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Originally created to follow Looking Glass Studios and their games, these days we are many things to different people. Whether you wish to discuss the games themselves and fan content, enjoy games inspired by the legacy of the game studio or just enjoy chatting about games or life in general - Welcome!

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26th Sep 2012
Thief 2 and System Shock 2 Updates Found - D'Arcy - 13:12

We've just had some delightful news today: a new unofficial patch for System Shock 2 and a similar one for Thief 2 have surfaced! This is huge!

The patch was announced by a mysterious user named 'Le Corbeau' on the French forum Ariane4ever. The list of changes introduced by this patch is simply amazing, making both games fully compatible with modern hardware and Windows releases, and opening new horizons for the modding community.

Join the discussions here for Thief 2 and System Shock 2 in our forums.

7th Jul 2011
Arkane Studios Reveals: DISHONORED - Dan - 11:52

Arkane's secret project has finally been unveiled. GameInformer's cover story for August will feature DISHONORED, the first person scifi/fantasy stealth/action game.

Arkane Studios and founder Raf Colantonio have made memorable games in the past (Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic) that ultimately suffered from a lack of publisher support. Bethesda Softworks believes in their vision and is giving them all the time, money, and development help (regular meetings with guys like The Elder Scrolls' Todd Howard don't make your game worse) they need. Harvey Smith, one of the main minds behind the first two Deus Ex games and a legendary veteran of game development, shares the vision and is on board as Dishonored's co-creative director along with Colantonio. Viktor Antonov designed Half-Life 2's iconic City 17 and is lending his talents to Dishonored's world. This is a perfect storm for creating a game that shatters the mold that first-person action games have built for themselves in the mainstream.

We've seen the game running, and now we share Colantonio and Smith's vision too. Dishonored is the antithesis of a edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster ride. It's a game about assassination where you don't have to kill anyone. It's a game about infiltration where you can set up traps and slaughter the entire garrison of an aristocrat's mansion rather than sneak in. It's a game about brutal violence where you can slip in and out of a fortified barracks with nobody ever knowing you were there. It's a game about morality and player choice where the world you create is based on your actions, not navigating conversation trees.

The Dishonored forums have opened over at Bethesda's official site. I hope you'll join us there. :)

9th May 2011
Looking Glass Interview Series Part 3 - Dan - 03:00

In this Episode of the interview podcast:

Tim Stellmach, lead designer on Thief and Thief II, as well as a designer on Underworld II, System Shock, and Terra Nova.
Laura Baldwin, designer/writer on Thief and System Shock 2.
Sara Verrilli, QA on System Shock and designer on Thief and Thief 2.

If you missed the first two, (or don't like podcasts) transcripts are available here:

Dan Schmidt (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief, not to mention Guitar Hero and Rock Band)

Austin Grossman (Ultima Underworld 2, System Shock, Deus Ex,)

11th Apr 2011
An Arkane Manifesto - Dan - 10:20

This editorial was original published in Gamesauce Magazine.

Letting Go
On Designing Games with Dynamic, Non-linear Gameplay
by Harvey Smith & Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios

   Around 16 years ago, the two of us were drawn into the industry by a love of games that were part first-person-shooter and part role-playing game (for lack of a better descriptor). Games like Ultima Underworld, in other words. Such immersive games are marked by a combination of values and player-experiences: visceral first-person action, exploration, role-playing, player-driven pacing, environmental coherency, physical interaction, non-combat interactions, and AI behavioral simulation.
   These shibboleths join us to a subset of game developers who've made games that are sometimes hard to categorize. In 1980, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord featured a crude first-person view for dungeon encounters, and seven years later FTL created Dungeon Master, which came closer to being real-time and enhanced the visual fidelity of the world, thus taking a strong step toward putting the player more fully into the world of an RPG. The Ultima games made by Richard Garriot and Origin always had an extra layer of depth due to the fidelity of the world, the way items could be consumed or alchemically combined, and the way the characters in the world seemed to exist, living according to the intricate schedules that allowed the player to infer additional meaning in each situation. While not presented from a first-person perspective, the Ultimas (and the original Fallout series) were hugely influential on this family of games.
   But this hard-to-categorize genre of games wasn't fully realized until Doug Church and Looking Glass Technologies made Underworld, System Shock, Terra Nova, and Thief, an unprecedented run in terms of cutting-edge technology and singular creative vision. Arkane's first release, Arx Fatalis, was a direct homage to Underworld itself. In other corners of the industry, over time, the Deus Ex games, STALKER, Arkane's Dark Messiah, the Bioshock game, and a few others trace their lineage directly from Underworld. Games like Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Far Cry 2 all feel like cousins, sharing some of the same core values.
   We love these sorts of games. And we believe the industry could learn a lot from them.

