Procedural RPG World Generation

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Having now completed my MSc, below is a brief summary of my dissertation project along with galleries and a video of the prototype. There’s also a download of the full report detailing the implementation process along with background on the topic for those interested in procedural content generation or studying something related.

Report:

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Video:

Since the days of Rogue, and Elite, games have utilised various procedural content generation techniques to create game worlds for players to explore, freeing developers from the hand-crafted approach typically seen in the majority of games. For me, it was the second Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall in ’96 that inspired me enough to prompt this topic choice for my MSc dissertation project. Although Daggerfall was most certainly a flawed game, the sheer size of the game world is still unsurpassed even today, being roughly 162 square kilometers (about half the size of the Great Britain) and featuring over 15,000 towns, villages and dungeons. An amusing rumor is that it’s so big that you can fit every other subsequent Elder Scrolls game world into a pixel on Daggerfall’s world map.

When you have a game world that big, procedural content generation (PCG) is the only feasible way to populate it. Daggerfall’s world was generated ‘offline’ and shipped on the game media, making the world the same every time you played it. It’s main story-line areas and characters were hand-crafted, but the rest of its towns, dungeons and wilderness areas were all generated.

Scale comparison of the Elder Scrolls games.

Scale comparison of the Elder Scrolls games.

What I wanted to do, is to tackle a project that aimed to generate an RPG world in real-time so each world would be unique, and ultimately create an explorable 3D RPG world generator. What I actually wanted to do was create a full RPG game to play within these generated worlds (i.e. my dream game), but clearly this would never have been feasible in the time-frame and so I settled for a compromise by removing any game mechanics or AI from the project, effectively stripping out the ‘game’ aspect. Even with this, the project workload was going to be ridiculous considering I wanted to use my own DirectX engine and use it to generate the world, complete with dungeons, NPC towns and a day/night cycle.

Unlike most of my previous projects, there wasn’t going to be much focus on graphics and that actually fit nicely with my retro vision for a more modern looking Daggerfall-esque game, complete with sprites…lots of sprite.

My report can be found at the top of this post if you’re curious about some of the techniques I used in the prototype. I had little knowledge of how other games have really approached this from a technical point of view, other that what I had uncovered during my research on the topic. The developed prototype is therefore very much my own approach.

Since, the detail is all in the above report, I’ll just briefly mention some of the techniques the prototype involved:

The world generation itself was created using a procedural noise technique to generate a height-map. Multiple octaves of value noise are combined (Fractional Brownian motion) to create a resulting fractal noise suitable for generating realistic terrain formations. The noise implementation I used was specifically Voronoise, a method that combines a value grid-based noise type and a ‘jittered’ grid version of Voronoi (cellular noise) into an single adjustable function. I introduced a seed value into the noise generation to allow for reproducibility of worlds, given the same seed. The height-map is output in the pixel shader to a render target upon generation, and then used during the tessellation shader stages via patch control-point displacement when rendering the world.

fBM3

Summation of noise octaves.

terrains

A variety of generated worlds.

The prototype’s generated world size is not huge like Daggerfall, but it’s a fair size at around 16,777 square km. That’s a little under half the size of Skyrim’s world for example, but for a little prototype I’m happy with this and it still allows plenty of explorable terrain using the appropriate movement speed and not the super fast one as seen in my video!

Dungeons use a completely different generation method that I implemented off the top of my head after looking into various techniques. It’s an agent-based technique that uses diggers to burrow out corridors and rooms, with various rules thrown in to keep them in-check to ensure they generate sensible looking dungeons. They are also responsible for spawning the dungeons contents which include monsters and treasure chests and the up and down stairs. Here are some ASCII representations of the dungeon layouts generated by the method:

dungeons

The world is divided up into 32×32 terrain chunks that are each responsible for hosting their respective game objects such as flora, fauna, towns and dungeon entrances. For performance purposes frustum culling was a necessity due to the large scale of the terrain, and only chunks visible in the frustum are processed. Each chunk has a chance of creating towns and/or dungeons and checks such as suitably flat terrain are important factors in determining this. Each building performs a suitability check on the terrain mesh at a chosen spot to see if its within the gradient threshold, and if so places a random structure. If enough buildings are present in a town, NPCs will spawn within proximity of the town.

I added a few small graphical enhancements to the game such as faked atmospheric scattering, fog, layered sky domes, water and emission mapped buildings at night. They are each detailed in the report, but ultimately time was limited and any graphical enhancements were really a secondary concern. Despite this, I really wanted to add them and I think it does enough to achieve the overall atmosphere that I had envisaged, as demonstrated in the below comparison with a Daggerfall screenshot:

DaggerfallComparison

Aesthetic comparison between Daggerfall (left) and prototype (right).

The prototype initially starts into the table view where a map of the generated world is shown that can be rotated and zoomed in/out for examination. At a key press the camera moves into the first-person mode and plonks the player into the world. Worlds can be generated in first-person mode but it’s much more intuitive to do it in the table view. By tweaking the various settings in the UI i.e. noise values, town frequency and tree density; worlds can be tailored to whatever style you want, although currently you have to understand each of the noise settings and their influence on the generation process, to create something you have in mind. Failing that though, there’s trial and error. Ultimately, I’ll add predefined terrain settings that can be selected to simplify this process since it’s really not intuitive to know how ‘lacunarity’, ‘gain’ or ‘frequency’ for instance will effect the world, but academically, it’s quite useful to have them directly tweak-able. A seed value can be directly entered into the UI, with every unique value resulting in a unique world.

I hope at some point to continue with the project. There will be a hiatus for the foreseeable future while I work on other things. There is near infinite scope for the project, with so many things to add so it’s likely something I can keep coming back to.

I also produced a nifty tool for visualising noise which could have various uses for demoing. I’ll probably get this uploaded with a download of the prototype itself at some point.

As detailed in the report, the prototype uses various art assets (models/textures) sourced online via Creative Commons license. The project is for non-commercial use and many art assets are effectively placeholders used to finish the prototype during my studies.

 

 

Dungeon Master – An Iconic RPG

Box Art

Box Art

Aged probably no more than 6, I looked on in excitement and fear at the Amiga monitor. My parents were playing Dungeon Master again, it’s labyrinthine dungeons, fiendish puzzles, stunning graphics (for the time) and always death, waiting around the next corner.

