ARK: Survival Evolved

Ark's next patch, v257, was due at the end of April, but it's been pushed back to May 3 both to give Studio Wildcard time to finish their work and so players can move any bases or structures they've built inside the dormant volcano. The volcano, see, is going to receive "an active remodeling" which I presume means a bunch of lava is going to start flowing.

Any player-made structure within the highlighted borders (see image below) is toast, so grab the nearest Quetz and get packing. A small client-side patch was pushed out today that displays the borders in-game as well, so you'll be able to tell which structures are in the danger zone.

The patch, when it does arrive, will also bring four new dinos (including a giant bee), new Tek features (including a cloning chamber) more UI changes, hairstyles, and new music tracks.

Also coming: "Ascension" game progression, which sound like end-game systems and bosses. This post by Jat on the Steam forums sums up the Ascension process rather succinctly:

"It involves beating all the bosses, going into the volcano, completing an uber-hard dungeon and travelling through a stargate, beating a final fourth boss and discovering the true nature of the ARK, sacrificing your character and resurrecting as a new character containing a soul cube with a progressively level cap (and if done again, taking on bosses that are scaled even more difficult and have some changes each time). That about cover it? ;-)"

That about covers it.

DARK SOULS™ III

My first run of Dark Souls 3 took over 40 hours. Ashes of Ariandel took about four more and I completed The Ringed City in eight or so. Meanwhile, the current world record speedrun for Dark Souls 3, including all bosses and both the DLC expansions, is 1 hour 24 minutes and 19 seconds. 

I will never get good, it seems. 

Yesterday, speedrunner Distortion2 broke the world record for an All Bosses run by nearly two minutes, pushing Nemz38 into second place. If it wasn’t for a rough time with the Wyvern and Halflight bosses, he would’ve saved another minute or so. His attitude didn’t always reflect the final time though.

“This run is so fucked,” he notes, over halfway through the stream.

Whether you’ve finished Dark Souls 3 or don’t ever plan on playing it, the run is fascinating look at the elaborate smoke and mirrors of game design. Through such an intimate understanding of how a game behaves, via Distortion2 we get to see that while Dark Souls (and speedrun magic) still requires a refined skillset, a lot is still left up to luck and running around nearly-nude.  

ROKH

Rokh, a survival crafting game set on Mars, is being created by an increasingly impressive list of developers, including two ex-Assassin's Creed devs, Benjamin Charbit and Marc Albinet, who were later joined by Viktor Antonov, art director and conceptual artist for Half-Life 2 and visual design director for Dishonored. In addition to the new gameplay trailer you can see above, the date of Rokh's arrival on Steam Early Access has been announced: May 16.

We got a hands-on session with Rokh, and talked to Benjamin Charbit, at last year's PAX (at the time, Rokh was expected to enter Early Access in September of 2016). The early build we played didn't give us a lot to do beside construct a basic shelter, so we're keen to see how the game has evolved and get a look at the crafting system described on the site:

Instead of classic blueprints, ROKH’s crafting system is based on modularity. Devices, tools and weapons are craftable and customizable, but must also serve your needs. Some crafted devices can be socketed into your walls to automate tasks, provide heavier defense systems, increase survivability, provide creature comforts and much more.

Rokh being a survival game, you'll also need to manage your food and water intake, protect yourself from extreme cold and radiation, and make sure you can, y'know, breathe. The price hasn't been announced yet—the Steam page only states: "According to the current scope we aim less than $30."

You can learn more at the official site. There's a few screenshots below as well.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Last week didn't get off to a great start for Adam 'LoOp' Bahriz. The 17-year-old Counter-Strike player hopped onto the competitive Global Offensive ESEA league to play a few rounds while broadcasting to a tiny audience on Twitch only to be bullied and kicked from the match shortly after. Then, after Bahriz's story got shared on Reddit, the community banded together to donate thousands of dollars to pay for medical procedures and college while also boosting his follower count from under 5,000 to nearly 100,000. He's even been offered contracts with Twitch and some of CS:GO's biggest esports teams.

"I'm still absolutely mesmerized this is incredible," Bahriz wrote on Reddit.It's one of the most dramatic stories of how internet communities can often be toxic one second and heart-warmingly generous the next. And it all started because of a simple misunderstanding due to Bahriz's disability.

