Friday, 15 March 2019

Good Enough Meets Extremely Fast

I've been playing a lot of games in the last month that are getting on for a decade old. Some of that is for a longer post (series of posts? my notes, not yet having finished the final Dragon Age game, are 3500 words) but I wanted to do something shorter about how these games (that exported their artist assets expecting most users to play them at 720p) stand up rather well on modern systems. There may be a touch of riffing on this recent blog post too.

Almost exactly a year ago I was asking similar questions to that linked post, but about the asset fidelity arms race and the last decade of progress measured in pure asset comparisons (that is, taking eg a 2011 game and comparing it to today by rendering both assets with roughly equivalent to today's real-time renderers). Playing through this series of games from 2008 to 2011 in quick succession was a great visualisation of how those old assets hold up in 2019 with 4K60 output.

None of the screenshots that I'm embedding here are doing anything fancy like injecting alternative shaders or swapping out the stock assets with higher poly community mods or more detailed textures. Dragon Age 2 has the "High Resolution Texture Pack" (advertised as for GPUs with a massive 1GB of VRAM) which is an optional official download on Origin but I'm pretty sure that was released on the same day at the base game (and is official anyway). Everything was captured looking for a ~60fps experience so it's not a DeadEndThrills approach of turning everything up to 11 even if it broke the framerate and then capturing and downsampling purely for the photography. These are faithful captures of the internal framebuffer for the game as played.

If you click through to the screenshots in this post, you'll notice some unusual resolutions involved because today DSR/VSR (super-sampling at the driver level - exposing fake higher resolutions to any game and then downsampling for output to the actual screen) is an absolutely stock technique. Something like a modern GTX1070 (my card will turn 3 years old next quarter - so not even that modern) has more than enough power to turn on any existing AA technique (MSAA hadn't totally died to deferred renderers in this era; FXAA etc had started to be imported from the consoles) and then also boost beyond 4K to help control some of the shader aliasing. The shaders aren't that complex so there is plenty of performance to play with and often no one is getting fancy with HDR to really explode everything (compared to games around 2015, which seem like they're going to be a dark period of high shader complexity but not great management of artefacts & defects in edge cases; not to mention not having good enough temporal anti-aliasing yet while most everyone had migrated to deferred where MSAA isn't viable).

Despite expecting most users to see these decade-old games on much lower resolution screens, the push around this era was for good enough textures for up-close inspection. What you get when the textures are good enough up close is that you've now got some decently detailed textures even for 4K output at medium-distance. I'm not going to say all of these games are perfect, as you do clearly get some muddy visuals even in the mid-ground in some places (especially stuff like a large flat repeating floor texture etc). But it holds up surprisingly well and even the primitive dynamic shadows are often so primitive as to be easy enough to ignore (if you can't brute force it via poking at config files and demanding the GPU just throws a GB at huge shadow maps). The several years of continued development from where Half-Life 2 (including Episode 2 refresh) had left us in terms of getting a reasonably coherent result while juggling multiple different systems (this is before a unified PBR push) is often impressive. You can nitpick the results, just as you can often point to comically low polygon density you'd not see today (outside of maybe indie games and even those often push their polygon budget quite well), but it's only a few spots rather than the entire scene looking out of place on a modern system.

While clearly miles from photo-realism, there is enough detail to know what everything is meant to be and for things like a poster or sign to get close to being the actual poster or sign without lashes of artefacts or having to use a special rendering technique to achieve it (here I'm thinking of how well Doom 3 did the in-world UI stuff back in 2004 being the exception even today). There is nowhere near the level of detritus you would see in a real world, but there is enough to make it look lived in. Those props look close enough to what they're meant to represent that we're not in the situation of years previous where it was a muddy texture and often a mess of polygons that you had to work at to understand once looking at them at a far higher resolution than was originally intended. There are enough assets that there is cruft on a desk rather than only the props required for the interactions and one fake bottle to avoid the artifice totally collapsing once interactable objects started to get glowing highlights or arrows above them.

Also the lack of PBR in this era for things like human(oid) characters means the artists seemed to be more free to push the more cartoon-y stylish approach (before you defaulted to starting out with a skin shader with sub-surface scattering and worked from there) which certainly helps avoiding the uncanny valley. Some of the animation systems from this era are clearly reaching towards a fluidity the tech did not make easy and the animators were not given the budget to hand-tweak them to perfection from whatever performance capture they may have started with. I'd say it does show an "emotive gap" from looking at the puppetry onscreen trying to convey subtle emotions via expressions but often not quite getting there - but even today this doesn't seem like a totally solved issue and I find the difference from studio to studio is far more significant than simply looking at the progression of technology. Around this era of games then we've got stand-out stuff from Naughty Dog showing you could do that stuff really well with the technology back then.

