Sunday, July 20, 2008

Boiling Point

Just got and played a little Boiling Point, since someone on the SA Forums recommended it as in some ways similar to Deus Ex. I'm not sure how true that comparison was. It's much more freeform, since you can jump in and do whatever you want, even ignore the main mission. The voice acting is just as terrible, if not worse, and the graphics are barely better. The environments seem awfully sterile - there's really no little details to make it seem like a real world - no clutter, no one doing anything more than walking around or fighting. That and all of the NPC respawn in the exact same place, no matter how many times you kill them. They could have mixed it up a little, have them randomly spawn, give them "jobs", that sort of thing. They tried, some of the details are compelling - the villager walking from town to town that you can give a ride, for example. But, you always see the same guy a mile down the road, carrying the exact same sack. It needs some more variety. Since they've added more depth to the game, more actions you can perform, the game can't get away with the cardboard characters in other sandbox games. Hell, San Andreas did a better job of giving the characters depth. Pedestrians in SA would look at store fronts, carry on conversations with other people, and could jump out of the way if you tried to run them down. The same can't be said here. They did a good job of giving the player more options on how they want to play, and more depth to his actions, but lended little of this depth to the NPCs. Some of it might be the translation, but the conversations are tedious. The conversations take too long to get anywhere, and don't really tell a whole lot about the world. I've been playing for a few game days, and I'm not sure I even know what city I'm in. Apparently there's something going on with drugs.

Then, after all that, there's absolutely no polish to the game. I was just given a mission by a man outside the bar, so I drive out, and I find out it's for the bandit factions, which hates my guts. So I fight my way in, hoping to meet my contact, and I end up following the mission marker to a corpse. Great. So I try and drive off, and I get shot through the windshield and die. Alright, all good. I then proceed to respawn in the middle of the bay, just above my car. I can see my arm resting on the door - apparently I'm having an out of body experience as well. I'm also trapped in the roof of the car, so I can do nothing except wait for the player to drown. Hmm. Another little deal is that children can't be killed, or even knocked down. That's fine, I don't need to kill them - but they have a tendency to stand in the middle of the road, and hitting them with your car is like slamming into a brick wall. Just the little things.

Some other details - the weapon wear system is terrible. The percentage of wear determines the percentage of shots that misfire. So if you pick up a fully automatic rifle that a bandit was just hosing you down with non-stop, it's usually about 50% worn. That seems to mean that every other shot jams the weapon, and I'm forced to click again to clear it. This might be alright if the AI also had to deal with this, or if it didn't waste all of my ammo, but it does. I'm the only one with a crippled weapon. I'm alright with the jamming or misfires, but no weapon would jam like that, in bad condition or otherwise.

There are also little details they could have added. Stuff like changing where you respawn or are healed depending on your faction standing - say you're on good terms with the army and poor ones with the civilians, you wake up in an army hospital and get to keep your weapons. I say this because I must have executed the doctor six times, and he still brought me back every time. I mean, there are limits to the Hippocratic Oath...

Besides all that, it's still sort of fun. Driving up on rebels fighting it out with army soldiers is pretty sweet - at least, until the soldiers are ran down by passing civilian cars that don't bother to stop, and that the AI refuses to avoid. Pretty broken. If they'd spend some more time on polish, it could have been really great. Hell, it probably could have been patched better and fixed most of it, outside the uncompelling dialogue. Make the AI seem a little brighter, make the inventory system more intuitive , and do some serious bug hunting and optimization, and this could be a really fun game.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Deus Ex Ideas

