What Writing Does in Game Dev

Time for an update.

Hard facts

On the technical side, I’m now working on a new PC that should be Unreal-capable. We’ll see when I get that running, I might feel inspired to start porting the first level to Unreal.

Truth is, as may be obvious in hindsight, that the switch away from the Quake engine was more of an obstacle than it should have been. I lost the ability to quickly prototype. But in the end, it’s better for the project. It may look like the old Daikatana mistake, but there’s a difference. This is not 1997 and Quake doesn’t cut it anymore, not in the face of Unreal, Unity and Cryengine. So I still feel the switch was necessary and justified.

It’s simply a fact of life that the FTE engine was too buggy, that I couldn’t do the things I needed to do, and that every time I broke one of those invisible Quake-technology walls I ended up in a minefield of untested things prone to failure. So while the engine switch did end up hurting the project, there really was no alternative. There is Darkplaces, but that would have meant another risky wager that a largely untested engine based on 1996 tech would be better suited than the first one. It just didn’t seem like a smart thing to do.

We’re slowly coming up, by our own boot-straps if you will, to a state where we can likely do a hopefully soft landing on a different platform. One of the environments was already dropped into Unity just to see what happens. Turns out it’s very doable. Unreal won’t be that different.

So engine wise, cutting the cable sort of spun me into a different orbit. Which took some time. Not least because I was busy thinking about more fundamental things.

Squishy stuff

Of course that’s not what most of the development time was sunk into over the last two years or so. People tend to not understand why all this writing is necessary. I won’t go into it much further, just know that the script basically IS the game, just minus the technical implementation side. It is simply the case that the style of game development I’m currently doing is so far removed from Quake modding that there’s not even any common ground I could use to explain it to that crowd.

We’re talking apples and oranges. Quake modding is largely mechanical. Change a line of code, and you’ll make the grenade launcher spit voreballs instead. Yay. The communication problem simply lies in the fact that modding Quake’s pineapple launcher and making a game like Scout’s Journey are two different universes. It’s like the language isn’t even the same.

The entire paradigm has changed. In late 2013, Scout’s Journey was basically a Quake mod that started to mightily rattle the cage. Development was largely writing code and painting textures, blocking in level geometry or modelling weapons. Roughly the stuff we did in Remake Quake, plus new problems such as doing terrain, being a lot more detailed and breaking the BSP visibility stuff to get it running fast enough. Very down to earth stuff in gamedev terms.

Real game development in 2016 is a completely different thing.

Scout’s Journey development isn’t based around just going in and writing code or smacking brushes together. It is turned inside out, or rather, right side out. The mechanical aspect of code and polygons is only an extension of the ephemeral core that is plot and design. This brings with it the realization that scriptwriting is in fact the new engine room. Not 3D modelling suites and not level editors and not IDEs.

The holy trinity of Scout’s Journey style game development are actually writing, art and programming, with the latter two being extensions of the former. Which is how it should be. It is a common complaint by game writers that companies are trying to tack on some writing on the tail end of an already half finished game. That is doomed to fail, and is what I’m NOT doing.

Simply put, a lot more development happens BEFORE the art and code stages. This is akin to saying, “hold on a moment, put down whatever tool you’re using and start actually thinking.” And this is the opposite of the modding mentality, which is “I’ll just go in and do this…”

Game development SHOULD start with writing. Unless it’s Pong or Tetris.

Translation

bzzz02

As an example, this lightning monster cage thing (from Remake Quake, around 2011?) was a result of the “I’ll just do something cool” approach. No doubt that approach is a valuable tool. But Scout’s Journey then takes something like this and turns it into that:

#script

An apparatus, like two half-moons made of humming electrodes, seems to draw energy from the creature itself in periodical crackling flashes. Hoses and cables stuck in the creature are drawing its blue ichor, in a slow drip, into a large glass vial.

Scout slowly wanders around it, circling the cage. She wonders, ”What is this thing doing?” Big Bear says, ”Whatever it is, keep your hands off of it. You’ll just run into trouble again.” The goddess speaks up: ”May I look through your eyes?” ”You may.” Scout gazes at the entire contraption. The goddess says, ”This right here says to me: Naruuk, the Star-Eater was here.” Scout keeps circling the machinery. The camera moves in large sweeps.

