Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Minarian Legends

In the upcoming Minarian Legends, the Tower of Zards will have its terrible story told. Below is an excerpt from the chapter on the Tower itself:

The Tower of Zards has borne an evil reputation since pre-Cataclysmic times. The Scarlet Witch King, when he rose against Lloroi rule, raised the mighty Tower with demonic aid and braced its cyclopean stones with potent magic. In the end, the Tower could not shelter him from defeat, but its ruins stood tall despite the devastating upheavals of the Cataclysm in the next generation. Afterwards, the barbarous survivors of the deceased civilization shunned the witchbuilt citadel, not caring to dwell in the shadow of grim, cliff-chiseled walls so often lit from within by some lurid glare whose source seemed to be neither the sun, moon, nor stars. The nomads early began calling the tower “Zards,” a word that translates as “taboo.”

For twelve hundred years the castle stood; those few who trespassed upon it inevitably figured in terrifying legends of doom or madness. Located far from any civilized state, the Tower became known to the outside world only through the discounted tales of an occasional traveler or trader from the barbarian territories. Doubtless, affairs would have long remained just so had not a strange intruder appeared without warning in the Shards of Lor early in the twelfth century.

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Monday, November 23, 2020

Sit Down, Shut Up, and DIE

According to Eve Crevoshay and her "advocacy" group Take This, the most important thing facing developers today is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).  Let me fix it for her:  Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE).

You know it's funny.  When I was pitching our new mobile games studio, Dead Reckoning, to major AAA game publishers and some of the top game-focused VC's in the world, *not once* did I get asked what my diversity plan was.  I did get asked about the equity plan:  As in, how much equity were my other, mostly white, male co-founders getting.  If one thing was consistent about my ever-morphing pitch deck, it was a lack of a slide entitled "Veteran Team of Game Makers Committed to DIE".  We've raised $10M in funding now and still not a single question about it.  So strange!

It's almost as if those smart game VCs looked at all the big game exits over the last few years, observed the composition of the teams, and silently noted that homogeneity seems to actually be a strength.  How else could Espoo, Finland become the game development powerhouse it has, when they are so disadvantaged relative to DIE initiatives, having a paltry sub-10% non-Finnish talent pool to draw from.  Maybe they noted, as I did of all the acquisitions I assisted with at GC Games, a successful studio in Sweden most often consisted of a bunch of Swedish men.  A successful studio in Turkey, a bunch of male Turks.  

As for Ms. Crevoshay, it's clear she has never, nor will ever, *create* anything of value herself, so she goes about advocating death for others.  I suppose "those who can't do, advocate."


Sunday, November 15, 2020

War Leader cover


DIVINE RIGHT is not the only board-and-counters game we are currently developing. Once we have the counters done and refined for VASSAL, we will start looking for playtesters interested in playtesting WAR LEADER, which can be thought of as an advanced tactical combat game that is to fantasy combat what ASL is to WWII infantry combat. We're looking at it as a system that will initially be constructed for the world of Selenoth, but will allow modules of different fantasy worlds to be developed, so the same system can be applied to scenarios involving everything from the Uruk-Hai to the Cauldron Born, the White Walkers, and the goblins of Zorn.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Bandits Do Their Laundry

Elder Scrolls Online is currently one of the most popular MMOs with over 15 million players and while I’m sure there are many reasons for its remarkable success, I believe one is that the world is carefully crafted and not just made.

While exploring one of the many dungeon delves across Tamriel, I noticed that the bandits who lived and would soon die by my hand had done their laundry. It was hanging up between a few tents with a desk in it, near some barrels, weapon rack, cooking fire, and various other details like a very nice and out of place chair—all stolen no doubt.  

It was completely unnecessary and they could have had the NPC bandits just standing around near some crates, barrels and maybe a fire and nobody would have complained. Zenimax, was not content with that level of detail and immersion so I carefully made my way around the dungeon, slaughtering its inhabitants as I went, to see the details. Remarkably, this sort of immersive detail was scattered throughout a simple dungeon delve.

I believe there is a very valuable lesson for any writer, dungeon master, game developer, or cartographer: the little details make the world. This isn’t to say you always have to mention the laundry, but adding small details instantly adds to believability and immersion.

