Latest Entries »

Sometimes when it comes to engine coding, it pays off to revisit some things that you previously tried(unsuccessfully).  Other times it pays off to throw the old code away, and start from scratch.  It almost always pays off to listen to what your client base tells you.  While we have been constantly pushing the graphical features of the engine, for years trying to catchup to AAA gaming engines, the efficiency was something that was still lacking.  I would not say that we ignored it, there were very substantial gains made in past revisions.  I recall more than doubling rendering speed around version 7.45, and 7.53 provided another large boost as well.  After the release of 7.60, and the Reloaded Edition, it was time to really bear down and make this sucker hum.  There was basically a two-pronged approach taken to tackle the issue.  First, the bsp rendering needed some major optimization, and Max Eliaser, who is somewhat mildly obsessed with optimizing and clever codework, ripped apart our existing system, and came up with something that provided some very impressive results.  Once a significant bottleneck, bsp rendering increased by 3 or 4 times over!

Another major bottleneck was the rendering of player models.  This is a problem that is common to a number of games, and it was certainly a problem for the CRX engine as well.  When we implemented skeletal animation in 2010, one of my future goals, aside from ragdoll physics, was GPU animation(or sometimes, IMO erroneously referred to as GPU “skinning”).  As time wore on, a couple of other engines, notably Qfusion and Cube 2 had implemented it with great results.  Not to be left behind, I personally took on this one myself using Lee Salzman’s IQM demo code as a base.  It was actually remarkably simple to implement, aside from a few hiccups which were quickly solved.  The results were astounding, as meshes rendered 3 times faster than before, when say a dozen or so of the same mesh were on the screen together.  The more meshes, the greater the performance gap.  In doing this, I revamped our VBO subsystem, and it also forced me to revamp the shadow system to use shadowmapping for all shadow types.

Despite the intense concentration of performance enhancements(and there were more than mentioned above, such as particle system, shaders, and general math cleanups), there were still some things added to improve the visual appearance such as cubemapping on meshes, soft vegetation shadows, high definition lightmaps, water shader improvements, and more.  The optimizations also meant that people who couldn’t previously run the game on higher settings now could, and even faster than they used to on the lowest settings.  All in all, 7.65 was literally a tour de force of a renderer rewrite.  Any of the old, idtech2/3 style rendering is now long, long gone.  We still have a number of things we are looking to improve, but for now we are ready to unleash this onto the public.

In the fairly recent past, I’ve lamented the slow decline of the fast-paced arena shooter games.  We’ve certainly taken steps to shake things up, such as the new Minderaser weapon that was introduced in 7.60, but I’ve come to a plateau when it comes to the gameplay aspects of Alien Arena.  I don’t expect there to be any major changes in how it plays in the future(though that could always change, you never know), and I don’t expect it toaatacticle_m suddenly regain it’s past popularity barring a major promotional campaign(always possible) or a resurgence in the popularity of these types of games.  With that in mind, for the last year or so, I’ve been considering a completely new game type set in the Alien Arena universe, one that is part arena shooter, part tactical shooter, and perhaps part rts game.  I’ve dubbed it “Alien Arena Tactical”, and have spent quite some time developing it’s concept and code base goals.  I’ve recently started coding the basic portions of it, and expect to have a beta released spring/summer of 2013.  It’s a large undertaking, but it’s something that I envision as being very exciting, and fun to play, even by those who prefer fast-paced arena shooters.  The movement and pace are slower, much like a tactical shooter, and while killing is your business(and it’s good!), it’s not the primary goal.  The game pits Martians vs Humans, and each team has a variety of classes to choose from, each with different abilities, and some that need to combine with one another to achieve a goal.  For example, a Martian Enforcer can plant a bomb in the enemy’s base, but needs a Martian Warrior to place a detonator in it.  Each base consists of multiple components that work together, and when one is destroyed, the others are affected.  For example destroying a power generator will cause the ammo depot to resort to backup power, and produce ammo more slowly.  In short, the game should be an all out war, set mostly in post-apocalyptic settings similar to Extermination, Annihilation, and Impact.  The game will be a little faster than the typical tactical shooter, but slower than traditional deathmatch, and will absolutely require strategy and teamwork to win.  This game will also serve as COR’s initial pay-to-play release.  Now don’t fear, there will be a demo version of the game in which you can play on demo servers, but you will need to purchase an account to play on the premium servers and maps.

Recently, there have been rumors of COR Entertainment reviving and revamping the Alteria franchise.  The rumors are in fact, true!  The game will be rebuilt from scratch using the CRX Gaming Engine, and there actually has been some progress made.  This will likely also be a commercial release, with possibly a shareware/demo version available initially.  This is a very major project, and while it will onalteria4_mly be sporadically worked on/updated until Alien Arena Tactical is released, I do expect this to come to fruition in the next couple of years.  The goal is to keep the original game play elements intact with only minor modifications and some improvements, but to create all new game content, though some characters/levels will certainly be based on the originals in concept and design.  It will be quite a different game from Alien Arena, though I do intend to explore co-op type game play modes.  I am very excited to recreate some old worlds using our new engine tech, and I think I will surely enjoy making something that is truly demonic and horrifying in a fantasy style setting.  Think of Diablo meets Lord of the Rings…only bloodier!

Well, that’s it for now, I will continue updating this blog as time permits, and I’m sure I’ll be showing off a number of things from our two exciting new games, as well as the engine tech that we are constantly pushing out.  Until then, get ready for Alien Arena 7.65, because it’s coming very soon!

Over the years of working on Alien Arena, some releases really got me excited.  3.0 in 2004 with the inclusion of Capture the Flag.  4.01 in 2005 with the Linux port.  5.0 in 2005(Alien Arena 2006).  7.0 with a major content shift.  7.30 with it’s full per-pixel lighting effects and OpenAL sound.  7.45 with skeletal model format, and 7.50 with ragdoll physics.

