Zen and the Art of Euro Truck Simulator 2

Simulation games were big in the 80ies and early 90ies. They went away together with adventure games and real-time strategy games. But now they seem to be on the rise again. The first mainstream gaming reaction to games like Farming Simulator was ironic in nature. 360 NO PLOW has turned into it’s own meme. But more recently, titles like Euro Truck Simulator 2 seem to genuinely strike a chord outside of their niche.

“It may sound like a joke that so many people are piling glowing praise on a trucking sim, but Euro Truck Simulator 2 is the real deal.”
- Jim Sterling

It certainly stroke a chord with me and with some of my podcast colleagues. For a brief period of time this summer we found ourselves completely immersed in virtual trucking. Here are some results:

The fascination of Euro Truck Simulator 2 is difficult to explain. Nevertheless, here are some of the pieces of the puzzle:

  • Failure is fun – In most games, being successful is usually the part where the game is enjoyable while failing is usually undesirable. When looking back at the parts of Euro Truck Simulator 2 that I wanted to preserve for posterity, it was usually some sort of mishap, accident or bug. Failing in a game can be funny, but failing in a simulator is often hilarious. The reason for this may be the contrast between a simulator’s serious, dry setting and a potentially spectacular accident portrayed in it. Mayhem in Farming Simulator is simply astounding while Mayhem in Saint’s Row is just par for the course. However, this seems not to be the whole story. Some simulation games like Kerbal Space Program use a cartoony setting. Yet, accidents in that game can still have an exceptionally comedic effect. Perhaps this humor is also somehow fueled by the open-ended, exploratory nature of those games.

    In any case, as a player the result is a win-win situation. No matter if you succeed or not, the game is always enjoyable.

  • It is relaxing – One thing that is difficult to convey to people, who haven’t tried Trucking Simulator is how relaxing it can be. Driving a racing car around a track as fast as possible is exhilarating. I have been doing my 4-hour GT5 marathons. Afterwards I had to peel my cramped hands from the driving wheel. Trucking Simulator, on the other hand, is something I could be (and have been) playing for hours on end. Steering a truck down the autobahn usually requires a much lower level of attention and interaction. There is a timer like in a racing game, but it is presented in a far less pressing fashion. There are stretches of time where you can look around to enjoy the scenery.

    Of course, from a conservative gamer’s perspective, this would be seen as a sign of design failure. But let us consider recent developments in gaming culture. In a world dominated by commented YouTube videos and live game streams with audience interaction, a game that leaves players with some attention surplus actually makes a lot of sense. When recording some of the above videos, I had just enough time to occasionally check out the stream chat or to verbally comment on what is going on without immediately crashing into a wall. So as Let’s Play videos become more relevant for games marketing, we might actually see more games as relaxing as Euro Truck Simulator 2.

  • It is life-relevant – A term I tend to harp on is “Life-relevance”. With that, I mean a situation when elements from the game refer to something outside of the game and/or when ideas and skills from the game can be applied outside of it. Most games have little actual Life-relevance. Aligning yourself with established genres, settings and brands can be seen as a substitute for Life-relevance. For an audience constantly immersed in those escapist settings, it can be enough. Simulators are different. Life-relevance is at the core of what they offer. They depict something that actually exists. This has tremendous consequences for the experience. Each in-game element taps into a wealth of real-life knowledge. It is like making a game with the largest lore repository we will ever know – real life. Trucking through virtual Europe I recognized and remembered the different countries and cities I visited along the way. I was also able to discover and experience parts of Europe I haven’t been to yet. I now instinctively identify the various truck brands I see on the streets. And the next time a truck blocks a lane on the autobahn, I will be probably more relaxed about it. After all, I have been practically in that guy’s position myself.

  • There is a traditional game underneath – Finally, the game offers a lot of the trappings of traditional games. There is an RPG leveling system to upgrade your driver and access more challenging hauls. You additionally earn money which you can invest in upgrades for your truck so you can truck harder. There are cities, roads and various special buildings waiting to be discovered. It is here where Euro Truck Simulator 2 made me consider: driving a truck may seem like a queer choice for a game, but why is that so? Why do we have such an easy time to see the value of playing a soldier, yet such a hard time to see the value of playing a trucker? If driving go-karts or stacking blocks can be worthwhile, why not also hauling some trailers across Europe? To some extent, the themes we consider established and unusual are just arbitrary choices defined by precedence. Call of Duty may not seem so weird as a topic for a videogame, but that is only because of all the military shooters that came before it. In a parallel dimension, we have been doing nothing but trucking all this time.

There is a lot to learn from Euro Truck Simulator 2. And I have a lot more I have to say about it. There are other reasons why simulation games may become more important in the future. But I will be discussing this a different time. Meanwhile, don’t let the unusual setting distract you from what is an exceptional gaming experience.

XCOM Classic Ironman

I recently got into XCOM. I saw Day9 playing it and it made me catch the XCOM virus again. It was a good thing too. The game came out around when my dad passed away. I bought it when it on release, played a map or two and forgot about it. I was glad to re-discover it now. I attempted a Classic Ironman and recorded it. The result is a YouTube series. Here is the first episode:

I’m really enjoying the game. It is very different from the original and it misses out on a lot of things that made the original great. But its game design is also a lot tighter, the experience a lot more controlled and dramatic. It is a good attempt a remake. One that brings in its own flavor rather than just copying the original.

