Faith Lost; Rebuilding

ArcheAge is turning out to be a rather poor use of $162: the game is being undermined by catastrophic security flaws, with no less than ten kinds of hacks running rampant at this time.  While hacks are not uncommon in online games, to have this magnitude of security flaws is downright criminally negligent, especially in what is implied to be a secure persistent-state universe game.  If there is a class action lawsuit brought against Trion Worlds and XLGames, my name would probably be amongst the plaintiffs: I want my $162 back.
Technically speaking, I suppose that is what you get for porting over an earlier version: all the hacks that were patched out of the South Korean version are getting a second airing over here, except without any impediment of the time that was needed to create them in the first place.  Either that, or Jake Song's company absolutely sucks at security, and they never got around to plugging those holes... if that is the case, I am never buying into a game developed by him or his company again.

As a relative gaming zealot, I find cheating in online games abominable.  When you cheat in a single player game, that is fine, you are defining you preferred game experience.  When you cheat in a multiplayer game, you are forcing other players to be the foils of your preferred game experience, and that is truly vile.  Say what you will about the problems of the world overshadowing anything to happen in a game, I would reply that virtual wrong-doing has the potential to be just as malicious as the real.

I feel strongly about this.  If I was granted legal mandate to personally neuter cheaters, including anyone who has bought or sold game currency, I would ask for the most rusty, jagged scalpels available.  The painful genocide of a race of cheaters tickles my megalomania, even if most of them do it out of ignorance of their wrongdoing.  Such zeal is not completely rational, but hey, everyone has their pet peeves.
I suppose it does not matter much: my involvement in ArcheAge has pretty much fallen to logging in once every 1-3 days, spending my labor points, maybe making a trade run or two, and logging off.  I have not done battle in weeks, not against players, not against mobs, and I feel as though I hardly even know how the moves in my hotbar work anymore.

I am attempting to shift more priority into my game development endeavors because, as I have noted many times before, I have been a gamer so long that very little of what game developers come up with can really surprise or entertain anymore.  If my recent finishing of Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is of any indication, I can certainly enjoy a good visual novel, but in that is sort of cheating: those are mostly about the story, not the gameplay.

My target game remains the same as it has been for quite some time: Minecraft, with Civilization on top.  Or so I said.  Actually, it seems what I want is a survival game where the goal is not just to survive, but rather to build something of lasting purpose.

Purpose is the keyword here, and it is a damn hard one to nail down.  Games are, in a way, a microcosm of life itself.  Just as life has its goals and its rules, so do games.  You can bumble your way through life, accomplishing little, you take little purpose to the grave with you, but you at least have that.  When you design a game, you are responsible for adding the purpose of the game as well.  What is the meaning of the game I mean to make?  Well, if they're microcosms of life, then what is the purpose of life?  Uh oh.
Like most problems in life, I am probably over-thinking it; truth of the matter is, I know the answer, I am just having a hard time deciding.  If you have ever written a story, you may come to realize that good stories communicate purpose.  To add purpose to the game is to add a good story.  The whole Civilization level can be completely supplanted with a story; Civilization is being used as an example of a story generating mechanic.  What I am having trouble deciding is what story I really want to communicate, within a framework of being a survival game.

It has occurred to me that both Planet Explorers and The Sims Medieval are actually pretty close to the game I want to make.  Planet Explorers is Minecraft with a story added via quest hubs, but I find I am thoroughly tired of questing.  The Sims Medieval would be excellent... if the world building were not too abstract to feel virtual worldly, and I was allowed to focus on a single hero instead of jumping around from hero to hero... and it was not a The Sims game.  Animal Crossing is actually pretty close, but it stops short with deliberately insignificant subplots and making the junk collection mechanic the primary goal.  The point is that I have enough near misses to ferret out where I want to be... granted, it's still a fairly wide aperture.

In any case, I am showing renewed interest in the GameMaker platform after discovering that YoYo Games is planning on bundling the YoYo Compiler for free soon.  If it really does provide significantly better performance for games made in it, then it seems like a natural choice for my lofty ivory tower game concepts.  Even without the benefit of the compiler, I have tested the A* pathing routines and found them to be remarkably fast, certainly faster than the soft-coded version I made in BYOND.   I could see simulating a whole 2D world as a viable possibility in that engine.
Further, I think perhaps the more code-centric approach to much of what GameMaker does may be better off for me.  Technically, you are writing code in Construct 2 and Clickteam Fusion when you use their event builder, but while this visual approach certainly makes things easier, it can be potentially impeding once you know what you are doing.  When I was looking down the list of games made for the three engines during the benchmark entry, I could not help but notice many of them utilized some degree of procedural generation.  Excellent: procedural generation has great potential, if done right.

I realize that the main thing holding me up is not the platform at all, although power will be an important consideration down the line.  The main holdup is I need a complete design document.  More, I need a complete design document that looks good enough that I am excited to want to produce the game.  If I could do that, much like writing a great story concept, perhaps my muse will be committed enough to make it happen.  It is tricky, though - I am better at programming than I am at making design documents.  I am also a lousy artist, which might cause trouble down the line.  In any case, sitting here blogging about it will not get it done.

A Tale Of Three Benchmarks

Yesterday had me perform an experiment.  Scientifically speaking, it was a lousy experiment, with no real control factor and a thousand and one different ways to interpret the results.  However, I learned something nonetheless.

The goal of the experiment was to confirm whether or not my assumptions about three popular game engines were correct, at least in one important factor: processing speed.  So I set the specifications of a benchmark to create in each that had the following specifications:
  • 1028x800 resolution, windowed.
  • Bullets made up by 2x2 pixel sprites of a single color (black).
  • The bullets would bounce off each other.
  • The bullets would bounce off of the edges of the window.
  • There will be two text displays.  One displaying the frames per second, the other displaying the number of active bullets.
As both Clickteam Fusion 2.5 and Construct 2 attempt to cap themselves at 60 FPS by default, the goal is to see how many projectiles bring the engines down to 50 FPS on the same platform: my Windows 7 OS personal computer.

