Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rant day: Obsidian, Fallout, Communities, Influences

It's time for some long ramblings again, please forgive me. I should make some general games blog someday, but there are too many of those already. However, this is sort of NWN2 related again, and also very much to my Middleforest, because believe it or not, I'm getting a lot of influences and ideas from other games, even if they seem to have nothing in common with NWN2 or medieval fantasy.
Like, say, Fallout.
Well actually, Fallout has a few things in common with NWN2, first off it's a Roleplaying Game and last but not least the developers.
And that's reason number two for my rambling today, Obsidian. The first one would be talking about the game itself, and the last reason is a post by fellow blogger Alazander over here.

Now, how do I get all this together? So, Obsidian, where do I start?

Over in the Dammendrech chat, they're usually called Obtusian or Obsidiot and whenever something goes wrong on the server, the first line is "It's an Obsidiot game, what do you expect?" and they are generally called incompetent. Well, there's so much truth in that, but the point is, Obsidian is actually a likeable little studio with a lot of potential and a lot of flaws and bad luck. And Fallout New Vegas is an ideal example for this.

Let's first look at Obsidian's game list, maybe over at the Wikipedia because that's my bridge.
That list isn't long and as we all know, mostly sequels. What had all these sequels in common? They were kind of... lacking. What were they lacking? I'll come to that.

The other thing we see is that Obsidian was founded by and employs people who made some legendary games, last but not least the original two Fallout parts (Black Isle/Interplay), Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate together with Bioware etc. Also not to forget members of Troika with now legendary flops like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines or Arcanum. Today all veteran roleplayers still start drooling over these names.

So... what the hell is wrong with Obsidian? They always seem to make "okay" sequels that are said to be less good than the first part, and they are legendary for their game bugs.

But let's be fair and objective for a moment, because I'm getting a bit tired of all the Obsidian bashing. Their games have some serious flaws, but also a lot of strenghts, and with Fallout New Vegas I've found the best example. It shows both sides very well, and the comparison with Bethesda's original Fallout 3 works incredibly well. Because this time, fortunately, Obsidian didn't try to reinvent the wheel on the engine side like in NWN2.
That earned them some bad reviews and "outdated" remarks, but actually, I guess it saved their arses. At least they couldn't mess it up completely. Because yes, it's true, they aren't good at making a smooth engine, not at all.
But the main thing they aren't good at is another, and I think this is what earned them their reputation. It's not the programming, but the Art. I think Obsidian is made of geeks, geeks of the sort like the old veteran roleplayers who claim at some game forum that they don't care for anything else than the text in the game. They still enjoy their text-based RPG from the late eighties and don't need visuals at all. Unfortunately, they have to go with the times, try and... fail.

But now, let's get to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. First off, they are both very high in my favorite games list, but one's the clear winner.
All you need to know about the difference between the two games is the two opening scenes which were also used for trailers. They tell almost everything. So, lean back and start with Bethesda's.

And here comes Obsidian's:

Okay, do I really have to explain it or is it obvious? Does nobody else have this "Meh" feeling after the New Vegas one? They use the exact same game engine and tools, but... is it just me, or does Obidian simply have no clue how to do arts? Atmosphere?
Bethesda's is spot on with the atmosphere, it's rich in detail and sets the dark, gloomy mood for the game. And the music by the Ink Spots was the best marketing move anyway, although I hear kids hate it.

Obsidian though, you just get the idea they try to compete... but they can't. And they fail miserably. The very first seconds are okay, but then the camera moves to the New Vegas Strip and poof... immersion gone. There's no detail, nothing... a perfectly clean, plastic Strip that cries out "I'm rendered!", then comes that soldier guy who's there for the same reason as the one in Bethesda's: "I need to look totally badass so the kids buy the game". Nice try, he's okay, but after all that plastic look of the Strip he can't save anything anymore. Only nice touch: The headshot. It's sort of funny, and that actually is the point where they did something right. But then... I just have to post a pic...

