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Please note: Throughout this piece, I am going to be referring to “Early Access” a lot. In the context of this blog post, by “Early Access” I refer to those games which follow the “alpha-funded” model whereby the first build available is pre (or very early) alpha. “Early...

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Stupidly Simple World Lighting

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 30-04-2016

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Hello.

Whenever I write little side 3D projects, at some point I have to decide how the hell I’m going to write my world lighting. For daft little side projects, I generally can’t be arsed to write some proper lightmap solution because that complicates your object instancing since you require each object to have a unique set of texture co-ordinates into your computed lightmap and, moreover, you have to actually compute the lightmap. Doing all your lighting in the shader by passing a big array of light positions in works, but is hardly the most efficient of solutions – particularly if most of the lights never move or change colour. And if you want to have a lot of light in your scene, you have to start worrying about quadtrees or some other way of organising the data so you don’t have to pass in and calculate lighting for all the lights which don’t actually contribute anything to the object you’re drawing. Ugh. It’s one thing after another slowing your progress of “I just want to play around with [whatever the thing you want to play around with is]”.

So I came up with a solution which, if I dare say so myself, produces fairly nice lighting (along with some other benefits) in the world’s most ridiculously simple way imaginable. I don’t claim to have invented this because I’d imagine that back before graphics cards were bonkersly powerful, solutions similar to this were possibly fairly common. I don’t know – all I know is that if it’s been done before it’s coincidence and because the results are cheap and effective. But I wanted to write this post to make the point that nice lighting doesn’t have to mean using Unreal – nice (if simple) results can be achieved using cheap and easy effects which are both fun and interesting to write, and potentially result in a distinctive and interesting look for your game.

Before I get into how I did it, here’s an image of the results so you can judge for yourself how it looks:

lighting

The little coloured cubes represent the lights

A couple of things to note:

  1. There’s a kind of ambient occlusion effect going on where the walls hit the ground, and where there’s a corner of a wall
  2. Light bleeds in through the window and door frames
  3. All the objects (every wall segment etc) are literal instances – they have no unique parameters beyond their world matrix
  4. The lighting isn’t actually correct – but it doesn’t (at least to me) look obviously incorrect
  5. This is designed for tile/grid-based games
  6. There are further things I would do to hide the way it works that I haven’t applied here because that’s a) extra homework on your part and b) I wanted this to be a fair test – can you predict the method with all the clues on show above?

Because I know how I wrote this, to me it’s flupping obvious how this works simply by looking at the screenshot above. However in a sample of one programmer, they were not able to guess the technique since they were deceived by the what-appears-to-be-something-like-ambient-occlusion and the light bleeding into presuming it was more complicated than it is.

So, anyway, this is what I’m doing.

Firstly, this is actually a lightmap. It’s just a ludicrously simple lightmap. Here is what it looks like:

lightmap

Yep, that’s it. It’s one pixel per tile, and it generates that by simply rattling through the list of scene lights and adding the amount that light contributes to the pixel. The lights have a radius, so if the light’s radius is 5 tiles, you only need to update an 11×11 set of pixels for that light which is hardly the slowest thing on the planet. This can all be done on level load in a fraction of a second until you need to animate a light or two – in which case you just need to subtract the light values from that 11×11 (for example) region and then add the light values to a different region. If I really wanted, I could do this on the graphics card by stamping tiny light blob textures down on a render target – but when the lightmap is this small, it didn’t seem necessary. The final pass is stamping over the lightmap a precomputed image where all exterior tiles are white, and wall tiles are a semi-transparent black.

The level is, obviously, 3D – so a 2D lightmap like this would work perfectly well for the floor tiles but the walls would simply inherit the light from the floor tiles and look… a bit shit. This is where the tile drawing shader comes in, which looks like this:

shader

Most of that vertex shader is perfectly ordinary put the vertices into the correct place in perspective stuff along with some lines I don’t actually need (I don’t need the actual normal as an output, for example – its inclusion is a relic which can be removed entirely). The only addition is the line:

output.TexCoordLM = ((world + mul(input.Normal, World) * 0.5).xz + float2(0.5, 0.5)) / LightMapSize;

Which generates the texture co-ordinate of the vertex into the lightmap. Take the world position, add on a half-length world oriented normal (the object may be rotated), discard the y component because the lightmap is 2D, add on half a pixel, then divide the result by the dimensions of the lightmap to give me 0..1 values. Done. The pixel shader then simply reads that pixel value from the lightmap texture and multiplies the lighting value onto the colour of the object’s texture. Simple.

So why does it work? Adding on a bit of the vertex’s normal means that a wall, for example, instead of getting its light value from the tile it’s sitting on, gets it instead from a tile a bit in front of where it’s sitting. This gives me something which horribly approximates a proper lighting calculation without any of the actual accuracy (or complexity) of a lighting calculation, but doesn’t appear to be obviously horribly incorrect. The ambient occlusion effect happens for free purely as a result of interpolation – if you set the texture lookup to be nearest as opposed to linear it’d disappear.

