FTL: Faster-Than-Light

FTL game is one the best games I have played in a very long time.

FTL is a space combat survival game. Its made in the style of many indie games of late, 16-bit graphics and sprites. For those fans of pixel art, FTL is a prime example of pixel art done right. There are a few scaling issues with text, but unless you are looking for such problems they are unnoticed. Visually it looks great. The 2d overhead view of your ships and its crew lets you see everything you need to. The game’s survival element comes into effect in a few different ways. The core mechanic will resonate with fans of the Battlestar Galactica series, the player takes control of starship that hails from a civilization who has just suffered a catastrophic attack. The player’s vessel is tasked with  traversing the galaxy to reach a rendezvous point where the remnants of their Federation will rally. Your ship is carrying information vital to the war effort. However the evil aggressors are hot on your tail, so the player must push through the galaxy will continually FTL jumping away as the enemies just enter the sector (see BSG  Season 1 Episode 1 “33”). The player must also micromanage the systems and subsystems of the ship. They can diverting and forward power to the different systems (which can be upgraded over time from resources gathered in-game). These systems include: Engines, Shields, Weapons, Life Support (Oxygen), Flight Control, even Door Controls and Sensor arrays. The micromanagement of systems provides intense gameplay where you can reroute power away from oxygen just to squeeze a few more seconds out of your shields to prevent total destruction; or divert all power from thrusters, leaving you dead in the water, to the guns to pummel the enemy before they can hit you. The leveling up of different systems and crew (who man the systems and gain skills for the systems they use the most) is an engaging progression that keeps you hooked. It also attaches you to the crew.

If you want more background on the game feel free to check out the numerous review floating around the web.

The main elements survival here are crew management, ship integrity, and travel. You need fuel to keep doing FTL jumps (1 fuel per jump). You need crew to operate your ship. You need hull integrity  because you can’t damn well play the game without a ship. These survival keys come into play a few different ways that are really intriguing and it is actually why I became so enthralled with the game.

FTL surreptitiously teaches you about what kind of person you are. At first you start the game out. Everything is peachy, relatively safe and stable. You have a clear mission, and a direction. You are the valiant commander of a Federation ship who is tasked with saving an entire civilization. You can do no wrong. You jump through a few systems and come across survivors, you lend them aid as you are flush with supplies and resistance in minimal. You encounter a few rebel pickets, they put up a fight but soon surrender as your superior firepower withers their shields. Being an upstanding captain, whose primary directive is to save lives, you grant the rebels their lives and allow them to surrender. As the game progresses though, it changes pace and forces you to make choices that you never expected to make. Soon you are facing down enemy vessels with technology you don’t know how to combat. After surmounting these obstacles, you go further into uncharted space. You encounter deceitful pirates, slavers and rebels. It becomes unclear which distress beacon is trap and which is not. You grow more suspicious of every vessel hailing you with peaceful intentions. Eventually you lose one of your crew to a stray missile, or a hull breach. You mourn and move on. Then your supplies begin to dwindle, you have enough fuel for a jump or two, but the rebels are closing in. Finally you expend your last bit of fuel to keep yourself just one jump ahead of the Rebels. You drop out of FTL and see a civilian trader floating harmlessly in space. Desperately you ask for them to give you some fuel, but they have none to spare. You now have only one option, you have to get your data to the fleet. Surely the lives of the entire Federation outweigh one crew. You fire on the ship and strip it for fuel and parts. You heave a sigh of relief as you jump through the next few systems with the gather fuel. Looking back in horror you realize that you have done the unspeakable, you have taken an innocent life to further your own. It was with good reason, you assure yourself, but it doesn’t make you any less of a murderer. The next system drops you into heated combat with the insect-like Mantis. You send one of your crew to fight off the boarding party, but a fire is spreading through your ship and he is losing fight. You need to keep the ship afloat, you’re forced to vent the ship killing the fire, the attackers, and your crewman. You’ve save the ship, but at what cost? The lines between right and survival get blurrier every jump you make. The slow degradation of your morality and the vicious survivor FTL turns you into is a great way to show the player just how deluded they are.

FTL loves fucking with you. The randomly generated galaxy throws twists and traps at you with joyful abandon. However, it delights at the fact that: When you die, it’s usually your fault. You will die in a number of ways: ship fires, hull breaches suffocating your crew, boarding parties tearing through your ship, enemy vessels blowing you up, asteroids destroying your hull, and the Rebel fleet descending upon you. However, at almost every loss, you can find an error in your ways. If you had jumped to a different system, you wouldn’t have encounter this ship. If you had built up your shields a bit more, that laser wouldn’t have shredded the hull. If you had just paid more attention when you vented the ship, you would have noticed the boarding party attacking the door control and depriving you of your only way to close the airlocks. Every time, the blame for failure rests on your shoulders.

To be fair there’s a decent amount of chance to the procedural generation of events, this makes for some difficult game setups. But the ultimate player control and finality of the game is consistent. The experience is something to be appreciated.

I recommend this game to any and everyone one who enjoys strategy games, or rogue-likes, or space games, or RPGs, or just about anything Sci-Fi related.

I kept a ship log of one of my playthroughs. Take a peek to see the type of shit you run into in the game. And the type of crazed internal monologue of someone who really loves space sci-fi. The entire account is what happened in my game, with a bit of embellishment for dramatic effect.

PlanetSide 2 Beta Experience

I will say this about Planetside 2 (PS2). It is fun.

Overview & Positives

It possesses an unparalleled sense of scale in an modern action shooter. Being able to move from one end of a the continent traveling over 10km to the other end, flying over geodesic dome labs, gigantic star forts, space warp gates  mountains, canyons, rolling planes, and watching epic battles unfold beneath is at its best in PlanetSide 2. Battlefield 3 eat your heart out with your 64 player cap and limited vehicle spawns. PlanetSide 2 boasts 2000 possible concurrent players per server. I have yet to see so many, but I have hopped into a full Galaxy dropship which carries 20% of a BF3 server in one  load.

Fuck me does PS2 look good and sound great. When cranked up to High settings this game impresses with it fidelity and sheer volume of effects.