That's the point where they probably lost the young ones completely. Are we watching Toy Story (1)? Obsidian, please.. before you do something like that, don't do any cinematics! You scare off the whole gamer crowd who buy graphics cards beyond $70... it's not that it's not high end, it's that... it's just bad! And let's remind ourselves this is a pre-rendered scene, not ingame graphics... the point is, ingame the characters look actually more realistic than that. Let's move on...

Do I have to say more? This area up there... how can you use it for the intro that is supposed to get players into the mood, how can you use this camera angle, how can you NOT throw some Photoshop filters over it or just use artwork... seriously, I'm not saying that Obsidian should use high end graphics, not at all, that's not the point... it's just that you can get better and more immersive screens in a 10 year old game. And really, it's not nitpicking on one pic here, it's the whole trailer, isn't it?

Lastly, let's take a quick look at Obsidian's recent first own development, Alpha Protocol. As everyone who's a bit interested in games or in Obsidian's doings outside NWN2 should know, this game flopped. Badly. And that was my first impression right from the first screenshot I saw... that it will flop badly.
Ingame graphics are not everything, I agree, and a good game surely doesn't need high end graphics. But there's a certain point at which the bad art design actively ruins the game... the story suggests a serious moment, but the graphics are so unintentionally comical that you actually have to laugh about it.

As an example for small mood-killers you might have seen too... Dragon Age, romance scene... it was supposed to be a really romantic moment, and the game is so well written you were really in the mood. Then they start this "sex" cutscene in those ridiculous undies with rather weird animations and I actually snorted my coffee over the table. Now, in Dragon Age's case it couldn't ruin the game, it was just a bit funny.

The problem with Obsidian's games is, they are worse. And according to all reviews I've seen about Alpha protocol, I think that was what ruined the game completely - the bad marketing surely didn't help too, nothing from the ads to the game box was in any way atractive. All of the reviews said the story's quite great and the game is surely worth playing... if you can ignore the horribly outdated graphics and the comical animations. Most said that some combat animations were unbearable. Reminds you of another game? Maybe NWN2? Let's look at the Alpha Protocol trailer for completition, there's some ingame scenes at the end that don't look totally unbearable, but by no means unique either.

Now... would you say this trailer gets anyone into the stores? Even to a torrent site?
To tell you the truth I was almost praying for Obsidian that this game wouldn't flop, that there would be people less picky than me who'd buy, play and enjoy it. Didn't happen. I was even expecting Alpha Protocol to be the nail in Obsidian's coffin. Glad that didn't happen though, not yet... maybe New Vegas saved them... but who knows how much of the cake will actually be left for Obsidian, given the first big name on the box is still Bethesda.

Now, enough of that, onwards to New Vegas. Maybe I'm an oracle or something, but my gut feeling has yet again not failed me. I like my guts, they always tell me the truth, and they did about this too.

Because, surprise, I totally loved the game. Obsidian failed to ruin it, quite the opposite, they made it a small masterpiece and definitely better than Bethesda's Fallout 3. And that was the first feeling I had when I heard they'd develop it. Why?

  1. They have an engine ready and can't screw up by making a new one, so that's out of the way.
  2. They don't try to change the graphics, pheeeew.

Game magazines gave them worse reviews for keeping the old engine, and yes, on metacritics Fallout 3 scores better than the successor. But hell, well done Obsidian, keep your hands off things you don't understand and work on your strong side. That's the writing. And hands on, on the storytelling side, Bethesda cannot compete.

Fallout 3's wasteland was a great place to explore with so much atmosphere and detail and stuff to do that it outshone the big failure it was on the story side. It had stories and quests, sure... but my, most of them were really lacking. They were short, didn't have much detail, many of them were not much better than your usual Fed-Ex quests.
The main storyline was linear and could be completed in a rush, it offered, wait... one or two choices at the end, and your general influence on the world was quite black & white.. either you do the good thing and earn something good for it, or you do some bad thing and be a bad person.


