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Up To My Elbows In Game Guts

My stay-cation is over, so this part-timer is back to his semi-daily grind.  In the three days a week I work, I somehow find myself with barely an hour or two to commit to anything solid, but this is why I am a part timer: the remaining four days are mine!  However, there is a silver lining to being forced to switch gears, and that is that it gives me a fresh perspective on my project after being away from it for awhile.

Now Playing...

Now, when it comes to what I have been playing lately, I have already discussed them recently:
A surprisingly realistic portrayal of cat behavior.
  • Zelda: Ocarina Of Time 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, perhaps the single highest reviewed game of all time, it is basically a class act in 3D action adventure and that's that.  I just got the titular Ocarina Of Time which unlocks the remaining 3/4ths of the game, but see no rush to complete it.
  • Ultima IV, a version for PCs so old we used to call them IBM clones, running comfortably on DOSBox with a VGA fan patch.  I am pretty much set for partial avatar-hood in all the virtues but Sacrifice and Compassion, which are a bitch to earn, but I have yet to visit a single dungeon.  I suspect the fan-patch has made it easier, because it seems I can attack fleeing enemies with impunity. Ultima V was such a radical improvement in so many ways that my going through the motions to become an avatar reek of overzealous sentimentality, but hey, the general gameplay is decent enough, so whatever.
  • Animal Crossing: New Leaf, also for 3DS.  This game is awash with such diversity of bell-earning activities and collection mechanics that Pavlov himself would be cowed by the conditioning it heaps upon its players.  Noticing it takes me a solid hour each day to participate in the ritual gameplay in this game, I am now devising means of escaping this particular escapist activity: I will make this village look so self-sufficient that I may deem my work there is done.  Also, I am just 400,000 bells short of paying off the last possible extension of my house, free of the tanuki mob at last!
Solid enough games, but these are only things I commit to when I deliberately schedule myself to play a game for a half-hour in order to settle a brain overwrought by excessive game development exercises.  Something about game development makes playing even the best of games less interesting in comparison.  Probably because having the power to define a game for yourself is way cooler than settling for somebody else's idea of a good time.

Now Browsing Idly Researching...

That said, I am not above researching which CRPG ideas work.

A recent godsend came when I went searching for an Ultima V screenshot and ended up finding the CRPG Addict's blog.  That guy has performed dozens of year 2010+ replays of old computer RPGs (CRPGs) that were released almost entirely from the 1990s and earlier.  As he put it, "my blog has never been primarily about praising games for how good they were at the time. My blog is about recognizing that games, no matter how old, can still be a lot of fun in 2014."

Could have taken my own screenshot of Ultima V,
but nooo, had to steal one from a far better blogger than I.
Thus, it is interesting seeing how Ultima IV and Ultima V stacks up when he re-reviews them now.  In fact, they are among the highest ranking games by that fellow's personally conceived rating system, GIMLET.  Maybe there is a very good reason why my psyche is grasping after this kind of gameplay even now, decades after their initial release.  (Granted, between games like Spiderweb Software's releases and JRPGs, it is not like these types of games were completely discontinued.)

For a novice game developer like myself, I have certainly set my sights high by targeting Lord British's standards.  However, this also carries a warning that many have tried and failed to understand exactly what was so special about those early Ultima games.

