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?
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