Six Elements of a Good CRPG

Since I plan to create a computer role-playing game, I’ve been doing a little thinking lately about what makes them good. Although I don’t expect my first game to be a Final Fantasy killer, I do want to make the best game I can, and the first step is to define what that means and how to do it.

Here are six elements I think make for a good computer role playing game, in order of importance:

  • Characters. Rich, believable characters with realistic desires and goals and well-written dialogue help draw the player in and give them a reason to care what happens. If you want to make the player feel something with your game, characters are the way to do it.
  • Plot. The events of the game should be significant, even epic, so that the player feels like their actions matter. There should be high stakes, rich rewards, and dire consequences. There should also be a few plot twists to keep the story from being too predictable, but don’t go overboard — a plot that’s too convoluted is worse than one that’s too straight-forward.
  • Combat. A good CRPG features a fun, interactive combat system with the occasional surprise. These days just selecting commands from a menu isn’t enough, there should be some other element of player interaction. Random encounters should be common enough to build the party’s power, but not too common — it’s no fun fighting random battle after random battle when all you want to do is get to the good stuff (the boss fight, plot advancement, treasure at the end of the dungeon, etc.)
  • Graphics. The graphics should be colorful and distinctive, in a style suitable to the flavor of the game. Personally, I don’t care for the manga-style art used in many CRPGs, but that’s a matter of taste. For a high-fantasy game, the graphics should be clear and bright, while a dark post-apocalyptic RPG would probably be better served by a grittier style.
  • Music. Like the art style, the music needs to be well-suited to the tone of the game, the nature of the storyline, and the current environment the characters are in. Exploring a dank, monster-infested dungeon may call for creepy music, while an unexpected death scene might need a somber dirge, and a grand palace should have something suitably dramatic. One important element is that the music not be too repetitive, as it will be playing over and over again anyway and can get boring or annoying quickly if you’re not careful.
  • Sound Effects. Sound effects are not often done well, perhaps because there are so many other elements that are more important, but they’re worth paying attention to. An inappropriate sound effect or one which is re-used for many different things can be jarring, so it’s a good idea to make them different and as recognizable as possible.

These are the things that came to mind when I sat down to think about what to focus on in working on my game. By no means do I consider this list complete, or even necessarily correct. Think I missed something? Disagree with what’s on the list, or what order it’s in? Leave a comment and let me know!

Video Game Review: Final Fantasy II

As I mentioned recently in The Greatest Video Game That Never Was, I have long been a fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games. Of course, my dirty little secret about that is that I’ve played fewer than half of them. I played I, IV, and VI as a kid, and VII in my teenage years, but as they’re up to XIII these days, I’d missed far more than I’d played. So last year I set out to rectify that, playing them close to in order and all the way through the series, generally on the oldest versions I could get my hands on. To that end, I’ve recently finished playing a fan translation of the Famicom version of Final Fantasy II.

Unlike other early FF games, FFII has a usage-based advancement system. There are no classes or levels, but your character’s attributes (stats, skills, and even spells) are individually trained through practice. Those you use regularly will steadily advance, while those you neglect will remain untrained. You’ll even occasionally see a stat drop if your actions haven’t been conducive to their improvement. This system has pros and cons — it makes more sense than a class-and-level system because it allows characters to learn new abilities gradually over time in proportion to how much they practice, rather than giving them periodic quantum leaps in all their abilities simultaneously (and totally excluding them from abilities that don’t happen to match their class). On the other hand, I don’t like the fact that having your characters beat on each other in the midst of a supposedly-life-and-death battle with enemies is an effective method of advancement. Improving through sparring with your friends makes sense, but permitting it as part of the combat system (and thereby using lethal damage in your sparring match) is inappropriate. Also, a powerful, skilled spell-caster who learns a new spell late in the game is exactly as bad at it as an unpracticed noob who picks it up at the beginning of the game. Surely the ability to apply related knowledge from casting similar spells should count for SOMETHING, allowing the experienced caster to use it more effectively than the beginner, though not as well as their practiced spells. Neither extreme makes sense here, there should be a happy medium.

Advancement system aside, the story of FFII follows four youths who get caught up in a battle for the fate of the world. One of them disappears early on, and the other three proceed onward, frequently joined by one of various allies who fills the fourth slot in the party until they have reason to part ways. The youths join the rebel alliance, a group opposing the draconian rule of the power-hungry Emperor (sound familiar?). Their quest leads them all over the world as they seek to undermine the Emperor’s plans of world domination and find the artifacts and magic required to overthrow him and restore peace to the world. Not the most original plot, but it suits the game and is well-implemented.

