30 October 2013

Is Batman the best videogame superhero ?

Having spent a large portion of the weekend playing Batman: Arkham Origin's campaign through to completion I wondered why the superhero genre is so poorly represented in my "good games" column in the gaming medium. I guess there are several aspects to the reasons behind this so I thought I'd jot down my thoughts on the issue:
  • Emotional and social connection/understanding (relatability)
  • Variation of powers/abilities (or lack thereof)
  • World building
Many, not all, popular heroes are nothing like normal human beings. Superman, Wonder Woman, a lot of the X-Men, Iron Man and Captain America are all beings that are very powerful and, in many ways invulnerable. In comparison, they also lack much of the humanity and day-to-day personalities that we might tend to associate with ourselves and our peers.

Emotionally stronger, more "grounded" heroes like Iron Man and Batman essentially rely on a hyper intelligence and deductive reasoning (as if a mating of Einstein and Sherlock Holmes had broached them into reality) along with huge amounts of wealth. Heroes in general are overly intelligent and these guys lie at different points on that intelligence/reasoning spectrum, especially Iron Man who is a bit skewed toward omnipotence, but the two of them basically tend to lean heavily on their vast amounts of wealth in order to succeed.

None of these aspects are very relatable for the general human populace - they're great for show piece scenes in a movie but leave little to nothing backing up those scenes during the character development. It's one of the reasons why Spiderman, despite some middling cinematic appearances, continues to be popular - he's smart, young and struggles with life: as much as we all do... and yet making a good game using that character has also proven difficult to pull off with quite a few flops to the franchises' name.

Despite that popularity, Spiderman isn't that great a hero to play because he's so young (or at least is usually portrayed in that high school life). His great motivation was is his Uncle's morality system - "With great power comes great responsibility." - and that's fine, except that it doesn't really cause much of an interesting decision because he always tries to do the right thing (which usually isn't all that hard to fathom) and, as far as I've ever seen, doesn't question this stance once that initial lesson is learned. That may be why Spiderman always has a good/great origin story - because that lesson can be learned and understood by the audience... everything after that is as pulpy as a 1930s action show like Flash Gordon. Now, I enjoy Spiderman a lot so that's not to say that the content there isn't good, I just don't think it makes a good game to play through.

Ask any fan of Spiderman which game is the best and why. While the favourite game might be different (Usually Spiderman 2 or one of the more recent releases such as Web of Shadows) the reason is always "web-slinging'. Just that simple act of movement around a cityscape is very rewarding - the freedom of movement, speed and agility (despite the unreality of always having something above you! ;) ) is the primary motivator for the gameplay feel.

Spiderman isn't primarily a combatant - he's superstrong (very much so!) but he's an agile opponent who uses sneakier, less obvious tactics than a brawler. He's not out there, getting bad guys for a reason - he just gets them when he sees them because he must - with the exception of his nemeses.

Batman, in contrast, appears to be almost perfect as a hero for players to identify with: Physically powerful enough to stand his ground. Agile enough to escape. Smart enough to figure out clues and ways of escaping situations. An emotional motivation that people can relate to that characterises his response to criminals and events in the world and provides an interesting dilemma by which to hinge decent stories on.

Batman ignores the travails of his personal life (for the most part) eschewing the normality that he wishes to protect from encroachment of the criminal element. It's never questioned why he's out there doing his thing... Spiderman isn't so easily universally justified in his work/life/hero ratio. Certainly he is sometimes portrayed as more egotistical - which fits in with his fame-seeking hero antics - but this isn't always so clear cut. Is "doing the right thing" stopping crime? Or should it be using his intelligence to solve the world's problems or his neogenics/whatever origin story to improve the lot of disfigured and disabled people around the world? Spiderman is complicated in a messy way - one that ultimately, in my opinion, proves less interesting.

The character also has many strings to his bow - many of which are underutilised. His title as the Sherlock Holmes-esque "The World's Greatest Detective" is rarely justified in any game he appears in (though it's getting better since the Arkham series was born) as are his strategic and interpersonal skills that help him spawn such a network of supporters, followers and super hero entities and partnerships. His physicality and the gadgets are the defining features that most people are familiar with and, even there, we have quite a lot of variation for players to latch onto.

Spiderman has one ability - or piece of equipment, depending on his origin story - the web shooter. Batman has whatever the storyteller needs. Spiderman typically has only one costume per continuum. Batman has whatever costumes the creator wants to include (though some are not canon) because it's expected that Batman's equipment evolves over time as he improves it and he gains experience. Spiderman doesn't need this because of his lack of physical vulnerability though there are cool alternate reality versions of Spiderman.

