Sunday, September 27, 2009

Too Many Chiefs

One of the biggest problems for any developer is trying to predict or influence the way a team game will play out, as every player will have their own ideas as to which is the best course of action and just how much they should listen to other players' advice or requests. Similarly, a lack of decent teamwork can be immensely frustrating and can cause even the most (individually) skilled team to lose badly to inexperienced players. The amount of team play present in a game depends largely on its dominant demographic; games aimed at special interest groups or older gamers (mostly simulators, but also some of the more challenging shooters like Insurgency and Red Orchestra) are often quite full of team players. Conversely, mainstream games which offer little to no incentive to coordinate efforts (Counter-Strike, Call of Duty) don't seem far removed from free-for-all - the only difference being that you can't (or shouldn't) attack your own team. Each player goes off and does their own thing, and very rarely will they band together, even in small groups.

In my three years of playing Red Orchestra, I've seen the effects that poor teamwork can have. I've also seen some games where it seemed the players were all operating under the control of some greater entity, utilising them all with perfect efficiency and sublime results. One of my favourite gaming moments was during the final twenty minutes of a round on Kriegstadt, where we (the Axis) had to hold the final control point with our backs to the wall, so to speak. There was nowhere to fall back to, only one of our PaK-43 guns would actually fire, and within minutes there were several tanks and scores of infantry advancing across the Moltke Brigde, at the near end of which lay the final objective. The bridge formed a natural bottleneck and was extremely hazardous to cross, with too many obstacles for armoured vehicles but too little cover for infantry. At our end, it was overlooked by the Ministy of the Interior, a wedge-shaped, three-storey building; at the opposite end and some 200 yards distant, the Soviets held a long row of multi-storey apartments and hotels. A large open area of road divided these from a park, far on our right. Assorted tanks and guns were pushing up the main street towards the bridge, stopping short enough to avoid any adventurous Germans with Panzerfausts or satchel charges. Our PaK knocked a few out, but they kept coming; before too long, it was destroyed itself. With every fresh wave of reinforcements, ten, twenty or thirty Russians at a time would run from the apartments and descend upon the bridge, with their remaining comrades firing upon us from the windows and their tanks putting round after round of high explosives through our own.

For twenty minutes, we had to endure this. There was little we could do about the tanks except duck when their shells began to find their mark. Every machine-gunner we had was firing at the hordes of enemy footsoldiers, hacking them down two or three at a time. The roar of some ten MG42s was near-deafening (not least because I had the volume cranked all the way up). Without any communication at all, it seemed every man knew what to do. When an MG42 fell silent, a nearby soldier would run ammunition to it. When one was silenced, the nearest rifleman would immediately throw his rifle down and snatch up the machine gun, continuing the deadly streams of fire which rained down upon the advancing enemy. Nobody remained idle and every single player on the team picked a target, fired, and moved on to the next target as rapidly as they could.

The Soviet team never stood a chance. Despite pushing us back at a blistering pace at first, they were halted dead in their tracks once we were forced to make a last stand from a strong position. Not one of them set foot beyond the middle of the bridge (flying limbs excepted). Not one person on our team had a score below 50 points and most of us were in the hundreds. For that last twenty minutes, I really felt the team spirit. It was like I was on autopilot, doing everything that was required of me without even thinking. That seemingly telepathic link, the way some players just 'click' and absolutely destroy all and sundry that gets in their way, is my favourite thing about online gaming.

Of course, this doesn't happen all the time. In fact - even in games like RO - it's not really the norm, either. Several games have taken steps to try and increase the frequency of this happening; for one, the aforementioned displays only total score achieved through kills and objectives completed, not kills, deaths, or any other information usually associated with FPS scoring. Some games offer minor or even major advantages to players who stay close to their team, or who make a habit of resupplying, healing, or protecting others. Even the achievement systems incorporated into many newer games are sometimes used as a subtle way of encouraging players to coordinate. Sometimes, all that's needed to turn a motley group of individuals into a proper, organised team is a few simple instructions delivered forcefully - but not rudely or aggressively - by a natural leader. Sometimes, teams are just beyond help.

