games


I picked this up during the Steam sale, and it’s a charmer, as well as a worthy addition to the list of great games that have popped out of the indie bubble.  It’s kind of like the original Sam & Max mated with The Naked Gun.

Polygons working together

Polygons working together

Let’s start with the look, which is highly stylized– the layouts are all classy retro with simple textures, and the characters look like toddlers’ toys.  It works– I don’t think realistic human figures would have improved the game– and it probably saved a load of development time.  I should emphasize though that it’s a fully 3-D game, not some kind of point-and-click thing.

I also feel like I can’t say too much about it– it’s like The Stanley Parable, you should go in cold.  The plot is simple enough: you’re a private eye, or maybe you work for a cop, and you go on missions. These are not particularly challenging as missions… which is fine by me, I like never having to seek out a walkthrough.  You can save at any time, but I’ll tell you right now that it never proved necessary to reload.

The plot and the puzzles are really secondary; the real game is in going around seeing what you can do in the game.  Wait, did I mention yet that this is a comedy?  A lot of the humor comes when you put off the quest directions and wander around interacting with people and things.

Not all of the jokes are boffo, but it’s definitely in the Airplane!/Naked Gun mold, where if one joke doesn’t grab you, it’s OK ‘cos another will be by in a few seconds.  There’s a lot of fourth-wall breaking, a lot of surrealism, and a bunch of electronics jokes.  (Though there are robot characters, the idea I think is that the characters kind of know they’re in a computer simulation.)

The one downside is that it’s very short.  Though you’ll probably want to play it again to find all the stuff you didn’t notice the first time.

 

 

 

In reference to your recent post about Microtransactions, I was wondering what’s your take on the supposed Indie Game Soon-To-Bubble Bust. Are masses of people paying $1 for bundles of five games the reality of microtransactions in action, and, if so, is it heading for a fall?

—Tricky

I assume you’re referring to this article by developer Jeff Vogel.  Sample quotes:

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, “I’m sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich.” And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less.

Now, I’m not in the business.  If Vogel’s message is “Don’t expect to make a fortune making indie games,” I’m sure he’s right, and anyway, didn’t we know that?  Most new businesses fail, and 90% of everything is crap.

Still, his article reminded me of the old Dizzy Dean quote: “Nobody goes there anymore— it’s too crowded.”

As a gamer, I think the current market is fantastic.  Before Steam, you may recall, you had to go to your local Best Buy or GameStop or whatever, and you had your choice of the current AAA titles.  Now you have publishers’ entire catalogs available, plus a slew of mid list titles, plus a pulsating scrum of tiny indie games.  And if you’re willing to wait for the next Steam sale, you can get just about any of them at a bargain.

Plus, the barrier to entry has plummeted.  You can make a mighty fine game with Unity, and an astonishing game with Unreal Engine 4.  Which means that even a one- or two-man team can produce something graphics snobs like me will buy.

It’s also good news for diversity— new kinds of games, a more varied palette of developers.

Again, 90% of indie games will be crap.  But there will be treasures, too, like Gunpoint and SpyParty.  Whether people listen to Vogel or not, whether or not there’s a bust, some people will continue to make small, neat games and some of them will even make money.

Most creative endeavors have this glut of creators— look at books or music.  A huge percentage of my friends and family have written a book, been in a band, drawn a comic, or made a game.  Being able to quit your day job is still going to be rare.

As for microtransations, I dunno. The Wikipedia article on the Humble Bundles is interesting reading; many of these sales have netted over $1 million. The maker of Dustforce reported that before their game was included in a bundle, Steam sales were about 10 a day; during the bundle it reached 50,000 a day, and afterward it remained at a higher level— 50 a day.  Seems like a win.

(My understanding is that the mobile game market is pretty much ruined for small players; I’m only talking about PC games here.  I think Steam has thrown its enormous weight behind the idea of making it easy to make, mod, and buy games, and that inhibits predatory behavior.)

The sheer number of games does raise a question: how do you know which ones are any good?  I rely a lot on a few game sites, but I’m sure I miss a lot of games.  Steam has reviews and recommendations, but neither has been very helpful. If you’re looking for an idea for a killer social media site, I’d suggest creating guides for navigating the Long Tail.

 

 

I’ve got back into making model after model in Blender– current count is 140.  When we last looked in on Ticai, the game looked like this.  Now it looks like this:

Ticai contemplates encroaching urbanization

Ticai contemplates encroaching urbanization

Now I know why, in a game, you’ll often be right next to interesting-looking spaces you can’t get to. Why can’t I go over and explore it?

A game level, conceptually speaking, works like this:

gamezones

There’s a very detailed area where the player can explore. Here you’ll get real doorknobs and window frames and pipes, 3-d trees, and all the hidden triggers that make the level work, like working doors and ladders.

