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What Is It, Then

Since games like Ethan Carter and Gone Home have shown that first-person exploration games (not just walking simulators) definitely work and the combat isn’t really missed, I’m a little less paranoid about doing it in Scout’s Journey.

I’ve always approached it from the environment and story side, even when it was still, in my mind, a shooter. Naturally the story grew bigger, the environments were in large part redesigned since Remake Quake, but the importance of shooting things diminished.

An exploration approach makes total sense even in a game that definitely does include combat. You know what? I tend to think that games like Bioshock and Stalker would have been better without the guns. I’ve stated before that I really like Bioshock, but I never thought it was a good shooter. And that’s because that game mostly thrived on its incredible setting and the process of exploring the underwater city and finding out who your protagonist actually is. The combat was lame (except the Big Daddy thing), it existed probably because the developers at the time thought it was kinda expected. Many people seem to think that this mismatch between brilliant atmosphere and crude, simplistic combat was even bigger in Bioshock Infinite.

Stalker mostly lives on its exploration and portrayal of the Zone of Chernobyl. Even at the time, there were people who said that it would be a better game with less combat and more exploration. And I think that is true.

Some of you might have wondered why there hasn’t seemed to be much progress with Scout’s Journey for a while. Well, a large part of that was due to an identity crisis, and I really only realized that when I finally dropped the Quake engine. While I still had the idea of working on a shooter, I really struggled with the fact that I seemed to write a disproportional amount of story and that the game seemed unbalanced towards being environment-heavy. People were asking me when they could finally shoot something, and that was kinda distressing because I feared the whole time that the true answer was, “it’s not that kind of game.” But then, what kind of game was it?

I think it’s starting to make sense again. Slowly. It’s a story based exploration game with occasional combat, or something. And that’s OK.

Old habits are hard to shake.


Some Good Games

There are good games out there, but you have to look hard.

It’s not the games with the spiffy Hollywood style trailers. It’s not the ones that usually involve shooting people in the face. Instead it’s the quieter ones that tend to be more interesting (heh.)

Anyway, I think I’ve been really impressed by a few games recently for the first time since… forever.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This was made by a bigger developer/publisher, but it’s a quieter game all right. The two-person platforming and fascinating exploration are very nice, and the comicky style of the game is something different. It has great-looking outdoor landscapes (using Unreal 3). But the best part is the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s really quite touching.

Gone Home

First-person exploration game. You search an abandoned house for clues while piecing together the story. And again, the story is what really shines. It’s set in the nineties, and they executed that feeling really well. The game has no violence or shooting whatsoever, it manages to get by with just the story and exploration. Outstanding.

Papers, Please

This unique game has you playing border control in the fictional totalitarian state of Arstotzka. You have to manage an increasing pile of paperwork with as little errors as possible while trying to keep your family fed with your meager earnings. I never thought this could be fun, but for some reason it’s actually hilarious. Glory to Arstotzka.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Another first-person exploration game where you basically play the detective. Drop-dead beautiful outdoor landscape (Unreal again.) No shooting or guns on the screen as far as I could see.

Never Alone

Exploration / side-scrolling platformer game. It’s driven by a story about a girl from an Alaskan native tribe who sets out, together with an arctic fox, to find the source of a mysterious blizzard threatening her people. The visual style is gorgeous (using Unity), and the story includes spirits, polar bears, shamans and other awesome stuff like that. This game is almost so pretty that it hurts.

This feels like an incredible breath of fresh air. Very inspiring stuff.


Ship Rant!

I’ve been asked to make my previous threat come true and do a rant about ships in games.

Here goes! Ships for game developers.

The things that I’ve seen in some games, especially older games, you wouldn’t believe it. When it comes to ships, artists have this tendency to just make things up on the spot because to do it right requires a bit of research. The result is sometimes astonishing. To give you some background, I come from a city where we really see a lot of traditional ships. And it’s those that I want to rant about. The things with sails and all that, you know. Not the boring modern ones.

The thing that ships in video games very often get wrong is the rigging, and the type of sails.

Sail types

havhingsten

So over the course of history, different types of sails (or rigs) developed in different places on the planet. That is the first possibility to make mistakes. A viking ship, as you see here, uses a single squareish sail (square rig) hanging from a long yard. Logically, this requires only a single mast. Most northern/western European ships from the middle ages onward used one or several of those for their mainsails (sometimes on extra masts – bigger ships are heavier and need more propulsion.) Also watch how there are several lines (ropes) – each of them has a purpose. More about that later.

