Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Game Development Journal: First Entry

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Hello internet!

It has been a while since I last blogged. Working on multiple games simultaneously has a way of keeping one occupied. And awake.  However, I have been convinced that to love a thing is to blog about it, and I mist certainly love game development.  I’ve also been told that keeping a kind of “public journal” of my projects’ development is an excellent way of tracking my progress. And so here we go!

First things’ first: an introduction to my projects. Both are set in my fictional Sci-Fi universe, known as “Darkdawn”. I’ve previously completed two other Darkdawn projects; a short, old-school point-and-click adventure game called “Echoes of Terra”, and a UDK (Unreal Development Kit) level set on the jungles of the planet Niferung. I don’t want to spend this entire entry re-writing project descriptions however, so I’ll let YouTube do the talking:

Darkdawn: Encounters on YouTube

Darkdawn: Lost Worlds on YouTube

 

 

 

Entry 21: Portal 2

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

The original Portal, which can be found just a few entries up on this list, was a surprising anomaly. Included in the famed Orange Box along with Half-Life 2 and its episodic sequels, what some originally saw as a neat, experimental bonus became an instant classic. Still, for all of its impact, Portal remains a brief, limited experience. Though I would call it a complete game, it’s much more limited in scale and scope than its “cousin” Half-Life 2. However, after seeing Portal’s runaway success, Valve (somewhat predictably) decided to create a “full-sized” (and full priced) sequel. The result is Portal 2. But do mechanics originally built for a 4 hour game still work for a 12 hour long experience? In my opinion, the answer is a qualified yes.

My time with Portal 2 has so far been restricted to the single-player campaign. The cooperative experience is likely quite different, and there may be a further entry dealing with that exclusively.

For the most part, single player Portal 2 is a longer, larger, more “epic” Portal. The narrative is a direct continuation of the previous game’s to the point of sometimes perhaps over-referencing it; to a degree it feels like the entire, longer game is all the aftermath or consequence of its experimental predecessor. I am happy to report that GLaDOS is still hilariously insane and happily amoral. New characters are added to the cast and all fit well with the tone and quirky humor of the originals. The story of Aperture Science is revealed, as are the origins of GlaDOS. An extended visit to old, buried Aperture facilities see the environments altered to reflect various earlier time periods. Facilities from the 40s, 70s and 80s are all meticulously detailed and flavored to fit in their eras, while demonstrating that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”; even from its earliest days, the leadership at Aperture Science seemed to love performing insane experiments with living test subjects.

The final encounter in the game both references the original encounter with GlaDOS and elevates the series to whole new levels of insanity. My overall opinion of the narrative? I was certainly entertained and enjoyed it greatly, but in many ways I think I’ve had my fill. I’m not sure how it could be continued or even why it would be.

I would also extend that sentiment to the gameplay. The early challenges in Portal 2 are very much like those of its predecessor, right down to giving the player a single portal at first, then adding a second. It is still a string of “spatial” puzzles, each with essentially a single solution. These are still very clever, and punctuated with segments that are nearly “combat-like” where the player must use the portal and other environmental tools to defeat turrets and other defenses. In some of these areas the game feels a little more freeform; still, Portal remains a first person puzzle game at heart.

It all holds up well; I still felt a great deal of satisfaction from the “aha!” moments when I discovered the solution to a particularly fiendish chamber. New  puzzle elements are introduced, each with its own mechanics and effects on the 3d spaces the player must navigate in Portal 2. Light bridges, repulsor beams, jump pads, and three different kinds of gels all add new, creative elements to the puzzles of Portal 2, and in general all are welcome additions. At times, though, I felt that the puzzles based on these new elements dragged on a bit. It reminded me a bit of a feeling I got while playing the original Half-Life 2; I call it “Valve-itis”. Valve designers seem to have a talent for inventing fantastically creative new gameplay elements, then over-focus on them to the point they slightly overstay their welcome. Perhaps still trying to justify the much higher price tag of this second game, at times I felt like the game was subtly padded as if to reach some minimum length the designers felt acceptable.

Portal 2 was definitely an enjoyable experience. It’s still wonderfully clever, darkly funny, and very sleek. It also looks better than ever.  But perhaps with this longer and more ambitious game, the formula has run its course. As I mentioned, it’s quite possible that the cooperative experience may significantly alter the game and lend it new life. I am eager to find out.

 

Entry 15: Drop7

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The next title in the list of digital games assigned for class, Drop 7 is a mobile (iOS, Android) “puzzle” game. At first glance, the game plays like a strange combination of Bejeweled and Connect Four, but that description does the game a disservice. Essentially, the player has to drop numbered disks (randomly assigned by the computer) onto a grid; the discs quickly begin to form rows and columns. If a disc is in a column or row with a number of discs equal to its number, that disc disappears. Additionally, there are “solid” numberless discs that must be dealt with. These discs “shatter” whenever a disc next to them disappears; when this happens twice, the numberless disc becomes a random numbered disc and can be dealt with as normal. As discs disappear, the number of discs on that row or column changes, which may trigger the disappearance of other discs, allowing for a clever (or lucky) player to get “chains” of disappearances.