In 2009, a map known as dm-deimos2k9 was released, which set a new standard for the quality of level design we were going for.  Subsequently, much of the content has been revamped to reflect that new standard.  With Alien Arena’s latest release(Reloaded Edition) not only have we supplied users with a dozen new or revamped maps, two new player characters, and a new weapon, but we may have set a new bar that we may aspire to in the future with dm-extermination.  This level was inspired partly after playing hours of Rage, probably the most beautiful game I have ever seen in my life.  The gory theme, heavy detail, and post apocalyptic atmosphere was very well suited for Alien Arena.  But…Extermination was more than just a visual demonstration of the CRX engine.  A large amount of attention was paid to laying out what I considered the ultimate style of Deathmatch gaming.  Multiple routes, vertical vantage points, dynamic game flow all factored in to making this map.  It’s one thing to create a beautiful environment, it’s quite another to make a good Deathmatch arena.  Extermination is my best attempt at both.  I think you will enjoy it!

The amazing thing about this release to me, is the shear volume of new content.  Thanks to Rigel and Freaky, two very dedicated Alien Arena followers, we added a number of CTF and TCA(Team Core Assault) levels based on DM levels I had created before.  Ctf-goregrinder and ctf-purgatory are amazing ports that continue to raise the bar of our CTF levels.  Ctf-extermination might be the best CTF level in the game, with it’s complex layout guaranteed to fool even the people who designed the levels at times.  A quad of classic Alien Arena maps received makeovers(Leviathan, Bloodfactory, Crucible, and Dynamo).  In the case of the first two, the changes were very dramatic.  We didn’t stop with adding arenas to frag in…we dished out some characters in which to do the fragging with.  The Martian Overlord was created, based on a concept from years ago.  It was basically meant to be the new “brainlet”, but it evolved to be a more full-sized character.  The Martian Warrior was a last minute inspiration in which a “heavy” version of the Martian was introduced.  Along with this new content, we also added a number of rendering features, many not found in other free games of this type.  God rays cast from sun objects, dripping normalmapped water from player POV, as well as on walls.  Trash blowing around on some levels.  Subsurface light scattering and rim lighting.  But…again…we didn’t stop there.

One of the things we hear lately is how stale arena style FPS games are.  It’s all the same game, with just a different wrapper.  Some of those statements are coming out of ignorance(usually by non-fans of the genre), but there is some truth to it.  Rocket launcher?  Check.  Chaingun?  Check.  Railgun?  Check.  You get the point.  With Alien Arena we have always tried to deviate from the Quake style of gameplay a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, Quake III in it’s pure form, and it’s day, was the greatest arena FPS game of all time.  Alien Arena originally strived to emulate that style of game and play, with a few twists.  We added the Smartgun.  A spammy grenade launcher type weapon that had projectiles that would electrocute you.  We also added the flamethrower, a weapon type which no other game of this type seems to have(but fits in very well with the theme of THIS game).  The beamgun and vaporizer were also very deviant and unique to Alien Arena.  Eventually Alien Arena also began adopting ideas from Unreal Tournament, such as alternate firing modes, dodging, and a reward system.  For the last several years, Alien Arena’s gameplay has been a cautious, calculated marriage between aspects of Quake 3 and UT.  But, no more…

In Reloaded Edition, we introduce a brand new weapon, one who’s very concept will rock the Deathmatch world.  The Minderaser…a superweapon that spawns every two minutes, replacing a standard weapon after it has been picked up from it’s pad.  When the weapon spawns, a klaxxon sounds, and the mad scramble to find it begins!  Like all Alien Arena weapons, it has two firing modes, both devastating and sinister in their own ways.  Mode one fires a slow moving projectile, called a “seeker”.  The seeker will scan the area slowly, lock onto a player, and make a beeline right to them, zapping them dead instantly.  Once done, it resumes scanning, until either a player shoots it from the air, or it crashes.  The secondary mode is even more frightening.  A metal spider is released, which then proceeds to track down other players and rack up points for the firer of it until it is destroyed.  Oh, and to cap it off, each weapon mode erases it’s victims reward points…hence…the Mind Eraser.

All in all, I personally feel that this release is going to inject some innovation and style into Alien Arena, and the arena FPS genre.  The excitement meter is on high…

The word is on the street is that the fast paced arena shooter genre is dead.  It’s difficult to argue with the pundits when you look at the empty Quake 4 and Unreal Tournament III servers, the sagging numbers for Quake Live and the myriad of free/open sourced shooters in the deathmatch realm, and the continued success of slower paced, military style games, and team based shooters.  These are dark and gloomy times for the twitcher ego shooter fans.  Much has been written about it, and many teeth have been gnashed as to why this has occurred, but one thing that cannot be denied is – instead of whining and arguing about which game is the best, or going to save the genre – the only real way to save it is to shut up and play.

The arena shooters will eventually come to life again.  The cycle is starting to move back in that direction as people have gotten increasingly bored with the slow paced military shooters and are looking to take the next step in their evolution as gamers.  The problem is, most people don’t know where to look, or which game to begin playing.  There are the obvious AAA choices out there, but finding a good match on them is often futile in a land of empty servers.  Many find their way to hybrid games such as Urban Terror, while others filter out into the various open sourced, free games such as Warsow, Xonotic, Sauerbratan and Alien Arena, to name a few of the more well known games.  However, far too many are sitting around(and gnashing those teeth), waiting for the “next big thing” to come along and rescucitate the rather lifeless(pardon the pun) deathmatch scene.  To compound it, most are looking to the AAA companies to deliver the goods.  They will be waiting quite awhile…

Where they should be looking, is the aforementioned free and open sourced deathmatch games.  These games are the result of years and years of refinement, and continue to be developed to this day.  Their polish and quality has certainly exceeded the games from the deathmatch heyday, and the innovations and improvisations of classic ideas makes them something larger, and more grand.  With Quake Live slowly dying off, there are a number of players turning to these games, and with the eventual exodus from the military shooters, it’s quite possible that they will flourish once again.  The problem is, this influx of players is still quite small, and with the plethora of choices out there, these games are left competing with each other for the same piece of the pie.  Many of these games are of great quality(and there is no law saying you have to only play one of them), but the truth is, they do compete against each other in the end.  In recent years there has been more collaberation between these communities and developers, which has led to a more rapid improvement in each of the respective games.  Each of them is trying their best to make their case as to why you should play their game, replete with videos, screenshots, and testimonials, all geared to lure prospective gamers into their folds.

