Interview: Greg Pryjmachuk (Jalopy)

Road trip simulators have become popular as of late - the Euro/American Truck Simulator franchise is going strong, Spintires was a surprise hit last year, and who could forget ol' Desert Bus, the original long-distance driving game. Greg Pryjmachuk, a former developer of the F1 series, is trying to break into this newly-popular genre with Jalopy, a Cold-War road trip through a crumbling Eastern Europe. We sent Greg some questions about his latest game, and here's what he replied with:

Essentially, Jalopy is a road trip game through a procedurally-generated Eastern Bloc, but it also has many survival and exploration elements. What is there to do in the world of Jalopy?

So Jalopy is a game about maintaining and running your own 2-stroke vehicle, while embarking on a great journey. So not unlike Euro Truck Simulator, you'll be expected to drive from place to place, only in Jalopy you'll need to get out the car and interact with the world in order to get anywhere.

So from time to time you'll encounter conflicts in your journey. Maybe you picked a route where the roads were too rough, and your tyres have degraded to a point where you need to change them. You'll have to get out and fit them yourself (and hope you packed spares). Or maybe it's just time you needed to refuel and restock on certain supplies, you'll need to stop off at a petrol station, get out the car, refuel and pay.

While your addressing these small conflicts, the day and night cycle is running along without you. You'll be mindful of time because you want to make sure you're in a town early enough for the markets to be open, so you can trade some goods you either bought in the previous town, smuggled through a border or just scavenged along the way. Making money in this new capitalist world is important, but not always easy to predict as the markets are dynamic and can change drastically (what was a surplus good in one country, might be banned in the next for instance).

When you're not trading goods, you'll either need to sleep in Motels to start the next day of your trip, at the Laika Dealerships or garages installing new extras like roof racks, bull rams, etc, or replacing faulty parts. At the border, convincing border guards to let you pass without inspection, even though you've accumulated a lot of fines. Or just pottering along in your car enjoying the brief momentary peace of your car running without hitch.

With many games, procedural generation can be an issue - objects can glitch together, some areas can be completely drab or jam-packed with stuff. Why did you decide procedural generation was right for Jalopy?

So you are exactly right about procedural generation not mixing well with level generation. In Jalopy, I try to focus the procedural elements on things like item generation, weather, road conditions, and journey length. Keeping focus on these aspects allows me to have a stronger influence on road design.

So for example, I create a load of jigsaw segments of roads. The system then arranges them in a variety of ways, at a variety of lengths, with all the details within - such as road condition, traffic, weather, item density, etc. This allows me to create levels that feel like routes, but different enough to make a second play-through interesting.

I'm really interested in the hybrid of level design with procedural elements. Left 4 Dead hinted at this with the Mall map, routes would be blocked off, changed, item placement was always different but familiar enough. I think the trick is to get these two elements working together in harmony; familiarity that can still surprise.

The visual style of Jalopy seems to be centred around Brutalist architecture and bland colours - what effect do you intend to have on the player by choosing this style?

The art style actually started off as a compromise to myself in hopes of being able to finish the game. It's now sort of become it's own thing, though it does still feel like a crutch at times. I've muted the colours slightly, I think that helps give off a more 90's washed out vibe since that's when the game is set, but vibrance will definitely become more pronounced in some of the later countries.

I'm hoping that each country has a distinct enough palette to be recognisable by the player, so they know where they are, how far they've gone. Though emotions will more be drawn from weather conditions. If it's raining you're going to have a tough time, though at least it saves you filling your water tank up to use your windscreen wipers!

What are your favourite road-trip/long-distance driving games, and which ones have served as inspiration for Jalopy?

Euro Truck Simulator 2 was huge for me. In fact, it was one particular moment in that game where you turn your head to look at your mirrors, and if you keep turning your head you can stick your head out the window like a real trucker. There was a week at Codemasters where I wouldn't shut up about that feature, that was huge for me.

