Sunday, December 26, 2010

growth

Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Deathdark Evilman is all about numbers – you repeatedly start as level 1, and all the progress you make is fed back into your base level-1 state, and then you can modify your body to make those numbers grow faster, and then you can merge your modifications to make the growth faster, etc etc etc. It's ultimately linear growth, though, and I can't say I really care for the mechanic – the time/reward payoff is way too slow for me.

Just as I was about to give up, though, the game gave me a kick.

Quick premise: You are the Unlosing Ranger, and Deathdark Evilman kicks your ass so hard you are warped back to boot camp to grind levels. Like, 2,000 levels.

This is a lesson about how true heroes never give up.

Seriously! The main motif of the game is “play our roguelike a thousand times, not because it’s enjoyable, but because a true hero never gives up even in the face of impossible odds”. Every dungeon starts with your mentors stating this premise explicitly. Every new dungeon is unlocked by you getting “teleported” (bludgeoned) back to Earth to rematch Deathdark Evilman, trying out your 1 new move, losing, and watching the internal monologues of Earthlings saying, “Boy, he never gives up, even in the face of impossible odds, how idiotic/heroic!” and then a lesson on heroics from your mentor. For a genre that prides itself on tedium, repetition, and idiosyncratic knowledge, at least Unlosing Ranger is pretty straightforward about it.

True to Nippon Icchi form, though, the genre is slightly enhanced by the characters themselves, as they interact with each other, often in slapstick self-aware Saturday-morning-cartoon humor. Which is true to the setting, where Saturday-morning superheroes appear to be real and omnipresent. Occasionally, it stops being slapstick and becomes weirdly moving as characters accidentally reveal bits about themselves they never intended to reveal.

And then a character comments on how the names of Brick Oldllama, black president of the United States, and her sacrificial lamb, “Japan”, are insulting in their transparency.

And then you whip back into a commentary about how “justice” is a sham perpetrated by equal powers to justify their own personal agendas to their inferiors delivered by a dead soldier who fought a pointless war at the hands of an idealistic warmonger who was trying to stamp out an invisible enemy that may not even exist (link to a partial discussion/transcript of that scene).

Compare this to AC:Brotherhood, where my main gripe was artlessly fingering John Roberts as a key part of a Templar conspiracy. Z.H.P. makes an allegorical allusion to America's policy of endless war and bullying our allies into joining us. AC:Bro states "hey, you know who likes big business? REPUBLICANS". Z.H.P. parades Barack Obama as someone who has continued this policy of endless war, which is subject to a bit of misinterpretation ("But Bush started it, how dare you blame Obama for continuing to escalate it!") – AC:Bro doesn't go far enough in fingering the true culprit (hint: it's not just Republicans who are pro-big-business and squelching dissent and enforcing totalitarian control). Z.H.P. focuses on the consequences and ramifications– dead soldiers, the possibility of "justice" not being all it seems, where a true "hero" draws the line. AC:Bro doesn't really focus on anything except the revelation of conspiracy (unless "Republicans are bad!" was particularly mind-blowing to anyone in the audience).

Here is the theme I keep harping on across all my writing on RPGs. Just because D&D campaigns used to be about “small battle with evil force, in context of large battle with evil force”, doesn’t mean the evolution of the genre is going to be in that same direction. It’s why I constantly rag on Bioware despite genuinely enjoying their games – because they are standing on the same plot and character archetypes, over and over again, and they show no signs of breaking that pattern.

The player character is just one character – the one I want to build the relationship with, the one I want to see grow and evolve and personalize, sure! – but the growth and evolution I want from an RPG is something more than +1 strength, +5 to reputation, conversation tree unlocked. Sometimes it's about taking your basic premise and exploring it, in full, to its conclusion – tapping into conversations you would never otherwise have, using your plot to give the entire conversation context.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

learning to play pinball

Pinball is a game with a long, incredible history.The basic idea for pinball has been around for hundreds of years, so the design is polished and play tested more thoroughly than most computer games.  The learning curve, in particular, is beautiful in its simplicity.

Stages of learning pinball:

Controls: On a physical pinball machine, there are exactly 3 things you need to know: The glowing “START” button starts the game. The ball ejected into the plunger slot is launched via the obviously spring-loaded mechanism extending into your thigh as you lean over the table. The buttons on the edges of the table flip the flippers.

Each one of these buttons has the unique virtue of being completely comprehensible within seconds. The start button glows once you push in your quarters – so you press it. The ball clanks into the launcher tube – so you pull it, and feel the resistance. You can test it, letting it go gently and watching it push the ball gently. You can slam it back and hear it kick the ball – perfect visual and mechanical feedback long before the rumble pack was conceived. The flippers are also simple– you can push the button, and see the reaction. There is no confusion about the actions and reactions available to you. If you don’t understand the mechanics, you don’t play – the game doesn’t start, the ball doesn’t launch, the ball falls out of play. Compare this to a PC or console game, where the buttons never have a 1:1 relationship with the game functions available to you.

