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Dragon Age was a good game from a story perspective. And I liked the NPCs.  However, some of the game mechanics drove me batty.  The most annoying one was probably how each NPC might be happy or mad at you based on what you did on your quests. This was, in my view, a micro-management nightmare and an almighty pain in the ass. I have a character who would, if played to her role, do X. But if I do X, I get negative faction with half my party.  So now I have to decide. Do I want to lose faction with my party over and over, or do I want to forgo playing my character “right” and “game the system?” Worse, you can work your ass off with a character only to gain +1 or +3 faction with them, and then make a seemingly innocent remark and lose -20.  What the hell is THAT?  IMO, the whole character faction system of DA was done almost as a way of the devs griefing the players.

Unfortunately, although much of the moment-to-moment gameplay of DA 2 is pretty good, and in many ways superior to DA 1, this theme of the devs seeming to do things to grief the players has been magnified to such an extreme that many nights, long before it’s time to turn off the Xbox and go to bed, I shut the game down in aggravation and annoyance.  DA 2 has continued the annoying issues with the NPCs and even magnified them.  But worse, you the game lets you completely, totally screw yourself over and doesn’t do a thing to stop you. (more…)

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Why do gamers shoot themselves in the foot?

One of the most highly anticipated MMORPGs slated to launch this year is Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR), an MMORPG derived from the highly successful single-player CRPG, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which came out in 2003 or so.  Star Wars: TOR will be Bioware’s first foray into the MMORPG class of games, with all their previous offerings being either solo CRPGs (KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect 1 and 2, and Dragon Age), or designed for a small group playing on their own local server (Neverwinter Nights).  Bioware’s previous offerings have all been smash hits, and the company has built up a reputation with gamers that is very rare in the computer game industry — a reputation for quality products.

Bioware’s RPGs have become more and more sophisticated over the years, with increasingly good animation, cinematics, and voice-overs. At their heart, however, all these games follow the same basic paradigm.  They have very strong stories that are unveiled little by little through the dialog.  They have strong companion NPCs. They have cinematic sequences and theatrical cut-scenes.   The Bioware games feel almost like you are playing a character in a movie.

This paradigm is deliberate, not accidental.  The games have been hugely successful because of these characteristics.  The majority of people who have played Bioware’s RPGs have reacted positively.  People buy Bioware games to have the very experience described above — that of playing your own character in a movie. (more…)

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This summer, Cryptic Studios, original makers of City of Heroes, and current developers of Champions Online and Star Trek Online, announced they were making a multiplayer, but non-MMO, game called Neverwinter. This game is based on the original two Neverwinter Nights games, and will apparently include a toolset like those did.  Since Cryptic is a major player in the MMO market these days, the announcement created a buzz, and in August, Jack was interviewed by ZAM.  As part of the interview, he said,

“I’ve been pretty honest about our faults in the past and people have accused us that I’m virtually admitting that we pushed out Star Trek and Champions as unpolished product. But as God as my witness, when we launched those games, we had zero idea that we thought they were anything less than excellent [my emphasis].”

The fact that Cryptic thought their games were excellent, but most of their customers (by Jack’s own admission here and elsewhere) thought the games were unpolished, unfinished, and at best mediocre, points to a very serious problem at Cryptic studios.

The problem Cryptic has always had, even in the COH heyday, though it was not as pronounced, is a lack of understanding at the basic level of game theory and game design.  I’m talking about the Raph Koster  level here; I don’t always agree with Koster, but he thinks deeply about what systems should be in a game from the standpoint of why they are putting the system in in, and what that system has to do with the rest of the game. Far too much of Cryptic’s design philosophy (and to be fair they are not alone as a development company) is, “Well this works in *insert game here* and people like it so let’s do it.” Auction Houses and Crafting are a great example.

But ask yourself: Why did they put auction houses into COH? Was it because they were an integral part of the smash-hit superhero movies like Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man 2?  Was it because you see superheroes in most comic books stopping by the auction house at the start of each issue? Was it because auction houses as a concept flow necessarily from the fact that the game was essentially loot and completely craft-free before adding them? No! Auction houses are actually the opposite of what the game’s original design and its thematic inspiration would lead you to predict.  So why were they added? Because Jack played WOW and got addicted to WOW’s auction house!  He saw how much people loved it, and how many subscriptions you could get by addicting people to it, and thought “let’s do that in COH.” How it would affect the overall game, what the heck it all has to do with the comic book genre, and whether it would actually be workable with their game system, design, and interface, he didn’t bother to ask. And worse: He doesn’t even seem to know those are valuable questions to ask.  To Jack, the game is just a set of systems designed to make people want to subscribe and pay him money.

