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February 2014

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Announced

hk_s_repre_05 So why put up the Kult: Heretic Kingdoms post-mortem now, nine years after the game? Well it gives me great pleasure to announce that after an epic quest in the world of games publishing, a sequel is finally arriving! The new game, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, will be released later this year as confirmed today by a press release by the publisher bitComposer.

The new game is developed by Games Farm (the new face of the original game’s development team) with game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripts by International Hobo. The Shadows website for the game is already up, and includes a teaser trailer for the game – check it out!

Kult Post-mortem (2): An RPG Between East and West

Kult logo In the last post I shared the story of how Kult’s Heretic Kingdoms setting came about. This time, we look at how a shortage of time and budget led to a unique hybrid of Western and Japanese RPG game mechanics.

From Mechs to Mages

Ever since founding International Hobo I’d been arguing that superior design was a way of compensating for the disadvantages a lower-budget project faces. At the upper end of the market, games are constrained by the demands of publishers and the requirements of audiences, such that very little innovation happens at the top end of videogames except when new hardware creates an expectation of newness. Working on a rather meagre budget, Kult: Heretic Kingdoms needed to make the best use of its resources, and that meant getting a design that could support a lot of play without being too hard to implement. We threw around a lot of different ideas for how the mechanics could be constructed, but many of them were held back by the budget. We couldn’t, for instance, have an open world because there wasn’t the money to implement it. That constrained us to a linear sequence of levels, which immediately put us into a similar space to Japanese RPGs. Was there something else we could borrow from that lineage?

All of us working on the design team had recently played a rather marvellous turn-based RPG from Japan called Front Mission 3, a tactical mech game with much more of an emphasis on role-playing than other titles in that franchise. One interesting aspect of the game was that skills are unlocked by equipping different mech parts and then waiting for the skill to randomly activate – at which point they are learned and can be programmed into the mech’s battle computer. This was a highly absorbing part of the character advancement in that game, and we wondered if we could apply that mechanism to a fantasy RPG. This lead to the idea of attunements, abilities that would unlock from the player using different equipment items – with the additional benefit of giving the player reasons to care about all the equipment in the game (since each item has its own attunement) and so anyone trying to 100% the game would need to find and use all the items. However, the random chance element worked better in a turn-based game than in a real-time game, so we switched to an experience bar that would fill up. This mechanic worked even better than expected, and became one of the best aspects of the final design.

Blood and Fire

I had long felt that computer RPGs had become dragged down in the pointless logistics of stockpiling potions, and that many games – Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, for instance – had weakened their combat gameplay to little more than a vacuous potion supermarket. I wanted a new approach to healing, something we hadn’t seen before – something reviewers might see and think ‘hey, that’s a little different from the usual!’ This is where the idea for Blood Points came from. The design concept was simple enough: whenever the player heals, they lose Blood Points that are only restored when they spend the night somewhere (like an inn). The Blood Points set the maximum Hit Point level, so every time the player loses Blood Points, they have fewer maximum Hit Points.

The net result is a slow process of attrition in the field as the player character gets more and more ragged the longer they go without a restful night. For gameplay pacing, it became necessary to ensure that there would be places to restore Blood Points to full at strategic points throughout the world, and so these became campfires. Whenever the player stopped at a campfire they would get their Blood Points restored and would be able to change their active attunements. Fires were thus positioned at the start of, and at certain distances within, all the dungeons. This also worked well with the story, since a number of campfires were used to trigger conversations with the NPCs.

The overall goals of this system were achieved – the player had to pace their survival in the field against their rate of loss of Hit Points (and hence of Blood Points) and decide if they would be able to survive to the next campfire or whether they would have to turn back to the previous one. The actual healing system was divisive, though. The player acquires healing items throughout the game that get steadily better i.e. they lose fewer Blood Points when they use them. But nothing stops the player using the healing items whenever they like, since the loss of Blood Points is proportional to the number of lost hit points. In practice, some players (including one on the design team) simply spammed the healing button constantly – which was not a satisfying play experience. Those players who got into the spirit of the healing system (including myself) were much happier with the way it worked. In fact, I think this is my favourite computer RPG healing mechanic so far. But it was also a little difficult to teach to the player, which was far from an ideal situation.