So for example, one thing that it constantly does is to put players in front of these very clearly defined decision. The very first thing you do is to select between multiple regions to put your base in. Each region comes with it’s own advantages. Throughout the game, you get those so-called abduction missions. Multiple cities are being attacked by aliens simultaneously. The game forces you to decide which city to help. Each city has a different difficulty level and different rewards. Also, helping a city will lower it’s panic level while the cities that you leave behind will freak out more. Compared to the original this feels forced and artificial. The original allowed you to maintain multiple teams, so you could be attempting multiple missions simultaneously. Cases like this used to be rare anyway. This new approach feels less natural. It is clearly a setup by the game’s designers to put players into this difficult choice. But it is also a clear execution of modern-day Firaxis philosophy: Games as a series of interesting choices. I have my problems with that philosophy. But I appreciate that they actually have one and stick to it.

One thing I really dislike so far is the way UFO/Alien lore is treated. The original drew upon a lot of real-life UFO folklore. The team seems to have thrown a lot of that out of the window by making some pretty peculiar artistic choices. The grey aliens scour on the ground and move on all fours like monkeys. They don’t look like the mystical, enigmatic beings we know form the X-Files. Equally troublesome are the obnoxious, cartoonish characters in the base. Dr. Vahlen doesn’t seem to be able to decide on which european accent she wants to speak. Audio transmissions are unskipable. The cut-scenes are generally ham-fisted and cringe-worthy. The game fails to convey the kind of atmosphere and setting the original was famous for.

On the other hand, it feels refreshing to have a modern game that will actually allow players to live out their mistakes. Playing on Ironman, the game might put you back to square one even if you are already 8 hours in. At least in this regard, it is an entertaining remake. I might write more about it soon. Stay tuned!

Trauma Making of

A really short post today. I wanted to share with you a GDCE talk I gave a year ago about how I made my game TRAUMA. It has been just released on GDC Vault for free!

Click here to watch the video.

I basically go over some of the influences and assumptions I had going into TRAUMA. I also talk a little about how the project evolved over time and how TRAUMA became what it is. Enjoy! And let me know what you think.

The Polarization of Pacific Rim

There is something interesting about Pacific Rim. It has spawned a lot of very divergent reactions among critics. Take this merciless takedown by The Jeff and Casey Show for example:

And then compare it to this commentary by Mythbuster Adam Savage

While Jeff and Casey call it the worst Blockbuster Movie ever (even worse than Transformers), Adam seems to have enjoyed it a great deal. I’ve seen a similar divide between me and the friends I’ve seen the movie with. Most of my friends thought it was rather forgettable while I had a blast.

The thing that I find perplexing in here is that I actually completely emphasize with all of Jeff and Casey’s arguments. The premise of this movie is incredibly stupid and threadbare. It is full of baroque details that represent gross misunderstandings of physics and technology. I would be usually arguing in a similar vein, picking apart the lack of realism and common sense. For example, I had a longer discussion with my podcast friends on how the world of Game of Thrones fails to reflect the dramatic changes of seasons. How come time is still measured in years if a season cycle can last multiple years? How did the people of Westeros arrive at the concept of what a year is in the first place?

How come there are bears in Westeros? How do they even hibernate if winters are arbitrary in length and last for years?

A convenient way out of this dissonance for me would be to argue to consider consistency. Pacific Rim is a modern re-imagining of the old Godzilla movies. A hokey story barely holding together to set up the gratuitous monster fights is par for the course. On the other hand, Game of Thrones is a hyper-realistic take on the Fantasy genre and the result of meticulous research and word-crafting. So oversights like these appear more substantial because they are uncharacteristic.

But on closer inspection this way out doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I would probably use the same kinds of arguments to take down Transformers. Arguably, Transformers doesn’t take itself any more seriously than Pacific Rim. Yet the same kind of stupidity that I think is sinful in Transformers, appears as endearing in Pacific Rim.

There is a certain way in which we formulate criticism that I noticed at some point when doing user testing. As long as a certain works connects and speaks to us in some way or form, we are able to accept it’s flaws, even embrace them – the way we may love a cute kitten even if it constantly shits on our carpet. But if a work fails to establish this connection or if the flaws accumulate beyond a certain threshold, we tend to flip our way of thinking. What was previously glossed over or even embraced then becomes an aggravating factor. Once the initial glow wears off and the kitten grows up to be a big and fat cat, that spoiled bastard better learns to stay off the goddamn carpet.

Yes, this is an analogy to Pacific Rim.

This may be an explanation. But I think the reactions to Pacific Rim show that the rabbit hole is even deeper. Some people tout Mako, the female protagonist as a new benchmark for writing strong female characters. Jeff and Casey offer solid arguments why it’s blatantly sexist. Those vast differences in opinion even when looking at details of the film aren’t that well explainable by an infatuation with the film’s overall themes. It’s not like Mako is a sexist character and that sexism is just glossed over by people because they really enjoy old Godzilla movies. Rather, there is an ambivalence present at a molecular level as well.

There is one aspect of Pacific Rim that for me still trumps Transformers or other Blockbuster movies similar to it. The entire movie conveys a message of inter-cultural cooperation on multiple levels. Not only are the giant robots manufactured in different countries. The actual act of piloting them requires two humans to cooperate. The two protagonists originate from America and Japan respectively and it is their mutual cooperation that makes victory possible. In one of the sideline plots, two arguing scientists also lay down their quarrels to conduct a risky experiment that reveals a vital clue on how to overcome the impending doom. There are probably even more details that echo this theme. To me, this is still a quantum leap ahead of the militaristic machismo veiled with thin humanistic platitudes in Transformers.