One disappointment for me was the music — having just finished FFI when I began FFII, I noticed a distinctive drop in the quality and complexity of the music in FFII. I’m a big fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the FF series, but I really think he phoned in the soundtrack for this game. On the other hand, he may have had stricter technical limitations placed upon him if the game engine was larger than in the previous game — either way, the music took a step back from FFI.

Gameplay is mostly fun, but the advancement system can lead to some difficulties — FFII seems harder than FFI. I often found that I wasn’t powerful enough to take on boss monsters, and had to grind for skills before I could proceed. There’s a new system for hearing about things and getting information out of people by mentioning keywords that they might know something about, but it seems pretty crude and awkward — of course, given that it was a pretty new idea back then, that makes sense. The world layout is kind of odd, with most of the world appearing as a northwest-to-southeast strip of land that sort of wraps around the world like the thread of a screw, so that if you head south or head east, you’ll wind up in the same place. Interesting, but I prefer the more traditional worldmaps of other games in the series.

Overall, I give FFII two and a half stars out of five. I liked FFI better in many ways. Where FFII shines is in concept, not in execution. I probably won’t re-play the Famicom version, but I may check out the Dawn of Souls remake for the Nintendo DS. Play this version only if you’re a hard-core FF fan and a purist looking to recreate the retro-gaming experience like I am.

The Snowball Effect

The debt snowball is a frequently-recommended method for successfully paying off debts in a relatively short period of time. It is related to the concept of compound interest, and it works by starting with small payments and building upon small, early successes to create larger, quicker successes later. But if you don’t pay off your debts, they can quickly snowball and bury you just as easily — the snowball effect works both ways. Successes tend to build upon and magnify each other, and failures do the same. And this effect isn’t limited to wealth — there are examples of it in health and relationships as well.

Let’s examine the snowball effect first in the context of money. Let’s say you have several outstanding debts (loans, credit cards, etc.) and you pay the minimum on each every month. At this rate, you will be in debt for roughly the rest of your life. To get out of debt, you can use a debt snowball: figure out how much more you can spare, and pay it all into one debt — typically either the one with the highest interest rate or the one with the lowest balance (there are good reasons for both; which one is best depends on your personality). When that one is paid off, take all the money you were paying into it every month and add it to what you’re already paying on the second one. You’ll be paying it off at a faster rate than you did the first one. When that’s done, roll the whole payment that used to go into the first and second debts into the third one. That will go even faster, and you’re well on the way to being debt-free. It can take a while, but if you don’t rack up more debts along the way, it will go faster and faster the longer you do it. It builds momentum.

Saving money works the same way. Compound interest builds savings in a manner similar to the debt snowball. The more money you have, the more you make, so there’s more there next time, so you make even more, and so on.

Of course, if you have debts and you don’t pay them down, the snowball effect will work against you — every month your debt will grow more than the previous month as interest and penalties accumulate and become the basis for the following month’s interest and penalties. The balance owed gets bigger and bigger faster and faster until you can’t possibly keep up with it! It’s important to keep the snowball effect working for you and not against you. Compound interest is a powerful double-edged sword.

The snowball effect isn’t limited to personal finance, though. It can also appear in other areas of your life. For instance, depression is a negative snowball effect that affects your mood. It’s a vicious circle. Depression can deter you from fixing your problems, allowing them to get worse, which can be even more depressing. This was my situation five years ago — I was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and $14,000 in debt besides. And the way I recovered from depression was very similar to the way I paid off my debts, though I had to take out a “loan” to recover from the depression, in the form of psychiatric treatment. Medication gave me the traction I needed to start making small positive changes in my life, those positive changes helped me feel better enough to make slightly more significant positive changes, and so on, until I no longer needed the medication and no longer felt depressed. The snowball effect in action.

I’m experiencing a negative snowball effect right now in my physical health, and working on finding the willpower to reverse it. An unhealthy diet and not enough exercise contributed to my being overweight, which makes it harder to exercise, which exerts pressure toward getting fatter and more unhealthy. One of my major focuses in the next month or two will be discovering ways to turn my health snowball around and make it work for me instead of against me. All I need to do is identify and implement the health equivalents of the things I did to improve my finances and mental health.

