Solar Trader Goals

Just to be clear, it’s not a promise, nor commitment, nor anything like that – BUT I do have a goal, or perhaps a target of getting a version of Solar Trade solid enough for the next Beta release by year end.

This means Robert has to finish coding his mini games, I have to code space encounters, and we both have to get some test & play test time on the game.

And yes, my public posting of this is part of my kick myself in the tail to get it done.

Check back here on January 1 and see how we did.

Solar Trader – Another development update

Just to keep folks here in the loop – we (by which I mean Robert) has been coding like mad.

Remember the comment in the last update about the bomb? Well rather than a behind the scenes roll and an announced outcome, there will now be a new mini game to give you a chance to defuse the bomb. Are you going to cut the green wire or red? Cut the correct wire and the bomb is defused. Cut the wrong one and boom!!!

Once that mini game was created, gambling seemed too pale, so another mini game “Spacejack” was added. It’s a simpler version of blackjack – but watch out for cheats. Actually if you are daring, you can try cheating too – but folks get upset if they catch you.

Having created a mini game for gambling, a bunch of new gambling encounters were added to the tables to allow for different skill level opponents. In an entirely luck / odds driven game why worry about skill? Because that’s how good folks are at cheating and detecting cheating.

Finally, if we have these mini games, perhaps combat encounters should get more interesting too. Another mini game? Probably. Keep watching this space to see more.

Solar Trader – Development update

I originally posted this as a comment on the Solar Trader page, but it occurred to me this is worthy of an actual official blog post.

Despite my delays in completing my code, Robert hung in there and recently we made a couple huge steps forward.  Since the first Alpha version we posted a year ago, here are some of the very cool things added.

1. Encounters have been dramatically enhanced – requiring a refactoring of that code.
2. Encounter refactoring has been completed
3. Additional encounters have now been added – since they are now much easier to add.
4. Background music added
5. Indicator lights
6. Added shipboard rats, cats, fires, cigarette smoking,  on ships, as well as cats
7. Updated generate location code (better placement of space encounters)
8. Assorted bug fixes

Next steps:
1. Update / Clean up space encounters with new encounter coding approach
2. Test, Test, Test – make sure version is stable.
3. Keep adding additional encounters / items / etc. as we think of more clever things to play with.
4. Include bombs (MaoCorp agents may attach a bomb to your ship if you pose a big threat to them) with its own mini-game.
5. Release next Alpha copy here for folks to do more play testing.

Sick and tired

I just loaded the game “DarkStar One” onto my computer and I’m already burned out.

What is it about space games these days?

At least Solar Trader (still “under development”, meaning Jesse hasn’t returned the code yet) has some nice subset games. There is the interest in navigating a clean path to a moving planet, sometimes a hundred squares away. And of dealing with a dozen resource vectors, all to keep the ship running. And then you have the cities where time and minesweeper-skills comes into play. It’s really a nice little game, probably one of my best, and I’m looking forward to wrapping it up.

But things like FreeSpace, Elite and DarkStar, its all the same. Get a ship. Put weapons on it. Move cargo from place to place. Take side missions. Blow up ships. Repeat. Repeat.

This got me to thinking of what I’d really like to see in a game. First off, Solar has a nice encounter table that really taught me things about Excel encounter tables – like they should be big and modifiable. Once you get the basics going, you should be able to add new stuff pretty easily (with minimal supporting code). This should also be true of planets as well.

See, I think the idea of “a man with a ship” is so overdone, it makes me fall asleep just thinking about it. For our dream game, say you aren’t really a spacer. You don’t own a ship, you never will. Simply put, you need to buy a ticket wherever you are going. Perhaps it will be aboard a liner. Or maybe just some planet hopping rust bucket. But if you want to go somewhere, you’ll enter someone else’s ship and face whatever it may bring.

And people. The game should have characters that are generated and placed around the universe, people you can interact with, who can take the role of NPCs. These would be friends and enemies, perhaps a whore or a bureaucrat or a sweet-shack owner, or a captain or a mercenary recruiter. Like encounters, these figures should have all sorts of traits that give your universe life. Imagine hundreds of them across your generated universe, all doing their little things.

And cities. Solar Trader had them pretty good, that each planet has a different city feel to it. That’s what I’d like to see in this imaginary new game, where a huge settled planet would have a sprawling city with all sorts of districts but a fuel depot might only have a couple of windblown shacks and a couple of shops. Encounters should be tied to the sort of place it is (i.e. executives shouldn’t be strolling down the street of some Palukaville and prostitutes shouldn’t be working below the walls of NeoVatican). This goes back to those huge encounter tables. Everything needs to drive off a table, with as little coding as possible.

