Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Old School Mistakes

I think it's safe to say people who have been playing video games for a long time are probably familiar with the term "Nintendo Hard."  There is a semi-related concept I have been tempted to label with regards to a lot of old games and recently  a lot of indie games.  More specifically, brutal difficulty spikes that don't jive with the overall experience.

Within the indie scene it's not a particularly new phenomenon.  FTL had it with regards to the final boss.  Both Banner Saga and its sequel had absurd last boss battles as well.  Bad North (before the developer patched in an easy mode) had a smattering of islands that were essentially deathtraps in which the reward for completing them didn't measure up to the amount of foes the player had to face off against.  SOMA had a particularly ruthless hunter enemy toward the end of the game that (for some) ruined the overall experience.  This eventually resulted in the addition of a "safe-mode," which much to my surprise, bumped sales of the game up significantly.  Other indie titles like Rain World and Wargroove have a problem where the early part of each game is reasonable enough, but quickly turns into grewling slog as the challenge ramps up to become more frustrating than fun...again...patches eventually addressed these problems.  So, all this begs the question, why do indie developers do this sort of thing to their games?

When it comes to the free-to-play model there is a manipulative logic to it.  Difficulty spikes are deliberately inserted at key points in the game in order to incentivise real-money purchases of in-game power boosts.  It sucks, but these games are technically free so I'm not sure how much one can justifiably complain about it - better to not play anymore than resentfully fork money over.

As more game-savvy individuals probably noticed though, the indie titles I specifically referenced previously aren't free-to-play.  Most don't have much in the way of micro-transactions either.  So, why do they have these weird spikes in difficulty?  It's possible that the games in question simply didn't get much in the way of playtesting.  After all, indie studios rarely have the resources to hire outside consultation.  I think there might be another more insidious reason though...as easy as it is to get blinders when working on a project for years upon years, some indie devs might intentionally borrowing a page from old-school design by adding difficulty spikes into their games out of a desire to artificially increase longevity.  There's an unfortunate tendency in a lot of gaming circles for people to assume long and hard is automatically better than short and easy.  Obviously, by their nature indie games tend to be shorter than most big-budget titles.  Oddly enough, price differences seem to only factor into opinions as far as dollar-per-hour ratios go.  Frankly, I think it's a worthless metric because if a developer wants to make their game longer it's easy to go the Darkest Dungeon route and pad the experience out with a bunch of repetitive grinding/farming.

Indie games (like old-school games) can't do the self-perpetuating grind that is live services (unless they're a rogue-like), but they have a sodded bag of tricks at their disposal if the goal is to retain engagement by any means possible.  Regardless of budget, genre or studio though,  I'm convinced that it's always better to end a game with the player wanting a little bit more than a heck of a lot less.   

Friday, March 15, 2019

Poor Man's MGS

I have to start this by saying, I'm a firm believer that when it comes to the Front Mission franchise go turn-based strategy or go home.  Yet, here we are with Left Alive, a game that somehow managed to absorb the weak points of the properties it tries to emulate without acquiring any of the strengths.  Rather than proceeding with everything that is wrong with this lackluster spinoff though, let's go back to the original series and chart a new (abiet hypothetical) course from there.

Front Mission is made up of five mainline games and seven standalone titles.  The side games vary from middling to downright bad, but the five sequential titles are all solid.  That said, each iteration isn't especially different from its predecessors.  When comparing the original SNES Front Mission to Front Mission 4 on the PS2 the differences mostly come down to visuals and a new subsystem or two.  Because the fundamental mechanics don't change all that much, it's the story and setting that make each entry unique.  The first game takes place on a fictional island in the pacific, the second in the middle-east, the third in asia, and so on.  Generally, the stories told are international technothrillers with the primary distinction being the "wanzers."  These mechs-by-another-name are every gearhead's dream in that they can be customized in all sorts of interesting ways.  Since the Front Mission series never really gained a sizable audience outside of Japan, it might be a good idea to reboot it...not necessarily a hard reset, but perhaps by advancing the timeline past some sort of global disaster.  Advanced Wars did exactly that with Days of Ruin, a post-apocalyptic take on the series.  In this way, it's possible to retain the mechanics while ditching the convoluted background fluff.  Given the world of Front Mission is made up of superpowers jockeying for dominance, it's not a big jump to envision a scenario in which it all goes horribly wrong.  Not only are old nations erased, but new ones could be allowed to form based on player input.  The wanzers themselves could also get a bit of a redesign, making them more grimy (rather than the ultra-slick look that has dominated the franchise since its inception).

It's not the most original idea, I know.  However, the circumstances would allow the series to have a much needed fresh start.  Now, before anyone says this is starting to sound a lot like Battletech, let me just say, better a good clone of that than the crappy Metal Gear knockoff we ended up with.         

Friday, March 8, 2019

KSP vs SR2

Rocket science is paradoxically very complicated and surprisingly simple.  Engineering challenges mixed with the counterintuitive nature of space flight can impose some pretty major obstacles when it comes to exploring beyond this little magic bubble we all call Earth.  On the flipside certain fundamental questions like "will this rocket fly?" are straightforward mathematical problems that can be solved using basic algebra.  "Where can I get to in this rocket?" is a little more complex, but with the aid of a scientific calculator (specifically one that has a 'ln' or 'natural logarithm' key) it's certainly possible to get numbers that can be compared to a delta-v map; a bit like a subway commuter comparing the funds in their wallet against route ticket prices.