Snowballs can be used in relationships too, building your confidence on social settings and trust and intimacy with the people in your life by starting out with small steps and building on them. The more I learn about how to improve various areas of my life, the more I’m struck by the parallels between them. It seems like the same ideas come up in exercise as in dating as in personal finance as in mental health as in entrepreneurship as in healthy eating as in everything! It almost seems like it should be possible to create a generic template for “how to improve your X” which applies for nearly all values of X. One element of that template would be the snowball effect.

What other ideas do you have for applying the snowball effect?

The Greatest Video Game That Never Was

I was a Nintendo devotee in the NES and SNES days, back when Nintendo and Sega had an intense rivalry and Sony hadn’t yet arrived on the console gaming scene.  It’s no small coincidence that some of my favorite video game series began there.  Chief among them is the Final Fantasy series, many titles of which exemplify The Way Console RPGs Ought To Be.  I consider Final Fantasy IV (sold as Final Fantasy II in America) the greatest video game of all time and the paragon of console RPGs.  Given my love for both Nintendo and Final Fantasy, you can imagine my heartbreak when the two divorced in 1997, Final Fantasy leaving Nintendo’s 16-bit SNES for another console: the 32-bit Sony Playstation.

With this change from one generation to the next and one brand of consoles to another came other notable changes in the franchise, some for the better, some for the worse.  The games began fully embracing the industrial feel that was introduced in small ways in the early games and explored in more depth in FFVI (FFIII in America).  The resolution and color, of course, improved with the greater capabilities of the next-generation console, and the rendering was changed from 2D to 3D.

The industrialization of the Final Fantasy worlds has always felt out-of-place to me.  Although right from the beginning, Final Fantasy has had airships, technological marvels such as the warmech and the computerized sky castle in which he lives, and the occasional robot, these elements were used sparingly to add a touch of wonder and other-worldliness.  Here were things that could amaze our characters just as we would be amazed by their own magical abilities and equipment were they to step into our world.  When I played Final Fantasy III American, I was disappointed to see a much more industrial world than in I or II American.  It’s been many years since I played it, but I recall that I didn’t play far beyond an encounter with a ghost train — really?  A train soiling my beloved fantasy series?  FFVII carried this trend even further, featuring guns and slums and motorcycles and trains (again), departing further and further from its fantasy roots.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with games like that.  I was just disappointed to see such a shift in a series which had originally established itself solidly as high fantasy.  It continued getting darker and grittier and more industrial, and I continued thinking “gee, this is a fun game, but what ever happened to Final Fantasy?”.

Alongside the industrialization, the graphics improved from the SNES’s resolution of 512×448 with 32768 colors (but only 256 onscreen at one time) to the Playstation’s 640×480 with 16.7 million colors — and from the older tile-based 2D graphics to a new 3D style.  Sadly, this meant losing the old-fashioned charm that comes with the tile-based model.  3D games look more realistic, but they look less like games.  Every day another game comes out that looks more like a movie and less like a game.  There’s an inexplicable feeling of nostalgic fun and joy that I get when playing 2D games that is dampened by a 3D look, and further dampened in proportion to the realism of that look.  Some games should be 3D — the Unreal series is one example — but leave my console RPGs 2D and tile-based for best enjoyment.

All this leads me to one conclusion: there was an entire era of Final Fantasy games that I would have dearly loved to play, only Square never bothered to make them: the 32-bit 2D tile-based era.  Greater resolution, richer color, new and improved, while still retaining the charm of the traditional tile-based RPG.  Games strongly rooted in fantasy, using other genres for a touch of flavor rather than the main course.  Epic swords-and-sorcery tales in the tradition of FFI, FF4j, and FFV, not dark, gritty, industrialized worlds in the tradition of FFVI. 

I came to love the Final Fantasy series because of what it was in the early days, and it saddens me that they departed so far from their roots as they went on.  I can see only one solution to this problem: learn to make games so that I can write the games I wish they had.  This is why I am studying game programming: I intend to create the games that I would have played had they existed.  My first project will be a simple role-playing game engine for the PC, which I will then use and extend and expand to create the RPGs that never were.  Watch this space for news on my progress.  🙂

(Footnote: As you can imagine, I was VERY pleased at the announcement last week at Game Developer’s Conference 2009 in San Francisco that FFIV’s direct sequel, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years will be made available in North America this year as a WiiWare download.  It’s been out exclusively on Japanese mobile phones since early last year, and since I neither speak Japanese nor have a Japanese mobile phone, I was very disappointed to be missing out.  Hooray for WiiWare!)

