Dredmor: What is a Warrior to do?


Combat RPGs don’t traditionally offer much active choice to a warrior character: Do you attack? Do you not attack?

Maybe you get to quaff (but never “drink”) a potion every so often. A player’s agency comes more from the set-up to combat through having a much more equipment-driven character than, say, a wizard. It is compelling to collect and use equipment, but a warrior really ought to have something to do in combat aside from clicking “attack”.

But this is a known problem, and it has been dealt before, and cleverly.

I must mention Blizzard’s evolving solutions to the problem: The Diablo 1 warrior had barely anything to do but hit ‘attack’, quaff potions, and collect loot. Diablo 2 gave the Barbarian class piles of both passive and spell-like skills which used mana as a limiting resource (though perhaps mana is thematically inconsistent for the class). Titan Quest did similarly, and with mana. Now take World of Warcraft as an example – it’s been quite some time since I’ve played, but from what I recall, Warriors build up and use “rage” to execute special attacks along with using skills that use timed cool-down periods per-skill as a limiting factor. Or maybe it was Rogues that build up skill to do neat attacks. Regardless, there were also talent trees which gave specialized skills, attacks, etc – The latest D&D even seems to have taken up MMO-influenced abilities for warrior-type classes with gusto.

The necessity of giving pure-combat classes more gameplay/agency has generally been recognized so, in all, games give warrior characters many more choices to make than they once did. One hopes that these are always interesting and meaningful choices, of course.

Dredmor takes up a few approaches to giving warriors the love they deserve: Naturally, we have piles upon piles of ridiculous items to wield, consume, quaff, and wear upon one’s head and/or other extremities. Said items shall have sundry absurd powers and unique odours. We are also giving the warrior a number of pre-combat passive specialization skills and silly special abilities along with in-combat spell-like combat powers.

Between the item collecting, booze drinking, weapon swinging, carrot hunting, area attacking, face mashing, health stealing, and hat wearing, if you really can’t find enough to do as a warrior, you can always effectively multiclass because Dredmor is an entirely skill based game (read: no classes) and is made to be friendly toward combinations of skills across class archetypes.

[written for the Gaslamp Games blog]

Starfarer Ship Design


This is from a series of posts I’m writing to promote the space combat sandbox/rpg game Starfarer by Fractal Softworks.

Ahoy there! My name is David and I’m what passes for an artist around here. But enough about me; I’d like to talk a little about how the graphics of Starfarer come to be, starting with the Onslaught-class battleship which we have already featured from a standpoint of gameplay and game fiction. I’d like to show you my process of creating the visual design of the Onslaught from concept sketch to final sprite.

The Onslaught-class Battleship from concept to sprite:

Read the rest of this entry on the Starfarer blog

Starfarer by Fractal Softworks


The game “Starfarer” by Fractal Softworks has just been publicly announced! It’s a sandboxy spaceship combat/strategy/roleplaying game and is still in production.

Oh, by the way – all the graphics are by me! (And the lovely background is by NASA, I should add.)

Art for this have been a ton of fun to draw. It’s been really hard to keep quiet about this but now I can spill the beans, so count on me writing more posts about how I approached the ship and weapon designs, drawing planets, and everything else graphical.

Starfarer will be released sometime in 2011; be sure to follow development and release news at the Fractal Softworks webpage.

The Line Between Life and Work


As a freelancer, I find it difficult to draw a line between my life and my work. It costs me something that I’ve been finding it hard to put into words. And then the other day I ran into a blog post on this very subject by one Rob Zacny, a freelance writer. See his post Rat at Rest; it puts very well into words what I’ve been feeling as a freelance artist, to quote:

“If I were running the rat race, I’d have a respectable reason for feeling burned out or overwhelmed. I could blame my boss or my coworkers. I could resent the drudgery of office work, the early mornings and the late nights. … I could sympathize and forgive myself, because the fault could reside somewhere outside of me.”

