Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin 2 and the Rewards of Doing One Hard Thing Right

There will never not be a market for a solid RPG.
I recently played indie RPG megahit Divinity: Original Sin 2. I went through it front to back, spending over 90 hours (Normal/Classic difficulty). It'd be a pity to expend so much time if I didn't get a blog post out of it.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (or DOS2 as I'll call it) is really the ideal of the indie aesthetic. It feels like it's a product of actual humans, and it clearly wants to deliver one pure, special, niche experience. It's a big, weird game that's made a bajillion dollars. It doesn't care about any of the rough edges, as long as it follows its vision purely.

And there are rough edges. There are long periods of time where DOS2 feels like a gigantic clump of rough edges awkwardly glued together.

Let's dive in. It's a big, weird game that's made a bajillion dollars. Plenty to say about it.

In my bag, I have an ancient sword, an arrowhead, panties, a bowl, and wood chips. Any one of them might end up necessary. Never ever drop anything. 
What Is DOS2?

It's an enormous, turn-based, story-heavy fantasy RPG with a lot of gameplay and long, very difficult, involved battles. It's a tough game. It's got a lot of wild multiplayer options, though I'll be focusing on single-player stuff. It took me over 90 hours to play, and I skipped a lot of quests.

You don't need to play the previous game to enjoy it. It takes place in a different era or something. I tried to play the previous game, but I got totally stuck because I didn't notice a button hidden behind a ham.

What Does DOS2 Do Well?

I have to start out with the best thing about DOS2, the thing that really makes it compelling: It has turn-based fantasy combat that is actually exciting. The battles are long (1-2 hours), unpredictable, and have an epic feel to them. They are very cool.

I really need to emphasize how remarkable this is. I've been following the RPG genre since the beginning, and I think it's really important to acknowledge what an accomplishment the battles are. It's some next-level stuff.

What Are the Rough Edges?

Every other single thing.

Seriously, I went through the entire game with wood chips in my pack. If case I needed them to craft a stick or something. Jesus Christ, I'm basically 9/10 of a God. Just let me have the stupid stick!
What Is the Story?

This game has tons of writing. Many, many words.

The side quests and the storylines of your companions are reliably well-written and interesting. I enjoyed them.

The main quest is something-something-invasion-of-horrible-monsters-something-something-disorder-in-the-heavens-something-something-become-a-god. I tried to keep track of the story, thought I understood it, and I guess I didn't. I'll get back to that.

What Is the Design Aesthetic?

The general design aesthetic of DOS2 is: If anyone had an idea, any idea at all, it went into the game. The idea won't always be properly developed once it was in, but it will be there.

There's a full crafting system, so I tried to use it. I collected every recipe and material I could find. At the end of the game, I couldn't make anything better than what I could buy at the store with my infinite money.

There's an item identification system. No matter what the game, this is always just busywork.

There are plenty of bugs, still, which gives hardcore RPG gamers that extra exquisite bit of challenge. As of this writing, it's almost impossible to talk to a character who is walking around. You click and nothing happens. It's maddening, which adds to immersion.

And there are many, many unique spells and abilities. You can teleport characters around the battlefield, which is really cool. You can teleport lava onto the battlefield and then teleport enemies into it, killing them instantly and utterly making moot everything else about the battle system, which is less cool. Then your enemies can teleport you into that same lava, which ...

Design tip: Don't put stuff in your design which instantly makes every other aspect of the design unimportant.

There are, again, many spells and abilities. Or, there are ten abilities that are good and that will enable you to progress in the game, and 90 weak abilities that will leave you utterly stuck ten hours in.

This is important.

I love going through these screenshots and seeing how clogged everyone's backpacks get with irrelevant crap. It fills me with resolve: My next game will have only relevant items in it. I'm ditching a lot of junk items.
Another Brutally Punishing Game

DOS2 is very much in the game design tradition of "Make a game super-hard, give almost no information about what abilities are available or what are viable paths to take, expect the player to do a ton of research online, and go f*** yourself."

