Archive for January, 2008

The New Phone Book Is Here!

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Penny Arcade Strikes Again!

Tycho says he bought it after 3 turns. That is all.

The Last Outpost Review

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Just an aside but I love that name. It definitely sounds like a place where Armageddon Empires belongs. It also reminds me of one of my favorite stories by Sci Fi Grand Master Jack Vance called The Last Castle. If you buy The Last Castle / The Dragon Masters book you can read the story that gave me some of the inspiration behind the Mutants faction. Just a friendly word of warning though, if you pick up a Jack Vance book, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.

Anyway, Full Auto is a nice chap who took some super mutagen and waded into the game. He penned a great review titled Empirical Gaming. Here is one of my favorite observations from the review:

“The scramble and constant battle for all of these things, combined with game mechanics that let you stack the odds in your favour yet always allow chance a say, make the game compelling.”

Strategic Dreaming – Connecting Dots

Monday, January 28th, 2008

I was reading an entry called “Game Ideas: Don’t Force Them #2” on Brenda Brathwaite’s game design blog and I was struck by a sudden connection of the dots type thought. She was describing how clues to solving design problems have materialized in the middle of the night while she was dreaming. She even has a little notebook to jot these down in so they aren’t lost in the void when she falls back asleep. Why we dream is a puzzle that has confronted scientists and researchers since before the dawn of sleep. 🙂 The dot connecting aspect happened when I suddenly remembered a Friday Links post Bill Harris made a couple of weeks ago on his Dubious Quality blog. The link was an article from Psychology Today that described a theory of dreaming that had some experimental results to back it up. It was based on work with rats and it didn’t convince me completely but I thought it was interesting. The gist was that dreaming is a defense mechanism by which brains ran simulations of threat situations so that they could respond correctly at the appropriate time.

Dreams as a simulation still works for what Brathwaite is describing. Basically she would be simulating solutions to her design problems and waking up when the best computation or an important computation had been achieved. Now I can’t say this happens to me. I have solved some problems in the shower for some odd reason. The dreams as simulation theory is amusing to think about. I just recently had a dream where this appeared.

Panther

In the dream I crawled around and climbed up on the back of the tank. There was a German style stick grenade lying there so I picked it up and pulled the bottom off to start the fuse.

This was my Boom Stick

I then opened the hatch and dropped it down into the tank. It sprang back up and about a foot above the hatch it just hovered there in slow motion. I woke up knowing that it was just about to explode. Simulation Failed.

Please don’t email me with any well meaning psychological musings. I’m also not working on a World War II game so don’t jump to any conclusions there. Just thought I would share this dot connecting moment.

Unproductive Workaholics

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

I’ve known some. I struggle enough that I could probably attend some meetings. I’m not talking about “Crunch Time” which is a real disgrace for any organization, manager or leader to use as a tool. In my book it’s admission that you didn’t follow the law of the five P’s. I’m not saying that going into over drive to finish an important goal isn’t something a team or organization should never have to do, but it should be the exception and not the rule that “Crunch Time” seems to be. But I digress.

Unproductive workaholics are the worst sort in my opinion. You know the type…Red bull guzzling and all-nighter pulling. Management by objective is a completely foreign concept. Well that’s not true exactly because the single objective is to spend the most time doing “work.” It’s also a very socially driven phenomenon. The unproductive workaholic is often a worker aspiring for promotion and the strategy he is pursuing is to impress the boss by demonstrating a solid commitment to killing time while pantomiming productivity. The worker often convinces himself that he is superior to his co-workers because of the power of his commitment to do less with more time. Of course often it’s also very openly cynical. I’ve experienced work situations where as soon as the boss was out the door the entire place emptied like a stopper had been pulled out of the bathtub.

The boss as unproductive workaholic is even worse. Sure the boss is probably somewhere on the chain looking to climb up a few links but often the strategy behind the boss’s behavior is “look how much time I spend doing nothing…you should be motivated to spend that much time too.” I’ve known some people who were so convinced that more time spent on a task meant at least a linear increase in productivity that to this day my blood pressure sky rockets when I think about it. The concept of diminishing marginal returns was but a fable. But I digress.

One of the biggest challenges of being an indie which I alluded to in my last entry was the home work environment in which many indies find themselves. It’s been a struggle for me. I think I have come to some type of productive rhythm that works reasonably well but it is far from perfect. I found this list via the Indie Gamer forums and it precipitated this rant, errr I mean blog entry. There are a bunch of good tips here.

Tips to be more effective at a Home Office

I’d also like to point out a tool that I use that has helped me greatly over the last couple of years. It’s an electronic journal/calendar by DavidRM Software called The Journal

Here is my other tool!