”He hates me because I’m of the Earth, and he thinks the Earth his slave and spits on it. It is the same with the Luminar. You know now that there are many worlds. And just like that, Nature finds a way to protect them, and tend to them. That is what the Luminar do. They are weavers of the great web. Holy servants of Nature.”

Scout fearfully reaches out to touch the creature. It doesn’t respond.

”They’re killing them”, Scout says. The goddess replies, ”Yes, they’re killing them. For fear, for greed, for negligence, they’re killing them.”

/script

So the idea of the shambler cage is still in there, just minus Quake’s shamblers, obviously. That’s because instead of monsters, Scout’s Journey has just another faction of intelligent beings that happen to be victimized by the real antagonist (and pissed off about it). Who, needless to say, was more than a little inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “elder gods” and so forth. I mean, with a name like “the Star-Eater.” And this, especially once Scout (and the little voices in her head)  encounter it, creates something more interesting than a random eye catching landmark on a Quake level. Basically, something like the shambler cage just makes the player say “neat” and move on to kill more monsters. The cage in Scout’s Journey has become much more than that. It became an anchor point for story, characters, philosophy, conflicts and what have you.

A whole lot of the stuff I did in Remake Quake was the nucleus for ideas that turned into something meaningful in Scout’s Journey, but only because of the writing.

The next step, after writing it out like the example above, is to turn it into new concept art (the cage won’t look quite the same, the size relations are different, the meaning is more complex) and only then modelling it, putting it into a level, and coding stuff like particle effects.

A lot of similar features and landmarks from my Remake Quake levels did survive into Scout’s Journey, just laden with different meaning.

Hopefully this gives people an idea what the writing phase is good for and what can be done with it. It’s like metamorphosis.

That’ll be it for now. In the interest of better understanding what is going on behind the sometimes slow-moving blog. The writing is unfortunately not as photogenic as simply posting assets.

Oh, and because the world is what it is: I call dibs on my own script. All rights reserved.


Masters of Puppets

Let’s play a mobile game, shall we? One of the top rated ones, preferably, one that promises light-hearted entertainment for the weary traveler, all for the price of watching an advertisement now and again. That seems like a fair deal. A no-brainer, right?

How about that zombie shooter with all the exalted reviews. Best zombie shooter ever made, they say. Best graphics. Looks like a console game. This could be on PlayStation 4, they say. All the cool kids are playing this, they say.

OK, that sounds slightly unrealistic for a mobile game, to the point where your mum would notice it, but let’s not be a party pooper. Maybe the game developers are just really good, right. Right? Don’t look at me like that.

The hook

First off, you get hit over the head with some jizztastic graphic shenanigans powered by Latest Fashionable Game Engine, Improved Shininess. Fire! Smoke! Exploding helicopters! What a show. Looks awesome, almost to good to be true for a mobile game, you think.

Until the first level is over, which happens suspiciously quickly, and you’re dropped in the real game. The hook has been deployed. The façade is ditched quickly. The scripted explosions and bombastic particle effects have faded.

The world turns into the blocky, repetitive sequence of boxes that it actually is. The shine dims into a tasteless, worldwide fake cubemap reflection. The pretense falls by the wayside until you can’t help but notice that fan made Quake levels look better than this pseudo-shiny console-quality wannabe contender.

The vicious circle

The basic gameplay seems surprisingly adequate for a mobile shooter, which these days is good enough to serve as part of the lure, until you realize that it isn’t terribly challenging.

Challenge is merely simulated by turning the basic zombies into bullet sponges over time in order to force you to upgrade your guns, which is otherwise completely pointless because the upgrades don’t actually do anything new. You see, the challenge is a lie.

The game just creates an endless grinding cycle of weapon upgrades that not only cost ingame money (read: your time) but also require you to upgrade the gunsmith first, which requires you to upgrade the tech level first, which requires both extra money and extra time, UNTIL you may then finally upgrade your pea shooter, which makes you wait for another 24 hours.

Bitch.

