Sunday, 22 May 2011


Please let me be the first to coin the term minecraftlikes.

Falling deeper in love: Terraria

The reason I say Terraria is a beautiful game isn't because of the glorious pixel art; although the combination of pixel art, procedural generation, and smart use of lighting and particle systems are beautiful, but because many of the design decisions are just precisely right. For a game developed over 5 months by 4 people, it shows an incredible level of maturity.

The user interface is elegantly understated. My chief problem with Spelunky is the large number of controls needed to move through the environments: Terraria uses WASD movement but up and down are not used to start with, along with a 2 button mouse, space to jump and ESC; but this limited control set sensibly handles a huge number of interactions and permutations of objects, terrain and furnishings. (For pedants, yes there are other controls but those are strictly optional, and all just faster ways of selecting which items to use).

The ESC menu is particularly instructive: it overlays the ability to organise your inventory, drop and equip objects, craft items and buy and sell from the shop, and interact with containers, as well as save and exit the game; which you can do simultaneously from the same screen without requiring you switch modes at all. So you can craft an item, sell it to the merchant, drop equipment from your inventory to make space for another purchase, and then wear a new combination of items without having to exit out of the single menu.

Similarly, left-clicking with mouse lets you build and destroy, select items to use, attack or shoot at enemies and decorate your house - while right-clicking is only rarely needed and never in a moment of duress, for opening and closing doors, interacting with NPCs and opening containers.

I'm listing this here, because one of the few things Terraria gets wrong is that it doesn't explain the most straight forward thing you need to learn: which is that the mouse cursor is how you primarily interact with the world, limited for the most part by the requirement that your avatar be in relatively close proximity. Of course, close proximity in a game of plunging chasms, flooded caverns and spawning monsters is itself a challenge, but there is no point which so far I've felt like the control scheme has been frustrating or unresponsive.

Like Minecraft, Terraria uses its procedurally generated backdrop as a palette for you to build and dig, but that's where many of the simalarities end. Minecraft remains (as far as I am aware) a toy sandbox (once the thrill and challenge of the first 30 minutes wears off), Terraria an open ended game. I've been meaning to write an article about the importance of that key verb 'dig': because it lets you throw off the shackles of required connectivity that makes much procedural content generation so frustrating (to design and to play in) and lets you generate glorious playgrounds which ultimately may be broken, but which the player has the tools to fix. Where Angband has gone wrong is digging is slow and unrewarding, Spelunky makes the mistake of limiting the level size, but here the maps are effectively limitless in size (in reality, just really huge - use the 3rd party mapping tool - just once - to display a map you've spent 3 or 4 hours exploring to see what I mean), and for the most part well-connected enough so that it is clear where you need to dig to hollow out a pathway or bring down a cascade of sand, but still big enough to make choosing a random direction and tunnelling an exercise in patience and frustration and occasional delight (as so it should be).

Terraria makes the same smart decision that Minecraft does (and where Love goes horribly wrong) by using its pixel art assets to make it really clear what everything is: here are blocks of dirt, sand and rock, this is tree, grass and flower, and not only are they clearly delineated, but the clever crafting system makes these differences important. I say everything is differentiated: but at the same time rock, and the various ores are similar enough so that you need one next to the other to distinguish the two, forcing you to be keenly observant when you explore underground. Many times, I've paused at a rocky outcrop on the surface that I've run over tens of times, and suddenly realised that it was a valuable iron deposit.

Exploring underground is as glorious as it could be: musically, rhythmically, the deep, but survivable drops from tunnel system to tunnel system, the splashes of unseen enemies in murky pools, the lighting system which limits your exploration by the torches you bring with you (or have wood and the foresight to be able to construct on the way), the frequent rewards of pots to smash (another Zelda touch to go with the swords swishing through glass and the slime enemy design), and the glorious highs of a single hidden reward which can make a whole trip worthwhile. What has ultimately limited my descents, as well as my overland trips, is water, which a clever take on swimming prevents you from moving quite as freely as you'd have hoped, not to mention limiting your breath. What makes this especially interesting is that it is often water that I've inadvertently let lose from an aquifer higher in the dungeon, which has sunk to the bottomost depths of the level preventing me progressing.

I've begun exploring the [redacted] you can find on the surface, destroying my first [redacted] with some clever [redacted] placement, and I've found enough [redacted] that the first boss monster has noticed my presence. The surface [redacted] is enough of a challenge in its own right, taking away much of your usual toolset as well as more dangerous enemies, environment and geography; and I'm pausing for air before attempting what, given my equipment (copper and iron, and a nifty magical ranged weapon), sounds like it will be a challenge. Beyond that, I've got more bosses to fight and biomes to explore, and many more magical items to find.

But I'm worried that I may have already spoiled too much of the game for you. I strongly urge you to stay as spoiler free as possible when you play. Three things that have stood out for me as quirks, worth highlighting, plus one recommendation:

1. Once you build a room that satisfies the Guide, keep building rooms this big or bigger (use the original as a template) and make sure that you furnish and light it. I've missed valuable NPCs because my rooms weren't quite built correctly, or because I hadn't built a room at all, but had met the requirements for a new visitor.

2. Doors in particular can be fiddly, they are 3 units high, and have to have a top and bottom 'frame' of walls above and below, and remember when placing furniture you want to click on the bottomost grid that the furniture occupies (1 up from the floor).

3. Acorns have been weirdly hard to plant, for some reason. I've had to dig a hole 1 deep and a 3 wide to plant an acorn, and bizarrely had only one tree successfully grow.

