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.
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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The legacy of D&D, part 1

Let's talk about the original RPG.

For the two of you living under rocks, it was the pair of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who helped give birth to the cultural juggernaut that is Dungeons & Dragons. D&D itself was primarily inspired by two major set of novels. The first, obviously, was Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but the second is the slightly more obscure Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of fantasy novels by Fritz Leiber.

Of course, this is mainly a video game blog, so why bring this up? Well, because video games have been drawing on D&D for influence from the very beginning.

It starts with Wizardry, the classic series of computer RPGs. The first came out in 1981, and proved to be a fair success...but in Japan, calling it that would be an understatement. It was huge, and all of the JRPG genre resulted from game producers over there trying to copy what Wizardry. This led to the birth of the hugely popular Dragon Quest series.

Another such attempt came at the hands of a company on the verge of bankruptcy, who decided to give it an appropriate title for their final product. In doing so, Squaresoft blatantly ignored copyright laws and ripped every idea they could from D&D to create their Final Fantasy. (Even the trio of mage classes - White Mage, Red Mage, Black Mage - came from the D&D Dragonlance setting.) Which, of course, saved the company, and now you can look up news about the impending release of Final Fantasy XV.

Meanwhile, the western sphere was both producing new RPG series like Ultima and Might & Magic, as well as official licensed D&D games, referred to as the Gold Box games because of boxes. (We're real imaginative, can you tell?) These were followed up by the Eye of the Beholder trilogy (some call these Silver Box games, but I just ignore that) and their spinoff Dungeon Hack.

Meanwhile meanwhile, other people had been busy creating their own tabletop systems, including Steve Jackson's GURPS. A company named Black Isle attempted to acquire the rights to use GURPS for their own post-apocalyptic video game, but that fell through. As a result, they developed their own SPECIAL system...and the result was the romp known as Fallout.

While RPGs waned in popularity in the later 90s, a new company, founded by a pair of medical doctors, acquired the rights to make a new D&D game. Black Isle (sounds familiar?) agreed to publish this game. The result was Baldur's Gate, and the company Bioware has become a fixture of RPG making since.

I could keep going, but you get the point. D&D's fingerprints are all over video games, to the point where studying their history without acknowledging the work of Gygax and Arneson is basically pointless. I don't want people to buy into historical inaccuracies, we are.

Of course, there's another side to this, the cultural legacy that extends from D&D. And unfortunately, this isn't quite as pretty as just a list of games that wouldn't exist without it. But since this blog post is a little long as is, come back next week for the second part, where I'll dig into that matter...and the problems that came with it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Looking back: System Shock 2

Well, number 3 is coming out, and the first game is getting a remake, but what about the game that sits in between the two?

System Shock 2 was released in 1999, which put it up against the original Half-Life. While critics praised it, it was heavily overshadowed by this other FPS, leading to it never escalating beyond cult hit status during its normal sales run. However, its influence goes well beyond that.

This game has been wide touted as one of the scariest games ever made. The thing to realize here is that it relies on a different brand of scariness than modern horror games, which make heavy use of jumpscares and extremely limited lighting to freak the player out at specific points.

2 leans more on a sense of overall tension; while the enemies aren't that scary (at least, not unless you stop and think about what they are), the music, atmosphere, and limited resources put players constantly on edge, with limited breathing room. Of course, the reason this isn't popular is that it's too easy (by some views) to paint yourself into a corner by using too much ammo or healing items. The difficulty (which was fairly hard, even by standards back then) did not help matters.

While it took years for an official sequel, many games were influenced by it. The Bioshock series began as a direct spiritual sequel to the game, and circumstantial evidence indicates that the first Dead Space game may have started development as a sequel. More directly, it helped blend the FPS and RPG genres, in a way that would be echoed (although not copied) by later series like Borderlands.

Oh, and SHODAN. Many, many video game AIs have taken cues from SHODAN and her brand of insanity. From Halo's Cortana to Portal's GLaDOS (note the use of capital letters) to Angel from the aforementioned Borderlands, female AIs have become surprisingly standard since this game's release. A trope, if you will, that goes back to "L-l-look at you, hacker..."

The final coda is the legal rights snafu that was the main reason it took so long for ''3'' to come out, due to the rights being divided among several different companies. Trying to sum up just how those rights were divided over the years would be very complicated, so I'll settle for just saying that the sequel rights, the distribution rights, and the trademark rights have changed hands multiple times. (At least it's in a better position than No One Lives Forever...)

Either way, it's another piece of gaming history that deserves to be highlighted. SHODAN's glory may not quite be what she wants, but in terms of being the center of a memorable game, she's earned a fair amount of respect, right?


Oh, no one asked you, Goggles.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Japan vs. the world

Let's be honest, video games would not be where they are now if it weren't for the Japanese companies who made them. Nintendo alone basically ensured that gaming would not be PC only (we'd be in a very different world if the NES hadn't happened).

Well, as usual, you have to know the "but" lurks in there. The fact is, Japanese companies in the past few years have kind of fallen off the wagon here. Everyone knows how Konami kind of just turned into a laughingstock, Nintendo made us all cringe with their "explanation" of how Link can't be female, and so on. But enough bashing companies.

What we're looking at here is actually Japanese business culture becoming more conservative, which isn't surprising, given that's an overall trend in AAA game development the world over. The big studios don't want to take any chances, and that mentality means they will play it safe, as unfortunate as it is for us gamers.

