A War on Two Fronts: MMO EVE Online Expands Into the FPS Market

EVE Online, perhaps the most notorious -- if not the most popular -- MMORPG, is no stranger to drama. Widely reported conflicts -- such as one group’s hostile infiltration of corporate assets, or a corporate leader’s expensive defection to a rival player group -- have established EVE as a genuine frontier where just about anything goes.

But for this reason, and as a high-end reworking of PC classic Elite, it is also one of the least accessible and most intimidating games being played. That may change with the upcoming expansion Dust 514, which is unorthodox in every sense. It’s a first-person shooter that takes place on the planets, and around the planetary installations, of EVE’s New Eden universe -- and it’s exclusive to the PlayStation 3. EVE and Dust players will be able to collaborate as ship owners and their hired mercenaries, respectively. The idea, according to CCP, is to open the floodgates to an entirely new audience.

DIG spoke to Tom Farrer, producer at CCP, about the goals and promise of the upcoming game, which is due out next summer. In this first part, Farrer discusses the basics of Dust and the goals CCP has in mind during its development.

DIG: What is the new game about? Do you think of it as an expansion, a parallel game, or both as part of a larger work?

Tom Farrer: One of the mantras that we have is, “One universe, one war.” Dust is a persistent shooter for PlayStation 3, and it’s quite literally set within the universe of the PC MMO EVE Online. They’re not just connected -- Dust literally is in that universe of New Eden. That’s the universe that’s already populated with hundreds of thousands of players, and has been alive for seven or eight years now.

If we look at how CCP works as a company, we don’t just fire and forget. It’s about continuous development with continuous support for our player base. If we look at all of the many expansions that we’ve had for EVE Online, we’ll see with the Dominion expansion, we worked with all of the planet shaders and we started to make the planets look more beautiful. You couldn’t do anything with them; they just looked better. After a little while came Tyrannis, and suddenly you could interact with those planets. You could create infrastructure on the surface. That was it -- there was no conflict involved. It’s that conflict over the planets that Dust brings to the universe.

DIG: What does the title, Dust 514, refer to?

T.F.: That’s actually something we don’t talk about. That’s a secret. It’s been a lot of fun watching the various posts and discussions that have been going on online.

DIG: What are the main goals of the game for the player?

T.F.: I suppose the player has myriad goals. This isn’t something you pick up and play for a week and then stop. Ultimately you’ll begin in high-security space, where you’re reasonably safe and you can learn the ropes -- right up until you can develop your character and your skills that you train, your gear, and your role on the battlefield. You’ll meet friends, form a corporation.

It’s at this point that you’re earning enough currency within the game, ISK, to be able to start looking at planetary domination, trying to get a foothold on a planet. Maybe you’ll start fighting other planets and start developing infrastructure on those planets that you’ll need to protect. You’ll start recruiting people to your corporation. Your corporation grows larger, you start to conquer more territory, but now it’s getting too large. It’s harder to manage, so you become part of an alliance of corporations.

And this is where it starts to get bigger and bigger. Because to gain the maximum benefits from controlling a planet, you’ll also need to have control of the orbit of a planet, so you’ll want to start working with pilots in EVE, being part of the same corporations and the same alliances.

Ultimately the work that you’re doing will impact a mechanic called sovereignty, which means that you can start to not only take control of the planets, but also entire systems within the universe.

Our goal was to create a gaming experience that had more meaning. As players ourselves, we really wanted to play a shooter where it was about more than abstract reward mechanics, just bumping up and down a leaderboard and maybe unlocking some gear.

DIG: What about the decision to go with this particular genre -- a first-person shooter?

T.F.: For us, the first-person shooter, when you’re on the surface of planets, provides a very visceral and exciting experience: putting yourself within the body of the mercenary you’re fighting. When you’re not in battle, we actually switch out to third person. When you’re within your mercenary quarters, in your space station or in the war barge orbiting your planet, that’s where you’ll be able to interact with other characters. In the battlefield, we wanted you inside your character’s helmet, really feeling the excitement of the battlefield, and feeling like you were a part of it.

Dust514 Screenshot: http://dust514.org/

Fallen Enchantress Is Set to Rise: Part 2

Elemental: War of Magic should have been a groundbreaking turn-based strategy game. Instead, because of a game development gone wild, it was a disaster. Stardock brought in well-known Civilization IV modder Derek Paxton to head up development of the follow-up, Fallen Enchantress -- and hopefully avoid a repeat performance.

