Wednesday, March 31, 2010

ME2, pt.12: Team Powers

While thinking back on combat, I realized that my attention on teamwork was pretty weak. My team members were "around," I did my best to survive while they did whatever, and only if my situation got hairy would I open my power menu to pause and browse through my bailout options. The exact functionality of powers was largely ignored, the ability to use them was spotty because the AI would use them without me (I wonder if this decision made to capture the attention of players that ignored powers), and the concept of "Team" was mentally isolated to the d.pad (despite team functionality being present in the "Weapons" and "Powers" menus).

Power Alternatives?
Regarding powers, I wish combos seemed more useful. The one combo the designers point out is shooting at lifted enemies while they are vulnerable, but the enemy still takes shots at me while I do it, and my own interest in followup turns dim when my allies do a fine job of turning baddies into flying corpses. I wish time slowed down to help me aim at the spinning body, or that certain enemies had protected weak spots exposed while they spun, or that more ravines existed between myself and the enemy to drop them into.

And my suggestion yesterday to have one unique power per character springs back to mind. From a design perspective, less options might make mean less variables for designers to build combos around, and with the added benefit of simplifying controls.

Control Alternatives?
But simplifying controls is far more complicated, and probably foolish to tackle with quick suggestions. I'll be foolish tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ME2, pt.11: Casual Observations

I was lucky that my girlfriend decided to try ME2 because she has never plays mainstream releases for the PS3, 360, or Wii, and it was interesting to watch what got her interested in the game, and what she went through playing it.

As I mentioned before, her reason for trying the game in the first place was partly because it had a strong social component to it, and partly because of the novelty of sleeping with other characters. She gets her hands on a shooter now and then but is still intimidated because she feels unskilled. The social component is not only interesting, but far less intimidating.

Learning Curve
But ME2 has a surprisingly rough learning that I probably wouldn't have noticed without watching her play. It assumes a lot of its audience. The catchup intro from previous game is poor (the wall of text that goes by too quickly), it asks you you to make choices (class, advancement options) without indicating recommendations for various skill levels, and the control scheme is rather difficult for a new player to get a handle on.

Regarding the controller, by the time the first mission was over, she had been asked to hold down (a) RB to pause and bring up a menu, (b) target characters by moving RAS while paused, (c) move LAS to select abilities menu options, (d) press A for each one to "prep" them for you and your team, and then (e) release RB to execute. This is not a trivial request of a new player, and the fact that LB has a similar menu with different functionality plus hotkey slaving, and holding LB or RB performs different actions altogether just adds to the confusion. In most combat scenarios, controls were confused, and she only seemed to exhibit mastery over them (after friendly coaching) in the last quarter of the game.

Does pausing a shooter to make combat choices help a shooter be more emotionally engaging? Is it absolutely necessary when featuring a squad? My instincts would be to trim. And I wonder if giving your allies one unique power instead of a suite of overlapping ones would be helpful; to make button requirements less demanding, combat choices more immediate, ally choices more important, and juxtapositions of personality and function more interesting. But it probably isn't as simple as that.

On a final note, it was sad to see her begin the game interested in sex, try to get sex, and wind up through seemingly harmless conversation unable to do so with any other character, with no conversational recourse. Mission failed. Everyone was friendly only, and she complained that her only option with Jacob at the end of the game was to initiate a friendly fist-bump. From a male perspective... the idea that a female Shepard couldn't get laid if she tried is frankly kinda baffling.

In the end, the net experience was a plus, the game was challenging enough on easy to keep her attention without making her give up, and the story (though much of it was skipped) was interesting enough to keep her entertained. Go BioWare. I'd love to see her try other mainstream games, especially ones more character-focused. The next most obvious targets are perhaps Heavy Rain and Dragon Age.

Monday, March 29, 2010

ME2, pt.10: Mining for Distraction

When not blowing up stuff and talking, Mass Effect wants you to explore the vastness of space. In ME1, this meant driving a rover around oft-barren planets searching for minerals, and occasionally bumping into side missions. In ME2, it means blindly scanning the surface of planets searching for minerals, and occasionally bumping into side missions. Both systems just lag.

Blind scanning for signals is intensely boring no matter how you slice it, and asking players to spend time in your game bored does little in itself to convey the vastness of space or to keep me emotionally invested in goings on. That they can't even throw in a bejeweled game to find stuff just to keep me entertained is baffling. If the act is so monotonous, it should at least be fast. I wouldn't mind it nearly as much if there was always a signal above "0" on my scanner, so I could "hot/cold" my way to minerals much faster. That, and speed up the scanner. Ugh.

It's just so undercooked, and given this was a second shot at the system, I have to wonder why.

