Monthly Archives: February 2015

Opinion – Balancing for Goodness!

Back off, I’m right on the edge.

In my sickness enforced downtime, I spent a lot of time with the Playstation 2 classic, Persona 3: FES (It’s still awesome.  Go check it out).  I recently ran across the mid boss, Sleeping Tables, (Enemy names are still ridiculous.  Still go check it out.) who proceeded to annihilate my party.  After several attempts resulting in my quick and ignominious death, I consulted online guides who helpfully informed me that he was going to murder me.  Sleeping Tables is an example of a poorly balanced boss fight.  He does tons of damage, ignores previous strategies, and has no effective means of dying except luck for the players.  This got me thinking: what are some of the challenges in balancing difficulty?

The first and most difficult problem is player skill.  Players come from a wide variety of skill levels that don’t align on a single scale (good to bad), but reflect the player’s competencies at a number of tasks.  Some player’s may have excellent twitch skills while others are great at formulating strategies.  Double Fine’s recent release, Hack n’ Slash, relies on coding ability beyond the average gamer’s experience. When building a game, it’s hard to imagine what the typical gamer looks like in terms of jumping, dodging, attacking, puzzle solving and the tons of other tasks that games ask the player to perform.  This gets even more complicated when the developer tries to modify these skills along the previously mentioned sliding scale.  Inherent in the concept of an easy, medium, or hard mode is the notion that, what each mode changes, specifically addresses the skills of players.  If easy mode allows players to take more damage, then it might have zero effect on a player who dies to instant death jumping puzzles.  After all, absorbing ten extra bullets doesn’t save the player from falling into a chasm of doom.

Past decisions also matter in establishing difficulty.  Many games allow player decisions to carry across sections of gameplay.  In some of the grand RPGs, player actions may result in the death of a character or the developing of a certain skill tree.  If that character is then vital to defeating a boss or the skill tree is weak against an enemy, then the player is boxed in by their previous choices.  Developers must account for the many ways players play their games and be even more cautious with end game material that could require the player to replay the whole game if they made the “wrong” choice in the beginning.  This also effects the smaller decisions.  Standard FPS games, not known for carrying choices across the game, still have smaller decisions that can have major effects on player difficulty.  Everything from gun choice to positioning on a map can make a game harder or easier.  Getting pinned behind a wall make one fight unwinnable while taking a sniping position atop the rafters make the same fight a pathetic turkey shoot.

Size also matters.  The longer a game is, the more likely the developer is to include new elements that test the player’s skills and strategies in new ways.  This creates ever more scenarios that the developer will need to test to ensure the appropriate difficulty.  Size of the game also makes the difficulty harder to test.  In the original God of War, one of the final stages had the player climbing up a series of pillars with blades attached.  The pillars rotated and the goal was to both climb up and avoid the moving blades.  Unfortunately, the God of War developers ran out of time and were unable to test that section.  As a result, an impossibly hard challenge made its way in, much to the chagrin of many a God of War player who was staring enviously at the end.  Of course, the developer should have fully tested their game, but the size of the game makes it hard to check every aspect of it, particularly with limited resources.

Finally, developers and testers have a deeper knowledge of a game than the vast majority of their players.  Not only do they program every aspect of their creation, but they also play it to test out these changes.  This means that developers and testers are approaching their game with far more practice and knowledge than their players will have.  It’s hard to divorce yourself from your knowledge and easy to forget that an “easy” jump wasn’t so “easy” the first 20 times you tried it.  By the time a game ships, that jump has probably been tried thousands of time.

There are a ton of challenges when trying to balance a game.  It helps if the developer can a) get fresh eyes on near finished code and b) has a clear understanding of their target demographic.  Fresh eyes allow the developer to understand how a new player would approach a game without the benefit of many playthroughs.  Understanding the target demographic gives the developer an idea of who will play their game, and what level of skill they bring to the table.  Even then, it’s hard to get the difficulty just right.

….but Sleeping Tables is still going to die.

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Illness

Apologies all, but I’m quite sick. Hopefully I can post tomorrow.

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Opinion – Why Shouting Doesn’t Count as Journalism

Cause professionalism means shouting.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker recently sat down with noted developer Peter Molyneux to discuss Molyneux’s Kickstarter-funded project, Godus and some of the questions surrounding the delayed implementation of that game.  The interview was notable for its antagonism towards Molyneux.  Walker didn’t just bring up problems, he ripped into the developer and even started the interview by calling Molyneux a pathological liar.  It was brutal and unnecessarily hostile.  It also showed the complex lack of journalistic professionalism of much of the video game criticism world.

The media surrounding video games sits at an awkward position between hobby news, artistic criticism, and genuine journalism.  It’s clear that video games reviewers and editorialists have very little formal training in their chosen craft and that most are selected based on their writing talents and love of the medium.  This means that they are often unfamiliar with the basic rules of reporting and struggle with issues like gifts or under what conditions a game can be reviewed.  The end result is a critical community that passes on industry announcements as major news and fails even the most basic tenets of professionalism.  I don’t make any claim to particular knowledge about journalism, but the mistakes are obvious.