As I said, I believe that it’s ridiculous to pigeon-hole yourself into just one game, but the reality is, that is exactly what most fans of the genre do, and unfortunately the communities of these games will continue to struggle against one another, behind the scenes and in the foreground.  It’s a shame, but it is for the most part normal human behavior, and quite inevitable.  As for those of us working on Alien Arena, we have been putting our noses to the grindstone, working on putting out another huge release.  Alien Arena: Reloaded Edition will be released towards the end of June, 2012.  The amount of new content is the largest since we changed themes back in 2008, and every aspect of the game has been advanced, from rendering, to gameplay, to weaponry, to player characters, you name it.  Did I mention the dozen new maps?

We are nothing, if not relentless in our approach.

In 2008, Alien Arena received a major facelift that forever changed the look, as well as the tone of the game.  Gone were the completely campy characters(many of which were poorly constructed for 2000’s standards), as well as the weapons and items – replaced by much higher quality meshes that took on a more modern, and serious tone.  Oh, there was still camp, and still a retro sci-fi theme, but it was a signifigant change.  There were other changes as well.  We were moving away from our Quake 3 inspired roots, and shifting towards Unreal Tournament’s style of gameplay.  This was a time of massive content updates, often 5, 6, 7 maps with each release.  By the end of 2008, most of the content from the Gold and Uranium edition content replacement era had been replaced.  In some cases, maps were on their third iterations.  The game was in constant evolution, and to this day, still is.

From 2009 to 2011, the major attention shifted focus from content and to the engine.  We had little choice.  The CRX engine in March of 2008 was little more than the Q2 engine with some shaders and a few other effects like textured particles, bloom, and lensflares.  There was that pretty reflective water, but it ran slower than mollasses.  With rival games like Nexuiz making major engine advances at that time, we had to try and catch up.  By summer of 2009, we had per pixel lighting on all surfaces, and by that fall we had improved the lighting and shadowing signifgantly, and revamped the audio.  Skeletal model format followed in the summer of 2010, and by the 2011 release, we had ragdoll physics and implemented AutoTools.  We didn’t stop there.  In 2011, the major focus was on increased peformance, which by the end of the year was dramatic in comparison to what it was at the beginning.  The tables had turned – now it was time for the game to catch back up to the engine.

Back in 2009, a map called Dm-Deimos2k9 was released, and it represented a new artistic standard for the game.  Since then, we have gradually updated older maps, some with complete rebuilds(especially the older post Gold/Uranium era maps), others with more cosmetic improvements.  We also added a number of new maps over the years, each ramping up not only the visual presentation, but also gameplay wise as well.  An emphasis on flow and dynamic combat produced maps such as Deathray, Annihilation, Downfall, and Goregrinder.  We also started looking to add maps that fit the theme even better.  Deathray was a weird Martian station.  Invasion, Annihilation, and Impact were post-apocalyptic urban settings.  Neptune an ancient Martian structure under the sea.

Now in 2012, we have added a ridiculous amount of improvements, as well as new content.  We have seven new levels, a new weapon, a new player character, a boatload of new visual effects, and a signifigant improvement to our anti-lag code.  The list of changes and additions is likely to dwarf any release we have ever had, including the monumental 7.0 and 7.30 releases.  I’ll end this portion with our updated trailer…

Nexuiz/Xonotic – the saga continues.

Over the last couple of days, I had the chance to try out the PC version of Nexuiz by Illfonic.  Ever since the release of that game, I’ve followed the reaction by the Xonotic crew.  Most of them predictably pan it(and some even seem to harbor an unnatural hatred for it).  I decided to give the game a whirl myself, and while it’s in beta, I can at least comment on my experience and thoughts on it.

The first thing I noticed was that after starting the game, it had a nice, clean menu system.  Kudos to them for that, in an era where overdoing the menus seems trendy, this is what a game menu should be.  What it shouldn’t be though, is not allowing me to change my movement keys.  I don’t use the standard WASD config, and there was no way for me to change it.  Boo.  The second thing was, that I couldn’t just join a server.  I had to select a map, and it searched for matches using that map(without regard for game type) for me to join, placing me in some sort of lobby, where I couldn’t really talk or do anything but wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Once in a while it would say a “short” which I assume is Illfonic slang for “match” was starting in 25 seconds, but then somebody would leave the lobby, and it would revert back to “waiting for players” and start all over again.  It took me hours before I ever was actually able to play in a game.  I wound up in a CTF match…

But here is where the experience changed for the better.  First off, let me say this – the game has nothing in common with the original Nexuiz other than the name, and the names of a few weapons.  Otherwise, they could have called it “Battle Bots” or some other cheesey name, it wouldn’t matter.  It’s not Nexuiz as we know it.  Second off, I had to scoff at people(mostly Xonotoids) who claim that Xonotic actually looks better than this.  Are you kidding me?  The “new” Nexuiz blows Xonotic out of the water on a visual basis.  Look, I love the Darkplaces engine as much as anyone, but Crytek it is not.  Gameplay was actually quite fun, and I played a few rounds of CTF as best I could with controls I wasn’t used to.  Speaking of the Crytek engine, yes, the performance was not great.  Even on medium settings, the frame rates were pretty bad on my rig, which had little trouble with Rage.

Overall, not too bad for a beta.  Hopefully they iron out some things between now and release in a few weeks, and make it a little easier to join a match of your choice.

It’s hard to believe that Alien Arena has been in development for eight years now.  The initial work began way back in December of 2003, as an offshoot of the CodeRED series of games that COR had released in 2002 and 2003.  CodeRED actually began life even further back, in 1996, as a little Quake I mod that was roughly an idea based on something I had seen in MDK.  By 1997, CodeRED had a final level with little “grey” aliens in it.  We switched to the Quake 2 engine in 1997, and by 1998 the game changed completely, into a more traditional single player mod.  Development stagnated however, when we shifted gears to develop Alteria, a single player RPG/FPS game based on the newly released id source code.  When id released the Quake 2 sources, CodeRED development picked up again, and “Battle For Earth” was released in 2002, with “The Martian Chronicles” following it in 2003.

