Thursday, 7 November 2019

I'm back on the game dev!

I had fun writing the last few blog posts and giving my thoughts on a few things, but I think it's time I went back to making games rather than talking about them. 

As UFO is still on hold (there's a big problem I need to fix, but my mind just isn't in the right place for solving it at the moment), I decided to dust off an older game and give it a bit of a makeover. Well, when I say makeover, I mean recreate the whole thing from scratch, as I no longer have the source code for it.

The original Retr0ids is a pseudo-8bit styled game that was designed to look a bit like it ran on a BBC model B, but one with much more capability that the real machine ever had. It's a 38 level shoot-em-up that tries to combine elements of Asteroids and Robotron. So far it's been my most successful game, so I thought I'd do a remake/sequel.

The new game is Super Retr0ids Ultra XD, and it's designed around the idea of what might happen if the developer of the original 8bit game got himself a 16bit machine and made a sequel, but with a few extra visual touches of my own. As you can see from the screenshots from the original game and a work in progress image of the new game, the visuals are getting a major reworking with more detailed sprites. I'm also going to be adding some new enemies as well.


Super Retr0ids Ultra XD

The graphics design is sort of reminiscent of an Amiga game, but I'm sneaking in a much larger colour palette and screen resolution. I'm also aiming to do away with the square Retr0ids and make them all round.

Anyway, that's it for this post. I've made some pretty nice progress already, so I should hopefully have some more to share soon.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Maybe it's better left to the imagination...

Elite (C64) Doesn't look so hot these days, but I really got into it.
Games have fantastic graphics and sound these days, but I find it a lot harder to put myself into the world of a game I'm playing than I used to.

Take Elite for example. I played Elite a long time ago on the C64, and Frontier Elite 2 on the Amiga, and I thought it was amazing. I was an interstellar space trader with a Cobra Mk III and a desire to make it rich. It didn't matter that the graphics were wireframe on the C64 or that it ran at around 4 frames per second when anywhere but deep space on the Amiga. I was in space!

Elite Dangerous (PC) looks great but can feel a bit dull and empty.
These days I play Elite Dangerous. In principal it's pretty much the same game as the other two, but with greatly improved graphics. You start out with a pretty rubbish little ship, travelling from station to station to buy and sell things or complete missions. When you've got enough money, you can spend it on upgrading your existing ship or buying a new one. I loved the older games, so you'd think I'd love this one, right? Well... No, not really.

You see, as I said above, back when I played Elite and Frontier it was a lot easier for me to play make believe and put myself in the game, but I have a really hard time maintaining that illusion these days. Back in my younger days, even though I knew I was just someone sitting in front of a screen, it was a lot easier to use my imagination. When I was playing Elite, I was in space running the gauntlet of space pirates. When I played B-17 Flying Fortress, I was on a bombing run over WWII Europe with the Luftwaffe on my tail. When I played Grand Prix, I was driving for Williams and fighting for the world championship in a heated battle with Ayrton Senna. These days, though, I'm just a bloke holding a controller sitting in front of a screen.

It's not even like I don't try to imagine myself in the game world. When playing Elite Dangerous, I can usually roleplay and maintain the illusion for about ten to fifteen minutes before I start getting bored. I suppose if the game was a bit more engaging the world might grab me a bit better, but I don't think Elite Dangerous is quite as good as the previous versions. That being said, maybe I'd find the older games to be just as dull now. I've not played either of them for around 25 years.

Compared to the earlier games, Elite Dangerous seems to have a very hands off approach to space combat. In the older Elite, you only had to get a sniff of an anarchy or low security system and you'd have a horde of space pirates on your tail baying for blood. In Elite Dangerous, however, you can pretty much go from system to system for weeks without any pirate encounters. This has the effect of turning the game into a dock > fly to station > dock > repeat loop, with not very much else happening. Sort of like European Truck Simulator 2, but you only ever drive down straight roads with no scenery and all the other traffic is tiny dots in the distance.

You can find combat in Elite Dangerous if you really go looking for it, for example if you take assassination missions or if you hang around in resource extraction sites or near navigation beacons. It is, however, very rare that the AI space pirates will come to find you. Even anarchy or low security systems, which in the previous games were something you entered at your peril, often just end up being a milk run.

I think it's too late now for the developers of Elite Dangerous to change the gameplay to be a bit more like the original, where enemy attacks were more prevalent and you'd often get a sense of trepidation every time you became mass locked by another object, having a moment of tension where you really weren't sure if that thing was going to be a pirate, a trader or just another space rock. I think, though, if they did do something to make the AI pirates more of a threat, the game would certainly be less dull - and maybe people would stop coming on the games forums complaining about how shallow the game is at times.

Now, I don't want you to think I'm just picking on Elite Dangerous here, because it's quite possible that my problems with the game are caused by my own lack of imagination when gaming. If I could stay in character maybe I'd enjoy it more. I was playing Batman Arkham Asylum recently, and it's a really good game, but at no point did I ever play the game as Batman. Instead, through the whole thing I was just Pete the gamer sitting in front of his PC holding his controller and moving his thumbs, but when I played Batman The Movie on my Commodore 64, it was a lot easier for me to imagine that I was really in the game.

Maybe it's the price we have to pay for getting older as gamers. Back when we're younger it's a lot easier for us to plug in to the atmosphere of a game and imagine that we're really in space, or chasing after The Joker dressed as a bat. Maybe we just become too cynical about things once we get older, and maybe this is why we see so many videos of 40-something, bearded nerds on YouTube crying about how the changes to things like Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek are "ruining their childhood." 

