The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for visiting family and returning home from visiting family. At least we can spend the travel time catching up on some reading, perhaps of fine articles about games.

At Kotaku, Jason Schreier writes up the story of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s troubled development, based on conversations with anonymous staff who worked on the game. There’s lots of interesting stuff in here.

“The goal was to go back to what Mass Effect 1 promised but failed to deliver, which was a game about exploration,” said one person who worked on the game. “Lots of people were like, ‘Hey, we never fully tapped the potential of the first Mass Effect. We figured out the combat, which is awesome. We figured out the narrative. Let’s focus on bringing back exploration.’”

I enjoyed greatly Chris Livingston’s attempts to ride a shopping cart down a hill, which begin with his attempts to get inside the shopping cart.

I quickly found that Cart Racer, while the ‘Cart’ part of the title is accurate, isn’t really a racing game. There’s no timer, and no opponents. Your biggest adversary is the shopping cart you’re supposed to be riding in, and the not-great controls, and the physics, and the fact that the moment you touch anything you become a floppy deceased ragdoll. I found that just jumping into the cart to start riding was about the toughest part of the game.

I could really just link everything Chris Livingston write’s in this column – and so I will. Here he is again on why it took him four hours and a dozen dead sheep to get his toilet working in Ark: Survival Evolved.

After eating a dozen chops and periodically pressing the defecate button, I finally take a shit. However, it appears to fall out of my ear and land on the toilet seat next to me. That’s the thing about plumbing: you’ve got to hook it up to something. Though it’s technically a chair with a hole in it, and the poop should just fall in regardless, it won’t: I need a water supply to make my toilet go.

At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan writes that nothing will ever compare to the first level of a new game.

At the same time, though, I am starting to understand another of gaming’s great pleasures – or rather I am increasingly aware of something I love that has always, reliably, made me very happy. And it’s the complete opposite of the feeling you get when you understand almost everything about a game except what your opponent is going to do. It is the glory of being lost, bewildered, majestically confused. It is the glory of fumbling through the first few moments – or the first level – of a brand new game.

At Gamasutra, Joel Couture talks to the developers of Oxygen Not Included about how its simulation informs its layered challenge. Oxygen Not Include being the gaseous asteroid survival game in early access from Klei, makers of Don’t Starve and Invisible, Inc.

The developers had seen that survival would be at its most tense should the player constantly have a flow of small challenges layered on top of one another, and at no point ever offering the player a sense they were completed. Hunger could be staved off for a while, but that need would crop up again soon. While players would be able to build systems that may be able to take care of air or heat problems in space, those solutions could never be final. There would always need to be a way in which they could go wrong.

Apologies for the brevity, but that’ll have to do for this week. Music is as always.

39 Comments

  1. Spacewalk says:

    I used to trolley surf when I was a lad. I live near a shopping centre which had (past tense, they’ve redeveloped it long since) a carpark that was on a slope and at the bottom was a curb and a small bushland area and late in the afternoon I’d gather together with my group and we’d race trolleys to the bottom.

    There wasn’t even the reward of pussy, we just did it because we got a rush from it. Once I leapt out of the trolley at the right time and launched myself into a tree which was impressed everyone. Then that became the future goal. It was pretty small time, we weren’t going across two lanes of traffic like they do in the big league but there was one or two times when we raced to beat a truck and that time when we had to run from police because the owners were sick of their trolleys getting dents.

    • Universal Quitter says:

      We did something similar growing up, but with one in the cart and one or two hanging on with stolen fast food trays as “surfboards,” as we lived in a place with plenty of large hills on major streets.

      It worked better in the rain, of course.

      • Spacewalk says:

        We tried that too only we’d put the tray at the top of a grassy hill, run at it and slide most of the way down since that’s the best we could do.

        So, when the first of us got his license we took take turns skitching his dad’s car. Some rope was acquired and we graduated to trailing along behind which meant we could spin around and go over ramps. Anyway, the whole thing ended when somebody hit the back of the car and faceplanted into the rear window cracking it, parents weren’t happy, (not very good) excuses were made and we all got busted.

        To this day I still fail to see how stupid what we were doing was. It probably would’ve been stupid if we got really hurt, the worst was a nosebleed and one case of roadburn but you can get that skateboarding so it’s not like it’s a unique case or anything.

  2. Someoldguy says:

    The Mass Effect read was very interesting. I’ve never worked in the games industry but the scenario of management starving their teams of needed resources then trying to get back on track later by throwing money at contractors, who then need to be managed and have everything explained by the already under-resourced teams, is all too familiar.

    • ooshp says:

      It was indeed a very interesting read. A “knuckle burner” of a read. I was so engrossed in the article I didn’t notice my morning cigarette had burned all the way up to my fingers, and my delayed pain response from years of cooking did the rest.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      I haven’t played Andromeda yet (busy playing other things and may as well wait for some more patches and DLC)… but holy shit with that development process it’s a miracle they managed to ship *any game at all* and everyone on that team should get a medal.