The twist here is that Japanese culture makes a huge point about distinguishing itself from...well, everyone else. Getting into the specifics of how and why this is would take too long, but it's an attitude that colors everything from tourism to politics to creating fiction, including video games. So what happens when these factors come together?

You get a scenario where games are made mainly for the Japanese market, with few (if any) considerations for international audiences. Which, outside the giant mobile market in Japan, is the biggest audience they can reach. The failure of these companies to keep doing so is pretty clear evidence that reaching these people is not high on their priority list.

Obviously, there are exceptions, like Square Enix, which has the advantage of specifically buying out Western companies and their IPs, like Tomb Raider and Deus Ex. Nintendo still has its fans, and at least they are trying some new things with their mobile push...oh wait, no, that's still Japan-based. Well, at the very least Zelda is going to be open-world, so...whee?

No one from Japan is probably going to read this blog post, let alone take it into consideration. After all, thousands of fans have clamored and argued against what has happened over the past few years, but it hasn't accomplished much. Japanese gaming will continue to focus on developing for their home market first - and fall into irrelevance elsewhere.

It's kind of sad really. So, I propose a toast - to the great games that came out of Japan in the past. While a few more may still come, it will never be the same. So crank them up - that old Final Fantasy, that classic Castlevania, that amazing Mega Man - one more time, for memories' sake. Because while there may be other games of their ilk...most won't be made by Japanese companies. (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night possibly being the one exception I'm aware of.)


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Upgrading expectations

Well, my first blog post typed out on my new computer. I'm still getting used to the keyboard...

It has been about seven years since I got my last computer, so I was overdue for an upgrade...right? I mean, trying to run Skyrim at single-digit framerates isn't exactly appealing. It was old, it was tired, it was creaky, and now it's sitting off to the side gathering dust.

So, yes, I did need an upgrade. And I hope that this new PC lasts just as long, if not longer. As a matter of fact, it should. Not in the sense that I'm going to take special care of it to make it live long, but in the understanding that all gaming platforms should have that kind of longevity.

This is where I toss out a term that so many critics misuse and misunderstand - consumer friendliness. Consumer friendliness is about maximizing the value of consumer purchases, which really should be self evident. So if someone buys a PC or a game console, someone who advocates for consumer friendliness should be advocating for it to have as long a usage life as possible, with all that comes with it.

Of course, people want to know about graphical upgrades, but here's the thing. We've reached a point where graphics are great. Even indie titles can use the cheap Unity engine, and with the proper art direction they can look fantastic by almost any standard. The race for better graphics should be a null issue; no one should care.

People still do, because people cling to what they know. And there was a time when the push for improved graphics was necessary, because what could be done was relatively crude. I know, I was there. These days, there's not much room for graphical upgrades. Textures and definition are reaching the point where most people honestly will never notice the change from one console generation to the next.

And yet, the gaming market, as enforced by AAA titles, keeps pushing the graphical envelope even when there's not a lot of point. Upgrades that aren't strictly necessary, because the games could be made without them. And consoles and PCs would still wear out and need replacing, so there's no reason why things need to keep being upgraded.

That is not consumer friendly. And the longer it goes on, the less consumer friendly it becomes. I want to see advances in gameplay and story, mechanics and presentation. This does not need new hardware. It may have once, but not any more. And anyone - anyone - who says otherwise doesn't understand the current state of gaming. (Or, for the more cynical, they are just trying to fleece money out of you.)

Either way, I will enjoy my new PC. Here's to another seven years of gaming, writing, blogging, and whatever else I do on it. And I sincerely hope you get the same out of your gaming machine, whatever it is.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Random number gameplay

All praise the random number gods...right?

Games like Hearthstone are very much dependent on random factors. While some passionately argue that skill at such games trumps the effects of luck, and that players should specifically tailor their play around the randomness of card draw. The question then becomes "how do you do that?"

The key is that there are three answers that players have come up with for this question. The first is to fill your card deck with cheap aggressive cards to take control of the game and punish your opponent for not playing fast enough - the aggro decks. Insert your curses about face hunter here, since this also has the side effect of making the randomness work against your opponent by limiting the turns he has to draw answers.

The second approach is fill your deck with strong card draw tools that allow you to get whatever cards you need, regardless of what cards you start with. This kind of thing has been met by heavy nerfs (hi there, miracle rogue), so clearly it's frowned on. The third is to basically use removal and control cards to extend the game as long as possible, so that card draw will eventually even out over the course of a whole game. Control decks are here for you.

So, to take a step back from Hearthstone, this is actually a sign of player behavior when faced with random factors. Given everything else, the logical conclusion is that players gravitate towards whatever playstyle mitigates the randomness of RNG-based obstacles.

I'm no less guilty of this myself. It's why I play Amber so much in Armello - my entire strategy is about mitigating the randomness of perils in order to move around the board that much more easily. Other people I see run the Dig amulet when they want Spirit Stones. And there are fewer and fewer players trying for kingslayer victories...because it's too random for them.

The fact is that random factors in gameplay exist, at least in the minds of many players, just so they can figure out ways around them. And when they can't, outrage erupts, leading to arguments over what is the "right" amount of randomness.

I think that game designers need to account for this in the future. People don't mind randomness; what they dislike is randomness controlling the outcome, invalidating the player's own skill and choice. If faced with a random factor, they'll take whatever option weighs the odds in their favor. And me, I can't blame them. Video games are about empowering audience participation, and gamers are the audience.

