Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Trouble With Deckard's Blaster

Thursday, August 31, 2017 10

I wanted to briefly illustrate a point that has been on my mind a lot recently. If you wish to carry on any kind of legacy or intellectual property, you will do your best work by retracing the influences and techniques of your forebearers. The perpetual danger is to mistake certain surface details or gloss for the essence of the thing, but if you understand how the original work was derived in the first place, you're better prepared to follow it up faithfully, but with your own influences and inspirations.

The example on my mind has been one from the new Blade Runner film. Problem: you've got to follow up on some of the greatest prop and mechanical design of all time.
Solution? Immerse yourself in the techniques that gave rise to those designs.

Deckard's blaster (above) is one of the most classic science fiction gun designs ever. Here it is going up for auction, where it may have fetched over a hundred thousand dollars. It is deceptively simple, like a lot of classic designs. The gun is the result of mating a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog, a common revolver, with a Steyr-Mannlicher .222 receiver/bolt. Look at this to get an idea of the sort of devotion that this gun inspired in replica makers prior to the original hero piece resurfacing, whose construction is detailed briefly here.

The trouble with Deckard's blaster is that the working method used to produce it is remarkably straight forward, common prop gun making. A real, working gun is disguised to look like a new gun. In this case, the gun is kitbashed with components of another real gun, plus some inspired amber grips.

Kitbashing deserves its own very heavy book to explicate completely, but in essence it is the art of repurposed mechanical detail. Suffice it to say the enduring legacy of the late 70s and early 80s prop and miniature design in film is almost entirely indebted to kitbashing.
Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner are perhaps the most important early standard bearers for kitbashing and remain testaments to the enduring possibilities of kitbashing's aid to conjuring a believable world.

Looking at Deckard's blaster, we see a lot of mechanical detail that looks like it works. Because it does! Or did, anyway, in its original context. But removed from that context, the Steyr-Mannlicher components still retain their air of purpose. This is the trick. To take and recontextualize various greebles, nurnies, and gubbins that had purpose, in their original context, to make something else look like it has purpose.

The human mind is an extraordinary bullshit detector. While yes, an expert on firearms can tell that Deckard's blaster doesn't "work" the way that its borrowed gun components suggests that it would, it is suggestive of purpose and function enough to believe. Most important of all, it looks very cool.

I look forward to Villeneuve's take on Blade Runner, he and Deakins have been on an incredible streak. But I think it's illustrative to compare Deckard's blaster to Officer K's in the new film, seen below:

To me it is clear this is not a design anywhere in the same league as the blaster from the original film. This is of course an extraordinary challenge. One must not be too slavish in devotion or homage, yet still remain in the same ballpark. The mistake is to backsolve from apparent surface qualities. In this case, big, possibly double over/under barrel + "unusual" grip texture or material is not a sufficent formula.
I do not know who designed this new gun nor their working methodology. But the design speaks to what in my mind is a certain lack of awareness about both firearms and the kind of alchemy that resulted in the original. The trigger guard is the most egregious offender, a broad naive slab that bears no relation to the sorts of considerations that inform modern handguns. The barrel section is over-busy with detail, the rear half of the gun disunified with the front. A vague hand-waving of shapes all over.
Critically, there appear to be no donors, in part or whole, from actual guns. The only thing that has been carried over from the original that I wish hadn't is that there are no front or rear sights.

Like the task of Blade Runner 2049 following up on one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, designing a new blaster would be a herculean effort to say the least, and one likely to fail. I'm happy I can comment safe from censure, here on an old blog. But I think the only method that would even stand a chance of competing with the original would be a similar alchemical fusing of some real working gun, plus a non-working component contribution from another gun. A simple formula with potentially endless variations.

[Addendum 1:Interestingly, Syd Mead, whose work is all over the film and well loved for good reason, had a much more unusual and futuristic concept for Deckard's blaster (seen below), which was rejected. Certain kinds of greatness can only be stolen, not willed into being or designed wholesale.]

[Addendum 2: I'm not going to touch the new Star Wars licensed content delivery transmissions that resemble "movies", but generally speaking they suffer from the same trouble; their designs are almost entirely bounded within the purview of the original trilogy and suffer greatly as a result. The exception being the rebel troopers' small arms in Rogue One, which were (not surprisingly) kitbashed following the method of the original guns in the original film and so are successful for the same reasons.]
[Addendum 3: Here's a video of Adam Savage seeing the original hero gun in the flesh, after painstakingly trying to recreate it from reference material, and largely succeeding. The funny thing here is that he wants to make his copy's finish mirror the dulled metal of the bolt on the original, when it probably has simply rusted/pitted with time. Oil your guns people, even your 100,000 dollar film prop guns.]

