Man, I wanna play that Youkai Watch game. Looks great. Hope it gets a western release.

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DOOM, idTech and MegaTextures

DOOM is coming, but I hope MegaTextures are gone.
DOOM is coming, but I hope MegaTextures are gone.

We recently had our first glimpse of the newest entry in the long-lived Doom series, styled simply as DOOM, at this year’s E3 conference. First for most of us, anyway, as id did in fact show the game to an audience at QuakeCon in 2014, though this footage was kept behind closed doors - a troublesome but not unheard-of marketing technique in which the majority of gamers are denied a chance to actually see the game, the hope being that the subsequent hyperbolic testimonies of those few who did actually see it will drive a ravenous fandom into hype-fuelled frenzy, all without any actual footage on which to assess the thing.

Nevertheless, we eventually got to see a decent chunk of what id is happy to confirm is actual game-play, replete with that special brand of DOOM shotgun worship, a reunion of the classic cast of demonic hooligans all prettied up in high definition and a stack of grizzly first-person finishing moves, a first for the series if you don’t count Brutal Doom, which saw jaws torn asunder and demonic faces bashed repeatedly into pulpy satanic burger to the whooping and general satisfaction of the crowd. It has to be said that the game looks fun, if still a way off from the frantic pace of the strafe-jumping, 43-mile-per-hour-running original.

Fan reaction seems warm, if somewhat perturbed by certain aesthetic elements such as a colour filter some would rather see removed, in a sentiment that recalls reactions to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, another modern take on a well-established classic which, lingering colour-filter complaints aside, did very well in approximating a modernised experience of the game it rebooted. If DOOM can match Human Revolution in that regard I think we just might all be content.

Thinking about it, negativity toward colour palette decisions in games seems to be something of a recurring reaction - I remember many altered pictures of Diablo III doing the rounds before its release as part of a wave of opinion that the game simply wasn’t dark enough. I think, generally, there’s an argument to be made for trusting the artistic principles of the people whose job it is to beautify our games, but even so, the fidelity of the “fixed” examples of these games is surprisingly appealing. Perhaps id has been too quick to wash its environments and character models in a wave of greeny yellow, dulling the otherwise appealing vibrancy of its monstrous demons and over-softening instances of potentially visually interesting contrast. It’s hard to say; I’m no game artist. Yet while I’m happy to sit on the fence of colour-washing for now, there is one thing I really do hope they remove: MegaTextures.

What’s a MegaTexture? In short, it’s a method of retrieving game textures that revolves around the use of a single, huge texture instead of using lots of repeated smaller textures. You can read more about it on an informative Reddit thread here, or over on Wikipedia.

The idea is that by using an extremely large texture, which is compressed and streamed in and out of video memory as required, we can have game worlds that don’t rely on tiling the same small textures over and over - in theory, every patch of the game’s world is visually unique. It’s a cool idea, but in practise I consider it to have seriously negatively impacted id Software’s latest games.

If you’ve ever played RAGE or Wolfenstein: The New Order, you probably noticed that the games suffer from an extraordinary level of texture pop-in. Particularly on consoles, where hard drive speeds are slower, merely turning around on the spot results in textures slowly loading in, creating a blurry and distracting experience. The games might be forgiven for this if the MegaTexture technique resulted in especially beautifully rendered textures, but the fact is that the giant MegaTexture is so heavily compressed due to storage concerns that even a cursory glance reveals horribly low resolution and messy, indistinct textures. Further, it’s hard to even appreciate the ostensible benefit of a truly visually unique world. Turns out that in RAGE, one patch of sand tends to look like any other. Whether a particular texture is repeated or not throughout a level that is comprised of more than its textures is just not something I tend to notice, and games are already adept at disguising the use of tiled textures in ways that make repeating art assets a non-issue.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in some instances Doom 3 has clearer, more legible textures, particularly when text is involved, than the games that succeeded it. And it does so without having to distractingly stream textures in and out. The practical cons of MegaTextures simply outweigh the conceptual “coolness” of knowing a texture isn’t repeated for me. I ended up unable to finishWolfenstein, despite feeling it was an excellent shooter, so distracting was the popping and over-sharpened, low resolution texture work on display. The painful thing is that it’s obvious much work was poured into the source texture - it’s the compression that killed the quality, laying waste to artists’ meticulous work in the process.

I’ve pulled some examples off the web to try and illustrate what I mean:

Doom, 2004
Doom, 2004
RAGE, 2011
RAGE, 2011

I have a huge amount of respect for John Carmack, who is a genius-level programmer and instrumental figure in the industry. His personal interest in games development and engine programming have contributed to gaming in a way that cannot be understated. Yet, it’s probably that very passion which led to the inclusion of a feature that simply wasn’t feasible to pull off in the hardware generation it was targeted for - a concession Carmack himself made when DOOMwas revealed.

