen recognition of specialist games journalists. I think its a generational thing in that people are starting to be ok with it. Some people do take you seriously. But certainly within the publishing industry, games magazines are a joke. But you just ignore that. You know you’re right.

ch: With RPS and British games journalism there is a very jokey attitude to it do you think thats a good thing or does it hold it back from being taken seriously?

jr: I think, from a personal point of view, I hate the idea that ‘we must be professional’. And I think, no, why shouldn’t we have some fun? Being jokey and messing around doesn’t mean you aren’t taking it seriously. Wetake it VERY seriously.

ch: Is it a British thing?

jr: Yes. It’s inherited in that it was how music magazines like NME and Melody Maker were, and that transferred into Amiga Power and magazines like that. The thing is readers love you being silly, and love the in jokes,
Just because you’re messing around doesn’t mean you aren’t taking your subject matter seriously. Were not dealing with life and death, its games journalism: Top Gear is the best analogy. It’s jokey, silly, and so on, but the opinions have real impact.

ch: How do you perceive the job of games journalist? Are you there to tell people what’s good and bad, and be a champion for the gamer, or are you a champion for the industry and have a responsibility to support the games?

jr: It depends where you are working and what you are doing, I expect. I’ve done both of those. I’ve ended being a mouthpiece for the industry writing previews and whatever for money, and at the same time I’ve championed weird nonsense I’ve found on the internet that nobody knows anything about.

ch: But what do the publishers think your job is?

jr: I’m not really sure what publishers think in that regard. Generally, Especially in a preview, you tend to give a game a chance. You’ll say ‘they claim it will be this good, lets hope it is’. You don’t tend to scoff and say ‘they’ll never pull that off, what idiots for even trying’ etc. The angry games journalist archetype I find a little bit tiresome. If I thought games were generally rubbish and was that finicky about the industry I’d leave.

ch: The thing is some publishers can be less than the good guys…

jr: And we call them out on that stuff, look at the Ubisoft stuff on RPS. That certainly upset them.

ch: Lets talk screenshots. I know because I’ve worked for developers that when I see screenshots for games, often those aren’t screenshots, nobody just pressed print screen.

jr: Yeah, they’ve often been mocked up.

ch: But how does that work, are there any restrictions from the publisher?

jr: There is of course a restriction in that you might not actually have code. But once you have code, they may try to say what to use but you just ignore them, generally, unless you signed your life away in an NDA, in which case you’re an idiot. Certainly for a review, you HAVE to take your own screenshots.

ch: Personally I hate it when I know they aren’t proper screenshots. Do you think that is fair game?

jr: The industry term is ‘target render’ or ‘how they would like it to look’. That’s one of the reasons the whole review/preview circus is broken and one of the reasons we don’t do mark-based reviews on RPS. We don’t really do previews either.

ch: Well you do “What I think”…

jr: Yeah but we don’t put a score on it. It’s a description, not necessarily a buyers guide, and certainly not an attempt to attach a definitive number to it.

ch: On the subject of scores, What do you think of situation where developers get paid a bonus based on the metacritic scores?

jr: It’s obviously ludicrous. Basing it on review scores? It’s just a complete nonsense. You can see why a critically acclaimed game that didn’t sell well should be rewarded, but loads of the scores that make up Metacritic are terrible reviews. Some of them are just there to be the top of Metacritic so they get clicked on, they are obviously bullshit.

ch: How on earth do you review a game when its like a truck simulator game and you have no interest in it?

jr: I love truck simulators!

ch: Ok, but you get what I mean…

jr: It depends on the publication and the editor. If its a reasonably laid back editor you just take the piss. But when you’ve spent a few years playing games you get a handle on most stuff.

ch: Have you ever done a review when afterwards you feel bad about it?

jr: Not really no. Its really funny to slate terrible games.

ch: As a developer I do approach reading a PC Gamer review with absolute fear. I saw one review compare a game to Bosnian war crimes. Some people work under tough circumstances, and I think I’d feel slightly bad sayig that.

jr: You’ve got to steel yourself against that, because you will meet these people.

ch: Is it fair that games that get good reviews but are unknown get far less coverage than big budget hyped games that are bad?

jr: It’s about the audience isn’t it? If it’s like a Command & Conquer game like C&C4 that was really really bad and got loads and loads of coverage, well there are millions of command and conquer games and you have to write for them. Hype means more people are interested, and the press exists for its audience.

ch: You’ve got advertising in RPS, so can you ever really be completely independent from pressure when you take advertising? Is it not slightly dodgy?

jr: When we are being paid millions of dollars and taking lavish bribes we will address the corruption issue. For magazines it’s far less of an issue than people make out. Magazines cost shitloads, like £5 or £6 for a magazine, you’re relying on your readers, not your advertisers, to make money, when you’re selling 30-40,000 copies a month. If one of your advertisers pulls their ads, the readers are still buying. It’s more of a problem online. There are battles for control between the two sides. The companies writing these big advertising cheques understand that they need credible media, but they also want total control. Long-term most of those companies understand that having a specialist, credible press is just handy for games fandom, and advertising supports that. Most of the companies I have worked with have worked really really hard to make sure that the sales department and the editorial department are isolated from each other. Do that and you keep both readers and advertisers happy.

ch: Are all game journalists frustrated games designers?

jr: No definitely not. In fact, I d say the longer you spend as a games journalist, the less likely you are to want to become a games designer, because you just see how fucking painful it is. You’re far more likely to go into PR or marketing or the publisher side generally, because there is money there.

ch: Don’t leave us Jim!

Thanks to Jim for actually having a dictaphone gadget…