Experiment 1: Construct 2.
Having just recently finished an introductory tutorial on Construct 2, I was familiar enough with it to easily cobble together a 2x2 "bullet"-type movement object and put it against a black background.   I am using the free version, so the HTML5 default target platform was the most suitable for my Windows 7 target platform... why no standalone .exe, I wonder?   As with the other tests, unrelated settings were left at default.

The HTML 5 target export worked like a charm, but it only took about 170 active bullets to get my frame rate down to 50.   This was in Firefox; it was slightly faster in Chrome, but not by much (about 200 bullets).  This is the limitation of a javascript-centric engine, and I suspect that the frame rate would not improve even if I used their Windows.exe exporter (unfortunately not available in the free version, although there was an Windows 8 Store App exporter).

Experiment 2: Clickteam Fusion.

I had completed all of the Clickteam Fusion tutorials a couple weeks ago, but apparently that was not enough for it to move from my short term memory.  I ran into three problems replicating the code I made in Construct 2:

  • How does one spawn an object where the mouse is clicking?  It seems I only had a choice of spawn an object at a fixed coordinate or relative to something already in the screen, and there was no "mouse" object.
  • How does one keep the projectiles on the screen?   "If bullet is outside layout, bounce it (off of itself) back into the layout" was difficult to find, but I eventually recollected it was under the "test position" section.
  • How does one perform a textual display of FPS and entity count (from an incremented global variable)?  Turns out that the "text" objects were bad at this, there seems to be no means to do it, or else Clickteam Fusion's lack of Intellisense made it unable to point it out to me.  The answer is that you use "counter" objects, instead.
It's boggling, really - both Clickteam Fusion and Construct 2 do most things quite similarly, but there's just enough "French logic" in the wording of Clickteam Fusion to make performing the most rudimentary operations require some reinterpretation.

I eventually cobbled together "close enough" code above, and the results were that I could pull 900 moving projectiles before the FPS fell to 50 with my hardware. (Funny enough, this was only in the Windows-engine driven "preview" mode.  The free version of Clickteam Fusion only allowed me to build HTML 5, and their HTML 5 optimization is currently awful: it could only put out about 25 projectiles before the FPS had already fallen to 50!  Way to put your worst foot forward, guys.)

Experiment 3: Game Maker.

Alright, so I haven't dabbled with Game Maker Studio in months.  I tried to put together the benchmark in an identical manner to the other two, but found myself floundering because it has been so long since I used it.  Game Maker is simple compared to coding from scratch, but significantly more complicated compared to either Clickteam Fusion or Construct 2, it is just that much less visual even if they did bend over backwards to add "drag and drop" methods to nearly everything.

Where the latter two go out of their way to differentiate different types of objects, Game Maker treats all objects as the same and has you define how they behave.  I have a certain respect for that, I like an engine that lets you get at the nuts and bolts of things.  (In fact, if you want to get really technical, you can even see the memory addresses of your various elements!  I am guessing certain functions can make use of those addresses, because otherwise there would be no point in revealing them.)
I had forgotten how to do something as rudimentary as display my frames per second and entity count, and I could not figure out how to add watch variables to Game Maker's debugger.  Fortunately, I already created a similar benchmark project in the past.

Oddly enough, I could never get those projectiles to stay on the screen, even when I resorted to trying to wrap them around instead of bounce off the edge.  It's probably possible, I'm just doing a lousy job of coding in Game Maker.

Even if the projectiles were not on screen, the engine was still simulating their movement, so this would work for benchmarking purposes.  Game Maker could pull around 600 projectiles before the FPS fell to 50 on my hardware.  This is without the benefit of the Yoyo Compiler, which is advertised as providing 100x the speed, but I do not yet have access to it.

Conclusions.

It turns out my initial assumptions were correct.  Clickteam Fusion can produce the most optimized products for Windows, Construct 2's javascript dependency made it the slowest, and Game Maker had some optimization but was not quite as fast as Clickteam Fusion (unless you get that Yoyo Compiler, although I cannot verify this firsthand).

I would like to reiterate what was saying earlier: these findings lack sufficient controls to be considered scientifically accurate.  The main problem is that there is probably quite a bit of black box mechanics going on in each engine, and all I did was test one facet of that engine (projectiles) and possibly did not even code them in the most efficient way possible.  It's possible each engine has strengths and witnesses in the performance of different kinds of operations.
Considering the kinds of games that tend to come out of these engines, and I am inclined to believe this frame rate is not really sufficient for truly impressive games.  When I look at something like Freedom Planet, or Noitu Love that is the very best that the engines seem to be doing, two Clickteam engine products that actually look like pretty good games for early 1990s consoles like the Sega Genesis.  All these engines really need a lot more power to produce some truly impressive games, it's really no wonder a lot of serious developers have to resort to developing their own engines.  Power equals brains, and this is what PC games need the most.

It's a pity, because the worst-performing engine, Construct 2, is an absolute joy to develop in.  Coding this benchmark on that IDE went a lot smoother than the others, and this is not completely because I had completed its tutorial so recently.  It just has a radically improved GUI over the product it was initially created to supersede, and the implementation of intellisense auto-completion works well and made a big difference.  Despite not being a very good performer, Construct 2 is a very tempting purchase for its incredibly user-friendly interface and an extremely attractive pricing structure, and it is probably going to be the choice for any 2D product that does not require much in the way of power, especially on the HTML 5 platform where speed really is not much of a possibility anyway.

Coincidentally, I was just poking around Yoyo Games's website and it looks like they're including the Yoyo compiler for free soon, targeting November 6th.  This could radically alter the face of homebrew games, as its advertised performance gains would be adequate to make some really good PC games, and many people (myself included) would be willing to humor a tougher learning curve if it means getting performance power severalfold that of the alternatives.  I look forward to giving it a try with the new compiler and seeing if the advertised performance is as good as they say, even 1.5x would put Game Maker neck and neck with Clickteam Fusion, but 10x-100x would blow everything else away.

