Sunday, December 4, 2011

Closing the Lid on Fortresscraft

Oh, I just realized today that I had never gotten around to assessing the final product that is Fortresscraft, after the earlier controversial post.

Yeah, it's shit.

Sorry dude, but it's pretty plainly so.

Ignoring the incohesive art style, presentation, etc. the game does 2 things wrong that it very seriously needed to do right:

1) It lacks any actual compelling game-play beyond simply building.
As opposed to its "inspiration" which has a wealth of interesting mechanics to experiment with, you just build things with your infinite resources. It's nothing more than an "creative mode."

2) It lacks any features which set it apart from its "inspiration"

So, with these 2 things in mind, I can make a conclusion. There's not a single reason anyone would download this game other than wanting to play minecraft on their Xbox, being unable to, and settling this a close imitation, or any of the other indistinguishable imitators that have popped up.

It's a China-town hand bag. If anything, it's popularity speaks poorly for the Indie market on XBLA.

If it looks like an artless cash-grab, walks like an artless cash-grab...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I Hate Levels

Remember our discussion of player investment strategies? Levels were a big part of that. They're a huge part of what makes the current crop of MMORPGs so popular. They are the proverbial carrot on the stick, and a huge part of the gaming lexicon. I'll certainly do a more thorough "Featured Feature" on them at some point.

The thing is, as a matter of personal taste, I kinda hate levels.

The thing is, in many RPGs, levels do one thing: make you keep playing. Less often, however, do they make you have fun.

Let's look at 3 examples: an old video game, a new video game, and a tabletop game.

There was a joke here, but it was expired and I had to throw it out.

Raise your hand if you recognize this game by screenshot alone. Now, put your hand down unless you recognize that specific spot in that specific game. Everyone with their hand still up is missing a few hours of their lives that SquareEnix will never give them back.

You see, that bit of grass in the bottom right is what has become known as the "Peninsula of Power." It's a little bit of land that, due to a mistake on the part of the developers, generates random encounters that are intended to exist on the continent north of that thin strip of water separating the two.

The result of this ephemeral land-bridge incident is that players would spend hours walking around those few cells of grass in order to fight high level monsters and increase their levels more rapidly than normal. The sadness here is two-fold. Firstly, that such a practice is neccessarry to reasonably complete the game. Secondly, that the game expects you to do this without such a short-cut.

You see, back in the day grinding wasn't the groan-inducing buzz word it is today. It was the status quo. Today it's something to be reduced when possible. Back in the day it was expected to be in every RPG you played. The game went from levels A-Z, with major fights at each vowel, and it was up to you to ensure you were at the correct level when those came up. The designers knew how powerful they wanted the early and end game enemies to be, without much thought to the player's trip up the lv ladder. Pacing hadn't really occurred to anyone.

Lv57 Commenter

The above is a picture of a Troll from World of Warcraft - one of about 3 model varieties (regular, savage, and big brute guys). Now, I first fought an enemy with that model in, say, the high lv 20 range. That one's lv57. However, it's okay, because the player is lv67 and can easily whoop this one. However, I'm sure there's a lv67 Troll out there as well, though he'll be of a slightly different coloration.

The Law of Chromatic Superiority is an old trick used in video games to recycle a limited supply of enemies. At lv1 you fight a blue slime, at 10 a red one. The thing is, you're doing the same all the way up the ladder. Sure, the lv40 wolves are larger and black, and your sword glows now, but you're still doing the same thing you did for your tutorial quest. At some point, it's just the same process over and over - with something more EXTREME added with each iteration.

The levels are not actually representing progress at all. Just cycles.

Worse, is that, in the MMO market, every level until the cap is often a simple time-sink, as most new content is produced solely for those at the "end-game." They need to keep people paying, and thus need to produce content for those who've expended that in the original box. Except, most haven't, they've just rushed to the end because that's where the content is. So, for player and developer alike - that's a good bit of effort wasted and less fun and profit than should have been made all around.

In MMOs, my pet peeve with levels is that they are absolutely counter-intuitive to the whole Massively Multiplayer bit. Anyone who's tried to take a party of real life freinds into an MMORPG, and play through the game with them will know my pain. It doesn't work. Someone will feel like the others are holding them back, or like everyone is outpacing them. People will reserve a character for playing with the group, but then grow resentful as they feel like they're being forced to play what has quickly become their "alt" character. A lv30 player can not have fun with a lv4 player, period. It wastes everyone's time. In a genre built entirely around social interaction, in which the player base is its entire defining feature, the only thing more egregious than this design mistake is its prevalence. Cudos to EVE Online, Guild Wars, and, to a lesser extent, City of Heroes for at-least reducing this issue.

A D&D pinball machine that doesn't list your score in "Experience Points" has poorly utilized its source material.

And finally we have Dungeons & Dragons, which we must always return to whenever we discuss RPGs because, frankly, it's always to blame. It codified the trope. Those games were directly influenced by this game and, unfortunately in some cases (see: the later retconned Vancian magic system of FF1), its rules. Levels are always part of the package.

Even D&D's designers have, to some degree, noted some problems with levels. You see, fans have always identified a "sweet spot" for D&D. There's a certain level range where you've been given enough options to build a unique character, things are challenging but not imminently fatal, and you're facing off against some of the game's more iconic and fun enemies. Life, as an adventurer, is good. The low levels were a meat grinder, but you survived and its made you appreciate your status. Higher up, however, and things start getting silly. Nothing can face you any more. You've collected so many various baubles and powerful abilities than two are bound to interact in some unplanned way and, suddenly, you can transmute dragons to gold pieces as a free action twice per round. God grow angry with you, then go sulk in a corner lest they incur your wrath. You are literally creating life and new planes of reality in some rule sets. Meanwhile, you're DM is crying himself to sleep at night as he wrestles with how to make the game fun again without being a total dick.

