Archive for October, 2014

"Fu Man Chu's Vampire" is now available through Kindle Unlimited

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may actually be frowning at this headline. Why? Well, for one thing, because I have been a very outspoken opponent of Kindle Select in the past. In many ways I still am, %%% % % % but for a number of reasons I have decided to give it a try with one of my books. When you have one book that you wrote, it is a very dangerous thing to put all your eggs in one basket, but when you have fifteen books available for sale, like I do, the risk to use one of them as a test balloon is mitigated. So, I decided to give Kindle Select a try with my Jason Dark supernatural mystery “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire.” It is the eleventh installment in the series, and to date, the last one. It is, in my opinion, one of the best books in the series with the strongest writing—and yet, it sold noticeably less copies than the previous books in the series.

That was, in fact, one of the main reasons why I decided to give Kindle Select a try. My sales on channels other than Amazon were virtually nil, particularly for this book, so it is the perfect candidate to see if the much-hyped Kindle Select program, and its opportunity to give your book away for free for a limited period of time is really part of the secret recipe to kickstart book sales. The logic escapes me somehow, but hey, who am I to argue…yet? I’ll try and see.

Yet another why I decided to give it a try is Amazon’s relatively new Kindle Unlimited program. It is catering to people who read a lot and for a flat $9.99 per month fee you can read as many books from the Kindle Unlimited library as you want. I am a slow reader and I simply do not have the time to spare to make it worth the subscription fee, but I hear it has become quite popular with many of the voracious readers that the Kindle has produced. If I can get readers interested in “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire,” perhaps they will go back and try some of the other books in the Jason Dark series, none of which, I might add, are enrolled in Kindle Select and Kindle Unlimited, but are available at a low price as individual books and as part of Jason Dark Collections.

So, if you have been unsure about my Jason Dark supernatural mysteries and would like to give it a try, here is your chance. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, borrow a copy of the book for free now, or get it for free through your Kindle Unlimited subscription. It is an exciting mix of adventure, mystery and a good bit of gothic horror with some Steampunk thrown into the mix. In short, it is exactly the right mix for this Halloween season! Think of it as “Penny Dreadful” meets “Sherlock Holmes” meets “Van Helsing,” and you get the idea!

So, what’s there not to like? Click here and get hooked now…


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ShadowMordorI have to be honest. I did not follow the development of “Shadow of Mordor” at all. As you may recall, after it turned out to be impossible to get a viewing of the game during this year’s E3 despite my hour-long wait, I lost interest in the game altogether.

Now that it has been released, a lot of coverage has been given to one of the game’s innovative features, the so-called “Nemesis Feature,” which creates pseudo-intelligent opponents that follow certain social orders and appear to populate a living and breathing world that gives every entity the player encounters in the game world goals and purpose. Hmmmmh… I thought to myself when I first heard about this. That does sound very familiar to me!

The Nemesis Feature is essentially the same thing as Deathfire’s Psycho Engine!

If you may recall, a year ago we were trying to fund a game project called “Deathfire” through Kickstarter. It was a traditionally-based role-playing game, much in the vein of the award-winning “Realms of Arkania” cRPGs I have been working in the past, with an exceptionally strong focus on characters. Everything in the game was designed around the charcaters in the game and the emotional response you get from their interaction. Not only the player characters, but all the characters in the game world, including your opponents and the monsters. As you may recall, the system we outlined and had begun to develop for the game was called the “Psycho Engine.”

As I explored Mordor’s Nemesis Feature in more detail, it became apparent to me very quickly that in essence it is the same thing as the Psycho Engine I had designed well over a year ago.

Our system was designed to create player and non-player entities/characters that showed behavior along certain personality lines, independently of what the player is doing. By doing so, these characters would not only have appeared visually unique in the game, because their appearance could be tailored to their stats in real-time, but they would also follow individual goals, determined by the Psycho Engine upon tracking and subsequently analyzing the state of the game and the world.