Red Bull For the Night

Perhaps I’ve Shared Too Much

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Kieron Gillen, one of the evil Rock, Paper, Shotgun masterminds interviewed me for a new series of interviews focused on indie game designers. It was actually quite fun doing the interview. I got to talk about myself which is always odd because although people are naturally proud of who they are and what they have done, laying out for public viewing some of who you are makes you feel a bit naked. I also got to think about the history of making Armageddon Empires which most of the time seemed like a long death march. I’d worked on developing fairly complex animation CD-ROM’s before so I knew that “the grind” was not just something that is particular to MMORPG’s. I also never really did “crunch” time. Since I work at home the situation was a lot different. Different as in equally problematic. When you work at home you can have a tough time punching the clock and leaving it all behind. The result can be a long drawn out drudgery-like feeling. At times putting AE together seemed like an impossible task. No single part was overly daunting but the weight of everything that had to be done at times pressed down so hard I almost felt like I was playing a real time strategy game 🙂

The response to Armageddon Empires so far from players and critics has exceeded my best expectations. I did think that I knew my market and that the basic design points would scratch an itch for a lot of players but as a green Master Jedi once said “Always clouded the future is.” The one thing I would share with other indies like me working on their first project is something that I have learned the hard way in life over the course of some major failures and dissapointments. Namely, that some things in life require that you really want them….really, really, really want them. Some things require that you are totally committed mentally. Don’t even attempt them unless you have taken a serious oath that you will stick with it until the bitter end. You don’t need a 9-step plan to becoming a winner. What you need is tenacity and the intellect to pick your battles. Of course that’s easier said than done.

Quick Update for Cults of the Wastelands: I’ve been putting in a few hours here and a few hours there. All three cults are up and running but I haven’t yet put all the plumbing in for the “Special Mechanics.” Each cult gets some special rules that govern how the cult behaves in the game. This means that I have to rework/create a lot of the code that handles any action performed by independent armies, heroes etc. In the past a seperate controller existed for any given independent army and the AI for indies was always performed by a generic AI response object that was not associated with a deck/faction. It never had to make any goals just respond to requests for basic decision information…. who should I target, what special abilities should I use in battle, etc. I really want the first run through for players to be surprising and shocking so I am not going to spoil the abilities. In fact, I’m going to only put out a few more of the remaining images for the cards because some of the remaining ones pretty much give the show away. Don’t fret though. The rise of the Cults of the Wastelands is at hand brothers and sisters.

Mutagenious! says PC Gamer UK

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Tim Stone took Kost’s Kommandos to Hell and back and liked what he saw in Armageddon Empires. The magazine is on sale in the UK and a demo of AE went out with it on the disc. 84%. What do you say? I’m seriously considering quiting here while I am ahead 🙂

Woooooot!

The Strategy of Audacity II

Monday, January 21st, 2008

So just to recap, Audacity is an important trait often displayed by successful decision makers, especially in the realm of military affairs. For this purpose I propose that Audacity be broken down into two key components. First is the intentional choice of assuming a large risk for an even larger reward. The acceptance of a possible catastrophic outcome need not be driven by desperation. Second is the circumventing of normal conventions and perceptions of propriety.

Large Risk yields Huge Reward: The mission of the Fellowship of the Ring into the heart of Mordor to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom provides a case study in Risk vs. Reward. The needle for this example is probably pegged to the max…the venture as conceived is catastrophic in outcome for either side. If the ring is captured by Sauron it’s game over for the Free Peoples. If the ring is destroyed Sauron is finished. It’s the equivalent for both sides of trailing in chips and saying “I’m all in” in no limit Texas hold’em poker. That’s the aspect of evaluating what is wagered vs. what is gained. The odds of success must also be taken into account. The narrative of the Lord of the Rings reminds us periodically that “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

Mordor or Bust!

The odds of success were regarded as low…very low…. fool’s errand low. Fool’s errand low has got to be less than 5%. As presented in the books, it’s probably considered less than 1%. But desperate times require desperate deeds (done dirt cheep). Desperation is often the mother of audacity but not always. In the board game War of the Ring by Fantasy Flight Games the designers had to rethink the fool’s errand percentage of success if they wanted to create a game that could be won by either side. The genious in design of War of the Ring is that the audacity of the plan is maintained but the game is fun because the risk vs. reward decision is translated to another dimension speed vs. discovery and corruption. The quicker the Fellowship moves the more powerful the “hunt pool” of dice is that Sauron can use to find them and then corrupt them. Corrupt Frodo and the world ends in Darkness. Proceed too slowly and the dark tide of Orcs is likely to sweep over Middle Earth.

What I like about the hunt pool and tile drawing from the bag mechanics in War of the Ring is that they directly manifest the Risk vs. Reward decision into the games mechanics. The bonus is that it is done in a way that is easy to intuit and understand the risks. Many games have Risk vs. Reward mechanics that operate only in the players’ heads. Do I risk declaring war on a player? Do I make guns or butter? I have to imagine what I might get out of it and what kind of odds of success I have. It’s a secondary set of calculations made in the player’s mind and abstracted from the game state. It’s much more like real life. I’m not arguing that instantiating the risk vs. reward decision directly and obviously into the game mechanics is better in all cases but I find it interesting and entertaining.

