Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wait, I should be working...

Ay yo. I've been busy. Got a job and shiz. Anyway, I've been talking to a new friend here from work a lot about game design stuff, and there've been two interesting takeaways:

I really want to play a game using the Window system. There are a few specifics, but not many; the basic precepts are:

  1. Everything about a character should be described with adjectives, rather than numbers.
  2. It is the player's responsibility to play their role realistically.
  3. A good story is the central goal.
These might seem like pretty obvious rules for a roleplaying or collaborative storytelling system, but having them central to everything, and designing the system from the ground up around them... It makes for a very different system. Making the player responsible for realism, rather than offloading that onto a complex rules system, gets a player much closer to the realism of their character. Making everything more analogue, in terms of not having hard-and-fast rules, means that you don't have to think about the rules - you just think about what's happening. I haven't played using this system, but I really want to.

A lot of games keep track of the level of sanity of a character. It's a fun thought, to be able to simulate going mad. In Window's suggested sanity rules, when your sanity stat drops below the lowest possible, your character is removed from your control and presumably needs to be hospitalized. I thought of a potentially more interesting system:

When a character fails particularly badly at being sane (their sanity stat drops to critical levels, or they roll a critical failure, or whatnot), they do not simply go comatose. Instead, the DM describes what their character sees - hallucinations, vivid or blurred, otherworldly or only slightly shifted from the real world. The player responds to these hallucinations, and needs to deal with them or take severe damages through some other avenue - but here's the kicker: the player's actions in the hallucination also translate to the real world, but not in a way the player knows. So the player might see a floating snake and fight with it, but at any given moment, striking the snake might translate to striking the ally standing next to them... And so on. The key is that the player can control their character in the in-game real world, but they do not know how. Furthermore, to prevent the player from quickly figuring out what to do, the DM can freely switch around what hallucinations represent what in-game real objects. Or play around even further with indirect correspondences! Maybe the heated battle in the real world is turned into a philosophical discussion, or the other way around. The DM would then roll attack and damage rolls, modified by the player's hallucinatory knowledge check. The possibilities are endless!

I think my favorite little bit about this system, though, is the experience as a group. The DM rolls some dice as you're walking down a corridor, and you are thrust into battle - everyone rolls initiative, as you have been ambushed by some eldritch horror. Then, everyone's heads filled with dread, the DM turns to Alex: "You find yourself again in a shifting room of greens and blues,  booming noises emanating from the walls. There is a snake to your left, and a glowing ogre to you right." The rest of the party readies to defend themselves from the frenzied attacks of their mad comrade.

If the DM keeps a consistent hallucination world, then you get two benefits - one, it would rapidly form into a recognizable meme in your group, for much hilarity. Two, it opens the possibility of the hallucination world being... not so unreal after all, when two people are sucked into it at the same time, only to discover that their interactions are perfectly consistent inside the bubble of insanity.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Dungeon Defenders and Orcs Must Die!

I probably should have done this ages ago, seeing as I played these games ages ago. But no matter! Orcs Must Die! 2 has just come out, so let's celebrate by talking about old irrelevant material. Whee! The main reason I want to talk about Orcs Must Die! and Dungeon Defenders together is because they both are part of a new breed of tower defense games, that pulls you out of your tower planting perch in the sky and throws you smack into the middle of the action (Sanctum is another similar game, I think, and I don't know what else there is). Now, the main point of this: I think Orcs Must Die! did this right, and Dungeon Defenders did it wrong. And now I'll explain why.
Now, don't misunderstand. I don't think that Dungeon Defenders is a bad game, and on top of that it's been quite a while since I've played it, so for all I know they've fixed all the problems I had. It's definitely a ton of fun. The aesthetics are ridiculously bright, colorful, and cheery. The characters are all very distinct (well, at least the original 4), and are reasonably balanced. The constant earning of new loot and unlocking of new abilities/towers is extremely addictive. And most of all, there's 4 player co-op. All of that is pretty great. But what's not so great is the general feel of the gameplay. Character movement is slow and floaty, and attacks feel worthless and bland. There's just a general lack of oomph. You get used to it, and it doesn't impede play, but your character will hack and slash through hordes of enemies and it will feel absolutely boring and insubstantial. The insubstantial feeling is only compounded by the hordes of enemies, as higher difficulties and more players will result in more enemies. Speaking of difficulty, the last I played the game the difficulty was extremely out of whack. With only two players, we were able to quite easily beat all of the early stages, but when our party got upped to three, we consistently got wiped out on probably the 3rd level.

Another much more significant problem is the aiming system. Your character is only capable of damaging the enemy that you're locked on to. And you have to be reasonably close to an enemy to lock onto it. And this is just all kinds of problematic. For one, what about the characters with ranged attacks? The huntress and ranger both use crossbows to fight, and their secondary 'attack' merely zooms in a scope for them. But unless the game thinks you're targeting something, you're only shooting blanks, so sniping is a no go. You'd think it wouldn't be a big deal for the more melee based characters, but it still is. Simply put, enemy hordes are big. And it's quite annoying when you charge in swinging, but only deal damage to a single enemy at a time. Thankfully, hordes also tend to be comprised of the weaker enemies, so after a few swings you'll just move on to the next enemy, and I think that hitting enemies you're not locked onto will knock them back slightly. And again, I want to restate that Dungeon Defenders is by no means a bad game. If you're looking for a game that you and a couple of friends can play together, definitely try it out.
But then, there's Orcs Must Die!. In my opinion, Orcs Must Die! absolutely nails the gameplay. It's hard to describe it, but movement and combat all simply feel good. It's all fast and fluid, which is good because combat will get extremely chaotic. In Dungeon Defenders, things were fairly slow paced. Although your movement was slow and floaty, enemies also moved at a crawl, so things only really got hectic when you had enemies breaching your defenses on multiple fronts. In Orcs Must Die! on the other hand, you move quickly but so do your enemies. Unlike Dungeon Defenders, which will have enemies coming from a half dozen paths, in Orcs Must Die! there are only a few options for the enemy approach. It's very easy to place traps in the way of the enemies (and each trap is amazingly fun), but each trap has a cooldown after activating, and there are always enough enemies that a trap taking out one is inactive long enough to let by ten. Things get crazy very fast as you try to hold back the flood of enemies long enough for your traps to reactivate, and it's fantastic. And now that they've added in two player co-op, you get to do it all with a friend. And now I don't have anything else to say about it. Whoosh I'm off.

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Saints Row felt like a book of punchlines slapping my face repeatedly. Yes, I see the comedic content. I just don't care."

Alright, so. I played Just Cause 2 GTA: Japan Saints Row: The Third the other day on my brother's computer, and I have to say: points for style, but your game is one of the shallowest interactive experiences I've had since Scribblenauts. The game started out strong, with an entertaining intro cutscene and mission. After that it just... got really boring. The whole game gave off a very strong vibe of trying for Refuge in Audacity, and it only half-worked. They got the audacity part right, but it gets old fast. After the intro mission, it just felt... Done. Finished. Like there's nothing else to do. It has the sandbox problem in abundance. Just Cause 2 did sandboxing right - in both games my character was absurdly overpowered, with ready supplies of weapons and vehicles to plow through whatever enemies I faced. The worst-case scenario: I might have to take cover once or twice.
But in Just Cause 2 I only had to wander around and find some interesting terrain and suddenly there was an enemy camp in sight, ripe for the picking. It was hard to escape things to do. In Saints Row, on the other hand, the landscape is uninspired, there's no challenge in grinding for cash (regular paychecks, woohoo!), and the few 'story' missions I played were long, boring, and unrewarding.

As for the "wackiness" of Saints Row, it just failed to deliver. Sure, it had silly things. I can fire mind-control octopi at whoever I want, and yes, you can run around hitting people with a dildo, and at one point I saw a van with a giant mascot head on the front with a flamethrower in its mouth. Saints Row felt like a book of punchlines slapping my face repeatedly. Yes, I see the comedic content. I just don't care.