So please, next time you play a team-oriented gametype - be it in ArmA, Call of Duty, or even Counter-Strike - think just how much more you could achieve with a little cooperation. Even if you lose, you may just gain something a little more special than a single victory.

Player 2: Now with more bad grammar!

Well, I figured I'd continue this now that I finished what I was doing today and have time to write again. In my first post I rambled a bit about games that focus more on storytelling than mowing down hordes of enemies as well as providing a strong atmosphere for the player to experience. I think for a truly original and successful game to come out, it would actually take a collaboration of companies rather than one company. You look at companies like Epic Games (Unreal & Gears of War) who can provide heavily on the action but sometimes have a little bit of trouble on making a truly amazing story that immerses you. Then you look at companies like Black Isle Studios (Fallout & Planescape: Torment) who deliver detailed stories that immerse you in the atmosphere but some of the action aspects are little lacking. Apples to Oranges? Sure, but the fact still remains that you have companies who can do one thing good and companies that can do another thing good.

My ideal game is probably what most everyone wants; a game that has amazing atmosphere and story with breathtaking environments and innovative game mechanics that are a boon rather than a bogdown like most "innovative" elements tend to be. The graphics don't need to be spectacular, but they should provide enough detail to paint the picture properly. Music should be fitting without being quaint or on the other end of the spectrum; bombastic. The music needs to fit the situation and preferably be a very ambient thing so that you know it's there but not having it drowning out the world around you. Ross has already made a post regarding movement and such so I find my own commentary on it somewhat redundant.

Annnnnnd- my train of thought just derailed so I'll post again later when it rerails itself...

Realism: Atmosphere vs. Gameplay

This question was brought up on the Tripwire Interactive forums with regards to Red Orchestra: Ostfront and the upcoming Heroes of Stalingrad; a thread requesting a field of view decrease while using ironsights evolved into heated debate, with both sides bringing up interesting points. For the most part, the dispute was more concerned with the fact that either atmospheric or gameplay realism could be achieved, but not both at once - it was taken as agreed from early on that decreasing the player's field of view to create a zooming effect was the closest possible method of replicating real-life perceptions of object scale when aiming through ironsights.

When you're faced with two mutually exclusive options like this, what do you do? Red Orchestra refrained from introducing sight zoom, turning even relatively short-ranged engagements into a nightmarish game of 'pixel-hunting'. Beyond a hundred yards, even the largest monitors at the highest resolutions would fail to effectively tell the player what they were aiming at, and whether it was likely to shoot back. Some would argue that visually, this was more realistic or immersive (personally I barely notice the change in games which use it sensibly), but there is little doubt that it made long-range shooting or even target identification hellishly difficult, especially in a game where one stray bullet or random artillery shell could mean a five-minute walk back to the front, sometimes far more. With this taken into consideration, I would be far more inclined to side with the gameplay camp. But what if it was something drastic, something which is very noticeable? What do you do when you want to make an immersive and realistic game, but you have to choose between the two?

Naturally, the answer would differ from game to game, with the end goal being a precarious balancing act. If the game's a simulator (ArmA), obviously realism is the concern. If it's a shooter, though, I would say that atmosphere would usually be the primary concern. If a game feels right, then it will be rewarding even if some aspects are not entirely realistic. Despite the necessity of going pixel-hunting in Red Orchestra, it remains one of my favourite games because it certainly does feel right to me. At the end of the day, that's what brings me back.

Thanks to Matty Dienhoff for taking this matter up with me earlier today, and linking me to the relevant thread.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Player 2 has joined the game.

Hello there, gentlemen (and ladies who may or may not read this.)