This is why Cryptic threw out so many of the great COH systems when they made Champions Online. The instanced missions that scaled to your group size were a huge draw of COH, and frequently listed by players as a favorite feature.  Yet the company that invented them ditched that system when they made CO. Why? Was it to replace the system with a better one? Nope.  The sum total of Cryptic’s penetratingly deep design logic seems to have been, “WOW does it with static instances and open world quests so let’s do that.” And so, they copied WOW. They admitted it more than once on the beta boards, too — that “because WOW does it” was their design philosophy. What this ultimately means, as a friend of mine once said, is that when making Champions Online, Cryptic had no design philosophy. But I think it’s even worse than that. Not only don’t they have a design philosophy; they don’t seem to see the need to have one!

SWG for all its flaws — the original SWG — had a very deep and well thought out design philosophy. Koster was a student of the Bartle system and explicitly made a game designed to appeal to all the types (Killers, Socializers, etc) and the hybrid classes were designed to appeal to hybrid players (Explorer/Socializers (Rangers), Killer/Achievers (BHs), etc).  That’s why for all the programming flaws, the fundamental system worked.  There was an underpinning of solid game design theory there. Systems were included for a reason that was based on the fundamental design.

Cryptic, in contrast, seems to look at a game as simply a collection of modular systems invented by other games, like WOW, VG, AOC.  They seem to believe that, as modules, these systems can just be plugged into the game in question like interchangeable computer components.   But game design doesn’t work like that.  What Cryptic has historically done when designing games is analogous to someone deciding that since the soccer rule that ‘no one but the goalie can touch the ball’ works in soccer, we should import that rule into football and prohibit anyone but the quarterback from touching the ball.  Would that work? Of course not.  Soccer’s rule works only within the context of soccer.  Football is a different game and requires fundamentally different ball-handling rules. This basic concept, that each game needs an underlying philosophy and must have systems based on that philosophy, seems to have escaped Cryptic Studios, and especially Diamond Jack Emmert.

And this explains why Jack is starting to realize that his games are not as “excellent” as he thought they were before launch.  He’s smart enough to intuit that the games are a bust (quite independent of the sluggish sales and subscription rates), but not clever enough to figure out why.   He must sit there thinking, “Gee we took all these popular systems from successful games. Why aren’t they working for us?”  And my guess is he has no idea why they don’t work, because this is a failure at the design level by someone who doesn’t seem to realize there needs to be a single, strong, internally consistent design to any good game.  Instead his games are just a polyglots of all the “cool ideas that players seem to like in other games.” And no game with such a flimsy design philosophy will ever be a “success”. Not from the design point of view. And not with subscriptions, since players will intuit that the game “doesn’t seem right” and go elsewhere.

WOW has a design philosophy. It may be one that I hate, but it’s there, and they follow it religiously. Thus it works.  GW2 seems to have a very solid design philosophy. My guess is that, as a result, it will work.   Cryptic Studios makes games that have no design philosophy.  Games without a design philosophy don’t work, but Jack doesn’t seem to get that. And the reason he doesn’t get it is that he doesn’t even know he needs to have one.

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It’s become fairly standard in most video games to have a difficulty setting, and so, I am always surprised when I find a game that doesn’t have one. I would think, at this point, that it is no longer a surprise to people that gamers have different levels of skill, and not everyone can win the game on “Nightmare” difficulty. Heck, even MMORPGs, which for years people thought could not have difficulty settings, have started introducing them. City of Heroes originally only let you raise the difficulty of your missions, but now you can even lower them, asking for enemies lower than your level, asking for bosses and arch-villains to be demoted to the next lower rank, and the like. Although there might be reasons why one wouldn’t want MMORPGs to have variable difficulty settings (though I do not agree with people who take that position), there is absolutely no good reason why one can’t have several settings, such as “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” in a single-player game.

That’s why I have been surprised recently playing two “Platinum hit” Xbox 360 games – Assassin’s Creed and Fable II – to find that neither game has a difficulty setting. I have only played Assassin’s Creed once, enough to get through the tutorial, but I’ve been playing Fable II for a couple of weeks, and that game has finally frustrated me into putting it on the shelf. For the gamer jocks out there, I am sure they’re laughing up their sleeves at me… Fable II, hard? Ha! It’s the easiest game in the world. Why would anyone need a difficulty slider for it?

