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Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack of all trades vs the one-trick pony

Cast your mind back to the start of the year, and a discussion we had about how digital interactive fiction is breaking out of the gamebook ghetto by using maps, comics, animations and audio instead of prose. Or as well as prose, anyway. Among many good points he made in the comments, Emanuil Tomov said this:
"There's a useful tension, even a moral one, in reconciling minmaxing with possible unsalutary effects this could have on the narrative. Imagine a system where you can either spend or hoard XP, spending being linked to short-term benefits, hoarding being linked to 'advancement' through a richer background for the character, learning skills through interesting narrative that deepens your understanding of the character, forming certain bonds with powerful allies, etc. XP literally represents your experience in the world. Now imagine a PC who spends all their XP short-term and they're really, really, really good in a pinch; but they're completely flat, a competent, one-trick bit player in a story where they could've been much more. It's an interesting trade-off both on the minmaxing and the narrative front.
This point about the value of versatility reminded me of a section in Game Architecture and Design, which I co-wrote with Andrew Rollings to get the horrors of working in the trenches at Eidos out of my system.

The book is twelve years old now, and games have sure moved on, so don't feel you have to run out and buy it. By the time I was working at Elixir Studios, only a few years on from the Eidos of the late '90s, software development for games had been completely revolutionized, and that made my job as designer a pure pleasure. But I digress; we were talking about versatility...

Versatility in gameplay
A useful rule-of-thumb for anticipating gameplay is to ask what is the best and worst thing about each of the player’s options. For instance:
  • This maneuver does the most damage, but it's the slowest
  • This maneuver is the fastest, but it leaves me defenseless
  • This maneuver gives the best defense, but it does little damage
And then there's a unique kind of choice:
  • This maneuver is never the best or the worst, but it's the most versatile
So a useful question to ask yourself when designing a weapon or strategy for your game is "When, if ever, is this the best option for the player?" Most choices that you put into the game should be the best in some way. And one of these can be the choice that works only moderately well, but in many different ways: the jack of all trades option.

The more unpredictable the game environment, the bigger the payoff for having versatility of choice. Beginners in particular will benefit from versatile options in a game, as it means there's something they can do while working their way up the learning curve. But versatile options are handy for expert players too. When fighting an expert opponent, you must expect the unexpected, and choosing the versatile maneuver or unit may buy time to put together a more considered response.

One obvious kind of versatility is speed. The fast moving character or unit can quickly go where it's needed. So, normally, you won't want the fastest units to also be the best in other ways.

Also, the value of a fast-moving unit depends on the game environment. On the battlefields of the 14th century, a knight was deemed to be worth 100 foot soldiers. That wasn't because knights were each individually as tough as 100 men, but rather because, in a terrain of hedgerows, ditches, ploughed fields and heathland, the knight had more chance of being at the right place at the right time.

There are many other ways to make an option versatile. If a beam weapon can be used to mine asteroids as well as to destroy incoming nuclear missiles, then that versatility can make up for a disadvantage elsewhere. Of course, if there is no compensating disadvantage, there's no interesting choice. Be careful not to make the versatile choice dominant over all others. Also, be aware that the versatility of a choice may not be obvious even to you as designer. In the last chapter, we saw how the designer of the fantasy game Arena hadn't originally anticipated the way players might use the fireball spells.

You can measure versatility by looking at the switching costs in the game. This is how much it costs a player to change his mind about the strategy he's using. An example in an espionage game might be if you recruit a spy and later realize you need an assassin instead. The switching cost is however much you wasted on the wrong character, assuming for the sake of argument that the spy is not usable elsewhere. So, say that both cost $1 million. When deciding which to buy, at first you'd think, "If I buy the spy and I need the assassin, I'll end up paying $2 million. If I choose right, it costs me just the $1 million. On the other hand, suppose I buy both now. I only need one, so I'll have definitely wasted $1 million."

Now suppose there is another character, the ninja, who can function as either spy or assassin. How much should the ninja cost? It depends how unpredictable the game is. In this example, if the game were completely predictable, the player would know in advance which character to recruit and so versatility is of no value - the ninja should cost $1 million just like the others. In a completely unpredictable environment, the average cost would be $1.5 million ($1 million if I choose right, $2 million if I choose wrong), which is what a good gambler would pay you for the ninja. Since the truth will lie between those extremes, the versatile unit should cost more than $1 million but less than $1.5 million.

Versatility is more prized in an uncertain environment. No multiplayer game is completely predictable, since you can never know what the other player(s) will do. Even in a relatively predictable game, some levels are more uncertain than others. All of which makes the choice between specialization or versatility an interesting one because it all depends on the circumstances.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Making a list, checking it twice

Sorry, I'm going to mention the C-word. Or should that be the Ch-word? Anyway, the excuse is that it's just a month away and so you might want to start ordering some presents. If so I have a few recommendations, which in the absence of any objective criteria I am basing on cronyism. So here are the books my friends and associates have ready to fill that esurient stocking.

To begin with, Oliver Johnson's classic Lightbringer Trilogy, recently re-released by Gollancz as ebooks. For the virtual stocking, then:

Seriously, how many fantasy epics do you know of that adhere to Aristotle's unity of time? Next up, how about James Wallis's justly award-winning parlour game meets RPG, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen?

It's hard to describe, but here's the official version:
"Can you keep up with Baron Munchausen's extraordinary adventures as he travels to the Moon and the Sun, rides cannon-balls, defeats armies single-handed, meets the gods, and escapes from bandits on half a horse? The stories of the legendary nobleman come to life as players battle to outdo each other's fantastic feats and amazing accomplishments. It's a role-playing story-telling game of outrageous originality and swashbuckling exaggeration, stretching the bounds of truth until they twang. How is this possible? If Baron Munchausen is involved, anything is possible. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen contains full rules, more than two hundred adventures ready to be played, mechanics that replace dice and pencils with money and fine wine, and many insults against the inhabitants of various nations, but principally the French. This expanded edition is a facsimile of a suppressed volume originally published in 1808. It contains additional rules for playing in an Arabian style and a complete supplementary game, 'My Uncle the Baron', designed for children, the inbred, and those who are very drunk."
Moving on, those of a more serious disposition may prefer the writings of Tim Harford. All of his books are elegant, entertaining and eludicatory, but for my money none is better than The Undercover Economist. It's that rare animal, the informative work that actually makes you feel smarter, not dumber:

Hang on now, Christmas is for children, right? What gift would I suggest for them? Well, if they're older kids then there's no reason why they wouldn't eagerly devour The Undercover Economist or play the alcohol-free variants of Baron Munchausen. But for the younger ones, 6-8 years or so, what about a subscription to The Phoenix comic, which includes the Dirk Lloyd strip by our very own Jamie Thomson?

