Monthly Archives: May 2015

Opinion – Violence in GTA and Hatred

I didn’t kill him.  He got in the way of my bullet

The discussion about violence in video games shifted with the release of the trailer for Hatred (link), a brutal romp focusing on the execution of civilians.  The game’s subsequent banning and unbanning from Steam resulted in a plethora of articles about the nature of violence in video games and the medium’s various approaches.  One such article by Shamus Young (link) suggests violence in Hatred is more odious than Grand Theft Auto as GTA provides a justification for murder whereas Hatred does the opposite.  I suggest that, for the same reason, Hatred has the more honest approach to violence.

First, let’s cover Young’s argument.  In his article, Young seeks to address Hatred’s defenders who claim that Hatred’s killing of civilians is on par with a game like GTA as it involves the same bloody mayhem of seemingly innocent populations.  Both games include large numbers of civilians who are subsequently massacred by the player.  Young argues this is a superficial comparison that ignores the very real differences between how the games’ approach civilian violence.  He sees two key differences: justification and encouragement.  Whereas GTA provides some justification in the form of making civilians snobbish, racist, superficial jerks, Hatred goes the opposite route.  Hatred wants the player to know that its innocent people that they’re killing.  Hatred is a game explicitly about murdering people who don’t deserve it while GTA gives the player a reason.  Interestingly enough, when it comes to mechanically encouraging the player to kill people, the roles are reversed.  Whereas killing people is the sole goal of Hatred, it’s only an option in GTA.  In short, Hatred wants you to murder people in the worst way whereas GTA makes it feel like murder is okay, but not required.

I find Hatred’s blunt approach to be the more honest of the two.  Hatred draws a clear line at the horror of shooting innocents and then asks the player to cross it.  It never hides the fact that the player is asked to kill blameless individuals with families and lives which puts the onus of enjoyment on the player.  GTA’s approach obscures the reality of what it allows the player to do.  By turning all potential civilian targets into unsympathetic jerks, it tries to gloss over the nature of the act of killing them.  Its okay to kill these people, the game says, they deserve it for a variety of negative social traits.  Of course, most would say that being an objectionable person does not merit the death penalty, but GTA uses the personalities to obscure the nature of a shooting spree.  It provides a fig leaf that the player can hide behind so that they don’t feel bad when they engage in atrocities.  Hatred makes its morals clear while GTA tries to trick the player into breaking theirs.

GTA takes a similar side approach to encouraging the slaughter.  While it is true that the GTA series rarely makes killing noncombatants a mission goal, it does find plenty of ways for them to be caught in the crossfire.  Gunfights and car chases take place on open streets where stray bullets abound and the sidewalk is often an additional lane.  The obfuscation mentioned above works with this method of gameplay to reduce the inhibitions of the player and encourage them to use all options available, regardless of the body count.  Again, Hatred takes the more honest approach.  The death of civilians is deliberate and encouraged without the attempts to hide the repercussions.

In the end, much of the objectionable misdirection of the GTA series feels like a response to the reality of open world game design.  Civilian lives are necessarily cheap where the open world acts as a level and obeying traffic rules is a chore.  GTA happens upon its violence whereas Hatred focuses directly on it.  While I think Hatred has the more hoenst approach, GTA’s style is far more playable.  I can ultimately write off the people on the streets as mindless bots.  Hatred may be more honest, but it tries hard to make sure I don’t forget that its people I’m killing.  That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

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Opinion – Final Boss Failures

Game over.

I just finished Shovel Knight, or, I suppose I should say I’m finished with Shovel Knight.  After overcoming puzzles, platforming, and boss fights, I found myself completely unwilling to finish the last couple of levels.  My issue wasn’t with the coming challenge, but with a poor design decision.  One of the final fights has the player defeat every boss they’ve beaten in succession without a save point in sight.  Not only does Shovel Knight force you to replay old content, but it wants you to replay it perfectly.  Sadly, this isn’t the only problem with boss fights in video games.  Here’s a list of my most objectionable:

Nasty fight at the end of a long dungeon

This happens in almost every game.  The game includes a super long dungeon with incredibly dangerous enemies only to top it off with ridiculously tough fight at the end.  The idea is to have a brutal slog to the finish that the player remembers well after the credits role.  Developers seem to believe that this is the best way to introduce a sufficiently climactic conclusion to their magnum opus.  Unfortunately, it’s also the most dangerous.  While the tough final dungeon and fight can produce great stories, it also produces frustrating fights with repeated reloads.  Balancing on a knife edge means the players will fail sometimes and so will face having to replay difficult content in hopes that this is the time they’ll succeed.  Overlong final dungeons and fights also make it harder for the player to boost their strength if they need to.  The number of hours invested and the difficult terrain traversed isolate the player from content they could use to make the fight easier.  If the player wants to grind for levels or acquire a particular item, they need to give up several hours’ worth of gameplay to do so.  Not surprisingly, that’s not fun.

