I’ve been toiling away for a little while and I finally have something to show you guys. My gaming outfit Cognitive Discodance has a website, and so does the game I’m working on. I’ll let them speak for themselves.:

Over the next little while, I’ll probably tweak these a little to fix bugs and add a little more polish.

Well holy mackerel, 2012 has hit and we’re already 12.5% of the way through. I’ve hit the ground running and am chugging away at my projects. I thought it might be a good time to tell everyone what I’m up to.

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Recently indie group Nimblebit called out games giant Zynga for copying their game Tiny Tower pretty blatantly. Zynga employees call this “fast following” – someone achieves success in the mobile or social games arena, and Zynga acquires or produces pretty much the same game. There are some nasty specifics to the Nimblebit saga, but I don’t want to cover that. Nor do I want to look at Zynga’s history (and current practice) of doing this. I wanted to free-think on the question: “What can an indie developer do to prevent fast following?”[1. I'll use the term "fast following" throughout to avoid the complexities of saying "copycats". I got the term from Video Games Hot Dog, but apparently it's a well-known concept.]

There’s nothing you can do about people making a similar game in the same vein. Intellectual property law won’t protect you. Nor should it. People should be free to be inspired by things and produce their own versions. We don’t want to discourage competition because if you’re worried about someone creating a better game in that genre, you’re tacitly admitting you don’t have much faith in your game. You have to do things that make you happy and proud.

We want to protect against nefarious people who essentially want to rebrand our game as their own. By this I mean more studios examining a game, copying all the features and behaviours and replicating that in their own code. Reskinning, renaming or repackaging is too blatant for this discussion. Fast followers are slavish imitations that require a few things to work:

  • A popular game;
  • Easily copyable technology;
  • Enough scope in implementation to put your own branding on it without having to do actual game design or anything too creative.

These are the areas we need to disrupt to protect against fast followers. I know it’s a grey area between copying and imitation, but I hope you understand what we’re defending against.

Easy solutions

The easiest solution is to not have a game. Or have a terrible one. Fast followers are motivated by money, and there’s no money in terrible games.

The next easiest thing is to send in the lawyers. Let them fight it out. This is boring and expensive. And it won’t protect you in the future. You certainly don’t want to try to restrict how the world interacts with your game via restrictive EULAs. You might vaguely disrupt a fast follower, but you’ll equally disrupt genuine customers and people who want to mod your game, which is a net loss.

Note that all the DRM in the world won’t help you. Fast followers can just sit there and play the game to learn enough to copy it.

Mechanical solutions

The first easy solution dealt with the first requirement for fast followers. Let’s consider the second requirement: “Easily copyable technology”.

By technology I mean both game mechanics and actual technology in the game. Here we are protecting against fairly lazy reverse engineering. Again, there’s little you can do against people who open your game up in a debugger or disassembler and figure out the inner workings of your game. That said, that approach isn’t easy for the fast followers.

Simple gameplay mechanics make it easy to comprehend what’s going on under the hood, and thus easy to copy. This was Tiny Tower’s curse. Tiny Tower had an extremely limited set of gameplay actions. At best you could react to whatever the game had provided. You could speed things up temporarily through a series of microtransactions. There was very little that you could do to permanently unthrottle the gameplay.

I played Tiny Tower for a while. I angrily deleted it because of its fairly obvious attempts to squeeze money from you. But before that I thought, “Surely, someone could write a more fun Tiny Tower! Maybe even I could do it!” I didn’t, of course, but it was conceivable. For good or bad, Tiny Tower’s simplicity made it vulnerable to copying.

More complicated gameplay is more complicated to copy, especially if they don’t have access to the source code. This goes double for complicated technology. Trying to copy the technology in id’ Rage would be nearly impossible. Even though people in the industry generally get the idea of Megatexture, the years of expertise and technology that went into making their game engine would humble many a dev team.

Another example would be the advanced AI in a game like Facade. This was (and remains) cutting-edge stuff. The amount of work required to sufficiently emulate the storytelling in Facade is enormous. Faking it would likely give you a game not as good as Facade. It wouldn’t be worthwhile to fast follow it.

The Specifics

Gameplay is a funny thing to try to regulate to protect oneself from fast followers. In some situations, like first-person shooters, game mechanics are almost dictated by the genre. Messing with the gameplay too much might give you a substandard shooter.

One way in how you can protect yourself is via content. Write excellent content and there’s no way they can replicate it without obviously copying it. Tiny Tower has very little content, so it was easy to copy. Something like Portal would be relatively easy to copy in terms of game mechanics, but the writing and level design is so excellent, you’d have to come off second best.

