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Family Business: Scott Brodie and Hero Generations

As has become somewhat routine, Rock Paper Shotgun alerted us recently to an upcoming indie title seeking funding on Kickstarter. An upcoming turn based strategy RPG with roguelike elements - stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But Hero Generations is something a little different from the norm; while a single character’s life is, in roguelike fashion, perilously short (predetermined to be so, in fact), Scott Brodie wants to give us the chance to create a lineage of heroes. As our heroes age and achieve greatness, they will have the chance to find a mate and carry on through their offspring, passing traits, goods and fame down from one generation to the next. Intrigued, I asked Scott if he would take a little time to tell us a bit more about the game and his plans for it, and he generously agreed.

EG: So, introductions! For those who don’t know you, who is Scott Brodie (beyond “independent game designer, programmer, and founder at Heart Shaped Games”), and how did you come to build Hero Generations?

SB: I've been a game designer for some time, and I've worked in most of the disciplines in games at some point along the way. Most recently I was a Producer at Microsoft Game Studios, where I worked on Xbox Live Arcade games for about four years (Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Scrap Metal, Aegis Wing, Aqua, Snoopy Flying Ace are just a few of the games I had a hand in helping make). I decided to leave and start Heart Shaped Games, and I've been doing that for the past 3.5 years.

I started work on Hero Generations at the beginning of 2011, but eventually had to set it aside when my first child was born. In between I worked on a well-received collectible card game called Highgrounds (, but I'm now finally in a position to revisit Hero Generations, and I'm really excited about the new direction.

EG: Before diving in too deep, let’s have the elevator pitch for the game, for people who haven’t seen the Kickstarter page yet. (Of course, once they’re done reading this, they should go check it out and learn more.) In 60 seconds or less - or the text equivalent - what is Hero Generations about?

SB: The best way I’ve found to describe it is "The 5-Minute Civilization." You play a rapidly aging hero that explores a procedurally generated world in search of fame and a mate to settle down with before you die. After your life ends, you continue on adventuring as your child, and that cycle continues on and on. I’d liken it to the offspring of Sid Meier's Civilization, Jason Rohrer's Passage, and The Legend of Zelda.

A tiny piece of what will be a big world.

EG: From the Kickstarter page: “Life took some surprising turns for me during Hero Generations' original development, and I was forced to put the game on the shelf in order to spend time with my then-newborn son and focus on other projects that could pay the bills.” Can you elaborate a little bit on the game Hero Generations was before, vs. the game that you want it to be now?

SB: Sure. The prototype is far along, and it actually was selected as an IndieCade Finalist in 2011. It was out on the web, and I got a lot of great feedback on how to make it better. It is a lot of fun for about 4-5 hours, but it really needed a lot more content to make the game infinitely playable. I also did all of the artwork for that version myself.

The new version really sets out to address those things. I’m working with artist Dominic Sodano to overhaul the art, and everyone seems to be as in love with his style as I am. We’re also going to add a ton of content, which includes an overworld you can explore to find all new tilesets and challenges (Volcano, Desert, and Island, to name a few). I’m also excited about supporting both male and female heroes. I’m really excited to get the chance to overhaul the game and make the great experience I know it can be.

EG: The concept of managing a limited timeline as a resource in a game is not a totally unique one, but the way you’re doing it here is something we usually only see in grand strategy games where you command a nation, not character-focused RPG’s. One year per turn seems like a really broad abstraction for a single character, especially if you’re just moving around a map. “This year, I walked into the forest” seems like a lackluster way to spend a year. What’s the plan for making sure none of the turns are “filler”, when there are potentially so few of them?

SB: Turns are really fast, so there isn’t really “down time”, but there are non-optimal paths you can take. But that’s okay to me, because a lot of people wander around life without a clear direction of what they want to do, so it’s a valid thing that players can do. The less-impressive turns are important to the overall interest in the game because they make the more-impressive turns that much more meaningful (i.e. you can’t have good turns without the threat of bad ones).

But design theory aside, most actions in the world are iconic of major events in a hero's life. Meeting a mate that you don’t choose is emblematic of a failed relationship. Building represents the year that was taken to plan and engineer the structure. Battles represent major encounters between the heroes of two civilizations. The game foregoes the in-between details so that every turn results in a meaningful event, and I think that’s ultimately how we get to an actual “5-minute Civilization” feel that I designed for.

EG: One of the parts of your pitch that I found fascinating was: “Meaning: The game system was built from the ground up to be an exploration of the themes of death, legacy, family, love,and more. The experience of playing the game I hope will be a surprising and thought-provoking experience, as well as fun.” That’s a pretty lofty goal. You talked in your second update (which I encourage people to go read) about some of the inspirations behind the game and your design philosophies, but I’m wondering whether the “ability” to become a parent in this game is really a choice for the player. It seems like having a child might always be the “better” option in Hero Generations simply because it lets you keep playing and get a better score - choosing not to would essentially be opting for the game’s version of suicide. Are you worried about boiling something that complex down to a game mechanic? Is there a downside in the game to the parenting option, or a situation where the game might reward a player for not continuing their lineage?