There are some other major types of sail – for example, the Lateen or latin rig. This is the other major type of European sail, used for a mainsail around the Mediterranean from the Romans to Columbus. It is similar to the Viking one, but the sail itself is triangular so the yard it’s hanging from is in a diagonal position. (This is different from the triangular headsails on a lot of ships, because those don’t have a yard.)

A more modern development that’s usually seen in combination with headsails and/or square rigs is the gaff rig. It’s got beams at the top and bottom and is attached to the mast “sideways”. It rarely appears on its own.

Needless to say, because of these regional differences, a viking ship with a triangular latin rig (or with headsails – good gods…) is going to look hilarious. Wrong combination of sail and ship for the period and region.

There are other types of sail that are more typical to Asian regions and so forth. You get the idea.

Many ship types used combinations of different sails, but a tea clipper or a ship-of-the-line with a combination of Lateen and Junk rigs would just not look believable. It is going to use a combination of square rigs and headsails and perhaps a gaff rig. Difficult? Perhaps. But many of those ship types are quite iconic and people will notice that something is off about them even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Tl;dr – You shouldn’t just put any old sail on there.

Rigging

And by rigging, here I mean cordage, ie. the various ropes that some ships seem to have such a whole lot of.

The only really important thing to know about this is that there is standing rigging and running rigging.

Standing rigging are usually ropes used to fasten the masts to the ship’s hull or deck. It is always under tension. A mast will be held in place by standing rigs on the sides as well as on the front (and often the back, too.) Rope ladders are also standing rigging (old ships don’t have those.)

Running rigging are the ropes that are used to control the sail’s position, i.e. its angle to the wind and its shape. Running rigging also raises and lowers the yards, spars etc on some ships. All these ropes usually run between the yards/spars/corners of the sails and the deck where they are typically fastened. They only come under tension if the wind pulls on the sail, or if used to hoist a sail.

You shouldn’t put fantasy rigging on there; you can’t go wrong if you keep to a bit of standing rigging and insert a few ropes that hoist or control the sails on top of that. It’s better to just imply the ship’s rigging than to overdo it. But the ropes that are there need to be believable. The important thing is to keep it functional.

Rudder

The general thing here is that the side rudder / steering oar (starboard) is older than the stern rudder. Most European ships before 1300 had side rudders, practically all modern ships have stern rudders.

Planking

Some older ships from Northern Europe such as the viking ones use clinker planking (the planks overlap each other.) With this method, the hull is actually built first. Most other ship types (as far as I know) use carvel planking where the planks butt up against each other and the ship requires a lot more timbers (ribs.)

Decoration

Holy crap, do video game ships have crazy stuff on them. Dragon heads, tons of flags, golden embellishments, incredible figureheads, elaborately painted sails.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the vast majority of vessels will never have been decorated in this manner. Fishing boats, small traders, freighters would be more believable without all this stuff, because it simply costs money to decorate ships.

Do some research here. For example, to this day scientists have not found a lot of “dragon heads”, although they did find a ton of viking ships that have nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, the entire thing about having scary looking dragon heads on viking ships might just be a myth. Who would have thought? Maybe those vikings were more practically-oriented than we thought: Go really fast, slam into the beach, run up the hill, grab everything – none of this requires decoration on your ship, it’s just gotta go fast and carry enough plunder.

The take away is that when it comes to decoration, it might be good to practice some restraint.

I hope this will benefit someone. I have noticed that ships are done better in more recent games, no doubt due to the amount of reference material on the internet and also the generally more detailed models in games these days. Let’s hope the trend continues. It really can’t hurt to understand some basics though.

Final trivia – did you know that ships with a longer waterline will go faster than smaller ones? It’s really true. The downside is that bigger ships will have a much bigger draft, so can’t operate in shallow water. This is why they usually carry ship’s boats.

OK. Enough smart-assing, I’ll leave it at that.

Picture of Havhingsten fra Glendalough by William Murphy [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.


Anti-Quake BS…

How to begin.

To explain the title, I’ve once been accused of “anti-Quake BS” with regard to some new gameplay elements I introduced to the Remake Quake (mod) project while I was on the team. I have been called and accused of a lot of other things during that time (such as “killing the Quake community”), but “anti-Quake BS” must surely take the cake. It’s creative, at least.

