Thursday, December 29, 2011

Skyrim Is Buggy and Awesome

I have been slow updating my blog recently. Part of this is fatigue from my recent game release. But most of the blame, of course, falls upon Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Which ate the brains of everyone in our house.

I love it when a role-playing game breaks big and actually infects regular humans. Sure, it's heavy competition for a while, but it also manufacturers hordes of new, fresh RPG fans hoping for more.

We love the game despite all of its considerable frustrations. I love this video, because it captures so much about what makes Skyrim fascinating.

(Video summary: It was possible to steal from shops by taking pots and putting them over the heads of the shopkeepers so they couldn't see you. Yes, this was actually possible. Though I can't get it to work anymore in the newest version.)

Some people mock Skyrim for things like this, which is a truly startling case of missing the point. Sure, it's a flaw. But imagine how cool and detailed this sandbox is to make such a thing possible. It means that they programmed in exact sight lines for detecting theft, which is why sneaking around a shop and robbing the owner blind is such a satisfying minigame.

I've been an Elder Scrolls fan for decades, because of what makes these games so fascinating: Their reach always exceeds their grasp.

The Elder Scrolls series is about making a game so huge and detailed that it overwhelms you. You have to be a shut-in of terrifying proportions to experience everything. You go on a journey to find a dungeon somewhere, and there are so many dungeons and towns and people and quests on the way that you get lost in a maze of perpetual distraction until the real-world sun rises over the horizon.

Of course, computers aren't strong enough to simulate a world, even a small one. They just can't do it. With that level of ambition and that number of moving parts, there will be bugs and flaws. Tons of them. You don't have to scratch the surface hard to find them, even after multiple patches.

This is inevitable. Yes, Bethesda makes buggy games, and they've probably shipped certain games sooner than they should have. However, with that size and complexity and level of ambition, it can't be avoided. There is just too much STUFF, and too many crazy things that can be done with it. Until real artificial intelligence is invented (it won't be), a sandbox of this level of detail can't be represented by a computer without weirdness around the edges. When the range of possible things that can happen is large enough, even the largest, most dedicated group of testers won't find everything that can go wrong.

It's their crazy version of something like reality, and you have to meet it halfway (because there really are a lot of glitches). Elder Scrolls fans accept this, and, in return, they get a computer game experience that's truly unique.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Avernum: Escape From the Pit Is Out

We have released our newest game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, for the Macintosh. As I have written before, it is a ground-up rewrite of one of our earlier games that desperately needed it. We've tried to put a lot of cool new graphics, design, and polish into it. A big demo is available, and the Windows and iPad versions should be out in April.

This is a rewrite of the first game I ever wrote for money, Exile: Escape From the Pit, which first came out in January of 1995. It has been fascinating to go back to my first full-length design. I'd forgotten how weird and silly my work could get.

A few examples:

Huge, Sprawling World.

Skyrim has provided a fresh reminder of how much people love a huge, sprawling world full of details, cul-de-sacs, and side quests to get lost in. When I started out, I made games like that. Avernum is really, really big. It's possible to wander out into the wilds, get lost, and be eternally distracted by all the stuff you can do and dungeons you can explore. I was heavily inspired by the early Might and Magic games, some of the first games that really tried to overwhelm you with a huge world.

I love games like this. However, writing them is difficult for the obvious reason: A huge world takes a lot of work and a lot of energy. I'm old now, and I don't have the limitless drive I used to. I tend now to write smaller, more focused games. Less terrain to explore, but with a more intricate story.

Three Game-Winning Quests.

I am constantly accused of never innovating, and this vexes me. I have worked hard to try new things in my RPGs and stretch the genre, and I've been doing this from day one.

Example: Avernum doesn't have one storyline. It has three. The game has three long, arcing, game-winning quests, each of them almost entirely separate from each other. It is possible to achieve one of them, say escaping the underworld, be told you have won, pat yourself on the back, and never realize that the game still has two epic storylines remaining.

They aren't three different endings. They are three different games.

I did two games this way, and I've never seen another RPG that does the same thing. I eventually let it go to focus on more detailed single stories, but I still think it was a really cool idea.

Odd Humor.

In my spare time, I have had some success as a writer of humor. My games have always had funny elements, some more than others. Avernum contains some bits that are so weird and off the wall that I could never see myself doing now. I don't want to give precise examples, but if you play the game for more than a little you'll start to see what I mean.

Years Pass. Nothing You Can Do About it.

Since 1995, my work has gotten a lot tighter, more controlled, and generally less eccentric. This has been both good and bad. It's also unavoidable. I'm older and more experienced now, and that sort of fresh, unfocused enthusiasm is just not available to me anymore. I still write good games (or, at least, games that sell), but my changing tastes and increasing age have made me unable to do some things and more able to do certain new things.

For example, if you tried Avadon: The Black Fortress and didn't like it, I'm sorry. That is the sort of game I write now. This will change. Five years from now, I'll do something entirely different. (I really, really want to return to open-ended non-linear games at least once before I retire.) But for now, that's it. If you hate my new games, then there is nothing I can do about that.

But, if you don't like the new stuff, I suggest trying Avernum. It's old-school, and it's really neat. I hope you like it.

(And I'll post a link to this article in April when the versions for the other platforms come out.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Two Gaming Pet Peeves For the Day

Our newest game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, has reached Release Candidate status. This means that we've made a version that seems complete and ready to sell, and we are touching it as little as possible while beta testers spend one more week trying to break it.

This means that I have a very, very important job: Doing nothing. Don't touch the app. Hands off. Anything I change has a chance of breaking something. So I'm spending this week catching up on my game-playing.

(I also made a really spiffy trailer for Avernum. Turns out, there's this site called YouTube. Who knew?)

This has given me a precious chance to find new pet peeves to complain about. And isn't that what blogs are for?

I Need To Drop Three Pounds Of Gloves So That I Can Walk Again

Of course, like everyone else in the world, our house has Skyrim-fever. As you may have heard, it's a good game.

But, like all RPGs Bethesda makes, you spend sooooo much time sorting through items. Looting the dungeons takes ten times longer than killing the monsters within. And you can only carry so many pounds of treasure. So every item you find requires tiresome "Is this hide shield worth enough money to justify the weight. OK. It weighs eight pounds and is worth 20 coins, or 2.5 coins per pound, so that is an efficient piece of treasure to pick up and ... AHHHH. MY BRAINS!!!!!" And then you pick up one suit of armor too many and you have to drop two pounds of stuff so you go through your pack to find something top drop and ...

Does anyone ever find this fun?

This is one of those things that gets hardcore gamerz mad at me, but screw realism. In my newest games, I give the player a Junk Bag. You can put infinite items in it, their weight isn't counted, and, when you reach a store, you can push a button to sell everything in it.

This is great for people who find even the awesome Dog Takes Your Stuff Back To Town To Sell It system in Torchlight too taxing.

It's the opposite of realism, and I really don't care. When I design a game, the first thing I do is decide what I want the player to spend most of his/her time doing. Hopefully, that part is where the fun is. The second thing I do is minimize time spent doing absolutely everything else.

If I can keep even one player from spending a hour picking through his or her backpack and trying to shed those three extra pounds, I have done my good work as a citizen of the Earth.

I Did Those Jumps In 61 Seconds Instead Of 59, So I Should Totally Be Punished.

In any game with a lot of jumping on platforms, it seems like a legal requirement that there has to be at least one room with a timed sequence. You're at the bottom of some shaft with sheer walls and a tunnel at the top. You push a button. Ledges slide out of the walls. And then you hear that accursed, stress-inducing ticking that lets you know that you have to get to the top quickly, or not at all.

"Tick. Tick. Tick. TICK. TICK. TICK. TICKTICKTICKTICKTICK. [Sound of ledges sliding back into walls.] [Sound of you falling to earth, swearing all the way.]"

Is there anyone, anywhere, who pushes that button, hears the telltale ticking sound, and thinks, "This is so AWESOME!"

This isn't fun. Here is why. Gaining a heroic skill (Fighting. Leaping.) is fun. Using that skill is fun. Perfecting a skill is far less fun. Repeating a series of jumps until you can do them perfectly is even less fun than that.

There. I Feel Better.

Very therapeutic. Now I can finish my game in peace.

Also, I was going to write about how every shooter now has you go down one long corridor with no branches (or alternate paths to victory, or variety), but this design trend is contemptible enough to deserve its own post. I just need time for my blood to get more angry.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

You Gotta Pay Your Dues If You Want To Sing the Blues

"I am the entertainer,
And I've had to pay my price.
The things I did not know at first,
I learned by doin' twice." 
                    - William Joel

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote at length about the 10000 Hour Rule, which can be stated as follow:

To master any non-trivial field requires 10000 hours of dedicated practice and study.

