tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

And now, a public service announcement

Some of you are probably aware of the imminent launch of Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition for PC. You’re probably also aware that the PC version uses Games for Windows Live to facilitate its online features. However, what became clear yesterday that was hitherto unknown was the game’s form of DRM.

Essentially, if you’re not signed into an online GfWL profile, you lose access to all but fifteen characters on the roster and can no longer save progress in things like Challenge Mode. This is essentially Capcom doing its best Ubisoft impression, or would be if it weren’t for the fact that Ubisoft has in fact ditched its always-on DRM for its more recent PC releases like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Needless to say, it’s completely asinine, especially considering that GfWL has offline profiles to deal with this kind of crap in the first place.

What this means is that people without Internet access (for instance, at a tournament venue with unreliable Internet access) won’t be able to use over half the characters in the game. This is just a massive deal-breaker all around, and judging by the comments on the post I linked above lots of others seem to agree. There are several legitimate use cases for needing to be offline while playing games – in fact Ars Technica covered one angle I hadn’t considered a while back with their article about deployed soldiers being unable to play their favourite games because of a constant connection requirement.

But whatever – I’m not here to pontificate about the evils of DRM, as there are plenty of places you can go to for that sort of thing. All I wanted to say is that if you were looking at buying the PC version of Arcade Edition, and this rubs you the wrong way, go leave a comment on that news post or send an email to Christian Svensson to let Capcom know how you feel about this issue.

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Some thoughts on Brink (mostly not mine)

Brink-Xbox_360Artwork506Founders_-_Island

I recently bought Bethesda/Splash Damage’s new FPS Brink in the hope that it would be able to replace TF2 for me. After about ten hours of playtime I could see it had some merits, but that there was something about it that just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t really able to put my finger on what it was…I mean, all that parkour style movement was nice but it didn’t really seem to be useful for anything since my aim went to shit every time I tried to use it to become harder to hit. On top of that CS-style tactics seem to reign supreme – take cover, aim for the head, drop people in two bursts, which isn’t what was implied by Splash Damage’s publicity at all. I believe the phrase ‘Move more than you shoot’ was bandied about a lot, but this isn’t the case at all.

Well, leave it to a long-time competitive FPS player to cut through the bullshit and lay out exactly what the design problems with the game are. The following are two posts from Kaizoku (the discoverer of Kai jumping in Left 4 Dead) on the Brink Steam forums about why exactly the game seems to be a letdown for so many:

The game does not lend itself to movement based combat, as a veteran quake player and a fan of UT games I’ve seen what those games do to make combat skilled and movement based, rather than cover based. A lot of the issue is the mechanics around firefights, they don’t reward movement based combat, and the guns really aren’t functioning on a "sustained aim" system as they have plenty of recoil and spread.
The game doesn’t know what it wants to be, CS or Quake, so it’s using elements from both, and they’re conflicting.

When I referenced "sustained aiming" it is a reference to an archetype of FPS, one being sustained aim and another being first strike determination and the mechanics that surround those. I used CS as a synecdoche for the "first strike" archetype, those archetypes are explained below:
Sustained aim games are usually movement based combat, in that you aren’t using cover to keep yourself alive, you’re dodging and moving around or using the game’s movement abilities to stay alive. These games nearly *always* use no recoil minimum spread guns, the reason being it’s very hard to keep the crosshair on people in those games (relatively), and you are rewarded with damage based on how long you can keep the crosshair on someone. These games also usually give players higher HP pools (relatively) than other FPS’s, meaning you have to sustain your aim on a target to get the kill through dodging and keeping your cross on them.
The you have first strike determination games, which are the most popular right now. CS, CoD, Battlefield, these all fall under first strike type FPS’s. This means that nearly always the game is cover based for defense, meaning if you are without cover, there are no movement abilities and your character doesn’t have good enough speed or movement to stay alive and needs to use terrain or cover to defend themselves. These games are often "realistic" with their guns, using recoil and spread to off-set slow character movement. At the same time, player hp pools are (relatively) lower and headshots/locational damage is rewarded. The first shot is the most accurate from these guns, and tends to determine the outcome of a firefight.
Brink mashes these together in a seemingly contradictory way, taking counter-rationales in the elements they use. They have an advanced movements system, and player movement is a bit faster than most FSD (here on in, first strike determination) games. However, both recoil and spread are present, not just present, but prevalent. These elements contradict in their reasoning, as you remove recoil and spread to reward players for being accurate in fast-paced movement combat, you don’t penalize them for moving and dodging, and you don’t make them hope their recoil and spread stays where they are aiming. They also (relatively) increased player HP pool, advertising a near elimination of 1HKO’s (by the way, there’s still a lot of those) but if you get a headshot (locational damage also being quite important) it can be a FSD situation.
The movement and firefight mechanics conflict in how they reward and penalize players, and it really doesn’t make sense in precedent, rationale, or function.