Just outside it is areas you can see into, but can’t get to. Because they’re close, they have to be pretty well rendered, though of course nothing will be interactive.

Outside that is a land of increasing fakery. Here the architectural details are likely to be part of the texture, and for any object, only the sides facing the player need to exist. Even farther out, you get the skybox. In Hammer you can have objects there, coarsely modeled, so you can see far into the distance. At this point you model a tree by pasting a picture of a tree on a transparent quad, and far details like clouds may also be 2-d pictures.

You can’t get into those nice nearby areas because it’d get too close to the fakery zone, and the illusion would be spoiled. The level designer may need to put a lot of work into inaccessible areas, but they’ll only work enough to make it look good from the accessible one.

(This applies to Valve games, as well as games like Dishonored, Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. It doesn’t entirely apply to open worlds like Skyrim or Saints Row or Arkham City, which have to use different methods to manage the huge maps– though note that interiors still involve a level change. Unity allows huge maps, but I don’t have a development team to fill them!)

Here’s what the city looks like in the editor:

What you'd see with a rocket jump

What you’d see with a rocket jump

Ticai can wander just the four city blocks in the middle of the picture. You can see that the modeling gets simpler outside this region, and even within it there’s some fakery– e.g. there’s no need to create roofs for buildings if there’s nowhere she can get high enough to see them.

You can see the map of the Nezi neighborhood, which I’m using for reference. Just to make those four accessible blocks, I’ve had to model about a third of the neighborhood, and I’m not done yet.

Here’s the mansion of the local aristocrats:

And that's just one wing

And that’s just one wing

I just redid the mansion this week– before the façade was basically a box with nice windows. You can also see a tree– Unity has a tree creator, which is good, because foliage is awful to model.

See the big white cubes in the city map?  Those are placeholders… maybe I can go model something to replace them with right now…

So, this dude who writes about video games for Forbes (hey, the topic is very important to businesspeople) thinks that Dark Souls is the worst video game ever. And that Dark Souls II is also the worst video game ever.

Only, by his own admission, he’s put close to 400 hours into Dark Souls, finishing it multiple times. And he’s deep into the sequel.  I think he may not know what worst means.

Well, yeah. Be wary of everything in this game

Well, yeah. Be wary of everything in this game

Now, he does make a case. He thinks the game is too hard, too inscrutable, too complex. And famously, Dark Souls is a game where you die over and over, where enemies respawn, where barely anything of the complex gameplay is explained.

But jeez, the man’s got a day job, so to rack up those hours, he must have played it every night for like three months. You don’t play the worst game ever for three months.  The game obviously satisfies Itch #1 of gaming: it makes you want to play it. It’s compelling. (For the counter-case, that the game is fabulous, see Yahtzee’s review.)

Now, that was a generic ‘you’… in fact I didn’t find myself going back to Dark Souls. Partly, I know I’m easily frustrated by unforgiving checkpoints and games you can’t play without a wiki. But knowing it’s probably not my kind of thing, I just don’t play it, and if others like it, I don’t begrudge them their fun.  Also, I have like four Medieval Fantasy Games queued up– I’m really kind of tired of Medieval Fantasyland.

What the guy wanted to say, I think, is that the game is addictive but frustrating. You can’t get rid of frustration in gaming and shouldn’t want to; it’s part of the whole flow thing:

flow

Basically you’re having fun when skill and challenge are balanced. If the challenge is above your skill level, you get frustrated; if it’s below, you get bored.  Naturally, the balance changes as you learn the game, so challenge needs to ramp up over time.

There’s another factor that changes the boundary lines, which we might call explorativeness. Sometimes we want to relax with something we know very well– that’s when I replay Half-Life 2, or go beat up thugs in Arkham City for the nth time. You can think of this as the top part of the blue area becoming an attractive place.  Other times we want novelty and even a little confusion– we want to explore the bottom of the red area.

Anyway, the Dark Souls guy describes replaying the game at harder difficulty levels, which means the process was working: he was mastering the arcane rules, and needed even more challenge.  So he’s wrong to think that the game was too hard; he was actually adding unnecessary challenges.  (It’s probably fair to say that the fun zone in the game is purposely narrow, or that it’s a game that you’d better set aside when your explorativeness is low.)

What is the worst video game?  Obviously, one that you wouldn’t play, and ideally wouldn’t even buy. There’s a few games in my Steam library that I’ve played for about 15 minutes. But they’re not even the worst; surely the actual worst game would be something simultaneously dumb, tasteless, boring, and crash-prone. It was probably made by a particularly unpleasant third-grader and it’s hardly worth talking about.

Is there a category of enjoyably awful games, like MSTable movies? Probably, though this sort of enjoyment is more about the improv skills of you and your friends than it is about the game itself.

