Monthly Archives: February 2016

2 week break

Apologies, but life is getting too busy.  I’ll restart in two weeks.

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Opinion – Setting the Mood

Welcome to the jungle.  The acoustics are atrocious.

I’m currently typing this article in my apartment.  I’m sitting in a computer chair surrounded by my mess with easy access to my (empty) fridge and an open window showing a pleasant flurry outside.  The reflected snow light washes out my screen a bit, but the black letters on Word’s white background hardly show it or the film of dust between me and these words.  I am currently in the ideal environment for writing.

I am in a poor environment for gaming.

Though often ignored beyond the comfy couch or TV size, the environment in which we play is one of the most important factors in the enjoyment of a game.  Like any activity, gaming is best done in an atmosphere that supports it.  Consider my current situation.  The outside light and dusty screen mute the colors of anything but the blinding white of my word processor.  The dark hues of X-COM 2 would fade while the dust particles would shine.  My noisy PC doesn’t help either and its close proximity to me reduces my immersion.  The constant falling snow flakes catch the corner of my eye with their dancing motions providing yet another distraction.  I could play a game in these conditions, but my enjoyment would lessen.

Of course, what also matters is the kind of game that I’m playing.  Cities: Skylines, a bright and cheery city builder, would do just fine.  The colors better fit the room, the soothing music blends with the mechanical hum, and the gameplay is incredibly immersive.  A more story oriented game requiring reading and cut scene viewing wouldn’t do as well due to the multitude of distractions.  The snow blower outside would undermine my reading while Cities’ addicting gameplay requires little help in that regard.  A horror game would be even worse.  It’s hard to build up a sense of isolation and suspense in a well-lit room with the laughter of children outside.  Other people also have a major effect.  Nothing upends a sense of immersion like a roommate who wants to eat some of your chips during a pivotal scene.  Even if they aren’t intruding, the mere presence of other people can undermine your gaming experience.  Just knowing that someone is listening in on your guilty pleasure can make you feel self-conscious about what’s happening on screen.

This also has a major effect on reviews.  A game I find frustrating may actually be fun to the player who’s committed to a lazy day with a refreshing beverage.  Back pain and a rushed deadline may destroy my investment in a character while another player’s soft pillows and need to relax brings them closer.  Professional reviews are in even more danger of environmental circumstances.  Paid reviewers are offered hotel rooms and high end rigs by publishers looking for a good score.  The difference between “minor technical glitches” and “game breaking bugs” could be the presence of publisher paid IT support standing by to resolve any issues.  Even without deliberately doctoring scores, reviewers can give publishers better ratings if they’re in a favorable situation to review a game.

We don’t often think of the importance of our gaming environment.  Rarely do I hear anyone say: “X game was great!  It really helped that I was able to play in 3 hour chunks and my cat found something else to do!”  Even though we don’t realize it, our gaming environment effects our perception of games and how we react to them.  I’m not sure if there’s a way to incorporate it into reviews (except to decline publisher offers of review enclaves), but I do believe that every person should consider it before gaming.  We’ll all get a lot more from our games if we see them as experiences effected by the world rather than just a thing happening on a screen.

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Opinion – Quiting in Multiplayer

Should I stay or should I go?

One of the interesting things about multiplayer is how the relationship between the players effects their play and view of each other.  Not only must players contend with their opponent’s resources, they must also consider their motivations, and the social contract all multiplayer groups establish.  Nothing stresses the social contract like quitting.  When the goal is to play a particular game, stopping play of that game can be frustrating for all concerned.  Modelled off of a recent game of Magic I played, I’d like to explore the dynamics of quitting in a game.

The Setup: Three players are in direct opposition to each other.  One player is substantially weaker than the other two and believes they have no chance of winning.  This player can still have a major effect on the board.  Should they quit?

Analysis:  I have generally held that quitting a multiplayer game should be done only in very rare circumstances.  Each player in a game has an effect on the board and the calculations of the other players.  Even a weakened player may cause their opponent to play more cautiously or to pursue a different strategy.  In removing themselves from the game, the quitter makes their participation a tool inside the game.  Their opponents must also consider whether a particular play will cause the quitter to leave in addition to the game-oriented strategic concerns.

