January 1, 2011

At QuakeCon this year, in the course of discussing the current state of the mobile gaming market and unveiling the iOS version of RAGE, John Carmack mentioned one of their previous games for a portable device called Orcs & Elves, specifically the Nintendo DS version. He mentioned that due to the expense in making the port and the lack of promotion by EA caused the game to be unsuccessful, even losing money.

I actually sort of felt bad because Orcs & Elves was on my list of games I wanted to get at some point but never got around to. I’m sort of a sucker for games which hit certain significance criteria, even if I’m not necessarily sold on the concept or the content of the game. For example, I bought Daikatana on the day it was released because I had read the incredible story behind it. I bought SiN Episodes: Emergence because I liked the idea of supporting Ritual, one of the last surviving independent Dallas-area developers (they’ve since gone under unfortunately, after only one episode released). I bought PREY because I had kept up with the game in 1997 and the idea of walking out of a store in 2006 with the game was just wild to me. And next year in 2011 if all goes according to plan I’ll be able to buy Duke Nukem Forever. I’m definitely getting that one in the store on principle, same way I bought Chinese Democracy on vinyl. And if DNF isn’t using Steamworks I’ll buy a second copy on Steam.

Orcs & Elves was the only game id Software ever released on the Nintendo DS. In fact, it may be the only game they ever made for a handheld game console – the Game Boy Color version of Commander Keen was designed by another company and the Game Boy Advance ports of DOOM and DOOM II were also ported (recreated) by other companies. Strictly speaking id Software didn’t completely do Orcs & Elves either, the game was done by Fountainhead Entertainment, whose founder and (I think) CEO was Anna Kang, who is John Carmack’s wife. To be honest, I’ve never 100% been sure what Fountainhead did exactly. They had an impressive Quake 3 mod out at one point and I think they were doing some gamer documentaries but it was always unclear what their main goal was. Today their website is dead, I haven’t heard from them in a while, and recent id Software phone offerings either have the “id Classic” logo (the iPhone ports of DOOM and Wolfenstein 3-D) or “id Mobile”. My guess is that Fountainhead was assimilated into id Software at some point and they just because the id Mobile team, but I have no proof of that.

Also, Orcs & Elves was the first new IP from id Software in a decade. The last IP (name, anyway) was Quake in 1996. Orcs & Elves came out on mobile phones in 2006 and it was the second mobile phone id Software game, after DOOM RPG (also by Fountainhead). For something so significant, it sure seemed to not have a ton of promotion behind it. Back when DOOM RPG came out in 2005 I had a Motorola V551, an unsophisticated featurephone limited to Java (not BREW) and I could buy the game, so I did. It was a neat little game which played to the details of the phone (i.e., the occasional keypad in the game mapped to the keypad on the phone) and it was neat to hear the MIDI music of the DOOM theme (but that was about it, the Java ports – at least the one on my phone – had no sound effects). But I don’t remember finishing the game – I think I got to a place where I was stuck in a situation where I had no health and would die quickly, I had no other saves (I think it only allowed one save slot) and no way to get to anywhere with health, so I quit playing. For what it was, though, it was neat.

I did think it was sort of disheartening to see that id didn’t want to come up with a new IP and instead wanted to shoehorn in DOOM. So when I heard that they were finally making a new IP, Orcs & Elves, I thought that was pretty cool. Granted, it’s a very generic IP: it basically takes a couple of elements from Tolkien and calls it a day. Then when the game came out I couldn’t buy it. This was pre-Apple App Store when every handset maker had one way to buy games and it was through their provider, and if you changed phones you lost all your games. Granted, the games were cheap (I think DOOM RPG was like $5.95) but it really didn’t encourage much of an investment in my opinion. Then, for a brief while I was running a slightly more advanced Samsung featurephone. I forget the model but it had a second, smaller screen on the outside which could tell you the time at a glance, serve as a mirror of sorts for the camera, etc. It could run Orcs & Elves, so I bought it and saw a bit more of why my older phone couldn’t run it – it had something much more closely approximating a 3D renderer. But really, other than a higher resolution and more sound effects (which I’m sure came with the “higher end” versions of DOOM RPG) it was basically DOOM RPG poured in a different glass. Neat, but I wasn’t all that impressed. At some point there was even an Orcs & Elves II released on cell phones but other than the occasional mention I’ve heard absolutely nothing about it. It seems to be one of those phantom sequels no one paid attention to, like Dragon’s Lair III.