More often when we hate a game, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s not quite what we want. If we didn’t want it at all, we wouldn’t even buy it.  But geeks have a special hatred for things that fall short of our geeky expectations.  The Dark Souls guy probably falls in this category: if he was more self-aware he’d probably say that he got a lot out of the game– it was close to what he wanted in a game, it just wasn’t close enough, and he’s angry about it.

 

I’ve cleaned up as much Viscera Cleanup Detail as I can handle, I think. Though I’m hoping to do some co-op with my pal Chris.

I did all the maps, then redid the first one to test if it was easier doing it the right way. (It is.) But I’m not eager to repeat the maps, and I think there’s a game design lesson there, on feedback.

Most overdesigned door opener ever

Most overdesigned door opener ever

The thing is, this game could be an addictive puzzler… if it gave you better feedback. It tells you the category of stuff you left: bloodstains, body parts, trash, bullet holes, etc.  But it gives no hint as to how many were left.  You don’t know if you were missing one bloodstain or ten.  I even used the damn sniffer, but I still missed stuff.  If the feedback were better, I’d go back and try to do better.  But when you just don’t know how close you are, there’s little motivation to try.  (They have the right idea– they hide (say) body parts in vents and such, so you can walk right past them. But the sniffer is fiddly and no fun to use, so the heck with it.)

Chris suggests that the game should allow cheating– e.g. leaving body parts in drawers or something.  That would be fun.  My suggestion would be to add ways to mess around… maybe you could write your own messages in blood, or temporarily wear the alien hands over your own, or take a pizza break. Janitors have to make their fun where they find it.

Again, it’s in alpha, so by the time it’s done it may well be a very different game.

After reading about Viscera Cleanup Detail, and especially after reading my friend Chris’s ambivalent review, I really wanted to try it.  So I did.

The gag is brilliant, at least.  Some space marine, perhaps you in a different game, has gone blasting through a space station, taking care of alien outbreaks or whatever.  And they made a mess.

There were no magic markers around, OK?

There were no magic markers around, OK?

You normally don’t think about the poor schmuck who has to clean up the blood, alien blood, body parts, shell casings, and other detritus. Except in this game, where you are that schmuck, and you have to restore the facility to a pristine state. You even have to refill all the single-use medical units they used.

You also have to type "SAVE US" on a nice memo pad

You also have to type “SAVE US” on a nice memo pad

Does it work as a game? Well, I’ve cleaned up two of the half-dozen maps, so I guess it is.  It’s worth the $8, at least.  Note that it’s an early access game, still in development, so it will probably get better as it goes.

There is a certain satisfaction in getting things clean… which is good, since there aren’t (yet?) any achievements or ratings.  (When you clock out, you go to the janitor’s office, where clippings on the wall tell you indirectly about anything you missed.)

The mechanics are simple enough: you have a machine that dispenses buckets of water, you have a mop, and you clean off the blood and goop. The mop gets dirty and you have to rinse it, and the bucket gets dirty after a few rinses, so you go back a lot to the Suds-o-Matic. Then you throw the bucket in the rather low-tech incinerator… along with the body parts and other detritus.

This is one game where, unusually, you’re going to move pretty slowly through the maps, so they’d better be visually satisfying.  And they are– the look of the game and the cleaning mechanic are pretty solid.

There’s a certain dark humor about the whole thing– e.g. sometimes the Suds-o-Matic gives you body parts instead.  There are notes and datapads scattered through the level, giving you a hint about what went wrong.  The buckets and body parts are deliberately made awkward to carry, so it’s easy to make more of a mess.  (It’s nicely balanced though– it doesn’t feel unfair; once you know the quirks of various things, you can work with them.)

A few places are hard to reach, which constitutes a puzzle of sorts.  That seems promising; I hope they add more things to just complicate the task.

There isn’t any tutorial, and not much in the way of on-line help, so I thought I’d record a few things that might help the aspiring space janitor.

  • If you step in the goo, you’ll track it around. You may be tempted to ignore this, but it does multiply your work.  If you clean the path from the Suds-o-Matic to the incinerator, you can get your feet clean, and then you can work out from the clean area.
  • Once the mop is dirty and it’ll spread goo instead of cleaning it– watch the color it turns. (Denser goo dirties it faster, so it’s not a set number of strokes.) Similarly, the water turns bright red (or whatever color) when it’s too dirty to use.
  • The buckets are easy to overturn. If you move slowly up to them, you actually climb on the edge, which gives you the best angle for rinsing. Only hit LMB to rince once; you can tell it works because the mop turns white again. (If you hit LMB again, you may actually re-dirty the mop.)
  • You pick up something with LMB.  Hit LMB again to straighten it out– this is essential with medkits, buckets, and quite a few other things.
  • You can carry a bunch of body parts in the yellow biohazard boxes. (If you hold shift to walk slower, you won’t spill.)  But it can save time to put stuff into the buckets once they’re too dirty to use.
  • The “sniffer” (tool 3) is mysterious, but turns out to detect either dirt or trash (hit RMB to switch modes).  It seems pretty useless.
  • There’s a laser which can be used to repair bullet holes.