I mean, I actually quite like Star Trek Discovery and the newer Star Wars movies, because I just take them for what they are, and enjoy the ride. Like the Marvel movies, I just approach them as if I was watching a 2 hour Saturday morning cartoon, and don't expect much more. I know that 8-year-old me would have found them amazing, and maybe this is the approach I need to adopt with games. Instead of sitting there nitpicking the whole thing comparing it to other stuff, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Getting your own opinion may be a dangerous thing.

Zzap!64 was always a trusted source for games reviews.
Ignorance is bliss, or so they say.

In my early days of gaming, back when I had my Sinclair ZX81 and Atari 2600, I didn't have much idea of what was or wasn't a good game. I didn't have many games for either machine, so I usually borrowed Atari 2600 games from my cousin or typed in games for my Sinclair ZX81 from magazines and books. My cousin had more games than me, so I trusted his opinion on what was or wasn't considered good.

When I eventually got my Commodore 64 - and I think my cousin had a ZX Spectrum by this time - it came with ten copies of Zzap! 64 magazine that had been collected together by the previous owner, and I enjoyed reading them so much that I decided it was worth ordering from the local newsagent.

Zzap! was full of great stuff. It was funny, informative and entertaining. And, above all, I felt that the writers could be trusted to give me an honest opinion on what was or wasn't a good game. I used to read all of the reviews every month, and any game that scored above 70% was definitely on my radar.

As I got older, and my games machines changed from C64, Mega Drive, Amiga, PC and Playstation, the magazines changed with them. My strategy for buying games, however, didn't. I still felt that I could trust reviewers, and even though Zzap! 64 had long since gone out of print, I felt that the likes of Sega Power, Amiga Format and PC Zone weren't going to steer me wrong. That was until I encountered Wipeout in 1995.

The Playstation was the new big thing! Everyone was raving about Wipeout at the time, and I remember that I bought it for my PC expecting it to blow me away. It didn't. I felt that the game was okay, but certainly nothing exceptional. I'd played better racing games on my Amiga, Mega Drive and C64 before. Not better in terms of technology, but certainly more entertaining to play. I really didn't get what all the fuss was about, and I started, for the first time, to think that reviewers and myself had started to go a bit wrong somewhere.

This happened more and more with different games as the 90's wore on, and I started to wonder how the reviewers were getting it so wrong. In the past I'd pretty much always agreed with a reviewers opinion of a game when I'd bought it based on their recommendation, but here I was playing games that were scoring highly and I was wondering how they were considered to be good. A lot of stuff was just leaving me cold.

This was definitely more of a problem for me on Playstation than it was on PC. With the PC, I could still buy many games that were rated highly and enjoy them. Civilization, Grand Prix, B17 Flying Fortress, Lemmings and The Sims were all games that I bought based on the review score, and I thought they were great. There were a few that didn't work out, but many did. The console reviews, though, were turning up quite a few more lame ducks. Sure, there was still a lot of stuff that I liked, but there was also a heck of a lot that I didn't like as well.

It could simply be that I was no longer so easily captured by the review scores, with 9 out of 10 no longer having the magical hold on me that it used to have, meaning I couldn't overlook the flaws in a game, thinking "Well, it got  high review scores. So the problem can't be the game!" when I encountered an issue. Whatever it was, there was definitely an ongoing difference of opinion between the reviewers and myself with many games.

Maybe I've just become too fussy, or too jaded, over the years. Or perhaps I simply thought I knew more than the reviewers, which I'm probably completely wrong about, but in my defence virtually every gamer thinks they're an expert on games, so I'm probably not alone in this train of thought. It could also be that I'm no longer impressed by flashy graphics. I know that in the past I'd often play something and marvel at how good it looked, but these days I don't really tend to do that.

Maybe, and this is more my fault than a fault with gaming, I just expect too much from video games these days. Games are technically a lot more advanced than they were when I first started playing them, but the actual gameplay in many cases doesn't seem to have moved on with the fancy graphics. Maybe I need to start exploring VR a bit more to discover something different.

Whatever it is, I feel that I can no longer trust reviews as much to give me a true opinion on a game, and so I spend a lot less time looking at reviews and a lot more time watching videos on YouTube to gauge whether or not a new game will be worth playing. That being said, I recently bought the three newer Tomb Raider games on PS4 based simply on the review scores and I'm having a great time with them, so maybe all hope is not lost.

Anyway, the point of all this is to suggest that maybe to enjoy games properly it might be better to not form an opinion on them right away, as having an opinion might actually end up ruining the experience before I've even played it. Things are so hyped up these days that I find that I usually have a lot of assumptions about what a game will be like before I've even played it, and this means I tend to have a lot of ideas about the game before it's even loaded.

If I see a 9 out of 10 on a game, I often go into it expecting something amazing. Often times, though, it usually doesn't meet my lofty expectations of it and I'll start nitpicking instead of enjoying the ride. Perhaps the real lesson here is to go in with no assumptions at all and see what happens from there. When I knew very little about games I enjoyed them more, so maybe assuming the Buddhist concept of beginners mind is the key to enjoying games now?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki.

Sometimes,though, I wish I could just go back to a more innocent time, when I didn't know so much about games, could trust reviews, switch off the analytical part of my brain, stop nitpicking and simply live by "Well, it scored a Zzap! Gold Medal, so it must be a good game!"

You knew a game was good when it got one of these!