So there we go. Embarassingly simple, but not too shabby.

Even more (!) musing on Alpha-Funding

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Project Zomboid, Useless Advice | Posted on 21-03-2016

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* Narrow-slice view of the industry incoming. I do not claim to speak for all (or most/many/any other/whatever) indie developers.

Before Minecraft invented/popularised alpha-funding as a viable way to make videogames, here is how you’d make an ambitious large-in-scope indie game:

  1. Make a small indie game in your spare time
  2. Repeat 1 until the pittance you earn from all these small indie games affords you some capital to invest in a larger project
  3. Make a slightly bigger indie game, pay someone to make the graphics swanky, spend some money on marketting
  4. Repeat 3 until you’ve got a pretty hefty chunk of profit or return to 1 if it was a commercial failure
  5. Gamble horribly, quit your job, pump all that money and a truck-load of time into your magnum opus, hope that Valve let you have it on Steam
  6. Profit, hopefully

You’d have to be pretty bonkers, really, to even go down the road of step 5. You’d be much better off just pumping out a tonne of smaller games and having the cumulative sales they generate sustain you and hopefully give you a reasonable standard of living.

But Alpha-Funding / Kickstarter (and then Early Access) changed that. It meant that step 1 could be the large-in-scope magnum opus. If you can get people interested in your project in its infancy, you can be sustained all through the game’s development. That almighty step 5 risk is hugely reduced (at the cost of putting a comparatively tiny amount of risk on a lot of individuals who support your game). It is simultaneously the most liberating and the most dangerous method of making videogames. It comes with costs far beyond the paltry sum that you are usually asked for to buy the thing early in development – costs which affect customers and developers alike.

Costs exclusively concerning customers

  1. The ambitious-sounding project may just end up being too ambitious. Game never gets finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  2. The project may have been perfectly realistic in scope, but due to simply never managing to attract sufficient interest it is never finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  3. The game may not end up being what you expected it to be, you consider your £1 / £5 / £10 to be wasted
  4. It places an impossible burden of responsibility onto the customer. While publishers have the experience to recognise a game design horribly out of touch with what is practical, or a tech-demo with terrible foundations, your average customer does not – yet they’re the ones who, when upset when things do not turn out as they expected, are shrugged off with the, “well you should have done better research” argument
  5. If you were expecting the game to get better in good faith, and it didn’t, you’ve probably already blown your chance of getting a refund (this applies less if you bought it on GOG, of course)

Costs which affect both customers and developers

  1. The game will eventually cease to have support / updates. There will be a large number of people who will be unhappy – regardless of how complete the developer considers the game to be at that point
  2. To excite people into giving you money at the point you’ve barely started is… difficult. Your project needs to stand out. There is huge danger here in inflating your game’s scope beyond ‘ambitious but do-able’ to ‘ambitious to the point of insanity’ in order to be noticed
  3. You need not demonstrate any ability to finish a game in order to attract the money to start one – unlike every single other way of getting funding. While there is no ethical problem with simply releasing a crap game, having it review terribly, and having those that buy it refund it within an hour – those ethics become questionable when you’re taking money for a project you cannot know that you can complete. A horribly misguided sense of ability can be endearing if you merely output awful games no-one buys, but there’s nothing endearing about misleading people into buying in to those delusions, intentionally or otherwise
  4. The skills required to pitch a concept fall far below the skills required to successfully create that concept. This development method enables those who both lack the skills to complete what they’ve pitched and also those skills required to recognise that they can’t complete what they’ve pitched. From a consumer perspective, these pitches are often indistinguishable from realistic pitches.

Costs exclusively concerning developers

  1. You’re potentially throwing away the chance to build-up your skills and experience slowly if your project ends as a high-profile disaster

 

Conclusion

 

I’m not suggesting, then, that no-one should make an alpha-funded game, or that our own game is some sort of shining beacon of this method. Alpha-funding, to us, was a necessity – and we considered our chances of finishing what we started to be pretty damn certain. But, of course, everyone who isn’t actually trying to pull-off deception would say that, but it doesn’t mean that we or they would ultimately be correct. I do think that, in general, those indie developers who create many smaller projects are the smart ones – all our eggs are currently in one basket and, while we’ve been successful with Zomboid in terms of sales, we were pretty lucky that the DayZ mod appeared shortly after we released our first build and ignited interest in the survival genre. Thanks Dean!

I also think critics can serve tremendous good in this context. We can’t expect an average gamer to be necessarily able to recognise the difference between those concepts likely to succeed and those likely to fail. Critics, however, are more familiar with games development and can distinguish between the two and spot-light the former. Kickstarter pitches often overlook including a “risks and challenges” section and sometimes when it is included exists in a sort of, “my greatest weakness is sometimes I care too much” way. I’d like to see more prominence of those articles which really look into early game builds / pitches in-depth.