I’ve got a bunch of other ideas – sprawling encounters that encompass worlds, like interplanetary wars and economic crashes and all that. It would be interesting, even if you just set it in motion and let it run. Allow a thousand years to tick past, then generate a character and step in. Who knows? Maybe our next game…?

Memory Lane –After the Fall

After Deathrace, I decided to go back to just writing games for myself and selling what sold and playing what didn’t. Defeatist, maybe, but you’ll go crazy otherwise.

Years ago I’d played this load-from-tape game called Hammurabi. It was the old play of the Malthusian equation where population grows faster than food production. For mine, I envisioned a hot seat multiplayer game. The time frame was the just after some cataclysmic disaster to some nearby city. Each player represented a farming community just off this target zone. Instead of just people, you had Lieutenants, Warriors, Farmers, Techs, and Drones (i.e. middle manager sorts with no real skills). There were four seasons and some basic rules – you planted in spring (one farmer could farm eight or so plots), you maintained in summer (a farmer could maintain twice as many plots) and then the fall harvest (again, eight plots). Winter was pretty cold so everyone hunkered in and maybe hunted some. This meant you had a campaign season in the summer, a natural occurrence in medieval times.

The game was a lot of fun. Un-winnable, but fun. You got points for the number of people you had times their morale level, added to your grand score each season. So the idea was to live as long as you could, as happy as you could.

If you’d lived under a dome, this might have worked. However, something always went wrong. Someone would raid you or you’d have a bummer harvest or something. And then people would start starving. Inevitably, you’d find yourself in the end-game state: three warriors living in a ruined hut, hunting nonstop to stay alive. But man, it was a lot of fun. We’d laugh about it for hours.

This game had our first occurrence of “God Variables”, which are hidden computer variables that you only learn as you play and which are reset each game. This means the game will not play exactly the way it did before. Maybe in one game, farmers can farm a lot more fields. Maybe in others, warriors aren’t really that much better in combat. You just didn’t know until you played. It worked pretty well. We used it all over the place in Solar Trader.

We never did get the tech angle worked out – it just didn’t feel right. And it never went anywhere: we just played it a lot and then Jesse went off to college in Atlanta and that was that. But still, we’ve been talking about another game, a true multiplayer. And this might be our next project…

Memory Lane – DeathRace

Now that money was flowing in and I was learning coding methodologies at University of Central Florida (who knew about linear coding – I was so sloppy, I still blush at the mess Eagles was internally), I decided to write another game for SSI, this one from an old board game I’d done a decade earlier through our startup Setheral Simulations. DeathRace was a pretty neat car game. My hope was to combine the clean driving system of Grand Prix with a combat system with a lot of dice. Never got the driving part to work very well, but blasting someone in the trunk with a shotgun was a very satisfying sensation.

I got that game running in its most basic form and was just getting sound effects into it when I sent it to SSI. Sadly they were not interested. I’ll give them that the game probably needed a lot better graphics (I was up to my font tricks again, but I really couldn’t get the sounds to come across well). But the other reason they gave was that the same gaming house that stole our cute little board game idea (after stripping off the good points and introducing crap) also were now producing a computer version of it. So my copyright-violated board game was now being snuffed as a computer game by the same people? What a sad irony.

And you know what? A year later I finally did manage to pick up their game and give it a play on the Atari. And it sucked. It really did. I wouldn’t have minded so much if my hopes had been crushed by a product of merit. But no, this was just a crummy arcade game that didn’t work very well.

Memory Lane – Eagles

So this was the big one. I was working in a Miami lumber yard, I didn’t know anyone. I was pretty much on my own. I needed a playmate. Then one day, while sorting the board stacks, I came up with a neat World War One flying idea.

Planes could have a percentage chance to turn 90 degrees (else they went straight and THEN turned in their next move). Diving increased their chances, climbing decreased it. Same thing for speed – each plane might go one or two squares, based on their speed percentage. Simple yet elegant. I wrote it using a series of fonts to animate the plane movements and, on a lark, sent it to Strategic Simulations Inc, the powerhouse of computer military simulations.

And they bought it.

This was one of the headiest things that ever happened to me. To see my game in magazines and in shops. To get big royalty checks (I took my entire evening computer science class out to pizza). It was really, really cool. Fame is a very intoxicating drug.

