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!

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A Problem with Films

The eponymous film industry has been approaching a point of conflict with technology. Especially in recent years, more films have started used framerates that are significantly greater than the traditional 24 fps. This is caused by the increasingly movement from film-based camera to tape (or digital) cameras. However beneficial this switch might be, the public hasn’t received it very well so far. For example, Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit at 48 fps, but so far people have found the screened clips unpleasant.



The problem is that faster frame rates tend to take away the “cinematic” aesthetic that separates feature films from home videos and cheap television. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix this; our minds and eyes associate 24 fps with movies. This is a stigma that won’t go away anytime soon as long as movie continue to use obtusely slow frame rates. There will, by necessity, be a period in which all movies look “cheap”. Once the transition is made, however,

The same thing occurred with 3D films. At first people were averse to the concept, because it violated their concept of what the “movie experience” was like. However, more and more films took to the technique, and eventually the majority of moviegoers became comfortable with the feeling. I experienced this recently, when I saw Prometheus and decided to watch it in 2D. Mere minutes in to the film, I already have a faint feeling in the back of my head that something wasn’t right; my eyes have become trained to expect 3D sensations when I sit down in a movie theater.

Historically, this trend of initial rejection has been true for all new advances in film. Color film, synced sound, computer generated graphics, etc. Take, for instance, this excerpt of an article I snagged from IGN. It voices the feelings that movie audiences will be experiencing at some point in the next 10 years. However, I think this is a positive switch.

“I didn’t go into CinemaCon expecting to write anything less than great things about The Hobbit, but the very aesthetic chosen by Peter Jackson has made me very nervous about this film. It just looked … cheap, like a videotaped or live TV version of Lord of the Rings and not the epic return to Tolkien that we have all so long been waiting for.”

Zones of Thought

I recently finished a book by Vernor Vinge called Children of the Sky. It was the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. They are part of a continuing series called the Zones of Thought series, which has overtaken the Known Space (by Larry Niven) series as my favorite series of books.

The series is based on the premise that the galaxy is divided into these so-called “Zones of Thought”. They dictate the level of automation and intelligence physically allowed in that region of space. They are an inherent property of the galaxy, but their boundaries can shift, either slowly over thousands of years or rapidly in “zone storms”. They radiate out from the center of the galaxy.

A map of the Zones of Thought

A map of the Zones of Thought

The zones are as follows:

At the center of the galaxy are the Unthinking Depths. Intelligent thought is impossible, and computers fail. Humans turn into animals.

Beyond the Depths is the Slow Zone. The speed of light is the ultimate cap on speed and hyper-intelligence is impossible. Computers cannot become sentient.

Above the Slow Zone is the Beyond. In the Beyond, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and automation becomes much more capable. The Beyond falls into layers; FTL drives increase in capability as you get “higher”. Machines built in the High Beyond will work less efficiently or fail in the Low Beyond. Most of interstellar civilization exists in the Beyond.

The highest Zone is the Transcend. The Transcend is the subject of much study in the Beyond in the field of Religion. This is because the Transcend is populated by hyper-intelligences called Powers that are essentially gods. Products manufactured in the Transcend are often sold to the Beyond, such as anti-gravity fabrics, machinery, etc. Powers sometimes interact with Upper Beyond civilizations by sending “emissary ships”.

A Fire Upon The Deep is based around a malevolent Power that is awakened from an archive in the Low Transcend that is the subject of a human expedition. The Blight, as it is called, proceeds to wipe out local civilization in the High Beyond. Only a single human ship escapes from the “High Lab” in the Low Transcend, and it carries a portion of the archive that, if reunited with the Blight, will destroy it. The Blight recognized this (it had been defeated in a similar way long in the past) and set out to destroy the Countermeasure.

Another human group figures this out and, with some help from another Power that is subsequently murdered (nobody is quite sure how Powers work) by the Blight, escapes the Blight’s invasion and travels to a world at the bottom of the Beyond where the ship carrying Countermeasure has taken refuge. The Blight pursues them, causing havoc in that part of the galaxy.

In the end, Countermeasure uses some strange Transcend technology to harness the system’s star (it actually goes dark for a little) and cause a massive Zone storm that extends the Slow Zone to engulf the world and the Blight (30 light years out from the world) and much of the Beyond in that part of the galaxy. This traps the Blight and the humans in local space, giving the humans a century or more to build up the technology of the civilization on the planet before the Blight builds ramscoops and comes to destroy its nemesis once and for all.

What really interested me about the book was the world the humans become stranded on. It is inhabited by an interesting alien race. Each alien is composed of 4-8 individual “members”, and so they are referred to as packs. Each member is a dog-like animal that communicates with the others using “mind sounds”. This raises some interesting consequences; for one, two packs cannot get extremely close to each other without losing consciousness; it is very hard for packs to work collaborate and thus it is hard for new technology to be made. Their civilization has been stuck in a medieval state for a long time. Packs also live for a very long time. They replace old members either through inbreeding (within their own pack) or by breeding with another pack. The only way for a pack to die is if all of the members die, which pretty much only happens in combat (or sickness). Packs can also split into two or merge. Also, each member contributes different aspects of personality to the pack. This means that packs can be planned, called broodkenning. Essentially, people can be “built”. Of course, when the first four humans land on the planet, all hell breaks loose.

The four humans from the High Lab are a family, with a small boy and a adolescent girl. The two parents are killed in an initial attack launched by the militaristic northern kingdom the humans set down in. A pair of traveling packs see the attack and kidnap the wounded girl, taking her back to a more understanding, peace-loving kingdom (ruled by “Woodcarver”) in the south. The boy is captured by the northern “Flenserists”. He doesn’t realize that they are malicious though, and ends up befriending a pack that was built entirely from puppies (usually such packs become autistic). The two are manipulated by Flenser and start communicating with the human rescue expedition. Woodcarver’s kingdom has a dataset from the girl, and they use it to build cannons and prepare for war with Flenser in the north. However, Flenser has the support of the rescue party (since they don’t know that Flenser is evil). Eventually Woodcarver defeats Flenser in a battle just as the rescue party arrives.

Vernor Vinge always creates interesting aliens. There are others in his series, such as the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky and the Skroderiders (sentient plants, essentially), who are space traders in A Fire Upon The Deep. I draw a lot of inspiration from his stories, both in character design and plot creation.

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