Strategies: Once you understand the buttons you need to press, you start thinking about how to press them. Experiment with the launcher – see how you control the ball as it exits the launch. Your muscles tune themselves to the resistance of the launcher, so you can learn to reproduce shots consistently.

Na├»ve experimentation: Experiment with the flippers, the most important part of the game – you can start by mashing them, but you’ll quickly learn that’s more prone to throwing the ball under a flipper than back onto the field of play. However, another byproduct of mashing is you will learn the ball, when it has no momentum, can rest safely in the space between the pivot and the board – a “cradle”.

Corrective measures: Once you learn that mashing isn’t an optimal strategy and you’ve figured out how to cradle, you can start aiming for control of the ball. This will probably mean cradling every time the ball comes your way. It’s a natural progression from mashing the flippers – you go from complete chaos, with the ball flying everywhere, to complete control, trying to impose your dominance on the table by forcing the game to progress at your own pace. You’ll still lose a few balls now and then, but you won’t blow through a round nearly as quickly as when you mash the flippers.

Getting comfortable: once you’ve exhausted the “control” playstyle, cradling the ball every time it comes your way, you’ll notice 2 more things: a ball with no momentum can’t reach the top of the board. A ball with too much momentum can’t be cradled. You stop trying to bring the ball to a dead stop every time it approaches the bottom of the board– your instincts are being honed, ready to hit the button just as the ball touches the flipper. This takes practice, but you can do it. There’s nothing stopping you but time, patience, and quarters.

Learning the board: The game has, to an observant and thoughtful player, already taught the virtues of a chaotic playstyle (pure speed) and a controlling playstyle (accuracy, not losing your ball as frequently). Your instincts are becoming better along the way. Now you can see the high scores – orders of magnitude higher than anything you’ve accomplished. As you launched the ball previously, you might have noticed ramps flashing, the dot-matrix board giving orders, the voice cues changing. Before, you were focused on keeping the ball in play, but now that you feel comfortable with that, you see “2x” lit – hey, maybe that’s the key to a higher score. You start learning the board, not just the basic mechanics – this ramp takes me here, and does this. Launching the ball from here takes me to the bumpers, which increase my multiplier. Putting the ball in this bucket lets me choose a “mission”, which requires me to hit the flashing ramps.

There’s a directions sheet at the bottom left of the board. You glance at it, but it’s too vague to be useful. You continue exploring, attempting to master what you think you know.

High Scores: The best aspect of videogame pinball isn’t the quarters you save- it’s that your high score is tracked. You’re no longer at the mercy of whatever high-scorer dominated the Top 10 scores with his initials that somehow happen to spell out “ASS”. You are only responsible to yourself. Your first few high scores are negligible, they show no improvement over the last – on a lucky fluke, though, you hit 10 million. That score sits there, taunting you as you continue to learn: “You have no idea how your score got this high. You will never be able to reproduce me.”

And then: You start hitting the ball off the flipper’s sweet spot, and the ball doesn’t lose any momentum as it rolls from the left ramp back to your flipper and perfectly flipped on to the right ramp. It happens again, and again. You look at a spot on the board, and think “I need to go there”, and the muscles in your left hand flex, and the ball goes there. Your eyes focus on the entire board, not just the motion of the ball. The lights, the sounds, every bit of non-essential information is blocked out until the exact second you need it. You feel the clank of the flippers, the bounce of the ball, not much else – unbeknownst to you, your brain is now emitting alpha waves. You are in an alternate state of consciousness, the same state that professional athletes and musicians enter when they’re performing at their best. Unlike them, you won’t set any world records, you won’t be recognized – but that ball keeps moving, keeps going, the flow doesn’t--- you drop the ball. You swear, profusely. The game asks for your initials, and suddenly you are able to see your score – twice that of your previous high score. You are getting better. You have objective proof that you are getting better.  You start a new round, your ball drops within the first twenty seconds, you swear again, and restart the round from scratch immediately. You’re better than this.

Friday, December 17, 2010

i work for microsoft, standard disclaimers apply

hi sorry to interrupt your day I just realized I should probably clarify this for internet strangers:
My employer (Microsoft)'s HR guidelines would prefer it if I were completely open and honest about where I work (at Microsoft) especially if there are situations where a "conflict of interest" might arise, and since "Microsoft" makes "video games" which are the primary subject of this blog, it's probably worth noting that I am in fact employed by Microsoft, the company.

HOWEVER! I do not work in the field of "video games". Or actually anywhere close to the Entertainment & Devices division. In fact I work on "enterprise" stuff, IE I am in the "Server and Tools Business" where I work on mostly things I can't talk about publicly, and also things I am not interested in talking about publicly because I like to leave my job at my job and this is just a hobby of mine.

