Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How I Saved the Gaming Industry Overnight By Being Awesome

There's a web site out there called RPG Codex. They write about me a lot, sometimes even kindly. There is something they said about me recently that I wanted to respond to. Not to criticize, but to comment on. I think there are things to be learned about Indie gaming and game development in general. (Emphasis mine.)

In ten years, Jeff Vogel - the man behind Spiderweb Games [sic] - has released an impressive eleven games... or the same game eleven different times if you want to be a hater. Through the 2000's Jeff released Avernum 2-6, Geneforge 2-5, Nethergate: Resurrection and Blades of Avernum.

If there's anyone who owes his success to the "just make a sequel" methodology, it is Jeff Vogel. While the professional studios fail left and right, Jeff has somehow or another managed to chip out a tiny niche market for himself. And pretty much only himself. He's nestled into it now and is well and truly quite snug.

Updating little if anything of his games over the past decade, Jeff has simply added story and new locations to explore. He's changed some bits and pieces as he goes of course but the core technology has almost always remained consistently the same. The graphics too. In any other genre this would be a death knell but when it comes to RPGs, it seems the shittier the graphics, the more chances there are of having more interesting role-playing elements.

There's a lot I can say about this, but I'm most interested in the bit about how I have not changed my core technology in ten years. And you know something? They're exactly right. In fact, my "core technology" is so rough and low-budget that I am embarrassed to call it "technology." I still use it year after year. And yet, somehow, during the last decade, my fan base and profits increased dramatically.

If you asked me why I used that same old clunky game engine and why I am still using it, I would give this answer: Because I am really smart and cool and awesome. And if more people emulated me, the game industry would not be near so messed up.

Now, mind you, I don't write the same game again and again. That's like saying an author who wrote ten books wrote the same book each time because they are published using the same paper and ink. Did I write a whole-new story? Then it's a whole new game.

But it's gotten to the point where a company is expected to be ashamed for using the same engine for more than one title and a few DLC packs. The Gold Box games and the Infinity Engine are rare exceptions.

This is such an astonishing waste of resources. When I start a new game, I spend 3-4 months rewriting the worst or most dated part of my engine, and then I take that old (but solid) engine and make the coolest story I can with it. It's a small company. Our resources are desperately limited. Thus, I don't spend time remaking things that already work. If my wolf icon looks good, why make a new wolf icon just for the sake of making a new one? Instead, I focus on the story, the one thing that truly needs to be all new and excellent.

And the big companies, who make AAA games with these amazing awesome big-budget engines? They should re-use more of them! The Dragon Age engine is very cool. Make ten games with it! And not just piddly Dragon Age DLC either. Make games that are cyberpunk, horror, science fiction, fantasy in a new setting. The budgets will be much lower, and that makes it easier to take risks. And use the same dragon model. It looks really sweet. And, once the engine is a drained husk (in, say, five years), then spend a lot of money making a new one.

(And, while I'm dreaming, why not use that engine to make more, cheaper, shorter games. Games short enough that people could actually reach the ends of them. I think part of the reason Portal and Braid are so lauded is that they're short enough for normal people to see the end.)

And if more assets are reused, there will be less work for the artists, coders, and testers to do. They just add to each game the assets and features that specific title needs. Which means that they might be able to spend less time in the crushing permanent crunch mode that burns most developers out young.

Most people will dismiss this idea out of hand, saying that I don't know anything about the realities of the business. And they are probably right. I'm just a dumb, little nobody. But I am running a profitable game company. But Electronic Arts and Activision (the company that owns Blizzard!) are losing bazillions of dollars. Development studios have been closing left and right. Games are crazy expensive to make and burn developers out. Massive layoffs are endemic.

Spiderweb Software, on the other hand, have seen sales drop about 10% during the big recession, but we're still comfortable and quite profitable. And I'm supposed to be ashamed of my business model? Pish!

And, in some ways, the industry is moving slowly in my direction. Once, in the heady early days after Doom came out, every company had hotshot coders who wanted to write their own 3-D engine. These days, companies wisely just license the Unreal engine or whatever. Now it is common to license graphics engines, sound engines, video engines, physics engines. Reusing old resources in new games is already the right strategy. I just take it to the natural extreme. Others should follow my worthy example.

And, in the long run, I don't think gamers will really care if three games use the same dragon model.

So thanks to RPG Codex for the press. I will address their comments about how hardly anyone else does what I do in a future post, because I have something to say about how awesome it is to have competitors.

184 comments:

  1. My goodness, RPG Codex needs an attitude change. God forbid you should save time *and* be profitable. Business-savvy-ness is just not fashionable in the gaming industry, Jeff.

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  2. There's an obvious reason why big game companies make new game engines for new games. You suggest that the game could still modify many things - setting, story, etc. But in a lot of games these days, the story is nothing special. So they'd be asking people to buy the same game they've already bought, but with the parts they didn't care about changed.

    That wouldn't work very well. You need a game where the story matters to do that. That's mostly RPGs these days.

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  3. Jeff, all of your comments are bang on. However I don't think RPG Codex believes what they say. They wrote that article to start a conversation or debate - in a way its good online journalism, as it will draw people onto the site to comment.

    If what they said was true (Graphics > Story) then why is social and iCrack gaming growing exponentially and PC gaming (best looking) is on the down swing!?

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  4. 100% agreement with you. It's something I've long believed, too. I wish more companies would re-use more technology and assets and take more chances with their design.

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  5. I remember thinking at the time that Origin could have profitably churned out another 3 games using the Ultima7 engine and wondered why they didn't

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  7. EA just came out with Lords of Ultima, a browser based strategy game with old school graphics and some pretty addictive gameplay, so maybe they are taking your advice. With the popularity of mobile & social gaming (ie facebook), I think we're starting to see a return to simpler graphics with a stronger focus on gameplay.

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  8. Sorry to hear that sales are down 10%... I'm sure that'll turn around once the new game gets released! Right around the corner...