Psycho Engine went even further, giving entities the knowledge when they were inferior, so that they would respond to it by either abandoning their goals, or by pursuing them even more aggressively

If you compare this to the Nemesis Feature, you will see that it is a carbon copy of what is happening in the game “Shadow of Mordor.” Depending on certain randomly determined parameters, the game creates unique orcs that follow a visual appearance and naming guided by the parameters. Once they make an appearance in the game, they will follow certain goals, such as improving their rank within the orc army or to get involved in one of the many spill-over plots and quests the game offers for that purpose. In addition, these orcs have personalities, based on the parameters, giving them a certain set of dialogue lines and behavioral patterns to match their personalities and goals that make them distinctive and seemingly unique—within limits.

In a nutshell, it is exactly what the Psycho Engine outlined.

The Nemesis Feature also tracks events such as the survival of an orc. If he’s been involved in many battles during the game, like the player, he will level up and become stronger, making sure the same orc will match the player’s progress and always remain challenging when encountered. Once again, this is a feature we had outlined in the Psycho Engine. In fact, the Psycho Engine went even further, giving these entities the knowledge when they were inferior, so that they would be able to respond to it by either abandoning their goals, or by pursuing them even more aggressively.

SkeletonWarriorsFrontJust as our Psycho Engine, the tracking of information and data analysis capabilities of the Nemesis Feature go far beyond just these basics, however, and like our Psycho Engine it takes the information it gathers into account to influence the story and the world around the player. In the case of “Deathfire” we had many small story scenarios and side plots in petto, which were lying dormant in the game until the Psycho Engine would awaken them as a result of certain triggers, activated by either the player or some Psycho Engine-controlled entity.

You can observe the same kinds of events in “Shadow of Mordor,” where the actions of orcs seem to trigger relevant, as well as irrelevant, events relating to the overall story and world. You can observe them pursuing virtual careers and following random events that create rather complex goals, almost like their own side plots.

Seeing the Nemesis Feature in action is a bitter sweet pill for me, as you can certainly imagine. On the one hand the fact that it has been hailed by gamers and the media alike as the most important innovation in computer games in many years makes me happy, because it proves to me that I have been on the right track when I devised the Psycho Engine well over a year ago, at a time when no one was working on technology such as this, really. Of course, now that it has been touted as the revelation that it is, everyone will try to implement technology such as this in their future games. Which is definitely cool and all, because it will result in better games. Still, the thought that we were actually on the bleeding edge of this technology, yet will forever be completely unrecognized by gamers and the media alike, feels like a backhanded slap somehow.

“This could have been us!”

The thought that “This could have been us!” just keeps nagging at me, but in the end, it was an inevitable development. Somebody was bound to do it sooner or later, particularly since the idea for the technology has been germinating in my mind for years.

In retrospect, it is clear that at the time when we first laid information about the Psycho Engine open, the public did not appreciate or understand the far-reaching impact this technology would have on gameplay, as evidenced by the fact that “Deathfire” did not find even the modest financial support we required to continue developing and completing the game.

It will be interesting for me to see how future games will evolve this technology and make even better use of it. The capabilities of a system like the Psycho Engine, or the Nemesis Feature for that matter, are endless and are only limited by the granularity of the information a game keeps track of and, perhaps, its ability to spend processing time on the proper analysis of the data. In “Deathfire” the concept was to go pretty deep. Because the game wasn’t nearly as graphics-intensive as AAA-titles, there would have been headroom to dig pretty deep into the system and make use of the Psycho Engine with insane levels of depth. Imagine the possibilities in a real role-playing game, as opposed to what you are glimpsing in an action-oriented game like “Shadow of Mordor” and you will get a sense for what “Deathfire” would have been capable of.

It will be interesting to watch what other games will be doing, but remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you saw it here first! The Psycho Engine was way ahead of the curve, even if other games now claim the laurels!

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I thought I’d write today about something that has been bothering me in computer and video games for many years—decades, in fact. Exaggerated idle animations, a problem that plagues even some of the most famous of AAA games.