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Construction

Though I intended to give Clickteam Fusion a more serious shakedown this bizarro weekend, thus far it has gone to Space Engineers.
Fine; if my turrets are not going to stop meteorites from poking holes in my base, then I'll build a sacrificial wall to poke holes in!
How does one play Space Engineers?  You are a near-future astronaut wearing a space suit (of course) that features a jetpack (for full 3D movement in space) and a life support system that substitutes energy for oxygen (and apparently food, too).  You can freely access the tools in your backpack, which may include:
  • A welder - This has two roles.  One is to bend deformed blocks back into their original shape, repairing them.  The other is to add components from your inventory to the blocks you place, building them.
  • A grinder - Use this to break blocks built down to their original components.
  • A hand drill - Use this to mine asteroids for minerals or make a mess out of built blocks.
  • An automatic rifle - For personal defense.
By and large, your main activity in Space Engineers is the same as it is in Minecraft: you turn natural resources into things you build.  However, unlike the typical Minecraft clone, Space Engineers plays distinctly differently because the whole thing takes place in zero gravity in the depths of space.  The Newtonian physics are quite well modeled, with everything floating around in a convincing manner.  A collision between two ships is particularly spectacular, warping them into maimed specters of their former glory.
I placed everything in these blocks by hand.  Even the smaller ships were built by me. 
(The skeletal blocks have yet to have their components added.)
Like Minecraft, placing blocks is where things get exciting. This glorious, free-floating space sandbox actually allows you to build things in it!  You can cobble together walls, catwalks, refineries, light fixtures, cameras, automated defense turrets, and so on.  A fellow could put together some pretty cool things here.  Everything in these screenshots was built, block by block.

Space Engineers allows you to build working spacecraft, which is pretty fantastic.  Various blocks provide energy, cargo storage and redistribution, fairly realistic thrust-mechanics, and so on.  They operate on two scales of spacecraft, large and small, with the smaller blocks at 1/125th the size of the larger ones.
  • Larger blocks are intended for capital ships or space stations.  The blocks that refine ore or build parts are exclusive to the larger size, and those blocks are essential towards getting anything done.  Ships can attach to each other via magnetized landing gears, so the larger ships will likely become carriers of smaller ships.  
  • Smaller ships can mount more powerful versions of welders and grinders, which makes them ideal for harvesting asteroids.  Since they are smaller targets and more nimble, smaller ships are ideal for combat situations.
Though you can do a lot in your spacesuit, you suit's tiny backpack is major impediment, so getting a working spaceship with a cargo bay should be an immediate priority.  (Besides, if you do not have somewhere to charge up you suit's battery, you will soon run out and suffocate!)

My first attempt at a mining ship proved to be tough,
but plagued with technical problems.
I often feel disappointed with Minecraft because it has no long-term purpose, insisting players come up with their own.  Space Engineers is currently in Steam "Early Access," so it has an excuse for not having one either.  In both games, you collect resources to build things simply because that's all there is to do.  In both games, there is no real goal to all this construction, not yet, it is simply a matter of building for the joy of building.

Despite knowing the futility of my task, I kept playing Space Engineers.
  • On the first day, I mostly focused on coming up with an effective means to mitigate the damage from meteors.  Those are currently the only real enemy in the game unless you invite some other players into your game to wreck things. 
  • On the second day, I was heavily occupied with rebuilding what I lost, but the building of a second general refinery and a third specialized iron refinery finally allowed me to make some headway.  I decided to create a "rollcage" around my space platform to blunt the more harmful damage done by the meteors because my automated Gatling turrets' imperfect job of deflecting them often left me wincing at what I had to repair.
  • On the third day, I finished enough of the "rollcage" to hazard creating some spacecraft in the protected area.  I built a small mining vessel and another small vessel for welding.  As I was mining by hand with the tiny confines of my astronaut's tiny backpack, I probably would have saved quite a bit of time had I started on one of these sooner.
These tasks took hours... Steam counts 33 were spent in the game over this period!  Yet, I was having fun.

Looking back now, I guess I built some pretty cool stuff, and I learned a lot about this game... but I suspect there are more effective productivity apps I could have spent my time in.  Clickteam Fusion I've mentioned, but what if the simple value of a story written in a word processor?  How does time invested doing that compare to building elaborate spaceships in Space Engineers?

Maybe this is my major hangup in game development: it is hard to feel productive about creating something that primarily just absorbs productivity.  But the trouble with this argument is that nobody really understands what a game is.  Games would seem to have a purpose of a sort, perhaps to learn, otherwise why are people engineered to want to have fun?

Getting My Engine Started

I have one again been backed into a corner by being a very picky gamer, and enough is enough.  As I clearly am not patient enough to wait for other people to get around to it, it is time for me to take game development into my own hands.

This is not the first time I seriously endeavored to create something, and I am no newbie.  On the other hand, making a computer game is an endeavor in which you are a perpetual newbie.  Further enhancing the difficulty of this, I am largely undertaking this endeavor all on my lonesome.  Past experiences have proven that this is not something to be untaken lightly.
http://cheezburger.com/1837765888
Kittens are always a good thumbnail.
Anyway, I have a pretty good idea how to get this done, and right now I am mostly stymied with choice of engine.

Why choose an existing engine? 

Why not stop myself from being a slacker, buckle down in C# or C++, and create my own engine?  After all, that is the only way you can assure 100% freedom and compatibility with whatever cool idea you come up with (within hardware limitations).  However, there are actually a number of really good reasons for this:
  1. If you are developing your own engine, you are responsible for its hardware incompatibilities.  There is a wide degree of all sorts of wacky hardware out there, more than you have reliable access to troubleshoot.  If you do not have your very own brilliant hardware geek who revels at the chance to make your software compatible, then you need to borrow an engine developed by a company that (presumably) has taken these pains for you.
  2. If you are developing your own engine, you need to troubleshoot it.  Assuming you are not starting completely from scratch, perhaps importing a basic code IDE, you still need to go through all the painstaking debugging necessary to make sure that you have integrated those functions correctly and they work the way you want.  If you are starting from scratch, you have quite a bit to do in order to even get the computer to correctly display a single object on your screen.  Starting with an existing engine means someone already did this for you.
  3. If you are developing your own engine, you also need to develop the content generation tools for it.  Even when the engine is done, aligning by hand each bit needed for your game's content is a real chore, so you need to develop additional tools to streamline the process.  This is where having a complete game development environment (as opposed to just the engine) is a big advantage: because those content generation tools should be already done.
The big benefit you will see here is speed
  • If you tried programming something from scratch, even something simple like a breakout clone, then you are looking at weeks of work in order to see a good-looking product come to completion.  (This will widely vary depending on how much existing code and assets you have and how smoothly the integration goes.)  
  • Today, a good game development environment will allow an experienced user to come up with a good-looking breakout clone in mere minutes.  
This is why these environments are often used as prototyping agents for people who then move on to make their own engines: there is no quicker way to go from project conception to working prototype.
This is why Minecraft went with cubes: it might technically be a 3D
game, but they eliminated enough depth in the individual parts
that it attains a far greater ease in mental conception
for its players than a more detailed 3D game would.

