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Review – Cosmic Star Heroine – PC

…they’re getting there.

Zeboyd Games is a development studio that’s hard not to root for.  It’s one of the few studios bringing professional talent to bare on reviving the look and feel of the golden age of SNES era JRPGs while updating them to reflect modern sensibilities.  In an era of independent studios exploring new ideas and mindlessly copying old ones in equal measure, Zeboyd tries to take the best of both approaches.  Sadly, for all the good intentions behind Cosmic Star Heroine, it reflects the very real limitations of the development studio that made it.

The game begins with titular star Alyssa La Salle, infiltrating a robotics factory on behalf of a secretive government agency to stop a terrorist attack.  Le Salle ultimately discovers sordid motivations of her employer and must defend the galaxy from a new evil with the help of a large cast of characters.  The setup is standard for most JRPGs, but Zeboyd’s additions are sadly to the game’s detriment.  Most notably is the rushed approach the developer takes to the plot points.  CSH feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of a larger game with smaller narratives almost absent and major developments lacking connective tissue to link them together.  The broad story beats manage to stay (mostly) consistent, but the lightening speed robs the characters of time to develop.  Each of the game’s substantial cast gets a mini mission, but none move past their initial archetype into anything interesting.  Nor is the dialogue well written as Zeboyd falls back on the humor of their previous games rather than invest in earnest character development needed for a space opera.  The fundamental problem of Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative is scope where the developer clearly wanted a larger story and cast than they could support.  The end result is a narrative and cast that can’t move beyond the basics.

Unlike the story, the gameplay’s ambition largely pays off, but is in sore need of polish before declaring it a success.  Fights are patterned off Chrono Trigger without the active time battle system.  Instead, characters attack based on their speed relative to their team and then the opposing team takes a turn.  The attacks reflect the usual array of elemental weaknesses and status effects, but with the interesting twist of including style points and bursts.  Most attacks boost the characters’ style which increases the potency of successive attacks.  The style fills up a burst meter which unlocks super powerful moves that deplete style and burst.  This creates a tension between increasing style and executing powerful burst attacks.  It’s an interesting system, but lacks feedback.  Despite having played the game for over 12 hours, I’m still unsure of the exact effect style has and how it changes the damage rolls.  Add in a wide variety of attacks and the combat feels deep without helping the player understand that depth.  More devoted players will certainly create powerful combos, but less invested gamers will fumble through while periodically wondering why an attack failed.

While much of Cosmic Star Heroine needs more time, the graphics and sound truly shine.  The retrofuturistic environments feel gritty and neon in a way that remains true to the 1980s’ vision.  The songs create mood while still including a few hummable tunes.  It’s hard not to ascribe some of the success of the aesthetic to the scoping that Zeboyd failed to apply to the rest of the game.  Environmental assets were clearly designed to be reused so that they could be repeated rather than needing whole new iterations.  Songs don’t last very long, but the short dungeons and constant scene shifts ensure that no track wears out its welcome.  Smart creation and deployment of the visual and sound design result in these being the stand out elements of the game.

Cosmic Star Heroine isn’t a bad game.  For gamers interested in an SNES era JRPG nostalgia trip, CSH will scratch that itch.  Unfortunately, the story blemishes and gameplay clumsiness won’t bring new players into the fold.  On the broader scale, I hope that Zeboyd Games learns from their first outing into serious JRPG land.  They’ve nailed the feel of the era, but need to work on the quality of the story telling if they really want to establish new classics of their own.

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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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Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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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 – 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 – 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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Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.

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