Tag Archives: Opinion

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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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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Opinion – How you start your story

A lesson in storytelling.

Lufia 2 and Final Fantasy 6 may both be JRPGs from the SNES era, but they’re narratively in completely different leagues.  While Lufia 2 satisfies itself with a cookie cutter plot to motivate the player, FF6 builds a rich world with complex and memorable characters.  The contrast is both striking and instructive.  By placing the first hour of each game next to the other, it’s easy to appreciate FF6’s impressive technique and Lufia 2’s minor investment in story.

The opening hour of Lufia 2 has effectively four stories:

  1. Maxim, our hero, learns he will fight something really bad (unexplained)
  2. Tia, Maxim’s friend, holds unreciprocated love for Maxim
  3. The way to the town of Sundletan is blocked by an evil lizard
  4. An evil catfish is causing earthquakes in Sundletan

The opening of Final Fantasy 6 also has four stories:

  1. The mind controlled magic user Terra spearheads an imperial invasion of a town to capture an “Esper” (unexplained)
  2. After regaining control of her mind, the amnesiac Terra escapes with the assistance of Locke and the Returners, an anti-imperial group.
  3. Terra and Locke seek refuge in the castle of Figaro where they meet the womanizing Edward (never thought of him as an Edgar).
  4. Terra learns of Edward’s brother Sabin who fled the kingdom to avoid assuming the throne.

 

It’s easy to see that Lufia 2 isn’t investing for the long game.  While stories 1 and 2 carry throughout the rest of the game, stories 3 and 4 are resolved in about 20 minutes and are never mentioned again.  In those stories, the characters and world aren’t developed and developer Natsume doesn’t mention anything that will be relevant later on.  They are, in short, dead space.  FF6 does things a little differently.  Three of the four stories (1,2, and 3) are relevant later on and the fourth (4) arguably is so as well.  The relationship between Terra, the espers, the Empire, and the Returners remains important throughout huge swaths of the game.  The story refers back to these moments (directly or indirectly) for a long time and they set up one of the major conflicts.  Story 4 arguably does the same, but its limited focus makes it a little less impactful.  Still, the relationship between Edward and Sabin is important for fleshing out two main characters.

The reason FF6’s stories matter and Lufia 2’s don’t is how the stories are integrated into the larger narrative.  Lufia 2’s stories are isolated and so interact very little with any of the other narrative pieces.  They often don’t contribute to character or world building and rarely set up the next event.  Even Lufia 2’s main story threads (1 & 2) avoid each other until pivotal moments.  FF6 takes the opposite approach.  Every minor story contributes to the larger whole.  Stories 1 through 3 establish the empire as an oppressive force which sets up the Returner’s request that Terra join the Returner cause later in the story.  Terra’s interaction with the Esper in the opening sequence lays the groundwork for an important revelation about her character much later in the game.  Every story works within a larger framework to strengthen the characters and world.  This makes each story more meaningful because they mutually reinforce each other.  The player may not care about Terra’s interaction with the Empire, but they could still access that storyline through Edward and Locke.  If the player likes all three characters, than their passion about the Empire story line is that much stronger.  Compare that with Lufia 2.  If the player doesn’t care about Tia, there isn’t another way to access the Maxim love life narrative.  The many links between Final Fantasy 6’s various plots creates opportunities for player investment in a way that Lufia 2’s limit links can’t.

FF6 works because the story constantly invests in itself.  Every element bolsters other elements tieing them together into a cohesive hole.  By comparison, Lufia 2’s story is full of disparate elements that act on their own without adding to the greater narrative.  Not surprisingly, Final Fantasy 6’s story is held up as a classic whereas Lufia 2’s reputation is mostly for its other features.

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Opinion – It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel bored

The world ends with lazy plot devices

Saving the world.  We’ve all done it.  Whether it’s from the clutches of an evil villain or from absolute destruction brought on by an evil meteor, saving the world is a regular part of video games.  Sadly, it’s also an incredibly unsatisfying part.  Oftentimes, the “save the world” ending feels like a tacked on obligation rather than a compelling feature of the narrative.  Even good games (Persona 3 comes to mind) can’t seem to make it work, yet developers always add it in.  Why?  Because it’s safe.

The end of a video game is the culmination of what a developer did, and didn’t do, throughout their game.  If they’ve created complex characters, a compelling narrative, and an interesting world, then the end of the game is the chance for the developer to bring it all together in a satisfying way.  If the story isn’t strong, then the developer must shove the story to a satisfying conclusion without the materials to make it really shine.  Either way, the end of the world mechanic serves the end game’s purpose.  It brings the game to a close.

Destroying the world should be viewed as a quick grab for the player’s emotions.  As most of the things the player cares about are in the world, threatening said world means that the odds are good that the developer is threatening something the player cares about.  Whether it’s puppies, children, or rainbows, the world ending…ending allows the player to invest some kind of emotion into the game by threatening everything and hoping something connections.  The problem is that it’s far too general.  People do care about the aforementioned things and more, but they’re very poor at caring about nonspecific variations of those things.  We would all help an old man struggling up some stairs, but we won’t donate 5 bucks to a charity helping Syrian refugees not die.  Still, even this minimal level of emotion establishes a floor to which the gamer’s emotional investment won’t drop below.  It ensures that every scrap of connection between the player and the game are marshalled to bring about the conclusion.  This is obviously appealing for games with weak stories that need all the help they can get.  If they threaten everything, then the player is sure to care about something, right?