Friday, March 26, 2010

ME2, pt.9: The Shooter Option


I'm a sucker for shooters. They have so many advantages in their ability to thrust your eyes right into scripted story events that never break immersion by removing control. This is a wildly powerful tool for emotional engagement, which begs the question: why does ME2 ignore them?

The Shooter Option
The shooter mechanics in ME2 are decent, and perfectly acceptable since the primary emphasis is dialogue. The game gives me targets, I can take cover, AI carry out basic commands, and then we pew-pew duck-hunt. The various approaches to your character are mildly interesting but seemingly make little difference, and on normal difficulty, you can lean on your AI quite a bit. Enemy AI comes across as straightforward, impacts come across as a bit detached (perhaps a result of no blood, or less focus on hit detection and presentation than a raw shooter), and the different types of obstacles in the game (barrier, shield, health) seem to have little impact on how you play. This really is fine.

But the advantage of a shooter -- the reason first in my list for making a game in the genre -- is the ability to stage scripted events around the player to tell the story. So why does it waste so much energy on non-playable cutscenes? Am I missing something, or is it as weird as I think, that a company whose sole purpose is emotional engagement, and that picks a genre exceptional at it, throws those advantages out the window?

In the very first collector mission, when the big renegade AI robot appears, why not have that happen in-game, characters shouting surprise and all? When at the end, the Reaper makes appearances, why not let me marvel at it from gameplay? Cinematics interrupt my connection to the avatar, and I personally think that utilizing the full power of shooters with fewer-but-impressive scripted events would better ground me in the world of Mass Effect and do a lot for emotional engagement. But then again, I'm a sucker for shooters.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

ME2, pt.8: Illusive Freedom

There is one final system I want to bring in my complaints about dialogue.

Paragon & Renegade
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the dialogue wheel is that it displays options unavailable for selection unless you've proven to the designers that you are enough of a "paragon" or "renegade" that Shepard would select them. What? My proof that Shepard would select them is that I am Shepard, and I want to select them.

There are other problems, too. First, I cannot tell the intent of Shepard, so the only way to effectively judge the morality of my actions is by its position on the wheel. Second, if I want the freedom to make the any dialogue choice and prevent the scenario where no choices but restricted ones are descriptive of my actual interest, it encourages me to care more about the designers' intent than my own. For a game with such emphasis on my choices, this seems like a horrible oversight.

I'm curious why the paragon / renegade limitations are necessary. It strikes me that simply having all options available at all times, or just based on previous interactions with that character, would do perfectly well. Why call out whether an action is evil? Just let me make my decision and see how it might realistically play out, perhaps to my displeasure, just as in real life.

Illusive Freedom
Beyond the disconnect that happens because Shepard did not act the way I intended, or because sex seems micromanaged to some nebulous purpose, or because options are chosen only to juice the system toward some mechanical gain (more options), is the disconnect that happens from these things combined. That going into the game, I was enticed by the opportunity to make decisions, explore intimate relationships, and say what I please, only to discover that my freedom was an illusion.

I remember in Knights of the Old Republic being excited when I saw that I could put skill points into anything I wanted, and began to imagine the Han Solo character I would strive towards, only to feel increasingly strung along by game mechanics into being a "good" or "evil" Jedi. I also remember in Mass Effect (1) how astounded and utterly impressed I was that I could, in the final chapter of the game, convince Saren of the error of his ways, and watch the final boss kill himself. I thought I was witnessing an amazing turn in the history of mainstream gaming only to cringe when he came back to life as a zombie and I had to fight him anyway. It sucks when the cake is a lie.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

ME2, pt.7: Social Letdown

Online, I've seen backlash against players accused of spend too much time concerned with sex in Mass Effect 2, complaining that they should just play a "dating sim" if they wanted it so bad. A quick word on that:

Games let us act out fantasies, and sex is a compelling one. My girlfriend, for example, was curious about ME2 because of its dialogue focus, but not enough to try it until I explained that it could lead to sex with other crew members. To some, sexual exploits may simply seem a side-effect of its novelty in mainstream games but I call it a side-effect of being human. If I were Shepard -- one of the most famous, charismatic, and single heroes in the galaxy on a ship full of svelte bodies and interesting personalities -- I would most definitely invest time in getting some action. See? I'm roleplaying.

Social Letdown
But the real reason for bringing up sex is that it best-illustrated a problem that crops up in ME2, which is that it occasionally restricted natural dialogue in unintuitive ways for unclear reasons, and at some cost to my emotional engagement.