Getting the gang back together

It inspired this article so it had to be on here.  When the final boss fight is proceeded by a run through of previous boss fights or levels, it’s incredibly boring.  While I understand that it builds a sense of progress (look at what you’ve accomplished!), this technique also revisits old content.  The only difference is that now the player is likely seeking completion of the game and fighting old bosses feels like meaningless filler.  Returning to old bosses also robs the player of defeating the boss in the first place.  If the boss is still around to fight, then the awesome battle against boss 7 that occurred three hours ago doesn’t mean as much.  Furthermore, once the player does vanquish them, the death feels more like a return to the status quo.  Can the high school yearbook approach and let the defeated lie.

Now you see my true form

I’m not sure if I can blame Dragon Ball Z for this, but it seems like I should be able to.  Final bosses collect numerous “forms” that only come out once they’ve been beaten to a pulp.  This means that the player grinds a hard fight, feels the taste of victory, and groans as yet another version of the boss manifests to artificially extend the battle.  Multiple forms for bosses ensure that players can never go all out against the last boss for fear that another one lurks in the corner.  Oftentimes, the many “forms” are also a narrative hole where new versions of the boss magically appear to ensure that the required “three fights to finally victory” notion holds true.  The story never supports the idea and it’s clear that the developers are pulling a dues ex machina.

Strategies you’ll die for

In a drive to create spectacular boss fights, some developers insert incredible new attacks that devastate the player and really force them to come up with new strategies.  At least, that’s probably what it sounds like in the developer’s heads.  For the player, this technique ups the frustration while sapping the final fight of a climax.  It results in repeated restarts where the exposition leading up to the moment is undermined by the fifth time the player fights the third form of the final boss.  The relief the player feels is not from saving the world, but rather getting past frustration.

Instant death attacks

No.  JUST NO.

Bring it all together

Perhaps the worst sin of a final boss fight is bringing all of the above together.  Each problem feeds on each other to create what is a fairly common experience.  Multiple forms require repeated playthroughs to learn new strategies to get around instant death attacks and complete an ugly last slog through old bosses.  Each part of that equation makes the other parts even worse.  Please, developers, when you’re creating your final boss, don’t do any of the above.

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Mod Dev Diary 1 – Things I learned

This is a teachable moment.

I’ve never made a mod before and I never had any plans to.  I see my role in the gaming ecosystem as a consumer, rather than a creator, yet the reality is that I have embarked on making a mod for the greatest game of all time, Crusader Kings 2.  My goal is simple: make a new religion with gods that have a real impact on the game world.  Whereas the existing game focuses on the political and personal realities of gods, I want to make gods that destroy kingdoms, cast spells, and generally wreck the world.  I’ve had a lot of fun so far, but there are definitely a few things I’ve learned about game development along the way.  Here are some of the biggest.

Planning is key

To start my modding career, I poked around the game files and tried to create smaller mods.  As I gained knowledge, I worked on elements that I figured would be in my religion mod.  It didn’t take long to realize how vital planning was to the whole endeavor.  A mod of any complexity will have interlocking parts that will effect each other and the broader game state.  It’s easy enough to deconflict any couple of elements, but creating a set of interlocking pieces is extremely difficult without a plan.  This became very apparent to me as I was trying to create the levels of status within the religion.  I created a mockup of each status and even wrote the events and leveling conditions that worked the player through each level.  As I considered the leveling scheme, I immediately thought of what it would take to go through as an acolyte of one of the gods.  When I started on the next god, my leveling scheme conflicted with the first.  Inevitably, the leveling scheme of the third god conflicted with the first time.  Planning is definitely needed.

