Friday, December 31, 2010

I wrote a crap hypertext adventure.

The Circular Ruins.

Not bad for 2 hours -- learning the tool (Twine) and writing whatever popped into my head. Originally the idea would be that making him talk about traumatic stuff would make him depressed and result in a sadder ending, but I couldn't figure out a framework / the code to do it, so the whole thing's fairly generic as far as interactivity.

But anyway, I heartily recommend that everyone try writing one with Twine. It's fun. Give yourself a time limit too.

You should also see what Increpare made for New Years -- another awesome puzzle game in his series of awesome puzzle games, Octat. (And Notch was working on some other game about finding metal pants in forests?...)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dark Past (part 1): On the immersive sim, mechanics, and mod communities.

Thief has always been a hardcore FPS series: uncompromising, often difficult, with large sprawling levels that you inevitably get lost in -- all designed to maximize emergence and spit on the linear scripting of the modern arcade FPS today.

Games of this breed (System Shock, Deus Ex, BioShock, Arx Fatalis), dubbed the "immersive sim," are supposedly dead, they say. They're probably right. In fact, almost every person interviewed in RPS' amazing "Dark Futures" series makes a gesture towards accessibility and user-centered design. The guy I quote extensively, Randy Smith, is tired of the hardcore 3D game market in general. The future of games is mobile and usable -- prophecy never lies.

But!... Eidos is now working on sequels to the two pillars of the immersive sim, Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4. Consider how much BioShock had to drop in order to be successful: they stripped away basically any system or mechanic that didn't relate directly to shooting someone in the face. Is it worth that price, to preserve this bloodline of game design?

That's why I enjoy the team at The Dark Mod. Currently there's a discussion in the forums about keys attached to NPC's belts, how they're too dark and no one can see them. Yet the brighter and more sensible "after" fix is not being merged into the main build! For some crazy reason, they're not standardizing key brightness -- "some players like it that way."

Well then, I'd say that this supposed "silent majority" can download an optional "key darkener" file, but that's not what the team does. Nope! At the Dark Mod, legacy behavior trumps all.  

I love it. It's such poor design, practically intended to alienate as many new players as possible. It's uncompromising... No, seriously, this is a really awful approach to design. ("This is a problem for many players? But I, personally, like it this way! Oh well, too bad for the players. They can download this tweak and edit all these files to get what they want.")

... In this sense, it's artistic in how stubborn it is. Maybe even poetic. It's the idea that a player should conform to a system rather than the other way around.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recommended: Dark Mod v. 1.03

I realize this blog is quickly becoming a "Dark Mod" blog with the recent glut (or tangible lack?) of posts lately, but that's because (a) I'm playing a bunch of Dark Mod levels, (b) I'm actually getting a decent amount of design done.

The real game-changing feature in the freshly released 1.03 is the in-game mission downloader; now you can command the game to automagically download and setup levels from the mission select screen, and it works amazingly well. With a few clicks, you've got hours of Thief-y goodness, ready to deploy. (Next step: a rating system so I can make sense of which missions to play?)

If you like Thief games / the Thieves' Guild quest line in Oblivion, you gotta play the Dark Mod. Thief 4 is still years away, Thief 3 is unwieldy and aging, and Thief 2 requires an hour to get working / the leaked code is still incomplete and will require months or years of fiddling.

It's only getting better and better. (It plays nice with the Steam version of Doom 3 too.)

Though, if you want a list of complaints...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mother Robot

One of these days I'm going to get-in on Ludum Dare / KOTM / all these "make a crappy game and make it quickly" competitions. In the meantime? I'm going to learn from the masters who make fantastic (and complete and polished) games in, like, 48 hours? Geez.

Go play Increpare's Mother Robot right now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nothing to Report

Agenda for 12/19 - 1/22:
  • Finish Radiator 1-3, get it out the door. I haven't looked at it for months because of schoolwork, but in the past few months I've learned how to cut corners to finish stuff, so hopefully I'm better prepared to work on it.
  • Block out my Dark Mod map, "High Society." The mod's included assets bother me a lot; no consistent texel scale, inconsistent art direction (some textures look straight out of Photoshop with generic bevel and emboss filters) and the Doom 3 engine is really weird in general.

    Like, look at my WIP screenshot below -- the skybox should be LIGHTER than the level geometry. That's what looks right in real-life. I think it's minor art direction stuff like that which is preventing the mod from getting more popular... well, that and the fact that no one has a copy of Doom 3 laying around. (I'm pretty sure they're banking on idTech4 going open source in a few years.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Preaching to the Converted

Some words from Jonathan Blow: (emphasis mine)

... I still wouldn't tell people, "Don't make that game" exactly, I would say, "Think about what you're making and be careful when you make it and try not to exploit players." But I mean now that we've got FarmVille and stuff like that, I pretty much would say "don't make that kind of game" because I don't see much value in it.

It's only about exploiting the players and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game. You know, certain kinds of hardcore game players don't find much interest in FarmVille, but a certain large segment of the population does. But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience.