In the quest for sex through dialogue, you may notice the following:
  • Sex happens only at a particular point in the story. Even if another character is "ready," you might inexplicably have to wait several missions before it happens.
  • Sex only happens with one person. If one character is "ready," another interested character will deny you unless you turn down the first partner. How do they know about my promiscuity? "Word gets around on this ship." Did they really learn about my exploits in the few seconds it took to walk from one room to another? Why can't I be Don Juan in my fantasy? How is Jack, "you just gotta know where to put it" suddenly such a prude?
  • A single dialogue option determines whether sex happens, and never reappears. If you misread the text or intention associated with that dialogue option, no amount of good looks, charisma, or natural dialogue seem to re-earn the opportunity.
None of these things jive with reality and only disconnect me from the situation. Perhaps there are mechanics reasons under the hood for the approach, but they really stand out because sex is spontaneous, sex is possible to keep secretive (for a time, at least), and most of all the opportunity for sex is malleable, especially through conversation. For a game that allows players to act out fantasies in dialogue, these omissions stand out.

Why not let the sex happen spontaneously? Why not more than once? Why not get with multiple partners? Why not use it for some interesting branching dialogue consequences? Why not give players a way to reopen the sex option? The current system simply feels artificially enforced for a nebulous purpose, which is not the first way I would describe relationships of reality or fantasy, to say the least.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ME2, pt.6: Dialogue Disconnect

Time to move on from story... kind of.

My next target of curiosity is the wheel by which dialogue choices are made, and how it affects my emotional engagement with the story of Mass Effect 2. ME2 mostly succeeds because of its interesting characters and their story arcs, but in writing my thoughts, I note that my emotional engagement my character, Shepard, is rather absent. This seems partly a result of story and partly the result of dialogue mechanics. There are three aspects of dialogue that I want to discuss: dialogue disconnect, social letdown, and illusive freedom.

The Dialogue Disconnect
The dialogue wheel offers players text samples of what Shepard is about to say and has them make selections based on that preview. The system as implemented has a few notable problems:
  1. The samples are not necessarily representative of the actual line spoken.
  2. The samples are not necessarily representative of conversational intent.
  3. The samples are not necessarily representative of physical intent.
What results is Shepard often acting unpredictably, and sometimes with greatly undesirable consequence that seems avoidable, "if only it acted out the way I pictured." Following is an example that I noted in my personal blog after playing ME1, in which Shepard actually kills someone I had no intention of killing:
During a conversation with a character that did something horrible, the dialogue option, "You should die for the things you've done," appeared. I thought, "Yeah! I'm taking this guy to prison, but he should know how terrible I think his actions were." So I made the selection and watched in horror as my character shot him dead at point blank range.
Not all of the incidents end as extremely as this, but I was actually surprised by how often Shepard conversation went in a direction I never intended through my choices. The net result is a disconnect between me and Shepard, where I begin to devalue the time I spend making choices, and instead try to find another axis upon which to predict the results of conversation (e.g., acquiring Paragon / Renegade points).

My first instinct for an alternative would be to not represent dialogue at all, but only intent. For example, rather than have a line of dialogue directed at Bob that might read, "You should die for the things you've done," it would instead read, "Express disgust and murder Bob."

I know other players that were disappointed to suddenly see Shepard not being able to pursue sex when that intent was really there. Instead of two choices that push for or reject sex that read something like, "Come on, you know it's right," appearing disrespectful of the other character's wishes, and "I understand," appearing sympathetic yet unintentionally signally disinterest; the samples may instead read, "Express understanding but interest," and "Express understanding and disinterest."

Of course, there are other potential options the player might desire. For example, players may want to hold on the sex-talk, but be able to come back later, still interested. But options will always be limited no matter the approach.

One could complain that this approach seems more detached and I would understand, but I think this is already a hidden cost of not offering one-to-one dialogue, and I happen to think the cost of not being invested in Shepard at all is too high. Tending toward dialogue representative of the actual line spoken might seem like a reasonable alternative solution, but it still does nothing to give away physical intent or conversation intent through inflection and subsequent lines. The designers may have great reasons based on experience for why the above samples may not work, but it's fun to ponder about since the current system seemed to push me from accepting responsibility for actions I had unpredictable control over.

Monday, March 22, 2010

ME2, pt.5: My Ending


For those of you curious about how my game story ended, let me first give a preview of my dialogue mechanic complaints by describing how it encourages me to metagame. Because my game outcome is affected by my gameplay tools (dialogue options), I tend to choose actions that will grant me access to more tools (paragon / renegade actions). In Mass Effect 2, this meant metagaming towards towards "paragon" regardless of my desire to role-play, continuing even after acquiring Legion and earned his loyalty, at which point "renegade" Shepard awoke, mostly to unlock further dialogue options unavailable without renegade points, and partly to see what "bad" Shepard was like.

