January 26, 2011

Trial by fire: Vesuvio (part 1)

Remember Vesuvio? It was a little game I designed for the Game Design Challenge blog, but ultimately, one I never tested. Now, it's one year later, and I'm due to go to Cannes' International Game Festival as a fledgling author. I have two other games under my belt (both unedited prototypes), but I wanted an even 3, and Vesuvio had been deemed interesting at the time.

Well, guess what? It wasn't... At least, the first time we played.

Let's just gloss over the fact that you can't find flint or fossiles near basaltic/volcanic rocks. That's not the core of the game system.

Before building the prototype, I did some minor changes (original rules here). 
There are 40 squares currently divided thusly: 
-> 20 mining spots (10 "1 PA-> 1 card", 5 "2 PA -> Draw 2, keep 1 card" and 5 "4 PA -> Draw 2") 
-> 5 rifts
-> 15 with nothing but dirt. 
The cards are divided by color:
-> 15 Green (6 Flint with a value of 0, 6 Fool's gold with a value of 1, 3 Sapphire with a value of 3)
-> 15 Orange (1 Flint, 5 Fool's gold, 6 Golds with a value of 2, 3 Fossils with a value of 3)
-> 15 Red (2 Golds, 6 Fossils, 6 Strange Rocks with a value of 4, 1 Dead sea Parchments with a value of 10)
The "Hinder" action and the special items were removed, too. (Honestly, I don't know why I added the special items in the first place... They seem totally unbalanced, too)

The random squares distribution works, at least.  

The first try involved 4 players. The problem encountered was that the mining squares were screwed up: I intended the 1 and 2 Action Points for a card to be meager lodes and the 4 AP for 2 cards to be bountiful. It turned out to be exactly not that. People would stay on a 1 AP one and spend their 4 points for 4 cards. And the explosion starting when people reached collectively 15 points, why go up? And 15 points was reached veeeeery fast. We toyed with the idea of "the volcano erupts when people reach 15 cards" but still, there was no interest going up. I had to get my players moving, make them want to reach the summit and I had to make them fear the wrath of the molten rocks.

Getting the players moving
"Each player can use a mining spot only once per turn" That way, you can't stay on a spot forever, and spots I intended meager stayed meager. You can stay on a spot forever, but that means losing APs, APs that others will use.
The squares "4 APs = 2 cards" are reduced to "3 APs = 2 cards". That way it's more itneresting to reach them because there's a chance you can use them right away, and players are enticed to keep moving afte that in order to lose as few APs as possible.
"A rift is 2 squares in one" The +1PA introduced many headache-inducing special cases... With this, it's just 2 squares following the rules of the zone they're in, and the rift separates neatly the 2 squares.
Finally, the summit of the volcano. As it was, reaching it was just a suicidal move, no more, no less. My players had the idea that reaching the summit enabled you to take a picture of the volcano mouth, a picture not worth a thousand words, but at least 8 points.
And the green zone had too many points in its deck, so 2 of the 3 sapphires in the green deck were changed in 1 Fool's gold and 1 gold

Fear the wrath of the Fire God !
I wanted the player to fear the eruption, which meant being in the red zone when it started. Linking the eruption with how many points or cards had been drawn meant too many possibilities for this plan to go awry. Even if I said "30 cards and then boom", people would go to the red zone, make it barren, then go down before the volcano had a chance to get them.
"The eruption starts when the card "eruption" is drawn from its random spot in the second half of the Red deck" The Dead sea parchments were replaced with this card. That way, you don't know when everything will go boom. You may have an idea, but you can't plan. There's an element of luck, which many people like.
Second problem, how does it move? If people started the eruption, and then stopped getting cards, the lava would not flow. I needed i to flow a minimum each turn. And I decided that having to  keep track of the score to know the lava's speed was uninteresting.
"Lava moves at the end of each player's turn, 1 square at a time, +1 for each card that was drawn by the player" I got roasted that way. I would have survived, but the player before me drew a card. Slick bastard...

The game was still dull.

