Archive for March, 2013

Inspiration

So, yeah, I played a lot of Barbarian Prince last summer.  It’s hard not to see that inspiration when looking at Road of Kings.  In fact, the original code base for Road of Kings was a simple Barbarian Prince combat emulator.  At first, I was just trying to figure out the percentage chance of winning the most common opening fight with the royal guardsmen (turns out you have a pretty good shot at killing 1 or 2 of them, 3 is about a 50% chance of success, and 4-6 you’re best off fleeing).  It wasn’t a huge leap from that to a full combat emulator, which was pretty handy when playing the physical board game.  It really sped up play, and I wrote the thing in Java specifically so I could run it on my phone, which was much handier than having a computer at the table when playing the game.

Then I took a left turn and decided to make it into a full fledged game that I would sell on Google Play.  I stopped slavishly trying to emulate the board game and let it evolve into something different.  I took additional inspiration from other hex crawl games, like Delta’s excellent Outdoor Survival based D&D game, and changed things where I thought the original board game made poor decisions.  Of course the map is entirely different from the Barbarian Prince board, and every event in the game has been custom written as well.  While game mechanics cannot be covered by copyright, I would never steal another man’s words.  And once I decided the game was not and could not be a direct translation of the existing game, I found my creativity liberated and my desire to take the game in new directions and really make it my own ignited.

I was excited that I could now add elements that you could never get away with in a solo board game.  In our game we have events restricted to specific regions, or hidden in specific hexes that can only be discovered by exploring the map.  We keep track of the player’s influence with various groups.  Do too many illegal things, and you may find the town guard at the next town a little more aggressive than usual.  Make friends instead of enemies with the Aesir you bump into, and they may invite you along on their next raid of the mainland.  Our game can track a lot more data than the board game could without becoming too cumbersome, and our game can keep secrets from the player, two unique traits that I ended up leveraging quite frequently.

So the question that’s plagued me since I started talking publicly about our game is this: how much should I reveal about the original inspiration?  The current game is a pretty far cry from the original board game in its internals and content, but the basic form remains the same: the goals are the same (gather X money in Y days), the format of moving across a hex map is the same, and some basic tactics are the same (gathering followers, balancing resources of days and food, choosing when to fight and when to flee).  I want to appeal to fans of the board game, as I myself am one, but I do not want to be dismissed as merely a rip-off of an old game.

I hope Road of Kings respectfully pays homage to Barbarian Prince, giving you a similar experience with the ease of a computer that fits in your pocket handling all the annoying resource tracking and math calculations.  I also believe it explores new ground adding elements the board game could have never gotten away with.  That balance is a little difficult to communicate in a 30 second blurb at a panel or in two sentences of a press release.

Ultimately, Barbarian Prince is a pretty old and out of print game, and most people won’t recognize it at all.  Those that do, well, I hope those that do are the kind of hard core fans who would also dig up the obscure blog of the developers, and find a nice long post explaining it all in detail.  Rock on you hard core fans, thanks for coming and I hope you dig what I made.  Now get out there and raise an empire!

Just Make a Game

I had a great time on my panel at PAX East yesterday, and I really appreciate everyone who came out to see it.  For those who didn’t, you can see the whole thing here (skip to 5:50:00).  We also got a little coverage from polygon.com, which is pretty darn exciting.  It’s my first experience being directly mentioned by the press, and my first experience being misquoted by the press.  Still, for a tiny group like us, any coverage is good coverage.

I didn’t want to comment on that site or nit-pick the misquote, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to expand on what I was getting at, and what better place to do so than my own blog?  Isn’t that kind of navel-gazing exactly what having a blog is all about?  But seriously, the question that spurred the comment is one that as a professional game developer I get all the time: “How do I get a job in the game industry?”

The answer really is “just make a game.”  I don’t mean to be cavalier about the difficulties in making a full on video game here.  I’m not saying you should strike out on your own and make a stellar AAA title ready for sale to the public either.  But you can’t expect to get a gig in the game industry if you have absolutely no idea what making games entails.  Would you hire a carpenter who had never used a hammer before, but is eager and willing to learn how to do so on the job?