This game is just plain too hard early on. Based on what I saw in reviews/forums, loosening up the difficulty in Chapter 1 would increase overall customer satisfaction a LOT.

Saying something like this is just inviting abuse. There is a portion of RPG fans who react with rage at any suggestion of removing features or relaxing difficulty, no matter how reasonable the request. But it's still true.

The number of builds that will enable you to escape the first chapter are very limited. It's very easy to end up needing to restart 10 hours in. The advice online for early game builds is scattered and, I found, often very bad.

Seriously, Google "Divinity: Original Sin 2 Builds" and sink into the rabbit hole. Bear in mind, when you see a list like "12 Most Uber-Awesome DOS2 Skills," that article was probably generated as fast as possible to score easy clicks off a hit game, is badly considered, and is lying to you.

(Real talk for normal players: Summoning is very strong. The spells Conjure Incarnate, Power Infusion, and Raise Bone Widow will carry you through this game. Teleportation is also fantastic. Using it to pull the enemy boss right in front of my fighters was my single favorite part of the game.)

There are tons of players who love this aesthetic. RPG fans are gluttons for punishment. A lot of them just want a game to hurt them sometimes. (Or all the time.) A small portion of them will pounce on you if you ever suggest some bit of abuse in an RPG is a mistake (no matter how much it totally is).

It drives me nuts, personally, but it's the big aesthetic now.

The battles tend to devolve into utter, unpredictable chaos. It's pretty awesome.
Rough Edges With Rough Edges

DOS2, for me, still had plenty of bugs, quirks, and stuff that felt half-baked. To show what I mean, here is my summary of how my game ended. At this point, I'd played for over 90 hours and was really ready for it to end. I think, once a player's given you this long, you need to wrap things up in as respectful a way as possible.

I go through a long series of puzzles, some of which are really finicky and require noticing lots of little things. I use a walkthrough. Otherwise it would have taken me forever to search through all those little cubbyholes and boxes and bookshelves for what I needed. (The "Put the painting on the altar" puzzle, in particular, needed more time in the oven.)

I get to the final battle, a multi-hour two-phase cluster-f. As is normal, the entire battlefield becomes covered with fire and spell effects and I can't see where any of the characters are.

I'd already dug into Settings to find the key that makes outlines of all the characters visible, so I use that. Because there are so many characters, however, sometimes to target a specific foe in a crowd I have to zoom in and rotate the camera for a minute to find a few pixels where I can select the enemy.

(God help you if you click wrong, or you'll use your best ability to obliterate an ally. A confirmation dialog when you aim an arrow at your tank or the ground would be welcome.)

Because the fights are so long and tough, you can save in the middle. This is good because the battlefield has lots of different elevations, and the game is constantly telling me my arrows can hit targets that, when I fire them, get blocked by the terrain.

My characters die constantly in the final fight, so I use scrolls to resurrect them. (I feel like DOS2 provides resurrection scrolls as a crutch to not have to balance fights fairly.) I eventually surround the boss with summoned monsters and pummel him to deadness.

Now I get to decide how to remake the world/Heaven/Universe. I've made an effort to follow the plot up until this time, and it seems like I can fix a lot of problems by ascending to Godhood. The game explicitly tells me I can do this to fix the world.

I talk to my companions, who I have all helped out to the maximum extent. They urge me to ascend to Godhood. One of them, who is in love with me and who I have totally made out with, practically begs me to ascend. Everything in the game so far has been pushing me to ascend to Godhood.

I ascend to Godhood. Flashy cutscene.

Then I am on a boat with my companions. I talk to them. They all totally hate me now! My girlfriend reacts to me with disgust. One of them says she'll kill me if she the gets the chance. What the hell!?!??

Come on, Divinity: Original Sin 2! I can't have a tiny bit of satisfaction? I played you for over 90 hours! Throw a dog a bone!