Product Review: Gevalia Coffee For Two Coffeemaker

I acquired the Gevalia Coffee For Two coffeemaker a couple of years ago, looking for a way to save a little time and money in the mornings by having my own coffee instead of stopping at Starbucks. I joined the Gevalia Coffee Club, receiving occasional deliveries of various premium coffees throughout the year, and received the Coffee For Two as a free gift. I wound up cancelling the coffee club, but I still have and use the coffeemaker frequently.

As you can see from the link, the Coffee For Two is a pair of-side-by-side drip mechanisms which use separate filters to allow you to brew two different kinds of coffee at once. It comes with two travel cups that it brews directly into, so as soon as it’s done, you can grab your coffee and go. I also use it to make tea and hot chocolate — anything that uses hot water. Operation is simple — load the water in the top (directly from the cup so that you know it’s the right portion), set the selector switch on top to one cup or two, and load the coffee in a #2 cone filter into the filter chamber. At this point I usually go to sleep for the evening. 🙂 When I get up, all I have to do is to press the Start button on my way to the bathroom for my morning routine. When I emerge, a fresh cup of coffee is there waiting for me. And the second chamber means that if I have company, I can make two cups, or tea and coffee, or regular and decaf, or whatever two hot drinks we want simultaneously. And the travel cups are quick and easy to clean. This coffeemaker is a lifesaver in helping me wake up in the morning, and isn’t as much work or trouble as a regular coffee maker.

There aren’t many downsides. I have noticed that it sometimes sputters and spits small amounts of hot water over the edge of the cup while brewing and gets my table wet. Also, in my opinion, the coffee comes out TOO hot — I have to wait rather a long time or put a lot of refrigerated creamer in it before I can drink it. That’s part of the reason I like to start it before my shower — it does need some time to cool off. When I first ordered it, I thought it was programmable, so I was disappointed to learn that it won’t wake me at a pre-set time with coffee — perhaps I’ll find such a device next time I buy a coffeemaker. And one tip for making tea — don’t put the teabag in the brewing chamber unless you like weak tea. Much better to put the teabag in the cup. I was hoping to make the tea-making quicker by not having to deal with the bag until clean-up time later, but the convenience just isn’t worth the watery tea.

Overall, I very much enjoy this coffeemaker. I give it four and a half stars out of five. Try it out if you’re single or a couple and only want one cup of coffee (or one each) in the morning. It’s quick and easy and convenient.

Is Conventional Wisdom Robbing You of Your Savings?

Financial books and blogs frequently tout the importance of paying yourself first.  And in many cases, this may well be the best course of action.  Certainly when you’re new to personal finance and trying to get your affairs in order, if you don’t follow this wise advice you may never get around to saving.  But the practices that serve us well when we are first starting out can hold us back later on when we are wiser and better off financially.

The cost of paying yourself first only begins appearing when your income begins to exceed your expenses by a noticeable amount.  Let’s play with some numbers to see how this breaks down.

Pay yourself first:

Let’s say your net monthly income (that is, after taxes) is $1400 a month.  Rent and other bills cost you $1000, leaving you with $400 for living expenses (such as groceries) and entertainment (dinners out, movies, bars, video games, whatever) for the month.  That’s $100/week, and when a dinner out with your partner can easily run you $40, that money runs out quickly.  It’s easy to see how it might be difficult to carve out a percentage of your budget for savings in this scenario.  Paying yourself first makes sense here, because if you don’t, you may have nothing left to save later.  Decide how much you can spare and set it aside FIRST, before you spend it.

Don’t pay yourself first:

If, however, your gross income is $3000 a month (net $2000), things are a little different.  Let’s say you’ve developed a good habit of paying yourself first, so you squirrel away $200 (10% of your net) before paying anything else.  Your bills still total $1000, so you now have $800 left over for living expenses and entertainment!  Here’s where things go off-course: you’d probably be perfectly comfortable with only $600, but if $800 is just sitting there tempting you, you’re much more likely to spend it all — impulse buys, little splurges, things you don’t want or need.  You’ll spend it, but you won’t really get much benefit from having done so — especially compared to the value of the compound interest you could have been earning on it.

In this latter case, paying yourself first is precisely backwards.  There’s a much better way to budget your $2000: pay yourself LAST!  You know that you have $1000 of bills which have to be paid one way or another.  And through experience you’ve learned that $600/month in living money is a comfortable lifestyle.  So you budget those two figures and route the money to two separate checking accounts —  $1000 goes to an account for bills which is accessible only by checks (which you leave at home when you go out) or electronic bill pay, and $600 goes into an account which is also accessible via your ATM/debit card.  Now, after setting aside in advance the money you need to keep your bills paid and live a comfortable life, whatever’s left over goes to savings — $400, DOUBLE what you would have saved if you’d paid yourself first.