Talking of which, I used to work on the Formula 1 games, I was really into the simulated aspects of those games, and how we never really capitalised on them. We were simulating tyre heat, tyre pressure, tyre wear, tyre wetness, and none of it was ever played around with. I always felt those simulated aspects were great and that it was such a shame to keep them locked on a track, driving round in circles.

I also used to work as a tester on Fuel way back before that came out. That was such an interesting game to me. You'd get all these testers just slacking off to take a break from filling in bug reports to go off and drive for a bit, to see what was out there in that digital world. I loved that.

The Cold War has plenty of material for a good game that very few developers have utilised. Are there any Cold War events or concepts that you think would make a great game?

I mean every day the Berlin wall was up has so much potential for developers to play with. There was intrigue, romance, sorrow, joy, and you don't get much more iconic than a great big wall built by the east and supplied by the west. But Jalopy isn't about that, it's about what came after, during reunification - the changing of times.

At the same time, this reunification sends ripples through all the other fraternal states. You've got Czechoslovakia becoming the CSFR after the gentle revolution, Yugoslavia heading towards a really dark period of it's history and caught in amidst all of this are people just trying to find there way.

I think what's important that if you tackle this time period, is to just make sure not to turn it into a dialogue that's about left vs right. There were people amongst all that change and influence and they were just as unknowing or uncaring as we are today about what our governments have in store for u.

Follow Greg on Twitter @MinskWorks. If you want to know more about Jalopy, visit its Steam Greenlight page 

Interview: David Sirlin (Codex)

There hasn't been a new trading card game in quite a while - Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Hearthstone seem to be the only big card battlers right now, so maybe it's time for a refresh in the genre. David Sirlin, a developer who's worked on many genre-bending games, has his sights set on the TCG genre with his latest project, Codex, which is currently funding on Kickstarter. I managed to send over a few questions to him concerning Codex, and here's what he had to say:

Making a card game in which every game is reasonably fair and the game is almost entirely skill-based is a pretty bold statement. How will you ensure that every match is fair, yet won't devolve into a stalemate?

Fairness. Actually there is some confusion on terminology there. You seem to be quoting something I said about fairness, but then asking about game balance. I meant those as very different things. So my statement about fairness actually isn't bold, rather it's the bare minimum to not be an absurd affront to the point of competitive games. By fairness I meant the game doesn't INTENTIONALLY deprive you of material advantage. Imagine how stupid it would be if you started playing chess, and you were told you aren't even ALLOWED to buy all the pieces until you play 100 hours with half the pieces. That's a forced-grind, and it has no place in competitive games because it creates an uneven playfield. Or imagine a game where a collectible barrier was added on top of the gameplay system, so that some elements are artificially made rare and only available to you in random packs. You get into situations where you have underpowered stuff playing overpowered stuff as part of the system, which is crazy to me. It's not a balance problem, it's way beyond that. In both cases, it's the developer doing their best to create UNFAIR matchups on purpose in their game.

For a game to be fair, you need immediate, non-random access to any gameplay-relevant object that you want to buy. No forced-grind. No random packs of gameplay-relevant stuff. So in ALL my games, you can only ever have a full-strength deck. Yomi decks cost $10 each, for example. Not $10 for a gimped starter deck, but $10 for the exact same deck that someone will use to win the biggest tournament. We are somehow now in an age where fair games are dying, and losing out to more and more intentionally unfair games. I personally cannot stand to be involved in intentionally unfair games, so I'm trying to provide an alternative for people by selling games in only a fair way. In only a way where you have full-powered decks *always*.

