Modern PC Game Recommendations

When one first upgrades their computer, the perspective is one of, “I wonder if this game I had trouble with before plays better now.”  After the new computer buzz wears off a bit, one begins to realize that all their games play the same, just without lag.  (With the exception of games which were so laggy that they were unplayable to begin with, but I think my old ATI X1600XT still pulled enough pixels on lower settings that I never quite encountered that.) So it is that I look to my pile of games and wonder at what in the way of not technical superiority but rather quality there is to play.

“Old” Games

(Defined as games I had sitting around my house for awhile.)

Real-Time Strategy: Supreme Commander.

As far as Real Time Strategy goes, Supreme Commander is the purest and most powerful take to it.  The tried-and-true Total Annihilation balance meets cutting-edge GUI innovation.  No other RTS allows you to command hundreds of units quite as well.  Technically, it’s one of the few games that makes truly good use out of multiple-core CPUs.  The latest expansion adds a few things, but the core game is solid enough.

Turn-Based Strategy: UFO Afterlight

It’s not exactly turn-based, but close to it, because you plan out actions and then pause or resume the action as you see fit.  Thus, the thought-based mechanic of a turn-based strategy game is maintained. The earlier UFO games (Aftershock and Aftermath) are fairly awful – I can only recommend them to those who have a strong stomach and don’t mind plodding through a difficultly balanced game.  Afterlight, however, is considerably better balanced.  It’s still quite difficult (in a good ol’ X-Com sort of way) and not entirely stable at times, but this game has robbed me of quite a few nights rest.

Roleplay First Person Shooter: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not getting its own entry because, frankly, I’m sick of it.  The atmosphere enthralled me at first, but eventually it wears off.    (For me, this is when I first completed the main campaign.  For Yahtzee, it apparently was when he first installed it.)  At that point, a very tired and humdrum game is revealed.   I tried many of the plethora of mods that have been made by the fan community for it, but they do not solve the overall problem that core game the engine presents is very simplistic in nature.  Throw fireball, swing sword, spam heal/potions, win.  Blah!

(S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky trailer.)

I mention this here because S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an awesome Oblivion replacement.  It does take place in an alternate universe Chernobyl (site of a major nuclear catastrophe), a far cry from Tamriel.  However, the atmosphere, Oblivion’s main trumpcard, is several times better in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  Just as importantly, the gameplay involved is much more interesting: pointing and shooting with variable accuracy pistols and rifles feels much more involved.

Though I loved vanilla S.T.A.L.K.E.R. until I first completed it, I found the replay value weak.  That’s why I’m happy to say that I found the (ironically named) Oblivion Lost mod to greatly enhance the replayability.  It does this by introducing many elements of worldliness, unpredictability, balance, foes, and in-game equipment.  I have yet to read up on the recently released “clear sky” official expansion much, and considering how good Lost Oblivion is I’ll probably be checking for compatibility first.

Fantasy Action Roleplay: Two Worlds

Maybe you prefer to Oblivion alternatives to be fantasy based, and in that case I offer Two Worlds.  This game had a much poorer reception than Oblivion amongst reviewers and players alike, but I feel that’s mostly a first impression problem.  Once you get into it, Two Worlds offers a much more organic feel and more interesting gameplay.

(Two Worlds gameplay)

The cities and peasants feel considerably more natural, not like they were placed there with the Elder Scrolls Construction Set.   The basic combat in Two Worlds feels simplistic at first, but it picks up as you earn a number of hotbar-enabled abiltiies and learn the importance of dodging and watching your opponents movements.   The spells are somewhat recycled, but that’s a crime Oblivion is equally guilty of, and the effects in Two World are actually quite a bit more diverse.  Only in Two Worlds may you find yourself laying out flaming fields of fire, slowly baking your enemies to death.

The main issue with Two Worlds I can find are that the engine isn’t as pretty as Oblivion, the physics arent’ as well implemented, the controls are a bit tougher to master (especially the oddness of horseback riding and getting snagged on a pebble) and that the balance is a bit strange.  It’s one of those “open-balance” RPGs where the players are pretty much free to accumulate wildly, with things such as herbs you can mix to create permanent stat increases.   That’s actually a bit cool once you get used to it, the enemies I encounter deeper into the game seem to be well-balanced to counter the juggernaut of a character I end up with.

