Monday 28 May 2012

Small games

In the echo chamber where we discuss the upcoming episode of Roguelike Radio, high in an ivory tower from where we deign to look down at other games, one of my colleagues dared ask the question 'Is there anyone that's anti small games?'... to which I raised the shattered stump of my speaking staff (broken previously by that tea-drinking wizard Grey).

I am anti small games: both as a designer, and a game player. As a designer, I am incapable of conceiving of a small game (I can however do tiny games). The games I design have to encompass the totality of an idea: Unangband is a gumbo of all things high and low fantasy, Alternal (since renamed Historium) is the sweep of all possible human histories: past and future. The reason is simple: the idea of designing a small game simply terrifies me - I wouldn't know where to begin, and more importantly, where to end.

As a player, I need my games to be full of significant moments: where the choices I make have room to play out, and where ideas it evokes have recurrent themes. Small games don't have the depth to immerse me in: they become too coldly calculating, and more importantly, brittle. If I don't have the ability to solve the game myself, the ultimate solvent of the Internet is a quick Google away. Even classic games like Chess are ultimately reductive to a set of memorized openings which dominate play (Chess960 one possible antidote).

Instead, by piling systems on top of systems, big games have a robustness that allows for unintended play. And what is wrong enjoying the experience of playing a game, even if it is just a kinetic rush to the end? That is, if the experience has an enjoyable core, which for me, is missing from the Diablo series. (Cool downs are lazy design). And if the core design is tight, you should be welcome to find pleasure in it for as long as you can.

Monday 21 May 2012


Every time I want to start on my hot new programming project, I get stuck at 'port update outdated'...

Sunday 20 May 2012

Windshields and warriors

I've been thinking about the role of monsters in games, particularly with the recent Diablo discussion on Roguelike Radio's comments thread, and a recent attempt to play Torchlight (which for some reason had lost a whole lot of my character's progress). I'm also coincidentally at a point where I'm not finding gaming terribly satisfying: I suspect because I'm wading through sub par games like Deus Ex: Revolution, while waiting for the next brogue, Binding of Isaac, Terraria or Dark Messiah of Might and Magic to catch my imagination (to name some gaming highlights of the last few years).*

My favourite games have something in common: monsters, and enemies in general, exist in those games as an obstacle, not a resource - whereas Diablo, Angband and many others have you exploiting monsters for loot and experience. I realise Terraria requires you farm drops to find certain items, but boss monsters and Skeletons aside, you're almost always (until after the Wall of Flesh) better off searching for chests to get the same drop.

Jeff Lait used the analogy of 'windshield' monsters while discussing the fact that most monsters in most roguelikes are designed to be spattered with minimum effort while on the way to the end game. I'm not convinced that this is the case: brogue for instance has very few monsters you can safely ignore even while you are deep in the dungeon. Windshield monsters exist primarily for flavour: they're one step up from the bats and rats you see crawling around Diablo's caves, but unless you foolishly let your guard down and get mobbed, you're unlikely to ever die to a windshield.

brogue on the other hand, has too many 'puzzle' monsters: in the sense monsters you can solve fighting for to reduce them to a trivial challenge. The two I'm thinking specifically of are pink jellies and acidic mounds: the former require you fight in a doorway and always attack the weakest split, and acidic mounds require you fight naked, but there's also the list of monsters you typically keep negation for.

So assuming puzzle, exploitable and windshield monsters are not satisfying challenges, what should a typical monster do? In a finite resource game like brogue, or the Binding of Isaac, it is easy. Monsters should exist to consume your resources: either health, or consumable items - slowly wearing you down for the final fight, but only if you underperform in killing them (the Binding of Isaac) or if you are not able to evade them (brogue).

In infinite resource games like Terraria, their function is less satisfyingly clear cut: you can always grind yourself against the resource cost of more powerful monsters because the rewards in these regions are much greater as well. Terraria balances this by making the most valuable resources (minerals) acquired only through mining, which is higher risk than emptying chests, and gives you no immediate pay back, so it is possible to end up with a short term resource deficit which outweighs the long term benefits of what you have acquired. There's also a clever (or frustrating, depending on how you look) set of gating mechanics which forces you to traverse certain challenges before you can get higher tiers of equipment: some of the tiers are optional, which makes for a lesser game IMO.

