Monday, November 30, 2009

Damned Brain

I made a list of things to do today because there was so much on my mind and the one, most important thing was promptly forgotten upon beginning the list. Why is it that my brain is willing to let me know I'm forgetting something, but won't tell me what it is? Damned thing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I have lots to be thankful for. Big up there is having the opportunity to do something I love. Everyone should be so lucky. Happy Thanksgiving folks!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Euphoria

Is this just a baby version of programmer life or what they always feel? A bit of time to decide on a semi-decent approach, some time to implement it, and then anywhere from no to far-too-much time scratching your head trying to figure out which part is holding up the train? That last part can be hell, but I love the awesome feeling when everything works. Ahhh...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scripting Progress

I'm new at scripting, and I'm under the impression that Unity has particularly accessible scripting for a game engine, only because I've been able to accomplish more than I expected to. I thought I'd rattle off some simple victories to give you an idea...

Learning via tutorials:
  • Setup a simple game environment with ground, light, and camera controllable on x/z plane.
  • Added ability to spawn instantiated objects with the press of a button.
  • Added a cube avatar to travel along with my camera.
  • Added script to immediately spawn a working rigidbody brick wall (5x5) also made of instantiated cubes.
  • Added rockets (cylinders) that shoot out as rigidbodies on button press.
Learning via API and hard knocks:
  • Added a spotlight to the camera.
  • Gave spotlight self-made light cookie to make it look like a proper flashlight
  • Added button to turn flashlight on/off, with sounds (click/cluck)
  • Added ability to spawn brick walls on button press at location and rotation in reference to camera.
  • Added a cylinder "avatar" with a sphere head and gave it a proper character controller (for proper movement with collision detection).
  • Rigged avatar to move like a Gears of War character (move character with left thumbstick, turn (l/r) character with right thumbstick)
  • Attached camera on offset to avatar so it moves like a Gears of War camera; added (u/d) rotation controlled with right thumbstick)
  • Gave avatar moving with proper character controller so collision works correctly; avatar can bump into brick walls, is affected by gravity and move around blocks
  • Adjusted rockets (cylinders) so they have rocket sounds attached, point light attached, sound attached, added script that destroys them on impact with instantiated explosion particle (fiery) when they smash into something so they are good at knocking around bricks dramatically.
  • Create sphere primitive, shoot ray from camera; on collision detection places sphere at collision place, and shoot rockets and flashlight at same said point (sphere is an ad hoc but extremely accurate reticle)
  • Added cube around level that detects when an object leaves it (think death plane) and destroys the object; also detects when avatar leaves and "respawns" him at origin of level.
  • Added background music.
Prototyping:
  • Avatar with camera rotation rig similar to above
  • Added vertical extents to up/down looking
  • Added blocks and faux human characters for scene reference.
  • Added skybox.
  • Added nice-looking avatar model via Blender (stiff)
  • Added environment sounds and ability to make character noises with button presses
  • Added various states of travel, switchable by button with different speeds and adjustable camera settings
    • One locks avatar feet to ground with closer camera, and adds gravity
    • One lets you move through air freely a bit like an FPS (f/b/l/r on plane), but plane rotates according to camera view, letting you move anywhere in quickly
    • One is a distant camera that locks air movement to a plane
    • Camera views from one state to the next are the same, only distance changes
    • Avatar movement separate from camera so avatar can rotate and behave independent of camera focus
    • Camera offsets and speeds are completely tunable in game, on the fly
My PS3 Sixaxis is being used on the PC, so I can basically test any character control setup with button presses and roughed in effects by myself, tuning things until I like how the core abilities of a game feels. To have this power feels awesome. I bump into problems that can take tons of time to conquer, but I learn so much from slogging through them. AND, others have offered to help when said problems arise, for which I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful. Thank you!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Loot

I've played a lot of games over the years, and one of the things that occasionally strikes me as odd is my relationship with the dead and their stuff. Since the clearest way to advance my character is the death of others, and because the dead also tend to carry equipment that advance my abilities, I view each living thing as an obstacle to riches. Weird is when I inspect spectacular loot on an important character and anticipate its death, or resent games for disallowing it. Even weirder is having headlines remind me of the dynamic in real life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

U2 Development

Did anyone watch the development movies on the Uncharted 2 disc? There were a few things on there that really surprised me, like their description of no producers and no meetings. I'm really curious about their hiring practices since the approach sounds like it would be difficult to maintain, especially if they needed to grow rapidly.

