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Friday, April 08, 2005

Mods and Indies

Sounds like a punk band...

Anywho, occasionally the Cathode Tan inbox gets a question. Usually it's things like "Would you like to make more money?" (A: Only if you're willing to give me all of yours, no questions asked) or "Are you really my daddy?" (A: No, I just said that because I stole your flag). But sometimes, it's a good question:

I'm just curious as to how modding shapes up against a making your own thing (which I see you do as per your website.) I mean this so far as the mod community willing to try a mod versus people you don't know being willing to DL and play a game you've made.

I ask because I'm planning to make a blue box demo of an idea or three I've got, but the appeal of modding the idea as opposed to genuine programming is obvious to the indie dev.

This is actually an excellent question, especially for these days. I was going to just send the man a quick answer and then go into a longer diatrabe here ... but the quick answer turned into a longer diatrabe so I'm merely reposting now.

The biggest pro of modding is that you get to play with an extremely powerful engine, free of charge. For ease of use combined with power - the Unreal engine is simply the bomb. There's still a vibrant community and Epic has been heads and shoulders better with supporting modders than any other company on the planet, bar none.

Small mods, however, are generally overlooked these days. Unless they either a) fix something a lot of players don't like (such as the Doom 3 duct tape mod for using a flashlight with a weapon) or provide some early toys for people to play with once they've finished the game (like Garry's Mod, or to an extent - my original Xpaks for UT2003) - most gamers may try a smaller mod a couple times but that's about it.

Even larger mods, like Red Orchestra, are having a hard time finding an audience.

Course, the advantage is that there's an installed user base. One of the reasons Counter-Strike got popular was because virtually everyone already had Half-Life. So while it might be near impossible these days to make a sustained audience - you're pretty much guaranteed that quite a few will probably at least download it.

Now I'm pretty new to indie dev - but it's more or less the opposite. You get a much less powerful engine at cost (though there are free or cheap alternatives to that) ... or you end up spending a lot of time coding the engine itself. Community support will be much more scattered (but present, and actually in some ways I'm finding indie devs even less cutthroat than some mod teams).

As for downloads, I haven't really had a chance to prove it - but basically you're up against actual market pressure. So you've got to have something to "sell" in order to get any sizeable amount of downloads. So if you make Pong for the PC, I wouldn't expect many hits. Course, if you made Pong for some cell phone or PDA that didn't have any games on it...

But there is one big advantage to indie dev. You own what you do. Even if it never sells, you can point to it and say "that's my game".

If you're looking to blue box something - it gets a little complicated. The first obvious question is ... what engine most closely suits your idea.

If it's like an RTS, I'd probably go look at the Torque engine ... most RTS games don't provide mod tools for serious TC development (unless you can work within the restrictions of the original game). I'm not intimately familiar with the Torque RTS kit, but it seems more flexible than say ... Freedom Force (which is really only suited for making new FF campaigns).

If it's a shooter or other 3D action type idea, then Unreal is probably an easy choice. While there are FPS alternatives in the indie world ... their only advantage is the license. Course, if this is something you intend to shop around to publishers - the license might matter. But if you're just looking to "prove" some ideas in a 3D gamespace ... Unreal is the way to go.

So the really short answer is - 2D stuff? Go indie. I would highly recommend Torque 2D. 3D stuff? Go Unreal. If it's 3D stuff you intend to sell, go Unreal but don't go too far with it. Just far enough to gather a small team to port to an affordable engine (Torque, Reality, etc).

If it's nothing you intend to sell or profit from, and you're just looking to prove that something works or that nobody tried X in an FPS to see if Y works, then god bless you, head over to the Unreal community and get to work.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Some Simple Truths

Rarely would I link to Penny Arcade ... like I would actually even nudge their traffic ... but I think this one bears particular attention. Geoff Zatkin has some things to say about the industry, and it's bucking the trend of a lot of people who want to whitewash the current problems the gaming studios are facing. These are things I've been suspecting, some people "inside" the industry have said or sometimes even directly told me and yet I've gotten a lot of contradiction when I've talked about it to others.

This paragraph, however, summarizes some simple truths very well:

The average price of making games has been escalating rapidly. Too many features have become standard (multi player, obligatory tools for player made content, matchmaking, cut-scenes, transforming donkeys, etc.), the caliber of graphics has risen (ironically, teams are getting bigger AND games are getting shorter because of how long it takes to make the higher quality art) and a myriad of other market factors. Nothing you buy from a store was made by a few people in a garage anymore. It hasn't been for years. One of my buddies was speaking to a high school class a few weeks ago about the game industry. After a few moments of disconnect, she asked the class what they thought the development cost of the last GTA game was. Most students thought it was around $500,000. She informed them that they were short about two zeros.