I am still energised by rendering questions. The introduction of real-time ray tracing is such an exciting time to be thinking about the next generation of engine designs (and even just what the new console generation will bring in terms of a baseline performance we can expect many many millions of users to have reasonably affordable access to). Even the more invisible things like a continuing focus on code quality and reliability engineering, with several studios talking about how they're looking at using Rust to really enforce higher coding standards (banning some patterns of design as too risky, which the Rust borrow checker enforces at compile time) in their work.

How do I feel going back a decade and enjoying all these games that still look good enough today (thanks to the extremely fast GPUs we've got)? Well it makes me think about what we're working on today and the hardware we'll be able to use to replay it in another decade. What slight visual deficiencies we'll be able to brute force around; just how detailed things might look on 8K TV panels with amazing contrast/brightness options (and maybe some of that Deep Learning algorithms tweaking the game output to enhance it without the horrible results from previous generations of "TV enhancements" to the input signal) or with VR headsets that sit us inside recreated 3D spaces and give us effectively even higher pixel counts (via head movements allowing us to be truly surrounded in a scene and 4K VR panels).

Games have longer shelf lives than ever before and can continue to grow even long after we've stopped actively working to develop them. We should probably think about making sure all our sliders can be unlocked to go up to 12 so that players in ten years can continue to poke the settings up as they get the hardware to run it.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Updating Rust Nightly

So Rust has a pretty usable nightly build. Actually it has an extremely usable nightly build that also keeps a huge set of powerful features siloed off from the stable branch (behind feature gates so you can turn on just the stuff you want to play with rather than being dumped into a thousand things that have been deemed to not actually be ready for prime-time yet). That attracts a lot of users to keep on nightly rather than stable (or the beta that is one update ahead of stable but also lacks nightly's features and so is the mid-ground no one uses unless they really believe in helping test the next stable for the public good). However, nightly isn't perfect(ly stable) and right now is a great example of where the update tools feel like they come up short vs the usability that is visible everywhere else for the Rust language ecosystem.

>rustup update

"error: some components unavailable for download: 'clippy', 'rls', 'rustfmt'".

As primarily a user of VSCode for Rust (also sometimes a JetBrains IDE, although the Community Edition plugin lacks any debugging feature so I'll revert to VSCode to debug) then the RLS isn't really optional. It is good that the updater tells me after finding that some of the components I have installed in the toolchain I asked to update are missing from last night's build. However, it does not then go on to give me any information about how I can get from however old my last installed version was to the last good nightly build.

As best I can work out, I have to browse to a site tracking the nightly builds by component and then tell rustup to update to the date last shown to have built correctly. But that's not actually the end of this story (which would be a bit of lack of useful info but not totally weird to not get that added info directly on the command line).

The behaviour of rustup update <dated nightly version> is not to update the nightly toolchain install already on your system but to install a second toolchain (the help does make it clear that you are effectively just running rustup toolchain install when you provide a toolchain argument). So now I've got a second toolchain installed with the last dated good build I took from that tracking site, except it's a default install so those optional components that I needed and weren't available in last night's nightly? Those didn't automatically get added to my new toolchain install (and for my use, they are not optional - if I could live without them then I could just force the update and it would wipe over the old stuff with the partially working current nightly). So now I have to go through the process of requesting those components be added.

None of this is the end of the world. Many other toolchain ecosystems are no better (and some are worse) when it comes to updating. But there is clearly room for improvement here and this is one of those pain points where a new Rust dev who is not used to any of this may not even really understand what's going on (after someone told them nightly was totally fine and just install that). Either they can't update or, worse, they end up with a VSCode IDE that has no RLS (and no way to get a corresponding RLS as that part of the nightly build is broken right now) which means it's not behaving like they expect it to.

A typical dev who is asking to update their nightly build probably wants to get the latest nightly that has all the components working that they have installed. That seems like a safe default to assume, maybe with a Y/N prompt after the error message rather than silently updating (if we are to be cautious). Leaving them with a potentially weeks or months old nightly (where they're potentially behind stable - not that hard for sporadic Rust users with the 6 week cadence of new stable versions and reasons to prefer nightly) because last night's build didn't work (and no easy way to update without just starting to install a totally new toolchain from scratch) does not seem like a suitable behaviour.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Shooting into February 2019

There sure are a lot of AAA shooter titles landing this month. Many of them have had a very long and public development process with much of their team's (or even entire studio's) future being weighed on if they find success. Quite a few public betas have been going on, because almost everything (even the solo-able experience) is a multiplayer co-operative game today. And then EA went and made it even more of a month of riches by not only announcing Respawn's Battle Royale entry but also releasing it onto PCs and console the same day they announced it.

I'm actually going to start be rewinding into the final days of last month for the first game getting some quick commentary. Resident Evil 2 was a project that could have fallen apart extremely easily. Remaking a 21 year old title in a genre whose popularity has been up and down, bringing back most of the story beats and even design decisions while completely remaking the visuals and how the game controls (goodbye fixed cameras). And yet, what has arrived is both a great recollection of what has always worked for horror games along with enough new to feel modern and accessible. This should end up in classrooms as an example of how to refresh old games while retaining their identity.