Well, there hasn't been a whole lot of progress in the game design front. I've been reading a lot more industry blogs and researching positions, spruced up my resume and sent it off to a few Austin companies, so we'll see what comes of that. I did a bit of research on Deus Ex, comparing the game levels to real world locations, thanks to Flickr. Kind of a weird feeling to see places like Castle Clinton and Battery Park as real places. That and how different they look, and how hilariously blocky the Deus Ex levels are in comparison. I read a Warren Spector post-mortem on Deus Ex, and how at first they tried for exact physical replicas of real world locations - well, I'll let this block quote explain:
Our original plan to build large, outdoor areas -- whole sections of New York, Area 51, lovingly recreated in excruciating detail gleaned from maps and satellite photos and, most notably, my dream of allowing players to explore the entire White House -- just proved to be unfeasible. There was no way any then-current renderer was going to allow us to do all that. The design had to change. (Postmortem: Ion Storm's Deus Ex)
He brings up later the fact that most real world locations aren't really all of that compelling game spaces, or at least are hard to guide the player in. Which is probably true, to some extent, unless you give players the tools to utilize those spaces in a fun way. I've always thought out gun battles when I'm bored someplace, Wal-Mart or the like. And there are interesting possibilities - soldiers rappelling down through the skylights, vans crashing through the front doors, jumping from shelf to shelf as RPGs and tracer rounds whiz past. But, besides the technical problems, how would you implement a space like this in a game? Or, more specifically, how would you let interesting situations like that transpire in the game, without resorting to scripted events? That seemed to be part of what Deus Ex was going for in the first place, with some of the earliest concepts - to be able to jump into a real world location and do whatever you wanted to complete a goal. Player freedom is what I think I'm going for here - how to give the player freedom to complete goals as they want to, while keeping it fun. And basically, you can't let the player do whatever they want to do, which I'll get to in a second. I've been replaying GTA: San Andreas, mainly since I don't have a 360 or PS3 to play GTA IV, but it's been interesting nonetheless. Mainly seeing how much the game does restrict the player once it comes down to missions, and when the player isn't restricted in the mission, how frustrating it can be. It really is surprising, how linear the missions really are. Of course, when you're not in a mission, you can do whatever the hell you want, and it can be really fun, mainly since if the player is so inclined, they can make up their own story for what they're doing in the game. At least, that's what I do. But the missions - they allow for very little freedom. You usually have very little choice of car or weapons - they're usually handed to the player, or strategically placed so they can't be missed. It's still technically the player's choice to pick them up and use them, sometimes, but it usually means failure if they don't. For example, the player is given the mission of getting back a van full of drugs. The player drives out to the van, and is shown a cutscene where the drug thieves have split up on bikes. The player is then placed on a bike and told to chase after them. The player can choose which of them he wants to chase after, but it makes little difference. Ok, I'm just starting to ramble. Basically, most of the mission designs give the player little to no choice on how to complete the goals. A later goal has the player destroy poker chip machines a rival gang is using to make counterfeit chips. The player is told to "avoid being seen" - and then is only given the option of going through the front door, only to be instantly spotted. Even if the player does avoid being spotted on the way in, the scripted entrance removes any advantage the player earned. Maybe by making it possible for the player to sneak in a back door, or get a van rigged with explosives and drive it in, or hire thugs to help him out, or drive a motorcycle inside, or stealthy sabotage the chip operation, by stealing a uniform and rigging the machines - any of these things. Those all seem to offer the player more choices, and wouldn't keep the player from just jumping in and start shooting. How hard would these things to be to add, and would they still be fun? How much extra work would be involved? If each of those options had to be scripted individually for this mission, it probably wouldn't be worth it. But, if those options were made an integral part of the game world, and open as part of any mission, that would be interesting, and allow for the player to create their own missions and entertain themselves more easily. The one thing I've realized is that most games give you only one tool for interacting with the world around you - weapons. You can kill people, or spare them, and that amount to pretty much the only choice. And most of the time, sparing them mean letting yourself die. When that's the only choices you have for interaction that isn't heavily prescripted, it's actually pretty limited. Are social interactions just not that exciting, or are they really that hard to model? Would it be impossible for the player to create the story depending on their decisions? Could that be compelling? Or would it be asking too much of the player?