      Switching your entire art pipeline from Max to Maya mid-production? Trying to make 100+ planet No Man’s Sky but with the narrative detail of Mass Effect? Trying to retrofit an engine apparently completely unsuited to the genre to do what you want? Completely changing direction 18 months before ship? Understaffing? Inter-studio politics? A year-and-a-half of crunch? Any of those things would be enough to sink a project on its own.

      It sounds like a perfect storm of bad decisions (some self-inflicted, some forced on them) plus extremely ambitious goals that would be difficult under the best of circumstances. And then your reward is backlash and your team getting more or less disbanded.

      I hope they get a chance to reform as a team and make another game with the lessons they’ve learned from this one.

      • malkav11 says:

        And for all the shit it’s gotten on the internet, it’s actually a really good game in most respects. Not perfect, by any means, but far better than it has any right to be considering.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Parts of that team did a good job. I’d play another game where the team that designed the environments and combat system re-formed on a project.

        The dialog writers, and whoever designed the main character and crew mates, they all need to find another line of work though. Or else get a few more years of life experience outside of a game studio.

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          Given the unrealistic constraints that everyone was working under I say they ALL deserve a medal. Seriously, you try writing or animating dialogue when everything is going in circles and you have to redo impossible amounts of work at the last minute with half a team, and you’ve already been working insane hours for over a year* (!).

          * and let’s be clear: crunch like that is unhealthy, unproductive and unsustainable.

          If the picture painted by those anonymous sources is accurate it’s frankly impressive that ANY good work survived that process. Clearly some bad calls were made but I think with clearer goals, a more realistic scope and the right support (time & budget) the same team could take those lessons and make a better sequel.

      • Jason Lefkowitz says:

        Trying to make 100+ planet No Man’s Sky but with the narrative detail of Mass Effect?

        This was the bit that I found shocking. Say what you want about procedural content generation, but one thing that seems obvious is that it’s completely incompatible with the kind of meticulously crafted stories that BioWare at its best has always been known for. I’m honestly confused as to how anyone could have ever thought those two things could go together.

        • malkav11 says:

          Because procgen is the holy grail that will solve all problems, obviously.

          Or at least, that seems to be how it’s regarded by a lot of folks involved with gaming.

    • KDR_11k says:

      The old saying is “more developers make a late project later”.

  3. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    “Another of Lehiany’s ideas was that there should be hundreds of explorable planets. BioWare would use algorithms to procedurally generate each world in the game, allowing for near-infinite possibilities, No Man’s Sky style. (No Man’s Sky had not yet been announced—BioWare came up with this concept separately.)”

    Interesting that the article puts it that way. Explorable procedurally generated planets is almost as old a concept as procedural generation itself. Starflight begets Star Control II which inspires Mass Effect and the author acts like using procgen to create planets in a space game is a new idea.

    “Throughout 2013 and 2014, Andromeda’s developers played with all sorts of ideas that today sound distinctly No Man’s Sky-ish. They built prototypes in which you would pilot a spaceship around the galaxy, then use it to land on planets.”

    See what I mean? I suppose I should be relieved they didn’t credit Minecraft.

    • Ghostwise says:

      *Technically* we did pilot ships and land on planets back in Moon Lander. And opposing the same operation in Space Invaders, but that doesn’t count.

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      Aerothorn says:

      Jason Schreier has a couple failings as a writer, and one thing I’ve learned reading him is that he actually just isn’t very knowledgeable about video game history, and has a habit of crediting the latest thing as being the only influencer.

      He also has a really bad habit of taking swipes at things in passing, which also just reads as petulant and often untrue – e.g. his claim that “the internet” (whatever that is) loves to “hate on Bioware.”

    • Esteis says:

      I remember finding Noctis (2001) over at Home of the Underdogs, and it was rather wonderful. From the description over yonder:

      The program is surprisingly small: the virtually unlimited galaxy fits in less than 1MB of space– yet another testament to the fact that good games don’t need to be big. The highlights of Noctis are the excellent 3D graphics, as well as the dynamic nature of its galaxy. For example, you can swing past a planet, land on its surface, and watch a tree swaying in the winds amidst heavy rainfall. The physics are reasonably realistic, although the program focuses much more on exploration (and the wonder of discovery) than on spacecraft behavior.

      • Dinger says:

        The original Elite had procedurally-generated planets (not that you could land on them); of course, they made it hard-wired for release. Rescue on Fractalus! had procgenned planets. And, of course, Seven Cities of Gold did it best.
        The problem isn’t the procedural generation; it’s making each environment unique and interesting enough to work. And that may require a ton more of procgen than you’ve budgeted for, plus a cubic ton of testing.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Procedural generation (of planets or otherwise) is not new, but I’m pretty sure No Man’s Sky was the first game to combine that kind of scale with that kind of detail, fully explorable in 3D. Can’t say I’ve seen any game before that where you could land on a generated planet that wasn’t just some perlin noise with a rock shader that you could hover around a bit.

