Category: gaming

Awesome Game: Screeps!

I’m here to briefly rave about this game I’ve been playing called Screeps. This real-time MMO AI programming strategy game has managed to get me to spend the last 4 hours writing and tinkering with my own game AI, code, which is deploayed into a substantial persistent universe populated with every other player in semi-competition. A brilliant concept, made by these dudes in Russia.

It’s the best experience I’ve ever had playing around with JavaScript (which, I’ve actually been wanting to learn for my next project…). and like software development, a highly satisfying experience when things just work, and an agonizingly annoying one when things don’t work. But whatever your JavaScript skills are today, this game will make you better. (The “CPU” and “memory” quota limitations imposed by the game encourages efficient code.)

Out of my time with this game, I hope to practice development patterns for autonomous agents and to start working with swarm AI behaviors. And of course, as a side benefit, practice JavaScript, which I’ll be using with node.js in a future project! At some point, I hope to apply some of what i learn here in practice in the real world, possibly as we develop drones for defensive purposes.

Now, onto the game…

Simple interface, but insane freedom

The game itself features a simple 2D GUI that can be run in a window or from the Screeps website, where it renders in a browser. You can actually view the world without being a member, but to participate in the persistent universe, there is a paid subscription of around $8 / month (I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue after the first month). It’s cheap though, and as long as it provides me entertainment, I’ll continue to play. The game in the browser scales incredibly well – I even managed to get it loaded on my phone, though the touchscreen didn’t lend to a good experience.

Since you don’t control the units via the GUI, but rather, through code, the bulk of your time is going to be spend in the IDE, tinkering around with your unit and colony behaviors via Javascript code. Finally putting my Game AI programming concepts to use!

I’m pretty proud of my little colony so far; it’s like managing my own colony of ants. Brings back old memories of playing SimAnt as a kid.

The competitive aspect is perhaps the coolest part; very evident even within our own group of “novice” players that there those which are more engaged than others. While their code isn’t visible to you, being an open world MMO RTS, you can see every other player and room. For a few of the more advanced empires, I’ve been trying to reverse engineer useful behavior algorithms to see how to create a general purpose empire expansion code base. AI programming indeed!

Procedurally-generated rooms, mostly. Some substantially better than others. Each symbol denotes a different player’s territory. Because We’re in the “green” novice zone, the massive empires looming just outside can’t touch us. Yet…

I’ve always loved learning with an objective, and the framework of this game is an excellent way to focus on logic. The survival element encourages experimentation, and though I’m still early in the game, I decided to break the peace and send out a few of my “defender” units. You’re competing with every other player in real-time–basically your code vs. theirs, so I figured that I’d want to hone my little empire’s abilities to eventually advance beyond it’s “novice” borders. I went into the nearest player’s base and annihilated their walls, workers, resource storage, and “spawn” (which is where new units are created). This leaves the control point to slowly decay, until my own colony units area able to take over.

Attack!

Such slaughter is the cold work of empire building, though, it looks like, to survive, I’m going to need to know how to fight and grow beyond my own box.

AS for the scale of the game’s persistent univserse, so far, it is massive. The below screenshot is just a tiny segment of the scroll-able space, so it’s a huge amount of virtual territory, though of course, it would have to be, since it includes every other player in this single instance. I can’t tell how much further it will scale though, since right now, the game seems to crawl at around 5-10 seconds / tick. They’ve shared their infrastructure details, which is actually a fascinating read, though, perhaps, they could do something to speed the game up, maybe 2-3x.

My “empire” is but a tiny colony among a massive ocean of empires. Better get coding..

Great game. I will post more about it as I play further! 🙂

 

‘Life is Strange’ is Awesome! (update: 4k screenshots)

One of my favorite games of 2015 has been Life is Strange, an episodic adventure/RPG developed by Paris-based Dontnod Entertainment (produced by Square Enix). Not exactly a well known developer, their last game was Remember Me (2013), a sci-fi time-bending action/adventure game which while interesting in premise, had me bored within hours by the repetitive action / timing based puzzle gameplay. Poorly sales pushed the company to near bankruptcy and required a critical pivot to survive. Dashing away rumors of collapse, they chose to be smart and bold, streamlining the team and moving to an episodic developer model.

Knowing that this could be their last attempt as a company they began the amusingly code-named “What If?” project. That became the game that is Life is Strange, a game that evolved the time-bending concepts introduced in Remember Me and builds around it a compelling character narrative and mystery thriller. It was beautifully executed too, a focused more refined vision well within what the reduced team could produce excellently. I had started with Episode 1 released in January and had been playing it on the Xbox 360 version through Episode 4. Even there, despite it being 10 year old hardware, it was still a visually stunning experience.

