Friday, 30 August 2013

New Art Revealed!

Yesterday, I mentioned that Jeff Laubenstein has been drawing additional art for the Villagers of Cairn Bicycle-brand Playing Card Kickstarter. Jeff has graciously agreed to add more art for Cairn because he believes in this project strongly, and he's fitting it in and around his other, paying gigs. This benefits the Cairn RPG by adding more artwork, as well as making it a bit easier for us to publish the book. All of us on the SoulJar Team (Alyssa, Jack, jim, and myself) want to thank Jeff for his contributions. I think it's safe to say that Cairn would have a very different look without him.

Isn't this lady groundhog beautiful? In the Cairn RPG, you must choose two professions, which gives you a range of options. You can choose two complimentary professions, like warrior/marksman, which would allow you to fight equally well with both sword and bow. Or how about priest/healer, giving you access to spells that deal with both Harmony and health? You could choose two different kinds of profession, to make you more well-rounded. Like rogue/acrobat -- climbing, sneaking, tumbling, and jumping. Or how about a barbarian/druid, a defender of the forests and the old ways? Lastly, you could choose to go completely crazy and pick two professions that really have nothing to do with each other, like paladin/minstrel or acrobat/enchanter.... What do you think our friend lady groundhog is?

Why do we call this "The Awakened Villagers of Cairn" Kickstarter? Well, first of all, as many of you know, the animals were Awakened by The Bright Ones after the gods destroyed humanity for their hubris. Humans kept mucking about with the gods' design for the world, and generally not being very nice to each other. The Bright Ones hope that the Awakened animals can do better. Secondly, one of the changes we made to the Cairn RPG is to focus solely on the town of Cairn. After all, that's the name of the game. This ties you to a place and the community at large. You are a villager of Cairn, an animal of consequence; will you be famous or notorious? You are going to be able to influence the development of the town through your adventures -- will Cairn prosper and grow? Will the town have enough nuts to survive the winter? What are those pesky moles up to, anyway? From a gameplay perspective, this makes it simpler to come up with stories and give them focus.

We have a few more pieces of new art from Jeff that we can't wait to reveal. We've decided to add t-shirts to the Kickstarter, as well as a PDF coloring book. And fans of suggested quite a few other things that we're considering, too. So come on over and join us. We here at SoulJAR love our fans and want to hear from you.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Getting Back Up to Speed

It's a chilly, overcast August morning here in NYC, a harbinger of returning winter. We're entering one of my favorite seasons in New York, the autumns here are generally mild and pleasant. At least September and October. So I'm sitting here at the SoulJar Games World Headquarters, which look suspiciously like my bedroom, sipping a cup of coffee and getting ready to work.

I'm still trying to get used to this whole "day job" thing, which is weird to say since generally I work nights. But "night job" sounds like I'm a prostitute.... Which, as a freelance writer, I generally am. But still. The only days I really get much work done are my days off. I can get some things done in the mornings on work days, but then I lose momentum when I have to leave. Still, stuff is getting done.

One of the things that's gotten done is that we've received two new pieces of artwork from Jeff Laubenstein. When we asked him to do more work, Jeff asked for a list of what we wanted to see. Originally, when Jeff drew for Cairn, there wasn't really much for him to go on. He just drew what was in his head. This was terrific, because it inspired all of us (the creatives and you fans out there). But there really wasn't much focus to the artwork. This time, we made a list of subjects, and Jeff hasn't disappointed. We're getting artwork that's more representative of the setting, and much more detailed. I can't wait to show it to you.

In and around this, the SoulJar Team (Team SoulJar?!) has been having many conversations. All four of us use Facebook's messaging capability, since that's the fastest way to get in touch with each other. We've had conversations about setting up a creative process and organized our communications. We've discussed future projects, as well. Usually, this happens while I'm at work, so when I get home I have 82 messages to comb through. Like I said, the change in routine has flummoxed me a bit.

I also have a bunch of files I have to go through and review/edit today. One of the frustrating and mystifying things about the creative process, at least when it comes to games, is that 90 percent of the work happens in the last 10 percent of the time. I'm not sure why that is. We're plugging the remaining holes in the Cairn RPG text.