Watching 3-4 Galaxies (each filled with 12 troops) escorted by 4-5 gunships moving towards an enemy fortress is wicked cool. Watching that formation start to take Anti-Aircraft fire from below and strafing runs from enemy aircraft is spectacular. Watching that happen during the night to see the tracers tear through the starry night and rip apart the Galaxies as they begin to burn and spin out of control dropping their payload of anxious fighters, that is truly surreal.

This game will eye fuck you with visual showcases of legitimate gameplay that most engines would weep at the thought of pre-rendering. Well done SOE.

Vehicles are another great part of PS2. They are versatile and effective. Both ground and air vehicles have ‘roles’ and a vehicle that fits that role. The generalized roles are: Transport (Galaxies & Sunderers), Fire Mission (Main Battle Tank & Liberators), Fire Support/Recon (Lightnings &  Mosquitoes). These have different costs based on your faction resources and personal progress. Generally speaking, if you play you will be able to afford vehicles if you want them.

Base Layouts are pretty awesome. They have about 6-7 ‘types’ of bases throughout the continent. These range from small outposts with a handful of buildings to military compounds and industrial complexes. The different bases allow for some different tactics when approaching them, however battle ultimate boils down to corridor fights inside the base buildings. Each base has a capture procedure; some bases are a single capture point that needs to be taken, some have multiple points. The massive forts have 5 capture points spread out across the compound, these points are sometimes a 1000m from the farthest other point. Larger compounds also have defenses, namely forcefield barriers. These barriers protect the interior player and vehicle spawns, as well as the final capture point. The only way to circumvent these barriers is through either some tricky jetpack work as the Light Assault class, or destroying the shield generators which will drop the barriers granting the attackers access to the main structure of the fortress. A single fortress can be vied for by hundreds of fighters and battles over control can last for hours.

Character classes are a thing. There are 6 basic classes: Light Assault (Jet Pack!), Heavy Assault (Machine gun & Rocket Launcher), Medic (Heal & Revive), Engineer (Repair & Mines), Infiltrator (Sniper & Cloak), MAX (Mech Suit w/ Chain Guns). The classes variation is nice, each class ability is balanced and effective for that player role. The weapons are fairly ubiquitous so support classes are totally underpowered with pea-shooters.

Flaws

  • Shooting – I am sorry, thus far shooting fails to impress. For a game whose main mechanic is shooting, this is not really acceptable. Controls are a bit splashy, getting the sensitivity right for accurate shooting is tough. Default aiming is too slow. Most guns kick too much to keep steady with no solid means for compensation. Reacquiring targets is difficult because the gun model takes up nearly the entire screen when aiming down sights and recoil ensures that your target is totally concealed by muzzle flare and the weapon itself after the second round out of the barrel. Opponents take a bit of damage, so lighter caliber weapons (Carbines) need to land multiple shots at center mass to take foes down. Doing so is too difficult at this time. Serious adjustment needed.
  • Concurrency – This is not a flaw, so much as a limitation of the beta set up. This game is built around large scale combat, unfortunately there are not enough players in game at any one point to get frequent epicness. At peak hours in your server (around 7pm for my server US West 01) you can get some pretty kick ass battles. Outside that, its tough to even fill a galaxy or 2. Obviously when the game releases this will be less of an issue, but SOE will really need to push the game to as many players as possible and keep them invested for longevity.
  • Lack of Player Control – Right now all servers are run through SOE, which is good and necessary. I mean dedicated servers supporting 2000 players may not even be possible. However, players can’t control the settings they play on: Friendly Fire, Team Settings, Comm Settings, and the like. Currently players can’t remove other players either, and there is rampant team killing right now. I recently saw a player in a Sunderer (basically a semi truck with guns) in front of my factions Warpgate (the un-capturable faction spawn) driving back and forth running over every teammate who exited the spawn point. Players could do nothing to stop him but eventually kill him. There needs to be some recourse there.
  • Aerial shooting / bombarding – Not sure if this is poor controls or something SOE is striving for, but right now firing from the aerial platform is pretty tough. Specifically bombarding from high altitudes. My initial understanding is that they want to make accurate bombardment a difficult skill to master, especially at high altitudes. Unfortunately airships move fast, and the projectiles move slow. After an hour or two of dedicated gunning in the Liberator gunship, I still can barely hit shit. Maybe something to consider tweaking.

Bugs

  • Geometry hitches – I cannot list the number of times I got stuck on a boulder, a crevice, even building geometry. I have stood on roofs and walked towards sloped portions of the roof that a normal person could step over with a 1-2inch adjustment in their stride; my conditioned super soldier however had some difficulty with it. Obviously this is expected at beta, but not to the extent I saw.
  • Entering Vehicles – This pissed me off to no fucking end. Some vehicles I could simply not enter. Running along side them and hitting ‘E’ furiously on every side was futile. I also spotted a ‘feature’ in the PS2 engine. It seems that when a pilot leaves a vehicle, the pilot seat is reserved for him so no one can grab it and drive off. I am not sure how long or in what manner that seat is reserved. I recognize this is to prevent BF3 style team hijacks and I am appreciative. Though right now, some guy will role a Sunderer or a tank up to a base, hop out, run off leaving the vehicle, and we as teammates can only sit in the gun ports and hope for salvation. That needs some readjustment.

All that being said I am on US West 01 Beta server going by Zappor (Account is CaptKerberos)

Fun Theory

According to the New Media Consortium Horizon Report: 2011, many modern museums face the following problem with advancing technology: 

Greater understanding is needed of the relationships, differences, and synergies between technology intended to be used within the museum and public-facing technology such as websites, social media, and mobile apps. Too few in museum administration see the opportunities that virtual museum visitors might be bringing for fundraising, philanthropy, and specialized marketing. The dichotomy between the physical and virtual museum visitor is blurring rapidly, and both audiences have high expectations with regard to online access to services and information. Still, the notion that museums must provide comprehensive information and services online is a genuine challenge, especially for smaller museums. For larger institutions, however, providing such services has risen to an expectation from the visiting public.

When looking at how address the different connections and perspectives of museum pieces, I think of how I reflect on what museum pieces enthrall me most. Usually when examining an exhibit I find myself mentally evaluating it against other pieces I have encountered, either in the same museum or in past experiences.  I also usually get feedback or recommendations from people about museums or exhibits that they believe would interest me. Often times I get great recommendations, and other times I find it difficult to follow up on a recommendation either because I have forgotten or had trouble finding the suggested exhibit.