So many battles end with the play area a sea of spell effects. Figure out the key/button that shows outlines of character ASAP.
My Final Takeaway

Again, I must stress, the RPG combat in this game is some of the best I've ever seen. The fights are long but really satisfying when they work right. A lot of the writing is really good. The production values are great. Definitely worth a try if you love old-school RPGs.

But honestly? In the end I was tired. Even the shortest battle takes a while, and I was avoiding conflicts just because I was exhausted with the game. The fighting works great, but overall usability needs a lot of attention.

I won't be getting any DLC or sequels unless things change a lot. I'm glad I had this experience, I really am, but I don't need more of it.

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If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with epic stories and tough, unpredictable fights, you can try Avernum 3: Ruined World on Steam. Then nitpick our game the way we nitpicked this one. It's only fair. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

I Gave a Big Talk On Indie Games and It's Pretty Good.

Please enjoy this reasonably-priced hour of grumpy ranting.

For a long time now, I've wanted to give a talk about the history of Spiderweb Software. It would be a combination of funny stories about the ancient history of the internet and a summary of everything I've learned about the True Meaning of Indie Games.

At the 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I finally had the chance to give the talk. I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's about an hour, and you can see it here:

Failing to Fail: The Spiderweb Software Way!

It was really hard to whittle the talk down to 50 minutes. I had to leave a lot of quality material on the cutting room floor. I did manage to keep the best of it around. Hope you like it!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

We Released Avernum 3: Ruined World.

Seasons come and go. Pages fall from the calendar. And Spiderweb Software releases another game.
In 1997, I wrote a hit game.

It was called Exile 3: Ruined World. It and its remasters are the most popular games I've ever written.

Bear in mind this game was a hit by 1997 shareware standards, not 2018 indie standards. It made enough to buy a modest 1997-priced house. It didn't make enough to buy a mega-mansion.  But I'm certainly not complaining.

In 2002, I remastered the game into Avernum 3. It sold a lot of copies. Then, this week, twenty years after its first release, we shipped Avernum 3: Ruined World, the second remaster of this title. If my email is to be believed, a lot of people want it.

This is a brief story of writing a game that did really well and figuring out how to deal with it.

Exile 3: Ruined World. 1997 shareware at its semi-finest.
The Science of Careful Theft

When I started Exile 3, I'd already put out Exile and Exile 2, and they'd sold well enough for me to go full-time. It was a modest living, but entirely adequate for a 26 year old in Seattle. (You didn't have to be an Amazon employee with a mega-salary to live in Seattle then.)

At that point, I'd been writing shareware for two years, was starting to feel a tiny bit confident and comfortable. I decided that I was really going to stretch my wings. I wanted my third game to be GOOD.

So I did what I usually do when I want to design something good.

I played every game that was popular at the time, stole the very best idea from each, and synthesized them all into one coherent title.

Here's the thing about stealing ideas: Everyone does it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. It's knowing which tools to not steal, which ones to steal, and how to assemble them together to makes a real craftsman.

Computer Gaming World called Exile 3 the best shareware game of the year. They even gave me a prize. The logo is 2 chubby guys with bad posture sensually hugging a floppy disk.
The Game Was Big

From the Elder Scrolls games, I was inspired to write a huge game with tons and tons of towns. This resulted in Exile 3 being the biggest game we've ever written, by far.

I've written it three times now, and each time I have despaired that I would ever finish it. It's sickeningly huge.

Since I had so much space to fill and I was still young and crazy enough to feel free to do things that were genuinely dumb, this game has a lot of weird, silly stuff in it. Towns named after old sitcom characters. A giant dungeon themed after old karate movies. A whole chapter where the enemies are giant cockroaches. (Actually, I still think this idea is terrific.)

There's a reasonable amount of it that I'm sure I wouldn't do if I wrote it now. I was a lot looser and sillier when I was young. However, when I do a remaster, I need to trust my younger self. I left almost everything alone.