See, normally, when you embark on an endeavor like this, you start out with two principle design documents (even if you're working alone). One of these is the design bible. This tells you what the game is and isn't. What it's supposed to look like. So, for example, you'd summarize the Harmony system, set down how you think it should work. You'd describe the central concepts. Write about the world a bit. This way, everyone's on the same page, and you've done all the conceptualizing at the beginning of the process. The outline is vital for several reasons, the most important of which is that it tells you when a chapter is done. You've got 5,000 words to cover spells (for example). Once you get to 5,000 words, you're finished. No, you may not add just one more spell, because that takes you over 5,000 words. The chapter is done; save it for the Companion.... That didn't happen on this project, which is where I suspect most of the delays originated.

Finally, we currently have 131 backers to the Villagers of Cairn Bicycle-brand playing card Kickstarter. To you fans who have already backed the project, I offer you my hearty thanks. You've put your faith in the SoulJar Team, and we're all appreciative. If you haven't checked us out yet, how about giving it a look-see?

Here's the most recent card we've gotten colored. Color really makes the image pop. We've begun discussing the costs involved in adding a few color plates to the RPG, which means value added for you RPG backers out there. Take a look:


Update: BlockPath Pro for iPhone and iPad

My main regret in my original review of BlockPath was that it is too expensive to unlock all puzzles, since it requires four separate in-app purchases. This has been addressed today with the release of BlockPath Pro, which costs 99 cents and has all the worlds unlocked.
While I feel a bit cheated since I had already bought 3 worlds in the Free version, the good news is that the puzzles in the Pro version apparently are different, so I didn't buy the same stuff twice. Also, it looks like their size is large from the very beginning. In the Free version, the first few puzzles are played on smaller grids.

The developer is promising new puzzles to be added in September, so this looks like a bargain. Get it.

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review: Spliced Colors for iPhone and iPad

Make no mistake: Spliced Colors by Maria Cristian is not a logic puzzle. It is, instead, a game to exercise your visual-spatial abilities.
The goal is peculiarly odd. You have a set of 12 tiles, and a pattern shown on the right of the screen. You need to pick in order the 5 tiles that reproduce the pattern, but rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.
So in the above case, the solution would be this one:
Picking the tiles is not intuitive: you must tap the tile and swipe up. Don't try to drag it into place, that won't work.

You get 10 points for every level you solve correctly, and lose 10 points (and a life) when you make a mistake or run out of time. Every 50 points, there is an extra level where the tiles scroll across the screen instead of being lined up at the bottom.
Every 50 points, the tile set changes. Don't be confused by the different shapes: topologically, it's always the same set, the lines just get more tortuous to be harder to recognise.
There are five tile sets in total, the fifth one is my favorite, it looks like mountain peaks.
At 250 points you restart from the beginning, but at higher speed, and your lives get reset. At 500 points speed raises again and lives are reset again. After that, you just go on at the same speed until you lose all your lives.

I found this game too easy. The proper way to play it would be to rotate the yellow shapes in your head and recognise the matching tile, but at the lower speeds you can just look at where the line starts and ends (in both cases it can be top, middle, bottom, or top+bottom) and look for the tile with the same properties, ignoring its shape completely. It's only at the fastest speed that this starts being inefficient, forcing you to look at the shapes to be quick enough.

Also, games last too long for a mobile game. I scored 960 on my second attempt; that's 96 levels played, so it took more than 30 minutes for sure. It's unlikely that I'll play again as it currently is, but if I were able to start at the third speed level, with the speed continuing to increase after that, it could be an interesting challenge.

When the game was released, it cost $0.99. Currently it's free, so it's worth giving it a look to test your shape recognition skills.

Summary

Nontrivialness★★☆☆☆
Logical Reasoning☆☆☆☆☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
Presentation★★☆☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar


©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 



Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Review: Reiner Knizia's Kaleidoscope for iPhone and iPad

Reiner Knizia's Kaleidoscope is a nice variation of domino placement puzzles, flawed by a mediocre user interface.
Whether Reiner Knizia was actually involved in the design of these puzzles, or his name is just used for marketing purposes, is unclear to me. The game uses the same double-hexagon domino pieces of Knizia's Ingenious (marketed as Kaleidoskop in some countries), but that's a totally different game.