My Ending
Some of the ending differences, as I understand them, are whether the working crew is sacrificed, which/whether team members were sacrificed, whether Shepard destroyed or kept Reaper technology to be studied, and whether Shepard died. Here is how it went down, almost entirely due to metagaming:
  1. My crew was sacrificed. Because of assumptions born from playing other games, I waited to collect all of my team members assuming it would be possible to rescue them later. Interestingly, even if I had believed they would all die, I would still wait due to my completionist compulsions and my preference to experience gameplay (team member missions) over cutscenes (acquiring crew), assuming that would be the primary difference in experience. Also interestingly, were I making a strictly roleplaying decision, it would be to rescue the crew with fewer team members. 
  2. Jacob and Grunt died. Because I assumed the game would sacrifice characters I most liked (this was my interpretation of the events of Mass Effect (1)), I chose Jacob and Grunt partly because they were less socially interactive, and mostly because I rarely used them on missions. If I believed it were possible to not lose any team members, I would more-likely have made decisions from the point of view of Shepard instead of a metagamer.
  3. Shepard kept the Reaper technology. Because I was on a renegade bender, I chose the "renegade" option of keeping Reaper technology for use by Cerberus. There is a small chance I would have chosen this even if I was role-playing since they did a poor job making a case for this being a "renegade" decision. It seemed reasonable that taking Reaper tech back to Cerberus for study could be useful against the Reapers, its risk mitigated by the fact that I can destroy a half-complete Reaper with my pew-pew pistol.
  4. Because my actions were mostly good, Shepard survived. This is the only result that certainly would have been the same if I had role-played all of my decisions throughout the game.
If metagaming played no part, my guess is that my crew would have been saved, different (or no?) team members would have died, and Shepard would have destroyed the Reaper tech believing it had the potential to corrupt. Hopefully, in upcoming segments, I can make a case for how different decisions about dialogue and dialogue mechanics might have elicited this alternate, role-playing ending.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Long Weekend

No new posts this week as I attend to more vacation, but I'll get back to regular posting on Monday. It's been fun writing about Mass Effect 2 as I've had much more to say than I expected. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ME2, pt.4: My Protagonist


Thinking back over my emotional involvement with the story, another thing that interests me is my apathy toward Shepard. Other characters were emotionally interesting, but Shepard felt like a robot to me despite all aspects of a meaningful character arc being present. Shepard has life-changing events and big threats, makes decisions in response, and experiences victory or tragedy based on moral choices.

Shepard's Call to Action
One problem that may have caused this is starting the game with Shepard being killed without being explicit about its tie to the Reapers. It takes an entire mission to get the opinion of the Illusive Man that the event is connected, and only after they go out of their way to make sure he can't be trusted. Unfortunately, asking me to hold judgment about this meant losing any emotional immediacy with my death. It seems that even if Joker picked up a puzzling Reaper signal before the Normandy was blasted to smithereens, I would have been far more motivated to recover and make things happen, and the story team still would have had lots of strings to pull on to make me distrustful of Cerberus.

Another quibble is in using a wall of text to recap the events of the previous game. The time between games is too long, and this seemed too limited a way to get me reinvested in goings on.

Choice Disconnect
In the second act of the game, choices come into play. Though making decisions that affected the lives of other characters was interesting, they seemed to have little impact on my personal progress. I think this is partly a mechanical problem with how dialogue choices are presented but I will cover this later and want to stay focused on plot. Nothing about the plot discouraged me from caring about how my decisions affected Shepard, but there was also very little that encouraged me to pay attention.

This may be because all dialogue drives you towards a player success in the completion of the game. This strikes me as a good thing because you don't want players to feel herded towards one moral choice over another, but two articles recently reminded me of how achievement-driven human beings are, and I wondered if this could be used to increase the attention I pay to dialogue.

It doesn't strike me as a cost-effective idea, but I wondered what it would be like if a character mirrored Shepard in competition for success in the story goal, and seemed to succeed or fail unpredictably in reference to my moral decisions. For example, a new character acts as ship commander over Ashley Williams and serves the Citadel. He disapproves of my alliance with Cerberus. He winds up having the same goals but takes different routes sometimes appearing a step ahead or behind me based on the decisions I make. My hunch is that even if a success pattern was difficult (or impossible) to decipher, I would find non-existent patterns and pay more attention to my moral choices in an attempt to "succeed" against this (potentially interesting) character, even if I always came out the winner in the end.

Stay tuned for comments about my particular brand of ending.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

ME2, pt.3: A Hive Enemy


Update: in this post, I forget that Collectors are Protheans warped by the Reapers; an important and interesting plot point. I'll leave my post unedited, and let you decide whether my complaint about the Collectors is still valid. Many thanks to CalKi for pointing out my error!