Difficulty arises from the game’s level mechanic. After a certain number of discs are dropped, a solid line of numberless discs appears from the bottom of the grid, pushing all other discs upwards. While these numberless discs may be dealt with as normal, with the accretion of discs from the top and with a reducing number of moves between “levels”, eventually the columns fill up and the player runs out of places to drop the discs, or one of existing discs is pushed out of the grid by an entering line of numberless discs as a new level is reached. In either case, the game ends.

I have to say I rather liked this game. I’m not a huge fan of puzzle games of this type, and this game is even simpler in terms of art and interface than most; only the bare minimum information is supplied; no pretty sparkling jewels or shiny metal hexagons to be found here. Still, the mechanic is very solid. There is essentially no time-based pressure whatsoever, as the player gets to choose when and where to drop each disc; this is a nice change from most Tetris/Dr. Mario style games. In fact, at times I felt it had more in common with the number-based logic of Sudoku than with traditional “block dropping” games. The steady, predictable, but ever-present pressure presented by the diminishing number of moves between levels is an interesting alternative to the time-based mechanics of other games; almost like playing against an incredibly patient opponent who knows she will win in the end. A clever, fun little game that I’ll be sure to play from time to time, though like most puzzle games it’s a somewhat predictable challenge where the only reward is a higher score.

 

Entry 14: Guild Wars

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Guild Wars is a unique online computer role-playing game. Some consider it an MMO along the lines of World of Warcraft, but while it has many qualities in common with an MMORPG, it remains very different in a lot of aspects. It’s hard to encapsulate my play experience with Guild Wars in a single notebook entry, since I’ve been playing it on and off since its release in 2005. Still, as it is a unique departure from the established MMO “genre” in both mechanics and business model, I consider it worthy of analysis.

From a business model point of view, it’s worth noting that Guild Wars was the first major “MMO” to offer subscription-free play in North America. Players needed only to buy the boxed version of the game, and they could play for an unlimited amount of time on ArenaNet’s servers. ArenaNet planned to keep a steady revenue stream by offering paid expansions over the next few years that would present new chapters in the game narrative, along with new items and new missions. Indeed, two standalone expansions were introduced in the next couple of years, along with a final expansion, Eye of the North, which required any of the three standalone boxes. This unique business made Guild Wars an attractive alternative to the standard, subscription-based MMOs. I myself have found it to be a perfect “WoW antidote”; without the subscription, GW requires far less commitment than other MMOs; I have found myself giving up GW for months at a time, only to pick it back up after a while and explore whatever new content has been introduced while I was away. In this way, over the years I have purchased every expansion to the game as well as some minor items from the in-game store (a now ubiquitous feature of MMOs) but only when I have the money and time to invest in the game. Overall, I feel there is a more relaxed relationship between game and player using this business model.

Besides its odd business model, the mechanics of Guild Wars are different in many ways from the standard MMO. I wouldn’t necessarily say its systems are more successful than the leading MMOs, but I do believe it deserves credit for attempting some new things. The first thing one learns about Guild Wars is that it’s not really an MMO after all. While the cities, towns, outposts and other “safe” areas of the game are indeed large spaces shared with dozens or hundreds of players, all of the mission and explorable content of the game exists in instanced spaces, seldom allowing more than eight players to be in the area at once. Guild Wars is then mostly a cooperative multiplayer online game with elaborate shared “safe zones” for players to meet, socialize, buy and sell items, and group for missions. Another interesting feature of Guild Wars is that it permits the game to be played “solo” by allowing the player to “hire” AI-controlled characters to create a larger group. While the character does have some very indirect control over these characters, for the most part they act independently, which in my opinion has mixed results. On the one hand, it allows the player to experience much of the game without the need to always be in a group; on the other hand, sometimes I get the distinct feeling the game is “playing itself”. This has been mitigated somewhat of late by allowing the player greater control of the skills and items the AI characters carry into battle, which at least brings tactical considerations about group synergy and playstyle back into the game.

Another unique thing about Guild Wars is that the game has a level cap on characters at level 20. Unlike most modern MMOs, the expansions have never altered this level cap in the least. Level 20 is achieved early on in the player’s career, and essentially all inherent stat-based advancement stops at this point. The reason for this can be found in the game’s skill (discussed below) and PvP systems. Guild Wars has a separate, entirely consensual PvP system and the vast majority of PvP combat occurs between level 20 characters. In fact, players are allowed to create PvP-only characters, separate from their “open world” characters. The reasoning behind this is that the developers believed strongly that player skill, not character stats, should determine who wins in a PvP match. The same reasoning is applied to weapons and equipment; after reaching a certain power level, most weapons found in the game are different only in appearance and special abilities, which are for the most part all balanced against each other. This ties into the game’s skill system; there are literally hundreds of different skills to be found in the game; these are special maneuvers, spells, and attacks. However, no player may have more than 8 such skills equipped at once. This mechanic was inspired by “Magic: The Gathering” and similar card games; instead of one level 20 character being inherently more powerful than another, it is the synergy between the character’s various skills and equipment that make him or her more effective. This is similar to how a well-built Magic deck where the cards play off of each other more powerful than a lesser deck; one is trying to build a character that is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