The concept for Alien Arena followed my ever growing interest in deathmatch gaming.  While I had been playing for some years, I felt myself gravitating towards online play, and wanted to make a free deathmatch game.  At this time, the only other game of that type was Cube.  The original idea was to have characters based on a number of famous movie aliens/robots.  I contacted the various parties who held copyrights, but was unable to secure permission, thus, the decision to base the game on the CodeRED universe was made.  By the time the first version of Alien Arena was released in 2004, none of the CodeRED artwork remained – it had been all newly created just for Alien Arena, and by the summer of 2005, “CodeRED” was dropped from the name altogether.

Alien Arena has come a long way since those days.  The game’s artwork has been completely revamped, and the engine has received a constant amount of updates and modernization that make it barely recognizable to the original.  From the meager days in 2003 of working on it alone, a number of people have joined to work on the game over the years, some came and went, some still remain.  The rate of development has always been very high, and there appears to be no end in sight.  We all love working on it, and have many things still on the plate for the future.

Alien Arena is powered by the CRX engine, which was initially based on the source code from Quake 2, and Quake 3.  Most all of the renderer has been rewritten, so when people say to me “that’s amazing for being idtech2″, I have to kind of correct them, because the renderer really isn’t idtech2 at all.  One of the more impressive things that we are very proud of, is not only have we been making the game render more beautifully, we’ve made it much faster.  For example, in version 7.50, we had been very excited that the game was rendering considerable faster than before.  Framerates were at least 40% faster than they had been only a year or so before.  In 7.51, we made a signifigant jump, and in 7.53 yet another.  A test that ran at 90fps in 7.50, now runs at 160 fps in 7.53!  Now that is progress!

One of the things that the CRX engine improved on over the years is the lighting.  We started working on this in the summer of 2008, by 2009 we had full per-pixel lighting in the game, and by 2010, we had idtech4 style stencil volume shadows.  Since then, we’ve really gone to town on it, adding soft shadows, shadowmapping, vegetation shadows, fading penumbras, etc.

CRX renders several different ways.  On the lower settings, we use the traditional, multipass shader technique, very similar to what was used in idtech3 (Quake 3).  While this is ok for simple rendering, these methods will not do for higher end, modern rendering style.  So when higher settings, such as normal/parallax/specular mapping are applied, the engine switches to a single pass, GLSL system.  Our shadows are rendered in a fairly unique way as well.  We render dynamic shadows using shadowmapping, which get passed to the shader.  This allows us to easily subtract these values from the dynamic light, creating a realistic fading penumbra.  We also use shadowmapping to create a shadow cast by the sun, a single light source.  A number of engines use this technique, but, this technique doesn’t do well for scenes with multiple light sources.  For that, we use the method that John Carmack recently implemented in the newly released idtech4 source(note – we already knew of this method, it had been discussed in various online papers and tutorials).  However, we take it a step further, by softening those shadows using a technique that involves capturing the stencil buffer, sending it to a shader to blur it, and rendering it on an overlay of the scene.

Aside from the lighting aspects, we’ve strived to add other little gems to our engine over the years.  First we added light bloom effects, then lensflares, and eventually light volumes.  We added vegetation shaders, reflective surfaces, and many other items that we’d see in engines like UT3 that we wanted.  Post process effects like heat/explosion distortions, and radial blurred pain effects come to mind.  In the summer of 2010 we added a new skeletal model format as well as ragdoll physics following that.  Recently we’ve been developing ways to make everything render faster using VBO(Vertex Buffer Objects).  For example, rather than create vertex arrays each frame for visibile surfaces, we load the entire map, and all static objects into VBO, and access them from the GPU’s memory.  The result is an engine that now renders very fast, which is important for the type of game we develop.  We replaced the entire sound system with OpenAL, and implemented AutoTools for a much easier experience in compiling the game on Linux and MacOS platforms.

Aside from the engine, the game itself has evolved considerably over the years.  In the early days, the game was for the most part a clone of Quake II’s deathmatch, with a bit of Quake III thrown in.  By 2006 however, the game began to adopt ideas from Unreal Tournament, such as alternate firing modes, mutators, and game modes like Deathball, Team Core Assault, and vehicles.  Eventually movement was changed to include dodging, and we added a reward system.  The bot AI was made better too.  We added advanced combat techniques such as rocket jumping, strafing, bunnyhopping, and retreating.  The navigation has been dramatically improved in our upcoming release too.  In 2009 we added antilag, and in 2011 we added an account system for our global stats accumulator.  Weapon balance has been tweaked, re-tweaked, and tweaked again countless times to create as good a gameplay experience as possible, not just for the experts, but for newcomers as well.

Now that I’ve told you how we got to 7.53, I’d like to discuss the future of the game.  There are still a number of items that we intend to work on in the future.  We intend to further develop the GUI to be a more modern and smooth system, including the menu, as well as scoreboard layouts.  I personally am looking at some other rendering features, as well as replacing some of what we have with faster, more efficient methods.  The bot AI is currently getting a heavy dose of love, with some Capture the Flag specific code being added that should make our bots among the best at CTF of any free game.  One of the other major features being added very soon is the Lua scripting language so that people can make very easy modifications to the game code as well as the client effects.  One thing that we always do, is update the content.  In 2009, we began making levels that had a specific design style, and revamping older levels to adopt this style.  You saw levels like Dm-saucer, Dm-Violator, Dm-Babel, and others that got extensive updates into this style.  There are still a number of maps that use the older style and need to be updated, and they will.  For the most part, the maps that are in the game are going to stay, but get updated.  There may be a few that get retired, and a few new ones added, but we really like our lineup a lot.  There also is a strong possibility of a new player character being added, one who’s concept was created a couple of years ago but never finished.  Aside from the game itself, we also are continuing to develop the community around it, such as running our own IRC servers, and fostering 3rd party content development.

In short, Alien Arena is forging on, keeping the torch burning for old school deathmatchers everywhere, and fans of hokey sci-fi who just love blowing shit up.

