Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin 2 and the Rewards of Doing One Hard Thing Right

There will never not be a market for a solid RPG.
I recently played indie RPG megahit Divinity: Original Sin 2. I went through it front to back, spending over 90 hours (Normal/Classic difficulty). It'd be a pity to expend so much time if I didn't get a blog post out of it.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (or DOS2 as I'll call it) is really the ideal of the indie aesthetic. It feels like it's a product of actual humans, and it clearly wants to deliver one pure, special, niche experience. It's a big, weird game that's made a bajillion dollars. It doesn't care about any of the rough edges, as long as it follows its vision purely.

And there are rough edges. There are long periods of time where DOS2 feels like a gigantic clump of rough edges awkwardly glued together.

Let's dive in. It's a big, weird game that's made a bajillion dollars. Plenty to say about it.

In my bag, I have an ancient sword, an arrowhead, panties, a bowl, and wood chips. Any one of them might end up necessary. Never ever drop anything. 
What Is DOS2?

It's an enormous, turn-based, story-heavy fantasy RPG with a lot of gameplay and long, very difficult, involved battles. It's a tough game. It's got a lot of wild multiplayer options, though I'll be focusing on single-player stuff. It took me over 90 hours to play, and I skipped a lot of quests.

You don't need to play the previous game to enjoy it. It takes place in a different era or something. I tried to play the previous game, but I got totally stuck because I didn't notice a button hidden behind a ham.

What Does DOS2 Do Well?

I have to start out with the best thing about DOS2, the thing that really makes it compelling: It has turn-based fantasy combat that is actually exciting. The battles are long (1-2 hours), unpredictable, and have an epic feel to them. They are very cool.

I really need to emphasize how remarkable this is. I've been following the RPG genre since the beginning, and I think it's really important to acknowledge what an accomplishment the battles are. It's some next-level stuff.

What Are the Rough Edges?

Every other single thing.

Seriously, I went through the entire game with wood chips in my pack. If case I needed them to craft a stick or something. Jesus Christ, I'm basically 9/10 of a God. Just let me have the stupid stick!
What Is the Story?

This game has tons of writing. Many, many words.

The side quests and the storylines of your companions are reliably well-written and interesting. I enjoyed them.

The main quest is something-something-invasion-of-horrible-monsters-something-something-disorder-in-the-heavens-something-something-become-a-god. I tried to keep track of the story, thought I understood it, and I guess I didn't. I'll get back to that.

What Is the Design Aesthetic?

The general design aesthetic of DOS2 is: If anyone had an idea, any idea at all, it went into the game. The idea won't always be properly developed once it was in, but it will be there.

There's a full crafting system, so I tried to use it. I collected every recipe and material I could find. At the end of the game, I couldn't make anything better than what I could buy at the store with my infinite money.

There's an item identification system. No matter what the game, this is always just busywork.

There are plenty of bugs, still, which gives hardcore RPG gamers that extra exquisite bit of challenge. As of this writing, it's almost impossible to talk to a character who is walking around. You click and nothing happens. It's maddening, which adds to immersion.

And there are many, many unique spells and abilities. You can teleport characters around the battlefield, which is really cool. You can teleport lava onto the battlefield and then teleport enemies into it, killing them instantly and utterly making moot everything else about the battle system, which is less cool. Then your enemies can teleport you into that same lava, which ...

Design tip: Don't put stuff in your design which instantly makes every other aspect of the design unimportant.

There are, again, many spells and abilities. Or, there are ten abilities that are good and that will enable you to progress in the game, and 90 weak abilities that will leave you utterly stuck ten hours in.

This is important.

I love going through these screenshots and seeing how clogged everyone's backpacks get with irrelevant crap. It fills me with resolve: My next game will have only relevant items in it. I'm ditching a lot of junk items.
Another Brutally Punishing Game

DOS2 is very much in the game design tradition of "Make a game super-hard, give almost no information about what abilities are available or what are viable paths to take, expect the player to do a ton of research online, and go f*** yourself."

This game is just plain too hard early on. Based on what I saw in reviews/forums, loosening up the difficulty in Chapter 1 would increase overall customer satisfaction a LOT.

Saying something like this is just inviting abuse. There is a portion of RPG fans who react with rage at any suggestion of removing features or relaxing difficulty, no matter how reasonable the request. But it's still true.

The number of builds that will enable you to escape the first chapter are very limited. It's very easy to end up needing to restart 10 hours in. The advice online for early game builds is scattered and, I found, often very bad.

Seriously, Google "Divinity: Original Sin 2 Builds" and sink into the rabbit hole. Bear in mind, when you see a list like "12 Most Uber-Awesome DOS2 Skills," that article was probably generated as fast as possible to score easy clicks off a hit game, is badly considered, and is lying to you.