* I'll be posting a 'help me pick a game to play' post separately. Day Z is a good candidate.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Top 5 Game Design Blogs

Back in the dim mists of time, I named my top 5 games journalists: which in a field notorious for attrition now only has 2 survivors (the rest consumed by PR, consulting and comics). Since I've not been able to do much long form writing recently, I figure I should link to my personal top 5 game design blogs, so you can slake your thirst elsewhere.

Putting together a top 5 of game design blogs is challenging, to say the least. To qualify, you have to write regularly and you have to write specifically about game design. This simple criteria excludes the most well known video game designers who blog, people like Soren Johnson, Clint Hocking and Dan Kline, because the industry is so notoriously secretive and full of NDAs, that they simply cannot talk about what they are working on, except for brief bursts during the press period of their latest game. Then there are promising bloggers like Jon Shafer, who has recently appeared on the scene, but hasn't written enough to develop his own distinct voice.

So my list is full of brilliant mavericks, outside geniuses (genii?), and crosses plenty of boundaries. You also don't have to agree with them to love what they write about and the passion they write with.

Without further ado:

1. David Sirlin
2. Anna Anthropy
3. Zak S.

I would say more, but I'm confident each of these three's (possibly NSFW) writing will win you over. Less than coincidentally, each of the above bloggers has a book you can buy (Playing to Win, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters and Vornheim: The Complete City Kit) which by all accounts, you should own (I'm only 1 for 3 so far, but with a plan to fix that).

4. Gevlon

Sometimes the best game designers are actually players. Not, as in, you should recruit the guy to design your next game, but as in, there's a game you think you designed, and there is the game that is actually being played by people, and you hope they are the same thing, but mostly they are not. Gevlon has, as far as I am aware, forced at least two different MMO developers to release patches because the game he was playing wasn't they game they wanted it to be.

5. John Harris

There is a certain kind of reportage that is my guilty pleasure in game design reading: a domain expert, who is content on one level to catalog a particular type of game, but also draw you attention to say 'here is something interesting and worth exploring', but also, 'this may not be as good as you want it to be, but you should try it anyway' and more importantly 'this new big release has forgotten the lessons learned in these obscure titles'. Emily Short does it with adventure games, Bill Harris with sports games (although not a niche genre), Leigh Alexander did it with erotic games, and John Harris did it with roguelikes (and a great series of top 20 game design essentials, at Gamasutra).

Not coincidentally, three of these four bloggers were artfully curated by the wonderful Simon Carless at  the now defunct GameSetWatch. So not only is this blog post actually an impassioned plea to try to get John writing again (just savor his column slowly enough to ration yourself in the mean time), but it is also a plea for someone to put together a new place for these sorts of writers and go out and find them.

Honourable mention: Dan Cook

Monday 7 May 2012

Remind me at to fix this at episode 1000

For those of you who may have been complaining about missing episodes in the Roguelike Radio podcast, I've changed the blogspot RSS feed being fed into feedburner to include the last 999 episodes instead of merely 25.

For anyone else who needs to know this, append ?max-results=999 to the regular feed URL that blogspot gives you: in this instance, This then gets turned into the regular feed at where Feedburner makes the whole thing a little more podcast / iTunes friendly.

Sunday 6 May 2012

May 15th

Anyone looking forward to buying a new mouse? What about the overall productivity plunge over the ensuing months? Are you currently in the beta for the world's most popular roguelike?

Saturday 5 May 2012

The Esteemed and Learned Council

Of Roguelike Elders appear to have their reviews up of the 7DRL entries. And, if you prefer a tile based version of the same reviews.

[Edit to add: The UI for the reviews is about as bad as the average roguelike. Click on the average score to get reviewer comments.]