We Don’t Make Sushi

A few months ago I was writing posts here on the state of my little UDK project.

Since then it’s been rather quiet on here but that’s not because the project ended. If you are following me on Twitter then you will have spotted that work was still happening but the update posts had moved home to IndieDB. The even more astute will have spotted that I have created an alter-ego for my independent game developing known as Squid In A Box.

Well Squid In A Box finally has a site!

This will be the home of all future news on my games (although the posts will be mirrored on IndieDB still) so you should all bookmark it and such.

I’m going to try and increase the amount of general games designing posts on here but there are only so many hours in the day and what hours aren’t spent in my dayjob trying to ship Enslaved are usually spent trying to finish Waves but you can probably expect a few musings on Crackdown 2 in the next few weeks as it will no doubt steal some of my precious free time.

In the mean time here is the last video of Waves. As you can see it’s come on quite a long way since the last one I posted here.

Evolution Vs Intelligent Design

My what a purposefully controversial post title this is.

I’ve been working in the games industry for nearly ten years now which I think makes me something of an old man in games industry terms at the ripe old age of 28 (seriously if you go to just about any developer you will mostly find an office full of spotty twenty-something graduates). In all my time I’ve been a proponent of Intelligent Design when it comes to making a videogame. By that I mean writing lots of documents, having lots of meetings and cogitating long and hard on every single aspect of the project.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” - Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

In ten years of games development I have never worked on a game where the resulting product paid more than a passing resemblance to what was originally designed. Such is the way with an inherently creative process like videogame design. Once you start to implement features and interact with them then juices start flowing and you start to have new ideas or realise that something would work a bit better if you changed it. Part of this is because the only people who read Design Documents are other Designers.

Design documents will get nailed down into what is termed a “Functional Spec” which is often written either by the assigned programmer or a Designer who happens to be a Programmer in disguise (like me). A Functional Spec will take the ideas generated by the Design team and try to boil them down into the rules, systems and variables that are actually needed to implement it. These tend to be the most useful documents and where the majority of documentation time should really be spent. It’s these documents that work out what content is required to make the feature work and how it’s all going to plug together. They are absolutely essential to the first implementation of a feature.

They are then useless after that point.

Once you have the first implementation of a feature in your hands to play with documentation is largely useless and tends to get thrown to the side of the road. Everybody has ideas and tweaks they want to make and often a feature will end up being scrapped completely or turn into some other feature nobody ever thought the game needed but turned out to be essential (Vehicle Melee in Wheelman was such a feature. It was never “Designed” it just kinda happened one day). From this point on Evolution takes over.

What happens next is called “Creativity” and it’s something that likes to run around without any pants on and if you cage it in bureaucracy it will fade and eventually die. Without it though you won’t end up with a fun game. You’ll end up with something that might look like a fun game but here is a tip: If the people you’re paying to make the game don’t enjoy making it then the people who are going to pay you for it probably aren’t going to either.

Alot of Producers hate this bit in games development because it doesn’t fit neatly onto a schedule but it is absolutely necessary and vital to having something worthwhile when you ship. Unfortunately this part of development (usually called “Prototype” in my experience) tends to be the bit of the schedule that gets cut the fastest when it turns out that you have content requirements to meet. You promised the Publisher 150 levels over 10 different environments. What you didn’t promise the Publisher was that the game would be fun. The term “Deliverable” will be thrown around and the time required to actually turn a feature from a Functional Spec into something amazing will shrink to almost nothing.

The reality is that you really can’t design a videogame up front and expect it to be amazing and awesome without first playing it and then making revisions to it. I doubt there are many composers out there who won’t spend ages fiddling around with the music before they consider it ready. The problem the games industry generally has though is that with teams of 300 people and budgets up the wazoo individuals can no longer move fast enough or with enough freedom to be truly Creative bound as they are by Bureaucracy. If you wondered why Indie games tend to be more Creative it’s because they are created in atmospheres that foster Creativity and allow swift revision, iteration and evolution before exposing themselves to the world.

Creativity in the Games Industry struggles purely because of the “Industry” part. The same way it struggles in the Music and Film “Industries”. To me this is the best evidence I’ve seen that games are an artform. They’ve suffered the exact same fate as all the others.

UDK Trailer

I have returned from a weeks holiday with a brand new eye infection (or an allergy nobody is willing to commit just yet) and as such I for once have an awesome reason for having done no new work on my UDK game.

