Zombies, Pixels, and Cubes (Oh my!)

It’s no secret that many games these days have incurred that oh-so virulent infection. Like the T-virus, it has spread to every sector of the market, turning developers in shambling shells of their former selves. I speak, of course, of zombies. Just last year we saw WarZ, ZombiU, BlOps 2, and Amy. The year before that saw Yakuza: Dead Souls, Rise of Nightmares, Dead Island, and the rather well-named Zombies. That list excludes low-profile games and those which aren’t, in my opinion, terrible. Is this trend developer laziness, or perhaps a corporate influence? I wouldn’t be surprised if teams were pushed towards zombie games because, statistically, they make more money.

While it is reasonable when large-budget games are zombie-based, the same rationality falls short of protecting indie games. Zombie games are a prop-up, a cop-out for a developer who can’t come up with a better framework. Sure, it saves you the effort of establishing a complete universe (which is extremely tricky). That effort can go back into making other parts of the game better. But is the tradeoff worth it? To me, zombies don’t allow for a lot of avenues in terms of creative gameplay and storytelling. Are zombies a fall-back for those who need an extra kick in their games? Just search “zombie” in the Steam Store and sort by release date. Decide for yourself.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I want to talk about retro graphics. Let’s take a stroll down the Steam Greenlight aisle, shall we? In the first few pages we see:

  • MANOS: The Hands of Fate
  • Dead Colony
  • Deprivation
  • Hammerwatch
  • Potatoman Seeks the Troof
  • Dungeonmans
  • Topia Online
  • 16 Bit Arena
  • Spuds Quest
  • Legend of Dungeon

Keep in mind, these are those that are easily distinguishable by their image tile – many more lurk out there behind well-illustrated thumbnails.

What is the cause of this tsunami in indie game market that is retro graphics? Pixel graphics have the added bonus of nostalgic appeal for a certain generation. Art assets may be cheaper to produce. But, at least to me, pixel graphics convey a sense of harsh, delineated gameplay, where fun is equated with difficulty. My mind drifts to games like Megaman, where the reward for beating one level is to play the same level over again, with a different color tileset. I think the benefits of pixel graphics fall by the wayside when the decision is made. Pixel graphics, like zombies, are a knee-jerk reflex for the mediocre game developer. Often these developers are different, but I guarantee that there is more than one pixellated zombie game out there produced in the last five years.

Which brings me to cubes. Thanks, Minecraft. I both enjoy and loathe your trend-setting magnificence. It’s time for another stroll through Greenlight. Bonus points for games that have the word “Cube” in them.

  • Block Story
  • Slip
  • Logicubiks
  • Cell Emergence
  • Brain Cube Reloaded
  • King Voxel
  • Cubes and Zombies
  • Ace of Spades
  • Cube Park
  • Cube World

Ugh. *shiver*. I should do another post on how to not make your game look totally unappealing on Steam Greenlight. You would think choosing a good name and thumbnail would be at the top of everybody’s list. Apparently not.

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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!

Why Richard Stallman is Wrong

I listened to an interview with Richard Stallman, and I truly believe he is wrong regarding the ethics of proprietary software and especially the fundamental beliefs behind computer and Internet usage.

Fundamentally, he assumes incorrect things. He says that people should be able to use computers for free. That doesn’t mean that having people pay to improve the experience is evil. I can decide to gnaw through a tree on my property for free, but I can obviously pay to have it cut down. Similarly, a user should be able to do anything they want for free, but should also be able to pay to either improve the experience, do it faster, or change the feel. The point at which you start getting involved with morality is when the development of proprietary software begins to interfere with the development of open-source software. However, I think that if proprietary software was somehow banned, the rate of development of open-source software would not increase by very much.

Stallman is fine with software developed for a single client, where the developer is paid for the development of free software, rather than the software itself. However, that is fundamentally the same as distributing proprietary software. The cost of the proprietary software represents the effort that went into making it, as well as upkeep for the company including other worker salaries and continued research and development. I do agree that such costs can get out of hand and that a ridiculous amount of money can end up going to those higher up on the corporate ladder. However, that is a necessary evil to keep high quality proprietary software pumping out at a rate faster that free software can be developed.