Tonight I did the second map, “Office”, which actually has a story behind it, which you can piece together from datapads and the state of the office itself.

 

 

 

 

 

One reason games take so long… you keep re-implementing stuff, as you learn how to do things and your standards improve. Case in point: hands.

hands-comparison

When I first modeled the hands (on the left), I knew the modeling wasn’t good, but I was happy just to have hands. But for some reason I decided to redo them, and I’m absurdly happy that they look much better. As so often, the key is to have a good reference. The first time I was following a drawing of the whole figure; this time I used a reference illustration of just hands.  I also drew a better texture.

Plus, a technical Blender thing: in both cases, I made the fingers by extruding a square from the palm.  But this time I extruded non-adjacent squares.  That left a gap between the fingers, which is, you’ll note, how hands actually work.

Of course, I’d used the same model for several other characters, and the work had to be propagated to each one.

The same sort of thing seems to happen in professional game development– witness this description of the making of Bioshock, which suggests a) a game is made and remade multiple times over the course of its development, and b) you should probably never work for Ken Levine.

Although it’s been out for 10 years, Half-Life 2 has always been in the “pretty good graphics” bin in my memory. Till now. Jeannot van Berlo has re-created the train station in Unreal Engine.

Here’s the original…

2014-04-04_00001

And here’s van Berlo’s version:

hl2-new-trains

Another shot from Valve:

2014-04-04_00004

And van Berlo:

hl2-new-side

I guess ten years has provided an advance or two.

I was just in the game to take the comparison screenshots, and I still think it’s fine, but the Unreal Engine version is certainly stunning.  More detailed, fancier lighting, and a grander scale.  From the screenshots, it looks a little busier– not quite as focused for the eyes– but it’s hard to tell what it’d be like in the game.

This post, though a bit breathless, is extremely interesting. It’s how an upcoming game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, makes stunning game imagery… essentially by taking a shitload of hi-res photos, then using software to turn them near-automatically into a 3-d model.

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

It’s certainly not a time-saver– you have to take pictures very carefully on location, and the whole idea is that assets aren’t very re-usable… you’re modeling an entire church, say, and not just making a tileable brick wall. The nice thing is that the textures aren’t tiled– they have contextually meaningful dirt and shade and mold and whatever. Photorealistic textures still look wrong and artificial if they’re too even, too widely used, or have no apparent flaws.

A quick way to test video game textures is to look at the edges of things. Take this very good work from Arkham City:

Wouldn't you take your gloves off for this?

Wouldn’t you take your gloves off for this?

It’s all photorealistic, but look at the way the combination dial just floats in the middle of the safe. Real things have transitions from one surface to another. There should also be shadows (and maybe distortions in the fabric) under the edge of Catwoman’s glove, and under that weird metallic knob on her shoulder.

Now, in a game, you normally don’t focus on that stuff… really, we want to be fooled. Especially in the middle of action, you can get away with pretty simple models.

If you’re trying to make a game on your own, on the other hand, learning about someone else’s new, better methods can be depressing. It’s hard enough making tileable textures! And god, don’t get me started on foliage. There’s a reason so many games are set in dungeons, sci-fi futurescapes, deserts, and sewers. They’re geometric! It’s still really hard to do good vegetation.

I’ve been replaying Saints Row 3, this time on Hardcore. This involved dying a lot, but it’s still easier than SR2 was on Normal. Except for, of all things, the carjackings. Even the earliest jackings throw three stars of notoriety at you; at early levels that’s too much heat for the player, and I died; and at high levels it’s too much heat for the car, which explodes. I finished all the missions, but I may leave a bunch of cars unstolen.

SR2, SR3, SR4.  The blue hair is a constant.

SR2, SR3, SR4. The blue hair is a constant.

SR2 has its avid fans, and I certainly appreciated the bigger and more varied city. But SR3 is definitely more fun. Plus, I think they went in the right direction, from showing off badassery to developing character.  In SR2 the emphasis was on showing how tough everyone is, with the implication that you the player are tougher, since you beat them all up.  But, eh, badassses are ultimately kind of boring. The writer just thinks of mean things for them to do, and then maybe to humanize them a little bit, gives them a weird hobby.

In SR3, the emphasis is on making the characters colorful. No one in SR2 is as weird as Kinzie and Zimos. Pierce gets a personality.  The villains are more over the top.  By SR4 we can look at the Saints crew with genuine affection, something it’s hard to do with (say) the cast of Skyrim or Fallout New Vegas.

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