The big title from EA, the one you'd actually expect them to make space for and not throw out an online competitive shooter merely weeks before launch, is Anthem. BioWare have been having a hard time recently, with various teams being given their branding and releasing things of questionable quality (and some extremely short deadlines seemingly responsible for those quality control issues - the way so many PC RPG studios have died before) but this is the big hope: a brand new IP that carves a living world around the upward swing to how shooting felt in the most recent Mass Effect games.

Unfortunately, if the demos are anything to go by, that shooting doesn't feel any more inspired here than it has done in those RPGs (where the narrative was the main point of playing). A light affair, lacking in feedback from the bullet sponge enemies or in terms of interface reactivity; I found almost nothing to keep me engaged in the combat scenarios (which seem to be stock wave-based exercises just as each of the weapons feels like well-worn archetypes). The visuals show off Frostbite but also leave you wondering how much world there is to explore, as does the lack of narrative content on display. It feels like this could easily be forgotten in a month, not even managing to equal something like a Destiny (2) in keeping players engaged through a diverse selection of skyboxes as the campaign story gave a reason to enjoy the excellent feeling shooting. That comparison feels like an area where Anthem could end up coming up short in every way.

And loading up EA's Origin right now, there is a much better feeling shooter they just released. Respawn's Apex Legends is doing just about enough new for Battle Royale games, while keeping it F2P to avoid there being a barrier to entry. It's great timing for anyone falling off Call of Duty's mode but unwilling to jump to the construction combat of the market leader. It's fun, bright, feels good to aim and shoot, and hopefully will slowly expand over time as long as the players continue to engage with it. That Titanfall heritage is clearly there, even without the wall-running mobility.

Jumping forward in time, The Division 2 is not releasing until March but that means the Ubisoft betas are all over this month. One of the things that the move to DC in the summer makes clear is that Manhattan under a ton of snow really made the last game. This has every sign of being more of the same, only with some slightly rearranged progression that better leads into an end-game situation (rather than keeping a treadmill for the campaign and falling off the end outside of PvP in the Dark Zones). I've found myself having a hard time going back three years later and the always-connected stuff will probably keep me away (as a server disconnect wipes out half an hour of progress and dumps my avatar at the entry lobby to a mission rather than saving any of the checkpoints I'd progressed through). There's just so much else I could be doing for putting up with stuff like this in 2019. One final aside: remember when Massive Entertainment were pulled off supporting that first game and put onto a James Cameron's Avatar project? I wonder if that went sideways because it sure feels like it's been a while.

Before The Division 2 comes out, Ubisoft are also throwing out Far Cry: New Dawn. I can't say that reskinning the Far Cry 5 map for a post apocalyptic cash-in is getting me in any way excited for even more Far Cry. Everything about the branding for this makes me think it'll be completely forgotten in a few months when Rage 2 comes out, even if that game doesn't turn out particularly well. I wonder who asked for this, or if it was just a pivot when Far Cry 5 didn't do that well for the team that was planning on making DLC.

Returning to games which have gone through extremely long and public development cycles, Crackdown 3 is coming soon. Yes, "cloud physics" multiplayer and all. My expectations are in the gutter at this point so time to wait for reviews on this one.

Finally for this compilation of thoughts, Metro Exodus is yet another shooter coming this month and everything they've put out about that more open world makes me think this'll be where I find something special this month. It's interesting that it's courted more controversy for the PC digital store it's on (Epic Store, after being pre-sold on Steam for a while - where it will apparently get distributed to those customers) than the contents of the actual game. As a solo game without a constant server connection, I'm not sure where you get it from really matters that much (as long as the CDN server continues to exist to serve the download files at high speed in the future). A more open game world with light survival elements and a lot of nods to HL2-style storytelling? I think I just accidentally described about half of this list of games to various degrees.

What a lot of shooters!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A New Console Generation

So I've engaged in mild speculation on new console specs in the past. We're getting to the point where there should be some new consoles coming. It lines up pretty well with (large chip) mass production 7nm in the coming year or two so everyone will be ready to offer powerful SoCs with high power efficiency for console enclosures. A 2020 release is 7 years on from the current high fidelity consoles - very normal for the console upgrade cadence. Even the half-generation updates would be getting on by the end of 2020: four years after the PS4 Pro was released.

