Sunday, September 23, 2012

Son of a Gun

Boys & weapons... If you never played with self made nun-chucks, didn't fancied the air pellet rifles at the fair, hated to see Stalin’s Organ blowing shit up in a WOII documentary, or even didn't get goose bumps when seeing the Tsar explode, then there is a 90% chance you're castrated and singing in a choir. Or you suffer from a very tenacious variant of peace-loving hippie genes. One of the differences between man and beast is that we make awesome tools to exterminate each other. Most men roughly know the Age-of-Empires evolution when it comes to weapons; Clubs, spears, swords, gladiators, Chinese gunpowder, boiling pitch kettles, catapults hurling Plague-infected bodies, muskets, cowboy rifles, Gatling guns, trenches & musterdgas, tanks, Bismarck, Spitfires, V2-rockets, MIG, B2 bombers, Tall boy, M16, Bob Hope, AK47, Bell Huey, nuclear submarines, Barett, MOAB, IED, drones. Power Rangers. Men's history in a nutshell. All other discoveries such as electricity, art of printing, thermo power-plants, computers or GPS were byproducts. And why we know all that? As I said, weapons are awesome.

Well, you don't have to tell me that those weapons are less "awesome" when you see footage from Syria. Also, those who caught Stielhandgrenades during WOII probably have less romantic memories about weapons. Yes, the USS Abraham Lincoln wasn't made to be a colorful happy Amsterdam Gay parade boat. It's made to kill & destroy. Still, that doesn't take away the fascinating creative thinking behind these devices. And probably a gun has some psychological magic (for boys at least). Carrying a device that gives a powerful blast when pulling the trigger, reloads like a small mechanical oiled wonder, and has the ability to take out whoever is fucking around with you, gives a mighty feeling. Or something.

PPS-43 in progress, by Diego

Yes, I like guns. And no, I don't have them (other than some not-so-dangerous air rifles). And no, I don't think it's a very good idea to legalize them here as well. Although I don't agree with the "guns kill people" saying. Aggressive/stupid people with guns kill other people, that's for sure. Giving weapons (for hunting, hobby or self-defense) to a society is like giving democracy; people need to be ready for it and deal in a mature way with it, otherwise it's going to be a disaster.

But now the big question... should guns be legalized in Tower22? I'm not talking whether that would be a good choice or not in a moral way. Screw that, most aggressive societies I know aren't famous for playing XBox, neither did our ultra-violent ancestors have Gameboys. No, I'm wondering if it would be a good choice to ship a horror game with self-defense equipment.

If implemented properly, guns surely add a fun element to a game. It's not without a reason that many top-rated games involve bang-bang. Doom, Goldeneye, Halflife, GTA... Guns make cool sounds, allow you to do something you're not supposed to do at home (I hope), and give a challenge. It's pretty dull if we had to jump on our GTA gangster opponents or squirt melon juice to make Doom3 Imps stick to the ground right? Weapons open a whole world of tactics, with spectacular destruction effects as a bonus. But for our game, we can also choice NOT to kill opponents.... Huh? Arrh! Blasphemy!

Saying that in Game-land is like saying the Earth is more than 6000 years old in an Amish community. It's probably the reason why pretty much every game that involves "bad guys" also has weapons of some sort. Just to be safe. Even when the focus isn't really on killing enemies. Like in Silent Hill, where the combat gameplay is pretty shit actually. The game is supposed to scare you, the stupid axe-fights with dumb fleshy things are just to fill the game a bit.

Nope, this guy didn't make it through the X-Factor selection rounds. Nevertheless, I wanted to show it anyway.

However, Amnesia showed a game can also be "good" without guns. A risky choice, but it worked out well. I placed "good" between quotes because Amnesia is not a fun game. Neither is Silent Hill btw, and also the older Resident Evils may fall to that category. Fun = having a laugh, tap yourself on the shoulder after kicking the level3 boss’s head off, or get satisfied by solving puzzles. That's not much the case with these horror games, apart from some puzzling maybe. Anyway, Amnesia wasn't much fun maybe, but it was SCARY. That sounds obvious for a HORROR game, but many horror games aren't scary really. Resident Evil turned into a farmer-shotgun-fest with a cheesy over the top Hollywood storyline. Doom2 was loads of fun, but certainly not scary. Unless you illegally played it the age of 10.