Sit yourself down and try to make something.  It doesn’t have to be something impressive or even get to completion.  What I was trying to say at the panel is that you should try to make a Tetris clone, or just try to make a text based tic-tac-toe game.  See how far you can make it.  There are so many benefits you’ll get from the experience:

  1. You’ll learn so much.  You’ll understand better what goes into make a game, that at least half if not more of making a game is not the game itself, it’s the other stuff: the menu screens, the save/load features, the installer, etc.  
  2. It shows drive.  Potential employers (and I’m one of them, so trust me on this) will absolutely favor resumes where there’s a link to a little project you did on the side.  Yeah, it helps if it’s actually good, but just having that entry on your resume will get you shuffled closer to the top.
  3. It’s something to talk about on interviews.  And not just filler, but stuff relevant to the position you’re trying to get. The people interviewing you have been through all the trials you have in your project, and if you can talk about such things in an informed way it will really help you stand out.

And while my advice here is skewed towards engineering candidates, I think it applies to everyone.  If you’re a designer, make a level for your favorite game that has a level editor.  If you’re an artist, try to re-skin an existing game.  Just getting practice at the kinds of tasks you’ll be assigned on the job is worth its weight in gold.  Plus there’s always the chance that you’ll discover you hate the work, and if that’s the case, you can save yourself from a long and agonizing job hunt and possibly an unpleasant working experience.

So that’s what I”m getting at when I say “just do it, just make a game.”  I was reading Kevin Smith’s book “Tough Sh*t” recently, and it turns out he has the same advice for potential filmmakers.  He says don’t just say “I want to be a filmmaker”, be a filmmaker.  (Now here I am probably misquoting Smith, as I don’t have his book right in front of me.  What goes around comes around I suppose.)  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same for any kind of creative work.  It’s pretty easy to just sit around and say “I want to be…”, while actually, it’s not as hard as you think to just do it.

Best Panel Ever

Just wanted to remind everyone that tomorrow at 4:00 PM I’ll be speaking at PAX East on the best panel ever, and showing off more details of my project Road of Kings.  The panel will be streaming live on twitch.tv/pax for all those folks who can’t some see me in person.  If you are at the convention though, come see me, and you may get a chance to play an early build of the game!

TotalCon

OK, let’s talk about TotalCon before it’s so far in the past I can’t remember anything.

Friday night, after everything, I managed to make it down in one piece.  We checked into the hotel, picked up our badges and tickets, and headed out for some quick dinner.  Unfortunately, since I was so late to register for TotalCon, I didn’t have a lot of choices when signing up for events.  I knew I wanted to play games run by Tim Kask, but since he’s now doing these cons in part to hawk his latest stuff from Eldritch Enterprises, he was signed up to run the same events multiple times.  I also knew Michael Curtis was going to be there running games, and I really wanted to play in one of his.  The end result — I had a ticket to Michael Curtis’ Saturday afternoon game, and tickets to Tim’s games on both Friday and Saturday night, and it was the same game.  Thus through all the con I had in the back of my head that I’d have to figure out what Saturday night would entail.  At least my friend Mike was in the same boat I was, so if I wanted to run a pick-up game, I at least had one player.

So we sat down to Tim’s game Friday night and it was a ton of fun.  I really like playing with Tim, he’s my kind of DM.  We got all the way to the very last encounter when it dawned on me — I had played this dungeon before.  I’m not sure how long Tim’s been playtesting it at the cons, but somewhere along the line I had already played it.  The good news is I played most of the game without any clue of that being the case, and I was the one mapping!  When we got to the last room and I realized what was going to happen I just shut my mouth and let the other players drive us into oblivion.  And thus that game ended the same as the first time I played it — TPK.  And it was just as much fun the second time around.

Last year I went to TotalCon all four days, but drove down from home every day.  I only live about 30 minutes away, it seemed silly to get the hotel room, but by the end of the con I regretted that decision.  There’s something to just being there the whole time.  There’s also something to being able to just wander down the hall and collapse into bed.  This year I wanted to learn from past cons — I was going to stay at the hotel and I wasn’t going to sign up for any early games, that way I could stay up as late as I wanted.  Unfortunately, since starting my new job I was low on both funds and vacation time, so I had to cut it shorter.  I knew I could only stay one night, so the question was whether to stay Friday night into Saturday, then give Sunday a miss, or skip Friday night and stay Saturday through Sunday.  I know Sunday tends to be pretty dead with lots of folks leaving rather than playing one last game, so I decided on the former.

And yet, Friday night came and the game ended promptly at 11 and the mood was very relaxed.  The con didn’t have the usual bustling feel to it.  There were only two games run in the old school room that night, and everyone looked inclined to just go to bed.  My plans of being able to stay up late into the night were dashed.  Well, sort of…

You see, you all know from yesterday’s post what I’ve been spending all my spare time on.  Mike, the guy I was rooming with, is one of my partners on that project.  We builds of the game with us, and intended to show it to Tim to see if we could wrangle an endorsement out of him.  Showing him the game was an eye opening experience though.  Tim isn’t exactly a super tech savvy guy — he even mentioned he’d never carry a phone around that had a built in GPS.  He had a little trouble with the interface.  But also, he discovered a variety of bugs and usability issues, all good things for us to discover, but embarrassing to find them in this context.