Damage and Dreams

The basic damage equation in Kult is very similar to the standard Japanese RPG damage equation, where damage suffered is proportional to the difference between base damage caused and the defensive value (based upon the armour worn in Kult). However, there was a twist: a quarter of the damage prevented by armour still leaks through. This gave the combat quite a different feel from the typical Japanese RPG where if you are outclassed you just constantly score hits for 1 damage against the foes. Instead, a proportion of damage caused was always leaking through. The result of this system was that enemies were a little easier to kill than in some other games, but the player was also much more likely to die (you certainly had to be ready to hit your ‘Heal’ key at a moment’s notice!). I like the way this worked, it had a lot of character, but it was very difficult to keep the player corralled by strong monsters – since with a ranged or a magic character you could always peck away a foes HP quite easily.

Another part of the design that had mixed results was the Dreamworld. An ethereal other dimension exists alongside the physical world, and the player (as a mage) is able to enter it. This was part of the concept from the very beginning, and we didn’t change it significantly. Echoes of the past persist in the Dreamworld, and dimensional rifts could be seen there, as well as a few ghosts of the dead (who could be spoken with). The time the player can remain there is limited, but for the most part this didn’t present much of a restriction to the player’s activities.

What I loved about the Dreamworld were the combat tactics it fostered. Most humanoids and animals did not appear in the Dreamworld, so you could switch into it, outflank them, then appear behind them and kick their ass. Spirit creatures only appeared in the Dreamworld, though, so sometimes the player would escape into the Dreamworld only to be torn apart by Soulravens (my absolute favourite of the creature designs in this game – and their fast movement made them very dangerous). Mages, Demons, and Elementals appeared in both the real world and the Dreamworld making it impossible to avoid them. But often, the player would be facing a mix of foes. For instance, the ogre-like Sura warriors could not enter the Dreamworld but their demon allies and magic-wielding Shaman could – so the player could opt to enter the Dreamworld to pick off the demons and shaman, then return to finish off the now-unsupported warriors.

In review, the overall design of the game was very well received, although several reviewers felt that we hadn’t done enough with the Dreamworld. This was a fair complaint, although it reflects the lack of time that the project had as a whole. The entire script for the game was written in one month – that’s how tight the development schedule was. No-one seemed to notice that the design was a blend of elements from Western and Japanese RPG design, but I suspect this just reflects the different expectations players have of EuroRPGs – such games generally aren’t as trammelled into familiar patterns as the now-familiar Western open world RPG (that Origin helped establish and Bethesda have made their own) or the extremely traditional Japanese RPG formulas. It was nice, however, to expressly design a game that could draw from both influences.

Next, the Final Part: From Tom Baker to Release

Kult Post-mortem (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves

Alita In 2005, an unknown Slovak company released a EuroRPG that managed to pull in 80% and 90% review scores. The game was Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) and this is the story of how it came to be made.

You can read Part (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves over on Only a Game today, and Part (2) will appear here tomorrow.

Games, Guns, and Gender

An open letter to Sheri Graner-Ray at FEM IRL as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Alpha Protocol Dear Sheri,

For about a decade there, we were running into each other once or twice a year, in California for GDC (where we both hosted events for the IGDA), and sometimes in your neck of the woods for the equivalent event in Austin. Life inevitably moves on, and in my transition to father I am not quite the International Hobo I once was, even though I still consult under the brand of the company I founded. There are so many great people I miss from the US conference circuit that it would be dangerous to start listing them lest this entire letter was just a who’s-who of wondrous games industry folk, but I really miss not getting to see you and my “Jazz man” Joe Saulter at GDC, and I learned so much about the social problems of representation in games from your respective round tables – fixtures of my GDC schedules every year I went.