Think about the most popular fantasy worlds like Middle Earth, Azeroth, the Imperium of Man, Gotham, Krynn, the Star Wars universe, Narnia, Hybora, Westeros, and Tamriel (Skyrim at least), and they are all filled with depth starting with small details. So take a moment and add a few small things to your world if you are creating one, or at least stop and smell the fresh laundry before continuing the slaughter.


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Conan the Culturally Sensitive

If you're going to bill your game as being true to the spirit of the original source material, one thing you really need to accept is the likelihood that the game is not going to be true to the spirit of some modern sensibilities. The developers of this Conan RPG don't appear to understand that.

We made changes to Conan the Wanderer on a cultural consultant’s recommendations that created a more rounded and well-developed representation of the fictional cultures based on their obviously real South and East Asian counterparts. Word choices were edited throughout for tone, like removing “exotic” and “mysterious” replacing it with a better adjective to describe its people and places, so that players inhabiting eastern characters in their games aren’t just a stereotype of strange, unknown people, and placed them at the center of this book. This was an issue for us in the original version, as it often assumed to paint all eastern characters with the same brush, instead of inspiring a sense of rich societies and cultures.

The material is and always has been wholly faithful to Robert E Howard. We’re not changing anything about the setting or the world. Not a single word of REH’s text has been altered. The only adjustments are being made to the game content itself, or fiction we’ve derived and extrapolated from his works, particularly the way we discuss and present that material. 

I'm not saying there is anything intrinsically wrong with a culturally sensitive Conan, although that would arguably work much better as a parody than as a straight-faced RPG. But you can't honestly advertise the game as being Robert E. Howard's Conan. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Divine Right Games Website

We are pleased to announce the new Divine Right Games website.

If you are interested in getting firsthand news about the upcoming Collector's Edition you can find a sign-up for the newsletter. 

In addition to news about Collector's Edition it will regularly showcase artwork, sneak peaks, and lore from Minaria.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Dr Frankenstein's Game Design

Game Design legend Chris Crawford explains a fundamental mistake made by many game designers:

One of my most deeply-held beliefs recently gelled for me. Throughout my career, I have devoted my most serious design efforts towards working out the algorithms that form the foundation of my games. My thinking here is so deeply held that only recently have I realized that other people don’t think that way. They think about games or interactive storytelling in terms of graphics, mechanics, user experience, gameplay, and all manner of other minor details. They seem to think that game design and interactive storytelling are just a matter of putting all the right features in place.

Frankenstein’s Mistake

To make my point, I’ll use an analogy based on the Frankenstein meme. The basic strategy used by Dr. Frankenstein was to stitch together a lot of pieces of the body (features) and then ‘animate’ them with electricity. To him, a human being is a collection of pieces: arms, legs, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, and so forth. Just put them together, give them a jolt of electricity, and you’ve got yourself a human being. 

That’s entirely wrong, and it could never work, because the human body is not a collection of pieces; it’s a system of processes. To build a human body, you start with the most elementary processes: cell metabolism. Once you’ve got the biochemistry of a cell working, then you have to design lots of specialized cells: muscle cells, cells that manufacture and secrete special hormones, nerve cells, blood cells, and on and on. 

Once you’ve developed the ability to manufacture all the different kinds of cells, you need to start assembling them system by system rather than piece by piece. Perhaps you start by putting together a skeletal system, then adding a circulatory system, a nervous system, musculature… things get very complicated here. But the key point is that you build it system by system rather than piece by piece.

In exactly the same manner, games and interactive storytelling are not assemblages of features, they are systems of processes. People do build Frankenstein games by just stitching together a bunch of features, but the results are as clumsy and stupid as the Frankenstein monster was. If you want to do it right, you’ve got to stop thinking in terms of the conventional features listed above and instead think in terms of the processes that you will build into the design.

What he's talking about here includes my observations on imitative design, but he goes much deeper than that superficial categorization. What he's saying is that it is the interlocking elements that go into the various features of the game, all of which ultimately depend upon the algorithms that create them, that should be the the designer's focus. This simultaneously requires an ability to think in both holistic and highly detailed and technical terms, which is why there simply aren't very many good game designers out there.

