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2020

2020 was a landmark year, one of those that we eagerly look forward to in the past but upon arriving discover it was less than the ideal future.  Now that the year has come and gone the collective focus of humanity will be on the promises of 2026, or 2049, or 2077, or any another number with significance.  

Gnomon Level Design - Desert Level Screenshots

Screenshots don't paint a full picture when it comes to 3D levels, but I'd like to share some of the key vantage points from my desert level.


Here's the main gate that is blocked off.  The player climbs the siege weaponry to reach the top of the wall, where...


They'll see the explorable city below, and discover secrets at the Vault.
 

This is a room full of prop objects modeled to show off the workshop.


This particular room is where one of the artifacts is held, defended by a pair of royal wraiths.
 

A quiet and ominous barracks.


And lastly a look at the keep just out of the player's reach.  They'll have to find a way over the short wall to reach the key item in there! 

Cyberpunk 2077



A review of Cyberpunk would be incomplete without mention of it's launch debacle, but I'll highlight my experience here and save the marketing analysis for another post.  I managed to avoid most issues by playing on PC, and by focusing on the stealth shooter and hacking gameplay. 

Cyberpunk was my most anticipated game of the year, in part because of it's gameplay similarities to the recent Deus Ex trilogy.   It's inclusion of augmentation, an expansive sci-fi universe, and sneaky gunplay put me into the same mode of immersion and wonder that I experienced playing Deus Ex Human Revolution.  And boy was I immersed.  It was impossible for me to put down the game until I'd made my way through to the end. 

This game succeeded for me the most in it's thrilling, cinematic main campaign, and it's varied level design.  Stepping into a hostile zone meant having to be on high alert, scanning the area and concocting a plan of infiltration.  The uniqueness of each location (an underrated feat!) kept the game fresh.  It's a marvel that CD Projekt Red designed a world of that size with such depth.  It's open world density of unique, loosely isolated encounters improved on the Skyrim formula of dungeon design.

My approach was almost always to open with stealth, trying to hack, disable, and silently take down as many enemies as possible.  Naturally, my execution would not be perfect!  I'd get spotted, trigger a shootout, and have to use my pistol or rifles to clear the rest of the camp.


Each encounter, as described, followed this pattern of rising and falling tension that made every quest end with a satisfying player story. Whether I came out of the fights unscathed like a ninja or explosively in a hail of bullets, the journey through that danger was thrilling. I'd leave the battlefield feeling like a hero and walk down the street to the next quest.


That's not to say Cyberpunk 2077 was without it's weaknesses. Outside of combat, the world did not facilitate much interaction. The playspace of CP2077 only existed in a few places: encounters, driving, inventory, and photography. While it's world of Night City was a sprawling metropolis, the most intricate action a player could do within it was to "Press [F] to pick up an item". It's a big disappointment because so much of the city is designed to be filled with unique locales, yet it is all reduced to set dressing, just a facade. There's so much room for deeper immersion around the city districts.

Another big problem with the game was the ambiguity of the non-lethal playstyle. It was not clear whether downed enemies where sleeping or dead. It seemed there was some breathing animation but that was inconsistent and confusing at best.


The worst offense of the game has to be it's lack of responsibility in handling food that exists in its narrative. Vendors do not actually sell any of the items that they say they have during cutscenes. Claire is the worst example. She's the bartender at the Afterlife, and a big part of the appeal of that bar, is that they serve drinks named after the most famous mercenaries. There's a whole conversation about Johnny Silverhand's drink, but when I went to buy something from her, she only had generic consumables.

Later in the game, Claire invites V to grab a beer from her fridge. I scoured the room, but there were no fridges, and no beers. The game is a lie.

This is a serious case of ludonarrative dissonance, and completely threw me out of the game. My conjecture is that it's a symptom of misalignment between various teams working on the game, and that there was not enough time or resources for detailed direction to bring the project to a cohesive whole.


But it's flaws are somewhat redeemed for by the detail in the core parts of the game and its occasional exceptionally great quests. The gems of Cyberpunk are in its side content, not laid out for the player but built into the world. Players are left to discover them, either by chance or by thorough exploration.