So, with 4th edition, the designers explicitly stated that they'd made a conscious effort to take what they felt was the sweet spot and spread it over a wider level range. However, they never actually said that the whole game was now in the sweet spot. The same old problems exist, only somewhat diminished.

The sad thing is, the designers have designed themselves into a corner. Look at a D&D bestiary, and you'll find several monsters with "Dire" versions, Dragons with over 5 developmental stages, and, in 4th edition especially, creatures that plainly just have different versions at different levels for no reason other than allowing them to be used more often. The published adventures must be labeled for their appropriate levels, thus reducing their wide-appeal and the resources the adventure writers have to work with.

In all 3 cases, the level system isn't really working for players or designers.

In closing, I'll briefly explain my preference: Don't level up, level out. The issue in all the above cases is that it is assumed that once a milestone is reached a character must become more powerful in every meaningful way. The result is a rapid upward power creep that is rarely manageable. Instead of making characters more powerful, however, why not allow them to become more versatile?

When have you ever read a story where the hero overcomes their obstacles by simply becoming physically stronger? It's never the exercise or powers the hero has gotten that defeat the monster, but the things they've learned through their experience that allow him to solve their predicament.

We'll touch more on this alternative later.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Determining D20 Attribute Scores

Nobody ever seems to be happy with how a given group likes to generate their D&D/Pathfinder ability scores.
Three 18's BULLSHIT!

Rolling for stats can generate unplayable or overpowered characters and, in some cases, opens the door to cheating on the players' part. The classic choice is 3d6 per score, but more kind alternatives such as 4d6 drop low are also popular. The latter could still result in a character with 4 in all ability scores. A system that generates characters that are patently invalid seems poorly designed. (I know, I know, Traveller - but that character generation system is basically it's own mini-game.)

I get that D&D is built around random mechanics, but attacks, saves, skill checks, etc. are moment to moment concerns. Often fun and drama result from unexpected failures. The same can not really be said for a bad roll that sticks with you for 20 character levels, or requires a character to self-abort.

Point Buy systems are popular because they, theoretically, eliminate and possibility of cheating and generate equally balanced characters. The latter is, however, bullshit, as min/maxing ability scores goes hand-in-hand with point buy. The vast majority of point-built characters I've seen have a +4 ability score in one stat and a -2 in another. The traditional point buy system doesn't really promote well-rounded characters, due to no real fault in the math but simply because the classes don't support this.
Had no "dump stat."

So, allow me to propose an alternative method which I've not seen proposed:

- The DM consults [Table 1], determining the initial values of the ability scores (X) and the number of times each player will roll on [Table 2] (Y). (I'd go with ability scores starting at 8 or 9 myself, if only because that generates valid characters, with strengths and weaknesses, but not too much rolling.)
- Players roll on [Table 2] Y (See: [Table 1]) times, adding 1 to the designated ability score each time. If the score would go above 18, they re-roll that die.

Table-1 (Assumes power equal to 3d6/Score)
X = Initial scores, Y = Rolls on Table 2
10 3
9 9
8 15
7 21
6 27
5 33
4 39
3 45
2 51
1 57
0 63


-----Benefits over 3d6 & Point Buy
Always generates a completely random scores (especially with lower initial scores), eliminating min/maxing
Always generates a valid character (especially with higher initial scores)
Always generates characters balanced with one another (within the limits of the class design)
Tends to create well rounded characters, while leaving the possibility of extreme examples
Easily scaled to DM's tastes (min ability scores, can modify # of rolls for games of different power levels)
Doesn't require the complex tables of point buy, can easily be done from memory

Can require lots of rolling
Requires a "Max 18" meta-rule if rolling more than 9 times
Allows sneaky players to fudge rolls


Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Licensed games, as a whole, suck. Old news - dead horse. There are a few exceptions but, outside of Batman and Star Wars, the trend is obvious. Recently, however, this trend has been a bit upset. Games like Arkham Asylum, City and War For Cybertron have been both huge hits and great games. Other recent titles, like X-Men Origins: WolverineCaptain America: Super SoldierSpider-Man:_Shattered_Dimensions haven't quite met with overwhelming success, but have clearly avoided the curse. That is,you're not going to assault someone for placing one in your disc drive.

Not the Batman game you want, but the Batman game you deserve .

Overall, the success (here measured in quality, not profit) of these titles isn't hard to explain. Most obviously, none of the recent successes where made to retell the story of a film. The Wolverine & Captain America games were tie-ins, but the developers managed to arrange that they not actually follow the film's plots, but take place during off-camera events.
Hugh Jackman basically just makes a box-art cameo.

The relevance of this is made all the more apparent if you're familiar with how "writing" generally works in video games. In most cases, the majority of a game is essentially complete before the story is finalized. The mechanics, and it's an adaptation, so let's be honest and call them combat mechanics, enemies, and even most of the level design are largely set in stone. The majority of actual game writing consists of the little things one tends to gloss over, like tutorial text, tool-tips, and excuses for having you kill 20 Armadillephants. All very essential, but without much latitude for creativity. Most game stories are the efforts of the writers doing back-flips to fit the pieces together into something resembling a narrative.

This may not be the ideal, but if either gameplay or narrative must come first, then it must be gameplay. Consider what the Wolverine game would have consisted of if it had been a straight adaptation. An endless stream of nameless soldiers, broken up by a few un-winnable fights with Sabertooth, a comic boxing match with the Blob, and a final confrontation with a bastardized Deadpool. Sure, they may have thrown in some non sequiturs that didn't occur in the film for the sake of variety, but these would serve no more purpose than excuses to drop in a few more token members of the protagonist's rogue's gallery. You know, like every crap film adaptation.

Ignoring, or at-least side-stepping, the film's plot means the game's is allowed to have a plot that, be it written holistically alongside the game-play or as an afterthought, provides for the gameplay rather than shackling it.

