A Note To All Budding Direct3D Programmers…

There will come a time when you will need to change a vertex buffer every frame, either to animate something or to do clipping.

You will think, “Well, I could create the vertex buffer at the maximum possible size and then just write data to it every frame, but that would waste memory. It’ll be so much better if I actually delete the old buffer, create a new buffer at the correct size, and then fill it with the new data every frame instead.”

Do not (repeat not) do this, because it causes some video cards to go “Oh, hey, what’r you – wait, I need that – no don’t – AGH I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!” and crash.

Instead, just create the vertex buffer once at the largest possible size, and then simply write new data to it every frame. Yes, you will waste a little memory, but everybody will be much happier.

I wasted two weeks on that bug. Sigh…

On a happier note, remember Cybermage? That awful, awful game from Origin that I used as a Name That Game! a few weeks back? Well, have I got a present for you.

See, you may ask yourself when you play old games, “Why does the voice acting suck so badly?” Well, it’s because the developers couldn’t hire professionals, so they had to make do with whoever they could find. And while the people they used may not have been impressive, the alternative was something like this.

And yes, I have been assured by an old friend at Origin that the guy giving that take wasn’t joking. He was dead serious. He really thought that performance might get him the part of Necrom. This friend told me that the guy was a bodybuilder and actually did a set of squats inside the recording studio to “get himself ready”.

Obviously he should have done one or two more.

Name That Game 23!

And we’ve got a new game!

That's got to be that game based on the movie of that book.

This game was good. You can tell from the style that it’s an early graphic adventure, though I won’t give any hints by telling you who published it. But like most graphic adventures of its day it was quite hard but very rewarding. It spawned an excellent sequel which in turn spawned an abysmal final chapter.

Name and developer, please! If you’re the first to get it right, I’ll totally share my muffin with you. Split it right down the middle. And it’s butter rum!

Amber

A friend of mine on the GameDevelopers IRC channel (#gamedevelopers on irc.starchat.net) watched my video blog about Powermonger and pointed out that Powermonger, like Populous before it, was a real-time strategy game, and wondered why it wasn’t recognized as such in articles about the history of RTS games.

Well, because if you presented these games to modern gamers as RTS games they wouldn’t recognize them as such. Because of amber.

In the early days of game design, practically every game was an experiment. Designers would stalk off into radically new directions using newly developed technologies in an attempt to make something truly unique and thus successful.

The problem is that when a developer really hits on a good permutation of a play style it tends to fix that play style in amber, like the mosquitos in Jurassic Park. It “defines the genre”, and thus games that don’t follow the convention don’t count as being in that genre any more.

Thus, in order for a game to be an RTS, it needs resource gathering, base building, and individual unit control. Doesn’t have all these? It’s not an RTS, even if it’s a strategy game that is played in real-time. Seriously, I ran into people online who claimed that Myth and Myth II weren’t RTS games because they didn’t have resource gathering and base building. “They’re strategy games, and they’re played in real-time, but they aren’t really RTS games,” went the refrain.

I once read an article on Salon where a guy bitched about how Ultima Underworld was the first true 3D game and if it had just been marketed more aggressively and more people had played it, first person games would have been slow and cerebral from then on and we wouldn’t have gone down the run-and-gun path of Doom and Quake. I guess he felt that once Quake was released no one ever did a first-person game that wasn’t a straight shooter ever again (well, except for Underworld 2, System Shock, Elder Scrolls: Arena, Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, Thief 1 and 2, Arx Fatalis, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Morrowind, Oblivion…)

Now, he was an idiot, but the succession of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake really did solidify what it meant to be a first-person game in most gamers’ minds – first-person is for shooting. Games that were first-person but didn’t do shooting tended to feel like odd men out, and sometimes it caused them to suffer in the sales department. It didn’t help that most first-person games that weren’t shooters had terribly obtuse control systems.

But that isn’t unnatural or even unwelcome. It just is. It’s just amber.

Now, I will admit that it may be getting to a fairly ridiculous point. I mean, what am I going to tell people when they ask what kind of game Planitia is? I can’t call it an RTS because that will create a false impression in their minds. I can call it a strategy game, but that word covers everything from Final Fantasy Tactics to Civilization IV so it’s not descriptive enough. If I were going to sell Planitia it would be hard because it would be difficult to market – I can’t describe it accurately enough and fast enough to get a random internet surfer interested in it.

Good thing I don’t plan to sell it 馃檪

Planitia Design Pass: The Final Chapter

In this post I said that Planitia was basically going to be a remake of Populous II.

The problem is that Populous II doesn’t really need a remake. Populous II still rocks. It’s still just as fun now as it was then (and runs well under DOSBox, for those of you interested in trying it out). Yes it does have some minor interface quibbles and yes it’s annoying when you start a new land to discover that your best school of god powers has been banned, but those don’t actually prevent the game from still rocking.

(And I know some people out there are saying, “Minor interface quibbles! The interface on Populous II was just as bad as the one on Populous!” Well, that means that you never hit F7 while playing the game, which changes the interface from this:

Populous: The Beginning

To this:

Populous: The Beginning

Nice, huh? It looks and feels very modern and is much easier to use than the default interface. Populous II was the game where the Bullfrog boys finally figured out how to lay out a GUI.)

