Category: Game Design


Okay, game producer Gameloft has been in the news in the past for ripping o…er, copying other people’s games. I don’t mean copying in the physical sense, but in the “look and feel” sense. But things have really come to a head with their recent trailer for Starfront: Collision:

A bit on the nose, dontcha think?

And yet…I like Gameloft. I like the fact that they are cheeky bastards. If you want an iPhone/iPad/Android version of your hit game, you can go to them and they’ll make you one. And oddly enough, it’ll probably be pretty good.

But if you don’t and you just leave that money on the table…well, they’ll pick it up. And I’ve no doubt that everything goes through the lawyers to make sure they aren’t infringing.

It would be different if the games were krep, but they aren’t. By all accounts, the games have high production values and are fun to play. Plus a lot of them have multiplayer, which is not trivial to do on handheld devices.

So kudos, Gameloft! Keep doing what you’re doing, and maybe game companies will realize how much cash they are missing out on by not entering the handheld market.

Maybe then you can make the real version of Starcraft II for the iPhone.

Saints Row

So last night I bought the Saints Row double pack (and no, there is no apostrophe in Saints Row). I bought it specifically because I heard that the mechanics were far better than Grand Theft Auto X’s. I resisted the urge to start with the (by all accounts superior) second game and popped in the first. I then played it until my eyes basically wouldn’t focus any more.

The good: Holy Toledo, this game fixes just about every problem GTA has. Let’s go down the list.

Driving controls are tight; it’s possible to actually make a turn without a) having to brake down to 1/4 speed or b) hitting anybody or anything. This is aided by the fact that the streets are wide and both cars and pedestrians are less common than in GTA cities. Following another car is actually possible in this game. Plus, this game had a GPS system that would lead you to your target years before GTA IV.

You have a lot of health, and it regenerates when you’re not actually taking fire. Not only that, but you can carry around with you four health-restoring items at all times. This mechanic by itself means that I’ll almost certainly be able to beat this game.

Shooting is good (but not great). There is no lock on (though once you get the cursor over an enemy, the game will help you keep it there). There is no cover system (though you’ll rarely get into a situation where there’s nothing to hide behind). But like I mentioned above, you’ve got tons of health and multiple opportunities to break contact and recover. I’ve already played missions where I’ve fought through 35-50 enemies, and while I got smoked a couple times, perseverance and taking things slow and cautiously has always paid off.

The game uses a territory system like San Andreas; the more territories you take, the more money you find in your stash every morning. And yes, rival gangs can try to take back territories, which means you have to run over there and shoot their lieutenants so that the takeback fails.

Plus HOLY TOLEDO IS THERE LOTS TO DO IN THIS GAME. But I’ll get to the downside of that in a minute.

The cons:

This is one of the most puerile, juvenile games I’ve ever played. Penny Arcade was right. This is a game for 12-year-old gangsta wannabees.

The storytelling in this game is weak, even by GTA standards. Of course, if your story is weak, it helps to get someone like Keith muthafuckin’ David to narrate it for you. Don’t know who he is? Here, have a taste.

In order to progress in the story-based missions, you must perform activities that raise your respect bar. Once it fills up, you have one “charge” of respect and can then play one story-based mission. Of course, this is a good/bad, because most of the activities are actually pretty fun, although most of them are absolutely amoral (no “gangstas with hearts of gold” here). My favorites are drug trafficking, taking hostages, insurance fraud and mayhem missions. This was a dealbreaker for Sol_HSA, who just wanted to do the story missions, but I think of it kind of like the leveling system in Oblivion, which, while deeply flawed, forced me to try some skills I never would have before, which is where I discovered that I loved alchemy.

The story-based missions are also varied and fun. In one, you street race with three members of another gang…who are unaware that their cars have been fitted with bombs. Your goal isn’t to beat them, but to get your passenger close enough to them so that he can taunt them into using their nitro…which blows them up. In another, you attack a garage owned by a rival gang so that one of your fellow gang members (who has gone undercover with the rival gang) can “save” the garage owner and thus get in good with the gang’s leadership. And in a third, you help a singer who is locked in a terrible record contract (with a label that just happens to be owned by another rival gang) fake her own death.