You can’t power through

My work habits largely derive from my academic career.  Like many, I became a master of plowing through complex lines of thought in large chunks of time, usually at the last possible moment.  That doesn’t work anymore.  It’s not that I’ve changed, my brain is still the delightful caffeine addled machine it’s always been, but the type of thinking required benefits from space.  Coding the mod requires intricate work where even a single incorrect line will derail the whole operation.  Detailed thinking, not broader lines of thought, are what is needed.  I’ve literally spent hours staring at the screen looking for an errant line of code and been totaling unable to identify it.  Alternatively, if I walk away for a day and come back, the answer is obvious.  This takes time.

Fantasy names are hard

Like, super hard.  It’s frighteningly easy to come up with extremely stupid names and incredibly difficult to come up with smart ones.  I’ve elected to work off of Latin terminology, but, even then, I’ve discarded a ton of names that make me embarrassed of my own creation.  I can see the temptation to create nonsense works or just use the English word.  I ultimately had to change my goal from creating fun and memorable god names to not terrible god names.  The goal is to avoid breaking the player’s immersion rather than to elevate my game in any meaningful way.  That being said, Furya and the Elemental races is still dumb.  Sorry, Vin Diesel.

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Opinion – Steam Mod Charging Ugliness

That will be $5 for air, please.

The biggest story of the week was Valve’s attempt to offer Skyrim modders a chance to charge for their content via Valve’s Steam store.  The idea is solid on its face.  Modders can spend thousands of hours creating additional content that dramatically extends the life of a game, fixes bugs, and sells more copies.  There’s every reason to allow modders to reap the financial benefits of their work, both as an incentive to produce better mods and a way to allow, in theory, full time modding studios.  Unfortunately, Valve royally screwed up the roll out and had to pull the feature back.  Here’s how they did it.

They told no one

At least, they didn’t tell the gamers.  Gamers just arrived at the Skyrim page to discover that some of their favorite mods were stuck behind a pay wall or wouldn’t receive future updates unless they shelled out cash.  One of the greatest sins a business can make is to ambush its customers while charging them for something they got for free.  It leaves the customers feeling robbed and powerless which they will inevitably combat by complaining online.  It also didn’t help that Valve barely gave the modders notification.  A select group of modders had 45 days’ notice before the feature went live.  This isn’t enough time to put together a new, quality mod that people would happily pay for.  Instead, most of the day one offerings were tweaked versions of older mods or quick cash-ins that adding nothing to the game.  By not telling anyone, Valve insured that gamers would be taken by surprise and that modders would put their worst face forward.

They got greedy

The proposed cost split for a mod was 30% to Valve, 45% to Skyrim developer BethesdaSoft, 25% to the modder, and an optional 5% from the Valve portion to go to collaborating artists.  In short, a whopping 75% went to someone other than the modder, the theoretical beneficiary of this whole feature.  This split opened up Valve and BethsdaSoft to accusations of greed and made the payment option look like a money grab.  I can understand how both companies would want some of the profits, but it’s hard to argue they deserve the lion’s share.  Neither company is adding anything (remember, the modder paid for the original game and is doing all of the work) and both companies get compensation for any additional copies sold.  I imagine both companies intended to start high with the understanding that they may have needed to downshift, but they obviously misjudged what the gamers would tolerate.

They used an existing mod scene

The fact that mods are free has created a unique ecosystem unlike any other in the gaming world.  Whereas game developers jealously guard their assets and fight hard for their intellectual properties, modders do none of this.  The lack of a profit option means everything falls under fair use and can be bundled with someone else’s work.  A well-developed modding community often has basic mods that other mods incorporate wholesale without a single dollar exchanged between the modders.  When Valve allowed modders to slap a price tag on their work, it raised huge questions about who was owed.  Does a modder owe other modders if they incorporate their work?  If so, how much?  What if the borrowed mod has also been changed?  Valve also created a system of hidden costs where a mod that relied on, but did not incorporate, another mod could charge one price without noting (or being aware of) the cost of associated mods.  A modder could charge $5 for their mod and never state that a player needed another $5 mod to play.  It got ugly.

I support the basic idea.  Modders invest considerable time and energy into their work and deserve compensation for it.  Valve should continue to refine this concept into something that most people can support.  That means socializing the idea before realizing it, giving a more favorable split to the modder, and picking a new game where modders can build a community around the understanding that money will be exchanged.  I sincerely hope we see a more intelligent application of this idea in the future.

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