Now, a lot of these positives (from a gameplay perspective) for Batman, also apply to heroes like Iron Man and Blue Beetle (though not as popular) but I think that the depth of these characters is shallower than Batman and they also lack the most important aspect of the Batman's arsenal: his antagonists.

The strongest Batman stories are framed against these antagonists - they tend to be reflections of some aspect of humanity that Batman himself should be tempted to partake in and yet does not. The whole Batman/Joker dichotomy revolves around this and even some antagonists are born from it (e.g. Harvey Dent). Iron Man just fights things that need fighting - they come to him (one way or another) because he is powerful. The world that spawned Batman also spawned these other personalities and the themes are parallel to our own world and that makes them, at least from my perspective, intrinsically more interesting to play in and with.

Also, coming back to that strategic network I mentioned earlier, because Batman doesn't originate from any [insert poorly understood science] accident or off-world genesis he can procreate: he can seed new characters. As a result of this Batman as a defined character arc that spans angst/anger-ridden childhood that spawns psychological issues, tearaway teenage years and early twenties to caped crusader early years through to adoptive protector and trainer later years... and, finally, to passing on the torch to the next generation (Batman Beyond).

Other heroes can't do this. Spiderman can't pass on his genetic abilities to a new Spiderman (well, maybe a baby?) any more than Superman can. In order for them to team up with other people or heroes those people have to be their own super beings - with all the baggage and expectation that entails. Since Batman isn't super-powered, he is able to generate other characters from which to interface and work with - each of which being able to have their own character and flaws independent of being a hero because they're only human and don't have to adhere to being something more than the rest of us.

If you look at something like the X-Men, it's not really about one particular mutant (yes, I know, "Wolverine"! though he's really the Superman of that universe) but about the group of them together - individually they are not that strong as characters or in powers and I tend to see them as a collective 'hero' rather than a collection of heroes. Sort of like seeing the Armed Forces in a movie as being the hero instead of the super-powered monstrosities that are generally used to manifest human superiority in the movies.

I'd like to see a next gen Arkham game that takes place in between the dereliction of City but after Origins' lone soldier where Batman takes the other Batman family of characters under his wing (so to speak) and learning to deal with that. Origins already had a very, very brief stint with another character fighting alongside you and City had you dealing with your allies. You could even call the "wards" in or send them off on missions like in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. They could level up in skill and experience based on how much you use them in combat or by sending them off on side missions. If they're not up to the task they could fail or be captured - with Batman having to rescue them. This could even lead to co-op play in the open world with a friend or two! Bagsy Batman!

There's plenty more material to explore in a Batman game that hasn't been covered yet and I hope they manage to really delve deep into this character and world.

23 October 2013

Goodbye GamesIndustry.biz...? [Updated]

I've been an avid reader and poster on GamesIndustry.biz for a good few years now but recent changes are pushing me away from the site.

First off the site content has slowly become more tabloid in nature since their joining with a US-based entity - I have forgotten the site name at the moment! It's generally not so bad and I wasn't planning on stopping being involved with the community there but today or maybe yesterday they made one further change: even though I have an account with them I am no longer able to post comments on articles.

Now, it's not like the site in question hasn't gone through some changes over the last few years. Originally you could track the posts you have participated in - which was really useful when continuing conversations with other developers on the site - but got rid of that feature right around the time they merged with the US site.

Then they blocked all pages from people without an account. They rescinded that choice once I'm sure they saw their relevance and page views death-spiral off a cliff! GI.biz then implemented a commenting rating system with "stars" which people could click on to show they liked a post (I had quite a few starred posts).

Now, finally, they're reducing the conversation to only those with "verified" accounts. Whatever that means! I mean, if I'm a freelancer - which I am - how do I verify myself? Why is my account - that was presumably in good standing - no longer verified?

The other thing that really hurts the site is that now there is no critical feedback from smaller devs or people interested in the community. It creates a walled garden composed of mostly like-minded people who echo their opinions on whatever topics are brought into view by the site itself. This is a bad thing for GI.biz and for the games industry in general.

Yes, there may be a feeling that having "outsiders" (who don't know what they're talking about!) devalues the conversation or that they have no reason or need to be there but those outside views are very important to retain balance within the industry - within any industry. It is vital to the health of any industry that they allow conversations between both those within and without otherwise mindsets will tend to stagnate and people lose touch with those of differing opinions. Like it or not, differing opinions help us challenge and grow - even if those opinions are not correct, they make us analyse the paths we are travelling on.