The previous post was about the rule and why I think it's a true thing. I also wanted to write a bit about how this rule applies to the creation of computer games, which, believe me, is an endeavor that takes many years to master.

How the Rule Applies To Professional, AAA Game Development

Big game companies are infamous for eating their young. They scoop up young people that don't know any better, make them work insane hours for crap pay, discard them when they burn out, and harvest a new crop of workers. There are few elder statesmen who stayed around long enough to get really good at what they do. Alas, most of the rank and file get driven off before they put in the years necessary to get really good.

So if you've ever wondered why games tend to be so derivative and make so many of the same mistakes again and again ...

How the Rule Applies To Indies

When an indie developer nobody cared about suddenly breaks out and releases a hit, kickass game, you know what I love to do? Find out how that sudden superstar spent the years learning to make a good game.

Every successful indie developer has a pile of relatively rough old games they cut their teeth on. Notch (Minecraft) does. Jonathan Blow (Braid) does. Petri Purho (Crayon Physics) does. I sure do. John Carmack and John Romero made a pile of games you never heard of before they created Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom.

It's necessary. You can't just make a good game from scratch. You have to spend years working at it, writing stuff that you probably won't be very proud of. I count myself very lucky that, when I was writing my early RPGs, there was pent up demand for them. Enough so that even my rough, subpar goods were able to generate a living.

One More Example That Amuses Me

I only just heard about an upcoming Indie RPG called Driftmoon, being developed by a small company called Instant Kingdom. Hey, why shouldn't they write an Indie RPG? Everyone else is.

I'd never heard of them, but I looked at the gameplay video and the screenshots and thought, "Hey, this looks really nice. I bet this isn't their first game."

Then I looked at their older games. Five of them, each one a little nicer than the one that came before. It's awesome to look at. You can almost see the learning.

(Oh, and you can see the couple who runs Instant Kingdom here. I don't want to sound crass, but these are two seriously attractive game developers. If I was running some Association For the Advancement of Indie Games or something, I would put those two on a poster in a cold second. The caption would be, "Indie Game Developers - WE'RE NOT MONSTERS!")

How the Rule Applies To You. (If You Want To Create Games.)

So if you're one of the many enterprising young folks who ask me about getting into this business, learn from the above. Write games. Lots of them. Don't worry about aiming too high. Don't do your ultra-mega-epic yet. A bunch of varied, small apps is a great way to learn, and you'll get a bunch of your failures out of the way early.

It's a lot of work, but don't despair. Hey, I built a career on a game that looked like this. If that can happen, than you, a person I suspect is at least as intelligent and driven as me, totally has a shot.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Geneforge Saga Now Available On Steam!

When Steam started to carry Avadon: The Black Fortress in August, it was a big thrill for us. The money, the prestige, the ability to feel like real developers. It's awesome. And it didn't stop there.

On Wednesday, Steam released another of our games. Well, five games. You can now go to Steam and, for twenty bucks (20% off the first week) get our entire Geneforge Saga.

The Geneforge Saga is a series of five huge fantasy RPGs, telling one epic tale of rebellion, war and devastation. I am immensely proud of these games. Sure, they are old and very low budget, and the earlier games have pretty rough interfaces. They're also genuinely innovative and cool, and I'm thrilled that a bunch more people can be exposed to them.

I wanted to write a little bit about them and what I think makes them unique.

1. The Setting

People often complain, with good reason, that role-playing games are too mired in fantasy. I have always lacked the courage to totally break out of the fantasy thing, but I've tried really hard to push it as far as it will go. For example, we wrote Nethergate, which was a fantasy game in an actual historical setting: ancient Britain under Roman occupation.

Geneforge was originally going to be science fiction, until I realized that it really would work better as fantasy. It is based in a world ruled by the Shapers, a secretive sect that used magic to create life. Intelligent plants, servant humanoids, living tools. The games are about what happens when the creatures they make to serve them decide to rebel.

The player is a Shaper, and the characters in your party will be loyal mutant monsters made by you. Older gamers play Geneforge for the story. Younger gamers play it because you get to have an army of fire-breathing dinosaurs.

It's a unique setting, and I think it's really cool. And, I don't deny it, I had several strong influences when I made it.

2. The Morality

The Geneforge games are very morally open-ended. I have long been annoyed with fantasy's over-reliance on characters who are all-good or all-evil. I wanted to write a game where you could play through the whole storyline looking for this guy who is evil, meet the guy, listen to his side of the story, realize he has a point, and join him. And I did. It's called Geneforge.

The Geneforge games are full of factions you can join. Some are sensible. Some are insane. Some are peaceful, and some are violent. Only a few of them are truly bad people, trying to do horrible things. I tried to be truly even-handed when making the factions. When writing them, I always had them make the case for their point of view as clearly and convincingly as possible. When I wrote a faction, I was really trying to convince the player to join it.

This is what I am most proud of about Geneforge: I have gotten many e-mails that said, "I loved the games, but I had one problem. I joined [some faction], but I thought you made it too obvious that [that faction] was the right faction and I was supposed to join it."  They were all convinced that I was secretly supporting their own pet faction. Hee!

3. The Open-Endedness

I wanted the Geneforge games to be as open-ended as possible. Play by yourself or with a group. Use magic or melee. Use combat or get by with stealth and diplomacy. Join the rebels or the Shapers. Even play as a pacifist and never kill anything outside of the tutorial. Writing the games to allow this much freedom was truly maddening, but the result was something unique. (And I had one very specific, awesome influence.)

Interestingly, this led to what I think are the games' greatest flaw. You see, to create paths through the world for different specialties, I made some routes that required serious combat skill and other that required lots of diplomacy or stealth or tool use skill. The problem was that, to make the choices meaningful, I had to make it so that not all characters could travel down all paths. I didn't want everyone to be able to do everything, and, for any given character, there will always be some zones they can't do.

Some players hate this. Hate, hate, hate it. To be told they can't defeat a place, it drives them nuts. Infuriates them.It's not the sort of design that appeals to all players, to say the least.

Old Games For New Gamers

Yep. They're old. They're rough. They're pretty ugly. But if you like Indie gaming for it's creativity and ability to take risks, they're worth a look. They're five huge games, an almost ridiculous amount of gameplay for sixteen bucks. And, if you just want a sample to see what's going on, there are five big demos on our web site. Hope you like them!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Three Funny Links. (And Our Sale Is Ending Soon.)

So I need to write a blog post to remind people that Spiderweb Software's Glorious October Carnage 10% Off Sale ends in just a few days. But I don't have one of my standard 1000 word infodumps ready. You see I've been busy lately trying to finish our next game and playing Catherine on my XBox. (Working title ... "I Have Serious Issues With Women: The Game.")

So I'm going to post links to three thinks I really liked. Because that's what blogs are best at.

1. An Old Short Story

There used to be a magazine called Dragon. It was ostensibly about tabletop role-playing games, but who are we kidding? It was about Dungeons and Dragons. This was back in the good old days when you could play D&D and relax and unwind and keep up with what was going on without a computer, four whiteboards, and a specially trained idiot savant. (If you ever wanted me to write a review of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, there it was.)

Every month, Dragon magazine also had a short story, for some reason. One of these stories has stuck with me because it was so amazingly prescient. It was about MUDs, but in the story they were weird free for alls and if you did the right thing you could earn game cash that converted to real money. It predicted the existence of Eve Online twenty years before the fact, and other SF writers are just now catching up with the crazy possibilities.

Someone just sent me a link to the story, so here it is:

Catacomb, by Henry Melton

Henry, if you ever end up here and see this, your work had a big, big influence on one particular misfit boy.

2. A New Video

So far, I've managed to avoid writing any blog articles on the subject of The Game Industry Might Maybe Have Woman Issues, Just a Little Bit. To anyone looking in from outside, this statement is about as controversial as saying that water is wet, but it still gets gamers really angry.

Anyway. IGN made some sort of online reality show thingy called The Next Game Boss. It's about indie game developers. That someone made a reality show (even a web one with a micro-budget) about people who want to do what I do is pretty fascinating. Not flattering, but fascinating. Because, um ... watch this cruelly edited selection of highlights from the first episode ...

Hey, Ladies! They're Still Single!

(It gets awesome one minute in.)

There are things I could say about this, but there's really nothing that can be added to perfection.

3. I Like Music

Everyone who knows me in real life is sick of hearing about Garfunkel & Oates. But you don't know me! So I can just drop a link or two.

