Sunday, March 6, 2016

Damn you Good Graphics!

Graphics... Can't live with them, can't live without them. No doubt the average 2016 game looks way better than a 2010 title. Funny thing is, six years ago you would probably think those graphics were unbeatable, but looking back now, some games look barely playable anymore. And well, leaping another 5 or 10 years back, is like comparing dirty medieval women to a modern bombshell. Yes, the train to stunning, photorealistic graphics is still moving forward, at a decent speed. And with Virtual-Reality really getting real in the next few years…

But of course, this wouldn’t be a T22 blogpost if I didn’t have something to complain about. As you may agree, awesome graphics is a double-edged sword.

How much hours did I put in rendering that stupid corridor better and better? Imagine if all those hours were spend on making more maps or gameplay instead! Only thing is... a horror game like this depends on immersion, and thus decent audiovisuals.

Being from the Doom era, of course I’m following the upcoming Doom4 release with interest. Honestly, it’s one of the very few titles I could still care about. Not that there aren’t other good games, but I’m just not into reading magazines or IGN / Gamespot anymore. But also remembering the mixed feelings people had about Doom3 (personally I really liked it), and still having a bad taste in my mouth from Duke Nukem Forever, I’m not too sure if Doom4 will satisfy.

Doing that game *right* is almost impossible, and that is partially due graphics. First of all, reading Youtube or forum comments, kids aren’t too impressed about the visuals. Doom4 looks “ok”, according to them. Now after a technical powerhouse like Crysis, sadly beautiful Last of Us, or the wide open worlds of GTA, it’s hard to get impressed by anything really. Been there, done that. But yeah, I agree Doom4 / idTech6 (the Doom4 engine made by id Software) doesn’t whoop all others, as it used to do hundreds years ago.

Games tend to impress with massive, dramatic, destructive, in-game cut-scenes these days. A skyscraper tossed over by Dirtzilla, the Moon getting blown up by Aliens, whatever. Bigger, better. A generic sci-fi corridor from the Doom4 UAC base just won’t “Wow!” anymore, no matter how crisp and sharp the graphics are. But wait a minute… so what?

Sharp and much brighter than Doom3. Good things. But is it enough to impress a new generation of gamers?

So what?!
Yeah, so what?! Even if the graphics aren’t better than the others, does that make a bad game? Of course not. Although unfortunately, people DO judge by appearance. The chubby but intelligent girl with a fantastic character that can cook perfect Lasagne still gets beaten by an hollowhead blonde, when boys have to pick in a bar. Graphics work the same way. Like I said, just read the comments below a Youtube movie. You can easily pick old fans, and younger kids. “The Order 1886 looks 10x better, what a shitgame.”.

But the old-fan comments are sceptic too. Not about how good or bad the graphics look, but if “Doom will be Doom” yes or no. And that, is indirectly related to graphics as well.

Feminized shooters
Most fans agree; after the horror-jumpscare escapades Doom3 made, it’s time for an a true Good Old Shooter again. No complicated stories. No 100 year introduction/tutorial, no teammates, no auto regenerating health, no 2 weapon limit, no stupid puzzles, no quicktime events, no hints or guidance. No nothing. Just back to the basics: Blood, manly muscles, many guns, even more monsters, and SPEED. For anyone born after 1995, this is what we mean with speed:

Whereas modern shooters are usually tactical, stealthy and semi-scripted, old shooters relied much more on agility and speed. Let’s say much dumber, but in general also much harder games. Of course, entering the 21th century, games like Farcry or Half life finally added some much needed depth to these otherwise dumbass Commando-Arnold-Schwarzenegger action games. But now 15 years later, we started to miss our old heroes again. The shooter genre has become feminized really. It’s all so slow, and simple, and weak, and… so serious.

For those who think the original Doom was a horror game, nah. Not really. Yes you fight Demons, Doom takes place in Hell partially, and blood shall flow. But games back then didn’t take themselves too serious. It‘s more the “Braindead” kind of horror; overdone, and jolly. Unlike modern games were foes are supposed to be very scary and dangerous (but usually aren’t), you were definitely the Apex Alpha male in Doom (or Duke Nukem for that matter), killing everything on your way. And that was one the things that made Doom so addictive; firing a rocket into a pack of Imps and seeing one of them fly 6 meters through the air, was a blast. I can do that over and over and over again.