There are six symbols, and 21 domino pieces showing all the possible pairs of symbols.
The playing area is a hexagonal grid, which in each puzzle is populated by a different pattern of symbols. You must place all the 21 pieces on the board, matching the existing symbols. Each puzzle has only one solution.
When you tap a piece on the right, the places where it can be moved are highlighted. This is helpful because to find the solution you only want to place a piece when you are sure of its position.

If you try to drag the piece over the board, which would be the natural thing to do on a touch screen device, you'll be disappointed: that doesn't work. To place the piece, you have to tap one of the highlighted spots.
The main shortcoming of the user interface is the fact that you don't see all your pieces. You start with 21, but there is space only for 8 on the screen. When you put down a piece, another one scrolls in to fill the gap.

The way how this has been implemented is confusing, because it seems that you can use only the pieces you can see, even if there would be better moves available. For example, looking at the position above, the double-yellow piece can only go in one place, but it isn't available on the right.

This annoyed me for some time, until I noticed the up and down arrows. Those let you scroll through your pieces. Again, this is not how one would expect things to work on a touch screen. You'd expect to just be able to scroll the list of pieces by swiping over it.

The luxury of having pieces which can go in only one place on the board quickly goes away as the puzzles progress and the layouts get more ambiguous.
It would be useful to be able to place dividers on the board, to keep track of positions where a piece can't be placed, like you can do for example in the Dominosa puzzles of Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection. Unfortunately, that's not possible, so you have to do all logic deductions in your mind.

There's a total of 30 puzzles, which are all playable from the start with no need to unlock them. The last couple of puzzles further increase the difficulty by replacing a few symbols with question marks, so you have to figure out which symbol goes there.
30 puzzles aren't many, but they take a good amount of time to solve so I think it is adequate value for 99 cents. The user interface, however, would need some serious redesign.


Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★☆
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Statement from Alyssa Faden


There seems to be a bit of confusion surrounding the Cairn Bicycle Kickstarter and the Cairn RPG. Some people have emailed me privately to ask if I owned the intellectual property, or received permission, or was ripping Mike Nystul off. One person assumed I was fronting for Mike. There seems to be some anger bubbling in certain areas about another Cairn-related Kickstarter.... My friend and partner, Alyssa Faden, wrote a response and I want to include it here. She says it much better than me. 
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hey guys and gals, my name is Alyssa and I'm part of the SoulJAR team. Together with jim pinto and Jack Cull, we have banded together under the SoulJAR name to help Ross make this game - and other games - a reality.
We are huge believers in utter transparency and honesty and have been updating our own FB pages, the Cairn page, SoulJAR Facebook and our SoulJAR Blog with regular - if not daily - updates. We are also completely open to being PMed and emailed, and - believe me - are here to help, answer questions, and attempt to alleviate some of the frustration that has built up around the Cairn name.
I am also a Cairn backer (hence me able to post here :) ). I backed at a fairly high level so I could also get all of the miniatures. I get where you are all coming from, so please consider me empathic to your thoughts and feelings around this title.
The gathering of the team (and why), and the playing cards (and why) were announced here: http://souljar-games.blogspot.com/2013/08/souljar-grows.html
But allow me to put this into my own words:
We love Cairn. We truly believe in the title, the subject matter, the setting and the sheer possibilities that lie within. We want to see this book go live, because - quite frankly - too much hard work and your money has gone into it.
So Ross offered to take this off Mike's hands and help finish the writing, the proofreading and layout, get it printed and distributed. The IP transferred to Ross for the book, NO MONEY WAS EXCHANGED. This is important, because Ross and SoulJAR want to ensure that you get a copy of Cairn, but it will be at SoulJAR's expense. I know you spent money - I spent money as well - but none of that went to Ross, none of it went to SoulJAR, so for SoulJar to get you your copy of the book we're effectively got to eat the cost. That's not your problem, but it is a reality.
We therefore started the Cairn Bicycle Cards to help offset these costs (the rest will come out of our pockets). There are several strong pluses here as it has enabled us to - 
- 
COLOR THE ARTWORK 

ADD ADITIONAL ARTWORK
Neither of these would have been possible otherwise, and - please note - both are also out of SoulJAR pocket.
With patience already exhausted and communication over the last year probably not what you wanted it to be, it's a tad cheeky of me to ask "please bear with us while we bring Cairn together." But I do ask for your understanding: We did not run the Cairn Kickstarter, nor have we been running the communication since it funded to now; so we cannot be responsible for what was said, promised or otherwise inferred. We are however cognizant and sympathetic to everything that has occured, and intend to show a slightly different face and method of communication moving forward.
If you have any questions - or simply wish to vent - please find us:
and my own personal wall: 
https://www.facebook.com/alyssa.faden

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

See why I adore her? She's super-wonderful. 