They really broke big over the last year or so and are now making actual money (plus an HBO development deal). If you poke around on YouTube, you will find that these two have been working their asses off for years trying this and that before they broke big. They are a great example of a universal truth: It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

OK, that seems like enough content to justify a blog post. So. We're having a sale. It's over in a few days. Order one of our series on CD and you can totally get your Hanukkah shopping done early.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The 10000 Hour Rule.

This image appeared on my Facebook the other day, and I really liked it. (The quote is killer, and it is available at a much more readable size here.) It reminded me of a bit of wisdom I value greatly, and I'll pass that on in this blog post. Lucky you.

I am a huge fan of the many Rules, Laws, and related discrete wisdom chunks you can find on the Internet. Sturgeon's Law. Poe's Law. Rule 34. (NSFW) The Iron Law of Oligarchy. But one of my favorite, as an important lesson about How the World Works, is the 10000 Hour Rule.

I would describe this law thusly:

To master any non-trivial field requires 10000 hours of dedicated practice and study.

Sometimes, this law is stated with "10 years" in the place of "10000 hours." Or, as an old saying elegantly puts it, "You have to write a million bad words before you can write a good one."

Drawing. Writing. Chess. Singing. Tennis. Designing Games. Acting. Golf. Playing the violin. Leatherworking. Poker. In each case, mastery requires work. A lot of it.

What does this law mean? It means that fantasy you have, about picking up a guitar and finding that you have a deep, innate talent for playing and that you're the next Hendrix? It's just a fantasy. Better get practicing, pal. You got 10 long years of work ahead of you. Free lunch? No such thing.

I Will Now Deal With Your Objections

People don't like this law. People hate to be told that they can't have Free Stuff, and gaining mastery without sacrifice is the epitomy of Free Stuff. But there are several obvious objections people come up with to rebut this law. I will dispose of them now.

It Doesn't Take That Long To Master Something! I Can Master Tic-Tac-Toe in a Minute!

That's why I said it takes 10000 hours to master something non-trivial. Obviously, some things are easy, but nobody cares about whether you can do them. Learning to tie your shoes is much simpler than learning to play the violin, but nobody will pay you to watch you tie your shoes.

What About Child Prodigies? Mozart Was Composing Symphonies When He was Four!

Yeah, but nobody wants to hear them. They want to hear what he wrote later. Many, many hours of work later.

Child prodigies exist, and they can do amazing things. However, the main advantage of being a child prodigy is that you get to start putting in your 10000 hours at an early age. You still have to work for it.

But Some People Have Amazing Innate Abilities!

People need to believe that they can possibly have the innate ability to do amazing things. Some sort of magical penumbra that gives you the supernatural ability to write or play baseball or whatever. Not really.

Now don't get me wrong. Some people do have the innate ability to excel at a field. It is the opportunity, resources, and drive to put in the many, long tedious hours mastering a chosen field. It's the ability (the time, money, and energy) to sit down and work. That's the only innate ability that really means something.

So I Just Have To Spend 10000 Hours On Something and I Become Awesome?

No. It has to be 10000 of meaningful practice. Learning new things. Stretching your ability. Occasionally failing, learning from your mistakes, and improving. Repeating the same lame thing for one hour 10000 times will not cut it.

I've Hardly Spent Any Time At All Learning To Do [X], and I'm Amazing At It!

Are you sure? One of the main reasons people are mediocre at a profession or activity is that they lack the ability to recognize when they have done it poorly. One of the main things successful craftspeople and artists have in common is a loathing of their own work.

I'm not saying you aren't that great. Hey, I've never met you. But are you sure?

It's an Unpleasant Rule

The 10000 Hour Rule is about crushing dreams. It's about understanding that there are limits to what you can do in the all-too-short period of time we spend on this Earth. It's about giving people who have achieved mastery the respect they deserve. It's about, before taking on a new task, honestly evaluating whether we can afford to give what it takes to complete it. And it's about forgiving yourself for not being able to play the guitar like Hendrix.

I have a lot more to say on this subject and how it applies to writing computer games. Next time.

(If you're interested in reading more about this stuff, I've heard that Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good read. I'm not so much a big Gladwell fan, but it's a very interesting topic.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why All Our Games Are Now Cheaper Forever

Spiderweb Software just started our annual sale. It's ten percent off everything we sell for the whole month of October. That isn't really news. We do this every year, and people seem to like it.

But this year, there is much more. We permanently lowered the prices of everything we sell. At least 20% cheaper (in addition to the 10% for the sale). For some products, much more. The most expensive game we sell is now $20, and that is likely to last pretty much forever.

It's a big mental shift for us, and I thought it was worth blogging about. I write about game pricing on this blog a lot, and I'm not ashamed of it. Right now, most of the huge revolutions in the game biz are in the new crazy pricing models, and there are still a lot of questions out there about the most efficient way to make a game make money.

Why It Took So Long To Lower Our Prices

We released our first game in January, 1995. That is a long time ago, and much has changed. A few helpful comparisons.

Now: Huge distributors like Steam and iTunes sell massive numbers of copies for low prices, and Indie developers make good money on huge volume.
Then: The World Wide Web barely existed and we scraped by on a handful of sales from AOL.

Now: A quality Indie niche game sells on big portals for ten bucks at most. More than that and people think you're crazy and move on.
Then: Most good shareware games sold for $25. It took me a very long time just to realize that that price isn't normal anymore.

Now: Indie developers can make excellent livings selling lots of copies of cheap games.
Then: Indie game developers were called "shareware developers," and everyone thought they were losers and spat on them.

Now: Want to pirate a game? It just takes 3 seconds of searching on Pirate Bay.
Then: Took five minutes of searching instead of three seconds. This actually made a big difference.

Now: Many new games are given away for free and make their money on micro-transactions from a portion of their users.
Then: FREE games? With micro-WHAT? What are you? A SORCEROR?

(The shift to free games is arguably the most stunning development in the games biz in a very long time. My prediction: Within five years, there will be a successful game that pays you a small amount to play it and makes their cash selling better swords or whatever.)

I'm a dumb person in plenty of key ways, so it took me a while to observe the key fact:

A LOT of money is being made by selling games for cheap.

So now , instead of selling our games for $25 or $28 (!!!), we'll sell them for $20 or $15. I know this still seems like a lot, but I haven't backed off on the key thing I've long said ...

People Who Write Niche Games Can't Charge a Dollar

If you're making a pretty, shiny, highly casual game with cartoon squirrels and you think you can find a million fans for it, go ahead. Charge a dollar. You'll have to.

But if you write games like mine? Low budget, old school, hardcore RPGs with lots of content? If I charged a dollar for it, I'd have to sell a copy to pretty much every interested human everywhere to have a chance of making money.

So I still charge an actual price, an amount of money that still feels like money. Maybe I should have taken everything down to $15. Maybe I'm being too timid in the price drop. But, in a sense, that difference doesn't matter.

There are two sorts of prices you can pay for a game: An amount that is so small you don't care, and an amount high enough that you do. Our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, is $20 on our site and $10 on Steam. That's a big difference, but, in a very real sense, they have the same price: an amount of money that actually feels like spending money. We will always charge actual money, as opposed to pocket change. All I have done is slightly tinkered with the level.

Bonus Point: Why Is Our Game Twice the Price On Our Site Than On Steam

I get asked this a lot, and it's a fair question. The answer:

In any place where your game is sold, pick the price that will maximize the profits. This ideal price changes depending on the nature of the place where it is being sold.

Steam is a big, sprawling gaming bazaar where practically all of the games are cheap. People see a game, spend a moderate amount of money on it, and try it out. People experiment there, and you need to charge a price that encourages customers to pick you as their experiment. Also, if you charge $20 for your game there, it will be on a list with ten good games at half the price, so you will get murdered.

Spiderweb Software's web site, on the other hand, only lists our games. It is generally only visited by fans of role-playing games. People on our site are generally really interested in the specific sorts of games we sell, and so the higher price doesn't scare them off.

This sort of logic isn't my weird invention. It's basic business. World of Goo is $20 on the company site, $10 on Steam, and $5 on iTunes. Each marketplace has its own norms, and you price your game to maximize your earnings there.

And that is why games are now at most $20 on our site. Because of the current standards of the game industry as a whole, I think that will most likely increase our earnings overall. It might not always have been that way, but I feel it is now.

(And, yes. I set game prices to maximize my earnings. Of course I do. Astonishingly, some people seem to take offense at this. I don't care. I'm not going to neglect to send my kids to college just so I can satisfy someone's arbitrary standards of Indie cred. I'm too old for that, and children persist in their irritating need to eat food.)

So. Anyway. A Sale.