Secondly, to make a proper adaptation one must capture the most essential elements of the licence. The Arkham games have succeeded, in my opinion, primarily because controlling Batman feels like controlling Batman. You bust in through skylights, investigate, glide freely, make use of a variety of gadgets, even the combat is unique. Hell, with it's agressive, violent, visceral, melees the Wolverine: Origins games feels far truer to the beloved comic book character than the watered down (and frankly broken) film. If you were to take these gamse, replace all character models with a generic human, and remove all the textures, you could still identify the character you're playing.

It has been said that good character design in a cartoon is making unique silhouettes. In games, it is this sense of unique gameplay. This is where most adaptations fail miserably. Let's look at Superman games as an example.

Oh, please, let's not
In the below picture, we see Superman using his heat-vision to heat the Earth. You may recognize this as a job traditionally performed by the sun.
Take that official Republican party stance on climate change!
And in the next two, from entirely unrelated games, we see him fighting robots with it.
Robots are simple machines which reduce the work necessary to justify violence. 
In both images, the robots have health bars, indicating that each is capable of sustaining bombardment from Superman's hot-as-the-sun attack for periods long enough as to warrant monitoring by the player. In other words, his heat-vision doesn't automatically disintegrate them. You'll also notice that, in the second image, the second player appears to be controlling Batman who, one must assume, can just as easily destroy those robots. When playing these games, the player doesn't feel like they're controlling Superman. They feel like they're controlling a super-hero who looks like superman, with most of his powers, but with everything turned way down.

The problem in this example is, of course, that superman is extremely powerful.
We're talking destroy-a-planet-because-you-didn't-look-where-you-were-flying powerful.
So powerful that it's hard to imagine a reasonable threat to him. In the film being adapted two screenshots up, Superman's greatest challenge is dealing with the fact that his ex may have moved on. This doesn't make for an easy game adaptation. One could come up with such threats, but they wouldn't fit within the purview of the film. So, the devs just took the standard third-person action formula and slapped a blue costume on it. They know it's not good, but they have to put out something, because as far as the film studio is concerned that's over $100 million they're loosing if they don't crap out a tie-in game.

From a designers perspective, this addresses some of the issues with making good adaptations, but that's rarely the problem. Rather, it's that studio insisting that you make them those millions, weather or not the game they want is a good idea in the first place. They don't want a good game, they want box art and a disc. As such, they're not likely to go to the expense of giving your team extra time to tackle your harder-than-average design task, and will only allot you the time and funds necessary to create a generic 3rd person beat'm up and, with their film's imminent release date, you may not even get that time part.

So, from a gamers perspective, if you want to see more good games and less shovel-ware, the problem is economic. As long as there's a market for trash, it will be produced. Only financial motivation will change that. If you really want to try to make a difference, you simply need to ensure that bad games don't get bought.

 In most cases, anyone reading this kind of blog probably already considers themselves to have good taste in games, but that doesn't mean your parents aren't buying schlock for their grand-kids on Christmas. Family and co-workers often depend on one another when determining what's worth watching at the cinema, and games should be no different. Shovel-ware works because consumers who don't know anything about the games they buy for others are unaware of the quality differences, and the store doesn't care. Most consumers appreciate it when you give them little tips that keep them from wasting there money and make their gift recipient more thankful. I can't count the times I've awkwardly pointed out to a mother in-line at the game store that the game she's about to purchase for her kid is going to net her nothing but a $60 loss and a disappointed brat. Yet, again and again, my unsolicited advice has, surprisingly enough, been met with thanks and questions about what they should get.
So, basically, retail Batman.
The problem should be diminished as time goes on and the generations that grew up without games die off, but it will always be a problem to some degree.
Because even informed people are still probably stupid.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Featured Feature: Equipment Degredation

So, Bethesda has let slip that Skyrim with NOT feature equipment degradation.That is to say, your crap will never break.
Dovakin eat dragons and shit diamonds.

If you've been paying attention to the game's development, then this really should come as no surprise. Much of the game has been streamlined, simplified, and made all together more elegant. Unlike some, I agree with da Vinci. Simplicity isn't bad and is, in fact, usually a good thing.
You just referred to me as "from Vinci," you hack!

For those who disagree with me on the prevailing trends in the game's design, let me simply say that complexity and depth, while related, are by no means the same concept in game design. True depth is making every simple mechanic have endless applications. See: Old-school games relying on only 1 or 2 buttons, or more contemporary titles like Minecraft or Portal which do 1 revolutionary mechanic that can hold your attention for weeks.
Another Portal &/or Minecraft reference, huh?
Back on topic though, equipment degradation was been a controversial feature before video games were, at all. Simulationist D&D folk loved it for its realism. Killer DMs loved it for its ability to totally castrate parties that may have grown fat and complacent on lucky loot rolls. At the end of the day, however, it generally always resulted in hours of time spent recording damage to various items, or even specific parts of armor, without any obvious net gain in fun at the table.

The problem, which generally carries over to video games, is that though the mechanic may help establish the realism, fatality, or risk of a game, when it actually comes into play the player doesn't think about tone. They think "fuckin A, that sword was expensive. This sucks!"

So, Bethesda, rightly thinking that Oblivion's equipment degradation system could be improved upon, did so by chucking the thing in a lake and replacing it with a weapon improvement system.
Oh yeah, a little "improvement" and that sword'll be as good as new.

And yet, I would have solved the problem in the opposite direction. You see, the key reason weapon degradation pisses players off lies in the fact that the system exists solely to make the game more difficult for them. As soon as you introduce incredibly valuable  items to your game, allowing them to be damaged becomes an unreasonably harsh punishment for your players. Why fight for days through a mile deep tomb for a flaming sword, if it's just going to be shattered within a few fights?