So anyway after Carmack mentioned how the DS version of Orcs & Elves lost money, I felt kinda guilty so I looked it up on GameStop’s website. Not only were there still new copies of the game in local stores, but they were only $9.99. So, on my way to QuakeCon the next day I went and picked up a copy. Now like I said, I bought it mainly on principle and not because I was actually interested in the game. After all, I had owned it on a cell phone and didn’t think much of it and I didn’t even think much of Wolfenstein RPG for the iPhone which I was also playing through. I mainly got it because I thought it would be neat to own the one and only Nintendo DS game from id Software and because it’s a neat anomaly – their first new IP in a decade and it was largely ignored. I figured I’d play the thing a little but seeing as how there’s so many games, including DS games, that I’ve never finished (including the epic Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars), I didn’t think whether or not I’d like the game would be important.

I have now played the hell out of this game.

I’ve played it all the way through, finding every nook, cranny, and defeated just about every enemy. I’ve beaten the game and I’ve started over, something I haven’t done with a game in a long time. I really really like the game and it’s gotten me to really put some more time into my DS, which I thought might be a stretch in the post-iPhone era. I’ve even found a few glitches.

It’s been a while since I’ve played a game this much, and it’s been a while since I played my DS very much. It’s been very interesting – the system is technologically inferior to the iPhone, but it’s been refreshing to play on a system which was actually designed for gaming, instead of being designed to be such a general purpose device that it can’t have buttons. The graphics aren’t as good but the fact that it has physical buttons is a big plus. The fact that instead of a tiny speaker which is naturally covered by your finger, it has two speakers next to the screen to do stereo sound. It lasts much longer on a battery charge, the games are generally longer affairs of much higher quality, and the device doesn’t get extremely hot after an hour of play.

The engine itself is an interesting animal. I’m not sure how it works out exactly, but the engines for all of id’s mobile offerings have a very similar look and feel. Obviously there is some amount of diversity in the development, seeing as how the offerings like DOOM RPG were running in Java and BREW. At the very least they’re using some of the same content pipelines since they all have more or less identical fonts, layouts, etc. Carmack mentioned in an online posting once how the iPhone version of the engine which would go on to power Wolfenstein RPG and DOOM II RPG was derived from the Orcs and Elves engine on the DS, but it’s unclear if the DS engine was from scratch or from, say, the BREW port (which itself would be basically C++). The DS game was an odd fit in some ways – although they did introduce some mechanisms which took advantage of the touch screen, and the game’s graphics were above what they were on featurephones, they were still below what you would find on even an average DS game.

And the interesting thing is that I did own and play all the way through Wolfenstein RPG on the iPhone, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I did Orcs and Elves on the DS. Part of that is probably due to Orcs and Elves being more of a “dungeon crawler” than Wolfenstein RPG. Part of it is probably due to the simpler mechanics (Wolfenstein RPG tried, I think, a little too hard with new mechanics like a sniper rifle whose aim is determined by the acellerometer). But I think the biggest reason was the physical buttons. The idea that I’ll never screw up due to something like my finger slipping to the wrong part of the screen. And the game seems much faster than the iPhone offerings. The map feature was superior to the phone offerings because it could remain on the bottom screen. Right now I have DOOM II RPG on my iPhone and I’m not really motivated to play it, but I’m replaying Orcs and Elves.

As I’ve said the graphics are primitive, but what I really noticed was the primitive feel of the gameplay. It really feels like an early, old-school PC RPG like Stonekeep. It has a “we don’t know what we’re doing” feel, which is one of my favorite things from the PC gaming golden age. In some ways, the portable consoles and phones almost represent a reboot of gaming – a good chunk of what we’ve learned works on a game console or on a PC doesn’t work or needs adapting on a portable device, both for the sake of gameplay dynamics, as well as the strengths of the device and a consideration for decreased computing power and battery life. Additionally, the game has a number of pointless mechanics, such as being able to destroy the pile of bones of your slain enemies, or being able to extinguish flames on the wall (with no effect on the lighting).

Back in the day my first PC was a Packard Bell 486SX 20MHz (and yes, they did make them that slow). In many ways, my iPhone 3G is like a little 486 in my pocket. Both in terms of the actual games it plays (i.e., Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, Rise of the Triad, etc.) but also in that it’s underpowered and now outpaced. The iPhone 3GS gave users a speed bump with an otherwise identical form factor, and the iPhone 4 gives an even larger speed boost plus additional memory. There’s now literally a high end game running on the Unreal engine, and between the time I started working on this post and now Epic has released a UDK with the capability of outputting to the iPhone. There are hundreds of games released every day, and the App Store is sort of the modern day equivalent of putting your game on a 3.5″ disk and packaging it in a floppy disk and selling it in a Ziploc bag for a buck at the local software store. Only hilariously it’s sitting right next to another game from a major developer, only they’re also putting their game on a floppy disk for a buck because if they don’t then they can’t be competitive.