They look kinda cute, don't they?

Violent God
Now back to 2016. The Doom4 trailer was promising, as it didn’t feel like yet another Call of Duty railroad shooter. The tempo is somewhat back again, and seeing the player beating/stomping the shit out of demons (with a yelling crowd), I’m relieved that it’s not a serious tactical shooter, where you have to take cover 90% of the time. Not that tactical shooters suck, but when playing Doom, I want to feel like a violent God. Taking cover is for pussies.

Yet, comparing to Doom1 or 2, it’s still a bit slow, and neither did I see truly large groups of enemies to empty your rocket launcher or BFG on. In Doom, you would typically get surrounded by 20, or even 60 enemies when picking up some keycard. And 1 second later, the whole room turns into one epic barfight, as demons would tear up each other as well. Didn’t see that happening in the Doom4 teasers…

Ok. But what has that to do with Graphics? All kinds of things. For one thing, I can imagine computers will crumble if they have to render/animate 60+ enemies at the same time, with HD graphics. And yes, we must have HD graphics, otherwise those kids from the Youtube comments won’t buy it. In the end, Doom is like any other commercial game, trying to sell itself as much as possible.

Of course. Making a game Like Doom4 will cost the developers millions, many millions nowadays. It has to be compensated somehow. Although the ironic part is that, it is exactly those good-graphics that drive up the costs and development-cycle. If idSoftware would decide to make Doom4 with simple Sprite graphics again, they can probably make the game with 8 guys only in a year, having a less-than-a-million budget + some pizza’s. And although that game may sell less copies, it might even be a more fun product in the end.

The zombie in the closet issue
But anyhow, trying to achieve realistic-graphics has more impact than a potential limited set of foes to fight simultaneously due framerate impacts. We didn’t care 23 years ago, but don’t you think it would look silly to have 12 shotgun-zombies packed together in a tiny container that automatically opens if you pick-up an armor bonus? Doing that 1 time is forgivable, but doing that all the time (like Doom1/2 did) looks ridiculous.

Doom3 had a habit of storing zombies in closets, lockers, fridges and even ovens as well. But at least only 1 came out a time, not 100.

My point is, level design is radically different now that realism –including semi sci-fi or horror “realism”- is a basic must. Enemies have to be placed as if they were doing something useful there. Fixing a computer, sleeping in a dark corner, walking a patrol, guarding a door… Ok, ok. Zombies and demons don’t do jobs, but still. You can’t just place dozens of them behind a magic-opening wall! Somebody call PETA!

Speaking of magic walls that move up when picking up a double barrelled shotgun that just lays on platform… No no. Weapons don’t belong on the ground. You put them safely in an armory, or next to a dead body. Clean up your mess sir.

Doom didn’t just spray its bonus-stuff all around because they were lazy. In fact, like Pac-Man, it’s an essential part of the level design. Follow the trail of bonus items, but don’t pick them up if you don’t need them yet.

Modern boundaries
And then that wall itself. Again, no. It’s not realistic to have walls going down when walking over an invisible line. But man, how are you gonna reproduce Doom, if you are so restricted? In Doom, you had all kinds of senseless architectural abominations. A whole pack of elevators going up and down. 20 cm wide walls high in the air to balance on. Pentagram shaped platforms in Lava. Houses made of laughing faces or intestines. Bridges floating in voids. Walking through burning mud and slime waterfalls as walls.

It didn’t make much sense, but hey! The levels were fun. No, not just fun. They were brilliant. Because now, 23 years later and having them finished a hundred times before, I still play them. Doom levels aren’t particular big, but neither are they linear-corridors (a misunderstanding). Rooms were often so big and had multiple entrances, so the player could decide when and how.