Dungeon Master was a pivotal game of my childhood, it taught me how real and immersive games could actually get, despite computer limitations. Using a 2D perspective trick, it could render a seemingly 3D environment as if seen from the eyes of the player. This of course was an illusion, but it did it so effectively, that it stood out back then with hugely impressive visuals. It wasn’t just nice to look at though; featuring groundbreaking level design and puzzle concepts, being brutally difficult but still rewarding; there was something about it that left a lasting impression on you. It was a little like the Dark Souls of it’s day.

Although there had been other well known ‘dungeon crawler’ games (as they came to be known) like Bard’s Tale and Wizardry, it was DM that really culminated the best attributes of the genre, distilling it into what is in my opinion the best of the lot, even to this day. It’s no coincidence that Almost Human’s ‘Legend of Grimrock’ in 2012, cited Dungeon Master as large inspiration and something that is clearly evident having finished Grimrock and noticing many ‘tips of the hat’ to DM’s puzzles, mechanics and creatures. All those puzzles of putting an item on a pressure plate to close a pit, or placing a torch in a wall sconce to open a secret door hearken back to this era.

DM was in fact the largest selling title of all time for the Atari ST, whose version differed only mildly from that of the Amiga, with the latter featuring improved 3D sound effects where most noticeably, you can hear creatures moving around with unnerving effect.

Using the free Amiga emulator WinUAE the past week, I have finally finished Dungeon Master after all these years. I loved every second of it, scarily so, because I was telling myself continually throughout, “why am I playing a 27 year old game in this day and age?”. Irrespective of the answer, I had more fun playing it then most state of the art games I have played recently! Why? Well, many reasons, the challenge and immersion are two, but ultimately, I guess I’m a pretty hardcore gamer and there’s just something about playing old school classic RPG’s, a charm or ambiance if you like, akin to rolling that dice in a pen and paper D&D game. I’m sure many can empathize with that.

A pack of skeletons.

A pack of skeletons.

Dungeon Master does have a story and plot, though sparse and not a driving force for the progression of the game. It revolves around having to descend into the depth of the mysterious dungeon and find an artifact known as the ‘Firestaff’, as tasked by your master ‘Lord Order’. Ultimately, if your party survive the horrors long enough, you come across writings detailing the evils that will occur should you complete this quest and instead come to realise that you must descend to the deepest depths of the dungeon, combine the staff with the ‘power gem’ and defeat ‘Lord Chaos’ (think Sauron), restoring ‘Balance’ to the world.

You start the journey in the ‘Hall of Champions’, a place at the start of the dungeon where you can look upon windows on the walls and see magically suspended heroes, whom you can either ‘resurrect’ or ‘reincarnate’ to join your party, up to a total of four party members. Resurrection ensures the character maintains it’s identity, combat skills and experiences whereas reincarnation allows you to rename the character, forfeiting their skill set, but gifting them enhanced physical attributes so to enhance learning and allow you to shape the character as you see fit. Ultimately, the tried and tested composition of two fighters at the front, a priest and a wizard at the back worked wonders for my play-through, though having four ‘jack-of-all-trades’ is viable too. As 2012’s Grimrock, the party moves through the dungeon in 1st-person view in a 2 by 2 formation, meaning that only the two members of your party at the front can reach enemies with melee weapons, with the back two having to rely on ranged, throwing weapons and spell casting. Consequently, only the front two will take damage from the front, and if a ‘baddie’ creeps up behind you, your squishy casters won’t be very happy. Part of the the games meta strategy, involves you being able to change your players around in the formation at any time e.g if your front fighters get wounded, you can swap them out with the back.

Character Inventory.

Character Inventory.

The predominate theme of the game is undoubtedly ‘survival’. Staying alive is really, really not an easy thing unless you have learned the tricks and techniques generally gained after many horrible deaths, whether that be to the jaws of giant worms, starvation or plummeting down a pit arriving several levels lower than you could possibly hope to deal with. The only items you have at your disposal are those you find along the way, and that way is strewn with illusory walls, guarded chests, locked doors and secret passages that without consulting a guide or a printed map, you have little chance of ever finding yourself (hand holding pfff who needs it?). Even basic concepts we all take for granted in games today such as being able to SEE, is a premeditated game mechanic in dungeon master, where the dungeons are pitch black without a light source and torches are scarce, making the use of a wizard or others with the skills to cast ‘light’ spells essential.

One of the  most memorable mechanics which is still pretty innovative today is the magic system. To the right side of the screen are a bunch of runic symbols. The boxed game’s manual documented an alphabet of these symbols describing there purpose. As you cast a spell you first choose a rune representing the ‘power’ of the spell, would you cast a short duration spell or a potent offensive spell for instance? Then sequentially you chose the spells ‘elemental influence’, ‘form’ and ‘alignment’. It all sounds rather complicated but when you know off by heart that a weak fireball is LO FUL IR and a potent healing potion is PAL VI, it starts to become second nature, especially when you realise you can drop the power level if your priest is low on mana and make a weaker healing potion like LO VI for instance. In combat, you would be expected to click these runes in the correct order at the heat of the moment, you soon realised that if you didn’t ‘get gud’ and memorise them, then you simply got ‘dead’. In a funny kind of way, it really did feel like you were learning magic and having to go through the motions to learn and cast the spells your party depended on and I love that.

These runes are used to cast all the games many Wizard and Priest spells.

These runes are used to cast all the games Wizard and Priest spells.

Other mechanics such as food and drink meters for each character really puts that hanging dread over your party for the entirety of the game, since you never know when your next meal is coming up and when you’ll see a fountain again to refill your water skins. Realising your lost deep somewhere with no water left and down to your last couple of hunks of meat is pretty terrifying. Luckily though, some of the critters are edible if you can kill them, ‘Screamer Slice’, ‘Worm Round’ or ‘Dragon Steak’ anyone? Yum!

A water fountain, always a welcome sight!

A water fountain, always a welcome sight!

