How Many Songs Need To Be Good?

I had an off-the-cuff thought during the podcast this weekend that keeps resurfacing in my head. We were talking about music, and I asked how many songs off of an album needed to be good for that album to feel like it was worth it. Pretty much universally, the answer was “about three”. It’s been sitting with me ever since.

CDs

I’ve been looking at media in general, and how much of it I have to really like to stay engaged. There’s a song on an album I own that’s three minutes and fifteen seconds long. At about the 2:45 mark, it cuts into a different vocalist for a segment that I really dislike. It’s jarring and ruins the track for me. I now skip that track entirely, even though I like the first two and a half minutes of it. In the same vein, I haven’t played MGSV in days for a relatively banal reason. It’s not any of the objectionable things in the game, it’s that I have a mission where the drop off point is way too far away, and I just can’t be bothered to go through the hassle.

So, I need about 25% of a music album to feel like it’s worth it, but if the last thirty seconds of a track isn’t to my liking, I skip it. I am willing, and in fact expect, to sit through the first few episodes of an anime before making a decision, yet if a game hits a lull, it becomes harder and harder for me to come back to it (see also: grinding of any kind). My tolerance for parts I don’t like varies widely from medium to medium, and sometimes wildly within the same medium.

For any given bit of entertainment, there’s a threshold where the parts I don’t like outweigh the parts I do, and I check out. It seems simple and obvious, but it’s also something that’s gone entirely unevaluated. What are the exceptions? Can I predict this? I feel like if I can understand what the mix is like, I can better understand both myself and the media I consume.

Trying to pin it down is frustratingly elusive, though. When I try to analyze my thoughts across media, I find myself immediately making excuses, about how one thing is different in some specific way. I know enough about psychology to know that there’s almost certainly a pattern I’m not seeing– or more likely, not letting myself see– but knowing it’s there and trying to make sense of it are two very different things.

I say a lot that good design is about knowing what people haven’t yet realized they like. The real magic of good design is being able to elicit a positive, wholly unexpected reaction from someone, and I feel like if I could tap into my own mental hangups and processes, I could start to get a handle on how to better approach design. If I could precisely (or even roughly) pinpoint where people check out, where a piece of media loses people, I could develop better intuition for how to avoid those pain points.

I am opposed, fundamentally, to the idea of “I’ll know it when I see it” design. It asks a designer to magically intuit something that the requester can’t even articulate. It’s like telling a chef to “make some food, I’ll know if I like it once I try it”. It’s why I started taking notes on the things that I loved and didn’t expect to, and the places where I find myself checking out of something. I’ve tried to get better at articulating precisely why I like or dislike something, because it’s from those evaluations that I learn and grow, and can tell other people what I like and don’t like. It’s meant I need to have a constant mental cycle active, monitoring my own reactions as they happen, and drawing connections. When I talk about my “designer brain” always being on, that’s what I’m referring to. It’s comforting at the same time as it keeps me from ever fully engaging with something.

I’ve gotten so used to that background process running smoothly that it’s jarring when it runs into something it can’t or won’t process. I’m still mulling over the idea from before– how much of something can be bad or uninteresting before I stop caring? Why and how does it change across media, even across different entries in the same medium? Why do I get frustrated at stretches of fruitless-feeling running around in MGSV and, in that frustration, switch over to trying fruitlessly to solve challenge puzzles in The Witness?

Building a Bushido Board (Part 4: The Best Laid Plans…)

So, it took a while to actually get all of the pieces I needed for this board. Specifically, I last posted about this board almost two months ago and it’s taken me this long to finally obtain everything. This weekend was a lot of painting and adaptation work, but I’m pretty happy with the end result:

13939524_10100941046751568_3146829479885209600_n

You’ll notice a few things at a glance, first and foremost how my measurements were off. I’d originally planned a short piece, a long piece, and a gate on each side. The actual measurements of the pieces put a section of wall perilously close to (and for a short distance, inside) the stream. What looked like reasonable measurements on paper turned out not to fit in reality.

SO! Back to the drawing board as far as layout goes. I had a few games with friends over the weekend and played around with some board layouts. I knew I was going to need this iteration step anyway to get to a good place with the board, and since all of my original preplanning went kind of out the window, more thought was going to need to go into layout before I finalized anything.

The layout above, as it turns out, is a disaster. The whole map bottlenecks around a single gate, and players starting inside the walls have a huge advantage in most scenarios, while starting in opposite corners makes for a lot of really awkward positioning and very few compelling decision points.

Kodra helped me work out an alternate layout, suitable for at least trying:

14095785_10100942888510668_2792243510842982805_n

It shortens the wall and opens up that quarter of the board a bit more. This is a shot taken after some more work has been done, so there are trees on the board, but you can see the rough similarities to my original design. One wall piece goes unused, but the space works a lot better.

In the first iteration, the larger building on the left was swapped with the small tiled-roof building in the bottom-center, but we quickly found that that made for a significant bottleneck problem between the wall and that building.

One major thing that came out of it over the course of three games was that different lists would approach the space differently, which is exactly what I want, and there were multiple ways to set up; both sets of opposite corners are interesting and compelling (also good). A big takeaway is that the side of the river opposite the main walled complex needed something to make it more defensible– it’s wide open with no cover, making it a fairly poor starting location and vulnerable to ranged attackers. It made movement on that side fairly predictable– deploy as far forward as possible, run to use the big wall as cover because you have no other options. It made an inordinate amount of play happen right around the wall corner, which isn’t bad (bottlenecks aren’t automatically awful), but would really cut into the replay value of the board.

14068155_10100942888505678_32415168692802026_n

Looking at the board from a different angle yields a better result, though we didn’t play on this layout.

A couple of physical takeaways on the board– while I’d hoped that the roof slats would make it reasonable to perch a model on the roof, it was more precarious than I would’ve liked. C’est la vie. More annoying was the smooth surface of the board tiles made for models sliding around pretty easily, which isn’t ideal. Luckily I’d picked up some grass flock and spray adhesive, and you can see patches of darker grass breaking up the simply painted board surface. This is more for traction than anything. I also noted that the stream was VERY shallow, and tended to make it awkward to put models in there. Making it deeper became a goal, just for more flat surface for mini placement.