However there is more recent footage on the interwebs than my youtubes contains thanks to Epics UDK trailer they made for GDC2010.

The good bit is around 2:37 the rest of the video is clearly rubbish.

So things that are new in this version:

Pickups!

These will home in on you once you get close and form the basis for just about all pickups and rewards that will be in the full game.

Slowmo!

Collect Pickups to recharge your Slowmo-o-meter and then hit the right mouse button to slow down time. Very useful when you get yourself surrounded.

New Spawning Code!

OK so this isn’t noticable or will affect gameplay but it was some much needed rework of the code that was really holding back further development until it was done. This also gave me an opportunity to do a quick revamp of the Wave structure. It’s still dead simple but now no longer dependent on you killing one wave before the next starts. Depending on how well you are doing you may get ambushed.

The Future!

The biggest thing to change so far is going to be the way the waves are structured and managed. I have an idea for a system that is semi-scripted so certain things can happen at certain points in gameplay but largely procedural based on how well you are playing. Hopefully this will mean that better players won’t get bored trudging through easier stuff. Unlike most “Dynamic Difficulty” systems though this will mostly worry about making the game harder rather than making it easier. The later tends to rely on things like the player dying over and over and getting frustrated until the game is finally easy enough for them to progress which sucks.

There are also plans for an early alpha release as a kind of demo but I’ll blog about that closer to the time.

The Curse of Perfectionism

I’ve been reading The Paradox of Choice again. It’s one of those books that has actually caused me to try and change the way I live my life and so far it’s turned out for the better.

The argument put forward is that when faced with too much choice people will often choose nothing at all rather than go to the effort of objectively weighing up the options and trying to come to a decision. I find this tends to stand up to my daily observations the most recent of which was a trip to the supermarket where my girlfriend asked me to choose some crisps and; faced with an entire aisle of choice, my brain completely shut down and refused to even try.

The book splits the world into two groups: Satisficers and Maximisers. Maximisers want to be sure that their decisions are the best they can possibly make even to the point of comparing them to imagined possbilities that don’t or can’t exist in reality. Satisficers have standards but don’t worry about whether or not they got the best deal just that their most important criteria have been met.

Satisficers tend to live a happier more fulfilled life because they spend less time worrying about things they can’t control while Maximisers tend to be more depressed and filled with buyers remorse.

This is similar to Perfectionism. Perfectionists strive for an unattainable ideal often at the expense of everything else. Perfectionism is in fact very bad for you unless you have some outside force that is willing to intervene when you get carried away.

Duke Nukem Forever suffered immensely from this. In an effort to create a “Perfect” videogame 3D Realms ditched a perfectly good game they believed wasn’t good enough and started over. Ultimately they never released anything. Perfectionists are doomed to be depressed and to hate the very things they help create because they will only ever focus on what is wrong with things. It is in fact a very pessimistic outlook on life and yet for some reason a trait that many claim to desire in the people they hire.

Well I guess that might be true so long as the person doing the hiring and cracking the whip isn’t themselves a perfectionist and has the guts to stand in front of a room full of perfectionists and tell them that what they have made is “Good Enough”  (There is no bigger insult to a perfectionist than being told what you have created is only “good enough”).

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m trying to get comfortable with the idea of letting things go in cases where changing them any more isn’t going to result in any significant gain or benefit. This doesn’t mean I won’t make something as good as I can possibly make it but it does mean that I’m more likely to recognise when further work is futile and instead take pride in what I have done rather than dwell on what I haven’t.

This is also by way of apologising for not posting any updates on my game. I had a perfectionist moment and decided to rewrite the entire code base so that it did everything it used to do but in a nicer way that nobody but me will ever care about.

Sorry. That would be the curse of perfectionism right there.

Quitters Arcade

First some disclosure: This is a sponsored blog post. The fact is that this blog costs me money to run and while I don’t want to run ads on the site (and since pay per click is very poor money) I’m happy to entertain the notion of somebody paying me to talk about games design.

So it is that I present to you: Quitters Arcade

Now this is an honourable enterprise as the goal is to help people stop smoking but my Dad used to smoke and he claims that if you are serious about it then you don’t “Quit” you “Stop” and call me crazy but I can understand where he’s coming from. However “Stoppers Arcade” really doesn’t have a great ring to it. The site consists of 3 flash games that are allegedly based on arcade games from the 80′s. You have a side-scrolling shmup, a vertical platform game and a reflex game where you throw packets of cigarettes in the bin (which is actually my favourite).