When I was digging around the web yesterday, I found an article with some interesting quotes from the game's co-design lead:
"We have about 100 people in-house. We did scale up a little bit by using excellent contractors who came in as we got to the end of the project. But the team was not that much bigger. It’s a testament to how hard the team worked. It’s critically important to work as a team. You can achieve so much more than people who are pulling in different directions. We don’t have anyone who has the title of producer. We definitely have people who are de facto producers, but the team is really self-producing."
It makes me very curious about the feel there.
"When you make something that is of high quality, there is automatically a greater market for it. We are motivated by a desire to make something really fantastic, something that we love. It might be idealistic of me, in my personal opinion, but in the arts, I think that translates into sales."
<3
"It also was an active cinematic experience. [snip] You don’t lose control as Nathan moves around the floor of this collapsing building. We only take control away very briefly, as in the middle of an explosion, and the player doesn’t notice. Things happen around you as we knock Nathan on his ass and put him in one life-threatening situation after another. That’s a compelling experience and the promise of video games."
This is the key to making third person as "cinematic" as an FPS, in my opinion. Never remove control from the player, if possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Uncharted 2

Spoilers ahead; my only warning.

I've been wanting to write about Uncharted 2 but have been hesitating. Analyzing my hesitation now, I would guess it comes from knowing there are big overlaps between the goals that drive the Uncharted series -- to make a character-driven, active cinematic experience -- and the goals that have driven me for the last 5+ years of my career. I am biased in any review I give of this game. And with that caveat, I feel comfortable unloading.

The early word awhile back was that Uncharted 2 was getting stellar reviews. Despite that, I could see how gamers -- esp. gameplay purists -- would have a few bones to pick. Examining the three pillars of design as described by their "making of" videos (which if I recall correctly, are cover-based gunplay, melee combat, and adventure exploration / puzzling), they strike me as solid-but-mundane implementations.
  • Regarding adventure, other than aiming and timing a jump, there's almost no skill to appreciably gain or challenge in Drake's exploration other than detecting the cues what illogically can or cannot be interacted with. But they are very successful pace-breakers (a term I use for actions that distract you from the main gameplay mode to keep it interesting), and give you satisfying ways to touch the world help make it seem more real.
  • Regarding melee combat, again, there is little skill to appreciably gain or challenge the player with. He can either begin to engage an enemy or not. Upon doing so, he either insta-kills them (e.g., jump on back and break neck) or not. If not, you tap a button until time slows down, and you have a silly-long window to press the other button and continue. But also again, it satisfies the most basic needs of melee in keeping the player focused on paying (perhaps too little) attention to pressing different buttons, and gives him another way to get up-close, cinematic, and personal with enemies.
  • And regarding cover-based gunplay, it seems serviceable and solid, and action is such a good design foundation because so much bang-for-the-buck is there. But making this the primary gameplay mechanic is interesting since killing tons of enemies has so little to do with Drake the character. This point seemed to pop up in Yahtzee's review of the game when he brought up body count, and the oddity of this was underlined with an unfortunate choice of dialog where the main baddie tries to provoke your guilt for murdering so many people throughout the game. Though it makes sense for a real-life Drake, it falls flat on players that were never even intended to feel negative vibes for their actions previously.
Not that solid-but-mundane is easy. It isn't, and Uncharted 2 deserves a massive tip of the hat for making that job vastly more complicated by immersing these moments in at times a very cinematic environment that plays with the animations of the characters. This has the net effect of making each of these basic implementations in concept potentially much more interesting and novel in play, and the effect especially stands out in the scenes where platforms are falling and tilting beneath you while play goes interrupted.

