Game Design Software: When a Dungeon Is not Enough

The Perils of Game Design Software

 
I haven't honestly been playing many games at all lately, other than ASCII Sector. My focus has been more about creating games, and for someone whose coding experience sorta stopped after BASIC and PASCAL, there's a wide gap to cross.  It helps when coders out there are nice enough to give creatives the tools they need to make something, but it's rare to find a game-creation program that fulfills these simple criteria:
 
1. It has to be complex enough to create reasonably varied products  (if it's too limited, it's at best a novelty product and not a legitimate game-creation program)
 
2. It has to be simple enough that the silly redundancies and counter-intuitiveness of coding is in the background, not forced on the game creator
 
3. It has to be either complete or well-supported  (either including full, well-written documentation)
 
As those of you who checked out the Ultima Underworld links I provided may have noticed, the number 3 requirement is the one that's the most important.  As with many fan projects, ambition usually far exceeds the ability to produce more than a few supposed screenshots.  When it comes to a toolset that can be used by others to create their own content, you may lose a bit of the shine of a finished project, but you also spend a lot more time in documentation and problem solving, because while you won't necessarily worry about people "playing" a piece of software, you still have to design it in a way that allows for people who don't think like you a chance not to crash, freeze, or ruin what they're working on because they pushed buttons in a different order than you would have done.
 
Often it's the coder's attitude toward the user that makes or breaks a piece of game-construction software. I've seen many great projects that were nonetheless all but impossible to use, and they often lacked the sorts of introductory paragraphs you'd expect to be an industry standard by now, telling you WHAT THE PRODUCT DOES and where to look to figure out how to use it.  It comes across as arrogant when a FAQ or instruction guide doesn't allow those who aren't already coders the chance to at least bridge the gap and come to some understanding about the software's inner workings. 
 
Languages like Inform 7 do a great job bridging the gap, but often the lack of dynamic graphics in such powerful programs mean your exposure will be niche at best, while adventure creation games seem to make assumptions about the type of game you want to create, and doing anything more advanced means spending a lot more time bending the rules in the guts of the code. There are still others that I don't know the links to that seem much more versatile, but I honestly haven't dug too deep into them, so I won't bother to find them until I can report more accurately on their level of flexibility.
 
As far as maze-exploring, monster slaying games, there are still iterations of the old Bard's Tale Construction Set out there, but from what I've been able to read it's quite limited in its scope.  
 
All that said, I recently came across a modern implementation of an old product that, while incomplete as of the time of this writing, still seems to have decent support. It remains to be seen if the product will reach a reasonably complete state, but what's there so far seems to be what I've been looking for.
   

From Unlimited Adventures to Dungeon Craft


Back in 1993, SSI, the publisher of TSR's computer game versions of its role-playing games, made Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures, a construction kit that let you assemble dungeons and create adventures along the lines of the popular Gold Box line of games.
It pleases me when I read that people are STILL making adventures for the thing after all this time, although when I read that the engine is terribly limited in its ability to actually CHANGE basic game rules, I lose interest.  As much as it might be interesting for some to tell a tale of elves and dwarves and wizards, my instinct is to at the very least subvert expectations, and at most change things completely. I'm much more likely to create something closer to Buck Rogers or Dark Sun than to try to emulate the constant retread that people come to expect when you hear the word "fantasy."
 
I wasn't willing to give up on the engine just yet, because my need to make a dungeon crawl exceeded my jadedness.  That's when I came across Dungeon Craft. DC is basically FR:UA re-skinned and expanded. The old games work with it, but the new games will add a level of customization that the old game could not manage. It's not complete: one of the creators tells me in email that the current games people make, while they will be compatible with the in-house tested 1.0 coming soon, don't have monster resistances and spell use working yet. I also suspect there are a few other issues, but I haven't yet made anything so I can't be sure yet.
 
What I do know is that the thing has crazy levels of customization, down to changing the rules for individual spells. I would prefer to have something that, say, made it so you could have skills instead, or allowed you to change fundamental assumptions that go along with the Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules, but it seems like a powerful way to build an interesting maze, puzzle, and monster game. There are definitely things I wish would adhere to Rule 2, namely its fiddly need to have certain things defined before you start building, including reminding it that you want walls that are visible on both sides as default. I'm pretty sure, though, that I can simple re-skin "magic" items to be modern or futuristic items, so I see no problems there.
 
Now the question is, do I have the ambition to actually make this happen?
12 Comments
12 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

The Perils of Game Design Software

 
I haven't honestly been playing many games at all lately, other than ASCII Sector. My focus has been more about creating games, and for someone whose coding experience sorta stopped after BASIC and PASCAL, there's a wide gap to cross.  It helps when coders out there are nice enough to give creatives the tools they need to make something, but it's rare to find a game-creation program that fulfills these simple criteria:
 
1. It has to be complex enough to create reasonably varied products  (if it's too limited, it's at best a novelty product and not a legitimate game-creation program)
 
2. It has to be simple enough that the silly redundancies and counter-intuitiveness of coding is in the background, not forced on the game creator
 
3. It has to be either complete or well-supported  (either including full, well-written documentation)
 
As those of you who checked out the Ultima Underworld links I provided may have noticed, the number 3 requirement is the one that's the most important.  As with many fan projects, ambition usually far exceeds the ability to produce more than a few supposed screenshots.  When it comes to a toolset that can be used by others to create their own content, you may lose a bit of the shine of a finished project, but you also spend a lot more time in documentation and problem solving, because while you won't necessarily worry about people "playing" a piece of software, you still have to design it in a way that allows for people who don't think like you a chance not to crash, freeze, or ruin what they're working on because they pushed buttons in a different order than you would have done.
 