Which engine should you choose?  

It depends on the type of game you want to make.  No kidding: these game engines tend to be specialized in various directions.  Want to make a JRPG?  Use RPG Maker.  Want a point-and-click adventure game?  Use Adventure Game Studio.  And so on.  While the people who use these platforms will tell you that they are flexible enough to do more than just those games, you will have to do quite a bit of coding to get them to bend them in that direction.

Personally, I think 2D games have greater potential for quality gameplay.  My rationale is that they are easier for players to wrap their heads around and this streamlines play.   If it were looking to make a 3D game, my choices are actually pretty narrow: Unity is sort of the only choice when it comes to a complete, comprehensive 3D IDE; working in Torque, CryEngine, or Source requires considerably more skill and effort.  However, I am choosing to make a 2D game. 

To these ends, I have located a pretty good list of 2D game engines.  While this "voting" idea makes this Slant.co seem like mostly a popularity contest, I will say that quite a bit of cream has risen to the top of that list.   Here are my thoughts about the top four (I am skipping Monkey X because, to my knowledge, it's not a complete IDE):

Construct 2 

The way I hear it, Scirra (the developers of Construct) originally were developing extensions for Clickteam's products.  However, they were disappointed by the limitations of that engine, and so they set out to create their own, largely borrowing the best part of Clickteam's methods in the process.  Naturally, this created quite a bit of bad blood between the two developers.

That aside, having extremely briefly dabbled with both products, I am going to say that they are roughly on the same level.  The tradeoff is this:
  • Construct 2 is more flexible, due to frequent updates and a development team that largely intended to improve the original.  You can even code your own extensions in javascript if you have the skills.  Consequently, you can reasonably expect do almost everything in Construct 2 that you can in Clickteam Fusion 2, and more.
  • Clickteam Fusion 2 is more stable and generates more powerful products.  This is due to efforts taken towards hardware optimization in Windows or MacOS.  Construct 2 actually is highly reliant on javascript, which is less efficient.
I think perhaps the most telling thing is the games made for Construct 2... where are they?   I took a look at the indiedb list of Construct 2 games, and I have not heard of any of them.  It might be because Construct 2 is still relatively new, having been released in July, 2011.  However, I think the reduction in power from the HTML5 target platform may have made the biggest difference.

Clickteam Fusion 2.5 

I messed around with doing the Clickteam Fusion 2.5 tutorials today, and I was quite impressed.  It is very slightly more complicated than Construct 2 to use, but seemed to be quite powerful and easy to understand.   It reminds me a little of Adobe Flash (which is not doing so hot these days) but the games made by Clickteam products can compile as standalone.

In practice, Clickteam Fusion 2.5 and Construct 2 resemble each other so much that it is difficult to split hairs against one or the other any more than I have already.   I will say that, in the Clickteam Fusion 2.5 product, I was extremely impressed with the power of the integrated sprite editor and the careful attention towards friendly interface-driven game development.  Comparatively, Construct 2's interface seems minimalist, Scirra has improved upon Clickteam's efforts in some ways, but in others they have yet to catch up.

I may need more time with both to really understand the difference.  Subjective observation at the general Internet consensus establishes that Construct 2 is the superior product, but I am not so sure.  It may be that they are speaking in terms of its potential, as development on Construct 2 is still very active.  However, I really have a hard time accepting Construct 2's javascript native environment.
Ultimately, I think the best way to judge a difference between the two is in what has been made for both of them.  Clickteam Fusion 2.5 is currently doing extremely well here, partly because it is the latest iteration of a product line that has been around since 1993.

If I look at their game roster, some big names jump out at me:
  • Five Nights At Freddies - An incredible cult hit that is currently ravaging the top image galleries on knowyourmeme.com.
  • The Escapists - A game for PC and the XBone that has garnered quite a bit of attention for its unique premise of being a prisoner plotting escape.
  • Freedom Planet - A lot of fans of the Sonic games have been using Clickteam products for years to come up with their fan homages, but this one may well have transcended the original.
  • Noitu Love and its sequel -  Extremely-well received commercial arcade 2D shooters.
  • Under The Garden - One of the more novel takes to the survival genre I have seen in awhile, this one is half metroidvania.
  • TinyTrek -  An open-ended space odyssey inspired by Star Trek, this game does things so radically differn from most games I see on Clickteam Fusion that it says much for the platform's flexibility.
Dare I say it?  Clickteam Fusion may well have transcended Game Maker in producing quality commercial products.  Speaking of which...

Game Maker

I thoroughly regret having already bought a professional license to this hunk of junk... okay, that's too strong, actually Game Maker has a good deal of potential, and it is perhaps among the easiest IDE to port games cross-platform with, having optional export modules purchasable for Windows, Mac OS, Android, HTML5, iOS, Ubunto, and Windows Phone 8, slightly more than Clickteam Fusion 2.5 is capable of.

