The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot
screenshot-2

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

Mediocre Super-heroes

It was just another ordinary day: I was letting Wikipedia impress human knowledge upon me. Suddenly, as happens often, a mildly interesting idea sparked within my mind.

To begin, let me explain some of the things I was looking at. Magnetoreception, for example, is an incredible phenomenon that seems drawn straight from science fiction. Yet, in nature it is fairly common. Of course, we only have inklings about how the mechanisms behind it might operate. To sum it up, many animals have the ability to detect magnetic fields and use them to navigate. This can be seen in migratory animals, for example. In addition, some aquatic creatures have the ability to detect the faint electrical impulses given off by other animals nearby; it aids them in hunting.

Moving into the realm of human-enabled abilities, I was looking at radio-frequency hearing, which is actually a quite common occurrence. As the name suggests, people have been known to hear sounds, ranging from buzzing to knocking (similar to the sounds of tinnitus) and seeming to originate from above and behind the head, when electromagnetic waves in the frequency of microwaves (300 MHz to 300 GHz) are within their vicinity. As it turns out, this is caused not by vibrations in the eardrum but by slight expansion of brain tissue within the skull creating pressure waves which stimulate the inner ear. Pretty crazy, right?

Then I remembered a documentary video I had seen about a guy who exhibited immunity to electricity. I looked it up, and it turns out that there are a couple of people like that. It comes from having naturally thick and dry skin, which increases resistance and lowers the amperes to a non-lethal level. The areas of the body which this applies to ranges from just hands to full-body and mouth.

On the level of increasingly bogus, take a look at this video, in which a Chinese man living in Java claims to be able to control Chi (funky electricity). I don’t believe it myself, but the video was well done and it looked credible enough.

Anyways, this got me to thinking about the show Heroes. Franchises which share that premise, such as x-men, try to explain the super-powers scientifically, but then introduce ridiculous powers (like vortex generation). I think that a movie/show in which both the super-heroes and the super-villains are both relatively mediocre would be excellent. For instance, one person might have the ability to regrow limbs, eyes, and organs not unlike a Caudata; and like a salamander, it would take them 2-3 years to regrow something like an arm. They would be able to afford being stabbed or shot or losing a finger, but they wouldn’t immediately be back in the fight. People could have enhanced magnetoception, RF hearing, electrical resistance, and electrical generation.

On the same thread, I highly dislike explanations that involve either the “10% of the brain” cliche, or the entire “brain wave” concept. Both are unbased in reality and are overused. Powers would be strictly based on phenomena that occur in the natural world. Devices that rely on technological concepts that have been conceived of but not yet well mapped out would be out. As a corollary, Batman-esque powers (i.e. being rich) would be discouraged for super-heroes. Super-villains, of course, almost always need to be rich. More important than riches is genre-sight (or lack of Genre Blindness), and awareness of things like the List of 100 Things to not to do as an Evil Overlord. Their mediocrity would lie in their plans and powers, not intelligence.

That train of thought can be taken a couple of stations farther. The villains may ultimately be more likeable than the heroes. Since the heroes have weak powers, they obviously have personality flaws (like Watchmen) as well (e.g. Superman is almost invincible, so he is almost perfect) and poor planning. Overall, however, both the heroes and the villains are playing a losing game. The villains’ plans aren’t that devastating (except for the occasional climax of a world-threatening plot), and the heroes are disliked by the media due to their imperfections.

Looking farther into the universe, the news of real super-heroes would no doubt spawn a wave of popularity within certain sects. Eccentric individuals or crazed fans would take a low-powered Batman approach and utilize cool pieces of technology for crime fighting, such as d3o or this (the guy made it himself for about $35,000, although prototyping cost him nearly half a million):

That was the essential fabric of my idea, but it could definitely use some ironing.

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