I’m pretty happy with the layout above, but I also don’t think I’m in a place where I can call it permanent. This is a bit touchy, since I want to also place down foliage and there’s no good way to do that and still have the foliage move around. However, there are some predictable terrain needs that almost don’t care what the wall/building layout is:

1.) The riverbanks need cover; the stream area is too open in general.

2.) The opposite bank is way too open, and needs some kind of cover.

There’s virtually no building placement that changes these; the biggest thing is putting a building on the opposite bank which breaks up the space but doesn’t provide a lot of playable cover, just a dead space that blocks line of sight. I have a bunch of bamboo trees which work really nicely for terrain (because they’re essentially just sticks, meaning it’s easy to maneuver minis around them) which are going to pretty much all go into service of making the opposite riverbank a bamboo forest. In addition, I have a number of cat-tails to plant on the riverbanks, so the non-building side of the river will ultimately have a lot of usable cover, probably more than the building space itself.

14051724_10100943109792218_8591199832558276874_n

I like this because my biggest issue has always been the building-side having a clear advantage. Now the river-side is really appealing as well, perhaps more so.

I’ve also placed four trees on the board. While these are static elements, I can still move and rotate the tiles and change up the board layout pretty easily even though the trees aren’t movable. For now, I don’t want to make any other elements static, because I’m still reworking the concept of static terrain.

One of my goals for building a static terrain board is that I can make it really look great and purposeful if I place everything in specific places. I’m finding that even without a static board, I can achieve surprisingly high quality visuals, even without significant pieces in place, like this:

14022212_10100943109857088_553845856070996661_n

This approach really needs a road to look “right”, but even without one, it looks acceptable. It’s not the highest possible fidelity, but I’m starting to look closely at the tradeoff I’d be making for that level of fidelity and wondering if it’s worth it. In carefully choosing certain low-impact static elements (the trees), I can still have a highly modular board without necessarily giving up appearance.

What I expect is that as I play more on the board, I’ll place more and more static terrain pieces, iterating on the design and determining which pieces move around a lot and which don’t. If I can, at any point, lock down a wall layout, I almost don’t need anything else to be static because I can simply put down roads and let the buildings sort themselves out. What I suspect, however, is that the walls are going to prove to be the most influential part of the board as far as play, and so they’ll have the most iteration before something is settled on.

14022261_10100943109807188_9149549147678796909_n

In the meantime, I’m surprised at how well the whole thing has turned out, since I’ve never before built a board or even really worked on terrain. It’s a gorgeous board thus far, and I’m really happy with the results, even if it’s not the static board I was shooting for.

What Makes a Good Stealth Game?

It’s not a huge secret that I love stealth games. Really, I like almost any game where winning requires you be observant and get creative with the tools you have, but good stealth games tend to excel at this. After I talked about the stealth mechanics in MGSV, someone asked me why I like that game as a stealth game but not the old Syphon Filter series, or Ninja Gaiden. It got me thinking about what I like in stealth games, and what makes one good.

mark of the ninja 2

1.) Messaging.

I talk about messaging a lot. Messaging is the difference between dying randomly and dying because you weren’t paying attention. It’s what makes the first ten minutes of Mega Man X some of the most brilliant tutorial game design ever and so many overbearing, annoying tutorials so painfully bad. Messaging is super important in general, but especially important in stealth games.

Stealth games are cerebral games more than twitchy action games. It means they’re a lot more complex, and need to communicate how you’re supposed to interact with them in a reasonable sort of way. You need to be able to tell whether you’re about to be seen, or whether that guard is about to turn around, or how to know if you’re about to make a huge mess of things. You need to know where you can and can’t go, because so much of stealth gameplay is about traversal and thinking about how to get from point A to point B, often while avoiding obvious paths. Messaging is what makes that work. Lighting lets you know where you should and shouldn’t be, and you need to know where you can reach and where is off-limits, because oftentimes the best route is over or under the main path (more on this later).

More important are the little clues and the way the game messages things you can’t intuit. Thief introduced the light bar, which let you visualize how much light you were standing in (since you couldn’t look at your own body to tell). Stealth games tend to have HUGE animation libraries, showing everything from sleeping enemies to reactions to minor noises to investigating to various levels of alertness. Often you’ll have enemies be neutral or hostile depending on where in the map you are, whether you’re somewhere you ought to be or not, and you’ll get warned through animation and voice that you’re approaching a place they’ll turn hostile if you enter. These animations are hugely significant in letting you know how well you’re doing, and it’s why static cameras are so frequently the most disliked “enemy type” in stealth games: they lack nuance.

1679550109

2.) Level Design

A good stealth game is a master class in level design. Levels in more linear games tend to look like long tubes if you zoom out far enough– the best gameplay in that kind of straightforward action game has you moving through a space where the escalation is controlled and paced appropriately, with respites and restore points timed out as necessary. Mega Man levels tend to be a great example of this done well. By comparison, good stealth game levels tend to look like fairly small boxes. Rather than huge sprawls, they’re interweaving meshes with key locations interspersed throughout. They’re incredibly difficult to make well, because each section has to have multiple ways in and out and many different paths while still giving you the ability to fire off scripting triggers and story beats appropriately.

It’s why I don’t like Syphon Filter. Most of the levels I remember from that series were linear, with single-room patrol puzzles where being seen meant game over, rather than actual spaces with multiple paths. It wasn’t a game about perception and movement, it was a game about pattern recognition, more akin to a bullet hell shooter than a stealth game. It didn’t provide choices, just demanded you find answers, which brings me to my next bit:

6001976004_83aa88b60b

3.) Options.

Key to a good stealth game are providing options. Are you bad at moving quickly under pressure? Take the slower, safer route. Are you good at knocking out guards but bad at traversal? Go through the guarded route and take out your opposition. Maybe a little of both. It’s why some of my favorite stealth games are ones like Deus Ex or Assassin’s Creed, where (for the most part) you can choose exactly how stealthy you want to be, if at all.

