Monday, February 29, 2016

Spot the Game

Out of the nine GIFs show here, one is a Ludum Dare Game Jam project.  Can you find it?

...and the answer is

Monday, February 22, 2016

Low Endurance

Even though we’re less than two months into 2016, I’ve already noticed a troubling trend. The staying power of recently released games doesn’t justify their price tags. Now I know the ratio of dollars-to-hours-of-gameplay is a poor argument to make, but in my mind the real issue is a lack of content. Granted, the term “content” is a bit nebulous since padding out a video game with too many fetch quests, too much backtracking, and a lot of grind can be just as bad as not having enough for the player to do. So, in a sense I should clarify the term a bit. Perhaps if it is used to refer to interesting things for the player to experience, it might hold a more useful meaning. Unfortunately, there’s still a snag when it comes to defining “interesting” since that too is fairly subjective. I’ve heard people claim they got more enjoyment out of the three and a half hour long indie darling Firewatch than the one-hundred plus hours to be had in the Witcher 3. I get why some people might feel that way (or even the opposite), but my gut tells me that’s not all there is to it.

Media coverage is more important to the financial success of a video game now more than ever, and yet long games (particularly RPGs) rarely receive much attention. The fundamental reason for this stems from the importance of day-one reviews and media outlets not wanting to make the necessary time investment. In the amount of time it takes to cover Final Fantasy from beginning to end a media outlet reviewer could have finished and written up articles (or video scripts) for half-a-dozen other titles from the more popular action/adventure genre. Even more lucrative from a writing fodder perspective are Walking Simulators. Rarely more than a few hours in length, these fail-state-free games give wannabe journalist plenty of material to work with once they start typing up their thoughts. Youtubers often find themselves in a similar situation since those all important view counts tend to drop off the longer a series goes on for. Sometimes it’s because the novelty of the game wears off. Other times it’s simply because the channel host has been drained of their enthusiasm for the game. Either way, short and punchy draws the biggest audience…and that’s not necessarily bad. People who play games are, on the whole, getting older which tends to equate to ever larger commitments to work and family eating into their free time. In some ways it sucks, but that’s just a fact of life. The real problem, as I see it, goes back to what I was saying earlier about price.

Actually, the more I think about it the more the shadow of this problem existed well before this year. Titles like Destiny and Star Wars: Battlefront were essentially early access in that the respective developers of each game had extensive plans for post-launch support in the form of DLC and patch updates. The thing is early access usually means that the game is going to start cheap and stay the same price or grow incrementally more expensive as it approaches version 1.0, but these titles were being sold at high prices from the start. The same is also true for some smaller 2016 releases like Tharsis, Street Fighter V and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, all of which were obviously still in need of major work, but nevertheless were sold like they were complete products. Other titles include Oxenfree which felt purposefully overpriced by producers who knew full well that there’s a segment of the gaming population that will pay any price for the hot new Steam release just to get in on the zeitgeist. On a side note where the heck is the second act of Firewatch? The story gap in the middle of that game is so big I’ve seen conspiracy theories floating around the net claiming that the developers plan on updating it later on...and don't even get me started on the missing last "episode" of GALAK-Z.

Anyway, this does seem to be the hot new business strategy in the video game industry. Hook in a bunch of early adopters with pre-order hype and incentives then placate their inevitable ire at the game being incomplete with promises of polish and content down the road. After that, entice the more wary with token sales (or discounts which apply only to the main game and not DLC). Lastly, offer up the entire product as one package when any further work on the game is no longer economically viable….although a particularly good seller might warrant an HD remake down the road. I have a feeling some would argue that these are just standard business practices while others would call it an outright scam. Here’s my two cents – buyer beware.

I’ll leave it at that.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Of Rabbits, Mice and Men

Comparisons to Dark Souls are pretty common these days.  I do it fairly often on this blog page.  I've also seen others do likewise in game reviews and on forums across the internet.  It's usually shorthand for hard-but-fair gameplay with RPG elements.  Similarities tend to end there, but in the case of Dark Maus, mechanics like stamina bars, campfire checkpoints, recoverable bloodstains and the general design philosophy feel borrowed whole cloth.  That said, first time players will immediately notice two big differences; the top-down viewpoint...and a mouse for an avatar.

