Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on Game Recycling

Monday, May 11, 2009
I spent about two years of my life working on an FPS called Darkest of Days.
While the release date is not yet known and the game's popular and critical reception remains unfigured, the experience taught me just what an arduous experience a production cycle can be.
As rewarding as the whole experience was personally, in retrospect something seemed extraordinarily wasteful about the whole enterprise, even at the fairly "indie" part of the spectrum. Is this how it's supposed to be?

There were so many assets created, tools furnished, lines of code completed and yet there are significant portions of the finished game we weren't happy with.

Or at least I wasn't happy with it; it wasn't the game I thought I ought to be making. However close we were to a better game is immaterial--games have to be finished, even if it felt as though we had only just laid in the foundations for a better experience.

It would be far less work to pick up where I left off and re-use assets and design concepts I am already familiar with to make a better game. Yet the way the industry works means I am assured to have to try my luck working on a completely new game, or possibly end up working on an expansion or sequel.

But the trouble with an expansion or sequel is that you are largely constrained by the scope and feel of the original game. If the original game wasn't quite what you had in mind, chances are slim to "complete" it in an expansion.

I reflected on just what a universal phenomenon this seemed to be--glimpse the game industry as journeymen laborers crafting near-exquisite works and then abandoning them. Rare is the chance any developer gets to go back and "make it right" (much of why I am keen to play the updated edition of Butcher Bay included with the new Riddick game Dark Athena); far more common is the endless parade of almost good games, a sea of reasonably good.
At best I play games that feel 90% or even 95% of what I want, yet that last 5% feels unfinished or somehow otherwise mismanaged.

It's as though a beautiful two story house is constructed, with only half the furniture is moved in and no paint on the walls, but the prospective homeowner stops there and elects to simply build another house instead. That's how modern production cycles seem to function.

And so a thought returns, a kernel of an idea.

Keel from Quake 3, done in Painter IX.

The thought occured years ago while I was enraptured by Quake 3, and the nagging thought returns now as I contemplate Unreal Tournament 3, two games removed significantly in time but not in concept or execution.
Quake 3 is a clean machine, a very "pure" game in ways that other id titles have not been, but at the time it was the first id game to eschew a proper single player portion.
(Which was difficult for a lot of FPS devotees at the time you'll remember. Most have returned to providing some token singleplayer game in addition to emphasized multiplayer, but this shift now seems paradigmatic for shooters as a whole.)

The thin scrim of fiction for Quake 3--a line or two in a vestigial manual to needlessly justify a multiplayer-only DM/arena game--was an obvious afterthought, yet it hinted at a far more interesting game made from the same constituent parts.
What if you did make a game about great warriors doomed forever to combat in strangely abstract arenas, a sort of self-commentary on the deathmatch genre?

Or what if you built a game out of an existing game, that was neither a sequel nor a mod? Something that re-used all the interesting world building, assets, characters etc, but went somewhere else with them? Why start all over again?

The thought recurs with Unreal Tournament 3 and its ilk.
My primary complaint with the game is much as it was with UT2k3 and 2k4--namely that game's visual fidelity far outstrip the interest that its traditional multiplayer mechanics give me.

An environment from Unreal Tournament 3.

It took me a good 45 minutes for a cursory glance around the levels that ship with UT3. It's a beautiful game with a surfeit of visual ideas and settings; deeply generous in a way that most games aren't, delivering and endless array of the kind of stunning visuals that Epic has become expert at creating. Yet the gameplay itself provokes no similar reaction.
This is not a complaint that UT3 was made into the game it was, I enjoy it for exactly what it is. (As a friend once pointed out, many gamers' criticisms can be likened to criticising basketball chiefly on the grounds that it is not football. This is not my intent here.)

But the thought persisted--if a game is a nearly-finished house, why couldn't someone move in and, with comparatively minor effort compared to what it took to raise the house in the first place, make it their home? Move some furniture, paint the walls?

Perhaps I'm not making any sense here, but it's a thought largely unarticulated until now so you'll forgive my lack of concision.

But there would seem to me a middle path, something between the land of fierce indie development (relegated to artistic sidescrollers) and the impressive world-building (but conservative linearity) of AAA big budget development.

