www.chadbordwell.com NOTE: My opinions do not represent those of my employer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Stranded Deep Impressions: Early Access

During the 2015 Steam holiday sale I purchased Stranded Deep.  I’ve been thinking about picking it up for some time because I enjoy survival games although most never see their full potential.  I made the mistake of buying it along with Subnautica which made me unconsciously compare the two even though they are very different survival type games.  So I stepped away from Stranded Deep and came back to it after a few week to give it a fresh look.

First off obviously the game is still in early access so there are issues and I can understand that.  Thing’s like the hammers doing nothing, not being able to cut down trees, several items not having inventory images, these things are excusable.  I think the game in its current state portrays what the game design is trying to do and the game play shows the extent of what they plan to create.  What I would like to do is look at the game from a design perspective and offer some opinions.

Currently when the game starts you are in a life raft floating near the island you chose in the world creation screen.  In play through videos I have seen there was a plane crash scenario that let you be in this predicament.  Obviously I don’t know what the developer’s plans are but without it and maybe even with it I think starting in the raft is a bad choice.  First time players could be disoriented because you do see many distant islands you could paddle toward.  Also the raft physics and controls are not great and I seemed to have a natural tendency to press “W” while paddling because I want to go forward which would make me walk off the raft and into the ocean.  Even after knowing you don't need to press forward I still found myself doing it many times.  Getting back into the raft is clumsy and it takes some time to realize you can only climb up the side with the small ladder.  Eventually you make it to the shore and struggle with another odd feeling that you want to drag the raft out of the water which you really can’t do.  So you leave it feeling that it might drift away.  Personally I feel waking up on the beach would be a much better solution.  It avoids all the weirdness of the raft, puts you on the correct island, and you would instantly feel that you washed ashore after an incident.  My assumption is that the developer didn’t go this route because placing a player spawn in a randomly generated shoreline could be challenging, much easier to plop them in the ocean and let the player figure it out.

Graphically the game looks great.  I’m really amazed it’s the Unity engine.  There are really beautiful skies and sunsets and the ocean looks really amazing.  The game objects suffer from some harsh LOD popping which affects game play poorly.  Since you are searching the beaches for useful items you can’t really see anything from a distance so you have to walk every beach and see if anything “pops” into existence when you get closer. 

The water tech is pretty good.  Unlike Subnautica the designers of Stranded Deep realized that the ocean is a character in the game.  It is both the friend and the enemy of the player and should show moods.  So on sunny days the water is clear and colorful.  On rainy days it is dark and menacing.  Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of wave action.  As a player I was afraid of setting up my settlement on an island with low elevation for fear of the ocean waves sweeping over it during a thunderstorm.  But so far in my hours of playing there haven’t been any thunderstorms or scary high waves which has been disappointing to a degree.

Game play itself is pretty basic.  Survival expert Les Stroud is quoted in saying that the easiest environment to be stranded is a tropical island as long as you have fresh water, and I would so far agree.  Stranded Deep is fairly easy.  You have a wrist watch that tells your health, hunger, and thirst.  Most all of this can be controlled with coconuts and frankly that is where the game falls short.  You drink the coconut milk then cut the coconut in half and eat it which fills both needs with one item.  So in regards to surviving you just won the game.  Really all you need to do then is paddle around gathering coconuts.  However in what I consider a strange decision the designers made your hunger drop much faster than your thirst.  A really odd choice since everyone knows you can survive much longer without food than you can without water.  This often leaves you in a weird spot where you don’t want to waste the water in the coconuts so you drink it before eating even if you don’t need it.  Which means you are always super hydrated, not what I would have expected on deserted islands with no running fresh water.  I thought water would be the struggle.

There are of course other food items you can gather such as crabs and potatoes.  Potatoes for some reason make you throw up if you eat them raw.  I don’t really understand why since you can totally eat raw potatoes in reality.  This is a bigger issues when raw and cooked items remain stacked together in your inventory which I can only assume is a bug.  So you cook an item and if you don’t cook the entire stack you never know if what you’re eating is cooked or raw, but you figure out which you grabbed when you throw up after.  I would assume there are fish you can eat although I have yet to do so.

Other than gathering food items you can gather building materials.  From things such as driftwood, shipping containers, salvaged metals, you can create buildings and shelters.  This is a neat thing to keep you busy but I’m really not sure there is a point to doing it.  Standing in the shelters seems to create no benefits at all.  Granted I became sunburn once from sun exposure but does that mean I should be standing in my shelter during the day, and what does that game play look like?  Reminds me of the game The Long Dark when you have a fire going, nothing to craft, and a frigid blizzard blowing outside, nothing to do but stand there.  Waiting is not game play.  You can even create structures with multiple rooms and multiple floors.  Still I’m so far lost why you want to do this in a game where you are alone and nothing is attacking you on land.  I get that it’s just fun and I’m fine with that, it would just be great if it was tied into game play somehow.  Perhaps keeping things dry could keep food from rotting or keeping yourself inside during a the rain can keep your health from dropping.