Phil Spencer was at CES talking up their continuing partnership with AMD, which certainly sounds like an ongoing use of their IP (makes a lot of sense - AMD have all the IP under one roof and a track record; Jaguar cores are going to get a substantial update with a Zen derivative; and the MCP design AMD are working with could be a good match for a console that will live through at least a couple of die shrinks while uncertain about how much of a monolithic SoC would benefit from that). Vega (and even lower end Polaris) are not leading the power efficiency war but at this point everyone is experienced in making GCN work well and there are still a few bad memories around nVidia. Everyone hopes that the next Vega is going to bring that power efficiency to where nVidia are at on 12nm (if they can't when a generation ahead at 7nm and not wasting any transistors on speculative features, something will be going very wrong). There is also the deep in development Navi so even without turning it around next month, the future may be bright. The only wildcard would be Intel trying to sell their 2020 GPU design to Sony or MS (or even offering an AMD GPU: did not see that coming a year ago) - very long odds in my book but worth mentioning as Intel make a big move to compete on high end GPUs to avoid seeing server farms filled with expensive nVidia chips (getting a foot in the door with Tensor etc specialised silicon to expand their use cases). [Those with a long memory will remember that nVidia were paid by Intel to relinquish any claim to be able to provide x86 chips and so can't offer a complete package that would enable a rolling window of compatibility.]

I'm going to say that odds are good for something like a CCX cluster (4 Zen cores) or two with a pretty large Navi GPU block. What I'm curious about: what if the next Xbox is two new Xboxes? Rather than releasing one console then doing a major redesign when the power requirements are lower, what if there is a constant pair of consoles, like we have now. The next Xbox as a high end system with at least 8 Zen cores and a big Navi block. $500 at the end of 2020 with enough fast RAM to avoid the issues that plagued the original XB1 [forced to waste die space on extra cache to make up for slow RAM] and hopefully at least a PCI-E SSD cache (128GB? 256GB? Big SSD premium SKU?) to avoid the loading times getting even worse (even if most downloads and game installs would live on a large platter drive for cost reasons, even with NAND getting cheaper - 500GB is floating around $100 right now so maybe prices can drop to make an SSD-only next gen happen with support for archiving to external storage via USB).

But the XB1X isn't that old and isn't a terrible target for an entry-level spec for games going forward from 2020. There would probably be a way to make a reasonably good approximation of that system using a smaller Zen cluster and much smaller Navi block (cheaper/less RAM and no SSD cache). Something that would run existing games just like an XB1X, with minimal shims to catch edge cases (in the low level API calls). Something that would effectively be sold as both the cheap entry to the next generation and the "Slim" edition of the XB1X. Something to ensure developers continue to make sure their new games work for existing XB1X customers (with whatever compromises were required for performance) while dropping support for new games on the anaemic XB1/XB1S system. The fact that the XB1S isn't identical to the original XB1 shows that the ecosystem is already built around supporting two low end specs that are only approximately the same.

When the next high end Xbox is ready for a slim-down, it might be time to look at another step forward (an "XB2X") and which devices get guaranteed access to 100% of new releases going forward (and which platforms are something a developer could optionally support in a "cross-buy" style system). Have two or three models always "current" that cycle out every three to five years until they can no longer continue to offer the right shims to ensure compatibility with their API choices. It would certainly be something not totally out of step with the current MS talk of slowly expanding their cloud gaming offerings (on TVs, tablets, and laptops) and making games work anywhere (Windows PCs and Xbox devices). It's the realisation of much of the "what if more like annual tablet/phone updates" talk from about five years ago.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Games of the Year 2018

So in recent years I've been doing this based on games that released (1.0 versions) in a given year. But as we talk of living games and Early Access, there's a lot more going on that maybe makes this harder to do right. I'm going to generally try to keep to that broad concept - a list of new, complete games of that year that stood out to me - while maybe considering a lot of games that are for sale but didn't necessarily announce a 1.0 version number. The big addition is games that feel close to release and could be seen as the equivalent of many 1.0 titles that go on to get bigger via incremental patches.

The previous requirement to see a 1.0 number has led to some slightly weirdness. When considering RimWorld's 1.0 release in the later part of this year, I'm considering a game I mainly played (and even wrote about) almost two years ago. Maybe that would have made more sense to be considered last year or even in 2016. I haven't talked about Factorio much here but I've been enjoying that once more and it's getting close to that 0.17 release which is basically feature complete and lays the way for a 0.18 update in early 2019 that will be the official 1.0. That seems like a game that can be considered for this year's list. Slay the Spire is missing their expected 1.0 release window but it's been close to done since I first talked about it.

On the other side of the fence, Mashinky continues to see new development along a roadmap but is very much not done in the way those earlier games are. I think it's not up for this year's list despite having really enjoyed the game as it exists so far. There is a clear point in each playthrough where you reach the end of the line and find the "coming soon" notice - it's not just a game that will get deeper with patches, it feels like the core progression is still very much being built (as a normal part of Early Access). The final balance of the progression may well change significantly during polishing because we don't even know how a full run plays out yet. Rounding out the examples, Life is Strange 2 is in no way finished yet so will be considered for next year. While Half-Life 2 had 'Episodes' as standalone expansions, LiS is this more modern understanding of seasons that work as one cohesive package (released at a reasonable pace and purchased as a season bundle).