Example game: The player enters the world as a blank slate. The player knows nothing of their charater's past, why they're here, or what they're doing. But they have the freedom to do anything they want as events unfold around them. Lets say the player starts out at a prison, having just been released, with only the clothes on their back and a few hundred dollars. They step outside, with a fellow ex-con. They player can then start up a conversation with them, if they wish. They start talking, and the ex-con starts asking the player questions about what they were in prison for, etc. These questions then shape the player. Sort of similar to the systems at the start of Morrowind or Oblivion, where the players asked questions and then given stats, except now it would actually shape the story of the game. If, for example, the player says they were wrongfully accused, perhaps the game focuses on the players' attempts at redemption or revenge, depending on the rest of the player's actions. That and the other characters shape themselves around the player like a choose your own adventure book. If they say they stole a car, maybe the other con is an ex car thief too, and offers to go into business together. If the player's trying to start a new clean life for themselves, maybe the new friend has a business lead. Simplistic examples, but it could make for an interesting game. It would present interesting production problems - having so many possibilities would make for a lot of work, making most of the characters the player meets lead interesting lives that can be changed or will change the player's experience, taking more of a pen and paper RPG approach to it. If the players start to wander away from the main storyline in a campaign, the GM can usually pull another NPC into service to continue the storyline with slight modifications. Maybe make the player's fate unavoidable, while still giving the illusion of freedom. I guess the problem with that is any playthrough after the first attempt would reveal the trick, since basically the same storyline would be followed in our pen and paper RPG example. Basically, giving the player that much control over the storyline would lead to numerous complications, but it's something to think about.

I need to start working on some more portfolio pieces, and focus these posts down more. This is more of a rambling brain dump than anything else. I should try my hand at a small single player episode for HL2. Still thinking about that underground V2 base idea. That and I've been getting some ideas from STALKER. We'll see, hopefully I get something constructive done, at least some sketching out of ideas and maybe some reading while I'm gone on the family trip.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


So I want to try and make an episodic single player modification for Half-Life 2, in the same vein as the excellent Minerva, but I don't want to be derivative. Everyone's tired of the same Eastern European textures and theming from the original game by now, but I'm kind of limited by those assets. It's a hell of a job making new assets at the same level of quality of the originals, especially with just one person and a limited amount of time. I don't think it's completely tapped out, especially if you mix it up with a few custom elements, but it's hard to get a setting that hasn't been done in the original game or one of the episodes. Most of the traditional areas have already been covered: sewers, city streets, apartments, prisons, countryside, but there's still room for some more. What I have been thinking about is this: the underground V2 assembly plants. Still fit with the European theme, with some interesting possibilities that haven't been covered before. Could be awesome with the right custom props - some rusting V-2 rockets in various states of assembly, new Combine assembly lines, prison labor, some direct echoes of Nazi Germany. Could be interesting, if a little limited if you stick with purely the original place - not a whole lot of exciting pictures, the modern day place looks like an empty, mostly flooded concrete box. RtCW comes to mind, with the sweet airbase mission and the rocket bases, with just enough basis in reality to be believable, at least in a comic book way. Need to get some more reference material, work out some prototype levels.


It's interesting watching other people play sandbox games, just seeing what people do when they aren't tightly constrained by the rules. The one thing people do that I didn't really think about until I saw someone do it is completely ignore the freedom given to them, and just slam through the storyline. A friends' roommate was playing GTA IV like that - not even pretending to do the side missions, just blasting though the storyline. He did use the phone/friend missions, grudgingly, once the audience started complaining about his play style - driving extremely carefully, braking for corners, trying not to scratch up his stolen cars. Not a painfully strict adherence to the rules of the road, just enough to slow the game down and make it painfully slow to watch, at least for me. I didn't actually get a chance to play it, he was pretty serious about no one else playing, so I can't really saw anything about it other than what I saw. Something I did see that got some laughs from the small crowd watching him play was just one scene - the car wash. Just the amount of detail they put into the simple act of washing a car - it was more explicit than the murders, or the "sex" where Niko disappears and you hear a few moans - this showed you every tiny detail - Niko pays for it, makes his selection, and the player is treated to a completely non-interactive cut scene where, well, you sit through a car wash. The safety bar comes up, the car drives in, suds and brushes, and then the exit bar comes up, and the car is clean. This had one of the guys watching nearly in tears from laughing, and it did seem kind of ridiculous, after we'd just murdered someone and stolen their car with no fanfare. I don't know if Rockstar was aiming for irony or not, but if they are, it's art, pure art.

A start

Finals week, working the graveyard shift in the computer labs, so starting this seems like a good idea right now. Just want a place to talk about a little bit of everything - but mainly computer gaming. We'll see how long this lasts. Be prepared for some stream of consciousness posts, with me dumping my neatly packaged and spell-checked thoughts on here.