I have written about the two schools of FPS design before (although nowhere near as thoroughly as this) in my old blog entry comparing Call of Duty 4 to Painkiller (although if you want to go with multiplayer FPSes, Counter-Strike vs Quake III Arena is a much better comparison), and I agree with the thrust of Kaizoku’s argument. Generally I found the parkour-ish moves in Brink to be most useful when attempting to flank or find alternate routes, but not really in actual combat.

I’ll probably keep playing it for a bit longer, since the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet, but it seems clear at this point that this is a game that needs some rethinking in terms of base mechanics. Until then I’d recommend holding off on getting it.

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The Craft of Mining

I haven’t been writing much recently, and it seems very much like something I should start doing again, if only because all these opinions bouncing around in my head need an outlet of some sort. So I’m going to write about games I’ve been playing recently – seems like as good a place to start as any.


I was on vacation in Singapore lately, with the only computing devices at my disposal being my iPhone, my parents’ 2006 iMac and my slightly newer laptop. As it turned out, said laptop was completely incapable of playing pretty much anything I threw at it (with the exception of Civilization V, but even that started to chug as my game progressed further). As a result, I ended up trying out a game that has made an absolutely ludicrous amount of money based off word of mouth alone.

I am, of course, talking about Minecraft.

In all its blocky glory

Simply put, this game is about building stuff. You collect raw materials, use them to build tools which you can then use to mine other raw materials which you can use to build other tools and items which you can use to mine other raw materials which you can use to build other tools…

I think you get my drift.

That said, Minecraft tries to throw a few curveballs at you through the addition of a day-night cycle and AI monsters. At night, said monsters spawn in non-illuminated areas and start roaming the map, looking for you and your precious buildings. Of particular note is the iconic Creeper that will run towards you in its best imitation of a suicide bomber, with similar effects. These monsters (or mobs, as they’re called in Minecraft lingo) will spawn in dark areas even in the daytime, so management of light becomes important. You can also craft weapons and armour that will let you deal with mobs, if you so please.

My only question is…what does it all lead up to?

The only purpose of the game is to survive and keep building stuff. Your penalty for death is to lose everything you’re carrying and return to your spawn location, but this doesn’t seem like a really big problem since you can store away materials and tools in a separate stash. On top of that anything you’ve built stays around (unless of course it got blown up by a Creeper) so all you really need to do is make some new tools and you’re back in business.

You will be doing this a lot

A friend of mine told me that this game was ‘like playing with Lego.’ My problem with that analogy is that when playing with Lego bricks you start with an end in mind, either from the instructions that came with your model kit or from the plans that you drew up yourself to build some magnificent sculpture using commodity bricks. Once you’re done, you’re done, and the fruits of your labour are visible for all to see. In Minecraft, you build and build with seemingly no end, and since death carries relatively minor penalties all there is to do is keep building.

Games that go on forever without victory conditions have one massive drawback, in that eventually you end up seeing everything the game has to offer (or feel like it, anyway) and quit out of boredom. SimCity has this problem, which is why I eventually gave up on it in spite of loving SimCity 4 to pieces for its complex economic simulation. With Minecraft, I hit that ceiling after about an hour of playing. Since there isn’t anything to do beyond mining and building to find new materials to allow you to mine and build even more stuff, eventually you get bored. The AI mobs’ purpose is basically to slow you down, nothing more.

If death in fact resulted in losing all your stuff (and the Minecraft wiki assures me that once upon a time, it did), then we might be looking at a contender for a decent survival game, but as it stands it’s not much of one. That said, Notch now has my $15, so I hope he makes good use of it.

On a side note, while trying to take screenshots for this post, my graphics card driver crashed twice. Almost like it was trying to tell me something.

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Just over ten years to the day it was released…

…I finally beat the original Deus Ex. And it makes me want to kick myself for not playing it back then.

To illustrate why this game is so important, it might help to make a few comparisons with more recent titles.

