Robert Hornbek

Game Development & Exploration

Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Rainbow Sprinkles

Posted by rHornbek on September 4, 2010

Rainbow sprinkles are those colorful little pieces of candy that we shake on top of ice cream, cookies, cakes etc.  The reality is they don’t make anything taste better, but they do make the overall experience a lot more interesting!  Details like sprinkles can be all it takes to turn a good game into a great game.

Recently a video has been released, from PAX, of Portal 2’s cooperative mode.  This is the first time we get to see how the cooperative mode actually works.  In addition to various emotes that add color to the game I caught this silly little detail after one of the characters fell into the dreaded green goo.

If you look carefully you can see Blue's (the blue robot) thumb in the air as he goes down.

The developers did not have to do this, but clearly this little detail has made enough of an impact to motivate me to post about it.  Not that the game needed any more props, but it just goes to show you how simple little details can make an entire experience that much better.  You can view the entire video here…


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Breath of Fresh Air

Posted by rHornbek on August 5, 2010

While browsing Reddit today I came across two impressive looking games.

The first is called Monday Night Combat by Uber Entertainment, which I guess is a spoof on Friday Night Football, maybe?  The game clearly takes places in a very sporty setting, but with more guns and robots.  Many of the comments compare the game to a cross between DotA and Team Fortress 2… if you watch you can see why.

The concept and possibilities for this game excite me, so I will have to keep a solid eye on it.  When additional demos appear I plan on writing another article with a more in-depth look and criticism of the game.  I look forward to it!

The next game has no title, but looks fascinating!

If you didn’t figure it out yourself, the game has apparently been canceled.  Only the developers really know why, but it is a shame we may never see this game again.  Hopefully the video gets enough attention that Ubisoft might consider restarting its development.  My friend was the first to point out that this could all be a clever viral marketing ploy to generate interest for the game that is in fact not canceled… I guess we could only hope.

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Cell Shading in Naruto Shippuden: Untimate Ninja Storm 2 Part 1 Chapter 1 of 2010

Posted by rHornbek on July 30, 2010

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm continues to impress me with a nearly flawless use of cell shaded art and animation, comparable only to Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.  Absurdly long names aside, I may have to argue that Naruto Ship… NS:UNS… Ninja Storm may be THE best use of cell shaded art and animation to date.

Unfortunately the stunning cinematic quality of the game comes at the cost of gameplay.  Most of Ninja Storm’s action occurs during frantic cut scenes that are driven by timed button presses similar to that of Shenmue, Tomb Raider, Darksiders and that other game Wad or Door or something like that.

Zone of the Enders, but more so The Second Runner was the first to impress me with this sort of art style.  The game even had anime cut scenes woven in between just to add to the animated flavor.  While the game’s graphics are showing their age, there are a lot of qualities to cell shading that preserves well with time.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker still holds up today as some of the best cell shaded graphics I have ever seen.  In many ways the tools used to produce cell shaded graphics can really make a game look better than it would otherwise be on that system.  There was a lot of controversy over the art style when Wind Waker was first announced, but I am glad they did it anyways.

I hope to see more games execute the cell shaded style as well as Ninja Storm if not better.  That is not to say many games have not tried the style, but none come close to the quality of Ninja Storm.

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Infinite Possibility

Posted by rHornbek on July 28, 2010

The videos I have here are two parts of a tech domo for the game Infinity, also know as Infinity Universe.  While they say they cannot promise anything you see will be in the final product, observing it in its current state is still fascinating to behold.

Flying around the space station is not all that impressive, but once the ship begins heading toward the planet things get really interesting.  Floating through the rings you can see they are made up of rocks that are both small and startlingly massive!  However, once you begin to descend onto the planet my mind was blown.

From what I know thus far everything in the game is procedurally generated, making it possible to create seemingly endless content.  You don’t know what ‘procedurally generated’ means?   A programmer would give you a slightly different answer, but here is how I can best describe it:

Instead of creating each object by hand you create the base components, then teach the program how to assemble them.  You add an element of randomness, accompanied by limitations and hit GO.  If you did your job right the computer can begin to produce a nearly infinite set of different objects.  This video shows how this guy procedurally generated cities.