Having finally finished the game after all these years, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment because it’s a game that I grew up thinking was simply too tough for me to contend with, and to be fair, me being less than 10, it probably was! The end showdown with Lord Chaos is no simple matter. Once you have collected all the ‘Ra keys’, broken into the vault of the Firestaff, defeated it’s Stone Golem guardians and retrieved it, you then have to descend to the last level, defeat a wingless dragon and free the power gem with a spell you better have learned along the way or your buggered! (*cough* Google). You then must combine the staff with the gem, creating an ultimate weapon and then go back up a level and find Lord Chaos. Using the staff’s power you must surround him with ‘Fluxcages’ and finally ‘Fuse’ him to restore ‘Lord Balance’ and beat the game. If that sounds straightforward, it really isn’t, especially considering even if you do figure this all out on your own from a subtle hint in an very well hidden scroll, you have to do all this while being attacked by demons, black flame elementals and Chaos himself flinging fireballs at your face!

Defeating Lord Chaos and restoring Balance.

Defeating Lord Chaos and restoring Balance.

I’m currently now playing through it’s sequel ‘Chaos Strikes Back’ (Yes…it really IS called that) and it is unbelievably hard, as in Dark Souls has nothing, not a bean compared to this in terms of difficulty. CSM will eat you alive and then spit out your regurgitated remains for a second helping. Firstly, the sequel starts at the same difficultly level that DM ends at. You can import your characters which you may think will help and sure enough it does a little, but little prepares you for the first 10 seconds of the game which pretty much goes like this:

“Ok, let’s go, hmm it’s pitch black…where am I? My party is naked with no weapons…I can hear things moving around me…let me cast a light spell. That’s better! SHIT there’s four armoured worms in here with me and no exits…no wait, SIX worms…EIGHT….I’m surrounded…can’t move….DEAD.”

That’s your first taste of Chaos Strikes Back, shoved into an infested pit of worms with no weapons and no obvious way out, but like Dark Souls, I still love it.

As reported in 2012 in a Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here, one chap amazingly spent 6 months, eight hours a day of his own time, programming 120,000 lines of code to port the Atari ST version, creating a C++ executable version that runs today on any modern PC. It can be found here free: Chaos Strikes Back for Windows (and Linux, MacOS X, Pocket PC)

For those used to emulators, by getting hold of the Amiga .adf ROM file (basically an image of the game disk), you can run it in WinUAE (my personal preference for the better sounds) but ultimately, only ex-Amiga junkies would likely do this over the ported PC version :D.

Dungeon Master is a truly iconic game that has undoubtedly influenced many great games, not just across the dungeon-crawler and RPG genres like the classic ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series or recently the ‘Legend of Grimrock’, but also modern popular AAA titles such as the Elder Scrolls. It’s a testament to it’s influence that the game still has it’s own updated Encyclopedia site: http://dmweb.free.fr/  and even an online message forum with an active and thriving community: http://www.dungeon-master.com/forum/.

I would encourage anyone who is curious about classic RPG’s games, interested in why modern games are like they are and all that jazz to check out old titles like Dungeon Master, because although the graphics leave much to be desired by today’s standards, the game play is still truly as good as it ever was. It’s clear there is still much to wonder and marvel at, in both game design and execution in this old gem.

My party in the hall of fame after beating the game!

My party in the hall of fame after beating the game!

 

The “dumbing down”of the games industry

Technology has moved on in the games industry, that’s for certain. Hardware, programming languages and business processes have all improved i’m sure many would agree, but does the Nth fold increase in technology also translate 1-to-1 to game play and design?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question and I’d first like to set some context by going back to a time before PC gaming was conceived or even the first 90’s era consoles were around to change the demographic of the average games consumer forever. The days of the Commodore Amiga in fact is what I want to go back to, an era that few under the age of 25 will have ever experienced during it’s peak. The Amiga i’m confident in saying was massively ahead of it’s time in terms of hardware and gaming innovation, and not just a little bit. Built on top of the great success of it’s precursor the Commodore 64, it’s perhaps unsurprising why the system has such a mythical “stuff of dreams” status now, like did it really happen or was it just my imagination?

A Past Era:

Launched in 1985 (Amiga 1000), specs wise it featured an 8-bit 4 channel stereo sound chip, CPU co-processors (unheard of at the time) and graphics capable of up to 4096 colours at a max resolution of 640×512. These specs were incredible and it took other systems such as the NES or PC DOS gaming over 7 years to get on par with the Amiga. Now it’s all good listing specs but lets put that into perspective by comparing with another system of the day:

Shadow of the Beast – Amiga – 1989

Ninja Gaiden 2 – 1990 – NES

For reasons like the comparison above, it’s startling to me that so few gamers today have perhaps even heard of the Amiga, and strange how the NES and Sega Master System shook the world of gaming forever when they arrived despite being hugely inferior. To me as a kid in the early 90’s, I looked at the NES and thought…whats the big deal, I’ve been playing better looking and sounding games then that for years!  Shrugged my shoulders and went back to playing my dads Amiga 500. I guess looking back I was lucky to have access to an Amiga and be part of the game hobbyist scene back in the day when your average person just didn’t play computer games.

Ultimately hardware isn’t everything and the reason why the consoles made such an impact boils down to price and the fact that children could have one in their bedroom (myself included). Gaming wasn’t just for powerful multimedia systems anymore, consoles brought relatively cheap systems that every family could afford to have and thus marked the final death knell of the Amiga platform by the mid 90’s. Commodore had squandered a huge technological advantage for years and it’s failure to react to rising competition brought it to it’s knees. It’s also worth noting that as a games platform the Amiga was massively successful in the UK and across Europe, but did less successfully in the US primarily due to a larger interest in the Japanese arcade gaming culture rather then home computing. Thus the majority of Amiga games (of which there are literally thousands) were made in Europe and in fact the UK pioneered much of the games programming advances of the age that led to some greatly successful games. British studios like Sensible Software and the Bitmap Brothers, and publishers like Psygnosis are legendary and we owe them a lot for what they achieved back in the day, much of which is taken for granted now and forgotten as the fast moving games industry moves ever on like a enraged bull, never stopping to look back at lessons already learned decades ago.