Roleplay First Person Shooter #2: BioShock

BioShock is Ken Levine’s endeavor to prove that games can be artistically incredible and still good, and this is reflected throughout its environment:  A horror action-adventure shooter that takes place in a 1950s-style underwater city where society has gone horribly wrong.   I shouldn’t need to say more – would you kindly just try it?

The main counterpoint of BioShock is the replay value.  All those neat story twists are spent, and the balance isn’t all that tough.  (There is a difficulty and balance mod… I have yet to try it, but should.)  The ending is very clique, and only two endings (a black and a white) the immersive environment is somewhat wasted.  Some people can replay BioShock, but (having not tried the mod) I can’t say I see the appeal after the first (quite awesome) trip through Rapture.

“New” Games

(Defined as games I recently purchased or am considering purchasing.)

Action: Lost Planet: Colonies

Made by Capcom, Lost Planet has a very console-like feel to it: Run around, pick up weapons, fire away against super CGI-rendered beings great and small.  However, so far as showcasing cutting edge hardware goes, there’s probably no better game to do it.  Yes yes, Crysis… but Crysis’s technical superiority is diminished somewhat by its simple first-person-shooter gameplay (even the special suit abilities were not quite enough to overcome this).  Lost Planet just feels a whole lot more epic… perhaps that has something to do with the several story tall aliens you’re put up against.  The artistic direction alone make this game very easy to recommend, but the gameplay itself is quite solid.

Action Adventure: Assassin’s Creed

UbiSoft’s Assassin’s Creed is the rare game that is heavily hyped yet actually survived the hyping process looking good.  Like many of the games listed here, Assassin’s Creed excels in both atmosphere and gameplay.  The atmosphere is a truly stunning representation of the middle east during the middle ages, with perhaps the most realistic-feeling city life if any game listed here.  The gameplay itself is a really well executed combination of third-person sneaking, combat, and perhaps the most sophisticated representation of an acrobatic, building-climbing character ever.

(Assassin’s Creed Gameplay)

I have not really penetrated Assassin’s Creed very far yet, so I’m projecting a bit when reaching for the downside of this game.  It seems to me that the plot is a bit loopy – it’s one of multiple layers that seeks to keep the player in the dark as long as possible.  Further, there’s some bothersome travel time sequences that are good at preserving immersion but at the cost of unneccessary down time.

Sci-Fi Roleplay: Mass Effect

At its core, Mass Effect is many hard-found games wrapped into one.  The open-ended planet exploration of Starflight.  The cover-based quasi-FPS combat of Gears of War.   The 3D atmopheric adventure of Anacronox.  Of course, the Bioware style story and action fusion found in games such as Knights of the Old Republic.  However, Mass Effect’s wrapper is one fresh out of the high production value military Sci-Fi movie, and it feels great from start to finish.  There’s even some replay value here in terms of being able to take your character through again and again to unlock achievements and special skills.

Very excitingly, Mass Effect is said to be the first part of a three-part series in which your character’s choices will influence the course of.

Conclusion

I noticed as I compiled this list that clearly my preference in games is in atmospheric-feeling games with relatively deep gameplay behind them.  I’m thoroughly burnt from MMORPGs, and perhaps that’s for the best: those things are terrible time suckers for often sub-par experiences.  Of these games, I’ve already completed most of them, but Assassin’s Creed and Lost Planet are two that I’ve yet to really get into yet.

I haven’t done much BYOND work lately.  The game I made isn’t panning out right.  I’m not a real big believer in the concept of “balancing in” the game because I think a game should be good on the core level.  So it seems that currently I’m doing some “research”.  Playing good games like these help remind me what I enjoy about games in ways that two weeks of screwing around with BYOND code can make one forget.

The Death Strangulation Migration of PC gaming

Death?

Now that I have a PC fast enough to run modern games, a startling thing that I noticed is just how few of them there are.  I have not bought that many games over the past few years – I was busy with school.   Even so, I somehow owned over half of the (worthwhile) games the local BestBuy had in stock (most of which were mentioned in yesterday’s entry).

In some BestBuys, this would be your Windows Game section.

In some BestBuys, this would be your Windows Game section.

A times like this, my first reaction is to wonder if PC gaming is dying, or even dead.  However, I have a hard time believing that’s truly the case when we’ve awesome games coming out soon: Spore, Warhammer Online, and Fallout 3 among them.   And yet, it seems clear to me that the release rate has decreased over PC gaming’s prime.

