Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Open up your world and expectations will follow

It’s been some time since Mafia 2 has been released (end of august) and I absolutely loved it. But being a regular reader of various game blogs and EDGE magazine I was confronted with a variety of reviews that where disappointing.

Before I go any further let me make it clear, in no way are reviews affecting my own opinions about games. In most cases I’ll be able to pick up on some games that passed my radar unnoticed or inform me on some extra background information and mechanics that I hadn’t picked up on before.

Sometimes I agree, sometimes I strongly disagree. For example, EDGE lost some credibility with me when they rated Bayonetta a 10 out of 10. This, as far as I can remember, was the first time since I started reading it 2 years ago. There were some absolutely great games released in the past years that all scored lower. I’m not saying Bayonetta is a bad game but it’s certainly not the best game released in the past 2 years! The review score gave me the impression the reviewer just had a massive nerdgasm looking at the protagonist (some special attacks make her clothes come off.. really..). Anyway, I take the reviews with a grain of salt and will always try to get some time with the game before I form my opinion on it.

Coming back to my starting point about the Mafia 2 reviews, sometimes it’s not so much the final score that feels off but the actual words in the review leading up to it. With a metacritic score of 74 (out of 100) for the Xbox, 77 for the PC and 75 for the PS3 the scores seem pretty solid but in reading the actual reviews and user comments on various blogs and sites there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what Mafia 2 is trying to do as a game.

Mafia 2 is an “open-world” game, one without artificial barriers in which the player is allowed to walk around free. The open-world in this case refers to Empire bay, the city in which main protagonist Vito Scaletta’s story is played out. There’s an important difference between the term open-world and sandbox. Both are often used interchangeably but are not the same thing. Although sandbox games are also most of the times open-world, open-world games aren’t always sandbox games.

The term sandbox refers to the gameplay options and possibilities offered to a player in an open-world game. It’s best comparable with a real sandbox filled with lots of options for the children to play with eg. scoops, buckets etc. The amount of options allows the player to play around with them and to do whatever they feel like. Probably the best known sandbox games are the GTA series which are filled with a lot of diverse, fun and crazy stuff the player can do.

And it’s at this point people are starting to get confused. They confuse a game like Mafia 2 with games like GTA. In all fairness Mafia 2 has a lot less options in its open-world and because of this it has been said the world is useless, empty, boring and what not. One of the things that made Mafia 2 very enjoyable to me seems to be putting others off. So what is the added value of the open-world that is Empire Bay?

It does not have the added gameplay options of a sandbox game but to me it offers a strong feeling of immersion into the time period, the world; and with that, the story of Vito. It does a great job of making you experience the story instead of simply telling you the story.

If you look at a game like Uncharted (which I absolutely love) I think Mafia 2 has some things in common. Even if uncharted doesn’t have an open world but does have a tighter path and narrative structure, story wise it takes the player on a rollercoaster ride filled with cinematic action comparable with the best action/adventure movies out there. One could say Mafia 2 does the same thing; it delivers the experience of being in a mafia movie. So why doesn’t it follow the same straight level structure as Uncharted?

The pacing and tempo of a mafia story is very different from an action packed action/adventure. It makes use of the charm of the time-period. Of the wise-guy dialog.
And a lot of the tension in the movies is in the parts where no shooting is even involved. Mafia has an open world which gives you the option to role play in the most basic form; playing the role of a mob member in a living world. Change into a different suit, eat a sandwich and drive around listening to the radio. It doesn’t motivate player actions that are incongruent with the story being told. In fact the feeling of freedom further pulls the player into the world and Empire Bay, following one of the basic principles of writing for crime stories in which the city is just as important a character as the living cast members.

The player actions mentioned earlier also have gameplay benefits; changing clothes will make it harder for the police to spot you, eating a sandwich will restore health and listening to the radio will give the player more information about the city and the gameworld, even reflect on some of the player’s recent actions. These elements further expand the player options beyond jump, run, climb, punch and shoot. These options also expand the role playing element of the game and allow you to stay in the character of Vito Scaletta.

Because Mafia 2 offers an open world a lot of players expected extra side-missions and although there are some options for making an extra buck and pimping out your rides. It sticks closely to the story it wants to tell. That of a well written, although filled with cliché, mafia story. And to be honest, the cliché doesn’t bother me at all. Looking back at some of my favorite mafia flicks it’s exactly those things I want and expect to experience when playing a game like Mafia. What would happen to the delivery of Mafia’s story would it have been a real GTA style game?

