Particles, Colors, Music.

Cipher Prime makes games in Philly.

“Hey! It’s research, baby.”

The folks around here at the office have been after me for some time now about doing a “musing,” since I haven’t really posted any to date. I feel that these musings should be a reflection of personal experiences, something to take pride in, something that stands as a digest of interests and projects you’ve become invested in. The trouble is my interests shift so quickly that I rarely have a chance to recap in any form of writing, let alone a musing for the public to read. So, with this being my first musing, I’d like to talk video games — since it’s on my mind for the moment.

Now, I’m going to argue here that when I play games I’m actually doing research. For years I ran my own business in IT. With limited time on my hands, I couldn’t justify playing any games when there was always work to be done. After realizing a career in game development was something you actually could do, I closed up shop and started pursuing the dream.

So what’s this bit about research? Well, I still play for the entertainment factor, but I also play to familiarize myself with all the games I’ve missed out on over the years. Having a common understanding of interfaces used in games can help you immensely as a designer by giving you a common language with your audience. Even if you’re just as a tester.

Here’s the short list of titles I’ve been pla… *cough* …ah, “researching” this month.

GRID 2 (Steam)

Just got my hooks into this game. Playing the original, it was hard to imagine how the game might be improved upon, but the brilliant folks over at Codemasters have managed to do just that. While other games would have you traverse menu systems, GRID 2 nearly places you right into the driver seat as you open the game. The graphics are absolutely stunning. So good in fact, that they left me drooling and dreaming of what it might look like with an i7 processor and a current gen NVIDIA card. The game does appear to be tuned for Intel’s latest multi-core and on-chip graphics processors, but even with my Core Duo and a single GTX9600 the game looked spectacular. Seeing the Chicago cityscape instantly brought back memories of being there. The level of detail in the game borders on the realistic. Unbelievable. The controls are perfectly dialed in, making gameplay super enjoyable. In my case, I’m using an Xbox 360 controller for Windows. Can only imagine what it’s like with a decent driving wheel. I simply can’t recommend the game more highly. If you’re a game designer, pick it up for the sole purpose of research if nothing else. It’s a good measure of where to set the bar.

One thing I’d like to point out in particular about GRID is that Codemasters excels at how they handle camera movement. The replay camera really caught my attention in the first game. The default replay view follows the car around the track with a keen sense of framing, so that you’re not always just looking at the back of the car or have it centered in the viewport. The camera actually leads ahead of the car and anticipates directional movement, keeping the vehicle at a position on screen in line with the rule of thirds. It also pivots the camera angle to take in more of the scenery around the track. The attention to real-time cinematic detail in GRID is some of the best I’ve seen in a game. In GRID 2 they’ve taken it even further, improving the driver’s camera movement so that it anticipates corners and directional changes during gameplay — giving the driver a better perspective on the track and a more natural and fluid feel behind the controls.

DOTA 2 (Steam)

What drew me to DOTA 2 in the first place was the Workshop system. Valve has provided users with an interface for creating items for hero characters in game. While looking through the Art Guide for DOTA 2, I was amazed to see how they handle their texture maps. Each hero and item makes use of just four texture files. The first two are pretty standard: one consisting of a diffuse map for color, and the other a normal map for showing physical detail on low-poly meshes. The last two are really interesting: four additional texture maps are shoe-horned into each file. They’re able to do this by using the image’s four channels — red, green, blue, and alpha — independently of each other for storing gray-scale shader masks. Brilliant! If you’re an artist interested in doing any sort of 3D work for video games, it’s worth your while to check out DOTA 2.

Outside of the Steam Workshop side of DOTA 2, I hadn’t actually started playing this game until just a few weeks ago. The gameplay is simple enough: defend your towers, level-up and upgrade your hero for that match, and coordinate with your five man team to focus attacks on the opposing team and their structures until they’ve all been destroyed. The scope of the game becomes immense when you begin to look through the different heroes and their upgrades.

Sanctum 2 (Steam)

This one deserves more play time. It’s definitely a game to be played with friends. If you like tower defense games, as I do, this first-person shooter-style really puts an interesting twist on the genre. First of all, being a multi-player tower defense game allows each player to control the wall placements and path generation for enemies. This requires either a considerable amount of cooperation, or a delegation of duties among players. While one player place the wall sections, another player places the defensive weapons atop the wall sections. The remaining players select weapons to level up and pour credits earned during the last match into them. Once the level is set, the game becomes a survival match. If there were another game out there I could remotely compare it to, it would be the Man vs. Machine mode of Team Fortress 2. Lots of fun. For any artists out there, the high-chroma and stylized art in Sanctum 2 is also worth checking out.

Thomas Was Alone (PS Vita / PS3)

Extremely charming game. I have to say though, when I first saw the gameplay months ago, I wasn’t all that interested in it. I wasn’t crazy about the blocky, prototypy looking graphics. It wasn’t until I sat down with it and began to play that I absolutely fell in love with it. The simplicity I mistook for a lack of effort became a shining example of elegance in design. Did you know that Thomas Was Alone has a commentary track? Go to options and find the volume sliders. You’ll see one there for Commentary.

Plants vs. Zombies (PS Vita)

What can I say. I like tower defense games. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. I remember seeing it in QA when I was a tester. I wonder if I’d still be as interested in playing the game if I had been on that test team. I tested Fractal before it released on the iPad, and I still enjoy playing it. Although, I haven’t played it on my own time in quite a while, and haven’t completed the campaign or puzzles on any of the copies I own. Something to think about.

I do like how Plants vs. Zombies differs from the traditional tower defense, though. Instead of guiding the enemy along a path, you attempt to build an impenetrable wall against the waves of zombies. Normally towers don’t take any damage, but you also normally have to leave a path open to the goal. In Plants vs. Zombies, you expect your towers to fall and have to budget for new ones when the do. Interestingly enough, strategies normally used in RTS games seem to translate well here. Much like walling off for an opener as Terran in Starcraft 2, you’re trying to hold the enemy off long enough to build a strong economy first. Then purchase and upgrade active defenses to build up your offensive.

I’m going to make an effort to continue this sort of writing as a monthly series. It’s important to be familiar with the games in the market today, for the purpose of vocabulary if nothing else. But it’s also important to compare today’s titles with those from years past, and identify how games have evolved and continue to be improved upon. You’ll end up being a better designer for it.