Avernum 3. A big upgrade from Exile 3, but it doesn't work so good on 2018 computers.
Then Again, Maybe I Had Original Ideas

I suppose when I say that all of my ideas are stolen I'm partly joking. There is a lot of cool stuff in Avernum 3 that was quite innovative when it came out, and I can't remember any games doing those things back then.

You can be a merchant or buy a house. There was already games that had this.

The world crumbles as time goes on. If you don't fight the bad guys, towns will fall apart and characters will die. If you're slow enough, a gigantic disaster happens and you have to deal with it or the world ends. NOTE: No matter how slow you are, you can always win the game, but not without consequences.

I wanted to make sure you felt that the world was bigger than your perception and that there were things going on you would never know about.

This is really cool, and I don't remember any other games doing this.

Avernum 3: Ruined World in all its low-budget glory. It was made cheaply, but it's fun.
Working As a Curator

When you do a remaster, you are the curator of your own work. You have a responsibility to your fans to keep everything they love most about the title intact. If you don't, they will punish you lavishly.

People tend to dislike change. If you change one thing, even if it's an entirely reasonable or even unquestionable change, you will always get complaints. These complaints can get very angry.

This makes remasters really grinding, painstaking work. I tried to put in lots of new ideas and designs and stuff. I improved the interface greatly. However, as much as possible, I left the world and story and feel of the game alone.

(There is one change I regret: The artist who made the character art doesn't work for us anymore, so I couldn't get horse art that would match the old style. Sorry about no horses.)

Thank You For Your Support

This wouldn't be complete without a thank you to the many people who have supported and stuck with us over the years. Your kindness has enabled me to live my childhood dream. I promise to work hard to be worthy of it.

Back To Creativity

After 16 months on Avernum 3, I'm really itching to do something new again. I hope I never have to remaster it again. Check in with me in 2033.

We are starting a whole new series. New world, new game engine, new system, maybe even a Kickstarter.

I hope you like Avernum 3. If you aren't sure about it, we have a demo. If you loved it as a kid, I hope that I kept the things you love alive.

On to the next.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Cuphead, Cruelty, and Selling Unfairness to You.

Teacher, mother, secret lover.

When charming indie megahit Cuphead came out, I watched a ton of it on Twitch. How could I not? It's so pretty!

I wasn't planning to play it. I like to play one super-tough game a year, to show I can still game hard like the cool kidz. But I'd already played Bloodborne last year, and my aging heart won't take much more than that.

Then my wife got me a Black Friday sale XBox One so that we could play Gears of War 4 together, so I figured I might as well try Cuphead for real.

Because of what I do for a living, of course, all of the following analysis is being done to find ideas I can steal to make more money.

Yeah, Cuphead Is Really Good

It was a huge amount of fun. I played a lot by myself. A lot co-op with my teenage daughter. A reasonable amount with my 11-year old daughter. Turns out my kids can be serious hardcore "Die 50 times and keep at it!" gamers when the bad guys are saucy mermaid ladies.

What really struck me was how little watching the game on Twitch prepared me for actually playing it. This was because Cuphead constantly uses randomness (RNG, for short) better than just about any game I've ever played.

Ever notice how sometimes a character comes along and every fan artist must come up with their own take on it instantly? I think that's cool. (Link not entirely safe for work.)

The Deadly RNG

Just about every attempt against a boss in Cuphead plays out differently from every other try. It's not only the standard Dark Souls thing where each boss has a move set and it picks an attack at random and you have to react to it. (Though it has that, of course.)

The fights are also random in every other way they can be:

Timing of the Attack - A bull is about to lunge forward to attack. It rears back. Then the amount of time until it actually launches the attack varies. Sometimes it's instant. Sometimes it's a good long pause. And sometimes the wait is so long is throws off my timing entirely and I blunder right into the attack.