      Meanwhile Star Citizen seems to be attempting more or less this. Looks pretty fancy so far, but we’ll see how it turns out. (link to youtube.com)

      • Darloth says:

        Well I mean there’s Shores of Hazeron, which does all that and more in an MMO where you can develop a civilization from pre-tech into rocketry into gravity-drives.

        But, yeah, No Mans Sky looked prettier I guess, despite technically being much less impressive…

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          Sorry, but no. That looks like My First 3D Game from 1995. Like I said: perlin noise with a rock shader. You don’t get points for randomly sticking some low-poly meshes on a sphere.

          I think you underestimate the importance of half-decent aesthetics and the difficulty of doing that properly. No Man Sky’s innovation was not discovering random number generators. It was meticulously building systems that could create something that actually worked visually and mechanically as a place to land and run around in… something that was worth taking screenshots. It wasn’t a 100%; some creatures and planets worked better than others and the level of interaction was ultimately somewhat limited, but what they achieved was at a level beyond anything else.

  4. gabrielonuris says:

    I think people are trying to justify too much what happened with Mass Effect Andromeda. Yes, they practically developed the game on the last 18 months, with an engine not suited for the task, changing tools and management during the process and all, BUT all of that (and a lot more) happened with Troika Games too, creators of Vampire Bloodlines.

    They were creating 3 games in six years (Bloodlines, Arcanum and Temple of Elemental Evil), and Bloodlines also wasn’t being created in an engine suited for an RPG, which was the Valve’s Source Engine, that wasn’t even totally developed by Valve to power Half-Life 2, still in development together with Bloodlines.

    The guys at Troika had to write code from scratch to make all the RPG mechanics we find in Bloodlines today, and with not more than 32 people in the studio.

    And the difference here, between a bugged launch for both, is that Bloodlines is still one of the best RPGs ever made, while ME:A is a bloody mess.

    My point here is that even if the Bioware team get another chance to make an Andromeda 2, there is absolutely no guarantee it will not suck again. For me, there is nothing that justify millenium dialogs, amateur and juvenile writing, together with boring mechanics like crafting and “checklist” questing system with meaningless activities.

    • brucethemoose says:

      That’s an important point.

      By itself, Andromeda’s development looks like a mess, but some games (many more than the public is aware of, I’m sure) go through the same kind of hell and turn out OK. And like you said, the problems don’t explain some bad core design decisions.

    • Chromatose says:

      What is a ‘millennium dialog’?

      • wcq says:

        Remnants of the Y2K event – horrid little beasts.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Dialog written by Millennials (“Generation Y”), I assume.

        I wouldn’t use that description myself, because a lot of the dialog seems so juvenile that it could have been written by a post-Millennial, whatever that is.

        • gabrielonuris says:

          This! This is the Millennials I’m talking about!

          The post-millennial you’re referring to actually exists, it’s called “post-millennial” indeed, or generation Z.

      • Monggerel says:

        I believe it’s a reference to the Major’s “I Love War” speech from Hellsing. True enough, videogame villains really are kinda one-track mind “do for evil” types for the most part.

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        Don Reba says:

        Dialogue that takes an inordinate amount of time to play out. Nobody’s got time to listen to all that yapping.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Vampire Bloodlines took years of extra work on a community patch to become playable. Not a reference I’d use in this instance.

      • gabrielonuris says:

        I’ve played Bloodlines on the release day, still have the boxed copy with 3 DVDs and a printed manual; I know exactly what kind of reference that game represents here.

        It is bugged; now, unplayable? No, it isn’t unplayable. My 7 playthroughts, one with each clan, beg to differ.

        • Arglebargle says:

          And I waited for years til a community patch made it playable for me. Balance? V:M was delivered stillborn: If you could make its zombie form dance for you, more power to you.

          Many did not find that the case.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      I love Bloodlines, and I played it mostly as it was on release (though with the official patch that fixed the boat crash), and that game was (and is) pretty rough in places. Plus you can’t really compare one development situation to another 1:1, especially between 2004 and 2017.

  5. Furiant says:

    I feel for the ME:A dev team. Not trying to play pin-the-blame, but every issue mentioned in that article is the responsibility of the project lead(s) to handle. All too often, failure on the part of leadership to keep the project moving and facilitate with the team’s challenges result in long periods of crunch, frustration, and fear that just compound the risks. Really, it’s amazing that any game of this scale gets delivered. Kudos to them for actually shipping something playable. An underwhelming game made against overwhelming odds is still an achievement.

  6. Baron Bacon V says:

    We don’t deserve Jarvis Cocker

  7. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    “I could really just link everything Chris Livingston write’s in this column”

    What is that apostrophe doing there?

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