And I'm telling you, with this next generation of engines and hardware - it's going to seriously pop. You're going to be seeing games which are much more like 5-10 hour CGI movies than say, Defender. I'm not sure what that will do to the industry. Perhaps the indie developers will get a leg up from it - a sort of counterculture to the big studio development. Will engines like Torque and cheap machines like the Mini bring about an alternative to these games? Too early to say.

I did also find this interesting:

I got to break a lot of hearts by telling the audience a very sad fact – that in my 8+ years as a professional game designer, not once has any boss of mine ever asked me for an idea for a new game. Not once. Again, unless you own the company, you get assigned a project (or jump ship to another company working on a game that sounds interesting).

I find it interesting because it's precisely the reason I've stayed away from being a professional developer. Call it my ego, that's perfectly fair - but what interests me about programming games is trying to figure how to make a better one than what came before it - not just completing a project plan.

Course, I may find out a year for now why there aren't many 2D shooters anymore...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I won't bore you with pictures

Apparently the thing to do when you get a Mac Mini is to detail every first moment with a camera and then post that on the net. I'm not going to do that here. I have a hard enough time being interested when those moments are someone else's living, breathing human newborn ... so the emotional angle is out - and as I noted, there's plenty of places to find such documentation if you're actually interested.

But you already know the most notable detail. It's small. I mean, it's really, really small. This isn't a desktop style footprint, or a laptop style footprint. The Mini is more like a toaster or a stapler. Suddenly you get the fact this company that keeps churning out computers-like-monitors and computers-like-cubes and other oddly shaped appliances really have no interest in how computers have looked on your desk for the last couple of decades.

Now, I've installed many a computer. About five different distros of Linux, Mac OS9, Mac OSX and every flavor of Windows that has ever existed except for WinME (thank god). Getting the Mini up and running on the net was too insanely easy for words. My previous OSX experience was a first gen iMac, and it was a pretty close second. However, in less time than I would normally be making additional entries under "Network Connections" in XP, I was calibrating the color of my monitor.

To be fair, I haven't tried much with it yet - so I'm probably still in the honeymoon period. I've got the Torque 2D kit down but haven't even installed XCode yet. Or tried to hook up the scanner or printer, etc. But right now I love the little thing. I swear it's faster than my AMD64 box, which by all rights should have been twice as powerful in literally every measureable way.

The only cons I'd note for Apple so far are small. First, the $499 price point is a bit of a myth. Look, the display models you'll see in the Apple Store have 512MB. There's a reason for that. From what I've heard, they don't want you to see the slower version. It's also a shame that you can't have it configured on the fly if you go into the store. The Friendly Mac Guy said it was coming, but right now it's more convenient to just buy it off the net.

Still, I can't wait to hammer some code into the little guy. Since the PC is taking some R & R, I'll be focusing on my top-down 2D shooter with a twist. What's the twist? I'll tell you if I ever get it working...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Check the Date

Because when I read something like this about E3:

The show's biggest surprise, though, will likely be the revelation of "Prey". Gamers first heard of "Prey" in 1997. The game, originally about a Native American who fights several nefarious alien races, was thought to be cancelled, but quietly restarted a few years ago. The new version will use the "Doom 3" graphics engine and is said to be a visually striking title. There's no word on whether the story has changed.

3D Realms, makers of the popular "Duke Nukem" series, originally worked on "Prey," but word is they have handed development to a third party and are overseeing work on the game.

from here, and have Shack tell me that the rumored party is Human Head (of the heavily underrated game Rune) ... I gotta wonder if it isn't still the first.

For those really scratching your head, here is a brief history of the game. Short version - it was supposed to be extinct many moons ago.

Defeated by Gravity

I have this cat, Caddy. Caddy is many things but brilliant is not one of them. For instance, she's developed a severe fascination with adhesive. This is even after she gets her fur/paws/nose stuck on the sticky thing and runs around in a panic. Generally once the offending sticker is removed, she begins pawing it again.

Her other neat trick is to be defeated by gravity. She easily gets wrapped up in cleaning herself, or being petted, or acting cute and forgets that gravity exists. It simply sneaks up on her and pulls her down. She generally lands safely and then looks really confused.

Friday night, I got defeated by gravity. I was so distracted by taking my PC apart bit by bit (case and fans included ... it was a lot of fun) that apparently I forgot the golden rule of hardware futzing - the CPU is very fragile. Very fragile. Apparently when I set it back into place and locked it with the lever - it bent one of the pins. I was so busy looking cute, that reality snuck up behind me.


Well, the good news is that I'm likely to pick up a Mac Mini. Odd that Apple has made a computer cheap and convenient enough that I'm actually contemplating using it as a replacement part. Also, I have a perfectly good video card, sound card, etc. The CPU might be one of the more expensive parts I had, but at least I still have 7/10s of a decent gaming PC. So the other half of the plan is to get a new case which is designed to be silent so that I'm not tempted to keeping cracking the case, installing custom fans and heatsinks.

Well, least it's silent now.