This strategy becomes even more valuable if your income fluctuates a bit — let’s say the following month you work some overtime and wind up with an extra $200 net — if you paid yourself first, this money is likely to get frittered away, but by paying yourself last, you get to keep it instead of giving it to people for things you don’t really need or, let’s face it, want.  This month you save $600 instead of $400 — excellent!

Some people call “pay yourself first” the golden rule of personal finance — but it is by no means the only way, or even the best way, to save successfully.  I’ve been paying myself last for several years, keeping just the leftovers after allocating fixed amounts each paycheck to bills and to discretionary spending.  By doing so, I’ve seen my net worth consistently grow over that time, putting my leftovers into paying down credit cards as quickly as possible (until I learned how to profit from keeping card debt), saving in high-interest savings accounts, and buying CDs to maximize my returns on my investment.  Paying myself last has improved my net worth a great deal, much more than if I’d been paying myself first.  The key is not to follow anyone’s financial advice (even if it’s EVERYONE’S financial advice) without question, but to think about what will work best for you, try things, and keep the practices that make you successful.

Welcome to the Technology Category!

When I sat down to write this post, I realized that my Technology category is a nearly blank slate.  Apart from the Gmail tip I posted a few weeks ago, this category has yet to be shaped by any posts.  So in order to introduce you to this category and to get my own techno-creative juices flowing, I’m going to begin by posting about some of the things I will likely discuss here, starting with the two main projects I’m working on right now:

DavidSafar.com – My most obvious project is probably this blog.  In addition to doing the writing, I’m doing a fair bit of work on it in PHP, HTML, and CSS.  I’m letting WordPress do as much of the heavy lifting as possible, but I also find myself needing to hack it occasionally or edit the theme.  When I do something particularly interesting or difficult with it, I will share my experience here so that you might benefit from it if you find yourself needing to do something similar in the future.

Tricks of the Windows Game Programming Gurus – I am working my way through this programming book, learning DirectX and game programming techniques with an eye toward writing my own fantasy role-playing games for the PC.  This is a large and complex topic (and a very long book), and I’m spending a lot of time on it.  I’ll post a book review in the Reviews section when I’m done.  When I move on to writing games, I will write posts here about that, too.

Some other tech-related things that are going on with me (or will be soon) that may generate posts:

Cell Phone Search – I’m in the market for a new cell phone, probably an Android phone.  If I discover anything interesting in my search, I’ll note it here.

Laptop Search – This is on the horizon, but I’ve decided to wait until Windows 7 hits the market later this year — I don’t want Vista, nor do I want to spend the money on a brand new Windows XP machine right before it becomes two versions old.  I’ll be looking to replace my current Dell Vostro 1000 with something a little beefier and better suited to some of the heavier programming tasks I expect to be throwing at it in the foreseeable future, and I’ll write about the selection process as it takes place.

Laptop Hard Drive Transplant – Since I’ll be keeping my current laptop around for a while, I do want to buff it up a little bit.  The next step in the process is to upgrade the hard drive to a faster one to speed up compiling.  This will likely entail using Norton Ghost or something similar to copy over all the data from my old hard drive to the new one without having to reinstall Windows.  I’ll discuss this process when I try it out.

The Importance of Adequate Cooling – Both my laptop and my gaming desktop have heat issues which cause them to either shut down or reboot without my permission when they get too hot.  I’ll be working to mitigate those in the next month or two before the heat of summer strikes, and documenting my methods and results.

Video Games – I’m a life-long gamer, just finding my way back into the fold after a rather long dry spell.  Along with posts about my own gaming projects, I’ll also talk about other games that are on the market for console and PC.

That’s a pretty good overview of the sorts of things you’re likely to see here in the near future.  I’m also open to tech questions, so if you have questions about tech topics, send them to me at askdavid (at) davidsafar (dot) com.  If I get enough questions, the Ask David tech advice column may become a regular feature here.

In summary, I’ll be covering all manner of topics in computers, hardware, software, operating systems, the Internet, programming, web design, and mobile devices, as well as taking questions on anything related to these areas of technology.  I’m looking forward to seeing where this section of the blog goes, and feedback is most welcome.  If you have anything to say, please share it in the comments.  🙂