Game designer at Naughty Dog, software engineer, Canadian abroad
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Beyond Good & Evil 2 Lives, And It's A Prequel

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In a world where we can actually play Duke Nukem Forever and The Last Guardian, we will soon be able to play the Beyond Good & Evil follow-up nearly a decade in the making. It’s safe to say “soon,” right? Ubisoft just ended their E3 press conference with a trailer for it.

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Gangles
9 days ago
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Great trailer, love the vibe.
Santa Monica, California
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Let’s Go, Tohoku: The Powerful Advertising Campaign for JR East

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Fall 2016 (Yamagata Prefecture)

Since 2011 JR East, one of Japan’s major passenger railway groups, has been running a powerful advertising campaign called Let’s Go, Tohoku (行くぜ、東北). In an interview in 2015 Dentsu Director Yoshihiro Yagi, who has been spearheading the campaign, explained that the idea was conceived in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami because the best way to support the region was to get people to go there.

Now, the campaign has won Japan’s top tourism poster award.

Winter 2016 (Akita Prefecture)

“There must be something we can do,” Yagi recalls saying. This eventually led to the campaign slogan Let’s Go, Tohoku, which is both a cheer but also a call to action. The posters, now in their 7th year, have largely remained the same in concept and typically feature minimal but powerful photos of trains with the slogan in small, bold letters. At the bottom of the poster, in small font, it reads “You can’t meet by e-mail. Meet on the rails.”

Since 2016 the campaign the photographs have emphasized the geometric properties of the infrastructure like bridges and tunnels that support the trains. The Winter 2016 photo (above) is one of my favorites, and almost looks like a painting. But they’re all real photographs with very little digital retouching. “If you look closely some of the trains are quite dirty,” said Yagi, but they were intentionally left that way.

Yagi does stress the difficulty and dangers of photographing trains though. The photos were all taken during normal operating hours so safety was a top priority. The crew had to camp out in locations for whole days taking photos each time a train would pass by.

left: Summer 2017 (Aomori Prefecture) | right: Winter 2016 (Akita Prefecture)

The campaign has won various international advertising awards over the years like the Cannes Lions and the One Show awards. But this recent series was recognized by Japan’s Tourism Poster Contest and took 1st prize out of 231 other entries.

Fall 2016 (Yamagata Prefecture)

Spring 2016 (Iwate Prefecture)

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Gangles
13 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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On Company of Heroes

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I often describe Company of Heroes as the RTS that has made it difficult for me to play any other RTS.

There are a lot of things that make Company of Heroes special to me. Here are some of them.

World state

Something memorable in Bungie’s Myth is in how bloodstains and scorchmarks are permanent:

The marks exist as a chronicle of sorts. Every moment stains the battlefield, ensuring you don’t forget a thing.

Company of Heroes takes that ideal and runs with it.

  • Buildings are chipped away until they’re ultimately destroyed, denying infantry a place to garrison:
  • Barricades can be smashed through, creating new paths for others:
  • Craters from artillery and explosions deform the ground, and become cover pieces for infantry:
  • Bridges can be destroyed (and repaired), opening and closing routes:

Your choices alter the battlefield, both intentionally and inadvertently. Sheltered bays are a flip-flop away from becoming deathtraps.

The terrain constantly shifts. Sometimes to your advantage, sometimes against you, but always in a way that makes the world alive, reactive, and consistent.

Resource model

Like Relic’s previous RTS outing, Company of Heroes focuses on territory control. This is done through their resource model.

Here’s how it works:

  • Each map is split into a series of territories:
  • Each territory bears one control point:
  • Control points are captured with infantry units:
  • And owning more territory results in faster resource accural:

Simple, right?

But! There’s a gag. The gag is: a territory only produces resources if it has a contiguous connection to your headquarters. Think of it as electrical lines — if the chain has a missing link, the flow gets truncated:

It’s an elegant system. It is rules-light and possibilities-heavy.

It opens the door to cutting off large swathes of an enemy’s supply line. Dramatic moments of everyone fighting over one tiny hill are consistently produced.

But most crucially, it builds the game on a foundation of one thing: pushing players out of their bases and onto the battlefield. Company of Heroes is aggressively anti-chuffa and cuts straight to the chase.

The game starts, and the very first thing you do is the thing you’ll be doing for the entire match: push, expand, and capture.

Combat

Positioning

Infantry units can take cover behind any chest-high object — sandbag wall, a farm tractor, a haystack, a crater, you name it.

Cover grants a substantial defensive bonus, putting any unit out in the open at a disadvantage.

Emplaced weapons provide enough firepower to lock down an area, but have a limited firing arc:

Tanks are heavily armored in the front but are unprotected in the rear:

A basic fundamental part of an RTS is moving units around. With Company of Heroes’ design decisions, every move order is compounded with a pile of circumstances to consider.

It becomes geometry and angles, guessing and second-guessing.

  • Where do you think the enemy most likely is, and how do you orient yourself in a position advantageous to that?
  • How do you best use that rickety barn to block enemy sightlines to your weapon emplacement?
  • You’re going to have some blind spots, so which blind spots are the most acceptable risks?

And because all of these factors are represented by physical in-world objects, everything is instantly readable and intuitive.

Flanking

Which leads directly to where Company of Heroes shines particularly bright. If positions and cover are directional, it opens the door to flanking.