Now, my personal Fallout 3 trauma is this person, she's called Clover:

Clover was my favourite companion in Fallout 3, and I hate travelling alone. Not because they add to the firepower, just because I like company. I loved the dog too, but the dog didn't speak, so I ran my Karma all the way down to being horribly evil just to get this "crazy slave girl (ingame advertisment)" as a companion. I mean, who wants to travel with a Paladin in heavy armor, please...

Now, the actual trauma is, I could've sticked with the dog.

Miss Clover here could've been a really rich person... she's a little masochistic, very sadistic and was the private slave of the big badass slave trader in the game, one of two girls (Crimson & Clover, haha). She could've had stories to tell you can't imagine, or just doing random fun stuff that actually fit her "crazy" reputation.

She doesn't. She has exactly three one-liners as voice-overs and the same amount of dialogue options to adjust her companion AI. She's a robot. A dog.
Actually, the dog barked more than she had to say. And don't think it was just her, no... all companions in Fallout 3 are that "rich". They are.. aimbots? Meatshields for lazy players? Something like that. It was just sad, but it's one major point of Fallout 3: Even though being a RPG, it's clearly aimed at the shooter crowd a little too much.

What I was hoping for when New Vegas was announced was that Obsidian did exactly that: Leave the working base alone and work on those parts Bethesda failed in. And Obsidian delivered.

Here's one of my favourite companions in New Vegas, Veronica. Veronica is extremely nice and a little bit silly, babbles a lot, even unasked. She has a long background story including a girlfriend (another companion is gay, in both cases you learn it just from a side remark they throw at some time and nothing else follows, which just adds to the realism of the fleshed-out backgrounds). She has her own long questline just like all of the eight companions you can choose from, and was generally a pleasure to have around. She wasn't Clover though, but still, she was fine.

The companion example is just the most obvious one, but Obsidian really played out all their writing strenghts in New Vegas. As for the setting, the Mojave desert, it's not as detailed graphics-wise (surprise!) and hasn't as many "Oooh" effects as Fallout 3, another thing some reviews mentioned, but it's certainly not ugly and still has a lot of surprises.

You really just have to force yourself over the badly done intro and the first hour or two, and suddenly, with the first sidequests, you notice how rich the world is, and how incredibly well the writing is done. Main storyline? Ah, forget it, the sidequests are rich ones. There are some that are just told in a few computer logs and scattered pages, and yet some players put up movies of them on youtube and go on about how great they are.

Some places tell the sad stories just with a room and scattered placeables, you walk in and imagine the big story behind it. But not to forget NPC dialogues... even the small sidequests are often told like a main quest in any other game, characters you meet all have a unique personality and feel truly alive. And last but not least, there's one thing only Obsidian could do: Bring the humor from the original Fallout series back into the game.

That's not to say Fallout 3 didn't have any humor, there were some funny parts in it too, but most of it was actually in the area design, not in what you actually experienced.

New Vegas though does it spot-on, and I can even see Obsidian's writers leaning back with a huge grin thinking "see kids, that's how it's done". There were many parts that were incredibly funny, but yet again told in a way you take the whole story still serious. Fallout 3 had cynism too, but it was too gloomy, too serious. New Vegas is more lighthearted and yet more immersive and realistic as well, never silly.

That's one thing the trailer actually transported well, the one point. Both have the martial looking guy in armor, made to attract the shooter kiddies I guess. But Bethesda's trailer is just gloomy, while, well... the headshot in Obsidian's is sort of funny, and everything is a bit more colorful, and I assume it's meant to be.

Both games have the same violence level and animations, but in Fallout 3 it feels worse because the game feels too serious. In New Vegas there's always that slight hint of humor and being over the top on purpose. Fallout 3 takes itself damn serious, New Vegas doesn't.

