Tuesday, December 16, 2008

RT-DAT: Noble technological failure

Many years ago, at the turn of the millennium, I was highly excited about a little game from Shiny Entertainment known as Messiah. The player took on the role of an adorable angel known as Bob, sent down from the heavens to clean up a grungy cyberpunk Earth. Bob was able to jump into the bodies of every human he could find, allowing him control of their bodies until they died. Messiah had been heavily hyped a couple of years earlier for a technology known as RT-DAT, which stands for Real-Time Deformation and Tesselation. Essentially, the character models’ polygon counts would adjust in real time to keep the frame rate consistent. Dozens of models on the screen? Just lower the poly count and the game will be fully playable with no slowdown. What’s more, users with high end computers would potentially be able to view character models with bajillions of polygons, comparable to the models you see in animated films. Shiny’s former president David Perry was adamant that the technology was going to be huge.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. To my knowledge, the only games to make use of Shiny’s tech were Messiah, Sacrifice, and VR Baseball 2000. So what went wrong here?

Well, first off, the tech just didn’t work as well as it should have—in Messiah, anyways, which was supposed to be the flagship title for RT-DAT (though technically VR Baseball came first). I haven’t played Sacrifice, which was released later in the same year, so I can’t say if things improved much there. But looking at Messiah’s character models up close revealed a blobby mess. At times, it was actually a pulsating blobby mess. Because the poly counts were being adjusted in real time, the characters’ bodies sometimes appeared to bulge and contort in distractingly weird ways. When they weren't doing this, the polygons would often settle into a shape that just barely resembled a human being. Take a look at this classy young lady’s body.

Now check out this scientist's arm, body, and left side of his head. Ech.

Now, remember the effect that water had on Gizmo from Gremlins’s body, minus the furballs popping out? At times, that’s kinda how the characters looked in motion. And as for the potential of seeing super-high-poly models? Try the game on a modern machine. Seriously, try it, it’s a fun game, Good Old Games has it downloadable for $5.99. But don’t expect the polygon models to look any better than they did on a decent system when the game was released.

Speaking of which, the technology was introduced in mid 1997, but Messiah, originally planned as a short project, ended up taking longer. A LOT longer. The game wasn’t released until March of 2000. In those days, a 3-year development cycle was almost unheard of. When Messiah was announced, the age of 3D-accelerated polygonal gaming was in its infancy. This was a time when everyone was oohing and ahhing at Lara Croft’s amazing triangle boobs, so natururally, RT-DAT seemed all the more amazing, since there was the potential to see super-high-poly boobs, provided there weren’t too many sets of boobs on the screen at once. In 2000, engines like Quake 3’s were upping the ante considerably for poly counts, and running well on a wide range of machines to boot. Guess what else was released around the same time as Messiah? Yep, the original Serious Sam tech demo, where dozens of enemies would rush the player at the same time. Good-looking models and high frame rates.. so why was RT-DAT necessary again? Really, I think gamers would rather take a frame rate hit—which seemingly ends up being fairly small in well-coded titles—than witness characters warping and bending in front of them. Furthermore, the plethora of other options that PC players have always had to adjust their graphical settings make RT-DAT seem even more like an oddity that didn’t really need to exist.

Maybe the technology would have been more widely used if it had been better implemented, or if the timing had been better, or if Messiah had made better use of it by actually including areas with more than a scant number of onscreen characters. Scaleable 3D models are still used today. For example, low-poly assets were used in a game that I worked on, SimCity Societies. When the camera got to be a certain distance from a building, it would switch to its low-poly version. I’m sure a lot of other games use this method as well. But not since Messiah I haven’t seen anything like the real-time deformation and tessellation that was supposed to be the next big thing in game technology. The technology and the games in which it was used have been relegated to obscurity. And maybe that was a good thing, to see RT-DAT go the way of voxels. Ah, voxels, that’s another topic I’m going to have to write about…

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Recession rant

Today, EA confirmed lower-than expected holiday sales and cuts of 6% of its workforce. This comes on the heels of Midway facing an imminent bankruptcy, Sony’s plans to cut 16,000 jobs, and THQ’s closing of 5 studios. Everybody else is either merging or buying each other out. It seems a little odd that the economy should be affecting the games industry to this degree considering games and consoles are selling in record numbers this year. I’ve seen a couple of articles in recent months on how the industry is recession-proof, but that’s clearly not the case.