More random thoughts…

Quake Expo ended not long ago, and it left me pondering quite a few things.  One thing for certain is, that the Quake community, while still alive to a degree, is certainly far less active than it was just even a few years ago.  Part of this is natural evolution of a 15 year old game’s lifecycle(and it’s remarkable that it has lasted this long), part of it is people moving onto other things, and part of it is a little less savory.  IGN has pretty much stripped it’s “Planet” sites down to bare bones.  Planetquake nearly found itself in archive status, and only by the good graces of PappyR and HappyFriar is it still alive at all now.  Once a mighty hosting site, and central location for all that was Quake, it’s all but dead.  Now the community is quite fragmented with no real central location for modders to gather.  Inside3D could be a place like this, but that site is primarily focused on Q1 and Darkplaces mods.  QuakeDev is going away, and other places focus on just one version of Quake or another.  Despite this, Qexpo was pretty successful, with maybe a near record number of booths, but to be honest, the amount of activity and production of actual content was a bit disappointing.  More disturbing were certain people/communities that were well aware of it really didn’t participate.  No Open Arena or Warsow booths.  Xonotic put up a booth but did nothing with it.  However, Tastyspleen did a great job though of talking about Qexpo and the projects with the radio broadcasts, which was a very refreshing and positive development, and given that they are a Q2 oriented group, give hope that maybe there can be further unification in the future.  On the flip side again, that certain prominent projects didn’t bother with a booth(and one flat out said “I’m not participating”), also shows that there could be a growing rift, or attitude of not caring about the original Quake community and just doing their own thing.

Another sad trend I see, is the continual gravitation of new gamers(and even some old) towards slow moving, realistic military shooters in liu of the traditional, fast-paced arcade style deathmatch games of the past.  I still maintain that this is a fad, and that eventually people will once again grow to appreciate the speed of the old-school games.  It really is a natural evolution of skill.  Military shooters are slow, and far easier to learn than the likes of Quake and Unreal Tournament.  Another problem is boredom.  Long standing players just eventually get bored and move on to other things.  Why do you think “race” modes got so popular for awhile?  People had grown tired of the same old run and gun, and wanted another way to challenge themselves.  New players don’t want to take the time to develop the skill necessary to compete in the faster games, and well, many kids just love playing “army man”.  Hell I did as a kid, and now with these virtual worlds where you can shoot bullets and blow things up safely in, it’s no wonder so many people choose this type of game.  But, boredom can affect these games too.  Players want to eventually challenge themselves, and that is where the old-school, past paced shooters come back into the equation.

Speaking of “fast paced” shooters…fast movement is not equal to fast paced.  In fact, some games that claim to be super fast paced because of their movement are IMO, not really that fast paced because their weapons are too weak, or the speed of movement is too fast that it allows too many players to escape combat situations.  Some even say they “prefer” long drawn out battles with weaker weapons, which is really saying “I want it to be slower paced”.  Achieving good, fast pace is a combination of movement, weapon power and weapon balance.  It’s not easy….and it’s easy to have misconceptions about what “pace” really is.

A new version of Alien Arena is around the corner…and it’s now been five months since our last release.  Some extenuating circumstances have prevented us from including everything we wanted to, but there is actually a good amount of new things that will be included.  One item we worked on was adding shadowmapping of our foliage shaders, which now allow for very realistic outdoor lighting and environments.  To display this technology, I created a new map(dm-impact) to show it off(and it’s a pretty good, fun map to boot!).  We also decoupled the renderer from the client, so now having high framerates won’t flood your connection to the server, and smoothed out stair climbing physics.  There were a variety of bot improvements, a new mutator, better LOD detection, and quite a few bug fixes and little optimization tweaks.  On the content front, we replaced all of the old powerup models with shiny new ones, and hope to have four new maps completed.  Another new feature that is in the works for this release is an actual account system, so that stats are now secure and tied in with a player, preventing situations of stat – spoofing and other hijinx.  Looking through the SVN changelog today, the list of updates is a bit more extensive than I had original thought.

All in all I’m pretty pleased with how the game has been developing over the last two years.  After the big content replacement in 2008, we were able to spend a lot more time on the engine.  It’s evolved in fits and spurts, almost haphazardly in some ways, in that we kind of bounced around from one aspect to another, but with such a small team, that is to be expected.  At times it was all about adding new rendering tech, other times it was about making speed optimizations, other times just about cleaning things up.  It’s gotten to the point now where everything has kind of come together and the engine is quite solid and stable.  I’m sure we’ll find new things to tinker with and advance, but it’s nice to be able to focus a little on content and gameplay now.

POSSCON 2011

POSSCON 2011 ended on friday, March 25th, and it was one of those experiences that I wish didn’t have to end.  This was amazing from the start, and while the attendance seemed to drop on the third day quite a bit, overall it seemed to be a big hit, with a great amount of people present.  Todd Lewis, Aaron Griswold, Jennifer Suber, and Matt Hudson did a wonderful job of making me, and my wife Courtney feel very welcome and well, wanted, for lack of a better term.  Open source gaming was a new topic for POSSCON, and it seemed to go over extremely well with the (mostly) young crowd.  My booth was constantly surrounded by people during the breaks between speeches, and I got an opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people about Alien Arena, as well as open source gaming in general.  I was told that the goal for this year’s attendance was 500 registrants, and indeed on the second day, the goal was met.  I hope that having gaming as a part of this contributed to meeting that goal.

I think one of the most rewarding aspects was being able to introduce open source gaming to so many young, bright minds.  A lot of people had no idea that a game could even be open source, much less be of decent quality.  It was awesome to see so many people interested in this, and interested in Alien Arena.  Some people were looking for paying jobs, some were looking to contribute voluntarily, and others just wanted to learn, or sit down and play a few rounds of good old fashioned deathmatch.  I made sure to tell everyone my schedule for speaking.  I think I did a good job of selling it, considering that the room I spoke in had 320 seats, and it was well more than half full, despite three other speeches going on in other rooms at the same time.  According to the organizers, my session had the best attendance during that time.

