Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Square Grid vs. Hexagons

The more I play tile-based strategy games, the more enamored I am of hexagons. Both from the player perspective and the design side. Player-wise, they're awesome because they retain visual distance correctly. Some grid based games try to even up moving diagonally by making it more expensive, and some don't. Sometimes you forget which is true in a game you're playing.

From the design perspective, hexagons are awesome because there's very little work that needs to be done, data-wise, to implement hexes. In the simplest case, a simple conversion rule lets you use a normal 2d array and you just "ignore" the data points that don't fit into a hexagonal grid. Hexes make range calculations much more simple, from ranged attacks to movement to area-of-effect.

So, being that I prefer one so heavily, what's the problem? Other people, naturally. As I'm finishing up the prototype for Conquer the Castle, I'm toying with the idea of switching to hexagons when I move into the creation of the final product. But I have this anecdotally-supported idea in my head that the average player finds hexagons confusing, and prefers a square-tile grid. I'm wary of "aiming for the largest possible audience," but that doesn't mean I want to shoot myself in the foot by discounting a lot of players who might otherwise try the game.

Guess it's audience research time.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Strategy Games and Morale

For several years now, I've had the opinion in the back of my head that "serious" strategy games incorporate several mechanisms that more casual games do away with. Morale is one of the primary ones. When the various dudes who do your fighting in these games value their own e-lives, it vastly complicates things.

When it comes to games, I prefer things on the complicated side. Games like Starcraft or Supreme Commander (or just about any other popular strategy game) allow you to treat your units as disposable cannon fodder. The continued existence of any single unit counts for practically nothing in the grand scheme of things, greatly simplifying the playing experience (this also allows the games to play faster, which is a benefit).

I identify two general approaches to making an individual unit's "life" matter more: Unit-side and Player-side. The latter is about making the Player care about that unit's ability to live or die. This usually involves mechanisms like gaining experience (and thus combat effectiveness) over time, but can be as simple as giving units individual names. Even when they differ only cosmetically from the rest of their ilk, this allows the player to invest some sort of emotion  in them (but only works on players so inclined to do so).

On the other hand, you can make the unit care about it's OWN life: thus, morale. I think this has historically been one of the mechanisms designers are quickest to ditch. By necessity it implies developing some kind of AI for those instances in which morale "breaks" and the unit no longer obeys the players actions, but rather starts behaving according to some other directive (usually being, "run away!"). This can not only be frustrating for a player (it lessens their control over the game, always a risky thing especially with more casual players) but time-consuming for the developer to implement effectively. If a routing unit doesn't behave at least somewhat intelligently, it only aggravates the player further.

In my current project I'm developing the morale system right now. The actual numerical book-keeping is relatively easy, though there are quite a few factors to consider (should the unit gain morale by killing enemies?). The hard part is fleshing out the behavior a unit takes when it's morale is broken and it routes. Currently, I'm aiming to satisfy a simple three-step decision process:

1. If enemies are nearby, retreat along the path which will put maximum distance between you and them.
2. If no enemies are nearby, retreat towards the nearest board edge.
3. If multiple board edges are nearby, bias towards the one near your player's start zone.

So, first a unit runs away from the enemy. After that, it tries to get off the map, preferring to get off the map near where it started (retreating back the way it came). But how far away will it look for enemies? What if a unit breaks near to the enemy start zone and there is a clear path off that edge, but some enemies are somewhat nearby? Generally speaking, units fleeing in panic should behave "intelligently" for a given small set of information, but planning far ahead isn't a requirement.

This is one of those situations where you design with a few simple rules and hope that the emergent behavior seems to make sense...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Expanding Subjects and Switching Gears

Well, the stories that are become Echoes And Memories have all passed the initial draft phase. Now I send them off to beta readers for outside opinions while simultaneously working on something else so I get some mental distance, all the better for whipping them into shape for final publication this summer. (*Note to self: work on the book blurbs BEFORE the day of publication!)

However, I'm switching to work primarily on something not writing or publishing related. As I mention every now and again I do a lot of hobbyist game design, and much as with my writing I'm hoping that will eventually turn into a professional pursuit. This next month will be occupied with finishing up a prototype of a game I've been creating for a few months.

In that light, I'm officially making this blog a Writing/Publishing blog as well as a Game Design/Creation blog. I imagine there is enough overlap in the fandom that I won't annoy my handful of readers too much, and it beats having to start up a whole other blog that no one reads. I can always split them up later if need be.

So, expect my rants, rambles, and raves for at least the next month to be on game topics!

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Myth of Talent

There was a thread over on Mythic Scribes recently (can't find it to link just at the moment, sadly) which once again got me thinking about talent. I used to be a believer in the concept - there just seemed to be things which came so naturally to me, and which others seemed unable to grasp well on a very basic level. Naturally, the opposite was true in certain fields. So I believed that each person has within them some few "talents" or natural dispositions that were inborn and unalterable. They'd always have advantages in certain tasks, and disadvantages in others.

I guess you could say I still believe in talent, though I no longer believe in talent as a single phenomenon. Rather, I see talent now as something of a derived composite of certain other characteristics. These may be truly basic, some the result of nature and others of nurture, and they are probably most likely to change early in life - our formative years, but they are by no means static after that.

Puncturing the myth of talent is important, I think, because of how often I see people say "well, I'm just good at X activity. It's not something I can teach." To which I think "Bullshit. Damn near everything can be taught." And learning what truly lies at the root of our talents can help us develop them even further.

