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Opinion – Endless Space 2 Early Access

Master of Endless Space

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

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

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

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

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

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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 – 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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Opinion – The Future of CCGs

Reality, digital, and digital reality

As an avid player of both digital and meatspace collectible card games (CCG), I can’t help but be pleased by the explosion of new entries into this design space.  Hearthstone is obviously the biggest name, but plenty of other IPs exist and many more are on the way.  The old king of CCGs, Magic the Gathering (MtG), faces stiff competition from many corners.  It is being punished for its years of digital neglect as MtG developer Wizards of the Coast is just now trying to update its online client into something humans might use.  The temptation is to say that the proliferation of digital competitors means that MtG’s days are numbered.  Magic certainly has challenges ahead, but its unique position in the physical world makes the game stronger than it would appear.

The digital case is a strong one.  Adopting the powerful free-to-play model, digital card games are incredibly accessible in a way that the physical ones can’t be.  A pack of Magic cards costs $4 whereas most digital CCGs will let the player grind for every card in the game free of charge.  That’s a long and laborious process, but players can certainly grind enough to build a decent deck and compete.  Particularly for new players, the ability to play without a major financial outlay means that there is little risk and little reason not to try the game.  The cost savings don’t stop there.  Digital CCGs do allow players to buy packs and those packs are cheaper as well.  The lack of print and transportation costs means that a game like Hearthstone can sell packs for a fraction of the cost of a Magic pack and still realize a huge profit.  Digital CCGs are more cost efficient for both the player and the developer.

The digital world holds two major gameplay benefits for CCGs.  It’s 1) infinitely malleable and 2) totally controllable.  To the first point, anything the developers want in a game, they can code in.  The only hard limit is the imagination of the developers.  Consider the piloted shredder cards of Hearthstone.  When one of these creatures dies, it is replaced by another random creature in the game.  With over 10,000 cards, a Magic player would need a massive collection to replicate such an effect.  Hearthstone players just need an account because the program can do the rest.  Along with the malleability comes the complete control over every card and rule at all times.  One of the greatest challenges of any competitive game is balancing.  Once printed, Wizards of the Coast can’t undo or modify an unbalanced card.  If a card breaks the meta-game, then Wizards can ban or restrict it, but they can’t modify it to make it more meta-friendly.  By comparison, a digital CCG developer can change every copy of the problematic card in a single shot.  Everything is in the code.  Change the code, change the world.

I could go on, but it’s important to see the other side of this coin.  Digital cards may beat physical in a lot of ways, but the physical model still has legs on it.  The first is the social nature of the game.  Magic promotes the meeting of players by virtue of the fact that the physical game is unplayable without a human opponent.  Unlike Hearthstone which practically assumes that the player won’t know their opponent, MtG allows people to get together and enjoy the game among friends.  When friends aren’t available, Magic promotes Friday Night Magic which are locally run events designed to draw in players and build a community.  Many players talk fondly of the friends they’ve made through playing Magic; something that is all but impossible in your average digital CCG.

The other enormous benefit to the physical card game is that it taps player creativity in a way that a digital CCG never could.  While digital CCGs are incredibly responsive to the whims of the developers, they are completely harden to the whims of the players.  Creativity is a one way street from developer to player as every rule is hard coded into the game and every card may only behave a certain way.  Contrast that with MtG which has spawned numerous variations both big and small.  One of the more successful variation, Commander, was created by casual players and has been worked into future Magic card design.  The only way to incorporate this kind of creativity into a digital CCG would be to open the game up to modding.  Modding might sound promising, but the creation of an open environment would cripple the competitive scene.  Furthermore, modding requires a level of coding knowledge that would confine it to only the most committed of players.  By contrast, the only requirement for “modding” Magic is both players willingness to go along with it.

Fortunately for me, I think there’s enough space for both digital and physical card games.  They each serve a different, but overlapping, market that will allow players to enjoy both for years to come.  Their shared existence may even serve as a mutual benefit to each other.  Both types of CCG serve as an entry point for players who appreciate CCGs for different reasons.  Once hooked, they may reach out to explore the other options and, in doing so, expand into another game.

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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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