Friday, 1 July 2011

Hello! Beginnings and prognostication.


So here is my attempt at blogging which few - if any - are likely to read, but in the unlikely event I have any readers: your presence is much appreciated.

I am Chris Wigman, a musician and computer technician, also dabbling in 3D modelling and game design. My last major projects were as Casimirs' Blake and Leniad, and I have had album releases as both. If, dear reader, you have any interest in electronic music, please click on the appropriate links to find out more!

As this is my personal blog, I will probably spend less time talking about my own music here, and concentrate on my projects as a whole. Currently I'm learning Blender and Unity3D, with the intention to create computer games! At this stage my major project is to attempt to create an immersive simulation, which will be difficult and involve many things including AI, extensive level design, probably fleshing out a lot of quests and - possibly most importantly - a player interface appropriate for interaction in such a game. And some graphic and sound design. And music. Phew!

Worthy Peers, Never Met

My primary influences are the once-mighty Looking Glass Studios. I say once as, sadly, LGS no longer exist. Having spent a decade producing some of the very finest PC games ever made, including Ultima Underworld I & II, System Shock I & II, Terra Nova and Thief I & II, they have become a martyr for intelligent game design. The short version is: they lost funding from their publisher, who was too busy throwing money at one of the most terrible games ever released.

I've spent the last month re-playing both Ultima Underworld games. You can find them over at, for a very reasonable price. They are still an object lesson in how to do a "first-person dungeon-crawler action RPG". Or at least an action adventure. They emphasise personal choice and discovery, exploration and experimentation. And, of course, they have a fair bit of exciting combat whether a player prefers to do so bare-handed, with swords, maces, axes or magic. As players explore the various levels and worlds in Ultima Underworld, they are expected to improve and learn, and adapt their abilities to various tasks and adversaries, in all manner of conditions and places.

Here is an article covering the history and games of Looking Glass Studios. Don't forget to come back! :)

Modern RPGs and Grind

Ultima Underworld does also offer some measure of "character creation", a staple of traditional Role-Playing. Many consider character creation and design (e.g. strength, dexterity, defence statistics, physical skills, magic skills etc) to be the most important aspect of an RPG, hence most modern multiplayer RPGs (known commonly as "MMO-RPGs" - Massively-Multiplayer-Online Role-Playing Games) emphasise a large amount of choice when creating a character. This is a dead-end as far as I am concerned.

I have asked some of my MMO-RPG-playing friends, what is the point of undertaking the same quests over and over again? I've never been entirely satisfied with the answers. MMORPGs have a common fallacy, and that is known as "grinding".

In order to level up and retrieve or achieve the next best shield / sword / spear / plot mcguffin / quest, a player's character often requires better statistics. Primarily this is achieved by doing a lot of quests, or fighting a lot of monsters and enemies to receive experience. This is a valid and common gameplay design choice, and obviously it is popular. One could certainly state that this happens throughout much of System Shock, and Ultima Underworld. However in these games the player continually progresses through new lands, levels, dungeons, and places. Players will often meet new challenges, in new places, and have to employ their abilities in new ways.

In MMO-RPGs, players spend a lot of time "grinding": repeating the same actions over and over again in the same place just to receive a better item or finish a quest, and often having done so for the 283rd time just to raise a few character statistics.

I don't enjoy this, frankly. I value exploration and discovery over such things, and Looking Glass games also prize this under-appreciated aspect of game design. Thief offered little choice with regards to "character design", and yet a good Thief mission offered many, many different ways to approach tasks. A player would be confronted with large, maze-like cave systems, or elaborate mansions, prisons, sometimes even whole town areas. The game-world would have its own rules and the player is given a lot of tools with which they may approach the challenges the game-world sets for them, thus allowing for many different methods of achieving goals. The player learns by experimentation, and becomes better-equipped (in all senses) to deal with the challenges the game puts to them.

The Modern Equivalent, Isn't So Equivalent

These days, the closest game type to the immersive simulation is the sand-box. Grand Theft Auto being the most popular example. I don't really wish to extensively examine the game here, I don't play it any more and personally I find it takes itself too seriously. But from a gameplay point of view, despite supposedly offering so much choice, it boils down to following linear missions in a large space (typically a city) that a player can run and drive around. There are completely arbitrary "mini-games" and side-missions, but - as with such nonsense as Infamous, Prototype and Just Cause - there is no feeling that the player can truly interact with a world or have a long-lasting impact upon it.

So What Am I Doing About It?

Whatever I achieve with my first project, it will not be a sand-box in the form I have just discussed. I am hoping to be able to produce an experience that feels interactive in a similar way to System Shock or Ultima Underworld. I have already managed to put together a basic first-person interface in Unity3D (which I will talk further about later on) which allows switching between traditional mouse-look and - crucially - a cursor. What I mean by this is that, at any point, hitting a key "freezes" the player view and shows a mouse cursor. This will eventually allow the player to do various things, particularly examining everything - right down to the walls and doors, not just items, furniture, other characters - and giving the player a physical interface that allows them to interact with the world, pick up items, and also put them down wherever they want.

The best example of this is System Shock 2, some might say the ultimate immersive simulation, but even the now-aged 1992 masterpiece Ultima Underworld allowed this, from a first-person perspective. But item placement is not the only aspect of an immersive simulation, as Artificial Intelligence, quest and goal structure, open level design also factor as well as many other aspects. I shall not elaborate further as I am not the authority on this subject, and I would highly recommend reading the following blog on the subject for more information:

Early Days

So having indirectly lamented the "death" of the immersive sim and the poor alternatives that have "replaced" it, what is my reasons for attempting the ridiculously complicated task of making not just a game, but an immersive simulation?

I am utterly depressed and disillusioned with modern gaming. Having spent a large part of my life enjoying games as entertainment and as inspiration for practically everything I do, viewing the roster of games available for the X-Box 360, Wii, Playstation 3 and even mainstream PC games, leaves me empty. I feel that there is nothing out there of interest to me. Few are bothering to make immersive simulations, let alone dungeon crawlers. There are a few on the Nintendo DS, and Code Zombie recently released the fabulous crawler Deadly Dungeons for Android phones and tablets. But it simply isn't enough, hence my desire to attempt this herculean task.

I began to explore tutorials for Unity3D at the beginning of the year, primarily following Peter Laliberte's superb Burg Zerg Arcade RPG tutorials and, more recently, some Blender tutorials. I've never particularly enjoyed coding, but I've found C sharp fairly understandable, particularly within the scope of Unity3D's modular, object-based approach to design. Blender, also, surprised me. Many consider 3D modelling to be impenetrable, but somehow I've managed to grasp the basics of Blender fairly well, to the point of being able to construct some reasonable geometry and apply textures to it. Unity3D imports from Blender, but currently not the newest versions without some hacking. I'm hoping the 3.4 update for Unity - which is imminent, apparently - will address this issue.

For now, I am concentrating on learning Blender. A modern 3D game requires content, and being the glutton for punishment I am, I'm going to have to make a lot of it. Basic objects, furniture, architecture, and - later on - characters.

It wil take a lot of time, but hopefully in a year or two, I will have a game to show for it.

... that's if Minecraft and Terraria aren't persistently dragging me away!

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