There are tons of games out there (mostly Bioware and Bethesda games) that advertise the fact that you can make choices in-game that have consequences. However, most of those consequences are fairly minor. For instance take Fallout 3 – one of the quests early on lets you decide whether or not to spare the town of Megaton or not by defusing or detonating its resident unexploded nuclear bomb. How you resolve this quest certain has consequences – for instance, it decides where your ‘base’ will be early on, and it will change certain characters’ attitudes towards you. That said, pretty much all the story quests are unaffected by this – they unfold in exactly the same manner, and you experience the main storyline the same way over multiple playthroughs. Sidequests might change, sure, but the main plot never does.

Deus Ex, however, has no such limitations. You can kill off major characters way before they’re supposed to have a major impact on the plot, and doing so will prevent those events from ever occurring (I actually did this). On top of that the decision making is thankfully free of the binary good versus evil distinction – heck, in most situations the options available to you aren’t really apparent unless you explore the areas and invest points in the correct skills. This even extends to the game’s conclusion – unlike Fallout 3 and so many other games that tout choice as a major selling point, there is no distinction between a ‘good’ ending and a ‘bad’ ending – once again, just choices with consequences, and you’re left to decide which choices are the most palatable to you. Believe it or not, it took me something like 30 minutes to decide which ending I wanted to go for.

Given that this game came out ten years ago, way back in 2000, it’s amazing and thoroughly disappointing that no game has managed to improve on it – not even its own sequel, apparently. Deus Ex 3 is on the horizon, but given that it’s being handled by a completely different development team, and that Warren Spector is busy making Mickey Mouse games for Disney, I’m not going to get my hopes up too much.

I’ve just started on Mass Effect 2, whose developers insist that the way the game unfolds will depend on how you beat the original Mass Effect. We’ll see, I suppose.

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Oh hey, it’s finally publicly available

http://gizmodo.com/5566680/onlive-streaming-game-service-launches-first-year-free

So I guess I can say what I thought about the beta!

Long story short, it sucked.

I got invited to the beta once a server farm near me was spun up, and I immediately gave it a try. Unfortunately my concerns with the service, which I outlined over a year ago, turned out to be pretty dead on.

My two main concerns were 1) input lag and 2) picture quality. And neither fared particularly well during my time playing. I tried both Prince of Persia as well as Unreal Tournament III, and even in a single-player game like PoP the input lag was noticeable. However it couldn’t hold a candle to the mess that was UT3, which had something like half a second of input lag, completely messing up my aim and movement. On top of that it was prone to lag spikes, during which my screen would freeze and I’d be teleported a vast distance forward five seconds later. Last year, OnLive’s CEO claimed to have some sort of magical technology that would minimize the impact of round trip times on input responsiveness – I really want some of what he was smoking.

As for picture quality, I stated in my earlier entry that they had to be using some sort of compression to get the data size down to manageable levels. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what they’re doing. The feed you get is 720p in name, in that it consists of 720 horizontal rows of pixels, but it lacks the characteristic sharpness that you would get from running a game at 1280×720 on your own machine. And of course the compression artifacts get worse as your connection experiences hitches.

A new and exciting complaint many people have about the service has to do with its pricing model. You need to pay a subscription – but you also need to pay full retail price for any game you want to play, which seems completely boneheaded to me. I know there are the variable costs of servers to deal with, but surely if you’re going to buy large numbers of copies of a game to run on a server farm, that entitles you to some sort of bulk licensing deal?

In the end I’m sort of left wondering who this product is meant to serve. PC enthusiasts are just going to laugh at it and leave it alone, while people who might want to try some PC games are going to end up with a substandard experience, shorn of all the things that make PC gaming awesome – better graphics, more control options and customization. They might as well just stick to their consoles instead.

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Shurikens and Lightning

I’ve been putting a fair amount of effort into tackling my gaming backlog recently, with the end goal of putting myself into a position where I can play something that came out within the last few months. Unfortunately, surprise sales by PC game download stores do not help in this regard. Since my last update I’ve added Call of Duty 4 ($15 on Steam at the time) and Painkiller ($6 from GoG.com) to my backlog. Fortunately I’ve also beaten one and the majority of the other in that time, so I can talk a bit about their differing approaches to FPS design.

One shot, one kill...ideally

CoD4 is of course more popular than Jesus (or so I’m told), and there’s still a significant contingent of people playing it on the PC (the less said about MW2 the better). CoD4 is very much made in the mould of the more recent generation of first-person shooters – regenerating health and all. That said, it’s not a pushover – great importance is placed on avoiding damage through taking cover or killing enemies before they have a chance to shoot you, since on Hardened and above you die in very few hits. Because of this there’s also a strong emphasis on being highly accurate with your shots, much like in, say, Counter-Strike. I’m not a huge fan of this type of FPS since my skill at getting consistent headshots is non-existent (spec me when I’m playing Sniper in TF2 and you’ll see what I mean), but I don’t mind it. That said it took some time for me to get used to since I don’t typically play games with tons of hitscan weapons and low player HP.