Chaos Engine – Amiga – Bitmap Brothers – Subtle complexities to a simple game

The Stifling of Innovation and Creativity:

To the topic at hand and the question I started the article with. Has game play and design regressed since those days and if so why? Bluntly and unequivocally yes in my opinion,  but the why of it will take some explanation. To understand why you have to look into the past of gaming hence my above context on the Amiga, it’s unavoidable and not simply nostalgic musings. It’s the logical thing to do when analyzing something that has been great in the past, and has become less great over time. As admitted, graphically things have improved, but the root of problem is something that has caused a stifling of innovation leading to regurgitation of the same copy-cat game over and over with different artwork for years on end. The end of the 90’s was perhaps the last true great period of games innovation and creative freedom that professional games developers had. You only have to look at the quality titles released on the PC between 95 and 99 to realise this.

I’ve researched various articles and read interviews featuring leading people who worked in the earlier days and you see similarities in how they view the industry and how it has changed for developers. The core of it seems to be due to the refusal of the increasingly powerful publishers to fund games that at not a 100% safe bet (Call of Duty, Halo etc) and this has led to a massive drop in innovation that is only now perhaps being turned around by the injection of new creative blood by the Indie developer scene. Fueling the increasingly tight and controlling grip of publishers is the increasing vast sums of money that the industry now generates. Many people ARE aware of the lack of innovation but perhaps feel that there’s just no ideas left? Well there’s plenty of ideas around, the problem is that no large publisher would touch it unless it’s proven and that’s the crux of it.

Populous 2 - Amiga - Bullfrog

Populous 2 – Amiga – Bullfrog

John Hare, a founder of Sensible Software (one of the biggest and most successful games company’s of the 80’s and early 90’s) gave a frank and interesting interview on You Tube where he discusses that during those days, publishers were happy to have talented people on board and they pretty much left you to make what you were passionate about and encourage you to push your creativity. It’s not surprising then that if you were ever motivated to go back and play Amiga games now and get over the aging visuals, you’d find a myriad of game genres, some still today undefinable such was the creative freedom back then. This issue of publishers forcing developers to copy existing games, adding just a new paint job is paramount to what is holding back the games industry in my opinion. Yes there’s Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight and they are all well and good, but I feel that the large publishers need to have a dramatic culture change if were are ever truly going to return to a golden age of innovation in game play concepts, design and execution. Perhaps the Indie scene will be the catalyst that fuels the publishers to change and allow more freedom to professional studios?

While the Amiga had it’s day, its fair to say that it was a very 2D orientated  platform and with the coming of 3D and it’s dominance in professional studios it’s not surprising that small man teams of maybe 3 or 4 can no longer produce the par standard graphical expectations in games expected for modern AAA title publishers, whom require dozens of developers and artists and millions invested to produce some of the photo realistic wizardry modern shelf titles feature. But are the incredible graphics and animation a fair trade for the disadvantages it brings?

Level design is something that has most certainly suffered from the introduction of vastly detailed environments now expected in any FPS game. It’s a simple matter of complexity, the more you introduce into a scene, the longer it takes to produce. The longer it takes the less time you have to make complicated and intelligent level design. Thus many “on rails” shooters are just that, a monorail ride with the occasional dead end to “confuse” said player and following satellite navigation way points that show up on your automap, even if the game is set in a medieval fantasy universe *cough* Skyrim.

Personally speaking photo real graphics are not a fair trade and ultimately it’s the game play that keeps you playing a game long after you’ve become desensitized to the pretty visuals. Many hugely successful Indie titles have shown this, surely it’s time for the big AAA studios and publishers to say “let’s strip down the cluttered visual complexity, take a risk and focus on game play “. Wouldn’t that be something? That and actually playing games rather then spending 30% of your time watching dialogue cut scenes. At times I think games have forgotten their roots in the arcade, and have borrowed far to heavily from Hollywood.

A change in audience & social gaming:

Another key factor in the the evolution of the games industry is tied with in turn the evolution of it’s audience. Back in the Hobbyist days of gaming, a period i’d widely class from 1980-1999, most people who sat indoors playing video games were looked at a bit strangely. They were geeks, nerds, predominantly male and it most certainly wasn’t a cool thing to do. They were probably above average at school and i’d be as bold to say statistically more intelligent or at least have an intrigue in things they didn’t understand. This would manifest itself in a way that if you presented a challenging game to a geek, they would be much more likely to try and figure it out and spend time trying to overcome the complexities, like a piece of homework or a maths question. A less motivated individual with less intrigue would put the game down, upset about it being too hard and never play it again. Therefore the audience in a nutshell back then was more mature and forgiving about games and it allowed a degree of freedom to developers to really go to town on sophisticated game play elements that would take time to master and learn, but ultimately paid off long term over simple repetitive games.

Now as pretty much most are aware, nowadays games on the whole are streamlined and simplified for the new average audience demographic, whom is not a geek, nerd or in fact *shock* actually male. Social gaming has brought women into the gaming consumer audience and rightly so, women should be part of it. Men too have lapped up the new social gaming phenomenon but irrespective of gender which is irrelevant, the key point is that the “nerd gamer” is no longer the average demographic and thus games are now being effectively aimed at less patient, casual orientated “non-gamers”. Social games are not games in their truest purest sense, they are not escapism, or adrenaline pumping or a visual feast or inspiring, they are simply a feedback-response stimulus loop that passes time for the bored individual. Engineered game play featuring staggeringly simple repetitive tasks with a carrot style reward at the end. Real games ARE more then that aren’t they? I think so.

Conclusion:

The whole evolution of the industry is a double-edged sword. It’s not all bad certainly, there’s never been an easier time to get into the games industry and there’s certainly a lot more jobs around with better pay then there used to be, however along with vast sums of money has come the bureaucracy that is rife within what is essentially a creative industry and there are startling parallels with the movie industry. Like with games, the increasingly powerful few have begun to control too much of what directors make and the many unneeded remake movies are effectively synonymous with the copy-cat games made today in the games industry. But, I wont lay the blame just on publishers. John Hare mentioned something regarding the fact that the industry is saturated with content and most of it not good or to a high enough quality. This waters down the expectation of what a good game actually is, and with more and more game developers coming into the mix this could spiral further. His solution? Less developers/designers and who are to a higher standard. Is that the answer? I’m not sure but poor games will in-turn inspire more poor games, it’s a vicious circle that we must break and ultimately in my opinion it should start from the top AAA studios and work it’s way down, not the bottom up.

It’s a topic I feel passionate about and there’s no easy answers but that’s my take on it and an opinion from someone who has played far too many games over the past 29 years and hope to influence the games industry in some way (even if just a nano) by making games myself. I hope that in time, developer creativity will flow however it wants wherever it wants and only our imagination will limit where games can take us.

