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"I have gone by many names but the one you are probably most familiar with is the Venerable Ascarius, the Arch-Scholar and Professor of Ancient History in the Imperial University of Ardelon. This is well and good, for some of my names have ill repute and I have no desire to face the sins of my youth again. Now, in the waning years of my life, I have undertaken the task of writing this book, the Primordial Codex, a compherensive study and compilation of our knowledge of pre-Imperial history and the Ages beyond the reach of Delorian script. This is not the first time such an undertaking has been attempted but unlike my predecessors, the adventures of my youth lead me to witness many of the wonders and terrors of the ancient world with my own eyes, enabling me to draw comparisons between legend and reality.
This is not to say I am infallible: indeed, isn't all historical record someone's interpretation of reality? Doubly so, when the events cross over into the realms of legend. In many cases, a historian of our age has nothing but the pieces of an ancient puzzle to work with and very rarely does he have all of them. We fill the blanks with our visions, wisdom and experience but unfortunately also with our values, as the ever-changing tone of the Imperial Chronicles will testify. One should also remember that the study of pre-Imperial Ages has not always been looked upon favourably in the Empire. At times, scholars intent on doing so were persecuted for heresies against the Delorian Gods, simply because they were interested in what gods and peoples might have existed before them.
Today, in the year 2157 of the Delorian Age, things are very different. The Age of Darkfire forced a shift of attitudes, even within the usually inflexible Delorian Church. Ancient legends recorded not only what our ancestors knew of the terrors we are facing once more but they also recorded the means by which the ancient heroes defeated them. That knowledge and perhaps that knowledge alone, can save us all.
Finally, I would like to point out that while we are still counting years of the Delorian Age, that age is well and truly over. Most of my colleagues would agree that the Delorian Age ended on 1860 DA, to be followed by the Age of Darkfire and whatever we wish to name our present age. Personally, I would call it the Age of Fools but the scholarly consensus seems to be leaning towards the Age of Princes. The Delorian Empire, our ancestral sword and shield against chaos and invasion, exists only in name. The Imperial Court here in Ardelon is nothing but an extravagant and hideously expensive puppet show to keep the rituals of the Empire going while the Princes do as they damn well please. It would take an oracle to tell what age will follow ours but even I can read the portents of doom.
Yet, all is not lost. Magic and terrors of legend may have returned but so have acts of valor and sacrifice rivalling the very same legends. I pray to the gods that this is yet another portent and by my book hope to do my part in ushering The Second Age of Heroes.
With the first big-money contract for Q3/2012 in my pocket, Burger Games is officially back in business. After a dry-ish spell of almost two months, getting a contract like this feels like a personal triumph but of course, the entire industry is picking up speed now that people are returning from the summer pastures. And it is a justification, even if a temporary one, of my decision to go freelance a year ago. Is there anything that could lure me into rejoining the proletariat again? Well, yes, probably, but after the glory and pain of Earth No More I would be very, very picky. Of course, if HAX got financed all of a sudden...
I was in Amsterdam with my spouse last weekend, enjoying the tropical temperatures and developing a bronchitis as soon as I got back to Finland. One of the purposes of that trip was to get the Stalker novel off the ground and thus I stayed up late, typing away at the first three sheets of text. But I did it. Getting a novel started is always the most difficult part. The first few pages are an agonizing struggle and then it kind of starts rolling. There will be other hiccups and chokepoints along the way but every time you clear one of those, the next 10-20 sheets will be a breeze. But none of that will happen if you fall at the first hurdle.
I've also toyed and tinkered with Miekkamies, my very first published roleplaying game. I want to create a game system where cool and innovative swashbuckling moves are a crucial part of the game. Not just in combat but in everything. And if it ends up going overboard and into slapstick, so be it! Stalker RPG and the FLOW engine proved that players are rabid about expressing themselves when there is a demonstrable benefit to it. The M2 game engine will have dice, so the benefits are instantly measurable. This is not rocket science: basically, you roll dice of various denominations and the higher the result, the better. As a rule, NPC's would roll two dice. Heroes, basically player-characters and boss-category villains, would roll three and the suggested swashbuckling move determine what kind of a die the third one will be.
For example, climbing somewhere becomes a lot easier as soon as the player suggests cutting the rope that holds up the chandelier and holding onto it as the chandelier plunges to the ground. Picking a lock becomes a lot easier if the player tries anything out of the ordinary with it, like pouring a little rum into the keyhole and lighting up to unglue the mechanism. GM decides the die but basically if the move is either functional, fun, or fits the genre (or any combination of those), it yields the bonus die. The 1973 version of Three Musketeers by Richard Lester is one of the great inspirations for the original Miekkamies and that movie is full of such tricks, from tossing your sword into the air and hitting the enemy with a rock while he is looking at it, to the hilarious "sword for supper" scene where the musketeers appear to be fighting but are actually stealing food from a tavern.
I don't know if any of this stuff will be published but I've been hoping to run an impromptu scenario or two at Tracon in two weeks. See you in Tampere!
I could not find a youtube link to the "Sword For Supper" scene but I think the soundtrack by Michelle Legrand conveys the atmosphere really well.
I assume that by now you are familiar with Myrskyn Sankarit, a bold plan by Mike Pohjola write and publish a roleplaying game for children. He is currently collecting funds for it in indiegogo.com and with a cool 150 euros Burger Games is a Prince Caspian -level contributor. Whether or not you agree on my view that the scene is wilting, everybody agrees that the more new blood there is the better. From my perspective, Mike is making an entry-level RPG for the younger generation, hopefully throwing a large number of youngsters into the hobby like Cyberpunk 2020 and RQ did back in the day. As these people mature and become interested in more complex games and themes, they enter the Burger Games customer pool. Thus, if Mike is successful, everybody wins. And whatever he does, he can't make things any worse.
So if you have any love for pen-and-paper roleplaying games, please do your part. We need such a game. Badly.
That said, I just had a dream where I was competing with Mike with a similarly oriented derivative of Miekkamies, with a strong focus on pirate adventure (in appearance and in lifestyle if not in actual deed). I am obviously not going to do that; Mike knows how to write for children, I don't, multiple projects would fragment his potential support base and with his marketing effort and connections Myrskyn Sankarit actually stands a fair chance of breaking out into the mass market. And finally, our strange little hobby needs a face that is both edgy and cuddly at the same time. Mike is extremely photogenic in still pictures. Less so with video, unfortunately (god damn it dude, stop blinking your eyes!!!).
Whether or not the setup of Myrskyn Sankarit is the best possible choice for such a game is a good question but as the author, Mike obviously gets to decide. He chose it because it most closely resembles the themes and approaches that introduced him into roleplaying games: the venerable red-box D&D from 30 years ago. I expect Myrskyn Sankarit to be a better game but that is not really the issue here. My origins as a gamer are different and if I had been tasked with creating such a game, I probably would have really gone for the "fantastic pirate adventure" since there are more reference points for that in the pre-teen popular culture.
Of course, I would have also been blasted for promoting American rather than Finnish culture to children and would have alienated the teachers and mainstream culture advocates that Mike relies on for his mass market breakout. You can get a lot of goodwill in Finland by mixing things like Kalevala into anything and it is probably much easier to do that with Myrskyn Sankarit than with Miekkamies. However, dependencies like that are precisely why Burger Games is usually a one-man-show (contractual partners like Petri Hiltunen or Boris Strugatsky notwithstanding). Mike plans to bring aboard teachers, pedagogists, youth media researchers and whatnot. Good for him. You can read my opinion on pedagogists from Häirikkötehdas but in short, my cooperation with such... "people" would probably end in murder.