To the extent that Crawford believes it is necessary for the designer to write the algorithms, or even comprehend the math underlying them - and I am not saying he does, I'm am only addressing the theoretical possibility - I would tend to disagree. But the designer needs, at the very least, to understand the purpose and the output of the algorithms that underlie the systems of his design.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Reinventing the Art

This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Develop magazine.

Last month, Electronic Arts took the unusual, although not unprecedented, step of permitting the release of the source code of Maxis's landmark simulation game SimCity to the public under the Gnu Public License version 3.  This is not the first time that game code has been released into the wild, but it is one of the first times that source code from a hit game that was not developed by the notorious maverick John Carmack has escaped the confines of the development house.

Now, it's far too soon to say if anyone will actually do anything interesting with the code, which is named Micropolis due to the need to protect EA's trademarks.  But even if a programmer or two manage to come up with something brilliant, it is unlikely that even a creative spin based on a genuinely great game is going to generate much attention due to that which is now the great bane of the game development industry.

To put it in a nutshell, the problem is art.  Game art, to be specific, the amount and the expense of it required in games today. 

Although my game-playing dates back to the Apple II, Akalabeth, Swashbuckler and the original Castle Wolfenstein, I didn't actually start designing my own games until the MCGA days.  There were two options then, 320x200, 256-color resolution or  640x480 with 16 colors.  Like most would-be developers, my friend and I began by copying a game that we quite liked that we thought we could do a little better, in our case, Warlords from SSG.  Our game was going to be called MythWars, wherein the player was a god from one of the various pantheons, which determined the various army types available.

With such low resolution and a 2D environment, the tiles were so small that two non-artists were perfectly capable of creating what were, at the time, very professional looking graphics.  The rolling hills gave way to majestic, snow-covered mountains and the various monstrous infantries and cavalries really looked quite good against the backgrounds.  For those who can remember those primitive days, it actually looked prettier than Warlords or QQP games like Conquered Kingdoms.  Nowadays, of course, looks crude beyond belief, something a child would be embarrassed to put on Facebook.  

We never finished MythWars, as completing college and then leaping right into the exciting new horizon of 2.5D technology turned out to be a permanent distraction.  We tried a few different approaches, especially with video capture, but we quickly learned that our art skills had reached their limits and 2.5D required hiring real artists from the local art school.  The budget for our first game was only $125,000, which paid for the two full-time artists who worked on it.  These days, that wouldn't cover the cost of the graphics used on a single game level.

The problem is that while games are visually incredible these days, they often aren't actually any more fun to play.  Consider Guitar Hero, for example.  While it's got very realistic graphics, they're really not very important to the game; the player primarily derives his enjoyment from rocking out with something that feels like a real guitar in his hands.  It's the interface that's key, not the visuals, and if you think about it, all games really are, at root, is amusement interfaces.

And art isn't only less fundamentally relevant to games than one might think, but its cost actually creates genuine design problems that are completely unrelated to the art itself.  Because budgets are so massive these days, more people have to sign off on every project and there's greater financial pressure on games to appeal to the widest possible market.  This is not the way to stimulate creativity and design brilliance, but rather imitation and design mediocrity.  This isn't anyone's fault, it's just the natural evolution of the industry.  If it weren't for the fact that a few of the industry's most innovative minds also happen to be some of its most vastly successful ones, we might all be reduced to developing clones of the latest clones of the previous clones.

Is there a way out of this artistic bottleneck?  It seems hard to imagine, since no one wants worse graphics and I don't know very many talented artists who are inclined to work for nothing.  Perhaps EA's release of “Micropolis” may hint at the way, after all, an awful lot of game art is pretty similar to the art used in other games.  What if instead of releasing game code, developers were to release their old textures and models into an online pool from which everyone could draw as needed, thus reducing the need to draw yet another space laser or oak tree?  Obviously, there would still be a need for new art, but at least everyone woudn't be constantly paying to reinvent the dying monster animation.

