Tuesday, 31 March 2015

We Don't Have the Money, But We've Got a Plan

The last month has involved quite a lot of getting lost in some deep PC games. While the PS4 facilitated my gaming highlights last year, the games I've been dropping a lot of time into recently have all been on the PC.

An interesting thing about Pillars of Eternity, which is looking like one of the best CRPGs ever to be released: it was built on a budget that didn't facilitate anything cinematic. Obsidian didn't have the funds to make this a big 3D world, to provide glorious cut-scenes that compete with Blizzard, or to even provide a fully-voiced script. And those limitations have only made this game better. The game was built to hark back to the original Infinity Engine CRPGs which many of the developers had previously shepherded.

We now have the tools to create those worlds and script it together without spending as big as the industry can spend. A lot of that is the AAA tier of games has moved up in price, with the development costs alone going beyond $100 million. While Baldur's Gate and its ilk were almost certainly cheaper than $10m each, wages are much much higher compared to the end of the '90s so even a few million wouldn't bring that sort of team back and Obsidian didn't have $10m. There is a lot more rapid prototyping and efficient development possible with a modern tool-chain and knowing what you're going to build before you build it. Obsidian could map out areas using a fast 3D package, render those to both 3D data for real-time effects & occlusion for vision cones and 2D maps, and let the artists draw over the 2D maps to add in the detail without building it all in the 3D package. The game looks great, showing off the same painted backdrop love that originally wowed us playing those games in the '90s.

The script, because it didn't need to be 100% nailed down months before release so it could be given to the voice talent and because it didn't need to be paid for in VO costs, could reflect what made those old games great. This is an RPG that, if it is the child of any other medium, was descended from books. It is something you read, painting pictures with words that bring the rendered scenery to life and allow the story to dive into the areas too expensive to spend a few person-years of work rendering in a cinematic style for a short aside. The lack of any cinematic intent doesn't just provide an experience that reminds us of what was lost when CRPGs moved to making the dialogue into movies, it also allows for more options. We've already mentioned dialogue but this also extends to character skill checks. As it's nothing more than some text and a painted illustration of the challenge, the game can provide multiple paths to conquer an obstacle with real consequences depending on the skills of your party and what you attempt from the options provided. A cinematic RPG could do this, but not without heavily investing in building custom animations or pre-rendered videos for each option.

Pillars of Eternity is as good as it is because they had a plan, knew how to get to where they wanted to go, and knew that their aims fitted the constrained budget of crowd-funding. Without having to invent the typewriter or create a new style of prose, they had more time to write the book.

Another game released this month on PC is the game that EA failed to make when they mistakenly injected always-on DRM into SimCity in 2013. A small team who had previously tested their abilities building the Cities in Motion series of traffic building city-management games decided that they could take their existing knowledge and build the game that the large team at Maxis couldn't. Colossal Order is 13 people. They built on Unity (as did Obsidian) to give them a basic rendering and rapid development platform which can easily support several platforms and did their best to build the city simulator that was obvious from the pre-release enthusiasm for SimCity 2013.

And they did it. Thirteen people and a plan, with some modest funding from their publisher Paradox (who also did the publishing work for Obsidian, although not the funding of the project - these games are twins in many ways; not least that they, via backer pricing or cheap offers, both cost only £13 to get them in the first week of release), managed to build the game with the depth missing from the Maxis offering. No draconian DRM that mandates permanent server connectivity, a more deeply realised simulation of the virtual people and vehicles, and the trust that the community would enjoy finding the edges. This game has thousands of mods and props and tweaks in the official workshop, which is highlighted on the main menu of the game as a great place to check out. They already managed to scale the simulation up to vastly larger spaces than Maxis did, but mods arrived within hours that remove the limits they has put in, if your computer is up to running the simulation or you'd rather play at 10fps and build big.

It's a triumph and a massive success for Paradox and Colossal Order. Because small teams don't need to sell 10 million to break even. Reaching half a million sales so quickly triggered celebrations; quarter of a million in the first day was a record for the publisher. And we all get a game that is launched at a budget price to prevent it being a play-though for those rich enough to throw $60 at something they're not certain about while the rest of us wait for it to get somewhat closer to the price of other entertainment media.

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