I could go on and on about how much Obsidian improved things here, like the unforeseeable consequences of your doings that are at least on par with The Witcher, and in this case it outshines all the negative parts. A few hours in the game and the miserable trailer is forgotten. The area design is not on par with Bethesda's, but since they mostly use the same stuff, it's not bad at all, and lastly, it's different enough to clearly set the game apart from it's predecessor. Where Obsidian tried to retexture things (like, new outfits), it actually is bad, mostly. Not bad enough to ruin it this time though, and there are already mods out that fix these things.

Fallout 3 needed armies of super mutants to scare you, in New Vegas you should better be scared of these little buggers or giant insects...

Now, as for the Obsidian part, here's some sort of conclusion.

Obsidian needs a big brother. Like Bethesda, Bioware, whatever.

Or they really really have to work on their Art and Programming department, although, I think art is the real problem. Yes, Obsidian's games are buggy, but hands on, Fallout 3 was and still is a bug-ridden crashy beast too, I'd call it much less stable than NWN2... just that it runs smoother as long as it actually runs is a major advantage.

New Vegas is of course buggy as hell too... but really, most games are. I played Stalker, I tried to get others to run that failed completely, Obsidian's games are certainly not as clean out of the box as Bioware's latest, but they are not the worst I've ever seen. What they really really need is atmosphere, players are much more forgiving if the crashing game looks immersive and well designed... see Fallout 3, it crashes like crazy but people are forgiving because they're soaked in.

Now, the big news of the weekend was Bethesda's announcement of The Elder Scrolls 5, ask Ben.
While I'm not that much interested in it really (never got warm with Oblivion, even though I tried multiple times), it means one other thing - Bethesda will probably not work on Fallout 4 for a long time, even though it's an extremely successful license.
Now, but since Obsidian already made a successful New Vegas, and Bethesda has a new engine ready for TES: V... one can dream, no?
In fact, I think it wouldn't be a bad thing if Bethesda and Obsidian would cooperate for a much longer time, and if Obsidian's in trouble as a studio, why not even buy them up? A fusion would be good for both sides, together they could do awesome things. Wouldn't surprise me at all if that happened.

Last. I mentioned Alazander's Blog entry above, and I'll get back to that now before I fall from my chair after this monstrous post. The different communities and why we should stick with NWN2. After exploring also the Bethesda modding sites, I think that fits in here well.

Agreed, on everything. NWN1/2 is a special case in this whole modding community pool, and even if we forget about multiplayer, I don't see any alternatives. Even more, I think NWN2 has matured a lot and it's a great base for everything.
Seriously folks, and I mean you, NWN1 veterans, you dropped off way too soon and never really gave the game a chance after the second patch didn't fix everything. Give it a go again... the game is a very good and stable base, it has remaining bugs, but hell, NWN1 has too.

The overcomplicated toolet is actually easy to use once you get the hang of it - I tried The Witcher's Djinni, Fallout 3's Gecko and Dragon Age's toolset so far and everytime I ran back to NWN2 quickly. For multiplayer, I don't expect any alternative anymore. In the long future.
Atari is in the middle of a lawsuit over DnD, so forget it, and all the others will never give us Co-op and PWs for free. The future of commercial online games is only in MMOs with micropayments, I don't expect anyone to throw us a bone anymore.

I wish people hadn't given up on NWN2 so fast, it offers the same modability as NWN1 and much more freedom in design, and now, 4 years later, everyone should be able to play it fine on lower end hardware.

And there's the communities Alazander talked so much about... there's none comparable to NWN's. What he says about Dragon Age is what I also see over at the Fallout and Oblivion modding sites. Take my complaints about Clover up there... I bet if NWN had had such bad companions, it would've taken a few months and someone would've put up a mod that adds dialogue to them. At the Fallout Nexus you will find mods that make them better in fights or turn them into japanese lolitas, but anything that adds immersion and story? Forget it. Don't get me wrong, there are some great and good mods for all these games, but they are all weapon stuff, technical, retextures... an immersive, playable module? Same thing as Dragon Age. Technically possible, nobody bothers. They want some ultra sharp textures, naked Anime companions and a cool machine gun (I'm not opposed to good technical mods nor some nude skins *cough*, but really... anything else?).

