Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Crates, Again.

I feel strange pangs of guilt as well as nostalgia playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary. But most of all I just feel a bit irritated. Sure Lara moves better and looks better. But the crates... why has crate navigation become such a pain? They swing about all over the place. Lara I can move like a ballerina as she flips about in combat and hops from pole to pole and wall runs and grapple swings. Give her a crate to push or pull and she's swaying all over the place. I am an often incompetent player -- rubbish at twitch combat, rubbish at complex puzzles, rubbish at the fine timing needed for real fluid grace. But now I have to add incompetence with basic crate handling. Too much like the real world when I can't even lug around heavy objects efficiently.

The game looks good, though (although I am aware there are no crates in the screenshot above). They even paint the textures on the floor to tell me where to place my crates (although I swear that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did its visual signposting so much better with just light). I just feel a little let down by the crate management...

Sunday, 24 June 2007

What Are Prototypes For?

This is a memo to self. I once had a cute idea for an alternative control scheme for interaction in a game. Well, I thought it would be cute. In effect there would be 3x3 frame that reset as a pattern after every mouse click. Mousing over the frame would indicate a corresponding area of effect in a second 3x3 frame. Left click and the effect took place. The variables in the first frame would be set at 1-6 (ooh, like a standard dice, for example), whereas the second frame would be (almost entirely) an initially binary random distribution. The idea would be to clear the top frame by getting everything to match. I would also include dead spaces in the second frame that would be unaffected by any effect, bonus objects depending on matching the state of other objects, and instant death ‘don’t click here’ objects. Sounds confusing? That’s why visuals are so useful. This is what it looked like:

And it sort of worked. I kind of enjoyed it. It was different, and the whole card table baize, billiard ball and dice thing that were actually just quick placeholders also worked for me. But I knew there were problems. The random reset of the first frame made things too random, so that any sense of careful progression or the exercise of skill was undermined. Not always, but often enough. But did I throw it away and do something more useful? Nope. I did this:

More images at my Photobucket.

Which kind of works. It has got penguins in it and is a casual computer game – how could it fail? But it suffers from exactly the same problems that the prototype reveals. And yet I built it anyway. I keep twitching it and trying to get it to really work, but I am still left with the feeling that the only lesson I have really learned is that prototyping is supposed to get you to throw things away when they fail, not keep and keep worrying away at.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

This is my crate. There are many like it, but this one is mine...

PC only, of course, but available for fiddling with... [Update] And now with audio (after a fashion). Actually, I am quite proud of the script, if not of what happened to the voice acting of Microsoft Mike and Microsoft Mary after compression to keep the file size down. Microsoft Mary now sounds as if she has been on the Martinis for a while and has a disturbing simularity to Jodie Foster to my ear.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Crates, Barrels & Games Teaching About Games

I was reminded recently about the joys of crates and barrels in games. The linked site has been one I have directed students towards for a couple of years with my tongue only partially in my cheek. Crates and Barrels are important, dammit. And are low poly space fillers and useful for a number of game purposes -- build stairways with crates, push and pull crates to reveal, smash crates with crowbar, hide behind crate, blow up barrel, roll barrel down hill -- ah, the ballet that is crates and barrels deserves its own PhD thesis.

Anyway, I thought I would post some screens from Super Crate Madness IV, a little game I built to demonstrate the basics of level design using crates and barrels as the primary assets. Its working title had been Antediluvian in some kind of conscious attempt to signal its knowing dependence on game cliches, and I have always thought of it as belonging to what should be a new genre -- Sarcastic Games.

Anyway, the idea was to build on basic find-key-open-lock structures to show how complexity is layered in game space:

If I get some time later I'll upload some bigger images to my Photobucket account. Actually, the whole thing is fully playable (although it has no audio beyond the SFX for events), and if I have a spare couple of hours I might get it into a polished state and release it into the wild.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Manchester Game Space

And perhaps it isn't always such a good idea to look for reference in the real world. For shame -- I didn't realise I could have dropped back to Manc in Resistance: Fall of Man. Mind you, I am still in the wait and see camp for the PS3 at the minute. At least until Little Big Planet arrives.