I don’t have to take the reduced shelf space at the local computer game stores as the only indicator, consider GameSpot’s New Release List.  On a week-by-week basis, the PC has more or less the same number of releases as a console, but the list is now being heavily padded by obscure indy games, Korean MMORPGs, and even the occasional hentai dating sim.   When did listing those games become neccessary?

Strangulation?

Perhaps it’s more like PC gaming is strangled.

  • Strangled by the tired old procession of clones.  So many games, so little creativity between them.
  • Strangled by excessive competition from consoles: PC is competing for your gaming dollar versus the likes of the Sony, Nintendo, and even Microsoft (talk about a conflict of interest).  Even your cell phone is playing for your gaming time.
  • Strangled by excessive software piracy: it’s hard for big-name companies to take the PC game market seriously when so many people are adept at stealing their products.
  • Perhaps even strangled by MMORPG player retention mechanics, steadily bleeding $15/mo out of every involved gamers’ budget.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a number of reasons why the PC gaming industry would be strangled, but then what?

Perhaps a strangled PC market is a good thing.  Less cluttered shelf space certainly makes finding the gems easier.   Having to buy less games now means having more money around to buy games later.  Most importantly, it leaves the door open to indies, who can sometimes produce something quite exceptional.  In a way, my recent BYOND dabbling is very much the work of an indy, and I wouldn’t have a chance of dazzling anyone with a tile-based 2D engine if they weren’t pretty desperate by now.

Migration!

Perhaps what’s really going on is that PC gaming is neither dead nor particularly strangled, but rather migrated. Maybe the place to look for PC games these days is not at the shelves of BestBuy.  Maybe the place to look for PC games these days is online.  There’s quite a few online services that make getting games easy and affordable without ripping off the developers and/or publishers.  For example:

Direct2Drive – Services like Direct2Drive are becoming increasingly more common.  Simply browse their online game catalog, buy one you like with your credit card, and download.   No fear of losing your download: Direct2Drive saves purchased game information to the individual accounts, so you can simply redownload as neccessary.  They often have big-name games available on a same-day basis – why walk all the way down to the store or struggle with reservations?

Steam – Through Steam, Valve has expanded the mechanism for securely selling the Half-Life series to interested third parties.  There’s considerable debate as to what qualifies as a Steam-powered game (it seems to be an arbitrary Valve employee decision) but the nice thing about Steam is that a healthy majority of the PC gaming public has it installed and running.

GameTap – This subscription-based PC game library includes both a wide number of proven classics and “GameTap Originals” such as the Grimm series.  Many games (currently 143)  are completely free: simply download the software, create an account, and play.  These are simply the hook to unlock complete access to all (currently 1043) games, at a very reasonable $60/year price.  GameTap is essentially a season’s pass to the bargain bin, and there’s quite a few good games of yesteryear you may have missed.

Indeed, it seems the Internet has been around long enough that the problem with PC gaming is not availability of games so much as simply finding them.  The Internet is an undeniably collosal pile of hay in which to dig for needles. I begin to understand the appeal of a dedicated gaming gem hunter, as I certainly don’t have the patience for it.

Geek Ascension: Upgrade Time!

Today, I’m digitally staving off boredom the old fashioned way: With a hefty computer upgrade.  Yep, it’s finally time to upgrade from my AGP to a PCI-E system for me.  I’m only about 3 years late on that, but now it’s affordable enough for me to do.

My poor ATI X1600XT just isn’t hacking it anymore. BioShock, Crysis, and Age of Conan were largely played in the single digit frame rate for me, and that’s just awful. Even games that have been around a long time stuttered away some of the fun. For example: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights 2, and EverQuest 2.

I did my homework prior to upgrading. Tom’s Hardware is a definitive place to study up. However, between my haste to order in time for labor day weekend and my own misguided impatience, I managed to make a few mistakes that I only noticed after the parts were in the mail:

  1. I purchased a P45 motherboard with only a single PCI-E slot when apparently the whole point of the P45 chipset is to provide a full rendering pipelines to two slots.
  2. I purchased 4 GB of DDR3 memory and Windows Vista 32-bit when I could have purchased 8 GB of DDR2 and Windows Vista 64-bit without any noticeable performance hit on today’s motherboards.
  3. I went with a GeForce 8800 GTS OC when I could have spent $100 more and got a ATI HD 3780 X2 or a GeForce 9800 GX2. Both of them are two-in-one boards.
  4. I accidentally purchased a computer case that has a door on the front of it. I don’t care how trendy they are, it takes some level of misplaced vanity to sacrifice accessibility of front ports and the DVD-ROM in the name of a stylish front.

