Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion – Video Game Gambling is a Bad Business Model

….okay, so it actually is an excellent business model.

Video games have undeniably undergone a number of important additions and changes to their business model such as the rise of free-to-play games, pay per month MMOs, and the old standby of pay once.  These models have allowed for the development of unique and different games that might not have worked otherwise following previous practices.  Riot Games’ League of Legends stands out as a beneficiary of these changes, but plenty of other games rely on them too.  The video game industry is adding another new strategy in the form of loot boxes.  Unlike the previous strategies, loot boxes and their spinoffs rely on the same mechanics that fuel gambling and addiction.  The industry is now faced with a very real question:  Is addiction a worthy strategy for monetizing video games?

Economically, gambling and addiction approaches make a lot of sense.  After all, it works for a wide range of business including casinos, racing tracks, and organized crime.  By targeting the mental makeup of addiction prone individuals, these industries accrue enormous sums of money despite severe legal restrictions and often returning to the consumer nothing for the cost of their services.  Since the mechanisms for addiction are reasonably well understood and aren’t tied to the quality of the game (see: slot machines), developers can consistently produce high quality addiction mechanisms while not worrying about making a high quality game.  Finally, addictive games tend to review well as critics and players alike take the “addictive” nature of the game as a sign of how compelling it is rather than an example of targeted manipulation.  Seen in this light, introducing gambling mechanics into games makes the same strong economic case as they do in casinos.

If the economic benefits are the same, so too are the moral hazards.  The business model is designed to take advantage of the addictive personalities of big spenders (“whales” in developer speak) regardless of the very real damage that the addiction does to these people’s lives.  In enhancing the addictive nature of games, developers are deliberately preying on the weakness of certain individuals to extract as much money as possible.  It’s not hard to see how that creates very thorny moral issues that gaming hasn’t yet had to deal with.  Games have relied on gambling mechanics in the past (Diabloesque loot drops come to mind), but they’ve never tied those mechanics to real money.  The addition of money means that games can now do real damage like they never could before.

Gambling also harms the games themselves.  Developers are now looking for ways to include gambling mechanics into their games regardless of whether a game actually benefits from it.  The most obvious example is EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II where key elements of the multiplayer were stuck in loot crates to promote their usage, but that’s hardly the only game.  Genres that don’t have space for these mechanics are pushed aside in favor of those that do.  The push among major game makers is figuring out how to squeeze more money out of addictive people rather than create good games that incentivize the broader gaming crowd to buy them.  Like the open world fad before, we can expect developers to invest heavily into this market to the exclusion of everything good that came before.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making money.  There’s nothing wrong with providing extra content for gamers who want more from a game.  This is all a normal and desirable part of the video games industry.  The problem is when the developers cross the line from convincing people to give them money to preying on addictions.  At that point, the game developer is no better than the casino that advertises to gambling addicts or cigarette companies that target people with mental illness.  It’s a disgusting business model that should have no place in the gaming world today.

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Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – The problems of Mass Effect: Andromeda

I didn’t finish this game and, god willing, I’ll never have to.

Don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  If you loved the earlier entries in the series, really don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  ME:A is a dizzying collection of technical problems, terrible writing, mystifying design choices, and concentrated disappointment.  As an enormous fan of the ME series, I can honestly say that ME:A manages to, not just fail as a Mass Effect game, but also as a use of anyone’s time.

But don’t blame animations.  Yes, the wooden facial immobility and odd lip protrusions are jarring, but I ultimately got used to them.  They are merely the appetizer to a buffet line of minor technical problems that constantly overwhelm the player’s immersion.  We’ve got texture pop in, idiotic AI, teleporting team members (also with idiotic AI), conflicting dialogue that sounds at the same time, NPCs just randomly walking in place, interactions that have to be accessed at specific angles, and I’ve even heard of bugs that lock the player into dialogue.  I could look past any one of these problems, but the sheer number of them ensure that I’m dealing with at least one at any given moment.  It’s hard to lose yourself in a world when the game goes out of its way to remind you that it’s fake.  Hold on to your butts folks, because that’s the least of Andromeda’s problems.