This is an ingenious system, but it does have its flaws. One of the great hooks of MMOs has always been making your character more powerful by leveling up and acquiring better equipment. While there is indeed the desire to gain more skills and periodically try to create a superior “build”, it can sometimes feel like my character has not truly grown much over the last three or four years. It also means that there are some well-known builds out there that have been found to work very well and have therefore become common; while it can be fun to experiment, it is often simpler to create one of the established builds and play that way. Since much of the game’s challenge (by design) comes from creating these “builds”, I often feel that playing it has become a matter of choosing a build, getting the skills for it, then simply pressing buttons in order to reveal new parts of the narrative. ArenaNet has tried to remedy this by increasing the difficulty of new missions, almost assuming that the player will have one of these effective established builds. This means that they are either too hard for players attempting their own builds (unless they have come up with something on par with the established builds) or they rely on other game aspects such as positioning, attacking in a certain order, splitting up the enemy, and other such tactics. While this has been somewhat successful, it too often means relying on game mechanics that were never meant to do the “heavy lifting” and can therefore feel clumsy. Positioning, for example, can feel awkward since the game was never meant to feature very precise character movement.

Still, I find GW to be a remarkable achievement. From an artistic standpoint, GW is bright and beautiful, often resembling a fantasy painting come to life. Even more impressive is the tech that powers it; it is a six year old engine that runs just fine on six year old hardware (and was never very demanding, even upon its release) yet it doesn’t look anywhere near as dated as by all rights it should. Furthermore, it is consistently updated and upgraded, and has found a great deal of success, selling millions of copies in a market dominated by World of Warcraft. While its gameplay mechanics entail certain trade-offs as opposed to other MMOs, this uniqueness, for all its faults, means that it has remained in my play rotation even as I have mostly given up on other games in the fantasy MMORPG genre.

 

Entry 13: Darkspore

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to play the beta for Darkspore, a game still unreleased as of this writing. Darkspore is an interesting creature. Created by Maxis, best known for Will Wright’s Sim and Sims games, it is a kind of spin-off of Spore, Wright’s latest published game, which is perhaps best known for its creature creator.

Darkspore is essentially a fusion of that creature creator with a traditional Diablo-style “Action RPG” game, with a strange dash of Pokémon-style “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality thrown in. Though it initially seems to be an odd combination of elements, the end result is a revitalizing of the action RPG genre, made a little stale by too many Diablo clones set in varied but similar medieval fantasy worlds. Much of this is simply a change in visual aesthetics and narrative; where most action RPGs feature warriors, wizards, and rogues wielding swords, bows and spells, Darkspore has genetically altered creatures; from cyborgs, to multi-limbed plant-beings, to mutated insects; fighting scores of bizarre aliens with energy blades, natural weapons, and strange alien energies. True, these extraordinary life-forms are all controlled in a manner quire reminiscent of other game’s warriors and mages, but they certainly look and sound different. Further, instead of being locked to a single character, the player chooses three to bring along per mission and switches among them. Creatures are unlocked by purchasing them with points gained from missions and by reaching certain levels; there are literally a hundred creatures to unlock and take into battle, all with unique stories and abilities. Further, the creatures can be dramatically altered in both look and ability in the Spore-based editor, making each player’s version of a given creature unique in both looks and capability.

Another aspect where Darkspore seemed to stand out for me was in terms of how the abilities interacted. I quickly found myself combining different skills for maximum effect, adding a definite tactical dimension to the hack-and-slash gameplay. For one mission I teamed up with a stranger for a co-op session, and when I realized he was essentially going to charge in blindly using a melee-strong character, I switched to a six-limbed plant-based healer and ranged attacker; I spent most of the mission healing him and enhancing his attacks, while laying down a steady rate of fire from my distance attack. While many co-op games have complementary skills like this, Darkspore’s vast number of characters and skills allow for organically evolving teams of complimentary abilities, which I found quite satisfying. Further, every kind of creature has a base element and is weak against creatures of the same element. Care must be given then to what creature you use against what kinds of opponents, adding another layer to playing strategies. While it may be tempting to stick with a handful of favorite creatures, consideration must be given to keeping a balanced stable of creatures of different capabilities across all the elements.

Visually, Darkspore is a breath of fresh air. Strange, colorful creatures do battle over truly bizarre alien worlds; an early stage even has the battle occur on small planetoid shards spiraling towards a black hole. Definitely a nice change of pace from orcs and elves. The few stages I played were all very visually distinct and featured unique attackers and environmental hazards. This was enough to make me want to keep playing, to see what new bizarre landscapes the game had in store for me.