Lemmings – Amiga – DMA Design

Falling In with Fallout

fallout-3-1010-small

Over the course of the past year I’ve been working my way through the newer Fallout games specifically Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I finished Fallout 3 a couple of months back and when I say “finished” I mean 95%+ of all the content, I completed every expansion pack except for Mothership Zeta, visited nearly every location in the world maps (184 out of the 200+ excluding Zeta) and generally lost myself in what is in my opinion one of the finest role-playing experiences to be had.

Getting It…:

I didn’t always feel this way about Fallout 3, like many I played it when it first came out and meandered through it for a few hours before losing my way and getting rather bored trawling through endless metro stations. I decided to pick it up and give it another crack several years later and have never looked back since.

I’m not sure whether its myself that changed or not but this time the games magical atmosphere enthralled me and I can say happily I loved every minute of it. The dawning realisation that Fallout 3’s strength is not in it’s rather mediocre storyline but the sandbox and open world game play. This game has that incredibly hard to come-by feeling of authenticity that allows the game through your imagination to create it’s own believably unique stories from your actions with your character and the decisions you make throughout playing.

2012-09-27_00005

An Authentic World:

The authenticity of Fallout 3’s world is achieved from a variety of factors and surprisingly barely any of them from actual talking NPC characters. Most of the atmosphere is created through the futuristic 1950’s themed timeline that emanates charm, naivety and an innocence in stark contrast to the brutal and barbaric post-war world.

The world is also sentimental which on a personal level is quite touching. Imagine if the world had been destroyed and your a generation of survivors who have only known the wasteland of the aftermath, how would the ruins of the past world seem to you? Would the world before Armageddon seem alien to you or comforting? To see the pre-war world frozen in time as the atomic bombs hit, families huddled in their homes, people going to work, people packing their bags in preparation of the nuclear war but clearly too late, you wander the wasteland of the old world and can’t help but be touched by the sentiment created by Bethesda. Pompeii and it’s destruction at the hands of Vesuvius draw eerie parallels, today you can still wander the ruins of the city and see it’s citizens frozen in time by the molten ash flow that covered them.

Untold Stories:

If there were anyone who worked on the Fallout games (both Fallout 3 and Obsidian’s New Vegas) who’s hand I’d like to shake the most it’s those responsible for the creating the myriad of untold stories that litter the wasteland and these people as much as anyone help forge that authenticate world.

Times such as walking into a shack and seeing a skeleton in a bath-tub…with a toaster are moments of genius that will stay with me. It leaves you wondering, who was that person? Why did they resort to suicide? Were they a good person or bad? Your imagination goes into overdrive and it fleshes out the world beautifully.

I wonder what the story behind this guy was?

I wonder what the story behind this guy was?

Just one of many hilarious easter eggs to be found.

Epic.

The Originals:

Now I’m not going to write an article on Fallout without mentioning the original Fallout games. These of course made a lot of what Bethesda built upon when making FO3, and not everyone thinks that they went in the right direction. Fallout 1 and 2 are brutal games and the world is darker and grittier then that portrayed in FO3 that’s for sure. New Vegas goes some way to fixing this, being an all round darker game but since I’m still currently playing New Vegas I’ll not comment much on it until I’ve completed it.

fallout

I can say that I’m a little ashamed at having not finished the original Fallout games and I will be fixing that when time permits, nevertheless having played Fallout 1 upon it’s release I loved it and it’s influence over all post-apocalyptic games since is apparent (as in-turn is the Mad Max influence over the Fallout universe).

Branding:

Much of the character in Fallout stems from the excellent and original branding established mainly in the original games whether it’s Nuka-Cola, Robco or Vault-Tec or the imaginative array of narcotics and drugs such as Mentats, Jet, Pscho and Rad-X. They are so shoved in your face whether through subliminal advertising in game through posters and artwork or constantly seeing their logos on items and in-game memorabilia that sometimes I have to pinch myself to realise Nuka-Cola doesn’t actually exist and that I can’t just go and buy a bottle!

Probably every main brand in Fallout has some part to play in FO3 and that’s one reason I love it. Whether it’s visiting the Nuka-cola plant and hacking into long abandoned employee terminals or collecting rare Nuka-Cola Quantums for a obsessed fan out in the wasteland you learn about the brand and it’s history and what kind of business they really were. It’s infectious and as of right now my phone is proudly sporting a Pip-Boy HUD picture and my desk has a bobble-head on it.

Late game Enclave incinerator troops are pretty tough, nothing the Alien Blaster can't handle though!

Late game Enclave incinerator troops are pretty tough. Nothing the Alien Blaster can’t handle though!

V.A.T.S:

One thing Bethesda really “hit the nail on the head” with is the remarkable V.A.T.S system which integrates first-person real-time combat with a turn-based location targeting system.   Quite simply, it works and works marvellously. With V.A.T.S combat plays out   cinematically akin to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves famous arrow view camera. It never ceases to be entertaining to watch limbs and heads explode and even eyes pop out! The violence of the originals was left in place because the Fallout universe is brutal and quite rightly doesn’t shy away from adult themes. It’s no kids game and as such emphasises the brutality of a world in a post-apocalyptic environment rife with slavery, raiders, cannibalism and mutated horrors.

Your typical bloody aftermath from a VATS combat.

Your typical bloody aftermath from V.A.T.S combat.

Conclusion:

I could likely go on far more about the Fallout games and quite possibly will later on when I complete New Vegas. Fallout 3 is a hidden gem in my eyes, it received wide acclaim but perhaps unjustly less so then the Elderscrolls games like Oblivion and Skyrim. It’s likely a topic for a whole new blog but Fallout 3 surpasses the post Morrowind Elderscrolls games in doing what any good RPG should do, creating a believable authentic and original world that you can escape into, and more so Fallout does it with a dry wit which doesn’t take itself too seriously, something Skyrim most certainly did do.

To end on, below are some of my end game character stats from FO3, Garviel the wasteland wanderer was godlike by the end but this certainly didn’t detract from the fun, “one-shotting” heads off with a scoped magnum never did get tiresome!

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Diablo 3: My thoughts on the series

My Collection: Remember when game boxes were massive?