SB: The main reason you would decide not to have a child in the game is to maximize the number of years you can put into making your hero famous. When you choose to have a child in the game (with some rare exceptions) that also means your journey is done with your current character. Your fame “score” is locked in and you move on to the next hero. So the alternative is to be entirely selfish and focus on hitting as many quests as possible until your last years. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some major quests in the game that require this type of full dedication to complete, but the payoff is big.

Age may take its toll, but it shall not dull this warrior's keen fashion sense.

EG: Assuming that the player does choose to establish a lineage of heroes, how will family dynamics come into play, if at all? Your third update included a gameplay video by UnstableVoltage, and it seemed like at this point in the prototype, picking a mate is mostly a process of trying to find the “best” option available to your fame level, and there seemed to be little interaction between family generations. Obviously, in real life, sometimes families don’t get along - sons don’t always like fathers, and family members’ goals don’t always mesh. Understanding that we’re not likely to get into Game of Thrones territory (or even Crusader Kings territory, necessarily), do you see any of the more complicated aspects of family dynamics working their way into the game?

SB: I actually think Game of Thrones isn’t a bad reference point to what the final version of the game will play like, in terms of family dynamics. There will be competition among you and the other families throughout the world. Specifically, if you have achieved the highest fame score in the world, your town transforms into a “Kingdom” type, and you and your descendants gain some meaningful benefits for achieving that. But this also makes you a target, and the other families will try to out do you and steal the throne back.

But as well, your family and culture play a big part in the game. You can be given special quests that your Parents want you to complete, and you can choose to follow what they want, or ignore them and chart your own path. You can also build up cities, and morph their culture based upon the building choices you make. It’s all ensuring that the choices you make in one generation will have lasting, meaningful impact on future ones.

EG: As you mentioned briefly above, the pitch includes lady heroes as well as gentlemen heroes, which I was happy to see. Will there be any functional differences gameplay wise between those choices?

SB: I think we’re still working out exactly how if at all the gender of your hero will affect gameplay. There is a rich design space there to explore, but we also don’t want to introduce too many special case rules, because then the game starts to get harder to learn and enjoy. If you back the project, I’m sure we’ll share our plans for this, and we would of course love to get your feedback on how to handle this part of the game.

EG: One of the eternal conflicts in procedural game development is the balance between game mechanics and plot. Do you hope to build Hero Generations into a game where players are making decisions for narrative reasons within crafted story pieces? Or do you expect that the game’s narrative is going to come primarily out of the decisions they’re making in the game’s mechanical systems?

SB: The game really shines as a “procedural storytelling” experience. We give you small flavor elements, and from those things you kind of build a world and story up in your head. The choices you make start to fill in a plot, and over time you get a nice arc that is usually worth sharing with someone else.

EG: Kickstarters are notorious for, let’s generously say, “rough” timeline estimates, and as stretch goals get unlocked (which seems likely here) those tend to get rougher. January 2015 is listed for Hero Generations - is that a date you expect is likely? Or was it a “we need to fill something in here” guess?

SB: I think the schedule is very achievable. The things that would move us off our timeline would be getting significantly overfunded. Ultimately, I’m not deadline driven; I want to build the best game possible, and we’ll take the time we need to make sure that’s what we deliver. The good news though is that we have a fun alpha prototype already, and we’ll be delivering a beta version of the game in the later half of this year, so backers will be able to get their hands on a version of the game pretty soon.

EG: Anything you’d like to tell people that we didn’t cover before we wrap up? The floor’s yours, say anything you want.

SB: I’d very much like to thank all of the people that have taken the time to back our Kickstarter thus far. And of course it would mean a lot if your readers would consider backing the project if they haven’t already. Thanks for the great questions!

Thanks very much to Scott Brodie for taking the time to address my questions. If you'd like to learn more about Hero Generations, go check out their Kickstarter campaign - well on its way with over half the duration remaining - or their Steam Greenlight page and consider showing your support!


Paper Heroes: Colm Larkin and Guild of Dungeoneering

This week, I happened across a post on (followed by another on RockPaperShotgun) taking a look at the upcoming 2-man indie show Guild of Dungeoneering. The product of Colm Larkin (programming) and Fred Mangan (art), Guild of Dungeoneering (like so many good things) originated at Ludum Dare, as part of their October challenge last year. A little bit RPG, a little bit more strategy, and a whole lot distinctive aesthetic, this one caught my attention fast and held it tight, even though it’s in a very early state. After I reached out and let him know that I’d tried it, Colm agreed to talk a little bit about himself and the game for us, and here we are.