I also highly recommend the Dark Lord audiobooks, read with spellbinding brilliance (and barely audible flatulence) by Jamie himself - but I can't find the links to those - so if anyone knows where they can be got, please leave that info in the comments below!

As another gift for the little 'uns, take a gander at Martin McKenna's very original picture book The Octopuppy:

"Edgar wanted a dog. Instead, he got an octopus named Jarvis. Jarvis is brilliant and does his best to act like the dog Edgar wants, but nothing he does is good enough to please Edgar. Ultimately, Edgar recognizes that while Jarvis might not be the dog he wanted, he is special in his own endearing way."
Talking of Martin, middle-graders, teens and adults alike should enjoy the Mirabilis graphic novels that I created with him (on covers) and Leo Hartas (on interior art). You know the premise by now:
"A mysterious green comet grows bigger in the sky. In the comet’s glow, miracles multiply like orchids under a tropical sun. Myth, magic and marvels are in the very air. Everything you can possibly imagine is now part of everyday life."
And the first book, Winter, is so perfect a fit for the festive season that I know of at least one person who read it on the night train out of Moscow on Christmas Eve! So maybe you'll forgive this lapse into self-promotion:

Since Mirabilis is a creative group effort, Leo deserves to have a place on this list all his own - so let me steer you towards his website, where you can contact him to buy original artwork that will make you the envy of fantasy geeks everywhere. As well as his maps for Fighting Fantasy, Leo has lately been colouring his illustrations for my first ever gamebook, Crypt of the Vampire - and doing a bang-up job of it, too, as you can see from the image at the head of this post.

Christmas is also a time for telling scary stories. Not all of John Whitbourn's unforgettable Binscombe Tales are about ghosts, or even strictly fit into the category of horror, but all are weird and wonderful, and manage to be both icily disturbing and warmly funny:

Having started on the precipitous slope of cronyism, I may as well fling myself right over into the chasm of nepotism by mentioning my wife, Roz Morris's, latest novel Lifeform Three. This is literary SF in the tradition of Bradbury and Ballard, perhaps with a dash of Pixar and Pinocchio. In a future where mankind have lost their souls to commercialism, an artificial "bod", built only to serve, starts to question his place in the universe as a result of forging a relationship with a quite unlikely pet.

Anything else? Oh yes -- happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Vivian Stanshall and the Telstars

‘We need a writer for an animated TV show. It’s from a concept by Viv Stanshall – ’

I was off like a shot. Viv Stanshall? The Bonzos. Do Not Adjust Your Set. Sir Henry Rawlinson and Cumberpatch the gardener – not to mention Old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer. Work on something cooked up in that great rambling, fecund greenhouse of a mind? You bet.

Well, even the best of us fires a blank from time to time. Viv’s “concept” was of a bunch of kid tadpoles living in a canal. The leader’s name was Walthamstow. That was the first red flag. It was where Viv grew up, but dammit, I don’t call any of my characters Stoke Poges, do I? The first gag in the script was a pun on Henry Ford’s comment that “history is bunk”. In a show for 7-10 year olds. A writer, they said they needed? I had to explain I’m not qualified to administer the Last Rites.

Other characters in the original pitch were Taddy Boy, complete with frock coat and Chris Isaak quiff, and a frog called the Wise Old One. Along with the name of Walthamstow’s gang (the Telstars) that rather stamped an expiry date on the whole package. There was also a Scottish tadpole who wore a Tam O’Shanter and always carried tartan bagpipes. Let’s not even, as they say. To help sell all this there was an animatic for which the production company had somehow managed to rope in Stephen Fry and Neil Innes. (Innes isn’t too big a surprise, admittedly, being Viv’s old mucker and therefore bound to do it for Old Times’ Sake, but what Fry was thinking I don’t know.)

The guys at the production company were excited because they had shown the animatic to a BBC exec and he had expressed a flicker of amusement. I wasn’t there, but I’m familiar with those Matrix-like halls and I’m willing to hazard that it was really just a hiccup after a long lunch. Encouraged as they were by this apparent evidence of approval, the production company nonetheless realized that the whole thing needed to be torn down, sown with salt, and rebuilt in pristine materials.

‘That name Walthamstow…’

‘Yeah. No. That’s shit, obviously. You can get rid of that.’

‘So what do we have to keep?’

‘Well, it’s got to be called Tadpoles.’

That’s what you want in a brief – ie, it actually was. I had just finished working at Elixir Studios, so I was familiar with the canals of Camden Town and liked the idea of dropping an edgy feeling of urban clamour and detritus into the canal – a development that I don’t believe Viv would have objected to.

As it often helps to have a writing partner when you want to spin up the levels of energy needed for comedy and/or animation, I roped in a friend of mine. (She is quite well-known these days, though wasn’t back then, and as I haven’t sought her permission to talk about this, I’ll be a gentleman and leave her name out of it.) We knocked out a script (this is one of several versions) after first changing all the characters:
TADPOLES Aquatis Personae

Finzer – aka (only to himself) "The Finz". Desperately wants to be cool, so the fact he's a tadpole AND a kid really gets him down.

Bino – Finzer's cousin. An albino tad; big and tough (for a tadpole).

Izzy – a wannabe tad. Don't call him a newt to his face.

K8 – pronounced "Kate". She’s sweet on Finzer, although she's in heavy duty denial about that.

