Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Devil You Know...

You okay there, doggy?
It sounds like Bethesda Softworks is reluctant to move on to a new toolset when it comes to making games.  To some degree, I can understand where they're coming from.  If it ain't broke don't fix it...except, in this case, the engine Bethesda uses (and has used for ages) is kind of broken.

When it comes to Bethesda products, there tends to be so many glitches and bugs that a non-trivial number of them never get fixed.  Considering that it's perfectly possible to iron out these issues via downloadable updates, this sort of approach to post-launch support feels inexcusable.  Instead, the task has been handed over to unpaid mod makers.  I've heard claim that problems like these are unavoidable given the scale and scope of Bethesda's games, but I don't think that argument really holds water.  There are plenty of open-world games that do not suffer from endemic jank; Horizon: Zero Dawn and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being the two most recent examples that come to mind.  For the sake of argument though, let's say that it's a precondition of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games that they are never going to be bug-free.  Why does Bethesda continue to use such a flawed system of game development?

Switching to a new, or seriously overhauled, engine is pretty much guaranteed to have some snags, but it hardly seems to be sacrificial when the current method is so unsound.  I guess the lead developers over at Bethesda would rather deal with the devil they know than something they don't...speaking of devils and demons...

No bugs?  When mammoths fly!
Bethesda's parent company is ZeniMax, who also shepards ID Software, makers of the DOOM series and a company famous for game engines.  One can't help wondering why some of the disciples of John Carmack don't help Bethesda forge a new framework for their future projects.  Combining the tech-savvy of ID with the world-building of Bethesda sounds like a perfect match, but then again the devil is in the details.

Engineers and storytellers rarely think along the same lines.  What sounds great for one group might very well be a huge pain in the neck for the other.  Look no further than the Destiny franchise to see an example of an engine that produces incredible visuals while simultaneously manages to be utterly tedious when it comes to scenario creation.

I can't say for certain where Bethesda truly resides in all this.  However, I am absolutely sure about one thing.  The next game that studio releases will have a laundry list of bugs.  Eventually, they will get fixed.  To what degree and by whom though is anyone's guess.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Uneven Polish

I already talked about Red Dead Redemption 2 in the last blogpost so I'd rather not focus on it entirely again here.  Having said that, playing more of the game has made me think long and hard about realism in video games.  When you have something like two-thousand employees and five years to work on a game, it's impressive what you can do in terms of realism.  Still, resources are always finite and developers must ultimately make hard choices regarding what to emphasise and what not to.

Having a truly realistic simulation is a pie-in-the-sky goal; something that developers might strive for, but never actually achieve.  Instead, it comes down to choosing what to focus on.  One aspect of Japanese game design that I find endlessly amusing is their willingness to circumvent difficult bits of design work if it doesn't add much in terms of gameplay.  Take, for example, pouring a drink, eating some food, or even changing one's shoes.  Trying to model these interactions requires complex fluid dynamics, object collision meshes or texture deformation.  In other words, it's a programing nightmare.  So why bother when it can be faked via a clever mix of camera angles and blocking scenes?  The hassle of making pick-up/put-down, open/close, and eat/drink animations was bypassed in the first couple of Resident Evil games by cutting to menu or loading screens.  Is it great visually?  No.  Does it save the developers a mountain of work.  Yes...and by doing so allows resources to be put toward other more paramount features.

So, what are these paramount features then?  It varies from game to game.  It also depends on the genre.  Tight controls matter a lot more in a fighting game than they do in a walking simulator.  Seamless transitions don't matter much in a turn-based strategy game, but they are pretty important in open-world action/adventure games.  Those are some of the more clear cut examples, but there are times when the decisions on what to dedicate development resources toward is a lot less obvious.