EG: Thanks for joining me! Let’s start at the start. Talk a little bit about Colm Larkin, “Gambrinous Games”, and how Guild of Dungeoneering ended up in the October challenge at Ludum Dare.

Colm: Hi ErraticGamer! Thanks for having me round for a chat. Making games is something I’ve been interested in since I was a child and our family got our first ever computer in the 1980s. It was a ZX Spectrum+ with 128 KB of memory, and basically to do anything with it you had to write BASIC. Even if you had a game on a tape it still booted up into a BASIC command prompt and you had to type in RUN to play. Myself and my siblings would type in the BASIC code printed in magazines for simple games (aren’t game-making tutorials easier to share nowadays!), and essentially that’s what led to me becoming a computer programmer and having a deep love of games.

As for Guild of Dungeoneering, I can even go a little further back than the October Challenge. Really the concept started as a 1GAM game that I built in April 2013 called Dungeon Delver. If you play that you’ll see some of the same ‘laying out a dungeon’ gameplay that’s now in Dungeoneering. 1GAM is a bit like a gamejam on your own terms, each month, and for me participating in it really crystallised being able to finish games. Before taking part I had spent almost 4 years trying to make games in my spare time and only had a couple of abandoned projects to show for it. After 6 months of 1GAM I had finished 4 small games and really felt much more confident about cutting back a game idea to its basics so that it was finishable. When I saw that the LD October Challenge (‘Finish a game — Take it to market — Earn $1’) was coming up I decided to try my hand once more at a bigger game project. So in October I began creating Guild of Dungeoneering.

EG: Ah, the ZX Spectrum. I never had one of those, but my father and I used to program BASIC games out of the back of Boys’ Life on a TI-99/4A that ran off a cassette tape; I’m guessing that’s one of the aforementioned magazines where you got some of your early source code, too. It’s fascinating and inspiring to see how successful gamejams like 1GAM and Ludum Dare are at driving people to get their ideas out in playable form for future refinement.

So on that note, describe Guild of Dungeoneering a bit for us. What were your design inspirations, and what role do you want the game to fill? We’ve seen something of a ‘randomized dungeon crawl’ renaissance in the last couple of years, but Dungeoneering is taking a notably different approach.

Colm: Hah yes! There were whole sections of magazines filled with hundreds of lines like ‘30 GOSUB 180’, and a single typo meant nothing would work. Fun times! Design inspirations to me were playing games like FTL and Spelunky which took the rogue-like idea and ran with it. I wanted to make a game that scratched the same itch that they did, but in a more traditional turn-based fantasy way. I remembered playing a board game called DungeonQuest in the 90s where you placed down a random tile in front of your adventurer when you stepped into a new room - sometimes it was a dead end or a left turn when you dearly needed to go straight.

Don't go left. Don't go left.

Somewhere along the line I started thinking, ‘What if you don’t get to control the hero?’. It seemed like an interesting twist to the usual dungeon-exploration-romp. So I made it that you were in control of the dungeon instead: you draw out the map, you place monsters & loot, and you watch what your hero (aka dungeoneer) chooses to do. Sometimes people say the idea reminds them of the original Dungeon Keeper (lets not talk about the recent IAP filled reboot) - so I should say that in Dungeoneering you are on the side of the hero. You WANT him to win, you just can’t directly control him. Taking away one of the most important choices for a gamer (player movement) has led to some problems I’m still trying to solve - essentially how can I still make the game full of interesting decisions & conflicts?

EG: DungeonQuest! Yes. Some of those inspirations have come back around in the boardgaming realm, too, with stuff like Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft coming out from Wizards of the Coast. No new ideas under the sun, but we keep coming back to some of the good ones, thankfully.

Let’s not talk about the recent IAP-filled Dungeon Keeper indeed, but certainly the original is still a well loved title. The other game that kept popping into my head (and was further prompted by the “guild” aspect even though that isn’t built in yet) was Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, from back in 2000. That game had you managing a whole town of heroes at once, while Dungeoneering narrows you down to one at a time. What kind of relationship do you envision the player having with the AI-controlled hero - do you think of Dungeoneering as a puzzle where the player is trying to leave the right trail of breadcrumbs that the hero will follow if laid out correctly? Or do you expect there to be conflict between the player’s desires and the dungeoneer’s? (You want me to go get that treasure, but I am scared of trolls and there’s a troll in there, etc.) I suppose those aren’t mutually exclusive if you lay the information out for the player, but you have a choice as a designer about how much you put on the table, so to speak.