It turns out that Fable II is an very long game with lots of content (good things in general), and almost no guidance as to what to do first, second, or third. The game urges you repeatedly to keep doing the main quest line, and there is really no indication that you shouldn’t be doing that. They also don’t give you the option to make multiple saves, so when you get yourself deep into a main quest that is too hard for your character’s level and equipment, you are basically screwed. Now, if they had multiple saves, I could just go back to before I started that quest and wait to level up to it, but I can’t do that. Still this wouldn’t be a problem, if I could just make it easier. But since they don’t have a difficulty setting, I can’t.

What we have with Fable II is basically a perfect storm. First, the game pushing, cajoling, begging you to do the main quest line. Second, there is no ability to make multiple save points, which can leave you “trapped” in the middle of a quest that you aren’t strong enough to finish. And third, there is no ability to “make the game easier” for a few minutes by dialing down the difficulty just to get out of this current mess. I’ve gotten my character stuck in the “Crucible” without any way to finish it because he’s just not strong enough to survive and beat the last encounter (a giant troll). I’ve trolled (pun intended) the game’s forums looking for advice and the main advice I’ve found is “use a high level time control spell” (I don’t have it) and “use a really high level pistol with augmentations” (I don’t have one). Because the Crucible won’t let you go back or quit, I basically can’t get out of this encounter. Your goal is to do it in a minute and a half. I was up to about 18 minutes and I just could not get past the troll.

Now, laugh at me all you want, but this makes Fable II basically a coaster to me. I am stuck in an encounter that I cannot beat, and I have no way to go back to an earlier save and improve my character to make him able to beat the encounter. If the game just had a way for me to set it to “easy,” maybe, maybe, I could survive the encounter (it always depends on what “easy” means), but there is no such option. And thanks to the designers not warning me before I entered the crucible that I was not strong enough to win, and not giving me multiple save points, I am not going to ever be able to get out of the Crucible to continue the game. Not that I’d want to, at this point, since given how aggravated the game has made me.

Designers really need to do a better job than this of realizing what players, especially the non-jock players, people who are just casually playing for fun and enjoyment, are going to need. If you’re not going to let us have multiple save points to help us get out of a jam, and if you’re not going to warn us before we get into the jam, then you absolutely need to give us a way to make your game easier so we can get ourselves out of the jam.

And while they’re at it, designers really need to make game difficulty something we can change on-the-fly. In most Bioware games this is possible, and it has saved me no end of frustration in Dragon Age. I play the game on “normal” difficulty, but every so often there is an encounter that is just too tough – after three or four wipes, I give up, set it to “casual,” blow through the problem encounter, and then set it back to “normal.” Sure, some people see it as cheating. I see it as editing – I am editing out an encounter that the designers made too hard. I say this with confidence (that it’s their fault, not mine) because I can beat 95% of the game’s encounters, even some clearly intended to be challenging, without lowering the setting to “casual.” So that means the few that I can’t do, scattered here and there through the game, are designed to be too hard. Since that’s the case, I have no qualms about lowering the difficulty.

The other way to have a difficulty setting is to set it to a certain level for an entire play-through. This is better than not having any setting at all, but not by much. The reason is, you can’t know how hard or easy the latter stages of the game will be until it’s too late, and now you may be forced to go back and re-play the whole entire game up to that point. This happened with a game that is amazing in all other respects – Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I have previously praised on this blog. I still think it worthy of that praise, but I wish you could tweak the difficulty during the game. I had the unfortunate experience of being able to get all the way to the very final battle on “Normal,” and then, no matter what I tried, I failed at that battle at least 50 times in a row. I never came close to beating it. So now I had to put the game on easy and go through the whole thing again just to be able to finish that last battle. This is silly. Let me go into “options” and lower it to easy just for this battle. Take away my achievement for finishing if you want, but at least let me finish and see the ending, without having to endure an impossibly hard battle.

I know the gamer-jocks think that difficulty settings are for pansies. They think that I “don’t deserve” to see the ending sequence of Batman/Arkham if I can’t beat the last battle – that’s the “reward” for people good enough to win that final fight. My feeling about their opinion? Screw them. I paid my $50 for Batman/Arkham just like they did. If I want to make the last battle easy, I think my $50 ought to earn me that right.