It’s apparently tough times finding and keeping a job in the industry, too. I’ve personally been downsized twice this year. The first point was back in May, when EA stopped working with my studio fairly abruptly. This was really disappointing, because it was an absolutely fantastic studio to work for and I was hoping to have a real future there. The second point was just recently. I had finally landed a job at a studio in Canada as associate producer, and got laid off along with at least five other employees after a very short time on the job. Without saying too much, I have reason to believe that this was due to THQ’s troubles. The whole thing was an odd experience to say the least. That's a story for another time, kids.

My status as of now: Back to job-hunting in the absolute worst time in years to look for jobs. On the plus side, I have time to write blog posts. :P This will be my only rant on the economy and my job situation, I thought I deserved at least one.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Games are terrifying

One of the things I love about games is that they’re the only form of media that can actually scare me. I honestly can’t remember a time in my post-elementary school life that a movie, TV show or book actually caused me legitimate feelings of fright. I’m sure there are a lot of people who will jump out of their seats in fear while watching The Hills Have Eyes 2 or something, but I’m not one of them. I have my reasons for watching horror movies (hint: GORE), but the prospect of actually being scared isn’t one of them.

I really believe that games have the potential to be much scarier than other forms of media for one simple reason: you are in control of your character’s fate. You are the character, and you’re not hurtling toward a predetermined destiny. Other types of media are can be scary if you can place yourself in the characters’ shoes. But games place you in a character’s shoes like nothing else can.

There are however a couple of pitfalls that can drastically reduce the scary factor in games. Any developer trying to create a consistently terrifying experience should avoid these. Note that I’m referring mainly to survival horror titles where there is a fear of death. There are graphic adventure horror titles out there which do not involve dying, but I don’t find these as scary.

First off, the main character should never be too empowered. If he gains a great advantage over his opposition, there’s nowhere near as much to be scared anymore. An advantage can come in the form of too-powerful weapons, too-weak foes, the ability to save anywhere, etc. Anything that makes the game a cakewalk is also going to make the game less scary. This doesn’t mean that a horror game needs to be ungodly difficult, but the player should feel that failure is a very real possibility.

The second pitfall is repetition. Sure, shooting zombies on a limited ammo supply might be a pulse-pounding experience for the first few hours, but in this era of 15-hour epics, that’s not going to satiate a fear junkie. It’s important to find ways to change things up. Hey, maybe shooting zombies could remain scary if open landscapes were swapped out for absurdly cramped tunnels. Environment switches, new creature introductions, whatever, just keep things fresh.

I haven’t played a horror title that hasn’t fallen victim to one of these pitfalls in a significant way. But that might not be such a bad thing, either. Being scared shitless for 15 hours of game is a bit much, even for me.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Can we all shut up about DRM already?

Digital rights management has become an increasingly hot topic for PC gamers in recent times. Certain forms of DRM, most notably SecuRom, are universally agreed upon by the gaming community to be a bad thing. Forms of DRM can range from a short disc check to an invisible limit on the number of times a game can be installed (this is tracked online), and often involve some tiny piece of software being installed on a user’s machine, unbeknownst to them. The primary argument against DRM is that it treats paying customers like common criminals, while completely failing to prevent piracy. In addition, it’s been known to conflict with software on people’s machines, resulting in them not being able to play the game they just bought. I agree that DRM is generally not a good thing, when I buy a piece of software, I don’t appreciate companies installing crap on my computer to protect themselves from something that I could potentially do, but most likely won’t.

