Friday, February 27, 2015
Writing a science-fiction game has been quite a challenge, especially when dealing with technology. It was necessary to do quite a bit of research in some areas to make sure that the technology I imagined for this sci-fi world wasn't obscure or out-of-date. During beta-tests, I actually had some beta-testers arguing about how certain weapons should perform or what the radius of a grenade blast should be. These questions were quickly removed when Solar Echoes weapons were redesigned with fictional names, unrelated to any present-day weapons. Usually, the elements that are the most comparable with something from reality are the elements that are immediately called into question, because so far, I have not once heard anyone question the believability of any of our alien races. This is because the alien races are pure fantasy—I stated they existed in the Solar Echoes universe and it was accepted, with people ready to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in that universe.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
If an author is attempting to create a believable sci-fi universe and people are still wearing wrist-watches, using corded-phones, and the control room of a spaceship is filled with CRT monitors with green text displays, it's going to be rather difficult to sell the scene unless the universe is supposed to be sci-fi retro, focused on old technology. Suspension of disbelief can be lost quickly if we are expected to take such a scene seriously without explanation as to why old technology survived and is still prevalent in that fictional universe. It can be especially problematic if the portrayal of future-times includes something that would not have survived, technologically, yet for the science fiction author, this can be a serious quandary. It often requires a fair amount of research into technological trends, and a little luck in making an educated guess as to what will survive and develop in the future.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
I've often asserted that it is much more difficult to write sci-fi than fantasy because it is so much more reality-based. With fantasy, the writer can create the very laws of his universe, but a sci-fi writer cannot stray too far from reality without offering clear, reasonable explanations for doing so. However, with both genres, one simple concept undergirds everything the author writes—once he has established the “rules,” he cannot violate them without a warning and adequate explanation. While small violations can be overlooked by some, they may still remove the audience from the experience enough that they will not give a positive rating to the overall experience. Frequent violations, or even one or two major violations, will probably anger the audience to the point that they will give up, walk away, and give a very poor rating to the overall experience. It is key that the writer should avoid writing anything that will remind his audience that what they are experiencing is just a story.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
What can enhance or interrupt our suspension of disbelief? A while ago on this site, I discussed the differences between “hard” and “soft” sci-fi: Hard sci-fi “is characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.” (Wikipedia) Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, “refers to science fiction stories which lack a scientific focus or rigorous adherence to known science.”Fans of hard sci-fi are far less forgiving of something that is incongruent with reality and accepted science, so a small “error” can instantly disrupt their suspension of disbelief. Soft sci-fi fans may be as particular, but have come to terms with certain concepts, such as FTL (faster than light travel) and are able to accept the presence of such fictional elements without losing their suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi writers tread a dangerously thin line sometimes, because they must balance reality with fiction in such a way that readers will stay with them throughout their entire story.
Monday, February 23, 2015
If you're not familiar with the expression, “suspension of disbelief” refers to a willing acceptance of something fictional for the sake of appreciating and immersing oneself in it. We do it all the time when we watch movies or TV dramas, and the more we are able to let ourselves go and become immersed in the fictional work, the more it tends to impact us. Considering how much of a stretch some genres are from reality, it is impressive that there are so many fans of fantasy and science fiction! This only goes to show that we are imaginative people, as proven by the countless novels, films, and TV dramas that are produced to entertain us. Do you find it easy to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying science fiction? Or are there certain things that can completely ruin it for you?
Friday, February 20, 2015
That mobile phone you carry with you was actually inspired by “Star Trek.” Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola, credits the Star Trek communicator as his inspiration for the design of the first mobile phone, back in the early 1970's. Cooper says, “That was not fantasy to us, that was an objective.” Another invention we're familiar with is the Taser, but did you know what the acronym stands for? “Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.” Tom Swift was a brilliant inventor in a series of popular sci-fi books, conceived by Edward Stratemeyer (under the pen name of Victor Appleton), the very same author who invented the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys characters. Apparently, NASA physicist Jack Cover (who invented the Taser) was a fan of the stories!
Thursday, February 19, 2015
The sci-fi author E.E. “Doc” Smith wrote in the 1930's and 40's about the adventures of a galactic patrol, and his “Lensmen” novels inadvertently inspired a U.S. Naval officer. The Directrix, a command ship from the sci-fi series, had inspired the concept of combat information centers aboard warships. In 1942, the sci-fi author Robert Heinlein wrote about an inventor named Waldo that designed a remotely-operated mechanical arm for himself. In the mid-1940's, actual mechanical arms were developed in the nuclear industry and were named “Waldo's” to honor Heinlen for his innovation.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
What other inventions have been inspired by science fiction writers? The inventor of the modern helicopter, Igor Sikorsky, was inspired by Jules Verne, who had written about them in his story, “Clipper in the Clouds.” Sikorsky often quoted Verne: “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.” Robert H. Goddard was the American scientist who built the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, and he attributed his inspiration to H.G. Wells, saying that he became fascinated with spaceflight after reading the 1898 newspaper serialization of “War of the Worlds.” Goddard said the concept of interplanetary flight “gripped my imagination tremendously.”
