History Repeating: War vogue and Battlefield 1

bf4The announcement trailer for Battlefield 1 shook the gaming world like a Somme barrage. While Infinity Ward persisted with the trend of projecting future conflicts for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, DICE are reaching back to World War One for their forthcoming Battlefield instalment. Broadly speaking, the gaming public reacted negatively to Activision persisting with sci-fi, while lauding EA for producing an innovative twist on a familiar franchise. But is Battlefield 1 really the revolution that Internet hype has made it out to be?

Now, Battlefield 1 is a strangely non-sequential choice of title for the series’ fourth outing on current-gen consoles. Of course, the intention here was doubtless to invoke the game’s World War One setting – awkward, but fair enough. Another reason may be a sly nod to the Battlefield franchise’s heritage. In a sense, the first game in the series was set during World War One – the engine powering Codename Eagle, a WW1 shooter by Refraction Games released in 1999, was later used in Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield Vietnam after DICE acquired Refraction.

The World War One sequence in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

The Battlefield 1 announcement comes at a time when World War One has crawled out of its muddy trench of relative obscurity, and featured in some reasonably high-profile titles – Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Verdun, and a lengthy cameo in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate . Its current growth in thematic popularity, however mild, may be linked in part to the war’s centenary, and high-profile public events commemorating the devastating conflict. Yet there may also be a cyclical element to horses replacing quad bikes in the latest Battlefield outing.

Red Baron (1990), an early WW1 flight sim from Sierra/Dynamix

In the 90s, my brother and I spent much of our formative gaming time with World War One-themed flight simulators like Red Baron, Knights of the Sky, and the processor-intensive Flying Corps. These games were both popular and commercially successful (though to be fair, this was when flight sims in general were very much in vogue). Now, that’s not to say that World War One has completely fallen out of favour since its flight sim heyday – it’s always been around, but more in the form of low-profile strategy titles, or as a result of the mod community’s efforts. Fast-forward to 2016, and suddenly it’s a bankable conflict for Ubisoft and EA.

The BF1 trailer put a heavy emphasis on the inclusion of combat aircraft

The ebb and flow of a war’s popularity is an industry inevitably, it seems, as we embrace (then grow tired of) its historical peculiarities. For a time, World War Two was everybody’s darling, dominating the better part of a decade with a solid startling lineup of Battlefield 1942, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and, of course, the original Call of Duty. Now it lurks on the periphery, loved by only the most dedicated and hardcore in Red Orchestra. The Vietnam War was kind of cool for awhile, too, and although Battlefield 2 started playing with 21st century hardware in 2005, the big historical shift came with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare two years later. Suddenly we became totally fascinated with the capabilities of contemporary weaponry, and what its near-future cousins might look like.

That infatuation had truly begun to sour, however, with Battlefield: Hardline – though this was more a result of its poorly-timed glib portrayal of police militarization, rather than its modern setting alone. Even so, we have apparently grown tired of overloading our Picatinny rails with scopes and foregrips and laser sights – call it ACOG fatigue, if you will (admittedly The Division, armed with a pedantic modern arsenal, continues stumbling from strength to strength, while Overwatch revels in an eclectic range of retro-futuristic weaponry). Even so, we can probably expect a variation on this theme for Battlefield 1 – upgrading a Lee-Enfield Mk III rifle with some kind of obscure, prototype optical sight that DICE spent hours researching, for example.

So is Battlefield 1 really going to be a breath of fresh air for The Big Two FPS war games? Or just a case of Malibu Stacy wearing a new helmet? And looking (perhaps ironically) to the future, what happens when World War One has served its term as a game setting? Do EA and Activision keep going backwards through time, reaching deep into pre-history as Far Cry: Primal has done, even going as far back as Call of Duty: Trilobytes? Or does the chronological loop repeat, with Japs and Nazis once again falling into our sights? These questions, no doubt, will be answered in large part by each franchise’s sales figures later this year.

Like a glove: Product placement in The Division

glovesI wear my hypocrisy on my hands.

This confession comes shortly after First Person Scholar published my critique of The Division. Basically, I argue that by depicting a United States on the brink of total collapse, the game also holds up a mirror to real-life America, which has been weakened by a complex range of global and domestic issues. A large part of this commentary, to my mind, revolves around the police/military relationship within the game’s Joint Task Force, as their vastly different public safety duties have increasingly overlapped in post-9/11 America.