(Real talk for normal players: Summoning is very strong. The spells Conjure Incarnate, Power Infusion, and Raise Bone Widow will carry you through this game. Teleportation is also fantastic. Using it to pull the enemy boss right in front of my fighters was my single favorite part of the game.)

There are tons of players who love this aesthetic. RPG fans are gluttons for punishment. A lot of them just want a game to hurt them sometimes. (Or all the time.) A small portion of them will pounce on you if you ever suggest some bit of abuse in an RPG is a mistake (no matter how much it totally is).

It drives me nuts, personally, but it's the big aesthetic now.

The battles tend to devolve into utter, unpredictable chaos. It's pretty awesome.
Rough Edges With Rough Edges

DOS2, for me, still had plenty of bugs, quirks, and stuff that felt half-baked. To show what I mean, here is my summary of how my game ended. At this point, I'd played for over 90 hours and was really ready for it to end. I think, once a player's given you this long, you need to wrap things up in as respectful a way as possible.

I go through a long series of puzzles, some of which are really finicky and require noticing lots of little things. I use a walkthrough. Otherwise it would have taken me forever to search through all those little cubbyholes and boxes and bookshelves for what I needed. (The "Put the painting on the altar" puzzle, in particular, needed more time in the oven.)

I get to the final battle, a multi-hour two-phase cluster-f. As is normal, the entire battlefield becomes covered with fire and spell effects and I can't see where any of the characters are.

I'd already dug into Settings to find the key that makes outlines of all the characters visible, so I use that. Because there are so many characters, however, sometimes to target a specific foe in a crowd I have to zoom in and rotate the camera for a minute to find a few pixels where I can select the enemy.

(God help you if you click wrong, or you'll use your best ability to obliterate an ally. A confirmation dialog when you aim an arrow at your tank or the ground would be welcome.)

Because the fights are so long and tough, you can save in the middle. This is good because the battlefield has lots of different elevations, and the game is constantly telling me my arrows can hit targets that, when I fire them, get blocked by the terrain.

My characters die constantly in the final fight, so I use scrolls to resurrect them. (I feel like DOS2 provides resurrection scrolls as a crutch to not have to balance fights fairly.) I eventually surround the boss with summoned monsters and pummel him to deadness.

Now I get to decide how to remake the world/Heaven/Universe. I've made an effort to follow the plot up until this time, and it seems like I can fix a lot of problems by ascending to Godhood. The game explicitly tells me I can do this to fix the world.

I talk to my companions, who I have all helped out to the maximum extent. They urge me to ascend to Godhood. One of them, who is in love with me and who I have totally made out with, practically begs me to ascend. Everything in the game so far has been pushing me to ascend to Godhood.

I ascend to Godhood. Flashy cutscene.

Then I am on a boat with my companions. I talk to them. They all totally hate me now! My girlfriend reacts to me with disgust. One of them says she'll kill me if she the gets the chance. What the hell!?!??

Come on, Divinity: Original Sin 2! I can't have a tiny bit of satisfaction? I played you for over 90 hours! Throw a dog a bone!

So many battles end with the play area a sea of spell effects. Figure out the key/button that shows outlines of character ASAP.
My Final Takeaway

Again, I must stress, the RPG combat in this game is some of the best I've ever seen. The fights are long but really satisfying when they work right. A lot of the writing is really good. The production values are great. Definitely worth a try if you love old-school RPGs.

But honestly? In the end I was tired. Even the shortest battle takes a while, and I was avoiding conflicts just because I was exhausted with the game. The fighting works great, but overall usability needs a lot of attention.

I won't be getting any DLC or sequels unless things change a lot. I'm glad I had this experience, I really am, but I don't need more of it.

###

If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with epic stories and tough, unpredictable fights, you can try Avernum 3: Ruined World on Steam. Then nitpick our game the way we nitpicked this one. It's only fair. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

I Gave a Big Talk On Indie Games and It's Pretty Good.

Please enjoy this reasonably-priced hour of grumpy ranting.

For a long time now, I've wanted to give a talk about the history of Spiderweb Software. It would be a combination of funny stories about the ancient history of the internet and a summary of everything I've learned about the True Meaning of Indie Games.

At the 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I finally had the chance to give the talk. I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's about an hour, and you can see it here:

Failing to Fail: The Spiderweb Software Way!

It was really hard to whittle the talk down to 50 minutes. I had to leave a lot of quality material on the cutting room floor. I did manage to keep the best of it around. Hope you like it!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

We Released Avernum 3: Ruined World.

Seasons come and go. Pages fall from the calendar. And Spiderweb Software releases another game.
In 1997, I wrote a hit game.

It was called Exile 3: Ruined World. It and its remasters are the most popular games I've ever written.

Bear in mind this game was a hit by 1997 shareware standards, not 2018 indie standards. It made enough to buy a modest 1997-priced house. It didn't make enough to buy a mega-mansion.  But I'm certainly not complaining.

In 2002, I remastered the game into Avernum 3. It sold a lot of copies. Then, this week, twenty years after its first release, we shipped Avernum 3: Ruined World, the second remaster of this title. If my email is to be believed, a lot of people want it.

This is a brief story of writing a game that did really well and figuring out how to deal with it.

Exile 3: Ruined World. 1997 shareware at its semi-finest.
The Science of Careful Theft

When I started Exile 3, I'd already put out Exile and Exile 2, and they'd sold well enough for me to go full-time. It was a modest living, but entirely adequate for a 26 year old in Seattle. (You didn't have to be an Amazon employee with a mega-salary to live in Seattle then.)

At that point, I'd been writing shareware for two years, was starting to feel a tiny bit confident and comfortable. I decided that I was really going to stretch my wings. I wanted my third game to be GOOD.

So I did what I usually do when I want to design something good.

I played every game that was popular at the time, stole the very best idea from each, and synthesized them all into one coherent title.

Here's the thing about stealing ideas: Everyone does it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. It's knowing which tools to not steal, which ones to steal, and how to assemble them together to makes a real craftsman.

Computer Gaming World called Exile 3 the best shareware game of the year. They even gave me a prize. The logo is 2 chubby guys with bad posture sensually hugging a floppy disk.
The Game Was Big

From the Elder Scrolls games, I was inspired to write a huge game with tons and tons of towns. This resulted in Exile 3 being the biggest game we've ever written, by far.

I've written it three times now, and each time I have despaired that I would ever finish it. It's sickeningly huge.

Since I had so much space to fill and I was still young and crazy enough to feel free to do things that were genuinely dumb, this game has a lot of weird, silly stuff in it. Towns named after old sitcom characters. A giant dungeon themed after old karate movies. A whole chapter where the enemies are giant cockroaches. (Actually, I still think this idea is terrific.)

There's a reasonable amount of it that I'm sure I wouldn't do if I wrote it now. I was a lot looser and sillier when I was young. However, when I do a remaster, I need to trust my younger self. I left almost everything alone.

Avernum 3. A big upgrade from Exile 3, but it doesn't work so good on 2018 computers.
Then Again, Maybe I Had Original Ideas

I suppose when I say that all of my ideas are stolen I'm partly joking. There is a lot of cool stuff in Avernum 3 that was quite innovative when it came out, and I can't remember any games doing those things back then.

You can be a merchant or buy a house. There was already games that had this.

The world crumbles as time goes on. If you don't fight the bad guys, towns will fall apart and characters will die. If you're slow enough, a gigantic disaster happens and you have to deal with it or the world ends. NOTE: No matter how slow you are, you can always win the game, but not without consequences.

I wanted to make sure you felt that the world was bigger than your perception and that there were things going on you would never know about.

This is really cool, and I don't remember any other games doing this.

Avernum 3: Ruined World in all its low-budget glory. It was made cheaply, but it's fun.
Working As a Curator

When you do a remaster, you are the curator of your own work. You have a responsibility to your fans to keep everything they love most about the title intact. If you don't, they will punish you lavishly.

People tend to dislike change. If you change one thing, even if it's an entirely reasonable or even unquestionable change, you will always get complaints. These complaints can get very angry.

This makes remasters really grinding, painstaking work. I tried to put in lots of new ideas and designs and stuff. I improved the interface greatly. However, as much as possible, I left the world and story and feel of the game alone.

(There is one change I regret: The artist who made the character art doesn't work for us anymore, so I couldn't get horse art that would match the old style. Sorry about no horses.)

Thank You For Your Support

This wouldn't be complete without a thank you to the many people who have supported and stuck with us over the years. Your kindness has enabled me to live my childhood dream. I promise to work hard to be worthy of it.

Back To Creativity

After 16 months on Avernum 3, I'm really itching to do something new again. I hope I never have to remaster it again. Check in with me in 2033.

We are starting a whole new series. New world, new game engine, new system, maybe even a Kickstarter.

I hope you like Avernum 3. If you aren't sure about it, we have a demo. If you loved it as a kid, I hope that I kept the things you love alive.

On to the next.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Cuphead, Cruelty, and Selling Unfairness to You.

Teacher, mother, secret lover.

When charming indie megahit Cuphead came out, I watched a ton of it on Twitch. How could I not? It's so pretty!

I wasn't planning to play it. I like to play one super-tough game a year, to show I can still game hard like the cool kidz. But I'd already played Bloodborne last year, and my aging heart won't take much more than that.

Then my wife got me a Black Friday sale XBox One so that we could play Gears of War 4 together, so I figured I might as well try Cuphead for real.

Because of what I do for a living, of course, all of the following analysis is being done to find ideas I can steal to make more money.