Sprat – brainier than the rest and boy does he like them to know it. Sprat is a fish and, brainy as he is, he still can't figure out how come he and Finzer are half-brothers...

Dad Pole – dumb as ditchwater, but doesn't realize it.

Massy – Dad Pole’s girlfriend; the mother-figure of Finzer's household.

Mrs Todpuddle – the gang’s teacher. The longest suffering tadpole in the canal.

Spikey – the local bully/menace. He’s a mean-eyed fish and he’d like to eat you, but not before he’s sold you a dodgy timeshare in the Norfolk Broads. Think Arthur Daley at 78 rpm.

The Frogs – three grand old figures who are only glimpsed at the water’s edge, turned half away in profile like brooding Easter Island statues. Everyone thinks the Frogs are enormously wise and the source of all good fortune, but they never speak to tadpoles and might very well not even know they exist.

What came of Tadpoles? I’m not sure. I was busy with Leo Hartas preparing our comic strip Mirabilis: Year of Wonders to appear in The DFC, as well as developing book concepts with Jamie Thomson such as the Dark Lord series. Meanwhile, my Tadpoles writing partner had projects of her own. And the production company that hired us went out of business with the new animatic only half-finished. So, shrug. You get a lot of things like this to work on if you’re a freelance writer, usually for no money up front, and most of them deserve to be deep sixed. It’s not like it was a project very dear to my heart. The only regret is that it would have been nice to do something in memory of Viv Stanshall. Maybe this show, though, would have done him no favours.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The fantasy podcast

If you want to interview Jamie, invite him down the pub. Oliver McNeil, who recently ran a sort of theatrical Knightmare-type Kickstarter involving Tom Baker instead of Tregard, cornered the Thomsonian one in The Snowdrop in Lewes and there grilled him with questions about the Fabled Lands, Dirk Lloyd, and various other projects.

The only bit Jamie was evasive about is when Oliver asks him how he got his first job on White Dwarf. The truth is that Jamie's mum got him that job. Knowing that he wouldn't bother to apply, she rang up Ian Livingstone and told him all about her immensely talented, smart, personable, diligent son. Unfortunately his elder brother Peter couldn't make it to the interview, so Jamie got the job instead.

If you don't have the time to watch it, download the mp3 podcast here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The road more traveled by

Following on from the previous post, I don't want to give the impression that all of my collaborations with Jamie consist of me writing something and then him taking over and cutting out half of it. They do say murder your darlings and, as Hitchcock and Highsmith pointed out (above), it helps to get a friend to do it for you.

Here's a case where it went a little differently. We were talking to the Fabled Lands agent, Piers Blofeld, about digital gamebooks. I mentioned time travel and how for it to really grip as a story it has to be personal. We talked about the old Falcon gamebooks that Jamie wrote with Mark Smith in the 1980s, and how those were very much in the 2000AD adventure style, but how maybe they could be rebooted with a little more relatability for a wider audience.

So I wrote this as a possible new way in to the story of a protagonist who gets to "fix" mistakes in time:
You always had a sixth sense. And people laughed at you for trusting it. But you knew better. The time your friends at high school piled into Billy’s older brother’s car to drive out for a picnic, and Billy had only had one beer but you felt something like a physical dread. Couldn’t get in the car. You watched them drive off and six hours later you watched the crane haul the car out of the west river.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” the cop asked.

“I had to study.”

Because you’d already learned not to talk about your glimpses of the future, even then. When people thought you could see what was coming up, they blamed you if it went bad. Best to say nothing. Keep the sixth sense – or whatever it was – to yourself.

But you learned to trust that sense. Right up till the last day of your life.
Okay, so then there's an elision to a scene in which you are in a plane crash...
A bang. It just sounded like a tyre blowout until the gravity switched off.

You wake up in the wreckage. Not too badly hurt, as far as you can tell, but you’re completely trapped in a cage of twisted seats and crushed fuselage. A liquid drips on you, causing an icy stab of panic until you realize it’s not aviation fuel but some kind of air con coolant. Even so, you can dully hear screams through the wreckage, and the smell of burning.

An overhead locker pops open and a bald man in a neat dark suit and grey trilby hat drops into the crumpled seat beside you. “You’re thinking you should’ve trusted your instincts,” he says.

“What? Who are you?” You strain to look past him into the locker. Is there a way out?

“I’m just guessing,” he goes on. “I can’t read minds or anything. Though I know what you’ll do now.”

You strain as far as the vice-like grip of your crushed seat rest will allow. The locker is empty, no escape route through to the outside. “Where did you come from? What happened? Was it a bomb on the plane?”

“A bomb?” He’s amused. “Like a terrorist incident? That’s ego talking, my friend. No, no terrorists. The universe has plenty of ways to kill you all on its own.”

He drones on and you listen with half your mind. He's telling you that many pasts and futures exist. Likens it to driving along a motorway. Spacetime can drift like a driver who’s nodding off, and that’s okay as long as the driver gets jolted awake when the tyres hit the hard shoulder. But if not he can go right off the road. And then there’s no getting back.

“Romulus can kill Remus, or vice versa, and you’re still on the blacktop. But if the wolf eats them both – that’s what we call a train wreck for time.”

“I thought we were talking about cars?”

“Ha! You see, right there, that’s what I’m looking for. You keep your wits about you. And then there are your premonitions, of course, where you see a few tracks over, what might happen or what could have been… That’s why we want you to join us.”

“Join you? Who the hell are you?” You struggle in the seat, but a wave of pain tells you there are at least a few broken bones. To think, you’re going to bleed to death or burn in the wreckage and your last conversation is with a madman.

He takes out an old-style fob watch with too many dials. “I’ll need your answer within 32 seconds. The fire hits the tanks then. To answer your question: we are the Curators. We locate the precious key moments of time, and if there’s an instability – a crack, if you like – we fix it.”

“And you want me to do that? But I have a marketing meeting in Seattle in four hours.”

