Archive for October, 2011

Date: October 14th, 2011
Cate: development

IndieCade 2011

Last weekend, the IndieCade festival took over downtown Culver City. You can think of it as an art walk where you get to play independent video games.

Gallery halls commandeered by gaming laptops and installations. A firehouse packed to the walls with folks playing really fun, weird stuff. It’s glorious. Brief notes on some of the things I saw:

  • AntiChamber – one of the most original first-person games I’ve seen. I imagine this is what would happen if Salvador Dali and Andy Kaufman worked on a game together.
  • Desktop Dungeons – I love roguelikes, so of course I love this. Somehow they’ve taken one of the most obtuse game genres, removed the obtuseness, leaving you just the the gooey fun center.
  • Johann Sebastian Joust – I consider the Copenhagen Game Collective folks to be the most punk rock of indie games. A motion-control game that doesn’t use a monitor or television? Slow motion ballet-battle? I love it. My best of show.
  • Skulls of the Shogun – Turn-based tactical squad game with hard counters and long-term and short-term strategies. This scratches a lot of itches for me (seven of them).
  • Proteus – I’ve written before about games that downplay combat and blowing things up, and was really delighted to get to see something like this in action. Do check it out.

 

This is just a few of the showings. For the full list of all the IndieCade 2011 games, check ’em out here.

One of the most wonderful things about IndieCade is that it’s smack dab in the middle of downtown Culver City, so a lot of visitors were people who just happened to be passing by. There’s something wonderful about such a diverse cross section of the population getting exposed to these games – natch, not just games, but these beautifully daring pieces of work.

If you’re in the LA area, make it a point to visit next year.

Date: October 11th, 2011
Cate: development
13 msgs

Ghost Writer

I was recently playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s well-made, and manages to fill the planet-sized shoes left by its predecessor, the original Deus Ex.

The DX games are renown for giving the player a sizable amount of agency. Naturally, whenever I meet an important story-critical character, I surround them with live grenades.

The grenades detonate. But as long as a character is critical to the story, the grenades don’t leave a scratch of damage. Why? Because, well, the character is critical to the story. Casablanca would be a pretty short movie if Ilsa was killed off after the opening credits.

You need to keep the love interest around because you need to ultimately ride off into the sunset together. You need to keep the villain alive because you need that climactic final showdown. You need to keep the spunky best friend alive long enough to generate a bond, then you kill him off to propel the protagonist into a raging rampage of a third act.

To which I say: yeah, but this is a video game. It’s interactive: you can poke and prod and steer, and the game can respond in kind. What happens if you lock the antagonist’s keys in his car? How will your love interest respond to your secret double-life of underground breakdancing?

One of the most fascinating aspects of games is transferring authorial control to the player. This is certainly not the only way or best way to make games, but it’s something I find most compelling about the medium.

Let’s take DX for example. Under the hood, DX is a variation on a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Decisions you make ripple out and affect other characters and the story.

For every decision fork, the developers have to create more content, resulting in “more” everything – more art development, more animations, more designer scripting, more writing, more recorded dialogue, more bugs, more QA testing – more of everything. It’s a production nightmare. I’m always very impressed whenever a game with branching structure turns out polished and complete.

I’d love to see someone take the general DX framework – an agent tackling problems aggressively, stealthily, diplomatically, what have you – and scale it down. Instead of several cities, make it take place in a tight, richly-detailed area. Say, a hotel restaurant.

On top of that, remove the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure scripting and have the characters behave autonomously (I’m going to be very hand-wavey and vague here, so bear with me). Instead of following a script, story characters “improvise” via granular AI decisions.

Let’s say at game start, character roles are randomly assigned.

  • There’s a crew of diplomatic envoys in town to sign the peace treaty. They love getting drunk, they love to party down.
  • There’s your jilted former lover, working undercover as a waitress. She has an itchy trigger finger and two strikes on her record.
  • There’s an enemy assassin. The sous chef. He’s in the middle of a crippling mid-life crisis.

Drop these personalities into a constrained area. See how they bounce off one other. See how you bounce them around.  On the AI systems’ own accord, various situations emerge:

  • The paranoid assassin grows increasingly suspicious. Not at you, mind you, but toward a textiles salesman from Omaha.
  • The diplomats party a little too hard. One gets alcohol poisoning and requires immediate attention.
  • Against orders, the undercover waitress blows her cover and saves the diplomat. This doesn’t escape the notice of the paranoid assassin. Incredibly, he grows even more paranoid.

 

Now, regarding this mythical game I’m talking about: ideas are a dime a dozen, and execution is where things matter. This is far from being executable. It’s the opposite of bulletproof. It has more holes than a sieve, hence the hand-waveyness. It’s a phenomenal way to lose a frightening amount of money and resources and hair.

And I can’t wait to play it.

Some games that explore these concepts: Hitman, Facade, Alpha Protocol, The Sims, Dwarf Fortress.

 

 

Date: October 4th, 2011
Cate: development
2 msgs

Pathways Redux Part II

To read Part I of this writeup, click here.

In 2004 I made a Doom 3 mod called Pathways Redux – a mini-remake of Bungie’s Pathways into Darkness. Here are some notes on its development.

Scope control

One summer, I took a television production course. The instructor showed us a pie graph with three sections:

  • High Quality
  • On Budget
  • On Time

He then told us that a production could have two of those things. Just two; never all three. He was a real cheery guy.