Burger Games has so far had an uncanny knack of coughing up stuff that people actually do want to play even if my choices are not always politically correct. While I prefer to think these games as age-agnostic, I have to admit that some of this stuff is definitely M-rated. Maybe that is why it works. My biggest fear regarding Myrskyn Sankarit is that close cooperation with the "authorities" will water it down. Already in Ropecon they were asking for (and Mike was agreeing to) de-emphasizing combat as adventure activity. I am all for adding other sub-systems like chase rules and such but you can't really compromise on violence without compromising the high-fantasy genre. Maybe my fears are unfounded but a Sunday-cartoon remake of D&D is not going to help anyone. The kids wont be that stupid.
I was four years old when the original Star Wars came out. I watched it, in a movie theater, together with my parents. I could not read the subtitles or understand anything they were saying. But I knew it was the coolest thing ever.
With Assembly 2012 in the bag, my Summer is officially over. As thousands of children and teenagers are lamenting the return to school, I am lamenting the lack of contracts and hoping things will pick up as people get back from vacations. (I would pray but as an atheist that is not really a credible option). Assembly was... well, Assembly. I am a little disappointed that the seminars have been evicted to the third floor now and have the worst chairs ever. But if the choice is between that and no seminars, bring it on! Seminars and compos are my big thing for the Summer party. Assembly Winter is all about cybersports for me (the Asus ROG stand last February was amazing).
Speaking of amazing, there was a new category for intros this year: 1 KB. That is roughly the text you can fit on an A4. Getting anything done in that amount of space is a miracle but these guys (and hopefully some girls; you can't always tell by the nicknames) had made graphics, sound and even a Java show thrown into the mix. Granted, the graphics were still pretty basic but it was still amazing. I can't wait to see how much they have progressed by next year. Games and industry have pushed the high-end perfromance of computers above and beyond the reach of demo teams. But here, on the small end of the scale, there is still room for improvement and showing your skill.
Wirepunk attends Assemblys to have an inspirational location for HAX development. I just wish our programmer could have attended the whole event rather than run back and forth between the event and his dayjob. I focused on making the spec changes discussed in the earlier entry but there were two new developments during the event.
First, the CEO of Mountain Sheep basically told us to stop kissing butt when designing games in his seminar and he convinced me. Second, I received a very interesting email from a HAX fan. We had a brief exchange of emails and he effectively forced me to go through several core areas of the design once more and check if there was something we could do better or at least different to stand apart from the standard MMORPG (other than not having the player look at some adventurer's ass while playing). While I was able to justify many of the decisions we made, he did shuffle my deck with some of them. I have yet to turn those ideas fully around in my head but there are some things here that A) spice up the content and B) could save us some work.
At this stage of development the other developers practically never contradict or challenge me when I suggest something. So a fresh perspective, even if only based on a blog entry, was quite welcome. At the risk of addressing mostly the person who wrote me, one of the very interesting things in cyberpunk, and something we have completely ignored, is open source, free software and even piracy movements. HAX is pretty much based on Neuromancer and web-based "information subcultures" did not exist back then. Now they do and the idea of a "hax scene" in Terminal Complex is pretty much based on that idea. We cannot ignore it in the game mechanics.
While I was at Assembly, Dawnguard DLC for Skyrim was released for PCs. So I immediately modded the hell out of my game (playing with over 20 mods right now) and created a new character. However you mod yours is your business but here is a tip: Skyrim Crash Prevention Mod (search Steam Workshop for Skyrim). It cleans the cell buffers every once in a while, releasing memory and apparently clearing away scrap data that might become snags later on. I've had exactly one freeze in over 15 hours of gameplay with 20+... hmm, I'll count them... 26 mods. The game also loads much faster than it used to and the number of mods no longer seems to affect this. I am also taking risks by mixing mods from Steam Workshop and Skyrim Nexus Mods but so far the thing has worked like a charm.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my Nexus-modded Fallout: New Vegas. I wanted to sex up the game a little, since it is not exactly puritan to begin with (unlike its very chaste predecessor FO3). However, none of the more complex adult mods I was interested in (you know, the kinds that have some story to go with the extra effects and build on the already existing sexual innuendo within the game) would work and I really couldn't care less about the nude mods. Oh well, they would have been shit anyway.
Skyrim has a very different tone, although having the option to do some Conanesque wenching there instead of just a straight-out gender-neutral (and even species-neutral) marriage would have been nice. And if Riften is supposed to be such a den of vice, why is being a devout follower of Dibella, an established member of the pantheon, such an embarrasment? And how come this Shadizar of Tamriel does not have a single prostitute in it? And if someone has a story mod for opening a brothel in the Dark Elf Quarter of Windhelm, I want it!
What? You thought my statement in the Praedor FB group that the next chapter in the book would open with Vanha Koira in a brothel was a joke?
At Ropecon, I was asked how and when a person might throw money at me and get to play HAX, our long-awaited garage-developed game project. Honestly, I thought people had forgotten us but no. And we haven't gone anywhere either. So, here is a quick look at what is going on at Wirepunk.
One panel of the storyline mission strips
True, we've been at it for quite a while. Years, in fact. When Wirepunk failed to receive any grants or stipends for HAX, the project was left in garage-development mode without a fixed schedule, the effective development team shrunk to three people and we all kept our dayjobs (well, I didn't, but that's another story). HAX development happens in short bursts and stumbling steps on free evenings and in occasional meetings. We have done a lot of streamlining and feature cuts to make sure the game remains feasible with our limited resources. While a thousand things still need to be done the project should never feel hopeless or overwhelming. And while many of the cuts were originally made to circumnavigate troublespots or curtail work, I would not go back on most of them even if Wirepunk suddenly won the lottery.
In some ways, we are also going for a more hardcore approach now, dropping features that were originally included only for the sake of the game being a MMORPG and replacing them things that better fit the genre and the player role in the setting. I am not going to lie: DayZ and other blatant breakaways from the established massively multiplayer model have encouraged us in making these decisions. But it has also been very liberating, even if my more conservative designer instincts sometimes scream in terror. In retrospect, I am amazed that we were so concerned with mass-market appeal for so long, even after the lack of funding ensured that HAX will never be a mass-market game.
Now that we got over that, quite a few things have changed. The grid, originally consisting of lines and connections has been replaced with a landscape of bubble-like nodes, subsystems with different properties. As the player moves through the Link, he claims these nodes for himself, adding their properties and benefits to his ghost. This is compulsory to some extent: as soon as he logs into the Link, the ghost begins to deteriorate. It has to be replenished by stealing resources from the Link as you go. This has allowed us to get rid of the Trace timer: instead, if you decide to camp a location in a network to ambush or block other players, your ghost will simply fade away. Changing the Link architecture from lines into node-bubbles also enabled more varied Link design, as such simple things as sharp corners were impossible in the previous version. Now we can draw up any kind of link we like and have one-node wide back alleys for the player to sneak through.
We have retained our three factions: Cartel, Singularity and Street, all of them implacably hostile to the runners and to a lesser extent each other. HAX Codes are faction-specific and available up to the security level of the network you are in, e.g. roaming in security 3 networks would enable you to unlock HAX Codes up to +3 for that faction. Then again, your codes will apply to all networks for the said faction, eventually enabling things like +50% to damage against a certain faction and so on. Another change is that instead of having a "world map" of interconnected networks forming the entirety of the Link, each network is its own pocket universe. Unlocking them is one of the primary goals for any runner. While initially this means there are three lines of successively of higher-security networks, it also enables us to add and remove networks more or less at will without having to worry about the overall structure of the Linkverse.