Ross allowed me to bless this fine blog of his with my own thoughts since we tend to agree and share similar thoughts on many matters we discuss (while making fun of each other no less.) We've known each other since an encounter on a community that will remain unnamed since I'm sure Ross would blow an anus out if I mentioned it in his sanctuary of thoughts. Anyways, I'm someone who thinks in an esoteric manner so expect my posts to digress off the main topic at times to detail something else that may or may not be relevant. JUST BEAR WITH IT, it's okay, you'll get used to it. There, with that out of the way let's talk games, more importantly: Shooting or Storytelling?

Recently I played a couple modifications for Half-Life 2 (Source Engine) called Dear Esther and Korsakovia. Both were very interesting in the sense that combat or straight forward objectives were not the emphasis of the games content but rather exploration and storytelling. The former takes place on a deserted island with a man narrating various aspects as you explored the areas, leaving a somewhat dynamic and not-so-linear gameplay aspect to it. The latter takes place in a psychiatric ward as you experience it through an insane man's perspective, the environment disturbing and demented by his own mind's perception of it. Korsakovia has a little bit of combat but it's not an intense focus on it, more an afterthought or simple roadblock you need to get over to continune in the developing story. Dear Esther has no combat what so ever and focuses more on you exploring the environment you've been placed. The music scores for both are very fitting and well done as well as the voice acting and I urge anyone who hasn't played them yet to go look them up, simply search for them at

Now before I get too far and lose my train of thought here, these games sparked a lot of thoughts in my mind. I've found a lot of games nowadays to be rather shallow or just simply undeveloped enough in their stories regardless of how expansive they are. Either being simple rehashes of past stories, a developer's take on another story or idea, nothing that truly screams of originality. The gaming industry is starting to develop a syndrome similar to Hollywood: Remakes and Spin-Offs. Halo is a prominent series so we'll use that as an example, it was a trilogy. The story started in the first game, built up over the second, and reached its conclusion in the third. This is all fine and dandy, but what happens afterwards? Halo Wars and Halo:ODST, we've seen the trailers perhaps even played the game, but what are they? Spin-offs of the original idea. Say what you want about the Halo series, that you love it or think it's overrated, but my point still stands.

I have no problem with making follow-ups or sequels to a game, sometimes you need to because you couldn't fit everything into the first game, but in most cases it's unwarranted and sequels tend to be the death of a game. This isn't always the case, games like Half-Life got better with their sequels, but largely because they were not a full continuation of the last game but rather an advancement on the plot, the general timeline having advanced approximately 20 years since the events of Half-Life 1 and the events of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2 have the same general background; theoretical physicist turned commando Gordon Freeman has to fight off the nasty aliens, but the reasons vary between the two slightly. The former being the start of it, the second being a sort of aftermath that you're brought out of stasis to alter. You go from claustrophic hallways of some secret government laboratory to this dystopian city and the areas surrounding it. Half-Life is still one of the best games on the market nowadays for its story and gameplay that relies on problem solving and combat rather than just cutting through hordes of scripted AI enemies.

I've ventured out onto a tangent again, as I stated my trains of thought are esoteric so I'll swing this back around.

My original thought was, what's more important in a game? Storytelling or Action? The answer to me is both are very important, the story elaborates on your character's motivation for their actions while the action gives players something to do instead of playing an interactive DVD movie. The problem is nowadays, the stories tend to be subpar and just enough to rationalize your character's homicidal rampage and focus more on creating cool tricks and features to make it easier (or harder in some cases) to get through your goal of badguy genocide. RPGs tend to have better stories but the combat engines always suffer in most cases due to clunkiness or desire to make it interesting but only if you have X amount of points in skill Y to get result Z. Shooter's tend to have the most exciting combat but the stories are typically shallow and just enough to make it seem less like MAIM! KILL! BURN! Some companies get close to hitting this virtual nirvana by creating a story I can actually find myself getting into while giving me enough interesting bits to play around with to suit a certain style of play I find enjoyable with the situation. I- well, I'll continue in another post since something just came up and Ross doesn't want me making too huge a wall of text and scare you guys off (what a weenie.)

