Friday, June 30, 2017

New VR Game Review: Ancient Amuletor!

This week I downloaded “Ancient Amuletor” for the Sony PSVR. Before I share my impressions, I need to mention that I absolutely hate tower-defense games. Why did I buy Ancient Amuletor, then, you might ask—isn't it a VR tower defense game? Yes, it is, but after trying the demo, I was sold. There is something extremely fun about hopping around to different platforms as 1 of 4 different characters you play to take out the advancing enemy. You can play an archer, a gunner (with 2 hand-held shotguns), a mage, and a puppeteer. The archer's bow mechanic feels perfect, and you can totally imagine yourself as Legolas or Robin Hood, firing off arrows as fast as you can make the motion with the two move controllers. The gunner is also tons of fun, complete with a flipping motion to reload shells. The puppeteer is really unique—you throw out an avatar onto the ground with a giant axe in one hand and a giant hammer in the other, and then the swinging and slamming motions of your own arms are mimicked by your avatar as he slices and pounds nearby advancing enemies. The mage is very cool—you generate magical orbs with your spellbook (and can line up to 3 in the air) and then grab them with your wand. The mage is the most difficult to use, though, because you then have to hurl the orbs and getting them to land where you want them requires a lot of practice and skill. The orbs explode with area effect, though, so you can potentially take out a couple bad guys at once.

In addition to the normal attacks, each character charges up a special after a certain number of kills: the archer has a spread-fire chain that can hit up to 10 enemies, the gunner has a burst of unlimited ammo and quicker fire for a time, the mage can throw down a freezing blast, and the puppeteer's avatar can do a whirlwind spinning attack against all within his reach. You can switch between any character at any time during the game. There are also three pick-ups in the game: Slow, Attack, and Death. In addition to this, several of the levels have traps—if you hit them, the trap will initiate for a short time. For instance, I shot a target with my arrow at the perfect time, and that triggered a wooden contraption holding an axe that gave a quick burst of axe hacking across the path of the enemy, cutting the enemies there to pieces. Did I mention that there is up to 3-player multiplayer, too? I played it with a couple people already and it's fun bouncing around the platforms to cover all areas, teaming up against the giant boss creatures or hopping to an uncovered area where the enemies have advanced too far.

The enemies are varied enough, too. There are basic skeleton/mummy types that slowly advance and attack the crystals you're defending with melee attacks. There are archers that advance until they are in range and then start attacking the crystals with their arrows. There are bombers—big, slow guys carrying gigantic bombs that they bring right up to the crystals and then drop, blowing themselves up. There are centurions that have giant shields which they use to block your attacks as they advance. There are dark sorcerers that conjure up portals to summon more enemies. And then there are mages—they conjure up a spell that locks one of your available pedestal locations, preventing you from warping to it. If you happen to be standing on the one the mage locks, you can't leave it! There are also two boss fights, which involve a variety of attacks you must defend against either by shooting or literally dodging your body out of the way, all while trying to slowly bring down the giant boss's health.

My only disappointment with the game is that there are currently only 4 levels, but each level has 3 levels of difficulty (and Hard is HARD!) If you beat hard mode, the character you beat it with unlocks a special version of his or her weapon—it's only cosmetic, but it sure looks cool and gives silent bragging rights in multiplayer (you can't talk in multiplayer.) Despite only 4 levels, though, there are already spots in the menu that are locked but say “coming soon,” so I'm excited for the release of whatever DLC the developers have planned. They also have two locked/coming-soon spots for two more characters. I can't wait to see what they come up with next! (Update: just read that the developer is planning new bosses as well, in addition to the new levels and characters. They are also saying there will be “new game modes in later updates, which are not limited to just tower defense.”)

If you're looking for a serious, realistic, immersive VR game, maybe Farpoint or Star Trek Bridge Crew is the game for you. Ancient Amuletor doesn't pretend to be very realistic, as it has a cartoonish, arcade feel to it. The graphics are really solid, colorful, and consistent, including full-body avatars that you inhabit for each character. In my opinion, this style totally fits with the game and I love playing the different characters, hopping around between platforms to dispatch my enemies as efficiently as possible, flinging arrows or blasting away with the shotgun like I was in an action movie (I still need to practice that mage more—he feels so powerful when I can land my throws right!) The game is really fun, and I keep going back to play it. Games like this make me believe that VR won't just be an occasional experience. I want to beat every level on hard mode, not because I care too much about the cosmetic weapon unlocks, but because getting 3 stars in hard mode is a very fun mental and physical workout that makes me feel like I'm in an action movie!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How do you like to play your RPG's? (part 4/4)