Faction-specific loot rates remain, though. So if on day 1 there have been much more Singularity data going around, on day 2 the value for that has dropped and data from other factions pays better. Sticking with Singularity could still be a wise move if you have all the coolest HAX Codes for it already. But some players will probably recommend diversification.
We have sort of returned to the very early model of having only four primary softwares, upgradeable from level 1 to level X (10). They also have mods, four each at this stage. By upgrading his mods, the player may add special features and bonuses to the effect of his software, with the downside of a slightly increased CPU cost. I fully expect the balancing to be off at launch. Well, actually I expect I will be tweaking those bloody things right down to the day the servers shut down. However, the user interface is much more user-friendly now and both us and the players can focus on the essentials. We want you to find the challenge in exploring the Link, rather than fighting the controls.
However, the biggest and probably the most controversial changes we've made have been the anti-social cuts. Going against the "hey, let's form a party and go raid something" -model, the HAX Runners are lone wolves who happen share their hunting ground. There is still a basic chat function in the Hideout Mode, enabling players to pester each other while waiting for their crash penalties and node claims to end. But within the Link there is no teaming up, no aiding your rivals and even the only communication is done by generic icons on top of your avatar, visible only to those already within visual range. No distractions. No trust. Now that it is much harder to have friends, we went about making enemies. There are resources that are not cashed out until the player logs off the Link. If he crashes, those resources are left behind as loot. And while the node resources are player-specific and players can only see their own conquests, the mob-level targets are available to all. I fully expect players to have conflicts over hackable targets since waiting around for respawns is bad because of the ghost degradation.
Now, this has not been specced out yet but I want to get rid of the remaining hidden mechanics. So instead of levelling up by means of invisible XP, your Threat Rating is also tied to a lootable resource. Or rather, obtaining the resource will grant you additional Power you can use on your attributes and your Threat Rating rises with the additional power you have received. This "tangible" XP would make a great PVP-incentive. You collect some kind of Intel as you go about your business and cash it in for Power when logging out. If crashed, the Intel you carried can be downloaded from the node you crashed into, typically by other Runners. Intel is also another tangible reward besides money: You loot a code fragment that is part of a series of 5 and the location of the next code fragment is highlighted on the map. If you can collect them all without logging out, there is a multiplier to the Intel you obtained because you have cracked the code. Instant mini-missions, in addition to the storyline and premium targets.
Finally, the Link itself. You already know about the nodes. Now, about the mobs. Most of them are stationary now, although Sentinels and other defenders can change location by de- and respawning. Packets are still flying around between Commservers but they are tougher to take down and the pursuit will probably lead you into the waiting arms of one or more Sentinels. All combat is by the exchange of malware but it is very costly, so stealth is almost always the preferable option. Instead of having to constantly search for datafortress keys, the entrance is open now. However, there are concentrations of both high-value targets and nasty defences. Will you exhaust your CPU and SYS to take out the defences? Or will you sneak in and try to do some hacking before being spotted and driven out?
So, yeah. We are still at it. And while it may be slow going, it is moving. Slowly but surely.
I've rarely been this down after Ropecon but in some ways this event was a disaster. I was up north for a funeral, not exactly a barrel of laughs to begin with, and finally arrived down south on Friday morning. Other than exhaustion, Friday was not too bad though. My presentation went alright (I should really start talking about something else than Stalker RPG), Mike Pohjola deserves support for his "RPG for kids" project Myrskyn Sankarit because he is trying to make roleplaying break out into mainstream again, Vihan Lapset finally came out (well, at least the Player's Guide did) and the day concluded with a showing of Vyöhyke, which is one of my favorite movies and actually outdoes Last Border because it has much less cheesy bits for me to overlook.
To top it off, the film crew guys gave me a DVD of it. My circle of friends can expect invitations to a home showing of Vyöhyke here at Myyrmäki HQ in the near future.
Saturday began well with Teemu Vilen's stellar presentation on the MMORPG design philosophy of CCP Games and how Sandbox Design differs from the right now much more common Theme Park design. He was worried that he might be stating the obvious but frankly I would like to make his presentation compulsory viewing for everyone working in the industry. Hell, I'd like to watch it again myself to make sure I grasp all the tiny details and apply them properly in HAX. Unfortunately the presentation materials were strictly eyes-only :)
Later that evening I probably got some kind of a heatstroke, complete with migraine and nausea. I had to cut the day short and go home, which was a blessing in disguise because I also had to draw up four sample characters for the Stalker session and finish my slides for the today's presentation. Humidity and thunder kept me awake at night but I did feel better by morning and went to 'con early to soak up the last drops of atmosphere (and some morning sunlight). This was a humid day and Dipoli was positively tropical but I coped with it.
I then ran a three-hour session of Stalker RPG to Peter Adkison, the founder of Wizards of the Coast, the current head honcho of Gencon and the Ropecon guest of honor. It was a short and straightforward and run'n'grab, where thermal anomalies had blinded a section of the border sensors in the laboratory and opened a way for the stalkers to go ransack the broken down research drones in the Soot Quarter. I had four players. Two of them went to buy Stalker RPG immediately after the session and third one had it already.
Unfortunately, Adkison did not like it. He later commented that the game was too gamemaster-driven. I obviously disagree with this view since I think Stalker RPG/FLOW gives players unprecedented power for an RPG with an algorithmic rules system but there you go. Well, at least his complimentary copy of Stalker RPG will give him something to wipe his nose with during his long flight home. I know I am a fool for thinking that any one game should work for everybody but I guess I caught some of Mike Pohjola's insane but highly contagious optimism on Friday. Adkison's observations of Stalker RPG sure popped that balloon.
Thankfully I was still unaware of this when I held my two-hour presentation on Stalker from three to five. It dealt a lot with new content I have been planning for the possible supplement and more recently the novel, as well as how the same themes are dealt with in different derivative works based on Roadside Picnic. I was overjoyed to have a sizable audience that late in the event and even more so to have such a lively Q&A session at the end. The Finnish audience is usually very reluctant to ask questions but this time it seemed like I had rounded up a full room of stalkers to chat with. Great times. If my Ropecon experience had ended there it would have been great but unfortunately I got news of the Adkison feedback and sat through the closing ceremonies contemplating the meaning of life. Suggestions so far consist of "cake" and "42".
Burger Games is a Prince Caspian-level contributor to Myrskyn Sankarit and I honestly think it is great idea. However, some people already suggested adding pedagogists in the team and you can read what I think of pedagogists from Häirikkötehdas.
If it succeeds in its lofty goals - it's a miracle.
If it gets made at all - it's a success.
Failing to get funded - it's luck.
As for everything else - well now...
My Stalker RPG license from Boris Strugatsky includes the right to write one novel in English, Finnish or Swedish using the same modernized take on the original IP as the roleplaying game. Earlier on this very blog, I wrote that I would write the book if there was a publishing contract for it. And yesterday, I signed one. With a pen carved from stone and a 7.56 x 54mm rifle cartridge. Finn Lectura, the publisher of Häirikkötehdas, will publish my Stalker novel. I will be writing straight into English (don't worry, they'll have some educated native speaker to look it over) and the primary format will be an e-book intended for international markets. I expect there will be a small print run too. If nothing else, I'll have one made for myself.
Although this thing moved forward really quickly, I am not starting from scratch. I've been thinking about this book since 2008 and all that thinking and turning ideas over and over in my head led to the emergence of my very own Stalker character. Some of my Stalker players have met him already and I wrote him into the Zone Finland teaser in the spring. But besides finally letting my protagonist loose on my imaginary pocket universe, I want the novel to either double as a supplement for the RPG owners, or become the basis of a future supplement, so it has to have to new stuff; ideas, things and themes that go above and beyond those in the rulebook.
