Friday, August 7, 2015


On rare occasion, I back video games on Kickstarter and wanted to lay out some of my criteria for sussing out any red flags a video game Kickstarter might send up.

First: I determine if the game interests me at all. Most of my preferred genres (RPGs, city builders, turn-based strategy games) are pretty well covered. However, weird hybrid games always catch my eye. Concrete Jungle is a puzzly, deck-building city-builder. Treachery in Beatdown City is a tactical brawler. Toby’s Island is a city-builder and monster-breeder game. I’m not super interested in funding a straight fantasy RPG or a sci-fi action game as I already have dozens of those. If they’re good, I can buy them after they come out. If they don’t exist, I can help bring something unique to fruition! That’s really cool!

Second: I tend not to contribute to Kickstarters that are already funded. In general, I think stretch goals for video games are a bad idea (more on that below), and pre-ordering games is a gamble. I don’t mind pledging to something that might not get funded, but I’d rather not pledge to something that’s definitely funded.

Third: I look at the scope of the game. I’ve seen one too many Kickstarters that try being a perfect game that is all things to all people. Something complex needs realistic, achievable plans, experienced devs, and a sizeable budget. I tend to err towards smaller games with graphics that aren’t cutting edge because that reduces complexity and therefore reduces risk.

I am really suspicious of stretch goals in general. Stretch goals that add more content or mechanics have costs routinely understated by creators in order to make a pitch seem more attractive. Stretch goals are also another vector for scope-creep to come into play, and it goes back to the risks of complexity I discuss above.

Fourth: the pitch itself is mildly important. Tom Francis covers that extremely well here. I especially agree with his point about lore, which is the least important part of a pitch for me. I generally don’t pay attention to a game’s lore until I’m pretty deep in the game, and I’ll skip right past the part of a pitch that tries to hook me with (over-dramatic) story, such as “Jareth Grimdark is a Destined Reanimetric on the run from the Glorified Indignancy of Yog-Sugoth.”

Fifth: I take a look at “Rewards.” When I back a game, I would at least like the money to go towards a copy of the game. Having my name in the credits isn’t enticing, and I’m not a big video game soundtrack collector, but I am a sucker for having an NPC named after me for a few extra bucks, or a bit of dialogue solicited from me. Physical rewards like t-shirts, stickers, or buttons are also unattractive. However, I’m open to digital art rewards if the art style is a big selling point. I don’t really care for access to pre-release builds as I find I get burned out on the game before its final release, and I don’t have much free time to give detailed feedback to devs.

Sixth and finally: the “Risks and Challenges” section is where I really get critical. I expect to see, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the inherent chaos of software development. No one ships on time, and finished products are rarely an exact match of their initial pitch. I definitely want to see an acknowledgement that timelines are subject to change as well as mitigating factors like industry experience and other forms of backing. I do expect the creators to have already begun development of their game prior to the Kickstarter. If a game hasn’t been worked on at all yet, I suspect the creator doesn’t know what features and gameplay mechanics will actually work in practice, which affects the timeline, the scope, and the budget of their project.

When I was writing this, I noticed that Toby’s Island really didn’t fit all of my criteria. It was a risky investment, and unfortunately that risk was realized. Toby’s Island had the largest scope of all the games I backed; it promised a monster breeding system, a city builder, and an RPG. That’s one strike. Also, Toby’s Island didn’t have a functioning prototype, which was strike two. Finally, there wasn’t much experience behind the project. Strike three! Sure enough, I recently received an update saying the development of the game was going to be significantly set back. The two creators had irreconcilable differences and could no longer agree on the direction of the project.

I don’t really blame them. Software development on its own is really unpredictable. Technical challenges lurk behind every project. It’s not clear how many pitfalls will slow them down in the future or how long it will take to resolve them. A project with tight deadlines and money on the line is going to be incredibly stressful for everyone involved. The guidelines I use are meant to mitigate that hazard.