Seeing that it was 50% off on Steam over the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to start and finish a new PC play through. Of course, I was also was hoping for a substantial boost in graphics fidelity on the PC edition.

I was not disappointed.

Among the most visually appealing games of 2015

I managed to play on high settings at 2550×1440@60fps (screenshots below) and while the game may not be as technically stunning as GTA 5 or The Witcher III in view distances or triangle counts, Life is Strange still manages to provide a better cinematic experience and is easily among the most visually memorable games of 2015.

More than performance captured faces and ultra high triangle counts are at work here; in word word, I’d sum it up as the ambiance of the setting and story that they’ve captured in the medium. And it’s not just the graphics, the audio editing is excellent as well. There were several times while playing that I took off my headphones and was surprised to find myself in silence. Whether it’s the slight breeze, or chirping birds or soft diner, the scenes were well fleshed out and felt more real than my artificial indoor confines.

Practicing guitar, something I never did enough of

"Home shit home" - Chloe

Chloe "medicating"

Fremont Troll, Seattle

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Most meaningful game I’ve played since Mass Effect 3

Adventure RPG has becomemy favorite genre and while I love the freedom that comes with a Fallout 4 or GTA 5 (playing both now actually), a clearly told tale with truly likable characters and a solid plot is such a rare gem that I can count them on one hand; such represent the hallmark of why I love the medium. As for Life is Strange, I’ll go far as to say that this was the most meaningful game I’ve played since Mass Effect 3. The story is fascinating, the setting beautiful, and as a sucker for nostalgia, characters that are truly likable and entertaining.

The game also has a strong sense of present day reality, a unique trait among games these days where fantasy and science fiction seem to dominate. Even most present day games tend to avoid mention to real-life entities, so the game is unique in that it works hard and succeeds at feeling like it’s not just a believable setting, but one in the real-world.

“Maybe I can sneak in here to watch Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made!” – Max

Social media, smartphones, the modern-hipster vibe of the PNW, references to the ongoing drought are all (not-so) subtle reminders that this game takes place not in some far off place, but in our world, and there it succeeds in providing an immersive experience and a compelling setting for the story as it unfolds.

(I won’t go into the story here; plenty of spoilers elsewhere.)

Speaking of which, I’ve only finished PC Episode 1 so far, so back to the game! 🙂

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The screens don't say it, but 'Facebook' is specifically mentioned in dialog.

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UPDATE (1/12/2016): I recently obtained an Nvidia GTX 970 and decided to finally finish the game in 4k (3840×2160) resolution. I had been playing in 2550×1440 before so I wasn’t expecting a major boost but 4k is double the amount of detail and wow, it is stunning! The below isn’t really appreciable unless viewed at 4k but they make great wallpapers at any scale!

R.I.P. Maxis (1987-2015): In Defense of Simcity

I was originally writing this post to be a defense of Simcity, but in light of the recent shutdown of EA Maxis’s Emeryville studio, the headquarters of what was once Maxis, after years of poor management by EA, I felt the need to speak out on this travesty. There are more complete obituaries of Maxis online–notably this one, which I enjoyed reading; this one is my personal story with Maxis and their games.

I’ve been a long time fan of Simcity, having played every version since Will Wright’s original in elementary school. Each iteration attempted a daunting task and presented the challenge to the player: the simulation of an entire city and its various layers of operation. Nothing gives you more appreciation of urban planners around the world like a game that gives you exposure to various simulated aspects of city building. Maxis took this idea and wrapped it up with addictively fun game mechanic has no formal “end”.

The studio long had a reputation for fun and intellectually fascinating edu-tationment oriented simulation games, which I had become familiar through Scholastic Apple catalogs we’d get from school. I found nearly every offering compelling because, aside from the hugely interesting subject matter, nothing like it was out there (this was the early 1990s). The real lasting appeal to those who love to explore was that many of their games never needed to end and they encouraged you to explore the limits of the simulation. SimLife and SimCity in particular could be endlessly perfected, generating a fascinating steady state of a living ecosystem, whether an entire planet, or a booming metropolis. The Maxis of the 1990s provided great experiences through quirky games like SimAnt, SimLifeUnnatural SelectionSimTower, to smash hit simulations like SimCity 2000. I played each of those, and loved them all. It was the early ’90s and was the golden age of DOS and PC gaming.