One of my favorite stealth games was Hitman, specifically because despite the premise, it was best played as a significantly non-violent game. It let me play almost entirely non-lethally, save for the target, and in later stealth games I’ve prided myself on playing as non-lethally as possible. It changes the language of games for me from one of overwhelming offense in the face of violence to one of thoughtful conflict-avoidance and nonlethal approaches. Being able to make that choice (which is usually the more difficult option) feels meaningful, like I’m adding challenge but for a good reason. I can hold myself to a particular high standard, knowing that it’s self-imposed and not forced on me by the game.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think forcing stealth isn’t good for a stealth game; it’s the choice to remain unseen and unnoticed that really defines the genre, and leaves you to decide what happens if you fail. It’s why fail-on-being-seen is terrible, it robs you of that choice, no matter how narratively sensible it might be. Check out this segue into my next point:

3c8

4.) Expectation of Failure.

Bad stealth games throw you to game over or make you restart if you mess up, get seen, whatever. Good ones expect that you will mess up and give you ways to get yourself out of trouble. Entire mechanics are founded on finding a way out of trouble, and it means that good stealth games can make their stealth components MUCH more difficult. You’re expected to fail at some point, and then get yourself out of the pot that you put yourself in. Often, early on in the game, you’ll be put into a situation where you can’t avoid failure, to teach you how to escape and right yourself. It’s cheap if done too often, but incredibly effective (and good messaging) when done well.

You’re often much weaker than even basic enemies, or very easily dispatched by them, to make failure sting a bit (but never instantly end the game). The original Thief pitted you against guards that were both better than you were with a sword and far stronger and more resilient. A swordfight with a single guard would leave you badly injured and limping along, a swordfight with two at once almost always meant death. But, you could get by. You weren’t *guaranteed* to die, it was just very likely, so that time a pair of guards managed to spot you and pull swords meant you probably wanted to run, hide, and then work your way back more carefully. Staying and fighting was a choice, and if you were good enough and knew what you were doing, a choice you could make and come out victorious on the other side.

thief-water-arrow

5.) You Are Special, But Not More Powerful.

Not special in mundane ways. In many shooters, you simply can get hit more times than your enemies can, and recover faster, so the end result is you are just bigger and better than most of what you fight. In good stealth games, you’re usually not bigger or better, but you have tools, or skills, or simply view the space in a different way than your foes. Height is an advantage, and you avoid roads in favor of rooftops (and have the skills to get up to said rooftops. You can open locked doors, or move quietly, or see in ways your enemies can’t.

As above, good stealth games are cerebral, so the tools you get are a celebration of brains rather than brawn. The exciting huge missile launcher and powerful giant axe are celebrations of brawn, the far more common celebration in games, but stealth games give you smoke bombs, and lockpicks, and water arrows so that you can prove that you’re smarter than your enemies, not stronger or tougher. It goes back to the choice thing– the very best stealth games let you choose how you want to play them, and that may not involve being stealthy at all.

Deadpanning

I’m playing Metal Gear Solid V recently, thanks to a friend who told me I should look past the nonsense to see a really interesting, really compelling stealth game. She wasn’t wrong, it’s one of the most interesting stealth games I’ve seen in a while and takes a very different approach than other games I’ve played. More on that another time, though, I want to ride around on the elephant in the room for a while.

age_bg_tpp

Holy wow is Metal Gear Solid a weird game. It’s worth noting that the last one I played was Metal Gear Solid 2, in 2001, when I was young enough to take the series 100% seriously. I’d played the ‘original’ MGS when it came out as well, and fully believed that it was a completely serious game meant to be played entirely straight. It meant that when MGS2 got really weird and kind of wacky, and started playing jokes that felt like they were mocking me for taking the game seriously (retrospect protip: they were), I bounced off of the game series, hard, and never returned to it.

I should break at this point to comment that, as a game designer, I don’t see anything terribly compelling or ‘genius’ about proving that you’re cleverer than your players. I tend to think games that rely on that sort of gimmick are kind of hacky, because you can literally create reality from nothing and twist it however you want. Doing something disruptive and unexpected and then subtly mocking your players for not being prepared for it is a kind of smug high-school-D&D DM-style behavior that I don’t think has a place in a mature industry. It’s like killing a player entirely at random and then saying “HAHA U DIED”. Crafting experiences that are predictable and internally consistent is the hard part of game design; your players are not your adversaries, and treating them as such is bad design. This is, notably, what separates Dark Souls from your high school DM, and why one of them is brilliant and the other you stopped playing games with fifteen years ago.

Anyway. Metal Gear Solid. What playing it now, fifteen years later lets me see is that the series is basically incredibly deadpan parody. It’s so deadpan that it walks the line between serious and silly on a regular basis, and makes both bizarre jokes and surprisingly heavy commentary, often within moments of each other. In the first ten minutes of the game, I’m treated to a first-person perspective on battlefield trauma followed by an incredibly odd character creation bait-and-switch that appears to be an incredibly elaborate joke played for no reason. The game has you create your character and then does precisely nothing with it. You look like Snake. You were always going to look like Snake. You spent however long in character creation for… versimilitude? A story point? A joke at your expense?

mgsv-00012

I don’t ascribe to the fannish theory that this sort of thing is a “genius” move by the series creators. It’s honestly kind of a cheap joke created at great expense, and one thing I will say about MGS is that it’s very careful about breaking the fourth wall– it’s how it maintains its veneer of being an entirely serious game, while no one is uncertain that, say, Saint’s Row is a parody. The couple of times MGS 1 and 2 broke the fourth wall were honestly pretty clever (hello, Psycho Mantis, one of the most creative bosses of my childhood). The character creation bit in MGSV mostly seems like a transition trick that came about late in development, after the multiplayer (and, I assume, its character creation system) was already up and running. You’ve got the character creation system already for multiplayer, and you need a good place to hide some loading from the camera, and hey, wouldn’t it be funny if… and there you go. Not genius, just expediency. Another trick to game design is looking like you meant it the whole time. Even better if people actually believe you.