I still really like the premise of Toby’s Island. I don’t mean to turn them into a cautionary tale, but Kickstarters like Toby’s Island demonstrate the risk inherent to an ambitious game because it’s easy for creators to bite off more than they can chew. I hope potential backers can make use of my guidelines to understand the chance of their money going towards a useful end product.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Me and MMOs

I just went through a gigantic MMO bender, followed by some Life Changes, which is why I have been totally inactive on this blog.

I never considered myself an MMO person. I played Runescape briefly. It was unfriendly and grindy. I was never tempted to play World of Warcraft or EVE in college. I played Guild Wars 1 at launch, maybe for about a month. Star Wars Online: The Old Republic held me for a month and a half before I realized I spent more time worrying about the subscription fee than I did playing the game.

Guild Wars 2 really broke the mold for me. The combat was actually active and engaging. The world was beautiful. The player races were unique, and there was a heavy emphasis on cooperation and storytelling over competition and grinding. Around my fourth Guild Wars 2 character, though, I started looking for other games to scratch the same itch.

First I tried The Secret World. I was tantalized by the bizarre puzzle structure and the flexible yet overly-complex combat trees. That was all good fun until I got stuck in a gear grind just after getting out of the first map.

Then, I tried Neverwinter. That was a decent enough trip. I don’t actually remember much about it. I quit that after hitting max level and realizing everything was gated on how good my gear was. I had never encountered a game telling me “You can’t even try to participate in the rest of the game until your stats exceed this limit” until that point. That was pretty demoralizing.

Eventually, I remembered I bought some promotional Steam package that included Rift for about $1. Rift’s distinguishing attribute at launch was the “dynamic” events where rifts would suddenly open and monsters would come pouring out. Other than that, it’s a bog-standard WoW clone. Rift has the usual quests, 5-man dungeons, 20-man raids, PvP, and two factions with faction zones, etc.

The first 20 levels of any WoW clone feel fantastic. Quest turn-ins are clustered together, level-ups are frequent, and learning a new character is a lot of fun. The problem is that later levels (especially those added in expansions) are a grind. Combat doesn’t change much and isn’t particularly engaging. The dynamic events are mostly just enemy spawns and boss fights. You can sleep through most routine activity like farming and questing. Difficulty primarily comes from “mechanics” (AKA boss-specific knowledge of attack patterns) and enemies with more HP dealing larger amounts of damage (“DPS”). Players learn mechanics by asking others, or watching a YouTube video, or suffering through extremely slow trial and error to learn what implications a boss attack has. DPS is mitigated by grinding for better gear.

The world you inhabit starts off as Generic Fantasy World, pretty much. The first enemies I fought were skeletons and zombies. There was some sort of plot, where my character was… re-animated in the future and sent back in time? Whatever. Once I got into the content added in via expansion, there seemed to be more intentional and unique designs. I came across gigantic water creatures who towered over me and plots about collecting the different personas of an AI that scattered itself to escape dragon worshippers.

I did find an active, supportive guild who helped me hit max level and get past the first gear cap. And now… Well, all that’s left is getting better gear to see higher-level dungeons. That doesn’t motivate me. Now I find myself tempted to just say, “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

I tried picking up Final Fantasy XIV to heal the wounds. It has a free trial for 14 days and a level cap of 20. I’m just on the edge of the level cap. It is gorgeous and inventive, like anything you would expect out of a Final Fantasy game. It’s also grindy, slow, and repetitive, like anything you would expect out of a Final Fantasy game. I see a lot of people having fun with it, which makes me want to get back into it. However, it’s one of the few games that still has a subscription fee, which makes me want to ignore it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What I'm Playing - 3/24

Murdered: Soul Suspect

I loved this game. I had really low expectations going in. Reviews mentioned a terrible stealth aspect, which seemed like the sort of frustrating gating element that makes me give up on a game. In practice, the stealth wasn’t horrifyingly difficult as much as it was just boring and mildly tedious. It was present occasionally but not constantly. That left me pretty free to enjoy the game.

