So here’s a kind of overview of my No Quarter game “There Shall Be Lancing”, how it happened and the other games I scrapped on the way
No Quarter is an event organised by the NYU Game Center, each year they commission some developers to make games for the space, invite people along and frivolity is had. Charles Pratt got in touch with me last year asking if I’d be interested, and my answer was hell yes. I had free reign to make whatever game I wanted to, so I mostly just went with whatever was interesting to me at the time, I only actually started work on There Shall Be Lancing about a month and a half before the event.
So I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni lately, and for the most part it’s a lovely experience, until you get to the combat. The trouble is that it claims to have both skill-based gameplay, as well as grindy/time investment type gameplay.
To explain, in skill-based games players rely on their own ability or understanding to succeed. however in time-investment/grinding games, the only thing a player must do to succeed is invest time. so long as the player has more time to spare they can grind whatever variable is holding them back until the chances of victory approach 1.
Few games are *purely* about time-investment, though some come close. Even the most grind-heavy J-RPG tends to have systems where certain attacks are better in certain situations, party formations impact performance and so-on. But even with the perfect strategy and technique, Sephiroth is going to win every time if I fight him at the level I start the game at.
The entire point of grinding/levelling systems is so *anyone* can win, it’s a self-adjusting system for varying skill (in theory); players who struggle using skill alone can grind a little and have an easier time playing with their skills, or grind further and not have to worry about the skill challenge at all. (In this respect; grinding is like a difficulty setting in the options menu, except takes hours to adjust.)
If you look at the history of grinding in games, it sort of makes sense; it’s a way to represent a character becoming more experienced over the course of the game, and prevents them from overcoming certain obstacles until the character is suitably experienced. It’d be like if a hero in a movie stepped onto the dance floor for the first time, won the trophy right away and never had the training montage. (In this respect; grinding is like a training montage from a movie, except it takes hours to watch.)
The thing is, though characters may not have it early on in the game, many players do have the experience required to overcome the obstacles already. I spent many, many hours grinding in many, many games. I already know if you don’t equip the right accessory when you face an enemy with a bunch of status-effect inducing spells you’re gonna have a bad time. But little Oliver, he doesn’t know that. He still has to grind, he still has to collect that experience until he becomes anywhere as close to a master wizard as I am. This kinda sucks for me.
But here’s the thing; almost nobody is using time investment/grinding for the purposes of conveying ‘narrative of character improvement’, or even as a difficulty setting; it’s a safety net for designers.
You can make the game you think sounds cool, “it’s all about skill and tactics and stuff”. but you implement a levelling system so that when you screw up your design players can just grind a little, to improve the odds and get through that skill bottleneck that you didn’t have time to fix. This is precisely what it does in Ni No Kuni and so many other games. Narrative-wise, Oliver is a great wizard because it is his fate and <spoilers>it’s in his blood</spoilers>; the kid doesn’t *need* experience. Grinding serves no mechanical purpose, other than to allow players to up the victory odds because the skill-based part of the combat is massively flawed.
Whenever I see levelling up in a game these days, I consider it as an admission of failure. “I know *players* can’t improve as they play the game, so I added grinding” or “The game doesn’t take as long as I want it to take, so I added grinding”, perhaps “I couldn’t make a consistent skill-requirement throughout the game like I wanted, so I added grinding” or maybe even the worst “Every other game was doing it, so I added grinding”
There’s simply no good argument *for* levelling up mechanics in a video game.
- As a difficulty safety-net so anyone can finish the game; if anyone can finish, why force weaker players to waste more time to progress?
- As a narrative technique; Do it like the movies do montages; keep it short, address that it happened and then let the players get on without having to do repetitive nonsense.
- As padding to keep the game longer; fuck you and wanting to waste people’s time, don’t you know your players are all going to die someday? Why are you wasting their precious moments alive?
There is one thing I’ll say for grinding; it’s realistic. Everything I have gotten good at in life I grinded to get my own skills there. To be able to make games in a weekend without a second thought has taken thousands of hours screwing around with code, studying and experimenting. Same with drawing, 3D modelling, and even getting amazingly exceptionally good at pure skill-based games (hello SSX, guitar hero etc).