So roll the dice if you want, but you may want to pick a game where you can add a bonus to your dice roll. Because when all's said and done, you may not find the dependency on luck to be all that enjoyable.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The great framerate debate

Thirty? Or sixty?

There is a huge debate over this, with many people defending games that are being locked to thirty frames per second as not a bad thing. Some call it cinematic, some call it a stylistic choice...and some call it a really dumb idea. So...what do we do?

The answer, of course, is that we turn to SCIENCE.

Each human eye is different, and every person sees reality at a different frame rate. Older people tend to see things at a lower framerate, but that's not a hard-coded rule, just a strong tendency. On average, a human being can distinguish around 45 to 50 frames per second, with people who have gotten specialty training going up to insane numbers like in excess of 200 frames recognizable.

So, it does seem that sixty frames per second would be beyond the average human's ability to perceive, but thirty frames would be too little. Not exactly; a person who has plenty of experience with FPS games and the like probably has greater twitch reflexes than the average Joe - and twitch reflexes are dependent on seeing precise fractions of a second in which to press a button.

In that sense, increased framerate is beneficial for games dependent on quick reactions to sudden events. The FPS genre is one of them, and quite a few other genres reach that level in top competitive play (RTS games like Starcraft II come to mind). Sixty might not even be enough in that case.

For the rest, 30 FPS is a little slow. It's not required for us to see units move in a turn-based game at a higher framerate, but it sure would look better and less jerky. I'd prefer it if games aimed for a 48 FPS number, which would fit nicely in with average human vision. And games like that are still necessary; there are always going to be people who have motion sickness, and we don't want to leave them completely out of the fun, do we?

So there you have it; neither is a precise magic number, but instead it's more about catering to broad groups. Sixty ain't bad, but we can do better. And thirty isn't good, but it's tolerable, I suppose. (And anything is better than games that dip into single digit FPS numbers, let me tell you. Ugh...)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Movies and video games, oh my

Why do video game movies keep failing? Okay, maybe some of them don't fail as such, but there hasn't been one yet that has been an all-out blockbuster? It's a question that many many many people have asked, and so, since it's something I wonder as well, I'd like to take a stab at answering it.

First, I'd like to point out that by video game movies, I mean movies ostensibly based off the plot of video games. (Whether or not they actually stick to this plot is not a factor). So no, I am not going to include Wreck-It Ralph in this blog post. (Which is unfortunate, because I liked Wreck-It Ralph it.) I'm also going to focus on Western films - I know Japan has its own adaptation, but I'm not familiar with them enough to cover them.

To travel back to the early ones like Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros., back then video games didn't really have much in the way of plot, so the writers were having to invent it wholesale or the game companies were trying to dictate what had to be done without understanding the different nature of film. The results were cheesy at best and dreadful at worst; but those early movies were just that, early, and probably couldn't be taken too seriously.

It's a shame that critics did. During the 90s, video games were still very much a niche hobby, and not quite in mainstream culture they were now. So film critics back then had no good ground for evaluating these movies, leading to them panning them. Mortal Kombat is a good example; these days, most people recognize it as a solid film that embraced the cheesiness of its premise. A shame that the CGI was so crude back then.

The first major breakthrough was the less-than-stellar Resident Evil film (2002). While not good by any stretch, it rode its action flick status to box office profits and several sequels, which got progressively worse while still continuing to make money. And maybe this was the path forward; aim for the summer action movie crowd, and ignore the rating. Except, of course, the actual people who played the games, who were not too happy.

You see, a video game movie has to walk the fine line of being both a good movie and pleasing the fans of whatever video game its based on. And since a good number of the things that make a video game good are not elements that can really be recreated in film...well, there's part of your problem. Even if it was appealing to game fans, a lot of film critics would bash it for trying to do so. And so, for that matter, would a number of gamers, since some of them (surprise) would understand what makes a film good.

Meanwhile, in Germany, an aspiring film director decided to take advantage of a tax loophole and produce several movies very loosely based on video games. You guessed it...Uwe Boll. Most of his work is low budget flicks designed to exploit popular trends (this also applies to his films covering things other than video games). It was his work that really cemented the idea that video game movies were inherent failures. And that's all I'm going to say about him, because there's nothing else left to say about Boll that's polite.

Between all this, several other companies attempted movies. Some went to theaters, while others opted for the direct-to-video approach. None met with any major commercial or critical success, further driving home the message that video game movies fail.

This brings us to 2016, with a couple of films looking to shake up the status quo. Warcraft comes out in a month, and in December we're getting the Assassin's Creed movie. Can they break through the obstacles I've noted above and appeal to critics, movie fans, and gamers? Well, we'll just have to wait and see. At least if the Angry Birds early reviews (it comes out next week) are any indication, critics are going to be much more favorable...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The end of happiness

Alternate title: why I decided I'm not actually interested in Fallout 4. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

I liked Fallout 3 (or at least, the vanilla game; Broken Steel I could devote an entire rant to the problems with it). I wanted to love it, but the game did have flaws with its writing as well as a few too many glitches to count it as one of the all-time greats.

With that said, I don't want to play Fallout 4. At all. Why? You would think that I would want to see what improvements had been made, and how the game had done things differently. You see, Bethesda committed what I consider to be one of the worst storytelling gaffes you can make when it comes to video games.