“No you don’t. You don’t have a future. You don’t have a life. And you most certainly don’t have four hours. You have – “ he consults the watch “ – fifteen seconds. Yes or no? In or out? Life or death?”

Either way, this is the last day of your old life. But you could have a new life. If you agree to his offer, turn to 1. Just don’t take fifteen seconds to think about it.
We didn't use it. Why? Because we realized that the folks buying those old gamebooks aren't looking for a reboot. They want the untouched text. The classic edition, if you like. That's why we eventually released Blood Sword without completely overhauling the baroque tactical combat rules that I loathed. And similarly, Falcon came back to life exactly as if the intervening 30 years had never happened. And that's real time travel, I guess.

POSTSCRIPT: The time repair agency concept is one that's often explored in classic SF. To take one example: Philip K Dick's characteristically paranoid  "Adjustment Team", which inspired the movie The Adjustment Bureau. A rather more successful film adaptation was Predestination, based on Robert A Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies".

Friday, 30 October 2015

Dark matter

I've told you the story about how Dirk Lloyd came to be. Jamie Thomson and I sat in my back garden with some beers, contemplating the need to come up with a new project seeing as how the two game development companies where we worked (Black Cactus and Elixir) had shut down within a few months of each other. We roughed out a plot, Jamie wrote the book, and a mere four years later we finally sold it to a publisher. Overnight success takes time, you see.

So then, as we were gearing up for the release of the first Dirk book, we decided it might be a good idea to get another series on the creative conveyor belt. So it was back to the garden, Becks bottles in hand, and this time we went for something with a science fictional element. Proper, classic SF where you get to travel to strange new worlds and meet a bunch of exotic alien species. So that was the series we originally called Gazza Greene, Starship Captain and which was eventually published as The Wrong Side of the Galaxy.

Concepts change a lot in development. I began work on the first Starship Captain book while Jamie was writing Dark Lord: A Fiend in Need. We'd kicked off with the notion that Gazza would be a troublemaker, a problem kid who was almost a bully in the making, so that in becoming an unwilling starship commander and having to forge a crew out of a bunch of misfits, criminals and renegades he'd be following an arc of redemption.

That plan soon got photon torpedoed. The first Dark Lord book was selling well, mainly to 8-11 year olds, and the Fabled Lands literary agent made a strong case for middle-grade action-humour now being the demographic for the Jamie Thomson "brand". On top of that, the publishers decided that every one of Jamie's books should begin, as Dark Lord: The Early Years did, with the word "AAARGHHHH!" Seriously. Every book.

So out went my opening chapters, which were deemed (probably correctly) as too dark and not action-packed enough for the target readership. What can I say? Books that jump straight into the action bore me, but then I'm not 9 years old. The Starship Captain series I was envisaging would have been for young adults, and we had no market there. We ended up with a great series, largely thanks to Jamie, and about 20% of my work made it into the finished book, but I still feel a pang about the parallel universe where The Wrong Side of the Galaxy appeared as a very different novel - one with action, strangeness and humour, but with the core of characer-based grittiness from which I like to see my heroes grow.

So, here below are those two opening chapters that didn't make the cut. In case you find this version too heavy, let me assure you that the finished book is much lighter, with lots of humour, fast-paced plot twists and astounding alien cultures - as you can find out for yourself:

(The artwork here on the blog is by the mega-talented Iasmin Gloom; follow her on Twitter.)