More Thoughts on Game Criticism

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 20-03-2016

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No game should be immune from criticism – let’s just get that point out there first so there’s no misunderstanding.

But this whole mess with Digital Homicide and Jim Sterling about which Mr Biffo has written a couple of excellent opinion pieces here and here got me thinking, especially the latter post. I’m not going to go into this particular debacle here, but rather the principle and to do that we need to travel back in time…

*wibbly post-production effect*

I started programming and pixel art (actually, let’s not call it ‘art’ – it was just ‘pixel’s) on the Commodore 64 which was, obviously, way pre-Internet. No-one really saw anything of what I produced except sometimes my parents (because I had to use my dad’s camera to take photos of the telly as you couldn’t save your work with the Koala Pad art software unless you had a disk-drive) and my brother. My earliest game attempts were terrible but, hey, I was only seven or eight. By the time I was in my mid-teens I regarded myself as pretty good in the old programming and graphics departments but still everything I made was shared only with people who were as good or worse than me at making it. School chums, etc. Obviously they’re gonna think the stuff you make is pretty neat – especially if they have no idea how on Earth you achieved it.

My very first exposure to actual real criticism was from a chap who came to my school to give a talk on the games industry. He was a professional pixel artist, having worked on actual real videogames – including the then newly-released Cybermorph on the Atari Jaguar – and his talk was incredibly inspirational. We got chatting and he invited me round his house to talk in more depth – it was an opportunity to see his work in more detail and to learn about how he produced it, and also an opportunity for me to show him my work.

I showed him a few bits and bobs, he really liked one or two pieces I’d made – my God that felt awesome – but then… oh dear… this one particular sprite animation…

“yeah, that’s complete shit”

I was crushed. I tried not to show it – I pretended to agree and possibly to pretend that actually I hadn’t spent very long on it. But he continued to talk and point out all the reasons why it was shit, and how lazy I had been in comparison to the other work I’d showed. He was right. It was lazy. It stung horribly at the time, but twenty two years later I still remember that moment vividly. It was probably the most critical moment in my games career. I needed to hear that – before I went to University, before I did any freelance work, before I got my first job in the games industry. And it needed to come from a man who I had considerable respect and admiration for.

Back to the present…

*wibbly post-production effect*

Now I acknowledge that I don’t exactly have a flawless track-record in handling internet abuse but that’s a slightly different issue. In terms of criticism, I’m fairly okay at handling that – and I’m convinced I’m a million times better at it than I would have been had I not met Ian Harling (for that was his name) as a youngster. How would I have reacted, though, if instead of the criticism coming from a guy in private who I looked up to as an example of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be – if instead that criticism was public, scathing, relentless, and backed up with the fury of tens of thousands of their fans? It probably would’ve finished me, right there and then – before I’d even really got started.

The trouble with this kind of scathing and public criticism is, as Mr Biffo points out, that you don’t actually know who your target is. When terrible singers audition for X-Factor, we all laugh at their expense – but if they’re really young, we react differently. We tend to blame the parents for encouraging their kids into embarrassing themselves publicly. With Steam and the openness of Greenlight, any of these games which we’d regard as really rather awful could be the work of a young kid just starting out. I would definitely have put my early work on Steam had it been an option and, frankly, thank Christ it wasn’t.

A year or two back, pre-refund systems, it’s a slightly different story. It’s important for critics to serve gamers, steer them away from awful and over-priced games. But even then, there’s no real need to actually rip the thing to shreds for shits and giggles. You can be critical without being a merciless brute. But now? With refunds it’s not so big a deal. The targets now would be games which abuse the two-hour window, making the opening fantastic and then not giving a shit once that mark is hit. Spot-lighting those games serves gamers – spot-lighting games people would otherwise not have encountered and which, if they do, show themselves to be awful after a few minutes of gameplay does not.

Words like “scam” get bandied around an awful lot. But it’s not a scam to simply over-value your own work – everybody does that, especially those who are fairly new to games development. It’s extremely difficult to objectively gauge the value of your own work when you can’t separate your pride in your accomplishment (I made a game! OMG!) and the time, energy, and expense from that result. You get better at that as you gain more experience, but very few people are going to get it right first-time. That’s not a scam, it’s just inexperience. I wouldn’t expect an average game player with, perhaps, no real knowledge on videogame development to be tremendously good at making that distinction, of course. But I’d expect a professional critic to be able to or, if not, to at least criticise the quality in terms of the price rather than the skill of the developer. Even E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari is worth at least 1p – no game, no matter how badly it plays, is utterly valueless.

