Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Virus' and Dragon Age 2!

Apologies for the late blog, but I've been bed-bound since Monday morning with a nasty virus, which thankfully has subsided. God is it good to feel better. Speaking of virus', it is the focal point for my current project.

On Saturday, I did a talk on Craggy Island at IGS (Indie Games Space), an event aimed at bringing aspiring developers together. The presentation was more about the design and production process than the mod itself, and then went onto talk about the difficulties I ran into and the motivation behind it all. It's only been just over a month since it was released and it's so easy to forget just how time consuming and challenging it all was. I was really pleased with how the talk went, people seemed interested at least and I only hope that I have inspired someone to go ahead and do the same. No matter how tough it was at times, I can't over-state the importance of actually seeing your work through til completion, not only as it looks good to potential employers but because of the pure self-satisfaction and sense of achievement you get from seeing your work out there, being played by hundreds, if not thousands of people.

Afterwards we picked 2 themes out of a hat, and were broken into small groups. 'Pandemic' and 'Failure' were the picks. The rest of the afternoon was spent brainstorming and working out gameplay mechanics, with the idea of developing a game over the course of a month.

My team chose 'Pandemic' and we decided that our game would be set within a red blood cell. The idea is, you control a virus with the goal of trying to break through the Nucleus and infect the Nucleolus. You must use the various parts of the cell to achieve this, with some acting as powerups, some offering protection, and others acting as enemies. One example being, that as a virus swimming around the cell, you are rather vulnerable, so your objective is to attach yourself to a Mitochondrian. You are more protected in this but you move around slower as a result. In order to penetrate the cell walls to get at the Nucleolus, you must collect enough Lysosome (ammo) and Ribosomes (fuel/power) all the while avoiding Centrosomes (enemy) and occassionaly the Gogli (tougher, boss enemy). The UI will consist of 2 simple bars which will show how much ammo and fuel you've collected and used.

Rough Level Layout
No, it's not biologically correct and wouldn't make an accurate educational tool, but I think it's an interesting mechanic. In terms of progression, one idea is that once the cell is infected, you move onto another cell, which is more resistant than the last, and a high-score system in place to track how many cells you've infected over the course of 3 lives. It would work very well on a touch screen device, but with the time constraints we are under, it will be developed in html5. More on this later!

Onto Dragon Age 2 then.

Yesterday saw the anticipated release of a rare demo from Bioware. It was made available on PC and Xbox, with the PS3 version trailing behind by a day. What we got, was a short prologue, followed by a short quest taken from a later point in the game. What are my impressions? Read on.

Ready to Pounce
Bioware haven taken a huge risk with Dragon Age 2. It's such a departure from Origins in almost every way, yet in someways feels familiar. In my opinion, overall, it's a risk that has paid off. Within minutes, I was dancing around, zipping between targets, jamming my dagger in their backs in the blink of an eye and carving Darkspawn into blood spurting chunks of flesh with enough gusto to take on that of the mighty Kratos. What we have here, is a more responsive, visceral and enjoyable combat system, that feels like a blend between a combo driven action game and the ability based mechanics of an MMO.

Awkward 'shuffle' animations are gone, so is the slower paced, unreactive combat. Press a button and something happens, immediately. This was always a gripe of mine with Origins, in that no matter how timely you were with hitting 'Shield Bash' to interrupt a spell, it always took an extra second or two to actually activate, which meant it often missed. It just feels more refined and you feel like you have more control in the battlefield.

I've played through the demo roughly 6 times now. 3 times on Xbox, 3 times on PC. Whilst I felt that the controls and interface of the Xbox version were solid and intuitive, the PC version is leaps ahead. Visually the game looks great on both platforms, but the sharper textures on PC are noticeable. DA2 supports direct x11, but only some of its features were enabled in the demo. I'm looking forward to seeing how the tessellation and soft shadows effect the overall look. It does have a very distinct art style, one which has been the subject of great discussion on various forums. I personally love it, it has more character than Origins and yet through losing marks in the 'realism' department, it certainly makes up for them in style.

Shiny Blood?
Another distinct change between Xbox and PC, was the way in which the base attacks are dished out. On the Xbox, you have to spam the A button to attack. On the PC, you hit right click on a target, and auto-attack is carried out. This is a pretty substantial difference if you ask me, and the spammy nature of the Xbox version left me cold. I automatically thought the PC version would be the same, but alas, to my surprise, it isn't. Not sure what the thinking behind this change was, an auto-attack button on consoles would work just fine. Hopefully here will be an option to change that. If not, I think that Bioware will have left their console fans short changed. I immediately felt more at home when I booted up on PC. Pausing and issuing orders also felt more natural, thanks to keyboard and mouse.