Also, remaking Populous II meant giving up on the world simulation that had been a part of Planitia’s design since it’s inception. That felt wrong.

In fact, there’s a lot about Planitia’s design that has been feeling wrong. Planitia as originally designed was going to consist of four elements:

  • A world simulation
  • An economy-building element
  • An RTS element, with direct control over military units
  • World-shaking, screen-destroying god powers

And I am currently unhappy with how every one of those elements feels.

I began to understand this when I was implementing the RTS input scheme. While I wanted direct control over military units in Planitia, I also wanted the RTS elements to be very light. I thought I could get that by trimming down the number of unit types to three, but as I implemented the control scheme for the RTS elements I realized that even with a small number of unit types, the input system was going to be very complicated – and it had to be, because that’s what people would expect. You got band selection? Yes. How about double-clicking a unit to select that unit type across the screen? Yes. Holding shift to add to the current selection? Yes… Assigning groups to function keys? Uh…well…I didn’t want it to be that complex.. Come on, man, how can you leave that out?

This is a YouTube video of master Warcraft III player Grubby doing his thing. Listen to the first minute or so of the match. What you are hearing is everything that is wrong with modern RTS design.

And here I was re-implementing it. It felt tedious and wrong, but what other way was there?

Then I played Powermonger, and my eyes were opened.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking “What the hell?! Viridian, you just completely castigated Powermonger in your video blog!”

True, but Powermonger does some things very right, and one of those things is the General. The General is a single “handle” through which you control your entire army. Thus you do not need to click on each individual unit and tell each individial unit what to do click click click click click. Want to move your army? Click the General and give him a move order; the entire army moves with him. Want to attack something? Click the General, have him attack it. The soldiers in his army are smart enough to just do the right thing in most circumstances. A lot of the player’s work goes away – and a lot of my work goes away as well. No more having to make sure units are far enough apart that they can be individually clicked on. (Because being able to do that is so important…)

Now you might be thinking, “Well, that takes a lot of control away from the player and thus won’t be that fun.” No, it probably wouldn’t be that fun…if that were the only gameplay element in Planitia. But it isn’t. It’s one of a series of elements that will support each other and (hopefully) make for a fun experience.

Playing Powermonger also reminded me of my love of little people. I share Peter Molyneux’s love for little people and I’ve always wanted to make a game that featured them. Thus, the world simulation is coming back. I have no idea how I’m going to do it, but I will do it because I want my own little people. Besides, that technology will really come in handy when I move on to 3D RPG That Really Needs A Name.

As for the economy-building…again, I’m stealing from Powermonger. On every Powermonger map are several pre-created villages, each one running a village simulation. Most of these villages start out neutral and you always start your conquest by finding the weakest one and taking it over.

Hmmm…pre-set villages that provide resources after aligning with a side…sounds like control points to me!

But control points can feel very tug-of-war, and frankly I hate tug-of-war games. So I may make it so that once a village reaches a certain size, people leave it and start another village nearby if suitable terrain can be found (and that’s your job, of course). So while there are initial control points you can also make your own if you can hold out long enough. That feels better. Remember, always give the player a way to trade time for skill (at least against the computer).

It’s weird…these decisions feel good. They feel right. They make me want to work on Planitia full-bore again. Will things change? Probably. But I feel like Planitia’s design has gelled now, which is something I frankly thought would never happen.

And goshwow…

When you know more about what it is you like about these games specifically, then a design will start to form.

You were right, Dave!

Planitia Update 16: Involuntary Game Makeover

(We now join an episode of Involuntary Game Makeover already in progress.)

Laurie: -and let’s see who we can find-

Bert: Oh, oh, yes-

Laurie: -definite candidate right here; Good evening, miss, what’s your name?

Planitia: Huh?

Laurie: What’s your name, miss?

Planitia: Oh…Planitia.

Laurie: Well, that’s certainly unique. (makes a face at the camera)

Bert: Okay, well, let’s take a look at you…

Planitia is coming together.

Laurie: Oh dear God…who picked out those textures?!

Planitia: My programmer…?

Bert: Programmer art.

Laurie: In this day and age.

Bert: One would think he cared more.

Planitia (irate): Hey, my programmer loves me!

Laurie: If he loved you, sweetie, he wouldn’t let you go out looking like that.

Planitia: Okay, okay. They’re old textures and they don’t really match. I know, I’m a fashion disaster.

Laurie: Oh, no, dear. You’re not a fashion disaster. You’re not even a fashion catastrophe. You, my dear, are a fashion apocalypse. If we let you walk around like that –

Bert: It will eventually unmake the universe.

Planitia (sobbing): He did the best he could!

Laurie: Well, now it’s time to see what a professional can do. J贸n?

(Enter J贸n Kristinsson riding a dazzling white horse. His shirt is unbuttoned down to his navel, showing much manly chest hair.)

J贸n (in a vaguely Scandinavian accent): These are for you, my dear. I can’t wait to see how you look in them.