And getting back to Fable II… I didn’t pay $50 for it. It’s an old game, so I got it for $19.99. But I still paid good money for it, and if I just want to get the (bleep) out of the Crucible and go back to the rest of the game to level my character, I should be able to do it – either with a save/reload, or with a change to the difficulty settings. The only other option – which is to start over on a game I’ve already sunk 20 hours of play into – is a non-starter for me. I have other games like the Dragon Age expansion and Star Wars: Force Unleashed that let me make multiple saves and change the difficulty setting so I won’t get into this kind of mess. Why should I waste my time on a game whose designers are clearly just trying to bust my chops?

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Finally, a comic-book game done right

For too long, those of us who love the comic-book genre have had to suffer through games that claim to be based on superheroes, but don’t really get the genre right. Perhaps the most obvious examples of a failure to capture the superheroic genre are the two big MMOs out there, both created by Cryptic Studios – City of Heroes and Champions Online. Both of these games purport to be superhero games, but they are really just classic fantasy CRPGs with a superhero reskin. They have too many elements that are appropriate to other genres, like loot, auction houses, and crafting. And at the same time, they are dramatically missing some of the very elements that make superheroes so much fun. To date most superhero games, especially Cryptic’s pair, really only allow frontal assaults with brute force as a means of solving a crisis. The villains have hostages? No problem, just throw a fireball in there – the hostages are immune to it anyway. The villains have rigged bombs all over the building? No problem – you don’t need any sort of bomb-disarm skill; just click on the bomb and it’ll auto-disarm. And finally, I hope you weren’t planning on playing a “stealthy” character like Batman or The Shadow, because stealthed characters usually can’t attack without losing their stealth covering, since otherwise it would be considered an “exploit.”

The problem with the past games is that they were re-skins of fantasy or science fiction games (mostly fantasy), where the genre is really very different. The things superheroes do on a daily basis are not usually seen in a fantasy setting (how many times does Frodo scale walls or swing between buildings?), and so have not been included as features of those games. But if one is going to create a game that feels superheroic, then these sorts of elements really do need to be found in one’s game. I’ve played these genre-destroying “superhero” games in the past for lack of anything that really does fit the genre. But I don’t need to do so anymore, because finally, a game has come along that captures the comic book feel perfectly. And that game is Batman: Arkham Asylum (BAA).

I have been playing BAA almost obsessively over the last couple of weeks, and one of the reasons for that is just how well the genre of comics in general, and the thematic material of the Batman character in particular, have been captured. The guys who created this game finally did it right. Instead of looking at existing successful games like Halo or World of Warcraft, BAA’s designers looked at Batman and his comics and the recent two films (Batman Begins and Dark Knight) and did everything they could to capture the essence of those things. As a result, you can do all sorts of things in this game that would not normally be allowed in a typical action or CRPG game because they’d be considered “exploits.” But far from being considered “rule breaking” here, these things are not just allowed but encouraged.

As an example of something that would never be allowed in a game like City of Heroes, Batman is basically “stealthed” by default (and it costs no endurance to be stealthy!)… unless he walks right into the villains’ line of site, they won’t see him hiding on a ledge or sitting atop a gargoyle. This allows you to do just what Batman always does in the comics… sneak around taking out criminals one by one. You can creep up behind a crook, and with the press of a single button, one-shot him in a “silent takedown.” Not only does he go down in one shot, but as long as you do it out of sight of his buddies, no one will see you or retaliate. So as Batman, you can hide on a ledge, drop down silently behind a crook, choke him silently into unconsciousness, and grapple back up to the ledge, and watch as his buddies find him and ask, “What happened to him?” and “How’s he doing this?” In an MMO, doing one-shots like this would be sneered at by many players and most developers as an “I win” button, but the thing is, it’s genre appropriate. What you’re doing is basically the same thing we see happening at the docks in Batman Begins, when one after another the criminals get yanked into the shadows by Batman and end up unconscious. This is what playing Batman should be like. So the challenge isn’t to do more damage to the villains than they do to you. Instead, the challenge is to take each one out without the others seeing you (because if they see you, and they have guns, they can basically one-shot you, too!).

I know NCSoft is working on City of Heroes right now, and DC Heroes Online is about to launch, and Marvel is thinking of getting into the MMO game again (after bailing on Cryptic and forcing them to go with Champions as a framework). I strongly urge developers who plan to make a superhero game to play BAA and really study what was done here. These guys have captured the essence of a Detective Comics story arc. You really feel like you are the Batman, like you’re right there in the movies or the pages of a comic, doing exactly what Batman does. The very things that most MMOs would call an “exploit” are the heart of this game, and it shows you just how well the comic book genre can work, when the game is designed for it, instead of the genre only being the skin of the game.

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