To take a step back, one of the things that differentiates video games from other forms of narrative fiction (except tabletop RPGs)  is that the player gets to take an active role in moving the story forward. The hours aren't just spend reading or watching, but participating in the world the game's creators put in front of you. That kind of engagement is why I love video games, and a key reason why they have become as big and influential as they have.

Not all games are self contained stories, but are part of a larger series. Since this requires multiple purchases, guaranteeing the next game is bought demands more than just the last game being good. It means rewarding the involvement of the having the choices and actions matter. If I want to earn a happy ending, then I can get that happy ending.

The problem with Fallout 4 is that a fair amount of the good work the player did and saw was undone, particularly the nature of the Brotherhood of Steel. It's not as bad as some examples (I'm looking at you, Chrono Cross), but it does mean that the hours I spent on Fallout 3 feel less meaningful, knowing that my character's accomplishments did not amount to much.

Before I get accused of being a blind idealist, there is nothing wrong with a person's efforts amounting to nothing after the fact. It's common enough in real life, as depressing as it sounds. But a video game isn't just a story about the character. On some level, the player character and the player are one and the same. The achievements of one are the achievements of the other, and taking them away from one means taking them away from both.

 Beating a story-driven game isn't just a reward for its own sake; it's about seeing the story through to a satisfactory conclusion. If you take that away from the player, what's left? Why would anyone play it for the story, when their efforts to resolve the story in the way they want it amount to nothing? This is an attitude that does not further the medium, instead limiting what can be done.

If people want me to follow their series of games, it has to mean something to actually play them. And since Bethesda decided my playthrough of Fallout 3 wasn't worth that much in terms of changing the setting for the better, I won't be going back to that setting. Not that it will stop other gamers, but I do want people to consider the value of the stories they're experiencing...and the choices they make while playing through them. So go on, think about it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Session by session

Let's talk game design.

A lot of developers talk about their games as providing hours of entertainment. While I've already covered the idea of money value, a lot of this seems to be based on an overarching evaluation of the game. (It's marketing, so no surprise there.)

The thing is, most video games aren't played all at once. It can take days, if not weeks, of a player sitting down for a couple of hours after work to get through the newest game. (Obviously, there are anomalies like players who have more free time, or sandbox games that can consume entire months.)

As such, games that logically break themselves down into manageable chunks are logically better. And I don't just mean in the sense of letting the player save whenever. This has to also apply to things like the main story or sidequests. In other words, instilling a feeling of progress for the player for each session of playing the game.

This lends itself to a very episodic structure; any quest or storyline either is a "one-shot" that is easily completed, or is subdivided into multiple parts. Some games have even hard built episodes into their core design (I'm looking at you, Telltale).

On the other hand, this puts certain limits on what stories you can tell, so you're left with a tradeoff of allowing people to have shorter sessions (and make it easier for them to follow along with losing them) versus losing design space to tell a more expansive story. There's no right answer here, as every gamer will have a different schedule and be forced to approach their games differently.

I suppose that variety is the best answer, but this is an industry where the AAA studios tend to be more and more formulaic. I suspect that in terms of games that don't match the "average" playtime of the "average" gamer (even though I find such a thing suspect), you'd have to look towards more indie titles.

This is also the kind of thing that has spurred mobile gaming; you can finish your daily tasks in one game in under ten minutes, and if you have time for more, there's a dozen other games just like it for you to pick. With so many people on the go, games like that were bound to thrive and fill the niche of that bus ride to work.

At the end of the day, the amount of time you can devote to a game is yours, but I would encourage developers to keep that kind of thing in mind. Just who are they making their games for? I suspect there would be a lot more games of higher quality if developers were more precise about pinning down how long a session of their game ought to last, and developing it from there.

All I know is that there is so much gameplay, and not nearly enough time. Even for me.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Looking back: Doom

I'm going to sing the doom song!

Doom is one of the pioneers of the FPS (first person shooter, not frames per second) genre, establishing a lot of the classic conventions. Everything from rocket jumps to the point-blank shotgun (not at all realistic) to multiplayer deathmatches, come from this game or its direct sequel, Doom II.

Created by id Software, Doom was their followup to Wolfenstein 3D, one of the earliest FPS games around. While credited as pushing the envelope of building large three-dimensional environments, Doom actually was less advanced than Ultima Underworld, a first-person RPG which featured full 3D movement - something that id would not introduce until Quake.

 Another factor that distinguished Doom was the graphic violence, at least by 1990s standards. Today, obviously, Doom comes off as quite cartoonish in how it looks, but back then there was basically nothing like it except Mortal Kombat - also quite cartoonish by modern standards. This naturally enraged quite a few groups, who complained about the violence, especially in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. This is nothing new, however, as similar complaints were made about television, film, and rock music in their respective time periods. It was these complaints that eventually led to the formation of the ESRB.

Of course, the decision to make the enemies demonic probably didn't help matters on that front. Again, it wasn't the first thing to come under fire from Christian groups - see Dungeons & Dragons back in the 80s - and it would not be the last. (One wonders why said Christian groups didn't rail against the D&D video games that were being frequently released during the 90s.)

Doom also followed Wolfenstein 3D in popularizing the shareware business model, in which a portion of the game was available free while the rest required paying for it. A toned-down version of the model evolved into the concept of free game demos, which would be included with game magazines (which were much more relevant before the Internet took over), copies of other games, or just given out at events.

