Friday, November 23, 2007

Friday already!

Apologies, dear regular readers (both of you) for these past days of blogging indolence. I can however report that I've been absorbing myself in relevant activities, discussion of which will reach these very pages, very soon (read: I've been playing Mario and compiling a list of complaints).

Work on my current side-project, Hohokum, is gathering pace. I've now switched physics engines, from Ape, to an Actionscript3 port of Box2D. B2 seems much more fully featured, being a port of an existing c++ engine, and it's also really nippy, partly because it implements a broad phase - a pre-process to calculations which works out which objects have no chance of interacting, and so massively reduces the overhead of calculations.

I'll be sad to leave Ape behind, partly because the userbase is very active and enthusiastic, but it simply doesn't support some of the features I'm looking for in a physics engine at this stage.

Anyhow, I now have my Extractors vibrating as they pump out lumps of rock, whose physics are handled by Box2D beautifully. I'll post something in the next month so you can see what the hell I'm talking about.

In work news, this week we had a big meeting with our publisher, where we unveiling the various games we've been prototyping, and then we all decide which one we should make next. It's kind of a strange bitter-sweet experience - you'll only be able to take one of your children home and raise them, which is fantastic, but the others will have to stay in the orphanage for the time being, until their features have grown more beautiful.

Monday, November 19, 2007

D(ecision) Day has passed..

... and Super Mario Galaxy was the winner!

On Sunday, I played a few hours of both Mario and Crysis. Both great games, but the latter is Far Cry with better graphics and a lower frame rate, whereas the former is proper good old fashioned Fun, like in the old days, with bright colours and capital letters and everything, where all the old stuff works exactly as it should and everything new exactly as you suspect it might.

So today I came home and made a bee-line for Mario, played it for a solid two hours, and didn't want to stop. Every level it's something completely new, whether it be 2D platforming with a twist, reprises of Mario 64 levels with 2007 (ok, 2005) presentation, or a minigame tuned to perfection for the Wiimote. 20 stars in and 10/10 so far.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

In the Prime of Life

Happy Birthday to me! The obscenely large television is here, the 360 is connected to it with a copy of Gears good to go, plus I have Crysis and I'm getting Mario Galaxy...

Tell me what to do first!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nil Points

Team Fortress 2 is the game I've been thinking about playing but haven't most over the past few weeks. I fired it up last night for a few hours, and reminded myself why. I absolutely stink at Team Fortress 2.

I'm not even sure why this is - in principle it should be ideal for me. I'm moderately skilled at First Person Shooters; usually play things on Hard, and my favourite ever deathmatch experience was Doom - super fast and simple with a limited requirement to exhaustively learn the maps to the depth that games like Counterstrike or Battlefield demand.

But in practice, it just doesn't quite work out for me. Eschewing the complexity of a class like the engineer or spy, my weapon of choice alternates between the soldier and the scout, depending on the map. But as the soldier my rockets never quite seem to connect solidly with their intended targets. And when I'm the scout my shotgun blasts - whilst consistently hitting their man - rarely provide the killing blow.

Oh sure, I can bob and weave about to avoid the sniper fire well enough most of the time, or play sniper when I want to spare myself the ignominy of coming bottom, but I still feel like I'm missing out on most of the joy that TF2 should so clearly be providing.

Are my reactions gradually dulling with age, or have I spent too much time away from these type of games to ever catch up with the other boys and girls, who seem to know instinctively how to land a grenade on a distant head, or baseball bat a passing goon at high speed?

Bah and double-bah! I'm going to keep at it a little longer before I finally hang up my spurs.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Was up late last night - checking out the new World of Warcraft patch 2.3 and questing with some guildies, hence no post this morning - only just had time to wolf down porridge, feed fish and dash!

It's surpising given how long the game has been running, and how successful it is that Blizzard are still ways to massively improve even the basic interface.

They've made it easier to level from 20 to 60 too, so no doubt I'm gonna park my 70 warrior and get back on my alts, juggling between Priest, Warlock and Hunter.

Still in for the long haul then, though if I don't see some major graphical improvements by the next expansion which make use of my 8800, I fear my attention will begin to wain..

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bridging the Gap

This week sees the release of Crysis, a game I am very much looking forward to playing. Crysis is the sequel to Far Cry, a game I very much enjoyed playing. Far Cry exemplified the 'sand-box' mode of play - give the player a wide environment, rich with its own systems, and let the player approach it as they like.

So, given a stretch of jungle with two villages connected by roads, you could choose to attack them in any order. Maybe steal a jeep from one and steam up and down the road mowing down the mercenary soliders. Or stay hidden the bushes gradually sniping the off one by one. Or perhaps just take a hang glider over the whole thing. The environments were *huge*, and exploration was nearly always rewarded - it was quite an eye opener for me at the time - I don't think any game before or since has trusted players with quite that degree of freedom, and the space to express it in.

Recently I completed episode 2 of Half Life, a series that approaches level design in the polar opposite way. In Half Life the player is led by a gentle but firm hand down a single path full of perfectly balanced combat situations and spectacular set pieces. If they are ever allowed to stray from the path, and do, the most that will happen is that Steam will capture and report this fact, and Valve will be sure to stick in another Gman sighting from that point (although I didn't spot him once in Ep2).

Both of these approaches make for good gameplay, but I find myself wondering whether they couldn't be combined in some way, and whether Crysis will go any way to address this.

The problem is that in order to have a truly successful 'set piece', the player needs to be genuinely involved in the action, rather than just stumbling into a situation that is going on regardless of their presence (like all those infinite npc battles raging on in World of Warcraft's Outland).