Hopefully, this will be another move that is rescinded or at least easily passed as I enjoyed the conversations that popped up on there from time to time. I will update here with how the "verification process" goes.

It appears I've been "reinstated". No communication, no nothing. I'm not a fan of these sorts of things in the first place - it's really bad in a general business sense (from experience in my current sphere of work) but also terrible from a user perspective. No reason is given - yet you somehow manage to flail through the system regardless...

[Update 2]
I received an email from James Grant (Commercial & HR Manager) explaining the decision:

Specifically, with your recent experience of re-entering the verification process, we simply wanted to get away from very generic professions on profiles.

This is fair enough and I can understand their wanting to do this - even if I disagree with them on what effect it can have on the commentary and discussions within a site. However, effectively locking a person's account to do so really did give a poor user experience which may have been better served through a user form or survey.

22 October 2013

PC was all about the hardware, now it's all about the Hardware...

I remember, if you will permit the brief reminiscing, when PC gaming was all about the hardware and, to a lesser extent, the software. Back in those heady days of the late 80s and early-mid 90s it seemed like each new game that I purchased required some new PC upgrade in order to function properly. CD-ROMs, dedicated graphics cards, new RAM, monitors (CGA/VGA etc), new, infinitely more powerful, CPUs.... SOUNDCARDS!

I used to lie there on my bed, a magazine in my hands or draped across my chest in a haze of imagining. It was a drug that I was happy to partake in; a fuel for dreams of the future. The sad thing is that this wasn't really a happy time. There was too much vendor lock-in, too many things that didn't play well together and which ended up being abandoned after a low adoption by players and/or the industry.

Luckily, we sort of got over that phase. Things calmed down in the early 2000s, tech became cheaper and, whilst upgrades were still required, a decent video card, sound card and CPU would basically cover you for everything for a couple of years (and then a GPU upgrade!). Monitors were very stable too. It got even better in the mid-2000s, with integrated sound chips on the motherboard and overall improved hardware and OSes that required less-tweaking and "expert" knowledge.

I think that, in some respects, we've been in a bit of a golden age since about 2006-2013. Tech slowed down enough that a single mid/high-range PC might last you 4-6 years as long as you weren't obsessed about ever increasing your desktop resolution or achieving perfect anti-aliasing. I myself was still using a 17" CRT until 2009 (and I still use it when I visit home!). Even now I'm on a 1600x900 LCD and the PC I have is into its third year with no sign of needing an update to play games on medium or high settings. Sure, the GPU fan is loud - I can't do anything about that and I'm not convinced that switching up to a much more expensive GPU at the same resolution will really fix that issue - but otherwise the box itself is perfect for my needs.

Things are changing though. The traditional PC sector is having a bit of trouble in driving sales, partially due to this part stability and partially due to the explosion of "good enough" tablet devices being sold to that majority of people who were previously sold cheap Dells and HPs to browse the web and send emails.

Out of this carnage and the mild associated industry panic, we are seeing an increase in commoditised Hardware. I'm putting a capital 'H' here because these new trend isn't about incremental improvements to your PC but actual sealed unit (or complete kit) improvements. I'm talking about the Oculus Rift, the G-sync monitors, NVidia shield and the steam controller.

Now, I'm not saying that there haven't been peripherals before... Of course there have! However, what I am saying is that there is a movement within the industry to innovate through new hardware experiences. These aren't particularly cheap, either and it's funny to see this parallel coming from that (for me) early period in the 90s where it feels like we may have a similar experience in a few years of not being able to get the best out of a game because we don't have the right hardware to experience it as it was conceived.

I'm also not saying that this is a bad thing either. I think things like the Oculus and Steam controller have the potential to be great additions to the landscape of PC gaming - even if I'm still sceptical of their eventual impact. Other innovations such as the G-sync monitors have more obvious improvements - at least to my mind, but unfortunately are vendor specific... which isn't good.

As lots of people have stated time and time again: History repeats itself. Let's hope these companies are taking into account the mistakes of the past...

7 October 2013

Interesting steam box specs...

Ars Technica have an article on the Steam box specs (also covered over at El Reg). I think the specs show a decent range of configurations and expenses and, also, sizes of box and cooling solutions needed. An i3 coupled with a GTX660 is going to be a weak-ish system that will play the majority of games on Steam but it isn't going to break the bank or (hopefully) sound like an aeroplane during take-off. What's quite confusing is the memory configurations on these machines.

