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August 18, 2015

Filed under: gaming»design

Free Electron

When GitHub released Atom last year, there were a lot of people who thought the underlying technology — a web-based mashup of Chromium and NodeJS — was a terrible idea. They may yet be right, but Atom has gotten steadily better, to the point where I can recommend it to my students. Meanwhile, GitHub made the app runtime, Electron, available for hacking around, and it's becoming increasingly common (along with NW.js) as a way to build simple, network-savvy desktop applications.

While I'm hardly sympathetic to the people who complain about web-over-native, one complaint that does seem reasonable is the size of these applications. Electron takes up 113MB even before any user code gets loaded, and while that's not a huge footpint in today's world of terabyte hard drives, it may seem redundant when users probably already have a browser installed. If you run multiple Electron apps, they don't share runtimes, either.

That said, there is one genre of software that routinely ships its own dependencies this way, and nobody bats an eyelash: games. Looking at my Steam library, there's at least five titles there that run on Unreal Engine, each with its own copy of the engine and supporting libraries. And engines like Unreal or Unity are huge cross-platform monoliths these days, used by AAA studios and small teams alike. Many of these games probably embed a web browser anyway, since it's a great way to build UI. What if we flipped that around? Could Electron be a viable development platform for independent games?

I started thinking about this question earlier this year, after reading a post by Greg Tavares, one of the WebGL architects for Chrome. He points out that as platforms go, the browser is pretty good: features like GL are well-tested and reliable, JavaScript is a great rapid prototyping language, and cross-platform support is pretty decent. If your needs are relatively humble, or you're already well-versed in web development, why not use something like Electron, paired with Three.js or another framework as your "engine?"

I've been meaning to test out Electron anyway, so I spent some time tonight trying to answer that question. The result is You Don't Know Electron. It's a simple party-style trivia game, with a twist: instead of crowding around a keyboard or using controllers, players scan a QR code to use their phone as a "buzzer." Everything is in sync, so when the first person presses the correct answer, everyone else's device will switch to a "get ready for the next question" screen almost instantly.

Behind the scenes, the app opens up a native-looking window on the host computer for displaying questions and scores, but it also spawns a hybrid HTTP/WebSocket server for the mobile clients. The result is a little slapdash, but surprisingly responsive in practice. UI is all done through a super-simple Angular thin client, with most of the state living in the persistent Node server. And while the look of it isn't anything fancy, it's also only the result about about 3 hours of work — a little extra polish, and I legitimately think it could be a fun party game. Feel free to clone it and try for yourself.

If you know Node, Electron turns out to be an surprisingly pleasant development experience. I'm no indie game dev, but based on tonight's experiment, I'd seriously consider it if I wanted to start a new project. For casual games, WebGL (or even 2D canvas) and HTML are a solid foundation, especially since Electron's browser window is up-to-date with features like flexbox and web components. It's no Unity, but it is free and built on well-documented standards.

The fact that it's web-based under the hood opens up a whole range of exciting possibilities around little custom servers: phones or tablets could be used to show hidden information to each player (a hand of cards, personal inventory, secret messages, etc.), or additional computers could instantly turn a single player session into multiplayer. All with no installation friction: just connect to the host with a browser and start playing.

(In fact, I've had a long-standing idea for an asymmetric "virtual board game" of Alien vs. Nostromo crew that would work perfectly with this setup. If only I had the time...)

Meanwhile, we're seriously considering this at the Seattle Times as a way to package up our tools for newsroom users. We're not the first people to do it — NPR's Lunchbox bundles up some of their social tools — but since our workflow is almost entirely Node-based, we're in a much better place to take advantage of everything Electron can do (NPR basically just bundles the static output of their Flask apps). Don't be surprised if you see more Electron-based tooling news from us in the future!

August 6, 2015

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Mess Affect

There's probably not a better modern space opera than the Mass Effect games, which is what makes its wildly incoherent plot all the more bizarre. Replaying the first title, it's hard to miss that the way that it eventually gets undercut by everything in the third. I can't decide which one looks better in hindsight — Mass Effect 1 is less ambitious (and not nearly as good mechanically), while 3 is ultimately lazier and, I think, more dishonest — but I think it does point out a really interesting problem in the way that Bioware builds their big, tentpole franchises.

Let's recap: in the first chapter, Commander Shepard (that's you) stumbles across a galactic double-agent named Saren while on a rescue mission, and is given carte blanche to hunt the traitor down. Eventually, it's revealed that Saren is working for a giant murderbot right out of central casting, and their plan is to open a gateway that lets all the other murderbots into this universe from whatever pocket dimension they've been hiding in. But surprise! the gateway is actually the ancient space station that galactic civilization picked as its center of government (living in Seattle after that New Yorker article, I know how they feel). Lots of stuff explodes.