And another hats off for not giving me control of AI and integrating them in a way that never pissed me off. This is one of the invisible aspects of game design that happens to be particularly meaningful to me because I know how difficult it is to wrangle AI, and because uncontrollable characters seem more grounded in reality when they aren't an extension of my will. I remember HL2 driving this home for me like a two-ton hammer.

Though many ideas come to mind for improved base mechanics interesting ways, it feels like nitpicking because the holistic experience is so impressive. The highest compliment I could pay the development team is that I hated my "buddy" for betraying me, felt responsible for my Tibetan friend and what happened to his village, and wanted to see Elena and Drake together. There are tons of things to nitpick about the characters and story, but I've long asserted that games will be the most popular art form of the future and this is a leap many non-gamers have a difficult time making, especially when comparing it with their favorite, emotionally-stirring, passively entertaining films. And Uncharted 2 may be the first game wherein a casual gamer, skills allowing, could hear the first audible knock on the door of the summer blockbuster. That is a step in the right direction. In my view, Drake is a commendable example of design in the service of emotional experience, and a benchmark in character-based emotion, a critical axis in the development of games. It was a great ride.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gamefly & Guilt vs. Clutter, Inconvenience & Cost

I was driving home last night when this happened. Did anyone else experience it? I had a tough time describing it to Jen and presumed I'd never hear an explanation, but she sent me the link. Neat.

I just finished my first fall season game, Uncharted 2, which feels shameful for someone that loves games as much as I do. I usually do an admirable job of keeping up with fall games but this year, like last, feels lagged. One reason is Gamefly. Because gamers tend to want the same games at the same time, top items in a Gamefly queue tend to be difficult to rent. The reason why I recently got through Bowser's Inside Story instead of Uncharted 2 is because it was sent first. It's also why Ghostbusters (#16) appeared in my mailbox before queue items #1-15. And sending a game back for something new is about a six day turnaround assuming they have something else to send me. As a gamer, this lag time is one of the hardest things to bear about the service, and now I keep a separate queue list and only store the stuff I absolutely must have next on Gamefly. So why keep using it?

First, because I hate stuff. After weening myself from a physical CD collection and seeing the light of digital distribution, I've applied the same philosophy to all objects to the point of not wanting old yearbooks or journals; I just want to scan in the "nostalgic pages" and get rid of stuff. The biggest reason for using Gamefly was to remove the buildup of games I would never realistically revisit. As a side note, digital distribution would also do the trick.

Second, I hate dealing with brick and mortar stores. Gamestop is a blight that goes out of its way to make its customers feel invalid. I feel disgusting after being guilted for not being interested in a used copy, not preordering, not buying a guide, and after being rubbed with the employees' collective gaming id. For months I went out of my way to buy from vendors that bothered to simply stock games and sell them, but they also tended to be out of touch with their stock, sometimes leaving me empty-handed. Gamefly let me avoid the entire thing. Again, as a side note, digital distribution would also do the trick.

Third and last is cost; a bigger deal since quitting the day job. Two years ago Gamefly (~$300/yr.) saved me $600+ from games the three-month fall season alone. But despite having no income, I feel guilt for not doing more to support my peers. And, like putting a little makeup on an ax wound, I bother to wonder whether game prices are messed up sooner than I rectify my lack of spending.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hot Coffee

(But not the Hot Coffee.) At the moment I'm near finished with Uncharted 2 and anxious to get back to it. But first, two coffee anecdotes in reverse-order of estimated entertainment value:
  1. I used to make a point to stop having caffeinated beverages for months at a time just to ween myself off of the drug. I did this because I believed that being addicted to caffeine, I began days with a "below average" energy level and caffeine was necessary to bring me to a "normal" energy level once the drug had lost its efficacy. Every since reading or hearing (?) (it's odd how much I act on loose information like this) that chronic coffee drinkers still go from "below average" to "above average," I've never bothered weaning myself. I just enjoy my yummy coffee.
  2. Brak of Space Ghost fame had a wondrous coffee rant that Dave Hart made into a perfectly epic coffee mug that I have yet to purchase, despite absolutely loving it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Arcade Story 00

The title of this post affords one hundred arcade stories; complete overkill. And as my life scripting is more "programmery," I even decided to start with a zero! *Pats self stupidly on head.*