I made mention before about procedurally generated content in my post about Spelunky and this process has been used dozens of times before in games, but Infinity has really taken it to an extreme.

Procedurally generated content is by no means a miracle tool and a lot of the time it is never perfect.  Hand made content can have a lot more character because it was built by someone with a vision.  A computer on the other hand cannot always fulfill that need.  This means even after something has been procedurally generated individuals need to go back in and add final touches.  Other times you may have given the computer too much freedom in the creation and it does not produce realistic or ideal results, which then required more intervention from people.

None the less, procedurally generated content is a fascinating tool in creating environments, items and all sorts of things.  I look forward to the day when we see effective procedurally generated lifeforms.  All of this gets me dreaming about StarScape yet again.

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Game Experience: Update

Posted by rHornbek on June 23, 2010

Recently I added 2 new titles to my Game Experience page.  I found them both fascinating an inspirational for their designs, I’m sure you will be rather familiar with at least one of them!

I am lucky not to have been beaten senseless for taking so long to eventually play Portal, but honestly besides the hype I did not feel an urgency to play it.  However I really had no reason not to once Steam made it available to play for free.  And it should come as so surprise that I loved it and am glad I finally played it!

I must add that while most people praise the game for its creative gameplay, what I found most fascinating was the Aperture Laboratory setting and GLaDOS’ dialog.  Now I am looking forward to its sequel teased in the video below!

At first glance the browser game Transfermice does not seem all that interesting.  After playing it for even a few minutes you quickly learn the nature of the game and the nature of humans operating in a large unorganized group.  The object of the game is simple, get a piece of the cheese and return it to the mouse hole.  Of course in the flurry to achieve this everyone ends up killing one another or themselves.  This video should give you an idea what I am talking about…

Of course you really cannot understand Transfermice without playing it yourself, which I highly recommend.  I might add that in addition to dozens of player controlled mice there is always one Shaman during each challenge.  The Shaman has the power to conjure objects that are meant to aid in the objective.  However most Shamans abuse this power and typically use it to destroy the other mice and take the cheese for themselves.

While the game has many fascinating gameplay elements it was ultimately executed pretty poorly.  I had a concept for a game that played off of human nature and now feel I should revisit the idea after seeing how it was done in Transfermice.  I look forward to reporting on that in the future.

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Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium Online

Posted by rHornbek on June 17, 2010

If you know me then it wont come as a surprise that I am thrilled that this game was announce.  Aside from wanting a science fiction MMO that wasn’t EVE I had always imagined one that took place in the Warhammer 40k universe.  That aside lets touch on a few of the things we see in the video.

So at first glance, like most highly anticipated games, it looks pretty cool!  It appears that what we are seeing is ingame graphics and possible encounters, but very little is actually being explained about gameplay.  I managed to pull a screen cap from a portion of the game that I feel says quite a bit about the gameplay.  For now of course.

If unfamiliar with the 40k universe one could confuse this for World of StarCraft!

The first thing I notice are the 3rd person shooter elements, which feel like a solid move.  Then I discover how little they deviated from World of WarCraft’s HUD layout.  I guess it has become the standard since its success, but there are a lot of improvements that could be made.  Hopefully they take a few queues from popular mods.

I plan on keeping an eye on this game.  I am trying not to get my hopes up too much, but someone is bound to make a decent MMO eventually.  These are some of the concerns I have for the game…

  • Faction Options: I am a huge fan of the Tyranids, but it is safe to assume they will not be a playable race.  I am not suggesting they could never be playable, but rather feel they will be passed over by more easily implemented factions.
  • Power By Numbers: one aspect of the Warhammer table top games that greatly differentiated the factions were the numbers of units each army contained at any one time.  While Space Marine squads consisted of 5 or 6 marines, Ork units could have as many as 8 or 12.  This said, single character battles would feel inappropriate.
  • Character Progression: while there are a fair number of weapons and utilities you can give individual characters in the table top game it does not add up nearly to the amount of items present in most MMOs.  Of course if they can avoid the classic item grind I would be happy.