Team Effort

My good mate Gurne is now able to publish articles here too; just a heads-up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Get with the times, Atkinson!

Having played violent games since I was 14, I don't see why games should be prevented from reaching sale in this country on the flawed assumption that violent games will automatically inspire violent behaviour. There is no conclusive evidence to back this view; it is highly disputed, and with good reason. With proper parenting and education, as well as a lack of psychological problems, I don't believe games inspire violence at all - I've thrown about two punches in my entire life, and only ever after being attacked myself. I'm 19 years old, and an Army Reservist; apparently I'm mature enough to handle a rifle, grenades, claymores, and a whole array of other weapons, but not a game?

Virtually the only reason L4D2 has been refused classification (a nice little euphemism for 'banned') in Australia is SA Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, who seems totally opposed to even considering an R18+ rating for games. Movies, sure; we've had it for a long time. When it comes to games though? MA15+ is the highest it goes. We lack an equivalent not only to the ESRB's AO rating, but also to its M17+ rating. The OFLC, while extremely inconsistent, can't really be blamed when they're forced to ban anything that would be deemed unsuitable for a 15-year-old. While the introduction of the R18+ rating for games has been on the table for quite some time, without Atkinson's go-ahead and the resultant unanimous decision, we won't be getting it.

Personally, I'd like to know why he thinks games are any less deserving of an R18+ rating. Perhaps he thinks those evil gamers will go on killing sprees once they're finished with their murder simulators, no matter whether they're nine or ninety? I recall catching the last few minutes of a television programme covering the issue once as I went channel-surfing; he was up on a soapbox smugly proclaiming just how many threatening letters he'd received, and how they proved him right. I suppose that if he tuned in to the news once in a while and heard about the various attacks by extremists around the world, he'd also come to the conclusion that the Islamic faith turns people into killers? Doesn't seem much of a leap, does it? Simply throwing every gamer into the same basket is little more than discrimination, yet he's allowed to get away with it. If he had arrived at the aforementioned conclusion instead, he'd be out of a job and publicly disgraced. Why, then, is it perfectly alright to bash gamers and deny them equal rights to movie connoisseurs? Why are gamers the only group against which outlandish generalisations are perfectly acceptable?

Of course, the fact that the media will immediately call out an actual killer for playing some GTA or Halo at some point in their lives - and then make it out to be the cause - doesn't help. It's undeniable that some gamers are absolute headcases, but so are some businessmen, suburban mothers, and even politicians. No matter what group you decide to look at, there will always be some who are on a hair trigger, yet time after time us gamers are the 'fall guys'. Because games are interactive, they somehow inspire us to kill while movies like Saw or exceedingly violent books don't. We are treated like some unstable, already partly unhinged, and paranoid children without the mental capacity to tell the difference between a game world and the real world.

Here's some news for you: we're not stupid. Most people have no trouble telling the difference, most before they even reach the age of 10. In the cases where a child (or even adult) is unstable enough to be affected by a game (or a movie or book), then it's simple - their parents or friends should do something about it, not a branch of the government. Stop trying to raise peoples' children for them. All it does is breed lazy (synonymous with terrible, in my book) parents and kids who resent authority. If you want to see an increase in violence, then keep on going the way you are, interfering with decisions that cannot be made based on a mythical figure like 'the average Australian child' or 'the average Australian gamer'. These decisions should be made per case, and not by you.

I'd also like to make a very large point of the fact that violent games are a very good way to blow off steam; rather than going around whacking people in real life, I can shoot up computer-generated zombies with my friends and forget all about whatever made me angry beforehand. I don't know about you, but I'd say that sounds like a pretty good way to reduce violent crime.

I'm 19. I'm responsible. Now give me my damn game, please.