Often it's the coder's attitude toward the user that makes or breaks a piece of game-construction software. I've seen many great projects that were nonetheless all but impossible to use, and they often lacked the sorts of introductory paragraphs you'd expect to be an industry standard by now, telling you WHAT THE PRODUCT DOES and where to look to figure out how to use it.  It comes across as arrogant when a FAQ or instruction guide doesn't allow those who aren't already coders the chance to at least bridge the gap and come to some understanding about the software's inner workings. 
 
Languages like Inform 7 do a great job bridging the gap, but often the lack of dynamic graphics in such powerful programs mean your exposure will be niche at best, while adventure creation games seem to make assumptions about the type of game you want to create, and doing anything more advanced means spending a lot more time bending the rules in the guts of the code. There are still others that I don't know the links to that seem much more versatile, but I honestly haven't dug too deep into them, so I won't bother to find them until I can report more accurately on their level of flexibility.
 
As far as maze-exploring, monster slaying games, there are still iterations of the old Bard's Tale Construction Set out there, but from what I've been able to read it's quite limited in its scope.  
 
All that said, I recently came across a modern implementation of an old product that, while incomplete as of the time of this writing, still seems to have decent support. It remains to be seen if the product will reach a reasonably complete state, but what's there so far seems to be what I've been looking for.
   

From Unlimited Adventures to Dungeon Craft


Back in 1993, SSI, the publisher of TSR's computer game versions of its role-playing games, made Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures, a construction kit that let you assemble dungeons and create adventures along the lines of the popular Gold Box line of games.
It pleases me when I read that people are STILL making adventures for the thing after all this time, although when I read that the engine is terribly limited in its ability to actually CHANGE basic game rules, I lose interest.  As much as it might be interesting for some to tell a tale of elves and dwarves and wizards, my instinct is to at the very least subvert expectations, and at most change things completely. I'm much more likely to create something closer to Buck Rogers or Dark Sun than to try to emulate the constant retread that people come to expect when you hear the word "fantasy."
 
I wasn't willing to give up on the engine just yet, because my need to make a dungeon crawl exceeded my jadedness.  That's when I came across Dungeon Craft. DC is basically FR:UA re-skinned and expanded. The old games work with it, but the new games will add a level of customization that the old game could not manage. It's not complete: one of the creators tells me in email that the current games people make, while they will be compatible with the in-house tested 1.0 coming soon, don't have monster resistances and spell use working yet. I also suspect there are a few other issues, but I haven't yet made anything so I can't be sure yet.
 
What I do know is that the thing has crazy levels of customization, down to changing the rules for individual spells. I would prefer to have something that, say, made it so you could have skills instead, or allowed you to change fundamental assumptions that go along with the Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules, but it seems like a powerful way to build an interesting maze, puzzle, and monster game. There are definitely things I wish would adhere to Rule 2, namely its fiddly need to have certain things defined before you start building, including reminding it that you want walls that are visible on both sides as default. I'm pretty sure, though, that I can simple re-skin "magic" items to be modern or futuristic items, so I see no problems there.
 
Now the question is, do I have the ambition to actually make this happen?
Posted by Jeust

Good blog. I know a lot of programming languages, and thought about it... but i won't do it as there doesn't exist any support for indie games where i live.  
 
But if you need any help, i'll try to give you a hand.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

This kind of software always fascinates me, from stuff like Little Big Planet to the Neverwinter Nights editor, not only in the variety of what people can make, but also the scale. However, I also know that I am incapable of doing any of that stuff myself (having found that out the hard way when trying to do a D&D group around 4 years ago and that failing because of apathy on both sides of the DM screen), so as such I am very much an observer to this kind of thing and not a participant.
 
In any case, if you do ever make a game with that fairly impressive looking Dungeon Craft, you will be assured that I would check it out.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Jeust:  I appreciate the offer, Jeust.  I'll bear it in mind if I ever get anywhere. 
 
@ArbitraryWater: What I like is when people use an engine in such a transformative way that it expands the possibilities of the software. 
 
As far as pen and paper, though, it has a lot to do with the group you're with, and how much energy you put into it. I've played a bunch of pnp games over the years, though not nearly as much as most of the people I know.  It's pretty much limited by your imagination cross-referenced against the others' willingness to go along with your ideas (which is a serious limiting factor, believe me, but sometimes it actually does the opposite and sparks creativity, in addition to keeping you grounded).
 