The way Half Life usually deals with this is to funnel the player down a narrow path, whereupon they trip an invisible wire, and the scripted action plays out right in front of their eyes, where they can't possibly miss it. In order to reproduce this kind of effect in a open Far Cry environment, the scripting, AI and triggering system would need to be considerably more complex. I guess what you'd ideally want is a way to describe a series of things happening in a general enough way to allow the game engine to apply them to arbitrary situations and environments.

At this point, even I barely know what I'm talking about, so I'm going to get back to Actionscript 3.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nobi Nobi Boy

So Keita Takahashi, the designer behind Katamari Damacy, is making a game where - by the looks of things - you control either end of a stretchy worm boy with the two analogue sticks and use his body to herd animals around.

It seems the player will have some control over the tension in the body, and will be able to make the two ends fly into the air, trailing the body around like a colourful streamer. And eat the animals too, which then form lumps in the body which work their way down, presumably due to some revolutionary peristalsis physics engine.

Multiple players may join in for all kinds of entanglement too.

It's called Nobi Nobi Boy, and it's shaping up marvellously. He makes it seem almost effortless - and how many other games do you see demoed in this state - just a mechanic, with no game at all?

Monday, November 12, 2007

This was a Triumph!

So, I finished Portal this weekend, and can only reiterate what everyone has already said - a mind-bending and delightful way to spend two hours.

I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud so many times playing a game. There's a rich vein of science comedy that Valve do better than pretty much anyone else in the world, and the plot and script just got better and better right up until the tantalising credits (which surely deserve some kind of Bafta or something - I'm currently rewatching it on youtube twice a day).

If I have a criticism, it's that I'm not sure that the Portal gun alone is enough to support a sequel. By the last third of the game, I felt like it had already laid out its bag of tricks onto the table, and I was simply repeating the same mechanics in slightly different situations, and the final challenge was really more about exposition than play.

Still, that Half Life 2: Portal mod seems to have.. uh, potential, eh kids?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Tis the Season to Prioritise

So Bioshock didn't slip down then, but became lodged in my throat somewhere in the second chapter. The problem was that despite the rich environment, the plot, the plasmids, all the innovative ways to kill Splicers, Bioshock is a not-very-good First Person Shooter with a not-very-good version of PipeMania sellotaped to it.

Rapture may be lush, but it sure hasn't been designed for gun combat. The Splicer AI may be clever, but it isn't fun to fight. That graphical blurring effect that it covers the screen with may be pretty, but it pretty much breaks the firefights, along with its pal, 'realistic kickback'. The damage model is broken too (I can shoot a boss in the head at point blank range over 10 times to kill them, or just throw a piece of furniture at them? Whoops).

It's a shame, because I dearly wanted to be immersed in the game, and I love exploring the wide maps to find new diary entries, but when you're constantly under attack by Splicers chattering over the voice acting, it rather spoils the effect. Can someone release a mod that removes them from the game, leaving only the Big Daddies and Little Sisters please.

Oh, and about *that* 'interesting moral decision'. Come ON. Is this really the best example of we've seen yet in games? If so, we should definitely stop going on about it. Anyway, which characters to take to level 80 in FFXII was easily more interesting (Balthier and Fran ftw!)

It's that time of year - and this year especially - when all the big publishers prepare their marketing goons with the finest marching powder, take out their giant cocks and start swinging them around. It started with the aforementioned Bioshock, which I abandoned just in time for the Orange Box. Finished Episode 2, enjoyed being rubbish at TF2, but haven't quite finished Portal (I know, I know). Then Metroid 3 comes out, but I still haven't finished Phantom Hourglass on the DS. Now it's my birthday, and I'm 'looking forward' to Mario Galaxy, Crysis, Call of Duty 4, Assassin's Creed. Plus I just got a 360 (thanks mum n dad!) so there's a giant backlog of other stuff to play, to say nothing of little snacky oddities like Rockstar's Table Tennis on the Wii, or Geometry Wars Galaxies.

It isn't good for the gamer, all this. Nothing to play but World of Warcraft for months on end, and then waaaay too much at once. I understand that the industry has locked itself into this Q4 feedback loop over the years, but the sense of magic you used to get back in the day when a new game came out that everyone had been waiting for, and every gamer friend you knew would be playing it at the same time has been lost. I've no idea in what order to tackle the seasonal releases this year, or which consoles to plug into which tellies to best share out the experience between Nikki and myself (adhering strictly to the no spoilers rule, where every time you enter a room, you daren't look at the screen for fear of seeing a boss fight before you've reached that bit).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Flash on the Beach

Just got back from Brighton, where I've been attending talks at the Flash on the Beach conference. Really good timing, since I'm just about to plough right into Actionscript 3 programming by porting my current game CowBandits (itself a port of the second mobile game I ever made).

I'm also going to port my particle engine across from c++ (in fact I already started on the laptop), and the work of algorithmic artists such as Robert Hodgin, Joshua Davis, Eric Natske and Jared Tarbell have left me super-inspired to add a number of features to it. In particular, I want to have bitmap data affecting particle behaviour in various ways, introduce ribbon trails and get some sound interaction going.

I'm gonna add these guys to a new 'art' section in my links. They deserve it.

I'm also keen to check out the Processing language - Robert Hodgin's work especially shows off what this can do, and I'm particularly interested in the ability to do spectral analysis on an audio input and infer physics properties from the sound data - thinking about doing some work towards visualising my brother's band.

Most of all though, I want to get back to working on the Flash game I'm making with my pal Dick Hogg, codename 'Hohokum'. It's inspired by Asteroids, Armadillo Run and Katamari, and I must must must get back to it!

(I finished reading The Hobbit on the train down to Brighton yesterday. Gandalf is nowhere near as hardcore in that book - he must have gone to advanced wizard training college between that and the start of Lord of the Rings, otherwise he'd have had no chance against the Balrog).