However, the single most annoying effect of DRM is that PC gamers CANNOT STOP BITCHING ABOUT IT. Seriously, it's an epidemic, probably the most consistently discussed single topic I've ever seen on gaming message boards. A lot of major titles have been released recently that include DRM, I know this because it seems that every single message board thread about these games will devolve into a discussion about DRM. I’m not sure why people feel that this chatter is necessary. I just summed up everything you really need to know about DRM in the opening paragraph. 90% of posts regarding DRM will either rattle off this same information with different wording, or proudly proclaim “I’m not going to buy this game because it has DRM. Suck on that, evil publisher corporation!” A post like this will typically be followed by a bunch of responses amounting to “I’m with you on that, bro. Keep fighting the good fight. Now I’ll tell you why I stay away from DRM, which will be essentially what you just said but worded differently.”

Now like I mentioned, DRM sucks on general principle. But the reality of the matter is, it’s really unlikely to affect most people in any tangible way. Unless you plan on installing your game in 5 computers or installing it in 15 years when the server-side SecuRom components are long gone, you shouldn’t have a problem. Forum-goers are usually pretty resourceful people. If DRM is really giving them that much trouble, I doubt they’d have much trouble getting ahold of the crack. As for the software installed, it’s probably a lot less harmful than the crap you’re likely to pick up just browsing the internet. Yet, gamers continue to harp on DRM as if it’s set their mother’s hair on fire and eaten their dog. Most of the bigger whiners have not and will not be affected by DRM in any way in the near future of PC gaming. I am convinced at this point that it’s mostly herd mentality at work here. Plus, people love to feel that they’re taking a stand, making a difference in the world… Ok, whatever, but we’re talking about computer games here, not something of real importance. Perhaps you guys’ complaining and stand-taking energy would be better reserved for something—anything— that actually mattered. Even more importantly, thanks to you, I have to wade through pages and pages of your crying to find some information about the actual game in question.

Anti-DRM fever is everywhere online, it seems. Just check out Amazon’s page for the game Spore. It’s rated 1 ½ stars thanks to hundreds of 1-star votes from anti-DRM net-thugs, most of whom have sprung from a few specific anti-DRM message boards. Though I suspect most of these people could probably benefit from finding something better to do with their time than fighting against the “computer game Nazis”, there’s a sliver of possibility that actions like this might have an actual effect. But the bitching about DRM on gaming message boards will have zero effect. None. You’re not contributing anything new, you’re not making a difference in the world, you’re just being annoying and wasting everyone's time, including your own. So why don’t I stop visiting message boards? Because it’s part of my job as a member of the games industry to keep up with what’s going on with gamers. I have no choice but to read your inane postings. So, like, stop it. Please?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sonic becomes werewolf, franchise becomes mediocre

Last week marked the release of Sonic Unleashed, the latest disappointment in the mistreated Sonic franchise. The game features pretty-good 2.5D platforming sequences and crappy beat-‘em-up sequences in which Sonic becomes a werewolf (sorry, wereHOG), making for a seriously ‘meh’ package. The current reception to the game is also indicative of how far Sega has fallen, given that this looks to be one of their tentpole titles of the season. So just what the hell is going on here?

The 16-bit Sonic series was enormous back in the early ‘90s. It’s undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Sega was so successful during this era against the Nintendo behemoth. When placed side-by-side with the SNES, the Genesis appears to be pretty technologically inferior. 512 colors vs. 32,000, a crappy sound chip vs… well, just go listen to ActRaiser. But the Genesis did have one thing that NintenDon’t. BLAST. PROCESSING. Or at least that’s what Sega’s ridiculously well-conceived commercials would have you believe was powering Sonic the Hedgehog. Could the SNES have done Sonic? Probably, but the closest it got was Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally, which was a load of crap. To a lot of kids, Genesis was cool, and SNES was a hulking, moaning turtle, albeit a colorful one. Sonic was fun, challenging, and fast-paced. All of the main series Sonic titles of this era were good. Even the Game Gear titles were some of the better options in that system’s library.