Andromeda’s design is an undiscipled mess.  The founding template is Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The player follows a broader narrative through a series of smaller, open world levels choc full of characters to meet, enemies to kill, and side quests to explore.  Beyond the functional combat, Andromeda fails at all of these.  Let’s make a list of the horror.

  • Side quests – There are hundreds of these little guys and they’re mostly ripped from the blandest MMO handbook you can find. Kill 15 enemies, find X object, go on a wild goose chase, etc.  It’s all mindless busy work that feels like mindless busy work.  Every quest is a transparent sheath between the player and resource acquisition.  If there are meaningful side quests, they’re hidden by the shear amount of crap.
  • Side quests 2 – The side quests are so miserable that they deserve a second entry. In addition to having no real purpose, they also waste time.  Side quests inevitably separate objectives for no discernable reason.  The unnecessary traveling only adds to the feeling of pointlessness that pervades the entire game.
  • NPCs – The ME series historically seeded its world with interesting characters whose paths briefly crosses the player’s. Andromeda instead reserves its meager character development for the main team and a few major characters while everyone else is a quest dispensary.  What’s the point of talking to people if they’re just going to tell you to mine ore?
  • Unskippable cutscenes – We solved this one in the Playstation 2 era yet ME:A leaves no flaw behind. Whenever the player’s ship takes off, lands, or moves, you have to watch it.  Oh, and elevators are back.  ME1 was roundly criticized for using elevator scenes as a cover for loading screens and now Andromeda shoved them right back in.  Good job!
  • No quick save – Yup. You read that right.  Every PC game on the planet has quick saves but ME:A doesn’t.  It’ll even block the player from saving during main missions.  “But the checkpoints!” you cry, “surely they make up for it?”  Don’t worry, dear reader, developer Bioware is so committed to mediocrity that even the checkpoints are poorly placed.
  • Scanning – Here’s another mechanic that was decried in earlier entries and reintroduced here. Not only does the player scan planets for small outlays of resources, but now they scan parts of the open world.  Scanning is incredibly dull and only serves to ensure OCD gamers will see the world purely through a grainy, orange haze.
  • Research and development – Why add scanning? So you can get research points! Researching blueprints allows the player to then expend resources on developing weapons.  This might have been fun, but Bioware flooded the research queue with tons of indistinguishable items.  The queue has piles of dreck with no clear marker for is actually worth pursuing.  As an added bonus, the fun new weapon you just developed must be equipped at the opposite end of your ship.  Enjoy the jog.
  • UI – The Mass Effect games have always had poor user interfaces, but Andromeda makes it look like that was the goal. The menus are the Windows Explorer with a blue tinge and everything buried folders deep.  Even comparing gear requires an awkward, one way cycling through all of the player’s weapons.  Come on guys, Diablo 2 figured this out in the 90s.
  • Limited character design – Character design options are shockingly limited and of poor quality. What’s worse is that this could have been copy-pasted from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Seriously, just go talk to the people down the hall.  There’s no need to reinvent a crappier version.

So that was a needlessly long list, but even terrible game design doesn’t win the “Biggest problem in ME:A crown.”  That honor goes to every component of the amateurish narrative.  From the writing, to the plot, to the voice acting, every aspect of Andromeda’s narrative begs for an experience editor with a lot of free time.  The first steps on the game’s hub, the Nexus, neatly sums up the flaws.  In this scene, the main hero Ryder talks with the leaders of the Nexus about the apparent failure of their mission and the steps ahead.  This ought to have been a moment to establish important characters and frame future challenges.  Instead, it almost made me quite the game.

The first jarring moment is the exposition dump right out of the gate.  Militia leader Kendros meets the player and throws down a history lesson as they walk through the halls.  The moment had all the subtly of a jackhammer.  Still, the scene didn’t really offend until Director Tann and Superintendent Kesh spoke.  They combined Andromeda’s penchant for including every accent in the world with a strangely detached delivery.  In particular, Kesh felt like the voice actor delivered her lines next to me while I watched the character model’s mouth moving on the screening.  It wasn’t convincing.  It didn’t help that the lines were poorly written.  Every word was stilted and without emotion.  The dialogue conveyed naked functionality.  These weren’t characters exasperated by their ordeal or excited about the arrival of a new hope; they were NPCs who needed to relay specific information.