Colm: Majesty certainly captured some of the frustration of not getting to control your heroes (oh god no, don’t go THERE, argh!) that I want to tap into with Dungeoneering. I’m hoping that even in failure or frustration there can be enjoyment. If your dungeoneer’s too stupid to avoid that nasty golem.. well at least he went down with a funny splat sound, and there’s plenty more adventurers in the tavern! I do want to avoid it becoming a full-on puzzle game, that’s just not where I see this going. Desktop Dungeons came out recently and completely nailed the bitesize puzzle-RPG. I’d have a hard time as a designer going too close to what they built. My hope is to make something where you have a tossup each turn between the cards you are given and your dungeoneer’s mood & unpredictability, and you just have to make the best of it. ‘Hm, the troll moved in between the hero and the treasure, but maybe I can lay down an alternative route.. oh no he thinks he can fight it, argh!’

EG: Cool. I didn’t intend this to be the Name Drop interview, so after this I’ll stop, but have you played Card Hunter? Is there a plan to work any kind of deck building mechanic into the larger framework of the game, since the whole thing is randomized based on card draws? Collecting items and monsters that would then have a chance to drop in your next run, etc?

Colm: I sure have. It has a lot of similarities to Dungeoneering, including the ‘just like a board game’ look and feel. I have to say when I first played it I was blown away by what they had created. The aesthetic, the throwbacks to D&D like their adventure module faux-booklets, the game itself. This was right about when I was planning Dungeoneering and I remember thinking “I’ll never be able to make something as amazing as this.” Then I had a look at their team page which is full to the brim with super talented people, including Richard Garfield (creator of Magic The Gathering). That made me feel a lot better! As for deck building, it is very tempting to include as I love card games that let you change your deck (I even made a drafting game for 1GAM). I don’t think I will make it as integral to the game as they did in Card Hunter, but I think a little bit of deck manipulation will be interesting. Say you improve your Guild to have a shrine to the goddess of luck - maybe that adds a ‘lucky escape’ card to your HOPE deck which might get you out of a tight spot; a small bonus rather than a game changer.

You guys have been great. Try the veal!

EG: Stepping away from the design for a moment, how have you found the process of actually making the game to be so far? I know you’ve got a devlog thread up on TIGsource where people have been giving you feedback; are you pleased with where you are at this point?

Colm: One thing I’ve found frustrating is my own slow pace of development. Around the middle of October when I decided to push on and make this a real, sellable game I thought to myself I might be able to get it finished by the end of December. I set a first milestone of the end of November for an alpha version that was rough but fun (say the kind of thing that would be played on Kongregate or Newgrounds). And here I am in February and I still haven’t got the alpha to that state! It really comes down to this being a spare-time project - I have a full time software engineering job. Progress is steady, but slow, and it makes it difficult for me to predict when I’ll have certain things ready..

On the other hand what has worked really well for me is getting people engaged with the game from the very beginning of development. Right at the start of October I wrote up a marketing guide for gamedevs that I then proceeded to follow pretty religiously as I worked on Dungeoneering. The key is to put yourself out there and start sharing what you are making - even when it’s embarrassingly bare-bones. This is where you get to leverage one of the best things about being a tiny ‘indie’ dev - no one has to vet what you can or can’t say! There’s no PR team turning what should be excitement (early, barely working builds & screenshots) into boring corporatespeak press releases. Secondly you can start getting early validation of your concept & idea, and even feedback on your playable version (bugs and all), which is invaluable. The main places I’ve been active are forums like TIGSource (including that devlog thread which I’ve updated every time I add to the alpha), Twitter (especially #screenshotsaturday), Reddit, Google+, and my own gamedev blog.

EG: Yeah, it’s a tough thing to put something early out into the world, but the benefits seem to be substantial when an idea catches on. How has the community response and feedback been for the game so far? Do people seem excited about the concept, even in its early stages? If you’re comfortable talking about it, have you received any design feedback that’s made you change or reconsider directions you were planning to head next with it?

Colm: I’m constantly on the lookout for design ideas and direction. I solicit a lot of feedback online, but I also attend local gamedev meetups here in Dublin almost every month - sometimes talking to people about what THEY are working on gets me thinking about similar problems in Dungeoneering. Game design is a hard thing to force, though. I take ideas & suggestions on board but generally don’t act on them straight away. These things need to rest in the back of my brain for a while, simmering away, before something emerges. Sometimes I get a suggestion so perfect I just jam it straight into the game though - a couple of weeks ago someone in Reddit’s feedback friday thread suggested making ‘your hapless adventurer’ react if you click him, or if you idle for too long, which was a genius idea to give him more character. The next day it was in the alpha!