The interface, I'm not sure on. It's fast and fluid to navigate through the menus and everything seems to have been streamlined, but it's lost some of its identity in the process. Gone are the rusty journals and tea-stained pages. In place, you have a sort of mix between Mass Effect-esque icons and slick Starcraft type menus. It doesn't really fit well within its setting and theme, but it's nothing that would break the game for me.

Pew Pew!
Out of my 6 playthroughs, I experienced all 3 classes to varying degrees. I found all of them a blast to play, I'll have a very tough time picking a main for release. I didn't give much attention to Archer, but Rogue and Mage seem like the most likely of picks. I really enjoyed tanking too. Animations are beautiful across the board, particularly the Mage staff animations. Sound effects could do with some polish though, it sounded like I was shooting off a laser gun when I was casting fireballs. There was one situation where an archer was on low HP and he was shooting at my mage who was even lower. I had a warrior selected at the time and as soon as I noticed it, I turned around, hit my charge button and he instantly flew towards the Archer and slit him in half, all in one fluid motion. It was incredibly satisfying. This is when the combat changes really hit me. It's just plain fun.

I won't talk about the dialogue, story and moral choices, because I simply skipped through all of them, as I'll leave that for release. From what I'd seen though, conversations look more natural, yet still a bit emotionless, particularly in the face, but still an improvement from Origins.

So where does that leave us.. With exciting and addictive new combat mechanics in place, it will all come down to how much variety there is. The demo was set to normal difficulty, but felt more like easy to me. I'll be playing this through on Nightmare, no doubt about it, but it was hard to get a read about how important tactics are and what sort of encounter variety will be included in the full game. I just watched a video interview with Mike Laidlaw, Design Director for DA2 and he said that it includes some truly epic encounters, some giving the feel of a WoW raid, which really lights that fire under my ass. Origins lacked these encounters. I absolutely loved the few Dragon fights that were in it and felt they really dropped the ball there.

Anyway, all signs are positive. Roll on March 11th I say. As long as they nail the story aspect and create an emotional pull, Dragon Age 2 is on course to becoming a game of the year contender.

Thats pretty much it from me, I implore you to download the demo and give it a shot. The changes have been a bit hit and miss with DA fans, so you should probably try it out to form your own impressions, if you haven't already.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday Blues

I've decided to take things down a notch for a few weeks. I've been overworking myself the past few months, putting in 40 hours at work, followed by another 40 hours of development time, per week. I need a break. Off the back of the Craggy Island release, I literally dove straight into LittleBigPlanet development and it has taken its toll a bit. I've endured an enjoyable but tough 10 month slog to get CI done and should have forced a small break on myself. I'm not burnt out or anything, but creatively, I could do with a break.

My focus now is on Saturday, and my presentation. I have it ready but need to trim some fat off the video (currently at 5 minutes!) It's no work of art, just some frapsed game footage stitched together. The afternoon will be spent brainstorming and working on a chosen game theme, with the goal of producing something over the course of a month. Looking forward to rubbing shoulders with other like-minded folks, it will be a big change from the isolation I put myself through with CI.

I'm on a bit of a negative buzz at the moment, as you can probably tell. With all the news of Industry lay-offs and studios being shut down, it makes me think about the career path I've chosen. I have my doubts, I always have, but that can't get in the way of the bigger picture.

This week, Activision killed off Guitar Hero and DJ Hero, after recently shutting down Blur and PGR Studio, Bizarre Creations. A part from a monstrously large and short-sited business error, it's absolutely disgusting behaviour. They are now left with the guts of 1 franchise, a part from the obvious Blizzard staples. It's funny to think that they have destroyed more franchises over the past few years, then they've created. Call of Duty might be their golden goose, but for how much longer? The decision to "re-structure" themselves around Call of Duty, which basically meant shutting down any studio that wasn't producing multi-million unit selling games, is clearly a bad one in the long term. Look at Guitar Hero and Tony Hawks. Both franchises were incredibly popular and successful in their hay-day. They effectively killed off both of those within a matter of years, which begs to question, will Call of Duty follow? Of course it will. And where will this put Activision? Sponging off WoW subscriptions for a start. In all seriousness though, the next time Activision pull our their big fat cheque book to go on a little spree, Studios will surely be more reluctant to signing themselves over, knowing full well what awaits.