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  9. A great example of a AAA games company reusing their engine is Valve. With the source engine they've made Half Life 2, HL2 Episode1, HL2 Episode2, Portal, Team Frotress 2, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 and with each new game they update the engine to improve it's capabilities.

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  10. While I agree with your arguments that the computer game world would be better of if it focused more on content and games and less on technology I can see another reason why that doesn't happen: programmers. If you are a programmer first and game developer second you are naturally more interested in tinkering with and advancing technology and one-upping your previous attempt than reusing the old stuff. That's my motivational problem as a hobby game coder at least. Once the hardest technical challenges are solved and all that's left is the drudge work of putting the pieces together I quickly lose interest in the project. Also, after working on one piece of technology for a long time one always gets the feeling one could do better in v2 if one could just start over (whether that's actually true is a whole other story). After all you can hardly write a more complete design and feature spec than a working first version ;-)
    Then again - maybe that's just me.

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  11. I wish more people could understand the point of code re-use. Starting a whole new system is incredibly time consuming. However, to keep up the challenge (as mentioned by BuschnicK) modifying existing code is a pretty worthy thing. Rewriting doesn't mean starting from scratch at all.

    Maybe the engine needs a large portion to be redone, that's fine - but keep the stuff that works. It saves having to patch it all again later (since older code is generally more robust).

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  12. I'm remind of the story in Wired a few months ago of the Duke Nukem debacle. They went through several re-writes of their game engine without actually releasing a game. It wasn't "games per engine" but "engines per game"!!

    And look at how that ended.

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  13. As someone who has appreciated the modding community for years, I would actually like to see the games industry move to a model where a few major studios build engines, which all the smaller games studios then license as need be.

    Sure, this already happens in a lot of cases, but it really needs to be taken up industry wide. The problem with the non-indie industry at the moment is that studios are investing massive amounts of resources and capital into what is mainly work on new engines, then basically running the risk of all that work being wasted if the game itself sucks donkey balls, which it often does.

    If you change that model on a large scale, suddenly the companies investing the big bucks have far less risk to deal with, since as long as it is a decent product people will still license their engine, and smaller companies can spend their resources on paying for better writers, level designers, etc., thereby making it far more likely the game will be halfway decent. That smaller company therefore makes money and licenses the original (or an updated) engine again, and so we have the circle of life.

    It bothers me to see some series make leaps and bounds with their engine technology but get progressively worse and worse from a gameplay perspective. The Total War series is a deinite offender here (although luckily the series is saved by the modding community, which takes those excellent engines and remakes the games how they should have been in the first place). Honestly, they would do much better hiring an actual historian and more people to work on gameplay elements, rather than hiring ten more people to work on adding lens flares on Napoleons zipper.

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  14. And yes, I am aware that zippers were invented almost a century after Napoleon died, so if anyone points to that as a logic flaw in my argument, I'll be annoyed.

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  15. Amaranthia has been making and selling games using RPGmaker XP for almost five years now! Not only that, she's doing mind-bogglingly well.

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  16. I think re-using the core of a game engine is an awesome idea.

    But...

    Re-using artwork? Hell no! Artwork, models, effects, music, etc should all be as unique and original as possible.

    I'd say game companies should be using less resources on engine development, by re-using the core, and then compensate by spending more on creative resources.

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  17. 'In fact, my "core technology" is so rough and low-budget that I am embarrassed to call it "technology." I still use it year after year. And yet, somehow, during the last decade, my fan base and profits increased dramatically.'

    Rogue-likes are still going strong for the same reason. Firstly, attention to technology /competes/ with attention to depth and story during development (limited development time) so players who care only about the latter will prefer games that have little of the former. Secondly, overbearing "sparkliness" may actually distract. A film is not implicitly inferior to a book, which seems like a reasonable analog for a game where most of the exposition is in written text.

    (And personally, I find the arms race between video card makers and action game makers tiring - I feel less like a player of the game than a spectator at some kind of "who has the fastest chipset" competition. So the "low" end of the games market has a lot of appeal.)

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  18. EA/Westwood has done this for years as well. Command and Conquer (once it went 3D) has been using what was called W3D engine for Dune 2000/Earth & Beyond/C&C Renegade. Some nifty upgrades later it was rechristened SAGE for C&C Generals/LOR: BFME/C&C3. Updated again and this time renamed to RNA for RA3/C&C4. They are doing EXACTLY what you suggest. Keep what works and update as you go. Although they like changing the name of the engine for some reason.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAGE_(game_engine)#Games_with_the_W3D_engine

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  19. Code and art re-use is a great thing for games.
    Megaman 1 to 6 was great, Megaman X 1 to 3 was great. The first three Sonic games were great. All of them built on top of the previous game in their series, re-using a lot of code and art.

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  20. If you want to know why people do not reuse stuff in general, then look at bankers and their moronic idea of creative destruction. How can you sell investment in a patch up, how can you spend money if you have no excuse (a platform change or 'complete rewrite'). Efficiency and prudence with resources are unwanted because bankers need to het rich off the toiling of gamedevelopers..

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  21. Look how much great stuff came out of the Infinity engine -- wish that was still being done. People still -do- write using Inform to compile text adventures & some of that stuff's not bad either.

    Keep at it, man. More art, same batch of canvas. I've never played any of your games but I fully get this.

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  22. My favorite parts of games were always the aftermarket conversions and mods by independents and start-ups. Talk about re-use of an old engine.. When they start coming around they can get to be quite epic. (and if not, then Barneys and Teletubbies!!!) I like watching these evolve as new patches are released.

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  23. The only big game developer out there that I still like is Valve, who are following your suggested model. Think about portal and left 4 dead and team fortress 2; all built with the half-life 2 engine.

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  24. (In the spirit of this topic) I’m going to add an unoriginal idea that I read in another game blog.