Some Twaddle about VR

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-03-2016

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I don’t want to get all pretentious and cite the vast array of literature I read so that I come across as some kind of intellectual, because to be honest I don’t read that sort of stuff and I’m not clever enough to fake it. Most of what I read is non-fiction sciencey stuff and the fiction is almost exclusively limited to Terry Pratchett, Isaac Asimov, and Douglas Adams on loop (with the occasional stop-gap of some Philip K. Dick). All those classics? Can’t be arsed, if I’m honest.

BUT, here’s the thing. Despite being a million miles away from the sort of arty pretentious arsehole who would shake their head at TV and computer games while spouting the virtues of literature, they do kinda have a point. Pretty much everyone who’s seen a screen adaptation of a favourite book regards the film version as worse. One of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing is, if I’m completely honest with myself, not as good as John Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? despite the film having Kurt Russell in it. The best I can come up with as an exception to this is… hmmm… bear with me… uhhh… maaaaaybe Apocalypse Now! versus Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather but that seems like a good candidate too. But anyway, the point is that they’re few and far between and where they exist it’s probably because the book is very short, very old (with somewhat impenetrable language), the film is staggeringly well-made or adapts the source so far as to be almost unrecognisable. Outliers or cheats, in other words 😉

So, my point is, with all these advances in cinema – colour, widescreen, surround-sound, 3D, IMAX, etc. – the written word (such archaic technology!) continues to have the upper-hand. We often get more spectacle, whizz, and bang with films now but we still accept that there’s a distinction between Captain America and Moon and don’t pretend that the former is the better film because explosions.

This is why the current trend of VR slightly baffles me. I get the spectacle aspect, I get the fact that it could open up new gameplay possibilities, the immersion. But despite there being some terrific advances in visuals, sound, writing, and design in modern videogames none of them have had the sort of effect on me that reading Alistair MacLean’s H.M.S. Ulysses did. I recently completed Remember Me which, all in all, I thought was rather good. The gameplay was simplistic but the world design was fabulous and, despite the whole story revolving around an incident which I didn’t find to be enough to justify the events, I really liked that the story was ultimately very personal – the wider implications pushed into the background kind of like a small independent film. It could have made for a great short story in a science-fiction magasine. I was fairly immersed in that world, despite not having 3D beamed into my eye sockets because immersion has, ultimately, absolutely nothing to do with the way something is presented to you or is interacted with – it’s entirely to do with selling your brain a believable world containing believable characters who you can empathise with and root for. There are extremely few videogames that I could say that about, so popping a headset on seems to me like trying to solve that delicate problem with a hammer. If we can’t immerse you through story and events then, here, pop this headset on and we’ll fix it with technology instead. Meanwhile, books continue to solve that with nothing more than some ink and paper. They must think we’re right idiots.

None of this means that I regard myself as immune to the spectacle, of course. Give me a 3D headset and I’ll be as wowed as the next person. But I have real trouble imagining myself using a headset as the primary way to play a videogame – to me, it’s a staggeringly expensive theme-park ride, something you hugely enjoy only very occasionally. But for £500+ I would expect more than that. But if we haven’t yet nailed immersion using conventional displays with any sort of consistency, why would we expect it to be any better in 3D? And those rare outlier developers who can pull it off, why would we expect them to be the ones to pioneer VR games when they already have the skills to accomplish it? Did anyone expect Quentin Tarantino to jump at the chance to make a film in 3D?

edit: I realise that games are not films (except an awful lot of them try to be), but my point is why not have a peruse of the various lineups of VR games and ask yourself, “how many of these games are offering experiences which would be impossible without VR, and how many of them are using VR as “free” immersion?”. Surely if VR were the game-changer it’s talked about as, should we not reasonably expect the emphasis to be on the former?

TLDR; It’s not the quality of games, the technical innovation, or the quality of experience I doubt or take issue with – it’s the hyperbole 😉

Simple Landscape Generation

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff | Posted on 26-02-2016

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Man I love playing around with landscape generators, it’s the most therapeutic thing ever. I recommend it. It’s the weekend tomorrow, what are you waiting for?

Anyway, in a break from whinging about games and the games industry I thought I’d write a few words about some daft experiments I was doing with landscapes… uhhh… (checks date modified on these files)… blimey, was it 2 years ago? Yeah, apparently mid 2014(ish). I had intended to write this blog post then, but it seems I never got around to it 😉

Here’s an example of one of the landscapes wot I generated:

landscape

A couple of things to note: Firstly, it tiles in both directions which is handy. Secondly, it’s not very Perlin Noise-y. That’s because I didn’t use any kind of noise function to generate it – well, I sort of did (I’ll get to that), but not in the conventional way.