The contract states that I am expected to hand in the script sometime in 2013 so time is not a problem. I will be writing slower than usual because it has to be in English from the start but still, if 18 months is not enough the problems go deeper than writing. Like having a massive dose of stage fever about the whole thing. I am not a Strugatsky. I am not setting out to write a world-changing masterpiece like the original Roadside Picnic. An entertaining and atmospheric story about the heroes, villains and rogues in and around Zone France will have to do, even if the hardcore fans of the novel would cut me to pieces for it.
Does this make me shallow as an artist?
From the distance, the village looks abandoned. It is a collection of thatch-roofed houses surrounded by a wooden wall but none of the chimneys are smoking. Livestock runs rampant on the streets and cows are grazing in the fields after having broken through the fences. As you get closer, you see the first sleepers, in all sorts of places and clothes and looking as if they had just now sat down to take a nap. But they have whittled down to skin and bone and those left outside have already died. However, there is no sign of decomposition on the bodies and the pigs roaming the village have not touched the living or the dead. When one of you swats a mosquito, it dawns on you all that even mosquitoes are avoiding the sleepers.
Yes, I am part of James Raggi's IndieGoGo campaign to produce adventures for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess roleplaying game. This is how it works: James called together a group of what he considers high-profile RPG scenario writers (what the hell am I doing here?). Each of the prospective adventures is its own indiegogo initiative and those contributing to one adventure will eventually receive the adventure books (and potential other perks if they contributed enough) that will include all the adventures that racked up at least $6000 in contributions. Remember that it is a ransom system, so if the campaign fails and none of the adventures get funded, you won't pay a penny. With 23 days to go the leading adventure has $1070 in contributions. With mere $170 I am so far behind it hurts but we'll wait and see. I agree that the 6K threshold is a tad high but if there is one thing I will not fault a fellow RPG author for it is ambition. Go James go!
My proposed adventure, The Dreaming Plague, is a mix of fantasy, horror and trippy stuff you might have expected from Michael Moorcock back in the good old days. Or in Stalker RPG when the gamemaster finally loses touch with reality. Set in the Holy Roman Empire in 1506 AD, the characters get embroiled in a supernatural conspiracy behind the outbreak of a strange plague that has put most of the population in the remote Barony of Aunger into an enchanted and eventually lethal sleep. Bound by the oaths of their ancestors who were part of a sacred order, the motley crew of scum and villainy (i.e. characters) will have to face this silent enemy and pierce the veil of nightmares. And that is about all I can say without spoiling it. So here you go:
Although the cover picture is used for the entire campaign, I like to think it represents The Dreaming Plague in particular. It is pretty freaking cool, no matter what your thoughts of the Old School Renaissance games are.
It's been a year now. If you had told me in the spring last year that it would be possible to make a living as a freelance game designer, I would not have believed you. What really happened was that when Casual Continent ceased to exist and SC5 pulled out of game development, I was left with their game-related clients and began working for them via Burger Games. Then entirely new contracts began appearing and suddenly the point where I would be forced to start looking for another full-time job had receded somewhere into the horizon. I am not rolling in dough by any means but then again I am working for only 2 or 2.5 days a week (very uneven distribution, mind you), as opposed to your usual 9/5 drudge. And since I have paid off my mortgage (thank you, Angry Birds), I make a comfortable living out of my work.
Of course, the big question on every freelancer's mind is the availability of new gigs. I have been lucky. Whenever it seemed like a job was petering out, another one appeared. Losing some of the more lucrative prospects (very lucrative, in fact) was a bummer but I guess if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. But this is not a desert either and frankly, I would have never expected there to be so much demand for a freelance game designer. I mean programmers, artists, sound guys... I can see that but game designers? Come on!
Yet there is.
Someone might want you to do an analysis on a competitor's product without your views being tainted by what is already being developed in-house. Or, there are tasks left over when the in-house designers have been assigned their responsibilities and while these extra jobs are too much to add to their workload, they are not enough to justify a new hire. So that's where I come in. Or, a media company has a new product brand and needs an expert opinion on what kind of game- or gamification features could be added to it. Or, you have a school with a game development study track and you know there is no such thing as a qualified teacher of game design, so you ask people with industry experience and at least passable presentation skills to come talk to the students. Been there, done all that and more.
The other side of the coin is that when you are working on a contract, you are not screwing around or twiddling your thumbs. If somebody needs you they usually have a pretty good idea what for, even if figuring out how to best respond to the need is often work in progress. They are usually also in a hurry and I like to empathize with the production team that is working with one foot on the brakes because something in the design is still missing. I really like it when I can sink my teeth and claws into the job immediately and there is no time for vacillating, bullshit or screwing around. I go in, I do the job and I try to do the best possible job on it because only then is there any hope for continued contracts. And I want to be proud of my works. They are the closest thing to children I will ever have.
Unlike other sub-contractors, freelance game designers also get to crack the whip on their customers. I am especially fond of forcing my customers to make concise decisions as part of the concepting-feedback-iteration loop. Bad decisions rock because they can be overturned. No decisions or lets-wait-for-a-little-longer cannot be overturned. They just hang there like the smell after a particularly nasty fart, hindering everything else while not contributing anything meaningful to the project. Also, forcing concise, documented decisions out of the meetings creates a policy, concept and content decision timeline leading up to the present. If there is something wrong with the present stage or the project parameters are not met for some reason, you can then go back on it and see where the joint design effort began to go wrong or deviate from the intended goals. It is like having a version control system for ideas.
Yet there is always that nagging fear of an empty tomorrow. While the picture of my July is starting to emerge, I have no idea what, if anything, I will be doing in August. I've been on a good streak for 12 months straight but the past is no guarantee of the future. I like to think that my skill, experience and connections within the industry have landed me these jobs and will most likely keep landing me more but it could have been just luck. A lottery row that struck gold. As a designer, I am certainly driven by my inspiration, professionalism and my passion for games but I am also driven by fear. The fear of falling off the edge. Losing the grip. Fading away. My freedom comes at a price and it weighs heavily on my mind as I pick the lottery numbers for the next 12 months.
But so far I have been happy with my choices.
The roots of magic are in the Dreamtime, back when there was no distinction between life, death and the divine. It was so long ago that the question of "when" is in itself meaningless. One could say that Dreamtime precedes the count of years. Witches and some others gifted with the Second Sight can sometimes catch glimpses of it in visions, dreams and experenciences derived from outside the realm of mortal senses. Some would argue that the Dreamtime never ended and surrounds the mortal worlds like the ocean surrounds far-flung islands. But this is a debate incomprehensible to commoners, scoffed at by scholars and deemed sinful by priests, for such matters are for the Gods, not Men.
In the mortal world, the Dreamtime has ended long ago. All things have become living, dead, never-alive or divine. As magic waned following the fall of Khorias, the Green Moon, this Mortal Order became to be seen as inviolate. By studying the rules and causes of the Mortal Order, the enterprising Mankind discovered sciences and ultimately the wonders of technology that made the Delorian Empire powerful. Magic as a power and an idea still existed but it was lost, hidden and for the most part forgotten. There were some places, often deep underground, where one could still perform rituals and recite incantations to powers of Dreamtime, thus coaxing small changes and breaches to the Mortal Order. But it was a mortal sin and a severe crime to do so.
The return of magic changed everything. And nothing.
When a witch or a sorcerer raises a creature of living rock from the cold bones of earth, nothing has changed or been brought into this world. The creature was always there, within the cold rock abd deep asleep since the Dreamtime. No, not within the rock. It is the rock. Its revival may be a breach against the Mortal Order but let those who defend the order contemplate the severity of the crime. With magic, the whole world is built from souls; alive, dead, asleep since the end of creation. By using magic, a witch can reach them, rouse them from their slumber and call them to do his bidding. There are no rules to it. There are no laws or causes to it. There is often no distinction between the one and the many. And in some sense, there is no limit to the effects either.