As if that wasn’t enough, the game will force video ads down your throat while you grind through the merciless slog that will make your gun’s damage output keep up with the ballooning hitpoint count of the common lead pipe zombie. Congratulations, mindless victim, you have been turned into a drooling button pusher while the game developers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But rejoice, there is a way to avoid all that: Paying real money.

The special offer

For just a couple quid, you can have enough gold to buy that upgrade now! Hey, what’s a couple quid, asks the hapless victim as he pulls out his parents’ credit card, tapping blindly down the downward spiral carefully prepared for him.

Hey, says the game, while you have your credit card out, why not buy a premium-only GOLDEN AK 47 for just 50 quid? Your friends will be impressed!

But here’s the thing.

The alternative

Once upon a time, games used to hand you all the cool stuff. You’d get a better, more impressive gun after simply playing for a while. No grinding, no paying for extra premium currency packs. The game would simply give you the rocket launcher, or the grenade launcher, or the crossbow, or the magic wand that freezes enemies so you can shatter them into a thousand pieces with one shot of your immense fertility dispenser.

Just like that.

And enemies would actually behave in more interesting ways the longer you played instead of simply having a variable increased whenever the developers felt they needed to wring some more dollars out of an audience of mindless MasterCard equipped teenage puppets.

And you’d only have to pay once. Up front.

And the best part: These miracle games are still around.

You see, when you can get classic games such as Quake, Half-Life 2, Crysis, or Left4Dead for under ten bucks, and play forever, spending fifty quid on a golden AK-47 in some ripoff mobile shooter looks about as attractive as a can of cold jizz.

And when you can play Team Fortress for free online, or download STALKER : Shadow of Chernobyl as a free, completely playable alpha version from the developer’s website, then spending real money on a premium currency pack for Zombie Money Laundry 2.5 seems to be something only a demented weasel would ever seriously consider.

Don’t fall for it

Here, says the game, with a desperate toothpaste smile, have a free slot machine to win some premium currency! Don’t have enough gold? No problem, ten gold just 3,99! Special offer!

Aw shuddup.

 


Look who it is!

Scout with sig

Hello Scout, you lovely freckled explorer you…

Ultra thank-you to my writer friend Dan O’Donnell – and his artist friend (love the style!) – for gifting me this.

This is the best.

Thanks so much. It’s rare to get this cool a present. I love how she seems to have all the cool in the world here.

Really inspiring.

Click here for larger version!


Munich: “Violence games” blamed again

After the Munich shooting German government and media are putting the blame on “Gewaltspiele”, which must be translated as “violence games” or even “homicide games”. German Minister of the Interior De Maiziere said: “Those violence games on the Internet can’t be good.” German weekly Der Spiegel picks up the ball and runs with it: “He called himself Hate – intensely played violence games on the Internet.”

The case is clear, right? Those damned games corrupted yet another innocent young man.

What do we know?

  • Shooter grew up in Germany but also had an Iranian passport
  • Known as a nice boy to neighbours
  • Was undergoing treatment for depression
  • Was ridiculed by classmates, had no friends
  • Was invited to Counter-Strike team “out of pity”
  • Racist toward Turks and Jews, spouted hate online
  • Described by teammates as “strongly nationalistic”
  • Called himself “Amokläufer” (“crazy shooter”)
  • Worshipped other teenage shooters
  • Started team-killing online, then dropped out
  • Researched shootings such as Anders Behring Breivik’s
  • Committed shooting on 5 year anniversary of Utøya shooting
  • Shouts in a video, “I am a German”
  • Large part of victims were immigrants
  • Killed himself when confronted by police

Looks to me like he was a racist fucker who worshipped Breivik. Possibly had a hard youth. Apparently police assisted suicide with shooting spree.

Sad story. But video games as the culprit? Seems like a stretch. More like, playing a disproportionate amount of video games and spouting hate online (as unfortunately, a lot of self-professed “gamers” tend to do) are a symptom and an outlet for such people. How exactly video games function in this context (perhaps as desensitizers?) isn’t clear at all. They’re not the root cause for this guy’s fucked-up life story, anyway.

Breivik, who killed almost 100 people in Norway five years ago, played World of Warcraft… as millions of people do without turning into crazed killers.