Perlin Noise (or more accurately nowadays, Simplex Noise) is probably the world’s handiest algorithm ever for generating textures. We’ve all seen it, we all know what it is, so there’s no reason to go into it beyond this extremely crude example:

perlinnoise

Read more here

Yeah? It’s basically that except not using regular sine-waves, but instead adding together interpolated random noise – for every iteration the frequency of the noise goes up and the amount it contributes goes down. When using Perlin Noise to generate your noise values, the result of cumulative additions (each time doubling the frequency and halving the intensity) is that classic turbulence look which is so synonymous with Perlin Noise that we often call the texture itself Perlin Noise:

clouds

(Okay, this is Photoshop’s Cloud Filter. But it’s basically the same and, for all I know, might actually be coded using Perlin Noise)

Anyway, I bring this up not because of any of this specifically, but because the principle it operates on (add together lots of things to build up interesting structured noise) is the principle my landscape generators work on. This principle can generate you really interesting landscapes irrespective of what it is you’re using to add together to produce your final result. So your source could be an unstructured random mess but the act of adding lots of it together – each time the input contributing less than the previous iteration – can produce ordered structure.

So for my landscape, what was my input? Well, I just repeatedly added sine-wave strips (where each strip’s orientation – either horizontal or vertical – and its position, thickness, amplitude, and frequency were random). So the first iteration would look like this, for example:

land1

And iteration two, could look like this:

land2

Keep going, then render it with landscapey colours and you end up with something like my landscape above. It’s dead simple and you can use absolutely anything for your iterative additions – sine-wave strips, filled circles, filled squares, various pictures of cows – anything. Because anything added together sufficiently, will eventually produce something which looks like structured noise – which makes playing with your inputs kind of fun 🙂

So – now knowing that my landscape is just lots and lots of sine-strips, looking at it again it’s really really really flupping obvious:

land3

Here’s a landscape where I used filled circles (with random positions, radii, and strength – where the strength also diminishes with each iteration), where the circles were filled like a crater such that in cross-section they’d look sorta like this:

circlecrosssection

landcircles

Notice the crater in the central island 🙂

So anyway. It’s not rocket science, nor the world’s most amazing way to generate super-realistic landscapes. But it’s fun, so I thought I’d share 🙂

edit: This is what I love most about playing with this sort of stuff. How something actually works isn’t in the least bit important, all that matters is whether the results are close to what you want. I love it when the underlying nuts and bolts are stupidly simple. While I don’t claim to have invented anything original with this approach, what lead me to this style of height generation was thinking about landscapes in terms of plate structure. I considered trying to simulate plate tectonics (crudely) but then decided that it wasn’t really important how I got these sorts of structures only that I got them. So the sine-wave wibbles were the first toe-dip into this kind of thing. Instead of using smooth noise, using a pattern with a sharp cut-off (you’re either in the sine-wave ripple (and therefore adding a bit), or you’re not – there’s no interpolation) could yield some interesting features – a curve of a bay where around that curve you may get some little atolls, or dramatic cliff edges. These little features did somewhat end up in the results – close enough, at least, to be fairly satisfying.

What the hell is a videogame anyway?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-01-2016

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Whenever a game hits the internet which pushes the limit of what many would consider an actual videogame, it’s not uncommon for that to be met with a certain amount of hostility. Sometimes it’s because the themes are not felt to be appropriate, it’s political, has an overt agenda, is dogmatic, is linear to the point of having barely any interaction, or any number of other reasons. This is not ideal, to put it mildly.

I’m all for videogames exploring these sorts of ideas – that’s not to say that those types of games would necessarily appeal to me – but that doesn’t mean I object to them existing.

The trouble is, that depending on how you define these things, it can rather stretch the definition of a “game”. Are these things really games? Do we really have a concrete definition of what it actually is to be a videogame? Wikipedia (bear with me) defines a videogame as, “an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. I can agree with that, although the word “game” would need defining in order to really nail that down. A game, they say, is a, “structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool”. So, combining those to remove terms which also need defining yields a videogame as, “an electronic structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool, that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, if a little verbose.

So it seems to me, that the structural and recreational aspects of “play” are really rather fundamental to what a videogame is. So really, is something which is not recreational – in other words, something which you do not engage in for fun and pleasure, something that’s entire raison d’etre is to make you feel uncomfortable, for example – is this really a videogame? If not, what is it? Do we even have terminology for these kinds of things?

Back in the early CD-ROM days, we had games which branded themselves as “interactive movies” and that was an excellent description of what they were. The trouble with that term was most of them were flupping awful so I’m not entirely convinced that were I to make one, I’d particularly want it associated with that name. But surely we can come up with good terminology for this stuff? It’s not like your endeavour is suddenly less interesting or exciting if it wasn’t called a videogame any more. Are visual novels “games”? To me… no, not really. They’re visual novels, and that’s a perfect description for them. Some are fantastic, some are shite – same as everything else. They’re not good or bad because they’re a visual novel any more than a narrative is good or bad because it’s explored as a documentary film.