DIG had the chance to talk to Paxton about his role in the development. In the first installment, we discussed the tools and philosophy behind the development process. Here, we talk about how to implement them.

DIG: Was there room for innovation in the Fallen Enchantress development process?

Derek Paxton: This was a new area for me, or at least a major difference between business software and games. Outside of requested changes coming in from major customers, business software has a fairly tight requirements doc that remains true throughout the project. Game development has to be more flexible.

At Stardock, this flexibility was a danger. Although I’ve had to be the gas on some projects I’ve worked on over the years, Stardock needed brakes.

Rather than constant innovation, we had a significant design cycle. The high-level design was produced in about a month, meetings were held to go over each aspect, and anyone interested in that aspect was invited to attend and offer ideas. That phase ended with approval from the executive producer (Stardock’s CEO, Brad Wardell) and detailed design began. In that phase, we broke the high-level concepts into the minutia, and again the team was invited to meetings to go over the various aspects.

Once detailed design was complete, we started the implementation phase. This is where innovation is the least important. The goal of this phase is to get a full-featured version of the game. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it doesn’t have to be all polished. But it needs to have all of the features so that designers can start playing the game and getting real feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

Once implementation is complete, we go into iteration. This should be about a third of the projects’ total development time. This is where we polish the game, add in bells and whistles, change systems that aren’t working, and provide more depth in systems that are more fun than expected. We innovate here, but it’s more about the fine touches than new systems. We do expect that at least one aspect will fall flat and need to be reworked, which is why it’s so critical that we get through implementation quickly. But in general, we shouldn’t be creating new systems at this stage.

DIG: How have you approached the range of PC processing power on the market?

D. P.: The most significant limitation for turn-based strategy games on the PC is the amount of memory a 32-bit operating system allows to an application. Our players want to play on large worlds, worlds that dwarf even the largest StarCraft II maps.

On most saves I check from players, there are well over 1,000 units on the map, as well as numerous cities, buildings and forests. One of the major focuses for Fallen Enchantress is to make the world as interesting as possible. Visual variety is a big part of that, all of which has to be stored in memory so the player can quickly scroll around the map. The problem isn’t storing just what the player is seeing on the screen, but everything the player could be seeing. It’s a significant limitation that we are constantly fighting with.

DIG: The story is a big factor for Fallen Enchantress. What can we expect?

D. P.: Stardock hired author Dave Stern to help create and write the story for the campaign of Fallen Enchantress. Jon Shafer is responsible for the gameplay.

Between the two, we have the talent we need to make sure that the campaign is engaging and fun.

Dave has also gone through the rest of the games, writing assets to help bring out the flavor of the game. I’m not a fan of forcing the player through fixed steps in the name of story, but we do want the players to feel like the world has depth and that the game feels unique and thematic. We want the monsters in Fallen Enchantress to feel right for our game, and feel like they wouldn’t fit in other fantasy games.

Special emphasis has been put on the sovereigns the players play as. They have more history, more specific powers, strengths and weaknesses. They feel like they are a part of this world.

Photo Credit:

A Rage Like No Other

DIG recently had the pleasure of sitting down with legendary developer John Carmack to discuss his recent work on id Software’s forthcoming first-person shooter, Rage, lauded by many as the best-looking shooter ever made. Carmack, who has a seemingly endless number of influential games on his resume, including Wolfenstein and Doom, proved to be a wellspring of effortless development wisdom.

DIG: So how is Rage coming along?

John Carmack: We are essentially done, content complete, but we still have several more weeks of polishing and tuning to go. But the game is there, and we got what we set out to do on it.

Rage is arguably the best-looking thing out there, but my personal point of pride is that it runs at twice the frame rate of almost all our competitors’. It is a 60-frame-per-second (FPS) game that looks like nothing anyone has seen before.

I had the opportunity with this generation to push the graphics in artistic directions that could have been somewhat more exotic than what we chose here, but it would have been at the expense of being a 30 FPS game. I made the early decision that, if we pick this technical direction, we could have this environment that looks incredibly awesome, but can be done at 60 frames per second.

DIG: Has it been hard to stick to that decision?