Regarding game balance, that's a really different question, but I can answer that too. To understand how customizability intersects with balance, please read these articles:
(And especially check out that graphic of the chart about Yomi vs Game X)

To quickly summarize, if you allow full customizability of gameplay elements, it SOUNDS like there are tons of options. But actually, it almost guarantees far less variety. A game with 20 fixed decks is very, very reasonable to tune them so all of them are viable to play in a tournament. A game with 3.77x10^93 possible decks is almost guaranteed to somehow degenerate down to very few real options, because something in there is just way way better than the rest. So the normal way of doing things, you get very imbalanced matchups in CCGs. In fighting games, we look at matchup charts and rate matchups as 5-5 if they are even, 6-4 to 4-6 if there is some advantage to one side, etc. That means if you play 10 games between experts, you expect one side to win 6 times or whatever. 7-3 is getting pretty extreme and 8-2 is really quite a problem. But when you have full customizability, it's really all about that matchup chart's crazy imbalanced matchups, sometimes more than playing the game itself. That's called "the metagame" but really it mostly means making sure you have overwhelming advantage before you even sit down to play. In my background, we want the opposite: we want you to sit down to play with as little advantage as possible and for your win to be based as much as possible on decisions you make during the gameplay.

So if we're serious about maximizing the number of balanced matchups, we need a really radical change somewhere. The standard model of full customization, while it might have its virtues, is not good at all for this particular design goal. So instead, Codex has 20 heroes, each with a "spec" such as Anarchy, Blood, or Fire. Each hero is associated with several spells, units, upgrades, and so on that are in that spec. You choose any 3 heroes and you get all the cards that go along with them. You can make well over 1000+ decks, all of which differ from each other by at least 1/3rd of the cards. And ALL 1000+ of them are reasonable to play. Yes, really. I'm not just saying that as a marketing buzzword.

What I mean is that each of the 20 specs is a chunk that has a coherent set of cards that we know to be of reasonable power level. So any given team of 3 is at the very least, able to enact 3 different gameplans. Actually it's more like 9 gameplans, but I won't get into that detail here. The point is, the weakest deck you can make would be 3 specs with no synergy, but even that is still at a reasonable power level. So this frees you up to play the heroes you LIKE, either because of their art or personality, or game mechanics, or whatever else.

You describe Codex as a "card-time strategy" How did you get the idea to blend the two genres together, and what elements are you taking from each genre?

Codex was actually not originally going to be themed after RTS (real-time strategy) games. It started out as more like an MMO, where each faction was actually a fantasy-based character class like mage or warlock, etc. But gameplay-wise, I hit upon on how great it was to have heroes be required to cast spells and "something" (eventually, "tech buildings") be required to make creatures. This way, everyone has a built-in way to sort of pre-counter specific things you'd do. Afraid of a certain spell? Kill the enemy hero that can cast it. Afraid of a certain creature? Destroy the enemy tech-building that can make it. This fit RTS a lot better than the original theme, so switched over. Amazingly, many other elements of the game just happened to line up with RTS. The main game mechanic where you build your deck as you play from your codex (card binder full of cards) actually felt very much like an RTS. The cards in your codex are kind of like "all the units that Zerg could ever make" and the ones you pick are "the ones you're going to use this particular game." In other words, your *build order*. Also, the part where you can't see the other person's build order right away is naturally like the fog of war in an RTS. Then there's our resource system, where unlike most card games, you have to actually pay to make a worker (to "play a land" so to speak). That happened to fit RTS too.

So it just worked out really nicely that a certain theme happened to exactly work with the gameplay elements I thought we needed to have. It wasn't a case of starting with an RTS idea and trying to shoehorn gameplay to fit it.

The art on each Codex card looks beautiful. Are there any card games (real or virtual) that you've loved for their art?

Thank you! Because I put so many years into the gameplay development of Codex, I felt it REALLY needed good art to go along with that. I actually spent over 3 years on the art development just to make sure it was all as cohesive and consistent as possible. I think it's unusual to spend nearly that long, but this way helped a lot with making all the cards look like they belong together. I should mention that that hero art in particular is a different style from the rest (though all the heroes match each other in style). Those cards are done with Yomi's graphical style. It's on purpose different from the rest, partly to make the heroes stand out but also as a nod to Yomi. The hundreds of other cards use a style that's more painterly.

