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.


Alto

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? 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

business speak

I have a job at a large corporation. We do Business at my job. It's important that everyone in Business understands what Business is and why Business happens. The cause/effect of getting everyone to agree with each other on Business and move forward is called Leadership.

Leadership has its own language. i don't know how well this language varies from business spheres to activist spheres to political spheres. With that in mind, I'm not super interested in telling people what to do or how to do it. I am interested in sharing what I have learned about Leadership and organization.

Here is how I have been structuring my thoughts lately:

What is my Goal?

What Strategy will I use to achieve my goal?

What Tactics will I use when enacting my strategy?

This isn't uncommon, Business-wise. Some people append stuff like "VISION" and "MISSION" to the front, but I don't find that useful given my rank and what I can affect in my daily life.
Many times, you will come in conflict with people. When you are in conflict, it is useful to understand where the conflict lies. To pinpoint where your conflict lies, it's important to be specific about each of these stages:

A "goal" is a specific statement about the end result of what you want to achieve.  "I want peace between humans and mutants so mutants can live without fear" is a goal. Different people and organizations have different goals. Sometimes those goals go hand in hand. If my goal is "I want to stop global warming" and your goal is "I want to preserve animal species", we are not necessarily in conflict and we may share strategies and tactics. If my goal is "I want to stop global warming" and your goal is "I want to get as rich as possible in the next 20 years", we are probably in a state of significant and irreparable conflict. Ideally, goals are specific, measurable and attainable so you can come back after a time and have a solid idea if you succeeded or not.

The "strategy" is your plan for achieving that goal.  Many times, people who have compatible goals will have differing strategies. Scott Summers and Wolverine both want peace between humans and mutants, but Scott's strategy is to engage in guerilla warfare against the enemies of mutants, while Wolverine wants to create a safe space for young mutants to come into their own so they can control their powers without harming innocent bystanders. If we both want to stop global warming, my strategy might be to appeal to lawmakers to change laws, while your strategy might be to raise public awareness and have the public on your side. Disagreements about strategy usually focus on the most effective way to achieve a goal. As such, they are not always irreparable, but you will usually find a conflict where some people believe a strategy is effective and safe, where others think it is ineffective, or poses an unacceptable risk. This disagreement is often the cause of a fracture within a group, where opinions on different strategies are so polarized that the common goal they seek to achieve is no longer enough to unite people.

"Tactics" is how you implement your strategy. Scott enacts guerrilla warfare by using psychic locators of new mutants, teleporting mutants to get in and out quickly without getting tracked, and targeting Sentinels to strike back at anti-mutant forces. Global warming activists pursuing legal paths might write congressional representatives, bribeI mean, fundraise for lawmakers, and focus heavily on lobbying. Tactics to raise public awareness might use splashy demonstrations like flinging non-renewable energy at top executives, public demonstrations, or hanging banners off bridges. For the most part, if you agree on goals and strategy, any difference of opinion about tactics can just be added into the playbook. If I want to pass out fliers, and you want to put up newspaper ads, you can do both without conflict.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Runers

I'm on the record as being interested in procedural content, but like a lot of things, procedural content is hard to do well, and when it falls short, it falls very short. Runers is a top-down twin-stick shooter. It's a "roguelike", which in this context means that you get a single chance per character to navigate a randomly generated series of dungeons. Unfortunately, it falls short. 

The primary mechanic of the game is that you can craft your own "spells", which are projectile magicks used to injure and defeat enemies. Sometimes, enemies drop a "rune" of a specific element. Runes can be combined to create specific spells, but it's up to you to discover the combinations. 
  
I love the sense of discovery I get when finding new spells. My first hour with the game was just trying to uncover as many spells as possible, slowly unlocking each one's secrets and nuances. Unfortunately, to combine two runes requires a special item which drops rarely. After a while, I got frustrated with how slowly my new discoveries came. That's always my problem with a roguelike. Your fate is determined as much as by luck as it is by skill and knowledge. If you get bad luck in Runers, you won't get any runes to drop at all, or plenty of runs but no way to combine them into more powerful elements. 

The dungeon generation is an example of procedural content gone bad. There seem to be a handful of custom-made rooms which randomly get linked together. Great level design plays against the mechanics of the game, allowing you to adopt different strategies based on the layout of the level. Unfortunately, these handful of rooms alternate between: a) large, empty room full of enemies, b) large, empty room with a giant block in the middle, full of enemies, c) small room full of crates. Games like Little Raiders do a much better job by creating varied rooms with different chokepoints, barriers, and patterns that play off of enemy behavior and player instincts to keep each room feeling fresh. Runers does not. 

Speaking of enemy behavior, every enemy either chases after you, or runs away from you. The most effective strategy for every room is to run in circles while shooting nonstop, and then trying to chase after the few enemies actively running away from you. This isn't necessarily about procedural content, but even the ghost movements in PacMan were more complicated than this. There are a few enemies who do something different, like steal upgrades and run away, or give you a fake aiming cursor to confuse you, or follow walls. There are a few bosses and sub-bosses who act slightly differently. Other than that, it's not interesting and dominant tactics rarely change from room to room.  

So there you have it. Runers could have been an awesome experience for mefiguring out combinations to increasingly cool spells and running roughshod over monsters. Instead, I got burned out pretty quickly on the non-existent difference between levels, reliance on sheer luck for getting new spells, and the monotony of enemy encounters.