Consumerism, too, is denoted by The Division as a key factor in America’s decline – both as a pandemic vector, and a real-world overindulgence. The in-world advertising for fake products retroactively takes on a sinister tone, foreshadowing the disaster to come: Bus stop ads for “everlasting” tablet PCs highlight the redundancy of technology in a world where electricity is becoming scarce. Posters compel shoppers to “be prepared” for the Black Friday sales where the disease originated. A Times Square billboard, meanwhile, carries the tagline of a forthcoming film: “When forces collide, the city holds its breath.”

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An ominously prescient billboard in Times Square

Given the detail that Ubisoft Massive has put into The Division’s vast range of imaginary consumer goods, the inclusion of a real-world product (beyond the firearms, that is) is thrown into particularly stark contrast. Players can equip their elite avatar with Mechanix Wear® Original gloves, a brand I was unfamiliar with until I played The Division. The sudden appearance of a registered trademark symbol among the fake ads for dumb holiday movies like Don’t Tell Mom made me curious.

On visiting the Mechanix Wear® website, I learned that the gloves “are designed to combat daily hazards and injuries ranging from harsh abrasions, cut and puncture wounds to broken bones, joint damage, vibration injuries, and even exposure to fire and intense heat.” The brand is marketed, in part, towards military and police customers; the Wolf Grey line, for example, provides “law enforcement and special forces with low-visibility protection in urban, suburban and industrial environments” (and somehow also boosts critical hit damage by 7.5%). Purple gloves that will increase my primary weapon’s DPS and are endorsed by real-life operators? Sure, that vendor can have some credits.

The Division and Mechanix Wear® social media competition

My relationship with Mechanix Wear® didn’t stop at stat boosting, however. As it happened, I was in need of a new pair of gloves for work, so I stopped past eBay and – well, the system works. I’ve been won over by in-game product placement before, but that was more in the sense of playing Forza Horizon and living out the fantasy of premium car brand ownership. If I ever start making a six-figure salary, perhaps that will translate into a sale for Maserati. But for now, the best I can do is shell out AUD$20 for a pair of Mechanix Wear® M-Pact gloves. Which I can claim on tax, helping maintain the delusion that this was a genuinely necessary purchase.

Where does this leave The Division‘s subtexts, though – does it undermine the game’s messages about consumerism? Obviously a different department at Ubisoft was responsible for establishing a relationship with Mechanix Wear®, so does it really take away from the developers’ vision, and what they are attempting to communicate? It’s hardly an intrusive bit of product placement, after all. I’ve argued that the game overall is suffering a bit of an identity crisis in its stance towards violence – maybe this is just another aspect of the way in which The Division is torn between loyalties.


Interview with Hugh Reynolds (Havok co-founder)

havok1I recently wrote a feature article for ZAM examining the development of ragdoll physics technology in videogames. One of my interviews was with Hugh Reynolds, who co-founded Havok in 1999 with Trinity College Dublin colleague Dr Steven Collins (both later went on to establish a mobile marketing company, Swrve). In short, Havok software was a literal game-changer, allowing developers to easily implement robust and realistic physics systems. If you’ve sent a guy flying with a shotgun blast, or knocked over a chair, it was likely a result of Havok technology.

Hugh was kind enough to answer my questions, though my deadline and word count kept much of this material out of the final article. I’ve included my questions and his responses in full, with some additional comments for context.

Trinity College Dublin research group [the academic genesis of Havok] – when was it founded, what were its aims, and was there a desired commercial outcome in place from the outset?

Founded around 1992 by Steve Collins. The aim was to create a place for research that was oriented around visualization and animation. Professor John Byrne was the head of the computer science department in Trinity College at the time and he was quite the visionary. He sort of created an off books research group licensed to do anything that was cutting edge. Steve led the team and I joined the following year.

Could you elaborate on the acquisition of Ipion [a rival German physics software studio active in the late 90s] – when and why?

We met the Ipion team in 1999 and eventually acquired them in 2000. In terms of why we were really impressed by Thomas Liss, Oliver Strunk and Oliver Grosse the three core founders and visionaries. They’d already done some great work and we felt together we could achieve so much more. It turned out to be true – Oliver Strunk is still at the core of innovation and R&D at Havok!