So it’s 1996 and my dad rushed out and bought Diablo. At the time, it was praised for it’s re-playability factor due to randomised loot, mobs and dungeons and also it’s great story narration and eerie atmosphere. Although marketed as an RPG at the time (something that has long since been dropped), it wasn’t in the traditional sense and really it was simply an action game with an inventory and some  NPC dialogue. I remember it’s sales slogan to this day, “Diablo, one Hell of a role-playing game”. Anyway, It was indeed awesomely addictive and fun and did manage to scare the shit out of me as a kid. 16 years later Diablo 3 is finally released, and boy does 16 years fly-by!

The idea that Diablo was originally based on is derived from the old-style MUD games (Multi User Dungeons) which were technically the worlds first MMO games and on the whole contained no graphics, simply a command based chat room with multiple players venturing co-operatively through a text adventure game. Single-player games spun-off from these with basic ASCII graphics such as Angband and Nethack and these games really ironed in the concepts that the Diablo series has always lived by: procedural level generation, randomised mobs/items, and of course item identification and lots of stats and inventory management. Even the Diablo hardcore mode where if your character dies, it’s permanent  heralds back from these games which were and still are brutal, challenging and mercilessly unforgiving to play. The best article I ever read on them can be found here: http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/zangbandtkconfessions-of-a-dungeon-hack/ , a very entertaining read if you have the time.

Diablo 1

The best thing about Diablo to me was always the atmosphere. The first game and to some extent the second always had this impending sense of dread hanging over you when you were playing. A lot of this is thanks to brilliant music and sound, Diablo’s famous Tristram theme to this day, one of the best original pieces of game music ever created: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2evIg-aYw8

Like the old 70’s horror classics, Diablo seemed to be able to do more with less and today of all the games in the series, it has in my opinion the darkest feel and most original atmosphere. I still remember the meat cleaver wielding Butcher, the first demon boss you come across that in comparison makes Diablo 3’s first few bosses on normal difficulty look like wet paper bags. The levels were strewn with dismembered and impaled bodies that added to the feeling you really shouldn’t be here and in every unexplored corner there could be lurking something sinister. You’d then inevitably be required to return to the village of Tristram to offload your inventory and buy supplies, in utter contrast to the depth of the cathedral you were descending you’d be back in relative safety chatting to the NPC who were scared out of their minds due to things dragging them from their beds at night and unearthly things being seen in the graveyard. You’d then pluck up the courage to return back into the depths where death invariably awaited you due to the fiendishly hard difficulty.

The good thing about the old style large game boxes as pictured above were that they also used to include nice thick instruction books. There’s a whole section of the Diablo 1 booklet outlining the lore and back-story of the game and to this day it’s still a damn good read, much better then anything that was actually in the game and It’s really quite sad that games don’t do this anymore…

Diablo 2

Diablo 2 was incredibly hyped upon release because by this time in 2000, Diablo had already developed a large cult following and Blizzard mania was beginning to ignite off the back of the successful Warcraft and Starcraft RTS franchises. Diablo 2 is arguably the best Diablo game to many people and will likely remain so, for the very simple reason that the game-play was polished to the Nth degree and had a military mirror shine to it. It was as perfect in terms of balance, complexity/simplicity as the series was going to get, with skill trees, manual stat allocation (not automated like D3) and nice archetypal classes such as the Paladin, Necromancer, Barbarian, Amazon and Sorceress. It was also very challenging straight out the box like it’s predecessor.

Instead of everything in the game being based around the village of Tristram, it introduced multiple geographical locations to the series and I remember it being the first time Blizzard took the effort to produce it’s now trademark stunning cinematics to help the story telling. Again, the atmosphere was there and although certainly having a different feel to the first game mainly due to much less claustrophobic environments, it retained the ambiance and interesting story of the first.

Diablo 2 had a great selection of character classes…

Diablo 2’s longevity was largely owed to it’s huge multiplayer following. Even 16 years after it’s release it still has a huge player base by many PC game standards. Game matchmaking in Battle net was setup in a social/chat room style interface and encouraged a large community to develop. Logging into Battle net for Diablo 2, the chat screen would be flooded by players trading rare items and arranging co-operative games with friends and strangers alike.

Which brings me to Diablo 3. D3’s implementation of Battle net in contrast introduces the item auction house akin to WOW and removes the game selection ability, instead opting for the now fashionable auto-matchmaking. The result in my opinion is a much reduced social and community experience. The good thing about the new system is that it means casual players who don’t want to farm for rares have a much easier time getting better items and the interface is clean and simple. In general, as with the whole games industry trend, D3 is more friendly, less hardcore and yes “dumbed down” is probably the most appropriate phrase to use.

Diablo 3: My Barbarian

The auction house also has I think unexpected consequences for the game-play. The whole carrot-stick approach to Diablo’s gameplay over the years has been about getting that next awesome item that will make you stronger. By giving players an easy option to simply go on the auction house and buy awesome items, you find that after a while everything that drops in the game is always going to be inferior to what you have 98% of the time. The games randomised loot mechanic cannot compete with giving the player the ability to go and cherry pick the very perfect item they want for their character at relatively little cost. As a result, the excitement of seeing items fall to the ground from killing mobs is greatly diminished. Yes you may choose stoically to abstain from using the Auction House but then you will soon become irritated by other players being so much better equipped then yourself.

This brings me next to the difficulty issues of Diablo 3. With each completion of the game, a new difficulty mode is unlocked, sequentially this goes from Normal, Nightmare, Hell and Inferno. Additionally, items that drop at the start of Act 1 Nightmare will be as good as at the end of Act IV Normal and new and increasingly powerful items come into the game as the difficulties progress allowing you to carry on developing your character with each play-through.

Normal is quite simply a walk in the park and offers no challenge to the extent it is almost a pure story-telling experience with little consideration required to kitting out your character correctly. Nightmare fairs little better and is still easier then both Diablo and Diablo 2 on their default difficulties. Things begin to get interesting on Hell but not because the average mob appears any tougher, only down to the fact that Champion mobs are buffed to an insane extent. So on Hell the game is very easy until you come across champions and then it gets hard as hell. Insane is apparently just literally that, with normal mobs able to one shot your character.