Of course, social contracts exists largely because of the non-game issues that pop up during play.  In the above mentioned scenario, the factor not considered is whether the losing player is having fun.  In the casual multiplayer setting, fun is often the most desired outcome over the purity of the game and many social contracts allow for players to make sub optimal choices (build poor decks, play strange strategies, quit, etc) provided everyone is enjoying themselves.  The counter argument is that allowing quitting (recognizing that quitting can never be banned, but only frowned upon) creates the above mentioned situation where concern about quitting can decrease the fun for the whole group, even if the individual benefits.  Frequency matters a great deal as the occasional tap out may not mean much, but regular folding undermines long term enjoyment.

The obvious answer may seem to be “quitting is acceptable within limited circumstances and with the understanding of the other players”, but there’s another factor left under considered: motivation.  The guiding star of most games is self-interest.  Players take actions which they believe will lead them to victory.  In the situation above, the losing player believes that none of his actions will result in victory leaving the player without a clear direction to head.  Here is another potential source of frustration.  Robbed of a path to victory, the losing player may work towards goals considered illegitimate by the other players.  They might take major actions just to have an effect on the board or seek out revenge thereby penalizing other players for playing well.  A player without a win condition cannot play the game (after all, they can’t win it), but can still have a major effect on the game’s players.  As a result, I believe the appropriate general response is “do no harm” with the understanding that harm includes both the player and their opponents seated around the table.  The losing player should seek to remove themselves from the game while having as little impact as possible.

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Opinion – Learning from Suikoden

Apologies for no message.  The snow was real.

I recently beat Suikoden 1 (see: SNOW) and it struck me how much the games industry has to learn from that 20 year old game.  Though it is clearly a low budget affair, the game succeeds in a large number of areas that modern RPGs, and games in general, fail completely at.  This article will explore what Suikoden can teach the modern audience.

Adapt your systems to your ambitions

Rarely have I ever seen a game create such well-fitting game mechanics.  The central conceit, there are 108 playable characters and you gotta catch them all, is supported by all of the other ideas.  For example, the game has very little grinding.  Characters receive additional experience if they’re lower level than the enemies.  This allows the player to swap in any of the other characters and make them effective with only a little grinding.  All 108 characters are instantly accessible with this mechanic whereas a more traditional RPG would penalize the player for swapping out party members.  The game also includes a castle supported by characters with non-fighting skills that serves as a base and ensures that the large cast offers something more than a long list of cannon fodder.  Finally, Suikoden includes teleportation to allow the player to quickly backtrack to acquire new characters.  Missing any one of these mechanics would deeply harm the game, but by thinking through their central mechanic and supporting it, the developers created a unified system.

A limited, grounded story

Too many stories go from personal tragedy to universal destruction without asking why.  It seems like the standard story for most games must end with the fabric of reality at stake or the developers have to hand in their profound auteur badges.  This forces the characters and narrative into awkward positions that make little sense.  Villains often suffer the worst of it (“And now I will create my DARK UTOPIA by KILLING EVERYONE and filling the world with BAD LIGHTING and SQUIRRELS!!”), but everything from the settling to the cohesiveness of the plot bends to the extremely unlikely motivation of world destruction.  Suikoden scales it back a bit.  The story scopes to the internal politics of a single empire.  The stakes are the happiness of the citizens and the personal life of the main character.  It may not seem like much, but it’s enough to drive a compelling story without including asinine motivations and junk mysticism.  The characters are understandable, the plot is clear, and the world is consistent.  I’m saddened to say this puts Suikoden 1 above a lot of modern games.

Characters who could be people

In conjunction with the above point, Suikoden is filled with relatable characters.  Yes, they’re denizens of a fantasy world with talking kobolds and magic, but many of their daily motivations are what you’d see out of the people in your life.  They have jobs, ambitions, and loyalties that are far more relatable than generic hero number 5 whose dark past and husky voice lets us know just how super cool they are.  They also don’t have mysterious powers or hokey backstories.  They’re just people.  As a result, the story also benefits by not having to accommodate 50 special snowflakes with special powers.  Give me a Gremio over a Lightening any day.

I don’t want to oversell Suikoden.  It’s got real flaws.  108 party members thins out the character development, the item system is silly, and dash buttons were always a terrible idea.  Still, it’s a more complete and compelling experience than many games today.  The SNES-Playstation 1 era is rightly remembered as a golden age for JRPGs because of games like Suikoden 1.  Developers should replay some of these greats and apply the lessons that still matter today.

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