Yeah, Cuphead Is Really Good

It was a huge amount of fun. I played a lot by myself. A lot co-op with my teenage daughter. A reasonable amount with my 11-year old daughter. Turns out my kids can be serious hardcore "Die 50 times and keep at it!" gamers when the bad guys are saucy mermaid ladies.

What really struck me was how little watching the game on Twitch prepared me for actually playing it. This was because Cuphead constantly uses randomness (RNG, for short) better than just about any game I've ever played.

Ever notice how sometimes a character comes along and every fan artist must come up with their own take on it instantly? I think that's cool. (Link not entirely safe for work.)

The Deadly RNG

Just about every attempt against a boss in Cuphead plays out differently from every other try. It's not only the standard Dark Souls thing where each boss has a move set and it picks an attack at random and you have to react to it. (Though it has that, of course.)

The fights are also random in every other way they can be:

Timing of the Attack - A bull is about to lunge forward to attack. It rears back. Then the amount of time until it actually launches the attack varies. Sometimes it's instant. Sometimes it's a good long pause. And sometimes the wait is so long is throws off my timing entirely and I blunder right into the attack.

Timing of Attackers - Little fireballs run across the screen. Sometimes one jumps up at you. Sometimes the pause between leapers is so long that you think the game is broke and you get complacent and BAM. And then three go all at once. (which can be evaded, but it's a rare enough occurrence that the player won't have a canned response for it.)

Random Attack Sets - In a lavish display of developer effort, some bosses have entirely different skill sets every time you launch the fight.

Multiple Simultaneous Attack Sets - The mermaid has two sets of three attacks, one set from the air and one from the water. It picks one from each set and uses them simultaneously, for nine different attacks to react to.

Random Terrain - Two fights have you battle while leaping along moving, randomly arranged platforms. To avoid an attack, you need to very quickly evaluate the routes available to you and select the best one.

This boss made my daughter cry. I hugged her. Then I beat it quickly and she was mad at me. At least we're having family time.

The End Result

This is why watching the game doesn't convey the experience of playing it. You can't get through Cuphead with patterns. Well, some fights you can. But most of the time, you have to learn how the system works, practice with it, and perform within it, adapting fluidly to surprises as you go.

Sometimes the RNG hands you a really nasty situation, but the vast majority of the time the situation you get is fair and survivable. You just have to take in the situation, come up with a plan very fast, and execute it.

The brilliance of the design is in making a system with RNG that keeps the game unpredictable and tough but still fair. I think this sort of probability manipulation is underrated as a skill in game design.

Obvious Disclaimer For People Who Are Already Yelling At Me In the Comments Anyway

Obviously, a lot of gamers don't like high challenge games. A lot of gamers don't like missions they can fail. Nothing wrong with this.

Cuphead isn't aiming for the casual market. Most of the time, I don't either. I'm looking for ways to better sell to this market.

If you're trying to write a game that will appeal to every single person everywhere, you're probably already doomed.

Unfairness Is a Selling Point

In a game like this, the occasional unfair, unescapable death is a selling point. There are some gamers for whom such a situation doesn't induce a Ragequit. It inspires a determination to excel.

If I don't kill you occasionally, how will your accomplishments have meaning?

Playing the RNG In an RPG

Darkest Dungeon is another game with great use of randomness. When you take your party into a dungeon, you can get a run of savage bad luck. If things get bad, you can pull the ripcord at almost any moment, abandon your run, and save your group (with a penalty). The skill comes in constantly evaluating your situation and deciding when it's time to give up. If you can't do that, you will have a hard time.

I've always tried to have a lot of this in my indie RPGs. I write long games, and I want to make sure it's always interesting and unpredictable and there's a chance that things can go south quickly if you're not careful.

I give enemies large move sets and make sure that they can approach a fight differently each time. I use a critical hit system to make sure you can never get too complacent. Sometimes, enemies run for help, and it's random how long they'll hang around before they do.

(If you want to see this system in action, our new game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, is out at the end of January.)

Heck, the whole genre of Roguelikes depends on randomness of your adventure. You gamble your time and hope you get a situation you can survive.

Of course, video game accomplishments don't have meaning. My job is to create the illusion that they do.

What Is the Gain From this Randomness

Humans like to gamble, and we have loved gambling for all of our recorded history. Gambling doesn't have to be for money, and it doesn't need lootboxes.

The joy of gambling comes from the unpredictability, the increasingly rare life pleasure of being unsure what is about to happen. RNG in your game means bad luck might cause you to fail. Some people mistakenly think that this is a flaw, when it is in fact a great strength.

The ideal for my games is that, for battles of an appropriate level, there is always a tiny chance to fail. Similarly, for Cuphead, unless you're a completely superior player, there is a chance that an unexpected chain of events will outwit and defeat you.