The information they conveyed was the broad outline of the early plot.  The first problem with the plot was that Kendros, Tann, Kesh, and the human Addison delivered it.  The four major races of the ME universe were front and center.  The plot too often draws from the old ME game and doesn’t take advantage of the new situation.  The writers keep shouting “Look!  Mass Effect lore!  Isn’t that cool?!” rather than develop anything new.  That’s probably for the best because the writers had no idea what they were doing. The Nexus leaders immediately identify the main character as the solution to their plight.  Small problem: there’s no reason to believe the main character can help.  The main character received their role after the death of their father and has zero experience exploring planets, much less resolving all the problems now sitting on their shoulders.  This is how Andromeda sets up its plot.  It creates a scenario and quickly contrives a reason for the main character to fix it.  It’s the chosen one shtick we’ve seen since the 80s.

The disaster of that is Mass Effect: Andromeda is truly heartbreaking.  This storied franchise deserved better than a shoddy, visonless mess.  Perhaps even more troubling is that there isn’t a way to fix this.  Bioware will probably sort out the bugs, but they can’t solve the miserable design or terrible narrative.  To fix Mass Effect: Andromeda is to create an entirely new game.  As much as I hate to say this: don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  It’s just a pale reflection of a once great series.

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Opinion – Problems with the game factory

I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it.  That ends today.

Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games.  They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map.  The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides.  For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model.  It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.

The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it.  The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development.  The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy.  Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays.  The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time.  With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround.  Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.

That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround.  While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements.  The mini games are a perfect example of this.  The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player.  Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game.  After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay.  At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing.   Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle.  Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow.  To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together.  As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.

The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more.  Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside.  The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do.  Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time.  Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places.  The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage.  In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative.  In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late.  In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything.  They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get.  With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before.  EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures.  Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success.  If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside.  With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.

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Opinion – Fixing Steam

That’s a big pile of shit.

Steam has a problem.  The now dominant delivery method of computer games can’t seem differentiate good games from bad.  Once the light of hope for all computer gamers, now Steam is clogged with half finished “early access”, buggy trash, and crap left over from yesteryear.  Indie developers used to rely on getting to Steam’s front page for instant wealth, but now must compete with the dreck of the community.  How does Steam deal with the flood of terrible games?

Welp, it would help to learn from the past.

This isn’t the first time the video game community has dealt with this problem.  Back in 1983, the video game market crashed after customers stopped buying games.  The consoles of the day got greedy and decided to allow large numbers of low quality games as a way to take advantage of the video game “fad”.  As a result, the developers flooded the market with low quality products and the unsavvy game market couldn’t tell which games were worth buying and which games were shit.  After buying several bad games, customers pulled out of the market resulting in the devastation of most of the North American video game community and an effective reset of the market.  This phenomenon happened again with the Wii.  Nintendo produced an ultra-popular console that brought in tons of new players.  Studios produced terrible games to take advantage of the fad resulting in the unsophisticated players buying bad games and leaving the market.  Interestingly, it was the same console maker, Nintendo, that found a solution to this problem 20 years earlier.

After the 1983 crash, the North American market lay dormant until the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  The NES boasted better graphics, a brilliant game bundled in, and the Nintendo Seal of Approval which gave Nintendo’s guarantee that the game met a minimum standard.  Nintendo knew that Atari and its compatriots lost their market due to the flood of bad games.  As a result, Nintendo both limited the number of games a developer could make and played them to ensure they weren’t terrible.  By limiting the number of games, Nintendo incentivized publishers to focus on the quality of their games (as they only got five shots a year) over dumping as many games on to the market as possible.  By playing the games, Nintendo weeded out the shovelware and ensured that customer’s knew the game would work if it had the seal.  Finally, Nintendo published the Nintendo Power magazine to review games and provide strategies to both bolster its quality assurance efforts and help players get the most from their games.  The effort worked and laid the foundations for the games industry as it stands today.