Same goes for Skyrim, or any Bioware game. There’s so much excellent content there you’d die just transcribing it all.

And it’s not just AAA titles. Something like Kingdom of Loathing is comprised mostly of writing. Lots and lots of writing. You could copy the game mechanics, but you couldn’t copy the writing (because of copywriting, and their unique, humorous style). Some have tried, and provided shinier graphics, but ultimately failed.

Another strong way to prevent fast following is to have your gameplay and content deeply intertwined with your technology. An example of a series of games that doesn’t have this property is Zynga’s series of Farmville, Cityville and so forth. Each is more-or-less a reskin of the other. Mechanics are similar (not to say they are the same, Zynga does evolve somewhat). They could create a Spaceville game that worked much the same. This is good for franchises – players of previous titles can easily pick up the newer titles since they’ve already learned the mechanics and interface.

A game like Shadow of the Colossus would be a positive example for this idea. The technology involved in bringing the visuals to colossus-killing was quite an achievement, and it was a direct requirement of the gameplay. You could perhaps make a cheaper version without the technology that corresponded to an old-school platformer, but that’s more a cash-in than a fast follow.

Summary

The industry is in a bit of a stir given big companies like Zynga are adopting strategies of much smaller outfits, like copycatting, fast following and the like. This is amidst all the financial disruption of microtransaction models, cheaper prices for online games, and cloud-based game rentals like Gaikai. The games industry is adapting, but I think the positive outcome is that for games companies to survive, a great strategy is to make unique, creative games. It’s not easy, but if it were easy, we wouldn’t be worrying about Zynga in the first place.


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I have a confession to make. I’ve been working on a review of Saints Row The Third for a little while now, but Christmas got in the way. I’ve 100% the game and loved every minute of it. However my long form review was more-or-less captured by ex-RPS writer Kieron Gillen in his Eurogamer review. In short, it’s a game of pure madness, where if you trust the developers to give you fun, they’ll deliver by the truckload. It’s not at all subtle or particularly sophisticated, but it’s very, very fun. I like what they are doing with player-based content and telemetry, and it’s great to see a developer smack it out of the park with good humour.

Anyway, I had captured over 100 screenshots in preparation for the review, and I can’t let them go to waste. So I present to you my insane, not-safe-for-work holiday in Steelport (aka Saints Row 3):

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Coming soon

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Thanks to the lovely folks at RockPaperShotgun, I managed to snag a weekend beta pass to Star Wars The Old Republic. I’ve never been huge on MMORPGS but I’m not alien to them – I invested a fair amount of time into Matrix Online, a reasonable amount of time in Lord of the Rings Online, played some WoW and D&D Online, and I still play the heck out of Kingdom of Loathing (although KoL is a slightly different beast). SWTOR has been dubbed a potential “WoW killer”, so I was interested to see how it panned out. I wasn’t personally interested in playing, until my friend showed me this:

I mean, seriously. A Jawa with a rocket launcher? What’s not to love?!

So this weekend I put in a few sessions with the game as a female human Smuggler (in that I’m a female smuggling goods, not ladies). She’s got the whole Han Solo thing going, which is cool. She’s at level 8 or 9 now. I’m still in the newbie class-specific area (that I share with Troopers). My character’s recent skill acquisition was effectively “kick them in the groin”. It complemented my “throw a grenade into their face” skill.

What’s it like? Well, it’s like a MMO. It’s like WoW. It’s like expansive, slightly low res environments where nameplates run around and there are little pockets of bad guys standing around, waiting to die. It’s like watching cooldown on icons so you can do your same cycle of skills to kill yet another insurgent that’s getting in the way of you running to a dude and getting the next location to run to. Of course, I’m overly cynical here. SWTOR is definitely an improvement over the WoW style (last time I played WoW). Having conversations with quest-givers actually be little cutscenes (a la Mass Effect or any other modern Bioware game) is neat. My first bunch of NPCs were really boring and I was a bit disappointed that they had spent a lot of time and money getting voice actors to deliver boring stuff. But as I got on, the animation got better, the writing more nuanced and the voice acting more varied and interesting. I wasn’t blown away by it, but man, it’s so much of an improvement over WoW “oh gawd, I dunno, fetch 10 wolf pelts” streamlined quest givers.

I don’t know if Lord of the Rings started it, but I like the seemingly new design choice to make the quests from quest-givers actually something with a plot, and incidentally along the way you can kill 10 bad guys and get a bonus. LotRO invested more in it (in that the “kill 50 dragonflies” were quests that hung around) but SWTOR seems to make them more thematic. For example, all of mine thus far have been to teach a lesson to the separatists as part of a larger campaign, so I kill 12 separatist scum whilst travelling between quest-giver and quest-Macguffin.