It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.

And there's this kind of new way where people are, like Bryan Reynolds working on FrontierVille and stuff, making it supposedly deeper, but that kind of thing has been very token so far. And in fact, I would argue that the audience of that kind of game doesn't necessarily want a deeper game, or certainly that's not proven; it's very speculative.

So I would say don't make that stuff. If you want to make a Facebook game, there are a lot of very creative things that could be done, but the FarmVille template is not the right one...

(... And then you have people calling you a classist for insisting that the reward scheduling in Farmville is unhealthy and exploitative -- because crack addicts have been known to defend their habits.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Radiator Blog: One Year Anniversary (kinda)

Holy shit, I've been posting consistently almost a year now? Blogging is weird; sometimes it feels like a job ("I need a post in a few days...") and sometimes it's like, wow this is amazing and totally rewarding (e.g. an impromptu discussion of brutalism in the comments).

Anyway. Here's a round-up of my favorite posts from the past year. If you just got here, you'll be all good if you just catch-up with these:
  • This post about Dragon Age, gay marriage and mods got re-published on Kotaku and scored them quite a few page views. It's a shame the Escapist didn't pick it up; I think it's one of my stronger pieces with a decent close reading of why nearly everyone likes Alistair / a non-obvious angle to approaching Dragon Age.
  • Before the Sterling Affair, it was earning by far the most comments / discussion for a single blog post: the "Sexiest Game Developers Alive." This bodes well for the future of deep, thoughtful discourse on games.
  • Out of the GeoComp2 Quake 3 Arena levels series, I liked Charon's "Demon Pigs Go Hog Wild" the best. It's just so disorienting... yet readable. Ahead of it's time perhaps. I think this level, perhaps, is a "digital brutalism" in some ways.
  • So I have a trinity of game developers whom I deeply admire, and I've done decent write-ups about Adam Foster and Brendon Chung. Unfortunately there's no love for Stephen Lavelle yet, because the man has released, like, 500 games. One would require a degree in "Increpare-ology." I think I'll just write about Opera Omnia and keep it to that.
  • My story of interviewing with Valve's Robin Walker at GDC 2010, him playing my mod, him being the most charming man I've ever met in my life and I want to marry him then divorce him then marry him again. I'm still not sure why I went; my chances of getting a job were pretty slim to nil. (Advice to students: unless you're a finalist in the IGF or have some card up your sleeve, it probably won't really be worth it.) But it was nice to meet people / breathe the same air as Robin Walker, and those sandwiches at the Valve booth looked nice but I was too scared to take one.
  • A post about a "casual" indie game about oil drilling, "The Oil Blue," a game that apparently no one cared about. I really liked it though: it has great interface design, especially lots of nice touches when your interface is "warming up," etc. In a sense it's from the Miyamoto school of design, where just pushing buttons and switches is fun and satisfying. (Good sound design here too.) It makes me want to learn Gamemaker.
  • I tried to channel some Roland Barthes for my essay, "The Death of the Level Designer." Procedural generation is only getting better and better, the nature of postmodern warfare today is almost diametrically opposed to the current static notion of level design, etc... And photos of ruins are cool.
  • I modded Brendon Chung's mod, "Droptank Oscar," and re-released it. Modding mods is kinda crazy to think about, but I heartily recommend it.
  • This post about free-roaming levels (usually cities) pushes Tony Hawk as more parkour-esque than Mirror's Edge. Speaking of which...
  • ... I complain about the signposting in Mirror's Edge, and use that as a springboard for a general rant about how we approach player psychology in level design. This was clearly a case of blindly following theory rather than testing to see if players actually behaved that way -- not to single Wesley Tack out or anything. (I'm not a jerk. I'm not a jerk. I'm not a jerk...)
  • Legends of the Hidden Temple is an awesome 90's American children's game show, and it has some valuable level design lessons. There are also some cool links in the comments to crazy British game shows with playful level design in a similar vein / Adam Foster graces his loyal acolytes with a rare appearance from his fortress in Seattle.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Levels to Look Out For (December, 2010)

These are levels / environment art that I think are cool, and you should agree with me.

> UE3 Medieval Scene by Jordan Walker
This is what a next-gen Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (or the upcoming sequel) should look like... well, if Bethesda had the resources to hand-place every clump of grass. But that grass! Wow! (Turns out the secret is some shader talk about taking world position normals instead of face normals, or something...?)

> Chell's Legend by Jason "Generalvivi" Mojica 
I 'll be blunt: I don't like the screens with the super shiny normal-mapped spiral disk thing embedded in the walls. Valve usually avoided such heavy / blatant use of specular, I think, because it looks bad. Instead, Mojica's work is at its best (and most confident) when he isn't relying on a super-reflective prop_static to create visual interest; the "plainer" screenshots show great understanding of scale and form with a good balance of smaller and larger details. I love what he does with blocks and windows... Just, please, get a specular mask on that thing!