Wednesday, 5 April 2017

More on the simplification of games

I don't know if it's meaningful to rant about the simplification (or casualization as many people like to call it) of games, but I can't help but notice some grotesque attempts at it that in my opinion go on the total edge of destroying game experience just from the fear of alienating the average gamer. And I don't know if it's meaningful, but surely it might be useful or interesting to point out the usual sins.

I just started playing Thimbleweed Park which is a new classic adventure game from Ron Gilbert, game designer and programmer behind classic titles like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. This project was a kickstarter and I backed it too, so I was eagerly waiting for it to be released and I was glad it came out soon enough, compared to a lot of other kickstarter projects that usually fall too far behind in schedule.

While I enjoy the game so far, especially the very mysterious story, the duo of characters coming out of x-files, the retro graphics that although they are too lowres they still evoke some atmosphere, the nice music, numerous jokes (although too much jumping the 4th wall), there is something that annoyed me just by the first five minutes of playing. And I was expecting it, seeing how much effort was put on refining all with tutorial screens beforehand as to introduce new players to classic adventure games. Literally there are five pages pointing you at basic interaction with verbs and the pointer and so on, which is fine, it's there in help, then in options->help and... yes after I scrolled through them (because I was a maniac checking everything on the setup menu) starting a new game will just have you scroll these five pages again!

But I didn't mind that, I went on with the main game. After a short introduction setting up the atmosphere, the player climbs down to an area with a grate and a drunk man. I am very used in adventure games to Look at everything. Even useless things like doors or anything. Just to reveal funny monologues or something interesting I wouldn't even think about.

Here, I wanted my character to first get an impression of the drunk man. Even if the default option was on Talk to, I decided first to do a Look at the man. And guess what happened?

Simply, the command skipped to Talk to! I was surprised. First of all it's inconsistent, because it wasn't even what I wanted to do. I'd rather have the command disappear after the click and pure silence or the character saying "I don't want to do this" than the inconsistency of getting a different thing that you are telling the game to do. Try other commands like Push for example and you get the same. Is this forcing to the correct command for the new players since it's the first screen?

Then, something that the author of this article with similar complains noticed and it escaped me (because of the different order I did things). I still felt the casual forces though. The player has to turn off a light in a later screen where there is a lamp but he can't find any switch. In front of you there is a rock and it's so obvious what you have to do. I kinda felt how easy they wanted to do this, when I did a Look at in the rock, and thankfully it didn't pick it up or used it, but the dialogue told me "Hmm,. I could maybe use it to break the lamp". Well, thank you for telling me the solution to such an obvious puzzle, but anyway this is not that bad and it's consistent because I read a note in the inventory that tells me I have to turn off a light to signal someone, then examined the lamp to be told there is no switch or anything, then concluded as a player too so it's consistent. But as the author of the article above noted, he didn't follow that.

He went directly to look at the stone to be told what he has to do without having even read the note! Commentators on the article noted that in the mind of the character, he has already read the note that tells him he has to turn off a light, but you as a player don't know, so it was normal for the hero to say that. But wait! I came into conclusion I should break the lamp after I examined the lamp and discovered I can't normally turn it off. In a new game, I will go for the rock and it will tell me I have to smash the lamp. But the note wanted me to somehow turn the light I find off. I haven't even examined the lamp to see if there are normal ways to turn it off, so how does it even tell me this is what I have to do? It's not just the unneeded help in the already obvious puzzle, it's also that it destroys immersion. But maybe this is nitpicking. To me, especially the first flaw of acting on a different command than the one I gave is a big sin, maybe I can forgive the second.

Just as a side note, many people will say I played the easy mode. And no, it was the hard mode I've chosen! There are two modes when you start. The easy mode, I tried it from curiosity. It says that there is a lot of help and you don't get all the puzzles. Maybe it's just in these first screens but there was always a text telling you what to do, I noticed additional dialogue, for example the character told me I should turn off the light somehow as I walked towards the rock. And then,. if I click a wrong command on the rock for 3-4 times, I get flashing underline on the correct command. And if I sit still, I get an arrow flashing on the right telling me where to go, like it's fricking double dragon! :P

But anyway,. this is the easy mode. Like the hard mode was hard at all. Thankfully things like this don't happen on every item later on the game. I noticed it only in few occasions, there was a jar with the names of some kickstarter backers, and there every command would be ignored and just open and look the backers names. It's like they thought, OMG maybe the player misses looking at the backer names, we can't allow that! And as far as I played, the puzzles are really easy and not much. I guess, maybe that's a way to make an adventure game where there are less possibilities to be lost which always happens to me when I play adventure games, even the ones that don't have hard puzzles.