When was the last time your chest was heaving up and down five inches when you were standing still? Really… try to remember. Or when was the last time you saw someone standing in place with his shoulders bobbing in a constant motion? When was the last time you saw anyone outside the boxing ring stand in a pose with slightly angled knees, forever raising himself up noticeably, only to lower himself back down in an endless dance-like loop? Never, is when you’ve seen this in real life. People don’t do that, and yet it has become one of the most common, and perhaps annoying, tropes in video games.

Idle animations have their origin in the mid 80s, when graphics capabilities of home computers began to improve and with the move towards more realistic imagery, it suddenly became evident that a static sprite of a standing character just didn’t cut it anymore. It looked lifeless and had no personality whatsoever. In response to that, game developers began adding a subtle animation loop to these sprites to suggest the character is breathing. However, “subtle” in those days had a very different meaning than today. Back then a pixel was the size of a Lego brick and with limited technical capabilities, these animations became inherently larger than life. They were about as subtle as a 90-ton steam engine, but we had to make do with them, and we happily did.

But here’s what irks me. It has been 30 years since then, and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Display resolutions have increased manifold, bringing the size of a pixel down to a mere pinprick, even on the largest of displays. With sub-pixel resolutions in the render pipeline, it is easily possible today to create even the most subtle of movements; movement that is barely hinted at, just the way natural breathing looks like in real life. And yet, video game characters are still routinely huffing worse than a long-distance runner after a 5-hour marathon.

To me it appears as if this is a clear case of “this is how we always did it, so that’s how we continue to do it.” It is strange, but the mentality we typically attribute to people in a rut suddenly makes its presence known in something as “young“ as the games industry? Well, that’s perhaps the second-largest misconception our industry has. It is no longer “young”—hasn’t been in a long time. But that’s a topic for some other time.

Quite evidently, a long time ago, someone proved that a looped idle sprite is more convincing than a static one but it would appear as if no one’s really questioned the validity of it ever since. I wonder how many game developers really spend time thinking about these pumping idle stances in terms of how much is too much. Hasn’t it just become routine to make them big and over the top, because it’s always been that way? Shouldn’t we, perhaps, take a step back some time and reevaluate not only their value but also their aesthetics?

Instead of simply duplicating the same loops we’ve used for years, perhaps animators should begin to question the practice and break the mold. It seems strange to me that the practice still continues, because other animations have matured to such a degree that they have become incredibly realistic and fluid—and yet, the pumping idling breaks your suspense of disbelief every time.

Less is often more in all of the arts and I am firmly convinced that many game characters would benefit from idle animations that were really nothing more than a bit of near-invisible breathing. Especially when you are working in a realistic world depiction it is important to remember that the idea is to give the character life, not to turn it into a spitting cartoon image of itself. And while we’re at it, this may be a good time to get rid of the body-builder idle poses as well. People take on a wide variety of poses when they stand. Take a moment during lunch, sit down in a populated place to eat and just observe.
Take a page from real life instead of simply rehashing those universal animation data from the previous character or game you’ve been working on.

Just take a few minutes to really think about idling and I am certain you could come up with a wealth of realistic-looking animations that are no harder to implement than the cycles that are currently being rehashed ad nauseam.

A character’s hair could blow in the wind if he’s outdoors. No chest heaving necessary—the flying hair alone would give him life. If he’s wearing loose clothing, fluttering clothing would add to it.

Idle animations could even be adaptive to situations in the game. If the character comes out of a battle or has been running, make the idle loop more noticeable while reducing its scale when the character is not exhausted. Find ways to let a character come to life through other means, like the fluttering clothes I mentioned, or perhaps simple huffs of condensing breath in the chilly air.

Note that none of these are fidget animations, which are usually added to break up the monotony. I am strictly referring to the underlying idling, which makes up the majority of what the player is presented with.

I truly believe it is time to challenge the status quo and do away with overly grand idle animations, and make sure the movements of a character standing still are every bit as subtle as the ones you employ or him during the rest of the game.

Your players will thank you for it, I am sure.

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