State of the Video Game Industry

  09:36:22 pm, by Kalis Agea   , 412 words  
Viewed 41579 times since 10/20/11
Categories: Games

Yep, another rant about "Well, back in my day..." except without that actual phrase; I can't say back in my day -- I'm 13! But what I can say is that from what I understand from my older siblings and their friends, there have been some very drastic changes in the heart of the video game community, and two of them I will cover in brief.

* The Fans: Probably the most noticeable change is that of the attracted and targeted fanbase of video games. When video games began to be very popular back in 90's, it was considered somewhat "nerdy" to actually own a video game, let alone many. Of course, this was not the case with arcade games -- they were treated often as the activity the "cool kids" took part in after school. Now, not only are arcade gamers still treated this way, but now players of popular games like Call of Duty, God of War, and Assassin's Creed are considered totally normal and even somewhat cool.

* The Games: A somewhat obscure title for a not-so-obscure topic. In my lifetime I have been able to note the change in which games are produced. Now, the attention is often given to the blood and gore aspects, as well as graphics in general. I find that the more I play Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2, I get a strong feeling of monotony and deja vu. There really doesn't seem to be any fresh ideas in the First Person Shooter genre. The same goes for RPGs like Assassin's Creed. As much as I loved the first and second games, Brotherhood made me feel like I was playing AC2 with slightly better game mechanics and a lazy extended plot structure. Though I plan to give Revelations a try when it comes out, I get the feeling that prowling the streets of Constantinople will have little to no difference from running around in the city of Rome (aside from the scenery, of course).

Now, despite my disfavour of these changes, I am in no way trolling modern video games. I tend to enjoy Oblivion, AC, and Fable just as much as I do Dungeons and Dragons, Daggerfall, and Ultima. However, I don't wish for these games to go as far with this modern trend as CoD has (I'm just using CoD as an example; I love those games). At that point, games become more of an occassional simple pleasure rather than a game I genuinely enjoy.


Hacking the ESM/ESP Files

  09:55:49 am, by   , 472 words  
Viewed 46599 times since 03/10/11
Categories: Programming, UESP

If you obsessively read everything on UESP you may have noticed one or two cryptic posts like this and this lately. What are these ESM and ESP files, and why are Daveh, Nephele and I trying to pull them apart?

Take a look in your Oblivion program directory and you'll find a few different files. There's Oblivion.exe itself, which is the main game engine itself. In the data directory you'll find several ".bsa" files. This seems to stand for "Bethesda Softworks Archive" and each one is a compressed file containing the graphics textures, sounds, speech and meshes (the files that define what makes an image solid). You'll also find Oblivion.esm and, depending on how many plugins you use, several ".esp" files. These are Elder Scrolls Main and Plugin files, and contain information about NPCs, weapons, armor, quests, places and so on, as well as information about the landscape. In other words, these are the files that contain all the information we need for UESP.

The file format was created for Morrowind and evolved a little for Oblivion. It's also used in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, and has changed a little more for those games too. At the moment, the assumption is that a similar format will be used for Skyrim. This is partly down to wishful thinking, but then again as the files are purely about data storage there's no reason to change a winning format to radically.

Each file consists of records arranged in a huge list for Morrowind, and into something a little more like a tree for the other games. A record is made up of a label ("ARMO", "NPC_", "CELL", etc) and several fields that provide the data. You can get more information about the format for Oblivion here, although it's quite technical and slightly out of date.

So why do we need to hack these files?

Simply, there are too many items to create them all by hand with any degree of accuracy. That means we have to get our bots to do it, but NepheleBot and RoBoT need data to work with, and the only realistic way of doing that is by pulling it directly out of the game files. Using the Construction Set would reintroduce a manual component that would lead to mistakes, and looking at the files and getting information by eye doesn't always work because some of it's compressed and it would be a really, really awful job anyway.

To give you some idea of scale, for Oblivion and its official plugins, there are 1,277,347 records with a whopping 4,682,059 fields. Try sorting through that lot by hand.

Come 11 November, while you're enjoying playing the game for the first time, spare a thought for those of us who will be digging into its guts to bring you the best information we can!

Predictions for Skyrim and UESP

  05:41:57 pm, by Nephele   , 1058 words  
Viewed 64014 times since 09/25/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls, UESP

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about what I foresee happening on UESP when Skyrim is released -- beyond the obvious points, such as that UESP is going to get alot more traffic. These thoughts are in part based on what I witnessed when Shivering Isles was released -- which was the last major game release for UESP. However, SI hardly compares to Skyrim, because SI was only an expansion and therefore didn't introduce any new game mechanics.

