Best Games - Encounter!
I played Encounter on an Atari 800 computer. I played it a lot.
It would be 10 years before Id software would recapture,with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, the fluid control, speed and heart pounding tension of Encounter.
Paul Woakes, seemingly alone, created what is probably the original first person shooter experience. There are certainly first person games that came before Encounter, and it would be easy to claim that Encounter is a clone of BattleZone. Where BattleZone is ponderous and methodical, Encounter plays more like the ancestor of Serious Sam. At least fifty percent of the time you will be backpedaling at breakneck speed away from a charging enemy. Attempting to lead targets is made more difficult due to their erratic, relentless behaviour. The action quickly becomes teeth grindingly intense when you realise that you just backed into one of the, ever present, pillars. You have milliseconds to dislodge yourself and escape. You probably won’t. Your game will end with a deafening blast of digital static.
That is the most striking and enduring element of Encounter!. The sound. While the small variety of diamond, circle, and square shapes in the game don’t really drive fear into our hearts anymore, the sounds still do. There is an odd sort of mystery to Encounter. While the rising tone of the kamikaze enemy screaming toward you still holds up, it is the foreboding growl of the level end portal that sticks in my head. A black square spreads it’s maw in front of you, like a rip in space. The game doesn’t reward you for completing a level, it dares you to advance. Even moving from one level to the next is an arduous task, where you have to navigate a barrage of obstacles just to be unceremoniously dumped out of another portal, into god knows where. The ominous and unsettling sound is ever present.
Go find an emulator, since 8 bit Atari computers are probably hard to come by, and try out Encounter!.
The first 3D animation program I learned to use was Truespace 3D in the mid 90's. I would later go on to use, autocad, power animator, maya, and 3DSMax. The list of peripheral modellers, raster art programs, vector art programs, video editors, video compositors, design programs, cad/cam programs, and programming languages I've used sits about nipple deep. This is just stuff I’ve used to do work, mind you. The junk I get up to for fun is an equally goofy pile. Software tools in equine choking quantities.
Blender is a bit of a conundrum.
I have very easily cast off Photoshop and Illustrator, replacing them with free and cheap tools that do all the same things. I can go back to them, like putting on a pair of comfortable old pants from the back of the closet, but I never feel the need to. Not using Maya to animate is like losing an arm. Or at least losing a few hotkey fingers. I’ve spent more than a decade using Maya, and I’ve grown a bit complacent. Sure I’ve used other programs for this and that. I even had to change entirely to Max for a while, but I could always slip back into Maya. I think it’s time to switch to Blender.
There has been a copy of Blender on my computer since the NaN days. I would fire it up, update to the latest version, and fiddle around until I got annoyed and close it down again. I could always see promise in the program, but the interface was really terrible. I would hunt around on different forums, read or watch some tutorials, and still the interface was really terrible. When anyone would comment on how user ignorant the interface was, how it was like jabbing a hot poker at anyone with any familiarity with 3D modelling software, there was a blind uproar of zealotry from the faithful. The tacit adherence to being different, for the sake of being different, was off putting. I could dive into XSI or Modo and feel fairly comfortable in a few hours. Not so with blender.
I figured, as long as they didn’t change their interface to be more welcoming and flexible, Blender would remain an odd curiosity. Well a couple of versions ago, there was a major overhaul of the entire interface. I started it up and almost instantly everything felt more comfortable and useable. I could manipulate models and tweak verts, apply and adjust materials. Tools were where I expected them to be. More than that, everything was user configurable. It was everything I wanted from the program. I still did not switch.
Truth is, that sometimes it's hard to learn new things. Especially when the old things are working just fine. I didn't switch to Blender because I didn't feel the need. There was no incentive to push myself out of the Maya comfort zone. The latest version of Maya seems great, like always, but I think I'll be dedicating my time to learning Blender.
There is a change coming. The days of software that costs tens of thousands of dollars are pretty much done. The days of software that costs over a thousand dollars are numbered. Sure, there are a lot of large corporations shackled to expensive legacy software, but the the cost to stick with the old is beginning to outweigh the cost of switching.
Open source, or inexpensive alternatives are increasing in quality and quantity rapidly. Tools that can't be had cheaply, or for free, are often available through subscription and royalty licences. I think that programs like blender, lightworks, gimp, and unity are paddling well out ahead right now, and they will be the first to ride that wave. It's not just that I am cheap (I am). I think that autodesk, and to a lesser extent, Adobe are not ready for this change. They have been beaten on price, and you only have to do a quick sided by side comparison with these other tools to see that it won’t be long before they are matched, or beaten on quality.
Photoshop and Maya might be industry standards, but so was Lotus Notes. Creativity software serves an industry with a product cycle from a few weeks to a few years. It wouldn’t take much of an exodus for something new to become the industry standard.