By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, it would make sense for people to have thought, geez, maybe living on a massive, prehistoric portal to robot doom-town might not be a good idea. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. In fact, during the plot of the final game, not only are people still living on the Citadel, but Shepard finds out that it doubles as the power source for the super-weapon that will wipe out the bad guys. Handy! And by handy, I mean tremendously lazy in a narrative sense.

Truthfully, the overarching plot is the weakest parts of the Mass Effect franchise. The first game is too small to sell "epic scope" — when characters like Wrex die, they haven't been around long enough to feel important, or for many players to even realize they can be saved. The third spends too much time trying to wrap up plot threads instead of actually telling a story.

By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a heist flick. The beginning is nonsense, as is the ending (the less said about the giant glowing skeleton boss, the better), partly because those are the pieces that connnect to the other storylines. But the middle 95% of the game is brilliant, because it mostly tosses the Reapers and their Robot Death Party out the window. Instead, you wander from planet to planet, assembling your crew and settling their debts so they can join you in the final mission. It's in these smaller stories that the writers can actually explore the universe they've built, with all its weird little corners and rivalries.

At some point, it starts to feel like the quest for spectacle is not helping Mass Effect, or Bioware games, or games in general, in much the same way that the "huge crashing object" finale is the worst part of our society's superhero movie infestation. Maybe it's a broken record to say that we need more AAA games that are more about character and less about saving the city, country, world, or galaxy. It's still true, though, and the best evidence for it is the games themselves.

July 9, 2015

Filed under: gaming»software»zachtronics

MOV ACC LEFT

It seems vaguely ridiculous to spend my days working on a computer, and then come home and write assembly code for an hour or two, much less enjoy it. That's how good TIS-100 is: a deranged simulator for a broken alien computer, it's the kind of game where the solutions are half inspiration, half desperate improvisation.

Here's the idea: the game boots up a fake computer, which immediately fails POST and dumps you into the debugger. Inside, it's made up of chips arranged in a grid, each of which can be programmed with up to 15 instructions in an invented assembly language. In a series of puzzles, you're given a set of inputs and a list of expected output, and it's up to you to write the transformation in the middle.

Complicating matters is the fact that TIS-100 processors are designed to be as eccentric as possible. Nodes have no RAM, just a single addressable register and a second backup register that can be swapped out. They're also severely limited in what they can do, but very good at communicating with each other. So each solution usually involves figuring out how to split up logic and shuffle values between nodes without deadlocking the CPU or writing yourself (literally) into a corner. There's a bunch of tricks you learn very quickly, like using a side node as a spare register or sending bits back and forth to synchronize "threads."

It's not perfect. Once I beat TIS-100, I didn't feel an urge to start back up the way I do for something more "game-like" (say, XCOM or Mass Effect). But it does have the wonderful quality that you can solve most of its puzzles while you're away from the computer, and actually typing them in is a bit of an anticlimax. For all its exaggeration and contrivance, I'm not sure you could get a better simulation of programming than that.

March 19, 2015

Filed under: gaming»hardware

Platformers

I saw a lot of shocked reactions when Nintendo announced it would be partnering with another company to make smartphone games. The company was quick to stress that it wouldn't be moving entirely to app stores controlled by third parties: these games will not be re-releases of existing titles, and Nintendo is still working on new dedicated console hardware for the next generation. You shouldn't expect New Super Mario on your phone anytime soon. Basically, their smartphone games will serve as ads for the "real" games.

Unlike a lot of people, I've never really rooted for Nintendo to become a software-only company. Other companies that make that jump often do so to their detriment — look at Sega, which lost a real creative spark when they got out of the hardware business — and it's even more true for Nintendo, which has always explored the physical aspects of gaming as much as the virtual. The playful design of the GameCube controller buttons, or the weirdness of a double-screened handheld, or the runaway popularity of Wii Sports, are the result of designers who are encouraged to hold strong opinions. A touchscreen, on the other hand, is a weak opinion — even no opinion, as it imitates (but never really emulates) physical controls like buttons or joysticks.

But here's the other thing: what Nintendo represents on dedicated handheld hardware, as much as wacky design chops, is a sustainable market. I play a lot of Android games, I own a Shield, I'm generally positive on the idea of microconsoles. Even given those facts, a lot of the games I play on the go are either emulators or console ports, because the app store model simply does not support development beyond a single mechanic or a few hours of gameplay. The race to the bottom, and the resulting crash of mobile game prices, means that you will almost never see a phone game with the kind of lifespan and complexity you'd get out of even the lamest Nintendo title (Yoshi Touch & Go aside).