Still, I’m pretty content with what I’ve got now. I’m a student who really isn’t looking to purchase the best-of-the-best so much as the best hardware I can reasonably afford.  If it can run Lost Planet at an average 60 FPS (and it can) then it’s as top of the line as I could ask. I’m now ready for Fallout 3, what else could I ask for?

Frankly, that I’ll probably spend most of my time on this system playing antiquated GameTap games or dabbling with BYOND is nothing short of confirmation that a facet of the casual computer purchaser’s ignorance extends even to the enthusiasts among us.

Game Brains: Your Artificially Intelligent Opponent

As I take my BYOND project’s AI back to the drawing board for the 3rd or 4th time, I realize I’ve collected a bit of insight as to what goes into a game’s artificial intelligence that negated my earlier impressions.

In my initial impression, the main thing that worried me was creating a competent AI. Trying to design a real life robot to perform simple pathfinding is remarkably painstaking work because the computer thinks in terms of ones and zeroes – “on” and “off” switches – and the rock obstructing the way is neither “on” nor “off” but “rock.”  Performing the necessary conversion is a challenge.

Games have it a bit easier because the action takes place in a digital world from the start. There are no rocks, merely 1s and 0s that represent abstractions of rock. Some challenge remains, as the environment is restructured to have some similarities with life so the player can relate. The closer to real it is, the closer we get to our real life robot trying to understand an analog rock. Overcoming even the minute challenge in a 2D tile-based game was a trial I did not look forward to when it came to writing my own AI.

The Unbeatable AI

What I’ve learned is that this is the least of my worries. When it comes to a computer game, teaching a computer program how to play itself is simply a matter of persistence. An effective game AI can be made by simply providing enough winning instructions to handle all situations provided by the game. Once enough work has been put into that, the game can even play itself better than the player, since computers follow instructions exactly and at lightning-fast speed.

IBMs Deep Blue has defeated the best chessmasters in the world.  However, I would argue it was not truly intelligent so much as very well instructed.

IBM's "Deep Blue" has defeated the best chessmasters in the world. However, I would argue it was not truly intelligent so much as very well instructed.

The challenge of building the AI will differ with the game, of course. “Twitch” games, which rely on reflexes, are simple enough because the instant reflexes of a computer can dominate players the very physical level. In more open-ended games it’s more complicated because there’s more moves, but still doable if enough persistence is applied. In the end, depending on the number and sophistication of choices involved, more or less effort is required to make a perfect AI – one that makes the best possible move every time.

Whether it’s easy or hard to make a bulletproof AI, it doesn’t really matter. Unlike someone designing a failsafe workplace application AI, the unbeatable AI has no place in a game.

The ideal game AI

The real goal on behalf of a game AI designer is not to make the computer play remarkably well. The real goal is to make the computer a fun opponent. What’s fun? Lets go with flow theory: the AI needs to offer enough challenge for the player to feel challenged while simultaneously not being too frustrating. It’s a delicate balancing act that is made even trickier by having to devise a means to rate the player.

Another matter that limits me in my current BYOND work is efficiency. Just because I can run some 200,000 lines of BYOND code per second doesn’t mean I can afford to have every little robot in the game eating up 10,000 lines per second. By the time I get to 20 robots, the rest of my game grounds to a halt as my 200,000 lines are entirely consumed by the lines dedicated to the AI. Thus, a large demand on my design is to break down the AI logistics into as small of an amount of processing as possible while still allowing them to be compelling opponents.

Senster‘s purpose wasn’t to beat its observers, but rather playfully entertain them. It accomplished this in real space with late 1960s technology.”

Fortunately, these two aspects work hand in hand. The weaknesses I deliberately give my AI (so the player can feel good about finding and exploiting them) can also be the same ones that would take a lot of code to get around. One can even come up with a good in-character excuse for opponents to be thick: wild animals, clunky robots, or other such opponents aren’t expected to be highly adaptive.

