Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mouse Guard

It's a commonly held belief that mice like cheese.  In truth it isn't their preferred food source.  They can eat cheese to be sure, mice are omnivores, but ideally higher calorie meals are desirable.  Mice and cheese, expectations versus reality, they encapsulate Mouse Guard in a nutshell.

In case it's unfamiliar, Mouse Guard is a series of comics by David Petersen.  Described by the author himself as "mice with swords," the setting is very medieval and european in flavor.  Akin to novels like A Secret of NIMH, Watership Down and the Redwall series, the world is grounded in our own except that some of the animals exhibit characteristics and a level of intelligence typically associated with humans.  Normally, I'm not a big fan of stories about anthropomorphized animals, but Mouse Guard is an exception in that it takes the ordinary and turns it into the fantastical simply by changing the perspective from from a human one to that of a society of fully sentient mice.  The backdrop is essentially a bunch of independently governed mouse settlements that have entered into a compact by forming an chivalric order known as the "Guard" that is charged with protecting the "Territories" (as they are collectively called) from potential threats.  Keep in mind that mice are at the bottom rung of the animal hierarchy.  Pretty much any creature in nature that isn't a herbivore sees mice as a potential repast.

The stories told in the comics use this as a jumping-off point, but subverts expectations to varying degrees.  In the initial six issue run, for example, an internal mouse rebellion turns out to be a much greater danger to the Territories than incursions by hungry predators.  Unusual in these sorts of tales, carnivores are not depicted as being unequivocally evil.  A ferret-king appearing in the third volume is depicted as honorable, only eating mice out of necessity rather than cruel desire.  There's also a Mouse Guard table-top RPG, but this being a blog about video games, I really want to talk about the potential for a video game adaptation of the IP.

When I look at a map of the Mouse Guard world, I can't help but feel reminded of Strategy RPGs such as Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts, and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  Because of this, it's my instinct to consider Mouse Guard best suited to some kind of turn-based, story driven, single-player experience.  I'm not sure it's the best fit though considering most foes of mice are considerably larger in terms of physical dimensions.  We're talking about Shadow of the Colossus sized threats here...or at the very least Dragon's Dogma.  Either way, most SRPGs prefer to operate on a chessboard-like grid which isn't a very good framework for such wildly differently sized opponents.  However, therein lies the potential for innovating the subgenre.  If you were to combine the freedom of movement in Arc the Lad or Valkyria Chronicles with the mobility of Mario+Rabbits: Kingdom Battle then it might be possible to depict these kinds of large-scale skirmishes in a way never seen before.

The increased size and breadth of the battlefield could be a problem, but one of the nice things about Mouse Guard is the fact that each Guard member wears a distinctly dyed cloak that, when combined with variations in fur color, gives each mouse a distinctive look even from a zoomed-out perspective.  Animation is another tricky point, considering motion capture isn't really an option.  That said, it's amazing to see what one small team of indie developers has accomplished with Ghost of a TaleDark Maus also serves as an excellent example of how a strong visual style can make up for a lack of fidelity.  Something that people tend to forget is how much more steeped in shadow pre-industrial societies were.  Natural light was the main source of illumination and artificial sources were either expensive (candles), didn't last long (torches), or were serious fire hazards (lamps).  Ask anyone who has worked as a director of photography and they'll tell you that atmospheric lighting can make a huge difference.  I imagine the above also holds true for the kind of dwellings anthropomorphic mice would inhabit.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wash Up and Eat Properly

There's been a recent uptake in discussions regarding the cost of game development.  In particular single-player story-driven experiences are, according to certain triple AAA  publishers, no longer financially viable as a one-time 60 dollar charge; hence the reason we see companies like EA abandoning the market space, while other publishers (such as WB) try to cram as much DLC, loot boxes and other microtransaction driven schemes into their games as possible.  Personally, I have doubts about these claims of infeasibility...it's not like any of these companies are allowing us inspect their accounting records.  Sure making video games has become a much more resource intensive process than it was during the 8 and 16-bit eras, but to offset that there's a wealth of third-party development tools available, in addition to a much larger potential customer base.  However, for the sake of argument let's presume that they really are in the red.  I can think of three easy ways these poor publishers could get back in the black.

