Friday, October 28, 2016

Now playing: Blue Dragon

This is going to be the first in a new semi-regular feature, where I talk about a game I'm, well, currently playing through.

So we're kicking this off with a interesting game: Blue Dragon. The debut of Mistwalker Studios, this JRPG is the brainchild of some the biggest names behind JRPGs: Hironobu Sakaguchi (the man behind the early Final Fantasy games), Nobuo Uematsu (famed Final Fantasy music composer), and Akira Toriyama (the creator of the Dragon Ball franchise, and main artist behind the Dragon Quest games).

Gameplay wise, the game is Final Fantasy V, modernized. It's the same idea of each character being able to switch classes at will, and obtain skills from those classes that can be applied to playing other classes. While it's not as deep as the variety in its forebear, it also means that it's much better balanced - it's not possible to pull game breaking tricks like Doublecast Flare or dual wielded Rapid Fire Spellblades. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now.

One interesting tweak is that the areas are full of little unmarked objects you can check to find items, gold, and occasionally even new spells. While this is interesting at first, it does grate a little as you go on, because of the tedium of checking every single object (and I mean EVERY object; even things like ordinary rocks sitting around can hide items).

The story is the game's biggest weakness. Specifically, the main protagonist is one of the most shonen hero to have ever shonened (mister "I'll never give up" Shu), which is kind of annoying. What makes it worse is that the actual story isn't really about him, once you break it down. Really, the entire plot centers around three specific characters and how everyone reacts to them and what they do.

The three are Kluke (the female point of the love triangle among the three initial party members), Nene (the main villain of the story, whose reasons for being such are only explained in the sequels...grumble), and Zola (a mysterious mercenary whose real agenda and story isn't frustratingly revealed into the last hour of the game). Every single plot point comes down to someone reacting to what these characters do. Every. Single. One.

Given the issues of the latter two, this makes Kluke the only genuinely interesting character in the whole game, so...why is she not the protagonist again? Oh, right, got to have your shonen shonening it up. It could have been so much better - a little darker, a little more introspective - if they had taken that route. Instead, the story of Shu is ultimately forgettable.

Combined with the relative lack of variety in party builds, I've concluded this game is really only worth playing through once. Which makes me wonder why I'm trying again. Oh well, I'll probably still finish it...and then it can just gather dust. Not much else that can be said, other than, hey, I played this game. It was okay. The end.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Single Poké or multi-mon?

My like for Weird Al aside (I wonder how many people remember he actually did a song for Pokémon), Pokémon games are a fascinating subject. Mainly because there's a lot a misconceptions about the focus of the games.

So here goes: Pokémon are first and foremost a series of multiplayer-focused games. The single-player story is primarily a gateway/tutorial to get people into the multiplayer.

While I do know that some people do find single-player playthroughs enjoyable - even me, as I'm working my way through my copy of SoulSilver - the truth of the matter is that the primary appeal of a solitary run through these games is not emphasized by the game design.

There are two factors that tie into this. First, each game usually requires you to assemble a working team of multiple mons before a certain point in each game, or otherwise it would be too difficult to progress. Logically, it follows that any Pokémon that can only be obtained after this point aren't really viable for single-player. You get them too late to actually be able to use them.

The second is the idea of variant Pokédexes versus the national version. Each time, an increasingly large number of the pocket critters are unavailable to you, usually until you beat the game. Again, that's too late to use, so you're stuck with a smaller set of mons.

This may not seem like a problem, but the entire appeal of repeat playthroughs of the games is building different teams and seeing what works. Which get crippled when you realize there's not actually that much variety as you would think. Discounting unevolved ones, your typical game gives you a selection of somewhere between 60 and 90 to use. Which, while not bad, isn't exactly the greatest variety, especially compared to how many possible team combos there could be.

This explains why the games have been steadily made easier and easier. Less dependence on HMs, permanent TMs, reduced gym leader and Elite Four difficulty, the Experience Share buff - it's a long list of changes that all point towards getting players through the single-player faster to get to the post-game, and the multiplayer that comes with it.