Now, I know looking at just the title of this blogpost might cause some to think that it's about an obscure crossover fighting game.  Alas, no...this is actually about a pair of semi-realistic space flight sims.  The first is Kerbal Space Program (or KSP for short) while the second is SimpleRockets 2 (abbreviated SR2 and the upgraded PC sequel to a much more basic 2D smartphone game).  Comparing the two might seem obvious to some (both are games wherein players design, build and fly rockets into the great void), but others may feel it's a stretch (apples and oranges).  Regardless, I think there is some insight to be gained by facing these games off against each other.  So, let's dig in.

Right away it becomes obvious that KSP is more feature complete...which makes sense given that the game has been in development for the better part of a decade.  SR2 on the other hand has just debuted (at the time of this blog post) as an early access title.  It might be tempting to conclude (based on this information alone) KSP is the superior product, but the truth is SR2 holds a significant advantage in that it can learn (and in some ways has already learned) from KSP's mistakes.  The parts used to construct rockets is a great example of this.  KSP has five different sizes each of which has their own subsets of different lengths, different adaptors, and different storage properties.  The result is a Lego bin of pieces that can be fun to sift through, but also a pain in the neck when you know what you want yet can't seem to find it.  In KSP's defense there are sorting tools to alleviate some of the frustration, but SR2 has a much more elegant approach.  Instead of a myriad of parts it has a short list of generic sized essentials which can be shaped and modified quick 'n easy by clicking and dragging with the mouse.  Enough about parts though...it's time to fly.

There's a noticeable difference in loading times between the two games.  Specifically, KSP takes its sweet time while SR2 has much better optimization.  In part this is due to KSP being developed in Unity (a generic game creation engine) instead being coded from the ground up to be a space simulator.  Another problem that has plagued KSP since its inception is weird bugs.  Often the blame lies with Unity and nowhere is this more apparent than with the dreaded "Kraken," a particular kind of physics glitch that crops up when parts are loading into the game or are under time acceleration.  As far as I can tell, SR2 doesn't have a kraken...yet.  It may never thanks to a lack of any third party software.

Of course many of the merits of SR2 are present in KSP provided one is willing to install fan-made mods.  In fact KSP has a huge number of these available, allowing each and every player to customize the game to their heart's content.  The problem is said mods tend to exacerbate the fundamental issues KSP has; more bugs, longer load times, and poorer performance.  SR2 represents a clean start on the concepts that KSP pioneered.  Whether or not it will ever surpass its predecessor though remains to be seen.  Perhaps one could say (in so many acronyms) SR2 is the SpaceX to KSP's NASA.         

Friday, March 1, 2019

Amusement Park of Illusions

Want to go on another ride?
You won't have to wait in line,
but you will have to sit through loading screens.
...many, many loading screens.
I was thinking about Anthem and how it not only represents a step backwards for Bioware, but video games as a whole in a lot of ways.  I'm not just talking in terms of storytelling here, but also gameplay.  It seems the general consensus is the action in Anthem doesn't even hold up to Mass Effect: Andromeda - a game which, itself, was not well regarded.  Exploration, too, seems pretty basic in that the world of Anthem amounts to a large surface area with little underground (or underwater) places to investigate.  Sounds fine...except when you think about it, isn't that really just the original Legend of Zelda for the NES all over again?  RPG elements also somehow manage to be inferior to 8-bit Final Fantasy in that there's no way to view character stats.  What has changed dramatically is the presentation.  Everything looks and sounds impressive at first glance.  However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that all the glamour is hollow, paper thin, and completely lacking in substance.

When you look back at games like the Worms series, Red Faction 2 (and Gorilla), or even Minecraft there were genuine attempts to allow the player to make a mark on the world; specifically environmental deformation.  More recently, games like From Dust, Metal Gear Rising and Astroneer have taken small steps toward improving on the concept, but when it comes to live service games (with the possible exception of Fortnite) the design is noticeably regressive.  Every object and surface in the world is indestructible and enemies themselves are just bags of hit points that burst into non-existence once their damage numbers reach a predetermined threshold, only to later reform out of the ether much like a Disneyland ride that has just been reset in preparation for the next visitor.  There's no persistency, no such thing as injuries, crippling battle damage, or scaring; there are no thoughts of retreat or escape.  Things exist or they don't exist, and on top of all that the AI only seems to have two settings idle about or attack...basically everything has a switch with two setting: off or on.

The expression "wide as the sea, shallow as a puddle," is usually applied to content in video games, but in Anthem that can literally be applied to everything including the Javelin that the player controls.  I'm not talking about a lack of character development (although that is an issue), rather I mean where is the power plant, actuators, shield generator, sensors, communications equipment or weapons systems?  None of these components are represented in the mechanics of the game aside from flight thrusters which can sometimes be disabled temporarily (usually for mission scripting reasons).  The pilot, for all intents and purposes, is impervious to harm.  Even cosmetic damage like scorch marks, slagged armor, leaking coolant and sparking wires are completely absent from the visual presentation.  Sure, there's pyrotechnics and a cacophony whenever a fight breaks out, but that's it.  It's like if a motocross bike did a couple of laps on a race track yet didn't get a single drop of mud on it.

To some degree these sort of things are limitations any video game must wrestle with.  I don't need to explain why "personalized story" and "multiplayer adventure" are mutually exclusive, right?..and yet live service games will claim that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too.  It can be frustrating to hear complaints like "I wish I could grapple enemies," or "my melee attacks contect like a bar of wet soap."  I want to tell such individuals that this is the inevitable result of games that depend on netcode...at least for companies that want to minimize bandwidth usage.  Would games like Anthem (or Destiny, for that matter) have been better had they gone the single-player offline route?  I don't know (it depends on how much you enjoy playing with friends online), but the potential for a more substantive experience would have certainly been there.  On the other hand if it's a live service, you are pretty much guaranteed to get something shallow, half-baked, and filled with microtransactions.