On one arcade visit, in preparation for a longish haul, I changed a five dollar bill into quarters. In went the bill, and out came the jingle-jingle-jingle-jingle-jingle of tons o' change. As I reached down to scoop up the satisfyingly large pile of quarters, I noticed a little kid staring, awestruck at my loot. He looked up, and said, eyes big and mouth wide open, "Wowww! Yooou're lucky!" Until that moment, I had thought it a pretty straight up transaction. I thought about flipping him a quarter but hesitated upon imagining a worst case scenario where his mother, upon discovering her son ripping spines out of enemies on Mortal Kombat, demands to know where he got the quarter.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Emocoaster

It's been interesting over the past month or two, adjusting to the changes in my life. I get to follow my nose a bit, since I'm not entirely sure of the best way to move forward, and I've alloted space to figure that out, but there are a lot of high aspirations and hopes behind what I'm doing, and a lot of things that trigger panic that balance out all of the happiness in chasing a dream now and then. On the one hand is working in my pajamas, learning new things (re: scripting), building games based on my own ideas and thoughts for the industry, dreaming of a studio successfully built around fostering and protecting creativity, and generally trying to use whatever powers I might have for good. On the other is watching how tumultuous the industry is in general, noticing how jam-packed and difficult-to-stand-out the indie industry is, spending all day overcoming a seemingly trivial scripting problem that would take a programmer 5 sec. to resolve, and feeling anxious as the nest egg slowly bleeds in the process. Moving also carries both sides of the coin, being both excited about my future in a new place with someone I love, and feeling nostalgic about the past. Ah life. The past few months have been amazing, and I have a hard time believing I'll ever feel differently about them. Good thing I'm posting this, so I can reflect on the sentiment later. ;-)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

To those who mail...


Thanks! It means a lot and keeps me chugging along. Just a quick note as I'm anxious to dive back into scripts. If you want a little more, check out the comments yesterday, as the topic of designer responsibility in games is interesting. I think Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) presented some pretty wide-reaching thoughts on this (?) topic awhile back that would be nice to revisit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

VGA

Continuing the theme of your brain playing tricks on you, since I noticed more Kotaku posts about video game addiction recently, I feel compelled to share some of my own thoughts.

I was lucky to get into the games industry young (19) and make a good 15+ career out it. I like to joke about my college experience as "studying games before they had a program" because I flunked out of school. I was a different person then, and didn't know what I wanted out of school, and I wound up spending a lot of time playing MUDs. I mean, a LOT of time playing MUDs. Like, sleep-on-the-floors-of-the-computer-lab-and-get-to-know-the-janitors-LOT, or declare-a-chemical-engineering-major-because-they-had-the-coolest-computer-lab-LOT. And an interesting thing about being so addicted to MUDs was that the worse off school was going, the more I played.

Dissecting my own gaming addiction(s!), I have a hunch about the brain that explains why certain games are so addictive. Namely, that its reward center has no effective way to distinguish between a virtual and real-life success.

Nut Gathering
I'm fascinated with the idea that with each piece of loot that drops from a monster, or gold earned in the auction house, or with each increase in social standing for doing well helping a group kill a monster or building up a guild, my brain feeds me the same chemical rewards it gave ancestors to help them "keep doing those successful things," and breed. Poor brain; it means well. It just has no way to tell that all of the progress I'm making collecting and hoarding likely have no actual bearing on my real life, and may only help me to breed with someone equally hooked on these games. And I'm quite the same rule applies to other super-addictive games, too. (Diablo 3, I'm looking at you...)

(...Greedily, because I want a taste. :P)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brains and Ghosts

I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them. This is something I love admitting because it's at once true and it betrays absurdity of the easily-fooled, agency detectors we call brains. I have a hyper agency detector, and that always strikes me as a faaar better explanation for odd phenomena than "there is an alternate plane of existence intersecting with ours that... [insert completely ridiculous claim here]." But am I afraid of things that go bump in the night? Sometimes, yeah. And I'm even afraid of it being a ghost? Bear with me... yeah.