I look forward to learning more about this game in the months to come!

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E3: 2010

Posted by rHornbek on June 15, 2010

Due to financial restrictions I decided only to attend E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) for a single day this year, and honestly I think that was about all it was worth.

Initially I was going to use this space to rant about how much worse E3 has become since the first time I attended it back in 2001.   Then I decided to take a moment and really analyse my disappointment so to confidently identify the culprit.

A few things occurred to me…

The first time I went to E3 I was 16, so I stood on the sidewalk outside the convention center asking everyone who passed if they would sell their badge to me for $40.  Needless to say I was able to score a badge, however the next step was getting in without being carded for my age (18 or older).  After spending a few minutes studying the entryway searching for an opportune moment I managed to get inside the first of three halls. So it is safe to assume the impact on me for the first event was compounded by the amount of effort it took to get in, and it was the first time.

After a few years of that I managed to acquire enough contacts to get tickets without pan handling on the street.  However the events were still rather exciting.  What has killed the magic?

There were various controversies including over crowding at the center, exploiting booth babe marketing and at one point many of the big boys (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Blizzard) all threatened to leave entirety.  One year E3 was beat so bad it was almost unrecognizable from its former self.  Things have gotten much better, but it is still not the same

Blizzard has moved its operations to BlizzCon so I can attribute some of the problem to that, but nonetheless what is reallying missing?

Ultimately I began blaming the games.  Too many sequels, too much cliche, nothing that looked interesting or genuinely new.  While much of this holds true you will soon learn that I found a fair amount of interesting things at the event this year.

So where did the magic go?

I have decided in addition to much of what I have already said, the primary reasons why E3 has lost its luster is the following…

I have seen a lot since then, played many games and have grown as an individual and an industry professional.  My expectations have refined and not every flashing light interests me as much as it has in the past.  So while E3 used to be a cave of vast treasures, it is now an adventure to find only a handful of gems among the rubble.

Here are some of the gems I found this year!


At first much of the advertising for this game was unrecognizable, and while it wasn’t the most amazing thing I saw at the event it was fascinating to see a new game about Mickey Mouse that wasn’t Kingdom Hearts.  Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, I can’t help but thing much of the inspiration for this game was based on the success of Kingdom Hearts.

Honestly the only thing about this game that really caught my eye was the fact that it was a relatively dark looking game featuring entirety Disney characters.  This kind of reminded me of the Sega Genesis game Mickey Mouse World of Illusion which has great nostalgia value for me.  However I found the title “Epic Mickey” to be down right terrible!  I guess we can only blame the internet culture.


While watching a series of videos I came across a trailer for this game.  I am not a fan of the series but it looked interesting enough and had a killer cast of voice actors!

So the game play doesn’t scream creativity but I am hoping that it stays consistent with Castlevania’s RPG elements and it doesn’t just turn into another God of War wannabe.


Unfortunately all I got to see was the cinematic trailer for this game.  Now I just hope the game can hold up to the standards set by the video.

What really struck me was how much this video came off as a trailer for a movie and less that of a game.  Even the credits at the end were displayed like that of a movie’s.  The soundtrack they chose was really spot on, it gave me chills accompanying the visuals and the dialog.  Once again we can only hope the game itself can keep up.


I was fortunate to kick my day off with this video playing on a massive screen with a rocking sound system.  You NEED to watch this in the highest quality you can!

This has got to be one of the most impressive cinematic video I have ever seen since the opening for Onimusha 3.  Aside from the realistic quality of the main character, you get drawn in by amazing sound effects, lighting and an ever rising action.  Of course this is so far removed from the original Star Wars movies, but honestly I almost forgot it was Star Wars and really didn’t care that it was.


