Slow Trains

October 29, 2012

(For the short version, skip to the point 3 and the two images below it)
Katie Melua is one of my favourite musicians, not for her looks of course (though she is a pretty lady (and married, btw)) but for her innate singing ability and her learned song writing talent. One of the songs in her repertoire goes like this “So I stopped one day to figure it out, I quit my job without a shadow of a doubt, to sing the blues that I know about, my life is just a slow train, crawling up a hill.”

(Note how I’ve chosen a video that doesn’t show the music video)

For the past few months I’ve been working at Amazon, building up a decent cash reserve so that I can quit my job (without a shadow of a doubt) and spend some time learning to drive (Makes getting other jobs a bit easier) and do the things that I know about. I’m in a state of transition – where my patience with the job (which has a rota that jumps from 5:30AM-1:30PM to 1:30PM-9:30PM and back each week, often leaving me exhausted, as if I haven’t had a good nights sleep in months) is running thin and I need to get out.

I’m going to hold on just a few more weeks, get some more cash reserves in the bank, until Desert Bus for Hope comes along, which I missed last year. You see, Amazon has a holiday embargo at this time, so getting to see that is as good a reason as any to choose a particular week to take a chance and go back to what my heart is calling me to do… Assuming of course that I’ve learned certain key lessons:

1. Stay the hell away from making 3D games. I don’t like doing art enough for that, also, implementing things in code should be easier (depending on what that thing is of course) because I’m only coding for 2 dimensions instead of 3, less need to mess about with camera implementations.

2. Certain key changes to the design of my main project have to be made. Previously the project (which is about setting up a colony on a new extra-terrestrial world) was just too focused on numbers, became too much about managing production levels in a spreadsheet style. I’ve since had an epiphany whilst playing a little game called colonization – Make the game more about managing people by moving them from building to building and allowing them to pick up specialisations.

3. Since I want to move away from 3D and I want to make a big shift in the design, this is a perfect opportunity to do both by switching from Torque 3D to Torque 2D (I’ve already bought the 2D license) and begin afresh with the code. Making that switch in game engines will make it easier for me to write off the loss of all the code and art I’ve done on the old design in the old game engine.

So the next iteration in the design will be less like this:

On Second Thoughts

On second thoughts, maybe that wasn’t the best approach…

And more like this (With certain adjustments I’ll go into at another time):

Perhaps something more like this

I was really hoping to continue working on stuff whilst I was working at Amazon, but sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, so it’s time to make some changes. Heck, I might eventually opt for a part time job, 20 hours a week kind of thing so I still have money coming in but also have plenty of time and energy to make things, time will tell, I didn’t do so well on the part time job search last winter but that was a year ago.

If at first you don’t succeed…

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In this house, I have a small A6 notebook, in that notebook there are around 100 pages chock full of notes.

Notes for what? For an MMOFPS of course, like Planetside 1, but reducing its weaknesses whilst building on its strengths, something written over the course of months, picking the game apart and rebuilding it piece by piece.

Image

If you’re a Planetside 2 developer who happens to be reading this (I see it as unlikely though to be honest), sorry in advance, I think there’s an element of truth to what I saw Total Biscuit saying earlier about the biggest fans being the harshest critics.

So, I guess you could say I’m rather passionate about Planetside and that I’d have high hopes for a sequel, something that would take what the original did and build on it. Rumblings of a sequel being in the works emerged and I was excited, however I quickly became VERY concerned when those rumblings gave significant mention to Battlefield and Call of Duty/Modern Warfare. Despite that I hoped that it was just talk, a marketing message intended to draw in the players of those games to something bigger and something different.

You see, Planetside and the squad shooters of Battlefield and Modern Warfare are very different games, with very different mechanics and gameplay goals and so on. If you make Planetside 2 too much like those games, you risk losing much of what made the original great. Sure, Planetside had its issues, but these could be addressed in a sequel, you could build on the original… Or you could throw out everything and make a different game. Seems the latter choice was followed, did the developers simply not like the original? Sometimes I have to wonder. Anyway…

They decided to go with a class system instead of the certification system of old (That allowed you to custom build your character to your personal preferences), making it like pretty much EVERY current multiplayer shooter on the market right now. That just pisses me off so much, because I liked the very different experience of custom built soldiers. So what if there were popular builds, there are still going to be popular class choices as well – whatever seems most effective or dominant – but at least I got to combat and use oddball weapon loadouts too, people who used the supressor or rocklet rifle instead of the obvious main rifle or heavy assault weapon, this kept the game fresh. The developers took the easy route out to avoid certain design challenges and I think that’s a waste in this homogenised shooter market. They’ve made their choice though and will be sticking to it, so I guess that’s that.