In terms of difficulty of use, I would rank Game Maker as considerably easier to use than Unity, but not quite as easy to use as Construct 2 or Clickteam Fusion 2.5.  However, Game Maker has an important advantage over the few competitors that are easier-to-use than it: Game Maker allows its users to optionally write their own code in its own integrated programming language, GML (which resembles C), and this introduces a great deal of potential flexibility.
As I have a little coding experience, I would probably be quite happy to use Game Maker, but I encountered some major deal breakers when I tried:
  1. The room maker is extremely cumbersome.  In any of the other three engines mentioned here, dragging and dropping or cutting and pasting several elements at once is quite intuitive and works how you expect it to work.  Oddly, Game Maker makes this fundamental operation extremely hard to do.  The room maker is long overdue for radical revision to rectify this problem.
  2. The GML coding interface is poor.  Though Game Maker has some intellisense built into its GML text editor, it would seem to be extremely flaky, because it simply stopped working most of the time when I tried to use it.  Of all the engines mentioned here, only Unity has good intellisense (borrowed from Microsoft Visual Studio's C# integration) but both Construct 2 and Clickteam Fusion 2.5 subvert this by requiring no coding.
  3. Games created in Game Maker are fairly inefficient.  YoYo Games knew that Game Maker-produced products needed further optimization, and so they actually rolled up their sleeves and developed a compiler for it that can regularly produce (I kid you not) over ten times better performance on target platforms.  That would be great, but they decided to charge $299 for add-on access to this improved compiler!  I cannot believe they were unaware that this was no mere feature, but rather fixing the greatest fault in the engine, but they opted to hold it for ransom!
Basically, the prima donna that is my inner game development muse has stormed out of the dressing room that is Game Maker, refusing to work under these conditions. 

Logically, I know that Game Maker is capable of making some pretty decent games, as there are a quite few I have heard of.  For example:
  • Spelunky - A glorious classic procedurally generated side-scrolling roguelike action game.
  • Risk Of Rain - A procedurally generated platformer that is actually a lot of fun.
  • Valdis Story - A quality metroidvania experience.
  • Vambleer games including Nuclear Throne and Luftrasers - Low-fi games that offer quality gameplay experiences.
  • Charles Barkley's Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden -A JRPG-style parody game featuring pop culture references to a post-apocalyptic future staring basketball star, Charles Barkley.
A noticeable trend in most Game Maker games is that they must keep things low-fidelity due to the lack of optimization.  Many developers prefer to keep their involvement with Game Maker to the prototyping stages, as was the case with DustforceSpelunky was similarly remade in a custom engine.

If YoYo Games would bundle the improved compiler as standard and fix the broken aspects of the IDE, Game Maker would be a major contender.  Instead, it runs aground on its flaws.  Game Maker Studio is hard to recommend for this reason, but a future version that fixes those flaws has the potential to take the crown for 2D game development.

Unity

Of all the IDEs mentioned here, Unity is undeniably the most powerful.  However, that power comes with a price:
  • Although Unity is initially free to use, its license is the most expensive of the ones mentioned here.  Where the other products will typically run you up to three digits to unlock their better features, Unity is currently $1,500 per target platform set!  (Alternately, $75/mo/platform set.)
  • Although Unity is very much capable of making 2D games, it is inherently a 3D engine, so the overall impact on any piece of hardware running a Unity game will be that much more significant.  This makes it a poor choice for developing 2D games that target less hardware intensive platforms.
  • Although Unity is certainly capable of virtually everything the other engines mentioned here are capable of, the learning curve is considerably steeper.  You will definitely want to know how to program.  You will probably want to know a bit about handling 3D objects even if you are creating a 2D game.  You can learn to use the other programs via a pamphlet-sized instruction manual and tinkering... but learning Unity comprehensively will probably require more than one thick tome at your desk, thanks in part to your newfound reliance on Blender.
Of course, if one were to look at a Unity games showcase, it would appear to blow the other ones out of the water...
... but bear in mind that there was a lot more talent developing those games.  Unity Technologies was not screwing around when they made Unity: where the other products on this list were initially conceived with the idea of allowing non-computer-savvy users to dabble with game creation, Unity was intended to make professional grade development tools a lot more accessible.

This is why I am afraid I will have to give up on Unity.  I have been hesitant to come to that decision, because I am just good enough of a coder to really like the potential of C#, and Unity's IDE has coding integration that is a wet dream compared to the competition.  However, I have to face facts that I am not quite good enough to use Unity.

The main problem is that I am attempting to one-man my endeavors.  Professional grade tools take professional grade skills and possibly professional grade resources (like working in a team).  I do not have those right now... maybe later but, as for now, I am just a hobbyist looking to realize something cool.  Time will tell if this turns out to be the right decision, but I am very much thinking in terms of, "One must walk before they can run."

Though there are some other 2D engines to consider, it is looking a lot like I am probably going to try to use Clickteam Fusion for now.  This is because it provides the best mixture of ease-of-use and end-product power.  There could potentially be the problem down the line that it's not quite flexible enough for my pie-in-the-sky game concepts, but this could be resolved by limiting my ambitions to the best I can do with the engine.

Recanting Some Degree Of My Recent Listlessness

While the last entry had me feeling odd about the mix of games I was involved in, this entry has me wondering what I was thinking to have the stance I did about them at all.

My assertion that ArcheAge gave me too many labor points was being looked at from the wrong direction: it is not that I have too many labor points for the time I had to play, but rather that I do not actually want to invest the time needed to spend that many labor points. 
What was I thinking?  I don't have enough time to commit to playing a single MMORPG; I really rather just sample an assortment of games of shorter duration while trying to find ones that truly push the envelope of virtual worlds.  Then I recollect that I knew exactly what I was thinking: the virtual world draw never fades.  Trion Worlds hardly had to dangle the hook of a slightly-more-compelling virtual world MMORPG for me to thrust myself onto the end of it.

Sitting here now, with a character at level 41 (out of 50), it is easy to glance forward at what core activities await... and see I have already largely exhausted the gameplay potential of:
  • Combat, Crafting, Questing - Just like any other MMORPG, been there, done that. 
  • Working a plot of land - Great on paper, but ArcheAge's implementation of this activity lacks elegance on the GUI level; it is very awkward trying to maximize the space on my tiny farm plot, and the individual watering of each plant is something that really should have been automated.  What do I get for all this effort?  Resources that go into crafting and trading, more things that do to exactly lend to riveting gameplay.
  • Epic open-world player versus player combat -Which is implemented very well in ArcheAge... but I have long since chalked up open-world combat as being inherently flawed because PK for PK's sake is absolutely worthless in terms of introducing meaningful gameplay.  Call me a carebear, but I think that's a half-truth at best: I would rather there was significantly more reasonable context involved in these actions.
About the only thing I can really look forward to in ArcheAge is its excellent implementation of naval combat, which is light years ahead of any other MMORPG... and about a half a lightyear behind specialized single player experiences such as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.  Also, the castle sieging might be better than anything currently on the market, but it's mostly just standing on the shoulders of Jake Song's previous MMORPGs.  But whether navel combat or castle sieging, it falls under the umbrella of that open-world PvP.