Bahriz was born with a condition that has left him legally blind, deaf, and unable to feel pain. It's known as hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type 2, or simply HSAN 2. Despite his disability, he is still an incredible CS player and currently sits at Rank B on ESEA—a pretty damn good spot to hold for even able-bodied players. But his condition also led to needing his teeth and part of his nose removed. Understandably, this makes verbal communication a little trickier for him. That's why he graciously explained his condition at the beginning of the ESEA match.

"Sup guys I got a lot of teeth removed due to a genetic disease so I can't speak that properly, I can still call but be nice," Bahriz wrote in text chat at the beginning of the round. Bahriz then began using the voice channel to talk strategy with his team, but they didn't take him seriously. 

"Dude, we know you're trolling. Just stop," one player said back while the rest of the team trash talked Bahriz's speech impediment and began muting him. A few rounds later, they voted to kick him from the game entirely. Understandably, Bahriz was upset. His team was up 5-1 and Bahriz was trying to recover from a losing streak from previous games.

"At that point all I could think about was all the bullshit I’ve had to deal with on ESEA for the longest time, not because of a completely lacking of ability to talk, or mechanical skill, or anything like that, but just because of a small speech problem that is caused by something I have no control over," Bahriz told Kotaku.

At that point all I could think about was all the bullshit I ve had to deal with on ESEA for the longest time... just because of a small speech problem that is caused by something I have no control over.

The whole incident, including Bahriz's frustration following being kicked, was broadcast to his handful of viewers. One of them decided to take action. "This honestly broke my heart man," a user by the name of ch0med wrote on the ESEA forums, linking to Twitch clips of Bahriz being muted and kicked from the game. "This is absolutely disgusting how some people can be towards others without even getting a glimpse of some of the struggles people face. And they turn to gaming to get away from the real world, but still people just feel the need to ruin other people." 

Meanwhile, another viewer posted to the CS:GO subreddit, asking the community to "show him some love" because of what happened. And boy, did they.

Both posts immediately exploded, with the Reddit thread becoming the most popular on the subreddit within hours. Meanwhile, Twitch shared an incredible clip of Bahriz securing a clutch win for his team alone against five enemies. Because of this, Bahriz's popularity immediately exploded and by the end of the day his Twitch stream had upwards of 5,000 active viewers. 

Things get even better. With HSAN 2, Bahriz understandably requires a lot of medical care. As he told Kotaku, he needed eye surgery that his insurance wouldn't be able to cover. But thanks to an outpouring of donations that day, he's able to get the operation done and pay for it out of pocket. What's more, in a Ask Me Anything thread he created on the CS:GO subreddit, Bahriz explains he'll likely be able to pay for college and a trip home to Algeria.

Shortly after Bahriz's story exploded, two of his teammates came out on the ESEA forums to explain their side of the story and apologize. "We thought he was a troll…" wrote Adviko. "What would you think if someone came in with a bind text like that, people troll like that all the time. Instead he should tell the people to check out his Twitch. After I checked his Twitch I realized he was for real. I apologize but it was an honest misunderstanding. Lots of people troll in ESEA."

While their position is somewhat understandable, people didn't have too much sympathy considering how quick they were to judge Bahriz, even after he apologized and said he wouldn't talk. According to Bahriz, each teammate received a three day ban from the third-party league.

The community outreach around Bahriz since the initial flurry of attention has been heartwarming. Team EnVyUs, one of the largest esports teams who most recently took home $800,000 in the World Electronic Sports Games 2016, reached out to offer Bahriz a streaming contract. Bahriz has also since signed a Twitch partner contract. 

Bahriz now has over 97,000 followers on Twitch after everything that has happened, and his audience continues to grow. While he is stunned by the community's response, he also hints that things might've been taken out of proportion. "I couldn't give a single fuck that I randomly got kicked, 20 [minutes] of not pugging is no big deal," he wrote. "[In] other situations I would've probably not muted them and linked my Twitch but I was just tired of that shit at that point."

Still, it's a good reminder to always be mindful that people we meet online might have their own struggles we're not aware of. 

Fallout 4

If you're anything like me, you're bald, mildly concerned about the persistent pain in your right knee, and since childhood have been plagued by recurring nightmares about tidal waves that you secretly fear may be prophetic. You also enjoy running around in Fallout 4 in third-person perspective, but prefer first-person view for combat. You can switch between third- and first-person perspectives manually, of course, and it's not any kind of hassle. However!