“I wish I was a million miles away from this dump!”
Gazza slammed the front door so hard he could hear the impact twanging the wires in the piano that sat under a mound of muddy boots and old magazines in the hall. Mimbles, who had been lying like a dishrag on the path, gave him a startled look and darted under the hedge.
Gazza instantly thought about turning round. Not because he regretted losing his temper or shouting at his mum. She asked for that, letting everyone walk all over her. It was enough to drive anybody into a fury. But there was a bit of a chill in the air already, sure to get colder now the sun had gone down, and he hadn’t stopped to grab a sweater.
Oh well, there was nothing for it but to keep on going now. He stomped off down the street. Old Mrs Forbush was carrying something wrapped in a paper tissue to the skip in her driveway. She could always find an excuse to nose around when there was any sort of a row going on. She gave Gazza a look like she thought he needed throwing in a skip too.
Stupid old bat. A year ago – no, it was longer, he wasn’t even ten at the time – Gazza had been chasing Colin Barley. Never would stand still and fight, that one. In frustration, Gazza chucked a big lump of earth at him, but Colin had ducked and it sailed through the open window of Mrs Forbush’s car as she was pulling out of her gate. Oh, the look on her face. His sister said some women used mud packs for beauty treatment. Mrs Forbush could do with a couple of tons, in that case.
She saw him laughing at her, pursed her lips like a cat’s behind, flung the rubbish into the skip and stalked off. All because of one honest mistake a couple of years ago. A lot of the neighbours looked at him that way. You’d think he was a firework that had fallen over lit, and everybody was scared to run over and set it up. Bunch of cattle, the lot of them.
“Hmm, fireworks,” said Gazza to himself after he’d gone a few more paces. He stopped and looked back at the skip in Mrs Forbush’s driveway. Imagine a box of bangers going off in there. It’d sound like world war three starting right outside her window. That’d really give her something to scowl about! Gazza chuckled. He’d have to remember that plan.
A shiver wiped the grin off his face. What business had it got getting this cold in September? It was like the weather was doing it just to spite him. He stormed off up to the main road, still fired up on the adrenaline from yelling at his mum. As he got to the top, there was a line of cars all stuck at the lights, horns blaring. “Shut up, you’ll get there just as quick,” he muttered at the nearest vehicle, a Mini with a bloke as wide as a water barrel squeezed behind the wheel. The man’s face was as red as the lights but he kept on leaning on the horn. Gazza’s eye fell on a half brick lying at the side of the pavement and for a split second he pictured himself lobbing it through the windscreen of the Mini, the glass turning to a web of cracks and the fat man’s gormless face staring back at him.
He shook his head. Don’t be daft. He felt his heart thudding with the very idea of it. That was crazy thinking. How had he got himself into that kind of a state?
All along the road he fought the urge to turn and look back down the row of cars. Just in case his dad actually had made the effort for once. Just this once. Well, if he turned up now he’d have missed Gazza and then he’d be sorry, wouldn’t he?
Except he wasn’t going to turn up. Gazza knew that. In a few days he’d phone and have some excuse ready, some old line he’d come out with. Well, it’d be too late. Never again. He’d given him enough chances.
Harvey was on his front step fixing a puncture on his bike. Gazza leaned over the gate. “Chuck it in the canal, mate, that’s all it’s good for.”
“All right, Gazza. Come out without a coat, did you? Must be freezing.”
Gazza shrugged. “Thought I’d come over for a bit, play a game or something.”
“Can’t. Flossie stuck a rusk in the Playstation.”
“You what?”
“It’s all full of milk and crumbs and spit. The tray doesn’t go in properly anymore.”
“Babies…” said Gazza, in the same tone that somebody might have mentioned rats when the Black Death was in full swing.
Harvey put down the bicycle pump. “’I thought you had something else on tonight, anyway.”
“What you talking about?” Gazza snapped back. He felt his heart in his throat, but he didn’t want Harvey to know that.
“Your birthday, isn’t it? Your sister said your dad was coming over.”
“Talking to my sister?” Gazza glowered at him, covering his embarrassment with spiteful humour. “Going out with her now, are you? Holding hands?”
“Leave off. Look, I’ve got to go and have my tea. See you at school, all right?”
Gazza slouched off without another word. When he heard Harvey call, “And happy birthday, mate!” he didn’t even look back.
He just let his legs carry him, on past the row of shops with the shutters down. The shutters were covered with same old graffiti he’d seen on them for the last few years, now scuffed and fading. Such a dump, this place – even the spray can brigade couldn’t bother keeping their work fresh. He picked up a handful of gravel from the gutter and rattled it off the metal shutters.
There were flats above the shops and he felt a little stab of malice as he saw the curtains twitch. A girl’s face, a student probably, pale and dumb as a sheep. He mimed throwing a stone at the window and laughed out loud when she actually ducked back.
But his smile faded as fast as it had come. The joke was on him, sloping around aimlessly on an evening when anybody else would be hanging out with their friends and family.
Well, anybody else would have a proper family. Not a father who showed up when he had nothing else to do and thought that it was enough to bring an armful of videogames instead of spending time with his kids. And as for his mother… Right now she’d be chugging back a big glass of wine in front of some mindless TV show, and she’d be all sentimental and teary the moment he walked back in the door. Gazza felt bile slosh around hotly in his guts at the thought.
Beyond the shops, the houses thinned out. The lights were on in the sports ground even though there wasn’t a game on this evening. The flat grey light shining onto the stands looked fuzzy in the gathering dusk and Gazza realized there was a mist seeping up from the canal that ran along the back.
He shivered in his thin T-shirt, but he wasn’t going back home yet. Let her stew. Let them all just carry on with their boring, pointless lives – the reality TV shows and the microwaved baked beans and the bottle of red wine that wouldn’t last the night once his mum got into it. His sister texting her stupid friends and screaming at any old inane bits of gossip. He didn’t want anything to do with anyone.
He passed a patch of overgrown scrub and trees, not big enough to be called a common. It reeked of fungus and dog turds where owners had let them go and do their business under the damp bushes. Somebody on the school bus had said the patch of land was called the Optic because some guy had put a telescope on it years ago for looking at stars. Ridiculous. The only time any kid around here got to see stars was if he was in a punch up. Certainly the sky, which streetlamps painted the colour of mustard even in midwinter, wouldn’t give an astronomer much to study. Sometimes you’d see a dodgy looking bloke in a raincoat slinking out of the bushes, but Gazza didn’t figure they went in there to look at Uranus.
Mind you, wasn’t that a star? He squinted. A falling star, maybe. He couldn’t hear any aircraft engines. In fact, other than the usual low hum of traffic, the evening was startlingly quiet. There weren’t even any birds singing in the stubby trees.
The light crawled across the misty sky. It must be a falling star. Old Moleface at school had said something about the season for meteorites. He could make a wish.
“I wish it was a plane and I was on it going somewhere inter- ” And he stopped then because the light went out. Just like that. Typical. His birthday, and all he got was half a wish on a rubbish falling star.
Further on there was a sort of little estate of about a dozen derelict buildings. The chain-link fence had loads of gaps but nobody went in there because all the houses had bricked-up windows. Sometimes, walking past, you’d catch a faint sour reek like in an old bus shelter – the smell of wet concrete, mould, and tramps dossing down. Gazza often wondered if it had been used in the War or something. Maybe a place where they cracked codes or built atom bombs. Back when there were more exciting things to do than hang around the kebab shop on a Friday evening. Back when things actually happened around here.
They could brick up all the houses in his road. They could come in the night and do it, and most of the neighbours wouldn’t even notice.
A car went past and as Gazza looked up he saw a sight that quickened his pulse. There was a solitary figure walking along the pavement about thirty yards ahead. His feet, scraping along in big clunky brown shoes, along with the big duffel bag on his back, made him look even smaller and scrawnier than he was.
As the boy glanced back, Gazza recognized him – a kid a couple of years below him at school. He didn’t know the boy’s name, but he’d noticed how he would blink nervously and turn round if he came across Gazza in the corridor.
He grinned at the thought, but suddenly he was angry again. That was typical. People were always assuming he was out to key their cars or steal their lunch money or beat them up. Well, to be fair, sometimes he did demand a share of lunch money. But that didn’t make him a monster, did it.
“Oy, you!” He raised his arm. “Come here.”
The boy looked all around, trying to pretend that he hadn’t noticed Gazza. What a lousy actor he’d make. It was pathetic. Gazza speeded up – not breaking into a run, just lengthening his pace. The boy started to hurry off down the road, the overstuffed bag jogging on his back.
Gazza gave a gasp of irritation. He was only going to give the little worm a bit of a fright. But now he’d ignored him. Disobeyed him. He couldn’t have that. He started striding along a bit faster. Every so often the smaller boy looked back, each time breaking into a little half-run for a few paces to put a bit more distance between him and Gazza.
Oh well, at least the exercise was warming him up. Gazza decided he’d chase the kid to the next set of lights, then he’d probably have to head back. Maybe he could sneak in without anyone hearing. Anything to avoid the usual drunken theatrics from his mum. He didn’t want to hear her saying, “Oh my poor little darling, your father didn’t even phone.” No, course he didn’t, he’d want to say. I don’t blame him. He didn’t want to talk to a whining alky, that’s why he left.
Three bigger kids – teenagers – walked out of a side road. The boy with the backpack was caught between them, but then to Gazza’s amazement he went right up to one of them. The teenager listened, then stared along the pavement. Right at Gazza.
It was Scarsey. He was in the year above. Gazza had had a couple of near run-ins with Scarsey – not a scrap or anything. They recognized something in each other, a toughness. Scarsey usually gave him a look of wary respect, even if he was a year older.
Not now, though. Not backed up by his two mates. Now it was a whole other look he was giving.
Gazza swore under his breath. He’d been about to turn back anyway. How could he do that now, without looking like he’d bottled it?
And who’d ever have guessed that Scarsey had a little brother? Probably only noticed him to give him clips around the ear. But now it was an excuse. A pretext, that was the word. Scarsey with his two mates. And here’s me, way off my own turf.
Gazza bent down and pretended to tie his shoelace, just to buy some time. The three teenagers started towards him. The kid with the backpack stood there watching, expressionless behind his bottle-thick glasses as if he was watching a wildlife documentary. One of those programmes where a pack of hyenas gang up on a lion. Only, Gazza thought, this was more like a pack of lions on one hyena.
Stuff it. He turned and ran.
They were after him. He didn’t waste time looking back. Didn’t need to, he could hear their boots clumping on the pavement. Heavy great boots that would leave multicoloured bruises that would ripen and rust for weeks. They couldn’t have just come out wearing trainers, of course. Oh no. Today of all days, and he couldn’t get a stroke of luck.
What did surprise him was how thick the mist was getting. The streetlamps were just bright smears in the twilight. And the lamps of the sports ground. No wait, that was on the other side of the road. So what was that damned great rack of lights shining off to his right?
He saw a gap in the chain link fence. No time to think. Instinct had him squeezing through before he knew it. A good move if the three bigger boys hadn’t seen him. But if they did, that meant he was cornered now. A roll of the dice, that’s all it was. Too late for second thoughts now, anyway.
He darted across to the nearest of the bricked-up buildings and flung himself out of sight just as his pursuers drew level. Bracing himself against a pile of old rubble, every muscle locked frozen, he gritted his teeth so as to force himself to breathe as quietly as possible. He could hear those three gasping away. Scarsey smoked like a wet bonfire, that was why. Not that you needed a lot of puff to go three-to-one on a younger kid and pound the living daylights out of him.
“He’s legged it,” said one of the boys.
“Yeah, long gone,” said another.
Neither of the ones who’d spoken was Scarsey. Gazza knew his creaky, weed-thin tones, like something crawling venomously over your skin.
“Hold up…”
Yes, that was him. Gazza could hear the relish in Scarsey’s voice. Excitement and the promise of action, the thrill of violence – those things tasted good to Scarsey. Gazza knew because they tasted good to him too.
“Look there,” said Scarsey.
“What is it?”
“Tore his top, didn’t he?”
Gazza frantically tugged his T-shirt around. There was a rip in the back. He hadn’t noticed snagging it when he squeezed through the fence.
Scarsey raised his voice. “Ready or not,” he called out in a sinister sing-song, “here we come!”
And Gazza heard the soft clash of metal cables as the three pushed through the gap in the fence after him.