The world ending approach also works for better constructed stories.  If the developers successfully build an emotional link between the player and their narrative, then the threat to everything is a more potent one.  Even then, it rarely has the same impact of the other plot points addressing the specific parts of the game that the players’ care about.  In Persona 3, the destruction of Earth felt hollow compared to the trials of the individual students.   Developer Atlus spent time developing the students as characters worth caring about and so players invested in those characters.  When the world is threatened, the concern is less about the billions dead and civilization’s ruin and more about how these individuals cope with the end.  The end of the world still establishes that safety baseline of emotion, but it contrasts poorly with the better fleshed out stories sprinkled throughout the rest of the game.

The only time saving the world matters is when the world/galaxy/universe matters.  When a developer takes the time to connect the player with the world they’re developing, then threatening that thing has more impact.  The player cares if it disappears because they care about the environment they’ve been inhabiting.  They aren’t viewing the world through generic concerns or other aspects of the narrative, but rather caring for the thing being threatened on its own merits.  Mass Effect does this brilliantly by involving the player in a richly developed universe with a myriad of stories.  Threatening the universe matters in Mass Effect because the universe matters.

If I could sum it up, I’d say that the ending of a game matters when it focuses on the things that the players invest in.  Saving the world is a narrative shotgun blast in hopes of hitting some of those things, but it can’t make up for a games worth of inattention.  If developers want their endings to have meaning, they have to lay the groundwork before the curtain call.

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Opinion – Learning from Lufia 2

Revisiting an old friend.

I recently had a hankering for some old school JRPGs and so I booted up Lufia 2.  It’s a puzzle focused classic from the SNES era.  Like all well done games, Lufia 2 has important things to tell us about how to promote strengths and handle weaknesses in gaming.  I go through some of those below.

Do something different/puzzles are fun!

Lufia 2 could have been a cookie cutter JRPG.  The SNES had plenty of them and it would have joined a long line of competently made, but otherwise indistinguishable genre entries.  Instead, developer Natsume put in puzzles.  Not flip a switch and you’ve “solved” it puzzles, but genuine brain teasers that engaged your grey cells.  The puzzles make clever use of enemies and in game items to break up the same old dungeon grind and reward crafty players with additional items.  The fond memories of the puzzles brought me back to the game instead of going back to a number of other great SNES competitors.  While lacking the production values of a Square RPG, Lufia 2’s puzzles added a unique element that helps the game stand out.  Rather than try to surpass the giants of the industry by overcoming their strengths, developers should add something new or improve on their weaknesses.  There’s a lot in Lufia 2 that can’t compete with Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono trigger, but by refusing to fight in the same arena, Natsume carved out a niche of its own.

We’ve come a long way on the sexism front.

To think, younger me never picked up on the “subtle” sexism that infuses huge parts of Lufia 2’s story and gameplay.  From the host of happy homemakers to the griping about women not following the male lead, Lufia 2 is quite clear where it sees the fairer sex.  Lest the men feel left out, don’t worry!  This game wants to jam you into a Neanderthal mold.  Empathy challenged meat heads are the order of the day with only one male party member showing any kind of intelligence and half of the male cast lacking mp entirely.  Let’s leave the thinking to the womenfolk!  Lufia’s male leads are your classic Leave it to Beaver dads who know how to bring home the bacon, but can’t understand those “crazy” women.  The game’s cast is a laundry list of old stereotypes that, thankfully, wouldn’t fly in today’s environment.  Games today certainly aren’t perfect, but they aren’t pumping out literal magic bikini armor.

If your story sucks, ignore it.

Plan A is always to have a good story, but plan A doesn’t always work out.  Good stories are hard write.  They take talent to execute and a strong commitment from the developer to ensure the game mechanics don’t overwhelm the plot.  If a developer can’t make plan A work, then they should follow Lufia 2 to plan B: zip through the chatty bits.  The short version of Lufia 2’s story is that a mysterious woman Erin tells monster hunter Maxim that badness is coming and he needs to go kill it.  She later says this to a few other people.  That’s it.

…okay, I’m leaving a little out, but not much.  The reason why this overly simplistic narrative isn’t lethal to the game is that Natsume largely ignores their own plot.  Dialogue rarely goes for more than a few minutes and then you’re back to puzzles and pain.  There’s enough there to keep the player motivated, but not enough to overstay it’s welcome.  Lufia 2 knows its main plot is weak and so it ignores it in favor of keeping the player focused on the part’s that the game does well.

Everyday life can mean more than saving the world.