Well, space marines, better brace yourselves.

In the last few months, I’ve been tackling some fundamental issues. Dropping the Quake engine brought up a number of things I had been diffusely unhappy with for a long time, ever since SJ split off of the Remake Quake project.

These issues are connected to what Quake is, and what SJ automatically inherited from that project. The core gameplay of gratuitous violence and shooting things in the face to beat the level (which we actually intensified in RMQ by making it play more like DOOM).

That kind of gameplay no longer really appeals to me.

Neanderthals in make-up

I have developed a dislike toward the ultra-simple formula of “here’s a gun, now take that hill.” Pointing and clicking so the target falls over is one of the most simplistic gameplay mechanics ever. It’s somewhat shocking how many multimillion dollar games, despite being encrusted in shiny graphics and helped by tons of art talent, use this same primitive core mechanic. In other words, we advance the graphics, we hire incredible artists, but our core gameplay mechanic is about as challenging as Pong.

Wow.

I mean, Minesweeper is literally more challenging than Call of Duty. Shooters have become casual games, that’s why Call of Duty sells like hotcakes. I know certain people won’t like it, but those 48% female gamers who a bunch of teenage males believe are “not real gamers” because they might largely be playing Minesweeper or Solitaire… might actually be playing the more challenging games.

Shock!

But most modern shooters basically amount to club-toting neanderthals in expensive make-up. Or put differently: Frantic polishing of sixty-dollar turds instead of evolving the core gameplay into something better.

About violence

What to do about it? The story of SJ is still that of a conflict and what it does to people. There is going to be violence in it because that’s part of the setting and the narrative. Some of the factions in SJ are not only not nice, they actively hate another faction’s guts for some irrational reasons. The game is going to show that, graphically, because it matters. It is needed to drive a point home, just like Colonel Kurtz needs to get killed and soldiers need to be surfing in a war zone in Apocalypse Now to drive a point home.

But as for actual combat involving the player, I’m not going to reward the player for pointless violence anymore. It’s true that enemies have loot, which is the fuel of the game. So combat == loot. But that’s not going to be the end of it. Combat will also mean: You get more tainted; your relations to everyone in the game are affected, partly negatively; you lose resources in order to gain some; and you’ll seriously risk getting shot. Combat in SJ is going to be like attacking a cop in downtown LA. They are going to call a SWAT team on you. The player is no longer going to be all-powerful. You’ll be disabled after two or three hits.

So for combat, I’ll take a page out of Metal Gear Solid and even Mirror’s Edge rather than Quake. You’ll be able to overhear interesting chatter between enemy soldiers if you don’t attack the patrol. Heck, you might find out door codes and other goodies if you don’t kill them. You’ll be rewarded for being sneaky. You’ll be given gifts if you don’t kill certain people, just like with the little sisters in Bioshock, only they’re not little sisters here at all. You’ll be rewarded for dropping a stolen medevac beacon for your enemies after they’re beaten. And so on.

Most importantly, Scout will refuse to attack disabled enemies; she might even refuse to shoot people in the back. You get the idea.

Loot will be easier to acquire by just exploring and staying hidden. Exploration is at the heart of the game anyway, so why not make it the best, easiest way to get “fuel”?

Following this line of thinking, I have removed typical shooter weapons from the game, most importantly the shotgun. Shotguns are an icon of old school shooter games; they’re often the prime method of removing an incoming horde of zombies or whatever enemy concept you’re dealing with. Just remember DOOM. SJ is just not a shotgun type of game. Equally, SJ has no assault rifles – the icon of most recent shooter games (and of American gun culture.) This will hopefully make it abundantly clear.

Out of similar considerations, I’ll probably drop multiplayer (not co-op) despite having a design doc for it; it’s too far on the pointless-violence side of things and that’s not what the game is.

Tropes vs… quality, in fact

As well as looking into the issues surrounding violence, I looked into issues of gender. And believe me, that was not pretty. Did you know that games with exclusively female leads get a lot less money from publishers (around 40%), and also sell worse? Bummer. Not to mention the ubiquitous issue that game artists apparently routinely take their reference images straight from Playboy but are unfazed by accusations of sexism.

