next next next gen

Now that I am again in the Industry, I can spill cheap thoughts pretending to be somewhat authoritative. Yesterday, Xbox One has been unveiled and in a few weeks PS4 is going to be exposed as well. Third player in the arena, Nintendo already played his hand with WII-U.Xbox One presentation enlightened me on how difficult is to sell new consoles. Long gone are the times they could double their installed base by pushing the hardware performances and techno babbling customers into buying the new console. This trend was based on the assumption that the more powerful the console, the better the games. But nowadays it is clear to many that, beyond a given threshold, the entertainment quality returned by doubling the gazillions of polygons per second, or adding physics simulations everywhere flattens and it is hardly noticeable.
Console manufacturers are confronted with a saturated market where existing customers have no compelling reason to throw their existing console to the landfill and rush to buy the new model. This is why they try to expand their domain into the mass-market of casual gamers. Unfortunately this is no piece of cake. In fact it is very clear if you look at what happened to Wii-U. Nintendo, with Wii had been the first manufacturer to target casual gamers. They dumped the complex controller (too many mysterious buttons) for the more intuitive (even if not so hardcore-player friendly) Wii-mote. But they discovered that it is far more difficult to have casual gamers brace the new console then gaming nerds. I think the reason is quite simple – the casual gamer considers the game console like a fungible appliance, no more, no less than a TV set or a dishwashing machine. Do you rush to buy a new dishwashing machine as soon as a new model is out?
That’s why, IMNSHO, Sony and Microsoft try to appeal non-gamers and to differentiate their products by center their marketing on non-gaming features – social and “share button” for Sony and TV and sports for Microsoft.
This makes the arena wider, it is no longer the game console, but the living room. This arena is open to other competitors, whose appliance are all considered fungible – smart-TVs, DVRs and disc players (that can do everything a smart-TV does), apple TV and other set-top boxes. There are so many different, diverse and overlapping technologies hardly talking each other that I found difficult to think that there could be ever a single winner.
Wii-U has been a flop, PS4 and XBox-one, despite all the hype, may likely to be on the same track. At this point, it would make more sense to turn consoles into a standard appliances you don’t need to know anything about thanks to compatibility. Much like you buy a dishwashing machine, once and then again when it breaks beyond repair. But every dishwashing machine soap is fine. Just take the one you prefer (usually the cheapest).
I don’t like really this approach, but if you look for mass market, that’s what mass market is. Hardware is not going to be profitable because manufacturers will no longer be able to appeal customer to shell out their money on the next generation.
As per I see it, the only way to stay profitable is on software – moving along the content dimension. Be it a renowned brand or an innovative art and entertainment expression, it is the content that differentiates and eventually pays the bills.
Thinking about content, maybe that the mass market be still precluded to traditional video game designers. Successful mass market titles such as Ruzzle or Angry Birds are fast and cheap entertainment designed to split in small chunks to fill your daily waiting (to be played while queuing up at the lift, or during train commuting). This is quite far away from the desired audience for traditional game designers, since they tend to consider videogame more as art than an idle pastime. Even if we achieve to make game shorter and denser, filled with emotionally sound playtime and captivating story, maybe that the really casual gamer – as of today – will always prefer swiping words into place or flinging birds at pigs. This doesn’t contradict what I stated above, i.e. that the software is going to stay profitable, because it is just a matter of rightsizing the development effort and to define success as (more or less) stable profit, not unlimited growth.