The abject silliness ramps up, though, in a scene where you sneak out of a hospital with the help of a guy wearing nothing but a hospital gown. You get a lot of painstakingly deliberate shots of the guy’s bare butt as he sneaks around ahead of you, up to and including a moment where you lose him in a crowd and look around for him, staring at the bottoms of everyone you see, complete with zoom in and dramatic music as you try to recognize your comrade. There’s a lot of this kind of thing; I’ve been waiting for Snake and Ocelot to kiss for hours now, given that every single shot involving the two of them is ripped straight from a romance drama, and in one of the first levels you have a pseudo-touching reunion as you rescue a comrade that quickly becomes a one-sided patter suggestive of old lovers. Seriously, you have a scene where the guy you’re rescuing purrs out weird little “c’mon, say it for me, I’ve been waiting to hear you say it for nine years” comments while your character says literally nothing.

 

METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN_20150901134419

You may have noticed I’m using a lot of cinematography terms (shot, scene) rather than game design terms (encounter, level). It’s because MGSV is pretty heavy on the cutscenes, and they’re constructed (to their credit) with a lot of cinematographic know-how and skill. They draw from a huge variety of sources and execute them nearly perfectly, and it’s only if you know what’s being referenced that the use of whatever technique or style becomes jarring. I’ve watched a scene that, sans dialogue, would look exactly like a dramatic romance telenovela, except it was a couple of guys talking about a superhuman pyromaniac. It’s bizarre but compelling.

On the other hand, it’s not without its flaws. Pacing, for one, is atrocious. Scenes drag on and on for virtually no reason, and you have to jump through a lot of repetitious hoops. Leaving your base requires you to call a helicopter to pick you up, which takes a good thirty seconds or so EVERY TIME, and you still have to walk over to the landing pad and hop into the helicopter. This kind of thing makes sense out in the field, as a way to make extractions more interesting, but having to do it to start the next mission basically every time is inexcusable, especially because I then have to sit through another thirty seconds or so of the same “look out the window as the helicopter takes off” scene every single time, then the same “look out the window as the helicopter comes in to drop you off” as I head into the mission drop point. You do this a LOT.

A0PTieS

I also find it annoying that literally every speaking character that’s lived more than a couple of minutes is a gruff male voice. A gruff male voice very similar to the last gruff male voice, complete with not-so-subtle hero-worship-slash-homoerotic-yearning overtones. I long for a female character of almost any kind (I’m aware that I’m going to be heavily disappointed/offended here), just for any vocal distinction at all. I’ve had entire conversations play out over radio where I have no idea who’s speaking, if it’s even Snake speaking, or what. I’ve started playing with subtitles on in the hopes that I’ll get some kind of indication of the speaker just so I can keep the dialogue straight (tip: doesn’t help).

The deadpan line between completely serious and abjectly silly is something that I’m afraid is going to sabotage the game later. Thus far it’s ridden a line really close to some very sensitive subjects (and I’m given to believe that it crosses that line later on), and the permeating silliness means that I don’t think the game will be able to treat those subjects with the gravity they deserve. There’s a difference between pushing the line and being disrespectful, and I don’t know how a game that turns everything into a bizarre sort of joke manages to be serious about subjects that deserve seriousness. I suspect it doesn’t, and I don’t think that’s to its credit.

That all having been said, the craftsmanship is excellent and I’ve had a dramatic escape from paramilitary squads at a hospital ultimately segue into a whale on fire eating a helicopter out of the sky before being rescued by my gay Russian cowboy lover straight into an 80’s training montage without any of that feeling out of place. Credit where it’s due, I don’t think many people could pull that off.

Also, I’m playing this entire game as a woman. FemSnake. It’s just… a hidden easter egg that I seem to have stumbled upon. Who knew?

What is a Game Worth?

Someone made the comment to me yesterday after my post about No Man’s Sky that their biggest issue with the game wasn’t that it was a bad game, but that they didn’t feel it was worth $60. I have some complex thoughts about this.

via http://www.techspot.com/article/771-cost-of-making-a-game/

via http://www.techspot.com/article/771-cost-of-making-a-game/

First: I feel like it’s not hard to wait a little bit and see what people are saying about a game, if you’re really on the fence about whether or not $60 is what you want to pay for the experience. Second, you have to decide for yourself the value of playing the game on Day 1 rather than some other time. For me, that sense of newness and discovery is worth a lot– I like to be able to tell cool stories right away, when everyone is still finding out new stuff. Other people don’t care about that at all, and would prefer to play a game when other people can give them tips to save time or ease frustration.

Third, I feel like we are, on the whole really bad at assigning value to games. Sales and indies and whatnot don’t really help this much.

A bit of math:

The standard $60 USD price point for games started, broadly, with the Xbox 360 era; about 2005 or so. Despite being categorically untrue, the accepted cost of games before then was $50. To compare it with another popular media, movie tickets in 2005 cost, on average,  $6.41 USD (source). Assuming no major fluctuations or advances (we’ll assume, perhaps incorrectly, that games and movies have not gotten significantly more complex to make relative to each other in 10 years), we can compare the cost of a movie ticket versus a game now. Movie tickets in 2015 in the US cost, on average, $8.43, a 31.5% increase since 2005.

As a bit of a standardizing metric, we can also compare that to the inflation rate, to see how much the “real” cost of movies has gone up. $6.41 in 2005 was worth ~$7.78 in 2015, so the “real” cost of going to see a movie went up about 8.3%.

Games have been $60 since 2005. Adjusting that for inflation, games *should* cost ~$72.82, but notably they don’t. If games had gone up in cost commensurate with movie tickets, they’d cost $78.86, almost $80. Instead, the real cost of buying a new video game has gone DOWN 17.7% in the last 10 years.

Both that ~$80 expected price point and the 17.7% drop in real cost are interesting to me, for different reasons.

First, that $80 price point looks really familiar. It just so happens (nothing ‘just so’ about it, this almost certainly isn’t a coincidence) that almost every “deluxe” edition game costs $80. You know, the ones that have some fun extras but aren’t a whole collector’s edition, and are some of the most popular pre-orders of major titles. Fancy that.