I’m incredibly happy with the reaction I’ve received from the community. Many people have praised the concept, and many more the hand-drawn aesthetic and boardgamey feel. It’s one of the most encouraging things to me, when a stranger reacts positively to something you have created. I started offering pre-order purchases at the end of October for $5, when the game looked like this and had far less functionality than it does now, and even then a handful of people decided to support the game. To me that is amazing - I thought before I would get a single pre-order I would have to freeze the playable alpha and start sharing videos of progress rather than the playable version. I thought people would need the ‘early access’ incentive (pre-ordering would let them play the latest beta that only buyers had access to). But no, it seems that gamers really like supporting an interesting idea even when they really get little out of it. As one buyer put it (I email everyone to say thanks for pre-ordering) - it’s a ‘financial +1’ of support.

EG: That’s a good way to put it, and I think Kickstarter (which often doesn’t even provide an alpha to play with at the time of “purchase”) works off the same basic emotional feedback - people like to feel personally involved in the creation of things they want to see happen, even if it’s only through patronage. It can help grow a player base, funding, and a community all at the same time, which is a remarkable feat.

Don't feel bad, little guy. She intimidates me too.

EG: So what’s next? Is there a set of features you’re eager to get in for your next milestone? Are you thinking of growing the team, or do you expect it to just stay between you and Fred? Since word of mouth is already positive and starting to grow, any expectations on release - timeline or platforms?

Colm: I don’t plan on getting more people involved in creating the game, apart from perhaps for the music, as I’m confident we can get everything else done by ourselves. I want to focus on getting the alpha to a ‘fun but rough’ state next, then do some more marketing material like a gameplay trailer. From there I feel I could easily get through the Steam Greenlight process at the rate they are currently accepting games, but I have also considered going for crowdfunding to get an actual development budget (Greenlight + crowdfunding send quite a bit of traffic from one to the other if run at the same time). I’m from Ireland so unfortunately Kickstarter is still unavailable to me, and when I look at great games on Indiegogo the amounts they raise are just a fraction of their equivalent on Kickstarter, which puts me off it. I may end up just pushing onwards with my own trickle of pre-orders instead.

As for a release date I think mid-2014 is achievable, but it’s very hard to predict at this stage. A lot will depend on how much I want to include in the game, which itself may be guided by interest levels and expectations. Sorry for the fuzzy non-answer there! My primary launch platforms are as a downloadable game for PC and Mac (and hopefully Linux), with a freely playable web demo (like the current alpha). If the game is vaguely successful, then I want to publish it for iOS & Android tablets too - I feel the game will work very nicely on tablets, from its turn-based nature to the repeatable short gameplay loop (dungeon runs).

EG: Makes sense. Can I press you on what goes into the ‘fun but rough’ alpha? Will we start to see the ‘guild’ parts of the game working their way in, or is that still down the road? Further out, any thoughts about multiplayer, either real-time or asynchronous? Competing guilds, that kind of thing?

Colm: Absolutely. So I’m trying to nail the basic gameplay loop first: the dungeon exploration side of the game. I’m putting off all work on the Guild side til later so I can focus on making this part of the game fun by itself. Then I believe when I add in the more strategic long-term stuff it will be a multiplier on an already fun game. That’s the theory at least! So on my immediate todo list I want to add a win condition to dungeon runs (initially this will be ‘find and defeat the boss monster X’), I want to add an incentive to progression (to prevent simply farming the low level monsters), then I want to improve the dungeoneer’s AI (it’s incredibly basic and often frustrating right now), and finally I want to add new types of card to expand on the gameplay slightly (for example adding events like secret doors to the SEEK deck or pit traps to the DREAD deck). I feel once I get those things in I may be at my fuzzily-defined ‘rough but fun’ marker.

As for multiplayer, nope, I have no plans for any multiplayer at this stage. As a one-man-band I know to keep my scope incredibly tight to be able to finish the game so that’s definitely out. There can always be expansions or sequels, however!

EG: Always good to have a next thing to look forward to. Anything you’d like to put in before we wrap up? The floor’s yours, say whatever you want.

Colm: I guess I’ll close with a few links for anyone who’s interested in following Guild of Dungeoneering’s progress: there’s this regularly updated development log, a Facebook page, and my Twitter account @gambrinous. Oh and of course anyone who wants to try the playable alpha or pre-order the game can do so right here. Thanks for the chat - this was fun!

Thanks very much to Colm Larkin for taking the time to so thoroughly answer my questions. If Guild of Dungeoneering sounds like your thing, follow the above links to learn more and consider showing your support!


Coming Real Soon: Retrobooster

Back in November of 2012 I got an e-mail from Terry Welsh, which is a name you might not know but you might know his work - Terry created Really Slick Screensavers, an open-source collection of very fancy, highly customizable screensavers. (They were - are - pretty cool and impressive; check out PC World's review here.) Terry did not e-mail me about his screensavers, however; he wanted to announce that he had, several months prior, left his employment at NASA to work full-time as an indie game developer on a project he'd seen about 2/3 of the way to completion and wanted to push hard to the end of.