Another new approach I'll be taking with future missions is based on some of the things I decided to include in Void Hunter. Some of the earlier missions involved moving from event 1 to 2 to 3 without downtime for the characters. In Void Hunter, I decided to "flesh out" a location or two with things players can either get involved with or just pass by if they're in a hurry. For instance, there is a bar/lounge area in the Void Hunter mission, and if characters want to spend time investigating, they'll find that some of the NPC's are more interested in gambling with them than answering questions. If the characters play a few games and develop a social relationship with some of the NPC's, they might open up to them a little and share some info. There are also a few places to shop, and possibly improve weapons in ways that aren't normally available. Yet there are still plenty of combat situations in the mission, too. I'm trying to accommodate all play styles in each mission now, and will leave it more up to the MC to decide what he is going to emphasize for his group of players.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How do you like to play your RPG's? (part 3)

With the latest mission, Operation: Void Hunter, I'm trying a few new things. The biggest difference between Void Hunter and previous missions is that this mission is the beginning of a larger story arc. It can still be played as a stand-alone mission--nothing is left unresolved at the end. However, there is a special section at the end for the MC that gives details about how the ending can play into a future story line. I haven't written the next mission yet, and it will probably be a couple months before I get to it, but if your players are the type that are interested in a larger campaign, then playing a few beginning level missions will level them up and prepare them for Void Hunter, a level 3 mission. By level 3, players will hopefully have the talents, skills, and equipment necessary to take on this challenging experience.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How do you like to play your RPG's? (part 2)

Earlier this year, I met for a few weekends to run Solar Echoes with a group that really wasn't interested in combat. I decided to use the Tarball Run mission, which involves a complex investigation to locate a target among a wide variety of starship racing teams. All the characters had to go on was a name and the fact that the racer had won the previous race. Nobody knew what he looked like, and no one was even certain what alien race he was. The mission was very involved and spanned a couple game sessions, but this group of players enjoyed the story and character interaction--they almost went out of their way to avoid combat! Knowing the type of mission a group will enjoy most is key to your players having a great time. As a mission-writer for Solar Echoes, though, I need to consider all this so that I can hopefully create something that is fun for everybody!

Monday, June 26, 2017

How do you like to play your RPG's? (part 1)

The new Solar Echoes mission, Operation: Void Runner, released on this weekend, and I've been looking back, thinking about the kind of game it is. A variety of RPG play styles exist among gaming groups, and from all the games I've run as a GM for so many different types of people, I've found that it's necessary to adjust for each group. At conventions, I need to pick the mission that best fits the group I'm gaming with, and this often involves a little guess work and some intuitive personality analysis. The biggest hint for me is watching people go through the process of building their characters together. Sometimes a new group of players just wants to jump in and start the game, so pre-made characters are quickly selected. This tells me that I need to run a mission that is faster moving with lots of action scenarios. The free demo, Operation: Flash Strike, is a great mission to run with players like this. However, when players take the time to carefully consider and build their characters, working together to make sure all skills are covered across the group, it becomes clear that I have a group that likes to plan every detail. A tactical mission is a good choice for a group like this, but I need to look deeper: some players are much more into role-playing than combat. If the players choose personalities and physiques for their characters that emphasize a theme or story, and if they choose talents that aren't combat-oriented, then I need to run a mission that focuses more on character encounters, dialogue, and intrigue.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Operation: Void Hunter (part 5)

The mission is on schedule for a Saturday morning release. What is included in Operation: Void Hunter? You'll find fully detailed NPC hunters in addition to other NPC's you can interact with, including a couple that might be useful resources in future missions. Mechanics are included for several weapon options, there are menus with exotic food and drinks, and there is even a small shop with some unusual, modified weapons. There are full colored maps and map icons for all of the alien lifeforms, including the new and very dangerous Mokaru, illustrated by John Fell. Full-color art and great art design is peppered throughout the mission to enhance the experience, and to top it all off, the storyline of Operation: Void Hunter is the beginning of a larger story arc that will span across future missions. It can be played and completed as a separate mission, or played as part of a larger campaign. I hope you like what I've put together and enjoy the characters, battles, story, and everything else included in Operation: Void Hunter. Have fun!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Operation: Void Hunter (part 4)