I don't think everything Nintendo produces is golden, but they're reliable. People buy Nintendo games because you're pretty much guaranteed a polished, enjoyable experience, to the point where they can start with an expanded riff on a gimmick level and still end up with a solid gameplay hit. They're the Pixar of games. And as a result of that consistency, people will pay $40 for first-party Nintendo titles, largely sight-unseen. This creates a virtuous cycle: the revenue from a relatively-expensive gaming market lets them make the kind of games that justify that cost. It's almost impossible to imagine Nintendo being able to sustain the same halo in a $1-5 game market.

There's room for both experiences in the gaming ecosystem. Microsoft, Sony, and Steam will all provide big-budget, adult-oriented games. The app stores are overflowing with shorter, quirkier, free-to-play fare. Nintendo's niche is that they crossed those lines: oddball software for all ages that was polished to a mirror sheen. Luckily, even though observers seem convinced that Nintendo is doomed, the company itself seems well aware of where their value lies — and it's not on someone else's platform.

September 23, 2014

Filed under: gaming»media

Press Play

I have started, and then failed to finish, three posts on the #GamerGate nonsense, in which a gang of misogynists led by 4Chan have attempted to hound Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn off the Internet for daring to be women with opinions about video games. There's very little insightful you can say about this, because they don't have any real arguments for someone to engage, and also because they're dumb as toast. At some point, however, someone decided that they'd use "ethics in journalism" as a catchphrase for their trolling.

What they mean by that is anyone's guess. This Vox explainer does its best to extract an explanation, but other than some noise about "objectivity," there aren't any concrete demands, and the links to various arguments are hilariously silly. One claims that there's a difference between "journalist" and "blogger" based on some vague measure of competence (read: the degree to which you agree with it), which veterans of the "blogger ethics panel" meme circa 2005 will enjoy. Frankly, the #GameGate movement's concept of journalism is itself pretty fuzzy, and tough to debate. As a journalist with actual newsroom experience, I think there are a few things that we should clear up.

Game journalism, isn't

Real journalists make phone calls. They dig into stories, find other viewpoints, and perform fact-checking. It's not glamorous work, which may be why reporters are so prone to self-mythologizing (a tendency I'm not immune to), but it is hard and often tedious. It's also, in its best moments, confrontational. There's an old saying: journalism is publishing what someone doesn't want to be published — everything else is just public relations. Some of that is just more myth-making, but it's also true.

When's the last time you read "gaming news" that had multiple sources? That actively investigated wrongdoing in the industry? That had something critical to say about more than how a single game played? You can probably think of exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions. The vast majority of what gamers call "journalism" isn't anything like real reporting.

This isn't unusual, or even wrong. It's pretty typical for trade press, particularly in the entertainment industry. After all, there's only so combatative you can be when you're dependent on cooperation with game studios and publishers in order to have anything to write about. I don't expect hard-hitting investigations from Bass Player or The A.V. Club either. It's not journalism, but it still has value.

#GamerGate doesn't understand the difference

Unfortunately, as far as anyone can tell, the cries of "ethics in journalism" actually translate to a desire for more press releases and PR, like in the halcyon days of Nintendo Power. That's probably comforting for a lot of people, because PR is inherently more comforting than critical thought, but it means what they want and what they claim they want are very different things.

There's a kind of irony of calling for "objectivity" in gaming press, where the dominant mode of writing is through previews and reviews. People making this call aren't asking for actual objectivity, because that wouldn't make sense — what's an "objective" review? One that can definitively state that yes, the game exists? It's a code word for "tell me about the graphics, and the genre, and leave any pesky context out of it."

That isn't much of a review, frankly. It's the kind of thinking that gives four stars to Triumph of the Will because the cinematography is groundbreaking, no matter what the content might have been. Incidentally, the author of the definitive — if satirical — Objective Game Reviews site has a really nice post about this.

We have met the enemy, and he is us

Here's what's funny about #GamerGate and its muddled, incoherent demands for journalism: by all accounts, the person who actually meets a lot of their criteria is none other than Anita Sarkeesian, the person they loathe the most. I mean, think about it:
  • About half of her videos are just unaltered clips from games — that's what makes them so powerful, since they speak for themselves. And what's more objective than plain footage?
  • She states her biases right out of the gate. The YouTube channel is called "Feminist Frequency," so people know what they're getting into.
  • She's funded by people who paid for her kickstarter, not gaming companies or PR firms. There's no corporate influence.