The exploratory formula of Doom was copied and expanded on by many of the follow-up games, including Quake and the pioneering Duke Nukem 3D. This period lasted until Half-Life introduced the concept of scripted set pieces, and then the coming of Halo basically took those set pieces and made an entire game around them. With the success of those two titles, the FPS genre moved in a different direction, and the influence of Doom waned.

However, a small but devoted mod community continued to make new maps for Doom and Doom II. A lot of these maps moved the gameplay in a different direction: towards the idea of difficulty through waves of multiple monsters and high difficulty, instead of the more methodical pacing the original games used. As a result, a lot of people misremember what Doom actually was.

It's a shame, really, that so many people lost sight of what one of the truly legendary pioneers of the genre is. And while I'm not the hugest fan of FPS games, Doom will always have a place in my heart for what it...wait, you're leaving already? Please don't leave, there's more demons to toast!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The art of the matter

I considered calling this blog post "Putting the art in heart", but that's was a little too pretentious for my taste. And it doesn't precisely fit the topic

Anyway...there has been a lot of debate over whether video games are art or not. A lot of people have come out insisting that yes, they are art, while others (such as the late Roger Ebert, may he rest in peace) did not view the medium as having artistic merit. So...who is right, and who is wrong?

The answer is a lot more complicated than just "they are art" or "they aren't art".

Art, at the core, is about resonance; it evokes emotions and thought in the person who experiences the art. The best art causes those thoughts and feelings to persist long after the experience has ended. The overall artistic merit of a work can be roughly judged by how many people derived emotions and thought from it. (It's never going to be an exact science, for obvious reasons.)

Any work of fiction, in any medium, can be art, but not every work of fiction in a given medium is art. The main complexity comes from the fact that every video game can invoke one basic emotion; the sense of satisfaction upon completing part or all of it. After all, the challenge of completing a game is much more difficult than reading a book or watching a movie (not that that takes much).

The problem there is that art starts to lose value as a term if it can be applied to an entire medium. As weird as it sounds, something like art is defined as much by what doesn't fall under it as much as what does. We can't just call all video games art and call it a day; the requirements have to stretch much farther.

Which brings us back to the original statement that not all video games are art. So which ones are? There's no easy criterion here. Obviously, every game is artistic to someone, but for that art to reach wide appeal...that's a tricky thing. I do have some answers of my own.

For me, the kinds of emotions and thought are reinforced by the very nature of the medium, the interactivity that video games offer. If a game has limited interactivity - limited gameplay - then it's not doing a very good job as an artistic video game. I could easily get that from a book, song, movie, or comic...but that's not why I play video games. I play them because they are interactive, so using that is part of being the best among the best. It's part of being artistic.

I don't doubt a lot of you will disagree with me. That's fine. But video games are reaching a point where answering these questions is necessary for the medium to grow and develop. And I think we all want that, right?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Valued time

A thorny subject, if ever there was one, is what I'm going to tackle here. There's been quite a lot of debate over what the dollar (or whatever other currency you use) value per hour of gameplay you should get in your games. So, let's take a look at the big picture.

A lot of it stems from the fact that many past games, particularly wide open ones with immense replay value, were very generous about that value, frequently leaving other forms of entertainment in the dust. To put this in perspective, the DVD for The Avengers costs $13, for a movie that lasts just over two hours. Even with the extras on the DVD (which few people would check out, I know I've rarely spent time on those on the movies I own), that's going to be less than four hours total of entertainment. In comparison with things like the Elder Scrolls series (I've sunk just over 400 hours into Skyrim)...there's no contest here.

But not all games are priced equally, and some fairly short games cost a lot more per hour of gameplay. For example, Jazzpunk is current $15, and I've put 6 hours into that game, getting all the achievements and basically doing everything that I could do. (And that's with me spending about an hour of that doing nothing but playing the "Wedding Qake" minigame.) So, the first question is: should we judge all video games by the same standards of value?

My answer is both yes and no. There has to be a certain lower bound, a certain amount of value guaranteed to make it worth your while. And to be frank, I'm not certain Jazzpunk qualifies. Sure, I had fun for those six hours, but that's not nearly as much as that price would dictate. Part of me wants to set it around roughly two dollars (or whatever currency equivalent) per hour.

The counterpoint is that the story and gameplay dictate a certain pace, and maintaining that pace is critical for the game. It does no good to stuff a game full of hours of collectathons and minigames if that rightly can be called nothing but filler. On some level, some games benefit from being shorter, in terms of making their point more cleanly.

Balancing those two factors are a critical part of game design and production, and it seems too many game studios tend to err on the side of charging too much for too little. Even with an indie game like Jazzpunk, where the sense of humor kept me going at it, there was just not enough meat on those bones to carry it.

Of course, the logical response is to cry "wait for a Steam sale". Except that Steam sales are frequently a case of loss leaders; they are actually selling the game below cost in order to generate interest. They aren't a good index for measuring the value or popularity of a given title (I might touch more on this in a future blog).

So, with this in mind, consider your next purchase carefully. Is the game worth it? That's for you to know, and me not to. After all, the things you enjoy and get value out of will likely be different than what I get value out of. At the end of it all, value is subjective like that.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

So very meta

Well, it was about time this blog got meta.

First, a quick definition, for those who aren't familiar with the term. A metagame is an aspect of a competitive multiplayer game where people are making decisions and/or taking actions outside of the actual gameplay. In video games, most of these decisions and actions happen prior to actual gameplay, with the opposing player(s) unable to directly react to them.