In many ways, Valve, the creator of Steam, has it easier.  The decades old game market educated many gamers on how to recognize quality products and the healthy reviewing ecology ensures that reviews are available for those who want them.  Steam doesn’t need a “Steam Power” to educate its customers.  What it does need is a Steam Seal of Approval and a limitation on the number of games a publisher can make.  Unfortunately, the Seal requires something that Valve is very bad at: people.  Valve generally strives to automate its processes which is why all of its business initiatives (reviews, curators…Steam itself) have little human intervention and the bits that require people (its god awful customer service) are weak or lacking altogether.  To implement a quality review process, Valve would need to get a handle on hiring and managing people rather than just automating everything.  Understanding that isn’t likely to happen, limiting the number of games per publisher would help.  Many bad games come through shovelware publishers and limiting said publishers to a few games a year would force them to support better games or rely solely on the meager profit of a few terrible titles.  This system would still require additional people, but would only need a savvy few over the numbers a quality control system would take.

Whatever Valve decides to do, it needs to act fast.  The digital distribution market has grown in the past few years with major titles now available on a number of sites.  Steam still commands most of the market due to sheer size, but that need not continue.  If customers find it too difficult to discover the games they want, they can move to greener pastures.  Valve has time to fix this problem, but they don’t have forever.

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Opinion – The Final Fantasy XV Opening

It’s like sticking the bread between two slices of salami.

The beginning of a game should set the tone for the early part of the adventure.  Many games choose to do so with an explosive introduction which often throws the player into an exciting scene.  The Final Fantasy series is known for this including one of the best intros of all time, Final Fantasy VII.  In that game, the players goes from a tranquil skyscape to participating in a pulse pounding strike against the Shinra power plant (it was the innocent days before 9/11).  Successful intros have similarly thrilling beginnings, even including the much maligned Final Fantasy XIII.  Surprisingly, Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) went the exact opposite route.  It is an interesting attempt at doing something different, but, sadly, it doesn’t quite work out.

FFXV begins with the protagonist Noctis joining his friends/bodyguards in bidding his father, the king, goodbye.  Noctis and crew hops into their car and drives away only to have it break down.  One of the earliest pieces of gameplay is the playing pushing the stalled car down a highway.  The experience is about as thrilling as it sounds.  This extends into the opening area where the only arching narrative is a fetch quest to get Noctis to a pier so that he can sail to a faraway kingdom to marry a princess for the sake of peace.  The intervening missions are largely fetch quests to explore a small, peaceful part of the kingdom and to get used to the gameplay.  Battles are limited and straightforward and the whole area feels like a waystation for something bigger.  And that’s the problem.

FFXV is a game about a road trip (at least, so far).  Unlike previous entries in the series, this one clearly wants to focus on a small set of characters and their interactions.  Developer Square Enix limits the characters and plot by keeping everything focused on the daily affairs of the local population.  By narrowing their view, Square Enix probably hoped to forge a bond between the players, the world, and the characters before embarking on the larger quest.  Rather than overwhelm the road trip theme with the story of invasion (you know it’s coming if you’ve seen Kingsglaive), FFXV starts at a moment in time when all is quiet.  This isn’t a bad idea, but the execution is questionable.  While the base gameplay is fun, the early quests don’t go out of their way to establish the all-important relationships that Square Enix wants to carry this game.  The chatter between characters begins that process, but the real stand out is the beautiful environment and breathing world.  Square Enix wants players to hop in their car and experience the ride before settling into the exciting parts of the game.  It feels like the road trip, more than anything else, is the focus of FFXV and everything that conflicts with it is pushed aside.

That’s unfortunate because shedding the story makes much of the later development incomprehensible.  A number of plot beats strike before, during, and after the opening section that lack support from the previous cutscenes and dialogue.  Without having watched Kingsglaive, the player will have no clue what’s going on.  At a bare minimum, this is poor form.  Completely offloading the introductory story line to a different media altogether isn’t just shifting the emphasis, it’s neglecting a key part of what an intro should do.