Sunday, December 11, 2016

You're Getting VR Wrong (And Not The Way You Think You Are)

Sunday, December 11, 2016 2

The central imagery for VR is people wearing the headset. They're In There, they're experiencing new worlds, you the viewer are left pining for whatever special experience they're having, or trying to interpolate the experience of what is clumsily superimposed behind them on a green screen.

"Presence," as we're calling it, after having already used up "immersion," is absolutely real, and is foremost to the appeal of VR, but it is not ultimately what VR is best at. Stay with me for a minute here.

The trouble people have had with VR is that they're being delivered two extraordinary pieces of tech together as a suite. The first and seemingly most important is the head mounted display (HMD), which hijacks enough sensory apparatus to fool our brains into thinking, at least on some level, We Are There, This Is Real (albeit ghostly and insubstantial).
This is what almost all introductory VR experiences focus on, and almost all VR experiences are introductory at the moment.
And like most launch window software, they've got it wrong.

Being In There is great, but with enough exposure a human will acclimate to anything extraordinary. Think of the men having lunch on a girder of a skyscraper in progress high above New York and so on. I believe that's a big part of why VR is stalling out in terms of install base at the moment. Mere spectacle isn't good enough, it will never be enough.
If spectacle plus some headaches and discomfort were enough, we'd all be watching terrible movies on our 3D televisions and loving it. But we're not, terrible movies on flat screens are just fine, thank you.

No, the second and more important part of the revolutionary tech suite bundled together as "VR" is motion control. Real motion control.
Though I'm sure it was a necessary stepping stone, as an industry we cried revolutionary product wolf with motion controls with the Wii and Kinect despite not having it at all.
The Wiimote was never going to cut it because the precision was not there, barely enough for a crude parody of known sports. But it gave us a glimpse of the ubiquitous ease of entry that would come later.
The Kinect was never going to cut it because other than the input lag, you know you look like an idiot waving around in your living room, rather than slouched with a controller looking catatonic as usual. That, at least, your family is used to seeing.

The key point is that in VR you are still going to look like an idiot waving around but you're not going to care, because now you're In There, you can't see the fallen world you inhabit the rest of your waking hours. We've finally got enough accuracy and speed to put your hands in the game, for real, and the results are incredible.
I put my septuagenarian father into the Vive to shoot basketballs like he's done all his life in Nvidia's VR Funhouse and he didn't even blink, he just tried to shoot basketballs. Think of that compared to any experience of handing a non-player a controller, much less strapping something to their head.

That's the trick. We think we are going to have something amazing that is just going to explode the brains of the non-believers and plebians, but that isn't what will get them, or get you for that matter. It's finally being able to use this miraculous head and hands as direct input.
The fact that the environment tracks with our head and we can see it and we feel more or less immersed is important, but secondary to being able to act in that world like we expect to, and on that score the Vive was correct to go completely all-in on roomscale experiences, despite how opulent it seems to some at this point.

So far I sound like most other VR evangelists but I want to point out now that there is no possible near future, no matter who is president, that is going to make my father run and spend the thousands of dollars to get a Vive and the computer to run it.
Your parents, and most of your siblings, and most of your friends aren't going to either. They're going to be amazed by the demo you give them, and probably talk about it a lot, maybe even tell all their peers about it, but they're not going to be the least bit interested in getting back in there themselves. That was a unique one-off. A trip to the amusement park. A thing to talk about on social media. Not a decision point, or whatever the marketing people call it.

We can talk all we want about how this shouldn't be, and ways to fight it, and constantly swallow the lump in our throats about a clear inferiority complex that continues to plague game players and developers, but that's a lot to get into today. It's Sunday, take it easy.

What I want to get out there is VR is absolutely real, and incredible, but it's being wasted right now. We're showing Mom a tiny moon in Tilt Brush that seems to be floating in the room with her. She reacts predictably while we film it on our phones. I've done it too. Filming first timers in VR is as much fun as it is useless in selling more VR sets.

Strain to remember all those forgettable launch titles for every new console generation. A worse version of that is all that is available to play for VR right now. Maybe not quite that dire--for PSVR and soon PC, there's Thumper; for Vive there's Onward. But that's about it.

We need games. Real games that are fun to play once the novelty of VR has long worn off. Games that can't be played with prior control schemes.

The people that are going to pay thousands of dollars for VR right now are the ones that want to crawl inside their videogames, not everyone else who has a vague contempt and suspicion for what we play. They can come too if they like, but I don't think they're going to pony up any cash any time soon beyond the mobile VR market. Which is not going to lead to much beyond an incredible amount of VR pornography. Chiefly because mobile VR currently has no facility for precise motion control, the real star of VR.

Videogames, beyond some hotseat multiplayer and the like, has tended to be a one-slackened-face-to-one-screen solitary affair. Why are we bending over backwards to sell VR as something even more social than regular games? Because we want to prove all of our favorite cyberpunk media wrong? I don't buy it. Strapping something over your eyes is necessarily going to be isolating, but not that much more so than gaming has ever been.