I actually like this idea a lot.  Unfortunately, I finds myself wishing that the developer more fully embraced the concept.  To me Dark Maus feels a bit too "Redwall" and not enough "Watership Down."  If that's not clarifying things let me elaborate a bit further.  Redwall is basically a series of novels about a medieval society wherein the people are replaced by anthropomorphic rodents.  Watership Down is also a novel except it's about a bunch of rabbits that have (for unexplained reasons) a level of intelligence more akin to humans than other mammals.  That might sound like the same basic concept, but it's a matter of approaches.  In Redwall the protagonists live in a castle, eat human-like food, wield iron-age weaponry (swords, spears, bows, etc.), and generally conduct themselves in a manner that feels consistent with a medieval human society.  In contrast, Watership Down is almost alien with rabbits living in simple warrens, eating grass, and using their innate weapons (teeth and claws).  Additionally, they have their own religious beliefs and some unique linguistics used to express concepts from the perspective of a rabbit.  To put it in video game terms one piece of media is a texture re-skin while the other is a somber thought experiment.

That's not to say one is objectively better than the other.  In fact if you asked me to choose my preferred IP, I would probably reject both in lieu of a third option - the comic series "Mouse Guard."  The reason for this stems from the unique aspects of the setting.  Specifically, Mouse Guard turns the mundane into high fantasy through a shift of perspective.  The titular Guard are a knightly order (of mice) that defend their species against classic antagonists like a wyvern (actually an owl), undead (really just hungry sand crabs), and barbaric hordes (weasels).  Hideous giant beasts are actually ordinary animals such as foxes and snakes, while the faithful steeds of the Guard are semi-domesticated rabbits and (in the case of flying mounts) birds.  Insects like beetles and bees are basically livestock and the principal fortress of the Guard is a hollowed out tree stump.  It's cool stuff, but I think it would be even better if the mice were outfitted in a way that is more reflective of their diminutive size.  Let me give some examples:

  • Sowing needle thrusting swords
  • Shirt button round shields
  • Ax heads made from shaving razors
  • Drinking mugs that are actually thimbles
  • Blue cloaks crafted from scraps of denim
  • Armor forged from tin cans and bottle caps

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.  Dark Maus has all the trappings of a uniquely engaging action RPG.  It just needs a bit more flourish in the form of scale appropriate enemies, environments and equipment.  Add to that some Shadow of the Colossus style boss battles and the setting and gameplay would be elevated above its derivative roots.  As is, it's an interesting game that doesn't quite realize its full potential.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Other "M" Word

With the recent release of games such as Tharsis, XCOM 2, and Darkest Dungeon I feel like talking a bit about RNG (again).  The term "risk management" gets thrown around a lot, but I think a more accurate way to approach these kind of games would be "risk mitigation."

Take Darkest Dungeon for example, one of the fundamental strategies revolves around character positioning because it effects what abilities can be used on a given turn.  With the exception of one class (the Leper) everyone has abilities that can be used regardless of where they are.  Of course pretty much every character has an optimal position where they can use their most useful abilities.  Sounds great, but characters can only have four of their seven abilities available for a given combat.  So what do you do?  Inexperienced players will make sure all four abilities can be used from the position they've chosen for each of their characters.  It's a decision predicated on the assumption that Lady Luck is going to stick by their side.  Here's the thing though Lady Luck has a sister named "Fate" and she is a harsh mistress.

Because of RNG, it's a statistical impossibility that things will go your way forever.  So what do you do when bad luck inevitably rolls around?  Sadly, a non-trivial numbers of players throw a temper tantrum and go online to decry how unfair the game is.  A better approach would be to make some contingency plans.  Specifically they should have at least one ability that can be used even if their group of adventurers are not in an ideal configuration.  It's unavoidable that at some point in the back row healer will get pulled to the front while the front line fighter will get shoved to the rear.  This could spell disaster, but if the player prepares for this potential outcome they can still put up a decent fight.  Some of the abilities they are forced to use might be sub-optimal, but remember that they least optimal thing you can do is a simple formation shift because you're not buffing your team, de-buffing the enemy, or dealing any damage.