Gazza couldn’t stay where he was. They’d be sure to stumble across him in seconds. He edged along the wall, hoping that he might find a way into the derelict building, but every door and window was sealed with masonry blocks.
“We’ll never find him in this fog,” he heard one of the boys complaining.
“Shut up,” snapped Scarsey. “You go round that way. And keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want him getting away.”
They were splitting up. Gazza kept going along the side of the building. At least he could hear their boots on the rough pebble-strewn ground, while his trainers meant he could move silently.
Trouble was, they were between him and the hole in the fence, so sneaky like a ninja wasn’t going to cut it. He tried to remember what ran across the back of the abandoned research park. A two-storey brick wall. There were wooden gates, but fifteen feet high with a padlock and broken glass along the top. There’d be no getting over that.
He darted out across open ground to the next building, diving out of sight around the corner just as Scarsey loomed out of the mist right next to where he had been crouching.
Gazza peeked out. He hated having to hide like this. He hated running. If it was just Scarsey on his own, he’d take him on even though he was a year older and eight kilos heavier. With three of them, though, and Gazza way off his turf, scarpering was just common sense.
He knew how Scarsey would spin it at school tomorrow. Make Gazza sound yellow. He wouldn’t mention being backed up by his mates, he’d paint a picture of Gazza running away with his tail between his legs. Gazza’s blood boiled and it took all his willpower not to jump out and lay into them right then.
But given the odds that really wouldn’t go well.
He had one other chance. There were other places you could get through the fence from the road. He ought to know, he’d walked past it often enough. Where were the gaps, though? He wished he’d paid more attention in the past. Then he remembered. There was a tree whose roots had pushed the chain links apart, leaving a big enough space for cats and tatty old foxes to come poking through. If the ground was soft enough there, he could dig a wider hole and get through.
That tree was on the other side of the road from the sports ground, right opposite the sign where they advertised the next fixtures. He swung like a compass needle, getting a bearing on the lights that still blazed fuzzily in the dusk.
Funny, the other light he thought he’d seen – the one in here among the abandoned buildings – that seemed to have gone out. It must have just been a reflection in a window. Just as well. He could do with all the cover he could get right now, and having a damned great arc light overhead wouldn’t help.
With everything else that was going on, he had forgotten that it couldn’t be a reflection. There was no glass in the windows, only cement and bricks.
High above the abandoned buildings, a ripple stirred the fog as something huge and unseen pushed through the air.
Gazza didn’t see it. His attention was all focused on staying out of sight. He risked a look around the corner of the building. The three had joined up again, and one of them had his phone out so as to use the light. Good. Let them mess up their night vision. The beam wouldn’t reach more than ten yards in this mist now. Five yards, even. It was getting thicker by the minute.
“Thank you,” mouthed Gazza at the sky. Maybe he was due a spot of luck after all. He sneaked out across the wide concrete space between the buildings. It immediately felt as if he had eyes boring into his back, but he forced himself to ignore that. It was just being out in the open. They couldn’t have seen him.
He ran swiftly on tiptoe across towards the far corner of the grounds, where he remembered the tree being. Get there and he’d be home free. In fact, he could be home and having a hot mug of tea while those three idiots were still stumbling around here in the dark.
He still had the big smile on his face when he glanced out into the street and saw him standing on the other side of the big metal gates. The little kid with the rucksack. Scarsey’s little brother. The little perisher who was the cause of all this trouble.
Gazza froze and put one finger to his lips. “Ssh.”
The kid’s glasses were little round circles of yellow ice in the streetlight. “Here’s over here, Billy!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
So Scarsey’s name is Billy. Who’d have guessed it, Gazza found himself thinking stupidly as he ran back deeper into the grounds. No point making for the gap in the fence now. Little Scarsey would follow him on the outside and lead them right to him before he was halfway through. Stuck in a gap in a chain fence – not a good position for facing three pairs of big toecaps.
He knew they’d catch him now. That felt like a relief, actually. Hiding and running weren’t his thing. They’d give him a pasting, but he’d leave some marks on them too. Even though they all had a year on him, not to mention those heavy boots, whatever they did to him he’d see to it that they’d be carrying away a few bruises of their own.
At what he judged to be the middle of the grounds, he stopped and turned. All he could see now was a misty outline of trees and buildings in the twilight.
“Come on, then!” he yelled into the fog. “What you waiting for?”
Gazza heard the slow scrape of footfalls, slightly muffled by the fog. Scarsey dragging his feet, taking his time, savouring the moment.
“You in a hurry, are you?”
He saw them then. Just shadows in the fog. They were closing in. He saw a flash of a smile, like a rattlesnake turning its scales.
“Only I’m afraid we’ve got quite a bit to do, Greene,” said Scarsey. “Might be here a while.”
They started to circle him. He wasn’t going to get a chance to go down fighting. One of them would jump him from behind. He couldn’t watch them all. Then they’d pin him down and he’d be helpless. He felt the rage pounding in his throat, roaring like acid in his veins.
A snigger came from Scarsey’s throat. A nasty, cowardly sound. Gazza realized he’d been wrong. He sometimes thought he’d be Scarsey in a year’s time. How could he have ever thought that? He and Scarsey, they weren’t anything alike. He liked a fight, but a fair fight. A proper scrap. He wouldn’t lead a pack and titter to himself about it.
“You’re a creep, Scarsey. Step up and I’ll take you on.”
The answer: running feet behind him. Gazza started to turn, braced to push his shoulder into the boy’s face and follow up with a fist. But he didn’t because at that moment it was as if the sun turned back on and he was surrounded in a blaze of dazzling white light.
He clearly saw the boy who’d been running at him. Not Scarsey, one of the other two. But the weird thing is that he now seemed to be falling away, shrinking back into the haze of blinding light.
Then Gazza realized that it wasn’t the other boy who was falling, it was him. He was falling directly up into the sky.
He twisted around – which wasn’t easy. His arms and legs felt as if somebody had rolled him up in half a mile of clingfilm. Finally he managed to turn his neck so he could look up. The lights were right on top of him. They were arranged in a circle and they were so incredibly bright that he couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling like chisels were being stuffed down his tear ducts into his brain.
Yet he didn’t feel hot, as you might expect if somebody hoisted you up within arms length of a huge array of stadium lights. If anything, the light actually made the air around him feel colder.
He could hear Scarsey and the others running away. Their big boots sounded a long way off, and as tiny as beetles scuttling over a windowpane.
There was a hiss and a hatch opened in the middle of the circle of lights. A shadow appeared in the haze. That’s when Gazza finally realized. Those weren’t stadium lights. They weren’t construction lights. They weren’t on top of any stand or tower. There was nothing supporting them. They were floating in mid-air.
Then the shadow raised an arm, Gazza saw what looked like a gun in its hand.
And everything went white.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The first glimmer of the Fabled Lands MMO