Second, that price drop seems telling. The “real” cost of games has dropped 17.7% to… what would that be in 2005 dollars? oh! $49.43, check that out. It looks like we’re paying less in real money for our games. This mostly wouldn’t make sense unless our assumption above about the relative difficulty of making movies vs games weren’t true, and, well, it pretty much isn’t. The difficulty of making a game has gone up less from 2005 to 2015 than the difficulty of making a movie.

“But Tam,” you say, annoyed by all this math because you still feel like you paid too much for a game, “that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t think the games I’m playing are worth $60, even if economically that price point makes sense!”

How much is showing off screenshots of your cool new game worth? Watercooler talk about what everyone is playing this week? Online conversations that you want to be relevant for? Not being spoiled? Can you put a dollar value on those things? MMOs can, and have been for years. There’s significant, quantifiable value in being able to play a game before other people, or being one of the first to play it. This wasn’t always the case, but now that Everything Is The Internet, it pretty much is now. It used to be that you had to buy a game when it was still on shelves, and if you waited too long it simply wouldn’t be available or you’d have to watch for it in the used games bin, which was pretty random (but you didn’t pay full price). It’s worth noting that when the used game bin became more reliably predictable, you started paying closer and closer to full price. Now, you can be pretty much assured you can buy it at a time that’s convenient for you, and if you want to play it when it’s relevant to most other people, well, you pay a “premium” (i.e. full price) for it.

If you don’t ascribe value to playing a game when everyone else is, then you can wait until it’s less relevant and get it on the cheap. Plenty of people do that. If you’re not sure you’re going to like a game, it’s probably best to wait, so that you can find out whether or not it’s a game you’ll actually like. If jumping right into it while it’s relevant is important to you, though, you need to recognize that you’re paying a quantifiable amount for that. For myself, I jump into story-driven games right off the bat because I want to see the story for myself and not get spoiled. In MMOs, I want to get in close to the start, because there’s an advantage to doing so. For other games, I care a lot less about that, and tend not to pick them up until much later.

On No Man’s Sky: Elitism is Valueless

No Man’s Sky is one of the most divisive games I’ve seen in a long time. Barring the unfortunate PC launch which left a lot of people with perfectly reasonable to high-end computers unable to play (myself included), it’s been a fairly smooth launch and the game works well if you’re either on PS4 or on a PC that runs it. Since I waited for the PC copy only to find that my PC wouldn’t run it, I had about a week before trying it on PS4 to see how the internet at large reacted to it.

99446de440f3958e6e4cde3b1c532c213cf03f112db6d6d43b3dc5257884b175

Before I get into that, a bit on what I think of the game. No Man’s Sky is more or less exactly the game I expected. Like virtually everything else in its particular genre, it’s systemically heavy while content-light. In this case, I’m defining content as story, characterization, worldbuilding, setting, etc. NMS is full of widely but shallowly varied locations and, like other similar games, is mostly about playing with the various systems at play. Minecraft and Starbound let you build, Elite: Dangerous has complex flight mechanics, No Man’s Sky has detailed systems to procedurally generate flora and fauna on planets. It’s a great game if what you want to do is write your own story or simply play with a complex experience.

Following the general response to it, however, makes me wonder what many people expected the game to be. The trailer showed you basically everything you need to see; it’s not like there was some kind of bait and switch going on. You wander around vaguely in a direction, cataloguing your findings and collecting enough resources to keep on going. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s GREAT. It’s also one of the only games I’ve ever seen that has a nice, seamless planetside-to-space transition with mechanics beyond “point in that direction”. It’s got a soothing, fun soundtrack and nice, surreal colors.

It gets a lot of hate. People criticize it for being too obviously procedural. People who wanted more simulation compare its flight mechanics unfavorably with Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen. Both are said with the same tone of “if you like No Man’s Sky, you either don’t know any better or are wrong”. It’s a little sad.

I put a few hours into the game with Kodra. It’s not really a game for either of us. My biggest criticism is that it is really, truly awful at messaging– within thirty seconds of getting control of my character I was nearly murdered by floating robots that swarmed me, left with fewer little health boxes and no shields, and an empty laser. It wasn’t a good initial experience, certainly didn’t welcome me into the game. Some people love that, though, they want their games to tell them nothing and force them to figure out every little detail of the interface and what they should be doing and why. For that kind of player, bad messaging is freedom, and a chance to feel clever.

Here’s the thing about that, though: it’s absolutely cool to enjoy when games don’t tell you basic things and make you figure them out. Pattern recognition is satisfying and using entrenched medium knowledge to solve a problem validates the time/energy spent in developing that medium knowledge in a satisfying way. It’s like film buffs enjoying a film with complex cinematography because they’re bringing a wealth of cinematographic knowledge to that film, or a foodie with a very refined palate enjoying the difference between cane sugar and honey as a sweetener for their sauce. The problem comes in when you start to demand that of everyone else, where it’s suddenly not okay to like a movie because it’s funny and has explosions or because they like an oreo milkshake over creme brûlée.

No Man’s Sky isn’t a “simplified knock-off” of Elite: Dangerous, nor is it a “shallower Starbound with fancy graphics”. It’s doing different things from both of those games, and honestly it’s doing them fairly well. As I said, it’s not a game for me, but I see where it’s good and I can suggest it to people who I think would love it. I’m glad people are having fun with it and I want to hear their stories (and see pictures of either ridiculous buffalo with fairy wings or majestic brontosauri).

It’s okay to not like things, just, well, you know the rest.

Chroma Squad (Aggrochat Game of the Month)

Maybe you’ve listened to our latest show. It’s a pretty good one, but Bel forgot to put the stinger at the end so don’t worry too much about that. Anyway, it’s about Chroma Squad, and I’m not exactly shy about how much I like this game. It’s a serious contender for the best game I’ve played this year.

maxresdefault

It’s silly, it’s campy, it’s fun, and it knows it’s all of these things and totally leans into it. It’s full of little nods to various things, it cheerfully breaks multiple fourth walls, and genuinely makes me laugh at how silly it is while also making me think and plan because it’s also a well-designed tactical RPG. A lot of media (I’m looking at you Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and countless movies) tries to go for a more lighthearted feel by replacing their main characters with children. This is fine if you’re going for a kid’s movie or game, but it’s nice to see something that manages lighthearted without defaulting to childlike.