That's the most interesting part of the Cyberpunk experience: that the memorable moments are the ones you discover in between the main story quests. These are the moments that are special to my V.





13 Years on Steam

I've been gaming on Steam since 2007, when Valve launched the Orange Box.  My christmas present that year was a PC that could play it!  That first Winter was filled with exploration in Half-Life 2, solving the mind bending puzzles of Portal, and gibbing in Team Fortress 2.

Today I'm almost up to the milestone 1000 games in library (given the Pareto distribution I've only played 20% of those). I've had many of my favourite gaming moments and great times playing with friends on Steam.  It's really succeeded in making PC gaming the most accessible platform.  A large storefront, community tools, a place to play with friends, and instant access to my games on my laptop or desktop, whichever was nearest to me.



Gnomon Level Design - Desert Project Mood Boards

Final Project for the Level Design course.  For this we're learning from the Seattle area in The Last of Us 2.  My stage is designed in a Persian fortress feel. 






PS5

 

This is me for the rest of the month.  Gaming it out to Final Fantasy XV and the rest of the PS Plus Collection.

Still In It

I thought 2020 would be the year that my play would get rusty, but I'm still IN IT!


This new league of legends rewards flow for the season is very clear and satisfying.

Being the Hero

Being the hero is so compelling that it's not enough to hear stories of great deeds, we desire to enact them. The mantle of the hero who brings order to the world is the cornerstone of storytelling. Within games players can become the hero in a simulated world, and live out that destiny.

A Cat's Curiosity

Lina has lived with me for 4 years but she's still always so interested in exploring the house, patrolling the yard, and sniffing around.  When she was younger she was mesmerized by the water faucet.  As the water dripped, Lina would jump to the countertop and try to catch the water.  She grew up and no longer does that.  I can't say exactly when but her curiosity has moved onto other things like the birds outside.

Genshin Impact - Party 2

I pulled Sucrose, Xingqiu, and Keqing today in Genshin Impact.  Was getting close to the 5-star pity, didn't want Klee, but felt a bit lucky so I went for it.  I've got some awesome additions to my team now.  Keqing is my first five star!





Losing Streaks and Winning Streaks

Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and perform poorly for a long while.  Last week my 8-game lose streak in league of legends was difficult to get through.

But situations like these come in waves.  Losing can put you in a poor mentality that is difficult to come back from.  

The momentum can go both ways!

Once you get over that hump and change your mentality, you can find the start of a winning streak.  That first win can give you the push for you to outperform your own expectations, and maintain it consistently afterwards.

Losing!


And then winning!



Gnomon Level Design - Control The Contrast

I got great feedback about my level design colors today.  Where it's easy to paint in a prototype game level with broad colors, it's also likely that you pick high contrasting colors while building it out.  This helps the designer see more clearly the differentiation between object types.

But when controlling the color for the player, the high contrast and high saturation areas should be reserved to attract the player's attention.  Less important areas of the game, such as much of the non interactable terrain, is better served with broad strokes of color that meld together and don't call for attention.

I tuned down the saturation across the board (for a second time), and tried to push back the reds in the rocks which were fighting with the greens in the trees.



Gnomon Level Design - Constructing in Unreal

 


Now that I've got the modular pieces done, the fun part is piecing it all together in the level!

Gnomon Level Design - Into Unreal


 The lighting and interactivity make it start to feel like a game!

Scheduling Breaks

Just as important to scheduling time to be productive is to schedule time to recharge.  I think thanksgiving and the week after will be that time this year, near the end of November, for me to circle back and reflect.  By then I'd have over a hundred posts in 2020, and a lot of things to just let my mind sit with.  Just planning a bit ahead here!

The Quiet Nights

The quiet nights are those

like tonight without power yet

with candlelight


In the dancing shadows hide

glimpses and glows of 

true sight


20GB a day

My home's current data network consumption rate is about 20GB per day.  This is about half the 1.2 TB cap that comcast has on the line.  It's a reasonable number, if we streamed more shows everyday, or produced lots of video content to upload or stream we'd probably get closer to the limit.