While on the topic of story, I wanted to bring up some thoughts about the Collectors as a primary enemy. The early premise of an advanced species on the edge of known space, so rarely sighted as to be considered myth is really intriguing, but I have two complaints about the Collectors: (1) an advanced, mysterious enemy is only frightening for as long as it maintains this mystique, at which point (2) an enemy needs to get personal to stay interesting, which is hard to pull from an insect.

Advanced, Mysterious, and Personal
An example of doing this right, interestingly, can be pulled from Mass Effect (1). In ME1, the Reapers maintained their threat as sentient, super-advanced giants capable of handily wiping out every species in the universe because I only fought them by proxy. Saren made things personal. Not only was I angry with him for putting humanity at risk, but more personally important, for putting my profession at stake and acting as an obstacle to humanity's inclusion in the intergalactic council.

Naughty Bugs
A personal enemy was even more important in ME2 because I already defeated a Reaper. Unfortunately, the Collectors were chosen to fill the bill. Yes, they showed me a Collector General that took control of enemies on the battlefield, and yes, the Collectors stole my crew, but because I never met this character face-to-face or more importantly, believed it had a motive more interesting than an insect's, it was like trying to get angry at a hurricane for blowing things over. I can only get so angry at a bug for doing bug things.

I find it interesting that in my last post I complained about the Reapers, and in this post describe Saren as an interesting diversion that make them work. Perhaps my previous complaint was just an ME2 problem caused by the absence of a personal enemy. So what might be an alternative?

Let me throw out some personal preferences to guide things. First, I liked the Illusive Man but hated being under his thumb and having my past achievements rendered null by being blown up. Second, I wish the Reapers seemed more scarily active, rather than waiting to be rebuilt. Third, I really liked the "Legion" character and plot points. Finally, I liked where ME1 ended.

What If...
ME2 starts shortly after ME1, with Shepard doing miscellaneous tasks for Ambassador Udina (human Council member) as a Spectre. His missions begin with a focus on the Illusive Man, who is causing problems for human representation because of his radical activities. Shepard discovers a connection between the Geth and the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man appears to want the power of the Reapers to who-knows-what-end. What Shepard learns through enough missions is that the Illusive Man has discovered the "good Geth" that are fighting against the Heretics (bad Geth), who have new, subversive tools acquired from the remains of the Reaper you destroyed in ME1. The Heretics essentially have control over the human council, either directly (through implant) or through manipulation (understanding and manipulation of human psychology, or the ability to look like humans (why not add Cylons)). Having identified humanity as the greatest threat against their cause, they attempt to setup the Illusive Man (humans) to wipe out a human (and good Geth) threat while simultaneously setting the stage for the removal of humankind from the council. At some point, Shepard must rebel, incriminate mankind to join the Illusive Man (and his weird eyes; a byproduct of the good Geth experimenting on the Heretic connection with humans) and stop the Heretics and the Reapers. If the Collectors are necessary, they act as an example of what happens when the Heretics (bad Geth) assume control of a species, the same way they are beginning to influence (the much more socially complex) humans. Perhaps the connection to the Illusive Man is only discovered when investigating the Collectors, as the good Geth are present to find out how control was assumed over the insect race.)

This scenario might unravel for a host of reasons familiar to those closer to the Mass Effect universe. Regardless, it's a fun exercise to try reestablishing the Reapers as an advanced and mysterious threat (e.g., by manipulating humanity) while offering up a personality to get under your skin (e.g., initially through the Illusive Man, and then Udina, who works to unravel everything you worked for in the previous game; the progress of humanity, your status as a peace keeper, and the safety of the universe). I'd prefer that over a mindless bug, especially given the franchise's emphasis on choice through dialogue.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oh Yeah

This late update is brought to you by my day off at the Lava Hot Springs. Sorry about not mentioning it sooner! Back to ME2 on the morrow...

Friday, March 12, 2010

ME2, pt.2: Science Fiction

The story in Mass Effect 2 deserves praise because it goes further than most games do. Characters have developed personalities and interesting stories that revolve around situations reflective of their alien physiology and culture as well as the universe at large, and the game experience revolves almost entirely around gathering new personalities and advancing their character arcs, nearly to the point of forgetting the primary plot. This may be a good thing; though its focus on character is something I wish more games had, the antagonist failed to impress.

Science Fiction
What appeals to me about science fiction is taking a hypothetical possibility about our universe and pressing hard on its rational consequences, resulting in antagonists that elicit interesting character behavior and insights about modern life. ME1 had interesting hypothetical possibilities, like what life would be like interacting with its particular brand of alien species, and what it would be like for humans to come late to an intergalactic community.

What frustrates me about ME1+2 is that these interesting hypothetical situations seem to have a role secondary to a seemingly generic one. The great antagonist in ME1+2 comes across as a "destroy it all" species with no reason beyond twirling its mustache, and no approach better than napping while your enemy builds up strength before arriving to zap it. How menacing is an intergalactic threat that hides for decades to construct an incomplete torso you defeat with your pistol?