Allow me to echo some of what Alyssa said. I did not pay money for the intellectual property known as Cairn. The rights were transferred to me so long as I promised to fulfill the promise to provide the RPG to the backers. (As a side note, I even looked into the possibility of producing the miniatures and providing those as well before I signed the contract. That was one of the reasons for the delay in transferring the rights -- I was doing due diligence to find out everything I could about the original Kickstarter and it's costs. Sadly, I cannot afford to produce miniatures at this time. The costs run upward of $10,000 and I simply can't afford that. So part of the negotiations also covered just exactly what I was agreeing to do). What Mike Nystul did was find a way to at least fulfill the basic offering -- the RPG. 

Nor did I receive any money from the original Cairn Kickstarter. This is important, too. That money is gone, I know not where. We want to draw a line in the sand between the past and the present (and future!), and let you know you are dealing with SoulJAR Games -- Jack Cull, jim pinto, Alyssa Faden, and Ross A. Isaacs. We're four people who are passionate about games, and Cairn. We're a new team. The past is the past, and it should stay there. We want to look forward. 

That said, you would not believe the cost of printing 1,000 copies of this game. A thousand copies is the minimum at which we can print a book and keep the unit cost reasonable. We're then giving away 40 percent of the print run for free to the backers. That means the remaining copies have to essentially cover the costs of the entire print run. I doubt this book will break even. And despite this, we still believed in Cairn enough to want to do it. 

We LOVE Cairn

In order to help offset the costs of printing, we are running the Cairn Bicycle Playing Card Kickstarter. We will make up the difference out of our own pockets, so the game will be coming out no matter what. The current Kickstarter has already allowed us to color the card art (so now we're looking at adding color plates to the RPG!). However our resources are not unlimited (or very large). Offsetting the costs in this way helps us to do other things -- like start working on other games, and devote even more resources to the Cairn RPG. We could use a little help to kick start things, and get from where we are to where we want to be.  

Finally, we wanted to be able to share the wonderful artwork in a new way, to a new group of people. Jeff Laubenstein has been drawing away and sending us new artwork. Let me tell you, it's amazing. I can't wait until we share it with you. 

We are certainly cognizant of the ill will that surrounds the Cairn RPG, and we're sensitive to it. We're here to answer questions and listen to you. We're all about dialog. I want to thank all of you for your patience and support. Overall, the response to the transfer of the rights, the playing cards, and SoulJar Games as been positive. Without you guys, we'd be nothing. We're aware of how important you are, as well. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Colored Cards

Hi SoulJAR Fans!

First, we need to come up with a cool name for you guys. SJers? Jarheads? I don't know. You guys let me know.

Second, we got a card colored by a friend, Alberto Tavira Espinar. We always intended to make the face cards color, so they stand out in the deck. We are also toying with the idea of adding a little design behind the image to add a little depth. What do you guys think?

Leave them as plain sketches?

Color the cards?

Color and a little design?

Vote in the comments section.


Check out our Cairn Bicycle Playing Card Kickstarter for more information, and a chance to own these awesome images of warrior groundhogs, rogue squirrels, and sorcerous weasels drawn by the incomparable Jeff Laubenstein.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Update: Lazors 2.2

An update to the popular Lazors was released a few days ago, featuring 5 new groups of puzzles with cleverly thought themes, for a total of 50 new puzzles.

Numbered features grids shaped like the numbers 1 to 10, and each puzzle even has a matching number of blocks!
Grande contains grids larger than average. I found these puzzles to be the hardest of new ones.
Tinier has the smallest grids in the game. These are so small that it's easy to stumble on the solution by accident.
Glassware only uses glass and crystal blocks.
Elementary is a set of puzzles all using the 4 "elements" of the game, that is one of each kind of block.
The new puzzles are all entertaining as usual, so if you deleted the game from your device for some reason, it's time to download it again.

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cairn Bicycle Playing Cards Update

Just a quick note. So far, we're up to 66 backers for our Cairn Bicycle Card Kickstarter. I want to thank those of you who backed us so far. We appreciate your confidence and support.

jim pinto is working on getting a new card ready today. We hope to reveal one new card every day (or thereabouts). Jeff is drawing new art. Alyssa is shepherding the Kickstarter. I continue to write what's left of the Cairn RPG. Jack continues to read the most recent draft. And we have a conference call scheduled for tomorrow to keep everything moving.

Thank you again from all of us for your contributions and interest in SoulJAR Games. Without you guys, we wouldn't get to do what we enjoy. You're what it's all about.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Review: BlockPath for iPhone and iPad

BlockPath Pro (also free) is a fascinatingly minimalistic path finding puzzle which hooked me from the beginning.
It was created by Tehnio, a Latvian developer, which is an interesting thing in itself since Latvia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, with a population smaller than Houston, Texas.


The puzzle concept is not entirely new, but the implementation in this case is excellent, making the game very enjoyable to play.

You start with a grid mostly empty, except for one blue and a few red cells. Your goal is to draw a continuous path starting from the blue cell and passing through all the cells except for the red ones.
For example, the solution of the above puzzle would be this one.
Surprisingly, even when the grid size increases, every puzzle has a unique solution. I think the largest size is 6x8, which is perfect for the iPhone screen size.

The lack of explicit clues makes these puzzles simple and elegant, in a way similar to Monorail, which is another favorite of mine.

If I were to solve these puzzles with pen and paper, I'd draw parts of the path all around the grid in random order, as logic deductions made me to exclude other possibilities. BlockPath doesn't allow to do that, because you must draw the path from beginning to end, but this isn't a problem; it just means you have to use visual intuition more than strict logic deductions. If you make a mistake you can restart from any point, so the game is not frustrating.

Both the Free and Pro versions have a total of 175 puzzles, split across 5 worlds of 35 puzzles each; the puzzles are different in the two versions.
The puzzles in each world must be played in sequence; the Pro version has all worlds unlocked, while in the Free version each world after the first must be bought individually using in-app purchases.

The technical implementation of the in-app purchases is actually the worst part of this game, because it is very slow and there is no visual indication that the request is being processed. It took me a lot of perseverance to successfully complete the purchases; other users might not have the same patience.

Another minor problem I had with the user interface is that frequently the swipe used to move between worlds was misinterpeted as a tap to select a puzzle. But that's just a nuisance; the puzzle solving interface is rock solid.

Definitely try out this game; it's relaxing and almost hypnotic in its simplicity. Just grab the free version, and if you like it, avoid the in-app purchases and simply buy the Pro version.


Summary

Nontrivialness★★★☆☆
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More Shots of the Mortis... Moti?

Enjoy!








SoulJAR Grows

Today is another day of big announcements for SoulJAR games. So I'm just going to get right to them.

SoulJAR Adds People

SoulJAR has been something I've wanted to do for some time now. The idea grew out of my work on Torn Armor with Alyssa Faden, Jack Cull, and jim pinto. As we all worked together, we discovered we had a synergy and always kept in touch after my work on the Torn Armor rules was done. jim pinto agreed to do the layout for Cairn gratis. Jack has been reading over the Cairn rules. And Alyssa has provided managerial advice over the last few weeks.

As we were all working together on an ad hoc basis, I decided to ask them if they'd like to make it more formal. Happily, all three of them jumped at the idea. So I am pleased to announce that SoulJAR just got a lot bigger, I have more resources upon which to draw, and I get to work with some of my favorite people.

SoulJAR is now Jack Cull, jim pinto, Alyssa Faden, and Ross A. Isaacs

For the time being, we eschew formal titles. We work best together as a commune anyway. So I can't tell you formal titles for their roles within the company.

Alyssa Faden has quickly made a name for herself in this industry as a great map maker, but she's also pulled off a successful Kickstarter for her miniatures boardgame Torn Armor. Coming as she does from the computer software world, and as a team manager, Alyssa brings with her significant business acumen and managerial skill. She will largely handle the business side of things from now on. But she's also a huge nerd, so if we can get her excited about a project that's a good sign.