16GB of RAM for a low and mid-end machine doesn't really make any sense... for the high end, maybe... though I don't know how many games are able to fully address that much or would benefit from it over 8GB of RAM. I guess the theory is "RAM is cheap" and they're just stuffing in as much as they can comfortably afford. The video RAM is a bit of a different story. 
Apparently these are off-the-shelf parts that can be replaced by the end user if they so desire, so it's a bit weird to see outlets reporting 3GB as standard for each graphics card when the GTX660 is mostly a 2GB card (there is at least one 3GB variant from EVGA though) and the Titan is a 6GB beast that doesn't (as far as I can find) have a 3GB equivalent. I would hope that this is an error in the reporting because I can see the Titan being memory constrained and the 660 not really making the full use of the vRAM in games of the next generation that it struggles to play anyway.

Another consideration is noise levels. If these are off-the-shelf parts are they going to come with stock coolers? The reason I wonder is that stock graphics coolers are rarely very quiet - Nvidia especially in my experience. I currently run a GTX560 and, despite having massive diameter case fans that (as far as I can feel) are pulling only cool air out of the case, that thing is almost as loud as my vacuum cleaner on the lowest setting! Now, maybe that's a driver issue but I'm pretty certain that FTL isn't taxing the GPU that much. However, as a living room machine, the Steam boxes (boxen?) need to be quiet: quieter than the launch 360s with the noisy DVD drives and inefficient cooling systems.

As everyone and their dog is noting it's very interesting how the Steam box specs are entirely Intel and Nvidia whilst the next gen consoles are entirely AMD/ATI. Now, this could be just a reflection of the hardware configurations that appear in the Steam survey (though with more RAM and higher end graphics cards) or it could be that, in general, both Intel and Nvidia provide more support to their hardware implementations under Linux than AMD so presumably there'll be less effort and hassle in putting the OS with the hardware. Probably it's a mixture of both of these reasons.**

It is interesting how none of these setups will be cheap compared to the two upcoming consoles and how, perhaps, any advantage that AMD might have wrought from that console lock-down from developers coding specifically on their hardware might be mitigated by this move. I also find it strange that Valve have gone so power hungry in these configurations compared to the next gen consoles. People have said that you'll get more power from the hardware under Linux for gaming and when mostly everyone's writing games for the lowest common denominator (the consoles) then it makes me wonder what all this extra power on top of that will be aimed at.

To be fair to Valve, these are just prototype systems and the range of configurations might be just a reflection of trying to find the sweet spot but I would be surprised if they don't settle on a low-end i5 and the GTX760 for initial implementations. I'm still sceptical that they'll use 16GB of system RAM. It's not like the users will be doing video editing to upload videos and commentaries to the Steam Community... yet.

Maybe that will be what the higher end parts are all about: out competing the consoles on their "exclusive" features like the recording of gameplay and let's plays. Yes, I know you can do this on PC - but it's not that easy to set up and you need a pretty beefy rig to be able to pull it off as well... or a second PC and/or a PVR.

This is one aspect I like about gaming - there's rarely a dull moment.


Valve have confirmed that other hardware will be making an appearance in future Steam boxes so it doesn't appear to be a favoured hardware combination for these prototype batches.

4 October 2013

The Emperor's clothes... Steam Controller

This last week has seen the industry transfixed by the announcements from Valve - coming as they have done during a relatively quiet period between industry trades shows and traditionally preferred release windows in October and November: ready for Black Friday and Christmas respectively. While I was impressed by the eventual release of the Steam OS (though I expected them to support Android titles as well) and the push towards a supported architecture of "semi-standard" boxes from various manufacturers that will probably result in a real boon to Linux support of various bits of hardware on the market I was a bit underwhelmed by the reveal of the Steam controller:

[Insert Darth Vadar/Dark Helmet joke here]

"games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and absolute position control."

See, I'm not so sure on the trackpads. Not that I think the high resolution trackpads are a bad thing just that I'm not convinced on their use for a control that is used for panning. This is primarily for two reasons:

- Use of a mouse/trackpad is intrinsically different from using a joystick/thumbstick

- Wear and interaction of the user on a trackpad is intrinscially different to joysticks/thumbsticks

First - thumbsticks work great because you just shift in one direction and your movement speed (or acceleration of speed) is proportional to the distance from the centre dead zone. Mice require physically moving the device back across the surface in order to give yourself more space because it's very rare that, in your control of whatever piece of software, you return to the centre and original position and thus the user will run out of control surface very often.

