Sunday, November 13, 2011

The real deal

Man, heard some painfully awkward "interviews" on the radio this week, while driving to one of our harvesters. Not about Joe Frazier puffing his last smoke, Conrad Murray doing magic with medicines, or Papandreou souvlaki. No, it was about how gamers slept in front of the stores, waiting for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It's mindboggling when 55 year old people, technically left behind in the Nintendo Entertain System 8 bit era, start asking. "So this video-computer-game is about shooting other puppets with the mouse?". Even more facepalming might be the reactions from hyper enthusiast 16 year old CoD "veterans" explaining what a first-person-shooter is, using modern English generation-X words the interviewer never heard about. Online avatar? Deathmatch? Lagging problems? Shader graphics? 100 frags? LOL?!

Maybe what strikes me most is that this is about CoD in specific. C'mon man, it's just a game. A polished, good looking, action packed one. But really nothing new. When fans told the interviewer about how freak'n realistic this new game is, I frowned my butt crack and had to check my ears. Wha-wha-what?! CoD, Realistic? That's like saying "Cowboy tobacco" and "Whale sperm cells" in one sentence; it has nothing to do with each other. Oh, of course this game *looks* realistic, the visuals are excellent. But isn't this also that game where you kill more (dumb) men you can count, and re-spawn 10 meters back within 5 seconds if you got "fragged"? Imagine that would happen in a Afghanistan...

Yes, I fired a couple of real guns in my life, read the real "Band of Brothers" biography book, watched Ross Kemp almost shitting his pants for Taliban gunfire, seen the Seals on Natgeo, and more important, played Hidden & Dangerous 1 and 2. And let me tell you: you certainly can't kill a helicopter with a tomahawk (axe, the rocket might actually work):
Youtube Modern Warfare helicopter fun
Not only CoD is guilty. Battlefield 3 is inbound dudes. So I watched some in-game footage where a boy and girl had some coop-fun. 5 minutes later, the duo had killed an entire army, caught about 40 bullets without dying, blew up a few tanks that didn't pay attention to them running around with dangerous Javelins, and popped one after another enemy as if aiming a gun is childsplay. And don't get me started on the online features. In theory, you can play a realistic, tactical game. In practice, everyone is running into each other like a Braveheart battle. Cause you don't care about your virtual gamelife anyway. Hence, you re-spawn 5 seconds later after you crashed your helicopter after a tomahawk incident. Realism, my ass.

Those milky Lighting-only testshots always kick-ass. Maybe we should't use (diffuse) textures in this game. Saves a lot of work. The hell with realism.

So, maybe ARMA II is what this old whiner needs. Urr... Much harder, check. Lots of factors to count in, check. Big open maps, check. Realistic weapon ballistics, check. Teamwork needed, check. No stupid re-spawn/regain system, thank God check. Fun... Oh, that's because a real war isn't fun either of course. Truly a realistic game indeed.

Why are the realistic, more serious games so painful? Navigating a soldier is more complicated than doing an emergency belly slide with a Boeing 767 in Warsaw. You need 2 keyboards and 4 big handles mounted on your chair just to move the legs. Why are the graphics mediocre? Why is the A.I. even more dull than in most other action games? Why does such games always contain bugs like getting hit by bullets that went through a mountain, or falling through the floor? You can say a lot about CoD or Battlefield, but at least their mechanics are smooth and slick.

Isn't there a good tradeoff? Well yes there is. Or was, I should say. The last title in this series was released in 2002 I believe. We’re talking about Hidden & Dangerous. Damn I wish they made a new part. That game was stiff and didn't had the brightest opponents either. But at least you were afraid of tanks instead of running into them, throwing grenades. Killing guards, disabling MG42's, sniping patroulles or destroying armored vehicles really felt like an accomplishment. A little more recent example of a well balanced game (in my opinion) is Far Cry. Looked good, plenty action, but also using your brains was rewarding in this title.

Obviously, taste differs and personally I prefer a game somewhere in the middle. It needs to be challenging, realistic, but neither a true simulator. Admit it, killing a helicopter with an axe is pretty cool, and a good laugh is also worth a penny. I think my main beef with these games, is that they are too easy; you simply can’t die anymore! CoD, Crysis, and many others have that auto-regain system and otherwise auto-saves every 20 yards. Or how about Bioshock? You didn't even had to redo stuff after getting killed in that game, the dead remained dead, and you kept all your weapons / ammo. Beautiful game, but not a challenge if you ask me. But challenge does not have to equal realism through.