Spinoffs aside, Sonic was practically a nonentity for a number of years—up until 9/9/99. The Dreamcast was released, and Sonic Adventure was a must-have title, a system-seller. It successfully brought Sonic into the 3D era—well, for the most part. Though the game featured a lot of fast-paced Sonic gameplay, it also featured mostly pointless in-between-levels gameplay, similar to Mario 64 but a lot more story-driven and lengthy. The game also featured a supporting cast of tertiary characters. With the exception of Tails and possibly Knuckles, I have no idea why anyone would want to play as these hideous monsters. A fishing cat, REALLY? No seriously, I never finished the fishing cat stages, though this is partially because I strongly dislike fish. I can think of a couple reasons these characters were likely added. First off, their levels are a lot more simplistic in nature than Sonic’s spectacular level set, and allowed the development staff to easily pad the core game. Also, tertiary characters = expansion of the Sonic universe = Expansion of the Sonic franchise = PROFIT.

While Sonic Adventure was well regarded, its main series successors did little to progress the series, leading to lower review scores and a general feeling amongst old-school Sonic fans that new Sonic titles were no longer must-haves. The spinoffs continued as well, bottoming out with Shadow the Hedgehog, a title which meant to be edgy and mature, but which came off as.. well jeez, it’s a game about a hedgehog fighting aliens, how they expected to bring this into remotely edgy and mature territory is beyond me. Portable Sonic games continued the traditional 2D Sonic gameplay, but incorporated elements of the 3D iterations to create an experience that, while certainly decent, didn’t really feel like the 16-bit titles.

But then, things started looking up. The first screenshots of a next-gen title known only as “Sonic the Hedgehog” were released.



This looked like a much-needed reboot for the 3D Sonic games. It was going to bring the series back into AAA territory! I was lucky enough to attend E3 2006, and got a chance to play this game early. It seemed much slower than Sonic Adventure, there were certainly no sprawling vistas, and I kept falling through the scenery. But hey, this was just an early version, six months before the game’s release.

Apparently, that’s how Sonic the Hedgehog shipped. Like a broken version of Sonic Adventure. With interspecies love between Sonic and a human princess apparently ripped from Final Fantasy Whatever. And with all the tertiary characters you’ve come to know and love, plus two new Hedgehogs. From the looks of things, another six months in development and this might have risen to the rank of Mediocre, but it shipped a complete buggy mess since Sega needed to get it out for the Christmas season. Fantastic, now we’ll have to wait another 15 years before a game can once again be called Sonic the Hedgehog. Hopefully the 2021 version turns out better than its 2006 predecessor. To add insult to injury, a GBA port of the original Sonic the Hedgehog was released in conjunction with the next-gen version. Somehow, it was also completely broken.

If you’re an old-school Sonic fan, you’re probably aware of most of what I’ve said up until now, but I plan to spend the next paragraph making an argument that might actually be new to you, so sit tight.

So why does Sega continue to keep pumping out these half-assed titles featuring our beloved former system-selling mascot? Because they sell really well. Even Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 was an Xbox 360 Greatest Hit, and this is despite sucking. But certainly old-timey gamers like myself aren’t buying these titles, so who is? Why, the younger generation, of course! These kids don’t give a crap about the fact that there are 93 tertiary characters or that the storylines revolve around bestiality, this is the only Sonic they know! Hey, maybe kids today like fishing cats and bestiality. Old-timers can bitch and moan all they want about what the Sonic series used to be, or what it should be, but we’re not Sonic’s target audience, so we may as well just move on. It’s been a decade and a half since Sonic’s heyday. Our Sonic is not the current Sonic. Sure, we see the potential for a better Sonic based on our recollections of his past glories, but let’s face facts, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because it clearly doesn’t need to. Nothing to see here, folks…

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The value of autosaves

The action-adventure autosave isn’t one of the more glamorous innovations of modern games, and its presence rarely even seems to warrant mention on message boards or in game reviews. However, the effect that it can have on a player’s experience can’t be discounted.