The setting turned out to be very cool. It’s the ghost of the older city superimposed on the present day, lending it the appropriate feeling of inhabiting two places at once. A present-day graveyard has the memory of a plague hospital grafted on top of it. Modern city streets have old buildings collapsed onto the sidewalks. Just as you walk through walls, living humans will walk right through the city’s history, completely unaware.

The plot was enjoyable and the player-solved mysteries were the right balance. With games like Phoenix Wright, there’s sometimes a bit of Adventure Game Logic you need to go through before you can reach the totally obvious conclusion. In Murdered, you tend to reach the conclusion through a small dose of consequence-free trial-and-error, but you can move on as soon as you figure out the answer without needing to get coached through every minor step of logic. Plus, there’s a Sassy Teenage Girl Sidekick and you can possess cats to jump up ledges. The final confrontation was a little anticlimactic, but the joyous reunion promised at the start of the game came through and left me with a nice sense of closure.

Disney Tsum Tsum

I’m not a big fan of Disney cartoons, but that doesn’t stop me from playing Tsum Tsum obsessively. I guess “Tsum Tsum” refers to some new toy line featuring the cute disembodied heads of Disney characters, because the game is a Match-3 featuring those characters heads. Like Marvel Puzzle Quest, you can collect more characters to up your score, and’ as you use those characters they gain XP, boosting your score even more. Unlike almost every match-3, the board is not a strict grid and is a loose collection of circles that shift around and fall unpredictably. It’s a nice change of pace, but by the time you’ve screwed up another match chain because it was ambiguous which pieces are “adjacent” to each other, you’ll probably understand why most games settle for the boring grid.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What I'm Playing - 3/13

I'm not doing very well at keeping a weekly cadence up on these posts...

Sunset Overdrive

This isn’t a good game. Well, it’s okay. There are moments where the writing and cutscenes are genuinely funny. But by the end of the game, it relies so heavily on breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge “we’re in a videogame” that it’s easy to forget some of the actual jokes told hours earlier. It pokes fun at itself occasionally, but still settles on a wildly traditional structure, right up to a three-part final boss battle with a heavy sequel tease at the end. There’s an impressive horde of enemies onscreen, but 90% of the time it’s better to skip the generic, boring combat in favor of moving the plot along. The city itself isn’t completely forgettable, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it either. Every neighborhood is colorful, but they are all colorful in the exact same patterns. Moving around the city by grinding on power lines and bouncing on cars and rooftop garden umbrellas is unique, but the power lines and garden umbrellas are so ubiquitous that traversal never really gets changed up.

On top of all that, there’s a truly useless combat upgrade system. You get “badges” for doing things, which can be turned in for 1% increases or 5% increases to damage. You can collect items throughout the city that create weapons mods that do 10% more damage when grinding.

I finished the campaign and didn’t feel any need to do the endless sidequests that popped up.

Capitalist ADVenture / Feed the Monster

By coincidence, I happened across two iOS Cookie Clicker style “idle” games. As per Cookie Clicker, you tap to gain currency. Currency is used to buy upgrades so you can grow currency faster. In Feed the Monster, currency grows your monster larger and larger until he resides in the stars. In Capitalist ADventure, you periodically “cash out” of all your investments to gain “angel” investors, who give you additional upgrades so you can gain all the money back and more.

I find both of these games soothing. I often fiddle with my phone during meetings, and having something relatively brainless to tap on while others are talking keeps my hands occupied so my mind can focus.


This game got a lot of press for its art. It’s a pared-down version of one of my favorite games, Ski Safari. The art is, indeed, gorgeous. However, the day/night cycle is implemented such that it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on if the sun isn’t out. That doesn’t seem intentional.