The introduction plays a very important role in setting out the themes and tone of what’s to come.  It should wet the player’s appetite for the game world and get them invested in its stories and characters.  In neglecting these duties, the introduction to FFXV feels more like a piece of filler midgame.  The basics of the game are all on display, but there’s nothing to suggest this area couldn’t have been 10 hours later in the game with minor tweaks.  I intend to keep playing, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t a great start.

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Opinion – Endless Space 2 Early Access

Master of Endless Space

Turn-based strategy games are enjoying a small renaissance due to the efforts of Amplitude Studios and their “Endless” series.  Endless Space kicked it off with a host of smart additions to the standard Master of Orion formula.  Endless Legend confined the series to a single planet, but added a collection of unique factions who played in radically different ways.  Amplitude Studios is now heading back to the stars with Endless Space 2 and, thankfully, I can say that the early access version shows considerable promise.

The basics of the game are familiar to anyone who has played a 4x space game.  The player starts with a planet and a small fleet which become the seeds of a galaxy spanning empire forged through exploration, research, and conquest.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t radically change that formula, but it includes some nice tweaks.  The first is a carryover from Endless Legend: races with distinct playstyles.  While most 4x games include a variety of factions, they usually emphasize a particular strategy rather than represent new ways to play the game.  Even with just five races available, it’s clear that Endless Space 2 wants several of its races to radically alter the player’s experience.  For example, the Vodyani don’t build colonies.  This race of space particles travels the stars in enormous arks which hover over planets to claim their resources.  Furthermore, the Vodyani population primarily increases by abducting colonists turning other civilizations into resources for this race.  The trade based Lumeris and warlike Cravers round out the available nontraditional races.  This new focus on distinct races should add much needed variety to this venerable genre.

Companies and culture victories are other interesting additions.  In companies, Amplitude fleshes out the economic victory by allowing players to set up powerful corporations to invest in and trade with.  The player establishes corporations on a colony and then gets additional money and resources from that planet.  Given the increased need for luxury resources, companies should provide players with the means they’ll need to advance in the game.  Culture victories are another stand out change.  While other games include culture victories, they are generally treated as passive games of lining up the right buildings and hitting end turn.  Endless Space 2 adds a bit more to it by speeding up the process and allowing players to “buy” systems outright through spending their influence.  This turns culture victories into an active strategy rather than a boring slog.

With all this said, Endless Space 2 is still very much a game in alpha.  While the foundation is solid, plenty of features are missing.  Only military and score victories work (culture victories turn into de facto military victories) and the game abruptly ends at turn 200.  Three of the promised races are missing along with the final technologies and a competent AI.  In short, the game has a way to go.  That being said, there’s enough there to be worth a purchase if you also want to support the developer.  I’ve had fun with Endless Space 2, even if I can’t recommend the game purely on its merits right now.

The original Endless Space reconstituted the then moribund genre’s best hits through refined gameplay, customizable factions, and varied win conditions with a few neat features such as quests, and slick interface design (no seriously, it’s awesome enough to mention).  While serving as a fine return to form for 4x games, Endless Space never felt like the innovation needed to move on to the next step.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t yet feel like that step either, yet it undoubtedly represents the greatest change in 4x gaming in some time.  If you’re not interested in support the studio, wait and keep an eye out for this game.  It looks like it’ll be a lot of fun.

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Opinion – The problem with the world of The Witcher

I’m midway through The Witcher 2 and I’m struggling to love the series the way reviewers and audiences seem to.  The issue isn’t the production values.  The Witcher 2 is very much a Mass Effect style game with all the technical qualities that come with such a statement.  What Witcher has in technical quality it lacks in setting.  For all the obvious love that went into this game, I’ve noticed several reasons why it just can’t measure up.

 

It’s predictable

When I first jumped into The Witcher, I was impressed by the consistent moral grey area and lack of obvious choices.  It felt like a world where unpredictable things happened and the best of plans didn’t always work out.  A game and a half in and I’ve noticed the patterns.  The humans are some combination of ignorant, racist, and smug.  Non humans are old Tolkien stereotypes under persecution that Dragon Age modelled better.  The foundation exists to say something about race relations or to build an interesting history, but instead The Witcher squander’s that potential to rehash the same views and stories with little variance.  The world always seems characterized by humans ignorantly hating non humans and non humans fighting a guerilla war in response.  The series has many variations on that theme (human pogroms against non humans, attacks by non human resistance, discriminatory lords abusing non humans, etc), but doesn’t move beyond that one note.  I hope CD Projekt Red evolves the world beyond the limit direction it has taken it so far.