Let’s go back to the first-person shooters of yore for a second (yes, I’m lumping those into the very general action-adventure category). Doom didn’t have an autosave feature. You could make your way all the way to the end of a level and be killed by the vile red tomato that was the Cacodemon, only to find yourself all the way back at the start. Since Doom’s developers assumedly did not believe their players to be masochists, they added a quicksave feature. This became the gold standard for action-adventures. For many years, the quicksave button was my best friend. I’d hit it instinctively every 15 seconds or so. This was annoying and tedious, and my immersion in the game took a hit as a result. Granted, I probably abused the feature more than most players, but I imagine a hefty chunk of gamers were unable to resist the sexy siren call of the quicksave button for an extended period. Quicksave wasn’t optional, it was practically necessary for all but the most hardcore players. Forgetful when it comes to quicksaving? Good luck…

But just when it seemed that there was no cure for the quicksave disease, along came the autosave. To the best of my recollection, the first action-adventure to do autosaves really well was a game that needs no introduction: Halo. Autosaves took place frequently, quietly, and at very opportune times throughout the game’s relatively large levels. Of course, there were a few exceptions throughout the game in which an autosave would occur while the player was on death’s door and the Flood were busy creating new orifices in poor Master Chief’s body, but generally this wasn’t the case. The gameplay also lent itself well to this—thanks to Master Chief’s magically regenerating health (another FPS innovation from Halo), there was no way the player could get completely screwed by autosaves. This isn’t so say that games with more traditional health and armor systems in place can’t also do autosaves well, Half-Life 2 being a prime example.

No more blisters on my F5 finger, the work is now done for me and I can concentrate fully on the game at hand. Yes, autosaves are certainly convenient, but perhaps their greatest contribution is that they put the challenge back in games that was lost to the nefarious quicksave key. They’re somewhat akin to invisible versions of the checkpoints found in most action-adventures of the 8- and 16-bit era, which obviously worked really well. Though games that feature autosaves often have a quicksave button as well, I no longer feel the need to use them, because I have such a great alternative. I may get the temptation to quicksave in the middle of battle, but now it feels a lot more like cheating, kind of like saving while you’re playing an emulated video game. May as well ignore quicksave, because I know that autosave will do its thing when it’s good and ready.

So yeah, in conclusion, autosaves rule.

Space Harrier needs to be remade

Classic games are getting remade left and right these days. In fact, this isn’t even a new trend—it’s been that way for at least a decade (Frogger for PSX, anyone?). I see no problem with this, assuming the game is good. The fans win, because they get a new game in the franchise. The n00bs win, because they get introduced to the wonderful franchise. The publisher wins, because the franchise’s built-in fanbase will buy the title, and new fans will be gained along the way. A lot of what was appealing back in the day is still appealing now. If it worked once, it can work again.

So, that said, I’d like to request that Sega consider beginning production on a Space Harrier remake. Yes, Space Harrier, the 1985 arcade game in which a red spandex-clad hero flies forward through the Fantasy Zone at high speeds while battling spaceships, floating volleyballs, and giant mechanical peanuts. It was absolutely awesome, and a real technological marvel at the time of its release. Weaving in-between iron poles at 90 miles per hour while shooting at one-eyed wooly mammoths is still a thrilling experience.