When you lack a human opponent to provide unpredictability, randomness must serve this role and provide the surprises. This provides suspense and unpredictability. For a large portion of gamers, being surprised is a highly valued product that can be sold at a premium.

It's a leapy boi! Look at him go!


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If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with epic stories and tough, unpredictable fights, you can wishlist Avernum 3 on Steam. It's out January 31. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 2: What Is a Game?

According to the rigorous definition of Game that I will provide, creating "dank memes" IS a video game.

One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

No need to thank me. When I get the Nobel Prize, don't worry about sending the medal. I just want the money.

This time, I settle a question that has tormented academics and Mad On Twitter types alike: What is the definition of a game?

How This Tedious Discussion Started

When the Indie Boom hit, several games of the genre called Walking Simulators came out and achieved huge financial and critical success. I personally enjoyed many of them greatly. (Despite this, I still use the term "Walking Simulator" because I find it funny.)

When they first gained notice, a certain portion of the gamer community was angered by the acclaim for Walking Simulators, sniffing in response that they "Aren't games."

This is, of course, entirely the wrong way to phrase their complaint. What they should have said was, "These games, whatever their good qualities, strip away everything we value in gaming and don't give us enough hours of distraction for our limited dollars, and the fact they are being treated as the future and only thing of value in our medium fills us with resentment."

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not (and there's plenty to say on both sides), it is a statement you can actually debate on its merits.

But this debate, such as it was, was moot. Last I checked, Walking Sims (even really good new ones) are selling modest numbers and games where you shoot monsters in the face are still making billions.

So there was no reason to continue the argument ...

According to my rigorous definite of Game, this IS a video game.

But Then Academia Got Involved.

A lot of people go to college to study videogames, and some try to create advanced critical analysis of the form. Don't blame me. It's not my fault.

I studied theatre in college, which was a fantastic experience. When I was there, I observed that people new to an art form constantly try to attach firm definitions to everything in it.

"What IS a play? What is acting? What is a work of art? What is the explicit definition of joy? And beauty? Dude, my hands are HUGE! They can touch anything but themselves!"

Exercises like this are not useless. It's good, when you’re young, to spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of your art form. Then you stop, because you realize that the nature of art is a very slippery thing. Whatever rule you come up with, someone else will become awesome by breaking it.

Here's the deal with art: Your brain compels you to make a thing, then you make it, then people dig it or they don't. The end.

Despite this, otherwise sensible people still actually spend time trying to define a game. Google "What is a game" and marvel in wonder. It's really quite the thing. A whole bunch of definitions, none of them adequate, because they're all too broad or too narrow or too abstract.

So I'll settle the issue and save everyone a bunch of time. This is important to me because I'm working on a cool new indie role-playing thing now, and it'll be out soon, and I want to be sure I can call it a game so I don't get in trouble with the FDA or whatever.

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this is NOT a video game.

What Is a Game?

Consider the large, highly profitable genre called Hidden Object Games.

Here's how they work. The game says, "There's a squid on the screen." Then you find and click the squid. Then you do the same thing with a sandwich or a skull or whatever.

Is this a game? I mean, hell, I'm not 100% sure this counts as an ACTIVITY.

But it has to be a game. How do I know? Because "Hidden Object Game" has "Game" in the name.

So just clicking a few times makes it a game, and you have to click just to launch the game. Sooo ...

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

The Answer!

If you're asking, "Is this a game?" it's a game. Sure! Why not? Who cares? It might be a good game or a long game or a bad game or a word processor.

Semantics arguments are lame. Argue about the content. What is a game is trying to do, how does it attempt it, how well did it succeed, and why? That's all that matters.

Wait. You Didn't Actually Define a Game.

So if you're hangin' out and someone starts to discuss with you what the definition of a game (or gameplay, or play, or immersion, or ludonarrative dissonance) is, do what I do!

Step 1: Nod sagely and adopt an expression of extreme concentration.

Step 2: Point over the person's shoulder and shout, "Hey, what's that!?"

Step 3: Activate the ninja smoke bomb you have in your pocket. FWOOOOSH!

Step 4: Sneak into another room.

Step 5: Talk to literally anyone else about literally anything else.

Problem solved!

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

This Is Ridiculous. By Your Laughable Definition, Photoshop and Excel Are Games. That Is So Broad As To Be Meaningless! But What If You First Define Gameplay To Be ...

OK, you've broken through. My decades of experience have enabled me to have one simple, unquestionable test for how to peel apart interactivity for a productive purpose from interactivity for an entertainment purpose. First, you ... Hey, what's that!

FWOOOOSH!

As An Extra Multiball Reward For Making It All the Way to the End of This Mess, I Will Settle Once and For All the Question: "Are Video Games Art?"

No. Never. Don't be silly.