And now, before the end of this short review, I want to mention the sexual content in Saints Row. The immaturity of putting people in bondage gear for no reason isn't what bothers me - what bothers me is that bondage gear is apparently hilarious. Apparently giant dildos are hilarious. It's cheap and offensive. I don't mind the bondage gear or the dildos - I just mind the fact that they apparently count as "humor". Saints Row takes immaturity as a form of humor way too far, to the point that it loses all its shock value and just becomes alternately boring and offensive.

That said, if you want to go around hitting people with a giant dildo, fine. Go do it. Saints Row is your game. Just don't be surprised when it doesn't have the universal entertainment value you might think.

Oh, and for the other side of the review: The driving controls are pretty tight, although the flying is slow and pretty meh. Character customization was surprisingly lacking given how much time I spent and how many options it gives you (I don't know why we need fifty different mascot heads to choose from). Graphics are good, technically speaking, although there's not much interesting to see - the city is boring and repetitive. The shooting was pretty good, although uninspired. The high points, gameplay-wise, were the driving (I'm a sucker for any game with a handbrake) and the fact that whenever you want you can do a randomly-chosen special melee attack which varies from pro wrestling suplexes to flying punches to, uh, the ol' punch-in-the-nuts. I liked that functionality.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sequence, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Splice, and Auditorium

It's been a while since any of us have written, oops. Summer is unexpectedly busy. However, to celebrate me getting a shiny new computer to play games on, and the Steam summer sale, I'm going to talk about three games today! As you may have guessed, these games are Sequence, Splice, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. Let's make this fast, I want to get back to playing asap.

Sequence I actually got quite a while ago, and I could have sworn I had already written something about it. But then I searched through our post archives and couldn't find anything, and was immensely disappointed in my past self. For some reason I still feel like I've written about this before though, so in case I missed it in my search forgive me if I'm rehashing old territory. Sequence has you playing as Ky, who wakes up in a strange tower filled with dangerous monsters. You are led through the tower by Naia, striving to make it to the top and escape. Along the way, you'll level up, learn new tricks, and all that typical RPG jazz. What spices things up though, is how the battles work. These are far from the standard turn based battles, and are instead rhythm based. Each battle has three screens, each of which has its own set of falling notes a la DDR and those similar games. One screen dictates enemy attacks, another is where you activate spells, and the third allows you to regenerate mana. Miss a note in the enemy attack screen and you'll take damage, or activate a spell and then miss a note on the spell screen and the spell is wasted (thankfully, no penalty for missing anything in the last screen).
Every battle becomes a frantic juggling act balancing defending yourself from enemy attacks, gathering the resources to counterattack, and finding the time to actually counterattack. You've activated a basic spell, but the enemy is making an attack at the same time! Do you sacrifice the mana to defend yourself (and spend some time on the mana screen later earning it back), or do you take the hit and focus on casting the spell? In addition, you only have a limited number of spells you can bring with you into battle. Do you want to bring only attack spells, and end the battle as soon as you can? Or do you just take the most basic ones, and bring mostly healing spells for when things get out of hand? Sequence is practically the only game I can think of that brings me to a state of 'flow' like how Shoofle's mentioned before. When it's going good, I am easily juggling the three screens of falling notes, easily blocking enemy attacks and countering with my own. But all it takes is a single fumble, and suddenly everything falls apart. And it's absolutely amazing. Even though the story and art didn't grab me (not to mention everything is just a static sprite anyway), gameplay is king. The battle system alone was more than enough to keep me playing this game for hours.

Next up, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet! This one's a strange one. I've gotten to a point where I'm entering some water, and was instantly reminded of Aquaria. And it's pretty easy to see why, too. Both are Metroidvania style games that forgo the usual platformer aspect of the game, with Aquaria taking place entirely underwater, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet having the player be a free flying UFO. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (I'm just going to call it ITSP from now on) plays essentially like a dual stick shooter, though the player has to constantly juggle their abilities to select the best one (or the required one) for the situation. The game has a very unique aesthetic, but honestly that's all I really have to say in favor about the game. It follows the Metroidvania style of blocking off passages and forcing you one way until you have the prerequisite item that allows you to pass the other way, but I didn't find it as fun as I usually do other Metroidvania games. Fighting felt dull and boring. The upgrades didn't feel like they were granting me very much power, and the environments felt too constrained. While there were aspects of exploration involved, there are few of them and the rewards for venturing off the path are meager. The aesthetic is interesting, but not enough to hold the game up on its own, and pales in comparison to the absolutely gorgeous aesthetics of Aquaria. I don't know. I really wanted to like this game, and it sat near the top of my wishlist for a while, but honestly I'm disappointed.

This is Auditorium
Thankfully, I saved Splice and Auditorium for last. Splice and Auditorium are by Cipher Prime. I played Auditorium quite a while ago and absolutely loved it, and it looks like Cipher Prime has managed to duplicate the magic with Splice. But first, I want to talk a bit about Auditorium. Auditorium is a very simple puzzle game (originally a Flash game, now available on mobile devices and Steam), where you use manipulators to direct a flow through some containers. Early levels are extremely simple, but later levels add multiple colors and get deviously difficult. But the main reason I loved Auditorium is the music. The game is silent at the start of each level, but as you redirect the flow to pass through the containers, the music starts to build up, one part at a time. The music is slightly repetitive, but I think the tracks are absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend this one (and they're working on a sequel!)
This is Splice
Ok. Now for Splice. Splice is a cell based puzzle game of sorts. You start with a tree of cells, and have a limited number of splices to make in order to reach a target tree that has a certain configuration. The game itself is also extremely simple: activate a cell 'mutation' by clicking on the cell, splice by dragging cells around. But like Auditorium, this game also absolutely fantastic music. Actually, as we speak (er, as I write this), I'm searching for where I can download the entire damn thing, because I want it now. And actually, I don't have much else to say about Splice. I've never seen puzzle mechanics quite like Splice before, so the novelty is extremely appreciated. I haven't played enough of the game yet to say for sure, but the puzzle mechanics seem extremely solid, and the game feels like it's going to ramp up in difficulty fairly soon. I'm excited, so I'm going to end this post now so I can go play. Peace!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Amnesia: Because a dark scary castle is a great place to spend a Saturday

I'll admit it: I'm a scaredy-cat. I don't do horror movies or haunted houses (unless I'm working them). I jump at little sounds and still sometimes get spooked by things that go bump in the night. This is why I didn't actually play Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a first-person survival horror title from Frictional Games, for myself - I watched as a friend of mine, Alex, played. I should get credit however for not running away screaming (and helping with puzzles).

Amnesia starts you in an apparently empty castle. You can't remember anything, but you find a note addressed to you directing you to kill Alexander, who is in the Inner Sanctum. It's signed by you, so it's gotta be legit. Assuming that your previous self knew what was going on, you proceed gaily through the castle to find him. The rest of the story is disseminated through pages of your torn-up diary and, interestingly, the load screens. (There's a minimum time set to display the message, in case you're playing on a really fast computer.) They do a good job of keeping you in the dark, but informing you enough that you remain intrigued. And, yes, amnesia is a well-known crutch of writing, but they work with it quite well.
Because when I steal and rip apart a diary, I leave all the pages in a convenient order for him to follow.
Amnesia's got a couple of interesting mechanics going for it. The main one is a balance between light and dark: enemies can see you if you're standing in the light, but standing in the darkness for too long makes you lose your sanity. You also have no weapon, so your only options when you see an enemy are to run or crouch in the darkness, praying it won't find you. Oh, and don't look at the enemies too much - you'll lose sanity. You also lose sanity by experiencing "unsettling events." Lack of sanity makes it harder to control your character and your vision will shift and warp. Eventually you just crumple to the ground in what I assume is a blubbering mess. Solving puzzles and staring at light regains sanity.