Steam has “Games”, “Software”, “Hardware”, “Videos”. What if there was another section called “Interactive Movies” (I’m using that term for lack of anything better). Would there be so many raging arguments on forums if that’s where those things were filed? There were a few arguments when films started appearing on Steam, but they were all filed under “Videos” so, once people got used to the idea, arguments decreased. While there’s a million reasons in play as to why there’s often so much hostility towards certain games, does this not in part revolve around people’s differing ideas of what games should or should not be? Surely this, at least, is a solvable problem?

Perhaps this is all just the result of the number of videogames which aren’t necessarily technically videogames representing only a tiny fraction of the whole. That to take those games and file them somewhere else would seem like relegating them to the back corner of the shop where no-one will see them. But on the flip side, maybe there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’d say they’re not interested in videogames but would actually be really interested in this stuff, and that putting all these things together – away from the shoot-people-in-the-face games that they’re not in the least bit interested in – could actually draw attention to them , particularly from mainstream press outlets who would not normally cover videogames as part of their Arts coverage.

I don’t know, ultimately. I just feel like these ludicrously broad terms – the likes of “videogame”, “indie”, “gamer” – need concrete and specific definitions if we’re going to have useful conversations about them. Otherwise we’ll just have arguments which, fundamentally, are fueled by us all having different interpretations of what these terms actually mean. As it stands, all we can really say about videogames is that they’re electronic things, indie is just a vibe, genre or the lack of publisher ownership (how does that make a game better or worse? Oooh I LOVE videogames which aren’t owned by a Publisher because… uhh… yeah, sometimes they’re shite too actually), and a gamer is anything from pretty much everybody who’s ever used a phone, to a tremendously specific subset depending on which article you read. None of this is tremendously helpful.

On Slagging Off Other Videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 14-01-2016

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Should we do this? In all honesty, I’m horribly conflicted. At the end of the day, other games aren’t really “competitors” in any meaningful sense – so there’s definitely no reason to criticise another game just to inflate your own. On the other hand, just because another studio is within the same games industry bubble as yourself doesn’t mean you should have to gush about it for no other reason than to appear nice. Game developers are also gamers, it’s totally okay to have opinions – to like some games, hate others, love to bits a few more, and find another utterly shit. Isn’t it?

I mean, I do think about this a lot (well, perhaps not a lot – but definitely a bit). I see people talking passionately about one game or another which, when I look at it, “meh” is about the most enthusiasm I can drum up. I do wonder whether the gushing praise is genuine or whether it’s more, “if I say nice things about other games, maybe those people will say nice things about mine – win, win!” It’s obviously not inconceivable that other developers will like things which I don’t, though 😉

I’m also not particularly affected by whether or not there’s some deep and meaningful message or point to a game. I like my games to be fun – crazy, eh? I don’t particularly want to play a game which is going to make me feel worse about myself or life in general than I did before I started playing, and I don’t particularly see why games like this should neccessarily be more interesting than a game with ducks shooting laser beams out of their eyes because… well, just because. What’s so wrong with videogames just being fun? If a game is fun and it makes my cold stoney heart beat once, well that’s nice. But it’s not a requirement and it doesn’t make that game automatically more important or interesting than the duck / laser-beam game.

So the thing is, there’s not really that many games which I like – not in the context of the gazillion games which are made every year. There are particular genres which appeal to me (which tend to be open-world sandboxes, RPGs, and/or simulations) and the rest… don’t, really. I’m not going to pretend that they do just because I’m a game developer and therefore, “WOO! VIDEOGAMES! YEAH!” But that also doesn’t mean I should slag off the stuff I hate – I could just as easily quietly ignore it.

But small indie developers struggle, right? Should I at least not trumpet from the rooftops that I think small indie game A is a bit crap, really? I mean, that wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do really. Except the AAA games are made by humans too, and saying you think Skyrim is shit still affects people. But Bethesda’s bottom-line is unlikely to be affected by that – the small indie developer could be affected hugely. Particularly if you have a decent Twitter following. But that’s to say that small developers get a pass which larger developers don’t when often the price being charged isn’t dissimilar. So who are you being unfair to, then?

Maybe just say nothing. But if I never said anything bad about games I didn’t like, that wouldn’t stop me from shouting from the rooftops about games I love. So wouldn’t the problem then be that any game which I don’t actively promote is one which I am implicitly criticising?

I dunno. It’s a mess. Luckily, I only have 3,500 Twitter followers so I suppose, “who gives a shit?” is a fairly appropriate answer to all this.

Mad Max could yield the Greatest Ever post-apoc Survival Game

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 02-01-2016

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Mad Max, from the Just Cause gamedevs Avalanche Studios, is to me 2015’s most bafflingly reviewed game. While I’ve only played it on PC and, therefore, some of the extraordinarily low scores it garnered for the console versions (5.5/10 from Polygon, 4/10 from Jim Sterling) could be partially explained if the visuals and performance are much much much lower on those platforms I suspect not considering the excellent PC performance even on fairly low spec rigs.