    Strategic 'Mech of the Year:


My first taste of BattleMechs made digital was the oft-forgotten Westwood RPG (back before they were known only as an RTS studio) BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception from 1988. Two years later the turn-based combat gave way to real-time tactics battles in the sequel, The Crescent Hawks' Revenge, and paved the way for Dune II and ultimately Command & Conquer. That universe became lore I absorbed over decades of various games as the original wargame designers built their own FASA Interactive team and then Microsoft acquired them (leading to a slow decline). But Jordan Weisman is back crowdfunding all his old IPs and showing there is value left in them (previously: the recent Shadowrun RPGs). So BattleMechs are back on the menu and it's time to go back to basics with a turn-based tactics RPG.

The individual skirmishes in BattleTech are just some of the most chewy tactical decisions around, with plenty of damage output and equally lots of armour that'll evaporate when you block that incoming fire. As I said when it came out, you can just play and play that layer but it's the arc of the strategic layer that really binds it all together and turns the grinder of each mission into a desperate search for the next contract between the story missions. Much of that has been further tweaked over time and several mods (and an official expansion) have really refined everything so you can get the challenge you demand to match the tone of the game. My view hasn't changed much since I wrote up that review (and the news the developer is now a Paradox subsidiary, so potentially a lot of piecemeal DLC is planned after this current season of expansions) and I expect to head back for even more in 2019 as they slowly expand the combat scenarios and develop the strategic layer with DLCs.

    Platformer of the Year:

Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

I'm not a huge platformer fan. They're fine but I started out on hardware that was never great at them - lack of hardware support for scrolling meant each screen was much more about what we now call (action-)adventure rather than the purity of smooth platforming. I've enjoyed myself some Sonic recently but since the industry move to 3D, I've not found much that really pushes me towards the purity of jumping (when I can get more from games that incorporate that into a larger genre as good traversal). But there's something about VR that really helps ground you and physically peering round for secrets and hidden locations is a delight that I'll probably not even start to tire of for a few more years. Collecting all the things while bashing the baddies in a kid-friendly environment is just more fun as we wait for VR to become capable of supporting bigger games (Homeworld: VR when?) where that's just one element (Assassin's Creed isn't scheduled to become a VR title soon with VR's limited play times to avoid simulator sickness).

While still constrained by the limited GPU of the PS4 (you're not getting nearly the anti-aliasing you need for great VR visuals), Astro Bot is a really clean looking game that oozes light charm and playfulness. The sound helps set that stage but it's little things like bumping the playable character with your controller as you both float in space between levels that is not just playful but helps fix you in the world. Oh, a glowing orb during the short loading screens? I bet I can bounce that with my controller... *orb bounces with a satisfying chime sound*. The game itself is pretty traditional for a platformer, with enough variety to keep it engaging for the eight odd hours it takes to play through it. Hit checkpoints, collect coins, rescue the other robots (who fly up and into the controller you're holding - VR is still somewhat magical when the tracking works perfectly so you see the controller exactly as you're holding it but with the freedom to render it however the game wants), figure out the puzzles and secrets. That rarely used touchpad on the DS4 gets a good workout (will be a shame if the PS5 comes out and cost-saves that out of existence). You already probably know what this is, it's a very good one of those and one of the best games to showcase VR (sorry Lucky's Tale, the bar has risen significantly).

    Tomb Raiding of the Year:

God of War

I love me some Tomb Raider. But as we come to the conclusion of the most recent trilogy with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I'm left feeling like the initial step forward in the reboot didn't find enough further progress and the narrative left me pining for 2013's ensemble cast (and what they might have done with developing those bonds). But this is a God of War sequel, why start talking Lara's recent escapades? Surprisingly enough, this is the sequel to that 2013 game I wanted: an action-adventure around a semi-open world; quite linear chapters with wide paths and a lot more open areas and reasons to return to collect items or complete side-quests in any order. The world feels more concrete and open (and is certainly less linear in how you approach the different quests) without sacrificing the crafted story and potential for an evolving environment (with some gating and areas that transform as the main plot changes, without making anything inaccessible). As we've seen Uncharted: The Lost Legacy start to poke at wider paths, Lara is starting to look outdated five years after popularising the transition (that avoids falling fully into the open worlds that feel like a different genre).

That's a lot of words about other games but it's important to understand this new God of War as being very much in a new lineage as well as being a sequel to the previous games in the series. The director having previously worked on the Tomb Raider reboot before taking on this project with a list of ideas that didn't make it there (like the camera that never cuts) is how to understand what is on offer here. The major genre-switch from those games being the primarily "stylish action" melee combat in place of ranged weapons or playing for stealth.

