Sim State

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. This idea really started when I watched Day[9] play the new Sim City, and then picked up Sim City 4 again. I wanted to create a game which brought the ideas of micromanaging infrastructure and government into a larger scale. The player would be able to control education, government type, military, trade, etc. Eventually it grew into a sort of “third-world country simulator”, since that seemed like the most interesting route to people I pitched the general concept to.

The basic premise is that you are the leader of a small country, recently put in power by a violent revolution. This country is located in a faux South or Central America, but there is also the possibility for having multiple templates: African, Southeast Asian, etc. The player can only really see the small land area he controls, plus some of the bordering sovereignties. There is no global map (and this isn’t a game about conquest), but there are references to current global institutions (or fictitious characterizations thereof) like the UN and US, or WHO, etc.

Winning the game means pulling your country out of poverty and onto the world stage. This requires many parts, including building infrastructure, establishing governmental rule, and appeasing the international community. However, the win condition is gaining control over every province in your nation. Control just means being the dominant power faction. Routes to control include stamping out resistance (militarily) and appeasing interest groups. Thus a large part of the game is balancing political control; keep the military leaders on your side, stop workers from striking, and stay elected. The last one may mean establishing a dictatorship, rigging elections, or spending a lot of resources maintaining public image.

At the start of the game, your country is poor and unequipped. There are two forms of currency: money, and international repute. International repute can be spent on relief or treaties; perhaps getting a foreign oil company to leave your country. On the other hand, if you drive out the oil company by force, some factions in your own country may approve, while the international community may impose sanctions. Similarly, if their are pirate along the coast, you could demand tribute or try to exterminate them at a potentially great cost. If the world catches wind that you are allowing pirates to operate, however, you will lose repute.

The other form of currency is money. A little macro-economics comes into play here, since you have to manage your currency (printing money), and real “world dollars”. Rapid inflation can be bad for your industries, but it attracts tourists (but only to good parts – nobody is going to visit the region controlled by drug cartels). Real dollars come from exports, mainly. One way to get a boost in the beginning of the game is to exploit your natural resources: cut down rain forests, strip mine mountains, etc. However, you have to establish a more mature manufacturing industry at some point, otherwise you will exhaust your resources and fall back down into poverty.

In terms of infrastructure the player has to build, the main forms are education and industry. Industry includes transportation networks and resource collection, as well as processing. Industry also means municipal improvements, since nice cities attract high-tech corporations and commercial companies. Another route to improving the quality of your workforce, reducing crime, and eliminating overpopulation is education. Building schools takes a lot of resources for little immediate payoff, but it will start to improve your country greatly. It is also a great way for dictators to indoctrinate the population.

Late-game opportunities may include hosting Olympic Games or researching nuclear technology.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for expansions; this is more of a framework for a game, rather than a fleshed out game idea. I know there are games like this, such as Tropico. I think this would be more political and deep than Tropico, but obviously I would aim to offer a different experience overall were I to build this.

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Crysis 3: First Impressions

I put my beefy new graphics card up to the test. I’ve always been a fan of Crysis. The first Crysis game was such a brilliant creation. From the spine-singling intro scenes, to the best mix of cutscenes and free-roam arenas. The vehicles, guns, and explosions all felt right. But the game kept getting better. The tank battle was a nice departure from the jungle stealth of the start. Then the zero gravity sequence just totally blew my mind. That turned Crysis into delicious cake. The ice level, the VTOL sequence, and the entire last level (with that epic end sequence) were all just frosting.

Crysis Screenshot

I know every level of that game by heart. So when Crysis 2 came out, I was excited. The multiplayer beta gave me some idea of how the controls would differ. But I reserved judgement (since the singleplayer campaign is the heart of any game). So imagine my surprise and disappointment when the game came out, and it sucked. Gameplay was boring and linear, enemies were samey and uninteresting, vehicle sections were highly linear, and the graphics were somehow worse than the first game. Despite all the hype over the “CryEngine 3”, the graphics were plasticy and bloomy. Crytek took everything interesting out of the series, and removed all the main characters to boot – Nomad was replaced by a silent, unimpressive protagonist. The game was cut and dried; there was no boisterous spirit left in the IP.

Since Crysis 3 came out, and I got a new graphics card, I figured I would buy the game. Maybe Crytek had taken the lessons they learned in making Crysis 2 to heart. Nyeeeh. The enemies and weapons are the same, and the interface is still dumbed down. I’ll admit, the graphics look a bit better, and the choice of environment is sounder. But since when was a bow and arrows cool? The bow and arrow concept seems like a feature tacked on to justify the game; without it, Crysis 3 would just be a short story add-on to Crysis 2.

My biggest issue is that the game is still highly linear. There are such excellent, expansive sets in Crysis 3, but each area is bounded by myriad invisible walls. The crudest element, which really insults me, is that you can see into the void in some places, where they forgot to put geometry. CryEngine has a default feature that puts a terrain layer across the entire map. The fact that they eschewed that, which was designed for creating large free-roam environments, means that Crytek has truly forsaken the idea of open gameplay. This makes me sad. There was great opportunity for this urban grassland idea. Imagine being able to fight through semi-collapsed buildings, then onto a grass plain, then climb onto a freeway and drive a tank down it, scaring deer out of the way and shooting down helicopters, which crash into skyscrapers.