Probably, I’m only justifying to myself why I would go through the annoyance and headaches of learning a new animation program, but I really do think the high ticket price software model is doomed. If Maya was suddenly available for a sub $200 yearly subscription, I would likely run back in an instant. For now though, it’s Blender for me.
There are a lot of examples of morality systems in games. Games where there is a light or dark, good or bad choice. Often the choices are explicitly highlighted for you, and you will receive rewards based on how good or bad the game thinks you are acting.
While this construct feels artificial and "gamey", I have a suspicion that most developers feel that is just the best, most transparent way to present that facet of their particular game experience. Presenting numbers to the player so that they know, when the numbers go up, they “done good”. Of course we accept it as just one of many game systems. Being a good guy or a bad guy in most games is no different than choosing a vehicle or sports team. This one has 15 more horsepower and that one is strong on defense. Minor tradeoffs, that when accounted for lead to exactly the same victories and defeats. It’s just one of many variables to keep track of.
In our lives, morality isn't binary, or a guideposts to a known end. Acting "good", or "bad" doesn't guarantee that good or bad things will happen to you. We learn that very, very young. We smile and try to pet the dog that nips at us, or we lie to an adult and escape punishment. The world doesn't react to us based on our intent. But, over time, people do.
People will treat us differently, based on the way we have acted in the past. Of course there are outliers and sometimes people are just dicks for no reason, but the majority of people will adapt their behaviour to deal with ours, as we do with them. Usually in a complementary way. When a person is nice to you, you will likely reciprocate. When a person is confrontational, you will likely avoid them until you can’t and then, as before, reciprocate.
When we think of morality in this way, peoples behaviour can break down into a few simple states. To people accustomed to solving problems that you can break down into a few simple states, like game developers, human behaviour, and human morality, has the makings of a good, solid game mechanic.
The problem here is, we have no idea what other people are thinking or why they are thinking it.
There is no omniscient arbiter of good or bad. Just people. Just a bunch of people, all thinking different things, for different reasons. Each one as inscrutable as the next. This is the sort of mire that great characters and great narrative are built on. If we could instantly suss out the motivations and intent of a character in a narrative, a character that isn’t us or our avatar, what’s left? That character, or possibly the whole construct, will start to feel artificial. Flimsy. Gamey.
Lets say a companion character, who has followed the player for weeks in a game, gradually became more quiet and sullen, before leaving the group altogether. As a human being, I will be required by my biological and social programming to wonder what he was thinking, was it something I did, or was there something I could do to get them to come back. Or maybe I think about it and decide that it was that guy’s problem, not mine, and our group is better off without him. Probably, I oscillate between the two, and that character's decision to leave eats at me for the next few hours. At least.
This character leaving the group may not be a dynamic event arising from a complex simulation. It could be an authorial choice. There may not have been anything I could do, as a player, to prevent it. If this character lived in a novel or movie, it most certainly would be a predetermined choice. But I don’t need to know that. I don’t want to know that. The story is better for me not knowing.
Not knowing the mind of these characters, is precisely what makes them characters. The problem with morality systems in most games, is not how the system is set up. It’s not the calculations under the hood. It’s the presentation.
If the game system is silently keeping score of my triumphs and transgressions, the worst thing it could do to me is tell me. Just like a character seems more real if his motivations and intent are not transparent, the way the world reacts to the player should be left up to interpretation. What was it that made that character leave the group? Was it when I stole food from the camp rations? When I kicked his dog and seduced his mother? What did the game system consider morally wrong? I think I would rather not know. The story I create will be better for not knowing.
A few years ago, when I made signs, I created a complicated measuring tool that could take the place of 7 or 8 other, large, unwieldy tools. It was cut out of one, fairly light piece of aluminum, and looked sort of like something a klingon Pope would carry lashed to a stick. No one outside of our shop ever saw that thing, and it’s likely that few people ever will. I was happy with the result, not because it looked cool, I would argue that it did, but because it solved a problem. It was as clear an example of form following function as I’ve ever come up with.
During the recent Global Game Jam, the team I was working with came up with some very simple procedures for parting out our project so that everyone could work on it at the same time. It was a bit messy, but it worked. We simply had everyone working on separate parts, sound, art, levels, behaviours, code, etc. then we would bundle them up and import them all into one master project. Had we worked like this for a week or a month, we would likely have ran into some catastrophic errors. Had we worked on the game for any longer than 48 hours we would have started to refine the process. We would codify naming conventions and packaging procedures. We would move people into roles that played to their strengths. The form of the team and the way it worked would follow the function of developing the game.
Adventure Caddie is fast approaching a state where codifying processes will become important. I was sort of hoping that, during this game jam, I would have to tackle some of those problems. From a purely selfish point of view, I think I got what I needed out of the experience. I think I have a pretty solid handle on how to deconstruct the game into packageable parts, and then reintegrate them cleanly.
In a future post I’ll go over, in more specifics, how we will deal with project and asset management on Adventure Caddie.