The two last propositions were adding a dice, or action cards, to have something to do, introduce a chaos element, SOMETHING to spice it up. And reducing the Green zone while expanding the Red zone. It is currently suicidal to go Red, which is NOT what I intended.

The problem, mainly, was that there were currently no interactions between players. You played, they played. You got burned. Yeepeekai. There are meaningful choices, but not enough, or interesting enough, to keep playing. And the "Cheer" maneuver is just useless. No incentives to use it.

Next time: the 2 players trial !

October 3, 2010

Deep in the heart of Minecraft

So, t'was time for an aqueduct, so I could have water near my home. You never know, I could want to raise some wheat...

There was a small waterfall on one of the other sides of the mountain. I set out to prepare all the way it would have to run through to arrive. Working on some cobblestone blocks, I manage some pretty nice steps, very smooth. And pave the way.
 Yeah, I carved again a part of the mountain. Quickest route FTW !
Once that's done (and it better work, because with the paving, I can't go back through that tunnel without mining again. And it's 2 pickaxes-using long!), it's time to release the water.

Oookay. Little problem there, I may need to wall it until it reaches the tunnel... No problem, I have exactly what's needed !
Yeah. So, water still seeps through everything 5 blocks away from its origin. Guess the acqueduct doesn't pan out. Also, I've discovered I can get water by putting it in a bucket. So long, unfinished project... I have so many more...

Next up are the Tower of Babel and the Stairs to Hell. Basically, I just want to go as far as possible Up and Down. The tower I will build during the day, the stairs to occupy me at night. I'm still unable to sleep...

Long story short (it took days), the stairs were litterally straigthforward to do:
 I discovered I was as far down as I could hope when I encountered these blocks. It ain't gravel, as I first thought. Ten minutes of wailing at it with my new trusty pickaxe (number 34? 35?) did nothing. NVE (No Visible Effect). I had found the legendary adminium bedrock, impervious to anything. My work was done.
 And the way up was long...
Incidentally, I encoutered Iron, Gold, Diamond, and a strange red ore that seems magnetized enough for me to make a compass. You never know, it might come in handy... Starting from that point, I will stripmine the area: at these depths, the odds of finding interesting stuff are much higher.

The tower proved a bit trickier, mainly because I wanted it to be cirular, and the stairs seemed to have a mind of their own, sometimes not facing where I wanted to.

 Also, I wanted the walls to be glass, so I could see outside while going up or down. This was reconnaissance, after all (and stone walls were really claustrophobic). You can't imagine how much glass I did smelt to get this result:
 You can't imagine how much glass I did smelt to get this result:
Not to shabby, if I do say so myself. And the view is great :). But for some reason, I can't show you...
See you next time !

September 22, 2010

Minecrafting, deeper and deeper

It all started with these articles from rock, paper, shotgun. Actually, that's not exactly right. I tried the Minecraft Classic a while ago, but did not really "get it". Well, with the free weekend (too late, sorry), I finally caved in (haha) and went into Minecraft.

So, stranded on this strange land, and finding the grisly remains of 3 people would were looking just too much like me to be comfortable, I went in search for a dwelling before night settled...

I found a nice cliff not too far from where I was, dug into it, which gave me enough material to upgrade my equipment to stone items. Quickly tired of putting blocks in front of my home every night to ward things that go bump (and not wanting to again be a thing that go argh) and destroying them the next morning, I installed a nice little door:

It worked like a charm. I could open and close it with a flick of the wrist. Near it, I had my stove and my crafting table, as I passed a good portion of the day outside. On the morning came a creeper, wanting to sell me cookies or something. When I did not let him enter, the guy got so angry that he blew up, taking with him my door, the wall, my stove and table. Talk about being on a short fuse !

So, the next incarnations of my tools were put further away, with a big chest for all the thing I had accumulated:

It was a nice comfy home. Problem was, being stranded here left me a bit of an insomniac. Incapable of sleeping, I spent the nights mining, searching for coal for my torches (I know of a guy that was mining in the dark for 3 days; it did not end well...) and for iron. Also, the worry of hearing all those awful things that wanted my flesh put such a cramp on my stomach that I could not eat a thing. The problem with all that? I had no sense of time.
I would often come back from my mining in order to go outside, only to find that most of the day had already sweeped past.
I needed a way to know the time of day...