Another interesting mechanic is that doors are opened and shut with click-and-drag with an option to slam them quickly with the right mouse button. While it took Alex some getting used to at first, he tells me it was eventually pretty intuitive. It allows the player to swing a door open for a peek into the next room (which we didn't use much), but more importantly, it impedes a player who is running away flailing. Running from an enemy is that much harder when you have to remember which way a door swings and spin around quickly to slam it shut.

I didn't expect the game to be as puzzle focused as it was. Overall, I expected more enemies, but it turned out to be a good balance given the no-weapons part, and contributed well to pacing. The castle was reasonably linear without feeling like it - because you're never given a map and have to rely on limited tinderboxes and lantern oil to find your way around, it feels bigger than it is. It's also nicely impossible to get too lost or wander forward without all the tools you need. A few times we had some difficulty tracking down the last cog or pipe because Alex had a tendency to pick up and throw them around, but overall the puzzles weren't too bad. The game will generally give you a hint if you try to use an item but need something else as well. Many puzzles were fairly trivial, though - the game is relying on the horror mechanic.
Next up on our scenic tour, the sewers...
I think the sounds are actually the scariest part of the game. I know many people *cough Jeremy cough* who couldn't make it five or ten minutes into the game, and it takes about ten to find the first enemy. (Though you do catch glimpses of things moving before then and frequently try to go the other way only to have the game force you to Even longer before you're in actual danger - the game uses the first encounter to teach you how to hide from them. The aesthetic is very well done overall, becoming scarier as you descend deeper into the castle and uncover the more gruesome parts of the tale.

The sanity mechanic worked reasonably well, though both sanity and health are described on your inventory screen with a series of descriptors rather than any numerical scale. While this was a reasonable choice for the game, it was a little frustrating for seasoned gamers who wanted to make sense of it. Sanity, for instance, ranges from "Crystal clear" to "..." with descriptors in between like "A slight headache." This system didn't seem to correspond with the aforementioned warping of the screen, though. I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that we spent the game not understanding the insanity scale.

As far as enemies go, while there were less encounters than I expected, the various encounters were well designed. There was never a time we felt that getting by was impossible, though many were close calls of slamming doors behind us and crouching in a corner as the creature pounded at the door. A few times we got by because an enemy simply didn't spawn, though we're unsure whether that was a glitch or the game pitying us. When something kills you, the screen will bring up a message, which is generally something like "You must carry on..." but ocasionally explains a new enemy trick for you (like the helpful "Run!"). While it was clear after dying once what needed to be done, it was a little odd to have to die to get it. I suppose an observant player could figure it out in most cases, and luckily death didn't set you back too far. The pacing was mostly good, with high points and lulls, even if it got a little predictable. We still got spooked though, to the game's credit.
You've - you've got something on your chin there, dude.
Overall, Amnesia does a lot of things about survival horror right. While it isn't a genre I play often, I do think it's perfectly suited to video games due to interactivity. Amnesia, possibly because it lacks the graphics budget of a AAA studio, goes back to survival horror's roots in early 3D gaming, which relied more on darkness and surprise than impressive and creepy enemy models because they simply couldn't be rendered. Amnesia's enemies look a little goofy when you stare at them for a while, but they'll still make you jump when you turn around to find one right behind you. I recommend it to anybody who's at all interested in the survival horror genre, even if you get scared. The triumvirate for beating Amnesia (only 2 required) is to play in daylight, with a friend, and/or without sound. Mix and match so that you can get through it, but I do recommend enjoying the sounds - they add a lot to the experience.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Game Dev Story and Angry Birds Space

I recently got a droid smartphone, and thus have been trying out all the great Android games that I never had a chance to play before. And all the mindless ones, like Temple Run and Fruit Ninja, but those are topics for another post. Or maybe just not topics ever, since well, there's not much to say about Temple Run and Fruit Ninja aside from "they're addictive". Today, as you may have gathered from the post title, I want to talk about Game Dev Story and Angry Birds Space, so let's get started with Game Dev Story.
Game Dev Story places you in charge of a fledgling game development studio. You start the game by naming your studio, and then your secretary introduces you to the game. You need to hire a team, and then develop the best game ever. Fairly straightforward, but the path to the top is long and difficult. I'd go into more detail about what the process consists of, but it's somewhat long to explain and really quite simple to understand when you play, so I'm not going to. Pretty much: hire a team, work on a project, use research gained to level up team, use money earned to train team and start next project, repeat until success. Gameplay simply involves making the decisions in leading your studios along its path towards the top, and it's very addictive. You will always want to play through one more project, because this time you'll be able to pull off something even better. It's quite amazing how they managed to make the game so addictive despite not really having that much in the way of actual gameplay. In addition, if you have any desire to go into video game development at all, I think you should try out Game Dev Story. While it's not exactly a simulator for what working in game development is like, it might help you learn a few things. It definitely made me stop and think about my goals in life more than once.
Next up, Angry Birds Space. It took Mario over two decades to make it to outer space, but the Angry Birds have done it in something like two years. I've played through a fair bit of the original Angry Birds, and it was quite addictive (achieving 3 stars on every level is a practically herculean task). However, I eventually got bored of it and moved on to other games. The premise for Angry Birds Space is the same: use a slingshot to hurl angry birds at pigs for massive damage. The only difference is that the slingshot is now in space. Some planets have gravity, in which case objects will be drawn towards the center of the circular gravity field, but otherwise launching a bird will send it straight ahead in that direction until it hits something. It may not sound very significant, but the space physics change the entire feel of the game for me. I wasn't expecting much out of Angry Birds Space, but honestly it blew me away within a few levels. You start with some basic launching birds into the right orbit trajectory to smash into the pigs, but it quickly escalates from there, until I was bombarding the pigs with asteroids that I blasted into the orbit fields. Nothing short of addictive, and this time I feel like I'm addicted more to the mechanics of the game than the need to 3 star everything (not that I haven't 3 starred all the levels I've played so far anyway). I definitely recommend you give this one a try as well, you might be as surprised as I was.

That's all for Silver Asterism smartphone edition this time! Next up, a rundown of my impressions of E3!

Friday, May 18, 2012

SSX! It's pretty damn fun!

SSX: Deadly Descents is a really well-made game. It's just... fun. The gameplay is well-balanced, with a really nice slew of difficulty levels. There's an astonishing number of courses available to you, and every single one has a plethora of paths. On the other hand, some of them get kind of monotonous, and it's often difficult to tell which one to use in races where the course you pick is almost 100% of the battle.
The thing that really impresses me about SSX is the number of ways to get enjoyment out of the game. I count at least five fun ways to play it: there are race, trick, and survival events, which are all fun on their own. You can compete in global events, which are startlingly fun. Finally, you can go around collecting the geotags left all over the mountains by anyone else playing the game, and finding faraway corners to hide your own geotags in. Everything is uploaded to the network so you can compete against anyone you meet, anyone who picks up your geotags, anyone whose geotags you pick up, anyone who bests your record in a global event...

Global events are really fun - basically, you choose an event (survive, trick, or race on one of the mountains 150-some mountain slopes) and you're entered into a competition over the next few hours/days/week. As scores are collected by everyone playing in it, the total pot of credits available goes up, and everyone's sorted into fairly wide brackets. At the end, you get a payout according to how well you did. I regularly get gold and platinum brackets (second and third out of five), and it's really rewarding. Having constantly varying goals is a really nice change over single player. Also, they introduce restrictions of not using certain equipment. It's an interesting way to level the field a bit, I think. I was surprised by how fun the global events were - in a lot of these things, winning seems like an impossibly far-off goal, but the bracket system is really rewarding.

It's really god-damn fun to rocket off a mountain, do a 4000 degree rotation, break out your wingsuit, and land on a rail. Man. My hands are on fire.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Clustering and communities in multiplayer

So, playing SSX has been fun. It's nice to play with everyone, but the problem is that I don't actually have any friends who play sports games. Or racing games. Or hands-on-fire snowboarding games. So I friended some people on SSX  who picked up my geotags or whatever - but it felt kind of hollow. I've got numbers showing up on my global overview, which is nice, but I just don't care. There's nothing that actually links us.
Similarly, in Mass Effect 3, I play a game with people and then... never see them again. It's a problem in any game without persistent servers and communities and chats. I wonder if there might be a way to foster interpersonal interaction a little more.
The ME3 leaderboards will show you the performance of other people in your country, and in the world, and you can see the top of the rankings and you can see your vicinity in the rankings.
What if a game grouped you with a set of people, completely arbitrarily? Say that when you first log into the network, you get seeded with twenty other people, and it'll disproportionately choose those people when matchmaking. That way, you would consistently see the same people - you could get to know strangers by the way they play.
Better yet, it could be self-regulating, so that if you consistently lose with someone, they get filtered out - or do it by ranking and voting. The point is that it would essentially choose some set of people, arbitrarily at first, and give you those people as playmates.
Maybe it'd shift your 'location' in the space of players periodically - so you'd go a few weeks playing with some group of people, and get the chance to befriend them, and then you'd spend a while playing with other people.

I like Steam/browsable lobby multiplayer because I get consistent people to play with, and I like PSN/XBL multiplayer because I don't have to specifically find a group to play in. Why not get the best of both?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

layers of code, and why you should have paid attention in cs 201

I've run into an issue a number of times now. In my mindjail engine, there're several levels of development - I think of there as being four levels, of which I'm concerned with two.

At the lowest level, there's window management. I've shoved this off onto pyglet, a lightweight (their website tells me) GL windowing library for python. Pyglet does some things that I know - in an abstract way - how to do: drawing basic shapes, interfacing with the operating system to draw windows, and keeping track of input.

At the next level up, most of the meat of my engine is present. The main game's state is in a mindjailengine class, with lists of entities, rules on how and when to update and draw, and a basic physics engine. This level is what I think of as low-level game programming, and I chose to develop in python largely 'cause I felt it'd be easiest to code this 'meat' in an easy language. I'm doing the hard thinking here, so I do it how I think best - in python.

Problems really start in the next level - where entities in the game world have behaviors defined. Suppose a missile hits a robot. The previous level of abstraction determined if the missile was currently striking the robot - physics is a universal thing and so it shouldn't happen here*. But missiles explode when they hit things, so the missile should explode - definitely missile-specific behavior.

Our issue is how to separate our code. Presently, it's all close together - all of the missile's behavior is encapsulated in the Missile class in missile.py. But why is this? If we truly think of the behavior of entities in the world as being a totally separate thing then my instincts say they should be in different places in the code.
I did a bit of Lua scripting way back when to make tools in Garry's Mod, and it seems like a scripting language might be the answer. Object management and physics would be handled in python, and then at some point the game would instantiate a Missile object, and in the process would hook in the Missile.lua file to manage how the missile behaves.

But here's my biggest problem: I don't know how to interpret lua, and my game is still under a hundred kilobytes. I don't know how to include a Lua interpreter, which is a stickier subject still - how would I have the Lua scripts adjust things like position and velocity, which are hard-coded into the physics engine? The script/engine interface is more complex than the engine/windowing interface.

This level of abstraction is easy to brush aside when I'm dealing with simple objects, with behaviors as simple as "when I hit something, remove it", but it's going to balloon out horrendously when we get to, say, enemy AI. 

A similar problem is presented at the next level, which is the broad-scale game design - the things that make a game Fun. It's not the physics engine, I'll tell you that.
By analogy to object behavior, this would involve having a separate language or interpreter for levels. I was toying with the idea of having levels stored as vector graphics files, with lists of circles drawn at specific locations. I've since thrown that idea mostly out, but the problems remain - if I have a format for my files, I can either have
  • a hand-grown format (where my level editor will be notepad and my parser will be a loop with a case-switch statement) or
  •  I can use someone else's format (where I might be able to have a graphical editor and parse by means of a call to FormatParser.ParseFile("level1.lvl")).
The second is much nicer - but then I need to include a parser, figure out how formats work, and... it's generally very confusing if I don't know what scale the game's going to have.

In the mean time? I'm blocking the game out as best I can all in python. My level format is a text file that gets parsed with a case-switch loop, and my object behaviors are defined in distinct classes. Basically, I'm trying to keep everything separated by sheer force of will, which is okay because I know how everything works.

I've seen this become a major problem, and a major reason for code becoming confusing, in just about every team project I've worked on, and it's a serious argument for having paid attention in software engineering class. This kind of architecture is something to pay attention to, because it means the difference between
  • a game with two enemy types because they're such a pain to code that only one person can make them work and
  • a game where it's easy to add new enemies and levels and weapons, because it just means adding a few lines to a clean file called 'enemies.py' or 'weapons.py'
I'd like all my game design to happen like the latter. I've made it happen once, but it was right at the end of a project riddled with other holes.

Friday, May 4, 2012

flOw is a really good game and you should check it out.

It's been a while since I last posted. I've got two posts bouncing around in my head, as yet unfinished - one about the excellent SSX, and one about an issue I've encountered in a number of game programming experiences.

Right now what I want to talk about is an older game called flOw, which is really pretty. Really pretty. This is the part where I want to go on and on using phrases like "exquisitely beautiful" and "rapturously gorgeous", but instead of boring you with purple prose I'm just going to post some screenshots.
flOw, annoying as its capitalization may be, is a perfectly calming game with a surprising depth of gameplay. Your objective is to grow your avatar larger and larger and progress to the end of a set of levels. You have a choice of unlockable creature types to play with, each of which has their own peculiarities. The controls are incredibly simple and, basically, the game gets an amazing depth of experience out of not much that you need to do. Really good.

It's available on PSN (about $10 and very worth it) and in a free version as a flash game (not nearly as good, if you ask me)..

flOw is a production of the notable thatgamecompany, responsible most recently for Journey but also for the art game Flower (in which one controls a gust of flower petals blown on a breeze) and Cloud, an incredibly poorly publicized art game which was, I'm pretty sure, the first exposure I had to games as an art form. I remember playing Cloud in my room in middle school, having downloaded it when it was just a project by a group of friends, and being awestruck by how somber it was. It moved me to tears.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

REVIEW- Warp

The best thing about indie games on PSN is that they're shorter, which means that it doesn't take as long for me to get through one, and I also don't have to write as much about it. As indie games, they are often also more exciting or innovative, but me being as incredibly lazy as I am, the main draw is the shorter time commitment required. So on that note, next up is Warp, by Trapdoor.
The premise of Warp is that you are an alien that has crashed on Earth. Incapacitated by the rough landing, you are captured, taken to a secret underwater facility, and experimented upon by scientists. However, you manage to break out using the titular ability, and proceed to wreak havoc throughout the facility in an attempt to break out a fellow alien and escape the facility. As you progress, you'll gain various other abilities that will help with your bid for freedom, such as being able to create an 'echo' of yourself that draws enemy attention. The levels are well designed, and the player can either aim to be stealthy or warp into enemies and tear them apart from the inside, and each method is generally equally viable. Following the main path tends to be fairly simple through the course of the game, but the levels have collectible grubs hidden or well placed throughout the level that require some more creative thinking to reach and obtain.