Another example of risk mitigation for RNG games comes from Tharsis.  The way repairs work, it's an all or nothing situation.  Rather than using up the last of your dice rolls reducing the number of repair points needed down to 1 or 2, why not use those points for something that will provide some insurance down the road?  Assists, research and food are all great examples of ways to prepare contingency plans for when the dice just won't behave.

Similar to the repair mechanic in Tharsis, the enemies in Darkest Dungeon are designed around the concept of critical existence failure.  It doesn't matter if a foe has full health or only one hit point left, their ability to fight remains undiminished.  So when presented with an opponent who can't be killed before their next turn (baring an unlikely critical hit), what do you do?

The basic instinct of most players is to deal maximum damage in order to soften up the target for later.  Regrettably, this isn't the best choice because the enemy will still get to attack unhindered.  Stunning, de-buffing or moving the target so it can't attack effectively are all better strategies.  Status effects such as blight and bleed are also potentially useful because once an enemy is  whittled down to their last few points of health it might be possible to ignore them since the blight or bleed will finish them off on their next turn.  Hence, your characters can focus on other targets or restorative abilities for themselves.

XCOM 2 also has this concept to a degree in that it might be wiser to use a smoke grenade or suppressing fire in lieu of a low-chance-to-hit attack, especially if the target is unlikely to die from it.  Other examples of risk mitigation in XCOM 2 include sticking to full cover and only engaging one group of enemies at a time.

It has suddenly occurred to me that XCOM 2 is a lot more straight forward than the other two games I've mentioned.  That might explain why it is by far the most popular of the three.  Regardless, I think both Tharsis and Darkest Dungeon are fun games even if the player is at the mercy of RNG more than XCOM 2.  Ultimately it's still about mastering the game mechanics via risk mitigation.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Black Thumbs

A couple of days ago I had sudden and strange idea for a video game.  What if you combined Car Mechanic Simulator with Viscera Cleanup Detail?  Sort of like a pseudo-sim wherein you repair mechs in a Robotech, Front Mission or Battletech style setting.  There's actually a lot more to the concept than what you might initially assume.

Using real life field repair facilities as a baseline.  It's easy to imagine scenarios in which players must manage resources (time, spare parts, personnel, etc.) effectively in order to maximize the combat capability of the battle damaged machines under their care. Of course there could be all sorts of cool science fiction gadgets to play with like gyro alignment setters, fusion diagnostic scanners, laser synchronization optics, and joint actuation calibrators.  In addition to this, more mundane tools could be tossed into the mix such as armor cutting torches, fire suppression equipment, and liquid refueling systems.

On the management side of things, salvage costs offer up an interesting dichotomy that would add some depth to the gameplay.  Do you cannibalize one machine to get enough spare parts for two more?   Is it worth sending out a recovery team to pick a distant elite model wreck when there are several closer ordinary designs that could be recovered in the same amount of time?  Do you spend some extra effort on preventative maintenance, or do you save a bit but risk mechanical breakdowns?

It sounds kind of crazy that anyone would want to play such a game, but I think there is a niche audience for it.  If you look to at the old table-top RPG Mechwarrior, the first edition only allowed players to take the roll of mech pilots because designers thought, "Why would you want to play as anyone else?" it turns out some players actually did want to put themselves in the shoes of support personnel.  So when a second edition eventually came out it made provisions for players who were interested in the archetypal roles of technician, scout, or merchant.  

Obviously, we're talking a small development team, low-budget affair.  Which is fine because the concept is all about popping the hood and rummaging around, not going on some graphics intensive test drive across meticulously rendered landscapes.  Heck, you could even work in a progression system in the form of facility upgrades and more experienced assistants.  

If Papers Please can take the rather bland sound idea of being an immigration officer and turn it into a spy thriller, I don't see why a mech tech wouldn't have at least as much potential for storytelling.  Imagine, for example, having a saboteur in your midst...or more dramatic still you are the one doing the sabotage!  Perhaps some rival organization is blackmailing you, maybe you have been kidnapped and are being forced to repair enemy vehicles against your better judgment.  There is a lot of possible ways to get the players (in-game) hands dirty; both literally and metaphorically.