The reasons I don't state this right on the header or at the footer of every post are because 1) it's kind of a nerdy thing to do, to talk about working at Microsoft. 2) until recently this blog was read by exactly 3 people, all who knew me IRL (thanks, additional 17 people who subscribed via Google Reader! I promise more interesting things are coming soon!) 3) I really, strongly believe it has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to my writing. Yes I own an xbox360 that I purchased in between my internship at Microsoft and my full-time position at Microsoft, yes I love the xbox360 dearly, yes I strongly believe the 360's interface is a better interface than sony's, and I always choose to play on the 360 - however I always feel I provide plenty of evidence to back up my opinions and if you disagree with me challenge me and I will respond.

And obviously since "This blog is a hobby" and "this blog has nothing to do with work, i do not write on my blog using company resources, or on company time", everything expressed in this blog is, as stated clearly at the top of the webpage, my opinion and my opinion alone, and not endorsed in any way by my employer, and absolutely should never be taken as such. Furthermore I have absolutely no inside knowledge of the gaming industry via my job - any information you find on this blog is gathered from Joystiq or other gamers and never, ever, at all, even a little bit from microsoft employees who have any knowledge whatsoever about the internal workings of the E&D business at microsoft. (i fucking hate writing this legalese cover-your-ass bullshit but i love my job kind of a lot and would never want to endanger it because of some stupid fucking misunderstanding)

if you are shocked & saddened by these revelations give a shout in the comments and we will hug. this. out. even if you want to call me a dishonest corporatist flak. i also promise that when relevant (games for windows live) I will not hesitate to criticize (games for windows live) gaming platforms owned by Microsoft (my employer, the company that gave us Games for Windows Live) for doing a terrible job and failing to live up to their competitors (games for windows live), but this is not a tech blog and I will not resort to criticizing every microsoft action (terrible marketing campaigns) just to prove I am a free thinker etc etc etc

thanks for reading, sorry you had to sit through this bullshit, it's a consequence of large corporate bureaucracies, plz don't ragequit my blog. and obviously feel free to ask questions about any of this and let me know if you have any concerns about my presence in the "srs gaming community"

-z!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

AC: Brotherhood & Project Legacy

Look yes I know, the whole Assassin’s Creed future-plot setup is kind of silly. The “aliens gave us the Apple of Eden” crypto-Truth bullshit is just embarrassing. The Borgia family, though… They had history. Not a codex entry, not an expository cutscene, not a hundred NPCs saying “oh look the Citadel is big and important, look how big and important it is [it is big and important]”, but actual literal history. Yeah okay you probably won’t see the PBS documentary explaining that the Borgia killed Ezio’s uncle or whatever – but that doesn’t undercut the sheer menace of your love interest being held in the Papal prison, or the hilariously overwrought bacchanalia of the collapsing church in the fifteenth century. So if the future-plot seems weak, it’s mostly in contrast to the incredibly strong feeling of historical significance you get from exploring Ezio’s memories.

The historical background also plays off AC’s other core strength contained within the titular Creed: “Nothing is true / everything is permitted”. A lot of the bad guys in the game are bad, sure – plotters, betrayers, incest…ualizers?, and, uh… hypocrites. But you’re a fucking remorseless serial murderer. The future-plot gets a little weaker here, because you don’t really witness Templars acting evil – you just get told over and over how evil they are. But the historical context gives you a lot more motivation in the past-plot – fuck yeah I want to pounce on some Crusaders from above in Jerusalem. Shit just feels right. Hell yes I want to stealthily take out corrupt Church officials at their own orgy. Dudes painted children in gold, like across their entire bodies, until the kids just up and died from the poisonous effects. Future-plot “Templar agents” are launching “a satellite” and use “cell phone radar” to track me? Sure. Whatever. Can I get back to infiltrating the Vatican so I can murder the Pope?

Yes the plot is all an elaborate conspiracy theory - but the actors have emotion, and reasons, and justifications. unlike The Collectors or The Reapers or The Sith or The Darkspawn, who are a threat because of numbers or magic plot-powers you never get to witness, the Borgia aren’t a threat to the world. they’re an annoyance. You don’t act out of some abortive sense of duty – you act out of revenge, and then convenience, and then just because the dude is a incestuous prick who went from tears to full-throated rage when his uncle cut off his funds (god, I love hearing Cesare’s voice break with anger and grief and fear as he demands money and recognition). The writing emphasizes these are all people, who have motivation, who need to react and compete against each other and not just you.  if we as gamers are starting  to push back against the idea that ludonarrative dissonance is a necessary condition of gameplay*, it’s because we’re starting to see that the player character doesn’t always have to be at the center of each and every drama. the player character can just as easily be a bit character hanging off a ledge watching this unfold. it’s no less engrossing that way, and a wonderful change of pace.**

*Not actually a part of the original ludonarrative dissonance critique, but it’s certainly been interpreted to be a necessary part of a game.