I’ll start with Walker’s interview as it shows two major problems.  The first is Walker’s interviewing skills.  Walker started that interview with the intention of getting the story he wanted.  He wanted to crucify Molyneux and so hurled accusations at him until the very end.  Now, Molyneux is infamous for overpromising, so there is some validity in calling him out, but rather than understand Molyneux, Walker tried to shut him down.  There is an interesting thread throughout the entire interview of how Molyneux justifies his repeated failures that would have made for a fascinating article, but Walker was too incensed to ever grasp it.   He just hammers the same point relentlessly as if there’s some value in Molyneux admitting his failings for the fiftieth time.  Even if the first attack was worthwhile, the subsequent attacks push out any further fruitful discussion.  This is the interview by an annoyed fan, not a skilled professional.

The other interesting aspect of his interview is how it contrasts with the rest of the industry.  Games journalists are notorious for softball interviews that show a game in the best light while glossing over flaws in the existing game or its predecessors.  This, combined with the regular publishing of release dates and new features, turn video game websites into marketing arms of major publishers.   The hobbyist element is most apparent here.  Journalists share in the community excitement about a game, but rarely move beyond that.  The only time a developer or publisher truly gets push back on their product or practices is when the review drops.  At that point, many gamers have already imbibed a wave of hype that may have influenced them to buy a game that otherwise stinks.  I also see this problem with previews. Reviewers generally give previewed games positive responses.  Rarely will a reviewer speak out about how terrible a game is, even if it’s only weeks away from final release.  At that point, the quality of the game should be obvious, yet the reviewer has the audacity to say its promising and then give a completely opposite opinion in the review as if this was the first word they had on the subject.

Perhaps the most obvious failing is the website’s and magazine’s handling of broader interest news stories.  Gaming doesn’t have many, but they do occur such as the link between games and violence or GamerGate.  The response from the big websites is generally muted with little reporting and even less follow through.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, major websites regurgitated AP news stories with very little additional content.  Surely someone at Gamespot or IGN could call up a local university psychologist for additional background.  I saw the same with GamerGate where gaming’s biggest websites barely made mention of the massive cultural phenomenon that was sweeping through gaming.  Those that did rarely went in depth or followed basic journalistic practice.  I saw exactly one article that consulted pro GamerGaters, but a number of articles that spoke to the author’s twitter feed or regurgitated some other post.  That isn’t journalism, its gossip.

Gamer culture and all that surrounds it is going through an interesting phase.  We’re developing a greater cultural relevance and expanding into new areas, but key parts of the mental and organizational infrastructure of the community have yet to adapt to these new circumstances.   We’re at a point where games journalists (and gamers) are going to have to decide what kind of role they want to play in our developing society.  If games journalists want to own the moniker “journalist” then they’re going to have to make major changes.

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Review – Darkest Dungeon Early Access

Meh, I’ve seen darker.

The early access version of Darkest Dungeon isn’t subtle.  From the very start, it covers the screen with shadows, decaying mass, and long gravely speeches about horror and madness.  Underneath the squalor is a team management rogue-like with mechanics to match its flair.  While it still has a few rough edges to work out, Darkest Dungeon is solid fun that is absolutely worth its 20 dollar asking price.

The gameplay is a delightful mix of rogue-like, RPG, and squad based management elements.  The player controls a group of mercenaries tasked with exploring the corrupted grounds of his ancestral home.  Mercenaries come from a wide variety of classes with an interesting array of abilities.  Once the team is set and provisioned, it’s time to explore a dungeon.  Dungeons are randomly generated maps with monsters, loot, and traps populating rooms and hallways.  While this is all standard for the genre, Darkest Dungeons differs substantially when it comes to the fights and party management.  During fights, the two sides are lined up in single file.  Attacks are restricted based on where in the line a character and their opponent is.  A skeleton archer can fire devastating arrows from the back to positions, but must use far weaker attacks in the front two.  This opens up considerable strategic gameplay as the player must manage both the position of their characters and their opponents.  The difference between an overwhelming victory and total defeat often hinge on position management.

The other major combat mechanic is stress.  Darkest Dungeon is a frightening place and the mercenaries feel it.  Each has a stress meter that reflects their mental state.  Should the stress meter reach 100, the mercenary has a psychotic break and engages in self-destructive behavior.  Stress can be managed on the battlefield, but the only way to truly address it is in town.  This creates a tension between continuing on to the next fight and pulling an otherwise healthy party before they go crazy.  Fortunately, the starting hamlet that acts as a home base and has plenty of ways to address the mental decline of its denizens.  Mercenaries can engage in gambling, prayer, and flagellation to heal their minds…and empty the player’s coffers.  Money is tight in Darkest Dungeon, as are other resources.  Heirlooms found in the dungeons are used to upgrade facilities such as a blacksmith to improve weaponry or a wagon to improve recruits.  The constant tension between available resources and need make for tough decisions during the game.