A Proliferation of Genres

   In today's game "industry" there are many types of games being designed and executed, especially once you take into account the variation that exists within the mod scene, the indie movement, and all the experimentation found in academic programs. There are developers now who focus on serious games for professional training, military recruitment, education, social causes, or artistic expression. Increasingly, people are being paid to make advertisement games which support fashion or fast food. Mobile and social games are ubiquitous, having leapt into existence seemingly out of nowhere. Party music and exercise games have flourished over the last few years. This proliferation is great. Some subset of these games will be ground-breaking or inspiring, providing more fuel for the creative fires.
   Among expensive commercial projects aimed at core gamers, there are strategy games, side-scrollers, creativity toys like Little Big Planet, and evolved adventure games like Heavy Rain, with its focus on traditional storytelling segregated from the game-play. Fast-paced, first-person shooters are still super popular, as evidenced by Modern Warfare, Halo and Half-life. Then there are the open world games like Crackdown, Just Cause or Red Dead Redemption. And there are numerous third-person action games with an emphasis on character animations or sticky cover systems. Driving or racing games and flight sims are perennials. MMOs are everywhere, from the mega-WoW to the stunningly community-driven EVE Online. This list is not all-inclusive, of course, but it demonstrates that we're working within a plural medium.
   Some of these games rely on simple timing or control input, requiring the player to jump or turn a vehicle at the right time. Many of them involve traveling along a fairly narrow or linear path, killing an enemy, collecting some resources, and moving to the next mission marker. Some put more emphasis on selling the fantasy than letting the player engage in expression. Others are so expansive that they trade off depth for breadth, allowing the players to explore a land mass, but only at shallow level.

In Search of Mystery and Exploration

   Among all of these games and genres, periodically there are interactive works that provide players with the sense that they have influence over just enough dynamics to exceed their ability to hold it all in mind at once; or enough dynamics to create some sort of unified aesthetic effect; or dynamics that in some way provide a sense of mystery - like something large enough, complex enough, or happening fast enough to feel just beyond comprehension. That sense of mystery and exploration, created through interaction with very analog systems, is somehow vital to games. To use very old examples; Lunar Lander crated that sense through small physics impulses versus gravity, applied at just the right second, and Dragon's Lair by contrast didn't really have it, except as a really coarse sense of exploration in the form of finding out where the next cinematic scene might lead. Lunar Lander, like a good board game, could be played over and over; in contrast, Dragon's Lair- while an entertaining experience - was over once you'd seen all the scenes. Recently, games like Red Dead Redemption provided interesting dynamics like this as the player guided his horse, herded cattle, or attempted to lasso another horse; all of these systems, even when manipulated via clunky interface, feel analog enough to create some sense of play that is absent in many games. When you think about backing up and moving forward in time in Braid - manipulating your avatar's position, the music and the enemy locations - maybe you can remember a sense of fascination with the interplay of all the elements and your influence over them. That sensation is worth chasing at the expense of many other forms of time and effort that routinely go into games.
   In ideal circumstances, the two of us want to make games with some of those qualities, games that allow players to experiment with systems, to make decisions about how to solve problems, and to find their own way - games that involve dynamic, non-linear play between the player and the environment. We don't always succeed, but when we get our way and things come together just right, our games should be presenting the player with worlds where there are clear, interesting consequences for each action.

Defying the Trend Toward Static Games

   The problem is that as games have embraced polish and opened up to wider audiences, they've also become more static. In order to preclude unsightly physics interactions, the tendency is to lock down all the objects in the world. It's as if you put players in a little cocoon of non-interactivity to protect them from breaking the game. There are counter-examples, as we've said: A game like Red Dead Redemption - thank the stars - favors open movement, player-driven pacing, some simulational wackiness and (often) casual secondary goals made up by the player, despite a few wonky moments and bugs. RDR feels like a game that favors interactivity over the cinematic experience.
   The proliferation of photo realism has also led to more static (albeit prettier) games. If you render the most realistic environment you can, the temptation is to minimize the number of dynamic elements in order to make the game run at an acceptable framerate, but in doing so you rob the game of its most valuable element: dynamism. Again, it's the exceptions that are most interesting. Bioshock will be in our minds for many years, not just because of the impressive setting, art direction and characters, but more poignantly because our own memories of the game are built on decisions we made: times we backtracked to a room because we remembers a specific resource remained there; moments we executed a convoluted plan and defeated enemies in a clever way; or instances in which the environment felt like it belonged more to us than to the enemy because of decisions and investments we'd made earlier.
   As games have embraced the Hollywood fantasy, they've become more static as well. Taking cover and firing over a wall might look like a scene from last year's action movie, but these macro actions feel more like pressing a button and triggering an animation than playing a game. Getting stuck on cover points while trying to smoothly move around in the environment never feels right.