I was talking recently about the RTS game Plague that I worked on with Sam Kerbeck and Richard Fletcher at Domark (later Eidos). Around the same time, Jamie Thomson and I were trying to convince the Domark/Eidos management to start development on a multiplayer CRPG based on our Fabled Lands gamebooks.

This was around May/June of 1996. The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game, as we called it, was destined to mutate considerably over the next couple of years as the technology advanced by leaps and bounds. We changed to an all-new setting, the continent of Abraxas, which you can read about here. We massively expanded the scale of the game into a true MMO and we abandoned the top-down isometric view for true 3D. We began to use Propprian theory to develop the idea of a "referee AI".

It was all too ambitious for the Eidos senior management, who by then may have spotted that they didn't need to develop games to make money. Many internal teams were hived off into private companies like Black Cactus, the FL team was laid off, and the Fabled Lands MMO never happened. But, for no better reason than historical curiosity, here is the original pitch document that Jamie and I showed to Ian Livingstone in mid-1996.

Fabled Lands "Otherworld" Gaming

We say "role-playing" when we're talking about solo explore-and-level-up games, and "adventure gaming" when we really mean boring old crate-stacking and puzzles, which means that when it comes to real role-playing for the PC games market we don't have a term left. So let's call this "otherworlding": realtime multi-player role-playing, given a new lease of life by the medium of software to create a new kind of gaming experience.