In a lot of ways, Chroma Squad feels cut from the same cloth as the old Lucasarts and Sierra adventure games– lighthearted and fun but without child protagonists. The suggestion is that you can have fun and be serious as an adult — something that I tend to find lacking in games. I’ve talked about how weary I am of “games with emotions” defaulting to tragedy and sadness as their chosen emotion, but it’s always hard for me to find an example of a game that’s both good and emotive but isn’t just a cavalcade of sads. Chroma Squad, for me, delivers on that.

It starts with the premise, which I can’t even summarize without it sounding silly but fun. As an aside, “silly but fun” is probably the theme of the game, and it really delivers on that. Chroma Squad is a tactics RPG where you play as actors recording a sentai show. Basically it’s a game where you play as Power Ranger’s stunt actors and gradually get a better budget for cooler effects and flashier fights and monsters. Other stuff happens, too.

Chroma-Squad-Combat-Grid

It’s full of fun little details, too. As you get more fans, you start getting paparazzi that peek in around the levels and take pictures, many of whom are cameos. The game was a kickstarter, so there are frequent loving references to their kickstarter backers throughout– it’s really apparent, as Bel mentioned, that the game is a labor of love. That joy really shows as you play it; you get the sense that the devs were having a lot of fun with it and want you to have fun with it too. It makes the game really charming, and made me happy to play it, as well as laughing along with its (occasionally incredibly terrible) jokes.

Having played all the way through Chroma Squad, I find myself really craving more happy games. Stardew Valley was another really satisfyingly happy game, but there are otherwise surprisingly few. I really just don’t have the capacity for the torrent of sads, and I don’t really need them to balance anything out, so it’s hard to find good, emotive games to play. Happy to take suggestions!

My pick for next month is Cities: Skylines, partly because I haven’t played a proper city-building game in a really long time now, and partly because I’ve heard so many good things about it and it’s a nice drop-in-and-play sort of game. We’ll see how we feel about it at the end of the month!

Building a Bushido Board (Part 3: How We’re Using The Space)

Adding missions or scenarios to any kind of competitive game helps solidify gameplay and encourage movement and disruption. It’s great for the health of a game– if you’ve ever played a game that’s simply deathmatching, it gets a bit boring unless it’s got a really, REALLY excellent combat system and levels to play in. Most minis games devolve into all-out brawls without missions, and become kind of samey. Missions help break that up, so for this Bushido board project, we’re going to look at how we’re actually going to use the board.

13501791_10100889763543528_4042279847920009098_n

Bushido has three types of scenario layouts, each with two scenarios that are played on them. This makes it fairly easy to look at the positioning of objectives and get an idea of how you’ll interact with them, as well as what kind of boards they’re looking at.

Mission Type 1: Opposite Corners

The layout of this kind of objective is really simple: deployment is on opposite corners of the table and there are no special objects placed on the board. It looks like this:

IMG_1845

The pictured mission is called “The Envoy”, and it’s conceptually fairly straightforward. Your opponent nominates one of your units as a Very Important Model (VIM), and you nominate one of theirs. You score if your VIM has received fewer wounds than your opponent’s, you score if you draw first blood on your opponent’s VIM, and you score if your VIM is closer to the opponent’s deployment zone than your opponent’s VIM is to yours.

This is a neat scenario that promotes motion across the table. A really great board for this mission will put you directly in the path of your opponent while also providing alternate paths to try to sneak your VIM around.

The other scenario using this layout is called “The Messenger”. In The Messenger, you secretly choose one of your own units to be the Messenger. You score if your Messenger is the only one still alive at the end of the game, you score if you kill your opponent’s VIM on a turn yours is still alive, and you score if you get your VIM to the opponent’s deployment zone and reveal it before your opponent has done the same.

It’s a similar concept with a bit more opportunity for mind games. You’re still encouraged to move through the space, and the same kind of design tenets that make for a good Envoy board also make for a good Messenger board.

Both of these make me favor the square-walled board:

testterrain

The two roughly equivalent gates make for interesting movement through the space. The river can be a serious spoiler to these missions, by putting the player behind the river far behind if the river impedes movement. It’s a serious enough problem for that side that I think the river winds up needing to just be decorative, rather than an explicit terrain element. Alternately, it may need PLENTY of crossing points or it just becomes super punitive.

With that in mind, though, I do really like the square-walled board for both of those scenarios. The long-walled layout isn’t bad, but it’s less interesting, because you’re just going to get into a big fight in the center, and unless you have special movement abilities, you’re going to get stuck in and around the one gate that both players have to use.

Let’s look at the other scenario layouts.

Mission Type 2: Three Center-Line Objectives

This is a slightly more complex setup, in that it requires some objectives (usually markers of some kind, urns or graves or altars or whatever) to be placed in specific places on the board. It looks like this:

IMG_1847

The pictured scenario is called “Seigyo” (制御, “control”). It has three objectives along the center line,  two that are six inches from the sides and one twelve inches from both sides, in the center of the board. The scenario goes on for 6 turns, and at the ends of turns 2, 4, and 6 the player controlling the most objectives scores. The objectives start as Neutral and can be shifted one degree per action: Friendly <-> Neutral <-> Enemy. Each shift will move it one degree closer to Friendly.

This scenario leads to fighting along the centerline, at each of the objectives. It’s fairly resource-intensive to shift objectives, so you’re not going to deviate much from that center line except with dedicated flanking units. Most likely the action is going to be focused on the dead center of the board, while the outlying two objectives are held by opposite players.

The other scenario using this layout is called “The Idols”. It is also six turns long and involves taking control of three centerline objectives, and scores at the ends of turns 2, 4, and 6. The difference between this and Seigyo is subtle: Every time a player scores, their opponent chooses one of the objectives controlled by the scoring player to remove. This means that not only are there fewer objectives every other turn (assuming anyone scores), it also means that the player who scored loses their lead.