The 1080 recording setup that I have ends up using about 2GB of disk space per hour of recording.  So, in terms of producing new content I'd have the bandwidth to do about 100 hours?  That's including backing up the project files.  Not bad!

Mistake Vectors

Mistake Vectors are the ways that opportunities to make mistakes present themselves.  The more vectors, the more different ways a player can struggle.  It's important that these are clear, so that when a player fails, they can see where to improve and have a clear plan of attack for their next attempt.

Gnomon Level Design - Trees

 Marvel at my popsicle trees.  It's fascinating what a bit of shape suggestion and color can do to our imaginations!



Gnomon Level Design - Modular Rocks

 Made a mountain out of a rock split into 4 modular components.




First time in First place

 


For this season of TFT, I hit my first winning game here with a team of Ninjas and Duelists.  It's a game that rewards very sparingly but just getting that one in twenty(? maybe even rarer) win is memorable and a great moment.

21900

Sixty years translates into 21900 days.  A rather round number, but to fully count I'll have to include the 15 leap years and their extra days for 21915.

Cold Chamber - Rough Core Statement

I sat down to elaborate on the core statement of Cold Chamber.

A Tactical Terrain Based Shooter in the vein of Valkyria Chronicles with Magi-Temp weapons that consume local heat and generate frostbite.

Goodbye Oculus

Saying goodbye to my Rift today!  It's served me well with the VR, and I hope to upgrade my headset in the near future.  The highlight games I played on it were Half Life: Alyx, and Beat Saber.



Catmull, Chapter 13

-> Go All In On The Initiative

Notes day was organized from within, incorporated feedback processes from the entire company and encouraged all employees to voluntarily participate.  The company committed to the project, scheduling out an entire day for everyone to focus entirely on the event.  Just as important is for the leaders to set the tone of honesty and openness to feedback and criticism. 

Catmull, Chapter 12

-> The Roadmap Will Restrict Your Thinking
Approach the future as a open opportunity to end up outside of your initial plans.  The goal isn't to land where you set out to, but to find out where you want to go as you move.  The pyramid that Catmull draws for the Head of HR, Ann Le Cam, shows that the problem space of a plan has to allow for zig-zagging and even landing outside of the triangle.


-> Independent and Capable
Keeping Disney Animation and Pixar separate and independent was essential to giving each studio the confidence to solve problems on their own.  Both studios asked to use the other's resources when they struggled with production problems.  But the insistence that help would not be coming not only forced them to innovate to a solution, but proved that they were capable of doing so.  Being responsible fostered a sense of personal ownership and pride amongst the teams.

-> Personal Connection
Support your team with personal gratitude for the team's contributions, for everyone at the studio made it possible.  Pixar believes that each film belongs to everyone, and that "ideas can come from anywhere".  People value the personal gesture and delivery of thanks.

Catmull, Chapter 11

-> "Creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint"
It takes time to discover and realize your vision.  Don't let the daunting task get to you.  Bring dedication and an eagerness to struggle through the work.

-> Be confident that you will conquer the uncertainty to create something new.
The uncertainty of the unmade future will always start out as a scary beast.  But you can find the confidence in yourself: believe that you will figure it out even though you may not know exactly what to do yet.

-> Move quickly, don't think, and get into the flow of Zen
The captain has to keep the ship moving at all times or it will sink.  Focus on doing, exploring, finding the wrong way early.  Connect with the creative work and listen to what it wants to be.

Lost in Sky

Life can sometimes feel like this.  You just want to fly but are out of energy and stuck in the ground.




Gnomon Level Design - A Core Statement

Last week I started the Level Design course at Gnomon with Zachary Adams. Our first assignment will involve redesigning the Veldin level in Ratchet and Clank. I'm starting with my core statement:

"magical guns on a war torn battlefield"

Numeric Treadmill

The numeric power up treadmill in games presents as a treadmill because the actions available to the player are essentially the same. Progression in difficulty becomes a counting game of managing your margin of error on perfect executions.

This system is the backbone of many game systems. The numbers go up, while the player's skill also goes up. This type of system is accounts for the wide, wide range of player ability. Players that execute poorly are given and increasingly wide margin of error to work with. While players that execute perfectly are pushed to continue to do so.