Simant (1991) – This was the first game that I ever bought for my DOS computer – This was in second grade, so I was 7 years old, in 1992. The computer I played it on was our family PC, a 386SX 16MHz / 4 MB / 60 MB HDD, and the game came on a single 1.44 MB floppy. I still have the manual.

Being a weird nerdy kid, I loved reading manuals and guides to things, and I loved the literature that Maxis provided, both in their physical manuals and accompanying publications, but also their in-game “lore”, in the form of scientific summary. I learned more about ants while playing SimAnt than I did anywhere else. Oh, the good old days, when Maxis actually cared about the subject matter, and indeed, felt more authentic to the subject matter and left the game mechanics develop around it.

The story of Maxis is a prime example of the sad fate of independent artists and thinkers when forced to operate under a profit machine. Maxis, as one of the most quirky and inventive studios may have had no hope under a monotonizing corporate giant, and sealed its own fate when on July 28th, 1997, it signed away its soul to EA. A quick read through the comment thread of the Ars article shows that this move was little surprise to many:

http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/03/ea-closes-simcity-studio-maxis-emeryville/?comments=1
http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/03/ea-closes-simcity-studio-maxis-emeryville/?comments=1

 

The Tale of Two SimCities

My latest experience with a Maxis product was Simcity 2013, and the Cities of Tomorrow expansion. Having thoroughly enjoyed both, it’s quite a challenge to reconcile the experience with the online negativity surrounding the game. It has incredibly unique IP, a great game engine, wonderful content and replayability… yet collapsed under the collective weight of player expectations, and poor management by EA. If one came to appreciate it at it’s best, it’s an incredibly awesome simulation that is quite unlike any other mainstream game out there, but I guess in EA’s world, that’s the end of the line.

After buying the game on a whim at the end of 2013, I’ve been pleasantly surprised can say that if you try to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what previous Simcity has taught you expect, or what else you want it to be, then you can come to appreciate that it is an incredibly intricate simulation of a city, that has an incredible amount of dynamic activity that come together in fascinating, sometimes unexpected ways–often in the form of snarling traffic.

Indeed, I too have had many frustrating issues, and the issues that plagued Simcity at launch continued intermittently throughout my play time. A lot of forgiveness later, there still is a thoroughly enjoyable game that is well worth whatever fire sale price it can be had at now. I’ve played quite a bit, and over time, I’ve gotten quite good at building wealthy, highly educated, virtual cities, with wacky transportation options:

Simcity - Endeavour City

Simcity - Endeavour City-2

I won’t address those criticisms individually, but I can say that the game is much more enjoyable when creating an ecosystem of cities, rather than a single gigantic one, and as i got better at engineering entire urban regions, the strategic element of game play became quite rich and enjoyable. As I came to understand the model behind the game, I became increasingly appreciative to the intricacies of what was being simulated. Dan Moskovitz gave a great talk at GDC 2013 on the SimCity engine, Glassbox, after which, I much better understood how to work with the underlying engine.

The game itself, when it works right, is quite fun, and like I mentioned before, is quite like managing a living, breathing entity in some sort of equilibrium. My favorite times in the game would be when I rescued a struggling city, and built it up into a stable steady state, and i could sit back and watch it go. I would say it has the same therapeutic benefit as tending to a garden or watching fish in an aquarium. It helps that the game has a stellar soundtrack, which alone is worth the purchase price for me–I particularly love the soundtrack from the expansion:

All of which, makes the bungled launch, the excessive in-app-purchase like add-on content, and the incomplete feature set at launch (no single player mode?), seem like a series of publisher date/design-meeting compromises, along with an odd review-score changing incident that ultimately dinged the game so badly that I can only imagine that sales must have suffered. A shame really, as it likely was the final excuse EA needed to axe what was left to go fund cheaper projects like EA Sports: XYZ 2016.

In the end, what’s left is an odd lesson on corporate acquisitions and the impact on one’s identity and soul. None of this should be news to any studios today, but Maxis, for it’s long personal history with me, is one that I’ll remember passing. As for Simcity, it’s truly unfortunate that it’s legacy is going to be the one that self-destructed under EA, but for what it’s worth, I know history will remember Maxis for the incredible contributions it made to millions of kids like me, growing up to love games and tinkering around with systems and agents.

But as you’ll notice that the internet has since dumped it’s hate on the review score. Oh well, thus is the life and end of EA franchises. I hope the spirit can live on.