Archive for the ‘video’ Category

War Stories: Designing Dead Cells was a marriage of man and machine

July 17th, 2019

Video shot by Justin Wolfson, edited by John Cappello. Click here for transcript.

Is it better to build a game by hand, piece by piece, or to program a computer that can build that game for you? In the cast of MotionTwin's Dead Cells, the answer is a little mix of both.

In Ars Technica's latest War Stories video, Motion Twin's "Lead Whatever" (as he calls himself) Sebastien Bénard, talks about the difficulty of designing interesting and playable environments for the game. At one point, the game was "traumatized by huge levels with no actual meaning," he told us. That's because, while the team's computer algorithm was good at generating maze-like rooms, it couldn't tell when it had created a "good result."

After that, the team transitioned to a hybrid approach, hand-designing individual rooms with distinct entrances and exits and a strong sense of flow. Then they designed a computer algorithm that could link these rooms together into a game that felt fresh but also well-designed every time.

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War Stories: How This War of Mine manipulates your emotions

May 30th, 2019

This video contains some minor spoilers for a non-critical location in the game.

Video shot by Dawid Kurowski, edited by John Cappello. Click here for transcript.

Chances are good that you already have This War of Mine in your Steam library. The side-view, survival-horror adventure game is a perennial favorite on various Steam sales, and at least 4.5 million people have picked up a copy since its release in 2014. But as with many Steam sale titles, it's perhaps a bit less likely that you've played the game—and if you haven't, that's a shame, because it's damn good.

But it's also a hard game to experience—and I'm not talking about the difficulty level. This War of Mine's developers are Polish, and they come from a country and a culture that still bears the scars of post-war Nazi occupation. Lead programmer Aleksander Kauch explained that one of the primary things developer 11 Bit Studios wanted to do with TWoM was to bring the stories of his grandparents to life—to put players into a place where joy and normalcy have been replaced by starvation and bleakness, where there are no good choices, and where the biggest and best thing you have to hope for is that you might scavenge enough supplies to live a few more days.

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War Stories: Lucas Pope and what almost sunk Return of the Obra Dinn

May 21st, 2019

Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript.

Lucas Pope is an important name in modern gaming—not only did he help bring us Uncharted and Uncharted 2, but he's also responsible for the indie smash hit Papers, Please, which managed to pack a surprising amount of storytelling and emotion into what is effectively a document stamping simulator.

But we're particularly fond of Pope's 2018 murder mystery Return of the Obra Dinn, where players must figure out what happened to all 60 souls aboard a ship that has turned up in port bereft of life (think sort of a mash-up of Clue and Event Horizon). The game's low-fi monochrome graphical style is meant to evoke 80s- and 90s-era Macintosh adventure games, and it works stunningly well—the stark polygonal shapes and 1-bit stipple-shading are instantly evocative of the era. (For me, firing up Obra Dinn triggers powerful memories of hours spent at my high school computer lab, eschewing real work to play a seemingly endless pile of HyperCard adventures. Though I fought on the side of the IBMs in the Great BBS Platform Wars of the early 90s, I just couldn't keep my paws off of those damn Macs.)

In Obra Dinn, players use a small device on or near each of the ship's 60 bodies to show them a brief moment in time where that person died, and the player must then make sure that the means of that person's death is properly recorded in a logbook. It's a mechanism that mixes together elements of logic puzzles and text adventures, and while Pope put a lot of time and thought into the pick-a-word sentence builder and the various semantic structures players might use to frame their murder-theories ("Tom knifed Bob" and "Tom stabbed Bob" and "Tom cut Bob" all have to be interpreted by the game as holding the same underlying meaning), there was one monster he wasn't prepared to face: localization.

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Video: Slay the Spire is a friendly game of death, but it was hard to get it right

May 2nd, 2019

Video directed by Justin Wolfson, edited by John Cappello. Click here for transcript.

Normally, we devote our "War Stories" videos to established and classic games of old. So what is a 2019 video game doing here?

Anyone who asks this question about Slay the Spire, made by a three-person studio in Seattle, hasn't played this wonderful title. It's arguably the most addictive, accessible, and strategy-filled digital card game we've seen in years. So we wanted to talk to its dealers about the game's irresistible properties.

