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.