This introduces a second issue as well: any given player will only use 1 weapon for their entire career. In a movie, a protagonist will pick up a chair and break it over an enemy's head or throw in a good kick or pommel strike now in then. In games, when this is available it is always such an inferior choice to your awesome +4 Sword of Spanking as to be rendered a moot concept. Remember in Morrowind, how certain button combos could result in you making blunt attacks with your bladed or pointed weapons? Remember that the game also included an option to turn those off so that you always used the most optimal attack? A shame really.

This carries over into the characters themselves. A given character will essentially always be a super expert at one kind of fighting (ie: 2h swords), and not even bother with any another because they can always assume they will have that type of weapon available to them.

When I run tabletop RPGs, however, things tend to work out a bit more like this:
They tend to start that way as well.

I simply don't make equipment very precious. Devaluing the arms and armor results in a more varied game. Players lose equipment but pick up replacements off of their dead foes. They use their environments in order to spare their gear and, because their weapons aren't exceedingly powerful in the first place, there's nothing wrong with just socking a guy in the jaw once in a while. This also results in far less loot whoring, as the turn over rate prevents a giant bag full of dead men's weapons.

Magical weapons ARE cool of course, and aren't entirely incompatible with this mindset, but think of all the great Sword and Sorcery stories that don't feature them. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser name their weapons, yeah, but they loose them constantly and just re-use the names on new weapons.
Throwing daggers are notoriously difficult to hold on to.
Conan, in the books, doesn't carry around this one awesome sword. Hell, the "Riddle of Steel" is essentially a thesis statement for my argument. Therein lies the big deciding point. If you're going for a more Sword & Sorcery, which I prefer to High Fantasy, or even Dark Fantasy tone devaluing arms pays great dividends. Likewise, a swashbuckling adventure would also benefit from placing emphasis on the man, not the blade.

As Skyrim moved TES to the cold and unforgiving frozen North, and the games were always dark and dangerous worlds I am a bit disappointed to hear that this opportunity was missed.
On the other hand, this shit just got l33t.

Monday, May 30, 2011


You know what's a bad idea? Like, a really bad one? Subtitling a sequel "Betrayal." Especially when that sequel is on a different console, format, has wildly differing gameplay and art design, and was clearly inspired by an entirely different series. It's just asking for trouble from the fan base.
Now, that being said, I'm picking on it but Bloodraye: Betrayal does look neat. Sure, it's an obvious Castlevania clone but, hey, if Konami isn't going to give me a half-way decent side-scrolling Castlevania game on home consoles, somebody might as well take my money.

Oh, speaking of Konami and shitty titles. Harmony of Despair? R-really? You just had to have it be Castlevania: HD? I mean, that's a good idea and all, but you already made that game. Plus, that game is actually good. So, from now on, whenever someone mentions "Castlevania:HD," people will have to ask if they mean "the good one on the GBA" or the "shitty XBLA grind-fest with all the recycled graphics." More importantly though, it doesn't make any sense. "Harmony of Dissonance" works. You see, starting the title with "Harmony" allows you to maintain your musical theme. "Harmony" and "Dissonance" are antonyms, so you've made a clever little play on words there. "Harmony of Despair," on the other hand, has no such word play. It means only that you and your friends are co-operating "harmoniously" in your "despair" as you suffer through a betrayal of a brand you all love. But, hey, at-least your cries of pain will be in tune.
You see, the conflicting art styles help the player identify their character on screen.
Titles are important. They are the first thing a player knows about your game and the first thing they'll tell their friends about it.

My only rule with titles is that something's title is simply what people call it, and you have no control over this. Buffy is, for example, just Buffy, having grown out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer long ago. Jedi Outcast is just that, and sure as hell isn't Star Wars: Dark Forces: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Hell, WoW is pretty much just WoW now. I see artsy titles that tell me nothing quite regularly, mostly on fiction, and they just don't work for me. As soon as you notice the people on your team or your audience referring to the product as anything other than what you printed on the cover, the title has changed. It's best to just go ahead and go with the more natural title than to hope against hope that people will stick with the one you just like so much.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Did Bethesda Just Make A "Date Game?"

I love me some co-op. I can pretty safely say I find gaming the most fun when I'm co-operating with friends. If many of my best memories of such are from 2 player scenarios, it's simply because I've very rarely been able to get more than 2 of my friends to get the same game on the same console at the same time in order to organize larger scale games. That, and the fact that the industry's recognition of this practical matter has lead to a few absolutely excellent 2 player co-op options.

Yet, this trailer doesn't exactly make me want to grab my usual co-op buddy and give the game a run through. Something about the (excellent) song choice, the available characters, and overt sexual tension makes me think that scenario could get a bit uncomfortable.

"Dude, I'm not checking out your ass!" "Then why is my tank behind me?"
Actually, it looks as if the game may best be played not with my buddy, but with my lady. She's not a big gamer, but she is loving our co-op trip through Portal 2 right now. Maybe I could present this as a "well, we just beat this. How about this next?"

The very idea strikes me as novel in the industry. In film, the "date movie" is an absolutely classic cash-in. It's a simple excuse for him to ask her out. She'll agree because, either way, she gets a free movie out of it. If they're already together, she'll force him to see it anyway. In every scenario, the studio makes bank regardless of the product's quality.

Did Bethesda inXile Entertainment just make the first real "date game?" Previous games have been good for playing ON dates, but this looks positively designed for a male/female co-op experience. (Sorry for my LGBT friends, but it's gonna be a bit before you notice any developments in this field.)  The growing camaraderie between the characters even hints that their might be a love story in here. Hell, the dialog might even end up qualifying it as a romantic comedy.