It's exactly what they're asking for! And they hate it! It's almost as though, protests to the contrary, this isn't about journalism at all. As if there's actually an agenda being pushed that's more about forcing women and alternative viewpoints out. Imagine that.

May 8, 2014

Filed under: gaming»hardware»android

Select Start

I've owned an Nvidia Shield for a little under a year now. The situation hasn't entirely changed: I use it most often as a portable emulator, and it's wonderful for that. I beat Mother 3, Drill Dozer, and Super Metroid a while back, and I'm working my way through Final Fantasy 6 now.

But there are more Android games that natively support physical controls now, especially as the Ouya and add-on joysticks have raised the profile for Android gaming. It's not a huge library, but between Humble Bundles and what's in the Google Play store, I certainly don't feel cheated. If you're thinking about picking one up, here's what's good (and what's merely playable) so far.

Aquaria may be the best value for the dollar on Shield, which makes it weird that apparently you can't buy it for Android anymore. A huge, sprawling Metroid-alike set underwater, with a beautifully-painted art style, it's the first game that I played where the Shield's controls not only worked, they worked really well (which figures, since it was developed for XBox controls alongside mouse and touch). If you managed to nab this in an old Humble Bundle, it's well worth the installation.

Actually the third in a series of "tower offense" games, where you send a small group of tanks through a path filled with obstacles, Anomaly 2 is one of the weird cases where the physical controls work, and are very well-tuned, but you still kind of wish the game was on a touchscreen. Playing the earlier Anomaly titles on a phone, you'd get into a groove of tapping icons to balance your resources, targeting, and path. It had a nice Google Maps fluidity to it, and that kind of speed suffers a little bit when panning around via thumbstick. It's still worth a look, but probably better played on a touch device.

In contrast, Badlands seems like a poor match for the Shield--it's a single-press game similar to any number of other smartphone titles (Flappy Bird, Tiny Wings, etc). But there's one distinguishing factor, which is that the triggers on the Shield (which are mapped to the "flap" action) are fully analog, so the harder you pull the faster the onscreen character flies. It's a small change, but it completely alters the feel of the game for the better. The layered, 2D art style is also gorgeous, and the sound design is beautiful, but on the other hand I actually have no idea what's going on, or why some little black blobby creature is trying to travel from left to right.

Most of these games come from the Humble Bundles, which are almost always worth throwing $5 at, but I actually bought Clarc from the Google Play store. It plays a bit like Sokoban, mixed with Portal 2's laser puzzles and Catherine's block/enemy entrapment. Previously released on Ouya, the controls are still solid on the Shield, and the puzzles follow a nice pattern of seeming impossible, then seeming obvious once they're worked out. A super-fast checkpoint system also helps. It's cute, funny, and good for about 6 hours of serious play.

I'm in favor of anything that puts Crazy Taxi on every platform in existence, but only if it's coded well. The problem is that while this port supports the gamepad, it's hamstrung by the adaptations made for phones — namely, the Crazy Drift can't be triggered manually, and the Crazy Dash feels sluggish. In a game where you need to be drifting or dashing almost all the time, this pretty much ruins your ability to run the map. I'd say to skip this unless it's on sale.

Gunman Clive was originally released on the PS Vita, and it shows: a cel-shaded platformer with a strong Contra influence, this is another bite-sized chunk of gameplay. It does seem to be missing some of the bonus features from the original release, but there's still plenty of variety (and some huge, fun bosses) to fight. Considering that it's only a couple of bucks, it's well worth the price if you're in the mood for some neo-retro shooting.

Speaking of retro, one of my favorite discoveries is the games that Orange Pixel has been tossing out for all kinds of platforms, particularly Gunslugs and Heroes of Loot. Both are procedurally-generated takes on classic games (Metal Slug and Gauntlet respectively) with a pixel-art design and a goofy sense of humor. The rogue-like randomization of the levels makes both of them compulsively playable, too. They're great time-wasters.

One of Gameloft's derivative mobile clones, NOVA 3 is trying very hard to either be Crysis or Halo. It doesn't really matter which since the result is just boring man-in-suit shooting, with sloppy, ill-configured thumbstick controls. All that, and it's still one of the more expensive titles in this list. Definitely skip this one.

