Tag Archives: PS4

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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Review – Ratchet and Clank – PS4

What was old, is new again.

Do you remember when the consoles were flooded with friendly cartoon characters who ran, jumped, and flew through a wide array of environments?  Do you long for collectible hunting before it became synonymous with open world, GTA style gameplay?  Insomniac has got you covered.  With the HD rerelease of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, the glory days of mascot platforming are on display for all to see.  It’s a happy return.

The story begins with Clank, a defunct Blarg warbot who discovers plans to attack planet Novalis.  Clank escapes the Blarg only to crash land near Ratchet, a furry cat like creature with mechanical talent and dreams of saving the galaxy.  Together, they team up to defeat the Blarg and save the day.  The story is about as straightforward as I’ve presented it with only the occasional stabs of humor to set it apart from your average kid’s cartoon show.  There isn’t much here to draw in adults and the plot largely serves as a vehicle to move the player from one planet to the next.  While a game like this doesn’t need a strong story, there are moments where Ratchet and Clank’s narrative feels like a missed opportunity.  A number of characters almost use pessimistic humor before they pull away from truly amusing territory.  It happens enough times that it feels like the writers wanted to go one step further before someone stopped them.  That’s a shame, because humor would have greatly livened up the proceedings.  As it stands, the story is functional.

The gameplay is where Ratchet and Clank shines.  The game has the platformer’s usual array of jumping puzzles, but the addition of clever weaponry helps it stand out.  Ratchet has a wide array of guns which can level up through use and benefit from upgrades purchase with a special material called raretanium.  While the leveling scheme encourages the player to constantly swap weapons, the usefulness of each weapon makes the experience a delight.  Each gun has its own value, but no gun is powerful enough to work in all situations throughout the game.  The powerful sheepinator turns enemies into sheep without requiring ammo, but is ineffective against bosses.  The groovatron turns the battlefield into a dance floor, but doesn’t hurt larger enemies much.  Taking full advantage of Ratchet’s arsenal is one of the true delights of the game.  Sadly, the Clank sections are less so.  Clank relies on puzzles based on minibots whose many forms help him overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player interested and they break up the gameplay, but they never really satisfy like Ratchet’s shooting sections.  They are also sometimes accompanied by Clank’s hints which repeat incessantly annoying players who are enacting the solution and those who already heard the clue and wish he would just stop.

One of the joys of the Ratchet and Clank series is the vibrant, cartoony environments.  The HD remake only enhances their quality and brings the fuller vision into view.  The dynamism of the original level designs stand out with many of them taking place on an active battlefield or bustling cityscape with the attending side fights or zooming cars creating the atmosphere.  None of the environments are technical or stylistic stand outs, yet they’re so well-crafted that they’re incredibly fun to explore.  Beyond the environment, character models are sharper, colors pop, and the tiny details from the original game stand out more.  My only grip is the tiny letters, though that is likely a function of my smaller TV.  The game is a lot of fun to watch.

The rerelease adds a few features, but it’s the original game that truly draws in the player.  Developer Insomniac understood that this is a game that doesn’t need fixing and only made minor tweaks.  If you own a PS4, I highly recommend dropping some cash on Ratchet and Clank.  You’ll enjoy it.

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Review – Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below – PS4

“Man, I wish games stun locked me more!”

-No one, ever

Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below isn’t a new game.  In many ways it’s a reskin of the old Dynasty Warriors series with some Dragon Quest bits strewn about.  That doesn’t make it a bad game, but purchasers should know what they’re getting before purchasing.  You can have fun here, but only if you’re in the right mood.

The story begins in the Kingdom of Arba where man and monster live side-by-side in peace until a black fog drives the monsters mad.  This is the moment where Dragon Quest Heroes sets up on of the most unnecessary narrative contradiction I’ve ever seen and establishes a fantastically amateurish approach to storytelling in general.  The game acknowledges the obvious tension between needing to fight the rampaging monsters and knowing that they were once friends, but the gameplay didn’t seem to get the memo.  Quests in the game talk about slaughtering huge waves of monsters in retribution for them trampling a garden or making off with a pie.  Regretting monster killing doesn’t count for much if you’re going to murder them over a rose bush.  Sadly, the rest of the story is filled with these silly moments where developer W-Omega stumbles over the problems it creates.  It should then come as no surprise that characters pulled in from other Dragon Quest series aren’t supported well either.  They’re largely one note and will only satisfy their most devoted fans.  Still, there is more of a narrative than your average Dynasty Warriors game.  Given the developer’s “skills” as a storyteller, it’s a wonder that the game is coherent as it is.

The gameplay is bog standard Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash.  Players control a party of four lead by one of two main characters.  They fight through a series of maps with effectively one of two objectives: kill all the things or protect something while killing all the things.  There isn’t much complexity anywhere, though the ability to swap characters on a whim and to invest in a skill tree for each character adds a little more interest than the usual Dynasty Warriors formula.  Mindless slashing works for most of the game, though the end stages ask for a little more strategy as they rely heavily on stun attacks which force the player to sway mindlessly for several seconds while the game plays itself.  It’s a pointless game mechanic that breaks up the monotony with frustration.  The game includes a few other features, but they’re largely designed to improve the player’s ability to smash things or give them another reason to smash things.  There really isn’t any other goal to this game.