All of these seemingly connected components of my museum experience could be enhanced by a technological ability to expound my museum findings (and look at others’). This led me to imagine a technology platform that could provide the public museum visitor with a very interactive and customized experience. I began to imagine a system that integrated across multiple media platforms, specifically: websites, mobile applications, and social media.

This system would be similar to a Yelp! or Google Maps system; where users could provide feedback on their experience with a particular exhibit (or piece in an exhibit), the feedback would be available to the public, and it could be used to make connections to other exhibits/pieces (or even other museums!). Each user could at any point during an exhibit find a placard associated with the item in question, on it would be a digitally readable identifier (possibly a QR Code) which would access a digital indexing of that item on their mobile device. There others will have posted opinions or related recommendations. The user could add their own feedback on the spot, or they could use the mobile application to find other exhibits in that very museum that are similar or in some way related to what they are examining. The application would give concise directions to the other exhibit so the user could find it. Each step of the way the visitor would be able to leave their own advice and promote advice others had given that helped them. The system can also interface with social media by affording users the ability to ‘share’, ‘tweet’, or ‘check-in’ at an exhibit or piece. This would be visible to their social media connections and could possibly draw outside attention through free social marketing.

For the ‘virtual’ visitor they would see the result of ‘physical’ visitor’s actions. They would be able to look at a specific museum on a webpage and read up on different pieces before visiting the museum. They could plan out a travel path through the museum to make sure they see only the pieces they are interested in. They could plan ahead and purchase tickets in advance (ease of purchase means more visits for museums). Users would also be able to sift through other visitor’s opinions, and follow connections made by visitors to find other pieces of interest. The possibility exists that they may end up visiting a different museum than originally intended based on the recommended connections of a past visitor. And in the typical social media fashion, users could promote other peoples recommendations they found helpful or insightful; further reinforcing high-quality feedback.

There are obvious concerns, as always, with internet interactions and marketing. It needs to be moderated to ensure that users are putting up appropriate and germane information. This is an obvious obstacle that the respective museums would have to evaluate before opting to use this interactive museum system.

This system is an interactive way to voice your opinion of museum content, but also to help others find what they are seeking in a museum. The hope is that you help yourself in the long run by bringing more visitors/friends to museums who can provides solid recommendations that improve your experience. By posting our great experiences on social media we bring attention to a part of society that is being left behind by advancing technology and we refocus a waning interest. This will bring more donations, revenue, visitors, discussion, and (hopefully) progress to the entire museum/gallery community.

The Madness of Roland

The Madness of Roland is an early example of interactive and branching narrative. It is written with multiple perspectives of a single event. For reference it can be found at http://www.hyperbole.com/full/serial/roland/roland.html

To start, The Madness of Roland looks and feels very dated. Its navigation and styling makes understanding and following the story very difficult.

Beyond its organization and technological shortcomings lies a relatively engaging story. What is interesting is that while the different characters use the Siege of Paris as a background for their narrative, the story arc is focused solely on the character of Roland.

The Madness of Roland’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Each story, or perspective of the story, has a very unique feel that is in many ways in direct opposition to other accounts. Normally the fresh perspectives would improve the dynamic story, however the different accounts lack adequate introduction which can confuse the reader.  Without knowing the setting for the account, the characters involved, or the time frame; connecting the ideas from one account to another can be difficult.

The Madness of Roland uses good language and strong dialogue. The individual stories themselves not only provide a different account of the Roland character, but the manner in which each account is delivered literary unique. The first account is given by a minor character who narrates his interaction with the major character Mandricardo. This is in a way a second-hand account because the perspective is Mandricardo’s viewpoint, but it is chronicled by his companion.  Roland gives his side of the story in a narrative form as though he is retelling the account to someone or logging it in a journal. It’s clarity and insightful nature provide a completely different view of Roland’s character than all other accounts. Charlemagne’s fevered and rambling account gives small pieces of background while maintaining the focus on Roland. The account from Angelica was given as a stream of conciseness narration of a very brief event.

Separate perspectives give an understanding of not only Roland’s character, but of the mindset and personality of each person giving an account. Readers can recognize different biases and irregularities from each character and it will facilitate the formation of a clearer understanding of the Siege of Paris and Roland’s involvement.

The Madness of Roland has strong writing and a good foundation for branching narrative. However its obsolete and troubled system of delivery (and acting) make enjoying the story more difficult than necessary.

Voice Over: Not a button you can simply push.

(DISCLAIMER: So I have written this post about 3 separate times. First it was disjointed, so I scrapped it, and then it was about 4500 words. So I started once more… So bear with me. )

Sound is one of the most criminally underappreciated elements of game design. Sound design, game music, musical scores, sound effects, and voices all of these pieces make up the whole that is a cohesive game experience. When one of these elements lacks polish or is simply nonexistent a game can flop.

Voice over is one of the oldest parts of sound and game design. Before 3D graphics were considered in games, people were stepping up to the mic and giving speech and form to the in game characters and experiences.

Voice over is critically important to numerous aspects of any game. When it fails everyone seems to have an opinion on it; when it is delivered perfectly, most people overlook it.  When a player is immersed in a game, chances are that they do not realize what exactly is creating the experience, for to realize the ways in which they are being drawn in would render the effect useless. When players can’t find themselves enjoying or being enthralled by a game, they will begin to catalogue every issue they notice with the game. Voice over is usually pretty high on that list of problems. Voice over is categorically overlooked except when it fails.

As mentioned in a previous post (Why Skyrim isn’t Racist Enough) I explained the ways in which a voice can provide for subconscious character development by drawing upon user’s understanding of existing cultural identities. Take a look if you are interested how VO impacts in character design.

There is a way of producing Voice-over, but before you can address the quality of VO you must understand how voice over is created. It must be clear how an idea on a page can transform into thousands of lines of polished dialogue.

1. Ideation

Ideation is the process through which the designers/developers create and brainstorm the project. They will develop the setting, mood, atmosphere, theme, and game play. When they have outlined the basic information and they have sketched out a story, the process can continue.