Currently, I would theorize that it comes down to a few core factors:
  • Masterful use of abstraction - The overmap, containing locations, containing combat maps, provided a very large sense of scope, producing possible worldliness that few other games dared get close to.  Oddly enough, most of my game designs seem to end up with three layers, too.  The abstraction continues into the graphics work, crude 16x16 (or smaller) pixel glyphs that look like barely anything, yet focus the players' imagination masterfully.  Hey, if cave men were content with drawing stick figures on cave walls, why should we need anything more than that?
  • Simple but effective conflict resolution - Combat takes place on an 11x11 map where you move each one of your party members individually against their foes.  Despite having the sophistication of modeling the space where everyone stands (a rarity in early CRPGs) the turn-by-turn unfolding of combat was fairly unobtrusive, usually resolved fairly quickly, and with a clean presentation that left very little wanting in a CRPG aficionado.  The CRPG Addict finds the gold box SSI games to be the gold standard of combat, but they are basically just an evolved version of this with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons mechanics injected under the hood.  The average Spiderweb Software game should perform about as well.
  • A sense of place - When you put down a bunch of random tiles, it's meaningless.  Add some definition and shapes to those tiles that make sense, it has form but no life.  Add wandering NPCs that you can converse with, and now you have the potential for a convincing microcosm, but little narrative consequence.  Name those towns, name the continent, and the creatures.  Give the NPCs something of true relevance to a larger storyline to say.  Now you have enough plots on the map to make a place!
Of course, all of this ivory tower speculation is useless when it comes down to explaining how convey it from the platform of an overgrown calculator.  At most, I am highlighting a promising looking destination, and it is up to the individual to sift through the details of the journey and see if they like where they end up.
Granted, I am not trying to suggest Lord British was the god of all
early CRPGs, his is the only viable path, and ye fools who did not
imitate his methods are lost.  In fact, there have been a number of|
alternative takes that deserve perhaps even more attention, such as
the fantastic Magic Candle series which was perhaps not quite
as well balanced but otherwise had marvelous features.

When I look at how few games re-played by the CRPG Addict seem to crest 40 points, why did they not capture that Ultima magic? 

I think that, by and large, it is because it is easy enough to go through the motions of producing a game that looks like an early Ultima game, and this is the initial goal of anyone looking to capture some of that success by cloning it.  However, to understand what ideas were in play behind the superficial appearance is the difference between an artist and one who imitates art.

Programming is no harder than learning a language - it may even be a bit easier, considering how computers ultimately have only two words: 1 and 0, and everything else is context.  The true challenge is not in speaking through the computer, but rather having something worthwhile to say.

Game Development Progress...

When you are down in the trenches, it is tough to survey the battlefield.   But here is what I would piece together by reviewing my "weekends in ruin," as I call them.  Starting on the last blog entry on Wednesday, February 25th, 2015:
  • Wednesday - It took me awhile to get motivated after writing that blog entry, my mind's gears were in blogging mode.  Around 7pm, I finally created an object in GameMaker that is supposed to represent RPG characters.  In trying to keep with object oriented programming practice (despite the IDE providing only an incomplete implementation if it) I decided I would try storing actual character data on the object instances instead of in global variables.
  • Thursday - Fleshed out my understanding that Overmaps contain Locations containing Encounters.  I think I was subconsciously planning it all along.  Added a "trait" system, I am currently considering having the entire RPG mechanic function on little more than adjectives of varying severity on the characters simply because that's a lot more novel than hit points and attributes (but as of late I am finding that is not coherent enough for quality gameplay without more structure).
  • Friday through Sunday - Working the job that pays the bills.  In the evenings, I put a lot of thought into how my encounter system (which was looking a bit like an early Final Fantasy game) was not nearly microcosm-ish enough to satisfy me.  I will probably go back to my earlier idea of encounters as originating from a semi-realistically-modeled source.
  • Yesterday (Monday) - Finally managed to motivate myself around 4pm, built a working text box so I can have some scrolling game text similar to those early Ultima games.  It would have gone faster if I had found draw_text_ext a bit sooner, as there was no need to devise a means to manually insert my own line feeds.
  • Today (Tuesday) - I created a rudimentary status pane to keep track of my party composition, added some test characters, and then redivided my screen into multiple views when I recollected it was possible in GameMaker.
Written out this way, yes, it is quite clear that there is something resembling progress going on.  It surprises me because, sitting here now and looking at what I have, it's just the same thing I started with: a disappointingly incomplete game, not even advanced enough yet to tweak meaningfully.
My project folder, a.k.a. what happens when my spam is focused to productive ends.
I have only been working on this project for 2 weeks, tops, and made 206 files!
(92 of them are scripts.)
Yet, even if I end up scrapping everything and making another version of it, I am learning the ins and outs of the platform as I go along, and the knowledge I am imperceptibly picking up is perhaps even more valuable than the things I may end up producing as I go along.

Ergo, my current goal is to never stop developing, jump in a treadmill for half an hour every morning if that is what it takes to muster motivation, but if I cannot manage to spend at least a half-hour a day plugging away on design work or coding then I have failed to live that day of my life to the fullest.
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