What indie game does someone leave NASA to finish? As it turns out, a very pretty, tough-as-nails, physics driven, "2.5D survival shooter and cave-flyer, focusing on skill-based flying and enemy blasting". Terry e-mailed me again a couple weeks ago to let me know that his project was complete, and on February 21st, the world will get to play Retrobooster.

I got to do so a little bit early.

While this is not a review (I haven't finished the game and I'm not even really sure I can finish it), since Terry was kind enough to provide me with a copy I want to share my thoughts about the several hours I've spent exploding things and having myself exploded in zero-g.

As is probably clear from the trailer, Retrobooster is in many ways a very pretty game. Lighting and particle effects abound, and while the game controls entirely on a 2D plane, background and foreground details are used to provide a consistently impressive sense of depth (as well as to bring obstacles into and out of the playing field). I want to give credit for how much that depth does to lend solidity to the environment; when an enemy explodes and the light reflects not just on you and the ground, but also the rocks behind you and the ones behind those, fading back into space, it looks superb.

On the whole I would say that the environment design is more impressive than the "character" design - the player and enemy ships are largely functional, simple models, and the humans you rescue basically tiny stick figures - but nothing in the game is unattractive. Perhaps most importantly, when the action gets frantic (which is often), it looks great without dropping a frame.

Do not get caught in those gears.

What's it actually like to play? ...Complex. More than you might expect for what looks at first like a pretty simple shooter, and maybe even a little too complex, though it's certainly not so obtuse as to be inaccessible. Terry's put the game's instructions up here, and you can see at a glance that there aren't a ton of controls. Inputs for turning and firing forward and backward thrusters, shooting two weapon types, and switching between the weapons in those groups; that's it. Actually using them is where things get tricky.

Retrobooster is a heavily physics driven game. Which is great in a lot of ways, and should appeal to people who take umbrage when a space shooter doesn't account for inertia and let you spin-and-fire like a Viper from Battlestar Galactica. Well, you can totally do that here, and it feels great... until you misread the tight quarters you're in and smash into a wall again. Or you don't take into account the propulsion from firing your weapons, and end up backing yourself into a crusher machine. Or you don't go through a gate fast enough. Or you take a turn a little too wide. Or a gravity machine sucks you in and you fumble the controls trying to shoot it and reverse at the same time. Or, or, or.... Now, to be clear, all of those things are my fault! The game didn't cheat me, I screwed up. But just the act of moving around in Retrobooster is taxing, and the environment (enemies and landscape alike) is highly lethal. It can be stressful, especially when a timing-based puzzle makes you pull off several complicated moves in rapid succession.

The good news about that - and the reason I'm torn about whether to call it "too complex" - is that when you pull it off correctly, it feels great. This is a game that invites mastery, and tough-but-fair games are enjoying a lot of popularity right now. It seems likely that folks who love to dive deep into Spelunky or Rogue Legacy or Risk of Rain will latch on to the challenge of Retrobooster as a welcome test of skill. For me, I've found a few of the enemy encounters and puzzles to be more frustrating than fun... but none so much that I haven't pressed through them yet, and they aren't outweighing the rest of my enjoyment. I'm only a few hours in, though, so I expect it only gets harder from here.

Stuff blowin' up real pretty.

The challenge of mastering its systems notwithstanding, there's a lot to recommend Retrobooster as an entry in the action/puzzle shooter category. Weapon and enemy variety both feel good, and I have yet to get bored with the combat encounters at all. Rescuing humans (done via a cautious landing procedure that blends Choplifter and Lunar Lander) is a fun side activity that rewards you with much needed ship repairs and powerups. Levels range from tight action-filled corridors to expansive mazes scattered with puzzles, traps and one-way gates. The story isn't terribly compelling yet, but I'm still early in the game and I don't need much of an excuse to blow up alien robots. On the whole, this would be an impressive effort even if it weren't just made by one person, so the fact that it was is remarkable. I'm having a good time with it.

If the above sounds appealing, a demo for Windows and Linux is available here. The game's price upon release later this month will be $18, which I think is fair, though I have to admit I'm a little afraid it won't sell very well at that price. (There's a separate conversation to have about someone being able to work on a game for years, quit their job to finish it, release a highly polished product and have an $18 price raise eyebrows, but not in this post.) Pre-ordering now, however, is only $12, and it's hard not to recommend it for that amount if you enjoy the demo and want more of it. Thanks to Terry both for letting me know about the project a year ago and keeping me posted on its progress. Congratulations on finishing it up and getting it out into the world. Well done.