Some might consider this the purview of mod development but that's not the shape of what I have in mind. There are too many amateur connotations to that word, and not enough fundamental change to the identity of the game in a "mod", despite the look remaining much the same.

Kana, from Unreal Tournament 3.

I'm thinking about what it would be to make a "new" game with mostly old parts. The unexplored connotations of what that great big spacestation level in UT3 could mean, the wide-open rolling plains with already excellent vehicle handling. Imbue all this great art and set dressing with some meaning, rather than completely interchangeable visual glosses. Build a new world from the old one.
And by "meaning" I mean gameplay mechanics, not Story.
(I think most misguided design impulses come from that tourist hag Story, but that's a discussion for another time.)

So picture a single player quasi-free roamer, or even a co-op shooter, re-using as much of all the phenomenal work already there as is applicable, but in a very different play style... the actual design sketch here I'm afraid will have to wait for another update.

Players say that what they really want is deep and engrossing gameplay, not just another empty graphical funhouse ride. But how would they really feel if they had "seen it all before" with the production art, but were really given a brand new game to play?
Could you build something more than just a "mod" that successfully alters the meaning and gameplay content with mostly the same assets?

The above was written and then left in a draft about three weeks ago; some of these comments seem oddly prescient to me in the wake of 3DRealms' demise. However misguided, there was a team dedicated to getting a game finished just so.
A cautionary tale?

Also, my friend Steve Gaynor recently wrote on the subject of what he calls "Single-A" game development, a far more coherent thought on a similar track. Please have a look.


Johnnyburn said...

Great post Jack.

Instead of 'standing on the shoulders of giants' and making a sequel, you could use that energy to perfect the giant you've got.

Anonymous said...

From a design standpoint, yea I bet it probably is pretty frustrating that code and art aren't reused more. Design is so much more an iterative process, designers never seem to completely throw away old ideas, instead the grab bag just kind of grows. You're not the first person I've heard complain about this ;)

But with engineering old stuff is thrown away *all the time* and with good cause. With code it becomes better often to just throw out large modules and rewrite them than continue to live with bad decisions. Otherwise things start to calcify and you start running into all these other hidden costs you didn't see coming. You'll notice programmers have this mindset in a serious way. I am already itching to throw away and redo large parts of Marmoset, and DoD hasn't even shipped yet :P

That said I think your idea's got merit. It's just gonna have to be a triumph of design, because without much new art or code you're gonna have an uphill battle on your hands to make something new. It would be a real test of a designer's mettle, but I bet it could be done.

Petri said...

I'm a bit late to the party here, but I totally agree. Like you, I do enjoy UT3 for what it is, but walking through those impressive levels really makes me wish for something deeper to really tie it all together. I can see so much potential for something beyond the traditional multiplayer FPS mold, and man would it make my day.

gauss said...

Thank you for the comment.

I have another one of my rusty "design reboot" ideas that would fit right into this, kind of meta. You play a team of researchers or whatever that have to explore/escape a multiplayer game that nobody plays anymore, and so is derelict, it's falling apart. Meta, I know :)

Chris said...

Game recycling sounds awesome, a few mods make novel use of existing assets.

'Research & Development' mod is a point and click adventure in the Half Life 2 world

gauss said...

Thanks Chris. Yes, I think it's a real testament to the long term ease and openness of modding Valve's games--it certainly doesn't hurt that HL2 especially has a very robust tool/asset set.

Copperkat said...

Can't we point to Valve in this case? Not the mods for it's games, but the games made from it's other games.

Look at Half Life, then look at HL2. They're the groundwork, the assets that built a game like TF2. Or the best example Portal. A first person, non shooter, considered the next level of puzzle games, but built with most of the same assets and packaged as an extra.

Am I off point, or is this true?

gauss said...

Copperkat I'd say entirely on point. Valve has made a fortune from artful re-use of technology, gameplay, what have you; they're basically making a mint on smart use of resources. Other companies are that much more caught up in more sophisticated technology sets, but rarely are they making better-lauded games than Valve.

Anonymous said...

Shortly after reading this post, I read about Limbo of the Lost, a point-and-click adventure that used as backgrounds screen shots from various games, such as Oblivion. Of course, doing so without consent or permission, the game got pulled from the shelves, but it makes me wonder if such practices could be feasible when given prior permission, and a little more finesse.

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