So when we returned to the hotel room, out came my laptop, and I started working.  After an hour or two of that, I let myself read some to wind down.  Then when it came time to sleep I made a terrible discovery — Mike snores.  Sorry to call you out on that Mike, but it is what it is.  Still, I was pretty exhausted and I did manage to fall asleep, but my stupid biological alarm woke me up bright and early the next morning, with maybe 4-5 hours of sleep total.  This was not good.

Mike was still snoring away, so I decided to go down and get breakfast on my own and leaf through the material I brought to see what pickup game I might run that night.  I opened my bag was horrified to discover I had left the entire folder of games and characters sitting on a table at home.  Doh!  I did have my laptop with me though, which had some stuff in it, so off I went to the hotel business center to see what I could print out.  I found a decent module and used my character generator to whip up a few characters, started printing… and ran out of paper.  I guess that’s not surprising in a hotel running an RPG convention.  I leafed through the trash and found some pages that were only slightly wrinkled or had not too much printed on one side only and printed on their backs.  I managed to get my three page adventure and 8 characters printed.  Phew.

By this time Mike was up so off we went to breakfast.  Then we checked out the dealer’s room, went out to the local grocery store to get some snacks and caffeine, and then back to the hotel where we tried out a demo of Battlegrounds.  It’s a game I played once or twice in the past, and I thought Mike would enjoy it, and I think I was right.  It was a nice way to fill the last hour of our empty morning.

Then it was time to play with Michael Curtis.  He ran an adventure that he hasn’t printed yet, though he does say it hides a secret entrance to Stonehell.  The guys we were playing with were many of the same guys we had played with the previous night.  This is one of the real charms of TotalCon — the old school scene there is just big enough to support about 4-5 games simultaneously, so you end up playing with the same people a lot.  And it’s the same people year after year, so though I don’t necessarily remember their names right away, I kind of know sitting down at the table who will be fun to play with.  These guys were great, and the adventure was a lot of fun.  There was a bit of combat, but mostly a lot of puzzle solving.  Lots of rooms chock full of weird stuff to try and figure out, and one case of a very amusing spatial reasoning problem to solve.  I really enjoyed that last one, and machinated a plan that came off reasonably well.

We went out to dinner, and then back to the con to try and figure out what to do with our evening.  We both knew we did not want to play in Tim’s game again.  Nothing against Tim, I love playing with him, but I did not want to run the same adventure again and didn’t feel comfortable trying to convince him to run something else.  A few years ago I would have done just that, but now that he’s hawking his wares I didn’t want to get in his way.  I had put out feelers and was aware of 2 or 3 others that might be interested in playing my pick-up game.  So we went over to HQ and secured ourselves a table.  Then I went to the old school room and started gathering my forces.  It sounded like Frank’s game was well over-full.  I’m not surprised, it was a game I wanted to play in myself but got locked out of.  We decided to hang out and see if there was any other overflow to steal.  Eventually, as time was getting close, we retreated to our own table which was in a room across the hall, as the old school room was full up.  In fact, at this point the convention had that bustle I thought was lacking earlier.  I guess Saturday night is the night for that.

As we sat down to start playing one of the guys who actually had a ticket to a different game but wanted to play with me said off-handedly “I feel a little bad for the DM of that game I was supposed to play, it looks like he only had two other players.”  I had five sitting down to my table, plus myself.  If we all just got up and joined his game, he’d have a full 8 players.  I suggested it, and everyone thought it was a great idea.  We all got up and moved back to the old school room.

Of course, all I had was a ticket to Tim’s game, not even generics, but it turns out the DM was one of those guys I’ve played with in years past and rather enjoy playing with.  I mentioned to him our ticketing issue and he said he’d love to have us play if there was room, but was worried his table was already getting pretty full.  I pointed out that I had brought half those people with me.  He laughed and took my ticket.

All in all I felt really good about this decision.  It’s sort of like the Best Gig Ever gag the improv everywhere folks did, where they gathered a huge crowd of fake fans to descend on a little known band playing in a usually dead time spot.  I was more than happy not to DM, and pleased to have turned a minimum head count game into a packed full one.  And the game was fun, I had a great time getting to play with folks I wanted to play with anyway.