An alternate (perhaps lazier) solution that seems to work well is the numerical approach. Whether or not your opponent is smart, taking on two is harder (or even one with some other physical advantage). Plus, the player can still feel fairly good about overcoming their dumb opponents when a powerful handicap was involved. I would put the caveat on this approach that too obviously dumb opponents eventually become unsatisfying no matter how many there are or how strong you make them.

Conclusion

In the end, perhaps the computer is really no match for a player in terms of opponent quality. It’s just a bit more interesting when your opponent is actually learning, and the game becomes who can learn faster. However, when there’s nobody else around, it’s better to play against the developer’s instructions than nobody at all.

Reinventing the compelling MMORPG economy

Perhaps if you’re a hardcore invested economist you think differently, but capitalism is a simple game of incentive for personal gain at its core. Don’t have money? Can’t live above welfare level. Want money? Work for it. Can’t or won’t work and still want money? Commit crimes. Committing crimes is deeply frowned on by responsible authorities, of course, but there’s a certain matter of how well they can enforce it that allow the criminal element to exist. In time, a rift forms between those who excel at getting money and those who don’t, leading (among other causes) to an unbalanced economy lead by lucky/skilled entrepreneurs and criminals.

MMORPG economies, largely conceived by aspiring capitalists looking to make some money through their sale, largely work the same way. Don’t have money? Can’t play above the most basic level. Want money? Go kill monsters. Can’t or won’t kill monsters and still want money? Cheat (for example, con other players or go buy it from an RMT organization). Cheating is deeply frowned on by responsible game developers, of course, but there’s a certain matter of how well they can enforce it. In time, a rift forms between those who excel at killing monsters and those who don’t, leading (among other causes) to an unbalanced economy lead by lucky/skilled players and cheaters.

ICanHasCheeseburger dwells on matters of economic concern.

ICanHasCheeseburger dwells on the matter of economic concern.


I could get all very excited about the parallels between MMORPGs and real life economies and say that clearly the developers were doing something right and this will lead to a revolution in gaming and I wouldn’t be the first. However, in order for me to say that I would need to be lying, because I know that the goal isn’t to make a game realistic, the goal is to make a game fun. When the result is out-of-control inflation leading to an unbalanced economy where cheating is considered a viable option, what we have is an inequitable failure.

It’s time for a critical rethinking of MMORPG economies. Game money is basically the carrot and stick approach to game design. Game money rewards players for doing what you want them to do, that’s all it’s good for. Now, we look at what problems money introduces and brainstorming possible solutions to fix them.

Problem 1: Crime

I don’t want players to be able to cheat eachother by making promises and then not following through with them or simply cajoling a newbie into accidentally dropping all their gold at their feet because that rewards them for cheating their fellow player. Further, if players are able to get money through RMT, they’re being rewarded for what you don’t want them to do.

COMMUNISM!!!

I'm sure some of you still affected by the Red Scare are looking at this as a threat to your precious personal possessions. Well, knock it off, I'm just trying to make an entertaining computer game here.

As the game masters of our virtual worlds, computers are dreadfully limited in that they can’t tell the difference between what’s a legitimate trade and what’s social engineering. Thus, completely free trade between players has got to go. It’s not that I don’t want my players to have that freedom, it’s simply that they’ve proved that they can’t be trusted without somebody to regulate the trade.

I can think of a few alternatives. First, we could have trusted intermediary players oversee all trades. Alternately, we could have a trade system where only trusted players are allowed to perform trades. Finally (and this is the easiest to implement) we could simply not add a means for players to trade – even as basic as dropping things so others could pick them up – eliminating trade entirely.

In the game I’m working on right now, I’ve opted to eliminate trade. However, there’s a certain problem with that in that I’ve removed a major incentive for the players to socialize: other players don’t have material possessions they can give you, therefore you’ve less reason to get to know them. This is not neccessarily a deal breaker, so long as alternate socialization incentives exist (such in-game advantages to working well with others).

Problem 2: Inflation

Game money is generally tossed at players whenever they do something right (slay a monster) and sometimes when they do something wrong (accidentally click on a barrel). The underlying problem that many RPG economies have is that, if you keep adding to a number, it will accumulate. This money is generally protected to avoid grief play, and so it essentially exists in an alternate dimension, where it grows and grows.

crushed by money

176,952 U.S. Quarters weigh 1 ton (2000 lbs), and gold is a lot heavier. How much is your favorite RPG character carrying to the merchant?