In my next game, code named Brimstone for now until I formally announce it, I have tried to take this “formalized in the mechanics” Risk vs. Reward approach. The diplomatic system in place channels and regulates behaviour amongst the players. In a secret section of your control screens you rank your opponents according to threat. The ranking is relative from most dangerous to least dangerous. This is private information that is kept secret but of course it can be obtained by other players with some strenuous effort….but that is another story. Anyway, actions against players are costed in many cases by their position in your threat ranking list. An offensive action against a number 1 threat is going to cost less than one against the least threatening. This indirectly affects your Risk vs. Reward calculations by shifting the costs and thus the relative rewards.

Another key aspect is that when you want to “go after” somebody you have to do so via Vendetta or Blood Feud declarations. In doing so you have to formally state what you will achieve and how long it will take you to do so. You also have to ante up a stake of the game’s prime resource which ultimately will often decide who wins the game. If you fail you lose the stake and your opponent might get it or a portion of it. If you win you might get a bonus. Players have the opportunity to be audacious by defining the wager and the scope of what is to be accomplished. The hope is that this crystalizes the Risk vs. Reward calculations for the players. It pulls them from the abstract recessess of the human brain into the concrete realm of the game’s mechanics.

Audacity is associated with some choice of actions atypical of what would be expected for some given rule set. In the next entry on Audacity and game design I’ll explore the implications of thinking unconventionally and how some game mechanics can facilitate that.

Billseye!

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Bill Trotter has penned an awesome 7 page review of Armageddon Empires over at the Wargamer that covers everything from Risk vs. Reward to the subtle implications of initiative. Getting a thumbs up from Mr. Trotter is something that really counts in my book. How do you top a concluding thought like this?

“I hereby add my voice to the growing chorus of reviewers who have already nominated Armageddon Empires for Strategy Game of the Year. Or maybe even Best Strategy Game of the Century!”

Finding Its Mark

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Armageddon Empires is not everybody’s cup of tea. It seems to either hit or miss the fun zone for any given player. When it does hit, it often results in sleeplessness, heightened electro neural activity and a sore left mouse button finger. I get emails occasionaly from people who really enjoy the game and even the smallest praise like “I found this horrible bug but great game BTW” is a real boost to my productivity. There were dark times when I would really wonder whether the game was going to crash and burn. Validation from players who enjoy the game, the mechanics, the narrative arc of each session and especially enjoy the mental stimulation, is worth its weight in gold to me. A big “Thanks” to everybody who has supported my efforts to make a small mark in the TBS arena. I’d like to share, with the author’s permission, a very nice email that recently came my way that encapsulates a lot of the comments that I have received about Armageddon Empires.

“just wanted to express my extreme gratitude for AE!

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t even heard about it until I was looking through my Jan. ’08 issue of GFW. Sounded very interesting and I DLed the demo. And soon I found myself totally engrossed and bitterly disappointed when I reached the 30 turn cap. I’ve since purchased & downloaded the full version and I just wanted to let you all know just what a fantastic game you have created. I’ve also gone back and read all the wonderful things Bill Harris, and others, had to say about your work.

I’ve been a PC gamer for 25+ years and frankly I had started to turn away a bit, leaning more and more on other forms of interactive entertainment. It doesn’t help that my aging FragBox can’t really handle the “A List” titles these days, but even if it could they’re just not appealing to me anymore. But AE is everything I love in PC game. The price of admission is quite low by current standards, the sys. reqs. are extremely “forgiving”, the artwork is very attractive without being overdone, and the game play is just outstanding. Not too hard to grasp, but obviously very hard to master. “Just one more turn” is written all over this game. I can see this little gem staying on my hard drive for a very long time.

OK, I’m ’bout done here. I put myself on the mailing list, and I cannot wait to see what you come up with next!”

L. Troutman

Lakes of Armor

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Part of me has always wished I had joined the Armor corps. When I built plastic models as a kid it was either German panzers or some type of WW II aircraft. When I got out of the Navy I even toyed around with joining the Army reserves and seeing if I could get hooked up with an armor unit in Kentucky. The problem is of course that you just don’t get a tank to play around with. You are a leader first and “tank lover” somewhere else way down the list. Anyway, I still have a strong fascination with these steel beasts. Here are two photos from Estonia at a location along what was the Narva front during WW II when the German lines were collapsing against the Soviet onslaught…..

“On 19 September 1944, German troops began an organized retreat along the Narva front. It is suspected that the tank was then purposefully driven into the lake, abandoning it when its captors left the area.

At that time, a local boy walking by the lake Kurtna Matasjarv noticed tank tracks leading into the lake, but not coming out anywhere For two months he saw air bubbles emerging from the lake. This gave him reason to believe that there must be an armored vehicle at the lake’s bottom A few years ago, he told the story to the leader of the local war history club ‘Otsing’. Together with other club members, Mr. Igor Shedunov initiated diving expeditions to the bottom of the lake about a year ago. At the depth of 7 metres they discovered the tank resting under a 3-metre layer of peat.”

Almost Out!  What is it?

All Out!  A Captured T-34!

And the treasure buried in the bog is a captured T-34 with German markings. Apparently it was also almost perfectly preserved. The email I got telling me about this claimed that the diesel engine started up after some basic cleaning. Now if only there was a tiger sitting down there as well.