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If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next "game" on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 1: Game Reviews

There was a ridiculous controversy recently because a games journo was bad at this difficult game. All time spent debating it was time wasted. I am writing this so that such time-wastage never happens again. I live to serve.
"You can speak your mind but not on my time."
      - William Martin Joel
 
One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

Don't bother to thank me. Seeing my own face whenever I look into the mirror is reward enough.

First up, I will settle all debates regarding games reviewers: How good should a reviewer be at a game? What topics are a reviewer allowed to bring up when doing a review? Are review scores and review aggregators a good thing? Does anyone still care about game reviews?

So the next time someone gets Mad On the Internet about a game review or mega-butthurt because the newest installment of their fave series gets a 91% when they KNOW it should have gotten a 93%, you can send them to this page and get on with your life.

A thoughtful and useful review of Avernum. Hmm. Let me check if it's still, 17 years later, making me money? Yep!!!
Why Are You Authorized to Settle This Argument Forever?

Because I am old, and that makes me wise. Also, once PC Gamer gave one of my most popular and enduring games a 17% review, literally said it was worse than choking to death on your own vomit, and provided a helpful sidebar with a list of rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit.

Believe me, every possible opinion you can have about game reviews, I have had at one time or another.

(Also, we have a kick-ass new indie, retro role-playing game coming out in early 2018, and I want to make sure everyone's heads are on straight before they start reviewing it.)

The Most Important Fact About Reviews

Think about your friends. (For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume you have friends.) When they recommend games/movies/TV shows to you, you take their personalities into account, right?

For example, there are some people who I listen to when they say a movie is good, and there are others who I won't, because they only like cheesy romantic comedies and Shrek. Or some guy will say I have to play Face Obliterator 5000, and I like him and all, but I'm not a fan of the Face Obliterator genre. Or, while his wife is great, no, I don't want to see the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie. Under any circumstances.

They're good people. We just have different tastes. I don't make them watch the long, depressing foreign movies I like, and they restrict their evangelizing Rick & Morty to me to one hour per day. I only accept recommendations from people when I've found their tastes line up with mine. You're the same way, right?

Pick Reviewers The Same Way

Reviewers are just individual humans, with their own tastes, and no one human can be a perfect, impartial justice machine for evaluating a work of art. Any decent reviewer can say how buggy a game is and whether it runs OK on their PC. Beyond that, it's just, like, your opinion, man. 

If you want reviews, don't just sit there. Find a couple reviewers you like and read them. If a web site doesn't have regular reviewers and just uses a rotating stable of whatever recent college grad is most desperate that week, it's not going to be useful to you. It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life.

Fun bonus fact: All awards for art, from the Nobel prizes down to video game awards, are arbitrary and meaningless. If you want to obsess about the Oscars, hey, you do you, but don't pretend they have any value beyond distracting you for a minute.
Are Numerical Review Scores Dumb?

On the surface, yes, evaluating a complex work of art and boiling it down to a single number is dumb. I mean, it's not like critics have an Art Scale, and they can put the last Call of Duty on it and say, "This game weighs 8.3 Arts, and the last game only weighs 7.1 Arts, and that's 1.2 Arts more!!! So this game gets a 93%."

Review scores, in practice, are fine. However, remember, a high or low number is just a reviewer giving an opinion, and if you trust his or her opinions, you're fine. High number means they like it. If a reviewer I trust says, "Yeah, this game is a B-," I know what's goin' on.

Is It OK For a A Video Game Reviewer to Be Bad at Games?

Of course. A lot more game reviewers should be bad at games. Fact is, most people who play computer games are bad at them, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them and can say, "If you blow 20 bucks on this, you'll die 500 times on the first level and hate it. Don't waste your money."

Look, I love laughing at game professionals flailing at games as much as anyone. Remember when that unnamed Polygon writer tried Doom and showed no signs of ever having played it (or any video game) ever before? That was a hoot.

(My favorite bit is when the player unloads a full shotgun blast into a health pack resting on the ground, in what I can only assume is a post-modern deconstruction of late-stage capitalism.)

But some people watched that video and said, "Wow, I should never buy this game," and were right to say it. So the video was useful after all.

This is why I was a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer series, before it devolved into a series of tedious celebrity skits. Watching someone who isn't fully proficient in our art form and its weird conventions struggling to enjoy it can be painfully useful.

In the end of Ratatouille, a supposedly heroic writer gives a good review to a restaurant whose kitchen is infested with rats. GROSS! Never trust reviews.


But This Goes Both Ways, Right?

Yes. Some gamers have very little money and lots of time to fill. They don't want to spend twenty of their limited bucks on a one-hour art piece, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them as well.

Is It OK For a Video Game Reviewer to Have Strong Political Opinions?

Yeah, why not? A lot of people only want games that support their particular political opinions. They can use politics-fixated reviewers as canaries in a coal mine. The writers are exposed to bad opinions so that you don't have to be.