What were your aims in developing the Havok engine (in terms of both player and developer experience)? Did you expect it would become so ubiquitous?

From my research I could see that every time objects animated correctly physically it was somehow magic. It’s like something switches on in your head. You “get it”. I think it’s a really deep instinctive thing for us all. So you’ve got this incredible emotive type of animation and yet the people who needed to get their hands on it were kinda locked out. Physics was the purview of the “physics programmer” not the storytellers. Havok was about letting the storytellers in.

What do you see as the gameplay advantages for a game that incorporates ragdoll physics?

Ragdolls are all about empathy – when you merge this with really nicely done animation or motion capture and then transition correctly into ragdoll mode it’s incredible. Early ragdoll work with Havok had lots of snipers shooting their enemies – really really powerful stuff. As things moved on it was not all gun shots, ragdolls and animations started to merge. On that topic it’s worth giving a shout out to the NaturalMotion team who did a great job at extending this with goal seeking and more AI-based animations. That NM team eventually created Clumsy Ninja, a fantastic example of where the story tellers can work with the physics and create really heart warming stuff.



Dystopian Sports: The Murder of ‘Deathrow’ by a Ruthless Industry

Deathrow (2002), a dystopian future sports game developed for Xbox by Southend Interactive

When we look into the future through the medium of videogames, what do we see? It’s often a pretty grim vision, driven by base survival instincts – the post-nuclear wastelands of Fallout and Metro, the ruthless corporate domination of Syndicate and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the heartless prisons of Chronicles of Riddick and Portal. Even future sports titles, sci-fi games that explore the notion of what people might do for fun and entertainment in the future, generally reach the same pessimistic conclusion: we will mercilessly compete to win, maiming or killing the competition in the process.

In the metallic colosseum of Speedball 2, for example, a player might be injured badly enough to require medical evacuation, but an unmoved ice-cream vendor will continue selling his wares to spectators. The hypersonic speed of the anti-gravity ships in Wipeout, meanwhile, is the greatest challenge to a player’s race to finish first, though the competition can also intervene with mines and missiles. Even in the flippant neo-soccer of Rocket League, players can be temporarily eliminated if they are struck by an opposition car at full boost, eliciting a roar of delight from the crowd.

Not for sale!

A particularly brutal vision of the future, as viewed through a sporting lens, was the 2002 Xbox exclusive title Deathrow. Developed by now-defunct Swedish studio Southend Interactive, Deathrow imagined a televised 23rd century sporting competition, the Blitz Disc Association, whereby two teams of four players faced off in a closed arena, scoring goals by throwing an electronic disc through a hoop. Players would violently tackle each other to gain possession of the disc, and could outright engage in hand-to-hand combat while the game played on around them – in fact, beating everyone unconscious was a legitimate route to victory. The disc itself also served as a weapon, as it could be charged up to inflict damage when thrown at the opposition.

Loading screens also embraced the televised presentation style, scrolling through fake advertisements with a dark sense of humour

Deathrow gave impressive attention to its dystopian future broadcast presentation style, including advertisements for AI slaves, teleportation services, and “Lifelike Robotic Pets.” The roster of teams, meanwhile, also leaned heavily into the game’s bleak setting, and ranged from mercenaries, to religious fanatics, to combat drones. My personal favourite was the Sea Cats, an all-female team of “amphibian mutants” with hammy Russian accents. “The cybernetic, genetic, and chemical modifications made to the participants promise levels of violence never before seen on TV,” the game manual explained.

Deathrow was an excellent sports title, albeit one with reasonably straightforward gameplay mechanics – fight for the disc, score a goal, change your team’s strategy from aggression to defence if required. Deathrow really nailed these mechanics, however – the combat system included a range of attacks and defensive measures, while throwing the disc felt intuitive and accurate, and could be curved for trick shots (As the game emerged at the peak of post-Matrix bullet-time infatuation, passing the disc to a teammate in midair would result in a brief slow motion effect for a spectacular “one-timer” goal). The inter-game team management aspects were also pretty basic, but again included some nice touches – you could accept offers of mysterious performance enhancing drugs, for example.