My first question is why creators keep doing that even for retro games that will not attract new gamers anyway? I kinda can understand that adventure games are a real bitch to not get you lost and some designers don't want that. I notice some fan made AGS adventure games with much less and easier puzzles and they still can get me stuck for half an hour at specific parts (that's the point where I close the damn thing and come back the next day to realize I missed something obvious). And since the environments don't offer something else, it's not easy for a player to wander around static 2d backgrounds and do nothing for even 5 minutes, adventure games might not be exactly for the gamer who doesn't want to waste the time without action every few seconds, no matter how casual you can make them. (As a side note, one can argue Telltale Games did find the solution to that problem, with important dialogues where you have to respond very fast or QTEs in later games and a bit of very simplified and forced puzzle solving in between, so everything is fast and cinematics, but that's where I felt quite uneasy with that kind of simplification and forced gameplay, although one might say they are not exactly adventure games rather than interactive movies)

Another offender was the design in the new levels from two classic level creators from the Duke Nukem 3D team. The new Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour which is actually a rerelease of Duke Nukem 3D with the old engine (and some basic enhancements on the 3d accelerated version of it) plus a new episode from the old guys. Oh, there was also the voice of Duke remastered that didn't sound particularly well and most of the reviews focused on that. But I noticed something else.

As I am really a sucker for classic FPS level design with some non-linear elements, like different paths/corridors to chose from, areas that are interconnected through many roots, clever secrets that connect one part of the level to the rest and since I know many modern games totally don't do that, and now it's the old engine with new levels from the old creators, I thought maybe they show their brilliance again. New designers in new engines end up in stereotypicaly linear and forced environments. But old legendary designers with an old engine that new gamers wouldn't even bother to play because of the primitive graphics? What could go wrong? I guess they would finally have the full freedom to experiment. Unless they forgot their art or they changed their level design sensibilities or maybe forced by Gearbox.

I don't know what happened. While the art design of the levels is marvelous (every level is in a different country like France or Russia, with new textures and environments reflecting the culture and relevant duke jokes that I enjoyed), most levels are not as big as they make it to be (there was a whole interview, where the designers boasted these are the biggest levels since the past) and most importantly in some levels there is such obvious linearity that I can't not notice it. And even if you explore the level for secrets, a lot of them are pockets in the wall, not enough or interesting interconnections to other areas. And way much more. I really need to make a video about it at some point, showing classic levels of Duke and then parts in this new levels for comparison. I mean,. I couldn't see anyone noticing this, everybody was arguing about the new voice of Duke or other issues. Some reviewer even said the levels were too labyrinthine and it made him quit. To me, it's like they expected them to be labyrinthine, because that's the stereotype of all these classic FPS. It's like there is no real criticism but just pandering to the expectations that since it's Duke it must be labyrinthine. No, in a lot of levels the path is straight forward, kinda gets better in few maps which are still not as inspiring besides the new assets. Someone also noticed the amount of doctor's health bag were too frequent. And there was an area in the secret level where you couldn't get the full 100% monster kills. Why? Because some monsters were behind invisible walls. Why? Because there used to be an area that they removed and forgot to remove the monsters, because they thought it would confuse the player! And that was brought back in a mod on Steam and many players said, rightly so, it wasn't confusing, it even interconnected two areas in a way that made it easier to navigate instead of backtracking.

I think there are some things that are removed or simplified so much, that if you put them back I would exclaim that there wasn't even the need to do so. That's what the casualization of games do and I am wondering why doing it in retro titles and genres no call of duty gamer would even bother to try? If a new gamer sees Duke3D world tour, it's still primitive with the billboard monsters. He is gonna go away. Also, since you have the classic levels too, he will not start from the new set of levels. He will first want to play the classic levels, which are not altered, so it's gonna be a hell of non-linear start. So, why simplifying the new episode? I skipped the classic levels since I've played them many times before. I went for the new stuff. I might be older, but I can still navigate through complex environment and search for secrets and be amazed by such environments. Oldschool gamers are your audience, so I can't understand how even in a game with dated graphics and gameplay, where the old masterminds of level design are to make new maps, this casualization still happens. I know Romero is planning to make his own new FPS. I am wondering what happens there..

And my last thought is this. Concerning games, especially new AAA titles, I don't expect to see the kind of FPS resembling the classics in their various aspects (and no, I don't consider Doom 4 totally managed this, few levels on the start where a bit more open and non-linear, but later they followed more linear go to a place, spawn monsters, go to next place, spawn monsters. Besides all the sins with glory kills and other elements). Afterall where games go is where the profit is. There are so many people in gaming now and the trend is making things simpler and maybe some gamers ask for this and this is like a black hole, sucking all the good elements, and every next generation will want simpler and simpler, and there is the whole process of letting players play your game and if they have struggle then you always have to simplify (I think there is a very standardized process I forget it's name and Jonathan Blow mentioned it in one of his talks, where a sample of players play your game and you have a questionary and refine till there are no gameplay blocks) and that makes the next generation appreciate the easier and more simplified gameplay norms and being even more resentful for a little bit of struggle and search.