Me being young and idealistic, I didn’t entirely agree with him. But it made something click in my head. My hard drive had (and still has) a bewildering amount of incomplete game prototypes. I realized all I had to do was cut the scope of the game in half. Shorter project = less bugs, more polish, higher quality. And you get to actually finish making it!

Pathways into Darkness is a huge game. There was no way I was going to remake the entirety of PiD, so I focused on a tiny section. For Pathways Redux, I decided to tackle no more than an intro sequence and the first few levels.

First Impressions

PiD has a fairly elaborate series of events preceding the game.

  • An alien diplomat appears in the White House.
  • Your commando team is airdropped into the Yucatan.
  • You are separated from your team.
  • You make the solitary trek to the cursed pyramid.

That’s a lot of information! PiD starts you inside the pyramid. I decided to have some fun and try to pack all that information through an in-game sequence.

My first thought was to start you off in a military hangar in North Carolina. You and your crew would be briefed on the situation, then board the transport plane.

Then I realized: a slideshow briefing? Listening to some commander-type guy talk about a mission? This was lazy design. It was a boring, unimaginative way to convey a ton of information. Also, I’d already done this in a previous project, Bootleg Squadrog. So that’s strike two!

When I start a game, I want to play it. I do not want to watch a cutscene or listen to inane backstory. So I decided to instead start by throwing the player into the deep end of the pool: falling through the sky with a broken parachute. Way better than a slideshow!

Of course, the parachute sequence is soon followed by a page-long wall of text describing the backstory.  Nope, I have no good excuse for that.

Script-fu

Pathways Redux and Barista 3 (and Barista 1) were my first forays into text-driven scripting. Prior to this, I had used visual scripting systems. Visual scripting generally looks something like this:

  

Objects are are visually displayed. These objects are scripted via GUI-driven windows.

Text-driven scripting is done via plain ol’ text files. Here is the script to Pathways Redux’s first level: pathways_para1.txt

Depending on how your brain is wired, you’ll like one more than the other. Visual scripting gets the benefit of better error-checking and sanity checks, and, well, being able to visually see the connections between your script objects. Text-driven scripting grants you more control and flexibility. Doom 3’s scripting system gives a tremendous amount of control over the game world – it’s remarkable how much freedom you get.

I enjoy both systems, though I lean toward text scripting. Once a level or game reaches a certain level of complexity, I find visual scripting becomes cumbersome. It starts to feel like a middle-man you’re forced to talk to – a mild-mannered, helpful middle man, but a middle man nonetheless.

Level persistence

Doom 3 consists of a series of levels played in a linear order. Pathways, on the other hand, is a series of connected levels the player can visit and backtrack as they please.

The most straight-forward approach was to just connect the levels the same way Doom 3 did. If they want to revisit a previous level, just re-load that previous level. Right?

The problem with that is persistence. For example, let’s say the player picks up an ammo clip in level 1. If the player later decides to re-visit level 1, the game has to “remember” the player had taken that ammo clip earlier. If I just directly re-load level 1, that ammo clip will always re-appear at the same spot – that’s bad.

I got around this by taking advantage of Doom 3’s scripting system. Here’s a sample script chunk when level 1 is loaded:

		if (sys.getPersistantFloat("got_stepammo2") > 0 )
		{
			$ammo_bullets_small_8.remove();
		}

 

When the level is loaded, it checks the flag “got_stepammo2”. If the flag is True (the player has already acquired that ammo clip), then I remove that ammo clip from the world. Otherwise, that ammo clip is left untouched.

Is this a ridiculous way to do things and totally unfit for a production-length game? Yes! But for this mini-production, it was fine.

Dogfooding

When making a game, it’s important you’re also playing it yourself. This sounds like a no-brainer, right? Why would you possibly not want play the game that you’re making? Because: it can get extremely frustrating and demoralizing to play something incomplete, ugly, buggy, crash-prone, and un-fun.

It’s tempting to put off your testing until you get further along into the game. But you’d just be sabotaging yourself. By the time the project is that far along, the infastructure will be too rigid and it’ll be too late to do any course-correcting.

As I play through my own game, I jot down notes on things to fix or add. Afterwards, I address each item one-by-one like a grocery list. Here’s a page from Pathways Redux:

Most of it is written in spur-of-the-moment shorthand. This can get embarrassing when I finish the playtest and don’t remember what something is supposed to mean or find something illegible. On the bottom row is “SKELETON”, followed by a “(?)” because I no longer had any idea what the hell that item referred to.

Cubans

I intended to include Pedro, Juan, Javier and Carlos. Alas, the Cuban explorers never made it into the temple.

Et al

Pathways Redux was the first remake I’d ever attempted. On one hand, you have a clear template to build upon. “Finding the fun” is the riskiest part of game development, and it’s comforting to have that automatically done.

On the other hand, it did come to a point where I got bored on a creative level. I had a lot of fun re-thinking the UI, environment design, dialogue system, and storytelling methods; this was not a one-to-one remake. But ultimately, re-treading someone else’s work – no matter how absolutely amazing that work is, a la PiD – doesn’t have that same spark as springing something brand new.

In Pathways Redux, the action is meant to take a backseat to the story, characters, and environment. This action-light narrative-heavy type of game is sorely under-served. I’d love experience the hustle and bustle of booking guests for a late-night talk show. I’d love to fall into a web of intrigue and deceit in the Holy Roman Empire. Let me know when you finish making that – I’d love to play it!