2. Character Sketches / Bios

During the second step, developers will begin to create characters for the story. They give the characters names, faces, imperfections, personalities and backgrounds. All of the information cultivated by the designers and writers is broken down into character sketches, approximately 1-2 page summaries. This is used as a template for the production team in casting decisions. I’ll elaborate later.

*After Step 2, this is where production begins in earnest. At this point responsibilities shift hands. Step 1 and Step 2 usually fall squarely on the shoulders of a smaller group of writers and designers. There are a few different ways voice over can be done: 1) in-house 2) on contract or 3) a mixture of both. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks, but I won’t get too heavily into detail on that.*

3. Casting Research/Celebrity Searching

Research is a combination of a few different processes. Primarily, this is the stage where the casting crew will pore over the character sketches and try to understand the characters as best as possible; the process ensures that they can make the best casting decision. Most AAA games call for at least 1 celebrity appearance to raise the profile of the game and bring strong talent to the project. The rest of the roles will fall to other non-‘A List’ actors.

4. Casting

Casting can be conducted in many different ways. There are 3 general types that can describe casting practices.

  1. Celebrity Casting – As I stated before, celebrities are often casted for video game roles in order to elevate the caliber and marketing profile of a game. When dealing with these celebrities, they are not to be handled like normal actors. Unlike normal actors, won’t be calling a celebrity in for an audition; you will simply offer their agent/manager the role. After the manager and agent discuss it with actor, the production crew may be given the chance to open a dialogue with the actor. Once questions are answered, and if the actor accepts, negotiation starts. The negotiated contract will cover everything from how much they will be paid to how many copies of the game they will receive, even including what beverages will be stocked in the car that transports them to and from the studio.
  2. General Casting- This is targeted casting where the casting director and crew will contact agencies and actors directly for auditions. These actors will range from mid-profile film and TV actors, to high profile voice actors. These actors will usually audition for the role; if they perform well they will be asked to return for ‘callbacks,’ a second round of auditions with a selected pool of actors. These actors may negotiate contracts or be paid according to *scale (*See below).
  3. Cattle Call – This is what people think of when they think of casting. First, the production team will publish a casting call for each role. The call will typically go out to small time or unknown actors. Then actors will schedule auditions. The casting director or associate will sit in a room for the better part of a day doing back-to-back auditions with all the actors. If one of the actors performs well they will be offered a callback (*See above). If they get the part they will be paid on *scale.

Scale – Think of scale as minimum wage for voice actors. Scale is established by AFTRA (an actor’s union), and starts at ~$800 a day. One day of performance (a ‘day’ is a 4-hour session) will earn the actor just under a grand. Depending on the reputation of the actor, they may be paid overscale, which is simply more than scale. Usually overscale is paid in increments of scale. So a C-List actor or a big name VO actor will get Double Scale for a session. A 4-hour day will net them pay equivalent of two 4-hour days, ~$1600. On the surface, a $200/hr wage may seem excessive, but most actors will finish their recording in only 2 or 3 days of performance which means they receive only 2-3 scale payments.

5. Writing

*Clarification: Writing can happen at any point during the development cycle of a game. Some studios prefer to write at the start of the project, while others prefer to write dialogue well into the game production.

With the roles and story solidified the writing team (either the studio’s writers or the contracted writing team) will develop dialogue for the characters and weave a ‘screenplay’. The game script will determine not only what actors will say what but when and the manner the lines are to be delivered. Additionally, all games have ‘throw away dialogue’. This dialogue is something that takes place outside the scope of the story and with no player interaction. A prime example would be the Elder Scrolls series: in the game you will notice that as you pass NPCs within a certain distance they will spew a nebulous piece of dialogue at the character. The purpose of that speech is to deepen immersion for the player.

6. Organizing

Tied in with writing is the organization of the script. Each line for each character must be organized into categories by actor and by role (*Note: some actors play more than one role in a given game). If the primary character has 2000 lines to read, those lines must be put into a single organization. During recording, the actor and staff can read a line; mark it done; and move on efficiently.

Writing is often done in-house and production is done on contract; as a result organization between companies can break down and cause undue delay. Uniform and efficient organization is critical for a timely production schedule. 

7. Recording

Recording is what first comes to mind for most when they imagine voice over production. However, it is probably much different than most people assume. Recording is a small and intimate process. There are only 3 people necessary for a successful recording session.

  1. The Talent: The actor is the pivotal part of recording and without them everyone else is recording an empty booth.
  2. Voice Director: This is the primary support for the actor. The director’s job is to prep the actor before each line. If the line delivery was not spot-on, the director will provide some direction to push the actor more towards a more perfect delivery.
  3. Sound Engineer: This person is responsible for controlling the technical side of recording. They manage the sound board, run the software suite that records the session, and update the line count after each delivery.

Voice Over is a very strenuous on the voice actor. It involves a large amount of repetition, speaking in unnatural accents, straining of the voice (to either create abnormal sounds or loud vocalizations called ‘efforts’), and it is fast (relentlessly so). This type of activity can be both physically and mentally exhausting for actors. Many screen actors who are new to voice acting will soon find they struggle to keep pace. Newer actors with little experience find that delivering lines with little preparation is difficult, that may mean a recast will be necessary for certain actors if they can’t keep up.

If some lines don’t get recorded before the session ends, or if an editor can’t salvage any of the takes, the actor will be called in for pickups. Pickups are simply when the actor returns for another session to record the lines that weren’t completed.

8. Editing

Voice Over editing is a two part process. First, during the recording session the director will denote which of the recorded takes was best delivered. Second, it is the responsibility of the editor to examine the indicated take and cut it accordingly. When a line is recorded, all the takes are recorded to one audio file, the good take is surrounded by bad takes and aimless talking. The editor needs to cut the good take cleanly from that file and polish it up. ‘Polish’ is adding any number of voodoo type post production magics to the line: cleaning up audio artifacts, removing excess noise, and cutting out sounds unintentionally made by the actor. If in the good take the actor stumbled on a single word, the editor may take the problem word from a different take and overwrite the mistake in the good take, creating what is known as a ‘Frankenstein’. These edits will be the final production quality version of the line with background noise and voice problems cleared out.