Although he demands that the functionality of ebooks mirror that of books, he doesn’t seem to make the same connection regarding proprietary software and its real world parallel: non-free services. Although you should be able to live in a house and use public transportation for minimal costs, you almost always buy furniture and hire services to make your life more comfortable. Similarly, proprietary software allows users to improve the aspects of their experience that they want to.

As I said before, Stallman discusses ebooks, and how you should be able to do the same with an ebook as you can with a regular book. However, as a completely different medium, you can’t just demand something like that. Suppose I demand that JPEGs be viewable in the same resolution as the paintings at a museum, for free. That doesn’t even make sense. Being a completely different medium, we need to approach ebooks in a completely different fashion. It would be nice to be able to easily share ebooks or sell them used. However, for an ebook to exist in an economic and material singularity similar to that of a paper book, proprietary software is absolutely necessary. Using Stallman’s logic, I can say that if you want a book to be freely available, write it yourself!

In some ways, open source philosophy (or at least Stallman’s) is like Communism. Everybody pools their resources and in return everybody gets the same, free software. However, as we see with many actual implementations of Communism, somebody who contributes resources may not need all the products. If I spend time coding, I want a video editor, not a database manipulator. The obvious solution is to have both developed and then have those who want the video editor to give their share of resources to that developer, and those who wanted the database software to the other.

Silent Protagonists

Why are game developers so loath to assigning personalities to the player character? Duke Nukem had one of the strongest personalities in a game, and the series was a big success (mostly). It seems that a paradigm has infiltrated the industry, teaching story writers that the player should be able to asset his own personality through the character’s actions. I can’t see why this has become such a popular concept, since in my opinion silent protagonists take away some of the game’s and story’s magic.

For instance, Halo CE was pure magic for me. The whole plot enchanted me. Halflife 2 had a story at least as good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. The game was linear, so your character was going to do the same thing no matter what. They tried to let the player express themselves in a meaningless way. The game would have been improved ten fold if Gordon Freeman had a voice. Most of the cool story I learned after I played the game, while reading about auxiliary documents and developer commentary on wikis. I learned about the Combine and the different concepts behind them. The same logic powers Freeman’s Mind, a playthrough of Halflife 1 voiced over with what thoughts are going through Gordon’s head at the time. Its hilarious and adds way more depth to the game.

Gordon Freeman
What is this guy like? Nobody knows.

Crysis was such a cool game. The graphics were great, the plot was nice and solid, and you could relate to the characters. Crysis was way less linear than HL2, and THEY managed to create a versatile character. Crysis 2, on the other hand, had a weak main character who was just a pawn of the voices in his helmet. It was way less fun, although that probably also had to do with the worse gameplay and unexplained story. Speaking of which, I don’t understand the connection between the first game and the sequel. The aliens in the first game were aliens that possessed and lived in anti-gravity, with wiggly, blue bodies and tentacles. They also needed a cold environment to live in. They sent out robots to kill their opponent and stayed inside their massive spaceship. In Crysis 2, the aliens have become way less cool. They are red, squid-like aliens that use nano-suits. They have different forms, don’t use robots, and don’t need a weightless or cold environment. There are no big floating spaceships, except for ANOTHER spaceship buried under Central Park. A spaceship which apparently doesn’t have an inside, except for pipes full of biological weapons. Seriously, I could have written a way better story. A story in which the main character talks!

Some games are better off without dialogue, of course. Bioshock’s mind slave Jack is better off without a voice, except for narration. In fact, giving him a voice would be unnecessary and probably would have ruined the atmosphere. Skyrim substituted written dialogue for actual audio. While it let you imagine any voice for your character, I think a selection of voices would have also been OK. Strategy games don’t need protagonists, such as Starcraft or Command and Conquer. Sure, Starcraft 2 was fine with its cutscenes and personal characters, but the game also had very personal storyline. World in Conflict had a better defined player character (whether he was the protagonist or not is debatable), but he was still a mute.

I know that there are still lots of games with talking protagonists, but a lot of mainstream games don’t. I didn’t even mention some of the more popular games, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Anyways, the point is that I hope the game industry sees a resurgence of games with awesome characters like the Master Chief or Duke Nukem.

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