Our games are cheaper forever, and even cheaper than that this month. We're getting a lot more sales, and I don't feel like the dumb jerk that still charges $28 for three year old games anymore. If you like old school role-playing games, you could certainly do worse.

And it will be a while before I write about pricing again. Believe it or not, I have other things to say (and make fun of). Time to get going on that ...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Hardest Game. For Adults.

I have come to realize that, for adults, Minecraft is among the most difficult of all video games.

Bear with me.

Minecraft is amazing for kids. All of the children in our social circle have been completely absorbed into the Minecraft collective. They make huge towns. They discuss the relative merits of the Adventure Update. They install mods. They set up LANs and explore each others' worlds. Whatever its merits as an educational game, it's certainly made our kids learn what an IP address is.

When we took our nine-year old daughter to PAX, she insisted on waiting in line to have her picture taken with Notch, Minecraft's creator. I spoke with him and mentioned that I run Spiderweb Software. He said that he'd played Avernum. This one fact did more to elevate me in her view than any single event since her creation.

The kids are mad about the game, making spiraling towers, roller-coasters, water slides, and mad dreamscapes.

But what about the adults?
What Adults Frequently Say About Minecraft

Many of the guardians of these children tried Minecraft themselves. Few of them played more than an hour or two. Now note, these are nerd grown-ups, gamers, people who actually finish games. Grown-ups rarely have time to play games. These are people who make time. But I played for more than any of them, logging a mere ten hours.

But that's not what got my attention. What I found so fascinating was that, when I asked my fellow olds what they thought of it, I always got a similar response:

"I didn't know what to do."
"I didn't see the point of it."
"I didn't have a purpose."

And then they looked at me as if all this made perfect, self-evident sense. And the thing is, it did. I always nodded with genuine sympathy.

And then I realized how depressing that is.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose you asked an adult, "What do you think of Legos?" and got the response, "I don't like them. I just look at them, and don't know what to do. What is the purpose? What is their point?"

What would you think of this response? Would you find that person to be Awesome? And not, maybe, I don't know, just a wee bit depressing?

Tell me, what do you think of paper? "It's blank. That stresses me out." What about clay? "I don't know what to make, so it's pointless." Look. You can make things with this. "But creativity makes me tired."

I'm not pretending I'm not the same way. I don't think I'm any better than my peers. I'm just the same.

Look What I Did With It, Because I'm So Great

I had a blast playing Minecraft! I built a little house, so that I could be safe from monsters. I made a mine. And then you know what I created?

I built a two story house for a family of four. Bedroom for the parents. Bedroom for two children. Kitchen. Workshop. Field of crops so we could eat. A big wall to keep us safe. I even baby-safed the damn thing, to keep my non-existant Minecraft four-year old from falling down the stairs and into a lava pool.

And then I was done. I recreated the world I see around me every day, to the maximum fidelity cube-world would allow. And then I stopped playing. Success.

Isn't that extra-depressing? Even in my fantasy world, I had to have a mortgage.

Why Minecraft Is the Hardest Of Games. For Adults.

I have not made any big, unique discovery here. It's been common knowledge for a long time that a kid can have just as much fun with a toy as with the box it came in. We take this loss of creativity as we age for granted. It's only when it happens with a video game, the sort of thing adults can play, with weapons and monsters and gold, that it comes into much sharper relief. Of course adults don't color with crayons. That activity is in a box in our brains labeled "Kid Stuff," and we can ignore it safely.

But Minecraft is new, so we have to evaluate it with fresh eyes.

To play Minecraft (before the release of promised updates with boss fight and goals and other dreadful things), you have to play. Not in the linear way, walking down a hall and shoot guys in the face on the one course the designer created for you.

To play Minecraft, you have to Play. Playground-style, without fear or hesitation or second-guessing. You have to, without self-consciousness, be creative. My old, withered, linear, fight-or-flight, calculate-reward-for-effort brains just can't do that anymore, not without great strain. To play Minecraft for more than a few minutes, you have to act like a kid again, in the good way. And that is HARD.

I don't know if I can do it. One of these days, some rare, free afternoon, I really need to sit down for an hour, just an hour, and try.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Snarky Review: L.A. Noire

(This review contains a few L.A. Noire spoilers and slightly more adult humor than normal. If you are below the age of forty, do not read it. Instead, go to a more family-friendly web site.)

I played a lot of L.A. Noire recently. I got about twenty hours in, had a decent amount of fun, and realized that my parental, old-person life doesn't really encourage playing long games any more. Which is worrying, as that is the sort of game I write. Whenever I look at my work and go, "I have no interest in playing games like this," I get to worry. But that's another story.

L.A. Noire is a fairly fun and reasonably innovative game, published by Rockstar Games and developed by Team Bondi, a bunch of Australians. It's a combination of investigation and interrogation mechanics that have appeared in adventure games in the past, combined with the gigantic open world setting of Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead: Redemption. It's seemed like Rock Star has been trying to see in recent years how much you can stretch this format and still make a good game (e.g. Bully, Red Dead: Redemption). L.A. Noire may be on the outside edge of how far you can push this.

There was a bunch of things I liked and a bunch of places that were rough. I always feel bad mocking those who tried to push the envelope, but hey, they're huge and sell millions of copies, so they can survive my little blog.

You play a detective in late forties Los Angeles, who, if I recall correctly, has a name. Something virile, like Blake Manfulness. His voice and motion capture were done by Ken Cosgrove, Accounts.

You are told to investigate crimes. You go places and search for clues. Then you interrogate subjects and persons of interest. You have to pay very close attention to what these people say, how they say it, and what facial expressions they show (the facial animation software being the big breakout feature of this game), and, when they lie or hedge the truth, confront them. Then, when the case is solved and someone is arrested, you get a star rating to determine how well you did. So that's the game.

I'm a natural target for this sort of thing. I am a huge sucker for a police procedural. Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets is one of my all-time favorite books, and, in the manner of all fans of The Wire, I am really annoying when talking about The Wire.

So, for me, the clue-hunting and interrogation were very much the fun of the game. When I was interrogating people, I found I was really concentrating and thinking. When I put a few clues together and caught some rat bastard in a lie, I really felt that my brain power enabled me to do something cool, and that's something that I rarely experience in games these days. So that part of the game was awesome. I didn't even really mind the fact that you can't ever actually lose a mission or let the suspect get away.

But, alas, there are also lots of driving, chasing, shooting, and sneaking sequences straight out of Grand Theft Auto. They are, you know, fine. But very rote and familiar, not the sort of thing I want to spent tens of hours doing anymore. Also, while their enormous rendition of Los Angeles is lavish and awesome, there are very few things you can actually do in it. When playing Red Dead: Redemption, I was constantly being distracted by cool stuff to do. But here, apart from a fixed set of side quests, L.A. seemed a little dry. And if you can't let off steam by going on a rampaging, horrifying kill spree before being gunned down in the street by tanks like the rabid dog you are, what's the point of playing a Rockstar game?

And, double alas, the farther you get into the game, the less important the questioning becomes. The game ends not with an awesome Prime Suspect-style battle of wits between detective and suspect, but just another gunfight. In a sewer. I've been a gamer for a long time. I'm tired of gunfights in sewers.

So there is ambivalence here. I admire Rockstar greatly for spending a ton of money to make a big game that's not a sequel and actually tries to do new things. That is hugely to their credit, and there's plenty of good stuff here. I just wish they'd taken the cool stuff that works and concentrated it into a much shorter game.

A few other thoughts ...

This game is really for adults. Even by Rockstar standards. After working on the murder cases, all I wanted was for one of the dead women to have some clothes on, for God's sake. Though their pubic hair rendering engine is first rate.

Along these lines, L.A. Noire contains more checking for semen than any video game I have ever played. This is entirely to their credit. Also, the game played much faster once I went into settings and mapped Check For Semen to the right trigger.

We should take a moment to remember the lost. After L.A. Noire came out, there were allegations that Team Bondi pushed its employees to long stretches of hundred-hour weeks to make this game. Based on the standards of the industry and the obvious amount of work in this game, I entirely believe it. This sort of crap is why I am determined to stay an indie developer as long as possible. I have children. I'd like to, you know, see them.

L.A. Noire is guilty of my current least-favorite writing flaw: Having one mission completely nullify all of the story elements of the several missions before it. You see, int he part of the game where you are a homicide detective, you have six cases. In the first five, you investigate murdered women and arrest a perpetrator. In the sixth case, following a series of tedious puzzle-solving and climbing sequences, you learn that the previous five men you arrested are all innocent and the murders were committed by some crazy guy that you shoot in a tunnel or something.

