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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Review – Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.

Square Enix and its previous incarnations don’t have a great track record with movies.  Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children are extremely pretty bundles of complete nonsense.  While Square Enix displays some of the finest visual effects in both movies and games, it can’t seem to create a coherent, grounded story.  The developer consistently falls into the trap of deus ex machinas, not explaining key concepts, writing flat characters, and assuming the audience will go along with whatever craziness they put on screen.  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is the next movie in this failed series, except it shoulders greater responsibility than just being a good movie.  Charged as the opening act for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV game, we must not only ask is the movie any good, but also what it says about the next iteration of this venerable series.

The story begins with a rushed introduction of the war between the Kingdom of Lucius and the Empire of Niflheim.  The evil, technological Niflheim is threatening to overwhelm Lucius and its magic wielding king.  The movie follows Nyx Ulric, a member of the titular Kingsglaive as they repulse Niflheim’s attempts at domination.  Being something of an Achilles heel for the series, I am delighted to say that the story for this movie is fine.  Nyx leads a cast of understandable characters (an achievement, considering the pedigree) whose grounded motivations help overcome Square Enix’s desire to do too much with too little time.  Approaching Kingsglaive as the introduction to the game, the developer crammed in too many concepts without giving them time to develop.  Character motivations and the broader narrative arch jam in new concepts right until the final scene with a desire to brief the future players overcoming the need for a contained movie experience.  It’s frustrating when the setup obscures the movie narrative, but the story beats and characters are strong enough that viewers can follow the broader plot and enjoy the action.

Speaking of action, Kingsglaive excels at it.  One of the opening scenes includes a battle that stands out as one of the greatest CGI fights ever made.  The sense of scale and delightful light show reinforce Square Enix’s reputation as one of the finest purveyors of visuals anywhere.  Square Enix uses the Kingsglaive’s method of transportation, throwing a dagger and teleporting to it, to setup fantastic aerial stunts.  Even without giant war engines and wild spells, the developer manages to imbue its world with a sense of wonder.  The Lucian capital city of Insomnia blends modern technology with a magical twist that turns the mundane into the wonderful.  Kingsglaive is a feast for the eyes and can almost be watched on that basis alone.

Taken as a movie, Kingsglaive is an enjoyable experience.  Better movies certainly exist, but this one is worth the five bucks for an Amazon rental (get the HD).  Taken as an introduction to its video game counterpart, Kingsglaive achieves what it sets out to accomplish.  In showcasing an inviting world of magic and technology, the movie provides a clear hook for players to explore that world through the game.  The background information, largely superfluous for the movie, provides a workable primer for the players.  Even the story’s penchant for doing too much seems less like a flaw given that the considerably longer run time in the video game will give Square Enix time to flesh out the concepts it crammed in to this movie.  The fact that Square Enix didn’t completely bungle the narrative gives me hope that the game will avoid the major narrative pitfalls for which the developer is known.  All told, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a decent movie and an excellent lead in to what will hopefully be another success for the video game franchise.

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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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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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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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Opinion – Known and Unknown Puzzles

A prison without walls.  A puzzle without rules.

Broadly speaking, puzzles fall into two categories when dealing with the rules: The ones that tell you about the rules, and the ones that don’t.  Puzzles that tell you the rules provide instructions on how to manipulate the puzzle, but expect the puzzler to combine those moves to defeat the challenge.  Puzzles that don’t tell you the rules make a game of figuring out just what those rules are.  After the player figures them out, the puzzle takes on the characteristic of the known rules puzzle with the added uncertainty of the puzzler being unsure if they’ve found all the rules.  Video games often present themselves as a known puzzle, but later evolve into an unknown puzzle without telling the player.  It is here that frustration lies for the players seeking to understand their favorite games.