To the consternation of scholars everywhere in Arleon, witches have little or no understanding as to how or why their rituals and cantrips work. Also, trying to decipher the writings and ideas of the Moon Worshippers can drive a man insane. But then again, the scholars' attempt to place magic within the Mortal Order was doomed from the very beginning. Only one thing is clear: magic is a breach of the mortal order and yet the Mortal Order could not and would not exist without it. Just like an island cannot exist without the sea, or a shadow without a light. With that said, you can bring things into this world or banish them back into the void. But that is not Witchcraft. That is Sorcery.
You could say that the #praedor IRC-channel talked me into it. Resurrecting Miekkamies, writing down a rules stem (basically notes for myself on how the system is supposed to work, enabling me to run simulations of various use cases) and creating the PageMaker framework that is the basic building block of all my rulebooks. I actually own one of the early versions of InDesign as well but I vastly prefer PageMaker. Sure, it lacks some options but on the other hand 90% of the development since PM7 has been feature creep and absolutely anything can be printed out as PDF these days.
The original Miekkamies was written and edited with WordPerfect 6 for Windows. It was one of the early WYSIWYG versions. I think I still own WordPerfect 9 and the text editors haven't added anything useful since that either. Office 2010 feels like a cutdown version of Office 2000 and with this newfangled "ribbon" design I can neither find anything nor optimize my screenspace. And for fuck's sake, who the hell puts a heavy and inmmovable HUD bar on top of the screen when everybody and their cousin are using widescreen aspect monitors? It is a bloated monstrosity when drop-down menus from the window frame would have sufficed. Or probably worked even better because finding the different options would not be such a brain-scorching puzzle every time! Sure, it makes a text editor screen look like a web browser but I am not surfing here. I am writing and I need to be able to scroll the fucking text fucking up and fucking down!
Writing straight into PageMaker 7.0 I don't have to deal with that shit and as a cherry on top I don't have to fight the autoformatting feature every step of the way either. One side effect of my unorthodox working methods with PageMaker was picked up by Koponen: I design and size my content to match the layout. Basically, turn a page and the next overleaf covers one feature or item. Turn the page and again and you'll get to the next item. This helps to keeps rules on any given topic in a single easy-to-find spot. Fantasy Flight Games, I hope you are reading this. Your production values are the best in the business but your content organization within the text is fucking horrible!
Now all I need is a working desktop scanner. And to clear all the other things out of the way. I don't really do multi-processing, so here is my plan for future releases for now:
1. My adventure for Raggi's LotFP drive
2. Praedor supplement
3. Praedor novel
4. Stalker supplement, probably in English
5. Miekkamies 2.0, possibly
So yeah, we'll get back on this in 2015 or so!
Here is a synopsis of the game for those who don't own the original. Some changes are already incorporated here because I am on a much higher level now.
***Warning! Fluff and teenage visions for a fantasy setting ahead!***
Miekkamies is a baroque-fantasy roleplaying game emulating the 17th century and Hollywood swashbuckling movies rather than the Middle Ages and old folk tales. The characters are gentleman (and -woman) adventurers recruited by the high and mighty to promote their interests against a rising tide of evil and their political competitors. In the Baroque Fantasy genre, court intrigue, romance, secret societies, epic duels and pirate ships mingle with dungeon romping and monster slaying. Magic is all about rituals for creating enchanted items and potions, or summining foul creatures to do your bidding.
The game world, Arleon, is not a sphere. You can't sail around it and most archaic texts describe the world as a page in a boox. The primordial darkness and the chaos of demons lies on one side and the realm of the gods on the other. In between are a number of worlds, some human, some not but all of them mortal. Legends say that the Darathari, founders of the Delorian Empire, arrived on Arleon from another world but it is not known whether any mortal has been able to breach the boundaries of the world since then.
The continent of Arleon is a landmass close to the western edge of the world. It is bordered by Grey Sea in the west and the White Mountains far up in the north. No ship can cross the Grey Sea, as the waves and weather build up without end the further out you go, eventually dooming even the strongest vessels. Dragons tend to eat anyone trespassing in the White Mountains but apparently there is nothing but ice beyond them.
There are three other landmasses that are known: The mysterious and insular Empire of Yu-Zhang lies to the east, connected to Arleon by a thin strip of tundra and steppe called Zazakia. Once a vibrant and advanced civilization that traded with the Delorian Empire, the return of magic changed them in both body and spirit and the people of Yu-Zhang now submit to the will of the demonic horrors as they once submitted to the will of their God-Emperors.
Sayarid is to the south across the Blue Sea. Once a string of Imperial colonies along a wild and rugged coastline bordering scorching deserts and sun-baked mountains, Sayarid of today is an ambitious kingdom of conquerors, traders, slavers and converts to their newfound Fire Spider God.
Finally to the southwest, across the Green Sea, is Atzla, the Realm of the Sun, a long-lost civilization now reduced to jungle and ruin. Its once proud people have been reduced to tribes and savages, once easy prey for the colonists and conquerors from the Empire. All that changed with the return of magic and the collapse of the Delorian Empire. What remains of the colonies are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, while the reawakened sorcerer-kings of the lost civilization raise armies of man-beasts and the undead against them.
But Arleon is where we are at. It is a landmass some 2000 kilometres long from north to south and about 1300 kilometres wide. It actually looks a little like Westeros but Miekkamies precedes Game of Thrones by more than a decade, so take your rumblings about plagiarizing and stick them where the Sun don't shine.
In the primordial times, long-before the coming of Man, it was home to a magical superculture known only as the Moon-Worshippers. At the time there were two moons above the world; the Moon we see today and Khorias, the Green Moon said to be the heart of a god that crossed over from the primordial darkness in the Dreamtime and was slain by the other gods. After untold millennia, something went wrong and Khorias fell from the sky, shattering the world and creating the parting seas as they are today. The Moon-Worshippers were almost wiped out and those who did survive, fled into the bowels of the Earth. Perhaps to seek shelthers from the ravages of the world above? Or perhaps they pursued the source of their power as Khorias was buried deep into the earth. Whatever the case, they devolved into the monsters that prowl the depths of the earth.
According to legend, the first Men in Arleon were the Darathari, who sailed across the now uncrossable Grey Sea on seven ships. True of false, the Darathari would become dominant people in the southern half of Arleon. Eventually they would became the Delori and founded the thousand-year Delorian Empire that ruled the seas and even parts of Sayarid and Atzla. With magic reduced to a handful of monsters that shied away from daylight and cults of witches meeting in underground caves, the Delorian Empire was built on organization, learning and technology. At its height, there were ships that flew with bags of stranges gases and carts that moved by boiling water. Although surrounded by beasts and barbarians, the Empire was kept safe by gunpowder. It had long been used in rockets and rituals of Yu-Zhang but the Delorian Empire made it to hurl balls of iron and lead until nothing could stand in its way.
However, the Empire had a border to the north. Beyond the long-lost wall were tribes of another people, the Raelg, who believed they were once beasts but were elevated into Men after their ancestors chose the right side in a war between gods. Whatever the case, they were never part of the Empire but the close proximity to it elevated them out of barbarism. The Relgian Kingdoms were born and became the dominant power in northern Arleon. There were other peoples like the forest tribes of Ulfgord, the clansmen of Marmark or the nomads from Zazakia but it was the Delorian Empire and to a lesser extent the Relgian Kingdoms who wrote the history of Arleon. While bloodlines have become mixed since those days, you can still divide the peoples of Arleon into those of Delorian and Relgian descent by their build, stance, hair and eyes. And to a lesser extent by their thoughts and attitudes.