There's now a mod that knows how you and I like to play shooters. It's called MGS Aiming, created by modder PeterTran, and when installed it will switch from third-person to first whenever you aim with your weapon sights. Stop aiming, and you snap right back into third-person. I love mods that solve problems you didn't even know you had, and this is a perfect example.

The mod is activated (and deactivated, if you decide you don't like it) with a holotape, and once installed you can enjoy Fallout 4 as it probably already should have been: with a quick snap to first-person when you aim in third-person.

PC Gamer

Scanner Sombre's trickier moments could easily be solved if my character had just remembered to bring a flashlight. That's not to say I wanted one. Exploring a deep cavern with an LED lantern would be one kind of tense, but with no light at all, the echoing thuds of my footsteps and reverberations of distant falling rocks filled my imagination with uncertain visions of the dangers in the dark—I could eventually see every crack and crevice of the caves around me, but never really knew what they looked like in the light.

Scanner Sombre is the unexpected and rather sudden next game from Prison Architect developer Introversion Software. It's a short but sweet exploration game in which you make your way from deep within a pitch black cave up toward the surface. The environment is entirely invisible, and the only way to find your way around is by shooting specks of light onto the walls with a LIDAR scanner.

There's no cooldown or limit to using the scanner, and you can actually place an infinite number of LIDAR dots on the hidden geometry around you, all of which will stay exactly where they land, even when looking from above at the in-game map. Add in a rainbow color scheme to indicate depth and distance, and the whole effect makes Scanner Sombre one of the prettiest games I've played in a long time despite having nearly no textures I could see.

The LIDAR scanner is unlike any mechanic I've seen in a game before, and it's absolutely marvelous. Slowly filling out the corners of a room is both exciting and slightly unnerving, as I never know quite what each new clearing will look like. I enjoyed revealing what I thought would be an empty room, only to catch a few dots on a pillar or rock jutting into the middle of it. My new mission then became circling that object to map it entirely, which felt like carving a landscape out of air. And as I revealed more, I started to get bits and pieces of the history behind these caves—often coupled with some on screen text to explain what was in front of me, albeit in a somewhat hamfisted way.

Paint by caverns

Choosing what to douse in dots and what to only leave partially revealed was entirely up to me, making Scanner Sombre's map feel strangely personal. I could look back and remember why I focused on a certain area or see empty holes that obviously didn't interest me. Long 'shadows' cast on the ground where an object blocked my LIDAR scanner could even reveal exactly where I was standing when I set about blanketing a room. 

It's a good thing sending out those LIDAR dots is so utterly captivating, because it's the bulk of what Scanner Sombre has to offer. Completing the game only took me about two and a half hours, which left me conflicted. On the one hand, the scanning mechanic never overstayed its welcome, and I enjoyed using it the whole way through—if this were a 10 hour game, I'd likely have been bored with the concept long before it was over. But on the other hand, interesting ideas and interactions were only briefly touched on and left me wanting more.

An idea I'm glad was explored thoroughly was water; LIDAR dots rest briefly on the surface of subterranean lakes and puddles before fading away, and the water also reflects hazy versions of the dots you've painted on the walls nearby. Wading through shallow pools messed with my vision and stopped me from scanning, leaving me helpless and deepening my unease. Segments like the large underground lake level were welcome—if tense—breaks between otherwise twisting tunnels and dome-roofed caves. Water meant I couldn't just paint an entire room rainbow by using the powerful burst scan upgrade, breaking up the static tunnels with sparser, shimmering new caves.

But other interesting ideas aren't given a similar level of attention. Scanner Sombre isn't a horror game, but it drifts toward that genre in its first half. Being alone in the dark naturally put me on edge, and when Scanner Sombre wanted to make my skin crawl it succeeded handily. But after I passed the aforementioned lake (which at one moment had me running through blackness in fear) those suspense elements disappeared like the walls around me. I wasn't looking for it to ramp up to jump scares, but Scanner Sombre's opening hour plays the discordant tones of a suspense game, and then never actually becomes one.