I will be monitoring the response to this particular movie. So if you have any interesting analysis or just your own opinions, feel free to drop a line.

Re-discovering Muramasa

The recent re-release of the Wii game Muramasa on the Vita is a good opportunity to re-discover this hidden gem.

I bought the game back when it came out on the Wii. After a cursory glance, it has been sitting in my backlog ever since. So I used the pretext of the recent release to double-dip on it and risk a second attempt. And so the game’s charm finally captured me.

The game is a mash-the-button-to-win brawler with silky smooth, rewarding sword fighting animations. It set in an kinda-open-world 2D platformer world not unlike Metroid or the latter Castlevania games. To be perfectly honest, the actual gameplay is not that appealing to me personally. The sword slashery grows tiresome and repetitive quickly. The thing that keeps me going is the overwhelming visual style and some interesting structural choices.

Same World, Multiple Campaigns

Muramasa Wolrd Map

Muramasa’s world serves as the backdrop for two different stories starting at different locations.

Let start if off with the structure. The player is being offered two independent campaigns. Each campaign has it’s own protagonist. Interestingly, both campaigns play in the same world but you start in a different place. Imagine Metroid offering a second game mode where you play as a different bounty hunter starting in Mother Brain’s lair. You job is get out instead of getting in. It is an interesting way of getting more mileage out of an established word. It does require a slightly different approach to world building. The world becomes less an obstacle course designed for a specific set of player abilities but a more of a broad space filled with unspecific challenges that work for differently equipped players. Many sections of the levels are just empty which takes getting used to from a traditional gamer’s perspective. They turn out to be an excellent opportunity to simply let players enjoy the gorgeous game art. One side-effect of this approach is that it can be tricky to keep players contained.

Lazy Gating

Muramasa Red Gate

“Oh! It’s a RED magical gate in the middle of the forest. Man, I’m glad I got that RED anti-magical-gate-sword from the last boss fight.”

Gating is the way in which games prevent players from accessing certain areas in open-world game design. Without it, a player might just go straight to the final boss or experience a story event out of sequence. In my old World Design article, I described a certain type of gating which I’d call “Lazy Gating”. It is when the different gates present themselves as actual gates or magical obstacles. In the worst-case scenarios, the different tiers of gates are color coded. “You can’t open this blue magic door, you need to get the blue key first”. The actual keys to open the gates often have no other purpose than actually opening the doors. It is “Lazy Gating” because it can be applied quickly to EVERY type of game, it is repetitive, obvious and tends to stand out as a sore thumb. Muramasa suffers from Lazy Gating a great deal. Players are often stopped by color-coded magical barriers which can be only broken if certain, color-coded swords have been acquired. Considering the attention to detail the worlds of Muramasa were created with, the magical gates are awkward and simplistic. They may have been created as a concession to the multiple campaigns. Depending on which campaign you chose, the world is re-gated to accommodate for the different sequence of events. I keep wondering if a more integrated approach would have been possible. I also wonder if the gating is even necessary at all.

Games and Ethnicity

Muramasa Octopus Monster

Western Fantasy may be inspired by Medevial History, but how many Fantasy games are actually quoting Medevial Art?

Muramasa represents the kind of embrace of the developer’s ethnicity which I find way to rare in games nowadays. With a heavy focus on US-western mainstream taste, most AAA game developers seem to be keen to erase traces of cultural or historical origins from their games. The only exception there seems to be the Japanese culture, which found it’s way into pop culture trough tropes like Ninjas and Samurais. Of course, one could argue that the western Fantasy genre is a treatment of western medieval heritage. To some extent that’s true. But quite often, it seems fantasy is more concerned with repeating it’s self-established tropes rather then going back to it’s source material. Like Okami before, Muramasa draws heavily from source material – both visually and thematically. Of course there are samurai swords and ninjas. But there are also Kitsune, Inugami, Kuzuryū, Fudo-Myoou, Macaque Onsen all beautifully illustrated in a style strongly referencing Japanese watercolor art every step of the way. And there is food. Good lord! Let me tell you about the food.

The Food

Why is it that it’s only the Japanese developers that actually care about the food? From the top of my head, probably the most detailed western treatment of food is the GTA Series where you can chose between different fast food chains to order meals from. Comparing GTA to Muramasa in this context is like comparing the treatment of inter-personal relationships “Dick and Jane” to Patrick Marber’s “Closer”.

Superficially it’s similar. You go to different restaurants. You can eat food there. Food restores life energy. However, each restaurant in Muramasa presents you a whole menu of meals to choose from. Each restaurant has it’s own special set of dishes typical to the region the restaurant is situated in. The game actually offers a brief description of each dish. And when you actually pick a one, you are being presented with the most delicious, vivid, animated illustration of the chosen meal. Pressing a button and the food gets gradually consumed by the invisible hand (and mouth) of the protagonist. This process is also vividly animated. Gelatin balls bounce and jiggle as they are being split into halves and quarters. Rice balls reveal their meaty, steaming fillings. Glistering fresh sushi is being shown soaking up dark soy sauce sauce before it too disappears. It’s food porn in every way – completely superfluous in richness and attention to detail.

It’s the Mortal Combat x-ray finishing move of Japanese cuisine. (more here)

It is also entirely the whole point of the feature. The game actually offers enough opportunities to heal your characters in different ways – there are healing Onsen and various healing items. Your energy also replenishes every time you level up. Watching the food being consumed in the restaurants is a reward in it’s own. To top it off, you don’t just eat food at restaurants. There is also an extensive cooking system which allows you to prepare delicious stews and snacks from found ingredients. And yes, this process is also illustrated in a obscenely appetizing way.

