Archive for January, 2010

Dangerlands Q&A part2

This is the second part to yesterday Q&A. Again, don’t hesitate to leave your comments or questions for the developpers of Dangerlands.

-Moving on to game play, what would be the main game play features that you are the most proud of and that you think will make Dangerlands truly stand out?
Player created content! Letting the player create and run their own zone(s). I think this will really help put DangerLands on the map in the social gaming sphere, as players will be able to let others play in their lands and under their rules. We will put certain rules in to let the player earn experience or currency or *something* when others come and play in their areas.

I also think that if we can nail it, we will carve out a place in gaming history for our game world and feel.  It’s an extremely difficult thing, like its own living creature.  We are still trying to figure out what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like, but the main groundwork has been laid. The style so far has given rise to some pretty unique and memorable phrasing which is just plain fun.

Certain other features haven’t been mentioned yet, but they involve the discovery and usage of new technology in the world as the story progresses.  This could be new skill trees, inventions, or source functions (aka magic).

-Can you give us a quick rundown of the classic elements of a MMOrpg like classes and player advancement within the game?

You get primary and secondary stats, and then a bunch of skills you can purchase with Skill Points. As you progress you can purchase more skills. Certain types of skills are usable even if you haven’t bought them, as all skills rely on base formulas to derive their values.  It is possible to pump up your stats with magic (we call that ‘source’) a skill more than simply usable. As you journey, combat, play, use skills, etc, you earn exp. Player levels are determined by an accumulation of exp, and you can also spend that exp as you go to raise skills and stats.

There aren’t classes persay, but there are optional stat/skill templates we’ve created to help people pick the right mixture to achieve a specific class-like player. We are also looking to create a very fun crafting experience as well.

-How long do you think the average gaming session would last and what would a character be able to accomplish during that time?
Our long term goal is that a player should be able to get ingame within seconds, and play for as little as 5 minutes, or for many hours without ceasing.  They should be able to craft, research lore (lots of puzzles and mysteries to decode), do some PvP, maintain their lands, or explore.  We will make sure it is easy to find adventure and easy to find Danger quickly!

-How will the game play elements like chat, targeting, fighting and managing inventory will be handled on the   iPhone who has limited display space to work with?
We will make judicial use of rollout menus. We’re building the game with two interface structures: one for the mobile device and one for the large display.  Chat is something that is particularly difficult, it’s hard to keep text tiny but readable. Our feeling is that there probably won’t be the same urge to chat AND play like you have in a large display, so chat when active will probably be larger.

Inventory will be a full screen affair for the mobile device, and allow putting items into hot slots, which can then be accesses in game via rollout menu.

-Since MMOs are social games, what tools/features/elements do you have to support the more social activies like guilds, groups, events, etc… ?
Similar to that in Asheron’s Call, we have the notion of an ingame clan with sponsors which will allow people to become part of a clan by being sponsored by someone already in the guild.  We will support clan gear and allow certain privacy features for clan members. For example, a house or village you own might be usable only by your clan.  We will be exposing many of the game information on our website for a metagame experience which lets people see who is in what clan and what the hierarchies are.

We plan to have lots of GM run events. I am building tools as I go along to help give the ability for a super player (GM) to create objects and events in the world at will.  The story-arc driven events will revolve around a 4-6 week cycle and will help drive community content as well.

Grouping is planned but not yet supported. These mechanics are intricate and of the ‘can’t please everybody’ variety.

-Talking about groups, will Dangerland will be more of a solo or group game and if you go with groups how will they work? Will they use the classic holy trinity of tank/healer/damage?

The terms may be purely functional but there is something rather unromantic about yelling “Tank LFG”.  A good skill-based game will let a single player fill multiple roles in a group and this is a good thing.  It also allows for some pretty varied group constructions.  I’d be surprised if we see people forming groups in a classic manner, unless it is sheerly out of habit from other games.  I am also poised to eat my own words.

-Will Dangerlands have a finite endgame with the classic elements like raids and pvp or will you use
some other kind of model?

Tough question. Progression and achievement are important, especially in a social game. PvP will be a part of the game from day one, and with player-run content and formulaic skill/level progression, it’s going to *not* be the major focus to grind out levels and hit the endgame.  We do plan on having a message box pop up which simply says ‘You Won’ if a player does happen to max out in all skills and attributes.

The endgame will very likely involve creating player content which changes the game world in a major way, and becoming part of game world lore.