As an aside, for those who may have wondered, the release of Oblivion doesn't provide us with much as far as an example for what to expect with Skyrim. Not that I was active on UESP when Oblivion came out; I first discovered UESP a couple months after Oblivion's release. But I do know that UESP had only recently converted to a wiki when Oblivion came out. Even by the time I started editing, the site was pretty minimal, at least compared to where it is now. Templates, screenshots, redirects, help pages, style guidelines, site policies -- none of these were in place yet. Anonymous editing was first enabled months after I started editing -- and, for the record, no, that didn't mean that there was a dramatic increase in vandalism, badly-written content, or unwanted content.

So, back to the future.

1. UESP is facing alot of competition. When it comes to Skyrim, UESP is starting from square one, just like every other wiki being set up to cover Skyrim. People are going to choose which website to read based primarily on google -- and at this moment UESP is doing pretty poorly on google searches related to Skyrim. Fewer readers means fewer editors. Which means less new content, and therefore even fewer readers, etc. I'd like to see UESP do well -- and not just for the sake of UESP, but for the sake of the Elder Scrolls community as a whole. Having as many editors as possible work on the same wiki means that the community has one good, comprehensive website -- instead of a half-dozen incomplete websites with overlapping (but inconsistent) content. If UESP wants to be the primary Skyrim wiki, we're going to have work aggressively towards that goal.

2. New content will be added very quickly. I'm guessing that by November 12th people are likely to have posted (minimal) walkthroughs for the majority of the game's quests, and basic desccriptions of nearly every place -- if not on UESP, then on some other Skyrim wiki. My guess is based upon how quickly content was added for SI: one day after the game's release, the quests page already contained a walkthrough of the entire main quest.

3. Most of UESP's regular editors will disappear. We all want to play Skyrim, plus we'd all like to avoid learning any spoilers about the game. And for most of us, playing the game doesn't mean rushing through the main quest in 30 hours; it means spending hundreds of hours exploring all the random corners of the world. So those editors who buy Skyrim are going to be too busy to visit UESP for several weeks. Those who don't have the game are going to actively avoid the Skyrim namespace. I'm not trying to blame anyone or make anyone feel guilty -- it's just human nature, and it needs to be taken into account when anticipating how Skyrim's release will affect UESP. I'd also love to be proven wrong!

4. New editors / anonymous editors will be responsible for most of the new content. It's just a natural consequence of points #2 and #3. Although UESP's regular editors are unlikely to be rushing to add to the wiki, there are other people who enjoy being the first ones to post information online about a new game. Those editors will be the ones who are most active on UESP starting November 11th. Even though the new editors are likely to have little wiki experience, it doesn't mean that the new content will all be a horrid mess. For example, look at the history of an SI quest such as The Cold Flame of Agnon. In three days, it was transformed from an unformatted dump to a proper quest page -- incomplete, but properly laid out and properly written. Nearly all the work was done by anonymous IPs and brand new editors, such as Jrtaylor91 (whose first UESP edit was on that quest page).

5. Fact checking of Skyrim content won't be possible -- at least not at anywhere near the level we're used to for other games -- for many months. The most obvious problem is that initially none of us will know the quests or any other game details. But beyond that there are a couple of other issues that might not be so obvious.

  • We don't know when the Creation Kit (aka Construction Set) will be available. Without it, we can't do any of the quick fact checks we're used to -- for weapon damage, gold values, dialogue,etc. We won't even know how to take in-game values, such as weapon damage, and convert them to base values -- will weapon damage be affected by skill level in Skyrim and, if so, what's the equation?
  • We won't understand of the new game mechanics. For example, if editors disagree over the reward for a quest, we won't be able to resolve the question. Is it a levelled quest reward -- but how does levelling work in Skyrim? Is it a random reward -- again, how do random lists work? Is the reward dependent upon other factors that are a new feature of Skyrim, such as Radiant quests? As far as we know right now, two players could have different experiences for nearly any detail of a quest. So how do we figure out whether edit X is adding incorrect information to an article? Eventually -- 2012? -- we'll hopefully start to get a handle on the range of possibilities (although it took a couple of years to understand various nuances of Oblivion's levelled lists). But we'll have to write most of the site's web pages before then.

There's no way to know until a couple months from now what really is going to happen. But these are some of the issues going though my mind when I think about how UESP can start to prepare for Skyrim's release.

Finding a Level

  01:05:48 pm, by   , 644 words  
Viewed 16059 times since 20/09/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

Leveling in TESV: Skyrim is something that's received a fair amount of attention in the gaming press. What's the big deal? The problem of how a game's challenge should be adjusted as the player gets more powerful is much trickier than you might think. The problem is that you need to give the player a sense of power while not making the game a total walk-over, and getting the balance right can be tricky.