Story is hard. Constructing complicated stories in a tight timeframe is difficult, and it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of the story team. I wonder how -- with so many interesting elements are at play -- this antagonist became the focus? Humans being late to an intergalactic community, for example, is interesting and a plot against human inclusion could fuel multiple games. It already exists as a sub plot in the story, it allows you to experience the same universe, it buys time for introducing a "rarrr kill" species if necessary later, it lends itself better to insights about humanity, and it protects nuance and intelligence that seem to exit stage left when the priority is a big, dumb threat. Or so it seems.

To Be Clear
My complaint isn't about an "evil" trope. ME has species tropes like the hive-minds (the Flood), the aggros (Klingons), robo-zombies (Borg), logic-lovers (Vulcans), and empaths (Betazoids); but these elements come across as internally logical and consistent. I just wonder why the primary threat to the universe did not.

I had a much more to say about story than I expected, so I'm adding the following topics:
  • A Hive Enemy
  • My Protagonist
  • My Ending

Thursday, March 11, 2010

ME2, pt.1: Overview

Mass Effect 2, not unlike Mass Effect, offered an engaging experience with dialogue and story consequences that often impressed, but it was interesting how often dialogue disconnected me, how few of its genre strengths were utilized, and how much it struggled with establishing compelling distractions. Its great moments buoyed an uneven experience that made me question its critical praise.

Upcoming topics:
  • The Story
  • A Hive Enemy
  • My Protagonist
  • My Ending
  • Dialogue Disconnect
  • Social Letdown
  • Illusive Freedom
  • The Shooter Option
  • Mining for Distraction
  • Casual Observations
  • Team Powers
  • Team Controls
  • Critical Praise

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Just thinking out loud today.

I still wonder about my "reviews," and my effort to get ideas across without too much time investment (so I have time for work) while providing something substantive and conversation-inspiring to get my feed of "industry conversation."

Is the present approach fine? I spent several posts on Demon's Souls with thoughts as compartmentalized as possible and though it was manageable this way, I wonder if the split post format gets too incoherent. Not that I can go back to creating a huge post; it just makes me wonder if I should continue with it or spend less time on brief-but-interesting ideas (perhaps a designer-oriented approach with Kotaku's (loved/hated) review style) and let those interested ask for detail according to curiosity.

What reviews haven't I done yet? Bayonetta, Borderlands, Mass Effect 2, and Bioshock 2 come to mind. Any preference?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Unity 3 was announced. I'm excited to see the full list of features, particularly to see if networking has improved, but the 360 and PS3 support news is way cool. I so love the tool. Just yesterday, I scripted the following:
  • Changed thin floors in all random tiles so they can be shot through to mimic firing through grating.
  • Fixed minimap to correctly update "rooms visited" when not open.
  • Added avatar health and shields, with shield regeneration a la "every shooter," including HUD presentation.
  • Added enemy damage from enemies that get too close to you.
  • Added health pickups.
  • Added random % chance for enemies to drop said pickups, with hack to make sure they drop in movement path.
I still can't believe how much fun it is to finally get my hands dirty in this stuff. Empowering and fun.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More Kwedit

I mentioned Kwedit in a previous post, and thought you might enjoy seeing Colbert's take. It was interesting that I got an official response when I posted about it, and I'm enjoying the public's reaction.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.7: Feedback

The following comment on the Demon's Souls review seemed worth a larger post:
Elias: Interesting. Do you think its more original mechanics would work well in a less daunting, more accessible game? Maybe some but not others? Which?
Hum. Off-handedly, of the most novel systems:

Messaging System
Unless you had a narrative reason for reading messages from other players, this system might pop you out of the experience. If you care about context, you also need some type of message-choosing if you want it to keep in your narrative, else 1337-speak beware. Finally, the presence of this system depends on how much of your game is difficult enough to warrant hints. This wouldn't be my first choice for a system to port.

Joining Games to Assist
The novelty of this system came from how it strongly encouraged you to play with strangers but still felt like a single-player game. I might describe the basic requirements as (a) the host is in a special position to host (e.g., is alive, or found a random drop), (b) adding players helps you accomplish a highly desirable goal that is difficult to accomplish otherwise (e.g., stay alive, or access special powers/content) (c) players disappear after helping you accomplishing that goal, (d) added players can't subtract from your experience (e.g., no audio support so players can't disrupt things with their blather, or no real way to trigger bad events), (e) and players gain something desirable for helping (e.g., life, or the ability to pick up players too). As long as these goals were met, it could be a positive addition to a any game. Your goals needn't prevent a negative (i.e., dying).