The linked news story actually contains the phrase 'orgy of blood'. Nice to see cool calm and collected reporting. I bought Tomb Raider: Anniversary a few days ago and am still turning over in my mind why there is something intriguing about its warning label (at least in the UK) of 'Contains moderate fantasy violence.' I think 'Contains an orgy of blood' might actually shift more units.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Game Producers Say Good Things

I am collecting as many sensible industry opinions as I can to support the way that we teach. I worry that it is too easy to confuse an education that prepares people for a long term future in the games industry (which isn't the norm, by any means) with the immediacy of software skills. So it is heartening to see Peter O'Brien, a producer at Bizarre Creations, talking much sense in a round table interview at gameproducer.net.

Two things that warmed my end of academic year shellshocked self were his general statement about where he came from and what was most valuable about his educational background:

I trained as a 3D designer; the aim was to create ‘real world’ Products such as furniture, social space, kitsch objects or sustainable products. However, the most valuable lessons formed around design thinking; the why, what, who and why again. [My emphasis]

And his summary of the softer skills needed for a role in design:

Designers: This is a tough one. Key components are communication skills, problem solving skills. An ability to express oneself clearly is crucial. How do you show how you think? You don’t need code to make a game. Knowledge of fundamental design rules/history/principals is essential.

Yay -- go Bizarre. He sounds like he could be teaching on our degree. Communication. Problem solving. Clarity of expression. Knowledge of fundamentals. I like this man.

I wonder if I ever met him and missed the opportunity to talk to him? I used to attend IGDA gatherings when I worked in Liverpool, and the Bizarre crowd made up a fair proportion of the throng. I would probably add communication, communication and communication to his list of necessary skills, but we have just emerged from the bloodbath of the big year two demo build projects.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Welsh Game Space

I took this last time I actually got out to see some of the beautiful countryside we live in. Phone camera picture, unfortunately, but it really struck me that it was an arrangement of features that shouted ‘game’ to me. As far as I could work out the thing that looks like a huge overflow plug hole is… a huge overflow plug hole. Better than a Narnia wardrobe or a great big glowing gate to signal a possibility of an imminent somewhere else. Nice rickety steel gangway right over the top of the plug hole to the austere tower where something waits.

It may be too many WWII films and a childhood spent following my RAF father around the world from one military base to another, but dams always speak to me of moonlight and covert action. When they don’t have bouncing bombs skipping across the surface. Nice regular geometry as well in the main dam wall, which would allow you to pick out the areas of interest for the player quite easily. And the scale is nice for first or third person. Not a Hoover-clone, which is all about wowing a player with spectacle, but something far more discrete. And we got there on an old steam mountain railway, which is always a winner.

I do worry that I may border on the obsessed. I remember when I used to commute from Manchester to Liverpool and spent far too much time staring at the girders and glass of Lime Street Station trying to work out how I would model it in 3DSMax and what I would do with it when I got into engine.

Maybe I should get out (even) more.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Prime Minister in Titles Scandal

So John Major, possibly one of the more human of Conservative Prime Ministers, publishes a book with the same title as my own. I thought I was doing well when More Than a Game got a feature piece on Radio 4’s Open Book, but he gets an entire serialisation. I am green. And he got a better cover. A much better cover. Everyone ever published got a better cover. Oh well.

The whole point of calling the first book More Than a Game was, in retrospect, always going to be a little lost on non-UK readers. It was meant to allude to the following widely mangled statement by Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly:

"Someone said 'football is more important than life and death to you' and I said 'Listen, it's more important than that'." [Source: Wikipedia]

It wasn’t meant to imply something like ‘other than game’, but an excessive state of superabundance in which narrative content takes a game to new, and interesting, places.

It's OK, I rarely talk about games and narrative any more.

I presume Major is making the same gesture towards Shankley, as are all the other authors who have used the formulation over the years. I wonder if the day will ever come when an ex-Prime Minister will retire to write a book about the influence Mario (or, terrifying thought, C&C or DefCon)has had on her or him that will be greeted with same warm British approval as Major has received for his book on Cricket?