Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Zero Frags Left?

Hmmm. This post has been a long time coming. Indeed, while I have hinted at it and beat around the bush with semi-related discussion in the past, this post is something I actually am concerned about for the future of gaming and my general interest in it. I am also not incredibly tired or drunk (I think), so you can safely assume that what you read here is actually what I am thinking. So, equip your Hats of Ranting (+1 to rage generation) and prepare to listen to a grown man piss and moan about seemingly trivial stuff in as callous and pretentious a manner as possible. Well, sort of.

In gaming society today, there is (as I have mentioned many a time before) a slight disconnection between a large number of the major game developers and the PC as a gaming platform. Simply put, the PC is not considered to be the bread and butter, default, go-to platform for making a game anymore. Make a game on a computer you may, but for all intensive purposes it will probably end up being on console. Or on a hand-held. Or on a damn phone. The point is, unless you are an indie developer going through Steam or Blizzard Games, making big titles exclusively for PC (i.e. console ports later) is not considered profitable. A good part of the reasons for this is due to piracy. The general nature of the gaming PC is to provide an open and customisable platform, which inadvertently allows tech savvy people various options for playing a game illegitimately. Write an executable crack, tamper with some config files, adjust network protocols etc. You don’t and can’t do this on a less open, less sophisticated environment like a console. So it is unsurprising that even major players in the market, such as Microsoft, have such a strong foothold in terms of where and how they want to drive the consumer market. They have even publicly stated their stance on developing for the PC, releasing ‘facts’ that both bewilder and stun long time PC gaming fans such as myself. Gotta sell those Halo copies somehow I guess…

I’ve mentioned all this before, so I won’t bring it up in depth again. The main point of this article is quite simple. I miss arena shooters. Seriously. Inside my favorite genre of gaming it would easily be my favorite sub-genre of FPS. The last true arena shooter in my honest opinion was Unreal Tournament 2004. UT3, while good, was a step back from something that could and should have evolved into an epitome of gaming skill. Instead it was tacky, sluggish and tailored for … you guessed it … console players. It has now been 7 years since any form of successor has risen from the ashes of continuously slower, tackier, repetitive and outright boring FPS games. The problem? I don’t think it’s going to change. Games like Call of Duty and Halo are considered the norm nowadays, and why? Their game play is anything but intense. The decision making processes one makes in combat during these games are simplistic and primitive. These kind of games have come into fruition at a time when the console market exploded around them and so they have been branded as the benchmark. The true arena shooters of the past are either forgotten or simply unbeknown…

Now I’m talking about the multi-player, deathmatch/CTF game here, not the single player narrative bull crap everyone cares so much about (and plays once and forgets). The feature component of any FPS game should be that visceral, physical feel to the game play that the player is engrossed in. A good arena shooter (i.e. any shooter that has deathmatch/CTF/domination game modes) should push this experience to the limit. You should be able to literally ‘feel’ your actions and behaviors and intrinsically understand how they affect the current game state for you, without even thinking about it. Your gaming avatar and your control over it should be like a natural extension of your body. The funny thing is, even since the days of Doom and Quake this has been achieved. The level of control given to an adept player just feels … right. You get used to it and the sky literally becomes the limit. A true arena shooter doesn’t impose degenerative rules or chance based game play elements designed to add catch-up or random elements to the game. It should have strong, predefined rules with few restrictions and multiple features to accelerate game play, not hamper it. What the fuck am I talking about? Well let’s see...

It seems that today, most people are content with their control of their FPS character alone. Aim and move, shoot some dudes, jump here and there. Congratulations, you are a casual player. In a not-so-recent article by a dude called Shamus Young (yeah, he has a proper blog) I would personally rank you at about the Duke 3D or Quake level. Why? Well, because that’s where you are if you think your handle of FPS games is good if that’s what you can achieve. There is (or at least there used to be) so much MORE to FPS games than just that. The best way I can describe this is if I draw up some comparative scenarios, so let’s do that:

Scenario A: I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. I have spawned with the best weapons the game currently allows me to use. I just got hit a few times while running past an open doorway. I’m still alive, but I got hit up pretty bad, indicated by the amount of blood on my screen. I have nowhere to escape to, but if I wait a few seconds for my magical invisible health bar to refill, I can come back round the corner and spray the piece of tinfoil the enemy is hiding behind with ½ a clip of overpowered 1 shot headshot, 3 shot body kill machine-gun fire. I aim down the sites to perform this action, severely limiting my view and movement speed, but somehow making me fire 3x more accurately (because I am now aiming a gun). Said enemy dies quite epicly. He also respawns and comes looking for me as I attempt to camp in a similar position. After several engaging moments of looking down a corridor, the enemy appears once again and I again shoot him full of lead. I decide to stay at this vantage point and repeat this activity on several more opponents until I run out of ammo. I then use grenades, for even faster/louder results. When they run out, I then get up and attempt to knife someone with my 10 yard instagib melee button, successfully at first, but dying moments later.