If there is any flaw that really bugs me about this game, it's that it says, "You can be a badass detective and investigate crimes and outwit criminals." And then it makes you spend a huge swath of the middle game arresting the wrong guys for crime after crime. What a waste. It shows a lack of respect for the player and the premise.

But still. It's something different. It's ambitious. It's had decent sales. Everyone involved deserves applause for making this thing, and I'm really glad it didn't tank. At this point, we gamers have to take all the innovation we can get.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Don't Finish Games Because I Am Old

This article is getting a lot of play today. Short version: Very few people finish really long games.

Duh. I've pretty much given up on playing any long game (say, over 20 hours) that I'm not sure is completely awesome. I just quit L.A. Noire a good eight cases from the end, and I feel like I played it for too long.

I mean, a game that takes 40 hours? A whole workweek? In this day and age? Who can do that? People don't leave games unfinished because they're weak or dumb or lazy or bad people. It's because, unless the game is really awesomesauce, playing it for 40 hours just isn't a worthwhile use of one's time.

Which puts me in a weird position, because I write long games. I try to put a lot of work into the endings, even though I know most people won't see them. Maybe this is a warning that I should start doing something else, but I don't know what. I tried to make Avadon: The Black Fortress a shorter game but a higher quality experience. Dunno if I succeeded, but that's the direction I wanted to go.

It's one of the reasons the industry is moving towards shorter, cheaper games. And I'm moving along with the trend, a tiny bit. But I'll be writing longish games as long as there is a market for them. The main strength of my games is the sprawling, epic stories. I can't really do that in a ten hour game. So I'll keep doing basically what I do, even though I hear the distant rumbling of impending doom.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Avadon Is Out On Steam!

Today, Avadon: The Black Fortress goes live on Steam.

Unsurprisingly, I'm pretty excited about it. After 16 years of being a tiny, invisible, basement-dwelling bottom feeder, for a few precious weeks, I get to act like I'm a real developer. With a real distributor, a nice trailer video, and everything. Yes, there will be money, and that's always nice, but it's the recognition I'm sort of focused on now.

Writing Indie games has provided me with a very good living, and I don't have the right to complain about anything. I wrote games. I sold 8-10 thousand games a year. (Having a big back catalog is awesome.) I was content.

But then the Indie boom took off. Indie devs were getting famous. Many could make a living, and some got rich. Amazingly, people stopped acting like I wasn't a total loser for doing what I do. (This change happened about the time the word 'shareware' disappeared.) After all these years, it was impossible to watch all of this excitement and not want to be a part of it.

And now, thanks to Valve, I'm going to be visible. I'm getting a shot at the spotlight. Avadon: The Black Fortress is a very good game. It's got a great story, interesting, epic battles, and a lot of cool stuff. It's simply a fun game. Will its retro old-school action take the world by storm? Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. And I'll do all I can to be content with what comes.

The Steam Thing does mean that we are embarking on a great experiment, something that we never planning on doing. But, the way the online games market is moving, something that seems like the right choice.

Avadon: The Black Fortress Is $9.99 On Steam

I've written a lot about how I think it's important to not price niche games too cheaply, and I stand by that. However, at the same time, Avadon will be only ten bucks on Steam, the cheapest we've ever made our newest game for PC/Mac. Why?

1. Steam felt it was the best price. I went into this trusting their judgment, because they know a lot more about selling Indie games than I do. When you're an Indie and Steam comes knocking, you don't say no.

2. The whole game industry is shifting. These days, a huge proportion of games online are sold for a low price without demos. People buy games on impulse, sight unseen. That way, if they don't like it they aren't out a lot of money.

In these markets, charging $15 or $20 for games, like I want to, isn't feasible. It's too much money to pay for a game you aren't sure about. If someone buys my game for $10 and hates it, I'm a little unhappy. But $20? I don't want to take kids' allowance money that way.

So I'm charging $10 on Steam and for the iPad. By the standards of that market, it's a hefty price, enough for me to earn my living. It's cheap enough to work as an impluse buy. It isn't the $1 or $2 price that I'm still sure would put me out of business.

This means I need to adjust the prices I charge on my own web site. I have changed the price of Avadon to $20, and in the future we will very likely reduce the prices of our earlier games as well. Our next game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit will start out at $20. If this grand experiment works well, we may make future games cheaper still, though I doubt any new game on our own web site will ever go below $15.

I'm expecting that some of our users who paid $25 on our site will be angry. I can totally understand this. However, all computer games get cheaper as they get older, even games that have only been to a few months. (Check out Best Buy of any other decently sized electronics store if you don't believe me.) Also, until we had access to mass-market outlets like iTunes, we were never going to generate enough sales to survive at a lower price.

I don't like making my fans angry, but, again, when Steam comes knocking, you don't say no. And our future games will be cheaper, so everyone is getting something out of it.

Now I'll sit on my edge of chair and wait to see how Avadon does. Fortunately, there's not much suspense. We're being released opposite Bastion, so hope may not be warranted at this point.

A Question a Lot of People Asked Below:

Why is the game still $20 on our web site?

Short answer: Charging this little is an experiment. I believe that Indie devs who write niche products need to charge more for their work than the more mass market, casual, $0.99 app market. The question is whether a $10 price works. If going onto Steam for ten bucks turns out to not be a good idea (or if they don't want any more of our games), we need to maintain a higher baseline price on our site.

I know this seems odd, but I assure you that it makes sense from where I sit. And, by the way, we are FAR from the only developer who does this. For example, World of Goo is $20 on their site but $10 on Steam. And they are far smarter than we are.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Love Being In the Future

I feel very fortunate to live in a time (or lasted long enough for this time to arrive) when Indie developers are actually valued and endeavors like iTunes and Steam and The Humble Indie Bundle exist to let some of us wet our toes in enormous, churning rivers of cash. It kind of blows me away, especially when I think about how thrilled I was (in a previous century) to earn a teeny trickle of money hawking my shareware on CompuServe.

But I feel even more lucky, when it comes down to it, to live in a time when I can read articles like this one.

Here is one choice sentence:

Meeroos, an extremely popular species of virtual, breedable animal in Second Life, are now starving, because griefers have been selling their owners unauthorized food, and Linden Lab accidentally shut them down *and* their legitimate food supplier.

It's stuff like this that, truly, puts a song in my heart and a skip in my step.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Ask Questions Until the Player Can Answer

When I started writing fantasy role-playing games for a living, I did a lot of dumb things. Since then, it's been a painfully slow process figuring out how to be less dumb. Every time I start a new game, there is a point where I go, "Wait. Why don't I do this thing this new way? In fact, why haven't I always done it that way?" And then I slap my forehead. Hopefully, it hurts.

One of my new, hard-earned rules of design has to do with training your characters. And, since it seems like every game and its cousin has some sort of level-gaining and stat-building these days, I think the rule is getting more relevant every day:

The number of decisions you have to make to build your character should be proportional to the amount of time you've spent playing the game. The more you play, the more you should decide.

Or, to put it another way ...

Whenever you make a decision about your character at the very beginning of the game, you are answering a question that hasn't even been asked yet.

So design wonks, get ready. Here is an example from my game Avernum, released in 1999. I will compare it to the rewritten version, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, out later this year. (And this will also double as a little taste of a preview of the new game, for those who care.)

The Bad Way I Did It Before

Avernum is an old school role-playing game. There are a lot of skills you can train to make your character stronger. There are the base attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance) and regular skills (Swords, Spells, Lore, etc). You start out with a bunch of skill points, and you get more with each level. You should spend these on skills.

You start out with a ton of skill points, so that you can majorly customize your character from the beginning. You can use skill points to increase base attributes or regular skills, but the base attributes are expensive. However, it could break the system if a player put a huge amount of skill points in certain skills. To limit this, I made increasing a skill cost more skill points the higher you trained it. At high levels, you might have to save up for two or three levels to get enough skill points to raise a major skill one point.

Think about this. It's a system where the more you play and learn about the challenges facing you, the less you can do to customize your characters. You have to make most of the big changes at low level, when skills are cheap. Worse, it was necessary to increase the base attributes to survive (especially Endurance, which increases health), but they were so expensive that doing so required careful planning. As a result of this mess, many players had problems with getting halfway through the game and finding that they were not strong enough to proceed. These players got angry at me, and justifiably so.

There was also a traits system. Traits are special character qualities, some positive, some negative, that affected your characters. They could make you better at spells, more vulnerable to disease, and so on. Good traits came with a penalty to experience earned. Bad traits gave you a bonus. You could have at most two traits.

And here's the awesome part. You could only pick these traits at the beginning of the game, and you couldn't change them. Major decisions that affect how you play the entire game, and you make them before you've even fought one monster. It's very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it's mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.