Animation priority is one of those areas where the designers have to make a hard choice between precise controls or realistic movement.  I tend to lean in the direction of the former more than the latter in terms of personal preferences, but some of my all-time favorite games (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Souls series) place their priorities firmly in the animation-over-input camp.  Meanwhile, games such as Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, and Vanquished (all known for having snappy, responsive controls) failed to hold my interest.  Hmmm...maybe this is a case of me saying I want one thing even though I actually prefer the other?  I can certainly see why some players would find it frustrating to play games that give priority to animation though.  Seeing something bad about to happen and being powerless to do anything about it is rarely a fun experience.  Then again, sometimes bad controls aren't necessarily a problem if the game accounts for the limitations they impose.

Tank controls are a great example of this.  If the kind of enemies you're up against are slow moving, then the lack of player character agility isn't such a huge problem.  If the enemies are fast and nimble thought...well, you've just introduced a receipt for aggravation.  Another example is aiming assists.  It helped make those awkward fixed camera angles more bearable up until the franchise switched to an over-the-shoulder perspective in Resident Evil 4.  Conversely,  Rockstar titles, starting with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, have used a snap-to aiming system that has made the gameplay I bit more tolerable to folks like me who have been spoiled by mouse and keyboard shooters.

These solutions circumvent the problems, but they don't really solve them.  Surely a more elegant solution must exist?  Perhaps more resources should have been directed to them?  I sometimes feel that way about Read Dead Redemption 2's menus, controls and tutorials.  As is, it's a case of some parts being polished smooth while others still feel a bit rough. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Spacetime Outlaws

Like a lot of folks, I've recently been playing Red Dead Redemption 2.  It's hard to say much about my initial impressions that wouldn't just be an echo of what others have already said, but I'll try.  I'm going to go into the story a bit and how it subverts certain stereotypes of the Western genre.  Don't fret about spoilers though...I'm barely scratching the surface in terms of plot here.

Typically when I think about the ending scene of many Westerns, it usually involves some rugged guy (or guys) riding off into the sunset.  Pretty much from the start the developer, Rockstar Games, flips the cliche; you're riding east toward the direct the sun rises, you're not alone, and many members of your group are women (heck, there's even a few old folks and a child in the mix).  What's more this is a gang of outlaws.

Of course, having the story focus of a Western on a gang is hardly unusual, but here those 100 hour workweek writers throw in another twist - you're a band of lawbreakers that preys on other lawbreakers.  This is a pretty original take for the Western genre, but as far as storytelling techniques go it's actually a heck of a lot older than you might think.

Nearly a millennium ago, the authors of Icelandic sagas had problem when it came to their (then multi-century-old) heroes.  How can you depict vikings in a positive light when their favorite past time was raiding innocent villages for slaves and valuables?  Well...one solution appears at the beginning of Njáls saga.  Herein one of the heroes leads an attack on a longship filled with booty taken on viking raids.  In essence he's robbing the robbers.

It might seems like a stretch to draw a connection between old-time cowboys and ancient norsemen, but keep in mind that Iceland was very much the Wild West of the Dark Ages.  First settled sometime in the 9th century, the island was covered in virgin forests and pastures making it (for all intents and purposes) frontier territory.  Sure, these pioneers came by longships instead of wagons; armed with spears and axes instead of six-shooters and scatter-guns, but technological innovations aside the circumstances were surprisingly similar.  A legal code, while existent and fairly thorough, lacked strong enforcement creating an environment wherein many a dastardly deed was committed.

While I'm on the topic of disparant time periods, I want to wrap things up by saying for a game set in 1899, there's a weird amount of emphasis on the Civil War.  Just to put things into perspective, that conflict had ended more than 30 years prior.  If anything, you'd think that the Spanish-American War would be the event in everyone's thoughts.  For all the talk of burgeoning industrialization one wonders why nobody mentions the recently ended World's Fair, or the fact that Chicago had already built its first skyscrapers...or the fact that the US Navy had switched over to all steel coal steamers.