** and actually AC is a little weird if you’re talking about ludonarrative because the core of the game is actually a stated simulation via the Animus. So if you try to do something against the narrative – say, kill a civilian – the Animus says “hey, Ezio didn’t do that originally, be careful or you’ll get desync’d and have to start over”. So the entire past-plot exists in the context of reliving memories and if you deviate from that path (by dying, by failing missions, etc) there’s this very neat corrective system that says “oh that’s not how it happened”. essentially you have this additional layer of abstraction to mitigate the player’s natural impulses to fuck around with the rules of the open world against the desires of the story. Is another layer of indirection the only way to counter LND? …time will tell!

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Of course, it’s a love-hate relationship with this franchise. Ubisoft, for all its brilliance in game design, still has some serious software design issues – the map is a pain in the ass when you need to see elevation clearly, there’s no way of knowing you need to turn in feathers,  and the assassin missions are more of a chore to organize than anything else (Why are missions organized by region – a useless abstraction with no consequence – when I always want to see missions organized by difficulty?).

There’s a bit of irony here, actually. I’ve seen a few complaints about the “Facebook” nature of the assassin missions. Yet the review didn’t mention there is an actual Facebook game, probably because the facebook game has terrible design. I’ll concede that gameplay mechanics in a Facebook game are historically not very rich, but the interface design is required to be top-notch in order to make success a possibility. Ubisoft’s bungling of the Facebook game is almost entirely because they seem reluctant to engage with actual software design. [For example: unbearably slow loads, not being able to differentiate between different collectables, not being able to see all the requirements a mission has before entering the mission, the hellish and nearly-impossible and undocumented process of linking your uPlay to your Facebook profile to your actual instance of AC:Brotherhood – with exception of the last, all problems that have been long solved by Zynga &c.] And so Project Legacy’s failings mirror Brotherhood’s failings. The feature list is there, but the implementation is senseless, which speaks to a to lack in playtesting/QA.

The worst part about Project Legacy is the brush with greatness. If I could actually organize the accused “facebook-style” assassination missions through Legacy instead of doling out a measly 75 exp every 4 hours, I would have spent a lot more time and care on it. As it stands, I played through a few rounds and promptly forgot about it. It’s a mediocre tie-in, but the richness of interaction is possible – we have a facebook game sending data to an Xbox game*! In near-real time! The next step is being able to play a continuous game session regardless if you’re on a computer, xbox, or (probably Windows 7) phone, where each platform uses its strengths to create a rich, living, interactive environment that you can pick up whenever you need to scratch the itch.

 

*This connection is through a third-party connection service, uPlay, which like EA’s 3rd party server service is a huge pain in the ass that everyone hates having to deal with (forcing users to create yet another account with yet another password is such a terrible idea). I suspect that the 3rd party service is probably a necessary condition for arbitrary data connections & persistence since xbl does not explicitly provide that service, although obviously I have no idea if this is true or not. 

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a few more notes on brotherhood since I love this series obsessively: I’m holding out hope the 3rd game will take place in World War I. Great setting, and, you know – it was triggered by an assassination. I’ll take any non-American historical turmoil, though – French Revolution? The Bolsheviks Revolution? The Boxer Rebellion? All great settings that have been completely untouched by games (except for some dense historical sims).

The ending was the LEAST bullshit ending in an AC game – previously the PoE bullshit came out of nowhere for a ridiculous and unintentionally campy boss fight in the first game, and in the second game the fisticuffs with the Pope leading to space alien creation myth bullshit was just too much – the Truth video was even worse. In Brotherhood, at least dialogue in the credits made returning to the animus complete creepy in a way that nicely mirrors how freaked out I am by the bleeding effect (Which, by the way, completely justifies the entire animus future-plot setup. The first time it happened I actually freaked out and instinctually tried to fight ghost-guards).

The Cristina missions were lovely. Perfect, even. The romance was real – more real than awkwardly seducing a crewmate in Mass Effect – the tension & pathos were affecting, and I love love love that it was triggered by standing next to a very certain type of woman. I love that the explanation was that these were repressed memories. I love that they were completely straightfoward – a lot of side missions feel the need to include lots of worthless combat for no reason, but here it was clean and fast.

The Truth was a fucking copout this time. At least last time we got something. This time we got an abstract “puzzle” lair and a short, nonsensical conversation. The puzzles were worse, too – especially when it named Justice Roberts as a templar because of the Citizens United case. It’s the laziest sort of critique, and violates a key tenet of conspiracy theories – never make a falsifiable assertion.