Friday Night Bytes - Web of Death

No, there isn't actually a game called Web of Death. Well, actually, there might be. Somebody Google that. If there is, that isn't what I'm writing about tonight. But I played a couple of web-based games this week that I found interesting enough to write about, and both feature death quite heavily, so here we are.

In the one, which actually IS called Dojo of Death, you will kill many, many enemies. In the other, Titan Souls, you yourself will meet your maker many, many times. One is about empowerment; the other, weakness. In one you charge towards inevitable failure; in the other you fail repeatedly hoping to succeed.

Okay, you get the point. Let's talk about some free games.

Released on Kongregate at the very tail end of last year (and recently covered by RockPaperShotgun, which is where I heard about it), Dojo of Death is a little bit like what you might get if Fruit Ninja were a top-down action game and all the fruits were people. Bad people who want to cut you. Using the mouse to run around the game's single room, every click sends you flying in the direction of the cursor, sword outstretched. Anything in your way is going to die, immediately. While attacking, you are an unstoppable force, and the satisfaction of slicing through an opponent (or a whole row of them) is considerable.

The counter to this, predictably, is that while you are not attacking, you are completely vulnerable, and a single strike will take you down. Archers will fire arrows and enemy swordsmen will charge attacks to fling themselves at you hoping to get in a killing blow. If you manage to strike them first, no harm done. But as time goes on, an endless stream of enemies piles into the arena, making it ever more difficult to keep track of where the attacks are coming from.

That archer's about to have a bad day.

It's a simple game, and there probably isn't enough depth here to claim that it pushes you towards any particular mastery. Hit everything on the screen before it hits you, until part of it manages to hit you. That's it. But it is consistently fun to watch the action ramp up on every round, feeling a little more pleased with yourself every time you split an arrow in half or cut down a row of three ninja at once who were about to slice into you. As the bodies of your enemies carpet the floor, the action becomes harder and harder to follow, and eventually you are overwhelmed. Once you are, a retry is just a click away. Keep this one in your bookmarks; you'll want to come back to it.

This is the best I've done. How long will you last?

On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, Titan Souls is a one-and-done affair - a game I can't imagine I'll have any interest in going back to, but one I'm glad I tackled. This one came to me from Giant Bomb's "Worth Playing" videos (thank you, Mr. Klepek). Patrick was a bit stymied by it, but it looked compelling enough to try, and it hooked me until I'd finished it.

Titan Souls was an entry in Ludum Dare 28, themed "You Only Get One." It's an interesting play on that theme, because you don't only get one life in Titan Souls. What you get one of is everything else. Your hero stands alone, with four inert structures laid out North, South, East and West. Four platforms, four titans. Where you start is up to you.

Each direction will eventually lead you to a single titan. Each titan can be destroyed with a single hit, if you manage to target their weak spot to do so. You have a single arrow with which to hit them - once fired, it must be picked up (or summoned back to you, a slow process that leaves you vulnerable while you do it). A single hit is all it takes to kill you, sending you back to the stone garden where you began. You Only Get One.

I'll save you some time. North isn't unlocked yet. Don't go North.

A little bit Dark Souls, a little bit Shadow of the Colossus, Titan Souls is a game of iteration. The first time you meet a titan you will probably die, and quickly. The second time you will learn something about its pattern. By the third or fourth time, you'll be ready to make attempts on its life. Eventually, you will bring it down and move on to the next.

Progress is checkpointed after each titan falls, and none of them are far away (though one is stuck behind an annoying miniature maze), so repeat encounters are quick to engage in and frustration is at least somewhat minimized. The game is shorter than I expected - even with the iteration built in, it's maybe a half hour affair - but the process of figuring out each titan's weakness and exploiting it was a rewarding one. The ending will either give you a chuckle or aggravate you, I can't really predict which. I was in the former group, though. Go find out which you are.

Mr. Brain-in-a-Jar here killed me a LOT.

So there you go - two free webgames for your Friday evening, one to experience and walk away from, one to keep coming back to. I hope either or both will be to your liking. Me, I'm headed back to the Dojo of Death to see if I can beat my high score. Those evil ninja aren't gonna cut themselves.


Early December Bargain Round-Up

Hi! Long time no see. Sorry about that. Work and theatre kept me away from gaming for several months.

The good news is, I got to come back to an absolute ton of great, cheap gaming, some of which I would now like to share with you. Obviously, Steam will run its official winter sale towards the end of the month, and all sorts of discounts will be available even on the AAA heavy hitters, but in the meantime, all of the following are excellent games that you can buy for just a few bucks as gifts to a friend, a loved one, or yourself, just in time for the holdays. Hooray for thrifty entertainment!