No Perfect Formulas

   Everyone has different tastes of course. For our part, we're chasing something immersive, atmospheric, and expressive - built from lots of atomic actions and player decision that matter. We don't always get a chance to work on games like this, but it's always the goal.
   Too often, the people managing or funding AAA games seem to lack confidence in interactivity or innovation as selling points. This diffidence comes across in the series of expensive me-too games that come and go. Teams are encouraged to use last year's characters and settings and to pound off all the risky, rough edges. As a result, there are about five games a year that are interesting. To be fair, there are multiple ways to succeed; some games are great because they're super polished, while others are great because they enable the player to experience something wondrous, often at the expense of accessibility or smoothness.
   Hollywood figured out a while ago that there's no formula for success - that no one can predict which creative projects are going to be successful. There are just too many variables. So the Hollywood approach is to encourage constraint where possible, but to respect creatives (while trying to get them locked down under contract). Then the five percent of projects that are successful fund all of the others. Which five percent will be successful no one can predict; even the people who invest their money in games haven't figured that out yet.
   Game development is not easy. Especially if you've got a set of aesthetic goals on top of all the other goals related to satisfying players, making the tech work, building tools for your team, hitting the platform specs, meeting the needs of business, et cetera, et cetera. Success relies on a dizzying number of factors, some of which are intangible or simply come down to chemistry.
   We believe that named values and distinct creative targets - shooting or a specific player - experience that allows players to express themselves, make meaningful decisions and explore the environment according to their own whims and strategies - is the best way to make games that inspire people and stay in the minds for many years.
28th Mar 2011
For the Archive: The End of Looking Glass - Dan - 08:26

Most of us have already seen this, but I am posting it here because it ought to be here.

25th Mar 2011
Simulated Skill Part 3 - Dan - 07:59

The third and final installment in our Simulated Skill series deals with the elephant in the room - the inevitable issue of gaming culture. Does there truly exist two different gaming cultures - console and PC? Or is that distinction irrelevant in this age of cross-platform development? And to what extent does the larger, console "culture" affect the development of cross-platform games?

Koki: Consoles are the fast food of gaming. Watching TV and friend on XBox Live invites you for a quick CoD match? Pick up the pad, play a match or two, go back to watching TV. At least playing on the PC forces you to get off the couch, which in itself is a commitment.

Briareos H: About the culture? Well, many games are made to require at least some part of core involvement (last examples which come to mind are Red Dead Redemption and Dead Space) - but there is no denying that console gamers who were not raised on PC approach games differently.

With console gaming, there is that looming atmosphere that you can put the pad down and forget about it altogether. When I think about PC - about my PC - there's a much closer relationship of which games are part on a personal matter. It's nerdy and quite more asocial, it's linked to the proximity of the screen and controls, to the fact that you use the PC for just about everything leading to a sense of entitled freedom. And when this freedom is arbitrarily restrained by forced distance from the game and your control over it, it feels unpleasantly touching and makes you moan over "consolisation" - objectively or not.

Sulphur: But hang on. Most of every gaming generation was raised on console games - consoles were literally the starting point for gaming - except for the select PC nerds and geeks who were completely entranced by the PC and their C64s and Spectrums and Amigas and nothing else.

I don't know about you, but when I played Mario on the NES it wasn't so much about having fun as it was to be single-mindedly driven to the end of the level. Putting down the pad? My pad? Impossible, unless I wanted to fling it at the TV. When I played Descent on the PC, it was about being single-mindedly driven to find the mine reactor and blow it up. Letting go of the mouse and keyboard? My mouse and keyboard? Impossible, unless it was to snap the keyboard on my knee in a fit of rage as I got swallowed up in a great apocalyptic fireball five times in a row.

You're making the mistake of attributing behavior to ownership. There's no doubt there's an impact that a system as isolating as a PC has, but it doesn't change a child's behavior completely. A normal, socially active child does not become a closed-off geek by virtue of his interest in computer games. And vice-versa, if you a nerdy child who suddenly started liking console games it wouldn't make you more socially active either.

As far as 'looming atmospheres' go, I really don't see how the couch vs. chair argument works today. Some people prefer gaming on their couch, some people prefer gaming in front of their PCs on the chair. The couch people could be playing something like, well, Dead Space 2 on their couch. And the PC guys would prefer playing the same game on their PCs. The same goes for Bioshock, or Metro, or any other multiplat game du jour.

I don't see any forced change in atmosphere honestly, unless the game in question was fundamentally gimped to be easier and played in spurts on the consoles.

Briareos H: Basically, I'm one of those people to whom consoles are inherently social and just don't click the same way as the asocial pleasure of computer games. Dark room, alone with your game - the kind of experience you had with Super Mario when you were a child. For sure, the line between social and asocial gaming is getting blurred by the ability to play anywhere with whatever platform - still - through everything that's been said before about the interface and design, consoles and console games seem to encourage a lot more that open and lean behavior which I find so less immersive.

Sulphur: I'd buy the 'console gaming isn't as deeply engaging as PC gaming' thing if console games were a completely different and more casual beast than PC games, but they share far too many games, game types, and experiences in common for that to be true.

Wormrat: What's next, the claim that you have to watch movies on your PC for a truly intimate experience? Don't blame the couch for people's lazy habits. You might be able to blame couch-TV distance for low FOV settings, though.