All the things you’d expect for a MMO to have is there: an extensive list of social actions, quick-fire slots for all your skills, hub cities with clusters of vendors, if you hover over an item it’ll tell you what you get by equipping it versus what you already have… There’s a fast travel taxi service between areas, and my character at least had a special “Quick travel” skill to zip between known areas. It’s all from Ye Mighty Checklist of Modern MMORPGs and it’s all done pretty competently. The UI is slick and help isn’t too hard to get. The codex entries are fairly detailed, but I never read them. There were some nifty surveys on quests to help them fine-tune the game. I grinned at a support request coming back to me via “Protocol Droid M0-T0 of Human-Cyborg relations”.

It’s all very well done. Maybe better done than WoW. But to me, it’s still just polishing that old tile. A lot of my time was spent creeping between pockets of bad guys, gradually nuking them with grenades, or finding the racing line between them to avoid aggro. All the bad guys exist to die, and you kinda have to wait your turn for them to respawn before you get your chance to kill them. It’s like an oversized fun park where you have to travel sizable, awkward distances to get anywhere, and all the rides are Skinner boxes. In this sense, SWTOR was not much different to the Star Wars MUD I played about a decade ago.

The writing here is much better than I’ve seen in other MMOs, but it’s not excellent as far as real writing goes. Most characters are introduced just to discard once the quest is complete. Despite their plight, there’s nothing to invest in here. I like that quest-givers are voiced and animated, and there are usually interesting camera angles on the action. But the animation in cutscenes is merely serviceable, and the vast majority of your interactions in the world are with very strict animation state machines (aka bad guys).

All-in-all I think SWTOR is a good take on the modern MMO formula, but with all the money and talent they threw at it, I’m a little disappointed that it’s a shinier version of more of the same. It’d be risky to do something new and there’s a lot of money on the line, but the gameplay has barely evolved since the mid-2000’s. I would love to see someone turn the formula inside out and produce something new. Regardless, I know a bunch of my friends will invest sizable chunks of their life to this game, but I don’t think I will. My mistress has and probably always will be Team Fortress 2, but if someone would do something significantly different from prettier, more fine-tuned Skinner boxes, I’d be into MMOs in a heartbeat.

So while Jawas with rocket launchers are hells cool, and I enjoyed my weekend as a female Han Solo, I think I’ll leave SWTOR to the millions and millions of people who will enjoy the heck out of this game.

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I finished Rage last night. Steam says I clocked up 17 hours, which is not too bad for a modern game. All in all, I was a bit disappointed. It felt like they had three acts in mind, got 75% done on the second act and had the vice-like grip of Zenimax squeeze them into releasing now. The third-last mission: pretty awesome. A very vertical level with hundreds of bad guys swinging in from all angles. The second-last mission: You shoot 6 mutants, a tank, two dudes and press maybe 3 buttons.  I expected the final level to include amazing sights and a massive boss fight. Nope. Press three buttons and watch your spider droids kill “super soldiers”. No big celebration afterwards. No rousing speeches from your main man saying how they couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for you… Nothing. Just a quick pre-rendered cutscene of not-very-exciting stuff happening, then roll credits.

For what it was, Rage could have been awesome. For what it is, it’s a big disappointment right before the most spectacular months of gaming in years.

I took a bunch of screenshots of Rage that I thought I might share. I absolutely loved the character design, so most of the shots are about them.

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My mother visited her grandchildren recently and took them to the park. Little Dani (4 years old) was having a good old time, swinging on the swing and jumping down the slide. At one point she stopped, ran over to my Mum and asked, “Nanny, I am having fun, aren’t I?” Adorable. Worlds and realities away, if John Carmack was watching me play Rage over my shoulder, I’d keep turning to him and go: “John, I’m having fun, aren’t I?”

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Recently I’ve been working on The Day After, my board-game that became a board-game themed PC game. Primarily I’ve been writing the scripting language for it so I can start sewing in game mechanics and messing around with things. I’m using a scripting language because you can iterate (and debug) quicker that way. Anyway, working on the general gameplay model lead me to working on the scripting language, which lead me to nailing down some of the concepts I had floating around. One of them is Roles and balancing them for gameplay. I thought I might chat about that.

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Quick note

Hey guys, I’m not dead, just busy with non-video-game-related stuff. Things will be back to normal soon, and when that I’ll post a bunch of reviews to games I’ve played recently, and unveil some exciting new stuff for The Day After. Thanks for your patience!

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