I have invested as much money on ArcheAge it would cost for three AAA games, but I should have known better: I have far too many unplayed games on my plate to commit that much of time to a single game.  More to the point, I think I would rather waste my time on something with more brains to it, like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup or Minecraft.  The brainlessness of MMORPGs is that they are often designed to burn as much time accomplishing as little as possible on activities that are not that hard to master.
It may look weird, but once you're piloting this ship, you've got it made.
Meanwhile, I think I may have a poor grasp of understanding the balance of Starpoint Gemini 2.  (Either that, or one of these various patches LGM released had changed it.)  I gave the game another play, and found myself to be wrong on multiple fronts:
  • I was wrong to say that Starpoint Gemini 2 scales poorly - I was mislead because I had transitioned from a Taurus-class Gunship to a Philidephia-class Frigate and found I was getting killed about as quick in the larger ship than the smaller one, so it appeared as though upgrading my ship was futile.  However, when I upgraded to an Aristarch-class Destroyer, I found that I could soak damage with relative impunity.  So, if there is poor shield-potency scaling in Starpoint Gemini 2, it may be limited to the transition from small-sized to medium-sized ships.
  • I was probably wrong to say that Starpoint Gemini 2 scales with character level - Actually, it seems that the main thing that scales with character level are some of the dynamic side-jobs offered.  Aside from that, I have encountered tiny Gunships trying to engage my Destroyer, with the predictable results, so it would seem scaling is not universal.
Of course, this does not mean that the game is perfect.
  • My assertion that "Fire At Will" mode could use a means to designate targets to be ignored still holds as true.  
  • Capturing ships is hampered by more randomness in the troop encounters than I would like.  
  • Missions to capture ships do not mention how many troops you will need ahead of time, leading to many impossible missions.  
  • Grappling the captured ships is unreliable, causing them to sometimes become untethered in "power to engine" (fast speed) flight, and turning around to re-grapple them is really awkward.
It seems probable that Star Citizen or Elite: Dangerous will completely overshadow Starpoint Gemini 2... but they are still a long way off, and Starpoint Gemini 2 is a pretty decent game to play in the meanwhile.
The necessities of a poor sim.

Finally, my attempts at running a "legacy game" in The Sims 4 is not working out particularly well.  I will say that this is probably the way the game is meant to be played, without cheats, and your descendants inheriting an increasingly-sprawling manse.  However, it gets just as monotonous in the long run.

In this particular lineage game, my founder started off as an aspiring artist.  He took his 1,800 starting simoleons and supplemented it by harvesting every natural resource he could lay his mitts on for a day or two, upon which he had his basic necessities (toilet, refrigerator, bed) and an easel to start refining his artistry.

After a day and a half of real life play, my founder has met his artistic aspiration, is at the top of his carrier track, has a wife and two kids, and has earned over 100,000 simoleons.  Most of this was earned by simply churning out paintings that, at his talent level, range from 1,000 simoleons to (rarely) over 20,000 simoleons in value.  I kept most of the masterpieces simply to enhance the environment of the household so everybody is cheery most of the time. 

My founder sim is only about half-way through his adulthood and has not used the Fountain of Youth potion yet.  Generation two (of ten) is not even out of childhood yet, and I consider this game beat.  Maybe I should have gone for "short" game length instead of "standard?
The same Sim, mid-way through adulthood, has grown his tiny shack into all this
I am left wondering why I should bother with legacy rules at all.  I might as well circumvent the need to procreate with a steady supply of Fountain of Youth potions.  I suppose that it is a little more challenging to pass the torch to the next generation, but the challenge is only in the short term.  Once the next generation finds their footing, the inhibitions on success are minimal, and ten generations is enough to realize the greater bulk of The Sims 4's content.

I know what I must do.  I need to break open Unity or (failing even that much motivation) GameMaker and plug in a little time every day until I am good an familiar with using them.  At that point, perhaps I can harness some of my relentless finickiness in refining my own idea of a game.  By doing so, I could switch from bitching about the problem towards trying to find the solution.  However, this has been the plan for about a year now, and I have not demonstrated myself capable of doing that thus far.  Time will tell if I manage to overcome this block.

A Listless October 2014 Beginning

I feel odd; what a strange batch of PC gaming I've gotten myself involved in lately.

ArcheAge, surfeit of labor.

ArcheAge, a South Korean import MMORPG, also happens to be one of the best MMORPGs in terms of virtual worldly aspects since Ultima Online.  It also imports the best of Dark Age Of Camelot's end game PvP and throws in a pinch of Farmville-like land management for good measure.  The one-character-can-do-everything approach neatly thwarts my rampant altaholicism.  So, while ArcheAge might alienate some people with its foreign accents, it is nevertheless a fiendishly-clever everlasting gobstopper.

Alas, the honeymoon has ended between ArcheAge and me.  It's because I am annoyed by the glut of labor points.  "Patron" status subscribers earn half as many labor points while offline than online.  24 hours of not playing the game is another 1440 more labor points to spend.  There's a 5000 point cap, so you use those points or lose them.

Using that many labor points is annoying, partly because of a lack of choice as to how to spend them.  Sure, there's no less than 21 professions that you can spend those points on, but just about everything is limited in availability in the world.  For example:
  • Gathering - If you're lucky, you'll have a farm plot that you can plant and harvest things at.  Otherwise, you will be restricted to ten plants at a time in various public plots (provided there is room to be found to plant anything).  Even with a fairly large farm plot, you will have plenty of labor points left over in the time it takes for you to harvest and plant most things.  Actually having something to do with that many harvested things is a challenge in itself - how many trade packs can you move in a day?
  • Logging - Whether in the farm or out in the wilds, growing trees takes about a day of real life time.  This makes it extremely rare that you will ever find a mature one in the wild before another player has already cut it down.  Given that this game is rather popular, players are so desperate for trees that they will steal other players' trees if they are planted in unprotected areas.
  • Weaponry/Tailoring/Metalwork - Crafting a piece of armor or a weapon takes a hefty 100 labor points, at least, but you probably will not be able to do much of that because these items almost invariably require archeum, a magical resource which is hard to obtain.  If the developers simply changed the game to drop more, then the bottom would fall out of the rarity of good equipment, so crafting these items remains an unlikely way to spend much labor.
http://mastorpatt.com/personal/breaking-rocks/There is only one thing I can consistently find to waste my labor points on. Breaking rocks. There are a few places in the game world where you can find lots of mining resource nodes, and here you will almost invariably find players scrambling from rock to rock trying to break it before the another player harvests it first.