Again, you have to pick a reviewer compatible with you. If someone doesn't like a game because it's too politically whatever or has too much of the color blue, use that person or don't. You get to choose what reviewers you watch.

What If I Think a Reviewer Sucks?

Don't read their reviews. That'll show 'em!

(And leave it at that. Don't be an asshole to them because you don’t agree with them. Not reading them is really the only vote you get.)

Review aggregator sites would have you believe every Marvel movies is one of the Best Movies Ever Made. Which, I mean, Marvel is fine I guess, but nobody will remember any of these flicks in 3 years.
How About Game Aggregator Sites? Are They Cool?

So you can go to a place like MetaCritic, which averages 50 different game review scores to take all those accumulated opinions and blends them together to create one number which represents Objective Truth. (Interestingly, Objective Truth is, the vast majority of the time, between 70% and 90%).

Look, is this useful? Kind of. I suppose.

I mean, look. Suppose ten people you don’t like give you their scores for a game. That won't be very useful. But what if you take those ten dumb opinions, blend them together, and take the average? That won't be any more useful, will it? Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made? Does this work with political parties too?

But it's all subjective. If you get value out of MetaCritic, use it. It's no sweat off my nose.

But Aren't Game Developer Payments Sometimes Determined By Metacritic Scores? Isn't That Bad?

All Metacritic is doing is getting some numbers and averaging them together. Yes, taking this random number and paying developer bonuses based on it is kind of shady. But on the list of Ways the Game Industry Mistreats Its Employees, it's like 893 out of 1200.

And if you look at the list of Concrete Things That Can Be Done to Make Developers' Lives Better, "Being mad at MetaCritic" is not on it at all.

My kids don't even know video game reviews EXIST, but they will buy anything even mentioned by this guy. God. Why do I even pretend I know anything?
One Last, Horrifying Truth About Game Reviews

I'm ancient, and even I don't use them anymore. There's no review that can tell me anything I can't get by watching the game on Twitch.tv for ten seconds and checking the Steam reviews to make sure it’s not too buggy.

In Conclusion

Take responsibility for yourself. Accept that the world is full of people different than you and there's space for all of us. As long as they're not punching you in the nose, people are allowed to have dumb opinions in their dumb heads. When choosing who you allow precious space inside your own head, choose someone you trust.

I will trust in the good people of the Internet to take this sensible advice and act with a bit of basic empathy in the future. I consider this entire discussion closed.

One Final Small Bit Of Whimsy

For a games web site, there's a huge advantage to having reviews written by inexperienced, eager people who try to stir up arguments instead of calming them. Those people work cheaper, and their work tends to stir up anger which gets more clicks. Sure, these poor writers/targets get screamed at, but that's what they were hired for. Their employers don't care as long as the clicks keep coming.

In the end, however, we’re talking about video game reviews. In the global scheme of things, game reviews are REALLY unimportant.

Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?

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If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next game on Steam. Give it a terrible review if you want. We just need the attention. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Avernum 3, Remasters, and the Joy of Owning Your Work.

It's weird to see over four years of my life just sitting there in a lump.
I've been making my little indie games for a living for 23 years. Being a greybeard in such a weird and young industry comes with special privileges.

For example, while some of my peers are getting around to remastering their old games, I am remastering our most popular game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, for the SECOND time. It is only when you rewrite the same material twice that you really test your discipline and integrity.

Writing indie games has become miserably competitive lately. Most new games, even promising ones with a lot of work in them, are sinking without a trace. Yet, thanks to the grinding tedium of rewriting the same game again and again, I have a fighting chance of my business surviving enough to write cool new stuff.

So I'll tell the story or Exile 3: Ruined World/Avernum 3/Avernum 3: Ruined World. (Also on Steam.) There are things to learn here for any young person who thinks, "I wanna' make cool things (not just video games), and make a living doing it."

Don't laugh. It sold like crazy.
In A Previous Millenium, I Wrote A Hit

In 1997, I'd been making games full-time for a couple years. I wrote (and still write) retro, turn-based, low-budget indie RPGs with fun systems, interesting stories, and mediocre graphics.

Happily, I got started at a time when there were very few good RPGs out in the market. I got a nice computer, wanted to play a good RPG, and couldn't find one. So I wrote one. It sold, because no competition. This is a key example of my most important business strategy: Get Very Lucky.

My first games, Exile: Escape From the Pit and Exile 2: Crystal Souls, were designed on a simple principle: I would go back to all the RPGs I loved as a kid and steal the best idea from each one. I then carefully combined all my quality stolen ideas into a coherent whole. This is called being a game designer.

For our third game, I had a better idea. I spent months playing all the new RPGs that had come out over the previous 2-3 years. Then I stole the best idea from each one of those. Thus, I transitioned from stealing ideas from old games to stealing ideas from new games. This is how you evolve as a game designer.