Rumor has it that some of EA's past games were marked on budgets equal to the amount actually spent making the game.  In other words, they could have reduced the development costs of certain games by nearly 50 percent simply by dumping all the thirty second advertisements in lieu of sending some free copies out to Youtubers and Twitch streamers.  It seems silly to do otherwise considering word of mouth has, for a long time, carried more weight than simple product placement.  Visceral Studio, the now defunct makers of the Dead Space series, was based out of San Francisco...one of the most expensive cities in the world.  When you look at companies like IBM, they have all but deserted their corporate offices in large part because it's no longer necessary to have everyone under the same roof.  A variety of video games, including Kerbal Space Program as well as Ori and the Blind Forest, were made by a team scattered across the globe that coordinated their development efforts via the internet.  This sort of dispersed workforce brings up the question of executive supervision.  Former EA employees have gone on record saying that the company has a nontrivial number of people who get paid a lot to do very little.  Reducing wasteful administrative spending though is only one part of the problem when it comes to leadership.

Asset creation is a time consuming process that needs to be channelled by a strong directorial vision.  Too many games waste time and money on stuff the player doesn't notice, doesn't care about, or is thoroughly unimpressed by.  When you look at games such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or more recently Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's amazing what a relatively small team can accomplish.  Could they have added more provided they had the time/money/people?  Sure.  Would it have improved the experience significantly.  Not really.  Some developers have a bad habit of stretching the scope of their game in the vain hope that bigger equals better.  This often leads to over budget hot garbage, or titles that are trapped in an early access limbo for, seemingly, an eternity.  In other words, it's better to come up with a tight concept and execute on it rather than faffing about half conceived notions of open-world games with crafting and rogue-like elements.  Fun isn't going to materialize from the ether just because you keep attach more bells and whistles.

This brings me to my final point which is trend chasing.  As far as I know nobody has gotten rich making Minecraft clones or Clash of Clans copycats.  Worse still are flash-in-the-pan hits like Angry Birds and Farmville.  Real success comes from franchises like the Soulsborne series...which, I should stress, wasn't an instant hit; Before Demon's Souls there was King's Field and before Command and Conquer there was Dune II: Battle for Arrakis.  It takes time, money, effort and a few iterations on an idea to cultivate something that is both innovative and entertaining.  Hitting paydirt straight out of the gate is exceedingly rare and in most cases fleeting.

Of course most businesses only see the future in terms of next quarter profits, and as such often screw themselves when it comes to sustainable profits.  They can scoop whales and dolphins out of the water for awhile, but how long until that well runs dry?  More importantly, where's the respect for the craft?  I'm not going to climb on my high horse and claim video games are art, but at the very least they are supposed to be for the express purposes of entertaining the people who buy them...not to abuse and exploit.  This is rapidly degrading into a rant so I'll wrap it up by simply saying developer harassment and death threats are not acceptable, but publishers and shareholders that push this kind of garbage need to engage in some serious introspection rather than dumping their problems on enthusiasts of the hobby. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Indefinite Act Structure

How about an action-adventure game instead
of a multiplayer FPS with CCG mechanics?
Sometimes no story is better than a bad story.  When it comes to video games like the Middle-earth duology or Evil Within franchise, I'm inclined to agree.  On the other hand, I can't say EA's decision to abandon single-player narrative-driven games has me excited either.  My guess is they want to use their Star Wars IP rights to make a Destiny clone.  Technically, the Destiny series has a story, but it's an obfuscated mess.  Bungie Studios has never been particularly good at spinning a compelling yarn.  However, it hasn't mattered all that much because they nail the thing that makes or breaks a video game, the quality of the gameplay.