One of my favorite parts about Warp is the whimsical feel of the characters. Your character communicates through adorably unintelligible gargles, and acts like a curious small child when dealing with humans (even while gruesomely tearing apart their bodies). The scientists in the facility are total pansies, and upon sighting you will scream and run away, bemoaning their fate (and how they've had such an awful day) as they cower in a corner. On the other hand, the soldiers that patrol the facility are stereotypically gung-ho in their efforts to kill you, spouting macho lines about how you must have run away from them, you chicken. The extreme silliness that ensues whenever I revealed myself in a room was more than a little motivation to keep going even on the occasions that I got somewhat bored with the puzzles the game threw at me.
That's all for now! To sum things up, Warp is a short and fun stealth stealth'ish puzzle'ish game. Definitely give it a try if you like warping based puzzles, top down stealth games, or if you like warping into the bodies of enemies and tearing them apart from the inside out. Maybe next time I'll write about a bigger/longer game.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Journey

Every now and then, I decide to do something different. Take a break from the standard action shooter beat'em up whatever, and just relax. And this time, that something different is Journey.
Made by thatgamecompany, the creators of Flower (which Maggie mentioned in her demo round-up), Journey is a bit more involved than the relaxed petal guiding that is Flower. You play as a traveler, making your way through a vast desert towards a glowing mountain far in the distance. The mechanics are simple: move towards the mountain with the left stick, look around with either the right stick or by tilting the controller. Shortly into your journey, you will discover a scarf that allows you to jump and fly as long as it is magically charged, and throughout the various levels you can collect golden fragments that extend the length of the your scarf (allowing you to jump and fly farther before running out of charge). Your character sings at the press of a button (holding the button has the character sing a louder note), which is the primary means of interacting with the world, and with other players. Environments are beautiful, and it's a ton of fun flying around when you have a longer scarf.

Speaking of other players, Journey's 'multiplayer' is among the most intriguing I've ever encountered. Though your journey is usually a lonely one, you can and will encounter other travelers along the way. There isn't much you can do in the way of interaction. The only way you can interact with the other players is through your character's singing, which replenishes your companion's scarf, to provide some incentive to sticking together and cooperating. However, it's hard to convey much of a message through the simple chimes your characters make, unless by some coincidence both you and your companion are fluent in Morse code. Despite this lack of ability to communicate, or perhaps because of it, I felt far closer to my companion in Journey than essentially anybody else I have interacted with in games or on the internet. In particular, I think my experience of the final chapter would have been significantly different (though I don't know that it would have been worse) had I not had a companion for almost the entire chapter.
I don't have much else to say about Journey, so I'll end it here. In short, Journey is an extremely unique experience, the best words I can come up with to describe it are gorgeous and tranquil. I highly recommend it to anybody looking for something different.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Demo Roundup!

I haven't had much time to finish games recently, and I don't like to review them before they're done, so I've been a little quiet on here. Thanks to Jeremy though, I've been playing more demos than usual, so I thought I'd give my thoughts on a few of them. Some have come out and I haven't read full reviews, but I think the impression a demo gives is a very important thing.

1. Syndicate
This futuristic first-person shooter tries to innovate a little with your ability to hack things, including your teammates, who you can heal or revive. While it didn't stand out to me as terribly special, and I'm rather ambivalent towards the whole FPS genre, it worked pretty well. I enjoyed the system, though I think you can hack things from a ridiculous distance. Jeremy and I played the co-op demo, which was designed for four people. Even on a low difficulty level it kicked our asses. I had fun doing it, but it steadily wore on me as we had to do the same part over and over and over. There are checkpoints, but again, they're designed for four players. 

It makes sense from a design perspective to have levels designed for a certain number of players - it makes it easier to balance. But from what I can see, there aren't any for just two. And I suppose they mean for you to play online with random people or have more friends than I do, but that's not really my thing. So they lost me a bit there. 

Will I buy it: No, not likely. Because FPS isn't my favorite genre, one really has to stand out for me to like it, and this one just didn't.

2. Binary Domain
Here's another futuristic shooter that hasn't gotten a lot of hype. It takes place in a world where robots are created by two companies, one in Japan and one in the US, but both are forbidden from creating humanlike ones. One shows up, and you're sent in to investigate. So you shoot lots of robots. They boast a complex damage system where if you shoot a robot's leg, just the leg blows up and they limp along. That's all well and good, and it works well, but it strikes me that it's been done before. What really intrigued me was the promise of a comrade approval system, affected by everything from what you say to them to what you do on the battlefield. In turn, this affects whether they will take orders from you or not.

The demo, however, let me down. The buggy AI often couldn't figure out what to do, including taking cover beside me when I was leaving more than enough room. The combat system was never explained, and while it's related to standard FPS controls, that doesn't do me much good when I don't play them much. From the beginning, then, I felt shut out of the demo. My companions were nagging and annoying, and they disapproved the longer I sat in cover trying to figure out what to do. In particular, I was trying to figure out what I had that would be good against a riot shield. In the end, I tried a few failed charges and got so fed up with the system that I shut it off.

Will I buy it: No no no. The interesting premise falls flat in practice, and the demo alienated me from the start. (For the record, Jeremy was similarly annoyed, but managed to finish that second mission.)

3. The Darkness II
I've never played the Darkness, though I have a vague idea of what happens. You play as Jackie, who's a high-profile hit man in the mafia. For some reason, you've got a symbiotic relationship with this demon called the Darkness. Doesn't really matter - the point is that you're a badass. Jeremy convinced me to try out this demo, and while he had to get me past the more gruesome parts (such as watching yourself get nailed to a cross...), I really enjoyed it.

The combat was amazing. I've never shot a real gun before and am reasonably recent to shooting games, but the feel of the gun was perfect. I've never specifically noticed the design of shooting in a game before, but this stood out as very smooth. In addition to shooting, you can use your Darkness-fueled demonic arms to grab enemies and items as well as just lash at things. I impaled guys with parking meters and executed them by ripping out their hearts. So fighting is pretty gruesome, but awesome.

Will I buy it: Not sure. I got a little squeamish at some stuff, but on the other hand, you feel insanely powerful during combat. From what I've heard, they do some decent emotional storytelling too. I may give it a shot.

4. Mass Effect 3
Oh man. I'm having such a love affair with Bioware right now. I just beat ME2 a couple weeks ago and finished up the Arrival DLC earlier this week. I adore the world that they've built and could (and probably will) babble on about the various alien races and the powers in combat and everything. Between that and the trailers with the tagline "Take Earth Back" I was more excited for Valentine's Day than ever before. Sadly, as a PS3 player, I had to wait to play the demo, but it was well worth it.

They've tweaked the health system, which was a little weird, but as I play more, I like it. The same combat system is back, and the Vanguard has a new power called Nova where you detonate your shield to cause area damage around you. Combined with Charge, it's the most fun I've had since they gave me a flamethrower. The story is quite compelling, as the game opens with the Reapers arriving at Earth. They then jump to a later mission where you are moving from checkpoint to checkpoint battling Cerberus agents with Liara and Garrus at your side. The new enemy types are lots of fun, including the intimidating Atlas mechs. And it's so pretty on the PS3.

A few interesting changes: They've removed the veteran level of difficulty, which is what I played the end of ME2 on. While it wasn't much of a step up from normal, I'm now stuck between cruising on normal and being frustrated by hardcore. It's a minor grudge, and I'll probably give hardcore a shot, but I found it a little odd. They've also added in two new modes: story and combat. In the former, combat is really easy so that players can make it from cutscene to cutscene with minimal dying. For the latter, all dialogue choices are made for you so that you can get back to killing things. I find this an interesting way to open the game up to new players by refocusing the core engagement, though I'm curious to see whether anyone uses them.

The multiplayer is where the demo has really shone for us. The three of us have spent hours playing it already along with another friend. I've been playing as an Engineer, and I never thought I'd leave Vanguard, but now I'm thinking of doing a new playthrough of ME2... Anyways, the two maps provided in the demo are a lot of fun. You get four characters per class, a human male and female and two aliens, either asari, salarian, turian, or quarian. The class shares experience points, so you can easily switch between the characters, who have slightly different sets of powers. As you complete objectives, you accrue credits which can be used to buy supply packs, which include med packs and other characters.

Will I buy it: It gets here on release day. :-)

5. Flower
This was a fun little demo that Jeremy handed me when I was stressed out. It's gorgeous. Gameplay is very simple - you tilt the controller to guide your growing storm of petals over budded flowers to make them bloom and rejuvenate the surrounding area. It's a pleasant experience, if somewhat simplistic. And oh man is it pretty.

Will I buy it: Maybe. Simple, but pretty and relaxing. I may need that after all those shooters.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

REVIEW- Jamestown

We've always played a lot of cooperative games. In particular, Shoofle and I make it our goal to play as many co-op games together as we can find, and in particular we've played pretty much every single (modern-ish) shooter with local co-op that you can name. However, while we should eventually talk about what makes a good cooperative shooter and all, the games Shoofle and I play together tend to only ever have two player local co-op. What I want to talk about today (and for some of our next few posts) are games that support more than two player local co-op (typically up to four), and that we've found are vastly improved by the addition of more players. So without further ado, let's talk about Jamestown!
Jamestown is set in an alternate history, where the colonization of the New World occurred on Mars, rather than in the Americas. The story follows Sir Walter Raleigh fighting off Spanish conquistadors and uncovering dark secrets behind the disappearance of Roanoke colony. Honestly, we didn't pay much attention to the story while playing the game, choosing to skip ahead to the gameplay sections. There is also a 'farce' version of the story that can be unlocked, which is suitably comical (but we ended up skipping past that too).

At its core, Jamestown is a bullet hell. There are a variety of ships to pick from, and each ship has a standard attack and a special attack (there is no limit on the use of the special, though it is typically more situational), which varies widely in ease of use and strategic applications. For example, the most basic ship is the Beam, which has a spread shot as its standard attack, and a movement reducing powerful beam as its special attack, while one of the more complex ships is the Bomber, which shoots projectiles straight forwards for its standard attack, and detonates all on-screen projectiles with its special attack. There are four ships with the base game (Beam, Charge, Bomber, Gunner), and then another three ships included with the DLC pack (Treason, Powder, and Ghost), providing plenty of variety for players to fiddle with.
In addition to the standard and special attacks, each ship can also vaunt when enough coins are collected from fallen enemies. Vaunting creates a temporary shield that absorbs all enemy bullets, and grants players a score multiplier, making it critical to both survival and attaining the highest scores. Your character in Jamestown only dies if the very center of the ship is hit by an enemy projectile, but with four players and on the higher difficulties (playing on higher difficulty levels is required to access the later levels) it becomes brutally difficult to weave a ship through swarms of bullets.

In addition, with multiple players, the level keeps going as long as there is at least one player alive, and dead players respawn after some time (or when a teammate picks up a revive item). There are only two precious continues for when all players are taken out, so all players will inevitably face moments where the fate of the team rests on their ability to survive for an intense 5 seconds. It's crazy and stressful, but there is no real downside to failing (your teammates can't really get mad at you for dying when they died first) and the rush from successfully surviving is like none other.
Unfortunately, Jamestown doesn't support online play, but it has probably the best local support for any game I've ever played. The game very easily recognizes separate input devices, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found I could play on my laptop's keyboard, and a friend could use my wireless keyboard with absolutely no interference between the two keyboards. The initial levels are easy enough for anybody to jump in, and they will absolutely develop skills by the time it reaches the later more difficult levels. The game is ridiculously hard though, and the last level is especially difficult and unfortunately somewhat poorly designed. The final level is dark, a lot of walls are hard to see, and those that don't just block your way move to try and crush you. After hours of trying we were still unable to beat that last level, though we did manage to make it to the boss once or twice.

That's all I have to say about Jamestown. It's $10 on Steam, and definitely well worth the price if you've got the friends (and extra input devices) to have four players at once. Give it a shot, just be ready to die a lot!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On Fighting Games

I am not a big fan of fighting games. Until recently, I'd pretty much only played the Super Smash Bros. games, and those are far less complex than pretty much any other game in the genre. However, recently a friend got Soul Calibur V, and after getting sucked into the character creator I've been slowly working out how to play the game. And now that I've figured out how to fight without button mashing, I actually quite enjoy the game. But before I get more into why I like the game, I want to talk about why I only ever liked Super Smash Bros.
I've only ever had minor exposure to 'real' fighting games before, and each time I was turned off by the steep learning curve. With only a brief exposure to the games, I was unable to learn the combos and button mashed my way to victory or defeat. Their complexity frustrated me and prevented me from ever really diving deeper into the games. Super Smash Bros. was the only exception because it felt much simpler. There were only two primary attack buttons, and different attacks were easily distinguished by a single directional input. There was no risk of inputting apparently the same buttons and getting a different result (which has happened for me even after taking some time to figure out Soul Calibur V). Combos were determined by the player figuring out how to successfully string these attacks together, rather than memorizing a long input chain. Characters felt faster and more fluid. Using the percentage system instead of health bars made me feel like I stood more of a chance as a beginner, since there was almost no way for me to be killed by somebody spamming weak and hard to block moves. And of course there were better multiplayer options, though that's not something I'm going to hold against more standard fighting games for not having.

But now I've been playing Soul Calibur V for a while. Using the character creation tool, I created a character vaguely resembling myself based off of the samurai Mitsurugi. And then I started playing with my character. I very quickly gave up on memorizing moves from the extremely long move list, and more or less went back to button mashing. However, since I had considerably more time to play around with Soul Calibur, I was more methodical with my button mashing, and slowly figured out what a few basic button inputs did. And as soon as I had figured out how to consistently pull out a small variety of moves, I discovered the more strategic aspects of the game. Even though I only knew a few moves, I was suddenly able to fight competently, because I now knew how to hit where my opponent wasn't guarding. And that was enough for me to become more interested in the game. Since I knew some basic attacks, I was more willing to experiment with some new combinations and work out more of the game's mechanics, and the things on the move list started to look less like gibberish.

And that's more or less it. The realization that it's not actually about memorizing long combos (at least, not for Soul Calibur) has made me infinitely more interested in giving the genre another shot (I'm thinking about Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 next). That is, if I ever finish playing Soul Calibur V.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

It's SO PRETTY!

Let's talk about disappointment!
No, no, not Duke Nukem Forever. I didn't even play that game! I'm talking about El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

I saw El Shaddai at Otakon last summer, but I was too distracted to pay attention. It looked pretty. I finally got around to playing our copy of it a bit ago, and OH MY GOD IS IT GORGEOUS. This is honestly the prettiest game I have played since Shadow of the Colossus.
It has the dubious honor, however, of being one of the most disappointing games I've played in a long time. I guess I should back up.

In which the points in favor of El Shaddai are extolled

What did I really like about El Shaddai? There's several things. First and foremost on my list is the visual style. It's rare that I'll recommend a game purely for one facet of the experience - and here, I'm pretty much going to do just that. El Shaddai is probably the most visually exquisite game I have ever played. Each level has a totally different visual style - whether you're running around on cartoonish blocks, leaping from one platform to another among a floating world of blood-red spikes and glowing eyes, or battling amongst a grove of cloud-like trees, boiling and warping off into space... It's perfect.




Were it not for Blogger's clunky interface, I'd keep pasting pictures for hours. This game has beautiful artwork, styling, and animation. Enoch (the main character) really moves and fights like the angel he is - he doesn't just beat people up, he dances. He moves with incredible grace and fluidity in everything he does.
Okay. Sorry. The game's pretty, and I need to say that - but I also want to say this: It's not just that they made a pretty game. This game is about angels fighting for the human race, about choosing whether to flood the Earth. The world does not work how we expect - and that's where this game excels so very, very much. It expertly produces the atmosphere of a world that functions by entirely different rules, giving the sense of peeking at something much grander than what you can see on the screen. That's what makes this game so beautiful. The feeling that you are seeing the world as a higher being might see it.
Finally, the lack of a HUD was, I think, a good choice. I'm always in favor of less HUD on screen, and I was really confused by a review that thought this was a huge point against the game. I, in fact, really liked the decision not to give a health bar for the player or enemies. You can still read your health right off the character - as you get damaged, your heavenly armor breaks off piece by piece until you are left wearing only your jeans. I thought it was a perfectly seamless way to show the player's health. The same trick is duplicated for enemies, although some take a lot of hits before you see the cracks.

General theming! I liked (at first) the names and motifs and general themes - I don't really go for western religions all that much, but the names are pretty and I like a lot of the elements from Old Testament works (and those that I [probably unfairly] group with them). They just make for... Well, a very mystical feel, to make light of something sacred to a huge number of people. You can also find this in Evangelion - a bunch of nonsense references to Cabbalistic myths that don't really make sense. That whole feel really resonated with me. Of course, I also don't really like the messages those cultural elements originally tended to send - which I'll revisit later in the "gross disappointment" section of this review.

The gameplay... I liked it a lot. It felt smooth, and simple, and easy to pick up. It was a bit difficult to consistently do well, but I blame that more on myself than the game. The combos are nicely sticky - you continue doing attacks fairly quickly, but if you stop pressing and try to move, it takes a bit. This makes it much more attractive to use the long (and pretty!) combos rather than simply doing hit-and-runs, and it feels just sluggish enough to be powerful while being fast enough to retain the game's characteristic grace.

The story itself... Well, this is a tale of woe. I liked how it was told - in the beginning. It uses a very ascetic storytelling style, where it doesn't really tell you much, and what it does tell you barely makes sense. I like games that maintain mystery. This game did that perfectly - from Lucifel's bizarre cell phone conversations with God, to the complete lack of explanation for the landscapes... It just lets everything exist. A game that tells you the history and meaning of everything makes you feel like an outsider - someone who is visiting. I want to be someone who has always been there.

On Disappointment

Oh dear. Spoilers ahead, so, you know, page up and stop reading.



So I liked this game, I really did. I liked the story, too - Lucifel's vaguely nefarious voice and minimal instructions/explanations combined with your extremely destructive "angelic" mission was really building up. I thought that we were going to see the redemption of the Fallen Angels you were sent to destroy, and I thought that maybe the game would end with God as the enemy and the Fallen Angels as the ultimate protectors of humanity.
Nope.
I would have sworn that all of this was building up to a great revelation that you were fighting on the wrong side, and it would be fantastic and cathartic and you would have a mission and the mystery would pay off... But it didn't. I swear to anything you want, the ending cutscene pretty much said "And so Enoch destroyed the tower and humanity was saved." SO GOD DAMNED BORING.
Bah. It was just such an incredibly simplistic plot in the end, but such a beautiful and complicated and mysterious world! It was a total waste. The thing that really bothers me, though, is that this echoes a message that I don't think the world needs to hear at this point - "Do not stray from authority." Bah. Bah. Bah.

And a final side note: I was actually really happy with Lucifel. Kind of. He was a genuinely good character in league with the "good" guys, who sounded kind of sketchy. I like that. Sometimes sketchy people should be the good guys.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thoughts on Global Game Jam 2012

Global Game Jam 2012 took place this last weekend, and the three of us participated! In the span of about 48 hours, we built a game themed around Ouroboros essentially from scratch (we did have to search online for music and sound effects, but other than that we created all the code and assets in the two days). Here are a few thoughts:
1. Keynote speaker Gonzalo Frasca was absolutely right. The important thing isn't how well you end up doing, it's about leveling up while doing it. And I can say for sure that this helped me level up. Before, I've worked on a video game over the course of a semester, and then over the course of a month, but a weekend is a whole other beast. You just need to really buckle down and work, and if there's something you don't know you are going to learn it VERY quickly.

2. Possibly the most important thing to know as a developer is your own limits. No matter how good you are at coding, 48 hours isn't a very long time, and plans for a game will ALWAYS be too ambitious. You have to know what ideas to cut, what to keep, and what to change. And you have accept that the finished product will pretty much never be quite what you imagined. But it will still be awesome.
3. And probably the most important thing for you to do during a game jam is of course to have fun. Hopefully, you're doing the game jam because you want to, so don't get too stressed out by the impending deadline. There will be times where things aren't moving as smoothly as planned, but that's inevitable. Go with the flow, don't stress out, and in the process learn how to deal with unexpected events!

That's really all I have to say about it. In short, participating in the game jam was absolutely amazing, and I highly recommend participating to any prospective game devs out there. It's an eye-opening experience, and even if you don't manage to get very much done, remember: it's not about what you end up with, it's about leveling up and becoming better than what you were before. Just do your best and have fun, it'll be worth it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lessons Learned: Tips for Beginning Game Designers

(I meant to post this earlier, but then my computer got a nasty virus and it took time to get it running again... but it's back, so here we go!)

This past semester the whole Silver Asterism team took a Computer Game Design course. It was so awesome, but so much work. I thought a good way to ease back into posting after a hellish semester would be a small retrospective on things learned over the course of the semester. The course was set up so that we did three month-long games. Each was on a different platform, beginning with Android (using AndEngine), XNA, and either Unity or Unreal (all of us picked Unity). We worked in three-person teams and had a short list of requirements from the instructor (like having AI or implementing gravity). So here's a few things I learned in the course of the semester, in no particular order:

1. Don't bite off more than you can chew
This is a really hard one to get as a beginner. You have so many cool ideas and things that you want to do with the game, but the reality is, maybe you don't have the know-how. Or, like in our case, maybe you don't have the time.
They told me I could be anything I wanted...
2. Dare to dream big
Yes, this is somewhat contradictory to #1, but bear with me. Likely, it was some of the major titles that got you interested in game design. (I'm fascinated by fantasy RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age and cool mechanics like in Portal, personally.) Maybe you've been fired up by a grand idea that you've had (we've got a neat one in the pipeline that I can't wait to make...). That's great! Don't let go of it! Maybe you're not ready to program it yet, but that doesn't mean that you can't plan. Maybe you're ready to hack together a prototype in your spare time. Whatever it is, don't let that dream game die, because that's what got you into this, and that same passion is going to keep you in the game.

3. Scoping is hard
My two points above really come together in one thing: scoping. Understanding the feasible scope of your project is really important. It's also really hard. And I don't think that it's something you can get without practice. My first group had more planned than we could code in a month (partially due to AndEngine's lack of documentation, but that's another story...) and my second group, in reaction to that, wasn't ambitious enough. Our school's student game development club has seen many projects fail because the director(s) didn't know what was possible in a semester. Which brings me to...

"You know, not everybody likes onions. Eh, cakes! Everybody loves cake! Cakes have layers!"
4. Try out incremental development
For incremental development, you divide the project into sub-projects and order them based on necessity. Then code in that order, so that at any point in development you have a complete, playable game. For instance, the first sub-project would be to get the basic graphics and mechanics working. The next level may add on a more advanced HUD, or keys that open doors. This also lets you easily debug as you go, and if you run out of time, you'll have a complete project. It's also called the onion model, and it works well for small projects. Give it a shot, and it can help you get a better handle on scoping while still creating a complete game.

5. Learn art, or make friends with an artist
This is a smaller, less important point, but once you've laid down all the code, you're going to want your game to look nice. If you're someone like me, with some artistic ability, then maybe you're set. If not, go make friends with someone who is. It's a small touch that's nice. Try out Photoshop or Gimp to make pixel art - it's not very hard and rather fun! 3D stuff is a little more daunting, but it can be really rewarding when you get something right. Give Blender a shot, a free, open-source editor with plenty of tutorials available (www.blender.org). At the end, your game will look better for having original assets, and you'll be prouder of it.
Fun fact: That weird clef on the left there is the movable clef. In that position, it's called the alto clef. Music nerd, out.
6. Make some noise!
On that note, find some good background tracks, or someone who can make them for you. www.freesound.org is a pretty good spot to find simple loops and such. For dialogue and sound effects, I recommend recording them yourself. It's a lot of fun, and you can probably find some friends to lend their vocal talents to your characters. Again, having original assets can really help you feel proud of your game.

7. Learn from every project
I'm not jumping up and down to show off two of the games I made this semester (the last one was pretty nifty). But that doesn't mean that I'm just scrapping them. The first one wasn't very original, but I learned from it. The second could still use some work, and I may yet go back to it. Even if a project fails, which can be frustrating and embarrassing, don't just delete the code and never look at it again. There may be things to learn there, or even useful pieces of code. Take some time away from it, then go back and see how much you did accomplish.
Google thought this picture would be useful.
8. Don't be afraid to try
Honestly, this one's mainly on the list for me. I have a tendency to underestimate myself, which holds me back in things like this. Never programmed a game before? Just try. You start to figure out how to handle updates smoothly or how triggers work in Unity, but only if you start messing around. (Okay, the tutorials might help, but I never have the patience to read through all of them.)