    I think Jeff Vogel is reusing an idea from the Ultima series: 1–5. After that, Origin started large engine changes engines with each game. Even though they did make spinoffs with each engine (Mars, Serpent Isle, Crusader series), IMO it’s no accident that the Ultima series started to lack story in U8, 9 and X was cancelled.

    Similar successes with tweaking simple engines: SCUMM VM, Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, Infocom’s Z-Machine.

    So, keeping games engines simple makes it easier to improve the underlying engine. Make large leaps in game engine technology, and that means more code, more bugs, exponentially increasing development time.

    As for reusing artwork & music in 3D games, it does happen, but limited to sequels. And maybe flight simulators (how many F-15s do we need to model?).

    e.g. Big Daddies in Bioshock 1&2, the Star Wars series etc.

    Even then though, I think gaming designers are shooting themselves in the foot by creating ever more realistic games and leaving nothing to the imagination. Simply because creating the next game demands more very complicated 3D artwork. I don't mind seeing the same Avatar tile in Ultima 4 & 5. But no one wants to see the same soldier model in different shooters/RPGs (unless it's a sequel, like Halo, for example).

    It's not a new thing to see games being drawn out into sequels & add-ons, to facilitate code and art reuse. Most recent egregious example: Starcraft II—a brand new engine, with brand new artwork can't just be one game. Players will have to pay for each of the 3 chapters.

    Other things like voice acted conversations add atmosphere to a game, but is usable in the one game only—what a waste. In comparison, text-based conversations can be implemented, and modified and expanded upon much more easily.

    The flip side is that sometimes a brand new engine is fun. Going back to the Ultima example, I think the leaps between U5, U6 and U7 were breathtaking; shame it wasn't sustainable. Another example: Crotek created a new engine for the Serious Sam games—they probably couldn't have fulfilled their vision with a Quake/Unreal engine; although they did manage to tweak it and release further games based on the Serious Engine.

    More recently I played a current game "Heavy Rain" where the engine is very much part of the game. The game is a gorgeous mystery, which makes me wonder: how much mileage can the developers get out of that engine, and how can they possibly use it for further games?

    Not to say that reusing the same engine is by itself a recipe for greatness. I think X-Com 2, was quite derivative of the first one, and if X-Com 3 had been on the same lines, it would have been just More Of The Same. I think whoever owned that engine should have stuck to incremental improvements, instead of technology leaps which while exciting, were less rewarding.

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  25. I don't think it is a sin to focus on story rather than graphics, but at some point it wouldn't kill you to move to a newer engine. Your games show a heavy early-Ultima influence. Why not pick up the Exult engine (which works on Mac, Linux, Windows and several mobile platforms) and use it? Or any number of open source engines?

    Speaking of the Infinity Engine, there is an open source clone called GemRB that you could use.

    I loved your old Scorched Earth website, and your Poo Bomb book as well. Keep it all coming!

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  26. There's actually lots of precedence for this model in other industries. For instance, ARM doesn't actually make many of its own chips - it just does the research, then licenses its technology out to people who use it in such varied things as iPhones and Droids and basically everything - you're probably within a foot of at least three ARM chips right now. They even have different licensing levels - Qualcomm, for instance, took the most expensive license (you get everything and you can make whatever changes you want) in order to make their Snapdragon chip.

    There's absolutely no reason why game engines shouldn't be treated the same way. We don't need to re-invent the wheel every single time someone wants to make a new game about shooting monsters in the face.

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  27. @CCF: Ultima VIII had a great story. It was just a little short because they spent so much time on art, animations, etc. U9 (it doesn't get roman numerals as it isn't a proper Ultima) was screwed by EA pretty seriously. EA took most of the team and forced them to work on UO since it was so profitable. And then three years in, they scrapped the entire U9 project and made them start from scratch. What they ended up releasing is a travesty.

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  28. You have a great point, and I applaud you for being profitable and taking pride in your success and how you've achieved it. I hope to be as successful someday!

    You've earned a reader. I'm trying to start my own indie company.

    I disagree that story is the core of a game, though. Maybe a limited category of game.

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  29. This is something i've been discussed a lot with my friend gamer... Company spend way too much time/money on their Ultimate/powerful/incredible game engine and at the end, the content is not there. It's boring... why not use the old game engine and work on cool story. For example, the Fallout series, the #1 & #2 were amazing... the #3, they made an incredible engine, game boring and lost what made the first 2 classics game (played #3 like 2hour then went to zzz...). Thx Jeff, you are so right...

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  30. I don't think I've ever heard of you and definitely not your games but I think you're absolutely right.

    A great example of your methodology being viable is Starcraft. When did Starcraft and the followup Brood Wars come out? More than 10 years ago I think. Starcraft 2 is just barely nearing release. I don't think Blizzard planned to wait that long for SC2 but it happened and Starcraft didn't die. It's more popular now than before!

    I just recently BOUGHT Starcraft 1 and Brood Wars about two weeks ago. I will be buying SC2 when it comes out.

    I've often thought to myself that game makers should incrementally upgrade their games or make a new game with the same technology. We're in a perpetual cycle of upgrades and, like you said, it's wearing people out.

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  31. My kids play Sonic on the Wii - and Mean Bean Machine on the PS3 - they love playable games regardless of shiney sparkle. My son plays the crap out of starcraft.

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  32. It's funny - the pretty horrible Icewind Dale 2 basically killed the Infinity Engine. But take it, and update it to handle today's screen resolutions instead of being stuck in 800x600, and write some good games with it, and I'd still be playing them. Planescape:Torment is probably one of my all-time favorite games.

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  33. All I can say (because I am not a gamer) is thank goodness those game developers keep rewriting their graphics engines and trying to push the envelope with what can be done on a GPU. Because without their work, and the customers who pay for it, I wouldn't be able to do cool GPU-accelerated signal processing computations at 100Gflops/sec/GPU. Thanks y'all!

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  34. Muds are the ultimate in this; they still use text based engines, largely without any graphics, and still command about the same raw userbase as they did in the 1990's.