-I saw on your site the demo of a dungeon. Will your dungeons be the classic MMO experience of  acquiring loot and fighting bosses or will you take a more puzzle approach often associated with portable games?
As a long-time Dungeon Master playing D&D, I’ve got more than a few puzzles and traps planned. These are pretty tough to implement! Some will resemble the dungeons found in D&D Online, and some will resemble some simple hack and slash delves with multiple bosses. Our world building team is brilliant and innovative. It will be up to me to implement what they want to accomplish.

There will be many dungeons, and quite possibly an additional generated dungeon experience for casual gameplay.

-Will you need a group to complete the dungeon and how long would a dungeon takes to complete?
Some will need a group.  In terms of time, some will take 20 minutes, and some will not be completable. OK, I am planning at least one dungeon which is ridiculously large and will be like a game of Diablo which takes weeks to complete.

-Finally is there any other thing you want to tell the readers here about Dangerlands?
While we do have a strong vision for DangerLands, we are not in an ivory tower. We are a small group of guys just like you who love games and who want to have an incredible gaming experience in our little free time. We want to be able to sit around and have stories of our gaming experiences and laugh and be frustrated and triumphant. We’re not Blizzard and we won’t give you a multimillion dollar AAA title, it’s an Indie title and our budget is measured in blood and passion.

This means that we are quite willing to change course and add features that people want, will listen and respond to feedback and criticism, and are accessible.  We’re working hard on this title and are bold enough to put our work out now for people to see.. bugs and all.  Thanks for keeping a grain of salt handy, and thanks always for your support!

That’s it for now. I’ll be posting a follow up in the following weeks with my views on this Q&A and the game itself.

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Dangerlands Q&A, part1

About a month ago the fine people who are working on Dangerlands offered me the possibility to ask them a few questions about their incoming MMO for portable platforms. You can check out the first post here where I talked about my first impressions. Last week they sent me their answers to a series of questions I asked. Before going further I’d like to point out I’m no professional journalist or game critic so if my questions seems odd, non-relevant, weird, etc… I’m sorry. If you have comments/questions for the people of Dangerlands don’t hesitate to leave them here as they will be checking for your comments! Since there’s a lot of a ground to cover and I don’t want to crit everyone with a huge wall of text I will post part 2 tomorrow.

Now here’s the unedited Q&A.

-First of all, could you present yourselves quickly so we get to know who’s behind Dangerlands?
We are a motley crew of idiots. There’s Todd Edwards (Winin), who is a mad scientist/author/roboticist. Professionally a molecular bioengineer and by night a novelist, avid gamer, and game developer. Todd is in charge of keeping our Lore together, creating the world, and infusing everything with a certain degree of danger.

Then we have Tom Burns, who does lots of things Down Under and pops in now and again to BLOW OUR MINDS with some world lore clearly written by an alien mind. He is extremely interested in linguistics and cultural anthropology and is bringing the ancient history of DangerLands to life in ways we never even hoped for.  Thanks to Tom, one of the ancient races has its own language, font, and pronunciation guide.

Next are the Dunlap brothers, James and John.  John is behind the scenes working the tech of our website and hidden development website (muahahaha) and supporting James, who is helping out getting our website together and making our information cohesive.  James will probably also be doing a lot of our PR and marketing, social presence, and pitches in a lot on game mechanics, game design, and world lore.

I am Dave Young, the originator of DangerLands and the primary coder on the project. I handle everything from the back-end to the database to the client, etc. I also try to keep the project moving forward and loosely hold the vision reins of the project.

-Can you do a quick presentation of Dangerlands and what it is about?
In terms of setting, I once described it as: “If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to take your Castle Legos, read the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, have Dr Seuss write a story about it and build a setting for it, and then have a nightmare about it all and  make that into an MMO… that’s what DangerLands is.”

DangerLands is all about filling the void that is casual MMO gaming in a fantasy environment. In terms of gameplay, we want to offer most of the play experience you’d find in a large commercial MMO, with the addition of features tailored for casual and social gameplay.

-Who is your target audience and what kind of game play experience do you aim to offer them ?
We are targetting a wider demographic than, say, World of warcraft is. We want to appeal to people who like to have fun in games and explore without needing to know all the game mechanics.. but be able to apply and thrive in the game mechanics if they want to.  This means the addition of a younger entry gamer, and it means that we will be offering some different features to make the game friendly and accessible to them as well.

-The first thing that perked my interest for Dangerlands was that it would be playable on a iPhone.What gave you the idea and will the iPhone be the main platform for Dangerlands?
I (Dave) have been developing on the iPhone for a little over a year and am amazed at its capabilities, and recognize that those capabilities will improve. The 3GS and newer can easily handle a game like DangerLands already.  The networking infrastructure is there for an MMO now, and I’ve been using a cross platform engine that makes developing for the iPhone a very attractive proposition.  There’s something wonderful about seeing your game on the device.  As the tech improves, we will be poised and ready with an offering. We have plans to expand onto devices that can handle the Android OS in a 3D engine, as our game engine (Shiva by Stonetrip.com) matures.