Subjective Effect: I absolutely think that defining skills as Player and Simulated is important, and it is a spectrum even though there are no games that use pure Player Skill, though there are some that pure Simulated Skill (those that present no challenge). Until now the nature of controllers has meant that the mapping of actions across different platforms has been quite varied. The keyboard and mouse combination offered so much that the early D-pad controllers, like the NES ones, just couldn't.

For this reason console games never even tried to be like PC games, for the most part anyway. The gaming ethos was quite different. But with the current console controllers (all the way up to Move) being so close to being K&M equivalents we shouldn't see such a difference anymore.

The ability to action Simulated Skills was much rougher, more raw, before this generation of controllers and, I believe, led to the "I win" buttons. And this is why I think dumbing down was/is the fault of consoles - hence "consolitis". This isn't a platform "war" this is a discussion about the fine differences in gaming that are generated by platform differences.

Briareos H: I still think it all boils down to two things: the targeted audience and the interface. I want to highlight that there are multiple examples of 'recent' console games which generally contradict my argument about being targeted at more social audience - for the best - and as many examples of PC-only games which do the opposite. That's where I think the line has blurred along with the general tendency to socialize gaming (rather than consolise) on all platforms.

Still, the interface is everything but a non-issue because it impacts how the same information is provided to a player which can both be sitting 3 metres from the TV with a gamepad or 50cm from the screen with keyboard & mouse.

Consolisation is not an excuse however for the trend of making everything explicit (and more generally tailoring the experience and contents to an 'ideal' player response rather than making a knowingly flawed game based solely on your vision and expecting the player to bend it somehow). Maturity in the videogaming economy is more to blame here.

Bakerman: It's not really consoles' fault that we don't have deep, meaningful, heart-wrenching moral dilemmas in games; heck, I've never experienced that on any platform. (Caveat: I'm a relatively young gamer, so I wasn't really around in the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s... maybe PC games were way better back then. I've played Deus Ex and Thief though, they're two of my favourites.)

Anyway. I do agree with you; the skill spectrum isn't all-inclusive. But to me it's an important part of the trend away from the kinds of games we like. What I'm going to take away from this thread is another useful way of looking at the interactions in games. Not the be-all and end-all but something relevant.

Sulphur: I'm not really asking for real heart-wrenching moral dilemmas in Bioshock and its ilk - though I'd love to have had them - but I'm saying that choices you had to make in SS2 locked you down to a character path and gameplay type because cyber modules actually weren't in plentiful supply, whereas in Bioshock the choice you made had ultimately little to no consequence to your gameplay path because Adam was plentiful anyway.

Eldron: I don't think these bad choices were so much related to "consolitis" as it was to bad design choices, much more consequence-filled and harder games exist on the consoles. I mean, I'm one of the people that think it was the biggest mistake ever to leave out any consequence to the way that you could just pick every power available and buy everything in bioshock, but I'm just not seeing any point to blaming it on consoles.

Sulphur: But consolitis is exactly that at the end of the day for PC users, isn't it? 'Bad design choices'? I guess part of it's attributable to SS2's poor sales and Levine & Co. addressing its perceived faults of complexity, like giving the player the freedom to completely screw themselves over, to reach a broader audience with Bioshock.

It's bad design choice, but why were these choices made? Especially when Levine knew that SS2 garnered critical acclaim and a cult following and therefore knew that most of it wasn't broken? Why was it simplified in so many ways, from glowing quest items to map markers to no inventory to lack of consequences to choices?

Answer: to be immediately accessible and to appeal to everyone it targeted right from the get-go, teenagers to adults alike. PC game devs tended to do their own thing and end up appealing either to the masses or to a niche back in the day depending on how complex and different their games were; but when you develop for consoles as well, your audience's age range expands significantly because younger demographics are built in, and patience for something as slow-burn or complicated as Thief and SS2 with younger audiences is limited.

Yakoob: Looking glass died because it couldn't survive on the critical acclaim achieved via those "not broken" design choices.

2K made millions while winning the hearts of thousands of fans thanks to the critical acclaim of the "broken" design choices.

Papy: I qualify BioShock's gameplay as average. Yet, I rate it as one of the best game I ever played. The reason was there was consequences to my actions. There was, for example, Tenenbaum thanking me several times, as well as what I perceived as a change of attitude toward me, but more importantly there was the safehouse. Seeing those little girls was one of the greatest reward I ever got in a video game. And that's what made my choices to save them meaningful. In my opinion, SS2 had a much better gameplay than BioShock, but BioShock was overall a better "experience".

Briareos H: Let's not forget that the way the game teaches you its mechanics is also very important, and was quite different between both games. It contributes a lot to the difference in feel and what people have attributed to consolisation while it's basically just devs being stupid/driven by their publisher.

A little example: If all I knew by the first fourth of Bioshock was that I could harvest gruesomely the Little Sisters or not at all (much more interesting choice), if I only discovered by myself through scattered audio logs that there was a way to rescue them, virtually launching an enormous optional sidequest to gather the tools and plasmids needed to rescue the sisters - quest that relied solely on player initiative (no update in the game log) - the end result and my drive to find that way to save them while thinking "wow this was not advertised by the game at all this is awesome" would have been delicious.