Sun & Moon may shake up the formula somewhat, but without evidence they are front-loading the available Pokémon, along with making a much larger variety available from the get-go, they're not addressing the main issue. Nintendo is still making these games multiplayer-first, and will likely to continue to do so.

Not that it stops you from "catching them all", but be aware that if you bought any of these games to play by yourself, you may be disappointed. They aren't bad, but there's a lot of wasted potential there. It's a bit of a shame, really. I suppose at least I can enjoy raising my Bayleef. (What? I like Chikorita better than Totodile, and I was using a different Fire-type anyway.)

Smell ya later! (Gary/Blue's jingle plays as I walk off.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 2

Well, time for our next meeting...mortals.

Following VI, 3DO mandated a yearly release schedule for the Might & Magic RPG games. The result of this was that the next game, For Blood & Honor, was developed in roughly nine months time. While a rushed development schedule doesn't normally bode well, the fact that I'm obligated to tell you that Majora's Mask was done in about a year should tell how good I found VII to be.

While critics of the time regarded it as fairly good, but not up to the standards of prior games, VII is the game that has aged the best of the entire series. The majority of the class and skill balance issues of VI were addressed while expanding the class system and re-adding race choics, the difficulty curve was made much more smooth (although not perfect), and it actually added branching story choices. Oh, and most of the main quests can be completed while playing pacifist style (although doing so does require a specific party setup).

I could spend a lot more time throwing praise on top of the 7th game, but you get the idea. The downsides are that the short development time forced a lot of the games' locations to be made smaller in comparison to VI, and there were fewer locations overall. And of course, it used to exact same game engine, although this isn't so bad. The graphics, while not perfect, aren't unreasonably bad by modern standards.

And so we come to the eighth entry, Day of the Destroyer, which tried to change up the formula by fusing race and class into one blend - you could be a knight, or a minotaur, or a vampire...these were all mutually exclusive. The plot of this game is actually interesting, because a lot of elements of it would crop up in World of Warcraft of all things - specifically, the backstory behind the character Algalon the Observer is very similar to the main antagonist of VIII, while said antagonist's methods are in line with what Deathwing did during the Cataclysm expansion. (Yes, I know my Warcraft lore.)

Unfortunately, the rushed development time finally showed itself. The difficulty curve is really jagged in comparison to the prior game, alternating between fairly easy at most points and extremely hard at a few critical ones. The lack of sidequests really shows too, with most of your time spent on class promotions or main story quests. It didn't help that RPGs as a genre had made a resurgence at the time, so the game faced poor reception compared to its counterparts.

And then came the disaster known as IX, aka Writ of Fate (the working title, but not actually used for the release). The game was released in an unfinished state with many bugs and quite a bit of missing content, and the story was not well tied into the overall mythology of the earlier games. Combined with poor sales of its other games, this would mark the end of 3DO, which closed its doors in 2003.

The Might and Magic license was sold to Ubisoft, who abandoned the RPG series and the original setting, but continued to release games in the Heroes of Might and Magic series (which they eventually re-titled Might & Magic Heroes). At least, until 2013, when Might & Magic X: Legacy was announced.

This game was released to mixed reviews, but was generally solid in terms of gameplay, although the annoyance of Uplay rankled quite a bit. It borrowed many elements from the prior games in the series, and in many ways was a love letter to the games of old, even if it did have some performance issues. Unfortunately, Ubisoft proved they had no real faith in the game by pulling funding and support soon after release, leaving it with a single DLC and little hope of further bug-fixes.

I sincerely doubt we will get another game in the series, as much as I would want one. (At least, unless Ubisoft sells the rights - ha, almost no one sells rights unless bankruptcy looms). Still, it was a very influential set of RPGs, and I would love to see more like them.

Catch you on the flip side Darkside of Xeen. (Yes, I brought that back, just this once.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 1

One of the classic RPG series. And one of my favorites back in the day. Worth talking about, isn't it?