In Morrowind, leveling was at a minimum. NPCs and creatures all had a fixed level, although a lot of creatures were picked from leveled lists that produced a more-powerful variant at higher levels. Something similar happened with treasure as you can see on our Morrowind leveled lists page. The advantage of this system was that there were fixed "easy" and "hard" areas. Some caves were essentially off-limits to new players because the creatures or NPCs inside were simply too powerful. This meant you had to be careful when you were exploring in case you found one of the hard ones. The disadvantage was that when you hit about level 30, you were invincible. The two highest-level NPCs were Wulf (level 50) and Divayth Fyr (level 65), but you never had to fight either of them. The most powerful NPCs you had to fight were level 30, and they didn't have access to all the powerful weaponry and armor you did. The expansions offer a tougher challenge, and Hircine's Quest in Bloodmoon is one that you really don't want to attempt until level 40, but it's a one-off. By the time you reach level 50 there's no challenge anywhere.

Oblivion picked a slightly different system. Many of the NPCs leveled with the player, so for instance Glarthir kept the same level as the player (at least at levels 4-12) while Audens Avidius was eight levels higher than the player. Some creatures leveled too: Liches gained 15 health for each level of the player and Ogres got 26. A lot of NPC equipment came from leveled lists too, so it's quite possible for some people to be using powerful enchantments that make them even tougher fights. The upshot of this is that at the start of the game, there's almost nowhere you can't go. The problem is that at high levels, even though you're pretty much unbeatable, killing even a single ogre can be a time-consuming exercise because of all the hit points it has. In other words, even though you're all-powerful you don't feel it. There's not even much of a challenge.

Fallout and New Vegas went pretty much back to the Morrowind model. Levels are largely fixed, although creatures often come from leveled lists. The challenge is much greater in places, though: creatures like cazadores and deathclaws just cannot be beaten at lower levels. Yes, you might get lucky with one, but they come in groups and you'll be toast unless you're a powerful character with good weapons. With the level cap, you end up in a position where you can always beat these things as long as you're not stupid. That's not a bad endpoint - a feeling of power but not all-consuming, ridiculous power.

If reports are to be believed, Skyrim goes a little further. Things level in a similar way to Fallout, but after you've visited an area it becomes fixed at that level forever. This might be a good idea as long as there are difficult places early on and you can't freeze everything at level one.

Of course this is just my preference. I know some people like the über power thing, judging from the number of "I killed everyone and now they're dead" posts we get on talk pages.

Speaking purely from a UESP perspective, fixed levels are great: with no horrendous formulae to construct, summary infoboxes become much easier to construct.

Not too until we find out for ourselves anyway!

Careful what you wish for!

  02:14:14 am, by Krusty   , 464 words  
Viewed 316725 times since 06/09/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

While watching Todd Howard repeat himself for the 50th time to a games journalist (must be the worst type of journalists, right after sports journalists), feeling incredibly bored by the hype of Skyrim, something occurred to me. A game like Oblivion succeeded in one area you simply cannot predict or test, regardless of how many dragons, mammoths, running water and snow storms you put in there. It succeeded in charm! Now, this may sound odd, but you cannot design or plan a game world people want to spend 2 or 3 years of their life examining, exploring, interacting with other characters ect ect. You can try, and it definitely looks like they’re trying, but how do they know? How do they know that mining operations won’t be annoying after 3 years? How do they know that packs of wolves hunting mammoths will still be a joy to watch in 6 months? Can they really ignore the fact that even a random encounter with a dragon can get tiresome after a while? And maybe it will get incredibly annoying that NPCs doesn’t stop moving when you talk to them.

Sadly inspired by the hordes of comments on the internet, Beth spends a lot of time pointing out the obvious weaknesses of Oblivion and I guess they have the right, since they created it – but they should to be really careful with that kind of marketing. For a game world to beat Oblivion in pure charm and be fascinating for players until 2016, they have to hit something that can only be described as luck. Yep, Oblivion had all the weaknesses, Bethesda points out whenever they get the chance; the landscapes didn’t really change an awful lot, conversations with NPCs stopped time, Mysticism was confusing (I still don’t understand what they are so confused about) and a lot of other stuff that I’m glad I forgot. But what if the weak spots was what made Oblivion last forever? What if the static and wooden menu were part of what made Oblivion special? NPCs standing around, doing absolutely nothing is not necessarily a bad thing, as they made a perfect contrast to the NPCs that did a LOT. Now we get menus inspired by iTunes, NPCs that walks around at all times and can’t even be bothered to stop doing what they are doing when you talk with them, we have so-called “handcrafted” dungeons, but what if the copy/paste dungeon approach of Oblivion made the more complex dungeons a bigger surprise? In short: unless they’ve played Skyrim for 5 years, they can’t be certain of anything, and I’m sure they are aware of that. To all the people on the forums: Careful what you wish for. To Todd and Bethesda: Good luck.