To the Moon and Blackwell

I’ve always been convinced that you don’t need big bucks to create masterpieces. Masterpieces are masterpieces regardless of the technology, the cast, the equipment, the AAA team. Masterpiece is when you’ve got a great inspiration and great capabilities. Technology is just something that is in your way.Recently I played two games that prove this theorem.
Blackwell Deception is an old-style point-n-click adventure. Do you remember the good ol’ Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders? Or the more recent Monkey Island series? Well that’s the genre. But that’s just the technology. There’s a great story, greatly narrated through the pixellated characters. There’s this strange pair – a young woman and his uncle ghost. They help just passed away people to understand their new condition and leave this world. While you play you discover both the current story and the characters’ background – their lives. Actually there are 3 (at least) titles of this series, I played some, I’d like to play more, but I have a life. Nonetheless if you like either adventures or stories, give this a try, money will be worth spent.
To The Moon is a narrative RPG, really there is little G and not much RP, but there is a playable poetry. Beside if you are a bit clumsy – as I am – in adventures, and sometimes it happens to get stuck, this is the game for you. I never had a doubt about what to do or where to go.
The graphics is pixel art, classic RPG pixel art. But the story is light years ahead of everything I played. This is so gentle, so touching… I am just sad it is over.
There are two agents/scientists that help people in realizing their wish. When someone is about to die, they can help him (or her) in achieving their strongest wish they had in life.
So the scientists are called to help a dying men in realizing his wish – going to the moon. They travel back in memories, with the help of a virtual reality machinery, in search of the proper spot to insert new memories of his travel to the moon. The mission wouldn’t turn out so simple, but the story of the man, his infancy, his love, his passion, lived in a great flash-back, is something that ties you to the PC and won’t let you go. Here, too, your money will be well spent.

So I’d say, you’ve got no excuses, pick the technology you can afford and create your masterpiece.

The Ultimate Guide to Videogame Writing and Design

Video gaming is for sure one of the reasons I got so addicted in computer programming. Being forced out of the videogame industry in 2004 had not been an happy experience at all and I am still trying to make sense out of it. But life goes on and if I am not really capable of “letting go” that part of my life, I am gardening the (possibly false) hope of making some games in my spare time.I am just a programmer and I know my game design skills will never rival with even to the scantest game designer. That’s why I bought and read this book. Not with the intent of becoming a game designer, rather with the desire of filling some of the gap and better understand the techniques and the mechanics of their work.
The book is easy to read and concepts are easily grasped. I found some little inspiring pearls. The first is the introduction itself. Authors claim that in an ideal world they would have suspended their work for at least one year in order to properly write the book. Actually this is impossible, as is impossible to do with much of the work they do – multiple projects are developed in parallel and the successful worker has to deal with this rather than complaining.
The first drawback is, IMO, a direct consequence of this – the book is not very well organized. I found that some chapters are out of order and oftentimes an overall picture is missing. It is not too bad, you may argue that is just “creative” at work.
Another interesting concept is that writing a game (o a show, a movie) is not “art” but “craft”. I.e. “art” is about inspiration and cannot be relied on for day-to-day work. “Craft” is something that gets thing done, in the best way, even when your muse is on vacation.
The book propose a good number of exercises. I started with the intention of doing them all, but some of them are too time consuming to be done on holiday, with an inviting sea in front of you (and your children yelling around).
The other big drawback is that this book is much more about “writing” than “designing”. The distinction may be thin, but “writing” pertains to the story, while “designing” pertains to the mechanics of the game. Most of (if not all) the problems are seen from the story point of view. Therefore characters are examines and created starting from their story, their internal struggle, their relationship, i.e. everything that is story, rather than from “powers” and which “actions” they perform.
This is not bad per se, it is just that the title may result a little misleading.
I have mixed feeling about suggestions given in the book about the job at large. At one extreme are good advises about how to deal with conflict in the team or with other project stakeholders (even if not everything is applicable in working context other US). At the other end are obvious suggestion (don’t live over your possibilities and subscribe a pension fund).
The book proposes a set of templates for the definition of characters, parties and world. The approach is good and likely the tables contain the right set of questions. In fact I found myself to develop an unexpected and quite awesome background for the videogame I am working at.
To sum it up, read this book if you are interested at story in videogame.