I decided I needed a mezzanine. Could I even do that? I needed sand for that... So off I went in search for sand. Luck struck out, and a nice sand trap revealed itself. I just added some stairs to easily go up and down (turns out I'm a bit of a stairs freak, you'll see)

Smelting is easy. You can even keep it running while you do other things. If you've got enough wood, or coal.

Glass ! So, t'was time to redo my ceiling with glass. I decided I needed two steps. A glass ceiling just above me, and another one faaaaaar above. You never know...

It went faster than I thought it would. Only had to blow some more glass once because I didn't put some blocks where I should have. It was nice. There was only one problem:

The cliff... The cliff above blocked my beautiful view !! Time for another project: DESTROYING THE CLIFF! Didn't know how long it would take. And running up, mining, then running down to get more tools would be tiring as hell. Stairs time !

Stairs. Beautiful stairs. So beautiful, in fact, that I cannot bear myself to use you. You know what, little stairs? Stay right there, I'll just step on my glassy ceiling, and mine the cliff from below. Really, get some rest, relax, i've got it.

A temporary cobblestone tower on my fragile glass ceiling, what could go wrong? This... Isn't... Really... Easy... Need to reach... Aw Crap...

Night is falling. The zombies will come and... Aw, shoot it, I'm almost finished. So I'm continuing my work, whitling away at the cliff when a zombie moans loudly right above me. Yay, that means I'm almost there! I just need to NOT have the zombie fall on me...
Worst minutes in my life. Let me tell you, if you haven't been shoveling dirt from under while a zombie moans and groans right above, you do not know what the words stress and fear mean...

And Finally !

That is MUCH better !

Next up : The aqueduct !

July 15, 2010

Taken for granted

Recently, I've been indulging in a little retro-modern gaming: I've bought Final Fantasy 3, the remake for the DS. It was a steal. And it was the only one I hadn't played of the 6 first.

I had bought it last year, played for like half an hour, and gotten killed. It had been put on a shelf ever since, until yesterday.

Playing it seems like a window in yesterdays' game design. Everything I've now taken for granted in many games is just not there. Don't get me wrong, that does not make it a bad game, it's just harder.

It began with the equipment. I'm now used to being able to equip what I buy the moment it is bought, while I'm still talking with the vendor. Not so here. You must first leave the shop, then open the menu, go to equipment and equip your characters. Needless to say, they've done half a dungeon half naked (does that make them quarter something?) before I've remembered the upgrades I had bought.

It continued in the second village I entered. The people there told me to go somewhere else to help them. But there was a cave in the village itself ! It was a mithril mine ! I could not not go there first (double negatives or not. Not) ! Well, let's just say the very first monster handed me a precious gift: a portion of my lower anatomy. Very quickly and nicely wrapped, too. Ooooh, so this was a part of the game I could access now but should come back later, when I was stronger (or could try to do the hard way) ? Hadn't seen that in a while...

And then I got teammates. You would think the fights would have gotten easier. Partly. Yes, my damage output was higher, but the monsters were quite strong from then on too. And my characters NEVER attacked in the same order. And their range of damage was quite big for a Final Fantasy. I'm used to character dealing 33 to 35 damage with hits. Not with a range of 5 to 35. Makes it harder to optimise the fights (yeah, I'm one of those guys who strikes the second monster with the first and third character, the first monster with the second chracter and having the third playing the fiddle on the fourth, knowing that their combined onslaughts will kill two of the monsters, when just bashing A would result in some of the damage being wasted and only the first monster being killed), but I can live with that.

And then came a surprise attack. Ok, no pb, the monsters will have a free shot, I'll weather it and then turn the damage hose on them. Free shot weathered, the hose turned into a trickle. Huh? So, surprise attack HALVE my damage output FOR THE ENTIRE FIGHT?! Needless to say, when I surprise them, I just get a free shot... That would be harder to live with...

