Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Packed Pipes

Packed Pipes

I think this course is a failure.

I wanted a course where all the platforms were pipes, which I thought would be aesthetically interesting, and it would give a chance for me to play around with the “enemies coming out of pipes” mechanic. I tried to set up a gradual increase of enemy difficulty, from goombas to piranha plants to flying koopas. I also wanted a branching path because I think that’s what interests me most in my favorite Super Mario World courses.

By the time I finished creating my course, I was pretty happy. It seemed to be the right level of difficulty and surprise. However, after letting it sit for a week or two, I came back to it and it doesn’t hold up so well against some of my later levels.

The most irritating thing about this level is the length. I think early on, I was intimidated by trying to fill out a large screen with tons of stuff. I kept the course at the default size and tried to fill in from there. As a result, this level is really dense. Playing through it doesn’t take very long, and there’s no time to really absorb what’s happening.

The density of the level also throws off the difficulty curve. Piranha plants don’t activate until you get reasonably close, which ambushes an unsuspecting player. I never noticed this effect because I already knew the plants were there! Other enemies spring out of the pipes in such rapid succession that they quickly fill up the space between the columns. After seeing a few other levels with this mechanic, I think the best idea is to let the pipe-spawned enemies fall off the stage after bouncing off a wall. This allows the constant flow of enemies to be intimidating without becoming overwhelming.

Finally, the flying koopas that spawn just before the end are just annoying. I wanted to make the last pipe hard to reach without bouncing off an enemy, but I also wanted the difficulty of a piranha plant trying to ambush you. Those two ideas are introduced at the same time, and the pattern of the koopas means they get stuck for a bit before moving into an ideal jumping position. It’s just sloppy. If I made this level longer, I could have given more time to each individual idea instead of piling them on top of each other like an overstuffed sandwich.

I do like the top path, though. There’s a question block, which is what I like to use to distract the player for a second in order to let any potential dangers reveal themselves. In this case, the question block gives a mushroom. As the mushroom travels down to the player, the piranha plants spring into action, revealing the dangers ahead.

The mushroom also gives the player the ability to soak up the inevitable damage from the piranha plants. The invincibility frames the player gets after getting hit allow the player to run to the end, where another mushroom hides in a question block. I think this is a decent implementation of “you need to take damage to move forward” tropes that appear in harder levels. However, I’m not entirely sure it belongs in this particular stage, which is not supposed to be all that difficult.

Looking back on this course, it’s definitely a sophomore attempt. I think it would be interesting to go back and revise it. In the meantime, it’s more of a warning to amateurs than it is an interesting and engaging level that stands on its own.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Big Shroom 101

In this series, I’m going to talk about some levels I made in Super Mario Maker and the associated thought process that went with them.

Big Shroom 101

I got the 8-bit Mario Amiibo with my copy of Super Mario Maker. When you tap it on the Wii U reader, you get a giant mushroom that makes Mario super-big. Since this was my first level, I didn’t have anything else unlocked so I decided to play around with this.

Super-Big Mario can stomp through hard blocks and question blocks, so I wanted to try that out. The first area lets you pass by enemies, but if you try and jump on them you’ll likely stomp on the hard blocks and break them. I designed this so I could start getting a feel for what the super shroom did.

The next enemy isn’t shielded by anything, so you’ll likely jump on it or over. Either way, it would be hard to miss landing on some hard blocks. Even if you didn’t get the previous lesson, you will now definitely know what the super shroom does.

From here, I decided the challenge would be trying to land safely on blocks that get smashed as soon as you jump on them. Instead of layers of blocks that are 3 deep, I moved on to 2 deep and then 1 deep. If you aren’t careful with your jumps, you will fall right through the level!

Finally, I finished out with the classic flying koopas pattern. If you’re small or risk-averse, you can just run underneath them. If you’re daring, you can jump on all of them to get the 1-up from hitting the flag at max height!

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.