Eventually it hit me that I was essentially fighting over something that we make prisoners do in real life.  Coincidentally, ArcheAge has a prison for naughty players to spend a few minutes in where they will have fun playing kickball, dropping the soap, or plotting to escape.  Meanwhile, the supposedly free men and women on the outside are engaged in the monotony of breaking rocks.

Maybe the worst thing about my labor points is that I have severely out-leveled my quest content just trying to get rid of my labor points.  You get experience points for most uses of labor points, my current quests are about level 32, and my character is in the home stretch at level 40 already.  The reason I want to do the quests is because I want to get the weapons and armor rewarded in order to break them down into archeum so I can upgrade my crafted weapons and armor.  However, the quests are now boringly trivial to perform, and their experience and monetary rewards have been mitigated to about nothing.  Labor points clashing with quests is a point of proof about how poorly quests jive with the virtual worldly aspects of this game.

I just logged in and dumped 2000 labor points making 50 tax certificates, which are used to pay for the land plots I have in game.  They cannot be sold or traded, and I only have one land plot right now with a rent of 5 tax certificates a week, so spending my labor points in this way was basically a desperate gambit to buy myself some more time not playing ArcheAge until I am in the mood to go in and break some more rocks.

I later learned that hereafter stones are a pretty good way to go for blowing your labor points.   For 50 labor points, 3 raw stone (mined) and a blue salt wedge (purchased off of merchants), you can craft 3 hereafter stones.  These are used for teleporting, the quickest way to move across the world, so they are a fairly hot commodity.  Each batch seemed to get my level 40 character over 2000 xp per batch, which quickly got me to level 41.

I am also noticing that botting is a bit out of control.  I do not know how many customer service representatives that Trion Worlds has put on bot disposal detail, but it clearly is not enough, as I have seen bots who have accrued over 30 or 40 levels.  There is a system in the game where players can report bots, and if five players do it then it puts a debuff on them, but that does not seem to meaningfully slow them down.

Starpoint Gemini 2, proof that space is relative.

I am a sucker for a good open-ended space game, and Starpoint Gemini was an interesting, if flawed game.  Its sequel, Starpoint Gemini 2, crawled out of early access last Friday, September 26th, 2014, and it was being offered at a very reasonable price of $28 after a 20% discount (a common release day hard sell tactic).
So I gave Starpoint Gemini 2 a hard play through on the following Monday, and I am currently feeling rather teased about my purchase.

The first impressions it puts out are pretty solid.  Here is a game that plays smoothly, has a pretty nice GUI after you get used to it, and the way the projectiles fly reminds me a little of Freelancer.  It's also extremely open-ended, you can freeroam through a reasonably large galaxy map (even if you choose to play in "campaign" mode, which mostly just adds "main campaign" goals to the map that you can ignore at your leisure).  The graphics are pretty decent: not quite as good as EVE Online, but just good enough to be reminiscent of it.
About eight hours in, I am feeling this game is brokenStarpoint Gemini 2 has a few major flaws that I am finding difficult to surmount:
  • Starpoint Gemini 2 is level-based, and it scales.  You get experience points for performing quests, destroying enemy ships, and the like.  This will result in encounters around you being higher leveled, too.  Scaling with levels is a decent idea from a gameplay standpoint, because it helps to assure a challenge from beginning to end, but it feels out-of-place in a game that is trying to be an open-ended universe.  I should start out as plankton in a sea of diverse creatures and evolve into a whale.  Instead, I start out a fish in a pond filled with other fish, and end up a whale in an ocean filled with other whales.
  • Starpoint Gemini 2 scales poorly.  When I reach a level where my small ship can no longer handle a higher-leveled encounter, upgrading to a bigger ship does not solve the problem.  Bigger ships may have more guns, but they are also bigger targets and worse at dodging enemy fire.

    Perhaps a larger flaw in the scaling is that encounter levels are based on your character level, and not ship power.  However, your ship is far more important than your character's skills (which are laughably passive). 
  • "Fire at will" is required, but your control of it is not robust enough.  You can fire your turrets manually, but there is no lead-indicators so hitting the enemy this way is hard, and you cannot fire in two places at once manually.  Thus, you are more or less forced to turn on the "fire at will" automatic mode, which randomly targets everything in range of all the turrets on your ship. 

    That would not be a problem, except you have very weak control over what "fire at will" does.  You can "mark" targets, which causes turrets on that side to prioritize that enemy, but meanwhile your other turrets are wasting energy on everything else.  You cannot set a target to be ignored by "fire at all," and this is annoying because the smaller ships are more vulnerable to boarding operations, but get obliterated by random "fire at all" spray before you get the chance.
When all is said and done, I think Starpoint Gemini 2 is one of the better open-ended space sims to come out in awhile but is imperfect in ways that will annoy hardcore aficionados of the genre. Consequently, if you hated X Rebirth because it was so kludgy and difficult to play, you might like Starpoint Gemini 2 for at least being fairly cohesive, but this game is not quite as balanced or enduring as the likes of Freelancer or Darkstar One.
Perhaps, in time, the modding community can iron out the wrinkles in the balance.  However,  they probably will not be able to do anything about "fire at will" targeting system being limited in your ability to control it.  Little Green Men has been pretty good about releasing post-release patches, perhaps they will do something about this before they move on to their next game.

Sims 4, the silver standard of living vicariously.