Personally I think GTA’s story impact is strongest when the player ignores a lot of the side options and follows the main missions. While all the extra stuff available is a lot of fun, it does not add anything to the story of the game and even creates a gap between the main character as portrayed in the main story and the character acted out by the player.

So one could ask; If you want to tell a very specific story and make the player feel like he’s part of a big mafia flick. What’s the added value of extra side missions if they will only break the pacing of the story being told and allow for player actions that would go against the character of Vito Scaletta?

The game reminds you that you should behave in public, enforcing the style of play through the world around you. For example: Joe comments on your reckless driving. Acting like a homicidal maniac around town is not really what being a mobster is about, petty theft and crimes against the public are below your standards; your business is not with them.

The game doesn’t go as far as prohibiting these kinds of actions but there are no rewards or benefits for killing civilians. (Although I must admit punishing some AI driver, who just drove into my freshly painted and tuned car, with death felt really good at that moment). While in GTA4 killing a civilian will provide money or even the occasional weapon or ammo.

I’m not saying one game is better than the other for it because both games are unique in their own way. Therefore I think comparing the two any further would be useless. Both games tell a story and both choose a different path to do so. Both offer a different game experience. So in the end it comes down to personal preference and you are free to pick what you want.

In the DLC package called Jimmy’s Vendetta the player is given a free roaming/sandbox experience playing as Jimmy. Players are rewarded points in an arcade style of play for driving fast, pulling stunts while driving and killing people. It further expands the options for fun to be had in Empire Bay, making it a more well-rounded experience. Whether 2K had this planned all along or succumbed to the responses and reviews I don’t know. I think keeping these two experiences separate was the best choice they could have made. I’m all for expanding the gameplay options but I’m very happy they left the experience of Vito’s story untouched.

Mafia 2 (Jimmy’s Vendetta excluded) offers not a sandbox to play in but an open world to experience. Even though it doesn’t provide with all the extra toys given in a game like GTA, to say it’s just empty would be shortsighted. It feels more alive than ever and the best part is; it stays in character.

Friday, 5 November 2010

1st Place in the Eat3D Old & Damaged Contest!

While the next real article for this blog is almost finished, I would like to share an update with everybody.

I recently competed in a 3D contest hosted by Eat3D and won 1st place!
For those of you unfamiliar with Eat3D, they make great tutorials about things like sculpting, modeling, texturing and working in UDK so check it out!

The contest asked us to create a game asset that is “Old & Damaged” with a budget of 2.000 triangles and a maximum texture resolution of 2048x2048. Because of other tasks, I only had time in the last two weeks of the competition and instantly going into crunch I worked my ass off to give it my best. The end result is displayed in the picture below.

eat3d contest beauty shot
EAT3D Contest Entry
When working on my model I tried to add little story elements and show how the pillar was build up and how it got to the point it looks now. The things I kept in the back of my mind while working on the model are some of the things I was planning to talk about in upcoming articles so keep your eye on this space. It’s great to see in the feedback that the judges picked up on these things:

“The damage is believable, tells a rich story of what this column has experienced in its lifetime, and really has a strong sense of materials it's constructed from.

The damage and age on this piece doesn't seem arbitrary as in other pieces. Every ding and dent seems to "fit" and have a reason for being there. Specifically, the bumped section of bricks at the top, that subsequently pushed the drainpipe out of its channel. Expertly done here.

The color choices on this piece are something I'd like to call attention to. They are subtle, finely contrasting, and well matched to themselves. On the whole, I think this piece is the best of the finalists.”

The contest has been a great experience and I think there were a lot of awesome entries, you can check them out here.

The next article should be up soon so check back soon!

Monday, 11 October 2010

nDo normalmapping tool, check it out!

While I'm still working on new entries for this blog I would like to share a new tool with you all for creating normalmaps in Photoshop.

Fellow artist Ron Kamphuis pointed me to a recently released tool created by Teddy Bergsman called nDo.
It's a set of scripts and actions that can be used in Photoshop to create normalmaps, it also allows you to easily convert shapes and brushwork to normal information without ever leaving Photoshop. After playing around with it for a bit I can see this is going to be a great addition to the existing tools out there and a big time saver in normalmap creation workflows.

Just head over to the nDo website to download the tool. To get you started Philip Klevestav made some great tutorials on how to set this up in Photoshop and how to use the tool.