No, here you have that artificial choice from the start. Okay whatever, I'll save them because in the end I'm sure you wouldn't make harvesting them the most interesting option, Ken.

Games where every player is expected to "experience" all the narrative has to offer or hell, even the true ending, is a trend which has been rising parallel to the last generations of consoles. Hence the understandable confusion and terms like "consolisation" when it is not.

When you look at Dead Space 2 credits, the list for QA testers is longer than the list for developers. Well I say fuck them. Developers should abide by a rule: if more than 80% of all QA testers see everything the game has to offer on their first run, something is wrong with the game.

Sulphur: That's the Warren Spector argument of forced linearity down a prescribed path being worse than open gameworlds with multiple paths and options, isn't it? I think there's space for both in the market, what with Half Life 2 and the like not suffering so much for all their forced linearity.

I think it's fair to say that the dumbing down aspect of consolitis here at TTLG is tied to very specific games built as multiplat titles -- namely Deadly Shadows, Invisible War, and latterly, Bioshock. These games changed quite a bit in comparison the their PC-only predecessors to suit the platforms and audiences they were going to be on, and people have been raging on about these changes for years - nerfed gameplay like unified ammo, climbing gloves, merged skills and augs, etc.

That's an intellectual dumbing down that wasn't seen in the original games, but it did come about with the advent of the multiplatform sequel. Was that coincidence three times in a row, or was it planned because of something else? I'm going with planned, because I think they wanted to appeal to a lower baseline (the built-in demographics guaranteed to be on the consoles) than the PC exclusive titles did.

Papy: To me "consolitis" is more about all games following the same current models rather than any particular characteristics. With computers, we always had a broad range of games, from the very dumb almost press forward kind of games, to games demanding a lot of learning and a lot of thinking to play them. Consoles, on the other hand, were more or less always on following the formulas that were the most popular at the moment. Of course, there is a general trend because of limitations and general attitude, but I think those are relatively minor points.

Bakerman: Some games rely on maturity rather than (or in addition to) intelligence, which is where I think the typical 13-15 year old fails. It takes a certain level of maturity to enjoy a measured, slow-paced experience that requires thinking and initiative. While I do agree that many a 15 year old is capable of understanding a game like that, I just don't think many would enjoy it. It's kind of like wine... kids hate it (and I still do!), but as you age your taste changes, and though you haven't become more able to taste the wine, you just enjoy that flavour more.

Papy: People don't play video games for the same reasons. For some it's because they want to relax, for others it's because they want to feel good about themselves, or to have a tool for their imagination, etc... I believe the demographic of consoles and computer are different in big part because of the general environment. Playing comfortably lay down on a sofa, 15 feet away from a 50" TV (meaning a much smaller part of your field of view compared to a 22" monitor seen 18 inches away), in a room where you are not necessarily alone, is generally a very different experience than playing on a computer. A console environment is great when you want to relax without thinking too much, it's not so great for something competitive or difficult and requiring all your attention. So people will more or less choose their gaming system based on their own need.

22nd Mar 2011
Gambit Interviews Dan Schmidt - Dan - 07:11

Gambit returns with their second podcast! Looking Glass Studios Interview Series - Audio Podcast 2 - Dan Schmidt

Part 2 of a continuing series, where I interview members of the now-defunct but highly influential Looking Glass Studios (1990-2000), which wrote the book on 3D first-person narrative game design throughout the 90s, in such games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief.

In this episode I talk with Dan Schmidt, who was with the company from its very early days (back when it was called Blue Sky Productions). A programmer by vocation, but filling a variety of roles from project management to design to music composition, Dan helped set the tone for the company's subsequent creative output in early projects like Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld II.

The podcast covers these projects, as well as Dan's work on Terra Nova, the ambitious squad-based robot sim, and his work in the early stages of Thief before moving on to work at Harmonix Music Systems in its early, pre-Guitar Hero days.

If you want to know what NHL '92 has to do with both Ultima Underworld and Rock Band (and who doesn't?) give it a listen.

Did you know that Dan Schmidt also keeps a blog, where he posts things like this little gem?

One of the levels (5, I think?) was largely populated by ghouls, with standard flesh-eating names like Eyesnack and Kneenibble. Naturally you could talk to them instead of just fighting them. Jon Maiara (the same guy responsible for the Pac-Man homage) was writing the conversations for them, and included all sorts of things like the opportunity for you to make fun of Eyesnack's name, to which he would respond by making fun of your name in return. You see the edge case, of course, right?

That's right, part of our precious 640K was devoted to checking for whether the player's name is also Eyesnack, in which case, in response to your mockery, the ghoul proclaims indignantly, "But your name same as mine!"

Maybe that will make you feel better about Judy falling into the lava.

Come discuss it with us!

18th Mar 2011
Irrational Games' other Games - Dan - 03:59

This is actually rather old, and was mentioned on our forums some time ago as well. I thought it deserved a place here on the front page though, as well as a few additional words.