Scenario B: I’m playing Unreal Tournament 2004. All I have is my starting weapon and a sniper rifle. I just got hit a few times while running past an open doorway. I’m still alive, but I got hit up pretty bad, indicated by the low valued numeric symbols on my HUD. I have nowhere to escape to and don’t have regenerating health, so I’m pretty fucked! However, I know my movement speed is my greatest tool. I attempt to double dodge-wall jump back across the open doorway, firing my sniper rifle at the first sight of enemy I see. I surprise my foe with my random aggressive choice of movement and remove his head in the process. I take a tiny bit more damage and am now nearly dead. I want to find health as I know the next engagement with an enemy will be my demise. I move quickly but carefully to the closest known location of a health pack. Unfortunately my previous opponent must have predicted this decision and although he has inferior weaponry, is now guarding the only access to the health pack. Desperate, I make for an alternative route, but as he has full health and I have almost none, I die in the process. AS I DAMN WELL SHOULD!!! I respawn, quickly, and decide my best course of action is to gain a firepower advantage. I head to the rocket launcher, keeping in mind where I think he is and where he could possibly be at this point in time.

I probably sound like a bit of an elitist here, but let’s briefly detail the differences in these two situations in these games:
  • In MWF2 I spawn with all the equipment you need and have regenerating health, completely taking out the need to prioritize control of parts of the map for various pickups. You run around, shoot people and camp at good locations to kill them instantly with your instagib-machinegun. The ability to shoot through walls negates the need for me to orientate myself appropriately, turning fights into a spray fest. Enemies that die fast/instantly remove the need for me to carefully wear down the opposition to deliver precise killing blows where necessary. Camping in an advantageous, hard to reach location is beneficial for ambushing unsuspecting opponents, especially as I am aiming down the scope and have the RNG machine already in my favour. Although I move slowly, so does everyone else, making hitting people generally quite easy. Grenades and knife usage grant me incredibly easy kills, sometimes without even aiming. I am, overall, a terrible FPS player, but because the skill ceiling in this game is so incredibly low I am actually doing very well. Against people both worse and better than me.
  • In UT2004, I spawn with the worst weapons in the game. They are situationally viable, but generally speaking, I will get outgunned if I don’t grab something better. Not having the best weapons or regenerating health makes me want to control parts of the map where they exist. This is not easy, especially when other players are doing it as well. People move quickly and have multiple movement options other than just walking/running. They are hard to hit, but so am I making fights more about skill in aiming and less about luck. Not having regenerating health makes the game balanced around how much damage is effectively done in an engagement. I can/will kill someone, even if it takes me a few tries. However it will not be easy. Besides moving quickly they could still have better pickups than I, so I need to take control of that aspect as well. Camping is illogical. I need to think ahead of my opponent and do what I think they would be doing in the same situation. Or sometimes … what they wouldn’t be doing. The skill ceiling in this game is so high, I am sometimes overwhelmed by both the number of things I can/should be doing and the fact that while I am an excellent player, there is still someone out there who is better than me.
… This is just deathmatch. I could bring up other game modes like CTF, but I don’t think it is necessary. I hope from these small descriptions you can begin to see the differences in game play these two games offer. You may argue that MWF2 is not an arena shooter, but what else is there to compare it to nowadays? The truth is MWF2 is simplistic and uncomplicated. UT2004 is not. In fact, in a game like UT2004, you begin to let your intrinsic nature take over when the game play starts moving and flowing like a battle where you have total control. You begin to pull off extraordinary feats of skill, such as stuff like this, which would be accusable for cheating! They probably would be nowadays, but 7 years ago it would have been normal. Maybe lucky, but definitely routine. UT wasn’t the only game though. Even Half-Life and TFC had the components for making extraordinary arena shooter moments, which I think brings to attention the most important aspect about these games in general. You may design a game, perhaps unintentionally, to have a conceived level of control that players will have. If you let this control run a little bit rampant, impose less rules and boundaries on what people can do, then you don’t force people to play in the same box as everyone else. If you let players own creativity and flair come into existence during play … then you can allow players to achieve incredible things such as the following, and be one step closer to making the perfect arena shooter.

The only question remaining is whether or not there will ever be another one?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My noob Banner Designs

When I did Creative Industries at QUT, I did not really enjoy it. I only did it for about 1.5 years and I didn't like it for a ... variety of reasons, most of which I won't discuss here for the sake of not turning this into a rant. While many of the reasons were to do with my own personal problems with how the Faculty was run/managed, one of the primary ones is that I simply wasn't that great at it.