So there are many takeaways from Muramasa. For the above and more reasons it’s a game I would recommend having a look at. With around 9 hours per campaign it’s fairly lightweight and it is available on the PS Vita and the Wii / Wii U. Better check the location of your next Japanese restaurant before playing. Sudden cravings for oriental cuisine are to be expected.

UFO Postmortem Observations

I wrote yesterday about some of my observations on the Myst Classic Game Postmortem. I wanted to follow-up today with the UFO Classic Game Postmortem.

Full disclosure: I never actually played that much of UFO. I played a couple of missions. But most of my UFO experience comes from the sequel X-Com: Terror from the Deep which I played for well over 100 hours over the course of my life. With the two games being almost identical, I tend to project what I know about TFTD to fill my knowledge gaps of UFO. Both had been a very influential game for me and so I the video was fascinating to me.

  • Accidental UFO Theme – One of the major surprises of the presentation was the reveal that it wasn’t the developer Julian Gollop, who came up with the UFO setting. The publisher Microprose suggested it. Julian apparently only wanted to make a bigger version of his previous game Laser Squad, which seems to have been only the tactical combat part of what later became UFO. Microprose pushed him to add a global meta management layer and suggested the UFO theme to make it more recognizable. They made an attempt at making the game more similar to the Civilization series. This is also where the term “Ufopedia” came from.

    Of course, this was just a starting point. Julian Gollop then went on and actually made those suggestions a reality. The theme was inspired in particular by the British TV Series UFO which I had no clue about. He also drew upon UFO conspiracy folklore by UFO hoaxter Timothy Good. The latter was a particularly serendipitous move as the same UFO folklore became the basis for the TV show X-Files, which in turn became a major cultural touchstone of 90ies pop culture. And that’s something I always suspected: one of the reasons for the incredible success of UFO was X-Files. The game came out at EXACTLY the right time to ride the wave of UFO enthusiasm spawned by X-Files. With grey aliens and autopsies it delivered exactly the kind of supernatural fix the X-Philes were craving for.

  • Dissonant Aesthetics – Which brings be to the point of aesthetics. One thing I personally never liked was the dissonance in aesthetics in the original UFO. The game features a loud, fast, action-packed, gun-toting comicbook intro. The actual game is about slowly creeping with your soldiers through silent, murky urban environments and taking out hidden aliens one by one with precision shots.

    The presentation revealed that this was apparently the result of the lack of a coherent aesthetic vision. The art was done by two artist from Microprose. One of them was simply a fan of Marvel comic books and designed the characters as well as the intro. Julian Gollop himself didn’t seem to have a firm opinion on this so he let them do what they suggested. One thing he often underlines in the presentation is that nobody really understood how the game is going to play. So the basically ended up with an “everything but the kitchen sink”-approach: UFO folklore, UFO TV series, Laser Squad and Marvel Comics.

    I suppose the reason why it did work is because X-Files prepared the audience to gloss over the awkwardness of it all. Perhaps the different contradicting directions created a Rorschach test where everybody saw something different: a comic book or an X-Files spin-off. Be it as it may, the lack of aesthetic direction seems to have became a huge stumbling block in creating follow-ups.

  • Failed Sequels – I was fascinated to hear the story of the sequels to UFO. In particular, I was stunned to hear that Terror From the Deep was an in-house production by Microprose created entirely without Julian Gollop. I had no idea. It explains why Julian never built upon what TFTD done right. What I personally love about TFTD is that it’s the only sequel that managed to create a really coherent, effective aesthetic – an aesthetic Julian himself apparently never managed to conjure. TFTD drew on the Cthulhu mythology of H.P. Lovecraft and added some iconic B-Movie favourites like the Gill Man or floating brains. It dropped the comicbook cutscenes for more neutral CG ones. The aliens, the color palette, the sound, the overall atmosphere all suited the setting perfectly.

    Meanwhile, Julian worked on UFO: Apocalypse which became officially the game where UFO dropped the ball. It’s really heart-breaking Julian talk about it. During the Q&A he admits that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. It sounds like there is an amazing history behind it. Apparently, a lot of things went wrong with that game

    From what I can tell it seems like instead of consolidating what they had and creating a coherent aesthetic identity to center the UFO franchise around, the visuals were completely outsourced to Microprose again. Meanwhile the team around Julian just tried to just make a bigger, even more complex game. More destructible terrain. More sophisticated political simulations. With no guidance and no firm grasp of what the game was supposed to be, the art team made some really poor aesthetic choices. Both teams failed. The visuals didn’t work. The more complex game mechanics didn’t either.

  • Late-game Pacing – And this is really an interesting way of looking at how many early strategy games were made. The game design of them was often just a matter of creating a complex enough system and letting players play around in it – something that struck me as I was re-playing Populous as well. This was both – a strength and and weakness. The strength was that those games were able to create incredibly interactive, dynamic and engrossing experiences. Julian himself appreciates in hindsight how they never had to design levels and missions for UFO. They just made a bunch of prefabricated elements, some AI and the game would automatically assemble and re-combine everything to keep creating new, fresh scenarios. The weakness was that this approach makes it difficult to control the experience. Julian admits that the late-game of UFO often felt mis-balanced. Advanced weapons like the Blaster Launchers and Psionics delivered some really erratic results. The game tended to get quite lengthy too.

    More importantly, this game design approach also made follow-ups very difficult because it doesn’t necessarily scale. Aftermath demonstrated that adding more complex systems didn’t lead to the superior game they were hoping for.