Could have worked as a horror FPS.
And the thing is, if it is, Hunted: The Demon's Forge could work so much better than When Harry Met Sally or Pretty Woman ever did. (Those are the only 2 rom-coms I, as a man, am allowed to remember exist) First, the guy is actually guaranteed to be engaged with the activity at hand, rather than simply waiting out the "we've now been sitting next to each longer long enough for you to touch me" phase of a first date. More importantly, the couple is actually engaging with one another. Movies are passive, but a game requires you to actually communicate, the key to building any kind of a relationship.
The place where we first met.
Partner refuses to provide you with vital intel? Bad communicator. Rushes ahead rather than taking on obstacles as a team? He's the center of his own world. Willing to thrown himself between you and waves of enemies while you hog the glory of the kill? There's a keeper.
Fencing skills are all I look for in a woman.
Worst case scenario, such a genre would give me something to drag my fiance to. And, really, such a move shouldn't surprise me. The disproportionate split of male/female gamers is shrinking every day. As games move from traditional male-centric design perspectives, and we see more quality content aimed directly at women, it seems that seeing rom-coms on consoles is more of an eventuality than anything else. I just hope they stay as fun as Hunted looks like it's going to be.
This is what threatens your relationship in the third act.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"If it's in D&D, it's in Eberron," or How To Trivialize a Brand

The titular statement was one made by a Wizards of the Coast representative in the lead up to D&D 4th Edition. It has been one of the core tenant's of the company's design philosophy for their published material since the new edition hit publication. In short, it refers to their policy of officially inserting everything placed into one of the company's generic source books into each of their official game settings. There's an obvious reason behind the strategy. Yet, from a design perspective, it has been a horrible misstep.

The reasoning is, of course, a financial one. They want to maximize their consumer base. Why produce content that portions of your target audience will not find useful? Declared the allegiance to a particular setting? You can still buy our book!
Tits! You like tits right? Buy our book!
The major problem here is that such a design choice will inherently make all of your settings generic. Every supplement published for D&D 4e must fit in Eberron, and every other one of their 1st party settings. The stuff obviously sourced from Rokugan? Now it's in Eberron too. Strahd Von Zarovich? Everywhere. Warforged, one of if not the most defining feature of Eberron? You can play them in the Forgotten Realms no problem. Excluding them would be a house rule.
Is this the setting where people ride dragons
Sure, it's easily shrugged off from an at-the-table perspective, at-least in the short run, but there are long term affects. Eberron has a metaplot centering entirely around dragons. So, how do the new natural-disaster themed dragons effect that? There's a new Eberron video game, which will introduce the setting to a whole new audience? Will they see the setting the same way people introduced to it back in 3.5 did? Can the Forgotten Realms of today really be considered the same as the one I so fondly remember from Baldur's Gate? If not, that's going to be very jarring if they ever make a third one.
Oh, but a Spelljammer crossover is fine. Hypocrite.
I don't mean this from a purely nostalgic point of view either. As a consumer, this sucks. Why buy a setting book, or choose anything other than the default Points of Light setting, if they're all exactly the same save for the relative placement of geography and peoples? It cheapens the brands to the point of irrelevance.

The thing is, it's totally unnecessary. Just because it's in the book or mini box doesn't mean you have to use it. There are ~100 other monsters in the book you could use. Who ever gets to them all? This was the original intent of these supplements, but somewhere along the line the idea of a supplement as something... supplemental became lost. The books ceased to be resources alone which, again, was a business decision. Decisions based upon financial necessity are understandable, but this may have been a short sighted one that may not actually be making Wizards money, in the long run.
Yes, ninjas! More! Add more stuff, I don't care what! This won't cause our product to become completely overblown at all!
So, how does this apply to game design as a whole? As the saying goes, "that which does not add, subtracts." Every generic element added to your game makes it that much more like every other game on the planet. While in some contexts this may be your goal, it generally makes your title less noticeable among the masses. In crowded genres, this can be a death knell.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Now On Twitter

In response to the whole FortressCraft debate, there's now a WannaDev twitter. Probably would have been a better place to have that whole debate in the first place.

In Defense of FortressCraft

Okay, as the preface to the last post states, I made a bit of a gaff with the last post. I'm going to come out and say that first. I insulted both FortressCraft and its developers based purely on playing Minecraft and watching videos of FortressCraft.
aaaand this is your face on uninformed journalism.
On the games, FortressCraft is not a complete product. Moreover, I have never played FortressCraft. There's the big rub noone's really bashed me on that someone should have. Yeah, we've seen videos, but as a group of people that is so often mislead by pre-release marketing that's something we should know never tells the whole story. Had I not played Nier I would have assumed it was identical to any other samey JRPG, rather than a flawed but eclectic spin on the genre as akin to Darksiders as Final Fantasy. Therefore, I have exactly zero place making any assessment of FortressCraft's actual status. Is it a ripoff or not? I duno - I'll have to wait for the release to find out.

As for the designer, I made some personal jabs that were uncalled for and entirely based in conjecture. Those I entirely retract and apologize for. Bashing indie devs based on the unfinished production they've shown is no better for the industry than the perceived issue I so lambasted previously. Furthermore, the guy had the balls to step up and state his case, which he did in a relatively civil manner. On the internet, that says quite a bit.

In the interest of fairness, I'm not going to retract anything. Online, it comes off as if you're trying to change history and  rewrite what you said. So the last article stays up - with this one as an addendum. Am I backing down? No. Was I totally right? No. Do I seek to align myself better with what is, in fact, right? Yes. Seems to often that people online are completely unwilling to modify their stances in light of debate. You're right - the other guy is wrong. Forever. No matter what. If that's gonna be the case though, what's the point of a debate at all?

So, what mislead me? Well, I made two mistakes.

1) I foolishly assuming that "independent" is always synonymous with "starving artist and dependent on the kindness of strangers" because, after all, some people aren't wannabe devs - but people who've been in and out of the industry for years and have DECIDED to be independent.