Red Ring of Death

Despite of the claims, I start thinking that the failure rate for XBox 360, regarding the Red Ring of Death is approximately 100%. I hoped that the occasional freezes I experienced lately more and more often were just to blame to not enough QA for the games I was playing. Today I even bought two new games – Red Alert 3 and Mirror Edge (hi Manuel) – but after having watched Red Alert trailing videos the console locked up with the infamous red blinking.
Microsoft extended the warranty to three years for this very problem. Maybe I’m still covered.

Tomb Raider – the prophecy

PaoloMan sent me a link of a video review of Tomb Raider – the prophecy the game we developed some years ago when I worked at UbiStudios. The development was quite a challenge – we have to reuse as much as possible from the previous game – [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear] and write, test and debug the whole game in three-four months.
With [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear] we had developed a pretty robust engine for isometric view able to handle a couple of terrain levels – the CEngine. On the constrained hardware of the GameBoy Advance, the CEngine happily performed line of sight and line of fire tests, room occlusion, automatic generation of level maps, pathfinding, managed an impressive number of enemies on the whole level and provided reliable support for multiplayer game.
When I was informed that the studio was going to develop this game and that I would have been the lead programmer most of the decisions about the kind of game we were going to make were already taken, but, they assured me, it is as close as possible to the previous [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear] game.
Good I thought. Unfortunately the old saying about a non-programmer pretending that two systems are the same meaning that they do not differ more than 50% held in that occasion too.
In fact the game had to preserve the Tomb Raider key game plays: jumps, vertical vertigo effects, puzzles and extinction of animals. Jumps was something unheard in a military simulation game such as [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear] and the vertigo effect was hard if not plainly impossible to achieve with just two levels of terrain. Editors and tools were the same of the GameBoy Color games we did, i.e. 2D platformers without any notion of elevation. They already posed a number of headaches with the quite-flat world of [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear], I wasn’t willing to think what could happen with tens of levels.
Puzzles was another head-scraping aspect of the game. I knew that every factor of the gameplay was going to be refined, modified and touched an uncountable number of times before the Gold Master, and I didn’t want a programmer to be dedicated to change and modify code to this purpouse.
Cut scenes were also required and the camera needed to move around, far from the main character, to show the effect of various switches and devices or the goal of the level.
Another problem was posed by the animation system. The CEngine animation system suffered from the [http://www.maxpagani.org/CV-projectDesc-RM.html|Rayman] modular animation. In Rayman many animations were performed just by moving fixed shapes around. This approach was intended to save space and Rayman character itself was designed around this idea, but it is ineffective at most when you have to animate life-like characters. Lara had an impressive number of actions that really stretched the limits of the poor handheld system.
How we made it was a successful combination of hammering, ingenuity, compromise.
The CEngine proved to be well designed and well coded with good insulation between layers of game related abstraction levels. My fellow programmers were top notch and brightly solved a number of problems. Artists and Game Designers were great to understand technical problems and helped us in finding suitable compromises. And we managed to get the game throughout the whole process in three months and half.
How we did it?
About the number of levels we changed the physical property encoding of the terrain. CEngine provides a single byte to encode the physical property of each 8×8 pixels square. Such properties defines whether the place is dangerous to the main character or a solid wall or a plain, walkable terrain.
In [CV-projectDesc-RS.html|Rogue Spear] three bits were allocated to sound properties leaving just 5 bits for the rest. 8 elevation levels allowed to define two floors and the connecting stairs/slopes. Also the slopes needed to be both vertical and horizontal to accommodate for climbing and descending both ways. This allocation leaves pretty no space for more levels.
Well but if Lara Croft can jump why do we need slopes? So here we get back our slopes code allowing for 10 different heights, enough for the vertigo effect.
Nonetheless it was impossible to design such maps with the old 2D editors. Luckily [http://www.maxpagani.org/CV-projectDesc-TM.html|another GBA game we were working on] at the same time needed a better editor so the management decided we had enough “needs” for a new editor. Alberto worked on the editor for about one month and something accomplishing a remarkable result before game designers actually started designing maps and levels.
Another bright programmer, Valentino, worked on the puzzle system. Rather than hand coding each puzzle as a specific C code, he defined a set of devices that could be connected in many different ways to provide enough flexibility to implement any kind of puzzle. At the end the mechanism proved to be still too complex for non-programmers, but he managed to implement and maintain the whole system alone with minimum effort.
Cut scenes were a major problem – we didn’t have the resources for developing a cut scene authoring editor, nor we could afford movies in the game for cartridge space constraints. We came out with a simple idea that turned out to be a nightmare to use. The simple idea was to have a dummy character able to play any animation, then for each character in the cut scene a path had to be drawn where each node contained both timing and animation code.
Although the idea was simple, creating cut scenes this way was a burden. Synchronization among characters was impossible, modifying an existing sequence was a painful operation. At the end the producer Nicola went through all the cut scenes fixing and sometimes recreating from scratch all these meaningless number tables.
The number of Lara action posed another problem. Design document asked for some 40 basic actions to be performed in all the 4 available facings (left, right, up, down). Moreover some of these actions could be performed both with guns drawn or not. Moreover guns automatically aims to the nearest target in discrete steps of 8 directions. Even relying on the hardware horizontal flip for some animations, the resulting number was huge. We managed to handle them all by splitting the character in half: legs and arm with chest plus head. Thanks to this trick and some twiddling in the actor code we avoided the need of writing compression/decompression code for animations.
Given all that, the fact that the lead game designer resigned in the middle of the project, the fact that a change in the Eidos management near the Gold Master forced us to rework a number of license issues and the other GBA game developed at the same time by the same people, I don’t hesitate to call Tomb Raider – the Prophecy a great success. Back then it won’t earn much credits to the studio since it sold much below the expectations and got several mild reviews that’s why I am happy to hear that people love it (the video reviewer score it at 10/10).