 

It lacks wonder.

The opening of The Witcher 2 is truly grand.  The Witcher (Geralt) walks through a camp readying for war.  In front of him are soldiers checking their gear, explosions from enemy munitions, and a grand battle on a massive scale.  It’s a great introduction and inspires a sense of epic adventure.  Unfortunately, just about every scene after that is cramped villages and generic forests with a hefty coating of dirt and grime.  While The Witcher’s universe is meant to be bleak, it doesn’t need to be boring.  One of the great advantages of a fantasy universe is how it creates opportunities for wonder on a scale unshackled by reality.  Fantasy universe’s have infinite opportunities for wonder that ought not be wasted on the mundane aspects of existence.  The developer should use this opportunity, not waste it.

 

It thinks high politics matter

I haven’t seen this sin in a while and it hasn’t improved any with age.  No one cares about the high politics of a made up universe.  Seriously, we can barely get people to pay attention to the politics of the universe that they live in which people actually die.  You think anyone cares about the potential for war between two made up countries or the clash between nobility shown entirely off screen?  If a developer is going to introduce this kind of politics, they need to work hard to make it personal to the player.  Otherwise, the player will skip over your long, detailed story about the fight between Temeria and Nilfgaard.

 

It has a teenage sense of maturity. 

I remember the early days of video games as they took their tentative first steps into the world of mature themes.  Back then, developers defined maturity like your average teen rebelling from their parents.  Cussing is shocking!  Boobs are so hot!  It’s hard not to see parallels with The Witcher’s universe.  The relentlessly dark aesthetic doesn’t add weight to the universe, it’s just bleak to the point of dull.  Constant cussing imparts no additional edge to the characters.  Treating women as sex dolls (did you know everyone wants to sleep with Geralt?  They do.) and adding nipples on dwarven statues doesn’t make a game sex, just misogynistic and embarrassing.  It’s time to age the maturity of The Witcher beyond kids getting aroused from Victoria Secret catalogues.

 

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Opinion – Organization in RTS Strategy

Sun Tzu’s Art of Zergling

Real Time Strategy games will oftentimes explain their strategy in terms of mechanics.  Their tutorials lay out how one unit counters another or how a researched technology grants benefits against unupgraded foes.  Explaining the mechanics gets to the unique part of a game and teaches experienced players about the new concepts they will need to succeed.  Unfortunately, it leaves out a very key aspect of RTS strategy: organization.

Organization is how players position their units and buildings to achieve victory. It covers everything from unit formations to building strategy and plays a key role in increasing the value of a player’s units while putting his opponent’s units in sub optimal roles.  Despite what your average tutorial says, organization is often more important than straight technology and unit counters.  Though developers often intend for units to fulfill certain roles, they program units to achieve those goals within certain confines.  Units attack range, rate of fire, hit points, area of effect, etc all impact their ability to perform their function.  Organization can enhance those strengths or, alternatively, diminish the strengths and enhance the weaknesses.   Consider the following example.

In one of the most memorable games of Starcraft 2 I’ve ever seen, the Zerg player attacked his Terran opponent with zerglings.  His opponent, knowing of the coming attack, rushed out to meet him with the Terran counter unit, the hellion.  According to Blizzard, the hellions should have destroyed the zerglings without much trouble.  According to the Zerg player, zerglings do just fine against hellions, thank you very much.  Not only did the Zerg player defeat the hellion counter, but he went on to crush his opponent with that same attack.  All thanks to organization.

