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Friday, February 25, 2005

I might need an exit

Matrix Online support emailed me back a bit ago, wondering what was wrong with my CDKey. I'm not sure what they expected as an answer. I mean, it's a CDKey. It's really only got one function. If someone emails you complaining it doesn't work, I'd think you'd be able to guess what they mean.

At any rate, they had me forward them the key so that they could check into it. That was a few hours ago. An optimistic person would think that I'd be able to try the beta this weekend. I'm guessing this will get funnier before it gets better.

Bring order to chaos

OK - Swat 4 simply rocks. This is the game that Republic Commando could have been, except draped in police blues and not an oversized helmet. The immersion is simply great, with you not only feeling like you're part of a SWAT mission, but that you have some real control over how the tactics play out. Unlike RC, in Swat 4 you can select anything in the game world to serve as a cover point, or decide exactly who in your unit should be opening the door and tossing in a flashbang. Yell at suspects to try and get them to surrender before taking them out, recover evidence, remember procedure ... Irrational really hit all the bases with this one. Did I mention it will have coop? Oh yes. Ohhhh yes.

And they've also added in a quick mission editor. I'm tellin' ya - this is going to be a coming trend. It used to be that anyone could at least hamfist a Doom level which was moderately playable, but now you practically need a degree in applied mathematics to open an editor. Pariah has realized this and is shipping with a simplified level creator. Swat 4 allows you to change up the mission parameters for a given map. Make more enemies, give them different weapons, set different objectives and even write your own backstory. Very clever.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wow, how dumb can the Matrix Online beta be?

How about offering a beta key to Fileshack Mercury users.

Only, the key they send you - you need to remove the dashes to use it.

But wait, it's gets better.

Because once you do that, the key doesn't work anyway.

As if I had any technical confidence in MMO's to begin with. Anyone who can't even run a beta shouldn't be trying to run a commercial service.

Modders are not free labor

I've had a few interesting conversations with people about hiring into the games industry. A couple centered around hiring modders into the industry and how it's become more and more commonplace. It makes perfect sense - modders usually spend hours and hours doing this stuff for free and game studios are looking for people who think of this as more of a passion and less of a job.

And yet - it's sad to think that the modding community is turning into more or less a transitory ground between amatuer and professional. It was bound to happen, of course, and has been happening ever since there was a community about modding. Epic is proud to house many ex-modders, including the pimpdaddy of bot AI Steve Polge, and certainly some mod teams have turned their hobby into an enterprise. It's not sad in the idea that some very talented young people are getting a job doing what they love. That's actually pretty cool. It's just sad that the mods are getting less and less about innovation and expirementation. But hey, I've worked with some extremely proficient young people on mods - and if they can get paid for doing that stuff ... all ahead go.

This trend should in no way suggest that the mod community is some kind of cheap, or free, labor farm. While plenty of modders would like to entertain the notion that their creation will become the next Counter-Strike, nobody starts with that as a pre-requisite. Profit and mods are antithetical in nature. Mods work without a license that allows them to gain profit from the work. When a team of modellers, skinners and coders get together to make a mod - they still retain the rights to their individual work. Nobody can simply reach into a mod, steal assets, and then try to profit from it.

That's why guys like this bug me. Oh, I don't think they are crooks or scam artists. I think they actually just want to make a game. That's all well and good. But don't swoop into a mod community forum, saying how you know the guy who created the XBox and some other guy with swing in Electronic Arts, and you're trying to put together a team for the next great thing. Sorry, there's no money in the kitty right now - but if you work hard and sweat a lot, they'll probably extend a job offer to you once they land a truckload of investment capital ... but you might have to move out to L.A. ... maybe.

Don't fall for this brand of junk. There's a big difference between modding and commercial development. Once profit becomes even a possibility, no matter how slight or small, there's a whole new line of dicussion that has to take place. You can't profit on someone else's work without compensating them for that work, or at least offering to compensate them for that work. Unreal modders who entered the Make Something Unreal contest found this out. When the MSUC was first announced, I was heading up a relatively large team and it turned into a two week discussion. Before the time the project dissolved, it was a open question as to whether it was worth it to enter the contest at all. And that was a group of five or six guys - teams for mods like Chaos UT or Red Orchestra number closer to fifteen or twenty.