J.C.: It has been a huge challenge. Rage wound up being twice as aggressive as I originally thought. When I laid the stuff down the first level that we built, I thought we could build it like this and it will be fine. But the later levels turned out to be twice as complex, twice as resource-intensive, and it led to us sweating a lot over the last several months as we were packing it all into the final console builds. It’s been a stretch, but those stretches always wind up giving you the best results in the end.

DIG: How are you addressing scaling for multiple platforms on Rage?

J.C.: We had to make the game dominated by the console hardware tradeoffs. And the PlayStation 3 is, in some ways, the long pole there. They are close, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. You don’t have to do radically different things, but the memory is a little tighter on the PS3 because it is segmented, and Sony takes a little bit more off the top for their guide overhead than Microsoft does.

There is no doubt that decisions had to be based around what would work well on the consoles. Unfortunately, the PC suffers so much from API overhead. We have some systems with 10 times the raw horsepower of the consoles, and they are still struggling to maintain the 60 FPS rate. Now, PCs can render 10 times as many fragments, they can be running in 4xAA 1080p, but if I want to do all these things in 15 milliseconds, the PC is at a bit of a handicap -- and it has to make up for it with raw brute force.

DIG: Where do you see innovation in game development going in the future?

J.C.: I am historically known as a graphics guy. I’ve enjoyed all the different aspects of the development, but I’m mostly tied up with building the 3D worlds and advancing the technology. Rage gets all its hype about mega-texture, but as a graphics guy I think we are past the curve of where the benefit really is. That’s why, on Rage, I was happy to do the 60 FPS. Every game is better going 60 FPS.

As I look forward to the work for our next technical generations, I think we are going to make more of a difference by changing our development process. PCs have an order of magnitude far greater than consoles. We’ve got 64 bit address spaces, you can put 64 gigs of RAM in these systems and terabyte solid-state drive arrays and 24 threaded processors. We have so much more power there, the marching orders going forward are: Leverage all these incredible super-computer resources in the PC space to allow us to create game more rapidly.

I would be happy if we made another game that looked just as good as Rage, but was done in half the time or at twice the iteration.

DIG: Why has speed in development become your focus?

J.C.: I’m always thrilled at the end. I have a vision in my head of how things are going to work when I make a technology, but in recent generations the artists and designers have always surpassed what I think. That’s the difference between the artists and programmers -- they have a higher-fidelity imagination.

I have this fuzzy view of what a mega-textured world will look like. You won’t see any repeated textures anywhere and all that, but I can’t imagine the things that the artists build when they spend a year working on something.

I’m very much looking forward to that happening in the future. When I can double the rate at which they innovate these things, how much more is that going to let the great artists and designers contribute to the game?

John Carmack Photo Credit: Brian Taylor

Audio for Games Reimagined: SONAR X1

Cakewalk’s SONAR is one of the most advanced 64-bit digital audio workstations (DAWs) available, offering composers a toolset with an unlimited number of tracks, world-class virtual instruments and an array of professional effects and audio production tools.

With the release of SONAR X1 late last year, the SONAR family of products has been reimagined. As Steve Thomas, Cakewalk’s public relations director, put it, “We’ve taken all of the pieces of SONAR and reassembled them in a manner that takes the power and maturity of an industry-standard DAW, combined with cutting-edge creative tools essential for today’s music, and wrapped them in one of the most modern and thoughtfully designed user interfaces available.”

Behind the Technology
SONAR X1 gives game audio professionals a streamlined, next-generation workspace with dockable, floatable and collapsible views; customizable window configurations; easy-to-access media assets; and simplified context-driven control over vital features.

At every level, the emphasis has been on creating a refined workflow and an intelligent layout that focuses on making more music.

“Ten years ago, game composers would’ve built their loops using one software tool and then imported the loops into another program, such as Cakewalk’s Pro Audio, where they’d handle the audio editing/recording and MIDI work,” explains Thomas. “Today that workflow all takes place in SONAR, along with many time-saving features, such as Track Folders, which can be vital to a game audio composers’ organization of a large project.

“People creating scores for motion pictures or modern games typically utilize a gigantic number of tracks,” continues Thomas. “If a full symphony orchestra is involved, there may be as many tracks as there are orchestra seats. Track Folders in SONAR X1 are particularly helpful for managing a large number of tracks, especially if the composer is limited to the visual real estate of a single monitor.”