Another thing I had in mind that seemed "risky" from the start, was to intentionally not show the units in action scenes. And to intentionally show just "icons" for spells, as if the card is showing you the button you're press for that spell if you played it in a video game. The idea was that this would make spells and units look radically different from each other so you can tell them apart instantly, and also because if you show closeups of characters rather than action shots, you can actually SEE the characters. The idea is that you're seeing their portrait, like if you clicked on them in Warcraft 3 or something. I say it seemed risky back then because maybe it would turn out boring. But it really didn't. It added a ton to how readable the characters are, you can easily see what they are from across the table and they just look great.

Regarding art in other card games, I especially liked the art in World of Warcraft TCG. I probably had that in the back of my mind during all the art direction.

A lot of the games that you've made have tried to put a new spin on different genres. Do you think games aren't as innovative now as they were before?

Oh I don't know if games are more innovative or less innovative now. That seems hard to answer. I don't really think about that much anyway, I'm more concerned with games that are good than innovative. Sometime we see a game or set of games that have a great idea in them, but maybe those games don't REALLY hold together if you play them hard (as in Playing to Win). Or maybe other elements of the game weren't great that surrounded the thing that was good. So I put a lot of value on some other game coming along and really making that good thing shine. That's probably why I generally like Blizzard's games. They are also into putting "good" as a higher priority than "innovative". Not that innovative is bad though! It's just one of the many factors in a game: graphics, feel, how innovative, polish, etc, etc.

Lastly, what is your favourite card in Codex?

I think I'll go with Nautical Dog. He is one of the most beloved cards in the game for some reason. He was also the very first card to have real art. I like that he looks ridiculous, and that even though he's so simple, he's a good and solid card in red's early game. They found him in a lake.

Find out more about Codex on Kickstarter. Follow David on Twitter @Sirlin, or check out his book Playing to Win.

Interview: Moo Yu (Knights and Bikes)

Recently, a Kickstarter for a game called Knights and Bikes released, and, at the time of writing, it's sitting on £32,483 of donations after just 2 days. Looking at the screenshots and videos on the page, I was enthralled by the beautiful, almost Tearaway-style visuals, and I immediately wanted to know more. Luckily, I was able to get an interview with Moo Yu, lead programmer on Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction and one half of the dynamic duo of developers Foam Sword Games. Here's what they had to say about the game:

Gadgets and Khajiits: So, to introduce Knights and Bikes to anyone who doesn't know it, describe the essence of the game in 30 words or less.

Moo: Knights and Bikes is a co-op adventure game set in a hand-painted world, inspired by stuff like The Goonies and Secret of Mana.

Knights and Bikes looks to have a sort of Earthbound style to it; what games would you say have influenced the idea and concept of Knights and Bikes?

So the two games that I think stand out most are Earthbound and Secret of Mana. Each of these games had a big impact on Rex and I respectively. But I think we've been influenced by countless games over the years and all the games we've worked on.

What mechanic in Knights and Bikes sets it in apart from action RPGs?

I don't really like to separate mechanics out from everything else because all the elements of the game should come together into something better than the sum of it's parts. But one mechanic that I really look forward to exploring is mirroring abilities to the relationship of the two girls. So as they get to know and trust each other, we give abilities that get easier and easier to combine, but when they have a big argument, we focus gameplay on abilities that clash.

But I don't think much about how to differentiate from other RPGs. I like to think more about what mechanics or concepts from games I've played that I can take, deconstruct, and rejig to convey a particular moment or experience that I want.

The art style for this game is absolutely beautiful, a sort of papercraft/cartoony look. Do you think that more games should go for interesting and innovative styles instead of aiming for hyper-realism?

Rex would probably give a better answer to this, but I think if you're making games, you should be free to pick the art style that you think matches whatever you're trying to achieve. For us, this art style let's us play with the world from a child's perspective and blur the lines between reality and imagination.