The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game anticipates the gaming styles that will have become current two years from now, while not abandoning traditional gaming forms. I'll start by describing how the game would play in its solo form and then go on to cover future innovations.

The Solo Game

On the surface FL won’t look much different from a traditional CRPG. You choose a character from a gallery of races, classes and clothing styles and assign starting skills. (These are mix-&-match to allow multiple options, eg in favourite weapon.) Then you set out on your adventures, your adventuring persona represented by an animated sprite on isometric city streets and landscapes. Dotted around the world are many lost ruins, wizard's towers, haunted castles and other areas where you can gamble risk against reward. In the cities you can spend your treasure on new equipment and magic, resurrection deals, buy a townhouse or castle – or even ships to go trading and privateering across the sea.

Where it differs from ordinary CRPGs is in having a number of special partially-scripted adventures that a campaign "referee" (in the form of the game's AI) can bring in to liven things up whenever your character is having too easy a ride. These adventures are templates with slots to accommodate friends and enemies you've picked up in the course of your travels.

For example: you take a bounty hunter's job and go hunting bandits. You round up most of the horde but the leader, Black Nat Varley, escapes. Later, while implementing a random attempt on your life, the AI fills in the assassin's identity as being Black Nat. If Nat survives your second encounter, he'll eventually show up in another encounter and so on. (Adversaries who survive more than three encounters are classed as "dear foes" and have their own level increases tied to yours so as to always give you a good battle.)

And the referee AI will also take account of your character class, deity, etc, when introducing new missions and encounters. It can also randomly generate adventure locations as needed. This means that every campaign will be unique.

The Home Campaign

A bunch of friends arrange to get together and play a Fabled Lands Otherworld campaign on a regular basis. Say I'm the campaign manager; this means the campaign data is kept on my machine. Players come round once a week with their laptops, or maybe they dial in – or the campaign might be run on an office network a couple of evenings a week.

Within the game, players can get together for adventures or split up and go their separate ways. Some magical objects allow you to spy on the progress of other players, possibly with a view to ambushing them and grabbing their treasure. The magic level is high, permitting frequent teleportation and communication at a distance. Alliances and rivalries are equally possible. The game moves more swiftly than old style pnp RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. This allows players to move around the world quickly and have plenty of adventures every session. (The best way to explain this is as a combination of an RPG and an adventure boardgame like Eric Goldberg's Tales of the Arabian Nights.)

The Open Campaign

Almost a Multi-User Dungeon, except with the AI referee throwing in plenty of plotlines to keep the adventure fizzing. The way this would work is with a company picking up the licence to run a commercial Fabled Lands campaign. Such companies might have a couple of hundred participants in one game, all paying-to-play with a percentage coming back to Domark. (Distributed processing through the network would prevent the game from being frustratingly slow.)

The character-to-character interface will mean that when two adventurers meet they cannot immediately start typing messages to each other. To start with they have to go through a menu of greetings and responses, which will be decided by factors such as class, race and deity. For example, an elf meets a human. They're given possible messages and responses that, if followed appropriately, allow both players to reach a point where direct messages can be typed in. However, a human meeting a goblin would not be able to do this (the two races being mutually hostile) unless one or both was accompanied by a dwarf or other "neutral" race. This effectively provides a kind of "Turing Test" interface when first meeting a character whereby you cannot know if you're talking to another human player or a computer-controlled character.

What happens if you can't turn up (on-line or in person) for a game? This is the bane of the old-style roleplayers life, because his character misses out on treasure and experience awards. The way Fabled Lands solves this is to get every player to choose a Downtime Mode for his character when logging off. If you opt for "Sanctuary" then your character is retired from the game world until the next time you play. He gets no awards but cannot be attacked while you're off-line. "Training" means your character is in the arena or library. He gets some experience for any campaign time that passes when you're absent, but there is a chance of other players stealing from or assassinating him. "Adventuring" makes your character available for dungeon expeditions or other endeavours, making him an AI-run NPC for the duration, but although this means you can get your share of treasure and experience you also run the risk of logging on next time to discover your character has been killed in action.

Game mechanics

By basing the game on our Fabled Lands world – which we have developed over several years for radio plays, gamebooks and role-playing adventures – we make sure to avoid the cobbled-together warmed-over fantasy typical of the usual CRPG output. Fabled Lands is as detailed and unique a setting as you will find in any fantasy novel.

Begin by choosing your race (human, trau, merfolk, mannikyn people or whatever), country of origin (the four continents and many islands of the Fabled Lands world all have their own character), deity (there are over a dozen with a complex interplay of antagonisms and associations), and a name for your adventuring alter-ego.

Next the player sets his expertise in the five abilities: Combat, Magic, Charisma, Wayfaring, and Agility. Each of these governs your potential scores in the skills which are sub-groups of that ability. (For example, Wayfaring devolves to Sailing, Riding, Scouting, Survival and Streetwise.) By focussing in one field you can make yourself a master, but at the expense of your other abilities.

Higher ability scores bring in hero-level skills and spells that the player had no idea were possible, maintaining the excitement of discovery that is at the heart of the real role-playing experience.

The display is isometric and characters move in real time. A whole gallery of animated figures can be custom-coloured in the way that tabletop gamers like to paint their own figurines. In combat you can preset your fighting mode (ie, how much is put into attack and defence) or key in manoeuvres on the fly. More experienced adventurers can perform more effective fighting manoeuvres with just one keystroke, or unleash more devastating spells.

Expansion disks would introduce new quests, encounter areas, and characters while extending the map and including additional storylines for the referee AI to use.

Whereas CRPGs up till now have copied the sillier and more tedious aspects of early DnD (one dungeon level full of orcs, another full of lizard men, and so on...and on), Fabled Lands will emulate and expand on the things that made role-playing popular to start with. This means building up a character history: exploring exotic worlds, encountering friends and deadly foes, discovering magical artefacts and the excitement of researching ever more powerful spells. At the highest levels players can occupy their own castles, hire armies, wage wars or create their own "pocket universes" using the mightiest magic.

It will be a journey to a whole other world.