Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The future of "Tides of War"

More musings from me today. About four years ago, myself and several university colleagues were tasked with creating a "multimedia project" - that is, a project entailing a combination of audio, text, video and/or interactivity - as part of our studies in Charles Sturt University's Bachelor of Arts (Multimedia - 3D Animation & Visual Effects) course. After some deliberation, this project became an Atlantis DSV-based modification ('mod') of the then-popular computer game, Command & Conquer: Generals.

As veterans amongst you would be aware, this modification didn't see a public release, although it was completed to an "Alpha" stage of production that served as a proof of concept. We proved it was quite possible to use a conventional 3D Real Time Strategy engine to turn Atlantis in to a game.

(Below: Screenshots and Assets from the 2006 Tides of War project...)

The future of this mod has been in question for some time. If it were not clear already, then I'll confirm now that the mod has halted production. It should be noted that not all the reasons for this decision were ours. Within three years of General's release in 2001, EA Games had already announced its successor, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. Based on the same engine that ran Generals, C&C3 was larger, more advanced and better in virtually every way. In the development of Tides of War, we counted in this fact quite strongly, as the mod had been broken down in to two stages of development.

The first stage, intended to be developed for Generals, covered the majority of the gameplay mechanics, models, texturing and particle generators. The second stage of the mod would then be ported to the more flexible engine of C&C3 where it would be further refined for a public release.

This is where things got difficult, as C&C3's developer-released Modification tools were not as comprehensive as those for Generals. Effectively, this limited C&C3's mod potential to simple unit additions or basic modification of mechanics. It did not, however, allow for a comprehensive total-conversion of the game in to an underwater strategy epic.

This is what halted development of Tides of War, but - it should be noted - does not mean the project is dead and buried.

What exists now is the simple problem of finding a new engine with which to continue development, and while there are literally a dozen possibilities, none of them are particularly appropriate.

The first consideration I have of any title for the purposes of a mod is the immediately available community support. The Command and Conquer series is an excellent example of this kind of support - with millions upon millions of copies of the games sold, its easy to find a wide, vibrant and very alive community of gamers who can support your project. If a mod lacks this kind of support, it's an utterly uphill battle to survive. Support also dwindles with a game's age. While Generals was excellent in 2006, only a couple of years after its release, the community has since moved on to far better titles.

This obviously narrows the possible titles of a mod considerably. Of the more notable ones to survive that which are on the PC platform, we're left with the following examples of possible titles, and the reasons they won't work.

Supreme Commander:

Early in considering new engines, Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander was considered for its absolutely epic scale of combat, real-time physics model and ease of modification. The real problem is that the game is simply too epic, with too much emphasis on atmospheric physics for underwater combat to be a serious consideration. With a lack of mapping tools and no ability to change the game's basic lighting models, it was also next to impossible to replicate a water environment.

Dawn of War, Company of Heroes:

Both from developer Relic entertainment, these two titles were considered as they shared the same basic engine model. Both were rejected because of their lack of 'flight' mechanics that are necessary to represent subfighters and larger capital ships. On the positive side, the mapping tools and physics engines were excellent.

Homeworld 2:

A true benchmark in PC RTS games, Homeworld 2 - again by Relic Entertainment - comes annoyingly close to what is needed to continue Tides of War. Indeed, a previous modification by indie mod-team Drunken Pirates attempted to turn Homeworld 2 in to a naval combat game, but were confronted with the annoying reality that this is a space game - it's true 3D, and Aircraft Carriers look ridiculous when moving vertically.

Similarly, as this is a space game, there is no room for land environments that we would need to use to represent the expansive ocean floor... Homeworld is a truly excellent game if you want to create any universe in space, and modders have made fine attempts at this with Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Robotec.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

All the benefits of C&C 3... with none of the mod support. Red Alert 3 is about the least mod-friendly title in the series to date.

A thousand other B-list titles exist, such as the recent Stormrise, Star Trek: Legacy, Battlestations Midway, Tom Clancy's EndWar, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos and even ancient titles that still survive such as Star Trek: Armada, yet all have the same problems as the games mentioned above, and some are compounded by the fact that they are just fundamentally bad games.

The reality is that asking for a Real Time Strategy game that supports underwater modification, physics and customizable GUIs is hard to do. Until someone comes out with an A-list strategy game that can be modded with all these things in mind, then its very likely that Tides of War will remain on the backburner.