I haven’t tried the game online yet, but I might at some point. I don’t expect to do too well, though.

The first boss you fight in the game. Yes, that is his actual size.

On the other side of the coin, we have Painkiller, a game from a much older tradition – namely, the original Quake. There is no cover system, no headshot mechanic, and no realistic weapon damage. What there is are five well-crafted weapons, each with a unique primary and secondary fire mode (so it’s really more like ten weapons), a few million guys to kill and some gorgeous-looking levels to kill them in. That said, this isn’t Serious Sam where they just let you loose in a giant open field and throw enemies at you – the enemies are very well-designed, and taking them down while minimizing damage to yourself can often be rather challenging. To give an example there’s one level where you need to fight off tons of shotgun/bayonet wielding soldiers. There are literally tons of these guys, and they can actually outrun you, even if you bunnyhop. At the same time, though, there are bigger guys who have miniguns and are shooting at you from further away. And if you try to get into the fray and take out the little guys with your shotgun, look out for the giant guys with the flamethrowers. As a result, beating the level comes down to a frantic game of moving quickly and efficiently while firing shots and switching weapons like mad to thin the horde that’s bearing down on you and chipping away at your health. It really feels like a single-player version of Quake III Arena, which is why I’m loving the hell out of it. After you clear an entire horde by the skin of your teeth, the sense of accomplishment is palpable.

Also, there’s a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning.

Overall I’d say I prefer Painkiller over CoD4, although that’s largely a function of my time spent playing games like Doom and Quake while growing up. Your mileage will probably vary.

In other news, with Gintama finally being off the air I’m casting around for other shows to watch. I’m currently enjoying Crunchyroll’s simulcast of Durarara!!, and I’ve started pulling up older shows on Hulu, like Baccano! and Darker than Black. If you have any recommendations for stuff that I might be interested in (preferably over a streaming service of some kind), do let me know in the comments.

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Why dedicated servers matter

Yes, this is with regards to that Modern Warfare 2 controversy.

A lot of the people pooh-poohing the concerns of the PC gamers who have spoken out against IW’s move to exclude modding and dedicated servers from the game. I figured I would add my voice to the cacophony that has already risen in opposition to this move, but also perhaps explain why dedicated servers matter for multiplayer games.

There are two ways to organize Internet multiplayer games on a PC:

  1. Listen servers, where one player ‘hosts’ the game and the others connect to him
  2. Dedicated servers, where games are hosted on a server machine that all players connect to

It goes without saying that dedicated servers offer players a fairer and more robust multiplayer experience, for a number of reasons. The server doesn’t have to contend for resources with the host’s client game software, the host doesn’t get an advantage in terms of ping (his commands have to make the exact same round trip to the server as everyone else’ commands) and of course the server doesn’t go away as soon as the host decides he’s bored. On top of that dedicated servers are connected to the Internet by connections that are better equipped to handle the network traffic caused by dozens of players connecting and playing at the same time, as opposed to your garden-variety ‘broadband’ that most gamers have.

I can speak from personal experience too – I’ve hosted and connected to listen servers for Left 4 Dead, and the experience wasn’t as smooth as when I connected to a dedicated server to play (and when I hosted games the people playing on my server certainly complained about it).

And let’s not forget that having a place to go when you want to get your game on helps gaming communities to form. You might scoff at this notion, but a friends list isn’t really a good substitution for having a regular server that’s configured just to your tastes, where the regulars are people you have fun playing with. It’s a supplement, but not a replacement.

And lest you think this is a vestige of PC gaming, there are console games that use dedicated servers as well. Warhawk, for one.

So yeah, not having dedicated servers is a big deal for any predominantly multiplayer game. Some people are saying to ‘wait and see’ to see what Infinity Ward has up their sleeve with their new matchmaking service, but as long as it’s based on listen servers I don’t see how it can replace what they’ve taken away.

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I have the PC version of Resident Evil 5

Add me if you have it and want to try some co-op sometime. My GfW Live tag is SonicTempest84.

On a side note, the mouse + keyboard controls for this game are actually really good. You hold right-click to aim and left-click to fire, and the aiming feels pretty responsive. There’s apparently a way to use classic PC FPS weapon selection controls if you want (the number keys) but for now I’m going with the RE5 ‘live’ inventory screen.

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