It’s hard not to be charmed by Carmack’s passion-project approach to his engine - he clearly just wanted to implement an awesome, technically impressive feature - but I find myself convinced it was to the detriment of the games as a whole. Carmack’s passion for development meant he envisioned a feature that was technically interesting, but practically infeasible. A fun project for him to devote time to, but one that arguably solved a problem no one was having. I’m not a game developer: I have little understanding of the complexities that make game graphics tick. All I can say is that as a player, the tech made the games look worse and perform worse, for zero trade off in visual competence. In fact, the games looked relatively worse than their predecessors.

As we know, Carmack moved on to Oculus VR where he will doubtlessly drive innovation, rising to the complex technical challenges that so clearly drive his passion for development.

With his departure, and the hiring of Tiago Sousa (R&D Principal Graphics engineer of Crytek) I’m left to wonder how MegaTextures will be handled going forward. I’m not opposed to its inclusion if it works this time around. Part of me thinks that it must have been very hard to say no to feature ideas of the creator of Doom, and that mega-texturing might quietly slip out of whatever version of idTech powers id Software’s next games - left out as the interesting, doubtlessly prescient, but ultimately flawed experiment of the legendary developer.


How My High-Speed Internet Destroyed World of Warcraft (or, Why Blizzard Will Never Recapture the Magic)

In the past, I was a huge fan of World of Warcraft. As with many others it was my first true taste of the MMO experience, though in many ways my passion for the game has diminished as time has gone on. Some of this declination of interest can be put down to changes made to the game itself, as Blizzard began leaning toward generating easier content for a wider audience; I recently discovered, for example, that Azeroth no longer enjoys the dark, atmospheric nights of its former days due to a questionable developer fear that new players would somehow find the virtual day's eventual descent into reduced visibility confusing.

The old WoW night ain't what she used to be.
The old WoW night ain't what she used to be.

However, not everything that put me off World of Warcraft was the fault of Blizzard Entertainment. A huge component of the enjoyment of World of Warcraft was, for me, the sheer anticipation of actually getting to play the thing. A standard internet connection in my area at the time meant that download times for the game's notorious patches were often in excess of a day, especially when attempting to update from out-of-date DVD copies of the game. A modest hard drive capacity shared on a family computer meant the game and all its patches would have to be erased if something more important required storage, so the process of downloading World of Warcraft was repeated semi-regularly, and came to be an enjoyable ritual all of its own.

It was the last time I would ever sit reading a game's manual before ever digging into the thing, drinking in lore and making sure I understood mechanics. Watching cinematics, listening to music from the soundtrack while pouring over finely printed concept art - by the time it came to actually logging in and playing, the excitement and anticipation had built enormously and would fuel hours of excited game-play exploring the lands of Azeroth.

The less I understood about the game world, the more I was compelled to explore it. Seeing higher level players with unfathomably powerful gear gave a teasing sense of so much more to come. These were the days where a helmet and cape were reserved for those patient (and skilled) enough to climb to the heady heights of level 30, and a mount was a distant pipe dream. As Blizzard began to work toward wafting away the fog of mystery surrounding its popular title, I found myself less and less infatuated with pushing further ahead.

The players were at blame, too - game modifications, sanctioned by Blizzard, took off in a big way: sparse, pared down interfaces; quest helpers; map-enhancing tweaks; all served to strip the game down to its core in service of grinding through content more efficiently, while destroying immersion in the process.

The truth of World of Warcraft and all MMOs of its ilk is that they are the opposite of a fine wine - they are best fresh, and the longer they are around the worse off they invariably become. For all Blizzard's attempts to make the game enticing, the truest enjoyment of Warcraft came from fleeting encounters with it. Ignorance truly was bliss.

So why can't Blizzard ever recreate the magic that inspired so many to play World of Warcraft, that inspired me to devote so many hours to its exploration? My internet is too fast. I can log into Battlenet any time I want, and have the most recent build of the thing installed in a single brief download. Just as the concept of delayed gratification was being eroded from the game itself, the ability to have the game in my hands near-instantaneously had actually diminished my desire to play it. With no waiting period within which to romanticise the game in my mind, it became harder for me to drum up anything beyond a sad apathy when deciding whether to try it again.

A brief rekindled interest had me playing until level 85 through Cataclysm's content, the first time I had reached end-game before another expansion piled extra levels onto my character's to-do list. The end-game experience of repeatedly running dungeons to find a specific piece of gear which was needed to attain an item level required to unlock a higher-level version of that dungeon ad nauseum was the final nail in the coffin. It was the truest confirmation that, for me, World of Warcraft's journey was far better than the destination, something echoed all those years ago as I excitedly watched a download counter etching slowly across my screen.