At present, the thing I am considering is a different genre of title. RTS is only one form of Strategy, and there exists many other very mod-friendly turn-based strategy titles out there such as Civilization IV, Galactic Civilizations II, or even Star Wars: Empire at War, that all support a very wide range of modding possibilities. With so few titles on the horizon... a new Tides of War project may be much closer than you think.

In other news, here's what's sitting on my computer screen right now:

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Very Well, Thank You" - Author's Musings

The question of content is one that comes up fairly regularly with Atlantis. The most frequent question of course is "When will the next Episode be out?"

A good question, but not one with a simple answer.

Episode VI is a very difficult one to write. Episode 5 has left us with some very hard questions and problems to resolve, and while it's all well and good to go for the simplest, most direct solution... It never ends up being very satisfying. More bluntly, it's a 'cop-out.'

A complex plot with a simple, predictable resolution is never something to be rewarded, and usually reflects the half-baked planning that went in to the story. It's easy to appreciate, then, just how important it is for me to avoid this kind of resolution with Episode 6.

The last few months have provided a few revelations that have changed or challenged several key points in Episode 6, one particular point above all - what to do with the Atlantis herself. The series is called "Atlantis DSV", and the prospect of writing the story without the epynomous ship as the centerpiece of the plot is a daunting idea to say the least.

Nevertheless, the ramifications of what happened in Episode 5 cannot be underplayed, and Episode 6 has to respect that, even if it means making some very difficult decisions about the way things will continue to unfold. Further more - I have to get it right.

As I have been reminded so very recently on the New Cape Quest forums, writing Atlantis and expecting people to hold their suspension of disbelief is not something that I can take for granted. Indeed, I have worked on Science Fiction projects that claimed to be written for the "Average Joe", and I myself found the idea offensive. Science Fiction and literature in general should challenge the audience, and one particular post that was made on NCQ highlighted this point very succinctly.

The author of the post I had not spoken to before, but they asked the sorts of questions that a cynical author focused on an overall story can be tempted to brush aside. As a case in point, one of Star Trek's principal Art Director's, Michael Okuda, was once asked by Time Magazine how the USS Enterprise's Heisenberg Compensator worked in the operation of a Transporter. His answer was very blunt:

"Very well, thank you."

To be honest, at some level I sympathise with Okuda. When you're so busy focussing on the overall design, the last thing you need to do is get hung up on the smallest of details. If you focus on details before you've finished the structure, then it will never get finished. This is especially true if you are working on your own, without the aid of a creative team to offer suggestions. While I suspect Okuda's answer may be a reflection of a more cynical view of Star Trek fans' infamous enthusiasm, I've always tried to prevent myself from falling in to that sort of 'divorce' from the audience. For the most part, there is a reason Star Trek fans are so enthusiastic about their show, and those reasons can be strongly related to qualities that make the show work. Is there such a thing as over-enthusiasm? Certainly, I think there is, but to go back to my original point, I stated that I go to great pains to avoid cop-outs and simple solutions within the context of the story. It stands to reason that by extension, I should obey the same rules when dealing with the finer details.

This is what the audience excel at. As I writer I won't pretend to be all-knowing. I have to be educated in or aware of the material I'm writing about. In immediate instance, it would be stupid for me to write a story about submarines with absolutely no idea how a submarine works, but ocassionally I do go in to areas where my knowledge is not as thorough or reasonable, and the audience can and will point this out.

With a little embarrassment, I admit that the post made on NCQ highlighted some of this lack of knowledge. Where then, is the line between artistic integrity and admitting when you are wrong?

The answer is one that is contingent on the artist. Personally, I encourage people to ask questions, or to challenge decisions I've made throughout the stories I've written. If the audience does not understand or accept something, then I believe it's my responsibility to explain it to them or rationalize my decisions to a point that they can understand it. What the audience probably shouldn't do however (And again this is a personal matter of etiquette) is suggest changes on how to make it 'better' without first asking "Why?"

To look at this from my perspective, having sunk nearly a decade in to the development of an idea that I'm very passionate about, it can seem the height of arrogance for someone to come along and 'suggest' and 'implement' changes to that idea without first asking questions. I maintain that there is no such thing as a 'stupid question'. Indeed, if there is an answer that I have or have intended to provide at some point in the stories, then I can feel confidant that I am on the right track, and I know I'm doing things right. The question in that case is as rewarding to me as the answer is to the person who asked it.