What is realism anyway, asides from good graphics/sound/physics? Would CoD be more fun if you had to stop and take a crap every six (game)hours? Would Battlefield be better if you need to refuel your Jeep before you blow yourself up 2 minutes later? Would Silent Hill be more fun if the player stumbles over random obstacles while running away from a monster? Would Mario be a good game if that (fat) plumber just jumps 60 centimeters high like you and me? Is a boxing-game good if both boxers hang tired in each other arms every 20 seconds? Could Doom be spiced by only carrying 2 weapons and limited ammunition? Would the Sims be cooler if those bastards sleep 8 real-life hours? Would Tower22 be more immersive if the handyman would smoke and drink beer in the bench every day after work?

Games need to be fun in the first place right? If physical rules have to be thrown overboard, then so be it. If it requires 60 dumb soldiers to shoot per minute to keep the player excited, then so be it. Although I wouldn't call my games "realistic" in those cases, it's perfectly fine to do the impossible. Why else would we need games or movies for? You don't say Superman is lame just because he can fly. In fact, implementing realistic features only works out if it actually adds fun to the game. Though in my opinion, modern games removed too much elements just to make games easier and thus accessible for everyone (=$$$), you play a game to escape from reality. Not to eat bread and tying your shoelaces on the TV again.

Ok, the reason for these white shots was testing a simplified ambient method. I'm still fooling around with a realtime G.I. method, but since my laptop doesn't have that much graphical horsepower, I tried a simple method for lower end cards (and distant area's). Each vertex here has 3 pre-calculated ambient-occlusion values: Sky-occlusion, Ground-occlusion and Environment-occlusion. Depending on these 3 factors and 3 colors, the ambient will be calculated. Since we do this per vertex, it's wise to subdivide your geometry a bit (forgot that here).

How realistic will T22 be then? In the first place, T22 needs to be scary. And easy games just aren't scary. So don't expect you can kill a monster with 5 headshots in a row. That's why I never really understood the negative comments on the camera-angles, limited ammo, and stiff controls in (old) Resident Evils. What do you expect? Rushing through the mansion like Duke Nukem? Oh wait, they actually listened to the fans, and changed these points in RE4 / 5. Quality fun games, but scary? No.

Other than in many other genres, human shortcomings such as a limited stamina, fear or not being able to do Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks, are valid (realistic) limitations. Just as long as the game doesn't start feeling unfair. You need to escape or defend yourself, but certainly not in a too easy way! Testing and tweaking the rules should become an important development phase later on. The goal is to create some "Holy shit barely survived that!" moments.

As you may have read, you won't be confronting monsters all the time though. How to fill the gaps then? Another oddity of horror games (and movies) is that it doesn't have to be a funride. When looking purely at gameplay, Silent Hill is pretty boring actually. You don't play it cause it feels so good. You play it cause you want to find the clues, and cause you like to test your heartbeat. I don't want to make excuses though, so we'll try to add some "fun" by doing focusing more on exploration and puzzle braincrackers. As for realistic elements, a day-night cycle, sleeping and maybe even eating are floating in the idea clouds indeed. But it needs to be integrated in such a way that it feels necessary, not an annoying repeat, and enhances the way how puzzles or confrontations can be solved. If it doesn't, the feature should be scrapped.

But yeah, Tower22 is probably not the type of game everyone will enjoy ;) Maybe the comments on CoD are just out of jealousy ;) Asides from bums, I don't expect people to sleep in front of the stores when(if) T22 finally comes out. It doesn't matter though: we'll make what whatever we please, not what sells. And isn't that the essence of making innovative, good stuff?


  1. A here we are at where the last our discussion ended. About the realism in horror games.
    So why do people complain about difficulty in horror games? Because it's artificial! Developers are too lazy to make it the right way. Imagine there are zombies coming to munch a hardened merc, slow and dumb (crippled) dudes against a healthy dude with a gun, piece of cake, right? But no, we have to make it difficult, so it will be scary, and we give him a bad camera angle, so he won't be able to see the threat and do something about it when it stands a few steps away, we leave him without any other means of defending himself except a gun, and give him a short supply of bullets, we forbid him to maneuver while he's aiming or shooting with his gun and make him clumsy and slow in the circumstances when an ordinary guy (not a hardened merc) would run like hell, jump through obstacles and find out how to ignite the crap up his arse to give him additional boost, not to mention he would never stumble on some garbage and would dodge or shove away anything trying to catch him on the way because the overwhelming amount of adrenaline in his blood would sharpen his senses to their limits.
    Killing a chopper with an axe looks like a joke compared to a guy who can't see a monster two meters away because of the camera and can't do anything about it except killing it with a gun while standing still or slowly run to the nearest "dead end" like a police fencing and just stand there waiting until they come and chew him away, because he's not supposed to climb over the fencing or figure out something.
    I think it's not the difficulty, that makes the game scary, that's asking the player what would he do if that was him standing there and letting him to struggle for his hypothetical life in a detailed and highly interactive environment, and the trick here is to give both the player and his enemies lots of tricks and their combinations to use against each other.

  2. Imagine an episode of a game, where you're being chased by some crazed ex-human things, you turn over a filing cabinet on your way, and while they're climbing over it you shoot five bullets while still running away. Two of them are dead, and you got lucky, one slipped on their blood and brains of those you killed and hit his head on something, but the most ferocious and violent of them still chases you. You see the stairs of the fire escape through an office window, you try to open the door to the office to escape through that window and probably try to ambush the freak where you could push him over the roof. You can't risk your last bullet in the clip, because the monster is too agile, you could miss easily and let him catch you. But the door is locked, you fire the last bullet in the lock and kick the door open. The bloodthirsty creature is too close, and an attempt to reach the window, open it and go through would be a suicide. If you'd won yourself more time in the corridor, you'd probably could do that, but you have to figure out something else. The first thing you do is grab a nearby chair and trow it under the feet of the monster. He stumbles upon it, hurts his leg and tries to get up on his feet, but it takes more time because it's mad about losing you when he was so close. You see a rather tall bookcase near the table and while you could smash the monster's head with another chair or try to use those precious seconds to escape through the window, you decide to climb on top of that bookcase and then think what to do next. You're cornered, you're panicking, and that's why it wasn't the smartest thing you did. The monster tries to catch your legs but you kick it in the face, so it decides to pull the bookcase. You hope it will be stupid enough to stand under it when it falls, but you realize it would be too easy, and if it succeeds you will be in a great disadvantage, so you grab a pipe that goes under the celling to keep the bookcase in balance and reach your hand to look if there's anything that could be of use on the shelf. Your hand finds a bronze statuette on the shelf, when you grab it, the monster sees you're up to something and decides to take his chances to catch your hand while you're at it, that was it's last mistake, you manage to crack his head open with that statuette while he was hissing in frustration that he wasn't quick enough again. You think you're finally safe for now, but you hear the other monster, that hit his head got up and is coming your way down the corridor growling in pain. You look at the window...
    Now that's what the horror game of my dream looks like.

  3. I'd say games are unfair when the outcome of a certain scenario is totally random (wether you are good or not), or when the controls are just so damn horrible that you get yourself killed dozens of times (arh! old Snes memoires).

    Personally I didn't find the old Resident Evil frustrating though. Yep, the player was stiff like grandma trying to escape from a retirement home. Yet still, the game had a learning curve so eventually you got good at avoiding zombies and judging wether to shoot something or not. On top, it may compensate for the lack of true fear, making a human incapable of doing things properly, quickly. Like reloading a gun without letting the clip fall, aim straight, take the right corner, et cetera. When scary shit happens, some people get themselves over it. Others get jelly knees or simply freeze. In WOII, less than 20% actually fired to kill...

    That's no excuse to make the game hard just by making the player a dummy though. T22 shouldn't be about lot's of monster-action anyway. The scene you describe would be very suitable for a movie, but has practical problems for a game. First of all, making the A.I. work that way is pretty damn difficult. Also performing all these actions like throwing over something or climbing on a stair are hard to do without making it feel scripted or "fated". Certainly in a realistic way (not jumping around like Mario or a human with supernatural platform-game powers). That's why such scenes are often (partially) scripted / QTE / cinematic / button bash.

    Then the final problem is making plenty of such scenario's. If you get chased about 50 times in the game, you would need a whole lot of different scenario's and options to prevent things getting repeated.

    Not completely impossible. Resident Evil 4 already did a good job in the first town where those crazy farmers tried to catch you in many different ways. The trick was to prevent yourself from getting cornered, resulting in rewarding, fun gameplay. Yet somehow, maybe cause of all the chaos, it didn't manage to scare me... Maybe because it was so damn fun, and you had the feeling you had it all under control (eventually after a few retries)...

  4. Actually more than the half of the things I described I saw in other games, including well mentioned (sadly only the beginning of the) RE 4. I'm a huge fan of Thief and I encountered pretty simplified version of situations like that there, and I think if put enough effort into it, that could be possible. Yes, those scripted techniques would come in handy too here and there, but I have nothing against that. The key is here you always have a choice, while you can't do anything about the events in a movie. And speaking of damn difficult stuff, look who's talking hehe :)