Another aspect of trackpads is that their control surfaces have lag and are slower to operate as a result of not just this lag but also due to the physical limitations of using a trackpad. Switching between W and D on a keyboard to change between forward and backward motion is instantaneous, running your finger from the top of the left pad to the bottom of it to reverse course is a gradual motion - like using a thumbstick - and thus slower. It's a similar story for the pad on the right if you're using that to look. This is assuming that the implementation will be like a thumbstick with gradients of acceleration from the centre. The alternative is that simply moving to a point on the trackpad switches to that setting - which I can't imagine being used for the direction of the camera in any game but which might work for the movement direction. One issue with direct changing of movement like this second option is that you're even more likely to accidentally engage the button underneath and that may not be desirable. Certainly, on both the 360 and PS3 gamepads I've accidentally engaged the thumbstick buttons when in a stressful/exciting situation in a game when I didn't mean to because I was holding the pad with a tighter grip - something that I think is natural. This might also be an issue for the handle buttons too.

Second - trackpads are hard surfaces and hitting them over and over again (like tapping) very quickly results in RSI injuries compared to a mouse/joystick/thumbstick and is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable experience for a general user interface. This is not to mention slower and less accurate as well: clicking on a trackpad or touch surface isn't always accurate because your fingers are not an accurate pointing device at that or any resolution smaller than your fingertip size. Nor do trackpads and touch surfaces always register that an input was entered because the software has decided that the input was a mistake. 

These issues may have been solved by Valve but I'm not confident when the combined might and reckless competition of Apple and Samsung et al. has failed to get around the issues that apply to their products.
However, they might have if the information page (light as it is) is correct.

The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.
As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.

It interests me because this implies that the material is soft - not hard like the traditional touch surfaces and trackpads are and, as such, might get around that issue of injury and weariness that you get when using a touch surface for an extended period of time. Also, since there is a button in each concave circular control surface I'm not sure how that's going to gel with having to want to move in any particular direction and pushing a button within that control surface. It doesn't work all that well on a thumbstick for the 360 and PS3 and usually is implemented as a "this function will apply until the stick is released and returned to the dead zone entirely" - which isn't perfect.

"The most prominent elements of the Steam controller are its two circular trackpads. Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button."

So, there's definitely only one button behind each trackpad... but then what the hell is going on with the three functions applied in this image? I've not seen it explained to my satisfaction so far and if anyone has an appropriate link please post it in the comments. The best I can come up with is that where your finger is on the trackpad is linked into the button push - which is less ideal than having more button surfaces in sectors under the trackpad. I can imagine that things like wanting to move diagonally in a sidescroller, like you would using the D-pad on any current controller, isn't going to be as easy or feel as natural when trying to activate a function of the button underneath.

I'm not convinced by those trackbuttons... and what are those three un-labelled buttons going to do, hmmm?? Interesting!
The other aspect of the trackpads that also affects this controller's layout is that ancillary buttons are equally shared between both sides of the controller. Whilst this is good because symmetry means that lefties and righties can use the gamepad as they wish it does cause some concern for people with smaller hands. I don't know how big the pad is but reaching the buttons under the handles at the same time as the four buttons around the touch screen (or the touch screen itself) might be problematic. Compared to a traditional controller layout (i.e. since the PS2) the D-pad and four face buttons provide ease of access while only removing one thumb to do so. In comparison this layout removes one button from each hand's operation and focuses more interaction in the centre of the pad and in my experience the PS/Xbox symbol/start/select are not the most easily accessible buttons on other gamepads.

Overall, my interest is piqued by the controller and I'll reserve my final judgement until I can actually hold one and test it out... but the largest problem with that scenario - and for many people - is that how are you going to test it out? This isn't going to be a device that lots of people own or being shown off in a store. In fact it's so different that it probably really needs a critical mass of users espousing the benefits and feel of the device before it will get wider acceptance and that will be a problem. Like all those specialist control devices/interfaces before it such as TrackIR, GameTrak along with other 3-dimensional mice the market will probably be more of a niche than widely accepted unless Valve can use their juggernaut of industry weight to push it.

To give an example: I recently provided vertical mice to some colleagues that were suffering RSIs from constant computer use and their conditions rapidly improved as a result (in combination with treatment, of course!). Their physiotherapists had never even heard of these sorts of things and were immediately impressed and intrigued by them. It amazes me how difficult it can be to get a product - no matter how great - into peoples' awareness, even those you would think would benefit from them the most...