Interestingly, you could probably recreate the exact setup for Demon's Souls including its death focus, without actually making the game a hardass. For example, if you pass a level without dying, you get a "leader bonus", and the more players join your game when "leading," the more bonuses you and your party get; you can also become a leader by helping a leader with some task. This would mirror Demon's Souls' experience without needing to making the base experience overly challenging, so long as "leader play" is important enough that it provides incentive toward this kind of use.

Invading Games
As a rule of thumb, this would be too stressful for a casual experience, but if you have a "versus" multiplayer component you want players to experience, the "play as someone else's boss" idea is an awesome way to introduce it, provided (a) it feels like part of the single-player experience, (b) is infrequent enough (e.g., once), and (c) something about the situation makes your opposition less stressful (e.g., less health in Demon's Souls, or easy repeatability and early occurrence in Guild Wars).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.7: The End

Demon's Souls was frequently frustrating to the point of my wanting to quit, but as I hung on long enough to understand the mechanics under play, I was able to enjoy the novelty and fun of many of its mechanics, and appreciate the excellent presentation of game convention interpreted into a world full of grim realism, buoyed by interesting gameplay, audio, art, and technology. It really is the full package, though it would be difficult to blame anyone for not having the patience and time to experience it.

As a game designer, I wonder whether the absence of information did Demon's Souls any favors. The lack of information was the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment, and though I can see how not understanding the consequences of its world could mimic reality and even bring a community together, that community is diminished for latecomers (me), and game conventions could probably have been explained without breaking context. Even explaining the idea behind not sharing information might have been enough.

Upon completing the game, I was unsurprised by the wave of relief that washed over me -- not an inappropriate feeling after playing the role of a small hero standing up against the forces of an all-powerful demon -- but confused by my urge to play it again on its harder difficulty. It was as if I had finally taken down a most horrible opponent, and while still grasping the hilt of the knife I struggled to kill it with, exhausted, angry, and still overwhelmed with frustration, I had to beat it once more just to twist it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.6: Multiplayer

The multiplayer component in Demon's Souls was great -- perhaps the most novel and impressive part of the game -- and I want to describe a few moments that made me happy. There are no story spoilers per se, but you could call them gameplay spoilers if you want to experience it first hand, without me flavoring them.

Message in a Bottle
I've mentioned that players can leave messages on the ground that others can read, to get clues about traps, trouble, or treasure. One of the ways the designers incentivize using this system is by making the game nasty, making players' messages valuable. But that alone would make the exchange one-sided, where players who read messages get something, but players who leave messages get nothing. Fortunately, this is not the case. If you leave a message and someone reads it, and they flag the message to indicate that they "liked" it, then that flagging will give the person who left the message a boost of health and mana. It is a really cool thing when you are inches away from certain death, to see that someone just recommended your message, and you return to life and victory.

Battle Buddies
Once I understood how the blue phantom thing worked, where I as a dead player could help a living player, or as a living player, pick up dead players to help me, I really had a lot more fun with the game. Enough that I wish the system was much more explicit. But after awhile, death didn't seem that bad. I could just reverse in a level to just before a boss fight, solicit my services, get picked up by a player, help them kill someone I already know how to defeat, and get my body back. Then, as a living player, I could pick up some blue phantoms to show me the ropes in the level I'm on. And there really was something appealing to having random strangers in your game. There is no default microphone support, and no easy way to get your friends in the game, and the randomness of it was pretty interesting, for some reason.

Standing Ground
You would think that forced PvP (when a dead player, or "Black Phantom" invades) would be an outright downer in a game as difficult as this, but once you get used to the harshness, and the fact that you spend most of your time dead, the invasions really add something to the game. It really is intense -- your heart rate goes up -- when you see the message that your world has been invaded, and you know that they will be at a disadvantage against you since they are "dead" and have a fraction of your life. To boot, it motivates you to play with other blue phantoms, since they can see when black phantoms invade, and will help you hunt them down. It really is a blast once you get into the swing of the system.

Who's the Boss?
But my favorite, favorite, favorite moment was when I was in the game and found myself suddenly invading another player's world without intending to. A cinematic played, suggesting that I was summoned from the dead by some lich. I was in an arena of sorts, surrounded by chairs, and I could hear noises outside that sounded like game combat. All of a sudden, a player entered the room, and I started fighting to defeat him. He defeated me, and I just returned to my game where I was sitting. It was an odd experience, but later in the game, I came upon the lich king, and saw that he was guarded by another player. This lich king essentially summons other players at random to be your boss fight. It's incredibly fun to defeat another player to complete the fight, and incredibly fun to be the boss. What a great feature.

Wrapping up the review in my last post.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.5: Fairness

At one of the few times I was about to quit Demon's Souls, I turned to reviews for a boost. After all, if so many gamers hadn't already christened the game, I wouldn't have given it as much time as I did. I wanted to know why I should continue playing.