The end of the Trousers of Time

Eventually one leg or the other turns out to be worse than the other. Times ago I wrote about being down in one leg of the Trousers of Time. Now it turned out that the leg I picked up is the good one and the other is a dead end. Feww! GameLoft Milan subsidiary closed at least according to the recent news. That’s sad and somewhat beyond understanding. The firm showed to be brave to invest in the Italian game industry but then retract despite of a great sales year. That reminds me of other stories by the same French proprietors, but those are… other stories.
I wonder how it turned out the decision that the investment was a complete waste of money and resources and the studio was better closed. After nearly a year of work they considered that the team was so worthless that keeping a production line in Italy was a nonsense. I personally know some of the people who worked over there and I know they are talented and have specific game industry experience, so I can’t figure out the reason for such a drastic decision. My solidarity to all those people laid out. I know what it means, really.

Disappointingly Short

There are events you can’t miss. If you have an Xbox 360 you simply cannot afford to miss Gear of Wars, Bioshock and the most unmissable ever Halo 3. With over 4 million copies sold in pre-order alone and a 93% score in average is hardly something you can heart-lightly miss or ignore. So I diligently bought my copy and started playing it. The game story is set just after the end of Halo 2. I am not a 3D guru, so the graphic let me quite unsurprised – Halo 2 had a superb outlook on the Xbox 1, while XBox 360 sported Gears of War and Bioshock that trained us to take for granted such high levels of details. So the start of Halo 3 in a wide open jungle wasn’t really astonishing, was more a … well, yes, good sort of thing.
The game is nonetheless very polished, you find enemies, weapons and vehicles, lots of funny stuff.
The most annoying piece of the game is the AI of the jeep driver that quite often get stuck into some dead end, leaving the player an easy target for incoming enemies.
The story is good, is somewhat more understandable of that of Halo 2, nonetheless is quite fictional for the game progressing, just blast away your enemies, try to not hit your friends, that’s all.
There are a couple of points were the sense of wonder brutally kicks-in, the ending level is epic. Although I miss the awe I felt back in Halo 2 when I discovered I could jump on the insectoid-mecha and bring it to a grinding halt.
But the worse part, the really bad thing is that this game is short! Really short, you can cut through it like a knife through a piece of butter and around in the same time. 8-10 hours even for me that can qualify something more than casual gamer.
The XBox live for sure brings oxygen to the game, adding value, but if you, like me, have not the on-line option, than this game is hugely overpriced.
My vote is 6 of 10.