Might and Magic was the brainchild of Jon Van Caneghem. He created the company New World Computing in 1983,  and the first game in this series came about three years later. It and its sequel...well, to be honest, they were bad, like many games of the time. The control schemes were just too obtuse, in the days before mouse controls and better keyboard setups like WASD came into being.

The third game was where the series finally hit its stride. While the graphics were still crude - a trait all of the games in the series shared to some degree - the use of mouse-based gameplay finally made it worthwhile.

The followup is what most people remember, for a few reasons. First, the fourth and fifth games (Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen) were designed as two halves of a single story, with a bonus extended ending for those who installed them both. The second was that while the graphics were mostly the same, the game's art style took a huge leap, becoming this colorful and cartoony world that few other games even tried. And it worked; I still think this was the greatest strength of the combined World of Xeen.

Shortly thereafter, a pair of spinoffs were launched. One was basically an expansion pack RPG called Swords of Xeen, which is mostly forgotten. The other was a set of turn-based strategy games, a spiritual follow-up to NWC's earlier strategy game King's Bounty. This was Heroes of Might and Magic, and it would eventually eclipse the original series that spawned it in terms of popularity.

However, in the wake of World of Xeen, New World Computing was bought up by 3DO. Following this, they announced that the RPG series had come to an end. A shame, but it made sense, due to the main villain of the prior games getting killed off.

...yeah, you're not buying it. Eventually, they changed their minds, leading to the release of the sixth game in the series, The Mandate of Heaven.

For this game, they revamped the original style of the game, moving from turn-based and tile-based into a free-roam system with crude (I warned you) 3D environments. They also tied the plot of the RPG games more tightly to the HoMM series, by setting them on the same world of Enroth. Finally, they introduced a skill-based character system.

The result was relatively popular, although not for the obvious reasons. You see, VI came out at a time when RPGs not made in Japan were a rare breed. The five year gap between it and its predecessor had seen the genre die off. About the only competition it had was the first Baldur's Gate (impressive, but it's just one game). Thus, it did very well.

However, in retrospect, it was not a very good game. The character progression was heavily limited due to the high difficulty curve (due to poor damage scaling versus the health of enemies), forcing most players into predictable builds. The limited class variety - only six classes for a four person party - did not help either. Coupled with somewhat clunky controls (WASD had finally started to catch on, but the game didn't use it), it has not aged well.

So, where did the duo of New World Computing and 3DO go from there? You'll have to come back in a week or so for the next not-so-exciting installment of this blog.

"Until our next meeting, mortals..."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Guy plays girl

You've seen it. I've seen it. You've probably done it. I know I have.

A lot of people, when playing video games, pick the opposite sex/gender of what they are in real life. In some circles, this is known as "cross playing" (not to be confused with cosplaying, although cosplay can cross gender boundaries as well). The old excuse that gets trotted out when the question of why this is comes up is basically to ask "what kind of butt would you rather stare at for X hours?"

That's one answer, and likely accounts for some of the cases, but not all. Thinking about it, and why I did it, gave me a few alternate answers. Some may not like them, but they are there.

First, let's look at the whole "staring at the butt" thing. In actuality, most games offer very little, if any, body type customization. Male characters have one body type, female characters have another body type, the end. While ostensibly this saves on time creating different character models, it makes the choice basically binary.

And the thing about binary choices is that you can pick against the model you dislike, instead of the model you like. For example, in RPGs like Dragon Age, all male characters look like they've been hitting the gym...and then hitting some steroids on top of that. Which doesn't make sense if you're trying to play a bookworm mage who spent their entire life cooped up in a tower. I'd love to see statistics on how many people actually played male mages in the first game, given that. While it makes sense for certain character types...if I'm not playing those types, why would I pick something that doesn't fit, roleplay wise?

Granted, it's not any better giving female characters a model that looks like...well, a model. The sexism, born out of limited design space, cuts both ways here, despite what some people might say. But the binary choice is still there. And girls/women playing games like that may well not like having their avatar given doll-like perfect features. I can't say for sure, being a man, but it doesn't sound unreasonable to me.