While watching reviews, one of the things that struck me was all of them claiming something to the effect of, "Demon's Souls is hard, but it's fair," and that "you always feel like you died because of something you did, and could have prevented." Mmm, no.

It's true that most of the combat damage in the game can be avoided with extreme care once you understand how enemies fight -- enemies teach you how they fight by killing you; the game simply doesn't offer much leeway for getting hit, nor does it offer many initially readable cues. However, there are many environmental situations that are designed to kill you without giving you any cues. For example, you walk across a bridge only to learn that a dragon will swoop across and kill you with its fiery breath. In another area, trying to run between swoops, I find out that if you are too efficient at running between breaths, you also die. In another section, I walk forward only to find the ground beneath me collapse, and I fall to my death. In fact, the game loves death falls, and puts them all around you. You will fall many times, whether because an enemy knocks you off the edge, or you think it's a place you can land on only to find out it isn't, etc. All of these scenarios can be very frustrating.

Presumably, though, the reason for these scenarios is the feature that allows players to leave messages of warning for each other in the game world. If the players had nothing valuable to warn each other about, no one would appreciate the system. This design intention works. When another player warns you adequately, it feels great. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of spam in the game, and players cannot custom tailor their messages, making their hints rather inadequate. In one particularly frustrating moment, I went through a large section of a level and saw a message to "attack" some weakened planks nearby. The intention was good, since it was to release a bunch of boulders down a ramp that trample the enemies on it. But without understanding the situation, I attacked and was trampled myself. In scenarios like the dragon above, there was a message letting me know a safe location, but the predetermined hint messages had no way to warn me of going too fast. In another dragon scenario, I wanted to explain which type of fire breath to wait for before running, and where to run, but I had no way to compose that message.

Was it a sympathetic design notion? Yes. Did it make me appreciate the multiplayer component? When it worked. Would I use the term "fair" to describe it? No. The game is unfair on purpose, and really didn't need critics defending it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.4: Confusion

Perhaps the most striking first impression regarding Demon's Souls was not how difficult, but how devoid of information it was.

The game begins with a bare-bones tutorial that (probably) ends with you dying, and then dumps you into the main game with your head spinning with questions like, "where am I," "am I dead," "how do I return to life," and "where do I go next?"

As for the "where," it took awhile before the story clicked enough to get that the area was cursed, and that adventurers like myself were trapped in unlife until they could make progress toward defeating the super demon that haunted the land. The mood of the game is marvelously grim, and this bare-bones story comes across nicely. It's worth mentioning that from graphics to sound to control, everything blends well; representing a real, consequential, difficult environment that I was impressed by.

As for figuring out life and death, I was genuinely confused on the point of being dead for a good portion of my first play session. It seemed extremely aggravating to me that this rather important detail was a point of confusion, and it did quite a bit to sour my impressions.

Not knowing where to go next simply made it worse. I recall no NPC being clear about what I should do next. I could see a HUB point with labels on it, but no idea if it was the correct path. In fact, I was so used to going back and correcting wrongs in other games that I kept trying to find out how to get back to the tutorial level to fix my death. I didn't mind the idea of never going back, but I hated having no way to tell if I was moving in the right direction or not. There was a point later in the game where objective-finding became a problem, where in the HUB-world, you have to find a statuesque character among rows of statues with very little information about what you are looking for, and I actually had to look up an FAQ to find it after scouring the HUB environment about 3-times over; just to continue on the main quest. This was one of many times I felt like the game was daring me to quit.

Finally, my patience was also tested upon discovering the hard way that shopkeepers could be permanently killed, and at great consequence. I also had to discover that fact online, and restarted my entire game to fix it. I was beginning to wonder whether the lack of information would be the last straw, rather than its well-known difficulty. I saw the appeal in its rich atmosphere and realistic-feeling kinesthetics, but not giving the players enough information struck me as a dick move.

And I still wonder how to feel about it. It's interesting that the game had a tutorial level considering how mean it was about information otherwise. I can appreciate a game trying to be realistic and having actions with consequence, but it seems weird to do so without taking precedent into consideration. Players are antisocial by training from so many other games, and it seems like something the developers could have eased them into without ruining the mood. Frankly, if the game simply opened with a warning about its philosophy (your actions have consequence, death is a real part of this, we are giving you no information on purpose), I would have been way more accepting of the experience.

The chances of the game losing players is high, but all of these nuances actually helped with the experience of creating a realistically bleak environment, where odd game conventions have explanations with consequence. That, combined with a fantastic mood make for an impressive experience if you can get over its harsh, unconventional humps. And lack of information isn't the only difficulty. More on getting your ass whooped over and over, next.