It’s true that the game does not have a particularly stellar storyline, quests are basic, and the optional tasks repetitive – so you’d think a low score would be fair. But I don’t. You see, to me an open world game is as much about the feeling of existing in a world as it is about a story and emotional quests – if not more. The world is a character – in many ways, the most important character. And Mad Max’s world is staggering. Considering it’s set entirely in a post apocalyptic desert, the variety of landscape – all of it feeling real and natural – is breath-taking. A ruined suspension bridge spanning a dried river bed feels enormous – you know, like real bridges are.

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“It’s not ugly” – Jim Sterling

It reminds me why, despite some great environmental design, in Fallout 4 the shrunken down microcosm of Boston never really gave me a sense of awe. Yet one ruined bridge in Mad Max did. Some people may find Mad Max’s world empty, but to me it was beautifully vast – the lower density of settlements and structures adding to the post-apocalypse vibe.

MadMax02

“Nothing to remember it for” – Polygon

Mad Max’s trump cards are its world, its lighting, its weather effects (when a storm blows in it’s an event. I thought the radioactive lightning storms in Fallout 4 were nice but, to paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “lol that’s not a storm, that’s a storm”) and it’s for these reasons you play the game. The story and tasks are just things to occupy your time and give you a feeling of progression and if you’ve reviewed the game primarily in these terms you’ve rather missed the point (and, I suspect, you have no soul). The combat – both on-foot and in-car – are solid enough. But again, the game isn’t about this stuff in isolation. It’s about this stuff at the moment the game warns you there’s a storm approaching. It’s sensational.

Oh, and the FUCKING sandstorms. How this made it to the final game will never be satisfactorily explained. At entirely random points the game declares, “Get inside, a storm’s coming!” and you have to stop whatever you’re doing and find somewhere to shelter for literally ten goddamned minutes while it blows over… It offers nothing to the game, other than to interrupt whatever you were presently doing with a pointless period of no fun. It’s bewilderingly stupid.

John Walker, RPS review

I think we live on different planets.

So, Avalanche Studios, what I would like next please, is a “World of Mad Max” sequel. Except not that name because it’s rubbish. I don’t want to play as Mad Max – I want him to be a character in the world, a legend, spoken of but never seen (except possibly in the climax). Let me create my own character, male or female, give me the world’s worst car to begin with, drop me into the world and say “go”. Take the water mechanic in the existing game, but make it deplete over time so that water becomes required for survival (while you’re out of water, your health slowly drops). Keep the car upgrading, it’s cool, but ditch the auto-repairing and make that the equivalent of resting (find a safe location, repair, time progresses). Make the whole game about slowly building up a reputation so that, ultimately, you come to the attention of Mad Max (for good or ill, depending).

The world of Mad Max is so perfectly suited to an open-world survival game that it would be a travesty if it never happens. Sod the story, sod playing as Max himself – just give me the world, a bunch of psychopathic weirdos, and a true survival mechanic.

Mad Max, Avalanche Studios: Awarded Binky’s Brillopops Award for sensational world design 2015.

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On Indie Game Development

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 13-11-2015

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It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support Alpha-Funded / Early Access / Kickstarters / etc. games”. It’s a real shame because, as should be remembered, these funding models enable games to be created which simply could not have existed otherwise. Of course, as a consumer, it is absolutely sensible to approach with caution before putting your money down for a promise – but at the same time, closing yourself off entirely… well, if everybody did that then we’d be back to the only viable funding model being a traditional publisher-developer relationship. And let’s not forget that it was dissatisfaction with the kinds of games which that relationship typically yields which led us to this in the first place.

It’s a sad truth that with any model – be it E.A., alpha-funding, Kickstarter, free-to-play – there will be some games which use the model perfectly, some which balls the whole thing up horribly, and everything in-between. Some people, just with luck of the dice rolls, will find themselves only backing turkeys. But a few bad experiences does not mean that the system, as a whole, is broken or fundamentally flawed.

This kind of funding model is fantastic, utterly fantastic. If you want a games industry which maximises creativity, maximises variety, makes niche titles viable, this is how you get it – there is simply no better model. We need to protect it, and that places a duty of protection on every single developer using it – no matter whether you’re a larger independent company, or a single hobbiest – whether you want it or not.

Know your limitations

 
When I got my first job in the industry, back when I was twenty, I was full of arrogance – the sort of arrogance which you only really recognise with hindsight. I went through school top of my class in art and computer studies, I got a first-class B.Sc. (hons) in Computer Visualisation and Animation. Frankly, I thought I was the bees-knees. But, of course, you’re only being judged in terms of people in your class or year not the World as a whole. When people treat you like you’re amazing, you begin to think you’re objectively amazing. Then you get a job in the Games Industry.