I honestly hadn’t expected much from Darkspore. The original Spore is known as a very innovative and unique game that is as much, or more, about creation than destruction. The idea of turning it into some kind of mindless dungeon crawl seemed to me like a quick cash-in that cheapened the franchise. Having been offered the free beta, I played it more out of curiosity than excitement; now I find myself eagerly awaiting the game’s release. My (admittedly brief) impression of the game is that instead of being an Action RPG with Spore elements tacked on, it’s an action game truly built around the idea of mutable alien beings that has enough unique twists and aesthetics to make it stand out from the crowd. It may yet fall into the classic Action RPG trap of repetitive gameplay, but my initial impression was very positive.

 

Hello 2011! Part 2

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Yesterday we looked some of the best video games coming up this year. Today I’d like to look at a few developments that will be interesting to watch in 2011.

The Android Strikes Back!

Last year, Apple was once again the big winner in the mobile market. The 4th gen iTouch devices impressed with more powerful processors and enhanced screens, but it was the iPad that really shook things up. While some questioned if a market existed for a device that was essentially a blown-up smart phone, it has since become clear that the tablet is here to stay.

Meanwhile however, even as Apple extends its dominance over the general public’s imagination, Google’s Android platform continues to grow. Android-based devices have become ubiquitous, and in the smartphone arena they have collectively become almost as prevalent as their iOS rivals. Offered by all mayor carriers (unlike the iPhone, still AT&T exclusive) and available in many sizes and price points, Android OS phones have also come to feature much improved hardware and functionality. The trend promises to continue well into year; and with the release of an updated OS, 2011 will likely finally see some tablets released that can take on the mighty iPad.

Kinetic Movements

Late last year Microsoft and Sony released the Kinetic and Playstation Move, respectively. They’ve come to join Nintendo’s Wii in living rooms (and dorm rooms) across the nation (indeed, the world!) in an attempt to control how we interact with our games, electronics, and indeed, each other. This movement (no pun intended) to revolutionize interaction hardly exists in isolation; one could argue that the multitouch devices we have in our pockets with their pinching and swiping gestures are another part of this trend. As a gamer, I remain somewhat unconvinced; in terms of precision, of simply an reliably translating my intent into actual on-screen results, nothing I’ve tried yet has proven to be as effective as the old standbys: gamepads, or mouse and keyboard. And yet, not all gameplay experiences are about precision, and not all interactivity is about gaming (or so I’m told). A lot of fun can be had with a Wiimote. Still, for us hardcore gamers, the potential of motion controls has yet to be realized. Now that Microsoft and Sony have entered the arena, maybe we’ll finally get our due. Neither system had anything hugely impressive in their release libraries, but then again neither did xbox360 or PS3. 2011 will be the year that will either make or break motion control in the eyes of core gamers.

As an aside, these new systems, particularly Kinect, have other, non-game non-motion functionality, such as cameras and speech recognition. A media center that responds to my verbal commands, a full digital collection of music and video files, reconfigurable touch screens here and there, and little PADD like devices in our pockets. Daily life is starting to resemble an average episode of Star Trek The Next Generation.

Comics Movies in Space

The last few years have seen quite a number of superhero movies released. Many of these have been successful, and some have even been quite good. The first two X-Men, the first two Spider-Mans, the latest Batman movies, The Watchmen, and Iron Man and its sequel have all done at least modestly well and have been at least decent; some have been truly excellent. I would argue that this is partly due to the fact that the source material (the comics) has been respected more than in the past.

However, these movies have featured predominantly “street-level” heroes. Even the super-powered X-Men have primarily dealt with humans or other mutants. Certain things have been simplified (Juggernaut is a mutant; no magic) or avoided (Apocalypse, anything to do with the Shi’ar Empire) to keep the plot straightforward and easy to handle for a general audience. Also perhaps to keep budgets under control. In other words, all of these movies have happened on Earth, often in the streets or neighborhoods of places we know.

That is about to change this year. At least two comics movies are about to be released that are as much sci-fi/fantasy as they are superhero-centered, and I am very curious to see how it all turns out. I’m speaking,of course about Thor and Green Lantern. Both ave trailers out now. One will take us to Asgard and the gods, the other to Oa and the guardians. Both should feature strange locations and some truly epic threats; planet-level stuff. I expect CG to fly like candy, and the trailers so far seem to support that assessment. From the trailers, it also seems apparent that we’ll be getting fairly faithful translations of the comics; at least as much so as previous Marvel endeavors. Faithful in broad strokes and spirit, if not in detail. I like both leading men; I’ve been fond of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic talents for a while and thought he made a fantastic (if horribly misused) Deadpool in the Wolverine movie. Chris Hemsworth I’m less familiar with, but found him instantly likeable as George Kirk; in fact those early scenes depicting the fate of the USS Kelvin were my favorite part of that movie. From the trailer it seems like he has bulked up considerably for Thor, and he seems to look the part. Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin might potentially make for the coolest superhero dad since Marlon Brando played Jor-El to Christopher Reeves’ Superman.