I think, concerning FPS, our hope is the indie community. I have seen how they have brought masterpieces in other genres that can be comparable to the classics (from Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge to my beloved and (be)hated Spelunky) but from what I see from FPS, there are some humble attempts (a lot of them jumped into rogue-like procedural generated square maps, which didn't seem to appeal to me in the case of FPS, compared to genuine map designs) but nothing as far to make me exclaim that FPS are back from the dead. Maybe I'll check some more indie FPS titles at some point and see if I find something better I've missed. Also, there are specific AAA FPS claiming to be retro (Bulletstorm, new Shadow Warrior, new Rise of the Triad, new Wolfensteins, Hard Reset, etc) while they are good on their own, I think they still don't reach the enjoyment and marvel of exploration I have with classics, besides doing some newschool sins (like Bulletstorm mocking COD but then the real game having extremely linear forced path you can't believe, plus a bit of QTEs and bulletspongy shooting that I somehow didn't enjoy, albeit some nice new ideas for FPS).

I have accepted now that the world of games is defined by the majority of the gamers who have quite different needs and impatience than many of us oldschool gamers. So, it's meaningless to argue that much about it, although I enjoy nitpicking on specific things I notice. And I have all my hope on the indie community which didn't have it's real revolution yet on the FPS genre. As for adventure games, there are so many from the past that I have in my GOG account and haven't even played or finished. And some attempts from the AGS community are not bad either. There are way more adventures to keep me occupied than the good early era FPS counted in the fingers of my hands (and maybe my feet and a bit more :P). So, I shouldn't complain much.. (but still, can we bring back the FPS revolution? :)

p.s. I could talk more about these things and others, I kinda play with an idea in my mind to make videos on youtube comparing newschool and oldschool FPS or investigating some good indie titles. Yeah, besides my idea I never started to make youtube videos on graphics coding or retro tech.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

New months resolution

Since it's the beginning of a new era, where I plan to switch my development focus for the next three years, I might try to monitor my progress more frequently. Thus I wondered why we supposedly make a new years resolution where it takes a whole year to realize we have failed instead of having smaller goals each month. Then I can review what happened the month that passed and form accordingly my plans for the next one.

I am also thinking of weekly themes, like first week focused on a specific project, another week in something else, maybe having side quests for secondary things I want to work with, unless I seem to like to work on the same thing for more weeks. Although that might be a lame idea since everyday there are forces that tell me what I prefer to do and most of the times nothing productive.

I don't know, I will play accordingly, try to set up a plan, imagine what I'd like to do in short periods, also be weary of longer periods, for example I don't want to reach April and having not even started on specific things. For example, I will lay down a plan for the CPC wolfenstein project, which I'd wish I can finish a game by this year. So,. if I am at the early stage of still tinkering with the engine and nothing else during summer, I might know it's not good. Time passes like that. Something happens that makes you postpone things, then it goes September, November, then you say let's start again by next year. There are few checkpoints, like events where I stop for a while and rewind, for example eastern, or some time in February where I have planned something that will take me off for a week, things that can disrupt the working flow and then another month have passed without doing much. I will be weary of these events and plan to finish things before. April before eastern would be essential to having finished a set of goals for the wolfenstein CPC so that I can work later on the game itself.

As for this month, I just came back from holidays, so one week is lost. During holidays I fixed a bug in the quinine engine but mostly started working on a Doom level for two days (that's another plan to finish a Doom megawad by gradually speed mapping, easy if I didn't have other projects to work in parallel). Now I have three weeks. It will be mostly a test to see how to plan things but maybe I'll work on some easy code for gamedev plans (I am not saying anything, just a small thing we might want to port). The rest will be added later (youtube video making, continue with CPC wolfenstein, side projects coding, maybe one or less of that). I need to find a process.

Or as I like to say, twelve disappointments per year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Adventopolis 1.#INF - I am bored

So, that's it. The experiment is over. I don't plan to do any more entries of this. What is done is done. It helped me a bit at some moments to work on two things, the 2d software rendered framework that will be used for 2d PC/handheld games in the future (and I tested a bit how practical it is with the unfinished Ludum Dare entry and know what works and what to change/improve) and some more work on the CPC wolfenstein, mainly the editor and the zooming sprites. And that's good. But it was kinda forced to have to work each evening just to post an update. And I got tired and I proved what I wanted to.