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
I had an interesting conversation with a scientist I met at the Farpoint convention this past weekend. He talked about the fact that many scientific discoveries have been made by accident, and how the projects that spawned those accidental discoveries had needed funding in the first place—projects that might not have seemed to be very good investments. Although I don't think the scientist expected that grants and other funding sources should be issued for every notion of research that can be imagined, the implication was there that we might not advance in scientific discoveries if we weren't willing to give scientists the freedom to have a creative playground to pursue their research. This made me think about how science fiction has also influenced scientific progress, because many discoveries have been made as a result of inspiration from a sci-fi story. For instance, H.G. Wells envisioned an atomic bomb in his story, “The World Set Free,” which was published in 1914, and a submarine was imagined by Jules Verne in his story, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which was first published in 1870. How much has science fiction influenced those who funded the scientific research that prompted these ideas to become reality?
Monday, February 16, 2015
I'm back from the Farpoint Convention now, and I had a great time! It was awesome meeting so many people with similar interests, and I enjoyed seeing a few groups of people spend their entire days playing Solar Echoes! We had a number of sales, and quite a lot of interest--more than expected. I met so many great people and enjoyed talking with everyone a lot. There's something indescribable about hanging out with sci-fi enthusiasts--it's as if we let down all our barriers because it takes a certain vulnerability to openly share our inner geek. I miss everyone already!
Friday, February 13, 2015
Share the game!
At the beginning of the week, I mistakenly conveyed the notion that I thought table-top RPG's are dying out. Many table-top RPG's are doing extremely well, and predicted trends have been proven wrong—the expectation that most RPG's will move to digital-only has yet to occur, as beautiful, expensive, artistic game books have seen an impressive upsurge in production quality and sales. Yet there is always room for more to enter this hobby, and game stores (where the table-top gamers frequent) are only the beginning to spreading the word. Talk to gamers in other environments about table-top RPG's: use social media, talk to video gamers in person or online, talk to people at conventions (anime, sci-fi, etc.), get involved through meet-up groups online, jump into various forums, or just do it the old-fashioned way: invite a few people over for an afternoon and introduce them to your favorite table-top RPG. I'll be back at the Farpoint convention this year, today through the weekend, and am excited to meet new people and introduce them to Solar Echoes. If you haven't tried it and are interested, it would be great to see you there, as we'll be running games all weekend. Thanks for your support and interest in Solar Echoes!
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Enable the player!
Some RPG's have moved towards a rules-light approach, where only a few basic rules are in play and the game area is free of measurement. Though this is not ideal for a tactical game like Solar Echoes, some games benefit from a more open system. We felt it was necessary for squad combat in Solar Echoes, but we have actually used a more abstract distance system with our ground vehicle and starship battles. Parameters still exist, but open systems often make a player feel that the game is more approachable and easier to enjoy. Ultimately, games should empower the player so that, rules or not, he feels he can do what he imagines. Of course, some rules must exist for game balance, but players should feel that the rules are not arbitrarily imposed—that they make sense within the context of the game world. Another method of empowering a player is to provide him with lots of options. The more options available, the more the player feels he can customize his experience. Often, a player will gladly embrace a rules system if he has a chance to uniquely design a character that can more easily overcome the challenges of the game—this makes a character “build” feel more personal. An RPG that presents a wide variety of options to the player empowers him through the choices he makes.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Introduce the next generation to the concept of total imaginative freedom!
In our beta tests, some of our tests involved younger players, including some high school teenagers. The teens had never played a table-top RPG before, and began to respond with excitement to the open-ended possibilities of the game. They were at first shocked that they could do anything they chose, and quickly adapted to the freedom that a table-top RPG allowed them over a video game. The freedom in an open-world video game was still restricted by the boundaries imposed by the programmers—some buildings couldn't be entered, some things were inexplicably unaffected by player actions, and there were always barriers that prevented passage, somewhere. Yet when the teens played Solar Echoes, they became excited by the possibilities. One group chose a bold and risky tactic for the beginning of their mission (they drove their car through a wall, guns blazing), and the Mission Controller running the game simply adjusted and had the NPC enemies respond to the surprise. Chances are, if the scenario had been in a video game, driving through a wall would probably not have been an option—programmers simply can't predict everything players will think of! This is one of the advantages of a table-top RPG, and what makes it a true, “open world” experience.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
While in theory this may work, it's really difficult to say whether this is part of the solution or not. In my own experience, I felt certain editions of certain RPG's (without naming any names) were bogged down by excessive rules that resulted in gameplay that was often slowed to a crawl. Yet the “correction” to this problem that was offered in the very next edition of that game simplified the gameplay so much that it was compared to World of Warcraft or other video games—and the players hated that. What is needed is a good balance. One of my own litmus tests is if my pre-teen daughter can play it easily and stay engaged. While she could handle the aforementioned RPG, she often got bored when it came time to look up the rules and factor everything in. I remember times in my own game sessions with friends where, as a player, I found myself reading books while waiting on other players to figure out overly lengthy and complex rules. As a GM, I had to constantly scramble to reference all the rules, which often slowed the game and story. Though Solar Echoes may initially appear to be “crunchy” (rules heavy), we've really managed to streamline the rules and simplify the calculations necessary for determining the failure or success of an action. Ultimately, the goal is to keep the game moving, because the more interruptions the game suffers from rules hunting and lengthy calculations, the more challenging it is for a player to keep his “suspension of disbelief” engaged.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Make them faster for this faster-paced generation!