Come on, politicians, media people, there has to be a better reason and it’s not that hard to find.

 


Pole hammers and word monsters

poleaxe_hammer

I was inspired to do this concept of a poleaxe-like weapon after watching a guy talk about a Danish axe on youtube. Yes, I watch stuff like that. I want to keep the Scout’s Journey weaponry halfway realistic (if you count laser pistols and insect-powered biorailguns and plasma cannons that look like half a motorcycle among those) but I get the feeling this weapon kinda stretches it a little. It does look cool, so I might eventually fit it in there. I maybe overdid it with the energy weapons for the Order faction a little, they are some conservative guys after all who value a good hunk of steel, so one of them might step up and adopt the hammer-axe.  Who knows. Then again, I’m still sketchy on what weapon to give my “army of the dead” type NPCs, but does this look like something the good guys would use?

Exactly, it looks like it was made to smash the infidels. So, in the Order pile it goes. It does fit the bill of sci-fi mutations of medieval weapons that I’ve got going on, so it’s probably a contender. Sci-fi inquisition type stuff.

I’ve hit a snag with my script. It really is very close to done now, as I said to my beta-reading author friend Dan recently, I doubt there will be another major revision. Just got to go over it with the fine comb a couple more times. This and that needs smoothing over still. But I might just take a time out from writing and do other stuff again. My fingers are itching for some art. If only it was easier to find beta readers. Is reading some kind of lost art? You only need to wave a couple-thousand word document around and people scatter in all directions. What the heck. Makes me wonder how people react to books these days. You know, those 300-page monsters made out of dead trees.

The horror, the horror.

 


Gods and Games, Vol. II

Thinking on from the Overwatch Devi stuff, how to depict gods in games respectfully?

Environment

The obvious way: Depict gods in largely the same way as the adherents of that faith do. Statues, murals, parts of the environment. An example I can think of is the statue of Shiva and Kali in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The statue looks pretty traditional, but is part of a puzzle and will move to reveal the level exit in the end. This is not respectless, gets people interested in who Shiva and Kali are, and makes for a nice looking game setpiece. Lara Croft mentions the names herself and reads a few inscriptions about Hindu tradition. The developers get a free motif for their game, but also acknowledge the source. Well done. A gift for a gift!

To me, this seems not only respectful, but fitting. Gods are a part of the real world environment for religious people, so doing that in video games follows logically. It is unobtrusive and adds flair, the statue is not out of place in an overgrown temple ruin (it’s almost to be expected, just like seeing depictions of saints in a church), while actual worshippers will just be pleasantly surprised to see something familiar. It’s also about twenty meters tall which adds to the dignified appearance.

Yes, the statue can be controlled by the player, but not directly, and the player has to put in some work (platforming etc.) to make it move. The level (“Coastal Thailand”) is cleverly designed so the two ancient gods themselves seem to reward the player and allow them to proceed. This is a respectful treatment. No problem with this at all. A-OK in my book. More than OK in fact. The developers clearly did their research and managed to embed Shiva and Kali in their game without distorting the faith and tradition. This can’t possibly offend anyone. I personally really like it.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs)

Depicting deities as characters is a lot more difficult to do respectfully. Suddenly you have a walking, talking image of a deity in your game. There’s much more that can go wrong here. You see, deities from actually existing religions and pantheons are not video game characters by nature. You have to treat them as pre-existing characters from a real-world context that have certain traits in the minds of people. Much like putting celebrities in your video game, or, actually, much like putting Hatsune Miku or Mickey Mouse in your game!

Only that there is a trademark and copyright on Hatsune Miku, so you could never get away with it unless you have a license.

Deities are from a time where all that didn’t exist. I’m not sure if the old Celtic or Greek people had a concept of intellectual property. Hence, no one can claim copyright to deities, but hold on – it’s that respect thing again. An entire culture and tradition worshipped these gods for a long, long time. Of course every Greek stonemason or artist could make images of Athena, because no copyright, but all of them did it respectfully. Even the Romans depicted Greek (and Egyptian, and Celtic) gods with respect, even painters in the christian era did it. Because frankly, anything else would have been tasteless.