I think this is an opportune moment to mention that last year, I decided to give Irrational's back catalog a spin. Here's what I discovered.

Freedom Force

To sum this game up quickly, it began as gleeful fun which descended into frustrating keyboard-pounding after about five or six hours. It's an extraordinarily deep tactical RPG that starts off very slow an easy, with your small team of superheros beating up the bad guys and causing a ton of property damage along the way. The first couple of hours flew by, using telephone poles to knock buildings to their foundations to thwart evildoers raining bullets from rooftops. But as the game progressed, the learning curve went steep, and the difficulty curve skyrocketed. Missions began taking dozens of replays in order to complete, even with a liberal use of quicksave/load. Maybe I just didn't understand how to play the game or the game isn't for me, but I was legitimately enjoying myself up until the "nuclear winter" map and subsequent story about giant ants, at which point I put the game down, never to return. It's a shame too, because I really did like the game, and was excited at the prospect that there was so much game ahead of me. It's considerably long, doubled when you include the sequel. I suppose I could have tried it again setting the difficulty down to baby-style (I was playing on normal. Normal! Not hard.) but I had bigger fish to fry.

Tribes: Vengeance

This game is my best experience of the three. Were it made today, with the current attitude towards writing in games, it would sweep every award venue and leave Bioware and Rockstar's writing in the dust. Taking a cue from literature or cinema, unlike most games this one does not follow the part of a single protagonist on his or her journey. In fact, one could argue that there is no protagonist (nor antagonist), merely a character whom you happen to be playing at the moment. (For the record, I've always wanted to write a game like this.) The plot is told non-chronologically, jumping back and forth over the course of around twenty years, and from the point of view of five characters (two women, three men), one of whom you play at various stages of childhood and adulthood. The characters are all dramatically linked; you play mother and daughter, lovers, brothers, and a betrayer. Whole the storyline may be a bit melodramatic for some (it's a space opera, but with the scent of soap) but it's so different from the usual action game / rpg plot that I really didn't mind. Like the history video said, as complex as the plot is, it's not that difficult to follow, and provides a fascinating romp throughout. This was a game I was playing to find out what happened next.

But what about the game? For those unfamiliar with Tribes, it's a bit of Terra Nova (not just because of the melodramatic space opera plot) and a bit of Unreal Tournament 2004. There's a ton of variety in the mission offerings, though some felt genuinely like fillers to pad the game's length, or as tutorials for multi-player modes. With that in mind, the gameplay and level design ranged from completely awesome to frankly terrible. You have corridor-shooter maps, open ended exploration/quest maps (clearly the best parts of the game, and thankfully plentiful), sporting arena maps (the worst parts of the gamer, and sadly plentiful as well), and some rail-shooter/vehicle maps. If the training maps were skippable (they appear constantly throughout the game, even up into the last chapter) I would have enjoyed the title a great deal more. The difficulty is also very inconsistent, from cake-walks to replay-me-twenty-times tough. (Yes, even with quicksave.) Still, the parts that were fun were very fun (I especially enjoyed playing the assassin character) and kept me playing in spite of the awful parts, and in spite of the excellent plot.

Swat 4

In many ways Swat 4 is the polar opposite of Tribes Vengeance. There's no plot to speak of, and while both offer quite deep gameplay, Swat 4 is excruciatingly slow-paced (as a Thief fan, consider that deliciously slow-paced) tactical shooter with emphasis on re-playability in a handful of extremely small and detailed maps. You command a team of four swat officers which you can either micromanage meticulously (hint: on anything other than easy, you must micromanage them meticulously) or take point and allow them to merely follow your lead. There's a dizzying array of pre-mission customization options for your team as well. As I said before, the maps are very small, but the locations of the enemies and hostages (both mission-critical and otherwise) are randomized. You can't save during the missions, and often one little slip-up means the entire mission is bust. (Unless you're playing on easy, and then it's okay to fudge a little.) Swat 4 is an anti-shooter. If you play correctly and complete a mission perfectly, none of your team will have fired a single shot. Your goal is to safely restrain everyone in the area without hurting them (permanently anyway; pepper spray, tazers, or rubber bullets are allowed) and confiscate all weapons. The enemies (and sometimes innocents) rarely want to go quietly, so you'll usually need to resort to one of the above methods of subjugation, or if that fails, shoot to kill. Oh, and there's yelling. Alot of yelling. This is probably the only game made where your first course of action when confronting enemy is to always shout at them at the top of your lungs.

Like Freedom Force, this game starts off fairly simple and easy, but by about halfway through it becomes extremely difficult. Again, I was too stubborn to set the difficulty down to easy, but eventually succumbed to frustration-boredom and put the game down, never to return. I believe I completed about 75% of the game, not including the expansion. The map design is very realistic, portraying a wide variety of indoor locations in extreme detail. There's also definitely a touch of Irrational's twisted nature present, with two missions taking place in some genuinely creepy locations. (Like the lair of a sociopath, and the headquarters of a suicide cult.) If you like serious, realistic games, stealth and non-violent gameplay, to micromanage like crazy, and supreme challenges, I do highly recommend it.