Rochard was released on Steam a while back, and then re-released just for Shield this spring. It's a clever little puzzle-platformer that's based around a Half-Life gravity gun, but also some light combat. It would probably be better without the latter: the AI is generally terrible, and the weapons aren't inspiring. At its best, Rochard has you toggling low-gravity jumps, stacking crates, and juggling power cells to disable force fields, and those are the parts that make it worth playing.

Finally, fans of shooters have plenty of options (including remakes of R-Types I and II), but there's something to be said for time-travel epic Sine Mora. Although it makes no sense whatsoever, it's a great bullet-hell shmup with a strong emphasis on replayability through different ships and abilities, score attack modes, and boss fights. I love a good shooter, even if I'm terrible at them, and this is no exception.

What's missing from the games on Shield so far? I'd like to see more tactical options, a la Advance Wars or XCOM (which has a port, but doesn't understand gamepads). I'd appreciate a good RPG. And I'd love to see a real, serious shooter that's not a tossed-off Wolfenstein demake. But it's worth also understanding why these games don't exist: the economics of the mobile market don't support them. When your software sells for $5 a pop, maximum, you can't afford to do a lot of content development or design.

The result, except for ports from more sustainable platforms, is a bunch of quick hits instead of real investments. Almost all the games above, the ones that are worth playing at least, were either released on PC/console first, or simultaneously. The good news is that tools like Unity and Unreal Engine 4 promote simultaneous mobile/PC development. The bad news is that getting better games for mobile may mean cheapening development on the big platforms. If you thought that consoles were ruining PC game design before, wait until phones start to make an impact.

January 16, 2014

Filed under: gaming»software

Field of Streams

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony showed off the fruits of their acquisition of Gaikai, a company that streams video games over the Internet. This is something with which I have a little experience: in 2012, I worked for Big Fish on the now-discontinued Big Fish Unlimited, which did the same thing but for casual games. I was pretty sure that it was doomed then, and I'm pretty sure that similar platforms — including Sony's Playstation Now and OnLive — are doomed now, and for the forseeable future. The reason is simple: streaming just doesn't scale.

Let's say you're playing a game by streaming it to yourself from another computer you own, as in Nvidia's Shield or Valve's SteamOS. To do this you need two boxes: one to actually run the game, and one to act as a thin client, providing the display and input support. There are lots of things that can cause problems here — network connectivity, slow hardware, latency — but at the very least you're always going to have enough hardware to run the game, because you own both ends of it. Streaming scales in a linear fashion.

Now pretend you're doing the same thing, but instead of running the host machine yourself, it lives in a remote datacenter. For each person who's playing, the streaming service needs another computer to run the game — the scaling is still linear. You can't cache a game on a cheap edge node like you can a regular file, because it's an interactive program. And there's no benefit to running all those games simultaneously, the way that Google can leverage millions of GMail customers to lower e-mail transmission costs and spam processing algorithms cheaper. No, you're stuck with a simple equation: n players = n servers. And those servers are not cheap: they need hefty graphics cards, local storage, cooling systems, sound cards, etc.

And it gets worse, because those players are not going to obligingly spread their playtime around the clock to keep the load constant. No, they're going to pile in every evening in much higher numbers — much higher — than any other time of the day. League of Legends, a single (albeit very popular) game has had more than 5 million concurrent players. During peak hours, streaming providers will struggle to run enough host boxes. During off hours, all that expensive hardware just sits idle, completely unused.

At first, these problems seem solvable. When you don't have a lot of customers, it's not that bad to add new hosts to compensate for growth. Those earlier players may be more forgiving of wait times, attributing them to growing pains. But consider the endgame: if something like Playstation Now achieves real, widespread success (despite all the other network latency and quality of service issues these services always face), Sony's ultimate scenario is having literally millions of rack-mounted PS4s in datacenters around the country, many of them running at peak capacity for hours on end. That's more servers than Google, Microsoft, and Facebook put together.

At Big Fish, the business argument was that casual games could be run with multiple applications to a machine, so the scaling pressure was lower. But it's still linear: you've lowered the total number of machines you might need in the long run, but there's still a direct relationship between that number and your number of players. The only way to scale online gaming gracefully is to either find a way that games can share state (i.e., MMOs), or offload more of it to the client. As a front-end JavaScript specialist, I always thought Big Fish would have better luck porting its games to the browser instead of streaming them to a Java applet.

But there's only so much you can move to the client when your selling point is "next-gen games without next-gen hardware." In the case of Sony and OnLive, no amount of browser wizardry or Playstation branding is going to solve that fundamental scaling problem. It may be workable for instant demos, or beta previews. But for mainstream gaming, without a miraculous breakthrough in the way games are built and executed, the math just isn't there.