I haven't finished the game yet, obviously, so perhaps someone will pay lip service to some of the things I've just mentioned.  Regardless, I feel like certain aspects of the setting wouldn't feel so anachronistic if they moved the timeframe back a few more decades.  I guess that wouldn't have dovetailed nicely with the original Red Dead Redemption though...

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Centennial

For those who know their history November 14th, 2018 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the First World War armistice.  Perhaps because this date is fast approaching, I had a strange dream in the middle of the night about trench warfare and tall, spindly machines.  Usually, I forget dreams soon after waking up, but this one has stuck with me.  I'm not sure what to make of it so I'll just relate the contents as a period-appropriate narration.  If nothing else it might be an interesting concept for a video game.

It involved long-legged machines walking across no-man's land.  These "land-striders" (or "landschreiter" in German) were hundreds of feet tall, so towering that their tops sometimes became obscured in low-hanging clouds.  Conversely, other times they gave the impression that they walked upon them when the ground was covered in fog (or worse - gas).  The legs of those machines were slender metal latticework, akin to construction cranes, that tapered down into narrow poles toward the base.  Armor plating protected the joints and locomotion to each was provided by a ingenious network of chains, gears, cables and winches connected to petrol engines mounted in the machine's underbelly.  On the upper works there were bristling arrays of machine guns, light artillery, field mortars, and flamethrowers backed by a garrison of sharpshooting riflemen.  Huge pennants streamed from the back proudly displaying national colors.  Thin wisps of black smoke vented out of protruding pipes along the sides and the hum of motors mixed with the rhythmic thudding of of their footfalls.  Each was painted in military colors respective to their country; German field grey, British khaki, and French horizon blue.

There were further variations.  Some were bipedal, others tripedal, but the biggest were the quadrupeds.  Due to their incredible stature land-striders could step into, out of, or over trenches and shell craters with ease.  Even swollen rivers and soft mud would only slow their gait a little.  Aircraft buzzed around them like angry flies and tanks would crawl out of the way like beetles desperate to avoid being crushed.  Tangles of barbwire, more often than not, became wrapped around their feet, but this only increased a land-strider's lethality.  Any infantrymen unlucky enough to get caught in their path could be flailed in a single colossal step.  Small arms were wholly ineffective and, despite their immense size, land-striders are surprisingly hard to hit with conventional artillery owing to their narrow profiles. All to often shellfire would pass harmlessly through their legs or, in the rare instance of an extremely well aimed shot, ricochet off their armor.  Damage or mechanical failures could also be repaired in the field by a team of acrobatic engineers, who would repel along every surface with ropes tied about their waists.  In fact, the only method of truely opposing a land-strider was with another land-strider.  When these monsters clashed it was like a Salvador Dali painting bent to war.  As the machines closed toward one another small black specs could sometimes be seen falling from them like fleas off an animal's back.  To the untrained eye one might speculate that they were simply shell casings or chunks of broken metal, but mixed in among such things were the bodies of men killed by bullets and shrapnel.

When land-striders duel, it was a common for both to limp away from battle battered but not broken.  However, now and then neither would back down and draw up so close that their upper works would collide.  An audacious officer clad in armor like a knight of old would gather men of the garrison into raiding party and with a cry they would throw a shower of grenades and board.  Close combat ensued with pistol, club and bayonet.  The objective was always the same - set fire to the enemy's hooded fuel tanks while protecting your own.  Once the flames appears there was no stopping them, and the only recourse for survivors was to leap into the open air and hope that the parachute on their backs opened properly.  Even if they didn't at least it was a quick death at the hands of gravity rather than a slow one from the burning heat.  Watching a land-strider topple over was both a horrifying and fascinating sight that ended in a ground-shuttering crash.  The corpses of those once great warmachines can still be found half-buried in the soil of many battlefields:

Between the triangular forts of Liege...
Half-hidden by the mists of Ardennes...
Along the river bridges of Mons...
In the forest marshes of Tannenberg...
On the floodplains of Ypres...

...and that's only in 1914.  There were four more years to go.