This is obviously bad difficulty design and the whole experience curve in my opinion needs fixing. You should not have to play through a game THREE times to get to a point where a game is at the same level of it’s predecessors’ and then on the fourth difficulty be one shot by everything. I think clearly Blizzard will be looking to address this issue.

D3’s cinematics are awesome in usual Blizzard fashion…

The atmosphere and artistic direction that Diablo 3 has used has caused a lot of controversy. Upon the release of the first screenshots there was an outcry at the apparent colourfulness and almost WOW style to the lighting in the game. Diablo 1 & 2 were characteristically known for being gloomy and dark and D3’s sudden art direction shift angered a lot of fans. Already there is a mod called Dark D3 that allows you to use a custom shader to change the graphics of D3 to something similar to that of the previous games: http://darkd3.com/ . I must say I prefer grittier and gloomier graphics, I just fits the depressing tale of the Diablo series better, however where D3 has excelled is with the ability effects and animations.

Atmosphere has unfortunately been lost in the transition from D2 to D3 and the music is also not on par with the previous games (The composer of the original games is apparently been working on Torchlight 2 instead!) though the soundtrack is still certainly good. Related to the atmosphere is a rather weak storyline. I’m a big fan of the Diablo lore and was disappointed with some events that transpire with key characters. Without making spoilers I’ll just mention Tyrael, Cain and Adria who were amongst the most interesting and iconic characters in the series are treated rather poorly by the story line in D3. Additionally the ending is far too happy-ever-after and worst of all, the game has lost probably all of it’s eeriness or sense of foreboding mainly because the bad guys in the game go out of their way to laugh manically like bond villains and continuously feel they need to taunt you with cheesy B-movie style threats. In my opinion you shouldn’t hear from certainly the prime evils until the finales and even then actions speak louder then words, cut the childish dialogue please, it’s not in the least bit scary. Amusingly I found some written orders by Asmodan on the body of a demon and when reading them Asmodan actually reads the dialogue… It’s just ridiculous, demons would not scribble down orders, I don’t know why I know that but I just know they wouldn’t, they’d use telepathy or some dark magic to communicate their malign intent but they wouldn’t write a journal of their plans!

I’ve grumbled a lot about Diablo 3 here but in reality I love the game to death. I’m currently at lvl 59 with my barbarian on Act 3 of Hell difficulty and have really enjoyed playing the game. I’m not usually the kind of person to be able to just sit and play a game start to end repeatedly yet with D3 I have done just that. Yes it’s Diablo and I think I do have a particular love for this game type but even though I have finished the game 3 times now with my Barbarian I’m already looking forward to trying it through with the Demon Hunter class.

I think this is testament to why Blizzard are amongst the best game developers out there. They may not innovate the industry but my god do they know how to make a good game with addictive gameplay and achingly satisfying aesthetic feedback. I doubt I’ll ever get bored of bull-rushing my barbarian into a pack of critters whirling and dicing with my axe, the crackling of electricity, splitting skulls, limbs soring into the air and mists of crimson puffing from amongst the carnage, followed by a buzz of excitement from expectedly waiting for rare items to drop in the aftermath. No one does it better.

Yes the story line is a let down, the difficulty is not right and there’s a few itemisation issues that need addressing but on the whole it’s still a damn good game and very fun co-operatively or in single-player. People have moaned about the online-only issues relating to needing to be connected to Blizzards servers to play, yes it’s constricting but it’s not going to change and although it is very annoying when servers are down or full, when their up and open it’s a really quite transparent experience to the player. Given the choice, I’d likely be playing online anyway so I can play with other people, so personally I’m not too bothered about it.

The Diablo series as a whole is iconic and hopefully will be around a long time to come, Blizzard know when a formula just works and that’s why at a high level, game-play has remained very similar throughout the series. It’s an awesome series and I’d strongly recommend people who haven’t played either Diablo 1 or 2 to give them a go along with their expansions at some point.

Mass Effect 3: It’s art, oh yes

So for a while now I’ve been wanting to put some games stuff on here and so what better game to start with then Mass Effect 3, now I’ve finished it…well until I replay the end again to get the one I want!

Over the years there have been very few games that I have been able to emotionally invest myself in, all of them are RPG’s of course. Baulder’s Gate 1 & 2, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex (original and HR) and finally the Mass Effect games. Nearly 50% of those are Bioware games and to me they have been the masters of game storytelling for years now.

Before getting into the game, I’ll mention a thought of mine on design that’s relevant to this topic:

What specifically is it about a game compared to another that enables me to A) Have the desire to get drawn into the game? B) Keep me there when I do?

After thinking on this, I feel I can pin-point it exactly down to two aspects which are more or less two sides of the same coin. A fascinating storyline for one and secondly, a world filled with believable and interesting characters that you care about. Anything else when it to comes RPG’s is really quite irrelevant when considering immersion, but that doesn’t mean the rest isn’t important; on the contrary this is the core difference between games and other forms of art medium, an extra facet that says you must not use just visual art and aesthetics, not just music and sound, not just cinema and story telling. The true greats and games I view as art are those that combine all these disciplines perfectly and create in my opinion the most rewarding form of art and entertainment. The key differences between movies and games are blurring as the years go on but the pivotal difference is obviously human interaction, and its this interaction in my opinion that makes the potential of games infinitely greater then movies. We are now at a point where games have the ability to rival the story-telling AND visual might that has always been firmly dominated by cinema, and in the last 5 years that gap has narrowed.

ME3 Story: 

I’ll start on the best aspect of the Mass Effect games, the story. The core storyline itself is excellent but not a masterpiece by any stretch, and anyone who has read their fair share of sci-fi novels will likely agree with this. The thing that Mass Effect does so right is the world or more appropriately the galaxy, which is easily one of the most detailed and believable science fiction settings outside of Star Wars, Star Trek and Dune and certainly when it comes to games, takes the crown.

The colourful arrays of alien species and their designs, the politics and relations between them and the myriads of intertwined histories and lore that have been created by Bioware are an absolute triumph and the games strongest asset. Does this alone make the game great? Not at all, but it’s what makes the series stand out, it’s what draws you into the game and keeps you craving for more and it’s also what makes the rabid fans judge ME3 so harshly when they don’t get the ending they envisioned.