Bioshocked

Last Saturday I completed Bioshock. I think this is the last horror game I am going to play on this and next hardware generation. It is becoming way too scaring. This game is rated 18 and it really is – the second level, set in a hospital, is also quite disturbing. The overall atmosphere is dark and chilling.Despite this, the game is great, immersive and thought provoking. That’s quite odd for a game especially if you consider that I wrote that not meaning the alienation you get after too many hours spent on Tetris, when you start thinking in boxes and shape pluggings.
The game has been widely reviewed and advertised, so I think that the scenario of the game is no surprise for you. Bioshock is set in an underwater city – Rapture. Built here by a (filthy) rich scientist and ideologist, Ryan, upholding the principle of extreme freedom, so that the great is not limited by the small, the scientist is not withdrawn by moral or religion. It is a great vision, then something went wrong, terribly wrong. It is interesting what a FPS videogame can move, whether is necessary or not that such unlimited and unconstrained utopia had to fail; what is the extent for those premises.
The player himself (or herself) is faced with strong questions. You have the chance of saving an innocent children or killing a terrible monster, you just don’t have enough clues to determine whether the small girl is one or another. You have to take a choice.
The story is good, the player is tied to the game not just by the game itself, but for the compelling story, to discover what’s next. Will the player be able to help Atlas to save his family? What will happen when the player will face Ryan? Is Mrs Tanenbaum really redeemed?
From the technical viewpoint the game is based on the Unreal Engine, the same used by Gears of War. This engine is capable of delivering complex sceneries to an outstanding level of detail. For this very reason artifacts of artificial behaviors clashes hardly on the suspension of disbelief. This seldom happens, just don’t look for your body, you have just a disembodied arm. Occasionally you may find a lighting problem or some iterations of the physic looking for the right place where you have to be positioned. But these are just minor flaws. This is a great game.

Mercenary!

I was on the train, fighting against that locust general, trying to reach the solar bomb to get rid of all his vicious breed…Well I did it… at least virtually. I completed Gears of War, game of the Year, winner of several prizes and mentions, and got the status of “Mercenary”. So long, so good. Having played the never-ending Serious Sam (I and II) I expected the game to be somewhat longer, but apparently gone are the times when a game lasted for tens of hours… or maybe I’m getting too good at playing. Unlikely, I would say.
In this game you play Marcus Phoenix that begins his quest in a prison (Unreal, anyone?), freed by an old friend, stating that the army needs his help. And in fact any help is desperately needed – the world has been taken over by the Locusts, a cruel race of creatures resembling of reptiles, they savaged the cities so that the government decided to bomb everything (smart move, isn’t it?). Roughly you have the task of mapping the caves of the Locusts and then activating a “solar bomb” to destroy them all.