9. Play indie games
Thanks to Jeremy and Steam sales and Humble Bundles, I've gotten really into indie games as of late. They tend to be smaller in scope and revolve around one or two core mechanics or ideas. These are the kinds of games that you can start out programming, and they may give you a start for more realistic scoping than just working off of AAA titles. Besides, they may give you some ideas and inspiration.

10. Have fun
It seems obvious, but it's really important: make sure you enjoy what you're doing. If one engine or game style is frustrating you, find something different. Hit your stride and get used to programming games, then return to the things you're less happy with. If you're working in a team, try to find something that everyone can get excited about. My most successful project this semester involved a team that was universally excited about the idea. If you're enjoying it, working on it will seem less like a chore, and you're more likely to wind up with a finished game.
Oh, the lies...
11. For the love of God, start with a well-documented engine
The first game I ever did programming for was on AndEngine. It wasn't a good idea. Don't do it. I still have no idea what on earth we were doing. XNA had more documentation available, which made it a lot easier to get started in. Working in Unity or Unreal was a little different, and personally I'd try something a little less elaborate at first, since the larger engines take care of a lot of the small things for you. Just don't start with AndEngine, or anything similarly terribly documented. You'll thank me for it.

And there you have it, my thoughts after a semester of a programming course. Some of them are kinda obvious, but hopefully they're helpful nonetheless. Now I'm off to do some more planning on my game project for this coming semester... :-)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Assassin's Creed II: A Treatise in Nine* Parts, Written While Watching Assassin's Creed II

*actually one.

So I'm finally jumping on this Ass Creed bandwagon and actually playing one of these games. I played the first a bit on my brother's computer, and it seemed dreadfully fun but simultaneously incredibly boring. I grabbed Assassin's Creed II during the recent Steam sale, and I'm hunkering down, dropping the graphics settings to something I can manage, and playing this bad boy. Here will follow some choice remarks written down in the copious free time I have while waiting for things to occur.

0) Is it just me, or is it painfully unpolished when a game on Steam requires you to copy and paste a multiplayer CD key into the game? That really seems like something that should be taken care of by, you know, the whole 'Steam' thing. And while we're on that page, can we just excise once and for all the entire phenomenon of developers wanting you to sign up for their proprietary service? No, Ubisoft, I do not care about "UPlay". I will never think about it again.
1) That was a nice pan down to Lucy's breasts. You know, when he's saying how he met her and befriended her, and the camera lingers for half a second on her face and for three seconds on her boobs? Subtle, guys.
2) Let's talk a little bit more about Lucy's character design. I can guarantee you (as of five minutes in) that she will also fit all the Good Girl tropes. You can tell from her appearance, on top of everything else - it's so nice how instead of actually showing us that a character has traits, they can just make her blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, with her hair up in a ponytail, dressed in tight-fitting white clothes which obscure her cleavage with a high neckline... And we know everything we need to know. I bet that at some point, Desmond will want to do something and she'll say it's too reckless. She's also a total sidekick through and through, in painfully obvious fashion.
3) And now I write something I have never before written: This is the most awkwardly long birthing scene I can remember being a part of. I'm just glad they didn't go for a first-person camera view while the main character is born - playing my way out of my apparent mother's birthing canal was not what I was expecting when I signed up for Templar-stabbing action.
4) That's not a very useful movement tutorial when the instructions ("move legs" "move empty hand" "move armed hand") both don't make sense *on a baby* and seem to have little correspondence to what they will actually do when running around as a full-fledged human being, renaissance Italian or not. While we're on the subject, can you please tell me what the buttons are? Your color codings do not correspond to my mouse buttons.
5) I appreciate that you've got a respected and well-loved storyline, but... You're telling it in a painfully boring manner. I get that we're escaping from this huge sprawling techno-industrial complex, but... I just sprinted through this cubicle farm full of Animus-plurals, and no one spotted me - while my chaperone was tensely ducking around corners and crawling her way through.
6) I am rapidly finding myself not caring what Lucy is talking about.
7) "Apple" is the best synonym I've heard yet for "McGuffin".
8) Oh, look! It's a punky, hackerish girl with headphones and a low neckline. I wonder if she'll be a counterpoint for Lucy, possibly by any slim chance? Also, their visual designs seem identical to two women in Uncharted 2 and 3. I'm not sure if that's just me... but seriously. Can we get some more interesting female character designs in the video game industry? Desmond's not much better.
9) A British librarian? WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT
10) I am Desmond. Watch me SWAGGER.
11) ... Where did Headphones Punk stick that connector below my chest? ... I am concerned about how the Animus works.
12) Okay, I'm only going to say this once, because this would be boring as fuck otherwise: THAT IS NOT HOW BRAINS WORK. THAT IS NOT HOW GENETIC MEMORIES WORK. Okay.
13) While we're on the topic of things Not Working Like That, I don't know that Italian actually sounds like a bad imitation of Italian. Not sure about that.
14) Okay, this fight scene is terribly entertaining. I half expected these two gangs to start snapping their fingers and singing at each other, but no - I have to say, the combat engine in this game is really nicely tuned. It suffers a bit for my hardware, but it's satisfying to try to balance between a large number of attackers... Even if it is a bit easy; one man should not reasonably be able to take on five attackers. A little more difficulty would be well appreciated in terms of setting up your fights. That's a thing that old-school stealth games did much, much better than modern times - in Thief, you pretty much never wanted to go into combat against even one person, and instead you had to carefully plan your approach to everything. It's interesting that even though these games have such intricate AI and movement systems, they fall prey to being too easy - they never force you to really *use* those strengths.
15) Mmmm, delicious free running! Harder than Infamous, more vertically mobile than Doom. I really like it, from my tiny experience thus far - it's tinged with a little confusion because the game still won't tell me what buttons to press unless I go into the kinda-clunky menu. Clunky's the wrong word - it's incredibly smooth and pretty, it's just... bad at being a menu.
16) I'm pretty sure doctors mostly wore plague masks during the black plague.
17) Bet you five bucks that this zero-dimensional brother of mine is going to die. He cares about you... in a BROTHERLY kind of way! Brotherly love is so beautiful.
18) No but seriously? This is awesome. Climbing onto these towers and then jumping off is so much fun! These games are awesome. I rib because I'm having fun. I can't take this game seriously, but it *is* fun.
19) Quicktime events for sex! Haven't seen that since God of War. I want to see more of what happens when you miss it - don't click fast enough and you kind of awkwardly fumble with her bra, press the wrong button and your teeth click together when you kiss, miss a spinner and you both forget to take your glasses off, don't hit the buttons in the right sequence and you don't communicate right and no one really gets what they want from the night...
20) Picking pockets is HELLA easy. I had no idea you just had to punch someone in the gut, and their florins would magically appear in your hand!
21) Ahhh, renaissance architecture. Flying buttresses, peaked roofs, and buildings inspired by porcupines in placement of lampposts and other replacements for the gymnast's high bar.
22) Honestly I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing. It's just too much fun to go to the highest point I can see, find new highest point, and go there! It makes me wonder if it'd be fun to structure an entire game or a sequence of levels in some larger game around it - maybe you're stranded somewhere and need to find the way out, so you need to find the highest point to see farther... Seems cool.
23) Races! It's just like my favorite parts of Infamous! Except, with a slightly higher tendency to leap off a building into an alleyway.
24) I still have no idea what I'm supposed to do. I guess I could be paying attention, but I'm too busy writing. With that in mind, I might just wrap this up without having even gotten to the stabby bits. I'm kind of tired of this game already, actually. Eh, decreased stamina in my old age, you know how it is.