Dead Man's Oregon Trail

March 24th, 2014 11:53 AM
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The gaming industry is currently experiencing the popularity of three trends: indie studios, retrogaming, and zombies. All three converge in in an upcoming remake of Oregon Trail in which you travel across the country through hordes of undead.

Wait — didn't I already write that blog post? Three years ago, I was playing Organ Trail, a free browser game that later held a successful Kickstarter to release a director's cut edition on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

So what's new in 2014? Dead Man's Trail, a modern action/resource management game inpsired by Oregon Trail. Development studio E4 Software is aware of the precedent of Organ Trail and is taking their game in a different direction:

We're very aware of the existence of Organ Trail and are actually very big fans of the game. We were in early planning stages when Director's Cut came out but decided to move ahead with DMT anyway because we had ideas for things that differentiated us from Organ Trail, such as giving each party member a specific role, having procedurally generated 3D looting levels, having one resource perform several different functions (bullets are ammo and currency), etc.

Where Organ Trail elicits its charm from using mechanics and presentation elements from the original, think of ours as an expanded follow up that wants to go beyond the original Oregon Trail to create a Walking Dead/World War Z atmosphere. We're hoping that several years on from the release of Organ Trail, fans of that project will see our game and want to play it as a next step.

I'm excited to see a game that offers more customization than the traditional Oregon Trail format — most notably, characters with unique skills, such as firearms expert, paramedic, and mechanic (think Left 4 Dead); and different vehicles. If you had to plow through a sea of zombies, would you do so in a station wagon? No way! Give me a school bus or 18-wheeler… and leave me to be concerned about fuel economy after we break down in the middle of nowhere.

The looting element of the game is where Dead Man's Trail most notably diverges from the Oregon Trail formula. Although inspired by the original game's hunting sequences, looting occurs in urban settings from a 3D, isometric perspective. It's not an experience I looking forward to grappling with on a mobile device's tiny screen.

Whereas Organ Trail kept much of Oregon Trail's gameplay and aesthetic, Dead Man's Trail is potentially much more ambitious. Correspondingly, Organ Trail needed only the realistic sum of $3,000 in crowdfunding, whereas DMT is asking for $50,000 on Kickstarter.

Dead Man's Trail is halfway through its one-month crowdfunding campaign and has raised less than 5% of its goal. The game is far enough along that it will likely see release one way or another, but Kickstarter will help ensure the final product is timely and true to the creators' vision. If all goes well, we'll see Dead Man's Trail hit Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS this October.

Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

Lord British returns to Ultima

March 11th, 2013 9:02 AM
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Kickstarter has been a boon not only for indie developers, but for established game designers looking to return to the virtual worlds upon which their careers were founded. Shadowgate, Space Quest, Wasteland, and Leisure Suit Larry are just a few of the franchises that got their start on the Apple II and are now slated for a well-funded modern resurrection.

But none of these games carry the impact, the longevity, or the fame as the Ultima series. Lord British has heeded the call of the fans and is turning to Kickstarter to return to Britannia.

On Friday, March 6, at 10 AM CST, Richard Garriott joined fellow Austin gaming company Rooster Teeth to host a live announcement:

The punchline was Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a new computer role-playing game that lacks the Ultima brand that Garriott can no longer claim, but which only his team owns the legacy to.

The announcement didn't need the full hour that the above video runs, but the extra time gave Garriott and hosts Burnie Burns and Gus Sorola time to reflect on how Garriott built this empire. Working in a computer store at the age of 19, Garriott began selling Akalabeth, making twice as much money in one year as his astronaut father. Garriott brought along several artifacts from those early days, including the Apple II Plus on which he developed Akalabeth. Highlights from that interview are in this gallery of screen captures from the above video.

As much fun as the reminiscing was, it wasn't hard to forget that it was a thinly veiled sales pitch. Garriott wants one million of our dollars via Kickstarter:

Donation levels include the $10 "Guilt Pledge" ("If you ever pirated an Ultima game or used an exploit to grief other players in Ultima Online, here's your chance to repent! For your $10 donation, you will receive a clear conscience and Lord British's undying gratitude") to the $10,000 "Lord of the Manor", which comes with one of 12 known copies of Akalabeth. For those of us with humbler wallets, $40 gets you early access (December 2013) to the final game (October 2014), while $125 will also get you a cloth map feelie — just like the old Ultimas!