There were good things about Crysis 2 and 3. The idea that the nano-suit is alien technology, the idea of Prophet’s conscious switching bodies. The stalkers in high grass were cool. But they screwed up the aliens, didn’t bring back ice levels or zero gravity, and took away speed and strength mode, tactical nuke launchers, and in-game freedom. I will continue to tout the demise of the Crysis franchise as a definitive argument against EA and consoles.

< / rant >

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.

Halo 4: First Impressions

First I want to discuss another important event: the finale of Red vs Blue Season 10. It was amazing, and tied up a lot of the story lines. The connection between the present and past storylines was flawless; I don’t think anybody saw it coming that the blue ODST from a few episodes back was Butch Flowers. However, there are still some loose ends for Season 11 to pick up on, the Sarcophagus and the Councilor being two.

I guess I should also discuss the promotional web movie Forward Unto Dawn. It was about as close to a Halo movie as anyone could wish for, and seeing the game universe expanded was great. Despite some cinematographic errors, the story was top-notch and the movie contained numerous nods to the books. Plus, they had a space elevator collapse! Actually, the lack of destruction following the collapse was disappointing. Other than that, the only failure was the massive gaping plot hole: why would the Covenant stage a ground invasion rather than just glass the planet? I would have forgiven them if even a slight mention was in that regard, but zilch was explained.

But on to the actual game. I’ll admit, I don’t actually own the game. I’ve played it for maybe 7 hours total. But being an avid fan of the franchise in general, I definitely have some thoughts.

I played about a quarter of the singleplayer campaign. It upheld the themes and style of the previous games, but expanded into awesome new areas. I’m not sure how I feel about the introduction of living Forerunners, or the new story with the Mantle and the war between humans and Forerunners, with humans being devolved at the end. Still, I loved the gravitation towards background lore: from AI rampancy to Dr Halsey to Forerunner shield worlds (Ghosts of Onyx, anyone?), the book references were awesome. Even little details, like the decompression sequences at the very beginning or the zero-gravity on the outside of the ship, were exquisite. I don’t get Promethean weapons, though. Why do they pop apart?

The multiplayer aspect was pretty similar to Reach’s, although I was bummed at the removal of multi-seat flyers. The falcon and hornet were some of my favorite vehicles. However, the ability to fly a pelican pretty much makes up for the loss. I remember in Halo Custom Edition playing maps like Coldsnap and Extinction. Getting your entire team in a scarab, or longsword, or pelican was an absolute blast. As for the Mantis, it seems a little gimmicky and unbalanced; it doesn’t really fit with the Halo theme.

Forge was better than ever with item duplication, locking, and magnet snapping. I’m not sure how I feel about the new “forgeworld” map. In any case, by far the most interesting addition was that of Dominion. This game type is basically a dumbed down version of Power Struggle from Crysis 1. You capture bases by securing their terminal, and then stick around to reinforce the base with energy shields. You can construct auto-turrets and pop-up cover around the base, and build new vehicles. Every 15 or 30 seconds a new power weapon drops at the base. In order to win, you must accrue points by keeping control of bases.

I can’t wait to see what gets done by people regarding Dominion, and the new Forge tools in general. Still waiting for the ability to add AI, though.

As brought up by Penny Arcade, 343 Studios not only had to make a game as good as its predecessor; Halo 4 had to be the best game of the franchise. I think they came pretty close to doing so. So, if I believed in giving number ratings, which I don’t…

9/10

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!

TF2 Mapping Competition

I recently got back into Source mapping (I made a post about this a while ago). However, the first thing I did was say, “I’m going to find a community that does Half-Life 2 mapping.” Apparently, none of those exist. I guess I should have expected as much from a 4+ year old game. I was depressed for a bit. I though about migrating to another platform, but I’ve been working with Source for a long time and it’s the platform I’m most comfortable with. My ventures into CryEngine 3 and Unreal Development Kit, have been a bust. Maybe a project for another time.

Anyways, I decided to start mapping exclusively for TF2. Turns out, that’s a lot more fun. It’s less work to set up a fun map; more of the work lies in coming up with a good idea. Then you get to enjoy the map simultaneously with your friends, and if your map becomes popular it’s very gratifying to see people on a server playing it and having fun. I needed a platform for my maps though; a way to get them critiqued and then onto a test server. Now, I had tried out TF2 mapping before, but I had self-taught like usual and my maps weren’t very robust (or finished).

So I went on a search for TF2 mapping communities. That’s when I found TF2maps.net. It’s a community of serious mappers that hosts competitions and has servers and regular map testing events. It’s the perfect source of critical analysis and constructive criticism I need. It also helps me feel less alone while mapping, and I know that once I finish the map people will play and analyze it.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so busy. In addition to AP week and my Udacity class, I jumped straight into some mapping action over at tf2maps.net. I signed up just as the latest big official content had ended, so I instead decided to enter in a smaller, unofficial contest.

The contest is based around redesigning 2fort; keep the style and feel while creating a gameplay area that can handle a game of 32 player instant respawn. The description in the thread calls it a spiritual successor. Here’s a link to the contest thread: Reimagining the game’s worst map. Here is a link to a download/description page: ctf_teufort.

Anyways, I’ll be doing a lot more of that, so expect some more posts regarding that. I also want to post more videos on YouTube, so I think I’ll make some overview videos for each map I make.

Speaking of which, I fixed my screen two days ago, and filmed it! I’m going to composite the video over the weekend and then post it. In fact, I’ll be doing a lot more editing in the coming months because I’m finally getting the editing job for HDP (which I wrote a post about, too).

That concludes this series of shameless plugs.

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