So to say that you don't have to worry about paying people simply because you don't have money yet is ludicrous. Asking someone to help build something to make you money without negotiating with them what they'll get out of the deal is fairly rude. Going and doing that to kids and people new to the industry, looking to learn the trade and getting ahead - well, that's just mean.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I have returned to Norrath

Sony Online Entertainment isn't really my favorite company in the gaming world. For one thing, Planetside still ranks as the worst gaming experience I've ever had in my long, long gaming life. Their quality assurance seems to be the only thing on par with their customer service and to be honest - they both suck.

Despite it's bugs, however - the girlfriend and I loved the original Champions of Norrath. Really it's more of a love for Snowblind Studios than hatred for SOE - so the moral compass evens out in the end. So when the sequel was announced - well you could consider it anxiously awaited.

The reviews were pretty predictable. I love how they bother to even rate it. Like an "8" actually translates into "aw shucks, you'll buy it anyway". It would have taken some serious flaws in handling the sequel to turn most people away. Some of us, you see, have had this NetHack related addiction for years and therefore it become compulsary to buy any re-invention of the dungeon hacking genre done moderately well. Add in cooperative play that you're girlfriend can get into and you might as well rate it "SOLD".

The great thing is that Snowblind didn't fall asleep at the wheel. Reviews are accurate in stating that a lot of things from the first Norrath are reused. This includes plenty of textures, models, etc. I can understand where that's percieved generally as a negative - but I would only hold it against Snowblind if everything else done in the game was superficial.

Far from it. Let's talk just raw basics. The game runs faster and smoother. Load times are shorter. We thought we had suffered a brief lockup last night, but there was only a hiccup - so far there's been no jiggling of the disk to trick it into loading. I haven't tried the online stuff yet, but the reviews report that's been much improved as well.

The interface is improved in little, but important, ways. For instance, when you gate back to town the menu says "Gate Back" to remind you afterwards how you got there. Sounds simple, but when you're bouncing around between portals and scrolls - it's actually helpful. You can equip from the sell screen now, reducing the time it takes get back into the game.

And the gameplay itself? Where to start. Random maps are enormous improvement - especially with the good path/bad path divergence. This makes for a denser, more replayable game. They've tweaked the classes in clever ways. The Ranger can now summon arrows, for instance, which helps reduce the required load of arrows and arrow management which made that class a drag. I can't be sure of this - but I think the amount of small, useless drops have been reduced - meaning you won't have to hoard 20 clubs just to try and make a profit.

All in all, this just feels like a game the developer took some time be honest and realize previous mistakes ... then went about eliminating them. I really wish more studios would do this with their franchises. Epic did it with UT2004 - realizing in earnest things they could have done better with UT2003, and it's help made UT2004 one of the best shooters in recent history. Most of the time a sequel is all about selling a new gimmick, or changing up the graphics, or altering something in the premise. There's not enough refinement since refinement is a lot harder to sell than "REVOLUTIONARY!" ... but guys, revolutionary rarely turns out as such.

It's not like I needed another game right now. We're only about half way through Mercs ... but I'm thinking it will be patient and wait for us to return.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A Rundown of a Random World

I think last night was the first night I actually got to get home, feed the cats, read the inbox and then just rip into UDS. As mentioned by the hamster reference previously, I'm this spot of trying to figure out what to compromise in design and keep getting things done. Random landscapes remain, but I reduced their frequency so that they would stop being so obstructive to the AI. Now that the bots more or less zerg right for the player, I need to get the playable levels ... well, playable. Not just testable. Like I said before, it's time to stop with a tech demo and try to make it a game.

The play world of Defense Squad has changed drastically - even since the decision to go turn-based. The first map was a very small block with three start points on either side. Friendly and enemy people spawned in randomly and the enemies never moved. Eventually when friendly pawns were movable, the enemy AI was added so that the "other" side will take a turn - but they would just stand and shoot. When movement finally happened, I need obstacles. I already had some random junk generators from the FPS version, so I first added in a random landscape generator. Then I modified the existing "junk" generators to place trees and rocks around. The first few passes were pretty laughable. At one point the trees were so dense that it was impossible to move and for the longest time rocks stubbornly floated in the air.

Now it's smooth but rolling landscape with the occasional tree and rock for coverage. Last night I added the ability for the level to randomly determine a starting spot for both the players and the enemies. Once I have a few bugs in that ironed out (like people being created inside a hill, and then falling to the empty world below the landscape) - I'll expand the size of the level and create random building and larger obstructions.

One might ask why creating this largely random world is such a high priority. It might be easy to assume that making all the weapons work, or figuring out the skill system, might be more vital to the experience than the potential placement of a stump.