Guild Wars 2

I finished all the games I wanted to play on the Xbox One for now, so my evenings have gone back to spending a bit of time in Guild Wars 2. I am playing World vs World, where my server competes against two others. Our server works together to capture towers and keeps from other servers using siege weapons we construct with supplies from captured camps. Mostly this takes the form of “zerging”, where we swarm in a mindless mass lead by a single commander. It’s fun to cooperate with others and test our luck against the other servers. One commander is quite good at outflanking enemy zergs to ensure victory, which lends a bit of strategy and variety to an otherwise low-key activity.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What I'm Playing - 2/17

Forza Horizon 2

I was never able to write about one of my favorite games, the 2012 SSX reboot for Xbox360/PS3. The furthest I got was a single link to Tom Chick’s review and a link to this song from the soundtrack. The only sentence I wrote was, and I quote, “something about how the song expands in sound just as you nail your first trick combo”. Thanks, past me. That was really insightful. That wasn't even my favorite song from the game!

Forza Horizon 2 is similar to SSX, in that they are both expansive and skillful racing games with a handy rewind function, well-integrated asynchronous multiplayer, and a killer soundtrack. Playing either game is cathartic, even as I unconsciously hold my breath while taking a tight corner at top speed. Both games have a variety of ways to play such that I can always choose the mode that suits my feelings. It’s emotional and wonderful and completely impossible for me to transcribe into words.

Survive! Mola Mola

This is a free-to-play iOS game I saw making the rounds on Twitter. It’s a pet care RPG, except your pet is doomed to die a million times. Each death grants you “Mola Points” which you can use to unlock upgrades which grow your fish more efficiently and more dangerously. On one hand, I want my pet to grow to see its next stage, or reap higher rewards from its death. On the other hand, each unique death makes your children more resilient to that form of death and you need them to keep dying to keep reaping mola points to fund new deaths, etc.

It’s a grim concept buoyed by hilariously weird writing and simple timer-based gameplay that makes it easy to pull out and poke at when you are waiting in line or whatever.

Marvel Puzzle Quest

I always open this game once a day and finish a match for a daily reward. It’s basically the perfect match-3 game. I've been playing it for a year and I am not stopping any time soon.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Puzzles and Dragons - A History

It's impossible to talk about many mechanics present in the App Store today without talking about Puzzles and Dragons. As far as I can tell, this is the prototypical monster collection + fusion game. 

P&D launched in February 2012 and according to the developer, it drew inspiration from card games. However, there are clear influences from Puzzle Quest (2007), which took Bejeweled's gem-matching mechanic and turned it into something that fueled spellcasting according to gem color. A set of equipment and quests supplemented the core match-three gameplay of the genre. There's also a call to the Shin Megami Tensei games (1994), which have long featured the concept of collecting and fusing monsters together to increase their power. 

However, P&D couldn't be the powerhouse it is without their Free-To-Play mechanics. In order to progress, you need to gather additional monsters and these monster-gathering mechanics strongly resemble capsule machines (1). These impulse-buy vending machines might seem vaguely familiar to Americans who are used to American supermarket toy dispensers, but Japanese capsule machines are on another level entirely. 

Capsule machines are similar to collectible card packs such as Magic: The Gathering or Pok√©mon. You put in money, turn the crank, and something pops out. It might be a rare, limited edition item. It might be an overwhelmingly common item. The random reward functions like a slot machine, and there are people (2) who will camp machines, pouring money in for that One Rare Item.  

Certain mechanics may be novel to P&D, but it's difficult to tell given how widespread these mechanics are now. In particular, there is a friends mechanic where you select "helpers" (other players' avatars) to bring into battle. In some ways this is reminiscent of the Farmville model where you pull your friends into the game to get additional bonuses. P&D elevates this mechanic by creating a "friend coin" currency where using your friend's avatars gets you tokens used to summon slightly better monstersencouraging you to request a friendship with every person you come across.  