Deathrow not only looked fantastic, its core gameplay was also well-polished

At a technical level, Deathrow was also very impressive for its time – even moreso given the fact the engine was developed in-house by Southend Interactive with a very modest number of employees. It was a damn good looking game, with bump-mapped, high-poly count characters and settings, and copious amounts of dynamic lighting and reflective effects. It also had great sound design, with the heavy thuds of combat and the ominous siren of a conceded goal all thundering through in Dolby 5.1 surround. In short, it was the perfect technical showcase for the very capable Xbox, which was still struggling to find traction in a console market dominated by the PlayStation 2.

Unfortunately for Deathrow and its creators, the console’s reduced market share may have gone a long way to seeing the game slip between the cracks. There’s all kinds of cliché tags you could apply to Deathrow – hidden gem, forgotten classic, sleeper hit – but whatever you want to call it, the game was simply not a commercial success at the time of its release. It’s also been speculated that the game’s publisher, Ubisoft, dedicated most of its marketing resources in that period to games like Splinter Cell, leaving Deathrow to languish unloved on store shelves.

Screenshot_2016-03-01-13-53-07Underwhelming commercial performance was, of course, always going to have an impact on any plans for a Deathrow sequel. I asked Southend Interactive’s founder and former CEO, Anders Jeppsson, whether Deathrow 2 was ever a real possibility: “It was and we did have a lot of awesome things planned,” he told me on Twitter. “Unfortunately the game didn’t sell enough for Ubisoft to fund a sequel.” This is a real shame – Deathrow not only deserved a bigger audience in the first place, but there were aspects that could have been refined or added in a sequel (online multiplayer most crucially) to help flesh out the IP’s strong potential. Southend Interactive, for its part, eventually went on to develop a string of mobile and Xbox Live Arcade titles. In 2013, a dispute with publisher Deep Silver saw the entire Southend team migrate to Massive Entertainment where – somewhat ironically – they are working on The Division under the auspices of Ubisoft.

It’s great to know this talented team has been put to work on such a high-profile, big-budget title for Ubisoft. But at the same time, it strikes me as a slightly bittersweet outcome. Given the right resources and marketing clout, would Deathrow have had enough commercial impact to warrant a sequel, even a new series for Ubisoft to push? It’s possible, I think, but also impossible to say for sure. Such is the merciless nature of the videogame industry, of course, particularly when it comes to the big publishers. The tooth-and-nail fight for survival that dystopian games like Deathrow depict is the very same calculated logic that governs whether a game – even its creators – will live or die. Only the strongest contenders in quarterly reports will survive. In this age of crowdfunding, however, we’ve seen the resurrection of passion projects that didn’t initially resonate in commercial terms, DoubleFine’s Psychonauts being a prominent example. And Deathrow has certainly gained a cult following in the 14 years since its release, with forums and online petitions calling for its return. So if its creators were so inclined (and if any IP issues with Ubisoft could be resolved), perhaps the gaming masses could offer the belated lifeline that Deathrow so deserves.

The Low-Poly Gravity Battles of B.U.D. and the Warthog

grow home 2
Although a sci-fi adventure, Grow Home doubles as a simplified flight simulator

Picture a cube on a level surface that weighs about a kilogram. Push it and it slides, or topples if the right force is applied. The cube transforms into a sphere. Push it and it rolls. Flip the surface vertically, the object drops away. Here are the gameplay fundamentals for the excellent Grow Home, an in-house experiment that blossomed into a commercial hit for Ubisoft. It’s a visually striking title with peculiar control mechanics, almost infantile in their clumsiness, which underscore the childlike wonder and innocent triumph of a little robot’s perilous ascent through a colourful fantasy world and back to his mother ship. Yet it also evoked strong memories of a straight-edged military flight simulator I played relentlessly as a kid, A-10 Cuba!

Released in 1996, A-10 Cuba! was developed by Parsoft Interactive, a studio that burned brightly (but briefly) as a standard bearer in flight simulator complexity and detail during the 90s. As with its prequel A-10 Attack! the previous year, Cuba put players in the highly interactive cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, shifting the theatre from Western Europe to the US military enclave at Guantanamo Bay and its hostile surroundings.