Overall, I think it is telling that Julian always outsourced art and narrative to separate teams while he focused on the mechanics. I think this demonstrates quite well how you can’t treat those two aspects of a game separably. Both need to serve an overriding design vision – an fundamental understanding of what the game is about. I suspect nobody ever had that vision with UFO. It was a stroke of chance. But they never saw the necessity of taking charge of what they discovered there. They just continued developing games like he used to – make a convoluted system and let the art team slap some art on it. Or at least so it seems.

I would be really interested in a postmortem of TFTD now. That team had it’s own share of difficulties as it seems. But I still think they ended up with a more consistent overall game design. More insight into Apocalypse would be interesting too. I would love to hear the art team’s perspective on this.

As always, I strongly suggest you to check out the video. Feel free to leave you own thoughts on this below.

Myst Postmortem Observations

One of my favorite GDC sessions are the Classic Game Postmortems. These are presentations where the creators of famous old-schools games tell the story of how those games were created. The postmortems are great because they tend to reveal surprising facts about those often pivotal games. They also great because they often show a historical, type of game development which isn’t really all that relevant for modern big game production. The teams were small, often just one person. They made games by following a hunch rather than trying to maximize their revenue. Really, the Classic Game Postmortems actually have much more to do with indie games than with AAA games.

I saw two of those postmortems recently and wanted to share some observations:

The first one is Robyn Miller talking about Myst. This one is ESPECIALLY interesting for me because my game TRAUMA and the underlying final thesis was heavily inspired by Myst. There wasn’t too much information about the creation on Myst around but I did make some assumptions based on my study of the history of Adventure games. Watching the video now, I was pleased to realize how spot-on my analysis seemed to be.

  • In-Persona – One of the things the presentation really stresses out is how playing In-Persona was a major design philosophy for Myst and the previous games by Cyan. In-Persona means that the players don’t assume a character role. Instead they play as whoever they are as they interact with the game. It’s the silent protagonist taken to the extreme. The game isn’t a stage play where the player slips into a costume. It becomes a window into a different world.

    One of my thesis points was that this subtle difference may have been a major reason for the game’s appeal. A lot of so-called “casual” games are played as in-persona. Even games which have nothing to do with Myst, like Brain Age or Wii Sports. Interestingly, In-Persona style gameplay isn’t that popular among modern hardcore AAA titles. This may hint at a different mindset of approaching games for different types of players. More casual players want to just interact with a game and use them transport themselves into a different world. More dedicated players use games to play out roles, change who they are. This, of course, is just a hypothesis. But it was good to see it being supported by the Myst developers themselves.

  • Puzzles are not important – Myst is often seen as a game of puzzles. It was interesting to see how the developers talk about them. It turns out they don’t really like puzzles themselves and they never really made a big deal about them. They used the puzzles only as a means to stall progress for players or to give them something to do. The point of the game was the environment and the atmosphere, not the puzzles. Again, an idea I realized myself working on TRAUMA and attempted to develop further. It’s odd that the puzzles in Myst became so dominant after all. I wonder if this is a case of not getting the balance right. Or perhaps it seemed like a game that doesn’t emphasize puzzles for them at the time?

  • Zork – Which brings me to another fascinating observation. Myst appeared while Lucasarts was the dominant Point & Click adventure company. Interestingly, none of the Myst developers ever played a Lucasarts game before working on Myst. Their original inspiration were text adventures like Zork. In fact, this was the only adventure game they played before they developed Myst. Indeed, if you look closely, Myst is much closer to Zork than the Lucasarts games. Like Myst, Zork is played In-Persona. The games are dominated by a surreal atmosphere of mystery rather than the wacky comedy that fueled the Lucasarts games.

  • Proto-Zinesters – Generally, it seems like the developers of Myst weren’t that big gamers. They were able to develop games because of Hypercard, a very user-friendly programming tool for early Macs. This allowed them to experiment with different narrative experiences without worrying whether the result would fit into the category of what a game is. Myst was a phenomenal success because they were able to reach the same kind of audience – adult people, who weren’t experienced gamers. In this regard, Myst is an incredible example of Videogame Zinesters as described by Anna Anthropy.

    To be fair, this is to be taken with a grain of salt. While the developers didn’t consider themselves big gamers, they did mention playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and being inspired by that world. While not exactly a videogame, D&D certainly belongs to the Nerd culture videogames are embedded in.

I wholeheartedly recommend you to check out the video. And let me know if you found interesting points yourself.

Developing TRAUMA for iOS

TL;DR The most challenging parts of developing TRAUMA for iOS was fast blur with a big radius and realtime video into texture streaming with synchronized audio.

TRAUMA Menu

A sample of the sourcecode of TRAUMA iOS. This particular function is to detect which image was selected by the player.

The original TRAUMA was completely created by Krystian and is using Flash as base technology. Even if there are ways to compile Flash directly into an iOS app, it seems to not the way to go for a game like ours. TRAUMA seems to be simple but it is based on some really performance intensive effects. It is a 3D game with a lot of blurring and video textures.

We wanted to create an iPad version and so I started from scratch. Later when we saw that the gesture painting is working well on smaller screens we decided to support iPhones and iPod touches too.

In the end the game is based on a C core for math and Objective-C for all the device specific components and the menu. The result is a portable core without losing the look and feel of a native iOS application.