The problem is my friggin' brain and its overactive imagination, and all it needs is a catalyst. If I don't bother to think about ghosts or aren't reminded of anything horrible, I can fumble around in the dark or around weird noises without batting an eye. But thanks to years of entertainment, I tend to associate the dark with all kinds of terrible things. And my brain goes out of its way to imagine of the exact thing -- say a ghostly little girl -- I don't want to see. This image present, for each second of time I spend staring at darkness or rounding a corner, is so unwanted that it works me into such a frenzy that the rational mind just gives up as I entertain the urge to get out of my situation (hell, even a bathroom at night) is swiftly as possible is.

It's hard to fight that instinct, but I do try. An anecdote that helps me at times is to remember that a ghost could scare the bejeezus out of me whenever it wants. Even if I was in a company meeting giving a presentation, if a ghostly little girl came walking up to me from the back room, I'd be scared out of my gourd, so who cares about the dark? If a ghost wants to get me, it has all the control in the situation. (And is the frequency of ghostly encounters in the dark just weird? I always wonder whether blind people are as afraid of going into "dark" or isolated places, just for the sounds or distance from help.)

One last anecdote to backup the overactive brain theory. I used to enjoy watching Fear on MTV, where kids had infrared cameras strapped to them to be sent on "dares" into haunted places (e.g., abandoned prisons, psych wards, hospitals, etc.) to complete creepy challenges (e.g., sit in an electric chair in the dark for 15 minutes, etc.) to break down on camera in freaked out fits. I'd freak out too. But one of the shows was particularly fascinating because the girl most immune to every challenge they could come up with was a complete airhead that couldn't get over how "totally, like... eWWWW!... dirty" everything was. The other kids constantly cited paranormal experiences non-stop while all she had was, "Oh my god, I have to sit in that? It's so dusty," or, "Oh my god, that wire could totally hurt someone." She didn't appear to have much going on in her head, let alone an overactive imagination.

Following, by the way, are my two favorite questions of ghost believers. If you believe (feel free!) answer them before hitting the last paragraph.
  1. Are ghosts affected by gravity?
  2. Can animals (like pets) be ghosts?
Keep thinking! All done? These questions are fun, because (1) I love the idea of Earth leaving behind a trail of the dead, haunting empty space as it hurtles around the sun; and (2) I always wondered why we didn't see more ghosts of dinosaurs. Raaawwwr!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wavy

I've been really excited about Google Wave and finally had the chance to give it a try today. There are some interesting ideas, but it seems highly unintuitive in surprising ways that I can't tell will become familiar over time. The first impression it left me with is that it'd be hard for Google to make this popular without some pretty big shifts in their approach. It seems enough like chat/email/message boards/comments to be familiar, and clunkier or confusing than any of them to be worth the time. Treat it like email or a message board, and get frustrated with how it organizes conversation. Treat it like chat, and get frustrated with the awkward interface and rapidly fragmenting conversation.

I find myself wanting to write up a bunch of suggestions, but only if I find a good chunk of time.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Tale of Two Engines, Preface

This morning I said to Jen that I wished I could cram the timespan of a month or two into a single day; that I didn't need sleep, and could just plow through all of the scripting I'm learning and be at the end of it, ready to kick some butt, in a game engine I was confident in.

As of yesterday, there are two engines that've captured my attention most. The usual suspects, both posted about on this site, are Unity and Unreal. My inexperienced impressions are that Unity is a powerful and user-friendly low-end tool that covers all the basics but could probably produce something impressive in finality by twisting its arm a bit, while Unreal is built to be impressive, but necessarily more complex, with more arm-twisting and managing throughout for greater reward. For creating something like Batman or Gears, it clearly pays, but with smaller aspirations, I wonder what high-end Unity development is like.

Unity is a compelling tool for rapid prototyping. Within a week and no previous scripting experience, I've been able to script up from scratch -- with no pre-existing assets of any kind whatsoever -- a decent Gears of War control scheme prototype. It has holes, but for a complete n00b, it's easy to see the potential. I plan to dive into Unreal to compare the process, but my gut tells me scripting will be less accessible (though possibly more powerful) and in general, a lot more time will be needed to generate an expertise for their particular way of creating a game, and learning how to deconstruct its "shooter" guts to get "the game I want" from scratch.