The cockpit view in A-10 Cuba! featured an array of interactive switches and buttons

There are immediate visual parallels between Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! – both employ low polygon count objects with sparse textural detail. In the case of Cuba this was, of course, a product of its era and the early Pentium-powered context in which it was produced. Grow Home’s visual style is something of an homage to this era, much in the same way that recent titles like Proteus and the Shelter series embrace blocky simplicity to paint their worlds. In the case of Grow Home, however, the low poly count may be as much a consequence of its “proof of concept” origins as it is a deliberate artistic choice.

There is a lot to be said for this low-poly art style. It might not be as immediately evocative as ultra-detailed titles like Until Dawn that are clawing their way out of the uncanny valley, but the prominent geometry in low poly games feels easier to connect with, somehow – like you’re driving a car with the bonnet removed, the engine and moving parts proudly on display. With this type of art style – be it a deliberate choice, or one made due to development constraints – it’s almost as though the audience is invited to fill in the blank textures, taking environmental cues from broad brush strokes rather than minute details.

A-10 Cuba! featured progressive damage modelling that affected the aircraft's handling
Progressive damage modelling affected the aircraft’s handling

Having said that, the world in A-10 Cuba! still felt wonderfully alive and packed with attention to detail. It functioned as a sandbox game, in many ways – players were given a specific mission to carry out, but the world was inhabited by numerous other military aircraft (friendly or otherwise), tanks and trucks, even civilian cars. All would go about their pre-programmed business, but if the player chose to stray off the mission path, the game was flexible enough to allow for some spectacular emergent moments.

Ejected pilots would bump and roll down hills at the mercy of the physics engine

Before I obtained the full version of A-10 Cuba! I spent countless hours replaying the demo version for MacOS. The setup was always the same – take control of an inert A-10 on the tarmac at Guantanamo, a couple of F-16s scrambling to intercept some enemy MiG-29s across the bay, a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft lumbering in on slow approach. If you went by the book, it meant waiting for the C-5 to land before commencing your own takeoff. If you were quick enough, however, you could pull onto the runway and watch gleefully as the Galaxy’s AI pilots desperately tried to pull up and go around for another landing attempt. Sometimes they succeeded, fuselage barely clearing the runway before they gained altitude; other times, they would clip the ground and lose control, the hulking aircraft grinding across the airfield and shedding large chunks of its airframe before exploding in a bright polygonal fireball. The pilots were usually sensible enough to eject when faced with this outcome.

Here is another point of convergence for A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home – both share a strong physics model, rooted in tangible gravitational forces. In Cuba, the physics felt like they had real weight and consequences. When taxiing, the A-10 would sway listlessly during turns, and its nose would dip if you hit the brakes too hard. The game physics even replicated the A-10’s legendary durability – the segmented aircraft model could lose a wingtip to battle damage (or just as often, skylarking), and while it was possible to continue flying the aircraft, it required careful airspeed management and control input to keep the A-10 level and stabilised. It’s the kind of care and due regard for gravity that was needed to navigate B.U.D. around the more vertiginous parts of the Star Plant in Grow Home. Misstep and stumble and the physics could be merciless. You might be able to make a desperate grab at the plant, or deploy a leaf glider to sail back around for another attempt at scaling it. Too often, though, it meant sending B.U.D. into a thousand metre freefall that ended with him shattering into dozens of pieces at the base of the plant.

Altitude loss critical! Typical outcome of careless navigation in Grow Home

At the end of the day, Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! are vastly different gaming experiences, of course. One is a meticulously researched flight simulator, the other an exploratory sci-fi adventure (albeit with occasional flight simulator aspects). But to me, it feels like they stem from much the same place: A desire to accurately replicate the laws of mechanics and motion that we, the audience, are governed by every day. No matter how low-fi the fighter jets or roaming sheep may appear, we can immediately intuit the forces that we can apply to these objects, and accurately infer what the outcome might be – crash, shatter, restart.

From Half-Life 2 to Rocket League, strong and pervasive physics modelling is not exceptional in modern gaming. But the presentation style of A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home arguably lends these games – or their physics engines, more the point – a sort of bare bones impact. Their no-frills objects, chunky and sharp-edged, seem to carry a certain knowable weight to them, like dropping a brick from a freeway overpass. Even with worlds full of hostile MiGs and carnivorous plants, the primary adversary in A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home is gravity – and by the same token, it is the feature that provides for some of their most entertaining moments.