Okay, I’m going to take it back. The storytelling isn’t that bad; it’s just that this game is a summer popcorn movie while GTA IV is trying to be Heat.

Which leads me to something I almost didn’t want to mention about Grand Theft Auto IV…but now I think I will.


While playing GTA IV I got the feeling that the developers…well, they just don’t like America very much. Niko Bellic arrives in New York only to get stuck in Little Vladivostok, doing the same things he did back in Serbia for money – killing, mostly. No other alternative is presented. And of course, Roman’s fascination with America is only skin-deep, with most of that skin being on BIG FAKE AMERICAN TITTIES!

Instead of telling a story about an immigrant who uses the opportunities America provides to better himself, Rockstar chose to tell a story about a man who allows his past mistakes to rule him, to his eventual downfall, while blaming America for everything (and yes, this is in the dialog).

And let’s not get into Weasel News, the Rush Limbaugh satire and the Republican Space Rangers…gone is the political even-handedness of San Andreas (which featured a hilarious talk show where a couple, one liberal and one conservative, literally got off on ridiculing each other).

Here’s hoping for a Grand Theft Auto V that’s lighter in tone, has less political bullshit and, at the very least, has difficulty settings.

Oh, and by the way…I’m going to swear in this post.

Done with Grand Theft Auto IV

“What?” I hear you say. “Anthony, you bought Grand Theft Auto IV years ago!”

Yes, but I hadn’t made a concerted effort to actually get through it until this last weekend. And now it goes on the pile with all the other Grand Theft Auto games I could never get through (which, incidentally, contains all of them. Why do I keep buying these games?)

So what happened? I am at a point about halfway through the game. The missions I’m stuck on are, specifically, The Snow Storm and Holland Nights. Both involve fighting your way through a long area (a burnt-out hospital in Snow Storm, a project in Holland Nights) and eliminating a specific enemy. Once you do so, cops teleport to your location and you gain at least a two-star wanted level. You must now fight your way out of wherever you are, facing much better armed-and-armored cops (or even SWAT guys, in the case of The Snow Storm). Should you manage this impossible feat, you must then get to a vehicle alive and lose your wanted level.

In the end, I think the real problem is the whole “I’ve got a hammer, so every problem is a nail” thing. “We need a GTA IV mission.” “Okay, what does the engine support?” “Killing bad guys and/or cops, getting a wanted level and then shaking that level.” “Okay, I guess that’s the mission, then.”

And the thing is, with enough retries I know I’d probably get through one or both of those missions. But what’s the point? The next mission is just going to be the same thing, only harder. Oh, and of course, there’s no way to trade time for skill. There’s no way to gain more health, get better at driving or shooting, or get better armor than the stock body armor. You play the game their way or you don’t play it at all.

And this really pisses me off because I really would like to see how at least one GTA story turns out.

Plus, what the hell is up with the complete lack of checkpoints during missions? Saint’s Row had them, and it made that game much more accessible than GTA. I really expected Rockstar to steal back the improvements Saint’s Row made to the gameplay, but of course they didn’t. Because that would make sense.

Extrapolating StarCraft II

Okay.  Saw an article on Rock Paper Shotgun about an application called Evolution Chamber.  It’s making huge waves in the StarCraft II community because it uses genetic algorithms to optimize build orders…and it works.  It came up with a build order for the fairly standard Zerg seven-roach rush that can have you attacking your enemy with an overwhelming force in under five minutes if you execute it perfectly.  It currently only works for Zerg, but Terran and Protoss versions are in the works.

If you don’t play StarCraft II, allow me to explain the above.  A “build order” is basically a recipe, a series of instructions on how to build your base and make your units that you follow exactly in order to produce the desired result – in this case, seven roach units that you can then use to rush an unprepared enemy.

Or even a prepared enemy.  There’s been a lot of debate on whether a Protoss player could survive against such a rush at all.  The answer turns out to be just barely yes, but only if the Protoss player knows exactly what’s coming.