One of the nice things about Resident Evil 4 that doesn't get mentioned often is its fast paced, unobtrusive (albeit cheesy) story.  The narrative isn't needlessly complicated either, Leon Kennedy is on a mission to rescue the president's daughter...and that's ultimately what he does.  Unfortunately Shinji Mikami didn't continue this "economy of storytelling" when he moved on away from the Resident Evil franchise to work on Evil Within.  I have to admit that I rather liked the visuals and non-linear elements found in the IP, particularly the sequel, but the overly long cutscenes rub me the wrong way.  Not being much of a Twin Peaks or Stephen King fan, it's possible that I might not appreciate the inspiration for Evil Within.  Then again when it comes to Shadow of War, I can't say my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien has made me enjoy the journey of Talion the Ranger all that much.

I think the most accurate assessment of the Middle-earth games is they're fan fiction roughly on par with Kirill Eskov's novel The Last Ringbearer.  It's apparent that both works tried to subvert some of the tropes that Tolkien invoked, but in doing so they created a tale that doesn't mesh with the original material.  In the case of Kirill Eskov's book, I'm not exactly sure what could have been done to improve it, but for Shadow of Mordor they could have simply trimmed or edited out the whole Minas-Ithil-Palantir-Spider-Lady plotline in favor of focusing on what makes the games fun - namely the Nemesis System.

I've often heard tell that multiplayer games and/or purely sandbox games have longer lifespans than single-player experiences.  The reason being there's no hard endpoint on how much time you can invest in them.  For me though that's actually the main turn-off.  I guess you could say that eventually the servers will get shut down or the player base will move on to other titles...either way though there really isn't any sense of closure.  Sure, a lot of times video game developers will drop the ball when it comes time to wrap things up, but at the bare minimum I'm glad when the course has a set finish line instead of a nebulous treadmill with a carrot dangling off the front.

Would have been a better game without the 
Assassin's Creed storyline baggage

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mismatch Making

Activision recently filed a patent having to do with online matchmaking.  It's got a bunch of legal gobbledygook in it, but the essence of of the submission is an attempt to acquire exclusive rights to a system in which players who have made microtransaction purchases are deliberately matched up online with players who haven't (at nebulously specified opportune times).  Activision claims that they have yet to implement such a system in any of their games.  It's possible they are being honest here.  Then again, big-budget game publishers such as EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros Interactive and (of course) Activision themselves have a pretty poor track record when it comes to telling the truth.  Regardless, I'm fairly confident that this sort of matchmaking in online games has been going on for a while now.

War Thunder and World of Warships are two examples I can attest to regarding the implementation of this sort of microtransactions sales strategy.  Supposedly, both games (made by different developers) are designed to set the player up with teammates and opponents of roughly equal skill.  At first this definitely felt the case to me.  However, after advance several tiers into the progression system found in each game things started to change.  Instead of going up against players of roughly equal ability, I ran into long strings of unbalanced matches, resulting in defeat after defeat (often six times in a row or more) before eventually eeking out a single victory.  Normally, I don't mind if my team loses an online game so long as I felt like I did my part.  Unfortunately, both War Thunder and World of Warships like to offer a daily first victory bonus which are essential for progression, hence the grind became more and more pronounced for me.  Other cheapskates like myself reported having similar experiences.  On the other hand players who shelled out a bit of real cash tended to have much better win/loss ratios.  I should stress this wasn't directly because of in-game purchases.  Far from it...a long running joke with both games is the fact that most real money upgrades are basically just flashy cosmetics, like pusher planes in War Thunder, or famous historical vessels in World of Warships.  That makes good sense if you want to maintain the outward appearance of fairness.  It might be an illusion though in that these games actually reward players who spent real money on microtransactions through some underhanded coding in the matchmaking system.

Granted, this is all anecdotal evidence on my part.  I could be wrong and may have simply had the mother of all bad luck streaks...twice.  Frankly, it doesn't matter all that much to me one way or the other though because War Thunder and World of Warships are free-to-play games that I invested zero dollars in.  Maybe I wasted a bit of my time, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of each game before deleting it from my harddrive after things got a bit to grindy for my tastes.  Still, if word got out that the programmers for either (or both) of these games were guilty of fixing matches in subtle ways to benefit paying customers I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest.