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Friday, January 21, 2005

Dear God*: Why, oh why do I watch Lost?

I should preface this by saying that I hated John Doe. Loathed that show. I have this friend who's pretty hip to the TV industry, tried to get me to watch it, and I've only recently forgiven him for it (he told me Enterprise got Manny Coto).

John Doe had one problem - it was a mystery based premise with a really stupid mystery. Why does this guy have no memory? Why does he know everything but still uses a phone book? What does blue smell like?

Who cares? It was self-evident from the second episode that the writing was completely shooting from the hip, had horribly continuity and was destined for a downfall.

So why do I watch Lost? This came up after some beers a couple nights ago. It's very similar in it's core. The premise must be way out there and if you had to roll the dice, chances are the explanation is probably not going to appease everyone.

But the characters don't suck. Locke is one of the best TV personas to come around for a while, and let's not even get into Sawyer. The background stories are riveting without requiring the oddness of the show and the whole castaway bit is handled quite well. So the reason, I guess, is that even if the mystery ends up sucking - the show is still very watchable.

I do love a mystery though, so here are my observations:

No, they aren't all dead. Though Lost seems like Purgatory, we've gotten to many instances where characters have mysteries not pertaining to the island. Why would we care about the odd destiny of Claire's baby if they were all snuffed out?

It's about the children. We've got two really odd children now. Claire's baby is so important a psychic is willing to send her to the island and apparently Walt is so strange that his adopted father didn't want to risk living with him. They somehow seem core to the story.

Locke knows something. Guess this is obvious, but Locke understands the island. Whatever he went through showed him a bit of the island's inner secret. I don't think he hasn't shared with the crowd because he's stingy, I think he believes they'll only understand when they experience it as well.

Sooner or later, someone is gonna die. Just a prediction. I think they're holding out on this until towards the end of the season or the beginning of the next. They've got a great cast, both of actors and characters, and there's too much tragedy to pass up here.

They're not in Kansas. The metaphysical can't be ignored, and I don't disagree with the in-show observation that none of them should have survived the accident. While I don't think they're dead, I don't think they are exactly in a place a search plane can fly to easily.

Can't wait for next week...

* I'm an agnostic...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

MMO Money and the Bally effect

That might be like, the worst title ever. Anyway...

Debate has now raged about whether WoW is the next coming of all computer games, or the worst technical blunder since the N-Gage. No, the N-Gage wasn't all that long ago, but I like to beat on it whenever I can.

Now, I haven't played World of Warcraft and have been told that I'm the gaming equivalent of primordial soup for not doing so. I can live with that. I can get that Blizzard has taken their gaming prowess, identified all the slimey parts of the MMORPG genre and fine tuned into something like a gourmet soup. I get that.

But I just can't get behind this parade of companies blundering their launches technically time after time after time. And I really can't get behind the parade of gamers willing to write it off as "just part of the genre". That's a ridiculous excuse for a scheme that no reasonable person should willing find themselves in.

That scheme is the one that has turned the fitness industry into something of a cottage and more of a castle. Bally's, who I think is something of the Microsoft of the fitness world, makes a fortune off of the above attitude. Basically, Bally's tries to push people into an annual contract. It does this for one reason, and one reason only. Most people stop going to the gym after three months. The other nine months is nothing but free revenue for mother company.

So why is that MMO after MMO gets released and yet the dollars and time aren't being spent to insure that the launch goes smoothly. Blizzard is no fly by night studio, they're a major game company with good assets and years of experience. So why didn't they expend the goods to make sure that people weren't getting dropped like flies from their game?

Well, why would they? If gamers are willing to keep paying $15 a lunar cycle even if they have no guarantee whatsoever that they'll even be allowed access to the service they're paying for ... what incentive is there for Blizzard to fix anything in a timely manner?

Surely, MMO's require a steady and relatively sizeable base to maintain the game's playability - it's one of the downfalls of the design. Having Massively Multiplayer is meaningless if nobody is playing. So in the long term, Blizzard will have to appease enough players to keep their world filled. Look at PlanetSide, which shipped in something of a less than beta version (not even the core gameplay was well tested), and after multiple technical problems had droves of people fleeing the scene (SOE's horrible customer support didn't help). Now one of the biggest problems PlanetSide has is getting a good crowd together.

I'm sure Blizzard will be able to avoid that scenario, but it's sad to know that gamers are willing to subsidize it. I subsidize lots of stuff. I pay for websites and services I don't always go to or use, but honestly think are good. Paying for a game I couldn't play when I wanted simply makes no sense, not for the luxury of occasionally doing it with a hoard of other people.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

How much wood can woodchuck chuck...

...if it found itself in a bizarre post-Christmas flood of various titles to try and game through? The answer is not that much.

I'm not sure how it happened. After Christmas I went on the hunt for quality cheapie titles. I picked up Thief 3, Baldur's Gate and Fire Emblem for the GBA, and backordered Alien Hominid. Before Christmas, my girlfriend and gotten me Rune for the PS2 (I never did finish it for the PC). Battle Engine Aquila came through Gamefly last weekend. And for some reason, I decided to either use or lose my account ... and ended up downloading Temple of Elemental Evil.