December 10, 2013

Filed under: gaming»design

Policing Procedurals

Even if I'm sticking with Steam for most of my gaming, our new PS4 did get me interested in Warframe, the free-to-play shooter that's available on Playstation and PC. I don't normally care for free-to-play, if only because I feel guilty for never buying anything, but I liked the central conceit of Warframe: procedurally-generated levels and highly-mobile Mass Effect-style combat. In retrospect, I probably should have been more skeptical. To understand why, we have to look back at how shooters have been built over the last twenty years.

There was a time, way before Halo and before franchises like Battlefield ran the earth, when one of the main selling points of a first-person shooter was the quantity of unique weapons that it brought to the table--an actual arms race, peaking with Duke3D which (for all its flaws) had some clever joke guns to go with the ubiquitous pistol/shotgun/chaingun trio. I'm not saying this was a better time, or that they were better games, but there was definitely a sense that the genre was about creative destruction, in the same way that fighting games are about combo systems and special attacks.

Then id Software built a monster for competitive deathmatch: Quake and its successors had an incredibly bland set of weapons, because in "serious" multiplayer the goal is to streamline everything except moving and shooting. This was the second refinement of shooter design, and it focused on the levels themselves, but as topology instead of as setting. Players concentrated on learning the levels so that they could plot a path that would keep them supplied, while denying pickups to the other players. A good Quake or Unreal Tournament player knew the game's weapons and how to aim, but more importantly they knew where to go, and when. Navigation became the mark of quality for a deathmatch bot.

Since then, these tendencies have mellowed as the possibility of more complex interactions and narratives has become available. Environments are built more for realism and story, weapons are more traditional and not usually why you buy the game. Which brings us to Warframe, which has basically none of these things. There's hardly any story, the "levels" are randomly generated from a series of tilesets, and the weapons are part of the free-to-play grind: either buy a new gun with real money, or spend a lot of time crafting one within the game's economy. Unlike the Mass Effect and Gears of War titles it resembles, there's no explicit cover system, but players do have a much wider range of movement options than a typical shooter: there are slides, flips, and wall runs available through various key combos.

If Warframe's computer-generated levels were any good, this would be a different post. Good levels would give players a way to put their acrobatic movement skills to good use, rewarding people who have learned the parkour system and can improvise in response to new environments. But the random generator mostly builds long, boring hallways connecting wide-open, pre-designed rooms, none of which require any particular skill outside of strafing and taking cover behind walls. Since players can't learn the levels and their flow, they can't optimize or get better at moving through them. And since new weapons require an investment of serious cash or time, almost everyone's using the same rifle and the same melee weapon, which means you never see anything that makes you want to spend any money or time in the first place.

The irony of this problem is that someone already got the formula right for doing procedural FPS games, and they did it by almost exactly reversing Warframe's formula. Borderlands has hand-built levels and enemy placement, combined with randomized weapon generation: each gun consists of components assembled onto a set of base bodies, which vary by "manufacturer" with certain preset tendencies and aesthetics. For example, Mariwan guns always inflict status effects (poison, fire, etc), while Jacobs weapons are Western-themed and can often fire as fast as the player can mash the button. Within those simple parameters, however, the results when you pull the trigger can vary wildly.

The result is a game that combines the two old-school driving forces of FPS design — clever level design and weapon variety — with the collector's urge that powers massive multiplayer games (Borderlands even borrows the color-coded quality markings from World of Warcraft, making it easy to evaluate a weapon drop in an instant). The innovation is not proceduralism — games like Diablo have long offered that — but figuring out how to balance it with the formula for a replayable and rewarding shooter. As someone who almost totally lacks a collection instinct, but loves the classic FPS genre, Borderlands 2 hits the sweet spot with remarkably few missteps (it's also surprisingly smart and funny, which is a welcome change).

I don't think procedural generation is impossible for first-person games — indeed, I think it's likely to have a bright future, particularly as web games mature and optimize for delivery size — but it illustrates just how difficult the challenge is likely to be for anyone who attempts it. For all that people talk about the genre as if it's just a collection of bro-heavy manshooters, there is undeniably a huge amount of craft that goes into the fundamental mechanics. As Kevin Cloud notes in Dan Pinchbeck's analysis of Doom (now 20 years old!),

Every genre has its real strengths, but in a shooter... if running and shooting is not fun, doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel visceral and powerful, then I think you are going to lose out.
Movement in FPS games is not just about how the player transitions from point A to point B, but about all the obstacles and decisions that make up that route. As such, building procedural content is not impossible, but it needs to provide good options for cover, paths for moving between pickups, and unexpected chances to either ambush enemies or be ambushed. Warframe may do this one day, but right now it's failing miserably. In the process, it's showing how little the developers have really thought about how the game they're building fits into the traditions of its genre.