In competitive multiplayer, the ideal of the metagame is about optimizing those decisions to increase your chances of winning to be as high as possible. This covers everything from researching online to actual decisions in game mechanics. The point is, you are going outside the standard rules and nature of the game to improve your chances of success.

A couple of examples of a meta game include the multiplayer battles of the Pokémon series, where players choose their team of pocketed monsters in advance, and Hearthstone, where the card decks are assembled in a similar manner. While there are plenty of other examples across multiple genres, I think those two illustrate a couple of games that have metagaming built to a degree into their mechanics.

Well, so why would I bring this up?

The thorny issue is game balance and choice. In video games, you want players to be willing and able to explore the available choices. In single player games, this isn't a huge deal, since you can make it clear each choice has consequences and challenges attached to it.

In competitive multiplayer, however, the added burden is not to unduly punish a player for their choices by denying them the possibility of winning. As such, the ideal balance requires all available choices to be viable for winning. If certain choices are less optimal, this leads to a metagame scene where people are encouraged to play the optimal choices.

It seems like this wouldn't be a problem, since games can be patched. Unfortunately, that does nothing to stop the fanbase - the gamers - from continuing to play the metagame and seeking to optimize their odds of winning. It has honestly become too ingrained in gaming culture for it to stop any time soon. This means that even if the choices are mechanically balanced, in terms of how often people play them, they aren't practically balanced. People will still pick the choices they think are optimal, even if the amount is so small as to be insignificant.

Or in short, a competitive metagame is a sign that the game isn't actually balanced, and the fanbase will continue to ensure it never will be. Troubling, yes, but there's nothing that can be done until developers catch on to this basic fact.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Looking Back: The Guild 2

Welcome to medieval Europe!

For those not familiar, The Guild is a somewhat fantastical series of business simulation games, set during the Middle Ages. With the third game currently under development, this is a good chance to look back at the second game (which I have played much more extensively than the first game).

The second game was built on the Gamebryo engine, and hands you control of a family dynasty trying to establish a presence in one of many major European towns or cities. (A few maps allow you to work in multiple towns.) Farms, smiths, churches, taverns, banks, tailors, and more are all available stores you can run, with some benefits to combining them.

The game is a bit of a cult classic, but was never really popular, partly due to a lack of marketing, and partly due to the difficulty. You see, the game is pretty hard, to the point of demanding precise micromanagement in order to create multiple successful businesses across multiple generations. This obviously wouldn't catch on with a lot of people.

The difficulty exposes a second problem, one a little more subtle. The game also includes all kinds of side activities your characters can partake in that aren't really necessary (and at times, can be counterproductive). Things like getting drunk, using prostitutes (yes really), gambling, going on dates with your character's wife/husband and so on. These seem to exist purely as roleplaying features, which make little sense given the game's demanding micromanagement doesn't leave you a lot of room to indulge in those.

There is nothing wrong with a game being more difficult, as long as there's the understanding that this will naturally turn some potential players off. But high difficulty is not a good tool if you want to encourage roleplaying, since that is primarily about experimenting with different approaches - something this game doesn't give you a lot of room to do. If you want to roleplay, you basically have to pick the easiest difficulty settings with the fewest AI rival dynasties. Not exactly conductive to a fun experience, given that the number of rival dynasties dictates how many different hireable workers are in a town. Oops.

On the plus side, there's quite a bit of actual research put into the game. A lot of little details (like couples' bathing) are lifted straight from medieval culture. The humorous fourth wall-breaking joke where your characters sometimes ask what potatoes are is actually quite accurate, since potatoes were native to North America (and thus not in medieval Europe). Granted, they bend it when it comes to a few things, like the graveyard and tinctuary buildings, but for the most part the game is surprising historically accurate. It's something I wish a lot more games paid attention to.

I still occasionally dabble in the game from time to time, and I did play it a lot once upon a time, but it's not what I'd say was all that influential. Just as well, since it made a number of missteps along with the things it did right. Here's hoping that The Guild 3 is much more polished and focused in how it's handled.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Fated not to be

I've always been ambivalent on the Fire Emblem series, mainly because I felt it was too mechanically punishing due to "death" being permanent, making it more of a puzzle game than actual strategy. (Having to reload and play through the same scenario a half-dozen times just to preserve my own units is not fun, especially when it isn't exactly realistic to expect NOT to lose people on a battlefield.)

I was somewhat impressed by the news that the newest game, Fire Emblem Fates, would feature a "Casual" mode where characters wouldn't die permanently. My first thought was "about time", since the social interactions and story were far more important than any fake challenge brought about by the questionable mechanics. So, I decided to look up the game to see if it was worth buying.

The short answer: NO.

What I did not know was about the two versions, in which you can only pursue one storyline. The second's storyline, along with third, were to be offered as DLC, or you could buy a special edition that contained all three...for the combined price of them all, a whopping eighty dollars. Did I mention that they were upfront about the third DLC-only storyline being the canon one?

I then went out to see if anyone else saw this the same way I did (among major reviewers and websites), and it turns out, sadly, not really. To take a step back, I suspect this is due to the long-running divide between PC and console gamers and the games they play, to the point where each has different expectations. It follows that the reviews and media covering each would be somewhat different.

However, as the differences between consoles, handhelds, and the PC begin to fade (as the ubiquitous presence of DLC now indicates), it becomes more and more important to judge all games, regardless of platform(s), by the same standards. A video game is a video game is a video game, and such is a very good mantra to take into mind when evaluating them.