Part of the problem could be attributed to lack of “money sinks” — things the players could spend their bling on. World of Warcraft players no doubt recognize the chores of repairing their equipment, riding the bus (the griffin/wyvern transit system), paying auction fees, and buying mounts. These are all optional activities that soak up massive amounts of dosh. It doesn’t work – World of Warcraft is still inflated at best, or you simply can’t afford to repair your equipment at worse. Either option is non-conductive to fun gameplay.

I could say that they should adjust their money sinks further, but that doesn’t really solve that what money sinks do is only treat the symptom. What really needs to be attacked is the illness: the haphazard way that money is handled in games. I can think of at least two ways to do this:

First, be much more careful about how quickly you give players money – measure out exactly how much they need and reward it to them at the exact rate of what they’ll be doing, then make sure they get it. This solution takes a lot of work, of course, and some players might catch on that they’re essentially on rails. Whether or not you throw money at them with abandon, this is true: they’re still grinding away for nothing but virtual swag. However, dangling the carrot so elusively may cause them to question whether it’s worth chasing.

Aaaigh, my eyes, they burn!

Aaaigh, my eyes, they burn!


Alternately, reward players through means other than money and cut out the middleman. There’s all sorts of alternate rewards you could give them: social standing, access to better or new abilities, direct rewards of upgraded equipment, ect. The players still get the kind of things they want, but they don’t do it with having this big meaningless number to keep track of. It’s really a whole lot more efficient, and even gives developer better control of specific rewards for specific things than a central pool from which the player can choose rewards.

The main downside of the alternate solution is a matter of audience. Many RPG players are conditioned to feel that these games are about accumulation, and would abstain from a game which does not make gain obvious. I wonder if the genre is better off without that attitude, or would excluding such cut out the entire demography of RPG players? I’m hoping not on the grounds that some people still play RPGs out of a desire to have fun or roleplay.

Conclusion

Overall, My lead critique at existing games isn’t that they use money so much as that they don’t seem to realize why they’re using money beyond, “players want it.” Well, if game money is the carrot you’re dangling before the players, then dangle it responsibly in the right places instead of throwing it at them until they drown in a bout of ill-conceived vegecide.

These and other considerations are going through my head right now as I approach the last vital leg of the GUI-level of my game. It’s not enough that I want players to do things, I need them to be able to produce things as well, and handling this necessitates thoughts as to where those things they produce are going to go. What do player characters gain in the long run, is it sufficient incentive for the player to play them, will it dig into other players experiences over time, and is it (above all) fun?

All these can only be settled by good, head-hurting, critical thinking… and I’m just the borderline obsessive compulsive to do it. I don’t know if my game’s economy will be the best in the world, but (with any luck) it may well be different than the clearly flawed examples we can find today.

Crunch Time: The end of the Learning BYOND series

So ends my ‘Learning BYOND” series (though I’ll probably go back and edit those entries – for brevity, if nothing else). Ten days of “Learning BYOND” is probably enough to say that I’m past learning it, and am now simply using it.

What does use of BYOND produce? If the title is to believed, it allows you to Build Your Own Net Dream. Does BYOND live up to its name? Well, it definitely cuts down the toil of creating an online game tremendously, and I’m very much in debt to Dantom for providing it: it made building my online game accessible. Yet, I’m finding that a game is only as good as you’re willing to put the effort into.

In the end, BYOND is a canvas and brush to wield with whatever skill you’re capable – not a spigot that need only be twist to realize your dream game. (This hardly surprises the realists among us.)

Two weeks after starting, I’m staring down the barrel of a school semester 3 days from now without a completed game to show for it. That’s fine – I can continue using BYOND to further refine my Own Net Dream during the school semester — I’ve only a half-time schedule. I’ve little doubt that I’ll be able to produce something playable within a month soon.

Besides… I’ve always thought it interesting when I read a game credit (such as at the end of Quest for Glory 3) that says, “we hope you had as much fun playing our game as we had making it.” Sure enough, right now, it seems that making games is more fun for me than playing them. Thanks, continuous crappy quality of games leading to burnout. (Or is that a chicken and the egg scenario where burnout makes good games seem crappy?) If nothing else, when I’m building my own game and feel the balance is off, I’m able to fix it myself: that kind of freedom is awesome.

As for details on the particular game I’m making now, I’m hesitant to show my cards early. It’s not that I’m worried people are going to steal my idea — if you could do this and do it better than me, that’d save me a lot of work! It’s just that if I start talking about my game before people play it my words become hype. Hype kills games: I’d rather players judge it for themselves.