And then someone died. The ubiquitous Phenix Down was here. But, the first problem was that, for the first time in a FF I played, I could not buy them, I had only found 2. Being the hoarder that I am, I decided to finish the fight. I could live with a character having a bit less experience than the others. At the end of the fight, he would be revived with 1 HP.
Ah? No... Still dead.
Ok, then, I'll just go to one of the magic pond, eternal restorers of HP and MP. Who needs rest when you've got one of those?
Ah? No... The others were fresher, this one wasn't getting any.
Aaaaah, so THAT's why you need to rest at an inn ! "What-ho, innkeeper, your finest room so my friend here can sleep off its little deahtover !"
Ah? No... Guess I'll need to use a Phenix down after all.
But, what if I had used all of them? I would have to carry the litteral dead weight while fighting monsters as
if all my team was alive? That way lies madness. And death. More death.

And then, there was a boss. No problem, it's a FF, there will be a save point and magic pond right before it !
Now where's that pond? And that save point...?
Where do I save anyway?
World Map? Still better than a chuch, I imagine...

Be a Hoarder? Not a good idea in this game, it seems.

This will be a strange trip, mark my words !

January 12, 2010

Why Not Stay Awhile?

This post will take care of several things I've been wanting to mention, but never took the time to do. Plus, of course, a real post with actual thoughts in it.

First, happy new year to you all. I would say "may it be everything 2009 wasn't", but that would be a huge list of things, so let's say just say "Hope it will be a goodyear" (I never get tyred of that one).

Second, let's all make a round of applause for Lews here (wave to them, don't be shy, they don't bite) who's joining us and will be writing articles alongside yours truly. Lews has his own blog, in french, "Le Nid du Dragon", which I've joined to write articles there too. let's hope the collaboration will be fruitful

Third, because it is relevant to this blog, I did quit my job last month, because it was far from satisying and stifled my need to create things. For the next two years, my goal is now to become a freelance board game designer. So you might will see articles on that kind of things here. It has already started some months ago, if you have been paying attention.
Suffice to say, the next two years should be very interesting... It will not be easy, but it should be fun.

That's it for our announcements. On to our subject, and that subject will be customer retention. And Marketing.
I've recently purchased back issues from a board game magazine (Plato magazine, which you may or may not know) as I've only recently discovered them and like their writing style. No, that's wrong. The incentive for getting the back issues was because they offered not 1, but 3 board games with it. From a rather huge list, I might add. Happy with my purchase, I talked about it with one of the person that made me discover said magazine, and saw him make a face.
"I've been a subscriber to their magazine almost since day one. Loyal. What do I get for it? Jack. You come along innocently, have now almost all the issues I have, and 3 games to boot..."
"Oh, I can see how you might have issues with that..."

Pun nonwithstanding, it got me thinking. Subscription-based magazines tend to try to attract new people by offering incentives, but completely forget about their current subscribers, as though persuaded that they would be loyal for life. Now, how do companies entice people to come, stay, or come back? Time for some research! Some necroblogging later, I have a number of rewards and incentives types.

1) Veteran Rewards

The term I'm using comes from Tabula Rasa (again), who had something called the veteran rewards, fluff things that you got after you had been a subscriber for some time: you can see the rewards for three months, six months (looking like Richard Garriot... Now that will boost troops' morale!) and nine months of fighting the Thrax.
City of Heroes has such a program too. hey, look, so does Aion.

Must be an NCSoft thing. At least they seem to understand the value of long-time subscribers. It sadly didn't save TR, though.

DDO has another take on this: for each month you are subscribing, and your reward is Turbine Points, which you can use to unlock parts of the game once you decide to cancel your subscription. Be a subscriber long enough, and you might as well have purchased a lifetime subscription.

So, the longer you subscribe, the more things you have that differentiate you from a new player, even if he can play 40 hours a day and you can't.

2) Anniversary Rewards

Not yours, but the game's anniversary. I found these two articles from the Ancient Gaming Noob about WoW and Everquest 2. And this for LOTRO second anniversary.
These rewards are only for people who are current subscribers at the time of the event, whether they've been subscribing for 1 hour or for 5 years.