I mentioned that the characters in the game are some of the best assets of the game and non other then the main protagonist herself “Shepard”. Yes, I write herself because I’m firmly in the “femshep” player category. A little on that point, Its the first time I’ve played a female in an RPG, and I did so because of the laughably bad voice acting on the male Shephard, and to be honest if it wasn’t for Jennifer Hale’s mind-blowing voice acting, I doubt I’d be into Mass Effect as much as I am, if you haven’t tried a renegade femshep yet, just do it, seriously!

I’ve grown quite attached to my character over the years and with probably 100-200+ hours of game play spent in such an engrossing series of games, making the right (and sometimes wrong) decisions, killing villains, liberating innocents, romancing blue aliens (read on), knocking out journalists not once but three times, stopping immoral scientific experiments,  discovering lost technology, exploring the depth of space, curing plagues, saving entire races from extinction, and of course not forgetting saving the entire frickin galaxy from the clutches of synthetic gods…not bad for a few hours of game play eh?

The unique aspect of Mass Effect and one of the best design decisions they ever decided to make was the feature of importing your character from the previous games and remembering your past actions. This has given the whole journey from ME to ME3 a feeling of grandeur that I had only experienced in Baldur’s Gate 2 prior, and of course books. Thanks to clever writing from Bioware, you do get the sense that Shepard has experienced more shit then any human ever should (untold billions of lives in your hand) and the character does seem to progress as the series moves on, highlighted extremely poignantly by the death of a child in the first part of ME3 and whom clearly leaves a scar on Shepard.

Even with all that lore and history Mass Effect would feel pretty dull if the NPC’s were generic and dull (Skyrim’s undoing) but thankfully the characters that join Shepard and even a few who don’t (The illusive Man) are full of depth, emotion and intrigue and quite a bit of humour. My characters lesbian romance with Liara, an Asari (all female blue alien species…yes I know)  which continued from ME1 just goes to show how amazing this game is if the sentence I’ve just written doesn’t equate in-game to something as ridiculous as it sounds on here, but in fact after completing it in ME3, it is amazingly executed with maturity, depth and is really quite touching *sniff*, by all accounts it’s one of the better ones available in the game and ends with a cool spock-esque mind-meld scene.

10/10

Graphics:

Graphically despite the game looking and running beautifully, I have some issues here, some that took me a fair few hours to get over. Animations. For some unfathomable reason they decided to make run animations utterly ludicrous and I have spent nigh-on 50 hours watching Shephard run like a gorilla. It’s obvious they also used the same run animations for the male Shepard as the female, so yeah, she runs like a butch heffer who’s just given birth. It’s not too noticeable in the missions in full combat gear but in casual clothing in-between combat sequences it’s pretty awful. I wouldn’t complain, but it was absolutely fine in ME 1 and 2, so why ruin in now?

The cinematography in the game is fantastic, with some incredible set pieces involving colossal Reaper’s raining destruction down on worlds and the most epic fleet battle I’ve ever seen (the whole galaxies fleets coming to Earth’s defence), quite literally jaw dropping.

8/10

Music and Audio:

Another high point of the series, the music previously done by Jack Wall in ME and ME2, didn’t have him this time around but quite honestly, the music is even better. Music in games for me is an entirely separate subject for a blog post which I’ll do at some point, but  one thing I strongly believe is the soundtrack should never be underestimated. Even people who are not audiophiles can often be emotionally or otherwise benefit even subconsciously having more fun from a good soundtrack. Looking back, just about ALL of my favourite games had great scores. Game scores really should get more credit and attention in the industry but that’s just an irrelevant point to this post. ME3 music rest assured adds a perfect blend of tension, adrenaline and melancholy and is quite appropriately epic.

The games audio has noticeably  improved as well and you can tell they have really gone to town on the weapon sound effects, it’s certainly a game I’d unquestionably recommend use of good headphones with and there’s few games I’ve played with as satisfying “pew-pews” as this. Sniping a Cerberus trooper in the head with a Black Widow V rifle is as good as it gets I think.

10/10

Game-play:

I won’t spend much time on this since ME3 plays more or less as the others. You know what it says on the tin and you get what you expect. It’s a little more “shooty” this time around but that’s no bad thing if it’s still fun but I do have some niggles. Firstly, the journal and quest log update mechanic is just useless if not nearly absent entirely. The first time you get a task it makes a note in your journal as you’d expect but some tasks have multiple progressions to them involving finding different people or objects but the journal is NEVER updated, ever. So if you missed the audio prompt from an NPC, its pretty much time to google it since the on screen nav points seemingly appear at random and very rarely on the citadel. It’s not a show stopper, if anything it gives you more time to explore and soak up the great atmosphere of the game but there’s only so long your going to look for an NPC without getting a little frustrated, that’s a nice way of putting it.

Reaper’s chasing you if you scan too much on the map screen is the other annoyance, but then again ME have always had these annoying meta game issues. ME1 had exploring planets in the vehicle (which I liked but most appear not to), ME2 had the most annoying one I think with the mineral harvesting, it really was less fun then Mine Sweeper. ME3’s meta game is annoying but can easily be exploited by leaving the system and endlessly re-entering the system until you have everything…just seems a little crappy and not very well thought out, but again it’s not serious and it’s picking at what is otherwise great game play

9/10

Summary:

All in all I had an absurd amount of fun playing Mass Effect 3 and all the others in the series.The end is a little bitter-sweet. It’s great that I’ve experienced it all and not for the last time I’m sure, but it’s that finishing a good book feeling that you rarely get in games that leaves you a little sad and that I won’t experience the Mass Effect galaxy like it was with unknowing eyes via my feisty/slightly unstable Shepard that I’ve grown rather fond of. That sentence there is likely the cause of the fury over the endings, it’s peoples unwillingness to let go of what they have known and loved and to make way for change in the storyline as per Bioware’s wishes. Personally, if that’s how the story was designed, who am I to change it? And if they do alter the ending as it is rumoured, it’ll never have the same impact.

It’d probably keep me awake at night trying to decide if any Mass Effect game tops Baldur’s Gate 2 or even Deus Ex 1, but when the ME series is taken as a whole they are perhaps greater then the sum of their parts and are certainly up there amongst the gods of gaming. A real achievement in gaming, this ones for you Shepard…

9/10

Mass Effect in a word? Masterpiece.