However, the differences between male characters and female characters can be more different than just appearances. Mechanically, there's no guarantee that the sexes are equally balanced in terms of gameplay, and quite a few games offer special bonuses to one or the other. Video gaming will always have people who want to maximize their character's potential, and thus they will pick the "superior" gender, even if it's only better by a small amount. It could even be something as simple as more customization options (I'm looking at you, Pokémon X/Y).

And it can extend to the story and setting, as well. Skyrim, for example, has a number of NPCs with different comments depending on whether your character is male or female. This colors the player's perception of the game world, meaning that symbolically you can favor one gender over the other. Playing Fallout: New Vegas and going up against Caesar's Legion, with their whole treating women as cattle thing, is so much more satisfying if you're playing as a woman. (Trust me, I've been there, done that.) Again, the reverse could be true, although I can't think of any examples right now. (Which may say something about the games out there.)

Finally, it could just be for fun. Everyone loves fun, right? Sometimes, putting yourself in a different set of shoes is entertaining. I doubt anyone could seriously argue with that. (Please don't take that as an invitation to try.)

All of these things, put together, add up to men choosing to play female characters, and sometimes, women choosing to play male ones. And hey, that's fine. Whatever floats your boat, so to speak. Now, if you excuse me, I'm going back to playing some Warlords Battlecry III. (I currently have two characters, one a male minotaur chieftain, the other an Knighthood-aligned priestess.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

The fall of Amalur

Well, Curt Schilling announced his plans for a political career, with the long term goal of aiming for U.S. President for 2024.

With an opening like that, I've no doubt confused people, since commenting on politics is not what this blog claims to be about. And it's not, but Curt Schilling himself played a major role in one of the biggest video game fiascos of all time, one that, once you learn about it, may make you think twice about voting for him. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I give you the sad saga of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
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To start with, let's take a look at the small state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island had not historically had a very healthy state economy (currently ranked 45th out of the 50 states). It stands to reason that with such a weak economy, the state government was desperate to create jobs. Which, unfortunately, is what led to this mess.

Following his baseball career, Schilling sought to break into the video games industry. He started a business in Massachusetts called Green Monster Games, which he would later claim was not named after the famous wall in Fenway Park. (I personally do not buy that.) After a while, it was rebranded as 38 Studios, which was based on Schilling's baseball uniform number.

38 Studios had two projects in the works. One was a planned MMO going under the project name of Copernicus. The second was a single player action RPG, not too dissimilar from Elder Scrolls games like Oblivion. However, partway through development, they chose to retool the single-player RPG to be a tie-in to the MMO. Thus Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning came to be.

Schilling did not hold back in terms of the development of Amalur, bringing in several luminaries. Author R. A. Salvatore (of Drizzt Do'urden fame) was called on to craft the backstory of the setting (originally for the MMO, but this got carried over to Amalur), while Todd McFarlane (Spawn) contributing to the art. Obviously, bringing in these people cost money, quite a lot of it.

In order to raise money, Schilling approached the state government of Rhode Island. They worked out a deal; 38 Studios would relocate to Rhode Island, and in turn the state would grant the company a massive loan to help fund the game. In turn this would help create several hundred jobs in the state of Rhode Island.

What happened next is where things get murky, and I wish I could track down more precise info on the fiasco. In February 2012, the game was released, to mostly positive reviews. For the release, even more big names were brought in for promotion, including people like Felicia Day. It apparently worked, as the game sold over three hundred thousand copies in them month following release, and Schilling later claimed that after three months, well over a million copies sold.

However, 38 Studios defaulted on one of the payments for the loan. While they were eventually able to pay, apparently they did so by skipping payroll that week. At that point, several company executives bailed, and a few months later 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy. The governor of Rhode Island went on to claim that for the game to break-even, it would have to sell over three million units, and that Amalur was a "failure".

Criminal investigations were launched, but ultimately failed to find evidence of wrong-doing. The IP reverted to the control of Rhode Island, who own it to this day. They also filed a civil lawsuit, which is still ongoing as well. It will likely be a few more years before the full fallout of all this is finally settled.