3) Referee Rewards

If you can get more people to play the game you're playing, the company might offer you some rewards for the task.
Sometimes, the more people you get, the more rewards befall you. Sometimes, the rewards are split.

4) Homecoming Rewards

The reward for coming back to the game. Most of the time, it's a free coupon to play the game a few days. It's a bit like when Steam makes a full game available for an entire Week-end.
The goal here is to make lost subscribers see that the game has changed, in the hope that their tastebuds will make them want more.
If anyone knows of a game that offer "substantial" rewards for coming back, I'm interested, because now that I think about it, the coupon is free of charge. Or, you might see it as a reward for having subscribed in the past (good times, good times).

5) Preorder Reward

You are rewarded for getting the game before it has had a chance to be reviewed, and you have only seen some beta screenshots (or been in the beta). A reward based on faith, so to say. Congratulations, a (would be) early adopter is you ! I won't even bother researching the subject, just pick an MMORPG at random from the last 3 years, and you'll see plenty of them. Depending on the platform, your reward will be different, so you'll have to make your research here.

Yeah, so?
Many kind huh? And I'm not even talking of what you can get for F2P games where you send money, à la Kingdom of Loathing... So, online games do cater more to their customers than magazines.

But... Only one catering is for current, long standing customers. It's (mostly; see below) comprised of fluff, which is fine, because you shouldn't get a gaming advantage for time spent paying and not time spent playing, IMO. Now that is another can of worms I am not opening. For now...
All the others are oriented towards getting new customers. Or getting back lost ones. Which maybe they wouldn't have lost if the game had been finished before getting rushed - oooo, can of worms, again ! They're just everywhere.

So what? Why am I bothered by these rarities ? Well, a well known motto is that "getting new customers is [insert favorite number] more expensive than keeping existing ones". It should be a given to care for them, then, no?
But a motto is easy to say, and I can't really give expenses numbers to back it up.

Consider EVE online. There is a reward for staying subscribed, and that is skill points. You constantly gain them overtime. So, someone who has been p(l)aying for years will have more than someone who has been playing 24/24 last month. This gives them an edge on the field, although it's more of a multifaced edge than a Two-Handed Sword of Extreme Slashiness, as each skill has a maximum level reachable. It's not gamebreaking, as someone who has paid less, but played more will have earned more money (I hope).
The result is that people have a reason to continue paying even if their interest in the game has temporarily waned. Yes, there are people who leave the game, but EVE has been growing organically since its opening, garnering more than 300k paying customers to this day.

Now consider WoW. Or Everquest. When someone's interest in the game has waned, he has no real interest in continuing to pay (laziness excluded): if he does not play for 6 months, in one case, he will have lost 6*month cost of the game for no benefits, in the other, he won't have lost the money, and still no benefits.
In EVE, 6 months of skill growth is still something to keep in mind.

True, it won't save a game that lacks basic fun, like Tabula Rasa, which found its fun months after its grand debuts. Months too late. But it will make people think twice before unsubscribing. And think twice in a good way. Not think twice in a "oh-god-they-want-me-to-write-a-6500-words-essay-about-why-I'm-leaving-and-make-3-phone-calls,one-of-them-in-India,let's-just-stay-subscribed" way.
See the difference? One will make people talk about they like the game, just not now, to their friend, the other will make them bitch to their friends. Guess which one...

December 3, 2009

NaNoWriMian's bad habits

Yup, I failed the NaNoWriMo AGAIN this year... Let's just say that quitting my job took more out of me than I thought, and that procrastination isn't just the French title of a Terry Pratchett's book. Still, between my meta-essay and the text itself, I wrote more than 15k words, which is a record. I'm still not giving up and will continue to write that novel. And search another idea for next year.

While on one of my blog-reading sprees, I encountered this today. And... Wished I had found it sooner.
It did hit some points home.

Let's see how...

Point 1:
I hate so called classics... If you want me NOT to read a book, tell me it's a classic that I must read for my personal culture. Which is ironic, because if someone hasn't read a book, or seen a movie I consider a classic, I’ll tell them that.
Not very bright, eh?
Still, I'm pretty sure I did use some old vernacular in my text. Because I thought I needed them...

