Thursday, September 16, 2010



(image shamelessley stolen from Quinns' post on RPS)

I've been distracted by the excellent Minecraft. I'd seen a few posts on it, but what finally pushed me into buying it was Quinns' Mine the Gap series on Rock Paper Shotgun. I've only just started, but I'm having an amazing time building shacks, bridges, and beacon towers, carving stairways into cliffsides, and delving into huge pitch black caves. It's extremely satisfying to stand atop a tower you've built out of blocks you've dug out with you own block, pixelated hands and look out on an infinite randomly generated land, ripe for exploring.

There's a healthy dose of Dwarf Fortress style 'losing is fun!' - enemies blowing you up or arrowing you to death, falling off my most recent construction project, even drowning - I broke a hole in the ice and jumped in. What I didn't take into account was how quickly my hole in the ice would freeze back over, so I was left pounding futilely against the underside of the ice until my air ran out. I lost everything I had collected, but I was laughing. Each death is a lesson on the rules of the world, and an opportunity to laugh at yourself.

It helps that the penalty for death isn't too harsh. You lose everything in your pockets and get returned your original spawn, but everything you've constructed or stored stays as it was. The tiered material system makes it easy to get started or restart after you die. Almost all the blocks can be dug out with your hands, albeit at an extremely slow pace for anything besides dirt and sand. But once you're collected enough materials to build some tools, collection speed improves dramatically. The starting material progression for tools is wood-stone-iron. So you chop down a tree with your hands, then build a wood pick axe to gather stone that you can use to make a stone pick axe, which can be used to gather ore plus coal and more stone to smelt the ore into iron which can be used to make iron tools. This avoids the catch 22 of needing a tool to gather the materials to make the tool that you need to gather the materials, etc. that some other games with building fall into.

And this tech tree of sorts can be climbed quickly, but death is quick and common, so you'll have to repeat the hunt for materials over and over again. But instead of becoming a grind, this is one of the core bits of fun in the game. Wood and stone are very common, but the game forces you to explore to find the rarer ores, taking advantage of the infinite world. And there's always another striking clifface to scale or picturesque waterfall spilling down into a cave to marvel at, with constant rewards. Another reward are the short refrains of music that seem to play at random times. They're beautiful little pieces, they drew my girlfriend into the room to see what I was playing. They reward the player just for still being alive, a sort of a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. And there's enemies and combat and construction on top of all of that. In short it's an amazing game, and all by one guy. I'm more than happy with my purchase.

In other news, I'm attending the IGDA Austin Microtalks this evening, where ten speakers speak for ten minutes on a variety of topics. It should be interesting, hopefully I can meet some industry people there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Left 4 Dead 2 Survival Level Progress #2

Still chipping away at the Survival level. I solved a problem with the flow in the nav mesh - it kept giving me flow errors, but nothing was popping up when I ran 'nav_trouble_report" from the console. I had an area marked PLAYER_START, all areas were marked FINALE and BATTLEFIELD. I finally tracked the problem to the "goal" nav area it was using by combing through the log of the nav_analyze. In survival maps without a checkpoint, the area closest to the center of all the nav areas is used as the goal, and it turns out that the goal area it chose was on the (player inaccessible) roof. So I added on a new nav area to shift the center back onto a flat surface, and that fixed the problem. It seems like there would be an easier way to do it, but this one worked for me. Besides that, textured a few areas and moved some props around. I'll keep at it!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Left 4 Dead 2 Survival Level Progress

Still working on my Left 4 Dead 2 Survival level. It's an office building turned CEDA evacuation center, now abandoned and overrun. I've roughed out most the geometry, placed a few props and textured a bit. It's still missing something. I should have planned a little more before I jumped in to the editor. I had some thumbnail sketches of how I wanted it laid out, but it morphed as soon as I started laying out brushes. It feels a little claustrophobic, so I think I'll expand it, make the second story accessible, perhaps. It just needs some more polishing. Testing is a little cumbersome, since the nav mesh has to be rebuilt every time the geometry changes, so it's harder to jump in and test after making major changes to the map. There has to be a way to automatically fill in the gaps or update the nav mesh without deleting and adding by hand. I'll take another look through the documentation and browse some forums.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Indie Game Magazine Interstellar Marines Preview


I'm in print! A preview I wrote of Interstellar Marines appears in the Sept-Oct 2010 edition of Indie Game Magazine this month (page 5). You should check out both! I've written some demo reviews before, but this is the first full fledged article I have in there.