You see, I'm aware of the history of Minecraft, how their business model works, and I've played the game to explore its design. These were known quantities to me. I knew of its critical and popular success, but did not really examine its financial success. Now, I know that should not have any bearing on the matter. Steal a dollar from  homeless man or from Richard Brandson, it's all theft. Still, the fact that Mojang apparently turns $350,000 A DAY on their indie project at last count does tend to color the picture somewhat. It lends credence to the developer of FortressCraft's assessment that Minecraft is not so much a beta as a gold release with regular updates. It at least makes my casting of Mojang in the fragile victim position somewhat laughable.

2) I addressed a very specific case, not as an illustration, but as if it were the issue in and of itself. The SHOULD have been an article about how derivative works affect the medium. By focusing one one case, I made my argument here dependent on a subjective assessment: "is game A a ripoff of game B." What I SHOULD have done and will endeavor to correct shortly is spoken about this from a more theoretical perspective.

The basic argument here SHOULD have been that when you copy something directly, without innovation, you get one of two results:
A) You blow the original out of the water, either due to quality, marketing, or market control, and damage the bottom line of the other guy.
B) You don't succeed in beating the big guy at his own game, and produce something inferior with no more worth than what already existed before your efforts. It's just another piece of shovelware only selling to grandmothers who don't know the difference and buy purely by cover art.

My assessment was really that when A happens to an independent developer, it's not only unfortunate but bad for the industry as it discourages creativity and innovation.

That being said, being informed by something is not the same as ripping it off. Darksiders, for example, takes several gameplay mechanics whole hock from other games. They, however, congeal into a wholly original and new whole. Anyone who's played both Portal and Darksiders' "Portal section" will tell you that, though the latter's inspiration is clear, the gameplay mechanics are entirely different.

FortressCraft is Bad For Gaming (?)

(edit: Full disclosure - the ? in the title is new. In discussion, I've learned a bit more about this than original research had turned up. Check both the comments and the next article for discussion on that. In summary though: I retract my assessment that FortresCraft can objectively be called a "clone" of Minecraft and the idea that FortressCraft will significantly damage Minecraft's bottom line. The bit about it scaring other developers away from that business model though - that's still sound.)

You all know Minecraft right? Indie game? Big hit internet sensation? The current darling of artsy game connoisseur types - a title previously held by the likes of Limbo (meh), Braid, and Portal?
Alright, NOW we're getting pretentious.
Well, have you ever heard of FortressCraft? No? Well, it's the thing that looks to dig a hole in the roof of your mine and use it as a cistern.
This is your indie game on FortressCraft.
You see, FortressCraft is Minecraft. The difference? Graphics, some as-of-yet unspecified extra features which do not yet exist, and, the big one, an XBox Live release.

This is bad for the gaming industry, developer and consumer alike.

Why? Well, Minecraft has been successful largely due to its unique business plan. It allow users to pay for a work in progress, on faith, in order to fund the completion of the project. It provides investors for a product which would otherwise never be made, and players don't have to wait for a finished product to enjoy its parts. It is, in theory, great. In a world where this were common practice, we all would have been playing Duke Nukem Forever for years, rather than anticipating it, "abandonware" would just be "unfinishedware," and more such software would actually have the funds to never go on hiatus in the first place.
Maybe the original, abandoned version of Daikatana WOULD have. (Check the link to actually find out!)
FortressCraft destroys this. You see, if the designer of Minecraft had not used this business plan, none of us would have played Minecraft, beyond the original two week demo project which it has since far outgrown. Even that original project would never have received the attention it has. The developers would not have the funds to sustain the project. They could not simply hope, without funding, that, upon completion, they would recoup their losses and produce a profit. Minecraft simply would not exist.

By extension, of course neither would FortressCraft. Without this business model, he would have never seen it, never had time to capitalize on the situation, and apparently never developed a interesting game concept of his own. Yet, he'll be the one to profit from the Xbox market. That might not seem like a huge deal, but one must recall that the vast majority of gamers aren't "in the know" enough to know all of this. This is especially true for the console market. Almost every sale of FortressCraft will be an individual who will no longer need to buy MineCraft. In other words, that's pay the designer should have gotten for his work that he now never will. It might not seem like a big deal, but for an indie developer that's a financial hit that's incredibly hard to take.

By doing such a project as FortressCraft, its designer has all but doomed all future chances of success for such business models. Even if it's a bomb, or never releases, its effects will be felt. You just can't risk the chance of some guy swooping in and aping your work at the last minute, making great profit for little investment. It doesn't promote "competition" because it denies Minecraft's team any opportunity to compete. Competition has a positive economic effects, unjust enrichment does not.

So, let's move beyond the subjective. We can argue all day over whether or not FotressCraft is a "clone" or represents copyright infringement. That's an extremely complex legal matter I'm not qualified to comment on. Let's focus on what this objectively means for gamers and designers.

-Designers: It has gotten that much harder to fund independent projects, and thus that much harder to create original and experimental products.

-Gamers: There are games - games you would have loved - that will now never exist.

And all for what? A minor financial flash in the pan for one man, a one hit wonder unlikely to be followed up by future creative success once he's wrung the creative juices out of someone else's work.

In short, if you're anyone other than the creator of FortressCraft, FortressCraft has hurt you.

(edit: Some text redacted for being unnecessarily personal and entirely based on my own presumptions)
(edit 2: I'd also like to add that, while this article is about a particular case, this isn't a new practice. Oh how creativity is rewarded in the industry we so often decry as bereft of original ideas.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Popular Mechanics: The Catharsis Button

Like many avid male gamers with significant female counterparts, I want my fiance to be a gamer herself. I spend no small amount of effort, sometimes to her chagrin, on the task. While I realize that it may be dangerously close to "wanting to change" someone, I don't feel it's the same. I enjoy getting into her interests and, like those, I see it as something we can do together. Some of my best bonding moments with friends have been over video games. Furthermore, I just don't get how someone could NOT be into video games. It's like someone saying they don't like music. I can believe that they don't like what they've heard and know of, but that there is no music in the world for them seems absolutely impossible and incredibly sad.
Ladies, just think of it as a picnic with space marines.
In my attempts at winning her over, I have had many setbacks, but also a few wonderful, if small, victories. I can count the number of games she really enjoys and will pick up at her own volition on one hand, but she also eats those things up. Amongst the titles that she's grown enamored with is A Boy and His Blob. She expressed interest when I bought a copy for my little sister, so I had to immediately go out and pick up a copy for our own home.