The Imperial Age ends in a fires as black as the night. For untold millennia, the buried Khorias had twisted the roots of the world. One day, the magic returned with all the subtlety of a volcanic eruption. Monsters poured forth from the bowels of the earth. Spells and curses of the Shadow Folk, the degenerate descendants of the Moon-Worshippers darkened the skies. Old ruins all around Arleon become enchanted and cursed, the long-dormant shrines to ancient Gods suddenly witnessed powerful miracles and visitations by demons and angels. In places where the very fabric of the world had grown thin the primordial darkness was seeping through. The mightiest entities of darkness were the Dark Fires. Like a sentient force of un-nature, they began to consume the world and undo the very threads of creation.
It may have been the darkest hour but it was also a time of heroes. Mighty monsters were slain by courage, cunning and steel. Armies of horrors were put to the sword and cannon. Great demons were cast out into the void. As the Empire crumbled, people looked to their heroes and individual effort for salvation. But nothing could stand up to the Dark Fires. Then witches stepped forth from the shadows. Magic had always existed, as had those who could wield it. Now Kronath the Sage asked the last Emperor Argustos IX if he would legalize witchcraft in exchange for the world. The Emperor agreed and Kronath led a band of adventurers deep into the earth in search of the Green Moon. Legends say he descended into Hell and closed the doors behind him. Whatever happened, the power of magic suddenly waned and the spells of the Shadow Folk were undone. The Undead burned in sunlight and monster hordes were driven back into the shadows. Even the Dark Fires could not exist on non-enchanted ground. Most of them flickered out but some persist even today in pockets of black magic or where the borders of the world are thin.
Still, it was a different world that emerged from the wreckage. Untold thousands were dead, great cities lay in ruins and monsters prowled in the shadows. There were magical wastelands and cursed ruins guarded by demons and the living dead. Some of the Dark Fires still burned, plotting their revenge on the mortal world. The Empire had collapsed as its provinces had been forced to look after themselves. Office of the Emperor became a figurehead of more spiritual than political importance. Magic was real. Gods were real. Hero-worship was at an all-time high and many took to the road in search of glory and fortune. Kings and nobles sponsored warrior orders, adventurer guilds, explorers' clubs and schools of magic. Yet many of the achievements of the Empire were lost and the secrets of its machines forgotten. The flying ships and steammobiles became priceless treasures and any surviving slivers of that ancient knowledge were something to be hoarded and guarded for personal power, rather than used and spread.
In the 250 years since the return of magic, Arleon has stagnated rather than progressed. Petty wars and constant vigilance against the powers of darkness are taking their toll. Behind the facade of velvet and gold, kings and would-be kings are fighting over arcane treasures. Cults and Secret Societies abound, each claiming to be the rightful heir to the Empire. And in Sayarid, Sultan Fulmad Ghuray desires an empire of his own and looks to the north with hungry eyes. Don't even get me started on Atzla.
So, that is how I see Miekkamies, 18 years later.
Nothing like little playtesting to check if a system works. The very first attempt by anyone ever to cast magic in Praedor was an epic fail. Some of it is just bad luck with the dice but some things I can blame on myself. The system is geared for players to be able combine their demonic traits so that they can take two or three dice off the spell difficulty right there. However, getting a set of traits that you can combine is much more rare than my cough-medicine-addled brain would haved liked to believe at the time. Besides, I want the spellcasting to mostly succeed and only occasionally fail, so I am going chop off at least one difficulty die from every spell.
Second, the Blood cost for spells follows a very nice progression curve of steadily increasing averages but frankly, it is about twice as costly as it should be and the cost for failure is way off! The fumble consequences are horrific and can remain so but failure, no. Finally, in some anachronistic fit I had given penalty dice for wearing armor while casting spells. Even I did not have the heart to implement that rule and it is not really supported in the fiction either, other than the sorcerers in Jaconia being routinely dressed up as sorcerers rather than warriors. But since witchcraft sits at the border between spells and demonic abilities, the armour penalty rule has to go. Fuck, what the hell was I thinking?
Speaking of things I have been thinking, Miekkamies. I have seriously considered doing something about my "original" franchise and I have done so often enough to actually be close to doing it. However, I lack one thing to even get started: a decent map of the continent Arleon. Unfortunately Ilkka Leskelä, to my knowledge the very best map-maker in Finland, no longer talks to me and after all the false starts I've had with him involved I don't blame him. Anyway, IF the centerpiece for this project were to suddenly descend from somewhere up high, I would include two systems in it: FLOW, with the "Roleplaying Score" effectively replaced with "Swashbuckling Score" and this little diced thing I'd like to try out. I have never made a dice-pool based game system but have this idea I'd like to try out somewhere.
I have also been asked to contribute to a notable third-party project and I'd really like to. However, I need a solid idea for that adventure or scenario and haven't had one yet. With my decision time running out it is not looking so good right now.
Stalker RPG has had its second RPG.Net review and it was just as glowing (if not quite as eloquently written) as the first one. I would argue some of the details but there are few things more counter-productive than arguing with public reviews, so I'll just bask in the glory of getting 5 stars for Style and 4 stars for Substance. The first review had the stars reversed so the game now has an average of 4.5 stars in both categories.
Finally, Stalker RPG (the English version) has its first retailer. Sphärenmeisters Spiele in Herzogenraht, western Germany is selling a book + PDF bundle for 29,90. As always, everything is cheaper in Germany and these guys actually made the damn book/pdf bundle happen, thus demonstrating why Germany is the leading political and economic power in Europe. However, the shop has only 10 of those bundles, so if you want to get your hands on one, hurry up!
You know, I've been here before. An obscure team from the edge of the world tries to marry squad-based real-time action with post-holocaust adventure and RPG loot whoring. Usually those teams have been Russian and they have well and truly "ryssineet" their games (look that up if you can), which is why you have never heard of them. But in Krater, the team is Swedish. And I hate them with burning jealousy. And not because they are Swedish. They had a shoestring budget, a tongue-in-cheek approach to the grimness of post-holocaust, no real voice acting and a tendency to gleefully throw every single computer game cliché they could think of in my face. And the game is great!
In short, if the original Syndicate and the original Fallout had sex and raised their family in Sweden, Krater would be the rebellious offspring. Some people are touting it as a roleplaying game or an action-RPG, the byword for almost every game type in this time and age. Personally, I would call it an action-RTS with adventure elements. There is no attachment or personality to the characters, yet the world immersion is strong and I genuinely want to know where the quest line will take me.
Krater is set in a post-apocalyptic Sweden where a civilization of sorts has emerged on the bottom of a huge crater. The crater rim has shielded both the settlements and wildlife from the hazards of the wastelands, so the mutant-infested woods on the crater floor are pretty verdant. Apparently there is also a some kind of an underground facility right underneath the crater and adventurers and treasure-hunters use old tunnels or even clandestine excavations to enter the buried ruins for loot and profit. Oh boy, I am SO going to rip off that setting in some future iteration of Code/X.
Large-scale movement is done on an old school Fallout-style map, where you see places you know of, the relevant terrain features and an icon showing your team's progress from one location to another. Upon reaching a location or being intercepted by a random encounter, the game drops you into a 3D-isometric world where you issue Diablo-style waypoints and simple commands to a team of three post-holocaust mercenaries. This is where Krater diverges from the RPGs because your troopers not really people but interchangeable and expendable pawns. On higher difficulty levels they can die for good and you are supposed to replace them anyway whenever you find better mercenaries in the more high-level settlements.