The story of family bonds, while leaning on a small mainly-male cast of often-stereotypes, is elevated by the performances and quality of rendering. Christopher Judge perfectly leads the VO cast in a game always ready to fill traversal with anecdotes (which have plenty of spaces to trail off and get continued later as you break for action) and then provide useful information during combat (where the close camera makes calling out attacks as vital as the danger indicator arrows). The core narrative feels like it's something much more reasonable (20 hours?) than what you're finding in open worlds this year (eg RDR2, AC:O) without there not being stuff worth doing if you've got 20-30 more hours you want to put into getting deep into the craftable equipment and ability upgrade trees or just hearing some more anecdotes and side stories while catching the amazing sights - Sony continuing to show how far devs can push their system. Huge areas of the game world are left for optional quest lines on top of a roguelike-like zone (reconfiguring dungeon with a poison mechanic that offers a poison resist gear progression to finally crack it with a run to the treasures at the core) and combat (challenge) arena zone.

I usually open my GotY post (or give the top picture slot) to the game that is my top game that year (everything else is not even trying to be ordered by preference) and this year I've flipped between this and BattleTech a few times. Ultimately, the performances here elevate a story that is too reliant on clichés (and women who are dead or wish to die - the small cast doesn't help allow a diversity of traits for any marginalised voice included) so despite being a gorgeous game I really enjoyed almost every moment with, it misses out on my top spot. But I really look forward to what comes from this team next and finding out if they course correct on some of the narrative stuff (or do a David Cage and double down on the issues with each iteration).

    Lumines of the Year:

Tetris Effect

Lumines was my most played PSP game. Designed to be something like Tetris (without access to that license) while mixing in the synaesthetic reactive music and visuals the team had worked on a few years earlier with Rez. Now that team is back with the actual license (after offering an update to Rez in VR two years ago) and it's Tetris like you've never seen before, as the surroundings explode around you in VR.

I had a GameBoy back around 1990 so I gave the original game some energy (but never experienced the Tetris effect with it, something I did experience with Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh and Columns around that time) and this takes that gameplay (with the few updates to the official formula now considered standard) to another level. Something about the expertly chosen music, sequenced to grow and adapt to the length of your session and button presses, and the visuals keep everything fresh. So does the decision to make the levels contain slower and faster drop speeds based on progression to a line-clear goal, giving the music slower and faster sections, rather than the constantly increasing speed of the classic game. Beyond the many Journey (campaign) levels that tie different visuals and music to the game, there is also plenty of challenges and leaderboards that ask you to focus on slightly different modifiers that can give you a more chilled experience or force you to deal with a single aspect of the game. Particularly, the Mystery challenge offers some extremely non-standard randomised elements that mix up the Tetris formula.

I'm sure it's great in 2D on a TV but to me the game is another that shows off what VR can do with low latency, making anything musical just perfectly timed and where a fully enclosed environment makes even a classic puzzle game swim around you and put you inside the virtual space.

    Management Sim of the Year:


How have I not written about this on here before? It's been a good year for builder games, often incorporating detailed pawn simulation in new ways. The bitter cold and series of bad or worse decisions in Frostpunk built an atmosphere and progression that mixed in a lot of how survival games can weigh you down, all with very impressive visuals (and patched in some additional scenarios beyond the initial campaign). Meanwhile, Surviving Mars randomised the tech tree and offered a range of event chains rather than a limited set of fixed scenarios to mix up each playthrough. And later in this list I'll get to RimWorld.

But Factorio has none of that pawn management; it's a builder with a single (controllable) protagonist who you inhabit while doing much of the construction stuff you'd normally do in a god game. You develop robot helpers in the later stages of each run to provide remote construction and management (usable via the map view that zooms into something that looks like the normal view in areas with radar coverage), at which point you can start playing it more like a builder. It's almost like the modded (huge) tech trees of Minecraft, except this retains the top-down view of classic management games. Ultimately, as I iteratively design these huge chains of machines that take in raw material and convert them to final products which can be used to fund more research or placed to expand the factory, it feels a lot like a more open ended version of the puzzles in many Zachtronics games like Infinifactory.

Always, I keep an eye on the power use of everything, watching the pollution which will waft out and enrage the warrens of hostile creatures that live on the planet I've crashed on. My playstyle leans on efficiency and relatively green operations (while still fundamentally mining out the local resources), unlike the really expansive players who ramp up and consume the world with their endless smog and high power factories. You can dump hour after hour into tweaking designs and working out exactly how best to feed various intermediate stages in the factory process here, which is where I feel it sits next to a Zachtronics game (almost offering a way to gamify circuit layout or similar tasks without overlapping with existing programming-style games around that theme - it's all conveyors, loading arms, basic detectors, circuit conditions, and very simple logic here). It's almost at version 1.0 with a load of great mods (and a simple interface to enable them) and a final rebalancing and polishing pass currently underway so now is a great time to jump into a game that's been in Early Access for years.