Jack Cull is a strong writer who turns things around fast. He wrote the rules for Torn Armor, which I edited. He's got tons of great ideas, and he's good at turning them into words. Having someone on staff who can write is a solid plus for SoulJAR. He only speaks when Alyssa allows him to, so we call him "Silent Jack."

jim pinto. What can I say about him? Numerous awards -- Origins and ENnies. He's responsible for some of the best work out there, so he's got solid game design chops. In fact, he and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of things when it comes to games, so we quickly fall into a pattern where we instantly get what the other is trying to do. He's a terrific graphic designer. And, he produces. As fellow line developers, we both know the importance of setting a schedule and sticking to it. Lastly, he's managed three successful Kickstarter campaigns that delivered on their promises.

That last bit is important....

SoulJAR Launches "Cairn Bicycle Playing Cards"

We are producing a set of whimsical playing cards featuring the artwork of Jeff Laubenstein. These cards capture the style and tone of Cairn perfectly. Each card features artwork from the game -- so it's a deck of cute little mice, squirrels, and beavers. And, in fact, Jeff is so excited at the prospect of seeing his work in this format that he's agreed to produce more art for it (which means more art for the roleplaying game, too).

We are doing this for several reasons.

First, we wanted to share this gorgeous artwork with a greater audience and reach people who play a different kind of game.

Second, this will help defray the costs of printing the rulebook. While we have all agreed to kick in the money for printing, it would help if neither of us had to empty our bank accounts to do it. We are doing an initial print run of 1,000 copies of the physical book, and we're giving away some 400 copies for free. The Cairn Playing Cards will help offset the loss being incurred.

This will NOT, in any way, impact the rules production, release date, or manpower for the Cairn rulebook. The Cairn RPG and Bicycle Card Kickstarter are separate entities, while the additional artwork from the cards will only help the Cairn rulebook and bring it even more to life.

Naturally, I would never be so crass as to ask you to back this project while waiting on Cairn, but it is the right thing to do to let you know that it's happening, and why. Certainly, if you choose to back the Cairn Bicycle Playing Cards (and SoulJar's first Kickstarter), we would all greatly appreciate it. You'll get a wonderful deck of whimsical playing cards full of great Jeff Laubenstein art.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know. SoulJAR means transparency (will anyone get that reference?!)

In sum, SoulJAR has added muscle to the staff, and we have a new Kickstarter. I certainly hope you decide to support our fledgeling little company. We have a lot of great stuff in the works in the background that I hope to be able to talk about soon. Seriously. I wish you could hear our conference calls.

Monday, 19 August 2013

5 Core Elements Of Interactive Storytelling

Introduction
Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:


1) Focus on Storytelling
This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.


2) Most of the time is spent playing
Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulate. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames does not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of  active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen experience of "being there".


3) Interactions must make narrative sense
In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spends 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.


4) No repetitive actions
The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well formed story. Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.


5) No major progression blocks
In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fade away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.


Games that do this
These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fails at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPG:s do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead comes close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes  a lot of the engagement that otherwise come naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one choose to evaluate. The one that I find comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one choose to see these games are fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.


Final Thoughts
It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.


Notes
  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly gets repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are closing to having,  all five of these elements.


Links:
http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2012/08/the-self-presence-and-storytelling.html
Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.

http://blog.ihobo.com/2013/08/the-interactivity-of-non-interactive-media.html
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2013/07/thoughts-on-last-of-us.html
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_novel
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Scale comparison 15mm Crusader and a 28mm Stormtrooper

I had a few people asking for a scale comparison of the upcoming 15mm scale Crusader and a 28mm miniature.

You can see it scales nicely for the 28mm crowd, the head is large enough to fit a pilot into and the overall size looks good.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Ghaaaw, I wish I went to Gencon

Spoke with some of the folks from WGF and they said that they had quite a few backers come say hello... Makes me very sad I could not attend. I would have loved to meet the folks that made this possible.

Here is a shot for Gencon



Next year come hell or high water, I will be there.