A lot of people are saying things like “Oh, this is no big deal; games like Chess and Go have standard openings.”  Yes, but in Chess and Go you see the open happen, you know right away what your opponent is up to, and you get to counter as your opponent opens.  Chess and Go also have actual gameplay beyond the standard opening.  The combination of extremely fast real-time gameplay, fog of war and the ability to choose a random race means that you could conceivably have no idea where your opponent is on the map or what race he’s playing until those seven roaches come bashing down your front door.  At which point, the game is over.  The opening was the game.

Which means you didn’t play StarCraft II.  You played rock-paper-scissors.  You only get to play StarCraft II if one player’s opener doesn’t automatically destroy the other’s (to continue the rock-paper-scissors metaphor, you both pick rock).  Evolution Chamber is only going to make that worse.  The meta-game is quickly overtaking the game-game.  Which is why I don’t play StarCraft II online.

That and I suck.

About Elemental

Just got this comment in a previous post and thought I’d respond here rather than there.


WHAT were you guys thinking, to go around saying it was ready to ship?

Because, y’know, it wasn’t. As just about every review and forum thread is acknowledging, some more heatedly than others. (PC Gamer: “You should not buy it.” Uh, wow. I’ve NEVER seen them be that blunt before.)

Does Stardock have an actual QA department? Is it organizationally independent of development? Are there good lines of communication between QA and the rest of the company? Do they write test plans? Do they run them? How can they test this game and not encounter the problems that were present?

Or is the only testing done by developers in their spare time?

How does something like this happen?


First off, welcome to the site! I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before. I’ve got some free games you can try, and if you’re here for the Name That Game! feature, I’ll be posting a new entry later today.

Second, allow me to answer your questions and respond to your statements in the order they were presented.


Nice to meet you too!

WHAT were you guys thinking, to go around saying it was ready to ship?

Brad’s now infamous statement (which you can read here) was made in anger and exhaustion. Brad explains the situation (and apologizes) here.

Because, y’know, it wasn’t. As just about every review and forum thread is acknowledging, some more heatedly than others. (PC Gamer: “You should not buy it.” Uh, wow. I’ve NEVER seen them be that blunt before.)

PCGamer’s most recent article about elemental states “I’m glad Stardock are patching Elemental so quickly after its disastrous early launch, and I’m relieved to finally have the game in a playable state.”

Does Stardock have an actual QA department?


Is it organizationally independent of development?


Are there good lines of communication between QA and the rest of the company?

Yes. We use Skype chat channels to stay in constant touch and they use Jing to quickly post screenshots and movies of problems so that we developers can see what they are seeing.

Do they write test plans? Do they run them?

Yes and yes.

How can they test this game and not encounter the problems that were present?

And now you have raised my ire. As a former tester I can tell you that testers find bugs; they do not fix them. If bugs exist in a final product they are not the fault of the testers; they are the fault of the developers. Of course they saw the issues. They are not idiots, and I resent your suggestion that they are.

Or is the only testing done by developers in their spare time?

No. Although most of us developers do play the Impulse version in our spare time and keep track of any problems we find.

How does something like this happen?

At last, you have asked a truly salient question (although I’m sure you intended it to be rhetorical.)

“This” happened because it was the lesser evil. Stardock simply does not have the clout to release a retail game during Christmas. Our choices were to launch on August 24th or push the game back to February of next year. Pushing back would have had disastrous consequences for Stardock because of the partnerships we had made and the forfeiture of our retail space.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, releasing an incomplete, buggy game is also going to have disastrous consequences!” And thus you’ve hit the crux. We were in a bind, and chose the lesser evil – to release on time and then work like the dickens to get the game to the state we and the players want (instead of, you know, sleeping like most people who have just shipped a game do). Yes, a lot of people have already had a negative initial reaction to the game. There’s nothing we can do about that. But Stardock has a reputation for continually improving their games over the months and years after its release, and we’re continuing that tradition by improving Elemental as quickly as we can and turning it into the game it deserves to be.


Again, welcome to the site, and I’m sure we’ll have lots of spirited debates in the future!

Planitia Update 41: Meet the Gods

My original plan for Planitia was for it to have a campaign, maybe seven to ten chapters long, detailing how you come to the world as a god and how you defeat the (one) other, evil god to become the one true god. If any of you remember, one of my first trailers for Planitia followed this deadly serious path with rather dreadful results.