    Granted, the overall percentage of mudders has dropped over the years as more and more people come online, but the core things that keep people on muds are social networking and storyline. It's clearly not the graphics.

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  35. I remember checking out some of the avernums and I was quite disappointed that the engine seemed to remain close to the old goldbox style. That's my problem, I didn't really get into PC gaming until around the time that U6 came out and never really got deep into an Ultima until U7. Personally, U7s engine is one of the last great RPG engines, in my opinion. If U9 had stuck to those principles, but incrementally improved on it, I think that series would have been better served. The Van Buren team knew that too, until they got scrapped.

    I'm not a graphic snob, but I guess I'm a bit of an engine snob...I like animations, I like little details and interactions. I think they contribute to a world where I can lose myself. Having someone say they've lost something/someone in a cave for the millionth time doesn't endear me to the story/game.

    So, yeah, my 2 favorite RPG engines, U7 and Fallout1/2. Infinity bugged me for a long time, but as more games were made for it, and as I saw that the trend when moving away from it was to simplify even further, I soon realized that we were in a new age and felt out of place. Avernum almost gave me hope, but I guess, on the venn diagram of customers to cater to, I'm somehow not in the overlap.

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  36. Thank you!!! I've been saying this for years! Reviewers are only enabling developers by nitpicking about graphics. Graphics killed text adventures and continues to kill the industry. I can still play Quake today and enjoy it... if I could get my hands on Half-Life for my console I'd be playing it. I'm stalled on Mass Effect 2 (lost interest) so I went back to Morrowind and am having a fantastic time.

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  37. how about porting the engine to linux too, so that, we, opensource lovers can play your games ?

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  38. I thought the same thing when I played dragon age!

    This engine rules, make 10 more games with it. I want to be running around with a laser cannon and composite armor using THIS engine and I want to do it in a year or less.

    That is what this gamer would love to pay for. Please make it happen. I dont want to wait 3 years for some model updates

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  39. I know of several games that reuse engines...Ubisoft used their in house engine for all the prince of persia games, the quake 3 engine was used to make about 45 WWII FPS games from licencing to several companies, and nowadays renderware and some others have a opretty good grip on the market. No one makes engines like they used to.

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  40. Same engine shouldn't ever be reused. Look at the industry of MMORPGs. Maybe most of them use different engine, but they all strive to be the same. There's a shitload of games that have different skins, but same boring shitty gameplay that they always had. Maybe it worked the first time, but over the years there has to be an improvement in the game. Not graphical, but technical. Games aren't books that people want to read, I don't care if my game takes place in a fantasy world, cyberpunk, future, ww2 or whatever else there is, I'm interested in good gameplay, because that's what games are all about.

    For example I don't really care if New Super Mario Bros Wii had the same engine as Super Mario Bros, as long as it'd come up with new levels and the multiplayer feature, Source engine is also an example of a good engine that should be reused. However, if your game centers on story and not gameplay(and that's how it works in RPG games), then you have to upgrade the graphics or at least the engine itself with new features, preferably improving the gameplay to not be the generic RPG material. Check out Ys series(The Oath in Felghana, Ark of Napishtim, Origin) for a great mix of RPG, story and gameplay.

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  41. I'm assuming that anyone who agrees without reservation has never read a bulletin board for a mainstream game. Anyone not innovating is ripped to shreds. If you think that, say, Fable 2 would have gone over just as well as Fable 1 without some significant asset/engine re-vamping then you're quite mistaken.

    I also assume the yay-sayers have never worked in a large development company. Every dev I know re-uses technology as much as possible - unless there's a damned good reason not to (e.g. all their competitors' games look considerably better).

    Where technology is not re-used, it is bought in - indeed, a great many new 3D games are based on someone else's engine.

    Devs are not idiots. They are people trusted with multi-million dollar budgets, scrutinised and criticised every day to make sure they are as profitable as possible.

    As for the whole 're-use engines for 5 years' thing, again, I can only assume that those who agree with this don't have a clue how long it takes to make a AAA game. You'll usually get - at most - 2 or 3 games out during that period... based on the same engine. Devs already do what you suggest. I know this is just repeating the same point made above but I imagine folks here will be okay with a little repetition.

    The entire case being made is predicated on someone's experiences of selling nostalgia. Nostalgia, by definition, does not move on, hence the ability to re-use the same tech and graphics again and again.

    Computer gaming is a tech industry. Some innovate and push the proverbial envelope. Others are happy to rest on someone else's dusty laurels.

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  42. While it may be branching off into a tangent, I don't think many big game houses need to be redeveloping their engines or even delivering eye-popping graphics. Look at the success of titles like PopCap Games' Plants vs. Zombies: they found a game concept that was both simple and challenging. To me, its the gameplay that determines a game's success. If there's great gameplay, I don't care if the graphics are less than photo-realistic because I'm too busy having fun! And, of course, in the RPG sector, great gameplay is driven largely by a great story.

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  43. Totally agree with you on that article. I'm an mmorpg player since years. I play SWG (star wars galaxies and i still play the old everquest). Those mmorpg are old but they are really really fun to play. I don't mind about the graphic engine, i just want to play something that is fun to play. And tbh, the more complex a game engine is, the most bugs we are stuck with.

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  44. Gameplay and story > graphics all day long, every day.

    Your story reminds me of Jack White. He uses a sub $100 guitar, or simply makes a stringed instrument of his own out of a 2x4, pickup and some wire then records it on a tape machine held together with duct tape.

    The end result and whether or not people dig it, is all that matters.

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  45. Compare the games industry with the animation industry. Pixar, the world's lead purveyor of animation is upping its technology all the time. Watch 'Up', then go and watch 'Steamboat Willie'. Pixar aren't idiots. They improve technology to create a richer and more emotive experience.

    If it did not, they would not.

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  46. Holy crap, I had almost completely forgotten about the zillions of hours I spent playing Exile when I was a kid. What an excellent game. When I get home I'm buying your newer games: if they show anything like the quality Exile showed I'll be in gamer paradise.

