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By Samuel Stoddard


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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bryan Russell wrote in with an email that quite amused me. It was his answers to The Fantasy Novelist's Exam. He's given permission for me to reprint his email here. Needless to say, he failed the exam, but at least he failed it with a flourish.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First things first. A reader by the name of Julia Houston has written a wonderful science fiction version of one of our humor featurettes, the Fantasy Novelist's Exam. I thought I'd draw some extra attention to it by pointing it out here. Give it a read.

Beyond that, an update on the state of the site is probably long overdue. Five months ago, Stephen Keller and I debuted All Movie Talk, a weekly podcast about movies. The weekly schedule is a demanding pace, because every segment of every episode requires not just the recording time, which is the small piece, but research time beforehand and editing time afterwards, plus the time writing up the posts that accompany each episode. As time has worn on, I've gotten more lax about the editing process, but that's strangely not very helpful at speeding the process.

Still, it's a rewarding undertaking, and I realized shortly after we started that I'd needed a change of pace from the usual sort of RinkWorks development that I do. It fired up my creative side again and got me moving on something productive, and, perhaps more importantly for you folks, something that gets added to the site on a regular basis that's worth coming back to.

At first -- actually, for the first four months of its five month run so far -- the development time has been so demanding, that I've had to put all other projects on hold. Obviously that's an unsustainable situation, and I was concerned we'd have to cut back. But for the last month, now that our development procedure is fairly streamlined, I've been trying to figure out how to get back into the swing of my normal RinkWorks content development, and that's been pretty successful so far. It's frustrating in the short term, because it's all stuff behind the scenes, but let me update you on what I've been tinkering with.

Primarily, I've brought the next Role-Player's Vault project off the backburner. It had lain dormant for almost a year, but for the last three or four weeks, I've been able to do substantial development work on it nearly every day. My momentum on it is back, and I'm ecstatic to be able to see the project coming together again. Some of the problematic issues that have hung over my head for the last one or two years have been resolved. The further I get into it, the harder it is to pull myself away from playtesting, because in fact the game is becoming playable enough that it's fun to play, and not just a walk through a construction site.

I don't want to talk much about the specifics of the game this early, but suffice it to say that it is orders of magnitude more complex than the Murkon games, while also being easier to play. Of particular note, nobody, not even the most directionally-challenged player, will have any difficulty navigating the world. You might not know where something is, but unlike the Murkon games, where it's easy to become disoriented (although usually this is only for the first level or two), you'll always know where you are and how to get back to where you've been.

Beyond that, much of the increased complexity is in the details. The Murkon games had 100 monsters types, plus a few bosses. This game will have a few thousand. The Murkon games had a bit over 200 items. This game will have an essentially unlimited number. The Murkon games had ten fixed dungeon levels. This game has randomly generated levels -- generated according to any of several distinct algorithms that produce different types of geography -- so that the number of places to explore is limitless. As a result of all these things and more, each run-through of the game should be a totally unique experience.

It's hard to know when I'll be done. Much of that depends on whether I can sustain my creative energy for it straight through to the end, or if I'll need to take an extended break and work on another project for a while instead. I have such a project: a logistically complicated Adventure Games Live game that I'm roughly half done with. I'm excited about that one, too, but I think it would be nice to finish the role-playing game before I pick that up again. We'll see.

Where I am now is a rather critical point in the development of the game. There are two basic parts to a role-playing game of this sort. There's the infrastructure and the world. The infrastructure is the mechanics, the engine. Can I move around in the game? Can I fight things and cast spells and trade equipment? Do all the mechanical pieces work? All the hows of a game. This part of the game is very close to completion, which is why I say, above, that it's becoming very playable.

The other part is the whats -- what races and professions and stats do I have? What levels and traps and items and monsters? That's not complicated from a mechanical perspective. None of these things are processes. They just are. But balancing the gameplay makes this an incredibly difficult step as well. The monsters you meet need to be of an appropriate difficulty level, or the game becomes too easy or impossibly hard. The rate at which you accrue experience points must be just right, so the game isn't frustratingly long, or so quick you don't have time to explore and accrue loot before you're all-powerful. The strengths of equipment, spells, and traps, the costs of items and services, and the availability of treasure all must be carefully calibrated to make a satisfying, well-balanced game.

That's probably the easier of the two halves to code, but it's also the most scary for me -- in part, because I've barely started it, and I'm not sure how finicky it's going to be. But I'm almost at the point where I can start to do that in earnest, and the process of playtesting the game from start to finish, tweaking numbers as I go, will also afford huge opportunities to find bugs in the infrastructure and discover usability issues that I can resolve by streamlining the interface. You can plan a game for weeks on end, but you can't account for everything, and you never know exactly how it's going to go until you actually sit down and try it out.

This project is a great testament to that lesson. This game, believe it or not, was conceived in 1995, some 12 years ago. I hadn't started actual development on it until shortly after the release of Murkon's Vengeance, but I'd written copious notes on how I wanted the game to be. Turns out, aside from the one very basic idea that the whole game is based on (a particular common characteristic of characters, monsters, and the geography that players must be strategic about), the game is already unrecognizable as a descendant of those original notes.

And the work continues.

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