In the end, it doesn’t fit. Both Populous and Populous II had great senses of humor and a serious plotline sounds dull to work on. And indeed, having any kind of plot at all may be beyond my grasp at this point. So I’m going with something a little different.

Since there are four player colors, I’m creating four “god characters”, one for each. A campaign would still be nice, but if I can’t get that to work, just having these four personalities and having them interact with each other and the player (responding to what another does, etc), might make for a sufficiently interesting single-player experience.

I haven’t named them yet, and indeed I might not name them. But here’s what I’m thinking right now:

GREEN: Green is a hippie. Green is laid-back and tranquil. Green adores his followers and wants nothing more than a peaceful life for them. He will never initiate combat, he will only retaliate if provoked. On the other hand, he tends to stock up on mana and soldiers for that (inevitable) day when someone will try to do harm to his people. Prefers (duh) green powers, since they are mostly defensive. His speech colors are green-on-gold.

RED: Red’s just this normal guy, you know? His speech colors are red-on-black, so the other gods tend to view him as evil, but he’s not (no, really, he’s not). While not as laid-back as Green, he’s also not a warmonger. It’s just that…well, fire is pretty. I mean come on, isn’t fire pretty? Sure it is! Who here can say that fire isn’t pretty? And is it his fault that the things that seem to burn best are the other god’s villagers? Still, not a warmonger, so he only attacks unprovoked occasionally. Needless to say, prefers red fire-based powers.

BLUE: Blue lies. It’s what he does. Blue is all about gaining the upper hand through the use of dirty tricks; his favorite being to lie to the other gods to get them into a “let’s you and him fight” situation. Blue’s the worst kind of liar – he mixes his lies with enough truth to be credible, and sometimes he will actually tell the truth – but it’s always in an effort to manipulate. This is usually enough to convince most of the other gods, even though they know he’s not trustworthy. He uses all kinds of magic fairly equally in an effort to confuse the other gods about who did what. His speech colors are blue-on-white. He attacks unprovoked often, but only when he thinks he’s in an advantageous position.

YELLOW: Yellow is the crusader. Yellow doesn’t really understand the concept of “other gods”, and the concept of “other followers” infuriates him. He is single-minded in his goal and very shallow in his character. If you’re on a map with him, expect no hold to be barred and no quarter given. And the worst part is, the guy just won’t shut up. Will always attack, no matter what the situation. Prefers yellow and red powers, and is the only god that will routinely cast Armageddon (making the other gods despise him even more). His speech colors are yellow-on-purple.

So what do you think? I know yellow is kind of dull; I’m hoping some other character aspect will present itself as I go along.

More on Hero Core

I’m going to talk about Hero Core a little more. Because I wanna.

There’s a lot to like about Hero Core. It may be the most perfect one-man band game I’ve ever played (although technically it’s two men because the music was done by Brother Android). It’s a perfect study in overcoming the limits of your own abilities to produce greatness.

Can’t do great art? Design your game so that you don’t have to. Hero Core runs in 320×240 and is in black and white (not monochrome, mind you – black and white are the only two colors used). Almost everything that moves is a particle of some kind, and they are almost all made of simple geometric shapes. The actual levels are made up of square tiles – no attempt to soften or round them was made. The main character doesn’t even have any frames of animation! While the word “retro” is horribly overworked, this game literally looks like it was made in the mid- to late-Eighties for the ZX Spectrum. Practically anyone can do art at this level, and it’s effective. Contrast this with Daniel’s previous game Iji, where the art is by far the weakest part of the game because Daniel isn’t that great at drawing and animating humanoid figures.

The game’s design strikes a perfect balance between challenge and accessibility. Death has practically no sting – all that happens is get warped back to your last save point. And these save points are everywhere, fully refill your health when you use them and allow you to teleport between them. That last bit is the really brilliant part – Daniel Remar has made a Metroidvania that doesn’t have any tedious backtracking in it.

