News: Crass Defect Andromeda

As messages go, it's quite a bit tidier than a severed horse's head.
Life imitating art.

Yakuza Arrested Over Sega Shooting

It has long been one of the worst kept secrets in gaming that the Yakuza has extensive connections to Sega Sammy. This relationship was presumably inherited from the pre-merger Sammy side of the business, as purveyors of amusement machines such as pachinko. This week Tokyo police have arrested Takahiro Yamamoto, a 54 year old member of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which Niche Gamer are claiming as the biggest group operating under the Yakuza banner. Yamamoto was arrested in connection to a shooting which took place at the residence of Hajime Satomi, who is the founder of Sammy and current chairman of Sega Sammy.

This ‘shooting’ is not as dramatic as it sounds though. One shot was fired, three bullets were left on the ground, and the only apparent casualty was one of Hajime Satomi’s lights – in short it sounds like something of a warning message. The shooting in question took place back in January of 2015, and arrests are only now being made owing to the difficulty of identifying the perps through security footage. One has to wonder why the police would even be interested in pursuing the case after all this time when nobody was even harmed, though it probably says a lot about how well ordered Japanese society is given that they can expend resources on such a trifling matter. Regardless, it makes for a fun little story for anyone passingly familiar with Sega’s Yakuzua series of action RPGs.

Hopefully some other Japanese titles get announced too.
A Bloodborne sequel has been tipped to make an appearance at Sony’s conference.

What to Expect From E3

2017 has been excellent for Japanese games. One would be hard pressed to find a better line-up of Japanese content without going back in time to the hey-day of the PS2 – and 2017 is not yet halfway over. The second half of the year still has Valkyria Revolution, and no fewer than three Nihon Falcom RPGs [Trails of Cold Steel III, Ys VIII, and Tokyo Xanadu eX+] set to release on the PS4. This may not be all that is to come however, as Shawn Layden, the head of Sony Interactive Entertainment America, has been heavily implying that they have much more Japanese content to announce during their Monday conference:

I think a lot of Japanese developers lost their way chasing the mobile games yen, if you will, but they’re coming back to console in a major way. And speaking of, we’ll have some big announcements at E3 in that precise vein.

Bloodborne II is pretty much expected to make an appearance at this point, so hopefully this tease encompasses more than just a new Soulsborne for our PS4s. A healthy Sony console means great Japanese support, and this is what is at stake when Sony falters. This is what the 360 completely shitted up last generation.

This week has also seen two of the most predictable launch day leaks that has ever reported upon. Sources within Gamestop have revealed to GoNintendo that Mario Odyssey will release on November 18, while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has been pushed back to February 2018. If anything the only surprise is that Xenoblade has not been pushed back by a heftier delay. Expect to know whether there is any truth in these rumours when Nintendo streams their presentation on Tuesday.

We should probably be happy that the game had animation at all!
Computer facial animation algorithms could not mask the anguish of being a mouthpiece for Bioware’s shitty writing!

Andromeda: a Birth Defect

Leadership. Without leadership all the development muscle in the world will amount to precisely nothing. This week a report has been released comprised of the accounts of almost a dozen Mass Effect: Andromeda devs, and it is interesting to note the similarities that Andromeda shares with Final Fantasy XV. Both games are open world RPGs, both games had their original directors replaced due to a lack of progress, both games had ample development cycles, yet both games did not experience any actual progress until the eleventh hour of said development cycle, and both games were released in an unfinished state. Neither game should have been released at all.

Mass Effect: Andromeda may have been in development for five years, but the game only essentially entered into production eighteen months before release. Usually by the time a game transitions from pre-production into full production the team will have developed a vertical slice of representative gameplay, and all of the game’s systems will be in place so that the production can begin in earnest creating content. With Andromeda this was not the case. The Frostbite engine was foisted upon the team, and it came without many systems and tools that were required for building an RPG. This meant that the game entered into full production without a facial animation system in place, and without any idea how to implement planned procedural generation and space travel systems.

The Andromeda team originally planned to make a game that was something of a mix between a traditional Mass Effect game and a space exploration sim like No Man’s Sky. The team had developed a fully controllable space flight system, yet could not figure out a way to implement it in a way that was fun to play, and they had developed a procedural generation system with the aim of creating hundreds of explorable planets, yet only one small team withing Bioware Montreal knew enough to be able to use the system effectively. This meant that pre-production work was being carried out after the game had already entered into full production. This ultimately resulted in a huge amount of development being scrapped when both systems were cut. Andromeda would go from having potentially hundreds of planets to explore, to being downscaled to thirty explorable planets, and again to just seven planets.

If there’s one thing that should have happened in hindsight, the cuts that were made should have happened earlier, so there would have been less of them. I think in general the team tried too hard to execute a game that was not doable.

Just as Andromeda was technologically behind the 8-ball, so too was the writing team running pathetically behind schedule. The writing team, led by Grand Theft Auto 5 rape-girl Sam Mags, had apparently spent pre-production sitting around and flicking their collective beans to high-level story concepts, meaning that once Andromeda finally entered into production they had to scramble in order to get something written.

The team that probably had it the worst was animation. They entered into production under-staffed and without the final animation system in place. This team was given some assistance in the form of external studios contracted to help with animation – yet this was ineffective when it came to the facial animation due to the fact that the writing team did not have a finalised script locked into place until late in development. In previous Mass Effect games the Bioware Edmonton team had used a piece of middleware software to automatically generate facial animations based on recorded dialogue, and had then gone through and retouched facial animations by hand, with the most likely dialogue paths receiving the most attention. The fact that most other teams were running behind meant that the animation team did not have the ability to go through and retouch facial animations to the degree that they should have, and so much of the goofy animation memes at launch are the direct result of computer algorithms synthesizing human expression, with zero human intervention or input.

In fact the people working on the game’s cutscenes also faced difficulty from another direction. They came across a situation they termed ‘regression’, where they would develop a sequence to the point of completion, only to have it broken if one of the other teams made a small update to the way visual effects were displayed or went over budget on memory. This is why many cutscenes in the game actually look worse than leaked alpha footage.

We’ll put something together, and it’s been bug tested and signed off and approved. We’d say, ‘OK, we can now move on from that to the next thing.’ And while our backs are turned, what we’d just put together falls apart.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question of just how the game was allowed to go gold when it was still in such a horrible state. The answer to that goes to EA’s over-reliance on Metacritic as a metric, and their use of dummy review agencies to predict metascores. A simulated review process performed on the game indicated that Mass Effect: Andromeda would score between 80-85% on Metacritic – in reality the game would barely scrape its way to 70%. That said, one could totally envision a scenario wherein Bioware’s blogger chums awarded it with industry average pass marks of 80% – but such a situation became an impossibility once the game was put on EA Access, and the public was able to pass judgement days ahead of the game’s review embargo.

When the mock reviews came in for Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare’s leads were relieved — the Metacritic was expected to be in the low-to-mid-80s, according to two sources. Although Andromeda’s developers knew the game wasn’t perfect, they were fine with a score like that. If they hit somewhere between 80 and 85, they could use what they’d built for Andromeda to make the sequel way better, much like Casey Hudson and his team had done from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2.

There would be no sequel. Mass Effect would be indefinitely shelved, and Andromeda‘s developers scattered to the four winds, never to helm a AAA production again. Regardless of any less than ideal meddling on the part of EA, the bulk of the blame for the way that Andromeda turned out has to reside with the weak leadership and planning provided by Bioware Montreal. This amateur effort led to a predictable result.