In future entries, I might drop a few hints by writing a few pieces of fiction that take place within the game universe. This would handily double as good background material.

Learning BYOND, Day 10: Early Contentment

Progress has been good lately. Although I doubt I’ll have a well-polished and ready game by the time school rolls around, 6 days from now, it seems I’ve at least completed some vital foundation framework. It’s reached the point where neither the Game Designer hat nor the Coder hat need to be worn as often. Now, I’m finding myself in increasing need to wear the Content Creator’s hat.

Voodoo Extreme)

Space Siege, a modern equivalent of a tile-based game, looks outstanding - especially if you've the hardware to run it at maximum settings. (Screenshot Source: Voodoo Extreme)


Content, content, content! Take a look at your average big-budget computer game, I’ve a point to make. Here, I’ll take a look at one I have right now on my start menu.. ah, the Space Siege demo. SpaceSiege.exe: 14.0 Megabytes. Associated dll files? Less than a megabyte each, it seems. However, the “resources” directory: 785 megabytes! The actual brains the drive the game take up less than 2% of the overall space of the game! What fills the other 98%+? You guessed it: content!

Content is all those high-resolution textures, movies, sound files, and other digitized representations of real life which the game engine tries to project out your monitor at the right time in the right places. Do good enough of a job of that, and the illusion is complete. So, as hardware improves and becomes better able to present more data quicker, the content files keep bloating, looking better and better as they go. Believe it or not, there are still places in Space Siege where pixelation is evident — more room for Space Siege 2 to push tomorrow’s hardware, no doubt.

A really early and ugly screenshot of my game.  One day soon, I'll look back at this and cringe.

A really early and ugly screenshot of my game. One day soon, I'll look back at this and cringe.


Unlike some of you out there on the Internet, I don’t have pirated copies of major development software laying around, nor the time or sheer force of will needed to use them well. So I won’t be able to create major jaw-dropping graphics. What BYOND supports, and what I’ll be using, are basic sound files (windows .wav and .oggvorbis formats are supported among others) and 32×32 windows icon files (these can be manipulated creatively in BYOND). To generate these, I’ll use legitimately purchased software, but (because I can’t afford much of those) mostly just freeware/shareware.

To create the sound files, I’m employing three tools. One is Dr. Petter’s SFXR – this is freeware program that is capable of creating a wide-variety of simple machine sounds not unlike you may have heard out of an Atari 2600. For music, Ableton Live LE — this is the $200 version of my big-budget software. For speech, I’m using A1 Speechtron, an excellent shareware voice synthesizer program – I could just record myself, but I’m no voice actor and there’s quite a few technical hurdles involved in making a good recording. Finally, to clean all this up, I use the impressive freeware sound-editing program, Audacity.

Archon, Commodore 64 (gw-design.net)

Archon for the Commadore 64 could look good with even smaller than 32x32 size icons and 16 colors. The viewer's imagination filled in the rest. (Screenshot: gw-design.net)


That covers what the players will hear, but what about what they will see? BYOND’s Dream Maker’s image support is extremely friendly, allowing for drawing your own images or simply cutting and pasting them in. It even implicitly supports multiple images tied to one labeled state, allowing for easy employment of animations and directional-based graphics.

The only inherent limitation is your ability to draw… and even this can be overcome through technology. A technique that works well is finding a picture I like on the Internet, booting up The Gimp (or even the Microsoft Paint program included with Windows) shrinking it down to 32×32 pixels, and pasting it into BYOND. Using the “masking” color in BYOND (in the upper left of the palette), I alter the (likely highly pixelated) result of my pasting to cut out the part I don’t want to display. It might look fairly bad close up, but zooming out produces a surprisingly realistic looking result: the human brain seems to naturally fill in the details the eye can’t make out.

Is this technique plagiarism? Not if you’re taking a large image and shrinking it down so much that it’s too diminished to count. Yet, why take chances? I could make the image even more by own by opening it up with the BYOND editor and subtly shifting the colors and shape to better suit my game. Creative application of rotoscoping is generally considered okay even amongst hard-nosed professionals.

I don’t consider myself an outstanding artist or sound expert, but today’s software can help overcome those limitations to a surprising degree. I may not win any major content creation prizes but, if I wear that hat correctly, I won’t get any complaints from players of my game.