But the interesting extension of gameplay comes from the introduction of abilities and talents, which often have a multiplicative effect. They add to the number of options a player has. They change the way a player approaches a problem.

A Cat's Desire

My cat desires to go outside every morning. She meows and meows to wake me up and pats the door to ask me to let her out. Some days she gets to chase the birds away. Some days she has a visiting cat over. And some days when the sun is out, shining bright and warm she sits in the grass to in deep contemplation. I wish I knew the stories of whatever escapades she's been through, and the ideas that spring forth in her cat's mind.

A Rough Take on F2P Time Value

The time value of some popular virtual rewards is set to about 50 hours for $50, or a dollar an hour (at best). Usually, the price would start near 50 cents. When the cost is this low, it's certainly easy to calculate out the time savings and justify a purchase over spending the time in game earning points to redeem the rewards. At this price, players have access to $480 a month with a bit of sleep.

A Retreat from Multiplayer

When it comes to multiplayer games and multi-person experiences, there's a heavy dependence on other participants to create a good and enjoyable activity. When time is limited, this risk of ruined lobbies, disconnects, afks, and overall negative input from misbehaving players starts to gnaw away at the good parts of the game.

The Die is Cast!

Julius Caesar quoted: "iacta alea es" (the die is cast), upon crossing the Rubicon.  There is a point at which you must take forward action and bear the consequences.  The uncertainty falls away once you throw your choice of dice down onto the table and they begin to land.

Moon Cakes after Moon Cakes

The cake after the moon brings back the memories of the moon cake.

Growing Seeds

I like the metaphor of the growing seeds. To grow a plant you must bury it and consistently water it until it is able to seek light. When it is below the surface, there is a lot of uncertainty as to whether this plant is going to take root. It's hidden from view.


Creating a new project has been similar for me. It will take time to nurture the ideas into a growing tree, and I'm yet to know what shape it will take until it grows up.

Catmull, Chapter 10

There's so many ways to enable your team to think with the big picture.


Quoted from the book:

Broadening Our View

  1. Dailies, or Solving Problems Together
  2. Research Trips
  3. The Power of Limits
  4. Integrating Technology and Art
  5. Short Experiments
  6. Learning to See
  7. Postmortems
  8. Continuing to Learn

Catmull, Chapter 9

-> The Curse of Limited Perception
We are limited by our means of perception.  The curse is also on those who cannot see the truth and


-> Watch Out for The Hidden
Leaders will miss the problems they cannot see.  There is always an invisible problem.

-> Prepare for The Unknown Problem
Don't wait for the inevitable failures to come to pass.  Prepare your organization to deal with them.

Catmull, Chapter 8

->Stochastic Self-similarity
Problems of different size and magnitude have more similarities than first meets the eye.

-> Big and Small Problems
Create a response structure that matches the problem structure. Everyone should be free and motivated to solved whatever problem they face, no matter how big or how small.

-> Build A Framework for Potential
A company grows on the excellent people within it, who rise up with talent and excellence.

-> Look Forward, Not Back
Don't ask "What would Walt do?" This thinking inhibits creativity and only walls in your position to the work of the past.

Genshin Impact: Starter Roster

 



I have to say, I'm pretty happy with the characters I pulled with the early game rewards!  Xiangling is great, since I really like staff combat.  Fischl is an awesome support, even with the lackluster archery.  And Noelle is just a well rounded swordswoman with a very effective shielding ability.  Bennett is alright with a fun and fast weapon, but his explosion knocks everyone out of combat, including himself (am I using him incorrectly?).

The game has been pretty rewarding to play so far, and now that my roster has been filled out I'm excited to explore further.  The only downside for me so far is the level requirement for unlocking multiplayer, as I think that is where I'll enjoy the game the most.



Hades: Credits





Got to the credits! Challenged myself to high heat! I pushed up to about 40 hours in Hades, and had a blast fine tuning my builds and learning the intricacies of each weapon. Today I rushed to the battlefield again, but hit a snag and failed to clear the final boss multiple times in a row. In my last run, I turned on God Mode, to see what it's like, and perhaps make some runs towards completing the game. I bit off a bit more than I could handle, borrowed 300 from Charon, and quickly died.