The only enemies I have encountered have been the sharks, tiger sharks and great white sharks.  In real life deep ocean and sharks freak me the hell out so this game has the ability to push my panic buttons.  However the game plays a little warning musical event when they appear so you scramble even if you don’t see them.  In murky water I can’t handle it.  Just the idea that they could be there make me to leave all water explorations for sunny days and clear water.  So far I have not been killed or even attacked by anything in the game.  I get the hell out of the water as soon as I see one.

I have however died several times, but not to the sharks.  All times it has been from falling while climbing for coconuts.  Climbing the trees is really clunky.  You never really know when or why you are going to fall.  Sometimes you don’t and sometimes you drop from what seems like no reason at all.  Often the game feels confused as to which direction the inputs mean.  Generally pressing forward would make you climb and pressing backwards should make you descend but this doesn’t always work.  I’ve had several occasions when pressing back makes me continue going up so you start using a little lateral movement to get the right results which can often make you fall.  Hitting the ground sometimes does nothing, sometimes you break a limb, and sometimes you die outright.  Breaking a limb causes your health to start dropping to zero and you have to eat and drink much more.  Also your wrist watch view becomes terribly skewed and you can hardly get into a position to view it at all.  I would assume crafting bandages would help but that requires cloth when I have only found once.  My health dropped to zero and then nothing.  My watch kept beeping at me but there was nothing I could really do about it.  I didn’t die and eventually got sick of it and started over.

I think the game has great potential and I hope it will reach for it.  It's possible I have not played enough to get the full scope of the game but Steam says I've played 9 hours which is enough time for me to have some solid opinions. I think the food/water system needs an overhaul.  Coconut should only keep you barely alive forcing you to seek out fish and other food sources with more drive.  Islands with a more stable environment involving small mountains and fresh water streams to seek would be great.  Tropical storms with high waves and lightning would really shake up the easy lull of the current difficulty and cause the players to create high building structures to escape the rising water.  The introduction of daily tide cycles and ocean currents could also add to the difficulty.  I think they have a good game on their hands that could be an excellent game if the continued development has the funds to do so.

Note: I did not create the screenshots. They were gathered from Google.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Monday, November 23, 2015

Parking Lot Woes

Not Actual Parking Lot
Ubisoft Toronto is a growing company and it's going to continue to grow.  I believe we are currently at 300+ employees and we are expected to grow to near 800.  We take up two floors of a rather large building and are expanding.  I think many people live locally so they walk or bike to work but there are still a lot that drive.  Where the heck are they going to put everyone??

Because of this parking spots are at a premium around our studio.  Our parking lot is overflowing and street parking is nearly out of the question with surrounding businesses and local residents all clamoring for space.  I've been with UbiTor since they opened and because I drive from over an hour away I was lucky enough to be given a parking spot.  Ubisoft doesn't really announce it though, there are just signs in spots that say, "Reserved for Ubisoft." So what often happens is a Ubisoft employee thinks as long as they work here the spot is up for grabs.  If that happens I've got to attempt to find a spot somewhere else if I can, then I tell the person in charge of parking, and they put a note on their car.  So far nobody gets a ticket or is towed.  However there are other businesses around us and everyone is trying to grab spots so often spots are taken by people that don't even work at Ubi and don't give a crap what spot they are in.  Even local residents take spots in the business parking lot if they can get away with it.

Today I pulled in and there was a woman in an Audi sitting in my spot, just sitting there.  I looked around for another spot but there wasn't anything.  So I told her, "I'm sorry but these are assigned spots."  She said, "Well are you an employee of Ubisoft?"  I said, "Yes." She replied, "Oh okay, I'll move."  So she wasn't even a Ubisoft employee but she wanted to make sure I was.  What the hell?

I assume without a plan this problem is just going to get worse and worse and I've never heard of a plan in the works.  I feel they should put names on the spots to avoid confusion but I think Ubi feels that looks too privileged with names on the signs and don't want people fighting over who deserves a spot more than others.  So they are trying to gives them and keep quiet about it.  I'm sure it won't explode into parking fury one day.  ;)

I really appreciate my parking space.  I'd say its one of the nicest perks Ubi has ever given me.  I just hope I don't need to get too nasty towards others to enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Residency Aquired

I finally got my Canadian residency.  It's been a long road and a considerable amount of money to get here but so glad it's over.

Much of the money was a waste with Canada requesting I acquire documents that they later never asked for.  They even asked me to get medical exams ($300 each) for my daughters that weren't even accompanying me to Canada.  Then  they asked for an US FBI background check on my oldest daughter.  I lied and told them it was in process (remember my daughter isn't moving to Canada) and then they of course never asked for it anyway.  The final thing was they asked me to get 2 photos taken of myself for the final interview.  So I went and paid to have them taken and they never asked for them.  So ridiculous.

