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Friday, March 18, 2005


Elsewhere in the world, lots of gamers get annoyed that the 20 hour computer generated, interactive movie that they can keep and play whenever they want will soon cost even that much more than the two hour computer generated, non-interactive movie that they can't.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Critical Mass

So, my goodly friends over at BeyondUnreal are having a bit of a lovefest over Unreal Tournament 2004 being a year old. And let's be honest - it deserves it. UT2004 is hands down the most versatile, action packed, old school online shooter this side of Neptune - and all the Counter-Strike fanboys can bite me if they don't agree. The fact that there's still a franchise out there that respects the value of a good Capture the Flag match earns mucho bonus points in my book.

But my fondness for the Unreal platform comes from it's mod framework - which is bar none the best out there. I'm a big fan of Doom 3's scripting structure, where you can edit the game on the fly without compiling for many objects, but readers of this blog know that I place value on Epic's decision to keep their accessible code open, free of Visual Studio and easy to learn.

Unfortunately, there's this odd problem. There's almost nobody playing them. I've lamented on this before, when I swore I was done with multiplayer modding (I am, of course, working on one now...) ... but this time you can hear it from none other than Steve Polge himself:

It's unfortunate that some of these great mods aren't seeing more players. I think part of the problem is that there are so many online multiplayer FPS games out there that it is much harder to gain a critical mass of players for a mod. Back when counterstrike first became popular, it wasn't competing against many online FPS's in the same genre. Today, a new mod typically competes against many other mods and full retail games if it chooses a conventional genre, such as a tactical shooter or WW2 FPS, while it has to be overcome player inertia to get past its learning curve if it is unconventional (Air Buccaneers).

Both these scenarios require a mod to be very polished to have a chance of gaining a significant player count - players have many other options rather than sticking with a mod that is still very much a work in progress.

I don't mean to suggest that mods can't be successful in today's environment, but rather that mods are likely to need to be further along in terms of polish and completion before they can start attracting a big following. This means more perseverance on the part of the mod team during the early development phase when they aren't getting a lot of positive feedback.

Now Red Orchestra's biggest strength is the quality of it's art production. The screenshots are simply phenomenal. I honestly can't speak very well to it's gameplay - but when it comes to polish and completeness ... RO is definately on the far end of the spectrum. There's simply not a lot of mods, for any engine, with this kind of shine.

So - here's the question. If a mod that is of such near professional quality that it actually beat out several professional studios during a mod contest to win the grand prize can't muster a significant online presence - who can?

I think that answer is - almost nobody. Unless you're modding for Valve, who will shove your game into Steam and force feed it upon a mass of unexpecting gamers ... how will anyone achieve a critical mass which is required to maintain online players?

The thing that Steve isn't mentioning is that online games start life with a serious handicap. You almost have to have human players to get the full experience. While Steve himself is responsible for some of the best bot AI in game history - nothing replaces having a boatload of real humans trying to kick your ass. I found this out in full color when I tested the first round of my mod, Riftwar. The bots were semi-entertaining ... but mostly just target practice compared to having even just a handful of real players on a server. But of course, most people hadn't played it - didn't realize what it was like and didn't know anyone to try it with. So there's this awful chicken/egg problem that any online game (mod or otherwise) suffers from.

But what Steve is saying is - it's not the age of Quake anymore. People aren't willing to try an online game simply because they haven't yet. There's too many to choose from.

Here are three ideas to work around this:

Focus on the offline experience One of Red Orchestra's most noted flaws was an utter lack of bot support (somthing they are just recently addressing). With a strong AI presence, people might be able to at least get the taste of an offline game to whet their appetite to find a server.

Or, of course, just design a single player game completely and forego the multiplayer. Personally, I think coop is the new black. Design a game as a single player with a coop component (which is actually what I'm doing now) ... get a bit of both worlds and see what happens.

Focus on smaller groups Battlefield 1942 has apexed, I think, the "big server" concept of shooters. There's definately a draw to having more than thirty people playing in the same small space. It's also much harder to get a decent game going. On the other hand - if you focused on say, only six people being online ... maybe a 3v3 match, especially with decent bot support ... that's a lot smaller critical mass required.

Learn from Microsoft Ewww, that stung to write. But let's face it - Halo 2's matchmaking concepts are still the talk of the town, the belle of the ball, the ... OK - I'm out of phrases. At any rate, if you can't rely on people to find each other to play your game ... find some way to bring them together. And here's a tip - a simple chat lobby isn't going to cut it. It never really did.