Improving the Scores
To bring sonic variety and color to their scores, game composers often combine SONAR ’s virtual synthesizers -- such as Rapture, Dimension and Pentagon -- with live recordings of orchestral instruments.

Alternately, composers might sketch their work by using very large sample libraries of strings, brass and orchestral percussion instruments before committing to recording a live orchestra. Playing back dozens or hundreds of virtual instrument tracks -- complete with digital-signal processing such as reverb, echo, level compression, equalization and transient shapers -- is an incredibly processor-intensive task.

Previously, numerous tracks had to be pre-rendered, a process that baked effects, volume changes, and other mixing parameters into audio clips to lighten the workload and eliminate latency, dropped notes and unwanted sonic artifacts. The latest multicore, multithreaded processors, however, are helping to accelerate this process. And the results just keep getting faster and better.

A Game Sound Studio in Action
Chuck Carr has been creating music and sound effects for games since 1994, when he worked on id Software’s Doom II. He later served as a sound designer at 989 Studios, a former division of Sony Interactive Studios America, where he created sound effects and scary dialogue for Tanarus, Spawn and numerous other titles. He has since been an in-house composer, music manager and songwriter for hit titles such as Gran Turismo, EverQuest, Twisted Metal: Black, The Mark of Kri, Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, MLB: The Show, Hot Shots Golf and more. His latest game projects are Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football and Twisted Metal X.

For his latest project, Twisted Metal X, Carr is writing a heavy-metal-influenced game soundtrack using his signature rock sound, which he developed writing the theme for the popular PlayStation Network game, Pain.

Carr prefers to write and record his own songs, calling in talented musicians to play solos and various instrumental parts. To accomplish this, he needed a DAW that could accommodate recording live guitars, drums, bass, harmonica, vocals and other instruments as needed in his own studio.

Solutions to Production Challenges
Carr’s choice of DAW is SONAR. To help jumpstart the recording process, he built a rock music template -- a preset track layout for drums, guitars, vocals and other instruments he plans to record. For rock tunes, he starts by laying down a guitar track and follows with drums and other instruments. For dance tracks, synthesizers or keyboards get laid down first. Carr also includes a vocal track in his game tunes, although he’s never sure if the lyrics will survive the final mix, because sound effects such as explosions will easily drown out the vocals.

Virtual pianos and the many soft synths in SONAR, as well as Native Instruments virtual synths, play a major role in Carr’s sonic toolkit. Carr is also particularly fond of SONAR’s PX64 percussion strip processor designed for shaping drum and percussion sounds. He supplements them with iZotope plug-ins and Steven Slate drums, which he plays through the Kontakt 4 Player.

Carr runs the DAW system on a laptop equipped with a multicore processor and 6 GB RAM. To bring audio into SONAR, Carr relies on Great River ME-1NV mic pre-amps. He prefers to record 44-kHz, 16-bit audio, and uses Sony Sound Forge for his 5.1 surround audio mixes.

Two Macintosh computers run Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools, which Carr uses when collaborating with other artists. For storage, Carr turns to six external 7,200 rpm eSATA hard disk drives. He stores his sample libraries on 80 GB solid-state drives, because as he put it, “Not only do they work, they’re way faster! I love them.”

Read more about SONAR X1 from our sponsor. 

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/vm

Creating the Baseball Simulation in MLB 2K11: Part 2

In part one of DIG’s look at the simulation of an American pastime in MLB 2K11, we examined the broad strokes of creating a baseball simulation -- specifically the players and the stats. Now we turn our attention to the fine details that make the world come alive.

Depicting the Game’s Details
The developers at 2K Sports, which was behind MLB 2K11, knew they needed to capture all the little movements and atmospheric details to make MLB 2K11 really come to life.

“If a home run is completely crushed, or if a home run is both clutch and obvious, batters will pause to watch the ball,” says game designer Sean Bailey. “Many batters in our game also have signature pauses when hitting an obvious bomb that are true to their real-life counterparts.” For example, “Dan Uggla waves the bat in a certain way when he’s standing at the plate,” says Bailey, referring to the Braves’ power-hitting second baseman.

The game developers also used motion capture to show pitchers pacing around on the mound when things are going poorly. And when a pitcher gets out of a jam with a strikeout, Bailey says that “some pitchers will even throw in a fist pump or acknowledge the catcher.”