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  47. The Exile series rocked my socks, they were the first games I ever bought.

    There is already a lot of engine reuse going on in the games industry and this does fuel some very interesting experimental games, but a lot of the time it seems that the savings of engine reuse go into lowering the bar of entry for developers, instead of being spent on depth and writing quality by big game studios.

    I still live in hope that one day someone will plug a current generation engine into the Exile 3 world data.

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  48. @Dene: and what are those company selling? Games with cool stories or games with cool graphics?

    If you're selling cool graphics. Then you'll need to push yourself every year to sell the same story with new graphics.

    World of Warcraft only sells new stories (and subscriptions). They're not competing to make the most realistic avatar.

    Need for speed, is always the same but with newer graphics.

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  49. I've been an Exile fan ever since I found Exile II on an old shareware disc many years ago. I haven't gotten into Avernum yet, I find the perspective rather awkward. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see the tech pushed a bit further though. I am however glad you stuck to your guns. The fantastic setting, endless characters with dialogue, engaging story, gameplay and hundreds of small events in little nooks make the Exile series truly captivating. If you moved to a 3d engine, I imagine you'd spend 90% of your time getting the artwork up to speed and not have as much time to focus on what you do best, creating fantastic, believable worlds to explore.

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  50. The majors do indeed reuse engines. For instance, the Tiger Woods Golf game was used as the basis for the Lord of the Rings engine. I kid you not.

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  51. I loved the comic book game "Freedom Force" when it came out in 2003. It was fantastic. Great characters, good UI, cool story. It had an excellent editor and I eagerly looked forward to an expansion pack of some kind. But years went by with nothing getting released.

    Then two years later in 2005 the game magazines started to run interviews with the developers about the sequel, “Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich.” The interviews talked WAY more about changes in the game engine than I really cared about. How many more polygons, higher screen resolutions, blah blah blah.

    The sequel was released. As far as I could tell, there was no substantial difference in the quality of the game engines, and I did a side-by-side comparison. The user reviews of the game at places like http://www.gamespot.com/pc/rpg/freedomforce3rdreich/ say the same thing. People still rated the game very well because they loved the stories and the game world, but changes to the engine didn’t matter. A few people did complain how similar they were, but they still gave the game high marks.

    And now the series has stopped. How many dollars were spent upgrading an engine that nobody cared about? I would gladly pay somebody $50 for another Freedom Force game based on the FIRST engine from 2003!

    I have an 11-year old son. He is currently playing through the original Half-Life from 1998. He begged me to buy and install it after playing through Half-Live 2. He mentioned that the graphics look old, but that’s not stopping him from loving the game and playing the whole thing.

    So--I think the importance of your engine varies a lot depending on the kind of game. RPGs emphasize story to such an extent that you can get away with a lot less eye-candy as long as minimal standards are met. But the best “shooters” like Half-Live are still engaging enough that people pay to play them a decade after their original release.

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  52. Thank you, Dene, you said *exactly* what I was going to. Gamers do want better graphics, more realistic physics, more engine features, etc. Why? Because these things allow a storyteller to better tell their story. Something like Heavy Rain or Half-Life 2 (the end of Episode 2, in particular) could not be told using the Half-Life 1 engine. You could try, but the system just isn't advanced enough to tell it properly. A more immersive engine leads to a more immersive story. Even old games can be better told through the abilities of newer engines: look at Black Mesa Source and you can see how engine features can improve a game.

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  53. Well said! I couldn't agree more that companies need to concern themselves less with remaking the wheel with more chrome and instead polish the current wheel till it gleams.

    I have to agree with other commentors above me - one of the primary reasons I never got into the Avernum games was the engine change. Even though Exile III is one of my favorite games of all time.

    I think there are two primary problems with today's game philosophy: We have come close enough to visual realism that people can't stand the thought of staying at the same point. Every game released has to have a graphics overhaul in order to be worthy. ... See More

    Also, and quite closely related, is that so many games' storylines are bad or non-existent because so much time and effort went into the engine. In some cases this isn't a bad thing: Serious Sam was an incredible game made solely for the purpose of showing off the Cryengine, but the majority just fall flat.

    It also frustrates me to no end to hear stories like FlagShip Studios. They had an awesome game brewing, but tried to reinvent EVERYTHING themselves. It's funny how often people talk about "modularity" and "re-usability" in code, yet don't do so in the vastly more labor-intensive graphics.

    Stick to your guns Jeff, and show people how well it works!

    ReplyDelete
  54. That's why I've never seen the Spiderweb games as games, in the sense of a modern computer games. You write books that have stories and plots to them. Granted, the books are electronically distributed, read on a computer, with dynamic graphics, interactive dialogue and fight scenes, and branching plots, but they're still books.

    Jeff, to me, is more a pioneer in literary publishing than he is a game developer, though he is, of course, both.

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  55. While I think reusing a game engine is just fine, I feel like the stories in your games have really been going downhill since Exile 3/Nethergate/Geneforge 1 (Well, maybe the Geneforge games have improved--I even didn't bother trying Geneforge 3 after the story in 2 felt so much like a repeat of 1).

    Maybe sequels sell better even without especially compelling new stories and maybe your business decisions have been the right ones, but I can't help feeling that you might have written better new stories (even with the same engine) if you'd set them in a new world.

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  56. It is really blatant that the editor of RPG Codex has absolutely no experience in the typical software lifecycle. Object oriented coding, and abstraction are concepts that were created so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time a program is written, making it easier (read cheaper) to develop and also more error-free.

    Don't give any credence to this nay-sayer. Simple laws of economics; If people don't like your games they will go somewhere else. How many people still play Starcraft? That game hasn't had an expansion in 10+ years and it is still being sold in stores.

    I applaud you, keep on the same path, and show the gaming industry what they should be learning from the software community- Reusing code is a best practice.

    ReplyDelete
  57. I really agree that when you have a great engine you should leverage it with many games, not just one.