“Most of my friends have jobs, and they have lives. The two don’t perfectly overlap. But if you work for yourself, chasing a passion? You enjoy no such existential escape.  You chose to do something, you and your loved ones have made sacrifices so that you can do it, and now you’re tired? You need a day off? Too fucking bad. Get out of bed and get over to your desk and be creative. … The answer to every problems is always mercilessly simple: work harder.”

Add to this the chaos, the uncertainty of income that comes when one doesn’t have a stable paycheck coming in every two weeks (But are any jobs stable anymore? Heh, oh well.): The only way I can find some peace of mind and security is that work harder. Perhaps there’s some event this evening, friends want to hang out, want to just watch a movie and relax? It’s too bad: I need to work. And if I don’t I’ll feel guilty the whole time I’m off doing something else, so I won’t even really enjoy myself or relax, the whole thing is ruined anyway.

There is a solution, however. (Yes, this is getting awfully negative, so let’s turn it around.) Consider that a “normal” job imposes a hard line between life and work on you, there are hours when you’re on the job and then there’s life. There’s a place of work and a place of rest. As a freelancer, you must impose a hard line between life and work on yourself. You define for yourself some office hours and you stick to them – say, “I’ll work 10-6” and if there’s a distraction you tell them “Sorry, those are my office hours”. (Though let’s be honest, the person you really need to tell this to is yourself.)

A major factor is the problem of working from home as a freelancer – then there’s really no physical separation between life and work. That monitor is always staring at you, saying you could be doing something useful with your time, you lazy bum. A solution? Impose that separation on yourself: Set up an office in a distinct and separate room, though I found that impossible in a small apartment, so take up with a shared office in a co-working setup. When you’re at the office, you’re in work mode, when you’re at home, you’re in home mode. You are allowed peace of mind.

Plus, the presumably businesslike atmosphere of the shared office helps one stay focused. I’m much more self-conscious about hitting refresh on Facebook if there’s someone who might catch me slacking off. In some soft sense, by involving other people in your work environment you are held accountable to them. What with being the social animals we are, this actually works.

You’ve just got to draw these lines for yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.

Dredmor Design Dialog


At Gaslamp Games, I’ve long since learned that it’s far better to present Nicholas with a fait accompli which he finds amusing to implement rather than a rational argument for a feature. Allow me to demonstrate.

NV: What am I supposed to do with ingots, herbs, and fruit?
DB: *shrug*
NV: You do this just to tempt me, don’t you.
NV: …Fine, I’ll play your little game.

NV: Fuck you for making me add smelting.
DB: You didn’t have to.

NV: What’s the coal for?
DB: The iron needs a carbon source to be turned into steel.

Just another day at Gaslamp Games.

I don’t know what this is but I want to do the art for it


Painted these while daydreaming about tile-based games:

What is it, the world map of an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world, a spiritual successor to Fallout? (The only Fallout.) Is it Armageddon Empires with charmingly re-interpreted graphics and non-awful UI?

(From a design and aesthetics standpoint, I admit  it’s actually a combination of the idea of Danc’s Miraculously Flexible Game Prototyping Tiles with a reaction to Arne’s art style, particularly how he draws terrain, as you can see in the Cortex Command campaign map.)

Why do a job once when you can do it eight times in only eight times the time?


[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog]

Quiet? Only outwardly. Our Dear Leader saw fit to allow ye players to select your own resolution rather than be limited to a proper and traditional 800×600 screen. Oh, we have such things in store. You will be able to descend far deeper into the Dungeons of Dredmor than ever imagined previously!

Now come with me and perform a cheap analogue of descending into the dungeon by scrolling down past this large image which is a crop of the title screen painting, showing how I’m expanding it to fit higher resolutions!

By deeper I’m referring only to the resolution of the game, of course. We’re not radically changing the actual number of levels, though one could say that the depth of the gameplay you will find in said levels will be much greater than before. I won’t get into it much, but the thought process is to focus gameplay more on what you see in the game (eg. the items, the skills, the tactics involved in using the grid of the dungeon layout, finding crazy stuff) than on what you don’t see in the game (eg. percentile bonuses to hidden stats).