Now mind you, I work an eight hour day, spend about an hour on the road commuting, and have a tendency to work on my mod for at least two hours after I get home. Then there's herding cats, gathering food for dinner, and oh - of course, that girlfriend usually requires some attention as well. Thank god she turned out to be a closet gamer, otherwise I wouldn't have gotten some Hominid time in.

I really don't know what I was thinking, especially since Mercenaries is now coming in the mail as well. Thankfully we've got some trips lined up, so I can reserve the GBA for that.

No real point to this. When the next Champions of Norrath comes out, I might go slightly insane, is all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

New Year's Resolution: One Last Multiplayer

Truth is, I've been really turned off from developing anything multiplayer again.

When I first starting modding/dabbling with games - there really wasn't an internet to go publish things on, so I knew I was more or less doing it for my own amusement. Then came DooM and I started making maps for friends in college. This more or less kept up through Half-Life and Unreal Tournament when I made a couple of maps of our workplace for my co-workers then. It was also around that time that a friend and I started to design a mod.

Not making a multiplayer mod didn't really seem an option. Everything we were playing was multiplayer then. Mods were different then too, because just about any decent mod would get at least a few servers of people trying it out. In fact, when I finally made a workable mod for Unreal Tournament, it was pretty easy to get some notice and when I finally evolved that code into Freehold, I had made a few online friends with that we could playtest/play for a couple nights/afternoons a week.

That all seemed to change recently. Gamer curiosity seems to have peaked, and now they really want a well saturated mod before they dip. Plus, and I hate to sound like an old curmedgeon here, but the online crowd has really changed. Way more l33tSP3K trash talkers than there are decent players it seems.

Because of this, my desire to play online with people I don't know has been pretty much quenched. I'm sure there will be games to lure me back from time to time, but I doubt it will ever become the norm again. Hence, a lot of my focus these days is on how single-player games work.

But, my resolution is to try and make at least one last multiplayer mod. I really think the concepts of how gametypes evolve has stagnated and I'd like to try some things with dynamic team and goal creation. So it might not always be one team against another team to get a flag, but perhaps on the same map three guys are trying to get a flag while a fourth has a mission to stop them and fifth is out to frag any of them.

So I'm taking notes and will just have to see if this goes the way most resolutions do...

Monday, January 17, 2005

Dev Day Diary: Crisis of Design

There's an occurence in my work, both professionally and as a hobby, that I like to call a crisis of design. Think of it like a crisis of faith, only completely different. A crisis of design occurs when you have like four seperate good ideas that just can't work together. On their own, each of these ideas are perfectly sound, reasonable and technically feasible ideas. The problem is that one of these ideas eventually conflicts fundamentally with another idea and the whole house comes down.

To put it in Tom and Jerry terms, sometimes it's a good idea to get a cat. And sometimes it's good to have a cute rodent around. Sometimes when you do both you get an anvil on the head.

Unreal Defense Squad was supposed to combine Unreal action with squad level management. Nothing on the order of an RTS, but you were supposed to feel like you were in control of the squad and get a notion that you could use different strategies to solve different problems.

One way to do this would be to have well designed maps with specific map objects to assist in controlling the squad and setting up strategies. So a door could be hacked open, or blown open, etc. And specific points could be used for cover, sniping, etc. The HUD would help out in creating these points. The problem with this approach is twofold - 1) it requires a create deal of custom asset creation ... and I'm just one guy. 2) It becomes repetitive - players will likely use the same strategy that works repeatedly and never be forced to change up.

So the other way is to create random maps. Random maps would insure that players couldn't solve a level using the same tactic because they would have to change up to compensate for variations in the map. The problem there is that Unreal uses a node based intelligence system, and making the squad seem both obedient and moderately intelligent becomes counterproductive.

Hence, crisis rises. The three design requirements - squad level command, mission replayablity and decent AI conflict with each other.

So there's two solutions to a crisis of design. Either brute force through the problem or redesign it. Since I'm just a hobbyist I have both the luxury and option of doing the second. There's probably fewer than five people in the world even aware of this mod, so it's not like anyone will be broken hearted. Plus, I have found that brute forcing through something as a tendency to just trash everything in sight.

So, the redesign. What leg of the stool will I change? Well, oddly I'll be removing the decent AI completely. That's right, completely. Well, mostly. Unreal Defense Squad is going turn based. This way the squad will be as intelligent as you make them. The only AI required will be rudimentary hunt and attack from the enemy, although if that goes smoothly I may attempt group level tactics.

I've actually always wanted to make a turn based game using the Unreal engine and these designs are based on the Freehold Tactics gametype I never quite started. I spent about half this weekend getting it kicked off and it went remarkably smooth. Well sort of. I have a basic turn system for the player working. You have a time limited turn, you can select various squad members and tell them to either move somewhere or fire at an enemy. The enemy will also take a turn, selecting a single pawn, find and enemy, and run to them firing (which, with the complete lack of cover is remarkably effective).

Most bizarre bug though - everyone on your squad has the same name. No matter what. Gotta love it.