I have never in my life given a public speech, so the fact that I was giving two was a little bit daunting.  I spent a lot of time preparing them both, as well as constantly practicing, especially my speech on open source gaming in general.  Things didn’t start out smoothly though.  There was a problem with the video output on my laptop, though we quickly fixed it(the connector was not mating well).  Worse yet, my power supply’s cord suddenly began sizzling and smoking(short in the recepticle apparently).  Luckily my laptop didn’t fry, but it did throw me off a bit at first, as I was a bit shakey to begin.  I quickly settled down and was able to deliver the speech as intended, without screwing it up too much.  The only snafu was I did leave out a couple of points that I really wanted to discuss, but otherwise it went fairly well, and I did get a number of positive comments.  I think if I am invited back next year(which it appears I will be), I can vastly improve on some things, as well as making the subject matter a little more interesting for everyone. 

The second speech was actually a workshop, and this was on day three, so the attendence was vastly lower.  I was a bit disappointed that some of the USC and HS students that had said they wanted to be there were not, but there were some that did make it and said they really enjoyed it.  I began with a discussion on some of the very general concepts and basics of using blender to create and animate a game character, then broke down how it was rendered in the game.  I went through a variety of code, from the model loading to all of the rendering, as well as shadows, among other things.  I didn’t really have this one as static as the general speech, it was a lot more interactive.  My wife suggested next time using slides instead of scrolling through code, and she is right.  I also had issues with the code being legible, due to the output on the projecter being too blurry, as well as dark on screenshots.  When I finished up with most of it, the rest of the session became mostly question/answer, as well as demonstrations of the various game modes, which was actually quite fun.  I think that a good amount of people got a lot out of this session. 

As for the vendors, I talked to a number of them, I was really impressed with the greenscreen tech from the IT-Ology guys in the booth next to us, as well as the amazing 3D printing of the “Thing-o-matic”.  It appeared to me that our three booths got the most traffic overall.  I didn’t get to see much of the other speakers in action, but I did get to talk/socialize with them.  There were some pretty big names there, such as William “whurley” Hurley, John “Maddog” Hall, and some people at important positions at IBM, HP and others.  It was very impressive, and englightening to actually talk to them.

The after hour events, as well as the lunches were extremely well done.  I’ve been to some major conventions like this before, and this includes AutoDesk’s, and this was far more organized and well planned, and to be honest, a heck of a lot more fun.  Maybe it’s the southern hospitality, I don’t know, but everyone was so extremely friendly and really went out of their way to make us feel welcome.  By the way, the city of Columbia is a very fun, hip place, and apparently becoming one of those notable tech “hot spots”.  They have this mall area, filled with bars, clubs, and restaurants that was very fun each night we were there.

It was a great experience, and I truly hope to be a part of it in the future.  As I mentioned in my speech, gaming is the largest entertainment industry in the world now, and open source has a great chance to be a growing part of it.  I’m seeing the gap closing between open source and commercial games, and while there is still a ways to go, it’s clearly having an influence on what commercial game companies are doing, and thinking.  POSSCON has grown each year, and seems to be making big improvements with each convention, I have no doubt that gaming should be a part of it, and maybe even expanded upon in the future.

Random thoughts…

The next release of Alien Arena(7.51) is right around the corner.  The big news for this release is the dramatic increases in performance due to some major optimizations.  The numbers are simply astounding, and make the CRX engine one of the faster rendering idtech-based open sourced engines.  This has always been a major goal, sometimes the solutions aren’t as easy as some people would believe, and other times they are.  We also added a bit of new content, some new fx, and a few bug fixes.  We still haven’t finished the new GUI, but that is coming eventually. 

I will be speaking at this years Palmetto Open Source Conference in March(www.posscon.org), as well as having a booth for Alien Arena there.  I will have one breakout session for 45 minutes on some general open source gaming discussion, and Alien Arena, as well as a two hour workshop in which I will go into detail on how a character is created and rendered in our engine.  I am very flattered for being invited to this, and very excited as well.

A few months ago I wrote about the release of Xonotic(and it’s bad timing), and I was genuine when I mentioned that I thought it showed a lot of promise.  Since then, things have gone rapidly downhill for this game.  The biggest issue is the major amount of infighting among the community and developers.  Xonotic has a feature which allows for the balance of the game to be determined by a config file.  This is an absolutely horrible concept to begin with, as players may not know how the the game plays from server to server, not to mention that getting people to agree on what should be the “default” is near impossible.  It doesn’t help that the game is barely playable either, due to some big time performance issues with the Darkplaces engine.  Part of this is due to the over the top polycount of the player models, but there is definitely something wrong when your framerates drop from 150+ to 40 or lower when a few players come into view.  There are some wonderful aspects of this game, such as the new weapon models that are in progress, some of the new maps, and the visual/aural appeal, it’s a shame this game seems mired in turmoil.

The trend of gamers flocking to slow paced, military themed shooters seems to be neverending.  I just saw over 4000 players on Urban Terror servers!  Despite all of the popular “backlash” about them, it seems people are playing them more than ever.  That said, I would never change Alien Arena to be slower, or military themed.  Popularity isn’t a prime objective for me, producing a game that I, and people like me enjoy is.  On a similar note, I really get annoyed seeing the phrase “fast paced shooter” used for every quake based deathmatch game.  Some how it seems that for many, movement became vastly more paramount than aim, and some of these games have increased movement to the point where players are just flying around not hitting/getting hit by anything.  Maybe that’s the appeal of these “race modes” that a few of Alien Arena’s competitors have adopted.  That’s one mode I’ll never understand the appeal of, and it will never find it’s way to Alien Arena.

It seems to me that open source engines are really starting to close the gap on the commercial ones.  Part of this is due to the nature of open source where information is shared, and you wind up with an accellerated curve of development, but another reason is that game engine tech advancement is really starting to slow down.  Remember the 90’s, when you saw the rapid progression from 2d, to the faked 3D of Wolfenstein, then Doom I/II, then Decent and Quake with true 3D, and eventually Quake using OpenGL?  There seemed to be a slight lull in the latter part of the decade, but by the middle 2000’s, we saw dramatic rendering improvements with lighting and shadows, as well as performance.  Now, it’s really kind of slowed down.  Cryengine, IdTech5, UT3.5, they haven’t really made these huge strides, and open source engines are catching up to them in terms of the raw tech.  Don’t think Id hasn’t taken notice, as it appears that they will be making the Tech5 source available immediately after the release of Rage.  Wonder why that might be?