The result is the above interview, which is peppered with developer Mega Crit's insights (and at least one Easter egg). We're glad we sought out this younger team, because their answers revolved largely around the Steam Early Access system, which is still a pretty small drop in the bucket of game design history. Designers Anthony Giovannetti and Casey Yano sought a passionate community's help to solve the game's early design problems, and the community's use of Discord and Steam forums were critical not just for fixing Slay's early issues but also identifying them in the first place.

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Facebook’s auto-captions for a recent launch video are hilariously bad

April 19th, 2019

An Antares rocket built by Northrop Grumman launched on Wednesday afternoon, boosting a Cygnus spacecraft with 3.4 tons of cargo toward the International Space Station. The launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, went flawlessly, and the spacecraft arrived at the station on Friday.

However, when NASA's International Space Station program posted the launch video to its Facebook page on Thursday, there was a problem. Apparently the agency's caption service hadn't gotten to this video clip yet, so viewers with captions enabled were treated not just to the glory of a rocket launch, but the glory of Facebook's automatically generated crazywords. As of Thursday morning, 86,995 people had watched the Facebook video.

Some of the captions are just hilariously bad. For example, when the announcer triumphantly declares, "And we have liftoff of the Antares NG-11 mission to the ISS," the automatically generated caption service helpfully says, "And we have liftoff of the guitarist G 11 mission to the ice sets."

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Video: How Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun punished the computers of the day

February 26th, 2019

Video directed by Sean Dacanay, edited by Paul Isackson. Click here for transcript.

When I was working at Babbage's in the mid-'90s, I recall there being three specific PC games that sat in the "coming soon" column seemingly forever—like, for years—and generated ridiculous amounts of pre-orders and buzz: Mechwarrior 2, the original Diablo, and the original Command & Conquer. As fate would have it, I worked the launches of all three of those games, and although they all were special, Command & Conquer was to me the most surprising to play.

I wasn't really big into the nascent real-time strategy genre at the time—perhaps unsurprising, since the "genre" prior to C&C's release consisted basically of Dune 2 and Warcraft, but C&C blew me away. I was never any good at it, but I was fascinated by it—the strategy game genre was undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in the early-to-mid-'90s, and adding real-time decision-making into the mix was a wild twist on what had become an established formula.

The original C&C was successful, but the sequels established a bona fide gaming dynasty. For this episode of War Stories, we've arranged a nicely technical chat with Westwood co-founder Louis Castle (who also worked on the studio's noir Blade Runner adventure) to dish on the challenges and issues the studio faced with developing Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, the direct sequel to C&C and one of the most well-regarded games in the entire series.

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Trump’s missile defense strategy: Build wall in space, make allies pay for it

January 29th, 2019

Captions available here. (video link)

It has been 36 years since President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an effort to develop technologies to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles, including orbital systems that could detect and take out ICBMs with lasers or kinetic weapons. That program, dismissively called "Star Wars" by Senator Ted Kennedy, was seen as massively destabilizing from a strategic perspective—until the Soviets stopped objecting in 1987 because they realized it would never work. SDI was officially terminated in 1993, as the US focused instead on the threat of shorter-range ballistic missiles by "rogue states" in the wake of the Gulf War.

In 2019, "Star Wars" is back. While President George W. Bush got the ball rolling in 2002 with the formation of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and an exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Donald Trump's new missile defense strategy seeks to expand the MDA's efforts by returning to a quest for a space-based missile shield and other weapons that could, as Trump put it in a January 17 speech, "detect and destroy any missile launched against the US from anywhere at any time."

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Ars enters VR and destroys multiple starships in Star Trek: Bridge Crew

December 26th, 2018

Ars plays Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Ars and Star Trek go together, as the great philosopher once said, like peas and carrots. You won’t find a dorkier bunch of editors assembled in any one place on the entire Internet—and that’s why playing Star Trek: Bridge Crew was such an easy fit.

The VR title, originally announced almost a year ago and now available for everyone, was a big hit here in the Ars Orbiting HQ. Even before the game's final release, we found ourselves seated in the bridge of the Federation starship USS Aegis, ready to make the Alpha Quadrant great again—even if we had to kill a few Klingons to do it. Hopefully more than a few, in fact!