    I worked as a game dev (EA) for a short stint after being a systems developer (database, apps, server systems) for several years, and left shortly after. The waste of effort was amazing, as was the haphazard way everything seemed to be done over and over. They DID reuse their engines a little more than I've heard other companies do, however.

    Two of my brothers-in-law in the gaming industry are always harping about how their respective companies always want to rebuild engines instead of just USING A BUILT AND TESTED engine. It's just silly to pay an "Engine Guy" for 2-3 years to make a new engine, that is completely untested and very buggy, when you can license the Unreal engine for a small fraction of that (and NOT have to debug it yourself!) Everyone on the team can be productive the entire time with a licensed and tested engine, instead of everyone having to spend days in the engine guy's office proving that the engine does indeed have a bug that is preventing their assigned feature from working properly.

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  58. Makes perfect sense to me. The gaming journalism community just doesn't understand game development as well as they think they do. Gameplay is the most important thing. If people find the gameplay fun, everything else can be forgiven.

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  59. The sad fact is that the only thing unrealistic about this model is the myth that this model is unrealistic. The WII is a top selling console this generation and this is especially important considering the market-shrink Nintendo endured during the N64 to Gamecube generations. The problem however comes from the games. EA, Activision, Konami, and others have failed to realize the real value in having a #1 console which effectively exists utilizing core technology from the last generation. We get ports on occasion but hardly ever do they make new games utilizing the technology that worked just fine last generation. We had FPS, Action, RPGs, Sports and everything we see now touted as new last generation. Think how much better it could all be if they actually took that same clunky software and refined it, Wrote more compelling story and gameplay scenarios, and ultimately stopped concentrating on the new "pretty" of the 360 and PS3 which while occasionally ground breaking is oft used to mask a game that last generation would be considered sub-par. It also leads to outrageous budgets and less risk which ultimately cripples this industry. If you're spending 20 million average on a game now why is the content often less amazing then Ocarina, Halo, GTA, Shenmue, MGS, Jet Set Radio, and other titles of yesteryear.

    It's perception, It's marketing, It's a mythical "hardcore" gamer, and it's the ultimately unpleasable graphics whore. Where do these folks who only play Halo 9 with super shaders and not Tetris or DDR or WiiSports exist? The truth is the vast majority of people are just gamers. Some may devote more hours to the past time but most can be easily satisfied as long as a game is "good". They don't want to be uncool and have the 90 polygon football players but they also wouldn't mind it as much if the game actually offered something not seen in last years version. It's content and it's been honestly missing. We have console life cycles of 5 years and that is much better then the average life cycle of a pc graphics card. We no longer live in the 2600 era. The 24 bit color graphics with 8 levels of opacity are probably going to be sufficient for most of todays gamers. We just need to break these perceptions and stop wasting time and money on what is absolutely not that important to any person who plays games to play a game. We need a revolution that says a console life cycle or even a pc life cycle doesn't just end when marketing plans it to. The big names I think fear this. They want to be in an exclusive industry where only EA and other multimillion dollar devs can exist. This is the wrong way to go. This is evidenced as well by the huge interest in independent games presented on pc platforms like steam, the portable systems, wiiware, xbox live marketplace, and sony's playstation store.

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  60. Take a look at the auto industry. They will release the same car for years (sometimes decades) with the same engine and transmission, tweaking minor things along the way. And it works really well, because each time it gets a little bit better and all the things surrounding the car get re-fitted. No one bitches "oh geez this is the same motor as last year" in fact people bitch about the opposite "WHY DID THEY TAKE THE 4G63 OUT OF THE LANCER EVOLUTION *DEATH GLARE*"

    ReplyDelete
  61. This makes me wanna check out your games!

    ReplyDelete
  62. Atlus reuses engines and assets quite a bit, although often with modifications. In any case, it allows for much shorter development cycles, as well as giving them more room to release sequels that improve on previous designs instead of having to start over from scratch constantly, introducing new problems along the way.

    ReplyDelete
  63. Want to reuse the same art? Take a look here: http://opengameart.org/
    A lot of the pieces are made to work with Blender, which has its own game engine that can be scripted. Look at Yo Frankie! for an example of what can be dine in just a few months. The wolf is good enough!

    There are also many open engines, including OGRE.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_game_engines#Free_.2F_open_source_engines

    If you've got a good story, getting a game together should be doable, even for a small team.

    ReplyDelete
  64. I buy all your games because you tell a good story. Therefore your graphics etc don't really matter. As previous posters have said, the strategy of re-use wouldn't work for games that have no story.

    ReplyDelete
  65. Working at a game store, I see a truly staggering number of titles come out with much-hyped technical features, state of the art graphics, and whatever other bells and whistles that can be tacked onto a game that turns out to be a shallow, unplayable mess or a $60 romp through the valley of mediocrity. Yes, graphics are nice, but if the game has no substance, I for one am NOT going to put down my hard earned money for it. I am not impressed by the big studios' games. I respect a fleshed-out world, a thought out story, and memorable characters, which seem to be very hard to find in the mainstream market. I refuse to accept RPGCodex's criteria for an "acceptable" game, and consider their stance to be part of the problem. Corporate agendas are to blame as well, using "game reviews" in magazines like Game Informer to advocate interest in whatever it is they're trying to sell with incredibly poorly disguised bias.

    ReplyDelete
  66. Looking at games like 'World of Goo' where there is an innovative 2-D engine (I don't know if this was based on an earlier engine) with physics, and a quirky, but fun story to go along with it.

    The game pops because it has playability, explores a complex interactive realm, and messes with the player's head.

    The graphics are passible, the physics are passible. The game is a lot of fun.

    It doesn't matter what the engine does. IT does matter what a player is engaged in. The engine is simply infrastructure to that end.

    Too many games today seem to orient their creativity on what the engine does... OOOOHHH! IT can do XYZ! What can we do with that?

    The correct approach: I have a great game idea that needs MNO.... How do we adapt the existing engine to do MNO so we can get this idea off the whiteboard and on the screen?