I've got another hundred pages I want to write about how the big companies have been peddling a fundamentally wrongly targeted campaign for VR and have been paying the price for it, or how teleport locomotion was never the right call, but I don't want to bore you, I want to get back to working on a game for VR that couldn't be played in anything but VR.

 See you In There.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Arkham Knight and the AAA Vignette Problem

Saturday, June 20, 2015 3

What I am calling the vignette problem is when so much skill and attention is paid to portray or evoke an uncommon scenario, it overshadows the actual experience of the game.
Watch from 1:40 in this video. We are treated to a extraordinarily lavish evocation of a Gotham at night and in the rain, bustling with humanity. The camera goes into the head of a police officer, and we experience sitting at the bar as him.
Needless to say, things do not go well for everyone not-Batman in this clip. We realize that the entire scene is merely to set up another moment of chaos unleashed on the city by a villain, a wrong that Batman will right.

Is this scene successful? Absolutely. In a very short period we are drawn into the nighttime diner. It becomes the vignette problem when this little moment is a breath of fresh air compared to the entire series of the game. It is so successful, it is an immediate disappointment to return to "business as usual."
 Particularly in the milieu of violent video games, where high action and high stakes are quotidian ("yeah ok, I'm Batman swooping through the sky, stopping the Scarecrow from making the city rip itself apart from some crazy nerve gas"), a moment or seen not commonly encountered in the series or in that style of games draws perhaps a little too much attention.
 It is precisely because it is so believable a scene. Most players know this scene is "fake", in the sense that there is no continuing life in the diner, no gameplay to be had; this entire set-up exists to get knocked down, so we can get back to being Batman saving the city, now our purpose clear, the stakes raised, but that doesn't stop you from being excited from the possibility space of a novel interaction in a game not about the usual stuff of action games.

This might be very telling of a personal exposure to a lot of action games, but I don't dislike action games, or want them to not be action games. I am not advocating a Gotham city diner simulator--but to me the vignette problem is that the game itself seems to hint at a much more interesting game than it actually is.

But this is unfair to an unreleased game. We should talk a bit about the ultimate offender in this regard: Bioshock Infinite. We are treated to an extended introduction into an extraordinarily richly drawn and detailed world, and we are intrigued. We know our character is an interloper here. How will this play out? The answer is "with a ludicrous display of ultra violence". A reciprocating hook weapon goes right into the face of a policeman, and now you know the drill, soldier. This bit is like everything else you've played in this space.

That to me is the heart of the vignette problem, which in some ways seem to happen more and more as bigger games wish to show more of "cinematic" slice of life environments (Ubisoft games increasingly). They suggest a dynamism, an application of their staggering budget to realize something other than clearly what the game is. I wish they wouldn't tease me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On works in progress

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 1
A friend was reticent to post about the game he was working on. This was my response, tapped out on my phone:

never mind the dorks, post that shit. the longer you wait to post anything, the harder it gets, the more precious your work seems to you and then you start making endless excuses and moving goalposts for when it's properly ready to show. I did that shit for years and try very hard to beat the impulse.

because when you post early, and keep posting, people might not pay attention, or they might jeer, but they have a baseline that you are most certainly going to clear, because everyone gets better at what they do. and then one day you'll post something dope becaus you'll have been working hard enough on it, and everyone will be cheering you on because to see the work in progress, even subliminally, gives them some small stake n it getting better. you'll be proud when the work rises above piece of shit status, and so will we, and you might get some decent advice along the way.

or, you could wait until it's "ready to show" (the most impossibly arbitrary distinction, at least among peers) and get really disheartened because everyone cracks on it anyway, even if it is pretty good, because people are selfish at heart, and if they have no stake in something the easiest thing to do is make fun of it and move on. enfranchise them early in the process and you avoid that, as well as avoiding the looming tidal wave of "ready to show people". 

I never expected to be happy about having a smartphone, but brevity is an unexpected payoff.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Legacy skills through the Looking Glass.

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I didn't know what he looked like either.
To a late 90's Looking Glass fan, the following quote from an interview about Dishonored would seem perfectly ludicrous:

GON: When I was talking to the guests, they all just started shouting at me to go upstairs immediately and check the diaries. So I resolved that I wasn’t going to do it, just to spite the game.
Julien: (laughs)
GON: Is that something that you find people doing? I expected the clues to be a bit more vague. Did you find this doing playtesting? Did you put it in because people didn’t know what to do?
Julien: Yeah. We try not to lead the player by the nose, but at some point we found that if we don’t give a little information, people just get lost and don’t know what to do. It’s just overwhelming. So we tried to add this element that gave just a hint, to help a little. But we try to do it as little as possible.
GON: It’s cool because there’s a lot of ways up the stairs, but it still felt a bit railroad-ey. What did people do before you put these clues in?
Julien: People would just walk around. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even go upstairs because a guard told them they couldn’t. They’d say “Okay, I can’t go upstairs.” They wouldn’t do anything.