When the enemy’s forces are arranged to expect you coming from one direction, it becomes a veritable wall. A wall that shoots bullets.

And what better way to deal with a wall than to simply go around it.

Circling around and attacking from the side or the rear is something that Company of Heroes’ design revolves around. And that design choice pays off in an incredibly satisfying way.

Not only does it just feel good to break an enemy’s iron defense with a small clever move, but it gives a sense of flow to the battlefield. Like the shifting terrain and like the resource model, units are always on the move and in a state of flux.

This is a game where a basic move order is consistently a brutal way to destroy a fortified defense.

Retreating

With the tap of a button, you can order units to retreat to headquarters:

During a retreat, you have no control of the unit. They automatically decide the fastest route back to headquarters, and run. A retreating unit sometimes gets killed, but they are overwhelmingly successful in making it home in one piece.

It’s a design decision that, had I worked on this game, I would’ve raised a stink about. It opens up a can of worms. How could this possibly be balanced. The amount of design implications and edge cases is staggering.

With that said: retreating is one of Company of Heroes’ best design choices. It’s one of the mechanics I most admire in the game. As a developer, it’s an incredible feeling to see a potentially problematic design choice be executed with such skill.

There’s a lot of things to like about it. The thing I most appreciate is how it bolsters the storytelling aspect.

When a character dies, that is the end of their story. They were born. Then they died. The end. As a net whole, I feel dead characters just remove potential story possibilities. (It’s one of the reasons I subscribe to Tom Francis’ Failure Spectrum ideal)

On the other hand, giving the player the ability to easily and frictionlessly keep characters alive — not forever, but at least longer? This results in a storytelling machine.

You end up with a grizzled rifleman squad who took out two bunkers and a halftrack. You end up with heroic last stands with that machinegun crew you’ve had since forever. You end up with strong character attachment.

When your battle-scarred weapons crew gets taken out — oof! — you feel it in your bones.

Et al

Company of Heroes proposes what a RTS can be. It breaks down what an RTS is, trims off cruft that has glommed onto the genre over the years, and rebuilds it in a way that is fresh, new, and unusual in an exhilarating way. When I first played it, it had that feeling of playing a game decades ahead of its time, and arguably, it still does.

It feels dynamic, it feels alive. It’s one of those games that has blood pumping through its veins.

All of its components — the terrain deformability/destruction, the resource model, and its combat model — touch and play with one another. I can’t overstate how systemic it all is, and how all of its system overlap. The same map will produce dramatically different outcomes, every single time.

This highly systemic approach is the reason why after every match, my officemates and I at my old job would convene and talk about all the wild things that happened during the battle. These post-game chats are some of my fondest memories of working at Pandemic, and also some of my fondest memories in playing games.

There are many ways to tell a story. Company of Heroes is one of the most impressive examples I know of.

 

 

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Gangles
27 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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The Remnants

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[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

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Gangles
32 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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Your Last Chance to Buy Meta-Masterpiece 'Alan Wake'

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Alan Wake is a weird game even by the singular and self-referential standards of Remedy Entertainment. It's a third-person shooter about a bad case of writer's block, and the agony of trying to bridge the gulf between genre craftsmanship and high art. One of your most precious resources is your stock of Energizer-brand batteries, and during one of the most tense and frightening moments in the game you will likely be surprised by a Verizon ad on a nearby TV screen. It's crass, ham-fisted, and often completely at odds with itself.

I love it.

Few games are as aware of and obsessed with their flaws as Alan Wake is, and I don't think there's another one that basically morphs into a metaphor for it's own production the way Alan Wake does. Rather than just ship a badly flawed Twin Peaks homage, Remedy basically treated the back-half of their game as a discussion of how things went wrong. Yet it also ends with some of the most affirming, sincere celebrations of creativity I've ever seen. It's a beautiful mess, and a game well-worth revisiting.

But if you want to experience it on PC, you basically have to buy it this weekend. As Motherboard reports, the game's superb soundtrack has proved its undoing: the music licenses for Alan Wake are expiring, and Remedy will not able to sell it come Monday.

The silver lining is that it's available for one final weekend at fire-sale prices. Remedy is slapping a 90% discount on the game, meaning that you can pick it up for just a few bucks today and tomorrow. After that, while owners will always be able to download it any time, you won't be able to purchase it online.

This isn't the first time something like this happened, of course. It won't be the last. But it's a shame that issues like this can cause a creative work to effectively disappear. For now, however, I recommend you take a few bucks and enjoy this bizarre cult-classic in all its original glory, complete with the soundtrack that is causing its (hopefully temporary) disappearance.



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Gangles
39 days ago
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Hundreds of people spent years of their lives making this game, awful to see it effectively disappear.
Santa Monica, California
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An algorithm imagines a train ride

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Damien Henry trained a machine learning algorithm with a bunch of videos recorded from train windows. Then, to test what it had learned, he asked the algorithm to make an hour-long video of a train journey — it began with a single frame and guessed subsequent frames as it went along. The video shows the algorithm getting smarter as it goes along…every 20 seconds the video gets a little more detailed and by the end of the video, you get stuff that looks like trees and clouds and power lines. Composer Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is the perfect accompaniment.

Tags: artificial intelligence   Damien Henry   video
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Gangles
41 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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