Some of my US friends seem confused about what Canadian residency means.  They think I've denounced my US citizenship or something so let me explain.  I was allowed to work in Canada because Ubisoft paid for me to have a work visa.  The work visa allows me to work and live in Canada as long as I'm working at Ubisoft and my work visa hasn't expired.  If I leave Ubi, I have to leave the country.  My first visa was for 3 years and could be extended to 4 but that was it.  So if I was to stay in Canada I needed to apply for residency.

Residency just means I'm allowed to live in Canada kind of as a free person. I don't need to work at Ubisoft and I can get loans etc like a normal Canadian and I can live where ever I want.  I'm not a citizen of Canada.  If I want citizenship I need to apply for it which frankly after the government circus of getting residency I have zero interest in.

I'm still an American citizen, I just have been allowed to live in Canada by the Canadian government as long as I renew my residency every 5 years.

Let me give credit where credit is due.  If it was not for my girlfriend Julia I would have said fuck it and gone back to Cali in a heartbeat.  The first time I applied it was a nightmare and then Canada didn't even announce they had already filled their residency quota for that year so it was all a huge waste of time and money.  So my application was rejected and we had to do it all over again.  Rather than being welcoming the whole process felt like it was designed to keep people out.  I generally don't put up with a lot of crap so I was done.  But Julia was able to calm me down and get me through the even more insane Express Entry paperwork.  So thank you honey.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Valve Refuses to Refund Game From Dead Developer

UPDATE: It seems the devs are working again.  Cool I guess.

Nether was an online game that was in early access on Steam.  It was similar to Day Z except more of a post apocalyptic survival world with monstrous creatures instead of just zombies.  Many people got suckered into buying this title.  For me a co-worker said, "Hey Chad, buy Nether and we'll play together at lunch."  Sure! I said.  By the time lunch came I had bought it and he changed his mind.  ....bastard.  :(  Then months later it started becoming clear that the developer went "poof" and disappeared before the game was ever completed.  Then Steam pulled the game from their site and the devs have started shutting down the servers.  You can still install it and play but the horribly buggy and unfinished game will never get any better.  The game is not going to happen.  It's dead.

If you are interested in attempting to punish yourself with this title they still have a web site and it looks like you can go there still buy it.  On September 25th 2015 their Facebook page posted this.

Dear players,
As of September 26th, the back-end system for Nether, MBER, will no longer be available to support the game. This unfortunately means that the servers will shut down on that day, and play will no longer be possible. We hope to find a solution to this and other issues with the game ASAP. Please stay tuned for updates when available, and thank you for playing Nether.

Nether on Twitter

Logically I asked for a refund since the game was never finished.  It never got out of early access and therefore was never "released."  Steam however says no because it was more than two weeks since my purchase.  Well I purchased this in June 2014 before the developer disappeared so we all had the hope the game would become something.  I would wager that they gave no refunds to anyone that purchased this title.  

Seems if a game is pulled from Steam, especially if the devs disappear then everyone who purchased it should get the option for a refund.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thing Are Now "Developing"

Finally my PC is complete!  Got rid of the old CRT monitor in exchange for two 24" ASUS PA248 LCD monitors.  Theses were in my size and price range.  Also recommended by my projects art lead to have create color quality.  So not I have a PC setup even better than the one at work.

Now with a full and familiar work space I can tinker around with some game engines at home.

The old CRT setup...so sad

The new HOTNESS!!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Brainstorming Blues

I admit I am a ravenously pragmatic person which can often get interpreted wrong by those with the “anything goes” ideas.

But sometimes in AAA game development there can be a lot of "wheel spinning", or "time burning", or "busy work", or whatever you want to call it.  Basically it boils down to meaningless tasks that have no chance of making it to release.  Worst of all you know this as you’re working on them.  I REALLY try to avoid this type of work.  So being my pragmatic self I question everything.  Why are we doing it?  What is the big picture?  Can the engine even do this without major changes?  Is the project willing and able to make these changes?  Do we even have the time?  On some projects I swear you can see the piles money being burned daily on these type of tasks, but when the right people are behind them they slip through the cracks and head into development anyway.

I find most standard brainstorming meetings to end with these kind of results.  People like to dump any random thought out of their heads, then another person writes down and all ideas are considered.  Now I’m all for brainstorming but let’s keep it in the realm of reality.  Reality meaning is it within the project’s theme?  Is it within game world’s reality?  Is it within the game engine’s capabilities?  Logically you think, “Well the crazy ideas will get filtered out immediately.”  Yes, you’d think that but not always.  Sometimes they sneak through.

I mean it’s great that you think pink bunnies with machine guns would make an awesome end boss but realistically, deep down inside yourself you have got to know we aren’t going to do that.  So why even bring it up?  And don’t then ask me to write up a design doc explaining how your pink bunnies could be implemented.  And don’t ask me to create a Power Point slide show on pink bunnies throughout the years and their rise to machine gun use.  And please, please don’t then ask me to prototype a level with your pink bunnies bouncing around using AI that was meant to be for assault snipers.  And then when it’s all been cut from the game after weeks of research, documentation, prototyping, and presentation don’t you fucking dare come to me and say, “Well we knew that would get cut.”