You might ask why we didn’t use an engine. The popular cocos2d is obviously a 2d engine. Unity has no support for video textures and also I’m not a big fan this engine. The unreal UDK was not available at this moment. Also I don’t want to use a multiple platform engine because I would lose control over the user interface which should consist of iOS standard elements.

Redesigning the menu

The original menu was to fiddly for iPad. I started before the first retina iPad and drawing all the small font didn’t work out. Still I wanted to keep the four separated scenes and the direct access to options and the movie gallery.

Krystian is very picky when it comes to user interfaces and it took multiple iterations before the current sliding menu was finished. Now the only drawback to the original is that you cannot view all discoveries at once.

TRAUMA Menu

“Krystian is very picky when it comes to user interfaces…”

Having a nice interactive menu is an overlooked component of many games. The menu is one of the first things you will see in a game and it should fit into by having the same art style, using the same input methods and also shouldn’t break with the expected behavior of the platform. There is no good menu that is the same on a touch-based and a cursor-based interface.

TRAUMA Menu Designer

One of the more complex menus in Xcode’s Interface Builder.

Soon after the release of TRAUMA people started to ask for and iOS version and the game seems to be perfectly made for touch, but it was not. In the original version you use the mouse cursor to find frames, click on them to go there and hold down the mouse button to paint a gesture. But there is no hovering on a touch screen. Either you have your finger on the device or there is no input at all.

In my first implementation I used a button to switch between search and paint mode, but it felt totally awkward. I also played around with using a second finger to switch between the input modes. Than I came up with the idea of tap and hold to switch. You start with searching for frames and could enter gesture paint mode when you shortly paused your motion. This was similar to the original version.

But the first implementation that convinced Krystian was when we started with gesture mode and used hold to switch to search mode. This also radically changed the gameplay. On iOS you are using far more gestures to navigate between frames because you are starting with gesture painting. It is also much more likely that you discover the move left, right and back gestures on your own.

Fading out gesture paint and hold to flash frames were implemented thanks to your fine beta testers. Many had problems to enter the search mode. Before that there was a lot of random tapping to find neighbor frames.

Writing a gesture recognizer

When you start with gesture detection you might think it is some dark voodoo magic. But it turns out to be pretty straight forward in the end. A good entrance point is “Easily Write Custom Gesture Recognizers”. Even if the final algorithm used in TRAUMA is slightly different, you will get the idea.

Detecting gestures is one of the crucial tasks in TRAUMA. So I spend a lot of time optimizing the gesture recognizer until it has a pretty high level of tolerance. Nothing is more frustrating to paint a gesture and than it is not recognized. On the other side I tried to ensure that random painting is not accidentally treated as a gesture.

Finding the balance here is pretty hard and I know that TRAUMA sometimes fails to detect an obviously correct gesture. I still try to improve this and we hopefully will ship an update later.

I have written a UIGestureRecognizer subclass that can be used in each iOS application. When I’m happy with the results and have cleaned up the code I will push it to GitHub.

TRAUMA Gesture

“Detecting gestures is one of the crucial tasks in TRAUMA.”

Minimal loading times

I wanted the iOS version to have no loading times at all. Everyone hates loading times and so I tried to keep them as low as possible.

Since each frame in TRAUMA is unique and the iOS devices only have a small amount allocatable of memory compared to a desktop, it is impossible to keep a whole scene in memory at once.

Therefore I have written a texture streaming engine. When you enter a frame all neighbor frames will be loaded. When a certain amount of textures is loaded the ones that are more than two steps away from the current frame are unloaded. Also when memory is low on the device all frames except the current one and its neighbors will be discarded.

The same is true for audio assets. Only the focus and gesture sounds are preloaded at start. All others are streamed. This is also true for the videos.

Even the two seconds of blank screen when starting a scene is a delay Krystian wanted to have, so you are not instantly dropped into the game.

There are only a few games on iOS that use the benefits of dynamic texture loading. This is kind of sad. Loading times can make a huge difference when it comes to the gaming experience.

High performance, big radius blur

When you hold down your finger for a short moment before you can search for frames by sliding over the screen. When you hit a frame it will be focused. Technically it changes from a blur with a big radius to a blur with a very small radius. Blur is a highly computing intensive task.

TRAUMA is using an optimized two-pass gaussian blur with a constant sized filter kernel. Also the frame is rendered into the scene before the blur is performed. Projecting your image before blurring it is an additional pass but the result is much better for images that are not parallel to the screen plane.

I spend a lot of time optimizing the blur algorithm and parameters. But even if all neighbor frames are flashing there is no drop in the frame rate.

I will write a full article about high performance blurring with shaders in my blog soon.

TRAUMA Shaders

Developing Shaders in Xcode

Realtime video texture streaming

Another big challenge on iOS was streaming video into textures. When I started developing with iOS 5 the API was not capable of grabbing realtime frames from a video. I used AVAssetReaderOutput in the beginning but it had some major issues when you need to drop a frame. But thanks to the fine folks at Apple iOS 6 finally offered AVAssetReaderOutput, exactly what we were looking for.

This class delivers the image you need right now. It supports frame dropping and also takes care of audio and video synchronization.

Sadly you have some serious hangs, up to 3 seconds if you use two instances of this class at the same time. Therefore if you leave a video frame in TRAUMA the playback is instantly stopped and the next video texture is loaded. You might notice this in the first scene when you toggle the frames with the stacked spheres. But this is only a small drawback.

Summary

After all the biggest challenge was to understand the existing XML-files with a left handed coordinate system, a ton of exceptions and strange attributes like uptothisone="true" while all documentation only existed in Krystian’s head and sometimes no even there.