Which brings me back to Fire Emblem Fates. You see, branching stories have been a staple of PC games for years, to the point of becoming fairly accepted and traditional. A good comparison here would be the first Warlords Battlecry, a real-time strategy game that feature a branching single-player campaign...where both options were included in the vanilla game, no extra payment required.

In that sense, charging more than the base forty dollars for all three storylines on one cartridge seems shady, very much so. I will give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt here though, as almost all of their prior games have purely linear stories. Still, they need to be sent the message; branching stories are a standard feature, not something that should be charged extra for.

As interested as I was in the game, I have to decline to purchase it, as well as urge anyone else not to buy it. And I do feel sorry for the people who already bought it. It's just not worth it, and won't ever be until that "special edition" drops in price to something reasonable. Which isn't likely to happen, so...bleh.

For shame, Nintendo, for shame.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Knowing too little

Lately, I've been playing a lot of Terraria. I got it on a Steam sale several months ago, and only in the past couple of weeks have I gotten into it. It was pleasantly surprising, albeit definitely tough (I have died many, many, many, many times).

It's reasonably fair about it, though. The key mechanic is the Guide NPC, who gives you clues about things you can do next, items you can make, and what you need to focus on next. Granted, I have looked things up, but this is more a case of force of habit due to other games. As you can probably guess, a lot of other games don't do this, forcing players into a cycle of trial-and-error or just to look it up online.

I feel that you have to stop playing the game to go look up how to play the game, the game has failed to make its own mechanics intuitive. While I'm an experienced gamer with over two and a half decades of playing games to help me, I don't want to judge things from that perspective. It's all about the new player, picking up their first game and trying to learn how it works.

It's not a mindset a lot of people share. A lot of players demand mechanics and functions that aren't friendly to newcomers, preferring things under some kind of grandfather clause. While I don't suppose I can blame them for wanting things they are familiar with, it doesn't help bring new people to our little hobby. And I want as many people as possible to come join us, since I can remember back when people didn't quite understand what the hobby meant to those of us that enjoyed it and children.

I may be a little older, a little wiser, but I'm no less of a gamer. And I will gladly advocate for anything that brings more gamers into the fold. (Funny aside: I'm trying to figure out how my spell check accepts "gamer" but not the plural.) If you feel differently and are attached to how those games are, fine, but just remember that it makes it that much harder for the next generation to get into whatever genre you're fond of.

So now, I'm off to finish my set of titanium armor, and then get the potions I need for the Destroyer. And from there, on to other hardmode bosses. Should be fun, as long as don't die too many more times.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A crazy little thing called love

Ah, Valentine's Day is almost upon us. A day dedicated to blossoming romance, bonds of love held to be eternal. A shame that videos games can't really capture that kind of feeling, isn't it?

It isn't for lack of trying. There are many dating sims (up to and including more risque games for adults), and romance is a stable of quite a few RPGs as well. And yet, when romance meets the playable protagonist, it seems that developers, AAA to indie, can do no right when it comes to this.

The real problem stems from three factors. First, one of the trends in fiction in general (not just limited to video games) is that romance is portrayed as One True Love (TM), a fact which is unfortunate. The concept of casual romance is not something that is popular in fiction, and as such rarely gets shown. And even when it does, well, usually there's a case of the One True Love (TM) to go with it.

The second detail is due to the pacing of games. A deep romantic relationship is built over several years, day by day and week by week. Most video games aren't built around showing day to day affairs, and those that are tend to take place over a relatively short period of time. Neither of those things are built towards showing a serious romantic relationship in any major detail.

It doesn't help that some games are required to be vague about the time period over which the game's events take place, since they have to account for a player being able to blaze through the game versus a player who takes their sweet time and checks every nook and cranny. When that happens, it's harder for a player to grasp how fast or slow the romance is progressing, and thus it can come off as forced or drawn out, depending on your perspective.

The third factor is how romance can get tied to game mechanics and rewards. If the game gives specific bonuses for romance, especially it falls really foul on the first two points, it makes the whole thing seemed contrived. Instead of being a deep romance, players may read it as just another game mechanic instead of actual character interaction and development. Which kind of runs counter to showcasing the relationship as One True Love (TM)

The result is a huge mess, and one of the reasons I feel that romance, when explored in a game, should be between secondary NPCs, instead of playable characters. It's far too easy to fall into one or more of the above traps, and I'd rather I see video game stories done well, even if that limits the kinds of stories that can be told with them.

Either way, it's not stopping you from buying your beloved some candy and/or flowers, so go out and do that. And if you don't have someone to do that for...well, I guess you just can't count on video games to provide escapism in that regard, can you?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looking Back: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

As the name suggests, this is going to be a thing where I look back at a particular game and the influence it had on gaming (for better or for worse). Let's kick this off with a doozy: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Released on November 11th, 2011, Skyrim was met with mostly positive responses. Like many Bethesda games, it did ship with a large number of glitches and errors, some of which have not been patched by the developer (and probably never will, given that we're over four years out). In hindsight, quite a few people (myself included) realized that choosing that release date as a marketing stunt (11/11/11) was a bad idea, and it probably should have been pushed back a few months.

Graphically, many people criticized it for using a dolled-up version of Bethesda's old Gamebryo engine. Frankly, I actually prefer this approach. I hardly find it fair to consumers to force them to upgrade their hardware every couple of years just to buy your latest game, so a game like that which wasn't all that taxing (relatively speaking) was a breath of fresh air in the industry.