Women and the Games Industry

I'm writing in part to ask: has the situation improved for women in the games industry, or games as a hobby? I have not really seen much sign of progress in employment terms... My first boss, Angela Sutherland at Perfect Entertainment, is still the only female executive I've worked with, although Nicole Lazzaro introduced me to a few at Casual Connect in Seattle a few years back. If there are more women going into games as a career, it is still a long, long way from parity, and there seems to be a definite problem transitioning from ‘the production line’ to the boardroom.

But then, on the other side of the coin, I feel like the ‘Casual revolution’ spearheaded by companies like PopCap, and the ‘social games’ gold rush that followed, have at least put pay to the lie that “women don't play games”. Yet this gain seems to come at an odd cost, since the design-by-metrics approach that undergirds the business model of the so-called social games is entirely gender-blind, seeing women as simply another source of revenue. Better, perhaps, than naively believing women will not spend money on games, but hardly likely to encourage the creative exploration of the new visions that female developers might bring to the table. Do you have any thoughts on this?

The Truly Social Games

Of course, social games do not really foster community, they are viral rather than communal in nature, but our industry does have a genuinely social genre in the form of the MUD and its descendant, the MMO. I loved my time in the two MUDs I played at university, the Star Trek-themed TrekMUSE and Manchester University's own UglyMUG. In the former, which was very supportive of role-players, I was a Romulan ambassador who, after a romantic liaison embroiled her in scandal, retired to a shrine where I officiated over weddings. UglyMUG, which still runs today, was less of a role-player's world but was always extremely social, and changed the course of my life. I treasure my memories of both games.

You, I know, have maintained a relationship with the truly social games and still to this day play City of Heroes avidly. I saw it demoed at E3 many years hence and knew I wouldn't be able to play it – the ‘RPG’ in ‘MMORPG’ ironically excludes me, and not because I don't like RPGs – on the contrary, I like them a little too much! They bring out my obsessive tendencies, and my wife has sensibly limited me to playing just one computer RPG a year. An MMORPG with its indefinite play length would be very dangerous for me to play.

I'm curious, then, about your experiences of community on City of Heroes. I think you were a MUD player back in the day (way to make us both sound old, right?) – do the new games manage to sustain the tight community and opportunities for role-play that the MUDs and MUSEs excelled at, or did they all fall down the hole of the LP MUD and DikuMUD, overjustifying their play with compelling reward structures? Can you say of your fellow heroes that they are friends, or merely that you play together?

Guns, Guns, Guns

For myself, I seem to have been cursed with having to play gun games. I say ‘have to’, but what I mean is that my regular weekly game with friends (which sometimes plays boardgames, and sometimes plays online) has devolved into multiplayer co-op gun games like Counter-Strike and Payday out of a certain necessary convenience they provide. There are limited opportunities for obsessive reward structure pursuit, and the short play time of each round makes for easy stopping at the end of the night. I note that my brother-in-law, who shares my obsessive response to cRPGs and thus avoids them, has ended up playing similar games with his regular gaming group.

What slightly troubles me about this is how inured to gunplay it has made me. When my wife and I went to the US embassy in London to get my residency papers sorted out (for the time I was living in Knoxville and working with a number of US clients), I was disturbed to see the security staff armed with firearms. When we came back a few years later to get my son’s dual citizenry and US passport, I calmly noted “they're packing MP5s”. This was a direct response to years of playing Counter-Strike which, like it or not, has changed my relationship with guns.

I would still rather play a fantasy game or even a superhero game like your preferred MMO, but no-one is making these in the readily-playable forms that can slot into the odd night here or there. Instead, players like me are becoming accustomed to firearms in the same way we are all now so used to living with cars that we can't even acknowledge the deaths they cause without invoking some kind of dismissive excuse. It's a topic I dig into a little in my next book, Chaos Ethics, and it does trouble me: we can’t seem to look our technology squarely in the robotic eyes.