Still we had a lot of fun porting TRAUMA even if we needed to fight over some details. We also improved some minor parts: the photo previews are now unique images instead of empty frames and you can explore the location in Apple Maps when you have found all photos in scene.

I spend a lot of my spare time to make this game possible. I like technical challenges as much as making games. I have learned a lot and if you want more detailed information about the implementation just drop me a line on ADN or Twitter.

You can play TRAUMA on iOS here

TRAUMA iOS Released!

I am proud to announce that my game TRAUMA has been just released on the App Store. It is available here for $2.99. It is a universal App so it plays on both, the iPad and the iPhone.

It has been a surprisingly long way to get here. Almost immediately after the initial release of TRAUMA, people kept suggesting to me to release it on iOS. The iPhone hasn’t existed as a gaming platform back when I started development of the game. And so while it seemed liked it would be a perfect match, there were a lot of barriers to cross in order to actually make it work.

For starters, the game was made in Flash, which gets a reputation of being a bad match for iOS. It actually isn’t nowadays. You can publish into iOS directly from Flash. But TRAUMA uses some pretty CPU-intensive software-3D stuff which would have likely been prohibitive to release directly on portable devices. I wanted to avoid an issue like the excellent Machinarium App, which caused a bit of confusion for being iPad 2-only. Max Christ, a friend of mine approached me. He is a talented and passionate iOS developer. He was really eager to attempt a complete re-write of the entire game in Objective C. And that’s what we pretty much did. It seemed like a bit time-consuming at first. We had no idea.

TRAUMA iOS Development

A Meeting of the Generations – Making sure the game runs on multiple Platforms was a serious concern in the Project.

One thing that is easy to forget is that TRAUMA was developed for a pointer device. So for example, it uses the mouse-over concept to let players explore a screen with the mouse cursor. This doesn’t really transition at all into a touchscreen interface. So we had to come up with ways on how to make the game without it. We had an early prototype which was a straight port. Taping would be clicking. Holding and moving your finger would be searching for photos. Holding in one place would switch into gesture mode. It was really clunky and the game lost a great deal of it’s intuitiveness. Max finally figured out a neat solution. He made it so that players would primarily draw gestures. The photo-searching would step back somewhat – players could switch into a search-mode by holding the finger in one place. It really changed the dynamic of the game. On PC you could play through TRAUMA without every relying too much on the navigation gestures. On iOS, those became the primary way of movement. We realized that the level design was solid enough so you didn’t actually need the mouse-over-search except for maybe one or two places. It worked out pretty well. We had to add some minor last-minute interface tweaks based on beta feedback to help people through the more obscure locations.

Still, Max struggled for a long time with some pretty surprising technical issues. I’m not an expert on this, but it turns out rendering videos into textures was surprisingly difficult to do on iOS. We actually had to wait for a new version of the operating system to pull it off. Even then, squeezing that many images into the limited space of the iPad/iPhone required some smart memory management – something I never had to deal with in Flash. Max also had to create a gesture-recognition system from scratch. I based mine on an open-source re-creation of the Graffiti handwriting recognition of old Palm Pilots and it was ripe for a proper rewrite. And of course we spent a lot of time wrestling with my home-grown logic of level file syntax. All those short-cuts you can take as a solo dev come back to haunt you as soon as you bring other people in. Max wanted to do a write-up of the project himself. I’m sure he will go into more specific details.

TRAUMA-themed Muffins to celebrate the release

TRAUMA-themed muffins by @marieslogbuch to celebrate the release.

So there you go. We may be late with this but we really didn’t want to release this without making sure it satisfies our high standards. And indeed, we are really glad with how the adaptation turned out. The interaction changed substantially due to the different interface. Yet, the atmosphere of the original is preserved. And we were able to squeeze out some additional visual quality out of the assets we had. There is still one adaptation we are really eager to try before moving on. But more on that in the future. Until then, let us know what you think!

Miasmata Impressions

The games industry has a sickness. It’s an acute lack of innovation. We don’t have a cure yet. But here is a mixture that may provide temporary relief: mix equal parts Far Cry 2, Amnesia and Myst. You get Miasmata.

Far Cry 2 Parts

Just like Far Cry 2, Miasmata is a first-person open-world game. You are free to roam an exotic jungle. The game worlds consists of a lush, natural environment – something that is notoriously difficult to pull off with polygons. Like in Far Cry 2 a big part of the game is survival. There are camps on the island where you can heal up and save the game. The most dramatic gameplay moments occur when you struggle to get to the next camp.

The game is played “modelessy” in first person. Which means there are (almost) no 2D interface elements. More importantly, there are no in-game 2D menues. If you check your map the player character actually takes the textured 3D object of a map and holds it in your viewport. You also collect various documents and notes which end up in an actual 3D notebook. Far Cry 2 did this to enhance immediacy and immersiveness. That game was very much about putting players into a desolate war zone and not providing any means for them to distance themselves from the situation. Miasmata tries the same and it works although I feel it’s less justified here.

miasmata_book

Miasmata adopts the “modelessness” of Far Cry 2. While successful, it remains a solution in need of a problem.

As in Far Cry 2 the player character is suffering from a disease. It was Malaria in Far Cry 2. The disease in Miasmata is unnamed. But while the Malaria in Far Cry 2 was more flavor than anything, in Miasmata the entire goal of the game is to find a cure. Just like in Far Cry 2 you will pop pills from now and then to keep the symptoms at bay. Just like in Far Cry 2, you never actually feel sick at all but they sure try to convey the idea in various interesting ways.