December 4, 2013

Filed under: gaming»hardware»ps4

Press Play

Belle and I were planning on getting a Roku to replace our five-year-old XBox this Christmas, since the games are drying up and it doesn't make any sense to pay for a Live subscription just to watch Netflix and HBO. I still kind of bear a grudge against Sony for the CD rootkit they passed around years ago, but then my employers at ArenaNet bought everyone a PS4 as a holiday bonus. I am, it turns out, not above being a hypocrite when it comes to free stuff.

You can explain a lot about the last three generations of consoles by remembering that, at heart, Microsoft is a software company and Sony is a hardware company. Why did the XBox 360 suffer regular heat failures? Why does the PS Vita interface look like an After Dark screensaver? Our 360 was clearly on the edge of another DVD failure, so I bear them no particular good will. But you have to admit: up to the point that a given XBox malfunctions in one way or another, Microsoft knows how to build a usable operating system. Sony... well, it's not so much a core skill of theirs.

For example, after you turn on the PS4, and after the hundreds of megabytes of updates are done downloading and installing themselves a few times, you're greeted with a row of boxes:

  • Some kind of activity stream box, because people really wanted another Facebook.
  • Every game you've ever played. In my case, one demo I tried and will never touch again.
  • A web browser, which for some inconceivable reason doesn't use the touchpad on the controller, but has to be controlled via the thumbsticks and triggers, like Capcom wrote a game called Devil May Surf.
  • An ad for Sony's video service, which nobody is going to use instead of Netflix, and which can't be removed.
  • An ad for Sony's music service, which nobody is going to use instead of anything, and which can't be removed.
  • Something called the Playroom, which is useless if you don't have the PS4 camera, but can't be removed (there is a theme here).
  • A single item that contains all of your video streaming applications, even though these are probably where most people spend at least 50% of their time these days.
  • Oh, and of course, an item marked "Library" that shows a subset of the same list, I guess in case you want to see them arranged in vertical rows instead of horizontally.
At least the list is in chronological order by use, but only for certain items: no matter how often I open Amazon's video app, it'll always be cordoned off in a submenu, alongside a bunch of other video providers that I haven't actually installed but which Sony really wants me to know about, like Vudu and Crackle.

Apparently I'm a little grumpy about the menus.

Anyway for us, this is a media player, which means we'd like to have a remote control, but those don't exist for PS4 yet and it can't use regular IR remotes. The controller layout may make sense to someone who owned a PS3, but it's just baffling to me: why is the button normally used to go backwards assigned here to play/pause duties? To be fair, the XBox never really had a great controller story for DVDs either (both of them put fast-forward on the triggers, where you're guaranteed to accidentally hit it while setting the controller down), but at least it tried to be consistent with the rest of the OS.

You can pair a smartphone with the PS4, which one would think could be a chance to show custom controls for media, what with the touchscreen and all. You'd be wrong: the PS4 app dedicates 90% of its surface to a swipeable touchpad, apparently on the assumption that the three directional inputs on the actual controller are insufficient.

The whole time you're watching a movie, of course, the controller will glow like some sort of demented blue firefly, which helps the camera (which I don't have) to see where I am (hint: the couch). Since you can't just turn off the LED, I've got the whole controller set to shut itself off after ten minutes. This solves the glow, and keeps the batteries from draining themselves at an alarming rate, but now when I want to actually use the controller for something — say, to pause the movie because our dog has started making that special "I'm going to throw up" face — it interrupts with a bright blue screen, every single time, to ask me who I am. Meanwhile, my movie keeps playing in the background.

This is worth some emphasis: on the XBox, a console where we actually had multiple accounts, each new controller that was activated would either log in as the current user or just kind of wait in "guest" mode until the player actually signed in. On the PS4, a console where we have one account, to which I was already signed in with our only controller 20 minutes ago, Sony needs to know my identity before I can perform the critical, account-bound task of pausing a movie. Meanwhile, the dog is now standing sheepishly in front of a vomit-stained rug.

I'm a little grumpy about the media functions, too.

I'm well aware it's a little ridiculous to gripe this much about a free game system. It's not that the PS4 is a bad machine — it's on par with your average DVD player in terms of usability — but I tend to feel like maybe they should aim a little higher. I'm really hoping that these kinds of fixes will be easy to update, since most of the UI is apparently built using web technology instead of painstakingly coded native widgets.