As a game designer, I can scarcely turn my back on technology at this point, but I worry about the representation of violence in videogames (and the tacit valorisation of gun violence) as much as I worry about the representation of women (or lack thereof). Although my Tennessee born and bred father-in-law has given me a much greater appreciation for the love affair with guns that your nation pursues, I cannot shake the worrying sense that the romance of guns on TV, in the cinema, and in videogames, is not something entirely neutral in its cultural effects.

Blood and Guts
You have said that women players in your experience don’t mind the violence in videogames – my experience is slightly different. There are women gamers who don’t mind the violence, certainly, but those people I've seen who are troubled by game violence and gore tend, in my experience at least, to be women. I think of the UK trade rep who came with me to see the unveiling of Fallout 3 at  the Games Convention in Leipzig: her eyes almost literally popped out of her head when she saw that the game literally had eyes popping out of heads. Not to mention the option to make the game even more gory, should you wish to.

The thing about this issue that troubles me is that I think you’re correct to see this as not specifically a gender issue, yet I think female voices are the most likely way to get traction on alternative representations of violence in games. Men who don’t get on with these kind of things tend to simply avoid them. As a case in point, I have a penis but still don’t enjoy needlessly bloody games: one look at Team Fortress 2’s combination of cutesy graphics and gore was enough to turn me off forever. Similarly, Rob Brydon, who did voice work with me at Perfect, wouldn’t record our arena tank game’s sports commentator because he didn’t like to hear his own voice inciting (imaginary) violence.

Freedom of expression protects the portrayal of violence in games, and its not something I want to push back against politically. Yet I would like more alternatives... I’d like more experimentation in the fiction of games and less dependence on guns and cars. If helping women developers find their own creative voice isn’t a way to foster this, then I fear I will just have to accept the current status quo – and that does not please me.

Anyway, I hope this letter finds you well, and not too irritated by the endless stream of legal letters that mega-corporation Cengage (which publishes books by both you and I) has been deluding us with in relation to its 'restructuring' boondoggle. I’ve committed this year to writing more letters to other bloggers, since I have let my community evaporate and – shamefully – have blamed it all on other people and the rise of the social networks. Facebook and Google+ have been a factor, but I also stopped talking to other bloggers, and that was my fault. With that in mind, I had to write to you as one of my first ‘letters’ since back in 2006 I implored you to blog, which you now do.

One last thing: was it you or Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero) that I was talking to in Austin about the boardgame Pandemic? Okay, I said I wasn’t going to devolve into name-dropping but I can't for the life of me get that memory straight in my head!

Wishing you all the very best,


Sheri has confirmed that she will be replying sometime soon.

No-one else has replied yet.

Curiosity and the Play of Explorer Games

Some brief remarks about exploration play, and the motive of curiosity that propels it.

Space EngineBecause both game designers and scholars within game studies have been almost monomanically obsessed with winning and challenge, it is all too often overlooked that player motives are as diverse as the games they choose to play. Competitiveness and achievement are not the sole motives for play, as has long been recognized by researchers such as Richard Bartle, Nicole Lazzaro, and – as far back as 1980 – Thomas Malone. In my previous write-up on Malone's view of the role of curiosity in videogames, I included this salient quote, which serves as a great stepping point to understanding games that have curiosity as a primary motive for play:

Computer games can evoke a learner’s curiosity by providing environments that have an optimal level of informational complexity (Berlyne, 1965; Piaget, 1952). In other words, the environments should be neither too complicated nor too simple with respect to the learner’s existing knowledge. They should be novel and surprising, but not completely incomprehensible.