    Mouse of the Year:


Sometimes you just want to listen to a story of a mouse as you play though some action-adventure dioramas that VR allows to look perfectly scaled, allowing you to understand the tiny world you're looking into. Weirdly, this wasn't the only mouse game that arrived earlier in the year; Ghost of a Tale was far more of a full (if unexceptional) RPG but lacked the way VR allows you to really feel the scale of everything. This second VR game on the list (also somewhat of a platformer) is also exuding charm but in a completely different way to Astro Bot. The cuteness is strong here and the mix of direct controller controls and reaching into the scene continues a theme this year or games getting more confident with the additional inputs VR offers while staying with a sitting-down, controller-led experience.

    Runaway Card Combo of the Year:

Slay the Spire

This year Valve brought in MtG creator Richard Garfield to design their new digital card game (that is unfortunately pay to play on top of an initial price tag) and Magic: the Gathering itself got a new digital version with MtG: Arena that more closely mirrors the online play rewarding booster packs used to great effect in Hearthstone (moving away from the buy and trade model used by Artifact and MtG: Online). But the digital card game I really enjoyed this year isn't about buying boosters, it's the purity of roguelike-like deckbuilding. When Slay the Spire left its small beta and arrived on Steam Early Access, I mentioned how complete it already felt. Back then the plan was to call it 1.0 later in the Summer but they decided that 52 weekly patches was what it needed before calling it gold so that means the final release is now imminent.

I didn't spend the entire year going back to slowly refine my card preference and climb up the Ascension ladder (unlocked difficulty modifiers) but I've had a good time with this and been back to enjoy some daily challenges. It's exactly the sort of solid design that means you can dive in and spend a few dozen hours and feel satisfied, not the eternal treadmill of new seasons and boosters (and corresponding demand for more money). That said, now it is almost released, we are hopefully going to see some expansions that add a new character and cards at some point - a good excuse to dive back in once more.

    Pawn (Sim) of the Year:


The current generation of Dwarf Fortress inspired games have managed to move away from being far shallower clones and into the territory of actually offering something different. RimWorld is probably the most popular and it finally fully released this year, quite a different beast from the very early version that just looked like a Prison Architect asset rip.

Crashing onto an inhabited planet, a bunch of pawns who all have their own wants and needs must be wrangled into actually doing the important task of living and building up a colony that can survive raider attacks, wild creatures, and natural disasters all while the seasons turn and friendly factions offer trade (and the opportunity to kidnap new members if you can woo them sufficiently). What if The Sims except occasionally a bunch of marauders turn up and you go into a direct-control battle mode? Oh, and less time spent dictating hobbies and more time making sure there are enough crops harvested and refrigerated before winter or actually constructing the items the commune needs from raw resources all based on skill levels of each pawn. Some of the rougher edges and design decisions around pawn psychology have been tweaked via the vibrant mod community and as the game has developed further towards 1.0 (hitting a few moths ago) then a lot of the older usability mods have become core features in the base game. Today, it's a huge story generator without the learning curve cliff that Dwarf Fortress is best known for.

    Oscar for Just Falling Short Every Time:

Forza Horizon 4

My view of the original Forza Horizon has slightly improved with time (especially as the expansions were fun and the micro-transactions that I cited against it have now infected all of AAA). But my fear of it becoming a semi-annual franchise that fails to evolve sufficiently has really cursed the entire Forza franchise (the main series still finds Forza Motorsport 4 as a pinnacle of design, features, and progression that later games have repeatedly missed). It's a series I keep on not quite giving a space on these lists.

In a year where Need for Speed is totally absent without it being a loss (after repeated failed attempts to release something meaty recently) and The Crew 2 arrived as a step back rather than a confident second title (diversifying vehicles while failing to capture the fun of the dynamic challenges that helped cruising round Weird USA in the first game or even retaining the online racing or bad F&F knock-off story elements). So it's time to evaluate the Horizon spin-off series within the crumbling ruins of open city/world driving games.

Horizon games are still good driving, and that means they're by far the best out there now. A new landscape every two years; enough stuff to dump hour after hour into, becoming familiar with every bend; and some nice tech updates each time (running ahead of the 60fps main series while coming to PC has - sometimes imperfectly - enabled 60 with those shiny new dynamics). This year the new tech involved repainting the landscape for each season, on top of the previous dynamic weather and time of day updates. Unfortunately the weight of all these iterations feels like it has almost crushed the core game, now lacking any sense of progression (outside the carefully paced tutorial hours) as everything rests on the roulette wheel of unlocks and endless treadmills of unlocking events that adapt to whatever vehicle you happen to have unlocked and bring along.