Echolocation

One of the reasons that tone is set so perfectly is Scanner Sombre's immaculate audio design. I can not praise the sound in this game enough. I could tell what type of surface I was walking on or how big a room was based just on the audio of my footsteps. Hard stone turns to crunchy gravel before I slosh through a puddle, and I knew the puddle was coming because I could hear the drips from a stalactite above it. Sound paints a picture so vivid I practically forgot all I was looking at was invisible geometry mapped by colored dots. Even thinking back now, I can see fully textured and lit up versions of Scanner Sombre's most memorable rooms in my head despite them not actually existing.

An enchanting sequence where I piloted a small rowboat soothed the tension after my terror at the lake. Its naturally light-specked ceilings and soothing music are beautiful, but never iterated on later. It's the only time you aren't walking in the whole game, and it only lasts a few minutes. Nothing overstays its welcome in Scanner Sombre, but equally, its best ideas disappointingly flit away never to be seen again.

A little puzzle-ish detective work arrives toward the end, as another example, but just the once. I found an elevator that needed to be powered up, with two cables running out from it in opposite directions. To find the buttons that would provide power, I had to scan and reveal the cables and then follow where they led. It wasn't difficult, but it was an nice way to let me engage with my surroundings and gave me a reason to scan beyond just painting the landscape. But this was the only part of the game that played with this idea, and it came a stone's throw away from the credits.

It's not scathing criticism to say "there were good sequences that I wanted more of," but it did leave me feeling like Scanner Sombre missed its full potential. I am glad Introversion showed the restraint not to milk the LIDAR effect throughout an overly-long romp filled with puzzles and cheap spooks—but it played with the idea so well in little variations that it left me wanting more. Even still, painting the darkness with dots is tense and captivating, pitting my curiosity against fear, rewarding me with beautiful scenes that half exist only in my head. By withholding information, Scanner Sombre let me fill in the gaps myself, making the experience feel larger than its short playtime would make it seem. 

PC Gamer

Photo credit: Riot Games

Cloud9, Team SoloMid, FlyQuest, and Phoenix1 all flew out to Vancouver, Canada to fight for glory in the final stages of the League of Legends playoffs. Each team had ups and downs throughout the spring split, and despite the perception that spring is just a warmup for the summer split, there was still a lot on the line.

Cloud9 and TSM were fighting for the championship, and the honor that comes with it: both teams have been to the finals in the past multiple times, and have faced off against each other six times now. Both teams have been the best in North America at one point in their career, and both teams badly wanted that title back. Beyond the bragging rights and validation, the winner of the spring split also earns the right to represent North America on the international stage in Brazil. Meanwhile, FlyQuest and Phoenix1 are both young organizations who had faced struggles throughout the split. Earning third scores the winner a generous amount of championship points, which can take a team to Worlds. The dust has cleared, the winners have been crowned, and we’ve learned some important lessons from the final days of 2017’s spring split. 

Photo credit: Riot Games

Third place slugfest

The third place match only drew about five thousand fans to the Pacific Coliseum: large sections of seats were empty. Neither FlyQuest nor Phoenix1 have the appeal and draw of Team SoloMid and Cloud9. They’re both young organizations. Phoenix1 entered the LCS in the summer of 2016, and went through an incredibly rough first split where they lost their first nine games. Like their namesake, they rose from the ashes and fought out a won against the (at the time) undefeated Team SoloMid. That performance, led by their jungler Inori, was what turned Phoenix1 from a joke into an actual team that demanded respect. They escaped relegations, rebuilt their roster, and headed into spring ready to fight for a top slot.

Unfortunately, they ran into problems along the way. There were conflicts within the organization, and their support Adrian left. Jungler Inori, the face of the organization, was replaced with Cloud9 legend Meteos. It wasn’t until the very end of the split that the roster stabilized, with support Shady coming in on Week 9, just before playoffs. Inori returned to the roster, but spoke candidly about how it was tough to fill the shoes of Meteos. Even in Vancouver, when Meteos wasn’t in the city, the crowd chanted his name.

Anyone who didn’t show up was the poorer for it. Phoenix1 came roaring out of the gate against FlyQuest, taking a decisive game one. FlyQuest were a team that nearly didn’t make playoffs; they were one loss away from being seventh place, and Immortals would have taken their place. Balls, Hai, and LemonNation were part of the old Cloud9, and fans have often criticized them, suggesting that they can’t keep up with the new dynamos. This match was crucial to FlyQuest. They had the chance to prove that they were still contenders, that they weren’t holding new jungler and ADC Moon and Altec back...