The Better Way I Do It Now

There are still base attributes (unchanged), skills (mostly unchanged), and traits (an all-new, very long list).

When you make your characters, you can increase five skills and pick one trait from the long list. This is far, FAR less customization at the beginning than was allowed in Avernum. Because of this, many gamers will try to make a party, think I have completely dumbed down the system, and ragequit. Price of doing business.

But then, when you gain a level, a base attribute goes up by one point. It's different each level, so every four levels each attribute has gone up by one. In addition, each level you can choose one attribute to increase by one. This allows a lot of character customization while making sure all skills go up gradually so that you won't be hamstrung by completely neglecting an attribute.

Each level, you can also increase two different skills by one point. Thus, you never stop being able to shape your characters. As you get a better idea of the challenges you are facing, you can mold your characters to enable them to proceed.

Finally, every other level, you can pick one trait from the long list. The number of available choices starts out small (to keep from confusing new players) and grows dramatically as you proceed. You will eventually have a lot of traits. Some of them give simple bonuses to your spells or attacks, while others (like Backstab or Swordmage) will affect how you actually play your character.

I plan to take a lot of heat because I allow fewer choices early on, but overall you make more decisions to mold your character in the new system than in the old system, and there are more ways to customize a character. The change means that you make a larger percentage of the decisions later on. As it should be.

Of Course, There Is No Way To Win

I have often observed that people hate change. I have tried to make a more friendly system that provides more customization, but a lot of people will be angry about the loss of the old system (which has been in place for a very long time). I can totally understand this, but I still need to always strive to make things better.

Also, while the old system made it very possible to build a party that would find itself stuck and unable to proceed. Some players actually like that. To them, the challenge of avoiding that fate is part of the game, and the threat of a failed party adds excitement to the game. For them, I can only suggest playing on Torment difficulty. It will provide ample possibility of horrible failure.

But I'm very happy with the new system. I think it allows players to answer the questions the game poses when they understand what those questions truly are. And now I enter beta testing and the actual balancing of the new system. And that, of course, is when the suffering truly begins.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Announced ... Avernum: Escape From the Pit

This blog has been sadly neglected lately, due to a combination of vacations and a frenzied effort to get our newest game to a point where we could officially announce it. But that day has arrived. Drop by our web site and take a look at Avernum: Escape From the Pit!

This is the second time that we have rewritten the Exile/Avernum trilogy, a move that is full of all sorts of questionable integrity. I am very nervous about announcing this title for exactly that reason, even though we have very, VERY good reasons to do a serious, polished rewrite of this game. Because Avernum has such a large and passionate fanbase, we have already put up an Avernum: Escape From the Pit FAQ to answer many of the questions that will be coming up. Such as, Why?

Short answer: Because the old version doesn't run on new machines anymore. Also, the iPad.

Longer answer. Look at this screenshot from Avernum:

Ghhhhahhhhh! Make it go away! Make it go AWAYYYYYYYY!

I mean, seriously.

We've been very determined not to half-ass this adaptation, and, when all is said and done, we will have put almost as much time into it as into a whole new game. It's been a little rough, and yet, I don't see how I had a choice. The first Avernum trilogy is my first creation and still one of my most beloved, and if we didn't rewrite it then it would have just disappeared. I can't abide that.

Other terrifying decisions. For the first time ever, we will be selling a new title for $20. When we released our first game, wayyyy back in 1995, we charged $25. At the time, that was a fair and unsurprising price for a shareware game. These days, the constant downward pressure on prices can no longer be ignored. Also, the market is developing in ways that finally make me think that we can make more money at lower prices.

I now hope to return to a sensible and semi-regular blogging schedule. For example, soon I will write a sort of review of LA Noire. Before I can write it, I want to see if the game ever has a murder victim that isn't naked.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our First Game Is Out For the iPad. Hooray!

Last week, Avadon: The Black Fortress HD for the iPad went live in the iTunes App Store. The reaction to it so far has left us stunned. Literally. Like, jaws dropped, walking around in a daze.

The genesis of the iPad version was a few months ago, when I said, "Hmmm. I have a few weeks free on my schedule. I think I'll port Avadon to the iPad. That'll be good for a laugh!" I've long known that there was a demand on the device for old school gaming, free of ads, in-game purchases, cute animals, zombies, and farming.

But, it turns out, the demand was far greater than I'd ever guessed. My fan mail since the release has been very instructive. Gamers weren't just disappointed by the lack of deeper games on the device. They were downright irked.

But that is the Magic Power of the Indie developer. Find an underserved market and serve it.

Writing and releasing my first device for iOS has been very instructive. In case anyone is interested, here's a few comments on Spiderweb Software's first game for portables.

Learning To Code For a New Platform.

Apple has done an amazing job of making developing for iPhones and iPads accessible. The sets of commands to program the device (i.e. the API, called Cocoa) are very clear and not too trying to learn. The development environment, XCode, is free. There are several good, free game engines for the devices. (I used a heavily modified version of the open source engine iPTK.)

There are also excellent books available on the topic. I leaned most heavily on Beginning iPhone 4 Development. I found iPad Application Development For Dummies to be unusually poor for a Dummies book, but its chapter on Provisioning (a tricky, vital, and neglected topic) is easily worth the cost of the book.

A Decent Port. But Just Decent.

Avadon originally came out for Windows and Mac. I was really determined not to half-ass the port to the iPad. I put a lot of thought into how to best adapt an old school, Western-style RPG to a touch screen. It's not something people have spent a lot of time doing. I think I came up with good answers to a lot of the questions, and the game overall plays really well.

However, there are a number of places where the UI could be better. This isn't because I was lazy or wanted to dump shoddy work on the market, but simply because this was my first iOS application. So have mercy. Our next game for the iPad (out, let's say, next April) will be better. It'll take some doing to modify the engine, but it'll get done.

Avadon HD is also a fairly demanding app. All of those icons eat up RAM, and the first generation iPad doesn't have a lot. It's playable, but it will be pokey from time to time. It runs great on the iPad 2, but I don't take a lot of satisfaction in that. The inconsistent performance on the iPad 1 is, simply, a failing on my part.

The Apple Approval Process.

Took a week to get my app approved. No rejections. No hassles. No complaints.

The Eternal Pain of Pricing.

It hasn't all been love and group hugs. Some of my fans have been seriously furious that we sell Avadon for Mac and Windows for $25 and the iPad version is $10. Like, "I will never be your customer again. Die in a fire." furious. I don't normally explain my decisions about pricing, but this merits a few words.

The same game is almost always priced differently on different devices. If you look at the prices charged for, say, Peggle, Plants vs. Zombies, or Angry Birds on different platforms, you'll find a huge variety. Angry Birds on the iPhone? One dollar. On the Macintosh? Five dollars. That's a five times difference!

There are a variety of reasons, all of them out of my control, for why I feel it is appropriate to charge less for the iPad version:

1. It has fewer features, due to the limitations of the device. Most notably, it is stuck at 1024x768 resolution and there are no keyboard shortcuts.
2. Since it is being sold by Apple, it is subject to the rules of their system. Most notably, there is DRM, and we can't give refunds through iTunes. Games bought directly from Spiderweb have no DRM and a Money Back Guarantee.
3. When you buy Mac/PC Avadon from us, you get a registration key that can be used to unlock an unlimited number of copies, over both Mac and Windows. A registration over iTunes isn't quite so liberal.
4. There is no ability to mod the game. This matters to more people than you might think.

But the main reason Avadon HD is $10 is, to be honest, that is the only possible price. Any more expensive, and it will cost way too much for an app. Any cheaper, and we're charging too little for what is still an old school niche product with a limited audience. If you try to look at it from our perspective, I think you will see that we didn't have a lot of options here.

One More Disappointment.

We are going to release all of our new games on the iPad. No question.

However, we currently have no plans to write games for the iPhone. After long thought, I came to realize that we just can't figure out how to write the sort of in-depth games we like to do on that screen size. Again, this is a failing on our part. I'm sure some intrepid developer will find a way to make it work. (Hear that, young Indies? That is the siren song of a market for you, all wrapped up with a big, red bow.)

Also, since most Android devices don't have a screen big enough to support our games, we are very unsure how soon we'll be supporting that platform. We are in wait-and-see mode.

Thank You.

And finally, many thanks to everyone who reads this who has supported our games. At the end of the day, I'm just a guy in a basement trying to earn a living and feed the kids. I am grateful for every sale. Plus, they make it possible for me to write more games. Lord knows, by this point, I'm too old and cranky to learn how to do real work.