Amnesia Parts

Like in Amnesia there is actually no real combat. There are no firearms of any kind. Unlike in Amnesia there are at least daggers and you can throw some stones. I’m not going to spoil how they are used. But you never actually kill anything and anybody. Like in Amnesia, the game focuses very much on creating drama by making the player feel weak and vulnerable.

A more stylistic relation to Amnesia is a focus on the manipulation of chemicals and victorian-looking scientific tools to solve puzzles. Although Amnesia is more super-natural/alchemistic while Miasmata plays it slightly more realistic.

miasmata_science

Refreshing to play as a character, whose special ability is not punching people but doing science.

Myst Parts

Like in Myst you start on an Island. There are no people on the Island. The Island is full with abandoned houses, ancient ruins and mysterious statues. You find documents that hint vaguely at a story. But the experience is more about figuring it out yourself while soaking up the gorgeous environment and the enigmatic atmosphere. Unlike Myst this game features fluid FPS controls and real-time 3D. There are no actual mechanical puzzles either. No button pushing and gear turning. But with combat not being part of the gameplay, your challenge is more of a cerebral nature.

Other Parts

And finally, there are some very interesting aspects which I haven’t seen in a game yet. I really love the way the map works in Miasmata. The game doesn’t keep track of your position on the map. You need to figure it out by triangulation. This sounds more complicated than it is. In your viewport you simply click on two landmarks you already know the position of. The player character will automatically draw two lines on the map at the right angle to each other. Where they meet is your current position. Every time you determine your position this way, a small area of the map around you will be automatically revealed. So you can actually chart the whole island this way. But you need to explore strategically. You need to keep climbing hills and carefully preserve line of sight to already established landmarks. It is a fascinating, new idea. It conveys an an unusual concept of exploration which seems authentic and provides unique, engaging interaction.

miasmata_triangulate

The triangulation of the player’s position is one of the game’s most unqiue mechanics.

The game also features realistic walking. By that I mean you are not blessed with that one super-strength we all seem to take for granted in an FPS: immunity to stumbling and falling. If you steer your character over a steep incline, you will slip off and tumble down the hill. If you run down steep a path without controlling your speed, you might get your feet twisted and fall over. All of this can make the previous task of always having to seek out vantage points to triangulate your position REALLY interesting.

None of the above systems make the game especially difficult or complicated. But they do add a certain sense of realism to the exploration. Miasmata is not a game where you are afraid of getting killed by mutant space alien zombies. It’s a game where you are afraid of slipping and falling down a steep hill while going hiking. It’s a game where you are afraid of and getting lost in the woods. It’s a game where you are afraid of not making it back home before sundown.

Missing Parts

Miasmata is an indie game made by two brothers. So yes, there are a lot of unpolished bits. When interacting with lab tools, there are no sound effects. The plants looks nice but all human and animal 3D models are horrible – “my first 3D model”-level-horrible. The designers dodged around an inventory system and arrived at a very unintuitive and disappointing solution. You may think that a game about collecting plants would give you some sort of bag or a backpack or at least pockets…

Gameplay-wise, there are other bits curiously missing. The game details some aspects of outdoor survival in a painstaking way. Yet, you never have to eat. You just need to drink regularly. Apparently that is supposed to be a stand-in for supplies in general. Curiously, there is a great deal of fauna being simulated, sometimes even down to individual bugs. It makes me wonder if food management was part of the original game design.

I like the nuanced way the story is conveyed. But ultimately, it just never goes anywhere. Considering how many ancient ruins you find, there is pretty much nothing to be discovered about them. You find a lot of corpses too but you find out next to nothing about those people and why they died. The elements for a great drama are in place. They just have never been taken advantage of. Oh, and here indie dev protip: if you work on your game for such a long time, for the love of god spend the few bucks on ANY KIND of voice actor to read the few diary entries you left for players to find. There is no bigger turnoff than finding a page with a wall of exposition text on it. Voice actors are the cheapest way to improve your game’s perceived production values.

miasmata_ruins

Sadly, Miasmata never seems to take narrative advantage of it’s set pieces.

One problem the game runs into I’m familiar with my work on TRAUMA is a certain redundancy in the items you find. You collect a lot of plants in Miasmata. Because you can go everywhere, the designers couldn’t anticipate in which order you find the plants. So a lot of the plants you find do the same thing just to make sure the players will be able to do those basic things no matter where they go. This is great at first. But by the end of the game it can feel quite disappointing to discover that the new plant you found is the just the 4th variation of the same basic healing plant. In general, there is not much you can do with the plants anyway. The developers tried to come up with some tonics other than “healing” but didn’t seem to find anything interesting.

Finally, the game has been released on a self-made engine. It is a perfect example of why it’s the worst idea for a indie dev to attempt. Even if you make it, you just end up with a horribly un-optimized engine. I just bought my Notebook recently and had to turn most effects down to quite unflattering settings. Which is a pity, because a big draw of the game should have been the lush, natural environment. I saw other people having much better results so this may be a driver issue. Yet, I don’t think I would be having the same problem if this was the Crytek Engine.

Drink Me!

The above mentioned shortcomings shouldn’t stop you from trying the game. In fact, this interesting article makes a great point about how a game like Miasmata should be held to different standards. Because as far as creativity and innovation goes, we hold AAA titles to much lower standards than independent games. I had a fantastic time in Miasmata. It inspired me a great deal. It should inspire you to. Do yourself and some smart indie devs a favor. Try it out on Steam.

About

The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.

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