Photo credit: Riot Games

Then, of course, there’s the business side of things. FlyQuest needs sponsors, they need to grow roots as an organization. While they have an affluent owner, that doesn’t mean much in terms of actually remaining sustainable in today’s LCS ecosystem. A third place finish in their first split, without that infrastructure, would have made a statement.

FlyQuest battled back in games 2 and 3, playing a slow and confident game. Like a glacier, they advanced forward, pushing Phoenix1 back and choking out their advances on the map. The teams traded back Kog’Maw and Ivern as priority picks, testing each others weaknesses in picks and bans.

Just when Phoenix1 looked shattered, they rallied. Inori, draped in the flag of his home province, pulled off a dominant 6-2-7 performance on Elise. Phoenix1 eventually took the series, and the third place finish. From a bottom of the barrel team to making third in a turbulent split, Phoenix1 proved that they are an org that has what it takes to overcome adversity and stick around in the LCS. 

Photo credit: Riot Games

Winner takes all

The arena was packed for Team SoloMid up against Cloud9, but the first two games were... disappointing. Cloud9 rolled over and showed their belly for the first two games. They were both over in fifty minutes, and everyone was puzzled. What happened to the Cloud9 of the spring split? Where had they gone? 

Maybe they were trying to intentionally trigger that reverse sweep magic, or maybe they just needed a couple of games to rally, because Cloud9 came back alive in game 3. Game 3 lasted as long as the first two games combined, coming in at just over forty seven minutes. Cloud9, led by Contractz and Sneaky, scraped out a win. Rolling off that momentum, they took TSM out in a clean game 4.

The stadium came alive. This was the series we had all been hoping to see. Game five was a forty two minute, edge of your seat match that swung back and forth between Cloud 9 and TSM, with both teams coming out ahead before falling behind due to a lucky teamfight or clutch maneuver. Finally, TSM made the dangerous choice to contest an Elder Dragon, Cloud9 engaged, and TSM turned and mopped them up.

Team SoloMid took the entire split, and are now heading to MSI to represent North America. They’ll have to prepare to face a higher tier of competition... including SKT T1, who are looking their strongest yet after taking the LCK championship from KT in a 3-0 match. While they may struggle internationally, at least they gave us in North America one hell of a show before heading off to Brazil. After Worlds, some NA fans questioned whether they’d be tuning in and getting involved in the LCS once again. The answer seems to be yes—as long as the games are this entertaining.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III

After months of hype, Sega and Relic Entertainment's Dawn of War 3 lands tomorrow. In preparation, you may have taken part in last weekend's multiplayer open beta, or perused our review in progress—however if you're after some light relief ahead of time, this real life Space Marine Power Fist has you covered. 

Working alongside both Relic and Sega, the UK-based production company REWIND has crafted a working replica of the Blood Ravens' iconic melee mit that's best known for crushing skulls on the battlefield.

Using in-game DoW models to ensure likeness, the real deal is reinforced using an "iso-elastic kinematic camera stabilising platform" and a harness helps spread its weight while also holding two air canisters used to "power parts from an industrial pneumatic cylinder which delivers up to 3000 PSI to the Power Fist in addition to the user’s strength."

As this is getting increasingly technical, here's Sega with more on the Power Fist's specifications:

"The design of the weapon was recreated exactly from in-game Dawn of War models, and 3D printed in glass reinforced nylon monocoque. The 6KG fingers and impact elements were then CNC machine milled from aerospace aluminium to ensure durability. The in-game weapon when fixed to the mighty arm of a Space Marine, can punch through almost any defence, even hammering through the side of tanks to tear out the crew. While the real life version isn’t quite that powerful, it is capable of punching straight through a brick wall."

Sadly, REWIND's Power Fist doesn't appear to be for sale, however here's a making of-type video should you wish to give it a go yourself:

Dawn of War 3, the videogame, is due tomorrow, April 27.

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

In a post on the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds official site, creator Brendan Greene announced the battle royale shooter's first charity event. The 2017 Charity Invitational will take place on May 4, and will feature 128 streamers from both North America and Europe. The proceeds will benefit Gamer's Outreach, a charity that "provides equipment, technology, and software to help kids cope with treatment inside hospitals."

From the post:

"We have split the event into two sessions, with 64 players from EU taking to the battlegrounds in the first 3 matches, and then 64 players from NA rounding out the event for the final 3 matches. We will have more information on the exact timings and match format early next week. We are splitting up the regions to ensure all participants can play on servers with the least ping possible, and to ensure as fair a match as possible for all involved."

The event will feature two-player teams, with 32 teams from North American and 32 from Europe. Each region will play three matches, "with the winners chosen from those that have the highest overall placement from all 3 rounds."

Above, you can see first four teams of streamers who have been announced, and the rest of the teams will be similarly tweeted out over the days leading up to the event.

FINAL FANTASY VII

I'm obsessed with the mouths in Final Fantasy 7. If you first played Square's groundbreaking 3D Final Fantasy on a PC, sometime after 1998, you might be thinking: the characters have mouths. So what? But if you played Final Fantasy 7 on the PlayStation, you're more likely thinking: Wait a minute. Mouths? What mouths?

On the PlayStation, the lumpy-limbed character models of Cloud and Barret and the gang had big anime eyes, square fists and absolutely no mouths. The more detailed battle models did, of course, but out on the field? Nope. But when FF7 came to PC a year after the PlayStation, suddenly there they were: little mouths, in the form of a terse line or a comically large, gaping black O. 

Why are they there? Who added them, and who decided they should be there? I started searching for the answers to those questions after looking into the history of the PC ports of Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8, two rare, early examples of console games being ported to the PC. Because Eidos's name was on each box, I'd always assumed that the British company had ported Square's games itself. But after coming across this Gamefaqs thread and doing a little digging into Final Fantasy 7's PC credits, I realized that all of the development staff had worked at Squaresoft USA. So I set out on a quest to learn more about Final Fantasy 7's infamously quirky PC port: what it was like to port an early PlayStation game to PC, why new localization errors were introduced while others were fixed, and mostly, why the hell Cloud has a mouth.

It didn't go well at first.

Top: No mouths on PS1. Bottom: A comical O and a . Image via TheLifeStream.net.

"I'm not really sure," programmer Jay Fong wrote to me over email when I asked why the character models have mouths on the PC. Fong works at Obsidian now, and his gig as a software engineer on Final Fantasy 7 was his first real job in the games industry. "I recall we worked on the port for just a little over one year. After the project, I was promoted to a Senior Software Engineer position and when it was decided to go ahead and port FF8 to PC, I served as Project Lead. Some of the programmers had left right around the time when work on FF8 PC began so we didn't have as large a programming team as we did on FF7. But we also had more experience porting the FF PlayStation code base."

Total strikeout on the question that mattered most, but Fong still had plenty to tell me about the process of porting the Final Fantasy games to PC.

Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 for PC were developed at Square Soft, Inc. in Costa Mesa, California. The original development was done by Square Co, Ltd. back in Japan. According to Fong, on FF7 they had a team of eight programmers. There are nine software engineers listed in the Mobygames credits, though as Fong explained later, at least one engineer joined partway through the project. On FF8, Fong says it was only five programmers, but they finished the port in about a year, slightly faster than FF7. (There are five software engineers and two senior software engineers, including Fong, listed in the credits.) 

Image via Giant Bomb user clstirens

Porting Japanese PlayStation games, at the time, was no easy task—language was a serious barrier, and 3D graphics accelerators were in their infancy on PC. Here's Fong describing the development process:

"As far as tools, we were just using Visual C++ and Direct3D 5 at the time. The Playstation architecture was obviously different and some of the code was written specifically to take advantage of that hardware platform. For example, I recall the UI programmer had some unique challenges because the original Battle System UI update was hooked up directly to the Vsync which would update just the UI portion of the screen (bottom), something the PS hardware allowed you to do. This enabled the original UI portion of the screen to be updated at refresh rate making interaction feel very responsive, while the rest of the Battle System screen refreshed at a much lower rate. 

The documentation was the code itself, and the comments (if any) were mostly in Japanese.

Jay Fong

"Different programmers did have areas that they were responsible for: world map, field system (ie the pre-rendered area screens), UI system, battle system, mini games, etc. We tried to get as much of the original system's code compiled and running. All the data assets (models, textures, pre-rendered field backgrounds and FMV) were from the original PS versions.

"Obviously for low level systems that interfaced with PS hardware (eg, rendering, sound, FMV) we had to replace with PC-specific versions trying to mimic the original functionality. Something that the console programmers were able to do was to meticulously lay out the memory usage. This allowed their code to make certain assumptions about resource locations (such as specific regions of video memory for character textures) and they were able to do tricks like changing color look-up tables (ie, a palette) and manage dynamically streaming of data, like large Summoning effects while the character was playing the casting animation. We had to reverse engineer what they were doing and recreate the effect under Direct3D.

"The documentation was the code itself, and the comments (if any) were mostly in Japanese. We had a translator who we could ask to help us try and understand what the comment was referring to but that was still challenging since he was not a programmer. What really helped was when one of the original Japanese FF7 programmers [Kazuma Fuseya] moved to the US and joined our team. He was the perfect bridge between the two teams, being able to directly ask him questions and if he didn't know the answer he was able to get in touch with the original programmers, which helped immensely."

Some strange differences in item sizes in FF7 PC, via TheLifeStream.net

Today we typically expect the PC version of a game to be prettier, and run at higher framerates, than its console counterparts, but that wasn't always the case. Fong's comments help illustrate how console games, especially in the era before dedicated graphics cards were common, could make precision use of the hardware. Developing a PC game that ran as well across different systems was challenging enough at the time, before you added the complexity of translating the PlayStation's code to the PC. It's no surprise that the development team was mostly programmers, with only a single artist listed in the port credits: Jason Greenberg. Hoping he'd remember more about those haunting mouths than Fong, I tracked him down.

Greenberg now works as the animation director at Infinity Ward and has fond memories of his time at Squaresoft. 

"I was originally hired onto the project as a 3D artist," recalled Greenberg. "One of my main roles was supposed to be to help them with performance issues by reducing the polygon counts on many of the character and creature models." Luckily for the game, though less fortunate for Greenberg, the programmers were able to develop a PC renderer efficient enough to use the PS1's original models, without compromising on polygons. Instead of working as a 3D artist, Greenberg ended up doing touch-up work on the 2D art, increasing the resolution of assets from 320x240 to 640x480. 

Square wouldn't provide the original assets to re-render, so sadly I had to compress most of the FMVs from the 320x240 versions.

Jason Greenberg

"Mostly I focused on all the fonts and menu icons, and any textures used in the UI. Doubling the resolution of the Final Fantasy finger icon was actually a pretty cool thing to work on. It's literally iconic. There were no fancy upres-ing algorithms to use back then so I was basically filling in a ton of pixels by hand. You could imagine it wasn't all that creatively challenging and not the best use of my skillset as a 3D artist."

Greenberg also worked on Final Fantasy 7's FMVs, which were compressed for the PC release rather than improved. "Unfortunately we didn't have access to any higher resolution renders and they wouldn't provide the original assets to re-render, so sadly I had compress most of the FMVs from the 320x240 versions.

Making them fit in the disc space required and playback properly was quite a challenge. In the end, I don't think they looked as good as they could have. If only Sqaure had been able to provide higher resolution frames. We had the same issue with many of the backgrounds. These were simply too dense to double resolution and touch up by hand so most of them I think were the direct PS1 versions."

In 1998, you couldn't do the kind of 3D graphics work that went into Final Fantasy 7 on a normal PC. Greenberg had a $30,000 Silicon Graphics workstation on his desk "with probably Ssoftimage and Nichimen Graphics software on it to do the low-poly modeling" he never ended up actually working on, but he did put the hardware to use once. As a big chocobo fan, he created a new Squaresoft logo cinematic for the PC version. That's one bit of Final Fantasy 7's history we can definitively put a name to.

The rest of his graphics work was done on a typical PC with Photoshop; given the timeframe, I'd guess an early Pentium II system with a CPU in the 300 MHz range. Greenberg remembered that compressing the FMVs was excruciatingly slow, and any issues meant "hours and hours" down the drain. 

I asked Greenberg about some of the differences between PlayStation and PC cataloged here, like some objects strangely being larger or smaller. He said that at least on the art side, they were likely mistakes that never got caught in testing. The triangles used to point to exit points on the pre-rendered backgrounds, for example, are smaller in the PC version, perhaps due to the doubled resolution. That's "probably an asset that I missed," said Greenberg. "I probably should have up-resed those, but my guess is that they look OK at original size so no one asked for that."