I have many ideas for Alien Arena going forward.  There are certainly some rendering techs that I am exploring such as global dynamic illumination, refraction, steep parallax mapping(with self shadowing), and making things even faster.  I’m also going to get back into a “content mode”(that’s not content as in pleased, but as in game media), and start producing some new maps and updating some more models.  I think I’m gonna start with the megahealth model first, and then possibly do some new models for TCA mode.  I think TCA mode could use some updating anyway, it’s a great concept, it just needs some new, better maps and models for it, and some tweaks that will make it very exciting.  I am also going to do a CTF/TCA version of dm-violator2k11, which I think is maybe my best work to date. 

Speaking of Dm-violator2k11, this is the third time I have created this map.  Originally this was known as dm-probe, originally released in the summer of 2005.  The layout was a fan favorite, despite it being exceptionally dark and hard to see.  In the summer of 2006 it was rebuilt from scratch, and became possibly the most popular map in the game.  It’s style truly reflected the direction we were going in back then, with the cleaner, techy look, a nice departure from the grungy, rust look of before.  I always loved, loved, loved the layout of this map, with the big central, two tiered room, and the looping, intertwining pathways that circled around it.  It made for some dynamic, exciting gamplay.  So for the 2011 version, I once again started from scratch, but keeping the layout concept intact.  This time around things are a little more confined and smaller, but vastly more detailed.  The result is a map that flows like no other in the game, and quite possibly is the most beautiful in appearance. 

Speaking of trends once again…it seems very fashionable these days to bash id Software.  Well this isn’t exactly something new, it’s really been going on since they reached their pinnacle in the late 90’s.  I’ve seen more ridiculous criticism of the upcoming game “Rage” than I care to mention, but let’s suffice it to say that this game isn’t even released and the jackals(meaning 12-15 year old know it alls) are ready to pounce and tear it apart.  Let’s get something straight here – I’ve seen the screens and videos, and the renderer is as good as it gets(yes, better than the latest Cryengine, IMO), and the gameplay looks positively badass.  They really haven’t shown enough to make a judgement too strong one way or the other, so the bashing is a bit over the top.  I feel bad for id Software(well as bad as one can feel for multi-millionaires), they have done more for FPS gaming than any company in history, yet they can seem to do no right in the eyes of cynical fans anymore.  It’s pathetic to me how jaded gamers have become.  Give the game a chance, it may very well suck, but if you go into it with a pre-conceived notion that it’s going to, well, it’s never going to measure up.

The hypocritical critic…

Over the years an interesting thing I have noticed about Alien Arena is that our fanbase has been accused of being this rabid, foaming at the mouth bunch of lunatics who will shout down anyone who dares criticize the game in any manor.  Much of this perception began between the years of 2006 and 2008, when the game was beginning to get a bit of popularity and critical notice.  The truth was that we actually did get a number of tremendously good reviews at the time, but apparently this did not sit well with some of the denizens of the gaming netherworld.  It never failed that if a favorable online review was posted, the inevitable backlash would occur in the comments section.  Often these would be followed with “play this instead” type of comments.  These would lead to people, both from our community and elsewhere arriving to defend the game.  Was this because the game wasn’t really as good as the reviewers suggested?  Was it sour grapes from competing games?  I’m sure it was a bit of both.

Criticism can take many forms, some of it can certainly be legitimate, and the notion that I, or anyone else involved with COR Entertainment dismisses all criticism is absolutely ludicrous.  We have always listened to the critics, and even in cases where it stung, we didn’t simply write it off as someone being a “hater”.  Everything was, and continues to be taken in, evaluated, and applied to improving the game.  However, when a critic starts making false claims, or ridiculous ones, you also have to consider the intellectual honesty of that person.  There are many people who tend to have agendas when bashing a game.  Most people simply don’t care enough to write a lengthy, harshly critical review if they do not like a game.  When you find a two page article that trashes nearly every aspect of your game, and at the same time mentions competing games as being excellent, you have to wonder if this writer may have had an agenda. 

Alien Arena has it’s share of detractors.  Some of them legitimately do not like the game, and that is perfectly fine by me.  Let the record officially state this(note – I have said this many times over the years when being told that I, or the community could not handle criticism of the game).  No game is going to please everyone, and Alien Arena is not perfect(let the record also state that I do not believe the game is perfect!).  I don’t mind criticism, and as I’ve said, it is something that helps fuel development, something that we used to improve every aspect of the game over the years.  Early on, when people stated that the levels were not complex enough, or too dark, we made brighter levels with more intricate designs.  When people stated the graphics looked like “Doom I”(which was a bit silly), we used that to energize us in modernizing the engine.  When people made complaints about the controls or movement, we took steps to improve it.  Poor frame rates?  We spent countless hours optimizing the engine to bring it to the point to where it’s one of the smoothest, fastest rendering open sourced engines in existence.  The point is, we always *did* listen, and to say we didn’t, or that we “shouted the critics down” is quite hypocritical on their part.  For people that are accusing us of not being able to take criticism because we don’t agree with their assessments, it seems to me that those people are every bit as guilty of the very thing they accuse us of.  In that regards, opinions are like art, they are just as open to be criticised as anything else.

I recently found a “review” on Gamespot of Alien Arena from 2008 that began with a very defensive posture, making the claims that I have discussed above about the community, and the reviewer went on to harshly critique the game.  It was clear from his lengthy review that he had some emotional investment in Alien Arena, and that he felt “persecuted” for having his contrary opinion as to the quality of the game.  He clearly either interacted with myself or the community at some point and time, and left with an unfavorable taste in his mind.  His article was actually quite well written and thought out, and despite a clear agenda, made some valid points in his critique.  However, he also seemed to contradict himself quite a bit, first claiming that his dislike of the game was mostly a matter of personal taste(that it bored him, etc), but followed it with a litany of “fundamental” things wrong with the game, community, and myself.  He would occasionally offer up mild praise, but always following it with a “but this is why the game is truly awful” type of dialog.