The Nintendo DS then feels like a very old school way of doing things. Its software is almost entirely physically software based (there is some downloadable software on the newer DSi models but it’s smaller titles and is considered a second class citizen). The titles debut in the $30 range, $20 at least. And the development path is very traditional – the development tools are prohibitively expensive to the casual developer, the barrier to entry to produce cartridges is in the purview of major publishers only, and the marketplace is dominated by major players.

And yet the physical advantages of the device are very clear. Orce & Elves is a game that is remarkably similar to two games on my iPhone and yet I have much more fun with it. The fact that I don’t have to touch the screen at all times to play seems to be the main difference. I can click the buttons so much faster than I can fart around with making sure my fingers are on the right fake keypad on the screen on an iPhone game. This is not to say that it can’t be done well on the iPhone, but I think a combination of quick movements, physical buttons, and instant feedback works for this game. It’s similar to how Civilization games lead to you always wanting to do one more turn.

As recently as 2008 we were seeing the DS receive really unusual “games”, not just the Brain Age type stuff, but things like Personal Trainer: Cooking. There was this entire subcategory of software titles that would benefit considerably from an ultra-portable computing platform with simple inputs, but there wasn’t really a good, widely-used platform to do it for. Feature phones were a bad fit, the smart phone market of the time was hopelessly splintered, and laptops weren’t really a proper fit (the cooking game, for example, requires it to be in the kitchen which isn’t necessarily a good idea). But there were over 100 million DS units out there and although these weren’t “games”, it made sense.

And then the iPhone came out and changed everything – now we had a computing platform which made even more sense for the task, could be programmed by many more people, and spawned competitors like Android. Plus it’s a device (the phone anyway) you have with you all the time anyway. Handheld gaming consoles still make sense – I don’t care what you say, they’re superior gaming platforms – but the iOS/Android ecosystem has its uses as well.

Anyway, bottom line is that – whether they meant it to be this way or not, Orcs & Elves is a very effective old school RPG. That to me is the most interesting part – the mechanics the game employs are very old and not used much anymore. And to some degree the technical limitations of the platform have a very “art through adversity” feel to them, which is what brought them out in the first place. Back in the day when you could spend a relatively small amount of money on a game and still sell enough copies of it to break even or make a profit, game developers were much more willing to take risks. Strictly speaking a generic turn-based RPG with a rudimentary 3D engine isn’t really a “risk” except in the respect that it’s a generic turn-based RPG with a rudimentary 3D engine in a modern marketplace on a platform where this sort of game is uncommon and not always rewarded. And since we know from Carmack that Orcs & Elves on the DS lost money, we know it didn’t pay off.

But one has to wonder – what game mechanics were born out of technical necessity, what game mechanics were born out of lack of experience, and which of these mechanics still have a use in modern games? In some RPG’s you can kill off a character that will make the game unwinnable. Is that good game design or bad game design? Is it a bug or a feature? In Return to Zork there’s a plant on the very first screen that if you handle wrong (pull it out instead of dig it out – with a shovel you find later in the game) you kill it and the game is unwinnable. Is this hardcore or idiotic? Is this there because the designers thought it was cool? Or funny? Or because they had no idea what they were doing? In Metroid there are sections where if you don’t jump completely right then you get stuck and you basically have to restart the game. Is that extremely hardcore or just short sighted?

In any event, I bought Orcs & Elves purely for the sake of buying it and I played it on what I thought were token occasions. I had no idea the game would suck me in despite being an anachronistic title in a modern gaming world. It’s too bad it didn’t sell better but I’m almost glad that it won’t be done to death like id’s other properties. I almost think improving it would cause it to lose its charm – much like remastering Exile on Main Street took some of the veneer off of the sound and removed some of the mystique. Or how trying to fix the special effects in a Star Wars movie just didn’t have the effect they wanted it to.

Some games are just games. And that’s how we like it.

On an administrative note, I figure there’s no better way to ring in the new year and continue this blog, which some believe is a dying medium and an antiquated form of social media, with the first significant visual tweaks I’ve made to the blog in literally over a decade. This blog hit ten years back in September with almost no fanfare whatsoever (although I did run down the history some months prior) and I finally decided the look was just too old. I’m still keeping it as simple as I can but I’ve changed the font to Georgia, tweaked the text color, changed the line hight, and added some margins. I’ll probably dink with it some more in the coming weeks but I’m hoping this is now even easier to read. It’s not much of a change, and it’s still fairly old school looking, but I’ve decided it’s time to upgrade from the Mosaic 0.9 look and move into the Netscape 3.0 era.