Our crew consists of Ars Gaming Editor Kyle Orland, Ars Culture Editor Sam Machkovech, Ars Executive Video Producer S.I. Newhouse, and me. Now, dear reader, allow me to pause for a moment and prepare you: based on our impeccable credentials, I know that this news will come as somewhat of a shock, but once we sat down and got going, things quickly became…very silly.

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Video: Total War: Rome II devs built all of Europe—and the AI ignored most of it

December 18th, 2018

Shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Motion graphics by John Cappello. Click here for transcript.

Creative Assembly's Total War franchise has been around for so long that it's old enough to drive, vote, and even drink in most countries. For the three people reading this who haven't played at least one title in the series, the games provide a blend of real-time strategy and turn-based resource management that manages to scratch a number of itches simultaneously. You can direct the conquest of large regions from a god's-eye overhead view and then step down to the battlefield and move units around like Command and Conquer.

As technology and the 2000s progressed, new entries in the series became more sophisticated; by the time 2013 rolled around and Creative Assembly was working its magic on Total War: Rome II, the design goals were ambitious indeed. Designers wanted to give players total freedom to move around all of classical-era Europe, from Caledonia to Arachosia and all points in between. Building a canvas this broad to play on meant the small team of designers had to rely on some clever procedural tools, and although you might expect those tools to be the point of this particular War Story, that's not actually what the problem turned out to be.

What if we threw a war and nobody came?

In order to properly test a game with thousands of square miles of playable space, the designers employed automated tools running on their office PCs. In the evenings when it was time to go home, Creative Assembly would set as many PCs as they could to playing the game in AI-only mode, iterating through battles and scenarios in order to help see which units needed balancing and which scenarios needed tweaking. Along the way, they would also find areas where their procedural terrain generation hadn't gotten things quite right (like requiring a campaign battle to awkwardly play out on a near-vertical slope).

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War Stories: Thief’s intuitive stealth system wasn’t intuitive to design

December 2nd, 2018

Video shot by Justin Wolfson, edited by Lee Manansala. Click here for transcript.

Update: On November 30, 1998, gamers began to learn that being stealthy could be a viable strategy, too—that's because game developers at Looking Glass released the landmark first-person sneaker, Thief: The Dark Project. As writer Richard Moss outlined in his history of first-person shooters, Thief succeeded despite running counter to all the prevailing trends at the time. This happened in large part because "its intelligent enemies—who tried to flee when injured and responded realistically to both auditory and visual cues—opened the door to a wealth of emergent design possibilities."

Earlier this year, Ars caught up with Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath to hear about how he and the team developed that groundbreaking AI. And with the game's 20th anniversary happening this weekend, we're resurfacing that interview. The above video and accompanying story first ran on February 20, 2018, and they appear unchanged here.

Older PC gamers who were playing games in the late '90s and early 2000s likely have a soft spot in their hearts for Looking Glass Studios. The company's two best-known properties are Thief and System Shock, though Looking Glass was also responsible for the visually stunning Flight Unlimited and, of course, Ultima Underworld. Although financial troubles at publisher Eidos Interactive (caused in part by the development of the hilarious money pit that was Daikatana) led to the eventual dissolution and sale of Looking Glass, the studio left an outsized footprint on the history of PC gaming through its excellent games.

The Thief series in particular—or at least the first two games—resonated with audiences. The phrase "innovative gameplay" is a laughable cliché in 2018, but Thief really did have innovative gameplay when it was released—other FPS titles had explored stealth-focused gameplay before, but none had managed to so completely capture the experience of sneaking. More, Thief took the unusual (for FPSes at the time) approach of incentivizing the player to not murder everyone and everything in the level—brutality, in fact, was actively punished by the game's scoring system. Sneaking through an entire level without detection became a more important goal than wiping out guards.

But it turns out the tightly coupled gameplay mechanisms that enabled players to so easily understand how hidden they were from the CPU's prying eyes was nowhere near as intuitive to design as it was to use. We sat down with Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath, who was involved heavily in Thief's design and development, to get the scoop. And even though he didn't take any rips from a wolf bong, he did have some juicy info on how Thief and its signature sneaking came to be.

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