What brought out this topic recently was Oscar Strik's reflections on the recent spate of thin play procedural space explorers (or planetarium games, if you will). Noctis, still my favourite of the form at the moment, is upfront about being a game, framing the player's exploration and cataloging of interstellar objects with a science fiction fantasy about an extinct race of space-faring cats. Space Engine, on the other hand, calls itself a planetarium (which is a stretch) and borders upon being a positivistic (non)religious artefact. It is a work of orthodox science fiction (a subject I discuss in The Mythology of Evolution) that aspires to a note of seriousness via purporting to be based on 'real science' (hence the orthodox aspect of its science fiction). Oscar calls it a simulation, which plays into this mythological view of what it does – I think this an ill-advised appellation for a fantasy about space exploration, unless it is a synonym for 'sim-game'. I would not call my tabletop RPG Outlands a simulation just because it has stellar system generation based on contemporary astrophysical theory (see p110-113)! The moment the player is making believe that they are exploring (physically or mentally) an imaginary universe, we have long since hurdled any serious barrier to the word 'game', as well as any claim to the term 'planetarium' in the original sense. 
The motive for playing space explorers like these stems from curiosity, specifically the drive towards discovery. There is a related aesthetic motive in terms of sensory pleasures - to witness the beauty of stars, planets, nebulae, and comets in an imaginary world (as illustrated in the Space Engine screen shot shown above). The motivation behind playing Proteus moves in a similar direction, although here the faux-simulation is of the joys of hiking (which I also enjoy). Proteus, unlike the space explorers, however, is a box of delights filled with designed-surprises (albeit procedurally populated) such as its frogs and bees, whereas the space explorers play upon the mystical draw of 'outer space' that science fiction (orthodox or otherwise!) has cultivated. It is epitomized in Star Trek's opening soliloquy: "where no-one has gone before", although my suspicion is a galactic cruise line sim-game with a dozen well-designed star systems could enrapture its players if it could substitute another play reward for the illusion of infinite agency in the planetariums.

Why illusion? The player can go anywhere, after all... True enough, but everywhere is randomly generated, so except when the player chooses to revisit somewhere, they have the same agency as a player rolling a die. Nonetheless, game designers frequently forget that the illusion of agency is extremely compelling and is more than sufficient to satisfy the majority of players. A particularly humourless positivist may be incapable of imagining any personal ownership of a die roll, as most of us do naturally, but the pleasure of rolling a Yahtzee is almost ineliminatable.

It is worth mentioning that procedural generation only gets you so far: I love Terraria, but generating a new world is not enough to make me want to play it through a second time, and the joys of both this and Minecraft are not coming as greatly from explorer play as it sometimes may seem. It is the agency inherent in combining the level editor with the game world itself that is the key to these game's success (something I wanted to do in my proto-Minecraft, Play with Fire, and which Populous had already done in 1989). This is not to say that Minecraft doesn't support explorer play - it most certainly does, as catalogues of world seeds and co-ordinates attest e.g. the Minecraft Seeds website (compare Noctis' badly managed yet brilliantly conceived cataloging play). But the key to Minecraft's success is high agency coupled with support for a tremendous variety of possible motivations, plus a seldom discussed but absolutely insightful choice of the regime of play. If you copy anything from Minecraft, make sure you also copy this freedom to choose how you will relate to the world itself!

This is the tip of the iceberg in respect of explorer play – a great many role-playing games – particularly in the style of rogue – offer it, while Elite, Paradroid and all the other early playground worlds all support play of curiosity and exploration in interesting ways. Endless Ocean turns marine biology into explorer play with moments of breathtaking wonder – which as Lazzaro reports is a full-body emotion, like the experience of triumph that games produce far more easily and frequently. Any game with a map that can be filled in or unfogged combines exploration and achievement in a way that requires neither violence nor conflict to compel players onwards. I could literally write a book on exploration play and still never exhaust the topic!

Uncertainty, as I argue in Imaginary Games, is the very bedrock of play, and exploration always delivers on its promise for those players, including myself, who seek the wonder, beauty, and surprises of an unexpected discovery within a curated expedition. This well has long been tapped, yet it is far, far, far from running dry. There is more creative game design waiting here than in any dimension of the well-worn play of challenges. Violence, conflict, specified achievements – these are an easy sop to player expectations, the pornography of contemporary digital play. Go forth, fellow game creators, and explore the boundless frontiers of exploration itself!

With thanks to both Oscar Strik and LateTide, who is working on a nautical rogue-like with exploration elements called Stormtorn, for the discussions that prompted this.