That's probably a bit of an over-exaggeration. I was mediocre at it. Using Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects and the various 3D and audio/video editing software was something I quite enjoyed and, although I thought what I was doing was great (as it sometimes was), more often than not it would be regarded as ... mediocre (as it was most of the time). There were people who, for whatever reason, were considered (and were) better at it. So, after awhile I decided this wasn't really the type of work I wanted to get into as it was and always had been more of a hobby for me.

Also, some of the people were fucking douchebags.

Anyways, back on topic. Since I have started this stupid blog of mine, I have gone through quite a few header/logo designs. It has never really been because I was unhappy with the prior one, its more just because it gives me something to do. However, each and everyone has a small history or tale to them, describing what my interests were at the time of their design.

(God I am going to hate myself for doing this...)

The first and longest one to be used was basically supposed to be my two main characters in WoW. Razial and Laizar, both Undead, were Warlock and Warrior respectively (sif she is a Deathknight). The semi-naked pink woman with wings is Bronlissa, Razial's Succubus. She has seduced many a foe while I hadoukened firey death in their direction, from level 30-80. Succubi are awesome, by the way. Other than that, there really isn't much else to it. This was the banner I used when this blog was still for a unit at QUT, talking about game design.

The next one was the beginning of the whole new redesign ... thing. I dunno, I was probably incredibly tired (or drunk) when I made it. Just like I always am whenever I post something on here. I think what was going through my mind at the time was to figure out a way to get 3-4 things combined from different universes and not make it look goofy. The idea would also give me a 'template' to work from, which wouldn't take long to edit as the idea is already in place. Basing the idea around a crosshair in a game I would segregate the quadrants into ... well you have eyes, you can see the damned thing. It's got some Evangelion, some Quake 3, some SFIV, some code and something from Aliens. And yes, Asuka's boobs are enormous. That's why I picked it.

The third one didn't stay up for long. I can actually say I wasn't happy with this one at all. Maybe because it was too similar in content to the second one, but it just didn't give off the right vibe in my opinion. Besides the upskirt upside-down Chun-Li and the nightelf with the enormous rack, their wasn't really anything being said about wtf this blog is about. Which is funny because I don't even know what it is about right now.

The fourth one was actually one I spent a little bit more time on. Instead of just slapping images into each quadrant and rotating it slightly, I chose to implement some of the things I learnt to do with 'leading the eye'. The Unreal Tournament symbol in the background is the focus point of this effect, with the text supporting its circular design. The images themselves were meticulously placed so as to carry over this eye leading business, but probably could have been done better. Raziel, Akuma and a scene from Street Fighter X Tekken were all new, as well as Kerrigan from Starcraft. SC2 was coming out at the time. Seemed only logical to me.

I am probably cutting myself short here when I talk about how easily these are made. They take about 30 mins, most of which is me looking for stupid pictures to put in. Although there isn't much difficulty involved, thinking about how colours and orientation can affect an image is a big thing. Although I am still not happy with this one (text is off), this is probably the most colour and contrast abusing one so far, making pot smoking hippies happy (I assume). Elements of both Marvel Vs Capcom 3 (Morrigan) and League of Legends (Mordekaiser) are new with Akuma and Asuka making returns. Funny how their names are both similar. I've also got this whole ... popping out thing going on. Looks alright I guess. And yes, Asuka's ass is hanging out a mile. That's kinda why I picked it.

Ugh. You can probably tell when it comes to the whole artsy-fartsy side of things ... I really just don't like talking about it. It's not that I don't care, it's just that I really don't get the whole idea of pretending something that someone has done is so incredible, especially when taken out of context. You know that art piece about the black door with the red outline? I can't remember who did it, but when I heard people carrying on about it in Gr 9 art class (yes, I did art back then), I think I cringed a little. It was a black door ... with a red outline.

Anyways, that will do for the moment. Might come back here and spew some more words when I get this bad taste out of my mouth.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Hand of God

Gaming has been rather … well I wouldn’t say uninteresting, but certainly slower than normal for me lately. Maybe it is because I haven’t bought a game in many a month or the simple fact that as I am becoming older, simply playing and being interested in the medium is becoming less prevalent. It’s not a bad thing, I guess.