Everything adapts. So nothing ever gets harder or feels like a better vehicle would make easier. Whatever you drive up in will work, unless you pick a road car for an off-road challenge. The slight wrinkle here is winter and how that makes a few more cars unsuitable for the slippery conditions. It also means all of the small challenges dotted around the map (which all share a single leaderboard that doesn't account for the seasonal conditions) become pointless as you wait for summer to actually beat your friends. It feels like a live game (the season cycle weekly based on server time and come with "new" events that are actually just recycled existing events with a new marker over them) and the hourly challenges give a reason to meet up with other actual players and all contribute to some shared goals but it quickly runs out of new challenges to share (many of them are already just the existing small changes with a new communal total every individual attempt adds onto so it's repetition not high-score chasing as a group activity).

The lack of a feeling of real progression extends to every event, which are in the classic categories and almost too numerous to count. They all bring up a list of "balanced" opponents (the algorithm used feels like it needs some tweaking as I've noticed the same buggy selections that infested Forza Motorsport 7 last year) based on whatever you care to drive from your roulette wheel of winnings (gone is selling cars back to the garage so you can't even make some money on a car you don't want unless you're prepared to spend hours on the Auction House selling it to another real player and undercutting anyone else trying to offload yet another car they don't care about because it's all random). You don't even have to try and win an event or push down the assists as the small extra credit bonus for less assists doesn't really matter (when looking at $15m player housing with bonus effect) and not even the map tracks when you actually won anything. It's a mess of inconsistent iconography where only the small map challenges even denote stars for doing more than just finishing something in any time.

And this is the best we have right now, by quite some margin. Hopefully the console generation transition (and being a now wholly owned studio inside the Microsoft beast) will give Playground the impetus and security to try and do more than iterate because if Forza Horizon 5 doesn't radically change the formula, it might be time to put a fork in the open world driving genre. We can all go back to playing remasters of the ten year old Burnout Paradise.

    2017 overflowed with so many games that I missed a lot of 2018, these are all pending:
Exapunks, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, Marvel's Spider-Man, Hitman 2 (not Silent Assassin), Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (Xena Simulator), Vampyr, Paratopic, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, Into the Breach, Red Dead Redemption 2, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, Artifact, Valkyria Chronicles 4, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Phantom Doctrine, Frozen Synapse 2, Ashen, & Ni no Kuni II.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

µNote: Respecting the Player's Time

MicroNotes are something new I'm going to try (possibly through 2019). Rather than aiming for a long post once a month, which I am prone to kill (if it doesn't come together or looks slight after poking at a draft), I'm going to post some shorter writing here. I've been writing some thoughts elsewhere for a while and so might go back and put some of those posts here (and even go through my old drafts that I never fully shelved). This should also give room for smaller coding & rendering thoughts (that are bigger than fit on Mastodon or Twitter) to actually get posted here.

I have always found "respecting the player's time" to be a useful lens through which to consider game design. What needs to be here; what do I think makes a positive contribution to the core arc; just how much of a structure can be made optional and how do we signpost it so players can best dive into only the content they want? Extracting the most from the interactive nature of games means building structures that react to each player and customises how they experience a game, attempting to give the best progression to the most people we can reach (and even respecting that some players will not enjoy what we are making and should not be strung along). The thing is, this phrasing has become extremely common in games criticism, to the point of dilution.

“I don’t like this game as I feel like it is not respecting my time (and here are 6 paragraphs on exactly how)” is commentary on where I feel a game does not align with how I value the different activities it offers and what it considers core vs optional - I can’t fast travel in a game where I don’t agree with a design decision to make it more immersive and exploratory by not having those systems; I can’t sample just the narrative content I find engaging and think that the game should flag more content (as optional, as less important) that I don’t find core to the experience; I see mountains of “content” without enough signposts to let me understand it and a progression through it and am simply overwhelmed in a way I do not think benefits the game or possibly even was the design intent.

“This is one of those doesn’t-respect-your-time games” generalises specific criticisms about various systems vs a personal view of what it could be into almost a genre - the too-long game. It flattens a meaningful discussion from which the speaker can make clear what their values are and so why a game doesn’t align with them (valuable information a reader can compare to their own values) into basically nothingness. It’s a topic where you need to be detailed because otherwise you’re basically just repeating the ancient “game long so good value” vs “game long so necessarily boring” war.

To some Assassin's Creed Odyssey provides the latitude to inhabit Kassandra’s life and soak in the world, to others the content is a slog and they’d much rather a far shorter core experience that the game does not appear to offer. Respect-your-time is extremely respect-your-time and the forming of critical consensus around a game will always flatten that even if the critics who voice their views are individually detailed in their analysis.

Every player is different and ideally games would all have a certain level of give to help accommodate as many people as possible but we’re not yet at that point. I’m also not sure the tools for signposting & flagging are sufficiently developed to be universally readable by the audience even when we add them. As we pick through the big lessons of the last decade or so of game design advances, the big open worlds and structures for repeatable content that span genres and platforms, this is hopefully something that will develop.