It's been a long time since I've been a role-playing gamer, and even longer since I've done so on a computer instead of a video game console. Yet I didn't hesitate to fork over my money to Lord British. Some folks may not be sold on this heir to the Ultima empire:

But there's no denying that Garriott has earned a chance to return to his world. As Benj Edwards tweeted:

Shadowgate revisited

November 5th, 2012 3:37 PM
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I love Kickstarter. There's something about playing a role in helping artists realize their dreams that's empowering for all parties involved. And as Jason Scott pointed out in Juiced.GS, the small amounts that backers pay can make the difference between something existing and something not.

For retrocomputing enthusiasts, Kickstarter further represents the potential to resurrect many of the elements of our youth. We grew up playing electronic games on personal computers, many of them in franchises that have seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to crowdfunding. Now we can revive yet another one with this latest pitch:

Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs, formerly of ICOM and now of Zojoi, look to reimagine their classic point and click adventure, Shadowgate. Rather than a direct sequel, this version of Shadowgate will update the old puzzles as well as implement many ideas Marsh and Roelofs have had while designing and porting Shadowgate over the years. The new game will also include both an original soundtrack as well as Hiroyuki Masuno's NES composition.

They've set a modest goal of only $120,000 — heck, that's half as much as some cancelled old-school games get on Kickstarter. They met half their goal within the first week of their one-month fundraising term — and since 90% of Kickstarter projects that achieve at least 30% funding prove successful, this progress bodes well!

The most popular reward is the typical $15 for the Mac or PC version, though if you want a tablet edition, that'll cost you $60. Unless you want your name included in the game's end credits, a better deal is to wait for the game's release before buying it for iOS or Android.

Shadowgate, set in a fantasy world of dragons and magic, was one of my first encounters with the genre when it was ported from MacVenture's 1987 Mac version to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I revisited it on the Game Boy Color a decade later and am hard-pressed to justify the low score I gave it. In 2006, I played the GBC game again, this time on the big screen, courtesy the GameCube's Game Boy Player adapter. I and a friend who was new to computer and video games had a great time spending several hours discovering the solutions to the mystical puzzles we encountered. Remembering that happy experience, I've gladly become a Kickstarter backer of the new Shadowgate.

Looking to explore the Shadowgate world around this game? I have fond memories of the young adult novel, Before Shadowgate — but can we pretend the game's TurboGrafx sequel, Beyond Shadowgate, never happened? Instead, check out Maelstrom's Mansion, a free online adventure that's as unforgiving in its deaths as Shadowgate ever was.

You've played the game — now wear the shirt!

UPDATE: In the creators' AMA on Reddit (they answered my question), they acknowledge that there are free, Java-based versions of Shadowgate. Want to play the original? Check it out online!

Kickstarter brainstorming at KansasFest

July 23rd, 2012 9:54 AM
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Filed under Happenings, Musings;
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On Saturday, July 21, I gave a presentation at KansasFest 2012 about Kickstarter. I reviewed what the crowdfunding site is and how it works before presenting and analyzing examples of various campaigns. After reviewing successful projects (Double Fine, Leisure Suit Larry, Diaspora, TikTok, Pebble) and some unsuccessful or poorly designed ones (Rolling High, What's Where in the Apple, MULE), I identified three qualities that lend themselves to meeting one's crowdfunding goal: the fame, reputation, or track record of the artist (Jason Scott, Penny Arcade, Andrew Plotkin); a convincing pitch video (Huck Finn, Nataly Dawn) that doesn't necessarily need to be expensive to produce; and attractive rewards (Pebble; Joulies).

Kickstarter logo

Due to both the previous session and my own running long, after we watched Kickstarter pitch videos and dissected their strengths and weaknesses, I didn't have as much time as I'd like for my presentation's interactive component: brainstorming Apple II projects to launch on Kickstarter. I started by asking the audience what products we'd like to see that would require a financial investment, then who in the community has the reputation to attract a funding audience, followed by what the reward levels for such a Kickstarter campaign would be. As with all brainstorming sessions, I wrote down every idea regardless of feasibility. We then conducted an informal poll to narrow the choices to those bolded in the below table.