Both trailers show impressive creatures and Sci-Fi vistas. Asgard and Oa look amazing. The Frost Giants and Kilowog, Sinestro and Loki, all look spot-on at first (brief) glance. The challenge now resides, as it should, on the tone the movies strike, on the tightness of the script, and the performances of the cast. I’m not without some concern about the direction the movies will take and the final result, but remain guardedly optimistic. Still, a decade ago I’d have called these movies unfilmable and would have thought it all but impossible that they would be considered high-potential mainstream blockbusters. Nothing to be done now but wait and see how it all turns out. Somebody please pass the popcorn.

Thats all for now. Bring on 2011!

Hello 2011! Part 1: Games of the New Year

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

2010 was an eventful year, but 2011 promises to be even more exciting. Here are some of the upcoming games that I think bear watching:

Dead Space 2: The year starts with a bang. A scary, scary bang. On January 25 Visceral games releases Dead Space 2, sequel to 2009′s fantastic sci-fi survival horror game. It seems everywhere you look these days you see a new zombie game; the undead are in vogue, and not just effeminate stalker vampires. But frankly, I’ve already had my fill of world-ending plagues set in modern times; sure, its fun to mow down zombies with machine guns, but lets face it, the undead belong in space. Everything is better in space, right? So it would seem, judging by the original.

In the first game, faceless protagonist Isaac Clarke (obviously named to honor sci-fi greats Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke) traversed the huge, derelict starship Ishimura while using a variety of futuristic tools to quite literally tear reanimated corpses limb from limb. Low ammo, dwindling health, and way too many dark corners between you and safety were the order of day in Dead Space, and the ending left us with far more questions than answers. For the second game, we’ve been promised more character development, and we finally get to see Isaac’s face. Worried that the focus on narrative will make this sequel less frightening than the original? Judging by the demo, already out on Xbox Live and the PSN, there’s nothing to be concerned about. I almost peed myself.

Black Prohphecy: This free-to-play sci-fi MMO essentially looks like an updated, upgraded Freelancer running in a full MMO universe. For free. Sign me up. Sign me up NOW. This dark horse MMO boasts some of the best space combat graphics I’ve seen since EVE, but it appears to be much more accessible (if shallower). I can’t wait to get my hands on this one; according to the developers, open beta is imminent.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Of all the games on the list, this one fills me with the most trepidation. On the one hand, it could potentially be an earth-shattering, game-changing er… game. Or it could turn out to be a total mess. The original Deus Ex was an incredibly innovative game; technically a first person shooter, but it could truly be played in many different ways. Brute force, stealth, diplomacy, etc. Many games promise us non-linearity and multiple solutions; Deus Ex delivered. Unfortunately, its graphics and aesthetics have not aged gracefully.

All the sequel has to do to be amazing is to recapture the gameplay of the original while bringing the production values up to date. Certainly what’s been shown so far has been very impressive; the art style seems to evoke a cross between Blade Runner and Renaissance Europe; the released CG trailers have me drooling for more. But gameplay-wise it remains to be seen if it can juggle the various play styles as well as its illustrious predecessor did. Best of luck to Eidos Montreal. Expect this one around summer.

Firefall: Global Agenda has recently proven to me how great a sci-fi shooter MMO can be. Sadly, for all its commendable attributes, GA is in many ways only superficially an MMO; in actuality its more of a map-based shooter game with some persistent objectives and character building. Sandstorm teased us with the potential of open world areas and more story content, but it remains a single area for relatively low level characters. Hopefully Hi-Rez will continue to evolve GA, but in the meantime, another contender has entered the ring.

Like GA, Firefall is a sci-fi shooter with RPG elements and character building; unlike GA, the focus seems to be creating a huge, epic open world PvE sci-fi world to explore and battle over. Like Black Prophecy, this free-to-play action-based MMO is a bit of a dark horse ind the industry but it has a lot of potential. The gameplay walkthrough on their site certainly looks appealing.

Guild Wars 2: Guild Wars is the un-mmo. This heavily instanced online cooperative game went head to head with WoW and did rather well. The first big western game to offer MMO-style content without requiring a monthly fee, Guild Wars is huge, detailed, and fun. Its graphics run silky smooth with modest requirements and have aged remarkably well given that the game is over a half decade old now. It remains my one refuge whenever I’m thinking of lapsing back into World of Warcraft. And now, its getting a full-blown sequel.

GW2 is much more of a true MMO than the first game, but its still being marketed as the MMO for people who hate MMOs. Much of what ArenaNet wants to accomplish with this game seems remarkably ambitious, but so far anyone who’s played it has come away very impressed. I’m not sure we’ll see it release in 2011, but if it does it will likely be amongst the biggest games of the year.

