Small developers with really good games

2006-03-21 07:42

It turns out that the budget doesn’t make the game.

Master of Orion III, on a huge budget, ended up being a game I couldn’t get into at all. Part of the blame probably goes to the six hours or so it took to get the game to run on my laptop, thanks to its copy protection, but… The game felt weird and unfinished, and I could never figure out why my ships couldn’t go from one star system to another. I think it had to do with an abundance of wormholes or something.

Galactic Civilizations 2, on a fraction of that budget, is a beautiful and interesting game. It’s a lot more flexible, because the developer isn’t terrified of what might happen if people could modify the game a bit. It doesn’t have copy protection at all, which is very nice for me as a laptop user. (And so terrifying that employees of a copy-protection vendor posted links to pirated copies to show how dangerous this was.)

I was recently going through old disks, and I stumbled across a rare treasure: A-Sharp’s King of Dragon Pass. This is one of the absolute best turn-based games ever. It’s a bit of a strategy game, and a bit of a roleplaying game. It’s got more depth, and more story, than nearly any other game I’ve ever played. (Possibly any; I’ve hardly explored the whole thing.) I don’t get the impression they had a multi-million dollar budget; instead, I get the impression that their “graphics team” was a few people who had artistic talent rather than perfect uniformity, and the result is that the game’s illustrations are, by and large, actually art rather than merely graphics. I can live with that.

So, the next time you’re thinking maybe a video game would hit the spot… Do some research on the tiny companies whose products no one has ever heard of. Stardock, the makers of Galactic Civilizations (and the sequel), are a tiny little developer, still small enough that they can be personally involved in the product. A-Sharp doesn’t exactly strike me as a megacorp.

But I could play these games for months and months without losing interest, while huge franchised games with budgets large enough to feed a small country for a year are rarely worth the trouble of getting them installed and running. Food for thought, perhaps.

Peter Seebach