Like a lot of Indie game developers, I have been interested in making games that I want to play. This driving force is what got me interested in programming, some 30 years ago.  Now as a family man with 3 kids and two jobs, I don’t get a lot of time to sit down and play games these days, too busy coding!  Yet there are certain times that I get an impromptu hour, and in that hour I’d like to sit down and launch into an online persistent world from anyplace that has 3G or Wifi, and contribute to my gaming fetish.

This combines with the play experience of the other platforms (web via Facebook, and most likely a dedicated Mac/PC/Linux build as well) so that you can access the online world from wherever and whenever you want to, log in to your character, and escape for a bit.

 -What’s your plan for financing Dangerlands in the long term? Since development, website and servers all cost money do you plan to finance yourself with publicity, retail cost, subscription, micro transaction or some other form of revenue? If going with micro transactions, how will it affect the game ?
We’ve been moving along at a spare time pace, with great burst periods of activity and productivity.  If we were to take in financing obviously it would help get us out the door sooner and do things like hire an artist or two!  In general the game will be free-to-play. Our plan is to finance development with iPhone client sales and ingame content purchasing.  Players will be able to purchase a type of premium currency which can be used ingame to open up new features, or character enhancements.  These will primarily be of two types: visual changes which do not affect gameplay, and many different content pieces you can use to build your own area for yourself or others to adventure in.

We may decide to offer a subscription for users where they get a certain amount of premium currency every month, if demand is there.  Servers do cost money, but we’ve developed a very interesting piece of tech which turns the game client into a temporary server to host players and monsters in. This extends to the iPhone, etc.  This fabulous innovation will help us lower our server costs and spread out the server load in ways traditional MMOs can’t.

-To finish with the more general questions, is there a planned release date for Dangerlands? How and when do you see the game moving from Beta to release ?
We don’t currently have a planned release date. We think that (in general), when players can get items and run around and combat each other in a stable manner, the game can move into a type of release stage where the core experience is ‘feature complete’ and suitable for very casual play.  If all goes well we should see this happen in the Q1 2010.  Moving forward we will try to maintain steady growth and avoid burnout.

We are currently exposing the game via LIVEDev, a term we coined which means that people can come and see the state of the game at any time, bugs and all. It’s going to stay like that for quite some time, then migrate into a dev server/live server scenario when we become ‘feature complete.’

-Moving to more technical questions. Could you give us a few examples of the challenges you had developing Dangerlands and how you overcame them ?
Some of the ongoing challenges are creating a maintainable network infrastructure for an MMO which works for powerful machines and iPhones alike.  This combined with a player controller (how a player moves around in the world in response to input from the user) is a tremendous challenge and we’re constantly working on it and tweaking it. Initially I had decided to use ‘click to move’ style gameplay as I correctly calculated that it would use less network bandwidth, but the downsides to that were loss of control and freedom of movement. some of the other challenges involve large things like how to interact with a database/backend in a way which is stable, reliable, and doesn’t hang up the game.  Luckily I have a lot of experience with that kind of tech so it wasn’t too bad, but it is a monster in and of itself.

-Since memory and space is very limited on the iPhone, how will you handle a game that could have dozens of regions and dungeons plus an extensive list of items and monsters?
Areas will be zoned as opposed to enormous and open, and we are keeping resources like texture dimensions, sounds, etc small in size. We will branch into a low-quality/high-quality motif with performance/quality settings which toggle features which don’t make sense on the slower devices. This is going to be hard to explain to a PC user why certain things need to be lower in quality so that they can coexist on a handheld device, but we will do our best 🙂 Developing the game is a web-game also helps to enforce content size limits, simply to avoid a large download size.  Data like item lists and monsters is not large, but is text-based, so quite a bit of modularity can be achieved with careful design.  We’ve been thinking like this for awhile now.

-Will Dangerlands use a “shard” structure with multiple servers like WoW, a single world like EvE or some other system like the instancing in Champions online?
I mentioned a little bit about that above, where any device can become an on-demand game server. For certain central areas there may always need to be dedicated servers however, and it makes sense to create multiple servers to represent different worlds.  These help players to create and brand their own communities and world play styles can vary wildly from server to server.