Now there are differences between religions, as I pointed out. Take the Germanic mythology: There is a story of how Thor was dressed up as a woman and almost married to a giant. There is a story of how Loki changed into a mare and gave birth to Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. There is even a story where Loki accuses pretty much any goddess of sleeping around, and gets away with it. Heck, there is a story of Loki tying his balls to a goat, with them both pulling on the rope, to make the goddess Skadi laugh as a kind of payment for her father’s slaying by the Aesir.

So when you have a mythology like that, you can take some liberties. But never forget that these “characters” are beloved to many, and that not all the stories are like that, and don’t overdo it. Don’t resort to senseless violence and gore (I’m looking at you, God of War) where it isn’t appropriate.

Don’t be a jerk. Do your research. Talk to people. Keep it sort of civil.

An easy way to avoid any and all complications is to depict fantasy versions of the gods. This was done well in the fantasy game “Too Human” which depicts Norse gods as cybernetically-enhanced beings and takes it from there. When it’s pure fantasy, with some actual creativity on show by the developer, it’s hard to take it the wrong way. You could also create similar characters that have different names (that’s what Scout’s Journey does, by the way). The key here is “creativity”.

An example from another medium is the Neil Gaiman novel, “American Gods”. In it, gods from many pantheons are struggling to make a living in modern America. But what’s most important, Gaiman takes all these traditional characters and depicts them as people with wants and needs, very close to humans, which is not out of line with for example Norse mythology. They are treated with respect, even when they live in dingy apartment houses and smoke too much and no one gives them any attention anymore. You can’t even get a bottle of Soma in this friggin’ world, you know. It is sometimes heartwarming, as in a scene where Odin makes Easter cry because nobody remembers her despite all the Easter bunnies in the world. This isn’t respectless because it’s the truth. And somehow we know that these aren’t really the old gods from the mythology because Gaiman goes on about how everything in America is basically an imported version of the original, hence the title. The novel is incredibly funny and sad, but always tasteful, well-researched and in character of the various deities.

Player avatars

Here’s where it gets tricky. While you have lots of freedom with fleshing out NPCs, a player-controlled avatar is just a shell in most games. And this is where the Overwatch Devi stuff becomes so bothersome. It’s like wearing a goddess as a costume and controlling her like a toy. The context is a problem, too: This is a multiplayer shooter, so you wear your Hindu goddess costume-toy mostly to kill and be killed and not waste a second thought. It’s not a real character. Skins like these are just an extension of your e-peen. Your entertainment is all that matters here, and the undoubtedly huge sum of money that Blizzard makes with it.

The Devi skin is emptied of all meaning and character, except as a remote controlled weapon, and given as a plaything or status symbol to thrill-seekers.

That’s just not very creative or thoughtful. It’s hollow, and in the end it serves the interest of making a buck just like weapon skins in Counter-Strike. A Hindu goddess IS NOT Mickey Mouse and she’s not an AK-47 or Hatsune Miku. Close, but no cigar. There’s a difference in what she means to people. And that is the key thing to take away from this.

I don’t doubt that letting the player play as a god or goddess is possible in a respectful way, but it takes a little more than this. Yes, deities like Hel or Kali could be depicted in a pretty dark way and it would be in character, although all the games depicting Hel as an evil mastermind are missing the point – “Viking: Battle for Asgard” is an example. If the next “God of War” falls into the same trap, I’ll be disappointed. Again, do your research.

Mars could be depicted as a warrior. Loki could be depicted as somewhat of a rogue. But why not invest some creativity instead of just taking the likeness and slapping it onto a player avatar because it’s not copyrighted and hence costs no money. That’s kinda lame.

There are things that you can’t put a price on, things that copyright and trademark cannot even begin to describe. I’m glad those things exist. Don’t throw them to the dogs.


That Goddess stuff

A Hindu spokesman, Mr. Rajan Zed, recently criticized Blizzard for an Overwatch character that looks like a sexy melange of various Hindu goddesses. The character obviously serves as a player-controlled avatar in the game and is basically used to kill and get killed. His main points are that this is respectless, trivializing and unethical.

There are over one billion Hindus in the world.