So, all of this has beating around the bush finally leads to the actual topic of this post, a feature of A Boy and His Blob I like to refer to as the "catharsis button."

Pressing up on the Wiimote's D-Pad causes "the boy" to hug Blob. This serves no practical purpose. There is no secret way it kills the final boss, no gameplay trick, they just share a hug - accompanied by an impossibly cute little noise she says should be spelled "nnnnnnnnnnnnnn."
"And the Grinch's heart grew three times that day."
So, why, as a designer, do I think that's in there? Well, the entire game is built around the relationship between "the boy" and Blob - so of course there's that aspect. In that sense it's a far more effective version of Lionhead's attempt at integrating touch as a mechanic in Fable 3. On occasion, I've noticed her hugging Blob expressly because of how many times she's had to manipulate him over the course of a level, or due to some frightening fall. He's her partner, and she feels the need to show her appreciation for him. It's beautiful really. That is, however, a purely affective use. Though that holds equal weight, I do believe the action serves an objective function. Catharsis.

As my fiance plays through the game, she will occasionally come upon situations that result in repeated failures. After such incidents she will, inevitably and without prompting, hug Blob. Watching over her shoulder, it's obvious what effect this has on her. She's releasing the pent up frustration she's developed with the game. In many places where, in other games, she would have gotten annoyed and walked away from the title forever, she has simply hugged Blob a couple of times, relaxed and pressed on anew.

This is, of course, a familiar course of action to many gamers. Many a time have I either intentionally thrown a protagonist into certain death for this purpose. When life gets me down, few things pick me up better than a good old fashioned GTA murder spree. In no other game, however, have I ever seen this effect either so serenely or concisely captured.
I have such fond, sociopathic memories of this parking garage.

This, combined with the games very calm soundtrack, leads the platforming puzzler to be one of the least frustrating experiences I've played, despite the fact that it presents no lack of challenge.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 3)

Part 3: Escalating Player Investment

As we've been discussing, a major difference between the "casual game" and the $60 AAA title is the players lack of investment in the media upon initial exposure. We, or I have if you've decided I'm a moran, have decided that.

The first goal is to to get the player to invest just a first few moments of their time on the title. After the player's brain recognizes that they've spent some of their precious time with a game, the game begins to benefit from that aforementioned investment bias. They've allotted the time, so they might as well pay attention and see weather or not this thing is any good. Your goal in this period is very simple - don't cause the player to turn your game off. Hell, avoiding higher brain functions at all may be advisable

This is basically the old "first impressions" routine. The player absolutely will not go beyond the first minute to see if your title gets better as it goes. Final Fantasy XIII provides an enormously scaled model of failing at this. So, in the first moments you must avoid raising the following red flags: frustration, dullness, and unoriginality. The game must only be entertaining.

A common mistake is placing an overly restrictive tutorial, especially a lengthy one, at the very outset of the game. This is often raises all three of the red flags we just mentioned. Tutorials are an essential part of most games, but they're also an art-form in and of themselves. Most players are perfectly fine with tutorials, usually appreciative of them at first, but their patience wears thin quickly. They've started up a video game - and thus you know that your players want to play a video game. Bad tutorials fail because they are not "playing a video game." Good tutorials either do not get in the way of play, or they are, themselves, play. The majority of Portal is nothing but play, without a traditional tutorial in sight, because that's all been integrated.

Don't neglect to teach your player how to play either, or their constant failure will simply result in frustration. Again, red flag. This isn't to say that the first level of a game should be impossible to fail at, of course. This isn't the case for Super Mario Bros or Sonic the Hedgehog, and those games caught on alright. In the beginning though, your game should only present enough challenge to prevent it from becoming dull, another of our red flag issues.
I'm predicting exactly 0 people will need to click the "Super Mario Bros." link.
Once you've avoided those "red flag" issues, you can safely assume your player will provide the game with a reasonable amount of time to assess its quality.

Here things should be rather simple. Theoretically you believe you've built a good game worthy of publication, unless you work for Omega Force or EA Tiburon of course.
If those two got pregnant, they'd have quintuplets. Identical quintuplets.
There is, however, a pitfall there. Occasionally a game will try to give the player new content in such small portions, holding its best parts back for a big climax, that the player has quit before they ever experience them. Don't let this be you. The ending should be spectacular, of course, but the beginning should be just as fun. You have to let them know that good things are coming.
Theory: Halo 2's original ending was so awesome that Bungie worried it would dwarf the rest of the game and scrapped it.

The next thing I can advise is providing a clear sense of purpose. Ever wonder WHY so many gives are divided up by levels?Yes, there were originally considerable technical limits that reinforced modular game design, but why has this remained when so many other tropes from that era have faded? Why did Super Mario Bros, use not only levels, but "worlds?". Progress. By breaking up the game into definite checkpoints, you provide the player with a sense that, even in the short time they've been trying the game, they've made progress. They've attained something, and are thus further invested. A more modern example of this can be seen in current XBox Live Arcade demos which often end with a statement along the lines of "Congratulations on beating the demo! Buy now to maintain your progress and get the avatar award you unlocked!"

After beating 3 of the 5 levels of World 1 the thought process will become "well, I might as-well beat World 1." After that, "Well, I've beaten 1/3 of the game. Might as well pick it up for myself and finish it." And why? How does that last part make any sense? It's normally only "So I can say I did." IE: "So I can't say I wasted my time on the first 1/3." The player has become invested, and you just moved a unit.