Even from a modern vantage, it's easy to look at the above passage and laugh. But what's really going on here? Are players that stupid, or are a whole younger generation of shooter fans unconditioned to meet  to even modest exploration/decision making tasks?

I would say not likely--given there is a related and hugely popular set of sandbox games that revolve around exploring and deciding all you want. Something else is at work here. Is it the legacy skillset of current shooter fans working against them?

It's taken for granted that legacy skills (keyboard&mouse/two stick aiming) are required for first person shooters now, but what has now been completely bred out of an entire generation of shooter players is any desire to explore or not follow strict orders. I think a whole lot of young shooter players out there don't know how to play a single player shooter and not take shouted orders from a COD NPC Bro.

What do we expect, if it's all the diet FPS players have had for the better part of 6, 8 years? In COD and BF3, you get an abrupt mission over if you should deign to stop taking orders from your NPC comrades, sometimes even if you hesitate for a second. Shooter players are now conditioned to obey NPCs, in exchange for a jarring and sudden mission failed screen.

Taken in this light, the above quote seems a reasonable response from a tester. An NPC has just told me I can't go upstairs. I'm enjoying this game so far, do I really want to slog back through a load and the last checkpoint, just because I want to try, in utter futility, to push past my given bounds?

But in a game like Dishonored it isn't futile. You should be trespassing and trying to find your way out and around in spaces you're not usually allowed. The trick is to prompt the players who have been conditioned with swift punishment for straying off a linear path into accepting their widened freedom, and to encourage them to take advantage of it.

A small observation I know, likely not worth the space I've devoted to it here, but it struck me that legacy skills involve what you might also call legacy expectations: what kind of affordance have I been given in all the shooters in the past 5 years, and why should I expect any different of the game presently in front of me?
It seems to me a call to developers to take the poverty of modern linear shooters and reignite the expectation in players for better things, more decision making than which real-world analogous shotgun or LMG to pick for a multiplayer loadout.

There have been a lot of people pessimistic about Dishonored despite it giving every appearance of being a return to form for developers who have always believed in this kind of approach to games. I don't think it's fair to criticize them for having to re-educate a vast majority of their potential player base what it is like to call your own shots in a shooter environment.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dog name theory

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When talking about independent game development, the question of names comes up a lot. Names for projects, names for companies, names for engine tech and so on. Since nobody asked me, here's how I feel about the question: it doesn't matter.

That's not true; in fact, "it doesn't matter" nearly always pains me as an answer to a question as it's a thoughtless response. It matters, but I will argue it matters far less than people think it does. 

Maybe not the best dog name

I liken naming a game to naming a dog. As with a dog, you can name your game just about anything, with a few common sense provisos. A dog's name should be short, have a good consonant sound in there, and probably not be vulgar or obscene. Bonus points if the name seems to decently fit the personality of the dog in question, the more so the better of course, but a standard dog name is nothing to worry about.
So long as it isn't actively problematic, most any dog name will work. At the end of the day, the name means nothing, insofar as it is a vessel into which we pour all of our emotional connections, memories and associations of that beloved pet. The stronger the attachment to the pet, and it's unique personality and quirks, the stronger the name will seem.


Nobody familiar with CS can see those two words adjacent without a strong association--imagery, memories of particular matches, exultation or frustration. It's an above-average name choice that at least connotes some amount of shooteriness (and fittingly, some degree of sportiness), but to any player of the game, it doesn't feel generic at all. Not because it's a great name, but because of the rightful, arguably inextricable association of the game's character with the name.

Which is why it made me laugh to discover that Minh Le (of Counter-Strike fame) would name his new project Tactical Intervention, an only slightly more specific game title exactly in the vein of Counter-Strike. 
I laugh because it seems goofy and generic now, like a friend naming a dog a completely boring, standard dog name, but I know that with time the players' associations with the game will make that name seem like anything but. Games named in this fashion--the Unreals of the world in response to the Quakes--still tend to rise or fall purely on the strength of the game, rather than because of a particularly apt title or it's clear association with another game. 
Nobody really thinks of the three letters of MOH in the same way as COD, even though the latter title came later, as a clearly analogous naming choice.

Maybe this is all obvious, but I keep seeing independent developers agonize over this kind of decision. Build the game, and the game will fill the name with all the meaningful freight. 
So long as it isn't too cutesy, overlong, or embarrassing to speak aloud in mixed (or multigenerational) company, your game and company name are just fine.

Ask yourself: "does the name I am considering sound like a Dejoban title?" So long as the answer is a firm negative, you've chosen well.

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