Players will have to make a lot of decisions in their investigation. After landing at a Hunter refuge a few hours from the coordinates of the Voidrunner landing, they may want to learn from the locals about the planet before plunging into the hostile wilderness. There are even NPC hunters that might be willing to join the team and guide them--for a fee. Gathering information will be easy with some NPC's, but others might require more from the characters. Playing a few gambling games, buying some drinks, or stroking a few egos might yield useful intel. Once they are ready to face the wilds, though, players will be up against the natural world of Sa'mesh. Survival will often depend on some of the choices they make more than the firearms they carry.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Operation: Void Hunter (part 3)

Why are the players' characters being sent to Sa'mesh? The Union Guard is acting on a tip that an unregistered Voidrunner starship was spotted landing somewhere in the forests of Sa'mesh. Voidrunners are unique Reln starships that can enter--and return from--the deadly dimensional rift in space known as the Voidsea. No other race has managed to survive the Voidsea, but the Reln have somehow figured it out, and have been collecting artifacts from an advanced alien civilization that was obliterated when the Voidsea was formed. These mysterious and powerful artifacts are classified secrets by the Reln government, but on rare occasions, smugglers and spies have managed to bring some of these artifacts to the black market. The unregistered Voidrunner landing on Sa'mesh is highly suspicious, so the Union Guard is sending you and your team to investigate and to stop any illegal activities.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Operation: Void Hunter (part 2)

This mission takes place on the Krissethi planet, Sa'mesh. You may recall that earlier in the year, I released the "Explorer's Guide to Sa'mesh," which details the planet and culture, including a few NPC's, two new weapons, the details of local cuisine and a guild, plus a mission involving a new lifeform, the Green Jegu. The Explorer's Guide is actually a helpful supplement for fleshing out the world of Sa'mesh, and can be used as a great companion guide for creative GM's that want to detail the experience as much as possible. However, you don't need the Explorer's Guide to fully enjoy the Void Hunter mission. I wanted players to be able to visit Sa'mesh at earlier levels (the mission in the Explorer's Guide is level 8), so I designed the Void Hunter mission for characters of level 3-4. Players beware: though the Krissethi planet is officially labeled a wildlife preserve, it is actually a commercialized hunting ground full of deadly lifeforms. Do you think you can survive the wilds of Sa'mesh?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Operation: Void Hunter

I am nearing completion of this exciting new mission for Solar Echoes, and hope to have it ready to purchase by Saturday this weekend. During the spring of 2017, I worked hard on the demo, "Operation: Flash Strike," and developed a lot of new techniques and standards for missions. The Void Hunter mission is looking really good, and is packed full of content, including lots of colorful artwork. I've added a lot of role-playing content to the mission as well, detailing a number of NPC's the characters can interact with. There are also some options included that are derived from opportunities detailed in the Mission Controllers Guide, so players will have a chance to try a few creative modifications. Tomorrow, I'll share a little about the mission setting...

Friday, June 16, 2017

VR Analysis Update (part 5)

I'm not a fan of Star Trek, but the Star Trek: Bridge Crew game had me really interested because it involves players working together to operate a starship (similar to the starship game system in Solar Echoes.) I bought the game and went through the training tutorial. It was very impressive: I could design my character's appearance a little and then look down at myself and see my hands, arms, and body in VR. After learning the different roles (Captain, Helm, Tactical, and Engineer) I tried the game with some AI-controlled crew. It was very impressive, but the true fun started when I tried it online with real people. It was like we were all in the same room together, talking, laughing, waving, and blowing up angry Klingons as we worked together as a team, each of us with our own crucial contributions toward the operation of the ship. This game shows me that the developers got it--they understood that designing a game for VR is largely about creating a gaming experience from a perspective that puts you into the character's shoes and allows you to actually physically do the things that character does. One of the coolest things about VR are my memories of playing the game: I have to remind myself that it wasn't actually reality, but my memories feel like I was really there!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

VR Analysis Update (part 4)

The problem I have with teleportation in VR games is that it totally ruins immersion, constantly reminding you that you're in a game. This is fine for some styles of games that are more arcade-like, but I think it totally spoils the experience of role-playing games, for instance. Supposedly, Bethesda Game Studios is going to update Fallout 4 with VR, but in their first reveal, they indicated they are only using teleportation (some say that has changed, though I've not found official confirmation). In my opinion, teleportation should always be an option for players, but free movement should be an option for those that don't get nausea and have developed their "VR legs." The recent release of first-person-shooter "Farpoint" allows free roaming movement, and though I don't have the game (yet), I've watched people playing it online and have read that the nausea-factor has somehow been minimized. An important thing to note, though, is that not all games need to involve free-roaming environments to be great in VR...