Rather than take-and-hold, this scenario is much more dynamic and mobile, but it’s still operating along that center line. Most of the play is going to focus around those center three objectives, but unlike Seigyo, it’s probably going to shift rather than focus on the center objective.

Looking at the board layouts I have, the player behind the walls in the square-walled layout has a distinct advantage, with two of the centerline objectives within “their” walls. That having been said, the center objective winds up right between the two gates, which is where fighting naturally occurs anyway. I’d want to ensure that the left-side objective favors the player starting on the river side of the board, either by providing advantageous cover or a blocking building or something.

On the other hand, there’s the long-walls layout:

testterrain2

The small house would have to move in this layout, but it’s mostly okay, though it favors the river-side player who can go straight for all three objectives, while the player behind the walls has to maneuver around the gates. This could theoretically be fixed to some extent by putting the two gates next to one another, but that creates an awkward dead area around the upper left corner. It goes from being a slight advantage for the walls player on the square-walled layout to a HEAVY advantage to the river-side player on the long-walled layout.

Two more scenarios to look at:

Mission Type 3: Six Objectives in a Centered Hexagon

By far the most complex setup for scenarios in Bushido, these scenarios have both a more complex layout with six objectives AND more complex mechanics than “interact with objective” or “move to area”. Here’s what it looks like:

IMG_1846

The pictured scenario is “Depletion”, and it’s a bit complex. First, six objectives, placed as shown. The two closest to you are “Friendly”, the two in the middle are “Neutral”, and the two furthest from you are “Enemy”. Scoring is simply “who has the most Scenario Points”, which requires that you understand the “Prayer (5)” interaction.

For a mission with Prayer (X), you get X prayer tokens. A model can take a Prayer action while touching one of the objectives and spends one of the Prayer tokens, and you immediately score a number of points based on the objective– 1 for Friendly, 2 for Neutral, and 3 for Enemy. Basically, you have 5 shots at maximizing your score. As a final twist, whichever the most often used objective was gets removed each time VPs are scored, forcing you to scramble around to find a new objective.

It’s less complicated than it seems once you know what’s up, but this scenario takes you all over the board. You’re probably going to be switching strategies every turn, just based on what happened. Let’s look at the other one.

The other scenario is “Keii” (敬意, or “respect”). It’s functionally the same as “Depletion”, except that instead of an objective vanishing every other turn, on turns 3 and 5 both players’ scores are reset. Whereas Depletion forces you to move around a lot, Keii is more about take-and-hold. Otherwise, it’s the same set of mechanics.

These two are interesting as far as boards go. I REALLY dislike the long-walled layout for these. It puts four objectives where the river-side player can easily reach them (very rough placement, just for visuals):

testterrain2hexobjectives

On top of that, one of the objectives inside the walls is basically right on top of the gate. This board hugely favors the river-side player for these objectives, with the two by the river and the one by the small house being pretty much free grabs, whereas the wall-side player has a nasty uphill battle to reach objectives other than the ones behind their wall and is looking at splitting their force pretty unpleasantly.

Let’s see if the other layout is better:

testterrainhexobjectives

Okay, that’s interesting. Four objectives outside the wall, two inside the wall. The samurai house location is kind of a problem, note for later. Still, there are interesting deployment options for both players and a roughly even spread of accessible objectives. Importantly, that small house is a problem again, favoring the wall-side player more than the river-side player. Will need to address that, same as the three-centerline-objective layout.

One Final Test

We’ve looked at all of these for one orientation. I already don’t like the alternate orientation of the long-walled layout, but I should look at the alternate orientation of the square-walled layout to see if it works. Red for the centerline objectives, white for the hexagon ones:

testterrainaltlayout

The alternate-corners approach is actually much more interesting, going from the bottom left to the upper right. You get some interesting choices of taking the river side or the building side, but neither player really “controls” the walled area.

The three-centerline-objectives layout is about as functional in this orientation as in the other one, which is fine. Some effort would have to be made to make the rightmost objective favor the bottom-side player here, but otherwise it’s pretty reasonable. A note for later, to make sure the overall layout works both ways. The impact shouldn’t be large.

The six-hexagonal-objectives layout is actually rather nice in this layout. Same two-in/four-out setup, though my very rough layouts don’t make that entirely clear (and the picture isn’t perfect anyway), but it offers a very similar experience in both orientations. My inclination is that the two would play roughly evenly, which is great. I almost like this orientation better than the other for this mission, just for the interesting flanking opportunities.

After looking at the scenarios, I am much happier with the square-walled layout. Here’s my list of tweaks to it:

–Small house needs to be moved or replaced to favor the river-side player, has little effect on alternate orientation.

–Right-side objective needs to favor non-walled-side player in alternate orientation.

–Samurai House needs to move to accommodate objective placement.

Pretty small number of changes, all things considered.

Building a Bushido Board (Part 2: Stage 1 Iteration)

Yesterday I talked about how I was working on a miniatures game table, but trying to apply video game style level design tenets to it. I want to delve a bit more into that today. Here’s the board again, what I’m going to call “version 1.0”:

testterrain

I’ll see if I can lay out how I got to this design. The first part is the tiles– they mostly dictate the landscape, because they come from a particular retailer and I can’t change the ones I get. So, we’re looking at two mostly flat grassy tiles and two tiles with a stream running through them.

Bushido is a primarily melee-oriented game, but there are ranged attacks. On an open, flat table, battles tend to occur exclusively around objectives or, depending on the scenario, in the middle of the board. You get a pretty standard scrum right on the center line, because that’s how action flows. Ranged attacks are inordinately powerful in this kind of scenario, because there’s nowhere to hide and no cover.

The first piece, for me, is the wall. It cuts the board, broadly, into thirds and makes it slightly asymmetric. The player starting behind the walls is in a more defensible position, but the player starting outside of the walls has more maneuvering room and better board control. The front corner of the wall extends past the center point of the board because if it didn’t, we’d just get a center-board scrum again. The natural flow of the board means that fighting will happen right around the gates– both players have to travel a roughly equivalent distance to reach them, and they’re natural choke points. I like this both because it splits that center scrum into two (flanking is a real thing in Bushido, so you don’t want to commit your whole force to one gate only to get flanked through the other) and also because it thematically makes sense that a battle over a walled building would focus on the entry points.