-I know you guys are working hard on making the game run smooth and that it is one of your main priorities. With the iPhone/browser having to manage both game and online connections what steps and/or tools do you use to keep the game running smoothly?
The iPhone has a really fast two-way communication pipe actually, and is surprisingly good at handling the game data. The only limiter so far there is in showing polygons on the screen, and in handling physics.  So we need to be constantly aware of those FPS-killers.  We are using an Advanced version of the Shiva game engine which offers very fine Performance Analytics so we can finetune and optimize what we need to.  Sometimes this crawls all the way down into world design, and indeed it took a couple months for us to nail down a good working terrain structure that was a good balance between ‘looks good’ and ‘performs well’.

 That’s it for today! tomorrow, gameplay!!

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Commit to quality

Since I got my answers from the fine people working on Dangerlands(posting them tomorrow) I feel  like talking about design once more. Earlier this week I found this gem on Brian “Psychochild” Green blog where he talks about innovation vs polish. It’s an excellent post made by someone who worked in the MMO industry and even had his own company so he knows what he’s talking about. It’s a bit of a wall of text but this post is a follow-up on his.

Can’t have the best of both world

Reading Brian post you get the impression that he’s saying that with the limited budget of gaming companies and time limits on projects you have to make a choice between innovation and polish. That innovating is time and money consuming not to mention that it can be a huge risk. Since time and money are finite resources taking an extra risk with innovation can lead to situations where you end up having neither polish or innovation.

And he’s mostly right too, unless you have infinite time and money you have to make some hard choices along the way on what to include in your game and these choices will ultimately decide on whether you made a good game or not. No game designer wakes up in the morning thinking he’s going to make a bad game on purpose.

Consulting… and video games

I’ve already talked before my job as a programmer for a consulting firm. Basically my job consists of making custom software for different clients according to their needs. And my having a job  is directly related to whether or not the client is happy when we’re finished doing the program. And since polish is the first thing that they see we always do a lot of polish work since if we don’t next time a contract is up we won’t be getting it.

But we also need to do innovation. Every client has different needs and often when they order custom-made software it’s because no product offers what they need. So even if I can base part of my work on already existing stuff out there a good part of it will be new and often we will have to be innovative with the technology or even make new one to fit our need.

Basicaly, we need to have the best of both world if we want to stay alive because our competitors will make sure that if we don’t we’re not getting any more contracts.

Quality, the blanket word

Quality is such a blanket word. It’s used for everything and often in the wrong contexts. In my work context it means doing what the client needs both in terms or innovation and polish. In short it’s when you hit that sweet spot between the two.

And I feel this is what seems to be missing from a lot of the newer MMOs. It seems like they run into the polish vs innovation problem and then choose one between the two. And it rubs me the wrong way to be honest. A lot of different industries demand quality in their products but it seems that we, gamers of the world, are ready to accept titles that are lacking, especially when it comes to MMO. Why is it that we pay 50$ + 15$ a month for products that are riddles with bugs and obviously lacking in content, graphics, gameplay elements or anything else that makes a game.

Saying no to mediocrity

Now I hear arguments saying that doing a MMO is hard work and there’s a lot of variables involved and this or that reason that are all probably true. It’s unrealistic to expect that a newly released MMO won’t have some servers issues, a few glitches or some other kind of problem you meet in any new software. I’m not talking about that.

What pisses me off is when I see a game with half-finished content or bugs so obvious and so big that a minimal amount of testing would have found them out. For example the Crysystem bug in Aion was a documented bug of the crysis engine with a documented solution and to find it you only needed to run the game with a 64bit OS like windows Vista. Now I can’t believe that no one over at NCsoft ever tought of testing the game on Vista. I mean this was in 2009!! Vista been out for a long time and they should have tought that maybe a good portion of their users would be using it. Worst! the bug was known since 2005… again, no one tought of checking if the graphic engine they used had known bugs (that one is at the top of the list). And before someone tells me they bought the game off an Asian company it still doesn’t excuse them since they did the porting work wich includes such tests. This is basic polish and NCsoft didn’t do it. If you don’t have innovation get polish right at least.

It’s time we start demanding quality work and it has already begun with STO. People are not jumping right on the bandwagon this time and unless Cryptic rectify things quickly it may not even get a  decent launch.

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One wing down, three to go

It took more time than I tought it would and it took quite a few detours but it’s done! I’ve cleared the first wing of Icecrown citadel with my new old guild(more on that later),  successfully tanked Marrowgar and even got a nice tanking ring when the other tank took pity on me and my horrible rolling.

So here’s  my impressions of the first wing and its bosses.

First of all I want to say I’m pretty impressed with ICC so far. Great graphics, good music, tons of lore and creative trash makes the place feel like a true raid unlike a certain Tournament.  So far it’s on par with all the other great raids I remember.  Please note that the following impressions are based on the 10 man version of the bosses.

Bosses of the first wing

-Lord Marrowgar
Seriously I think this is my favorite boss of the first wing.  It’s not especially difficult but there’s so much happening at the same time that this makes it an encounter where you really have to pay attention to everything that’s going on. Spikes, whirlwinds and fire means you have to constantly move around. Makes for a pretty intense fight.

-Lady Deathwhisper
Now I’ve been told that this fight is a lot more exciting in its 25man version. But as far as the 10 man is concerned I was a bit disappointed. The fight basically boils down to being able to take down adds fast enough.  Sure certain adds have a few special abilities that you need to deal with but if you raider can follow simple targeting instructions the fight is rather easy.

-The gunship battle
First I want to tackle two specific points here. First this fight will play a lot differently depending on what role you are assigned. Being on the boarding team, cannons or defending team makes for very different experiences of this fight. Second, the set-up of the fight where you have two flying ships facing off one another while circling the tower with people jumping from ship to ship makes for one of the coolest scene  in the game. It may not be one of the most technical fight but it’s definitely one of the coolest ones.

-Deathbringer Saurfang
This is one of those fights where if you know the fight and can execute it well it becomes incredibly easy. If you make one mistake then the whole thing can do down fast. For example, one of our tanks had trouble with taunting at the right time on the first try. Second try we explained more carefully and we got the boss down with relatively little trouble.  All in all nothing special about this boss but I can appreciate a fight that’s designed to test you raid execution skills.

To conclude I’m pretty happy with the first wing.  I realise the point of the wing is to test your raid. Marrowgar tests you tanks and healers, Deathwhispers your dps, the gunship battle your ability to react to multiple random events and Saurfang your execution skills.

We took a peek inside the new blood wing but didn’t do much more than try trash. Thursday is the follow-up to the raid so with a little luck I’ll be able to tank all the way into either the plague or blood wing.

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Year of imitation

This is Wolfenstein 3D, although not the first FPS it’s often regarded as the first game to  really launch the genre. Not unlike a certain Everquest who really launched the MMO genre ( I know about the earlier ones but EQ was the one who defined MMOs as we know them today). Forward a few years after Wolfenstein and we get DOOM, the FPS who revolutionized the whole gaming industry and even made its way in everyday culture. Movies mentioned it, people called sick at work to play it and to this day it’s still a must-play classic that still gets downloaded on a regular basis on services like Xbox live Arcade. To which game do we associate DOOM? Our good old World of Warcraft of course. These two games have changed the gaming industry and turned a little known genre into world-wide phenomenons. Sadly, in the years following DOOM we were treated to tons of crappy imitations and horrible games (Daikatana anyone?).

So why the history lesson? Because history repeats itself and the more of I look at 2010 lineup of games and the more I get depressed. All I see is failure and imitations, companies eager to make an easy buck by copying others successes. I hear and see more talk about subscription models and pricing plan than I do about the actual games. It’s clear, just like after DOOM, every single company wants a piece of the action and wants to get their hands on our money. The great part about an MMO is that we as consumers, have agreed that paying extra cash monthly is ok. For a game company this is a wet dream, not only can they sell us the box but they can also keep milking us for more cash as long as we are dumb  enough to keep paying. There’s MMO out there releasing with less content than single players games  and they try to pass it as a MMO.

Easy example? Champions onlines. The game had six zones at release that were reused and reskinned at different parts of the games. The quests were the exact same from one place to the other(the text changed… woohoo), the enemies were the same all along, if I remember correctly there was about 2 groups of enemies per zones for a total of about 12 main groups and a few other creatures types. Call of Duty, a FPS, had more content… the only difference between the two is that CO would make you repeat  the same encounters for longer than a FPS.

What did Cryptic do here? They made a short game with as little content as possible and the most  reutilisation they could pull off and marketed it as an MMO. Sell boxes, a few months of subscription and they made money. They don’t really care about the game life in the long-term. From the company perspective it’s a success since they made money with it and if it’s a hit? well more money for them.

So I look at the new games coming and I see the pattern again. Star Trek online? Nothing new under the sun and the early reports are not exactly talking about the loads of fun to be had. Allods? WoW clone. Even so much so in fact that you can’t tell the difference on some of the screenshots. Again, early beta feedbacks seems to indicate the game is missing something, a soul namely. I won’t go over every game but that’s the trend I’m noticing.

It not all doom and gloom, some games like Global Agenda does seems to be making an honest effort so there might still be hope we get a few worthy titles this year. Myself, I’m going to start voting with my money, I’ve tried too many crappy MMOs last year and I don’t wish 2010 to be a repeat.

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