Mass Effect 3: We started 2010 with Mass Effect, and it looks like we’ll end 2011 with another. ME3 promises to be the last in the trilogy, ending Shepherd’s story and deciding the fate of the galaxy. The awesome trailer that debuted at the VGA’s reveals that the Reapers have brought the fight to Earth, and its up to Shepherd to put together a force powerful enough to oppose them and rescue the planet. The most intriguing aspect about ME3, aside from continuing all the epic sci-fi goodness of the previous installments, is Bioware’s promise that the choices we’ve made in the previous games will finally bear fruit. All through Mass Effect 2, the game seemed to be telling us “I remember what you did last time… wink-wink” while heaping on new momentous choices one after the other. Bioware had their hands tied, however, since all playthroughs of ME2 had to be similar enough to allow the character to be in the right place to launch ME3. But this time, with no direct sequel looming over the horizon, all our decisions will be free to play themselves out to their ultimate and varied conclusions, or so has been hinted by the dev team. Here’s hoping.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls (TES) had their next entry revealed in a short CG teaser at the VGAs. Also like Mass Effect, this cause a great deal of excitement for many RPGers, myself most definitely included. The teaser was very vague and showed nothing of the game. It did have, however, an awesomely ominous voiceover by Max Von Sydow, and a chanted version of the Elder Scrolls theme. More importantly, it had a release date: 11/11/2011. In TES lore, Skyrim is the frost-bund province north of Cyrodil (the land where Oblivion takes place), home of the viking-like Nord.

Given that the previous two Elder Scrolls, Morrowind and Oblivion, are two of the most beloved fantasy RPGs of recent years, great things are expected from Skyrim. We do know that it will be a direct sequel to Oblivion, and will feature an all new engine. Hopefully it’ll also feature more Max Von Sydow, too.

And thats it for now. Stay tuned; tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the non-game “events” that have me excited for 2011.

Goodbye 2010

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

2010 is gone. For me it was a year filled with changes and new hopes. It was also a year full of interesting developments in technology, gaming, and science fiction, and I wanted to share a few with you that I found particularly noteworthy.

On January of this year, Bioware released Mass Effect 2 to almost universal praise. Even more importantly, Mass Effect 2 received great commercial success. I could (and very well might) write quite a long article about the Mass Effect series and my thoughts on it, but there’s a few things about it I’d like to point out. First of all, its a game that is at least as much about storytelling as it is about combat. The branching conversation paths system is about equal in effect and importance as the third person shooter segments, and for once I don’t think I’ve heard a single complaint about “too much talking”. In fact, according to Bioware’s statistics, only 15% of conversations were skipped over; indeed, it almost single-handedly restores my faith in mankind right there (or at least gamer-kind). Second, its the first deep sci-fi RPG series that’s been successful at this scale and in a long time. I for one am very glad to see it. And third, though perhaps related to the second, its one of a growing number of games that are breaking down the shooter/action genre’s with RPGs; I’d include last year’s Borderlands and MMO Global Agenda amongst those, although of the three I’d have to say ME2 is the one that I’m most comfortable with still calling an RPG.

Also on the gaming front, I think we might be seeing the twilight of the pay-to-play subscription based MMORPG. And good riddance I say. I fully understand that these games take money to maintain and that the developers need to feed their children; as a would-be developer myself I’d be the last person to begrudge them compensation for their work. The problem is that the subscription model is too limiting to the gamer; for example, its is often impractical to be paying/playing more than one at the same time. There are many alternatives to the monthly sub system; Guild Wars (arguably, an UnMMO), an old favorite of mine, has the user pay for the box and expansions, with a new item store offering mostly cosmetic enhancements. Other games are completely free to play, with purchases required to advance beyond a certain point. For a long time this kind of MMO was often looked down upon as being second rate; many were Asian ports where this economic model is more prevalent. But last year Turbine started a wave of change when previously subscription-based D&D Online went free-to-play; a move they followed up this year by turning their flagship game, Lord of the Rings Online, similarly free. The image of Gandalf in a business suit yelling “You shall not pay!” might be remembered as a turning point in the MMO industry for some time to come. Already, rival company Cryptic Studios has announced that their superhero game, Champions Online, would be following suit; awesome news in and of itself, but my little Trekkie heart skips a beat thinking that Cryptics other big game, Star Trek Online, might soon receive the same treatment. Beyond these previously paid games going “free”, the quantity and quality of free-from-the-start games seems to be increasing; several are coming in 2011 (I’ll get to those) and in at least one case, Global Agenda, a game that was to have a paid component saw those plans scrapped before the system was even put into effect (leading some to joke that it was the quickest transition to free-to-play of all time).

In hardware news, 2010 saw the 3D trend sort of fizzle, or at least remain flat. There’s good technology there, and I’m all for continued exploration in this regard, but adoption will take a while. This is partially because of the challenges the physical technology still faces, partially the results of the sometimes inflated “premium” prices associated with it, and partly because of some astonishingly bad and irresponsible decisions made by the usual fools in suits. Converting movies shot in 2D to 3D using essentially the same techniques once used on slides for the effing View-Master is NOT how you prove to the masses that you have a hot new technology to sell them. Not everything is better in 3D and more importantly, no 3D is definitely better than BAD 3D. And no matter what your analysts say, there IS such a thing as bad 3D. You might fill a few more seats in the short term, but you won’t fool moviegoers twice. Worse, its basically salting the earth; the next Avatar-quality movie to come along will have a doubly hard time convincing anyone that its best seen in 3D; in other words, it hurts the overall adoption of the technology significantly.