Pitchers’ reactions affect not just the visual simulation, but also the pitchers’ performances. Each pitcher has a composure rating, with veteran pitchers having more composure than younger ones. But all pitchers lose composure when they put men on base. When a pitcher loses composure, the game developers wanted the gamer to feel that loss. Bailey says that MLB 2K11 will “mentally mess with the gamer,” making it harder to aim the ball by literally removing the strike zone.

Staying True to the Players
Even when the pitcher keeps his cool, a gamer must still contend with that pitcher’s real-life tendencies. “On the mound, you can’t dominate because you are good with the stick,” says Bailey. If the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano -- who typically walks a lot of batters -- is pitching, “the ball will drift, no matter how twitchy a gamer you are.”

On the other hand, with a hot batter, says Bailey, the gamer hardly has to swing for the fences; just flick the bat and the ball goes flying. The MLB Today mode, updated daily, incorporates real-life hitting streaks and slumps into the game. An unheralded player, like the Tampa Bay Rays’ Sam Fuld, got off to a great start in 2011, so his updated version reflected his hot streak. When the real-life Fuld cooled off, the balls stopped flying off the bat of his MLB 2K11 counterpart as well.

For fielders, MLB 2K11 defines different fielding types, taking into account range and glove. When a batter hits a pop fly, a shadow appears, revealing the area in which the ball will land. Then a yellow circle appears, indicating the actual landing spot of the ball.

For a great fielder like Seattle Mariners’ outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki, the initial shadow will be small and the yellow circle will show up quickly, making it easier for the gamer to get to the ball in time. But for an outfielder with poor range, such as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Lance Berkman, the shadow will be huge and the yellow circle will show up very late, making catching the ball more of a challenge.

If the Inside Edge scouting reports indicate that a team will shift its fielders for a specific hitter, MLB 2K11 will automatically shift the fielders accordingly.

As for the players’ body types, “the big guys are bigger than last year,” says Bailey. “A little guy like Oakland Athletics’ outfielder, Coco Crisp, is clearly smaller than a large player, like Milwaukee Brewers’ first baseman, Prince Fielder.”

Atmosphere Matters
When simulating the ballparks where major league baseball teams play, the first step is to match the dimensions exactly -- namely, how far away the fences are from home plate. The next step is to match the background of what is seen beyond those fences. For instance, San Francisco’s AT&T Park has a giant soda bottle just beyond the left-centerfield fence, which also appears in MLB 2K11. (In real life, the bottle is clearly a Coca-Cola bottle, but in the game, the bottle is labeled “Cola Pop.”)

The game also takes into account the time of day, particularly for late afternoon games, when the setting sun will affect batters’ and fielders’ ability to see the ball. According to Bailey, the shadows play the strongest role in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. The time of day comes into play even when a park has a retractable dome, like Milwaukee’s Miller Park. When the dome is up during a day game, the sun plays a role by shining through the glass windows.

Getting the Audio Right
As critical as the motion capture and other visuals are to the overall game, the simulation would not be complete without accurate sounds. “The speed of the ball has a lot to do with the audio that is triggered on a catch,” says Bailey. Similarly, the sound of a ball popping into the catcher’s mitt is based on the pitch’s velocity.

For the gamer, sound offers the most realistic part of the simulation of hitting a baseball. “Perfectly timing a power swing with Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder, Jose Bautista; Cardinals’ first baseman, Albert Pujols; or Chicago White Sox designated hitter, Adam Dunn; is probably the best way to hear the loudest crack of the ball off the bat,” says Bailey. “On the other hand, poorly timing a defensive swing is the best way to hear the quieter foul tips. The better your swing timing, the harder the ball will be hit. This drives the sound effects of the ball off the bat.”

Other sounds include umpire calls and crowd cheers. “As in real life, the score, inning and situation in MLB 2K11 will dictate the intensity and volume of the crowd,” Bailey says.

For sports fans viewing a game on a screen, the ultimate sound to enhance the simulation is to have announcers describe the action. Real-life announcers Gary Thorne, Steve Phillips and John Kruk taped thousands of commentary lines for MLB 2K11. Each line of dialogue is automatically triggered by a specific game event. As the game action unfolds, the ongoing commentary in real time creates the effect of an actual broadcast. So if the gamer gives up too many runs or can’t get to a routine fly ball, he or she will hear it from the crowd -- and the announcers.

MLB 2K11 screenshot: http://2ksports.com/