I guess the idea is to raise awareness among youngsters that smoking sucks and it’s easier to give up than you think. At least that is what the press release says. It’s an honourable goal and it may succeed in some small way. However to quote my girlfriend: “people who have been smoking for quite a while, like me, do not really need a silly game to know we should quit” and she really is right about that. But you’re a bugger when you’re a teenager and maybe delivering the message via videogames is a good way to go about it.

OK now since this is a games design blog on to the games.

They’re not great.

“Blast n Quit” is the shooter and to be honest it fails in many ways. The instructions aren’t clear and the first time I played it I found myself floundering around the keyboard for the fire button (Left Control by the way). In addition that screen scrolls too fast, the weapon doesn’t seem powerful enough and it’s difficult to tell what to avoid. The waves don’t feel balanced and it’s just far too difficult.

“Bin Um” is the game where you toss packs of cigs in the bin. It’s actually quite a nice example of a one-button game and once I figured out the relationship between the markings on the charge bar and the distance thrown I found it relatively fun. However the difficulty doesn’t seem to ramp up very much and I felt I could keep a chain going forever. No doubt there will be some ridiculous scores posted as a result of this. Girlfriend didn’t agree however and felt it should start off slower and ramp up as you got better.

“Escape from planet smokey” is a platformer where you have to escape the rising cloud of smoke and get to the top of the screen collecting as many pickups as you can on the way. This one is simple and intuitive although I felt a little harsh as second hand smoke kills you instantly and is hard to spot and time due to the relatively small and obscure graphics.

It is however much easier and in my opinion more fun than recent game Flood The Chamber which I really did not enjoy at all. Also no I have not played VVVVVV yet either.

UDK: The Boring Bits

My UDK project is not dead. However at the moment I don’t have anything crazy awesome to show as I’m working on “The Boring Bits”.

This includes the UI, Scoring and Online Scoreboards.

I find procrastination tends to set in at the end of my projects because of these boring bits and because I don’t have any work left to look forwards to on the other side of them. Being able to implement some awesome stuff is a great motivator for implementing the boring but essential bits.

So with this in mind I am trying my hardest to get as much of this out of the way now so that when I come back to it again in future it’s just to tweak and bugfix it which is infinitely less dull.

However this doesn’t mean I’ve not done anything on the game itself. It’s just that most of what I’ve done are small tweaks that annoyed me and were easy to fix. Things like making the game work at resolutions other than 1280×720 or fudging the camera so you can see more of the arena when you are near the walls. That kind of thing.

I’ll be back soon with an update after I get the boring bits out of the way.

UDK: More!

Good morning! This is in danger of becoming a regularity but don’t worry! I’m away for the next 2 weeks so there is no danger of this becoming a regular feature just yet.

Lets start with the video:

The most notable addition this week is a new enemy called a “Bumble”. Bumbles are so named because they bumble around the arena in a pseudo random fashion bumping into each other and occasionally the player. I wanted an enemy that would be unpredictable and serve to reduce the amount of empty space in the arena which would make it more difficult to just kite the “Grunt” enemies.

The wandering behaviour is based on this article although since I don’t have an infinite playing field to work with I added in some code that pushes the steering force back towards the middle of the arena the closer to the edge they get (although it’s not so strong that they don’t sometimes just bounce off the arena wall).

I’m learning some things about shoot-em-ups that I never realised before but which tie in with Deathmatch style level design.

For example – Power-ups exist not to make the player more powerful but as a way to get the player to move somewhere specific rather than just moving into the space with the least enemies. As enemies often spawn a Power-Up when they die; and this is often in the middle of other enemies, this forces the player to make a risk-reward decision. This is exactly the same as placing Power-up in a Deathmatch level where the best weapons get put in the most exposed and least defensible places.

Finally if you want to read about the more technical work that went on this week (most of my time was spent refactoring code rather than adding new features) then check out this post on the UDK forums where I talk about Actor pools, memory fragmentation and Pawns being overweight.

UDK: A Project Continues

I’ve been working on my UDK game a little bit at a time, mostly on weekends.

So to update: I decided to ditch my efforts to make a physics based puzzle game for two reasons:

  1. The cap on angular velocity.
  2. I wanted to make a game where you get to blow things up.

If I’m honest it was mostly the blowing things up bit that turned me.

So using what I had already built as a base I started experimenting with making enemies that I could later shoot at. There was much messing around with navigation meshes and pathfinding before I eventually decided to ditch anything remotely complex and keep everything as simple as I could.