Steve's solution seems to be "get more professional" ... and to be honest, that spooks me. If mod teams get any professional they might as well stop calling themselves mod teams. And by forcing themselves to have the same demands as a pro studio, mod teams will be cutting their ability to innovate - because as Steve mentions with Air Buccs, that will just make their job harder.

What would be awesome is to see some small mod teams focus on the first two suggestions, while some kindly game company focuses on the third.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


OK, my head is out of the hornet's nest of various GDC posts. There's a few that are must reads.

First, let's talk some Spore. Everyone's doing it, and there's a good reason why. If you are unfamiliar with Spore, I'm not going to waste the text repeating what others have written ... Gamespy has an excellent write-up and Kotaku has some screens handy. Now, go over to Don Hopkin's notes on Spore and pay particular attention to these lines:

Games used to be mostly code and very little content, so compression was important.

CDROM is the medium that was the death knell for the algorithm. Myst was a very elaborate and beautiful slide show, with a vast amount of data. It looked like they had a great time building this world. Building the world is a fun game in itself.

At the other end of the spectrum from CDROMs: The Demo Scene. Algorithmic compression of graphics and music.

and just for context, I'll point you back towards the /. article on .produkkt's 96k shooter demo.

Now take a breath.

And continue.

Essentially the way I'm reading this is that since the advent of mass storage mediums, game development has been drawn towards producing static, near photo-realistic (or at least high resolution) content in which the code resides within. Evolution in gaming has since then been largely rated in appearance - a fact which the power scale of video cards since the CDRom drive became standard can attest to. It seems that the industry is starting to saturate on this trend. Despite what many in the biz seem to want to say - that new tools and more powerful hardware offset the order of magnitude shift that game assets are taking ... the fact remains that not everyone wants to staff hundreds with a budget of millions for over a year in order to produce a game which one person will play for approximately two afternoons.

I've heard the talk about shaders, and how programmers won't be required to code every model's new skin, and how management tools streamline large teams and asset libraries. I've heard that. I just don't care, because I know that Half-Life 2 was shorter than Half-Life, that Deus Ex 2 was shorter than Deus Ex and that last I heard Republic Commando was short enough that you should try not to blink while playing. Even a personal favorite of mine, the new Freedom Force - I beat in just four nights. It's only chance for longevity is that work of modders building new assets.

Now compare that to Elite. That was a game that fit on a floppy and I played that game for months. Maybe even years. Elite built out a universe based on a formula. What demos like .produkkt's and Spore show us is that the concept isn't dead, that it is possible to evolve it, it's just been ignored while everyone was distracted by pretty pictures.

I don't think people are done watching the pretty pictures, but it does sound like some in the industry are interested in giving them some new choices. And I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Rockstar got robbed?

Trying to read GDC news is a bit like trying to pick out a fly from a bee's nest. I don't really know what I'm looking for and it's a bit scary to sift through it all.

One interesting point was that apparently Rockstar stormed
from the auditorium
after not winning a single Game Developers Choice award. Childish? I dunno, I wasn't there. Warranted?

Look, Half-Life 2 didn't deserve to win best writing. Yes, I agree it's one of the best thematically directed games in a long time. It's got some of best art direction in gaming history. The voice work is top notch. The game is immersive. The physics are fun.

The story was weak. And you can't argue the story wasn't weak because there's isn't enough of a story to defend. There's little character depth, no character evolution, miniscule plot and the backstory is told entirely though accidental glances ... and there isn't much backstory. The set design was top notch, but the play itself was more community theatre than Shakespeare. Great game. Just not a great story.

Compare that to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Main character goes through significant change. Backstory is gritty and believable ... and is pertinent throughout the whole game. The supporting characters are interesting, believable, important to the story and also evolve. There's comedy, there's tragedy, there's sex and violence. I'm certainly not saying San Andreas is an urban equivalent to Othello, but there's a lot more meat on the bone than Half-Life 2 had.

So I dunno, maybe it was immature of Rockstar - but I probably would have done the same.

Dirt on the boot of America's Army?

Apparently Scott Miller's blog has a post dishing out details about America's Army, the relatively popular, freely downloadable, military sanctioned online game which has as of yet failed to turn our youth into a force of supernatural strength, dexterity and rage - but don't worry Jack Thompson ... maybe in a decade or so.

The blog itself appears to be undergoing some kind of R & R, so if that link fails you ... try the VE post about it instead.