Beyond the gameplay, Darkest Dungeon invests heavily in a Lovecratian mood.  The opening cinematic sets up a story of greed, ambition, and eldritch horror.  The player takes the reins of the last scion of a once noble family line who has been summoned to his ancestral manner to rid it of the corruption that has taken hold.  And the corruption is quite evident.  The home base, a hamlet outside of your dungeons, is a collapsing ruin covered in darkness, even during the day.  The town is populated by dark manifestations of traditional townsfolk including a maddened caretaker who indulges his vices in hopes of dealing with his suffering.  When dungeon crawling, the setting is similarly decrepit with rot infused into every wall and tree.  Enemies are gruesome manifestations of popular tropes.  They don’t often show creativity in their design, but the rotting skeleton and bloodthirsty demon fit right in among the horror themed setting.  The game drops in periodic bits of story about how the player’s family corrupted the land, but it isn’t the focus.  Darkest Dungeon cares more about its aesthetics and creating a feeling of decay and dread than it does setting out a complex narrative.

Sadly, the atmosphere the game works so hard to inspire is undermined by the very nature of the genre.  Rogue-likes encourage repeated death which numbs the player to its existence.  The lovingly crafted dungeons become less horrific with each passing and the brief mercenary monologues express anguish or hope quickly become frustrating delays in gameplay.  Between mercenaries missing attacks and cries of fear, Darkest Dungeon can prevent the player from effecting the gamestate for tens of seconds.  It’s frustrating to watch the game play without the player’s input, particularly during a tough battle.  There are a few other issues, such as an unwieldy mercenary menu and difficulty spikes, but they are forgivable.

Darkest Dungeon delivers on its promise.  From the tense battles to the moody setting, this is a balanced rogue-like with tons of fun to be had.  There are certainly some areas to improve, but this early access title is a worthy purchase now.  Go get it.

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Opinion – Be Funny

One joke, one witticism. Order up!

There’s a moment on Penny Arcade’s excellent web series “Strip Search” where a journalist asks one of the contestants to be funny. The contestant tries to tell a joke, and then flounders. To anyone who is considered funny by others and has been introduced as such, this is a familiar experience. In that moment, it’s almost as if all your humor has left you and you’re bereft of a talent that seems ever present at almost any other point in your life. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t me. Humor requires something that is missing in that moment. Humor requires context.

This mental tangent was inspired by the game Citizens of Earth (CoE). In CoE, the player the takes control of the buffoonish Vice President of the Earth in his attempts to fend off an alien invasion with local townsfolk. The game plays the scenario for laughs, but never seems to hit on a good joke, much less consistently be funny. The problem feels similar to the one the Strip Search contestant had. CoE feels like a game that was told to “be funny” and was unable to achieve that. What gives?

One of the most underappreciated things about humor is how much context plays a role. Humor relies on a shared cultural context upon which the humorist can make a clever observation or subvert a common understanding. If the parties involved in humor share different contexts, then the foundation which is being commented upon disappears and the meaning is lost. Consider the old joke “A man walks into a bar. Ouch.” This joke relies on the notion that the receiver understands that “A man walks into a bar” is a common setup for a joke. Furthermore, the receiver should anticipate additional setup before the punch line is given. The humor comes when the receiver realizes that the meaning of “bar” has changed and the punch line just happened. If the receiver did not have the background in “A man walks into a bar” jokes, then the subversive nature of the joke is lost and so is its meaning. The shared context is crucial.

Citizens of Earth never establishes context. The background, what little exists, is generic American town with nothing to define it. This may seem like a shared context, and it is, but it’s not a very deep one. To achieve its generalizability, this context sacrifices nuance and greater meaning for fear of including something unfamiliar to its broad audience. As a result, there is very little for the developers to explore that doesn’t violate the mission of generalizable humor. The jokes must draw on a shallow pool that has, unfortunately for CoE, already been thoroughly explored. Consider the most prominent joke of the game: the arrogant, out-of-touch main character. Calling a politician distant and silly is about as common a joke as you will find. It’s used so often that it has entered the world of stereotype. If there were more too Citizens of Earth, then maybe this could be built on, but there isn’t. The context is just too shallow to explore the concept further. The Vice President is yet another stupid politician. Move on to the next tired joke.

The problem with humor on demand is that requires the comedian to create a shared context out of thin air and often with a short time limit. When the comedian hasn’t had time to create that context, they must rely on broadly relatable tropes that only allow for tired standbys or risk delivering a joke that the receiver lacks the context to enjoy. When attempting humor, video games need to recognize the importance of taking their time and setting up situations with the player’s buy in. Humor without time to develop is just confusing or, even worse, bland.

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