Soon, we will release the first screenshots and information for Avernum: Escape From the Pit. For Windows and Macintosh. And the iPad!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Ultimate Fix Your Broken Game Checklist.

(This is the third of three articles about providing tech support as a small business. The previous chapters are here and here.)

I get two sorts of requests for tech support for my games. First, there's the familiar problems, the things that are my fault or that I know how to fix. I love these. I tell the victims how to get out from under their burden, they get on with their lives (dazed that an actual human read and processed their request for help), and everyone is happy.

And then there are the gremlins. The weird problems. The sorts of issues that are reported by exactly one person out of many thousands. Problems whose cause and fix are a total mystery. These are, alas, most of the problems reported to me. Most of these problems will be caused by incompatible software, hard drive corruptions, wonky graphics cards, or free-floating evil spirit manifestations. Sadly, as the hardware industry seeks out ways to cut corners and make computers ever cheaper, these sorts of afflictions only grow more common.

(Of course, some people say that every problem with a game, ever, is the result of the programmer's sloppiness and error. As if video cards never break and Windows is a flawless piece of software. These people want you to spend limitless time chasing bugs that don't exist. For a sample of this line of thinking, read the comments for my last post. While I acknowledge that some problems end up my fault, wasting energy trying to fix problems you didn't cause and can't fix is a Bad Thing.)

When I get one of these weird problems, I send out a standard list of troubleshooting steps. I have spent years assembling and perfecting it, and it honestly fixes the vast majority of problems. If you are a small developer, I invite you to steal and adapt it. If you are suffering from misbehaving software, I suggest trying these steps. At the risk of sounding slightly arrogant, if everyone would just drop everything, listen to what I have to say, and follow it without question, the world would be a much better place.

Spiderweb Software Tech Support Checklist

1. Restart your machine and try the game again. Run the game when no other applications are running. A lot of glitches and crashes are one-time things and don't happen again.

When someone runs one of my games, it is far from the only moving part in their system. There is the OS. The drivers. The many background processes. The other programs that are running. Any one of these programs might have a bug that messes up sections of memory. (Not to mention the fact that RAM can be corrupted on its own.) The longer a computer runs without a reboot, the more likely that things might get messed up. Then the system goes down and comes back up, and everything is nice and clean again.

Most problems only happen once, due to weird and unreproducible effects, and never happen again. If you get a crash, don't immediately freak out. Take a deep breath, reboot your machine, and try again.

2. Sometimes, game files can become corrupted. Try uninstalling, redownloading and reinstalling the game. This fixes a surprising number of odd problems.

The key step. Any program can become corrupted while being downloaded, installed, or just existing on the hard drive. This step is a surefire way to fix any such flaws. I am constantly amazed by how often I can fix a catastrophic, recurring problem by simply telling the user to uninstall and reinstall. No other mucking about with settings, saved games, or whatever.

This step also has the bonus of making sure the user has the newest version of the software.

One warning note. This step has three parts. Uninstall. Download clean copy. Reinstall. Be sure the user doesn't skip a step, or the beneficial effects are lost. For example, if you install without uninstalling first, the installer might leave the existing (corrupted) files alone instead of copying over them.

3. (Windows Users) Your video card driver files might be out of date or damaged. Get the latest versions of video card drivers and reinstall them. Even if you are currently running the newest version, the files or settings might be corrupted or damaged. Reinstalling might fix the problem.

I always hate telling users to install new drivers, for two reasons. First, they often think that I'm just doing it to blow them off. After all, this is what ALL developers tell them to do. Second, unlike the previous steps, identifying your video card, finding the manufacturer's web site, locating the newest driver, downloading it, and installing it requires a reasonable amount of technical skill. Odds are, your grandmother won't be able to figure out how to reinstall drivers.

And yet, I tell people to do it for one reason. It works. Weird, glitchy graphics? This is probably the answer. If new drivers don't do it, a flaw in the actual video card is probably the answer.

Lately, many of my users running 64-bit Windows 7 have had tons of problems that were solved completely by getting the new drivers. Several of them swore up and down that they were using the newest drivers. They weren't.

I strongly believe that the ugly situation with video cards and drivers is one of the key reasons for the huge shift in gaming from PCs to consoles. It's really not good.

4. (Windows users.) If random crashes happen during gameplay, try turning the sound off. If this helps, reinstall your sound card drivers too.

We're getting to the bottom of the barrel now, and this step isn't near as necessary as it used to be. As sound engines have improved, most of my weird crashes from sound card/engine issues faded away.

However, it does eliminate one more set of drivers to work with, and not using sound reduces the amount of memory the game needs. Every once in a while, this fixes a problem.

5. (Windows users.) Sometimes, reinstalling DirectX solves unexplained crashes.

And it does. Very, very rarely. It happens, but seldom enough that I'm considering removing this step from the list. Also, all of our newest games use OpenGL.

And That's It

If it's a problem or crash nobody has reported before and the user goes through these steps (or claims to have done so) and the issue isn't fixed, I give a refund. I'm out of answers.

I do hang onto the e-mails, though, in case other people pop up with the same problem later on. Sometimes a working program gets bushwhacked by another, poorly-written program. For example, on the Mac side, there was once a version of Quicken Scheduler that caused games to stop being able to see the keyboard. When I got the second report of keyboard failures, I sprung into action. Having the earlier report around helped a lot in figuring out the problem.

Steps I Don't Suggest

There are two steps for fixing mysterious problems that I almost never suggest. I feel that they are very extreme, involving too much work (and perhaps expense) to be worth it just to play my little game.

1. Reinstall the Operating System

This is the nuclear bomb, the way to purge your system of all manner of corrupted files. It's also a huge pain in the neck. I generally only suggest this if the user mentions he or she is seeing a lot of nasty problems while using a number of different applications.

2. Get a New Video Card

Video cards break. Seriously. It's happened to me. Sometimes they fail and you need to get a new one. However, I only recommend looking into this if the user mentions having similar problems over a wide range of games and swears up and down that fresh, up-to-date drivers are installed.

In Summary

Tech support is necessary, time-consuming, and aggravating. It tests my patience more than anything else I do. And yet, doing it well will, in the long run, make your customers love you and earn you money.

Be as patient and kind as you can possibly manage. Only fight battles when you have a chance of winning. Consider, with humility, that a problem might be caused by a bug. Also remember that, very often, it won't be your fault. Respect how shoddy and cheap and poorly maintained computers frequently are. And, always, try to treat your customers they way you would want to be treated.

You will always be amazed at how messed up things can get. Good luck.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Everything Breaks, All the Time.

(This is the second of a three part series about the black art of doing tech support. The first part is here.)

Anyone who ever has to do tech support (or who is trying to get a broken program to function) must first internalize one key, vastly important fact:

You can take a flawlessly written program, install it on a new, factory-fresh, basically functional computer, run it, and find that it doesn't work.

When you understand why this is, tech support, giving and receiving, becomes ever so much easier.

Computers Are Mechanical Devices

Computers are so close to magic that it is easy to forget that they are machines. Incredibly, brain-breakingly complex machines, that record and recover millions of bits of information a second (in RAM or on your hard drive), etching down those details in the magnetic fields of microscopically small bits of matter. So much is done, so quickly, on such a small scale that quantum mechanics becomes relevant, that I'm amazed any computer ever manages to work at all, ever.

When data is recorded on the hard drive, errors can happen. There are guards in place (called checksums, for what it's worth) to help keep the errors under control, but there are still many, many ways that incomplete and incorrect chunks of data can be recorded. The longer you operate your computer, the more errors there will be.

Most of the time, when these errors occur, you never find out. They happen in bits of the operating system or in programs that you don't use or the error introduced is so minor you just ignore it. But sometimes the error happens in a graphics driver, or your saved game, or the bit of my RPG that determines whether your characters get experience or not, and suddenly there is a problem.

So What Does This Mean?

It means that even the best-written program will have a ton of problems out in the field that aren't the developer's fault. Problems that need to be fixed by rebooting the computer and relaunching the program (to fix any error in memory) or by reinstalling whatever part of the software (the game, the drivers, the operating system) that have become broken.

If the problem is in the game, your characters might stop doing damage, or you might lose the ability to enter new places, or the game just might start crashing like crazy. Corrupted file in the display drivers? The graphics might be drawn funny, or the screen might always be black, or the game just might start crashing like crazy. Corrupted file in the operating system? The game might stop being able to save, or the settings file (that contains the registration) might disappear, or the game just might start crashing like crazy.

I'm not just blowing smoke to distract from my own errors. These problems happen all the time.