Alan Wake is another example. The story sucks you in, and the whole setting has potential. Yet it isn't really scary. Like so many other games, it decided to become a shooter mainly. Alan is blinding and shooting ghostlike entities all the time. And if you get killed? Just respawn 10 meters earlier. In other words, they decided to please the mass. Not a bad decision if you want to earn money with a game, and I'm not saying Alan Wake is a bad game. The point is, true scary games like Amnesia are only for a limited audience.

So, it seems the "action element" reduces the "fear element". Put a bit too much action on the balance, and the fear element is outweighed. It happened with Alan Wake, modern Resident Evil, and so many other games. The explanation for this phenomena isn't that difficult. Didn't I mention a gun gives a mighty feeling? Even if you have a small weiner? Same thing happens in virtual reality. Gore graphics and monsters on themselves aren't that scary once you saw them a couple of times. Once you learned how to deal with them (shoot them), you have the situation under control. Fear = losing control. Being vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, having to redo a substantial part of the game when taking a wrong step, not understanding what you see. Everything that pulls you out of your “mental safe zone”.

Obviously, guns and features such as Auto-save / Quick-load reduce fear, as they give you control. Got eaten by a dragon? Just respawn. 10 Imps with fireballs? Answer with a BFG9000. It gives you Tony Montana powers, it makes you reckless, storming in rooms without thinking. At this critical point, consider the game being an action game. Not a horror game (anymore). No matter how much blood, guts, ugly monsters and weird environments you throw against it. Just look at Duke Nukem 3D. Plenty of monsters and weird darkgreen Alien worlds that could be pretty scary actually. But when controlling the Duke, not even a Muhammad cartoon can scary you.

Don't you agree Alice in Wonderland (the old cartoon, not that Johny Depp shit) was scary? And that was not because of the monsters or blood. Just because it was so fucking weird. Like a dream/nightmare. I mean, look at that door man!

So... maybe its better just to forget about guns in T22? Hmmmm... It sure has advantages. No need to make a bunch of complicated models, death animations, destruction physics, ammo crates, et cetera. It makes the development easier, that's for sure. And it will make things more tense. T22 has only a few monsters wandering around the building. It's definitely not the goal to kill them on first sight. Bye bye big monster the T22 team spend millions of triangles and pixels on. No. The T22 monsters are stronger than the player, so a gun shouldn't suddenly change that.

But... that means you are supposed to run or hide? Ehm, yes, that has always been the idea for this game. But wouldn't that get boring after a while? Now that's a difficult question. With shooters, there is plenty of comparison material. But with a run & hide type of game, there aren't much good examples other than Amnesia (from which I only played the demo btw). To make this gameplay element work, the environment really needs to lend itself for that. Lots of corners, maze like corridor structures, dark spots or objects to hide in, and also a good dosing of monsters. If you had to run each 2 minutes while trying to solve a puzzle, it becomes very annoying. Therefore in T22, you won't see much monsters in general. But then again, what else should make the game exciting/playable? T22 is about exploring the environment, and finding new area's by solving puzzles. The balance between puzzles, tense monster chases and "rest" is crucial and requires a lot of testing.

Eventually it may turn out that the game becomes too dull, especially when it's a long game. Like with food, you need to vary to keep it tasty. Eating rice every day makes you a Chinese, potatoes every day an European farmer. Erh, right. The point is, T22 needs to be scary in the first place. But we have to prevent it from becoming boring after a while. In other words, I'm not saying no to guns right away. The T22 player sure is no hero, but neither a complete defenseless moron. What would you do if a monster chases you? I would pee & run, but also throw a Ming-vase at its head if there is no other option.