Just Left 4 Saboteur

It's been a while. I'm playing a lot of Left 4 Dead 2 with some college friends, which inspired me to try my hand at a Survival level. I have not worked with the navigation meshes before, my experience is limited to waypoint graphs. But I like the mesh approach, it takes the busy work out of pathfinding since they're automatically generated as opposed to the manual placement of nodes. The AI director also reduces work, randomly generating mobs and specials on the fly. I love it, it lets the level designer focus on creating combat arenas and not worry about the exact placement of enemies. At any rate, seeing how enemy spawning and pathfinding works is helping me get better at the game, or at least a better grasp of why things happen the way they do.

I'm trying to brainstorm up some settings for a Survival level that haven't been done before. Trailer park and office building atrium have been bouncing around, not terribly original, but interesting places to fight zombies. I'm analyzing the existing Survival levels, seeing how my friends and I choose spots to make our stand and that what keeps us playing again and again on certain levels.

Besides Left 4 Dead 2, I've just come down from an open world game kick, playing hours and hours of Just Cause 2 and The Saboteur. Both have cartoonish plots with unique ways of getting around the world, with a grappling hook and climbing buildings, respectively. I feel like I'm playing a cheesy comic book character in both, which isn't a bad thing. Neither storylines take themselves seriously, but that fits especially well with the ridiculous never ending explosions and car/helicopter/boat crashes mixed in with gunplay that is Just Cause 2. The grappling hook/infinite parachute combo is insane, it beats boring old walking and running around.

My problem (not really a problem) is I have a hard time getting to a set destination in the game world, I end up distracted every time. There are so many "Ooh, shiny!" bits to distract me. And they are literally shiny - the pickups have a pulsing glow that catches your eye, besides the proximity indicator helpfully telling me goodies are near. More than six different types of collectibles, every little hamlet or outpost has a progress counter and is filled with goodies to steal and things that blow up real good. I've had a hell of a time with it, and I'm less than a quarter of the way through the game thanks the mentioned distractions. As Tom Francis so succinctly put it, it's 'the screw-around game' - a huge toy box filled with stuff to blow up and mess with. And I am more than ok with that.

The Saboteur is a little different. There are a few nice touches like being able to move the camera around during cutscenes and the colorizing of districts as you liberate them. I love darting up any building, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. There's something very satisfying about getting the drop on a Nazi soldier, then sprinting across the rooftops to duck into an attic until the coast is clear. It helps quite a bit that Sean seems to be made of Kevlar, letting me take stupid fun risks like brawling hand-to-hand with squads of Nazis armed with machine guns.

The storyline missions don't take advantage of the running across the rooftops excitment very often. Most are copied to the letter from previous sandbox games - tail person X, chauffeur NPCs around, ditch your tail, etc. They have none of the zaniness of Just Cause 2 missions, but it's hard to get crazier than grappling onto ICBMs while in flight, then blowing them up and parachuting off. When the missions deviate from previous formulas, and use the roof climbing freedom, they can be a lot of fun. Stealing a bottle of booze back from a German officer was a lot of fun, mainly because the game gave you an open ended goal and then got out of the way. They give me enough tools - sneaking, disguises, climbing, melee attacks, explosives - that when the game lets me, I can take my own approach.

The plot is pretty stale, and the characters are dry and forgettable. The crazy accents in Just Cause 2 are at least new stereotypes as opposed to the French and German ones in The Saboteur. But the real character is the setting, and I find it fascinating. It's worth buying the game just to experience occupied Paris. It makes me wish there was more interaction with the everyday people. Random events like watching an innocent civilain being arrested and loaded into a truck, then hijacking said truck and freeing the prisoner are extremely rewarding, and I wish there were more events like that to mix it up.

As it stands, the routine of hunting down guard towers to blow up became repetitive after a few hours. The only reliable way of blowing them up seems to be the same stick of dynamite to the base technique, and a little variety to the destruction would be an improvement. Maybe guy wires to destroy, or just more heavily guarded targets? There's not much challenge to blowing them up. Taking out targets in Just Cause 2 or Red Faction: Guerrilla is much more challenging, you usually have to shoot and scoot, not so much in The Saboteur. I think this might be where some of the complaints of dumb AI might come from, because it is too easy to get away with blowing everything up. There has to be some challenge to be interesting. But despite all my complains, I don't understand how little mention this game got. It made me sad that Pandemic is gone now - there's a solid core of a game there that could do with some tweaking, and it isn't the buggy mess that was Mercenaries 2. Some reviewers have mentioned that Assassin's Creed did the parts I liked - the climbing buildings and jumping about - better, so maybe that's why people seemed nonplussed.

Unfortunately, technical difficulties are getting in the way of my enjoyment of The Saboteur. SecureROM is acting up, it only reads my disk when it feels like it, telling me to insert the original disk that is already in the drive. It's been doing the same with Borderlands, and it's frustrating.

There will be more updates on my Left 4 Dead 2 level soon, so stay tuned!