Occasionally though, this discussion between the author and audience can stimulate thoughts or ideas that weren't previously considered, or weren't explored deep enough and in these cases, it can reveal oversights, technical gaffs and plot holes that could have (and should have) been corrected. This is entirely healthy, and at that point I have to look for ways to incorporate the audience's ideas in such a way that it's still respectful to my own work.

So, in summary - keep asking questions. I might not have all the answers, but it helps me more when I'm presented with feasible alternatives to problems that I didn't know I had. Atlantis has thrived off this in the past, and I would hate to see that stop now.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The New Star Trek.

Well, last night, I saw a renaissance.

J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek film has left me with a lot to think about, so much, in fact, that I'll likely have to see it again if I want to really come to grips with how much has just changed.

I'll handle this in two parts; without spoilers, and with spoilers. Read on carefully.

I went in to Star Trek with a single thought: If I liked the film, I would hate myself. It took George Lucas 25 years to take a dump on my childhood adoration of Star Wars, and J.J. Abrams set out to do the same in barely two years with this new Trek film.

After the way he screwed the pooch with "Alias", and created the aptly-named "Lost", I have really grown to foster a serious grudge against J.J. Abrams for the way he stuffs up everything he touches. Given the fact my ultimate opinion here is that this is the best trek film since Wrath of Khan, you might have an inkling of the dilemma I have.

Star Trek as I know it, is over. This is Abrams' brave new world, and to be honest, I loved every minute of it. It was fast paced (In fact, I think it may have been too-fast, and felt the film could have easily last another half hour.), gritty and very, very bold. If you have not seen the film yet, then go and do yourself a favour and read the four issues of the Star Trek: Countdown comic that was released as a 'prequel' to the film. It explains nicely how the new film follows on from Nemesis, and provides a good deal of context to events that are only mentioned on screen.

The strongest aspects of the film were without doubt the new cast of the "Big Three" (Kirk, Spock and McCoy, for those unfamiliar,) the story direction, and even the art style. The villain, unfortunately, does not work anywhere near as well, reinforcing the point that you should really read Countdown before hand. To summarize, however, Nero is a Romulan, and without saying too much, he has come back in time from the era of Post-Nemesis to exact some very serious pay back against his ancestry. The ramifications of this in the film are utterly shocking, and when I said I expected the film to continue another half an hour, it's because I refused to believe that Abrams could have had to stones to finish the film in the manner he did.

As Paramount have already announced their plans to proceed with a sequel to this film, I can only say "bring it on," because I cannot fathom how much Abrams may yet completely change what I know about Star Trek.

Highlight below for a more in-depth (read: spoiler-ridden) analysis...

This is a new Star Trek timeline. I was so concerned about what happened in the film, and what it meant for everything else we have seen and loved in Star Trek, that I googled the idea of a "multiverse" setting for Star Trek to be completely certain. So, while The Next Generation continues as we have always known and understood it, this film takes place in an unapologetic "alternate timeline" where things are no doubt going to get a lot nastier before they get better.

Abrams pulled no punches with this. Before the film even started, the comics (which are canon) set the stage by destroying Nero's home world. That's right: the Romulan Empire is dust, destroyed in 2287 by a supernova that the crew of the Enterprise-E was unable to stop. An elderly Ambassador Spock had planned to destroy the star with a black hole, thus saving what was left of the Alpha Quadrant. While the star was stopped by this black hole, it was too late to save Romulus... And so Nero got to watch Rome burn, all the while feeling somewhat vengeful for our pointy-eared hero.

Unexpectedly, his ship was pulled in to the singularity and thrown back through time where for 25 years he started on a course that would alter the course of Star Trek history radically.

His ultimate revenge? The destruction of Vulcan.

There was of course much conjecture leading up to the film's release as to the identity of the dusty, brown planet that we saw being consumed by Nero's weapon. Many of the rumours postulated that the planet was Vulcan...

Well, with the conjecture how settled, it becomes very clear why this is a new Star Trek, and I am forced to wonder just how differently the Federation will evolve without one of the most important founding members. J.J. Abrams has made a clear statement in this act: no one is safe. For all we know, Kirk may die in the second film, and Earth may be reduced to a ball of ash.

Who knows!

This, more than anything else, is what has given Star Trek such a new, radical lease on life. What's even more impressive about is how Abrams has done it without re-writing canon. The first event in the film begins to change the course of Star Trek history, and in the twenty five years it takes James Kirk to grow up, it's easy to understand how in that time Nero could have drastically altered the mechanics of everything we've seen to date, including the design of the Enterprise.

This is a revelation... And this time I feel only luck that I was here to see it start.