Okay, let’s try this once more…

Yet Another Site Redesign. I’m keeping the title, I like it. But the CityDesk version of this site is gone; I got sucked into trying CityDesk because of my respect for Joel Spolsky, one of its creators. What I didn’t know is that CityDesk doesn’t handle updating a site from multiple locations (ie, work and home) well. So I could write from work or home, but not both. Sorry, not good enough.

So I’m back to the original format, with frames. Sorry about that, but it’s that or no site. Aren’t you glad I chose frames instead?

Most of the site is still inaccessible, unfortunately. I’m going through and asking every page to justify its existence; those that cannot won’t be back. (The Cheesehead should be the first thing that returns).

Doom III Vs. Half-Life II

I’ve now watched every publicly available movie for Doom III and Half-Life II. And I think that the real difference between the two is that Doom III wants things to look good and Half-Life II wants things to act right. Half-Life II’s industrial-strength physics engine allows for new and interesting gameplay elements; Doom III’s unified lighting code and self-shadowing doesn’t.

Before you flame me, remember that this site is about pushing the envelope of game design. Half-Life II does; Doom III deliberately doesn’t. Doom III is about classic, rock-solid gameplay and showing off Carmack’s spanking new everything-gets-sixteen-texture-passes engine.

Now, is Doom III going to be a hit? Absolutely. It’s going to be huge. And it will be a good game, and I will be buying a copy. But it’s not going to do anything new gameplay-wise.

Watched a video on Gamasutra (that’s a recurring theme, eh?) from this year’s GDC. It was of Jason Rubin of Naughty Dog, one of my favorite people from one of my favorite companies. He talked about how much time they had spent on improving their engine for Jak & Daxter 2. He said that during that time he’d had an epiphany…nothing he was doing was necessary to the making of Jak & Daxter 2. They could have done Jak 2 with the Jak 1 engine and it wouldn’t have looked as good, but it would play just the same. Nobody is going to care that Daxter now has an environment map on his eye that reflects his surroundings – on a standard television you won’t even be able to see it!

He continued to ponder and came to the conclusion that graphics is quickly becoming a dead-end. You can only make so many texture passes and add so many polygons before you reach diminishing returns and the player can’t tell the difference. Not only that, but the increased poly counts of the characters on Jak 2 meant they were taking a lot longer to model, skin, rig and animate than the ones for Jak 1, which meant the game would take longer to make, which meant it would be more expensive, which meant it would have to sell better, which meant it needed something to grab players and bring them in – and that graphics weren’t going to do the trick any more.

Naughty Dog has never been known for their innovative gameplay. Jason stated up front that Naughty Dog’s “mission statement” had always been to design games with very familiar, classic gameplay ideas and simply make them look better than anyone else’s.

And Jason concluded that this wasn’t going to cut it any more. He concluded that Naughty Dog will have to start innovating from a gameplay standpoint in order to stay competitive. And he honestly stated that the idea scared him to death – he had deliberately shied away from innovation for almost his entire career.

I think Jason came to the correct conclusion. I think this is the last “generation” of games where incredible graphics will be able to sell a title (and of course, id is also playing off its own huge reputation with gamers). Very soon excellent visuals will simply be par for the course and gamers will start asking “What else you got?”

Needless to say, id should be far more worried than Jason. After all, he did co-author “Dream Zone”.

The PSP

Sony’s making a handheld that is capable of 3D and uses 1.8-gig minidisks as its medium. Sounds great, but I’m interested in what the actual size of the screen is. 3D actually needs a larger viewport than 2D to get the same information across, so if the screen is too small, the 3D aspects of the device probably won’t be used to a great extent. Of course, it will be nice to finally get some MP3-quality audio on a handheld console. I just hope I can get a copy of Street Fighter Alpha 3 for it.

Rise of Nations

Played the Rise of Nations demo today. I’ve had my eye on this game, since it’s by Brian Reynolds, one of my Favorite People. A game that combines Civilization-style technology research and diplomacy with Age of Empires-style overall gameplay could be delicious, like strawberry syrup on cheesecake. Unfortunately, the game plays more like filet mignon on cheesecake. The two “halves” of the game aren’t as integrated as I’d like – the “Civ” half runs much slower than the “Age” half.

E3

E3 starts today. (Well, technically, the expo starts tomorrow, but everybody who cares is already there.) There are three things I want out of E3:

1. More info about Deus Ex 2.
2. More info about Thief III.
3. An announcement of Shenmue III. If Sega can give Yu-san just one more game, he can wrap up the storyline. I want to put the beat down on Lan Di, dammit!

Yu Suzuki

Watched Gamasutra’s newest classic video yesterday. It’s of Yu Suzuki’s 2000 GDC keynote. The video is of the president of Sega of America “interviewing” Mr. Suzuki, though he really just sets things up so Yu can show off his game. “What’s this I hear about 300 characters? What about the fighting system? What is Magic Weather?” To which Yu consistently replies, “I have a video that explains that…”

Not that it was a bad video – not at all, I’m glad I watched it. I just remember those young, heady times – Shenmue was going to change everything. Only it didn’t. And the reason it didn’t is because the game cost too much and took too long to make. While there were some automated systems in the game (such as automated lipsynching) and a fair amount of motion capture, the actual models, textures, and level geometry were all done by hand. And that took about five years. Suzuki himself mentioned that by the time the game was done, his team had grown to over 300 people, and a third of those were Sega employees who were presumably permanently employed. You can’t make a profitable game by paying a hundred people for five years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Shenmue had the same debilitating effect on Sega that Wing Commander 4 did on Origin Systems.

This is why Warren Spector recently called for the development of tools that could create randomized but realistic level geometry – a tough problem to solve, given how well the human eye picks out patterns and incorrect details. But if such a problem could be solved, games as rich and deep as Shenmue could be made in a much shorter time and with a much smaller team – meaning they could be profitable. Everyone would win – both developers and players.

The other interesting thing about the video was that when Yu Suzuki got back from his inspiration trip to China, the first thing he did – before any models or even sketches were made, before any script was written, before anything else – was to commission musical pieces for Shenmue, so that all the developers could listen to them for inspiration as they worked.

This really caught my attention because on the Spirited Away DVD (which you should go out and buy right now) the “making of” special mentions that Hayao Miyazaki listened to “Always With Me” over and over again during the making of the movie. This song had been created by a musician and lyricist team that had been inspired by Princess Mononoke, and they sent him the song hoping he could use it for one of his movies. He listened to it constantly for inspiration during the making of “Spirited Away” and it eventually became the theme of the movie.

Mike McShaffry once wrote an article for the IGDA called “There and Back Again” (which has since fallen off the web, or I’d link to it). In this article he compared game development to trying to roll a very large rock down a very steep hill to hit a very small target. So of course you want to aim well and push hard at the beginning, because you won’t have much of a chance to affect the rock’s course once it gets momentum. Perhaps having musical themes prepared beforehand could help keep the “rock” on course while it rolls – there’s no doubt that both the Shenmue themes and “Always With Me” are very specific in the images they conjur up.