Blimey, that was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I was comparatively shit. In the grand scheme of things I knew nothing. The arrogance still takes time to evaporate (evaporation, to this day, still not entirely complete) but you do at least start to recognise it as arrogance. Despite not having made many games I was particularly proud of during those ten or so years in the commercial industry, it was still the best thing I could possibly have done. I dread to think what I would’ve been like, had I skipped it and simply started making indie games when I was twenty. Actually, I pretty much know – I would have wanted to change the world (of games). I’d have wanted to show the games industry where they were going wrong. All my “amazing” ideas – why has no-one made these games? Pfft. Noobs.

Those ten years taught me that all those ideas which I thought were so amazing? Not only have they occurred to literally everyone, but also that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that they are not applied is either because they’re “good in theory, not so much in practice”, because they’re utterly nonviable, or because actually they’re shit.

“Indie” has become a PR term, but there is a reason why I’ll insist on making a distinction between “indies” and “independents”. Indies should not be trying to compete with the AAA (or even AA) games. Yeah, we have Unreal Engine 4 at our disposal now, but that we’ve got AAA tools and tech does not mean we can start making AAA games. Just prettier indie games. If, in general, indie games were synonymous with “looking a bit shit” well, that’s fine isn’t it? No, not fine, better. Because if “great game, but graphically a bit shite” was what people thought of when they thought about indie games, then the word wouldn’t be quite so great for PR and maybe the larger independent studios wouldn’t insist on calling themselves indie and muddying up the whole thing.

It’s okay to use Unreal Engine 4 but fill the entire game with cheap crappy stock assets. It’s okay to have both awesome Unreal lighting and assets made out of cubes. It’s okay not to use Unreal at all and make the whole thing in Game Maker or RPG Studio. Style is cheap, HD models aren’t. If you’re wondering why it is that the commercial industry has never produced [insert awesome-sounding ambitious project here] it’s not because you’ve got better ideas than them. It’s because, unlike you, they know how much it costs to make a videogame of that scope.

Ultimately, pretty graphics mean bollocks all if the game is shit or canned. Yeah, you’re probably not going to out-sell Call of Duty. But if you’ve planned for your limitations, kept your team small, kept the design realistic in scope… you won’t need to. You can be ambitious – heck, definitely be ambitious. But be ambitious in moderation. If you shoot for the moon, there is a minuscule chance you’ll land. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a stable orbit around Earth. Most likely, you’ll plummet back down to Earth and explode.

EGX 2015

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 28-09-2015

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Short post this, because I didn’t actually get to see much (at all) of the show given that we had a booth there ourselves in the Rezzed section and having that sort of occupies all of your time. I did, however, want to mention one or two disappointments. For more in-depth disappointment, I’d recommend Rob Fearon’s piece.

Also forgive me for focusing on the bad stuff – obviously there were lots of highlights, showing people our game, chatting about it, cool people all round, love you all etc. I just wanted to get this out of my system.

Now I know that EGX (as opposed to its sister show, Rezzed) is all about the AAA stuff and that the Rezzed section is really just a way for us small games to get in the faces of that more mainstream crowd, but I kind of feel that if you’re going to integrate things at all, you should go all-in. But there were devs there who’d paid for four screens but were allotted only three exhibitor passes – which can make things awkward if someone is ill or injured (staffing these booths is way more taxing than you might think, and someone there is bound to be contagious with something), and having the computers directly underneath the monitors in a locked cabinet isn’t terribly friendly to either the extremely tall, or physically disabled:

wchair

It just all felt a little tucked away at the periphery – most of the section was walled off in a, “WARNING: THESE ARE NOT AAA GAMES” way.

At Rezzed proper, Rezzed sessions are queued for and in nice big separate rooms with comfy seats and prominent announcements. They’re a highlight. A feature. Now I appreciate that at EGX these sessions were new and, possibly, even fairly last-minute additions, but rather than be in a separate area they were instead just a little area set aside on the show floor with a hand-written sign with the lineup written on it right next to some extremely loud AAA booths blaring out bollocks such that you were buggered to hear anything which was said despite the best efforts of the chap in charge of the sound (shout-out to him, flupping hard job he had there). It’s the sort of space that people wander past, idly glance at, and wander off. No-one is queuing for this because it just doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’re expected to queue for. Many people treated it like a space to wander into to sit and eat a sandwich and chat.

I don’t like having a go at this because I’m almost certain that everyone involved in the Rezzed section did absolutely the best they could under the circumstances. The Rezzed sessions themselves were terrific to watch and a pleasure to be involved with. But I was left with the suspicion that it was all a little ultimately pointless. These sessions weren’t filmed, for example – I mean why would you want poxy Rezzed sessions cluttering up the EGX youtube account? No-one’s here to see rubbishy indie stuff, right? It’s all about the AAA and the main EGX stuff. So why bother having it at all? Maybe in the future we should just stick to Rezzed proper, where we belong.