In summary:
1 - Avoid "red flag" issues like frustration, dullness, or unoriginality. These may cause the player to end the game prematurely.
2- Show your player the quality of your game early. They have to know what they'll be getting to assess value.
3- Provide a sense of progress. Lead the way to the full product.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 2)

Part 2: Removing Barriers to Investment

A "barrier to investment" is what prevents the consumer from starting the "escalation of investment" program designed into your game, which we will discuss in the following post. In our original example of Andreas_S/Dantus's little web-game, this took the form of the game's control scheme. What seemed sufficient to him, and didn't bother me at all, was a barrier to entry for the little girl. She invested her time and god back frustration. The mental formula became [investment = frustration], which trumped the illogical tendency of [reward - investment = investment*time].

This is why most games you play fall into very similar control schemes. In third person view my hand automatically hits A to jump on my 360. On my PC, the spacebar. WASD make me move. When I play an older PC FPS, I immediately turn on mouselook and set up my strafe buttons. These conditioned comfort zones may seem as if they stifle creativity on occasion, but their existence is merely a byproduct of the need to reduce those initial barriers of entry. The majority of the industry has agreed on some basic guidelines in order to keep the consumer happy.

Continuing in the same title, the father actually making the post pointed out that the game's first "golden feather," an optional vanity item akin to Super Meat Boy's bandages or other such pickups, is way too hard to get. It isn't that it is objectively hard to get, one merely needs to carefully traverse an unstable pile of platforms, but it is relatively hard for it's location in the game and in comparison to the other "golden feathers" on that level. It is also thrust upon the player in such a way as to make it impossible to ignore. This can potentially break up the frustration free flow of those precious first moments, and thus should be addressed.
Example: After investing >100x lives on one $#$@$ bandage, I attach entirely nonexistent value to it.
Long story short, the first moments of a game should be fun - pure and simple. They should be literally anything that will keep the player glued to the screen. The challenge, and thus risk of frustration should only be ramped up once the player has actually decided that they enjoy your game and thus want to invest the time to play it, the effort to overcome these new challenges, and the money that will allow you to provide them with such an experience.

Other major "barriers to investment" are more practical concerns, such as platform compatibility, advertising, or product availability. In an ideal world, you would release and the customer would instantly and automatically have the demo to your game sitting on the desktop of whatever media consumption device they happen to be using at the time. On the consumer's side, this wouldn't even be a bad thing, if every single title released was absolute gold. Such is, however, not the case. These things are "barriers to investment," but there's little subjective editorializing to be done on them. Try to maximize compatibility, make the thing accessible to as many people as possible, and do everything within reason to let all of them know about it. Kinda objective and obvious - if frustrating to execute.

So, you've taken the extra care to remove such "barriers to entry," the player now has your game in their hands, and is enjoying their first few moments with it. Now what? Now you have to bait the hook. For that, stay tuned to the 3rd and final part of our series on Player Investment in the Casual Games Martket, "Part 3: Escalating Player Investment."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 1)

 Part 1: Player Investment in the Short Term

So, earlier today while fooling around with Unity 3D, more on that later, and looking for a solution to one of my problems in my current project I stumbled upon someone else's support thread. The query is irrelevant, but regardless I tried to help by playing the demo of the game he'd been working on, Chuck the Adventure Duck. It's a fun little platformer with some unique elements, but that's not really what sparked the post. That was the initial responses to his advertisement of this demo build.

Therein another poster mentioned allowing his young daughter to try the game. She instinctively reached for the spacebar to jump and, failing this, quickly grew frustrated with the game's use of the "up arrow" for jumping.

Now, obviously the solution for such frustrations is to map redundant controls. There's really no reason not to map Jump to Up, W, and spacebar, as well as putting Left, Down, and Up on A,S, and D respectively. The thing that got me thinking, however, was how quickly such a simple and inconsequential thing turned her off of the game.

Earlier in the blog I'd made a few posts about "Player Investment Strategies" (1, 2, 3). These really focused either on the concept as a whole or its application to large AAA titles. I addressed the macro, but never really the micro.

While Player Investment is key to the long term retention of customers for more drawn out games, one may assume that it isn't an issue for "casual games." Games played on web browsers or mobile devices are, after all, not expected to be played in more than short bursts. It is, however, this temporal aspect of the player's experience which makes attention to "player investment" absolutely crucial. The player will only be exposed to the game for a few fleeting minutes and, without such care, it is entirely possible that those will be the only minutes in which they will ever experience the title.

Unlike more traditional PC or console games, most "casual" games do not require any initial investment. Most people's first exposure to Angry Birds or Words With Friends, for example, is likely not even on their own system, but over the shoulder of a friend.
I love that the iPad has basically revived "hot-seat" play. I'd like to think these kids are playing Heroes of Might and Magic III.
You may recall our previous discussions in which I mentioned that the human mind, in its fantastic imperfection, has a tendency to overvalue things in which it has invested. The very fact, then, that a AAA title has already cost the consumer ~$60 makes them more likely to feel that it is a good game. The alternative, after all, is to admit that they have made a foolish decision. Ever gone on a shopping spree and picked up a sackful of games on the cheap? Your experience with any one of those is never quite like it is when your only able to bring home only one title, is it?
There are very few games I wouldn't pay $5.00 for. Many of them are on the Wii.
It is this lack of bias the casual game creator must overcome. Their title is new. The likely lack of promotional fanfare has left the consumer devoid of preconceived notions. They have no initial investment, and thus lose nothing if they drop the title after seconds. This is exactly why those first few seconds are so important.

So how, then, do you consciously design your title to build such investment? It comes in two steps: removing the initial "barrier to investment" and providing "rapid escalation of investment."

That being said, I want to discuss two specific aspects of game design and I can already tell that this post is getting too long. So, we're going to break this up into another 3 parter. Stay tuned for "Part 2: Removing Barriers to Player Investment," and "Part 3: Escalating Player Investment" over the next couple of days.