Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I've been playing the demo of Silverfall (see the preview on IGN). Like Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest, Silverfall reminds me of Diablo 2, which I loved. It's a role-playing game in which your character goes on quests, fights monsters, collects treasures, upgrade items, learn new skills, etc. The graphics are great, or would be, if my computer was fast enough. Some of the more interesting things about it:

  • Graphics. The characters are surrounded by a black outline. See this screenshot (and others) on IGN. It reminds me of cartoons, where the outlines help separate the important characters from the backgrounds. It's more than this though. Silverfall's graphics look hand drawn, at every angle and zoom. I can't figure out how they did this.
  • Physics. It can take advantage of a physics accelerator card. I didn't see much that would benefit from physics though, and it's sort of annoying to have to install a physics library.
  • UI. The UI is really smooth compared to Dungeon Siege, although not quite as nice as Diablo 2 for reasons I'll list below. The use of the mouse and hotkeys is nice.
  • Factions. The nice twist on this type of game is Nature vs. Technology. When you complete or reject certain quests, you gain favor with either nature or technology (these are diametrically opposed). When your favor with either faction increases, you gain access to better items and skills. Also, in the story your faction becomes stronger, which changes the storyline and the appearance and buildings in the city. A third path is to favor neither side, accepting quests on behalf of both. This gives you more experience from quests, but you no longer have access to the special items from each faction.
  • Quests. A consequence of the nature vs. technology factions is that some quests will make you worse off. In most RPGs, the more quests you do, the better. But here, the quests can hurt your standing with one of the factions, and you can lose access to items, skills, and further quests. So you need to think about which quests you accept.
  • Skill Tree. Like Guild Wars and unlike Diablo, you can change your skills, at a cost. I think this increases the enjoyment of the game the first time through, because you can try out several approaches without starting over, but it may decrease enjoyment the next time through the game. It's a good tradeoff though, because it helps a large number of casual players at the expense of a small number of dedicated players.
  • Classes. There are races but no character classes. Instead, you can choose your skills to build your own style of character. There are skills for melee, ranged weapons, light magic, dark magic, faction (nature or technology), and your race (human, goblins, trolls, elves). This yields a large set of styles of play. I tried one which combined melee and dark magic, and a different style that combined light magic and nature skills.

It seems silly, but I think the black outlines and the hand-drawn look of the characters and other objects are a sign of something important. Before 3d accelerator cards, graphics were drawn by programmers and artists, and games had lots of different visual styles. With 3d cards, a certain style supported by the card is cheap, fast, and easy. All other styles are more expensive, slower, and harder to program. This has led to a far less diverse set of visual styles. Okami is a rare exception. (Side note: I'm not sure how the Silverfall developers implemented their outlines. At first I thought it'd be a single pass over the buffer to look for differences in Z values, but when you zoom in you can see the outlines are at the vector level, not the pixel level, so it's possibly a shader that looks for normals perpendicular to the screen. And I have no clue how they made everything look hand-drawn.) In old-style art, it was easy to identify objects. You could tell what was clickable, what was a button, where a person was, etc. Artists weren't looking for realism. They wanted to express concepts and emotions and ideas in game art. Newer games tend to be cluttered. Just look at how much harder it is to see all the objects in The Sims 2 vs. The Sims 1. Newer games are more realistic, but less artistic. The harder it is to see what's on the screen, the more effort the player makes in seeing things, and the less effort the player can make in deciding things. Although there are games like Quake and Halo where much of the challenge really is in seeing things, I don't think RPG and strategy games fall into that category. I like games where the challenge isn't in seeing the objects on the screen, but in deciding what to do. I hope the shaders in graphics cards enable game developers to explore more visual styles.

Since I'm on the subject of displaying information for players, there are several things that Silverfall seemed to get wrong:

  • Camera rotation. I spent way too much time rotating the camera in Silverfall (and Dungeon Siege). I spent no time doing this in Diablo. Does rotating the camera add to the game? No, I don't think it does. Yes, it's “cool” and people seem to expect it, but it didn't make the game better. In fact, it made it worse.
  • Zoom. You can zoom in to see your character close up. The character looks really nice when zoomed in. But this mode is useless when actually playing the game. For playing, you want to be zoomed out as much as possible. (In fact I'd like to zoom out even farther than Silverfall allows.) This means that all the effort to make the zoomed-in camera work (for example, distant objects, level-of-detail terrain, and expensive high-resolution texture art) is a waste. Unfortunately you need some of this to put on the box so people will buy your game. But it's a big waste.
  • Loading zones. When you travel from one zone to another, the game stops and loads the next zone. That's a minor annoyance. The big problem is that all your spells are cancelled. Techniques for avoiding loading screens are well-known. I don't mind if there's loading when you enter a tunnel or cave or dungeon. It's when you see arbitrary boundaries unrelated to the game that it becomes annoying.
  • Terrain. The demo takes place in a swampy region. The terrain is very bumpy. It looks like it was randomly generated (maybe Perlin noise?). The small problem is that the random-looking terrain adds nothing to the gameplay. It just gets in the way. The big problem is that the slopes that are walkable and the slopes that are not at not distinguished in any way, except by clicking and finding that your character doesn't move. At the very least the cursor should change color or shape to indicate that some area isn't accessible.
  • Map. This is actually a complaint about lots of games. If I were Indiana Jones and I had to go to 3 places to collect artifacts, I'm going to mark those 3 places on my map. Far too many games have a notion of an “active” quest, and only show that one place on the map. No! Make the map work like I would actually use it. Show me all the important places I need to keep track of. Let me add markers. Let me add notes. Let me draw lines. Don't make me keep a second map on paper because your map is so lame.
  • Quest Listing. There are some bugs in the Silverfall quest list, which I'm sure they'll fix before release. For example, it doesn't remember where you were the last time you brought up the list. A bigger problem though is that the quests do not keep track of who assigned the quest (and where). I found myself often re-reading quest descriptions, trying to guess who would have assigned such a quest. Some of them are on the map and some are not. Some of them trigger the rewards automatically and some do not. It's a mess. Just as with maps, the quest listing should match what I would do on paper. I would keep track of who gave the quest, where I need to go, and what the potential rewards are (especially related to faction). I would allow adding notes, assigning priorities, and sorting the list. For example, there was one quest I received that I was not ready to do. I'd like to move it to the end or otherwise mark it as “later” so that it doesn't clutter up the list of active quests I want to work on. And if the map shows all quests, it should also use different markers for active and postponed quests.
  • Trees. I've saved my biggest complaint for last. The graphics in Silverfall are great. I admit that. The problem is that the swampy area has lots of trees. In the default zoomed-out view, the canopy of trees blocks your view. So the game very helpfully hides the leaves. In addition, tree trunks block your view. So the game very helpfully hides the trees near your character. But tree trunks still block your attacks. So you now have a completely mysterious and maddening situation in which invisible objects block your attacks. Your attacks are blocked and you can't see why. This is truly bad. Just get rid of all the trees. They don't add anything to the game. Alternatively, since it's unlikely the developers will do that at this point, just let me walk and attack through the trees.

I really liked the demo of Silverfall. It's really promising and it could be lots of fun, except there are some little (easily fixed) things that really detract from the experience. Even with the flaws, the demo was more fun than most other games I've tried. I hope the developers read this post and fix these problems before release. (Oh, and if you're reading this: lose the cheesy box cover art.)



tormodh wrote at February 08, 2007 4:40 AM

If you really enjoy the magic vs. technology bit, you should (or perhaps have) take a look at Arcanum by (now gone) Troika Games.

I really enjoyed that title, despite a few limitations / flaws. I'd lend you my copy, but - heh - distance does limit that possibility.

Amit wrote at February 08, 2007 7:51 AM

Robert B pointed me at a paper about Non-photorealistic rendering (NPR). I also found this list of academic research papers (some of the links there are broken).

Laundro wrote at February 09, 2007 7:31 AM

Oo-er, I like that idea of progressing by balancing between two rival factions. It does away with stupid leveling mechanics some games tend to have.

Psychopanda wrote at February 19, 2007 7:20 PM

"It seems silly, but I think the black outlines and the hand-drawn look of the characters and other objects are a sign of something important."

Amit, the style you are referring to is called "cel-shading". It does lend its origins to the illustrative style of comics and cartoons. I don't know the specifics about its rendering but it's like a field around the mesh body that only displays one axis as you suggested. Another popular game that uses this style is the console game X-Men Legends. The first computer game I can remember using the style, was a game called XIII, which even displayed sound effects as text (just like in comics).

ronh wrote at March 02, 2007 4:37 AM

Hey Amit.
It's interesting you point out Diablo2.
Has Diablo's unique game genre actually died out by now? I come to believe it has, which is a real shame.

Amit wrote at March 02, 2007 8:08 AM

ronh, I know someone who still plays Diablo 2, and I know they just released a new major patch last year, so it's likely that lots of people are still playing it. :)