Lastly, what would you say is the best thing about leaving a company and going indie versus the worst?

Funny enough, I devoted an entire podcast to this topic. You can find it here:

This might be slightly different answer. The best part is that you learn your weaknesses and you grow. You really find out where your limits are and where you should be focusing your time. The worst part is missing out on experiencing the company, knowledge, wisdom, kindness of other people through work. I've learned so much by having someone there to help, teach, and guide me. But there are some things that I never would have learned unless I struggled through them myself.

If you're interested in Knights and Bikes, check out the Kickstarter page here. Follow Moo on Twitter here.

James' Take: The Division Beta PC Hacks

On Thursday last week, Ubisoft's new game The Division has had a closed beta exclusive to those who pre-ordered the game, which has proven very popular with gamers, with countless Twitch streams and YouTube videos going up of the beta, which is great. However, there has been a case of hackers on the PC version of the game.

Posts on Reddit have appeared saying that the way the netcode has been created is giving players easy access and is easy to mess with. This allows hackers to access and change players statistics because of of this data is stored on the client side which isn't checked or verified (a way of detecting whether people are cheating).

Following these hacks, people have seen hacks such as unlimited ammo, invisibility, shooting through solid walls and faster running speed, as seen here.

This has lead to boosting their PvP oriented Dark Zone rank to 255, which shouldn't be possible as the beta caps levelling to level 12. This also allows people to unlock one of the best weapons in the Dark Zone, the Caduceus Assault Rifle.

This was made worse when a Ubisoft community manager called Natchai responded to these posts on Reddit saying that they were not actually hacking, merely exploiting a few known glitches that exist within the beta build. This is weird because Ubisoft went to great lengths to protect Rainbow Six Siege which is completely online orientated, however they completely omitted this protection in The Division's beta build.

Ubisoft has just over a month to solve these problems, so this shoudn't be a problem when the game releases, but it goes to show how easily games like this can be altered and hacked in the ways shown. The beta has also been extended for another 24 hours, until 2nd February at 3AM PT.

Tom Clancy's The Division is due to launch on the 8th March 2016 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

Sam's Take: My Case for Indie Games

PlayStation 4 PS4 Indies 2
The new Instant Game Collection for PlayStation Plus has been leaked, and once again it contains indie games. But PS4 players are a little miffed about the selection – after all, PlayStation 4 players have to buy PS Plus to play online, so feel that they should be entitled to some bigger games to justify the price. It's even got to the point where some have started hoping for titles like – choke – Knack to be included, purely for the sake of a boxed game being part of the roster. However, I'm here to tell you why this indie influx isn't such a bad thing.
It's not like I hate AAA games – it's quite the opposite. Big budgets allow developers to confidently craft enormous experiences with similarly sizeable production values, and that's a great thing. I, like many others, absolutely loved The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt when it released, losing many hours in its lovingly-crafted world full of beautiful landscapes and clipping issues; I can't wait for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Hitman, Dark Souls 3, Uncharted 4, and many other AAA games because of their ambitious visions.
But indie games exist to innovate and push boundaries because they're forced to. Many indie developers have only one shot at breaking into the industry, so they have to make it count.
If any of you've seen the brilliant Indie Game: The Movie, you'll know that indie development can be financially and socially straining, and it's a huge risk. Jonathon Blow was in huge debt after his company Bolt-Action Software folded, but he went on to create the masterpiece that is Braid, a game that uses an innovative time-travel mechanic, and has just released his next game, The Witness. Meanwhile, Tommy Refenes was forced to can an upcoming title and left his own company before going on to make Super Meat Boy, a game that distils the very essence of what makes platforming games enjoyable.
But these releases are just the high-profile tip of the iceberg; last year in terms of indies we got Rocket League, which many can agree is the definition of fun, Hand of Fate, a game that fuses the card and RPG genre together seamlessly, and N++, which was the ultimate platformer. And that's on the PS4 alone. While AAA games can be truly spectacular, it's indie games that are pushing the boat out.
Now I'm not saying that the major publishers can't be imaginative; Ubisoft showed early in 2015 with Grow Home – and the year before with Child of Light and Valiant Hearts – that it can shake things up. But then again, the French publisher's output can also be compared to a production line; in 2014, seven Ubisoft games were open world titles, all with the same basic formula. This is true for many other publishers: EA made the brilliant Titanfall that same year, but most of its other titles were sports games or sequels – some good, but not many original.
This dearth of inventiveness has mainly been caused by the demise of the so-called "AA" publishers – companies such as THQ that, while having flagship franchises, also took risks. De Blob was a kind of Splatoon prototype that tasked you with filling a grey city with colour; Stacking was a fun little puzzler based upon Russian dolls; and even the ill-fated uDraw that led to THQ's demise opened the door for many other unique releases that sadly never came to be.
The end of AA just goes to show how important indie games are to us now; the spectrum of titles is ever increasing and catering to new audiences. Don't have much money and want to buy a good value game? Buy a roguelike such as The Binding of Isaac or Rogue Legacy. Time constrained? Snap up The Unfinished Swan or Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Do you like fun? Pick up N++, because it's literally one of the best platformers out there.
The moral is that there's an indie game for everyone – and chances are it'll be a darn sight more original than what your favourite AAA publisher is putting on store shelves. I'm not saying that every indie title is good or even worthy of your attention, but by cultivating an industry in which smaller creative endeavours can thrive, we're receiving a much broader, more varied slate of software as a reward. So the next time that the PlayStation Plus lineup comes packing a selection of smaller-scale titles, just give them a try before you write them off. You never know what you might find.