Are table-top RPG's dying out? I think that the landscape has changed slightly—new generations are not even aware of the hobby, and older generations are saying they just don't “have enough time” to play anymore. In fact, that statement was what I heard the most when attending the Farpoint sci-fi convention. One of the core concepts that went into the design of Solar Echoes was for the game to be fast—not only are players involved in a faster-paced game, but completing an entire mission can be done in a matter of 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the mission (our Gun Runner's mission in the Starter Kit clocks in at about 3 hours on average, and includes squad combat, hacking, a car chase, and starship combat.) By comparison, other RPG's might require 2 to 3 hours just to complete a single battle, resulting in a much longer game that can stretch from 6 to 8 hours per session, with several sessions required to complete even one adventure. Though there are long missions possible in Solar Echoes as well, much more will be accomplished in a shorter amount of time.
Friday, February 6, 2015
How does a low hit-point limit encourage teamwork? No longer will that grandstanding barbarian wade into the room to soak up damage regardless of the plans of other characters. In Solar Echoes, he would realize instantly that he's made himself a liability—an easy target. The more damage your character sustains, the less capable he becomes, due to accumulating wound penalties. Everyone on a team will want to keep team members alive and functioning at his/her best, or the whole team will suffer and possibly be outnumbered or face tougher odds. Vulnerability via low hitpoints means planning and coordination, and it has been automatic—players immediately realized this on their own and worked together as a unit. From total beginners to seasoned RPG veterans, every player group played as a team.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
So how did we achieve a focus on teamwork in Solar Echoes? We designed every aspect of the game to involve a group, and we froze the number of hitpoints each character has. As a character levels up, he or she does not gain any hitpoints. From a perspective of realism, this makes sense anyway—a bullet is a bullet, so whether you are an innocent and helpless civilian or a Navy Seal with 20 years of experience, a bullet is going to do the same damage and be equally lethal. Of course, we have many ways in the game to prevent a 1-shot kill: armor, cover, and evasive abilities will increase that Navy Seal character's odds of survival far beyond that of the civilian. But the point is, both people can only sustain the same amount of damage before death.
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Another problem I saw that encouraged hero-centric characters was the steady accumulation of “hit points” in popular RPG's. The more hitpoints you had, the tougher you were for enemies to defeat. Hit point growth awarded the ego—I can't count how many times I heard players laugh at the GM (game master), saying something like, “It only did 50 hitpoints damage? Ha! I still have 500 more, this fight is easy!” Often, this would be taken as a challenge by the GM, and rather than continue his role as someone who created a story and provided balanced challenges for the players, he felt tempted to smack down the arrogant player with a foe that dealt enough damage to humble him. The player would then respond by trying to buff up and design his character to be more resilient, to further confound/irritate the GM. This back-and-forth competition is rarely a formula for a good time, and certainly departs from what really makes an RPG fun: the journey of a group through challenging circumstances to craft a unique and memorable story.
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
You've probably heard us say it before, “Solar Echoes encourages tactics and team-play.” Sure, there are lots of games that claim the same thing. I believe, however, that unless the game is built from the ground-up with this perspective, it will fail at encouraging teamwork. In one of the most well-known RPG's out there, I remember one edition of rules that had some features meant to encourage teamwork. These benefits could only be gained if characters were working together in the game. It was clearly an attempt by the game designers to remedy the problem I mentioned yesterday, the hero-centric syndrome. However, at least in my experience and from what I read online, nobody ever used those teamwork abilities—why waste a slot for personal character enhancement on something that only functions if others are involved, too? Solar Echoes was designed to address this problem without superficial options to encourage team-play. In Solar Echoes, your chances of survival are drastically reduced if you're not relying on your team.
Monday, February 2, 2015
Cooperative multiplayer is a big issue in the industry these days, especially with video games. How does it relate to Solar Echoes, though? Table-top RPG's are, by nature, supposed to be cooperative games, but are they truly? Even though friends sit around a table to play, when was the last time you felt that everyone was working as a team? I played RPG's at the table for years with a variety of gaming groups, but seldom remember instances where the other players and I actively coordinated together—most everyone did his/her own thing.
The problem, I believe, is that most games are built upon the individual player feeling like a hero, so the result is that each player is competing against his friends to be the most heroic—this determination is usually ascribed to the one who dealt the most damage to a foe. Multiplayer video games usually aren't any different. While online video gaming often feels well-suited to competition, is the tabletop experience threatened by the same perspective? Maybe it's just me, but when I get together with friends on the weekend after a hard work-week, I really don't feel a very competitive mood. For me, fun is working as a team to accomplish game goals, feeling that my contribution is relied-upon for the group's survival. If each player could feel that way, wouldn't it be a better game experience for everyone?