Up until this point I have only talked about games that caught my eye graphically, which is part of the problem I have with E3.  While Mickey’s game and Castlevania look interesting, the Deus Ex and Star Wars videos really said nothing about what the games are actually like.  End of Nations however is a Massive Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy Game… MMORTS… G.

Ok so the graphics don’t come off as exciting, nor does the game play appear incredibly deep, but they are trying something different.  I had a conversation today that made a lot of sense.  The Wii and its motion control has been hailed as groundbreaking while most of the time gimmicky and anyone in their right mind can see most Wii games that use the motion control don’t need to.  But Microsoft and Sony are bother jumping on the motion control bandwagon.  So while the Wii may not be the best application of the technology others are helping it grow.  I imagine a similar affect could occur for End of Nations.  It may not be the best MMORTS, but others may not be afraid to try it themselves and thus usher in a new genre.


This has got to be the highlight of the day and the whole event for me.  Aside from impressive graphics, the game manages to maintain much of the original gameplay and the Wii motion control acts as an added flavor and not an overpowering gimmick.

This was the only game I played besides Sonic Colors (waste of time, RIP Sonic) and I am glad I did.  The controls felt solid and familiar, even the motion control with the Wiimote felt pretty seamless.  There was only a certain carnivorous green muskette totting villain who didn’t appear in the demo, I do hope he has not given up the fight!  I know there will be at least one game on my holiday list this year.

So while the magic has not completely vanished it has changed form.  This has continued my ongoing investigation into what makes games different today than days past.  I plan to explore much of my findings in another article, until then you will have to think about it yourself and see if we come to any of the same conclusions.

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Advent Rising

Posted by rHornbek on February 1, 2010

When I first heard about the development of this game I was excited.  Later when I learned that Orson Scott Card, the writer for such beloved novels as the Ender’s series,  was going to be working on the project as well my mind was blown.

Advent Rising is an action adventure game set in the distant future where humans have been all alone in the universe, so they thought.  On a single momentous day a massive alien ship arrives to inform the humans that they are not alone in the universe and have been considered an extinct species for thousands of years.  Despite the excitement of first contact, the humans quickly learn that there is a second race of beings who have followed the first with aims to destroy every last human.

Our hero Gideon, a pilot and the younger brother of a war hero learns that he is humanities last hope for survival.  He gets cool weapons, alien allies and psychic powers!  What more could a science fiction lover ask for?!

Gideon (Left) confronts the foe, the Seekers (Left & Background)

Unfortunately like many highly anticipated games, Advent Rising fell a bit short.  While Orson Scott Card’s skill for writing was apparent and Glyphix’ art team did a pretty stellar job the game fell short when it came to overall polish.  Gameplay was a bit clunky at times or even uninteresting because psychic powers eventually made guns nearly pointless.  There was even a lot of hype about how the user’s decisions in the game would greatly effect the outcome of the game, and they did to a degree but nothing that was all important as far as I was concerned.

The game was planned to become a trilogy so it left the user with a bit of a cliffhanger and while most of the conflict was resolved you knew there were much bigger fish to fry.  In the end the game was not received all that well from the community so it was scrapped.  A few fan groups have continued the series through a comic series which I have not seem much of, but looked interesting.

Seeker CG model turnaround

I would still have to recommend this game to anyone who is looking for a quick fix, not to mention you can download it off of Steam.  Advent Rising has some of my favorite alien designs, the Seekers along (above) are by far one of my favorite species from any fiction.  The nearly seamless way the developers connected in-game events with cut-scenes were wonderful and generated a wonderful sense of adventure, which I feel too many games are lacking these days.  The writing and dialog, while not the best, was really impressive for a game.

I would love to see Orson Scott Card write for another game, or even work with the man myself.  This little diamond may remain in the rough, but it is still a diamond as far as I am concerned.

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Planet M.U.L.E.

Posted by rHornbek on January 4, 2010

Title Screen

I am honestly not sure where to start talking about Planet M.U.L.E (Multiple Use Labor Element).  Maybe I could begin with an explanation of the art-style, or the simple but effective micro-economy gameplay, or perhaps even the transsexual developer.  I guess I could start by explaining how I heard about all of this.