Point 2:
The fudging writer's block... I encountered it quite a few times during my write-through, until I finally told myself to just write and see what would happen. Too bad, Time was up when I finally reached that point.
I just hope I can remember for the next time that "A text does not have to be perfect the first time and can always be revised".
After all, I have done it for some of my posts...
In my opinion, writing at least your ideas enables you to not misplace them. Then the hours you would have spent hours trying to rewind the Ariane's thread of your thoughts to the right point (while escaping the Minotaur of Just-screw-it) can be spent on polishing these ideas ores into a beautiful thing.
I didn't say I always did it, I just say it's a good thing.

Point 3:
The long paragraphs... I once wrote an essay for school that contained only three phrases, and was more than a page long. Gotta love semi-colons. Let's just say the teacher's reaction cured me of this, even if I'm aware I can become a little long winded. So, that's not something I learned in school...
If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you need to air your text. A wall of text is just impossible to digest except for some rare people. Think of a paragraph as what you might say between two breaths. I... think that's where the term "long-winded" I used might be coming from, in fact.

Point 4:
I admit I'm torn. I don't think it's necessary, nor do I think it should be banned. I think it's a matter of style, and character. If it fits what you're writing, then go on. If beating around the bush without saying anything directly is more of your style, I'm still with you.
I once was on a forum where it had been decided that profanity should be replaced with flower names. So you might encounter a "*tulip*ing *petunias* of the *rose*". Made for some flowery speeches, believe me. And still, it WAS relieving.
Your style is your style. That's what matters. You don't write for others, you write for you. How do you say it...? What's bred in the bone comes out in the blood?

Point 5:
I don't quote sources. Or if I do, it's that I'm writing an essay.
Going on a tangent here: I use brands in my texts. I use known authors, I use movie titles, to hammer down the fact that people are in a/the real world. But, I'm not convinced it really helps, considering that it's not something I often encounter in other works. What do you think? What makes you think a world is more than paper-thin?

Point 6:
That's hard... I'm an engineer by training, doubled as a marketer. I'm overtrained to analyse coldly, and to be detached. As such, I have never lost control of a character I was writing, as happens sometimes to other writers. I'd love to suddenly feel that these guys have a life of their own, and I'm just telling what's happening, or, perhaps, arguing with them. Still, I think they have their personalities that build over time, and some can be quite passionate.
I think I'll need to work on that.

Point 7:
This is true. And this is something that is true whenever something is created: writing, drawing, game design... Constructive criticism must be taken well, and taken into account, but in the end, you can't listen to everyone's ideas and advices. Why? Firstly, because it won't be your baby anymore, and if it's not yours, it's harder to like it (that... sounded a lot less against adoption in my mind). Secondly, because you can't please everyone and some advice will be contradictory.

I'll say it again: write (create) for you. Especially if you don't live from it. If you live from it, then it becomes a matter of personal belief... I personally think that if catering from time to time to the unwashed masses enables you to write what you want the rest of the time is ok. No one gets hurt, everyone's happy, what do you think?

November 4, 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009

Perhaps you have heard people talk about the NaNoWriMo. It's a massive task: write, in one month, a novel of 50 000 words. Yup, you read that right. That's 1667 words per day.

I tried (and failed) last year, but this year, things will be different. First, I've thought more about my story. I just need some last few research until it starts.

What do you mean, "It's already started" ?
You mean we're really the 4th of November? It's just not a nightmare I've been having?

Why, yes, I haven't written a thing ! You don't write before it starts, that would be cheating !

Yes, yes, okay, it has started and I should be writing... Geez, get off my back, already, people!

I guess I'll have some trouble writing the novel I had in mind. Find myself stuck when I try. Where I'm not stuck is when I write about what I want to write, the decisions I have to face, and how the thing is building itself block by block.

An essay on a novel. Writing about writing.

This should make me learn some things.

For the novel? Weeeell, there's always next year... :S

Still, wish me some fortitude on this task, I'm gonna need it.