Savant: Ascent

This one was a total surprise that landed in my inbox last week. D-Pad Studio (makers of the fantastic-looking but sadly-not-yet-out Owlboy) have put together a game as a celebration of their friend and musician Savant, in which - as the titual character - you climb up the side of a perilous tower, besieged by enemies from all sides. It plays out as a bullet hell shooter, but with more freedom of fire and less freedom of movement than those games usually allow - Savant has only limited ability to dodge incoming fire, but can aim in a full 360 degree arc to take on his foes.

One of the most striking things about Owlboy is its retro-leaning but extremely attractive visual style, and D-Pad Studio has been no slouch in that department here, either. Savant: Ascent is challenging, fast-pased, excellent looking with great music, and $2. Two dollars! I was given a key for this by the developers but absolutely would've bought it myself. Get it on Steam, or on iPhone / Android if you want to play it on the go.

SteamWorld: Dig

Originally a 3DS downloadable title, SteamWorld: Dig is what you might get if you crossed Metroid with Dig Dug, and then again with Spelunky. A steampunk robot cowboy must dig deep beneath a Wild West town to find buried treasure and unlock the mysterious secrets of his past. If that combined with the trailer doesn't sell you, this one probably isn't for you, but I had a great time with it. On Steam for $8.

Tiny Barbarian DX

Long ago, I wrote about the original Tiny Barbarian, which was a lovely freeware action platformer re-telling the classic Robert E Howard-penned Conan story, The Frost Giant's Daughter. Then Michael Stearns Kickstarted a sequel, Tiny Barbarian DX, and I interviewed him about it. That sequel is now available on Steam for $6, and I have played it, and it is delightful. Controller-smashingly difficult in the final level, but delightful nevertheless. Highly recommended.


Fans of H.P. Lovecraft take note - this is the best Lovecraftian, randomized, first person stealth-based dungeon crawler I know of. ...It is also the only one, but don't let that dissuade you. Sporting some very low-fi, almost Minecraft-esque graphics, Eldritch still manages to generate superb atmosphere via some excellent audio and good creepy level & enemy design. Different every time you play but also less punishing than many other roguelikes, there's a whole lot to like here. Take note, though: while the trailer emphasizes action, you'll be sneaking around as much as you'll be stabbing and shooting if you want to survive.

The price is a little higher than some of the other stuff on this list, but is still just $15 on Steam, and some holiday-themed DLC appears to be on the way. Oh, and a warning: not all the enemies in Eldritch can be killed, and the ones you do kill, if you loot them, will come back. Not right away. But they will.

Risk of Rain

Unlike Eldritch, this one is insanely punishing. Also probably the loosest adherent to the "roguelike" definition, but it's still got the randomly generated levels, items and enemies, and the permadeath, which you will be experiencing a lot. Up to 3 others can join you for this, and you may need the help. Multiple character classes, unlocked by making progress through a list of objectives, all have different skills to work with, lending considerable variety to your approach, but the longer you survive the harder the game gets. The aesthetics of this one may not be for everyone, but I liked it a lot. Also on Steam, Risk of Rain will run you $10.

Nuclear Throne

Last roguelike on the list, promise! A top-down shooter. By Vlambeer, the guys who made Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing, both of which are excellent. This one's in Steam Early Access, but it's quite playable and enjoyable in its current state for $13. Fast, silly, and challenging. Tara Long's interview in the video above (back when the game was called Wasteland Kings) does a good job of showing it off.


I see my descriptions are getting shorter as I go, but Hexcells deserves more than a couple lines of text. Puzzle games don't always click with me, but I've always had a soft spot for Picross in its many incarnations. Like the satisfaction one gets from solving a complex Sudoku puzzle, the high of filling in the last box of a Picross puzzle never gets old.

Basically a combination of Picross and Minesweeper, Hexcells layers exceptional aesthetic design on top of some great puzzle design that relies on logic far more than on guessing. With plenty of puzzles to solve and no real punishment for failing and trying again, Hexcells would be worth it at $10 or $15, but the game only costs $3. Three dollars! This one isn't on Steam, but it's totally worth it to go get it directly from the developer. Thanks to RockPaperShotgun for pointing me towards this one - without them I totally would have missed it.


This one, I haven't had much time with, as the beta just started this week, but I know many people have been looking forward to it. If Terraria was Minecraft in 2D, Starbound is essentially Terraria in space. Explore a hostile, randomized planet, scrabble to build yourself a foothold, stock your spaceship, and take off to explore new planets when you're done with that one. I've only spent a couple hours in this but I can tell you that the look and feel are both great. Like a couple others on the list it's in early access, which means frequent patches and some missing content, but $15 gets you in the door if you're curious. Multiplayer is a big focus in this one, too, so feel free to bring a friend. It's dangerous to go alone.

He's probably friendly! (He's probably not friendly.)

So there you go. 8 exciting, inexpensive gaming options to help get you and your friends & loved ones through December and into the new year. Who needs a PS4 or an XBox One?