The end result is that Daniel can make the individual rooms (or a sequence of rooms) difficult without making the game frustrating, since all you have to do is make it to the next save point – or teleport elsewhere if you really think you’re not ready yet. And while it’s not quite NES hard, it gets very challenging towards the end and veers into bullet hell territory on the higher difficulties. But practically anyone can finish the game because you don’t need an impossible level of skill; you just need a moderate level of skill and some perseverance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – allow the player to trade time for skill.

So, to sum up, great design, effective art, excellent music and it didn’t take him four years this time. Bravo, Daniel. Bravo.

Elemental: War of Magic : The Boardgame : More Colons

I don’t want to turn this site into “All Stardock! All The Time!” but this was too cool not to pass on.

Brad (I’m on a first-name basis with Brad Wardell! Tee-hee!) has designed a boardgame version of Elemental: War of Magic, which five lucky beta testers are going to get to play. The entire game will be public on the forums. Here’s the starting post.

Brad Wardell

It’s been a while since I’ve done an in-depth story on a developer I admire. So let’s fix that!

Brad Wardell, as you probably know if you read this blog, is the president, founder and CEO of Stardock, a software development company that specializes in two different types of software: operating system customization software and games.

Brad’s entry into software development was almost accidental. His first serious business foray was into hardware – in 1990 he started building computers and selling them pretty much out of his house (a la Michael Dell). He called his company “Stardock Systems”. In 1992 OS/2 was released and Brad felt that he could gain a competitive advantage by preloading OS/2 onto the computers he sold. In doing so he became quite familiar with OS/2.

In 1993 he realized there could be a market for an OS/2 game. He had never programmed before, so he bought two books: Teach Yourself C in 21 Days and OS/2 Presentation Manager Programming, and using the information in just these two books, he wrote Galactic Civilizations.

As you can see, GalCiv was a bit primitive graphically. At the time, Brad only knew how to create windows and icons, so everything you see in GalCiv consists of one of these two features. But it was a critical success (and not just because it was practically the only OS/2 game at the time). It was well-designed and had some excellent AI. Now, I recall being at Origin at the time and watching GalCiv top lots of “Game of the Year” lists for 1994…a lot of us at the time couldn’t understand how Origin games had lost out to an OS/2 game that…well, looked like that.

But as good a game as it was, Brad made almost no money on it. He was ripped off by his publisher and couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight back. He learned a very valuable lesson the hard way – a lesson that almost sank Stardock.

But what the publishers couldn’t take away from him was the name Stardock on the box. While the success of GalCiv didn’t profit Brad, it did raise the profile of his company. Brad was able to profit by writing an expansion to his own game called Shipyards, which sold well enough to keep him going for a bit. IBM came to Brad hat in hand asking if Brad could create a special version of GalCiv for the IBM OS/2 game pack. Brad did, which he titled Star Emperor.

Brad had always been intrigued by the idea of customizing the OS/2 operating system, and in 1994 became convinced that an OS customization tool for OS/2 could be profitable. This lead to him teaming up with fellow OS/2 enthusiast Kurt Westerfield to release OS/2 Essentials, the software that would eventually become Object Desktop.

And Brad was also able to get the rights to the “Galactic Civilizations” name back and republish the game (with improvements) as Galactic Civilizations 2 for OS/2.

And at this point, he figured the game was over and he’d won. By twenty-four he was a millionaire and Stardock was not only selling tons of copies of OS/2 Essentials and GalCiv 2 but publishing other people’s OS/2 software as well.

And then he made his second mistake – he allowed his zealotry for OS/2 to nearly wreck his business.

IBM quietly dropped support for OS/2 in 1995, and Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0 (the one with the much more usable “Windows 95”-style interface) in 1996. Windows NT 4.0 quickly captured OS/2’s core market. There were lots of people (including some of my friends at Origin (Hi, J. Allen!)) who believed that even if IBM’s support of OS/2 was a bit spotty, the superiority of the platform plus user advocacy and support could make the platform a success.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. Soon Brad began to realize that something was wrong, but Stardock continued to release OS/2 software until 1998. This could easily have been the end of Stardock, but two things saved his company.

The first was an employee, Mike Duffy. Mike was the lead developer on Entrepreneur and decided he would write a low-level, cross-platform library that worked on both OS/2 and Windows. This enabled Stardock to finally start making the transition from OS/2 to Windows.

