Saturday, February 28, 2009

Old is the new New

The open beta of Quake Live opened this Tuesday, and I made sure to jump on and register an account as soon as I could. Of course, like most other people online at Tuesday night, I was in queue with tens of thousands of other players. I finally had an opportunity to play last night for about 30 minutes, just to make sure my account worked and see how things were put together.

It is definitely the classic Quake III Arena in all its OpenGL goodness. When the title first launched over nine years ago its hardware requirements may have stopped it from becoming ubiquitous; it supported hardware rendering only and, unlike other titles shipping at the time, didn't have a software renderer. Ah, how times have changed. A quick look at Steam's hardware survey shows how the desktop tide has changed, and now tons of people have way more than enough horsepower. And it doesn't stop at the desktop - Q3 has hit every major console and is even being developed for the Nintendo DS. It has even been ported to the iPhone. Official Linux and Mac support of Quake Live is reportedly a priority after the beta, granting an increasing OS X demographic access. Ubiquity no longer is a problem; making the installation as easy as a multi-platform browser plugin lowers the barrier of entry to near nil.

The key factor that stops Quake Live from just being a Q3A port is the actual infrastructure it resides within. The game proper is the endpoint, but the content itself is driven from the ladders, achievements, matchmaking and map inventory system contained within the Quake Live web application. It is one of those blindingly obvious why-isn't-everone-doing-this moments when you see how the game is orchestrated with the Quake Live portal; the strengths of the browser as a platform is completely leveraged, while the strengths of your desktop are used to power the game itself. The creators didn't try to cram Quake III into the browser itself, thereby condoning it to some sort of Flash-based hell. Instead they let you use the browser just as you would normally use it: for networking, finding a game, chatting, browsing leaderboards, looking at achievements, bugging friends, strutting your profile and other... forgive me for saying this... "social networking" features. When it comes time to do the deathmatch an external application is launched in tandem, allowing a fully fledged and fast OpenGL app to run on its own.

An interesting effect of this split-brainness between an online presence and a desktop renderer is that it accomplishes exactly what Valve wants to do via the Steam Cloud, where preferences and saves are stored on a central network instead of client-side. Most desktop gamers don't like the idea of savegames or prefs being stored on a remote server pool, and I would agree. For single-player experiences I would much rather hack my own .ini files and not be stranded when someone's cloud goes down in flames (clouds do NOT equal uptime... see Google and Amazon themselves for examples). However for multiplayer games this is acceptable; if a server is dead or a line is cut you wouldn't be able to multiplayer anyway - so it doesn't matter where configs reside. As an added bonus when the configs reside remotely you can't have players hack them, resulting in reducing the map to a wireframe or performing some esoteric modification to give them a competitive edge. Again, hacks are fine in single player, but not in a multiplayer scenario.

Add into the mix the fact that the economy has positively tanked and people have completely eviscerated discretionary spending, meaning $60 titles are no longer in the budget. Quake Live brings a new title, albeit of an old game, to market for the price of absolutely free. While it is true that CPMs and CPCs for online advertising has completely dropped through the floor, hopefully Quake Live will be able to cash in on its unique presentation, dedicated fan base and sheer volume of eyeballs. If the advertising model works, and Quake Live continues to be free this will provide a huge edge over other FPS titles this year.

Quake Live is a game-changing title, even if they didn't change the game. But why bother? Quake III Arena was arguably one of the most well-rounded and polished multiplayer first-person shooters out there with textbook weapon balancing and gameplay mechanics that became a staple in the genre. Why change something that works? The only balance issue that the original Quake III Arena had was that, towards the end, veteran players became so good that it was no longer possible for a new player to have any fun on a map. Now with Quake Live's matchmaking mechanics and dynamic skill levels even that mismatch has been mitigated.

Yeah, I've already gone on too long about this. This approach just makes so much sense from an engineering perspective and a gaming perspective that I'm sure tons of titles are now going to flood into the market, ready to follow suit.

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