9. QA (Optional)

Some producers choose to perform Quality Assurance on the dialogue before it gets sent off for good. During QA, production employees will comb over every line that has been edited to check for: consistency with the script (Does the actor say what they are supposed to say?), audio clarity (Are there distracting background noises or artifacts that the editor missed?), and accuracy of labeling (Is the line labeled and named properly? If not the developers will add the line based on its label and the wrong character will spit out the wrong line). If they find errors they mark them to be sent back the editor. If the mistake is bad enough, a re-record will be needed and the line will get sent back to the director for inclusion in the pickups (*See Above: 7-Recording).

10. Delivery

So now that the lines have been recorded, cut, and checked: they are ready to be added into the game. Lines still in the hands of the production team need to be delivered to the development team in order for final implementation. Both teams will have to designate uniform method of delivery so that the developers can anticipate when the lines will be delivered, how many there will be, and what lines are in each delivery. This usually means delivering in bulk organized by: recording day, character, actor, and scene.

11. Implementation

The developer receives the polished lines that have been delivered and inserts them into the game. The developers are responsible for taking the deliveries and decomposing them and then taking the parts and placing them properly throughout the game. This step shows how critical it is for reliable Editing and QA. If a line is cut or labeled improperly, the developers may not catch the mistake, and the may player will hear a character speak someone else’s line.

So that’s Voice Over production in the tightest nut shell I could squeeze it into. I have attached the original full (and relatively unedited) 4500 word post. It goes into much more detail about why certain processes are important or the problems that can arise in each step. If you are interested I ask you to download it and take a look.

As always, comment if you have thoughts, praise, criticism, or objections.

I would ask that you keep in mind this post is based off of my personal experience, and I fully understand the each game publisher and developer goes about VO a different way.

Original:

Coming Soon (I have to clean it up a bit).

Why Skyrim isn’t racist enough.

So for those of you who have been living under a rock: I have wonderful news! The Elder Scrolls dropped its fifth installment 9 days ago. So far it has gained critical success and sold millions upon millions of copies.

Gotta love vikings and dragons.

I have personally dumped in about 40 hours into the game, and I barely scratched the surface of what exists in the game. My quest log is overflowing with things to do and not enough time to do them.

I have a few game play/bug problems I’d love to chat with BethSoft about, but bugs are bugs. It’s hard to avoid them.

One bone that I have to pick with the design of the game however is this: it’s not racist enough.

Now before you call the ACLU, I assure you if anything that is meant to be very inoffensive.

Before I continue, I will say this about Skyrim: this is the perfect exercise of video games as an art form. The countless moving pieces of Skyrim fit together to make a perfect picture of a world that is compelling and enthralling. It forces the player to think and at times, feel.

With any art form it has a powerful story, much of Skyrim’s events are focused around large scale conflicts. The overriding conflict is the civil war between the Aldemeri controlled Empire and the Rebellious Nord Stormcloaks. Now, when working with such a divisive issue as a civil war, the people will be seething anger and discontent for each other. As you walk through the Province of Skyrim you can hear people shouting at each other down city streets damning the opposition and swearing vengeance. People will approach you to help one faction or the other. This conflict runs deep through the game and it creates an atmosphere of overbearing pressure and uncertainty, which parallels and compliments the Dragon threat nicely. So the civil war represents the political struggle in this game. However, tied into the Imperial occupation of Skyrim is the second conflict, the worship of Talos. The Aldemeri Dominion has sent a detachment of the Thalmor, a group of devout Elven warriors who can be most accurately be compared to a Secret Military Police. The Thalmor are present in Skyrim to help keep order, but also to ensure the end of the worship of Talos, the 9th Divine. Talos is a divine of specific importance to Skyrim, not only was Talos born a Nord, Tiber Septim, but he served as the uniting force that established the Empire. So this conflict with the Aldemeri Dominion serves as the religious conflict in Skyrim.

These cultural, political, and religious conflicts help define and shape the world of Skyrim. A world that feels as though it is tearing apart at its very seems, and there are only a few honestly trying to keep it together.

One qualities of Skyrim that is unique to the series is very well defined races. Each of the races has an extraordinarily unique personality that is a result of both superior design and years of refinement.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena released in 1994 and featured 8 of the now 10 races in Tamriel. Since then The Elder Scrolls has released 13 Games and Expansions. Each installment further contributing to the racial identity and history of these 10 cultures.  This rich history provides a cultural understanding of each race that, I can say with strong confidence, exists in almost no other game.

(For those that don’t know what the Khajiit here’s a sketch – Khajiit sketch)

The races of Tamriel are not only beneficiaries of a long history in games, but they all draw their distinctive identity from their impeccable design. Each is designed with features and nuances that allow the player to embellish their understanding of each race subconsciously. The Elder Scrolls races all have a connection to real life races and creatures allowing the player to take their understanding of those parallels and apply it to the Tamriel race.

I’ll take for example one of my favorite races, the Khajiit.

The Khajiit are a cat-like humanoid race. When you first see a Khajiit, your first thought is probably,

‘Holy shit, that cat is standing up and talking to me’.

Once you get past the initial strangeness of having a chat with Mr. Fluffy, you’ll start to make assumptions about the race. First, the feline nature of the Khajiit makes the player think that perhaps the Khajiit share similar attributes to cats. Is it possible that they are quick, graceful, quiet, and mysterious like felines? All of these thing are true, and as such the Khajiit have always had bonuses to speed, sneaking, and agility. If the player is a seasoned RPG veteran, they will begin to form ideas about the role a Khajiit could play. Quiet and light classes come to mind: thieves, assassins, rogues, warriors of speed, and so on.

Beyond their physical appearance is their voice. When you listen to the Khajiit, it is true they have a unique way of speaking that lends itself to what one might expect a cat would talk like if it spoke English. However upon closer examination, you will notice the Khajiit’s accent is actually Arabic in nature. This may seem unoriginal or irrelevant in some regard, but it is actually the greatest strength of some races.

In other games, alien and foreign speech usually has a layered sound effect to make their voice sound unique. Sometimes the actor’s pitch is higher or lower than is normal for a human speech. Effectively accomplishing nothing more than establishing that: Yes indeed, this creature I am speaking with is not human.