I still have the game on the shelf, and the original art hanging in my kitchen. Every now and then I look at it and think, you know, it wouldn’t be any trouble at all to write this grid-based game in Excel, to duplicate what I’d done and advance it further (how about hundreds of planes on various patrols, allowing you to play at a tactical AND strategic level?).

Yes, someday.

Memory Lane – Game aids for StarWars, Top Secret, Maatac

At this point in my life, I started looking at the computer from its tool perspective rather than its game-creation angle. For one thing, I was doing a lot of DMing for my StarWars universe (hosting at least two games a week at VPI).

Here, the computer came in very handy. First off, back then there was very little home word processing – for college papers, I’d hand-write them and then take them to a secretary pool to get them typed up. For games, all the tables that people needed turned into over-Xeroxed messes covered with hit-point notes and pizza stains. Suddenly, with the word processing cartridge in my Atari, I could actually type in these charts and print out a bunch for my players! Revolutionary!

Also, more importantly, I wrote a program to handle a lot of the heavy table-trashing that combat took up. Now, when resolving roleplaying combat, I could run down a form (while off-handedly describing the action) and tell people what they needed to roll to hit (call it legacy, but the players still wanted to roll their own dice to hit – having the computer do it nearly raised a revolt!). And, in tuning the gameplay, I actually remembering writing a program to shoot 10,000 stormtroopers 10,000 times to get the percentages of deaths, knockouts and still-standings. It took the Atari about a minute to clump through the run.

There were other play aids developed. Besides the Role Playing game Top Secret, I also coding it the laborious combat tables for Maatac, the futuristic tank-to-tank miniature game. Now, instead of looking up every weapon system, one at a time, for each tank’s barrage, the player would just call out “Two heavies, range twenty one, armor C” to the person manning the keyboard. Somehow, using a computer to resolve a simulated computer’s combat efforts seemed more nature than our early attempts to fully automate StarWars. Nobody protested.

It was truly a labor-saving device.

Memory Lane – Estates of Seth

Now this one I do remember. Following the dismal ???? of Seth (discussed in last week’s blog) I approached my next game more methodically. I wanted to do a full rewrite of the Pits engine. No more of the round-robin combat – now you’d actually have locations to worry about. I think we also put minor magic into the game, so there were wizards and archery, too. Now everything was done on a grid, with ranges and blocking squares and all that.

The Estates were outside of town, a ruin of a mansion with walls around it, fallen- down, roofless rooms inside and a level of vaults below. You could actually walk wherever you wanted, even leaving the party (those slugs!) and go wherever you pleased. And wandering monsters actually wandered, occasionally leaving their lairs to bump around the halls for a bit before returning. Oh, there was even an “outside” town-to-estates-and-back game, automatically linking the first Pits game to the second. And, oh, the things we could do with fonts. I even had the writing in an olde-englishe font.

It was an okay game – we played it on and off for a bit. I think most of us were transitioning in our lives – I was leaving home to go to Tech and my brother and his friends were budding out of the larval stage and becoming something resembling pre-formed humans. It was a good game, probably better designed and written than the other two, but for some reason just not as much fun as the original. And that’s the thing about game design. You might think that you’ve made great strides over your former games but when it’s all said and done, it’s just, well, meh.

Memory Lane – ???? of Seth

Over fifty-five years of living, there are (frankly) people I have forgotten. I am certain there are friends (girlfriends and otherwise) who I no longer recall. I’ve lived in a lot of places and knew a lot of people, so there it is.

But it’s incredible for me to think that I made a game that I don’t remember. Vaguely, I remember coding something in after Pits, to take advantage of the new speeds (and space limitations) of DOS (Disk Operating System on the Atari). And the use of the font-modification software we’d gotten from a magazine. And there were other things I wanted to add, better ways of playing. But I don’t remember what they were.

I think, in a misty way, that this game was actually the “journey from the town to the Pit” game, where you had to cast around a random land looking for the dungeon entrance. I think I wrote that to fill out more of the Seth universe. Players would leave the city, travel across the land, and then when they got to the site they could enter (and get a full listing of the party so they could retype them in when they started Pits. Sounds like a kludgy way of doing it, but we were men back then).  I’ve actually rewritten this paragraph as more random memories come to me from so far away.

So I spent three months or so writing a game that we hardly ever used. I think the whole “play one game just to play another” turned out to be a drag, especially when you got there and got slagged in the first room, and had to exit the game and then retype everything in for the journey home.

So there you go. Like cities in fallen empires, this game has been forgotten by everyone, including the designer.