While the exact details behind the finances have not been released, it's not hard to guess at what happened. On its own, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning probably was reasonably profitable - selling over a million units in three months is something that would look good for all but the most exorbitantly expensive AAA titles. Even after the IP reverted to Rhode Island, it came out they were still making some money off the game; not a huge amount, but it was something.

However, there was also the Copernicus project - and that is probably where the problem was. An MMO is a much more expansive and complex project than a single-player game, after all. Thus, development costs would have been significantly higher - and even with the sales of Amalur, they couldn't continue development. 38 Studios, along with Curt Schilling, had simply bit off more than they can chew, running both projects simultaneously.

The accounts of the whole thing that I've seen tend towards being a little overly vindictive of Schilling. And while there are probably a number of valid reasons to detest the man - which I'm not going into, because we're still not here to talk politics - blaming him for being over-ambitious about making video games is pointless. There have been worse mistakes in the industry, by people who have been involved it far longer. (Don't get me started on Peter Molyneux.)

It's a shame, but if you really feel bad about it...just buy a copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for yourself or for a friend. Rhode Island will at least get something out of it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The legacy of D&D, part 2

 Let's talk some more about the original RPG.

In the first part, I went over a sample of the games that resulted from D&D's influence. But, as I said before, that's only half the picture. The other half is the people who jumped from playing D&D to playing video games, the players themselves. This is where it gets a bit more grim, a bit more murky, and much more controversial.

To begin with, let's rewind a bit back to the playstyle of the early player. D&D has always been to a large degree focused on violent confrontation - travel around, slay the evil monsters, collect the loot, everyone levels up, rinse, repeat. Originally, Gygax designed the earliest versions of the game to encourage caution - the point was getting the loot, and combat was to be avoided when possible through stealth and cunning.

Of course, stealth and cunning were not the approach many D&D players preferred. D&D was gradually retooled into being much more combat-heavy, which catered nicely to the players who preferred that style of gameplay. While talking and stealth had their place, combat was the primary fixture of the game, and has remained so to this day.

When many of these D&D players made the leap to being video game players (and a few designers, too), they carried that with them. It's well documented, for example, that the early id software (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake) were mostly avid D&D players - and we all know the kind of games they produced. Coupled with the fact that early technology made meaningful non-combat systems hard to implement as well, it was just easier to make combat the main form of interaction.

Since then, video games have never really shaken the importance of combat. Part of it is that so many games have done it, it's still relatively easy to implement a decent system for fighting. The other half is that dialogue has come down to picking options from a menu (to be fair, I don't see a better way of doing it unless you script every NPC with a better version of Cleverbot). Not many people like that, so here we are.

It is something the original creators, particularly Dave Arneson, were not happy with back in the day. Back in an 1988 interview, he noted was not happy with how "hack and slash" video game RPGs were, lamenting things like Ultima being outliers instead of the standard. While things have improved somewhat (mostly thanks to Bioware), I feel there's still room for RPGs and games in general to grow.

Culturally, early D&D gamers brought over their views on playing their game to video games. At the time, D&D was still at the tail end of a decade-long fight against moral outrage, with people claiming the game was satanic or harmful to minors. Thus, when people like Jack Thompson launched crusades against the more extreme cases of video game violence like Doom and Mortal Kombat, it did not go over well.

On one hand, this was just what gaming needed, in order to establish itself as being something that could appeal to everyone, not just "toys" for children. However, this also instilled a resistance to "outside" pressure, something that has made it a lot harder to address real problems in gaming culture, like social equality. (Although may people mistake the nature of the problem - it's something I'll have to cover in a later blog post.)

Overall, Gygax and Arneson would likely have mixed feelings if they could see where video gaming was today as a result of their creation. It's not like they intended for any of this to happen. All they wanted to do was give a more personal touch to tabletop strategy games, which had existed for decades before they came along. They did succeed - but no one could predict the technology that took their ideas and put them on a screen, or the people who were willing to sit down in front of that screen.

Either way, for better or for worse, here we are. So let's look forward to the next step. Just remember that, directly or indirectly, odds are it will trace back to two guys who reinvented gaming.