(Brings a whole new meaning to cat burglar)

However, Tamriel’s race connections to the real world help players establish race identity subconsciously. As a clarified earlier before, the Khajiit have an Arabic speech pattern, many players may not immediately recognize it consciously, but unconsciously it begins to conjure up many different pieces of cultural identity.

Geography: arid lands and dry climates. It just so happens that Elswyr the province from which the Khajiit hail is:  “harsh badlands and dry plains,”.

Culture: Intelligent, sly, and clever people with battling factions and classes. Upon examination it turns out that there is a class hierarchy in Elswyr based on the vast wealth disparity.

Economy: A strong trading economy with the entire world for its unique resources. Elswyr is known for exporting the psychotropic drug Skooma made from resources unique to Elswyr. Not to mention Khajiit caravans can be seen throughout Tamriel and Skyrim.

It startlingly how many comparisons can be drawn between the Middle Eastern cultures and that of Khajiit.

Taking in mind the time setting, and I begin to imagine an ‘Arabian Nights’-esque scenario with warring Khajiit Families vying for control of the region, sending rooftop thieves and assassins to undermine each other. What follows from such behavior is a reasonable measure of distrust, these trade-conscious (aka greedy) merchants and foreigners simply can’t be trusted.

Clearly the essence of this race’s characteristics is now being shaped by the mind of the user without ever having to see a piece of information to confirm it, but it is all true.

That is incredible character design at work, it’s refreshing and new to players well acquainted with the Tamrielic races; and it is easily identifiable and unique to players unfamiliar with the series.

Seeing how the different races of Skyrim benefit from the design creating more complete identities; it follows that the developers have more to work with. They can address racial issues in game, and they do! Sort of…

Throughout the game there are several cases in the game where NPCs are attacked or berated based on whether they have hair, fur, pointy ears, or scales. These moments are great. They illustrate further a world filled with strife over politics, religion, and race that is tearing asunder.

However these sequences are squandered, the player can seldom interact with the exchanges either by entering the conversation (and telling the bigots to sit and spin on a sharp icicle) or knocking some manners into the racial ignoramuses (which currently has no street justice value because the guards arrest you just the same). So the racism in Skyrim is only seen and not felt.

If you are going to develop rich cultural identities and races, and if you are going to bring racism into the game (for better or worse): make it impactful.  Don’t make racism a set piece for the player to watch and quietly comment,

‘Aww, that’s terrible! That mean drunk is yelling at that strange cat person.’

What needs to happen is the player needs to interact with the racism.

If the player character is a Khajiit, I want the game to restrict me from entering Whiterun just like the rest of the Khajiit merchants camped outside the city walls. Make me work for it. If the Khajiit player wants to enter the city, force them to pay off the guards, sneak in, or get the Jarl’s attention for an audience. Make an adventure of proving yourself  as above the racist element in the game. There already exist parts of the game where you must work hard in order to gain acceptance, why not add a new dimension to that? (This has been found to take place when non-Orc players encounter Orc encampments).

Challenging the player empowers the player.

Make it so that when the Khajiit thief I am playing is finally made a Thane of a Skyrim Hold; I can approach the city guard who denied me entrance and chew him out, or simply smile as he says ‘Good day, Thane! Anything you need?’ (Thane is an official title in Skyrim, equivalent to a Lordship or a Knighthood)

Furthermore, extend this racism to companions. My first time entering Windhelm I encountered two Nords harassing a Dunmer, blaming her for one thing or another because she was a Dark Elf. At the time my companion was the Dunmer priestess of Azura (Aranea Ienith). She sat there doe eyed and spoke not a word of it.

This is where BethSoft can take a page out of the book of Bioware. Common in BioWare RPG’s is when companions in your party challenge your moral standing if you overlook some sort of violence or discrimination.

Why didn’t my companion jump to the defense of her fellow Dunmer and harangue the racist Nords? Or couldn’t she at the very least have said something to me about her discomfort in a place where Dunmer hate was unabated. If upon entering a city I am stopped and asked to leave my unwanted companion outside, that’s going to make me angry, I am going to right that wrong.

Making conscious decisions regarding race makes the ugliness of the racism more apparent. It sticks the issue in the face of the player and tells them to deal with it. In the real world to deny that racism exists, is idiotic. If that is so, why not use a safe medium like video games to educate about the nature of racism? If I had to choose between forcing someone to be the victim of real life bigotry or in-game bigotry, I would certainly choose the latter if the same understanding could be gained. I don’t believe the experience of real life bigotry could ever be captured in game, nor should it. But if players can be shown the vileness of racism and discrimination in a game, while adding depth to its racial and cultural environment; shouldn’t we do that?

By forcing the player into racist scenarios you’re going to get them thinking about racism. Chances are whatever they choose to do about in-game racism will stick in their minds after they finish their play through.

Making Skyrim more racist actually creates a environment that makes players intolerant of racism.

...Then they seek out that racism. And kill it with fire that they spew from their hands.

Why Streamlining is a Dirty Word

The videogame business is one of the largest financial markets in existence. As a result, major publishers are focused primarily on one thing: profit. Allow me to say, there is nothing wrong with that. This is not some soapbox speech about the dangers of greed. However, there is a very distinct downside to the profit-mindedness that dominates the upper management of the video game industry. There is a common saying that “100 failures are paid for by 1 success”. Anyone who works in the industry can attest this. As a result of this reality, companies try desperately to get that ‘1 success’ more than once. They will take a game that had strong profit margins and capitalize on such a success. This means: sequels, trilogies, serials, episodes, DLC’s, expansions, and more games.

For the fans of a successful franchise this is, more often than not, a welcome outcome. They get the refreshing opportunity to keep playing a game they love, but with a new paint job; and maybe even a new engine (though experience has proven that unlikely). I will be the first to admit, this can be the greatest experience for a gamer. I personally have played through every Half Life game and expansion more than three times a piece. That type of gameplay and replay value is unparalleled. So for most, new content for an existing franchise is great news.

There is however, a dark side to the franchising process.

I own all but one of the Command and Conquer games.