If done completely right, I think a remake could end up being Sega’s Halo. Well, maybe not quite that huge, but how about Sega’s Resistance: Fall of Man? It wouldn’t be a straightforward rail-based shooter, that’s way too limited to have a big audience. I’m thinking more along the lines of a third-person shooter with flight thrown into the mix, and some high-speed segments that harken back to the frantic nature of the old games. I think people underestimate how much fun jetpack-oriented gameplay can be. The last games I can think of that gave the player jetpacks at all times were the Tribes titles. And those were frigging awesome. The storyline would be a mix of epic space opera and Top Gun. I can just imagine the dialog between Space Harrier and his love interest (Space Harriet, duh) following a speedy race of some sort:

Harrier: “You’re pretty good… for a girl.”
Harriet: “Maybe next time I’ll let you win.”

I’m probably not the best person to write the dialog for the project, but you get where I’m going with this. Everything in this game, from the environments to the character design to the music would be just a bit over-the-top and exaggerated, with more of a bent towards fantasy than sci-fi. The villain will be Dark Harrier from Space Harrier II, who is ultimately revealed to be… Space Harrier’s brother. And in another obviously cliché bit, the wooly mammoths will be treated the same way they were in the film 10,00 B.C.—they’ll be enslaved!

Unfortunately, it seems that massive, epic, big-budget games not based on proven franchises aren’t en vogue these days. Were Sega to give Space Harrier the reboot treatment today, I get the feeling it might be received about as well as Golden Axe: Beast Rider or Altered Beast for PS2. Remember that one? No? It wasn’t released Stateside due to sucking. But if Sega got its shit together and did this franchise right, I’d certainly be down for another trip into the Fantasy Zone…

Monday, December 01, 2008

Don’t cheap out on endings!

Just recently, I finally got the chance to play Bioshock. I know, what kind of gamer am I, finally playing this game a full year after release? It won like 900 awards ranging from “Game of the Year” to “World’s Best Grandma”. It was enormously entertaining throughout, fantastic storyline, some of the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen in a game, blah blah blah, obviously the game’s fantastic, you don’t need me to tell you that, it’s evident from reading literally any review you might stumble across.

But, there’s one aspect of the game that I haven’t seen any review touch upon: the ending. Now, the actual ending sequences—the FMVs, and the events directly leading up to them—aren’t necessarily bad. They wrap things up pretty nicely, though the FMVs are pretty brief. My main beef is what happens after the FMV sequences:

The game boots you directly to the title screen.

No credits list, no ”Thanks for playing!”, not even a fade-in to the title screen. Just an abrupt “BLAM!! Here’s the title screen!” This was a very jarring for me, like being unexpectedly whacked in the face. Literally two minutes ago I was in the midst of fighting the last boss of a relatively lengthy adventure, and now I’m back here.

I understand if it wasn’t in the time or monetary budget for 2K Boston/Australia to create longer ending sequences. Those things were pretty fancy looking. But it can’t have been that difficult to throw together a cut to credit sequence, and maybe play some epic credits music for the player to go out on. Presentation-wise, that would have made the game a lot more complete, for me at least. As it stands, my last impression of the game is a sudden boot to title screen. I actually would have preferred being booted back to Windows. Being booted to the title screen in this manner is kind of like saying “..Oh! Hey!.. Yeah, the game’s over, that’s it. It was pretty fun, eh?.. No, no there isn’t any bonus content or unlockables or anything, you’re just kinda back here.. Why? Well, um… I guess you could play the game again now, if you wanted to. Even though you just finished it once. Yeah I guess.. hey, you know what, why don’t you, just click Exit and get out of here, there’s really nothing else to see.” I actually heard this in my head after finishing the game, causing me to fear for my well-being.

Anyways, I just felt that this was something that could have been dealt with in some way that didn’t take a whole lot of developer resources. Instead, it wasn’t dealt with at all. Which is odd, considering how generally great the game’s presentation was otherwise. In the grand scheme of things, what happens post-ending is a pretty nitpicky detail, but to see the game end on this note and not leave an impression representative of the rest of the game’s quality is disappointing.