There are four classes to choose from and also individual differences in what different mercs can do. Since there is only three slots in your team, this means you already have to make certain choices. Also gadgets given to them can mix up the classes quite nicely. While you can set the waypoints yourself, the merc team moves as they see fit. Certain classes prefer being on the front but you really have no control over the movement order. Besides surprise attacks from the rear, I have also lost battles because one of my guys was blocked by terrain and was effectively out of the fight.
Graphics are nice and functional. They are a little Indie at times but workable and along with the soundscape they convey the atmosphere very well. Although the scenery is much more lush and the Falun-red Swedish country cottages make an occasional appearence, the overall architecture reminds of me of Rage in a good way. Hmm, actually, you could make a kick-ass action RPG using this engine and setup. I wonder why the devs went for the RTS approach instead? Really, the exact game type of Krater is sometimes hard to pin down and that is going to become a problem, mark my words.
Krater is very Swedish. The placenames are Swedish, the character names are Swedish and every time you go to talk to someone, their initial greeting sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show, while the actual dialogue is text only. It is well and concisely written. If you want to delve into the Lore of the Crater there are dialogue options for that but they are always optional compared to the actual mission briefing. This is the way text-based dialogue should be delivered and there is something very non-offensive about it. I have to study the screen layout and colour usage more carefully. How did they succeed in a feature that the mighty Blizzard has failed in time and time again?
After being disappointed by Max Payne 3 (50), enjoying Krater (13,99) was therapeutic. But is it better than Diablo 3 (60)?
Not for everybody, I suppose. But I never got back into Diablo 3 after Belial killed me a few times and I am apathetic towards the setting and the story. I know the game expects me to play it through time and time again, which devalues everything I have achieved as part of the narrative. In Diablo 3, nothing ever matters. In Krater... well, it is an open-world game, sort of (like the old Fallouts) and thus tickles my exploration itch. While the character progression in small increments and the item upgrades being measured in things like DPS and stat increases smack of Diablo, the feature of entirely changing your team stops it from being a carbon copy of any contemporary action-RPG. Also, I feel like I am a factor in the world of Krater and the storyline is actually taking me somewhere. Plus, it is a post-holocaust game, a good one at that and I have already caught myself thinking should I approach them for an RPG license...
Yeah. I guess it is.
Final rating: +2
If the world has any justice in it, Krater will become wildly succesful and Fatshark will be rolling in money as they make more content for us. Since the world is usually a shit sandwich, I expect Krater to be hammered by reviews, soon to be forgotten and that the Fatshark devs will be peddling their organs for the money to make their next title. But even if they are doomed, Finnish developers should take notes! You can make excellent core games on an Indie budget. You just have to be smart about it.
As I suspected, Krater is getting the stick for not being enough like Diablo 3. Since it has been tagged as an action-RPG (which it is not since it is actually closer to Syndicate Wars or Jagged Alliance), the reviewers go at it with completely wrong expectations and damn it to hell for not meeting them. A case in point: look at metacritic.com. The metascore, although unofficial at the time of writing, is 20/100. The user score is 8.5/10. The users get it and I hope they spread the word because if there ever was a game that deserved word-of-mouth marketing and a viral boost, this is it.
Ah, so this is how an inspiration feels like. It has been too long since the last one and the Praedor supplement was too fragmented to really bring it out. I should finish Alan Wake and play some Krater but instead I have been writing, writing and writing some more. All that time that I normally use to play games? Writing. The 729 hours of Skyrim? Not it goes into writing. I don't feel like playing games right now, I feel like writing. If I could turn this feeling on and off as necessary, you would have gotten a lot more out of me by now. Still, I am glad it is happening and what began as a crazy notion of a second Praedor novel is actually taking shape quite nicely.
Besides, playing Alan Wake did not exactly dilute my literary aspirations. :)
Verivartio picks up a four years after the events of Vanha Koira. Both of the original protagonists are now seasoned veterans (again, in the case of Vanha Koira) and are dropping off loot at the Street of Wonders in Farrignia, when they suddenly get drawn into a conspiracy spanning several city-states. It has everything to do with the aftermath of the events in the next Praedor Comic Album, so I shall tell you no more. However, this also means that if the comic book does not come out, neither will the novel, should I ever finish it. Those four years (by Valiar's Count) and the respective historical events are simply necessary for the story to make sense. All the stuff that I have thought to include in the supplement will be canon here, witchcraft included. I am also making quite a big leaps of faith regarding the Church of Artante and its factions. Petri obviously has the last word in all of this and I can only hope there is nothing that would be too much in conflict with his vision.
Meanwhile, in the real world...
I am two weeks away from having been a freelance game designer for a full year, so yes, it can be done. Losing the Netherlands gig did hurt me financially, if that can be said about money that one actually never had, but I have a comfortable income, loads of free time and very interesting and varied tasks. Job security is poor, of course. There is no guarantee of work next month, let alone next year, but given the volatility of the industry as a whole I am not that much worse off compared to my 9-to-5 colleagues. And I am certainly not in danger of burning myself out. There has been an epidemic of that over the last couple of years. I will be lecturing to Tekes officials on game branding in September and a week later I will attend the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani as both an attendee and a presenter. Interesting times.
Stalker RPG has been selling steadily, especially the PDF version. Drivethrurpg.com just promoted the game to a Silver Bestseller status, which puts us roughly in the top 10% of all products they have on sale. The print version at lulu.com is sadly stagnant but just this week there was a new development: I was contacted by a games store from Germany. Since I can buy Stalker RPG books from lulu.com at factory prices and then have them shipped anywhere I like, Burger Games can act as a distributor for retailers. The German retailer is not buying that many books so financially this is peanuts. But it is very, very cool.
I'll let you know more about the retailer once all the paperwork is done :)
I am a long-time fan of the Max Payne franchise and actually know some of the people involved in the development of the original two back at Remedy. Also, Max Payne 1 & 2, Rogue Trooper and the venerable Freedom Fighters are to me the solid proof that you actually can make 3rd person perspective games work, if for some reason you can't use either the first-person perspective or top-down isometric, which are of course superior to every other alternative. Unfortunately, Max Payne 3 wasn't made by Remedy and it shows. Of course, Remedy is not an all-around cure to the world's ills, as demonstrated by the automatically adjusting enemy toughness in Max Payne 1 or the very existence of doorways in Alan Wake.
However, there are quite a few things wrong with Max Payne 3 that Remedy would not have cocked up even on a bad day.
We are off to a flying start already when starting the game requires you to join the Rockstar Social Club before it lets you proceed. Great, now I already have a reason to hate those guys. Besides having to fill in your birthdate, name, email, password choice and a motherfucking social club avatar, it also force feeds you two long contracts of American Legalese. I'll be buggered before I will even take a look at these assholes' website again and I am having second thoughts about their games. Red Dead Redemption ought to be really good but fortunately it is a console exclusive so it can go hang itself for all I care. And then we get into the game through lengthy cutscenes where Max behaves and looks like your average Finnish man if approaching 50 while still single (or a widower, like Max). The game is set in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but the opening cutscene reminds me of Kontula, Helsinki. And as soon as the cutscene finally lets up, you are face-slapped by the biggest failure of them all: the controls.
When you are developing a twitch shooter which depends on intuitive controls, natural flow to combat and knowing what the fuck you are aiming at, letting a lobotomized monkey do the design for any of these is a bad idea. Having that same monkey handle their conversion to PC is an even worse idea. Max Payne 3 needs a context-sensitive "action" button like a helicopter needs its main rotor, which says all about the consequences of not having one. Context-sensitivity means that if I am next to cover, looking at the cover and it says "press N to take cover" on the screen, pressing "action" key would make me take cover. Or, if I am standing next to a gun that I can pick up and a pop-up on screen is kind enough to let me know, pressing "action" would pick it up and so on.