I have logged several days of play on all of them. All of them save one, the final installation, Command and Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight. A little more about CNC4: CNC4 was the first serious alteration of game play to the tried and true formula of the series since its inception. I am not someone who is resistant to such changes. When game developers become complacent with their ‘tried and true’ formula you can get the same game experience repackaged with nothing new (see Call of Duty).The change in CNC gameplay shifted the series away from base building and the archetypical economy system of the previous Command and Conquer games, to a more agile, specific, and non-construction style of play. Wherein previous games it would behoove the player to build up a sprawling base with varying types of defenses (SAM sites, sentry guns, guard units); CNC4 removed that game element entirely. Instead, the player had one single MCV (mobile construction vehicle) and from that vehicle (which remains immovable when in build mode) the player builds all of their units, makes all their upgrades and attaches all their defenses to this one central vehicle. Additionally, the economy system in the game was stripped out, leaving only a population capacity number as the system of unit limitations. In CNC4 a player has a population cap, which grows progressively through the match (based on a number of variables); it determines how many troops on can have at a time on the battlefield (smaller units counting as 1, larger units counting as >1). In other CNC games, players were forced to mine resources for money, and spend money on units.

I have described the intricacies of CNC4 for a very specific reason, and it is not because I really love boring people with the idiosyncrasies of a cerebral game like CNC; I do so because the gameplay of CNC4 was bad enough that I did not play past the first few missions in the game, and have not played it once since the week I bought it. The gameplay shortcomings are a direct result of what I refer to as streamlining, which is what I mean to address in this discussion.

Streamlining: is the process through which a game is developed in such a way that removes higher level game play complexity, in favor of a simpler, more understandable gameplay that appeals to the largest number of people. This is becoming a practice that is more and more popular as game franchises become larger. Now that Call of Duty has once again shattered is previous media release sales record with the sale of Black Ops, companies see the profitability of a simpler game that everyone wants to play.

Streamlining is a dangerous issue, because it sends a clear message to the fan base from the publisher: “we are moving in a direction that will net as more money, and it may be at the expense of the hardcore gamers enjoyment.” That may sound harsh, but it is the reality of the situation. Developers and publishers will streamline games if they feel it will increase the popularity of the game, and they do so with the knowledge that gamers who are more dedicated to the franchise will purchase it out of loyalty, even if the gameplay experience they want isn’t there. This is an indirect abuse of that segment of a fan base that is, in my eyes, an unacceptable business move.

(Warning: for those of you put to sleep by the in depth CNC4 explanation before, there is more to come).

Returning to the example of CNC4 I will demonstrate how streamlining damaged the overall game play of the game, because before I never really explained why the changes were so bad. Unlike many people, I don’t make judgments without good reason, and I certainly don’t share them unless I can support them.

If you play Real Time Strategy games, and you have played them for a while, you may have similar tastes to mine. Which is that I crave a game that will challenge my mind, I want a game that if I make a mistake or bungle a critical operation, the game is going to bend me over the desk and teach me a lesson in proper fucking. Now that’s not to say I want to play a game that if I look away from the screen for a moment, when I turn back my base is not a crater filled with freshly toasted Marine corpses. I find that most real time strategy games involve, well, strategy. CNC4’s gameplay changes remove very specific and nuanced strategic options, without most people noticing. For instance, the removal of an economy has disrupted the power of certain units and the balance of the game. Normally larger units would be more difficult to acquire because they were more expensive, which meant you had to find more resources ,  and in order to do so you would spread yourself out and wait to gather the necessary resources. (Notice that buying bigger guns will leave you economy stretched, as well as you units in order to protect your advancing resource gathering units). With the removal of an economy, player can sit still and crank out units as fast as their production queue can cycle, and if they don’t have the necessary population requirements  (meaning they have too many units to get a new units), fuck it: send some units in a suicidal attack at the enemy.

This eliminates any strategy that would involve: A) frugality and skillful resource gathering, B) the tactic of attacking an opponent’s resources gathers in order to cripple their economy and unit production (which is a very effective tactic in earlier games), or C) giving units special abilities that earn a player cash so that units can have multipurpose roles in the game, instead of blunt weapons of increasing size, power, and range.

If I haven’t beaten that horse enough, let me know.

Moving on to base building and defensive structures; now that CNC4 had removed those pesky ‘buildings’ that had plagued their games for so long they had allowed the player the freedom to willfully ignore any type of planning and strategy, and instead encourage them to throw as many units at a single vehicle as possible and whittle away its monstrous health total in order to win. In previous games players would be forced to make large bases with structures that had unique purposes such as power plants, troop barracks, vehicle factories, airports, resource centers, and defensive structures. Each of these buildings represented a vulnerability to the owner of the structure. If a power structure was damaged, sabotaged, or destroyed, it would compromise the base defenses (which require power) leaving a base defenseless. It a troop barracks was similarly destroyed, a player would need to rebuild a new one in order to marshal forces for an attack or counterattack. If the resource gathering center was destroyed a player would be entirely unable to collect resources, making the build of defenses, the repair of building, the recruiting of new units; utterly impossible. A death blow to be sure. However in CNC4 players have one central structure. They can see their enemies coming from a mile off, and none of their production or research can be halted unless the entire structure is destroyed. But hey, at least CNC4 is simple, right? It is worth noting that this reinforces bad behavior on the part of the player. In most CnC games, because a player has an expansive base, if an opponent is clever, they will attack from the front with a large force, and send a secondary force to the rear in the hopes that in the heat of battle they wouldn’t realize that you just destroyed their power generators and now the base defenses are offline allowing you to liberally apply live ordnance to their defenseless structures.

As demonstrated, much of the higher level tactics which experienced and skilled players exploited in order to attain victory are gone. Now it is simply a matter of how can you best maximize your build queue to shit out the best anti-tank, anti-vehicle units and go destroy the opponent’s base before they do the same to you. The endless back and forth with little to no progression bores me to no end. Not to mention the fact that the ‘mech’ units in the game are horridly overpowered, and can wade into armies of enemies lay waste to them single handedly. Your only hope at winning is building a handful of engineers (units that can capture buildings) to quickly repair and capture downed ‘mechs’ bringing them back into the fight on your side. Then using these newly acquired weapons roll up on the enemy like AT-AT’s on Hoth, slaughtering ground troops as they scatter trying to find a new pair of pants.