Also, at a glance, the Unity community is more inclusive, and boiling over with activity. Unreal community has that bizarre, inaccessible cockiness that somehow comes with being shooter fans (or something?). Though I still many friendly people in total, it may take a bit of time to find the resources I want.

Costs, of the long-term sort, behind each free engine is a vague consideration. Unity's (inexpensive) flat-rate license is obviously the better choice for earning potential, but only if its high-end development isn't a big pain in the ass, and that strikes me as a big "but." Game concepts I pursue vary from bite-sized to stupid-huge, but because feedback (i.e., visuals, story, effects, etc.) and polish are so important to me, having high-end knobs to turn is good.

But just having the choice right now is amazing. I'm excited for the future and plan to dig into both, to challenge my assumptions and see what fits.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

If You Love It, Set It Free

First Unity, now this? My cup runneth over. Thanks for the heads up, guys.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Flow and Bowser

While finishing off the final boss in the latest Mario RPG, Bowser's Inside Story, I was reminded of wondering, as a kid playing Mario, why my Mario games would get increasingly irritating the nearer I got to the end of the game. Why can't the end of the game be fun like the beginning of the game? In Mario 64 I wanted more sliding down hills, hopping around in trees, and swimming around that made me so happy, and what I got at the end it was horrible death falls into oblivion while walking on a tightrope and wrangling an awkward camera. Why not let me have more fun? It came rushing back fighting against the final boss of Bowser's Inside Story, which like every final boss in Mario RPG, was a tedious fight against an enemy HP with too much health and not enough variety in action, going through the same motions for maybe 30m+ (a guess) as my car is being burgled outside. :-P

This is nothing new in games. Designers struggle with Flow -- the battle between ease/difficulty and boredom/frustration -- in every game. It's a moving target since each user's skill and experience varies. In my earlier Bowser's post, I mentioned boredom doing the same things I'd already done (while simultaneously feeling enjoying the feedback and polish of it), resulting in something awesome-but-boring. There are many approaches to the Flow problem. In Zelda, the primary quest line goes from Easy to Medium difficulty, while side quests go from easy to hard, so there is something for everyone. In many games, users are asked to select a difficulty. Since some players regret their choice but never restart, some games let them vary difficulty on the fly. The game Flow, as I understand, was made to explore this perennial problem.

I could go on forever, but will leave this post with snippets of thoughts:
  • Is part of the problem how applicable the challenge is? In some games I don't mind extreme difficulty, but is it because I find a use for my skills? Maybe I don't feel that in Mario64 when I know I'm near the end of that applicability. In Half-Life 2, I loved how the final level was in many ways easier than the levels before it but still made use of my understanding of the gravity gun, giving me skillset application and novelty while ramping up the pace of the game, better resembling the ramping of pace towards the climax in a story.
  • In Mario64, were there ways to express my skillset and add risk without making the risk so high? E.g., make a timer to "certain destruction" go down faster when standing on "bad" blocks, encouraging tight timing and lots of pressure without insta-death? This is something that made Prince of Persia: Sands of Time so wonderful, was the preservation of pressure to succeed (death plus limited rewind) while giving immediately applicable skill-building.
  • What role does feedback play in Flow? I've played some games that could be considered boring in other wrappers. Devolve Flow and Flower into a game with typical music and presentation, and I might be wildly disinterested. Novelty shouldn't be underestimated.
Fun stuff.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

iThief

As I've already wasted the majority of my day looking into decent iPods and iPod car stereos, I leave you with the following, humble note, that having your iPod and iPod car stereo stolen from your car sucks. It happened while finishing Mario & Luigi last night, and there were moss arrows left all over the driveway. Crud.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Apology Accepted

"Videogames are God's way of apologizing for reality."
I didn't have much to say today, so I thought I'd share my favorite tongue-in-cheek quote from a buddy of mine, Steve Taylor of NinjaBee fame. It always gives me a chuckle.