No doubt there are a million and one reasons why an Internet Art Pool could never come to pass, but in the unlikely event it does, I have some nice 32x32 mountains in case anyone needs them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A Superb Tribute to a Classic Cover

We wanted to pay homage to the original design, but allow the talented artist freedom to interpret the piece in his style. Respecting the work of the original while making appropriate enhancements is foundational to the Divine Right Classic Collector's Edition. The Classic Collector's Edition will be a limited edition of 500 copies of the boxed game utilizing the rules from the second TSR edition of November 1979 which incorporates the first edition errata published in Dragon magazine. After the Classic Collector's Edition is released, a crowdfunding campaign will be conducted in support of the new edition of Divine Right wargame as well as an associated RPG, novels set in Minaria, and lorebooks.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The irrelevance of awards

33 years ago, Chris Crawford explained why one should never take awards very seriously in The Journal of Computer Game Design, Volume 1, Number 5.

This is the time of year for annual awards.  The pundits gather their wits, their votes, and their courage, and they select the best products of 1987.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea;  nowadays, so many products are released that an annual review of the best products provides needed perspective.  Sadly, though, the execution falls short of the ideal.

Consider the annual awards of MacUser magazine.  I noticed in their 1986 awards an apparent bias in favor of products that appeared late in the year.  I therefore compiled data on the products that won awards and compared it with the review dates of those products.  I then carried out a statistical test of the hypothessis that awards are given with no regard for release date.  The hypothesis was rejected at better than the .5% confidence level.  For you non-statisticians, it means that the awards were grossly biased in favor of recently released products.

Then there is the awards system sponsored by the Software Publisher’s Association.  The problem with the SPA awards arises from the fact that the software industry executives who vote for the awards don’t play many games themselves, and so they have no independent basis for making a decision.  Determined publishers will send free copies of their games to every elector to jog their memories.  It’s not quite the same thing as buying the election, but more than one publisher has mentioned to me the high cost of winning an SPA award.

I don’t mean to pick on MacUser or the SPA — they’re both solid organizations working to improve their systems.  I could have picked apart any of the awards systems.  These were the most convenient targets.  My point is that none of the various awards can stand up to close inspection.  

There is a fundamental reason why awards systems are such a mess:  there are just too many games coming out each year for any one person to make a fair determination.  Consider this:  each year, several dozen games companies release several hundred games to the marketplace.  It takes at least five hours of playtime to evaluate a game well enough to determine its worthiness for an award.  It would therefore require nearly a full-time worker just to play all the games.  Who’s got that kind of time to throw around?

The brutal truth is this: most of the people who cast votes for the “best game of the year” have played only a fraction of the hundreds of games out there.  Few of them have spent much time with the games for which they vote.  In short, it’s a crock.  Most of the electors for the Academy Awards have seen the movies for which they vote.  Most of the electors for book awards have read the books under consideration.  Is it too much to ask the same for games?  Apparently it is.

So what should we game designers do about it?  We certainly should not institute our own system of awards.  Let’s face it, we’re not much better equipped to select the best games of the year.  We probably spend more time playing games than most people, but I doubt that any of us are catholic enough in our game-playing to do justice to an annual award.

So I suppose the best we can do is behave graciously when we hear that we have received an award (or, more precisely, our publisher has received the award), thank everybody in sight, take the plaque or doodad home, mount it on the wall, and forget about it.  Lord help us all if we start taking these things seriously. 

That being said, the CGW games of the year were, for the most part, well worth playing. But then, as a former CGW contributor, I can testify that the editors, writers, and reviewers of CGW actually played the games all the way through.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Unit counters: orcs

Now that we've worked out the draft ratings for the various infantry unit counters, which will of course be subject to modification in playtesting, it's time to design the artwork. Below are the draft images for the four types of orc infantry, which are not drawn to scale. The purpose is to visually convey the higher Attack Factor and Defense Factor of the higher-level units, as the values will range from 9-3-4-70 for a Fit Elite unit to 5-0-4-35 for a Fit Conscript unit.

In game terms, orcs have higher attack factors and lower defense factors, with average movement factors and lower morale than the norm. For the goblins, we're fortunate in being able to draw from the examples provided by the forthcoming A THRONE OF BONES comics. And yes, there will be goblin wolfriders. Of course there will be goblin wolfriders!