I ended up with Exile 3: Ruined World, which has been our biggest success. It features a gigantic world, that is easy to get lost in. As time passed, the game world evolved. If you didn't fight the monsters off, they would ruin towns and kill the townsfolk. (Though, no matter how slow you play, you can always still win the game.) If you didn't want to follow the story, you could be a bounty hunter or merchant. You could buy a house.

(If you want to try it out, it's available as freeware here. Warning: It probably won't run on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

Exile 3 came out so long ago that most new computers then looked exactly like this.
It Was The Right Title At The Right Time

In 1997, it was what people wanted. It was a legit shareware hit. Now, having a hit indie game in 1997 (when the world wide web was basically nothing and most of my sales came from AOL) was different from having one in 2017.

These days, the sales of a hit indie game will buy you a mansion made of yachts. Back then, it bought me a modest house and made my parents slightly less ashamed to say what I did for a living.

I won awards, to the extent there were game awards back then. I got attention from the traditional games media, which was really worth something then. And it established me in the business for good.

But even then, I knew that the real prize was not the praise (which I don't care about) or the money (which is nice, but then you spend it and it's gone). What was really valuable was that I owned the game. It was mine. I could do with it whatever I wanted. Forever.

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY 800x600 PIXELS!
Five Years Later, I Rewrote It For the First Time

We rewrote Exile 3 as Avernum 3 in 2002. Five years is a really short time to wait before rewriting a game, but I have a good excuse. When I started Exile 3, I'd only been making games for money for two years, and I wasn't very good. There were a ton of ways in which the story, interface and graphics should have been improved, and I didn't know to do it.

I spent well over a year writing Exile 3, and my wife and I spent another year turning it into Avernum 3. We went over every single location, line of dialogue, and bit of code, improving and expanding it to the best of our improved abilities. The revised version didn't sell as well as the original, but it still made a lot of money. (Again, by early indie game standards. It was a lot of money for lone artists, but not big-shot money.)

(If you want to try it out, you can buy it super-cheap here. Warning: It probably won't run well on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)


The new game. I am constantly accused by cranks of never improving my games. Look. I'm not saying this is super-fancy. But I don't think you can say there's been no improvement.
Now, Fifteen Years Later, We're Doing It Again

Fifteen years is a long time in the tech industry. Our most popular game is now woefully out of date in every way, largely forgotten, and doesn't even run on new Macs anymore. Now I can rewrite it so it actually works, and an iPad port will fall out of the process in the bargain.

Interfaces and game design have evolved in a million ways. I'm spending 18 months going over every tiny bit of the game again, redoing every single thing from scratch. I'll release it in January or so, and it will hopefully sell. I think it will. I've spent over 20 years building up a loyal fan base.

The Pros and Cons of a Remaster

The good side of remasters is that they can be less work that writing a game from scratch. You can, with luck, get a full new title for 2/3 of the work, and it's easy to market it because people already like it. (I'm assuming you're not remastering a game everyone hated.)

The bad side of remasters is that you become the curator for your own work. It can be grinding to go over old material day in and day out. The reason a remaster is successful is because your fans like the original game. You don't want to crap it up with too many new ideas, no matter how clever. People tend to not like change.

A Lesson For Young Creators

Never underestimate the value of owning your work. There hasn't been a day since 1997 that I haven't made money off of Exile 3. The reason is that I own it. It's mine, to alter, remaster, and distribute. All according to my whims, with all the earnings going to me.

It's a tough market out there. But suppose you release a new game and nobody ever even hears of it. Wait five years, remaster it and it really will be, as far an anyone is concerned, a new game. You can try selling it again!

And ten years from now, people will be using new consoles, new devices, new sorts of computers. Port your game to them! Each new port is an all new release. A new chance for your game to get noticed and catch on and become a hit!

Nature provides us with a perfect metaphor for any internet discussion.
"But Your Games Are All The Same And Look Like Crap"

I have a follow-up post about the reactions when I announced Avernum 3: Ruined World. It's pretty funny, but this is already long so I broke it out into its own post.

When Avernum 3: Ruined World comes out (hopefully in January for Windows/Mac and March for iPad), I'll have spent over four years of my life on it. It's not a game for everyone. It's mostly the product of one person, and it'll show.

Even if you don't like my work, I hope you take some satisfaction in this: Vidya games are still a place where one weirdo can make weird things for other weirdos and make a living at it. As long as this is possible, there's hope. Maybe the next weird thing for weirdos will be YOUR perfect game, the Best Game Ever, and it never would have existed in a purely big-budget world.

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If you're intrigued by the retro-RPG goodness of Avernum 3, you can wishlist it on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Edit: Added the Pros and Cons section.