Making such smart, well-balanced levels with modern graphics is going to be one hell of a job, if not an impossible job. For one thing, old Doom maps could be made fairly quickly (remember making your own maps with a Map Editor?). There weren’t thousands of textures, decals or props to choose from. The geometric shapes –not allowing multiple stores- were relative simply. And moreover, the question was not “How good does it LOOK?”, but “How good does it PLAY?”. Since you couldn’t make super advanced surface textures, or spectacular massive size Vista’s, all the focus was on the playability. As it should.

And since a new map was born fairly quickly, you could also drop them more easily. I wasn’t there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if idSoftware made 200+ maps, and filtered out the very best 30 (or 32 actually) for Doom2. And since the maps didn’t have to support a real storyline or plot either, you could basically make a random compilation of kickass maps. So, modern game maps are story/graphics driven, whereas old maps were quality/fun driven. A vital difference.

Now even if you wanted to, you can’t afford the same approach with modern graphics. First of all, stuff like a floating platform doesn’t work. Maybe one time, but applying it on a big scale would simply look weird! Even though you are in a Fantasy Hell, realism tells us to obey some physical rules. Add some support pillars, or add metal chains that carry the floating platform. Maybe not a big deal, but see, now you are adding stuff for aesthetic purposes, not for functional-gameplay purposes.

Now this looks pretty "non-normal". But this is just a single scene. Doom1/2/64 had dozens of levels like this! They could get away with pretty much anything, but shaping a Hellish world that looks good, plays well & still makes sort of sense, is a challenge.

Time = Money
Not to mention the extra time it takes to put all those extra details. Where an old Doom map was just about walls, floors and ceilings, a modern map is much more dominated by its little details. Well, everything takes more work. A Doom2 wall texture was a 64x64 bitmap or something. Now a wall is made of a 2048x1024 albedo or “base” texture, a normal(bump)Map texture, and some more layers to tell smoothness/roughness or secularity. And if you really want photo-realism, all those pixels need to be based on real measured data (PBR / Physical Based Rendering).

This can result in tunnel-visions. Rather than a spontaneous, trial & error approach where you just map your crazy ideas and dump them a day later if it sucks, maps are carefully planned now. Concept artists start with putting down piles of wacky ideas on paper. But be aware, just some boring dark corridor –the majority of old Doom environments- doesn’t make a kickass drawing. So, artists tend to add colossal structures and other eye-catchers. Now the lead picks out the best drawings, and next levels have to be designed on paper, based on the concept theme.

Then finally (3D) artists will work it out. That means drawing textures, modelling “props” (objects to decorate or fill the environment with), making the map structures, putting in lights, and finally scripts + sounds as well. As you can see, a lot of work. But what if this map turns out to be “not so much fun”? You can put down scripted events, some nice visuals and a thrilling ambience pretty well on paper. But as explained here it’s really hard to figure out if a certain map just plays well. Especially when your game relies on agility, dodging, running, and jumping. A dummy map (untextured, no details) can be used eventually to get a quick preview, but since modern games rely so much on immersion, it’s still hard to tell if it works without having proper audio-visuals.

So what happens if a map seems to be boring? We already spend precious concept-artists, designer and mapping time on it. So dumping is often not an option. Instead we twist, turn, and tweak it. Sometimes with success, but other times games just end up having weaker parts. And it also explains why modern shooters are often linear and short; simply no time/budget to create a big bunch of good maps. Thanks to awesome graphics.

Speaking of tunnelvision. Not a bad concept picture in itself, but Doom4 was supposed to be "On Earth", having human buddies fighting evil, vehicles, dramatic storyline... YAWN. Good thing they rebooted it. But probably an expensive reboot though...

I really hope Doom4 will find its way between rock solid additive gameplay, and a modern look that even impresses those kids on Youtube. A game that you still want to play in 2026. But honestly, I think that combination is just impossible at some points. Weird levels & Realism? Turbo-speed & well-done animations? Big groups of enemies & logic placement? Massive battles & high framerates? They could decide not to of course, but I’m afraid it will be not modern, nor nostalgia, pleasing nobody in that case. But, let’s just see. Coming in May!