The second was customer loyalty. Stardock at this point had a whole bunch of customers who didn’t just buy their software – they were fans of the company. They wanted to see the company do well. So they actually bought subscriptions to Stardock’s online ObjectDesktop.Net service before it was actually ready. Because of this, while 1998 was the worst year in Stardock’s history they managed to pull through, and by 1999 they had begun to release Windows products.

By 2000 things were looking up again. Brad’s focus on desktop customization software was paying off, with WindowBlinds, ObjectDesktop and DesktopX all selling well. Stardock avoided the dot-com crash of 2001 by actually being profitable and having a business plan, and by 2002 Brad decided that the company was ready to get back into games again. The first had to be a version of the original Galactic Civilizations for Windows.

But development of GalCiv for Windows slowed when the launch of Windows XP approached. Because Windows XP had more customization features “out of the box”, Brad was concerned that people would feel they didn’t need Stardock’s customization software any longer. In fact, the exact opposite happened – Windows users who had never been exposed to desktop customization before saw it in Windows XP, experimented with it, and then turned to Stardock when they ran up against the limitations of what the built-in customization could do. Needless to say, this was a great relief for Stardock.

In 2003, Windows finally got a version of Galactic Civilizations. This edition included everything from the OS/2 versions of Galactic Civilizations, its expansions and its sequel (thus, GalCiv for Windows is equivalent to GalCiv 2 for OS/2). Plus it now looked like this!

At the same time, Stardock had been beefing up their digital content delivery system. Galactic Civilizations for Windows was available at retail and online on the same day. Retail boxes included a code that could be entered into Stardock Central, which registered the user’s copy and allowed them to download the latest version.

Stardock Central quickly expanded to allow digital delivery of any product Stardock published – and Stardock had gotten back into the business of publishing other software.

And in 2006, Stardock released Galactic Civilizations 2, and Brad briefly became the focus of the DRM debate when he stated that GalCiv 2 had no DRM and never would. This caused some criticism from DRM providers (indeed, a Starforce employee actually posted a link on their forums telling people where they could pirate GalCiv 2) but Brad’s decision does not seem to have affected GalCiv 2‘s sales, which have been excellent.

And in 2008 Stardock updated the perfectly functional but kind of hoary old Stardock Central with a flashy new version called Impulse. Impulse is quite comparable to Valve’s Steam in that it’s a system designed to allow people to buy and digitally download software from a host of different companies, but is different in that Impulse doesn’t require an internet connection simply to play games, but only when purchasing a new game or using other online features.

Brad long ago returned to millionaire status and has stayed there since. His strategy of cultivating a loyal fanbase and shipping excellent software while staying out of debt has allowed Stardock to grow into a major online presence and allowed him to overcome his missteps.

Brad has developed a rather…unique online persona. During his stint on the podcast, he effectively acted as the “comic” to host Kristin Hatcher’s “straight man”, saying and doing outrageous things simply to get her reaction.

Brad has also been at the core of several flamewars about OS customization, routinely insisting that the customer is not always right – especially when catering to certain customers would hurt his business. At one point he exclaimed in a forum post, “I’m too old and too rich for this shit.”

His political views seem to lean toward the individualist, and he has a particular hatred of taxes, seeing them as good money given to the government who will then give it to people who haven’t earned it and probably won’t deserve it.

Overall, I think Brad is a great guy who had to overcome incredible disadvantages to succeed. If I had the chance to work for Stardock I’d probably jump at it. Despite having to move to Michigan.

Inaria iPhone Update 4: Musings on Inarian Architecture

Okay! One of the reasons I haven’t been posting regular updates about Inaria iPhone is because it’s been changing SO FAST. But this was just too good to pass up.

This update is being guest-written by my friend/graphics programmer/tester, Ryan Clark. I’d tried to solve two problems at once by putting the towns directly on the overworld instead of having separate maps for them. I thought I was Clever Dan…until Ryan got a hold of the new maps. Take it away, Ryan!

Yeah, but...look, I was trying...wait, let me finish...OKAY, OKAY!  I'll fix it!