August 16th, 2013

Break Evens
There have been no new products to break even in the last two weeks. There are a couple that are flirting with the possibility (having covered at least 65% of their costs). They are:

DCC
CE 3 - The Folk of Osmon by Daniel Bishop

Pathfinder
Heroes of the Fenian Triarchy by Josh McCrowell
Legendary Classes: Rune Magic by Josh McCrowell

Break Evenish
The Paths of Power II: Paths of Blood (and its associated mini-releases) have covered 75% of their costs so far. But its not a finished product yet so when I release more content, its costs go up, and then there are some new sales. So its fluctuates up and down and will continue to do so until the book is done. From a page count, it looks about 1/2 done so far but its returns are promising.

Kickstarters
Strength by Crimson Vermillion
Deus ex Historica: The product is finished and has been submitted and approved by the print process in both softcover and hardcover. I suspect we might hit a snag on the hardcover but I have my fingers crossed. Proof copies of the softcover and hardcover have been purchased and sent to Robert for review. I haven't got a notice that says they have shipped yet but I'll try to keep you in the loop here when that happens.

Exploding Aces: The product is in my hands, and an initial layout has gone out to patrons. CJ Ruby is working with me to help finalize the text, Crimson Vermilion is working on art with us, Perry might be writing a sample adventure as well. I would like to have the final version  ready for print process by August 31 but that might be a bit ambitious on my part. Each week I'm uploading the newest version of the file to Rpgnow for patrons to download and comment on. I'm not getting much in the way of feedback on it.

In Process
 Layout has begun on a number of titles.

Doom comes to those that challenge
the Monsters of Porphyra by Gary Dupuis
  • B2 - The Twice-Robbed Tomb by Perry Fehr just entered layout last night. It should be out for Labyrinth Lords some time next week. (August)
  • Fehr's Ethnology Complete is undergoing revisions as we look to tighten up the rules in the earlier releases, develop a unified format for the book and finalize the Eventuals and Polkan. (October)
  • Legendary Treasures VIII is being developed by Perry so that is fits better within the Porphyra setting. The Legendary Treasures series laid the ground work for the Porphyra Campaign Setting so it only makes sense that the newest releases in that series are also rooted in Porphyra. (September)
  • Monsters of Porphyra: Conversion of monsters and writing of additional text continues.As it stands there are about 40 monsters left to work on. The book is currently 98 pages and features full-colour art for the creatures contained in it. (September)
  • Paths of Power II: This continues to expand each month. We are working on revisions as we go and definitely want feedback on what is written so far. If there is something that is far too broken or far too worthless we want to address that before its finalized. (November-tentative)
  • Porphyra Campaign Setting: Perry and I are working on additional text. The gazetteer was written by a pile of different people and then harmonized by Perry into a consistent setting. The world map, which is huge, will be done very soon and we are working to make sure everything is perfect for the book before it releases. (January/February). 
  • Purple Mountain VI: Well of Stars: This is the second book in the Purple Mountain Series written by Perry Fehr. I thought I was waiting on the texts, turns out I had the text. So basically, I've been at fault for this one's delay. Layout proceeds. (August/September)

Promotions
Our biggest promotion this month has been my birthday give-away. On August 10th, we made A Score of Trapped Chests, Legendary II: Legendary Weapons, and Purple Mountain I: Temple of the Locust Lord available for free. If you looked at the "cost" of this promotion from a sales perspective with 493 Trapped Chests, 501 Legendary II, and 460 Purple Mountains it represents a net giveaway that day of $2,813. Which isn't bad. I kind of thought it would be higher but what can you do. Hopefully, it helped us reach some new people.

New Bundle: Campaign Elements 1-4 by Daniel Bishop
New Bundle: The Josh McCrowell Experience
New Bundle: Legendary Classes
New Bundle: Purple Mountain 1-5

Beautification
Last month I upgraded Legendary II: Legendary Weapons to the current Purple Duck Games trade dress from its ugly old Word layout. Last week, I updated the layout on Legendary III: Legendary Items. The plan is to update one of these a month until all the old, old books conform to the current standard. September's refresh will be Encounter Pages.

Reviews (Linking to  the Reviews as Always)


Paths of Power II continues its growth
and development.
New Releases
Although there have been no big, big releases lately there have been several new things out on top of what is currently in process.

Dungeon Crawl Classics
CE 4 - The Seven Deadly Skills of Sir Amoral the Misbegotten

Freebie/Pay What You Want
Purple Duck Storeroom: Exotic Liquors

Pathfinder
Player's Options: The Sheriff (Part of Paths of Power II)

Stock Art
A Door