What's really interesting about comparing consoles from both companies is that the kinds of things I really miss from the XBox (pinned items, Kinect voice commands, good media apps) weren't there from the start. Microsoft has gone through at least three major revisions since they released the 360 in 2005. Even though there have been regressions (and the ads have certainly gotten bigger over time), the overall trend has been for the better — in part because they've been effectively allowed to throw the whole thing away and start over. As far as I can tell, the PS3 was also improved, even if it wasn't reinvented in the same way. It takes a lot of nerve to make sweeping changes like that, and as well as a conviction that the physical box is not what you're selling — a philosophy that's well-suited to Microsoft's software background, but that even hardware companies can no longer ignore.

I've been so embedded in a constantly-shifting web environment for so long that I sometimes forget that not everything updates on a monthly basis. Sony will be more conservative than Microsoft, but even they will be rolling out patches to the PS4, many of which will probably address my complaints. We live in a world where you can turn around and find that your DVD player, or your phone, or your browser suddenly looks and acts completely differently. That's great for people like me who thrive on novelty, but it now occurs to me just how disorienting this might be for ordinary people. It may be worth considering whether a little stability might be good for us — even if it means preserving the bad with the good — and whether the technical community might benefit from a little sympathy to users overwhelmed by our love of change.

September 18, 2013

Filed under: gaming»software»aquaria

Cave Stories

There's a fine line between nonchalance and disregard for the player, and I'm not sure that Aquaria doesn't cross over it. As one of the best games on the Shield right now, I've been playing a lot of it — or, rather, alternating between playing it and looking up clues online. In a way, I respect the sheer amount of content the developers have put together, and the confidence they have in players to discover it, but I could use a little more signposting and, to be honest, a bit more challenge.

For example, the middle section of Aquaria is mostly non-linear: certain areas are locked away until you've beaten a few bosses and taken their abilities, but the order is still mostly flexible. Although it sounds great in theory, in practice this just means you're repeatedly lost and without a real goal. Having enormous maps just makes exacerbates the problem, because it means you'll wander one way across the world only to find out that you're not quite ready yet and need to hunt down another boss somewhere — probably all the way at the other end.

I'm goal-oriented in games, so this kind of ambiguity has always bugged me. The Castlevania titles post-Symphony of the Night suffer from this to some extent, but they usually offered something to do during the trip that made it feel productive--levelling up your character, or offering random weapon drops. Aquaria has a limited cooking system, but it's only really necessary in boss fights and it rarely does anything besides offer healing and specific boosts, so it's not very compelling.

According to an interview with the developers, Aquaria was originally controlled with keyboard and mouse, and they eventually moved it to mouse-only (which came in handy when it was ported to touch devices). Every now and then the original design peeks through, like when certain enemies fire projectiles in a bullet-hell shooter pattern. The Shield's twin-stick controls make this really easy (and fun) to dodge, but since the game was intended for touch, these enemies are relatively rare, and the lengthy travel through the game tends toward the monotonous.

Look, I get that we have entered a brave new world of touch-based control schemes. For the most part, I am in favor of that — I'm always happy to see innovation and experimentation. But playing Aquaria on the Shield makes it clear that there's a lot of tension between physical and touch controls, and it's easy to lose something in the transition from the former to the latter. Aquaria designed around a gamepad (and an un-obstructed screen) could be a much more interesting game. Yes, it would be harder and less accessible — but the existing game leaves us with "easy and tedious," which is arguably a worse crime.

I'm starting to think that in our rush to embrace casual, touch experiences (in no small part because of the rise of touch-only devices), we may be making assumptions about the audience that aren't true — such as the idea that it's the buttons themselves that were scary — and it's not always a net positive for game design. At its heart, Aquaria is a "core" game, not a casual game: it's just too big, and the bosses are too rough, for this to be in the same genre as Angry Birds or whatever. Compare this to Cave Story (its obvious inspiration), a game that was free to cram a ridiculous amount of non-linear content into its setting because its traditional platforming gameploy was so solid.

There is a disturbing tendency for many people to insist that there must be a winner and a loser in any choice. In the last two weeks, every tech site on the planet decided that the loser was Nintendo: why don't they just close up shop and make iPhone games? I think it's a silly idea — anyone measuring Nintendo's success now against their performance with the Wii is grading them on the wrong end of a ridiculous curve — and Aquaria only makes me feel stronger about that. For all that smartphone gaming brings us, there are some experiences that are just going to be better with buttons and real gaming hardware. As long as that's the case, consoles are in no danger of extinction.

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