Much has been made of the behemoth that is World of Warcraft in the MMORPG market, how people kept trying to copy it, how foolhardy this was because if people wanted to play a game like World of Warcraft, they’d just play World of Warcraft. Now we have Planetside 2 coming along and I fear they’ve done something akin to copying World of Warcraft in the MMORPG market, but its CoD/BF in the MMOFPS market and I am concerned that many people will try it but in the end retreat back to the two games that PS2 feels like it’s aping. I’ll admit they ARE listening to feedback and many elements/mechanics have moved back in the direction of Planetside but sadly I think this shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Well, that, and I didn’t want an MMORPG Call of Duty. I wanted Planetside 2, I wanted something different to the current crop of shooters.

I’m going to take this opportunity to address many of the bugbears I’m having with the sequel, some of it is just personal taste stuff I admit, others that I think are genuine issues.

Catering to a single player mindset

Let’s take a look at the tanks. In Planetside 1 a tank would require two crew members to be effective (Let’s not get into a debate about the Prowler now), you’d have a driver and a gunner, the driver wouldn’t actually have much in the way of a gun though the MagRider did get one that you could use to scare off aircraft and maybe score some infantry kills with if you were good. Additionally, to pull one you’d have to spend some refundable certification points to get access to it and these were a limited resource. You’d also need access to a Technology Plant or go back to the empire sanctuary to pull one.

In Planetside 2, there’s a resource cost for a main tank, the main gun is actually the driver gun and until upgraded with a replacement the gunner gun almost seems pointless (especially when you can’t aim it up sufficient to hit an air unit nose down firing missile pods at maximum angle). I think that despite the resource cost, the tanks are too popular because they are considered an easy way to score/farm kills and they are often used just to spam a base or spawns with shells rather than as a push between bases.

I’ve found myself missing just being the driver for a good gunner, worrying only about positioning myself correctly and letting my gunner do the rest, but if I want to do that in the sequel I’d have to spend a fortune in (*non-refundable*) certification points. If I screw up the choice of purchase (and I did exactly that today with the guns for the Flash) then I’m sod out of luck.

Tanks need to be rarer, and they need to be used more for tank battles and less for farming infantry (an issue in the level design, I’ll get to this later). Tank groups in Planetside 1 were rare enough that they were a joy to behold before you went scurrying for cover because of the teamwork requirement of gunner-driver, now I usually see tank zergs instead on a daily basis, disorganised and not that much fun to fight with because often everyone goes off in random directions instead of working as a unit. Conversely, tanks can die a little too quickly, in Planetside I could stand a chance of anticipating that I was overextending with my tank but in the sequel I don’t. I feel Planetside 1 had this right, Planetside 2 does not.

Weapons

I can’t help but feel the weapons kill too quickly and I dislike the use of bullet drop. Yes, I’m sure conceptually it’s realistic and requires uber skill (etc) but I hate the way I so often have to aim above my target and the shots often feel so random. I’d really like to shoot where I aim, if it’s a distant target then there’s enough difficulty there in the challenge of shooting a smaller dot in the distance, in my mind I just don’t see it as necessary to artificially beef up the difficulty by putting in bullet drop.

Camera shake also winds me up, every little explosion nearby sends my confidence in my aim to hell and back and the visuals for explosions are often over large/imposing, obscuring my ability to see if I actually hit my target or not with a tank round (I’m looking at you default gun on the lightning.)… Oh how I’d love the Planetside 2 Lightning to be mechanically more like the Planetside 1 lightning, you had a cannon for hitting vehicles and anything hiding at the edge of cover but also had an alternate machine gun for scaring off aircraft or beating back infantry. The way the shells drop on the lightning in PS2 I find it hard to land a decent shot almost ever.

Lastly, in Planetside 1 you had a shooting range/virtual reality area so you could try out all the weapons/unlocks. Planetside 2 has non-refundable certs yet I have nowhere to go and see if that thing I’m about to spend 240 points on is worth the points or not.

Visuals

In addition to explosions being too big and obscuring what I’m shooting at, I’m having issues with the way soldiers seem to just blend into the world, I’m never quite sure if I’m looking at friend or foe at a glance, certainly not like I could in the original, leading to lots of snap shot ‘oops sorry’ moments, or holding your fire often when you really shouldn’t be (In my experience anyway). I can’t help but think the environments are visually very noisy which exacerbates the blending into background issues, especially with snipers firing on you from a distance.