Anyway, in case you wait for the next big thing to come, better stop... everything after NWN2 failed to deliver so far, so why not look at this little diamond in the rough again?
And if you ever had the same impression as me - NWN2 looks just ugly... that's Obsidian's area design, they have the tools, they can't use them. But you can.


Ben Harrison said...

Casa, absolutely excellent post. I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you've said (and with the NWN2 article you linked).

And unsurprisingly, the reason I never gave NWN2 a chance? Character animations. I guess I'm no longer looking for the same type of game you guys are (the hardcore RPG/D&D crowd), and so my tastes are pretty shallow nowadays -- I want games to look, animate, and play beautifully first and foremost -- but it certainly strikes me as true that Obsidian's games are held back mostly by artistic failings.

I haven't played any of the Fallout games either (though I'm pretty familiar with their style and content), but recently a friend mentioned something about New Vegas, and I replied with something like, "that's what you get when a developer who can write teams up with a developer who can build immersive worlds."

And yes, I think NWN2 is the last shot you'll get at a true multiplayer, moddable, traditional sort of RPG. And I don't think you guys should overlook the positive side to that - you've got very little competition, and anyone who continues to play the game probably has similar preferences to the community doing the modding, and hosting the persistent worlds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons your community is generally more mature and consistent than other games'.

(I should add that my respect for BioWare and its community is extremely low [excepting the NWN and NWN2 guys, obviously]. I wasn't impressed by DA:O, and DA2 is shaping up to be a truly ugly game, in design as well as visuals, though, so perhaps I'm negatively biased...)

Finally, a possible ray of hope for you, which could be very relevant to your thoughts in this post: there have been rumours recently that Zenimax Media Inc. might buy Obsidian. Zenimax are Bethesda's parent company, and there are two interesting things about them: 1) they've got a LOT of money, and 2) they allow the developers they purchase a lot of creative freedom, at least in Bethesda's case.

Here's one link with some discussion of the rumour:

Google will show up a bunch more.

Anyway, sorry about the huge comment - your post was a great read, especially with my focus switching to Bethesda's games recently. Thanks!

Casa said...

Thanks for the comment, Ben... interesting, but no surprise that I'm not the only one oraculating about a possible fusion of those studios. I'd applaud it, even though it would lower the possibilities for a NWN3 even more (but how much lower than zero could it get?).

What you said about animations though... yes, animations were one of the first huge negative points for me in NWN2, I even posted a big rant about it at the Bioboards. I'm not a die-hard, classic RPer, I'm a sucker for immersion on all sides, storytelling, interaction play as much a role for me as good animations, cinematics, beautiful area design.
The point is, and that brings me back to the different communities and the NWN1 crowd dropping out way to soon - you can fix these things. Out of the box NWN1 had the much better animations, no doubt. But look at what the community did anyway, take the alternative combat animations or Ninjaweasel's adult stuff, not to forget his absolutely great dancing animations for ProjectQ. Nobody even bothered to do the same for NWN2, and that's the sad part.

NWN2 IS moddable, and just because Obsidian's defaults are crap doesn't mean that the game can't be made better. This part saddens me... right after the beginning people like Ninjaweasel were asked if they'd do stuff for NWN2 too, and they immediately stated "I have no intention to do any work for NWN2".
The potential is there, the community is just missing the really good modders with technical knowledge. If I had any idea how to use a 3D program like Bender or 3DS Max, it'd be the very first thing I'd work on, but I haven't and I'm too old to learn that stuff from scratch anymore. There are people who tried, take Kemo's custom animations as an example, but the few out there simply lack the quality of what's been made for NWN1. Not because NWN2 doesn't have the possibilities, but because there's a lack of interest of skilled people to start working on it. It makes me a little bitter, I admit. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I resorted to squeezing the most out of playcustomanimation(). I wish I'm skilled in 3D and can mo-cap it with Windows Kinect, but the softwares and jargon break my brain too (and computer). :(

- a beginner in modding