The game is a 3rd person shooter and one of the best yet seen. The graphics is gorgeous, really delivering a full immersion to the player, is movie-like quality and the suspension of disbelief is very easy. Classic realtime graphics defects (such as polygons cut by the camera plane, textures revealing their pixel based nature, squared objects) are basically non-existent. For this reason and the abundance of gore, this title is really not suitable for kids.
The only dissatisfying aspect is that bulk objects (such as the choppers) are apparently without mass, their movements is not as smooth and … inertial as they should be. The best bulk “mass” simulation in videogame remains Halo 2.
The camera (aside from never ever letting you down), sports an involving war-footage style.
The game play is slightly innovative, and it is quite difficult given that the genre counts tons of titles. New is the need for the player to look for a cover in a firefight, you have to plan your moves quite accurately if you don’t want to be blown off.
You can carry two weapons. Aside from grenades, there is a basic set of weaponry – the standard machine gun (with a chainsaw), a sniper rifle, a bow with explosive darts, a rocket launcher and a shotgun. You have a non-standard “Hammer of Dawn” which is a targeting device for calling satellite beam attack on your enemies. The satellite attack takes quite a long time for aiming and works only outdoor with clear sky (and satellite coverage).
You have a team, usually just another guy the fight at your side. His AI is pretty brilliant – he usually don’t get into your line of fire and doesn’t stops you from moving around (or worst blocking while you are retreating, as it happened in HalfLife 2). In the beginning of the game he usually hints you for the direction where the game proceed. The game is never too difficult on the brain side, the most difficult puzzle you have to solve is find the switch aside of the door you want to open, nor you risk of getting lost – maps are pretty big, but the path is so marked you have no chance to get it wrong.
The only downside with the gameplay is that occasionally the “take cover action” interferes with the movement, or the crouched-run that you try to save your life. Just occasionally annoying. Also, if you are picky enough you could note some bugs here and there, such as enemy boss that slams into invisible barriers, or the multipurpose floating robot Jack that appears out of thin air. The worst bug I encountered was against a boss, I was expected to attract the boss on a carriage with a gasoline tank, then leaving the cart and throwing a grenade to let the carriage explode with its annoying passenger. Unfortunately the split second I throw the grenade the boss jumped on my wagon, causing the trap to explode and leaving me without any weapon to get him off.
But these are just minor quirks for a great game I really enjoyed.

Back from Sciliar

I had great days on the Alpe di Siusi (Alp of Siusi) or SeiserAlm as those who live there call their home. It is a lovely and smooth plateau at around 1800m, braced by imposing Dolomite pikes. Sasso Piatto (“Flat Stone” a sort of understatement) bounds the East side, while Denti di Terra Rossa (“Red Soil Teeth”) bound the South Side and ends with the tooth shaped Sciliar pike.We had sun for nearly seven days and, despite of the warm winter, snow was enough to ski.
Alas, in order to appreciate great things, we have to compare them with the grey, dull industrial landscape of Castellanza, that’s why (I guess) I’m back home and at work.
The first interesting surprise hitting me at work has been the anticipation of the milestone I was working for. Our customer product has been selected for a design prize, so we are expected to deliver the working product earlier. Anyway we’re working hard, against time and hardware shortage to hit the milestone nonetheless.
At home, Santa (in the person of my wife) gave me a Xbox 360 and I started playing a not-so-Xmas-spirit game: Gears of War. I’m about the first boss and I should say that it’s great. From the technical viewpoint I think this is one of the first real next gen game. It runs on the Unreal 3 engine and the look is as detailed as awesome. The gameplay is based on taking cover, i.e. as soon as enemies are encountered you should take cover or you get badly shot. This is somewhat different from the classical shooter where the player drives a Rambo-like bullet-proof character (well, in Serious Sam, this was intended). The first boss is a chasing game play – run away from the monster, let him smash the doors for you and eventually take him off. Great.
While I was so fresh from the holidays and relaxed from Gears of War, I decided to update my notebook to the latest linux available. I gave a brief look to Sabayon Linux, only to discover that it behaves badly with the Toshiba touch pad and apparently has no support for my wireless adapter (I can’t believe that today distros still do not support the Centrino wireless adapter that is so widespread and at least two years old). So I turned to what I know quite well – Fedora Core 6.
I opted for the upgrade option instead of the install. Years ago I was used to upgrade, only to find that the system resulted in something that wasn’t completely new nor old and often was prone to glitches. A friend of mine suggested me to never upgrade, rather to backup the /home directory, install and restore it. This time I was so light from the holidays that I decided that an upgrade could do.
Well, I was wrong.
Yes I got a sort of FC6 tailored on my previous FC4 installation, and, yes, the wireless adapter sorta worked. But I could only browse the google website. No matter how I set the firewall/SELinux properties, there was no way to browse the rest of Internet. But this is another story.