Projects
Sponsors
Rewards
Donation level
VGA cardKen GagneContributor credit on Web site$10
Bluetooth / Wi-Fi cardVince BrielAccess to contributor-only blog$25
Accelerator cardRich DreherUSB adapter$50
Ethernet cardTony DiazUSB adapter & name in manual$75
Magazine PDF archiveJames LittlejohnTwo USB adapters$90
Buy rights and inventory from ReactiveMicroWozLimited-edition model$150
System 7.0Apple II t-shirt$250
USB input device adapter10 adapters$450
Buy the copyright to somethingSilkscreen greet on the board$500
Spectrum Internet Suite (SIS) updateLunch with the designer$1000
Full-color Juiced.GS
Ad-free RCR
Open Apple merchandise
Retrocomputing video podcast
Mark Twain clone
KansasFest scholarship
Open-source programming language
Woz action figure (with 9 points of articulation)
KansasFest FOREVER

Note that the first two columns do not line up with each other or the other two columns, but the third and fourth columns line up with each other. Also, some reward levels (access to contributor-only blog) include the previous rewards, whereas others (two USB keyboard adapters) do not.

Of all the bolded projects, we deemed the USB adapter the most affordable and thus the most likely to be funded. The proposed adapter would not only work with keyboards, joysticks, and mice, but it would adapt them to multiple platforms: Apple II, Commodore 64, and more. As the Battle Chess Kickstarter campaign demonstrated, limiting your product to only one audience (in that case, Windows) diminishes your chances of getting funded: more potential customers equals more money, as evidenced by the success of many old franchises that are being revived for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android.

A wide audience requires a creator with exposure and recognition beyond the Apple II community, for which reason I nominate Vince Briel. The inventory of Briel Computers, from the Replica 1 to the Micro-KIM to the ALTAIR 8800micro, appeal to retrocomputing hobbyists of many ages and interests, and Briel's track record as a businessman, from shipping products to offering customer support, is unparalleled. Briel has the reputation that could get a Kickstarter project funded.

Briel was in the audience for this brainstorming session but did not actually drive this proposal. But if he were to accept it, I would be first in line to give him my money.

For more advice on how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign, check out Nelson De Witt's A Kickstarter's Guide free e-book and Tyler York's "How to succeed on Kickstarter" blog post.

OUYA returns gaming to the Apple II age

July 16th, 2012 11:36 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Hacks & mods;
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In the last six months, Apple II users have enjoyed the fruits of Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site that's been used to revive many classic game franchises. Soon, for the first time in decades, we'll be able to enjoy new Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games.

But what if Kickstarter was used to reboot not just a particular franchise, but the entire gaming industry?

That's what OUYA, a new video game console, looks to do.

The Android-based OUYA aims to move gamers away from mobile devices and place them in front of stationary consoles — but its OUYA's development platform that is the focus of the Kickstarter pitch. The company's founder, Julie Uhrman, harkens back to the days of the unwalled garden that early Apple products represented: "In the early days of gaming, you could take your Apple IIe, write your own programming, and take your game to market." Further endorsement from inXile's Brian Fargo, creator of Wasteland, supports that throwback. Those were the golden days of gaming that launched epic series that continue to this day (again, courtesy Kickstarter). There was little competition in this new world, and artists and programmers were able to quickly stake their claim not only financially, but imaginatively, creating worlds for the sake of exploring this new digital realm. OUYA wants games to again be something that anyone can make and share.

But that was a different day and age. Although computers were accessible to program, the overall audience was small, making for a proportionally small number of programmers. Yes, there were games of questionable software — but there were so few games that the poor ones didn't last long.

Bu contrast, today, anyone can be a programmer — and anyone often is. Although I'm all for the freedom and democratization if information, the fact that OUYA seems to be specifically not setting themselves up as curators of content on their console is concerning. If anyone can produce as much content, then anyone will, resulting in a glut of poor-quality software, or shovelware. I agree that Apple shouldn't be their model — as gatekeepers of quality content, they do a pretty poor job (since "quality" to Apple doesn't mean fun). But perhaps OUYA should look to the Nintendo Seal of Quality, which ostensibly meant that only that the publisher had paid a licensing fee, but realistically meant that gamers would experience a certain minimum amount of fun. The Seal was introduced to motivate publishers to put their best foot forward, limiting them to only three games per year. Programmers literally could not afford to produce bad games.

And from a technological perspective, it's not challenging to stream video from an iOS or Android device to an HDTV. Is a separate console truly needed? Or is the attraction of OUYA not that it does something original, but that it does it simply, without the need for complicated or expensive peripherals?

Regardless of these questions and concerns, OUYA is already a success: at the time of this writing and with three more weeks to go, it has raised nearly $5 million USD, a funding level of 508% more than its required minimum. When over 32,000 backers get their consoles this September, we'll find out if it has enough critical mass and sufficiently powerful mission statement to attract gamers — and developers.

UPDATE: For more on this subject, see my PCWorld blog post featuring video footage of KansasFest 2012, "John Romero Speculates On The Future of Ouya".