Naturally, I’ve been watching Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. I’ve had hours-long discussions about it. I’ve looked into Gamergate. I’ve looked into gun culture, mass shootings (did you know that almost all shooters are male?), and issues surrounding our idea of masculinity (which seems to be from the stone age.) I’ve seen how women are harassed in online games. I’ve looked into sexism. And after weeks of research, I have to say that 99% of what the feminists say is unfortunately true. I had no idea what women have to deal with every day. I was a little shocked. It is like looking into the abyss, and what has been seen cannot be unseen.

Don’t believe me? Look at this. Then watch this. Then look at this. Then tell me again that there is no problem.

You might call me a “social justice warrior” or insult my manhood or whatever else it is that people on the internet tend to do to “gender traitors”, but I’ve made damn sure Scout’s Journey does a lot more than merely pass the Bechdel test.

If it’s any consolation, I also made sure that the major cast character who happens to be male is going to be likeable. I had to partly rewrite and better expose his character after I realized that I originally motivated him largely by way of his girlfriend, which didn’t do justice to either character. She is still going to die, but it will affect all of her friends, not just this guy, and as a result of these changes he’s gotten a lot more exposure because he needed his own motives.

Self-censorship out of fear of feminist mafia? Not at all. Introspection and resulting improvement. A win-win type of deal.

Media critics are not really the enemy, criticism actually helps to improve things if you are willing to listen. It’s amazing how many people in games keep saying “all feedback is good feedback” and then proceed to rail against feminist media critics. Logic has left the building along with decency.

Tl;dr Scout’s Journey is changing, most likely for the better.

 

 


If you use runes…

… please do it right.

Don’t just write “ASDFGHJKL” in some Windows rune font onto stuff in your game.

helloworld_runes

Runes are a historical alphabet. You might be writing “I suck dick” in runes without noticing it, if you don’t pay a minimal amount of attention. So go the extra mile, look at the runic alphabets on Wikipedia, make a cheat sheet for yourself, and be sure what you write. Don’t be a cheapskate.

It is a shame that Western game developers don’t respect history. What’s more, they treat it like a candy store they can freely rob from and just arrange the stuff until it looks good.

That is a horrible approach. Every time I see random runes or Vikings with horned helmets in some game, I get pissed. They are trying to sell me a shoddy product. They didn’t even do their basic research. They apparently assume I am some stupid twelve year old who just wants to lob some heads off. Dammit, I am 40. I have broad interests. I have an education. I want these game devs to do their damn research or I won’t feel incited to buy those games. There is not a single Viking game that is actually GOOD and has done its research. Just like with movies.

Anyway, both the runic lines above say “hello world”. The upper is in dotted Danish or medieval runes (the dots were added to denote that a U should be understood to mean a V or a W, for instance.) The lower one is in the older common germanic runes. Those have no dots and no weird dual meanings. They also look sharp, so they are well suited to use by artists in games. “Elder Futhark” is what you probably want to google.

I hope you can read the Latin ones (you did know that they are called Latin script, right.)

This is one of my pet peeves with games. The other, as you will one day find out if you keep reading, is rigging and general construction of ships in games. Oh. My. Gods. Those things would never swim.


Unity sale rumour

Word on the street is that Unity may be getting sold. The entire company, lock stock and barrel. Hmmm.

Depending on who the buyer is, this could be good or bad news, but I think it might be one of the large tech companies if it’s true at all. I reserve judgement, but I don’t really like the idea of depending on some tech monster company’s whims to make my game. Their only interest is profit, which means they’ll dump their software and its users when they feel like it. I’d rather use an engine that’s made by an actual game company.

Funny thing is that a lot of people are now clamoring for the supposed benefits of open source engines. Hey, that gives you full control over everything, and makes you totally independent, right?

Wrong.

People are forgetting that the open source attitude to bugs is “fix them yourself.” You don’t have full control over an open source engine unless you either are an experienced C/C++ programmer or can afford to hire one / are successful at recruiting one. And then you’ll have a new dependency on that person.

The mindset in the open source world is totally different from the one it takes to make commercial games. There is a lack of discipline and commitment there. This is why open source games have never taken off. Read my previous blog posts if you want more insight.

Not to mention that maintaining and fixing a modern game engine is a shit ton of work, probably too much work for most indie developers.

Open source is not the perfect candy dreamland that some people seem to think it is. It doesn’t really solve more problems than it creates. It is not a substitute for something like Unity.

Anyway, I’ll be watching the development around the Unity engine curiously, as will a lot of others.

Unreal 4 better be good.


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