4. Exploring the surface at night, once you can survive the enemies, is rewarding, and sometimes even worth it if you can't.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Everyone's a critic

So if game reviewers are no longer getting to play a game before it's released, (see also: zero day patch) and top-selling games come out without any fanfare (select the Top Sellers tab), what exactly is the function of a game review again?

(My 2c: What it has always been. Reassuring you that you've made the right decision buying/not buying a game).

Friday, 20 May 2011

Falling in love

Terraria is a beautiful game.

(And this is coming from someone who hates platformers).

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A discussion between two ex-D&Ders

Tim: There are now at least 12 different types of beholder now, BTW...

Andrew: So does that mean they are cool again? On the assumption they started off cool, probably stopped being cool at some point we missed, and are now cool again. I guess that means there's a hipster beholder.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Final hours

If you've not contributed to In Profundis, you have 16 hours left.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Brainy Gamers

If you're swinging by here from Michael Abbot's blog and wondering if there's anything else interesting to read here, I'd like to point you in the direction of the Featured Articles on the right hand side (scroll down a page), as well as some of my reviews, in particular Bioshock and World of Goo. Also, Eve fan fiction written by me.

And please visit the procedural content generation wiki on the way out.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Dear Dan

You've got everyone around here hot under the collar with your think piece on game criticism - not because it is inaccurate, but because you've stumbled across a truth that most people don't like to talk about ("most game criticism isn't very good"). The problem is that you've completely misattributed the cause ("game criticism isn't written by game developers").

Roger Ebert is a great film critic not because as you point out he made films. He's a great film critic because he's been able to devote a large proportion of his life to learning, thinking and writing about film. He's been able to do that, because there is enough of a financial reward for him to do so - there's enough money to be made being a film critic - not just for Roger Ebert, but for hundreds of wannabe film critics around at the start of his career who could justify devoting their every waking moment to film criticism.

There is simply not enough time and reward for being a game critic for us to have the same quality of game criticism at the moment. Partly this is because (computer) game design is in its relative infancy, but mostly because of unique challenges of making money writing criticism, especially in the game industry, at this point in time.

You may have noticed that the mainstream press is having a hard time remaining financially viable in the age of the Internet. Academia has also been under sustained assault for some 30 years with funding (in the United States) at a low point since the 1970s. These two avenues are the traditional methods for critics to learn their skills while being able to put food on the table - and neither of which are in the healthiest state at the moment.

Not only this, but the specialist gaming press is under direct attack by the largest game publishers. And, unlike film, the challenge of game reviews require that games be reviewed as a product, as well as a piece of art - Mr Ebert is unlikely to have to respool a film when he goes to watch it - which means that the game press is dependent on game publishers in a way that film, art, literature and so on are not. Not to mention the logistics of reviewing a product in a timely fashion which could potentially be played for hundreds of hours.

You may think I'm conflating reviews with criticism. I'm not. But one way you start developing critical skills is by reviewing games, lots of games, and the specialist game press is the only avenue which will pay you a living wage to do so - and potentially not for very much longer.

The economic reality of trying to be a game critic is also why a large number of the recent leading lights in game criticism have decided to change the field they write in or started working for the tabloids of the game industry or been co-opted by the industry as developers, publicists, designers.

So what's wrong with your vision of game developers being the only people to write about games?

I'll take one example: the Playdom piece you linked to about redesigning a social game makes a reference in passing to 'whales' or high spending customers. Let's make the hypothetical assumption for the moment that whales are in fact problem gam(bl)ers. I'm picking this example because I've written to you before on the cross over of gaming and gambling addiction. Not that there is anything in the article to suggest this is the case.

A game developer will never reveal that whales are problem gamers, because he is bound by confidentiality agreements between him and his customers as well as commercial interests to keep exploiting - that is making money - for the company, and should this inconvenient fact be revealed, he is opening the company up to the possibility of litigation or legislation.

A game journalist may act on an anonymous tip off however, and end up writing a piece on games which makes the analogy between watching a 'whale' playing Farmville and visiting a local casino and sitting next to the customers at a slot machines.

An academic may get funding for a study which begins to establish a link between playing social games and problem gambling, which warrants further study.

The actions of the journalist and the academic may result in real change: for instance, the FBI deciding there is no difference between putting $10 on a hand of cards, and buying a virtual chest; while a game critic merely makes a persuasive case for change. But a game critic has a chance of changing someone's view of the world, whereas the type of writing you're asking for can only change someone's view of how they design games.

I do hope there is a positive outcome from what you've written: the game critical community not just looking towards developers to make gaming's Citizen Kane, but figuring out themselves how to make gaming's Roger Ebert. But there is a lot of work to be done to make such a beast, and you can help more by pressuring publishers to give free and unhindered access to games journalists, than criticising game critics for not being you.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Can you copyright a game?

This has come up several times in recent months, with instances such as an iOS clone of Desktop Dungeons and the Sega clone of Splosion Man, and represents in my opinion an unfortunate part of maturation of our industry.

The latest contribution to this small but growing debate is a podcast at Three Moves Ahead discussing another instance of an iOS game cloning a game available on another platform. You can skip the podcast and read Bill Abner’s original No High Scores story, and the interview which is referred to frequently in the episode. While the discussion is interesting, I kept thinking they are missing the one central question: Are the rules to a game copyrightable at all? Or is it like a recipe, or fashion, which cannot be copyrighted? See e.g.

As a game designer, I’d prefer the situation where a ‘game’ is not copyrightable, because the level of protection is already sufficient for the art, computer code and fiction incorporated into the game, and trade mark protection for the name and mark on the game.

The total economic contribution by movies, literature and music is dwarfed by contribution by food and fashion.