Remember when I said I was leaving out a bit of the plot?  Well, that part covered the Maxim-Tia-Selan love triangle.  The short version is that Tia wants Maxim to settle down with her, but Maxim wants to keep adventuring.  Tia joins Maxim out of concern for his well-being until Maxim falls in love with the warrior Selan.  The scene where Tia realizes that her dream of playing happy homemaker to the fight loving Maxim will never happen is the most emotionally resonant of the whole game.  It’s far more compelling than any of the plot beats in the primary storyline.  People understand personal interactions more than they appreciate generic threats to the world.  Lufia 2 doesn’t have a great story, but when it works, it’s when it focuses on the experiences of people.

Final dungeons should reflect the rest of the game

Almost from the outset, Lufia 2 establishes a basic pattern for its gameplay.  Go to town, get quest, go to dungeon, solve puzzles, beat boss, and repeat.  It’s not a particularly complicated formula, but it moves the game along and ensures that the player gets regular breaks between fighting, puzzling, and reading.  The final dungeons ignore this pattern by removing the puzzling and reading bits and replacing them with nothing.  Rather than display Natsume’s best puzzles, the last four dungeons completely remove puzzling altogether and even block the player from accessing the items used to resolve said puzzles.  For a game that stands out due to its clever problem solving, this seems like a betrayal of the concept.  That’s a shame, because the fighting is serviceable, but certainly not strong enough on its own.  The lesson is obvious.  If you’ve built your game on certain mechanics, don’t drop them at the end.  Make them the pinnacle of what you’ve achieved before or your endgame dungeons will lack the same pull of the previous content.

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Opinion – What’s wrong with Stellaris’ midgame?

A big bang,

Stellarius starts with a bang.  Civilizations, with nothing more than a homeworld and a dream, expand throughout a galaxy in the hopes of becoming the next great empire.  Science ships chart unknown worlds while researchers expand the player’s technological reach.  The player runs across others and that existing scramble only intensifies to grab the few remaining systems left.  Alliances form and wars begin and suddenly it all seems…well…slow.  Boring.  Banal.  The hand off between the early game and mid game fumbles and the player pumps their legs in Wily E. Coyote fashion as their interest falls of a cliff.  What happened?

Stellaris is an example of a game with mechanics that direct the player away from the fun.  What worked so well in the beginning (or wasn’t there) now becomes a drag on the entertainment.  Let’s start with limited planets.  Stellaris limits the planets that the player directly controls to five (traits can add to this).  Every planet beyond the cap must either be turned into an AI controlled sector or acts as a serious drain on a civilization’s economy.  While this helpfully limits the micromanagement intensive planet building mechanic, it also means that the player controls the same number of resources in the early game as they do the mid and late.  Five planets is enough to power a growing empire, but a mid level empire will find itself resource constrained.  It is entirely possible to have an empire with a fleet equivalent to another empire half its size simply because they both can only directly control five planets.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the AI controlled sectors were capable or could be directed, but that is not so.  They develop slowly and without the basic building strategies that are incredibly important to intelligently developing a planet.  Resources from AI sectors increase at a snail’s pace thereby limiting consolidation and promoting stasis.  The five planet rule works in the beginning, but it can’t grow with the game.

As the universe developers, the player must interact with other civilizations.  Diplomacy could have represented a fun, mid-game mechanism to help continue the excitement.  Unfortunately, it’s designed to do the exact opposite.  The two big diplomatic achievements, alliance and federation, direct the player towards stasis.   The first, alliance, allows civilizations to come to the defense of their allies.  An alliance of smaller civilizations can face down a larger civ in a war they would otherwise lose individually.  In a more aggressive environment, this would create an ever shifting galaxy of allegiances and force the player to pay attention to their surroundings.  As it stands, the timid AI uses alliances as yet another reason not to attack.  Even worse, alliances may prevent victory for a civilization(s) that has all but won a war against an alliance.  Once interstellar diplomacy kicks off, civilizations may form alliances across the galaxy.  An empire which defeated most of an alliance may not “win” the war if enough of the losing alliance is on the other side of the galaxy and inaccessible.  Once again, Stellaris’ mid-game mechanic promotes stasis, not dynamism.

Federations don’t help either.  If an alliance endures and its members like each other, they may further integrate into a federation.  Federations are alliances under the control of a rotating president representing one of the civilizations.  If a player joins a federation, they must subordinate their military to the frightened AI until they gain control of the federation.  Presidencies last a great deal of game time resulting in a considerable delay for players who hoped to use the federation for aggressive ends.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the federation had its own mechanics, but it’s really just designed to give the player major power for a short time and then forced turtling until they rotate in again.  It’s a mechanic designed to nullify another major game mechanic for 3/4th of its duration.

The problem with Stellaris’ mid game is that one major mechanic (diplomacy) is designed to nullify another (war).  If diplomacy replace war with something interesting, this might work, but that didn’t happen.  Diplomacy just shuts war down and then does nothing new.  Planetary development might have filled the void, but the limitations on directly controlling colonies deliberately stifles that part of the game.  These issues create a boring situation where the player manages a stagnant empire with little change but the slow accumulation of tech and a death march towards the end game.  Hopefully developer Paradox will address this.

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