Weird thing is that my infernal arms records got reset. The save data still works but the stats on the first page in the administrative chamber only show my god mode death.  The little perfectionist in me says that's enough Hades for now (especially after clearing the ending). I still love the progression and challenge and pressure to death, and have high hopes to continue running this game in the future!

Here's my records, which I'm super proud of!



Actions and Choices

Games are based on actions and choices.  Players get a designed set of actions that they may perform and the ability to choose between them, and to power to choose the contexts (where, when, why, how) in which they are performed.

How many actions and how many choices makes a great game?  It really depends on the type of game, and the amount of depth and engagement you want to ask of the player. It's not only important to allow the player to make their best actions but also important to give them the opportunity to refrain from taking actions where not needed.


2020 Harvest Moon

 Harvest Moon this year.  It's a warm orange hue that can't quite be captured by my old cameras.


60 Years

Sixty years is an impressive milestone!  I hope that my work can also celebrate a 60th birthday!



Antifragile

Antifragility came up in a couple of conversations this week.  Both in the context of design, learning, and societal issues.  As a concept it's a very strong tool to apply to any situation, to help us identify the factors that lead to growth.  The degree of stress that a particular person or situation can withstand is certainly variable, and we must be wary to strike a blow that is not too soft nor too hard.

Time Scale

We perceive the world on a time scale that is uniquely human. Yet infinitely many time scales are a possibility. The plant that patiently spends day and night germinating eventually stands tall.


The effect of change is a function of the time scale of operation. When nations are born they set out to foster prosperity for generations. The ebbing and flowing of ideas and exchange are set to a tune with low frequency and long wavelength, set to drive the effort forward for hundreds of years.

When abrupt disruptions and short-term thinking invade our outlook, we shrink into an tiny, ineffectual time scale that is at odds with the great deeds desired to be done.

Dice Games

In an action or rpg game, the player has to manage combat on top of the other meta game progression systems.  In a game of chance, the only thing we have to focus on are the dice and how they are cast.  The abilities we gain can improve our lot if we sequence it right.

UBER's Forced Mobile UX

I used UBER today to try out a promotion.  It was a challenging experience trying to use the service from my computer, and my patience was tested.  Here are the steps, in case your account doesn't have a mobile number associated (mine did not):

-> Can't login to UBER Eats because my account doesn't have a phone number associated, so I cannot verify via SMS

-> Login using the regular website using Google Authentication

-> Switch back to Eats to become logged in by association to the regular UBER site.

-> Place an order

-> Cannot place order because I don't have a phone number associated with the account

-> Cannot add a phone number via the website

-> Download the Eats app

-> Cannot log in to the Eats app, because again, I have no way of verifying via mobile number

-> Download the UBER app, login with Google (again), and add a phone number

-> Switch back to desktop to try and complete my order.  Error.

-> Login to Eats app and complete my order.

In the end, I really wasn't able to do anything from my computer.

The Magic of Discovery

It is upon all our known that the magic of discovery arises.

A few quotes from the Library of Lenia

Quotes from the Library of Lenia
"To see is to know, to know is to seek."
"The mind is a fragile vessel for the most valuable gems."

Hades

Great Gods! This game is good.

The rogue-like formula is presented wholistically in Hades, with all the tough decision-making, strategizing, and making tradeoffs between getting more powerful and staying healthy. It took me 17 runs to do my first clear, and I was immediately motivated to jump right back in to try winning with different weapons.


The world, characters, and visuals are my favourite part about this game. Greek mythology is presented very refreshingly, even though these are all characters that I have heard of and read about in the classics, it's another level when they come to life fully voice-acted in a family drama.


I ended up going with the longest range build possible, to avoid damage and kill from afar. My favorite powers were from Dionysius: inflicting stacks of 'hangover' would slowly whittle my enemy down with a poison-like effect. It felt a bit cheesy (doesn't mean executing it successfully was easy!), but the beauty of it is the decision about playstyle is entirely up to the player.

Here's my winning build! The spear's special let me keep a whole screens distance between the enemies and me. ^_^;;