Dragon Quest Heroes scratches the Dynasty Warriors itch.  If you’re looking for that kind of game, Dragon Quest Heroes will satisfy you as well as any of the other competent entries in the series.  Wait for a Steam sale and pick it up for 20 bucks.  Dragon Quest fans should add a little more on top of that, but not much.

 

Bonus Story Surprise!:  Remember how I said the story trips over itself?  There’s an even better example.  In most stories, the author tries to avoid a deus ex machina (where the author needs a totally unsupported plot element to get them out of the dead end that they’ve written themselves into).  This narrative technique is only called upon when the flaw in the story is buried deep and difficult to remove.  Dragon Quest Heroes included both the dead end and deus ex machina in the same scene.  Towards the end, the heroes flee a crumbling island.  They happen across a boss who, in his death throws, destroys the only way out.  Rather than have the gang saved by their flying cloud fortress, W-Omega has them saved by a magical bird from another dimension that is mentioned exactly zero times before that moment.  It’s so terrible that it’s beautiful.

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Opinion – Buying Exclusive Games

Alphabet soup

Last week I wrote about some of the trends in the console wars.  I asserted that the console wars have changed due to a shift in the power from the console makers to the developers and publishers.  This article will explain how the basic economics of releasing a game have changed and why larger console makers can no longer sway publishers and developers to provide exclusive content for their systems.

Imagine that the total cost to create a video game for a single system is “c” and that the total anticipated revenue of a single system video game is “r”.  This gives us a very simple equation to determine whether a game is worth developing (in economic terms.  I make no judgment on other forms of value).  If the cost (c) is higher than the revenue (r), then there is no profit and the game isn’t worth making.  If it’s lower, then the game can turn a profit.  See the representation below:

c > r = lose money

r > c = profit!

or

r – c = total profit

Now, let’s say you want to port a game over to a new system.  We’ll represent that cost at “o”.  Let’s also say the anticipated revenue of the port is “p”. If the cost to port a game (o) is higher than the anticipated revenue (p), the game isn’t worth developing.

p > o = port too costly

o > p = port profit!

or

p – o = port profit

If a console maker wants to buy an exclusive title, they must cover the developer or publishers anticipated total profit of porting.  Now, if you’re a smaller developer, this might not be difficult.  Small developers may not have the money to port their game or may need to risk their profit on the original copy in hopes of getting more money on the port.  Since anticipated profit is difficult to predict, they may go for the console maker’s offer as a way to take guaranteed money over the risk inherent in porting a game.  Still, they may decide it’s better to take the risk.  If that’s the case, then they’ll need to assess the potential profit of porting.  The potential profit is the revenue (p) minus the cost (o).  Let’s represent console maker’s offer as “f”.

f > p – o = game makes more money as an exclusive

f < p – o = game makes less money as an exclusive

From the console maker’s perspective, the whole idea behind making a game exclusive is to sell consoles and receive a console owner’s fee for each copy of the game sold.  As a result, there is a quantifiable value to making a game exclusive.  Let’s make the anticipated profits from selling consoles as “e” and from console owner’s fees “d”.  If the console maker’s offer (f) costs more than the anticipated profits from consoles  (e) and fee (d), then exclusivity from the console maker’s perspective appears not to be worth it.  However, we must also consider that each console sold will encourage its purchaser to buy more games for that system.  The number of games sold per average system is represented by “#”.  Therefore, the console maker must also consider the future value of console owner’s fees.  The equation looks like the following:

f > e + d + #d = Exclusivity loses money

f < e + d + #d = Deal is profitable!

If we bring it all together, we have two scenarios.  The first is the console maker anticipates making more profit off of game exclusivity than the developer anticipates losing.  Therefore, the console maker offers more money than the anticipated loss in not porting a game:

e + d + #d > p – o = Game exclusivity

Alternatively, if the console maker believes they will make less profit off of game exclusivity than it will cost the game maker to not port, then the console maker does not make an offer and the game is ported.

e + d + #d < p – o = Game non- exclusivity

So, what does this all mean?  It means that the console makers no longer anticipate making more money via exclusivity than the game makers do by porting.  Not modeled here, but I think quite relevant, is that game makers also are more comfortable with the risks of porting than they were in the past.  Working off of years of sales data and flagship franchises, the big game makers now have a very clear idea of how much their games will make on a given system.  The certain gain or reduced risk that might make an offer from Sony or Microsoft attractive is offset by a clearer idea of how anticipate, deal with, and manage the risk.  As a result, I would anticipate console exclusives to be the domain of small game makers and new properties where risk is harder to manage and harder to anticipate, respectively.

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