So, thank you Ron for the heads-up, thank you Teddy for this great tool and thank you Philip for getting me started with it! This rocks!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Kicking it off in 3D!

Ok so here it is, the first piece on “A Love Of Game Worlds”. This piece will not be about game worlds specifically but about experiencing them in stereoscopic 3D and my recent attempt to create this effect in the Unreal Development Kit.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the added value of stereoscopic 3D in games. My first encounter with this gimmick was at last year’s Gamescom when I stood in line for almost an hour to see the Avatar game in 3D. I’m calling it a gimmick on purpose because that’s the way I felt walking away after the presentation; slightly disappointed.

The Avatar demo didn’t convince me to upgrade to a new 3D-TV set nor to invest in a 3D set-up for my PC (e.g. Nvidia card+glasses+120 Hz monitor = $$$). With a weak first impression and considerable costs for an upgrade, I came to the conclusion I would not get into the 3d stuff in the foreseeable future. A year has passed and 3D has become more hot-topic than ever. Sony is making a push with its 3D enabled TV-sets and backing it up with considerable game content (Killzone 3 for example) while Nintendo is offering the chance to experience the world of 3D without glasses on the Nintendo 3DS. Even the people over at Crytek saw the added value of supporting 3D on their upcoming Crysis 2. Returning to GDC Europe and Gamescom this year I was ready to give this 3D business another try and I am glad I did!

At Gamescom this year I was able to try some of the games in 3D (sadly no Killzone 3 or 3DS) and what I experienced has come a long way since last year’s Avatar demo. At GDC the tech people from Crytek gave an interesting talk about how they achieved the 3D effect in Crysis 2 and after I returned from Cologne I was ready for some 3D in my own living room.

Because I still think dedicated 3D systems are a bit pricey I decided to see if I could make my own 3D effect in UDK. I always like doing some research and figuring out new techniques and the effect would be a nice added bonus to any game I’d make in the future using UDK. The Unreal Development Kit has recently been 3D enabled but in order to use the 3d settings a user would still require an Nvidia set-up for his pc. I wanted to make something everybody could use without spending a lot of money by using common Red/Cyan anaglyph glasses.

Red/Cyan glasses have been around since the 50's and I guess almost everybody has looked at pop-up images or stereoscopic photos at some point in their lives. The red and cyan filters allow viewers to see a slightly different image with each eye thus creating a 3D effect of added depth or things popping out of the image. Stereoscopic photos are being made by using two cameras and combining the two images in a program like Photoshop or a dedicated tool. In a real-time game environment where you’re being shown an average of 30+ images a second there’s no time to use external programs to create the effect. So I had to create the filter in the Unreal Engine as a postproces effect. Here are some screenshots of the first version of the effect with and without 3d enabled. Get your 3D glasses ready. (click on the images for a larger version)

without 3d filter
Without 3D filter

with 3d filter
With 3D filter

It works by taking the rendered frame and offsetting the color channels along the horizontal axis. The amount of offset is determined by the depth of the objects in the frame. It’s not perfect yet and I’ll keep playing with the effect to see if I can further improve the results. I will post the shader set-up somewhere in the future along with a video of the effect during gameplay. In the meanwhile here are some more on/off images.

without 3d filter
Without 3D filter

with 3d filter
With 3D filter

without 3d filter
Without 3D filter

with 3d filter
With 3D filter

Of course using Red/Cyan glasses has its limitations and the results will not be as powerful as the more advanced 3D options available like the active glasses. For one, the available color space is more limited because using too much red or tints of blue could break the effect. Also, wearing two colored filters over your eyes will change your perception of the colors on screen and might break the mood intended by the artists who created it.

As for my skepticism on the 3D in games? I think technology is rapidly improving and we are slowly moveing past the stage where the 3D feels like a gimmick. By the time the hardware is affordable enough for the mainstream to switch over, Game Developers will have enough experience to get the most out of it and add considerable value to our playing experience. For now I’ll keep to my Red/Cyan glasses, occasional 3D movie in the theaters and replaying some of my favorite titles on the HD-TV I recently bought.

SIDENOTE: For those of you who would like to experience some 3D action on your pc without spending a whole lot of money I stumbled across a display driver that allows you to play your games in anaglyph 3D (various colours). I also found an internet retailer who supplies all sorts of 3D glasses; some even with a decent look.
I’ve tested the display driver on several games and it worked pretty well, enjoy.