Instead, all these tiny little things have their separate keys and honestly, when the numpad in your keyboard starts running out of keys you are either making a flight simulator or being stupid. Most of these keys do nothing most of the time so apart from gun-picking you don't really learn them. Max Payne 3 also wins an award for having the least intuitive "console-wheel-to-keyboard-and-mouse" weapons select system in the history of gaming.
Shooters of any variety have this shitty feature of the player needing to know where his bullets are going. This calls for unintuitive targeting reticles and other shit to appear on screen, which apparently ruin the "cinematic experience". So Max is aiming at a tiny blond dot in the middle of the screen, its tone scientifically tested to get lost in the background graphics. Figuring out the exact center of the screen by yourself on a 1900 x 1200 display is not easy, especially since the graphics design has clearly been intended for the much smaller HDTV resolution and as a result everything looks really tiny and as if the camera was far away from the action. Combined with the messy interior design sans the crude but cinematic physics engine of MP2, this contributes to a roughly 2% hit rate because you can't figure where your aiming at or if you actually have a line of fire to the target.
Now, cocking up the trademarked Bullet Time feature of the series takes special effort but Rockstar is neither pulling its punches nor testing its games before launch. Or maybe Max is just getting too old for this. In the old days, he would jump back on his feet after making his trademark bullet-time tumble through doorways, windows and down the stairs, thus preserving the sense of motion and flow in combat. In Max Payne 3, he does not bother and keeps shooting from the floor, unless, god forbid, you decide to move and he very slowly gets up, leaning on incoming bullets for support. Combined with the awkward cover mechanism that really does not fit the franchise, the combat feels so broken and cut up that I'd rather use V.A.T.S. from Fallout 3.
So what about the story, as strong writing and narrative were always a strong point for Remedy and really stand out in Alan Wake as well? I did not the play the game long enough because I really don't want to buy a new monitor because my current one has a fist-sized hole in it. I can already tell there are some fundamental problems here, as could the guys and girls from Extra Credits who actually used Max Payne 3 as an example of how pretensions to maturity ruin game writing. Apart from their recommendation of MP3 as a shooter, I agree with everything. And besides, dropping the Noir York angle was... incomprehensible. It was a franchise killing decision. Why oh why did I buy this game? What was I thinking?
Apparently, I wasn't. Fifty euros down the drain and I can't even justify it as a learning experience because the fatal flaws are so very, very obvious. I don't need to research this product to know why it did not engage me. So unless I end up being the lead designer of Max Payne 4 by some miracle, I am not playing this crap again.
Final verdict: -2
I am going back to Alan Wake. Right now.
Typical. Summer is here and I kick it off with a bad case of flu. The cold spellreally did a number of me and my aching throat keeps me awake at nights. So I might just as well start blogging.
For all the glorious Stalker-related things that have been going on this spring, this summer is going to be all about Praedor. Book of Witches is ready and the illustrations are slowly trickling in. I am actually little worried that I am making more progress than the graphic novel the supplement is supposed to draw on. In all honesty, if something goes awry with the graphic novel project and I am left sitting on a completed and illustrated Book of Witches, the supplement will still come out. I would just have to drop Book of XXXX and scour the rest to make sure any elements tied to the impending setting changes are removed. The real worst-case scenario is that the graphic novel will be left in a limbo, "sort of coming out" but never really doing it. Working in the games industry I've seen more than my fair share of those.
The slow progress, brought on by my inherent laziness (hey, if you want an RPG author who works his fingers to the bone go talk to James Raggi), issues with the international release of Stalker and having a dayjob of sorts via Burger Games (by the end of June I will have been a freelancer for a full year, yay!) has had its perks. My original plan for the supplement was Book of XXXX, Book of Treasures, Book of Witches and a pitiful excuse of a rule update grandiously named Book of Beasts.
Now, with time to think and tinker, Book of Treasures is fading into obscurity (it was basically just revamped treasure tables), Book of XXXX waits for more details on the progression of the graphic novel and Book of Beasts has broken out of its cage and is wreaking havoc all over Myyrmäki. You may remember my lamentation about Praedor having too weak monsters. What I originally intended to do was to provide alternative stats for all the creatures listed in the rulebook. However, there has to be some difference between Old School (D&D, LotFP, Rolemaster...) and Old Skool (Praedor, Stormbringer, Shatterzone...) and this is it. I believe in having the setting as the central component around which the game is built. Why the hell would I waste space on generic tables?
Since Petri can change anything at anytime, speaking about the "Praedor canon" is a misnomer but let's run with it for a while. As a rule of thumb, Jaconia's flora and fauna are not too different from our own. There are some dangerous beasts that are widespread (like the Iron Bass) but true monsters are rare and usually associated with magic dating back to the Sorcerer Kings. This also makes them localized. Looking at the existing Praedor stories, certain types of monsters hang around only at certain locations and you can't really describe one without the other. What if instead having a revamped stat-list I would have a fluff description of 20+ places of interest to a treasure-seeking adventurer supplemented by rules detail on the dominant local monster? In Stalker RPG, the entire monster description is a fluff piece and it worked really well. Praedor-players will probably appreciate setting information even more than the hippyish Stalkerites and but they haven't been exactly spitting on inspired fluff writings either.
Book of Tooth and Claw, the monsters of Jaconia and the places you have to go to find them. Works for me.
Book of Treasures is the bastard child and the odd one out. There is simply no way to make sensible location-specific treasure tables. As my dislike for generic bullshit has waxed my interest in the Book of Treasures has waned. However, they are a few options to explore here. One thing that I really wanted to do already in the original rulebook were weapons with special properties. Only the weapon length survives from that thought process as it is used to determine initiative and even there the rules are somewhat nebulous. In my own games, the players have persistently asked to postpone their attacks so that they would not accumulate extra dice on their defence rolls and the enemy would have the maximum extra dice on theirs. I am usually pretty easy-going regarding houserules but in effect this has made the weapon length meaningless. Every player character attacks during length class III, as late as they can.
It would be interesting to know that if I enforced the weapon ranges ("enemy is now at spear range... oh, you don't attack? Well, he is too close to you now so no more attacks this round"), would everybody go for axes instead of swords? More damage, short range.
Not that the weapons would differ much in other ways either. Historically prices and social norms have kept peasants from acquiring the most lethal weaponry of their time. Praedors or adventurers in general rarely have this restriction so they are kitted out to the max. Yet most fantasy rpgs like to have long and varied weapon lists. This will only make sense if the weapons had type-specific special properties, which again is a major balancing hurdle in the game design. Still, I would love to do it: short sword - a thrusting weapon, half SA when hitting non-metal armour, broadsword - a cutting weapon, can be swung at multiple foes in a single attack for a penalty dice etc. I doubt it would all turn out fair and balanced but it is definitely something I would like to explore.
In related news, I have written the second chapter of Verivartio, the next Praedor novel. This is significant because my digital desk drawer is full of first chapters from various settings and franchises. It is exceptional for any of them to advance into the second chapter and I hope this is a portent of things to come. Come to think of it, I have written four published books but only one of them got started just because I felt like it. That was the first Praedor novel Vanha Koira. I hope this will be the second such work and yes, Vanha Koira and Korpinsiipi are back! Assuming it ever gets finished, I've been thinking about offering the script to Arktinen Banaani since they are the primary publisher for Praedor graphic novels. However, self-publishing via Burger Games is a valid plan B. It means forfeiting possible grants and the sales being shit in general but if I did this for money I would not do it all. Which is pretty freaking obvious from the 2011 royalty report for Häirikkötehdas.