    ReplyDelete
  67. The attitude of the large studios is precisely why they are losing money.

    They are unable to take any risks. Therefore they are drowning.

    ReplyDelete
  68. Your article is bang on. I mean, improvements to the content and engine that enhance game play are great. At the same time though, for the parts that don't need to change...
    "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

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  69. While I think the core point you make is good, I have to disagree on something: If you write a new story for an old game, that doesn't make it a new game. It makes it an old game with a new story. What makes a new game is new gameplay mechanics or old gameplay mechanics used in new ways to create new challenges for the player. The technology, the graphics and the story all support the gameplay, but aren't at the core of what makes a game.

    There's nothing wrong in using a game as a platform to tell new stories, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're creating new gameplay experiences.

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  70. Hi,

    I can't believe I am about to defend the RPG Codex from some of the commenters here, but... They are actually complimenting Jeff. Along with this they are also commenting on his development cycle and business model - and fairly accurately I'd say.

    I think Jeff understands their position. As he said, he's not defending himself, just responding to their observations. He doesn't NEED to defend himself, he's not being attacked!

    If the RPG Codex was attacking him, you would know :). They really don't hold back. Really. A more vitriolic, critical, and potentially nasty bunch of well informed (niche) gamers may not exist anywhere. The challenge with the codex is usually finding the wisdom lost in their abusive language!

    Jeff is highly regarded by most Codexers, and I think even the 'haters' would concede the 'same game' he has remade is the kind of thing that they like to see. Props to him.

    As for my opinion on the core topic of discussion - I like to see some variety in the games I play, whether that be an engine update or something else, like story. With RPGs I think flashy graphics aren't necessary, and may even detract (use your imagination folks!), though I also like 'em if they are there and used appropriately. By and large if re-use is going on I'm happy as long as enough other aspects have changed - be it story, mechanics, art assets or gameplay. Mix and match, just don't clone.

    Related to that - I do agree with a previous poster (Evan) that the Geneforge games haven't changed enough though. Alas. I'd recommend people start with the latest and ignore the earlier iterations if I were recommending the game. But I'd still be recommending them!

    --Cam

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  71. All this advertising will do you an even greater good. Maybe you'll start doing some consulting for companies who have read or are aware of this post and stories around this subject.

    -action figures jon

    ReplyDelete
  72. You haven't save the gaming industry there, but you have demonstrated that Alter It Sale the name, is an great business model. Worked on War or Warcraft, until the guys playing get board of do these same thing, over and over and over and over again.
    Its pretty easy to code,

    script("Hero go kill six Wamprats in the Sewers");

    Drawing then, modelling them, all been done, so what is technically challenging

    ReplyDelete
  73. So Jeff, are you going to license the Unreal engine for your next game? Really, someone should've asked.

    ReplyDelete
  74. I'm not convinced that the engine is a so important part in the total cost of an AAA title.
    Just look at the ending credits of these titles and you'll see where the cost is: design, art, sound, levels, QA, localization, marketing & sales not to mention the huge franchise rights sometimes.

    So this debate about engines and reusing them sounds not very realistic.

    ReplyDelete
  75. It's all about who can push the technology to its limits before the others, and how intense the visuals and audio are (the content in general).

    "This is such an astonishing waste of resources." I think not. But you must note that the team that made the Unreal Engine, or the GldSrc engine, had more people coding than a simplistic indie game development company.

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  76. I pretty much agree, generally. I think that a big for me is not just that the story changes, but that the same engine can be used in new and innovative ways. Why not? I think if you got five or six really creative just fiddling with the mechanics - or, maybe more important, the context of the mechanics - you could make a lot of really interesting things at a lower cost.

    I think if you make the same game with newish graphics and newish physics, you're not really doing anything interesting - innovative uses of old physics or graphics (Portal's a great example) can really do excellent things, though.

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  77. To me, it comes down to a choice that the game developers aren't really letting us make: would we rather have a twenty-hour (or less!) game with tremendously advanced graphics, or a two-hundred-hour game (i.e. larger world with more to do) with "not so advanced" graphics. The latter would be more "value for money" for the consumer, so maybe that's why they don't let us make the choice?

    ReplyDelete
  78. heh, excellent article.

    Been doing this for years now and yes, we too get railed on. Each game (14 in all) in all three of my franchise propertites (Battlecruiser, Universal Combat, All Aspect Warfare) use the same engine across each.

    e.g.

    http://www.3000ad.com/games/

    Battlecruiser (legacy). 2 games

    Battlecruiser Millennium. 2 games. Game engine overhaul, same world, mythos, different story, ton of new features etc

    Universal Combat. 6 games. Game engine overhaul, same world, mythos, different story, ton of new features etc

    Galactic Command. 2 games. Game engine overhaul, same world, mythos, different story, ton of new features etc

    All Aspects. 2 games. MAJOR game engine overhaul, same world, mythos, different type of games.

    And with millions in revenue over a 20 year period, so many other companies have come and gone that I've lost count.

    The constant in all of this? The people who play our games, buy our games.

    Haters just go on hating. We go on making money. :)

    ReplyDelete
  79. Who are the haters again? Jeff's games would have gotten an RPG Codex Golden Seal of Approval if we ever had something like that. Rock on, Jeff! Hope your new franchise works out nicely.

    ReplyDelete
  80. The level of stupidity on RPG Codex is such that they make themselves irrelevant anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  81. Jeff - you are my new favorite blog! How did i jsut discover this site now?

    ReplyDelete
  82. Jeff- I've been reading the blog for several months now. I'm not a computer gamer, don't work for a computer company of any kind. I, actually, am a tabletop, pen-and-paper rpg guy. (I suppose that puts me in an extreme minority of the commenters here.) First, I agree with your post entirely as someone who knows lots of computer gamers and who hears of their experiences playing all the various games that they play. I also see really interesting parallels between this discussion and pen-and-paper rpgs. Create a game (ruleset - or 'engine' if you will) then publish numerous adventures, supplements, etc for that game. Short R&D period, long revenue stream. There are people publishing gaming material (and making money at it) based on games (again, engines, if you will) from 30+ years ago. Why can't the same model be used for computer games? [Okay, 30 years is a bit much in the computer world, but 5, 10, or 12 years? Why not?]