…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  To understand why the distinction matters, one must understand the differing skillsets needed to appreciate known and unknown puzzles.  For a known puzzle, the puzzle explains all of the relevant rules so that the player can focus on combining those rules to succeed.  Players may discover important rules as they play, but the foundational rules are laid out at the beginning.  For example, a crossword puzzle may say that puzzlers should place answers in the predefined grid that match the clues and the boxes available.  The puzzler later discovers that the overlapping boxes give additional clues about answers the player does not yet know.  Completing a known puzzle focuses on combining puzzle pieces in new ways.  The puzzle makes a pact with the puzzler to ensure that the rules are stable, but deep enough that simply knowing them is not sufficient for optimal play.  Many known puzzle games can, technically, be completed with just an understanding of the rules, but superior play means building on those rules.

Unknown puzzles operate differently, and so require that the play do the same.  Player energy is not only invested in applying the rules, but discovering what they are.  Unlike known puzzles, the tool belt is hidden and the player must discover it before making meaningful progress in the world.  I recently completed a metallic object puzzle where I was told the objective (take it apart and then put it back together), but not how to achieve it.  I latter figured out that I each piece had interlocking pillars that I had to disengage to separate and combine the pieces.  Unknown puzzles make the player aware of their own ignorance and, by doing so, forces them to focus on dispelling that ignorance.  There is no pact between puzzle and puzzler on having a basic set of tools because the player doesn’t start with them.  Furthermore, the ruleset is often less complete than the known counterpart.  The more complex the ruleset is, the more difficult it is for the player to discover.  Unknown puzzles will often keep the rules simple and rely hiding those rules in the wide variety of possibilities to produce the challenge.

Video games start off as known puzzles and end as unknown puzzles without acknowledging the shift they make.  When most games begin, they have a tutorial that lays out the rules of engagement and mission scenarios that walk the player through each new game mechanic.  Players often get to the end of the campaign with a feeling of mastery over the various game concepts and the sense that they understand the game they’ve just played.

…and then they hit multiplayer.

For many deep strategy games, multiplayer is the graveyard of dreams.  Players who dominated the campaign discover that they don’t actually understand anything about the game they thought they knew.  The rules are (often) the same, but players develop and refine them to such a degree that they are unrecognizable from their original form.  This shift undermines the compact that the known games make with the player.  Yes, the rules are technically the same, but they’ve advanced so much in the multiplayer arena that they feel brand new.  New players not only face learning these new rules, but also unlearning the ironclad rules they thought they knew.

The resulting shift can unmake a player’s resolve to continue with a game.  Multiplayer often acts as a freight train where new players can’t even find a purchase upon which to improve their skills.  They go from a secure environment with explicit instructions to a brutal, amorphous world with 13 year olds insulting you because they think cuss words are clever.  I suspect that one of the most common drop points on a game is when the player advances to multiplayer and discovers that they’re learning the game all over again without help from anyone.  Games that want their players to stick around should try to ease that landing and give players a purchase upon which to hoist themselves into this brave, new world.

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Opinion – Theory of gaming social value

A theory of the perception of gaming value

Video games are fake, or so we’ve been told.  Talk to a non-fan about games and you may hear that they’d rather be doing something real rather than spend their days indoors.  The thinking seems to be that video games occupy a lesser tier of activities under things like travel or meeting friends.  Whereas these activities offer inherent worth, video games don’t provide as valuable experiences and, ultimately, lack meaning.  This is silly and, for that, I blame the 80s.

The original sin of video games is that they started off as toys.  Since the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, video games and consoles were designed and sold to kids as something fun to play with.  When the Nintendo Entertainment System caught fire in both homes and the public consciousness, it became the filter through which gaming was view for both the young players and the parents who purchased it.  This vision remains powerful as many people, thirty years on, still view video games as primarily a toy for kids enjoyed by socially unaware losers.  Don’t believe me?  The popular sitcom, Big Bang Theory, relies almost entirely on the stereotypes established during this era.  The characters are the grown up losers of the video game age.  Emotionally and socially, they are still the same awkward kids who played games indoors rather than play football or hang out with their friends.  It is through the perceived contrast of experiences that the idea of the “fake” experience developed.