Back to the art aspect, as the official Gaslamp art janitor, I get to clean up the messes that other people make as they change the fundamental requirements of the game. Bitter? Never! Well, only most of the time! — at Gaslamp I expect, nay, demand pain. Please sir, may I have another artistic beating? (Actually this turn of phrase reminds me of a certain performance art piece from back in art school, but I digress.) In short, redrawing the entire UI really does get easier when you’ve done it seven times before.

Worse yet, the clever new pixel scaling algorithm which Nicholas is employing works much better with low-color art than with the high-color art style which I used to draw everything. Pixel art formalism, which I’ve railed against before, has struck back at me, and I have surrendered to it. And I’m finding that I like it.

You’ll never find me drawing a dither gradient though, unless it’s very intentionally for texture. I may be a videogame artist, but I do have some pride left. Here, check out new items:

Feel free to speculate wildly about the significance of fruit, a top hat, and ingots of various metals.

The Art of Neptune’s Pride


Sometimes one gets very busy and doesn’t have much time to write in one’s blog.

Then one can drink too much coffee and get the bright idea to write about other people’s work rather than one’s own. Let us to it.

I love the art for the alien species in the real-slow-time strategy game Neptune’s Pride by Iron Helment. The color and weirdness recalls the alien design of Star Control 2 and Ascendancy.

Did I mention the color? It’s just bright and bold and wonderful, the sense of design has a joyful weirdness to it. And it’s just so painterly. Very impressive.

[Image “borrowed” from the Neptune’s Pride review at Bene Factum.]

I’ll have to share more game art that I enjoy and find inspirational. (Makes good filler, if nothing else, hah!)

Update: The artwork above is done by Drew Whitmore.

The vagaries of the internet’s attention: More Dwarf Fortress design/dev commentary


I checked my blog stats one morning a few weeks ago and saw this:

Apparently my post on Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp got reddited by someone and things kinda took off.

It is a strange thing to suddenly get a whole lot of attention when I’ve mostly just been shooting my mouth off about random things for the sake of itself. I saw people who read my post commenting on points I raised, and I saw people who misread my post comment on points I didn’t even make. Others commented on points I somewhat unintentionally made due to lazy and unclear writing. Others picked up on an exaggerated sense of urgency and conflict between Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp that I put into the writing to make it more interesting (presumably, mostly to myself and a couple readers of this blog).

It’s all a bit overwhelming, and it’s always upsetting when it looks to me like someone is wrong on the internet. No wonder writers can get frustrated with their words being mis/re/interpreted!

Right, so there are a few points raised in various comments that I’d like to specifically address now that time has made mild all heated feelings. I’ll uncharitably paraphrase a comment or criticism then address it.

1. “Learn to use the interface/keyboard commands/job manager, noob!”

I assure ya’all that I am familiar with the job manager and that I’ve learned the keyboard commands of DF inside and out. I am indeed not just some noob who can’t be bothered to learn the system and who should go back to playing Farmville or Bejeweled. In my post I left out detailed explanation and critique of the particulars of DF’s user interface for the sake of brevity. It still stands that the systems are esoteric, unwieldy, and – the real kicker – may interact very poorly with the game systems (eg. “Job cancelled by Urist McUrist. Need this or that material!” x1000). Results of supply chain breakdowns are occasionally disastrous, which may or may not be as fun as advertised, depending on your attitude. This last point is where Goblin Camp’s “pull” job orders work very nicely (if things still work as they were described) compared to Dwarf Fortresses “push” job orders.

Let me explain: To make high-level things in DF, a slew of materials need to be processed through various steps, and I need to give the order for each step either by-hand or through the job manager of them. To make a steel item I would need to designate the mining of coal, an iron ore, and a flux material, then order the smelting of the ore into pig iron, order the processing of pig iron with flux into steel, then order a steel goblet to be crafted. I have to push each material and process from the bottom up. Consider an alternative: What if I could just order a steel goblet from the workshop and the workshop sent an order for steel to the smelter which would, in turn, send out an order for iron ore, flux, and coal to be mined from active veins of each? This is “pull” versus “push”. It’s one action from me vs. a whole list of actions.