I guess I should mention something university related every once in awhile. The most noticeable thing that has occurred in that area lately would easily be the conference I attended in Wellington for four days. At the Australasian IE2010 this year from the 21st – 23rd of November, I presented my honours work from the year before in front of roughly 40 people, most of which were probably rather uninterested. I met some interesting people and had a few job/study offers from random dudes. Except for another student presenting his topic on sketching in RTS games, I think my topic was certainly much more on the technical end of things (as opposed to conceptual and creative design). Being incredibly tired and disoriented, I ended up treating the presentation much more like I would tutor a classroom of students. Although I relied heavily on my notes, I was strangely much more capable of tackling questions and situations than I previously remember myself being able to do. The many weeks of talking, describing and arguing with students is probably paying off, boosting confidence and general social/discussion skills for the better. It’s a useful thing, I guess.

Apparently the Cataclysm is coming. One day from now to be precise. Ah … World of Warcraft. The fun, immersive, distracting timewaster I have tried to slay many a time in the past. But like all good mobs, its respawn time is short enough for most people to simply stick around until it rears its beautiful, disgusting head once more. Sitting on the fence is the name of the game here. I am simply not convinced. Too many times I have played this game only to have everyone I know either doing their own thing or having no interest in doing things together. PUGging with randoms is the same thing as soloing to me now. It is rather absurd considering how massively multiplayer it is supposed to be. For the first time though, I feel I am completely able to resist the urge, having both more important and more interesting things to do. Besides the possibility of rated battlegrounds … it is exactly the same thing as the previous three iterations. No amount of fancy ‘world changes’ and ‘new spells’ are going to convince me that it isn’t about pressing buttons to get purples. I say I probably won’t be playing it now, but in three weeks I will probably be squawking some WoW jargon to a friend, complaining about an instance.

It is true, but the game I have still been playing the most is good ol’ League of Legends. A free, quick, easy, simple game that everyone should do themselves justice and play. Lately I have been expanding my character roster to include various support and tanking roles. The more important of these roles would be Shen, my first true tank and a rather challenging character to play. By now I have played dozens of games with him and I don’t think I could have tolerated doing PuGs without him. You see, I was kind of spoiled from level 1 by starting off doing 5v5s with 4 of my friends. Generally speaking, they were already above average at the game (debatable, yes, but still). I ‘grew up’ with these people, talking of balanced team comps with sensible numbers of tanks, support and ranged and melee damage dealers. Initially, our rather terrible tactics evolved into more structured and sensible strategies that we derived over the course of several games together. Warding, jungling, timing and positioning became more a matter of instinct and natural group cohesion having it imposed and executed progressively more efficiently, over time. Vent also helped a lot.

So when I finally got around to PuGging properly at around level 12+, I was flabbergasted at how terrible your average player actually was. If they were not disconnecting continuously or AFK, they were usually in a state of total idiocy. Overextending and feeding on both sides was rampant. The idea of jungling and warding was completely alien to them. Arguments about everything were the norm. No support. No covering of lanes. No teamwork. No selflessness. It was pretty much Team Deathmatch from a top down perspective. Also, if you lose, it is apparently the rest of your team’s fault and by no means your own.

So, entering this world of lunacy was a godsend with the character Shen. The ability to teleport to any teammate from anywhere on the map, remove possible enemies from doing damage for a short period of time and absorb a good chunk of it too allowed me to correct the all too frequent mistakes made by so many a team mate. My only wish is if I could do it on a much shorter cooldown and more reliably. Being an energy using character means you are frontloaded in ‘ability’ for roughly 3 of your 4 spells, but being energy reliant means you need to wait for it to recharge in order to use those abilities again, regardless of their actual cooldown. Not worrying about mana is great, but in a 10 second teamfight you need to choose your spells wisely (let alone have the energy to do them in the first place). This is really where the whole difficulty in Shen lies, having the energy to taunt at the right time and the foresight to gauge when you should try and kill someone.

Also his taunt isn’t so straightforward. If you use it to initiate you will taunt nothing but air. Its taunt range is less than the range indicated by the skillshot. You need to be close if not in melee range to effectively get it off (assuming it doesn’t bug and/or lag is taken into account). A clever team will simply disperse or run back from you, making the initiating process sometimes rather difficult. This unnecessary difficulty, as well as his teleporting shield Ultra has convinced me that the most effective way to initiate is to use what people term an offtank (or soak) as a proxy. Usually a tanky dps character that doesn’t have real taunting capabilities, sending them into the thick of the fray solo should bait the enemy into taking him out. The instant he is engaged, teleport on to said friend, grab agro off 2-5 people and force the teamfight to take place on your terms using your abilities as they were designed. Hopefully your dps have come in and engaged at this point.

Of course this process is rather theoretical, and though I have executed and pulled it off with often glorious results, with PuGs or timid teammates it can be quite disastrous. But it is for that very reason that I quite enjoy tanking with Shen. As difficult as it may be to get things working in order, when the planets do align (as they seem to do more often now than before) you can truly bestow the hand of god amongst friend and foe alike. The results are worth the effort:

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them”