Notice how games were contrasted with other childhood pursuits.  Games didn’t reflect the childhood of parents who spent their time outside or socializing for want of anything else to do.  To be sure, solitary pursuits such as reading did exist, but none of them were closely tied to the amazing time waster known as TV.  Whereas kids could potentially learn something from reading, TV watching rarely imparted anything of value.  Furthermore, video games did not appear to be a medium that could ever be more than what it was at that time: a toy.  Developers clearly saw their target market as (male) children and made games for that audience.  Both parents and kids only saw content with the philosophical implications of a Saturday morning cartoon show.  For parents (and kids) of the 1970s and 80s, video games were toys (strike one), tied to the TV (strike two), that contrasted to the more physical activities of an idealized youth (strike three).

Gaming evolved greatly during the 90s as the tools, developers, and audience matured.   Every aspect of gaming increased in complexity allowing for great diversity of gameplay and storylines.  Players who continued past the NES glory days enjoyed better developed experiences as their less committed peers sought other interests.  Meanwhile, parents continued to buy games for their kids thereby introducing another generation to gaming.  Unlike the gamers of the 70s and 80s, the gamers of the 90s and aughts enjoyed a more diverse ecosystem of games that gave them offerings as they aged and provided a wider variety of experiences such as multiplayer.  Unlike the previous generation of gamers, the 90s and aughts gamers kept playing games in greater numbers and, if they left, they did so with a stronger appreciation of what gaming could do.

The end result was a bifurcation of the perception of video games.  The parents and kids of the 70s and 80s saw video games as a shallow waste of time only enjoyed by socially awkward adults who never transitioned past playing with kid’s toys.  Gamers became a subset of losers without any particularly redeeming characteristics.  By contrast, the latter generations grew to appreciate video games as a normal part of their everyday lives.  Video games join movies, books, and music as just another medium to be viewed, discussed, and enjoyed.  Ultimately, the latter generations reflect where I believe gaming is headed.  Games will become, if they haven’t already, just a normal part of the collection of ways we interaction with friends, enjoy some down time, or view the great mysteries of life.

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Opinion – How to recommend a game

Bring the newbs into the fold.

Anyone who possesses considerable knowledge about an area of general interest will inevitably be asked about it.  When that interest is something like video games, people will ask for recommendations.  As someone who has fielded a hefty number of video game requests (or offered them up), I’ve got a few useful questions for those who want to help others interested in this wonderful medium.

 

What do you play?

Just about everyone plays a video game of some kind these days.  Whether it’s a 100 hour JPRG epic or Sudoku, video games have conquered the world.  The value of asking this question is two fold: First, you can identify what kind of games they like.  Presumably, if a game already draws their interest, than a similar game would do the same thing.  Start thinking of recommendations that do something different or refine a concept that the target audience already likes.  Second, the games they mention give the recommender an idea of the type of gameplay the person is used to.  If they’re primarily sticking to phone games, than recommending Dark Souls or Hearts of Iron is probably a bad idea.  Conversely, a Dark Souls player probably isn’t interested in the generic Match-3 style game that would act as a good introduction for less experienced players.  Knowing what they play also leads to the very revealing next question:

Why do you play X game?

The obvious answer to this question might sound like a typical game review: “I like the story and graphics” or “the gameplay is really fun.”  These are valuable answers in trying to deduce what to recommend, but the best answers get to the heart of why the person plays video games at all.  Of all the available mediums out there, this person chose video games for a specific reason that speaks to their approach to games and what games to recommend.  A player who plays games to waste time while traveling isn’t going to be interested in the latest Call of Duty and nor will the player who uses puzzle games to keep their mind sharp.  Link your game recommendation to why a player picks up a controller in the first place and they’re far more likely to try it out.

What are their other interests?

Particularly for new gamers, associating a game with something they already love is a great way to get them interested.  Taping an existing interest allows the newer gamer to approach a foreign activity (gaming) with something familiar (the associated interest).  I recently recommended a cricket game to a colleague who watched the sport.  While he didn’t really play video games generally, his favorable view of cricket gave him extra incentive to try the game and his existing knowledge made it easier for him to play.  For more experienced players, plumbing their interests is still an excellent source of gaming innovation.  Looking at what they love may help them try games they’ve never thought of and break them out of a rut.  The basic idea is simple: if they like it in the real world, there’s a good chance they’ll like it in a game.