I know it's business at the end of the day. But Activision are turning completely risk adverse. Look at EA. They have spawned a tonne of triple A franchises over the past few years. Dead Space 2, has apparently sold over 2 million in its first week on shelves. Dead Space 1 sales were abysmal, with the bulk of those sales coming when the product had been discounted to peanuts, or through 2nd hand sales. It was a title that needed a little dose of 'word-of-mouth' and it did become something of a sleeper hit. If it were Acti, it would have pronounced the franchise dead before it had a chance at becoming one. Instead, EA stuck with it and saw its potential, spawning graphic novels and an animated feature in hopes that it would eventually grow into the mainstream. They listened to their customers. I'm so glad that DS2 has been selling so well, as it proves that with the right marketing and support, if you have a good product to sell, it will sell. And yes, it's a cracking game. Fair play EA, you've proven yourself an industry flag bearer.

When Battlefield 3 or 4 or whatever other franchise it may be, manages to take the reigns from Call of Duty, Activision will be in a very tough spot. They did produce two cracking games last year, with Blur and Singularity, but both received little to no support. Nobody knew they existed, so of course sales were going to reflect that. They are the number 1 third-party publisher in the world. The shareholders and execs probably wipe their bottoms with 50 dollar bills. They should be innovating and putting money into exciting new IP's. Not closing down studios and putting hundreds of talented staff out on the streets, in an attempt at buffing their short-term bottom line. Disgusting.

I foresee a giant shift in the way games are made and published over the coming years. There will be no shortage of big budget, triple A games, but there sure will be less and less of them. This will give indie developers the market space and breathing room to release digitally, with a higher chance of success and for a fraction of the production costs. I see a big divide between the heavy hitters and digitally released titles. With lower risk involved for smaller studios, innovation will thrive and we'll be able to have a slice of every kind of gaming pie going. Another topic of discussion is that we all have a limited thought space and time to fill. There can only be so many games we can buy at once, or in a year and with the emergence of small studios on the rise, there is risk that the industry could become flooded with product, making it tougher for new studios or studios in general, to get noticed or to sell their product enough to pay the bills and fund their next project. On the flipside, with social gaming on the rise, with the likes of Facebook and mobiles leading the way, gaming appears to be on route to mass appeal. Market expansion would certainly facilitate the increase in title releases and give studios the opportunity to create more targeted products, as opposed to the 'try to please everyone' approach we see today.

Whatever the case, the industry is going to change drastically over the next 10 years. It's just scary to read about how many developers are losing their jobs, which leaves me thinking about how much tougher it will be to actually get one, particularly when companies almost universally look for industry experience in new recruits. It's slightly discouraging then, in the grand scheme of things, and it certainly does little to extinguish any lingering doubt that I have. However I'm not giving up. Not even close to it. I will rise to the challenge and charge head first into the heart of the beast.

At the end of the day, if you want something badly enough, you'll get it, right?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Busy Busy Busy!

So the Monday thing didn't really stick then. I've been insanely busy the past week and I'm afraid this will be a short blog, as I'm just as busy this week! I met up with an old friend on Saturday and proceeded to spend the weekend with him, discussing the future, game design and college, amongst other things. Work has also been a right bitch, particularly when you have to work with a buggy, poorly designed IT system that was seemingly designed by monkeys. Stoned monkeys.

Quick update then, with the possibility of another short blog sometime this week if I find the time. I've been spending hours upon hours in LittleBigPlanet 2's 'Create Mode'. It's completely addictive and fun, and results are coming thick and fast. I have decided on designing a 2v2 based Tower Defense game, akin to League of Legends or DoTA. So far I have managed to get a bunch of things working, such as Tower Units that fire at you when in close proximity, a moving player character who can shoot cannon balls that destroy said towers after so many hits and moving enemy units. I have yet to design how the game will actually play, but it's really encouraging to see things working so quickly and effortlessly. More on this later of course ;) It took a while to get my head around the logic and chips, but it all suddenly clicked and it just makes sense. Media Molecule have created something truly special here.

In the little bit of time I have left, I'm working on my Craggy Island presentation for Indie Games Space. A short video is all I have done thus far, but I plan to have the powerpoint part complete by tomorrow.

I'll leave you with a rare gameplay video for Dragon Age II. Thoughts?