Infiltrators

I’m having real issues with the way I’m fighting someone with a rifle who can disappear at a moments notice and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I can’t help but wish that when choosing equipment for the infiltrator the ability to cloak was something you placed into the rifle slot, so either you had the scouting and hacking abilities of your class with a rifle, or you sacrificed that rifle so you could cloak and have to use the pistol instead. I see it as more balanced than getting the drop on someone, having him/her vanish then move behind me and shoot me in the back (Or from a safe distance) with such ease, it’s doubly annoying when it happens to be an NC with a sniper rifle than can one shot you.

Lack of Strategizing

In Planetside, you could take an outfit behind enemy lines and knock out and hold a key generator to deny the enemy on the frontlines the ability to do something (or several things depending on lattice layouts) like pull the main battle tanks and heavier aircraft. Planetside 2 has nothing like that at the moment. I’m really missing having a reason to go do something else, the idea of cutting an empire off from some of its resources just doesn’t seem to be cutting it (Plus there’s a whole feedback loop of its own that can make pushing back onto a continent a horrific endeavour for an empire).

World and Base Layout – Galaxies

Planetside 1 got so much right. One way in which it got things right in my view is the towers. They were small 1 building spawn points. When you jumped out of a galaxy you knew which building you had to drop on and what to expect when you got inside. We’ve done trials with gal drops in Planetside 2 and several issues have become clear, one is that it’s difficult to know pre-drop when you’re looking at the map to place a drop waypoint what is where. Does that building contain the spawn room? Is that the capture point? The maps for bases in Planetside had little hints that indicated where a backdoor was (this was helped by the uniform design of bases). We’ve given up on using Galaxies for the most part because the not knowing where exactly to aim the drop of the squad caused us to get split up too much. Better to arrive in a mixed force of vehicles and a Sunderer AMS.

Not only is it hard to guide a Galaxy into the right drop position, but Galaxies were a great way to drop troops behind enemy lines, but at the moment I see no reason for why we’d want to drop a squad behind enemy lines in Planetside 2.

World and Base Layout – Tanks and Infantry Movement

Due to the distributed nature of the base buildings it’s very easy for a liberator or tank or three to go into a base and prevent infantry moving from one critical part of the base to another. My experience with the bases in Planetside 1 told me there was only one key weakness – the use of very long corridors made those places too strong as kill zones. Otherwise, the fact that you could have infantry battles inside the bases meant you always had a place where you could take a break from the possibility of being farmed by vehicles and aircraft. Not so in Planetside 2, with the exception of the Biolab. I would recommend making it impossible to move a tank into any of the smaller bases and make it hard to just shell the bases, especially the areas near spawns.

Also, where are the forests, and by forests I mean thick dense forests, the kind that driving a vehicle into is risky because of the amount of directions a missile could fly at you from. Similarly, Esamir was supposed to have trenches, trenches are man made, but what I found when I got to the continent myself was less trenches and more just undulations in the landscape. No bunkers connecting them either. I was regrettably underwhelmed.

World and Base Layout – Naval Warfare

I know the developers have plans to do this later, but they should have laid the groundwork during beta so that when they actually go for this, the continents are ready made to support it. Huge missed opportunity here to at least have a single boat type at launch to demonstrate you’re really going for that this time. Now the continents in game so far have no indication of being able to support naval warfare at all so for those continents naval vessels will only be pulled rarely, because what’s the point if you can’t get a boat even remotely close to the fights in the interior of the continents. Also, enough with the square continents, a hex layout is used as a territory spacing mechanic, work with that and make the coasts more rounded and interesting.

Bouncing Balance

There seems to be a temptation in some design circles to over nerf or over buff something or to make several changes together that affect the same thing. Rather than making one change to anti-air, three changes go to anti-air and one to aircraft themselves, all nerfs to aircraft, all hitting together in the same patch. How can a designer evaluate one change accurately if the results are muddied by 3 other changes?

Release

Overall and lastly, I’m deeply concerned about the choice of release date, not only is it competing with too many major winter quarter releases but it suggests SOE are about to put the developers through a hell month. Right now I think those developers need a week to stop, rest and think about what they’re trying to do with Planetside 2. Evaluate, prototype, experiment, have regular good nights sleep and time at home with family/friends. Pushing for a November release seems very unhealthy for the game and its developers and that has me especially concerned. Even if I ignore many of my design choice issues with the game, a month still seems like a very short time in which to polish things up, we haven’t even gotten strong indications of what the interaction between outfits is intended to be in game mechanic terms. A lot has changed and time should be given to let things settle and get good test data back. Also, I still haven’t had one afternoon session of play without at least 2 client crashes, this too concerns me.