That's not to say that teaching it will be easy. When I think of writing talent I always consider empathy as its predominant component. It seems to me (though I am ready to be argued with) that the ability to understand and share a wide range of emotions - even to be able to experience them at will - is the most important tool for an artist. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that the primary purpose of the arts is in growing human empathy, the better for helping us all be a little less of an asshole to each other from time to time.

But I digress.

The point is, empathy can be taught. Likewise for any other of talent's components - for writing or for any activity (because the components  of talent change as the task does, of course). Dramatic and comedic timing, for instance. Hard to teach, but possible.

That part - hard to teach - is the real reason why people like to think of talent as some insurmountable static trait. It's just easier to think "they've got it, I don't." We like to do what we're already good at, after all. There aren't a whole lot of people in the world prepared to put in the work required to learn talent.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Sigma of the Stigma

I've been catching up on some writerly-world blogs lately, including Dean Wesley Smith's. I just finished his sum-up of the year 2013 in publishing. Plenty of good thoughts and observations in there, as is expected from this particular industry vet. If you haven't yet, definitely peruse his and his wife's blogs: they have lots of info for aspiring authors of all stripes.

A few of the comment's to the post I was reading sparked my memory of a topic I'd wanted to revisit for some time now. The stigma of self-publishing: how it continues to affect reader perceptions and how it is changing. Especially in the area of copyediting.

I can say without a doubt that two out of the last four traditionally-published books I've read recently had a higher rate of typos and other proofing errors than my own offered books. I've been hearing more and more from non-writers who are beginning to notice this downward trend in quality from the major houses.

Yet, in most reviews I see of trad-published books, such a thing as a typo is never mentioned, whereas in reviews of indie-published books they are mentioned with a high frequency even when it is to say "I didn't find many."

In many ways, the stigma of the self-publisher is dying. People rarely bat an eye anymore when I say I'm self-published as opposed to traditionally published. The world of the serious indie publisher is becoming more refined and polished, with business and production practices trending to a standard much closer to the major houses. In a lot of cases (including, I hope, my own) you cannot tell the product of one from the other.

Except, it seems, in the case of editing, in which self-publishers are taking the lead in quality. Because we have to. When a reader stumbles across an error in a book they know is self-published, it becomes a major event. That still-present stain is seen more clearly; the book feels soiled in their hands. It becomes a confirmation of the "not-quite-there-yet" status of the indie crowd.

But the same reader takes no similar notice of errors in traditionally-published books, even when present at a higher rate. With indie published work, the reader is on the lookout for that confirmation of a second-tier status they still believe in. Thus to be taken seriously, self-publishers don't have to be "as good as" a traditionally published work.

They need to be better.

I Made a Top Five List! and other things

I managed to rate a mention over at the Fantasy Review Barn with their 5 Self-Published Gems of 2013 list. Yay for the Wandering Tale!

There should be more of the Wandering Tale published next year as well - I'm hoping to finish at least two additional novellas, and one of those will be continuing the saga of the malevolent blade, Peace.

On the immediate writing plate I have a story I'm writing for a contest submission (alternate history) as well as the ongoing effort to gather enough SciFi shorts for the anthology I mentioned in the last post. Following that, I intend to make it a priority to get the first Wandering Tale collection and Twixt Heaven and Hell out in paperback. I've been dragging my feet on those for too long.

Speaking of the Science Fiction anthology, if you happen to know of any good scifi artists, please put me in contact with them! Browsing DeviantArt is fun, but a lot of those guys are hard to get a hold of...

Friday, December 20, 2013

Back From Another Blogging Sabbatical

Forced sabbatical, really. Another semester down, and finally the degree is within reach. That should be the last time I can accuse school of pulling me away from other things. I'll need to find different excuses in the future.

Fortunately, despite not blogging over the last few months, I was still doing plenty of writing. 13th Night is not complete - I and the professor decided to amend our goals to three completed acts rather than an entire five-act play, which turned out to be a bit too ambitious given both of our schedules. So, yes, I have about half of a play. It needs a lot of work, but it was definitely cool to be able to get credit for a creative project. I wish I'd clued in to the possibilities of Independent Studies ages ago.

I've also completed a couple of short stories and made beginnings to several more, in anticipation of publishing the SciFi shorts anthology sometime next year. I still don't have quite enough finished material to round out the entire anthology in the theme that I originally intended. I may decide to loosen up the theme itself, or simply work on writing more stories that belong within it.

Consciously attempting to think up stories that conform to a certain theme, or feeling, is an interesting experience. I've never lacked for a pile of story ideas to start my next project with, even after discarding many as simplistic, unworkable, or more fit to include as subthreads within another story (a planned fantasy series of mine has absorbed a lot of stories into itself over the years). Now I find myself actively trying to create concepts that revolve around this unifying idea, and it is... more difficult than I expected. A lot of the ideas end up being too similar, derivative. I'm okay with a certain amount of subject bleed - there's no harm in revisiting topics more than once, so long as each story stands on its own feet. Too much repetition, though, will just harm the entire group.

So, can't really say when the anthology will be published. Once I have most of the stories written I'll start putting them out individually to some beta readers, and then I'll start thinking about getting feedback on story order and other formatting issues. I'm already thinking about the book cover - artwork always weighs heavily on my mind as it's the one part of a publication where I'm not much use.