But I don’t get into games for realism (usually). Games don’t start at the ‘beginning’ usually after all. all the characters tend to at least have made it through puberty; there’s no playing Vaan as a baby, collecting experience every time he shits himself until he’s a high enough level to hold it in and use a toilet. We can just take it as read he has that experience and get on with playing the game. We players don’t need to experience it *all* with him, and the same is true for ‘gaining experience’. If we need to see the characters (as opposed to the player) get get more skilled, montage that shit! Games don’t have to be so… ‘narratively real-time’, give Thirty Flights of Loving a go to see what I mean. There are cuts in it much like you see in movies, there’s no reason Cloud couldn’t walk into a dojo someplace and walk out tougher seconds later in player-time. Or even have him walk away from any battle with the strength required to overcome the next one.
But this is besides the point really, it only helps solve the issue of wasting players time. My real point is if you’re going to have skill-based gameplay, don’t make it redundant through grinding, get rid of that safety net.
Let’s look at Dark Souls (I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to pull design tips from Dark Souls at this point but you’ll get over it). You can beat Dark Souls at level one. You don’t have to, but you can. You can grind to make it easier on yourself, but because grinding is entirely optional it means the skill-based play aspects are working just fine. The safety net is there if players want it, but they can totally play skill-only if they want.
Compare Ni No Kuni; You automatically level up as you play so level one runs are impossible, but that’s not the problem. The real problem is there is no way in hell you finish the game without grinding. If you just run through the story you will come against enemies that can’t be beaten until you are a higher level. The game has skill-based play during battles but it’s all irrelevant; at high levels you win whatever, at low levels you can’t win at all, and in-between you need to rely on luck because the core combat system itself is massively flawed.
If your skill-based gameplay doesn’t add anything to the game; take it out. Take it right out of there, you’re mocking the player by leaving it in. There is little more frustrating than being told “it is within your power to effect the outcome” when any possible action is going to result in failure.
So, some final summary to tie this up I guess;
- Using Level-up mechanics as a safety net is admitting your game is broken, grinding is a quick-fix that makes players suffer for it.
- Don’t be afraid separate the character and the player for a time, the player doesn’t need to be there as the character builds up their muscles/reflexes/whatever
- If you have a skill-based system, it only counts if the player can win using their skill alone, otherwise it’s a grinding system with crap tacked on to hide how ugly it is.
- A player’s time is valuable, don’t force them to do the same stuff over and over to progress. (if it’s fun to do repetitive bullshit, they will opt to do it themselves, heck knows how many times I’ve dropped down zombies with jetpacks)
just some stuff to think about
So then, anyone following me on twitter will have been witness to a few freak-outs of late. The truth is things aren’t that great. Lately it’s been kind of a perfect storm of screwy hormones, stress, mood swings and actually having good selection of reasons to be depressed all at once.
Ultimately a lot of “what’s the point” thinking has led me to some decisions. One is swift*stitch becoming free (see below) and;
Leaper★, and a commissioned game (that I can’t talk about yet) may be my last games as a full time indie.
I just can’t afford to keep going like this, I haven’t been able to afford the past three years really. Sales have paid for food but I’ve just racked up debt when it comes to everything else. It has gotten to the point where I try to spend time working on short projects as an attempt to make enough money to pay for the stuff I really care about making, but it doesn’t work and it’s making my games worse as a result.
I want to make my dream games. I enjoy all the jamming, the short projects and all the other interesting gamedev stuff that builds my skills and is just plain fun to do. I also enjoy knowing I can afford food, not crying myself to sleep and the thought of not owing friends ridiculous amounts of money sounds kind of neat. If I can’t work on the things I really want to work on, then all of this ‘full time indie’ stuff is just a waste of time. I’d be better off just getting a regular job and making stuff I care about in my spare time.
I have enough money left to eat for a month, maybe two. I’m going to work on Leaper and this commissioned game. These are things I want to do. I’m going to do them how I want and fuck the money. – this is my attitude normally, but there is always the hope that money will come. I’m sure it would if I stuck with it long enough, but I can’t afford that, so fuck the hope of getting paid.
Either Leaper will sell enough to cover all the money I owe or it won’t. I’m not going to hold my breath either way because I *do not* need the stress. If it sells enough I’ll stick to this indie thing, if it doesn’t I won’t. I’ll at least have made a game that I care about as more than a ‘project’.
(If anyone is wondering, the commissioned game has already had the payment decided and most of that is going on software to make it, it’s not going to anywhere-near save me from my money troubles but it is also a game I want to make).
So that’s where I’m at right now, I also have the following updates:
Swift*Stitch has done more than well really, having been in a couple of bundles and having had the nice ‘pay-when-you-want’ sale in January 2012. however… outside of sales, nobody is buying it. and even with the sales the game has not paid off any of the debt I hoped it would, and it’s not really covering the costs of living while I develop other games. It has paid for food and bills, some software and even got me the opportunity to work with the awesome guys at nicalis for the iOS version.
My relationship with the game is thus; the game has paid for itself (more or less), I think it is kind of neat. But I also hate it because it’s not the kind of game I want to spend my time working on, especially if it can’t pay for me to work on the games I really do care about. It is a fun little arcade thing, with a couple of interesting design and mechanic things happening. I don’t think the world is significantly better for me having made it.
That hate has only getting worse, I’ve been wanting and wanting it to sell, but nobody has been buying it. I can’t be relying on something I hate to feed me, and pay rent and bills. So now you can download it or play it in the browser for free.
Now that I’m not expecting anything from the game, I don’t hate it anywhere near as much. I still kind of wish I’d spent my time working on something else, but I am proud of what I did accomplish and hope some more people can enjoy it now.
The iOS version is still a paid-upgrade for $1.99 (you get the first few levels free) and I expect that will stay for quite a while because despite my feelings towards the game, the guys at nicalis put in a lot of work for that version and they deserve to get some money for it. if you like the PC version please do consider buying it for iOS too so you can carry it with you
Android is still a possibility, and if it happens it will likely be with nicalis again, because frankly, they are pretty cool guys
I recently spent a couple of days fixing up Rose&Time’s graphics, I also fixed a bug and released a Linux version too. you can check it out here.
I considered making Rose&Time free also, however I don’t hate the game so much. whilst I was hoping for cash when I was making it, the game is all about a bunch of themes I care about (emotionally and mechanically) and I still think it’s worth the money. In fact lately I’ve been loving the game more and more, I think I made something a little special just by accident on this one ^__^;
So if I do quit making games full time, what happens to Lottie’s Dungeon? honestly I don’t know. This is one of the games I really want to finish and most everything I’ve done since taking a break from it has been in the hopes it would pay for Lottie. maybe I’ll work on it after Leaper, maybe I wont. I want to but don’t need the stress of worrying about something I care about so much. I have to put it out of my mind for the time being, I’m sorry.
The odds are that very, very few of us are going to deliver our games through steam. That doesn’t mean we can’t be super slick when distributing our games, but it’s something we consistently fuck up. So here’s how I propose we operate when distributing games to best serve the awesome people who take a chance on us and buy them.
First of all, none of this shit:
Expiring links are the BANE of digital distribution. What if I want to download later? What if I want to get the updated version of the game? What if I want to gift the game to someone, but their birthday happens after the link expires?
If you are having BMTMicro/FastSpring deliver your files, those links will expire (BMT also has a habit of becoming blocked if the person doesn’t download the files when they get their link). I don’t know about other services so much, but it seems to be a standard.
Expiring links are only worthwhile to businesses who want to treat their customers like shit, that isn’t us. so here’s what you do;
Have a download page on your own site with all the download links:
Just one address for everyone is fine, but if you really want some key-based download pages feel free to work that out so long as those keys don’t expire. Put your updates here and people can always return for the latest version of a game.
If you are using BMTMicro/FastSpring, you probably have to upload a file to their servers (that will expire). But you can also specify what goes into the email customers are sent, so GIVE THEM A LINK TO GET THE GAME FROM YOUR SITE.
Providing a link that never expires is kind of what makes steam such a reliable service. For all the issues I have with steam, they deliver a fucking excellent process for buying games and getting them.
In my browser, I have a folder of bookmarks with game downloads. I can just click it and see a list of games I’ve bought. I get a sense of pride every time I open it, these are things I own, these are things I supported. Give your customers a chance at this pride, it’s the same enjoyment folks get from adding games to their steam library.
Right now my folder of games is pretty small. Not enough developers are providing bookmarkable downloads. If we want to exist outside of steam we need to get rid of this expiring link bullshit, and make it easier for customers to browse and get games they have bought from us.
LET’S DO THIS! \:D/
The Musée de Louvre is a place in Paris. Every year over 8 million people visit the place, often to view art. Now, that’s not as many people as are currently subscribing to World of Warcraft or anything, but it’s still a lot. And people are beginning to wonder if art is beginning to have a similar cultural importance that games enjoy.
So, do pictures like Whistler’s Mother or that one with the dreary-farmer-couple have a place alongside classics like Final Fantasy 7 or thatgamecompany’s latest masterpiece ‘Journey’?
To tell the truth, I’m not very well versed in art, having spent most of my life dedicated to more serious pursuits such as skateboarding, playing computer games and hanging out on twitter. I had always assumed that ‘art’ was something for a different generation. So to get a better understanding I ordered an art from the internet, to give it a go.
What I got was a framed ‘print‘ of a painting (what that means is that it’s not actually the source painting, but a copy of it. Much like how the games you play rarely contain their source code). I’m told that there are many types of art, but this is by far the most popular.
“I had always assumed that ‘art’ was something for a different generation. So to get a better understanding I ordered an art from the internet, to give it a go.”
Unfortunately I had trouble soon after I unpacked the thing. The default display was kind of nice, a picture of a pretty landscape with children playing under a tree… but that was all there was to it! The screen was entirely frozen, unresponsive to touches and I couldn’t find any switches to turn the thing on. I thought perhaps the battery had run out but couldn’t find any cables to charge it with.
Clearly not a good start, I had wanted to get a good idea of art on my own, but ultimately I had to give in and call over my friend Emily for help.
Now reader, if you want to see your friend at their most frustrated, all you have to do is ask them to help you use art. “You just have to hang it on the wall, that’s all!” Emily tried to explain, but this was totally outside my range of experience. “But how do I interact with it?” I asked, “You don’t interact, you just look at it!”
Now I do like my friend Emily, but how was I supposed to know that? What came naturally to Emily was a chore for me, the art didn’t even come with any instructions or tutorial. It seems art is easy for people like Emily who grew up with it, but I fear regular folk like you and me will forever be out of touch.
Having situated the art on a wall in the living room, I asked Emily if there was a special way to look at it to make the art work. “No, you just look at it.” she explained, clearly as frustrated with the experience as I, “Like a TV?” I asked. The look on Emily’s face then became that look you get when you’re at risk of losing a friend, so I quickly said “Oh never-mind, I think I’ve got it figured out.” and stared at the lifeless picture, pretending it gave me a similar sense of emotion I got from actually exploring the beautiful landscapes that developers craft for their games.
After Emily left I checked on the internet and it turns out she was right, you really do just look at it, that’s all!
“pretending it gave me a similar sense of emotion I got from actually exploring the beautiful landscapes that developers craft for their games”
Where was the engagement-building interaction of games? Where was the sense of teamwork and community you get from multiplayer games? Where was the emotional investment you can only get from stories and characters that actually involve you, a real person?
I had no sense of accomplishment from looking at the art (hanging the thing on the wall didn’t even unlock an achievement!), and ultimately I didn’t feel like I had improved as a person. I mean, I see pretty pictures all the time so why would one more affect me the same way an engrossing game does?
I think if we inspect art, it certainly has its uses. I won’t deny that my wall looks more interesting now that I put an art on it… but does art compare to games? No.
Perhaps I’ll reconsider if some art comes along that could make me cry (like the part of Final Fantasy X-2 on the thunder plains where Yuna sung with a ghost murdered 1000 years ago, or Kingdom Hearts II when Roxas has to face his end and becomes forgotten by everyone he held dear). Ultimately though, I don’t think art could ever have the emotional impact that games do.
-This article thanks pretty much entirely to this.