The defensiveness of the review was quite curious.  I have seen such things before, where critics feel “persecuted”, particularly after after writing a review that was quite close to launching an attack on a game and community.  Like I said, there is clear emotional investment involved.  At the end, the critic was convinced that he would receive a number of negative comments about his review from the community.  Interestingly enough, he never did.

Forging ahead…

I’d like to begin by offering an apology of sorts to the Warsow team for being a bit incendiary in my critique of their recent release.  I’ve played it quite a bit now, and feel that my assertion that it was “hastily thrown together” was in fact, hasty on my part.  I had based my comments largely on what their community was saying, and I should have waited to do more playtesting on my own to make such a judgement.  The truth is, Warsow is a rock-solid game that seems to be improving at a good clip, and from what I can tell, development seems to picked back up after having some slow times.  The engine runs very smoothly, looks great, and it looks like they are going to write a new GUI(heh, now that truly is a coincidence, as we are doing the same!).  All in all the future of Warsow looks very good, as does Xonotic.  In the case of Xonotic, I hope they truly take their time and get it right, and so far that looks promising.  There is still much to do, but so far…so good!

As for Alien Arena, after a short, but much needed break, we are back to some hard-core development.  Blackice has implemented the beginning stages of the new GUI, which if his previous work is any indication, promises to be a major improvement.  Our GUI was quite antiquated(it was a modified and expanded version of the original id source), and was far inferior to other games like Nexuiz/Xonotic and Sauerbraten.  It was long overdue, and should give the game a very fresh look.  The renderer is another area of focus, and while there isn’t a lot to do in the way of new features, there definitely is a lot to do to get things to run more efficiently.  A good amount of the code has been reorganized, and a ton of cruft was removed.  Along the way I managed to squeeze out a few more frames per second, maybe in the neighborhood of 5%.  While that doesn’t seem like much, all these little improvements tend to add up.  More importantly, I discovered some other inefficiences which led to me getting some major performance increases. 

One area I worked on was the use of vertex buffer objects(VBO).  I’m still not convinced there is much use for these.  On some cards, I found them to be actually quite a bit slower than compiling the vertex arrays, on others I saw it to be about the same.  We’ve had VBO for some time, but disabled the code for 7.50 after discovering said slowness.  Currently we have the option to load the static geometry into a VBO, and while it works, it may not provide much of an advantage.  So for now, I am looking at other ways to increase speed.  The mesh rendering is likely about as fast as it can be for now, but there were definitely areas in the bsp rendering that needed attention.  In the end, I wound up completely gutting the bsp rendering routines, and by the time I was finished, the end results were a stuning 50% increase in frame rates!

I’m also devoting some time to revamping a number of levels in the game.  This is something we’ve always done, and some times this has been met with resistance from the community, especially if the design is radically altered.  Dm-saucer is a prime example, where people still prefer the old bland version to the new one.  On other occasions though, the revamps are well received, such as the new version of Dm-babel, or Dm-Warmachine.  What I’ve tried to do in most revamps is retain the layout, while improving the visual quality, as well as expanding some areas if I feel the map could use more size, or better fluidity.  Babel and Warmachine were very good examples of that approach.  Nearly every map in the game has been revamped at some point, and while most of the “2k7″ maps have been already revamped, we are now coming to the point where the “2k8″ maps are starting to show their age.  One such map was Dm-Dismal, which historically has been one of my personal favorite maps, and also a community fave as well.  This map was one of the first of the “new breed” in 2008, where we started with a more UT influenced design, with the larger scale, and insanely detailed geometry.  The initial iteration of this map wasn’t really that great, and in fact was a catalyst of debate at that time, that led to some division in our community in regards to the direction the game was going.  Consequently the map was quickly revamped, adding a new section with a teleporter to improve the fluidity, and a few other nuances to make the map much better. 

Now, Dismal is receiving it’s second facelift, and it’s pretty major.  I’m making much use of light volumes(which weren’t available at the time of the previous revamp), as well as static meshes.  I also added a completely new section, further connecting some of the remote corners to one another, which IMO really improves the gameplay dramatically.  I suspect that this may wind up being my best work, and hopefully a community favorite.  As much as I love Dm-Annihilation for it’s gritty, raw beauty and exciting layout, I think this one is going to be better.  For starters, this map is *large*, not just in size, but also in scale.  It’s one of those maps that just feels massive, a major contrast to say Dm-Neptune, which has tight, confining gameplay(which some love, others not so much).  Dismal really contains a variety of gameplay features.  In the elevator areas, the map is very vertical, with a variety of vantage points.  The connecting corridors are not terribly long, but they are fairly wide, allowing for a lot of free movement, which some players adore.  There are also the tighter areas, as well as the tricky ramp area, and the outer corriders at the top and near the teleporter.  The effects and detail make this a technological beauty, with no sacrifice to free movement or gameplay.

Dismal may be only the first of a number of maps receiving some love.  I’ve been considering others such as Crucible, Vesuvius, Violator…maybe some others.  Some such as Bloodfactory, Leviathan, Atlantis, and Turbo would only get very minor changes, only to improve performance and perhaps replace the weapon pads and jump pads.  Of course we also want to compile all new maps with deluxemapping, which will result in an increase of performance over the fallback realtime lighting routines that non-deluxemapped levels currently use.  I’ll also likely be adding in the final base player character, the alien-brain boss(you might recall the original model of this guy in the pre-2008 versions of the game).  The new version will continue with the 2008-on look of “updated retro”.  I say this is the last of the base player models because I’ve always had a set limit for these, to ease issues of precaching at map load time.  I think this will give it a good variety of character types.  This would give us two aliens, three humans, one alien cyborg, and one man-made cyborg.  This was the plan from day one back in 2008, I just never got around to this last model till now. 

The next release won’t be as dramatic as this past one, but it’s sure to be a major step forward as far as polish and playability goes.  We have lots of new toys to play with, and will certainly be putting them to good use!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.