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17th Mar 2011
Doug Church Joins Valve - Dan - 04:26

Just a quick note: I just saw a report that confirms Looking Glass visionary programmer/designer Dough Church has joined Valve Software. This makes me extra anxious to discover what promised surprises Valve has in store for us this year.

11th Mar 2011
Simulated Skill Part 2 - Dan - 02:33

Our second installment focuses on hardware limitations - mostly interface devices - and their effect on the Simulated vs. Player skill spectrum. Again, these comments are culled from TTLG's General Gaming Forum. You can read the original discussion here.

Console games are easier (or rather simpler) because you can't have the same control complexity and precision with a gamepad as with a keyboard and mouse. Gamepads were fine for platformers and action/adventure games but now they're trying to fit complex games like Deus EX, Thief or even fucking Oblivion on them. It's like trying to navigate the operating system of your PC with the remote control of your TV. It's just impossible. So they have to simplify everything for it to work. It's as simple as that. They don't purposefully dumb down their games just to annoy players, they are simply restricted by the controllers. Look at Deus Ex and the number of keys required to play it. Now look at the number of buttons on a gamepad. Without streamlining, you can't have the same depth on a console (unless you want to end up with an unplayable mess of a game, ie, any of the early PC FPS ports). Imagine trying to type keypad numbers with your gamepad in DX1. It would be a fucking nightmare. They have to make it automatic because there's no other way to do it.

The problem would be to have a leaning system like in Deus Ex, with one button assigned to leaning left and another one assigned to leaning right, and having to approach enemies stealthily, stand up, equip the right weapon and aim at their heads to knock them out. That would be totally unplayable on a gamepad. Whether it's a problem when played with a keyboard and mouse doesn't factor in their reasoning. It's an afterthought. It doesn't matter. Just think about those early PC FPS ports on consoles like Rainbow Six on ps1 or whatever. Nobody gave a shit whether they were playable on a gamepad cause nobody played them. They were just quick shitty ports to grab some money. Nowadays the trend is simply reversed, the main platform is the console and the PC gets the shitty ports. It's like those old FPSs on dreamcast (Quake 3 arena, Soldier of fortune, etc...). They were straight ports from the PC that were almost unplayable with a gamepad. You had to use the mouse and keyboard to enjoy them fully. Well, again nowadays the trend is reversed; if you want to enjoy a game on PC you have to use a gamepad.

Games in general are becoming easier, but I wouldn't necessarily correlate that with consolisation or whatever. Hard games weren't exclusive to the PC. Console games used to be challenging too. But now it's become this huge industry and I guess it's more profitable to make easier games. Just like books that are easy to read or movies that are easy to understand will sell more.

a) The input mechanisms (pads) may be lacking in simulating relatively granular levels of physical movement and interaction because there simply aren't enough buttons (imagine playing ArmA 2 or Stalker: SoC on a console), hence you have wonderful issues like the run and use actions being mapped to the same button/key in ME2 b) Intellectual concessions like waypoint arrows, bread-crumb trails, and glowing frobbables/mission items/markers c) Heavy focus on QTEs that translate directly into 'doing cool stuff you'd otherwise only see in a non-interactive cinematic' by mashing buttons because the interface doesn't allow for fine manual control to pull off those actions by yourself or, as you call it, the 'I win' button.

But I think this is all besides the point. You have the three biggest competitors in the console space all throwing down for motion controls and making wads of money out of them. If it turns out that people will buy this stuff because of the 'cool' factor and sales are a) sustainable and b) profitable, they're going to run with motion controls into the next generation. Maybe not as a replacement for a standard controller, but definitely as part of the package in the box when you buy one of their next-gen consoles.

The real problem with consoles is the analog stick, the TV and a different gaming culture. Analog stick sucks balls for precise movement forcing developers to use shitty menus and the TV's pitiful resolution forces them to make everything huge.

I have to agree with [Koki] on one point. The analog sticks do suck for precise 3D movement. People can make a billion and one compromises to try and make it work, but no matter what they do, it'll never be as smooth and natural aiming with the right thumb stick as it is the mouse.

One aspect of this debate that has always puzzled me is the supposed desirability of a precise control scheme. I doubt that the ability to master dumb strategies like "aim better" makes the game more intelligent.

No, but it allows for greater complexity, because you can expect the player to react to more things more quickly. It may seem like a "dumb" twitch skill, but complex tactics can arise from the intelligent application of that skill in tricky situations.

Besides, if an FPS doesn't seem intelligent enough for you, just think about a strategy game. You can reasonably throw more menus, options, and commands at the player when the controls are fast and precise.

fett So what about motion controls, like the Wiimote, Move, or Kinnect? Do these new interface concepts move us toward one end of the Skill spectrum or the other?