    ReplyDelete
  83. I think the commenters (particularly the ones who are apparently coming from elsewhere) are revealing that there is a rift in the gamer community more than anything. Some people prefer the bling, some prefer the story. I don't see why both audiences can't be appeased, though. It's not like he's saying all games should take a step backward in terms of graphics.

    Personally, I come from a story first perspective. If it's got a weak story, all the pretty graphics in the world wont save it, but a good story will save poor graphics. I've seen pretty graphics before, I don't particularly need to see more, and more than likely I can get comparable graphics elsewhere packaged with a good story. (though I have played most of Spiderweb's games, and friendly competitor Eschalon, so yeah, I'll happily take simple graphics)

    Someone above mentioned Pixar as an example of a company that pushes technology and sees success. Sorry, but DEAD WRONG. Disney thought that too, and closed their classical animation department to focus on 3D animation because they thought that was Pixar's magic bullet as to why they were beating their in house movies at the box office. It failed spectacularly, because the plots were 'meh'. The reason Pixar's films do well is because they focus on story first, the graphics, while pretty, are icing. After the huge shakeup and acquisition of Pixar by Disney and putting Lasseter in charge of animation and themeparks, the first thing he did was re-open the Classical Animation department. They are SO NOT all about the technology. They use it as a tool, and they use it very effectively while pushing boundaries, but they know a movie will not stand on pretty graphics alone (and really, the core technology has remained the same, they just add new bells and whistles from time to time). That's the kind of attitude needed in more games companies. Pixar is an ideal model, but not for the reasons suggested above.

    But then, I favor RPG's and Adventure games in general, which are story focused. Not a fan of FPS games with a couple exceptions that wowed me with their atmosphere (which, granted, may not have been possible without some nice graphics) and/or story like Bioshock or Half-Life 2. War games bore me to tears, as do sports, fighting and racing games. So yeah, story absolute first priority.

    But I think the technology is currently at a point where, would you REALLY be missing a lot if more companies re-used more assets? I played through Bioshock a few days ago, and at 3 years old it could easily compete with anything else being released today in terms of engine.

    He's not advocating a full-stop on new technologies, merely being more frugal with them, get more bang for your buck. Though to be fair, some companies do this already, like Valve's Source engine, has seen a very long and productive run even if Portal 2 is the last. Bethesda's Gamebryo sees improvements with each game to address specific needs (VATS in Fallout 3 was added, for instance.) But generally it was the same engine as Oblivion with a somewhat redesigned interface for the inventory and such, and Oblivion used much of what was in Morrowind. So it's not like it's anything particularly new. But I do agree some companies don't use this method as much as they should.

    ReplyDelete
  84. "the shittier the graphics"

    Sheeesh, blasphemists! Just because it's 2D and low-res it's bad? I praise graphics that allow my own fantasy more freedom!

    "Make games that are cyberpunk, horror, science fiction, fantasy in a new setting"

    Completely agree on this! I'm rather fed up to see yet another 0815 fantasy RPG being released (unless it's something completely fantastic and out-of-this-world, like e.g. in the direction of the Wizardry series). But it seems due to a certain MMORPG, fantasy has now become the mainstream for every Tom, Dick and Harry.

    ReplyDelete
  85. I dont care that you use the same graphics, because... Well... Your graphics suck. Sorry, but they do and they always have.

    On the other hand, the story is usually good and the gameplay is always excellent. And that is what i want from a game.

    I've never felt that i did not get full value from your games and would not mind seeing a lot more of them. I'm happy that you're making a profit, you deserve it.

    Now, please go make more games so i can buy them. I don't care what engine you use.

    ReplyDelete
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  90. Yo Jeff, time to update the captchas it seems.

    As for the guy talking about people "still using Inform", you do realise Inform 7 is a dramatically different platform compared to Inform 6?

    ReplyDelete
  91. I wish your assertion about the industry needing to drift towards your "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy were true. You need not look beyond Avatar becoming the highest grossing movie franchise ever, not to mention the slew of 3D movies (which all suck, mind you) that are garnering hundreds of millions of dollars a pop.

    The upswing of the obsession with eye-candy? A sweeping ignorance and apathy towards quality storytelling and/or gameplay that makes video games (and any visual medium) great. Games used to be difficult, though-provoking, and utilitarian with respect to graphics.

    These days, with a simple push of the A button, a character will swing across a burning pit while swatting ptero-Nazis out of the air with his raging chain-sword thing only to land on the other side unharmed and mutter something beyond corny. And this is what sells. Nevermind a situation in which a player would have to time and plan a sequence of button maneuvers to pull off the same stunt. Why not just add a Quick-Time Event so the slack-jawed player can drool his way to "cool", pre-packaged "gameplay?"

    Sadly, this is where the industry has arrived, and I see no indication that it is going anywhere. The only hope is that the downloadable console indie games (which are typically fantastic) will finally earn the recognition they deserve and usurp the paradigm to become the standard of quality... I can dream can't I?

    No wonder the only consoles I'll touch are N64 and before. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent old or indie PC games still coming out.

    No more ranting. Thanks for making great games, Jeff. Started playing Exile 14 years ago when I was 8, and I'm just finishing up Avernum 6 now. Fantastic experience. Keep fighting the good fight!

    ReplyDelete
  92. Your fan base increases because your games are SPLENDID.

    Keep up the good work.

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  94. Yes! Exactly! Awesome! I agree!

    Fallout 2 did this to tremendous effect, using almost exactly the same resources from fallout 1 but improving the game abajillion-fold. Games nowadays seem too unimaginably vast and fragile to try it, though.

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