The only down side was that the sleep deprivation was really kicking in.  I had downed a fair amount of caffeine, but still around 9 I had to excuse myself from the table and go outside for some fresh air.  The stuffiness of the room was starting to make me feel seriously ill.  Fortunately, the air did exactly what I expected, and I came back refreshed and ready to play.  The worst was yet to come.

I got home around midnight, and fell straight into oblivion.  I probably blacked out for about an hour, then woke back up with the worst insomnia.  I was up until about 3 AM before I finally fell asleep.  Poor Jenn suffered too, my tossing and turning kept her up and the next day we were both zombies.  Fortunately it was Sunday and we had nothing in particular to do except relax and go to bed early.  Still, it left me feeling off the whole rest of the week.

Lessons learned:

  • Saturday night is the night to stay late at TotalCon.
  • Don’t count on pickup-games, fill your schedule with pre-reg.
  • Make sure your roommates don’t snore before signing up to share a hotel room.
  • Find a sleep aid of some kind — booze, drugs, whatever.
  • Lay off the caffeine, it only makes things worse.

Looking forward to next year, and hoping that life is a bit more sane when it rolls around.

Announcing Road of Kings

OK, at long last, I’m very proud to announce the side project I’ve been working on since 38 collapse.  Myself and two other ex-38ers have banded together under the name Dancing Sorcerer Games, and today announced our first game Road of Kings.  I won’t bother repeating all the information at the above links, but I’ll point out one more: here’s the official press release announcing the game.

We’ll be presenting even more info at our panel at PAX East, so if you’ll be there please come see us.  If not, watch the site bestpanelever.com, where we we surely post the link to the live video stream once it’s known.

I’ll post some more details about the game in the future, but I just wanted to get that info out now.  Also, I think I still owe you guys a TotalCon report, so that will be coming soon.

Total Confusion? More Like Total Exhaustion

I’m clearly doing a poor job of keeping my resolution to post more frequently.  In fact, TotalCon has come and gone and I’ve said nothing about it.  Terrible!  I do want to write up some details of my TotalCon experience, but it probably makes much more sense given the context of what my life was like in the week leading up to TotalCon.  And as you can probably imagine given my rate of posting here, what my life has continued to be like since.

The weekend before TotalCon was a three day weekend, and yet, was not full of rest and relaxation.  There was some, but I was also losing sleep over an issue at work that I had to deal with over the weekend.  A co-worker, in fact a guy that reports to me, was going to be terminated on Tuesday and I got to be part of the process.  I didn’t have to do the firing myself, but I was in the meeting with the guy doing the firing and the guy getting fired.  It’s the first time in my career I’ve been involved in such a process, and it was not fun.

The rest of the four day week was full of meetings, and not at work mind you, but after work.  My personal project had a meeting via Google hangout on Tuesday night, and the members of the panel I’m going to be on at PAX had one on Wednesday night.  Thursday night I got to drive out to meet with a guy about rescuing my 401k from 38 Studios which has at last become un-frozen.  It was a productive and heartening experience, though a bit long.  I was happy to go to all these meetings, but it basically meant a solid week of no mental down time at all.  Wake up, commute, work, commute, meeting, sleep.  Not a fun cycle.

Finally Friday came, and the whole day was full of problems at work that required my immediate attention.  This on a day I had a hard leave-by time of 4:00 so I could get down to TotalCon in time to convince the hotel staff to give us a non-smoking double instead of the smoking single we had reserved (it was all that was left), eat dinner, and make it to a 7:00 game.  The stress levels were high all day.  I finally tore myself away from work at about ten after four and was driving along 95 towards Mansfield and feeling like I could start to relax and enjoy my weekend when my cell phone rang.

It was my darling wife, whom I don’t blame at all as this could happen to anyone, calling me to tell me she had locked herself out of the house.  Relaxation was gone as I raced home to let her in, all the while screaming and cursing at the drivers on 109 that seemed to think it was not just half an hour until the worst of rush hour traffic would settle in and it was OK to drive a leisurely 30 MPH.

Despite the detour, I made it out of there and back onto the road and down to Mansfield by 5:30.  My trusty travel companion had made it down ahead of me and managed to work his charms on the hotel staff and get us our room upgrade.  All in all the time lost was no more than I was allowing for traffic anyway, so no real harm done, except maybe for winding my stress level back up to 9.

And that’s where my head was at when I arrived at TotalCon.  Stay tuned for the official TotalCon report…