Zerglings are tiny units that do little damage and so succeed by overwhelming their opponents with numbers and chipping away at them from all sides.  Hellions are fast attack units that send out a stream of fire that washes over a collection of units roasting them all.  In theory, the Terran player should fend off zerglings by constantly pulling his hellions back only to stop briefly to fire.  After a few volleys, the zergling mass dies leaving the hellions relatively unscathed.  Aware of this, the Zerg player decided to minimize the hellion’s strengths while enhancing the zerlings’ own positive attributes.  The Zerg player kept his zerglings hidden, waiting to catch the hellions unaware.  He pounced and quickly surrounded the hellions thereby achieving two important things: immobility and diffusion.

Firstly, the zerglings pinned the hellions down so that they couldn’t retreat and fire.  This allowed the Zerg units to constantly damage the hellions without having to catch up every time they drove away.  Immobility maximized the zergling damage while minimizing the hellion speed.  Secondly, the diffusion of the zerglings provided both additional damage output and greater defense while undermining the hellions attack.  By surrounding the enemy, the zerglings could attack from all angles allowing them to do damage collectively rather than individually.  10 zerglings doing 2 damage a hit is much stronger than 10 zerglings with only 2 attacking at a time.  As it turns out, diffusion bolstered the zergling’s defense by minimizing the effect of the hellion’s weapons.  The hellions fire in a straight line doing serious damage to units caught in the blast.  If the zerglings chase after the hellions as intended, then they’re damaged at the same time.  If they surround the hellions, then the attack hits them one at a time thereby weakening the effect.

This is just one of many examples of how organization impacts gameplay.  Many of these lessons carry over to other games and are used in a similar fashion.  While the average RTS game teaches players about the game mechanics, it behooves those players to look beyond the basic lessons and learn how organization, and other strategic aspects, can improve their play.

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Opinion – Resolving the procedurally generated story problem

It’s the little things that count.

A few articles ago I talked about the infinity game and the difficulty in generating compelling story content using an algorithm.  Stories require elements that are difficult to render down into discrete blocks and therefore require much more care and planning to combine than procedurally generated staples like loot or maps.  In this article, I’d like to discuss an existing stepping stone that can help take the load off of story writers seeking procedurally generated content.  Specifically, I’m talking about story infused elements.

Stories develop organically in games outside of the narrative written by the developers.  Even a story barren game like chess inspires amazing tales of clever strategies and narrow defeats.  Terrible games can similarly create developer separated stories, though usually not for any reason developers want them to.  The point is that games create stories outside of the strict confines of the narrative established by the developers.  They do this by providing game elements that players may use to craft tales of interest from.  Players imbue these elements with meaning which they often share with their peers.  This is the entry point through which developers may turn their procedurally generated elements into procedurally generated story elements.  All they need to do is make it easy.

I played a round of Crusader Kings 2 as a cantankerous, militant duke who succeeded in uniting England after a series of bloody battles and rebellions.  At the end of my character’s long reign, I looked to the next generation only to discover that my next in line was a blood thirsty psychopath with zero talent and a number of failed murder attempts on her record.  Under her, the kingdom would surely fragment.  The next in line after the demon child was a brilliant, charming, and incredibly capable woman who was beloved by all.  Should I have my king murder his eldest daughter to let her sister inherit and thereby preserve the kingdom?  Should I step back from killing a child and let her develop unhindered but with the understanding that England would probably fall apart once more?  Such are the stories of Shakespeare and it was mostly generated procedurally.

One of the great things about Crusader Kings 2 is how it imbues gameplay elements with a real sense of narrative and meaning.  Much of what I described (my character’s martial ability, his daughter’s psychopathic nature, her sister’s saintly disposition, etc.) are all numerical elements of the game combined via an algorithm to produce a variety of scenarios.  Crusader Kings 2’s genius is describing these elements in such a way that they may combine to form an intricate story without the developer having to write one.  CK2 describes its procedural generation mechanics in such a way as to create a structure which the player can fill out with their own narrative.  CK2 never told me that the king in my game was contemplating murder, but it gave me all the elements upon which I could hang that tale.

The ultimate goal of procedurally generated stories is to make it possible for games to invent complex narratives without the player’s inputs.  Understanding that developers aren’t there yet, the infusion of gameplay elements with meaning brings in the player and helps reduce the load on the procedural content in crafting interesting tales.

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