It’s important to remember that Bushido has two types of deployment: corners, marked on the map, but also along opposite edges. Any board I create has to support both types of deployment at a minimum, and ideally can support any opposite-corner or opposite-side deployment.

There’s an alternate wall layout, using the same pieces:

testterrain2

We’ll call this 1.1, or “long wall” versus “square wall”. The long wall can only be oriented as seen above or in a mirrored orientation; the buildings and bridge are also movable and I’ve just placed them in more or less sensible places. We can tweak these as we go to improve the board.

It does a couple of things better than the first revision, and a few things less well. Deployment is a lot more even; being behind the walls isn’t as much of an advantage anymore. There’s also no real choice for the player behind the walls to deploy partly outside of the walls if not deploying in the corners. The board is a lot more open, and the walled area is still defensible but largely less relevant.

There are a bunch of things I don’t like about this layout. The first is that the only relevant gate is the one right near the corner deployment area. The gate in the corner is doing no one any favors, and might as well just be dead space. Unless there are scenarios with objectives in areas opposite the deployment areas (spoiler: there aren’t) that space is basically going to be dead space.

Second, deploying in that corner with the second gate SUCKS. You’re really badly boxed in while your opponent basically has the run of the board, and you don’t even have the advantage of being in a defensible starting position.

On the other hand, this could work better for certain scenarios. There are a couple of layouts, but before we can refine them, we’ll need to see what kinds of scenarios we might play. That’ll be next.

Building a Bushido Board (Part 1: Cross-Media Level Design)

Lately I’m working on a table for a new miniatures game I’m trying, called Bushido. It’s an interesting accompaniment to Infinity– whereas Infinity is futuristic black ops and a huge emphasis on ranged combat, Bushido is more mythic Japan and has a very strong emphasis on melee combat. Notably, it’s also played on a board a quarter of the size of an Infinity table, making things much more close-quarters.

madoko_banner

More on Bushido later (probably). What I’m really thinking about is level design. I come from a video game design background, a world of de_dust, Blood Gulch, Facing Worlds, Summoner’s Rift, Lost Temple, Warsong Gulch, and a variety of other famous maps. These maps are carefully designed, usually iterated on thousands of times, and are meant to stand up to repeated play. Summoner’s Rift is largely the same map as it was when League of Legends first launched– certain things have been tweaked over the years but the overall layout is almost entirely unchanged. You can play in that space five, ten, a hundred times and have different experiences. Team composition, strategy, adaptation, all of these change the experience on the map.

So, a Bushido board. Bushido is a miniatures game, and even the most terrain-heavy miniatures games tend to be built to be modular, and change every single game. I’ve been playing miniatures games for over a decade now and I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that I’ve never played on the same table twice. This is considered normal. From the perspective of the video game level designer, this is kind of madness. Modularity is considered the most important thing for a set of minis game terrain– people tend to talk about “sets of terrain”, not actual boards themselves, because you just take all the pieces and assemble them on the fly into a board that you then play on once or twice and disassemble.

wargaming_table_4x4_square_tabletop_terrain_set_modular

I’ve unconsciously slipped into the same thought processes when I’ve helped out with minis terrain or built my own. You can see the usual sort of result in the above picture– it’s a textured map with distinct “objects” placed on it. Individual elements are internally themed and look good on their own, but the whole table is kind of just a space where terrain elements are placed, rather than something designed. It’s a system that’s very vulnerable to bad design– tables that are unbalanced and don’t really get improved because they don’t get any iteration. Instead you get a kind of tribal knowledge of “what makes a good table” that isn’t really universally agreed upon. Some games lean into this, suggesting that tables are laid out by the players beforehand, alternately placing terrain elements until there are “enough” on the table.

As I build my own Bushido table, I’m dissatisfied with both the non-specificity of table design in minis games but also the overall look. Minis tables are rarely beautiful, even if they contain beautiful pieces. The house in the center of the above picture looks fantastic, but it’s just plopped into the middle of the table. Now, look at Hanamura, from Overwatch:

hanamura-medkits

Just viewing it from above looks pretty nice, no? It looks like a believable space, but it’s still nuanced and playable. When you’re on the ground, you can see stuff like this:

Hanamura_001

It’s a GORGEOUS shot, and that’s entirely playable space. Everything there is serving a purpose and contributing to that portion of the level while also being aesthetically satisfying. It’s what you lose out on when you do procedural spaces. Diablo recognizes this, peppering its procedurally generated levels with “set pieces”, key areas that are laid out a specific way to accomplish a goal, but it’s still possible to see the seams; it lacks the aesthetic appeal of something totally crafted.

It makes me wonder: why can’t the same thing be done with a minis game? Shouldn’t it be possible to develop a board that’s less like randomly generated dungeons and more like Hanamura? (Note: I’m not saying that Hanamura is necessarily a pinnacle of perfect level design, but it is a fun map and it looks fantastic, and I’m not bored of playing on it repeatedly.)

Here’s what I’m starting with:

13501791_10100889763543528_4042279847920009098_n

Excuse the vertical cell phone shot, it’s bad and I feel bad. I’m considering how to design this space to be a map that’s fun to play on multiple times, and that while I may very slightly tweak it, will look mostly the same for months or years. This mostly-static design lets me make all of the terrain elements look intentional, not plopped down, really make the whole think look like an intentional space.

I need a more complete understanding of the game to accomplish this, but I don’t think it’s impossible. The fidelity of a minis game is lower than a video game, which makes the overall project easier. What I need is a good understanding of the various scenarios and how they interact with the game board. With luck, a single board will accommodate all of them, but we’ll see. I may be able to iterate on this in this space.

Here’s the layout I’m currently envisioning, with black boxes for structures (darker portions are the size of corner deployment zones):

testterrain

It’s a start. We’ll see where I end up.