Both Fong and Greenberg remembered the challenges that came with testing FF7's PC port. With translators on the team, the PC version benefitted from some cleaned-up English, which fixed some blatant mistranslations like "This guy are sick." It also amusingly introduced some new errors, but Fong and Greenberg recalled more pressing issues.

I've probably spent at least a full 24 hours playing that [final Sephiroth] battle.

Jason Greenberg

"We had a dedicated QA team on-site helping us test the game as well as do compatibility testing. PC compatibility is vastly better nowadays than what it was back then!" wrote Fong. "They had a guy whose job it was to essentially speed-run through the game, creating save games which were then used by the other QA members to hammer through each section of the game.

"I recall one bug that occurred intermittently was a crash at the start of the game, after the intro FMV as the train pulls into the station and one of the guys side-kicks a soldier. QA reported this bug as we were finalizing, which had all the programmers scrambling to repro and debug it asap. Exciting times!"

Greenberg recalled a crash bug that happened during the final boss fight, during Sephiroth's supernova summon. "Near the end of the dev cycle, many of us were done with our work, and simply had to help test the game as much as possible… If totaled I've probably spent at least a full 24 hours playing that one battle."

Not a good look, Jessie.

Fascinating stuff, but what about the mouths, right? Why does Cloud eternally look like an emoji-before-emojis? Why does Sephiroth look like he could swallow an entire hot dog whole? Did Greenberg know? 

"Great question. I'm wracking my brain to try to remember," he said. Uh oh.

"This is not something that we added on the art side since I never changed the model files in any way. I believe I remember that the mouths were just sitting there in the original texture files for the characters. I'm pretty sure the code to drive them was probably there as well, and we just enabled it or something. I wish I could tell you more, but I just don't remember it."

Is this victory? Or defeat? Greenberg gave me what may well be the story behind the character mouths in the PC version: they were actually there the whole time, but had been disabled in the PlayStation version before it shipped. Why? My guess is that a PlayStation plugged into a typical CRT TV with a composite cable resulted in such a fuzzy, low resolution image, you couldn't really see them, anyway. The eyes were bigger, and more expressive, and so the mouths were cut.

But it's possible there's more to the story—maybe the developers wanted the mouths to animate but never got around to it, or simply ran out of time to properly implement them. They're still there in the 2012 PC re-release, which fixed up the 1998 port to run at higher resolutions and play nice with modern Windows. I took one more stab at finding out, contacting William Chen, another engineer on Final Fantasy 7. His response? “It has been so long that I don’t have any memory of it."

Jay Fong recalls having to edit the timing of FF8's opening cinematic by hand for different languages.

That's where the story ends for Final Fantasy 7, though I did ask Fong if he knew why Square stopped porting the Final Fantasy games to PC after finishing FF8. "I recall Square decided to pull all development back to Japan shortly after FF8 shipped, but I'm not sure why they decided not to port FF9. If I had to guess, I imagine it was a business decision based on what they project the endeavor would cost versus the potential return in sales," he wrote. "FF10 was the first on PS2 so I'd imagine they had their hands full just developing the game for the new platform, let alone worry about porting it to PC."

There's precious little history around the PC versions of these games, and that's a shame—they're two of the first 3D Japanese games to make the jump from console to PC. That history deserves to be documented. What was a simple programming task in 1998 is now a mystery we may never know the answer to, because no one thought to ask. And this is for Final Fantasy 7, one of the most beloved games ever made. Few games have had 30,000 word oral histories written about them, and we still don't know the full story behind the damn mouths. What other fascinating bits of history have already been forgotten? (If you worked on either port and have stories to tell, or know why everyone in FF7 has an O face, drop me a line!)

And according to Jay Fong, while the developers were forbidden from adding easter eggs to the PC ports, there may be a unique version of Final Fantasy 8 floating around on a CD, somewhere deep in the bowels of Square, if it wasn't tossed out in the trash.

"We did play a prank on one of the FF8 producers. We edited the intro logo FMV, which started normally but after a few seconds it would briefly flash an awkward picture of him (let's leave it at that) and the frequency would slowly increase until it completely replaced the logo. We put it on a set of discs marked as 'Release Candidate.' Of course QA was in on this and they did have the real Release Candidate discs on hand as well. And no, it never made it out to the wild!"

...

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