World Map

The lead effects artist at Riot Games and one of my good friends Troy brought it to my attention after reading my blog.  In the past we have played Settlers of Catan and Planet Mule held many similarities so he felt I would enjoy it.  After playing the game and learning a little more about it I realized he couldn’t be more right.  That night before work I downloaded the game, for free, off of the official website so it would be ready for me to play the next day.

At first I only played against the computer which began as a bit of a challenge as I had to learn the game completely by trial and error.  The only instructions for how to play where online and at the time I was unable to connect.  That said anyone who wants to play the game for the first time will want to read over the guide online so they at least have an understanding of the general game principals.

The Store

In short the game works like this: you are a one of four colonists who aim to capitalize on various resources on an untouched planet’s surface.  The game is broken up into rounds called Months, representing the time before the mother ship returns tallying the user’s scores and determining the result of the game.  Each month is broken up into phases where each user will take turns performing specific tasks.

The first is the Land Grant phase where users are awarded a single portion of land for free.  This is where they can build factories to produce resource, but the type of land will govern the type and amount or resources produced.  The next is the Development Phase where users will build onto the land they own.  This will cost the user some money but will ultimately generate money for them as resources are yielded.  The third is the Production phase where the amount of resources produced by the user’s factories is revealed.  The last is the Auction phase where users may buy and sell their resources with one another and with the game store.

World Map

One of the most interesting gameplay elements of the game is in the auction section where the users physically interact with one another to trade.  It is a little difficult to explain, but basically users will post their bid on resources by walking toward and away from the seller.  The seller may remain where they stand to force the buyer to pay the full price, or they can move closer to the buyer to reduce the cost.  This becomes a big deal when multiple users are all trying to sell and buy and aim to create the most competitive prices.  It is really something you should experience.

The art style and audio for Planet M.U.L.E is pretty simple and comes off as intentionally retro.  This makes sense because Planet M.U.L.E is a remake of an older game that generated a large enough following to warrant one.  What was really interesting about the original was its designer who began life as Daniel Bunten and ultimately became Danielle Bunten.  He was a transsexual who did the full procedure from man to woman.



Just when I figured out how to play competitively against the computer I played a game with my friend Troy and was royally defeated.  There were clearly lots for me to learn about the game and how to best play it.  I found that there were things I didn’t even know existed because they were never mentioned in the online guide.  Please people, create thorough guides or tutorials!

The game is a lot of fun and makes a lot of interesting game design decisions.  I also found it to be a great example of an economy game  that isn’t too daunting.  I would love to see variations on the game and maybe even different skin themes.  I can see why many designers hold this game in high regards.

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The Power of Simplicity

Posted by rHornbek on December 22, 2009

Almost as fast as my friend Ari linked this game to me I was blown away!  Canabalt, by Adam Atomic and Danny B, is just about as simple as it gets when it comes to gameplay, but the game is done incredibly well.  When the game begins the user’s character begins running to the right, from what you are not sure but clearly there is something rather chaotic going on.

Click to play Canabalt!

All the user’s character can do is jump, so the challenge comes from timing the jumps appropriately and making sure they are high or low enough to clear the oncoming obstacles.  It appears the entire goal of the game is to run as far as you can before falling off the buildings.  Once you fall you are shown your distance traveled and the game starts over.  That is about it.

From the image above you can see that the graphics are nothing amazing, but the style, animation and use of monotone colors is mostly flawless.  Another thing to add is the music that plays as the stage progresses, its upbeat but dramatic additionally emphasizing the fast pace setting.  In the background you can also see silhouettes of various machines towering over the city.  What these are I can only guess, but it comes off really cool!

The frame rate gets a little choppy as the game picks up speed, but I think this has largely to do with the computer I am playing it on.  Aside from this the game is casually fun but really well done.  It always impresses me when someone produces such a solid yet simple product.

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