The first Resident Evil showed that weapons can be combined with scary gameplay, just as long you don't make the weapons too powerful. In RE, they smartly dosed the ammunition and save-games (ink ribbons). You could shoot zombies and reload, but be careful! There's not enough ammo to kill them all, and in narrow spaces a pistol might not be enough to defend yourself to dumb but tough zombies. Also only save when you really made progress. Having to decide all the time whether a save or pumping down a zombie is worth it, actually added some extra stress to RE. You could shoot the bastard but what if you wouldn't have enough ammo for the next boss? Better just outrun the damn thing.
Speaking of RE, here the door in-game. No slow door animations when entering a new room though.

Likely, T22 will go that way too. Although you won't be locked & loaded most of the time. There might be enough ammo to kill a few of the opponents, but pick wisely. As for us, to make sure these ingredients are in good balance, play-testing is crucial. But first we need to make some more (maps) in order to test it. You can't play hide & seek in a small house, you need a "playground" for that. And a test-person. The problem with making a horror game/movie/book is that its totally not scary for the creator. How can I be scared if I know where the enemy is, how it thinks (AI), and where to run? Nope. If we finally come to a testing phase, I think this Blog would provide some trusty fans for that ;)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


All right, a shorter story again. When I started this Blog, I intended to keep the texts short and to the point. No one has time or interest in never-ending stories right? There's a reason why Twitter is successful. "Jerking off." is a lot easier to print in the brain than an a complete epistle of when, why and how. But it turns out I'm like The Nanny once I start writing about Tower22 / game-programming. And so, the blog posts got longer and longer and ...

Probably this Blog (and the poor guys receiving my mails who help on T22) function as an overflow-valve. At work I never tell about T22, neither do I work with other programmers. My girl still uses an abacus and thinks nVidia is a body lotion, so that's not much of a computer-girlfriend either. And as for the rest of my friends; when drinking a beer, the discussions vary from pneumatic machines to 425 kg Mexicans we saw on TV, from president elections to poop. But barely about this little "secret" project. And if they ask about the latest T22 headlines? I'll just deflect the question with a "work-in-progress" or "not much special lately". Besides, I'm too stupid to technically answer the question after 8 beers anyway.

But seriously, what to tell? It's not that we build a new awesome monster each week, or just finished a complete playable floor. Week-progress is about a few textures, a drawing, or an object to fill the rooms with. And usually a bit of code to implement whatever asset was made. For example, let the player make footstep sounds after Carsten made some audio effects for that. Normally I plan a demo, that requires a (big) bunch of assets to make. Once advanced assets such as a monster, moving elevator, special effect or machinegun are being made, it forces me to upgrade the engine to realize them. Programming on demand basically. As for the last two weeks, Borja made another living-room drawing for the next demo, Diego is busy with a weapon, I worked on the reflections and made some corridor-map pieces, and Federico modeled two apartment-doors... Obviously, I can't produce a fascinating 10-minute conversation with drunk friends about a bunch of doors we just made.

But if there is not much to report, where do those big-ass stories on this blog come from then?! Well, actually there is a lot I can tell about a simple game-door. Did you know that this door was split up in 4 sub-objects; a stationary doorframe, a rotatable doorknob, transparent(breakable) glass, and the door itself? Did you know I implemented a so called "motor" that makes an object -a door in this case- move/scale/rotate from matrix A to B, using quaternions and spherical lerps? Did you know this door uses a DLL that controls its interface (open, close, slam, locked, unlock, ...) and how it interferes with the game-world (blocking the path for monsters, blocking invisible rooms behind them, occluding sound "rays"). Did you know I'm upgrading the Object-Editor right now so Federico can attach such a motor and door behavior to his object?

Yeah probably you know such things if you visit this place more often, or if you are familiar with game-development in general. The real progress usually lays in the hidden things. Things that are completely uninteresting for the outside world. But hopefully interesting enough to bore you with ;)

Here you go, doors. And yes, to make it work as a door, there is quite a lot to implement actually. Like other moving things such as an elevator, doors have an animation, and not just rotations. Think about slide-doors, garage doors, or those opening-anus-doors you see in sci-fi movies. And not just every door can be opened the good old fashioned way of course. Some are locked, some require a puzzle, some need to be kicked by a monster. When you think about it, a whole lot more scenarios pop up, and making game entities flexible for that is a challenge. This is not an in-game shot btw, not that far yet.