Of course, when users report these problems, they will pretty much always assume that it is your fault and you are an idiot. I have gotten multitudes of bug reports along the lines of, "Whenever I try to start a new game, the program crashes. This is a terrible bug and you should fix it right away!" When I get these messages, what I want to respond (but don't) is, "If my game had a problem this serious, don't you think I would drop everything this instant to fix it? You think I want to sell games that are never usable by anyone? What turnip truck do you think I just rolled off of?"

That's what I don't say. What I do is send them my standard list of tech support steps, and, 99% of the time, problem solved.

My Rule For When I Start To Hunt For a Bug

It's a simple one.

I never even consider that a problem someone reports is a bug in my code until two people report the exact same problem.

Sometimes, if the report is vague enough, I wait for three people. It can be maddening to get reports of catastrophic problems and not act on them, but it's worse to waste your limited, precious time hunting for gremlins.

We Live In a World Of Frustrations

I know that, every time I release a new game, thousands of people will get the demo, run it, and it won't work because of the reasons outlined above. They delete the game, write me off as a bonehead, and never send me teh moneyz. This is hugely frustrating. Nobody wants to be thought an idiot, and everyone wants the aforementioned moneyz. It's sad, but it's part of the business of writing games for computers.

It's even worse when they then go online and write about what a bonehead you are. Recently, a site called Platform Nation reviewed our newest game, Avadon. The reviewer got stuck with a horrible glitch that teleported his character into nothingness. He proceeds to excoriate me for writing such a terribly buggy game. Please believe me when I say that nobody, and I mean nobody, besides the reviewer has ever reported this problem. Don't believe me? Our support and Avadon forums have never had a mention of it. But the reviewer still called the game "wrong or broken" and "unforgivable " and gave it 1/10.

(Interestingly, the review has disappeared from the main site, and the only remaining copy is on their forums. I can therefore neglect expressing any other opinions about the reviewer's level of professionalism.)

Of course, if this sort of horrible game-breaking behavior was a bug, I would do everything I could to fix it. But that's not how things work.

Game Development Isn't For Wimps

Many people will get a game that breaks, and most of them will simply disappear and never try your product again. But some of them, happily, will come to you for help. When they do, you should smile, take a deep breath, and do what you can to make them happy. When the problem is a weird one I've never heard of, I will first send them my magic troubleshooting checklist that solves all problems. I'll post that next week, and everything will be better for everyone forever and always.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seven Tips For Giving Good Tech Support.

When you try to start a business selling indie games (or any software product, really), writing and releasing the game is only half the battle. You then have to market and support it. Marketing is difficult, but there are lots of good resources to advise you on how to do it. Providing tech support to confused users is a much more arcane task, and I know of few resources to teach the hapless young developer how to do it well.

As a small developer, you have to provide timely, personal tech support. The ability to do so is one of your best Magic Powers as a small developer. Large companies are horrible at providing support, and people are used to that. As a result, a single personal e-mail to someone having a problem with your product can make you a fan for life.

But at the same time, as a small developer, you have very little time to spare for support. Time spent getting the game working for one person is time not spent making a new game for everyone. You will need to develop a sense of when the time lost helping a person is not worth it, either because you won't be able to solve their problem or because they will not able to implement the fix you provide.

It's Not a Simple Job

Supporting a game is hard. You will get complaints from people with the most amazing jury-rigged computers: motley assemblies of shoddy parts, duct tape, components bought at the cheapest possible price, and video cards found at the bottom of boxes of cereal. Machines that should, if there was any justice in the world, evaporate into a cloud of flame and self-disgust the moment they are turned on.

And while dealing with the infinite configurations of computers in the world is challenging, dealing with their owners can be worse. No matter how perversely disobedient a machine can be, humans are more difficult. People will report problems to you in only the vaguest possible terms, have no idea how their computers work, or outright lie to you about what they have been doing.

If you want to stay in business, you have no choice but to support your game. So here, based on my experience, is some advice and observations from someone running a small company who needs to do tech support.

Tip 1 - Be Patient

Dealing with other humans is frustrating, but you have to do it. You want, whenever possible, for them to go away satisfied. Be prepared, especially when dealing with a customer on the phone, to take a deep breath, count to three, and be as friendly and professional as possible. I know. You want to get back to working on your game. Time is short, and this person doesn't even know whether he's using Windows or Mac. Do your best to talk him through it. Remember, you can make a fan for life.

Tip 2 - Don't Be a Pushover

Some people will want you to teach them on the phone every detail about how their computer works. Some people are desperately lonely and want someone to talk to. Some people will have a machine so old or messed up that your game will never work. Politely and firmly cut these people off.

Remember: It's only worth the time to do tech support if you have the chance to, in a reasonable amount of time, fix a problem and make a loyal customer. If you realize that, at the end of the road, you aren't going to end with a happy person and a working product, end the conversation as quickly and pleasantly as possible.

Tip 3 - Be Ready To Ask Questions

The people who use your product are not generally tech experts, nor should they have to be. They will have no idea what information they need to provide to help you troubleshoot their problem. If I had a dime for every time an eight-year old (or a sixty-year old) sent me a bug report saying only, "The game crashed. What should I do?" then I would have, well, a lot of dimes.

Prepare a list of information people need to provide to help you solve their problem. Windows, Mac, or Linux? What version of the operating system? What brand of computer? Exactly what went wrong? Was it the installer that went funny or the game itself? Did rebooting the machine help? When you get a tech support request that doesn't give you enough information to have a clue what's going on, one option is to send the list of questions.

Generally, when you do this, one of three things will happen. One: They'll answer the questions, and you'll have enough info to start to help them. Two: They will resolve the problem on their own. Yay! Three: They will be unable to answer them and you'll never hear from them again. This is unfortunate, but, honestly, if the user isn't technically apt enough to answer a handful of basic questions, they will likely be unable to enact any fixes you suggest.

Happily, the list of questions is not something I send out very often. I deal with most problems by sending out my list of generic things to do to solve any problem. This takes care of the vast majority of issues, and I will share my list with you in detail in an upcoming post.

Tip 4 - Computers Are Delicate Mechanical Devices

I'm going to go into this in much more detail in the next installment, but this point is so very important that I have to bring it up now. Computers are incredibly complicated and delicate machines. Sometimes they go wrong. Sometimes files get corrupted. Sometimes RAM gets corrupted. Even a flawlessly bug-free program running on a perfectly maintained computer can break.

A huge chunk of your support will just involve having people reboot their machines and reinstall their programs (and drivers). This will fix 90% of reported problems, if you can get the user to do it ...

Tip 5 - The Users Will Lie To You

I blame this one on the horrible state of tech support in the industry in general. Much of tech support involves giving bad or time-consuming advice in the hope that the user will just go away. When I am asked for help, the person asking is generally angry, frustrated, and full of mistrust. This leads, alas, to lots of e-mail conversations like this one:

User: "I have this problem." (That I know is fixed in the newest version of my game.)
Me: "OK. Uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "I did that. The problem is still there."
Me: "I see. Now what you need to do is uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "OK. Done. I still have the problem."
Me: "Unfortunate. Now, please, I beg of you, in the name of God and all that is holy, uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "I did that. It fixed the problem."
Me: "I can taste colors."

To hear users tell it, their computers are flawlessly-maintained, their drivers are all up-to-date, and every program in the world works but yours. They aren't necessarily intentionally lying. They might just not know that, say, newer drivers have come out. Just don't take anything you are told as gospel, especially if you know they're wrong.

Tip 6 - Know When To Give Up

There are some problems that I just give up on. If the machine is too old or too underpowered. If the problem is with the mouse cursor not moving right. (I get this sometimes, and, beyond suggesting trying a different mouse, I really don't know what to say here.) If the keyboard starts to not be recognized. (This happens sometimes too, and it's an OS/Program Incompatibility problem that I can't really handle.) If the graphics aren't working and the drivers for their freaky, off-brand video card aren't being updated anymore.

It sucks, but sometimes all you can do is apologize and offer a refund. The point of tech support is to fix the problem. If you have no capability to fix the problem, all you can do is give their money back and hope for their business in a future life. If you treat people fairly, when they get a new computer, they may very well come back to try again.

Tip 7 - Have a Standard List of Troubleshooting Steps

Once you have helped people long enough, you will come up with a list of steps that fix the bulk of their problems. Once you have this list and someone says they have a weird problem that definitely isn't a bug, you can send this list and most of the time that's enough to close the ticket. The items on the list will vary depending on the game and the platform. In a future post, I'll share Spiderweb's list. You might find it helpful.

That's a rough guide and a good start. In the next post, I will go off on a philosophical treatise about the nature of computers as physical machines. Then I will reveal my standard tech support checklist. Say tuned!