Planitia (swooning): Th-thank you, sir.

Bert: All right, let’s hustle her off to the dressing room; the show’s only a half-hour.

Laurie: And it turns out that your programmer gave us these accessories to complete your outfit.

Planitia: Gasp! Lighting! And alpha blending! And moving water! I’ve been wishing for these for ages! I told you he loved me!

Bert: Okay, sweetums, ready to dazzle us?

Planitia: Hang on a second, just let me finish adjusting these UV coordinates…all right, here I come!

Planitia is coming together.

Planitia: Oh my god! I’m beautiful! I’m beautiful!

Laurie: You always were sweetie. You always were.


And now you know what I’ve been doing for the past month. Graphics programming is deadly addictive stuff. Once you get a taste you do not want to stop because even small changes can have a big effect on how your game looks. Fortunately, I’m now extremely happy with how the game looks. I never thought it could look this good, and it’s almost all due to J贸n Kristinsson, who volunteered to provide me with some greatly improved textures free of charge. He is a prince among men and smells real nice too. Check out everything on his site, and then hire him for your next project, ’cause he’s teh awesmoe!

So, the good news is that Planitia looks much better.

The bad news is when J贸n waved those textures in my face and led me down the garden path of graphics, it seriously distracted me from my gameplay programming.

Thus, Planitia is probably going to end up pushed back again.

But it looks so pretty I couldn’t help it. And if I just added another layer of textures…no, NO! Must be strong! It’s time Planitia became a game rather than a tech demo.

Genesis of an In-Joke

About a year ago I grounded Megan for the first time.

This was a real grounding. I actually removed the power cables from both the computer and the GameCube in her room and told her she could have them back in a week, providing her behavior improved.

And then, remembering the hijinks I committed as a kid, I moved in for the kill. “Megan, ” I said, “I know you’re a smart girl. You could probably figure out a way to hook those back up and try to keep it secret from us. Just know that if you do that and I find out, you will be in more trouble than you’ve ever been in before. Do you understand me?”

“Okay, Dad,” she said, lip quivering. “Jeez, I wasn’t even thinking anything like that…”

And then she started crying. Jamie shot me a “Way to go, dumbass” look. Quick, Anthony, defuse the situation with humor!

“And if you invent a time machine, and go back in time so that you can stop yourself from doing what you did so you don’t get into trouble, and I find out, you will be in even more trouble! Do you hear me, young lady?!”

Whew! It worked. Both she and her mother cracked up. And thus one of our favorite in-jokes was born.

Little Jabs of Pleasure

Okay! The reason I haven’t updated in a while is because I bought a copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence.

I’m just getting around to playing MGS3 because I was so afraid it would be as bad as 2. Metal Gear Solid 2 was one of the worst games I ever played, yet it reviewed really well. Why? Because none of the reviewers had the balls to actually come out and say, “Uh…dude, this is one of the worst games I’ve ever played.” Thus, I didn’t feel I could trust all the glowing reviews MGS 3 got when it came out.

But it’s obvious that Hideo Kojima understood that he’d really screwed up with 2 and he had to hit 3 out of the park or his series would become an industry joke. Fortunately that’s exactly what he did.

I also recently completed Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which is probably the best Castlevania game I’ve ever played (and yes, that means I’m saying it’s better than Symphony of the Night.) If you’ve never played Castlevania and want to try it and you have a GBA or DS, this is the game to get.

And I noticed something similar in both games. I’ve said before that game design is all about giving the player interesting, meaningful choices. I still believe that, but I think great games have a little something extra. They continually give the player a steady stream of small rewards, punctuating this stream with large rewards at regular intervals.

In MGS 3, every time you pick up a new weapon, item or food, you are rewarded twice. First with the object itself and second because you can then call your support team to ask them about the object. These conversations are always interesting and funny. And since you’re always coming across new stuff you get this steady stream of humor injected into the game from beginning to end. There are also hundreds of little secrets to discover in the game. One good one occurs if you save the game right after Snake gets tortured…he has a nightmare that you get to play through. Stuff like this also gives the game great replayability.

In Aria of Sorrow your character of Soma Cruz levels up as he fights monsters, but there’s an additional reward in that every time you kill a monster you have a chance to absorb that monster’s soul, giving you a new ability. The range of abilities is wide and you can equip up to three at once giving you a nice combinatorial explosion, amplified by the fact that some items you find make certain abilities more effective. Thus, there was never a time during the game when I got sick of fighting monsters (and this was aided by the fact that I rarely felt the need to grind levels during the game). Again you have this continual supply of interesting new abilities ensuring that the player never goes too long without being rewarded in some way.

Now, one of the things lots of people don’t like about RTS games is that when you’re playing through the campaign the game gradually reveals the tech tree and unit types, and it’s typically only in the very last mission that you’ve got the full compliment. Well, what’s the problem? Lots of games give you a progression of powers during the course of the game. The problem is that if you play a multiplayer game you get the full set right away so when you go back to campaign mode you feel like someone’s holding your elbows. It feels like a punishment to play the campaign. Perspective.

I’ll have to keep this in mind for Planitia.