In terms of gameplay, the game was mostly an improvement on Oblivion. The melee controls felt a little rougher, but the difficulty curve was nowhere near as insane as its predecessor's level scaling system made it out to be. The magic system was heavily simplified, but was much more viable for leveling than previous games. Granted, it still fell short in terms of balance, mainly due to Destruction being balanced around AOE damage when a lot of major fights like the dragons were about focusing on single targets, and Stealth being very powerful and very useful.

However, the writing didn't really make any advancements, and in some areas took a step back. Like Oblivion before it, the plot of Skyrim is a "save the day" plot; in this case, stopping the return of the dragons who will wreck your stuff faster than you can say "Fus ro dah". At least, that's the theory. With no real time limit or actual in-game threat attached to it, the story has no tension and feels superfluous. The same applied to the civil war questline and the various guilds. Add in the fact that the stories weren't particularly well written either, and the net effect was to incentivize skipping the story and just wander around doing whatever.

One thing that continued and grew was the concept of the game mod community, something that had been present with prior games. However, Valve (the owners of the online gaming service Steam) used the game as a basis for launching a new feature called Steam Workshop. This allowed players to upload their own mods for Skyrim (with limits), as well as quickly find and download other mods through Steam. This service turned out to be very popular, and has shown up on many other games since then, becoming a staple of the Steam platform itself.

Valve later attempted to launch a program where modders could sell their mods for a price, with both Valve and Bethesda taking a cut. Once again, Skyrim was the testing ground for this new initiative. However, due to their planned cut being too unreasonably large, and Valve's lack of curation of the mods that were on Steam, the plan was revealed to be a disaster and quickly scrapped. A pity, really. I wouldn't mind paid mods as long as there were more standards in place to ensure their quality. Sadly, that will likely never happen.

 Skyrim can be credited in part, with its huge success, for influencing the launch a new wave of games incorporating open world mechanics. The downside is that open world style games don't mesh well with strong narratives. (There are several reasons why, one of which I noted above). Yet many of these games at least attempt to have a central key narrative, which means this isn't quite so good. It didn't help that Skyrim's story wasn't good, as I noted above. Many of these games were met with a quite a bit of criticism.

In the end, Skyrim did make Bethesda a major player in the game market, in a way that it hadn't been before. More importantly, it helped paved the way for a more user-friendly modding scene, which is a net plus in my books. The games that tried to imitate it may not be as good, but the legacy is still there; it's a game worth noting and remembering.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The strategic choice of factions

About a week ago, I re-bought Warlords Battlecry III, which came out on Steam recently. While I did still have my CD, it had a notorious bug that made it not work on my more modern computer (invisible units and buildings are not much fun), so I'm glad I was able to get it.

I personally have always preferred it to the other RTS games I've played. Why? That's actually a good question, one I had to stop and think about while it was downloading. While there were a couple of other points, the main one was how they handled factions.

The thing is, when it comes to strategy games I feel like choosing which faction you play as should be a meaningful choice. In other words, each faction plays significantly differently from the other factions. While a common core can remain (in WBCIII that core is controlling resource buildings like mines), beyond that choosing a faction influences your strategy.

There's also the personal element of the hero units, which adds another layer of what I like to call "preparational choices", or decisions made before actively encountering your opponent (be it A.I. or another player). A lot of this boils down to how much you are willing and able to risk your hero, dependent on how tough or fragile that hero is. This "situational choice" feeds back into what race and class you picked for your hero, and the skill points you spend as he/she levels up. This kind

This stands in contrast to other RTS games like the Age of Empires series (particularly the first two games), or strategy games in other genres like the 4X Civilization games. In those cases, the central core of what you have to do every game takes up too much of your efforts, and almost every game plays out the same way based solely on what victory condition you go for.

Things can go too far the other way, though, which is how I feel about the earlier games in the Warlords Battlecry series. Both the factions and the heroes fill just a little too pigeon-holed to make situational choices in-game particularly relevant or engaging.

It doesn't make WBCIII a perfect game, but it's one where the overall gameplay stands the test of time, and one I'd highly recommend. While RTS games are a dying breed, it's good to look back at the best of them; and hope that future RTS games learn from games like it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I might just go power through another map with my wood elf warrior and her armies. (Treants backed by druids are cool and effective, what can I say?)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Hello, my name is Chris Mitchell, and this is my brand-new video game blog.

I know one or two of you may be aware of my other blog, which I intend to continue to operate sporadically as I write. (The link to it is in the sidebar.) I neglected it all of last year, but this year I decided to not only pick it back up, but start this blog as well as a way of keeping me focused.

As for what this blog is: this is not a review blog, nor is it a rambling "what have I been playing" blog. (I'm saving that kind of thing for Twitter.) Instead, I'd like to take a deeper look at what I enjoy in video games, and just how many games live up to my unique standards. Here's a hint: not many.

I do plan on updating this blog at least once a week, which is a lot better than I've done in the past. Tough, I know, but I've got to get better with my work habits. Hopefully, this will help keep me motivated to keep my nose to the wheel...or whatever metaphor works best here. I think you get the idea.

Updates will be posted on Twitter (link to that is also in the sidebar), so feel free to follow me for those and my other insights.

My first significant post should be going up this Saturday, so stick around. I hope you all will enjoy this.