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

VR Analysis Update (part 3)

Another major concern that you may have heard talked about is the nausea factor. I'll be totally honest: Yes, it is an issue. Several of the VR games I've played have made me nauseous, because there is a disconnect your brain experiences when your eyes tell it that you're moving but your body is not in motion. It depends on the game and each individual. Some people have no problems, but others have immediate reactions. One thing developers are doing to address this issue is they are increasing the frame-rate. This helps--Sony has been putting out suggested parameters for developers to adhere to, in order to reduce or eliminate dizziness and nausea. Another approach that has worked is including graphics on the perimeter of your view that are stationary, to sort-of "ground" you in a stationary spot, even if the rest of the screen is in motion. However, there is one solution a lot of developers are using that I don't like: point and click teleportation...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

VR Analysis Update (part 2)

I want to address some of the issues with VR that still have some concerned. Price is one thing that deters a lot of people, and it is expensive. The Sony PSVR is $400 for the headset alone. You also need a camera, and the experience is seriously lacking without two "Move" controllers. You can get the headset and all this, plus a collection of games called "VR Worlds" for $500. It's obviously not a cheap entry fee into virtual reality, and many doubt it will be worth the experience--until they've tried it. The reason the system is selling well so far is because people have been blown away by the experience and the amazing potential of this new technology. The reason I haven't regretted buying it is because I, like so many others, have faith in the incredible possibilities that VR brings to gaming and entertainment in general. I can't wait to see what they do with it next! Update: At E3 it was just announced that Bethesda Game Studios is bringing "Skyrim" to VR! It looks amazing!

Monday, June 12, 2017

VR Analysis Update

Some of you may remember my review of Sony's Virtual Reality system, the PSVR, when it released back in the fall. I haven't said anything about VR since then, mostly because of the games that released for it a few months after the big titles. A lot of indie developers were, in my opinion, trying to make a quick buck off of the early adopters of PSVR, putting out poorly designed games, if some of them could even be called "games." These early releases were over-priced and under-par in quality. Many people worried that PSVR was not going to see significant developer support, and hesitated to buy the device. Many developers watched and waited--they weren't willing to invest in game development for what might be an under-adopted device. Despite some hiccups along the way, though,I think PSVR has finally arrived...

Friday, June 9, 2017

Exciting News for Miniatures!

Solar Echoes 3D-printed miniatures at Shapeways are now much more affordable! In the past, printing miniatures with high-detail in the “Frosted Ultra Detail” plastic was quite expensive: It was almost 3 times more expensive than the cost of printing in the lower detail, “White Strong and Flexible” material. For example, the low detail Omul figure costs $7.48 but the high-detail Omul used to cost $23! However, Shapeways has changed their printing
process and upgraded their machines, so now the cost of printing a high detail Omul is only $11.86! That's just a little more than a $4 difference, which is really fantastic and much more approachable. Shapeways sets their prices by cubic volume and material, so the most expensive high-detail Solar Echoes miniatures are the Archaeloid and Chiraktis: $13.42 and $13.36 respectively. The cheapest high-detail Solar Echoes miniatures are the $9.70 Reln and the $10.24 Erwani. Still, the low-detail prints are great quality, too, with a price for the figures ranging from $6.07 (starship) to $8.11 (Chiraktis). I hope you enjoy the great figures sculpted by Jeremy Gosser (characters) and Charles Oines (starship), and that they help make your Solar Echoes games even more exciting!  


Thursday, June 8, 2017

A New Season of Solar Echoes (4/4)

Skirmishes! I already have the cover art for another project--remember a while ago I shared the development of the Archaeloid vs. Omul fight scene? I haven't shared the final art because I still have a lot to do on this product, but I am planning to put together a small rulebook for conducting competitive games with Solar Echoes characters. This will involve a lot of maps, so it will take quite a lot of time, but I'm hoping to make more progress on this product over the summer. Considering that I'll be attending the Shorehammer convention for Warhammer gamers in December, it will be interesting to get the feedback of seasoned competitive wargamers on this new product!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A New Season of Solar Echoes (3/4)