What game machine(s) do they possess?

This is a simple question, but an important one.  One of the biggest hurdles any gamer will face is finding a machine to play their games on.  Smartphones are ubiquitous these days so that’s a good start for any newer gamer.  More experienced gamers may have several gaming machines.  In this case, don’t limit yourself to just the most recent generation.  Plenty of players missed excellent games on their older systems.  Look back and see if you can’t get them to revisit a dusty console in search of gaming gold.

 

These are starter questions, but the real key is to let the other person guide your response.  By tailoring your recommendation to their words, you’ll have a much better chance of recommending something they’ll enjoy playing.  Avoid trying to force your preferences.  For many gamers, if it doesn’t sound like fun to them, they won’t even try it.  In the end, remember the best recommendations focus on what the target audience likes.  Explore their interests, and you’ll find something they’ll enjoy.

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No Man’s Sky and the Infinity Game

The beginning of the end

Imagine a game to end all games.  The only game you’ll ever need.  Each press of the “new game” button leads to a wildly different adventure with worlds, stories, and characters created anew.  Each world acting as infinitely expansive with a brilliant experience around every corner and, again, all in a single game.  It sounds fanciful, yes?  It is now, but No Man’s Sky represents a real step forward towards the creation of a true infinity game.

Plenty of games promise “a whole new game” every time a new round begins and, to a certain degree, they’re right.  Turn based strategy games, such as Civilization 5 or Master of Orion, have long delivered on creating new experiences by messing with computation heavy aspects of game design.  Many of these games create maps using a random number generator and build on the ever changing set of map creation variables to force new and interesting interactions.  This is an old template, but it shows the power of randomization in developing replayability in games.  It is, unfortunately, also very limited.  These games generate maps that are composed of contained variables.  A mountain in Civilization 5 always has the same characteristics regardless of the game.  Developer Firaxis may add additional requirements to the mountain tile placement (not near deserts, limiting the number that may be contiguous, etc), but each of these modifications are still fixed changes.  These kinds of map making algorithms are still limited by the simplistic variables they rely on.

No Man’s Sky appears to overcome that limitation.  Rather than rely on combining a selection of predefined traits, No Man’s Sky creates entire planets off of a formula that accounts for a far wider variety than the randomly generate maps of old.  In No Man’s Sky, a mountain can take on any number of traits and is different in key ways from every other mountain around it.  This removes random map generation strictly from simplistic turn based strategy maps and expands it into the far more complex world of 3D map generation.  Open world games can auto generate their maps rather than meticulously craft each piece.  To be sure, games like Minecraft already do this to a certain degree, but never to level that we’re seeing in No Man’s Sky.  This is a major step beyond.

Of course, world generation is only a part of the puzzle.  An infinity game would also need procedurally generated content to truly provide continuous unique experiences.  We’ve already seen some advances along these lines such as item generation in many loot based games.  Again, these are comparatively easy as they rely on a discreet set of variables that can be mixed and matched to provide new items.  The difficult part of procedurally generated content is always those parts of a game that don’t provide that set of variables.  No element is less well defined and more important than the narrative.  Unlike an item, good narratives rely on fuzzy variables such as complex characters, well written dialogue, and an interesting plot.  While elements of the narrative can be broadly categorized, they are never so well defined as to make for easy combining.  They exist in a subjective space that relies on personal preference as much as any ironclad rules of creation.  Even if we could come up with those ironclad rules, their repetition would make them boring and, therefore, no longer suitable.  Success in this area means reliably creating and mixing a host of elements that defy the consistent rules that most procedurally generated content relies on.

The next great challenge is to overcome those hurdles.  We’ve already seen a few hesitant steps.  Skyrim and Fallout 4 create auto generated quests to augment existing stories.  These quests fail in the areas we’d expect them to.  Where creativity, characters and plot are required, these quests fall flat.  Still, the rewards are substantial for whomever can resolve these problems.  With both randomly generated maps and stories, developers can create an infinite number of games within a game.  That sounds like a goal worth pursuing.

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