I have to say, I do see his point. Does Blizzard have the right to include whatever artwork they want in their games? Yes, unquestionably. Is it the right thing to do? Not necessarily.

I do agree that video game characters like this are indeed direspectful of the religious people’s sensitivities.

Again, is that a problem? Legally, in many countries, no. Ethically? Yes, possibly. Because with something like this, you’re saying to some people: “We don’t care about what you think or want. Deal with it.” This is just not very nice – you’re being insensitive and possibly insulting, even if it’s just within the law. Maybe you just didn’t think it through properly. But you’re basically being a jerk. It’s not how grown-up, reasonable people should treat each other. Respect goes both ways!

Instead, you should listen to people’s opinion, and take some of it on board. Remember, in democratic countries you have the right to be an atheist, but you also have the right to be religious. It goes both ways. In cases such as this, where cultural sensibilities are involved, you should be able to see the conflict coming from miles away.

So yes, legally you have the right to be a jerk to other people. Ethically, you probably don’t want to be. And practically, you probably don’t want to disrespect one billion people who could be your customers.

The typical internet argument “but all religions suck because violence …” doesn’t hold much water, by the way. Not all religions are equal. Did Native Americans go on crusades? Does buddhism tend to create a lot of terrorism? Shintoism? Taoism? Wicca? How many Wiccan terrorists do you know? How many Hindu terrorists blowing themselves up in public? See, it holds no water. Most of the people who go “… Religion is for crazies” are thinking of Christianity, or Islam, because that’s all that is on TV where they come from. But that’s not the same as religion in general. People have been religious for 100,000 years before Christianity and Islam came along, and mankind obviously survived just fine in spite of, or maybe because, of its religions.

Hindus, you know, are these people who like to toss coloured pigment at each other on holidays and sink ginormous elephant-headed statues into the river Ganges.

Damn dangerous, those Hindus.

So you see, “religion is for crazy people” is actually untrue. Just because you think what we’re doing is crazy, doesn’t make it so. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t give you the right to ridicule it.

Hold on a moment, is this guy religious? He doesn’t usually sound that crazy?

Well yes, I sort of am, even though I don’t really talk about it. I’m what many people would call a neo-pagan. I believe that nature is, in a sense, holy and that humans shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. I believe that we are not the “crown of creation.” I’ve always liked the old Norse mythology, and even though I don’t really see gods or giants throwing fireballs around in shopping malls anytime soon, I like those stories in my life and wouldn’t want to miss them. Do I believe that a cow licked the first being out of cosmic ice? Not really. I believe in evolution, but I still like the idea.

You get my drift.

How serious do we take this kind of religion? Well, it’s officially recognized in Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Spain among other countries. Yes, you can have a pagan marriage in Denmark or Iceland if you want. So this is an actual modern religion.

And this is where the topic at hand gets personal.

Am I offended when I see ridiculous adaptations of pagan deities in videogames or movies? Well, slightly. I’m not offended enough to become angry. We tend to take these things with humour. But I am slightly concerned, for instance, about the new God of War game set in the North. I’m not saying they can’t do this. All I’m saying is when I imagine images of my own gods and goddesses being slaughtered and dismembered in an orgy of blood by Kratos, the series’ crazed protagonist, I don’t like the idea. I find it slightly disgusting. What have they ever done to deserve it? Is it respectless? Yes, you bet it is.

So I can see Mr. Rajan Zed’s point. It’s not illegal, but does it have to be done?

And then you’ve got issues of minorities and misrepresentation of certain mythologies and cultures and in the end, it’s just a question of respect.

Maybe we live in a time when everything has to be brought down, everything has to be ridiculed, and people can’t tolerate anything they don’t understand. It reminds me a little of the movie Agora, where in one scene the early Christians ridicule Pagan goddesses by tossing fruit at the statues with much fanfare. It is just a stupid thing. Am I insulted? No, I’m just disillusioned and kinda sad about the behaviour of the mob, both the film mob and our modern internet mob. You just can’t tolerate that someone has a statue or someone lights some incense at a shrine in the street? You can’t tolerate that someone walks around with what you like to call “invisible friends”? You get angry if the people who you see as weirdos voice an unpleasant opinion?

What happened to “respect your fellow human”?