Timing of Attackers - Little fireballs run across the screen. Sometimes one jumps up at you. Sometimes the pause between leapers is so long that you think the game is broke and you get complacent and BAM. And then three go all at once. (which can be evaded, but it's a rare enough occurrence that the player won't have a canned response for it.)

Random Attack Sets - In a lavish display of developer effort, some bosses have entirely different skill sets every time you launch the fight.

Multiple Simultaneous Attack Sets - The mermaid has two sets of three attacks, one set from the air and one from the water. It picks one from each set and uses them simultaneously, for nine different attacks to react to.

Random Terrain - Two fights have you battle while leaping along moving, randomly arranged platforms. To avoid an attack, you need to very quickly evaluate the routes available to you and select the best one.

This boss made my daughter cry. I hugged her. Then I beat it quickly and she was mad at me. At least we're having family time.

The End Result

This is why watching the game doesn't convey the experience of playing it. You can't get through Cuphead with patterns. Well, some fights you can. But most of the time, you have to learn how the system works, practice with it, and perform within it, adapting fluidly to surprises as you go.

Sometimes the RNG hands you a really nasty situation, but the vast majority of the time the situation you get is fair and survivable. You just have to take in the situation, come up with a plan very fast, and execute it.

The brilliance of the design is in making a system with RNG that keeps the game unpredictable and tough but still fair. I think this sort of probability manipulation is underrated as a skill in game design.

Obvious Disclaimer For People Who Are Already Yelling At Me In the Comments Anyway

Obviously, a lot of gamers don't like high challenge games. A lot of gamers don't like missions they can fail. Nothing wrong with this.

Cuphead isn't aiming for the casual market. Most of the time, I don't either. I'm looking for ways to better sell to this market.

If you're trying to write a game that will appeal to every single person everywhere, you're probably already doomed.

Unfairness Is a Selling Point

In a game like this, the occasional unfair, unescapable death is a selling point. There are some gamers for whom such a situation doesn't induce a Ragequit. It inspires a determination to excel.

If I don't kill you occasionally, how will your accomplishments have meaning?

Playing the RNG In an RPG

Darkest Dungeon is another game with great use of randomness. When you take your party into a dungeon, you can get a run of savage bad luck. If things get bad, you can pull the ripcord at almost any moment, abandon your run, and save your group (with a penalty). The skill comes in constantly evaluating your situation and deciding when it's time to give up. If you can't do that, you will have a hard time.

I've always tried to have a lot of this in my indie RPGs. I write long games, and I want to make sure it's always interesting and unpredictable and there's a chance that things can go south quickly if you're not careful.

I give enemies large move sets and make sure that they can approach a fight differently each time. I use a critical hit system to make sure you can never get too complacent. Sometimes, enemies run for help, and it's random how long they'll hang around before they do.

(If you want to see this system in action, our new game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, is out at the end of January.)

Heck, the whole genre of Roguelikes depends on randomness of your adventure. You gamble your time and hope you get a situation you can survive.

Of course, video game accomplishments don't have meaning. My job is to create the illusion that they do.

What Is the Gain From this Randomness

Humans like to gamble, and we have loved gambling for all of our recorded history. Gambling doesn't have to be for money, and it doesn't need lootboxes.

The joy of gambling comes from the unpredictability, the increasingly rare life pleasure of being unsure what is about to happen. RNG in your game means bad luck might cause you to fail. Some people mistakenly think that this is a flaw, when it is in fact a great strength.

The ideal for my games is that, for battles of an appropriate level, there is always a tiny chance to fail. Similarly, for Cuphead, unless you're a completely superior player, there is a chance that an unexpected chain of events will outwit and defeat you.

When you lack a human opponent to provide unpredictability, randomness must serve this role and provide the surprises. This provides suspense and unpredictability. For a large portion of gamers, being surprised is a highly valued product that can be sold at a premium.

It's a leapy boi! Look at him go!


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If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with epic stories and tough, unpredictable fights, you can wishlist Avernum 3 on Steam. It's out January 31. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.