If Sims 3 was not rendered so top-heavy by all its expansions, to the point of instability, I would probably play that instead because it is undoubtedly better featured.  However, so long as I am willing to stick to a single household and keep visits to other lots to a minimum, the Sims 4 works out just fine.
My first Sims 4 girlfriend instantly morphed from a young lady into an old woman upon moving in.  That was embarrassing. 
Then she died.  Well, I guess that took care of that.  It would seem EAMaxis has some important bugs to fix.
I find the game is most enjoyable if I just play a single sim and see how much I can accrue.  Playing just a loner who is practically immortal (perhaps due to having set the game lifespans to long or making sure I always have "potions of eternal youth") is more or less a surefire path to victory.  Lets face it, this is a damn Mary Sue power fantasy we're looking at here, and that's pretty much what The Sims is by default.
Yet, the ease of accomplishing this is rather boring, and I am seriously considering playing a legacy game right now.  In such a game, I would start over anew with a pretty-much-destitute sim living in an empty plot of land, and see how much progress can be made in ten generations.  Setting the game length to "long" and using potions of youth would probably undermine a significant part of the challenge, and this is typically mentioned in the rules.  A certain point can be derived from just how hard you have to restrain yourself to make The Sims challenging.

I really ought to be making my own games around now.

Lets face it, when you're as picky as I am, rolling your own may be the one way to derive lasting satisfaction.

There's quite a skillset involved in making games, though.   Independent game development is not like learning an instrument.  It's like learning how to play every instrument in a symphony, conduct, and run the entire theater.  If you are not using middleware for your game engine, you will be building the theater, too.

All of this, while working through an extremely capable intern who is the only one who could have made creation of this incredible creative artifact possible.  This same intern is an utter idiot because he or she takes everything you say completely literally and has no capacity to figure out problems for themselves.  This intern is the computer.

It's really no wonder computer games are so damn imperfect when this is the condition of their production.

The Original Throwdown Is Back

There's been a few Gauntlet remakes over the years, but September 22nd has seen the release of one that differs from most those in that it's actually quite good. Granted, Gauntlet (2014) not quite classic Gauntlet, there's no clavichord music to be found, and there has been a fundamental reinvention of every aspect of the original game mechanic; this is Gauntlet in name only, all resemblances being a respectful montage.
Gauntlet (2014) is closer to Diablo III but with even less RPG mechanics (and Diablo III was already a bit overly streamlined there).  Gauntlet (2014) has no allusions towards being anything other than an action game, so it eschews loot drops for just collecting gold that can be cashed in for cosmetic costume pieces and artifacts (two can be equipped at a time, potions are used to activate one for a temporary benefit).  Aside from that, Gauntlet (2014) is pure fast-paced hack-and-slash action, quite well executed.

The most important thing to know about Gauntlet (2014) is probably that the classic four heroes (Warrior, Elf, Wizard, and Valkyrie) play fundamentally different.
  • The Warrior (Thor) is a melee brawler who hews his way through enemies with broad strokes of his axe, staggering most opponents with every swipe.
  • The Valkyrie (Thyra) has different approach to melee, focused on pinpoint spear maneuvers with a bit of Captain America's shield work thrown in for good measure.
  • The Elf (Questor) is quick, able to tumble about the battlefield, filling foes with his infinite arrows via weakly-drawn bow up close, or sniping them with a stronger pull from afar.  He supplements this with bombs.
  • The Wizard (Merlin) is the most interesting of all, because he can switch between a surprisingly-wide variety of flame, frost, and lightning spells in an almost-but-not-quite Magika style of button combinations. 
It feels as though there is significantly more difference between how these four heroes play than there are in the classes found in your average Diablo clone, and this should do much for the replayability of the game.
The main critique I have about the character selection is that only one player can play each hero, for a maximum of four players a session.  If somebody has already selected the Wizard, but you want to play him, too bad!  The only way to reliably play the character you want is to play single player, but the game is better balanced for a multiplayer experience.  I usually get stuck playing the Warrior because all the other heroes are bit more interesting (good thing Thor is a powerhouse).  Gauntlet II (1986) has already demonstrated that this class restriction is unnecessary.

A solid game, but not a perfect one.

Perhaps the most glaring omission in Gauntlet (2014) is that there is no drop-in gameplay. You either sit around, bored in a lobby, and wait for players to join, or you can go in undermanned with less than the full four players.  After the release-day rush, chances are you will need to know three friends who want to play with you in order to get a full group.  This is not 1990, lobbies are so passe, and mid-game drop-in would have made for a far better alternative.

The post-map-completion GUI could use some touch up.  At the end of each map, gold and kills are racked up, and your achievements earned are displayed.  This takes so long that most people do not have the patience for it.   If you skip to the end of all those stats and the host isn't ready, you end up looking at an empty map for however many seconds it takes for the host to join you: very tacky.  Maybe all those stats should have been on the map loading screen, I do not think Bandai can sue for stat displays on loading screens.
Gauntlet (2014) is certainly a pretty game.  The use of lighting and shadows is particularly exemplary.
Rarely, a situation manifests in which progress is impossible. Maybe a key has fallen off the map, or something did not trigger that should have.  Either way, this is a show-stopping bug: the players can no longer complete the map and just run around in circles until they die or are forced to quit.  Fortunately, this is rare, but it really needs to be fixed before Arrowhead Game Studios moves on to their next game.

All of the attempts to add social media to the game have already been sabotaged.  The Internet-wide scoreboards are populated by people who obviously just hacked the memory.  You really cannot have scoreboards like this without some kind of playback evaluation software at work, and so these scoreboards should probably just be removed in a future patch.

A great stocking stuffer come early.

When all is said and done, Gauntlet (2014) is a decidedly fun romp with tight, well-balanced gameplay.  It's delightfully refreshing to have a well-wrought game where "hard" mode is, indeed, hard and not just some sort of casual pandering.  This as genuine game worth playing.

Granted, it's pretty short, you could easily finish all the maps in a day, but there's a lot of replay here as you play through the maps again on higher difficulties in order to play each of the four characters and unlock more outfits and artifacts. The $20 release-day price tag is pretty reasonable, and it will be a shoe-in on a half-off sale a few months from now.

Here's hoping for a Gauntlet II (2015?) that can deliver something closer to perfection.