So, CNC4 has succeeded in appealing to a more casual audience by eliminating the need for an advanced understanding of military tactics. They have added some comically overpowered units to satisfy the megalomaniac in the common gamer. But is it a good game? Was the streamlining of gameplay beneficial? Well the game sold more than its predecessor. But after its first 2 weeks, sales for the game tapered off very quickly as a result of poor feedback and reviews. But as far as I can tell, in talking with longtime fans of the series, and in my own opinion: I have found nothing but displeasure with the latest CNC installation.

Mass Effect is an interesting case of streamlining a video game. Mass Effect was a truly interesting genre of game; it was one part team tactics game, one part Bioware role playing game, and one part third person shooter. The result was something that was unrivalled in polish, uniqueness, and scale. Mass Effect was a resounding success. Mass Effect won solid praise from critics and performed well in sales. It spawned a whole new universe to which Bioware’s phenomenal writers and designers could sink more time into. I admired and enjoyed Mass Effect unlike most games I have ever played. It had a phenomenal role playing basis, a character building system with many different options for players to experiment with powers and skills. A robust inventory/loot system like that of the Neverwinter Nights and knights of the old republic games that preceded it. A fluid and intense combat system with easy and quick teammate control, cover to cover running and gunning.

Mass Effect 2 had many of these things, but not all. Mass Effect 2 suffered from a streamlining process in the interest of making it a bigger hit than Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 shared with its predecessor: a story that is engrossing and clever ( I expect no less from Bioware), characters that polarized players (which is always good), a strong combat system with great cover systems, teammates who didn’t frequently run into my line of fire or get stuck on level geometry (which I can’t say for many games). But one thing Mass Effect was missing on the second go around the block was the finer points of the RPG system. Yes, you still assumed the role of Commander Shepard, the oddly androgynous, possibly bisexual, destroyer of Geth and worlds alike. You got the typical dichotomous Good (paragon) or Evil (renegade) choices. So yeah you were role playing. But the skill progression was culled down to 4 basic skills. Excuse me Bioware, but what the fuck? Isn’t that the point of class and skill specialization, to have party members have skills that fit a specified role? So you would have to mix and match party members to fit what mission you were on. No, in Mass Effect 2 you have a party full of people with a lot of these shared skills, as a result what you get is a party full of people who claim to be the jack-of-all-skills. So my play through Mass Effect had me using every character in my party. While my play through of Mass Effect 2 had me using Thane, Garrus, and Grunt simply because I liked those characters more than the others, and not because they actually fit what I was trying to do; because frankly it didn’t matter.

Not to mention that the inventory was ripped out entirely. Upgrades and weapons were now purchased with resources garnered from a mining mini game that was little more than an endless game of radar based whack-a-mole. Seriously? I know the Mako driving sequences in Mass Effect one were a little tedious, and the Mako handled like Shepard was in a perpetual state of drunkenness. But instead of the world exploration that existed in Mass Effect, allowing players some fun as they bounced and bombed around on different planets, they put in a system where you look at the same dull planet sphere that rotates. You stare at some sensors, at the appropriate time you click a button a pointless animation happens, your resource numbers are incremented accordingly, repeat that until you deplete the planet of resources or run out of probes. Oh and if you run out of probes, just go to a refueling station, buy more for a nominal cost, and return to rape more planets. Speaking quickly to the probes, why not just give me unlimited probes instead of wasting my time flying to and from a refueling station for probes that are so cheap that I never found myself in a situation where I couldn’t buy a full box of 30. Using these newfound resources you can upgrade the 2 weapons you have: with only a narrow set of possibilities, all of which can stack on top of each other, never having to compromise one or the other.

One of my favorite parts of Mass effect was tricking out Garrus’s and Wrex’s guns to meet very specific and deadly roles, so they could rip through enemies I softened up with my biotics. So naturally when I popped in Mass Effect 2, the first thing I did when reaching the Normandy, I opened my inventory to see what I had. I found that I simply had 3 weapons that were restricted to my class. Not only that but I wouldn’t get more than 2 different weapons of any weapon type (pistol, smg, shotgun, sniper, etc.).  Gone were the days when as an Adept I could stupidly wield a sniper rifle and rattle off completely useless suppressive fire so that Wrex could maneuver to melee range and give some unsuspecting Geth a primer course on the futility of krogan mating. It might have been an utterly idiotic tactic I used, but I was allowed to do it…

But isn’t that what a game is? I see a game as developers giving you a world with a set of constraints and saying ‘here go crazy’. Now it would seem that this philosophy has an added caveat of “go crazy, but don’t do anything stupid”.

And that is the best way I can describe the difference between ME1 an ME2. The latter is idiot-proof, whereas ME1 fully embraced the idiots and clowns of the game community (embraced them and then promptly destroyed them). Now these gripes may seem like they don’t impact the overall game, and you would be right to think so. Hell, I think so. I played through ME2 three times. It’s a great game, and it saved itself from itself through all the ways in which it improved upon ME: the writing, conversations, combat movement, teammate AI, space travel, witty party banter, and atmosphere of the game all saw marked advancement. Overall, they successfully distracted my critical eye from the flaws of the game. (They could have just used shiny objects. That would have worked too).

I bring up Mass Effect 2 because it is an interesting case, it strides the middle ground of what iterative game development provides. It provides a wealth of refined mechanics and embellished stories. But it also provides a huge opportunity for developers and publishers to slim down a game so much, that they turn off their most loyal fan base because they have betrayed the ethos of a franchise. There are only a handful of examples where this has happened. But those examples are only in the past few years, and the number of these failed attempts at streamlining is slowly growing.

This leads us to the ultimate question:

Where is the line between fiscal decision making and truly good game development choices?

I haven’t found it yet. It keeps shifting with each new sequel that gets squeezed out every year or so. My head is not buried so deeply in the sand that I can’t enjoy a game that has modified and optimized a few game features, as in the case of Mass Effect 2. But I’m not blind enough to drool over a game that destroys the foundation of its namesake in the effort of appealing to a more ‘casual’ or ‘social’ buyer.

If you have other strong examples, or any feedback: throw a comment down below.