Speaking of more art, I'm hoping to involve artist John Fell in a bigger move to produce a lot more art work for Solar Echoes. If things work out, I have a number of plans that involve art pieces. One project I've been hoping to do is design a dossier of NPC's. This would provide information about a variety of characters that GM's can use in any game. The NPC's would each be illustrated and would include stat information, background stories, motivations, tactics, and possibly some mission seed ideas for GM's looking for a good way to fit them into a scenario. This archive of NPC's will include each character detailed on a full character sheet that can be printed out easily. The NPC's are also part of a larger story, too, and will give GM's a deeper glimpse into what is going on in the Solar Echoes universe. John Fell's civilian art already demonstrates his capacity to design a variety of NPC characters (see art below), so I can't wait to get started on this project with him soon!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A New Season of Solar Echoes (2/4)

Another plan I have for this summer is to revisit past mission releases and give them a graphical overhaul to match the new format I've been using. If you haven't yet downloaded the free demo, Operation: Flash Strike, you might want to do so just so you can see what I'm talking about; full-color art, borders and highlighted areas, with other minor improvements such as better headings, nicer tables, and overall, better organization. It will be a lot of work and time to improve everything, but I think it will give everyone more value for their money and make the game even easier to follow and more exciting. Who doesn't like more art work?

Monday, June 5, 2017

A New Season of Solar Echoes

Summer has arrived! Soon, classes will end and the summer will be underway. Sometimes summer is busier for me than the school year because my schedule is less consistent, but I'm looking forward to these three months with a bit more time available to invest towards Solar Echoes. I have a lot of plans, and I wanted to keep you updated about the future. One thing I plan to finish first is the new mission, Operation: Void Hunter. I tested it at the Balticon convention recently and the adventure was a success. There's something different about this particular mission, though: It's part of my plan for a larger, over-arcing story that will span several missions. I'm excited to continue the story, and my hope is to have part two of the series out before the end of the summer. Void Hunter should be available in a week or two--I'll let you know!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Balticon 51 Battle Report (part 3)

The mission I ran the most during the Balticon convention was Operation: Flash Strike, which you can download for free at RPGnow, or directly from my dropbox, here:

It was exciting to see how each group handled the situation differently. A few moments across all those games stick out in my mind, though—many times, people decided to use the overhead air ducts for recon before attacking the smugglers in the warehouse. This allowed them to get a view of part of the warehouse and help the rest of the team waiting outside to prepare for breach. However, once the signal was given and everyone attacked, the air-duct operatives all tried to open the air vent and jump down from the 15' drop. Only one out of the 5 people that tried this actually made the athletics check and landed safely. One dropped right in front of someone with an assault rifle, and three others fell and hurt themselves when they landed. One character was shot and immediately threw up a nanite wall to protect himself (see photo: the nanite hedge was represented by a red rubber-band). Another incident that sticks in memory is when two smugglers jumped into a car, preparing to speed away, but a female Reln character managed to run up to the car, open the door, and shoot the passenger. As he shot back at her, she dove for cover and avoided being hit while the passenger died from his wounds. There was some pretty amazing stuff that went on, including exciting car chases, aggressive interrogations of prisoners, and clever wordplay.

One of my very favorite moments was during an interrogation with the arms dealer: Each team member tried, using diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate, but the arms dealer managed to resist and shut down their attempts. After everyone had failed with him, the Omul character finally decided to try, and using his only Influence die, he actually rolled well each time! He managed to improve the dealer's posture enough that the group could extract the information they needed. The only failure of the Omul was near the end, when he failed his Discern Motive check and heartily agreed to the arms dealer's demands, promising him witness protection, a million credits, and his very own starship. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Balticon 51 Battle Report (part 2)

Another memorable moment during Balticon was when a very large team (7 players!) was heading into the deadly forests of the Krissethi planet, Sa'mesh. They were soon surrounded by a pack of reptilian, dog-like creatures with whip-like tails called “Snapwhippers.” As they fought the dodgy lifeforms that ran around and wore them down with tail strikes, the Archaeloid on the team decided to get away from the pack of creatures and approached a nearby river. He succeeded at his Awareness check and noticed some very odd fish with tentacles sprouting from their mouths, but decided to swim the river anyway—he's an Archaeloid, after all! Unfortunately, that did not go well for him, because as soon as he entered the water, the fish-creatures attacked. One fastened itself to his neck with its tentacles and started draining his blood. When he emerged from the water on the other side of the river, he grabbed the creature to remove it, but discovered it had venomous spines in its fins. Though he successfully pulled it from his neck and threw it back into the river, he began to bleed profusely because of the anti-coagulant venom in the creature's saliva, not to mention his muscular convulsions from the venom spines. The poor Archaeloid was in bad shape—and separated by the dangerous river from his friends, who were still fighting the snapwhipper pack. When he sent a signal for help, he added, “DON'T GO IN THE WATER!”