One should first take a quick break to read GameDevBlog's take on variance in games. There's little there I can disagree with, but I would also add that variance in games gives a greater rise to replayability. It's a trend games have largely moved away from - outside a limited since in the RTS genre. The FPS genre relies on modmakers and mapmakers to elongate replayability. This is essentially variance via quantity. Variance via randomness, though, can force players to stop assuming what their game world will throw at them. Classic games like Elite or Seven Cities of Gold were excellent examples of this - as well as my favorite - X-Com.

So before I'm worried about how a flak cannon might be appropiately fired by an enemy pawn (my guess - look up, press trigger) ... my main concern is making a simple, but varied game environment which allows for players to have fun in ... regardless of what their pawns might have in their pack.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Self-Publishing SuperHeroes

When it came out like a week ago - I coulda, shoulda woulda linked to the IGN interview with Irrational Games where Irrational talks candidly about their decision to self-publish Freedom Force 2:

The long version? Well, that's a bit more complicated. When we finished the first Freedom Force, we were left with a mix of joy and frustration. We had created a game that, besides winning an Editor's Choice from this lovely website, went on to sell over 400,000 units. However, as we looked at the development and publishing of the first title, we realized that Irrational did the vast majority of the work on the project: we conceived it, we built it, we did most of the testing, we supported the community, we paid for and developed the patches (including a full, free skirmish mode), we supported the community for the years following the initial release.

The two big things we didn't do were pay for the development and actually get the product to the retailers.

I've had mixed feelings with Irrational's track record. System Shock II was brilliance in some ways and just annoyingly dunder-headed in others. I didn't care for Tribes: Vengeance, but I loved the original Freedom Force. I might have had a few problems, but overall it was just great fun.

So now that they released the demo for the sequel, I'm going to make amends for not linking it earlier. It's a good title for a niche genre ... and those are two words we don't see put together enough anymore. Freedom Force wasn't really RTS and it wasn't really TBS ... it was just a clever game design for putting together a superhero squad. When I first started up the demo, it annoyed me to get back into the controls of the game - but then I got back into synch and nothing could drag me away. Freedom Force has a pretty specific tempo of pausing and issuing orders not entirely unlike the original Baldur's Gate setup. But while I found Bioware's focus a little dulled, Freedom Force has a very tight frame on the strategy and tactics of controlling various persons of different (super) ability. Like turning a crook into a vase, tossing that vase next to a car, and then waiting for the vase to turn back into a crook so that you can ignite the car.

So I applaud Irrational's decision to self-publish (which, despite some reports, they still are ... Vivendi is only handling some of the logistics). It's great to see someone stand behind their product. And mixed feelings aside, I have enough faith in Freedom Force versus the Third Reich that it's the only game I've pre-ordered in recent history - excluding Unreal Tournament 2004 and Majora's Mask.

This blog contains rational thought and honest opinion. Parental Discretion Advised.

Veering momentarily away from the finer points of wasting away in front of monitor - last night I was wasting away from my television. After a long drive home the girl and I were going to sit down to enjoy the Simpsons in our usual Sunday ritual.

We had listened to an interesting radio bit on the way to Iowa. A producer had convinced an evalengical christian to watch the Simpsons for the first time. She picked the episode where Homer doesn't go to church, has a great day and decides to never go to church again (until he sees the error of his ways). Well, the woman didn't get to that parenthetical portion before she had decided the Simpsons is a godless example of the rampant hedonism in our society. She especially objected to Flanders as being a horrific role model of a good christian.

She actually thought that the Simpsons is so subversive, that when I think of an evalengical christian, I must think they are like Flanders. No, silly woman, I think they're close minded knee-jerk fanatics who dismiss anything they dislike about the world as not being worthy of their gaze. In other words, I think of this woman. And if you think I'm being harsh, she went on to state that she has a mental filter between her eyes and the real world.

So last night the Simpsons had an episode which revolved around gay marriage. Fox, in their pursuit of decency, posted this warning:

This episode deals with same sex marriage. Parental Discretion is advised.

You've got to be kidding me. The same kind of message they used to warn us that Jack Bauer was going to have to snuff someone is used about homosexuality? Fox drapes itself in lewd behavior, violence and rampant jingoism every hour of the day - but the sight of two gay men in a chapel is worthy of a warning?

Here's a news flash Fox. If that's your standard for having to warn parents - you've been missing a few shows. Like every episode of every show on your network.

Ridiculous. It's OK for a network to sell marriage off like a two dollar whore, but gay people are unsightly. I think some people need their filters adjusted.