The last few days before xmas are coming. At 22 I'll be flying back to Greece for holidays. Then I'll come back next year with new plans and dreams. I am already thinking some new years resolutions or better call them new months resolution and making a plan to allow me finish early enough some of the things I want to proceed. For example, if I procrastinate too much with things, if I see myself still fighting with the technical things of the wolfenstein engine in August, then it get go September, October and I will be like, fuck it, I am finishing this next year. But maybe I can set up monthly goals and see how it progress, or checkpoints like moments where there will be stop in flow, like for example eastern in April where I might travel back to Greece again as usually (I always go three times on Xmas, Eastern and some period in the Summer to see friends and family) and will cut the creative flow for 1-2 weeks and then coming back I need time to rewind. So, I could have a plan of what I'd wish to finish by that time. And maybe watch out every week or month for what I wanted to finish and what happened.

Or maybe focus more on setting me in the mentality of procrastinating less. I believe 2017 will be the year I should break this and get into new stuff that need the focus, need the change in mentality to achieve what I want.

Anyway, merry xmas and a happy new year if I don't see you in another post here!

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Adventopolis #17 - the zoom must go on

I didn't work all day this Saturday. I went out to the city and then out again to meet a friend. And that's ok, didn't plan to bruteforce this weekend anyway. I only came back in the evening, rested for a while and then decided I have to code something just to write this (slight motivator to code at least one hour per day, interesting, but not something I would like to do in such fashion all the time).

I decided to test some more on the zooming on CPC wolfenstein and see how much it takes to sort of position a sprite and zoom according to the distance to the player. But of course I made a bad mockery with 1D distances just to see it. I will need real sqrt on CPC unless I can think of another way, but now it's doing a fake thing just to see and imagine how it would feel like. Also, no real positiong from 3D to 2D yet and no clipping at all. I even made a video about it.

Other than that, I am thinking tomorrow again of a youtube video I wanted to do criticising level design of a specific FPS and I might try to bruteforce it in the morning so that I don't end up at night and feel like doing nothing. And then I was playing again with an idea I have, which I don't remember if I mentioned yesterday and I am too lazy to check, for speed coding and maybe some youtube vid/timelapse. Also another way to maybe motivate me to try specific stuff I postpone. Select something you wanted to code and try to code it fast, either something you have coded before or a new effect you never made before. It's like the speedmapping on Doom where they try to make a map in 30 minutes for example (I might try to do one of these too and maybe timelapse it :).

Anyway I don't know how it will be tomorrow and if I'll end doing something. Then I'll have something like 4 days or less inside the weekend. Maybe my last wish was to release something for the Sam? Not sure now though, old lousy assembly code which I could fix or maybe I'll release something as is. I even have to bother switching on my Sam and see how I will transfer the thing I'll be doing to check if it works.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Adventopolis #16 - time before the second fail

Ok, it's 15 minutes before midnight, I was about to miss the next post. Yesterdays post was forgotten, it was over 2:00 after midnight but it's ok, I had to do something else.

Little things now, it's Friday and I just finished the unification of the Wolfenstein FPS and also tried sort of press Space to fire projectile zooming blue fireball. It's blue for now because I am trying on red walls texture. Of course it just zooms at the center, no real positioning yet.

I have another idea for speed coding. Might try it at some point.

p.s. I already got bored of this, but I am gonna continue it till the end..
p.p.s. I cheated and change the date of yesterday's post. I just wanted them to line up every day in the list.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Adventopolis #15.5 - First Fail

Ok, I was very busy with something else I had to do outside of coding, then I checked the time and I am sleepy as fuck too.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Adventopolis #14 - and the bat is in!

Things going well, although I am coding for 1+ hour, my new plan is waste time before hand and code something at ten. Hehe,. it short of works, but might change strategy in the future if I want to do more. Or maybe it's an ok strategy to motivate me to work on something instead of nothing. This night's task was to transfer the two frame of the bat enemy sprite (no joke about Batman Group :) from sigh, see how it looks (it kinda blends weirdly with black or dark blue, sigh's sprite was black, I changed it to blue, maybe try some gray or something). I also added a sprite struct in the CPC code, so that I have different sprites, both the fireball and bat frames and select which to render. It used to be a function that read a single global spr array in the past, just for testing. Now it's ready to render many different sprites of different width/height. I am still rendering in the center, so I need to next solve real x,y,z position to x,y and zoom on the screen. And maybe optimize the speed.

I am getting good with screenshots in these posts (although don't expect it daily). But when I finish a proper move around level, meet static bats flapping their wings in real 3d and shoot fireballs, maybe clip and of course zoom rewritten in assembly for fast speed, it will be proper for a youtube progress preview. That's all I want to do (this year? Don't know). Then I am at the next stage of the engine/game. Where I have to go back to solve, raycaster problems/speed improvements, and then rewrite this big thing in assembly. And call it a day. And figure out where to go next (I might have to check my remaining memory, I hit something again by adding all three sprites but I am not sure). Then what remains is the texture editor/special effects with column offsets (torch animations, sliding doors (that will need also transparency)). It will at some point feel more complete and ready to start coding the gameplay. Lot's of small and bigger things I hope to reach a point where it doesn't feel scary.