Another interesting hardware development in 2010 was the continued insanity (in a good way?) surrounding the smartphone and tablet markets. Thankfully Apple is finally facing some stiff competition; Android has continued to improve and impress, and Microsoft finally has a credible contender in the Windows Phone 7 line. Tablets are swiftly becoming the next big thing, and the lines between phone, pda, tablet, and laptop continue to blur to an amazing degree. I smile now when I see Picard and crew check something on their PADDs; yea Captain, I’ve got me some of those. Not all is bright and happy; right now its incredibly confusing to go out and make a choice of what to buy; the good news is that the decision is made difficult by the high quality of all the contenders, and not the opposite. Competition is fierce and heated, and when the dust settles we’ll be left with some amazingly efficient and powerful devices; again this is another topic I could write whole pages about, but suffice it to say that the Saga of Mobile is far from over…

And finally, a last word about an entirely different kind of hardware. Its no secret that we, the children of the 60s, 70s and 80s, once thought that by this time mankind would have conquered space; with massive stations in orbit and grand hotels on the Moon. In fact, by now the Leonov should be well on its way back after its encounter with the Discovery in Jupiter Orbit. Ah well. I must admit that my usually unconditional support of our great President wavered a bit as I heard news of the scuttling of the Orion project; all my life I have lived with a terrible envy of anyone who was alive and watching as the Eagle made its historic landing on the surface of the Moon. I did, however, get to watch live as SpaceX launched its first Dragon capsule into orbit, and then recover it some hours later after a perfect flight. For those who don’t know, the Dragon is the first recoverable commercial space craft. Its capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and is contracted to do so for at least 12 missions. It is also designed to carry astronauts, though its first manned flight is likely a few years off yet. In many ways its a stripped-down Apollo-type capsule, with less range than those legendary ships and far less functionality than the shuttle. Still, as a commercial (as opposed to government) venture, its an encouraging step. We’ll just have to wait and see what this means in the long run, but we might get our space hotels yet.

Well, that’s it for now. Oh, a thousand other things happened last year worth mentioning, but those are the ones that come to me now, as I look back after only a day. But enough looking back; come back tomorrow as we look forward to 2011.

GAMEPLAY NOTEBOOK Entry 7

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games currently playing:
Global Agenda
Homeworld 2 Demo
Ur-Quan Masters  (Star Control 2)
Tribes: Vengeance

Beyond the Farthest Star

Playing an odd mix of games at this point, mostly looking back at some older titles. I’m still looking at space games of several types in preparation for my next project. Also, I am hoping to be selected to help test Tribes Universe at HiRez studios, so I’ve gone back to log some time in with Tribes: Vengeance. The older, more fondly remembered Tribes games are available free online but they’re exclusively multiplayer and I’m unsure if you can still find servers for them. Might be something worth investigating over break. Another series I somehow managed to miss when it was “hot” is the Homeworld pair. Considering the space setting, critical acclaim, and the fact that developer Relic also went on to create Dawn of War, my favorite RTS, its unfathomable how I skipped out on those. At any rate I’ve played the Homeworld 2 Demo and was pretty much blown away. The graphics have aged better than I’d have thought and I’ll definitely have to track down the full game. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be available as a digital download from Steam, Impulse, Direct to Drive, Gog, etc. so I’ll have to buy it the old fashioned way; in a box. The demo was too short for a proper game analysis however so I’ll be analyzing another game this week: The Ur-Quan Masters.

The Ur-Quan Masters

More than any other game I’ve ever played, I credit a relatively obscure little game published by EA in 1986 for setting me on my current path of trying to become a game designer myself. That game is called Starflight. Visually, it’s shockingly primitive by today’s standards, it nonetheless manages to pack 800+ fractally  generated worlds into a single low density 3.5 diskette. Starflight did well enough back then to merit a sequel, and even a port to the Sega Genesis. The official sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, is almost as good as the original; better, in fact, in many ways. The third game, however, was never made. Legal issues with EA prevented the development team from releasing it as a Starflight game, so it became a game called Protostar instead. I have not played Protostar, though I’ve heard it’s an excellent game that nonetheless feels like it was rushed to market. It’s definitely on my list of titles to track down. Most people consider, however, that the true spiritual successor to Starflight is a game called Star Control 2; I was completely unaware of it when it was originally released (I was much younger then, and the in-home internet was still a thing of the future) but have been aware of it since my interest in Starflight was renewed a few years ago. It turns out that the game’s source code was released by the developers, and a group of loyal fans have created an updated version, combining “updated” visuals and sound from the game’s 3DO port. Again because of legal issues with the original publisher, its has been released as “The Ur-Quan Masters”, the subtitle to the original Star Control 2.

I have to admit that  up until now I have always been very conscious of how much time I spent with a game for my analysis, making sure I played enough to fulfill the requirements but not so much that I neglected other responsibilities. Not this time. I completely lost track of time while playing it, and I really did not want to stop when I did. It turns out that SC2 is most definitely indeed a direct descendant of my beloved Starflight, which makes it a very hard game to analyze objectively.