In the end, it’s about whether the decisions the player has to make are meaningful or meaningless; I don’t want a game to treat me as a mindless automaton. It is largely irrelevant if I mine iron ore square 1 vs. iron ore square 2 (unless square 2 opens on to a cavern full of giant cave spiders, but them’s the breaks). As I was saying, there is a difference between meaningless micromanagement (eg. hand-designating every square to mine out in DF) and meaningful micromanagement (eg. unit ability control in StarCraft).

If I am micromanaging actions that can be handled just as meaningfully by the computer, if it is a problem that has only one reasonable solution that I have to provide over and over, then I feel like I’m wasting my time, and that is the core of my objection to the intense micro of DF.

A couple quick counter-counter arguments:

  • Yes, the “more is more” design philosophy of Dwarf Fortress is indeed its particular charm and I love finding diorite, gabbro, rhyolite and so on even if they could all be summed up as “rock”. However, this quality of excessive detail in DF  is not mutually exclusive with non-tedious micromanagement or a transparent UI/game interaction scheme.
  • Yes, Tarn is ‘working on it’. I certainly respect the problems he is dealing with and I respect him as a game creator — this does not mean it is illegitimate to critique his creation. Which brings me to my second point…

2. “Dwarf Fortress is still in alpha, you can’t expect too much from it.”

Well, yes and no.

It is an alpha in the sense of not being done, but it isn’t in the sense that tons of people are playing it right now as a game. This is not an “alpha” in the usual sense of a linear software development process with an alpha, beta, and final release (and then some followup patches and expansions). Dwarf Fortress has an ongoing, responsive, and open-ended donation-driven development model which is quite unlike the thinking surrounding a traditional commercial game. The effect of this is that DF is a process, not a product.

I contend that it is quite legitimate to comment on the process of DF’s creation as it is ongoing.

There were probably more comments that I should address, but that’ll have to wait for another time. (I will say that I do find all the interest and discussion around Dwarf Fortress completely fascinating.)

I’ve got one final point for this post:

Based off everything Tarn has said in interviews and his dev log, I am struck by the thought that what he wants Dwarf Fortress to be is not the same as the game that most people are playing. Tarn is making Slaves to Armok 2; Most fans are playing Dwarf Fortress. Tarn is making a fantasy world simulator that is focused more on creating a Roguelike/RPG experience than on the Dwarf-themed city-builder which everyone else cares much more about. This is reflected in what development has been focused on: extreme detail for creatures and combat versus streamlining the interface and usability of the city-building game.

And I think that’s really the answer: Tarn is not (deeply and ultimately) in it for fortress mode. Other people, other projects – like Goblin Camp – are in it primarily for fortress mode, for the fantasy city-building simulation game. [To clarify, I wouldn’t say that Tarn is not interested in fortress mode, just that it is not the primary objective of the whole project of creating a fantasy world simulation to serve as a medium for genre narratives. In other words, it’s not his goal to make the best fantasy city-sim it could be, so it is somewhat nonsensical to expect it. With that observed, all this nattering about the design and development of DF is purely academic. I can live with that because it’s fun to write about what DF is, isn’t, could be, and should be. ]

ps: “If you think you’re so smart, why don’t you make your own game?”

Sure! I’ll, uh, keep you posted on how that works out. [More: I really want to do this. I did have a number of months free a few years ago, but I didn’t get as far as creating an actual playable game. It was, however, an intense learning experience. I’d love to do the game-auteur thing again when I’m in a financial position to do so.]

The Quick and Easy Alpha and Omega Art Tutorial


Arne Niklas Jansson is amazing; I love his art. You might know his work from Cortex Command or the frickin’ flying spaghetti monster and uh, other stuff probably … point being, he’s an inspiration whose accomplishments I aspire to.

I don’t generally make a post for the sake of just a link, what with believing in the creation of original content, but he wrote an amazing art tutorial that trumps everything I could possibly say in any short amount of time. If you’re at all interesting in making art, read it. It’s simple, comprehensive, and I’m still reeling.

(Ugh, now I have to draw everything differently.)