One way to measure Puzzle and Dragon's influence is by examining its UI and seeing how other games differ. For example, here's the "capsule machine" mechanic from P&D: 

From Dragon Coins (May 2014, two years later): 

 From Monster Strike (Oct 2014): 

There are countless more examples, but they all share similarities, aesthetic and functional. Limited-time promotional drops, a dragon-and-egg aesthetic, even the tabs at the bottom are all nearly identical across these three games. Each game lets you spend real money to purchase additional drops, but leaks out a small, steady amount of currency to keep you playing for free.  

The similarities don't end there. The quest system rarely varies, focusing on timed and promotional content: 

Fusing monsters together is identical: 

All of these heavily repeated elements have some serious design flaws, though. The incessant focus on gambling-like mechanics puts this game pretty squarely in the “pay-to-win” category, where the quickest way to success is to dump money into promotional “egg” contests to get superior monsters. These superior monsters thoroughly outclass common monsters that drop via early missions.  

Unfortunately, the game isn’t interested in teaching new players this lesson. The only way to learn that using fusion on early monsters will never get you to the same level of a rare monster is by understanding that this is a genre convention. The fusion mechanics tend to be opaque, never revealing the kind of stat increases you get via levelling or evolution. As a result, you are tricked into thinking you are progressing when in reality you receive pitiful stat bonuses. 

Even the combat mechanics obfuscate how meaningful a monster’s statistics are. There’s no way to relate a +100 attack stat to the actual amount of damage you do to an enemy without carefully tracking numbers and puzzling out the algebra on your own. There are elemental bonuses where water is strong against ice, but “strong” is never defined – is it 1.5x attack? 1.1x? 2x? On top of that, when choosing a battle, you have no idea of the relative strength of the enemies versus your own team. Some missions will be labelled “hard” or “medium”, but that has no relationship to the strength of your team. It’s simply a static description that never gets updated. The only way to find out is to try and fail. Even comparing the relative levels of monsters doesn’t work because every “evolution” or step up on the power scale resets a monster’s level back to 1. This means a level 1 5-star enemy is much, much stronger than a level 5 1-star enemy.  

Remember how Puzzle Quest was an influence on Puzzle and Dragons? Here's the latest version of Puzzle Quest: 


There are plenty of similarities. The use of a limited-time promotion, token-based withdrawal system, with an option to pay real money to get more characters. There's a quest system that's partially time-gated. There's still the leveling aspect to collectible characters. Yet the interface and underlying mechanics are distinct enough to show that being inspired by Puzzles and Dragons doesn't mean mimicking it right down to the menu layouts!  

In fact, Marvel Puzzle Quest fixes many of the problems with the traditional Puzzles and Dragons formula. While there is still an emphasis on stronger characters, even low-level characters can be useful as specific characters will get boosts for specific events. Furthermore, all characters are measured on a relative scale where a level-40 1-star character is roughly as strong as a level-40 4-star character. Leveling up your characters can only be done by collecting one of three character “covers”, where each of the three covers improves one specific ability. Events are rated “trivial” to “impossible” based on the levels of your team as compared to the enemy. For Player-Versus-Player match-ups, you can see your enemy’s team, their levels, and the strength of their abilities. You can even see the exact damage done by every character for every move they can make.  

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Puzzles and Dragons. As I said, the influence it has on games even now is omnipresent and undeniable. However, many of the mechanics of Puzzles and Dragons feed into player fears about free-to-play games. They are grindy, opaque, and encourage paying real money in order to make any sort of progress. Yet even though the roots of Puzzles and Dragons do show that these fears are well-founded, games can still learn from the success of Puzzles and Dragons without necessarily falling into those same potholes. It’s important to understand these mechanics and what makes them work so that we can fix their flaws and thus make games that are not only more “fair”, but more interesting. 

(1) It's hard to find an exact source for when these machines became popular in Japan. The best I can find is about 1965, but this leads to a Japanese Wikipedia page. 
(2) Source: Personal conversations with people who have lived in Japan, collaborated on Twitter. Look, I'm doing the best I can, ok?