Sigh. After being ill this weekend I’ve decided to abort the October Challenge – rather than rush out a substandard game, I’ll take my time and finish it to a quality I’m happy with. This is definitely the right decision – while tweaking the anims in Blender I realised I need to re-rig the main character so stop his IK knees skewing sideways. If I’m not extremely careful, this may mean re-animating the handful of anims I’d already done. With a week to go, I didn’t need to be redoing work. But in the long term, it’ll mean better and more animations. I’ll have some free time over christmas, so new year would be an excellent alternative target deadline!
However, in the short term – Ludum Dare have come up with ANOTHER game dev challenge that I can’t resist: The ZERO Hours Challenge!
It takes place during the hour when the clocks go back. This appeals enormously to the Faction Paradox fan in me.
Seriously though, the extreme time limit will force participants to focus on a simple design that works – the challenge is more about spending the intervening week imagining a game simple enough to implement in one hour, but still fun. It’s interesting that with modern game dev tools, classics like Pong, Breakout, Joust, or PacMan could all be cloned easily in that time. But coming up with something so simple and original is going to be much harder than actually implementing it…
A short piece entitled “Narrative as Gameplay” by Jonas Kyratzes made me think today. His key (and rather eloquent) point is this:
“In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.”
I like this thought in principle, but I think it’s missing a caveat: the revealed content must be appropriate to the player’s current context.
For example, if I were to to nit-pick The Book of Living Magic, I’d complain that the setting is SO surreal that the wealth of little asides do not really increase the player’s understanding. Many of them are charming little storylets in their own right, but it’s very hard to build a coherent picture of a world where the distinction between animals, people and other bizarre entities are so blurred. It must be acknowledged that this is the whole point of the Land of Dream, but it highlights my point.
In contrast, the superb The Infinite Ocean presents a very tightly focused narrative, each scrap of content referencing the already-established facts or themes. It’s only when you can hook the new information onto some existing part of your world model that it feels rewarding. Without that framework, each new piece of content has no obvious relation to the whole.
That, I think, is why some people don’t grok the Book of Living Magic – the content is more like a bag of marbles than a LEGO set. I happen to love world-building and was happy to comb through the descriptions looking for the links and occasional Lovecraft nods, but I can see how more casual players might find the Mountains of Oddness somewhat impenetrable.
In case you missed the buzz – Minecraft is an online game developed by lone coder Markus Persson (www.twitter.com/notch) that has sold half a million copies, enabling Markus to set up his own company. It’s the Blair Witch Project of gaming.
I finally succumbed and bought it last week. Money well spent. The game is a design masterpiece, fusing user-created content, grinding, exploration and atmosphere.
The deliberately crude block-based art style creates an impressionistic gameworld that’s as evocative as you care to make it. One player might laugh at the square cows and write rude words in a cliffside, another might immerse themselves in the fiction, roleplaying the lone survivor. And the world generation algorithm is superb, creating fascinating ‘natural’ formations and labyrinthine caves to explore. Where most gameworlds are like movie sets, where only the surfaces you can see exist, Minecraft has a truly 3D world.
But all this is just the foundation for the crafting mechanics. Remarkably, the game is playable without doing any crafting at all – a mud hut is sufficient to survive the night. But who wants to stop at a mud hut when they could build a castle, or a whole city? More varied building materials are locked away behind a series of challenges. First, make some tools so you can dig faster. Then you’ll need to refine the raw materials you mine or harvest from animals. You’ll need coal to make torches so you can work at night, and weapons and armour so you can survive being ambushed as you dig deeper. The risk/reward cycle is well-balanced and extremely satisfying because it’s driven entirely by your own desire to smelt sand into glass windows for your castle. I haven’t even touched on growing your own plants yet. The crafting rules and threat from monsters model a survivalist adventure with surprising verisimilitude.
I’m thoroughly enjoying delving deep into this cubist ecosystem. Perhaps it’s due to the retro cubic look, perhaps it’s the underground exploration, but the game it most reminds me of is Ultima Underworld. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is high praise indeed.
Oh, and then there’s multiplayer. I may have to wax lyrical on that mode too, when I’ve tried it…