The Wiimote was horribly underutilized by companies just wanting to make a quick buck. But then you have the games that were designed to take advantage of the Wiimote. Like Metroid Prime 3. After playing it, I came to think of the thing as a great analogue to the keyboard and mouse for 3D movement. Then you have Zack and Wiki, which showed me gesture based controls could actually make a game more fun, provided they're done properly. Resident Evil 4? Night and day difference with the Wiimote. I no longer had to do that "move left, move up, move left a little more, slightly adjust just a tad...almost...almost...there we go, head shot" thing I do with analog sticks. All it took was a flick of the wrist, and PERFECTLY AIMED KILL SHOT. Just like playing with a mouse.

So just because most companies half-assed the Wiimote, doesn't mean the potential isn't there. I was actually glad when I saw Sony ape the design almost down to the fine details, because it means consoles are moving away from the dual analog scheme. All it needs is a little more fidelity, and a nice, ergonomical design, and I'd just about be willing to forget the keyboard and mouse.

The fact that the Wii has been shunned as a traditional games console by it's audience and most importantly, third party developers does not help matters in pushing for improved control across consoles for fps style games. Nintendo hasn't really helped with that either, but they did put out some traditional games that utilized it well. It's just sad how it went, but even on the N64, 3rd party support wasn't so good, and then on the Gamecube it was even worse - really awful, and not due to hardware reasons either - the console was far better than PS2 yet a load of games were only PS2 and Xbox released. Why is this?

Zylon Bane
Because the arm-flailing body-tracking input method works best for primarily casual games. There's certainly a market for that, but it simply doesn't work for everything. It's inherently imprecise, physically tiring, logistically demanding (gotta clear out that space in front of the couch!), and severely limits the number of "verbs" that can be expressed to the game.

But I think this is all besides the point. You have the three biggest competitors in the console space all throwing down for motion controls and making wads of money out of them. If it turns out that people will buy this stuff because of the 'cool' factor and sales are a) sustainable and b) profitable, they're going to run with motion controls into the next generation. Maybe not as a replacement for a standard controller, but definitely as part of the package in the box when you buy one of their next-gen consoles.

So how important, really, is precise input in terms of closing the gap between Simulated & Player skill?

More precise input doesn't necessarily make for a more intelligent game. A pure reflex test isn't going become "smarter" no matter what controller you're using. But since most games, even supposedly "braindead" shooters, involve a mix of action and strategy, I don't see why the idea is controversial. Useful strategies are shaped by the actions available; changing one affects the other.

And really, if I want to nitpick the terminology, the opposite of "precision" is randomness, from the player's perspective. And random success is certainly the opposite of intelligent victory.

Yes, you can cram more options into a shorter amount of time. But are these options likely to make the game more intelligent if I am expected to spend less time considering each one? If I am playing a game which requires thought, the bottleneck for actions per minute is generally my brain, not my hand.

Usually, if I require a precise control scheme to do something smart in a fast paced part of a game, the genesis of the idea will have occurred during an earlier lull when I had time to sit back and brainstorm new ways of interacting with the world.

As a general rule of thumb, if a game gives me a continuous range of options, these options will generally only vary over a few dimensions. The enormous number of options just means that some skill will be required to get the exact force/distance/angle/whatever that I want. But if I am off a bit, it will not mean that I have chosen some completely different option in a bewildering sea of complexity. It will just mean that I do 5% less damage, or miss instead of hit. Or maybe I will summon an Orc instead of the Ogre.

If my options vary from flying away into the sunset vs dancing the conga, I will likely be presented with a smaller set to choose from. I will probably not be presented with 500 options all as different as that! It would take me too long to consider each one. If I am presented with 500 options, there will be some regularity to them, so that if option X is too expensive, then Y and Z are automatically excluded too.

Player/Simulated skill is a nice thought, but consolitis isn't around just because of control/controller limitations relegating complex actions to a single button press. That doesn't allow for the stuff staring you in the face, like the fact that console/PC devs make things simpler for their demographics by lowering the overall intelligence curve of the game and make everything hugely obvious to players.

Subjective Effect
I absolutely think that defining skills as Player and Simulated is important, and it is a spectrum even though there are no games that use pure Player Skill, though there are some that pure Simulated Skill (those that present no challenge). Until now the nature of controllers has meant that the mapping of actions across different platforms has been quite varied. The keyboard and mouse combination offered so much that the early D-pad controllers, like the NES ones, just couldn't.

For this reason console games never even tried to be like PC games, for the most part anyway. The gaming ethos was quite different. But with the current console controllers (all the way up to Move) being so close to being K&M equivalents we shouldn't see such a difference anymore.

The ability to action Simulated Skills was much rougher, more raw, before this generation of controllers and, I believe, led to the "I win" buttons. And this is why I think dumbing down was/is the fault of consoles - hence "consolitis". This isn't a platform "war" this is a discussion about the fine differences in gaming that are generated by platform differences.

While this conversation inevitably headed for familiar "console vs. PC" territory, there's two important discussions I'd like to pull from this conversation as that argument relates to skill sets: Gaming Culture, and Design (a.k.a. "broken" vs. Popular design choices).