If I ever made something like this, or any game-related thing really, I'd definitely post it here.  What I'd expect from you, though, is honest criticism :)
Posted by mosdl

For me (a programmer) its always been creating graphics that gets in the way.  I even started writing an adventure game engine in JavaScript (using game assets from Indy 4) a few years back but browser support for working with graphics wasn't ready yet back then.

Posted by Driadon

Cool, I hadn't heard of Unlimited Adventures before. I might snag that to use for some planning for a future pnp game I'm going to run. 
As for game creation; I have, largely, a coders brain that has a desire for design. As such I've picked up on a lot of scripting like ActionScript 3, JavaScript, PHP and some very basic C# and plan to keep going with my learning using the UDK and UnrealScript. I'm hoping by the end of it all to either end up with a decent portfolio to jump into the industry as a Technical Designer or end up an indie developer. 

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@mosdl:  Whenever I think about programming, it's the graphics that really bug me. It's basically the number one reason why I require software help. I'm pretty sure over time I could learn how to program in a simple high-level language and do a decent job of it, but I'd be doing a text game.  Graphics sort of ruin that, and the more requirements the average person has (it must be 3D, it must be etc etc) means that all my decent enough ideas have to held in check by how they can be represented to please the tastes of the time. Not that I've ever gotten very far, but I like to think that if I did make something, it wouldn't be limited by how much it compares to one of those massive FPSs (I still think most ragdoll physics look downright silly).  
 
The graphics creep really does limit good ideas for actual developers, though. You've noticed how a developer will work on something for like, a year, and then they either have to release what is considered to be a substandard engine, or go back to the drawing board and do the game in a new engine. Not very fair to the ideas behind it. That's why pixel art and so called retro graphics manage to bypass this by admitting their faults up front. They don't have to be quite as blocky, but if they're iconic enough they can get across what they need to.  Realism can be a separate pursuit, of course, but I think gaming is bigger than that.  
 
You ever get far with the JS game?  Any other projects you've been working on?
 
@Driadon: Cool, sounds like you're set. For pnp there are probably much better options for planning games (there's some freeware out there too, I think, that lets you build and print out mazes. One that even lets you do random, fractal-generated terrain that looks like a real map), but  you could use it as a supplement to distribute to players, so they could further explore stuff?  It's 2nd E, and has those first-person dungeons with combat that's a 3/4 perspective, turn-based tactical perspective.  Not sure how customizable it is, and the old Unlimited Adventures is actually pretty limited by the memory requirements of older machines; Dungeon Craft is trying to eliminate those limits on variables, among other things, but like I said it's still incomplete.
 
What pnp you play, good old DnD? 
Posted by Driadon
@ahoodedfigure: Oh I'm sure there's some better tools, I might use it more in the way of pacing encounters within mazes; more of a "Hey, I have this idea for a dungeon...I wonder how it'd work difficulty-wise?". I'll be sure to check out Dungeon Craft as well, see how that goes.
Currently our group is playing a couple different campaigns of 3.5 rules D&D, but we're also going to get into some of the more abstract stuff like CthulhuTech. 
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Driadon:  CthulhuTech has some nifty artwork. I have to admit I'm a bit worn out on d20 myself, have been for quite a while. 
 
Just be aware, as I said in the article, that Dungeon Craft, while advanced, still doesn't have everything working quite yet.
Posted by RagingLion

Interesting to read about some of the game creation software out there, since my own brain is ticking along about game creation a fair amount now.  I can't immediately see any of the stuff you mention being directly relevant to me since mere dungeon crawling fails to inspire me and these tools seem fairly limited by sticking fairly closely to their genre - it's good to know about in case I ever get an idea that could be encompassed by something like this.
 
I want to be able to create the meat of the game as quickly and easily as possible, so for now modding is the standout way and Source is what I'm looking at for the game idea I'm working on.
 
As for whether you have the ambition to go for something yourself my thoughts would be to be honest with yourself about the time such a project would take you and assess whether you can stomach the span of time it would take to implement and check whether your idea seems worthy of that investment, at least to you personally.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@RagingLion:  I originally intended to discuss a few of the more general game-making programs I've seen, but I'd mislaid them (and since found them, and possibly mislaid them again). I intend to write about a few of the more general things next time I have the energy.
 
As for stomaching all the work that a project takes, I can.  It's more that I have to wonder whether or not I'll reach a midpoint and find that the toolset I have will not allow me to go further.  It's why I tend to write and design more than implement, and why I'm searching for a proper toolbox, so all that effort doesn't turn into a training exercise in lieu of actual results.
Posted by ahoodedfigure

I don't know why I didn't mention this before, but ASCII sector itself has an editor where you can make sets of missions.  It's actually pretty strong, but doesn't have all the features that would let you completely replicate conditions found in the game yet.
 
It's also...  well, I guess I stopped coding around the time this sort of coding started to gain in acceptance, but I guess I like to have discrete command lines.  Having to indent and put a bunch of characters on each line that means I have to hit alt keys is fucking...  yes.... fucking taxing.  Even to look at.  Makes me wish I could just hand-write the stuff, or draw a diagram and feed it into the computer.  Garg.