What's next for Kojima Productions?

Many people already know of the situation between Konami and Kojima. Some people also know of what happened after due to a press release, that being Kojima joining Sony Computer Entertainment as a new independent studio! But, considering they haven't said anything about it for a while, I thought I'd do an article about it, because I loved all the work they have done - even though I probably should have written something when the news was new.
First things first, for anybody who hasn't heard about the Kojima vs Konami incident, here is what happened: In mid-March of 2015, Konami removed the Kojima productions name and "A Hideo Kojima Game" from all promotional material. Next, the hugely popular and successful Playable Teaser, otherwise known as "P.T" for the new, Kojima-led Silent Hills was removed from PSN, and that anticipated project was cancelled. All this culminated in Kojima apparently leaving Konami multiple times, then officially leaving them, including leaving them with an unfinished Metal Gear Solid 5, much to fans' chagrin. Sounds bad, doesn't it? Well, this is part of Konami's  "Focus on mobile games and Pachinko machines" mindset. Essentially, they're scrapping Triple-A production, and shut down the old Kojima Productions along with that.

Now that Kojima has moved on from that, they have partnered with Sony to create a new, independent remake of the company that would give them more creative freedom. But what will they do with it? One would assume it would be a stealth game, considering the company's experience with them. And that could be true; they could make a game in the vein of MGS, but without the title, something like Mighty No.9 and Mega Man, but with a new game and Metal Gear! Alas, Kojima stated MGSV would be his last Metal Gear game, so they might be burnt out of the stealth genre.

However, it is also possible they could try and follow through with a horror game, continuing on from Silent Hill's cancellation. Kojima could try and reconnect with Guillermo del Toro to make a new horror project, considering their playable teaser was so well received. Speaking of Del Toro and Kojima, it is also possible they could make a Mech game. We haven't seen much of those since Armored Core, and the only mechs we have gotten in recent memory are Transformers. It would be cool to see that concept in this generation, especially since both of the people mentioned have experience in mechs - Del Toro in Pacific Rim, and Kojima in Zone of The Enders.

Any ideas for the newly reformed K.P? What about a different kind of open world game? They showed promise in that with Metal Gear Solid 5. Let us know!