What these games create, and I am interested in replicating, is an incredible feeling of open exploration. At the beginning of the game the player is presented with a task but given only a vague idea about how to solve it, and is then unleashed with very limited resources upon a very large and very dangerous universe. It is then up to the player to slowly accumulate resources, and follow vague clues gained via exploration and conversation with the ships of various alien races. This process is mostly non-linear, though lack of resources such as fuel and combat capabilities in practice restrict certain areas until later in the game. There is remarkably little hand-holding in these games, and that is something I appreciate. The player will likely need to take notes of the various conversations. A not uncommon session of play would involve limping home after a long journey to repair damage and sell recently mined resources, then refuel and check through your notes to see what region of space is most deserving (and close enough, given fuel and combat ability constraints) of the next journey. This feeling of planning dangerous expeditions into the unknown chasing rumors of ancient ruins and strange new races is a remarkable experience I have not experienced outside of this type of game. Slowly piecing together plots and subplots worthy of a AAA science fiction novel from clues scattered throughout the universe is really fantastic.

No game is perfect, of course. There is a certain tedium inherent with these games as one accumulated resources early on in ones exploratory career. The recent Mass Effect games clearly take some inspiration from Starflight and Star Control 2 and even now all these years later they stumble upon some of the same problems. An early grind consisting of repetitive mining missions seems to be a requirement of space exploration games; although perhaps with good reason. It can serve as something of a rite of passage; through hard work one is able to upgrade enough so that one can venture out farther and slowly begin to conquer the imposing game “universe”.  Still, there is no denying that safe, repetitive mining quickly becomes a nuisance. Star Control 2, as opposed to Starflight, has much smaller planets that are much more quickly mined; possibly a reaction to the problem as found in Starflight. Yet I have already noticed   that this makes the worlds seems less like places to explore. I have not yet decided whether this is an overall net positive or negative for SC2 as compared to its predecessor. Combat is another point where the games differ greatly. Where in Starflight the battles were relatively slow and usually consisted of the player battling numerous enemy vessels, SC2 presents one on one duels basically following the pattern created by Spacewar!. Overall this is likely the better system; ships sport widely varying weapons in an inertial based battlefield.

I’m very happy to have found Ur-Quan Masters and can’t wait to unravel all of its secrets. However I hope also to continue analyzing it critically; the space exploration genre is certainly past due for an update, but if it is to be reborn it will have to find its place amongst other modern games.

Introductory post: About the Wolfmage

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Before I get started, please note that I will be putting up identical posts here and at my SCAD blog.

My name is Leonardo J. Ceballos. Human male, born 1980 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’m an Interactive Design and Game Development major, focused on the gamedev track. Which is ironic, because most of my experience is in web/interactive design. I received a BFA in Computer Art from Syracuse University from where I graduated in 2002. After that I spent a few years freelancing and doing widely varied jobs; I got certified as a CompTIA PC technician, modeled over a dozen 3D buildings for a post-production company, painted murals, and slowly began concentrating on web work, mostly because that is where the jobs were.

In 2006 I was hired by RE Advertising, a small but successful company which at the time was focused on marketing new Real Estate projects. The work entailed a large amount of both web design and 3D architectural viz work. I spent four years at RE, but it gradually became evident that it was becoming increasingly hard to develop my skill set, and web design; especially at that level; was never where I intended to end up. So when I learned that SCAD was offering a Game Development program in Atlanta, I made up my mind to apply for it. And here I am.

So why Game Development? Well, here is where I tell you I’ve been gaming since I was 3. I’d wait eagerly for dad to come home so we could play on the Atari 2600. Like a lot of gamers of my generation, my first system of my own was the original NES, but I had the privilege of having my own computer at what back then was a very young age. It was an IBM PS2 computer, with a whopping 614kb of RAM, 20mb hard drive, and (then amazing) VGA graphics. Utterly pathetic compared to the average cell phone nowadays, it nonetheless ran a few games that have influenced me to this day. Among them are the Sierra “Quest” series, particularly Quest for Glory, and a little game from Electronic Arts called Starflight. If you want to hear me rant, by all means do ask me about Starflight.

The medium of Games has always interested me as a storytelling tool; I’m an avid reader, particularly of Science Fiction, and have long felt that gaming has the potential to tell stories beyond what can be achieved by books or movies alone.

Some of my older work, and a lot of my archviz work, can be found at my site. The following are a few other examples of my work.

Metro San Juan Magazine – Probably the largest site I’ve done at RE in terms of content.

Ciudad Jardin Gurabo – Flash/html hybrid site.

Torre Mayor PR – Flash site.

Bahia Minitas 12 – More typical of our smaller projects at RE.

Ocean Terrace PR – Typical of our smaller CSS-based sites.

1064 Plaza – Flash based site.

Marmotech- Simple, mostly unremarkable site, but all of the images in the “productos” category are product shot renders, something I was very eager to explore more of.

Purico SE – One of our older sites, the design is very basic. Worthy of note are the warehouse, retail and commercial listings, which are dynamically created from a mysql database that the owner can update using a fairly simple php form. It was a very interesting project to do, though nowadays we’d be likely to use a custom WordPress theme to achieve a similar effect.