This resulted in an “Enemy” that looked exactly like the player and whose only behaviour was to roll towards them as fast as they could. Heck entire games have been sold that only have this behaviour.

With my simple enemy type I set about coding up a simple weapon class and targeting system. Bullets get shot towards the mouse. I used the basic Projectile class that is built into Unreal for my bullets and wrote a simple state machine for my gun that just spawned a bullet on a timer.

Behold!

This however was about from a week ago. This weekend I decided that it was time to give the game a full visual overhaul and get some sound up and running. You can see what the result of all that effort was beneath the cut: Read More »

UDK: A Project Begins

So a couple of weeks ago now Epic released the Unreal Development Kit and lots of people rushed to download it (some 50,000 apparently).

They all then rushed to the forums to ask how you make a game.

Fortunately I’m an old hand with Unreal, starting back in 2000 modding Deus Ex and then progressing pretty much hand in hand with the engine through each version to the current one often being paid for the pleasure. I’m one of the few people in the world who can say they have worked with every version of Unreal that doesn’t work for Epic.

So rather than rush to forums asking how to make games I just made a game.

BEHOLD! One short weekend of fiddling with UDK later and I have something that can be very loosely called a game…

Ok so it’s a ball that rolls around a simple level collecting glowy yellow things.

More beneath the cut…

Read More »

Are Videogames Killing the Music Industry?

[Via Gizmodo]

To the right you can see a graph plotting the total money spent by consumers on music since 1973 divided into different media.

There is a clear trend here of one new media type taking sales away from it’s predescessor.

Until you get to the drop off in CD sales.

Now the RIAA would like you to believe that this drop is purely the result of internet piracy.

It isn’t.

I’m not about to say Internet Piracy isn’t a problem (it is) but I’m also not about to side with the RIAA as their tactics have been fairly reprehensible.

However Piracy alone cannot explain the huge drop in spending on music.

What follows is my opinion based on anecdotal evidence. It’s not facts and I’m not claiming that they are. I have no real evidence to support my claims but I hope that somebody at elast investigates it because I think it’s an interesting topic…

The Internet Killed Music

Piracy hasn’t killed the music industry. If anything Online Retailing and the rise to power of Amazon has had a much larger effect on the bottom line of the music industry than any amount of downloaded music.

Back in 1999 if I wanted to buy an album on CD I would be paying between £12-15 for it in a brick and mortar store.

Today ten years later I can buy a New CD for under £10 sometimes even less than that.

Most things in the last ten years have gotten more expensive (like Candy. That stuff cost 30p ten years ago and now costs closer to 70 of our pence. Rip. Off. ) but CD’s have gotten much cheaper.

2 Reasons exist for this:

CD’s cost less to duplicate. I can get 1000 CD’s pressed with boxes, Cover Art etc for under £1 each with shipping. The numbers the Music Industry is dealing with means that they are paying pennies to actually manufacture the product.

Compared to ten years ago the profit on the physical product is much higher (while arguably the cost of recording the music has kept pace with inflation).

This reduced cost of manufacture is what allows big stores like Amazon to sell a CD for 2/3 it’s RRP and still turn a good profit.

At the same time as manufacturing costs dropped the intense competition from online retailers has forced the retail price to drop. In order to stay competitive and stop a sale going to Amazon high-street music stores have to charge online prices.

So point 1: Music Costs less to buy now than ten years ago. Thus the value of a single sale is much lower than it was ten years ago. All we know from the above graph is we’re spending less money. That doesn’t mean we’re buying less music just that we’re spending less money on it.

CD’s Aren’t The Only Fruit

Around 1999 (the peak of CD sales) something happened. DVD became a viable format for Films and Videogaming consoles had become mainstream entertainment.

Both of these cost more than a CD full of music.

What happened then is that people found their disposable income was split between CD’s, DVD’s and Videogames.

Films and Videogames both cost much more to produce than an hour of music with budgets firmly rooted even then in many millions of dollars. To make back your investment on a Film or Videogame meant you had to charge more for the end product.

It was easier to spend more money on music ten years ago for most people as the alternatives either didn’t exist or weren’t as compelling.

Remember that the amazing numbers you see for how much money we’re spending on Videogames has to come from somewhere. In order to spend more on videogames we had to spend less on other luxury items like Music and Books. The new format taking over from the CD in that chart isn’t mp3 or digital downloads but the videogame.